la dolce vita, or the good life, can be experienced through some of Italy’s finest ingredients: pasta, ricotta, and all lemons. And while you’re somewhere on the Amalfi Coast with a plate of pasta among life’s great pleasures, you can experience something similar in the comfort of your own kitchen, with ingredients from the Italian pantry. Today’s dishes are inspired by my time spent in Italy over the years, voraciously licking plates clean many times as a child, and even now, as an adult.
Grilled courgettes with garlic ricotta, raisins agrodolce and crispy capers (photo above)
“Agro” means sour in Italian and “dolce” means sweet. Agrodolce, as follows, is a sweet and sour Italian seasoning. It’s really easy and quick to make, and keeps well in the fridge, so make extra if you like and use as a spread in meaty sandwiches or to sprinkle on grilled meats and roasted vegetables.
Preparation 20 minutes
Cook 35 minutes
Serves 4-6 as a side
120 ml apple cider or red wine vinegar
50 g golden raisins
60 ml honey
Sea salt and black pepper
½ tsp chili flakes
60 ml olive oil
40 g capersdrained and patted dry
250 g ricotta
1 garlic clovepeeled and crushed
1 lemon, peel grated, to get 1 teaspoon, and squeezed, to get 2 teaspoons
800 g small to medium zucchinitrimmed and cut diagonally into cm thick slices
5g mint leaves (about 2½ tablespoons), coarsely chopped
5g basil leaves (about 2 tbsp), coarsely chopped
Make the agrodolce first. Place the vinegar, raisins, honey and half a teaspoon of salt in a small saucepan over medium heat and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, until syrupy. Remove from heat, stir in chili flakes and let cool.
Place the oil in a small skillet over medium heat and, once hot, add a third of the capers and cook for two to three minutes, until they burst open like flowers and become crispy. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper, then repeat with the remaining capers in two batches. Remove the pan from the heat and let the oil cool.
Place the ricotta, garlic, lemon zest and juice, and a quarter teaspoon salt in a small bowl, mix well, cover and set aside.
Place a grill pan on high heat. While it heats up, place the courgettes in a large bowl, spoon in a tablespoon of the reserved cooled caper oil, half a teaspoon of salt and a good pinch of pepper and mix well. Divide the courgettes into five or six portions and grill the courgettes for two to three minutes on each side, until nicely streaked with crusts, then place in a large bowl and let cool.
Spoon the ricotta onto a large platter to make a bed for the courgettes. Mix the courgettes with the chopped mint and basil and divide them over the ricotta. Spoon over the reserved caper oil and the raisin agrodolce, sprinkle over the fried capers and serve at room temperature.
Crab, saffron and tomato linguine
To make the pasta from scratch, you’ll need a pasta machine, and if you don’t have one, just ask around: you’re sure to find someone willing to lend you theirs, not least so it’s actually put to use. ! If you want to get ahead, make the pasta a day ahead and refrigerate it in an airtight container, making sure to flour it well before storing. You can also buy some linguine and put the saffron in the sauce instead. You can also swap the crab for other fish or shellfish of your choice.
Preparation 25 minutes
Cook 75 minutes
Rest 1 hourr
⅛ tsp saffron threads
200 g ’00’ flourplus extra for dusting
2 large eggsbeaten
60 ml olive oil
6 cloves of garlicpeeled and thinly sliced
Fine sea salt and black pepper
1 red pepper (10 g), halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
2 stalks celery (75g), cut diagonally into cm thick slices
100 ml dry white wine
50 g brown crab meat
1 large plum tomato (140 g), coarsely grated and discarded with skin
100 g white crab meat
10 g (about 2¾ tablespoons) parsley leavescoarsely chopped
5g (about 1½ tablespoons) tarragon leavescoarsely chopped
200 grams cherry tomatoeshalved
2 tbsp lemon juice
For the paste, put the saffron in a small bowl or cup, add a teaspoon of just boiled water and let it steep for 10 minutes.
Place the flour in a large bowl and make a well in the center. Mix the beaten eggs, saffron and soaking water with your hands to form a dough. Place the dough on a clean work surface and knead for 10 minutes, until smooth, elastic and springy. Wrap the dough tightly and let it rest for an hour (or overnight, if you want to go ahead).
Meanwhile, start with the sauce. Place the oil in a small saucepan over medium heat and, once hot, sauté the garlic for a minute, stirring, until golden brown. Pour the mixture into a small strainer over a small bowl and allow both the fried garlic and flavored oil to cool.
Set up a pasta machine and lightly flour both the machine and a clean work surface. Divide the dough in half and roll out both pieces with a floured rolling pin into a 1cm thick rectangle as wide as the machine. Working with one piece of dough at a time, roll the pasta through the machine twice on each level, starting with the widest setting and dusting with flour as you go. Stop at the penultimate setting, when the paste is about 1 mm thick. Repeat with the second piece of dough.
Cut each sheet of pasta in half widthwise so that you now have four pieces, set aside on a work surface and dust liberally with flour. With the short side of a sheet facing you, roll each piece of dough loosely, then cut lengthwise into ½ inch wide strips with a sharp knife. Repeat with the remaining sheets, then unravel all the strips of noodles and let them rest in another generous amount of flour.
Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Add all the pasta, cook for three minutes, until al dente, then drain, reserving 50 ml of the pasta cooking water.
Meanwhile, heat a tablespoon of the reserved garlic oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the chiles and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, for four minutes, until soft and lightly browned. Stir in wine, brown crab meat and shredded tomato and cook for a few minutes until thickened. Pour in the reserved pasta water, stir in the drained pasta, white crab meat, herbs, cherry tomatoes, 1/4 teaspoon fine salt and a generous pinch of pepper and toss for about a minute, until the sauce emulsifies.
Remove from heat, stir in the lemon juice and remaining garlic oil, divide between four shallow bowls, sprinkle over the sauteed garlic and serve.
Torta della nonna
There are as many versions of this Tuscan custard pie as there are nonnas who make them. Here’s my take: a celebration of two of its key ingredients, lemons and pine nuts, that don’t need to be blind baked.
Preparation 25 minutes
Cook 3 hours 45 minutes
Cool and chill 2 o’clock
for the custard
150 ml whipped cream
550 ml whole milk
1 lemon – peel finely grated, to get 1½ tsp, then squeezed
2 eggs plus 2 egg yolks (save the whites for another use)
110 g caster sugar
30 g ’00’ flour
30 g cornflour
3 tbsp lemon curd (homemade or store bought)
For the pastry
300 g ’00’ flourplus extra for dusting
1 tsp baking powder
120 g caster sugar
150 g ice-cold unsalted buttercut into 1cm cubes, plus a little extra for greasing the tart pan
1 egg plus 1 egg yolk
30 g pine nutsroasted and coarsely chopped
1 tbsp thyme leavescoarsely chopped
1 lemon – peel finely grated, to get 1½ teaspoons, then cut into 12 wedges
For the honey syrup
30 g liquid honey
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp thyme leavesminced meat
30 g pine nutsroasted and coarsely chopped
1 tbsp icing sugarto dust
To make the custard, place the cream, milk and lemon zest in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, beat the eggs, egg yolks and sugar vigorously for about two minutes until pale. Add the flour and cornflour and beat for a few more minutes until the mixture is fluffy. When the cream mixture begins to steam, slowly pour into the egg bowl, beating quickly and constantly, then return to the pan. Place the pan over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly, for three or four minutes, until the custard begins to steam and thicken – be careful not to stir it. Pour the custard into a deep plate, let it cool and put it in the fridge to set.
For the dough, pulse the first four ingredients in a food processor until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add the remaining five ingredients, bar the lemon wedges, pulse three or four times until blended, then dump onto a clean work surface and knead with your hands into a smooth, uniform dough. Cut off a third of the dough, wrap both pieces and let them rest for at least an hour.
Preheat the oven to 210C (190C Fan)/410F/Gas 6½. Lightly grease a 24 cm diameter cake tin with a removable bottom, lightly dust the inside with flour and place on a baking tray. Remove the custard from the fridge, add the lemon curd and puree until smooth with a stick or a regular blender.
Remove the larger piece of dough from the refrigerator. Dust a work surface with flour and roll out the dough into a rough circle with a diameter of 28 cm. Carefully lift the dough with a flat baking sheet or dough scraper, drape over the pie pan and press gently against the edges. This dough is delicate but forgiving, so plug any gaps with dough scraps. Pour the custard mixture into the tart pan and smooth the top.
Roll out the second piece of dough into a circle with a diameter of 25 cm and carefully prick all over with a fork. Place this on top of the tart pan, covering the edges, then gently roll the rolling pin over the edges of the tart pan to seal the tart pan. Trim off any overhang.
Bake for 40-45 minutes, until the top is golden brown, then remove and place on a wire rack to cool slightly before removing from the mold.
Meanwhile, make the syrup. Place the honey in a small saucepan over medium heat and cook vigorously for three to five minutes, until deep golden brown. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice and thyme and allow to cool. When the cake is out of the mold, spread the syrup over the top, sprinkle over the pine nuts and let the cake cool completely.
When cool, dust the cake with icing sugar and serve with the lemon wedges.