Monday, August 14, 2006

Maria Pia

Mangiare Italiano is about life, love and food. It is as much a memoir of these things as it is a cookbook.

Trends come and go and food, especially various cultural cuisines, is currently enjoying an all time high in popularity. Italian food (or interpretations thereof) has long been favoured around the globe and now Italian regional cooking is beginning to make its way abroad as well. Food means many things to many people and to say that it is upheld as an institution by Italians is an understatement. That is perhaps Italy's common ground, and no more so than in the South.

Maria Pia hails from Puglia, located near the sea at the "heel" of the boot shaped country. A celebrated cuisine famous for its feast days and banquets, Puglia is known for its bread and pasta. I have heard it called the "breadbasket of Italy" for the durum wheat grown there. Vegetables are another key ingredient and are often the feature of a Pugliese dish along with seafood delicacies harvested from the regions oyster and mussel farms. And no dish would be complete without olive oil. As Italy's largest oil producing region, Pugliese oil is spicy, fruity and complex as oil from only fully ripe olives can be. It ties the cuisine of the region together beautifully.

Although Puglia is intricately linked to her past, shown in the family and historical dishes as well as some signature treats from her own cucina, Maria Pia also documents her influences from Piedmonte and Emilia-Romagna in the far North through to Toscano, Bologna and back South all the way to Sicilia. The recipes are dotted with people, anecdotes and history. She speaks not just of the life's lessons learned, but also of the journey. One gets the feeling she has indeed enjoyed the process and that is perhaps the most important thing.

There is a little something here for everyone to whom good food speaks but those stories are best told by the author herself. The food may be one way for us to share in the experience.

The recipes begin with antipasti, the fried delicacies of Italian feast holidays, Saint's days and casual snacks she recalls eating after school, then a chapter on vegetables (the humble piatti poveri) and, my favourite, Chapter 3 entitled "To warm the heart". The theme continues with more for pasta lovers, meat lovers, seafood lovers, and for lovers of sweets. Something special is a section especially for mussels that contains her father's stuffed mussel recipe and another special rice dish, tieddha, that combines all of the main components of Pugliese cuisine.

Lucky Wellingtonians can sample many of the items in this book and the hospitality of her trattoria on Thorndon Street, a warm and inviting place bustling with conversation and aromas of the kitchen. I had the fortune to meet Maria Pia, in between moments of her scurrying about with trays of fresh pasta and dough, and enjoy a plate of the best fresh pasta I have eaten in a trattoria outside of Italy.

Maria Pia's understanding and self awareness of how food and the food of her heritage has influenced her, fuels her creativity, and connects her to her history is inspirational. Everything in this volume IS real and expresses the authentic Italian approach to cooking: the use of fresh, local ingredients and raw unadulterated passion.

Very highly recommended.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

fatto a casa

It used to be about take aways. A piping hot, stringy cheese topped, perfect crust masterpiece from a family run shop where the shop itself might have only been the width of the pizza oven. Nowadays the large pizza chains are churning out greasy, vile representations of the humble pie.

Having shifted about several times over the past few years, it is difficult to maintain local status with, let alone find, a decent pizzeria. And since staying in and cooking yields a better result for everything else.. why should pizza be any different?

So I make it at home.

How? Well, in a pinch I admit to using a purchased dough. Most bakeries will part with a bit of their fresh bread dough, sometimes sold by weight, for crust purposes. For those times when pizza cravings hit and even the most tempting delicacy will not suffice in its stead.

But mostly, the need for pizza is premeditated. The mixing, the kneading and the aroma of the dough proofing atop the cupboard.. it is easy, albeit minorly time consuming and the results: undeniably worth every minute.

Starting a dough is easy enough. I will use a traditional dry yeast for convenience (which works well enough) but if your neighbourhood has a local bakery, they will often have fresh yeast cakes available. I prefer fresh because it dissolves easier, gives a more vigorous rise and, in my opinion, aids in giving a better textured crumb. The crust texture is hugely dependent on the flour and its gluten forming protein content. I save my '00' durum wheat (semolina) flours for pasta and use a stronger unbleached all-purpose flour for pizza dough.

A quick tomato sauce is easy to prepare using a small jar of homemade sauce simmered for a few flavour infusing minutes over garlic and onion sauteed in olive oil finished with a sprinkle of oregano. It shouldn't be too watery but not reduced to a paste consistency, and a thin covering is all you need.

Although the chunky topped (unbaked) pizza in the picture doesn't look too sparse, the lighter the load the better the end product. For family, I keep it as they like it. Simple. Two or three toppings at the most with the exception of quattro formaggi. Here we were emptying the fridge: a sprinkle of black olives, a few bits of artichoke hearts, one slice of pancetta (diced), a few capers, some sliced pickled chilles and torn basil dotted with rough pieces of scamorza. Ah, cheese.

Scamorza is a mild, stretched curd cheese traditionally ripened but for a few days that has that typical stringy melt. It is what most commercial 'mozzarella' cheeses really are. I won't turn this post into the great Mozzarella debate, but the only cheese that can be called 'mozzarella' is mozzarella di bufala. Made with buffalo milk, it is so delicate and gloriously flavoured that placing it over pizza should be a crime. It is, however, acceptable (and more economical) to use the alternative versions made with cows milk to top a pizza margherita. Commonly called bocconcini (the little bites) and larger 'fior di latte' slice much easier and won't release whey on baking to make your beautiful crust a soggy mess.

Baking pizza should have but one rule. And that is the oven should be hot hot hot. I set the gas to a blistering 230 degrees C, preheat a terracotta baking stone and shift the pizzas in and out of the oven on parchment paper (not waxed paper) with a wooden board. This heat sets the exterior of the crust quickly so that it doesn't get the chance to rise in the oven. Here is where the crispy thin crust with the chewy interior is formed. Baking stones are now readily available in good supply shops and a good one will last indefinitely.

I cannot say the same of the pizza. We celebrated the World Cup with a triple batch of dough, that is 12 individual pizze about 25 cm diameter or so and a group of friends. And a bottle of Plunkett's Shiraz