In our apartment, we have an excellent if compact kitchen. We tend to prepare Italian food because with a few exceptions we can only buy Italian ingredients. However, I am not sure I will ever completely master cooking or eating like an Italian. The Italian day starts with calazione around 7.30. This is usually just coffee and maybe a sweet, never savoury, pastry at the weekends. We occasionally have a pastry at the weekends, otherwise we eat muesli as usual. Our apartment has two stovetop pots like mine at home so I am very happy with my morning coffee.
Lunch is quite a different matter. As I mentioned in an earlier post, everything stops for lunch, which is called pranzo. Most Italians go home for pranzo. It is a very important meal to be shared with family. I am assured that the standard pranzo at home consists of primo, which is the pasta course, followed by secondo, which is the meat course, and contorno, which is the vegetable course. They finish up with cheese and fruit and lastly coffee. People are horrified when I tell them I have a sandwich or last night’s leftovers reheated. And I sometimes eat alone! I think they feel they have misunderstood.
Dinner is called cena and can be a little smaller. There will be a secondo and contorno. The secondo could be lighter than pranzo, maybe fish or chicken. If soup or risotto was served at pranzo, instead of pasta, then pasta will be served at cena, otherwise they may skip primo. Pasta is the most important course. The cena will end with fruit. My table does not extend to this. We tend to have either a primo or a contorno. I have however discovered the joys of Italian sausage. Note I say sausage, not sausages. We buy a length of sausage and cut it into the required portions at home. Shopping at the macelleria is great. I notice that the other shoppers are very specific in their requirements. They ask for precisely what they want and the macellaio will make it so. After a lengthy dialogue, when you are quite satisfied, the paper wrapped package is handed over with a scontrino (receipt), which you then take to the cashier by the door.
I have discovered delicious things to cook with Italian sausage. While the weather was still warm I served sausage with a radicchio salad. There are so many kinds of radicchio available in the markets here, most of which are unfamiliar to me. All of them are delicious. If you don’t like it because of the bitterness, try cooking it, which will render it sweet and delicious. I love it both raw and cooked. Like most Italian meals, there are few ingredients. You’ll need olive oil of course plus sausage, radicchio, lemon and basil. Cut your length of sausage into portions. Cut the radicchio lengthwise through the stem end and toss to coat with olive oil and a pinch of salt. Put the radicchio halves cut-side down in the pan with the sausages and cover. Cook for 2-3 minutes until the outer radicchio leaves are a dark brown, then set aside and finish cooking the sausages. Thinly slice the radicchio leaves. The outside leaves will be charred and the insides will be crisp and raw. Combine them in a bowl with olive oil and lemon juice and salt to taste. Spread them on the plate, top with sausage and garnish with basil leaves. Perfect for a warm summer evening. You could do this on a barbecue. Serve with some freshly baked Italian bread to mop up the juices.
My next discovery was sausage with grapes. This one has been a crowd pleaser. For this, you need olive oil, sausage, a red onion, grapes, chilli flakes and white wine. The sausage I have been using is pure pork with nothing else. You could use pork and fennel but not a sausage that is over-flavoured. Cut the sausage into lengths, heat a little olive oil in a large frying pan and brown on all sides. Pour over 150 ml white wine and cook about 15 minutes until the sausages are cooked. You should have a thick glossy sauce so if the pan dries out add more wine. Remove the sausages and set aside. Then pour the sauce into a jug and set that aside too. Add a little more oil to the pan and saute finely sliced red onion with a pinch of chilli flakes until the onion is soft and slightly golden. I like to cook mine until they are quite reduced and sweet. Add about 400g seedless grapes halved with a pinch of salt. I use both red and green. Cook five minutes or so until the grapes soften and become slightly wrinkled. Add the sausage back to the pan with some of the sauce and cook a couple more minutes. Pour the remainder of the warmed sauce over the sausage when serving.
I read about a northern Italian dish where polenta is spread along a wooden board or special cloth in the centre of the table then topped with tomato sausage ragu. The diners sit along each side of the table and eat the portion in front of them. It’s called polenta spianatòra. My table isn’t quite up to this, so I served mine on plates. Cook the polenta according to the instructions on the packet. I always use coarse polenta, so it takes about 40 minutes. I do 1/4 cup of polenta per person and one cup of water or stock for each 1/4 cup polenta. Bring the water or stock to the boil. Add the polenta very slowly, stirring all the time. When it returns to the boil turn as low as you can and cook until there is no trace of graininess. Stir frequently. At the end, add Parmesan cheese and season to taste. In a Dutch oven, heat a little olive oil and saute finely chopped onion until soft and golden. Season to taste. Add sausage portions, maybe 2 cm lengths. Brown on all sides and add a bay leaf, a couple of cloves of crushed garlic and a pinch of chilli flakes. Add a cup of wine and cook until reduced by half. Add a tin of tomatoes and simmer until you have a thick sauce. Check the seasoning. In another pan, saute 250 g finely sliced mushrooms in a little olive oil until they are soft and lightly browned. Leave them out if you don’t want to dirty another pan. Spread the polenta on a plate. Serve the sausage ragu over the polenta and top with mushrooms. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and pecorino or Parmesan. You won’t regret it. And you can reheat the left over polenta and serve with mushrooms and caramelised onions.