FLAVOURS OF THE MED
Author Julia Busuttil Nishimura’s new cookbook, Ostro, is a distillation of her Maltese heritage, Italian sensibilities and Australian upbringing, making for a tasty blend of comforting food.
Author Julia Busuttil Nishimura’s new cookbook, Ostro, is a distillation of her Maltese heritage, Italian sensibilities and Australian upbringing.
Ostro, the name of my book and website, is the Italian name for the southerly Mediterranean wind and the word also shares etymological roots with the name Australia. To me, it represents my Maltese heritage, my other home in Italy, as well as the here and now in Australia.
For my family, food was – as is so often the case in migrant communities – a way of preserving memories and maintaining a connection to Malta, their home before they immigrated to Australia. The food my mum cooked, and the stories she told me about the way her mother used to cook, still influence the way I think about food. The pleasure that comes from cooking with simple ingredients, and the rewards that come when you’re patient with your food are all things I learned from a young age.
My time spent living and working in Italy when I was in my early 20s only strengthened my love for uncomplicated food. I learned how to make and cook pasta, and that every meal is worthy of a celebration. I witnessed such thoughtfulness in selecting ingredients, which significantly influenced my growth as a cook. I was touched by the questions asked before ingredients were decided upon: What’s good today? Where has it come from? How long has it been here? It reflected the trust placed in the person selling the produce. Often we’d go somewhere to buy zucchini, say, but come home with ripe eggplant instead.
This completely altered the way I thought about food.
I cook food that’s understated, so starting with good produce is paramount. I cook this type of food because it doesn’t have to be special. It’s not food that needs to be placed on a pedestal; it’s food that weaves its way into the fabric of your daily life – food for living and sharing. julia-ostro.com
Orzotto of mushrooms with mascarpone
“Orzotto is a portmanteau of the words orzo (barley in Italian – not to be confused here with the pasta of the same name) and risotto,” says Julia Busuttil Nishimura. “It’s essentially pearl barley cooked in the style of a risotto, where stock is slowly added to the grains, allowing it to be fully absorbed before adding more. This results in a much creamier texture, thanks to the starch released during the stirring and cooking, than if the barley was simply boiled. My favourite way to cook orzotto is with a mixture of mushrooms, which complement the nuttiness of the barley very well.” Serves 8-10
200 gm pearl barley
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra
1 onion, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
1 litre (4 cups) vegetable stock
10 gm dried porcini
125 ml dry white wine
400 gm mixed mushrooms, larger mushrooms
torn or coarsely chopped
60 gm unsalted butter, coarsely chopped 3 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
Large handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped
Finely grated parmesan and mascarpone, to serve
1 Preheat the oven to 180C. Cook the pearl barley in 750ml boiling water in a saucepan for 15 minutes. Drain.
2 Heat the olive oil in a large heavy-based saucepan over low heat and fry the onion and celery with a pinch of sea salt until soft and fragrant (about 10 minutes).
3 Combine the stock and porcini in a separate saucepan over medium heat and bring to a gentle simmer.
4 Add the pearl barley to the onion and celery and cook for 1-2 minutes, stirring to coat and toast the grains. Increase the heat, add the wine and bring to a simmer. Once the barley has absorbed the wine, add a ladle of hot stock and stir until the barley has absorbed the liquid before adding more. Keep adding stock, simmering and stirring, until the barley is almost al dente (about 30 minutes; most of the stock will be used).
5 Arrange the mushrooms on an oven tray, scatter with the butter and garlic, and season to taste. Bake, stirring once, until the mushrooms collapse and the garlic is soft (15 minutes).
6 Add the mushrooms and garlicky butter left in the tray to the barley and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes. You can add the porcini from the stock now, too. Season to taste. Remove pan from the heat and stir in the parsley. Serve in shallow bowls and top with a scattering of parmesan, a generous dollop of mascarpone and a drizzle of olive oil.
Veal cotoletta with capers and rosemary
“Cotoletta alla Milanese is a veal cutlet, bone in, that’s breaded and fried in clarified butter,” says Busuttil Nishimura. “It is also my mum’s favourite thing to eat, so I love preparing it for her. It is, as the name suggests, typical of Milan, a city I love for its aperitivo and breathtaking duomo among many other things. I’ve added some capers and rosemary which, along with the lemon, brighten up the cotoletta. If you can’t find veal on the bone, use thin boneless pieces of veal, which will require a shorter cooking time, or you can even use pork chops. I like panko breadcrumbs – while they’re not in keeping with tradition, they make a wonderfully crunchy coating.”
4 veal cutlets (250gm each), bone in
50 gm ( 1/ cup) plain flour
2 eggs, lightly beaten
150 gm (2½ cups) panko or other dried
200 ml clarified butter (see note) 2 tbsp salted capers, rinsed and drained 2 tbsp rosemary leaves, coarsely chopped
Lemon wedges, to serve
1 Lightly flatten the veal chops using a mallet to about 1.5cm thick. Place the flour, beaten egg and breadcrumbs in separate bowls. Dip the cutlets in flour, then egg and then the breadcrumbs, pressing the crumbs on as firmly as possible.
2 Heat the clarified butter in a large frying pan over medium heat and fry the cutlets until golden brown and just cooked through (5-6 minutes each side). This can be done in 2 batches and, if the cutlets are thick, you can finish cooking them in an oven set at 180C. Season lightly with sea salt and leave to rest. Meanwhile, keep the pan over medium heat, add the capers and rosemary, and stir for 30 seconds to coat in the butter. Spoon the capers over the veal cutlets and serve with the lemon wedges.
Note To make 200ml clarified butter, melt 280gm butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Leave>
the pan still so you don’t disturb the solids.
Once the butter has melted, increase the heat to medium and simmer until a foamy layer forms on top (3-4 minutes). Skim off the milk solids that rise to the top. Stand for 5 minutes or so, then carefully pour the skimmed, melted butter into a bowl through a fine sieve lined with muslin. Stop pouring once you reach the bottom, where most of the white solids should have settled. The golden liquid in your bowl is now clarified butter, which will keep very well in a container in the fridge for up to 4 months.
“Growing up, we didn’t eat meat that often, but when we did, it was often rabbit,” says Busuttil Nishimura. “Usually we would eat it braised in a rich tomato stew with many, many peas. The rabbit would be removed and we would eat the sauce with spaghetti, and then the rabbit separately, with vegetables or just some bread. My dad’s friend would bring us freshly killed and skinned rabbits. Sometimes Mum would fry it in a little butter and olive oil with sage, or turn the rabbit stew into a pie. All delicious options. My rabbit pie is much lighter than the traditional Maltese version. I braise the rabbit in wonderful aromatics and top it off with a lid of really good homemade rough-puff pastry. Rabbit is notorious for being dry and tough, which is why I recommend using just the marylands – the thigh and leg. They’re more tender than the lean saddle, which is great for quicker cooking. Many butchers sell them separately if you ask, but if they’re unavailable, use a whole rabbit cut into pieces.”
Serves 4-6 (pictured p123)
15 gm dried porcini mushrooms
60 ml (¼ cup) extra-virgin olive oil
1 kg rabbit marylands, or a 1kg rabbit, jointed 1 onion, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
250 ml (1 cup) dry white wine
3 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 tomato, coarsely chopped
1 oregano sprig
1 rosemary sprig
3 thyme sprigs, plus a small handful of
leaves, finely chopped
500 ml (2 cups) chicken stock
1 tsp plain flour, plus extra for dusting
Small handful of sage leaves, finely chopped
Small handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped
Small handful of tarragon leaves, finely chopped
1 egg, lightly beaten Rough-puff pastry 175 gm plain flour, plus extra for dusting
175 gm chilled unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 For the rough-puff pastry, tip the flour onto a clean surface and sprinkle with a pinch of sea salt. Add the butter and toss through the flour. Using a metal pastry scraper or a knife, cut the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. There should be larger pieces of butter, too, so don’t overwork it at this stage. Sprinkle with iced water, a tablespoonful at a time, and use your hands or a pastry scraper to combine, until the dough just comes together. I usually need about 40ml water, but go by how the pastry feels – different flours need more or less water. It still should be a little shaggy with visible pieces of butter. Shape the pastry into a rectangle, cover with a damp cloth or plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Remove the pastry from the fridge and, on a lightly floured work surface, roll the dough into a 10cm x 30cm rectangle that’s about 1cm thick, continuing to dust the surface with a little flour if the dough is too sticky. Bring the short ends of the dough into the middle, then fold in half where the short ends meet, like a book. Wrap pastry and chill again for 30 minutes. Repeat rolling, folding and chilling two more times. Refrigerate until needed, removing pastry from the fridge 10 minutes before using.
2 Place the porcini in a bowl, cover with 500ml boiling water and leave to soak for 15 minutes.
3 Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large heavy-based saucepan over medium-high heat. Season the rabbit generously and fry, in batches if necessary, until lightly golden (3-5 minutes each side). Set the rabbit aside, and reduce the heat to low. Cook the onion, celery and carrot with a pinch of salt until softened and fragrant (10-15 minutes). Add the wine and scrape up any bits stuck to the pan. Bring to a simmer and let the wine bubble for a minute or two, then add the garlic, tomato and the sprigs of oregano, rosemary and thyme. Stir to coat and nestle the rabbit back in the pan. Simmer for a few minutes, then add the stock along with the porcini and soaking liquid. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to low. Cover with a round of baking paper, pressing it onto the surface of the liquid, then cover with a lid. Braise until the rabbit is tender and falling from the bone (1½-2 hours).
4 Preheat the oven to 200C. Lightly butter a 24cm pie dish. Strain the rabbit cooking liquid into a saucepan (reserve meat and vegetables separately). Simmer until it has reduced to about 300ml (5-6 minutes). Allow to cool briefly and skim any fat that rises to the surface. Whisk in the flour until smooth.
5 Meanwhile, shred the rabbit meat (discard bones and herb stalks) and place in a large bowl. Add the vegetables, chopped herbs and the reduced braising liquid, season to taste and mix well. Spoon the filling into the prepared pie dish.
6 On a lightly floured surface, roll pastry to a 5mm-thick round large enough to cover the pie dish. Whisk 1 tsp of water into the egg. Brush the edge of the pie dish with the eggwash, then cover the dish with the pastry, gently pressing onto the pie dish to seal, and trim overhanging pastry. Score the pastry with a sharp knife from the centre 2cm apart and poke a hole in the middle for steam to escape. Brush with the eggwash and bake until puffed and golden (40-45 minutes).
A dependable cabbage salad
“This refreshing salad is well loved in our family,” says Busuttil Nishimura. “It’s barely a recipe, and there’s lots of room for interpretation. Blanched peas could be added, different herbs, fresh chilli – adapt it to suit your style and preference.”
40 gm (½ cup) flaked almonds
300 gm white cabbage, finely sliced
Large handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, torn
Large handful of basil leaves, torn
Large handful of mint leaves, torn
50 gm parmesan, shaved
60 ml (¼ cup) extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp mayonnaise
2 tbsp plain yoghurt
1 Dry-roast the almonds in a small frying pan over low heat until just coloured (5-6 minutes), then cool.
2 Combine the cabbage, herbs, parmesan and two-thirds of the almonds in a large bowl.
3 Whisk together olive oil, lemon juice, mayonnaise and yoghurt in a small bowl. Drizzle dressing over the salad and use your hands to mix it well. Season to taste with sea salt, scatter with the remaining almonds and serve.
Soft polenta with bitter greens and walnuts
“While polenta is now viewed almost as a national treasure by many Italians – especially those in the north – it came from very humble beginnings,” says Busuttil Nishimura. “Initially brought to Italy from the Americas in the 16th century, it was considered peasant food; food that served a purpose – filling the bellies of hard-working Italians. Although polenta is delicious just boiled in lightly salted water, I love cooking it in milk and enriching it with parmesan, butter and cream. Polenta needs constant stirring and hardens rather fast when it cools, so I recommend cooking the onion first, then attending to the polenta. You can then gently reheat the onion and add the remaining ingredients, which only take a few minutes – this way the polenta will stay nice and creamy. If you come across polenta taragna – polenta combined with buckwheat – it has an amazing earthiness, which would be perfect here. Buy the best balsamic vinegar you can afford for this dish; it should be sweet but still sharp.”
Serves 4-6 (pictured p122)
40 gm walnuts
40 gm unsalted butter, coarsely chopped 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, coarsely chopped
70 gm flat pancetta, cut into lardons
300 gm bitter leaves, such as radicchio or
chicory, coarsely chopped
150 gm (about 1 bunch) cavolo nero, tough
stems removed, leaves coarsely chopped 1½ tbsp aged balsamic vinegar
Grated parmesan, to serve>
750 ml (3 cups) milk
250 gm (1½ cups) polenta
80 gm parmesan, finely grated
50 gm unsalted butter, coarsely chopped 150 ml pouring cream
1 Lightly toast the walnuts in a dry frying pan over low-medium heat until just coloured
2 Heat the butter and olive oil in a large frying pan over a low heat. When the butter is foaming, add the onion and cook gently until soft and fragrant (10-15 minutes). Remove from the heat and set aside until the polenta is cooked.
3 For the polenta, combine the milk and 750ml water in a large heavy-based saucepan and bring to the boil. Reduce to a simmer and add 1 tsp sea salt. Pour in the polenta in a thin, steady stream, whisking to prevent lumps, and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until smooth and silky (30-40 minutes). You may need to add extra water if the polenta becomes too thick.
Stir in the parmesan, butter and cream. Season to taste and keep warm. 4 Place the frying pan with the onion back over medium heat, add the pancetta and fry until browned (3-4 minutes). Add the bitter leaves and the cavolo nero and cook until just starting to collapse (about 3 minutes). Stir in the walnuts and remove from the heat. Season to taste.
5 Serve the creamy polenta on a wooden board or on individual plates, top with the vegetables,
“Ricciarelli are gorgeous Italian biscuits that date back to the 15th century,” says Busuttil Nishimura. “Hailing from Siena, these sweet, chewy almond biscuits covered in icing sugar fill the windows of Tuscan cake shops all year round – most prominently over the Christmas period, when they’re bought by the kilo. I have fond memories of making these when I lived in Italy. The aroma of bitter almonds would linger for hours, making it difficult not to eat them all at once.” Makes about 20
125 gm caster sugar
Finely grated rind of 1 lemon or orange
100 gm pure icing sugar, plus extra, for coating 300 gm (3 cups) almond meal 2 eggwhites
½ tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp almond extract or aroma of bitter almonds (optional)
1 Preheat the oven to 160C and line a baking tray with baking paper.
2 Place the caster sugar and rind in a large bowl and rub together until fragrant and the citrus oils have released into the sugar. Sift in the icing sugar and add the almond meal. Mix to combine. 3 Place the eggwhites and a pinch of sea salt in a mixing bowl and whisk to stiff peaks. Add the eggwhites to the almond mixture along with the vanilla and almond extracts and gently fold in until the mixture forms a firm but moist paste.
Sift some extra icing sugar onto a plate or your work surface, then roll the dough into walnutsized balls and coat in the icing sugar. Flatten the balls ever so slightly to form oval-shaped biscuits, and pinch the ends slightly into points, creating a leaf shape. Place on the prepared tray. Leave the ricciarelli to sit at room temperature to form a slightly dry exterior (at least 30 minutes).
4 Bake ricciarelli until only just coloured
(12-15 minutes). The biscuits will still be soft, but they firm up as they cool. It’s important not to overcook them – the chewiness is what makes ricciarelli so special, so be sure to keep on checking the biscuits as they cook. Once cool, dust generously with extra icing sugar. Store in an airtight container for up to a week, although they are usually eaten the same day.
Pasta and chickpea soup
“This is my take on the classic pasta e ceci, which I am certain I almost entirely lived off when I was a rather poor student in Italy,” says Nishimura. “While you can use canned chickpeas in this dish, I really think dried ones are the way to go here – they are, after all, the co-headlining act. Normally, some of the chickpeas are blended after cooking and added to the soup for creaminess, but on one occasion I decided to add some pumpkin and the addition has stuck – the pumpkin cooks down and becomes the thick, creamy element that the blended chickpeas would usually provide. If you like, you can scoop out a cup or two of the chickpeas, blend until smooth and return it to the pot. The crème fraîche is a decadent but very delicious extra.”
250 gm dried chickpeas
1½ tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra
1 onion, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, coarsely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled
Pinch of dried chilli flakes
2 rosemary sprigs
400 gm canned whole peeled tomatoes 1 litre chicken or vegetable stock or water 350 gm pumpkin, peeled and cut into
150 gm short pasta, such as gnocchetti or ditalini
Crème fraîche and grated parmesan, to serve
1 Place the chickpeas in a large bowl and cover with cold water to soak for at least 4 hours or overnight.
2 Heat the olive oil in a heavy-based saucepan over low heat, add the onion, celery, garlic and a pinch of sea salt, and cook, stirring every minute or so, until soft and fragrant (10-15 minutes). Sprinkle in the chilli flakes and add the rosemary. Give everything a stir and cook for a further minute. Add the tomatoes and turn the heat up to medium. Stir and simmer for 1-2 minutes. 3 Drain and rinse the chickpeas, and add to the soup along with the stock or water and the pumpkin. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat, cover and simmer until the chickpeas are tender (1-1½ hours). Check the soup regularly, breaking up the pumpkin and tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon and topping up with water if necessary. The soup should be very thick, so don’t add too much water cooking – just enough to keep it from drying out. It shouldn’t be at all broth-like.
4 When the chickpeas are tender, add the pasta and continue to simmer the soup over medium heat until the pasta is al dente (10-12 minutes). Season to taste.
5 Discard the rosemary sprigs, serve the soup in bowls and top with a dollop of crème fraîche, a scattering of parmesan and a good drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.
JULIA BUSUTTIL NISHIMURA Orzotto of mushrooms with mascarpone
Veal cotoletta with capers and rosemary
This extract from Ostro by Julia Busuttil Nishimura (Plum, an imprint of
Pan Macmillan Australia, pbk, $44.99) has been reproduced with minor
GT style changes.
Pasta and chickpea soup