Italian cuisine and South African lamb, an unlikely love affair!
Let me start this post out by stating a very important thing… I don’t eat a lot of Italian. Don’t get me wrong, it’s mainly due to a greater love for fresh meat and salads and the lack of an Italian metabolism. I however strongly associate with the Italians’ cooking philosophy. Keep it simple. Keep it fresh. Most of their dishes consists of 3 – 5 fresh ingredients. Even a true Italian’s pizza toppings are traditionally mostly 3 ingredients. Unbelievable right! I experienced this age old cooking philosophy first hand while on holiday with my family in Italy. Being a proud (l)ambassador for South African lamb and mutton meat I soon came to realise that South African lamb and mutton paired with the Italian way of cooking makes for the most perfect, although unlikely, couple and that I need to play match maker! That is how my “Crepe Lasagne”, “Zucchetti Bolognese” and “Pita Pizza 3 ways” came to life. But let tell you the whole story behind this cooking inspiration.
Even though my family is of Dutch descent, I think we are more like the Italians when it comes to “family dynamics”. The dinner table is where we catch up, vent, inform, moan, discuss, share stories, gossip and bond. This January we went on our long overdue traditional family ski holiday. Austria has always been a favourite of ours but this time around we decided to try Livigno (aka little South Africa in Italy). We usually prefer the self-catering option when on holiday. There is just something about walking through a foreign supermarket and trying out all sorts of weird and wonderful local ingredients, a challenge welcomed by the women in my family. This year however, we tried the half-board option, where you have the opportunity to be wined and dined the local way in the evenings. Firstly; so glad we decided to try it in Italy (it will not go down that well with all European half-board villas) and secondly, what an interesting experience it was!
Dinner ala Italiano
Sitting down to dinner the first evening, we were quite intimidated by the 5 course menu in front of us. Antipasto, Primo, Secondo… we thought it was just because it was a level of fancy us South Africans weren’t used to. Turns out this had nothing to do with “fancy” it’s simply how Italians do their home style meals. Let me just give you a quick overview of this age old tradition. The meal starts with Antipasto, which is a small appetiser and can be anything from caprese salad to pheasant wellington (that’s the only way I can describe it), always accompanied by a selection of gourmet bread rolls. Primo, the second course, or the “first main course”, usually consist of pasta or soup (and let me tell you, the Italians are certainly way more generous when it comes to their portions than the French). The next course, secondo was mainly a type of meat or fish served with one type of vegetable. And then, “dolce”, that universal sweet ending to any meal, which knows no culture.
The first evening I made the rookie mistake of eating everything that was on all four my plates. Big. Uncomfortable. Mistake. (I had to ski twice as long the following day to feel like myself again). Thereafter I knew not to be seduced by the attractive antipasto and primo portions. The waiter kept asking me “oh, you don’t like” when I didn’t finish my food and the more I tried to explain that the food was amazing and that we were simply not used to such big dinners, the less she understood. Eventually I gave up and just said “eccelente” and “delizioso”. Italians (much like us South Africans) take offence when you don’t finish a meal and consider it as your way of telling them “the food wasn’t good enough to finish”.
Carbs, carbs, glorious carbs…
Knowing the havoc pasta or pizza can wreak on a lady’s hips (well those without an Italian metabolism) you can imagine my panic when I realized that “Banting” hasn’t arrived in Livigno yet. Not that I’m a banter, to me it’s just an indication of a good “low carb” option and pizza or pasta at the slopes restaurants and again pasta (plus 4 other dishes) for dinner can start to weigh you down after a few days. Yes, sure they have salads or vegetables on the menu but it was either too expensive or very uninteresting. The Italians can definitely learn a thing or two from South Africans about gourmet salads! Being a lambassador, I scrutinized each menu at each restaurant for their lamb dishes. Lamb shank was all I could find and was around R350, so for obvious reasons I did not try it. However, as far as red meat goes, we had some amazing meaty burgers at the only burger restaurant in Livigno, and being Italians, they pride themselves on the fact that their burgers are made completely from scratch, using the most basic but freshest ingredients (even the burger rolls).
The Italian and lamb love affair
So after my Italian adventure I realised that a cuisine based on such sincere principles cannot go to waste at the cost of carbs. So I started thinking about ways how I can “healthify” classic Italian dishes at home whilst combining it with delicious and nutritious South African lamb. You see South African lamb has such a unique flavour that it needs very little added to it to make it a succulent meal. Just add one or two fresh ingredients and you have a guaranteed winner, this the perfect ingredient for any Italian style dish.
And so my meal planning started.
First “rule” I thought of when it came to keeping it simple, was to only make dishes consisting of red, white and green (coincidentally on purpose the same as the Italian flag… you see what I did there). Second “rule” was, 3 – 5 ingredients only per dish (this was a bit of a challenge for me). I thought of what we ate (a lot) in Livigno, which pretty much came down to pizza, crepes, ravioli, lasagne and goulash (which was disqualified since it is of Hungarian origin! Surprise surprise).
The dishes I had in mind had to be tested on the toughest food critics…my family! My sister-in-law, who is an awesome cook with ever-so creative ideas on how to modernise recipes. My brother, who is probably the toughest one to impress, since he has so many rules when it comes to food. It shouldn’t be too healthy, it shouldn’t be too saucy, it should be spicy, it must have a crunch element, but shouldn’t stray too far off the original etc etc. My sister-in-law’s brother, who is also like a younger brother to me, has an appetite like you won’t believe, and grew up with his mom’s cooking, which, to put is simple, is always restaurant quality! Last but not least, my fellow lambassador, friend, inspirer and biggest cheerleader who always used to cook for us as students in our commune, and one of the best and knowledgeable cooks I know (she can recite recipes, measurements and temperatures of about anything). These were my critics.
The idea for lamb-mince-stuffed-wonton-ravioli immediately came to mind. I researched a few recipes and found it to be a hit many others have thought of before me, however I failed miserably in my search for wonton wrappers (fyi, spring roll wrappers is also a huge fail!). So plan C? I tried to stay away from lasagne, since I would be up against my mom’s recipe, and didn’t want the added pressure with the limited time I had. Zucchini lasagne would have been too healthy for the men (I could hear their complaints already), then it came to me. Crepe lasagne! Perfecto! It’s lighter than pasta but would still pass as carbs in the men’s opinion. Here is what I ended up cooking for the family:
- Crepe lasagne with lamb mince
Layers of crepes and mince topped with a ricotta mix
- Zucchetti bolognese
Zucchini spaghetti spirals topped with lamb mince and parmigiana
- Pita pizza 3 ways
Halved pitas topped with – tomato, basil, basil pesto and mozzarella
- lamb espetada meat, mushrooms and mozzarella (sneaked in
- lamb espetada meat, cream cheese and rocket
- Different but the same Caprese salad
Baked tomatoes and green pepper, with macadamia nuts and cranberries (different ingredients, same colours)
- Sort of Affogato
Ice cream served with a shot of chocolate Bombardino (all the way from Italy) and home-made coffee cookie (we didn't have it in Italy since it is a summer desert, however we did have our fair share of Bombardinos; a classic Italian drink consisting of warmed up egg liquor/eggnog, whiskey/rum and cream, there are many variations but these are the main ingredients, thus a perfect combination in this South African heat).
I found that by sticking to the “rules”, the menu turned out to be very economical without being repetitive or boring, as well as saving a lot on 2 for one deals! Bonus! Each dish was so simple to make, no slaving for hours, no special equipment or even knowledge needed. Everything was put on the table “family style”, where everyone dishes for themselves, as much as they want, as many times as they want and so the bonding commenced.
Every dish turned out great (based on everyone’s opinions and feedback). The critics were happy and even though the classics were “healthified” and “lambified”, each dish still represented Italy as well as the Italian philosophy, proving that lamb shouldn't be discarded when thinking Italian. I’ll say the same thing about merging Italian cuisine and lamb meat that I said about my ski holiday in Livigno… let’s do that again!
Wham bam grazie lamb!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Fellow foodie friends, Marina and Lizanne are “Lambs Cooking Mutton”! Armed with their blog posts and a frequent feature in the “Weg and Go” magazines they are on a mission to make cooking with lamb inspiring and creative but also less intimidating for the modern young lady or gentleman! They will also be travelling across SA to bring you news and reviews on South African meat festivals and restaurants where winning lamb and mutton dishes are served.
Although Lizanne is a designer by day, and Marina a MSc Nutrition student on the side, their roles are ironically switched when it comes to cooking with lamb. Lizanne is always looking for ways to cook and eat healthy and will also keep you up to date on how to keep your lamb dishes as healthy as possible. Marina on the other hand loves creating absolute indulgent and creative lamb dishes that have no mercy on your diet. But between the two of them they will provide you with lamb dishes for every occasion!