The basics – White Sauce aka Béchamel

Winter Vegetable Pasta Casserole

Winter Vegetable Pasta Casserole

We have covered the base of most Italian sauces, soffritto. Now we can talk about one of the staples of French Cuisine, which is widely used in Italian Cuisine also, Béchamel sauce.

Many recipes of the French Cuisine are also part of the Italian Cuisine, not only do the two countries share borders, but in history there have been many occasions when the Italians influenced the French, and vice versa.

One of main differences between the French Cuisine and Italian Cuisine, is that the French wrote down the recipes into a book, and therefore claimed them and made them a “rule” . . . in Italy each family has their own version of the same sauce . . .  and no one really wrote them down.

So, back to our White Sauce, it is as easy as 1, 2, 3, and can be upgraded and flavoured in thousands of ways, it is the base of the famous cheese soufle, and many other fancy dishes. For everyday life, it is a great way to make casseroles creamy, and a wonderful way to use up left over vegetables in the refrigerator!

basic Béchamel Sauce:

  • 50 g butter
  • 50 g flour
  • 500g milk
  • salt and pepper to taste

The main thing is that you keep the proportions, if you need more, you can make it with 100g butter and flour, and 1 litre of milk, and so on . . .

I put the milk in a microwave proof container to heat up, if you don’t have a microwave you can heat it up on the stove top.

In a pot large enough to hold all of the ingredients, I heat the butter and flour together. The main idea is to melt the butter and toast the flour until it is all one paste – if you cook too much and it turns brown, it is also very good . . . just a bit more colourful  😉

When the butter and flour are bubbling and starting to become golden, add the hot milk to the pot slowly while whisking continuously to avoid the formation of lumps. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Once you have mastered this, you can spin off any flavour, you can minced onion, or garlic, or other flavourings to your butter flour mixture, or you can add cheese or spices at  the end, or you can make it “heavier” by using whipping creme or “lighter” by using half milk and half water or stock. You can make it Gluten Free by using rice flour instead of the all purposed flour, and you can make it Vegan by using olive oil instead of butter, and soya milk instead of milk.

I love to use it when I make Pasta Casserole ( photo above), or to dress up vegetables for a special dinner ( photo below ).

Broccoli and coloured cauliflower casserole

Broccoli and coloured cauliflower casserole

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Mussels au gratin

Mussels au gratin

For 4 people I bought one bag of fresh mussels and cleaned them . . . I like doing it myself better than having the machine do it  . . . or you can buy a bag of frozen mussels in their shell.

To clean the mussels you need to rip out the “rope” that sticks out of the shell with a certain energy. You must throw away all the mussels which are open or have a broken shell . . .  better safe than sorry! Once all the rope is removed you need to scrub the shells with a metal brush to remove all the dirt.

I poured a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a large pan and added one or two cloves of garlic then as it was all heating I put all the mussels in the pan. I stirred just enough to have all the mussels be “touched” by the oil and then covered them. I let them cook on low flame stirring once until all the shells were opend.

When the mussels open it means they are cooked. If the mussel did not open it’s shell, it is not good and you MUST throw it away – don’t try to open it !

Once the mussels were cooked, I prepared a large baking sheet and set each of the half shells with mussel on it – discarding the empty half shell – and set it aside.

I filtered the liquid that was left in the pan and set it aside.

I then made some coarse breadcrumbs with some tuscan bread, and mixed it with chopped parsley, chopped garlic and grated parmesan. I then added some of the cooking liquid from the mussels to soften the mixture up – but not enough to make it soggy. You can use panko instead of bread crumbs, but you want to crush it a little bit as it would be too coarse.

With a teaspoon I “filled” the mussel shells in the baking sheet with the bread mixture, then drizzled some olive oil on  top and cooked it for 10 – 15 minutes in a hot oven (350F or 180C)

DELICIOUS!!

Gnocchi alla Romana (Gnocchi made with Semolino )

Gnocchi alla RomanaWhen we hear the word gnocchi we immediately think of the potato gnocchi. Those little oblong balls of light and fluffy potato (although sometimes thick and chewy – if not done properly) served with a meat sauce or any other sauce.

Today I will talk about a different kind of gnocchi that we serve in Italy, they are called gnocchi alla Romana – gnocchi made in the roman way. These gnocchi are extremely simple and easy, they are made with semolina, milk and cheese, and they are usually baked in the oven.

Ingredients for 6 people:

  • 1 litre of milk
  • 250g semolina
  • 60 butter
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • salt and pepper
  • 100g grated parmesan
  • 2 egg yolks

Instructions:

In a large pot heat milk, butter, and whole cloves of garlic until they reach the boiling point.

Remove the garlic cloves from the pot.

Then start slowly pouring the semolina flour in the milk while you stir trying not to let any lumps form.

Cook the semolina for about 5 minutes or until it is nice and thick. Taste for salt and pepper, you can also add nutmeg.

Take the pot off the stove and mix in the 2 egg yolks and the grated parmesan until it is al well blended.

. . .  here comes my secret trick . . .

Roll out the semolino blob between 2 sheets of parchment paper – be careful because it will be very hot, but you want to do this before it gets cold and sets !

With a round pasta cutter ( or cookie cutter) cut out as many circles as you can fit, and place the circles in an ovenproof dish. ( see picture)

 cutting gnocchi

Press the scraps together again, and roll out and repeat the cutting until you have no more dough.Semolino gnocchi cut

If you would like to be creative, you can roll the gnocchi thinner and “stuff” them with cheese or ham or vegetables. Dress the gnocchi with butter and grated parmesan cheese and bake them in the oven at 180* C ( 350* F)  until they are golden and smelling wonderful.

Semolino Gnocchi raw

These ones were stuffed with gorgonzola cheese and dressed with butter, mascarpone and walnuts !

 Semolina gnocchi with gorgonzola and walnuts