I was so transfixed listening to Antonio Carluccio this week on BBC Radio 4 in my car. I had to speedily rush home, get the pots and pans out and create an Italian dish fit for the master himself, full blast with Pavarotti hitting the high notes for extra Italianess!
Antonio, 80, sounded so delightful and warm with his meandering strongly accented Italiano voice, his life full of colour, twists and turns, with plenty of sadness usually involving the ladies. This interview turned out to be his last interview. A few days later, he had a fatal fall in his home and passed away. So sad, but how wonderful to be doing what you loved up until your last few hours.
What I admired most about Antonio Carluccio was his absolute Italian authenticity and gentle, simplicity in his cooking. Great ingredients, simply prepared. He was never a fierce, noisy, over bearing 'chef'. A la Gordon Ramsay or Marco Pierre White. He explained you had to work hard as a chef and cooks did what they loved, with passion.
"A chef is always punishing, a cook does it for passion and love and a chef has to do it, when he has to do it.'
Which, is what he delivered in his books, programmes and string of restaurants. His passion for Italian food and mushrooms was infectious. His smash hit restaurants Neals Street Restaurant and Carluccio's were like no other. He imparted Italian cuisine and style into the 80's /90's British dining scene in dire need of help.
My risoni 'risotto' recipe uses fine 'rice grain' size pasta and is ideal in soup and salad recipes.
When I don’t feel like the stodginess of a risotto, risoni pasta hits the spot without being too filling. Being a Vegan is not all mung beans and miso you know. We can still eat Italian with passioni! I'm hoping Antonio would appreciate the vegan nuance.
What is the secret to eating great Italian, Antonio style?
Keep it simple and invest in quality ingredients.
PASTA: Great quality dried pasta (Barilla is a great brand) @bariillaaus so authentically Italian. You should be able to find this brand pretty much everywhere! Look out for pasta made with Durum Wheat to judge if it's quality or not. I prefer dried to fresh. Avoid gluten free options. It simply is not pasta if it's not made with durum wheat!
OLIVE OIL: Invest in a great virgin olive oil and reserve it just for drizzling and finishing off Italian dishes. There are so many great brands. I love an Australian Brand called Pukara. I visited them in the Hunter Valley recently and particularly like their Wasabi flavoured oil. Great for drizzling on salads for an extra kick.
TINNED TOMATOES: Invest in good tinned tomatoes like Annalisa Whole Peeled Tomaotes where possible, I would always go for tinned plum tomatoes over chopped. Whole tomatoes tend to be less processed than chopped ones – which means they have a fresher flavour and keep more of their natural sweetness. Chopped tomatoes also release more water (or can even have water added, if they are very cheap) – so I think that plum tomatoes give you more flesh and far more flavour for your money.
HERBS: Choose the freshest basil you can find and tear and rip, don't chop it, this avoids bruising and blackening.
Choose plump garlic. Firm Chilli. Power packed spinach. Squeaky fresh spring onions. And Parmesan, but not the real stuff, ideally if you are going down the vegan route. .. I particularly love the Vegan hard cheese from @vegusto.co.uk finely grated. It’s a winner! Great to nibble with a cracker and onion jam. And noone would know it's not the real stuff!
Vegan Risoni Risotto for Antonio
To make this dish for 2 people;
1. Cook 250g Risoni pasta in a large pan of salted water. Always add salt to water to enhance the savoury flavours. Cook for 11 minutes.
2. For the sauce; Add a really, really generous glut of olive oil to a large frying pan. Add 1-2 garlic cloves, finely sliced and cook until just golden over a medium heat. Be careful not to over cook or burn the garlic, as it can catch quickly and becomes bitter when too brown and will taint your whole dish. You will need to chuck out and start again if that happens.
3. Add a tin of good quality plum tomatoes. Use your wooden spoon, to chop up the plum tomatoes in the pan.
4. Season tomatoes with freshly ground black pepper. Add 1 chopped red chilli. Gently simmer the sauce for 5-8 minutes covered or until reduced and thick.
5. Once the risoni is tender or 'al dente'. Try it and it should still have a little firmness. Remember it will carry on cooking a bit in the sauce so needs to still have 'bite'. Use a slotted spoon to remove the cooked risoni from the cooking water and add the risoni to the tomatoes in the sauce pan. All good Italian housewives know the pasta water adds to the sauce, so slosh it in and maybe drain off the last bit through a colander and discard.
6. Gently stir in a handful of baby spinach and torn base leaves, the heat of the dish will wilt the spinach. Serve immediately in bowls, sprinkle over a chopped spring onion and drizzle with your best virgin olive oil and 'vegan' Parmesan!