European comfort food in the comfort of your home
This year has flown by faster than usual… Durga Puja. Done. Diwali. Check. During my days in Calcutta, I remember winter was the next ‘celebration’ to look forward to. Not only for Christmas but because of the gorgeous weather with its perfect temperature. The winter here is the only season one looks forward to and can’t get enough of… sorry summer and monsoon but I don’t recall anyone looking forward to you here (ok without summer we would not have the bounty of mangoes ;)).
Well, as the mercury gradually dips in the coming days, we now crave for some garam garam khana which is both comforting and nutritious. Since none of us could travel around the globe this year and food is such an integral part of holiday memories, I thought I would bring some European flavours to your dinner tables. As we should eat seasonal, I have picked the menu based on the vibrant produce available now and in the days to come.
Start off with a Tuscan minestrone soup from my book, Fast Fresh Flavourful. This Italian soup is all about the goodness of seasonal veggies. Move on to the Pollo (chicken) Cacciatore and zesty Greek spinach rice, which is all about crisp, clean flavours. Finally, finish off with a bubbling apple and strawberry crumble. Talking of bubbling, don’t forget to chill that bottle of wine or bubbly to make it an extra-special meal.
Pollo Cacciatore — Italian Hunter’s Chicken
In Italian, ‘cacciatore’ means hunter and it is said that this simple stew was originally made by hunters during the Renaissance period when they brought back a rabbit for their dinner after a hard day of hunting. It was an easy one-pot dish to put together outdoors over a fire. Today, Pollo Cacciatore is a hearty dish made in Italian homes and this is my family’s recipe that you can easily make and enjoy at your home too!
Ingredients (SERVES 2-3)
Chicken (thighs and legs with bone in) 500g
Onion 1, finely chopped
Garlic 4-6 cloves, minced
Carrot 1, diced
Celery stalks 2, diced (optional)
Thick tomato puree, ready or homemade
Red wine½ cup
Salt and pepper to taste
Pinch of sugar, if required
Chilli flakes, to taste
Black olives ¼ cup, sliced
Fresh parsley ¼ cup, chopped
- Heat a large pan and add 2tbsp olive oil. Add the onions and saute till translucent. Add the minced garlic, carrots and celery (if using) and cook on a medium flame, stirring often. This is called the soffritto and forms the base of many Italian sauces and stews.
- Make some gashes in the chicken pieces with a sharp knife and rub them all over with olive oil, salt, pepper and chilli flakes half an hour before you start cooking. Leave outside as the warm temperature enables the salt to penetrate into the meat. Add the seasoned chicken pieces along with whole sprig of rosemary to the hot pan and sear 3-4 minutes on each side till well browned.
- Add the red wine and let it evaporate. Add in the tomato puree, the olives and stir everything in the pan together. Season further with a good pinch of salt and a grind of black pepper, cover and simmer on a low flame for 20 minutes. If you find the sauce too tangy, add a pinch of sugar. If you find the chicken drying out, add some water or chicken stock. For those who prefer, this entire step can also be done in a pressure cooker.
- Taste for seasoning, stir in the chopped parsley and serve with some rice, roast potatoes and grilled vegetables on the side. Personally, I like pairing it with the Greek spinach rice mentioned on this page.
- Make ahead/ leftovers: Remove the leftover chicken from the bone and add it along with the sauce and a fresh salad in a delicious sandwich for a quick work lunch the next day.
Tuscan Minestrone Soup
Minestrone is a traditional northern Italian soup enjoyed during the winters. Typically, it is made with leftover vegetables, beans and pasta. In some regions of the country, meat is added, and pasta is replaced with rice or bread chunks. You can adapt it to your liking by adding seasonal vegetables. For a plant protein boost, add half a cup of cooked chickpeas or rajma. For a meaty addition, use chicken or meat stock instead of water. Sear a cup of minced meat or chicken along with the vegetables in the pot. Whatever your preference, this is a warm hug in a bowl on a cold gloomy day.
Ingredients (Serves 4)
Macaroni or broken spaghetti 1 cup
Tomatoes 10, quartered
Olive oil 1 tbsp
Onion 1 small, finely chopped
Garlic 4 cloves, minced
Carrots ½ cup, finely diced
Green beans ½ cup, finely chopped
Potato 1, finely diced
Red chilli 1, slit halfway
Bay leaves 2
Salt 1-2 tsp
Freshly ground black pepper
Thyme or rosemary sprigs (optional) 4-6
Fresh parsley ¼ cup
White wine (optional) ¼ cup
Water or vegetable stock 3 cups
Grated parmesan or cheddar ¼ cup
- Cook the pasta in salted boiling water till al dente and keep aside.
- Make a chunky tomato puree by blending the tomatoes in a blender.
- Heat a deep saucepan and add the oil. Add the onion, cook till it is translucent and add the minced garlic. Cook for a few seconds, and add the chopped vegetables, chilli, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Add the thyme or rosemary sprigs (if using) and half the chopped parsley. Saute for a minute, and then add a splash of water; cover the pan and cook on a medium flame for 2-3 minutes till the vegetables are partially cooked.
- Add the tomato puree and white wine (if using). Cook uncovered for a couple of minutes. Add the water and bring it to a boil. Cover and simmer for five minutes, stirring occasionally. At this point, the vegetables will be cooked but will still retain a slight crunch. If not, cover the pot and cook on high heat for a further two minutes till it is done. Taste and adjust the salt, pepper and chilli. Discard the herb stems.
- To serve, spoon some cooked pasta into individual bowls, and pour the soup over the pasta. Garnish with fresh parsley and grated cheese. Serve with crusty bread to dip in.
- Make ahead/leftover: Refrigerate the soup for two days or freeze for a month. Do not add the pasta to the main soup pot as it will make the leftover soup starchy.
Spanakorizo — Greek spinach rice
Spanakorizo is a simple homely Greek dish made with spinach and rice and flavoured with lots of lemon zest and fresh herbs. For me, it’s a great way to add the ‘mighty’ green spinach to a meal (I have clearly watched too many Popeye cartoons as a kid!). While the traditional way is to cook the raw rice with the spinach in its own water, this is my modern era shortcut where I use leftover cooked rice and toss it all together in a pan. As I always say, in cooking there are no rules, only inspiration!
Olive oil 1 tbsp
Onion 1 small, thinly sliced
Garlic 2-3 cloves, minced
Chilli flakes, to taste (optional)
Spinach, 1 bunch roughly chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
White rice (any variety) 1.5 cups
Butter 1 tsp
Zest and juice of a lemon
Mint or basil leaves ¼ cup, roughly chopped
- Heat a non-stick pan and add the olive oil. When hot, add the onions and saute till translucent. Add in the minced garlic along with some chilli flakes.
- Throw in the spinach leaves in batches, tossing them from the bottom to the top as they wilt. Add a splash of water, couple of pinches of salt and a grind of pepper, cover and steam the spinach for a couple of minutes.
- Once the spinach is cooked and still bright green, add in the rice, herbs and butter and combine well without breaking the rice grains. Taste for seasoning.
- Add in the lemon zest, squeeze in some lemon juice and serve with a main dish or a soup.
- Make ahead/leftovers: Store in the fridge for up to two days.
English Apple Crumble
Apples are now in season in India and in particular, I have been enjoying the succulent ones that come down from Himachal Pradesh. This warm and comforting classic English dessert is a must-have in your dessert repertoire and it is my shortcut to a fruit pie, which I find rather laborious. You can enjoy it just with apples or throw in some seasonal strawberries for some added indulgence. Oh, and if you want to bake some extra crumble on its own, it stores very well for days and makes an addictive crunchy topping over ice cream!
INGREDIENTS (SERVES 6)
The crumble topping
Butter 3½tbsp (50g), room temperature
Brown sugar 3tbsp (40g)
All-purpose or wholewheat flour ½ cup (70g)
Apples 3, peeled and diced
Brown sugar 1tbsp
Cinnamon powder 1tsp
Lemon zest ½tsp
Strawberries (optional) ½ cup
- Preheat the oven to 180°C. To make the topping, place the flour in a bowl, rub in the butter with your hands to resemble bread crumbs and stir in the sugar and oats.
- Place the chopped apples with sugar, cinnamon powder and lime zest in a pan and cook covered over a medium flame for about 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. If you are using berries, add them towards the end, in the last 2-3 minutes, as they need less cooking time.
- Put the cooked fruit in a square oven-proof dish (6.5”x6.5” approx.) or divide among 5-6 individual ramekins and cover with the crumble topping. Bake for 30 minutes until the top is golden and the centre is mushy and moist. Serve hot with ice cream.
- Make ahead/leftovers: The crumble topping can be baked separately on a baking sheet and stored in an airtight container for two weeks. The baked dessert can be stored in the fridge for three days. Reheat in the microwave or oven before serving.
Natasha Celmi is a chef and the author of the cookbook Fast Fresh Flavourful.
Her Instagram handle is @cucinamiabynatasha