Having indulged in all kinds of rich meals and fattening goodies Flavours considers January is definitely the time to strip out all excess and go for something sharp, tangy, simple and seasonal.
Cucina itliana is renowned for its simplicity and we can learn much from this style of cooking. What is really important to consider at this time of the year is the quality of ingredients rather than spending effort on any elaborate or time-consuming cooking strategies. After the Christmas performance most people are looking to take a little time off in terms of workload and pressure on the waistband!
It might be worth glancing backwards for some inspiration to a food writer called Archestratus who hailed from Syracuse more than 2000 years ago. He too would feel very at home with many of our television chefs and food writers who are trying to wean us off unseasonal treats.
Archestraus promoted the idea of simple preparation and neither was he keen on heavy handed use of herbs or spices believing the quality and freshness of ingredients need little enhancement and should be left to speak for themselves. It’s certainly something our passionate Flavours chefs believe too.
Therefore I shall try to follow his advice and tempt you with some light dishes to restore your appetite and encourage you to indulge in some healthier, simpler Italian dishes in this austere first month of a new year.
A light soup is always welcome and you might want to try Chicken Soup with Cannellini Beans and an ingredient called Farro.
Farro is a type of wheat and is similar to Spelt, and often eaten in soup. It's hearty and chewy and very versatile, a bit like barley I would suggest. Those in the know will be familiar with this wheat strain which is predominantly grown in Italy. If you can’t source it, barley is the classic accompaniment to chicken soup as the playwright Arnold Wesker knew only too well!
So, you will need fennel; one bulb is sufficient and this needs to be finely diced. One large leek finely chopped, salt, fresh rosemary stripped from a stalk, a litre and a half of chicken stock, three or four handfuls of cooked chicken, one tin of cannellini beans drained and rinsed, 200 grams of faro or barley, a head of escarole or endive, 2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar, black pepper and Parmigiano –Reggiano grated.
First of all cook the Farro or barley in water until its tender, you can use a pressure cooker to speed the process along. When it is tender, set aside and begin the soup.
Heat some olive oil over a medium heat and add salt to taste, then the leek and fennel. Cook until the vegetables are soft and very slightly brown and then sprinkle in the rosemary. Add stock and bring to the boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the leek and fennel are tender which will probably take around 25 minutes. Add the chicken, cooked faro or barley, the beans and escarole, endive or cabbage. Simmer until all the flavours are amalgamated and then stir in the vinegar and season. Add more vinegar to taste but no more than 2 tbsps. Serve with a garnish of freshly grated Parmesan if desired.
For something even easier you could go for a salad such as wilted spinach, crisp and tiny sautéed potatoes sprinkled with feta and dressed with a warm black olive dressing. Use Kalamata olives, about 15-20, and chop them finely. In a food processor, pulse around 3 tbsps of red wine vinegar, the olives, 1 tsp of Dijon mustard, and 1 teaspoon of thyme. Processing continuously, slowly pour in about 100mls of extra virgin olive oil and 3 tbsp. water to make a light dressing. Sautee some tiny dice potatoes in olive oil with a little garlic if required. Sprinkle these with some thyme and a little sea salt when cooked. Remove from the pan and very quickly wilt some spinach leaves with just a splash of water in the same frying pan.
Then assemble the salad putting spinach in the base of a bowl, adding some halved cherry tomatoes, crumbled feta, the sautéed potatoes, some finely diced red onion, you can even cook the onion with the potatoes if preferred. Quickly pour the vinaigrette into the same frying pan where you cooked the potatoes and spinach. Heat quickly, giving it a quick whisk as you go, then pour over the salad and serve.
You could also prepare a salad with mixed leaves, ripe pears, slightly toasted walnuts and a dressing made of honey, olive oil, lime juice and zest and this can be served with a small piece of baked white fish which is light, fresh and just what the doctor ordered after the excesses of Christmas.
If the idea of learning more about Italian cooking appeals while making the most of fresh seasonal ingredients. Or if the thought of preparing traditional dishes against the backdrop of inspirational Italian landscapes sounds like an ideal getaway then click here and look at the latest Flavours holidays brochure and see how you can relax and learn this year.