Pesto Imposters.

When is a pesto not a pesto? When its made from every other vegetable on the planet except basil. Some folk argue that any nut, vegetable product, garlic and oil can be processed into a pesto.  Witness artichoke pesto, pumpkin pesto, coriander and cashew pesto, beetroot pesto, mint pesto  and so the list goes on. What is it about this word, pesto, and why is it applied to every paste, dip, condiment and spread on the supermarket shelves and in cookbooks?  Pesto comes from the verb pestare, to pound, as does the pestello, or pestle used to pound it. When we think of pesto, Liguria and Genova come to mind, followed by thoughts of fragrant basil, pine nuts, garlic, and a good parmigiana or pecorino or both. Lets preserve the word for the real thing and use good old English words, such as paste, for the imposters.

A simple pesto recipe for the basil season.

2 Tablespoons pine nuts

4 small garlic cloves, peeled

1/4 teaspoon course sea salt

one large bunch of basil, leaves stripped from stalks

1/2 cup or more of extra virgin olive oil

finely grated parmesan, grana padano parmigiana, around 1/2 cup or more.

Add the first three ingredients to the food processor. Grind to a paste, then add basil leaves. When sufficiently mushed up, add oil slowly to mix while running motor. Add parmigaina to taste by hand. Taste, season, adjust with more oil or cheese.  Serve with pasta, add to arancini, toss with steamed green beans or new potatoes, drizzle over grilled fish.

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Memories of Marcella Hazan

Marcella Hazan, who passed away on September 29,  was my cooking muse.  I feel that I knew her well. She fulfilled the role of Italian aunt, she was my Zia from Venice and Florida. Her voice was often bossy but sensible. In the late 1980’s, I owned two small cookbooks by Marcella, all text, no glossy pictures, with recipe titles and indexing in Italian before English (unlike her modern editions). Some of my favourite recipes came from these two volumes and they have become part of my extended family‘s repertoire too.  Young chef Daisy can smell Zuppa di bietola e fagioli bianchi as soon as she walks in the door. Marcella not only taught me how to cook down to earth Italian food, but also my first Italian words, soffrito and battuto. No Ciao bella and Va bene for meit was always about the cooking.  From this little beginning, came a degree in Italian, some translating, lots of travelling to Italy, and Italian friends. Marcella completely changed my life.  Although sadly I no longer own the modest dark green and maroon cookbooks, my versions of her recipes live on.

Marcella advised, in a forthright manner, on the importance of using salt, so I dedicate my little Italian salt container to the  memory of Marcella.

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Don’t Call Them Cookies.

Its a baking day today, the wind is howling, the grey sky looks threatening and young chef Daisy is here to assist. “Lets  make some cookies, Daisy”. ” BISCUITS” comes the cry from a nearby room, ” not cookies”.  One way to ruffle Mr Tranquillo’s feathers is to use  American terminology,  especially in front of children. Australian linguistic traditions are slowly disappearing, and the lovely word biscuit is under threat. “Ok, OK, biscuit, biscotti, whatever.”  I know he is right.

These yummy biscuits are similar to Anzacs but are softer and uglier like Brutti ma Buoni, my favourite Italian biscotto. They are simple and quick to make, and store well.

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The recipe

  • 1 and 1/4 cups plain flour
  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 3/4 cup castor sugar
  • 1/2 cup sultanas
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries, or chopped dried apricots, or other dried fruit.
  • 150 gr unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 Tb Golden Syrup
  • 1 Tb water
  • 1/2 teas bi-carb soda

Method

Preheat the oven to 180c or a little less for fan forced.

Mix the dry ingredients together in a bowl.  Melt the butter with the golden syrup and water in a small saucepan. Add the bicarb soda to this wet mixture. Stir briefly then add to the dry mix. Roll into balls and place on two long biscuit baking sheets lined with non stick paper. Leave on tray for 5 minutes, then move to cooling rack.

Bake for around 18 minutes in the centre of the oven or until golden brown.

Variations include adding chopped macadamias and so on, keeping the proportions the same.

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Artichokes, to eat or to decorate

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It’s artichoke season and I can’t find many people who love to eat them as much as I do. Our resident Italian guest, Albé, dislikes them, and my numerous family members, whose visits usually require a mass catering event, or the raiding of the cellar for a reasonable bottle of vino, don’t enjoy them.  Mr Tranquillo hates them intensely.

Back in 2000, our travels took us to Naples to visit the brother of my dear friend Olga. During that time, we were invited to lunch at the apartment of her cousins, right near the Galleria Umberto. The table was set impeccably, the hosts were gracious and also quite ancient. The whole event was ” molto elegante“.  But we forgot to mention the most important thing- that we were vegetariani , and along with the language, age and cultural divides, this would become an embarrassing hurdle.

First course was a simple Pasta Napoli. We were going well. Then came the polpettini di fegato. Liver meatballs, lightly crumbed and sauted.  Mio Dio!  Other expressions, involving the Madonna also came to mind. Mr Tranquillo turned a lighter shade of green and then quietly mentioned his dietary issues. A whole ball of buffalo mozzarella landed on his plate as a substitute.  I ate the liver balls, with some trepidation, but found them quite tasty and tried to focus on the concept of bella figura.*  Along came the next course – scallopini di vitello, veal schnitzels, served with a simple green salad.  I also ate these, and focused  this time on the Dalai Lama: I was almost enjoying this meat fest.  Mr Tranquillo once again sheepishly declined,  and was offered a freshly prepared giant carciofo.  Knowing how much he hates artichokes, but also feeling very embarrassed and quite uneasy about insulting our gracious hosts, I gave him THE LOOK which indicated,  “You will eat every bit of that maledetto artichoke and you will look like you are enjoying it!” He ate it.

young artichokes
young artichokes

Back to the back yard and my giant artichoke plants.  My dear friend Helen looked at them admiringly as I cut two long stems of artichokes from the bush, complete with their soft grey/green side leaves. She mused, décor or to eat,  examining them carefully, whilst pondering a far more sensible question than that of Hamlet.  Décor she decided. Well, I’ve done decorating with artichokes, and no more waxing lyrically about the plants’ architectural beauty.  Today I plan to eat them, by myself, just me.

La ricetta per carciofi in memoria della mia cara amica, Olga D’ Albero Giuliani – Artichoke recipe in memory of my dear friend Olga.

Leave a small portion of the stalk and peel  it. Prepare the artichokes by removing all the sharp spiky leaves, pulling them off, one at a time. When the plant looks much smaller and no sharp bits remain, cut off pointy top half then cut into quarters and remove all the hairy choke from the centre.  Drop each one into acidulated water as you go.  When all are ready, choose a heavy based pan, big enough to hold the prepared artichokes. Add extra virgin olive oil, garlic, sauté for a few seconds, then add drained artichokes. Sauté again for a minute or so, add some lemon juice, a little water, and salt to taste. Cover and cook on low heat, making sure that they don’t burn or catch, until tender. Eat out of the pan, if desperate, or if you can find some friends to share them with, add to an antipasti platter.

My friend Olga many years ago. I miss her every day. *** http://www.ozpod.com/yarra/books/share.html