PESCE CON FINOCCHIO E ROSMARINO (Fish with fennel and rosemary)

Wild caught sea barramundiI want to make the most of the fennel while it is in season and have chosen a very simple fish dish using wild caught barramundi.

Rosemary is one of the few herbs which does well in winter and compliments the sweetness of the fennel.

Those of you who shop at the Queen Victoria Market (Melbourne) may recognise the face of the Happy Tuna vendor where I always buy my fish (see earlier post: Seafood – where I buy my sustainable fish ).

One of my favourite fish is wild caught barramundi, often on sale at this stall.

Barramundi is an Aboriginal word meaning river fish with large scales. It can be a truly wonderful, tasting fish and is extremely versatile (it has medium to firm texture and medium oiliness).

Most of the barramundi in Australia is farmed both in sea aquaculture farms and in fully-closed systems in land-based ponds. Some is imported from fisheries and aquaculture farms in Asia. But there are marked differences in taste between fish that has been wild-caught, grown in sea-cages or in land based systems. Of equal importance to me is whether I am buying a fish that is sustainable. The methods of farming and fishing determine the degree of sustainability and the cost.

The David Suzuki Foundation has adopted the definition of sustainable seafood as:
‘Originating from sources, whether fished or farmed that can maintain or increase production in the long term without jeopardizing the structure or function of affected ecosystems’.

Not all fish vendors label the fish to inform consumers of the sources, and for a clearer conscience and better tasting fish, it is important to ask about its source.

For all barramundi grown in sea-cages or imported from fisheries and aquaculture farms in Asia – say no.
Some fully-closed systems (land-based ponds and small-scale tank or pond aquaculture), are sustainable (better choice) but unfortunately I find the fish from land-based aquaculture lacking in character and in texture, and I never buy it.

A small proportion of barramundi are wild-caught and as you’d expect, it is the most expensive, but in my opinion this is by far the better tasting fish. I particularly like the gelatinous skin, which is very distinctive in the wild-caught fish. The wild caught barramundi are from Queensland and the Northern Territory and legislation in each state imposes closures during certain seasons.

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Wild-caught barramundi, especially in small-scale operations, is a better alternative, but in the Australian Marine Conservation Society publication it is (think twice). Some accredited, line wild-caught barramundi is available and is (better choice).

My fish vendor told me that unlike the species grown in cages, the wild caught barramundi has a yellowish tail (look at the photo).

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PESCE CON FINOCCHI

I never go to the market to buy one specific type of fish and for this particular dish there are other fish apart from burramundi which can be used.

Sustainable fish:
Use small whole fish or fillets of the following fish: garfish, whiting and flathead, bream, trevally and Murray cod (great if you can get it) are (better choice).
Blue-eye trevalla, snapper and mackerel (think twice) are also suitable. Blue-eye travella and snapper are (better choice) if line caught.

Fillets of fish benefit from scoring (as do whole fish) – slash the side of the fish that formerly had the skin – a thin layer of membrane remains, and unless it is scored, it can curl during cooking.

INGREDIENTS
fish, (estimate 1-1.2 kg for 6 people)
fennel, 2 large
water or white wine, 1 cup
extra virgin olive oil, ¾ cup
salt and freshly ground pepper,
rosemary, fresh sprigs

PROCESSES
Clean the fish: scale, gut and wipe dry (my fish vendor always does this for me). Use a sharp knife to make shallow cuts in the outside of the whole fish – slash the fish but leave whole This helps the seasonings and flavours of marinade (herbs, oil etc.) to penetrate the flesh. The only time I do not score the skin is when I bake a fish in salt crust because I do not want the salt to enter into the flesh.
Insert little sprigs of rosemary in the slashes, pour on a little oil, cover and set aside.

Prepare the fennel:
Remove the fennel tops from the bulbs and discard. Trim away any bruised or discoloured portion of the bulbs. Cut the bulbs length-wise (vertically) into thin slices less than 1cm thick.
Add the sliced fennel to a pan with hot olive oil and sauté for 5-10 minutes before adding seasoning and about a cup of water or wine.
Cover the pan and cook on a low to medium heat for about 20 minutes or until the fennel is wilted and soft. You may need to add a little more liquid as it cooks.
Increase the heat to evaporate any liquid left in the pan – this will result with the fennel cooking in the left over oil and turning a deep gold colour.
Add freshly ground pepper, turn the heat down to medium and push the fennel to one side to make room for the fish in the pan.
Put the fish in the pan, sprinkle with a little more salt and freshly ground pepper, and spoon some of the oil in the pan over it (or add a splash of fresh, extra virgin olive oil).
Add more rosemary, cover and cook for 6-7 minutes, turn the fish once and baste again. Cook for another few minutes or so, depending on the thickness of the fish.
Transfer the fish to a serving dish, remove the rosemary and place the fennel and juices over the fish and serve.

sandi's fish plates

Barramundi Dreaming

The barramundi – a highly prized source of food for Aboriginal Australians – plays a large part in Dreamtime mythology. There are several Aboriginal legends about barramundi as told by the different tribes in the Northern Territory. This is one of them.
How the barramundi came to have spines on its back.

This is a very moving legend and tells of two young lovers. The girl was betrothed to an older man (according to traditional law) and so they escaped while the tribe was engaged in a corroboree. The young couple took many spears to use on their pursuers while they ran through the countryside to the sea and succeeded in eluding them for a long time, but eventually ran out of spears. Knowing that their followers would spear them, they threw themselves into the sea, where they turned themselves into barramundi. Some of the spears, however, struck them as they fell, and that is how the barramundi comes to have spines on its back.
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CARRUBA (Carob) and its uses

 

This is a carob pod- dark brown and leathery and they range in length between 10-30cm in length.
There is also a carob pod in old Sicilian plate with the lemons in the feature photo.

The photo of carob trees was taken in the province of Ragusa (south-east of Sicily and where my fathers relatives live). The area is abundant in beautiful carob trees – a protected vegetable crop in Sicily. In Italian the word for carob is carruba. The stone walls are characteristic of the area.

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Now to the other side of the world!

I have friends in Seymour and others in Euroa (Victoria, Australia) and I visited them last weekend. My friends who make excellent, award winning wine (Rocky Passes Winery) introduced me to Palmanova extra virgin olive oil (also from the same region) and I have been buying this for couple of years. Last Sunday I went to the market in Avenel (a small, interesting town in between Seymour and Euroa) to collect my bottles of oil and was delighted to find a number of other stalls selling local quality produce – organic vegetables, eggs, mushrooms, preserves and craft.

At this market, I was very surprised to find a stall selling carob and carob syrup – the couple who are growing and processing it live in Longwood Victoria. We do not have much of a carob growing and processing interest in Australia; I only know of one established plantation and industry in Burra, South Australia.

Last time I was in Ragusa (December 2007) I arrived there via a very cold Venice. I had a sore throat and a croaky voice, and Zia Niluzza who has a natural cure for every ailment, wasted no time in preparing for me a sciroppo di carruba. This syrup was made with a huge amount of carob powder and a little water, it was stirred in a pan to boiling point, and then allowed to rest for a short time so that the sediment of the carob powder settled). Carob is naturally sweet, but honey also has beneficial properties, and a spoonful was added to this brew.

I gargled and swallowed the elixir, and the next morning I was amazed (and thankful) – the potion worked.

Carob, (kibble) has a high sugar content and can be used as a flavouring in drinks, confectionery, cakes and biscuits. Carob seed is used to make a thickener for ice cream as a feed additive for stock. The kibble can also be used to make stock feed.

Especially in the province of Ragusa, carob is made into flour and when combined with a proportion of wheat flour, it is made into pasta and biscuits. Modica is another very beautiful, baroque city, very close to Ragusa and there carob is added to make chocolate products – chocolate manufacturing is a thriving industry with a tradition passed on from the Aztecs to the Spaniards and then to Sicilians (Sicily was controlled by the Spanish from the 13th to 15th centuries).

Zia Niluzza also makes a liqueur from carob and biancomangiare (blancmange – corn flour, water, carob and sweetening) .

If you live in Adelaide, there are some beautiful carob trees in the parklands next to the Children’s Hospital in North Adelaide
( I have collected many carob pods from those trees).

The couple from Longwood told me that carob is also known as St John’s bread – it is said that carob nourished St John in the desert. The references in the new testament are for locusts and wild honey. Wild honey is thought to be the carob. The tree is also known as the locust tree – the carob pods, because of their sweetness attract many insects and birds to it.

I almost feel like ending this post with a blessing!

CIME DI RAPE (A winter green)

This is an other one of my favourite winter greens. And it is not a bad bunch!!

In Italian they are called cime di rape – literally translated as turnip tips (cime di rapa is the singular). They are sometimes also called broccoli di rape and are characterised by their strong bitter taste. They are deep green with small yellow flowers.

Cime di rape are certainly a very popular green vegetable and cooked all over Italy. It is particularly associated with the region of Puglia where the traditional classic pasta dish, orecchiette con cime di rape originates (orecchiette meaning little ears).

Cime di rape are members of the brassica or mustard family group. This diverse group includes plants whose leaves, flowers, stems and roots are cooked and eaten. For example popular brassicas include broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, cavolo nero. Some of the roots are kohlrabi, radish, swede and turnips. (By the way, I eat all of the green tops when I can get them and one of my favourite stall holders at the Queen Victoria Markets know this only too well).

A number of Asian greens are members of the brassicas and the Chinese broccoli and mustard greens are very similar in taste to broccoli di rapa.
As far as I know this vegetable can only be found at my favourite stall – Carmel and Gus’s Stall 61-63- in The Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne, but it may also be available in suburban areas where the greengrocer is of Italian heritage.

In Adelaide many of the green grocer shops and vegetable growers are Italians and when I was living there, cime di rape seemed more readily available.  The seeds are easily found especially in shops which sell Italian food – my son and a number of my friends grow them successfully in their Adelaide suburban gardens.

Strangely enough, I came across a patch of luscious looking cime di rape at Heronswood (Digger’s Seeds, Victoria). It is marketed as one of the Green Manures, a bio fumigant crop for soils.

The cime di rape can be eaten as a contorno (side dish of vegetables) and cooked in the same way as Italians cook most greens – wilted and then  tossed around in oil and garlic (I use lots), salt and pepper or chilli, and cooked till softened. If the vegetable is cut small enough, there is no  need to wilt them first.
This is also the way of making a strong pasta sauce for orecchiette.  If you do not use orecchiette, casarecci (right -hand side of photo) or a small tubular pasta which can trap the sauce is suitable.

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Clean and prepare the cime as you do broccoli – leaves, flowers, stems and stalks. The tough, fibrous outer layer covering can be stripped from the large stalks (see photo above with the fibrous outer layer peeled back – remove this layer entirely).

See: EDIBLE WEEDS: Orecchiette e Broccoletti Selvatici

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KALE (Winter green vegetable and how to cook it)

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This is Gus.

Kale is not an Italian vegetable, I could not even find the name of it in my very large Italian dictionary.

I can remember telling Carmel, Gus’ wife, about having to cook the kale the day that I buy it because I cannot fit the plant in my fridge. She told me about a Northern European customer who told her that in her country this winter plant is usually covered by snow and that she keeps her kale in the freezer (cut it up into separate branches). Apparently this softens the plant making it easier to cook. Fascinating!!

I clean and braise kale the same way as I cook cavolo nero – it is similar in taste and has almost the same texture but I usually cook it for longer. I also cook it the same way as I sometimes cook brussel sprouts.

In the photo below coloured kale is in the vase and black kale( also called cavolo nero and Tuscan cabbage) is in the vase.

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See:

CAVOLO NERO and three ways to cook it

THOSE OTHER BRASSICAS (Cavoli, Verze e Cavolini di Bruxelles)

COOKED KALE IN A SALAD

Any left over cooked kale makes a wonderful addition to a quinoa or a lentil salad ( for example to the grain or pulse I may add: chopped tomatoes, spring onion, pepitas, sliced celery, roasted pumpkin, braised carrots or braised cooked zucchini (if I have some leftovers in the fridge). The dressing could be a simple Italian: extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper and lemon juice. Or it may be a Moroccan type dressing: pomegranate molasses, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, cumin and lemon juice.

As you can see from the photo, one plant can be very  large in size. There are  bronze ans silver coloured kale plants as well (see photo below) but the green type is the first kale to became available. The green plant laying horizontally is a cavolo nero.

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SEDANO RAPA (Celeriac and how to eat it)

What do you do with it?

Other purchasers usually ask me this question when I am standing at a stall at the Queen Victoria Market buying a celeriac. I am usually asked the same question when I buy cavolo nero, kale, artichokes and fennel – but not as frequently for fennel these days.

Sedano rapa (celeriac) is more common in northern Italy and here are a few ways that it is eaten.

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In Trieste, we used to eat it bollito e insalata – peeled, cut into quarters, boiled in salted water and then dressed with a simple drizzle of oil and lemon (or vinegar) and extra seasoning.

In Verona celeriac is made into a soup with borlotti beans, onion, carrot, beef or veal stock and fresh pork sausages.

In Piedmont (close to France) it is made into a much lighter soup, once again using broth, but it is served over slices of good quality bread topped with grated cheese.

In Australia, I do make a celeriac soup and I also like to eat it cooked with a dressing, but I particularly like it raw in salads.

Peel it first, to remove the knobs – it becomes quite attractive peeled, it is dense and fragrant.

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Because celeriac discolours easily when cut, I leave handling the celeriac till the last minute and eat the salad soon after. I cut the celeriac ‘julienne ‘ and dress the salad quickly. (Dressing made with extra virgin olive oil salt, pepper and lemon juice). I usually like to add apple. Watercress is also a favourite.

I also like to present celeriac raw as one of the vegetables for bagna cauda –a dip of anchovies, butter, garlic, and olive oil. It is served warm as an appetizer with fresh vegetables . This is a recipe originating from Piedmont also.

See TASMANIA, FOOD, ART, HOBART and Bagna Cauda

I always buy my celeriac with leaves – an indication of how fresh the bulb is. And besides, I use the leaves in soups and the small, tender, centre leaves in salads. “Us Italians’ (or at least this Italian), does not throw much away.
My father who spent his youth in Ragusa (Sicily) before moving to Trieste, said that his mother boiled celeriac and then dressed it with a drizzle of olive oil. Apparently my grandparents grew it in their mulino (a water mill) close to Ragusa Ibla. There are quite a few mulini in the region of Ragusa which were used to mill wheat. The family kept their dogs there and grew a few vegetables. As a child I visited Sicily every summer and we used to go there often; it was a place to go especially in summer when their apartment in the city was too hot. A couple of these mills have been turned into restaurants. In fact, in one of the Moltalbano episodes he goes to one of these restaurant and I thought I recognised it as the one my grandparents used to own. My relatives in Ragusa disappointed me when they told me that that it was not the one – I have since visited this restaurant.

During my last trip to Sicily I visited an old water mill that has been revived to grind organic wheat into high quality flour.

 

CARCIOFI IMBOTTITI (Stuffed artichokes)

There are two words for carciofi in the Sicilian dialect, cacocciuli. and carcioffuli.
The Italian word for artichoke is carciofo and carciofi is the plural. And were would Italian cooking be without artichokes?

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My favourite way of cooking artichokes is the simple way that my mother has always cooked them. My maternal grandmother Maria (originally from Catania but who lived in Trieste for about 20 years) also cooked them this way. She used the same mixture to stuff sardines, tomatoes and artichokes. I researched Sicilian recipes for stuffed artichokes and found that they are all braised in the same way, but there are regional variations in the stuffing, for example in some parts of Sicily they add mint, others include eggs, some minced onion, or more cheese and even salame.

In Australia, although artichokes are now widely available, they are still thought of as exotic and possibly difficult to prepare. Exotic? Yes, maybe – for their unique taste and appearance, but once you know how to prepare them, they are simple to cook. You may need to tell your friends how to eat them (most will attempt to eat artichokes with a knife and fork).

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Selecting good artichokes is important. Time and time again I have chosen not to buy artichokes as they have been picked too late (too mature). I suspect that some of the inexperienced growers may think that big is better, however this is not necessarily the case (some of the green coloured ones can be large but also tender). And as with all vegetables, I never select ones that are bruised, blemished or withered

INGREDIENTS AND PROCESS
Select and clean the artichokes carefully (as described in my previous post, Carciofi – artichokes and how to clean them). Cut the bases off flat so that they can stand up in a saucepan. Select the size of the saucepan carefully – you do not want them falling over, the artichokes should be close together. Do not forget to include the cleaned stems to add to the braise and keep the artichokes in acidulated water as you work.

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INGREDIENTS

I include one artichoke per person and each artichoke only needs 2-3 teaspoons of stuffing.

STUFFING: Combine the ingredients for the stuffing in a bowl. This ratio is good: 1 tablespoon of fresh breadcrumbs (made of good quality bread), 1 teaspoon of each – chopped parsley, extra virgin olive oil and grated cheese (you can use parmesan, but generally pecorino is traditionally Sicilian) and some chopped garlic to taste.

Drain the artichokes, spread the leaves (especially in the centre) and sprinkle salt and pepper in between the leaves. Push the stuffing mainly in the centre and if there is any left over, between the leaves. I use my fingers.

Arrange the artichokes standing upright in a pan, put the stems between them and drizzle well with more extra virgin olive oil. Add enough cold water to reach to about 1cm below the artichokes. Cook slowly with a lid for about an hour. Having lived in Trieste, I always add a splash of white wine and sometimes a little stock or a good quality vegetable stock cube to the poaching liquid.

If you are adding peas, broadbeans and/or potatoes just add them to the poaching liquid. The potatoes can go in at the same time, the peas and broadbeans about 15 minutes before the artichokes are cooked. ‘Those Italians’ would cook them all at the same time –they like their food overdone, but maybe they are right and there is more flavour.

I like to present carciofi as a single course – they are too fiddly to eat as an accompaniment to a main course.

Fabulous!!

Key in “artichokes” in search button for more artichoke recipes.

CARCIOFI (Artichokes and how to clean them and prepare them for cooking)

Last time I was in Sicily in winter  I we saw masses of artichokes everywhere – in markets, growing in fields, sold by the roadside from the back of utes, in restaurants, and in the homes of relatives.

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When my family first came to Australia, we used to notice that some Italians collected wild artichokes to eat (in Australia they are known as thistles). There were no artichokes for sale for at least a decade so they collected the buds and stripped off all leaves. Only the bases were stuffed or preserved in oil.

Artichokes are now more readily available in Australia and the quality seems to be getting better. I am now more able to find artichokes that feel crisp and dense, with a tightly clenched shape and petals that will snap off crisply when bent back. I have generally found that the purplish coloured ones to be more fibrous and I prefer the green coloured ones that look like roses.

Artichokes have been around for a long time. The Romans called the artichoke cynara, the Arabs al kharsciuf, (this sounds more like the Italian carciofo).

Artichokes contain a chemical called cynarin and it is said that it stimulates the production of bile. This is why artichokes are often used as the basis of digestivi (drinks that aid the digestion – a vital issue among Italians. There are those that prepare the stomach before food (aperitivi) and those drunk after a meal (amari, literally translated as ‘bitters’).

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Many will be familiar with Cynar, the Italian artichoke-based alcoholic aperitivo manufactured by Campari in Milan. The are many amari manufactured all over Italy, but Averna, the amaro siciliano is a specialty from Caltanissetta (which is close to the centre of Sicily) and is a real indulgence.

Preparing artichokes for cooking
Artichokes in Sicily are sold with long stalks often up to 1 metre in length – do not ever discard the stalks. The stalks are particularly wonderful in risotti (plural of risotto) and braises made with artichoke. Trim the stalk with a small sharp knife to pull away the tough, stringy outer skin (just like the strings of celery) and leave the stem attached to the artichoke. This will expose the light-coloured, centre portion, which is very flavourful and tender and much appreciated by Italians.

When trimming, to prevent discolouration, squeeze the juice of half a lemon into a big bowl of water and keep cleaned artichokes submerged in the mixture. This is referred to as acidulated water. Drain the artichokes by inverting them upside down for about 5 minutes when ready to stuff or cook. Alternatively rub the surfaces with a lemon.

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Preparing artichokes for stuffing
Remove the stalk so that the artichoke will sit on its base in the saucepan. Clean the stalk and pull the tough outside leaves off the base one by one until you have reached the paler less fibrous centre. Then trim about 1cm across the top. Keep them in acidulated water as you work.

Turn the artichoke upside down and bang it on a hard surface and then gently ease the leaves apart to expose the heart. If you place the artichokes in warm water you will be able to ease apart the leaves more easily. I start by easing the outer leaves and working my way to the centre.

There may or may not have a fuzzy choke (it depends on the maturity of the plant). If there is, remove the choke with a teaspoon, inserting it into the centre and carefully turning it without snapping the sides of the choke.

Preparing carciofi Romana

Preparing the base of the artichoke
Those of you who have travelled to Italy would be familiar with the spectacle of men and women preparing artichokes at vegetable markets. They sit with their mound of artichokes, skilfully paring off all the leaves with very sharp kitchen knives.
(Photos of cleaned artichokes taken in the Campo dei Fiori market in December 2009, when I was last in Rome).
These are called fondi di carciofi – they are the bases of mature artichokes. The fondi can be stuffed, braised, sautéed, added to frittata – their intense flavour and meaty texture are a definite taste sensation.

At the end of the season, when the artichokes are large and past their prime, they are trimmed even further. In Australia, we have to do this ourselves. Pare off the leaves of a mature artichoke and just leave the base (no leaves) – it will look like a very shallow cup. The texture of the base will be covered with a pattern of small dots much like the eyes of flies (like a fine etching, delicate and quite beautiful).

There are many recipes for artichokes on my blog:

ARTICHOKES from the growers

THE AMAZING ARTICHOKE

GLOBE ARTICHOKES AND JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES

CARCIOFI FARCITI (Stuffed artichokes: with meat and with olives and anchovies)

A QUICK PASTA DISH for Spring: asparagus, artichokes, peas

PASTA ALLA FAVORITA (Pasta with artichokes, broadbeans, peas alla favorita)

STUFFED ARTICHOKES WITH RICOTTA AND ALMOND MEAL

 

 

PESTO DI NOCI (Walnut pesto/ sauce for pasta)

I was discussing travelling in Italy and regional food (frequent topics of conversation) with an acquaintance, who told me that she and her daughter had really enjoyed travelling in Tuscany and had eaten a wonderful pasta dish with walnuts. She had no idea what it was; she had tried to work this out from recipe books but to no avail. She said that the sauce was very fragrant.

I think it must have been pesto di noci, very common in Liguria, home of pesto alla genovese (the one with pine nuts and basil).

I first ate this in Genova. My cousin Rosadele prepared this for me when I first visited her many years ago (to meet our respective, then husbands). Being autumn, she made this sauce to accompany agnolotti (pasta shaped like half moons/ hers were stuffed with ricotta and stracchino). She is a wonderful cook. Her mother, from Piedmont was also a very skilled cook, and between the two of them, there was always alchemy in their kitchens.

Although I promised this recipe to my acquaintance, I have been a little reluctant to post it in winter – it is made with fresh marjoram, and those of you who grow it and live in the colder states, will know that marjoram is dormant at this time of year. It hates hard winters and frost. However, if you have planted marjoram somewhere sheltered from the cold, and in a sunny location or even kept it indoors in a sunny spot, you may still have this herb. Taking one’s plant indoors is quite a common practice for people in England. My plant of marjoram, which was doing quite well on my balcony till about a month ago, now looks dead. I did check at The Queen Victoria Market this week to see if there were bunches of marjoram available, and there were.
Traditionally because it is a pesto, it is made with a mortar and pestle (see my recipe for Sicilian pesto), but I admit that with these ingredients a blender has worked well for me ( unlike basil which is likely to taste grassy if blended).

INGREDIENTS
walnuts, 500g
marjoram and parsley, 4 tablespoons of each, chopped
ricotta, 250 g
extra virgin olive oil, ¾ cup
garlic, 1-2 cloves
water, 1 tablespoon
salt, to taste
butter or thick cream, 2 tablespoons
grated nutmeg, a little
pasta, 400-500g (trofie – Ligurian, traditional shape)

PROCESSES
Blend walnuts, oil and garlic – add chopped herbs, salt and blend some more.
Add water and butter/ cream and pulse blender to the desired consistency.
Cook pasta.
Stir in the ricotta and nutmeg in the sauce.
Drain the pasta but reserve approx ½ cup of hot pasta water to stir into sauce just before serving (to warm the sauce).
Combine sauce with pasta and serve.

Grated parmigiano can be added – I prefer it without.

Do not get confused with oregano and marjoram (many do). The genus name for both is origanum. Marjoram (origanum majorana) is also called sweet marjoram or knotted marjoram. It has a softer leaf and stem, it is paler in colour, the flavour is milder, sweeter and it is very aromatic. Marjoram leaves are best when fresh.

Oregano is a very common herb in Sicily, but not marjoram – this herb is generally used only in the northern part of Italy.
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CAPPERI – CAPERS



Caper bushes are everywhere in Sicily, growing wild in small crevices on stone walls.

The flower is beautiful and delicate but unfortunately the bush I have photographed in Sicily was not in flower when I was there in December.

I can remember my father being very excited when he found some caper bushes growing in the crevices of the wall of a very old church called San Giusto in Trieste (the patron saint) – my father never imagined that capers could grow so far north. They grow well in countries around the Mediterranean – Cyprus, Turkey, Greece.

I prefer to use capers preserved in rock salt rather than in brine – they taste like unadulterated capers rather than capers in vinegar. Salted capers need to be thoroughly rinsed, then soaked for about 30 minutes and rinsed again, but this will depend on the brand of capers – the easiest way to tell if they are still too salty is to taste them and then soak them again. Capers in the vinegar brine impart a particular flavour and are more acceptable in recipes where wine or vinegar is one of the ingredients.

They are extensively used in Sicilian cooking and Sicilians prefer the smaller capers. Good quality ones come from Salina (one of the Aeolian islands) or Pantelleria (an island, southwest of Sicily and closer to North Africa).

You will be pleased to know that we now have Australian capers growing on the dry rocky slopes of the River Murray. Some nurseries sell the seeds or plants and they are being grown in some home gardens.

Apparently in some parts of Sicily, it is common to boil the leaves and the young shoots in salty water, then they need to be drained well, dressed with good quality olive oil and lemon juice and eaten as a vegetable.

The caper flower/buds need to be soaked in water for at least 2-3 days (apparently they have some bitter taste, like olives) and then are preserved under salt or under vinegar.

Those of you living in Australia may remember how nasturtium berries used to be pickled in vinegar and called capers – we Italians knew better. Mind you, my family knew nothing about rhubarb. Our neighbours gave us some and we threw away the stalks and boiled the leaves to eat as a vegetable. Fortunately, because they tasted so bad, we did not eat them.

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CAVOLO NERO and three ways to cook it

Cavolo nero  is also called black Tuscan cabbage. I have also seen it called Black kale. It is not black in colour, it is a very deep green, the leaves long, thin and curly. I constantly find myself in situations where I end up explaining to others how to clean and how to cook it. It gives me great satisfaction (I feel like a know-all). This morning it happened twice at the Queen Victoria Market. Once at the stall where I was buying it, and again a little later as I was walking along carrying it in my basket. And it happened last week as well.

Here are three ways you can enjoy it:

  • Ribollita (soup)
  • Crostini
  • Contorno ( vegetable side dish)

RIBOLLITA

Cavolo nero is prolific in Tuscany and is one of the main ingredients in the famous Tuscan soup called ribollitaBollita (soup is a feminine word) means boiled, so the soup is called reboiled, and it is.

 Ribollita is made with cannellini, other greens (beets, cabbage), tomatoes, red onion, garlic, celery, carrots, leeks and cavolo nero. Once the soup is made, it is then layered with good quality 1-2 day old bread and left to rest for at least 24 hours; the flavours intensify when it rests.

When the soup is ready to eat, a little extra virgin olive oil is added and then it is reboiled. It is one of those soups that never die – leave it all week.

Have you ever eaten Tuscan bread? Wonderful stuff. Thickening and eating soup with the bread is what contadini, (peasants, on the land) have always done. This custom is very much like the French who ladle soupe over a slice of bread – pain de campagne. The quality and character of the bread is important, it adds flavour. Good bread lasts one week and many say that it improves with age.

 

On CROSTINI

One other way to eat cavolo nero is on crostini.

Use slices of good quality bread, grill them, and while they’re still hot rub them with a cut clove of garlic and drizzle with good quality extra virgin olive oil.

Strip the leaves off the tough stalks (I usually only remove the toughest bits of the stalks at the end of the leaf), wilt till soft, drain well and cool.

Add salt freshly ground black pepper, and a little extra virgin olive oil.

Mix well and place a little of the cooked vegetable on the hot crostini. Drizzle with more olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice.

Place on slices of bread fried in extra virgin olive oil until crisp (crostini).

 

As a CONTORNO (a vegetable accompaniment)

I cook cavolo nero the same way as Italians cook most greens: it is first wilted then tossed around in oil and garlic and salt. Unlike most Italians who like their vegetables soft, I skip the wilting process and sauté them in oil and garlic, add salt and pepper, a splash of liquid (stock, white wine or water) and cook till softened (It is tougher than silverbeet and will take longer to cook).

In photo below, braised greens as an accompaniment to sauteed  chicken livers.

Chicken-livers-and-cime--300x198