Tag Archives: Italian cuisine

My Experimental Kitchen

Some of the top restaurants and chefs in the world keep a seperate “Experimental Kitchen” where they try out and develop new recipes and dishes until they are happy and ready to add them to the Menu and transfer them to their main kitchen.

This was something I never really thought that much about until I watched Heston Bluemental’s cookery shows and it became clear that he wasn’t cooking in a studio or The Fat Duck’s Main Kitchen. It makes some sense, why distract the rest of the Kitchen with edible insects and the like, when they should be getting on with preparing the dishes for people in the restaurant.

My Experimental Kitchen is the same kitchen I use every day, well it’s not like I have dozens of diners and a staff of chefs is it? :) Some days, I try to create something from an idea I had while eating, the memory of a dish I ate in a restaurant, a recipe I’ve been using for ages but have decided to try and make better or like my most recent experiment, something I’ve never tasted and only ever heard about.

That latest experiment was rather adventurous, I tried to make a meat based ice cream (bacon to be precise), I mentioned it on our Facebook page much to the horror of one of our vegetarian readers. Unfortunately this became the first batch of ice cream I’ve ever made that even I could not eat, it was horrendous, salty and sweet all at the same time, just too many things going on for the tastebuds to cope with so I’m back to the drawing board with that one.

A few months back I was trying to re-invent my Ragu (aka Spag Bol) recipe as it was essentially my “Italian tomato sauce” with some vegetables and mince thrown in, great to have this recipe as I always have the sauce in the freezer and I can rattle the rest together in a few minutes but it’s not something I would dare serve to a lover of Italian food as Ragu, if you get where I’m coming from.

So a few attempts have been made to refine it and I’m almost ready to invite Gino D’Acampo round to see if he approves :) I am going to try one last little tweek to the recipe in the next week and if that works well you can expect to see the recipe arriving shortly afterwords.

I’ve wandered a bit on this post but what I’m trying to get across is that anyone can be an “Experimental Cook” you don’t need a special kitchen or rare, expensive ingredients, I find myself being less adventurous in this situation for fear of wasting them. All you need is an idea of what you want the end result to be, a little imagination and a willingness to not reject an idea without at least trying it once.

The last part has been the longest lesson for me to learn, but since I’ve made that leap of faith, I’ve found that my enjoyment of cooking, my ability to surprise myself (and others) with my results and the diversity and difficulty of the dishes that I’m attempting and succeeding with has multiplied exponentially.

So what about you? Do you consider yourself to be an “Experimental Cook”? Let us know your best successes and worst failures in the comments below.

I love Italian food

As if that wasn’t obvious from the recipes that I’ve added to this site so far! Part of the reason is that as a child I loved tinned spaghetti on toast, although I can’t stand the stuff these days.

9 different Italian dishes
A collage of our Italian recipes

As I grew up and was introduced to ‘real’ (dried) spaghetti I was amazed by it, you can’t break dry spaghetti into two pieces it will always break in to at least three pieces, try it. It’s so easy to make a meal with it, to be fair dry pasta and Dolmio kept me fed when I started living on my own, in fact my weekly diet would include a few pasta dishes (spag bol, Lasagne from the freezer cabinet etc.), a frozen pizza or two and a fry-up that was the extent of my cooking abilities, or so I thought.

When I started to cook ‘proper food’ the first dish I attempted was pasta and meatballs in a Tomato sauce and after my first visit to Italy, apart from having to try to make my own Pizzas in the Italian style, I discovered that the same dish tastes completely different in different parts of the country.

The reason for this is simple, Italians have a passion and love of food that is second only to their pride in the local produce, their cooking is very traditional in that the recipes are passed down between the generations and they all came into being as a result of what food was available locally. This traditional approach is also responsible for the different tastes of the same dishes, even today Italians will cook from local ingredients with Mama’s recipe whenever possible.

This food tradition (and cooking style) has been traced back as far as the 4th century BC, even though the country of Italy as we know it only came into being 23 centuries later. The Wikipedia entry on Italian cuisine makes for fascinating reading and from it you can see clearly how the Italians embraced different food cultures and took what they liked and incorporated it into their everyday cooking.

Italian dishes form a great base for learning to cook, not only because they have been influenced by many different styles but also because they teach us to use what’s available and show us that fantastic, complex flavours can be created using what’s at hand and it can be done on a tight budget.

Also the techniques used in Italian cooking form the basis for an awful lot of European cooking styles. I’ve heard it said that the Italians taught the French how to cook. If that’s the case then the French took what they had learned, made it their own and expanded upon it, the greatest compliment a teacher can receive.

All that having been said, a number of people included feedback on our recent survey that (amongst other things) they would like something other than Italian recipes, so we’re listening (the Spag Bol and Lasagne recipes will have to wait 😉 ) and I have been experimenting with all sorts of things recently, including a recipe for a dish I had never eaten until I cooked it myself.

More variety is on the way, some middle-eastern, some Indian, maybe some oriental, maybe some American. I also want to add some more basic things as well. If you have any preferences let us know in the comments below.

Risotto

As the nights start to get shorter in autumn, my cooking style changes dramatically. Out go the salads, pastas and lighter meals of summer and in come the thick, heart-warming dishes of winter. I tend to find cooking very therapeutic, and love nothing more than spending 10 or 20 minutes peeling, chopping and preparing veg for a delicious stew or risotto. You get into your own rhythm when doing this, and once practiced, you can do it without thinking, which gives me time to reflect on my day and clear my mind.

Cooking the risotto rice
Image by VancityAllie via Flickr

Of all the winter dishes I cook, risotto is one of my favourites. It’s a true Italian peasant classic, a way of turning a small amount of food into a dish that feeds many people – and extremely cheap to make, which is perfect in the current recession. The only ingredient that is any way “out of the ordinary” is the risotto rice – which is now stocked by all of the major supermarket chains, and I’ve even seen it in some of the larger ‘corner shops’ lately.

Risotto takes time, but once you’ve cooked it once or twice it won’t tie up a lot of your attention, so it’s a great method of relaxing into your evening. It’s also incredibly tasty and super simple – so don’t be scared of trying to cook it!

The recipe I’m giving here serves about 6 people, as this is usually the quantity I make in one go. If there’s only the two of us in the house, then we eat it over a couple of days, re-heating it in the microwave for about 2 mins, with a sheet of kitchen roll on top to stop it spitting everywhere. It’s also really versatile, as you don’t have to add your toppings to the main pan of risotto, but can simply place them on top of a portion in a bowl – which means that you can vary the taste and not feel like you are eating the same meal three times in a row!

Green Pasta

Pesto is a dish that I had never heard of until a friend served up a bowl of green tagliateli to me back in my student days. Up until then my knowledge of Italian food was limited to Pizza, Spagetti Bolognese and lasagne. So a green pasta dish raised an eyebrow and the inevitable “what is this?”

Basil leaves (Ocimum basilicum).

After a brief explanation of what it was made from and assurances that it wasn’t going to kill me, I took my first tentative taste and was pleasantly surprised by the flavours. From then on a jar of store bought pesto and dried pasta could nearly always be found in the kitchen, as it was a virtually effortless meal i.e. boil and drain the pasta, stir in a few spoons of pesto, eat.

My pesto recipe is very much off the cuff, there is very little in the way of exact measures and the final product is completely dependent on tasting as I make it, adding a little parmesan or oil and tasting again until I am happy with both the taste and consistency.

Also this is fun to make, you get to bash stuff up in a pestle and mortar and the sense of satisfaction that you get from tasting and blending the flavour until it’s exactly what you want, is well worth the effort.

Pesto is a great all-rounder, just stir some into some hot fresh pasta and you’ve got lunch or dinner, spread some on a savoury sandwich, a few splashes across a pizza… the list goes on and on.

It’s also worth noting that this recipe will keep for a week or more once stored in an airtight container in your fridge, which means you can make your pesto at the weekend and have it any night of the week.

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