One of the positives of the last year is the number of lovely people I have ‘met’ since I started doing my Friday Cookalongs to pass the time during Lockdown . The Hey Pesto Cookalong Group has members who check in regularly from Italy, Scotland, England, Spain, Canada and of course Ireland – they’re like my cooking family❤
Since I introduced the Cookbook Cookalong in January I’ve been cooking from books in my own library. But I’m always open to suggestions and when Jess, our Canadian ‘ambassador’ was so enthusiastic about ‘Naturally Vegetarian’ I decided to order it .
This may sound over the top but from the minute it arrived I feel in love with the book – the feel, the weight, the layout and most of all the photography – the fact that I have similar serving dishes had nothing to do with it honestly!
I had never heard of the author, Valentina Sofrini, before but on researching her I discovered she is an Italian food photographer who after a move to New York decided to cook the food that she grew up with but with vegetarian emphasis. She returned to Italy to write about a year of seasonal , plant based cooking on her family farm in Gradara. The book is divided into sections on basic recipes, how to make pasta, seasonal menus and traditional pantry items and preserves. I could feel myself being transported to Italy as I read through it ( if only!)
So what did I cook:
The dish that topped my Facebook poll was Fennel Gratin with Saffron & Nuts (p.124) which includes Crumb Topping alla Romagnola (one of the basic recipes p49)
Now I can take or leave fennel – I like it with fish or in a remoulade but I wouldn’t have listed it in my top vegetables. Until last night that is – this gratin is a gamechanger! When I was making the crumb topping I thought it was too garlicky and might over power the dish but it didn’t . The addition of saffron is one I would never have thought of – I normally reserve it for Spanish dishes and I’d never heard of the powdered version .
I could enthuse longer but you’ll just have to try it for yourselves – trim and cut 4 fennel bulbs into wedges ( the recipe says 6 from each bulb but I did quarters – Italian fennel must be bigger!) Steam them for 10 mins and then allow to cool ( I skipped this bit) . Mix a pinch of saffron with 60 ml of olive oil and add in salt, pepper and nutmeg. Toss the fennel with this and the flavoured breadcrumbs, sprinkle over dried marjoram (just realised I forgot this bit , well i didn’t actually have any) , and 40g ground almonds . Bake for 15-20 mins at 200C until top is golden .
PS I used her hint and added grated parmesan 😉
I know the book is Vegetarian and the gratin would stand up as a dish on its own but in my mind fennel should be served with fish and when Jason, my wonderful fishmonger suggested seabass, I was sold . I pan-fried the fillets and served them with a lemony caper butter . It was a match made in heaven with baby potatoes as the bridesmaid!
About an hour before the Cookalong as Jeff was setting up teh cameras I decided we needed to try Chocolate Cake with Pears (p. 92 ) and am I glad I did 🤗 Even though I cheated and used tinned pears (time was of the essence!) this was a big hit – the caramelising them in brown sugar and rum helped. The recipe uses coconut oil, spelt flour, potato starch (I susbtituted cornflour) and yogurt among other ingredients . I may have had two mixers going before we went live but did I mention it was worth it ?
Do you have to ask ? Even if I never cooked from it I fell in love this book and I will definitely be trying more recipes from it . If you like Italian flavours, vegetarian dishes, eating in season and food photography then might I suggest you add this book to your library
PS It’s only €9.99 in Easons. at the moment …
If you missed my Naturally Vegetarian Cookalong you can catch up here
The Friday Cookbook Cookalong happens every Friday at 6.30 pm on my facebook page – why not drop by and say hello – we’re a friendly bunch 😊