The 20 best Italian recipes: part 3 | Italian food and drink (2024)

Observer Food Monthly's 20 best recipes

From Nigella Lawson’s Sardinian couscous to Marcella Hazan’s Bolognese pork loin, classic dishes selected by Observer Food Monthly
• The final part of this series launches tomorrow

Nigella Lawson, Giorgio Locatelli, Sam Harris, Claudia Roden, Marcella Hazan

Wed 8 Jul 2015 03.00 EDT

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Nigella Lawson’s Sardinian couscous with clams

At the time of writing, I confess you will need to go to an Italian deli or specialist food outlet for fregola, the sun-dried and toasted Sardinian couscous specified for this recipe.

This is not an insurmountable obstacle, of course. What I suggest is that you buy a decent stock of the stuff (along with farro, and any other more recondite pasta shapes you might be hankering after) in one go, so that you always have the wherewithal to hand.

I wouldn’t substitute regular couscous for the fregola, which is rather more like dense pasta peas than semolina grains, and thus most comparable to the larger Middle Eastern or Israeli couscous, which could be used in its stead. However, if you can’t find fregola, I would suggest you try a chunky soup-pasta shape such as ditalini, which is more readily available.

Fregola itself, though, brings a distinct quality: when cooked, it certainly softens but also retains a singular chewiness and nuttiness, which is perfect in this light but clam-rich, spiced and tomato-hued soup.

Serves 4
small clams 1kg, such as palourdes
olive oil 2 x 15ml tbsp
echalion or banana shallot 1, peeled and finely chopped
garlic cloves 2, peeled
dried chilli flakes ½ tsp
tomato puree 1 x 15ml tbsp
light chicken stock 750ml (made up with less powder or concentrate to water than usual)
dry red vermouth 60ml
fregola 200g
parsley 3 x 15ml tbsp, plus more for sprinkling, chopped

Soak the clams in a large bowl of cold water, and sort through them, discarding any shells that remain open or are cracked or smashed.

Heat the oil in a large, heavy-based pan that comes with a lid, then add the chopped shallot, stirring for a minute, grate in (or mince and add) the garlic, and add the chilli flakes, stirring again over the heat so that it sizzles, though not long enough to let the garlic brown.

Stir in the tomato puree, then add the stock and the vermouth and let it come to the boil.

Add the fregola – it should be covered completely by the liquid – and let it simmer, still uncovered, for 10-12 minutes (or as instructed on the fregola packet).

Check that the fregola is nearly ready and then add the drained clams, and cover the pan with the lid. Leave to cook for 3 minutes at a fast simmer, then uncover the pan to check that the clams have opened. Any clams that, once cooked, stay closed should be discarded.

Sprinkle in the chopped parsley and stir to let everything combine before ladling into 4 warmed bowls to serve, sprinkling with a little more chopped parsley as you go.

From Nigellissima: Instant Italian Inspiration by Nigella Lawson (Chatto & Windus, £14.99). Click here to buy it from Guardian Bookshop for £11.99

Giorgio Locatelli’s baked aubergine with cheese

Serves 4
aubergines 4 large
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
olive oil
ripe plum tomatoes 16
garlic oil 1 tbsp
sugar 1 tbsp
eggs 4 large, hard-boiled, cut into quarters
tuma (Sicilian fresh unsalted sheep’s cheese) or mozzarella 150g, cut into small cubes
fresh basil a bunch
caciocavallo or pecorino cheese 50g, grated

Cut the aubergines into slices lengthways, about 6mm thick. Sprinkle with salt and leave to drain in a colander for at least 2 hours. Squeeze lightly to get rid of the excess liquid.

Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4 and grease a baking dish with olive oil.

Put the tomatoes into a pan of boiling water for 10 seconds, then drain under cold water and you should be able to peel them easily. Cut them in half, scoop out the seeds with a teaspoon, and chop the flesh.

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a pan and add the garlic oil. When the pieces of garlic in the oil turn golden, add the tomatoes and cook until reduced to a thick sauce. Stir in the sugar and cook for a couple of minutes.

Heat about 2.5cm of olive oil in a pan and sauté the aubergine slices until they are golden and crisp. Lift out and drain on kitchen paper.

Spread a few tablespoons of tomato sauce over the base of the baking dish, then start to layer up the ingredients: begin with some of the aubergine, followed by some of the eggs, and the tuma or mozzarella. Scatter with some of the grated caciocavallo or pecorino. Spread some more tomato sauce over the top, add the basil and layer again as before. Finish with a layer of aubergine, and scatter with the last of the cheese.

Put the dish into the preheated oven and bake for about 10 minutes until heated through, and the cheese on top has melted and turns golden. Allow to cool to room temperature before serving.

From Made in Sicily by Giorgio Locatelli (Fourth Estate, £30). Click here to buy it from Guardian Bookshop for £24

Sam Harris’s tuna involtini

This classic antipasti, which originates from the northern Italian region of Piedmont, uses two main ingredients which are key to the local diet – peppers and tinned tuna. The peppers, which are bigger than the more common variety, have a sweetness when roasted akin to tomatoes. They provide a freshness in the antipasti which works brilliantly before the more heavy meat-based ‘primi’ and ‘secondi’. The jarred tuna stems from Liguria originally – a region neighbouring Piedmont. This tuna is packed in the light olive oil of the region and gives the Piemontese an intake of fish which is otherwise not available in this mountainous land.

Serves 4
red peppers 4 large
olive oil

For the tonnato
good quality tuna in olive oil 2 x 225g jar
tinned anchovies 6
capers 1 tbsp
egg yolks 2
salt a small pinch
lemon a small squeeze

Roast the peppers on a very high heat in the oven (around 200C-220C/gas mark 6-7) until the skins start to blacken. Remove from the oven and place the peppers into a large bowl and cover with cling film. The steam will help release the skins.

Once cool enough to handle, cut in half, peel the skins and remove all the seeds. Trim up the edges so it is neat. You now should have 2 halves of pepper per person to serve.

Place the tuna in a blender with all of the oil from the jar and blend with the anchovies, capers and egg yolks to a smooth consistency. Season with salt and lemon juice.

The tonnato should have a smooth consistency. You may need to add a small glug of olive oil when finishing the blitzing to achieve the correct texture.

Now assemble it. The idea is to place some tuna on the inside of the pepper pieces and roll them up – you can be quite generous. The most traditional garnish for this dish is a simple lamb’s lettuce salad.

Sam Harris is chef patron of Zucca, London SE1;

Claudia Roden’s courgette blossoms fried in batter

This is the simplest and most popular version of one of the most delightful of dishes. Courgettes have male and female flowers, and it is the long male ones that are best used for this dish. They must be fresh and firm; very large ones can be cut in half lengthwise. You can use pumpkin and squash flowers in the same way.

Serves 4-8
plain flour 150g
salt and freshly ground pepper
nutmeg a pinch
olive oil 2 tbsp
eggs 2 large, separated
white wine 6 tbsp
water 6 tbsp
courgette blossoms 16
olive oil for deep-frying

To make the batter, put the flour, salt, pepper, nutmeg, oil and egg yolks in a bowl and beat well. Then gradually beat in the wine and enough water to have a light, creamy consistency. Leave to rest for at least 30 minutes. Just before using, beat the egg whites until stiff and fold them in.

Prepare the flowers by removing the stamens and spiky green sepals. Heat oil about 4cm deep in a wide saucepan. It will be hot enough when a piece of bread dropped in browns quickly. Dip the flowers in the batter and fry in batches until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and serve hot and crisp.

From The Food of Italy by Claudia Roden (Square Peg, £25). Click here to buy it from Guardian Bookshop for £20

Marcella Hazan’s pork loin braised in milk, Bolognese style

If, from the tens of thousands of dishes that constitute the recorded repertoire of Italian regional cooking, one were to choose just a handful that most clearly express the genius of the cuisine, this one would be among them. Apart from a minimal amount of fat required to brown the meat, it has only two components: a loin of pork, and milk. As they slowly cook together, they are transformed. The pork acquires a delicacy of texture and flavour that leads some to mistake it for veal, and the milk disappears to be replaced by clusters of delicious, nut-brown sauce.

The cut of meat specified includes the rib bones to which the pork’s loin is attached. Have the butcher detach the meat in one piece from the ribs and split the ribs into 2 or 3 parts. By having had the loin boned, you can brown it more thoroughly, and by cooking it along with the bones, the roast benefits from the substantial contribution the bones make.

Another cut of pork that is well suited to this dish is the boneless role of muscle at the base of the neck, known as boned and rolled neck or blade. There is a layer of fat in the centre that runs the length of the muscle. It makes this cut very juicy and tasty, but when you carve it later, the slices tend to break apart where the meat joins the fat. If you don’t think this would be a problem you can substitute 1 kilo of it in one piece for the rib roast.

Do not have any fat trimmed away. It will melt in the cooking, basting the meat and keeping it from drying. When the roast is done, you will be able to draw it off from the pot and discard it.

Serves 6
butter 15g
vegetable oil 2 tbsp
pork loin rib roast 1.2kg (see note above)
freshly ground pepper
full-cream milk 575ml or more

Heat the butter and oil over a medium-high heat in a casserole just large enough to contain the pork. When the butter foam subsides, add the meat, fat side down. Brown thoroughly on all sides lowering the heat if the butter starts to turn dark brown.

Add the salt, pepper and 250ml of the milk. Add the milk slowly lest it boil over. Allow the milk to come to a brisk simmer for 20 or 30 seconds, turn the heat down to medium-low and cover the pot with the lid on slightly askew.

Cook at a very lazy simmer for about 1 hour, until the milk has thickened into a light nut-brown sauce. (The exact time it will take depends largely on the heat of your burner and the thickness of your pot.) When the milk reaches this stage, and not before, add another 250ml of the milk, let it simmer for about 10 minutes, then cover the pot putting the lid on tightly. Check and turn the pork from time to time.

After 30 minutes, set the lid slightly askew. Continue to cook at minimum heat and, when you see there is no more liquid milk in the pot, add the remaining milk. Continue cooking until the meat feels tender when prodded with a fork and all the milk has coagulated into small nut-brown clusters. Altogether it will take between 2½ and 3 hours. If, before the meat is fully cooked, you find that the liquid in the pot has evaporated, add another 100ml of milk, repeating the step if it should become necessary.

When the pork has become tender and all the milk in the pot has thickened into dark clusters, transfer the meat to a cutting board. Let it settle for a few minutes, then cut into slices about 1cm thick or slightly less, and arrange them on a warm serving platter.

Tip the pot and spoon off most of the fat – there may be as much as a mugful of it – being careful to leave behind all the coagulated milk clusters. Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of water and boil away the water over a high heat, at the same time using a wooden spoon to scrape loose the cooking residues from the bottom and sides of the pot. Spoon all the pot juices over the pork and serve immediately.

From The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan (Boxtree, £30). Click here to buy it from Guardian Bookshop for £24


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The 20 best Italian recipes: part 3 | Italian food and drink (2024)


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