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Antipasti: mix, match and enjoy!

Now summer is here and the weather’s getting warmer, we have the perfect starter for a lazy lunch or supper in the garden. A generous antipasti platter is a traditional, convivial way to share delicious bits and pieces over a drink and good conversation. Who cares when the main course is coming when you can pick at and nibble on salumi, cheese, olives and other tasty goodies. Or add some country bread and it’s a meal in itself. It’s a lovely, casual yet refined way of eating.

The great thing about an antipasti platter is that you can mix and match to suit your, and your guests’ tastes. Aim to include some stronger tastes and some mild, some salty, some sweeter. At a weekend barbecue we served up some thinly sliced coppa, salame finocchiona and salame Milano with small pieces of gorgonzola dolce drizzled with honey, shards of pecorino Toscano and some walnut caciotta. Some baby onions – or cipolline – in balsamic vinegar provided crunch and acidity and some lovely taggiasche olives added a salty bite. Oh, and a basket of freshly baked focaccia. All these delights, and more, are available from our online shop. Take a look through our salumi, cheese and antipasti departments and see what takes your fancy.

When it comes to serving up, be creative! Large decorated plates, rustic wooden boards, pieces of slate all look fantastic. (Just make sure everything is scrubbed and clean before adding your antipasti items!) Antipasti simply means ‘before the meal’ of course. In our experience it’s often the case that it’s the best part of the meal… or even the meal itself!

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Little balls of loveliness.

Sometimes you come across an Italian food product that has obviously taken considerable effort to produce, and you wonder why someone has gone to all that trouble. Olive all’Ascolana are an example: large green olives from around Ascoli Piceno in le Marche, stuffed with finely minced pork and veal, then breaded and deep fried. A lot of work for something that’s gone in a bite. But then you taste them and understand that the effort was worthwhile, and you’re rather glad that someone has the patience to do it. Continue reading

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From necessity to art form.

Coppa, delicious on an antipasto platter

Italians are very proud of their centuries-old tradition of curing meat, especially pork. The practice especially provided a way of making full use of the meat of the pig, traditionally slaughtered in the autumn, given that the fresh meat had to be eaten within a short time. Preserving the meat by salting and drying it into hams, sausages and other products not only extended the period over which it could be consumed, but created different tastes and textures to be enjoyed. Continue reading

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Feeling hot, hot, hot.

Deep in Italy’s rugged south west – the ‘toe of the boot’ – the Calabrian summers are dry and hot. Very hot. Perfect conditions for growing the region’s best-loved ingredient – chillies. The fierce sun pumps the fruits full of flavour and chilli-heat and then slowly dries the picked chillies to intensify their potency even further. Come late summer, strings of home-grown fiery red peperoncini hang at almost every door and window; they’re traditionally reputed to ward off diseases.

Such is the passion for the peperoncino here that L’Accademia Italiana del Peperoncino (The Italian Chilli Academy) has been established to promote the gastronomical and medical properties of chillies. Each September it organises the annual chilli festival: a feast and street party not for the faint-hearted, and even less for those with sensitive palates. Continue reading

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A bitter sweet affair.

The Italians have a love affair with lemons. They are grown pretty much all over the country, from north to south. Along the northern shores of Lake Garda, the ruined greenhouses, or lemon gardens, are reminders of the 18th century heyday of citrus growing here, to which the town of Limone sul Garda owes its name. In Amalfi lemons grow in the terraced gardens all along the coast, hang for sale in tied bunches from walls, doors and windows, and flavour the drink that finishes almost every meal here. In fact lemons helped to make Amalfi rich – between about 1500 and 1800 the major market for its lemons were northern European navies and ship owners, who bought the fruit by the millions in an attempt to protect their sailors against scurvy. Today it is Sicily, not Amalfi, that is Italy’s most prolific lemon grower, and was probably its first, as it is generally believed that the Arabs imported lemon trees there from India. It wasn’t long before the cultivation of lemons had spread all over southern Italy, where the climate provides the ideal growing conditions. Continue reading

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Well, that’s taught me a lesson.

A group of 20 or so 13-year-olds may not be the most enthusiastic set of cookery pupils. Or at least that’s what I thought. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’d been asked by our local secondary school to show a group of design technology students – in just one lesson – how to make fresh pasta. I decided that mixing and kneading pasta dough for 15 minutes probably wasn’t the thing that would float their boat, so I took along a batch of fresh dough (“here’s one I made earlier” – I’ve always wanted to say that) and focused instead on getting the kids to think about what we could fill the pasta with.

On our bench we had an array of ingredients: ricotta, garlic, fresh sea bass, cherry tomatoes, king prawns, herbs, parmesan, clams, Parma ham…lovely things, things you might not expect a school cookery lesson to be based on. Continue reading

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You really don’t mess with a hungry Sicilian.

"That's four done, only 346 to go..."

 

Oh my. What day is it? We have just recovered – I think – from one of the most busy, challenging, and ultimately rewarding commissions of our chef careers. Picture the scene. 350 Italians gathered, expectant…and, most importantly, hungry. Now that would be daunting enough, but these were not only Italians, but Sicilians. Hungry Sicilians. And what they were waiting for was our food.

The gathering was to celebrate the Festa di San Giuseppe, which originally began in Sicily but is now recognised across most of Italy. And beyond: this particular celebration was in Hoddesdon. We had been invited to prepare and serve a buffet menu for the occasion, in aid of the Breast Cancer unit at the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Harlow. Alongside running our online deli and finding great producers in Italy, this is what we do. Feed people, sometimes on a big scale. Continue reading

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Ooh, now this is nice.

Now and again we come across a product that makes us all just say ‘yep’. No further question or debate, it’s in. Here’s one such. It’s crema di parmigiano reggiano – and it pretty much does what it says on the jar. A creamy paste (a cross between a sauce and a spread really) of excellent quality parmigiano combined with good Italian butter, and not much else. Yes, it’s indulgent. Yes, it’s quite rich. But it tastes fantastic!

We like to spread it on crostini or crackers, or use as a stuffing or simply stir it through pasta or risotto, with some pepper and perhaps some parsley, for a quick and simple supper. A jar of this in the fridge and you’re pretty much sorted for everything from quick snacks to last minute meals or even gourmet dining.

Producer Amerigo is based in Emilia. Their products are the fruit of more than 70 years of family experience, many of them born in the kitchens of their Michelin starred trattoria, Amerigo 1934. Originally this crema di parmigiano reggiano was supplied by them to make parmesan ice cream. Ever tried that? It might sound odd but it’s truly delicious. Why not order a spare jar and have a go at that too?!

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Watch out, they’re stripey!

Opinion is divided at Just so Italian HQ. You see, whilst every product we stock is tried and tasted by us before it gets anywhere near our customers, it’s not always a unanimous decision. Take these striped pasta bows, or farfalle, in fetching shades of the Italian flag. Some of us love ’em and some of us don’t.

“They’re not very authentic”, says Danilo. “But they’re fun”, says Alison. “I’m not sure”, says Alex. “They’re popular”, says Tony.

We’re all right, of course. They’re different, unauthentic, a novelty and actually lots of our customers like them. But here’s the most interesting thing. They are made by an artisan pasta maker in Piemonte, using only natural ingredients: durum wheat semolina and water and, for the colouring, spinach and beetroot. They’re made using traditional methods and dried in the best way – slowly at a low temperature. So for an apparently novelty product, these farfalle are actually very good. And they taste good too. Try them with simple pasta sauces, or even just some olive oil and good cheese.

Meanwhile our debate will rage on (you know what we Italians are like when it comes to discussing food). What do you think? Love’ em or loathe ’em? Email us your stripey opinions to alison@justsoitalian.co.uk.

(That’s Danilo’s not very authentic doodle, by the way.)

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Spreading it about a bit.

The Italians have a knack of turning the simplest of ingredients into the most wonderful things to eat. Probably because for a long time in rural Italy, sparse ingredients were all they had. So spaghetti with cheese and pepper, pizza topped with simply tomatoes and mozzarella have become classics. And bread, sliced and toasted and topped with simple, natural bits and pieces. Bruschetta and crostini, now a popular start to a meal, almost certainly derive from a time when the slices were less dainty (and probably not so fresh), and made a handy and hearty snack for agricultural workers. If they were lucky they may have been topped with a bit of cheese or cured meats, or perhaps simply salt and olive oil, and garlic. (It used to be said that garlic is the peasant’s spice cupboard.) I’m rather partial to garlic, so I guess that puts me in my place! Continue reading

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