Dec 2, 2014

Sarde a Beccafico 2 ways

Some Italian dishes have the funniest names, and the richest history.

The "beccafico" is a curious winged creature. It's hedonistic nature demands it feed only of ripe figs. Becca– comes from the root beccare, the verb 'to peck', and –fico means 'fig'. Given their diet, the flesh of these fig-pecking birds is therefore fatty and rich. And very tasty.

Sicilian nobility would hunt beccafico and then feast on its prized meats, which were stuffed with their own innards, enjoying the voluptuous flesh, and gamey filling. This dish was sublime, but as a luxury comestible, alas unapproachable by the less fortunate.

The indigent, yet crafty Palermo citizens simply could not give up on this alimentary discrimination, and made do with what was most readily available and affordable to them – sardines – treating them as they would the precious birds. To replicate the sweet tang provided by the bird's original innards filling, low-income and artful Palermo cooks employed a mixture of breadcrumbs, citrus juice and dried fruits and nuts. Geniuses!

This traditional dish, originally born from the desire to replicate an unattainable delicacy, is still made in the "poor man's fashion" and sold in outdoor friggitorie (fryers), like the streetside ones in the beautiful Vucciria market. Other cities in Sicily besides Palermo also make sarde a beccaficu in their own versions, Catania in particular produces my favorite rendition.
According to area, in fact, these stuffed sardines can be either fried or oven-baked.

Since I couldn't make up my mind on which to describe here, I'm sharing the recipe for sarde a beccafico two ways.

Sarde a Beccafico Palermo-style
1 kg (2.2 lbs) sardines
8 tbsp breadcrumbs
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp parsley, minced
70 g (2+ oz) pine nuts
70 g (2+ oz) sultanas, soaked in lukewarm water
Salt and pepper
1/2 glass EVOO + 3 tbsp
Bay leaves, 1 large sprig
Citronette: the juice of 1 lemon, equal amount olive oil, a pinch of salt and black pepper

Preheat oven at 150°C (300°F).

Clean out and butterfly the sardines, that is remove the central bone, heads and tails, leaving you with only the flesh of two attached fillets and no bones. There’s an easy video on how to do this here:

Toast the breadcrumbs and minced garlic in 3 tbps of olive oil, until lightly tanned.

Fold in the sugar, parsley, pine nuts, drained sultanas, and season with salt and pepper.

Add the half glass of olive oil and mix to coat well.

Divvy up the obtained filling on each sardine, and roll lengthwise, like a burrito, fastening each with a toothpick.

Place the stuffed sardines in a greased oven pan, alternating with a bay leaf between each.

Drizzle with the citronette and bake in the oven at moderate heat for about 15 minutes.

Sarde a Beccafico Catania style
In the volcanic city of Catania sarde a beccafico are prepared in a slightly different method.

1 kg (2.2 lbs) sardines
2 glasses of wine vinegar (not balsamic)
8 tbsp breadcrumbs
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp parsley, minced
70 g (2+ oz) pine nuts
70 g (2+ oz) sultanas, soaked in lukewarm water
Salt and pepper
1/2 glass EVOO
50 g (1/4 cup) fresh caciocavallo cheese, finely minced
Flour for dredging
2 eggs, beaten
Vegetable oil for frying

Clean out and prepare the sardines as described in previous preparation, and soak in the vinegar for about 1 hour.

The prep for the filling is the same as described above, with the addition of small nibs of fresh caciocavallo cheese thrown in.

Smear the filling on each butterflied sardine and top with another to form "sandwiches", pressing down with the palm of your hand to glue together.

Dredge each sandwich in flour, dip in the egg wash and fry in hot vegetable oil, in small batches, until golden.

Place on paper towels to absorb grease and scarf piping hot.

Buon appetito!

Nov 9, 2014

To market, to market...

On average, I usually shop at my local farmer's market three times a week. I've also been to virtually every mercato rionale (Rome's neighborhoods are known as "rioni") and often take gourmand visitors on market tours during which I explain seasonal variations and encourage them to taste local goods. Over time, I've become something of a market connoisseur.

Market shopping has little in common with impersonal supermarket hustle. It's a world unto itself with subtle protocols.
For those interested in the ancient art of market shopping, here's a brief collection of insider tips.

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Oct 30, 2014

Italian-American cuisine

About 4 million Italians immigrated to the United States of America between 1880 and 1920. Most came from the poor south, where a bad economy and corrupt politics had generated centuries of impoverishment. The hopeful immigrants carried with them rich cultural baggage and regional Italian culinary tradition that helped forge new dishes which both immigrants and Americans, in time, came to consider as staples. This was the genesis of Italian-American cuisine.

Many immigrants came from Sicily, Calabria, Campania, Abruzzi, Molise, Basilicata, and smaller numbers from northern towns. Large communities settled in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Boston and San Francisco, cities that would give birth to a cuisine which fused old school Italian priorities, with ingredients native to the "new" lands.

Here is a look at some of the most representative Italo-American dishes, and the original Italian recipes that inspired them.

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Oct 25, 2014

Passion for Provence

If you follow me on Instagram or Twitter, you'll have probably noticed from my updates, that I just got back from travels to Provence.

I had the wonderful opportunity to spend a week with my American family in what may be the most charming area of France. The best part was traveling to and discovering a new place that none in our family had visited before. I also loved unplugging and not checking email for the whole time I was gone. My idea of luxury travel.

Our days were spent sightseeing historical cities, visiting hilltop villages, walking cobbled roads, perusing markets, falling in love with places, all punctuated by eating and drinking local goodness. Most of all, we caught up on over a year of not seeing each other.

Our home base for the first half of the trip was a beautiful 14th century home in the village of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. Our host told us several cardinals resided in these cloistered walls during the Papal exile from Rome between 1309 and 1377.

We criss-crossed the Rhône River taking day trips to many interesting places. The first was Arles.

Here we understood the full impact of Rome and it's expanding control of the area which lasted more than 500 years. The Roman Empire was among the most powerful economic, cultural, political and military forces in the world of its time. It's no surprise therefore that stadiums, amphitheaters and other facilities were built in southeastern France, where Rome had greatly settled.

The Roman arena built in 90 AD seated 21,000 spectators and housed bloody gladiator fights and hunting scenes for more than 400 years. With the fall of the Empire in the 5th century, the amphitheater became a shelter for the population and was transformed into a fortress. Until 1830, the structure encircled more than 200 houses, becoming a little walled in town, within the city.

That same day we visited the Pont Langlois, which is the subject of four oil paintings, one watercolor and four drawings by Vincent van Gogh, all produced in 1888 when Van Gogh lived in Arles. Today the bridge has been slightly moved from it's original location and renamed Pont Van Gogh.

Our next visit brought us to an even more important Roman settlement, the city of Nîmes.
On the way there, we visited an imposing 3-tier bridge (Pont du Gard) which is part of the 50 km-long (31 mile) aqueducts built by Emperor Augustus in order to service the city.

The major sights we visited in Nîmes were the Arena, the Maison Carrée (below), and the beautiful Quais de la Fontaine, 18th century embankments of the spring that provided water for the city.

The following day we visited St. Remy de Provence in order to live the Provençal market experience. We picked up lavender, salami studded with hazelnuts, caramel butter (which airport security confiscated because I forgot the jar exceeded TSA regulations for hand luggage), and tasted lots of foie gras in between.

One of the most striking things we visited that day however was the Carrières de Lumières, which is an ancient limestone quarry that now hosts multimedia installations that propel viewers in an extraordinary world of art and music. Images of paintings are projected onto the immense walls, pillars and ground of the dark quarry, played to period music.

We then moved to Marseille, to attend the 2014 Marseille Web Fest. The city is amazing, and reminds me so much of another city I love: Naples. The alleys and quiet corners of Le Panier district ooze charm, and beg to slow down and encourage to live the city outdoors.

The View Port (ancient harbor) is buzzing with life, art, rainbow of cultures, music and a fish market on Saturday mornings.

The Norman Foster Pavilion is a stunning thousand-square-meter slab of reflective steel held up by eight unadorned pillars. As I approached it from Rue Rèpublique, the pavillion was nearly invisible, so the harbor – a World Heritage site – deservedly remains the vast area's protagonist. But up close, the hovering mirror both transforms and multiplies the space. It directs pedestrians' gazes back out to the sea, or allow them to admire own reflections overhead, essentially making them part of the landscape. Selfies, here, take on a whole new meaning!

photo ©
Another wonderful place in the city is the new MuCEM museum complex, located at the Fort Jean end of the harbor. The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations, inaugurated in 2013, is a cube of 15,000 square meters surrounded by a shell of fibre-reinforced concrete latticework, it houses exhibits on two levels with an underground auditorium seating 400, boasts a magnificent terrace where people can relax on lounge chairs facing the sea, and welcomes gourmands in the 3 Michelin star restaurant La Table, brainchild of Chef Gérald Passédat.

If you visit Marseille, you have to absolutely visit the archipelago of the Ile de Frioul. It's a 2-mile motorboat ride east to a cluster of 4 islands. One of which, If, houses the site of the Château d'If, where the main fictional character in Alexandre Dumas, père's "The Count of Monte Cristo" was imprisoned, one of my favorite historical novels!

On our last day in Marseille, we visited the neo-Byzantine Cathedral of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, which dominates the city and protects its citizens from above. Located at the summit of a 500-foot hill, the Basilica provides a sweeping 360° view over the entire city. It took my breath away.

A trip to Marseille cannot be considered complete without tasting bouillabaisse. So we sought the advice of our local friends who directed us to Chez Michel, a dressy brasserie with a varied clientele of local business men, families celebrating a special occasion, and slightly furtive couples, and THE place, we soon understood, to come for bouillabaisse in Marseille.

Yes, it's expensive. But real bouillabaisse requires a ridiculous amount of local rockfish, gallinella (I've heard it called many names, including Sea Robin, Tub gurnard, Tubfish, Yellow or Grey gurnard) reef mullet and John Dory, which are all costly Mediterranean fish. The service and production that happens around the dish is exquisite: the Maître ladles the "bouillon" in deep bowls kept warm over tea lights, while another waiter (or two depending on the number of customers) cleans the slow cooked fish and arranges it on the plate with potatoes that have been stewed along with the poisson, saffron and tomato.

photo ©
Bouillabaisse is eaten in an equally complex way: croutons smeared with "rouille" (a sauce made with the fish broth, garlic, pepper and tomato) have to be dipped into the soup; the filleted fish is instead slathered with copious amounts of aïoli (garlic mayonnaise) and then dipped in the soup too, and eaten with noisy sucking sounds and pleasure moans. Ok, I added that part.

Since a week is not enough to visit the area, and there are many parts of this wonderful part of France that we couldn't fit in this trip, we promised each other we'd return.

So... au revoir Provence!

Sep 12, 2014

Back to School Meals: End of Summer Vegetable Flan

It happened.

My eight year old gourmand child, whom I've raised to appreciate chicken liver crostini and puttanesca, spaghetti with clams and octopus salad – while still ignoring Happy Meals – has freed himself of my apron strings.

Yesterday, faced with yet another bowl of zucchini noodles with basil pesto and a serving of eggplant al funghetto – sautéed with tomato sauce and garlic – he said no. His sophisticated palate is evolving and so is his personality. Normal. But I didn't see it coming.

I had been noticing some recent changes: making his own bold decisions when picking outfits, and becoming more and more prudish and reserved during shower time. OK, these are clear symptoms of growth, independence, character. But shunning my tapenade? Doesn't that happen later?

It's hard to please growing kids at the dinner table, even the more cosmopolitan food snobs. We Italians have an advantage in that sense, because we wean our children off mother's milk with strained vegetable consommé, pureed carrots and potatoes, and the first solid protein we feed them is steamed sole fish drizzled with olive oil. Junk food, sodas and fried fish sticks come into the equation way later, and certainly not in grade school.

I can never forget the handshake I got some years ago from the executive chef at the Monterey Aquarium's own Portola Cafe for ignoring the kids menu and ordering instead salmon fillet, broiled asparagus and abalone on the shell for my toddler. "We're Italian," I replied. "This is how we feed our kids back home."

There are picky eaters and kids who will by default not ingest anything green. I guess I've been lucky because my child was never scared of tasting and experimenting with new flavors. His play date Giulia, one year his junior, still can't fathom eating un-peeled tomatoes and grapes. She may shadow my son and ask to be served some of his minestrone, but will inevitably leave it in the bowl, untouched. My boy instead proudly showing off his alimentary prowess could gorge on all the available langoustines on the Disneyland Paris buffet spread, and wipe his cuttlefish ink risotto plate clean.

But, apparently those days are over.

Zucchini, eggplant, broccoli, Brussell sprouts and all kinds of salad are now officially off the list.
There is a strange aversion to mozzarella, but an ongoing flirtatious relationship with burrata.
He's asked me to please stop serving him hummus.
Or cauliflowers.
And he said I can avoid the trouble of putting dandelion greens in his plate.

So now I'm screwed, because I still want him to eat healthy, local and seasonal food, but his narrowing diet and broadening aversions are making dinner choices slimmer. Soon he'll be asking for a Big Mac, so I have to start finding new and interesting ways to push embargoed food back on his plate.

One of these solutions I found on an Italian website, it's perfect for this end of summer, back to school climate and it employs vegetables and cheese, therefore constituting a balanced but complete vegetarian meal. In my version I used what I had in the house, that is bell peppers, zucchini, potatoes and two kinds of cheese, but these vegetable flans can be made with virtually every vegetal of your choice.

5 medium potatoes
6 zucchini, finely chopped
1 large red bell pepper, finely chopped
1 tbsp triple tomato concentrate
1 egg
100 g (1/2 cup) scamorza, provola or any kind of soft smoked cheese, cubed (same size as vegetable mince)
60 g (+1/4 cup) Parmigiano cheese, grated
Sea salt and cracked black pepper
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
Butter for greasing the ramekins
3 tbsp breadcrumbs
Extra virgin olive oil

Boil the potatoes with the skins on in lightly salted water until fork soft (about 30-40 minutes). I use a pressure cooker which cuts the cooking time by half.

In the meantime cut the bell pepper and zucchini, chopping them in same size mince. Preheat oven at 200° C (390° F).

Film a large pan with 3 tbsp of olive oil and sauté the bell peppers for 2 minutes, fold in the zucchini and cook for 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, and a tablespoon of triple tomato concentrate diluted in 1 ladle of potato cooking water, simmering over low flame for about 5 minutes. Consider the vegetables must maintain some crunch. Set aside to cool.

Drain the potatoes and force them through a ricer (or a hand-powered food mill, or using the tines of a fork) into a large mixing bowl. The advantage of the ricer is that the skins separate without effort. Add the cubed and grated cheeses and the egg to the riced potatoes, season with salt and pepper, some may want to add a suspicion of grated nutmeg.
Finally fold in the cooled, sautéed vegetables, mixing with a wooden spoon to blend well.

Grease 6 to 8 ramekins with butter, and dredge with the breadcrumbs. Fill each with the mixture to the brim, and top with more breadcrumbs, a pinch more grated cheese and a dribble of olive oil.

Bake for 15-20 minutes or until a golden crust forms on the top. Eating these flans out of small ramekins makes it more fun for the kids, but for convenience sake you can grease and dredge one big baking dish, and thus obtain a "gateau".

I made this tonight. And guess what? My son asked for seconds.