--- Join Michela Chiappa as she cooks simple, delicious Italian food and explores Tuscany in Michela's Tuscan Kitchen, Sundays 8pm from 14 February on SBS Food and then on SBS On Demand ---
There’s a little bit of Italian family magic in Michela Chiappa’s gnocchi recipe.
It’s not only easy – “so unbelievably simple, I do this one with the kids all the time” – but a dish that builds memories every time she makes it.
“For us, cooking is about being together as a family and not just eating but the whole preparation,” says Chiappa when cooking gnocchi with her mother and sisters. “We’ve got memories for years of just being in a production line and someone on the rolling, someone on the chopping, and churning out as many gnocchi as you possibly can. And it’s definitely something I want to pass on to my kids and hopefully their children’s children. They’re memories and moments that I never want to lose.”
Rainbow gnocchi - a brightly coloured take on her favourite ricotta gnocchi - are one of the many Italian classics Chiappa makes in Michela’s Tuscan Kitchen. The show sees Chiappa discover the flavours of the cities and countryside of Tuscany, meeting producers, cooks and market stallholders, and then sharing recipes inspired by her travels.
This is the sort of Italian food anyone can make: a cheat’s mushroom risotto that’s perfect when you need food fast; a homemade balsamic glaze that will add flavour to dishes (and makes a great gift); a classic Italian biscuit that you can make crunchy or chewy so it’s just the way you like it.
SBS Food had a chat to Chiappa about cooking with family, making memories and that very colourful gnocchi recipe.
The eldest of three sisters, Michela Chiappa grew up in Wales as part of a strong Italian community. “Both my parents are Italian but being born in Wales I think we guard our heritage even more - it seems that we do anything we possibly can to retain our culture... I speak fluent Italian and speak only in Italian with my children, I cook and teach my kids to cook authentic recipes where possible and we travel as much as possible,” Chiappa says when we chat to her about making the show. “Tuscany is the region adjacent to my home region of Emilia Romagna and I love everything about Italy. I used the filming of this series to explore the heart of Tuscan cuisine.”
In the show, Chiappa meets a long list of generous and talented cooks and producers, from beekeepers and bakers to winemakers. There are stallholders selling cheese and smallgoods, glorious fresh fruit and vegetables, and porchetta made the traditional way in a wood-fired oven. “A Monte San Savino no rosmarino. La vera porchetta con il finocchio! (In Monte San Savino there’s no rosemary! Real porchetta is with fennel seeds),” says Nello, a market stallholder that she visits in San Savino.
One of the many special experiences of her travels is a lesson in pasta making in the tiny village of Celle Sul Riga, where local woman are keeping alive the tradition of handmaking a pasta called pici. It’s an egg-free pasta that’s a little like spaghetti, but thicker. And, says Palmira, one of the women, “Pero’ sono piu’ buoni! (However, they taste better!)”.
And it wouldn’t be a visit to Italy without gelato, so there’s a visit to Gelateria Dondoli in the heart of San Gimignano, one of the most famous gelateria in Tuscany, where she meets gelato maker Sergio Dondoli and tries some of the unusual flavour combinations he’s known for, including blackberry and lavender and raspberry and rosemary.
Recipes anyone can make
For Michela's Tuscan Kitchen, Chiappa set out to show how easy it is for anyone to bring a taste of Italy into their kitchen. There’s a bounty of simple recipes, and while it’s never easy for a cook to pick their favourites, we asked Chiappa whether there are some, in particular, she’d love people to try.
“So hard to choose! The cheat’s risotto is one of my all-time family dishes along with the rainbow gnocchi, the meatballs, as well as the tuna and lemon pasta which is just the best five-minute meal that all the kids enjoy,” she says. “One of my personal favourites is the panzanella salad - the crunch of the bread cubes with the contrasting flavours of the dressing, tossed amongst the tomatoes and vegetables, is just heaven in my opinion.”
The risotto appears in episode 5 of the show, inspired by tasting freshly foraged porcini mushrooms in the historical region of Val d’Orcia. In the show, she describes the recipe as a “little lifesaver”.
“Risottos are one of my favourite things to cook. I absolutely love them ‘cos you can get so many different varieties … But whereby a classic risotto, you would have to keep stirring the dish over and over again until it’s cooked … My cheat’s version lets you cook the sauce and rice separately and combine them at the end. It’s so simple.
“The reason I love this recipe, in particular, is because you can prepare this sauce in advance, and then all you need to do is heat it and add in your rice, and it’s a lifesaver when you’ve got kids ‘cos there’s many a day I come dragging them in, you know, late at night, and it’s just a matter of heating that sauce and quickly cooking that rice.
“I make mushroom risotto all the time the classic way, but you really would never know this was the cheat version.”
The meatballs are a star of the very first episode. “Everyone’s heard of meatballs and of course if you’re Italian, you think your mum’s recipe is the very best in the world,” says Chiappa, who shares her mother’s recipe, with a twist: meatballs on skewers.
And that tuna pasta is great for very quick lunch or dinner.
“Just like in Italy, it’s so easy to create a cheap, delicious meal with a few simple ingredients. And I’m not afraid to say it, but my tuna sauce tastes so good, you’d never guess it was made from store cupboard basics,” says Chiappa in the show, where she also shares her tips for pasta success.
“So, when you’re cooking your pasta, three very simple golden rules: always throw it into salted, boiling water. Make sure there’s a lot of water surrounding your pasta. It needs room to grow, it needs its space. And never, ever, ever, ever overcook it."
The tuna pasta sauce – made with tinned tuna, capers, lemon and rocket – takes just minutes to make so it’s ready by the time the spaghetti is cooked.
That rainbow gnocchi!
“The most classic form of gnocchi is made using a potato, where you have to boil it, mash it, prep it and then mix it all. The version I’m going to show you is using ricotta and parmigiano, two of the most loved Italian cheeses, and it is so unbelievably simple, I do this one with the kids all the time. You get them to mix it up in a big bowl, and it’s the ultimate form of play-doh, ‘cos then you get to eat it,” Chiappa says in the show.
The secret lies in the cheese (and possibly the company – Chiappa gathers her sisters for her rainbow gnocchi session and there’s a lot of love in the kitchen).
“To start with, you just need to make sure you buy good quality ricotta, and this has to sit probably overnight in either a muslin or in a bowl with some kitchen paper, to make sure all the excess liquid has come out. That is the most important thing. It’s the key to this recipe.”
To turn the basic gnocchi into her colourful version, Chiappa turns portions pink using beetroot powder, green using blitzed kale and black using squid ink.
Chiappa’s sisters Emi and Romina help with the colouring and rolling, and there’s plenty of bantering as they sort out who’s doing what (“I never get a say in these things as the younger sister,” jokes Romina). Fiamma, one of Michela Chiappa’s daughters, joins in too.
We asked Chiappa what other ingredients she uses for colouring gnocchi.
“There are lots of natural food colourings you can use - green is the obvious one... anything dark and leafy is great... use basil, spinach, parsley or cavolo nero." A natural food colouring/dye would work too, she says. "You just need to make sure you minimise the amount of moisture in the mix otherwise it will change the texture of the gnocchi and make it harder to bind them. So, I would use a food gel or powder rather than liquid.
“You could even try experimenting with sweet colourings such as powdered or freeze-dried raspberries and serve them with ice-cream or cream and sugar for an alternative twist!”
Cooking with family
“In our family, Emi and I and Romina, we were brought up in the kitchen. The minute we could walk and talk, we were involved,” says Chiappa.
Like the gnocchi and her mother’s meatballs, many of the recipes in the show are family favourites. Another is cantucinni, a classic almond biscuit.
“Cantuccini are probably one of the most famous Italian biscuits. And in Tuscany, they’re found in abundance, absolutely everywhere. Us Chiappas like to dunk them in our coffee, or maybe the little odd vin santo, and we love to take them to our Welsh-Italian picnic each year, because they’re great to transport, you can do them in huge batches, and they’re delicious,” she says. They’ll last for a week or so in a tin, and they also freeze well.
If you want chewy cantuccini, leave them in the oven for about 25 minutes; if you like them hard and crunchy, as the Chiappas do, cook them for about 35 minutes. You can change up what you put in them too: “I'm definitely a lover of the classic - you can't go wrong with that! However, with kids in the house they love to experiment. Dark choc chips and crystallised ginger is a fab combo or cranberries and white choc chips for a more Valentine feel!” Chiappa says when we chat about the recipe.
Chiappa is a mother of three and loves cooking with her young children; cooking together has been especially important over the past year.
“You have to be prepared to have a bit more chaos in the kitchen, but cooking is a great way to offer a homeschool alternative - we learn maths with cooking, talk about science, history, social studies and general well-being,” she says. “It's a great thing to do to encourage your kids to chat/interact/be social without the pressures of learning sat in front of paper and pencil. Plus, it’s an easier way to get them to try new and unusual flavours without the pressure of mealtimes. My kids can’t resist licking their spoons whilst cooking!”
As she says in Michela’s Tuscan Kitchen, “For us Chiappas, the kitchen has always been the heart of the home.”
For more from Michela Chiappa and her sisters, including more recipes from the show, visit thechiappas.com
Watch Michela's Tuscan Kitchen on SBS Food or start with the first episode now streaming at SBS On Demand:
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