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Nick Risidi, of Amici Ristorante in East Parade, Keighley, revisits his Italian roots for another taste of the Mediterranean
THE origin of Italian cuisine is a fascinating one.
The beginnings of the dishes that we know and love today are said to date back to Roman times. The Roman Empire was vast, stretching across the Mediterranean, the Middle East and North Africa. As the Roman Empire conquered different areas, they picked up different ingredients to use in their cooking, which have shaped the cuisine over the years.
There are staple ingredients that have been used since the beginning and are still used today, such as wine, olive oil, bread, vegetables, legumes and cheeses. Pasta, of course, one of the main ingredients that we still use today, is traced back to when the Etruscans conquered Rome in 800BC. Food historians have identified a mural, found in an Etruscan tomb, which depicts the making of pasta. It depicts cooks mixing flour with water, using tools such as a rolling pin and a cutting machine to prepare it. Another early influence on pasta is said to come from the Greeks, who introduced makrios, an early form of short pasta, thought to be a predecessor of macaroni.
In the Middle Ages, after the fall of the Roman Empire, the region was conquered by many different groups all of which brought their own cuisines and flavours to the country. Religions also started to shape the diets of different groups, especially around a particular day, like religious holidays.
The Renaissance greatly altered cuisine in Italy, seeing more influence coming in from neighbouring European countries. Food started to become more than just something to consume or trade, it was a source of enjoyment and a way to socialise, and the wealthy started staffing their kitchens with professional chefs. It was during this time that the Spanish, who were ruling Naples, introduced tomatoes into Italian cuisine – something that is now a staple in Italian cooking. Other foods introduced at this time include vegetables like courgettes, beans, corn and peppers, as well as things like chocolate, which is also very common in Italian desserts.
The reason why, these days, Italian recipes still differ from region to region, is because of the way history has shaped the country. When Italy unified, in the mid-19th century, the distinct flavours of the different geographical regions of the peninsula formed Italian cuisine as we know it. And since then, this wonderful and varied idea of Italian cuisine has itself been exported to other countries, influencing what is eaten there. The USA, for example, has areas with strong Italian influences.
Without a doubt, no matter where the different elements came from, pasta is a much-loved dish in Italy and around the world. Italians do it well, with so much variety that there is almost always a pasta dish to please everyone.
This week I will be sharing with you a recipe for a creamy vegetable pasta dish, made with spring vegetables and fettuccine. Quick, easy and delicious. Perfect for a spring evening.
2 large leeks, trimmed and sliced
150g half-fat crème fraîche
1. Heat olive oil in a large skillet until it is nice and hot. Add 200g of diced chicken breast to the pan and cook until the chicken starts to brown.
2. Fill a large pan with water and add a little salt before placing the pan on a high heat and bringing the water to the boil, ready to cook the fettuccine.
3. Add your fettuccine to the pan of water. The length of time you cook your pasta will vary depending on the instructions on the packet.
4. Trim your leeks before thinly slicing them. Add the leeks to the pan with the chicken and cook until the chicken is thoroughly cooked and the leeks have softened.
5. Add the crème fraîche, stirring well so that it thoroughly and evenly coats the chicken and the leeks. Leave to simmer until everything is thoroughly cooked.
6. When your pasta has 2 minutes to go, add the frozen peas to the water too. Cook your pasta in accordance with the cooking time suggested on the packet – the total cooking time will vary depending on the type of pasta that you are using. Cook for the maximum amount of time if you like your pasta soft, or for slightly less time if you prefer your pasta al dente.
7. Once your pasta and peas are cooked, drain well before adding to the pan with the chicken, leeks and crème fraîche. Toss the pasta well to evenly distribute the chicken and the vegetables.
8. Divide the pasta between four pre-warmed bowls. If you like, you can grate some fresh Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and sprinkle it over the top to finish the dish off nicely.
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