With the global marking of ‘World Vegetarian Day’ on 1st October, I took this occasion to explore a little deeper into one of my favourite cuisines – Italian. The knee-jerk reaction is to assume that Italian food either composes of pasta and/or pizza, but outside of those elements, Italian cooking is so much more and indeed lends itself perfectly for vegetarianism.
I recently had the wonderful opportunity of interviewing Romina Chiappa, who along with her sisters Michela and Emanuela, form the cooking trio ‘The Chiappas’. Their book ‘Simply Italian’ has become a world-wide success and accompanied their 2012 Channel 4 TV series of the same name.
|The Chiappas - Romina, Michela and Emanuela|
‘Simply Italian’ is a fabulous book which captures The Chiappas’ passion for food and family and offers an engaging introduction into Italian cooking. I for one loved making their fresh pasta from scratch and was totally amazed at how easy it actually was as well as how satisfying it felt knowing I’d done it myself! (Read all about it in a previous blogpost of mine). The book is perfect for those wanting to get acquainted with Italian cuisine and how to create a true taste of Italy at home. With Christmas on the horizon, the book offers lots of recipes ideas as well as making it a wonderful gift for a foodie. (Details about the book are at end of article).
Aside from the ‘Simply Italian’ series and book, The Chiappas are currently working on various culinary projects including a weekly recipe upload on the girls' youtube channel and they have also recently launched their new column in Grazia magazine called ‘Dish Dilemmas’ where readers can seek food and cooking related advice.
Being of Eastern European parentage myself, I feel I have some synergy with The Chiappas and their Italian roots. I understand the desire to continue with family customs, making sure traditions are not lost, especially expressing this via the medium of food. In the interview below, Romina discusses the importance of championing her Italian heritage, replicating an Italian kitchen here in the UK as well suggesting some lovely recipe ideas perfect for World Vegetarian Day and beyond.
How would you describe Italian food and the importance of food to Italians and Italian communities world-wide?
We can't really speak on all Italians' behalf, but we can certainly speak on our Italian upbringing regarding the importance of food. For us food is everything, along with family that is, in fact the opening sentence to our book Simply Italian is “Wales and Italy, family and food, these four things are inextricably linked an at the root of our upbringing”. Even when we go on holiday, we don't do what probably most people do and plan their city visit by tourist attractions, but we plan by where are we eating for breakfast, lunch and dinner and then the sites fit in around this.
Food is what brings Italian families together. In all social occasions food is the most important. Most tend to congregate in the kitchen around the table, eating, drinking and chatting and catching up for hours on end. Both Miki and I worked in Italy, and they still all stop for a good two hours for lunch everyday.
If you were catering for vegetarians for a dinner party, what would you make for them that would differ from pizza/pasta? How does Italian food lends itself to vegetarians?
Ooooh, the thing about Italian food is that everyone thinks it is often meat heavy, when in fact a lot of Italian dishes are made from vegetables. If you told my Dad or most Italians for that fact, that Italian food was vegetarian heavy, they would probably call you stupid, but in fact when it comes down to it, a lot of traditional dishes are vegetarian based. Melanzane alla Parmigiana (also found in our book) is an aubergine and mozarella bake and one of our Dad's favourites. Even though made from vegetables, it's got a great meaty texture when cooked. Risottos are another great versatile dish. Nothing quite beats a fresh porcini mushroom risotto, you can be really creative, Mum's asparagus risotto is to die for! We've also got some great vegetable sides, sweet Italian peppers (Peperonata), or our Juicy Peas in a Rich Tomato Sauce (Piselli in Umido) are just two recipes that cook vegetables in a different way.
Another great dish for a dinner party is our stuffed pancakes (Panzarotti), super simple, and the best thing is, you can get this ready the night before and then just pop it in the oven the day of the dinner party and avoid yourself standing over the stove while your guests are around.
The other great thing about Italian food, especially in Italy, is that it's all seasonal. All the restaurants by our home in Italy change their menu regularly to fit with the vegetable and fruit produce in season. One of the best times to go is September/October time when the fresh porcini mushrooms are just in season.
It has been said that Italian food made outside of Italy differs to that of authentic Italian food in Italy. Is that true and how can people buck that trend by making Italian food at home?
Now this is quite a difficult one for us to answer, as all our food that we cook at home are the majority of our Grandmother’s recipes which are all traditional Italian recipes and one of the main reasons why we wrote the book, was we didn't want these recipes to be lost forever. I reckon, the reason people feel it's different is because the food produce is just so much tastier in Italy, and mainly because they've got the weather to ripen those veggies to perfection. As for making authentic Italian food outside of the UK - just buy our book and give it a go, the best thing about Italian food, is that it's not complicated, or difficult, it's just basic ingredients which you most probably have at home and just cooking them in a way you may not have thought of before.
What would be the 'must-have' pantry items to replicate an Italian kitchen?
Here are ones we would probably all agree on:
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Parmesan (vegetarian parmesan available widely)
- Fresh Tomatoes
- Mushroom Stock cubes
Notes & My Thanks:
I would like to thank Romina Chiappa for her time in participating in the interview.
For more information about The Chiappas, please see www.thechiappas.com and visit their YouTube Channel for weekly recipe uploads.
Simply Italian – The Book
The very best of Italian cooking with Michela, Romina and Emanuela Chiappa.
'Wales and Italy, family and food: for us, these four things are inextricably linked and at the root of our upbringing. Whether at the family home in Wales or when we spend holidays in the small hilltop village we are from in northern Italy, we have always heard Dad say that 'la tavola' (the table) is the central focus of our lives. It's where we cook, eat and socialise as a family.'
Michela, Emanuela and Romina Chiappa grew up in Wales in the heart of a close-knit Italian community where food was always at the centre of family and social gatherings. Whether searching for porcini in the hills near their parents' home, or making pasta for Christmas Eve with the whole family, to sharing food at the annual Welsh-Italian summer picnic, the three sisters have been immersed in the Italian way of cooking all their lives.
In their first cookbook they share their cherished family recipes, including all the pasta dishes recently seen in their Channel 4 series Simply Italian. From snacks, soups and salads, to mains, side dishes and desserts, Simply Italian brings you good, simple, fresh Italian food.
Michela works as an agent in a sports management company, as well running a coffee and pizza café in Cardiff with her husband. Of the sisters, she's the risotto expert and also loves to make pasta sauces.
Romina works for a luxury fashion brand is London, and loves to bake for friends and family.
Emanuela runs an online business selling bespoke homemade gifts for children, and works as a nanny. She loves to cook time-consuming meals and entertain large groups.
The book is available from all major book retailers as well as online. Click here for book details.