Friday, November 20, 2009

Fried matzo

I have an unofficial rule on my blog that anything on it has to have been cooked by me. However, this is the first thing that Sammy has learnt to cook all on his own, so I think it deserves an exception to be made for it. I remember my grandma (and my mum) making this for me when I was a kid, so seeing Sammy make it brings back happy memories.

1 piece of matzo
1 egg
oil for frying

  1. Break the matzo into large pieces, place in a colander and sprinkle with a little water to soften it up.
  2. Beat one egg in a bowl with a little salt, and add the matzo pieces to it.
  3. Heat the oil in a non-stick pan, and pour the matzo and egg mixture into it. When it is cooked underneath, flip it over, cook for a few seconds more and serve.

Unleavened bread

Breakfast is sometimes a bit of a problem, so we were really relieved to find "pane azzimo" in the local supermarket. That's just Italian for "unleavened bread", and is identical to matzo (although without all the Beth Din stamp tomfoolery). At some point I may even have a go at making unleavened bread, although first I have to track down a recipe which doesn't involve a long trek through the desert and across the bed of the Red Sea.

Fried purple artichokes

I didn't think I would be doing quite so much deep-frying in Italy, but I have a real weakness for anything battered and fried. I saw these beautiful purple artichokes on the fruit and veg stall at Bagni's little twice-weekly market and asked the market lady what the best way to cook them was. She gave me a slightly dismissive list of possible methods, but this was the one that appealed to me so I quizzed her a bit further.

4 purple artichokes
1 lemon
2 eggs
olive oil


  1. Remove the stalks and all the tough outer leaves from the artichokes. (Don't be a miser here. If you're in doubt about whether a leaf is too tough or not, then it probably is.)
  2. Cut off the tips of the artichokes. (Again, be brutal.)
  3. Quarter the artichokes lengthwise, and run your finger down the inside to check for spikes. If there are any then just trim them off.
  4. Put the artichoke quarters in a large bowl of cold water into which you have squeezed the juice of 1 lemon.
  5. Drain the artichokes but not too thoroughly - a bit of water will help make the flour stick to them.
  6. Coat each of the artichoke pieces in plenty of flour then dip them in beaten egg, making sure they are completely covered.
  7. Heat a large pan with plenty of olive oil. Don't let the oil get too hot, or the eggy batter will burn but the artichokes won't cook. When the oil is hot enough, fry the artichoke pieces in batches, turning when they are cooked underneath.
  8. Remove the cooked artichoke from the oil, drain and serve with some lemon quarters. They should be crispy and light on the outside and juicy and tender on the inside.

Cardoon Schnitzel

"He stared balefully at the half-empty bottle of Scotch on the coffee table, and the bottle glanced dismissively back at him. Only he and the bottle knew how tired he felt, and neither of them was about to tell. The lurid pinks and violets of a Los Angeles dawn were beginning to bleed over the horizon, but Cardoon Schnitzel's mood remained unremittingly dark. His latest case was proving harder than he had expected, and he was beginning to wonder if his formidable powers of detection had finally met their match."

cardoon stalks
olive oil

Steam the cardoon until tender, drain and leave to dry for 10 minutes or so.
Coat the cardoon in seasoned flour, then dip in beaten egg, then coat in breadcrumbs.
Fry in plenty of oil until golden brown.

Roasted chestnuts

This isn't really a recipe, but there's something so magical about roasted chestnuts that I thought I should mention them on the blog. Apart from being delicious, they provide kids with a great excuse for playing about with an otherwise forbidden open fire.

When we arrived in Bagni di Lucca in October there were sweet chestnuts lying around all over the place. They come in little pods of 3 or 4, and are protected by a viciously spiky shell, which is much more forbidding than the leathery coat which protects the horse chestnut. We haven't actually gathered any (and I think they need to be dried or at lest matured in some way before eating), but the quality of the ones we've bought is way anything I've managed to buy in the UK or Spain, with mouldy ones or ones which consist almost entirely of skin being the rare exception. I suspect that the problem is inadequate storage of the nuts.

I don't have any tips, other than to pass on something which Sammy pointed out to me. It's best to cut them across the way rather than from top to bottom, as they open up better this way while roasting.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Deep-fried green tomatoes

I've been keen to make the most of my time in Italy to improve my Italian, and have therefore been taking every opportunity for conversation. I've already had more conversations than I would have thought possible about the relative merits of different types of wood for burning in open fires as compared to stoves. (You don't want anything which will explode or give off too much smoke in a fireplace, so apparently chestnut is out.) And I think the Jehovah's Witnesses who visited me last week were rather surprised when I eagerly bounded to the garden gate and started talking to them about the history of the treatment of the Jehovah's Witnesses during World War Two. Unfortunately, after a few minutes they made their excuses and left.

Anyway, another good topic of conversation is food. I first heard about these deep-fried tomatoes in my Italian class and was intrigued. Then this morning I saw some nice green salad tomatoes in the local shop and thought I'd give it a try. I had a long chat with the woman behind me in the queue about how thickly they should be cut, how runny the batter should be, and whether it is best made with sparkling water or with beer.

I'm not sure how easy it will be to get tomatoes like this in the UK. In Spain and Italy, green tomatoes like this are sold for salads, although people usually avoid the ones that are totally green. For this dish, I think the greener the better.

3 large, green tomatoes
2 eggs
1 cup of plain flour
cold sparkling water
2 teaspoons of salt
vegetable oil for deep frying

Slice the tomatoes into thickish slices (a little less than 1 cm, I guess) and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of salt
Make the batter by gently beating two eggs, then adding about a cup of plain flour, before thinning out with some cold sparkling water. (I know this is terribly vague. This is basically just a deep-frying batter. I don't measure these things - and neither should you!)
Heat plenty of oil in a deep-frying pan.
Coat the tomato slices in the batter, and fry in batches. The oil should not be too hot, or the batter will cook on the outside before the tomatoes are cooked on the inside.
Cook the slices for a couple of minutes, then turn over and cook for a further 2 minutes.
Remove to a plate, sprinkle with the 2nd teaspoon of salt and allow to cool for a couple of minutes or so before serving.

Frying tonight
Bagni di Lucca, where we are staying, is close to the town of Barga, in the Garfagnana region of Tuscany. Many of Scotland's Italian community have their origins here, and connections with the old country remain strong. Every summer, when Italo-Scottish chipshop owners and their families head to Barga for the summer, Barga holds a "fish and chip" festival. This is always viewed as a bit of an oddity, and there is an assumption in Scotland that the Barga locals must be appalled by what their expatriate cousins do for a living in Scotland. However, if this local recipe is anything to go by, then I doubt that anyone was particularly surprised. After all, if you will deep-fry a tomato, then why not do the same to fish and chips?

Super lager

I was trying to think of a way of shoehorning this into a piece with a recipe in it, but in the end I decided it merited an entry of its own.

I don't know if anyone remembers the great Tennent's "Japanese style lager" advert from back in the 1990s (or before?). At the time, Japanese lagers were all the rage. (I have to admit I had a weakness for Saporro, which was sold in a neat can which looked like a metal beer barrel.) I had always assumed this was a piece of self-mocking fiction, but have now realised that this really reflected Tennent's desire to rebrand themselves. They may not have managed it in Tokyo, but they seem to have done the trick in Italy. I spotted this bottle of Tennent's:

... in the company of this roast pig ...

There's something very amusing about the idea that sophisticated Italian beer connoisseurs are unknowingly sharing their tipple with Scottish tramps. And something slightly chastening about the thought that my liking for Saporro may well have put me in the drinking company of Japanese down-and-outs.