Antonio Carluccio’s Pasta Imbottita con Vegetali al Forno

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This is an extravagant, hearty, baked vegetable pasta dish, a bit of a labour of love, but worth it. You’ll need quite a deep baking dish for it.  Serves 8-10

Ingredients
600g large rigatoni
salt and pepper for seasoning
2 fennel bulbs, trimmed
500g melting cheese (you can use a mixture of mozzarella, fontina and taleggio) cut into 1cm cubes
200g Parmesan, freshly grated
1 quantity of spinach balls (recipe below)

Tomato sauce
2 large onions, peeled and finely diced
100ml olive oil
1.5kg tomato pulp or canned chopped tomatoes (I used 4 cans of peeled tomatoes)
10 basil leaves, shredded

Filling
2 eggplants, cut in 8mm thick slices lengthwise
3 medium zucchini, cut in 8mm thick slices lengthwise
plain flour, to dust
4 eggs
olive oil, for shallow-frying

1. Make the tomato sauce first by frying the onion in the olive oil until soft, about 5-6 minutes. Add the tomato and basil and cook gently for 20-30 minutes. Season with salt and set aside.

2.For the filling, dust the eggplant and zucchini slices with flour. Beat the eggs together, and dip the vegetable slices in this. Pour enough olive oil into a large pan to cover the base generously and heat gently. Shallow-fry the vegetable slices, a few at a time until golden, about 3-4 minutes on each side. Set both vegetables and oil aside. If you haven’t cooked them in advance, the spinach balls can also be cooked in this oil.

3.Meanwhile, boil the fennel bulbs in lightly salted water until al dente, about 6-7 minutes. Drain well, and cut into thin slices and set aside.

4. Cook the pasta in plenty of boiling salted water until al dente, about 5-6 minutes. Drain and mix with little of the sauce. Preheat the oven to 200ºC

Spinach balls
500gspinach leaves, washed thoroughly, tough stalks removed
2 free-range eggs, beaten
pinch freshly grated nutmeg
110g breadcrumbs
50g grated parmesan
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Blanch the spinach leaves in a pan of salted, boiling water for 1-2 minutes, then drain well and refresh in cold water. Using your hands, squeeze out as much water from the blanched spinach leaves as possible, then finely chop the spinach. Transfer spinach to a bowl, then stir in the beaten eggs, nutmeg, breadcrumbs and parmesan. Season to taste. Mix well until the mixture binds together, adding more breadcrumbs or more water, as necessary, to bind the mixture. Roll the spinach mixture into walnut-sized balls and place onto a baking tray. Fry the balls in olive oil for a few minutes each side until golden brown all over and drain on paper towel. Set aside until assembly.

Assembly
In a baking tray or dish, now assemble all the ingredients. First put a layer of pasta on the bottom on which you distribute slices of zucchini and eggplant, slices of fennel and a few spinach balls, then some pasta. Sprinkle over some of the cheese chunks, some of the tomato sauce and some of the grated Parmesan, and repeat. Build a few layers according to the size of the baking tray, and finish on top with tomato sauce, a few chunks of cheese, a few spinach balls, and the remaining Parmesan. Bake for 30-40 minutes in the preheated oven. Let it rest for 10-15 minutes before serving, cut in squares.

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Ricotta Gnocchi with Spring Vegetables

I saw this Neil Perry recipe in last week’s Good Weekend and thought it was perfect for this warm weather. The original recipe called for 350g of ricotta salata (salted ricotta) and 350g normal ricotta, but I didn’t have ricotta salata on hand so just used all normal ricotta, and drained it in a colander for a few hours in the fridge. It also used a burnt butter, but wanting to keep it fresh and light I went with a drizzle of top quality olive oil instead. Roll on summer!

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For ricotta gnocchi
700g fresh ricotta, well drained
2 eggs
2 yolks
260g type 00 flour, plus extra for kneading
1/3 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp sea salt

For spring vegetables
1 tbsp olive oil
2 small zucchini, sliced into rounds
8 asparagus spears, diagonally cut
1/2 cup fresh peas (or frozen, defrosted)
80g baby spinach leaves

Extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling
2tbsp finely chopped parsley
Grated parmesan to taste

Making it
1. To make the gnocchi, place ricotta, eggs and yolks in a large bowl and mix with a wooden spoon until just combined, then sift in flour, nutmeg and salt. Gently combine then place the mixture on a generously floured benchtop. Using the back of your hands, push the mix until it just comes together. Divide the dough into four portions, roll each into a thin log. Using a knife, cut the logs into 2-centimetre pillows.

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2. Bring a large pot of water to the boil and add a good handful of salt. Cook the gnocchi in batches for 2 minutes or until the gnocchi float to the surface, then scoop them out with a slotted spoon. Drain well and keep warm.

3. Heat the oil in a pan on a high heat and add the zucchini and asparagus. Sauté until they are golden-brown but still holding their shape. Add the gnocchi, peas and spinach and cook until the leaves have just wilted.

4. Divide the gnocchi and vegetable mixture between four plates. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle the parsley and parmesan on top

Today’s cake – Amalfi Pear and Ricotta cake

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Pear and ricotta cake is something you will find in many of the bakeries and pasticcerie along the gorgeous Amalfi Coast.  It was first made famous by Sal di Riso (his bakery is in Minori) and over the last few decades there have been various versions.  Some make it with more of a ‘biscuit’, others with a sponge.  This version is based on a recipe by Katie Caldesi.

For the sponge
100g     hazelnut meal
50g       plain flour
100g     caster sugar
75g       unsalted butter soften at room temperature
4            egg whites
Icing sugar, for dusting

For the filling
3            pears, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces
75ml     water
1 tsp     vanilla bean paste
125g     golden caster sugar*
250g     ricotta, drained
100g     double cream
1 tbsp   pear brandy (optional)

*golden caster sugar is an unrefined sugar you’ll find in specialty food stores. I also used it recently in an orange & semolina cake

Making it
1. To make the pears, cook the pears in the water, together with the vanilla and 75 g of the sugar in a saucepan until soft, for 15–20 minutes (depending on the ripeness of the pears). This is best done with a circle of baking parchment pressed down on the pears to trap in the steam. When the pears are done, strain them through a sieve resting over a bowl to collect the juices and set aside and allow to cool.

2. Meanwhile, grease two 19 cm round tins with butter and line the bottoms with baking paper. Pre-heat oven to 180C fan forced. Place the hazelnut, flour, caster sugar and butter in a bowl and beat until a sandy consistency. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites to soft peaks and then fold them into the nut mixture. Pour into the prepared tins and bake for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and leave to cool for 5 minutes before turning out onto wire racks and removing baking paper

3. To make the filling, whisk together the remaining golden caster sugar, ricotta and cream in a bowl until smooth and thick. Add the pears and brandy and combine. Place one hazelnut sponge on a board and spoon the filling over. Lay the other sponge on top and push down so that the filling oozes out a little. Sift the icing sugar over the top and transfer to a serving dish or cake stand. Serve in slices with the syrup from the pears if desired

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Felix Bistro and Bar, Sydney CBD

It was the birthday of our small fry, and their request for a meal out – some steak and pomme frites like they’d eaten in Paris.  Felix immediately sprung to mind.  I hadn’t been for at least a couple of years, and thought it would be good to return.  The décor is classic French bistro and the menu full of Gallic favourites.

I must comment on the service – it was really really impressive – great attention to detail, prompt, thoughtful – we felt so well looked after, compliments to the team on the floor that day.

The last time I went I regretted not ordering seafood – I saw plates of it being delivered to neighbouring tables and it looked great.  This time I would not miss out and started with half a dozen oysters. The oysters were fantastically fresh with a tangy red wine vinegar and shallot dressing.

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As it was a warm day I then opted for a salad – king crab, prawn, eggplant, quinoa  and pickled beetroot  – an unusual combination that worked, but I really would have liked some crisp baby cos to take it up another notch

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Perfectly cooked salmon with sauce soubise (an onion sauce), peas and broadbeans

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And the steak and pomme frites? I didn’t get to take a photo of it, it was devoured so quickly, but I did get a nibble and the steak had a fabulous flavour to it – not sure if it was cooked over some kind of wood?

We also tried the tarte tatin – its meant for two and is quite huge.  Oh, the pastry, the pastry!

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I’ve got my eye on the seafood platter for next time.

Felix Bistro and Bar, 2 Ash Street, Sydney, Ph (02) 9240 3000
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At Restaurant, Crows Nest

“The kids have ditched us”, I tell my husband one Friday night. It is school holidays, and the boys are with my Mamma Rosa (she relishes school holidays. Me not so much).  They call me and tell me they aren’t coming home that night, they’re staying there. Could I blame them? The food is better, the rules are less, and they can usually wrangle some cash out of their grandfather.

Finding ourselves on our own at the last minute, we decide to grab some Japanese on the way home and I make a quick call to At Restaurant, or rather, as the sign says @ Restaurant (not quite sure why the @, maybe some quirky Japanese thing?).  Its a cosy, basic little place and every table has a reserved sign, which means sushi boss Saito-san is going to be busy.

The service is unobtrusive and efficient and our food arrives at a good pace.  This is simple, well executed, well priced Japanese.  In Crows Nest, which seems to have become Little Japan of the food scene over the years, this one has an advantage. And its BYO.

We start with bonito tataki with a sesame ponzu – clearly a popular choice as all the surrounding tables order it – and it is fresh and delicious.

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Next a simple tuna and avocado salad.  Not sure what the tiny crunchy balls are, but they add a great texture.

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This is followed by a good quality mixed sushi and sashimi plate

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For the hot dishes, a light whiting tempura

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And finally a teriyaki salmon – the teriyaki has good body, and is not too sweet.

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At Restaurant, 417 Pacific Highway, Crows Nest, Ph (02) 9437 5285

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Cho Cho San, Potts Point

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Cho Cho San – it’s hip, hot, and on the blossoming Potts Point food strip. The name comes from Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly, the butterfly being CioCio-san. Like many operas it is a tragedy, but there is no tragedy to be found in this relatively new, neutrally coloured izakaya, started by the team behind Apollo. Already heaving when we arrive at 6.20pm on a Tuesday night – a Nursery Hour first sitting allows them to turn the tables – we hope we won’t be too rushed to get through all the dishes we want to try.

Having picked up a Hat in the 2015 Good Food Guide Awards, the hot-factor has been turned up another notch, and it’s not easy to get a table, and fortunately we’d booked several weeks before. As you enter you see a long communal table, circumferenced by smaller ones, but we, being a group of 6, are ushered to a great semi private annexe.

My photos aren’t the best, but I do think that has something to do with the Ginger Ninja and Nippy Rockshop I downed before the food (do check out the cocktails).  You might need my dictionary for some of the ingredients. We ordered a la carte, but there is also a $65 banquet menu.

We begin with the fried eggplant miso. First of all, its deep friend. Second its got miso. Third, there’s eggplant in there somewhere. What’s not to love?

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We then try a few dishes from the raw section, beginning with the hiramasa kingfish with daikon and soy. Simple and fresh.

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Next the hokkaido ccallops with the pureed corn and house-cured katsuboshi. Don’t know if it was the last ingredient, but this dish didn’t do it for me.

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Then what I thought was the star of the raws we tried, beef tataki with wild rice and ginger dressing.

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Onto the hot food – udon noodles with pork and chilli. These were $15 and I thought it was a pretty freekin’ awesome, you can sometimes pay that for not so great noodles in a food court. If they had a little food truck in the CBD that sold these takeaway…….just putting that out there.

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Our next hot dish was the king crab omelette with Japanese curry. It’s a mild curry, not spicy, and this also got a big tick.

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Soy glazed wagyu beef – tender and a balanced soy, with some green beans to make us feel like we were being good and eating our vegetables.

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The next two dishes were the lamb cutlets with chilli and Sancho, and prawns with kombu. I got overruled, did not want to order the lamb, but I did choose the prawns; both of these I thought classified as “get anywhere” sort of dishes – the lamb cutlets were just, well, lamb cutlets and prawns had a bit of seasoning but I didn’t think either of these had anything unique on the flavour stakes.

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For desert, we tried the Cho Cho Snow – shaved ice with custard and the ginger syrup – which has seemed to polarise people. Me, I was a fan of the flavour combination and the texture. The birthday girl I was with tried the Banana Soft Serve which she declared was better than a birthday cake (maybe ‘cause we didn’t buy her one, sorry).

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If there was one complaint, it was from the blokes, who said the beer-to-glass-ratio was out of whack. You don’t give someone a 650ml beer can and a small glass, apparently.

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So the clever team have done Greek, done Japanese, what’s next?

Cho Cho San, 73 Macleay Street, Potts Point, ph 02 9331 6601
http://www.chochosan.com.au

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Via Alta, Willoughby

Life gets busy. That’s what happens when you grow up, get married, have kids, work, run a household, write a blog, learn piano (slowly), eat (a lot), and do plenty of other things in those hours when you’re not sleeping. So although my mother, both sisters and I all live no more than a 15-20 minute drive apart, we can easily go several weeks and not see each other. A couple of years ago we decided we would have girls only lunches for our birthdays, which works well given that they are spread across the year. This also helps support my blog habit, and the girl crew are generally cool with anything I suggest.

Once at the chosen venue, it has in the past gone something like this: one sister will stand on chairs, move furniture and position the plate to help me get a good food shot, whereas the other will be rolling her eyes and say can we just hurry up and eat now PLEASE. Meanwhile, Mamma Rosa will look around nervously and sometimes apologise to the wait staff while I tell her that honestly no one cares that I am taking photos. Don’t you love families – same gene pool, same upbringing, but often completely different output. Over lunch we bicker, we laugh, we chat, and generally drive each other crazy, while Mamma Rosa analyses and tells us she could have made all of this food for a fraction of the cost.

It’s the “middle sister’s” birthday this time (no middle child issues by the way, she’s the most confident and outrageous of all of us, and in her opinion, the best looking; I supposedly got the brains instead). So here we are at Via Alta in Willoughby which is the new venture of the lovely Alessandro Pavoni of Ormeggio and Alex Keene, Ormeggio’s former sous chef and CIRA’s 2013 Young Talent of the Year Winner. It was High Street Bistro, but the double-A team took it over, translated High Street to Via Alta and translated the menu as well. They thought the lower north shore needed a casual Italian trattoria – and they were right.

For stuzzichini (snacks) we start with the Calamari Fritti – feather light and delicious, we devoured them – and the Modeghini, the meatballs – which Middle Sister thought were great, Mamma Rosa thought were too dry, and I thought were okay.
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We then tried sardines wrapped in prosciutto – so beautifully plated and really pleasant. Often I find when food gets wrapped in prosciutto and cooked, it is overpowered, but in this dish you still got the distinct taste of sardine.
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The eggplant parmigiana was great though very rich, it’s a good dish to share.
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On the pasta front we tried the pappardelle with oxtail ragu and the agnolotti with pork, burnt butter and sage. Both very rich dishes, and a truly excellent ragu. The pasta was probably a touch too al dente for me, but just a touch.
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The braised lamb shoulder with pumpkin and spring vegetables was a gorgeous plate and tasted as good as it looked.
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We really were too full for dessert, but there was birthday singing to be done, so we opted for the crostata with pear and pistachio. Velvety vanilla bean crème anglaise, could have had a bowl of that on its own, which complemented the crostata beautifully; suddenly I forgot that I was full.
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This is hearty Italian fare touched with Ormeggio class – well done to the double-A team.

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Via Alta, 197 High Street, Willoughby, Ph (02) 99581110
http://www.viaalta.com.au

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