meet in your kitchen | Joanna Bonnici cooks Maltese Bragioli
by eat in my kitchen
When my gorgeous friend Chris told me about his friend Joanna Bonnici and her fabulous skills in the kitchen I knew that I had to meet her! He praised her food so much that I sent her an email the same day he mentioned her!
Many generations of women in Joanna’s family have been great cooks and food lovers. Her grandmother and aunts, her sister who lives in Sicily, but her mother especially, all influenced and taught her to become the fantastic cook she is today. Her cooking is honest, very intuitive with lots of respect for good ingredients. She likes to go back to the traditional cooking of the past and to adjust it to her personal style. Joanna loves to enjoy life, she loves to cook, to eat and to share her creations with her family and friends. She reminds me a lot of my mother, the two women celebrate cooking in a similar way and appreciate the time they spend in their kitchens. For them, the feast doesn’t start at the table but in their culinary working space.
At one point Joanna decided to compile all the wonderful family recipes in a book to pay tribute to the creations of these women and also to save their recipes for future generations. She has a little box stuffed with cards, recipes for soups, cakes, puddings, pastry, meat, fish and pasta dishes, which she plans to turn into a book. It’s a culinary treasure box and I’m very happy that I got the chance to try a few of these creations.
Joanna told me that she would cook a traditional Maltese meat dish with me called Bragioli (Bragoli in Maltese), beef olives stuffed with egg, bacon, cheese, parsley and breadcrumbs, but Joanna makes her roulades with pork. They were divine, the meat was juicy and tender, the sauce was thick and rich in flavours. She prepared two versions, one made the traditional way with peas and the other one is her creation, with green bell peppers. This dish is often served as two courses, first the sauce with pasta or potatoes and then the meat as a main course.
We met Joanna in the morning, my boyfriend happily joined in when I told him about her cooking, and she treated us to the most amazing food for hours. She served our coffee together with Maltese bread pudding, a recipe by her mother, which I will share with you on Sunday and which was the best bread pudding we ever ate (my Maltese Mama Jenny agreed on that after she tried a piece)! We had fresh bread from a bakery in Gharghur sprinkled with olive oil, a luscious salad of rucola and sweet figs stuffed with soft blue cheese (like dolcelatte) before we savored the delicious Bragioli. Joanna finished the menu off with little short crust tarts lined with a thin layer of sponge cake and filled with ricotta and candied fruit. She garnished the tartlets with bittersweet chocolate and hazelnuts, a perfect Mediterranean dessert similar to kannoli. When she offered us her homemade ice cream made of condensed milk (a Maltese speciality) with a big smile on her face, we couldn’t refuse. This woman just loves to share her kitchen creations!
I fell in love with Joanna’s food, so much that I decided to ask her if she would like to share some of her recipes once in a while on eat in my kitchen. We will start this Sunday with her Maltese bread pudding and there will be a few more. There’s so much I can learn from her about Maltese cooking and I look forward to the delicious recipes to come!
For 4 people you need
pork slices (silverside) 1kg / 2 1/4 pounds
organic eggs, hard boiled, 3
parsley, chopped, the leaves of a bunch
carrots, cut into sticks, 3
green peppers, sliced thickly, 2
garlic, 2 cloves
streaky bacon, chopped, 200g / 7 ounces
organic egg 1
fresh breadcrumbs, a big handful
Kefalotiri cheese, grated, 100g / 3.5 ounces
thyme, a sprig
bay leaf 1
pinch of mixed spice
pinch of Ras el Hanout spice mixture
tomato concentrate 3 tablespoons
white wine 1 glass
salt and pepper
flour to dust the roulades
Chop 1 onion and 1 garlic clove finely and sauté them in some oil for a few minutes. In a mixing bowl crumble the hardboiled eggs, then add the chopped parsley, the sautéed onion and garlic, the chopped bacon, fresh breadcrumbs, the cheese and bind the mixture with a raw egg.
Put two tablespoons of this mixture on each slice of meat and roll them up tightly. Finally give them a light dusting of flour.
In a large saucepan fry the bragioli searing them well. Season them well (with salt and pepper) and add a dash of Worcestershire sauce and a glass of white wine. Let the wine reduce and remove from heat. Now in a casserole pot sauté 1 sliced onion, 1 chopped garlic clove, the carrot sticks and pepper slices.
Next add the bragioli, the tomato concentrate, the stock cube, the spices and herbs and some water. Let the bragioli simmer for at least two hours until the meat is tender. Add water if need be but be careful not to render the sauce too watery. Serve with mashed potatoes or fries.
Who are the people in your family who influenced your cooking the most and why?
I had the fortune to live minutes away from my maternal grandmother’s house and we spent the larger part of the day there because my mother had to take care of the elderly members of the family while her sister – my Aunty Fifi, who was unmarried, worked as a home economics teacher. My grandmother, great-aunt and mother were all very traditional but excellent cooks, while my Aunty Fifi introduced me to more sophiscated cooking. All four of them in their own way influenced me but the confidence I have is the merit of my mother. When I was nine years old, I baked her a Mocha cake for mother’s day and it was an absolute flop. She made me slice it up and bake it again like crostini and told me that my next one will be better. We ate the crostini and I was happy enough to go on to my next cake. I also have to mention my sister Mariella and my sister-in-law Miriam who are both amazing cooks and we exchange recipes and ideas constantly. My brother Ray, engineer by profession, now part-time organic farmer taught me all there is to know about food regarding the ingredients and how important it is to source out the best.
You’ve decided to compile the favourite recipes of the women in your family in a cook book, what have you found through this work besides the collected recipes?
When my aunt and my mother passed away it seemed to me that a chapter in my life was sadly closed. The two persons who taught me the little I know were here no more so I felt the need to pay them tribute and pass on what they gave me to the next generation of wives and mothers-to-be in my family. This compilation is also a reminder that simple wholesome food should still feature on our dinner table. Lentil soup and Toqlija (pasta soup) are simplicity itself and have been firm favourites with my family for generations so they also have a place in this collection. Most of the recipes are imprinted with the personality of their owner – for example Aunty Fifi’s gateau was the subject of many a discussion. This sublime dessert is flamboyant, rich and sweet and it portraits my aunt’s personality making it her signature dish. The timing when it was served, however, was not optimal because we usually had it after a heavy Maltese Christmas lunch and to do it justice it should be eaten after a very light meal. On the other hand, the Maltese pudding reflects my mother’s simplicity and goodness. Going through the recipes and remembering the wonderful memories attached to them has reinforced my belief that there are few occasions that beat the ones when family and friends gather around a table to share good food.
For how many years have you been cooking for your family and how did your culinary style develop over the years?
I have been cooking since I was 9 years old. My sister and I loved to prepare afternoon teas for my parents and we set the table like we were entertaining royalty (which they were, in our opinion). I will never forget that. Unfortunately my father died when he was 53, so when I got married I lived in my mother’s house together with my husband and my sister. So that was 3 women in the kitchen but we got along very well because our style was very similar. Eventually my sister got married and moved to Sicily but my mother lived with me till she died last February. She made amazing soups and pastries and I could never beat her at that. I became more adventurous by time and tried out many recipes which my aunt passed on to me. Before I got married, I bought the Robert Carrier’s cookery books and they opened up a new vista. I used to wait for each new release to add to my collection, and my sister and I spent many lovely afternoons trying out new dishes. I still go back to his books and am continually amazed at how progressive he was. Nowadays the internet makes everything more accessible but in the eighties, this was really something special. I guess my style is not a sophisticated one. It is a mish mash of all the good things my family and friends cooked over the years, together with a good dose of inspiration from Robert Carrier.
What are your favourites in the Maltese cuisine?
There are few dishes which are typically Maltese because our cuisine had been influenced by our neighbours, invaders and colonizers throughout the years. However these are my favourites.
Timpana – A rich pasta dish of layers of maccheroni with a meat sauce, bechamel sauce and hard-boiled eggs, encrusted in flaky short-crust pastry. This is our traditional pasta dish for Christmas and even though I would like to be more original my family does not let me remove it from the menu so it is there to stay. I love the combination of gooey pasta with the crispiness of the pastry and the taste conjures up the image of all my family seated at the dinner table devouring this delicious pasta and begging for more … The first time I tasted it cooked this way, was at my Aunty Maria‘s and she passed on the recipe.
Tuna, Anchovy and Spinach Pie or Lampuki Pie – Two of my favourite pies. My mum used to cook these for me. I can still picture her chubby, capable hands kneading the dough. She made the most divine pastry. The tuna and spinach pie is delicious and my great aunty Terry used to top the filling with sauteed potatoes or chips. I still make it that way and it’s delicious.
Stuffed Calamari – I love them because they taste of summer. When the calamari are good (sometimes they are disappointingly tasteless), this can be a lovely summer dinner main course. My aunty Fifi taught me how to cook these, and the stuffing with walnuts and the tentacles from the calamari is simply delicious.
What is your feeling about the state of home food culture in Malta today? What changed over the past 5, 10 or 20 years?
Unfortunately I tend to see too many young families in restaurants and fast food joints. I cannot understand why people find it so difficult to dish up a meal for their family. I think the Maltese are too influenced by the media and advertising and they are forgetting their roots and their culture. I have battled this all my life even with teachers who took my children (on a school day trip) to eat a burger instead of offering them a simple but delicious Maltese hobza biz-zejt. I think that home food has changed in Malta. Some dishes which were staples (such as widow’s soup) are forgotten by the younger generation and convenience foods are becoming more and more popular. Nevertheless, people are becoming more aware of what they eat and hopefully the Maltese will gravitate again towards the simple and wholesome dishes and resist the temptation to eat junk.
What was the first dish you cooked or baked on your own, what is your first cooking memory?
Mocha cake for Mother’s Day when I was nine. It was a disaster.
What are your favourite places to buy and enjoy food in Malta?
Restaurants: Fumia and Sciacca for fish
Bar: Bridge Bar on a Friday night for jazz and wine
Cafe: Cordina’s in Valletta for its old world charm, people watching and capuccino
Shopping for food: Veggies just round the corner from my house from Salvu who grows his own, from Lucy because she is a nice lady, from Sunny because I have known him for years and from Alex and Paul who own the mini-market 5 minutes away from my house. Also sometimes from my brother Ray.
Where else do you get your inspiration for your recipes apart from your family?
From my friends Maria and Gordon who are both superb cooks; from cookery books which I still prefer to the internet although that is where I go when I need ideas in a hurry.
What did you choose to share on eat in my kitchen and why?
I chose Bragioli because it is a very popular Maltese recipe, however I will be doing it my way.
If you could choose one person to cook a meal for you, who and what would it be?
It would be Gordon Axiaq (not a trained chef but the best cook I know) and I would ask him to cook his fabulous pasta with Maltese prawns and crema di noci.
You’re going to have ten friends over for a spontaneous dinner, what will be on the table?
Pear, walnut and parmesan salad with rucola and some bruschette. For main pasta with my home-made Maltese sausage and dolce latte and for dessert my vanilla and lemon ice-cream. All stuff I would normally have in my fridge or freezer.
What was your childhood’s culinary favourite and what is it now?
Rice and lentil soup, bread, pasta and pizza. Still bread, pasta and pizza.
Do you prefer to cook on your own or together with others?
Which meals do you prefer, improvised or planned?
Both as long as they are good.
Which meal would you never cook again and why?
Liver. I hate the texture and do not cook it or eat it.
Thank you Joanna!