Sunday, February 26, 2012

The real minestrone

This weekend I had a friend coming for supper on Saturday and another for lunch on Sunday, so I thought I'd make a good hearty soup to feed them both. I had some shredded cabbage and grated carrot in the fridge, and I was pretty sure these were ingredients for minestrone. So I got out my trusty Claudia Roden bible, The Food of Italy.
        I was right. Her recipe for "minestrone alla milanese" had finely shredded white cabbage, and also carrot - though that was meant to be diced, rather than grated. But I figured it wouldn't matter. Because as Antonio Carlucci explains, in fact there's no such thing as "the real minestrone". Instead there are many versions, each one authentic for those who make it.
        I didn't want enough soup for ten people, so I halved Roden's recipe (it still made a lot). I did use Tony Gamboni's genuine pancetta (he cut it the correct thickness and then diced it up for me), and proper borlotti beans (canned, not dried - she allows for that). But her recipe has rice in it - that's probably what makes it "milanese" - and I didn't want to put rice in, because it's inclined to suck the flavour out of soup. Instead I used a handful of the pasta called biavetta, which is shaped like grains of rice. I left out the peas (because I only had frozen ones), put in more garlic, and used a can of chopped tomatoes, plus a squeeze of paste, instead of fresh ones. And rather than celery, I used lovage leaves and stalks from the garden. I reckon my soup still had every right to be called "real minestrone".

Minestrone alla Karori (guided by Claudia Roden)

120g pancetta (Italian unsmoked bacon), cut into small pieces
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
small bunch Italian parsley, finely chopped
2 carrots, diced (or grated)
2 tender celery sticks, thinly sliced
or  small bunch lovage, finely chopped
2 floury potatoes, peeled and diced (the new Agria on sale now are perfect)
1 can chopped Italian tomatoes
tomato paste (optional)
1 can borlotti beans, drained of their liquid
about 1/4 of a not-too-huge white cabbage, shredded
2 courgettes, diced
2 tablespoons rice-shaped pasta (biavetta or orzo - if you want really thick, filling soup, use more pasta)
To serve: small bunch basil, cut into strips, grated grana or parmesan cheese, crusty bread

In a very large saucepan or stockpot, heat the diced bacon gently until the fat runs, then add the onion and fry gently until pale golden. Add garlic and parsley and stir until the aroma rises.
Add carrots, celery, potatoes and tomatoes. Cover with plenty of water, bring to the boil, turn down to low heat and simmer gently with the lid on until the potatoes are cooked through but not mushy - about 45 minutes.
Add the drained borlotti beans and salt to taste. Add a squeeze of tomato paste if you think it's needed - the soup should taste full-bodied, but not actually tomatoey. It should be thickish, but not too thick - add a little more water if necessary. Cook for another 10 minutes.
Add the cabbage and courgettes and cook for another 15 minutes.  The veges should all be thoroughly cooked but still in distinct chunks.
Add the pasta and cook for at most 10 minutes more, until the grains of pasta are cooked enough to bite through easily but not mushy. Check seasoning.

Stir in the basil. Serve minestrone in wide bowls, with grated cheese on top (large flakes in my case, as I don't have a proper fine grater), and crusty bread on the side. At this point it's appropriate for your family or guests to come up with an enthusiastic "Mamma mia!", or other complimentary Italian phrases.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

You made my day

Definitely better now, and just easing back into food, glorious food. It's very interesting working out what I want to eat. Still quite gentle, delicate flavours and textures, it seems. At the moment I'm keen on mashed-up avocado on toast with sliced fresh tomato on top. Coffee is back, and I've tried some wine, but I don't really feel like it yet, it doesn't taste quite right.

But this week I had a wonderful comment on an earlier post ("Pollo play") that really made my day. It's exactly the kind of comment all food bloggers long for. Minette wrote, "Tried this and loved it. Thank you for creating such a delicious meal. Your blog has removed the "what shall I cook tonight" problem from my life."

Thank you so much! I'm sorry to have let you down a bit lately, but I hope to be back to full strength and come up with something else you'll like next week. Meanwhile, here's the ultimate in non-domestic-goddess food - nachos made with a can of chili beans (I'm not quite up to chili or beans yet, but it won't be long). It's also very good (and healthier) made with brown rice instead of corn chips, plus a green salad...

Friday, February 10, 2012

Yum yum

Still nothing doing, thanks to this week's relapse (see Elsewoman), but I've been enjoying showing my photos to my friends, so I thought I'd post some more of the delicious Chinese food I scoffed. I didn't get a photo of the roast pigeon at the City Hotel in Xi'an, but I did get the braised goose Guangzhou style and snow peas at the Guangzhou Restaurant.


Founded in 1935, it's the city's oldest restaurant, with original stained glass windows, upstairs off the magnificent art deco Shangxiajiu Pedestrian Streets. 

And here are fish cakes, vege dumplings and my favourite, classical shrimp dumplings. 

Three of us ate them one Saturday afternoon, along with another seven kinds of delicious morsels, washed down by lashings of green tea, over a very happy two hours at Taotaoju in the same street, one of Guangzhou's famous yum cha restaurants. It looks spectacular, with its Venetian-style chandeliers and glittering mirror walls, but it's not expensive - the whole thing came to about $26. The businessman on the cellphone is unusual only because he's standing outside the main area. At family New Year parties all over the room there were men completely engrossed with their phones and ignoring everyone else, which was a bit sad, I thought.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Nothing doing

I'm sorry, this is another holding post. My lurgy turned out to be campylobacter, and I think I know exactly how and where I caught it in Guangzhou. I'm rapidly improving, but I'm still living on the blandest and most boring diet imaginable, so nothing interesting is going on in the kitchen - unless you count the revival of half-forgotten convalescent feeding skills involving broth, puree and jelly. Here's my dinner last night - a rather beautiful bowl of pureed soup, made from carrot and potato cooked in chicken stock.

And here, just to whet your interest (by the way, everything I show you here was perfectly safe and definitely not the source of my illness) is a bowl of delicious ginger junket.

We ate this at the teaboat in the Baomo Gardens outside Guangzhou.

It cost 6 yuan (about $1.25), and buying it entitled us to watch a half-hour concert of classical Chinese music, performed against the most beautiful backdrop I've ever seen.
I'll try to find out how to make it. But for now, I'll have to make do with probiotic yoghurt instead.