Just Give Me a Season: Primo – Conchiglioni Raffinati con le Fragole

One could definitely sound like a broken record when praising the impact of different seasons on the possibilities of the Italian kitchen. Actually, on second thought, “a broken record” is probably soon an expression that millenials do not actually understand (not that I expect Cucina Fintastica to be the “it blog” of millenial hipsters though).

Anyway. Sometimes I do not let the seasonality of Italian recipes restrict my culinary adventures too much – like in this case of Christmas food in June. But more often, especially during the warm half of the year, the availability of fresh European and Finnish veggies, fruit and berries does make cooking even more exciting.

I have been collecting quite a backlog of recipes for Cucina Fintastica recently so in the seasonal spirit of early summer, I’m now publishing a series of three fab recipes: a primo, a secondo and a dolce.

This fantastic pasta dish is by my old friend Giorgione. I have successfully tested quite a few of his recipes (like this great chicken with mulberries) from his first book and was recently delighted to get the second book “Giorgione – le origini“. In this pasta from the le origini book, one of the main ingredients is quite surprisingly strawberries. I already appreciated adding strawberries to a salad e.g. with goat cheese but strawberries with pasta sounded… interesting. I suppose this combination is also unusual for Italians as Giorgione writes in his book that “you won’t believe it but it is really worth a try”. I can confirm that it definitely is!

Pasta Refined with Strawberries

300 g strawberries (preferably not too ripe to be slightly less sweet and soft)

½ (Cannara) onion (I used a shallot)

100 g butter

olive oil

salt, pepper

1 mozzarella

200 g ricotta

parmesan cheese

basil

250 g conchiglioni pasta (shell pasta)

(optional: bread crumbs, milk)

Chop the onion and cut the strawberries into slices.

Bring a kettle of water to a boil, season with salt and add the pasta.

While the pasta is cooking, in a pan, heat some olive oil and butter. Add the onions and cook gently for a few minutes. Add the strawberries, season with salt and pepper and continue cooking.

While the strawberries are also gently cooking, prepare the filling. Cut the mozzarella into small pieces and mix it with the ricotta, some salt and pepper, and a heaped tablespoon of parmesan.

Once the pasta is cooked (al dente), let it cool down a bit. After that, fill the pasta shells with the mozzarella ricotta mixture. If you prefer to eat the warm version of this dish, you can add a drop of milk into the cheese mixture and sprinkle some bread crumbs on top of the pasta shells and put them in a hot oven for a few minutes (Giorgione didn’t specify how hot but mine was about 200C). If you prefer the colder version, you skip the milk, bread crumbs and oven. Finally, place the strawberries onto the filled pasta shells, sprinkle with the sauce from the pan and add some basil leaves to garnish.

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.

Making Same Difference – Crostini Caldi con Funghi & Bruschette al Pomodoro e Mozzarella

Sometimes one can feel quite relaxed about Italian cooking even as a Finn. Even if you dare to try some classics as old as Rome, there are usually at least as many opinions on the proper way of making them as there are capers in my kitchen cabinets. Hence you can usually be sure that there is at least some remote Italian village with a version of the dish similar to yours (with the exception of my somewhat unusual interpretation of torta della nonna, that is).

I am a long term fan of both bruschette and crostini but it is quite unclear to me what the difference between those two really is. The English version of Wikipedia sheds very little light on the question: it defines crostini as toasted bread with toppings and bruschette as grilled bread with toppings. Toasted, roasted, grilled – all same to me when you have one oven in a city apartment to make both dishes. Fortunately with my ever improving Italian skills I was equipped to do some further Sherlock work on this – even if Benedict C wouldn’t drop by (Benedict you are still quite welcome to though!).

As usual, Italians are not exactly in unison about this. One suggests that for crostini you typically use cheese that you melt on top of the bread whilst toasting it. Another says that the only acceptable topping on a bruschetta are tomatoes, otherwise it is a crostino. What most people seem to agree on is that crostini should be crispier whereas a bruschetta has a crunchy crust but should remain soft inside. Crostini are also typically smaller served as antipasti while bruschette can also be larger and serve as a light meal.

Well, I’m not sure if I was really any wiser after this little Googtective session though, and infatti, chose these two recipes based on what I readily had in my fridge: chanterelles and mozzarella. For the mushrooms, I found this crostini recipe. I quite enjoyed the combination of a more strongly flavoured cheese with my chanterelles. For the mozzarella, I went for the usual – albeit very nice– version of bruschetta with tomatoes and basil.

All in all, while bruschette and crostini still mean about the same thing for me, I did learn one thing: if you test both bruschette and crostini at the same time, you will end up with a very full stomach!

Warm Crostini with Mushrooms

4-5 slices of white bread

1-2 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped

olive oil

3-4 dl mushrooms (e.g. chanterelles), cleaned and sliced

~50 g Gruyere cheese (or another strong cheese – I used strong English cheddar), grated

salt, pepper, red chilli (fresh or flakes)

fresh parsley, chopped

Heat the oil in a pan and gently fry the garlic cloves for a few minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook them. When ready, season to your taste with salt, pepper and red chilli (if you like). Preheat your oven to ~200 C (use the “grill mode” if available). Place the bread slices on an oven tray and sprinkle the grated cheese on top. Bake in the oven for ~5 minutes until the bread is crusty and cheese nicely melted. Add the mushroom topping and serve warm.

 

Bruschette with Tomatoes and Mozzarella

Serves 2

4 slices of (white) bread

3 ripe tomatoes, deseeded and sliced into cubes

1/2 package of fresh mozzarella, sliced into cubes

1 garlic clove, crushed and chopped

olive oil

fresh basil, chopped

salt, pepper

parmesan, sliced into cubes or grated into rough flakes

In a bowl, mix the garlic, tomatoes, basil and mozzarella. Season with some olive oil and salt. Toast the bread in an oven at ~200 C (or grill it) for a few minutes. Add the topping on the bread slices and complete with the parmesan and pepper. Serve immediately.

The Great Pizza Hunt – Part 2

When looking for the perfect pizza recipe online, it is hard to find a more convincing sounding address than www.pizza.it. And the recipe I discovered there certainly lives up to the site’s name!

The site contains a section on how to make pizza of restaurant quality at home. It seems that the recipe that I originally used has been replaced by an even more professional looking one. Maybe I will give that one a try as well but in the meantime, I’m sharing my original discovery of the site.

As I mentioned in my previous post about pizza, there are several tips and tricks that take you closer to that pizza perfection. In my experience, the most important one is pazienza – both to knead the dough properly as well as to let it rest and rise for hours. In this recipe the kneading part is even more important (and a lot more time-consuming) than in my earlier pizza recipe. If you have an electric mixer at your disposal, I am sure you can speed up at the process. However, with my limited baking skills without the modern technology, it takes me almost an hour to knead this dough sufficiently. It also seems that the dough certainly improves when you store it in a fridge overnight.

Another critical component of your pizza success is cooking. This recipe contains a couple of tricks on how to imitate the impact of a proper pizza oven in case you do not have one at home (as is the case for the most of us I presume…). I have also noticed that sometimes the difference between a nice pizza and a fantastic one is about one minute in cooking time.

Thus, even if a pizza may be a simple enough thing to make, perfecting it is a very different matter! Let the great pizza hunt continue…

The Perfect Pizza – Candidate # 2

Serves 4

420 g (~6 dl) flour (preferably of type “00”, or alternatively of durum wheat)

2 dl warm water

4 g fresh yeast

10 g salt

Divide the flour into two equally sized portions. Mix the yeast in 1 dl of water. Combine the yeast water with one half of the flour. Knead thoroughly until you have obtained a smooth dough with some elasticity (at the beginning this may seem like an impossible task with the smallish amount of water but miraculously you will get there after some persistent kneading!). Mix the salt in 1 dl of water and combine it with the other half of the flour. Knead again thoroughly to obtain another dough of similar consistency to the one with yeast. Finally, combine these two doughs and knead even more (at this point, you may consider never making this pizza again, but trust me, you will change your mind after having the first bite of the end result!). The ready dough should be smooth, slightly moist, soft and elastic.

Store the dough in a fridge overnight (you may skip this step if you have lost your pazienza already at the kneading phase but this does improve the quality of your dough). On the following day, take the dough back to the room temperature (+23 C) and let it rise for 3 hours.

Place an oven tray into the oven and preheat the oven to its maximum temperature (I have used 250C). Roll out the dough into four large and thin rounds, using a rolling pin. Top the pizza bases with the tomato sauce. Place a pizza base on a parchment paper and move it to the hot oven tray. Bake it in the oven for 8-10 minutes. Take the pizza base briefly out of the oven and add the mozzarella di bufala and potential other toppings of your choice and drizzle it with some olive oil. Continue cooking the pizza for another 4-7 minutes.