Blog

We have lift-off!

So, it’s been a bit quiet on the blog front recently, but sometimes the best ideas are those that are slow-cooked!

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You may have noticed my site has been renamed Aldo In Cucina – it’s a minor change, but my new name has a broader meaning. Where ‘Aldo cucina’ means Aldo cooks, or Aldo’s kitchen, the new name means ‘Aldo in the kitchen’, which is pretty much where you’ll find me at parties, and more so in 2019 when I will be launching some private and exclusive in-home Italian food and wine experiences. And I mean what I say when I say ‘experiences’ – don’t expect to just come for the food and wine, expect to be immersed in the Italian tradition of celebrating with food. There will be more details on this venture coming Oct-Nov this year, a few official launches planned, and of course, more recipes and ideas to share on my blog.

The blog is also changing. There will still be recipe sharing, but you’ll also get to see more of what I’m up to in my kitchen and in the kitchens of others, and there will also be a section dedicated to the Aldo In Cucina food and wine events where you will also be able to see how you can be involved. I’m pretty excited about it and can’t wait to share with you all what I have planned!

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Last night was a pretty big night, though. I was invited by my dear friend, Anita, Director of Creative Industries at Seymour College, to launch Aldo In Cucina at the College’s launch of their Creative Industries program. The brief: around 200 people, canapes featuring sweet and savouries, lots of food and make it good! Sure! No pressure! Given that this was a bigger event than those that I am ever really wanting to cater, with the help of my wonderful support team (my husband, Matt, and sister-in-law, Lilli) and the waitressing prowess of the Seymour Year 11 Drama students (in character!) I was able to serve up an Italian menu of assorted crostini, amuse-bouche and dolci! It was an at-times terrifying concept – catering for that number of people out of a tiny little kitchen – but if the theme of the night was about making and taking opportunities to make something enterprising out your creativity, then this was the right forum to take that leap of faith.

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Dorinda Hafner – one of the Earth’s true angels. An infectious spirit that just beams with happiness, positivity and electric creative energy. If you ever need someone to ignite your dreams with the flame of your own self-belief, try to find Dorinda! There’s a real magic around this woman!

Being able to rub shoulders with the delightful, life-affirming and inspiring Dorinda Hafner, to have her rave about my food and even take a stash of chocolate salami for the road was the icing on the very much cake! Dorinda was there to moderate a hypothetical discussion about creative industries hosting a panel of industry professionals including Australian Hollywood actor Lasarus Ratuere (‘Mabo’, ‘The Mule’, ‘Ghost in the Shell’, ‘Ready For This’ and Sci-Fi series ‘Terra Nova’ produced by Steven Spielberg), singer and musician Jo Elms (an accomplished singer and composer in her own right but who has also been backing vocalist to artists such as Rick Price, Glen Shorrock, Margaret Urlich and, a personal favourite, Tina Arena!), ‘Rock God’ and The Zep Boys frontman, Vince Contarino, and trailblazer, survivor of the debated ‘war on free-to-air-television’, and all-round beautiful human, Lauren Hillman, who, through her active lobbying to keep community television alive in her work with Adelaide’s Channel 44, was recently named by In Daily as a winner of the inaugural 40 Under 40 Awards. So, just a few creative minds in the room just casually enjoying Caprese sticks and Florentines after the formalities in my presence!

Seymour students displayed their art, design and media works in the foyer of the Seymour Centre for the Performing Arts, while in the theatre, student drama, dance and film works were presented showcasing the enormous array of talent at the school. As a Drama teacher myself, it was so inspiring to see the support for the Arts as a real industry in a way that wasn’t so celebrated when I told my parents that I wanted to be an actor and director. Creativity is the core skill that all future employers and careers will demand of our young people, along with an enterprising and entrepreneurial spirit to forge ahead in every competitive industry.

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Fabulous Creatives! (L-R) Lasarus Ratuere, Dorinda Hafner, Anita Baltutis, Jo Elms, Vince Contarino
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Lasarus and I getting ready for our screen test for the next ‘The Smurfs’ movie…
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Snagging a catch-up with the wonderful Lauren Hillman
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Seymour College Principal, Kevin Tutt, officially launching the Creative Industries program at the College

The feedback from the close to 200 guests was really rewarding and encouraging. Dorinda spoke in the hypothetical about any sort of creative work as being in service to others, and that if you stop approaching creativity as being a service, then you should get out of the game. I spoke with her about this after the event while she sourced any of the remaining canapes that contained prosciutto! For me, food has always been about creativity and using that creativity to serve others. I feel a huge sense of satisfaction when I create something in the kitchen; like Dorinda, I want to make food that you need to take a photograph of before you can disturb it for the eating, and when people compliment me on my food, I very rarely say ‘thank you’ as though I created it to please myself, I will always say ‘Oh good! I’m glad!’ because I am happy that I achieved my intentions: to make the eating experience pleasurable and exciting for someone else. It’s about sharing creativity, and I think I needed to hear that last night as I embark on my new food venture. Creativity is the source of everything, and the future of everything, and I am excited about what my two creative passions – food and drama – have in store for me in 2019 and beyond.

Now, for the food! This was last night’s menu:

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SOURDOUGH CROSTINI 

Pear | Prosciutto | Gorgonzola Dolce | Parmesan | Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Avocado | Grapefruit | Dijon Vinaigrette

Avocado | Grapefruit | Goats Curd | Prawn | Dijon Vinaigrette

Mushroom | Thyme | Parsley | Garlic | Extra Virgin Olive Oil

AMUSE-BOUCHE – CAPRESE STICKS

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Bocconcini | Basil | Cherry Tomato

Prosciutto | Bocconcini | Basil | Cherry Tomato

DOLCI

Vanilla Panna Cotta | Macerated Strawberries

Dark Chocolate Florentines

Vegan Florentines

Chocolate Salami

Strawberries

A huge thank you to Anita and Seymour College for the opportunity to launch Aldo In Cucina alongside the Creative Industries program, and to support the exciting future of the Creative Industries as the College.

An even bigger enormous thanks to Matt and Lilli for being the essential engines that allowed this rocket to lift-off last night.

Feeling proud, humbled, and looking forward to the next course!

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What a team! Matt and Lilli looking fabulous in their Aldo In Cucina t-shirts helping to feed the masses! Not quite sure how Jesus did this with just a loaf of bread and two fishes – we were under the pump with more crostini, Panna Cotta and Florentines than we had bench space for in our little kitchen, but super proud of what we achieved together. I honestly could not have done it without them!

Patata L-Forn – Maltese Roast Traybake

Since my Nanna died in October, 2017, I have found myself increasingly turning to Maltese cuisine when it comes to dinner time. I guess that is the transcendental power of food: it can spiritually connect you to a time, place or person no matter how far they may be. Interestingly, this is not a dish that I really remember my Nanna making for me – she probably did, but when I think of eating at Nanna’s house, I think of Hobz biz-Zejt for lunch, soups like brodu, minestra or my Nannu’s favourite ‘Widow’s Soup’, baked rice or pasta, Maltese ravjul (the ‘big sister’ to Italian ravioli), and the ‘good’ pastizzi! By ‘good’ pastizzi, I mean the pastizzi from ‘the old Maltese man who makes them’; these pastizzi were, and still are, like something you can only get on the Black Market – made the traditional way by a mysterious old Maltese person that you probably need to meet in a dark alley with a briefcase to get your stash…

But back to this recipe. This recipe is one that I really associate with my mother. It was, and very much still is, Mum’s go-to. For her, it is as much about the aniseed flavour that punctuates the roasted meat and vegetables as it is about convenience. I have made this for friends when they have come over for a dinner, primarily because it is a cinch to make and robust with flavour; it can be prepared in advance and thrown in the oven an hour before you’re ready to eat. It is as technically demanding as peeling and slicing some potatoes, but what you end up with is a whole meal in a pan which cooks itself while you are busy doing other things.

Patata l-forn literally translates to ‘potatoes in the oven’ but think of it more as a roast traybake. Maltese juries will be divided over how to make the perfect patata l-forn: Chicken, lamb or pork? Peas or no peas? Fennel seeds or caraway? This is likely to be a controversial blog post as my Mum and aunts and cousins are all following. Patata l-forn is to the Maltese what a roast chicken is to the English or Australians – there is no real one way to do it, but if you ask me there are a few things which cannot be compromised.

The first is potatoes. You want a good roasting potato; an all-rounder like Desiree will do nicely. What you cannot compromise on is potato placement: they must be arranged on top of the meat, covering the protein and vegetables below and very slightly overlapping. The contents below steam the underside of the potatoes as they roast making them soft to eat while going and crispy on top; the steam produced under the potatoes also makes the meat incredibly tender. Nanna and my Uncle Jim’s mum would sprinkle some Keen’s curry powder on top of the potatoes for an extra kick, and my mum likes it with a little paprika. Uncle Jim’s mum would often beat a few eggs with parmesan cheese and pour it all over the potatoes in the last five minutes of cooking. I am yet to try this myself, but I am intrigued.

The second is peas. And by peas I mean trusty, reliable frozen peas that you will nearly always have in the freezer. You’ll think that roasting peas in the oven would make them go mushy; they do go dull in colour and soft, but they do hold they shape well. Mum and Aunty Margaret will often add carrots and even cherry tomatoes. You could even add some sliced capsicum, zucchini or fennel, I suppose, but I tend to like the simplicity of the peas and potatoes alone.

Third for me is caraway seeds. Mum and I are #TeamCaraway while my Nanna and Aunty Margaret are #TeamFennel. Use either until you find your tribe. What you do want, though, is a whole spice seed that permeates the roast with that pungent aniseedy aroma.

The last is liquid, and this is the bit that will be controversial and potentially where I run the risk of making a Maltese cross (pun intended). Perhaps it is my Italian sensibilities at work here but I need something to mop up with a piece of crusty bread at the end of my meal; the addition of a little tomato paste dissolved in stock make this almost a self-saucing traybake. The peas and onions tenderise while the juices of the protein and aromatic spices thicken and flavour a light gravy that can be spooned over the meat and potatoes or absorbed by bread later. Mum, Aunty Margaret and my Nanna omit this entirely, pouring just a little water into the pan for moisture and steaming. I don’t know where I got the idea from that this was just how you made patata l-forn, but it is certainly how I make it and how we like to eat it.

You can essentially use whichever protein you like. My preference is chicken pieces: bone in and skin on, rubbed with a little oil and seasoned before covering with the potato duvet. Aunty Margaret and Uncle Jim love this with pork chops, and it is commonly made this way.

But as somewhat an ode to my mother, I have given you the recipe for patata l-forn with lamb chops, her protein of choice for this favourite dish.

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PATATA L-FORN
Potatoes in the Oven (Maltese Roast Traybake)
Serves 4 – 6

INGREDIENTS

  • 6 forequarter lamb chops (or 8 lamb cutlets, or 6 pork chops, or 8 – 10 chicken pieces or 4 – 6 chicken Maryland – chicken must be bone in, skin on)
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 3 or 4 potatoes, preferably Desiree or similar, peeled and sliced into 1cm thick discs
  • 3 or 4 garlic cloves, unpeeled but pressed with the back of a knife
  • 500g frozen peas, do not thaw
  • 3 teaspoons caraway seeds (or fennel seeds)
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste dissolved in 1 cup of chicken stock
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • Sea salt flakes and fresh cracked black pepper


METHOD

Preheat oven to 200 C (fan forced).

Tip the peas, still frozen, into a shallow roasting tray; one that will hold the peas and sauce without spilling – about an inch deep. (I have specified 500g of peas but this is approximate; you want to generously cover the full base of the pan

Add onion slices, pressed garlic, and a third of the caraway seeds. Give light drizzle of oil (about a tablespoon) and a pinch of salt, then mix well to evenly distribute the onion and seeds.

 

Season the lamb with more salt and pepper and arrange, evenly spaced, on top of the peas. Sprinkle one more teaspoon of caraway seeds evenly across the meat before lightly drizzling each lamb chop with a little more oil.

Lay the potato slices over the whole tray, slightly overlapping them, and totally covering the meat and peas. Season the potatoes with a generous pinch of salt and some cracked pepper, and the remaining caraway seeds.

Slowly and gently, pour the tomato paste and stock mixture into the base of the pan from one corner, try to avoid wetting the potatoes.

Give the potatoes a light drizzle with oil before roasting in the oven for about 45 mins – 1 hour, or until the meat is cooked and the potatoes are lightly bronzed and crispy on top but tender when pierced with a fork.

Serve immediately with chunky slices of crusty bread to soak up the gravy.

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Breakfast Hash

I am determined to represent Australia in the One Pan Cooking Olympics and when I do, this ‘Breakfast of Champions’ may well be my secret to winning gold – it’s certainly a winner in this household. It’s a winning combination of golden potatoes, flecks of bacon and gooey fried eggs with the subtle perfume of fresh herbs, best enjoyed with a fine blend of tea while watching the rain fall outside from your bedroom window. This is the ultimate one pan lazy weekend breakfast in bed food, so I beg you all to make this and Instagram your foodporn photos with hashtags like #neverleavingthisbedexcepttomakemorehash – and of course tagging @aldo_cucina!

I don’t have too much more to say about this except for the fact that you probably already have the ingredients in your fridge, pantry and garden, and that you can cut down the cooking time by half if you use a pan that you can cover with a lid. If you don’t have a lid for your pan, try covering it with some aluminium foil. I recently bought a new Tefal 30cm hard anodised non stick sautee pan on sale at Harris Scarfe for half-off which is perfect for this recipe.

Also, fresh herbs are necessary, so if you don’t at least have rosemary growing in your garden, get some. It is unkillable and will add a subtle woodiness to recipes like this. I have made this with dried herbs before and I find the flavour too intense and almost soapy.

Don’t fear middle rashes of bacon as the fat will render and give even more salty caramelisation to the potatoes; having said this, short cut bacon works just fine, and the ultimate indulgence is to substitute the bacon with chunks of chorizo which will pepper the hash with its fiery juices. Go on, I dare you!

Right, that’s it. Best get cracking!

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Serves 2

INGREDIENTS

  • 4 medium potatoes good for frying (like Royal Blue or Red Delight), peeled and cut into roughly 1.5cm cubes
  • 150g bacon, chopped roughly into 1 – 1.5cm pieces
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves, roughly chopped, plus a little extra for sprinkling
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, plus a little extra for sprinkling
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 free range eggs
  • 1/4 cup pecorino, finely grated
  • pinch of kosher sea salt flakes
  • fresh cracked black pepper, to taste

METHOD

  1. Heat oil in a large non-stick pan, preferably one with a lid, over medium heat.
  2. Tumble in the potatoes and add a pinch of salt. Mix to cover evenly in the oil. Cover and cook for about 15 minutes, stirring regularly to prevent burning, or until the potatoes are evenly golden and tender. (You can cook the potatoes for longer – they will take about 30 minutes, so cover with foil if you your pan does not have a lid)
  3. Remove the lid an add the bacon pieces and garlic and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, or until the bacon is evenly coloured and cooked to your liking.
  4. Add the fresh herbs and toss through the potatoes and bacon.
  5. Use your mixing spoon to create four wells in the potato mixture, evenly spaced. Crack an egg into each well and cover the eggs and potatoes with a good sprinkling of grated pecorino. Cook, uncovered, over medium heat until the whites are firm and the yolks still soft.
  6. Remove from the heat and season with cracked black pepper and some extra fresh rosemary, thyme and pecorino.
  7. Lift the eggs and potato and bacon hash out of the pan with an egg slide. Serve immediately.

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Pumpkin, Strawberry and Gorgonzola ‘Traybake’ Salad

Okay, so I love a traybake. I love the simplicity, the lack of washing up, and the lack of plating up. But to be fair, this is more of a traybake-salad hybrid. In the spirit of the one-pan dinner (my preferred way to cook) you can literally take this one straight from the oven to the table with just a little artless assembly (my preferred way to assemble) along the way.

Half of the inspiration for this has been brewing in my mind for a few weeks now. My sister-in-law, Lilli, was going to be in town and asked if I’d like to meet for lunch after I finished up at work. We decided to meet at Old Friend bistro and bar on Pirie Street where I had caught up with, aptly, an old friend for lunch a few weeks before. By happy circumstance, my husband’s office was a street away and he was free for lunch, and our nephew, Christopher, and his girlfriend, Alice, were also around and free for lunch! Our lunch for two became an impromptu family catchup for six. The fabulous yet concise menu at Old Friend provides something to please everyone, yet it was Alice’s vegan roast pumpkin salad that was the table showstopper and the source of lots of plate envy: think thick wedges of roasted pumpkin with salad leaves, grilled stone fruit and accessorised with ruby red pomegranate jewels. It looked so beautiful on the plate that it has stuck in my mind as something I might one day try to replicate.

The other half of the inspiration for this recipe was a salad I made for a Christmas brunch a few years ago which consisted of baby spinach leaves, pecans, gorgonzola and strawberries. Blue cheese isn’t to everyone’s liking, and even if it isn’t your fromage du jour, I urge you to be open-minded: the sharp saltiness of the cheese is the perfect counterbalance to the sweetness of fruit, and this salad is a perfect example of how to make these flavours work in perfect harmony.

So, I have taken the essence of the strawberry, spinach and gorgonzola salad and coupled it with roasted pumpkin to create something that is sure to prove that you can, very much, make friends with salad!

 

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PUMPKIN, STRAWBERRY AND GORGONZOLA TRAYBAKE SALAD
Serves 4 as a main or 8 as an entree

INGREDIENTS

  • 1/2 large Jap pumpkin; seeds reserved
  • 100g pecans
  • 1 punnet strawberries; leaves removed, quartered
  • 2 large handfuls (about 120g) beetroot leaves (or rocket or baby spinach)
  • 100g pecan kernels
  • 180g Gorgonzola Dolce cheese
  • 2 tablespoons sunflower seeds
  • 10 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • A good pinch of salt

METHOD

Preheat oven to 220C and line a baking tray with baking paper.

Slice the pumpkin into 8 equal sized wedges and reserve the seeds. Separate the seeds and remove the stringy fibres. Arrange the pumpkin pieces on the tray so they are evenly spaced.

Sprinkle the pecans and pumpkin seeds evenly over the tray and drizzle with 2 tablespoons oil and a sprinkle of salt.

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Place the tray in the oven and bake for about 30-35 minutes or until the pumpkin is tender and the skin is a little coloured, being careful to roast but not burn the pecans. Do not to overcook or else the pumpkin will not hold its shape.

Meanwhile, in a small jar with a secure lid, add the honey, the remaining oil, and the balsamic vinegar. Shake vigorously to make a dressing making sure the honey is totally combined. Set aside.

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Remove the tray from the oven and distribute the leaves evenly over the pumpkin still in the tray. Then, evenly sprinkle over the quartered strawberries.

With your hands, break up the gorgonzola into small blobs and dot the salad with the cheese, then sprinkle over the sunflower seeds.

Give the jar of dressing a final shake and then drizzle a few tablespoons over the whole salad.

Place the whole tray on the table with a few salad servers and the jar of leftover dressing on the side, and let everyone help themselves.

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Pappardelle with Italian Sausage and Cime di Rapa

I will never forget the day I walked into Tony & Mark’s and saw something I hadn’t seen since I was a kid in my Nonno’s garden: a bunch of unappetising-looking weeds that could be mistaken for something that might have been salvaged from the greens bin. I’m not really selling this, I know, but you must understand how overjoyed I was to see I could purchase such wonderment in Australia! Unsurprisingly, I had quite a hard time convincing Matt that this was not only edible but delicious when he saw me chopping up the deep green stalks and leaves and adding them to the pan; however, despite taking his first bite with caution, he was quickly won over, and the seconds and thirds that were to at least cover us for lunch the next day were soon devoured. In fact, this pasta dish should perhaps be titled ‘The Other Pasta Matt Loves To Eat’; it is certainly a dish that is on rotation in our house when we are lucky enough to find the leafy bitter greens at the greengrocer.

Cime di rapa, or rapini or broccoli rabe, is a cruciferous vegetable that looks something like the lovechild of broccolini, rocket and English spinach. It’s tougher stalks give way to deep green large rough leaves with a sprinkling of broccolini-like florets. It is popular in southern Italian and Roman cuisine, often boiled then sautéed with olive oil, garlic and chilli as a side dish or as an accompaniment to sausage in a panino. The bitterness of the wilted greens seems to be the perfect companion to pork, chilli and garlic, and this recipe makes the most of the fire and caramelised butteriness that occurs when these flavours are allowed to infuse together.

You’ll have noticed by now that when I cook, and when I eat, I want full flavour with minimal effort, hence my preference for more rustic dishes. Also, I’m usually too impatient for finicky food when I’d rather be on the couch with a bowl of something comforting than fussing in the kitchen over something complicated. This is one such dish; the accompaniment is ready in the time it takes to boil the pasta. I say ‘accompaniment’ as this is not so much a sauce as it is some spiced sautéed ingredients tossed through some pasta. I specify using Italian pork sausages as opposed to pork mince; the higher fat content of the sausage provides a deeper flavour than pork mince and the texture is squeakier and uneven. Look for pure pork sausages, but if you can only find pork and fennel sausages, you may wish to halve the amount of fennel seeds or omit them altogether.

Rapini can be hard to find, though I have increasingly seen it sold in supermarkets, and tends to be available only seasonally through winter, unless you have access to seeds to grow them yourself or you know a good Italian gardener who will generously give you some. I have grown my own and it is not terribly demanding to harvest your own crop even in containers. Seeds can be purchased online from Franchi Sementi or The Italian Gardener; if you are in Adelaide, I purchased mine from Imma & Mario’s Mercato in Campbelltown. If you crave this pasta and rapini is not easy to acquire, a mixture of silverbeet or English spinach and broccolini make a reasonable substitute.

PAPPARDELLE CON SALSICCE E CIME DI RAPA
Pappardelle with Italian Sausage and Broccoli Rabe
Serves 6

INGREDIENTS

  • 500g Egg Pappardelle
  • 6 Italian pork sausages (approx 450g), casings removed
  • 1 large bunch Cime di Rapa (Broccoli Rabe), roughly chopped
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 brown onion, diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried chilli flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1 teaspoon kosher sea salt flakes
  • Handful of finely grated pecorino + more for sprinkling
  • 1 cup of the reserved pasta cooking water

METHOD

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil.

Meanwhile, toast the fennel seeds and chilli flakes in a dry sauté pan over medium heat until fragrant.

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Add half the oil, onion and salt and sauté until the onions start to colour.

Add the sausage meat and cook until browned using a fork or wooden spook to break down the clumps.

Deglaze the pan with the wine and cook a few minutes to evaporate the alcohol.

Meanwhile, add the pasta to the pot of water and cook until al dente.

Add the nutmeg and the tougher cime di rapa stalks to the sausage and onion mixture first and cook for a few minutes until the stalks start to soften but still retain a little crunch. Then add the chopped leaves and the garlic and cook, stirring, until wilted.

By this time, the pasta should be cooked to al dente. Use tongs to lift the pasta from the pot and add straight to the pan with the sausage and wilted leaves. Add the remaining all and the grated pecorino as well as half the reserved starchy pasta cooking water. Toss to combine well adding more pasta water if needed to evenly coat the pappardelle and create a sauce.

Serve into bowls sprinkling with more cheese and dried chilli to taste.

Spaghetti A’Matt’riciana – or the Amatriciana Matt Loves To Eat!

There is something that seems so utterly right about eating Italian food which proudly and unapologetically reflects the colours of the Italian flag. When I do so, there’s a part of me that wonders just how patriotic Queen Margherita of Savoy must have felt when presented with a pizza made especially for her upon her visit to Napoli shortly after the unification of Italy; the combination of basil, mozzarella and tomato on a pizza base is famously thought to be named after her following this particular dining out experience.

Italian dishes are often named after the person who made it, where they made it or for whom it was made. Amatriciana receives its name from the town of Amatrice in the Lazio region, a mountainous area in central Italy, and from whence this sauce originates. My recipe for making this sauce, however, gets its name from my husband, Matt, who requests this pasta sauce more than any other – this is the Amatriciana that Matt loves to eat! Typical of the sugo all’Amatriciana are ingredients reflecting the national flag. Fiery dried chilli, blushing ripe tomatoes and rose-coloured guanciale (cured pig cheek, or alternatively pancetta or bacon) make up the brilliant red of the colour palette, while onions, garlic and pecorino provide the white. While not traditional of Amatriciana, I insist on the stalks and leaves from fragrant fresh basil, equal parts for the extra burst of flavour and for making up the full tricolore – why should Queen Margherita have all the fun?

I must insist that you only ever make Amatriciana with ripe fresh tomatoes – no tinned tomatoes or passata – and you will understand why when you make it. This is not a thick ragu-style sauce like it’s distant cousin from Bologna. Rather, the softened tomatoes and their juices coat the pasta thickened by the starchy water in which is was cooked, snagging flecks of tomato flesh and cured meat in the tangled web of the spaghetti. I must also insist that you do not drain your pasta in a colander or rinse it under water. The starchy water is a necessary ingredient to ensure an even thick coating of sauce over your pasta.

Bacon is perfectly suitable for this dish, though guanciale or pancetta are the ultimate indulgence if you can find it. I turn to this recipe so regularly for emergency dinners because there is usually always bacon in the freezer than can be quickly defrosted, tomatoes in the fridge, and onions, garlic and chilli on hand. If using bacon, you must use middle rashers, rind removed, with still some bacon fat evident that will render and infuse your sauce. You can use whatever pasta you want, but to make an authentic A’Matt’riciana, spaghetti or pappardelle should be favoured. However, my university food obsession was Tortellini Amatriciana – my Italian classes were usually later in the evening and a few classmates and I could often be found at Piatto on Rundle Street for a pre-class dinner: so began my 20+ year relationship with this sauce, preferably coating stuffed pasta belly-buttons (true story, this is what inspired the design of tortellini.)

Finally, invest in a good drinking dry white wine – you want about a cup for the pan and you will appreciate a glass or two while eating. Tonight’s choice, an Adelaide Hills Seabrook Pinot Grigio, was on point. There’s something about the way the dry wine counterbalances the acidic tomato and punchy chilli that is most satisfying.

I hope you will love to eat this as much as Matt does.

SPAGHETTI A’MATT’RICIANA (or the AMATRICIANA THAT MATT LOVES TO EAT!)
Serves 4 – 6

INGREDIENTS

  • 500g good quality dried spaghetti
  • 4 large ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped into chunks
  • 400g bacon (middle rashers, rind removed), roughly cut into 1cm pieces; or guanciale or pancetta finely diced
  • 1/2 bunch fresh basil; stalks finely chopped and leaves roughly shredded
  • 1 large red onion
  • 2 teaspoons dried chilli flakes, plus extra for sprinking
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 200ml dry white wine
  • salt
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup of water in which the pasta is cooked
  • grated pecorino cheese, to taste
  • A few tablespoons of fresh ricotta (optional)

METHOD

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rapid boil.

Meanwhile, in a large non-stick pan (one that can be covered securely with a lid), heat the oil over medium high heat. Add  onion, garlic, chilli flakes and basil stalks with a pinch of salt to prevent burning and sautee until softened but not browned.

Add the bacon (or guanciale or pancetta if using) to the pan and sautee until the meat softens and just takes on the slightest hint of colour. You do not want dry or crispy bacon pieces.

Add the tomatoes and combine with the sauteed onions then add the wine. Stir well then reduce the heat to medium, clamp on the lid and allow to simmer for 5 – 10 minutes or until the tomatoes have softened and starting to form a pulpy sauce. Check occasionally during simmering and help the tomatoes along by pressing them down with your spoon.

While the sauce is simmering, cook your spaghetti in the pot of salted water until al dente.

Once the pasta is cooked and the sauce has come together, add 1/2 to 3/4 cup of the pasta water to the tomatoes and stir for about a minute or until the starchy water has thickened the sauce.

Use tongs to lift the spaghetti from the water and add it straight to the sauce. Sprinkle over a small handful of grated pecorino and the torn basil leaves and toss the pasta through the sauce to coat evenly. Add a little extra pasta water if needed, and taste to see if you want a little extra cheese.

Serve topped with fresh ricotta and more basil, dried chilli flakes and pecorino.

Crispy Chermoula Salmon and Couscous Salad

Making your own spice mixes and pastes seems overwhelming for midweek cooking, especially when you can save yourself the hassle and just buy something in a jar off the shelf. However, if you’re like me (and if you’re reading a food blog, you probably are) you like to make your own when you can because you know what is going into your food and you know you can’t beat the flavour of something you have made fresh yourself. Truth be told, making your own mixes and pastes is an effortless affair when you have a decent food processor to do the busy work for you. This chermoula paste could not be simpler; you could skip the extra minute it takes to toast the whole spices before adding them to the food processor if you were feeling particularly impatient, but to do so would see you miss out on the smoky warmth that this simple step gives your marinade.

Chermoula is a paste used as a marinade or relish prominent in Algerian, Libyan, Moroccan and Tunisian cuisine. While it is traditionally used to flavour seafood, it can be used on meats and vegetables, too. The first time I had chermoula it was as a relish pasted onto grilled lamb cutlets after they had been cooked – a herb sauce as opposed to a marinade. While chermoula pastes can vary from region to region, you will find garlic, cumin, coriander and lemon in almost every mixture.

Here, the chermoula is used as a thick textured marinade. You will notice the spices are toasted but not ground and I think it is important to retain the texture of the whole spices in this recipe; the coriander seeds, especially, cling to the salmon flesh and give a burst of spice when you crush them while eating that you don’t get with ground spices. The salmon is grilled in this recipe – not baked, but grilled under the griller element of the oven – which cooks the salmon flesh tenderly in around 7 minutes while producing a satisfyingly crispy bronze skin. Be sure to press as much of the chermoula paste into the salmon flesh sides and base before grilling, but remove excess paste from the skin to prevent burning.

The couscous salad is purposely not complicated with excess flavours from spices or stock as the chermoula marinade of the salmon really carries across the whole dish. Instead, the freshness of the cucumber, fresh herbs and tangy yoghurt cut through the complex spices, not to mention the sweet and sharp bursts of those ruby pomegranate jewels.

After experimenting with grilling salmon for this recipe, I think this is the only way I will cook crispy skinned salmon from this point on. I think you’ll be impressed with how perfectly it cooks through, too.

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CRISPY CHERMOULA SALMON AND COUSCOUS SALAD
Serves 4

INGREDIENTS

  • 4 salmon fillets, equal sized, skin on

For the Chermoula Paste:

  • 1 tablespoon whole cumin seeds
  • 2 tablespoons whole coriander seeds
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 3 long green chillis
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 piece fresh ginger (3cm length), peeled
  • 1/2 large bunch flat leaf parsley, leaves and stalks
  • 1/2 large bunch fresh mint, leaves and stalks
  • 1/2 large bunch fresh coriander, leaves and stalks
  • 1 lemon, zest and juice
  • 1 big pinch of kosher sea salt flakes (eg Maldon)
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

For the Couscous Salad

  • 1 cup couscous
  • 2 cups boiling water
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 Lebanese cucumber, diced
  • 1/2 large bunch fresh mint leaves
  • 1/2 large bunch fresh parsley leaves
  • 1/2 large bunch fresh coriander leaves
  • 400g tin chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 80g pine nuts, toasted
  • seeds from one pomegranate

For the yoghurt dressing

  • 1/2 cup natural yoghurt (I like the creamy consistency of Tamar Valley Greek Style)
  • 1 garlic clove, finely minced
  • juice from 1/2 lemon
  • pinch of salt

METHOD

Prepare the Chermoula Paste and Salmon:

Toast the whole cumin and coriander seeds and the paprika together in a dry pan over high heat until slightly toasted and aromatic.

Place the toasted herbs into a food processor with all the remaining ingredients for the paste mix except for the oil.

Blitz on high speed while slowly adding the oil to the processor to form a thick paste.

Empty the paste into a large freezer or zip lock bag.

Place the salmon in the bag with the chermoula paste. Close the bag securely and use your hands to smoosh the paste all over the salmon. Set aside to marinade for 30 minutes or longer in the fridge. If marinading in the fridge for longer, be sure to bring the salmon to room temperature for 30 minutes before cooking.

To cook the salmon:

Light the grill on your oven.

Line a baking tray with aluminium foil. Place a wire rack over the foil in the tray. Oil the rack with olive oil or cooking spray.

Place the salmon, skin side up, on the wire rack. Use a knife or spoon to remove the excess paste from the skin but try to press as much paste into the sides and base of the fish as you can – you want these flavours and texture!

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Place under the grill for about 6 – 8 minutes or until the skin of the salmon has browned and turned crispy, being careful not to burn it. (Mine was perfect at 7 minutes).

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Remove from the oven and use an egg slide to carefully lift the salmon from the rack. The salmon will be succulent and tender so be careful and gentle when lifting.

Serve atop the couscous salad with a dollop of yoghurt.

To make the salad:

Place the couscous in a large bowl with a tablespoon of butter. Pour over the boiling water. Cover and set aside for about 5 minutes or until the liquid has been absorbed.

Fluff up the cooked couscous with a fork.

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Add the cucumber, chickpeas and chopped leaves.

Sprinkle over the pomegranate seeds and pine nuts.

To make the yoghurt sauce:

Combine the salt, lemon juice and garlic in a small bowl. Check for flavour and add more salt, juice or garlic if you wish.

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