Italian for beginners: Jamie Oliver's protégé Aaron Craze reveals his humble Italian recipes

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He's gone from carpet-fitter to top chef in five years. Now, Jamie Oliver protégé Aaron Craze wants to share the simple recipes that inspired his culinary journey

Fans of the TV show based around Jamie Oliver's restaurant Fifteen will remember Aaron Craze, the tattooed inner-city protégé who won the chance to open and run the Cock Inn in Essex. It was one of the Fifteen Foundation's biggest gambles and, earlier this year, the rural pub was forced to close, despite having won an AA Rosette for its food. But Craze has bounced back "stronger and wiser" from the experience with the launch of his debut book, Aaron Cooks Italian, and a new job – back at London's Fifteen, where he is now chef tournant (able to supervise every part of the kitchen) and mentoring the latest batch of young people in the kitchen he started out in five years ago.

"My life has been transformed over the past five years," says Craze, now 30. "I've gone from carpet-fitter to restaurateur and author. I've worked with Alan Bird at The Ivy, I've worked at the River Café and with Arthur Potts Dawson. It's a bit mad, really.

"I've also absorbed a new culture – Italian – through food. So it seemed natural for my book to reflect that. In Italy, the food is humble and the produce so good you don't have to do much to it. I wanted my book to reflect my journey from arriving at Fifteen. I wanted it to be unintimidating to people who don't really know anything.

"The salad I've included here is an example of the producers having done all the work for you – you're just taking advantage of the ingredients by putting them together. Cow's milk mozzarella is better for pizzas, but buffalo is deliciously gooey and perfect for salads. With the prosciutto, make sure you ask your butcher how long it's been cured – 18 months gives a more intense flavour.

"People often forget about fish when it comes to the barbecue – but it's great cooked this way, and again so simple. I especially love barbecued sardines – which you can skewer on a stick of rosemary, leaves removed – or squid or scallops, which you can serve with just a dash of lemon juice and olive oil.

"Gnocchi is a staple Italian dish and surprisingly easy to make – the key is to chill it before cooking to stop it going gooey. You could also try it with a meaty stew or as dumplings in a summery broth.

"I was lucky enough to learn a lot about herbs from Jamie's friend [the herb grower] Jekka McVicar – here, I've given the recipe for lavender pannacotta, a really simple Italian dessert, but you could also try it with basil, marjoram or rosemary. If you stick to lavender, go for the more tender British variety with buds, as the flavour is more intense."

Find these recipes and more in 'Aaron Cooks Italian' (Mitchell Beazley, £18.99).

Mozzarella salad with prosciutto di Parma, melon and pistachios

The Italians pull off this beautiful marriage of flavours and textures brilliantly. It's particularly worth serving now, as melons are bang in season and at their juiciest.

Serves 4

4 balls of buffalo mozzarella, about 125g/41/2oz each
Vinaigrette (whisk together 3tbsp olive oil, 4tsp lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper to taste)
1 small ripe charentais or cantaloupe melon, halved and deseeded with a spoon
8 slices of prosciutto di Parma or prosciutto di San Daniele
100g/31/2oz salted pistachio nuts, shelled and lightly crushed
50g/13/4oz rocket leaves

To serve

A small handful of basil leaves
Tuscan extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling
Aged balsamic vinegar for drizzling
Parmesan cheese shavings (optional)

Remove the mozzarella from the refrigerator 30 minutes before serving. Let it come to room temperature and drain off the liquid. Tear each ball into three or four large pieces and arrange on four plates. Drizzle over a little vinaigrette and season lightly with salt and pepper.

Scoop out crescent-shaped pieces of melon, digging the side of a dessert spoon deep into the flesh and lift out a neatly curved spoonful. Season the melon with black pepper and carefully arrange on top of the mozzarella. Drape two slices of prosciutto over and around the melon on each plate. Scatter the pistachio nuts over the salad. Toss the rocket with a little vinaigrette; divide between the plates.

Tear and scatter the basil leaves around the plates. Drizzle over the olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Finish with a few shavings of Parmesan if you like.

Whole seabream stuffed with lemon, rosemary and basil

This fish dish is really easy to make, full of flavour and ideal for barbecuing. You can really taste the rosemary coming through. It's a good tip to score the fish first as it can help you to see when it's cooked.

Serves 8

8 seabream, about 300g/101/2oz each, or 4 seabream, about 500g/1lb 5oz each, scaled and gutted
Salt and pepper
2 tsp olive oil
4 unwaxed lemons, each cut into four wedges
8 garlic cloves, smashed
8 sprigs of rosemary
1 large bunch of basil, leaves only

To serve

Extra-virgin olive oil
Fennel tops (optional)

With a sharp knife, make three deep cuts into the thickest part of the fish on both sides. Season all the cuts and inside the cavity. Rub a little olive oil over the fish. Place a lemon wedge, one or two garlic cloves, a sprig of rosemary and a handful of basil leaves into the cavity of each fish. Twisting the rosemary first helps to release its aromatic oils. If necessary, tie a piece of butcher's twine around the middle of the fish to keep the flavourings inside.

Place the fish on the barbecue – making sure there are no flames, just white-hot coals – and cook for 4-5 minutes on each side. To check if it is cooked, pull the flesh at the thickest part near the head: it should be opaque all the way through and come away from the bone easily.

Gently transfer the cooked fish to a serving platter. Squeeze the remaining lemon wedges over the fish and drizzle over the olive oil. Garnish with feathery fennel tops if you like.

Chervil gnocchi with broad beans and mint

Serves 4

For the gnocchi

450g/1lb large Maris Piper or Russet potatoes
100g/31/2oz rock salt for baking
2tbsp finely chopped chervil
1 free-range egg
2tbsp plain flour or Tipo '00' pasta flour, which I always use as it's softer and finer and gives a lighter end result
1/2 nutmeg, grated
1 large pinch salt

For the broad bean and mint sauce

350g/12oz broad beans (weight after podding)
2tsp olive oil
1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, pressed
125ml/4fl oz white wine
100g/31/2oz unsalted butter
The juice and finely grated rind of 1/2 unwaxed lemon
100ml/31/2fl oz hot vegetable stock
Salt and pepper

To serve

50g /1¾ oz Parmigiano Reggiano, shaved
1 handful fresh mint, leaves only, chopped
Extra virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas6. Put a small pan of water on to boil, ready to test the gnocchi. Bake the potatoes, unpeeled and whole, on a bed of rock salt for about an hour. While still hot, scoop out the insides from the skin and press through a sieve. Set aside to cool. When the potato feels warm, rather than hot, mix in the chervil, egg, flour, nutmeg and salt. Knead into a fairly firm dough, adding more flour if necessary. To test the consistency, pull off a small piece and blanch in the boiling water for 4-5 minutes until it floats. If it breaks up, add a little more flour to stiffen the dough. Roll the dough into two sausage shapes, about 2cm/3/4-inch in diameter. Roll through flour and cut into 2.5cm/1-inch pieces that look a bit like little pillows. Pinch each one lightly in the middle. Set aside in the refrigerator.

To make the broad bean and mint sauce, blanch the beans in a saucepan of lightly salted boiling water for four minutes and refresh under cold running water. Drain, then squeeze all the bright green beans out of their grey-green skin.

Bring a large saucepan of lightly salted cold water to the boil. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy-based saucepan and fry the chilli and garlic over a low heat for 3-4 minutes. Throw in the skinless broad beans and mix well. Turn up the heat and pour in the wine, stirring vigorously. Let the wine evaporate before adding the butter and lemon juice and rind. As soon as the butter has melted, pour the stock into the sauce, whisking well to blend and emulsify. Season to taste.

Drop the gnocchi into the boiling water and cook for abut 2-4 minutes until they float to the surface. Drain and stir into the sauce, giving the gnocchi a chance to absorb the flavours. Check the seasoning and adjust if necessary.

Serve immediately with Parmesan, a sprinkling of mint and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.

Lavender pannacotta

Pannacotta is a simple, easy-to-make dessert. Lavender, with its natural relaxant properties and subtle flavour is a delicate floral suggestion. You will need to make it a day ahead to allow time to chill.

Serves 6

1.3 litres / 21/4pints double cream
Finely grated rind of 1 unwaxed lemon
20g /3/4oz lavender on the stalk
2 vanilla pods
200ml/7fl oz whole milk
4 sheets of leaf gelatine
150g/51/2oz icing sugar

To serve

Lavender on the stalk
Redcurrants to decorate (optional)

Pour the cream into a medium saucepan. Add the lemon rind and lavender stalks. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla pods and add these to the saucepan along with the pods. Bring the cream to the boil over a medium heat. Reduce the heat and simmer the cream until it has reduced by one-third (about 10 minutes). Remove from the heat and set aside to infuse.

Soak the gelatine in the milk until the sheets are soft and bendy, then remove them to a plate using a slotted spoon. Pour the milk into a medium saucepan and heat to a simmer. Whisk in the icing sugar and the set-aside gelatine.

Add the milk mixture to the cream and combine. Pass through a sieve into a pouring jug. Pour the mixture evenly into 6 glass bowls or large dariole moulds (200ml-250ml/7fl oz-9fl oz each). Leave to set in the fridge overnight.

When you're ready to serve, run a little hot water over the bottom of each bowl or mould and gently ease the pannacotta away from the sides. Turn on to plates and serve with a little fresh lavender and some redcurrants, if you like.

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