A slow cooked sensation from our latest book…

Photo by Helen Cathcart

Our recently published book ‘Rome – Centuries in an Italian Kitchen‘ has been flying off the shelves and this is one of my favourite winter recipes from the book. We forget sometimes that the Roman empire extended far into Northern Europe, right up to North Northumberland in Britain’s case, so many of their dishes have been influenced by the produce available in both cold and warm climates. This is what I’d call a ‘rib-sticker’ the ultimate winter fuel.
Coda alla Vaccinara
Oxtail Stew
Beef stew in all its forms is essential to the average Roman kitchen. It gives nourishment, comfort and that sense of security that comes from a ritual that you perform so regularly you can’t imagine life without it. Even ragu, or meat sauce, that is made all over Italy is a form of stewed beef. Whether the meat is whole or ground, that marriage of beef and tomatoes cooked for a very long time together is hard to beat.
In Rome the Jewish have ‘stracotto’ meaning ‘overcooked’, born from a time when only the cheaper cuts were available to them. It was traditionally cooked on the ashes of a fire on a Friday so that it was still warm on the Sabbath when cooking was prohibited. Out of the many beef stew recipes, we have chosen to include Garofolato di Manzo made with a whole piece of meat pierced with spices, and Coda alla Vaccinara, which uses oxtail. You can usually order this from your butcher. It has a wonderfully rich, almost gamey flavour that after long, slow cooking produces meat that simply falls away from the bone. It is a good idea to do this dish a day before you want to eat it as the fat comes to the surface overnight and can be removed.
Serves 6
1.2 kg (2 lb 10 oz) oxtail
2 tablespoons sunflower oil
200 ml (7 oz) white wine
2 ´ 400 g (14 oz) tins tomatoes
1 heaped tablespoon tomato purée (paste)
1 small cinnamon stick
500 ml (17 fl oz) meat or vegetable stock, as necessary
For the soffritto
6 celery sticks with leaves, coarsely chopped into 5 mm (1/4 in) cubes
2 medium white onions, coarsely chopped
2 carrots, coarsely chopped
8 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 teaspoons fine salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 bay leaves
Fill a large saucepan three quarters full with water and bring to the boil. Add the oxtail and bring the water back to the boil, then remove the oxtail from the water. Pour the water and any scum away. Boling the oxtail like this will clean it and get rid of some of the fat.
Make the soffritto in a large saucepan; gently fry the vegetables in the olive oil with the seasoning and bay leaves for around 5–10 minutes over a medium heat until tender.
Heat the sunflower oil in a large frying pan over a medium–high heat and brown the meat all over. Transfer the oxtail to the soffritto and then pour over the wine. Allow it to reduce for a few minutes. Add the tomatoes, purée and cinnamon, and bring to the boil with a little water to wash out the tins. Turn down to simmer and leave to cook, covered, over a low heat for 5 hours or until the meat falls from the bones. You can also do this long cooking time in the oven: heat the oven to 160°C (320°F/Gas 4) and cook the stew in a casserole dish. During the cooking, turn the oxtails from time to time to make sure they do not stick and top up with a little stock or water, if necessary, so that they are always covered. Serve with mashed potato, soft polenta or potato gnocchi.
For more recipes from the Roman kitchen you can purchase signed copies of ‘Rome – Centuries in a Roman Kitchen’ here.

Olive oil – Just like wine – a sublime grand cru or quaffable plonk?

When you think about choosing an olive oil think about how you would choose a wine- an expensive fine wine at one end of the scale to savour with something special or everyday, quaffable ‘plonk’ at the other.  In my kitchen I have little bottles of single estate extra-virgin olive oils, I buy them when I am in Italy or from Italian deli’s – I know their cost and I use them accordingly. I swirl them onto hot soup, dip bread into them and love them on tomatoes, scrambled eggs and avocados with a little salt. Just heavenly. I also have bigger bottles of extra-virgin olive oil made from a blend of olives from different areas. They are cheaper and I use these for cooking.
The colour, the fragrance and most importantly the flavour is determined by a vast range of factors.  The variety of olives grown, where they are grown, the quality of the soil and as always the weather during the growing season all play a part to give each oil its unique character.  Regional differences in oils therefore apply and within each group of regional oils, there will be further differences but to generalise some examples would be that Ligurian oil is delicate, Tuscan is robust and fruity, Sicilian has a spicy kick and Pugliese is robust and peppery. As with wine it is best to match the oil to a food that is similar in strength of flavour.
Four bottles of oil from one olive tree
There is still something magnificent about the process of making olive oil even though it may have developed far from the early days of production when donkeys pulled giant stone grinders.  I went to the Filippo Berio plant in Tuscany and watched the first oil of the season being made.  To witness the gleaming machinery go into action on a vat of fruit picked that morning was amazing as the first absolutely luminous green oil poured into the first bottle.  We tasted it within seconds of being made on a spoon, it was as powerful in flavour as it was vibrant in colour. Then we ate it poured over Ribollita (thick Tuscan vegetable soup) to celebrate the new season just as Tuscans have done for years. There is a Tuscan word “fett’unta” meaning “oiled slice” which refers to the slice of bread used to dip into the oil, often rubbed with garlic – the forerunner of bruschetta.
The production is about separating the ‘pomace’ (the solid matter from the skin, pips and flesh) and the water from the oil. The olives that we saw being picked in Tuscany were on the turn between green and purple.  It is this mixed batch which is important to create the right flavour.
Olive oil
The harvested olives are separated from their leaves and then washed.
Olive oil
After being  milled to a paste the liquids are separated from the solids, traditionally by a hydraulic press or now usually by a centrifuge. The oil and water is then separated by a second centrifuge.  At the end of it all it will have taken around 5 kilos of olives for every litre of oil produced, that’s around four bottles of oil from one tree.
The separated extra-virgin olive oil from the first pressing is bright and luminous.
Olive oil
The leftover pomace is collected as used as fertiliser to improve the ground, nothing is wasted.
Olive oil
So what do virgins have to do with it all?
Well “extra-virgin” just refers to the oil’s purity, being the first cold pressed oil to be made from the olives.
When heat was used more frequently to separate the oil, the “cold pressing” was really important and made that oil stand out from the rest.  Heat is the enemy of flavour here and fortunately the steam and hot water processes that used to make this separation easier are now confined to history. So all the oil we know as ‘virgin’ is entirely cold pressed these days.  It is often not even mentioned on labels any more so don’t choose one just because it states “cold pressed” on the label, they all are.
The grading of olive oil is based on acidity – the lower the better. Higher acidity compromises the flavour of the oil.  Some of the best Italian extra virgin oils have an acidity of less than 0.1% but this is difficult to find outside Italy.
Now for some definitions set by the IOC, the International Olive Council:
Extra Virgin Olive Oil – considered the best, least processed, taken from the first pressing of the olives, less than 1% acidity. It should have no defects and have a fresh flavour of olives. It should not be extracted with the aid of chemicals and should be produced under the temperature of 30oC.  Any higher temperature would degrade the oil.
Virgin Olive Oil – has up to 2% acidity. This will be refined before being sold or if designated not fit for consumption will be known as lampante virgin olive oil.
Refined Olive Oil – has up to 0.5% acidity.
Olive Oil – undergoes processing, such as filtering and refining, often blended with refined and virgin olive oil – up to 3.3% acidity
Olive Pomace oil also known as Olio di Sansa – chemically extracted from the remaining olive pulp after the other oils have been removed, refined and then blended with virgin olive oil. Up to 0.5% acidity.
To taste oil
Firstly know that colour doesn’t matter. Professional tasters are often given blue glasses to taste oil as the colour disguises any natural colouring of the oil. A deep green oil is no better than a golden yellow one.
Flavours vary considerably. Many much sought after extra virgin oils from Tuscany and Southern Italy have a very peppery taste and can be beautifully pungent. In contrast there are those with a mild fruity taste or a herby scent. Just like wine you can find a whole host of background flavours from grass to tomatoes, hints of lemon or even a tinge of artichoke. And like tasting a wine swirl a small amount around in a glass in the warmth of your hand.  The heat will gradually release the scent of the oil.  Smell the oil first and then take a small sip.  Swill it around your mouth tasting it in all parts of your mouth and finally swallow.  Concentrate on the flavours, is it pungent and peppery, is it fruity (like tomatoes), or bitter?  Does the flavour last after you have swallowed it and most importantly did you like it?  Don’t be surprised if the oil makes you cough, that doesn’t mean its bad and it frequently happens on our olive oil tasting sessions. If however, the oil tastes bitter and unpleasant that means it has a defect and should be discarded.
Good for your sex life and makes you live longer?
Olive oil is the healthiest oil in our opinion (rapeseed producers may not agree!) with no cholesterol and it is rich in vitamins. Apparently olive oil can act as an aphrodisiac as the Vitamin E contained in it can boost your sex drive – that would explain the Italians!. Studies in Mediterranean countries have shown that the rates of heart disease is lower than other parts of the world. Many feel that this can be explained by the high olive oil content in the diet of the region. It is certainly an excellent source of antioxidants which help deter the effects of ageing and protect against heart attacks.
Katie’s Tips for using and storing:
People always ask me at our cookery school how to choose an olive oil.  If tasting is not an option my advice is to be guided by price in reputable shops.  After that it is personal taste, if you like an expensive oil use it for drizzling over soups and pouring over salads to get the most from the flavour.  A good reasonably priced oil from a known producer will be perfect for cooking. 
We use three oils in our restaurant kitchens:-  A good quality extra-virgin olive oil that is not too piquant in flavour is used to shallow fry and roast fish, meat and vegetables.  We also use this for salads.  For deep-fat frying we use a sunflower oil as it has a higher smoke point.  Finally our best extra-virgin packed with robust fruitiness is used for drizzling over food after it is cooked, such as soup or steak.  It lends a lovely finish to a dish, a glossy appearance and an appealing aroma as the food arrives in front of the customer. 
Store your olive oil in a cool dark place and definitely away from direct sunlight as heat can cause the flavour to change, but not too cold as it will solidify.
Once a bottle of oil is opened it starts to oxidise.  To enjoy at its best use within 6 to 8 weeks.
Colour has nothing to do with flavour or quality – green olives make green oil, riper black ones make  golden oil. Professional olive oil tasters use blue glasses so that the colour doesn’t distract them.
Use the stronger flavoured oils with care, they can dominate delicate flavoured fish or meat but be perfect to drizzle over pasta
Extra virgin olive oil has a low smoke point so we don’t use it for deep fat frying or when very high temperatures are required.

Our 6 Top Italian Cooking Ingredients

At La Cucina Caldesi we are frequently asked about our products and cooking ingredients, what to choose and where to source them. Stefano Borella, our Head Lecturer and Katie Caldesi have put together a list of FAQS.
Tinned Tomatoes 
For making sauces we recommend tinned plum tomatoes which are produced in Italy; good quality brands such as Cirio and Napolina are our favourites. Always use whole plum tomatoes avoiding the pre-chopped ones as these contain a lot of watery sauce and fewer tomatoes. The Italian best varieties in Italy come from the areas of Campania and Sicily which are famous for the San Marzano and Pachino varieties.  The Italian locals in these areas will tell you that the volcanic soil around the volcanoes of Vesuvius and Etna provide an amazing flavour to their produce.
To see how to make Classic Tomato Sauce watch our video.
Fresh tomatoes are best eaten in the summer months when ripe and full of flavour.  Always leave them out of fridge as this gives them a stronger taste.
For more information on tomatoes read our blog post: Stubborn Green Tomatoes
For how to save tomato seeds read our blog post:  Drying tomato seeds for next year’s crop
Extra Virgin Olive Oil and A Nation of Enthusiasts/Fanatics
To say Italians are enthusiastic about their olive oil is an understatement, it is much more than that, they are fanatical about it usually preferring their local variety and preferably made by someone in their family bearing their surname. They will swear to you it is the best in the whole of Italy and insist you try it. Of course it will probably be a single estate variety; that is one made from olives grown on one traceable estate and not blended with other olives. Usually it will be delicious and if offered a bottle you should accept and bring it safely home as if it were a rare and expensive wine.  And just like wine, once you have experienced this gorgeous, unctuous luxury you will be less than enthusiastic about going back to the own brand one on offer in your local supermarket.
To get the most out of this expensive commodity use the single-estate varieties to dress steak, swirl into soup or anoint vegetables. Use a more average olive oil for cooking. We often get asked how to choose a good olive oil and what to do with it, as there are so many conflicting suggestions in the media. Here are our opinions and tips on using olive oil.

  • Generally we use plenty of extra-virgin olive oil as it will make a positive difference to your finished dish. Italians use olive like the French use cream, it makes everything taste better. For a start a generous quantity in the pan will stop onions and garlic burning and give a rich deep flavour to your cooking. So don’t stint on its use, burnt onions will never make a good tomato sauce.
  • When choosing an oil If tasting the oil is not an option price is generally a good guide, £10 a litre is a benchmark.
  • Colour has nothing to do with flavour or quality – green olives make green oil, riper black ones make golden oil. Professional olive oil tasters use blue glasses so that the colour doesn’t distract them.
  • There are lots of good oils from all over the Mediterranean; we are not fixed that it must be Italian! There is a variance in taste and aroma depending on where the olives are grown, soil, weather and variety.   For this region different areas produce different flavours, for example a spicy oil will originate in Sicily, a herby delicate one from Liguria and powerful and grassy from Tuscany.
  • “Extra-Virgin” refers to the purity of the first oil made from cold pressing, this means keeping the temperature below 27c in the production as heat is an enemy of extra virgin olive oil.
  • Always keep oil in a dark cool place and use within 6-8 weeks of opening away from direct sunlight as heat can cause the flavour to change, but not too cold as it will solidify.
  • For centuries Italians have used extra virgin olive oil to cook with, the only exception is deep-frying which is done with seed oil as it holds a higher temperature for longer and has a higher smoke point.
  • Extra-virgin olive oil is just as fattening as any other oil but it is full of polyphenols that are anti-oxidants and are proven to be health beneficial.
  • Use the stronger flavoured oils with care, they can dominate delicate flavoured fish or meat but be perfect to drizzle over pasta or soup.
  • Extra virgin olive oil has a low smoke point so we don’t use it for deep fat frying or when very high temperatures are required.

For more information on olive oil and how it is made see our blog post here.
Of all cooking ingredients, Italians use salt generously in their cooking, more generously than we do in the UK but generally they eat less salty snacks and ready-meals than we do so probably our consumption balances out. In summer their climate is much hotter than ours so they may lose more salt through perspiration. Also their diet is based on recipes devised for feeding agricultural workers so their activity meant they could eat more salt. Our take on salt it that it gives a great flavour and won’t harm you if you don’t exceed the recommended limit of 6g per day.  Here are some more facts and tips about salt.

  • There are many different salts, that all have a different texture, character and flavour. In the cookery school we use fine sea salt from Trapani in Sicily for general cooking and coarse sea salt from Maldon, Essex for sprinkling over food such as focaccia.
  • Rock or mineral salt is found inland in salt mines made from fossilized sea beds, while sea salt (also known as bay salt) comes directly from an existing sea and is produced by evaporating sea water.  It is not always pure sodium chloride but these natural additives can give interesting results. Table salt is usually sea salt that has gone through an industrial process to refine it to pure sodium chloride and therefore gives consistent results. For best results look for salt without added anti-caking agents or iodine.
  • You will get a better flavour if you use salt during the cooking process rather than sprinkling it over your food at the end when it doesn’t mix into all the food evenly.
  • We can’t survive without salt although we have only been adding it to our food for the last few thousand years. Before that we obtained what we needed from meat and fish. It is believed that we when we learnt to grow crops and keep animals the proportion of meat and fish fell in our diets and we had to add supplement our diet with salt.
  • Salt is used to preserve food as it staves off bacteria and has the effect of drying out food. For more information on salt as a preservative see our book The Gentle Art Of Preserving published by Kyle Books 2013. Available from our shop (link).
  • As people realised how salt could be used, it was used more frequently and became harder to find.  Its value soared and as it was expensive to produce it became a one of the most important trades in the world giving power to those that had plenty of it.
  • Roman soldiers were paid in salt (in Latin “salarium”) hence the term “salary”.

Balsamic Vinegar – The most overused ingredient but also one of the best.
A teaspoon of thick, treacly aged balsamic vinegar is up there with the best – oysters, truffles, vintage champagne and caviar. For a foodie like me I am in heaven watching a drop of 30 year old Balsamic vinegar shyly make its way out of a bottle onto my just cooked steak or my salty, melt-in-the-mouth pork ribs. It would also be perfectly suited to a vanilla ice cream, fresh strawberries or a hunk of Parmesan cheese. However this extreme is far away from the watery sharp, mouth-puckering examples of balsamic we see sold in our supermarket for a fiver or less.
Balsamic vinegar is widely used, over-widely used, ridiculously so. I think people think it can be poured indiscriminately over every ingredient out there. As such it is the most overused ingredient to hit onto our shores in the 1980’s. Personally I wouldn’t put it near Mozzarella or fish or offend it by using it as a zig-zag or swirl on a plate. If it’s meant to be eaten put it on the food not the plate.
Balsamic vinegar is produced under strict guidelines in either Modena or Reggio in Emilia Romagna. It is usually made from the must of local grape varieties like Trebbiano but other varieties like Lambrusco are used. The must is cooked with sugar and a culture of bacteria, which break down the mixture and concentrate its flavour as it reduces. The vinegar is aged for at least 12 years in a series of barrels made from different woods: oak, chestnut, cherry, acacia, juniper, ash and mulberry. The water from the mixture evaporates over the years as the vinegar reduces in volume. After this time it can be called Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale. After certification it can then only be sold in the official bottles with a different coloured seal depending on the years of age.
There are of course crate loads of cheaper versions on the market, not all of which are bad or useless. In fact we stock one called Dodi which we really like, it has a rich caramel flavour to balance the acidity of the vinegar and is called Buon di Condimento as it cannot be called Balsamic Vinegar. It isn’t 12 years old but also not expensive. This we use for making up salad dressings, adding to sauces or giving acidity to a wild boar casserole.
To make a balsamic reduction you can add sugar to regular balsamic vinegar and reduce it down over heat. This will thicken and sweeten it to use in place of the real thing. Just don’t get carried away with it!
To learn how Balsamic Vinegar is made see our blog post here.
Flours and the mysterious “00”
It constantly seems strange to me that we don’t have a British version of the fine, white 00 flour that is used widely over Italy. We use it in the school and at home for making pasta, pizza, cakes, sauces and dusting fish or meat before cooking. It has the texture and feel of talcum powder making it easy to blend into sauces and turn into silky soft pasta. Its has less gluten than strong bread flour so it has less elasticity – a useful thing when you are trying to roll out a pizza or pastry than usually shrinks back with stronger flours.
00 refers to the number of times it has been through the mill in this case the most. Wholemeal would be a grade 2 flour meaning it has been through the mill the least number of times. Each time it goes through the mill more bran is taken away. Semola and Semolina means semi-milled indicating it is coarser than 00 flour, having the yellow coating to the endosperm included in the flour. Semola rimacinata is more finely ground and used to make pasta and bread in Southern Italy.
Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano?
In the school we use both in cooking or eat them on their own. Here are some of the differences and tips to using and storing the cheeses:-

  • Grana Padano is usually cheaper than Parmesan as it has not been kept as long. Many kitchens will therefore cook with Grana to keep the cost down but not lose on flavour.
  • Parmigiano Reggiano is usually older than Grana and therefore tends to have a firmer texture and a stronger flavour – having said that aged Grana is available so you need to look at the labels to see how old the cheeses are.
  • Both should be stored wrapped in muslin, baking parchment or cling film and kept in the fridge.
  • If they are to be eaten on their own, in hunks perhaps with Balsamic vinegar, allow the cheeses to come up to room temperature to maximise the flavour.
  • Both are a good source of energy so have a hunk with a sliced apple for an instant snack instead of something sugary.
  • Don’t throw the rinds away as they can add great flavour to stock.
  • Either cheese is often added to Italian recipes and not necessarily to make them taste cheesy. They seem to work as a flavour enhancer to other ingredients bringing out a wonderful umami sensation to dishes.

To learn how Parmesan cheese is made see our blog post here.