Boasting honey, figs, grapes, nuts and sweet wine, this Italian feast would surely have won the approval of Bacchus himself. When I think about good food, when I dream about delicious dishes bringing together the simplest ingredients to create something truly magical, when I picture myself being served an incredible meal in an idyllic setting, I tend to find myself transported to Italy.
It’s been a few years since I’ve travelled in Italy and I long to return. My parents are in Tuscany right now and as you can imagine I am extremely jealous. My step-mum Sue has been sending me droolsome updates on Whatsapp, replete with photos, documenting their food adventures. There have been accounts of wonderful salads with chicken, ravioli in a walnut cream sauce, the thinnest pizzas with just one or two toppings, grilled sea bass with roast courgettes, fritto misto in the lightest of batters, fagiolini with fine green beans and bacon in tomatoes and garlic. Oh and lots of gelati with figs and cherries… The list goes on. It’s been pure torture.
So when Expedia challenged me to come up with an Italian meal for their #expediaworldonaplate challenge, I knew I would be taking my inspiration from Tuscany.
I’ve wanted to try this chicken dish for a little while. It’s based on a Tuscan recipe I discovered in Claudia Roden’s wonderful book, The Food of Italy, which offers a region-by-region culinary tour of this fine land. In her introduction to the chapter on Tuscany, Roden writes,
Tuscan cooking is the simplest in the whole of Italy, but it is not poor; at is best it can be exceptional. What makes it so good is the presence of wine and olive oil, the use of herbs, especially sage, rosemary and basil, and the cooking methods: grilling over chestnut and vine embers and deep-frying in olive oil. Writers describe it as sincere and serene…
This simple chicken, pollo con uva e vino dolce, is for me Tuscany on a plate; sincere and serene. The sticky, slightly caramelised grapes, mellow garlic and earthy rosemary in the sweet Marsala wine are a heavenly and somehow comforting partner for the tender pieces of chicken. In Roden’s version, chicken quarters are used, but I have opted for thighs and drumsticks, and whereas hers is cooked on the hob, mine is baked in the oven. (I have an Aga and maximise use of the ovens whenever I can.) It’s true Tuscan simplicity.
I served my chicken with fagiolini al pomodoro, green beans with garlic, tomatoes and bacon, a dish my parents have been enjoying on holiday. It’s often eaten as a first course in place of soup or pasta, but I think it also makes a perfect accompaniment to meat and fish.
For dessert I created this sumptuous semifreddo with honey, figs (both fresh and dried) and walnuts. It’s light and creamy in texture, very much like a frozen mousse, with delightfully chewy, crunchy bits, but incredibly rich too without being overly sweet. Suitable for kids and adults, it’s an extremely sexy pud. Bacchus would certainly approve.
It’s easier to make than ice cream as there’s no churning involved, although it does start with a custard which requires a little patience. You can freeze the semifreddo in a rectangular tub or mould and serve in slices like a terrine, or simply scoop as I did. I tasted the mixture before it went in the freezer and it was impossible to stop at just the one spoonful. Another taste of Tuscan heaven…
Italian baked chicken with grapes and Marsala
4 tbsp olive oil
2 sprigs of rosemary
8 chicken pieces (thighs and/or drumsticks)
salt and pepper
6 whole garlic cloves, peeled
200ml Marsala wine
500g seedless white grapes, washed
Preheat oven to 200°C / gas mark 6.
Set a large casserole over a medium heat and melt the butter with 1 tbsp of the oil. Add the rosemary and chicken pieces and lightly brown the chicken, turning the pieces and adding a little salt and pepper. Throw in the garlic cloves and allow them to colour a little before pouring in the wine.
Bring to a simmer, pop on the lid and bake in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes until the chicken is cooked through and tender. Remove the lid towards the end of the cooking time to reduce the sauce.
Meanwhile, heat the remaining oil in a large frying pan over a low heat and add the grapes. Fry gently for 10 to 20 minutes, turning the now and again. They’re ready when they are just soft and beginning to caramelise.
When the chicken is ready, pour the grapes over and bring to the table in a warmed serving dish.
Fagiolini al pomodoro
300g green beans, topped and tailed
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced
4 rashes smoked bacon, chopped
3 tbsp olive oil
6 plum tomatoes, roughly chopped
handful of basil leaves, torn
salt and pepper
Bring a large plan of salted water to the boil and cook the beans for around 5 minutes until just tender. Drain and set aside.
Fry the garlic in the oil for a minute or two before adding the bacon and cooking through. Then add the tomatoes, basil and season well. Cook for 10 minutes and then stir in the green beans. You’re ready to serve.
Semifreddo with honey, figs and walnuts
4 large egg yolks
150g caster sugar
300ml single cream
300ml double cream
350g dried figs
4 tbsp honey
5 fresh figs
40g walnut halves
zest of 1 lemon
In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks and sugar together until pale.
Pour the single cream into a medium saucepan and heat through until steam rises. Don’t allow to boil as this might lead to curdling. Remove from the heat and beat into the eggs and sugar.
Return the mixture to the saucepan and heat gently, stirring all the time. The custard is ready when it is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. Leave to cool, then cover with cling film and freeze for an hour.
Remove any tough stalks from the dried figs. Place in a food processor with the honey and whizz until just chopped. Roughly chop the fresh figs and the walnuts and stir these into the dried fig and honey mixture, along with the lemon zest.
Whisk the double cream until stiff and carefully fold this into the cold custard. Then stir in the fig and walnut mixture.
Line a plastic container with cling film and pour in the mixture, covering with a lid or more cling film. Freeze for 3 or 4 hours.
To serve, allow to thaw slightly in the fridge and then turn out onto a plate and slice like a terrine. Or simply scoop straight from the tub.
Disclosure: Expedia provided me with complimentary ingredients and a shopping voucher in order to develop recipes for this challenge. As ever all opinions are my own.