In a restaurant in Modena we met a beautiful elderly woman who was the mother of one of the three chefs of a fabulous restaurant in Modena and her daughter is the owner. It is often the case that mothers and skilled mature women are responsible for making stuffed pasta in restaurants. They are after all very skilled and practised in this area having made it over many years at home.
La signora comes the restaurant each morning to make the stuffed pasta – tortellini and tortelloni (the squares of pasta are cut much bigger). Both are closed and folded in the shape of a navel. The traditional fillings are usually made with ricotta, spinach and Parmigiano Reggiano and covered with a melted browned butter and sage dressing.
In Bologna the stuffing the for tortelli and tortelloni is likely to be made of prosciutto, mortadella, roast veal and Parmesan.
More often than not, stuffed pasta is dressed with a ragù….today one of us had a ragù made with a mixture of …selvaggina, wild meats – boar, rabbit, maybe pheasant.
Tortelloni di Zucca have mashed cooked pumpkin filling. Nutmeg, crumbed amaretti and mostarda mantovana – pickled fruit in a sweet mustard syrup. I ate Tortelloni di Zucca in Ferrara. But you may be surprised to know that in Ferrara they called these Capellacci….little hats…..Capelletti like tortellini, are the smaller version and these are usually cooked in broth (brodo).
And there are Ravioli.
The pasta for all stuffed pasta can be white (egg, flour and water) or can be green (spinach).
In a restaurant in Bologna we ate ravioli stuffed with ricotta and spinach but in a restaurant in San Giovanni in Marignano the variation in the stuffing was ricotta and marjoram and the dressing was made with asparagus. It is after all spring in Italy, even if it is raining now in Bologna.
I have been away from home recently, and what I really enjoy is coming up with a dish using ingredients that I have…and need using up. This must be one of the reasons I enjoy camping and we always eat so well.
I had ‘nduja (a soft chilli-laden, soft salame from Calabria), a bunch of cime di rapa or rape (rape is plural of rapa) and some small and fabulous, pure pork sausages that I had cooked in some tomato salsa the day before. We had eaten most of these with polenta and these were left over.
What I did was simple. I braised the cime di rapa in some garlic and extra virgin olive oil as I do when I cook cime di rapa with pasta. Once cooked, I added the ‘nduja….probably too much, I love chilli but do others like it as much as I do? I could have used a half of the quantity and it still would have tasted great. The ‘nduja melts with the heat and coats the vegetables.
Next, I added the sausages and only a little of the tomato salsa. I was making a pasta sauce and not a soup a , so I needed just a little liquid.
I had rigatoni on hand, and some Sicilian pecorino pepato.
You will need to accept that it tasted vey good. So much so, Squid, that I did not have time to take a photo – it was gobbled up far too quickly by my two guests.
An important ingredient for making Pasta con le sarde is wild fennel. The season for wild fennel has well and truly passed and all you will find at this time of year are stalky plants, yellow flowers/ seed pods and no green fronds.
What we call Florentine fennel is also going out of season and you will find for sale specimens with very small stunted bulbs. If you are lucky, your greengrocer may sell them with long stalks and fronds attached – perfect to use as a substitute for wild fennel and I certainly would not go near these stunted specimens otherwise.
Sardine fillets are easy to find. I use the paper that my fishmonger has wrapped the sardines to wipe dry the fish.
Remove the small dorsal spine from the fillets. Once again the paper comes in handy to wipe fishy fingers.
Prepare the ingredients:
Sardine fillets, chopped spring onions, the softer green fonds of the fennel, saffron soaking in a little water, currants soaking in a little water, fennel bulb cut finely, toasted pine nuts and chopped toasted almonds, salt and ground black pepper (or ground chili).
The preferred pasta shape are bucatini, but spaghetti or casarecce are good also.
You will also need some breadcrumbs (made from good quality day- old bread) toasted in a pan with a little oil. Add a bit of sugar, some cinnamon and grated lemon peel. toss it around in the pan so that the sugar melts and the flavours are mixed. This is the topping for the pasta. I have seen this referred to as pan grattato – this would not be my preferred tag – in Italian pan grattato is the term for plain breadcrumbs, but I accept that over time the terminology has evolved. The traditional Sicilian breadcrumb topping would not have had/ does not have the cinnamon or grated lemon peel.
The larger fennel fronds and stalks are used to flavour the water for the cooking of the pasta. Place them into salted cold water, bring to the boil and simmer for at least 10 minutes – you can leave the fennel in water as long as you like. The greenery can easily be fished out with tongs before the pasta goes into the boiling water to cook.
And then it is a very simple matter of cooking the ingredients.
Sauté the spring onion in some extra virgin olive oil. Add the fennel and chopped fronds and sauté them some more.
Depending on the quality of the fennel (degree of succulence) you may need to add a splash of water or white wine, cover it and continue to cook it for a few minutes more.
Add salt and pepper and put the sautéed vegetables aside.
Cook the pasta.
Fry the sardines in a little extra virgin olive oil – they will cook very quickly and begin to break up. Combine the sardines with the cooked fennel, add saffron and drained currants and mix to amalgamate the flavours. Add the almonds and pine nuts.
Dress the cooked pasta with the sardine sauce.
Put the dressed pasta in a serving platter and sprinkle liberally with the toasted breadcrumbs – these add flavour and crunch to the dish.
For a more conventional Sicilian Pasta con le Sarde:
A duck ragù is nothing new, but it always seems to be special. Pappardelle is the pasta of choice for game and duck.
I bought a whole duck, dismembered it and trimmed away the obvious fat. I cooked the duck for the ragù over 2 days because ducks can be very fatty and I wanted to remove some of the fat.
I left the cooked duck overnight and the liquid jellied (in the meantime the flavours also intensified) and the fat rose to the top making it easier for me to remove most of I with a spoon. I used some of the duck fat to sauté the mushrooms.
for the soffritto: 1 onion, 1 carrot,1 stalk of celery
fresh rosemary, bay leaves
½ cup of diced tomatoes or 2 tablespoons of tomato paste
2 cups dry red wine
3 cups chicken stock
salt and black pepper
250g mushrooms…on this occasion I used brown mushrooms.
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
fresh thyme and parsley
Wipe the duck pieces to dry them as much as possible.
Heat a heavy based casserole and over medium heat add the duck skin-side down and fry until browned and fat renders (6-9 minutes).
Drain most of the fat. Turn and fry until browned (2-3 minutes), then set aside.
To the same saucepan add onion and soften slightly before adding the carrot and celery and sauté until vegetables are tender (5-8 minutes).
Return the duck pieces to the pan, add the wine, stock, tomatoes, seasoning, bay leaves and rosemary.
Cover and cook slowly for about 1¾-2¼ hours, until the meat looks as it will be easy to separate from the bones.
Leave to cool. The fat will rise to the top making it easier to remove.
Reheat the duck braise very briefly, just sufficiently to melt the jelly.
Remove the duck pieces and set aside. When they are cool enough to handle remove the the skin and strip the meat from the bones in chunks. Discard herbs and the bones.
Drain the solids from the liquid and add these to the duck. Place the liquid from the braise (i.e. that is yet to be reduced) in a separate container.
Wipe the pan and use some of the fat to sauté the mushrooms and garlic. Add parsley and thyme and some seasoning.
Deglaze the pan using about a cup of liquid and evaporate most of it. Repeat with the left over liquid until it has reduced.
Add the duck, a couple of twists of nutmeg and the ragù is ready.
Combine the cooked pasta with the duck ragù and serve.
‘Nduja is a spicy, spreadable, pork salame originating from Calabria. ‘Nduja is appearing on many menus and recipes – it seems to be replacing chorizo as an ingredient. As tasty as chorizo is, there has been a glut of it in far too many dishes.
I have been buying ‘Nduja for a couple of years now – ask for it in places that sell Italian smallgoods. I always like friends to try new ingredients and I have mainly presented ‘Nduja at the beginning of the meal as an accompaniment to the first drink with some fresh bread (like Pâté ) or I have used ‘Nduja as an ingredient in sauces for pasta – I made an excellent ragù (a meat-based tomato sauce), I added it to sautéed cime di rape with Italian pork sausages and sautéed itwith squid (use small to medium sized squid).
I always enjoy eating squid and because squid cooks quickly I enjoy making pasta sauces with it. The photo of squid was taken in the Catania Fish Market a few years ago.
I ate at a Sardinian restaurant in Melbourne recently and ordered Malloreddus Campidanese – Homemade traditional semolina pasta with slow cooked sausage ragú, wild fennel, chili and Sardinian pecorino cheese.
Another name for Malloreddus are Gnocchetti Sardi (small, gnocchi shaped pasta). These are made with hard wheat flour (durum wheat), salt and water…no eggs. The mixture is kneaded for a long time and then shaped into small concave gnocchi with the help of one’s thumb and a small tool to make the ribs/ grooves– the indentation traps the sauce.
Campidano is the name of the vast plain in Sardegna (Sardinia) so the dish originates from that part of Sardegna.
Pecorino Sardo – is strong tasting and obviously local and the preferred grating cheese. Wild fennel grows freely in Sardegna.
RAGÚ and SUGO
The ragú implies that the sauce was reduced, i.e. the flavours are concentrated and the ingredients are usually cooked for a long time. The resulting sauce is used to dress pasta, fregola, polenta, rice. The Italian expression ‘ragú’ is derived from the French ‘ragout’-it is a thick stew of meat, poultry or fish with or without vegetables.
A ‘sugo’ is often used interchangeably with ‘ragú’- different regions of Italy prefer one term above the other, but generally a ragú is cooked on low heat for a long time and the flavours are concentrated.
Because sausages cook quickly I would probably hesitate to refer to this pasta dressing as a ragú, unless I had added some pieces of pork meat which would benefit with longer cooking.
I had some commercially bought Gnocchetti Sardi in my pantry. I also had crushed tomatoes. I bought some Italian pork sausages. I also know where to collect wild fennel, but if you purchase Italian pork and fennel sausages (and perhaps add a few fennel seeds) you will have similar results.
The dish is so easy to replicate.
6 Italian pork sausages or pork and fennel sausages (hot or mild)
1 onion, finely chopped
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ cup of dry white or red wine
800g crushed tomatoes
2 garlic cloves, whole
seasoning: salt and crushed chili flakes, or pepper to taste
some wild fennel sprigs or ½ tsp fennel seeds
fresh basil (optional)
100g of pasta per person. I cooked 400g of Gnocchetti Sardi
grated Pecorino (of good quality). I sometimes use Pecorino Pepato (has pepper corns in it)
Heat the oil in a pan, add the onion, and allow to soften over a moderate heat.
Remove the casings from the sausages and crumb the meat, separating it into small pieces. Add the sausage meat, brown, add the wine and evaporate.
Add the crushed tomatoes, seasoning, garlic, fennel and basil.
Cover and cook slowly on low heat until thickened for about 30- 40 minutes.
Remove the garlic before dressing the pasta.
Cook the pasta, dress and present with grated pecorino.
As an alternative you could make a simple tomato salsa… so what is the difference between a tomato based sugo and a tomato salsa?
To an Italian this is important.
A tomato salsa is made quickly with pureed tomatoes…. No meat or vegetables, easy, fragrant and perfect for summer as a dressing for pasta:
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
800g crushed tomatoes (fabulous with fresh tomatoes, peeled)
2 garlic cloves, whole
salt and pepper
Put all of the ingredients together in a pan and cook uncovered until thickened.
Remove the casings from the sausages and crumb the meat, separating it into small pieces.
Heat the oil in a pan, add the sausage meat, brown it and add this (meat and juices) to the prepared salsa.
Check out one of my old posts, great photos of my Sicilian aunt making Sicilian Gnocchetti:
At this time of year basil is plentiful and many of us enjoy pasta with pesto, so it is time to revisit a post I first wrote in February, 2009 about the Sicilian pesto called Mataroccu (and also Ammogghia in some parts of Sicily).
The name pesto comes from the word for pestle or to pound. The ingredients are pounded in a mortar and the results are much sweeter than ingredients chopped in a food processor – the differences are much the same as the results obtained from chopping herbs by hand and using a food processor fitted with the steel blade (will taste grassy).
Most associate pesto with the traditional combination of basil, pine nuts, extra virgin olive oil, garlic and good quality grated cheese; pesto originates from the region of Liguria.
Some of us would be amused about the way that Ligurians discuss a genuine pesto- Ligurian pesto can only be made with basil grown in Genoa and close environs (region of Liguria) and that Ligurians generally use as the cheese component, half Parmigiano and half Pecorino sardo – Sardinian (sardo) Pecorino is a much sweeter tasting and less salty than other pecorino. As it should be, Pecorino is made from sheeps’ milk – the word pecora is Italian for sheep.
To dress pasta, also like to make a Sicilian alternative, a pesto from around Trapani – Mataroccu or Ammogghia and sometimes Pesto Pantesco (if it is from the island of Pantelleria, south-west of Sicily).
As expected there are different regional versions of the same pistu (Sicilian word for pesto) It contains similar ingredients as the Ligurian pesto but also raw, fresh, ripe tomatoes, which at this time of year, like basil, should not be a problem. Some Trapanesi prefer to use blanched almonds instead of the pine nuts.
I never weigh ingredients when I make pesto, but the following amounts should provide a balanced sauce for pasta. As I may have written at other times, in Australia we tend to overdress our pasta – the pesto should coat the pasta (and it is assumed that you will use good quality, durum wheat pasta) but not overpower the taste.
almonds or pine nuts, 1 cup
garlic, 8-10 cloves,
ripe tomatoes, 400g, peeled, seeded, and chopped
basil, 1 ½ cups loose leaves
parsley ½ cup, cut finely
extra virgin olive oil (your most fragrant), about 1 cup or as much as the pesto absorbs
salt, and red pepper flakes to taste
Pound garlic in a mortar with a little salt to obtain a paste (I like it fine but with some uneven bits).
Add some of the tomato, some herbs and a little oil and pound some more.
Keep on adding a few ingredients at the time, till they have all been used and until you have a homogeneous, smooth sauce.
Because we live in a modern age you may wish to use a food processor. First grind the nuts. Add the rest of the ingredients gradually and process until creamy.
Anche l’occhio vuole la sua parte (Italian saying)
Even the eyes want their part.
I am always fascinated by the literal and figurative use of language especially to describe particular dishes; for example, pasta ca nocca (Sicilian): the pastais dressed with peas and fresh sardines.
Nocca is a bow or a ribbon in Sicilian. A coloured ribbon or a bow in one’s hair looks attractive – probably at the time Sicilians came up with its name rather than now. . This pasta contains peas, and the contrasting green against the pasta, is eye catching and demands admiration, hence the name. I make the dish even prettier by using farfalle shaped pasta (butterflies) although these look more like bows to me.
pasta, 500g, short pasta (such as farfalle , fusilli or shells)
sardines, 300g fillets
peas, 400g fresh, green, young and shelled
parsley, a small bunch, cut finely
onion, 1 cut finely
extra virgin olive oil, ¾ cup
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
grated pecorino, to taste
Soften the onion in the extra virgin olive oil.
Add the peas, seasoning and the parsley. Without the lid, stir the contents gently over medium heat until the peas are well coated with the oil and the parsley has softened.
Add a splash of water (or white wine or vegetable stock), cover and cook gently until the peas have softened.
Add the sardines and continue to braise the contents uncovered until the sardines have cooked (only a few minutes) and broken up in the sauce.
As an alternative, I like to lightly fry the sardines separately and then add them to the cooked pasta and the peas. This is not the traditional method for this recipe, but I particularly like to taste individual flavours.
Present with grated pecorino.
In some households a little tomato salsais added to the peas.
Others add wild fennel.
Some use anchovies instead of fresh sardines.
In this recipe I am using Red Mullet, also known as Goatfish; they are called Trigle in Italian. In Australia this little fish is very underrated, but travel to any country around the Mediterranean and southern Europe and you will find that it is highly esteemed.
Orecchiette, (pasta shaped like little ears) are popular in Puglia, a region in southern Italy bordering the Adriatic Sea in the east and the Ionian Sea to the southeast.
Replace the Red Mullet with any other sweet tasting white fish, such as whiting or try crabmeat – both are sustainable. Pink Ling, Red Snapper and Red emperor are also suitable for this dish and all have an attractive pink skin; they are all fished in Australia and/or New Zealand and both countries aim to manage for a sustainable and productive stock (overfishing has occurred in the past and stocks in certain locations still require rebuilding – in Think Twice Category by The Australian Marine Conservation Society).
I always select less than the standard recommended 100g of pasta per person, especially if it is not for a main course. The following amount will feed 5-6 people in my household.
300g fish: red mullet or similar cut into bite size pieces
300g broccoli or cauliflower or broccolini ( separated or cut into small pieces)
¾ cup of olive oil,
2 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
1 cup of chopped parsley
4 chopped tomatoes
1-2 chillies, remove the seeds if you do not want the dish to be hot
salt to taste
Sauté the garlic and chillies in about ½ cup of oil, add the broccoli and toss them around in the pan until they are well coated. Add the chopped anchovies and cook until softened. You may prefer to leave the broccoli with a little crunch – if not – add a splash of water and cook for longer.
Remove the contents from the pan and set aside.
Pan-fry the fish lightly in the same pan with the rest of the oil.
Add the chopped tomatoes and parsley and cook for a few minutes until the tomatoes have softened.
Mix the two cooked components and reheat.
Dress the cooked pasta with the above sauce and serve.
I live in an apartment in Melbourne and have a balcony where I can only grow herbs. Fortunately I am very close to the Queen Victoria Market – it is my stamping ground. I am able to buy bulb fennel and bunches of leafy fennel (fronds attached) at one of my favourite stalls: B Shed, Stall 61- 63) in the Queen Victoria Market.
The stall is owned by Gus and Carmel and they grow some of their produce. Gus is Calabrese. He knows that I cook Sicilian food and I like to use this type of fennel for my Sicilian Pasta con le sarde that includes wild fennel as one of the ingredients. It is frequently used in Sicilian food to add a particular aniseed taste to many dishes.
We are not able to buy bunches of wild fennel (finucchiu sarvaggiu in Sicilian) in Australia and not everybody can go out and forage for it – you will recognise the plants by the strong aniseed smell and taste, strong green colour and fine fern like fronds. I collect the soft, young shoots of this plant, recognised by their lighter colour. This fennel is unlike the Florentine fennel and has no bulb. Because of its strong smell and taste, animals and insects tend not to eat it, so it can be prolific. I always ensure that the plant looks healthy before I collect it, after all it is a weed and it could have been sprayed. If I were to grow wild fennel in my garden I would collect the seeds (yellow flower heads) which when dry develop into seeds and plant them.
But for those of you who cannot get wild fennel there is some salvation. At the end of the fennel season the fennel plant produces some flat bulbs, which never mature.
Gus has given me his recipe for one of his favourite pasta recipes. It is cooked with anchovies, fennel fronds and topped with fried breadcrumbs. He tells me it is Calabrese (from Calabria). I say that it is Sicilian and in fact in Sicilian it is called ‘Pasta cca muddica’.
But Gus forgets that he has already given me this recipe, he gives it to me every year when I buy the immature bunches of fennel from him.
What I do not tell Gus is that in some parts of Sicily they add grated lemon peel and in the Aeolian islands they add capers and in Siracusa green olives. There are also versions where it is made without the fennel. Simple, but all good.