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.

A Runner’s Delight – Pasta con Pesto di Zucchine Arrostite

As this is an Italian food blog, I have so far shared very little about my other passions in life. Well, at least, apart from hating the Finnish winter with a passion I suppose.

However, this time I can reveal that one of them is running. I love the endorfin rush, doses of fresh air and the feeling of just simply everything making more sense (and of being less grumpy about the most disastrous baking attempts) that you get by simply putting one shoe in front of the other.

I also participate in some half-marathon events every now and then, and even once went to a “running school” to prepare for them. In the school, I learned about this brilliant concept of “carb loading”: in the day or days before your running event, you try to stock up on carbohydrates to increase your body’s reserves for the long endurance work-out. It really is an Italian food lover’s dream, isn’t it? An order to eat as much pasta as you like. Ingenious. Well, ok, I do know that carb loading is a lot more relevant when getting ready for a full marathon. Yet I choose not to let that minor detail get in the way between me and my big bowl of pasta. And I still refuse to believe that pasta is bad for you. Just look at the nation full of happy Italians.

I completed one half-marathon just yesterday and hence dutifully did some serious carb loading the day before. I chose a recipe from a cook book called “Le ricette della prova del cuoco“. It turned out be at least as brilliant as the carb loading concept. You make a supertasty simple pesto sauce of roasted zucchini, pistachio, fresh mint and olive oil, and combine it with the pasta and parmesan. And naturalmente, you don’t have to be a runner to enjoy it – just look at the nation full of happy Italians!

Pasta with Roasted Zucchini

Serves 6

480 g (farfalle) pasta

500 g zucchini

40 g parmesan

60 g pistachios

fresh mint (to your taste)

1 bayleaf

olive oil

salt, pepper

Clean and peel the zucchini, and then cut them in half (lengthways). Place the halves on an oven tray covered with a parchment paper, and season them with salt, pepper and some olive oil. Bake them in the oven at 175C for at least 30 minutes and cool down.

Grate the parmesan. Boil the pistachios in hot water for three minutes (I skipped this step as I was using roasted and saltes pistachios), and once cooled down, peel them. In a blender, mix the pistachios and 50 ml olive oil. Add the roasted zucchini and continue blending. Finally add the fresh mint and again continue blending until you have achieved a nice pesto paste. Put the pesto sauce into a bowl and season it with the grated parmesan and salt (if needed).

Cook the pasta in salted water with the bayleaf. Combine the ready pasta with the pesto sauce and serve.

A Classic Twist – Banana Bread

There is one pastry that I remember having at almost every family gathering of my father’s side throughout my childhood: a banana cake. Apparently the recipe originated from a Canadian exchange student who visited my Dad’s family in the 1960s, and my relatives were hooked from the very first bite (or something like that – I wasn’t born yet)! It certainly is a nice cake although it is a bit hard to objectively rate a dessert that epitomizes your family coffee breaks of several decades, isn’t it?

I have never dared to try that recipe myself yet which – considering my very varying degrees of success when it comes to baking – may be a good idea. However, instead I found a neat, easy and baking-foolproof recipe with a nice Italian twist (i.e. ricotta) from Benedetta Parodi’s book Mettiamoci a cucinare. In this recipe, the softness and sweetness of the bananas is very nicely balanced with the freshness of the accompanying ricotta sauce and crunchiness of the walnuts. I have made this cake a few times now and even if it is yet to become a true family classic, it has also already won over fans of several generations!

Banana Bread

Serves 4-6

For the cake:

3 bananas

250 g flour

150 g sugar

100 g walnuts

80 g butter

75 g ricotta

2 eggs

1 small cup of coffee

½ tsp bicarbonate (of soda)

½ tsp cinnamon

a pinch of nutmeg

salt

For the sauce:

250 g ricotta

50 ml maple leaf syrup

Combine all the dry ingredients in a bowl: The flour, sugar, bicarbonate, chopped walnuts, cinnamon, nutmeg, and a pinch of salt. In another bowl, squash the bananas and add and mix in the ricotta, eggs, butter and coffee. Combine the ingredients of the two bowls and stir moderately (the dough should be lumpy). Pour the dough into a narrow rectangular cake tin (buttered or lined with a parchment paper), and bake it in the oven at 180C for about half an hour. Prepare the accompanying sauce by mixing together the ricotta and maple leaf syrup. Serve the cake with the sauce.

The Secret Agent – Parmigiana di Zucchine e Mozzarella

There are many secrets to making a fabulous dish. Sometimes it is gigantic quantities of butter and sugar. Sometimes it is the skill of combining just the right and right amounts of ingredients. Sometimes it is just pure luck (at least in my case). And sometimes it is not even about the dish but the fantastic company that also makes the food taste perfect.

I have also noticed that there are some ingredients that bring out the flavours of the other ingredients of a recipe and skillfully complement them in a subtle way. These hidden heroes often make the significant difference between ok and splendid. Salt is obviously one of them as well as lemon and garlic. In the Italian kitchen, the secret of many recipes is often anchovy as is the case also in this parmigiana (from the March 2015 issue of Cucina Moderna).

Obviously when the main ingredients of the recipe are zucchini, mozzarella and tomatoes, you know that there is little risk of a kitchen disaster (unless you forget the dish in the oven – so please don’t) but it is the anchovy that takes the dish onto a level of a kitchen bliss!

Zucchini and mozzarella parmigiana

Serves 5

1 kg zucchini

200 g mozzarella

200 g crushed tomatoes

4 fillets of anchovy in oil

1 (small) bunch of basil

½ garlic clove

1 tbsp chopped onion

olive oil, peanut oil

Cut the mozzarella into thin slices and the zucchini into a bit thicker ones. Fry the zucchini in a pan with some hot peanut oil for 1 minute until they begin to brown. Place the fried slices on paper towels and gently season them with salt.

Heat some olive oil in a pan. Add the onion, chopped garlic clove and anchovy fillets and gently cook them for a few minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes, some (a sufficient quantity) basil and continue cooking on a meidum heat for some minutes. While cooking, stir the sauce frequently to ensure the anchovy dissolves into it.

Grease an oven dish with some olive oil. Fill the dish with layers of 1) zucchini and basil, 2) mozzarella and 3) the tomato sauce. The final two top layers should be zucchini and mozzarella. Bake in the oven at 200C for 20 minutes. After that switch off the heat of your oven and let the dish stay in the oven for another 5 minutes before serving.

The Quick Fix – Pasta e Fagioli Napoletana

The first time that I ever visited Italy was when I was nine years old in the mid-eighties. We stayed in Riccione for a week, and most of my memories include tons of swimming. In addition, I remember being deeply disappointed when we went for a day trip to Venice and I discovered that the city wasn’t at all like in the Donald Duck comics!

This vacation also marked my first experiences of real Italian food. Our hotel included a half pension and we would have proper Italian three- and four-course meals every night. Today’s recipe reminds me of those broth-based pastas that our waiter would expertly serve us back then.

“Pasta e fagioli” is apparently a very typical Italian dish with lots of different versions of different regions, and this one comes from Naples. I have no idea how it differs from the similar dishes of the other regions though as I was quite hungry when Googling for something to eat so I didn’t have the patience for proper research… Anyway, the list of its ingredients is quite simple, healthy and affordable – yet the end result is super tasty. It is also very easy and quick to prepare even after a busy day in the office when you are so hungry that you don’t have the patience for proper food blog research!

Neapolitan Pasta with Beans

Serves 4

350 g cooked borlotti beans

250 g pasta (of your choice)

1 garlic clove

1 stalk of celery

6 cherry tomatoes

fresh basil

olive oil

salt, pepper

Prepare the vegetables: clean the celery (and cut it into a few big chunks if needed for your kettle), tomatoes and basil, and peel the garlic clove. Place the beans in a kettle and cover them with water. Add the vegetables and some olive oil. Cook for about 10 minutes. Add the pasta and some salt to the kettle and continue cooking for another 10 minutes. Season with pepper to your taste.