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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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My birding trip in Spain was definitely not focused on gastronomy. All dinners were taken at the simple rural hotels where our group was staying, and lunches were at cafes and other modest eateries in villages along the birding routes. Menus were sometimes limited, with dishes selected in advance for the group by the local leader (and described for us in English, so I never got some of the Spanish names). Nevertheless, we encountered very good food in some of those places, including a few dishes that I hope to be able to recreate at home.

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Lunches were usually a large assortment of tapas for the whole table, ranging from salads to the ubiquitous fried squid. Here are a few of the interesting items. (Click to enlarge the images.)

tapas

Jamón Ibérico, the air-cured Iberian ham at left, is always a treat. The fried cuttlefish were even tastier than their close relatives, squid. Next, potato croquettes – a frequent tapa offering. The medium-sized garden snails, a delicious short-season specialty, appeared to have been cooked with oil, garlic, and smoked paprika. And the last dish on the right is grilled chipirones: very small squid.

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Frequent main courses at dinner included beautifully cooked fresh seafood:

seafood dishes

The tiny fried fish are fresh anchovies. Next, braised octopus. In the middle, a roasted whole choco, or large cuttlefish. More small fried fish, including tiny soles. Last, two tentacles of yet another octopus.

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There were also good, hearty meat and poultry dishes.

3 meat dishes

Left to right, a simple lamb stew with the Basque name Corderico al Txilindron; duck leg confit; and Codillo de cerdo. This last was mystifyingly translated for me as “elbow of pork”; close examination showed it to be a pork shank that had been halved lengthwise through the bone.

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We even came upon some surprisingly elegant and sophisticated preparations. At lunch one day, everyone in our group was served a large, richly eggy crepe filled with wild mushrooms and topped with something like a light Mornay sauce. It was marvelous.

crepe

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Another day, as a dinner appetizer Tom had “ravioli” made with rice papers instead of pasta, filled with a creamy mixture of pears and oveja cheese, topped with pesto, and served on a bed of ratatouille. An improbable combination, it seemed to me, but intriguing and very flavorful.

ravioli

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That same evening, my appetizer was a cake of spicy revolcona potatoes topped with a perfectly poached egg and surrounded by quickly sauteed Ibérico ham. That in itself was almost enough for a dinner!

revolcona

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Finally, the most noteworthy dessert I had in Spain was Torrija. This traditional sweet is a sort of hybrid of French toast and bread pudding, and this version came with a crunchy crème brûlée topping. Quite luscious.

torrija

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These last four dishes are the ones I’m determined to try making at home. If I succeed, you may be meeting them again in future posts.

P.S. Tom’s blog has a post on some of the wines we drank in Spain.

 

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A Foretaste of Spain

Tom and I are away for three weeks on a birding trip around Spain with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours.

spain trip map

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While officially it’s purely a birding trip, for us it’s just as much a food and wine trip. The VENT leaders are usually as good at choosing restaurants as they are at 61jYp3TZ27L__AA160_finding birds, so we look forward to some interesting meals.

Anticipating the adventure a bit, and also to get us into the proper mood for Iberian-style eating, I made a modest tapas dinner the other day, using three recipes from Penelope Casas’ book Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain.

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The main item was Fried Squid, Spanish-Style. Casas calls this “a classic on the tapas circuit,” a dish likely to be available almost anywhere in Spain. If so, hooray! – because these were excellent. The squid had to be cut in rings, dried thoroughly, dusted with flour, dipped in egg, deep-fried for less than three minutes, and dressed with sea salt and lemon juice. They were beautifully tender and fresh-tasting.

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Alongside, I’d made an Onion Tortilla. Normally, I make tortilla española, that luscious, thick, soft, eggy cake of fried potatoes and onions. This one had no potato but lots of minced sweet Spanish onions, which made it lighter but also delicious. Even easier to make: Soften onions in olive oil; cool them; mix them into beaten eggs, milk, salt, and pepper; then cook the whole mixture very slowly in a pan until it just sets. It’s good hot, warm, or cool.

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For a bright contrast with those two dishes, I made a little Cumin-flavored Carrot Salad – which Casas says is a specialty of a well-known bar in Cadiz. I simmered whole carrots in chicken broth and water until almost done; let them cool and sliced them; dressed them in wine vinegar, oregano, cumin, paprika, and salt, and left them to marinate all afternoon. Bracing!

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The three together made a very pleasant week-night supper. I have great hopes for our eating in Spain. I won’t be posting here again until well into May, but then I hope I’ll have some good dishes to write about from the trip. ¡Hasta la vista!

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Tom and I are just back from ten days in Italy – half in Lazio (the part of that region south of Rome) and half in Rome itself. I indulged in lots of food photography, which I can’t resist displaying over my next few posts.

Starting in the countryside, our travels took us to some very different kinds of places for excellent midday meals.

Lo Scoglio

Our first lunch was at a modest beachfront restaurant in Sabaudia, a resort town on the Mediterranean about 60 miles south of Rome. We sat outdoors under a pergola and ate the freshest imaginable fish.

Top left: Penne con grancio (crab). Top right: Spaghetti alle vongole veraci (clams)

Lo Scoglio

Bottom left: Calamari arrosti (stuffed roasted squid). Bottom right: Pesciolini fritti (fried small fish)

 

Il Funghetto

I’ve written previously about my collection of souvenir plates from Buon Ricordo restaurants. This trip I added a new one from a quite elegant restaurant in a tiny townlet called Borgo Grappa. The special piatto is Coccio del Circeo con primizie dell’Agro Pontino. Coccio is a Lazio name for the fish known as tub gurnard – in the USA, sea robin. Most American fishermen regard it as a pest, but we discovered long ago that it makes a fine substitute for bouillabaisse’s indispensable rascasse. In this dish, it’s cooked in its own broth, with local olive oil and young vegetables from the plains of the region’s former Pontine marshes.

buon ricordo piatto

Another outstanding feature of this surprisingly sophisticated rural restaurant was its white truffle menu, to which Tom succumbed: three courses with truffles, plus desserts, for only €60. My antipasto was a zucchini sformato with buffalo mozzarella, but I also sampled all his dishes. Wonderful truffles! NB: The light was bad for these photos; the truffles were much paler than they look here.

truffle dishesLeft to right: Fonduta ai tartufi, Tagliolini ai tartufi, Dentice ai tartufi

 

Principe Pallavicini Winery

For one day Tom had arranged a professional visit to Pallavicini, one of the oldest and most esteemed wine estates in the Frascati hills. After a tour of the vineyard and cellars, and a formal tasting of nine wines, our hosts sat down with us to a delightful buffet lunch right in the tasting room.

Clockwise from top left in the photo are several kinds of local salume; little buffalo mozzarellas and pacchini tomatoes; roasted zucchini, eggplant, and peppers; roasted porchetta; vegetable couscous; and fresh buffalo ricottas.

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Il Giardino

The Abbazia di Fossanova is a 12th-century ecclesiastical complex near the town of Priverno. It includes the monastery where Thomas Aquinas is believed to have died, as well as an austerely beautiful church. After a fascinating morning’s visit, we stopped for lunch at the first restaurant we saw on our local road back to the coast. This was a time-warp of a rustic place: no décor, no pretensions, no tourists other than us, everyone (including us) drinking the house’s carafe wine, and very good simple food.

One of its specialties was this excellent dish of Cecapreti alla Capra. The pasta was homemade and the sauce was made with lamb (so they said; though capra usually means goat) from mountain sheep in the nearby hills.

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This and our other pasta dish, a classic bucatini all’amatriciana, were preceded by grilled scamorza, the local prosciutto di Bassiano, and fritters of rice, potato, and mozzarella. I wish I could show them to you, but my camera was acting up that afternoon and I don’t have photos.

 

And . . .

We had one more magnificent lunch in Lazio – in fact, the best meal of our entire trip. But I think this post has gone on long enough, so I’ll save that story for next week.

 

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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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