Thank you to all who suggested countries this month - I decided to accept the challenge to cover perhaps the most renowned foodie countries there is, Italy!
Italian cuisine is one of the most well-known and its influence can be seen across the globe. America, in particular, has built its own national cuisine with Italian dishes like pizza and pasta at it’s foundation.
Despite the ubiquity of ‘Italian cuisine’, cooking within Italy is highly regionalised. Certain dishes will only be found in the areas they are native to, resulting in dishes named after them; 'Risotto alla Milanese’ and ‘Gnocchi alla Sorrentina’ being two examples of this. Italian food is all about simplicity and good produce. Cities near the sea will cook seafood and cities inland will cook meat like beef or game. Using local produce at its best is at the heart of Italian cooking.
Mealtimes in Italy are lengthy affairs, with lunch regarded as the most important meal of the day. A full Italian meal will contain:
Antipasto - this literally means ‘before the meal’ and generally consists of small bites of cured meats, cheese and olives.
Primo - this first course is usually pasta but could also be any other Italian carby dish like risotto, gnocchi or polenta.
Secondo - the second course will be the meat or fish section of the meal.
Dolce - dolce is the sweet finisher.
Digestivo - a small tipple to finish the meal - limoncello or grappa would be two favourites.
Although pizza and pasta are perhaps two of the best known staples of Italian cuisine, I decided to opt for dishes I had not made before.
Osso Buco with Risotto Alla Milanese
Osso Buco sounds pretty fancy, doesn’t it? It sounds a lot less lavish when you translate it to mean ‘bone with hole’. I mentioned the Italians like to keep things simple.
However, the name does highlight the most special part of the dish. Unlike most Italian meals which are quick to assemble, Osso Buco is perhaps Italy’s only well-known, slow braised dish. Osso Buco is a veal shank which is cooked with vegetables and white wine, with the bone and marrow still intact. As the meat is cooked, marrow escapes and oozes into the sauce, making it supremely unctuous and rich. The veal is braised until you can cut it using just your fork.
Originating in Milan, the traditional accompaniments for this dish are Risotto alla Milanese and Gremolata - I made both to be served alongside.
The trickiest part of this meal will be acquiring the veal shanks - I opted for an Ocado order but I believe most good butchers would be able to order this in for you if requested. I will continue to keep using this word as it summarises what Italian cooking is all about - it was so simple to make! First I browned the meat, sauteed the onion, carrot, and celery base. Lots of recipes will call for tomatoes but an authentic Osso Buco omits these, so I kept it simple and left them out. A couple of herbs plus some white and stock are added, then the meat is left to simmer for 2 - 2 ½ hours.
I haven’t ever made risotto as a side before as for me it would normally constitute a whole meal. I followed a recipe for Risotto Alla Milanese, which is flavoured with just saffron and parmesan and it was the creamiest, richest risotto I have ever made and it complimented the veal superbly.
The Gremolata - a mix of parsley, lemon and garlic, I would argue is 100% necessary for this dish to cut through the richness of it.
Did you like it?
I don’t think I have given a dish a 10/10 since I made Khachapuri but this may even top that. Every mouthful was heavenly. The only thing I would change would be serving up smaller portions as it was so rich, a little goes a long way.
Marks out of 10: 10/10
Cannoli are one of Sicily’s best known exports. Originally, these sweet treats were only consumed during Carnevale (Italy’s pre-Lent celebration) but they have now become popular both globally and annually.
Warning: I am about to ruin cannoli for you. If you don’t wish to feel self-conscious every time you eat a cannoli from now on, please skip ahead. I was surprised to learn as it has literally never occurred to me, but the origins of this famed Italian dessert are allegedly phallic in nature (on purpose). I was sceptical of this at first, but upon discovering another Sicilian delicacy - ‘St Agatha’s breasts’, the case seemed clear.
Cannoli is actually the plural of a singular ‘cannola’ and it is thought that the name comes from the ‘canne’, the river reed canes that were originally used to shape the pastry tubes.
The joy of the cannoli comes from the contrast of the crispy shell which should shatter instantly upon first bite, and the creamy smooth filling. Cannolis can have all sorts of different flavourings - I opted for pistachio.
I put my hands up on this one - I seriously underestimated Cannoli. I did very little research before diving in and giving these a go and it showed in the results (flashbacks to thinking Macarons would be a *fun* project). Despite appearances, as I think they look pretty good, they fell short for numerous reasons. A nice contrast I suppose to the simplicity of the other two dishes I made this month.
My main mistake was not realising that they needed to be eaten on the day they were made. I also did not realise that they should ideally be filled just before eating. If you fill the crispy shell and then leave it to sit, the wet filling seeps into the pastry and makes it soggy. I stupidly made an entire batch in an afternoon, giving me approximately 4 hours of time when I would realistically be able to eat them - needless to say, there was a lot of wastage.
I also don’t think I rolled the pastry thin enough. Whilst it did crumble upon biting into it, I think a thinner shell would have yielded a more satisfying crunch. A further issue was with the filling. Traditionally made from sheep ricotta, my version used a mixture of cream and cow’s milk ricotta. It actually resulted in a lighter filling than I am accustomed to in Cannoli and I must admit I prefer a denser filling to hold its own against the shell. Even the dark chocolate that it was dipped into disappointed - it tasted like the cheap cooking chocolate it was.
All of this and I’ve not even mentioned the issues that can occur when frying the pastry shells. The tubes really need to be sealed tight against the metal tube or you will find yourself (as I did with my first batch) with a pot full of pastry cases butterflying themselves open before your eyes.
Did you like it?
I will be making these again but only because I have bought the metal tubes. I made so many errors in making them that I don’t think a second batch could be worse.. Wish me luck!
Marks out of 10: 3/10 (this mark is for my attempt, I LOVE pistachio cannolis and I think this made the disappointment over mine even more bitter).
Gnocchi Alla Sorrentina
Cheese, tomato, olive oil and basil. Can you get more Italian than that? These four key ingredients hold the fate of Gnocchi Alla Sorrentina in their hands so it is worth investing in good quality. For Gnocchi Alla Sorrentina, a dish from Sorrento, the Gnocchi is first cooked in boiling water and then transferred to a dish with a freshly made tomato sauce. It is then topped with mozzarella, pecorino and basil and baked in the oven until the cheese has melted.
I have never made Gnocchi before so this was a new challenge for me (and an excellent excuse to buy another piece of kitchen equipment). I first boiled the potatoes with their skin on until they were nice and soft. I then peeled the skin off before squishing them through my brand new, shiny potato ricer. To the lovely big pile of freshly riced potatoes, I added egg yolks and flour and mixed until I had a workable dough. I had no idea how a potato dough would hold up to kneading but I was surprised by how easy it was to work with. I had read somewhere that the key to soft fluffy Gnocchi is minimal flour and minimal kneading, so I made this my objective whilst mixing. The rest was very simple and the dish came together in no time at all.
Did you like it?
I think this was a success.. I am not a Gnocchi expert but they didn’t turn to mush and they weren’t chewy at all. I don’t know if I would describe them as fluffy though - I found them a bit.. Slippery?! Any insight on this welcome. However, the dish as a whole works - I can see why it’s a classic. I did find it quite intensely cheesy but I am willing to chalk this up to having bought cheap mozzarella!
Marks out of 10: 7/10