Like many of you, this year my summer holiday plans have been scuppered due to the ‘pandemic’. Normally we spend our summer break in Italy, last week reality struck (not for the first time), and I started to yearn for the Italian sun and particularly the food. Over the years, we have been fortunate in building strong friendships with Italians from the local area we visit, and have often joined them at their family dinner table to taste the true flavours of ‘La Cucina’. I have enjoyed being the ‘hovering’ chef as my friend Betti has cooked, among other things, a spaghetti vongole – revealing that the very best Italian vongoles are made with prosecco or sparkling wine. After tasting the result I’m not going to argue with her; perhaps it’s my imagination – perhaps it’s just the Tuscan sun, but it seems to make the sauce a little sweeter. Other times we’ve enjoyed a whole roast suckling pig, or simply ‘lardo’ with chestnut honey. I always remember when our late, very dear friend, Franco introduced us to lardo over 17 years ago, I looked at the white ‘fat’ and really didn’t fancy it, but for want of not appearing rude I soldiered on…it was a revelation, particularly drizzled with chestnut honey – a beautiful combination of sweet and salty! These days it’s possible to buy lardo from good Italian delicatessens in the UK, if you haven’t already tried it, I urge you to, particularly if you can find ‘lardo di Colonnata’.
We have visited the same family run ‘bagno’ (beach club) for more years than I wish to admit. Most of these family run ‘bagni’ have their own trattoria’s which serve incredible pastas, simple but delicious. Concetta, the cook at our bagno, serves among other things a delicious Spaghetti alle Frutti de Mare – a real treat at lunchtime after a morning on the beach. Knowing how I love cooking, she always likes to tell me, with animation and pride, her recipes for the sauces, and on occasion I have even been invited into her little kitchen – a great honour! But alas this year our aperitivi in the Piazzas, al fresco dinners, and late evening ‘passeggiate’ with a gelato will have to wait until next year. So in the meantime, I thought that this week I would present a version of my Italian menu which, English weather permitting, we can enjoy al fresco, and perhaps if I close my eyes whilst savouring these Italian recipes, I can imagine that I’m really on my Italian holiday!…
To start with I’m sharing my recipe for Spaghetti Vongole, then, for the taste of a true Tuscan feast, menu two is ‘Tagliata’ steak with a herb dressing. Naturally I couldn’t go to Italy without having a fish dish, so for menu three I’ve chosen an easy ‘all in one’ recipe, Baked Sea Bass with Fennel and Potatoes. To end my Italian feast I have, of course, chosen gelato; a ‘no churn’ coffee and cardamom ice-cream, incredibly easy to make yet soft and creamy – just like a real Italian gelato. Finally, for my husband Nick, I’m sharing the recipe for a Negroni, his favourite Italian tipple!
Spaghetti alle Vongole (Serves 4)
This dish is one of my all-time favourites – one of ‘my last supper’ dishes. It is extremely simple to cook and ready in minutes! I really do believe that using prosecco or sparkling wine improves the flavour of the sauce – giving it a sweetness. I buy the mini 20cl bottles of prosecco from my supermarket. I like more rather than less clams, so I suggest 1.25kg for 4 people, but you could use 1kg.
1.25kg small clams, such as palourdes (see note above)
200ml prosecco or sparkling wine (a 20cl bottle)
40g unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 garlic cloves, 2 sliced, 2 chopped
¼ teaspoon dried chilli flakes
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest (about 1 lemon)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 bunch of parsley, chopped
- Firstly, rinse the clams in cold water, making sure that they are all closed – tap on those that are open and discard them if they do not close, and discard those with cracked or damaged shells.
- Put the clams in a saucepan over a medium to high heat, add 150ml of the prosecco. Cover with a lid and cook for a few minutes, occasionally shaking the pan. You will be able to hear the clams popping open as they cook. Remove the lid to check if the clams have opened, if there are still some unopened continue to cook for a minute or two.
- Drain the clams in a sieve over a bowl – you need to keep the cooking liquid.
- There maybe a couple of clams that will not open – discard these. Put 12 clams with their shells to one side, these will serve as decoration. Remove the remaining clams from their shells(discard the shells). You will be left with a small bowl of clams and the 12 with their shells.
- Start cooking the spaghetti according to the instructions on the packet until al dente.
- Meanwhile cook the vongole sauce. Melt 30g of the butter and the oil in a large frying pan, add the garlic, lemon zest and chilli flakes, fry for a minute or so until the garlic is just beginning to colour.
- Add 150ml of the reserved cooking liquid, the remaining 150ml of prosecco and the lemon juice. Cook over a medium to high heat, allowing it to bubble and reduce by about half.
- Add the remaining 10g of butter which will slightly thicken the sauce, and all of the clams including those with their shells plus the chopped parsley, cook for a further minute. Check seasoning.
- Finally, drain the cooked spaghetti, add to the frying pan and mix well with the clams.
- Serve, placing four clam shells on each of the plates.
*Visit my Instagram Page to see a video of this recipe being cooked!
Tagliata Steak with a Herb Dressing and a Salad with Tarragon Vinaigrette (Serves 4)
The Italian word ‘tagliata’ means sliced and this is exactly what ‘Tagliata’ is – sliced steak. Often in Italy they use the T-bone cut for this recipe, so that you get both the fillet and sirloin. However I find that it is easier and quicker to cook sirloin steaks at home, and to slice these before serving. The dressing is one which I have taken from Nina Parker’s ‘Nina’s St Tropez’ cookbook, it is quite light so does not overpower the steak. I would serve this dish with baby roast potatoes or the oven chips from my ‘staple side dishes’ and a salad of your choice dressed with a tarragon vinaigrette.
3-4 sirloin steaks (depending on how hungry you are)
Sea salt and black pepper
1 anchovy fillet (tinned), chopped
60ml olive oil
Large bunch of tarragon, chopped
Handful parsley, chopped
Juice of ½ lemon
½ teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
20g unsalted butter
1 clove garlic, chopped
Sea salt and black pepper
- Remove steaks from fridge to bring to room temperature
- Meanwhile make the sauce – put the chopped anchovy in a bowl with all but 1 tablespoon of the oil, add the herbs, lemon juice, sugar and vinegar. Then, in a small saucepan heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil with the butter, when hot add the garlic, cook for a moment before adding the mixture to the bowl with the herbs. Give everything a good stir and season with salt and pepper. Cover and keep warm whilst you deal with the steaks.
- Lightly brush the steaks with olive oil and sprinkle generously with salt and a little black pepper.
- Heat a frying pan until very hot. Place the steaks in the pan and cook for about 1½ minutes of each side for rare or a little longer depending on your taste. I also like to turn the steaks on their ‘fat’ edge, for 30 seconds to crisp it up.
- Remove the steaks to a plate to rest for about 10 minutes in a warm place.
- Pour the juices which will have seeped from the resting steaks into the bowl with the dressing. Slice each steak.
- Serve the slices on a large plate with a little of the dressing sprinkled over and a generous pinch of salt. Bring to the table so that everyone can help themselves, with the remaining dressing in a bowl.
Make up a salad as desired and dress with this tarragon vinaigrette:
¼ teaspoon chopped garlic
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon leaves
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
¼ teaspoon sugar
Sea salt and black pepper
- Pound the garlic with a pinch of salt in a pestle and mortar. Add the rest a of the ingredients and mix well.
Sea Bass Baked with Fennel & Potato served with Salad and a Lemon Vinaigrette (Serves 4)
This is a simple ‘all in one dish’ – you simply cook the sea bass over the vegetables. I found this recipe in Sally Clarke’s book ‘ Thirty Ingredients’. Sally Clarke has had a restaurant (and a bakery/shop) in North Kensington for many years, if you get the chance to eat there I would definitely recommend it, it is a lovely experience, she is renowned for using the best fresh, seasonal ingredients. I like to serve it with a salad with lemon vinaigrette.
4 sea bass fillets, pin boned (ask your fishmonger to do this)
3 Désirée potatoes (or other roasting potatoes)
2 fennel bulbs
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
60ml olive oil, plus extra to drizzle
4 bay leaves
Peelings from an orange
1 bunch of dill, leaves picked
100ml orange juice
Sea salt and black pepper
- Although your fishmonger would have pin boned the fish fillets, I suggest you go over them again with tweezers – by doing this you really will avoid bones in your cooked dish.
- Peel and slice the potatoes thickly. Slice the fennel bulbs and reserve any leafy fronds.
- Toast the fennel seeds in a small frying pan until fragrant (a few seconds), then crush with a pestle and mortar.
- Place the vegetables in a roasting tin with the olive oil, salt and pepper, bay leaves, orange peel, half of the dill leaves and half of the crushed fennel seeds. Mix together using your hands and spread out flat in the tin.
- Place the tin in preheated oven, 180’c fan, roast for about 25 minutes, until the vegetables are almost tender.
- Once the vegetables are almost tender, place the sea bass fillets on top, skin side up, sprinkle with the rest of the fennel seeds, remaining dill leaves, the fennel fronds, salt, pepper and drizzle with olive oil.
- Bake for 5 minutes then pour the orange juice over the vegetables – not over the fish, as you want the skin to crisp!
- Cook for a further 5-7 minutes until the fish is just cooked and the skin is crisp.
- Serve with a green salad dressed with a lemon vinaigrette – I also like to sprinkle some of the reserved fennel fronds over the salad.
‘Staple Side Dish’ – Lemon Vinaigrette
Make up a salad as desired and dress with this lemon vinaigrette:
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
finely grated zest and juice of half unwaxed lemon
pinch of sugar
sea salt and black pepper
- Whisk all the ingredients together.
Coffee and Cardamom ‘No Churn’ Ice-Cream
Condensed Milk Ice-Cream has become very popular in recent years, and it is no surprise considering how very easy it is to make – no need for an ice-cream machine! I first came across ice-cream made with condensed milk some years ago, in a cookbook by Nigella Lawson, I have since tried many different versions and this recipe with coffee and cardamom is one of my favourites. It is great served alone or as an ‘affogato‘ (with a shot of espresso poured over it – as pictured above)
2 tablespoons instant espresso
10 green cardamom pods
300ml double cream
175g condensed milk
- Remove the seeds from the cardamom pods and grind with a pestle and mortar.
- Mix the instant espresso and the ground cardamom seeds with 2 tablespoons of boiling water, leave to cool.
- Beat the cream and condensed milk together using electric beaters until the mixture is quite thick, then stir in the spiced coffee.
- Place in a container, cover with a piece of greaseproof paper (this stops ice crystals forming) and a lid, then freeze.
- To serve, remove from the freezer about 5-10 minutes before serving so that it softens.
50ml Red Vermouth
1 slice of orange, halved
- Fill a glass with ice and pour over the ingredients, stir well, add the halved orange slice and serve – how simple is that?!