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Cooking with love

Photos: Matthew Mirabelli

Photos: Matthew Mirabelli

Alison is the daughter of the late sculptor and painter Joseph Casha. Born and raised in Attard, she moved into her 400-year-old house in Żebbuġ, which she so lovingly restored three years ago.

Her parents passed on to her the important values of restoring, recycling and reusing. Like her father, she has a creative edge and manifests it through her love for cooking, sculpting and photography. Alison cherishes a priceless bas-relief she had sculpted together with her father, which stands in her courtyard.

Her family today is her mother, two sisters, three nieces, one nephew, two brothers-in-law and her latest addition Snoopy, her baby beagle. Each and every family member is a rock to her and so are her close friends who have stood by her in good times and also in recent ones of great sadness and pain.

She has recently joined Air Malta, managing the company’s eCommerce arm, and is enjoying her work tremendously.


Simonne Pace develops an appetite as she talks to cooking enthusiast Alison Casha, who believes in preparing home-made traditional food with a twist using basic ingredients for hearty and healthy meals.

How and when did your passion for cooking start?

My passion for cooking dates back to as far as I can remember, observing and helping my mother on Sunday mornings in the kitchen, preparing lunch for our family.

But, funnily enough, my actual love for cooking started on a bad note – when I realised I was a vegetarian. Not liking meat and fish, I would come up with alternatives, cooking in parallel with my mother. My interest for diverse ingredients to replace meat grew with time.

What do you like most?

Cooking and baking are equal passions. I’m always willing to experiment with any ingredient that attracts my attention, and my forte is cooking without referring to recipes - by just looking at what’s in my fridge or larder.

Obviously, I have staple recipes that are a constant in my diet, such as vegetable dips and soups, home-made ravioli, risottos, tiramisu and other recipes I’ve learnt to prepare blindfoldedly.

But I simply love a regular challenge to develop a tasty recipe from basic ingredients, like preparing an intense-flavoured French onion soup from a simple bunch of onions or a fresh dough for pizza, ravioli or pies. There is so much to discover with cooking, from worldwide culinary cultures to learning about the nutritional benefits of ingredients. It would be so boring to cook the same food over and over again!

I also make it a point to visit the supermarket without being pressed for time. I take my time shopping, going around the aisles calmly and I’m often attracted to unusual ingredients. I recently discovered organic black rice, which has an incredibly nutty taste and is perfect for a risotto. Red quinoa is another ingredient I’ve learnt to master, as well as polenta.

Have you always had an interest in food? Or did you inherit this passion from your family?

Apart from having always had an interest in food, I’ve always loved eating. And associating food with a particular occasion makes it all the more interesting.

Just like everyone bakes figolli for Easter, we have this family tradition inherited from my grandmother, whereby every year on Good Friday we cook baked spaghetti with a vegetarian sauce, which is then used in our Good Friday savoury pastries, with the pastry prepared with red wine. Apart from tasting divine, it is something my family and I look forward to every year and makes the food all the more special.

What are your most favourite ingredients?

Ingredients that are never missing in my kitchen are: Greek yoghurt, which is so versatile, long-lasting and low in fats; tomatoes of all kinds and shapes – frozen Heirloom tomatoes for impromptu sauces or fresh cherry tomatoes for salads; cheeses – parmesan, brie, mature cheddar, buffalo mozzarella or cheeselets; eggs (never run out of eggs!); and strictly organic flour.

Vegetables and fruit are the bases of my diet and cooking and I’m so lucky to have a really kind neighbour who sells fresh produce, so I never run out of greens.

I also hate ingredients and food going to waste, so I usually base my cooking on ingredients that need to be used up so quickly, like vegetables that cannot be stored for too long, or a yoghurt which is about to expire, and so on.

Recycling leftover food is an art too. I love turning uneaten meals into stuffing for sandwiches, or frying extra ravioli as a snack, or turning grilled vegetables into a tasty soup.

Is the kitchen the room where you spend most of your time?

Definitely yes. I can spend hours on end in my kitchen, which I planned so meticulously when I bought my new house. It is very well-lit and connected to my courtyard, so it’s surely my preferred space - the room that makes my house a home.

During the week, when I get back home from work, and after spending some quality time with Snoopy, you’ll probably find me in my kitchen going through my supplies, thinking what to cook for dinner and coming up with recipes.

Any funny failures?

Oh yes, so many epic fails, but that’s part of the fun. Last year, I attempted a classic lemon cheesecake and it was such a disaster, I couldn’t get it right. Most times, when I try coming up with a recipe or experiment with baking, I’m most likely to fail miserably. That is when I insist until I get it right and some recipes prove it – my lemon meringue, for instance, (with lemon curd and pastry made from scratch) looks beautiful and tastes to die for.

Any big successes?

No big successes, but little satisfactions. Especially when my nieces ask me to cook for them. I love sharing my recipes with my friends on Facebook. I regularly post a photo of a new recipe I try, and share it on my wall.

My friends’ comments are always very positive and they often ask me for recipes and tips. Being quite creative and artistic, I give ample attention to plating and presentation. Probably that’s why my dishes are well-received. I also marry my passion for cooking with another passion – photography. So taking pictures of my food is added value and fun.

What food do you find most difficult to cook?

There is nothing I find difficult to cook, but my biggest challenges remain with preparing meat and fish dishes for guests. Not being able to taste anything, I feel like I’m shooting in the dark and taking chances.

However, I’m renowned for cooking the best rib-eye, so I don’t think it’s that difficult after all. I’m a firm believer that anything done with love and passion is a success, and cooking with love is the secret for successful recipes, with a few exceptions here and there.

Did you ever have any training or attended any cooking classes?

No, but I doubt there could be better training than learning from my mother’s traditional dishes, passed on to her by my grandmother. Food like Maltese ravioli, lasagne, home-made sauces, bragioli (beef olives), doughs and pies are a must-know.

I strongly believe in traditional food with a twist, using basic ingredients for hearty and healthy meals. There are very few items, if any at all, that I buy off a shelf or are pre-packed, because I strongly believe that home-made is best for our health.

My secret ingredient remains my mum’s old and worn-out booklet ‘Ktieb tar-Riċetti ta’ Ikel u Ħelu’, a 1973 recipe booklet in Maltese that has many traditional recipes I would never part with.

Do you cook big lunches for friends/family?

I simply love entertaining, any day of the week, any time, on any occasion. I often invite my family over on Sundays to celebrate birthdays or anniversaries. Tea parties are another favourite too. I love preparing sandwiches, nibbles and cakes for everyone. I usually spend hours thinking what to cook and how to present it. So many times I find it hard to leave certain items out of the planned menu. One regret is not having had the opportunity to cook for my father in my new house. He would have been so proud of my cooking skills.

How do you spend your free time?

These days I usually take time off to travel or spend quality time with my five-month-old puppy. He’s the beagle I always dreamt of having, and now that he’s a reality. I make sure to take him out for long walks or to just cuddle up on the sofa together.

Ricotta ravioli

(Makes 118)

Dough
750g plain flour
250g semolina
Salt
2-3 cups of water

Filling
1kg ricotta
4/5 eggs
100g semolina
Fresh chopped parsley

Method

Sift the flour and semolina into a mixing bowl, add a pinch of sea salt and start beating.

Start adding the water, until the dough is formed into a soft ball.

Knead dough with hands, lightly. Allow to rest at room temperature.

In the meantime prepare the filling by mixing 1kg ricotta with 100g of semolina (approx.) and beat in four eggs until the mixture is soft but not runny. You may need to add a fifth egg, depending on the consistency of the ricotta. I also love adding fresh chopped parsley.

Now divide the dough into smaller portions and start rolling out into long layers, until very thin, over semolina. Lay small amounts of ricotta filling in a line over the top half of the dough, fold over the bottom half upwards, close the ricotta filling by pressing around it with your thumbs and cut around with a cutter wheel. Repeat until the dough is finished.

Place the individual ravioli on trays sprinkled with semolina to avoid sticking and cook in a bowl of boiling water. Alternatively, put in the freezer and once frozen, place in plastic bags and freeze again for future use.

With the ingredients above, I made 118 ravioli (for 6 persons approx.)

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