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Posts Tagged ‘mussels’

I’m just back from a vacation that included four days of exploring Malta. The Maltese islands – mere dots in the Mediterranean between Sicily and Africa – are truly fascinating. Cliffs, caves, and grottoes, Baroque palaces, medieval fortresses, 5,000-year-old megalithic temples, some the oldest stone structures in the world; and on top of all that, interesting, unusual food.

For example, here Tom and I are having a midmorning snack of pastizzi, a popular Maltese pastry resembling Neapolitan sfogliatelle but with savory fillings, usually fresh ricotta or (a relic of British rule?) mushy peas.

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Not surprisingly in an island culture, fish of all kinds were abundant and delicious. The seafood we had at two restaurants, Palazzo Preca in Valletta and Tartarun in Marsaxlokk, was all exceptionally fresh and fine.

We tried both restaurants’ versions of aljotta, Malta’s signature fish soup. Often described (unfairly, in our opinion) as an adaptation of bouillabaisse, this is a rich, dense fish broth harboring small pieces of several kinds of fish, served with fresh lemon for squeezing and crusty bread for dunking.

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Another appetizer was described on its menu as “local octopus, lemon confit, lardo, 10YO condimento, crispy quinoa, olive & mint.” (Condimento, I learned, is a prestigious kind of balsamic vinegar, this one being 10 years old.) The combination was lovely to look at and luscious to eat.

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Our main courses of seafood were equally good:

An enormous mixed fry of various fishes, squid, shrimp, and octopus

Giant prawns sautéed in garlic, white wine, and tomato, served on a bed of rice

A sauté of mussels and four kinds of clams: razor, surf, vongole veraci, and praires

The best, freshest, sweetest, grilled squid Tom has eaten in a lifetime of consuming squid at every opportunity

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We also explored non-seafood dishes, at both a lunch and a dinner at a Valletta restaurant called Nenu the Artisan Baker. It serves only traditional Maltese foods, with locally produced ingredients. Our lunch was two kinds of ftira, the Maltese equivalent of pizza. It consists of a fairly thick base of bread dough with various toppings, baked in a wood oven.

This one is called karmni s-sultana: potatoes, tomatoes, anchovies, onions, caper berries, olives, mint, and fennel seeds.

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And this one is ta’ Nenu: sundried tomatoes, black olives, peppered Maltese goat cheese, onions, Maltese sausages, capers, and thyme.

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These were hefty items, which we couldn’t possibly finish, much less go on to eat anything else for that lunch. The rest of the menu was so interesting, we decided to come back that evening for dinner. We quickly discovered that everything Nenu serves is hefty. Our appetizers would easily have done for main courses.

Here’s fwied tal-fenek: rabbit liver in a sauce of onions, garlic, prunes, anisette, and cream.

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And zalzett malti: Maltese sausage in a spicy tomato sauce with peas.

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Our affable waiter jokingly counseled us not to dip too much of the good crusty bread – the Maltese are rightly proud of their bread – in the sauces, because of the dishes yet to come. And right he was.

Here’s Tom’s kirxa, a curried tripe stew, which was served with pan-fried potatoes and garlic bread. It had several kinds of tripe, not just honeycomb, and a delicious but unusual set of curry spices that we couldn’t identify.

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And here’s my fenek moqli, described as rabbit marinated in garlic and red wine, fried in olive oil, and served in its own juices. (I’d have called it braised, though I later learned that “fried” in Malta can mean either deep-fried or sauteed.) It came with roasted potatoes and steamed vegetables.

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Our waiter delicately informed me that Maltese people eat rabbit with their fingers, because of the many small bones to be navigated around. I believe I became an honorary Maltese citizen that evening, because I ate my rabbit with my fingers too.

With that gargantuan repast, I’ll conclude this post. We had one more, very special, meal in Malta, which deserves a separate post of its own.

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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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Now and then, I come upon a recipe in our La Tavola Italiana that I haven’t made since we were preparing the book for publication, 25 years ago. It’s always a pleasure when it turns out to be every bit as good as we described it. The dish I’ll tell you about today is one of those.

LTIWe wanted something Mediterranean-feeling for dinner; seafoody, brothy, and Italian: a zuppa di pesce, in fact. LTI has two recipes for that time-honored dish: one from Sicily – the familiar style that’s made with a strongly tomato-flavored broth – and one from Liguria, in the north, with no tomato at all.

We’d raved about the Ligurian one in the recipe’s headnote, and I wondered, reading back over it, if it could really be that good. Happily, even with all the intervening years of good eating in Italy that I’ve experienced since then, it is. Maybe even better than I knew at the time: a truly lovely dish.

The seafood ingredients for the stew are fairly simple: some boneless fish filets or steaks, a handful of mussels, and a few squid.

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I chose the fish for this day’s dinner by what looked freshest in my market. The whole fish above is a branzino – a European sea bass. I had the fishmonger filet it but took home the carcass too. The big filet is flounder.

I started by making the stock, using the chopped-up branzino carcass, celery, onion, carrot, and a pint of mixed seafood broth from my freezer (saved from previous fish cookings). I steamed open the mussels and added their cooking liquid to the broth. My trusty knife man then cut the filet into biggish pieces and the squid into rings; chopped a heart of Romaine lettuce, some leek, and a big anchovy filet.

I briefly sauteed the squid in olive oil; stirred in the leek, lettuce, a piece of bay leaf, and some thyme; and cooked all that gently for 20 minutes. Turned up the heat, added white wine, and stirred to evaporate it. It looked appetizing already.

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The pieces of fish and the chopped anchovy went in next. A brief sauté, and I added the stock, stirred to deglaze the pan, and simmered the fish 10 minutes. The mussels went in for another 2 minutes. The final touch was a lacing of garlic-perfumed olive oil.

Then it was just to put some slices of toasted country bread in the bottom of two bowls and pour in the stew.

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It was indeed wonderful. It had something quintessentially seaside-of-Italy about it: a subtly blended, hard-to-describe flavor – one I almost never find in the fish stews I’ve had in this country. The flounder, unfortunately, hadn’t been the best choice. Though pleasant, it was too lean and didn’t provide enough of a contrast with the branzino. Something gelatinous, like monkfish or scallops, would have been more interesting.

Still, the dish was lush and rich, and just the smell of it did the Proustian trick of taking us back in memory to sun-washed terraces overlooking a quay full of fisherman’s skiffs and beyond them the blue Mediterranean. Hard to fault a recipe like that, especially in the middle of a bitter-cold New York winter. Another bowl of escapism, please!

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Once in a blue moon, trying to improve an untrusted recipe can produce a dish amazingly better than you ever expected. It happened to me this week.

Barrenechea 2I intended to make a recipe from Teresa Barrenechea’s The Cuisines of Spain. I’ve had some unsatisfactory experiences with this book, but its many photographs are so luscious-looking, I keep returning to it. This time I wanted to try her sopa de pescado, which is pictured – lusciously – on the cover, as well as in a full-page illustration beside the recipe.

The recipe is billed as a fish soup but it’s mostly shellfish. There are clams, shrimp, and mussels in the cover photo. It’s also given as a first course serving six, but I wanted to make it a main course for two. So while reducing the overall quantities, I intended to use more shellfish. But I found other things about the recipe that I didn’t trust, so I angled off my own way. And achieved something truly wonderful.

Here are the shellfish I used:

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The clams are Manilas, the mussels are small and very neat, the shrimps are just ordinary, and the last item is cooked lobster meat, which I had in the freezer and decided to use in place of the monkfish called for in the recipe. In many recipes, monkfish can be substituted for more costly lobster: since I already had the lobster, why not, I thought, try the substitution the other way?

I steamed open the clams and mussels and set them aside. Next I made the sauce base. This started with sauteeing a sliced leek, chopped onions, and thin batons of carrot in generous olive oil. That was already interesting to me, because I hadn’t known any fish soup that wanted so much vegetable. It looked good already.

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The next direction was to flour monkfish chunks and add them, along with shrimp, to the pan of sauce, and cook for five minutes. I didn’t like that. First, my lobster was already cooked, so it didn’t need sauteeing, and certainly not with flour. Second, my shrimp were “medium,” which means pretty small, and five minutes would have been far too much – especially since they were supposed to stay in the sauce for all the rest of the time and by the end would have been seriously overcooked; as would the lobster. So I put in only the shrimp, cooked them for about a minute on each side until they turned pink, and removed them to a dish.

Then I continued with the sauce, adding shellfish broth (considerably less than called for, since I wanted a stew, not a soup), white wine, saffron (not, as the recipe said, in threads but pulverized, since saffron won’t dissolve properly unless you crush it), a little plain tomato sauce, and a pinch of crushed red pepper.

After a few minutes’ simmering, I put the shrimp and lobster chunks into the sauce, let them heat through, and then added the clams and mussels, also to heat through. The recipe would have had me put in only the meat, discarding the shells. I didn’t do that, because it would have spoiled the whole appearance of the dish (as well as some of the fun of eating it) – and, anyway, the book’s photo shows the clams and mussels in their shells.

Here’s my finished dish:

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???????????????????????????????Now, let’s look again at that book photo, which appears to be meant for a single portion. You see how bright red the liquid is? The whole recipe, for six servings, calls for only one-third of a cup of tomato sauce. Ridiculous! I used that amount for only the two of us, which just lightly colored the reduced amount of broth I was working with. Where did all that tomato come from? Where is the recipe’s monkfish? Where are all the rest of the clams and mussels? Didn’t anyone suggest to the food stylist that the photo should bear some resemblance to an actual serving of the dish? Foolish questions, I realize: Food styling is an art that has little to do with cooking.

My own version of the dish wasn’t as elegantly picturesque as the book photo, but it turned out simply fabulous. It took us back to long-ago meals on sunny seaside terraces on the Mediterranean – zuppa di pesce in Italy, bouillabaisse in France, zarzuela in Spain. It had a real southern European flavor, which I’d never before managed to get in any seafood soup or stew I’d made at home. I don’t know what to attribute it to. The ingredients weren’t really any different from others I’ve made, although the leek was a new item for me. Somehow that particular set of ingredients came together in a whole that was much greater than the sum of its parts.

We finished the entire generous-sized dish, along with some plain Bomba rice, and were blissfully happy the whole rest of the evening.

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Take that, food stylists!

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