Monday, December 30, 2013

Clams Oreganata

Having friends over for New Year's Eve? Here's a dish that's a crowd pleaser and quick and easy to put together. There's just one problem though - They disappear in a flash.

Well, make that two problems - opening the raw clams can be a pain if you don't know what you're doing (guilty as charged).

Your fishmonger may be willing to open them for you, but don't count on it at the busy holiday season. And trying to pry them open with a clam shucker is my idea of how to end up in the emergency room. I've heard that freezing the clams for about 15 minutes will also make them easier to pry open, but I've never tried that technique. I like this method of preparing the clams because no matter how much you rinse raw clams, you're going to end up with a bit of sand or grit on the inside. Not with this method though. All the sand gets released when the clam opens, and settles on the bottom of the pot. I strain out the liquid, pouring it through a coffee filter (actually, two coffee filters because the grit can be very fine.)  

So what I do is put a shallow amount of water in a large pan and bring it to a rolling boil. Add the clams and stand over the pot and watch the clams pop open one after the other. As soon as they do, remove each clam, one by one, and and place them in a bowl. Put the bowl in the refrigerator for 10 minutes or so, or until they're cool enough to handle. Rip off one half of the shell and discard. 

Loosen the clam on the other half, using a grapefruit spoon or paring knife, and arrange it on an oven-proof shallow tray, like this stainless steel tray. The clams will still be nearly raw, as you can see in the photo below. 

Put a heaping mound of filling over each clam, carefully pour some of the clam liquid and white wine on the bottom, and bake until crispy and golden.

May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and
good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who
thinks you're wonderful, and don't forget to make
some art -- write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And
I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself." - Neil Gaiman

Clams Oreganata

4 dozen littleneck clams on the half shell

2 cups breadcrumbs (I used Panko but ordinary bread crumbs are fine)

2 large cloves garlic

4 T. minced parsley

a dash of red pepper flakes, depending on your heat tolerance

1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

1 t. dried oregano

6 cherry or grape tomatoes, cut into small pieces

salt, pepper to taste

1/4 cup reserved clam liquid plus more for pouring in the bottom of the tray

1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 cup dry white wine

Put a shallow amount of water in a large pot and bring to a boil. Place the clams in the pot and stand over it, removing each clam just as it starts to open. Put them in a large bowl and place the bowl in the refrigerator to chill. Remove half of the shell, and using a grapefruit spoon or paring knife, loosen the clam from the other half of the shell.

Arrange the clams on an oven-proof tray. Mix the remaining ingredients together. If the mixture seems a bit dry, add more of the reserved clam liquid and/or olive oil. Heap a small amount on each clam half and carefully pour the white wine and a little of the clam liquid on the bottom of the tray. Drizzle the clams with a bit more olive oil and bake at 475 degrees for about 10 minutes or until crispy and golden brown on top.

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Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes

Just in case you're planning a multi-fish extravaganza for Christmas eve and are still trying to decide what to make, here are some ideas to whet your appetite. I've made all of these in years past, and most of them will be on my table again this year, including this spaghetti ai frutti di mare. It was a favorite last Christmas eve, so it makes the cut again for this year. I'll serve it following the hors d'oeuvres that will be mostly fished-based, except for a couple of dishes for the vegetarians present.  It's always a juggling act trying to balance the numerous  pots on the burners and dishes in the oven, so that none of them is overcooked (or undercooked.)
So I make sure I have a few things that can be made ahead of time, including this favorite of
baccalà mantecato with grilled polenta that we'll eat before dinner while sipping prosecco.

My dad arrives with these codfish cakes. They reheat very well in the oven, maintaining their crunchy exterior. We'll munch on these before dinner too.
If you think you don't like octopus, you haven't tried my Octopus and potato salad. It's almost like eating lobster, especially if you peel the octopus and trim away the "suction cups" after cooking. Get the largest octopus you can find in order to get nice chunky pieces.

If I weren't making the spaghetti ai frutti di mari, I might be making this dish with squid:

Some years, I've skipped the pasta and made this dish instead:
Seafood Risotto
But if there's one dish that absolutely must be on our Christmas eve table, it's this one. My son has taken over the preparation of this and has become quite adept at it:
Too many dishes with tomato sauce can make for a lopsided menu, but if stuffed squid's not your thing, make it easy on yourself and try this swordfish in tomato and caper sauce.
Last year, I added this dish to the menu and everyone loved it. It can be made ahead of time and baked right before serving - swordfish involtini

And if you manage to have a taste of all these dishes, by the end of the evening, you might want to have this hand

Buon Natale a tutti.

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Lilli's Almond Paste Cookies

If your house is like mine, cookie baking is in high gear as the holidays approach. One of my favorites is this recipe from my friend Lilli. Originally from Salerno, Italy, Lilli is a terrific cook who can throw together a delicious meal on autopilot. That goes for sweets too. Her biscotti recipe here is the best around. It's my go-to recipe whenever I get the urge for cookies.  These almond paste cookies are another great example of a classic recipe I got from her years ago. 

 I'm lucky enough to be a recipient of her baking prowess on many occasions, but especially as Christmas approaches. I've made these almond paste cookies many times, but Lilli's are always better than mine, even though I use her recipe. They're made with just three ingredients - egg whites, sugar and almond paste. But after so many years of making them, she's got the right "touch." I called her before posting this recipe to find out any special "tricks" in getting these cookies just right -- and there are several that she shared with me, and that now you'll  be privy to as well if you follow the recipe at the end.

Unless you've got a Lilli in your life, try making them yourself. You can top them with an almond, with pine nuts, or with candied red or green cherries in the Christmas spirit. They're really easy to whip together in your food processor and will taste great, even if they're not as perfect as Lilli's.

Lilli's almond paste cookies

printable recipe here

1/4 cup egg whites (not quite two large egg whites, but more than one)

1 scant cup sugar (take out two tablespoons)

1 heaping cup almond paste (more like a cup and a few tablespoons)

The consistency of the dough for this recipe can vary according to the almond paste you buy. Some brands are softer than others, affecting the final results. In any event, make sure the almond paste is at room temperature. Cut it into thin slices, so that when you mix it with the other ingredients, it will blend well and not leave any large pieces in the dough.

Put the egg whites into a food processor and whir for a few seconds until they start to turn white and lose their transparency.  Keeping the machine running, add the sugar, then the almond paste, a small amount at a time, until the dough becomes a solid mass. Remove the dough from the food processor, and with a spatula, feel around to make sure there are no unblended pieces of dough. Cover and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight.

Roll the dough into small balls and place on a parchment paper lined cookie sheet. With the heel of your hand press down a bit to squash them a little. Decorate either with an almond, pine nuts, or a half of a candied cherry pressed into the center. Bake at 350 for 20 to 25 minutes, watching closely so they don't become too browned.

These cookies harden in a few days, even when left in a tin. They freeze beautifully, so if you don't plan to consume them right away,  freeze them and thaw them before serving to maintain the freshness and softness.

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Monday, December 9, 2013

Milena's Red Wine Cookies

Each time my friend Milena makes these cookies for our Italian chit-chat group, we are quick to gobble them down and always ask her how to make them.  They're perfect with a cup of espresso or a glass of wine. They're crunchy and sweet because of the outside coating of sugar, but the red wine adds a complexity to the flavor. When the group met at my house recently, Milena agreed to a demonstration. Although Milena's from La Spezia, in the region of Liguria, these cookies originate in the area between Rome and Naples called "La Ciociaria."

If you know Italian women, many of them have pretty loose instructions when it comes to the amounts of the ingredients. "Quanto basta" is the expression frequently heard, which means "enough" or "as much as needed." So it wasn't a surprise when Milena uttered those words in speaking of the amount of flour required in the recipe. I finally pinned her down and she told me she actually wrote down the recipe for one of the cooking classes she taught years ago. Start out with one cup, but you'll probably need from 4 to 4 1/2 cups of flour, depending on the humidity of the day. Keep adding enough until the dough becomes slightly stiff and sticky, like in the photo below. 
It's not that difficult to shape the cookies. You don't put any additional flour on your hands or the board - but you have to be gentle as you roll them out, preferably on a wooden board. There's a lot of oil in the dough, so some of it will come off on the board, which is a good thing, if you have a board as old and dry as mine. By the way, I learned a new Italian word while she was rolling out the dough - mastra. That's the name used for these large boards that are used to knead and roll out pasta. Mine's probably 75 years old or more, and I inherited it from my mother-in-law years ago.
You'll want to roll each end toward the center (in opposite directions), then dip the rolled dough into some white sugar.
Place them on an ungreased cookie sheet at 350 degrees for about 15 to 20 minutes. Keep checking them to make sure they're slightly browned on the bottom.
They'll keep for weeks in a covered container.
That is, unless your Italian chit-chat group is on its way over.

Milena's red wine cookies

1 cup dry red wine (the better the wine, the better the cookies)
1 cup sugar
1 cup oil - Canola or some other mild seed oil
a pinch of salt
1/2 tsp. of baking soda
1/2 tsp. of baking powder
4 1/2 c. flour - (start with one cup but keep adding as much as necessary until you get a dough that has a thick consistency and can be easily rolled.)
more sugar for dipping
Place the red wine, oil, and sugar in a bowl and whisk together. Add the baking soda, baking powder, and the flour, sifting it into the bowl at little at a time. Stir with a wooden spoon, continuing to add more flour until it has a stiff consistency.
Gently roll out small pieces of the dough on a wooden board into a narrow "snake" shape - about 6 inches, the thickness of small finger. Then carefully swirl the ends toward the center, into an "S" shape. Dip into sugar and place on a cookie sheet.
Bake at 350 degrees for about 20 to 25 minutes, but keep checking.  The cookies should be browned on the bottom and slightly on top.

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Monday, December 2, 2013

Ina Garten's French Apple Tart

Ina Garten, aka "The Barefoot Contessa" consistently writes cookbooks that contain delicious recipes that are also fail proof and easy to prepare. This French apple tart is no exception. It's always a crowd pleaser with its buttery, flaky crust and thinly sliced apples smeared with a glaze of jelly. The recipe calls for apricot jelly, but my new favorite to brush on fruit tarts is quince jelly, since its pale color doesn't obscure the fruit that's below. Besides, I love the tart/sweet flavor of quince jelly.

After mixing the pastry, roll it out and cut it to the size of your cookie sheet.

Place the pastry into a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper (or a Silpat), carefully arrange the apple slices and dot with butter (stop counting calories and just enjoy this one, alright?)

When it comes out of the oven, brush some warmed quince jelly on top (or some other light colored jelly - I like orange marmalade here too.) Cut into squares and serve. A scoop of ice cream on top would not be unwelcome. Warning - This tart is highly addictive. Ciao Chow Linda shall not be held responsible if you eat the whole thing.

If you haven't got company coming, and you're not so good at portion control, (I wonder who that could be?) freeze most of the dough and make a couple of single serving size tarts instead, assuming you've got little tart pans. But even if you haven't, you can even make them freeform. Follow the same directions, and use the same temperature. This way you might still be able to squeeze into your jeans.

Ina Garten's French Apple Tart

printable recipe here


For the pastry:

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon sugar

12 tablespoons (11/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, diced

1/2 cup ice water

For the apples:

4 Granny Smith apples

1/2 cup sugar

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, small diced

1/2 cup apricot jelly or warm sieved apricot jam

2 tablespoons Calvados, rum, or water


the pastry, place the flour, salt, and sugar in the bowl of a food
processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse for a few seconds to
combine. Add the butter and pulse 10 to 12 times, until the butter is in
small bits the size of peas. With the motor running, pour the ice water
down the feed tube and pulse just until the dough starts to come
together. Dump onto a floured board and knead quickly into a ball. Wrap
in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.

the dough slightly larger than 10 by 14-inches. Using a ruler and a
small knife, trim the edges. Place the dough on the prepared sheet pan
and refrigerate while you prepare the apples.

Peel the apples and
cut them in half through the stem. Remove the stems and cores with a
sharp knife and a melon baler. Slice the apples crosswise in 1/4-inch
thick slices. Place overlapping slices of apples diagonally down the
middle of the tart and continue making diagonal rows on both sides of
the first row until the pastry is covered with apple slices. (I tend not
to use the apple ends in order to make the arrangement beautiful.)
Sprinkle with the full 1/2 cup of sugar and dot with the butter.

for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the pastry is browned and the edges of
the apples start to brown. Rotate the pan once during cooking. If the
pastry puffs up in one area, cut a little slit with a knife to let the
air out. Don't worry! The apple juices will burn in the pan but the tart
will be fine! When the tart's done, heat the apricot jelly together
with the Calvados and brush the apples and the pastry completely with
the jelly mixture. Loosen the tart with a metal spatula so it doesn't
stick to the paper. Allow to cool and serve warm or at room temperature.

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Monday, November 25, 2013

Easy Acorn Squash and Thanksgiving Side Dishes

Still looking for Thanksgiving side dish ideas? Here's one that won't take more than five minutes to prepare and tastes great. No peeling involved - you can eat the skin on acorn squash.

The recipe is so embarrassingly simple, it's hardly a recipe. Just wash the squash, cut in half lengthwise, remove the seeds and cut into slices about 1/2 inch think. Smear with a little melted butter on both sides, then sprinkle each side with salt and pepper, and a mixture of equal parts bread crumbs and parmesan cheese. Bake at 400 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes or until you can easily pierce the flesh with a fork.

Here are a few more ideas if you still are undecided about side dishes for your Thanksgiving table:

Fennel Gratinée or Roasted Fennel 

Insalata di Rinforza

Stuffed onions

Squash and Couscous casserole

And as a relief for the digestive system: Citrus salad 

 If you're looking for a primer on how to brine and cook a turkey, click here to see how I do it. 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Acorn Squash with Parmesan Coating

Wash the squash, cut in half lengthwise, then remove the seeds and cut into slices about 1/2 inch thick. Smear with a little melted butter on both sides, then sprinkle each side with salt and pepper, and a mixture of equal parts bread crumbs and parmesan cheese. Bake at 400 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes or until you can easily pierce the flesh with a fork.

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Monday, November 18, 2013

Roasted and Stuffed Chicken, but No Bones About It!

Roast chicken is one of those meals that feels like a warm hug - a comfort food that reels me back to  when my kids were young and the whole family gathered 'round the table for a Sunday meal. So when my son and daughter announced they'd be home for the weekend, I immediately thought of roasting a chicken, just like old times. But my son, who's pretty facile himself around the kitchen, suggested I debone the entire chicken, then stuff it and roast it. "Jacques Pepin's got a video that shows you how," he said. 
"Well, why not," I said, so I clicked on Youtube and found the instructions. Jacques says it should take  only one minute to debone the bird, and it's mostly done with your fingers, not a knife. Well, take that with a grain of salt. He's a seasoned professional who's probably done it hundreds of times. It took me closer to 20 minutes and at least several viewings of the video before I could free all the bones from this 6 lb. chicken, without ripping any of the skin:

Check out the Pepin video below. It's called a galantine, or ballotine, and you can do it too if you're just patient and follow Jacque's instructions.

You start out by cutting into the wings and slicing the bird down the back. It gets a lot more complicated, but it's definitely doable, even for a first-timer, like me. The legs then become hollow, providing more space for stuffing. The only bones remaining are the tips of the legs. And don't throw out those bones. Use them to make a chicken stock. 

See that small white plate in the back? 

Those are the wings that become little "lollipops" for roasting or frying.

This is what the interior looks like before stuffing. "Gross," according to my daughter, and I'd have to agree. Not too appetizing. But just wait
I spread the stuffing into the legs and throughout the interior. The stuffing was made with sturdy Italian bread, sausage, chestnuts and white raisins, bound together with an egg and some chicken broth.
 You bring the two sides together and it almost looks like it just came out of the supermarket wrapper.

You truss it all together with some twine.
Season it and put it in a roasting pan (a freebie from a yard sale in upstate New York last month), strewing some onions here and there. Roast it at 350 degrees for two hours. 
The beauty is not just in the flavor, but the ease of slicing. It would make a great meal for family or a special occasion. 
The deboned, stuffed chicken (and two wing lollipops) easily serves six people, assuming you've got some side dishes. If you're not crazy about turkey, this could be a great substitute for the traditional Thanksgiving bird. If you want instructions on how to roast a chicken the old fashioned and easy way, without boning it, click here to see how I do it.
By the way, the acorn squash in the background, coated with breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese, would make a nice addition to your Thanksgiving table. Stay tuned to Ciao Chow Linda for the recipe in the next post.  

Printable Recipe Here
4 or 5 thick slices of sturdy Italian bread, crusts removed, and cut into bits

1/4 cup minced onions
2 T. olive oil
1 link of Italian sausage, casing removed
1/2 cup cooked chestnuts
1/4 cup white raisins
1 T. butter
1 egg
4  or 5 T. chicken stock
minced parsley
salt, pepper to taste
Sauté the onions in the olive oil and add the sausage, breaking it into bits. Cook the sausage and onions, then add the raisins to the pan, along with a tablespoon of butter and two tablespoons of chicken stock. Let it cool slightly. Beat an egg in a large bowl and add the bread and the cooked mixture from the pan. Add some parsley, salt and pepper and stir. It may be dry, so add more chicken stock. The stuffing should be moist, but not soaking wet. Spread the stuffing into the deboned legs and across the body of the chicken. Then take the two sides of the chicken and roll them toward the center. Truss the bird with kitchen twine and season with salt, pepper, rosemary and paprika. Smear a little olive oil on the bottom of a roasting pan, place the chicken inside and roast for two hours at 350 degrees, basting two or three times with the juices and oil that comes out from the chicken. I also placed two onions in the pan, and drizzled olive oil, salt and pepper on them. Turn the onions over when you baste the chicken.

Remove it from the oven and let it rest for about 10 minutes before slicing.

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