Most of us talk about Liguria in Italy, and think of the coast and of Cinque Terre.  But beyond the hills, behind La Spezia, there are many lovely places to see. This more isolated area has seen many changes in the last 20 years but still retains a lot of its authentic charm. The only access then was by steam train, donkey or on foot.

Not only is it a beautiful region with a lot of history, but it also offers an interesting but simple cuisine that features fresh herbs, vegetables, beans and whole grains.  Foods such as chickpeas and chestnuts are also used to make secondary ingredients such as pastes and flours.

The cuisine of Liguria was very much influenced by port workers and the sailors returning home from long voyages. Bread and left-over grains were collected from spillages of damaged food sacks as they were loaded off the ships to create economical, delicious and wholesome dishes that are ideal for winter.

Mixed Bean and Grain Soup

You will need:
300g cannellini beans
300g chickpeas
200g barley
100g buckwheat
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp organic apple vinegar
Some fresh sage leaves
A bay leaf
1/4 tsp coriander seeds, crushed
A natural stock cube with no artificial additives
Sea salt and some freshly ground pepper

If you use dry pulses, soak the chickpeas and cannellini beans overnight in cold water. Add 1/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda to the water once it starts to boil If you have no time to soak them. You can also use canned beans and chickpeas.  When they are cooked through, strain the liquid and keep them aside.

Rinse the barley and buckwheat until the water runs clear.

In a large pot add half the olive oil and warm on low heat. Add the crushed coriander seeds, bay leaf and sage leaves. Dissolve the stock cube in 150ml water and add to the pot. Stir, then add the barley and cook on low heat. Add the chickpeas and cannellini beans. Stir, then add the buckwheat. When it softens up, season with salt and pepper.

Serve with crusty bread, olive oil and lots of black pepper.

Castagnaccio with figs

You will need:
5 tbsp olive oil
60g chopped figs
400g chestnut flour
400 ml water
2 eggs
60g caster sugar or the equivalent in stevia
A pinch of sea salt
Zest of an orange
50g toasted pine nuts
1 tbsp fresh rosemary, finely chopped

Pre-heat the oven to 150℃. Use a tart dish with a loose bottom of around 20cm and brush with olive oil.

Sieve the flour into a bowl and add the sugar or stevia, salt, citrus zest, half the figs and gradually mix in 400ml of water mixed with the olive oil and eggs. Stir until you have a smooth batter. Pour the mixture into the tart dish, scatter over the pine nuts, the rest of the figs and sprinkle with rosemary. Bake for 45 minutes. Allow to cool before serving.

This cake is dense and heavy and will not rise like a traditional cake. Although it is rich, it is not too sweet. Traditional Castagnaccio contains sultanas instead of dried figs. It is also a great addition to a cheese board.

Gnudi with Pesto Bianco

For the gnudi, you will need:
500g ricotta
75g grated hard cheese
freshly ground pepper
1 egg
a pinch of fresh nutmeg
freshly ground pepper

You will also need to roll the gnudi in around 200g of semolina to create a very thin film to seal the ricotta mixture.

For the pesto bianco you will need:
1 cup walnuts
1 cup Maltese bread without crust
1 cup water
2 garlic cloves
8 tbsp olive oil
½ cup ricotta
4 tbsp parmesan cheese
2 tbsp chopped fresh marjoram
½ cup Greek yoghurt or single cream
Salt and pepper

Place the ricotta in a bowl with all the other ingredients. Mash everything up and then cover your work surface with baking paper. Prepare a large dish or tray also lined with baking paper.

Take a tsp of the ricotta mix and roll it in the semolina on the work surface. Place each ball gently on the dish or tray. Repeat the process until you have used the mixture up. Place the gnudi in the fridge for at least an hour. I have made these on TV and cooked them after 20 minutes of preparation and they still hold together. However, it’s best to refrigerate them for a longer period of time.

Boil a large pot with enough salted water. Shake the extra semolina off the balls and drop into the boiling water. When they float to the top they are ready and lift them up gently one by one and place in a colander over a large pot. They are ready in 3 to 4 minutes. Do not overcook; as soon as they float to the top, remove them from the hot water.

For the pesto bianco, soak the bread in the water, cover and place in the fridge overnight. Drain the excess water from the bread and place in a blender. Add the marjoram, garlic, half the olive oil, parmesan cheese and ricotta and blend until the mixture is a paste. Add the walnuts and ricotta and blend while drizzling in the rest of the olive oil at the same time. Taste and adjust seasoning if required.

Refrigerate until you need to use it. Keep aside some of the pasta water or the water where the gnudi have been cooked and add to the white pesto if the sauce appears too thick. Serve immediately once the sauce is added to the pasta or gnudi and add fresh ground black pepper.

Pesto bianco is also delicious with pecan nuts, instead of walnuts. For a gluten-free recipe use polenta instead of semolina.

You can watch Lea’s Good Food Everyday in English on Smash TV every Friday and follow her blog www.goodfoodeveryday.wordpress.com. More of her recipes are available on www.timesofmalta.com.

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