A couple of times a year I manage to visit my cousins in Italy for a short family holiday. Within half an hour of arriving, we will be sitting round the kitchen table catching up on news, drinking a glass of Prosecco and eagerly watching the amazing mama of the house rustle up lunch. It might be a frittata with sage leaves picked from the garden, or maybe some peeled, chopped, ripe tomatoes on a lightly toasted pizza bread.
All the dishes will make use of the finest and most delicious olive oil, some freshly baked bread and a selection of Italian cheeses. Nothing will come out of a tin or packet, and a microwave is simply unheard of.
I love cooking and eating with our Italian cousins. Life seems to evolve around food, yet they're all so slim and fit. They may eat pasta every day, but the way they cook and eat it differs greatly from the way we do here in the UK.
Pasta in busy Italian households will often be bought in for every day use, but made from scratch for special occasions. It is eaten usually as a starter for a meal, served in small quantities, and rarely drenched in sauce.
It is more likely to be a simple tortellini or ravioli, sprinkled with some freshly grated parmesan cheese and a good olive oil. One of my favourite special dishes cooked by my cousin is a pesto lasagne, made with homemade pesto using fresh basil leaves from her garden, thin layers of potato, bechamel sauce, nutmeg and lots of parmesan. It's very rich so only a small helping is served for lunch or for a dinner starter.
A main course for the evening would be meat or fish, plainly grilled with herbs. It could be lamb, wild rabbit or sea bass, and only ever of the finest quality available. This course is served simply, with a side salad of green leaves on a separate plate. Italians never have potatoes and vegetables on the same plate as the meat, and the pasta starter is usually the only carbohydrate served for the meal. Everyone will dine together round the table, with no TV or distractions. It's family time and eating is a social event enjoyed by everyone.
Dessert is almost always fresh fruit and cheese, served without biscuits or crackers. For a dessert treat we go to the local bakery and buy tiny cakes that look like a work of art. They come boxed and wrapped in ribbon, just like a gift. Each one is just two or three mouthfuls but totally delicious. Everything is washed down with sparkling Prosecco which my cousins buy from a local producer once or twice a year, using recycled bottles which they then keep in their wine cellar. A good red wine will be served with the meat dish, and a homemade limoncello or tartufo truffle liqueur will accompany the dessert.
I'm always surprised at how few carbs are consumed around an Italian dinner table. It's a lesson in quality and taste over quantity and convenience, and I love it.
Recipe for pesto lasagne
This is a cheat's version using ready made components - to make the authentic Italian version you would need to make your own pasta, pesto and bechamel from scratch.
Lasagne pasta sheets
Large jar of green pesto sauce
½ lb of waxy potatoes, cooked and thinly sliced
Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
In a square ovenproof dish cover the bottom with a thin layer of pesto sauce, a thin layer of potato and then some bechamel sauce.
Dip a few lasagne sheets in just boiled water for 10 seconds, and place over the potato layer to cover the bottom of the dish.
Repeat until you reach the top of the dish. Layers should be thin.
Use the rest of the bechamel to cover the top layer of lasagne sheets and edges of the dish. Sprinkle all over generously with parmesan cheese.
Put in the oven at 180° for about 30 minutes or until the cheese is bubbling and starting to turn golden.
Serve with more freshly grated parmesan and a green salad.
This is a super dish for vegetarians or non-vegetarians alike.