What comes to mind when you think of Italian cooking?
Pizza, pasta? For me its tomatoes. I have always had a love affair with the plumpest, reddest, juiciest tomatoes. It is the one ingredient I cook and eat most often and I take great care in sourcing it whether fresh or canned. I haven't got green hands, an allotment or a garden to grow my own juicy fruits but I do always have a stash of some of the best canned tomatoes and passata which are almost always of Italian origin, canned at their ripest.
Italy is famed for its regional variety of great produce including pasta, olive oil, cured meats, fish, cheese, wine and more. From Venetia to Tuscany, Umbria to Sicily, the repertoire of Italian cookery is vast and varied with autonomous regions that make up the fabric of the rich culture, with valued family practices passed down from generation to generation.
In every culture, I find something new and intriguing to learn from history, its people, food beyond what we see on tv, or featured in fashionable magazines, and beyond what is cooked in restaurants. At the very heart of food is the people, who cook it everyday and are responsible for carrying on traditions and guiding its evolution.
As I thought of what to cook for Italian week, I thoroughly enjoyed discovering the complexities of Italian cooking. I originally planned on cooking a pesto dish of some sort. By Thursday morning prior to food club later that evening, I could no longer suppress my natural desire for tomatoes and as I discovered a jar of Nduja bought weeks ago, a completely different idea came flooding.
I used potatoes from my organic veg box, 22 month old Parmegiano-Reggiano and then stuffed with Nduja - an Italian spicy sausage spread of Calabrian origin, served with a simple olive oil, garlic and tomato sauce with basil
Nduja - spicy spreadable salami from Splinga, Calabria
Nduja is originally a rather thrifty farmers invention using more bits of the black Calabrian pig than I care to think about. Now more commonly made with minced pork shoulder, belly and tripe - with softs fats and parts not essentially not typically used other cured meats, with peppers and chillies for that spicy bite. Calabrian black pigs are slow-bred and feed on produce found in the wild such as chestnuts, olives, acorns and more. Nduja is wonderfully versatile, great in pizza, in tomato sauce, mixed in with pasta and more. This spreadable salami is fermented, aged and ready to eat from four weeks for more commercial produce to anything from 7 months and beyond.
A very useful cupboard essential.
My potato cakes were creamy, crispy and sharp with Parmigiano-Reggiano and a wonderful spicy Nduja surprise hidden within. I tried to fry the cakes at first but discovered the mixture started to lose shape as a result of the melting cheese. Baking them was the best option with less grease and resulted in crispier and better shaped cakes to enjoy. If you prefer to fry them consider reducing the quantity of cheese for a less moist mixture and perhaps an addition of up to two tablespoons of flour will help absorb moisture and oil.
The two distinctive flavours of sharp parmesan and spicy Nduja are very well suited in my potato cakes, yet both flavours shine through individually.
See my recipe below using Nduja and join myfood cluband facebook group to see what members cooked. Like Annie who made a pizza after trying for the first time just the night before, Jennifer and Adam cooked an elegant pasta with an olive oil sauce infused with shallots and garlic, Sudi a hearty minestrone with 30 day aged parmesan...
1. Start with the potatoes. Scrub, wash thoroughly and peel. Cut into rough chunks and boil in salted water for 20 minutes or until softened. Once cooked, drain in a colander and leave to cool.
2. In a wide bowl use a potato masher to mash the potatoes as smoothly as possible. Add the whisked egg, chopped spring onions and mix well. Pour in the grated parmesan and fold into the potatoes.
3. Preheat the oven to 180c fan. Prepare a baking tray with grease proof paper. Shape up to 9 balls with both hands, using your thumb or a tea spoon, press into the centre of each ball to make a well for stuffing. Scoop half a teaspoon of Nduja into the well, and gently pull at the sides to cover the filled well. Roll for a final time and lightly press the ball to form a patty. Set aside and repeat the above steps until all the potato balls are filled and shaped.
4. Brush the grease proof paper with oil and place the potato cakes onto the tray. Lightly brush the top and sides of the potato cakes and bake in the middle of the oven for 20 minutes or until golden and crispy.
5. Prepare the tomato sauce by heating olive oil in a sauce pan. Add the grated garlic and leave to infuse the olive oil on low heat for 5 minutes. Pour in the contents of a can of chopped tomatoes. Season with freshly ground black pepper. I go for ten and sometimes up to fifteen twists on my pepper grinder. If using fresh tomatoes, cooking time may take longer in order to cook down the water content that typically isn't included in very good quality canned tomatoes.
6. To loosen the sauce a little, if using a can of thick tomatoes like I did, pour in 100 - 200 ml of water as needed. Cook for 20 minutes, covered to retain as much moisture as possible.
7. Once cooked, tear basil leaves and thrown into the sauce. Serve with the deliciously golden and crispy parmesan potato cakes for wonderful explosion of flavours of rich parmigiano, spicy Nduja, sweet tomatoes.
A first class trip to Italy I say!
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