Inside Italy: Let It Be…

We had a problem with a leak in the bathroom that was dripping into the apartment below so a couple of idraulici (plumbers) were called in.  The leak came from a pipe beneath a tiled floor and two feet of solid concrete, so a pneumatic drill was used to dig a huge hole, which was just as loud and messy as it sounds.

The plumbers, who barely spoke a word of English, geared each other up to ask me, in the universal language of mime and lots of pointing, if it was true what they’d heard: English people don’t have bidets?   I confirmed this was correct and then, by the use of some very graphic mimes apparently involving handstands in the shower, they demonstrated how they thought we would ‘freshen up’ after using the loo.  They found this hilariously amusing and much merriment was had laughing at the funny, disgusting ways of foreign English folk!

Bidets certainly are very important here.  An American friend, who owns an apartment in Rome, wanted to remove the bidet when refitting her bathroom but was told in no uncertain terms that she would never be able to sell the apartment to Italians without a bidet.

Actually, it’s not quite true that we don’t use the bidet – it does come in very handy for chilling beers when I’m taking a long bath…

beers in bidet by barbedwords.wordpress.com

Advertisements

Parmesan e Patate al forno (Good ol’ cheese and potato bake)

The weather was wet and windy here in Rome yesterday so comfort food was called for.  This is a simple, yet very tasty, dish that can be prepared in advance and thrown in the oven at the last moment.  Add some crusty bread, a green salad and, voila, Roberto’s your uncle.

pancetta and potato bake by barbedwords.wordpress.com

Ingredients – serves four:

1 kg peeled potatoes, thinly sliced                           1 onion, finely sliced

100g pancetta or bacon                                          400ml chicken stock

200g mascarpone cheese or cream cheese             2 cloves of garlic, crushed

Handful of thyme, finely chopped                            50g parmesan cheese, finely grated

Salt and pepper

Method:

Put a layer of the potato slices in the bottom of a large baking dish (about 20 x 30cm).  Sprinkle with onion and pancetta.

Mix together the chicken stock, mascarpone, garlic and thyme to form a creamy sauce.  Pour enough sauce over the layer of potato, onion and pancetta to just cover them.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Add another layer and cover with the creamy sauce again.  I usually get three layers.

Finish with the sauce, topped with parmesan cheese and plenty of black pepper.

Cook in a preheated oven 200C / Gas 6 for approximately 30-40 minutes until the potatoes are cooked (a fork should slide in easily) and the cheese is golden brown.   Smells delicious and tastes even better!

And the thing I like best about this recipe?  If there are any leftovers – and I hide the dish halfway through dinner to make sure there are – I simply stick them into my blender with a little water, whizz it all up and reheat for the best soup ever for lunch the next day!   (I may have gone a bit crazy with the black pepper in case you’re wondering why the soup has freckles…)

potato and pancetta soup by barbedwords.wordpress.com

Lemon curd + Suffolk rusks = Delizioso

Ok, I admit that I may have become a bit obsessed with the limoncello lemon curd.  As well as having it on toast for breakfast, I’ve also been using it as a topping for cheesecakes and ‘desserts in a jar’, swirling it into butter icing for cupcakes and, of course, eating it straight from the jar.  But I remembered that I like it best when thickly spread on top of these crumbly rusks.

Rusks are a cross between a scone and a biscuit, originally cooked for storage or transportation.   They are a traditional dish from Suffolk so a little tricky to get hold of in Rome.  My mother-in-law, Suffolk born and bred, tells me that you should gently break the rusks apart when you split them (instead of using a knife) as this gives a nice rough, rustic finish when dried in the oven.

lemon curd selection by barbedwords.wordpress.comIngredients – makes 16 rusks:

225g self-raising flour

1 egg, beaten

85g butter

25ml milk

Pinch of salt

Method:

Preheat oven to 230C / Gas 8.  Sift the flour and salt together into a bowl and rub in the butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.  Stir in the beaten egg and the milk to make a smooth dough.

Roll out on a lightly floured surface to about 2.5cm (1 inch) then cut into 6cm  (2.5 inch) rounds.  Line a greased baking sheet with baking paper and place the rounds on the paper.

Cook for 10 minutes.  Remove from the oven, split in half and place back on the baking sheet, cut side upwards.  Reduce the oven temperature to 190C / Gas 5.  Return the rusks to the oven and cook for another 10-15 minutes until they are crisp and golden brown.   Cool on a wire rack.

Store in an airtight tin for up to two weeks.   The rusks also taste amazing as a teatime treat with butter and jam or as a savoury choice with cheese or paté.

Inside Italy: Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Inside Italy isn’t exactly an official guide to visiting Italy, so please don’t use it to plan a holiday!  It’s just a series of random ramblings about things here that catch my eye.  

bad cleaning by barbedwords.wordpress.com       caffe good by barbedwords.wordpress.com

Now I’m definitely with Joan Rivers when it comes to housework:  ‘I hate housework. You make the beds, you do the dishes and six months later you have to start all over again’.  And I’d be the first to admit that I’m not the world’s tidiest person but I do have a slight disadvantage here in Italy.   I was amazed to discover that almost all of our Italian friends have a live-in colf (domestic help) or tata (nanny), usually Filipino, to do the cleaning, dusting, dog walking and all the other domestic chores that get in the way of having fun.

Our apartment has the tiniest maid’s bedroom and bathroom leading off the kitchen where the colf would be expected to live; we use it to store boxes and hang my husband’s Kylie calendar!  The bathroom is so small that you have to actually climb over the toilet to get into the shower.

We’re the only family in our apartment block that doesn’t have one of these maids.  When I’m relaxing with a cappuccino on my terrace, a sea of checked uniforms surrounds me, beating out carpets or hanging out washing.  It’s almost enough to make me put down my book, leap out of my chair and join them in a spot of frantic scrubbing.  Almost…

Reading Ban = Limoncello Curd

limoncello and artist's way in Reading Ban = Limoncello Curd by barbedwords.wordpress.com        Lemon Curd in Reading Ban = Limoncello Curd by barbedwords.wordpress.com

So I’m following The Artist’s Way: a 12-week course to discover and free your creativity.  Obviously, that sounds like a right load of New Age tosh but it’s an interesting read and has lots of exercises to get you started on writing, painting or whatever floats your creative boat.  But last week’s task was almost impossible: to not read anything for a week.  A WHOLE WEEK.  As someone who is never more than two feet away from a book, the task was always going to be tricky.  And The Artist’s Way was written in 1993, long before we all became used to reading for most of our waking hours – receiving emails and texts on our phones, checking Facebook hourly and looking information up on Google so we don’t have to bother remembering anything.

The rationale behind the task is that we spend so much time and energy reading the words of others that we don’t have any time left over to create our own.   I can see that.  But it still didn’t help me get through the week.

In the end, I made a compromise where I didn’t read any books (successful!) and attempted to minimise Facebook, email and Internet time to 30 minutes a day (ok, not totally successful!)  I had hoped that the task would force me to open up the document entitled ‘Novel’ and actually add some word count to it…but sadly that didn’t happen.

Instead I used some of the free time to make Limoncello Lemon Curd, which fits in nicely with my mission to fuse English and Italian cooking.  In my opinion any recipe can be improved with the addition of alcohol and this is no exception.  I’m a big lemon curd fan, especially when made with lemons picked from our own little tree, and I can honestly say that this is the best lemon curd in the world ever!!

lemon curd with ladybird lid in Reading Ban = Limoncello Curd by barbedwords.wordpress.com

Limoncello Lemon Curd

 Ingredients – fills 2 small jam jars:

2 eggs

2 egg yolks

125g caster sugar

25 ml limoncello liqueur

The juice of 3 lemons (approx. 100 ml lemon juice)

Grated zest of 1 lemon

85 g diced butter

Method:

Sterilise the jam jars – wash the jars in soapy water and rinse in clean warm water.  Preheat the oven to 140C/275F/Gas 1. Dry the jars, upside down, on a rack for 30 minutes.  Leave to cool down a bit before removing them from the oven!

Whisk the eggs and egg yolks in a large heatproof bowl.  Stir in the sugar, limoncello, lemon zest and juice.  Add the butter and set the bowl over a saucepan of very gently simmering water, making sure the bowl doesn’t touch the water.

Stir the mixture with a wooden spoon for 5 minutes until the butter melts, then use a whisk to continuously stir the ingredients and cook for about 10 minutes.   Do not let the mixture boil.  The lemon curd should have the consistency of custard.  The curd will thicken as it cools.

Pour the hot lemon curd into the sterilised jars and leave to cool. When completely cool, cover the curd with a disc of baking paper and seal with a lid.  Keep in the fridge and use within two weeks.  But believe me, it won’t last that long!

Sunday lunch Italiano style

A long, lazy Sunday lunch is a great tradition in Italy, a time to relax and catch up with friends or family, either at home or in a restaurant.  We were feeling exceptionally Italiano yesterday so we headed out for lunch at Fregene, a small seaside resort about 25 miles west of Rome.  Italian beaches seem odd to us because they are full of ‘stabilimenti balneari’ – closed off sections of the beach where you pay a daily rate to use the sun loungers, toilets, bar and other facilities.  Or you can eat at a restaurant and enjoy the beach that way.

  controvento

We ate at a fairly trendy, modern place called Contro Vento.  It was busy with Italian families enjoying lunch in the hot sunshine but the waiter was very accommodating and had no problem moving a table into the shade for us.  There was no written menu; fortunately our waiter spoke English and reeled off a long list of antipasti (starters) and primo (first course) dishes.  There was a lot of fish featured, no surprise given that we were eating on a beach in an area known as Villaggio dei Pescatori (Fisherman’s Village).

fried octopus          beer glasses at beach

To start we chose fried octopus, a plate of antipasto misto (mixed fish starters including smoked salmon, calamari and anchovies) and bruschetta (tomatoes on top of grilled bread).  This was a pretty risky selection for us as we’re not big fish lovers but we gave it our best shot and managed to eat half of it – not bad going considering that Italian portions are HUGE and easily rival anything you’d get in Florida!

bar at controvento          pasta and fish

For the primo course (what would be the first course for Italians, to be followed by the secondo course when meat or fish dishes would be eaten.  We’ve never been able to cope with all three courses), we steered away from fish, opting instead for ravioli and fettuccine with courgettes.   When the dishes came, the ravioli was filled with…fish and the fettuccine was topped with…what else, more fish!  The food tasted exactly as I’ve come to expect when eating out in any restaurant in Italy – fresh, with very simple flavours.

We couldn’t even think about frutti o dolci (fruit or dessert) after the meal but plenty of other tables were eating plates of fresh pineapple and strawberries. The total bill came to €90 for four of us, including a couple of beers, which is about average for Italy.   I would definitely recommend Contro Vento as a lunch or dinner venue.  The setting was beautiful, the food was fine and it had a laid back feel.

We finished the afternoon off with a stroll along the beach (very Italian) and a dip in the sea (not so Italian, particularly not in April!)

fregene beach

Fregene is a nice resort to visit from Rome with lots of restaurants to choose from, a lovely beach and a tranquil atmosphere.   It is, however, the resort of choice for half of Rome so it might not be quite so relaxing in the middle of August when you can’t walk across the beach without tripping over bronzed, 50-year-old men in very small Speedos…