The husband of a friend of mine recently had surgery to repair a hiatus hernia. His convalescence requires him to be on a special diet, starting with simple liquids until the inflammation subsides. He can then move on to purées for two weeks, followed by two more weeks of mushy food.
But it does not have to be too bad. Below is a photo of some Borsch I made using the lighter coloured beetroot.
The gradual progression of the density of food and the complexity of ingredients seems very much like what babies experience when they are introduced to solids.
I was eight years old when my brother was born and I can remember how much my mother enjoyed cooking for my baby brother. She apparently had cooked the same things for me when I was his age and years later, I cooked the same things for my two babies.
Starting with simple, mainly liquid minestrine (light soups with simple ingredients) and pappe (pap made with bread), next came the purées and pastine (small shaped pasta), followed by semolina in brodo (broth). She also added puréed chicken or veal liver or finely minced chicken breast or white fish to broth and some overcooked white rice. She made vellutate (velouté, velvety soups), a chicken or veal broth with 1-2 puréed vegetables enriched with an egg yolk rather than cream, as cream was considered harder to digest. At an early age we were introduced to a dash of extra virgin olive oil and/or finely grated parmesan were introduced.
My mother used a Moulinex (Mouli) rotary vegetable mill for making purées. This was perfect for making baby food. The Mouli was also used for us older folk (father, mother and me and guests also) to make vellutate, not just with vegetables, she also used pulses – dried peas, lentils and chickpeas. The mushroom vellutata was pretty good.
Pulses were considered too difficult for babies to digest. They had to wait until they’d grown up a little. Basically, you can turn any left over vegetables into a good looking, tasty vellutata.
My mother was pregnant when she left Italy and may have brought the Mouli with her from Trieste (where we lived before we came to Australia), but maybe these made in France appliances were available in Adelaide in 1956 when my brother was born. Unlike food processor or a blender which blend the whole vegetable a Mouli purées the vegetables, leaves the skins behind and it’s the skins that are considered more difficult to digest. It is perfect for making Passata di Pomodoro.
Semolina cooked in meat broth was also a household favourite, with a bit of parmesan, of course. A light soup, a minestrina, made by puréeing one or two vegetables, beginning with the ones that were considered to be the easiest to digest at first – zucchini, green beans, carrots, pumpkin or potato.
A little spinach came later, but always, the minestrina was finished off with a little drizzle of oil. As a variation and for health – fish was supposed to help develop intelligence, she used to make minestrine using white fish, which also contained either puréed potatoes or tiny pastina shapes – stelline (little stars).
I still have my Mouli tucked away in the cupboard where I keep appliances that I seldom use, but keep just in case I ever need them again, alongside my potato ricer and a vintage Bialetti electric pasta machine designed to mix the flour and eggs to form the dough and extrude the pasta through plastic dies of various shapes.
The potato ricer can also be used for squeezing other soft, cooked vegetables like carrots or pumpkin.
There are various cake tins for making kuglof, panettone, savarin, pâte or terrines that are lined with pastry, ornate copper jelly or ice cream molds.
And what about the metal rods to shape and fry the cannoli shells – a Sicilian specialty – and some conical rods to make cream horns, the shape that Neapolitans use? There is a pastry and piping bag just in case I wish to make and fill cream puffs and an icing bag. Both bags are complete with nozzles of different sizes and shapes.
Probably the least used object in that space is a jelly strainer bag made of very fine calico designed to strain the solids from meat or fish broths. The clarified liquid can be used to make clear jelly, such as in pork pies or glaze a terrine. And it is very useful for making fruit jelly… cook the fruit, strain out the pulp, skin and seeds and use the liquid to make the jelly. The bag rests in a stand and can strain overnight to get the maximum amount of liquid. I am guessing that it could be used to drain cheese curds or yogurt, but I use a colander lined with muslin for that. The jelly bag was a present many years ago from a dear friend who brought it back from Copenhagen.
My brother and my son Alex both loved pappa di pane when they were babies but my daughter always preferred broth with pastina. The broth was made with meat and a carrot and a piece of celery, but not onion – this is too heavy for babies. The carrot and celery were puréed once they were cooked and returned to the broth.
The pappa may not sound very tasty or nutritious, it consists of white bread soaked in water and boiled till it becomes a smooth pap. But this is where the magic comes in. The pappa di pane was enriched with a little extra virgin olive oil and when the baby was a few weeks older a tiny bit of grated parmesan could be added. The bread could also be boiled in a clear meat broth instead of water and when the baby is older by a few weeks a little stewed tomato was mixed into it , maybe cooked with a basil leaf…. and the Mouli was used again to remove the skin and release the pulp.
You can see why Italian babies develop a palate – a taste for flavour!
Adults never seem to lose the taste for pappa especially if they come from Tuscany. In a Pappa al Pomodoro (tomato), the soup is thickened with stale bread, and though this is a rather simple recipe, you can find various versions of it across Tuscany and some other regions of Italy.
Italian food is all about good produce – good quality white bread, fresh basil, fragrant tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil. The best pappa is made with ripe, full-flavored tomatoes, but it can also be made with good quality canned, crushed tomatoes. Whether you leave the tomatoes as they are our use your Moulinex is up to you.
1 medium sized onion, finely diced, 2-3 garlic cloves finely chopped
extra virgin olive oil to stew the tomatoes, plus extra for drizzling
1k of fresh peeled and chopped tomatoes or a can (800g, good quality)
200g of 1-2 day old bread, crusts removed and cut into small chunks
2 cups of chicken or vegetable stock or water
salt and pepper
Heat some oil in a large saucepan and sauté the onion and garlic until softened and fragrant.
Add the tomatoes and simmer until thick and most of the liquid has evaporated (like making a salsa).
Add the stock, the bread, seasoning and some basil and cook on low heat for about 10 more minutes, stir regularly to break down the bread into pappa.
Serve the pappa warm or at room temperature topped with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and fresh basil leaves.