Passion for Italian food inspires book

Francesca’s Kitchen owners Francesca Voza and James Stapley. Photos: Supplied
Francesca’s Kitchen owners Francesca Voza and James Stapley. Photos: Supplied
Travelling around Italy gave Francesca Voza and James Stapley all the inspiration they needed for their first recipe book. Rebecca Fox talks to them about their love of Italian food.

Francesca’s Italian Kitchen, by Francesca Voza and James Stapley, published by Penguin, $50.
Francesca’s Italian Kitchen, by Francesca Voza and James Stapley, published by Penguin, $50.
It is all about the polenta fries.

The repeated requests for the recipe of the polenta fries served at Francesca's Kitchen in Wanaka is one of the reasons owners Francesca Voza and James Stapley decided to write a recipe book.

After looking into self-publishing and trying a kick-starter campaign, the pair soon realised that was not going to cut it.

The busy restaurateurs - Voza owns 12, Stapley, a chef, four - decided they had to find the time. Then a book deal from Penguin came along.

''We decided to dedicate a lot of time to it last year,'' Voza says.

''It was a labour of love,'' Stapley says.

Research for the book included a trip to Italy with their respective partners to immerse themselves in Italian food for six weeks.

''We picked up new recipes and cool ideas. We ate a lot.''

The new recipes and ideas have been adapted to produce found in and around Wanaka and Christchurch and included in the book, which is named after the restaurant, Francesca's Kitchen.

Recording the recipes they had developed over the restaurant's six years was a highlight for Stapley.

''These dishes have been made a thousand times by our chefs and have evolved over the years. There is a weight of knowledge behind each dish.''

Voza's favourite recipe in the book - prawn paccheri - was picked up from a fish market in Sicily.

''It's super simple and tasty.''

While Voza, who was born in Italy, but grew up in England, endeavours to go home every few years, it was the first time Stapley, who is from England, had visited Italy for any length of time - even though he has a passion for Italian food.

''If you are doing Italian food going to Italy is a must - everything makes sense when you are there,'' Stapley says.

''It's about what you don't put in. You learn to be light handed. It was an eye-opener - they make a pasta dish with just two ingredients and it's delicious.''

It was that passion for Italian food that brought Voza and Stapley together seven years ago.

The pair met while working at Whare Kea Lodge near Wanaka - she was front of house and he was executive chef.

''We were always talking about opening an Italian restaurant and what we'd put on the menu.''

Her husband encouraged them to stop talking about it and do it, so she found a site and they opened within a year.

''It all fell into place. We were in the right place at the right time.''

Voza, who grew up in her parent's Italian restaurants, helped out and trained as a pizza chef in one.

''It's really hard work, but really rewarding. You kind of get out of it what you put in.''

With the book out, Voza, who has more than 100 staff working for her in her various businesses, is ready for another season of operating the food truck pizza business she started after her arrival in Wanaka nine years ago.

It's busy doing markets, festivals, events, birthday parties and even weddings from November to March.

She has nothing new on the go at the moment instead wanting to focus on the building up the businesses she has.

Stapley, on the other hand, is busy in the kitchen at his restaurant, Kika, in Wanaka, as well as the other Francesca's in Christchurch and Dunedin.

''I'm in the position now where I enjoy it a lot more. We've got a good team and it's exciting to be part of.''

He puts the success of the restaurants down to having the right staff, chefs and managers, all being excited about their work and bringing ideas to the table.

''It's a collaboration, and when it works, it works really well.''


Polenta fries

We certainly do not claim to have invented polenta fries, but I can say we serve the nicest I've tasted. For weeks before we opened, I tried many ways to keep them crispy.

The secret to our polenta fries is the addition of semolina. This plugs up the small holes, keeps the fries from taking on too much oil and allows the outer shell to get seriously crispy.

It has become a signature dish at Francesca's and a must-have when dining with us. Once the oil has cooled, you can strain it through a fine sieve and reserve it for the next time you are deep-frying. It should last a couple of times.

Serves 6 as a side

Ingredients
2L water
25g salt
300g bramata or other good-quality instant polenta
250g semolina flour
2L canola oil or another light vegetable oil, for deep-frying
50g parmesan, grated

Truffle aioli
Makes about 3 cups
4 free-range egg yolks
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 heaped tsp minced
fresh garlic
1 Tbsp salt
juice of ½ lemon
1 cup rice bran oil
1 cup pomace oil
⅓ cup truffle oil
about ¼ cup warm water, as needed

Method
To make the polenta fries, bring the water to the boil in a large saucepan over a medium heat, and add the salt.

Combine the polenta and semolina in a large bowl, then pour into the water in a steady stream, whisking all the time.

Change the whisk to a wooden spoon and cook over a very low heat for 20 minutes, stirring regularly.

Once cooked, pour into a large plastic tub, such as an ice cream container, and refrigerate until firm. Once set, remove from the fridge and turn out on to a clean chopping board.

Using a wet knife, cut the polenta into fries about 10cm x 2cm.

Fill a deep saucepan with oil and heat to 180degC. Use a thermometer to keep an eye on the temperature. If you have a deep-fryer, set it to 180degC.

Once the oil has come to temperature, fry the polenta in batches for around 3 minutes or until golden brown and crunchy.

Be careful not to overcrowd the pan or deep-fryer, as it will bring the temperature of the oil down and your fries will absorb too much oil before they are cooked properly.

Serve the fries seasoned with salt, with a generous grating of parmesan and truffle aioli for dipping.

Truffle aioli
Put the egg yolks, mustard, garlic, salt and lemon juice into a bowl. Whisk for a few minutes until light and creamy. A good tip is to put a damp tea towel underneath your bowl so it doesn't slide around.

Combine the oils in a jug and very slowly pour into the egg mix, whisking all the time, until all the oil has been used and the mixture is emulsified. If the aioli is too thick for your liking, adjust by adding a little warm water until the desired consistency is reached.

This is great served with polenta fries.

Stored in an airtight container in the fridge, this will keep for up to 5 days.


Prawn paccheri

This is a dish we had on our travels. We were visiting a fish market in Sicily, eating in a restaurant right in the middle of the market, surrounded by all the fish stalls.

Simplicity is the key to this one. It's a big hit of prawn and the almonds add a nice texture. The pasta shape is a fantastic vehicle for the sauce. If you can't get paccheri, use a large rigatoni.

Serves 6-8

Ingredients

Prawn bisque
1kg prawns, shells on
1 carrot
1 red onion
1 fennel bulb
1 celery stalk
8 garlic cloves
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 sprig fresh rosemary, picked
1 tsp fresh chilli flakes
2 cups white wine
1L basic tomato sauce or a good-quality passata
2 cups water

Almond pesto
½ cup toasted almonds
½ cup sliced fresh parsley
½ cup sliced fresh basil
2 garlic cloves
zest of 2 lemons
about ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

To serve
660g-880g dried paccheri (depending on how many people you are serving)
olive oil, for cooking
¼ cup flaked almonds, toasted

Method
To make the prawn bisque, remove the heads and shells from the prawns and set aside. Refrigerate the prawn meat until needed.

Roughly chop the carrot, onion, fennel, celery and garlic and add to a saucepan with the olive oil, rosemary and chilli flakes. Sweat over a low heat for about 10 minutes until soft, but without colour, stirring frequently.

Turn the heat up to medium, add the prawn heads and shells and cook for another 10 minutes, stirring constantly. Deglaze with the wine.

Add the tomato sauce or passata and water and gently simmer for another 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool for 10 minutes.

Blend in a bar blender or a powerful food processor in small batches. Once you have blended it well, strain through a fine sieve and season to taste with salt.

To make the almond pesto, place the almonds, parsley and basil on a chopping board and chop until well combined. Transfer to a bowl and microplane the garlic and lemon zest in. Pour in enough olive oil to bind. Season to taste with salt. Set aside.

To serve, bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Cook the paccheri according to the packet instructions. Once al dente, strain into a large colander and toss with a little olive oil.

Meanwhile, heat some olive oil in a large frying pan over a high heat. Once hot, add the prawn meat and stir a couple of times.

Add two-thirds of the bisque to the pan along with the paccheri and heat through. By this time, the prawns will be cooked. If you prefer the pasta a little wetter, add the remaining bisque.

Remove from the heat and stir through the pesto. Divide among serving bowls and top with the flaked almonds.


Antipasti - mustard fruits

This is a handy condiment that goes well with all sorts of dishes. It's great to use like you would a chutney or pickle, and it's also good with game meats or pork.

Makes 4 cups

Ingredients
1 cup dried fruit, such as pear, quince and fig
2 cups peeled and diced apples
2 cups caster sugar
1 cup water
2 Tbsp yellow mustard seeds
1 Tbsp mustard powder
1 cup white wine vinegar
juice of 1 orange

Method
In a saucepan over a high heat, put the dried fruit, apples, sugar and water. Stir to combine.

Boil for 15 minutes, then skim off any scum that floats to the surface.

In a dry frying pan over a low heat, gently warm the mustard seeds until fragrant. Add to the fruit, along with the mustard powder.

Pour over the vinegar and orange juice and stir to combine. Cook over a medium heat for 10-15 minutes until reduced by half.

Stored in an airtight container in the fridge, this will keep for up to 2 months.

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