Recipes

Learning from the Italians//Baked Cod+Capers

There’s perhaps no greater feeling than a hunger that is soon to be sated.

I’d built up quite the appetite, sipping down cool bottles of Coke in the sun, deliberating my next move.

Luckily, I was in the city of Livorno, a bustling port full of fish markets and restaurants – and I had the rest of the day to decide what to do with the rest of my life. Whilst I’d been staying with Joseph and Maria I’d not really been considering my future. I’d become infatuated, instead, with the intricacies of Italian life, the slow burn nature of their day-to-day existences and the sheer ease with which people seemed to drift from one day to the next.

Although Joseph and Maria had adopted a few of the local habits from their neighbours (late lunches and a love for al fresco dining) they had spent their retirement finding a way to adopt their British sensibilities to their new surroundings. Breakfast mostly consisted of toast with Marmite, Sunday dinner was always a hunk of beef with potatoes (regardless of the temperature) and Saturday evenings were often spent scouring the TV for something resembling Strictly Come Dancing. It was difficult not to judge them for retaining these cultural quirks, it seemed as if they were destined to retain the dubious classification of ‘Brits Abroad’ for the rest of their lives.

In contrast, I was eager to shed all traces of my British heritage.

I’d spent a lifetime raising hundreds of British kids, generations of proper speaking gents who would no doubt find their way either into a cushy trust-fund job or an untrustworthy offshore accounts office, shuffling papers and shifting digits for similarly shady individuals. I was happy to overwrite the last forty years of dreary routine with a new life – filled with exciting new encounters and fresh experiences.

Experiences like the excellent Baked Cod+Capers that I was lucky enough to stumble across whilst wandering along the bustling Livorno seafront.

Baked Cod+Capers

{Feeds 1 hungry (slightly lost) Brit Abroad looking for a direction in life or a family of 4}

For the Cod:

2 large cod fillets

1 good handful of black olives

olive oil

1 onion

2 cloves of garlic

6 large ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped

1 good handful of mushrooms

1 bunch of fresh basil

1 handful of capers

1 lemon

1 loaf of rustic bread

Method:

Pre-heat your oven to 190 degrees (or fire up your barbecue your using one) then heat up a decent drizzle of oil in your pan and fry your onion for 5 minutes or until golden.

Crush up your garlic and throw them in the pan with your chopped tomatoes – season well and cook gently for 15 minutes.

Slice up your mushrooms and add them to the pan and let your sauce simmer down for 10 minutes.

Chop up your capers with your basil and toss them in the pan, stir well and taste for seasoning.

Grab your cod and lay them in a shallow baking tin, grease up with a little olive oil to prevent sticking and then squeeze lemon over each piece.

Finally, spoon your sauce over the cod, cover in foil and bake in your oven (or throw on your barbecue) for 25 minutes.

Rip apart your rustic bread and serve it with the fish when it’s good and done.

BBQ Cleaning & Joseph//Grilled Bread+Prosciutto Chicken

Retirement is not always for everyone.

We spend a large proportion of our lives working.

For those with jobs that do not agree with them, the weeks, months and years can stretch out interminably. However, once we reach the fabled age of retirement, not needing to arise on a Monday morning can sometimes irk us more than you’d think.

My gracious host Joseph was once such man who, like me, struggled with the notion of retirement. In some ways, he escaped the initial impact of his new life by moving to Italy. Simply the act of moving home, transplanting a lifetime’s worth of possessions and memories to a completely different country, can take up a considerable amount of time and thought.

So for the first few months of his retirement Joseph had his hands busy. It wasn’t until he’d settled into his new home in Portofino, some 6 months later, and the shiny veneer of novelty had begun to wear from his new existence, that he started to look outwards from his home for something to occupy his time with.

Unlike Maria, he had no intention of returning to the world of teaching.

He’d had enough of the passing whims of children and wanted his work to be something instantly satisfying. So, at the age of 60, he looked into starting his own business, doing the kind of job that there would always be a need for.

Despite the high levels of unemployment in Italy and generally poor state of the economy, Joe found that there was an opportunity for cleaning businesses. After wading through the quagmire of Italy’s legendarily slow internet, he found his niche: BBQ Cleaning.

Although BBQ food today is more commonly connected with American Cuisine, the Italians have also got a strong love for al fresco cooking that arguably transcends their competitors from across the pond.

When Maria and I arrived back from our day trip to Camogli, we were surprisingly famished. The car journey had been a quiet one, both of us in quiet contemplation. We cruised along the coastal road back to Portofino, with the sun setting on the horizon.

I didn’t realise how hungry I was until we climbed the steps back up to their little terrace and smelt chicken sizzling on Joseph’s freshly cleaned grill.

Prosciutto Wrapped Chicken+Ciabatta Salad

{Feeds 4 mouths in need of comfort food – buy metal skewers so you can reuse them!}

For the Chicken:

4 good sized Chicken breasts

bunch of fresh Basil

ball of Mozarella

4 slices of quality Prosciutto

For the Bread Salad:

loaf of Ciabatta

250g Cherry Tomatoes

ball of Mozarella

2 cloves of Garlic

Olive Oil

Method:

Before you do anything, you’ll want to make sure that your BBQ is nice and clean. If you’re dusting off your grill for the first time this Summer, then consider hiring a professional to give it a good go over. Once that’s done, fill it up with charcoal and get your fire burning.

Whilst the coals are doing their thing, you can prep this comforting al fresco meal.

First, slice open each chicken breast. Season your chicken liberall and then stuff a few leaves of Basil into each one. Tear up your ball of Mozarella evenly and tuck it in with the Basil.

Then take your prepped breasts and wrap them in a slice of Prosciutto, so you have a lovely meaty parcel, ready for the grill. Before you slap them on, rub them in a little oil and pierce straight through with your skewers.

As soon as the coals are white, throw on your chicken and grill for around 4 minutes on each side, leaving room for the bread that’s to come

For the salad, cut up your loaf into decent-sized 5cm cubes and toss with some oil and seasoning in a big bowl. Pop these bread pieces onto the grill for 30 seconds each side, so they colour nicely all over.

Once this is done, throw it back in the bowl and toss with chopped Garlic, Cherry Tomatoes and a little Oil.

When the juices from your chicken are running clear, rest them for a minute or two before serving with your delicious salad.

A Broken Cooker//Spaghetti Arrabbiata+Chicory Salad

Perhaps my unexpected arrival in Joseph and Maria’s home had brought bad luck.

When I strolled downstairs to properly greet my hosts (I’d been a jumbled mass of garbled sentences the night before) I found them in a state of slight confusion.

A little pool of olive oil settled in the centre of a rustic cast-iron skillet pan which sat patiently alongside their little gas cooker. A box of eggs were lying next to a slab of pancetta on the counter. Something wasn’t quite right though.

The issue soon became evident: the gas cooker had stopped working and was in need of repair.

“Breakfast might be a while, old chap”. Joseph had a sorry look in his eyes. I soon dismissed his apologies and headed off into town to grab some groceries; leaving Joe to search the typically slow Italian internet for a man specialising in gas oven repairs.

At this time of year, Portofino is not quite hitting it’s stride in terms of tourist saturation. With it’s iconic harbour and port, the village is a haven for celebrity holiday makers and Hollywood stars. The Summer sun had yet to truly grace the North of Italy so, for now at least, peace and quiet reigned supreme.

Of course, there is never any real kind of serenity at an Italian marketplace.

Italians like to get their produce early in the day – no lazy Sundays for these people. The little square was packed with busy shoppers, all of them in animated discussions with the sellers and each other. I drifted through the stalls, in no rush, admiring the variation of goods on offer.

With a sudden urge to cook, I reached out for the simplest, freshest ingredients and set back to the house with a raging hunger and desperate hope that the cooker had been fixed.

It wasn’t. However, Maria had set a wood-fire going in the back and settled a grill over the top, which was all I needed to cook my first meal on Italian soil. 

Spaghetti Arrabbiata+Chicory Salad

{Serves 3-4 hungry old folks for a smashing lunch}

For the Spaghetti:

2 fresh red chillies

olive oil

3 cloves of garlic

3 or 4 fresh anchovies

good teaspoon of dried oregano

8-10 ripe, red tomatoes

300g dried spaghetti

150g pancetta

single ciabatta roll or similar italian bread

parmesan for grating

For the salad:

2 heads of chicory/olive oil/2 tbsp white wine vinegar/1 tsp wholegrain mustard/1 tsp sugar

Method:

First, give the chillies a good pricking all over with a sharp knife, then drop into a pan, cover with  a good layer of oil and let them cook on a super low heat for a good ten minutes. When they feel soft, pour the majority of the oil into a jar to save for later.

Then slice up 2 cloves of garlic and add to the pan, along with the anchovies and oregano – fry for 2-3 minutes then add the roughly chopped tomatoes and let this cook on a medium heat for 15 minutes.

In the mean time, get your spaghetti on the boil and prepare a crumbly ‘pangratto’ topping along with your salad.

Either blitz the ciabatta in a processor or use a box grater to produce some breadcrumbs. Throw these into a large skillet pan with a good lug of oil on a medium heat. Take your final clove of garlic, chop it up along with the pancetta and add to the pan. Let this fry until everything’s a lovely golden brown colour.

For the salad, simply pour a dash of oil, with the vinegar, mustard and sugar into a jam jar and shake up. Pull apart the chicory leaves and lightly cover with your dressing.

Once your spaghetti’s almost cooked, add it to the tomatoes and chilli. Combine then serve in bowls with that lovely crumbly pangratto on top and your salad on the side.

Grate a little parmesan on top to finish, along with a good crack of black pepper.

[Ideally cooked on working gas hob, but an open fire/electric/induction hobs will do fine.]