Saucy Observations – Pasta agli Asparagi e Ricotta

As I have stated before, I am a big fan of pasta. Regardless of those trends of low-carbing, living like a cavewoman, and considering wheat a greater villain than Sherlock’s Moriarty, nothing stands between me and my bowl of pasta. Well, on second thought, this “piece of news” about myself may be somewhat obvious. Avoiding pasta whilst loving Italian food (and blogging about it ) would be kind of… pointless.

However, despite having made a reasonably impressive amount number of pastas to-date (impressive on a Finnish amateur scale that is – definitely not Italian), I still regularly struggle with the fine balance of pasta and its sauce. If there is too little of the sauce, a dish lacks flavour and can be a bit dry. On the other hand, if your pasta is of better quality, you do not want to overpower it by soaking it in the sauce or creating an unintentional macaroni soup.

It seems that Italian recipes do not often appreciate these struggles of a Finnish pasta lover who hasn’t had direct access to the culinary wisdom of nonnas. On the contrary. Recipes often lack precise quantities of oil and other ingredients leaving a Finnish cook with a feeling of participating in a pasta version of lottery.

Today’s pasta is partially a fine example of this phenomenon: In addition to the usual lack of the amount of olive oil, there is no advice on how to divide your ricotta into two portions (one is mixed directly with your pasta and the other added separately as part of an asparagus cream). However, fortunately  in this lottery case, you have slightly less to lose as you can adjust the amount of the asparagus cream while eating.

Prior to trying this recipe, I had already learned earlier that asparagus and ricotta work together wonderfully. And based on this dish, I can verify that they still definitely do!

Pasta with asparagus and ricotta

Serves 2

160 g pasta

500 g asparagus

200 g ricotta

1 onion

olive oil

salt, pepper

Clean the asparagus, remove their chalks and cook them in boiling water for some minutes (max ~5 minutes) until ready (soft enough for blending but not soggy and limp). After cooking, you can cool them with cold water or ice to prevent them from further cooking in their own heat.

Cut the tips of the asparagus and keep them for futher use. In a blender, mix the remaining parts of the asparagus with 100 g ricotta, some olive oil, salt and pepper until you have obtained a nice and smooth cream. If the cream is very thick (the target consistency is about the same as of the bechamel sauce), you can add a little bit of water.

Peel and chop the onion and gently fry it in a pan with some olive oil. Add the tips of the asparagus and let them gather flavour shortly.

Cook the pasta. Once ready, combine it with the onion and asparagus tips in the pan. Add 100 g ricotta and some cooking water of the pasta if needed. Mix well and let it warm up until creamy.

Put some asparagus ricotta cream onto each plate. Add the pasta with asparagus tips on top. Season with some additional pepper and serve.

Bruschetta Times (Two) – Bruschette alle Zucchine & Bruschetta con Crema di Zucca e Noci

I am a curious person by nature and love to experiment and experience new things in the world of food. However, I have noticed that in ethnic restaurants, I easily tend to order the same dish on each visit: red or green curry in the case of Thai food, kung-po chicken in Chinese restaurants, palak paneer in Indian places etc. The same pattern used to dominate my visits to Italian restaurants in Finland: bruschette with tomato and mozzarella or insalata di bufala for a starter and a seafood pasta for a main course.

This may not only be a question of my habits but also of the restaurants in Helsinki focusing their offer on the most internationally popular dishes. When visiting Italy on the other hand, I enjoy trying out as many new dishes as possible. And obviously also in Cucina Fintastica (more or less successfully).

I have already earlier broadened my understanding of potential bruschetta toppings with Giorgione’s help. Today I am sharing two other fabulous options: one with zucchini and another with pumpkin cream and cream cheese. The neat trick about the former recipe is that the bread slices are dipped in a mixture of eggs and cream before placing them in the oven. The slices are also baked there with the zucchini topping for a longer period than usual. Yet the outcome is quite fresh as after the oven, the bruschette are completed with herbs and chilli.

Zucchini Bruschette

8 slices of white bread (casereccio or other)

3 zucchinis (depending on their size 1-2 larger ones may suffice too)

3 eggs

2 dl double cream

fresh mint

fresh parsley

½ shallot

butter

1 red chilli pepper

salt

Clean the zucchinis and cut them into round slices about 0.5 cm thick. Clean a bunch of parsley and some mint leaves and chop them together with the shallot. Sprinkle the zucchini slices with the herb – shallot mixture.

Break the eggs into a bowl. Add the cream and a pinch of salt and mix well with a wooden fork.

Grease an oven dish with butter (I used an oven tray and a parchment paper instead). Dip the bread slices in the egg – cream mixture, and place them in the oven dish. Cover the bread slices with the zucchini slices.

Bake the bruschette in the oven at 200 C for about 15 minutes. In the meantime, clean the red chilli pepper and eliminate its seeds. Chop it with 20 leaves of parsley and 5-6 of mint. Switch the oven onto its grill mode and let the bruschette bake further for a few minutes. Remove them from the oven and sprinkle them with the chopped herbs and chilli. Let the bruschette cool down slightly and serve.

Bruschette with Pumpkin Cream and Walnuts

Serves 4

4 slices of white bread (casereccio or other)

200 g pumpkin

1 shallot

4 walnuts

3 tbsp olive oil

100 g cream cheese

salt

pepper

Peel the pumpkin, remove its seeds and cut it into cubes. Peel and chop the shallot.

In a pan, heat the olive oil with the chopped shallot and let them (gently) brown. Add the pumpkin cubes. Season with salt and pepper. Cover the pan with a lid, and cook for about 20 minutes (until the pumpkin is soft). Remove from the heat and move into a blender with 1 tablespoon of the cream cheese. Blend to obtain a nice pumpkin cream and let it cool down.

Divide the walnut kernels into ~4 pieces each. Toast the bread slices (in an oven on its grill mode). Prepare the bruschette by first adding the pumpkin cream on top of the grilled bread and then some walnut pieces and a few teaspoons of the cream cheese (for each bread slice).

Food for Moods – Cosce di Pollo al Limone

I have admitted earlier that I am not a winter person. At all. What I am even less, is a January person. I think January is the Monday of months. In this part of the world, it is criminally cold and terribly dark. There is nothing exciting happening as everyone is on a diet and just moping at home wearing wooly socks (apart from that sensible bunch who can elope Finland and head to a tropical country for a week or longer).

Well, ok. Views may be somewhat decent(ish) in January too.

Helsinki winter

Anyway – decent or not – on a more positive note, when the end of the month finally approaches, an anti-January person feels quite rejoiceful and festive. And obviously a celebration to welcome February should be accompanied by some fab Italian food.

My adventures in the Italian kitchen have already earlier made me renew my appreciation for chicken legs. This dish is another recipe to maintain that appreciation. It is also a brilliant all-rounder. It is flavoursome and fantastic for those February feasts but yet simple enough to also brighten the bluest of Mondays anytime of the year!

Chicken Legs with Lemon

Serves 4

4 chicken legs with thighs

1 garlic clove

1 glass of white wine

2 (organic) lemons

½ onion

rosemary (to your taste)

sage (to your taste)

6 tbsp olive oil

salt, pepper

Clean the chicken legs (if needed – in Helsinki they are usually quite clean without any leftover feathers). You can also remove the skin of the legs if you prefer a slightly lighter dish.

Peel and chop the onion. Wash the lemons and grate their zest. Squeeze the juice of the lemons into a cup.

In a pan, heat the olive oil with the rosemary, sage, chopped onion and (entire) garlic clove. Add the chicken legs and season with salt and pepper. Fry the legs for a few minutes to get some colour on them. Pour in the white wine and let it evaporate. Add the lemon juice. Cover the pan with a lid. Let the chicken legs cook on a low heat for approximately 45 minutes (until cooked). During the final minutes of cooking, add the lemon zest. Serve immediately.

Season’s Eatings – Pasta Zucca e Ricotta

Christmas is approaching again, and as usual, Cucina Fintastica is full of ambitious culinary plans! The advantage of ambitious plans is that even if you don’t quite meet them (let’s say only 15%), you still achieve something. I hope.

Today’s recipe is not exactly a Christmas dish. In fact, I think the only Italian Christmas recipe I have posted so far was this one that I tested (very proactively) in May. Well, anyway, as far as I now know about the Italian kitchen, pumpkins are one of the seasonal favorites both for Christmas and autumn. So this dish should be at least a decent warm-up to get you in that Christmassy culinary mood!

Already earlier, I have learned that pumpkins are the BFFs of strong cheeses. This dish is another strong evidence of that. The end result is a lovely soft, hearty and flavourful pasta that is yet not overly heavy.

Pumpkin and ricotta pasta

Serves 2

160 g pasta

400 g pumpkin (peeled and cubed)

180 g ricotta

40 g pecorino cheese (grated)

1 garlic clove

olive oil

salt, pepper

In a pan, gently fry the garlic clove in some olive oil. Add the pumpkin cubes and a little bit of salt. Add a (smallish) cup of water, cover the pan with a lid and let the pumpkins cook on a low heat for about 20 minutes (until soft).

Cook the pasta in boiling and salted water until it is al dente, and drain it. Please note that the pasta will still get a bit softer in the oven in the next phases of this recipe.

Remove the garlic clove and mash the pumpkin cubes with a fork (or alternatively place the soft cubes in a blender to mash them). Stir in the ricotta cheese. Add the pasta into the sauce, and let the pumpkin pasta gain flavour for one minute. Season with salt and pepper. Add one half of the grated pecorino and mix.

Grease an oven dish (~medium-sized) with some olive oil. Move the pumpkin pasta into the dish. Sprinkle the remaining pecorino cheese on top. Bake in the oven at 200C for about 10 minutes.

 

Cucina Spaintastica – Risotto al Limone e Gamberetti

It’s been quite a busy autumn.

But quite good too in many ways.

And I definitely haven’t forgotten about cooking and Italy.

Even when travelling to Spain this October, I scrolled my archives and Mr. Google for all sorts of Italian recipes. I thought cooking in Spain would be a fantastic opportunity to obtain all sorts of fresh ingredients that are difficult to find for Cucina Fintastica in Helsinki.

I was partially right. We were very intrigued by the wide range of fish and seafood. Maybe even a bit too much. We often ended up scratching our heads at our flat trying to figure out what we had actually bought and – assuming it was edible – how to prepare it. On the other hand, some ingredients were notably absent from the supermarkets. E.g. it was nearly impossible to find fresh chilli peppers and the assortment of herbs was very limited. I suppose that the absence of herbs is somewhat understandable when you think about the hot and dry terrain of Spain compared to many areas of Italy. I never did realise though that the Spaniards love their peppers red and sweet but not hot – unlike e.g. the Mexicans and Italians.

This Italian seafood risotto didn’t fortunately suffer from either of these supermarket limitations but instead flourished with the availability of fabulous fresh prawns. And you can certainly never go wrong with the culinary pairing of lemon and seafood!

Lemon and Prawn Risotto

Serves 4

juice of 1 lemon

zest of ½ lemon

1 onion

400 g shelled prawns

1 litre vegetable stock

350 g risotto rice (e.g. carnaroli)

40 g butter

½ glass white wine

salt, pepper, chives to your taste

Cook the prawns in boiling, salted water for 3-4 minutes and drain them. Peel and chop the onion. In a pan, melt 20 g butter and add the chopped onion. Gently fry it for some minutes until soft. Add the rice and toast it for a few minutes. Pour the wine into the pan and let it evaporate and be absorbed by the rice. Add the lemon juice. Start pouring the vegetable stock to the pan – one ladle at a time and (almost) continuously stirring the rice on a medium heat until the stock has been absorbed by the rice. Repeat until the rice is almost cooked. Add the lemon zest and the cooked prawns (a few minutes before the rice is completely cooked). Continue cooking with the vegetable stock until the rice is ready. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the remaining butter. Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately with chopped chives.

Let’s Twist Again – Torta allo Yogurt Farcita

When I started this blog, I knew very little about baking. Obviously there had been a muffin disaster here and there and even an occasional somewhat ok cake. Yet in general me and flours didn’t really mingle on a very regular basis. Hence the very moderate baking skills.

One thing that I knew even less about than baking was Italian baking. Obviously I am still far from an expert (or even at a point when my success rate would clearly be above 50%) but I have seen an almost exponential increase in my experience due to my little blogging adventures. Based on those, I have learned that the fantastic Italian way of utilising little tricks to add to the flavour also applies to baking. At the outset many recipes seem fairly similar to their Finnish counterparts but there is usually always a little twist (or two) that takes the outcome to the next culinary level!

In today’s recipe the twist lies in yogurt that – combined with the lemon zest – gives the cake a lovely fresh yet rich flavour. My own little additional twist to the recipe was to add some blueberries on top of the cake which worked fabulously.

IMG_0852

Yogurt Cake

For the cake:

3 eggs

200 g sugar

1 small package of plain yogurt (~150 – 200 g)

210 g flour

zest of one (preferably organic) lemon

70 ml corn oil (or rapeseed oil)

1.5 tsp baking powder

a pinch of salt

For the filling:

200 g cream cheese

2 tbsp plain yogurt

200 ml (double) cream

40 g sugar

20 g powdered sugar

Start by preparing the cake. In a bowl, mix the eggs with the sugar (with an electric mixer) until you have obtained a light-coloured mixture (with some small bubbles on top). Stir in the oil, lemon zest and yogurt. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Start adding the flour mixture into the rest of the cake dough in moderate quantities whilst mixing until the dough has a nice, smooth, non-lumpy texture. Pour the dough into a cake tin (buttered and floured) with a diameter of about 26 cm. Bake in the oven at 160C for about 30 minutes.

When waiting for the cake to bake, you can prepare the filling. Whip the cream with the sugar (by using an electric mixer) in a bowl. In a separate bowl, mix the cheese with the yogurt and powdered sugar. Add the whipped cream into the mixture and continue to mixing (carefully) to achieve a smooth filling. Place the bowl in a fridge.

Let the cake cool down. Cut it into two halves (lengthways). Spread the filling onto one of the halves and place the other half on top of it. Decorate with powdered sugar (and e.g. fresh berries if you like) and serve.

Bread Time Stories – Pane Veloce

In addition to authentic Italian pizza, I also appreciate different types of Italian bread. Especially the ones that have a crispy crust and are yet soft inside.

A serious, street-credible Italian baker would make his/ her own proper lievito naturale i.e. sourdough for bread. However, apparently that would take about a week, and once ready, the sourdough would require daily attention, care, singing, dancing and sweet talk to be well. Or something like that.

Fortunately there are somewhat easier and quite fab alternative recipes available for us mediocre bakers who are not quite ready for such a serious baking commitment yet. I previously found this one and have now successfully tested this for several times. It is just simply fantastic and relatively fast to make too (well, in the world of baking Italian bread I suppose its speed would be the equivalent of Usain Bolt’s but it still does require about 2.5 hours). When baking this, I modified the recipe a bit by substituing some of the wheat flour with fine rye flour to gain a bit more nutritional benefits which worked quite well too.

“Fast” Bread

Ingredients for 3 loaves

500 g flour (type 00 if you have it)

370 ml lukewarm water

12 g fresh yeast

2 tsp salt

1 tsp honey

Dissolve the yeast and honey into 50 ml water. Place the flour into a bowl. Create a little hole in the middle of the flour and pour the yeast water and the rest of the water into it. Start stirring the dough with a wooden spoon. Add the salt and continue stirring until you have obtained a granular, soft and sticky dough. Sprinkle the dough with a sufficient amount of flour, cover the bowl and let it rise for 1.5 hours.

Cover an oven tray with a parchment paper and add a sufficient layer of flour onto the parchment paper. Use a (plastic) spatula to pour the dough onto the flour. Divide the dough (lengthways) into three separate loaves. Make sure there is enough distance (at least 3-5 cm) between the loaves as they will expand in the oven. Bake the loaves in the overn at 230 C for at least 30 minutes.

A Lesson Learnt (& Rhubarb Burnt) – Insalata Mista con Rabarbaro E Caprino

I have always felt a special affinity with Italy and Italians although I have no Italian roots myself. One of the reasons for this is probably that I possess traits stereotypically considered Italian. Such as impatience.

Sometimes impatience can actually be good as it enables you to constantly seek ways to do things more efficiently. And sometimes impatience can be very bad. For instance when you are trying a new recipe and reading it a bit haphazardly. Some dishes and cooking techniques are more forgiving for an occasional slip of attention whereas some are definitely not. Baking is certainly one of the most brutal kinds in this sense. You miss one little ingredient or step and suddenly you have a disaster instead of a lovely pie in your kitchen.

Yesterday I learnt that caramelization is another example of these less relaxed types. I missed one word of a recipe and managed to make something resembling charcoal for Barbie’s barbecue rather than a rhubarb topping for my salad. Fortunately this time – in addition to spare rhubarb – I had a more capable “sous chef” at my disposal who kindly and more patiently showed me what was supposed to be done. (Just in case you are wondering, Barbie’s charcoal is on the left below.)

Rhubarbs

A nice thing about this wonderful salad recipe is that it is quite easy and quick to prepare – as long as you follow the sous chef technique for caramelization instead of the charcoal one! Goat cheese and sweet flavours obviously work well together but walnuts also complement the nutty flavour of caramelization brilliantly, and the acidity of rhubarb balances the richness and sweetness of the other ingredients just superbly.

Goat Cheese And Rhubarb Salad

60 g butter

4 tbsp sugar

100 g rhubarb (leaf stalks)

3 tbsp olive oil

1 tbsp lemon juice

1 tsp sweet mustard

salt, pepper

200 g mixed lettuce leaves

50 g goat cheese (sliced or crumbled)

6 pc walnuts (slightly crumbled)

Clean and peel the rhubarb leaf stalks and cut them into smallish cubes.

In a pan melt the butter on a low/ medium heat. Add the sugar and once it starts to dissolve into the butter, add the rhubarb cubes. Cook (on that low/ medium heat) for about ten minutes until you have caramelized the rhubarb cubes and they are a bit soft. Remove the pan from the heat and let the rhubarb cool down for some minutes.

In a small glass, mix the ingredients of the salad dressing (olive oil, lemon juice, mustard, salt, pepper). Make the salad by first placing the lettuce leaves on at the bottom of the salad bowl, then pouring the dressing onto them, and finally adding the caramelized rhubarb, goat cheese and walnuts on top.

The Beardy Monk – Torta Salata alle Mandorle, Gorgonzola e Verdure

Coming back to the theme of changes in my previous post, there is one additional one to consider. Possibly the most radical of them all, really. I am starting to uncover my previously extremely well-hidden inner baker! Within the past few weeks, I have made several pies, pizzas and a (pretty decent) loaf of bread. All naturalmente with Italian recipes.

Just yesterday I used this one for a dose of blueberries I picked in a forest near Helsinki. In general, I am jealous of Italians for their vast range of fresh veggies, herbs, and fruit. However, at this time of the year there are some fantastic ingredients also available in my Finnish hoods, such as those blueberries and chanterelles.

Blueberries

Today’s recipe doesn’t have anything to do with them though (I just wanted to show off my 1.5 litres of blueberries). In fact, the recipe contains an ingredient completely unknown to me, the Finnish forests, and supermarkets in Helsinki called barba di frate. It directly translates as a “monk’s beard”. Fortunately Wikipedia kindly informed me that I would not need to start negotiating with the very few monks in Helsinki about their facial hair but it is a plant called salsola soda or opposite-leaved saltwort (with so terribly complicated English names, I suppose this beard plant is not that common in the UK either…).

Anyway, today’s recipe is a pie I found on one of Italy’s most popular food blogs called Sale&Pepe. I was intrigued by the use of almonds in its filling and topping although it is a salty pie instead of a dessert (the afore-mentioned blueberry pie also has an almond topping). I substituted the beard plant with spinach which worked quite deliciously with those almonds and the heartiness of blue cheese! As the recipe only advised to use a pasta brisé for the crust without any further details, I picked a recipe for it from one of my Italian cook books called Voglia di cucinare. However, if you are a more advanced baker than myself and have a secret crust recipe of your own, or – alternatively – like those ready pastries from supermarket, I am sure they will be fine options too.

Almond, Gorgonzola and Vegetable Pie

Serves 6

For the crust:

500 g flour

250 g butter

salt

For the filling:

1 egg

100 g almond flour

100 g almond flakes

3 bunches of salsola soda (or spinach)

1 garlic clove

butter

300 g soft gorgonzola (or other blue cheese)

1.5 dl milk

salt

First make the pastry for the crust (unless you are using a ready one): Cut the butter into smallish cubes and let them rest in the room temperature for a few minutes to become a bit softer. Place the flour on a pastry board (or other flat surface…) and mix in a pinch of salt. Make a hole in the middle of the flour and add the butter cubes. Use your hands to quickly knead a pastry of the flour, butter, and salt. Finally add a 2 tablespoons of cold water into the pastry. Wrap it in a tinfoil and leave to rest in a fridge at least until you have prepared the filling.

If you are using salsola soda, peel them, wash them and cook them in salted boiling water for at least 4-5 minutes. Drain well. If you are using fresh spinach, cook them in boiling water for a few minutes, and rinse and drain well after that.

Move the drained vegetables (either salsola soda or spinach) into a pan, and gently cook them with some butter, the garlic clove and a pinch of salt for 5 minutes.

In a blender, mix the egg, almond flour, milk and gorgonzola.

Roll out the pastry and move it to a pie mold (previously buttered or coated with parchment paper). Add the vegetables and on top of them the gorgonzola cream. Finally scatter the almond flakes on top of the filling. Bake in the oven at 180C for about 35 minutes. Serve warm.

The Taste of Pastes – Bruschette alla Umbra

If I had to describe this June in one word, it would probably be “changes”. Naturalmente as usual, it is the month of the season changing from spring to summer. This year it was also a month of several changes in my life, and – due to those – additionally the first month with no posts on Cucina Fintastica.

Leaving poor blog post stats aside, I am usually quite pro-change. Even if new phases and elements in life may bring some uncertainty, they also always include something new, positive and exciting!

Obviously there are also some things that remain solid in this world. Such as my love of Italian food and faith in Giorgione’s recipes. I think I may need to order some new Italian cook books to my kitchen library soon including Giorgione’s  latest (“Giorgioni – Le origini“) but in the meantime I’m sharing one more recipe from Giorgione’s fab “Orto e cucina“. There are in fact three different Umbrian style bruschette out of which I have successfully tried two: one with an aubergine topping and another one with green peppers. Both are delicious and superbly simple – and hence dishes for which my appreciation will certainly never change!

Umbrian Style Bruschette

White (country-style) bread of your choice

For the green pepper paste:

½ onion

2 green peppers

red chilli pepper

marjoram

parsley

butter

olive oil

For the aubergine paste:

1 aubergine

1 garlic clove

red chilli pepper

mint

marjoram

butter

olive oil

Heat some olive oil in a pan and add the chopped onion, a dash of red chilli, and a leaf of marjoram (or more if your fresh marjoram are a bit blander than in Giorgione’s region – such as here in Helsinki). Add the green peppers (sliced into small pieces) and some salt and fry lightly. Once cooked (the green peppers should be soft enough for blending), move them into a blender with a knob of butter and a bunch of parsley. Mix into a soft paste.

Heat some olive oil in a pan and quickly fry the aubergines (sliced into cubes) in it. Drain the aubergines. In another pan, heat some olive and gently fry the garlic clove, some red chilli, mint and marjoram. Add the aubergines. Move the mixture into a blender and mix into a soft paste with a knob of butter.

Cut the bread into nice slices and gently grill the slices. Top each slice with the paste of your choice.