Calamari con piselli

Thank goodness for seafood!

With the holidays behind us, it’s time to lighten up, eat healthier and drop the pounds we probably added over the last month or two.  But, it’s still cold outside, the days are short and Sunday afternoons at home call for family-style meals.  Seafood-based dishes are the perfect solution – tasty, comforting and healthy.

Calamari con piselli, or squid with peas stewed in tomato sauce, was of a favorite dish of Stefano and his brother and sister when growing up in Rome.  Their mom, Maria, made it often in the winter, using either calamari (squid) or its related cephalopod, seppie (cuttlefish).

Before we begin with the recipe, let’s look more closely at these interesting and delicious sea creatures.  Octopus (polpo in Italian), squid (calamari in Italian) and cuttlefish (seppie in Italian) are three common cephalopods prevalent in southern Mediterranean and Asian cooking.   All cephalopods have bilateral body symmetry and a large head with tentacles attached to it.   They also all have ink sacs and can squirt ink, which is why they are sometimes referred commonly as inkfish.  It is the black colored ink from squid that is used to make squid ink pasta.

In the landlocked Midwest of the United States, cephalopods are not easy to come by.  We were thrilled to fine frozen calamari while out shopping one day, and immediately new that we would stew them in tomato sauce with peas, for a perfect January weekend meal.

Ingredients
2 and 1/2 lbs. squid
Two 28-oz. cans of canned whole tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
3 Tablespoons finely chopped onion
2 cloves garlic
1 bunch parsley
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/4 cup dry white wine
16 oz. frozen peas
Salt to taste
Black pepper, or if you prefer crushed red pepper

Directions
Generally, squid is sold already cleaned.  If your squid is not cleaned, clean it, as explained here.  If your squid is clean, rinse it under running water, removing any skin, sand or bits of tough tissue.  If the tentacles are still attached, remove them.  Pat the squid bodies and tentacles dry with paper towels.

On a cutting board, slice the body, or sac, into rings 1/4th inch to 1/2 inch wide.  Chop the onion and sauté it in the olive oil over medium heat.  Mince the garlic, and add it to the sauté when the onion becomes translucent.  Chop the parsley and add it to the sauté.  Add the tomatoes, passing them through a food mill.  Bring to a boil, and then add the white wine.  Allow it to cook for 10-15 minutes, add salt and pepper to taste, and then add the squid.  Simmer for approximately 30 minutes, add the peas and let the mixture cook for another 5-10 minutes, or until the peas are tender.

Serve in a pasta or soup bowl, with a piece of crusty bread, toasted if you wish.

Download a pdf of the recipe Calamari con piselli

Pasta e ceci

Tonight we needed comfort food.

Since the fire there have been a few too many unknowns, some surprises, and a disappointment or two.  Last night we packed up everything in our hotel room and loaded it into our cars, and this morning we checked out of the hotel, eager to move into the rental that we will call home while our house is being rebuilt.  A few hours later, we learned that there were complications and it the rental is not ready for us yet.

So, we are back in the hotel again, gearing up for week four.  Unpacking won’t be hard, because we don’t have very much with us.  Our other belongings are in the care of people hired to pack, clean, inventory and store it for us.  It’s all a good exercise in relinquishing control, and living in the moment.  Ghandi said, “I do not want to foresee the future, I am concerned with taking care of the present.”

We actually disagree with him on that first point – we’d welcome foreseeing the future right now.  But since we cannot, we’re going to find the positives.  The kids have one more week of hotel waffles for breakfast – with whipped cream.  They’ll get to swim in the pool a few more times.  Someone will make our beds in the morning, and bring us fresh towels when we need them.

To commemorate our return to room 710, we took out our two knives and two pots and prepared a wonderful pasta e ceci.  It was perhaps the best we’ve ever made it.  This pasta soup, as our boys call it, is nourishing and soothing.  Garlic and rosemary provide a fragrant base to the broth, while pureed chickpeas and pasta all’uovo,  (egg-noodles) give it a hearty texture.  There is hardly a more simple and delicious dish.  Our stomachs are full and our minds are at peace.

Ingredients
Olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1 sprig rosemary
2 16 oz. cans of chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans)
6 cups water
1/3 cup pureed tomatoes*
2 cups egg-pasta fettuccine, cut or broken into pieces
Salt
Black pepper or crushed red pepper

*For convenience, we used Pomi strained tomatoes.  Alternatively, you could puree whole canned tomatoes.

Directions
Quarter each clove of garlic lengthwise and sauté it along with the entire sprig of rosemary (do not remove the needles) in olive oil over medium heat until the garlic is golden brown and the rosemary has turned a sage green color.  Remove the garlic and rosemary, and discard.

Rinse the chickpeas and add them to the seasoned olive oil.  Let them cook over medium heat for 5 minutes.

Add the water and tomato puree, and stir.  Turn the heat up to high and let it come to a boil uncovered.  Add salt and black pepper to taste.  We like a bit of heat, so instead of black pepper we used a dash of crushed red pepper.  After a few minutes, spoon out approximately 2 cups of chickpeas, crush them or puree them in a food processor, and return the to the pot.  When the soup boils, add the pieces of fettuccine and cook until al dente.

Remove from heat and serve in soup bowls with a drizzle of olive oil on top.

Wine pairing
We recommend you try a Saladini Pilastri Rosso Piceno with your pasta e ceci.  This organic blend of Montepulciano and Sangiovese is a well-balanced and earthy wine with nice spiciness and acidity.

Pesce e patate al forno

Roasted Whole Fish with Potatoes
Some people just aren’t used to eating a whole animal.  The roasted pig sitting on our kitchen cupboard, head and all, garnered a good deal of admiration at Stefano’s recent 40th birthday party.  It’s too bad he (the pig) was not cognizant for it all – a classic case of posthumous fame.

The same is true with fish.  Not everyone is prepared to find a whole one on their dinner plate.  We found our freshwater friend’s underbite amusing; but teeth and eyeballs cause some squirm.  Besides, many of us never learned what to do when presented with a whole fish for dinner.  How does one go about removing the head, skin and spine in order to get to the the tender white fillet inside?

In many cultures, though, eating whole fish is commonplace.  Whole fish is  more economical than fish fillets, and also much better tasting.  Meats and fish cooked in their bones and skin are always moister and more savory than slices of meat or fish separated from the carcass.

In Italy, roasted fish with rosemary potatoes are a common Sunday afternoon meal.  Stefano’s mom, Maria, visits the fish market on Saturday and picks out whichever fish looks the best – sometimes spigola (seabass), other times trota (trout).  Freshness is important – signs of a not-so-fresh fish include a fishy smell, cloudy eyes, and a dry tail.  In Italy, they will typically gut and scale your fish right there for you.  In the States, they will often come scaled and gutted.

On a side note, an Italian fish market is a spectacular sight – be sure to visit one when you are there.

At home, Maria washes the fish, stuffs their cavities with herbs and spices, and bakes them with diced potatoes seasoned with salt, pepper, olive oil and a bit of crushed red pepper.

The first step in eating a whole roasted fish is to remove the head.  Place your fork under its gill, and use your knife to separate the head from the rest of the fish.  Use your knife to remove the tail.  Then, slide your knife under the skin; it should lift right off exposing the tender, flaky fillet below.  Don’t try to turn your fish over to remove the skin on the bottom side.  Instead, carefully lift the fish fillet up and off, leaving the spine intact below.  Remove the herbs that you will find there then, starting from the top, carefully lift the spine away from the other fillet below.  Finally, turn the bottom fillet over and remove its skin.  When you serve whole fish, remember to place a few extra plates out on the table to hold the skin and bones.

Ingredients
1 whole fish per person.  Trout or sea bass work well.
1 potato per person, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes.
1 clove of finely minced garlic per fish, plus extra for the potatoes
1 sprig of fresh rosemary per fish, plus extra for the potatoes
Salt
Pepper
Crushed red pepper
Olive oil

Directions
Wash the exterior and the cavity of the fish under cold water.  Coat the bottom of a baking pan or roasting pan with olive oil.  Add the diced potatoes.  Salt and pepper the potatoes liberally, and add a handful of finely mined garlic and rosemary stems.  Rub olive oil on the skin and in the cavity of each fish, and lay them in the baking pan on top of the potatoes.  Salt the cavity of each fish liberally and add the minced garlic.  If you wish, you may also add some crushed red pepper.  Place a sprig of rosemary inside each fish.

Bake at 375° F for approximately 30 minutes.  Once or twice during cooking, use a flat spatula to lift and turn the potatoes, being careful to not prod or poke the fish.  Do not turn the fish.  Cooking time will vary according to the size of the fish; it is done when the skin loosens and the meat is tender but firm to the touch.  Your potatoes may require additional cooking time.  If this is the case, remove the fish and return the baking tray to the oven until the potatoes are golden brown.

Frittata con i fiori di zucca

Squash Blossom Frittata

The days are becoming shorter, the nights cooler.  The highest leaves on the tall maple in our front yard are turning gold, orange and red.  Even though these early fall days are warm and sunny yet, there is no mistaking that fall is here.  Our lives have become busier, too.  Gone are the long, lazy summer days.  They’ve been replaced with school, homework, and a faster pace of life.

As seasons change, so do our cooking and eating habits.  We cook more on weekends, and freeze sauces, soups and vegetables for easy reheating during weeknights.  We bake our own bread on Sundays, and we aim for genuine, healthy meals that are also simple and quick to prepare.

The frittata is just that.  Often referred to as an open-faced omelette, the frittata is a classic Italian dish made from beaten eggs mixed with meat, cheese or vegetables and cooked in a skillet over low heat.  Unlike an omelette, the frittata is not folded in half.  Rather, it is carefully flipped so that it cooks on both sides.

There are countless varieties of frittate (singular – fritatta, plural – fritatte): frittata with zucchini, frittata with asparagus, frittata with artichokes, frittata with sausage, frittata with potatoes, and even frittata with leftover pasta.

We opted for frittata with squash blossoms.  One of our favorite summer foods, we jumped on the occasion to have them one more time before summer’s end.

Ingredients
A dozen eggs
Approximately a dozen squash or zucchini blossoms
1 cup finely grated Parmigiano
Olive Oil
Salt
Pepper

Directions
Prepare the squash blossoms for cooking by removing their stems and pistils or stamen.  See this previous post on fried zucchini blossoms for specific instructions.  Rinse them gently under water and pat dry.  Slice the blossoms lengthwise into 4 strips.

Heat 2-3 Tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet.  Add the squash blossoms and sauté over medium heat for 7-10 minutes until they become tender, stirring occasionally.

While the blossoms are cooking, crack the eggs into a bowl and beat them by hand until the yolks and whites are evenly mixed.  Add the Parmigiano, and salt and pepper to taste.  When the blossoms are ready, add them to the egg mixture as well, and mix everything together.

Heat a bit of olive oil in a 12-inch, heavy, non-stick frying pan.  Pour the egg mixture into the pan, and cook over medium heat for approximately 5-10 minutes.  As the egg cooks, use a spatula to loosen the underside of the frittata from the pan to keep it from sticking.

When the frittata is cooked about 2/3 of the way through, flip it over to allow the other side to cook, as well.  Frittata-flipping is an art that takes some practice to master.  First, use your spatula to be sure that the bottom of the frittata is no sticking to the bottom of the pan.  Then, find a large, flat lid that covers the entire pan.  It is fine if the cover is even larger than the pan.  Holding the lid tightly against the pan, quickly flip the pan over, turning the frittata upside down onto the lid.  Slowly lift the pan up and return it to the stove, and carefully slide the frittata back into the pan, the cooked side up.

For frittata-flipping phobics, there is an alternative – once the frittata is cooked about 2/3 of the way through, place the frittata, pan and all, under a broiler for 2-3 minutes to allow the top to finish cooking.

Once cooked, carefully remove the frittata from the pan and onto a large plate.  Cut it into wedges just like a pizza, and serve with bread.  Frittata can be eaten warm, or at room temperature.  You can even place the frittata between two slices of bread for a delicious sandwich.

Do any of you have a favorite frittata? 
If so, tell us about it, and share your frittata-flipping tips!

Rabbit with white wine and rosemary

A 19th century recipe for rabbit stew is widely (but questionably) reported to have begun with the phrase, “First, catch a hare.”

As practical that that advice may sound, we opt for farm-raised rabbit.  Rabbit can be found at specialty butcher shops, like Clancey’s Meat and Fish in the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis, where we purchased ours.

Although rabbit is relatively rare in North America, it is a common dish in across western Europe, as well as in South America, and in parts of the Middle East and Asia.  Rabbit meat is lean, fine grained and high in protein, making it a healthy and versatile white meat.

Cooked on the stovetop with white wine and rosemary and usually served with roasted potatoes, rabbit was a common Sunday afternoon dish at Stefano’s mom’s house in Italy.

Ingredients
1 whole rabbit
1/4 C. white wine
1 dash white wine vinegar
1/8 C. olive oil
1 clove garlic
1 large sprig rosemary
Salt and Pepper
Optional – 1 cup flour
Optional – crushed red pepper

Directions

Cut the rabbit into pieces with a large butcher knife.

If you like a creamier texture, place the flour into a shallow bowl and dust each piece of rabbit in flour on all sides.  However, you can omit the flour if you wish.  We like rabbit both ways.

Mince the garlic and sauté it in the oil in a large pan until golden brown. Add the white wine and white wine vinegar, and allow the mixture to continue to simmer on medium heat. Carefully arrange the rabbit in the skillet.

Add rosemary leaves, and salt and pepper to taste. If you like white meats with a little heat, add a little crushed red pepper. Cover, and cook over medium heat, turning on occasion, for approximately 20-25 minutes. Serve with vegetables or roasted potatoes.

Wine Pairing
We drank a 2009 Pinot Grigio from Alois Lageder with our rabbit.  It is a medium-bodied, well-balanced pinot grigio with a nice floral bouquet.  It pairs very well with white meat.  Alois Lageder is a producer from the Alto Adige region, located in the Dolomites in  northeast Italy.

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Tonno e Fagioli

Too hot to cook!  103° degrees Farenheit (nearly 40° Celcius) in Minneapolis today, and dinner needed to be something simple and light.

Tonno e fagioli, which our boys call Tuna-Bean Salad in English, was our answer.  The tuna and beans provide texture and substance, while the lemon juice, green onions and parsley add a light, fresh flavor to the salad.

Ingredients
4 5-oz. cans tuna in olive oil (not in water)
2 19-oz. cans of Cannellini beans
3 green onions, chopped
1 bunch of flat leaf Italian parsley, chopped
Juice of 2 lemons
Olive oil
Salt

Drain the excess oil off of the tuna, and place it into a large salad bowl.  Strain and rinse the Cannellini beans well.  Add the beans to the tuna in the salad bowl.  Add the chopped green onions, the parsley, the juice of two lemons and 3-4 generous pinches of salt.  Add enough extra virgin olive oil to render the salad moist, approximately 1/4 cup.  Stir until the salad is mixed well and the tuna has broken into small pieces, taking care to not damage the beans.  Let stand for 10 minutes, and serve.

Go the extra mile to find tuna packed in olive oil – it makes a difference.  Our favorite brand is Genova Tonno, which we find at Cub.  Any brand of Cannellini beans will work fine.  Don’t try to substitute other white beans, however.

Cena di Pesce

Summer finally arrived in Minneapolis, and the gorgeous, hot weather had us craving seafood.  A zuppa di pesce appetizer with prosecco, followed by spaghetti alle vongole as a the first course, gamberi alla griglia as a second course, and white wine from the south of Italy, made for a perfect summer evening dinner.

Zuppa di Pesce
Zuppa, as it sounds, means soup and pesce is Italian for fish and seafood.  A slice of bread toasted on the grill placed at the bottom of the dish absorbs the delicious broth.

Ingredients
Approximately 2 lbs. Seafood Medley, fresh or frozen.  Look for shellfish like clams and mussels, shrimp, squid, scallops.  Avoid crabmeat.
1 clove garlic
2 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
1/2 cup fish stock
1 bunch Italian flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
3 pinches salt
Pepper
Red Pepper
Olive oil
White wine

Cut the clove of garlic into 6-8 pieces, and sauté in olive oil until golden brown.  Add the seafood, butter, tomato sauce, fish stock and wine, salt and if you like a dash of black and red pepper.  Let the mixture simmer for 5-7 minutes, and then turn off heat.

Toast slices of rustic bread in the oven or on the grill.  Place one slice of bread at the bottom of a shallow soup bowl, and spoon the zuppa di pesce over it.  Sprinkle chopped parsley on top.  Serve hot.

Spaghetti alle Vongole
This is one of our all time favorite dishes.  Vongole is the Italian word for clams.  Clams from the Mediterranean are smaller than their cousins in the found in the Atlantic, off of the east coast of the United States.  If you can, buy the Mediterranean ones – they are a little more flavorful and delicate. If you can’t find Mediterranean clams, Littleneck clams work just fine.

Ingredients
2 lbs. clams
1 clove garlic
Olive oil
2 Tbsp. butter
1/2 cup clam stock
1/2 cup white wine
2 pinches salt
1 bunch Italian flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 lb. spaghetti

Rinse clams in cold water, and examine them to verify that they are all closed.  Discard any clams that are open; this is a sign that they are bad.  Set clams aside.  Cut the clove of garlic into 6-8 pieces, and sauté in olive oil until golden brown.  Add  clams, clam stock, wine, butter and salt.  Let simmer until all of the clams have opened up and some of the liquids have evaporated, approximately 5-10 minutes.  Remove from heat.

In a separate pot, add spaghetti to boiling, salted water.  (See Methods section for more information about how to salt the pasta water).  Cook until al dente.  Drain.  Return to pot, and add the clam mixture.  Stir gently.  Serve in pasta plates garnished with a sprinkle of parsley.  Remember to put an empty plate or two on the table for the clam shells.

Gamberi alla Griglia
Skewered, grilled king tiger prawn were an easy and delicious end to our seafood dinner.

Ingredients
1 lb king tiger prawn, or fresh, uncooked jumbo shrimp (approximately 20)
Juice of 1 lemon
Wooden or metal skewers

Rinse prawns in cold water.  Place in a bowl.  Squeeze the juice of one lemon over them, and let marinade for approximately 20 minutes.

If you are using wooden skewers, soak them in water before using them to prevent them from burning on the grill.  Place prawns onto skewer by piercing them through their middle.

Place prawn skewers on grill at medium heat for approximately  5 minutes on each side, brushing the remainder of the marinade on them from time to time.

Remove from heat and serve.  You can use fancy silverware to remove the head and shell, or if you are at home with family and friends, just pull it off with your fingers and enjoy.

We began the dinner sipping a nice prosecco called Sergio, from the Veneto region of Italy.  Extra dry and crisp with green apple and citrus aromas, it complimented the shellfish and seafood with its minerality.

Next, we opened a bottle of Falanghina, a wine made in Benevento, in the Campania region of Italy that boasts a long history of seafood cuisine.  Falanghina has quickly become one of our favorite white wines, and this particular 2009 Falanghina from the Cantina del Taburno label was exceptional.   It is slightly sparkling and minerally, with a crisp acidity that allows the wine to pair beautifully with shellfish and crustaceans.

Pollo alla Griglia e Insalata di Rucola e Pomodorini

June 2 was the 150th celebration of the Festa della Repubblica Italiana, a national holiday commemorating the birth of Italy as a democratic nation.  It was on this date in 1946 when Italians flooded to the polls to vote for a republic form of government over a monarchy,  marking the fall Fascism and the exile of the reigning Savoia family to Switzerland.

Heads of state from all over the world were in Rome today to celebrate this event.  Among the events scheduled for them was a pranzo at Palazzo del Quirinale, home of the President of the Italian Republic.  I wonder what was on the menu?

We held our own celebration here at home with an appetizer of Taleggio and Roquefort cheese with blueberries, chicken on the grill, and arugula and cherry tomato salad.

Taleggio, made from cow’s milk, is one of the oldest Italian soft cheeses.  It has a mild flavor and creamy texture, which is wonderful spread on crackers.   Taleggio stands in contrast to Roquefort, a strong, tangy French blue cheese made from goat’s milk.

Chicken on this grill is an easy favorite of ours.  Buy a whole chicken in pieces, remove the skin, and once on the grill splash on a marinade of olive oil, wine, rosemary, garlic and salt.  See the Methods section for more information on the marinade.

The highlight of this meal, however, was the arugula and cherry tomato salad.  I’d had arugula on my mind every since reading a StarTribune article about fresh arugula available at a local farmer’s market.  Stefano’s mom used to grow arugula at her house by the sea, and we’d eat it all summer long.  This salad is one of the simplest and most delicious ways to serve arugula.  The sweet and tangy cherry tomatoes balance the sharp, peppery flavor of the arugula, while the olive oil adds a smooth, earthy flavor that pulls it all together.

If you can’t obtain fresh grown arugula, store-bought works just fine.  Add arugula to a salad bowl.  Throw in quartered or halved cherry tomatoes.  Sprinkle sea salt liberally over the salad, and drizzle plenty of olive oil on top.  Stir with salad tongs, and serve.

Le Polpette al Sugo

At home in Rome, meatballs cooking on the stove top meant that rigatoni with meat sauce would be served as a first course.  The abundant tomato sauce in which the meatballs cook almost steals the show from the meatballs themselves, and makes for a tangy compliment to pasta.

There are many Italian meatball recipes.  This one is a simple favorite.

Ingredients
2 lbs lean ground beef
1 lb ground pork
2 eggs
3-4 sprigs flat leaf Italian parsley, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, very finely chopped
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
The inside only of ½ loaf of Italian bread
Milk
3 28-oz. cans peeled whole tomatoes, or more if desired
Carrots
Celery
Onion
Olive Oil
1 beef bullion cube
Flour
Dry red wine
Salt

Place the ground meat into a large mixing bowl.  Add eggs, parsley, garlic and Parmesan cheese.  Place the inside of ½ loaf of Italian bread in a separate bowl.  Add just enough milk to moisten all of the bread, and let sit for a few minutes. Pull the bread piece by piece out of the bowl, squeeze to eliminate excess milk, and add it to the meat mixture.  Add 2 pinches of salt, and mix it all together with your hands.

Place about 1 cup of flour on a plate.  Shape the meat mixture into balls slightly larger than a golf ball.  Roll each meatball in flour and set on a plastic sheet.

Cover the bottom of a large pot with olive oil.  Cut a ¼ inch slice of a large onion, chop it finely, and sauté it in the olive oil.  When the onions are translucent, add two carrots, and two stalks of celery, cut into pieces.  Gently place the meatballs one by one into the pot, and then add the bullion cube and a dash of dry red wine.

Let the meatballs simmer in the sauté, stirring occasionally so that they brown on all sides.   After approximately 7-8 minutes your meatballs should be well-browned.

Add your whole tomatoes, passing them through a food mill to obtain a smooth sauce.  (See Methods section for more information).  You should use at least 3 large cans of whole tomatoes, but more is fine – you will just have more sauce left over.  Bring the sauce back to a boil, and then allow it to cook for 20 to 25 more minutes, adding salt to taste and stirring gently from time to time.

Serve in pasta bowls and have plenty of bread ready to soak up the sauce.