Italians do it better . . .

But they guard their recipes closely, so finding out what goes into Catriona and Lina’s torta verde wasn’t easy

Sat, Mar 1, 2014, 01:00

I ’ve a confession to make: I can now add smuggling to my CV. Yup, and I blame it all on the Italians. As if eating several tons of tiramisu wasn’t sinful enough, one week with my in-laws in Milan over New Year was all it took to turn me to the dark side, buying and hoarding cheese like some crazed dairy addict, cosseting it in my luggage to get it back home and safely ensconced in my fridge.

The question, then, was what to do with it all? The answer came to me pretty quickly. Obviously it was important to get the more, shall we say, aromatic cheeses out of the way first, and then make my way slowly, and with some considerable pleasure, through the harder, more en during ones – the Parmesans and Pecorinos of this world.

So I started with the taleggio – soft, fruity, fragrant taleggio. I imagine Homer Simpson’s European cousin would mumble, “Hmmmm, taleggio” in the same way Homer murmurs the names of various American food and beverage staples.

Perhaps inspired by the cold, stormy weather, I decided to go the whole hog and cook the most rib-sticking, wintry, après ski-inspired dish I could come up with.

The fact that it’s vegetarian is no indication whatsoever of its health merits: this dish oozes rich cheesiness, though the roasted squash, radicchio and walnuts do temper its evilness just a little, as well as adding texture and depth to the béchamel-cloaked pasta – tiny orechietti, or small ears in Italian.

This is the kind of dish to tuck in to after walking in the hills and plonking yourself in front of the fire with a glass of crisp white wine. Oh yes.

And my second dish of the week? Well, I consider myself privileged to get my hands on it at all. Italians are famously secretive when it comes to sharing recipes, so when my sister-in-law decided to give me her Italian mother-in-law’s recipe for a Ligurian classic, I was very, very grateful, especially as I’d consumed enough of it to know just how good it is. Torta verde is a pie of spinach, Arborio rice and Parmesan cocooned in buttered sheets of pastry and baked till crisp and golden.

I swapped the shortcrust for some filo and used frozen spinach instead of the Swiss chard and fresh stuff. Often, spinach can rob pastry of its crispness, but here the rice cleverly absorbs any juices, so what you get is a lovely dry, flavoursome pie. Lovely for lunch or supper, and just as nice the next day.

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