Orecchiette are hard to make from scratch. Those ladies in Bari Vecchia make it look effortless, but I imagine they have been making them since they were 5 years old. At home mamma had an Imperia pasta machine and every so often, we would make fettuccine. Egg fettuccine. And we would use a rolling pin, and then the hand-cranked machine. So rolling “little ears” (which is what orecchiette means) using only a butter knife takes a bit more effort. When I started making orecchiette, they were always misshapen; it was not until I made them at a workshop in Puglia with my friend Emiko that I realised I had been making the dough mix too firm all along. They have been much simpler to make ever since then, although I will never be as proficient at them as the ladies in Bari. The pasta dough is made with just water and semolina flour – though I have added a few teaspoons of spinach puree in this batch to make them a pretty green.
This dish was inspired heavily by a lunch I had at Mitchelton Winery. Mark and I went there for a weekend in late June to celebrate his birthday. I hadn’t been to Mitchelton for many years. My father used to love taking us for country drives to go wine tasting in the 1970s (which is way before it was a popular thing to do), and we would often head to Mitchelton and Chateau Tahbilk, near Nagambie in central Victoria. I remember picnics by the Goulburn river with other Italian families, admiring the rather curious looking white tower with a black hat (actually a fabulous modernist structure by Ted Ashton). A hotel and restaurant were built a few years back and the Mitchelton complex was given a bit of an overhaul. We had two dinners, one lunch and rather a lot of Mitchelton wine at the restaurant that weekend. It was quite magical: there was an open fire and the windows looked out to the river on one side and the Ashton tower on the other. And the whole complex is of course surrounded by acres of vines.
The orecchiette at the Mitchelton winery restairant were a vibrant green and served with braised fennel, goats cheese and pinenuts. I substituted a few of the ingredients – based on what I had in the pantry – and my orecchiette turned out a pale rather than a bright green. But the taste of the dish was delicious! I doused the lot with extra virgin olive oil, as well as some freshly cracked black pepper and a bit of lemon zest before serving. A great balance of flavours and textures. One day I would love to try this with Pecora Dairy sheep’s milk curd in place of the ricotta/parmesan sauce.
if you did not want to make the pasta yourself, you could also use store bought dried orecchiette, though you may not be able to find green ones. It would be equally lovely though there is nothing quite like the texture of hand made fresh orecchiette, even the ones that are slightly misshapen. We just call that rustic.
If you follow me on Instagram you would have seen that my second cookbook Adriatico will be released in September, 1st September in Australia and late September for the USA and Europe. There will be a few launch events before I head back to Italy on 20 September to run the (sold out) Trieste Tour. And there will probably be more launch events/collaborations after I come back to Australia from mid October to November.
- READINGS: 30th August 2018 at 6.30pm I will be launching the book at Readings Bookstore in Carlton, Melbourne. No booking is required, it is free, and there will be wine (yes! Thanks to my publisher Paul McNally at Smith Street Books). I will be interviewed by Claire Davie, restaurant reviewer, food writer, and once author of the (retired) popular Melbourne Gastrome blog. She also happens to be my niece so it will be loads of fun chatting with her, signing books, and meeting all of you.
- BOOKS FOR COOKS: Tuesday 4th September at 6.30pm – I will be giving a book talk at the new Victoria Market shop of this speciality book store. I am thrilled to be invited here to chat and share food and wine with you, I LOVE this shop! A small fee with be charged and you can book via this Eventbrite page.
- RECREATION HOTEL NORTH FITZROY: I will be collaborating with The Rec who will be cooking a 5-course Adriatic themed dinner (recipes from my book) on Sunday 16th September at 6pm. There will be optional matching regional wines with each of the courses. Books will be available for purchase and I will be signing them (if you want me to!). Places are strictly limited and it is sold out, so you will have to be quick; click here for more information and to book.
If you live in Melbourne, I hope to see you at one of the events. Books will be in shops in about a month but you can pre-order them via a number of sites : Amazon, Booktopia and a whole lot more (just search online). I will also be selling them during my cooking classes.
And there have been a couple of podcasts and interviews too if you would like to listen or read more:
- A fun chat with Gary Mehigan about my connection with Italy and food for his podcast series “A plate to call home“
A chat with Carlo Oreglia on SBS radio about my book Adriatico (in Italian)
An interview with Tania Pietracatella from the Little Italian School in Perth about what it means to be Italian.
Spinach orecchiette with fennel, ricotta and walnuts
1 small bunch English spinach (you will have quite a bit left over)
350g semola rimacinata (semolina flour), plus extra for dusting
1/2 medium to large fennel bulb
12 walnuts in the shell, shelled, broken into pieces and toasted in the pan
splash of milk
1/4 cup parmesan cheese, grated
1/2 small lemon, zest only
extra virgin oilve oil
freshly cracked black pepper
Wash your spinach several times in water (as there is often a lot of mud attached to it), and remove damaged leaves and thick stems. heat a large saucepan on the stove on medium to high heat and when it is quite hot, add the spinach (still dripping with water). Stir the spinach around the hot saucepan until it wilts completely. Remove from the heat and lift the spinach out with tongs and place on a colander to drain. You can save the water at the bottom of the pot which should now have turned green (to make spinach risotto), or use it as vegetable stock for soup (I often freeze the leftover water if not using immediately). Allow the spinach to cool and then wring gently with your hands. It should still be a bit wet. Pop it in a mini processor and process to form a fine paste which will be helped by the bit of water you have left in the spinach. You will need 2-3 teaspoons of the paste. save the rest for use through the week (eg. in an omelette, or stirred through ricotta with a handful of parmesan and an egg and baked on low heat to make a savoury ricotta cake). To make it easier you could use frozen spinach in place of the fresh.
To make the orecchiette, place the semolina flour on your work surface in a pile and make a well in the centre. Add 2-3 heaped teaspoons of spinach paste and as much chilled water as you need to bring the dough together, initially by mixing the water and spinach into the flour with a fork and then using your hands. Knead the dough until it is firm but still able to be kneaded. Cover (I use a small upturned bowl) and allow it to rest for about 30 minutes
Roll out your pasta into ropes and cut into 1-2 cm pieces and shape into orecchiette. Scatter on extra semolina flour to stop them sticking and cover them with a clean cloth until ready to cook. There are lots of clips on Youtube that show you how to shape orecchiette, here is one of them
Wash the fennel bulb, trim the stalks and cut the bulb through the middle lengthways to obtain half a bulb. Cut wedges/segments of fennel about 1cm thick at the outer surface of the bulb, trying to keep the central stalk intact (which will hold the layers of the bulb together even though they will be in wedges). Toss in olive oil and scatter on fine seasalt to taste. Place a griddle pan (ideally with lines on it) on the heat at medium-high. Grill the fennel wedges on each side until cooked through and grill lines have formed. Set aside in a warm place until ready to use.
Place the ricotta in a bowl and mash with a fork. Add a splash of milk and a handful of parmesan, enough so the mixture turns into a thickish sauce. Taste and adjust for salt (with a bit more parmesan if you like). Place in a frypan (that will fit all the pasta you have made) and warm through on low heat.
Place a pot of salted water to the boil and cook the orecchiette until cooked to our liking (the fresh ones will only take 2-3 minutes to cook depending on their size; dried will take much longer). Lift them up with a strainer and toss into the ricotta, turing the heat up to medium. Add as much pasta water as you need to the ricotta and pasta so that the latter is well coated. Spoon onto your serving dish and top with fennel wedges, toasted walnut pieces, reserved fennel fronds, lemon zest and freshly cracked black pepper. Drizzle on extra virgin olive oil to taste and serve immediately.