“I was born in a small medieval town called Molfetta on the coast of Puglia – it’s a place influenced by many cultures and civilizations – from Greek and Latin to Arab, Normans, French and Spanish, which are very much alive today, preserved in our language, traditions, way of life and food. Although I moved to Britain around twenty years ago, I have tried to keep in touch with my roots and recreate the simplicity of Puglian cuisine in my London kitchen.
My favourite meal as a child was Puglian focaccia – which I learnt to bake from my grandmother – and stuffed yellow peppers, delicate and tasty, which remind me of my frequent visits to the public wood-fired oven with an earthenware pot in my hands.
Puglian cuisine is healthy, and based on simple, fresh ingredients that include vegetables, fish and olive oil. Also, most of its dishes are quick to make and not overly elaborate. Children love it just as much as adults. It’s very nutritious and encourages children to eat a great variety of food, especially vegetables, which are so good for a balanced and healthy diet.
My children enjoy deciding on the menu, buying the ingredients together – especially from food markets – and prepare pizzas and cakes to be baked. I am confident that when they grow up, they’ll follow on my footsteps and cook for their own families – and hopefully for me too!
My favourite recipes in my book are spaghetti with roasted tomatoes, because it’s absolutely delicious and takes literally 10 minutes to make; and my own version of pesto with courgettes and almonds, to be paired with gnocchi or fusilli pasta. It doesn’t have garlic in it, so it won’t trouble your digestion and is easy to make. The third one, for my son’s packed lunch, is pasta salad with raw tomatoes. It brings out all the flavour of the Puglian olive oil and I can prepare it in the morning even with my eyes half-closed.
My store cupboard is never without pasta, tomato passata, olive oil, a pack of lentils and breadcrumbs. I can cover a lot of kitchen ground with these five simple ingredients. My favourite meal is spaghetti with fresh clams, because my husband is the real maestro at this dish and I can relax while he tinkers in the kitchen.”
We tend to eat lentil soup throughout the autumn and winter months, although this dish is welcome in our household all year round. Lentils are also associated with New Year’s Eve in Puglia and throughout the Italian peninsula, when we prepare a dish called cotechino e lenticchie (fresh sausage with lentils). It’s cooked at midnight in the hope that the more lentils you eat, the more money you’ll make in the new year.
½ onion, finely sliced
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
4 cherry tomatoes, halved
500g Italian or French small green lentils
3 sprigs flat parsley leaves, roughly chopped
2 bay leaves
½ vegetable stock cube
1 tablespoon grated parmesan
300g arborio or other risotto rice
In a saucepan, heat up 1 tablespoon of olive oil over a medium heat and sauté the onion and the garlic for a few minutes, then add the carrot, celery, tomatoes and lentils.
Add 2 litres of cold water, cover with a lid and bring to the boil, then take the lid off and add the parsley, bay leaves and stock cube. Season with sea salt. At this point reduce the heat and simmer for about 25–30 minutes, until the lentils are tender and some of the liquid has evaporated. Stir the lentils from time to time and add the Parmesan when they are half-cooked, to give extra flavour.
Meanwhile, bring a deep, tall pan of salted water to the boil and cook the rice until it is al dente, then drain it.
Separate the lentils from the rest of the vegetables and add to the rice with some of the broth in which they were boiled. Serve hot. When puréed, this dish is ideal for babies.
Find more recipes in Elisabetta’s book, Mammissima: Family Cooking from a Modern Italian Mamma