Arancini di riso alla milanese or Milanese style rice balls

Saturday 25th November marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. I want to share a recipe for arancini di riso, or little oranges of rice as they’re known, a popular dish from the south of Italy.

The reason I want to share them is because I ate them once, cooked by a woman in a women’s refuge. She’d made them that night, and now every time I make mine, I think of her. There are just some people and situations that you know you’ll always remember.

I don’t profess to make the best arancini, nor could it really be considered an authentic recipe. But that’s what I love about home cooking. It’s where you can get creative in the kitchen, and besides, most of the best home cooks I know cook with what they have to hand. They wouldn’t dream of going out to get something that they didn’t have. They’d just substitute it with something else. So rather than arancini, my fried rice balls are more a northern Italian riso al salto, or fried risotto. Whereas the original ones have ragù inside or mozzarella and prosciutto, are a Sicilian speciality and are in the shape of a ball or a cone.

So how do I make mine? Whenever I make risotto giallo or risotto alla milanese as it’s generally known, I make extra. The same if I’m making risotto alla salsiccia (risotto with Italian sausage.) Then I put it in the fridge overnight, take it out the next day and add some chopped up mozzarella, maybe some ham or whatever cheese I have in the fridge. Mix it all in with the leftover risotto and shape the mixture into small balls. If you want to use ragù you can.

Then make two halves of a rice ball with a dip in the middle of each, kind of like you were making Scotch eggs, presuming you’ve ever made Scotch eggs. Put a couple of spoonfuls of ragù in the middle of one and then close by putting the other half on top. Roll the balls lightly in beaten egg and then in breadcrumbs. Then deep fry in vegetable oil.

The other day I read a Gloria Steinem quote that I’d read before and then forgotten about. “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”

Then, if you’re lucky, you pick yourself up and take action the way you can.



November is sausage ragù

You can’t beat a sausage ragù. You can’t beat any ragù, and I generally make mine with half beef mince and half sausage Italian sausage meat anyway. But today went pear-shaped and I was in a hurry, and so the sausage casserole with polenta I’d planned to feed my family for lunch and was feeling oh-so-virtuous about didn’t quite happen. It transformed itself into tagliatelle with sausage ragù. This happens sometimes. But in my defence, I say, I am not a cook. I cook and I enjoy cooking, but above all I love food. And if I cook it it’s because I want to eat it. Although if anyone else wants to do it, especially if they are a cook and a good one at that, then please, be my guest. I’ll happily sit down to table when it’s ready.

Of course the secret of any good ragù is in the cooking time, but as I was running out of time and the kids were off playing football this afternoon, I only gave it about half an hour. Am probably stretching this by still calling it a ragù, as the whole point of ragù is the long cooking time, but it still tasted good. Although admittedly not as good as if it had been cooked slowly for three hours.

Do try to get Italian sausage to make this. If you can’t you could always just use good old mince. Lamb would work well and give a similar depth of flavour. This is robust Autumn cooking to ward off a cold, grey November day.

So, start by chopping up a shallot finely and soften it in a slug of olive oil in a smallish saucepan. I use about a 30 cm stretch of sausage as when I buy it it’s all rolled up in the packet in one length. Take the sausage meat out of the skin. Add it to the shallot. You’ll need to break it up with a spoon to make sure it becomes minced sausage meat. Cook it above a fairly fierce heat and then add about a third of a small glass of red wine. Keep the heat up and let the alcohol burn off, but obviously don’t burn the sausage. Then add about two thirds of a tin of good quality Italian tomatoes. I used chopped ones today as plum ones need more time to break up. Add a sprinkling of black pepper, put the lid on, and let it simmer away.

Cook the tagliatelle according to the instructions on the packet, mix in the sausage ragù with that famous half a glass of cooking water that you’ve put aside to bind it all together, and serve. I don’t add cheese but you can do as you prefer.

“Buono,” said my son as I was serving it up. And yes it was rather good, even if I say so myself.

The sausage casserole and polenta will have to wait for another day.






Easy Saturday cooking

Saturday cooking. When the week is over and although the workload might not exactly be finished, there’s nothing I love more than a bit of Saturday lunchtime pottering in the kitchen. At the moment I’ve got Pellegrino Artusi’s Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well on the kitchen worktop, along with a cookery magazine supplement dedicated to meatballs and 1001 Ricette della Nonna (1001 Grandma’s Recipes). But today I had a cauliflower and I went to Artusi.

Artusi’s book was published in 1891 and is a literary classic in the world of Italian food. He gathers together recipes from all over Italy into what he subtitles “a practical guide for families.” This practical guide for families involves avoiding pneumonia, tips for aiding digestion and going to bed early according to an English proverb “Early to bed and early to rise, Makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Then come the recipes, all 790 of them, and his guide to seasonal dishes. Obviously Artusi was writing at a time when the only produce available was seasonal, but for us it’s a good reminder to stick to seasonal as seasonal is quite simply better.

Today I chose Cavolfiore all’uso di Romagna, or rather Cavolfiore Romanesco all’uso di Romagna, as the cauliflower was of the Roman variety which is sometimes called broccoli and sometimes cauliflower, and the way of preparing is typical to Romagna as in Emilia Romagna. Chopped garlic and parsley are fried quickly in oil, and you can play about with the quantities until you find the balance you like. Add a bit of water to cover the bottom of the pan, add your cauliflower in florets and cook with the lid on until they’ve started to become coated. Then add a small amount of good quality tinned tomatoes. If you can’t get good quality tinned tomatoes, and I stress the good quality as it does make a huge difference, I’d just use a bit of passata to give that tomato flavour. Continue to simmer with the lid on, although really it’s a cross between a simmer and a steam, and then serve.

Ecco. And that’s your Cavolfiore all’uso di Romagna. Easy Saturday cooking, and delicious. Here is mine, and the thing I love about Artusi’s book is that because of when it was written, there are no pictures. So you never know whether yours looks like his did, presuming that he ever cooked it, but maybe that adds to the beauty of it. We all add our individual touch, and that’s precisely what I love about easy Saturday cooking.

Nutella for grown-ups

My kids were little and we were by the lake. I was making Nutella sandwiches.

“And if we ever have kids, they’re not eating any of that crap,” this guy sitting near(ish) to us said to his girlfriend.

I too had been that mother of the my kids will never eat Nutella variety. Before I had kids. Then I had kids and if my older son loves chocolate then that’s my fault as I distinctly remember sharing chocolate when he was probably only just about old enough for it to be considered appropriate for him to eat it.

Needless to say, he loves Nutella. Ask any Italian child and they will tell they love Nutella. It’s an institution. School kids take Nutella sandwiches for their mid morning break. They eat it as a snack when they come home from school.

Both my own kids love Nutella, and every time I bring a jar of Nutella into the house, I am generally horrified by how little time it lasts and each time I vow that not another jar of Nutella is setting foot in this house.

Until the next time.

“Brioche with Nutella?” A friend asked me one day when we were having bar at the breakfast.

“Yes, why?”

It was more of a kids’ thing. Nutella wasn’t for adults.

Oh but Nutella is for adults too. There’s panettone spread with Nutella at Christmas. there’s being up in the mountains all crammed into a house and staying up late and dipping leftover bread into a jar of Nutella that was supposed to last the week, there’s sitting round the table with your kids after school eating Nutella sandwiches and knowing that it’s for your benefit as much as theirs.

It’s the comfort, like mashed potato and mashed up Weetabix, comfort where the world seems to have lost it, comfort where there are times you’re living that you’d really rather not be living at that moment in time.

It’s a part of the world that’s always there, that’s telling you that things are still as they should be.

And if all this is signified in a jar of soft, velvety Nutella and a piece of bread, then surely there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Focaccia genovese and Recco beach

Focaccia will always have a special place in my heart, or rather in my stomach. Food is emotional, and it’s what I remember eating when I first came here twenty years ago. There was a shop around the corner from the school where I worked. I’d go off and buy it for my lunch and then go down and sit by the lake. Now I buy focaccia for my kids, the little ones, the focaccine, and they take them to school for their mid-morning snack.

Which is why any trip to Liguria has to involve focaccia, and no less so than to Genoa. Genoa is great for street food. For a start, it’s the kind of place that encourages street food. (Why go off and sit in a restaurant when you can see all this?) And the food it offers is magnificent. Remember, Genoa is the home of focaccia genovese, and focaccia genovese is to be eaten to be believed.

The origins of focaccia are ancient. Phoenicians, Greeks and Carthaginians all prepared focaccia with barley, millet and rye flour. It’s derived from the Latin focus, meaning hearth or fireplace which is where the bread was traditionally cooked. It’s the bread of travellers and sailors, and nowhere does this seem more adapt than in the heart of Genoa’s Medieval historical centre. Genoa, once a maritime republic, and now a multi-attraction city that is definitely worth the visit.

Focaccia genovese or fugàssa as it’s known in the local dialect is flatter than other focaccia you may find in Italy – generally no more than 2cm high. It’s renowned for the fact that it’s covered in an emulsion of olive oil and flavoured with rock salt. And then there’s the farinata, a kind of pancake made of chickpea flour.

We’d only been in Genoa about, ooh a good ten minutes, and there was the usual “mum, did you bring any snacks? Mum, I’m hungry. Mum, can we eat something?” It’s like that with boys. They need feeding. Often.

Spot a few could-be locals, and “Excuse me, where you can get the best focaccia?”

The directions were a bit vague and neither of them could remember the name of the place (par for course, as you learn), and off we trek into the alleyways or caruggi of Genoa. The place we went to was Focaccia e… on Via San Lorenzo by the cathedral, although to be honest you could go to any focacceria and not be disappointed.

And it was delicious.


Focaccia di Recco (left) and Farinata (right) 

The other type of focaccia famous around here is the focaccia di Recco, a thin almost pancake-like bread filled with a soft cheese, stracchino, that is at its best when eaten warm.

On the beach at Recco, just like this was. And no better way to eat it.


Down amidst the cheeses at the deli

People say that you rarely get chance to eat anything on your wedding day. Wrong. I ate everything, deliberately made a point of finishing every single morsel of the menu me and my husband had painstakingly discussed with the chef. It was a three-day lakeside wedding (Lake Como), where English ladies in hats met Italian men in sunglasses and dark suits. I knew it would be the only time in my life where almost everyone I cared about was together, and so it was. And as time charges on and some people are no longer here, it’s become all the more precious.

I got married in a Medieval Catholic church, because I loved the setting and I wanted the frescoes. If I think about any church aspect now (and I deliberately say church and not religion), I’d sacrifice the frescoes for coherence.

A good ten years later, and now I stand at the deli and take my place with all the other women, the wives and the mothers and the housewives, paper ticket from the machine in hand. An Italian wedding leads, like all marriages, to a certain level of domestic life.

And here we have it, the Italian deli, as featured at my local supermarket.

To one side we have the cheeses. Every area generally reflects its local produce, and remember here we’re in the north. So here in Lombardy you can expect latterie, semi-hard cheeses, to figure significantly. Go up to the mountains in summer and you will see them up there in the pastures using the old tried and tested methods.Then there’s bitto from the Valtellina, caprini (soft goats cheeses), Grana Padano made from milk in the Po river valley, and Parmigiano Reggiano, or parmesan as we call it in English. Not that it has anything to do with what we may call parmesan. Parmigiano Reggiano comes only from the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Bologna, Modena and Mantua, parmigiano meaning “of Parma” and reggiano meaning “of Reggio Emilia.” Cut off whole chunks and taste the real thing. And then there’s gorgonzola from the Milanese town of the same name. Go for the creamier version and leave it get to room temperature before eating. And these are just a few of the regulars at your local deli.

Behind are the cold meats, a few salamis (salame milano a great choice for salami sandwiches) and huge legs of Parma ham, or what we generally call Parma ham but actually includes two types of prosciutto crudo, literally raw ham in contrast with prosciutto cotto which is cooked. The first is prosciutto di Parma and comes from the province of Parma in the north of Emilia Romagna. Whereas the second is from San Daniele di Friuli in the province of Udine in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Both are delicious, the second being slightly sweeter. In any case, eat wrapped around fresh autumn figs for maximum pleasure.

The picture shows robioline, soft cheeses deliberately wrapped in leaves to give added flavour. Robiolina  literally means little robiola, a type of cheese which takes its name from Robbio in the province of Pavia, but which can found all over, typically in the Brescia area and in the hilly UNESCO protected Langhe in Piedmont.

Any cheese that’s wrapped in a leaf deserves to take centre stage, and then eaten.

Cappuccino, brioche and the day is mine

I love Italian cafés, or bars as they’re called here.

Of course you can’t generalise. Not all of them are such shrines to all things sweet. Some are best avoided, generally the ones where you walk in and there are a load of old men. Not that I have anything against old men, but it’s often a sign. In Spain if I walk in and there are a lot of old men, chances are they serve good tapas. In Italy, it’s not quite the same.

In both cases, if you’re looking for a quick toilet, don’t. They probably won’t even have real toilets preferring the Turkish variety. And in any case they won’t be clean. Although this is no guarantee. You can go to the chicest bar in Milan and chances are you’ll still be clambering down some rather lethal staircase into somewhere you probably were better off giving a miss.

Choose your bar, and choose your toilet, with care.

On the other hand, the best of Italian bars are almost like living works of art. And it’s not just about the food. It’s the whole atmosphere. From the group of mums who have just done drop-off to the businessmen having their quick caffé before going off to the office, it’s clear that the Italian bar is central to Italian life.

Some of them are very traditional, family-run and have a regular clientele that’s been going there for years, and are often the best. My local bar is like this. It was one of the first bars I came across when I moved to the area and it’s still my favourite. I walk in and the world is as it should be.

Today there were some particularly appealing chocolate and raspberry affairs sitting in the cabinet where I walked in (see main picture). Not strictly cakes, they are actually semifreddos. Or semifreddi, more like a mousse disguised as a cake, as a result of its semi-frozen texture. And utterly beautiful. Too good to be eaten? Not quite. Trust me, they need to be eaten.

There’s something so very civilised about going out for breakfast in Italy. Or maybe that should be there’s something so very civilised about having cake for breakfast, even if a brioche doesn’t strictly count as cake. I remember when I came here years ago, I’d go around in raptures like some kind of crazed Marie Antoinette. “Oh, let us eat cake for breakfast! How wonderful it is to eat cake for breakfast!” And I’d sit and have pasticcini (little pastries) for breakfast, and think I’d arrived in some form of culinary paradise.

And what better way to start your day than looking across a glass cabinet that’s full of various brioches? Take your pick: various types of jam, chocolate, Nutella (who says Nutella isn’t for grown-ups?), pistacchio, Gianduia (like Nutella), apple and so on. This morning I had an extremely buttery and delicious affair with cooked cream (a bit like custard), raisins and almond flakes. And the whole thing was freshly dusted in icing sugar.

Then there’s the coffee. Italy is famous for its coffee, and Italian coffee can be seriously good. Cappuccinos are smooth and creamy and caffé lattes are the real thing and served in a glass and not a paper carton. Coffees don’t come in sizes, they come in cups. And that’s how it should be. And in spite of Starbucks’ recent invasion of Milan’s Piazza del Duomo complete with palm trees and protests, well, let’s just leave it at this. They might do a caramel frappuccino, but personally, I’d rather have this.


Live Italian, eat Italian

Living in Italy you soon become aware that food has god-like status, on a par with football, Ferrari and your mother. It’s the focus of animated conversations, the holy grail at the end of many a Sunday drive (sometimes for several hours) and everyone has an opinion. Food is revered and respected, which is maybe why my in-laws could never accept the fact that my toddlers ate with their hands and flung any undesirables around the kitchen. No, you just don’t do that. Food, mealtimes, the whole ritual of being a tavola is an integral part of Italian DNA and possibly one of the things I most love about living here.

Seasons are still marked by food: late-summer fresh figs, the arrival of wild mushrooms, and then the panettones appear in the supermarkets and what better breakfast than a slice of panettone and glass of milk before you go to school. Winter is also the season of cassoeula where I live, a pork dish made with sausage and savoy cabbage, and grown men discuss how their mothers make it and the subtle differences and various merits of including or leaving out various parts of pig. (Read skin, trotters and the rest.)

Polenta, wild boar stews, pizzoccheri (buckwheat pasta with potatoes, cabbage and cheese flavoured with garlic and obscene amounts of butter), brasato (braised joints of meat) and here we are in the mountains of Lombardy and it’s freezing outside but the log fire is lit and life is good.

Then Spring arrives, and after, the first hot days with people buying honeydew melons and Parma ham, and before we know it we’re back into summer again and an abundance of tomatoes which are then bottled into home-made tomato sauces at the end of the season.


I can trace my life in a dish of pizzoccheri.

I’d just met my husband and we were spending all our weekends driving backwards and forwards in the dead of night up mountain passes as snow fell onto the windscreen. We’d park the car in the early hours of the morning and traipse down sometimes through half a metre of snow to get to the house we’d rented. There were evenings of at least twenty of us crammed round tables, everyone shouting and vying for attention. It’s how I learnt Italian. Not understanding anything and then gradually starting to understand something. Rose-tinted windows? Naturally.

Pizzoccheri, oozing, dripping, smothered in butter, the ultimate form of comfort food. Or rather buckwheat tagliatelle with cabbage or kale depending on your preference, a hint of garlic and plenty of butter and local cheese.

It’s an old dish, first recorded in 1548 by Ortensio Landi, and speaks the history of the valleys and pastures of the north of Italy. You can eat it in Valtellina, a broad valley that goes from the top of Lake Como as far as the Swiss border, and you can eat it in Valsassina, the valley above Lecco at the bottom of the eastern fork of Lake Como. The cheese generally used is casera – da casera, meaning from the room where it’s left to mature – or latteria coming from latte (milk).

There are other versions, some of which add wild mushrooms, but below is the link to the Latteria Valtellina recipe, which I think is about as authentic as you can get:

Buon appetito!