So it goes

 

 

 

What have I gone and done? Even after proselytising just the other day about the necessity for sticking to the script when it comes to certain dishes I am now guilty of messing things up, of free-associating, of going all stream-of-consciousness – on a salad, of all things.

It’s not just a salad either. Gloria wouldn’t like me calling it that, neither would she appreciate it if I left out cucumber from the recipe, despite my naive incredulity at its traditional presence as a key ingredient. I’m talking about panzanella, of course – the keen-eyed of you will have noticed the pictorial clues –  although given my experimentation I’m tempted to rename it as ‘canzanella’ for reasons which will become apparent.

Sitting at work I was, where I am wont to mull over the food preparation for the evening, a multi-stranded thought process encompassing the presence or otherwise of required ingredients in my store cupboard (singular), following that the detail of where I can purchase those items which, as I scan, are absent from my shelves. That detail involves a mental geographical assimilation of the city: the likely routes I am to take, which means of transport will be most favourable in each case, whether I go home first, how far I can totter on an overloaded bicycle, why there isn’t a magic shop very near to where I live where all the things I need are always available.

But half the fun is finding everything. I like a mini-adventure, a quest if you will. I knew that at home I had half a stale ciabatta, I want to say loafing about, getting staler. But I wasn’t sure if it had got to the point where even a douse of red-wine vinegar and oil wouldn’t revive it. That’s when, mid-afternoon, the clock ticking, I decided to augment the ‘salad’ with beans. Yes. Cannellini, borlotti. That kind.

The route home was made, as ever, by way of Twin’s where I was able to get the aforementioned vinegar as well as sundry other items. But then, arriving home, I realised I had no red onions and so a visit to the unfriendly greengrocer’s had to be made. The woman grunted at me as usual and by now our conversation exists entirely of my nervous half-smile and her throaty non-committance. I know my onions here, that’s for sure.

The bread was salvageable and, indeed, ideal. I soused it and left it to soak, before halving tomatoes, letting them macerate with salt, pepper and oil. I love the word macerate, it seems so violent-sounding for what is in fact an exercise in softening. A mix of lacerate and massacre. Meanwhile I cooked the beans – the horror, the horror – having decided that I wanted a more substantial dish than the original version affords. These I cooked gently with the onion so the flavours combined. Everything else could just be jumbled in together: the cucumber – yes – skinned and chopped, capers, torn basil leaves, all combined with the bread and tomatoes, both oozing delectable juices. I left the beans to cool before chucking those in too. In the end they didn’t really add anything except a little more bulk.

Probably the jury’s out on canzanella. Typing the word into a popular search engine reveals its popularity as a surname. There is also a B&B in Naples named so – the city I can vouch for, the establishment not – which makes me think that I haven’t just coined a word but merely appropriated it from some other context. Possible derivation from ‘canzone’ which means song, and so I get an image, ludicrously, of the old stereotypes of the moustachioed mandolin player at the window of some local Lollobrigida, the cicadas humming in the olive groves and everybody blissfully uncaring of economic meltdown, social deprivation and political corruption. Eppur si muove.

There is a way.

In China when they ask me what I like to cook, and I don’t respond with ‘Chinese food’, I receive a kind of incredulous stare and barely suppressed snort of laughter. ‘You cook English food then?’ Because there cannot be an alternative. Describing that cooking is not totally about culturally- accepted and well-known dishes and more about putting together ingredients that have a natural affinity with each other, is, it seems, conceptually too difficult to grasp. If it doesn’t have a name, it isn’t worth bothering with. I could say, ‘Italian food’ and then there are the sighs of approval, the knowing looks: ‘Ah yes, pizza and pasta.’ It’s really not that simple….

Yet in Italy too there exists a similar culinary snobbery. There is a way of making things. There is a way, and there is no argument. On my recent trip I stayed in Arezzo with some friends and, on the first night, Gloria, a feisty Florentine, made us caponata. A Sicilian dish, yes, but the way I was invited to watch the procedure left me in no doubt this was the correct cooking method.

‘You should always blanch the celery first. Shouldn’t you.’ She was not asking for my approval.

Over the nine days I spent in the Beautiful Country I ate cappellacci di zucca in Ferrara, cacio e pepe in Rome and many delicious seafood antipasti in Pescara but that caponata, the mingling of the sweet and sour, was the one that tingled my tastebuds the most. Even better when we had it cold as part of a picnic lunch high in the Tuscan hills the following day.

So it was the first meal I made when I came back. Sourcing the ingredients was not difficult, a cycle down to Twin’s was sufficient and pop to the greengrocer’s. And what I wanted most of all, was craving actually, was to have celery as the star. Controversial, perhaps, as the vegetable gets a poor press, relegated to a support act in various sauce bases and derided usually for its lack of flavour. However I noticed that, on the Adriatic coast, as a motif through many of the fish dishes, from insalata di mare to the stock for the mussels, little ridged pieces of celery came to prominence.

In my recreation of the Sicilian speciality I stuck as close as I could to how I remembered Gloria go about it. The tedious woman in the newspaper put chocolate in hers, and I wasn’t going to do that. There is a way, after all.

First job was to cook the aubergine. I could only find one of the large round varieties, but I guess it doesn’t matter, as long as the veg is cut up into bite-sized chunks and salted for at least half an hour then patted dry.  Did it in batches, frying the pieces until brown in very hot oil – I used a shallow pan – before removing. At the same time the celery, chopped up into similar-sized briquettes, was blanched in boiling water for about thirty seconds.

I think the original recipe calls for shallots, and now I remember Gloria used a leek, but I had an onion and so that’s what I used. Diced and gently sautéed in the same oil with the celery. Then I basically jumbled most of the other ingredients in, the olives – green, which I hate on their own, but seem to enjoy in things these days – capers (Gloria said to only use the ones in salt as the vinegar-soaked variety have little flavour – but, again, I didn’t have/couldn’t find any of those), raisins and finally the passata which I made myself by combining a tin of chopped tomatoes with some olive oil, salt and pepper and reducing for about fifteen minutes. I was salivating. Then the aubergines got their welcome return, the lid was closed and I walked away to watch an episode of this, leaving the – what would you call it – the stew, I suppose, on a low heat to combine in a heavenly way.

My friend from Firenze bemoaned slightly the lack of a vinegary finish to her dish, and perhaps she was right. I had something on hand to add if necessary. But first, the caponata was ready and I toasted some pine nuts and tore up basil leaves as a garnish. Tasting, I realised that a little acidity was needed to offset the agrodolce. Splash of apple cider vinegar and the dish was ready.

And I have some left. Those Tuscan hills are only memories now though.

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