Pork Cotechino with Polenta and Green Lentils

I am often asked what the typical Italian Christmas dinner is, and the truth is: there isn’t one. Every family has their own traditions depending also on where in Italy they live, so it’s hard to pinpoint a specific meal and say with certainty that it’s what most Italians will be cooking up and down the country on 25 December. It is, however, easy to guess what Italians from Turin to Palermo will be eating on their New Year’s Eve dinner: lo and behold, I give you the cotechino.

Its origins are shared between Emilia Romagna, Lombardia, Veneto and Molise, all regions that suffer from very bitter winters. Cotechino (pronounced coteh-keeno) is therefore a hearty, filling dish that is served with polenta or mashed potatoes and always paired with lentils, which, according to the Italian tradition, bring good luck and prosperity for the whole year ahead. Cotechino is a sort of large salami made of pork meat, and its name derives from the word cotenna (rind). The traditional recipe consists of creating a salami of pork meat (in the past they used to stuff it with all the parts of a pig that wouldn’t get any other use) and wrapping it in pork rind, then letting it cook for several hours. Nowadays, however, most people buy the ready-made, precooked version of this dish, which doesn’t include rind and cooks in an airtight pouch for only 20 minutes. I served it with some instant polenta and tomato green lentils.

Pre-cooked cotechino as it is sold at the supermarket.

Pre-cooked cotechino as it is sold at the supermarket. The outer box suffered a little during transport.

I decided to introduce my partner, who is British, to this dish, and despite the initial hesitation due to the admittedly slightly startling description, he much enjoyed the richness of the meat. The very high fat content is not for the faint-hearted, but eaten once a year it’s a great tradition and one that I will love to keep up.

This recipe served three of us very generously.

What you’ll need:
1 precooked, good quality cotechino (I brought mine back from Italy, and bought it from the equivalent of the “finest” range from the supermarket Coop)

For the lentils

  • 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large golden onion
  • 1 stick of celery, leafy end removed
  • 250gr green lentils, soaked overnight to ensure quick cooking times, and rinsed
  • 2 very ripe, medium-sized tomatoes, chopped into cubes
  • 2 bay leaves, rinsed
  • 2 rosemary sprigs

For the polenta

  • 1 lt vegetable stock
  • 250gr instant polenta
  • 1 generous knob of butter
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Sorry about the steam, it was very hot and I couldn’t wait to eat it!

 Preparation:

Fill ¾ of a large sauce pan or a spaghetti pot with water, bring to the boil and put your cotechino, still in your sealed pouch, deep into the water, making sure it’s all covered.

In a large frying pan place your diced onion and celery and sweat in the hot oil to make a soffritto. Once the contents of the pan are translucent and soft, but not brown, stir in the lentils, bay leaves and rosemary and mix all well. Let everything bind for a minute or two and add the tomatoes and just a splash (about 100ml) of water. Bring to the boil and then turn down the heat and cover, letting simmer for about ten minutes. Once ready, add a generous pinch of salt and pepper and keep warm.

Bring the vegetable stock to the boil in a large pan. Slowly stir in the polenta, whisking continuously. Keep stirring over the heat for 15 to 20 minutes. You can add a little more water to make it the right consistency. Add in the butter, season and serve straight away, before it hardens by cooling. While you cook the polenta, take your cotechino out of the water after the 20 minutes’ cooking time very carefully, discard of the water and, once the airtight pack is cool enough to handle, cut it open with a pair of scissors and remove it from the meat, which should have a soft but firm consistency and the shape of a large sausage.

Once everything is ready, split a serving plate between the lentils and the soft polenta, and place the sliced cotechino on top.

Make sure you serve this rich meal with a medium-bodied red wine, such as a Merlot or a Bonarda.

All plated up.

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My Trip to New York 1

Part One – the Food

A few weeks ago, I returned from New York, where my friend Sara and I stayed in Brooklyn at Robin’s, the swellest girl in the whole city. It was my first time in the US, and, despite knowing that the Big Apple is not a true representation of the whole of the United States (just like London is not really synecdochic of the UK), being there highlighted how New York and London are so very different. Sure enough, Manhattan’s vibrant streets were heaving with people of all sorts of backgrounds and trades, buzzing with flickering lights beckoning passers-by, and steaming with an endless array of memorable scents, just like London’s Westend. But it made me realise that the British are a population of their own. With their self-pride, friendliness, exaggerated mannerisms, heartfelt involvement and loud enthusiasm when saying even the mildest of things, I would be more inclined to likening New Yorkers to the French or the Italians, rather than to their British counterparts. Of course it is not right to generalise to a smaller degree, such as saying whether I found one people more helpful in giving directions than the other, but I can definitely say that New York seemed to hum that little bit louder.

The food was outstanding, though that could have been that Sara and I were painstakingly selective when choosing where to have our next meal, but my favourite restaurants, which I would definitely recommend, were as follows:

Babbo

Not that it needs recommendation – this restaurant was the most up-market stop of the whole trip. Robin, Sara and I felt very much like grown-ups here, and despite only sharing a starter, a bottle of wine, a dessert, and only having a full primo (pasta main) each, we left feeling very full, which made this restaurant surprisingly affordable, particularly for its atmosphere and outstanding quality. The waiters were also impeccable – we were highly impressed by how they scooped up the crumbs from the tables making a spoon dance and glide on the tablecloth. The jewel-clad lady sitting next to us even commented on that little trick to the Jeeves-like waiter.

Luke’s on the Upper West Side

This has to be my second favourite meal of the trip, simply because now, if I were ever allowed one last meal in my life, my choice would have shifted from Osso Buco to a mighty, mayo-free but butter-soaked lobster roll. The huge chunks of lobster are velvety and melt in your mouth faster than you can say “fishing lobsters in Maine”. This roll is unfussy, simple and doesn’t need anything else added. It’s perfect. Go have it.

Luke’s on the Upper West Side. Picture taken by Sara.

Lobster Roll

Katz’s Delicatessen

This classic sammich deli did not disappoint. The sharpness of the pickles and sauerkraut cut through the richness of the pastrami, and the wholeness of the rye bread binds everything together beautifully. Needless to say, our eyes were bigger than our stomachs, and in hindsight we should have just ordered one to share. After we were done with (half of our) platefuls, we both silently pretended we still had a good reason to sit there for a little longer, just because neither of us could even waddle. And no, I didn’t do a Meg Ryan impression, the place was so rammed and loud that nobody would’ve noticed, anyway.

Sara with two strangers.

What she’s having.

Shake Shack

Ooh that Shack-cago hot dog was excellent, and the curly fries were a bit different – was it maybe the first time I ever had curly fries? I think it might well have been.*

A collage of our Shake Shack experience made by Sara.

230 Fifth

We didn’t eat here, but I had a delicious Dirty Vodka Martini and the view from the rooftop was breath-taking. It was a sunny yet windy late afternoon, so they provided warm, hooded red capes for everyone. Doesn’t get much better than sipping a vodka drink in a dressing gown in front of a beautiful view – and nobody seemed to care! I really loved the vintage-like lanterns all around the rooftop.

Another cool collage made by Sara.

A small part of the view from the rooftop.

Beautiful lanterns.

Watch this space, as I am soon to post about the little fashion gems I found in New York.

*I have since discovered that what we ate were actually crinkle fries — goes to show…!

Speedy Lunch: Gnocchetti al Basilico with Avocado and Tomatoes

As promised, here is the post about these cute little green fellas called gnocchetti al basilico (or basil baby gnocchi). Gnocchetti are essentially gnocchi, but smaller and of a slightly more tubular, non-fork-scored (oh dear) shape. These particular ones, which I bought from a main-stream Italian supermarket, have a rather strong basil flavour that makes them extra special. Because of their strong taste (and the fact that I didn’t have much time to make anything overly elaborate) I decided to accompany these gnocchetti al basilico with simply some fresh chopped tomatoes, avocado, extra virgin olive oil, salt and freshly ground black pepper. You can’t get any easier than this when making a main, or primo piatto like we say in Italian. This recipe is for two portions.

What you’ll need:

  • 500 gr gnocchetti al basilico (if you can’t find them anywhere you can either replace them with normal gnocchi and add fresh basil leaves to the recipe or follow Silvana Franco’s recipe on the BBC Food website)
  • 1 medium ripe avocado
  • 2 medium tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • A good sprinkle of Maldon salt
  • A generous dusting of freshly ground black pepper
  • A dusting of dried (or fresh) coriander

 Preparation:

Chop the tomatoes and avocado into small cubes of about ½ inch. Dress with half the oil and salt. Gently cook the gnocchi in a pot of simmering salted water for a minute or two, until they rise to the surface. Once they pop up, they’re cooked! Scoop them out as they rise with a slotted spoon making sure you drain as much water as possible off the gnocchetti and mix them with the tomatoes, avocado, the rest of the oil and the salt, adding pepper and coriander on the top. Done! Buon appetito.

My Very First Thanksgiving

Being an Italian living in London, I never really had a chance or official reason to celebrate Thanksgiving. I never quite knew what it involved, exactly. This year, however, thanks to my change of jobs in May, I had the luck to meet a new friend, Sara, who is from Ohio and super keen on anything Thanksgiving-related. I had no more excuses! So on Saturday 26 November I went to her house in the morning and we cooked all day long to put together an American feast for six.  We scoured through the internet to find the best Thanksgiving recipes and I think we definitely found some brilliant ones. All the pictures were taken by Sara.

Here is the menu we had on the day, click on the dish name to find the recipe:

I absolutely loved Thanksgiving and really hope we will repeat it next year.

Delicious Dairy-free Chicken and Vegetable Quiche

A couple of weekends ago, my friend Sara and I decided to make a healthy quiche which didn’t include tonnes of cheese as pies normally do. We decided to cut out the cheese completely and instead go heavy on the veggie goodness. Unfortunately by the time the quiche was cooked the sun had set and we had to take the picture of the final result with artificial light, but hopefully you should be able to get the idea of how delicious it looked (and tasted) nonetheless. By the way, all the pictures in this post were taken by Sara, the master of food photos.

This quiche is brilliantly healthy and because it has no dairy, it could easily become vegan if you decide to omit the chicken and swap the eggs with flaxseeds. 100 gr of chicken is a very little amount for a whole quiche but I decided to add it in to add some protein, as I did not include any cheese, and because I had defrosted it and wanted to use it. So feel free to add the double amount of chicken, if you like.

What you’ll need:

  • 1 tsp of extra-virgin olive oil
  • 120 gr chestnut mushrooms
  • 10 cherry tomatoes
  • 1 pepper
  • 1 small yellow onion
  • 4 balls of frozen spinach
  • 100 gr chicken
  • 1 tbsp of coarse oats
  • About a couple of tsps of mixed herbs (marjoram, thyme, oregano and dry sage are all good)
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tbsp of soya milk (optional)
  • Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
  • A dash of chili sauce or Tobasco (optional)
  • A handful of flour
  • 1 packet of Jus-Rol puff pastry (or you could make your own puff pastry)

Preparation:

Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F/Gas 6). Pour the olive oil into a tissue and rub it thoroughly on a quiche plate, making sure to cover well the bottom and sides of it. Place the spinach in a small pot with about a tbsp of water and let thaw on medium heat. Grill the chicken in a non-stick pan. While the chicken cools chop the vegetables into about 1-inch (2.5-cm) cubes. Chop the chicken. Once the spinach is fully defrosted, spread it on a chopping board and leave it to cool, as you don’t want the egg whites to scramble when you mix them with the spinach later.

Place all the veggies and chicken in a big bowl and mix well. Add the egg whites from the two eggs (saving the yolks), oats, plenty of herbs, salt, a good dose of black pepper and a dash of Tobasco. If at this stage your mixture looks a bit too dry feel free to add the soya milk. If you are worried it might be too runny or wet add another spoonful of oats. Make sure you always stir well in order to get all the ingredients hobnobbing!

Get your puff pastry and knead it altogether. Make sure you’re working on a floured base as you don’t want your pastry to stick to your table/board. Roll it thinly, about 0.2 in (5 mm). You should have enough pastry there to place a whole layer on the quiche dish and save some on a side to cut the lattice pattern. Once you have spread the pastry at the bottom of the dish, pour all the other ingredients into it and then start cutting the pastry for the top pattern. The strips should be about ½ in (1.2 cm) wide. Try to keep them from breaking but even if they do it’s not too big a problem as you can always join to pieces of strips together.

Beat the egg yolks together and spread the liquid on the pastry with a brush. Place in the oven and leave to bake for a good 40 to 45 minutes as you want the vegetable juices to dry away and the pastry to rise beautifully.

Let it cool a little before slicing and then enjoy!

Super Special Carrot Cake

Let me give you a bit of a background on this recipe. About three years ago I found it on the BBC Food website and made the cake for a picnic. I was very happy with the results so decided I would have made it again ‘soon’. That ‘soon’ arrived about two years later, when I looked for that same recipe high and low on the internet for hours, without ever finding it again. Bitter disappointment kicked in. Ah, if only I had made it more often, I probably would have remembered the recipe by heart! Then, about a couple of months after that sad incident, I decided to tidy up the two boxes on top of my wardrobe and there it was, a print-out of the recipe! I had completely forgotten I had printed it out. I thought I was going to faint from the excitement. Instead, I transcribed it into my recipe book to keep it safe and that’s how I can bring it to you. I recently made this cake for the office, and my colleagues wolfed it down, which I took as a good sign. So here’s what you’ll need:

For the cake

  • 250 g unsalted butter
  • 375 g caster sugar
  • Grated rind of 2 oranges
  • 4 eggs
  • 450 g carrots
  • 150 g chopped nuts (I generally use walnuts but you could try almonds or pecans)
  • 1 tbsp vanilla essence
  • Juice of 1 orange
  • 250 g plain flour
  • 2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tsp mixed spice
  • 1 tsp salt

For the icing

This will yield plenty of icing, a little more than you’ll need for the cake, but it’s so rich and tasty, you’ll want to use it on everything! Otherwise you could reduce all of its ingredients of 1/3.

  • 225 g mascarpone cheese
  • 65 g unsalted butter
  • 400 g icing sugar (I never said this recipe was low-calorie!)
  • 1 tsp vanilla essence

Preparation

Preheat the oven to 180°C/gas mark 4 and grease a 23cm/9in tin. Grate the carrots and orange peel, then beat the softened butter, sugar and orange rind together until light and fluffy.

Gradually add the eggs to the mixture and then fold in the carrots and grated nuts. Add the vanilla essence and the orange juice. The mixture will look very liquid at this point but fear not! It’s all under control. In a different bowl, sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda, salt and mixed spices together and fold into the mixture gently. It will still look pretty runny and pale, but this is good, because it means that your cake will be soft and moist. Pour the mixture into the tin and bake for 50 to 70 minutes, depending on how efficient your oven is. You’ll know the cake is ready once its sides come away from the tin and a skewer comes out clean, if a little wet. Don’t worry if the final result looks much darker than the mixture you initially placed into the oven, this is completely normal. Finally, make the icing by creaming the mascarpone and softened butter together until smooth, add the icing sugar and vanilla essence and mix until it is all homogenous.

This frosting is amazing! Spread it generously onto the cake once it’s cooled down a little and enjoy.