Jan 25, 2015

Winter Vegetarian Meatballs

Some time ago I published a recipe for Eggplant Vegetarian Meatballs. Their meaty flavor and wonderful texture lent the vegetarian preparation a wonderful structure and complex taste. In the northern hemisphere however, eggplant only grows naturally in summer, so I decided to make a winter version of this recipe, using broccoli as the base.

image © vegetariantimes
Powerfully rich in antioxidants, minerals and other cancer-fighting nutrients, broccoli were also appreciated in ancient times. Greeks and Romans ate raw cruciferous vegetables before banquets and orgies to help the body tolerate alcohol. Broccoli have since then become hugely popular thanks to their scientifically proven health benefits.

Perhaps the only negative associated with broccoli is the foul sulphur smell released during cooking. But if you know a little chemistry –– or listen to your Nonna's advice –– there's a trick to avoid that vile smell.

Want to know what it is? Learn how to make winter meatballs with broccoli first.

500 g (1 lb) broccoli
4 medium potatoes, peeled
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
A pinch of ground nutmeg
1 egg
50 g (1/4 cup) Parmigiano, grated
3 tbsp breadcrumbs + more for dredging
2 tbsp toasted sesame seeds, or other seeds (I use a mixture of chia, poppy and black sesame)
Extra virgin olive oil

I cook my broccoli vegetarian meatballs in the oven, but you can opt to fry them in a pan. In that case, add 3 tbsp of peanut oil to your ingredient list.

Trim the broccoli without discarding the leaves, they are highly nutritious and tasty.
Steam the broccoli and potatoes until fork soft and allow to cool briefly. To avoid the nasty smell of cooked broccoli, all you have to do is add the juice of 1 lemon to the steamer!

Preheat oven at 180°C (350° F) –– if you'll not be frying.

In a mixing bowl and using the tines of a fork, smash the broccoli and potatoes, combining them. Add the egg, the cheese and 3 tbsp of breadcrumbs.

Shape balls the size you want using your wet hands and flatten them out slightly.

Dust the surface of a flat dish or tray with breadcrumbs and your assortment of seeds, and dredge the vegetarian meatballs.

If you'll be frying, use a cast iron skillet and fry the vegetarian meatballs in batches; otherwise line a baking dish with parchment paper drizzled with a thread of olive oil and bake the vegetarian meatballs for about 15-20 minutes, or until lightly browned.

Serve with a crisp salad; mashed broad beans and artichokes; or a simple tomato dipping sauce. The red wine should flow in abundance.

Jan 12, 2015

Leftover brandade? Make croquettes!

Last week I posted the recipe to one of my favorite cod recipes, brandacujùn (a Ligurian shift on brandade) promising to follow it up with a leftover recycling solution.

If you've been following this blog for a while, you'll know how obsessed I am with not letting leftover food go to waste, and how it's traditional to re-employ yesterday's meals. This is such an important part of my Italian culture and upbringing, and it therefore plays a huge role in my cooking.

When I make excess amounts of risotto, in fact, I use the surplus to make Riso al Salto (a rice frittata) or Arancine (fried risotto balls). If remnants of my loaf of wholegrain bread were not all used up to make breadcrumbs, crostini or toast, I can transform them into bread pudding or Pappa al Pomodoro soup. Leftover meat (cooked and raw) goes straight into meatballs, and extra cheese becomes Frico.

Since when I make brandade I end up with lots of leftovers, my son can rely on his favorite snack: brandade croquettes. These are a great antipasto appetizer but can double as a sinful main course.

Leftover brandade, refrigerated
Oil for frying (I use olive oil, but you may prefer something "lighter" like peanut or sunflower oil)
50 g (1/4 cup) breadcrumbs
50 g (1/4 cup) polenta (cornmeal)
100 g all-purpose flour
1 tsp of dried rosemary
1 tsp of dried thyme
1 tsp of dried basil
1-2 eggs, beaten
Salt and pepper

Mix the dried herbs, cornmeal and the breadcrumbs, and proceed setting up your dredging station. Prepare three large bowls: one for the beaten egg(s) - quantity depends on how many croquettes you obtain from your leftovers; one with the flour, and one for the flavored breadcrumbs.

Take the leftover brandade out of the fridge and immediately shape into 5-cm (2-inch) bullets or quenelles. Roll them in the flour, quickly dip in the beaten egg, and lastly in the breadcrumbs to coat well. This procedure assures a golden, flavorsome crust and a soft, pillowy filling.

Work quickly with cold ingredients in order to produce a firm, crispier croquette, and fry in small batches – not more than 2-3 at a time – in plenty of hot vegetable oil until uniformly golden (about 3-4 minutes).

Blot on paper towel and serve immediately with aïoli or plain mayonnaise for dipping, if you like. As with all things fried, and in this case fish-based, I would suggest pairing this dish with a sparkling white, like Franciacorta.

Buon appetito!

Jan 5, 2015

Brandacujùn ~ Ligurian brandade

Image © ristocasaebottega.it
Brandade is a fancy French word for pureed salt cod. Originally the cheapest ingredient around, poached and deboned salt cod that's been reduced to a pulp, often combined with potatoes pushed through a ricer and stirred with olive oil and garlic, is probably one of winter's best comfort foods. And despite its humble origin, with the culinary adroitness of the French, the concept behind this dish has been refined since its inception into a fine (and costly) delicacy.

The birthplace of this preparation is however disputed. Some say Nîmes in France is the world capital of brandade, while others in the Veneto region maintain "baccalà mantecato" came first. But my Ligurian friends declare their "brandacujùn", made with dried cod instead of salt cod, is the culinary ancestor of this delightful recipe.

Whatever the genesis, I love the pillowy combination of cod and potatoes, and enjoy it often smeared on crusty bread that's been generously rubbed with garlic. The flavor is delicate and the texture creamy, and I serve it to those guests who are worried about fish tasting too... "fishy".

dried cod from Lofoten Islands, Norway
The problem is I make way too much of it. When purchasing dried cod, it's never possible to just buy a small amount, the darn planks are huge! And so I end up making ginormous quantities and am left with lots of brandade leftovers. A great way of recycling leftover brandade is making my son's favorite croquettes, which I roll in small bullets, dredge in breadcrumbs and quickly fry in vegetable oil.

But before we talk leftovers, here's how to make easy brandade from scratch:

1kg (2.2 lbs) dried cod (I buy the Norwegian "Ragno" variety), soaked and rinsed until fully revived
1kg (2.2 lbs) peeled potatoes
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1-2 cloves of garlic, minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
a pinch of nutmeg (optional)

Cover the cod in unsalted water and boil for 30 minutes. Lift out of the pot and allow it to cool before deboning, but save the cooking water for the potatoes.
Boil the potatoes in the cod water and when they are fork soft, add them to the deboned cod.

Now you can proceed in two ways: a quick and easy one, or the original method, which is more labor intensive.

Easy method (the one I use): Coarsely blend everything in a stand mixer, adding the minced garlic while pouring the olive oil, and finishing with a lashing of pepper and seasoning with salt at the very end if necessary.

Original method: Cover the pot and, armed with hefty kitchen towels and good muscles, shake the pot (the French term 'brandade' and the verb "to brandish" share the same root) until the ingredients are reduced to a soft emulsion!

Stay tuned for the leftover recycling recipe!

Dec 29, 2014

Why do Americans love ice so much?

I often get asked why other countries outside of the United States do not use ice as much.

But it's actually the strange ice cube obsession most North Americans seem to carry with them wherever they go that leaves residents of their destination country, Italy included, completely bewildered.

Americans want ice with tea, weak coffee, sodas, juice, liquor and water. I once ate at a restaurant that served ice just to cool down soup. Flying, I've watched people order an extra cup of ice to compensate for the melting cubes in their original drink. For some Americans, ice is a delicacy to chew on (my American father does this).
American waiters, many on autopilot, often have a hard time coping my request for water without ice. Continue Reading ➔

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: http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/techniques/how_to_clean_and_fillet_sardines

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!