Parmigiana, and official birthdays.

This was a year of a BIG birthday, with all the accompanying pressures to throw a party. But, I’m not a party kind of persona.  Posh frocks and loud music aren’t my style.  Plus the birthday was back in April, around Easter, with a strong likelihood of bluster and downpours.  So despite demurring and equivocating,  I was eventually pursuaded that I could hold a summer party, an official, Queen’s birthday, if you like.

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My allotment site is tucked away on a hillside in Birmingham.  The entrances are out of the way and hidden.  You have to find your way down unadopted roads, or have a key for a gate in the woodland known only to dog walkers and spliff smoking kids.  These semi-concealed gateways conceal the size and beauty of the space.  They lead you to unexpected views over rolling valleys of trees; an incongruously bucolic setting, in the middle of a sprawling conurbation.  There are plots of enviable order and control, where pristine sheds are equipped with wood burners and bunting flutters on verandas.  There are plots given over entirely to callaloo and spuds.  And there is mine, given over mostly to weeds and dahlias.  Most importantly though, aside from all this verdancy, there is a clubhouse, complete with bar, pool tables and a glitterball. It seemed the natural place to throw a party; remote and low key, when the idea of throwing a party induces waves of social anxiety. 

I decided to do the food.  I was on a budget, and thought it better to stick money behind the bar than throw it the way of sagged microwaved samosas.  I thought it  a no brainer.  Just because the oven was still on the fritz, the freezer was full up with beans and raspberries, and there was a  small matter of a full time job, none of these needed to be an obstacle to cooking for 60.  

But for the main, I needed something that could be made in advance and reheated on the day.  Something vegetarian, but with enough umph to fool the carnivores.  Also, something allotment appropriate – allowing me to show off, and say ‘of course, I grew the ingredients’ (well, some of them).

It seemed, therefore, a parmigiana appropriate event.  I cleared out the freezer, co-opted a friend’s cooker and raided Poundland for their entire stock of foil roasting trays.

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If you’re new to this dish, it is a staple of the south (disregard the name, it’s not from Parma)  If there’s such a thing as a Sicilian pot luck supper, this is what you take.  You see it for sale in cafes to take away with you, but equally, it’s a surefire way of wrestling the aubergines and tomatoes under control, as they start to overwhelm you in August. At the end, you get a rib sticker of a dish, that can be frozen for darker days.

It’s a laborious process – involving a fry-a-thon, with all the accompanying smoke and splatters and grease spots.  It’s an extractor full on, windows flung wide and back door open type of recipe, but I promise you, it’s worth it.

Sliced aubergine is plunged into hot, deep olive oil and cooked to a roast chicken skin brown on both sides.  Drain the slices on kitchen roll and then layer, in a deep oven dish, with passata, basil and mozzarella  When you’ve filled the house with haze, and the dish with aubergine, grate namesake Parmesan over the top and bake until bubbling and brown.

Now, you can eat it straight away, or you can let it cool, then refrigerate and have it cold (or reheated) the next day.  When it will be better by miles! It is best with hunks of crunchy bread that  you use to wipe up the carnelian-red sauce and wrap with strings of elastic mozzarella.

Parmigiana di melanzane. (4 greedy people, 6 at a push).

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There are some very complicated versions of this recipe around, with added herbs, red wine, nuts.  Feel free to try them, but I think that the success of this dish is its simplicity.  It is typical of much of the food of Sicily, in that it is home cooking, making use of the best of whatever is available,.  The more flavours and textures you add, ironically, the more you lose.  Like so many Italian recipes, especially in the south, you are actually only relying on three or four main ingredients to get the end effect.

  • 6 big, purple aubergines. Sliced lengthways, just over 0.5 cm thick.
  • Olive oil (be generous)
  • 300g mozarella (ideally buffalo)
  • Fresh basil
  • 100g Parmesan, grated
  • Black pepper
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 litre passata
  • Salt the sliced aubergines, leaving them to drip for an hour, then rinse and pat dry (this is not to remove bitterness, but moisture, so that they are firmer when fried).

Now start frying the slices, a few at a time, in enough oil to almost submerge the slices.  They will absorb a lot of the oil, which is part of the end flavour, and texture.  You can, for economy or health, grill or oven bake, but it will be an entirely different dish at the end.

Into a little cold olive oil, add crushed garlic, and gently heat it up until the garlic is on the edge of golden brown.  Add the passata and bring to a simmer for up to 30 minutes, reducing it down by about a third.

Next is the easy bit, Blue Peter cooking. 

Put a layer of aubergine slices on the bottom of your oven dish, then add torn blobs of mozarella, basil leaves, about a fifth of the parmesan,  black pepper and enough tomato sauce to smooth over and cover everything.  Add another layer of aubergines, and repeat the cheese sauce process.

Keep doing this until you have filled you dish (probably 4-5 layers), and finish with a generous helping of parmesan and black pepper.

Bake at 200 degrees C/ Gas mark 6 for 30-45 minutes (you want a browned top and bubbling edges)

Leave for at least ten minutes before serving – longer if you can; overnight ideally.  And before you serve, throw some more fresh basil over the top.

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Discovering Frittelle

 

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A random patch of white flowered borage has appeared in the middle of a path on the allotment.  Somehow it grew through the winter, whilst I wasn’t paying attention, and I’ve let it stay put. It’s easy enough to step over, and it and I have more pressing, more pernicious pop ups to deal with.

Like so many randomly self-placed plants, it is abundantly happy in its chosen path hogging position.  So much so, that now, before even the end of May, it is covered in flowers which are doing their best come hither looks for every bee in Moseley.  And not just the domesticated honeybees that live at the heart of the allotments, but countless feral, less biddable bees of varying sizes, shimmers and fuzzyness.  Bees make me happy.  Another reason the patch can stay.  I shall always be a tree hugging hippy at heart.

Borage is a herb.  I know that.  It says so in the herbs section of my RHS encyclopedia.  There are suggestions  for using its flowers as a garnish in a Pimms (it looks like drain water said a non Anglophile friend of the Sicilian’s) or be frozen in icecubes (11 on the scale of Camp 1 to 10).  Is that it?  I think this is stretching the definition of herb somewhat.  So, maybe, if it gets hot and I remember to pick some flowers, I’ll stretch a culinary use from my impromptu patch.  But otherwise I have no other plans for it.

The bees had other ideas though.  I was crouching in the soil, planting out borlotti beans next to the borage.  I snapped a quick video of the bees at work, pinged it to instagram and carried on with my Tom Good impersonation.  I am no influencer; my followers are mostly other food people, friends of mine or the Sicilian’s, a few writers and a vascillating personal trainer who manages to follow and unfollow at least three times a week. Perhaps he finds the pictures of Italian cakes and pasta simultaneously too distressing and tempting for his never ending carb free/paleo existence.  But amongst them is the wonderful Stefano, of ItalianHomeCooking, who jumps in with a suggestion for taking the leaves of my bee-friendly borage, dipping them in batter and deep frying them.  I’m learning that this deep frying thing is a wider art in Italy than in the UK perhaps.  There is a fondness and love of the process that goes way beyond our cod and chips, or mars bars (see arancine, Jewish artichokes, canolli and on and on)  But I was a virgin up until this point for the battered frittelle version of things.  Now I’m hooked.  I can feel a rush of deep frying approaching.  Stefano has suggested opening a frying joint – I am decidedly tempted.

When to eat frittelle?  Well, I ate the lot, in the kitchen, standing up at the counter. They were so good that burnt fingers and mouth were minor discomforts.  The batter of flour, soda water and seasoning is effortless – seconds in the making.  The leaves of the borage, which seem so unpromising, clad in stiff, skin pricking hairs not suggested delicacy or digestibility.  But the marriage of leaves, coated in batter, fried in hot, hot olive oil until golden…just another of those Italian marriage of simplicity. It’s a way of getting some of your five a day whilst cocking a snoot to  healthy eating.  The leaves lose all their unfriendliness and faint inside the crispy cheesy batter into almost a paste of green freshness.  Despite the parmesan, the flavours are not strong so much as physical sensations; the crunch, the melt, the heat, the desire for more.

I think the rule goes that if you can batter it, you can frittelle it.  I’m a novice here though, so a lot more experimentation and frying is needed.  I shall be forced to undergo more burnt fingers, more stand up in the kitchen dinners. The prospect of this does not, however, distress me.

 

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Frittelle di Borragine

12- 16 medium sized borage leaves (make sure they’re clean, and from the edible borage plant, not one of it’s inedible cousins)

100g 00 flour

25g Grated parmesan

Fresh black pepper

100-125 ml Soda water

Olive oil

MIx flour, cheese and ground pepper with the soda water to create the batter, it should be a thick – strong enough to cling to the leaves, without running off.  Don’t add all the water at once, it’s easier to thin a batter down than to thicken it up.  Whisk until there are no lumps.  If you have a soda fountain, this adds to the fun and theatre, which makes these great for inquisitive young cooks

Heat your oil to deep frying temperature in large high sided saucepan or a deep fryer if you have one.

Dip the individual leaves into the batter and then fry, a few at a time, until cliched golden brown.

Drain onto kitchen roll, and eat them piping hot, ideally outside, with cold beer.

There are all sorts of different recipes out there – that add anchovies, or mozzarella, or use beer instead of water.  But I think starting simple and then building up the complexity is the way for me to go – discovering an extravagant menu of frittelle as I go.

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.

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