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Festa: A Romantic Dinner for St Valentine’s Day


08-02-2017 10:10
Festa-Courgette-Flowers.jpg

 

A Romantic Dinner for St Valentine’s Day


Una Cena Romantica per San Valentino

 

This very special Valentine’s Day dinner is from Festa: A Year of Italian Celebrations by Eileen Dunne Crescenzi.

 

Present: Two couples


Antipasto Walnut, prune and pancetta caramels
Pasta Spaghetti with clams and courgette pesto
Risotto with courgette flowers, peas and hazelnuts
Mains Monkfish with rosemary chickpeas and crispy prosciutto
Veal straccetti with sage and culatello di zibello
Sides Heirloom tomato, rocket and carpaccio of mushroom salad
Dessert Pannacotta with passion fruit coulis

My husband, Stefano, jokes that I was the easiest person to woo, a good dinner did the trick! I don’t agree, of course. Italians are notoriously and irresistibly romantic. Our first dinner together was at his apartment, a converted former lavatoio, or communal laundry room, with an enormous terrace overlooking a tapestry of terracotta rooftops – a wondrous view of old Rome in all its glory. Who could resist that view? Communal laundry rooms were common in old buildings. Situated on the top floor, they housed a wash area consisting of a concrete or marble sink that incorporated a scrubbing board with an indent for the carbolic soap. Outside there is a huge terrace where residents hung out their washing to dry, with a wash line allotted to each family.

 

In the past these terraces offered housewives a haven of friendship, a place to discuss i mariti (husbands) and la famiglia (the family) and to exchange recipes. One of my favourite films, Una Giornata Particolare, starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, features a poignant scene on a similar roof terrace among lines of well-scrubbed washing. If you are looking for a pied-à-terre in the sky with a huge terrace, search for an abandoned lavatoio. They are largely unused nowadays and condominiums can be convinced to sell.

 

Stefano cooked a superb that night, and the climb to the fifth floor was worth every morsel. It was a special night, as it was also the first time I met Stefano’s best friend, Daniele Archibugi, a colourful, stimulating and quintessential professor, bushy eyebrows and all, who never fails to provoke, and his future wife, Paola, a young university professor and expert of Russian literature. Paola was and continues to be stunningly beautiful and I don’t doubt Modigliani would have yearned to paint her. Friendships are important – they keep us anchored. Regardless of how many miles are between us or how many years pass by, Daniele and Stefano stay in touch regularly and it’s nice to know Stefano has someone to confide in.


Walnut, prune and pancetta caramels


Caramelle di prugne, nocciole e pancetta

 

My favourite place to visit in Umbria is the Antonelli winery, a stone’s throw from the gorgeous historic town of Montefalco. Filippo Antonelli runs a cookery school on the grounds of his vineyard and the place is always a hive of activity. I am usually greeted with a large glass of his world-renowned Sagrantino red wine and prune caramelle and a story on the lastest vendemmia (harvest). No matter how busy Filippo is, he manages to make everyone feel so welcome.

 

Makes 24

 

24 dried pitted prunes
24 blanched walnuts
50g thinly sliced pancetta, shredded
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Stuff each prune with a walnut and wrap in pancetta.

Heat the olive oil in a large pan over a medium heat. Fry batches of the stuffed prunes for 2 minutes on each side, until the pancetta crisps up. Serve warm or cold.


Spaghetti with clams and courgette pesto


Spaghetti con vongole e pesto di zucchine

 

Italians aren’t afraid to use their hands when eating. Each shelled clam is picked from the plate, the fish sucked out and the empty shell flung into a recipient bowl with a delightful cling. Food, gestures and gossip, clinks and chatter are a recipe for warm, congenial dinners.

 

Serves 4–6

 

1kg fresh clams
500g courgettes
4 garlic cloves, chopped
50g freshly grated Pecorino
8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
500g spaghetti
salt and freshly ground black pepper

 

Check that the clams are all closed. If you find an opened one, tap it on the side of a plate or against the counter – it should close, but if it remains open, discard it. Steep the clams in a large bowl of cold water with a pinch of salt and change the water several times. Keep the clams in the water until you’re ready to use them.

 

To make the courgette pesto, cut a thin slice off the ends of the courgettes and wash them well. Slice the courgettes and place in a blender along with half of the garlic, all of the Pecorino and 4 tablespoons of the olive oil. Blitz until it’s a nice runny consistency.

 

Cook the spaghetti in a large saucepan of boiling salted water until al dente or according to the packet instructions.

Heat the remaining 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a wide pan (a wok works well for this) over a low heat. Sauté the remaining garlic for about 1 minute, just until the garlic is fragrant but not browned. Add the clams and pour in the wine. Increase the heat momentarily to cook off the alcohol, then cover the pan for a couple of minutes. The clams are ready when they have all opened. Discard any unopened clams. Remove the clams from their shells and strain the pan juices through a sieve. (You can enjoy a couple clams while you do this!)

 

In a separate large saucepan, gently heat the courgette pesto. Once it’s warmed through, combine the clams, their cooking juices and the courgette pesto.

Drain the pasta and put it in a large serving bowl. Add in the pesto and the clams and mix well. Serve immediately.


Risotto with courgette flowers, peas and hazelnuts


Risotto con fiori di zucchine, piselli e noci

 

Courgettes flowers are a beauty to behold. You barely breathe and they have disappeared. Courgette flowers and saffron stigmas are ingredients you feel privileged to work with. They are to be handled with the utmost care and respect.

 

Serves 6

 

300g frozen or fresh peas
6 courgettes with flowers, plus extra flowers to garnish
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 shallots, finely chopped
360g Carnaroli or Vialone Nano rice
200ml dry white wine
50g crushed hazelnuts
150ml cream
50g freshly grated parmigiano
50g butter

For the broth:
1 onion, peeled and left whole
1 carrot, peeled and left whole
1 beef tomato
1 celery stick
1 heaped tablespoon salt
freshly ground black pepper

 

To make the broth, fill a saucepan with 1 litre of cold water and add in the vegetables and the salt and pepper. Cover the pan and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove the vegetables with a slotted spoon and discard them (or you could eat them dressed with a little olive oil). Keep the broth hot.

To make the risotto, cook the peas in boiling salted water for a couple of minutes, drain and set aside. Chop the courgette flowers delicately into strips.

 

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over a low heat. Sweat the shallots in the oil for about 5 minutes, until they are soft and translucent.

 

Add the rice to the saucepan and allow it to toast in the oil for a couple of minutes, until it starts to turn translucent. Pour in the wine and increase the heat momentarily to cook off the alcohol. Stir in 50g of the peas.

Add the hot stock one ladleful at a time. Stir constantly until all the stock has been absorbed before adding the next ladle. Keep adding the stock bit by bit and stirring until all the stock has been absorbed, which should take about 20 minutes.

 

When the rice is cooked but still has a bite, fold in the rest of the peas, the shredded flowers, crushed hazelnuts and cream along with the parmigiano and butter. Serve immediately and garnish each serving with a courgette flower.

 

Whispers: Risotto should not have a mushy consistency – the rice should still have a nice bite. The creaminess comes from the starch that is released from the rice combined with the parmigiano and butter that are stirred through at the end.


Monkfish with rosemary chickpeas and crispy prosciutto


Coda di rospo con ceci al rosmarino e prosciutto croccante

 

This is a favourite dish of mine and every forkful takes me back to the Marche. Marchigiani people are geniuses when it comes to combining seafood with pulses, a combination known as mari e monti (seas and mountains).

 

Serves 6

 

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon dried chilli flakes
400ml dry white wine
6 x 200g monkfish chunks
200g prosciutto, cut into strips
salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 small sprigs of fresh rosemary, to garnish

For the chickpea vellutata:
250g dried chickpeas or 2 x 400g tins of chickpeas
1 onion, peeled and left whole
1 carrot, peeled and left whole
1 celery stick
sprig of fresh rosemary
1 level teaspoon salt

 

If you are using dried chickpeas, place them in a large saucepan of cold water overnight. The next day, drain and rinse under cold running water. Fill a large saucepan with 2 litres of cold water and add in the chickpeas, onion, carrot, celery, a sprig of rosemary and the salt. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until they are soft but not mushy. Remove the vegetables and the rosemary sprig and discard. Drain the chickpeas, but keep back a mug of the cooking broth (you can retain the stock as a soup base). Or if you are using tinned chickpeas, simply drain and rinse before use.

 

Place the drained chickpeas and a couple of spoons of broth in a blender and blitz to a velvety consistency. If you are using tinned chickpeas, just include a couple of spoons of warm water. Season to taste.

 

Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a wide, heavy-based saucepan over a low heat. Sauté the garlic cloves and the chilli flakes for about 1 minute, just until the garlic is fragrant but not browned. Stir in the chickpea vellutata. Pour in 200ml of the wine and increase the heat momentarily to cook off the alcohol.

 

In a separate large pan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil over a low heat. Sauté the remaining two garlic cloves for about 1 minute, just until it’s fragrant and has flavoured the oil. Remove the garlic with a slotted spoon.

 

Seal the monkfish by cooking it for 1 minute on each side. Pour in the rest of the wine and increase the heat momentarily to cook off the alcohol. Cover and cook for 5 minutes.

 

Meanwhile, cook the prosciutto strips on a hot dry pan until they are crispy.

 

To serve, coat the base of six pasta bowls with the chickpea vellutata. Place a portion of fish in the middle of each plate and sprinkle some of the crispy prosciutto on top. Garnish with a small sprig of rosemary on the side.

 

Veal straccetti with sage and culatello di zibello


Straccetti di vitello con salvia e culatello di zibello

 

An elegant, quick and easy recipe for any occasion.

 

Serves 4–6

 

600g thinly sliced escalopes of veal (about 12 slices)
plain flour
4 fresh sage leaves
1 shallot, finely sliced
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
100ml Marsala
6 slices of culatello di zibello or prosciutto, cut into thin strips
salt and freshly ground black pepper
bunch of rocket

 

Cut the escalopes into 2cm strips and toss in a little flour until they are lightly coated. Shake off any excess flour.

Heat the olive oil in a large pan over a low heat. Sweat the shallot in the oil just until it becomes translucent. Add the sage leaves to the pan and leave for a couple of minutes.

 

Add the strips of veal and cook for 2 minutes. Stir in the Marsala and increase the heat momentarily to cook off the alcohol. Continue cooking for 1 minute more.

 

Add the culatello to the saucepan and stir. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve on a bed of rocket.

 

Whispers:I like to cook veal liver in this way and finish it with a little orange zest. Alternatively, you could also use fillet of beef.

 

Heirloom tomato, rocket and carpaccio of mushroom salad


Insalata di pomodori nostrani, rucola e carpaccio di funghi

 

You can savour the real earthy flavour of mushrooms when eaten raw. In fact, this salad makes a great bruschetta topping, so you might want to make a little extra.

 

Serves 4–6

 

200g champignon or brown cap mushrooms, cleaned
100ml extra virgin olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
freshly ground black pepper
200g heirloom tomatoes, quartered
100g rocket
20ml balsamic vinegar
salt

Slice the mushrooms wafer thin and toss in 50ml of the oil, the lemon juice and a grinding of black pepper. Place in the fridge for 1 hour.

Toss the tomatoes, rocket and mushrooms with the rest of the olive oil, the balsamic vinegar and a pinch of salt in a large serving bowl. Serve straightaway.

 

Whispers: Add Pecorino shavings for a nice variation.

 

Pannacotta with passion fruit coulis


Pannacotta con frutto della passione

 

Frutto della passione literally translates as fruit of passion - an appropriate dessert for a St Valentine’s Day feast.

 

Serves 4

 

150ml fresh milk
1 litre double cream
2 vanilla pods
3 gelatine leaves
150g icing sugar

For the passion fruit coulis:
12 passion fruit
150g icing sugar
juice of 1 orange

Soak the gelatine in a bowl of water for 10 minutes.

 

Meanwhile, heat the milk in a small saucepan until it’s simmering. Remove the gelatine sheets from the water and stir them into the milk until they dissolve.

 

Heat the cream in a separate medium saucepan. Stir in the icing sugar until it dissolves. Slice the vanilla pods lengthways and scrape the seeds into the cream. Pour the milk through a strainer into the cream and stir gently.

Pour the pannacotta into 4 x 200ml ramekins and allow to cool. Cover with tin foil and put in the fridge for a couple of hours to set.

To make the passion fruit coulis, cut the passion fruit in half and remove the pulp. Pass the pulp through a sieve into a bowl and discard the seeds. Place the strained pulp, sugar and orange juice in a small saucepan and simmer for 5 minutes.

 

To remove the pannacotta from the ramekins, quickly dip each ramekin in hot water to loosen it, but do not let the pannacotta come into contact with the water. Turn out the pannacotta and serve on individual plates. Spoon over some of the passion fruit coulis.

 

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