Contadina's Blog

Living the contadini life among the olive groves

Pasta pronto – meals in minutes August 27, 2011

Filed under: Recipes — contadina @ 9:11 am

Italy: the home of slow food is also home to the ultimate fast food: namely, pasta. A satisfying plate of pasta can be faster, easier, and tastier than a takeaway and it will probably be a lot healthier too. All of the recipes listed below, as requested by our army of helpxchangers, take no longer than it takes to cook the pasta itself; and if you can boil water you can cook pasta. Buon Appetito !!

Pasta alla Crudaiola (pasta with raw tomatoes)

Crudaiola - the taste of summer

This is a light and refreshing pasta dish, perfect for hot summer days. The one thing crudaiola dishes have in common is uncooked tomatoes but other than that you can use your imagination. I marinated half a cup of olive oil with a couple of chopped garlic cloves, some chopped toms and splash of balsamic vinegar with some basil and salt and then tossed some just cooked penne (although any short pasta will do)  in the mix and put some grated cacioricotta (salty semi-hard cheese made with sheep and goats milk) on top. You could use any other cheese (fresh mozzarella would be good) or leave the cheese off, add capers, oregano, rocket, tuna etc etc.

Pasta alla Norma (aubergines in tomato sauce)

Sicilian perfection

This would probably push my 11-minute time limit, if I didn’t have a supply of ready roasted aubergines to hand. Whenever the oven is on I usually roast some diced aubergines to be used in dishes such as this, but you could just fry the chunks.

Put a pan of water on to boil and either fry or use ready roasted chunks of aubergines (one-cm cubes) with a chopped garlic clove and chilli. When the aubergines cubes have browned add passata or tomato sauce. When the water is boiling add salt and then add penne. When the pasta is cooked, drain and add some cacioricotta (or another cheese if you can’t get hold of it) mix and then pour over the sauce and mix well, with some basil before serving.

Courgette and lemon pasta

Courgette and lemon pasta

Pasta of your choice (penne or farfalle are good)
Three or four zucchini for two people
Garlic clove or two
Juice and zest of one lemon (you may find this too lemony, so go for half first and dips a bit of pasta in to taste before adding anymore
Good helping of pecorino or parmesan
Good splash of olive oil

Whilst boiling water for pasta, cut zucchine in half lengthways then thinly slice the whole way down, so you have lots of little crescents. Heat olive and add garlic and zucchini with a sprinkle of salt to the pan. You may want to do the zucchini in batches, depending on how many you are cooking for, but you want them softened rather than coloured. Keep stirring, to ensure all the zucchini are cooked. They should be ready when your pasta is. Add the lemon juice and seasoning and stir and then add the strained pasta on the top. Before mixing, add the cheese on top of the pasta and then mix everything up ensuring that the pasta is coated with everything.

Pasta alla Puttanesca

Pasta alla Puttanesca

good sized onion
garlic clove
chilli (fresh or dried)
anchovy fillet (I don’t use it but if you want to be authentic go ahead)
olive oil
pasta (usually spaghetti but penne also works well)
tomato (sauce, passata or fresh)
capers and black olives (as many as you like)
pecorino or parmesan cheese
herbs (oregano, parsley or basil)

Sweat onions, garlic and chilli in oil. If using anchovies cook this also until they go mushy. Then add tomatoes and simmer until reduced. When sauce is a good consistency add capers, olives and seasoning. Mix cheese with cooked pasta then mix with most of the sauce reserving a little to pout over each bowl of pasta and some more cheese if you want.

Pasta with spinach, mushrooms and sun-dried toms

This is my version of a meal I once had at Terre à Terre in Brighton – if you’ve not been and want to treat yourself to some amazing vegetarian food, I’d thoroughly recommend it.
I have recreated this dish several times using fresh parpadalle (any wide thin pasta would work well), mixed wild mushrooms, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, spinach and pine nuts but last night I changed the spinach for beetroot leaves, button for wild mushrooms, walnut instead of pine and I used dried spaghetti but it still worked pretty well.
Sweat mushrooms and garlic, until tender…don’t overdo it. Add leaves and cook until wilted. Add sun-dried tomatoes, seasoning and nuts. Mix with cooked pasta and add more olive oil if required.

Pasta alla Genovese

I mentioned fagiolini con pomodoro e cacioricotta the other week but another French bean dish, which is quick and easy and utterly delicious is pasta alla Genovese. As the name suggests this dish involves pesto…the ultimate fast food pasta sauce.

To make, boil water in a really large pan and then top and tail some french beans and peel a couple of potatoes before slicing them into batons of a similar size to the beans. When the water is boiled add linguine, beans and potatoes. Whilst everything is cooking make some pesto using just basil, garlic, oil, cheese and seasoning. When the pasta is cooked, drain and stir in the pesto.

Pasta alla boscaiola (mushroom, cream and tomato pasta)

Boscaiola, means from the woods, and can refer to any dish, which contains mushrooms: most often pizza and pasta. Recipes vary greatly – some are just mushroom-based whereas other include tomato and others tomato and cream. This is my attempt to recreate the version served up at a local osteria.

Pasta of your choice (I tend to use penne, but parpadalle works well too)
3 tbs olive oil
handful of fresh or frozen peas
knob of butter
1 onion
splash of red wine
150 ml of cream
500g sliced mixed mushrooms
1 can of toms or passata
Fresh parsley

Heat the oil, add the onions and cook over moderate heat until wilted. Add the mushrooms and butter and cook for a few minutes. Add the tomatoes and a splash of red wine and simmer gently until thick. Add peas after about six minutes and add the cream to the sauce when the pasta is ready. Season with salt and pepper and stir the sauce off the heat to ensure the cream gets mixed well. Add cooked pasta to the sauce (whatever variety you fancy) and parsley. Mix well and serve. For a non-vegetarian variety you could fry off some smoked pancetta cubes before adding the onions.

Risi e bisi, is so called because it uses small pasta shapes that are rice shaped, although any small pasta shapes will do. In our house it’s called cheesy peasy pasta and is a really good comfort food.  Fry an onion, add peas, pasta shapes and stock and cook over low heat until cooked. Keep stirring from time to time and add more stock if necessary. When the pasta is cooked add cheese mix well.

I guess that spaghetti con aglio, olio and peperoncino is the ultimate easy pasta…just heat oil and add a couple of thinly sliced garlic and a thinly sliced chilli and heat over a low heat until the garlic is golden brown. Add salt and remove from the heat before adding parsley. Drain cooked pasta and toss with the garlic and chilli oil and serve either with or without cheese.

Other pasta pronto dishes include many that have flavoured tomato sauces. These include penne arrabbiata (garlic and chilli providing the oomph) spaghetti all ‘amatriciana (heat some diced pancetta before adding onions and tomato sauce for a slightly smokey sauce) or add anchovies for a full on fishy-flavoured sauce.

These are our favourite fifteen-minute pasta dishes. What are yours?


Pickled in Puglia August 6, 2011

Filed under: Pergola,Recipes — contadina @ 7:18 am

As promised, here is the recipe for the “better than Branston chutney”. If you like this spicey style of dark chutney with a good good mix of fruit and spice, I promise you’ll never buy another jar of Branston again. I doubled up the ingredients listed below to make 10 decent sized jars.

I can't believe it's not Branston

3 lb purple plums (damsons would work just as well)
2 heaped teaspoons ground ginger
2 small cinnamon sticks
1 oz allspice berries (I didn’t have any, so put 1.5 tsp of ground allspice in)
1 dessert spoon of cloves
2 pints malt vinegar (I used a mix of white wine and red wine vinegars and balsamic)
1 lb cooking apples
3 large onions
3 cloves garlic
1 lb seedless raisins (I used sultanas)
1 lb soft brown sugar I’ve seen similar recipes, which add another 1lb of sugar, but I think chutney shouldn’t be overly sweet – it needs a bit of sweet and sour!
2 tablespoons sea salt

De-stone plums and put fruit in a big pan. Core the apples but leave the peel on, and finely chop them by hand or in a processor. Then process the onions. Add both to the pan. Crush the garlic and add that, followed by the ginger, raisins, sugar, salt and the vinegar. Stir thoroughly. Wrap the cinnamon, allspice (if using whole) and cloves in muslin and pop in the pan.

Bring everything to the boil, then lower the heat and let the chutney simmer very gently for 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally, but more often towards the end to prevent it sticking to the bottom. When almost all the vinegar has disappeared and the chutney has thickened pour it into the hot, sterilised jars. Cover each with a waxed disc and seal tightly.

Leave for at least a couple of months, but the longer you leave it, the more chance the flavours have to mellow and mingle. It’s a shame we finished the final jar of last year’s chutney a couple of weeks ago as I’d have been able to show you how dark it gets. I also introduced a new taste sensation to our merry band of helpers who now enjoy the sublime combination of chutney with houmous.

Elsewhere, the screed has been laid for the new pergola and we’ve had two large pallets of stone slabs or chianche de Trani delivered. We cemented some rebar into the floor to be used to form legs for a 3-metre long stone banqueting table. I know it’s not very green to build a cement floor but we did, at least get to reuse  old blocks to create the form and got rid of a mountain of old flooring rubble. You see chianche floors in many trullis and courtyards as well as roads in the old parts of towns.

Jamie ensures there is a level playing field

From my limited research it seems that limestone flooring in Puglia has been popular since at least the Middle Ages.

If you click on the photo, you’ll see some of the chestnut poles we will use to build the pergola structure with. We get them from a guy who copices a 7-hectare chestnut wood in Calabria. He can supply poles of almost any dimension, so we also picked up some thinner ones to be used to make an outdoor shower cubicle with.

The fencing also comes up to the house now, so the dogs are just getting used to not being able to run over to next door’s to chase birds.


Pergola and pomodori – many hands make light work July 30, 2011

Filed under: Garden,Pergola,Recipes — contadina @ 6:53 am

Just a quick update, as I’ve been too busy to blog. Some cooler weather has meant that, with the help of our current helpxchangers, we’ve managed to get quite a lot done.

The girls soon move our rubble mountain

Breaking rocks in the hot sun

First off Amy arrived and she spent a week helping Jeremy cement posts and the top of the wall, which comes up to the house. She’s also been great helping around the house and helped me jar some more passata.

Then Jamie and Carlena arrived and together with Amy they managed to move our mountain of rubble (from when we had to dig up and relay a couple of floors) to become the hardcore base of our new pergola floor.

Jamie and Jeremy then had fun smashing all the rubble and found that compacting it with our roller-assisted rotavator (gas bottles filled with water) worked a treat. Next week they’ll lay the screed and it’s big enough for a table to sit twelve and a decent dance floor.

You put this here for us right?

The first sand delivery to lay the pergola screed

The girls meanwhile made our final batch of passata – bringing the grand total up to 140 bottles to keep us going throughout the year.

Each time I make passata there is slightly more than my giant water-bath will hold, so I’ve also made tomato ketchup and tomato concentrate.

estratto drying on the trullo roof

Tomato flavours intensify in the sun

Sun-reduced concentrato as it’s called in Puglia or estratto di pomodoro, as it’s known in Sciliy,  is so rich in intense flavour and colour that it puts any shop bought tomato concentrate to shame. To make, just pour passata into shallow dishes and cover with sea salt. It’s traditional to spread it out on wooden boards, but shallow dishes are easier to clean. Leave out in the sun each day and remember to bring in each evening. Keep stirring it to help the sun dry the paste faster. In our last heatwave it only took me two days to make estratto. Once it has become a deep, dark red colour and taken on the consistency of clay fill small jars with it and cover with olive oil. The jars will keep for a year but store in the fridge once opened, always covering with a layer of oil.

We’ve another heatwave on the way so I’ll sun-dry some tomatoes to store dried and under oil, and so complete this year’s tomato odyssey.

store under oil and liven up your sauces and soups

After two days this is the result

I’ll be making some “it’s much better than Branston” chutney today with our purple plums so remember to tune in next week for the recipe as it’s seriously good (I’ve got quite a few Italian’s hooked on it).


You say tomato, I say potato July 16, 2011

Filed under: Garden,Italian life,Recipes — contadina @ 6:09 pm

It's too bloomin hot

You’ll have to forgive my slackness on the blog-front but it has been seriously hot here for the past couple of weeks. We’ve had several days in the mid-40s while most days have been in the upper 30s. With nightly temperatures never dropping below 25˚ C it’s left us feeling pretty lethargic.  The only ones with any energy around here are the cicadas who are beginning their enthusiastic chatter at 5am, and that’s too damn chirpy for me.

Lots of lovely tomatoes

The heatwave has meant that we’ve managed to start jarring passata earlier than usual. Yesterday we made 26 bottles from around 40 kilos of tomato. You may think this doesn’t sound like a good return of tomato to sauce ratio; but the trick to making good tomato sauce/passata is to lay the tomatoes out for a couple of days before processing them, so their flavour intensifies and they aren’t too watery.

After cooking them a little to break them down, it’s also best to scoop them out with a really large slotted spoon or colander before running them through a passata mill. By not including any watery juice, you can be assured of lovely thick sauce, which is intensively flavoured.  For further details, you can check out last year’s passata-making blog.

I’m hoping to make at least 150 jars to last us the year, so we’ll be buying a couple of 20-kilo crates every few days. We’ve quite a few helpxchangers coming over the next month, so I shan’t be short of passata-making assistants. We’ll still add our own tomatoes, but at €8 a crate, this saves our precious water supply. You may have noticed that I seem to up the amount I make each year, but homemade passata is infinitely better than any you can buy in a supermarket.

We sampled the leftover passata with spaghetti, french beans and cacioricotta. Just boil the beans with the spaghetti, drain and then mix some cacioricotta and then sauce in before eating. Cacioricotta is a southern Italian speciality and is made from a mixture of ricotta and either sheep or goats cheese or a mixture of both. It’s quite salty and strongly flavoured but imparts a wonderful creaminess to pasta dishes. If you ever see some for sale I seriously recommend you buy some as it works really well with any tomato-based sauce.

Fagiolini con pomodoro e cacioricotta

We dug up the Spunta potatoes a few weeks back and I can report that they have a really good flavour and consistency. So far I’ve only used them for potato salad and pasta alla Genovese and they worked well in both recipes. We didn’t get any monster-sized spuds and it was an average yield, but we pretty much just stuck them in the ground and left them to their own devices owing to focussing all our time and energies to repairing the front walls. We’ll definitely grow them next year, only with lots of manure and see if we can’t get a bumper crop of monster-sized potatoes.


The great wall of Ceglie June 26, 2011

Filed under: diy,dry stone walling,Garden — contadina @ 9:26 am

We (royal we being used here as it was all Jeremy’s hard work) have finished the front wall repairs, complete with new fence; built some pillars and added our wombled gates.

The front wall in all its glory

The gates still need a good clean, some anti-rust treatment and a lick of paint, as well as some bolts to the ground and we still need to add a course of blocks and something to top the gateposts; but our land is secure at the front and the dogs can’t chase cars going up the lane anymore and we’re one step closer to being able to keep livestock.

Work began on January 2nd, when an obliging neighbour shared his dry-stone walling skills with Jeremy. After almost six months dry-stone walling (not continuously I might add) I thought I’d share some of the tricks of the trade learnt on the job.

As I blogged back in January dry-stone walling is like a giant 3-D jigsaw puzzle, where you start out with large flat-faced rocks on the outside, graduating to medium-sized rounded rocks as you build inwards, filling any gaps with smaller rocks.

Big stones, preferably ones with a flat face on at least one side, make up the outside faces of the wall on either side.  They often need slivers of stone to hold them in position and many need chipping to size. Then the inside of the wall is filled with medium-sized stones or larger stones which don’t have a flat-ish side.  Smaller pebbles are put between the in-fill and the faces as further support.  It is quite important that some of the facing stones extend back into the in-fill to tie the whole structure together.  As we needed a fence on top of the walls, Jeremy put a layer of cement on top of the wall.  This also helps bond the wall together.

Flat-faced stones on the outside

As he was building much of the wall in winter and spring, however every morning he spent laying the cement, seemed to attract rain or snow in the afternoon.  Not such a problem for the cement per se, but it left the top of the cement resembling a gravel path, so when it was all dried out, he had to paint the top of the cement with what’s called a slip – just water and cement – to seal it.  The slip has the added benefit of filling any little cracks in the cement that would otherwise hold water, which in a frost would expand and break up the cement bond.

Repairing the front wall was a mammoth undertaking and Jeremy’s going to continue to begin working on the side walls up as a far as the house and then take a long deserved break from breaking rocks in the hot sun.

Stone-walled chicken run

He’s definitely got the dry-stone walling bug though, as he’s just built a new chicken run using a dry-stone wall base, with the very able assistance of our recent Ozzie helpxchangers (thanks Kate, Ross and Tali). In this particular instance dry-stone walls were preferable to using blocks as they allowed us to compensate for a slant in the land. I think it looks mighty fine too, and it rather puts the adjacent run to shame, so we’ll have to give that a dry-stone makeover once we finish repairing the rest of the walls around our property. Ho-hum, only around another 800-metres or so to go!

And just because I can, here’s one last shot looking down the drive at one of the walls. We were a bit worried the fencing would spoil the walls but it hasn’t altered our panorama any and it looks rather grand.

Pretty as a picture


Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries June 2, 2011

Filed under: Garden,Recipes — contadina @ 6:48 pm

A morning's cherry picking

I apologise for my back in Blighty blog-break; although, it was great to catch up with family and friends and I covered a fair amount of London and the southeast on my travels.

As ever, my travels enabled me to visit a good selection of charity shops, where I managed to get myself a rather fetching “Year in Provence” outfit and a suitably Monty Don-ish summer ensemble for Jeremy. If only we had the time to float around the garden, glass in hand, marvelling at exotic flora.

In my absence, Jeremy continued his mammoth wall-building project and we had our wombled gates fitted today. A dry-stone wall maestro is coming at the weekend to join the now finished walls to Jeremy’s new pillars and then we only need to attach the fencing to posts that are already in place.

You’ll have to wait until then for pictures though as Jeremy has forbidden photos until the job’s finished. I think all this wall building is doing to funny things to him. He was going to stop the car yesterday to pick up a random rock he took a fancy to.

Since I’ve been back I’ve been preserving like crazy. The freezer is full of peas and cherries and we’ve enough cherry jam to last the year.

Able-assistant, Gaia

The first few bunches of oregano are drying and I’ve also begun to harvest the first capers and will continue to do so every few days until they stop producing in a few months time.

Like olives, capers need curing before eating. There are a variety of methods to do this, but this is the recipe that I favour. Leave capers in water for 48-hours changing the water after the first day. Then cover with rock salt for two days, squeezing the salty-caper mix gently every now and then.

Day five, rinse and cover in white wine vinegar for two days. Place in a jar and cover with a fresh vinegar/brine mix. I keep adding to a jar until its full. Just make sure the capers are fully covered in liquid. They’ll keep for a couple of years but store in the fridge once opened.

Courgettes have also started producing prolifically so they are featuring in most meals.

Elsewhere in the garden, a few green tomatoes have appeared, so it hopefully won’t be too long before we can enjoy them, but we’re probably a month away from seeing any other vegetables, other than salad crops, appear on the table.

On the fruit-front, a variety of figs (Colombri in dialect or Processotto in Italian) should be ready in a few days. I keep giving them a quick squeeze but they are not quite soft enough yet.

While the Morello cherries are pretty much all done, we’ve a few variety of red cherries that we’re enjoying now. I’ve had a couple of able assistants; although Gaia seems to have understood the phrase cherry picking, Piglet, meanwhile, needs to hone her technique a little, as she just shuts her eyes and opens her mouth before launching at them. Sometimes she gets a cherry, other times it’s just twigs and leaves. We’ve one other variety which fruits a little later that I’ll use to put under grappa (sotto spirito). Unfortunately I only know it by its name in dialect, which is cuore delle donne (ladies hearts). It’s, not surprisingly heart-shaped, has a firm skin and is great for steeping in alcohol and cherry-flavoured grappa really helps provide a warming kick in the winter months.

Piglet's more comedic approach

No thoughts of winter now though, I’m just off out to pick some more cherries.


Did someone say bees? April 26, 2011

Filed under: bees — contadina @ 8:52 am

You may remember how in my last blog I mentioned we were hoping for a wild swarm of bees to fly by? Well, we were eating lunch alfresco on Saturday afternoon when I heard a really loud buzzing drone just over the potato patch.

There were quite a few bees buzzing around there, not unusual as we have a patch of comfrey growing there too, but there weren’t nearly enough bees to warrant the sound.

On closer inspection we found the source; a swarm of bees had formed a ball in one of our smaller olive trees.  As we’ve had a couple of wild swarms build their nests in old olive trees we ran down to get a hive and placed it in their path.

Hanging around waiting for a new home

As dusk was approaching and with rain forecast, the bees were still clustered in a ball, three-metres up the olive tree. So we got a box and a ladder and Jeremy cut the branch of docile and dozing bees into the box and shook them into the hive before they knew what was going on.

Before placing the bees in the hive, we positioned it with it’s entrance facing south-east so the bees will receive the early morning sun, it will also, hopefully, help prevent them building cross-combs. We also placed the hive between two small trees, so we can hang shade over the hive during the height of summer, as it gets so hot here it can melt their comb, which will be especially fragile when new.

Happily re-homed

Bees all inside, we replaced the lid and left them to their own devices. Two days later, the hive  is abuzz with activity, so it looks like they’ve decided to stay.

For anyone else interested in keeping bees, I’d thoroughly recommend checking out a more natural approach to beekeeping, using top bar hives, as seen above. Unlike beekeeping using Langstroth hives, this is minimal interference beekeeping without the use of chemicals.

For further information, I’d recommend reading the Barefoot Beekeepers book available at both in PDF form  or in hard copy via Amazon. The biobees site also has free instructions on how to build your own top bar hive as well as a friendly and helpful forum. Another site worth checking is – a charity founded to conserve and protect bees, and promote natural beekeeping methods.

In other news, today is our fifth anniversary of living la vita bella, so we’ll be heading into town for a celebratory lunch later. It’s also, by default, Govanne’s ninth birthday (he came with the house and having spent his first four years living in a small caged area, when we first moved in, we decided today should be his birthday as it was the day he gained his freedom). A more loyal and happy hound you are unlikely to find. He makes a pretty good chief of security too, so happy birthday, big fella.

Teaching Govanne how to play five years ago