One of the best holidays Sara and I had was in Cuba. Generally the food was crap because of the American blockade and the loss of economic support from the USSR (hence the make-and-mend Cadillacs and Chevrolets) but what made up for it was the healthy educated people, dance and spirito Buena Vista.
Despite the lack of gourmet food we came across a chi-chi bar in Havana which featured the national dish of Fricasé de Pollo otherwise known as chicken fricasse in the southern US states and South America. Fricasé Cubano or ‘Cuban stew’ takes it’s inspiration from the French influence mated with Italian sofrito where the veg are steamed in their own juices lid-on and the sweet-and-sour of a cacciatore featuring olives, capers and raisins. A delightful meal on a humid Summer evening.
This simple Mediterranean lamb recipe from Jose Pizarro is traditional festive lunch which transports you to his tiny village of Talavan in the heart of Spain. It’s full of deep flavours which his mother plans Easter weeks in advance. In the days leading up to the long weekend, vegetables start to be picked from the garden, fish starts to be bought from the market, pots and pans bubble away on the stove. Their Easter Sunday meal is always centred around the smell of lamb cooking slowly – filling the house with magical aromas.
I remember a pub friend coming back from a holiday in Spain and announcing to the bar that he missed a pint and English food and that he was “gagging for a curry” which kind of sums up what is the food of the Midlands! This recipe is great made a day ahead or done in a slow cooker on low so it’s ready when you get home.
Moroccan and Tunisian food is sweet and salty or sweet and savoury - not ‘hot’ as many interpretations since the chilli is a modern import from the Americas. Harissa spice paste is an aromatic there which often appears with lamb and pomegranates so it’s worth the effort to get that characteristic taste. If you have a greenhouse or can find a Mexican shop you can make your own which keeps well in a fridge or
freezer. To make an appropriate accompaniment the obvious choice is baba ganoush with koubz flat breads. Smokiness is what defines baba ganoush, setting it apart from baked aubergine. Best results are achieved over a hot barbecue
Sara makes a pretty mean pumpkin cappellacci which are little pockets of pasta filled with delicious sweet and savoury pumpkin paste. Served with a spoon of fresh sage butter cappellacci delight children and adults alike whilst the chef gets a great sense of achievement from making a meal that you just cannot buy.
Speaking as a butcher, I tend to think that no meal is complete without a bit of meat but this Southern Italian recipe cooked the other night disabused me of my carnivorous prejudices - it’s absolutely delicious!
The essence of ‘melanzane alla parmigiana’ is baked, sometimes fried, aubergine baked in tomato sauce. It’s unapologetically Napolitan, rich and open to customisation with the addition of chicken or hake. And it’s good next day since you’ll probably hanker after seconds.
This recipe is one of Sara’s long-standing favourites which is as nice as it’s easy since it is not-the-same-old-roast-chicken and you can cook the chicken with the vegetables in one tray. Chicken and almonds are a good pairing if you want to serve with flatbreads or couscous or you can serve old school with roast potatoes and greens since this recipe’s is based on the old Lancashire dish called Hindle Wakes.
There’s an apocryphal story that Florentine Arista di Maiale was served at a church council meeting in Firenze in 1430 to “smooth out some differences between the Roman and Greek Churches”. When the Greek bishops were served the Tuscans most famous pork roast, they were heard to murmur “Arista! Arista!” which in Greek means “This is really terrific!” so Arista it has been ever since.
David Eyre opened the first ‘gastropub’ called ‘The Eagle’ in Farringdon Road in London. It was and still is my favourite lunchtime venue and David’s ‘Bife Ana’ (Portuguese steak sandwich) is my usual choice.
Not to be confused with the Portuguese fried pork escalope of the same name, this (beef) steak sandwich is named after Dona Ana, a larger-than-life mafiosa who owned a cattle ranch, bakery and bar in Mozambique where David gew up. The bakery and ranch provided the primary ingredients for the huge pregos – the real (Portuguese) name – served
There’s Richmond ‘sausages’, then there are ‘real’ sausages and amongst them are those made of venison which is one of the leanest meats you can find. So venison sausages are positively five-star, especially when you serve them braised slowly with herbs, shallots, mushrooms and red wine. Then all you need is a dreamy pile of light, creamy mashed potato for contrast and you can make a treat for friends and family. This is a Delia recipe which got the Sara treatment and very good it is too.
Hunting is next to religion in northern Italy. If it’s not wild boar that excites it’s cervo or venison which you will often find in a comforting sauce served with thick ribbons of pappardelle pasta or pinci which are handmade twists like a seashell which is good for thick sauces to cling to. Venison offers an alternative to other game since it goes well with fruit because it is so richly flavoured. Here we make venison sausages with a bit of pepper, garlic, mustard and ginger infused and red wine to flavour the meat for a few days before making the sauce. Only at the final stage to we pair the fresh fruit with the ragu for the classic contrast of fruit and game. If it’s a fruit that goes with cheese it’ll work with game.
Braising is the best way of getting juicy, tender, succulent, fall-off-the-bone beef and it lends itself to many cooking styles from Italian to Chinese. If you have an AGA or slo-cooker you can brown the ribs and toss the lot into a casserole and have dinner ready for when you get home.
If ever there was an Italian family dish that typifies ‘cucina povera’ (peasant food) it’s pasta e ceci which will fill the fattest and hungriest stomach. Often served with tomatoes, salt cod, basil, rosemary, onions, even cotechino and pecorino, this is the stripped down version ‘alla Romana’ from Rome.
With the ubiquitous tinned cooked chickpea pasta e ceci is one that can be cooked up easily from the storecupboard and you can customise it with a nice Tuscan or Napoli sausage or a stolen specimen branch of rosemary or a wonderful Tropea onion in season.
This is a typical Puglia meets the Middle East kind of recipe which comes from the heel of Italy where there is still a Greek influence since Puglia used to be a Greek province before the age of Christianity. The maritime influence gets more pronounced the further South you travel whilst Brindisi is still the gateway to the Mediterranean for mainland Italy.
Puglia is famed for it’s lamb from the Gargano peninsula where the breeds of lamb are more primitive and much more adapted the climate and scrubland - much like our own native breed the Manx Loaghtan from the Isle of Man. We’re lucky that one of our friends, George Steriopoulos, is the man who won the breed PDO status has moved his flock from the Isle to nearby Grandborough so we can enjoy this recipe as we would in the trattoria or osteria on Locorotondo in Puglia where we tried this recipe.
This recipe is one of Fausto Todini’s at the Ristorante Umbria off the Piazza del Popolo in historic town of Todi in Umbria. A simple pot roast it maybe, but the pairing of mushrooms with mint together with the richness of venison in a powerful reduced wine sauce is inspired. This recipe can be easily scaled up for an economical and healthy dinner party or celebration.
Sicily’s famous fortified sweet wine has a mellowness that pairs well with the earthiness of mushrooms and makes a perfect counterpoint to the strong flavour of venison. In Tuscany and parts North you might indulge in a fresh porcini if you can find or buy one but over here you need a penny bun or a sprinkling of dried porcini which are the star of a good storecupboard.
Glögg is a traditional drink from Sweden and Finland, prepared and served in the weeks leading up to Christmas. With little sunlight and freezing temperatures in Scandinavia at this time of year, this warm, sweet and spicy drink is a great way to lift spirits and keep warm! Glögg - which can be roughly translated to mean “glow” - is a variant of many historical mulled wines that can be found around the world. The inspiration for this recipe comes from a 'Slow Food Banquet in Gothenburg. In Sweden, Terra Madre Day, Slow Food’s worldwide celebration of local food which takes place every year on December 10, coincides with the Day of the Nobel Prize. To mark the occasion, an annual Nobel banquet takes place, with all guests receiving a hot glass of glögg on arrival . . .
Once upon a time hake, coley and monkfish were something that my Gran fed to the cat but nowadays hake and monkfish are justly viewed as ‘premium’ fish. Hake is a particular favourite of mine for it’s meaty texture (it’s a member of the cod family), it’s fineness, sweet flavour and the fact it doesn’t flake like cod. It’s also the most sustainable and plentiful fish in British waters. Ironically, only 1.5% of the UK catch stays in Britain where it’s near relative, cod, is king. Most British hake is sent to Spain where it’s called merluzzo. This recipe, then, comes from the experts who eat an average of 6kg per person per year. That many Spaniards can’t be wrong!
The recipe was based on one from the king of comfort food, Nigel Slater. Cooking low and slow is the best way to get the best out of cheaper cuts on the bone where you find the strongest flavours. We use the bottom oven of our Rayburn or an old Tower Slow Cooker which costs about the same as an old lightbulb to run, but either way, slow cooking is easy since you just throw in the ingredients in so it’s perfect for an easy dinner after a family day out. The maximum effort is browning carrots or onions to caramelise them but even that is not essential since nothing catches on a gentle heat when the juices are held in by the casserole lid. This recipe is adaptable for any strong flavoured meat on the bone like oxtail, lamb shanks, venison, beef ribs or even an old cockerel. If using a slow cooker you don’t need to brown meat but you may want to trim off excess fat to save having to drain off any fat puddles before serving.
Skirt, a long, flat piece of meat from the belly of a beast, is good for braising or for ragout. A classic ragout is made with meat that has been minced but I also like it cut into very small dice, giving the sauce more body. Slow cooking is the way to go, just a gentle blip as it simmers on a very gentle heat. Keep the heat low, and stir regularly to make sure the sauce doesn’t catch - a slo-cooker or Rayburn is great!
Thanks to Mr Fox we buy our chicken from Peter and Fiona at Laycroft Farm up the lane in Daventry just 6 miles away. We think their chicken is pretty damned good so try this chicken-meets-peperonata recipe from Calabria with Alex’s hot ‘n smokey ‘nduja sausage (that’s nnn-doo-jah in Italian) which is “Viagra for poor people” as they say in the South.
Ragu Bolognese hails from Bologna in northern Italy. Traditionally it is slow cooked in a bottom oven or slow cooker barely blipping. Our youngest daughter, Ella, is a bit of a vegetable dodger so I like to add extra, especially some dried porcini mushrooms and a splash of wine vinegar to keep it child friendly since Bolognese is pretty much the gold standard of children’s cookery.
There’s always some debate about what makes ‘authentic’ Bolognese. The truth is that Bolognese is authentic as you make it. My only observation is that adding a chicken liver or using porcini stock adds depth, it’s better served with liguine or tagliatelle than spaghetti because thicker pasta hold slow cooked sauce better and that flavoursome cuts of beef are better if you can slow cook - in which case you can use a bit more light meat.
A one pot wonder popularised by the patron saint of the middle classes - Delia Smith - who adapted it from it’s country cousin called Marmitako which is a tuna-meets-ratatouille dish. That means Basque Chicken is a very adaptable recipe which has the major advantage that you can have starters and chat to friends whilst it bakes.
Sara was invited to eat at Tom Kerridge’s gastrobub in Marlow and came back saying it was the best lunch she had eaten in Britain. This is one of his recipes and it works just as well at home and doesn’t take cheffy skills although he cures the pork as I teach my Curing & Smoking at Home students. ‘Curing’ is cooking without the heat so you reduce the hydration of the meat which concentrates the flavour and makes for good crackling. It’s a simple method that works.
Pasta Pugliese (that’s pooh-lee-ay-zay btw) is one of the commonest pasta recipes in Puglia and the equivalent of Genovese in Genova or Pie and Mash in the East End of London. Orechiette is the local ear shaped pasta, - orechiette translating as 'little ears' - which is made without the luxury of egg as in the North. Pugliese is usually made with cima di rapa (chee-ma-dee-rap-ah) which are a turnip top or flowering broccoli which you can buy here from Paolo at Franchi Seeds in London if you want that authentic slightly bitter taste. Otherwise try purple sprouting broccoli or Romanesco which is in season in February to March.
Sara makes homemade ketchup to go with our hot Italian sausages at Farmers Market every Saturday. Real ketchup is a different grade to anything from a supermarket and a great thing to teach the kids that good food begins at home.
Being able to barbecue outdoors as in Italy is something for all the family where grigliata mista (mixed grill) is king. In Italy, chicken wings are not a common sight since poultry is not farmed intensively but plus point is that chicken actually tastes of chicken and not nothing-in-particular. At home we only buy Fosse Meadows chicken from Frolesworth so if we have a dinner party or wedding to cater for we save the chicken wings to eat with real garlic mayonnaise and fregola salad or couscous. Great for the freezer I take the wings off my whole chickens and save for Bonfire Night or midweek lunch with salad and roast when the oven is on.
When the weather is blowing a hoolie at farmers market or fog covers the fields a butcher's thoughts turn to beef and satisfying beef ribs in particular! At Squisito we like to braise or barbecue short beef ribs since you get all the flavour of beef rib joint at half the price and they make a great pasta sauce or filling for Sara's favourite - baked potato! Flvour at lower cost the reason short beef ribs are very in vogue with London restaurants like Hawksmoor or Pitt Cue and brasserie all over France in pot au feu. Aside from that, beef ribs are squiz-eat-oh!
Ever the lazy chef, Alex keeps a pot of rub to hand since the secret of beef ribs is a good marinade and slow cooking to get the best flavour. Alex's Fiorentina Rub comes from his student days when he lived on pasta or casseroles cooked in a Tower Slow Cooker whilst at college. His Fiorentina Rub doubles as a handy Summer barbecue rub which you can finish with a sticky sauce or a squeeze of lemon juice and rocket salad tossed with our Grana Padano cheese as you would expect in Tuscany's finest osteria!
Thanks to Mr Fox we get our chicken from Jacob and Nick at Fosse Meadows up the road in Frolesworth - voted the UK’s Best Gourmet Chicken. We think they’re not bad so try this chicken meets peperonata recipe from Calabria with Alex’s hot nduja sausage.
Pizza Napoli is my all round favourite pizza - appropriately so since the pizza is a Napoletan invention. The story goes that Queen Margherita visited Napoli and the Napoletans created a red white and green pizza decked with tomatoes, olives and basil in commemoration. The Squisito method of how to make authentic pizza without a pizza oven comes from our Italian Baking at Home course which you can find on our 'Courses' page above.
This is a little dish or ‘stuzzichini’ (taster) as they are called is somewhere between a Spanish omelette and a pizza minus the base - ideal for a light lunch or as a primi before main course. You could scale this up with the addition of a bit of precooked pasta a bit like my spaghetti pie recipe. You could also add a Neapolitan twist with a few cured black olives.
Rolled bresaola air dried beef filled with with rocket and seasoned wth balsamic and Grana Padno or Parmesan makes a simple but upmarket primi for any family dinner or as a snack with drinks. The richness of the beef contrasts with the umami of the balsamic, fresh peppery twang of the rocket whilst the saltiness of the cheese makes seasoning superflous. Do buy your bresaola from an Italian deli and not a supermarket. Whilst good breasola is expensive, it’s expensive for a reason and cheap is a waste of time. You only need a little after all.
We discovered the Hugo Spritz cocktail on holiday in Sardinia at a beach bar. Unusually, the Hugo Spritz comes from the ski chalets of the rich and famous in the Tyrolean ski resort of Naturno. Pronounced in the Italian way, it’s an OOH-Go Spritz - a bit ‘Made in Chelsea’ but lovely on a hot day or in a nightclub nonetheless!
Tagliata (that's ta-lee-ahta) is striploin or sirloin of beef - one of the most expensive cuts you can buy and worthy of simple cooking and a glass of good red wine. Tagliata is Sara’s favourite dish in Italy and pretty hard to beat all round. Easy to roast in a pizza oven or on a barbecue or hot griddle - the secret is to have the meat slightly charred on the outside and very rare on the inside so cook it hot and fast - it is perfect served thickly sliced onto a bed of quartered roast potatoes roasted with good sprig of rosemary then liberally tossed with coarse sea salt and wild rocket. Unusually, tagliata is a recipe so good that it doesn't really need garlic or nouvelle cuisine sauces since it is about good steak. Just remember to buy your meat from a real butcher not a supermarket since the one you love deserves the best from you!
Foraging is food for free and one of the joys of the countryside and back garden if you have a busy life. In Spring as the nettles come up is one opportunity to crop what is normally a pest before uprooting it since nettles make an excellent risotto, pasta filling and even a lasagne!
As English we tend to think of cheese as an accompaniment and not an ingredient in our cooking so this week we'll introduce the joys of ricotta. At it's simplest ricotta is a soft cheese Sara makes by adding lemon juice or rennet to whole milk to make a 'cottage cheese.'
Ricotta salata is the pressed curd version made from the whey which is leftover when the high fat milk solids have been coagulated with rennet of lemon juice to make 'fat cheeses' like Cheddar or Parmesan. Ricotta means 'recooked' since your reheat the whey to make the curd which, when pressed and seasoned with a pinch of salt, makes salad ricotta or 'ricotta salata'. Inexpensive and relatively healthy ricotta salata makes a great ingredient and balances meals that would otherwise be too rich or acidic like curry. Unsurprisingly, ricotta features in lots of 'healthy' recipes and can be eaten by vegans and people with casein intolerance.
As a 'leftover' ricotta salata is a typical ingredient in Italian peasant cooking since it can feature in a salad or cooked dishes. You can enjoy it with antipasti, in a main courses like lasagne, in ravioli or sauces, on pizza, with salad or with fruit for dessert as we do at home and our anti- restaurant at home called 'Secret Squisito'.
An easy and romantic dinner for two . . . not too filling or too heavy. This is the first dish my wife Sara cooked for me when we were courting. One Italian wedding, two children and a food business later we cure our own pancetta & prosciutto. Tonno in Pancetta is one of my favourite dishes all these years later.
Spaghetti pie is a great recipe for children as it uses up leftover spaghetti Bolognese. It has a crispy spaghetti crust and a meaty filling topped with gooey mozzarella (or you can make my veggie version). You can chill the pie and cut it up and take it to work or for a picnic. Most importantly it has great street cred if your children take their own lunch to school.