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Tom and I are just back from a week’s birding trip to Eastern Washington. That’s the dry side of the state, protected by the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains. We’d hoped to encounter good Pacific Northwest regional foods there, as well as many bird species that aren’t found in our part of the country.

Overall, we had fine weather, beautiful scenery at several altitudes, a congenial group of fellow birders, and reasonably successful birding. (We missed a few target species, e.g., Golden Eagle, Varied Thrush, Ferruginous Owl.) The food, however, mostly disappointed. Too much of it was anonymous American, inferior Italian, or ubiquitous salmon. Even so, there were some interesting and memorable dishes.

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At one dinner, my appetizer was called Wood Oven Clams. I hadn’t known you could oven-roast clams, so this was a new pleasure for me. They were sweet, tender Manila clams, as moist as if they’d been steamed open but with a bit more depth of flavor from the roasting, and with a refreshing burst of seasoning with butter, herbs, and fresh lime juice.
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Tom’s main course that evening was Cioppino, made with shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari, and some sort of white fish. Obviously not a specialty of this high-altitude area so far from the sea – but it was very good: hearty and delicate at the same time, as fresh and enjoyable a fish stew as one could hope for.
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At another dinner we shared an appetizer of grilled venison bratwurst with hot bacon-cabbage slaw, roasted fingerling potatoes, grainy mustard, and fresh applesauce. The venison may well have come from local mule deer, which were commonly seen in our forest walks. This was a dish for hearty mountain appetites: It could easily have been a main course for one of us.
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From the bratwurst we went on to share an excellent cheese fondue made from a blend of Gruyere, Asiago, and Swiss, with white wine. The dipping ingredients were a heaping plate of grilled sausage, roasted potatoes and carrots, steamed broccolini, bread cubes, grapes, and apple slices. Again, this was meant as an appetizer for two, but it was plenty as a main course for us.
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Finally and quite unexpectedly, for lunch at a cheerful roadside Mexican joint, we enjoyed fish tacos and tacos al carbon, both as lively and good as any we’ve had in the Southwest or elsewhere. A pleasant, spicy change from the milder flavors we’d mostly been experiencing.

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With only four days in Naples on our Italian trip earlier this month, there was no way Beloved Spouse and I could eat as many of the region’s foods and culinary specialties as we’d have liked. So we focused on – and feasted on – the many excellent kinds of fresh fish and shellfish available there. The beautiful Bay of Naples may not be the pristine pool it once was, but the local seafood remains spectacular in variety and flavor. Here are the dishes we enjoyed.

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Crudo

The word crudo means raw. Appetizer plates of raw fish are very popular in Italy. This one consisted of tender, paper-thin slices of baby octopus and salmon, lightly dressed with olive oil, lemon, and salt, and served on a bed of wild arugula. The interplay of the succulent octopus, the silky salmon, and the mildly bitter arugula was superb.
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Impepata di cozze

Years ago we knew cozze impepata as Neapolitan street food. Sidewalk vendors tended huge drums of boiling salt water heavily flavored with black pepper. They’d suspend a big bunch of mussels over the drum in a perforated dipper, pour water over them until they opened, and dump them onto a paper plate to be eaten with the hands. In this day’s restaurant dish, the mussels were steamed in their own broth, with garlic and oil as well as pepper. Each way, the glory of the simple preparation depends on very fresh, sweet, wild-harvested shellfish. And lots of pepper.

 

Spaghetti alle vongole veraci

This version of spaghetti with clam sauce, from the harborside restaurant La Bersagliera, may be my absolute, all-time, life-long favorite dish of pasta. I order it every time I’m there. Those tiny two-tube clams, the vongole veraci, have more luscious flavor and more intense sweetness here than in any other place and any part of Italy that I’ve ever had them. There’s not much else to the dish – olive oil, parsley, garlic, salt, and a touch of hot pepper – but either the clams from this locality or the way this kitchen handles them produces something purely magical.

 

Scialatelli con frutta di mare

Here are those marvelous mussels and clams again, in another kind of presentation. Scialatelli are fresh egg pasta, cut into a shape like thickish spaghetti but with a softer texture and milder flavor.  The lightly cooked pomodorini – cherry tomatoes – added a bright touch of sweet vegetable acidity to the rich shellfish flavors.

 

Mezze paccheri con coccio

It’s a Naples tradition to serve large tubes of paccheri pasta in a sauce made with chunks of the fish locally called coccio. It’s a kind of gurnard: a big-headed, bottom-feeding fish with large side fins like wings, a relative of our Atlantic sea robins. In America, sea robins are usually considered trash fish, but that whole family can be quite delicious, as Neapolitans know.  Another piscine relative is France’s rascasse, considered indispensable to bouillabaisse.

 

Frittura di paranza

The heap of small fishes on this plate included anchovies, tiny mullets and whiting, and possibly a sardine or two. Each was thinly coated in a tasty batter and fried to a perfect crunchiness. Lemon juice and salt brought out the best in them. Absolutely fresh fish and a really good hand at the fryer are what make this dish: It’s not “fishy” at all.

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Grigliata di calamari e gamberi

The big grilled squid mantle you see here was very tender, meat-sweet, and quite rich, its flavor heightened by exposure to the flame. The two shrimp were also excellent; I’d have been glad of a few more of them. The little mixed salad alongside made a nice contrast of texture and flavors.

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Spigoletta al forno in sale

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A spigola is a European sea bass, which can be a very large fish. Our smaller spigoletta probably weighed about two pounds when whole. Baked to perfection in a salt crust, it was a splendid fish: moist, rich, sweet, tender. (I know: I keep using the same words to describe these dishes. That’s because they were all like that – utterly delicious examples of their kind.)
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Looking at these dishes all together, it’s obvious that there’s nothing exotic or complicated in their preparation or presentation. Given the right ingredients, they’d all be easy to turn out from an American home kitchen. But oh, those ingredients! It’s nearly impossible to get fish and shellfish so fresh, so fine, and so flavorful here. The opportunity to indulge in them would, all by itself, have made my trip to Naples worthwhile.

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Devotees of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano detective novels enjoy them almost as much for the hero’s eating habits as for his ingenuity in solving crimes. In every story, the police commissario in southwest Sicily takes time to relish the dishes of his region – most of all, those involving seafood – and the descriptions positively make the reader hungry.

montalbano cookbookThey also make this reader want to cook them. I have a number of Sicilian cookbooks and general Italian cookbooks with Sicilian recipes, but when the Montalbano urge is upon me I turn to Stefanio Campo’s I segreti della tavola di Montalbano: Le ricette di Andrea Camilleri. Twice in the last two years I’ve written about making recipes from that book (here and here), so I was due – overdue, in fact – for another indulgence.

Neither of the earlier experiments with the recipes included any seafood, and I was sure Montalbano would want me to make some of those. So, for a dinner party for Labor Day weekend, I chose this menu:

Alici con cipolle e aceto

Sauté di vongole al pangrattato

Pasta con le sarde

Brusciuluni

Granita di limone

Acquiring the necessary fish was a challenge. Fresh anchovies (alici) and fresh sardines (sarde) are rarely and unpredictably available locally. We haunted our fish store for weeks and almost gave up, but at last came a day when both kinds had just come in.

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We bought them at once. Tom heroically undertook the job of heading, tailing, and boning the little critters – a lengthy and maddening procedure – and we put them in the freezer, crossing our fingers that they would still be okay when defrosted.

Truth to tell, we pretty much had fingers crossed about the entire menu, since we’d never made any of those recipes before and there was a lot of translating, modifying, and quantifying to do. It was a busy cooking day for both of us, but well worth it, as it turned out. The rewards were great, from first bite to last swallow.

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Alici con cipolle e aceto

Montalbano’s housekeeper Adelina leaves him this dish of fresh anchovies in The Terracotta Dog. They’re first “cooked” like a séviche in white wine and vinegar, then drained and layered with thinly sliced cipolline – small, flattish Italian onions – covered with olive oil, and allowed to marinate for a few hours.

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They were gorgeous! Still fresh and sweet, with just the right balance of acidity and oil – perfect to pile on a slice of crusty ciabatta bread. Infinitely better than any prepared ones I’ve bought in this country. Even the cleaner/deboner says they were worth the trouble they took.

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Saute di vongole al pangrattato

Montalbano “gobbled up” this sauté of clams with breadcrumbs one day at a restaurant in Mazàra in The Snack Thief. Small clams – vongole veraci – are steamed open in sparkling wine with some garlic and olive oil. Then they’re dressed with parsley, salt, and pepper; laid in a gratin dish, sprinkled with breadcrumbs and olive oil, and baked for 15 minutes.

We can’t get those Mediterranean clams here, but New Zealand cockles are a reasonable substitute. (Small Manila clams will also do.) There is some Sicilian sparkling wine, but the Montalbano recipe calls for prosecco, so we used that and also served it for the aperitivo.

photo by Charles Scicolone

Two photos by Charles Scicolone

This too was an excellent dish. The cockles had a lively, briny sweetness that was heightened by the simple condiments, and despite the seemingly long cooking they remained tender and moist.

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Pasta con le sarde

In The Terracotta Dog, Adelina tells Montalbano she’s going to make him pasta with sardines, to be followed by purpi (octopus) alla carretiera. “Exquisite but deadly,” our hero thinks, and gives her a hug.

This classic, rich Sicilian pasta dish really should be made with very feathery wild fennel, but that doesn’t occur here, so we have to substitute bulb fennel, with some crushed fennel seed to boost the flavor. The freshest possible sardines, cut in pieces, are sauteed in olive oil with chopped onions with some mashed salted anchovy. Cooked, chopped fennel is added, and then raisins, pignoli, and saffron. Bucatini, cooked in the water that boiled the fennel, are tossed with the sauce and the dish topped with toasted breadcrumbs.

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I think this was the best version of the dish I’ve ever tasted (though Tom reminds me of a splendid one we had at a famous seafood restaurant in Rome – Carmelo alla Rosetta – some years back). All the flavors married beautifully in each mouthful, yet still retained their individual goodnesses. Fresh sardines are another animal entirely from the canned ones we all know, and they love the warm, gentle flavor of cooked fennel.

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Brusciuluni

Here we departed from our seafood theme. Brusciuluni is Sicilian dialect for braciolone, a large stuffed and rolled piece of beef. In Un mese con Montalbano (a book of short stories that hasn’t been issued in English yet), one of the inspector’s detectives invites him home to dinner. Fazio asks if his chief would prefer fish or meat. Montalbano knows Signora Fazio is an excellent cook, but also that she comes from an inland town where fish is never available, so he shrewdly chooses meat.

The result is this brusciuluni: a butterflied piece of meat (flank steak, in our case) rolled around a stuffing of caciocavallo, salame, hardboiled eggs, raisins, pignoli, and breadcrumbs. It’s braised in a thin tomato sauce, taken out to cool completely, then sliced, laid out on a platter, and topped with the hot sauce for serving.

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It was an attractive presentation, and a rich and filling course. One slice was all anyone could manage. Here the numerous flavors of the meats and cheese, eggs and herbs blended into an earthy, harmonious unity, an entity different from their individual flavors. Humble as the basic ingredients are, the dish derives from the cooking of the monzùs, the French chefs who served Sicily’s great houses in the 18th century.

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Granita di limone

In contrast to that composed meat course, dessert was a matter of utter simplicity. Adelina regularly makes lemon ice for Montalbano. In The Terracotta Dog, we learn that she uses a one-two-four formula: one glass of lemon juice, two of sugar, and four of water. The inspector considers it “a finger-licking delight.”

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We’d also had a cheese course after the brusciuluni, and the bracing granita was the ideal light finale to the meal. I’d made a test batch a few days in advance, and to my amazement, instead of turning into a mini-iceberg, the soft fluffy crystals retained their shape perfectly in the freezer. This is going to be a regular hot-weather dessert for us now, and a frequent reminder of our many debts to Andrea Camilleri.

P.S.  If you’d like to know about the wines Tom chose to accompany each course of the meal, you’ll find his post about them here.

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Tom and I and our friend Hope recently held one of our periodic cookathons – a full afternoon in the kitchen, composing dishes from some particular cuisine followed by an evening of eating them. Typically, we overextend ourselves, make far more than we three can eat, and have a grand, messy time.

For this dinner we looked to Spain, choosing four recipes from three cookbooks: Teresa Barrenechea’s The Cuisines of Spain, Penelope Casas’s The Foods and Wines of Spain, and The Cooking of Spain and Portugal from the Time-Life Foods of the World series.

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Coca con Pimientos y Tomates
Crusty Flatbread with Roasted Peppers and Tomatoes

This starter was a real star. It looks like merely a pizza-type crust with a vegetable topping, and technically so it is – but that description doesn’t do it justice. The yeast dough was rich with egg, olive oil, and lard. After a 30-minute rise, we patted it thinly into a pan, topped it with strips of roasted red and yellow peppers, quartered grape tomatoes, and more olive oil, and baked it to a warm golden brown with crisp edges. It was utterly delicious.

With it we drank a sparkling Cava.

Merluza y Almejas en Salsa Verde
Hake Fillets with Clams in Green Sauce

Shopping for the fish dish was a teense iffy. Hake isn’t always available in the markets; could we use halibut? or, if necessary, scrod? Happily, the fish counter at Citarella had beautiful hake fillets that day, as well as perfect little manila clams. In a large pan we sautéed minced garlic and red pepper flakes in olive oil; stirred in flour; added a lot of liquid from steaming open the clams, along with wine and parsley; and simmered until it thickened slightly. The fish fillets went in and cooked for two minutes on each side, then the clams for two minutes, and that was it.As you can see, the sauce was not actually green, but the dish was excellent. (Confession: the recipe also called for a garniture of a few white asparagus spears and hard-boiled eggs, but given everything else we were eating, we decided to skip them.)

The wine for this course was a white Rioja, which actually didn’t work well with it, because it turned out to be a modern-style, heavily oaked one: just plain wrong for the delicate fish flavors.

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Arroz con Pato de Braga
Roast Duck with Sausage-and-Ham-Flavored Rice
Acelgas con Pasas y Piñones
Greens with Raisins and Pine Nuts

This was the easiest roast duck I’ve ever made, and the most complicated rice preparation.

The duck was simply rubbed with garlic, sprinkled with salt and pepper, stuffed with some lemon peel, and roasted undisturbed until done. A combination of high heat followed by lower heat rendered out much of the fat that plagues Pekin ducks.

Meanwhile, the rice. That was a whole other story. We boiled it until almost tender, drained and kept it warm. We put chorizos in a skillet, added cold water to cover, simmered five minutes, drained and sliced them in thin rounds. We melted lard in a very large casserole, cooked the sausage in it briefly, added finely chopped carrot and onion, softened them, added julienne strips of Serrano ham, and finally stirred in the rice, lemon juice, and parsley, cooking just long enough to heat everything through. This could have been a whole dinner in itself.

Here’s the duck, waiting atop the rice while we made a gravy in the roasting pan.

For a “lighter” vegetable to accompany this elaborate concoction, we made Swiss chard with garlic, onion, olive oil, raisins, and pine nuts. Rich as that was, it was indeed lighter than the rest of the course.

With the duck we drank a red Tempranillo, which accompanied it very nicely, the acid of the wine cutting cleanly through the lushness of the duck. Need I say that we were not finishing each bottle of wine with each course? We’d have been pie-eyed by this point if we were. But we did very much enjoy the progression of the different wines – and an opened bottle doesn’t last long in our house.

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Monte Enebro, Garrotxa La Bauma, Amarelo de Beira Baixa, Roncal, Queso de Valdeon
Five Spanish cheeses

You might well wonder how we could go on to cheese after all this. So did we. But the cheeses were fascinating. When you buy from Murray’s cheese shop in Greenwich Village, the wrapper of each cheese includes a label with a description of it. I transcribed those write-ups for us to look at as we tasted, so if you’re curious about those varieties, look here.

With the cheeses we drank a gorgeous 16-year-old Prado Enea, a Rioja wine from the very traditional producer, Muga. In its richness and harmony it can only be described as Burgundian, overworked as that word is. We actually finished that bottle.

After all that, we neither needed nor wanted dessert. Espresso and a good Spanish brandy (Gran Duque d’Alba in this case) finished off the meal – and us – nicely.

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