When it comes to serving up scrumptious Italian pasta, the Chiappa sisters know a thing or two. So who better to talk to for the latest instalment of Chef Chat?
The Chiappas have an interesting heritage.
They grew up in Wales in the UK, but in the heart of a close-knit Italian
community where food and family was – and still is – at the centre of every
family and social gathering. As you can imagine, that has made for some interesting
life experiences and enticing dishes.
If you live in the UK, you might have seen the oldest sister, Michela, on TV. She presented Channel 4’s Simply Italian – a wonderful four-part fresh pasta cooking series that aired in Summer 2012. (If you’re based in the UK, you can watch it here on 4oD).
If Michela is the family’s expert on pasta sauces and risottos however, it’s Emi – AKA ‘the middle one’ – who is the Queen of more technical recipes. She’s also the sister you’re most likely to find giving traditional dishes a distinctly modern twist. While Romina - the youngest of the Chiappas - is the party planner and family baker; in other words, the creative one.
I caught up with these familial foodies as they were preparing to launch several new projects. Here’s what they had to say…
Hi Chiappas! You all grew up in Wales in the UK, but with the strong influence of Italian parents. What effect did this somewhat unusual mix of cultures have on what you ate and how you ate it?
Where do we begin? People often ask us, do we call ourselves Italian or Welsh? And to be honest we still don’t know the answer ourselves!
When we’re in Wales we’re often known as the Italians, and then when we're in Italy visiting family we’re known as the Welsh - so we’ve gone through life calling ourselves the floaters or nomads.
Italy has certainly played an incredibly important part of the way we eat and go about life. Dad has ingrained in us that La Tavola (the table) is the most important aspect of the family and the home; we all congregate there to eat, socialise and celebrate all types of occasions and family events. However we feel that being away from Italy has also made us more and more passionate about ensuring we maintain traditions, and so from a young age (pretty much as soon as we could stand) us girls have been put in the kitchen with our nonnas (grandmothers) to help them make all the traditional dishes.
So Italian traditions were an important part of our upbringing, where food and family was the focus of everything we would do. However we can’t say that growing up in Great Britain hasn’t played a part. We were all educated in the British schooling system, studied at British Universities, and now all have ambitious careers compared to our grandmothers and great grandmothers who were expected to stay at home and cook. Therefore we’ve adapted these traditions to suit our busy modern lives. Italian food will always be the main cuisine we cook, however with it being super fresh and simple - what’s easier than throwing a pasta dish together? - we wouldn’t want it any different.
Have you ever managed to combine these two very different food cultures into any interesting dishes? Italian rarebit? Leek pasta?
We certainly do… one of our classic dinner party dishes is Italian panzarotti (stuffed savory pastries) with salmon and caramelised leeks.
Another classic our nonno (grandfather), a master baker, makes is sausage rolls - using Italian sausage meat rather than classic British pork sausage meat.
Then we could say that our Italian Formaggio nella padellina is an equivalent of the classic Welsh rarebit. What is it, you ask? Melted cheese in a saucepan that you mop up with bread. Nothing beats this on a Sunday!
Since you all obviously grew up cooking and loving food, and you all still cook all the time, which dishes do you find have survived the test of time? In other words, which recipes did you learn when you were young that you still cook up today?
One of the first things we were allowed to help out with in the kitchen was making a béchamel sauce (white sauce) to help mum make her lasagnas, and this is something that we repeatedly use over and over again.
A classic tomato sugo (tomato sauce) is an old faithful, as this is a great base to create any type of pasta dish. Just simply add any leftover ingredients you have in the fridge you can usually end up with something quite scrummy.
Many of my site's visitors are beginner cooks, just like I was when I scribbled down my first of Mamma Marisa's recipes roughly five years ago (it was this breakfast pasta and it's still scrumptious).
When it comes to complete newbies who are just moving beyond 'sauce-in-a-jar' for the first time, what's the one Italian recipe you would advise them to start with? Something delicious of course but completely fool-proof...
Let’s clarify something here… none of us are professional chefs. We’re just girls that cook and eat a lot at home, so we’ve definitely made numerous errors in the kitchen. But that’s half the fun. And so for all the newbies out there, don’t worry! Cooking is meant to be fun, and trust us we’ve all been there.
So as for a fool-proof recipe we have some great super-quick pasta sauces that literally take minutes to make, and should be relatively hard to mess up.
Some of the highlights, for me, of Michela's Simply Italian TV show were the segments that showed viewers how to make fresh pasta in all kinds of wonderfully bright colors. What are your favorite ingredients for coloring the dough? And what would you say is the key to getting the colors as bright as you do?
Romina: Believe it or not, my favourite is to use squid ink to colour your pasta black – it’s not a fun colour as such, but I love how dramatic black pasta can look on a plate. It’s perfect for some amazing seafood pasta recipes.
Emi: I think the green pasta has to be my fave, as it’s such an intense colour. It can easily be made by adding chopped spinach or even herbs to your pasta.
As for the key to making them as bright as we do, I’d say it’s more important to make sure you get the consistency of your pasta right - so that it’s easy to roll and cooks well.
With beetroot pasta – buying raw beetroot and cooking it yourself seems to keep the intensity of the colour better when the pasta is boiled.
I noticed you helping out one of your Twitter followers recently by advising them to cook ravioli from frozen (a lesson I only learned recently myself). Can you share any other expert pasta-cooking tips with my readers? Any little nuggets of kitchen wisdom that beginner cooks rarely hear?
Good eggs and good quality type 00 flour will help you get the best consistency for your pasta.
Then, when you have made your fresh pasta shapes/parcels, sprinkle polenta flour on your tray to stop them from sticking. When you then add your pasta to the water, because the polenta flour is so dense it will sink to the bottom of the pan and stop the water going all murky and claggy.
Freeze your grated parmesan cheese and cook with it from frozen. This stops the parmesan getting mouldy.
Freeze pesto in ice cube trays. That way you can pop a cube out and cook with some pasta and, hey presto, you have dinner!
You recently launched your own Chiappa sisters website. Can you tell us a little about why you created this and what visitors can expect to find there as it grows?
Stemming off from the back of the Simply Italian series, people often would ask us where to go and what to do in Italy. So we thought a website would be the perfect way to share all our knowledge so that we could pass on what we know.
In addition to that, we’re often our trying new things and cooking new recipes. So we thought we would love to keep letting people know about what we’re up to, in the hope that we can provide some inspiring content.
Some of Michela's Simply Italian episodes feature clips related to her wedding in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy. For any readers thinking of tying the knot in the land of the boot, what would you recommend food-wise? Do you have any good tips on choosing an Italian menu? Any great Italian wedding dishes to go for? Or maybe most useful... how to deal with Italian catering companies and chefs!
The amazing thing about getting married in Italy is that you’re guaranteed the food will be amazing and often half the price of what you can expect to pay in the UK. Food at Italian weddings is often the number one priority, with many people having up to 10 courses on the day (yes – 10! We’re not joking).
I think it’s safe to say that one should definitely have a pasta or risotto dish on the menu. And forget your traditional British fruit wedding cake - in Italy it’s popular to have cream pasticciera, which when covered in fresh fruit just puts the fruit cake to shame.
As for dealing with caterers there is definitely a certain way of doing business in Italy, but thankfully for us, with dad dealing with Italians most days through his coffee business, we know how to handle them. It’s for this reason that we’ve actually set-up a wedding service, where we help Brits organise their weddings in Northern Italy. We work with one of the best caterers in the region, and help locate venues and cover all other aspects of someone’s big day. Take a look at our website: www.cohoitalianweddings.com
And finally, one generic question that I ask every chef I meet: what's your favorite Italian restaurant and why?
One that we can all agree on is Loccanda Cacciatore (website) in mum’s home town of Ponte Dell’Olio.
This place is a traditional Italian trattoria (nothing fancy) but they make some of the best fresh pasta in the region. So much so that the Milan football team often drive there to enjoy the food! When you’re there expect endless food, over a number of courses, accompanied by the region’s famous fizzy red wine (Lambrusco). And the best part is the bill (check) won’t break your wallet... far from it!
Romina: One of my favourite Italian places in London is Princi on Wardour Street (website). I’ll often come here to grab some great Italian classics, just like mum makes at home. The place is always heaving which only goes to show that it’s definitely a place to stop.
It’s set out like a traditional Italian café/bar, where you pay for your food and drinks first and then go and collect them. So essentially it can be looked at a self-service kind of restaurant, but this just paints the place in an incorrect light. If you’re ever in the area I highly recommend you stop there, as it’s one of the few Italian restaurants that I recommend.
Thanks so much ladies – I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. I’ve learned a bunch and I’m sure my readers will too. Everyone, here’s how you can keep updated on what the Chiappas are up to:
Their website: www.thechiappas.com
Their Facebook page: www.facebook.com/thechiappas
And on Twitter: @thechiappas
Michela will also be sharing Britain’s Top 10 Italian Dishes in a More4 TV special on Saturday, August 10 (2013). The result of a new online poll, this list includes delectable Italian dishes that us Brits have loved for years, as well as some more unexpected modern versions. Tune in at 8pm to get pastastically inspired.