Friday, July 30, 2010

Pasta alla Norma - Norma's rigatoni (SICILY)

Another classic Sicilian recipe, this time from the city of Catania. Norma is the protagonist of one of the most beautiful operas by Bellini, who was in fact born in Catania. This dish happens to be one of the favorites of the famous police inspector Montalbano, created by the imagination of the writer Andrea Camilleri (easily available in English translation- highly recommended). In fact, I always think of it whenever I am reading one of his gripping crime novels.

The classic recipe has but very few ingredients: tomatoes (commonly canned 'pelati', or skinned whole tomatoes), fried eggplant, and 'ricotta salata' cheese - a dry cheese that is obtained after partially de-hydrating ricotta by salting. I have troubles finding good ricotta salata, so I use a good quality mozzarella instead (made of buffalo milk when I can find it). Moreover, I happened to have at hand very ripe, very sweet heirloom tomatoes so I made my base 'al pomodoro fresco' i.e. using fresh tomatoes rather than canned. As always, try making this dish in the summer, when real tasty eggplant/aubergine and tomatoes can be sourced from the farmer's market.

Preparation: fry the cubed eggplant in olive oil until golden and crispy (2-3 min.), set aside. While the pasta is boiling, fry for a few seconds a couple of garlic cloves with a couple of dry Italian chilies, then add the roughly chopped tomatoes, salt, pepper and taste - if your tomatoes are not completely ripe a very small pinch of sugar can be added to balance excessive acidity. Cook down for a few minutes. Finally, toss the 'al dente' pasta with the tomato sauce, add a few fresh basil leaves and top with the fried eggplant and with grated ricotta salata or small cubes of mozzarella just before serving.

Buon appetito!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sicilian style vegetable medley - Caponatina di verdure miste (SICILY)

Sicilian cooking is unique amongst the various italian regional styles for its distinctive north african influences. This dish features this in its unique sweet-and-sour character. 'Caponata' is a classic sicilian dish that uses seasonal vegetables (most often eggplant -melanzane, particularly tasty in the region) and red wine vinegar. Below is my take on it, the main difference from 'classical' recipies is the cooking method, I stir-fry the vegetables separatly to produce a crispy exterior and to maintain their individuality so that every bite offers a new and interesting flavor. This dish works best after a trip to the local farmer's market in the summer: I think of it every time I get across just picked, local eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers etc.

Preparation: cube the eggplant and fry it on high heat in small batches until crispy (3-4 min), sprinkle with salt and set aside. Process the zucchini the same way, set aside. Lower the heat and add to the same pan 1/4 red onion, thinly sliced, 2-3 garlic cloves and a couple of dry italian peperoncini (fiery hot red chilis). Once the onion is soft and translucent, add the bell peppers cut in slivers and let them cook until just soft (5-10 min). Set aside the pepper/onion/garlic mixture as well. De-glaze the bottom of the pan with a 1/2 glass of white wine, add 3-4 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and 1-2 tablespoons of brown sugar and cook the sauce down until sirupy.

At this point you should taste the sauce carefully and adjust the sweet-sour level to your taste. Traditional recipes might occasionally add raisins steeped in water at this point, I prefer dried black currants (avaiable in stores that carry 'persian' goods). Finally, place all the vegetables back in the pot and toss to coat with the sauce, adjust the salt level, and finish with fresh basil leaves (growing on every self respecting italian's balcony) and a few drops of good olive
oil. The caponata is good either hot or cold.

Buon appetito!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Pimentón rubbed lamb rack (Spain)

This is a very simle recipe, getting its unique flavor from the use of the spanish pimentón: essentially a deep-flavored spanish smoked paprika. One can usually find 3 varities of pimentón: dulce (sweet), picante (spicy) and ahumado (extra smoky). For this dish I prefer the latter.

Preparation: rub a frenched lamb rack with a good amount of pimentón (2-3 tablespoons) dissolved in olive oil. Add some thinly sliced garlic to the matinade and leave to rest for a while. Choose a frying pan that can go into the oven (I would not use a non-stik pan for this) and heat it up on the stove. Brown the lamb rack for 3' on each side, starting with the fat side down and finishing with the fat side up (take care not to burn the surface). Transfer to a pre-heated 375 F oven and finish cooking for 13-15 minutes, or until medium-rare. Leave to rest 5-10' before portioning!

Side dishes: Our favorite side dishes include a seasonal mixed sallad and oven-roasted baby potatoes. Choose small potatoes and cook them in salted, boiling water 3/4 of the way. Slice them longitudinally, place them on a flat grill pan, and drizzle them with olive oil. Add a few cloves of garlic and rosemary, salt and pepper and roast them in the oven under the grill until crispy and deliciuos. Sprinkle some salt and serve.


Pan fried cod roe

Codfish roe is a popular ingredient in scandinavian countries as well as in Japan and Corea. Most recipies start the same way: choose egg sacs that are as much as possible intact, any major tear in the membrane will allow the small eggs to flow out during cooking. Poach them in salted water with the addition of a couple of tablespoons of white vinegar (make sure the liquid is just barely bubbling, so as not to damage the roe). Cooking might take 20-30 minutes.

From this point the various cultures diverge: Swedes will serve the roe hot, accompanied by boiled potatoes and melted butter. Japanese will probably slice it and serve it with Ponzu (citrus soy sauce). We, from the south of europe will serve them hot or cold, drizzled with good olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper.

For a slightly more sofisticated recipe (pictured here), leave the ovaries to cool in the refrigerator overnight, slice them 1/2" thick, dust them with flour and fry them briefly until golden brown. Season them with salt and peppr and serve with a lemon-olive oil vinagrette and thinly chopped spring onions.

PS. 'klassiska fiskrätter' by Bengt Petersens is probably my favorite cooking book for Swedish seafood recipes. Very solid prepaprations from the traditionally rich seafood culture of the west coast of sweden.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Achiote marinated pork butt - COCHINITA PIBIL (Yucatan, mexico)

This recipe is inspired by the mighty cochinita pibil of Yucatan. Typically a whole pig is cooked in an undergound pit after being marinated in achiote and wrapped in banana leafs.

The version below is something easy to make in any home with ingredients quite widely available.
Preparation: marinade a full pork butt -skin on (also known as boston butt or pork shoulder) in a mixture of achiote paste and lime juice overnight in the refrigerator. Achiote paste is typically sold as a dense, red brick in the spice section of most mexican markets (the intense red color comes from comes from its main component, anatto seeds). Before use, dissolve the brick in abundant lime juice (i.e. in a blender) to create a smooth marinade. When ready, score the skin deeply with a knife and place the butt -skin side up- on a grid (similar to what you would use to cook a turkey) suspended about 1" from the bottom of a larger, oven proof casserole. Pour any extra marinade at the bottom of the casserole, diluting it with a little water, so as to always keep 1/2" of liquid at the bottom during cooking (this will keep the meat moist: be careful to add extra water from time to time to prevent the juices from burning!). Cook the butt in a pre-heated 350°F oven for 3 to 4 hours, or until the meat is fall-apart tender and the skin brown and crispy-delicious. Let cool for a while, remove the crispy skin (which can be served as a side) and separate the flesh into morsel-size bites with the help of two forks (much as you would to prepare 'pulled pork'). Finally, pour some of the cooking juices back onto the pulled pork, adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper, squeeze a couple of limes on it and serve this veritable pile of goodness with warm corn tortillas.

Side dishes: some of our favorite side dishes include

-Thin-sliced red cabbage, for the crisp.

-Pink onions: easy to make and quite spectacular. Steep thinly sliced red onions in boiling water for 2 minutes. Drain, add a pinch of salt and cover with lime juice. Refrigerate. I bet the result will surpise you for its fresh taste and amazing color.

-Tomatillo salsa: Roast 5-6 husked tomatillos (a relative of physalys, available at mexican grocers) and 2 jalapeno peppers under the grill until blistered and slightly blackened. Peel and seed the jalapenos (this is easyer if they are left to steam into a zip-top bag for a couple of minutes after roasting). Blend tomatillos, jalapenos, a pinch of salt and a splash of cider vinegar until smooth. The sauce is now ready to serve warm or cold.


Sunday, July 11, 2010

Perciatelli with vongole - Perciatelli con le vongole (ITALY)

This is a simple summer treat that just depends on your ability to find fresh 'vongole' clams and ripe, deliciuos summer tomatoes. We use vongole from the local japanese store and ripe cherry tomatoes from the farmer's market. Omit tomatoes if not in season. Fresh, live vongole are tightly closed before cooking and open after 2-3 minutes in the pot. Discard any clam that is still closed at the end of the cooking process.

While the pasta is cooking, fry ~3 garlic cloves and a couple of dry italian peperoncini in good quality olive oil. Add the vongole, salt, pepper and a dash of white wine. Cover the pot and steam the vongole until open, this should take but a couple of minutes. When the pasta is al dente, toss it with the vongole in their juice (discard some of the empty shells if you wish).

Finally add 4-5 cubed cherry tomatoes, chopped italian parsley and about a tablespoon of very good olive oil.