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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Dinner Dare – Ravioli Verdi al Salmerino

A paradox of life is that as a child you dream of being an adult and can’t wait to grow up, and as an adult you end up fondly reminiscing those carefree, fun days of your childhood. I suppose the big thing about adulthood for kids is the liberty to do whatever you want. No bed times, no dietary restictions, no compulsory hats and scarves when going out. Then as an adult, you realize that you actually want to go to bed early enough, your teeth get rotten and your tummy will ache with a diet of candies and chocolate, and – at least in a climate like Finland’s – you are willing to do everything in your power to insulate yourself from the terrible cold winter.

But every now and then it is good to forget about your pragmatic middle-aged self and channel your inner Pippi Longstocking and do something less sensible to fully enjoy the benefits of your liberty. You owe it to your dreaming 10-year-old self.

One of my (and my spouse’s) ways to enjoy this freedom is to start too ambitious cooking projects at very insensible times – e.g.  starting to make fresh stuffed pasta at 9 o’clock in the evening on a week night. (Well ok, my 10-year-old self might not have been very impressed with this kind of “rebellism” but I am middle-aged after all.) Making fresh stuff pasta is always an impossibly long project so you will then end up eating totally exhausted at a time that most adults consider to be closer to a proper breakfast hour than dinner time. But it is still a very enjoyable meal!

However, in case you are feeling less daring about your evening schedules, you can also split the workload into two evenings as I did with this recipe. I prepared the dough and the filling in one evening and then turned them into ravioli the next.

Green Raviolis with Salmon

Serves 6

400 g flour

50 g durum wheat flour

400 g fillet of salmon (boned)

100 g spinach

4 eggs

300 g ricotta cheese (soft)

2 shallots

dry white wine

sage

parsley

butter

olive oil

salt, pepper

Cook the spinach in boiling water (for some minutes) and after that, drain and squeeze the water out of them as much as possible. Chop the spinach.

Make the pasta dough by combining the two types of flour with the eggs, spinach and a pinch of salt. Knead until you have obtained a homogeneous dough. Wrap the dough in a foil and leave it to rest in a cool place (e.g. fridge) for at least 30 minutes.

Cut the shallots into small pieces. Chop the parsley. Cut the salmon into small(ish) slices. In a pan, heat some olive oil and cook the shallot on a low(ish) heat for 3 minutes. Add the salmon and continue cooking for another 5 minutes. Season with salt, pepper and a dash/ splash of white wine. Continue cooking for 3 more minutes. (Tip: In case you prefer your salmon not overly cooked, you can prepare the salmon in two batches. The first 250 g should be more well-done as it is used for the filling and it is then easier to mix. The second 150 g you can cook in a shorter time frame as it is used in the sauce).

Let the salmon cool down. Take 250 g of the salmon and mix it together with the ricotta and parsley to prepare the filling. Season it with salt and pepper.

Roll out the dough into a sheet that is 1 mm thick. Take one half of the sheet and add small (walnut size) portions of the filling at equal distances (at least several centimeters apart). Place the other half of the sheet on top and gently press it around the edges of the filling. Using a ravioli cutter or a pastry wheel, cut squares around each filling to make the ravioli. Finally press the sides of each ravioli tight with a fork to ensure the filling will not leak out of it during cooking. You can find a good example of how to do this process exactly for example here.

In a pan, melt 60-70 g butter on a low heat with some leaves of sage. Cook the ravioli in salted, boiling for a 2-3 minutes (they float when they are ready but you can always also check the right time by cooking one piece before the others). Serve the ravioli with the sage butter and the remaining pieces of salmon.

 

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.

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.

Ricotta Respect – Penne Ricotta e Melanzane

I have been writing this blog for almost a year now. However, today I feel that I may be experiencing some kind of a writer’s block for the first time. On the other hand, it may not be such a bad sign if a recipe is so fabulous that it practically leaves you speechless (or writingless, but that’s not really a word, is it?)?

I am also in silent awe of the versatility of the ricotta cheese. It is amazing how well its very subtle flavour works in various dishes ranging from this pasta sauce to pastries and salads. And in this case the sauteed shallots and ricotta form the perfect union to base the rest of the dish on.

Finally, I suppose I do need to break my written muteness at least to share the source of this recipe. The name of the site translates as “Granny’s recipes”. So after all, even if my verbal skills are sometimes unreliable, you can at least always trust an Italian nonna!

Penne Pasta with Ricotta Cheese and Eggplant

Serves 4

320 g penne pasta

1 eggplant

1 tomato

1 shallot

200 g ricotta cheese

parsley

olive oil

salt, pepper

Thinly slice the shallot and saute it on a gentle heat in a pan with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, a pinch of salt and pepper. Cut the eggplant into thin slices. Take another pan and heat it (without any oil) and cook the eggplant slices until it is crisp. Season with salt and remove from the heat.

Combine the ricotta with the sauteed shallot and let the mixture cook for 5 minutes on a low heat.

Cook the pasta in salted boiling water and drain. Add the pasta to the pan with the shallot – ricotta sauce. Cut 3/4 of the fried eggplant into smaller slices and combine them with the pasta and sauce. Remove the pan from the heat and add one tablespoon of fresh parsley (chopped) and the tomato (sliced into small cubes). Serve warm and garnish the plates with the remaining eggplant slices.

I Found My (Baking) Skill, on Blueberry Hill – Crostata di Mirtilli

Yes, I did it! After more than six months of food blogging, I finally managed to make a pie presentable enough to share it as a recommended success story rather than as a warning example. Not sure what my secret was this time. Maybe it was the foolproof (and very simple) recipe of my new book “Voglia di Cucinare“. Or maybe the encouraging moral support of my friend who also took the flattering picture of the dish above.

I had my moments of self-doubt, desperation and slight panic this time too though – most notably when the filling didn’t seem to thicken as needed. However, my baker friend calmly advised me that actually it is normal for a pie filling to be a bit too mushy and runny when taking it out of the oven and that it will obtain its more solid form after cooling down for some hours or until the next day. Miraculously, that is also what happened in this case, and in addition, the flavour of the pie improved over night.

There are plenty of Finnish versions of blueberry pies too but the really nice twists of this Italian one originate from the ricotta cheese of the crust and almonds and hazelnuts in the filling. Yumtastic!

Blueberry Pie

150 g flour

150 g soft ricotta cheese

150 g butter

2-3 tbsp hazel nuts, chopped

750 g blueberries

pinch of salt

For the filling:

2.5 dl double cream

2 eggs

30 g sugar

30 g almond flakes

pinch of cinnamon

Combine the flour, ricotta, butter and pinch of salt and mix until you have a smooth dough. Place the dough into a refrigerator to cool for 30 minutes.

Roll the dough into a thin round with the diameter of about 4 cm longer than in your cake/ pie tin.

Grease the tin and add the rolled dough. Sprinkle with the hazelnuts. Clean the blueberries and place them onto the pie crust in the tin.

Beat the eggs in a bowl and mix in the sugar, almond flakes, cream and pinch of cinnamon. Pour the mixture onto the blueberries. Bake in the oven at 225C for 15-20 minutes.