An Italian meal with no pasta or pizza in sight.

I don’t quite know why Spain were such hot favourites to beat Italy the other night. Sure, Italy have had some so-so results in the build-up to Euro 2012, but anyone who has followed football down the years knows that the Azzurri never really bother to turn up in matches unless its for real.

So the 1-1 draw with the World and European champions – and if they had taken their chances they would have scored three or four – should have come as no surprise, even though the country is currently embroiled in yet another match-fixing scandal.

Paolo Rossi, among others, was banned for three years for match-fixing in 1982, and went on to become the hero of the 1982 World Cup Final victory over Germany. More recently, in 2006 Juventus were demoted for two years and two of their championships were removed from the record books owing to allegations of bribing referees. The national team’s response was to lift the World Cup again. Who knows what they will do in 2012 in response to some pretty damning allegations flying around?

I’ve always held Italian cooking in high esteem.

Spaghetti Bolognese was the first vaguely posh meal I ever cooked as a student – from scratch, mind you, none of your fancy Dolmio sauces back then – and around the same time, pizzerias were beginning their long march to colonisation of the high streets of the UK.

When Sal and I first met we pretty much bonded over a love of food, and Italian food in particular. She used to do a fantastic home-made pizza, but we lost the recipe in the pre-home computer days, and she is reluctant to try a different one in case it doesn’t match up. I’m hoping that if I mention her enough in this blog, she may give in and cook it again.

I’ve only been to Italy once, to Florence on business for a couple of days, and I didn’t get to see much of the place. But the food I DID eat – fast food pizza at the mall, basic no-frills pasta in a cafe – was so far ahead of its equivalent in the UK. Note to self – holiday in Italy. Soon.

However, I thought I’d go for something other than pasta or pizza.

Chicken with Parma Ham

I’m cooking it slightly differently (hey, did anybody ever follow a recipe to the letter?). I’m using proscuttio instead of parma ham for a start. Here are the raw ingredients

My Mum’s coming over for lunch today. I normally do roast chicken, but that takes forever and although its very nice, when all’s said and done, there are plenty of other dishes to explore.

12.30 – Collect Mum, stick her in front of the television. What time’s lunch, she says? It’ll be about an hour, say I. So she has a couple of pieces of bread and butter “while she’s waiting”. Now the tables are turned from when I was growing up I realise how irritating this is from the cook’s point of view. Okay Mum, you’ve made your point 8=)

12.45 – OK. Cut a pocket into the chicken breasts, then open them out into a butterfly. A giant mutant butterfly, in this case. Spread garlic oregano butter over them then fold them back over again. Wrap a couple of slices of proscuttio round each one and hold in place with cocktail sticks. Well, that kind of works (see below – I took a picture of the middle-sized one, where the proscuttio fitted just right)

Now, put them in an oven and pour over some chicken stock. Cover with tinfoil and bake for 35 minutes, removing the foil with ten minutes to go and giving it a blast of heat to make the ham nice and crispy.

Meantime, I located the biggest sweet potato you ever did see, cut it up into “cubes” (hah!) and boil for ten to fifteen minutes, then mash it up with butter and a TINY bit of salt.

Over-salting is my cardinal cooking sin. If I ever cook for you, on no account should you “auto-condiment” until you have tasted the food. You know auto-condimentors. No matter what the dish is and what the company is, they plaster their food with salt, pepper, tomato sauce, relish, mustard, Lea and Perrins sauce and anything else that may be sitting around on the table minding its own business. Its an insult to the cook and more pertinently, I’ve probably already over-salted so its your loss. Just saying.

The final component is puy lentils. (pronounce like you’re doing the drum sound in Ring My Bell by Anita Ward)

She even sings about washing the dishes here. Thanks for the offer, Anita, but I think Sal’s got it covered.

Apparently, much like champagne or Melton Mowbray pork pies, for example, Puy Lentils are one of those Protected Designation Of Origin foods where the EU has ruled that nobody outside the designated region (the Le Puy region of France) can market them by that name.

I can see why they want to protect them, they taste marvellous with a lovely peppery tinge to them. Heat ‘em up with just a LITTLE salt (!) and some more of tonight’s featured herb, oregano.

All done.

The dish went down very well with both Sal and Mum (although Mum failed to finish her modest portion – can’t get too cross with her for spoiling her appetite though since it means I get more. Heh heh heh!)

Next time, maybe something green to go with it – broccoli or peas, as there is some debate about whether potatoes, sweet or otherwise, qualify as a vegetable.

All in all, a success though.

Poland next – only ever eaten Polish a few times before and it was great, so can’t wait! But I’ll be leaving this to professionals and eating at a proper Polish cafe. I deserve a day off.

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