Motor City and Mort… followed by Picci

Italian Americans are responsible for all manner of minor, cross-cultural disgraces; Spaghetti and meatballs, chicken parmigaaan and most of the cast of Jersey Shore. However their early experiences in the new world and its seemingly never ending supply of meats, cheese, sweets and booze, left a few hybrid diaspora dishes that could never have happened in the relative poverty of the old country

A couple of years ago I was asked to come up with a dish for BBC Children in Need’s Carfest Festival. It was, I assumed, a simple enough brief; two recipes to fit a 45 minute slot, that was until my PA told me they were looking for some kind of car/automobile twist. Now I like cars; I like how you can wedge yourself firmly into the passengers seat off a Golf and catch a good hours kip, the little illuminated horse that appears on the pavement when you open the door of a mustang, or how a Fiat Punto retains its street cred even when its spent a lifetime taking more of a battering than a sub average boxer. I am not the kind of person however who knows what “Torque” is and always lament the fact that there are no horses actually involved in horsepower. If you show me a top of the range Ferrari, Im most likely to compliment the choice of magic tree.  I had to turn to history to find the perfect dish.

I began with Enzo Ferrari as the man was from Emilia-Romagna and to date, I haven’t met a single sole from the region, who didn’t have anything short of a Paolo and Francesca style love affair for food. Alas, it seemed he lived of Prosciutto and torta fritta whilst he wiled away the hours in his workshop tinkering with carburettors and exhaust pipes . As much as I find the idea of frying square after square of enriched bread dough in hot pig fat about as joyful as waking up to find that my metabolism has  advanced to the pace of a teenage race horse, I didn’t think it would make for much of a show.

In vain I scoured the internet, googling F1 drivers and their favourite foods despite my knowledge of the sport probably being classed as “Junior Scaletrix Level” It turned out that a lot of the icons of the 1970s lived off a heady mixture of booze, late nights and the occasional hit of narcotics, whereas today’s drivers followed a diet similar to that of a Scandinavian racing sardine. Eventually I hit upon the idea of the people who actually build the cars..

Italian car workers were every employers dream in Detroit during the 1920’s. They worked hard, caused little fuss and instead of high wages, safe working environments and discounts on Ford Model T’s, all they demanded was a little macaroni and meat for lunch. Mortadella, that wonderful cylindrical Roman invention of Peppa-pig pink meat, lipid white islands of belly fat and acrid bursts of black pepper corns was cheap to produce and cheap to supply, so became the natural choice to accompany the lunchtime macaroni.

This dish is a simple plate of hand made Pici pasta, a little butter, thyme, finely chopped mortadella, pecorino and a little honey to cut through this thick, fatty mantle that coats the fresh pasta. Pici may seem like a weird choice for the sauce as the mortadella has very little chance of getting a firm hold onto the dough, but the rather nice thing is that each strand is coated in a delicate emulsion of butter infused with the earthy mortadella and accompanying flavours.  What you are left with at the end is a satisfying little pile of buttery meat that slaps you round the face for a slice of bread to make an ad hoc mortadella roley.

Good Appetite

Serves 2.

For the dead simple pasta part:

150g 00 flour, we love to use Molino Quaglia

150g fine semola (optional, but will give your pasta more bite) again Molino Quaglia

180g egg yolk (save the whites for meringues or Rocky style gym fuel)

 

 

For the sauce/emulsion

20 Pistachio, shelled and crushed as fine as you can be bothered (30 to make up for the 10 you will invariably eat)

2 Sprigs of fresh thyme

1 Tablespoon of honey

30g good breadcrumbs (avoid the day glow fish finger kind)

10g of butter, use burro di bufala

Half and onion

Evoo, Eleusi is great and its from Calabria

1/3rd of a block of pecorino cheese (or any hard Italian cheese)

 

 

Method

  • Today we are making PICCI. Think relatively long, slightly fat/thin mis-shapen spaghetti you do by hand. It rocks. Start by combining the flour and semolina in a bowl, make a well in the centre and add the egg yolks. Use a fork and bring the flour into the egg and mix well. If the mix is too dry add a tiny bit of water just until it comes together.

YOU WANT TO MAKE A DOUGH SIMILAR IN LOOK AND FEEL TO PLAYDOUGH

  • Once this is done, form into a nice square or round and dust with flour. Cling film and leave in the fridge for minimum half an hour.
  • When the dough is rested, tear grape sized balls off (keep the dough covered) and roll onto a clean surface (if you dust them or your hands in more flour, it wont work) You want to create long, knobbly worms (think like a long spaghetti Nick-Nack)
  • Once all the dough is done, let these dry a little while you do the sauce
  • Very finely mince the onion and sweat it in the butter and olive oil until translucent. add half the leaves of the thyme and half the thinly sliced/fine chopped mortadella and cook on a low heat.
  • Bring water to the boil in a sauce pan, remember to salt the water well, and add your pasta for 5-6 minutes.
  • Remove the pasta and pop straight into the pan, retaining one cup of that pasta water elixir.
  • Keep the pasta moving, add half the pistachio and grate as much cheese as you fancy, add some of the pasta water to form a sauce and a little black pepper.
  • Using a fork, twist the picci into a tight ball and place in a bowl, finish with more fresh mortadella, thyme, pistachio and the breadcrumbs, drizzle of olive oil,
  • Now you are done.

 

Burro di Bufala

bufalaIt started with a satisfying itch in the centre of my chest during a meal of pork more bereft of moisture than a saharan salt cod factory. Overnight, I assumed that this little red blob the exact shape of Sardinia was nothing more than a heat rash probably triggered by my body’s complete shock and awe that the UK, in 2018, had managed to climb into the near sub equatorial figures of 11 degrees in the hours of darkness. I started to worry more on the train; I was tired, itching was coursing across my upper torso and my shoulder felt like it had been used for tackling practice by Millwall FC. My landlady, a reputable woman with the medical knowledge of a village witch-doctor and the hypochondria of an Italian mamma knew immediately I was a mass of shingles and low morale.

On the rare occasions I get ill I fall back on my undergraduate degree, medieval medicine and food. I become my own experiment, a playground for quack cures, remedies and gastronomic philtres.  My body and brain go into lockdown, all form of external advice be it from professionals, concerned family and love ones shunned, pills rejected and cool compresses cast asunder for there is only one way to combat most non-fatal illnesses; Pasta with butter

Infirmity is my excuse to bring out a dish that modern memory stresses was created just for this specific medicinal purpose. Wind the clock back a few decades to Rome in the early 20th century and let me tell you a brief story about a dish that is, usually, held to be more blasphemous than if Martin Luther had nailed his proclamation to the door of Wittenberg cathedral written on loo roll featuring playboy centrefolds dressed up like the Madonna. Alfredo De Lello was a larger than life Roman restaurateur famous amongst the great and good of Roman tourists during the economic miracle of the late 50’s and 60’s.  He was famed for combining silky emulsions of Caccio Peppe, Greacia and Amatriciana at the tables of holIdaying Hollywood stars, before suspending the perfectly coated tentacles of spaghetti, bucatini and fettuccine above their heads. Cute. He was also famed for inventing the abboration that became known as Fettuccine Alfredo…

So your heart has sunk into your stomach at the mere mention of a dish that most think is about as Italian as Gino’s accent and has been subject to more tampering with by Americans than the Middle East, but the story is relatively touching.  Following the birth of his first son in 1914 De Lello, in an attempt to stimulate his wife’s post birth waning appetite ventured away from the customary placenta on toast, instead mixing triple rich butter with the core of his best Parmigiano before tossing into fresh tagliatelle. It was effectively the early 20th century’s answer to a post-natal bottle of Lucozade, Muller corner and tin of soup, a cure all. Legend claims that the dish remained on the menu, eventually becoming the darling dish of the 1920’s vacationing Hollywood heartthrobs. Much like European civilisation during the 17th and 18th century, it was taken back to America and fiddled with until its appearance became something akin to a Frankenstein-like melange of various ingredients, the worst of which range from chicken to lobster.

De Lello wasn’t the first Italian however to employ butter in their pasta; Early classical cooks and writers applauded its use with Pliny describing it as “the most delicate of food amongst barbarous nations”.  Throughout vast tracts (some 900 plus recipes) of Artusi, olive oil is constantly sidelined for butter in the North, lardo and lardo’s slightly less salubrious relative, strutto in the pig owning South. Boccaccio in his Decameron makes numerous references to pasta rolled down mountains of butter and cheese and, likewise, try and get through a recipe by Corrado, Scappi and Spatuzzi, even the vegetarian ones, without finding mention of some form of animal fat leap frogging over olive oil.

I need to say straight off the bat that for me, olive oil, stands on a stratosphere scratching pedestal in the world of ingredients. If a simple old cow’s loin is befitting a knighthood in the UK, then the golden blood of the olive warrants beatification.  The slight problem I have with olive oil however, is British television chefs peddling you some kind of Keynsian myth that this is the sole cooking fat in use across the Italian peninsular.  By steering you clear of the artery clogging joys of butter, lardo and strutto they may be doing the NHS and your loved ones a service, but your pallet..Nah-ah.

Elizabeth David prophetically observed in 1963 “How we cling to our myths, We English” and she’s totally right.  The myth of ancient societies like those of the Italian peninsular solely using olive oil is ludicrous but you can’t seem to suggest otherwise to a vast majority of British chefs and the public. I remember fondly being asked for a simple ragu recipe by a bunch of online culinary dilettantes masquerading as chefs, to be included on their website. After viewing their recipe for bolognese, a recipe that, short of Garibaldi’s death mask, included every single thing that seemed remotely Italian, I sent them a recipe for “Sugo Finto”. This is one of my favourites and confirmed as a staple of the 1950s national service boys by Antonio Carluccio: Take a heap of strutto (soft pigs lard) melt it in a pan and sauté some onions, add tomatoes and finish with a little unsalted butter, mix with pasta. The result is some kind of magical oleaginous kingdom on your plate that tastes like a post war dream. Their response was one of abject shock, how could it be Italian without olive oil? Dried oregano that had lingered in the cupboard since freshers week? The ubiquitous clove after clove of green rooted garlic? And the greatest crime of all, butter and lard. I was hounded out their email chain and never consulted on again, my reputation in tatters and culinary flag lowered into the cesspit of my own ignorance. How could it dare to masquerade as an Italian with butter in, it goes against all they have learnt about Italian food from Saturday morning television and the menu at Frankie and Benny’s.

I’ve recently started using a lot of buffalo milk butter from Italy; it’s a bright marble white pat with the depth and richness of lard and that mouth insulating warmth that usually proceeds the magic of streaky bacon, belly pork or an overly buttered crumpet. It’s perfect for tossing with some fresh pasta, a little pinch of salt, a really fatty slab of mortadella chopped fine and a sprinkle of pecorino. I have also started throwing in a knob with some finely chopped onions and letting them sweat before drowning it all in torpedino tomatoes and letting it cook on a low heat slowly, before tossing it through with some rigatoni and pecorino. It might not be the classic Pasta Pomodoro, but I’m sure it can be added to the legion of recipes that over the years, have built up around that particular dish and its variants.

Seven weeks after shingles entered my life, they are still here, all be it transformed from a collection of angry, little red islands snaking a ring around my body to something more like the faded outposts of a once mighty empire.  I can’t honestly say whether or not the butter and pasta helped in anyway. I suspect, like Mrs De Lello it kept my spirits up between dabbing myself with calamine lotion and futilely blowing on my chest, but I think that’s all any food can do, in health or in infirmity? It should be there buck your mood, stimulate the appetite and at least slip you a mental placebo that what you are ingesting may be going some way to kill a virus. Here’s to animal fats and Italian food, may the two be united for another millennia.

Cavatelli ‘a mano’ with Molino Quaglia

molino quaglia, petra, eggs, cavatelli and all that summer veg..

I have to hand it to myself, I am really rather cool. I realised this the night I spent counting all the times Pellegrino Artusi included butter in a recipe. I realised that I was at a Fonzie (US Cult TV character, not Nik Nak imposter) level of coolness when I got to 924 and decided I couldn’t risk being any cooler and should probably turn in for the night. Its not just Artusi who favours the use of butter, or indeed its slightly more delicious outlawed cousin, lard; The cruiserweight names of Italian food doyens such as Vincenzo Corrado, Bartolomeo Scappi, Marcella Hazan, Achille Spatuzzi, are just a lipid sized sample of old fashioned animal fat champions. Ask nonno and nonna what they used for fat before the “Economic Miracle” of the 50’s and 60’s when shelves were flooded with olive oil? Unless they were in a mass olive producing region of the old country, they were most likely using lard or butter for their food and oil for the lamps and occasional bribe.

This recipe, I think, came to me in the throws of a drunken dream. After a brutal night in a restaurant that once upon a time lurked round the back of Liverpool Street station, I clutched at the memory of eating tagliarini with tiny cubes of carrot, broad beans, mint, and zucchini and finished with a hint of pecorino. it was delicious, fresh, clean and sweet and my cousin (who was with me at the time) swore we didn’t eat it or anything that resembled this jumble of spring veg and carbs. The next morning I checked the menu to absolutely no avail, and knowing the chef and his lack of creativity, I assumed I had concocted the whole dish out of the stupor of 13 or 14 grappas.

 

Ingredients:
Serves 2

70g Buffalo Milk Butter
Splash of dry white wine
15g Fave beans (shelled)
15g Carrot
15g Zucchini
15g purple potato
Fresh mint
20g Pecorino cheese
Splash of good balsamic (I mean really good, if you don’t have good balsamic just acidulate with a little more white wine)

Cavatelli

200g Petra Pasta Flour
10 egg yolks
Dash of water

Method:

1. Make the pasta by mixing the pasta flour with the egg yolks. I try and use the Burford Brown egg yolks to give the pasta a wonderful golden colour. You can also buy Italian eggs which have a rich yolk… If you need too, add a little water to bring the dough together into a smooth paste, similar to play-dough. Rest for 30 minutes minimum in the fridge
2. Form the cavatelli. Cut the dough in half, or quarters (Whatever you are comfortable working with) and roll out to the thickness of about half an inch. Cut into strips and then centimetre squares. Push down on the pasta dough with your thumb then forward to make something like a mini cannoli.
3. Bring a pan of salted water to the boil.
4. Finely chop all your veggies. I cut them into matchstick sized pieces and then into tiny little cubes that some Gallophiles would call “Brunoise”, I think the Italians would say “Cubettini”
5. Blanch the veggies in the boiling water for 30/40 seconds and remove into ice cold water to stop the cooking process. Keep the water.
6. Place some fo the buffalo butter in a frying pan and gently heat. Place the Cavatelli into the boiling water and cook for 3/4 minutes and then add to the butter in the frying pan.
7. Add the blanched vegetables, a handful of freshly chopped mint, a tiny splash of white wine and a good amount of pecorino. Cook out until a rich emulsion forms and finish with a little more butter
8. Serve with a little more mint and pecorino, your heart may not thank you but your mood will be through the roof.

 

Tuna, tuna, tuna.

callipo, tuna, san francescoI am 4, sitting at a long pine table the colour of petrified tree sap. There are ’s kids everywhere in a dazzling array of technicolour nylon armour, dungarees, vest tops, water paint stained jeans and socks that slip down the ankle to give the impression that the foot is a foot long.

It’s the 90’s so, naturally, there is a finely woven wicker placemat in front of me, the remnants of food from past meals clinging to the fibres like some decaying wattle and daub. I am not hungry, I ate 3, maybe 4, chocolate cookies from a worn blue tin emblazoned with “All Butter Danish Cookies” but I am on the Elvis side of greedy. I like my food and I especially like what my aunt has got in her sun burst orange Le Creuset.

It’s Pasta Tuna Sweetcorn night in North Hull, just like it is up and down the country for anyone between the ages of 2-102. Tables will be decked with centuries old grissini sticks destined to be lovingly sucked into a saliva pap before being dropped and trodden into the carpet. Yellow tins of grated parmesan husks, swept off the factory floors of Italy and carefully repackaged for the UK consumer will dispense a fine dandruff of insipid beige onto heaped mounds of stodgy conchigle pasta. If that didn’t sound delicious, it’s finished with a flour heavy bescimella, day-glo tinned sweetcorn and anaemic tuna with all the texture (and probably flavour) of anaglypta.

This was the insulting pinnacle of Britalian cooking. A dish that, unlike Spaghetti Bolognese, cream saturated carbonara and the Pollo Sopressa (A more Nato friendly version of Chicken Kiev), that seemingly has absolutely no roots in Italy. What’s more, the very concept of putting a viscous mantle of white sauce over something as delicate at tuna flesh is anathema to the legacy of Italian food as far back as the 4th century BC when Archestratus of Syracuse noted; “the very best way for you to deal with this fish; You need fig leaves and oregano (not very much), no cheese, no nonsense” .

If ever a more motley collection of ingredients could be described as “nonsense”, I am yet to encounter them.

In Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, a play noted for being able to disgust an audience within minutes, Tamora experiences the abject horror of unwittingly consuming her two sons, Chiron and Demetrius in a pie; flesh, blood, bones, hair the lot, a bit like eating at a Little Chef back in the day. I am going to guess that if you are Italian and reading this, thus far, your horror will have been on a level comparable to Tamoras. But I have to make a case for this, on behalf of the time pressed mothers, out of pocket students and child minders with more stroppy mouths to feed than a Parisienne cafe on the day after a national strike. It was simple, cheap and pleased pretty much everyone and anyone who wasn’t genuinely Italian or a food columnist for The Guardian. It could be made in under 20 minutes at a time long before the advent of Jamie’s “Meals in Under a Nano Second” and its inoffensive palate of cream/beige meant that, in a country that mass produces fussy eaters, it will always be a crowd pleaser

I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it at the time; , that would be as hypocritical as a former heroin addict turned rehab councillor saying that the nights they spent with the New York Dolls seeing into the future at the end of pipe wasn’t fun. It was a comforting dish, it filled you up, it stuck to your ribs and hugged your throat. The negative side was that it set me on an uncomfortable path with any type of fish based pasta (excluding shellfish) pretty much until today.

As I got older the impact of seminal Italian chefs like Carluccio, Locatelli, Alastair Little, Nino Sassau and the team at the River Café began to ripple up north. The blankets of sloppy bescimella, long thick ragus and clumsy cream dishes began to give way to lighter, sweet fresh tomato based sauces, olive oils and buttery emulsions that found popularity in the late 90’s early 2000’s.

Tuna would be tipped into one of these with maybe a handful of capers, some chopped olives and a little chilli in an ersatz version of a puttanesca minus the anchovies. It would be tossed into linguine with that stylish weed, rocket, and finished with lemon, a crushed clove of garlic, a sprinkle of oregano or finely sliced red onion. All very refined to the eye, but again containing that ever present, seemingly eternal ball of trachea clogging tuna.

Here is where the problem lies, Tuna flesh starts life red, like you see in the fancy unaffordable packs in M&S. When they can it, they bleed it first and then cook it. When you cook it a second time, Bang! You’ve got the edible equivalent of wood chip – , basically an inedible pointless protein. Its curious, delicate flavour gets lost, imparting nothing more than a faeint tang of ozone to any pasta dish. It’s only real legacy, following a long mastication is the feeling of it scraping down your gullet and something equivalent to a test match in the time it takes to swallow.

I gave up with tuna in pasta, or any type of sea fish for that matter, for a long time. I enjoyed both too much to spoil the other with their unholy union, a union I felt was more toxic than a TOWIE wedding.

Maybe some of the boy scouts reading this will be scoffing at even tolerating the idea of using canned tuna, like it’s a no brainer and I should have been using fresh fish all along. The truth is I have and I think it is equally a crime against man and our scaly submerged brethren. I totally believe tuna fish is best served raw, tarted up with nothing more than a little good olive oil and a couple of well dispersed drops of lemon. If it’s going to be cooked then it’s got to have had seconds on a raging hot grill…and then just a drizzle of olive oil and lemon. Take your sauce and sling it in the bin with the Home Pride bescimella and that copy of Nick Knowles vegetarian cookery book. (random mention of NK!!!??!!)

I mentioned at the beginning of this diatribe against such a seemingly inoffensive dish as pasta with tuna, that I couldn’t bear the thought of it….up until now,. Recently I had some kind of Damascene conversion. I didn’t see a stern faced Jesus appearing on an arid dessert track, instead I saw San. Francesco Di Paola dressed in his habit, emerging out of a rip tide staring a bulbous looking blue fin square on. Emblazoned across the Fender Jaguar orange tin in white copperplate the glorious words “Buzzonaglia Di Tonno, Callipo”. For Italians this may not be a new revelation, but for a man brought up on skip jack in spring water it’s like finding the Garden of Eden was behind your compost bin all along.

Funnily enough, on first glances, it bears striking resemblance to the interior of the compost bin. Far from the insipid beige hall-carpet pallor of your everyday tuna, the “Buzz” looks like Operation Dessert Storm camo: a pastiche of meaty white flesh, fatty blacks and browns and the occasional lattice of veins. It’s this inclusion of the dark meat that is the game changer. Italian and especially Sicilian chefs have known for generations that this is the stuff you do match up with pasta. Even Elizabeth David knew it, stating that during her time in Sicily the fishmonger would wrap up the white and dark meat, some fatty ventresca (belly meat) and even the heart of the beast. Like all that is good in this world to eat, the secret ingredient is, lamentably, fat.

I’ve used it a few times now. I’ve cooked my pasta, finished it with olive oil, chopped taggiasche olives and some finely sliced tropea onions, before heaping half a can of this terrifying, oleaginous fish flesh on top with just the slightest squeeze of lemon. I even tried it with a San Marzano sauce, cooking the tomato first before adding the tuna after and it was like eating fois gras. The principle is the same for pizzas, do the cooking separately.  In this case, a Torpedino base with a short kick of oregano on some good dough, and then use the tuna like some indulgent spread over the top when out of the oven.

The possibilities for this can of fishy joy are probably endless, like the Tuna fish itself, nothing goes to waste, not even the can which I have lovingly fashioned into a pen holder. If it were a ship it would pretty much have passed all its sea trials with flying colours and be ready for commission, yet something tells me there is just one more dish it has to conquer before it’s passed fit for service; an old classic, a rule Britalia of a plate beloved by old and young alike…I wonder if Zia Tina still has that Le Creuset dish.

 

Saturday Kitchen… Caponata and Vegan Lamb!

  

I’ve always thought Italian food had that same capacity for lawlessness and personal interpretation as Rock and Roll does with music. Like Rock and Roll, as long as you stick within a very loose, slightly un-codified frame work, it’s hard to make any massive faux pas. There are no great philosophies or sets of rules that govern the relatively wild art that is Italian cooking but maybe Artusi comes close to a general mantra that should go someway in governing a loose mentality amongst those pilgrims who are beginning their journey..

“ I love what is beautiful and good wherever it is found and I am repulsed when I see, as it is often said, the ruination of gods gifts”

A simple adage that should be inscribed on the monument to Italian food. Sure, there are examples of giant error that veritably pole vault over remarkably reasonable boundaries of the Italian kitchen, running in the face of Artusi and arguably, God; cream in carbonara, chicken parmigiana and barbecue base pizzas are a few obvious ones. Personally I’d go as far to say that adding lemon and parsley to Aglio, Olio Pepperoncino, making saltimbocca with pork and not veal or simply calling Tagliatelle Al Ragu, Spag *shudder* Bol are up there too but that’s me being a wailing great pedant.

This is, however, kind of the same as One Direction covering Wonderwall, Girls Aloud and Sugarbabes doing Walk This Way or Hillary Duff doing My Generation. We know they blow, it feels utterly wrong and is more insulting than asking an Italian waiter for a cappuccino after dinner and for his sister’s number written in the foam. Relax though, they are simply a moment of passing madness not connected to the genre, shunned by the Gods at the top and the fans at the bottom, punished in the afterlife with the gnashing of teeth and burning pits of sulphur.

Despite what your ancient Zia or rolling pin waving Mamma may say, when it comes to many dishes, the room for interpretation, exploration and regional deviation is actually pretty vast and it’s what makes Italian food infinitely more exciting than, I don’t know, let’s say the cuisine of a country beginning with F and rhymes with trance…

Many dishes in the Italian repertoire have only recently taken a definitive form, making deviations and interpretations of recipes relatively normal before the economic miracle of the 1950’s and more acceptable today.

Take, for example, the hundreds of differences of basil pesto in Liguria alone with variations in cheese, soft herbs, olive oils, spices etc. The earliest recipes from the 1840’s included garlic, parsley, spices (vague, but possibly just black pepper as this is referred to as a spice in other Italian cook books) marjoram and no mention of pine nuts. Today the Genoese Pesto Consortium, a body ruled over by a Grand Master and PALADINS, state the “legit” ingredients but, in terms of quantities, they are pretty free and easy with the recipe which is refreshing when you think how militant the Cornish can be about a simple pasty.

More relevant to the British, look at the not so humble Spaghetti Bolognese, a dish with more guises than David Bowie. Try making it in a room full of chefs, or anyone from Italy and the same questions will arise; “Should it contain milk?” “Should you use pork, beef and veal? Or follow Noah’s example and only use two of every beast?” “Tomato or no tomato?” “red or white wine? “ The list of variations is endless, but if its done well, its still identifiably Italian (or Emiliano if your being a pedant) just hold on the Bovril cube and Worcestershire sauce..

The best part about this approach to Italian cooking is the reaction you get. Returning to the opening quote from Artusi, if cooked with a care for the ingredients, it can never truly offend your average Italian. So you added red instead of white wine to the ragu? Or decided to dabble in a sprig of Marjoram for the pesto? People will shrug, pull faces, click their tongue, say “Mah!” and make more gestures with their hands than an air craft martial on “hard of hearing pilots day” because it’s not their way but they won’t say “That’s Not Italian Food!” In most cases, they will eat it, pull faces, throw out hand gestures and secretly appreciate it because, when done with a considered approach, you can’t get it wrong.

The reasons for fluidity in a culinary tradition that, on the surface, appear relatively rigid can only be speculated on but it’s probably a subtle mix of Campanilisimo (the Italian art of believing everything your town/village/hamlet does is better than your neighbour one mile down the road) and the Italians’ incredible capacity for pride, self belief and self sufficiency. Indeed, the father of modern Socialism, Alexander Herzen speculated; “they have a sense of respect for themselves, for the individual which is particularly developed in the Italians; they do not simulate democracy as the French do, it is inherent in them” which to me says, don’t tell me how to make pomodoro sauce, back up out my kitchen.

In addition to these factors, I’d add a third. Italy doesn’t really have that totemic toque toting imperator of the kitchen whose words and rules are carved into granite and used as a bench mark for future generations of chefs. Whereas the French will still refer constantly to Careme and Escoffier, men who have had a tremendous, if not domineering, impact on the culinary arts, Italians have the more amiable Artusi, the studious, enigmatic Scappi and the gluttonous philosopher Archestratus (“The Daedalus of tasty dishes”). The works of these men are not solely for reverence, but reference, and yet they still aren’t infallible or highfalutin’.

Artusi is like that eccentric old uncle with the enthusiasm for food of Toad of Toad Hall. The latter most humbly claims of his own recipes that; “With this practical manual you only need to know how to grab hold of a ladle and you’ll muddle through” For a man held in high esteem by both professional and domestic cooks, his work is brutally honest (on success and failures) recipes vary wildly and his allowances for interpretation and adaptation are refreshing.

Caponata is another recipe which rolls out the gilt lined red carpet for Mr and Mrs interpretation. Locatelli is probably the only writer who sets this out clearly in English but he makes reference to at least four variations accepted in Sicily, stressing that every other person has their own take on the dish. Personally, I’ve had multiple variations, witnessed so many pointless, impassioned debates on how it should be made, tasted ratatouille-like slop and others where every ingredient was as noticeable if it walked out onto your tongue under a little spotlight and took a bow.

And personally that’s the key for me. I’m going with the well trodden adage that less veg is more and stick to a rule of three. You want soft, crunch and crisp which, in this version, comes from the sweet, softened onion, the al dente celery and the fried aubergine but really the choice is probably going to be made on what disintegrating veggies you have in your salad crisper.

Caponata wouldn’t be caponata if it didn’t punch you in the mouth and say “I am sweet and sour, call me your Daddy” It’s not just a few fried veggies and a deluge of sweet chopped tomato. To be honest, I think the tomato is the keyboard player in the band, useful but no one’s going to throw their bra at it. Yes, you will get a sweetness from it but the main body of that will come from the onion and aubergine. I have literally spliced a few torpedino in this recipe and pan roasted them to give you a nod to their sulphurous, deep rich joys.

The hook for the caponata really comes from the delicate mix of the vinegar, honey, capers, almonds and fresh mint, the stage crew to the front men. What sets caponata aside from a ratatouille or clumpy veg stew is this injection of tongue pontificating condiments. This is alchemy and not an exact science. I like my caponata acidulated to high hell only because I use it more as a compliment to something else on the plate rather than a dish in its own right. Either way, if you want something a little more traditional use the recipe which follows this article.

Ozzy Osbourne said that rock music is not meant to be perfect and I don’t think good Italian food is or should be either. Perfect is boring, ’’ts predictable, repetitive and lacks soul and none of those, outside the high street chains, are applicable to the Italian kitchen. I’ve always thought the capacity for a wonderful mistake, a bit of a wobble, a considered yet un-expected experimentation is what makes things kind of beautiful and can fuel innovation.

Look at Bottura and his “Ooops I dropped the lemon cake”; a mistake, an imperfection that becomes legendary, like a bum note in an iconic guitar solo or the kind of out of tune wailing you would get from a crowd thumping New York Dolls track. No one got their hand slammed in an oven for that, had the strings on their apron cut or fined the cost of the outrageously priced plate…no like Johnny Cash kicking out the lights at the Grand Ol Opry, Jerry Lee Lewis setting fire to a grand piano or the ringing clock you can hear in “A Day In The Life” it became legendary and part of a cooking tradition that enjoys global popularity in every nook and cranny of the globe.

 

 

 

 

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