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.

Savoury Fruit Salad

Last Saturday was very warm and sunny here in London. There was no way I was going to  have a proper lunch, so thought I’d make a salad. Put together a few ingredients and then realised that yep, they were all fruit, rather than vegetables: orange, avocado and tomato. It’s a fruit salad!

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I dressed it very simply with a mixture of extra virgin olive oil, cider vinegar, Maldon salt and white pepper.

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It’s summer!

My Mum’s Torta di Mele, aka Apple Cake

This is one of the most meaningful recipes in my recipe book, certainly one that brings with itself the sweetest memories. This is my father’s favourite dessert and my mother used to bake it for him every time he came back for his periodical home visits from working abroad. It reminds me of the feeling of expectation you have when you know you are going to see someone dear whom you haven’t seen for months, the fragrance of baking apples coming from the kitchen takes me back to how lovely it was to sit around the table, aged 5, on an afternoon with my dad smiling, having a slice of this cake, drinking his espresso and playing around with me. It reminds me of how lovingly my mum mixed all the ingredients together, confident that my dad would’ve appreciated it as a gesture of care and love.

This is indeed my mum’s personal interpretation of a classic Italian recipe, and getting the doses out of her was somewhat of a mission: “I go by the eye” is her official motto!

I always use plain flour + baking powder so I get through the flour quicker, but you can use self-raising flour, if you prefer.

So here it is, I hope you enjoy making it as much as eating it.

What you’ll need:

  • 100 gr butter (plus a little wedge for the tin)
  • 120 gr sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • About a tablespoon of vanilla extract
  • 125 gr plain flour (plus a sprinkle for the tin)
  • 1 level teaspoon of baking powder
  • 4 golden delicious apples (2.5 for the mixture and 1.5 for the top)

Preparation:

Wash, peel, core and dice the apples for the mixture in ½ in little pieces (leave the apple for the top for now, if you peel them too much in advance they’ll oxidise and be brown by the time you are ready to place them on the cake).

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350F/Gas 4 and grease and coat an 18cm/7in cake tin. Cream the room-temperature butter and the sugar together in a bowl until all uniform and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, a little at a time, and add in the vanilla extract. The mixture should be quite runny. If it isn’t, add a glug of soya or cow’s milk. Add the raising powder, mix really well and finally add the chopped apples. Now pour the batter into the tin.

It’s time to prepare the rest of the apples. Wash, peel and core them. To cut them, cut the apples into vertical quarters and then slice them vertically to a thickness of about 1/3 of a cm being very careful not to break the slices. Place the slices on top of the batter as shown in the first picture above.

Bake for about 35 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean.

This cake is wonderfully moist because of all those lovely bits of apples inside that go really soft when baking so you can serve it on its own, or if you like to contrast the apple flavour, serve with cream, custard or vanilla ice cream.

Finally, I thought long and hard whether to translate the word torta into pie, tart or cake. Pie is not right as there is no crust in this recipe, and tart just didn’t feel right, as that would be a separate base with a filling and a just a fruity topping. So I decided to settle for cake, as the preparation method for the basic mixture is not too different from a Victoria sponge. Let me know what you think!

Hot + Hearty Vegan Soup with Barley and Vegetables

I made this soup for lunch on a cold, wintery day when I had loads of random ingredients at home and really had no idea what to cook. I decided to throw all of these ingredients together in a soup and took a few pictures, just in case the experiment turned out well – and it did!

This soup is probably the healthiest thing you’ll ever eat, and yet it’s delicious. Use whole barley rather than pearled, as the former has all its vitamins and minerals intact and, therefore, is higher in iron, protein, calcium and fibre. The barley gives this dish a hearty, creamy texture which is normally hard to recreate without dairy products. Try it and tell me what you think. These doses serve one ravenous person or two light eaters.

What you’ll need:

  • 80 gr whole barley
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1 small red onion
  • 2 tsp oil
  • 1 yellow pepper
  • 1 tomato
  • A handful of medium size mushrooms
  • ½ mushroom stock cube
  • A couple of glugs of hot sauce
  • A pinch dried coriander (to garnish)

Rinse the barely and bring it to the boil on a high flame.  Once it boils turn down to a simmer and cook for about an hour (or until it’s soft), as the whole barley takes a lot longer than the pearly type. In the meantime chop the garlic and onion to a mince and lightly sweat them with the hot oil in a sauce pan for a few minutes. Add the chopped pepper, tomato, mushrooms and minced stock cube. Cook them for about ten minutes or until the pepper softens up. The tomato will let out some water, in which the stock will dissolve. Add the boiled and drained barley to the pot of veggies and simmer for ten minutes, so that all flavours join together. Check for seasoning, although the stock should have made the soup flavoursome enough. Add the hot sauce (I go for plenty) and garnish with dried coriander leaves.

Serve by itself or with a buttered slice of toasted granary bread!

Mushroom Pork Escalopes with Sweet Red Cabbage and Diced Roast Potatoes

On a Saturday morning not too long ago I decided I would make escalopes for a nice late lunch. So off I went to the supermarket. I set off to buy veal for this recipe, but when I got to Tesco I quickly realised they had no veal, looked for lean pork steaks, and couldn’t find those either, so resorted to buying small lean pork medallions and flattening them at home. Pork meat works just as perfectly as veal in this recipe so that’s fine. I was actually quite excited about getting medallions in the end as that meant I’d get to use the very, very, very old meat pounder I nicked from my Grandma’s kitchen over Christmas. Here it is:

vintage meat pounder

If you don’t have one, you could always use a small metal pot or saucepan.

What you’ll need:

For the roast potatoes

  • 3 medium-sized Maris Piper or King Edward potatoes
  • 1 tbs extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt
  • Mixed herbs
  • 2 or 3 sprigs of fresh lemon thyme

 For the sweet red cabbage

  • 1 red onion
  • 1 tbs oil
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • ½ red cabbage
  • 2 tbs raisins
  • 2–3 tbs balsamic vinegar (ideally aceto balsamico di Modena)
  • About 100 ml water
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tbs butter
  • Salt
  • Black pepper

For the escalopes

  • 6 small lean pork medallions
  • 5 tbs flour
  • 2 tbs oil
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 2/3 of a mushroom stock cube
  • 100 gr mushrooms
  • ½ to 1 glass of hot water
  • 1 glass white wine
  • 2 or 3 sprigs of fresh lemon thyme

Preparation:

Preheat oven to gas mark 7/425°F (220°C). Wash, peel and chop the potatoes into fairly small cubes (about 2 in). Place them into a roasting tin and add the oil, herbs, lemon thyme and a generous sprinkle of salt. Place the tin in the oven and cook them for at least ½ hour, or until they are all golden, soft inside and crunchy outside.

While the tatties cook away, peel off the outer leaves of the cabbage. Now slice the half cabbage thinly (between ½ and 1 cm thick) and set aside. Slice the red onion and place in a pan where you’ve been heating the oil. Gently fry the onion until it’s soft and add cinnamon and nutmeg. Cook for another minute to let the spices release all their flavour, then add the cabbage, raisins, bay leaves, vinegar and water. Cover and bring up to the boil, then turn the heat down and let simmer until the cabbage is soft, which should take about 40–45 minutes. If the contents of the pan become dry and the cabbage is not yet soft, just keep adding water little by little to keep it simmering. When the cabbage is about five minutes from being ready, add the butter, salt and pepper and stir well to mix all the flavours.

While the cabbage simmers, it’s time to get started on that pork. Flatten the medallions to a thickness of between 0.5 and 1 cm thick. Flour them and place them in a large frying pan with the hot oil where you’ve been lightly frying the garlic. Sear them and cut the mushrooms into small pieces (if they are small enough you can slice them vertically so they’ll retain the mushroom shape and look pretty). Crumble the stock cube and add it to the pan with the mushrooms, the lemon thyme and a little bit of water. Let cook for five minutes or so and then turn the heat right up. Pour the wine in and let evaporate. Turn the heat back to medium and cook until the mushrooms are soft and the pork is done (which shouldn’t take longer than ten minutes, as the meat is rather thin).

Plate up and go.

 

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.

Mushroom Risotto with My (Not So) Secret Ingredient

As I mentioned in my last post, I have recently got back from Genoa, my Italian hometown. I brought back over 10 kg worth of extra luggage and no, it wasn’t all clothes and shoes, thank you very much. I also took to Blighty a few kitchen utensils from my Granny’s kitchen and a whole load of food and wine: a bottle of Barolo, one of Bonarda, one of Prosecco, a huge bottle of excellent extra virgin olive oil, a big Pandoro for the joy of my colleagues, a small pandoro, a Pandolce Genovese (a typical Genoese Christmas cake), some chocolate, gnocchetti al basilico (basil baby gnocchi) and . . . my secret ingredient, STAR porcini mushroom stock cubes. As one would expect, the wine and prosecco bottles are long gone already, and so are the two pandori and the chocolate. The basil gnocchi have also been cooked and will be thoroughly featured in another post. The star of today’s post, however, is the mushroom stock:

I love the fact that this famous Italian brand hasn’t practically changed their logo and box design since pretty much the ‘50s, but most of all I love the flavour these cubes give!

I couldn’t wait, I had to pick a packet of mushrooms on my way home and cook some risotto right after my flight. Who needs unpacking when you have il dado ai funghi porcini?

Here is my very personal recipe (well, the one my mum taught me years ago with the helping of the special stock) for two portions.

The pictures were taken by me but edited by my two favourite picture experts, Rol and Sara.

What you’ll need:

  • 1 tbs extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 small yellow onion
  • 180 gr Arborio (risotto) rice
  • A medium glass of dry white wine
  • 150 gr of fresh mixed (or, if you find them, porcini) mushrooms or 75 gr of dried ones
  • 1 and ½ porcini mushroom stock cubes to be dissolved in 750 ml of water
  • ½ tbs of butter
  • 4 tsps grated Parmigiano Reggiano

Preparation:

First of all, if you are using dried mushrooms, soak them in lukewarm water for at least half an hour, drain them and set them aside. Chop the garlic and onion finely. Heat the oil in a wide frying pan and add the chopped aromatics. Cook them until they’re soft and golden. In the meantime prepare the stock and keep it simmering very gently on one side. Add the rice into the frying pan and stir it thoroughly into the onions and garlic, letting it ‘toast’ for a minute or two in order to sear (coat) it. Turn the heat right up and pour in the wine. The heat needs to be very high at this stage because you want the alcohol to evaporate fairly quickly, as you don’t want to boil the rice into it. Once the rice starts drying off, turn the flame back down to medium heat. It’s now time to add in the mushrooms and a ladleful of stock. Keep stirring the rice; make sure you do not leave it unattended as it takes a split second for the whole content to go super dry and burn. Keep adding the stock gradually until the rice is completely cooked, which shouldn’t take any longer than 20 minutes. Now taste the risotto and see if it lacks any salt. It really shouldn’t as the stock should be sufficient for flavour – although better safe than sorry! Once ready, add the butter and a couple of teaspoons of grated cheese (remember, you are cooking Italian food so please, refrain from adding cheddar . . . you know who you are!), stir to allow all the ingredients to hobnob and the butter and cheese to melt and finally plate the dish. Sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper, some extra Parmigiano if you so wish and garnish with fresh or dried flat-leaf parsley or coriander.

You’re going to love this!