Eating pizzoccheri in Valchiavenna

It’s a lazy Sunday lunchtime on a February Sunday and I’m having lunch in a restaurant with family and friends. The restaurant is La Genzianella in the hamlet of Fraciscio above Campodolcino in Valchiavenna. It’s a small place with an adjoining bar that fits snugly into its context with a wood-panelling dining room and a cosy atmosphere that feels like it could take you back to 1956 when the restaurant first opened. The waitress comes over and tells us what’s on the menu today. There’s a short moment of reflection and then quick agreement that we’ll have a taste of everything, or rather not quite everything. We decide to skip the antipasti or cold meats and cheeses which vary according to where you are and what the local produce dictates, but only because we can’t wait to start with the primi or first courses. We know that they have ravioli filled with soft fresh cheese and served in a fresh tomato sauce. And above all, they have pizzoccheri alla chiavennasca.

I often think that happiness is a dish of pizzoccheri, not only because of the food itself but because of the situation that is always involved. Take a mountain trattoria or a mountain refuge, in any case somewhere in the mountains which always has the winning factor for me personally because quite simply it is in the mountains. Fill it with family and friends around a table, add good honest food and it ticks all the right boxes in an atmosphere that makes you feel at home. Serve pizzoccheri and everyone’s happy.

What you need to know about pizzoccheri is that there are two types. One is from the Valtellina and involves large flat ribbons of pasta that could be equated with pappardelle, only they’re cut into short strips and made from grana saraceno or buckwheat, and dressed in greens and butter and local cheese. The type of pizzoccheri up here in the Valchiavenna is the other type, the one where roughly shaped gnocchi are made from stale bread and potato and served swimming in butter and local cheese. This is the whole point of this type of pizzoccheri. It’s supposed to swim in the cheese. You’ll also find them referred to as gnocchetti alla chiavennascha, little gnocchi Chiavenna-style. This is comfort food pushed to the max, the kind of thing you eat and then dream about afterwards.

It’s the dish that most represents this valley, with ingredients that people could generally get: potatoes, stale bread, cheese and butter. It served its purpose to feed people who live up in what can be quite unforgiving conditions in winter. It fed you, put something warm in your stomach and it was full of calories. It serves a similar function today for skiers in winter and hikers in summer. Fraciscio is at an altitude of 1341 metres above sea level. The road from Campodolcino leads on to the ski resort of Madesimo and the mountain pass of Passo dello Spluga up at 2114 metres. It’s one of the old transport routes linking Chur in Switzerland with Como and on to the Po Valley in Italy. The pass is closed in winter, but in summer you can go up there and enjoy its wild, remote beauty.

The first courses are followed by costine al forno (pork ribs cooked in the oven), brasato (pot-roasted beef) and salmi’ di cervo – venison stew with juniper berries and served with polenta. Venison is naturally a lean meat and for this reason it’s often marinated in wine, vegetables and herbs before cooking which helps to make it more tender when cooking. The polenta is the type that’s found up here, where the familiar yellow polenta cornflour is mixed with buckwheat to give it a distinctive speckled appearance. This is all followed in its turn by home made desserts including torta di grana saraceno or a fruit tart made with buckwheat flour again. Finish with a strong black espresso and one of the grappas made with the herbs you can find up here. It’s the kind of place where you find yourself dreaming of a sofa and a log fire afterwards.

Ristorante La Genzianella, Via Fraciscio, 93, 23021 Fraciscio SO, tel: 0343 50154. (Booking in advance is strongly recommended.)

Casarecce with romanesco cauliflower

This is one of my favourites: pasta with Romanesco cauliflower (cavolfiore romanesco). I made today’s recipe also because I was feeling inspired by a cookery class I did with a friend who’s originally from Puglia a short while ago. We cooked orecchiette with cime di rapa or turnip greens, and she told us how her family used to eat all together, sometimes thirty people at a time on their masseria or farmhouse in Puglia. Which in turn reminded me of eating the best pasta with chickpeas I have ever eaten in a restaurant in the centre of Lecce years ago. I don’t know the name of the restaurant, but I’m hoping if I go back there I might chance on it, and the familiarity of a street take me back there.

This dish also reminds me of my neighbour from Salento. When my kids were kids were little, she used to knock on my door and bring me up dishes of things to try. She’d arrived from the south, I’d arrived from the north. I always like to think of it as our form of communion over food. She taught me possibvly more than anyone that you really don’t need a long list of ingredients to make good food. This is everyday eating around the kitchen table, food that feeds and sustains us, and especially when times may be difficult.

Today I made it for lunch. My friend from Puglia would say that you should cook the cauliflower with the pasta in a pan of boiling water. I actually cooked the cauliflower early this morning. The idea is that if I do it early I don’t get to lunchtime where I’m running off to pick up my kids and still wondering “what shall I give them?!!” Of course it doesn’t always happen, the early morning cooking. I’d hate this to pass as some kind of domestic bliss.

Today I made enough to have leftovers, but for a family of four, I would suggest the following:

One head of Romanesco cauliflower

350g short pasta

1 garlic clove

2 dried chillis

Extra virgin olive oil

Boil. or steam the cauliflower until it’s just cooked. In the meantime, put the water on for the pasta. You need about a litre for every 100g of pasta, so three and half litres for 350g.

Take a large frying pan and put in some extra virgin olive oil. Then peel the garlic. You can either chop it finely or leave it whole. The same applies for the chillis. I usually leave both garlic and chillis whole and just use them to add flavour, then take them out just before serving.

When the cauliflower is cooked, cut it down a bit into smaller pieces and add to the oil, garlic and chilli. Mix it around so that it really takes on all the flavours.

Salt the water for the pasta when it starts to boil. About two dessert spoons should do it. Don’t worry if it looks like a lot of salt. The pasta cooks in it, and it’s healthier than having insipid pasta to which you need to add salt later. Then cook the pasta according to the instructions on the packet. A word of advice: always taste the pasta before draining it. Sometimes cooking times can vary slightly, and you don’t want to end up with undercooked pasta because you didn’t taste it. Trust me, I’ve been there!

The pasta should be al dente, so still have a bite to it. I tend to drain my pasta really quickly so it still has some of the cooking water hanging around, which means that when you add the pasta to the sauce it will bind more easily. If you’re unsure, just take out a ladle of pasta water before you drain it, put it in a cup and add a bit if you see that it needs it to help it come together better.

When you’ve drained the pasta, add it to the cauliflower and mix it around for a couple of minutes so that the pasta really soaks up all those flavours. This is a pasta dish that doesn’t actually need cheese, but if you do want to add some grated cheese, pecorino is perfect.

Throw a couple of bowls of olives and maybe also cherry tomatoes on the table, and pretend you’re in Puglia at the masseria of your dreams.

Focaccine

It’s Friday afternoon and I’m making focaccine, or little focaccia as adding the diminutive ‘ino’ or in this case ‘ina’ makes it little. So these are little focaccia, although if you’re familiar with the true Ligurian focaccia, don’t expect that. These are more like mini pitta breads and taste like piadina rather than true focaccia which is the type that oozes olive oil and can only really be eaten in Liguria. If you ever go to Liguria, the first thing you need to find out is where you can buy the best focaccia. Trust me, the locals will know. They always do.

While true focaccia involves proving times and is not always as easy as it looks, focaccine are very easy, and before you know it you too will be rustling them up like a pro for that Friday night aperitivo. They’re literally child’s play, and I can testify to this because I have made them with children. They’re also cooked in minutes and you don’t need a whole list of ingredients either.

To make them you’ll need the following ingredients to get around twenty, although don’t quote me on that as when I counted them we’d already eaten a few. Also don’t forget to add salt. The first time I made these I did forget the salt as my kids pointed out rather vociferously. Teach kids to eat well and appreciate food, and you’ll have active food critics for life.

Ingredients:

400g strong flour (in Italy we use farina 00, if you can find it)

200g soft ricotta, the fresh type that’s stored in the fridge and comes in a tub – this is what makes the focaccine so lovely and soft

140ml water at room temperature

50ml extra virgin olive oil

1 packet of fast action dried yeast (the ones I use are 15g)

Salt (and be generous or they will taste bland)

Place all the ingredients in a mixing bowl. You’ll need to sieve the flour before you do this, add the yeast and salt, then the ricotta and finally the oil and then the water. I always add the water last because you get more control over it. Start to mix it all together with a wooden spoon and then when it’s started to come together, put it on your kitchen worktop or table and knead it a bit with your hands. It won’t feel as strong as bread dough. This is softer and less elastic.

Then, get out your rolling pin and roll out the dough. You need to roll it out quite thin – just a couple of centimetres. After you’ve done this, get a glass and cut out circles. Bind all the leftover bits together and then roll out again, cut more circles and repeat until you’ve used all the dough. With the last bit of dough you can just shape and squash it into a circle with your hands.

Take a non-stick frying pan and pan lid, and without adding any oil, start to lay in the focaccine and then put the lid on the frying pan. You need to put the lid on as this will help them to cook. Also, cook them on a fairly low heat or they’ll burn on the bottom before they’re ready. Leave them for a couple of minutes and then turn them over. Put the lid back on and leave for a further few minutes. If you want to test whether they’re done, just take one out and pull a bit off and take a look inside. If it looks ‘bready,’ then it’s cooked. As you take the cooked focaccine out of the pan, you can put them on a metal tray to cool.

Although believe me, these are utterly divine straight out of the pan still warm with a slice of Parma ham on top. Serve for aperitivo, or even better add a couple of pizzas, a few dishes of olives, cherry tomatoes and crisps and other various things you fancy and call it apericena. Apericena is a cross between aperitivo and dinner meaning that you can sit back, relax, feeling suitably virtuous about your freshly home-cooked focaccine, and enjoy your evening.

Dream of Italy.

Chicken dinners

The decorator had been in all week and we were living in that state of chaos which is slightly too much. Meals on the coffee table (or rather what serves as the coffee table which is actually my old university trunk) eventually lose their appeal. Or rather than losing their appeal, we’d got to the point where you couldn’t even get to the trunk anyway.

I needed to put a chicken in the oven. I desperately needed to put a chicken in the oven.

Chicken dinners have been a cornerstone of my life. Other meals have come and gone, but the good old chicken dinner has remained. It’s not just the oven that warms a home and the souls within it, it’s the constant. I can remember so many chicken dinners from my childhood, taste them, see the gravy as I pour it over. The chicken dinner I made last night was a rather more Italian compromise. One son delights in a chicken dinner, the other pulls a face. Hence the sausage.

It’s my own version of Nigella’s traybake, the one in Nigellissima, her take on Italian food. I say my own version, but this is really dependent on mood. Yesterday I got a packet of about 300g of Italian sausage, four chicken legs and a whole chicken breast. Add three whole cloves of garlic, and they need to be whole because they almost caramelise during the cooking, and if, like me, you love slow roasted garlic, use more. Drizzle with olive oil and lay about five sprigs of lemon thyme or ordinary thyme, whatever you have to hand. Of course the challenge is to manage to cook the chicken breast without it getting dry, so cook the sausages on top, and baste regularly. Then in another pan I put parboiled potatoes and carrots to roast in olive oil with rosemary sprigs. Putting them to roast raw just doesn’t create the right result. They will be roasted, but they won’t be proper roast potatoes, at least not in my book.

The chicken was slightly overdone in the end as I got sidetracked sorting out the bookcases. When you have a houseful of books, it’s a permanent quest. The only solution I ever find that works is to just buy more bookcases. More bookcases mean more books, although I have this fear that one day I will die amidst piles of unread books that, in turn, nobody will ever read.

The leftover chicken will be brought out again today, probably in sandwiches in thick crusty bread, although I have a recipe a friend gave me for some lovely soft milk bread that’s lying around that I might give a try. Baking my own bread is up there with the chicken dinners.

In which case, I really should make some stuffing.

A tale of two lasagne

If we’re talking lasagne, then it’s a tale of two. The first is my mother’s from my childhood, when lasagne was a food of ’80s dinners, along with the stir fried chicken that came from her copy of the St Michael Cookery Library’s Chinese Cooking. It was often made using dried lasagne verdi, and generally served with chips – the soft thick type that were browned at the edges – salad and garlic bread, and I have a vague recollection that coleslaw sometimes made an appearance. For years, this for me was lasagne. The second version is truly Italian, and comes from eating it for so many years at various Italian tables. There was once a version that included slices of boiled egg, made by a friend’s mother who came from Basilicata, because how you make your lasagne is often a sign of where you’re from. Lasagne with slices of boiled egg. Who’d have thought it could taste so good.

It was Sunday and I’d been listening to the Radio Four dramatisation of Claudia Roden’s A Book of Middle Eastern Food. If you haven’t listened to it, do, because it’s a celebration of how food is a part of our culture and who we are. Food is connection and at times that can be everything, as is evident in Roden’s tales of how she left Egypt for Paris, and then for London, and lived out her exile. It’s often a way of creating home, and it matters.

It mattered as I stood in my kitchen and made meatballs that Saturday. It matters as I make pizza on a Wednesday night. It mattered as I stood there ready to make my mother’s lasagne, and so off went my husband to look for dried lasagne verdi in the village where we live just north of Milan. He didn’t find it, came home and suggested we make it. “Make it?” The idea seemed almost absurd. You didn’t make fresh lasagne for this lasagne, you bought it in a packet. And it was thick, and crispy around the edges where the sauce hadn’t covered the lasagne.

When I put it on the table, the reaction was interesting. Lasagne is always a winner in our house. But lasagne with salad? On the same plate? It was breaking the laws of Italian food, and Italian food is a serious business. Lasagne is a primo – a first course – and eaten alone. My husband didn’t even go there. He ate his lasagne first, salad second. Neither did my elder son, although that was because salad is green and green rarely features on his plate. My younger son copied me. Lasagne, salad and a wedge of garlic bread. Then he started eating and a divide began to appear between his lasagne and salad. There was no way his salad was getting soggy with b├ęchamel sauce.

It made me smile somewhat. My lasagne belonged to a time of stir-fried chicken in oyster sauce and chicken in a basket when we were on holiday at the seaside and went for a pub lunch. It represented the foreign, if not the exotic. In theory it’s the same dish, yet it will never be the same dish. The lasagne I’ve eaten and learned to make in Italy will always be different to the lasagne of my childhood. It belongs to dinners in my mother’s kitchen when we go to visit my dad, only now I’m the one that’s cooking it. It fits there. Although as I write this, I can’t help thinking that one day it will fit here too. When there is no longer any context for it, it will matter very much.

don't touch my lasagne