Saturday, 25 April 2015

Three pans, three colours: Pasta tricolore for Italy's Liberation day

April 25th marks the day that Italians celebrate their liberation from Nazi occupation in 1945 - 70 years ago today! 

Without really intending to, at lunch I managed to cook a pasta dish that was suitably patriotic in its hues. I was supposed to be studying today (as always) but severely underestimated the time it would take to make lunch - which of course includes a primo and a secondo at the very least!

Before sharing the recipe for the pasta (which was actually a pasta risottata - more on that later), here are a few photos of my stay in Milan this time around. Milan is actually one of the more heavily populated cities in Europe yet it's easy to forget this when wandering away from the main streets. There's a quiet peace to the city in the smaller vie - something that will come in handy once the flood of Expo visitors descend on the city! 

In Italy, everything just naturally seems more beautiful, like this shaft of afternoon sunlight falling across a rather retro hotel sign or the park in the late afternoon. I've been treated to a mix of velvety warm air, fresh breezes and luscious bouts of rain that have managed to selectively hold only the best scents of the city down, such as that of wood smoke and the heavy blossoms that droop from terraces and balconies across the city.

Michele and I paid a visit to La Brisa, easily one of the prettiest restaurants in the city. Most of the restaurant is situated in this long, glass room that juts into a leafy courtyard. I went there with my Mum last year and had a beautiful, lazy lunch out beneath the trees (here - but beware the food porn).

Milan is a brilliantly hectic juxtaposition between the old and the new. It has a real sense of history lurking in its castle courtyards and old trattorias whilst the newly developed areas like Piazza Gae Aulenti pulse with the life of the city. The piazza is one of my favourite spots and always on my to do list for new visitors in the summer. There are a few shops, a couple of bars (important), a Grom gelateria (very important), huge table football.. um.. tables and in the summer, they put rugs and cushions out for groups to lounge around and play boardgames on. At night, they turn the lights on underneath the fountains, making some look like champagne is running through them.

Of course, only the coolest kids have their afternoon merenda there. The merenda is an afternoon snack to keep you going until dinner. Martina and I decided to have ours with our aperitivo.

But we hid the milk away because people were giving us funny looks.

So that's my two weeks here in a nutshell! The rest of the time I've been looking at dream houses on Zoopla and thoroughly revising the Buzzfeed back catalogue whilst convincing myself that I've been revising for exams. I'm off back to university in a couple of days which won't be nearly as warm and sunny but nevermind. Maybe I can take some recipes with me and convince myself I'm back on the peninsula.

Which brings me back to my pasta (risottata) tricolore. Now I know that people love one-pan pasta because it's simple, easy and delicious. But in this house, cooking must never be simple (not with Michele around anyway). And so I introduce my three-pan pasta. Which is actually two-pan pasta really but there are three different stages so... it sounds better if there are three pans and three colours, so three-pan it is. I promise the extra washing up will be worth it.

I made it for three people and used...

  • 2 medium aubergines (eggplants)
  • 1 can of chopped tomatoes
  • 2 handfuls of cherry tomatoes
  • Garlic
  • Olive oil
  • 360g of dried pasta (I used macaroni but your favourite is good)
  • Rock salt
  • Pecorino
  • Freshly torn basil from Michele's windowsill herb garden overlooking the picturesque courtyards of Milan (ahem)
First, slice up your aubergines and salt them well. Apparently this is essential. I don't usually do it but hey. The Italian says it's a must. Slice them up, salt them and leave them in a colander or sieve underneath a heavy weight for an hour or so. 
Next, rinse them off and pat them dry - mine went all wrinkly like this!

Cut each slice into halves or quarters so you've got bite-size pieces and quarter your cherry tomatoes too. Get some garlic cloves sizzling in a pan of oil and after a little while, throw your aubergines in. Wait for them to soften a bit and then add your cherry tomatoes and then pour in your chopped tomatoes. Watch out, it might hiss and spit at that point as I stupidly did not realise #coveredinsauce

Once that's done and gently simmering, turn your attention to the pasta. Salt a pan of water and put it on to boil. Once it's boiling and only once it's boiling (again, the Italian way, don't ask me) pour your pasta in. Make sure you set a timer; this is crucial (I don't do this at home. Michele. Enough said.)

And now here's where things get a bit strange. Instead of leaving your pasta to simmer away like usual, take it off the boil 5 minutes before it would normally be ready. Use a slotted spoon to transfer your pasta into the sauce (this mixture of pasta and sauce counts as my third pan by the way). Add a cup of water and turn the heat up. If you like salty dishes, use the pasta water, provided you salted it before putting it on the heat. For the rest of the time it takes to cook the pasta, add a little water every now and then to keep it all cooking. It's like cooking a risotto - hence pasta risottata - so try and balance between it drying out and becoming overcooked. Go Italian style and aim for pasta al dente.

Ok so I know it seems like extra, unnecessary hard work. Admittedly I was all down for boiling the pasta and then chucking the sauce on top like a normal person. Michele definitely pressured me into making the risottata. I wasn't massively happy. I threatened him with the slotted spoon. But it turned out good so you should try it too.

The sauce is your red. The pecorino is your white. And then the basil, the pinnacle of all Italian dishes surely, is your green. Tomatoes, cheese and basil. Italy on a plate.

Buon Appetito!

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

A Little Update

Although I've been promising both myself and others that I will get this blog back up and running, it's (obviously) not happened yet. Which is a shame, especially considering that Milan's Expo will be opening soon (that is, depending on whether or not Italy gets it together pretty quick!) and I'd love to be able to spend more time blogging about my favourite parts of the city for those of you lucky enough to be going! Hopefully after a bit of time, I'll be back on form.

One of the reasons I'm a bit behind, and have been for the past few months, is because I'm currently trying to get my dissertation ready to submit in just under two weeks time. Psychology is one of the subjects you get to do a research project for although the split between practical work and written work means that I've only got a measly 6,000 words to write it all up in! I'm a sucker for a good ramble but psychology articles are often written as if a robot spewed them out so I'm trying very hard to sap all personality out of my project as I write!

I've had some exciting news recently as well as some incredibly bad news which I will probably talk about a little later once I've got my head around things. For now though, I will ask your forgiveness and leave a few photos of what I've been up to when my eyes haven't been glued to my thesis.

1. Enjoying Michele's cooking efforts on visits back to Italy
My favourite kind of food is the sort that explodes sunshine with every bite. This lemon, leek and parmesan pasta did the job perfectly.

2. Exploring Devon with my Mum
The pretty poor public transport system in the South West means that getting out from Exeter to places like Dartmouth is a treat reserved for family visits. I will start saving for a car...

3. Making desserts out of fruit
I've been perfecting my healthy-ish apple crumble since giving up sugar for Lent. Now I can eat what I like again (hooray) but still think that an apple crumble made with oats, honey, cinnamon and a whole load of orange juice and zest can't be beaten

4. Questioning the meaning of it all
Not necessarily in a deep, philosophical way but when it comes to modern art, I'm always left a little stupefied. Last month Michele and I visited Hangar Bicocca in Milan. It's an amazing space in an old warehouse (the wine bar helps)

5. Getting drunk with this babe
My fellow Slow Food on Campus blogger and I hit the Wine Soc's wine and cheese night with force. So much force that we ended up running out early (yep, turning down free wine!) and legging it to Nandos to eat something with more substance!

6. Discovering great new veggie restaurants
Having been a veg/pescatarian for about 13 years now, I'm used to being limited to one or two choices per menu. Visiting the Acorn Kitchen in Bath with my co-veg and partner in crime (a.k.a dissertation research partner Lizzie) was like taking a very indecisive but greedy child into a sweet shop.

7. More drunkenness and conference winnings
Lizzie and I went to the South West Undergrad Conference hosted by the British Psychological Society and won best presentation for our talk about our research into the effects of media ideals on female self-esteem! Obviously we got drunk at the networking event (a common theme for us) and spent the journey home snapping pics of the snoozing bunch behind us..

8. Playing tour guide
I really love introducing people to Milan. So much so that when poor Katie arrived after no sleep and a 7am flight, I dragged her all around the city, starting with delicious pizza at Frijenno Magnanno. She was an absolute trouper and kept up after pizza, wine, limoncello, gelato (from Gelateria della Musica of course) followed by a tour around the city centre, taking in the Duomo, castello, via Montenapoleone... even I was ready to crash by the end!

9. Discovering the flamingos in the centre of the city
Who knew?

10. Celebrating at Alice (Eataly's swanky restaurant) with Michele
This sneaky one was supposed to be at work whilst I got on with studying but he came home early as a surprise and took me out for a celebratory lunch at Alice, which turned into a three hour affair with lots of wine and ended in a nap. Bloody excellent.

Friday, 27 March 2015

La Sacra di San Michele, Piemonte

If you were to ask me where my favourite place in Italy is, I'd probably say anywhere in the North mountains. Whilst the Dolomites absolutely stole my heart forever and ever, Piemonte really is not lagging far behind (it helps that it's an absolute cheese fest over there too). 

In December last year, Michele and I took a trip to the Sacra di San Michele (or Saint Michael's Abbey). As we rounded a corner and came out from behind a hill, we could see this formidable building looming ahead on the crest of a hill. It looks more like a creation in a computer game than a real abbey and is much more impressive in real life I assure you!

It was pretty empty when we got there, with it being early December. We have this terrible habit of saying that we're going to eat on the road and then being awful snobs and not stopping off anywhere because we don't like the look of the restaurants we pass. This was one of those days and as we progressed up the windy road and into the mountains where our pickings became all the slimmer for our fussiness, passing closed osteria after closed osteria, my rumbling stomach became more and more anxious.

Luckily there was a small cabin-like cafe open just metres from the Sacra and we took refuge from the cold in there, eating excellent rolls stuffed with Toma (a Piemontese cheese), anchovies and salsa verde. They also sold Guido Castagna chocolates which, if you haven't already stocked up on from nearby Torino, you should definitely try.

The building itself is jaw-droppingly impressive up close. However these awe-inspiring heights just made me feel incredibly sorry for the hoards of pilgrims who would have walked miles and miles to reach the Sacra and after having climbed partway up into the mountains would have been faced with even more stairs!

And then even more stairs!

This stairway was called the Scalone dei Morti or the (Big) Stairway of the Dead and until recently it was lined with the skeletons of monks to illustrate this. I'm pretty sure most of the pilgrims were ready to join them having trekked all this way, just to be faced with more stairs.

Once you've made it to the top you can relax for a while and take in some of the breathtaking architecture, sculpture and scenery such as the beautiful Porta dello Zodiaco above.

And the sensation of being in a video game or some kind of fantasy novel persists.

Back when Michele was still sporting a moustache from Movember! He now has a fully-fledged bushy beard once more.

Walking around the building, you get the most fantastic views of the Alps. I love hiking but I'm pretty glad we were wrapped up warm and sheltering by the Abbey rather than being out on the peaks that day.

It's an incredible place; where the Abbey fuses with the rock, you get a real sense of man meeting nature and the two forces adapting around each other. Monuments in the cult of St. Michael are typically positioned in hard to reach places (St. Michael's Mount in Cornwall for example) and can be plotted on a straight line across Europe.

Some parts of the Abbey show the centuries of abandonment (from 1622 - 1835). The site is believed to have been occupied since Roman times where it is thought to have been used as a military stronghold. Whilst the exact age of the Abbey itself is still under speculation, there is evidence that some parts were constructed as early as the 10th century due to the Byzantine influences in the crypt. But whether you're a history nut or somebody who just loves the timeless feel of buildings older than we could really, truly comprehend, it's a real treasure of the North.

We were pretty lucky to have the entire place to ourselves (bar the occasional monk passing through the halls) and I would definitely recommend visiting in off-peak times. On the other hand, our trip to Piemonte last March (which I still haven't blogged about, ohmygod) proved that the region is probably best April-September when everything is actually open.

During off-peak months, the Abbey is closed on Mondays but otherwise is open all year round.
More information can be found here: