I think that my name is on a list somewhere. Some Italian food mafia list.
And make no mistake, they are out to feed me.
Let me tell you that the word full doesn’t remotely cover it.
Then, when I had finished digesting that, they sent their guys around with dough balls and pizza from the new Milano At Home range (eh, don’t mind if I do, grazie mille). Perhaps they’re out to change my spudly ways (after all, with the noble exception of gnocchi, Italians don’t seem to go in much for the whole potatoes thing). Or maybe they wondered if I had opinions to share, which, when it comes to food, I generally do.
Let me start by saying that the dishes by Francesco Mazzei – chef proprietor of L’Anima in London – seemed to me to be about simplicity and quality of ingredients. It was good to see that his choice of lovely Calabrian olive oil and oregano are now being used, not just with his own dishes, but throughout the Milano’s range. The corollary, of course, is that, without good quality ingredients, Francesco’s dishes do not have a whole lot to hide behind.
And that was the one niggle in an otherwise enjoyable meal.
The Insalata Semplice – a classic tomato and mozzarella salad – was, for me, let down by a lack of flavour in some of the tomatoes used. Now, it’s fair to say that we in Ireland are no strangers to poor quality tomatoes – goodness knows, those sold in supermarkets here don’t often taste of anything – but neither should we be too surprised that tomatoes lack flavour when they are not anywhere near being in season here. In fact, I expect that it is difficult, or at least expensive, to source large quantities of really good quality, flavoursome tomatoes here at this time of year.
The real question is, why bother?
Do we really want to eat fresh tomato salad (a) when the season dictates that tomatoes are unlikely to be anywhere near their best and (b) when it’s still freezing outside ? (yes, winter is proving very hard to shake this year)
The word seasonality has been bandied about much of late, but how many of us still expect to be able to order a fresh tomato salad year-round and would be perturbed if we couldn’t?
And before you ask, I will own up to the fact that I am as guilty as anyone of buying, and expecting to be able to buy, fresh tomatoes year-round. And there is (I am sure) a lot of effort involved in devising seasonally sensitive menus, particularly when you are trying to roll them out across a restaurant chain like Milano’s.
It goes to show, I suppose, that we have a long way to go when it comes to this whole eating seasonally and locally lark. I’ll shut up now before someone reminds me gently to just, er, fuhgeddaboudit…
Given the continued low temperatures outside, I am inclined much more towards soup than salad these days, and minestrone is Italian for just the kind of hearty soup I fancy in this weather.
Minestrone is also all about what you have to hand, so adjust to suit your own stash of vegetables. This version has got the the olive oil, mushroom and oregano that featured strongly in the Francesco Mazzei Milano’s menu. It’s also tomatoey, but thanks to good quality tinned tomatoes, which are a better choice at this time of year.
As for the pasta, use whatever dried pasta you have to hand, breaking larger pieces up into whatever size pieces you’d like to find in your soup.
- 1 tblsp olive oil
- 1 tblsp butter
- 200g onion (1 large), finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic
- 100g chestnut mushrooms, thinly sliced
- 125g carrot (2 small carrots), finely diced
- 125g celery (2 large sticks), finely diced
- 1 x 400g tin of tomatoes, chopped
- 50ml red wine (one you’d consider drinking yourself)
- 600ml water or light vegetable or chicken stock
- 150g dried pasta (break large pasta into smaller pieces)
- 1 tsp fine salt or to taste
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- freshly ground black pepper to taste
- shavings of parmesan to serve
- Place a large, heavy saucepan over a medium heat and, when hot, add the olive oil and butter.
- When the butter has melted, add the onion and garlic. Stir and fry over a medium heat for about 5 minutes, or until the onion is translucent.
- Add the mushrooms and cook for about another 5 minutes or until just starting to release some liquid.
- Now add the carrot and celery and stir and fry for another 7-8 minutes.
- Add the chopped tinned tomatoes, wine, water or stock, oregano, salt and black pepper. Stir to mix, bring to the boil, then cover, lower the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes or until the carrots start to become tender.
- Stir in the dried pasta and simmer until al dente – depending on the pasta, this should take somewhere around 7-10 minutes. The soup should be thick and chunky, though you can thin it with additional boiling water if you like.
- Ladle into bowls and scatter with some shavings of parmesan.
- Have a look in your fridge or vegetable basket and include a bit of whatever looks good – minestrone’s a bit like that. You can also throw in some cannellini or other beans if that takes your fancy.
- Makes about 4 decent helpings