Friday, July 29, 2011

Stuffed Mussels and Gratineed Scallops

So far you've heard about the rugged, mountainous part of Abruzzo where I spent part of my vacation. But I also headed further East toward the Adriatic Sea to spend time with my husband's relatives, including some who live in Vasto Marina, a seaside resort town. One of the unique features of this part of the coastline are the wooden trabocchi you see along the shore. In some cases, these fishing contraptions are 200 years old, but they are constantly being tweaked to repair and replace the timbers  used to construct them - wood that is often taken from the robinia pseudoacacia trees that grow nearby, commonly known as black locust or false acacia.  Fishing nets are secured to long wooden arms and dropped into the sea to hopefully land a good catch.

 At one time, fishing from the trabocchi was the main source of income for many families. Now however, due to overfishing in deeper waters, the huts are used mainly on weekends by families who maintain them as a hobby.

There was no problem finding fish for dinner though, starting with this arrangement I ate as a first course. I can't even remember everything that was on the plate, but it included an octopus salad, a seafood terrine, anchovies and raw salmon.

Next on tap were some gratineed scallops.

And stuffed mussels.

Couldn't forget the fried shrimp and squid.

Followed by the piece de resistance - a San Pietro fish. I'm still not sure whether a San Pietro fish is a John Dory or a tilapia, so if someone with more knowledge knows, leave a comment at the end of this post. Whatever it is, it was delicious.

I'd like to thank Antonella, the wife of my husband's cousin Ottavio, who treated us to this wonderful seafood dinner. Sadly, Ottavio was out of town, but we were also joined by their three young sons, Francesco, Riccardo and Luca - as well as my son Michael, who met up with me for the middle part of my trip.

Back home in Princeton, I tried to recreate two of the dishes - the mussels and the scallops. They may not have tasted exactly the same, but they're pretty darn close and delicious in their own right - even if there aren't any trabocchi in Princeton and the only water in sight is the bird bath in the back yard.

Loosen the mussel from the shell and place a small dab of tomato sauce on one side, then top it with the mussel.

Place a small bit of the filling on top.

Stuffed Mussels

Printable Recipe Here

For two dozen mussels:

3/4 cup bread crumbs

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 egg

minced oregano

minced parsley

salt, pepper

white wine

tomato sauce

Place all the ingredients, except the tomato sauce, in a bowl and mix with a fork until blended. It should not be dry but it shouldn't be soppy wet either.

Bring wine to a boil in a shallow saucepan and place mussels in and cover. Cook only one or two minutes, or until the mussels are open. Remove mussels from the pan and let cool.

Once cool enough to handle, loosen the mussel from the shell. Place a spoonful of tomato sauce on one side of the shell, place the mussel on the sauce, then top with a spoonful of the filling and another dab of tomato sauce. Cover with the other side of the shell, place in an oiled casserole and bake at 425 degrees for about 15 minutes.

Scallops Gratinee

Use the same filling ingredients as for the mussels, (it should give you enough topping for two small casseroles or scallop shells) but add 2 Tablespoons grated parmesan cheese. Omit the egg if desired. Lightly butter scallop shells or an oven-proof dish and place a couple of scallops inside. Top with the crumbs, then sprinkle on a bit of paprika and drizzle with a bit of olive oil. Bake at 425 for about 10 to 15 minutes or until browned.

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

We Interrupt This Blog For A Semifreddo break

While temperatures soar to more than 100 degrees here in New Jersey and many parts of the U.S., I'm giving the oven a respite and thinking about cold foods - and of course gelato is one everybody's favorites. You may not be able to whip up gelato in your kitchen, but you can make its close cousin - semifreddo.  But first a small tour of my gelato debauchery in Italy.

My favorite shop in Rome - Giorgiagel - is no longer in business. But I found a new place that has won my heart, even if it's a little farther from the neighborhoods where I normally roam. More about that later. This cone is from Corona - at Largo Argentina - and it's a winner - a rich, dark chocolate, a dulce de leche that's loaded with caramel, and a creamy ricotta gelato - all topped with whipped cream.

Here's a cup of dark chocolate and coconut (my standard order) from Fior de Luna, a consistently reliable place on Viale Trastevere.

This year I'd been hearing a lot of buzz about I Caruso, located a tad northwest of the Piazza Repubblica, on Via Collina 13, in a neighborhood that's a little off the beaten tourist path. You'll see businessmen as well as young mothers lined up outside the store, including this man holding a cone of dark chocolate and stracciatella (chocolate chip) ice cream.

The gelato is made right before your eyes.

I ordered the dark chocolate and pistachio. By the way, anytime you see pistachio or mint chocolate chip gelato or ice cream that's bright green, steer clear of that store. Pistachio may have a slight green tinge if it's made without artificial colorings, but it should never be the color of grass. The ice cream cone I ate at I Caruso was transcendent. I was enraptured with the creamy richness of my cone that tasted like smooth, frozen chocolate pudding. It was so good, I forgot to snap a picture until it was almost too late.

Here's a real cutie caught in the act in the Tuscan town of Castellina in Chianti. This shop - Le Volte - was located in a vaulted medieval passageway and a little off the main drag, but definitely worth searching out. I think this little fellow agrees.

I ordered the stracciatella and a flavor that was a combo of pistachio, almond and hazelnut gelato.

If you don't have a trip to Italy planned in the next week, or even if you don't have an ice cream maker, you can beat the heat and feel a little Italian with this semifreddo recipe - "semifreddo" by the way, translates to "half cold." Let's hope it helps keep you a little cooler too.

Start by cooking the egg yolks with some sugar over a double boiler. Make sure you continue to whisk or you might end up with scrambled eggs. It's ready when it makes ribbons like this.

Crush some amaretti cookies in the food processor and break up some chocolate into small bits. 
Blend the egg yolk mixture, the chocolate and the amaretti cookies together with whipped cream, then fold in the whipped egg whites.

Line a loaf pan with parchment paper or plastic wrap and put some of the crushed amaretti cookies on the bottom.

Pour in the semifreddo mixture, cover and freeze.

When you unmold it, it will look like this, with the cookies all flattened on top. I think it looks prettier if it has some texture on top, so I save some of the cookies to sprinkle on top before serving.
Doesn't that look better?

You can make it for company ahead of time and keep it in your freezer.

.....or not.

Amaretti and Chocolate Chip Semifreddo

This recipe is also delicious using torrone candy instead of the amaretti cookies. The torrone has to be the rock-hard kind, since it needs to get crushed in the food processor to small bits. The soft torrone that's sold in small packages and seen everywhere at Christmas won't work for this. I was all set to make this semifreddo with hard torrone I had bought a few months ago when I realized that the package had softened with the summer's heat and humidity. Thus, amaretti and chocolate chip semifreddo was born. 

  • 1 1/2 cups crushed amaretti cookies

  • 6 eggs

  • 6 T. sugar

  • 1 T. rum, Amaretto, marsala or other liqueur

  • 2 cups heavy cream

  • 1/2 cup good dark chocolate or chocolate bits, chopped roughly

  1. Place the cookies in a food processor and pulse until they are large crumbs.

  2. Separate the eggs, but you will only need four of the egg whites. Save the other two egg whitess for another use.

  3. In a double boiler, place the egg yolks and the sugar. Whisk over warm water until you get a velvety, thick mass. (Don't move away from this or you could end up with scrambled eggs. Some recipes call for using raw eggs, but I like to err on the side of caution and cook my egg yolks.) Let it cool slightly, then add the rum, whisking all the while. Place it to the side or in the refrigerator, but if you let it chill too long, it will become hard to work with.

  4. Beat the cream until stiff. Add the egg yolk mixture, 1 1/4 cups of the amaretti cookies, and the chocolate bits to the whipped cream, folding everything together.

  5. Whip the four egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Fold the egg yolk, whipped cream and amaretti mixture into the egg whites.

  6. Line a loaf pan with plastic wrap or parchment paper. Sprinkle half of the remaining 1/4 cup of amaretti crumbs on the bottom, then pour the mixture on top. 

  7. Place a piece of plastic wrap or aluminum foil on top and freeze overnight.

  8. When ready to serve, run a knife around the edge, let the pan soak for a few seconds in hot water, and flip onto a platter. Pull off the parchment or plastic wrap and sprinkle the remaining amaretti crumbs on top. Slice and serve with chocolate sauce, if desired.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Bucatini All'Amatriciana

After that last post on how pecorino cheese is made, it didn't seem fair to leave you without a recipe, and I couldn't think of any recipe more associated with pecorino cheese than this pasta dish.  The recipe is frought with controversy - Romans claim it as their own (it's on the menu of nearly all Roman eateries), but it originated in Amatrice, a town that was once in Abruzzo, but that was annexed in 1927 to the region of Lazio, where Rome is located.

Romans prefer to add onions to the sauce, something that's heresy in Amatrice. Some recipes call for pancetta, but purists will use only guanciale (pork jowls).  Because the ingredients are so few, each one makes a crucial contribution to the flavor. Pancetta has less fat than guanciale and comes from the midsection of the pig (pancia means belly), while guanciale comes from the cheeks (guancia means cheek). The flavor from the fat that's rendered becomes an integral part of the dish, and while pancetta fat is good, guanciale fat is better. That said, if you live in an area where guanciale is impossible to find, I'll give you a perdonanza for using pancetta.

By the way, you'll also see pasta "alla gricia" on nearly every Roman menu too. It's the same recipe as pasta "all'amatriciana" but without the tomatoes.

The traditional pasta used is bucatini - a thick pasta so named because of the hole (buco) down the center of each strand. But it's also not unusual to see the dish served with rigatoni, paccheri or penne either.

One thing you should not substitute however, is the cheese you grate on top. It HAS to be pecorino cheese, not parmigiano, not grana padano. Years ago, I ordered this dish in one of the hill towns outside of Rome, but asked the waiter to bring me parmigiano instead of the pecorino I later learned was the classic topping. Big mistake. "Parmigiano?" the waiter said incredulously to my request, as if I'd just asked him to dance naked in the Roman Forum.  "Sei sicura che vuoi parmigiano?" he asked. "Yes, I'm sure I want parmigiano," I replied. And the service went downhill from there. Something about "When in Rome...." came to mind at that point and from then on, I have always ordered bucatini all'amatriciana with pecorino.

 So please, take liberties and use onions if you like, switch up the fat and buy pancetta if you must, go non-traditional and cook up conchiglie pasta if need be, but don't sprinkle anything but real pecorino on top!

 Bucatini All'Amatriciana

printable recipe here 

Serves four to six, depending on appetites.

1/4 pound of guanciale, cut into lardons

1 28-ounce can tomatoes, preferably San Marzano

1/4 tsp. (or more if you like) red pepper flakes

abundant pecorino cheese, grated

1 pound bucatini pasta

Place the lardons of guanciale in a saucepan on medium heat and slowly let the fat render. The lardons should not crisp up, but should remain a little chewy. Remove the lardons with a slotted spoon, and add the tomatoes, breaking up with your hands or with a spoon. Put the lardons back in, add the red pepper flakes and cook together with the tomatoes, on a low simmer, for about 1/2 hour.

Meantime, when the sauce has cooked about 15 minutes, get the water boiling and throw in the pasta. Bucatini takes a while to cook, depending on the brand. Cook until a little firmer than al dente, then drain the pasta with a slotted spoon or fork and place into the pan with the sauce. Don't worry if a little pasta water makes its way into the sauce. Finish cooking the pasta in the sauce for the last couple of minutes. Serve immediately while it's hot, with ample pecorino cheese grated on top.

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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Pecorino Canestrato Cheese

Pecorino Cheese - It all starts with sheep. And there are plenty of them in Abruzzo.  Drive through the countryside on any given day, and chances are, you're bound to run into a shepherd (replete with a crook), scampering dogs and a straying flock.

But the traditional "transumanza" -  the twice-yearly migration of herds of sheep across hundreds of miles of rocky, mountainous terrain to warmer climes - is gone. These days the shepherd is most likely just moving his flock to a nearby pasture or taking it to a place where a tractor trailor will transport the sheep using a hydraulic lift. 

In Abruzzo and other regions where lamb is eaten more commonly than beef, pecorino cheese (pecora means sheep in Italian) is still made using sheep's milk and little else, albeit with modern equipment.  I was lucky enough to see the process on a trip with four other women during the "Italy, In Other Words" writing workshop I attended in Abruzzo last month.

Thanks to owner Giulio Petronio, we toured the Azienda Zootecnica Gran Sasso, a farm in the countryside near Castel Del Monte. He explained the steps involved in making canestrato, a pecorino cheese that derives its name from the reed baskets (canestri) that were once used to shape the cheeses and impart their design. 

Once a day, the sheep's milk is heated in a large stainless steel vat and mixed with a natural rennet taken from a sheep's stomach. After the milk reaches about 102 degrees Fahrenheit  (39 degrees Celcius), the mixture starts to thicken and lightly solidify.  At this point, Zurap, a Macedonia native in charge of the process, offered us a spoonful. It was like slurping cream in a gel-like state - and not too different in taste from panna cotta.

Next Zurap broke apart the solid milky mass, and we watched as two wire "combs" swirled around the vat, creating clumps of curds.

Zurap grabbed a corregated plastic tube attached at one end to the vat and flipped a switch, guiding the curds into the forms. The liquid whey drained out the bottom, while the curds remained. 

As more of the whey drained away, Zurap returned to fill the forms a second, and a third time.

 Then he squeezed down on the curds, allowing even more of the liquid whey to fall to the bin below. The whey would later be heated again and used to make ricotta cheese (ri-cotta means twice cooked.) 

The cheese needs to cool and rest a bit before it becomes solid enough to be released from the plastic mold into a salt water bath, allowing the cheese to form a rind. But before that, each mold is coded with numbers that identify where it was made and the specific batch of cheese. 

Finally comes the aging, as the cheeses sit in a refrigerated storeroom. Some cheeses can be eaten immediately, and they will have a milder flavor.

The age of each cheese is found on the tags attached to the racks. For instance, this batch of cheese was made on 11-06-13. The first number refers to the year (2011), the second to the month (June) and the third number to the day it was made. Hence, this batch of cheese was made on June 13, 2011, a few days before we had arrived for our tour.

These cheeses were made in April. The few extra months of aging gives them a sharper taste. Mold that forms on the outside adds a unique flavor, but it will be washed off prior to sale. The oldest cheeses are aged no longer than one and a half years.

 Unfortunately, we didn't get to taste the pecorino cheese while we were there. Giulio had to rush outside to tend to a mamma cow who was reluctant to enter the barn, where her newborn calf awaited.

As Giulio wrangled with his cow, we headed to nearby Castel Del Monte for an espresso at a bar in the center of town. 

Turns out we weren't the first Americans to have sipped a cup of Joe here. George Clooney beat us to it, when he was filming "The American" here a couple of years ago.

 After settling in at the cafe, we were surprised to see Giulio drive up in his truck, eager to catch up with us and offer a sample of his canestrato cheese.

 Giulio also sells the naturally-colored sheep's wool to home knitters and to high-fashion houses in Italy, who use the wool to make sweaters and other clothes. 

But for me, the cheese was the prize - golden colored, sharp and nutty-flavored, aged Pecorino.

Thank you Giorgio, and thank you Zurap, for giving us a look (and a taste) at how Pecorino Canestrato is made in Castel del Monte. 

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