Something Not Borrowed – Insalata Improvvisata

The idea of my blog is to learn about Italian cooking by testing recipes I have found from different sources. Yet in real life, I do come up with my own little recipes from time to time too. And since for this blog I have no manager to answer to, I can really post here whatever I like (at least until Cucina Fintastica becomes a supermega success with the amount of sponsors to challenge Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson combined). Who knows, you might even like it… At least I quite enjoyed this potato salad tonight!

So today’s dish has very little to do with Italy although a quick Google search tells me that there is a broad range of Italian recipes of potato salads available too. Maybe I will give them a try later. Anyway, I got the inspiration for this dish after buying new potatoes of this season and realising I had some leftover yoghurt and asparagus readily in my fridge. Obviously lemon is the BFF of asparagus but I also liked the creamy yet fresh twist of the yoghurt with it!

Potato Salad with Asparagus and Lemon

Serves 4

800 g potatoes

1 bunch of fresh asparagus

2-3 spring onions

3 dl Greek yoghurt

1 tbsp olive oil

zest of 1 lemon, grated

lemon juice

1 tsp Dijon mustard

1 tsp honey

fresh mint

salt, pepper

Clean the potatoes and cook them in salted, boiling water until ready. In another kettle, bring a sufficient amount of water to a boil, add some salt and lemon juice and the asparagus. Cook for a few minutes.

Mix the yoghurt with the lemon zest, a bit of lemon juice, honey, salt, mustard and olive oil. Cut the cooked potatoes and asparagus into chunks and chop the spring onions. Place them into a bowl, pour the yoghurt dressing onto them and mix well. Add fresh mint, salt and pepper to your taste. Serve with e.g. fresh salmon.

The Peach Party – Pesche Noci Grigliate

Summer has arrived in Helsinki! Each year it surprises me how fast the weather changes from the freezing stupid winter to the beautiful full bloom of the fabulous May and it is fantastic to see my fellow often grumpy citizens of Helsinki to actually raise a spontaneous smile. Yes, I am not exactly a fan of all four seasons (another motive for my Italian studies in addition to the fantastic cooking) so this time of the year makes me almost lyrical. However, as my talents for writing poems are at least as well hidden as my baking skills, I’d better focus on today’s recipe now and channel my inner Yeats at another time.

Right. In addition to the changes in weather, another thing that surprises me each year is re-discovering how much more fun cooking gets when you suddenly have a lot broader and tastier range of fresh fruit, berries and veggies at your disposal. It also makes cooking easier since you do not need to resort to all sorts of gimmicks (and sometimes even desperate pleas) to bring out the flavour of your ingredients. Today’s recipe is one example of that simplicity. It is from an Italian food blog. I discovered this dish when I was looking for a dessert and noticed that fresh peaches had arrived in my supermarket. I am not a very big dessert person but this one certainly hit the spot! Rosemary and vanilla were two perfect companions to complement the flavour of the peaches and mascarpone gave the dish a creamy finishing touch. I didn’t manage to halve the peaches as instructed in the blog (apparently mine were mostly too ripe) but since this wasn’t a baking assignment, I didn’t panic but sliced them into a tin foil instead. The end result may in fact have been even nicer since this way the sugars and the juice of the peaches formed a tasty sauce during grilling.

Grilled Peaches

Serves 4

4 peaches

250 g mascarpone

Granulated sugar flavoured with vanilla (or cane sugar/ granulated sugar and vanilla sugar)

Fresh rosemary

A knob of butter

Maple syrup

Rinse the peaches and dry them well. Halve them and remove their pits (in case you fail, like I did, you can also just slice them but obviously still remove the pits; after this, move them onto a tin foil). Add the sugar into the holes of the peach halves previously occupied by the pits (or sprinkle it onto the slices). Press a sprig of rosemary into the central part of the peach halves (or the slices).

In a bowl, mix the mascarpone with the maple syrup to your taste and store the mixture in a fridge.

Heat a grill and melt the butter gently on its surface/ grill pan (obviously no need for this step if you are using the tin foil). Put the peach halves onto the grill with their sugary side facing the grill and press them gently for a few minutes (in case of slices, wrap the tin foil and move it to the grill). The peaches are ready when the sugar has been caramelised (in case of slices, grill for some minutes; the end result will be peaches with a sauce rather than caramelised peaches). Serve immediately with the flavoured mascarpone.

Flour Power – Pollo al Sugo di Carciofi e Profumo d’Arancia

Only after just writing the title of this post, did I realise what a complicated name this recipe has! It alone hinders any attempts for this dish to become such a worldwide hit as spaghetti alla carbonara or panna cotta although in terms of flavour and simplicity it would certainly deserve its share of recognition outside the Italian borders. Maybe I’d better have a word about this with the editor of Cucina Moderna (from which this recipe originates). Or maybe the name is in fact a clever strategy to keep this chicken dish an Italian national top secret? If it is, I am now sharing it with the rest of the world anyway, ha!

Errr, anyway, there were a few other slightly more relevant things to point out about this secondo… One of its key ingredients is artichoke. I am quite a fan of the vegetable although I have never really used it in my cooking before (an occasional pizza topping from a tin doesn’t really count in my book). This time my plan was to buy them fresh and learn how to chop them properly. However, after discovering that a couple of fresh artichokes in my supermarket cost nearly as much as a three-course meal in Italy (ok, I may be exaggerating slightly although Helsinki is expensive…), I bought some frozen and more reasonably priced Italian artichokes instead. They were certainly quite handy to use although on a negative side, the art of preparing fresh artichokes hence still remains a bit of a mystery for me.

What I did learn though, was the trick of using flour with your chicken. I have never been a very big fan of schnitzels, chicken nuggets and other fried food. However, in this case the amount of both flour and oil is quite moderate compared to those deep-fried calorie kings. Yet, the flour covering the chicken slices helps them gain more flavour by absorbing the beautiful aromas of artichokes, oranges and lemon. Thus, that is the secret power of flour!

Chicken with Artichoke and Orange Sauce

Serves 4

500 g sliced chicken breast

4 artichokes (fresh or frozen)

2 dl milk

40 g grated parmesan

2 slices of orange zest

1 sprig of mint

½ lemon

30 g flour

40 g butter

extravirgin olive oil

salt, pepper

Clean the artichokes (if you are using fresh ones) and chop them into slices and dip them in water with the lemon juice. Melt 20 g of the butter in a pan and add the artichokes. Cook gently for 5 minutes with the orange zest (if you are using frozen artichokes, you can add the lemon juice at this point). Season with salt and pepper, add the milk and continue cooking for about ten minutes (fresh artichokes)/ a few minutes (frozen artichokes) until the artichokes are very soft. Mix one of the artichokes, the sauce and the grated parmesan in a blender, and pour the sauce onto the remaining artichokes.

Cover the chicken slices with the flour (if the fillets of chicken breast are very thick, you can first beat them with a kitchen hammer to make them thinner and then slice and add the flour). Heat some olive oil (~1-2 table spoons) and the remaining butter in a pan and fry the chicken slices for about 5 minutes by stirring occasionally until cooked. Add the artichoke sauce, the mint and season with salt and pepper and let the dish gather flavour for an additional 2-3 minutes. Serve with e.g. mashed potatoes, rise or pasta of your choice.

The Most Unphotogenic Dish in Helsinki – Fave al Pecorino

Today I think I may have found something that is even more unphotogenic than I am: this dish. I apologise for the silly faces posing with it but I felt compelled to add something to distract from the ugliness of the peas.

Yet, if you leave aesthetic questions aside, it is in fact quite a nice side dish! Yes, my version is quite similar to what the Brits call mushy peas, since I had to modify the recipe (from another Italian cooking magazine “Cucina Moderna”) a bit and use frozen peas as broad beans were not yet available in Helsinki this spring. However, even if you have to resort to peas as I did, a hefty dose of pecorino will still guarantee that this culinaristic journey will take you to a cena italiana rather than a Sunday roast!

Broad Beans with Pecorino

Serves 4

1 kg shelled broad beans (about 3 kg with the pod)

olive oil

2 garlic cloves

fresh mint

60 g pecorino

salt

Cook the beans in a good amount of salted water for 15 minutes and drain them. Head some olive oil in a frying pan and add the crushed garlic cloves. After 1-2 minutes, add one ladle of hot water and cook for five minutes. Mix the beans, garlic water, and a handful of fresh mint in a blender. Add the pecorino and season with salt to your taste.

Creamy Calories – Panna Cotta al Pistacchio

One of the side effects of learning Italian is that it brings new meanings to Italian dishes that I have eaten before. Take panna cotta for example which I always found a nice and fresh dessert. Well, when I realised that it actually translates as “cooked cream”, suddenly the image of its freshness evaporated as fast as my dreams of winning the Great Finnish Bake Off.

On the other hand, now that any illusions regarding the lightness of panna cotta have been cleared up, why not go full monty (I have no idea if you are supposed to use this phrase this way but it sounds funny; in case not, I apologise…) and throw calorie counting out of the window of my Helsinki apartment all the way to Stockholm. In fact, this recipe (from the March edition of La Cucina Italiana) with pistachios and white chocolate probably includes the annual energy intake of your average Hollywood star. However, I did reduce the amount of cream of this recipe though by substituting some of it with milk and I think you could quite safely use 450 g milk and 150 g double cream (instead of 150 g milk and 450 g double cream).

There were a couple of practical challenges when making this dish. Firstly, I did not manage to find any pistachio paste in Helsinki. Fortunately the cooking site Giallo Zafferano came to my rescue with a separate recipe for the paste. Secondly, as I am still in the planning phase of buying new batteries to my kitchen scale, I failed to estimate the amount of gelatine correctly. Hence, I ended up with a dessert which was served as a custard rather than a cool, pretty and sophisticated “loaf” as in the picture of the magazine. It was quite delicious nevertheless!

Pistachio panna cotta

Serves 6

450 g double cream

150 g full fat milk

150 g (caster) sugar

120 g white chocolate

80 g pistachio paste

9 g gelatine sheets

crumbled pistachios

Soak the gelatine in cold water. Heat the milk, 300 g of the cream (or alternatively just 450 g milk in total) and the sugar in a pan but do not bring the mixture to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat. Squeese the excess water from the gelatine sheets. Add the gelatine and pistachio paste to the pan. Stir well and let the mixture cool down and filter it.

Whip 150 g cream. Add it to the mixture, stir gently and pour it into a rectangular cake/ bread loaf pan (to achieve that loaf-like shape). Put the panna cotta into the fridge for at least 3 hours.

For the chocolate topping: melt 100 g of the white chocolate in a bain marie. Remove from the heat and add 20 g of the chocolate. Spread the warm melted chocolate on a parchment paper. Sprinkle the crumbled pistachios on top. Once the chocolate has cooled down and “re-frozen”, cut different shapes of it to decorate the panna cotta.

Pistachio paste

120 g unsalted pistachios

60 g sugar

14 g water

Shell the pistachios and gently roast them on a pan to remove the brown thin peel of them (as much as possible). Blend the pistachios into a small crumble. Heat the water and sugar in a pan and bring them to a boil of 121C degrees. Pour the hot mixture onto the crumbled pistachio and blend again until you have reached smooth(ish) paste.