It's not entirely original of me to proclaim a love for Italian food. The Brits love their neighboring cuisine for its proximity and splendid simplicity easily replicated with British ingredients; New Yorkers for its cultural heritage rooted in the first (and most outspoken) Italian migrant population; the Japanese for the many ways it can be re-interpreted with local ingredients, like spaghetti with mentaiko spiced fish roe.
But for me, an appreciation grew into near-idolization when I had the honour to work with Italian chefs in London (and yeah, date one too). The culture, cuisine and cacophony of the Italian dinner table is irresistible.
I've met a small handful of Italians since moving to Beijing, but little did I expect to meet Meme, a young Chinese woman born in Wenzhou and transplanted to Venice at age 2. She is a Chinese woman with a 100% Italian soul and attitude -- fast-and-straight-talking, jubilant, tireless, full of life and a love of food.
We were lucky to have her dear little brother Michelangelo in Beijing. 19 years old and already a few paces into his journey to super-chefdom, he spent an afternoon with us to teach us the tricks of his trade learned in Michelin-starred restaurants as well as his culinary academy in Italy.
The night's mostly improvised menu began with a trip to Sanyuanli market, full of imported treats and seafood, and resulted in clams in a white wine broth; tiger prawns wrapped in prosciutto and fresh basil leaf; scallops baked with garlic breadcrumbs; two types of tortellini; and a Napoleone puff pastry with creme patissiere and strawberries. I hope the photos and tips below provide inspiration to cook up an elegantly Italian, simply delicious feast using a mix of imported and local fresh ingredients.
The menu and free-hand instructions for winging it. Assuming you are all foodies with some home cooking experience, these guidelines will lead you to some pretty delicious results and the freedom to improvise using your own creativity.
Clams in white wine broth
Sautée garlic and minced onions until soft. Add a generous 150mL - 200mL of dry white wine, simmer for 2 minutes to evaporate the alcohol, then add some cleanly scrubbed clams (about 500g) and chopped parsley.Cover and let steam for 2-3 minutes. Serve with crusty, freshly heated baguette for dunking in the sultry clam liquor.
Tiger Prawns in Prosciutto
Rinse tiger prawns (freeze them for a few hours to humanely kill them first). Peel the shells and legs off the bodies, then place 1 fresh basil leaf on the body; wrap with a single layer of prosciutto ham, and weave a toothpick through the ham and shrimp to securely fasten the ingredients. Bake at 200*C for up to 8 minutes or until just barely cooked through, to prevent toughness.
Baked Scallops in Breadcrumbs
Scrub the scallops very clean with a toothbrush. Open and discard "top" shell that isn't carrying the scallop flesh. Set aside in the refrigerator. Stir-fry breadcrumbs: heat up some olive oil and butter in a frying pan, add minced garlic and parsley, and when garlic is softened but not browned, add breadcrumbs and sautee until evenly coated and barely beginning to toast. Spoon breadcrumb mixture onto each scallop on a baking tray. Bake at 200*C for up to 8 minutes.
Recipe for fresh egg pasta follows Jamie Oliver's recipe:
Weigh 600g of "type 00" flour and put it in a heap on a clean kitchen counter. Make a well in the middle and add 6 eggs. Whisk with a fork, slowly incorporating the flour into the eggs in the center. Use both both hands and knead for about 3 minutes, fully incorporating egg and flour into a uniform ball of dough. For spinach pasta, boil spinach leaves in water, drain, puree in a food processor and knead into another batch of flour and egg dough.
Roll it out thinly, about 2-3mm thick and slice into squares about 7cm by 7cm. Put 1/2 teaspoon of filling onto each square of pasta -- don't be too greedy, since too much filling will explode out of the wrapper! For the pumpkin filling we steamed then pureed some organic pumpkin with salt and nutmeg; for the spinach ricotta, we put some blanched spinach, ricotta cheese, toasted pistachios, herbs, salt and black pepper through a food processor.
Pinch the filled pasta into a triangle shape, using water on the edges to secure the dough. Leaving one tip of dough pointing up, bring the two "feet" of the triangle together and secure with a big pinch. To link the two tortellinis, just loop one "foot" through a finished tortellini then pinch it together with the other "foot", like a chain.