Category Archives: Marvels and Mishaps

Alici alla Scapece: Tiny Fish, Big on Flavor & Long on History

a method by many names

a method by many names

Alla scapece is the southern Italian term for an ancient preservation method, one used for centuries throughout the Mediterranean region, which consists of frying small fish such as sardines or anchovies then sealing them in a marinade of oil, spices, and lemon or vinegar. Alla scapece, together with the Venetian in soar (as in sarde or pesse in soar), pesciolini in carpione of the Lakes Region in Lombardy, and escabeche in Spain, Portugal, parts of Southern France, and Northern Africa, all derive from the Persian sikbaj (or al-sikbaj), described by John Dickie in Delizia! as ‘a sweet and tangy Persian stew […] that became popular in much of the Muslim world.’ In his book The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, Daniel Jurafsky traces the evolution of sikbaj from its origins as a centuries-long favorite in the Arab world to its eventual morphing into the classic fish & chips of today. The link, interestingly, between these two distant relatives is the method of frying (in the case of sikbaj it was meat, not fish) then marinating in vinegar.  Apparently this is why we serve batter-fried fish with vinegar!

Okay, history lesson’s over. I tried alici alla scapece for the first time last year on the breathtaking island of Ponza, as a guest of chef Oreste Romagnolo, who runs not one but two amazing restaurants on the island—Orèstorante and Orèsteria (both establishments’ names are plays on their founder’s first name + ristorante and osteria, respectively). In Romagnolo’s version, the anchovies are fried then marinated in vinegar, olive oil, rosemary, garlic, and mint. Served chilled, these anchovies were nothing like what you expect when…well, when eating an anchovy. Delicate, savory, not overly-fishy, and not too salty.

Romagnolo, an avid sailor, hails from Avellino. He’s been based on Ponza since 1995, the year he opened Orèstorante with his wife, Valentina, a sommelier and pastry chef. Some years ago he published a monograph, Orèstorante: Isola di Ponza 1995 – 2005 (out of print and virtually impossible to find) in collaboration with photographer Adriano Bacchella. Though a bit off topic, I simply cannot conclude this post without referring you to Bacchella’s site to get a glimpse of his stunning photography. And if you ever make it to Ponza, be sure to find one or both of Oreste Romagnolo’s incomparable restaurants. The man knows his fish.

A sign for Orèsteria, run by Oreste, who also owns Orèstorante, both located on Ponza

Rucola Pesto

rucola pesto

arugula – rucola – rocket pesto

To make this tangy and super green rucola pesto, process several large handfuls of fresh rucola with one clove of garlic, about 1/3 cup good olive oil,  and one small handful each of salted (rinsed) capers and finely-grated parmesan cheese. Toss with just-drained pasta. It keeps in a glass jar for 4-5 days in the fridge. Remember to let warm to room temp and incorporate some hot pasta water before using pesto that’s been cold.

culture bite

In his book The Unites States of Arugula, David Kemp outlines the (very recent) explosion of ‘exotic’ foods and ingredients on the burgeoning gourmet food scene in America. And here you can read about rucola’s various names and their respective etymologies.

A Quest For Perfect Pumpkin Soup

the happy ending

Maybe quest is a slightly romanticized word for what I’ve been doing over the past month—trying to create the perfect pumpkin soup. No matter. A happy outcome is all, achieved today with the discovery of a recipe courtesy of Life’s a Feast . I think what really sets this version of pumpkin soup apart is the addition of paprika and ground nutmeg, and the pinch of brown sugar. Note: I did not make the bread sticks but instead tossed in a handful of croutons. Bread sticks are a better accompaniment, to be sure, so you should make them.

The talent behind Life’s a Feast is Jamie Schler, a France-based American freelance food writer who explores the aspects of food that so intrigue me: traditions, heritage, stories, and so on. Her second blog, Plated Stories, is as gorgeous and gratifying a food blog as one could hope for and (be warned) is a bit addicting. Jamie also writes for Huffington Post. Definitely check out her well-worth-your-time articles. And make this pumpkin soup. Seriously.

An Island Wonder: Tradition & Innovation at Ventotene’s ‘Il Giardino’ Restaurant

a tour de force

a tour de force

There are so many reasons to visit the tiny Italian island Ventotene. To convince you, I could talk about the island’s fascinating history—of the tufa-carved port that served the structure known today as Villa Giulia, Emperor Augustus’s luxurious vacation villa that would become his daughter, Julia’s, place of exile. I could post pictures of the endlessly stunning seascapes, or recount my experiences with some of the island’s uber-friendly locals (fewer than 900 in off-season).  If you’re anything like me, however, the one aspect of a place sure to hook your interest will be its food. And on this count, Ventotene will not disappoint.

Recently I met the two skilled and charming cooks at Il Giardino, Candida and Christian.

Cooks Candida and Christian of Il Giardino Restaurant

Cooks Candida and Christian of Il Giardino Restaurant

Christian is from Ecuador and has lived in Italy for 13 years. He moved to Ventotene after living six years in Rome, during which time he was chef assistant to Giovanni Passerini at Uno e Bino, an acclaimed establishment in Rome’s San Lorenzo quarter that closed about five years ago (Passerini went on to start Rino in Paris). Today Christian works alongside the restaurant founders, Candida and Giovanni, who opened Il Giardino over thirty years ago, and their children.

In the kitchen, Candida’s extensive cooking experience and knowledge of the island—its abundance, its limitations—pair perfectly with Christian’s flair, innovation, and hard-won expertise, resulting in dishes that are at once harmonious, delectable, and beautiful to behold. Per Giovanni’s vision, Il Giardino strives to use only products available on Ventotene. This means no or very little meat. As Candida explains, birds are protected on Ventotene, a migratory stopover; so birds are ‘off the menu’. There are no livestock farms here, and while the cooks could pick up some pre-packaged meats delivered from the mainland to the island grocer, doing so would not be in line with the restaurant’s philosophy. There is no game to hunt on Ventotene, save the occasional rabbit, which local hunters might sell to Candida from time to time. Yet outside sporadic windfalls of this kind, the menu at Il Giardino is based exclusively on fish and seafood—selected each morning at the port by Giovanni himself—and vegetables grown on the island, fairly bountiful: onion, tomato, zucchini, eggplant, peas, artichokes, lentils, potatoes, and more.

Working within the limitations of this island life must surely be a challenge, and no doubt lesser cooks would falter. These two have absolutely flourished. Have a look at the two astonishing dishes Christian kindly prepared for me, using local, fresh ingredients favored by the restaurant.

Carpaccio of Marinated Ricciola Fish

The ricciola, marinated in extra virgin olive oil and sea salt, is served with an orange emulsion, fresh fennel, bean sprouts, and capers. You will be forever dubious of cooked fish after tasting this melt-in-your-mouth delicacy.

vento5

Fried Zucchini Flowers with Tomato Confit & Capers

The flower is stuffed with ricotta and pecorino and fried to perfection. But what renders this dish a tour de force is Christian’s trademark confit, made by oven-cooking Pachino tomatoes low and slow (100 °C for 3 hours) with clove, lemon zest, and powdered sugar.

Ventotene is reachable by ferry from the town Formia, located on the Gulf of Gaeta and roughly halfway between Rome and Naples. In summer the island bursts with visitors, and the season peaks with ten days of festivities leading up to September 20, feast day of the island’s patron saint, Candida. When I arrived on Ventotene, the celebrations had concluded by just a few days, and the atmosphere was thrilling and blustery yet calm, with few tourists in sight. Just the odd sea view or two to whet your appetite (I couldn’t resist!):

the view from tiny Ventotene of even tinier Santo Stefano

the view from tiny Ventotene of even tinier Santo Stefano

Fresh Fig & Blue Cheese Crostini

sweet figs & savory blue

sweet figs & savory blue

Today I was reading about pairing herbs and fruits, which turned into the inspiration for today’s lunch.

Let the cheese warm to room temp. If it’s a very hard and crumbly blue, cream it together with some mascarpone or crème fraîche until it’s spreadable but still a bit chunky. Slice the figs delicately. Grill the bread, spread the blue cheese mixture over each and top with the fruit and fresh thyme.

Cherry Tomato & Zucchini Flower Tart

Hello. I'm your new favorite tart

Hello. I’m your new favorite tart.

Ingredients

for the pastry:
1 & 1/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup very cold butter
ice water

for the topping:
1 large or 2 small zucchini
2-3 zucchini flowers
1 handful cherry tomatoes (about 7-8)
1 egg
3 heaping Tbls fresh ricotta
1 Tbls fresh thyme leaves
2-3 Tbls grated parmigiano or pecorino romano
salt & pepper

Instructions

Make the pastry crust first. Combine the flour and salt in a bowl. Chunk in the butter with a knife or try my own favorite method: put the butter in the freezer for about 5 minutes then grate it into the flour using the large holes of a cheese grater. Crumble the butter into the flour with your fingers until you have a uniform crumbly mixture. Add a few spoonfuls of the ice water and continue combining with your fingers. Keep adding water and blending until a dough forms. Transfer to a flour-covered work surface and knead lightly and quickly. Form a ball and close it in plastic wrap and put in the fridge.

Cut the cherry tomatoes into quarters. Slice the zucchini into very thin strips (I used the slicer of the cheese grater). Gently clean the flowers and cut them in half length-wise. Whisk the ricotta and egg together with 1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper.

Heat the oven to 180° C / 350° F.  Roll out the pastry to about 1/8 inch thickness and cover the bottom of a 10″ or 12″ pie dish or cake pan with a spring form release. I used the latter, after having lined the bottom and trimmed the excess pastry from the edge. Spread the ricotta and egg mixture evenly across the crust, then arrange the tomato and zucchini slices and flowers as you prefer, gently pressing the ingredients into the soft mixure. Dust with another bit of salt and pepper and sprinkle with the fresh thyme and grated cheese. Bake for 20 minutes. The flowers and thyme will crisp and turn brown, so you could add those ingredients to the tart half-way through the cooking time to maintain their color (they will be softer, too). Let cool slightly before releasing the spring form and serving.

Zucchini Butter Crostini with Flowers

better than butter. almost.

crunchy, savory, buttery, cheesy crostini

I came across this recipe for zucchini butter today courtesy of Jennie Cook’s column ‘Weeknights with Jenny’ at Food52, a class act food and recipe resource you should definitely know if you don’t already. I modified Cook’s recipe only slightly (and halved it), then served it on grilled bread with a sprinkle of grated parmigiano and zucchini flowers. Viva l’estate!

Ingredients for 4 crostini

4 slices of Tuscan or other firm bread
3 or 4 medium-large zucchini (about 1 pound)
2 garlic cloves
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
4 zucchini flowers
salt & pepper

Instructions

Grate the zucchini using the large holes of the grater and place in a colander. Dust with salt and toss to cover all the zucchini and let rest over a bowl for 15 minutes, squeezing periodically with your hands to express the liquid. After 15 minutes wring out the final bit of liquid with a clean towel or paper towels.

Mince the garlic. Heat the butter in a large saucepan. Add the garlic and cook for a minute. Add the zucchini and combine well. Cook over medium heat for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the veg becomes very soft and like ‘a nice vegetable jam’ (you are basically carmelizing the zucchini). Turn off the heat, correct for salt, grind in some black pepper, stir and let rest.

Grill the bread on a regular grill or in grill pan. Spread a scoop of the zucchini butter on each slice, and top with a fresh zucchini flower and a sprinkle of the cheese. Then transfer the crostini to a very hot oven on the grill setting for a few minutes to melt the cheese and crisp the flowers.

Pasta alla Caprese with Mozzarella di Bufala

caprese

…just a caprese salad with added pasta…

Ingredients for 4 servings

350 grams of pasta (such as penne, fusilli, or bowties)
4 or 5 medium-large round tomatoes
1 or 2 garlic cloves
1 small fresh red chili pepper
1 large buffalo mozzarella (about 300 grams/10-11 ounces)
fresh basil
dried oregano
salt
olive oil

Instructions

Make the salad while the pasta water boils. Chop the tomato into cubes and place the pieces in a colander (one with fairly large holes, not the fine mesh type). Dust the tomato pieces generously with salt, gently toss to get all the pieces covered, and let rest for 15 minutes (on a plate or over the sink, since liquid will be draining out from the tomato). Meanwhile, mince the garlic and chili pepper and cut the mozzarella into chunks roughly the size of the tomato cubes. Roughly chop 4 or 5 basil leaves.

Shake the tomatoes over the sink (while still in the colander) so that all the liquid expressed from the salting and most of the seeds drain through. Place the tomato, mozzarella, garlic, pepper, and basil in a large bowl, drizzle with olive oil, and stir well. Cook the pasta al dente and when drained and slightly cooled add to the bowl of salad. Toss well and serve with a sprinkling of dried oregano and (optional) grated Parmesan cheese. Can also be served chilled, like a pasta salad.

Fried Bavette with Bottarga & Tomato Sorbet

You will love me

I put the marvel in marvelous.

I’m not usually one to brag, but I’m afraid it would be altogether disingenuous of me to describe this dish as anything less than marvelous. You can use spaghetti, linguine, or bucatini in place of bavette pasta. Just be sure to drain the pasta as soon as it’s al dente. Make the tomato sorbet a couple hours prior. If you can’t get any bottarga, use grated cheese instead.

Ingredients for 4 people

350 grams of long pasta, such as bavette or spaghetti
125 grams (½ cup) tomato pulp (premade is fine)
grated bottarga (or grated parmesan or ricotta salata)
olive oil
fresh basil
tomato sorbet
salt & pepper

Instructions

Cook the pasta al dente (and not a second more!), drain, and return to the pot, adding a few tablespoons of olive oil, the tomato pulp, some chopped fresh basil, salt and pepper. Stir well so all the pasta is covered. Heat a generous amount of olive oil in a non-stick or iron pan. With a ladle, scoop a serving of the cooked pasta and, using a fork or large kitchen pincers, twirl the pasta until you have a neat, round ‘basket’ or ‘nest’ shape. You can make 4 largish baskets or 6 to 8 smaller ones. Very carefully transfer the pasta ‘basket’ to the hot oil. Fry on one side for a couple minutes, until the bottom is brown and crunchy. Turn, only once, very carefully, to fry the top side. (nb: this is my method; you could also use enough frying oil to fully submerge the pasta baskets, thus eliminating the need to flip them.) When the fried pasta is ready, transfer to the serving plate. Dust with grated bottarga (or cheese) and top with a small scoop of the tomato sorbet. Garnish with a basil leaf or two.

Lavender Sorbet

yummy & gorgeous

sorbetto alla lavanda

Depending on where you live, the early days of July could be late for fresh lavender, but if you happen to have any lovely purple buds still left on your plants, here’s a refreshing sorbet recipe to try. Bring 3 cups of water to a boil and add 10 to 12 lavender buds with about 3/4 cups plain white sugar. Turn off the heat, stir well, and let the mixture cool for at least 15 minutes. Strain the mixture and transfer it to a ceramic or metal container (ideally one that’s been in the freezer for about 30 minutes prior). Fork up the mixture every now and then. It should be ready after about 3 hours. When you serve this sorbet, you’ll notice that the natural color leaves a bit to be desired: it’s almost a dark grey. An entirely optional trick is to dust the sorbet with colored sugar made by blending blue and red food coloring into a few teaspoons of white sugar.