If we look at the world’s most popular cuisines, Italian has to be at or near the top. The secret of its runaway success is not just the taste. Japanese, Indian, Chinese and Thai are also hugely popular world cuisines, but they are more limited by the regionality of certain key ingredients. Italian cuisine is a peasant food- it makes the most of simple, easy to find ingredients in most countries and elevates them to a whole new taste level. Pizza is a classic example of this. I know for a fact that if I travel to the foothills of the Atlas mountains in Morocco, to a town in Chengdu province in China, to a café in Kabul, Afghanistan, or a small town in Burkina Faso, Ecuador, Somalia or Outer Mongolia, I will find a restaurant serving pizza, whether or not there are any Italians or Italian-trained chefs in the vicinity. In Turkey and all across the Middle East, the transition from the local flatbread baked with various toppings to pizza is a no-brainer. As an aside, the best pizza I have ever had in my life was in Vietnam, at a restaurant, now with many branches, called Pizza 4Ps. The thinnest, lightest, base, the most delicious toppings, some very unusual. The restaurant was founded by a Japanese man who connected with a European cheese maker in the highlands of Vietnam to make their own fresh mozzarella and burrata (a kind of fresh mozzarella filled with cream). To die for!
Italian cuisine at its most basic is also very simple. At its core, wheat flour, olive oil, onions, garlic, tomatoes, peppers, cheese will make pizza, crostini, a basic sauce, pasta… then add whatever you like. When I first went to Vietnam in the 90’s, all the backpacker cafes were trying desperately hard to make pizza. In those days, olive oil was rare and expensive, and there was hardly any cheese. The attempts were sometimes comical, but everyone got the core concept: bread plus cheese plus vegetables. The best efforts were basically whatever cheese they could find (Laughing Cow, anyone?) on a French- style baguette with onions, peppers and tomatoes, grilled. Spaghetti Bolognese is another global classic- most cultures have some form of pasta, whether made from wheat, rice, lentils or whatever. Minced meat- beef, pork, turkey, goat, or meat substitutes such as quorn, lentils, textured soy protein. Then a sauce of tomatoes, onions, garlic, any vegetables to hand- carrots, corn, leeks, peppers, I’ve had them all. This is not to say that all those versions are exactly faithful to the classic Italian version, but the point is, many Italian dishes are replicable in a wide variety of locations and situations, and lend themselves most gratifyingly to being tweaked according to local taste or what is available.
Beyond Spag Bol
Now that outstanding pizza and pasta can be found almost everywhere in the world, and that Italian and Italian-trained chefs are saturating the world’s tourist hotspots (on a visit last year to the Spanish island of Ibiza, I could hardly find a restaurant in the main town NOT run by Italians!) and beyond, let’s dig a little deeper into the Italian culinary mystique. This month has seen the publication of a new Italian recipe book, enthusiastically hyped by a number of magazines plus Jamie Oliver’s Cookbook Club, which I follow on Facebook. It’s called “The Italian Pantry” by Theo Randall, a British chef who honed his skills at the famous River Café, and is now chef at the Intercontinental on Park Lane in London. I intended to buy the book on Kindle, but Amazon didn’t like that I had just changed countries, and locked me out of my account, so I did a Google search instead and hey presto! Lots and lots of free Theo Randall recipes! I have given you links to go and try for yourself, or even buy his book, but every home cook who has tried the recipes has raved about them. The one that seemed to get maximum swooning was Meatballs in Tomato Sauce with Burrata and Crostini. So, intrigued, I tried my hand.
Let me just state at the outset that I am not a cook who regularly uses meat. Moving to South Africa has forced me to reconsider this when cooking for other people, but if you had asked me a year ago to cook meatballs, I would have declined. What changed things for me was the combination of the rich sauce and burrata in this recipe. It worked really well, but there are a few points I think it worth noting:
1. Theo claims that his recipe serves 4 people. When I looked at the quantities, I was astonished to see that he uses 800g of meat for 4 people. I would use no more than 125g per person, given that the meatballs are enhanced with egg and breadcrumbs and in a rich sauce with added cheese. 200g of meat per person seems excessive to me. I halved the recipe, but it was still enough for 2 meals for 2 people.
2, I found that, having halved the recipe, my dish needed a bit more sauce, so I added more chopped tomatoes. (The recipe calls for passata, which is basically sieved tomatoes, but I could only find chopped tomatoes, which is the same but chunkier). I suggest you keep a spare tin handy in case your dish seems to lack sufficient sauce.
3. I didn’t have an oven-ready pan the right size. I had to use my largest cast iron saucepan, which wasn’t quite big enough, so the meatballs were rather crowded. If you have a large, shallow 36cm pan without a handle that you can put in the oven, that is perfect. Otherwise, fry the meatballs in a large frying pan, make the sauce, then transfer to your largest casserole dish for the oven.
4. Despite adding the same amount of herbs and seasonings that Theo recommended for 4 people, I found my dish for 2 a little bland. So, I would increase the amounts according to your own taste. I also used Italian herbs (a mixture) rather than plain thyme. If you can get fresh herbs, a mix of thyme and oregano would be lovely.
5. I couldn’t find burrata so I got Bocconcini- mozzarella balls that I cut in 2 and dotted over the finished dish. No complaints! You could also just buy a fresh mozzarella and cut it up.
Having said all that, the finished dish was delicious and earned a lot of compliments. I didn’t have time to refrigerate the meatballs before cooking, but they cooked just fine and stayed nicely glued together. The first time, we had the recipe as in the book, with crostini and greens. For the leftovers, I spiced up the sauce a lot more (chilli, herbs, smoked salt and black pepper), added more chopped tomatoes, some tomato paste and a dash of red wine, reheated and cooked it for a while with the meatballs to let the flavours infuse, and served it over spaghetti (half spaghetti, half courgettini- spiralised courgette/baby marrow). We ran out of mozzarella but grated Grana Padana over the top with some fresh basil leaves. I think it was actually better second time around.
I think this would make a perfect party dish if you have a big tray or oven dish for a large quantity of meatballs, and serve them with the sauce, burrata, crostini and maybe a handful of wild rocket instead of the greens.
You can find this recipe (below) and other Theo Randall recipes on BBC Food
INGREDIENTS Serves 4
For the meatballs
- 400g/14oz pork mince
- 400g/14oz beef mince
- 2 tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves (Italian parsley)
- 1 garlic clove, crushed to a paste with a little sea salt
- 3 tbsp full-fat milk
- 100g/3½oz dried breadcrumbs
- 75g/2½oz parmesan, finely grated (or Grana Padano or Pecorino)
- 3 free-range eggs
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, for greasing, frying and drizzling
For the tomato sauce
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 garlic clove, finely sliced
- 1 tsp chopped fresh thyme leaves
- 1 red chilli, seeds removed, finely chopped
- 600g/1lb 5oz tomato passata (or chopped tomatoes)
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the braised greens
- 100g/3½oz wild rocket*
- 250g/9oz kale*
- 500g/1lb 2oz spinach
- 1 garlic clove, finely sliced
- ½ tsp fennel seeds, crushed
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
* If you can’t get kale and rocket, you can use all spinach
For the burrata and crostini
- extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling
- 1 ciabatta or sourdough loaf, cut into thin slices
- 1 garlic clove, peeled and left whole, to rub
- 150g/5½oz burrata
- For the meatballs, put all the ingredients for the meatballs (except the oil) into a large bowl and combine to form a firm, evenly distributed mixture.
- Cover your hands in olive oil, take a generous tablespoon of the mixture and roll it between your palms to form a meatball the size of a golf ball. Repeat until you have used all the mixture – you should have 16 meatballs. Place them on a tray, wash your hands and then place the tray in the fridge to firm up for 30 minutes.
- Place a large, non-stick, ovenproof frying pan over a high heat and add a tablespoon or so of olive oil. When the oil is hot, begin browning the meatballs (in batches if necessary), ensuring that you don’t cook them completely – a little colour on the outside is perfect. Once they are all browned off, remove them from the pan and leave them to one side while you make the tomato sauce.
- Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200C/180C Fan/Gas 6.
- To make the tomato sauce, heat the olive oil in an ovenproof pan and set it back over a medium heat. When hot, add the garlic, thyme, and chilli. Simmer for 1 minute, then add the tomato passata. Cook gently for 15 minutes, or until the volume of the sauce has reduced by half.
- Season the sauce with salt and freshly ground black pepper and take the pan off the heat.
- Place the meatballs in the pan on top of the sauce, evenly spaced, then transfer the pan to the oven and bake for 20 minutes, or until the meatballs are cooked through. Leave to one side for 5 minutes to cool slightly (leave the oven on).
- For the braised greens, in a pan of boiling salted water, blanch the kale for 4 minutes, then using a slotted spoon, remove the kale and place the cooked kale into a large colander. Now add the spinach to the water and blanch the spinach for 1 minute. Take it out with a slotted spoon and place on top of the kale, then finally blanch the rocket for 2 minutes, take out with a slotted spoon and add to the spinach and kale in the colander.
- Discard the blanching water and wipe the pan clean and place back on the stove on a medium heat.
- Squeeze out the excess water from the greens, then roughly chop on a chopping board. Add the extra virgin olive oil to the hot saucepan, then add the sliced garlic and crushed fennel seeds. Cook gently for 1 minute, then add the chopped blanched greens, cook for 2 minutes and season with sea salt and black pepper. Set aside.
- For the burrata and crostini, drizzle a little oil over the ciabatta slices and sprinkle them with some sea salt. Place on a baking tray and bake in the hot oven for 4 minutes, or until crisp, then rub them all over with the garlic clove.
- Meanwhile, finely chop the burrata, then use a spoon to drop dollops all over the baked meatballs.
- Give everything a sprinkle of sea salt and a good grinding of black pepper, then serve in the middle of the table alongside the crostini and let everyone help themselves. Serve with the braised greens.
Usually in this column I give you three recipes, but this has been a long one, and if you are really interested in exploring further, it is worth checking out Theo’s recipes which are currently freely available on many sites. The BBC Food site given above is a rich source of recipes, and a Google search for Theo Randall recipes will net you hours of enjoyment. “The Italian Pantry” is also available in hardback or on Amazon Kindle.
I’m a big fan of Jamie Oliver’s Cookbook Club– he introduces a new cookbook every month and gives two or three recipes for people to try. The club members then make the dishes at home and post their results online with photographs. There is a competition for the best efforts and a book prize. This is one of the fastest ways to explore new cuisines and get tips from home cooks on how the recipes work and might be adapted for their particular situation.
But going back to Italian food, let me leave you with one of my favourite, very simple, mouth-wateringly delicious pasta recipes, courtesy of Gennaro Contaldo: