Mar 29, 2009

Homemade pasta from scratch recipe

Cookbooks may tell you how, but the best way to learn how to make fresh homemade pasta, is being taught by a friend. Someone you can observe, the person to question shamelessly as the eggs and flour become an art form from bare hands. One you silently accost to absorb the moves and the inherited skill, in order to make your own rustic "pasta fatta in casa."

Theoretically, the first step is reading the do's and dont's of how to make pasta from scratch in erudite manuals. This I fear may only confuse you. Some recipes call for no extra yolks, some add a nip of water, some omit the salt. In my humble opinion, the actual hands-on (no pun intended) technique needs human guidance. Your Pasta-Petrarch should demonstrate the steps to a personal approach, illustrate how to properly blend the elements, how to knead lovingly, and how to shape it all into a galaxy of dinner possibilities: fettuccine, ravioli, tagliatelle, lasagne, tortellini...

So here I am. I know, ideally I should be from Emilia Romagna and in my mid-seventies, but this is the best I can give you. I make my friends and family very happy with my dishes, and when these involve fresh homemade pasta, the bliss-factor is raised tenfold. I have learned this magical art by absorption. I grew up watching my grandmother nonna Titta make home-style pasta, so my credentials are good. I've spent numerous childhood hours watching her bent over the squared 4-ft wooden board, kneading a golden orb of dough the size of a soccer ball. Dusted with flour head to toe, she'd twirl and play her rolling pin like a teenage majorette. I was always in awe as the thin layer of pasta was rolled like a giant burrito and then cut into curly tagliatelle ribbons or thin, blond angel hair. I soon began to emulate her, and I have been practicing pasta for quite some time now.

It's a gesture of love to serve a meal entirely made by hand. It also makes the cook feel omnipotent, a bit of a show off. Tripping on a pasta-from-scratch-high you feel invincible, you push your limit, confident that now you can accomplish anything in the kitchen. Like I did today, for example. I ventured in a full-fledged 4-course meal for 6 hungry epicureans.

I crafted my tagliatelle while I prepared the sauce to dress them appropriately,

...breaded and fried 12 schnitzel-type veal cutlets for our second course,

...cooked 2 different vegetable side dishes (creamed pumpkin and stir-fried broccoli) and baked dessert. I refused to do the dishes and now I'm here moaning about how tired I am, but you should have seen the smiles on those faces.

But let's get back to business. Here is nonna's recipe for homemade pasta from scratch, transcribed and translated straight from her tattered and handwritten recipe journal, one of my most precious belongings.

300 g (1 1/2 cups) flour, possibly "00" + more for dusting
3 eggs
2 yolks
A very small pinch of salt

You'll need to work on a flat surface, possibly wood or marble, as long as slightly dusted with flour. Other essentials are, a rolling pin (again preferably wooden), and a little patience.

Wash your hands and beware, it’s going to get messy. And quite sexy.

Empty the flour on the work surface in a mound, and dig a hole in the middle, building a crater. This is the "a fontana" technique, literally "in a fountain manner." Now drop the eggs and the yolks in your crater and sprinkle the salt.

Start beating with a fork at first and as the mix begins to blend, dig in with your hands and knead that baby.

Image © robysushi

Image © winedharma

It will not be at all homogeneous at first. Knead regardless of messy, sticky onset. Fold the dough over and flatten with the bottom part of your palm several times.

Image ©

Be persistent, the love you put into this part of the process ensures best results. Keep at it until the dough reaches a smooth and satiny texture. It should never flake or dry, if for some unknown reason this should happen, add another egg, NOT water. The result at the end of this sensual massage is a large, heavy ball of dough. Lay it to rest in a bowl dusted with flour, while you take a 30 minute break.


Well done, you have dough. Now, mentally prepare for the hardest part, flattening the dough with your rolling pin into a thin layer.

On a large enough unpolished wood surface - like a butcher’s block for instance - or your marble counter top, spread a large quantity of flour. This will avoid stickage. Dust it over your rolling pin and hands as well, gymnast-style. Place the ball of dough in the middle of your board and flatten it gently with your hands, avoiding finger holes. Any deep depression in the dough can cause air bubbles. And we don’t want those.

Start using your rolling pin, exercising very little pressure at first and slowly picking up force as the dough gradually flattens. As the surface begins to expand, images of the ‘old blanket’ saying will come to mind. You’ll find that rolling vertically will produce a long narrow up and down strip; compensating with horizontal strokes, your shape will instantly stretch into an opposite elongated oval. Keep going, don’t give up, and mostly don’t flatten the dough too thin. You’ll need a maximum thickness of a couple millimeters (about 1/8-inch).

To make fettuccine you simply roll up your flattened dough like a burrito and cut 1cm slices, about 1/3 of an inch.

Unravel the coils, dust with a bit more flour or polenta (cornmeal) and award yourself with a tall drink.

Tagliatelle are a bit wider (and thicker), Pappardelle are the widest, about 2cm (2/3-inch). Cutting lasagne requires a firm hand and geometric eye when shaping equal-sized rectangles. My guideline is a 10 x 15cm postcard (3” x 5”).

Maltagliati (which are great for hearty soups) means "badly cut", so you can go crazy and cut away any shape you like as long as in similar size range.

Tip: Cook fresh homemade pasta in plenty of lightly salted water at a jacuzzi-type rolling boil. Stir with a wooden spoon or a long fork quite often. This will ensure the pasta to remain springy and not clump together in clusters during cooking.

Drain your masterpiece and slather on the sauce, whatever that may be (after all that hard work you can start with a simple Burro & Parmigiano: 1/2 stick of butter and a fistful of grated Parmigiano, an awesome flavor duo), and graduate to ragù later.

Congratulations! Feel the awesome sense of achievement?

Thank you Laura. There's a chair here at my dinner table with your name engraved on it.

Mar 27, 2009

Emi's pork roast recipe

I noticed I've posted quite a number of recipes for fish, desserts, soups, vegetables, and pasta since I started blogging. Not to mention my love affair with cheese. What was missing so far was a proper carnivore's weekend entree. One to be made patiently and for the entire family, one that requires time and that will spill delicious aromas in the rooms near the kitchen.

The Italian word for roast is arrosto, a term that encompasses so much more that a mere cooking technique. It is an adjective, a noun, an onomatopoeic poem.

My mother’s theory is that if you can properly roast meat, you’ve learned how to cook. This was my 'test paper' when I first left home and had my mom over for lunch, what feels like a million years ago. My graduation to grown-up world.

I remember that day: the anticipation, the frenzied behavior, my nervous attempts to make it all perfect. Shopping for the right ingredients, assembling her favorite flowers and maniacally cleaning the house, readying it for her inspection. Not that she's much of a cleanliness freak, or someone fixated with order or form, but I wanted her first impression to be speckless. I wanted to prove that I could not only manage a home on my own, but that I could make one mean roast, too.

In Italy women leave the nest not upon going to college, but once married off to a husband. A man who - in a time not so distant in the past - would mainly be looking for a duplicate of his mother. I was 22 and single, my American side bludgeoning for autonomy. Through the conflict that ensued, I translated the energy into cooking and trying to reproduce my mother's and grandmother's culinary art.

So there she sat, eating quietly. She had a second helping... promising - I thought to myself, as I scanned the room for decoration debacles. I knew things were looking good when she sopped up the roast drippings with a chunk of bread, raising her eyebrows. My heart was pounding, and I'm sure she was feeling under examination too; but that didn't stop us from finishing our food, casually chatting and laughing (three elements of a perfect meal) as we always do.

The final Cordon Bleu moment came when she looked up at me with the most radiant of smiles and said, "La mia bambina ha superato la maestra!" My little girl has outshined her teacher.

My mother, Emi

I passed the test. Here's how I did it back then and how I still prepare my Arrosto today:

1 boneless pork rib end roast, weighing about 1kg (2lbs). In Italy we call this cut arista
5 rosemary sprigs
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven at 160°C (320°F).

Trim away any fat from the roast and lace it with butcher’s twine to help it maintain its shape. Rub the meat with olive oil, and salt and pepper, massaging in the elements with love. Weave the rosemary twigs between the meat and the kitchen string, and place the prepared roast in the oven, using a high-rimmed oven pan (juice collecting is a must here).

Bake for an hour or until fork-tender. The meat must be well done but not overcooked, this will depend greatly on the size of the roast and oven power; it will be done when you stick a skewer into the middle and the juices run clear. A trick is to fill the drippings pan (one level beneath the roast pan) with water to maintain a good moisture level in your oven.

Remove the roast to a wire rack and let it cool for 15-20 minutes. This is an important step, juices tend to concentrate in the innermost part of the roast. By slicing it straight out of the oven, you would end up with a very watery and unattractive arrosto. Letting it rest allows the fluids to redistribute in the peripheral tissues and render a firm, juicy slice.

Discard the twine before carving. I usually serve my pork roast with applesauce and a side order of pan-fried string beans tossed with a clove of garlic, a fistful of toasted breadcrumbs and a thread of olive oil. 

"Il vino," you ask? Splurge with a Brunello di Montalcino, you deserve it! That or any rich, tannic red.

Buon appetito!

Mar 26, 2009

E's flowers

My son brings me flowers. Every afternoon, his tata (babysitter) takes him for a walk in the nearby playground. He meets his posse there, and they conjure battles of laughter and castles of sand.

Some days, I creep up to the fence and spy on him, unaware of me in his carefree frolic. He then senses me, somehow, and he laughs running to me, bewildered.

Every day, he returns home from the playground with a sweaty wad of wild flowers for me. The first thing his melodious little voice squeals as he bursts through the door is ,"Mamma, fiorellini per te!," mommy, little flowers for you. Every day, the same sweet ritual: we toss out the dead ones with a kiss and replace them with the new ones in a small Moroccan shot glass filled with Roman, mineral-rich tap water. Every day, my son brings me flowers. My son, mio figlio. Anyone who has kids, knows what it feels like every time those two words surface on our lips. A whispered miracle.

This is a small note I wrote upon discovering I was pregnant with E, my son. In the 9 months of pregnancy I left it suspended and came back to it occasionally, updating its contents, and finally wrote the ending the night before my scheduled C-section.

I smile now, re-reading it. It is a child speaking to another.

A miracle happened, it was that afternoon of sun, love and tears, the last time I made love to your father.
That's when you happened. When you chose me.
Sun, ocean, light, ecstasy, words of love and promises of memory.
Africa blessed us.
The sky smiled.
The wave crashed.
The flowers winked.
A gust of wind moved the branch.
A distant seagull soared and brought the plan of you.
Dropped you off in my womb and life began within me.
My nipples are not burnt-sienna.
My bump doesn't sport the dark line down the middle.
My skin is incredibly soft now. My nails, falcon talons. Hair silky and smooth.
The libido's subsided, I thought I was going insane at one point.
The hunger has shifted from sex to food. I want lots of it now, and all smothered in butter. I crave not chocolate, but frothy Guinness.
I pee every 30 seconds.
My ankles swell and my lips are constantly chapped.
But I love it.
I love feeling as you move within me. A flutter of bird's wings.
I love seeing you on the ultrasound screen, turning away and showing the doctor your wee ass.
I love you, E
I have become secondary. You, my promise, have won first place.
You are my happiness and my worry.
I have always been afraid of pain, of needles, of disease, terrorized by the unsung spasms of labor.
Now I live to avoid you pain.
You will be a man, one day.
A wonderful man. One who brings flowers.
I'll try to make you happy. Show you the beauty of life and the world whole.
I'll always be there for you. Mio piccolo cuore.
You are the most important part of me. My reason. My life. My completion.
My son.
I smile every time I think of you. Your every slight move, makes me laugh out loud.
Are you speaking to me, from inside?
Are you comfortable?
Are you bored? Are you warm enough in there?
Do I crush you when I sleep, rolling to one side?
Do you have feelings?
Do you love me?

Mar 25, 2009

Fiori di Zucca Fritti - Fried Zucchini Blossoms

There have been millions of words written on the zucchini flower. The forerunner of the ever-burgeoning mottled cylinder, is edible. More than edible, they're delicious in an Earth Mother kind of way.

fiori di zucca fritti - fried zucchini flowers

That which some just chuck away as waste, can in fact become this delectable antipasto, or be part of a pasta condiment or even a salad element (I never disdain fresh flowers tossed in with my salad greens). Now that they're starting to bud on farmer's markets everywhere, gather those blossoms while you can and prepare for yet another true Roman taste bud epiphany.

15 zucchini blossoms
4 salted anchovy fillets (optional)
200 g (1 cup) mozzarella, diced
100 g (1/2 cup) unbleached all purpose flour
Sparkling water or beer, chilled
Oil for frying
Baking soda 

Trim pistils and stems off the flowers, paying extra attention not to break them, they are very delicate. Wash the blossoms carefully with water and baking soda, rinse with plenty cold water and pat dry with paper towel.

Cut the mozzarella in strips and finely chop the anchovies (if you're using them). Stuff each blossom with some mozzarella and a dab of anchovy mash, and uncork a bottle of white Colli Albani wine.

In a mixing bowl, blend a glass of chilled sparkling water, flour and salt until fluffy and add a pinch of baking soda for an even lighter batter. If you like you can use chilled beer in place of the sparkling water.

Dip the stuffed flowers in the batter open side up and deep fry in scalding olive oil in small batches, until golden.

Briefly park on paper towel and serve hot with the remaining wine, if any is left.
fiori di zucca fritti - fried zucchini flowers

Mar 22, 2009

Tagliatelle al ragù recipe

Sundays in Italy mean family. They speak of tradition, repose and morning Mass. Sundays gather the family around the table for communal weekly updates, sports events (mainly soccer) and convivial merry.

As my son and I skip down the flights of stairs of our apartment building on our way out, we walk past Signora Rosetta’s door, inebriated by the smell of tomato sauce simmering on her stove. That divine perfume then wafts over and mingles with our downstairs neighbor Manuela's veal cutlets. And so forth, in a Babylon of aromas all the way down, all good, all Sunday-like.

Sunday tradition: buying pastries for lunch

Every Sunday lunch, my little boy E. and I go to my mother’s house, which is a 5-minute walk from our home. Wearing a nice blouse or a new pair of trousers, to honor our host, we head out. Mamma appreciates us wearing our Sunday best. She also loves it when E's hair is combed with a tidy part on the side. A rare image, E defines tousled. We breathe in the morning air and take a nice stroll to our favorite cafe, buy the paper, chat with people from our neighborhood. A Sunday ritual. We may go to Mass, otherwise we head straight for the pasticceria (pastry shop) and pick up a tray of assorted bigné, cannoli, sfogliatelle, éclairs and other pastries sold by weight and wrapped in gift paper, tied with curly ribbons.

We always arrive early, at my mother’s house. That too is part of a Sunday habit. All members of the family each chip in with the housework, helping in the kitchen, airing out the bedrooms, watering the flowers on the terrace. Every time I walk in the house where I have been raised, I am immediately overcome with a warm, reassuring feeling. Back to the womb. The aroma of my mother’s cooking returns me to all my childhood memories. The incidental music of the TV broadcasting the usual Sunday shows, the smell of fresh flowers. My mother’s books, her dust, her Persian rugs. The chandeliers, the framed black and white photographs, the Steinway grand piano. It’s all there, unchanged, thank God.

My mother's Sunday table

And then that which she is most proud of: la tavola, her table. It is a festive occasion, and she honors it beautifully by setting an impeccable table. She always prouds in laying a crisp embroidered linen tablecloth, ironed to perfection. China plates, double glasses – for both wine and water – shiny silverware and matching fabric napkins. Mamma cooks for two days in preparation for her family feast, and she prouds in displaying her efforts. The beverages are always served in glass (and not the bulky plastic) bottles. The wine is always chosen wisely to pair the food, and there’s alway an extra dessert, usually homemade.

My mother makes it a point to pick the best ingredients, priding herself in finding seasonal variations, local and organic staples. She cooks it lovingly, employing all her generosity, and enjoying the creative process. She provides for us, not merely nourishment and great tasting foods, but an on-going, weekly display of love.

tagliatelle al ragu recipe

Today I'm sharing the recipe of my mamma's signature Sunday dish, the one she is most fond of. It his her pièce de résistance; whenever she prizes us by making it, it is in fact a party. I have watched her make homey dishes like these countless times, as I grew into the mother I am today, and never once has she or her fabulous fares disappointed me.
The authentic Italian Sunday lunch tradition lives on in my mother's hallmark Tagliatelle al Ragù. 

This recipe is a classic. It results in the creation of an intensely flavorful, rich meat sauce to serve over home made tagliatelle, and dusted with lavish amounts of grated Parmigiano Reggiano. My mother starts preparing it early in the morning and allows it to simmer, very, very slowly for many hours, at least three and ideally four.

3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 large carrot, finely diced
1 small onion, cut into same size dice as carrot
celery stalks, cut up into same size dice as carrot and onion and in the same amount
650gr (1 1/2 lbs) ground beef and veal total (small variations from this weight are not significant)
200ml (1 cup) whole milk
200ml (1 cup) dry, white wine
1 kg (28-oz can) whole or crushed tomatoes, San Marzano would be great
A pinch of ground nutmeg
300 g (3/4 lb or 1 1/2 cups) tagliatelle. If you decide to make your own homemade pasta, the outcome will be a million times better. And those eating will feel even more loved by you.
Salt to taste
Lots of Parmigiano, grated

It all begins with an empty, heavy-bottomed, medium to large sized pot. If you have a Dutch oven, that is ideal. Place the oil and butter into the pot and bring to medium-high heat.
Add the diced battuto (carrot, onion and celery trinity) and stir to coat well, allowing vegetables to soften for about 6 minutes. Hark! Do not brown the onion or celery, they need to simply wilt.
Next, add all the ground meat to the pot. Here is where the most work is involved. Using a large wooden spoon keep breaking up the meat into smaller and smaller pieces as it cooks. Do not brown it too much or dry out. Don’t let it sit in the hot shortening on the bottom of the pot and sear. Keep moving it around; it should just lose its color. Keep working on the meat and keep breaking it up into smaller and smaller pieces. It should also begin to smell wonderful.

When the meat has lost all its pink color and is reduced to minuscule bits, pour in the milk and turn up the heat and bring to a boil. Stir well and allow the milk to completely boil away. When that happens, you should only be able to see the olive oil and butter between the meat pieces and vegetables, and no more milk. This will take about 20 minutes.

Now add the white wine and let it evaporate.
Add the tomatoes. Empty the entire can into the pot and use a wooden spoon to break up the whole tomatoes into large chunks. Season with salt and nutmeg, stir well and turn down the heat to a very gentle simmer, only the occasional plip, plop! bubble should come to the surface. Do not cover. Allow the sauce to simmer slowly for 3 to 4 hours, stirring occasionally; and to fill the rooms of your soul with warmth, love and a terrific aroma.

If you're pressed for time, or making home made pasta feels too big a task right now, you can decide over dried or fresh commercially sold tagliatelle, the only requirement is they be rough-surfaced and quite thick (at least 3 mm, 1/8-inch).

When the sauce is almost ready, bring your salted gallon of water to a rolling boil. Cook the tagliatelle, then drain them al dente, saving some starchy cooking water.
Return the pasta to the empty stewpot and add about a cup of meat sauce to the cooked tagliatelle and stir well. This only colors the strands lightly, but we’re not done yet. Serve the coated tagliatelle in individual soup bowls, spooning the divine Bolognese sauce over each and dusting with copious amounts of grated Parmigiano.

Mamma uncorked two bottles of Chianti today, and the first roaring toast was to the never-ending party she throws, come Sunday at lunch.

Pull up a chair and let's eat.

Mar 21, 2009

Crostini with mortadella mousse

The worst part about having a cold is not the stuffy nose, tight chest, thundering cough; it's not being able to taste anything! My sense of gusto (taste) is totally dormant, the palate is momentarily on strike. Foods are all the same, only their different textures and temperatures differentiate them. My life has therefore very little meaning these days.

Fortunately, today the Roman sun is blazing. A bitter tramontana (North) wind, which started howling late last night, has swept all stormy clouds away, and now the air is incredibly clear. From up high on any one the seven hills, the view is spectacular.

E. and I took a long, wonderful walk around the centro storico, and negotiated a steep climb up the steps of the Cordonata to the top of the Campidoglio (Capitoline) hill. We skipped, chasing pigeons and dodged tourists on the piazza designed by Michelangelo, drawing the immense star-motif on the pavement with our feet.
We climbed back down and strolled around with nowhere specific to go, ambling amid flower stalls and open-air markets. We did some grocery shopping, and then treated ourselves to a nice aperitivo at one of my favorite Monti cafes. I had a cocktail called Bicicletta (bicycle) made with Bitter Campari, freshly squeezed OJ on the rocks; while my son snacked on a banana and mineral water. We returned home laden with tasty deli goods. And just in time for lunch.
Since today I also learned how to put a watermark on my photos, that counts as yet another reason to celebrate. So I popped a bottle of spumante and whipped together something to nibble on while E. lunched on his favorite: tiny potato gnocchi dressed in creamy pesto and cow’s milk ricotta. Here’s the recipe for today’s menu: Crostini con Spuma di Mortadella

For 12 crostini:
200 gr (1 cup) mortadella
50 gr (1/4 cup) mascarpone
20 gr (2 tbsp) fresh cream
50 gr (1/4 cup) Salt-preserved capers, rinsed (OPTIONAL)
Unsalted butter
Good, crusty homestyle bread

Cut the mortadella in small shreds and whir it in the blender with the mascarpone and the cream, to obtain a frothy spread.
Cut 12 slices of bread, each 1/2-inch thick, and toast them slightly. Smear each with a thin veil of butter and slather on the spuma di mortadella generously.
Garnish with chopped chives and–if you wish–a couple of capers.

Mar 20, 2009

Window-shopping at Gargani, Rome

A little food porn from the storefront window of Gargani, the Bulgari of Roman gourmet grocers.

Featured in this first picture:
Upper left-hand corner: the delectable tortellini Maletti with a prosciutto and Parmigiano filling. Notice how the pasta dough is bright yellow, you thank the farm hen and her organic eggs for that.
Above, center: ricotta and spinach ravioli, homemade by a local pastaio artisanal manufacturer
Upper right-hand corner: organic pesto sauce sold by weight
Middle: tagliolini all'uovo, fresh egg pasta, coarse and delicious thick angel hair-type
Lower left-hand corner: "caramelle," pasta dough 'candies' made with spinach, stuffed with Fontina cheese and ground walnut meats.
Below, center: mini potato gnocchi (the size of a thimble)
lower right hand corner, hand made Ligurian trofie (perfect marriage with above-mentioned pesto)

Second photo illustrates:

Upper left-hand corner: semolina gnocchi (typical of Rome). These are discs of polenta-style cooked semolina, and they are usually prepared by broiling them in the oven to form a crispy butter and grated Parmigiano crust.
Above, center: capellini (angel hair) egg pasta nests
Upper right-hand corner: reverse angle on aforementioned tortellini
Middle: assorted fresh homemade egg pasta, sold by weight
Lower left-hand corner: mini multi-colored potato gnocchi (tomato and spinach added to the potato flour mix)
Below, center: "caramelle" pockets stuffed with a pumpkin and crushed amaretto filling
Lower right-hand corner: regular potato gnocchi

And now, onto dessert. The following 2 pictures display:

Assorted crostate tarts (apricot marmalade, Nutella, blackberry jam, custard and pinoli (Italian for pine nuts), mixed dried fruits, etc. Notice the price in the foreground, €16,00 per kilo (hence the Bulgari nickname)
Marron glacées (candied chestnuts with a caramelized violet flower on top)
Fruit tarts, with prevailing strawberries (out of season, really...)
Salame di Cioccolato, a decadent chocolate dessert. For the recipe, see my rendition here
Antichi (way, way in the far back), a confection inspired by an ancient Roman recipe: baked pastry baskets filled with honey, almonds, raisins and pine nuts
Pastiera, the quintessential Neapolitan Easter cake made with wheat, ricotta and just a drop of orange blossom essence
Apple strudels, they come in any size, shape and form
And away, hidden in a far nook, a majestic bottle of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, a damn fine Champagne

Mar 19, 2009

Zeppole di San Giuseppe

March 19th is the day of San Giuseppe. On this festive occasion, the Catholic Church honors Joseph, Mary's husband and one heck of a dedicated foster daddy. I like to think that for this reason, Italy conjunctively celebrates Father's Day, and these delicious fritters are the traditional festa fare.

People named Giuseppe are especially lucky here in Italy. On the day of San Giuseppe, their onomastico (saint name day) is enthusiastically celebrated throughout Italy. So auguri to all the Giuseppe, Peppe, Peppino, Beppe, Joseph, and Joe!

San Giuseppe also is the name of these festive zeppole. Pastry shops and local friggitorie – typical deep-fried food stands – churn them at an astonishing rhythm: that's because eating zeppole on March 19th is another one of those traditions that must be observed. 

The dough for Zeppole di San Giuseppe is prepared similarly to that for choux, also known locally as bigné. The main difference lies in the zeppole's lower butter content (healthier) and the cooking procedure: while bigné are baked in the oven, zeppole are instead deep-fried (action which nullifies previously attained health benefit). But why worry about calories? It's Father's Day. time to celebrate.

As promised, here's the recipe, Rosaria.

For the zeppole (yields about a dozen):

200 g (1 cup) all purpose flour, sifted
200 ml (1 cup) water
4 medium eggs
1/2 tsp cornstarch
100 g (1/2) butter, softened

For the creamy filling:

4 leveled tbsp flour, sifted
The rind or 1 small, organic lemon, closely trimmed of white pith
150 gr (3/4-cup) sugar
A vanilla bean (slit open lengthwise and scraped), or 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
The yolks of 4 very fresh eggs
500 ml (2 cups) whole milk
2 tbsp confectioner's sugar
A handful of Amarene (sour cherries stored in syrup)

The first thing you should prepare is the custard, crema pasticcera. Boil the milk with the vanilla and the lemon peel. 

In the meantime, lightly whisk the yolks and the sugar in a large mixing bowl to obtain a frothy mixture. Add the flour and keep stirring with a wooden spoon for roughly 4 minutes. Fish out and remove the vanilla pod (if you're using it) and the lemon rind, and combine with the eggy mixture in a deep saucepan.

Continue cooking the custard over mild heat until it barely reaches a slow boil. Count to 120 while stirring constantly and it's done. Note: depending on your eggs and milk, the crema pasticcera may thicken to the proper consistency before it boils. It should reach a point where it roughly resembles the texture of commercially sold firm yogurt.

Transfer the crema pasticcera to a bowl and let it cool, gently stirring it often to keep a "skin" from forming across the top.

Now onto the zeppole. Set the water, butter and a pinch of salt to heat, and when bubbles form on the bottom of the pot (it shouldn't come to a full boil) add the flour in one single swoop and stir constantly with a wooden spoon for 10 minutes. 

Remove from the stove and transfer the mixture to another clean vessel to allow it to cool at room temperature. Stir in the eggs one by one into a smooth, firm and homogeneous dough.

Cut 5-inch squares of parchment or oiled paper, and place on a large work surface.

Stuff the dough in a Ziploc bag and snip off a corner of it, using it as a "sac à poche" pastry chef's pocket. Squeeze out the dough to form 3-inch doughnuts and rest each on the parchment paper squares, keep in the fridge for another 20 minutes.

Frying the zeppole is tricky. Neapolitans insist on this procedure, and I'm reporting it as instructed by an eminent homemaker. 

You need 2 separate frying pans on the burners: in one the oil is warm, the other it is piping hot. In the first warm one, the zeppole puff up and detach from the paper, in the second they turn golden and crisp. 
I suggest you fry 2 zeppole per pan at a time, removing them as they reach the desired golden hue. 

Drain on a paper towel and cool before garnishing: slit them open and slather with your custard, recomposing the "sandwich" on a serving plate. Complete with a dusting of confectioner's sugar and a couple of syrupy amarena sour cherries per fritter. Park on your lap and prepare for ecstasy.

Happy Father's Day, Daddy.

Image © Sarti del Gusto

Mar 18, 2009

Spaghetti Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino


Today I'm serving up one of my favorite easy home-cooked recipes. It's the Italian cook's ode to simplicity. I love it sthe point of having named my blog after it, Spaghetti Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino.

Aio e oio, like we say in the Eternal City, is a classic Roman pasta dish. It's made with very few basic ingredients, so it works as a perfect fix when the pantry's empty and no one's bothered to go grocery shopping. Essential is the starchy pasta cooking water.

2 garlic cloves (or more to taste), finely chopped
1 dried peperoncino (red chili pepper), crumbled, or more to taste. Some may prefer to use fresh chili
100 ml (2/3 cup) extra virgin olive oil
Fresh basil (or parsley), finely chopped
400 g (14 oz) spaghetti

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil and cook the spaghetti. This will take about 9 minutes so you'll have to budget you timing at the stove wisely.

While the pasta cooks, sauté the minced garlic and peperoncino in the oil until the garlic is golden, 2-3 minutes. Add the basil/parsley to the pan, and remove from the stove.

Drain the spaghetti al dente, that is, nearly but not quite done and still a bit chalky in the middle.  About 2-3 minutes before the box says. IMPORTANT: reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking liquid.

When the oil has cooled for a couple of minutes, add 1/2 cup of pasta cooking water, and reduce over high heat by about half. This will take a few seconds.
Add the pasta, and stir vigorously as it continues to cook. Add the reserved pasta water a little at a time as necessary to finish cooking the pasta, and develop the thickened cremina sauce. Season with salt, and bring to the table.

Please do not serve dusted with grated Parmigiano or Pecorino Romano. Some folks do, including some Romans. I don't. Toasted breadcrumbs are an option.

Buon Appetito!

Mar 17, 2009

In defense of my vice: eating

How did I start? Survival. 

It all started with me sucking formula from a graded bottle. I then matured to stuffing handfuls of seafood risotto in my 2 year-old mouth, and now that I have grown into a skilled eater, I have reaped numerous satisfactions in the kitchen and generated a bad relationship with my scale. It reads oddly high numbers, especially after gastronomic epiphanies and wine tasting classes. I am a slave to my palate.

As an enthusiast gourmand and proud glutton, I will never quit the exaggerated abuse of food, whatever the midriff consequences. 

My addiction to the delectable governs me. 

I pledge my loyalty to the oyster and the tagliatella. 
I worship the simple tuber and the sophisticated truffle. 
I pay obeisance to the heirloom tomato, the noble garlic and complex extra virgin olive oil. 
I am one with the calamari and the bufala. 
My deep-burrowing Italian roots intertwine with the origins of my past-life Aztec adoration for chocolate. 

Unhindered, I stand by my vice, feeding its craving and honoring it exuberantly three times a day.
Happy St. Paddy's Day!

Mar 16, 2009

Mamma's Pasta e Ceci

Dinner and a Movie, this month's installment features 1987 Norman Jewison hit Moonstruck. In Italy this film was called Stregata dalla Luna.

I remember watching this film and drooling over its many food-related images. The sequences taking place in Brooklyn restaurants, the fornaio oven (tended by a young Nicholas Cage) churning warm Italian rosette buns and sfilatini baguettes, home-cooked meals and one particular scene where Cher and Olympia Dukakis (playing her mother) prepare breakfast during a heated conversation: eggs fried in a crumbless slice of sourdough bread, a dash of tomato concentrate, a jug of freshly brewed coffee and sizzling strips of greasy bacon. Hardly the Italian iconic prima colazione that first comes to mind, but oh, so yummy looking. Most of the comedy’s dialogue scenes take place with the family gathered around the kitchen table, and Grandpa dispensing wisdom and humor with each bite.

pasta e ceci italian chickpea soup

I wish to honor that same homey Italian family tradition that fills my household, by contributing my mother's famed Pasta e Ceci. The Italian thick creamy chickpeas mixed in with pasta is among my favorite soups for all seasons. A steaming bowl can replete lost energy and warmth in frosty winter nights; while the chilled version refreshes with each spoonful during sweltering Roman summers. My mom's rendition is by far the best I've ever tasted, and I know my ceci.

4 cans (200gr / 14 oz each) chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans), rinsed
2 tbsp unbleached flour, leveled
2 garlic cloves
2 sprigs rosemary
1 liter (1 quart) vegetable stoc
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 pot of water
150 g (3/4 cup) maltagliati or mixed pasta

Prepare a mazzetto odoroso (or, bouquet garni) by placing the rosemary and the garlic in a knotted cheesecloth or gauze.
Whir one of the cans of chickpeas in the blender and set aside.
Put all the ingredients – except the stock and blended ceci – in a large stewpot, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer lightly for 1 hour over a gentle flame, seasoning to taste.

In a small saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons each of olive oil and flour and cook for 10 minutes, stirring constantly over very low heat. Add 1 ladle of vegetable stock to obtain a creamy, white sauce. Stir this into the simmering soup, along with the blended chickpeas. Remove the herbal pouch and add the pasta, cooking it directly in the soup, until done. Serve piping hot with a thread of raw olive oil and freshly ground black pepper.

Note: For the cold, summer version, simply reserve 2 cups of creamy broth aside, cool the soup down before refrigerating, and then add the re-hydrating broth back before serving (otherwise the pasta will continue to absorb the liquid long after cooking and become too cement-like).

Loretta Castorini: Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been two months since my last confession.
Priest: What sins have you to confess?
Loretta Castorini: Twice I took the name of the Lord in vain, once I slept with the brother of my fiancee, and once I bounced a check at the liquor store, but that was really an accident.
Priest: Then it's not a sin. But... what was that second thing you said, Loretta?

Mar 13, 2009

A song about Venice

It's been 3 years since my last time with old Venice. It's time to go back.

Venice is like an aging prostitute. The kajal around her eyes is bleeding and her dress is tattered, but her sensuality and bohemian manner are intoxicating still. I am a slave to her hypnotic charms. Getting lost in Venezia's sage-green fog, winding calle alleys and mysterious secrets is exhilarating.
Venice is a reward for the senses. Her beauty is breathtaking, decadent and Byzantine. And then there is that smell. The smell of Venice is like no other place in the world. One needs to get used to it, then it becomes a drug. The best season in the most beautiful city made by man is winter. No crowds, no tourists, no noise. Just the sound of languid canal water lapping the sides of the gondola, the distant wailing horn that announces high tide and the mystique hidden inside the fascinating buildings lined in frayed rich damask brocades.

A brisk morning walk across the Accademia Bridge, a long glance from la Salute, taking in the lagoon and a few minutes spent watching a man repair a boat on the side of a hidden canal are enough to replete lost bliss. All I want is simply walk and walk, lose my direction and then relax with a couple of ombre (shot-sized stem glasses of chilled dry, white wine) in anticipation of one of the day’s multiple delicious meals. The most common feeling in Venice is that of a mild inebriation: a full scale city-induced Stendhal Syndrome. Too much beauty can do that.

Mar 12, 2009

Blueberry streusel recipe

blueberry streusel recipe

I left the house bright and early, with self-gratification and coccole (cuddles) on my mind. After a 30 minute jog and an invigorating apricot body scrub, I sashayed into the Thai day spa for a herbal facial and a 90-minute Ayurvedic massage. 

Coming back home, floating on cloud 9, I left all tensions behind and… baked streusel. The beauty treatment is a 360° affair, is it not?

While E. helped by grinding the roast beans for my steaming demitasse of afternoon espresso, I whisked today’s ultimate merenda reward: blueberry coffee cake.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
A pinch of salt
200 g (1 cup) granulated sugar
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
100 gr (1/2 cup) hazelnuts, coarsely chopped
100 gr (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, plus more for greasing (softened)
3 small eggs
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
200 g (1 cup) plain yogurt
200 g (1 cup) fresh blueberries (OK, thaw the frozen kind)
2 large eggs

For the streusel topping:

50 g (1/4 cup) pastry flour
100 g (1/2 cup) granulated sugar
50 g (1/4 cup) butter, cold and cut into small pieces

Preheat oven to 180° C (356° F).
Grease a 9-inch square cake pan with butter and dust it with flour.
Whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt.
In a large bowl, stir together the granulated sugar, cinnamon and hazelnuts. Beat in the butter at medium speed bursts until fluffy. If necessary, use the back of a spoon to press out any lumps. Break in the eggs, one at a time, beating until fully combined, and then finally stir in the vanilla and yogurt.
Add the flour mixture in 2 batches, stirring until just combined (over-stirring will make the batter harden), and fold in half the blueberries.

Spread half of the batter into the prepared pan, it will be quite sticky and messy, you can use a silicone spatula to make things easier. Sprinkle the nut mixture over the batter and top with the remaining blueberries. Spoon the rest of the batter into the pan, smoothing the top.
Make the streusel topping by mixing together flour and sugar in a bowl, rubbing the butter into the flour mixture with your fingers to form coarse blibby crumbs. Sprinkle these over the cake and bake until a dry spaghetti strand (or a toothpick) inserted in the center comes out clean, about 35 to 40 minutes.
Let the cake cool slightly while you brew your coffee, and then unmold. Allow it to cool completely on a wire rack (I hardly ever obey this last instruction) before cutting into 2-inch squares and applying to face.

Mar 11, 2009

Riso al Salto recipe

Here's my favorite suggestion for using leftovers of whatever wonderful risotto you'll have made. The dish is called riso al salto (where 'salto' means jump, a reference that will become clear soon). It is a family legacy dish of which I am very fond. Comfort food to the nth degree.

When I prepare risotto I usually make what I consider enough for however many people I am planning to feed, but it usually happens that I have more than a portion left, which the day after I use to make riso al salto. Add an egg for each cup of risotto and mix to incorporate well.
Generously grease a non-stick frying pan. I use butter, but you can use olive oil. Add the risotto, spread it and pat it down with a fork to form a patty. Let it warm up on low heat until a crisp golden crust forms on the bottom surface, then flip it and land it on the other side. That's the salto I was talking about.

Of course I meant that metaphorically. The idea is that you need to upturn the patty. This is not too difficult if you start with a small portion of risotto to begin with. A wide spatula may be enough to hold the risotto, then it is a matter of fearlessness and a steady hand. Alternatively, you can place a large enough lipless lid over the riso and upend the pan so that the bottom surface comes out on top and then you can slide the uncripsed side of the riso patty back in the pan.

Whatever the chosen method for the salto, let the uncooked side (now at the bottom) become golden as well, and then transfer to a warmed plate. Dust with grated Parmigiano and serve hot alongside a fresh mesculun salad.

Buon appetito.

Italian fish & seafood names, translated

When I post fish and seafood recipes, I always try to keep the species and names as precise as possible, but in converting many of the local varieties into English, some usually slip out of the fishnet and get lost in translation.

I've put together a list of common Italian marine species, with Latin binomial and English translations which may help you decide what might work as a substitute, should the Mediterranean catch I mention not be available where you live.

Aguglia: Gar-fish (Belone belone) – The near absence of bones makes this fish a favorite among Italian children. Curious trait, unlike most other fish, the few bones aguglie do have are green!

Anguilla: European Eel (Anguilla anguilla) – A snakelike fish that lives in fresh water, and breeds in the sea. An urban legend states that wallets made out of electric eels can demagnetize credit cards. This was proven to be untrue, eel-skin wallets are infact made from hagfish which are unrelated to electric eels. Furthermore, it seems logic that magnetic clasps, not eel leather, are to blame for demagnetization.

Alice/Acciuga: European anchovy (Engraulis encrasicolus) – The silvery European anchovy travels in large schools, which help confuse predators. These small fish (reaching only 15 cm, or 5-6 inches maximum) normally hug the coastline in shallow waters. Alici can be prepared in a variety of ways, deep fried, grilled, sometimes even eaten raw as ceviche. Anchovies are also proverbially canned, pureed into a paste, or preserved in salt, and are used in many sauces and condiments.

Aringa: Atlantic Herring (Clupea harengus) – Herring are among the most spectacular schoolers, they aggregate together in groups of hundreds of thousands of individuals. North Atlantic herring schools have been measured up to 4 cubic kilometers in size, containing an estimated 4 billion fish.

Aragosta: Mediterranean Lobster (Palinurus elephas) – This is a spiny lobster, customarily caught in the Mediterranean Sea. Its common names include European spiny lobster, common spiny lobster, and red lobster.

Astice Europeo: European Lobster (Homarus gammarus) – The European lobster is solitary, nocturnal and territorial, living in holes or crevices in the sea floor during the day. In the summer, lobsters seek mates often in rival corridors but, occasionally, they will look to their own territory to quench their wild crustacean lust. These sybaritic migrations are the peak time for lobster fishery.

Branzino/Spigola: European Seabass (Dicentrarchus labrax) – This fish has come under increasing pressure from commercial fishing, and has recently become the focus of a conservation effort by recreational anglers. In Italy the seabass is subject of intensive breeding in salt waters. Some sustainable Branzino aquaculture farms raise their precious fish inland, far from coastal waters where wild fish feed and breed. But this raises the question of refuse disposal...

Calamaro Europeo: Squid (Loligo vulgaris) – This versatile little creature is virtually a small engineering miracle. Especially in the kitchen: the body of the squid can be stuffed whole, cut into flat squares or sliced into rings for Frittura di Calamari. The arms, tentacles and ink are also edible; in fact, the only parts of the squid that are not eaten are its beak and gladius (long thin hard horny remnant of its evolved mollusk shell).

Capasanta: Pilgrim scallop (Pecten jacobaeus) – The scallop shell is the traditional emblem of Saint James the Greater and is popular with pilgrims on the Way of St. James to the apostle's shrine at Santiago de Compostela, in Spain. Medieval Christians making the pilgrimage to his shrine often wore a scallop shell symbol on their hat or clothes. The pilgrim also carried a scallop shell with him and would show at churches, castles, and abbeys etc. along the way, where he could expect to be given as much sustenance as he could pick up with one scoop. The association of Saint James with the scallop can most likely be traced to the legend that the apostle once rescued a knight covered in scallops. An alternate version of the legend holds that while St. James' remains were being transported to Spain from Jerusalem, the horse of a knight fell into the water, and emerged covered in the shells. A darkly romantic and beautiful, dreamlike image.

Carpa: Carp (Cyprinus carpio) – In Victoria, Australia, the invasive common carp has been declared as noxious fish species, there is no restriction therefore on the quantity that a fisher can take. In South Australia, it is an offence for this species to be released back to the wild, and an Australian company churns common carp into plant fertilizer. That's a lot of carp.

Cernia: Dusky Grouper (Epinephelus marginatus) – It is said to have the best taste of all Mediterranean fishes. The Dusky Grouper has a big body with a huge, fat-lipped Mick Jagger mouth, one long dorsal fin and a rounded tail. Its livery varies from brown to green depending on season and age. It is furthermore a protogynous hermaphrodite, product of a common mutation in which the young are predominantly female but transform into males, as they grow larger. With age, and living in a repressed chauvenist society, I'm starting to see the implicit advantages in this bizarre metamorphosis.

Castagnola/Guarracino: Black Damselfish (Chromis chromis) – I have never heard of anybody employing these fish for culinary use. I'm only mentioning them because guarracini are such charming little black fish; they come swimming between your feet in shallow to medium rocky depths. A 1700s tarantella song is dedicated to the small swimmer, and the lyrics narrate the story of the guarracino's troubled marriage to the sardine; the gossip, jealousy and the huge fight that takes place among the wedding reception guest-fishes, all of whom are minutely listed in the song.

Cicale/Canocchie/Canoce: Mantis Shrimp (Squilla mantis) – Mantis shrimp are not really shrimp. They are fierce predators often nicknamed thumb-cutters. Once cooked, their carapace is hard to open, but can be sliced along the bottom and sucked messily with slurping sounds.

Coregone: Lake or Common Whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis) – The Lake whitefish is considered LC (Least Concern) on the IUCN conservation list. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources is an international organization dedicated to natural resource conservation.

Cozze/Mitili: Mussels (Mytilus galloprovincialis) – I remember I was 7 when I got my first cholera shot. The pandemic had hit Naples quite hard and people were dropping like flies. Some say eating raw mussels on the Lungomare may have played some part in the outbreak. My arm hurt for a week after the vaccination, and I've always been careful of not eating raw mussels.

Dentice: Dentex (Dentex dentex) – Dentice is one of the most prized Mediterranean fish. Rich, flavorful, and gains a special something when prepared with rustic tomato sauce or salt roasted. If you live beyond the Mediterranean, Sea Bream or Porgy are excellent substitutes.

Gallinella/Capone/Coccio: Sea Robin, Tub gurnard, Tubfish, Yellow or Grey gurnard (Chelidonichthys lucernus/Eutrigla gurnardus) – The Sea Robin's flesh is delicious, firm and tender when cooked. It serves as adequate replacement to scorfano, in fish stews like Bouillabaisse and the Italian Cacciucco.

Gambero: Northern Prawn or Pink Shrimp (Pandalus borealis) – Many different English names are used, with little consensus (deep-water shrimp, cold-water shrimp, northern shrimp, Alaskan pink shrimp, pink shrimp, northern red shrimp). Often the word shrimp is replaced by prawn, albeit incorrectly.

Grongo: European Conger eel (Conger conger) – Jules Verne-type creature of the deep, conger eels can be quite scary if encountered during deep sea diving, considering the snake-like monsters can measure up to 3 meters (10 ft), and weigh up to 65 kg (143 lbs). As a child I once saw one hauled off a fishing boat onto the pier in Positano, and the image made such an intense impression, that it haunted my dreams (and swims) for many days after. As an adult, I tasted it both baked and fried. And never really developed a liking to it.

Lampuga: Dolphinfish, Dorado or Mahi-mahi (Coryphaena hippurus) Mahi-mahi dwells in Mediterranean waters too, don’t let the Polynesian name fool you. In Sicily, especially in the area around Porto Palo of the island's southern Capo Passero for example, fishermen weave plam-leaf floating "carpets" tied to a heavy anchored weight, creating a large shadow area in the lampuga inhabited coastal waters. This system takes advantage of the mahi-mahi's typical behavior of hanging out in shadowy patches near the coastline during daylight hours. It is a highly appreciated food, but beware: some restaurants will substitute any soft flaky white fish instead of real mahi mahi because it is cheaper.

Lompo: Lumpsucker (Cyclopterus lumpus) – Its translucent orange eggs are used as a delicious and affordable alternative to the wildly expensive caviar produced by sturgeons.

Mazzancolle: Caramote Prawns (Penaeus kerathurus) – Very, very tasty custaceans. These prawns can be quite large, and more richly colored than most common pink shrimp. Because of their quality, size and colors, mazzancolle are sometimes called Gambero Imperiale, or imperial shrimp.

Merlano/Molo/Moletto: Whiting (Merlangius merlangus) – another Atlantic cod-like fish whose eggs travel with Gulf stream currents across oceans, and down from Britain to our enclosed Italian seas.

Merluzzo: Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) – Not a Mediterranean fish, however Italians consume large quantities of cod. On the Italian table, cod can be either "stoccafisso" (dried cod) or "baccalà" (salted cod).

Marmora/Mormora/Pagro: Redbanded Seabream or Red Porgy (Pagrus auriga) – Red porgy may be sold as "Tai" in sushi restaurants. Then again several other species, including tilapia, red sea bream and red snapper are also marketed as Tai...

Muggine/Cefalo: Flathead Grey Mullet (Mugil cephalus) – Its essiccated roe is called bottarga, which is commonly grated on seasoned spaghetti; or eaten sliced as an appetizer during Roman Jewish saders.

Nasello: European Hake (Merluccius merluccius) – Many stocks in Northern Europe are over-fished, and hake are a slow-growing, late maturing species, that makes them vulnerable to over-exploitation. Plus, the methods used to catch hake – midwater trawls and gill nets – are associated with a high capture rate of immature fish which are discarded, and also kill dolphins. I boycot hake.

Occhiata: Saddled bream (Oblada melanura) – Occhiata means "glance," and this fish has indeed very large eyes. It's easily recognizeable also by the dark stripe at the beginning of the tail.

Ombrina: European Drum, Bearded Umbrine, Shi Drum or Corb (Umbrina cirrosa) – belong to the scaienidae family, which is better known as "drums or croakers." Drum fish and croaker fish are differentiated by whether they produce a drumming sound or a croaking sound when they pop their heads above the water. They like to live in rocky environments.

Orata: Gilt-head Seabream (Sparus aurata) – Gilt-head seabreams are very popular in Italian fish markets, and along with sole fish, among the fisrt to be fed to small children.

Ostrica: Oyster (Crassostrea gigas) – Italians love their Belon and oysters, and even if wisdom dictates to never eat them in summer, when they are filled with milk and can spoil easily because of the heat, I've recently enjoyed the Tsarskaya variety that is farmed at extreme depths, and can be eaten safely year round.

Parago/Pagello/Fragolino: Pandora (Pagellus erythrinus) – Not home to the Na'vi, rather a popular fish species in Mediterranean countries, with delicate white flesh, silver in color and with a pink tinge. Perhaps this is why in Italy its most common name is "fragolino," which is a diminutive term associated with the idea of a little strawberry.

Passera di mare/Platessa: European Plaice (Pleuronectes platessa) – Breaded frozen plaice fillets, ready to be baked or fried at home, are readily available in Italian supermarkets. Plaice is very similar to halibut.

Persico: Perch (Perca fluviatilis) – Prized fresh-water fish, and used in a variety of Italian recipes.

Pezzogna: Bluespotted, Red or Blackspot Seabream (Pagellus bogaraveo) – A very similar fish to Pandora or Snapper. On the Amalfi coast this is the fish most commonly cooked all'acqua pazza.

Polpo/Polipo: Octopus (Octopus vulgaris) – Common Octopus is intelligent enough to learn how to unscrew a jar and is proverbially known to raid lobster traps. Octopi are so gluttonous of and feared by the posh crustaceans, that if one should inadvertently be dropped in a lobster tank, a heart attack would decimate the clawed creatures in a matter of seconds. I've seen it happen in a Viareggio restaurant. Among the other stunned patrons, I got complimentary lobster that night. The waiter culprit, on the other hand, got fired.

Rana Pescatrice or Coda di Rospo: Anglerfish or Monkfish (Lophius piscatorius) – Aka "one of the ugliest fish in the sea." Because of the fish's innate appearance, many market stalls display monkfish either turned upside down or skinned, selling only the tail ends, where the edible flesh is. Monkfish are usually caught using bottom trawls, a method that can damage seafloor habitat and often results in high accidental by-catch of other species that are then discarded. Monkfish are also caught using gill nets; this can result in the accidental catch and death of sea turtles and marine mammals.

Razza/Arzilla: Thornback ray (Raja clavata) – Like all rays it has a flattened body with broad, wing-like pectoral fins. The body is kite-shaped with a long, spiky tail, and the back is covered in numerous thorny spines. Ray is not a prized fish, and in Italy it's often used in simple preparations, to add flavor to fish stews, soups and pasta dishes. A typical Roman specialty is a soup made with broccoli and ray.

Riccio di Mare: Sea Urchin (Echinoidea) – Female sea urchins can be black, or dull shades of green, olive, brown, purple, and red. They are harvested primarily for their gonads (reproductive organs) which are referred to by the culinary term "roe," a true delicacy. Urchin roe is a popular sushi item, sold under the Japanese name Uni. Urchin roe is served in a variety of forms including with rice, preserved in brine and alcohol and salt and in casseroles. I snorkel and harvest my own, eating them raw straight from the sea. Delicious!

Ricciola: Amberjack (Seriola dumerilii) – Amberjack tend to like the high seas, and are delicately flavored, with firm, white flesh. They can be quite large, so I usually purchase ricciola in fillets and grill or bake them with just a touch of olive oil, lemon and breadcrumbs.

Rombo chiodato: Turbot (Psetta maxima) – Turbot is a large flat fish, whose flesh is very tasty, especially oven-baked with potatoes. The Italian name, rombo chiodato, means 'full of nails' referring to the presence of spiny knobs on its dark upper surface that look like nail heads.

Salmone: Salmon (Salmo salar) – Consuming wild-caught or sustainably farmed salmon is considered to be reasonably healthy due to the fish's high protein, high Omega3 fatty acids, and high vitamin D content. Here is a splendid salmon recipe shared here by a British Columbia friend and fellow foodie.

San Pietro: John Dory (Zeus faber) – This beautiful (and pricey) fish is recognizeable by its bizarre, almost prehistoric shape, frayed dorsal fin and the distinctive pair of spots on its sides. I love to bake it whole and spend hours picking away at its heavy bones, or splitting it into 4 fillets and cooking it briefly all'acqua pazza, with just a hint of fresh tomatoes and a thread of olive oil.

Sarago: White Seabream (Diplodus sargus) – When this hermaphrodite fish goes in heat, its forehead turns blue. The firm and tasty flesh is very similar to Porgy, and it is best broiled, grilled or poached.

Sarda/Sardina: Sardine (Sardina pilchardus) – Sardines (or Pilchards) are very common in the Mediterranean (and not only). Most associate sardines with canned fish, but the fresh fish are so much better tasting.

Scampi: Norwegian lobster, Dublin Bay prawn, Langoustine (Nephrops norvegicus) – Many names for the large spiny prawns with claws that grace the Italian table. Several shrimp and prawn farmers worldwide are experimenting with innovative aquaculture methods such as enclosed, recirculating systems that filter wastewater and can be located far from the coast, reducing impact on the environment, and thus also rearing healthier crustaceans.

Scorfano: Scorpionfish (Scorpaena scrofa) – This fish is the key element in Livorno's signature fish stew, Cacciucco. With the tastiest inner cheeks in nature, scorfano's ugly face conceals 2 prized morsel for connoisseurs.

Seppia: European or Common Cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis) – Cuttlefish–and its black ink–are starring ingredients in the Italian cuisine, gracing risotto, entrées and pasta dishes. Eugenio Montale's ground breaking debut collection of poetry "Ossi di Seppia" (Cuttlefish Bones) was published in Turin in 1925. Montale, who grew up in Liguria along the Mediterranean Sea, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1975, for his long and prolific career. Montale's Cuttlefish Bones remains one of the best-known and influential collections of Italian 20th-century poetry.

Sgombro: Mackerel (Scomber scombrus) – Its high oil content makes this particular fish loved by nutritionists and cholesterol patients, and shunned by dieting supermodels. Lovely grilled and roasted, or pickled. The canned kind is excellent squeezed of its packing oli, crumbled over salad, and dressed with just a splash of lemon juice, and some dill.

Siluro: Wels catfish (Silurus glanis) – A gigantic fresh water behemoth. In the North, particularly in areas neighboring the River Po, children have long been terrorized by the pesce siluro and his predatory reputation; "If you don't eat your dinner, the siluro is going to leap out of the Po and eat you in one gulp". This sort of 'educating' behavior is however sustained by disquieting facts: oftentimes, amateur fishermen have been known to misteriously disappear during angling excursions on the sandy banks of Italy's major river, and the largest accurate weight of recreationally angled local Wels was 144 kg (317 lbs) for a 2,78 mt (9 ft)–long specimen from precisely the Po River Delta. Brrr...

Sogliola: Common, Atlantic or Dover Sole (Solea solea) – Sole play a starring role on the Italian dinner table, and are among the first fish most Italian kids eat. Scrupulous mothers prepare it 'al piatto' (cooked between two plates over boiling water), my mini-gourmet prefers it floured and quickly sauteed in butter, 'alla mugniaia,' the Italian equivalent of the French meunière.

Spada: Swordfish (Xiphias gladius) – Because of their massive size – an average swordfish weighs aropuns 100 lbs – they're usually sold as steaks.
Health Alert: The nonpartisan nature advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund has issued a consumption advisory for swordfish due to elevated levels of mercury.

Spatola/Pesce Sciabola: Silver Scabbardfish (Lepidopus caudatus) – Silver scabbardfish are deep-water fish despite their looks, are molto delicious. They're easy to prepare (no scales!) and loved by kids, simply dredged in flour, fried, and served drizzled with lemon juice.

Sugarello/Suro: Atlantic horse mackerel (Trachurus trachurus) – Sugarello gets its English name from the legend that other smaller species of fish could ride on the back of it over great distances. Other names include Common Scad, Maasbanker, Pollock, Saurel, and Rough Scad. Sugarello is also known to be a voracious jellyfish eater.

Tonno: Northern Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus thynnus) – The tonnara (tuna fishing village ) of San Vito Lo Capo is a stunning place. The crystal waters are so inviting and clean, you are driven to dive in. When I visited I was 3 months pregnant and enjoying the end of morning sickness season. That's where I first learned about the slaughter called mattanza and how the entire community survived on that seasonal activity.

Tonno Alalunga: Albacore (Thunnus alalunga) – A number of programs have been developed to help consumers identify and support responsible and sustainable fisheries. Perhaps the most widely accepted of these is that of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). After extensive review of the best available science, MSC declared the U.S. North and South Pacific albacore pole and line, and troll fisheries ("pole & troll") as the first and only certified sustainable tuna fisheries in the world. The MSC certification program establishes that the seafood product is traceable to the certified sustainable fishery. By purchasing products bearing the MSC blue tick eco-label, consumers express their support for sustainable fisheries and encourage the use of sound fishing methods that promote the future health and abundance of ocean ecosystems.

Tonnetto: Bullet Tuna, Maru Frigate Mackerel or Little Tunny (Auxis rochei) – There are many other members of the tuna family, like for example the tonnetto, which is identified as bullet tuna, or little tunny.

Totano: Broadtail Shortfin Squid, or Flying Squid (Todarodes sagittatus) – Totani resemble calamari, the common squid, but with differently placed fins and a more elongated body. They can also be larger, like common squid and octopus, but the smaller specimens are overall better tasting and textured.

Triglia: Striped Red Mullet and Surmullet (Mullus barbatus, Mullus surmuletus) – There are two closely related species. One is Tiglia di Scoglio, or reef mullet; the fish are larger, and live in rocky sea bottoms. The other is Triglia di Fango, or mud mullet, paler in color than reef mullet, and smaller.

Trota: Trout (Salmo trutta) – Lake brown trout are quite common in Italian fish markets, given the many waterways and laghi.

Telline: Wedge shells (Donax trunculus) – Also called arselle in Italian, telline are tiny, wedge-shaped smooth clams that live in the sand banks close to the shore.
Commercially, telline are fished by boats carrying nets that drag through kilometres of the superficial layer of the sand banks, a huge environmental no-no.
Unfortunately, like many other sea creatures they've been overharvested and are not as common as they once were. The only testimony of their popularity is the few empty shells washed up on the shore after the tide goes out. Silent early morning walks on the sandy beach, and picking up empty telline shells is my son’s favorite meditation technique. I associate bruschetta topped with garlic sautéed telline to the flavor of Roman summer. At the Mastino seafood restaurant in Fregene – a coastal resort town just south of Rome's Fiumicino sea/airport – you can still get some under the counter.

Vongole: Striped Venus Clams (Venerupis aurea) – There are several clam varieties in Italy, like the renown Vongole Veraci, (Venerupis decussata) identified as Carpet Shell clams, or Tartufi (Venus verrucosa), or the small, striped Vongole poveracce, known in the English speaking world as Venus clams. All work wonderfully with sauteed garlic and a dash of parsley. Spaghetti and colatura di alici are welcome companions.

Cicenielli, Gianchetti or Bianchetti is the name attributed to any kind of baby catch, very small, jelly-like and transparent, prepared either steamed or fried in a light batter. Other names such as Allievi (pupils), Neonata (newborn) or Latterini (local whitebait) designate other varieties of small newborn fishes. Only the latter can be bought without infringing the law, since latterini are a particular species that never grows larger than their 2–inch size, while as far as the others kinds of newborn catch mentioned, their marketing is illegal. In fact whitebait generally consists of immature herring, sprat, sardines, mackerel, bass and many others, therefore a non-ecologicial foodstuff.

Fravaglio, on the other hand are the slightly larger (but only a few centimeter long) minnow-shaped young fish types, like for example fravaglio di triglia, is what's intended for young striped red mullets; fravaglio di alici, young anchovies. These are typically deep fried and eaten whole in the famed Fritto di Paranza, splashed with lemon juice and paired with a raw cipolla scamazzata, an onion whose juices and flavor have been released by a strong overhand punch.

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