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How to Steam and Pick Blue Crabs, Maryland Style

If you’ve ever been to Maryland, you know that steamed blue crabs are as common there as lobsters in Maine, or crawfish in New Orleans. Crab houses abound, where you sit down to a table covered with brown paper, waiting for the spicy, steaming crabs to be dumped in the center. A few pitchers of beer or iced tea and plenty of napkins are also required for the full experience.

You can also make steamed crabs Maryland-style at home with minimal effort, provided you live along the Western Atlantic seacoast, the only place where you can find blue crabs.

And when you do find them, they’re not inexpensive, especially the larger size, that can cost about $60 a dozen. Still, if you have the opportunity to buy them, give this a try. They’re delicious, and “picking” crabs while quaffing some beers is a fun way to pass a couple of hours with friends.

Only a couple of ingredients (other than the crabs) are necessary – coarse salt and Old Bay seasoning. Mix them together in a bowl. The proportions are up to you – the more seasoning, the spicier the crabs will be.

Using a pair of tongs, (be careful, those claws can really nip you!), place the raw crabs in a steamer basket or colander, sprinkling a generous layer of the coarse salt and Old Bay over the crabs. Continue layering until the steamer basket is full.

Pour a bottle or two of beer at the bottom of a large pot. Some people use water instead of beer, and some add a bit of vinegar to the liquid. My colander rested just right on the lip of the pot, but with the crabs mounted high in the colander, there was no lid deep enough to fit above the crabs. So I improvised and turned another pot upside down over the colander. The crabs should never be immersed in the liquid, or you’ll have soggy crabmeat.

Steam the crabs on high heat for about 20 minutes.

Cover the table with brown paper (I used cut-up brown paper bags) and dump the crabs in the center of the table.

Now comes the tricky part, the “picking.” But when you’ve done it once or twice, it becomes easy. The first time I ate these, decades ago with friends Kathy and Cliff who live in Maryland, my lips got hotter and hotter from all the Old Bay seasoning, until Cliff demonstrated the right way to “pick” crabs, doing some of the work for me, and handing me the choice backfin pieces.

But I have long since learned to pick crabs and you can too.

 Take a butterknife and stick it under the back of the crab as in the photo below. Then holding the crab in one hand and the knife in the other, lift the body of the crab away from the “apron.”

The apron will come off in one piece, but you still have some cleaning to do.

You need to pull off the gills, those feathery things on either side of the body. I also remove the “mustard,” the yellowish-greenish viscera that’s  part of the digestive system. Some people love it, but I find it gross, so I get rid of it too.

Using both hands, snap the body in two. Then pull the claws off if you haven’t already done so.

The best part of the crab is the backfin meat, and if you practice you can take it out in one large piece. Put your finger on the wide part of the crab body and press gently while pushing upward.

The backfin meat should come out in one piece, but it may take a few tries till you get the hang of it.

Keep picking away at the main body, discarding any shells and cartilage, eating along the way. (Some people serve melted butter with these, but that seems unnecessary to me.) When you get to the claws, you’ll need a mallet and a small knife to help pry the meat loose. (Sorry, I forgot to take pictures of cracking the claws.) Just be careful not to bang too hard on the shell or you’ll end up splintering it into the flesh of the crab.

When you’re all done, gather up all the brown paper and throw everything into the garbage can. Hopefully pick up will come in the next day or two or you’ll have all the local cats hovering over your trash can.

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Fig and Almond Crostata

It’s fig season here in the Northeastern U.S., and if you don’t have your own fig, there are plenty of markets selling different varieties of these luscious fruits. I had about a dozen that were ready to eat and decided to make a free-form crostata for dessert, poaching the figs first in port wine, honey and cinnamon. They’re delicious poached in red wine too, but if you have port wine, it’s a perfect match accompaniment to figs.

The figs become a little moister after poaching, which could make the pastry soggy, so I scattered a layer of sliced almonds as a bed for the figs, to act as a barrier and also give more texture and flavor.

Drain the figs from the poaching liquid and place them carefully over the almonds.

Gather the pastry around the edges, pinching to form a border. Brush with beaten egg, or some milk.

After it comes out of the oven, spread some of the reduced glaze over the top.

It’s delicious just as is, but a bit of ice cream always makes things better.

Fig and Almond Crostata
 
 
Ingredients
  • Serves two to four people (easily doubled to serve eight)
  • 10 to 12 figs, cut in half
  • ½ cup Port wine
  • ¼ cup honey
  • 3 Tablespoons sugar
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • ¼ cup sliced almonds
  • For the Pastry:
  • ½ cup flour
  • 4 Tablespoons butter
  • 1 Tablespoon sugar
  • a pinch of salt
  • 3 or 4 tablespoons ice water, as needed
Instructions
  1. Bring the Port wine, honey, sugar and cinnamon stick to a boil in a saucepan.
  2. Lower the heat and add the figs. Let the figs simmer for about 5-10 minutes, depending on how ripe the figs are.
  3. Don't let them poach so long that they lose shape.
  4. Drain the figs and set aside.
  5. Meanwhile, turn the heat to high and let the Port wine mixture reduce to about half or until about the consistency of honey.
  6. Don't forget the solution will be runnier when it's hot, but thickens when cooled.
  7. Mix the flour, sugar, salt and butter in a food processor, until it resembles coarse sand. Add the ice water until it starts to hold together. Bring it out onto a board and roll into a ball. Flatten the ball, wrap in plastic and put it in the refrigerator for about a half hour to an hour.
  8. Remove from refrigerator and roll over a floured surface to a circle with a circumference of about 10-12 inches.
  9. Scatter the almonds over the center of the dough, leaving a border of about two inches.
  10. Place the poached figs over the almonds, then fold the pastry over the figs, pinching toward the edges to form a border.
  11. Brush the border with either beaten egg, or milk.
  12. Bake at 400 degrees for about 25-30 minutes or until browned.
  13. Remove from oven, and brush the reduced port wine glaze over the figs.
  14. If the glaze is too thick, put it back on the heat for a few minutes, adding a bit of water if necessary.
 

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Seared Scallops and Corn and giveaway winner

I was at a restaurant recently with an out-of-town friend who ordered scallops for dinner. They arrived looking pale, small, and sitting in a pool of insipid liquid, which was almost unforgivable, given how easy it is to get a good sear and add flavor to scallops with some butter and seasonings.

I’d like to invite her back and cook this recipe for her, especially while corn is at its peak and the scallops at our fish market are particularly fresh right now. We’ve had great corn this summer in New Jersey, but we purchased this delicious sweet corn at a farm stand in upstate New York last week, on our way home from the Glimmerglass Music Festival (where we also got a flat tire in the middle of nowhere, but that’s another story).

We could have eaten like normal humans and limited ourselves to one ear of corn each, but what the heck – why not cook all four ears of corn. We could always reheat the leftovers, right? (Wrong, we scarfed them all down in one sitting!)

It’s easy enough to slice the kernels from the cob with a sharp knife.

Sauté the peppers, corn and tomatoes in a skillet with some butter and olive oil, along with the seasonings.

Meanwhile, use a large cast iron skillet to sear the scallops. Heat it until it’s screaming hot, then add the oil and butter. By the way, try to find the largest scallops you can. That way, you’ll be able to get a nice sear on the outside without overcooking the inside. Make sure you dry the scallops thoroughly with paper towels to avoid any moisture from oozing out. If your scallops have too much moisture, or if you crowd too many in a pan, you could end up “steaming” them instead of searing them.

Sometimes, the scallops you buy are so filled with moisture, you wonder if the fish sellers injected them with water to make them weigh more. But these scallops, from our local fish market at the Jersey shore, were large, exceedingly fresh, and not at all weighted down with water. They sautéed beautifully in a minimal amount of fat (about 1 tablespoon of butter and one tablespoon of olive oil). But feel free to add a little more butter if you’re feeling indulgent. There are few things as delicious as browned butter over sautéed scallops.

The whole dish takes less than 30 minutes to put together, from scraping the corn off the cob to presenting it at table. We ate this as a regular weeknight dinner, but it’s certainly company worthy too.

Don’t you agree?

The inside of the scallop is still moist, while the outside is well seared to a buttery goodness.

And now, for the winner of the giveaway in my last post about lobster fra diavolo  and as my way of saying thank you to one of my readers as I celebrate 10 years of blogging, ta da … drum roll please!!!  Sarah Zimmerman, you’re the winner of the $100 Lobstergram gift certificate, selected by a computer driven, random number generator. Look for the gift certificate in your email.

Thanks to all of you who left comments and have been reading Ciao Chow Linda through the years. To see what’s cooking in my kitchen, or what other adventures I’m up to, connect with me on my Instagram page here.

Seared Scallops and Corn
 
 
Ingredients
  • 10 large scallops (or about ¾ pound)
  • 2 T. olive oil
  • 2 T. butter (or more if you like)
  • salt, pepper
  • 4 ears corn (or two unless you are a glutton like us)
  • ½ green bell pepper, mined
  • about a dozen red and yellow cherry tomatoes, cut in half.
  • fresh chives
  • fresh parsley
Instructions
  1. Strip the corn off the cob using a knife.
  2. Add one tablespoon butter and one tablespoon oil to a skillet and add the minced green pepper.
  3. Saute for a couple of minutes, then add the tomatoes and corn kernels.
  4. Season with salt, pepper and snippets of fresh chives and add another tablespoon of butter if desired.
  5. Cook the corn mixture over low to medium heat for two or three minutes while you sear the scallops.
  6. Make sure you buy the largest scallops you can find to ensure you get a good sear without overcooking the interior.
  7. Dry the scallops on all sides with a paper towel.
  8. Heat a large cast iron skillet until it's really, really hot.
  9. Add one tablespoon of oil and one tablespoon butter to the pan, then add the thoroughly dried scallops.
  10. Do not overcrowd or you risk "steaming" the scallops.
  11. Let them sear on one side for a couple of minutes only.
  12. Then flip and sear on the other side.
  13. When the scallops are almost finished cooking, transfer the corn mixture to a platter.
  14. Remove scallops from skillet and place over the corn.
  15. Pour any butter/oil left in the pan over the scallops.
  16. Decorate with a couple of strands of fresh chives.
 

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Lobster Fra Diavolo, 10 Years of Blogging, and a Giveaway

I don’t know about you, but I can’t get my fill of lobster – whether it’s steamed and dipped in butter, or whether it’s lobster fra diavolo, as in this recipe. Some people claim it’s an Italian American invention, but I’m not so sure, after eating it several times on my recent trip to Italy, including one night in Rome with this version:

And a couple of times in Sardinia, as in this interpretation:

and this one below. In Italy, they’re called astice, the Mediterranean version of North American lobsters. Italy also has aragosta, similar to North American lobsters, but without the large claws.

When we returned back to the states, I was determined to make this dish at home. It’s not at all hard to make, but can be pricey depending on the size of the lobsters. But it’s a great meal for a special occasion and can be partly prepared ahead of time, making it easy for entertaining.

A few weeks before making the lobster fra diavolo, we enjoyed a Fourth of July steamed lobster feast with friends, from which I saved and froze some of the carcasses. The broth you can make from these adds a great depth of flavor to the lobster fra diavolo, but if you don’t want to fuss with it (or don’t have the lobster shells ahead of time), use bottled clam juice. I simmered this broth for a couple of hours before straining through cheesecloth. It made way more than I needed for this recipe, so I froze the rest, to be used for other recipes in the future, such as a lobster or shrimp bisque.

I love the sweetness of cherry tomatoes and there were an abundance of them in our garden, so for the sauce, I roasted a bunch with some olive oil at 425 degrees for about 20 minutes, until they split open.

If you don’t want to use fresh cherry tomatoes, or don’t have any, use the canned. The ones packed in Italy are so deliciously sweet, I like to keep a few cans on hand for other recipes too, like my codfish and chickpeas in tomato sauce.

Follow the instructions for the sauce in the recipe below, and simmer for about an hour. You can even do this the day before.

The best way to make this dish is with fresh lobsters. If you don’t have fresh lobsters near where you live, then frozen lobster tails will make a nice substitute. If you do live near a good fish store, your fishmonger can use a knife to quickly dispatch the live lobsters, then clean them and split the tails in two. I also asked him to break off the tails and claws from the main body, and crack the claws so it would be easier to remove the meat once the dish was served. He was more than happy to do it.

When the sauce is cooked, add the lobster pieces. In the time it takes to boil the water for the pasta, the lobster pieces will be cooked. Remove the lobster pieces to a dish and keep covered to stay warm, then add the pasta to the sauce and mix. Place the pasta in a serving bowl and surround with the warm lobster pieces.

Provide plenty of napkins and some way to crack the shells further, if they don’t open enough.

Eating this dish was almost like being back in Italy (almost).

Buon appetito.

And now for the blogiversary and giveaway. Hard to believe that ten years have gone by since I started this blog. I’ve taken a few breaks from blogging now and then when life has thrown me a curve ball, but even then, getting back to blogging has been a catharsis for me. I’ve met so many wonderful people in person because of Ciao Chow Linda, and it has given me a forum to showcase a few things I love doing – traveling, cooking, writing and taking photographs.

In the beginning, my only readers were family, but through the years, so many of you have come aboard the Ciao Chow Linda train and left comments, or sent me emails and I am eternally grateful for your support. I read all of them and they really encourage me to keep doing what I love best.

As a thank you to one of you (I wish I could do this for all of you), I’m offering a giveaway of a $100 gift card to LobsterGram, so you’ll be able to make this lobster fra diavolo or any other recipe you like, using fresh live lobsters sent directly from Maine. All you have to do is leave a comment on the blog telling me what recipe you’d like to see on Ciao Chow Linda (NOT by email), with a way to contact you if you’re chosen (by a computer generated random number). To increase your chances of winning, follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Pinterest, and say so in the comments.

Good Luck!

 

Lobster Fra Diavolo
 
 
Ingredients
  • To Make The Lobster Broth (This will make a lot and you can freeze what you don't need. Alternatively, you could buy bottled clam juice.):
  • lobster shells from 2 or three lobsters
  • water to cover amply
  • 2 celery sticks
  • 1 or 2 carrots
  • 1 onion
  • a couple of bay leaves
  • salt, pepper
  • To Make the Sauce (This makes more than you'll need for 1 pound of pasta, but you can freeze what you don't use.)
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • ¼ cup minced onion
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 carrot, grated
  • 1 celery stick, minced
  • 3 cans cherry tomatoes (14 ounce cans) - or an equivalent amount of freshly roasted cherry tomatoes
  • 1 cup tomato puree
  • ½ cup dry white or red wine
  • salt, pepper
  • fresh basil
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • dried red pepper flakes, to taste
  • ¼ to ½ cup lobster broth
  • 2 1½ pound lobsters
  • 1 pound linguini or spaghetti
Instructions
  1. Buy two fresh lobsters and ask your fish monger to kill them while they are still alive.
  2. If you don't have access to fresh lobster, you can always use frozen (and thawed) lobster tails, but fresh is always best.
  3. Have the fish monger remove and crack the claws, and break off the tail, then cut it in half lengthwise.
  4. You won't need the part with the lungs and there is so little meat in the legs (also impossible to extract), so don't bother with those.
  5. Make the lobster broth by placing the lobster shells, onion, carrot, celery, bay leaf, salt and pepper in a large pot, covering amply with water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for a couple of hours and reduce slightly to let the flavors intensify.
  6. Drain through a cheesecloth, discarding all but the broth.
  7. You will need only a small part of this broth.
  8. Save the rest to make other recipes, including lobster or shrimp bisque.
  9. To Make the Sauce:
  10. Sauté the onion in the olive oil until soft.
  11. Add the garlic, celery and carrots and sauté over low heat until softened.
  12. Add the tomatoes, the puree, the wine and seasonings and let simmer for about an hour.
  13. Remove about 1½ cups - 2 cups of the sauce and set aside.
  14. You may want to add some back to the pot later when you add the pasta, but you should have enough to put some in the freezer later for another recipe.
  15. To the remainder of the sauce in the pan, add the lobster broth.
  16. Simmer for another 20 minutes.
  17. Add the lobster pieces to the sauce and cook with the sauce over low to medium heat, with the lid on.
  18. While the lobster is cooking, cook the pasta in boiling (salted) water until al dente.
  19. When the pasta is nearly cooked, remove the lobsters from the sauce and set aside on a covered dish.
  20. Drain the pasta, and add it to the pot with the sauce.
  21. Swirl the pasta in the sauce, allowing it to absorb all the flavors.
  22. The pasta should have enough sauce to cover, but not be swimming in sauce.
  23. If necessary, add some of the reserved sauce.
  24. Place the pasta in a serving bowl or dish, and place the lobster pieces all around.
  25. Serve at once.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pescaturismo and Grilled Fish

You’ve probably all heard about agriturismo, but do you know what pescaturismo is? The photo above might give you some clue, but if you’re still unsure, another hint comes from the word “pescare” which means “to fish” in Italian.

On our recent trip to Sardinia, we spent a day at sea aboard the Pescaturismo Sampey fishing boat with owners Gemi and Ignazina, (and their nephew Davide) as they hauled in their fishing nets and cooked the day’s catch for us and five other people.

You never know what’s going to appear as the nets get yanked from the sea. On this day it was lots of cuttlefish (similar to squid).

But there were also plenty of finned fish, such as red mullet and sea bass.

I was hoping for some octopus, which is what happened when I took this trip with Ignazina and Gemi 12 years ago, but the sole octopus that got snared in the net managed to escape while being hauled aboard.

There were still plenty of other fish for us to eat, and for Ignazina to remove from the net!

Gemi, Igna and  Davide worked on extracting the fish from the net, cleaning and cooking them, as we were moored off the coast of a small island. Note the flag on the boat, which is the traditional flag of the island, featuring the four moors.

While they did all the work, we were free to jump off the boat, swim and snorkel in the beautiful clear, turquoise waters.

We were summoned back on board for lunch, starting with tomato bruschetta.

Several fish courses followed, cooked in Ignazina’s tiny galley kitchen, including braised cuttlefish.

She also made a seafood risotto, sprinkled with bottarga (fish roe) on top.

Ignazina used some of the whole fish for a seafood stew.

Gemi cooked the rest of the whole fish on a portable grill. We couldn’t have had seafood any fresher unless we had eaten them raw while we were in the water. All this accompanied by limitless wine, homemade limoncello and mirto (blueberry liqueur), and fruit for dessert.

If you’re ever in Southern Sardinia with a day to spare and are looking for something unusual to do, try a day out at sea with Gemi and Ignazina. Their friendliness and hospitality are a great calling card for this beautiful island.

Trying to keep the Sardinia glow alive back at home in New Jersey, I found this two pound sea bass at the local fish store, caught that morning off the coast of our summer home. I smeared the aluminum pan with olive oil, added some herbs inside the fish cavity, scattered some lemon slices and onions around the fish, then my husband cooked it on the outdoor grill.

Filleting a whole fish can be intimidating to some, but once you’ve done it, (directions here), it’s not so difficult.

Besides, when you buy the whole fish, you get the advantage of scooping out the fish cheeks (the small piece on the fork, below) – the most tender and succulent part of all.

I may be far from the crystal clear waters surrounding Sardinia, but I can conjure up those memories at home eating grilled fish, while I remember diving off the side of the Sampey boat.

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Fried Sweet Ricotta Ravioli (Culurgioneddus Di Arrescottu)

This platter of cookies was the perfect ending to a fabulous meal at Agriturismo Sa Marighedda on our recent trip to Sardinia (recipe at the end of the post).  If you don’t know what an agriturismo is, let me explain. It’s sometimes a place to stay where the owners live, often on a working farm. It’s sometimes a place where the owners invite the public in for a meal using products grown or raised on site.

In this case, it was a restaurant next door to the owner’s home, and everything was homemade, from the cured meats, to the wine and liqueurs and everything in between. They offer a multi-course meal for a grand total of about 30 euros, or about $40.00 U.S. per person – a real bargain, especially considering the quality of the food and they even offer seconds of all the courses — if you have room in your stomach.

The owners, Mara and Roberto, work hard to deliver an authentic Sardinian meal and make you feel like  you’re sitting down to Sunday pranzo at their home. That is, if you’re in the habit of eating what seemed like non-stop courses – all of which were delicious. Families are most welcome here, and there’s even a playground for children who might feel a lightly antsy sitting at a table for two or three hours.

We were seated and immediately served a platter of homemade affettati (cured meats), olives and wine – all made in house and all wonderful.

Next came a frittata-like course, with zucchini dotting the egg and cheese mixture.

Then came savory pockets filled with seasoned raw tomatoes.  Think of tomato bruschetta, but with a flaky pastry dough instead of toasted bread.

We moved on to primo piatto, or in this case, primi piatti, since there were two first courses — one of malloreddus with sausage (see my last blog post here for the recipe),

And another of culurgiones, a typical Sardinian pasta similar to a fat ravioli, but filled with potatoes, pecorino cheese and mint.

We could easily have eaten seconds on any of these foods, but we knew there was still plenty to come, including the main event — roast suckling pig — cooked on an open spit.

Sardinia is surrounded by water and we ate fish nearly every night, but the interior of the island especially, is known for its delicious roast pig, and we were not disappointed in this juicy and flavorful rendition.

Before the main dessert arrived, we were presented with these small and juicy plums. They were just the right palate cleanser before moving to sweeter offerings.

I also wanted to show you these breads that are also traditional Sardinian shapes, using scissors and other implements to cut the dough.

Here are some of the implements Mara uses to make the breads and the cookies:

Aren’t they lovely with those scalloped, fringed edges? After they’re shaped, they get deep-fried and sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar.

But we still weren’t finished after the cookie assortment. There was mirto (homemade blueberry liqueur) and grappa to taste. Fortunately, we didn’t have far to drive to get back to our hotel, after this abundant feast.

Thank you Mara and Roberto for your hospitality and the authentic flavor of Sardinian cuisine.

Mara was kind enough to give me her recipe for the ricotta ravioli (called culurgioneddus de arrescottu in Sardinian dialect) and you’ll find it below:

Culurgiones Di Arrescottu (Fried Ricotta Ravioli)
 
 
Ingredients
  • For the Filling:
  • 2.2 lbs.(1 kilo) ricotta (preferably sheep's milk)
  • 1 whole egg and one egg yolk
  • 1 cup (200 grams) sugar
  • 1 pinch of saffron (one of those waxed sleeves you buy in Italian grocery stores)
  • grated rind of two lemons, preferably organic
  • For the dough:
  • 5½ cups 00 flour (700 grams)
  • 2¼ cups (300 grams) semolina flour
  • water, as needed
  • ½ cup sugar (100 grams)
  • 1 cup lard or vegetable shortening - (200 grams)
  • confectioner's sugar or honey, to finish
Instructions
  1. Mix all the ingredients for the filling well until it is creamy, then set aside as you prepare the dough.
  2. Mix the 00 flour, semolina, sugar and lard (or shortening) together, and add just enough water until it comes together in a ball.
  3. Roll out the dough thinly, add some of the filling along a row of the dough, closing with another layer of dough, and cutting it out with a ravioli cutter.
  4. Fry the ravioli in hot oil, drain on paper towels, and when cool, sprinkle with confectioner's sugar, or drizzle with honey.
 

Malloreddus alla Campidanese

 

If there’s one dish that’s synonymous with Sardinia, it’s the pasta called “malloreddus.” They’re similar in shape to cavatelli or gnocchi, and in fact you can find them in Italian specialty food stores labeled “gnocchetti Sardi.” But unlike gnocchi, no potatoes are used — just flour and water. And unlike cavatelli, they’re made with semolina flour, not regular flour, giving them a more “toothy” feel.

Depending on whom you ask, the word malloreddus is a diminutive of a Southern Sardinian word “malloru,” which translates to “chubby baby calves.” Another explanation (that makes more sense to me) is that it comes from the Latin word “mallolus” meaning “morsel.” Either way, they are delicious.

You can make the pasta at home using flour, water (and sometimes strands of saffron), but if you’re not up to the challenge, you can buy them in stores or online too.

I ate malloreddus several times during our recent trip to Sardinia, including at an agriturismo, where they were one of two pasta dishes served as primi piatti. The malloreddus are on the right, and a specialty pasta stuffed with potato called “culurgiones” is on the left. More on the agriturismo and the wonderful meal we ate there in another post.

A classic Sardinian recipe, served at all special occasions or for family dinners, is malloreddus alla Campidanese, using saffron in the sauce, rather than in the dough itself, and sausage. In Sardinia, the dish is as ubiquitous as pecorino cheese, another essential ingredient when serving this pasta.

If you use store purchased malloreddus, the dish comes together quickly, and is a real crowd pleaser, even if the crowd is just you and your husband!

Before leaving Sardinian, I want to introduce you to another symbol of this beautiful island in the Mediterranean Sea. It’s the structure called “nuraghe.” Nuraghi (plural of nuraghe) were built between 1900 and 730 BCE (way back in the Bronze Age) by peoples of the Nuragic civilization, of which little is known. There’s no consensus on what these stone structures were used for, but many believe they were used for either military purposes, as homes for rulers or ordinary people, for religious rites or a combination of the above.

It is thought that there were once 10,000 Nuraghi scattered across Sardinia, and the remains of about 7,000 nuraghi can still be found. However, it’s dangerous to visit many on your own because of hazardous conditions. (You wouldn’t want to have huge boulders fall on you!) The one pictured below, Su Nuraxi at Barumini, in the south-central part of the island, is well maintained, however, and a guide takes you through the various levels describing the structure.

You’ll need little guidance however, to dig into this dish of malloreddus all campidanese, so I hope you give it a try:

Malloreddus alla Campidanese
 
 
Ingredients
  • 1 pound malloreddus pasta
  • ¾ pound sausage
  • 3 T. olive oil
  • ¼ cup minced onion
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 3 cups tomato pureé
  • a few strands of saffron
  • 2 T. water
  • ¼ cup red wine
  • a few fresh basil leaves (or a t. of dried basil)
  • salt, pepper
  • grated pecorino cheese
Instructions
  1. Soak the saffron strands in a tablespoon or two of warm water.
  2. Remove the casings from the sausage and sauté it in the olive oil, breaking it up into small pieces.
  3. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until softened.
  4. Add the tomato puree, the wine, the saffron and the water, the basil, salt and pepper.
  5. Simmer all together for about ½ hour to 45 minutes.
  6. Boil the pasta and add the ragu a little at a time, making sure you don't "drown" the pasta in sauce.
  7. Sprinkle grated pecorino on top before serving.
 

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Gnocchi in Pecorino Sauce with Guanciale

For those of you receiving these posts by email, I’m sorry about the funky formatting of the last entry. Due to computer problems, I had to create the post on my iPad, and obviously, I found out there are limitations to that platform. Hopefully this post, written on my new computer (yea!) has come through without any problems in viewing. To read my last post about pecorino di Pienza cheese, go to the actual site, http://ciaochowlinda.com.

Continuing on the pecorino theme, if you’re looking for heaven on a plate, have I got a recipe for you. These light as a cloud potato dumplings, served with guanciale and arugula in a creamy pecorino cheese sauce, were so divine, I was wishing I ordered a full portion for myself, instead of splitting it with my husband.

We ate these gnocchi as our primo piatto on a recent trip to Sardinia, at the restaurant in our hotel, La Villa Del Re.  After having tried a couple of other restaurants off site, we concluded that the hotel’s restaurant was unparalleled in its excellent cuisine. The chef here, Marco Granato, has a magic touch. Everything about this small hotel (adults only) along the Tyrrhenian Sea defines it as a special place, and one we can’t wait to go back to.

The food, the hospitality and the service are exceptional here and the views are stunning too. All the meals we enjoyed at this dreamy hotel along Sardinia’s Costa Del Rei were delicious and beautifully presented –

From breakfast with a view of the infinity swimming pool and the sea:

To the cakes and scones at the daily tea time:

To the toothsome homemade pastas:

To the main courses:

And desserts:

To the drinks and munchies by the sea.

The view from the private beach was pretty special too – with a sea that looked like it was painted by a watercolorist.

I’m still wondering if it was all just a dream. If so, don’t wake me up!

Just in case you can’t get to La Villa Del Re anytime soon, here’s that heavenly gnocchi recipe for you, courtesy of Marco Granato, La Villa Del Re’s talented chef.

More recipes and fun adventures from Sardinia to follow in future posts.

Gnocchi in Pecorino Sauce with Guanciale
 
Author:
Serves: serves 10
 
Ingredients
  • For the Gnocchi:
  • 1000 grams (2.2 pounds) boiled potatoes
  • 500 grams (about 3½ cups) flour
  • 50 grams fecola (about ⅓ cup potato starch)
  • 3 eggs
  • salt
  • For the Pecorino Sauce:
  • 350 grams (about 1¾ cup) milk
  • 200 grams (about 1 cup) mild pecorino cheese
  • 20 grams (1½ T.) flour
  • 20 grams ( 1½ T. )butter
  • salt, pepper to taste
  • For the Condiments:
  • 400 grams (small handful) arugula
  • ½ of a leek
  • 150 grams (about ⅓ pound) guanciale
  • 15 grams (1 T. ) extra virgin olive oil
  • a few sprigs of fresh thyme
  • salt, pepper to taste
Instructions
  1. To make the gnocchi:
  2. Boil the potatoes in water with the lemon peel for 20 minutes.
  3. They should be cooked on the outside, but will finish cooking in the oven, which will also dry out some of the water.
  4. After boiling, drain the potatoes and put them on a baking sheet and cook in the oven at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.
  5. After cooking, pass the hot potatoes through a potato ricer or a sieve and spread them out on a cookie sheet.
  6. Mix the riced potatoes with the flour, the fecola, the eggs and a bit of salt. Form the mixture into ropes, then cut each rope into small pieces to make the gnocchi.
  7. To Make the Pecorino Cream Sauce:
  8. Cut the cheese into small pieces, then put the butter and half the cheese into a pan over low heat until melted. Add the flour, making a roux, then add the milk, stirring constantly. Add the rest of the cheese and stir, letting the cheese melt, while adding salt and pepper to taste. If the sauce is too thick, add a bit more milk until reaching the desired consistency.
  9. To Finish:
  10. Cut the leek into small pieces.
  11. Cut the guanciale into small pieces
  12. Cook the leek in some olive oil at low heat for about 10 minutes. If it starts to turn dark, add some hot water or vegetable broth.
  13. Add the guanciale until it's slightly crunchy, then add the thyme, salt and pepper.
  14. Boil the gnocchi in salted water, then in a separate pan with the sauce, gently stir the gnocchi in the pecorino sauce. Add the cooked guanciale and the arugula and serve on warm plates.
 

Pecorino Di Pienza

When most people think of pecorino cheese, they think of pecorino romano, the sharp cheese from the region of Lazio that’s grated over pasta. But there are plenty of other places throughout Italy where pecorino cheese is made, and I visited two of them recently, one in Sicily and one in Tuscany. This post focuses on one artisanal maker of pecorino di Pienza – Giancarlo Più – in the beautiful region of Tuscany, near Mont’Amiata. (Photo below by Ben Morse)

The name pecorino derives from the word pecora in Italian, which means sheep. And Giancarlo, owner of caseificio Più, has plenty of them – 1,300 in fact, amid 300 acres of beautiful rolling pasture and farm lands.

He’s got sheepdogs too, but they’re not really there to guard the sheep, so much as to provide an early warning signal if other animals, like wild boar or foxes threaten the flock. (Photo by Ron DeCicco)

The sheep are divided into groups, and are shifted to various pastures on the property in order to graze. In the colder months, when fresh forage is not available, Giancarlo feeds them various grains such as corn and barley that were harvested earlier in the year.

The sheep are milked twice a day, using modern milking machines, and about 650 liters are collected each day.

In order to produce one kilo of cheese, it takes anywhere from 4 to 9 liters of milk, Giancarlo said. Nursing mothers and newborn babies are kept together for about a month, and their milk is not used for cheese, since it contains a high percentage of colostrum, the milk that is nutritious for newborn lambs. (Photo below by Ben Morse)

Giancarlo demonstrated how the cheese is made. First, a type of rennet is added (typically made from a young calf’s stomach), to help coagulate the milk.

The milk is heated at a temperature of about 36 degrees centigrade, and after about 20 minutes, it starts to gel. At this point, it has a mild, milky flavor, like unsweetened panna cotta. It normally gets heated longer than 20 minutes, but Giancarlo wanted to demonstrate the process for us, so he started breaking up the gelled milk into curds. To make a softer, fresh type of cheese, he makes large cuts.

For an aged cheese, the cuts are much smaller, almost the size of grains of rice. The larger cuts retain more of the liquid (or whey) which is good for soft cheeses. But an aged cheese needs to release a lot of water so it doesn’t spoil before it’s ready to be eaten.

The curdled milk is poured into plastic forms (reed baskets were traditionally used), and the liquid that remains behind – the whey – is used to make ricotta cheese.The first cheese that is formed is simply called the “cagliata semplice” and is without salt. It tastes very mild and can be eaten out of hand or used in recipes, including the one at the end of this blog post.The cheeses are then salted, and left to age, some for only a week, and others for as long as a year. The cheese tastes different each time he makes it because of all the variables, whether it’s the type of grass the sheep eat, or how soon the ewes have given birth. A ewe’s milk becomes richer and more filled with fat, the farther away from giving birth she is, leading to a more flavorful cheese.

“That’s the beauty of a small cheese producer,” said Giancarlo, in rapid-fire Italian. “You should have a surprise in your mouth every time you bite into a piece of cheese.”And what surprises were in store for us, as Giancarlo and his wife Sabrina provided us with an unforgettable afternoon of cheese tasting, accompanied by homemade salumi and pane carasau, or carta di musica (the flatbread of Sardinia), along with Sardinian wines and beer. Giancarlo instructed us to start with the youngest cheese, to take it in our hands, and sniff it, then to break it in half and smell it again.

It should give you an emotion every time you eat a piece of cheese, he said. “È una materiale viva. Ti può anche disturbare!” He said, explaining that it’s a living material that can even give you a “disturbing” sensation.Almost all the cheesemakers in this part of Tuscany are originally from Sardinia, he said, an island which also has a rich history of cheesemaking. Many Sardinians arrived in Tuscany during the 1950s and 1960s. “Sardinians found exceptional pasture lands and knew how to make the most of them,” he said. His parents emigrated from Sardinia about 20 years ago, he said.

Giancarlo was clearly smitten with farming in general, and showed us around the rest of the property, where he kept lots of other animals, including these cinta senese, the special breed of black pig with a stripe, used for making top quality prosciutto and other kinds of salumi, including those we sampled with Giancarlo.Just a few days earlier, a litter of baby pigs had been born, and Giancarlo let us hold the little sweeties, much to the delight of my daughter-in-law, Beth.

My niece’s daughter Emilia, in the arms of my son Michael, was a little skeptical of the baby goats at first, but quickly warmed to their presence.

Two of the animals with less than friendly appeal were these wild boar, although their appearance on Tuscan menus sure kept our interest.

We had such a fun-filled day and learned so much about not only cheese-making, but cheese tasting. The memories of this unforgettable experience will stay with us forever. Grazie mille, Giancarlo e Sabrina.And now for a recipe using some of that cheese. This recipe is made with the unsalted frsh sheep’s milk cheese, or cagliata semplice – not easy to find where I live, and maybe not where you live either. It is similar in taste and texture to Greek halloumi cheese, which you should have no trouble finding. The recipe is from my week long stay at the Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school in Sicily earlier this year, where chef Michael Sampson prepared these for us with the cheese from a local caseificio. Don’t dismiss this idea if you don’t think you like anchovies. It will convert you, I promise. They’re easy to make and will disappear in a flash. Just take some good bread and slice it, then place a slice of cheese (halloumi works fine if you don’t have fresh sheep’s milk cheese). Add a sliver of anchovy, a sprinkle of oregano and a drizzle of olive oil. Bake in a very hot oven (425 degrees) for a few minutes until cheese is melted and edges of bread are toasted.

Arancine

A trip to Sicily is eye-opening in so many senses, including its scenic seaside, mountainous interior, and numerous archeological sites. But Sicilian food is also sensational, including the plethora of street foods that you find in Palermo.

Arancine – stuffed and fried rice balls – are among my favorites . They’re so named because the round shape is reminiscent of an small orange, or an arancina (the singular). However, in some parts of Sicily, particularly the eastern part of the island, they’re called by the masculine noun – arancini. That could be because in the Sicilian dialect, the word for orange is aràncìu, which is masculine, like arancino (singular of arancini). You’re also more likely to find them in a conical, not spherical shape, in the eastern part of the island.

However you call them, these delicious delicacies date back to the 10th century, when Sicily was under Arab dominion, and saffron was introduced to the island. Saffron is used to flavor the rice in this recipe.

The most common type of arancina is stuffed with a meat ragù and peas, but variations abound, including my favorite, with cheese and ham as the center. The addition of béchamel, added after the béchamel has been chilled overnight and you’re able to spoon it, makes the filling even more gooey and melted after it comes out of the fryer.

We set to work making them under the guidance of Chef Michael Sampson, at the Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school, and started by wetting our hands in water to make shaping a little easier. Like the béchamel, the rice had been cooked and cooled ahead of time too.

After you’ve spread and flattened some rice on your hands, place some béchamel, a bit of cheese and bits of ham in the center, then use your fingers and hands to shape the rice into a sphere. Keep working it, and adding a bit more rice, if necessary, to close any gaps.

Then roll it gently into a combination of bread crumbs and flour.

Fry in hot oil until browned.

Wait a few minutes to bite into it so you don’t burn your mouth.

Bet you can’t eat just one!

 

Arancine
 
Author:
Cuisine: Sicilian
 
Ingredients
  • cold, cooked arborio rice to which you have added some saffron, a little parmesan cheese and butter and salt to taste.
  • For the Béchamel Sauce:
  • 2½ tablespoons of butter (40 grams)
  • ⅓ cup flour (40 grams)
  • 1 cup milk (1/2 liter)
  • salt, pepper to taste
  • ½ cup parmesan cheese (50 grams)
  • To stuff the center of the arancine:
  • provola or mozzarella cheese, cut into small cubes
  • small bits of ham (prosciutto cotto or cooked ham)
  • bread crumbs
  • hot oil to fry the arancine
  • 00 flour (or regular flour)
Instructions
  1. Prepare the cooked rice ahead of time and leave it to cool.
  2. To make the béchamel:
  3. Melt the butter and add the flour. Cook the two together a couple of minutes until sizzly, then add the milk until you get the consistency you want. Then add salt, pepper and parmesan cheese. It should be on the thick side, and it's best if you let it rest in the refrigerator overnight.
  4. Spread a large spoonful of the cooked rice in the palm of your hand. It helps if you wet your hands first.
  5. Take a spoonful of the béchamel and some of the diced ham and provoke or mozzarella cheese and place in the center of the rice that you have spread out in your other hand.
  6. Using your fingers and palm, shape the rice around the filling, into a sphere, covering all the filling.
  7. Roll the shaped arancina in a mixture of half breadcrumbs and half semolina flour.
  8. Fry in oil about 190 degrees until browned on the outside.
 

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