My Italian Cook

 

marika

Of course Marika Seguso, pictured here in her Venetian kitchen, is not my Italian cook (I wish!) but my Italian neighbour. She is, however, the Italian cook who has taught me and so many others something about basic Italian cooking. Marika is a chef who now teaches the lucky few in her Venetian cookery school Aquolina.

It was at Marika’s exceptional B & B, Villa Ines,  that I used to stay before buying my own flat on the Venetian Lido and she is indeed the real deal, Venetian herself and married into one of the oldest Venetian families, Seguso, who have their own factory on Murano still making extraordinary glass.

The Italian Meal

A word here about the Italian meal which is so defeating to visitors. If you’re not in a pizzeria then you see four courses offered on the menu – likely more than you want to eat or pay for. Over some years I have observed how Italians allow the menu to serve them and how they are feeling, never the other way around. Most commonly they close the menu straight away and ask ‘What’s good tonight?’ The ‘special’ is usually just that – what was best in the market that morning. In my suspicious, English way I used to think it would be something they had made too much of! I was completely wrong.

In Venice at least, the cold fish antipasto is a must. The next course is the pasta/risotto/soup i.e. it is the carbohydrate course. Don’t be afraid to share this or to miss it out altogether if you’re not so hungry. You can move straight from the antipasto to the main course if you are so minded, but equally you can have an antipasto and a pasta and stop there with honour satisfied. One of the best tips I can give you is to order the first two courses, sharing if you will, and then to ask the waiter to come back and see how you are feeling. Unlike many English kitchens, Italian chefs are happy to take orders as you go. See what you feel like once you’ve had some food. You can then share a main course, have your own or do without. No-one will think ill of you for this and it means you can go to a smart restaurant without feeling you have to eat a good deal more than you enjoy. The horrible dynamic that many of us grew up with is completely absent in Italy. You don’t need to impress the waiters!

Typically a couple will order like this. Two antipasti. One pasta (largely eaten by the man). One or two main courses (meat or fish). One pudding. Not too overwhelming on the purse or the digestion.

Spend a day with Marika in her kitchen and you will learn to make gnocchi, risotto and an authentic tomato sauce. If you have longer she will take you to Rialto, to the fish market and you can learn something about food shopping the Venetian way. She is a very busy, professional person and a mother, but she always makes time to be kind to her visitors and to share her enthusiasm for Venice and for food. Last summer I saw the catering she provided for summer weddings in her garden and if you need a place to get married you could not do better. Let me leave you this morning with her recipe for gnocchi, a typically cheap, Italian dish, a labour of love for the ingredients and the guests.

Gnocchetti di Patate al Pomodoro e Basilico

Gnocchetti :

1 kg potatoes boiled and finely mashed – a ricer is good for this but if not available be thorough with a fork.

1 egg yolk

up to 300g flour

parmesan cheese to taste

s and p

For the Sauce :

a good bottled tomato pasta such as Biona

garlic clove

sugar

basil

s and p

  1. saute the garlic clove whole in the oil for a minute and then add the passata, more salt and sugar than you would think necessary and some of the basil.
  2. Allow to cook uncovered and very slowly, the sauce barely bubbling for an hour or more and it will thicken. Remove the garlic and basil.
  3. Meanwhile make a dough with the mashed potato, some of the flour, the egg yolk and the parmesan. (Start with 100g and then taste as you go.)
  4. Roll the dough in long thin sausages and cut into half inch gnocchi.
  5. Toss with flour and keep dry and cool until cooking
  6. Lower into boiling salted water and strain as soon as they come to the top
  7. Toss with olive oil and either keep to reheat later or serve immediately with the sauce and Parmesan. Strow more torn fresh basil.

Butter and sage sauce can be used instead of the tomato. For this saute garlic, sage leaves and butter until slightly brown. Remove the garlic and sage and serve the butter with the gnocchi.

The Lesson of the Castelfranco Lettuce

 

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I have the great privilege of spending a lot of time in Italy where I shop every day for food as do many of the locals. What at home would be a chore, there seems to be effortless  because, although there is a perfectly good seven day a week supermarket, the fruit and vegetables are noticeably more delicious if I go to the fruit and vegetable shop. Not surprisingly there is always a huddle of customers around this excellent fruit stall and that means a lot of talk. It is a very good place to improve my halting Italian, to learn new words and find out what other people are eating for dinner. 

The ladies at the fruit and veg stall are gradually re-educating me about seasonality and ripeness. They shake their heads and wag their fingers when I expect to buy my favourite Castelfranco lettuce, which was so delicious in December, again in June. ‘It is a Winter lettuce,’ they scold gently. Chastened, I begin to realise how far my expectations have been distorted by the year round importation of produce that I am used to at home. In Italy I rediscover the joy of limited availability and surprise. Just as things may be unavailable, suddenly things arrive. ’Today,’ they tell me proudly, ‘we have burrata’. That means the delicious variation on mozzarella has arrived from the man who makes it. They certainly don’t have it every day. It also means I am not tempted to eat it every day but can really relish the treat when it arrives out of the blue.

And it’s not just about seasonality. In this little shop when I buy a peach they want to know whether it is for breakfast or for dinner, today or tomorrow, so sensitive are they to the ideal ripeness of the fruit. They are prepared to say ‘no’ when what they have in stock isn’t ready to eat. That is respect for the food. Although tourists are thronging here (as everywhere) in August, they still shut for a proper lunch break, turning people away to do so. That is self-respect.

If you can shop little and often you can also listen to you body. What do I fancy today? What does my body need today? The food is likely to be fresher. You avoid waste when things go off before you can get to them. Listening to ourselves means opening our hearts to ourselves and as we do so we inevitably get in the flow of our beautiful planet. My feeling is that this is a recipe for a more satisfying and sustainable way of living and eating.

However!  We cant all shop every day from charming Italian fruit stalls. There may be financial constraints (you need the three for two offers of the big supermarkets) and there may be time constraints (you are already supposed to be in three places at once). But maybe there is a viable compromise that is loving and respectful for you? Maybe you can enjoy the market or the daily shop when you’re on holiday or at weekends. Maybe you like to buy your vegetables or your cheese or your meat somewhere special even though 99 per cent of everything is delivered once a week. Back in England, like many people, I have a weekly delivery of groceries but there is a local cheese shop where I love to buy our cheese and I like to make my own bread and jam whenever I can. That feels like a solid foundation to my diet although most of what I eat in England, maybe like you, is supermarket food.

Love and respect for your body and for the food you nourish yourself with are like a virtuous circle. Let go of what you can’t do and enjoy what you can. Today’s recipe is for :

Grilled Castelfranco 

Castelfranco, the edible flower, is a mild kind of radicchio and although I love the raw bitterness of these leaves in a salad, they are also astonishingly delicious cooked. Chop your castelfranco (or red chicory or radicchio) into chunks and brush with olive oil before roasting briefly in a hot oven (if you already have the oven on) or popping under a hot grill for five or ten minutes.

You will find it is much milder cooked and delicious with bacon, roasted meat, anchovies, cheese or sweet figs. Great starter, accompaniment or lunch.