So far you’ve heard about the rugged, mountainous part of Abruzzo where I spent part of my vacation. But I also headed further East toward the Adriatic Sea to spend time with my husband’s relatives, including some who live in Vasto Marina, a seaside resort town. One of the unique features of this part of the coastline are the wooden trabocchi you see along the shore. In some cases, these fishing contraptions are 200 years old, but they are constantly being tweaked to repair and replace the timbers used to construct them – wood that is often taken from the robinia pseudoacacia trees that grow nearby, commonly known as black locust or false acacia. Fishing nets are secured to long wooden arms and dropped into the sea to hopefully land a good catch.
At one time, fishing from the trabocchi was the main source of income for many families. Now however, due to overfishing in deeper waters, the huts are used mainly on weekends by families who maintain them as a hobby.
There was no problem finding fish for dinner though, starting with this arrangement I ate as a first course. I can’t even remember everything that was on the plate, but it included an octopus salad, a seafood terrine, anchovies and raw salmon.
Next on tap were some gratineed scallops.
And stuffed mussels.
Couldn’t forget the fried shrimp and squid.
Followed by the piece de resistance – a San Pietro fish. I’m still not sure whether a San Pietro fish is a John Dory or a tilapia, so if someone with more knowledge knows, leave a comment at the end of this post. Whatever it is, it was delicious.
I’d like to thank Antonella, the wife of my husband’s cousin Ottavio, who treated us to this wonderful seafood dinner. Sadly, Ottavio was out of town, but we were also joined by their three young sons, Francesco, Riccardo and Luca – as well as my son Michael, who met up with me for the middle part of my trip.
Back home in Princeton, I tried to recreate two of the dishes – the mussels and the scallops. They may not have tasted exactly the same, but they’re pretty darn close and delicious in their own right – even if there aren’t any trabocchi in Princeton and the only water in sight is the bird bath in the back yard.
For two dozen mussels:
3/4 cup bread crumbs
2 cloves garlic, minced
Place all the ingredients, except the tomato sauce, in a bowl and mix with a fork until blended. It should not be dry but it shouldn’t be soppy wet either.
Bring wine to a boil in a shallow saucepan and place mussels in and cover. Cook only one or two minutes, or until the mussels are open. Remove mussels from the pan and let cool.
Once cool enough to handle, loosen the mussel from the shell. Place a spoonful of tomato sauce on one side of the shell, place the mussel on the sauce, then top with a spoonful of the filling and another dab of tomato sauce. Cover with the other side of the shell, place in an oiled casserole and bake at 425 degrees for about 15 minutes.
Use the same filling ingredients as for the mussels, (it should give you enough topping for two small casseroles or scallop shells) but add 2 Tablespoons grated parmesan cheese. Omit the egg if desired. Lightly butter scallop shells or an oven-proof dish and place a couple of scallops inside. Top with the crumbs, then sprinkle on a bit of paprika and drizzle with a bit of olive oil. Bake at 425 for about 10 to 15 minutes or until browned.
It’s Spring, it’s Spring. Finally, it’s Spring. OK, it’s drizzly and grey and ugly this morning here in central N.J., but a girl can dream, can’t she?
Daffodils, warmer weather and lighter dinner fare are a few of the things that come to mind when I think of Spring. Not to mention bathing suit season will be here before you know it. So with that horrid thought in mind, it’s time for me to start thinking lighter dinner fare, in particular seafood. While I was cruising the fish department at the supermarket the other day, the sole looked particularly fresh. I bought three pieces that weighed slightly less than 3/4 pound, more than enough for the two of us, especially considering they were stuffed with a shrimp and bread filling.
This would make a good recipe for company too, since it could easily be assembled ahead of time and placed in the refrigerator until ready to bake in the oven. Just adjust the amounts of ingredients according to the number of guests.
Fillet of Sole stuffed with shrimp
3 sole fillets – total weight about 3/4 pound
3 large shrimp
1 T. butter
3 T. roasted red, yellow or green pepper, chopped
a splash of dry white wine
1/2 cup fresh white bread crumbs
2 T. chopped parsley
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 T. butter
1/4 cup panko bread crumbs
Pat dry the sole fillets and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Place the butter in a pan and saute the shallot and celery until limp. Add the chopped pepper and shrimp and saute a few more minutes over medium heat. Add the splash of white wine and cook for another minute or so. Take the pan off the heat and add the bread crumbs, parsley, salt and pepper. Mix everything together. It should hold together loosely in a ball. To make the bread crumbs, I trimmed the crusts from three slices of stale Italian bread and put them in the food processor for a couple of minutes. You can use purchased bread crumbs if you prefer, but the texture will be different. Place a handful of stuffing over the center of the fish fillet.
Roll up both ends over the stuffing.
Place the folded side down in a buttered casserole. Pour the 1/2 cup wine around the rolled-up fillets.
Melt the 1 T. butter in a saucepan and add the panko crumbs. Divide the panko mixture over the fish and sprinkle with paprika. Bake in a 400 degree oven for 15 minutes.
Pity the poor celery root. Also known as celeriac, it must be one of the ugliest vegetables ever. I mean who wants to even pick up that gnarly tuber with all those nubby, root-like things sprouting all over it, much less cook it and eat it?
Well, I took pity on the sad vegetable and gave it a home in my kitchen. And you should too, if you’re interested in good food and new culinary adventures. It has a subtle celery flavor that pairs with nearly everything. I used only skim milk – no cream or butter in this recipe – yet it had a luscious, silky texture and was a perfect foil for the sauce oozing off the shrimp.
And for those of you avoiding carbs, this puree would be a great substitute for mashed potatoes or polenta, especially nestled beside pot roast or osso buco.
You may end up running for a Band-Aid if you’re not careful when peeling the celery root. I found it safest to trim off the thickest, nubbiest parts with a medium-sized knife in one hand, rather than a vegetable peeler, pressing down on the top of the celery root as it lay on my cutting board, rather than picking it up and trying to trim it in my hand.
8 large shrimp
1 shallot, minced
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
salt, pepper to taste
4 cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
Saute the shallot and garlic in a skillet over medium heat with the olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter, just until softened. Add the shrimp, turning the heat a little higher, and quickly saute on both sides. You don’t want to cook it all the way through just yet, just brown the outsides. Remove the shrimp from the skillet and add the cherry tomato halves to the pan. Cook for another minute or two until the tomato starts to soften. Place the shrimp back in the pan, add the wine and season with salt and pepper. Cook for another couple of minutes, until some of the liquid has evaporated and the sauce is reduced. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon butter, and swirl around on medium heat until it looks like the sauce has emulsified, or thickened. Add the lemon juice and minced parsley, swirl again over the heat and serve over the celery root puree.
Celery Root and Apple Puree
(Adapted from “A New Way to Cook” by Sally Schneider)
1 celery root, peeled and cubed (about 1 lb. to 1 1/2 lbs.)
3 cups milk (I used skim)
3/4 tsp. freshly ground sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2 Tablespoons white rice
1 apple, peeled, cored and cut into cubes
2 teaspoons unsalted butter (I omitted this)
Cook the celery root in a saucepan with the milk, (I used skim milk which works fine, but the original recipe called for 2 percent milk), salt, pepper and bring to a boil over moderate heat. Stir in the rice, lower the heat, partially cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the apples and simmer for 10 minutes longer, or until the celery root is very tender. (The milk will curdle, but the curds will be incorporated when the celery root is pureed.) Drain the mixture in a colander set over a bowl, but save the cooking liquid.
Puree the celery root in a food processor or blender until perfectly smooth, adding some of the cooking liquid if necessary. Scrape down sides until you have a fine puree. Add the butter if desired, but I left it out and it was delicious with just the drippings from the shrimp sauce. This puree is enough for four servings.
Now don’t freak out at the mention of octopus. If I hadn’t told you it was octopus in the recipe, you might think it was shrimp – or lobster. In fact, when cooked properly, octopus not only looks like bits of lobster tail, but even tastes something like it – although more tender to the bite. I’ve eaten it many times, but my favorite octopus memory happened a couple of years ago off the coast of Sardinia when we met Ignazina and Gemi, owners of a fishing boat called “Sampey” and a “Pescaturismo” business.
We were the only clients that day, so rather than give us the full day’s excursion, which included a stop for lunch at a nearby island called Cavoli, they instead invited us out to sea to watch them haul in their catch for free. More tourists were booked for the following day, so Gemi and Igna asked us to come back and they’d repeat the fishing excursion. This time, they’d include an afternoon mooring at Cavoli, a tiny spit of land where Igna and Gemi cooked the day’s catch while we explored the island and swam in the turquoise Mediterranean sea. Since then, I always think of that day when I cook octopus. I don’t thrash mine upon the rocks to tenderize it the way Igna did, but it tastes great nonetheless. Maybe not as good as what I ate that sunny day on that speck of an island, but when you can’t get to Sardinia, hey, you’ve just got to figure out some other way to recapture the moment.
Warning: Octopus shrinks A LOT during cooking, so this will not serve more than a couple of people as a main dish salad. I served it as an appetizer, along with other offerings on Christmas Eve. It was a big hit and was gobbled up in no time.
1 octopus, about 2 pounds (I bought mine fresh, but you can also use frozen.)
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium size potatoes, boiled and peeled
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup minced onion
2 cloves garlic
freshly ground black pepper
dash of red pepper flakes, optional
2 T. minced parsley, optional
The key trick to having a tender octopus is in the cooking. It’s a little daunting the first time you pick up a raw octopus but be brave and dig in. I bought one half of an octopus, already cut by the fish-monger. The next time I make this recipe, I’m going to use a whole one and double the recipe so I can have more to go around.
I have read many different techniques for cooking octopus – from slow simmers in water, to putting a cork in the water to tenderize the octopus. Others say cooking it in water can “seize up” the octopus and toughen it. This method I outline uses no water, but rather lets the octopus cook in its own liquid. It works perfectly and produces a succulent octopus. Just don’t buy baby octopus. They’re too small and chewy and you won’t get large enough pieces.
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
Put the octopus in a pan with the olive oil and no other liquid. Place over low heat, cover and cook for about 20 minutes. The octopus will have released a lot of liquid. Transfer the octopus and the liquid to a glass or pyrex baking dish and cover. Bake for about one hour. Remove it from the oven and let it cool a bit. It will be very purple in color and will have shrunk significantly. Cut off the top of the head and the little pointy sharp beak and discard. Peel away the purple skin and most of the suckers will peel off too. Rinse under cool water and pat dry. Cut into bite-sized pieces and put in a bowl.
Cut the potatoes into small pieces and add to the octopus. Make a dressing with the remaining ingredients and pour over the octopus. Serve at room temperature or slightly warm.
This has become one of our favorite Christmas eve dishes. I use shrimp, bay scallops and squid, but you can choose any combination of fish you want. And you don’t have to wait for Christmas Eve to enjoy it. It’s a great dish for company, and one of those meals that can be made and served in one pot. It’s also fun to cook while your guests are gathered in the kitchen. They can help you stir the risotto or make a salad while you take over the main chore. It’s best to have all the ingredients assembled on the counter before you start cooking the risotto. Once it gets going, you don’t want to take time to chop and slice or else the rice will burn or overcook.
This recipe serves at least six people if it’s your main meal, or at least a dozen if it’s one of many other dishes being served.
1/2 large onion, or 4 shallots, finely minced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/2 cup olive oil
4 T. butter
2 cups arborio rice
2 small packages saffron (about 1/8 t. total)
1 cup dry white wine
3 cups fish stock, or more as needed
1 pound medium-size shrimp
1 pound bay scallops
1 pound small or medium-size squid bodies, sliced into rings
2 dozen littleneck clams or cockles
1/2 cup frozen peas, thawed
1/2 cup diced roasted red peppers or cherry tomatoes, halved
salt, pepper to taste
Ahead of time, prepare the fish stock by stripping the shrimp of their shells. Put the shells in a pot with four cups of water, 1/2 an onion, 2 cloves of garlic and a bay leaf. Simmer gently for 1 hour and strain out everything, leaving only the stock. If you don’t want to bother with this step, you can use purchased fish stock.
When you are ready to make the risotto, heat the stock on one burner. On another burner, in a large pan, melt the butter, add the oil and saute the onions until translucent. Add the garlic and stir for a minute or two, then add the rice and saffron and stir for a couple of minutes. Next add the wine and stir for a couple of minutes. Start adding the hot stock, one ladle at a time, stirring while the rice absorbs the liquid. Continue stirring for about ten or fifteen minutes, adding stock periodically, until the rice is almost cooked, but still al dente. Add the seafood (except the clams) and continue to stir, adding more stock periodically. If you run out of stock, use boiling water. The cold seafood will lower the temperature somewhat and slow down the cooking time. Turn the flame higher. Once the seafood and rice start to bubble up, add the peas, diced peppers (or tomatoes) and more stock, continuing to stir until cooked. The entire cooking time should be about 20 to 25 minutes. During the last five to ten minutes of cooking, have another pot going with a shallow amount of simmering water. Place the clams in that pot and cook until they open. When the clams open, scatter them across the top of the risotto. Sprinkle all with chopped parsley.
Everyone in my family looks forward to our Christmas eve dinner – a traditional meal of many fish in lots of Italian households. When I was younger, my mother would spend countless hours preparing and frying all manner of fish – from smelts to whitings to eel. One particular episode branded in my memory involves eels and my grandfather, who lived with my parents. He brought the eels home from the market on Christmas eve, still alive and squiggling, and set about to end their lives in my parents’ kitchen sink — right there beneath the pristine, lacy white curtains. The eels didn’t give up without a struggle and splattered their blood all over those curtains as a result. Of course my mother wasn’t happy, to put it mildly.
Since my mother died more than 20 years ago, and my mother-in-law only a year later, the mantle passed to me to maintain the tradition. I have shifted away from the fried fish that used to be the mainstay of the meal, but can’t give up the squid. My mother used to prepare it as the centerpiece of her meal, delicately simmering the rings in tomato sauce and serving it over pasta. It was always a favorite. But my husband is partial to this stuffed squid recipe which his mother always made, and which my son now makes every year, as part of our multi-fish dinner. It’s also a great complement to the seafood risotto I prepare, with the tomato sauce from the squid spilling onto the saffron-flavored rice in the risotto. I’ll be sharing that recipe with you too shortly. Although it’s too late to cook these dishes for this year’s Christmas eve, maybe you can start your own tradition next year.
15 – 20 squid, medium size – cleaned
6 cups of diced, sturdy white bread, trimmed of crusts
1/3 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup white raisins, soaked in water for about 1/2 hour
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup milk, or more if needed
salt and pepper to taste
Buy the squid already cleaned, but rinse them under water and remove any cartilage that still might be left in the body. It will pull out easily and look like a strip of milky, translucent plastic. If you want, trim the wide end of the squid for a more even look.
Place all the filling ingredients in a bowl and mix until you have a moist consistency. Stuff the bodies of the squid, but don’t fill them completely since the squid will shrink during cooking.
Place a layer of tomato sauce on the bottom of a casserole and lay the squid on the sauce. Cover squid with more sauce.
Bake at 350 for about 20-25 minutes. If you make this ahead of time and refrigerate, be sure to take out of the refrigerator and bring to room temperature before baking. If you bake these much longer than 1/2 hour, the squid will be tough and chewy.
Use your own recipe, or follow mine, which is about double what you’ll need for the squid recipe. Use the rest another time – for pasta, or pizza or whatever you like.
1 large can (28 oz) San Marzano tomatoes
1 large can (28 oz.) tomato puree
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 large onion, chopped
1 carrot, finely minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup red or white wine
1 T. dried basil
1 t. red pepper flakes (or more, if you like your sauce spicy)
Place the olive oil in a large pot, and add the onions and carrots. Saute until soft, then add the garlic and saute a couple more minutes. Break up the whole tomatoes with your fingers, or using a food processor, but leave some texture. Do not break them up so much that the sauce becomes smooth. We like it with some tomato lumps in it. Add the tomatoes and tomato puree to the pot, along with the wine, salt, pepper, basil and red pepper flakes. Simmer on low heat for about one hour.
I’m a sucker for scallops. If they’re on a restaurant menu, I don’t give anything else a chance. It’s not just that I love the way they taste. It’s also that I could never figure out how to cook them properly at home. Chefs in restaurant kitchens use high BTU-stoves that most home kitchens lack. They’re able to quickly sear foods such as scallops without cooking the interior so long that it tastes like a rubbery hockey puck.
Which is how mine used to taste — until I figured out how to make scallops every bit as golden on the outside and silky on the inside as a professional chef’s version. What’s the secret? Well, heat has something to do with it. But the first hint is to buy the largest sea scallops you can afford. Yes, they’re expensive, but you will only need three or four per person — or a quarter pound each. Remember, there’s no waste, and since they’re large, the outside has a chance to brown before the inside gets completely cooked through. Be very picky at the fish market and exercise your veto power. Watch as the fish seller selects each scallop and reject any small ones he chooses. Then follow the technique in the recipe below very carefully, sit back and savor the results. You just might find yourself ordering roast duck next time you’re in a restaurant — since now you’ll be cooking scallops at home like a pro.
Sea Scallops With Red Peppers and Mushrooms
This recipe is for two people but can easily be doubled or tripled. Read through the entire recipe and have ingredients prepared and ready to go next to the stove. You don’t want to be squeezing lemons or opening a bottle of wine while the scallops are simmering. The whole recipe takes less than 15 minutes from start to finish.
1/2 – 3/4 lb. large sea scallops (about six to eight scallops)
flour for dredging
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup chopped shallots
4 large white mushrooms, sliced
1/4 cup diced red pepper
3 T. olive oil
1/2 dry white wine
1 T. butter
juice of one lemon
Turn the fan on above your range. Place a cast-iron skillet over your most powerful burner and turn the flame up high under the skillet. Let it heat for a few minutes until it gets very hot to the touch. Then add the olive oil and let that heat for a couple of minutes until it is nearly smoking. Don’t leave the kitchen for an instant. Dry the scallops with paper towels and lightly coat with flour. Add the scallops one at a time to the hot oil and cook for about 30-45 seconds on each side. DO NOT CROWD THE PAN with too many scallops or they will start to release liquid and reduce the temperature in the pan too dramatically.
Remove the scallops from the pan and put aside on a plate.
Take the pan off the heat and wipe the inside clean with a paper towel. Let the temperature cool down to medium, then add the 3 T. olive oil. Saute the shallots, mushrooms and red pepper in the olive oil for about five minutes or until cooked through. Put the scallops back into the simmering pan with any juices that may have accumulated on the plate, and pour white wine into the pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste over everything. Let the scallops cook for just a couple of minutes more, then add the butter for flavor and to help emulsify the sauce. Add the lemon juice and parsley, swirl the pan for 30 seconds, then serve.