Wednesday, 31 July 2013

"Riso Freddo" sounds better than "Cold Rice" - Italian Rice Salad

Summer in Italy for me means Riso Freddo. Cold Rice. “Cold Rice” doesn’t sound too appealing in English, does it? It sounds far more exotic when I say it out loud in Italian “Welcome to my home! Have some Riso Freddo for dinner in this hot July evening! Let’s dine al fresco!” but in English “Yo! Are you hungry? Here’s some cold rice”. It doesn’t work.

I also cannot find the inspiration to write about cold rice but I could potentially be a little more poetic about Riso Freddo. I could tell you about how Ma made it on repeat when the heat of summer hit Italy and about how clever it was of her because she worked full time and making a big bowl of the stuff in advance meant she could feed both Pa and me without much effort after a long day in the office. I could tell you about spending my day sneaking spoonful after spoonful out of the bowl and trying to smooth the rice down so that she would not notice the gaping holes I left behind with each visit. I could tell you how I specifically tried to fish out the pieces of mortadella and tomato, that I’d layer them with a basil leaf plucked straight from the plant and swallowed it all whilst telling myself that would be the last I ate until dinner time. I could tell you that I was obviously lying and that 5 minutes later I’d be back. I could tell you about my dislike for large quantities of mayo and of how Ma then decided to substitute it with yogurt (much better) going against local tradition. I could tell you that she is Panamenian and therefore has nothing to justify to local tradition. I could tell you that I love the tang and cooling feeling a mouthful of her riso freddo provided me with when at 5 in the afternoon the sun still felt nowhere near going down and the only respite I could get was from standing in front of the open fridge. I could tell you that its ingredients are so simple yet so satisfying that it’s the first dish I rush to make the moment warmth kisses England. I could tell you that you can make it with pickled vegetables out of a jar or with fresh vegetables or with a mixture. I could tell you that it doesn’t matter as long as you love it. I could also tell you that you can replace mortadella with hotdogs. I could tell you that it actually works really well and that if we can’t get good quality mortadella both Ma and I use hotdogs. I could tell you, again, that it doesn’t matter as long as you love it.

I could tell you all those things but instead I will tell you that here is the recipe and that you should try it for yourself and imagine my parents and me sitting on the balcony swatting away mosquitoes and telling each other about our days whilst piling more and more riso freddo on our plates. The village descending into its nightly calm. The breeze blowing in light from the hills. That is a better plan.

Riso Freddo
Serves 2

250gr brown basmati rice
85gr mortadella finely diced
40gr provolone cheese finely diced
120gr raw courgette finely diced
60gr artichoke hearts (the ones from the jar) roughly chopped
20gr cocktail onions roughly chopped
115gr cherry tomatoes finely diced
10gr fresh basil roughly chopped
120ml natural greek yogurt
15ml red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Cook the rice to packet instructions ensuring it maintains some of its crunch.
Let cool to room temperature.
Mix the rice with all other ingredients in a big salad bowl.
Cover and let rest in the fridge for at least a couple of hours (better if overnight).
Take out of the fridge 10-15 minutes before serving.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Let's talk about dip - Crab dip

Let’s talk about dip, yes? I like dip. A lot.
If you are coming to mine for dinner likelihood is that you will be presented with a bowl of homemade dip as an enticing opener to our evening together. I will toast pita triangles, get out a bag of crisps and might even crack open a pack of carrot sticks (frankly, if I’m making you dinner mid-week AND presenting you with freshly made dip you will not judge me for using pre-cut carrots), arrange them artfully on a serving dish and nest amongst them a bowl filled with something of the savoury belief. Sometimes it will be vegetarian and sometimes it will contain animal flesh. Most times it will be made of whatever I have in my cupboard and what I could find at the corner shop in under 5 minutes before rushing home to get ready and welcome you as if I had everything under control like a Latin American Martha Stewart. I’m not one to pre-plan when it comes to dip.
I didn’t start making dip myself until about 5 years ago. I always bought my hummus from the supermarket (the nice stuff at £2 the tub, mind) and I was really quite partial to the mayo and cheese concoctions sitting next to it with alluring and exotic ingredients such as peas and mint or pecorino cheese: all ingredients that, of course, I would already have at home. I mean, I didn’t grow up in a household that *made* dip. Yes, in Panama dip is always at the centre of your average social gathering but we buy it; we buy the nice stuff but 90% of the time we sure don’t make it. And in Italy… Well, in Italy people don’t *do* dip. They do pesto and pates and light, mouth-watering spreadable mousse but not dip per se. A shame really as perfectly crisp and seasoned breadsticks would be the ideal weapon to attack a bowl of tangy and nutty muhamara. Or at least that’s my opinion. In Panama I tend to request sour cream and mayo based dips touting spinach (plentiful) and salmon (must have been on vacation) or artichoke and bacon; we serve the dip with crackers and wash them down with ice-cold beer whilst sitting in the lanai trying to find answers to the main questions of life “Who is going to drive home after all this beer?” “How dangerous is it going to be hailing a cab at 3am?” and “Shall I go buy more ice for the cooler before the store shuts down?”. Deep. Like dip.

The ingredients in my crab dip are a mixture of memories in the kitchens of my two homes just like my every day life. There is crab (duh!) like the crabs dad would buy just caught and still alive at 6am on the beach in front of our house in Maria Chiquita from the local fishermen. There are lemon zest, garlic and chives: the flavours of our Italian barbeques mixed with pork and lamb meats and pastas and salads. There is a pinch of cayenne pepper: a nod to dad's and granddad's obsession with chili and their resistance competitions. Need I say more?

Crab dip
Serves 2

125gr cooked white crabmeat (tinned will do. Honestly, why are you making life more complicated for yourself?)
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
75gr cream cheese
5ml (1 tsp) milk
10gr finely chopped chives
1 garlic clove finely chopped
A pinch of cayenne pepper
Salt to taste
Pita bread and carrot sticks for dipping.

Roughly chop the crabmeat so that you don’t end up with big lumps of it.
Mix the crab with all other ingredients.
Refrigerate for half an hour.
Serve with toasted pita bread and carrot sticks.