Just spent a couple of days in Venice, I’ve been before but I’d forgotten just how magical it is. I arrived late in the evening having taken a fast train across the top of Italy from Turin where I had been attending the Slow Food Salone del Gusto Terra Madre event. This spontaneous visit came about because I was invited to participate in a documentary on the life of Marcella Hazan, an Italian cook who was deeply influential in my early career. The year before the Ballymaloe Cookery School was established in 1983, I travelled to Bologna in Italy to take a weeklong course with Marcella to learn how to make handmade pasta, ragu, risotto zuccotto…
It was from Marcella that I first heard about balsamic vinegar and learned that olive oil was not just for earaches…!
Later in 1992, I invited her to teach at the Ballymaloe Cookery School and took a RTE crew to film a Simply Delicious Program in Venice. Eventually in her later years, she and her husband Victor moved to Longboat Quay in Florida where I also visited them there. The friendship spanned over several decades, and I still cook and pass on many of the recipes that Marcella taught me to the students here at the Ballymaloe Cookery School.
Despite being one of the most enchanting cities in the world, really good food is difficult to find in Venice and even more difficult on a Monday when many restaurants, shops and some museums are closed.
During that action packed week in Italy with Marcella in the 1980’s, I had several eureka moments. One occurred in the Rialto Market in Venice on the edge of the Grand Canal. As we wandered through the stalls piled high with the most beautiful fresh vegetables, perfectly ripe berries and stone fruit. I noticed that often there were two options, tomatoes, peaches, zucchini – the more expensive option always seemed to have nostrale or nostrana on the sign. I was curious about this special place where all the choicest produce seems to come from…. I spoke no Italian…I tried to enquire from the stall holders, eventually one told me impatiently that nostrana or nostrale was not a place but meant local. At a time in Ireland when local was still actually regarded as a derogatory term, this was baffling…. why then I asked was it more expensive…
The stallholder was totally exasperated by the question. He explained in broken English… Because it’s from the lagoon area, it’s fresher, better… of course it’s more expensive (as though I was an imbecile).
It was a lightbulb moment… Of course, it should be more expensive…this was at a time when customers in Ireland would expect to pay less for beautiful eggs or freshly picked fresh apples if they were local…
Can you imagine how wonderful that everything has come full circle. Local is now the sexiest word in food and the coolest term on menus, although it has to be said that many more restaurants talk the talk than walk the walk….
I had a particularly delicious meal at Da
Fiori. Maurizio and Mara Martin’s Michelin starred restaurant with a little
balcony on the edge of the canal where gondolas glide past. Their son, Damiano
has now joined them. Mara specializes in beautiful, freshly caught fish and
shellfish from the lagoon, simply cooked and packed with flavour. There’s
another reason to try to get to Venice before the end of November – the 59th International
Biennale Art Exhibition – cinema, dance, theatre…Check out Al Cova. Alla
Testiere, and Da Arturo also… and don’t miss the Rialto Market…
I’ve been told that if you want to make your way to an Italian man’s heart it is essential to be able to make a good ragu.
It is a wonderfully versatile sauce – the classic Bolognese sauce for Tagliatelle alla Bolognese, indispensable for lasagne, and also delicious with polenta and gnocchi not to be confused with the well-known brand of the same name. I have been making Marcella Hazan’s version for many years from her Classic Italian Cookbook (a book you would do well to seek out). It is the most delicious and concentrated one I know. Marcella says it should be cooked for several hours at the merest simmer but I find you get a very good result with 1 – 1 1/2 hours cooking on a diffuser mat. Ragu can be made ahead and freezes very well.
45g (1 1/2oz) butter
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons celery, finely chopped
2 tablespoons carrot, finely chopped
350g (12oz) minced lean beef, preferably chuck or neck
300ml (10fl oz) dry white wine
110ml (4fl oz) milk
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1 x 400g (14oz) tin Italian tomatoes, roughly chopped with their own juice.
In Italy they sometimes use an earthenware pot for making ragu, but I find that a heavy enamelled cast-iron casserole with high sides works very well. Heat the butter with the oil and sauté the onion briefly over medium heat until just translucent. Add the celery and carrot and cook gently for 2 minutes. Next add the minced beef, crumbling it in the pot with a fork. Add salt to taste, stir, and cook only until the meat has lost its raw red colour (Marcella says that if it browns it will lose its delicacy.)
Add the wine, turn the heat up to medium high, and cook, stirring occasionally, until all the wine has evaporated. Turn the heat down to medium, add in the milk and the freshly grated nutmeg, and cook until the milk has evaporated, stirring every now and then. Next add the chopped tomatoes and stir well. When the tomatoes have started to bubble, turn the heat down to the very lowest so that the sauce cooks at the gentlest simmer – just an occasional bubble. I use a heat diffuser mat for this.
Cook uncovered for a minimum of 1 1/2 hours (better
still 2 or even 3 hours), depending on how concentrated you like it, stirring
occasionally. If it reduces too much add a little water and continue to cook.
When it is finally cooked, taste and correct seasoning. Because of the length
of time involved in cooking this, I feel it would be worthwhile to make at
least twice the recipe.
Marcella Hazan’s Pappardelle or Noodles with Chicken Liver Sauce
It was Marcella Hazan who first introduced me to classic Italian cooking, she became a legend in her lifetime. This recipe is one of my favourites from her Classic Italian Cookbook.
225g (8oz) fresh chicken livers
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
25g (1oz) butter
50g (2oz) diced pancetta, or prosciutto (I use unsmoked streaky bacon)
2 tablespoons chopped shallot or onion
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons of fresh sage
110g (4oz) minced lean beef
6-8 twists freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon concentrated tomato puree, dissolved in 4 tablespoons dry white vermouth
300g (10oz) pappardelle or fresh noodles
freshly grated Parmesan cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano is best)
Wash the chicken livers well, trim off any fat or traces of green and cut each lobe into 3 or 4 pieces. Dry thoroughly on kitchen paper.
Heat the oil in a small saucepan, add the diced streaky bacon and fry gently until it begins to crisp, then remove to a plate. Add the butter and sauté the onions over a medium heat until translucent, add the garlic, stir 2 or 3 times, add back in the bacon and the sage leaves, then add the minced meat, crumbling it with a fork, and cook until it has lost its red raw colour. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper, turn the heat up to medium high and add the chicken livers. Stir and cook until they have lost their raw colour, add the tomato puree and vermouth and cook for 8-10 minutes. Taste.
Meanwhile, cook the pappardelle or noodles until al dente in boiling salted water – 4.5 litres (8 pints) to 1 tablespoon of salt. If they are fresh, they will only take seconds after the water comes back to the boil.
The moment the pasta is drained, transfer to a warm
dish, add the sauce (and a couple of tablespoons of pasta water if necessary – it
should be moist and juicy). Toss thoroughly and serve
immediately. Add a little grated Parmesan if desired. This sauce is
also delicious served with risotto.
Marcella Hazan’s Tortellini with Parsley and Ricotta and Sauce Alfredo
Also delicious served with Sage Butter (see recipe).
20g (3/4oz) finely chopped parsley, flat parsley
250g (9oz) fresh ricotta
100g (3 1/2oz) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg yolk
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
225g (8oz) “00” white flour
pinch of salt
1 whole egg and 2 egg yolks, preferably free range
1 teaspoon olive oil
4.5 litres (8 pints) water
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon salt
150ml (5fl oz) double cream
3 tablespoons butter
50g (2oz) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
First make the pasta dough.
Sieve the flour into a bowl and add the salt. Make a well in the centre, add the eggs (no need to whisk the eggs) and oil. Mix into a dough with your hand. The pasta should just come together but shouldn’t stick to your hand – if it does add a little more flour. (If it is too dry, add a little extra egg white.) Knead for 10 minutes until it becomes elastic. It should be quite pliable, wrap in clingfilm and rest in the fridge while you make the filling.
Combine all the filling ingredients, parsley, ricotta, grated Parmesan cheese, salt, egg yolk and nutmeg – in a mixing bowl and mix well with a fork. Check seasoning, then set aside.
Roll out the pasta as thinly as you possibly can. Stamp out 7.5cm (3 inch) rounds, stuff and fold the circle in half to form a half moon.
Bring the water, containing 1 tablespoon of olive oil to the boil. Add 1 tablespoon of salt, then drop in the tortellini.
While the tortellini are cooking, choose an enamelled cast iron or other flameproof dish that will later hold all the tortellini without stacking them too high. Put in half the cream and all the butter, and simmer over moderate heat for less than a minute, until the cream and butter have thickened. Turn off the heat.
Fresh tortellini are done within 5 minutes after the water returns to the boil, while dry tortellini may take 15-20 minutes. When done – they should be firm, but cooked throughout -transfer them with a large, slotted spoon or colander to the pan containing the cream and butter and turn the heat on to low. Turn the tortellini to coat them all with the cream and butter sauce (add a little pasta water if necessary). Add the rest of the cream and all the grated cheese and continue turning the tortellini until they are evenly coated and all the cream has thickened. Serve immediately from the same pan, with an extra bowl of grated cheese.
110g (4oz) butter
32 – 40 sage leaves
Melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the sage leaves and keep on the heat until they just start to crackle. Pour over the pasta – it should lightly coat the pasta.
Chicken Roast with 2 Lemons
This recipe, given to me by Marcella Hazan when I did a cookery course with her in Bologna in 1982, is the simplest most delicious roast chicken recipe I know – no fat, no basting, no stuffing.
1 x 1.35-1.8kg (3-4lbs) free-range organic chicken
freshly ground black pepper
2 small organic lemons
trussing needle and string
Preheat the oven to 180˚C/350˚F/Gas Mark 4.
Wash the chicken thoroughly with cold water. Remove any bits of fat from around the vent end. Drain the chicken well and dry thoroughly with a tea towel or kitchen paper.
Rub the salt and freshly ground black pepper with your fingers over all the body and into the cavity. Wash the lemons well and dry them with a tea towel, roll on the counter and prick each of the lemons in at least 20 places with a cocktail stick or skewer.
Put both lemons in the cavity. Close up the opening with cocktail sticks or with a trussing needle and string. Don’t make it absolutely airtight or the chicken may burst!
Put the chicken into a roasting pan, breast side down. Do not add cooking fat of any kind. This bird is self-basting, so don’t worry it won’t stick to the pan. Place it in the upper third of the preheated oven. After 30 minutes, turn the chicken breast side up. Be careful not to puncture the skin.
Cook for another 30-35 minutes then increase the heat to 200˚C/400˚F/Gas Mark 6 and cook for a further additional 20 minutes. Calculate between 20-25 minutes total cooking time for each 450g (1lb). There is no need to turn the chicken again.
Bring the chicken to the table whole, garnished with sprigs flat parsley and leave the lemons inside until it is carved. The juices that run out are perfectly delicious, so be sure to spoon them over the chicken slices. The lemons will have shrivelled up but they still contain some juice; do not squeeze, they may squirt.