Stewed Cuttlefish and Squid

Sepia e Calamari in Umido

It’s that time of year when some will surf the net looking for seafood recipes. In many Italian households, you see, Christmas Eve will be celebrated with a Feast of the 7 Fishes … or 11 Fishes … or 12 Fishes … or 13 Fishes. The number itself is dependent upon: a) the number of Christian Sacraments (7); b) the number of Apostles minus Judas (11); c) the number of original Apostles (12); or, d) the number of original Apostles plus Jesus (13). No matter how or why you count them — and there are more versions than those I’ve listed — that’s a lot of fish dishes.

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Sepia e Calamari in Umido

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Although my family never celebrated with a Feast of however many Fishes, we did have a variety of seafood dishes to enjoy on Christmas Eve. I’ve shared those recipes, along with a meatless dish or two, in previous years. To make it easier for you to access them, I’ve created a “Christmas Eve” category that you can access at the end of this post or on the right side of the blog’s Home Page. If you need more suggestions, you may want to check out my Seafood (Frutti di Mare) category. There you’ll find every seafood dish I’ve shared over the past 5 years. (5 years!! Do you believe it?)

I doubt that today’s recipe was ever served at either home of the two-flat. The fact is, either cuttlefish (sepia) or squid (calamari) would have been served but never both in the same pot. Believe me. Initially I had no intention of doing it either. The fact is that the fishmonger was out of fresh cuttlefish and the box contained fewer than were needed to make today’s dish. As luck would have it, that was the only box that he had. It had been decades since either Zia or myself had even seen cuttlefish and I wanted to surprise her with them during the last Visitation. So, I bought some fresh squid and decided to sail into uncharted culinary waters.

Before getting into the recipe, lets talk seafood. Cuttlefish, squid, and octopus are all members of the cephalopod family. As you can see in the photo below, a cuttlefish has the shorter, more round body with tentacles that are also shorter and thicker than its squid cousin. If you own a parakeet/budgie, you may have purchased a cuttlebone for it to use to maintain its beak. That “bone” comes from cuttlefish. In squid, that bone is a smaller, clear, and flexible piece of cartilage. It’s known as the “pen”. The flesh of cuttlefish is thicker than that of squid and most believe it to be more tender. When cooked in umido, like today’s dish, the difference is too minimal to be noticed — at least to my palate. Lastly, because of the differences in body type, I sliced the cuttlefish lengthwise into strips. The squid’s body was cut into rings. The tentacles of both were cut in half but if you find them unappealing, just discard them. (See NOTES for help with cleaning squid.)

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Cuttlefish & Squid

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Stewed Cuttlefish and Squid Recipe

Ingredients

  • 2 to 3 tbs olive oil
  • 2 or 3 anchovies
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped or grated
  • red pepper flakes to taste
  • 1 lb raw cuttlefish, skinned, cleaned and cut into strips. If using tentacles, cut in half.
  • 1 lb raw squid, skinned, cleaned, and cut into rings. If fusing tentacles, cut in half.
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1 large can (28 oz, 800 g) whole tomatoes
  • 1 small can (14 oz, 400 g ) diced tomatoes
  • 2 tbs fresh parsley, chopped
  • 2 tbs fresh basil, chopped
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 whole clove garlic, minced or grated
  • sliced, thick crusted bread for serving

Directions

  1. Heat oil over med-high heat in a medium, heavy bottomed sauce pan.
  2. Add the anchovies, garlic, and red pepper flakes before reducing heat to med-low. Cook for about 2 minutes. Do not allow garlic to burn.
  3. Add cuttlefish and squid and continue to cook until flesh whitens – about 5 minutes.
  4. Add wine and increase heat to med-high. Continue to cook until wine is reduced by half – about 7 to 10 minutes.
  5. Add both cans of tomatoes, tearing the tomatoes by hand as you add them to the pot.
  6. Combine the parsley and basil and use 3/4 to season the pot. Reserve the rest. Stir to fully combine.
  7. Reduce the heat to medium and allow the pot to simmer for at least 20 minutes. It is ready to be served when the stew has thickened and grown deeper in color.
  8. Bring to the table garnished with the remaining chopped basil and parsley.

To Serve

While the stew simmers, toast some crusty bread, one slice per serving. While still warm. rub the remaining garlic clove across the bread. Place one slice of the now garlicky bread

into the bottom of each serving bowl. When it has finished simmering, ladle the stew over the bread in each bowl. Buon appetito!

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Notes

When cooking cuttlefish or squid, either cook them for less than a minute or more than 45 minutes. Anything in between will result in seafood with the texture of rubber. Because this is a stewed dish, if in doubt, taste a piece. If it’s chewy, continue to cook until tender.

As you know, I work alone in the kitchen, taking all the photos as I go. Normally, there isn’t a problem that a time delay and remote shutter cannot handle. Cleaning squid, however, is a different matter completely. Being the ham-fisted person that I am, there really was no way for me to capture the cleaning without in some way impacting my camera. Is squid juice corrosive? I didn’t want to find out, so, I’ve found a video that will teach you what you need to know about cleaning squid — all in under 3 minutes. Enjoy!  How to clean squid.

This is another seafood dish in which the flavors are relatively mild. Using grated cheese would pretty much obliterate them. Save that cheese for some other dish on the night’s menu.

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Leftovers?

Squid and Sepia Leftovers

Was there any doubt?

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It’s déjà vu all over again …

Frutti di Mare, Deja vu

Whether you choose to serve this dish individually, with each dinner guest receiving a packet, or en masse, with a large packet placed in the table’s center, few dishes will delight your table mates like Linguine with Seafood in Parchment. After all, who doesn’t like receiving gifts this time of year and this one comes with a fantastic aroma that’s released upon opening. It doesn’t get much better than this and you can learn all about it HERE.

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Coming soon to a monitor near you …

Braised Rabbit PreviewStovetop Braised Rabbit

(You may want to skip this one, Eva.)

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Grilled Clams

I do enjoy going to the fishmonger. I may go in with something in mind but I always leave with something else entirely. One of my last visits is a case in point.

This particular Tuesday I went shopping for chicken. My fishmonger is the only place in town that I know of where you can buy fresh, never frozen, organic chicken. I left with a chicken — and a little more than a pound of “Vancouver blue clams”. I just couldn’t resist them.

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Preview Clams

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These clams were small — about the size of manila clams — and there were 36 of the beauties in my purchase. Best of all, they’re mighty tasty. In fact, I’m already thinking of going back for more.

Once home, I decided to try something different. Believe me. Deciding not to cook them with linguine was one of the toughest culinary decisions I’ve made in a very long time. Even so, having watched a number of chefs grill clams, I thought I’d give it a try myself. The chefs placed the clams directly upon the grill grates, let them open, and then carefully removed them to a serving platter. That wouldn’t work for me.

Being so small, I envisioned watching them open and spilling their delicious juices on to the flames. They’re simply not large enough to comfortably ride the grates. Worse, any liquids to have survived the opening would surely be dumped as I clumsily tried to move the clams to a platter. A cast iron skillet was the answer. First, though, the clams had to be cleaned.

Using my food brush, the clams’ shells were scrubbed clean. After that, they were placed in a bowl of cold, fresh water and left to soak for almost an hour. Midway through, the water was dumped and the bowl refilled. That gave the clams plenty of time to expel any sand. Clams that refused to close were discarded.

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Blue Clams 1

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The grill was lit and the flames set to high. Meanwhile, a lemon-butter sauce was prepared using 4 tbsp butter, the juice of 1/2 lemon, and 1 clove of garlic, smashed. The butter and garlic were gently heated in a small saucepan. When the butter just started to simmer, the lemon juice was added and the heat was shut off. The garlic was allowed to steep in the lemon-butter for a few minutes.

Next, a 10 inch cast iron skillet was placed on the grill directly over the flames. While it heated, some fresh parsley was chopped and a chunk of ciabatta bread was sliced in half. The cut side of both pieces was lightly coated with olive oil and the bread was set aside.

The clams were drained and returned to the bowl, along with a couple of ounces of both white wine and water. By now, the pan was screaming hot. The clams with the wine mixture were poured into the pan and the bread was placed on the grill to toast a bit. The grill lid was then closed.

Back in the kitchen, the garlic was removed from the lemon-butter sauce and the pan was returned to a low heat.

It took barely 2 minutes for the bread to toast, I removed both pieces and the clams were already opening. Within 5 minutes, all the clams were open and were quickly removed to a serving bowl. The pan liquids were added, as well. (Note: be sure to discard any clams that remain unopened after cooking.)

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Grilled Clams 1

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To serve, the bottom piece of bread was placed in a bowl and topped with some clams and a bit of the pan juices. The lemon-butter sauce was poured over the dish and fresh parsley was used to garnish. The top side of the toasted ciabatta bread was served on the side.

Yeah. I’m going back for more clams, but it’s anyone’s guess what else I’ll bring home.

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It’s déjà vu all over again …

LingClams_Lrg300

Nothing but a Pasta with Clams recipe would be appropriate here. It is one of my favorite dishes and one I’m sure you’ll enjoy. You can see how the dish is prepared simply by clicking HERE.

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Coming soon to a monitor near you …

Sepia e Calamari in Umido Preview

Stewed Cuttlefish and Squid

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Squid Ink Pasta with Clams and Bottarga

Linguine al Nero di Calamari con Vongole e Bottarga

Santa School - Korea

(With thanks to the folks at Colored Mondays)

We Bartolini are an ecumenical lot. Whether you celebrate Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, or even Festivus, we hope your holidays are of the most memorable kind.

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Although this is my 4th Christmas Eve on WordPress (I know! FOURTH!?!?!), this is the 3rd time I’ve used the occasion to highlight seafood. In the past, I shared a tongue-in-cheek tale of how Italian Catholics prepared a Feast of the Seven Fishes to get around the Church’s rule of not eating meat on Christmas Eve. To be sure, the Church’s original intent was to keep that day, the last of Advent, a day of refection and sacrifice in preparation for the Christ Child’s imminent arrival. Some of the faithful, however, couldn’t wait to get the party started, so, instead they prepared a seafood feast. To avoid the Church’s wrath, they prepared 7 different dishes, 1 fish for each of the Seven Holy Sacraments. With their Church leaders appeased — many of whom were enjoying their own, even more lavish, seafood feasts — a tradition was born. Today, feasts of 10, 11, and even 12 seafood dishes may be prepared and served.

Last week I shared my family’s recipe for garbanzo soup, the type of simple dish that I’m sure the Church had originally intended Catholics prepare on the last day of Advent. Today I’ll share a recipe that is far removed from last week’s simple, unadorned minestra, Squid Ink Pasta with Clams and Bottarga. I’ll get to the recipe soon enough but 1st, I’ve “got some ‘splaining to do.”

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Squid Ink Pasta 3

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I think it was Mom who told me about Nonna (Zia’s Mother-in-law) cleaning cuttlefish, sepia. A cousin of squid, sepia are often prepared in very much the same ways. (Those who have owned parakeets, “budgies”, often hang cuttle bones in their cages to be used by the birds for beak maintenance. These “bones’ are removed from large cuttlefish during cleaning.) Nonna’s sepia were quite fresh and had to be gutted and cleaned. As I recall, if she was lucky enough to come upon a sepia’s ink sack, Nonna reserved it and used it to make black pasta noodles.

The story stuck with me and, over the years, I’ve searched high and low for the illusive ink. I wasn’t picky. It didn’t matter whether I found squid or sepia ink. As my search criss-crossed Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods, I cannot tell you how many dead ends I reached, having followed the advice of some well-meaning people who were sure that it could be found at this place or that. Dejected, I’d give up the search, only to begin it anew when some TV chef used squid ink to make pasta. Once, last year, I even purchased ready-made black pasta noodles. What a disappointment!

This all changed about 3 months ago. Armed with a gift card given to me by Cynthia and Nigel for my last birthday, I went shopping at Chicago’s newest Italian market. (Cynthia Squid Inkand Nigel are the friends with whom I shared the flats in Florence and Rome.) As I passed the fresh pasta counter, I noticed they were selling black pasta. Upon asking, the clerk directed me to the fishmongers and, lo and behold, they had squid ink! Not only that but they had 2 kinds: 1, a large jar of thick paste, and, the other, a much thinner liquid, in packaging that would remind you of those ubiquitous soy sauce packets found at the bottom of every bag of Chinese take-away. After the fishmonger assured me that it would “last forever”, I bought the paste, thinking I could better control the amount used. On the way home, I decided that this would be the dish I would serve Zia for our Christmas dinner.

What I haven’t mentioned is that, months before, I had ordered some bottarga online, intending to serve it to Zia some day. Bottarga is the dried and cured eggs of mullet fish. Thought to have Greek or Arabic origins, bottarga is a Mediterranean product and can be found from Portugal and Spain to North Africa. In Italy, it is most closely identified with Sardinia and Sicily, while here in the States, bottarga is now produced in Florida. (If Bottarga 1interested, “locally” produced Bottarga is usually available this time of year.) Bottarga can be bought dried in the original egg sacks, or sealed in wax, or both. Once purchased, if kept dry, it will last quite some time in the fridge. While its scent has been described as the “breath of the sea”, bottarga is bursting with umami, lending both salty and fishy flavors to your dish. To serve, some may shave thin slices which are then used to top off bruschetta or salads. Using a microplane or similar utensil, others will grate bottarga over pasta, risotto, grilled vegetables, broiled/baked/grilled fish, and even eggs. There is one thing about bottarga, though, that you should consider before rushing off to purchase some. Not everyone likes the stuff. Very much like anchovies, you either love it or hate it. Lucky for us, we all love it.

It took no time to decide what would be the 3rd and final ingredient for our Christmas Eve pasta. Both Zia and I love pasta with clams, vongole. Now, I always go to the Italian markets the day before I depart for Zia’s, buying her a few Italian staples that just aren’t available in her area. In the past, if the fishmonger has fresh clams — especially vongole from Italy — I’ll buy some, pack them in ice, and warn Zia that clams will be on the menu. That’s what I did just prior to my last visit, though the clams were the manila variety. I left the next day knowing that there was a great dinner in our immediate future.

I served this pasta to Zia as our early Christmas Dinner. It was a complete surprise to her and to her son, my cousin the Max Whisperer, who was also seated at the table. Both thoroughly enjoyed the dish, as will you and your guests when you serve it.

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Squid Ink Pasta

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To make squid ink pasta 

It is far easier to make black pasta than you might assume. Gather the ingredients required to make a batch of Mom’s Pasta Dough. Once you’ve placed 4 whole eggs + enough water to equal 1 cup of liquid in a measuring cup, add 1½ tbsp of squid ink. Lightly beat the mixture to fully incorporate the ink. (See Notes) Proceed as your would when making normal pasta dough, cutting it, once dry, to make whichever sized noodles you prefer. (I made trenette because it most closely resembles the pasta that Mom would cut by hand.) Cook as you would normal pasta, removing it from the water just before reaching al dente. Reserve a cup of pasta water.

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To prepare the clams

(See Notes for help with cleaning clams)

Heat 1/4 cup olive oil over medium-high heat in a large fry pan with cover. Once hot, add 2 cloves minced garlic and sauté for about a minute. Add 1/4 cup water, 1/4 cup white wine, and about 3 dozen vongole. (Cockles, little neck, or manilla clams may be substituted.) Cover the pan and allow the clams to open, about 5 to 8 minutes. Do not overcook and discard any clams that have not opened by the end of the cooking time. Add about 3 tbsp of chopped fresh parsley.

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To assemble the dish and serve

Once the unopened clams have been removed, place the newly drained pasta into the fry pan and toss to coat with the clams and pan juices. Add a little of the reserved pasta water if needed. Pour the pan’s contents on to a serving platter. Drizzle a little of your best extra virgin olive oil on top of the pasta, followed by some chopped parsley. Grate, as you would a garnish, a bit of bottarga on top of the pasta and serve. Once your guests have received their serving, be sure that each receives another sprinkling of bottarga, whether you do the grating or they handle it themselves.

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Squid Ink Pasta 2

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Notes

Blending the squid ink with the eggs ensures that it will be evenly dispersed throughout the pasta dough much more quickly than if added directly to the flour.

If, when handling the dough, your notice your fingers or work surface blackening, it’s a sign that your dough needs a bit more flour. Perfectly mixed flour will not “bleed” black.

Clams must be inspected and cleaned before use.

  1. Examine your clams, discarding any with cracked or broken shells. Also, discard any that are open, even slightly, and that will not close when tapped on a counter top.
  2. Clams bought at most markets today usually have been purged of sand prior to purchase. You must purge the clams if you harvest them yourself or buy them directly from the fishermen. To purge the clams of sand, place them in a deep bowl and cover with room temperature water. Soak for 30 minutes, empty the water and, repeat the process at least another time.
  3. Once purged, use a small brush to scrub the shells. Again, discard any that remain open — even a wee bit — during the scrubbing process.
  4. Clams are now ready for cooking.

The Italian custom of avoiding cheese with most seafood pastas is not some “silly” or “ridiculous” decree. The suggestion is based on the fact that many forms of seafood are quite mildly flavored. Use of Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano Reggiano would easily overpower the seafood, rendering it almost “invisible” to the palate. In today’s recipe, cheese would most certainly mask the delicate flavors of the squid ink pasta and clams, as well as obliterate all of the bottarga’s scent and much of its flavor. Of course, you can eat whatever you like but if you take the time to seek out and purchase fresh seafood, often at premium prices, why hide it under a blanket of cheese?

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It’s déjà vu all over again …

linquine ai frutti-di mare al cartocci

It was but a year ago when I shared another seafood dish worthy of any Christmas Eve celebration. In that dish, clams, mussels, shrimp, calamari, and scallops were combined with linguine in a mildly spiced tomato sauce and sealed in parchment before being baked. It is a very special dish for a very special night. You can learn how to prepare it by clicking HERE.

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Coming soon to a monitor near you …

Eggs in Purgatory Preview

Eggs in Purgatory

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Buon Natale a Tutti!

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My Grandmas’ Garbanzo Bean Soup

Minestra del Ceci delle Mie Due Nonne

Minestra del Cece 2*     *     *

Every year, just before Christmas Eve, I’ve shared a recipe for seafood, often mentioning the Feast of the Seven Fishes when doing so. To that end, next week’s post will feature another such dish. (See Coming soon to a monitor near you.) Not all Italian families, however, prepare a feast on Christmas Eve. We certainly didn’t when I was very young. My family’s tradition of enjoying a seafood feast didn’t start until a few years later, when Dad would leave the restaurant early, bringing the seafood with him. Prior to that time, our Christmas Eve dinner was nothing special, although always meatless because, being Catholic, meat was not allowed. “Upstairs”, in Zia’s home, baccalà was the main course, with “Nonna”, also, serving today’s soup, garbanzo bean.

Whether you call them garbanzos, chickpeas, or ceci, this bean is a good one to have in your pantry. Very low in fat and high in protein, garbanzos are becoming more popular as gluten-free and vegetarian diets become more common. Most readily available dried or in cans, garbanzos can be used in any number of ways and, when ground, the resulting flour is a viable substitute for gluten flours. In a country where meat was reserved for special occasions, garbanzos were one of several beans Italians used to supply protein to their diets.

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Today’s soup was 1 of the 4 dishes that I prepared for Zia during my last visit. To be honest, she was the dish’s mastermind and I her dutiful sous chef. As you’ll soon see, mine was an easy job. At some point she mentioned that “Grandma”, Mom and Zia’s Mother, also cooked garbanzo bean soup and in the same way as did her Mother-in-Law, “Nonna”. This recipe is a gift from both women, “due nonne“. I’m not certain, however, if this soup is a traditional Marchigiani dish. Yes, both women were from Marche but this soup is quite basic and could very well have originated anywhere in Italy — if not somewhere else. (Perhaps our friend and expert of all things Marchigiani, Mariano Pallottini, will be able to shed some light on this for us.)

As is the case with most of the Bartolini recipes from back in the day, this soup is simple to prepare and relies on a few, commonplace ingredients. As you can imagine, the most important thing you’ll put in your stockpot, therefore, is the stock itself. Here, because the soup was served on Christmas Eve, a day when Catholics were forbidden to eat meat, a vegetable stock is used. Feel free to use whatever type of stock you prefer, though you’ll want to use a rich, full-flavored stock for a soup you’ll be serving on so special a night.

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Minestra di Ceci*     *     *

My Grandmas’ Garbanzo Bean Soup Recipe

Ingredients

  • 2 cups dried garbanzo beans/chickpeas, inspected to remove stones and the like (see Notes)
  • 2 quarts vegetable stock (see Notes)
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • grated Pecorino Romano cheese for serving – omit if vegan

Directions

  1. At least 8 hours or the night before, place the beans in a large bowl and cover with water that is at least 2 inches above the beans. Before use, pour off the water, rinse, and set aside to drain. Do not allow to dry out.
  2. Heat the oil and butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over med-high heat. Add the onion and sauté until translucent — about 5 minutes. Do not allow it to brown. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
  3. Add the stock and chickpeas to the pot and stir. Bring to a boil before reducing to a simmer.
  4. Continue to simmer until the beans are as tender as you like. (See Notes)
  5. Check for seasoning before serving with plenty of grated cheese at the table. (Omit or use soy cheese if vegan.)

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Garbanzo Bean Soup*     *     *

Notes

The homemade stock used here was prepared using vegetable odds & ends that I’d been keeping in my freezer. The ingredient list will vary each time the stock is made.

  1. In a large stockpot over med-high heat, add 2 tbsp each of butter and olive oil.
  2. When hot, add broccoli stems, cauliflower cores, carrot peelings, and asparagus stalk trimmings, as well as a quartered large onion, 3 roughly chopped carrots, 3 roughly chopped celery stalks (leaves included), and a few cloves of smashed garlic. Sauté until the vegetables begin to color.
  3. Add a handful of parsley, a quartered tomato (“for color”), and 1 bay leaf before adding enough water to fill the pot. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer.
  4. Continue to cook for at 2 hours, allowing the stock to reduce and the flavors to intensify. Occasionally skim the stock of the film that may coat the its surface. If the stock reduces too much, add water to compensate.
  5. Season with salt and pepper if you intend to use the stock to make vegetable soup. If the stock is to be used in other recipes, best to leave it salt-free and season it when used.
  6. Once cooled, refrigerate for no more than a few days or store, frozen, for up to 1 month.

When using dry beans, you must take a few minutes to inspect them, looking for small stones and/or beans that are discolored or otherwise spoilt. Discard them.

We’ve found that 1 cup (200 g) of dried beans per quart (950 ml) of stock will yield a soup with just the right “beans to stock ratio” in every bowl. You may wish to add more or less stock to suit your own tastes.

Cooking times will depend upon the type of bean — canned or dried — that you use.

  • If dried, the longer they are allowed to soak, the less time needed to cook. Even so, they will take at least 60 minutes — more like 90 — to cook fully.
  • If canned, rinse before using and they should be ready to eat once they are heated through. Taste before serving to ensure that they meet your preferences.

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It’s déjà vu all over again …

 Eel in the Style of Le MarcheNo listing of traditional Italian dishes served on Christmas Eve would be complete without mentioning eel. Yes, eel. Served on Christmas Eve almost exclusively, live anguille, eels, can be found in tanks at the largest and best-equipped Italian markets beginning around December 15th.  You can learn how my family prepared the slippery devils by clicking HERE.

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Coming soon to a monitor near you …

Squid Ink Pasta PreviewSquid Ink Pasta with Clams and Bottarga

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Linguine with Seafood in Parchment

Linguine ai Frutti di Mare al Cartoccio

Linquine ai Frutti di Mare al Cartocci - 1

Yes, everyone, it’s Christmas Eve and, as many of you who’ve been with me for at least one Christmas already know, it’s a night of great anticipation and luscious seafood for many of us Italians. In fact, more than a few households will celebrate tonight with the Feast of the Seven Fishes. In the past, I shared a rather tongue-in-cheek story of the origins of this Feast but, instead of sending you there, I thought I’d reprint it for you here. What’s this? You already know the tale? Well, just skip the paragraph that follows and head straight to the video. That should keep you occupied until the others catch up. So, here is one version of how the Feast of the Seven Fishes came about …

Prior to the changes brought by Vatican Council II in the 1960′s, Christmas Eve was a “fast & abstain” day, meaning only 1 main meal could be consumed and no meat was to be eaten all day. For most Catholics around the World, it was a day of contemplation and that one meal was nothing special. With Christmas coming within hours, all eyes — and appetites — were focused on the big day — and dinner — soon to come. Not so the Italians.  If tomorrow’s a big holiday and today you can only have one meal, why not make that meal special? And so they did. Can’t have any meat? No problem. With Italy being both peninsula and island, fish was very often more readily available than many meat products. And so it became a seafood banquet. Wait a minute! The Church may frown upon so grand a celebration on the eve of the birth of the Christ Child. Again, no problem. They made a point of serving seven fish, each one representing one of the Seven Sacraments of the Christian Faith. In one masterstroke, their seafood feast became an Act of Faith. What priest, bishop, or even Pope would dare interfere with these devout Catholics as they used the day’s only meal to commemorate the Seven Sacraments? (The fact that the clergy themselves were probably dining on an even more spectacular seafood supper didn’t hurt “the cause” either.) And so the Feast of the Seven Fishes was born and survives to this day wherever Italians call home.

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OK then. Is everybody here? Let’s continue …

I first saw this dish prepared almost 20 years ago. An Italian chef, Nick Stellino, hosted a cooking show on PBS. That one episode not only showed me how to cook seafood pasta, Pasta dei Frutti di Mare, but it introduced me to the wonders of using parchment paper to envelope a dish. Since then, although I’ve made this dish a few times, I’ve made seafood pasta often and baked fish and/or vegetables in parchment or foil even more frequently.

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Now, this one dish will give you 5 of the 7 fish needed for your feast. Please resist the urge to go for broke and add 2 more fish to the pot. All that will do is muddle the flavors or, worse yet depending on the seafood chosen, completely overpower the others. If you’re looking for suggestions, how about oysters on a half-shell, a nice octopus salad, a small salad with seared tuna, or a bit of baccalà salad. (A serving of baccalà in some fashion being the overwhelming choice of many Italian families.) Still not happy? Then do what I once did. Late one Christmas Eve afternoon, I was among the horde in a grocery store when I realized I was 2 fish shy of the required 7 for my own little feast. Not willing to spend any more time in the store while I weighed options, I went to the sushi counter and picked up a spicy tuna roll, before heading to the deli section to get a jar of pickled herring.  Fish are fish, after all.

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Speaking for my Zia and the rest of the Bartolini Clan,

We wish you a very Merry Christmas!

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Frutti di Mare - Crudo

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Linguine with Seafood in Parchment Recipe

yield: 3 servings (See Notes)

Ingredients

  • 1/2 lb (225 g) fresh linguine, spaghetti, or tagliatelle — dried pasta may be substituted
  • 4 tbsp olive oil, divided
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced or grated, divided
  • 4 tbsp chopped parsley, divided
  • 2 tbsp basil, chopped
  • 1 small can (14.5 oz; 400 g) diced tomatoes
  • 1/2 c white wine, divided
  • 1/2 cup clam juice or shrimp stock (see Notes)
  • 1 tsp dried marjoram (2 tsp if fresh)
  • 6 mussels, (see Notes)
  • 6 cherry-stone or manila clams, (see Notes)
  • 6 scallops, cut in half (see Notes)
  • 9 shrimp (see Notes)
  • 3 calamari (see Notes)
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • chopped parsley and basil for garnish

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(Click any photo to enlarge)

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Directions

  1. At least 30 minutes before you are to begin preparing the sauce, place the clams in a bowl filled with cold water. Change the water at least once and be sure to brush the clam shells before cooking them.
  2. Prepare a simple tomato sauce:
    1. Place 2 tbsp olive oil in a small sauce pan over med-heat. Once hot, add the onion, the red pepper flakes, season with salt & pepper, and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes.
    2. Add 2 cloves of garlic and 2 tbsp of parsley, stir, and continue to sauté for another minute or so.
    3. Add 1/4 c wine, the tomatoes, 1 tbsp basil, season with marjoram, salt & pepper, and bring to a boil before lowering heat to a simmer.
    4. Allow to simmer until sauce has deepened in color and thickened, about 30 to 40 minutes. Taste for seasoning and adjust, if necessary.
    5. Put aside 1/2 cup for the recipe and reserve the rest for another day.
  3. Pre-heat oven to 375˚ F (190˚ C).
  4. In a large pot of salted boiling water, cook the pasta until 2 minutes before the package indicates it will be al dente. (See Notes)
  5. In a large, deep fry pan with a lid, add remaining olive oil over med-high heat. Add remaining oil, garlic, and parsley to the pan and sauté until fragrant, about a minute or so. Add the clams and mussels, cover the pan, and sauté for 2 minutes.
  6. Add the squid, shrimp, scallops, clam juice, tomato sauce, and the remaining basil and wine to the pan. Cover, increase the heat to high, and boil the ingredients for about 2 more minutes.
  7. Using a slotted spoon, remove the seafood from the pan, and place in a covered bowl. Reduce the sauce by half,
  8. By now, the pasta should be drained. Add it to the boiling sauce, stir to evenly coat, and sauté for a minute.
  9. Add the reserved seafood to the pan, mix, and heat till warmed throughout. At this point, discard any shellfish that have yet to open.
  10. Meanwhile, take a large piece of parchment paper — or aluminum foil — fold in half and place on a large serving platter.
  11. When the seafood and pasta are ready, place them along the fold of the parchment paper. Garnish with parsley and basil. Working quickly, use interlocking folds to join the top and bottom halves of the parchment paper. (See Notes)
  12. Alternately:
    1. Use separate sheets of folded parchment paper, one per serving.
    2. Split the pasta and seafood evenly among the sheets. Garnish with parsley and basil. Fold each, as indicated in Step 11 above.
  13. Place the parchment packet(s) on a baking sheet and place in the middle of a pre-heated oven.
  14. Bake for 5 minutes and remove to a large serving platter or individual plates. Do not pierce the parchment until at the table.
  15. Serve immediately and watch as your dinner guests open their parchment presents and get a whiff of that steam. This is why you go through the trouble of putting seafood pasta in parchment.
  16. Do not serve with grated cheese for it will overpower rather than enhance most of the dish’s seafood components.

Inspired by Nick Stellino, “Cucina Amore”, Pasta al Cartoccio di Mare

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Linquine ai Frutti di Mare al Cartocci - 2

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Notes

To store the fresh seafood

If you are to prepare this on Christmas Eve, the last place you want to be that afternoon is standing in line at the fishmonger. Fresh seafood will easily keep in your fridge for 24 hours if treated properly. I would not recommend storing beyond 24 hours.

  • Remove the clams and mussels from their packaging and place in a colander. Cover with damp — not sopping wet — paper towels. Place the colander in a bowl in which some ice as been set. Do not use so much ice that it will immerse any of the colander’s contents when it melts or the mollusks may drown. Place the bowl with colander into your refrigerator until needed.
  • Leave the shrimp, squid, and mussels in their packaging and store in the coldest part of your refrigerator. Do not freeze.

To prepare the seafood:

  • The Clams: At least 30 minutes before they are to be used in the recipe, place in a bowl of cold water and soak. (Some believe adding a couple tbsp of corn meal to the water will cause the clams to eliminate any sediment.) Change the water at least once before the clams are needed. Just before use, scrub clean the shells with a small brush. Discard any that are open and that won’t close on their own power.
  • The Mussels: Before use, remove the beard (a thread mass on one side) and use a brush to clean the shells. Discard any that are open and that won’t close on their own power.
  • The Shrimp: remove the shell including the tail section, if desired. Save the shells to be used to make shrimp stock. Use a sharp paring knife to slit the top of each shrimp. This will reveal a dark-colored vein that should be removed.
  • The Scallops: these may be sold with a muscle attached to one side. It is about an inch long and /14 inch wide. This should be removed as it is tough and unpalatable.
  • The Squid: Use a sharp knife to cut each tube, creating rings that are a half-inch wide. If using the tentacles, cut them in half or quarters.

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Homemade Linguine Cut Two Ways

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You may find it easier to enclose your seafood in aluminum foil rather than parchment paper. The choice is yours to make.

Do not forget — as I did — to add a garnish of parsley and basil to each packet just before you seal them. Their presence adds to the aroma upon tearing the parchment.

Timing is everything with this dish. The seafood cannot be kept waiting for the pasta to be cooked lest it become tough and rubbery. If you feel that you cannot properly time the dishes together, go ahead and cook the pasta so that it finishes within a few minutes of starting the sauce. Pasta should be cooked about 2 minutes shy of al dente, as indicated on the package’s instructions. Drain the pasta, return it to the now-empty pot, coat very lightly with olive oil, and cover until needed.

You needn’t be an origami expert to fold and seal the parchment packets. That’s why the gods gave us staplers and don’t be afraid to use one.

As written, this recipe will give you 3 nice servings. If you wish, it will yield 4 primo piatto-sized servings, though you may want to adjust the amounts of seafood used.

The keen-eyed among you may have noticed that there seemed to be more seafood in the photos than was required by the recipe. You’d be correct. I usually buy a couple extra clams and mussels to account for any that may be spoiled and must be discarded. Not knowing that I had already done so, the fishmonger added a couple more, for the same reason. When I joked that the scallops looked “bad”, he agreed and added another 2 scallops to their previously weighed container. He then added 2 shrimp and another squid to their respective containers. This is how you earn life-long customers.

If you like, you can skip the parchment packets altogether and use this recipe to prepare a very good frutti di mare pasta. To do so, follow the recipe but cook the pasta for another minute before draining. Place the drained pasta into the sauce, as before, but cook it for only a minute before adding the seafood. Stir to combine, heat everything through, and serve immediately. Garnish with chopped parsley and basil.

This dish does not make good leftovers. None of the seafood will re-heat well at all. Try to prepare just enough to ensure your dinner guests are satisfied without having anything left on the serving platter.

As you may have noticed, I used a pastry brush to lightly coat the sealed parchment before placing it in the oven. There was no discernible effect to the parchment paper by doing this. Perhaps it’s because the oven temp was relatively low and the packet was in the oven so briefly. Whatever the reason, I won’t do it again for this recipe and excluded it from the recipe’s directions.

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It’s déjà vu all over again …

Zuppa Inglese - 1No series looking back at my family’s traditional Christmas dishes would be complete without including our recipe for Zuppa Inglesi. This highly anticipated dessert consisted of lady fingers that were “lightly flavored” with alcohol before being covered in lemon-flavored custard. There’s even an alcohol-free version so that no one seated at the table need go without. You can take a look at the recipe for this family favorite just by clicking HERE.

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Coming New Year’s Eve to a monitor near you …

Two Cellos and a Cherry

Booze

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Eel in the Style of Le Marche — Anguille alla Marchigiana

Our ship came in! This morning, I made what has become a daily call to the Italian market and learned that eels had been delivered late yesterday afternoon. I called a friend and within an hour, we were standing in front of the fish counter, watching the fishmonger net today’s entrée. Not but a few hours later, here I sit blogging about the dinner. Not too shabby, well, unless you happen to be an eel.

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Throughout much of Italy, eel is a dish served traditionally around the holidays but is most commonly prepared in the southern portions of the country, with Naples famous for its eel. Very often one of the fishes served during Christmas Eve’s Feast of the 7 Fishes, eel is considered to be good luck for those who eat it. This is a very old custom dating back to the days when people believed snakes to be evil because of their role in the story of Adam & Eve. Because it so closely resembles a serpent, by eating eel one was symbolically triumphing over the devil and good fortune was sure to follow. I don’t know if that’s true but I’m buying a few lottery tickets, just in case.

In the old two-flat, I can’t say that eating eel was a tradition at all. In fact, I only remember seeing it one time back then. I must have been no more than 5 years old because I could barely see over the edge of the sink. Even though “barely,” I did manage to get a glimpse of a sink full of the slimy devils. Needless to say, it was a sight that left a lasting impression. Speaking with Zia, that is probably the last time eel was prepared there. So, today’s post wasn’t just a recipe. It was yet another memory test for my long-suffering Zia. I must say, though, having just finished a delicious dinner, Zia came through again. The eel flesh not only remained intact, it’s flavor wasn’t overcome by the tomatoes and, in fact, the sauce had a mild seafood taste throughout. Now I just have to figure out a way to get some eel over to Michigan so she, too, can enjoy the fruits of her memory.

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As she suggested, I prepared the anguille like we do much of our seafood, in a simple tomato sauce. In fact, this marinara is almost bland for there are no strong herbs or flavors present. Eel has a mild fish flavor and using something like organo or marjoram would definitely overpower it, leaving a tomato sauce devoid of any taste of seafood. We agreed that the eel might disintegrate if allowed to cook entirely in the sauce, so it was briefly pan-fried before being added it to the tomatoes.  Beyond that, the only change I brought to the recipe was with the basil. My family always tore by hand or chopped fresh basil before adding it to a sauce. Not long ago, I watched as Lidia added an entire stem of basil to her sauce and fished it out before serving. Well, if it’s good enough for Lidia, it is certainly good enough for me. If you, however,  don’t feel like adding a stem of fresh basil, then tear or chop away.

Oh! I should warn tell you one more thing about today’s protein. These eel are alive when purchased. You can bring them home and “take care of them” yourself or you can let your fishmonger do it for you. Um. No question. Let your fishmonger kill, gut, trim, and even chop the eel to your specifications. If you’re considering taking on any of the duties I’ve just mentioned, let me tell you that the term “slippery as an eel” is far more fact than fiction. I chose to chop the eel myself and it was a mistake, one that I’ll never repeat.

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Anguille alla Marchigiana Recipe

Ingredients

  • 3 lbs. eel, cleaned with head & tail removed, chopped in 2 – 3 inch pieces.
  • 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1 large sweet onion, sliced thin
  • 1 clove garlic, minced or grated
  • 4 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped, divided
  • 1 large can (28.5 oz) tomatoes
  • 1 stem fresh basil
  • 1 cup white wine
  • salt & pepper
  • thickly sliced, toasted Italian bread, for serving.

Directions

  1. In a large sauce pan, heat 2 tbsp of olive oil over med-high heat. Add onion and sauté for about 3 minutes before adding 3 tbsp of the chopped parsley. Continue to sauté until the onion is translucent, about 5 more minutes.
  2. Add garlic and sauté for a minute.
  3. Add tomatoes, basil, season lightly with salt & pepper, and bring pan’s contents to the boil before reducing to a simmer.
  4. After sauce has simmered for 15 minutes, heat the remaining oil in a large frying pan over med-high heat.
  5. Once the oil is hot, add the pieces of eel and sauté for about 7 minutes, being careful to insure that the pieces are evenly cooked.
  6. Carefully remove the eel and place it in the tomato sauce. Season lightly with salt & pepper.
  7. Use the white wine to deglaze the frying pan. Continue to cook the wine until it is reduced by half. Add the wine reduction to the tomato sauce and carefully stir the pan’s contents.
  8. Increase the heat to high, bring the sauce to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for another 15 minutes.
  9. Taste and adjust seasoning, if needed, one last time.
  10. To serve, set a piece of toasted bread on each plate and place eel pieces on top, followed by a generous amount of sauce. Garnish each serving with some of the remaining chopped parsley.

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It’s déjà vu all over again …

Calamari SaladA little over a year ago, I gave an account of how the Feast of the 7 Fishes came about. It was part of the post in which I shared Mom’s recipe for a Calamari Salad. Follow this recipe’s guidelines and you’ll have perfectly prepared calamari, not rubber bands. That post also included a round-up of 11 additional seafood recipes for anyone needing help with gathering 7 seafood dishes for the Feast. You can see it all by simply clicking HERE.

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What’s this? You’re still a fish short?

Here’s a round-up of this past year’s seafood posts.

So, combining both posts, you now have 18 recipes from which to choose dishes for your Feast of 7 Fishes. Still having trouble? Try this: start your meal with Mom’s Calamari Salad. Next serve a bowl brimming with Brodetto. See? You’ve got 6 Fishes out-of-the-way already. Now, finish your meal with a bang: Branzino al Cartoccio. That’s 7 Fishes and you haven’t even broken a sweat.

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Coming soon to a monitor near you …

Mom’s Brodo

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Baked Whiting

Merluzzo al Forno

Today’s recipe comes from a half-century ago, a time when television shows were only broadcast in black and white; when a trip to the airport was something eagerly anticipated; when all (US) phones had a dial and many of those phones, being owned by Ma Bell, were rented; when music was purchased on large, black vinyl discs; and when Catholics were forbidden to eat meat on Fridays lest they face the fires of eternal damnation. Yes, that long ago.

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When I think back to those days, I’m amazed at the variety of fish that found its way to our dinner table. Aside from the usual guests — i.e., baccalà (salted cod), stoccafisso (dried cod), tuna, vongole (clams), smelt, calamari (squid), perch, sepia, lumache (snails) — there were infrequent visitors but I was far too young to remember their names. Zia, my very own Encyclopedia Italiana, can’t remember their names either. So, you can well imagine my surprise when the fishmonger at the Italian market identified a type of fish in his display case as “merluzzo.” Merluzzo! I’d not heard or seen that fish in almost 50 years. I bought a couple, rushed home, and phoned my Aunt immediately.

Zia was every bit as surprised as I was. I really enjoy these phone calls and they’re why I spend so much time investigating a market’s pasta aisle, the cheese counter, the produce department, and interrogating the fishmonger. It makes my day when I uncover some treasure from long ago and then phone her with the news. To be sure, no matter the discovery, there’ll be some in a bag, a box, or a cooler the next time I come for a visit. And that dinner will be full of memories, some of which I’ll then share with you.

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Now then, before discussing the recipe, I can no longer ignore l’elefante nella stanza. Our friends from across The Pond refer to merluzzo as “hake”, whereas here merluzzo is called “whiting.” (My sources on this “side” being my fishmongers and Fabio Trabocchi’s cookbook Cucina of Le Marche.) Although I am by no means an expert, I’ve learned that although the two fish aren’t exactly the same, the names “whiting” and “hake” are used interchangeably.  For the sake of argument, henceforth I’ll call today’s fish “merluzzo”. You, then, can translate it to mean whatever you like,  be that “whiting” or “hake”.  ChgoJohn, Peace Maker.

I’m going to dispense with my normal recipe format, for this dish doesn’t need it. Merluzz’ are small fish. Scaled and gutted, the 2 pictured were about 9 inches (23 cm) long and together weighed about 8 ounces (227 g). To stuff them, you’ll need about 1/3 of a cup of the breading mixture per fish and you may wish to make more, depending upon how you’ll cook or serve your fish.

This stuffing mixture is used in a number of the Bartolini family recipes. Grandma’s Stuffed Vegetables and Grandpa’s Barbecued Shrimp are 2 that I’ve shared so far. We, also, use it to stuff calamari and again with other baked fish, the recipes for which are forthcoming.  The only difference in its composition from one dish to the next is that, with seafood, lemon juice might be added.  It’s easy enough to make. Just combine (Panko) breadcrumbs, chopped fresh parsley, a little grated or minced garlic, salt & pepper, and olive oil. If you like, squeeze a little fresh lemon juice into the mix. Learning how much olive oil to use gave me fits. I pestered Mom with questions and was forever touching Zia’s mixture to get “the feel” of it.  You do not want a breading that is sopping wet with olive oil but neither do you want it barely moist. Too wet and you’ll have a greasy dish; not wet enough and it will dry out, and possibly burn, before the dish has finished cooking. Practice makes perfect.

Once the breading is made, salt & pepper the fish, inside and out, use the breading mixture to stuff it, and add a light drizzle of olive oil. Back in The Day, Grandpa would then secure the merluzzo in a hinged grill basket and place them on his barbecue, turning them after a few minutes. When finished, they would be removed to a serving platter and brought to the table. As you can see, that’s not what I’ve done.

To bake, place the stuffed fish on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Place any excess breading on top of the fish before drizzling with oil, and then place in a pre-heated oven of 375˚F (190˚C). Bake for about 20 minutes or until the breadcrumbs are golden brown. Times may vary depending upon the oven and size of the merluzzo. Remove to a serving platter and serve immediately. That’s still not as is pictured but this is how my family baked and served merluzzo.

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One way I like to prepare them is to roast cherry/grape tomatoes with the fish. I make extra breading and use it to cover the fish. Once roasted, the resulting flavors of roasted tomato and breading are reminiscent of Grandma’s Stuffed Vegetables.

A third way to serve them is to prepare even more breading mixture and use it to as a bed and coating for the roasting fish. Once roasted, place the breading and fish atop cooked pasta that has been lightly dressed with olive oil and chopped parsley. Roasted cherry tomatoes would work here, too.

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Notes

Don’t let a fear of fish bones prevent you from trying merluzzo. The bones are all attached to the spine and the “top-side” fillet readily lifts off of the fish with your fork. Once exposed, the entire spine is then easily removed, making the “bottom-side” fillet accessible. Just be careful with the meat taken from around the gills and you shouldn’t encounter any bones while eating.

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It’s déjà vu all over again …

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As I’ve said, seafood is the protein of choice in Italian households on the night before Christmas. My Brodetto, or fisherman’s stew, uses a variety of seafood in a lightly seasoned tomato broth to create a very special dish which, coincidentally, is perfect for Christmas Eve. Click HERE to learn how to make this stew.

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Coming soon to a monitor near you …

Next week’s recipe is a mystery dish, my memories of which predate even merluzzo. As such, I’ve no teaser photos for you. I can’t even guarantee that I’ll find it before next Wednesday. If I don’t, I may delay next week’s post a day or two, hoping that something turns up. Don’t you worry. I’ve another seafood recipe, all set to post, if I’m not successful. Stay tuned …

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Baccalà alla Marchigiana

Wind drying and salting are among the oldest methods of preserving food known to Man. One application of these techniques, dried and salted cod, has been around for hundreds of years and is common throughout much of Europe. In Italy, it is called baccalà; in Portugal, bacalhau; and  you may have seen it in Spanish markets as bacalao. No matter what name is used, if you’ve ever seen it in its dried state, you certainly won’t forget it. Off-white and heavily salted, the preserved fish is sold in pieces about 18 inches long, 4 to 8 inches wide, as much as a half-inch thick, and stiff as a board. Well, except this last piece I bought, which required refrigeration and was actually soft, relatively speaking. (Who knew?) Dried stiff or soft-ish, the cod must be rinsed, again and again, before it can be cooked. (See Notes below.) Once re-hydrated and “de-salted”, you can treat it like you would any fresh fish.

Last week, I spoke of my family’s tradition of serving a seafood feast on Christmas Eve, made possible by Dad’s employment at the restaurant, and mentioned that baccalà was often one of the famed 7 Fishes in many Italian homes. Well, not in our home, much to my dismay. Whether it was because Mom or Dad didn’t like it, or, Mom wasn’t a fan of the prep work, baccalà was a dish served only in Zia’s home. Good thing, too, because although it wasn’t as convenient as having it served at my own dinner table, Zia and her Mother-in-law, Nonna, were masters of its preparation. As a result, as Zia recalls, I was forever trying to snag whatever leftovers I could from their meal. Although both women used the same ingredients, Nonna preferred to bake her baccalà, while Zia cooked hers atop the stove.  As one who “sampled” both preparations, I can attest that each method produced a delicious dish. As for our recipe today, Zia and I combined both methods, partially cooking the dish atop the stove before finishing it off in the oven. Although I wanted to name the dish Baccalà alla Zia, my ever-so-modest Aunt would have none of it. So, to honor both her and Nonna, the recipe is called Baccalà alla Marchigiana — but you and I know its real name.

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Baccalà alla Marchigiana Recipe

Ingredients

  • 3 to 4 medium-sized potatoes, peeled and quartered
  • olive oil
  • salt & pepper, to taste
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp marjoram
  • 3 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1 large can (28 oz) tomatoes (whole or diced)
  • 1 lb baccalà, soaked, and cut into 3 inch chunks (See Notes below)
  • salt & pepper, to taste

Directions

  1. Pre-heat oven to 400˚.
  2. Season potatoes with salt & pepper, toss with a splash of olive oil, and roast on a baking sheet for 20 minutes at 400˚.
  3. Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, heat olive oil over med-high heat. Add the onion and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes
  4. Add garlic & parsley and continue to sauté for another minute.
  5. Add tomatoes & marjoram, bring to boil, reduce to simmer, and cook, uncovered,  for 30 minutes. If sauce is “tight”, meaning too dry, add water.
  6. Add roasted potatoes and continue simmering for another 20 minutes. Add water if necessary.
  7. Add baccalà to the tomato sauce and place pan into the 400˚ oven. Bake for 20 minutes. Taste before seasoning with salt & pepper, if necessary.
  8. Serve immediately.

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Variations

Whereas baccalà is cod that has been salted and dried, stoccafisso is cod that has been dried but not salted. Once properly prepared, both forms can be cooked in a variety of ways. The portions can be baked in a sauce as above, pan-fried, baked, grilled, or poached and served in a salad. Recently, I watched a re-broadcast of Molto Mario as he used baccalà to make “fish balls,” which he deep-fried. In other words, the only thing limiting how baccalà might be prepared is your own imagination. And for those who believe that fresh or frozen cod is just as good as baccalà, I caution against mouthing such heresy in the presence of Zia’s Youngest Son. A word to the wise is sufficient.

Notes

Baccalà must be thoroughly rinsed and soaked before you can cook it. If it is salted and fully dried (pic on left), it will take 2 days to get it re-hydrated and de-salted  (pic on right). This is readily  accomplished by placing it in a large baking  dish filled with cold water and changing the water occasionally over the course of the 2 days. I find it helps to let the water run gently into the dish a few times, as well. If, as was the case with my most recent purchase, your baccalà is not fully dried but refrigerated, you may be able to get away with a 1 day soak. You will know when the fish is ready by its appearance, feel, and, yes, its smell. Be careful, however, not to let it soak for too long or to run the water too forcefully. The fish could lose its firm texture and might even disintegrate.

No post about baccalà would be complete without mention of its “aroma.”  Certainly not as strong as stoccafisso, when first you begin to soak the cod, you will notice it that it smells like, well, dried fish. The smell quickly dissipates in the rinse water and soon its scent compares favorably with any other fish product. Stoccafisso, however, is not so easily rendered scentless and should only be attempted outdoors or in a well-ventilated room. To illustrate my point …

I was about 5 or 6 years old and shared a bedroom with my brother, who was about 10 or 11 years old at the time. Our bedroom, as well as the bedroom of my cousins’ directly above ours, was separated from the rest of the house by a stairwell that ran from the 2nd floor to the basement. One morning, Mom entered our bedroom in a cleaning frenzy, convinced that my brother or I had done, or left, something disgusting in the room. Angels that we were and despite our claims of Godliness, a foul stench had reached her kitchen, which was located on the other side of the stairwell, and our room declared a crime scene — ground zero, in today’s parlance. Lucky for the two of us, Mom found nothing untoward in our room and now, more determined than ever, she set out to find the source of the stench. It wasn’t long before her nose led her to the basement where, under the stairs, she found Grandpa’s stoccafisso, bathing innocently in a tub of water. Well, revenge is a dish best served cold, so Mom patiently bided her time. It wasn’t long before Grandpa left the house, as he did every morning like clockwork. Seizing the opportunity, Mom placed the tub of stoccafisso under his bed and closed his bedroom door as she left. Even Grandpa’s Old Spice, the scent of which permeated that room, proved to be no match for stoccafisso, as Grandpa learned when he opened that door a few hours later. To be sure, Mom and her Father “discussed” the matter but, being so young, I wasn’t privy to that conversation. I do know, however, that Grandpa never soaked stoccafisso under those stairs again.

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Mom’s Calamari Salad

 

Insalata dei Calamari

Prior to the changes brought by Vatican Council II in the 1960′s, Christmas Eve was a “fast & abstain” day, meaning only 1 main meal could be consumed and no meat was to be eaten all day. For most Catholics around the World, it was a day of contemplation and that one meal was nothing special. With Christmas coming within 24 hours, all eyes — and appetites — were focused on the big day — and dinner — soon to come. Not so the Italians. If tomorrow’s a big holiday and today you can only have one meal, why not make that meal special? And so they did.  Can’t have any meat? No problem. With Italy being both peninsula and island, fish was very often more readily available than many meat products. And so it became a seafood banquet. Wait a minute! The Church may frown upon so grand a celebration on the eve of the birth of the Christ Child. Again, no problem. They made a point of serving seven fish, each one representing one of the Seven Sacraments of the Christian Faith. In one masterstroke, their seafood feast became an Act of Faith. What priest, bishop, or even Pope would dare interfere with these devout Catholics as they used the day’s only meal to commemorate the Seven Sacraments? (The fact that the clergy themselves were probably dining on an even more spectacular seafood supper didn’t hurt “the cause” either.) And so the Feast of the Seven Fishes was born and survives to this day wherever Italians call home.

It’s funny but I don’t recall hearing anything about the Feast of the 7 Fishes when I was growing up. This, despite our having a large seafood meal every Christmas Eve. Dad, working in a restaurant, would come home early in the evening of Christmas Eve, bearing gifts of clams, oysters, and red snapper, at the very least. This would be added to the shrimp and crabmeat that Mom was preparing as appetizers and the calamari she was using to make a salad. As Dad shucked, he helped Mom with the recipes for clams casino and oysters Rockefeller. (Yes, Dad could cook but it was a skill he successfully kept under wraps except on the most rare of occasions.) There was, of course, a big platter of home-made linguine with tuna — or possibly clams — to be served along with the red snapper that Mom had broiled. It was, by any measure, quite a feast of seafood — we just never counted the “participants”.

Although today I do not maintain this family tradition, I do, however, make sure that my plans for Christmas Eve include a meal of seafood, no matter what. Since I’ve posted a number of seafood recipes over the past several months, I thought I’d post links to them all for anyone planning a Feast of the 7 Fishes but who may be missing a fish or two. Before doing that, however, I’ll share Mom’s recipe for Calamari Salad because, well, you should have it; she said so. And, next week, I’ll share the Bartolini recipe for what is the traditional main course in many Italian homes on Christmas Eve, Baccalà (salted cod), which, by the way, is also one of the 7 Fishes.

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The Real McCoy

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Now, there are a few things to consider with the recipe I’m about to share. First off, when cooking calamari, it’s been said to either cook it for 1 minute or 45. Anything in between and you’ll be eating something akin to rubber. So, use a big pot, bring it to a rolling boil, and get those squid into, and out of, the pot quickly. Beyond that, this recipe is typical of most of my family’s in that it features a few ingredients with relatively few spices. It is all about balance, that’s why there are no amounts given. Yes, Mom listed 1 green and 1 red pepper but I omitted the quantities. It all depends upon how much calamari you use and you’ll note that Mom didn’t list the amount of calamari needed in her recipe. Chop and mix as much bell pepper, red and green, as your eye tells you. (For 1 1/2 lbs calamari, I used about 2/3 each green & red bell pepper.) Taste the onion and let that determine how much to use. If you feel it’s too strong, feel free to give it a quick rinse under cold water after you’ve chopped it. Still not liking the onion? Try a shallot or 2 instead. Lastly, if you’re not comfortable adding the dressing ingredients directly onto the calamari & peppers, then mix it first in a small bowl, taste it, adjust if necessary, and then dress your calamari with it. Bear in mind that most homemade vinaigrettes call for 3 parts oil (olive) for every one part acid (vinegar or, in this case, lemon juice).

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Mom’s Calamari Salad Recipe

Ingredients

  • squid, cleaned and cut into rings (halve tentacles, if using)
  • green bell pepper, diced
  • red bell pepper, diced
  • red onion, diced
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • lemon juice
  • fresh parsley
  • salt & pepper, to taste

Directions

  1. Fill a large saucepan with water and bring to a rolling boil over high heat.
  2. Add the calamari, stir, and turn off the heat.
  3. After one minute remove from water and place in an ice bath to chill. (Calamari may be “held” here for a couple of hours until ready to be served.)
  4. Once fully chilled, drain, place calamari on paper towels, and pat dry before dressing immediately with lemon juice, olive oil, parsley, salt and pepper.
  5. Toss and serve.

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This couldn’t be easier to prepare and, best of all, you can cook the calamari, make the dressing, and chop the peppers, onion, & parsley ahead of time and store it all separately in the fridge. Just before serving, mix the ingredients, season with salt & pepper, and bring it to the table. Who wants to be stuck in the kitchen when there are unattended gifts to shake?

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All righty! That’s 1 recipe down and 11 more to go. As promised, here are the seafood recipes that I’ve shared during the past year.

Tomato Sauce with Tuna

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Fried Calamari

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Pasta with Clams (“White Sauce”)

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Pasta al Salmone

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Grandpa’s Barbecued Shrimp

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 Pasta with Clams (“Red Sauce”)

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Salmon en Papillote — on the grill

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Pasta with Shrimp

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Brodetto

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Lumache alla Bartolini

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Puttanesca Sauce

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As you can see, of the 11 dishes presented, 7 involve pasta. I’m afraid that’s a bit too much pasta for a Feast of the 7 Fishes, even for me. So, I’ve got a plan. For your primo piatto, prepare my Brodetto. That’s 5 fish in one dish! Clear the table and serve today’s calamari salad alongside next week’s Baccalà and you’ll have all 7 fishes, present and accounted for, in only 2 courses. That wasn’t so hard, was it?

Oh! About dessert. Yes, you may have dessert but, keeping in mind that it is a day of fasting and in the spirit of the Feast of the 7 Fishes, go easy on the whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Besides, you’ll need room for the fruit & cheese platter that you’ll be  serving while the chestnuts are roasted.

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