Meatballs with lemon and fennel

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Meatballs are another of those things I came late to (it’s a long list, I was a fussy child).  Their tinned version created a strong and stubborn aversion.  I assumed that they all came with that vaguely gristly sensation and slightly odd (perhaps offaly?) taste.  I also could never get my head around the pairing with spaghetti.  It seemed, indeed was, so impractical.   Guaranteed to make the maximum amount of mess, use all the cutlery and be in no possible way as romantic as they made out in Lady and the Tramp.

So of course, when I first tried the real thing, made at home, with good meat, herbs and cheese; bound together by breadcrumbs and egg rather than a patented scientific process and browned before being coated in rich velveteen tomato sauce, my prejudices and aversions were overturned.  Not least because, actually, just eat them with bread, forget the pasta, it’s a fiction that got turned into a fact by mistake.

This is a new version, I’ve mashed up a couple of recipes by Georgio Locatelli in his Made in Sicily book.  The cooking on the barbecue is also a technique that the resident Sicilian has not heard of, so perhaps the method may not be strictly kosher, but the flavours are.  I combined the fennel and the lemon because 1) the wild fennel is still frondy enough to use with abandon and 2) the lemon tree needed a prune, so I had leaves to burn.

The amount of fennel you need will vary according to taste, but also according to how strongly it’s flavoured.  Hotter summers make for stronger flavours.  To really up the aniseed, use fennel seeds instead.  If you can’t get hold of lemon leaves (although ask around, given that you can buy the trees in Homebase these days, an obliging and green fingered friend may be able to help out), Georgio (not that he knows me from Adam) suggests bay instead.

Pork being such a mild meat, these polpette soak up the flavours; smokey from the charcoal, citrus and aniseed from lemon and fennel, saltiness from the cheese.

Polpette con limone e finocchio (Meatballs with Lemon and Fennel)

Makes 18 balls,

For the meatballs

500g pork mince

1 onion

150g parmesan or pecorino

100g  breadcrumbs

Bunch of fennel fronds, finely chopped (1-2 tsps when chopped)

Clove of garlic

2 eggs

Black Pepper

20 fresh lemon leaves

Olive oil

Wooden skewers

For the tomato sauce

500ml passata

Pepper

Clove of garlic

2-3 unchopped fennel fronds

Chop the onion very finely and then mix it into the pork, breadcrumbs and cheese.

Add the crushed garlic clove and the chopped fennel, season with the black pepper.

Now beat in the egg and mix (with your hands if you’re not squeamish) everything together until it’s completely homogenised.

Squidge golf ball sized portions of the mix together into little spheres

Now thread a lemon leaf onto a skewer, followed by the first ball, then another leaf, and another ball.  I put three balls (and four leaves) per skewer.  

Chill for an hour.

Put your passata into a saucepan with one crushed clove of garlic, the fennel fronds and 200ml of water.

Bring to the boil, and then reduce to a simmer for about 20 minutes – according to what your lowest level of gas considers a simmer.  It should be thick, like a ketchup, no thinner.  Take out the fennel.

When you’re ready to cook the meatballs, drizzle over some olive oil and place them on the oiled barbecue, turning them as they brown.  It needs to be hot enough to cook them slowly.  Too hot and they will sear themselves the the grill and then disintegrate when you try to turn them.  (you can also just fry them, which removes the smokey element of the flavour, but makes them less liable to split).

Give two skewers to each person, with sauce poured over, and accompanied by chunks of fragrant yeasty bread to mop everything up.

There.  No spattered clothes, minimal cutlery to wash up and deliciously simple.

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North & South

June 2019 is reminding me that I don’t live in Sicily.  I live in Birmingham.  High latitude, rain catching Birmingham.  This is turning into one of those summers where the temperature lingers around 20 degrees, and it rains, and it rains, and it rains.  This time last year we were about to leave for Alicudi and the embrace of Mediterranean heat: it was all geckos, seafood, swimming and unrelenting sun.  But even in Birmingham, the sun shone kindly, cherries ripened, oyster festivals were visited, grass withered.  But holidays and summer are delayed this year; instead there is rain and grey and depression. 

Britain offers some consolation in one of what the Sicilian calls ‘the northern fruit’; strawberries, bringing the first of the major battles with the local pigeons and squirrels.  Even in the gloom, still they ripen, needing only a few hints of blue sky to suddenly swell and blush to a deeply, sensual scarlet.

They are the most luxurious of fruits to grow. So extravagant in terms of space, maintenance and protection, offering a repayment of a fleeting two weeks of glut and gorging.  The downside of last year’s holiday in the sun meant that we missed the strawberries, they came and went in the time we were away.  I imagine they were incomparable last year, ripened to perfection by that mythically hot summer. 

It is a sadness that strawberries have now become ubiquitous and eternal.  The strawberries of shops are a poor and tortured thing, to the extent that so many people have forgotten, or worse, never tasted, the intensity of a freshly picked, perfume leaking free range strawberry; its intense blood redness is the difference between oil paints and crayons.

The downsides; to achieve fourteen days of life affirmation they need space to sprawl, and nets to ward off rapacious birds and mammals.  But even nets will be stomped on and nibbled through, so accept that some will be lost. Slugs and snails adore them too, so here you must decide which preventative measure (if any) your conscience will allow.  The plants, although easy to look after, don’t like to be disturbed too often, which means your strawberry patch can turn into a weed patch the moment you turn your head, but weeds can also hide some of the fruit from eagle-eyed pigeons.

I asked the Sicilian how they use strawberries at home, because I could only think of Italian gelato, granita and a little tart of custard and glazed alpine strawberries. You see punnets of these alpine berries for sale there – tiny, intense things (so, typically Sicilian), they call them Fragoline di bosco; strawberries of the forest.  But he drew a blank.  I asked another friend from Milan, and one from Rome, with a Sicilian partner – they too came up with the triumvirate, along with a Roman standard of strawberries, lemon juice and sugar.  So perhaps then, when he calls them ‘a northern fruit’, he’s right, perhaps they thrive in our dampness, our scudding leaden skies and disappointment of British summers; they exist to guarantee us wan northerners some unqualified joy during their constrained window.  

Last year I tried to bring back some of those strawberries of the forest, knowing that I would have missed my own fat Brummie versions.  But they didn’t travel well.  A delayed flight and three hours in the car from Stansted, turned them to mush and mould.  They were a reminder that of all the crops, the strawberries are the worst to be away for, there will be no other chances until next year.  They were also a reminder to make the most of the glut, to capture its essence in jams and ices, so that a spoonful can whisk you back to a moment when you were squatting, with stained fingers, searching for the stab of red beneath green, and loading up bowl after bowl with your rewards.

Strawberry and Lemon Granita (for 8-ish)

Granita in Sicily and Granita in the UK are different creatures.  Both should be intensely flavoured – the essence of their ingredients.  In Sicily they are fleeting and transient, melting to chilly cordial before your eyes in the summer heat.  They are a shot of their parts, like a fruit espresso (or in the case of coffee granita, an actual espresso), refreshing and restorative.  In the UK, particular in this summer, they retain their form for longer, but rarely is there heat strong enough to demand granita. In the heat of Sicily granita invokes an emotional as well as a physical response.  Save it for sunny, warm days.  It is too easy to catch a chill in this country and anyway, it works so much better when the air is a little sticky and the sun too hot, and you’re not in a grey British summer.

500g ripe as you can Strawberries

200g Sugar

Juice of one lemon

75ml (or less of water)

Remove any leaves from the strawberries, halve and cook them in a splash of water.  Once they’ve disintegrated, liquidise them.

Bring the water to the boil, then add the sugar and stir until it’s all dissolved.

Take off the heat and leave to cool.

Push the liquidised fruit through a very fine sieve – fine enough to take the seeds out, and then stir your strawberries into the sugar and water.  Finally add the lemon juice and stir.

Taste it.  It should be Type 2 Diabetes sweet, as frozen things never taste as sweet as they do at room temperature

Now chill the mixture for a few hours and then put it in a freezer in whatever container you plan to store it in.

If you were to use an ice cream maker her, you’d get a smooth sorbet.  Granita should be gritty and crystalline.

So every hour or so, take the container out of the freezer and scratch it with a fork, to get your icy grit.  One frozen, it’ll keep indefinitely, but I try to make small batches for almost immediateIMG_5784

Once it’s ready, serve it in tiny glasses, the camper the better.

Beans (Broad/Fave) and a quick dinner

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The first week of June and we’re on the cusp of Broad Bean season (Fave in Italy).  Mine are late this year, and will be a few weeks yet.  When they come though, the sheer abundance of broad beans ensures that there’s always a surplus and always a freezer drawer dedicated to them.  After the initial gluttonous rush of sweet, tiny proto fave around midsummer, there’s a year long supply of fatter, starchier siblings kept on ice.  Each has their merit.  The youngsters for their joie de vivre, the oldens for their persistence and reliability.  Keep them too long in the frost, and they start to lose their green zing, battered into submission by prolonged cold, so I try to remember to root out any hangers on from the previous spring before the next generation arrives.  These tough things need to be derobed to make them more enjoyable – scald them in hot water and then plunge into cold, this makes them easy to squeeze free from their leather jackets.  In small quantities, this isn’t too onerous, with the added fun of being mildly indecent when rogue beans squirt jets of water at you as they’re popped out of their skins.

As with everything, peak broad bean season here is several months after peak fava season in Sicily.  They are the first of many delayed gratifications you’ll experience when trying to grow a Sicilian kitchen on the wrong island.  Unless you’re outstandingly well located, organised, urban and sheltered, the broad beans won’t be making their first appearance this side of Canale della Manica until the latter half of May, at the earliest. The battle is now on. You will want to eat them at their smallest and sweetest before their skins turn tough and bitter.  They will want to fatten, coarsen and brazen it out – fighting for the next generation.  Catching them at their sweetest is one of the joys of vegetable garden in early summer, alongside with peas from the pod, your own woefully spoilt asparagus, and netted cherries thwarting the blackbirds.  They marry perfectly with peas, oil, mint or fennel.  There’s a lovely lunch of sharp cheese (salted ricotta perhaps), mixed in with mint, beans and peas to top toast.  Posh beans on toast.

But I am digressing – there is much to write and say about the joys of the broad bean in the first flush of its youth, but not here. Not today.  Maybe in a couple of weeks, when mine start to make an appearance.

Today is for that emptying the drawer period.  The time that comes before.

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This is a recipe that is an adaptation of a much grander (and more expensive) version, simple enough for a week night tea and good enough for showing off too.  It is excellent for the time when you’re winding down last year’s stores in preparation for the fast approaching glut of new things.  Despite this, it has an intensity of summer to it that belies the inelegant, back of the cupboard, bum in the air search for those need to be used up ingredients.  Oily fish and tangy sweet acid tomato, fresh medicinal aniseed and the resolute health giving greenness of the beans.  Four essential flavours that, for me, work perfectly.  It’s a pasta dish, so don’t strive for impossible and instagram worthy beauty, rather pile it up, rolling with steam and dive eagerly in.

Tonno, finocchieto e fave

(For two, as a light meal)

One tin of tuna in olive oil

300 ml passata

2 tsp fennel seed

One bay leaf

Bunch wild fennel fronds

100g broad beans

2 cloves garlic

1 Onion

1 stick celery

150-200g Linguine (depending on appetites)

Start by chopping the onion and celery, as finely as you can, as though for a sofritto

Fry them with the fennel seeds (without colouring) in olive oil, and then add the garlic and bay leaf.

If you need to skin your broad beans, do this whilst your waiting for the vegetables to cook.

When they’re done, add the passata, plus the same amount of water, bring it up to a simmer, and then add your tuna, breaking it into loose chunks.  The better the tuna, the chunkier it will remain.  

Also add your broad beans, a handful for each person. You can keep this sauce cooking on the lowest of heats, reducing (but not even simmering) until you’re ready to serve, but watch that it doesn’t reduce too much.  It needs to stay saucy.

Ten minutes before you’re ready to eat, get  your pasta water boiling and then salted.  

Chop your wild fennel and add to the sauce.

Cook your linguine for 6-7 minutes and just before it’s done, turn the heat up under the sauce.

Drain the pasta, throw it into the sauce, with a splash of pasta water and mix everything with abandon until the pasta is coated with sticky, oily sauce and dotted through with vivid beans and chunks of tuna.

Eat (it goes very well with a bone dry cider).

Fennel, sprung spring and more sardines

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The clue here is the name.  Wild.  Unbiddable and unmovable. One of countless umbelliferous plants, this family (Ferrula) has barnstormed a place into human civilisation as one of our keystone herbs.  If you think of any writer trying to capture their version of a mediterranean idyll, fennel looms large – pungent, aniseed, flowers that crawl with drugged and clumsy pin-head beetles.  My favourite is Giant Fennel, whose hollow stalks become the homes for colonies of gargantuan petrol blue bumble bees all over Sicily, from the abandoned terraces of Alicudi to the 2,000 year old ruins of Agrigento.  There, you see, I’m off on my personal Mediterranean idyll, and its fennel. 

But, it is not exclusively a plant of the south, here too it will grow freely, uninvited and tall.  Acid green or lustrous bronze, the two forms both carry the same pungency, and promiscuity when it comes to populating your patch with their offspring.  Sadly it does not come with giant bees, but it still carries that unique flavour and smell; full of volatiles waiting to impart something of themselves into your food.  Without the sun, that Sicilian sun, those volatiles will be weaker, less concentrated, something you will need to consider when deciding your quantities.  And after the exuberant spring fronds, come the flowers and their seeds – medicinal, digestive, essential. 

The fennel of spring comes as an eruption of froth, powered by a delving tap root that is heading to the antipodes.  An established clump of fennel becomes a stubborn and resolute thing, a problem if it’s a weed, a heaven sent blessing when it’s a herb.  And that tap root, prone to snapping and source of all life, causes all sorts of problems when the plant pops up in the wrong place and needs to be moved.  A relocated fennel plant is seldom a happy thing.  They have a strong sense of place, and their place is where they germinated, and no where else.  Rehomed it will sulk and wither, the promised lacy abundance turning yellow and wilting.  Given time, there may be a recovery, a return to vigour, but this is never certain, no matter how green your fingers.  

As soon as spring has sprung, the tight froth of new growth will erupt skywards, that deep deep  tap root powering stalks, fronds and yellow insect magnet flowers up to six feet in the air.  Once it gets there, much of the greenery (or bronzery) will start to die back.  All energy is diverted to height and flowers.  So the window for cooking with fennel leaves is over by July.

There is one recipe, involving pasta, fennel and sardines, that for me more than any other, encapsulates Sicilian food.  It’s ingredients are mostly ordinary, foraged, last hour of the market, store cupboard stuff.  And then the smallest of extravagances are added. The flavours are sublime.  Oily fish shot through with aniseed, sweet raisins, crunchy nuts, heady saffron and starchy pasta.  This is cheap decadence that I could eat every day.  The bucatini makes for a strange first encounter, it’s a hollow, tubular spaghetti – fatter and  tricky to eat.  It’s like a secret test to set true Italians apart from us lesser mortals, their deftness in stark contrast to our air-sucking futility.  But the hollowness allows it to absorb more of the flavours and juices of your Sarde, so it’s worth the extra effort and humiliation.

Pasta con le Sarde (for four)

Sardines (fresh, 2-3 per person or 2 tins, in oil)

Wild Fennel, (a big fist full of a fronds)

25g Pine nuts (toasted)

25g Raisins (soaked in warm water)

25g Chopped almond flakes

75ml Olive oil

Breadcrumbs

4 Anchovies

450g Bucatini

Saffron

Onion

Garlic.

If your using fresh sardines, then clean them – heads off, guts out, fins clipped, back bone out.  If you’re using tinned, the messy work has been done for you

Boil your pasta water, heavily salted and then use it cook the chopped fennel fronds (having removed the toughest, stringiest centre parts) for no more than ten minutes.  Remove and keep your fronds, but keep the fennel scented water boiling and add the pasta, cooking for 6-7 minutes (check the packet).

If using fresh sardines, then keep half of the fillets whole, and chop the rest.  Fry the whole ones in abundant oil, browning them on both sides, and when cooked, take them out of the oil and keep them with your fennel fronds. (you can skip this bit if you are using tinned fish, as they will never have the same crowd pleasing looks).

Now fry your chopped onion with the garlic. Add the anchovies and saffron (steeped in a little warm water), then added the chopped sardines, stir through the raisins, nuts and half of the fennel.

Whilst everything is heating through, test your pasta. Once it’s ready, drain, and then layer pasta, remaining fennel and the fish sauce, garnishing with the whole sardines you kept aside.  Finally shake over a generous amount of breadcrumbs and flash everything in an oven on its top heat for five minutes.

Continue reading “Fennel, sprung spring and more sardines”

Chicory Risotto

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We’re in the gap; when all those root vegetables and brassicas of winter have finally run their course, but there’s precious little on the allotment to take their place.  This is the time of the larder and the freezer; lots of pulses, frozen beans, jars of last summer’s passata.  But, there is fresh vegetable relief in the form of chicory.  Surely one of the easiest crops on the allotment (apartment from their final couple of weeks of molly coddling)?  Even the pigeons leave it alone; sow it in late autumn, and it just grows, shrugs off the winter and sits, waiting to be harvested whilst all around is a blasted heath.

I say chicory; but that’s a word that encompasses a whole raft of salads; leafy greens of varying degrees of bitterness.  I wrote about puntarelle a few weeks ago; very Italian and virtually unknown in the UK.  Italy loves chicory, just as it loves bitterness – think Campari, Cynar and Aperol; in the UK, the embrace is less demonstrative, and we, ever in need of justification, have to make it more fancy than it needs to be, and less bitter than it should be.  So, we torture it, starving it of daylight whilst forcing it into growth, to create tight, pale shoots that are sweeter, tender and more delicate than they would be if allowed to take their own time in the growing.

And then you can make a fancy but anaemic salad, perhaps with some citrus or a raspberry vinegar dressing. It will be terribly UnBritish.  It’ll feel healthy, nobody will really enjoy it, and you will long for the spring famine to finish so that you can eat peas raw from the pod and buttered radishes.

Or you can embrace the Latin, celebrate the bitter, accept that it is only March, and that the peas and radishes will have to wait.  Make a risotto, a risotto that is breathtakingly good, with a punch of flavours that belies its simplicity.

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For Two

  • Two chicory heads
  • Stick of celery
  • One medium onion
  • One medium tomato
  • Two cloves of garlic
  • Butter
  • 50g risotto rice
  • Dry white vermouth
  • Vegetable Stock
  • Pecorino
  • Fresh Parsley
  • Salt & Pepper

Take your chicory heads, slice them in half and simmer it in salted water for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, chop the onion, celery, tomato and garlic very finely and then fry until soft (but not brown) in an indulgent amount of butter.

Drain the chicory and slice it into thin strips (about 1cm across).

Turn up the heat and add these, and the rice to the onions and celery

Then add a slug of the vermouth and let it boil off (Vermouth is better than white wine in this recipe as it gives a herby tang that complements the chicory).

Now add vegetable stock, about 50ml at a time, you don’t need to obsessively hover over the pan, but check it every two or three minutes to make sure the rice isn’t sticking and to add more stock if it needs it.  After about ten minutes, taste the rice.  I like a bit of bite, some people prefer more of a rice pudding texture.  Go with what you prefer.

Finally, add salt and pepper as you see fit, then dish it out with a generous topping of fresh chopped parsley and grated pecorino.  It’ll be piping hot and salty, the chicory will impart a very gentle mustiness, like the smell of cooked cabbage, but beyond delicious.  

So, there, chicory risotto.  Infinitely better than any ill-conceived salad for a blustery March day.