Christmas Cheer December 2011

First published in La Dolce Vita Western Telegraph: Photograph of the Author by

May be its a seasonal madness, like the shops having decorations and cards in Mid November but our large adopted cat, PK, has taken to drinking out of the cloakroom sink. It doesn’t matter that there’s fresh water in his bowl he prefers to get it direct from a dripping tap, perhaps its just a case of seasonal madness. Autumn arrived suddenly. The last week of November the leaves turned colour then in the first week of December they fell off the trees overnight, literally.

The country was seized, like a lot of Europe, with gloom and doom about finances, the government was replaced by a specialist team of accountants, analysts and fiscal wizards who declared that rates would make a come back after all the properties were revalued, pensions would start later in life, taxes on the mega rich ( race horse owners, those with luxury boats and cars) would increase as would income tax (43%). The list seems endless and expensive and the strikers didn’t help their cause at all as many receive better pay and pension to those who are not paid by government sources. As the worlds markets yo-yoed with the uncertainties so did the weather. Mild by seasonal standards being still in the 10-15 degrees c but wild, wet and windy. We lost pots, bottles and a tree in the gales but fortunately nothing more.

So to over come all this, we decided to have some friends around for a quiet luncheon before Christmas and then some others for aperitifs so we got see them before the mayhem of family entertaining took hold. We thought we’d stay home and be humbugs this year as we’d entertained rather a lot in the previous months and needed to rest the digestive system and be home with the cats for a while.

Umbria isn’t well know by the outside world and it surprises many of our visitors to discover that rice is grown in Italy – arborrio for risotto’s – also beans and lentils are grown in our area too. Mung beans, small red beans (like aduki), white (cannellini) and chick peas, brown and mottled verities as well as the usual fava (broad) and others. Considering the verities they do grow we were more surprised to find that they don’t grow yellow split peas or the small orange lentils that are common in the UK. In Panicale, a small Umbrian town where you can get a small, brownish-green variety of lentils called Castelluccio. They are like a puy type and have a rich, buttery flavour when, simmered slowly until they have a creamy texture.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for frying 2 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, finely chopped 1 small carrot, coarsely chopped 1 small celery rib, coarsely chopped 1/2 small onion, finely diced 1 large garlic clove, minced 1 1/2 teaspoons tomato paste 1/2 pound Umbrian lentils or green lentils (1 1/4 cups) 1 quart low-sodium chicken broth Salt and freshly ground pepper 4 large eggs 12 rocket leaves Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and aged balsamic vinegar, for serving In a saucepan, heat the 2 tablespoons of oil; add the prosciutto and cook over low heat until the fat has rendered. In a food processor, finely chop the carrot and celery. Add the vegetables to the saucepan along with the onion and garlic and cook, stirring, until the vegetables are softened, 7 minutes. Add the tomato paste and stir over moderately high heat until shiny, 1 minute. Add the lentils and 2 1/2 cups of the broth and bring to a boil. Simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until most of the broth has been absorbed, 25 minutes. Add 1 more cup of the broth and continue simmering until absorbed, 10 minutes. Add the remaining 1/2 cup of broth and simmer until the lentils are tender and suspended in a creamy sauce, 10 minutes longer. Season with salt and pepper.

In a large nonstick skillet, heat a thin film of olive oil. Crack the eggs into the skillet, season with salt and cook over moderately high heat until the edges are golden, the whites are just set and the yolks are still runny. Spoon the lentils into shallow bowls and top with the eggs and rocket. Grate the cheese over the eggs and drizzle with balsamic vinegar. Serve right away. A nice alternative for a Christmas starter.

The TV went digital at the end of November and we’ve spent ages trying to sort the good from the bad and the worse. There are some channels worth watching and we’ve discovered Italian master chef, ALE where a chap cooks 3 courses in 40 mins who has some great flavoursome twists on traditional recipes, for example that we’re going to try at New Years eve: Truffled Popcorn 6 tablespoons unsalted butter 1 tablespoon minced black truffle (optional), see Note 1 teaspoon white truffle oil Salt 3 tablespoons vegetable oil 1 cup popcorn kernels (7 ounces) Freshly ground pepper In a small saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Stir in the truffle, truffle oil and a pinch of salt; keep warm. In a large, heavy pot, heat the vegetable oil. Add the popcorn kernels, cover and cook over moderate heat until they start popping. Cook, shaking the pot continuously, until the popping has almost stopped. Carefully pour the popcorn into a very large bowl. Add the truffled butter and toss well. Season with salt and pepper and serve at once.

Recipe: Chickpea finger Fries (just like the polenta ones) 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 1 small onion, minced 4 garlic cloves, minced 1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary 1 1/2 teaspoons mild chili paste or bruscetta mix 4 cups water 2 cups chickpea flour salt Vegetable oil, for frying All-purpose flour, for dusting Lightly oil a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan. Add the onion, garlic and rosemary and cook over moderate heat until the onion is very tender, 6 minutes. Stir in the chili paste. Add the water and bring to a boil. Slowly whisk in the chickpea flour until smooth. Reduce the heat to low and whisk until very thick, about 6 minutes. Season with salt. Spread evenly in the oiled baking pan and press plastic wrap on the surface. Refrigerate until firm, at least 4 hours.

In a large pot, heat 2 inches of oil to 350°. Cut the chickpea mixture into 4-by-3/4-inch fries and pat dry with paper towels. Lightly dust the fries with flour. Fry in batches until golden, 8 minutes. Drain on paper towels, season with salt and serve.

A couple of ladies host an Italian cookery club, one cooks the other chats and fluffs about, so much so that one day they failed to complete the dish of the day, but here’s something they did that looked delicious: Spinach and ricotta dumplings in sage butter for 6-8 persons 1kg spinach cooked drained well and when cold chopped.

1kg ricotta cheese well drained 4 beaten large eggs big handful of grated Parmesan cheese fresh grated nutmeg seasoning plain flour for dusting ½ pack of butter 10 fresh sage leaves Place a huge pan of slated water on to boil.

In a large bowl mix spinach and ricotta cheese. Add eggs, nutmeg, pepper and salt, mixing well. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add eggs and Parmesan and mix through.

Place flour in a large platter. Flour hands and take a golf-ball size of the spinach mix and roll to form a ball. Toss in the flour until coated but not excessively. When you have a plate full drop carefully into the boiling water, stir and cook for 3 mins. Using a slotted spoon remove from water and place on a serving dish. Continue until all the mixture is cooked. In a separate saucepan melt butter with the sage leaves and simply pour over cooked ricotta balls.

Another show has a grandma and “Grandson” cooking traditional dishes, they made “sweet” gnocchi with broad beans. Actually it isn't sweet at all as the title refers to the shape not the content. Nonna made gnocchi paste using mash pots, flour and an egg, resting it in the freezer in cling film as she made the stuffing. This was ricotta blended with grated hard cheese and a little cream to slacken off. Then in a pan she fried diced pancetta, a diced shallot. The broad beans were skinned after cooking and added to the bacon mix. Rolled out the gnocchi, put spoonfuls of the cheese mix a little apart, roll it over 2x and then cut. press to seal edges and twist the ends so it looks like a boiled sweet. Cooked in vegetable broth or boiling water, drain and serve with bacon and bean mix tossed over. The grandson chatted and took the skins off the beans, but not at the same time, he’s obviously not a multi-tasker but an interesting program all the same.

Their calm, chatty and relaxed offerings are such a contrast to “Hells Kitchen” that we can now watch, dubbed into Italian, what an eye opener. The Italian version of “Master Chef” is also very stressful and the resulting food artistic, lovely to look, and probably very tasty but not very filling.

With most of the seasonal chaos behind us and another year to the fore we wish you and yours a very Happy New Year and all the best for 2012.

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