Ciao Bella

Last week I got together with friends to cook Italian food.  Unfortunately, our hosts had received some horribly upsetting news just a few days prior to our get together — they’d lost a very dear friend in dreadful circumstances!  I had met that friend on several occasions and I remember her very fondly, so I would like to dedicate this post to Vivian Hart.

Our menu was as follows:

  • Cheese stuffed roasted mini peppers
  • Caponata
  • Rosemary and olive oil focaccia
  • Spinach and ricotta gnocchi
  • Chicken with agrodolce sauce

If the list of dishes sounds ambitious, we did have a few things to nibble on while we were cooking!  And although it sounds like a lot of work, there were five pairs of hands to do the preparing and cooking, and I find that Italian food is not as labour intensive as say North African cuisines — that is apart from home made pasta!

The cheese stuffed roasted mini peppers were very straightforward to prepare.  The trimmed whole peppers were roasted until soft and starting to brown.

Once they were cool enough, a slit was cut into the side of each pepper, and they were stuffed with a mixture of goat’s cheese, mozzarella and basil.  Here they are, ready to go into the oven again:

We served the peppers with a few spears of cooked asparagus, which had been drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with parmesan shavings.

Together with a campari spritz (campari, prosecco, sparkling water, slice of orange) this was a perfect appetizer!!

The recipe for the caponata came from Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book – if you don’t have your own copy already, I would warmly recommend that you buy that book – it’s absolutely packed with good recipes AND good writing!

I have previously written about making caponata — you can find my recipe via this link.

Essentially, caponata is a stew made with onions, aubergines (eggplant), celery, tomatoes, olives and capers.  The results will vary, depending on the recipe and method you use — there are many, many variations of the recipe out there!

We served the caponata with home made rosemary and olive oil focaccia — a typical Italian flatbread.  Here is the dough, already shaped and after it had risen a second time:

Here is the dough with the “dimples”, which are simply made by pressing the fingertips into the dough, and with the rosemary olive oil drizzled over:

… and 20 minutes later, fresh from the oven: 🙂

The fresh focaccia was delicious in combination with the caponata:

The recipe for the spinach and ricotta gnocchi involved a fair bit of chopping, but once that was done the dough was fairly quick and straightforward to prepare.

The dough was shaped into walnut-sized balls which were refrigerated for 30 minutes or more before being boiled.

The finished gnocchi were delicious!  A regular portion consists of 8-9 gnocchi.  I knew that we still had our main course to eat, so I held back a little! 🙂

The recipe for chicken with agrodolce sauce came from the olive magazine website, as did the focaccia recipe.  Once all the ingredients had been prepared, the cooking was very quick!

The chicken escalopes were dipped in flour and browned on both sides:

Next, the vegetables (onion, celery and tomatoes) were stir fried:

After the vinegar and sugar had been added to the vegetables, the escalopes were returned to the pan and cooked for a few minutes together with the vegetables:

The whole cooking process took no more than 15 minutes and the resulting main course was scrumptious!

We finished our meal with some fresh cherries and strawberries, and more reminiscences of our dear departed friend.

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Eggplant bonanza

My garden produced an abundance of aubergines – or eggplants, depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re from – this summer.  I love aubergines, they are like a canvas for almost any flavour, blending with whatever you want to cook them with and enhancing flavour and texture.

A few years ago, I was fortunate to be given a recipe for caponata by a friend of a friend, after having heard the praises of that particular recipe sung for several months.

Caponata has its origins in Sicily, and uses similar ingredients to ratatouille.  The first time I prepared caponata, I was somewhat daunted by the process:  grilling and peeling the peppers; salting, draining, rinsing and drying the chopped aubergines; cooking all the vegetables separately, then together – it seemed like a never-ending process!!  BUT when I tasted my first mouthful of caponata, I knew that it was worth every minute of the time which had gone into the preparation!

The main ingredients are aubergines, peppers and tomatoes.  My recipe calls for equal quantities in weight of each of these three.  The recipe also calls for onions, celery, capers, green olives, sugar, vinegar, and salt and pepper.

The aubergines are washed, trimmed and cubed, then sprinkled with salt and left to drain in a colander for 60 minutes.  Older recipes state that the salting will remove any bitterness from the aubergines, but I’ve never come across a bitter aubergine in all the (many) years I’ve been cooking.   What the salting does do is improve the texture of the aubergines when you cook them.  They seem to hold their shape much better.

After the aubergines had drained, they were rinsed to remove the excess salt, and dried with a tea towel.  I fried them in batches with a small amount of olive oil, turning them from time to time to ensure they cooked evenly.

While the aubergines were draining I grilled the peppers on the BBQ, as it meant that I did not have to use the grill in the kitchen.  You can also blister the peppers over an open flame on your gas cooker.  They need to be nicely charred with the skin blistered all over.  Once they were done to perfection, I put them into a glass bowl and covered it tightly with plastic wrap. You could also put them in a plastic or paper bag – they will be easier to peel if the moisture is kept in!

After the peppers had been peeled, they were cut into strips in readiness for the next part of the preparation, which involved cooking the peppers with some olive oil for 15 – 20 minutes.

While the peppers were cooking,  I attacked another part of the preparation.  I fried the chopped onions together with the sliced celery until golden, then added the blanched, peeled, and chopped tomatoes, and cooked that sauce until most of the moisture had evaporated and the sauce had thickened.  At this point the fried aubergines and peppers were added to the sauce, and the whole left to cook very gently for about 30 minutes.

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Are you exhausted already?? 🙂  It does sound like a lot of work, so it’s worth making a large batch of this – I promise you’ll find ways to eat it!!

After 30 minutes the olives and capers were added, along with the sugar and vinegar, and the whole left to simmer gently for another 20 minutes, stirring regularly.  The result was a fragrant and delicious vegetable stew with an almost jam-like consistency.  The recipe says that it should be served up cold, in an earthenware dish! 😉  It also suggests that it could be decorated with pine nuts or hard-boiled eggs.  I’ve never bothered garnishing it, I find it needs nothing added!

Since I made a very large pan of caponata, which wasn’t going to be eaten right away, I bottled part of it in clean jars, and briefly sterilized them – now I can enjoy caponata all winter long 🙂

Caponata

  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 600 g aubergines
  • 600 g red peppers
  • 600g ripe tomatoes (plum tomatoes if possible)
  • 2 onions
  • 60 g green olives, stoned
  • 60 g capers
  • 1 to 2 sticks celery
  • 6 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp vinegar
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • salt and pepper

Method

Wash and trim the aubergines, and cut them into 1.5cm cubes. Put the cubes in a colander, sprinkle with salt and mix well.  Leave to drain for 1 hour.  Rinse, drain and pat dry.  Fry them with a little olive oil over medium heat for approx. 20 minutes.  You may have to do this in several batches, depending on the size of your pan.

Grill the red peppers until the skin is blistered all over and charred.  Leave to cool, covered, and peel.  Cut the peeled peppers into strips and fry the strips over medium heat, with a little olive oil, for 15 – 20 minutes.

Peel the onions and chop them.  Slice the celery sticks and fry them together with the chopped onions in some olive oil until golden.  Blanch, peel and chop the tomatoes and add to the fried onions and celery.  Cook until the sauce starts to thicken, then add the fried aubergines and peppers, and simmer for about 30 minutes.

Add the capers and green olives (I cut the olives into quarters).  Mix the sugar and the vinegar with 2 tbsp water and add this to the pan.  Mix thoroughly and continue to cook over gentle heat for 20 minutes, stirring from time to time.

Serve cold or at room temperature, garnish with pine nuts or hard-boiled eggs, if desired.

This recipe is modified from the original French recipe, given to me by Marie Helene Laurens.  Merci beaucoup, Helene!