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The joy of classic Italian cooking

Italian food. The phrase conjures up all sorts of delights: crispy Margherita pizza, succulent meatballs with rich tomato sauce; plump country sausages nestling on lentils.

Pasta, lots of pasta, dressed simply with the best olive oil and garlic, or drenched in sumptuous, velvety ragu.

The salty tang of Parmesan cheese and the unctuous sweetness of tiramsu cut through with the bite of coffee.

Risotto, the simplest of dishes that tastes of complex flavours and textures when cooked properly, creamy gelato, spicy cured meats…the list is endless.

I love Greek food. But I am, almost, convinced that Italy has the better cuisine. Its produce is definitely as good, and there is much more choice.

Even in the dark days of this January, when freezing weather has decimated many winter crops such as courgettes and spinach, the Italian market stalls, shops and supermarkets still boast a range of excellent vegetables and fruit.

Lidl Italia offers not one, but three types of bottled artichokes, and the “country” one, with its purple hearts, is worth twice the two euros I paid.

And the other day we had an amazing mixed dish for lunch, a “misto” of roast fennel, celery and chickpeas and pan-fried potatoes…in a motorway service station.

I love cooking in Italy, even with the constraints of my van kitchen. My bible is not Jamie’s Italian or Nigellisma, lovely though their photographs are, but a battered old paperback with not even a line drawing to hint at the delights it contains.

It was written by Marcella Hazan, who is credited with introducing America to regional Italian cooking. Her first recipe book, published in 1973 is The Classic Italian Cookbook, and it is this that I read every night for inspiration.

And I was delighted to learn yesterday that she was born in Cesenatico, the small seaside Italian town, just south of Venice, where we spent last weekend. More motorhome serendipity.

Tonight we are having her spaghettini alla carretiera (thin spaghetti with fresh basil and tomato sauce).

There are five cloves of garlic in this deceptively simple sauce, but Marcella reassures me that as they are simmering in the sauce, rather than being browned, the flavour will come through “very gently”. I trust her.

Last night we enjoyed her tuna and bean salad, with diced, pan-roasted potatoes and bastoncini di carota marinati, a rustic carrot antipasti.

Carrots. Those orange things that we dice up for soup and stews, grate for coleslaw and occasionally serve up with peas, yes those carrots. Hardly the food of the gods.

But sweet Italian carrots, marinated for 24 hours in olive oil flavoured with oregano and garlic and a few drops of red wine vinegar, are transformed from a humble everyday root vegetable into a Michelin star starter.

For this carrot recipe alone I fell in love with Marcella Hazan.

The New York Times adores her famous tomato sauce – and if you manage to get hold of a copy of her The Essentials of Italian Cooking you will get her two best known books, The Classic Italian Cookbook and More Italian Classic Cooking under one cover.

She can be quite didactic in her recipes, with brusque notes of instruction at the end of many, such as “No grated cheese is called for.” But she is always right.

And as Nigella herself says “if this were the only cookbook you owned, neither you nor those you cooked for would ever get bored.”

Bastoncini di carota marinate 

Serves 4

Ingredients

¼ pound carrots (buy the best you can find)

1 small clove of garlic, lightly crushed with the a heavy knife handle and peeled

salt and black pepper to taste

¼ teaspoon of dried oregano

1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar

Olive oil, enough to cover (use the best you can afford)

Method

Peel the carrots, cut them into 2-inch lengths and cook in boiling, salted water for about 10 minutes, until they are tender, but still firm. The marinade will continue to soften them.

Drain the carrots and cut lengthwise into small sticks aobut ¼ inch thick. Place in a serving dish.

Bury the garlic in the carrots, add salt and pepper to taste, the oregano and vinegar and enough olive oil to just cover the carrots.

Marinate in the fridge for 24 hours, remove garlic and serve at room temperature.

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