Montepulciano d’Abbruzzo

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The rugged Adriatic Italian region of Abruzzo has become renowned for it’s Montepulciano, a splendid but much underrated grape variety that delivers rich and often complex red wines.

Despite producing wines of such quality, Abruzzo still struggles to gain a reputation as one of Italy’s serious wine producing regions.  This is not because of any major defects in this  indigenous variety, nor is it because of any lack of skilled producers. The main issue is that Montepulciano has a habit of leaving its native Abruzzo in large cooperative tankers and ending up in bottles of Chianti or other blended Italian reds, many of which can be found on the shelves of supermarkets. Abruzzo wine production is dominated by cooperatives with 80% of the regions wine being produced by coops.

Montepulciano is Abruzzo’s major player, the only other variety of any importance in the region is Trebbiano. Abruzzi Trebbiano  carries one major flaw which is in consumers eyes  Trebbiano is responsible for many low quality, mass produced Tuscan white wines. But Trebbiano d’Abruzzo is not the same thing as its Tuscan Trebbiano, and the wines it produces can be of great quality. Despite Trebbiano d’Abruzzo’s excellent potential for ageing, the majority of wine produced remains simple, never oaked or aged, for early drinking.

There are other varieties worth note that grow on Abruzzi soils. Pecorino (not the cheese), is a high-acid grape that grows and thrives on the regions higher slopes. Other whites such as  Passerina and Montonico are native Abruzzi grape varieties, but where previously used to make sparkling wine, but are now often been used to produce dry table wines drunk  around the regions hotels and restaurants .

As with the rest of Italy there is a rediscovery of ancient native varieties but Abruzzi’s star player is still Montepulciano. It’s versatility means it can produce many differing stles of wine capable of satisfying many different, yet discerning palates. It can be made in stainless steel to produce a simple wine with freshness and clear fruit flavours. But if managed correctly and produced in low yields, it can be aged in wood to create wines of altogether greater depth, concentration and complexity, many of which would rival the mid to high priced Tuscan wines.

Mussel Risotto

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Across Italy there are many, thousands probably, risotto recipes. One of my favourite risottos  are those with seafood.

This risotto only uses mussels as I love the clean, fresh flavour of mussels and the creaminess of risotto. You could add a pinch of chilli to this dish if you liked.

1 onion, peeled and finely chopped

1/2 carrot, finely chopped

1 celery stalk, finely chopped

olive oil

125ml dry white wine

100g mussels, cleaned and debearded

100ml light fish stock

1 handful risotto rice

1 clove of garlic, peeled and very finely chopped

1 small knob of  butter

 

(1). Place a large pan on the  heat. Add the onion, carrot and celery with a little olive  oil.

(2). After a few minutes turn up the heat, add the wine and the mussels. Now shake the pan about a bit, and put on the lid.

(3). After about 2 minutes, remove the lid and shake and toss the mussels so that those initially underneath now appear on top, this ensures the mussels are cooked evenly.

(4). Replace the lid, cook for a further 2 to 3 minutes. The mussels should now be open, discard any that aren’t. Remove the mussels, softened veg and liquid from the pan and keep to one side.

(5). Place the pan back on the heat  and add a little olive oil, then lightly fry the garlic without colouring.  Now add the rice and stir around.

(6). Add the first ladle of the hot stock and stir in. Wait until this has been fully absorbed before adding the next ladle of stock. And so on, until the rice is nearly cooked; taste a grain: it should be “al dente”.

 

(7). Once the risotto is cooked, remove some of the meat from the mussel shells (reserve a few for placing on top). Add the mussels meat, vegetables and liquor and stir in.

(8). Remove the risotto from the heat, add the butter and stir vigorously  (this will make the risotto creamy). Put on lid and rest for two minutes.

(9). Serve in a bowl scattered with  the shell on mussels and chopped parsley.

Seafood Stew with Fregola

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Seafood stews exist all over Italy and each region probably has its own variation, Venetian fish stew, Cacciucco Livornese to name two.

My favourite style of Italian fish stew is the Southern Italian style from regions such as Sicily, Sardinia and Calabria. They are light, fresh, tomatoey, and most of all often spicy.

This dish is my variation on a traditional Sardinian/ Sicilian seafood stew,using a very Sardinian ingredient . .. Fregola.

olive oil

1 sprig thyme

200g squid cleaned and cut into rings

100g raw shelled prawns

100g mussels, cleaned and checked

50ml white wine

1 can chopped Italian tomatoes

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

½ red chilli, finely chopped

1oog fregola (to male your own click here Homemade Fregola Sardo )

6 cherry tomatoes, halved

Parsley, chopped

Basil leaves

Homemade Fregola Sardo

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Fregola (also known as fregula) is a semolina pasta hailing from Sardinia, Italy. It’s quite similar to pearl couscous which is made of wheat. It consists of tiny rolled balls which have been sun-dried then toasted, lending a satisfying and unique nutty flavour.

Fregola is delicious on its own, served simply with olive oil, sea salt and a dusting of cheese, in  soups, or combined with vegetables and fresh herbs as a side dish or light meal.

100g course semolina flour

100g 00 pasta flour

water

(1). Mix together the two flours in a large flat baking tray.
(2). Add a little water.
(3). Shake the tray vigorously or mix together with fingers. The flour will begine to clump together and form small pellets (Fregola).
(4). Pass them through a sieve, keep only the big ones.
(5). Repeat process with the smaller ones to make them as big as you like.
(6). Let them dry for 24 hours or you could lightly toast them in a hot oven but don’t let them colour..

Blood Orange Polenta Cake

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This is an Italian take on the British cake. By using polenta and almonds the cake has a delicate, crumbly texture, unlike a regular sponge. Polenta cakes are found all over Italy and there are hundreds of variations on this cake.

I made mine with blood oranges but lemon, oranges, or a mixture of both would work just as well.

200g unsalted butter , at room temperature, plus extra for greasing

200g sugar

3  eggs

200 g ground almonds

100 g coarse polenta

2 Blood oranges , zest and juice

(1). Preheat the oven to 160C/ Gm 4.

(2). Grease a 20cm springform tin, line the bottom and sides with baking paper and grease again.

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(3). Beat the butter and sugar in a large bowl until light and creamy it will look a little gritty but don’t worry, the sugar will dissolve when it’s cooked.

(4). Beat in the eggs.

(5). Add the eggs, ground almonds, polenta, orange zest and juice to the butter and sugar then mix well to a cake batter. Pour the mixture into the tin. You can place a couple of slices of orange on top.

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(6). Bake for 40–50 minutes, until the surface is light brown and the cake is coming away slightly from the sides of the tin.

(7). Remove the tin from the oven, leave to cool for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a plate. This cake will be quite moist and a little fragile, so handle carefully as you remove it.

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Lemon Tart (or Blood Orange)

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Lemon tart is one of those desserts that nearly everyone loves, and its probably one of the easiest to make. You can vary the flavors of the tart by using the juice and zest  of different, or even a mixture of, fruits. The tart I made was a mixture of lemon and blood orange, but normal oranges will work just as good.

For pastry

250g plain flour, plus extra for dusting

70g icing sugar

125g unsalted butter, cubed

2 eggs

grated zest 1 lemon

For the filling

5 eggs

140g caster sugar

150ml double cream

juice 2-3 blood orange/ lemon juice

1 lemon zest

 

  1. To make the pastry, mix the flour and icing sugar in a bowl. Rub the butter into the flour with your fingers until crumbly. Mix in the eggs. If the pastry is still too dry, add 1-2 tbsp water until it comes together.

     

  2. Roll into a ball and divide in half (freeze one half for another recipe). Flatten out the pastry with your hands, wrap the dough in cling film, then chill for at least 30 mins. While the pastry is chilling, make the filling. Beat all the ingredients, except for the zest, together. Sieve the mixture, then stir in the zest.
  3. Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface to about the thickness of a £1 coin, then lift into a 23cm tart tin. Press down gently on the bottom and sides, then trim off any excess pastry. Stab a few holes in the bottom with a fork and put back in the fridge for 30 mins.

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  4. Heat oven to 160C/gm 3. Line the tart with foil and fill with rice or dried beans. Bake for 10 mins, then remove the tart tin from the oven, discard the foil, and bake for another 20 mins until biscuity.

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  5. When the pastry is ready, remove it from the oven, pour in the lemon mixture and bake again for 30-35 mins until just set. Leave to cool, then remove the tart from the tin and serve at room temperature or chilled.

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Lasagne

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As with every other traditional Italian dish there are thousands of recipes for lasagna, but have you ever wondered about the origins of lasagne itself ?

As with most Italian dishes, such as pizza, pasta, prosciutto, etc, the history of lasagna has been traced all the way back to the ancient Greeks.

When the Romans overthrew Greece and occupied the country around 146 BC, they started  adopting local knowledge, culture, language and food as their own, as the  Romans did wherever they went. The Greek word laganon, used to describe flat dough sliced into strips, is believed to be the origin of the word lasagna. While the Greeks didn’t invent the hearty pasta dish we know today, they at least inspired one of the world’s oldest pastas.

Modern day lasagne, as we know it, is a richly layered dish swimming in tomato sauce, made its debut in Naples, Italy, around the Middle Ages. It was hand crafted and fit for a crowd, lasagna was eaten on special occassions. While traditional Italian lasagna features ragù, béchamel and Parmigiano-Reggiano between layers of pasta, Italian immigrants brought their favorite variations to America around the 1800s.

1 quantity Pasta Dough

for ragu

olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 stick of celery, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
75g diced pancetta
500g beef mince or pork mince, or a mix of both
100ml white wine
400ml passata
for white sauce
Grated nutmeg
50g butter
50g plain flour
50g grated Parmesan
600ml milk
(1). Take your rested pasta dough, divide up then run each piece through a pasta machine three times on its thickest setting, then gradually reduce down the width till its about 2mm thick.
(2). Cut your pasta sheets into rectangle, same size as bought lasagna sheets and then flour each sheet well and stack on a plate. Once done rest in the fridge till needed.
(3). Heat the oil in a large, heavy-based frying pan and gently fry the onion until softened. Add the carrot and continue to cook for 5 minutes, then add the celery and cook for another 2 minutes. Turn up the heat, add the mince and cook until browned all over.
(4). Add the wine and reduce till almost gone and then add the passata, season, then bring to a simmer. Cover partially, turn the heat down, and leave to simmer gently for 2 to 4 hours.
(5). Pre-heat the oven to 200 centigrade/Gas mark 8.
(6). Now make your white sauce. Melt the butter in a pan, and then whisk in the flour. Cook for a couple of minutes, stirring, then gradually whisk in the milk, and bring to the boil, still stirring. then melt in the Parmesan. Season and simmer for about 5 minutes until thickened.
(7). To assemble the lasagne, take a deep, wide dish and coat the bottom with pasta sheets, then with a layer of ragu, spoon over some white sauce. Then cover with pasta sheets again and repeat till your dish is almost full to the top, finishing with a layer of pasta sheets then  topped with white sauce and a sprinkling of grated mozzarella and Parmesan.
(8). Place in oven and cook for 40 minutes, until golden and bubbling.
(9). Allow to rest for at least 20 minutes before serving.
(10). Remember lasagne is better warm than hot, and even better the next day.