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.

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Meeting Meat – Malloreddus alla Campidanese

Sometimes life surprises you. Even more than a baking project of mine gone successfully.

There were very few things about which I was more certain than golf definitely not being my cup of tea or even cappuccino.

Sixteen and a half years of my culinary life I spent very contently not eating red meat.

And then someone just asked me nicely.

As a result, I am now a baffled owner of a green card and am posting the first red meat recipe on Cucina Fintastica today. (Slightly overconfident about his abilities to change a stubborn Finnish lady, this someone even tried to replace my morning Earl Grey tea with a cup of coffee but one does have to draw the line somewhere…)

Anyway, after getting over the initial shock of these very unlikely changes in my life, I started to embrace the opportunities they bring about. I already specialize in sipping fellow golfers’ hole-in-one champagnes. And obviously the red meat opens up quite a few new possibilities for my adventures in the Italian kitchen!

In addition to tasting things like prosciutto di Parma, I have already successfully tested a couple of Italian meat recipes. The first one I tried was this pasta from La Cucina Italiana. It is a traditional dish from Sardinia in which you use fresh sausages. However, as the sausages are opened up and their contents cut into smaller pieces, the very tasty end result bears more resemblance to a spaghetti alle bolognese or meatballs rather than a hot dog!

Malloreddus alla Campidanese (sorry – couldn’t think of an English translation for this this time)

Serves 6

800 g tomatoes

500 g fresh sausages (e.g. salsiccia sarda)

500 g (malloreddus) pasta

1 onion

1 bayleaf

saffron

basil

(Sardinian) pecorino

dry white wine

olive oil

salt

Peel the tomatoes, remove their seeds and slice them. Peel and chop the onion. Remove the contents of the sausages from their casings (don’t try to keep the shape of the sausages when doing this but the contents can break into pieces).

Heat 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil in a pan and gently fry the chopped onion in it for 1-2 minutes. Add the sausages and the bayleaf. Cook for about 10 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and season with salt. Cover the pan with a lid and let the sauce cook for 20 minutes. Season with some basil leaves and continue cooking for another 20-25 minutes.

Cook the pasta in boiling and salted water. Drain the pasta and combine it with the sausage sauce. Add some grated pecorino on top and serve warm.

 

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.

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.

 

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.

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.

Nuturalmente Fabulous – Caserecce alle Noci

Sometimes in this world you may feel that it is difficult to know what to really believe in. But at least there is one thing that you can always trust: a chef proudly sporting a very round tummy!

My acquaintance with this Italian signor called Giorgione started when I bought his book “Giorgione – Orto e Cucina” in Italy this summer. It was his street-credible belly (in addition to a very simpatico smile) that initially caught my attention. I later discovered that the book is in fact based on a popular TV series of the same name. In his own words, Giorgione is “a nearly veterinarian who loves the nature and its products”. He lives in a small town in the province of Perugia, and has apparently been a foodie and passionate about agriculture for all his life. A few years ago he was discovered to star in this show that, in addition to cooking, includes his adventures e.g. in the vegetable garden and going mushrooming. Unfortunately there were no episodes of Giorgione available online. However, I did manage to find some short clips on YouTube where I could see him in action and uttering “yummmm” for not an insignificant number of times.

Hence my expectations were high when I opened my book to try one of his recipes – and I am happy to report that (at least based on this pasta) my faith in full-figured middle parts remained intact! A pasta dish mainly based on walnuts did initially sound a bit… (I apologise for the inevitable, unimaginative attempt at linguistic wit) … nuts. Yet the aromas of walnuts evolve when cooking adding a fabulous, distinct flavour to complement the richness of the sauce and sweetness of the red onions. So yes, I expect me and Giorgione to remain friends for quite some time to come!

Caserecce Pasta with Walnuts

200 g caserecce pasta

20 walnuts

½ red onion

butter (Giorgione recommended butter made of buffalo milk but I had to settle for the normal kind)

olive oil

salt, pepper

2 tbsp white wine

½ cup cream

parmesan, grated

pecorino romano, grated

Chop the walnut kernels into rough, small chunks (Giorgione advised to use a blender for this purpose but I was worried that my little device wouldn’t appreciate this task).

Slice the red onion into small cubes (about the same size as the walnuts). Melt a generous amount of butter in a pan and add the onions. Gently cook them for some minutes. Add some olive oil, pepper and as soon as the onions start to become golden brown, the white wine. Add the chopped walnuts and continue cooking the mixture for some additional minutes to gain flavor to the sauce. Season with salt and pour in the cream.

Cook the pasta in boiling, salted water. Once ready, combine the pasta with the walnut sauce and a small amount of the cooking water of the pasta, and the pecorino cheese. Finally, complement the dish with some grated parmesan when serving.

Greatly Recommended – Ravioli di Zucca

There was a bit of a milestone in my path of food-blogging some weeks ago: I got a recommendation for a recipe for my blog! Coming from a reliable source of a fellow foodie, I was eager to give it a try. My friend also helped me prepare the dish which was certainly a bonus – especially considering that making fresh ravioli does have quite a few similarities with baking. And yes, all the ravioli in the picture were made by her. The ones I put together were of a shape that could be politely described as “creative” or “interesting” (along with “unphotogenic”).

Despite being previously unknown to us, ravioli (or tortelli) di zucca is apparently again one of those very traditional and famous recipes in Italy. We weren’t exactly right in season with our timing of cooking it since it is in fact also a typical dish to be made on Christmas Eve… However, since we aren’t Italians, we just simply enjoyed a lovely dinner without feeling any urge to belt out a couple of verses of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer!

There is one nice twist about this recipe: it includes biscuits! The recipe I found recommended that you use amaretti biscuits which I managed to also find in Helsinki. They had quite a distinct almondy flavour although they do not necessarily include any almonds but only apricot kernels. My friend’s recipe on the other hand utilized the cantuccini biscuits. Apparently both work really well with the pumpkin. In addition, the union of sage, butter and parmesan to top the ravioli is just superb!

Pumpkin Ravioli

Serves 6

400 g flour (preferably “00” or durum wheat)

4 eggs

600 g pumpkin/ butternut squash (incl. shell, 400 g without it)

100 g parmesan, grated

40 g amaretti biscuits (or cantuccini)

bread crumbs (if needed)

nutmeg

salt, pepper

40 g butter

6-8 leaves of sage

Clean the pumpkin and cut it into slices. Remove the seeds. Place them on a parchment paper on an oven tray and cover with some tinfoil. Cook the pumpkin slices in the oven at 200C for 25-30 minutes until soft. Let them cool down.

In the mean time, prepare the pasta dough. Place the flour on a board or in a bowl. Crack the eggs into the centre of your flour. Add a pinch of salt and start kneading the dough. Add a little bit of water if needed. Continue until you have obtained a smooth and homogenous dough. Roll the dough out with a pasta machine or a rolling pin. The dough should be fairly thin to be ready for the ravioli (you can check out e.g. Jamie’s tips on how to roll the dough well if you are unsure what to do!).

To make the stuffing, mix the amaretti biscuits, parmesan, salt, pepper and nutmeg in a blend. Peel the pumpkin slices, add to the mixture and blend well. If the stuffing seems too moist, you can add some bread crumbs to it.

Cut rectangle or round shapes of your pasta dough with a glass or some type of a rolling cutter (mine was a pizza cutter!). Add a little bit of the stuffing in the middle (do not exaggerate to be able to close the ravioli properly) of a dough slice. You can brush the edges of the pasta lightly with water. Place another dough slice on top and carefully seal the edges (my friend used a fork quite successfully for this purpose). Alternatively, you can roll out two big sheets of the pasta dough, add bits of stuffing within equal distances of each other on one sheet and then place the other sheet on top, and only after that cut the ravioli into shapes and seal their edges.

Cook the ravioli in salted boiling water for 3-5 minutes (usually they are ready when they start floating on the water). Make the butter sauce by melting the butter and adding the sage. Serve the ravioli with the sauce and freshly grated parmesan.

A Happy Reunion – Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

Apart from the obsession with the perfect pizza, during my journey of discovering the secrets of the authentic Italian kitchen, I have mainly been trying to cook dishes previously unfamliar to me. However, today I yearned for a reunion with an old friend of mine: spaghetti alla puttanesca.

I had some new Marks & Spencer’s linguine in my cupboard to be tested. Although Misters Marks & Spencer do not sound exactly like the most authentic pasta makers, their linguine really was quite delicious (and in fact produced by some Signor/ Signora named Felicetti). One of the great mysteries in life for me though is how there can be so vast differences between different brands of pasta. It is really just flour and water after all. Baffling.

Image

In addition to these important philosophical questions, for me another challenge with spaghetti alla puttanesca is capers. As they are something that I do use but less frequently, I am never 100% certain whether I have them available at home when shopping for the ingredients. As a result, I may soon have to dedicate an entire shelf in my kitchen cupboard for jars of capers. (I hope that none of my more organised friends who wouldn’t dream of hitting their local supermarket without a carefully prepared Excel spread sheet -based shopping list will read this.)

Anyway, with my improving Italian skills, I now investigated whether the authentic Italian way of making this dish (e.g. this, this and this) differs from the ones that I have earlier used. It seems that there are no big new secrets to unveil on this one. There are only some slight differences between the recipes which I guess are matters of taste when it comes to the amount of e.g. chilli, capers, anchovy and olives. But when the basics of this dish are fab to begin with, big new secrets are really not that necessary – or as they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

Serves 4

400 g spaghetti

400 g chopped tomatoes

2-3 tablespoons tomato purée/ passata di pomodoro

3-4 anchovy fillets

100 g black olives, sliced

a pinch of dried chilli/ 1 fresh chilli

1-2 teaspoons capers

4-5 tablespoons olive oil

bunch of fresh parsley, chopped

salt and pepper

Pour a sufficient amount of water for your pasta into a kettle and bring it to a boil. Add some salt and the spaghetti.

While the pasta is cooking, prepare the sauce. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan. Add the garlic, anchovies and chilli and stir until the anchovy fillets have dissolved in the oil. Stir in the tomatoes and the purée and let the sauce cook for five minutes. Mix in the olives and continue cooking the sauce for another 5 minutes. In the meantime, drain your spaghetti al dente. Add the capers into the sauce, followed by the spaghetti and a couple of tablespoons of its cooking water. Stir well and let the dish simmer and rest for 1-2 minutes. Add the parsley and season with salt and pepper to your taste.

Toast to Success – Orecchiette al Limone

This pasta dish was recommended to me by a colleague of mine. He is a fellow Italy enthusiast and lent me the book “Oggi cucino io 4” which also included this recipe. It is a dish that can probably be categorised as the ultimate nightmare for many of today’s carb conscious people. Hence, if you happen to be one of them, please accept my apologies and skip this one. For the rest of you, I recommend you read on.

The secret of this recipe is in fact bread. Yes, combining bread with pasta isn’t exactly the most obvious thing to do but it works wonderfully. The toasted bread absorbs all the lovely flavours of lemon, garlic, chilli and fennel in a way that would probably be harder to achieve by sticking to just one carb (the pasta). However, the lemon I had was fairly small. I think, if you are into citrus flavours like I am, you can consider slightly increasing the amount of lemon in the recipe.

Finally, there is another apology to make (which also applies to my previous pasta post): I know that the pasta in the picture is not exactly orecchiette. Unfortunately the right type of pasta wasn’t available in my supermarket and this is the best substitute I could find. Mi scusate!

Orecchiette Pasta with Lemons

Serves 4

400 g orecchiette pasta (or similar…)

Juice of ½ lemon

Zest of ½ lemon

60 ml extra virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, chopped

1 fennel, sliced

60 g bread, diced

1 pinch of dried chilli flakes

60 g pecorino cheese, grated

Heat the olive oil in a frying pan at medium heat. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute. Add the fennel slices and let them soften for 5 minutes. Season with salt and lemon juice and transfer the mixture from the pan to a plate.

Toast the bread cubes in the same frying pan for 3-4 minutes until they are golden and crunchy. Return the fennel mixture into the pan and add the lemon zest and chilli flakes. Stir well and move the pan away from the hot stove. Cook the pasta in a sufficient amount of water with salt. Once al dente, drain the pasta and pour it into the frying pan. Transfer the pan back to the stove and cook for 1 minute at high heat by continuously stirring. Serve with the grated pecorino cheese.