Buen Provecho. Buon Appetito. God appetit.
I’ve missed hearing those words said over delicious meals at faraway tables. I live for many things when I travel, but exploring new cuisines and trying bold, unusual flavours is the most satisfying thing about any trip – and most days revolve around what to eat, where to go and when.
Although lockdown living stopped travel in its tracks, it didn’t stop my food travels.
It has been really satisfying cooking new cuisines and making staples completely from scratch like pasta and bread, as well as revelling in making slower food, over days or even weeks.
In the first of what I hope will become a series, I’d like to share a starter, main and pudding from three different countries, considering their origin and cultural importance, alongside my takes on tried and tested recipes from favourite chefs and bakers.
Hungry? Here we go!
Recipes have been found for empanadas as early as around 1520, including in a Catalan cookbook, using a seafood filling. Though the Moorish influence in Spain may have brought about their creation, most people associate the street food with Argentina, where they are practically a national dish.
The word is derived from the Spanish word empanar meaning ‘enbreaded’, or encased.
Street food faves
Argentina would be the obvious country to visit for some authentic empanadas, but closer to home you’ll find Argentinian expats sharing their love for this portable snack, at Porteña in Borough Market (my fave is cheese and ham and you can get 3 for £6.60); or, at La Fabrica in Barcelona’s medieval quarter, they serve a dizzying number of fillings, from classic (including beef or spinach) to contemporary (think tahini tofu or spicy tuna).
Sticking with the theme though…
Bake your own batch of empanadas
Chorizo and potato – boil some new potatoes whole (until they are just cooked), cool them in cold water and then dice them. Dice your chosen chorizo and fry with a little tomato puree on a medium heat. After the oil starts to ooze, add the potatoes and a few pinches of paprika and seasoning and stir frequently until everything is well coated in chorizo oil and piping hot. If you want to add some spice, use spicy paprika, or add some chopped fresh red chilli near the end.
Mushroom and two cheese – mix together some cubed feta or Wensleydale with grated cheddar, or mozzarella (or any cheese / vegan alternative you fancy). Set aside while you fry sliced chestnut, field or halved button mushrooms in a healthy glug of olive oil, a crushed and chopped clove of garlic (or some finely chopped red onion) and a pinch of saffron or pinches of paprika. Add the cheese and melt into the mushrooms. Season.
Minced pork and onions – season your pork mince with salt and pepper, paprika, cumin and saffron if you have it. Mix. Thinly slice red and brown onions, frying on a low heat with a pinch of sugar and drop of water to caramelise a bit. Add the pork mince and stir on a medium heat until the mince is thoroughly cooked. Drain any excess fat.
Then just add 1-2 tablespoons of filling mixture to each cut round of pastry (use biscuit cutters), brush the remaining surface of each disc with egg or water and fold over. Crimp by pressing down on the half moon edges with a fork. Brush with the remaining egg, or some milk or water.
Bake in a 190°C (170°C fan) oven for 25-30 minutes.
Stracci pasta in a sausage and butternut squash sauce
Pronounced stratchy, this pasta is quite different from the refined ribbons of tagliatelle or fettuccine, and the careful construction of ravioli. The word stracci literally means ‘rags’ or ‘tattered’, the idea being that the pasta shapes are roughly cut, almost torn, from a sheet of pasta, in random sizes.
It’s the kind of pasta that works brilliantly with ragù-style chunky sauces.
Of the 350+ different pasta shapes in the world (I’m discounting the Heinz ones shaped like Peppa the Pig), Stracci pasta isn’t very well known and so it’s not easy to pinpoint where it originates from.
It’s fair to assume, however, that it has a grounding in peasant cooking – as does so much of Italian cuisine.
And the origins of pasta itself? You have to begin with noodles. The earliest known, a type of noodle made from millet in China, dates from 2000 BCE, graduating by 700 CE to the kind of soft noodle we’d recognise today.
By 850 CE, the Arab world was experimenting with ground durum wheat which spread along the Iberian Peninsula. Durum wheat pasta as we might know it showed up in much-invaded Sicily by the 1100s.
The rest is history, I think we can safely say.
Fail-safe pasta dough
Using a Gennaro Contaldo recipe
The first recipe I experimented with is now the only one I use! I was put off by other recipes calling for lots of egg yolks, which do add a richer flavour and colour, but seemed overkill to me. This recipe from Gennaro Contaldo is a great all rounder, super quick to make, using two eggs. It makes enough dough for 4 people to have a healthy portion of pasta for dinner, more if the dough is rolled thinner.
Follow Gennaro making the dough here.
Ingredients: 150g 00 pasta flour (or plain flour would suffice), 50g semolina (widely available, raises the gluten content in the dough), 2 medium eggs
Weigh and mix the flours, then crack the eggs and mix with a fork. Once the egg is binding to the flour and dough is forming, tip the dough and any flour not yet mixed in onto a clean surface and with clean hands knead the dough a little; stretch the dough using your fingertips and palms to work the gluten until all the flour is fully mixed in. Wrap the ball of dough in cling film or beeswax wrap and put in the fridge for 30 mins.
Notes: No oil or seasoning is added, though you can experiment with adding a little olive oil, or a touch of pepper if you like. I prefer to use the dough as soon as it’s made, but you can keep it in a dark coloured wrap for up to a week if you need to.
Then get rolling and sauce making!
Sausage and butternut squash sauce
From Jamie Cooks Italy
This sauce from Jamie Oliver is absolutely knock out. It is perfect for the stracci pasta and majorly moreish. For a plant-based alternative, you could cut pieces of veggie sausage and use a bit more oil as an alternative – the bay leaves and butternut squash are the quiet stars of the show.
Ingredients: olive oil, 8 fresh or dried bay leaves, 4 quality meat (or veggie) sausages, 1 onion, stick celery, 300g butternut squash, 1 tbsp red wine vinegar, 50g hard cheese, extra virgin olive oil.
Add the bay leaves and 2 tbsps of olive oil to and heavy bottomed frying pan, then squeeze out the meat from the sausage casings into the pan, using a wooden spoon to break the meat into lumps. Slow fry on a medium-low heat until lightly golden. (Beware of spitting fat as you stir). If using veggie sausages, get them to room temperature and slice, adding to plenty of olive oil in a pan to cook.
Roughly chop the onion, celery and peeled butternut squash into quite small chunks and add it all to the frying pan along with some black pepper. Turn the heat up to medium and stir every so often to keep it mixing and cook the butternut squash. Add the vinegar and some salt and keep it cooking away.
Meanwhile, roll out your pasta dough as thinly as you can – ideally 2mm but thicker will still taste great (keeping any unused pasta wrapped up to stop it drying out).
Use a pasta wheel or small knife to cut random shapes all along the pasta sheet – think rags or stained glass window shapes.
Cook in boiling water for a couple of minutes until the pasta rises, then use a slotted spoon to transfer your pasta over to the frying pan, allowing a good amount of starchy pasta water into the pan as well.
Grate over most of the cheese, add some extra virgin olive oil and mix well so the cheese melts before serving topped with the last of the cheese.
Danish honey cake
Honey has been used in cooking far longer than sugar. The style of honey cake that Trine Hahnemann features in her wonderful book, Scandinavian Baking, is based on a kind of cake that’s been part of Scandi tradition for over 230 years.
The small Danish town of Christiansfeld (towards the south of the country, near the east coast) is the home of honey cake – including little hearts covered in chocolate.
The jury’s out on which bakery produces the best honey goodness, but there are four main bakeries offering their own takes, and Xocolatl is based on the site of the first bakery to produce them.
I enjoyed making Trine’s delightfully sweet and earthy honey cake and if I made it again I would try her alternative suggestion of just baking the cake without adding buttercream or icing – it makes great toast apparently!
For the cake: 100g butter plus more for the tin, 125g honey, 3 eggs, lightly beaten, 60g soft brown sugar, 275g plain flour1, ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda, 3 tsp ground cinnamon, 2 tsp ground ginger, 1 tsp ground cloves, 2 tbsp finely grated orange zest, 200g crème fraîche
For the buttercream: 250g butter, softened, 150g icing sugar, finely grated zest of 2 oranges
For the frosting (optional): 2 to 3 tbsp orange juice, 160g icing sugar, 1 tbsp finely grated orange zest (and some extra to sprinkle on top)
Preheat the oven to 180°C (160°C fan).
Butter a 30 x 11cm loaf tin (or similar) and line the bottom of the tin with buttered greaseproof paper, or baking parchment.
Melt the butter and honey in a saucepan and let cool a little. Meanwhile, in a separate bowl beat the eggs and brown sugar together with an electric mixer or hand whisk, until light and paler in colour.
Sift in the flour, bicarbonate of soda, and all the spices and fold in gently, then do the same with the honey mixture. Finally, fold in the zest and crème fraîche and pour into the prepared tin.
Bake for one hour. Insert a skewer into the middle of the cake to check if it emerges clean and when it does, take the cake out to cool on a wire rack.
While the cake bakes, make the buttercream in a small bowl – just beat all the ingredients until smooth. Cover and keep cold until you need it.
When the cake is cold, cut it horizontally into three with a serrated knife. Spread the buttercream on the bottom and middle layers, then reassemble the cake.
Mix all the ingredients for the frosting (if using) and spread it over the top.
Leave the frosting to set before serving.
I hope you enjoy these recipes as much as I have. And if you want to comment below with your favourite recipe from around the world, I will try and give it a go.