Frying Tonight!

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Why would you cook street food at home?

I don’t mean the street food of a thousand dank food festivals; waffles covered in artery clogging cream and salted caramel, or the piece of meat so pulled that it is all but impossible to answer ‘animal, vegetable or mineral?’  I mean the stuff that world over, has been created to be eaten on the hoof, as a ready meal to take to work, and above all, to be cooked in the open air, or at the very least, in a non-domestic setting.  Remember the childhood stigma suffered by the kid that lived above the chippy?  Street food is pungent and clingy.

Homesickness and loss are two reasons to cook it at home, because ‘real’ street food is inherently bound to its place of origin, it can both define and be defined by this.  It is the taste of childhood, normality, home. It reeks of identity.  More pragmatically though, you need open windows, a stiff through breeze,  and the extractor fan to be working at full pelt, without those three preconditions being met, then there is no reason good enough to justify breaking out the deep fat fryer to make Arancine, no matter how wistful your Sicilian other half has become.

Arancine (female) if you’re from Palermo, arancini (male) if you’re from Catania.  And it’s ‘arancheeneh’, NOT ‘arancheeneee’, which I still say every time, to the exasperation of the resident Sicilian and the amusement of my more tolerant Italian teacher (although her patience runs out over my inability to roll my ‘r’s).  For me, the feminine ‘Arancine’ seems right, as they’re supposed to look like oranges (Arance), hence, little oranges (arancine).  Forgive the Italian 101.  This seems to me like common sense, and I’m loyal to my Palermitan.

These are piping hot balls of deep fried rice, surrounding a parcel of (traditionally) either ragù, with peas, or mozzarella and ham.  Dainty, they are not.  The rice has a familiar taste, incongruously rice pudding like (perhaps this is why so many British friends wrinkle their noses at the mention of arancine).  There’s a cafe/bar attached to the Teatro Biondo in Palermo, just round the corner from the tourist hot spot of Quattro Canti. There, you can buy arancine the size of baby’s head, for breakfast.  They sit alongside an alternate riotous excess of cannoli, Genovasi, brioche, countless fruit tarts, marzipan fruits, gelato, more gelato. That Sicilians are not all the size of a house, is astounding.

But the best I have so far eaten was in a tiny backstreet place in Taormina, the cliche of an Italian hill town, with added Etna and Grecian ampitheatre.  Its east coast position places it firmly in the Catania school when it comes to the name, and therefore, you buy ‘Arancini’.  These were through the monumental arch, past the church, past the tourists and past all the street sellers of belts, whirling fluorescent toys, and hair braids.  You had to duck past a fancier restaurant where Americans were sipping monstrously expensive Spritz from branded balloon glasses.  I loved Taormina, I loved all its overt tourist fleecing brashness.  I loved that the Duomo has a black Madonna, painted by God Himself, and wrapped in millennia of silver.  And then, these arancini.

 

The bar is basic, and busy, it reminded me of the chip shop round the corner at home, where queues form early and, in a flight of true Brummie romanticism, are longest on Valentine’s Day.  Similarly, at the cafe in Taormina you queue and you wait under a glaring fluorescent light; there’s a chest high glass display cabinet, which also acts as the counter where you place your order.  I half remember that in there were other offerings, (although none as grand as those in the theatre cafe in Palermo).  But we were here for our little oranges, recommended as the best by Marco, the friend who we were staying with down the hill in less glitzy, less rapacious Naxos.

These arancini need to be assembled and fried to order; the sticky, cold risotto rice, stained gold by saffron, is moulded into a palm shaped cup to hold the filling (we had one ragù and one mozzarella).  Then the rice is formed over to encase its hidden depths.  And this being the east coast, the shape is that of a rounded cone, rather than the sphere of Palermo.  Finally, your dinner is dipped in egg yolk, rolled in breadcrumbs and deep fried in olive oil until the colour of toasted coconut tobacco (I’m showing my age).

The whole thing only takes ten minutes, so you grab a stool in the alley outside, awaiting your turn, with a beer.  Mostly Italians, or rather, mostly Sicilians, are at the few other tables and stools, or sitting on steps and in doorways.  There’s a homeless guy with his hopeful dog in tow.  They’re looking for the rare tourists who’ve gone off-Baedekar and stumbled down here to bite off more than they can chew. Or, more realistically, for the more charitable locals who know them by name and will perhaps buy them both an arancino and him a beer.  This is in no way an idyll, but it is more human and humane than the coach tour feel of the main streets.  The smell is of hot oil and humidity, there are discarded Styrofoam cartons and empty plastic tumblers of dying froth, waiting to be cleared by an overworked, although largely absent teenager.  The street is wet, but it hasn’t rained in weeks.

With your fingers you break open your ball of scalding, sticky rice to an eruption of musty saffron; the filling is viscous and dangerous, but even in the dark, suffocating, summer evening heat of Sicily, the whole thing demands urgent attention. The suddenly discovered ragù, simmered and honed for hours, smacks you in the face.  It is outrageously confident, shouting ‘I am meat! I am peas! I am sauce!  Eat me!’  In contrast the mozzarella version is, if not more demur, then more subtle, sinful in its richness, smokily infused by the ham – the Fenella Fielding of arancini.  Cold beer in hand to sooth a burnt mouth, inadequate, Lilliputian napkins half catching the leaking oil and oozing cheese, these are a thing to be eaten greedily and shamelessly.  There is gluttony here. This is street food.

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No pressure!

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There are some recipes that I’ve been tip toeing around,  because of their complexity, because of my ignorance; there’s the fear of being branded a cultural appropriater, the knowledge that I’ll get them wrong, but without a reference point to know just how wrong I got it.

So it is with Pasta al Forno.  This is not a formalised recipe, like Pasta alla Norma.  But then, it is THE recipe.  A simple name, ‘baked pasta’, belies a complex, time consuming holy grail of dishes.  YouTube it and there are more Nonna’s out there making Pasta al Forno, than are imaginable.  It is a dish for Sundays, for celebration, a dish of a diaspora, for welcoming home the Prodigal Son. But more than anything it is the domesticity of Italian cooking distilled. It is sacrosanct. I’m terrified of this dish. Because I am not Italian, to attempt this feels fraudulent almost.

But it had to be done. I tried.  And because I’m not Italian, because I don’t have to play by the rules if I don’t know them all, I tinkered, just a little.  Don’t tell the Sicilian.

If you want a lumpen show stopper, something to bring a cheer from the family that will stretch far enough to satisfy the hungriest of teenagers,  this is it.  It is aubergines, ubiquitous to Sicily breadcrumbs, ragù, pasta (of course), more aubergines, cheese, ham, peas (if you like), layered and assembled into something that is satisfyingly homely, maternal and unpretentious despite the effort and detail that goes into it.  You can try to prettify and gentrify but you will fail, and in so doing you will fail to grasp the point of it, as a celebration of abundance, togetherness and sharing.  Only a fool would make this without guests or family to share it with, you’d be eating it for days.

This though is the Palermitan version, or my Palermitan’s version, with added Milanese input.

Of course, there is pasta al forno, and then there is the proper pasta al forno, as made in Palermo.  For starters, there is only one acceptable pasta, anelletti (think spaghetti hoops), most other versions are far less dictatorial.  It was described to me as a ‘leftovers, whatever is in the fridge’ dish, with no real recipe.  I was then told exactly what those leftovers should be.  

So, I’m not going to give recipe of weights and volumes here,  as the scale of this thing should shift to match the size of your personal domestic set up.  

To begin then, start your ragù, ideally the day before you’re making your bake.  (I tend to make ragù in cauldron sized batches that I freeze into meal sized portions – it saves a lot of time and washing up).

Ragù is a complex business.  One that I sometimes feel I have no place or right to start getting involved with.  There are essays and debates and probably wars raging over what constitutes the proper ragù.  The intricacies and complications that have been wound around this sauce are endless.  Perhaps, one day, I’ll write something about these; sticking my head above a parapet for the inevitable onslaught.  But for now, my ragù is a meat sauce – beef or beef and pork mince, with a soffritto of carrots, onion and celery, passata (plus the same volume of water), white wine, garlic, a bay leaf, simmered for hours – as many as you have (as long as it’s above 3).  If it gets too thick, add more water.  I add an anchovy, one of those salted, oily slivers from a tin.  It dissolves and wallops up the umami.  I also add a 50p sized blob of astrattu,  the unique salted tomato concentrate created by the sun on the roofs of people’s homes in Sicily.  This is unlike anything you’ll have come across outside of Sicily.  It isn’t just tomato paste.  It is something other.  You know how a really good sun dried tomato can taste like sweet marmite?  Exaggerate and embellish that thought. This is obviously not an option unless you’re visiting Sicily (although maybe there are places you can find it here that I’ve not discovered yet), so don’t get too hung up on this addition.

 

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My ragù is definitely not canon.  The Sicilian I feel disapproves.  But it’s mine, and I think it’s nigh on perfect.

Once your ragù has simmered its way to a suitably decadent richness, turn it off, cover it and let it sit in the fridge for 24 hours, where, like the best of soups, stews and curries, it will use this time for inner reflection and self improvement.

The next day you are ready to begin.

Slice two large aubergine thinly into steaks and fry both sides in deep, good olive oil until browned.  You can pre salt these slices to draw out some of the water, but make sure to rinse and dry them before frying.  While they’re cooking, oil a sprung cake tin, and coat the inside with breadcrumbs.

Drain the cooked aubergine slices and use them to line the tin, leaving any long edges hanging over the sides of the tin.

Chop a third aubergine into chunks and fry these until brown

Hard boil your eggs

Precook your pasta for half the time on the packet (3-4 mins usually).  Anelletti is a bugger to find in the UK, so improvise – penne is fine, if not Palermitan, I use ditaloni, which is a short tube, still not Palermo style, but hey!  Needs must!

Mix together the pasta and ragù, then layer this with the aubergine chunks, ham and cheese (I mix parmesan and mozarella, but caciocavallo, if you can get it, will add Sicilian authenticity), alternating until you fill the tin, and inserting hidden halves of boiled egg in a symmetrical ring.

Fold over any overhanging aubergine, scatter over more bread crumbs and bake in the oven for 40 minutes.

Best eaten the next day (making this a three day project), this is a rib sticker of a meal.  Hearty and calorific, it takes no prisoners.  But as it is delicious, fantastic, smothering, you will welcome, and embrace your captivity.

Hare ragu – how to cook your way back from disaster, helped by Anna del Conte

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Until last week I’d never cooked a hare, never eaten one, and only ever seen one darting off through a watercress bed in Hampshire.  And then I get hold of four legs, and set about planning. And almost as soon as I get my hare, I read that their numbers are collapsing, possibly catastrophically.  So with the knowledge that I’m about the serve up an unfortunate statistic in this collapse, my conscience demands that I do the beast justice.

I think I’ve found a recipe that sounds perfect.  The weather has turned autumnal, it’s stormy and the rain is flattening what’s left of the veg plot.  This calls for something part broiled/part roasted, something nutty (toasted hazelnuts in this case), root veg and herby.  Throw in a slug of something red and it’s going to be great,  I double check the cooking times, cover the whole thing in a space-age foil wrap to keep in the moisture and the flavour, and wait.  Kale is prepped ready for a short steam and a fry off in butter.  Table is laid. Fire is lit.

I ballsed it up.

Out of the cosseted roasting tin emerge four rigour-mortised, dirty pink admonitions to my cooking pride. You can’t even cut them, they’re so tough you could make a pair of shoes.  My hare died for no purpose, and it’s my fault.

So, here I am, enabler of the hare’s decline, with three choices: bin, dogs, or an intervention from St Lorenzo – patron saint of cooks

Bin would be criminal; dogs, best chums of mine they may be, do not get fed good (if badly cooked) game.  So prayer it is!

I had an idea to try an bring some life back to my hare by making them into a ragu – the Italian meat sauce, not the tomato ketchup sauce out of jars.  This rescue mission needed time, so I started off using the legs, the veg and the nuts to make a stock, cooking them on the lowest of simmers for several hours, and then leaving it overnight to infuse while cooling.

The next day, I scooped out the legs and the nuts, to strip the meat from the bones, which flaked and shredded as I did so.  By the time I’d finished cleaning them, I’d garnered an overflowing bowl of dark, dark leg meat that was no longer shoe leather, and was on its way to being a different, but better dish than the one I’d originally planned.

Then I finely chopped up onion, celery and garlic and sautéed them off slowly, until soft, but without colouring them.  Note, there are no carrots. I’d run out. The Sicilian hit the roof when he discovered me making ragù without carrots. My defence; “I had no carrots’, was met with ‘then don’t make ragù!’ I carried on regardless and added a jar of the allotment passata (see last week’s post about the tomato glut), another glass of red and a bay leaf and cooked this down further for ten minutes.  And then I added in the hare meat and a splash of red wine vinegar for added sharpness (a trick the Sicilian taught me), checked the seasoning and let it gently carry on cooking whilst I got the pasta ready.

Pappardelle is my favourite – I could lie and write prosaically about starchiness and generosity, but the truth is that it’s the one pasta that forgives my non-Italianess, that doesn’t make me look like a toddler with a fork trying .  To over egg my pasta, I cooked it in the stock that had been created by poaching the hare’s legs for all those hours.  Once sauce and pasta were combined I stirred in some crumbled hazelnuts.

Hare ragu and pappardelle with crumbled hazelnuts – it was outstanding, a proper snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.  It’s gamey of course, and I want to say it’s ironey, but not in a grilled liver kind of a way.  And whilst I may not treat my dogs to good game, I did let them lick the plates (don’t judge me). Cooking pride restored.

And then the next day, I’m flicking through Anna del Conte – and there it is.  A better, and authentic version of my recipe.  Including the pappardelle and the red wine, but without the tomato sauce.  Whilst it would be wonderful to think that this home cook had independently come up with a similar recipe as his food hero, I think the reality is that things stick, especially when written well.  The more you cook and the more you read; the better you become.  And whilst I may never be Italian and may never master the art of eating spaghetti neatly, it turns out I’ve learnt enough along the way to rescue, at least, a cremated hare.

So, thank you Anna del Conte for giving me the wherewithal to rescue my hare from my own incompetence, once again, you have saved the day in my kitchen.  Her recipe is in her Italian Kitchen book, my half remembered version of it is here.

Anna del Conte inspired Pappardelle with Hare.  

50g butter

50g streaky bacon (smoked)

1 onion (finely chopped)

1 carrot (finely chopped, and appeasing resident strict Sicilians)

1 stick of celery (finely chopped)

Clove of crushed garlic

Bay leaf

300ml passata

200ml good stock (chicken or vegetable)

4 hare legs

Glass of red wine

Splash of red wine vinegar.

400g dried pappardelle

Salt and pepper

50g Toasted hazelnuts 

I’ve omitted the section on nearly ruining your hare legs (that bit is entirely optional)

Melt the butter and fry the chopped bacon until it begins to colour.

Add the chopped onion, celery and garlic, and lower the heat.

Cook until the vegetables are soft, but not coloured and then add the hare legs, browning them on both sides.

Turn up the heat and throw in the red wine to deglaze the pan.

Add the bayleaf and the passata and some of the stock, and simmer, covered, for 50 minutes to an hour. Keep an eye on it and if it starts getting to thick and at risk of drying out, add a ladle of stock.

When the meat falls easily for the bone, remove the legs and strip them, before returning the meat to the tomato sauce (chopping up any larger pieces).  Add your vinegar and seasoning and cook for five minutes longer.  You’re aiming for a thick, dark sauce that won’t turn your pappardelle watery.

When you’re ready, cook your pasta in ferociously salted water in the biggest pan you have, for 5-6 minutes.  No longer, as it’ll keep cooking when you mix it with the ragu.  

Drain, and return to the pan, stirring in your hare ragu until the pappardelle is evenly coated.

Sprinkle over the hazelnuts (you can rub the skins off them by rolling them in a tea towel when they’re still hot from a five minute roasting in the oven)

Serve immediately and eat quickly if you’re expecting competition for seconds