Spicy Baby Octopus Stew

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This dishes just screams of southern Italy, a combination of seafood, chilli, tomatoes and basil couldn’t be more southern Italian if it tried.

2 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 red chillies, deseeded and chopped
400g baby octopus, cleaned and cut into small pieces
A good splash of white wine
2 tomatoes, peeled and diced
4 tbsp tomato sauce
10 basil
4 slices Italian bread, toasted
(1). Heat your olive oil in a pan over a medium heat. Add the garlic and chillies, and gently fry for a minute or two without colouring.

(2). Add the octopus and fry for few minutes, turning once, until white and sealed.

(3). Pour in the wine and simmer briskly to allow the alcohol to evaporate.

(4). Add the diced tomatoes and the tomato sauce and simmer for 3-4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, then add the basil leaves and simmer for 2 minutes more.

(5). Place some octopus and the sauce in the middle of each plate. Drizzle with olive oil.

(6). Set the toasted bread on the side and serve.

Ciabatta

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Ciabatta is a very popular Italian bread. The recipe below shows the Italian method of making ciabatta, it may seem like a long drawn out process, but believe me it’s worth it.

For the starter

250g ’00’ flour
190ml water
15g yeast

For the bread

250g ’00’ flour
10g yeast
190ml water
12g salt

(1). To make the starter, mix the flour with the water in a bowl and add the yeast. Whisk for three minutes and leave to rise overnight or for atleast eight hours.

(2). Next day, add the rest of the flour and yeast to the starter and mix to a dough.

(3). Add the rest of the water, little by little, to the bread mixture.

(4). When almost all the water has been added, add the salt to the last of the water and mix together for a further five minutes, until a sticky dough is formed.

(5). Place the dough into a large oiled bowl and leave to prove for an hour.

(6). Turn the dough out on to a heavily floured (ideally polenta flour or semolina) then gently in the flour till coated and leave to rest for a further 30 minutes (the coating of course flour will help stop the dough spreading during cooking).

(7). Preheat the oven to 240 centigrade/ Gas mark 8.

Gently place the dough onto a oiled baking sheet and shape into a flat ciabatta loaf shape.

Bake in the oven for 25 minutes, or until risen and golden-brown and hollow-sounding when tapped.

Remove and cool on a wire rack.

Venetian Stuffed Gnocchi

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Gnocchi is eaten, in one way or another, all over Italy. In Venice gnocchi is stuffed and served with sage butter. I made my stuffing with butternut squash, but you could stuff your gnocchi with seasonal squash if you can get hold of them.

1 quantity Potato gnocchi
a little closer our, for dusting

For the filling –

300g butternut squash, peeled and chopped
100g parmesan, finely grated
1 egg, plus 1 egg yolk extra
150g soft breadcrumbs
grating nutmeg

Pinch of salt
1 sprig rosemary, finely chopped

For the sauce –

100g salted butter
15-20 sage leaves
freshly ground black pepper
50g parmesan, finely grated

(1). Preheat the oven to 180°C.

(2). Place squash  on a large baking tray, cover with foil and roast for 40 minutes. Remove the foil and roast for another 15 minutes or until soft. Make sure the pumpkin doesn’t brown. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Put the flesh into a food processor and blend or into a large mixing bowl and mash by hand.

(3). Add the rest of filling ingredients, stir to combine and set aside.

(4). Make the gnocchi dough. Lightly flour a large board or section of your work surface next to where you are preparing the gnocchi. On a clean surface, roll the dough with a rolling pin into a rough rectangle 5 mm thick.

(5). Fill a piping bag with the filling mixture and 4 cm down from the top edge pipe a 2 cm thick sausage of stuffing.

(6). Fold the top edge of the dough over the filling and seal it in by gently pressing down with your fingers.

(7). Cut the length of gnocchi away from the rectangle and cut into pieces around 2 cm wide and 4 cm long. Set aside on a clean tea towel. Repeat the piping, folding, sealing and cutting process down the rest of the rectangle.

(8). Melt the butter with the sage leaves and black pepper in a large frying pan over a low heat.

(9). Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a gentle boil. Drop in the gnocchi and when they float up to the surface they are done – this takes about 2 minutes.

(10). Remove the gnocchi from the water with a slotted spoon and add them into the frying pan.

(11). Toss through and serve in warm bowls with Parmesan.

Barolo’s Golden Age

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For many generations Barolo has always been heralded as one of Italy’s truly great wines, but by the turn of this millennium, many people would say Barolo’s golden age was truly underway. From around the second half of the 1990s, a run of successful vintages were classified, by wine critics and consumers in varying degrees between good and outstanding.

Despite Barolo’s great name and figurehead status amongst Italian red wines, this was hardly typical. Even as recently as the 1980s, an average of three or four good years per decade at best was the norm for Barolo. With no historical precedent for such a favourable run, clearly there must be some sort of explanation.

Changes a foot

Climate change was certainly a factor, whether it be the higher temperatures in recent years, which many attributed to global warming or the cyclical nature of weather patterns, remains uncertain. Whatever the reason, growers agree that the warmer weather has been a bonus to their beloved Nebbiolo grape, which typically ripens in mid-October, and historically even later.

Some people say  more considered explanation points to a much needed improved approach to viticulture, particularly throughout the mid 1990s, from which producers are now reaping the benefit. Some say better clonal selection. Now producers treat each vine individually rather than with a broad systematic approach. Many Barolo producers made a general shift from the use of chemical treatments and fertilisers to more environmentally friendly farming methods, one or two even opting to take a more quality-centered approach to winemaking or maybe it was the finally widespread use of bunch thinning had the dramatic effect. This new method of bunch thinning, in particular, helped ripen Barolo fruit quicker than before, though some argue that the practice promotes a surge in sugar levels for the harvest.

Earlier ripening, however, does allow the Nebbiolo to be harvested before the arrival of the somewhat unpredictable weather that hits the Barolo around the middle of October. Many of Barolo’s producers tell tales of how their fathers would be a bag of nerves leading up to harvest time, never knowing whether or not the grapes would ripen before the bad weather set in.

Keeping it green

In the late 1990’s Barolo received  UNESCO recognition as a World Heritage site. This caused the organics movement to gather momentum. Techniques that were once avoided by many Barolo producers were an now an area where everyone wanted to be, making Barolo’s future most definitely green.

Cordero di Montezemolo, one of the few estates with a vineyard that surrounds its hilltop winery, released the first vintage of certified organic Barolo. Cavallotto, which had been using sustainable winemaking methods for decades, became the head of a growing family. Others began to follow, adopting new methods and techniques. There has even biodynamic farming, primarily the  Ceretto winery, began moving in that direction.

The third major factor was a much more careful approach to cellar practices, with improved hygiene and the use of better-maintained (and cleaner) wood. Even fermentation practices became better researched, though there is still plenty of variation in technique – from fermenting in open-topped wooden vats to the use of batteries of gleaming stainless steel fermenters of all shapes and sizes. These changes gave producers a freedom of expression, which more than certainly appeared in the resulting wines.

This is why Barolo today has a broad spectrum of styles, from a bright, pale garnet to a much deeper and darker, ruby-toned colour; from intense and earthy to  richer and more powerful aromas and from medium to full body wines. But the classic Barolo structure based on high levels of acid, tannin and alcohol remain constant.

Nature or nurture?

The combination of  these three factors, with the added onset of a coming golden age made a lot more sense. The Barolo region is now basking in a newfound sense of self-confidence. It’s production has doubled over the past 25 years due to rising public demand. Many growers have built on that success even further and Barolo has a far more commercial, approachable style than it has ever had before.

Problems do still occur, but this is the unpredictability of winemaking, it can never be truly controlled. In a climatic shift, once warmer years were the most successful, but now cooler vintages seem to produce the truly stunning classic Barolo wines, which never fail to surprise. Perhaps it’s simply that producers have learned how to cope with the trickier vintages that once beat them.

Seafood Cavatelli

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Pasta with seafood is one of the simplest, yet probably most delicious bowls of food you can ever eat. The Italians love the simple flavour combination of fresh seafood, tomatoes, chilli, garlic and parsley.

olive oil
1 small chilli, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
4 cherry tomatoes, halved
6 mussels, cleaned
6 clams, cleaned
50ml white wine
8 prawns, shelled
1 langoustine
4 small scallops, sliced into four
100g cavatelli
chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

(1). Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Once it’s boiling add a couple of pinches of salt and then add your spaghetti to cook.
Place a large heavy bottom pan over a medium heat and add a glug of olive oil then lightly cook the chilli and garlic without colouring.

(2). Add the mussels, clams and the wine, cover and steam for a few minutes until they open. Remove the lid and disguard any that have remained closed. Remove from pan and set to one side.

(3). To the same pan add the langoustine, prawns and the sliced scallops and cook for a few minutes till the prawns are cooked through and pink.

(4). By now your pasta should be cooked so add it to the seafood pan and put the mussels and clams back in and add the chopped tomatoes then toss together well.
Add the chopped parsley and stir through.

(5). Serve.

Cannelloni alla Bolognese

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Canneloni isso easy to make, either make your own sheets or by prepared fresh egg lasagne sheets and use those. You could use the dried pasta cannelloni tubes but they are a real hassle to fill at times 🙂

lasagne pasta sheets

For the meat sauce

1 small onion, peeled, halved and finely chopped
1 carrot, fine diced
i celery stick, diced
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1tsp chopped thyme or oregano leaves
2tbsp olive oil
400g lean coarsely minced beef
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2tsp tomato passata
100ml red wine

for the tomato sauce
olive oil
1 large onion, fine diced
2 carrots, peeled and fine diced
2 celery sticks, fine diced
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tins good quality Italian chopped tomatoes
1tsp dried thyme

Parmesan, grated to serve

(1). Heat half a glug of olive oil in a large pan then gently cook the onion, carrot,celery, garlic and thyme for 2-3 minutes. Add the meat and brown well then add tomato purée and stir in, then gradually add the wine and beef stock, bring to the boil, season and simmer for about an hour until the sauce has thickened and is just coating the meat. Leave to cool.

(2). Then start making your tomato sauce. Heat a glug of olive oil in a large flat-bottomed pan over medium heat. Add the carrot, celery, onion and garlic and cook until softened but not coloured, about 5 minutes. Add the tinned tomatoes and the thyme then simmer until the sauce has thickened, around 20 to 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.

(3). Spoon some of the cold bollognese mixture onto the middle of your lasagne sheets then roll them up carefully into a tube, repeat with rest of lasagne sheets. Spoon a little of the tomato sauce in the bottom of a large baking dish then place the cannelloni in the dish, coat with more cheese sauce and scatter with grated parmesan then bake for 15-25 minutes or until it has glazed nicely.

(4). Serve topped with grated parmesan and torn basil.

Semolina & Herb Gnocchi

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Semolina Gnocchi

I love gnocchi, it tastes good and is easy and fun to make. Gnocchi is a very northern Italian thing, potatoes where a staple of the northern Italian diet therefore, Gnocchi was a good way of making other ingredients go further, flour for instance was expensive so by adding potatoes to it you could feed more people and make the flour go further.

Making Semolina Gnocchi is quite easy, but like most things it will take a couple of goes for you to get it just right, but once you do there are so many things you can do.

There are two important things to remember when making gnocchi-

(1). Work quickly – Gnocchi needs to be made while the potato is still warm, otherwise the end product is very heavy and chewy.

(2).  Work gnocchi as little as possible – The potato will absorb as much flour as you give it, all you will end up with is a floury tasting, heavy, rubber gnocchi, instead of something that melts in your mouth.
The recipe here should make about 500g of semolina gnocchi, a good quantity to start with so you can work quickly, once you get good the quantities can be easily doubled.

500g starchy potatoes (ideally Desiree), skin left on
1 egg, lightly beaten
170g semolina flour
Handful of parsley, fine chopped

(1). Have all ingredients ready and to hand.

(2). Pre heat oven to 200 degrees centigrade/ gas mark 6.

(3). Place the potatoes in a pan and cover with cold water and bring to boil then simmer till tender (about 40 mins – 1 hour). Then place the potatoes in oven to dry quickly.

(4). While potatoes are still hot, peel and then mash them fine or pass through a food mill into a bowl or onto a work surface.

(5). Make a well in centre and add the egg, herbs and salt and just over half the flour, mix well then add more flour until you get a soft pliable dough.

(6). Dust the work surface and flatten the dough into a rough circle. With a knife or by hand, divide the dough into four, then shape each of the four back into a circle.

(7). Dust your hands with a little flour and then take the individual pieces of dough and roll each piece out into a long thing sausage shape, ideally about the width of a bread stick. Do this with all four pieces of dough.
(8). With a knife cut the sausage lengths into one and a half centimetre nuggets, cut all the sausage shapes into pieces of equal size. If the gnocchi are different sizes they will not all cook evenly.

(9). Lightly dusting with flour all the time press the tines of a fork gently into each dough nugget, this should flatten them slightly but should also give the gnocchi its ridges which helps the sauce cling to them.

(10). You should end up with something like this. As you make each one place them on a lightly dusted tray ready to cook.

(11). You should really cook the gnocchi, you can keep them for up to an hour but keep shaking the flour dusted tray to prevent them sticking. If cooking in a few hours you could always part cook the gnocchi. Place them a few at a time in boiling salted water until they float to the surface, then remove with a slotted spoon and place on a tea towel to dry then store in a airtight container. This is also a good way to prepare gnocchi for baked gnocchi dishes.