Playing With Porridge Oats

Since my last blog post just short of three weeks ago, I’ve barely been home. I’ve been to Florence, London, Milan and today I’m packing my bag again for a whirlwind weekend to Piedmont. I don’t mean to show-off; I know I’m lucky to travel so much but when you’re in a place for a very short amount of time, you don’t get to see much and it becomes exhausting. (Especially when you’re hoping and praying that the snow doesn’t cause too many delays…)

Yesterday, finally, I’d caught up with most of my work and my sleep and so I spent a couple of hours in the kitchen, playing around.

First on my to-do list was setting aside some lemons to eat during the summer months. I made preserved lemons this time last year too, but tragically I found out the hard way that there’s too much humidity in the walls of this old house (and not to mention, there aren’t any foundations) to support any kind of shelf. My glass jar full of salt and lemons ended up shattering on the floor.

Last week, I picked up a new jar in the sales and am determined to learn from last year’s lesson. I’m going to keep these precious preserved lemons at the back of my kitchen cupboard.

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Lemons, topped, almost quartered and sprinkled with sea salt and a little sugar.

Because we’re driving to Piedmont tomorrow and because I had a ton of porridge oats that I wanted to use up, I decided to make some food to take on the road with us. We English have a traditional tea-time snack called flapjack. It was one of my favourite treats from the bakery when I was a kid. There are two main types of flapjack: thick and often dry or thin, crispy and sticky. I always preferred the latter. 

Loosely speaking, a flapjack is made of oats, butter and golden syrup… sometimes currants. (There’s a good recipe here from BBC Good Food or here on Delia Online.) For my taste now, they’re overly sweet so I needed to adapt my childhood memories into something more palatable.

I made two versions because I wanted to test two different techniques: one heated with butter (but no golden syrup because it’s the equivalent of liquid gold here in Italy) and the other with banana. Whatever you want to call them – flapjacks, oat bars, cereal bars, granola bars, traybakes – they’re essentially the same thing and they’re super simple to make.

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Oats, candied ginger, dark chocolate and orange peel.

For the first version, I put a handful of sultanas in a small saucepan along with squeeze of orange juice (I wanted to rehydrate them somewhat to avoid them becoming shrivelled and burnt.) I added a thumbnail of fresh orange and lemon peel, a spoonful of brown sugar and a generous stick of butter. I very gently simmered this mixture until everything had melted.

Then, because I will always try and economise on the washing-up, I stirred 130 grams of porridge oats into this liquid mixture and sprinkled a very light dusting of cinnamon.

As a result of the heat and the stirring, the oats puffed up really nicely before they got spooned into a lined baking dish (21cm diameter) and then flattened down.

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Puffy oats with sultanas and citrus peel, easily filling the dish.

I had read on The Kitchn (here) that banana alone was enough to provide sweetness and bind the notoriously rebellious porridge oats together.

So, I mashed up a banana and in a mixing bowl, stirred in 130 grams of porridge oats and a sprinkling of candied ginger, dark chocolate and orange peel.

After I was satisfied that the banana was evenly spread throughout, I added the smallest drop of olive oil (just for luck!) and spooned this mixture into an identical baking dish.

Both were baked in the oven at 180°C (fan oven) for 16 minutes.


The result? The puffed up oats were the more aesthetically pleasing and it tastes good… but it crumbles too easily. Clearly a little golden syrup is needed.

The addition of a banana was a really good call. It really does bind the oats together well… despite it also lending a slightly greeny-brown colour…. you probably can’t detect that in the photo but you can see it in real life.

That said, I also like the difference in textures and flavours with the ginger and chocolate. It feels more sophisticated, if that makes sense?

What would I do if making this again? I’d repeat the flavours in the ginger and chocolate version but would find a way of heating up the oats (maybe in a little butter?) before adding the banana as my binding agent.

 

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Because the oats hadn’t been pre-cooked, it remained far more compact than in the other version.

“Un Tempo Cruo” – late January in the Veneto

Yesterday was a beautiful, bright sunny day that had me thinking that spring might be just around the corner. It was one of those days when being outside in the sunshine was a million times better than being inside, stuck in front of a computer.

I went down to the local market and picked up a few fresh ingredients for the next couple of days. The produce is still decidedly winterly – artichokes, various green leaves, particularly the various delineations of cabbage and cauliflower, and a couple of lonely fennel bulbs. In terms of the fruit selection: you have a vast choice between clementines or oranges, oranges or clementines…

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Aubergines straight from Sardinia at the Mercato Orientale, in Genova.

Feeling that spring in my step, I made a simple, raw salad to go with lunch. With minimal effort required, straight into the serving bowl, I mixed fennel, tips of puntarelle, slices of clementine and pomegranate seeds (from the freezer.) I used just extra virgin olive oil and salt as the seasoning but squeezed some clementine juice over the top to give some acidity and sweetness. I more commonly use lemon juice but using clementines is something I’m going to do more often. Not only does this salad look bright and colourful, but it tastes great too.

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Fennel, puntarelle, clementine and pomegranate salad.

Unfortunately, today is back to being grey and unforgivingly cold. “Un tempo cruo ” in the local dialect. Personally, I’d never heard the weather being described as “raw” / crudo before but I understand the meaning. It’s a cold that gets into your bones.

In the kitchen today, I’m making a rustic vegetable soup, loosely adapted from the first of these recipes from Anna Jones in the Guardian. I started with the soffritto, only to realise that I’d forgotten to buy carrots at the market. I knew that, actually, but last night I’d dreamt that, in order to make this soffritto, I successfully found a carrot lurking at the back of the fridge. It turns out that there was actually no carrot and I’m now ever so slightly concerned about the lucidity of my dreams. I can’t be the only person who spends their valuable shut-eye imagining what they’re going to cook later in the day… am I…?

Anyway, once my half-hearted soffritto was ready, I added a potato (peeled and cubed) and some similarly sized pieces of the rind of aged Monte Veronese cheese (the equivalent of parmesan in my area.) Following more or less the method outlined in the recipe, I have added vegetable stock, tinned datterini tomatoes, borlotti beans, tips of the fennel that I didn’t use yesterday in the salad and some more of those puntarelle leafy greens, again. I’ll leave it aside for a little while and when I’m ready this evening, I’ll pop down to the bakery to pick up some bread which’ll be used for dunking. The dog is always happy to accompany me for a walk into the village.


My next challenge is to figure out what to take to a lunch on Sunday. I’ve been told to bring a dessert (does that sound familiar? no? click here.) As it happens I have a ton of milk to use up so I thought about a riz au lait. The problem is that I can’t find the trusty recipe that I used many years ago so I’m having to wing it. I’ve checked a couple of recipes online but I’m going to spend this afternoon giving them a test run. To keep the saucepan covered or not. That is the question…

New Year’s Eve in Italy… and the importance of lentils!

Happy New Year’s Eve! Or “la notte di San Silvestro” in Italian.

Whether it’s out partying or staying in wrapped up in a blanket on the sofa, I hope you’re spending the last few hours of 2017 exactly as you want to spend them. I’m personally not much of a fan of New Year’s Eve. There seems to be so much hype about what really is just another day. Many moons ago, I would choose to take a shift working in a bar or restaurant on NYE. That way, I was at least in a festive ambiance but I wasn’t spending stupid amounts of money on a set meal and a bottle of over-priced Champagne.

More recently, I’ve preferred hosting friends for a dinner and drinks party and that’s exactly what we did this year – just a small dinner party for some local friends. To lighten the load, it was agreed that they would bring the appetisers, cheese course and the dessert, and that I’d cook the main course.

The traditional main course over the winter festivities in Italy is a type of sausage called cotechino. It’s a large pork sausage, originally hailing from Modena but even my local butchers make a pretty good version.

I’m not sure why, but I always feel a little uneasy about cooking classic Italian foods for Italians. I suppose I fear that whatever I serve couldn’t possibly live up to whatever their mamma or nonna used to make.

As a result, I resort to typical English or French dishes, with which I’m fairly confident there won’t already be ridiculously high expectations. For tonight, I’ve decided to cook Beef Wellington. If you’re not familiar with this antiquated-but-undeservedly-so English speciality, it’s essentially about a kilo of beef sirloin, wrapped in finely chopped mushrooms, wrapped again speck (I chose speck ham for the smokey flavour over the more traditional prosciutto crudo) and all of that wrapped in puff pastry! I’m going to be serving it with roast potatoes (requested by the boys) and two cold side salads – red cabbage and orange (inspired by BBC Good Food) and kisir (a Turkish salad mainly of bulghur wheat and tomatoes) – and a warm side: lentils!

When I was running through my proposed menu with the boy, “yes, but you must also cook lentils,” was his advice. Lentils are a bearer of good luck and prosperity, apparently.

 

It would appear that in Ancient Rome, there was a tradition to give a leather bag filled with lentils as a gift. You would attach this bag to your belt and apparently (but I mean this is rather a stretch of the imagination!) the lentils would transform into coins!

So there you have it, a bowl of lentils is going to be on my table this evening…. just in case! Happy New Year, one and all!

Waiting for Advent

The final days of November always feel strange to me. It’s this weird time of year when you’re in limbo. My American friends have already made me hungry for turkey but yet it’s still too early to really start the Christmas countdown: mince pies, festive music and twinkling lights.

I don’t recognise the Thanksgiving holiday but I may have indulged in a little Black Friday shopping anyway (*slinks away guiltily…*) I love London in the run up to Christmas; it’s my favourite time of year to see the city. The lights in the commercial heart (Oxford Street, New Bond Street, Regent Street) are far better than anything on the Champs-Elysees and Avenue Montaigne.

Here in Italy, I’m out in the countryside so Christmas lights are few and far between. That said, the 8th December is a bank holiday (la Festa della Madonna, apparently) and it’s on that precise date when they put up and decorate the Christmas trees.

When I was told about this tradition, I looked at the boy excitedly, eyes wide open like a kid on Christmas morning. “Oh no! You don’t have a tree amongst all that stuff, do you?” he asks worriedly….

— Short aside: Most of my stuff is still in boxes. A whole room at the back of our house has been given over to the contents of the removal truck from Paris! :/ As we’ll be moving into the new house in a few months and there’s simply not space nor need in his place for me to unpack, it was decided that they would be put out of the way for the time being. The boy has clearly but wisely decided to consider that area potentially contaminated with nuclear something or other and not to go anywhere near it! It’s for that reason that he is still blissfully unaware of the presence of two large Christmas boxes! —

I’m feeling particularly festive this year; full of good cheer and all that malarkey. It’s rather out of character.

We’re going to a panettone party tonight. Yes, it appears that’s a thing. It’s held in a local restaurant and we’ll testing all the best artisanal panettoni from the region.

All this premature festivity is getting to me. The problem, though, is that December is looking decidedly busy; I’m in France for five days and then back in the UK on the 18th until at least after the holidays. If I put up the tree on the 8th, it will essentially be uniquely for the dog’s benefit. I’m sure she will enjoy tearing it to pieces in my absence! I’m wondering if it would be acceptable to put up the tree a few days before…. I wonder…