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Tomato Salad With Grilled Eggplant Confit In Siena, Tuscany

Siena, with it's magnificent Gothic architecture, captivated us from the first moment we saw it. This beautifully preserved city exudes medieval charm and made us feel magically transported back to the 12th century!  

We delighted in losing ourselves in it's warren of narrow lanes and steep steps....

which opened up unexpectedly to a breathtaking view of the glorious Tuscan countryside....

or a glimpse of a church on top of a hill....

or led us to one of the most unusual and beautiful piazzas we have ever seen - Piazza Del Campo. This Campo, a world UNESCO heritage site, is laid out in a unique, sloping accordion shape with a semi circle of buildings around it.

At one side is Siena's medieval seat of government, the Palazzo Pubblico, with it's majestic Torre del Mangia rising into the sky. You can climb 400 steps up this tower for fabulous views of the city and countryside below.

The famous Renaissance era Fonte Gaia or Fountain Of Joy is here as well, where people used to gather 600 years ago to get water and exchange gossip. It is still a favourite place for tourists and locals to hang out, take pictures and gossip!

The Campo is also where the famous Palio (horse race) is run, where important events have been held for centuries and where everyone gathers to sit at one of the many cafes lining the piazza while watching the world go by. People treat the red brick lined campo rather like a sandy beach, to stretch out under the sun for a snooze, eat an impromptu picnic or simply take a break in between sightseeing.

One of Siena's most awe inspiring sights is its Duomo (cathedral). You can see tantalizing glimpses of this eye catching striped black and white marble structure from various parts of the city, beckoning you to come inside and marvel at it's many wonders. The classic Italian Gothic striped design is carried on it's interior as well and the mosaic panels on the floor, the works of art by famous artists such as Michelangelo are fabulous to behold.

Some of the best food we had in Italy was here in Siena. There were so many good restaurants and so many unusual dishes to try that two days weren't enough! Grilled eggplant confit was on many restaurant menus, served in interesting, creative ways. We ate it stuffed into puff pastry envelopes for appetizers, folded into warm pasta to make an unusual and satisfying main course, and served atop thick slices of tomatoes as a superb salad. That salad was so addictive that I have been making it regularly ever since! Delicious, summery and refreshing, it is perfect for lunch, needing only some crusty bread to complete the meal.

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When I grill the eggplant, I also throw some sweet peppers and onions on the barbecue, then chop them finely when charred and add to the eggplant confit for additional smoky deliciousness.

For more tasty tomato recipes, check out Caprese salad and Bruschetta.

Tomato Salad With Grilled Eggplant Confit

1 medium eggplant

1/4 cup each: extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, chopped fresh basil leaves

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/4 tsp toasted ground cumin seeds

1 lb (about 4) ripe heirloom tomatoes of assorted colours, sliced into rounds

250g (about 8 oz) fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced

Grill eggplant in a barbecue, oven or stovetop until charred and soft. Cool and discard outer charred skin. Transfer pulp to a chopping board and mash well with a fork. You should have about a cup of eggplant pulp.

Combine eggplant pulp, 2 tbsp each of the olive oil, balsamic vinegar and chopped fresh basil as well as salt and pepper to taste in a bowl. Mix in the toasted cumin. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour or longer for flavours to blend.

Arrange tomato slices on serving platter. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.

Top tomato slices with mozzarella cheese, then add a dollop of eggplant confit.

Drizzle remaining olive oil and vinegar over top.

Scatter remaining fresh basil over salad.

Serve right away.

Serves four

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Strawberry Tiramisu In Volterra, Tuscany

The best way to see the wonderful sights of Tuscany is to drive around in a car. You can meander your way through Cypress tree lined avenues, pull over to the side of the road and admire vineyards, olive groves, rolling hills and ancient ruins and take lots of pictures of the gorgeous scenery.

you can also get away from the hordes of tourists and get to know the real Tuscany, letting the warmth of it's people and it's serene beauty seep gently into your soul.

One such drive took us to Volterra, a lovely mountaintop town that has been in existence since Etruscan times, made famous these days by the Twilight series of books and movies which are set here.

Volterra still has some remnants of it's Etruscan glory days, such as the Porta all'Arco, a stone arch dating back to 400 BC and parts of the old city walls, also dating back to those days when it's population was double what it is today. In those days, as in now, Volterra was a major center for alabaster, attracting many skilled craftsmen to base their studios here.

Once you are done shopping in the many alabaster shops lining the street, head over to Piazza dei Priori, the medieval heart of this town, with a palace and tower at one end. Explore this lovely, ancient town as you stroll through it's narrow cobbled lanes, winding up at one of my favourite sites - the Teatro Romano or the Roman theater and baths. Built in the 1st century BC, it is still an imposing sight, giving us a fascinating glimpse of the actors who played on this stage and the audience who applauded them.

 

On our way back from Volterra, we stopped off in the tiny village of Montemagno for dinner. Trattoria di Montemagno is a cheerful, bustling place, serving such incredible, authentic Tuscan fare that their tables are always full, with a lineup of hungry people waiting to get in!

We had their home made pasta with chickpeas, a divine eggplant tart, the likes of which we have never seen before and a local specialty known as Trippa (tripe). We rounded off our meal with an unusual dessert - strawberry tiramisu.

Never having come across a fruity tiramisu before, we were intrigued and had to order it. It turned out to be fantastic! Luscious, ripe strawberries layered with clouds of rich, creamy mascarpone, drizzled with strawberry syrup - what's not to like?!

My easy recipe tastes a lot like the tiramisu we had in Montemagno. Of course there is ground cardamom in it because I am incapable of making a dessert without it! I think it works well and adds an aromatic, citrusy depth to the dessert. You can always leave it out if you like. The overnight resting time is crucial in allowing the flavours to develop properly.
And if you want classic tiramisu, try my recipe here!

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This is a dessert to enjoy when fresh, ripe strawberries are in season. They have so much sweetness and flavour that you don't have to macerate them or fold with preserves to enhance their taste. Keep it simple and savour every bite!

Strawberry Tiramisu With Cardamom

For Syrup:

1 1/2 cups sliced fresh ripe strawberries (use extra juicy ones)

2 cups water

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1 tsp ground cardamom

For Zabaglione:

3 egg yolks

3 tbsp granulated sugar

2 tbsp water

For Tiramisu:

1 1/4 cups 35% whipping cream

1/4 cup granulated sugar

275g tub Mascarpone cheese

200g Italian Savoiardi (ladyfinger) cookies

3 cups halved ripe strawberries

Make syrup by combining sliced strawberries, water and 1/4 cup sugar in small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce heat to low and simmer 5 min until strawberries are soft and syrupy. Cool 15 min, add 1 tsp ground cardamom, then puree strawberry mixture. Reserve.

To make zabaglione, half fill a large saucepan with water, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a gentle simmer.

Meanwhile, combine Zabaglione ingredients in a rounded bowl big enough to fit over the saucepan without touching the water.

Beat with a whisk until thickened, increased in volume and lightened in colour, about 5 min. Remove from heat and continue beating for 1 more min until smooth. Reserve.

In separate bowl, beat whipping cream and 1/4 cup sugar with hand mixer until thickened, about 5 min.

Add reserved zabaglione mixture and mascarpone cheese to whipped cream, beating lightly with hand mixer with each addition. Chill and reserve until needed.

You can assemble the tiramisu in a large, deep, flat bottomed glass dish or in individual cups, according to your choice.

Transfer strawberry syrup mixture to a shallow flat bowl and warm for 2 min in the microwave.

Dip the savoiardi cookies generously in the prepared strawberry syrup mixture, allowing them to soak up the syrup lightly, and lay them in a single layer in bottom of dish. Top with half of reserved zabaglione cream mixture. Layer half of the halved strawberries over top.

Repeat with one more layer of cookies dipped in strawberry syrup. If you have any syrup left, sprinkle it all over top of cookies.

Spread remainder of the cream mixture over cookies. Arrange remaining strawberries over top.

Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight for best flavour.

Serves six - eight

Caprese Salad In San Gimignano, Tuscany

Long before you actually reach San Gimignano, you will see its famous towers silhouetted against the sky. A world UNESCO heritage site, this charming little walled town set high up on a mountain, once boasted a total of 72 towers, although only 14 remain standing now. A ban on spending and construction around 1500 AD by Cosimo I de' Medici inadvertently froze this town in time, thus perfectly preserving its architecture and medieval feel to this day.

Strolling through the old city with it's Gothic churches, tall towers, beautiful Piazzas and narrow alleyways, you feel transported back to the middle ages when knights on horses rode through these cobbled streets and wealthy merchants and nobility lived in these majestic buildings.
We spent a lovely day exploring San Gimignano, enjoying a superb Caprese salad in one of the local restaurants, cooling off with a coffee gelato in Piazza della Cisterna, poking our head into charming shops and art galleries and admiring breathtaking views from the ancient town walls.

Our drive to San Gimignano took us through a small, idyllic medieval village called Montefoscoli, which has stunning views of the surrounding Tuscan countryside. The main attraction for us here was a visit with our friend Lisa Santarnecchi.

Her ancestral childhood home, overlooking a gorgeous view, is in this village. She graciously invited us over and gave us a true taste of warm Italian hospitality!

One of the highlights was an inside look at her beautiful century old home. The lovely architecture, mosaic tiles and gardens gave us a delightful glimpse of Italian home life.

Another highlight was to view first hand how olive oil is processed. Lisa's father Massimiliano Santarnecchi, is a well known olive oil merchant in this area and he gave us a tour of his workshop where he processes and bottles locally harvested olive oil.

We came home armed with a bottle of olive oil that he gifted us. To taste this is to taste Tuscany! The fruity, rich flavours of sun ripened olives come through in every drop.

At first I used it very sparingly so as not to finish it off too quickly but it was so good that I just couldn't resist using it in every salad that I made. Thank you for this treat Lisa, but now no other olive oil will ever taste this good again, or bring back such warm memories!

 

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One of the dishes I used copious amounts of Lisa's olive oil was in this salad where good olive oil is key. I sometimes add strips of roasted red peppers, capers, fresh mint and a drizzle of balsamic reduction or basil oil to round off my salad. In peak summer season, I make this salad practically every day, so a bit of variety now and then by straying from the classic recipe, is welcome!
For another summer tomato recipe, try my Bruschetta!

Caprese Salad

1 lb (about 3-4) sun ripened tomatoes of assorted colours and sizes

1/2 cup halved cherry tomatoes of assorted colours

250 g (about 8 oz)  fresh mozzarella cheese

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 tbsp balsamic vinegar, optional

Flaky sea salt to taste

Fresh ground black pepper to taste

1/4 cup fresh basil leaves

Slice tomatoes into rounds.

Arrange slices on a platter, letting them overlap slightly. Scatter halved cherry tomatoes over top.

Slice fresh mozzarella cheese and intersperse with tomatoes, leaving some on top.

Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar (if using).

Sprinkle salt and pepper evenly over top.

Tear basil leaves roughly and scatter all over salad.

Serve right away.

Serves Four

Raspberry Cake In Calci, Tuscany

A mere 9 km away from Pisa lies Calci, a charming little village that will instantly transport you to the Tuscany of your dreams! Here lie sprawling farmlands, olive groves, chestnut forests, tiny villages nestled among green hills and a sense of peace and relaxation you are unlikely to find anywhere else on your trip to Italy.

The highlight here is the famed Certosa di Calci, a former Carthusian monastery built in the 12th century, these days also housing the Natural History Museum of the University of Pisa. This Certosa is also a hub of local social activity and hosts many community events, many of them centered around food!

The grounds are spacious, the buildings majestic and the view breathtaking, making a visit to the Certosa an essential part of your itinerary. It is fascinating to stroll through the rooms and living areas of monks from centuries gone by and glimpse how their lives were lived behind these walls.

The chapels, dining halls, prayer rooms and even the apothecary of the Certosa are beautifully preserved, with murals, paintings and art work depicting scenes from daily life in the days when this Certosa was the heart of the community and nobility came to visit from far and near.

Calci and it's neighboring little villages are also home to some of the finest restaurants in this region. Their proximity to Pisa ensures that they are always full! We had a delicious, authentic meal in a lovely trattoria in the village of Montemagno. The Testaroli col pesto - seared chestnut flour pasta with fresh pesto, was like nothing I've had before. I wish I spoke Italian well enough to get the chef's recipe!

Then there was the experience of dining at Agriturismo Il Colibri. This charming little vegetarian restaurant also in Montemagno, specializes in chef's tasting menus, showcasing the creativity of the chef in many delicious courses. My favourite was an unusual eggplant dish, batter fried in chickpea flour and layered with tomato sauce. Reminded me of a pakora!

The best place to stay in Calci is a B&B called Il Molendino. Run very capably by Fabiola and her husband Stefano, it is charming, serene and very comfortable. The breakfasts here are legendary with Fabiola serving fresh home made croissants, cakes and pastries each morning. We had an amazing apple cinnamon cake and a soft, moist raspberry cake that made me completely forget all about my diet!

Here is Fabiola's fantastic and easy recipe for raspberry cake, handed down by her grandmother. The final touch of the brown sugar cardamom crust is mine, giving this cake an Indian flavour, somewhat reminiscent of suji halwa (Indian semolina dessert)!

Raspberry Cake With Semolina,Yogurt And Cardamom

1 1/2 stick (180g) unsalted butter, melted

1 cup (250g) plain, full fat Greek yogurt

1 tsp vanilla essence

1 cup (185g) fine semolina or semolina flour

1 cup (185g) granulated white sugar

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp ground cardamom, divided

Pinch of salt

1 cup (170g) fresh raspberries

1/3 cup thinly sliced almonds

2 tbsp brown or cane sugar

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease an 8 inch round springform cake pan.

Combine butter, yogurt and vanilla together in large mixing bowl. Whisk well until smooth.

In another bowl, combine semolina, granulated sugar, baking powder, 1/2 tsp of the ground cardamom and pinch of salt. Mix well.

Gently fold semolina mixture into the yogurt mixture until just combined.

Spread half the batter in bottom of prepared cake pan.

Scatter raspberries evenly over top.

Cover with remaining batter.

Sprinkle sliced almonds evenly over top of cake.

Combine brown or cane sugar and remaining 1/2 tsp cardamom in small bowl. Sprinkle evenly over top of almonds.

Bake for 45 - 50 min, testing with a toothpick or skewer to make sure cake is cooked through.

Cool 30 min, remove carefully from pan, then slice and serve.

Serves six

Bruschetta In Pisa

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Pisa is about an hour's train ride away from Rome, but feels like a world away! With it's famous leaning tower drawing huge crowds, Pisa still manages to exude laid back charm and an unhurried pace of life.

Most visitors go to Pisa to see the leaning tower. As you enter the Piazza dei Miracoli, set amidst plush green lawns, you realize that there is so much more to marvel at than just the tower. Dating back to the 12th century, this piazza is breathtaking in the sheer majesty of it's historic monuments.
There is the fabulous Duomo (cathedral) with a beautiful baptistry adjacent to it, the camposanto or cemetery where many famous people are buried and finally the Campanile or the bell tower, which definitely has a very pronounced lean!

Climbing up the tower is a fantastic experience in itself. After making our way up 296 steep steps to the very top, we could feel a very definite tilt! Holding on to the railing, we walked around admiring the fabled views of the city below. Coming down was quite another experience - the marble steps have been worn smooth from centuries of use and can get quite slippery. Best to do what everyone else does and come down barefoot for a better grip!

We were in Tuscany at the height of the tomato season and bruschetta was on every restaurant menu. That burst of pure joy from tasting juicy sun ripened tomatoes, drenched in fruity olive oil, scented with fresh basil, served atop thick slices of garlicky crusty bread is like none other. How can something so simple taste so good?! The secret lies in choosing good bread, fresh ingredients and the best olive oil you can find. Together, they make magic.

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A hint of mint and toasted cumin gives this bruschetta a distinctly Indian appeal! For a more pronounced Indian flavour, throw in some cayenne pepper and fresh coriander as well. If you are looking for more tomato recipes, try my Caprese salad!

Cumin Spiced Bruschetta With Mint And Basil

4 large ripe plum tomatoes, chopped

2 tbsp each: chopped or torn fresh basil and mint, olive oil

Flaky sea salt to taste

1/4 tsp each: freshly ground black pepper, toasted ground cumin seeds

4 thick slices Tuscan or sourdough bread

1 clove garlic, halved

Combine tomatoes, basil, mint, olive oil, salt, pepper and toasted cumin in medium bowl. Allow to rest 15 min at room temperature for flavours to develop.

Meanwhile, toast or grill the bread until lightly golden and crisp.

Rub the cut sides of the garlic clove halves all over the bread.

Stir the reserved tomato mixture to combine flavours. Top each slice of toast generously with tomato mixture.

Serve right away.

Serves four

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Cardamom Kahlua Tiramisu In Florence

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“The Creator made Italy from designs by Michelangelo" wrote Mark Twain more than a century ago, and walking through Florence you can understand what he meant. In other cities you have to go in search of art, but in Florence there is breathtaking art wherever you look. This is the city where Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci worked side by side, creating masterpieces that are unrivaled anywhere in the world.

Standing in front of the magnificent Duomo on a moonlit night, once all the crowds have left, is a magical experience. The marble buildings seem luminescent, giving off a glow that dispels the dark in the piazza around them.

 

 

 

The museums of Florence are a vast treasury of beauty, all watched over by the calm gaze of Michelangelo's David, probably the most famous piece of sculpture in the world. Though people line up for hours to get a glimpse of this and other renowned masterpieces,  there are magnificent sights on every corner. Just wandering through the streets feels like a lesson in art history.

Florentine cuisine is also an art form in itself. While the gigantic Bistecca Fiorentina - a huge slab of beef steak served almost rare - can easily be called Florence's signature dish, Ribollita - thick Tuscan bean and bread soup, Tomato bread soup, fluffy pillows of ricotta stuffed pasta topped with a sausage and mushroom ragu, and Chianti simmered black pepper beef over papardelle are also delicious specialties of the region.

And then there's Tiramisu, Italy's signature dessert! In spite of seeing it on every menu in every restaurant we went to, we never tired of ending our meals with it. How can you go wrong with fluffy clouds of whipped cream layered between cakey cookies drenched in syrupy coffee?! It's no wonder that Tiramisu translates into the phrase 'pick me up' - all that sugar and coffee is wonderfully reviving after a day spent sightseeing!

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This delicious recipe (minus the cardamom!) has been generously provided by my friend Paola Moscato, who makes the best Tiramisu I have ever tasted! I like to add ground cardamom for it's subtle aroma which pairs well with Kahlua. Paola suggests serving just the Zabaglione cream over mixed berries as a lighter, summer alternative, if desired. This Tiramisu freezes very well, making it perfect for serving to unexpected guests!
For another, very different type of Tiramisu, try my delicious Strawberry Tiramisu!

 

Cardamom Kahlua Tiramisu

For the Zabaglione:

3 egg yolks

3 tbsp sugar

3 tbsp Kahlua liqueur

For Tiramisu:

11/4 cups each: 35 % whipping cream, strong coffee (preferably espresso)

1/2 cup sugar, divided

275g tub Mascarpone cheese

1 tsp ground cardamom

2 tbsp Kahlua liqueur

200g Italian Savoiardi (ladyfinger) cookies

Chocolate powder for garnish

Half fill a large saucepan with water, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a gentle simmer.

Meanwhile, combine Zabaglione ingredients in a rounded bowl big enough to fit over the saucepan without touching the water.

Beat with a whisk until thickened, increased in volume and lightened in colour, about 5 min. Remove from heat and continue beating for 1 more min until smooth. Reserve.

In separate bowl, beat whipping cream and 1/4 cup sugar with hand mixer until thickened, about 5 min.

Add reserved zabaglione mixture and mascarpone cheese to whipped cream, beating lightly with hand mixer with each addition. Chill and reserve until needed.

Warm coffee in shallow bowl, mix in remaining 1/4 cup sugar, ground cardamom and Kahlua liqueur.

You can assemble the tiramisu in a large, deep, flat bottomed glass dish or in individual cups, according to your choice.

Dip the savoiardi cookies generously in the prepared coffee mixture and lay in a single layer in bottom of dish. Top with half of reserved zabaglione cream mixture. Repeat with one more layer of cookies dipped in coffee and remainder of the cream mixture. Sprinkle top lightly with chocolate powder.

Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 8 hours or up to overnight for best flavour.

Serves six - eight

Lamb Ragu In Vatican City

After traveling in Italy for a few weeks it is easy to start getting a little blasé about scenes of stunning beauty. Having toured spectacular churches and piazzas in Florence, Milan and Venice, what more could they do to impress you? And yet - nothing prepares you for that first sight of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.

The dome of St. Peter's and the square in front are familiar from seeing them a hundred times in movies, television and photographs, but it still takes your breath away to actually stand in front of them and take in their sheer magnificence. The interior is even more amazing - at every step you see another priceless masterpiece.

It was from the Vatican that successive popes launched campaigns to capture the Holy Land from the 11th century on, an event that had a profound effect on western cuisines and fashions. Waves of crusaders from Europe discovered Arab food and lifestyles after arriving in the middle-east. The taste of spices and the feel of silks came as a revelation to them and soon all of Europe was clamouring for these luxuries.

Venetian traders sailed to Egypt and Syria to bring back Indian pepper, cardamom and ginger, for which they found a ready market all across the continent. The pope had forbidden all trade with Arabs, but a sizable cash donation from the merchants was enough to buy forgiveness for them all. Their offerings filled the treasury of the popes and contributed to the glories of the Vatican that we see today!

After a day spent exploring the Vatican, we were ready to taste the glories of it's cuisine! Fresh local ingredients, exquisitely prepared made our meal memorable.
We discovered that you can't visit Rome in the springtime and not eat lamb! There was tender succulent lamb on practically every menu. Lamb shanks with rosemary and garlic, roasted with potatoes, were melt in the mouth tender. One of my favourites was lamb ragu -  simmered with wine and tomatoes and served over fresh pasta with a generous heaping of pecorino cheese, it was addictively delicious!

This lamb ragu tastes even better the next day, so make it in advance to fully enjoy it's rich flavours. As tribute to the ancient spice trade, I have added whole spices such as cardamom, cinnamon and cloves, which add depth and deepen in flavour as the ragu rests. Take them out before serving if you wish or leave them in to add character!
For an easy dessert to end your meal, try my Raspberry Semolina Cake!

Lamb Ragu

2 tbsp oil

2 each, whole spices: cardamom, cloves, bay leaves

1/2 inch stick cinnamon

1/2 tsp each: fennel seeds, crushed hot red pepper flakes

1 large onion, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 tsp chopped fresh rosemary

1 carrot, diced

1 stick celery, diced

1 cup sliced mushrooms

3 lb lamb shanks (about 3 medium), fat trimmed

1 1/2 cups red wine

Salt and ground black pepper to taste

2 cups pureed tomatoes or pasta sauce

1/2 cup grated pecorino cheese

Warm oil in deep heavy skillet over medium heat.

Add cardamom, cloves, bay leaves, cinnamon, fennel and crushed hot red pepper flakes. Sizzle for 30 sec.

Add onions, garlic, rosemary, carrot, celery and mushrooms. Saute for 5-7 min until lightly browned.

Add lamb shanks and brown for 5-7 min.

Add red wine, cook 2 min until it starts to bubble.

Add salt, pepper and tomatoes. Mix gently, cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook for about 2 1/2 - 3 hours until lamb is very tender and falling off the bone. Stir occasionally.

Uncover and cool till lamb is easy to handle. Take meat off the bone (discard bones and fat), shred gently with your fingers and toss it back into the sauce.

Warm Ragu just before serving and serve over fresh pasta such as fettuccine or papardelle, with a generous topping of grated pecorino.

Serves four

Mango Kulfi Gelato In Rome

Romans have always loved exotic flavours. Ancient Indian texts write of Roman ships arriving on the coast of southern India and returning home laden with spices. Warehouses in first century Rome were filled with Indian pepper, cardamom and cinnamon, and popular cookbooks gave detailed instructions on how to use these ingredients.

It was a thrilling experience to walk past stalls in the ruins of ancient Roman markets and to think that one time they were filled with the scent of spices carried all the way from Kerala and other distant reaches of the world. Two millennia ago chefs must have walked through here, gauging the quality of the produce on offer.

Some things never change, because Romans still love their food markets. Campo Dei Fiori is one of my favourite open air markets to visit in Rome. You can find just about anything here - fresh fruit and vegetables; pickles, jams and preserves; oilve oils, juices, pasta, and my favourite - spice and herb blends of every variety.

When we were last in Rome thirteen years ago, I bought a lot of spice and herb mixtures from Mauro who had a large stall in the middle of the market. You can see him in the lower left picture, proudly holding up a sign for his Pizza Erotica spice blend. I was happy to see Mauro again this time (lower right picture), still holding up the same sign and looking just a little bit greyer. So, of course I bought a whole lot of his spice mixtures again but couldn't get his recipe for this famous Pizza Erotica. My Italian isn't that good, unfortunately!

One of the highlights of being in Rome is the amazing food. From award winning handmade pasta enveloped in a rich meat sauce to rosemary roasted leg of lamb literally falling off the bone, from pistachio studded mortadella and fennel scented salami in our antipasti platter to creamy coffee laden tiramisu, dusted with chocolate, every single meal we ate was memorable. I have come back resolved to make my own fresh pasta and serve a salami platter and tiramisu with practically every meal!

Gelato is one treat we didn't even try to resist! Trying to decide between the many flavours was always hard. While coffee gelato was an easy choice, there were also many fresh fruit ones high on our list to try. We decided to do as the Romans do and have several helpings of gelato throughout the day! Mango pistachio gelato was one of my favourites and reminded me so much of Indian mango Kulfi. Just add cardamom as I have in my recipe below and you have the perfect fusion!

Delicious and refreshing, Mango Kulfi is the perfect finale to any meal! I like to serve it with fresh diced mangoes when they are in season or with any kind of berries.

Mango Kulfi Gelato

1 cup each: mango pulp (canned or fresh), whipping (heavy) cream

1 can (300 ml) sweetened condensed milk

1 can (370 ml) evaporated milk

1/2 tsp ground cardamom

1/4 tsp saffron strands

1/2 cup shelled unsalted pistachios, chopped
 
Combine all of the ingredients in a mixing bowl. Mix well.

Cover bowl and freeze overnight.

Remove from freezer, uncover and rest at room temperature for 1 hour or until kulfi is starting to thaw and soften. Break up kulfi into smaller pieces with a knife. Using a hand blender, blend kulfi until it is smooth.

Cover and freeze again for another 2 hours or longer.

Alternatively you can churn kulfi in an ice cream maker, following manufacturer's directions.

Scoop into serving bowls and serve.


Serves six

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Tandoori Coconut Chicken Tikka In Kumarakom, Kerala

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The backwaters of Kerala are one of the most amazing and enchanting sights in India. For hundreds and hundreds of miles an interconnected series of freshwater rivers, lakes and lagoons run parallel to the coast of the Arabian Sea, forming a maze that serves as a highway for the people living along its shores. Lush green plants line the backwaters, creating a landscape of breathtaking beauty. Brilliantly coloured birds flit in and out of the trees, diving into the water to emerge with a fish clasped in their beaks. Palm trees arch across narrow waterways, forming a shady lane through which you can float, seemingly without end.

The best way to explore the backwaters is to rent a boat and spend a few hours cruising aimlessly. You pass through many settlements and get to observe village life up close. Men commute to work in little canoes. Women walk across bridges over the canals as they go shopping. Children dive into the water. Families gossip in back yards of houses or cast fishing lines into the water to catch dinner. You see women doing their laundry by the water's edge. You have this incredible sensation of being an invisible part of the activity swirling all around, as you glide down the waterways.

Should you wish to spend even more time in the backwaters you can stay in one of the many houseboats that line the shores. Made from the barges that transported rice from the many farms in the region, they have been upgraded and are often quite luxurious accommodation, with multiple bedrooms, air-conditioning and your own private chef! These houseboats leisurely make their way along the waters and are one of the best way to relax and enjoy the scenery while savouring good food!

Coconut grows abundantly in this area and is used in almost every dish. We came across some delicious tandoori chicken laced with coconut cream in the resort we were staying in and managed to get the recipe. It was served with pickled onion rings, lemon wedges and naan fresh from the tandoor. Served outdoors while enjoying a live musical performance, It was a meal to remember!

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Coconut cream makes the chicken incredibly soft and tender and also helps mellow out the spices. You can also substitute skinned chicken drumsticks for the chicken breast or try cubes of paneer for a vegetarian option.

Tandoori Coconut Chicken Tikka

1 lb (450g) chicken breast, cut into 2 inch chunks

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 inch piece ginger, minced

2 tbsp each: full fat plain yogurt, coconut cream (skimmed off the top of a can of premium full fat coconut milk), lemon juice, oil

Salt to taste

1 tsp each, ground spices: coriander, cumin, dried fenugreek leaves, fennel or use 1 tbsp Malabar Masala Powder

1/4 tsp each: cayenne pepper, ground black pepper, saffron strands or red food colouring

2 tbsp melted butter

Place chicken in large mixing bowl.

Combine remaining ingredients, except butter in small bowl, mixing well. Pour over chicken, toss well to coat pieces with marinade. Cover and refrigerate chicken overnight for flavour to develop properly.

Thread chicken onto skewers and place on medium hot barbecue. Grill covered for 8 min per side, turning skewers once. Baste occasionally with marinade to keep chicken moist. Brush with melted butter 2 min before taking off the grill.

Serve with wedges of lime if desired.

Serves four

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Sambhar (curried lentils) In Munnar

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Munnar is justly famous for it's tea gardens and tea estates which stretch out invitingly over hills and valleys. One of our favourite pastimes was to go on long drives on narrow roads that cut through neatly manicured rows of tea bushes and wind through the undulating countryside.

Every now and then, the scenery would give way to a glimpse of a breathtaking waterfall, or a serene lake with paddle boats drifting across or a man made dam that was beautiful enough to warrant a stop for pictures.

Fresh green coconut water is a tasty way to hydrate and cool off during these long drives. Coconut vendors with pushcarts piled high with green coconuts were everywhere. We would often pull over for a refreshing pit stop while the vendor hacked at our coconuts with a huge dangerous looking machete!

Sambhar is a delicious, soupy, healthy melange of soft cooked dal (lentils), assorted vegetables, spices and shredded coconut. I love dunking idlis (steamed rice cakes) in it at breakfast time. What better way to wake up your taste buds in the morning?!

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You can also make sambhar with red lentils, if you don't have any Arhar dal on hand. In Kerala, sambhar is usually served with rice or idlis (steamed rice cakes) or dosas (pan fried lentil crepes). Serve along with First Class Railway Mutton Curry or Pepper Roast Chicken for non vegetarian options. Kerala Fish Fry makes a great appetizer for this meal!

Sambhar (curried lentils)

1/2 cup Arhar (Tur) dal

1 tsp turmeric

Salt to taste

Small walnut sized piece of seedless tamarind

2 cups finely chopped assorted vegetables such as okra, eggplant, zucchini, radish, cauliflower

40 fresh curry leaves, divided

2 ripe tomatoes, finely chopped

1 tbsp Sambhar powder

1/4 cup frozen shredded coconut, thawed

2 tbsp ghee or coconut oil

1/2 tsp black mustard seeds

2 dried red chilies

A pinch of asafoetida (hing), optional

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 small cooking onion, finely chopped

2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander

Wash dal, cover with water and soak for 1/2 an hour. Drain, transfer to a heavy bottomed saucepan and add 3 cups of water, turmeric and salt. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium low and cook until dal is soft, about 1 hour. Mash lightly with stirring spoon.

Meanwhile, combine tamarind and 1 cup of water in microwave safe bowl. Cook uncovered for 2 min, mash tamarind with fork and let stand 15 min to soften. Strain through a fine sieve and reserve extract, discarding solids left behind in the sieve, if any.

Add tamarind extract, vegetables, half the curry leaves, tomatoes, shredded coconut and sambhar powder to cooked dal. Cover and cook on medium low heat for 1 hour or until dal and vegetables are very tender and almost mushy.

Meanwhile, warm ghee or coconut oil in deep skillet. Add mustard seeds, remaining curry leaves, red chilies, asafoetida (if using), onions and garlic to skillet. Saute, stirring, until onions are lightly browned and softened, about 5-7 min.

Pour cooked dal with vegetables into skillet, mix well with sauteed onions and bring to a quick boil. Remove from heat, mix in the fresh coriander and serve.

Serves four

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