For the Love of Capsicums

My fondest childhood memories are of my mother slicing colourful red and yellow capsicums; the scent of caramelising onions, garlic and olive oil drifting from a saucepan. Added along with tomatoes and a little vinegar, the capsicums stewed happily for 40 minutes until soft, producing Peperonata: an Italian stew served with antipasto.

Capsicums

These memories, evoked whenever I encounter the intricate flavour of this melange, prompted me to prepare Peperonata for the “A Taste of Europe” Food Fair. It’s really special to me, so I wanted to share it with the lovely people I met over these past weeks. Making Peperonata was wonderful; slicing the capsicums carried my thoughts to that first recollection of my mother preparing it for me.

Cooking peps

I paired the Peperonata alongside a platter of homemade polenta, which I cut into slices and fried until crisp. Making polenta was a real highlight! I did it the hard way using coarse polenta flour rather than instant, so it was hard work stirring the unimaginably thick batter for 40 minutes! When cooking, the sound of vapour escaping was like a steam-train: I couldn’t stop laughing! My mother (whose strong arm I enlisted to help me!) and I had now done our daily exercise. Laughing, we commented that all the stirring would be good for getting rid of ‘bingo wings’!

Frying Polenta

Frying Polenta

Served in red bowls to accentuate the capsicum colour, the Peperonata looked inviting (if I do say so myself!). Enhancing the beautiful sweet-and-sour capsicum flavour, the polenta’s subtle taste really complemented the Peperonata and added a lovely textural element. It tasted just like mum’s! Others enjoyed it too, remarking that presentation was beautiful and the tangy capsicums were delicious. The polenta proved popular too, although a novelty for many; I was often asked “what’s that?”

Peps presentation

It was so lovely seeing (and tasting!) all the beautiful dishes today.  Now all that’s left to say is…I’m full!

Sketch veggies 3

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400 Gradi: Review

Front of 400 gradi

Last year 400 Gradi’s “Margherita Verace” won “World’s Best Pizza”, testament to its simplicity and traditional preparation. I ventured there last week, hungry to try it!

Unlike Melbourne’s typical Italian eateries, 400 Gradi is region focussed, serving traditional Napoli cuisine. And they’re serious about making it well! Starters like bruschetta with artichoke paste and fried olives are available, along with some pastas and mains, but the star here is pizza. No chunky bases; pizzas are crafted the traditional Neapolitan way. Rarely found in Melbourne, they’re thin with minimal toppings, cooked in wood-fire ovens.

400 Gradi Ovens

Inside the restaurant nuanced Italian homages abound, from mosaic tiles lining the bar to white brickwork spotted with red and green. It’s reflective of Italy, albeit in a subtle, unclichéd manner. This elicits a modern feel, accessible both to casual families and finer dining clientele. Young (and very good looking!) Italian wait-staff and soft jazz amplify the modern ambiance. Although serving sizes are small and prices are above average, food is tasty and cooked with love.

400 Gradi Ambiance

Arriving at the table, my pizza’s puffy crust had me smiling in anticipation as the scent of baked dough drifted about. I savoured the delicate flavours of San-Marzano tomato, basil and buffalo mozzarella. They carried me to Venice, recollecting the heavenly pizza I enjoyed when first meeting my Italian relatives. Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson writes in ‘Accounting for Taste’, that we “use…taste to reconnect with the past”. This was poignantly exemplified for me as I enjoyed every mouthful.

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Ragged bubbly edges: this is a true Neapolitan pizza!

I also ordered “Polpette alla Napoletana” (meatballs), served in an old clay pot. It seemed decades old; I envisaged a Nonna preparing meatballs as she had done for years. It’s truly the power of lovingly cooked food that feeds the imagination and the soul.

Polpette

Eating these dishes, I felt proud of my Italian heritage. I‘m so pleased that this traditional food, part of my culture and identity, is accessible in Melbourne for all.

Panna cotta

And who could forget a beautiful panna cotta for dessert!

“There’s a Hole in this Cake!”

I have a beautiful cookbook written by Rosa Mitchell, who runs a Sicilian restaurant in Melbourne, “Rosa’s Kitchen”. I adore the book (she even personally autographed it!) because it’s filled with stories of her Sicilian childhood and Australian life post-immigration. It’s clear that one thing has always connected her to home: food. Her cookbook features a Sicilian cake, Buccellato, typically prepared at Christmas using fruits preserved from summer harvest.

Buccellato

It’s made of nuts, candied citron, orange and dried figs, raisins and dates, wrapped in pastry and baked as a wreath. These goodies are typical of Sicily, a region where warm weather allows fruit trees to thrive.

The plentiful fruits of Sicily

Citron, a lemon-like citrus fruit, is synonymous with Sicily, preserved by candying for use in winter (notably when Buccellato is made). It is Sicily’s ‘terroir’ or “taste of place”– its micro-climate, soil and the custom of candying – that produces this characteristic regional flavour so notable in Buccellato. Through abundant use of regionally distinctive produce, Buccellato reflects Sicily’s unique landscape, the people’s cultural practices and regional identity.

Citron bordered

Citron

Potentially evolving from the ancient Roman bread ‘buccellatum‘, Buccellato has been made for centuries. It was originally given at Baptism to the christened child’s parents. Being very rich it symbolised wealth and good fortune. Like a competition where larger cakes represented greater prosperity, the largest ever was supposedly the size of a ferris-wheel! How is that possible!

While Buccellato isn’t something I’ve seen around Melbourne, many Sicilian immigrants still make it. Just like the British plum pudding or the French fras grois, it’s synonymous with Christmas. Rosa’s inclusion of Buccellato in her cookbook exemplifies its importance to Sicilian immigrants, offering a connection to their homeland and identity as Sicilians.

holly

Buccellato’s story is as rich as the cake itself. One thing’s for sure…I’m going to “Rosa’s Kitchen” to see if it’s on the menu!

When the plate took His place

Sitting alone at my local French bistro last Saturday, I was squeezed into the corner amidst love-struck romantics and awkward first dates. Nevertheless I wasn’t feeling melancholy, for despite the nearby romanticising I had an even better date…Boeuf Bourguignon! With meat so tender and onions so sweet, it comforts the soul way more than any human companion could (not that I’m bitter or anything!).

Bourguignon cartoon border cropped

To make this yourself you’ll need beautiful red wine, onions, garlic, carrots, mushrooms, garlic, thyme, parsley, bay leaves and importantly… beef! Served with your favourite carbohydrate (pasta, bread or mash) to ensure no gorgeous saucy goodness is left behind, heaven soon awaits for all the senses.

It’s this luscious melange, braised for hours, that has resulted in the stew’s popularity and transformation into haute cuisine. Despite its rustic appearance, today Boeuf Bourguignon is served in restaurants worldwide. On menus in Melbourne I’ve seen many modern versions: Paleo, Gluten-free and even Vegetarian!

There won't be any leftovers!

There won’t be any leftovers!

It’s traditionally prepared using meat from Charolais cattle, a prized breed of France’s Burgundy region where the dish originated as peasant food, likely during the middle ages. In a region replete with wines and their grape-growers, cattle and their farmers; boeuf bourguignon truly reflects the region’s identifying produce, people and their vocations.

Charolais cattle border sketch

Burgundy, the birthplace of Boeuf Bourguignon

Burgundy, the birthplace of Boeuf Bourguignon

Boeuf Bourguignon became renowned following Auguste Escoffier’s publication of the recipe in the early 20th century. This exemplifies the importance of the written word to dissemination of regional cuisine, allowing many to experience another’s foods through the influence of recipe sharing. By enabling dishes to travel the world through print, one engenders the translation of their culinary and cultural practices onto others, thereby conveying their regional or national identity.

Without recipe writing and sharing, our multicultural Melbournian cuisine would certainly be at a loss. This came to mind as I enjoyed my Boeuf Bourguignon, miles away from Burgundy. How lucky we are to have such regional dishes at our doorstep.

Who needs a date when you've already got the best one!

Who needs a date when you’ve already got the best one!

Surprises of a Spanish Empanada

My Spanish friend said recently that empanadas are, for her, the most heavenly of simple pleasures. This prompted me to try one last week when I happened upon a Spanish delicatessen with “freshly baked empanadas” cheerfully scrawled on a little blackboard. Well…from the first tantalising bite I knew what she meant! The soft tuna filling embraced by crisp golden pastry was a perfect juxtaposition.

I was initially surprised, however, to receive a large triangle of pie and not the pastie-esque pastry I had expected. This prompted an investigation!

Deliciously unexpected!

Deliciously unexpected!

I discovered that the traditional ‘empanada Gallega’ (this pie form) originated in Galicia, Spain during the period of Moorish invasions. Bordered by extensive coastline, Galicia is at the heart of the Spanish fishing industry; reflected in empanadas via typical fishy fillings of tuna, sardines or cod in a tomato, onion and garlic sauce.

Galicia: birthplace of the empanada

Galicia: Birthplace of the Empanada

A priceless creation! With pastry covering hearty fillings, Galicians created a portable dish for the region’s many fishermen during their voyages. Here cuisine and regional identity are tightly intertwined: so intrinsic to their region, empanadas may never have eventuated without Galicia’s dependence on fishing and consequent need for transportable food. While pies are common throughout Spain, only those of Galicia are ‘empanadas’. They are hence regionally symbolic, their name conjuring up the area and its inhabitants.

Night fishing

Penelope Casas writes in ‘The Foods and Wines of Spain’ that Galicians are considered “secretive and aloof”, just as empanadas conceal their fillings from view. Perhaps their uniqueness to Galicia results from inherently representing the region’s identifying characters.

Judging by my erroneous expectation of Spanish empanadas, it seems that they’re rarely served traditionally in Melbourne or indeed globally. Instead we usually see the popular turnover version from Latin America, similar to Spanish empanadillas.

Empanadillas

Many people think of these as Spanish empanadas – they’re actually empanadillas

So then…have traditional empanadas been lost? Well maybe they’re just a kind of hidden treasure. After all, if the Galicians are so secretive, they wouldn’t want to give them away!