TV cook Gennaro Contaldo explains why we should leave room on the menu for Italian-inspired fare
The sizzling weather might signal the start of holiday season for many of us, but while we slow down into relax mode, Italian cook Gennaro Contaldo is gearing up for another busy summer.
A great friend and mentor to Jamie Oliver, Contaldo is heavily involved in Oliver’s Italian restaurant chain and has just released The Pasta Book - his second cookery title this year - which is tied in with the younger chef’s online Food Tube channel.
It’s hard work, but work he clearly loves it.
“A chef will always be a chef, it doesn’t matter what kind of weather it is,” reasons the 66-year-old, who splits his time between London and Norfolk, with his wife Liz and their 11-year-old twin daughters.
“It’s nice to have a rest in the summer, but summer is also a nice time in the restaurant. The market stalls are full of incredible fresh vegetables, fish, herbs... People walk around with a big smile on their faces. It makes you happy.”
Contaldo - who tries to bat away being called a chef, preferring to refer to himself as a cook (“You can call me a chef when I am 100 years old. It is a chance for me to live longer”) - was born on the Amalfi Coast and has been whipping up meals since he was nine-years-old, having been bitten by the foodie bug when he started helping out in his father’s friend Alfonso’s restaurant.
Frequently swapping recipes and tips with Oliver and his other great pal Antonio Carluccio, who he travelled around Italy with to film 2011 cookery series Two Greedy Italians, Contaldo’s daughters have also felt the benefit of his wisdom, and learned to cook at a “very, very, very young age”.
“At the age of seven, they could make their own risotto,” he reveals proudly.
“They can go into a restaurant and choose whatever they like. They do that. I’m a cook you see, it’s a part of the culture. You never know where they might be [later on in life], it’s nice to know they will be able to make something to eat.”
Even though their father will be within arm’s reach of the kitchen this summer, the family will make plenty of trips to Norfolk, to relax in their 200-year-old cottage and enjoy the nearby seaside.
“I was born near the sea,” Contaldo says. “The first thing I heard was the sea.
“The sea was my swimming pool and the beach was my playground. I do miss the sea. When I first came to England, the nearest place to see the sea was Brighton, and I couldn’t wait to go and run my fingers through it.
“It would transport me to my home town, because the sea goes to every corner, every channel, everywhere. If I touch the sea, it is a touch to my home town. The sea is peace to me.”
Although the sea is no longer in daily touching distance, Contaldo seeks solace in his plate, loading up on pasta dishes with plenty of fresh fish.
And rather than being stodgy and heavy, he insists that pasta is the perfect meal for summer.
Summer pasta is good, everything is fresh and in season,” he says.
“Use your imagination and think, ‘I’ve got this nice ingredient, it will go well with the pasta and make a lovely marriage’. Just don’t experiment too much.
“You can give it a go and say, ‘You know what? Gennaro said it was good and he was right!’”
PASTA SALAD WITH GRILLED PEPPERS & OLIVES
2 peppers, mixed colours if possible
200g orecchiette pasta
1 firm tomato
12 black or green olives, stone in
2 sticks of celery, trimmed
1/2 a bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley, leaves picked
4 sprigs of fresh basil, leaves picked
Extra virgin olive oil
Juice from 1 lemon
Place the whole peppers on a griddle pan over a high heat (or under the grill) for about 20 minutes, or until blackened all over. Remove to a bowl, cover with cling film and cool.
Meanwhile, cook the orecchiette in a large pan of boiling salted water until al dente, then drain and refresh under cold water to stop it over-cooking. Scrape the blackened skin away from the cooled peppers, then deseed and chop the flesh into 1cm chunks.
Quarter the tomato, cut out the seeds and dice the flesh. Crush the olives with the palm of your hand, pull out and discard the stones, then tear in half.
Finely slice the celery, then put it all into a large bowl. Roughly chop and add the parsley leaves and most of the basil leaves.
Add the orecchiette to the bowl with four tablespoons of oil and half the lemon juice. Toss well with your hands, then season to taste with salt and a squeeze more lemon juice, if needed.
Serve with a drizzle of oil and a scattering of the reserved basil leaves