Wild Creatures

(By Mariel)

“One can not think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” Says Virginia Woolf.




I agree wholeheartedly and more. Life revolves around the table – the place where we are all nurtured for every moment of our lives. Food is love.It is Sunday in mid-May, on the East Coast, soft shell crabs are at its peak. With the ease of good and fine company, we make a most simple and delectable meal of these wild creatures.Sautéed soft shell crabs. What more speaks to us about the joys of anticipation of summer? Cooked in butter and a pinch of sea salt for a flash, … with the first bite, we are already envisioning the delights of a day by the sea.So begins our convivial evening.Tonight’s menu, on this misty, damp, unseasonably fresh May evening, begins with the ease of jolly laughter. We debate whether if it is – perhaps, we, who are the wild creatures, who find such pleasure in devouring these crabs.Ahh, such a delicious dilemma.Our merry question is accompanied by ….

 Toasted bread with a spread of black olives and sun-dried tomatoes marinated in olive oilSalad composed of arugula, fennel, oranges, red onions and more black olivesSoft shell crabs simply sautéed in butter Almond cookies with Coconut and Passion fruit sorbets

 
We feed our bodies with the bounty of Mother Nature. We feed our souls with the goodness of love and friendship. This is surely the recipe of Life.

 
The Edibles

Toast:One baguette sliced at an angleYour favourite black olives pitted and chopped Sun-dried tomatoes marinated in olive oil, cut into slivers
1. Pre-heat oven to 250 degrees.

  1. Drizzle the slices of bread with good olive oil and arrange on a baking sheet.
  2. Spread chopped olives on each slice of bread and top with slivers of sun-dried tomatoes.
  3. Lightly toasted in oven for 15 minutes.
  4. Remove from oven and serve for immediate consumption.



Salad:Wild arugulaFennel, sliced thinly (a mandolin is an ideal tool)Seedless oranges – rinds removed, flesh sliced and pith removedOrange zestOrange juice , fresh squeezed Red onion, thinly sliced (again, with a mandolin)Your favourite black olives pitted and chopped Good olive oilBalsamic vinegar, in a bottle with a spray top.Salt


  1. Marinate orange zest in olive oil in a small bowl. Set aside
  2. To compose the salad, lay a large handful of the wild arugula on a platter, season with salt and moisten the leaves with some of the orange juice. Here I like to use my hands to toss the arugula.
  3. Add slices of the fennel and drizzle the olive oil with the orange zest and toss with one hand and with the other add the slices of red onions. Toss well and add more of the orange zest olive oil, to taste.
  4. Spread evenly on the platter. Spray the composition with a fine mist of balsamic vinegar.
  5. Top with the slices of oranges and garnish with chopped olives.




Soft Shell Crabs:
Soft Shell Crabs (in season from Mid-May to July)

Lemon wedges

Salt and Pepper

Flour

Butter

Vegetable Oil

  • Clean crabs – not for the squeamish. First r
  • emove the apron from the lower underside. Lift and fold back the tapering points on either side of the back and remove the gray gills. Cut off the head, in back of the eyes, with scissors.

    • Gently pat dry soft shell crabs, with paper towels.
    • Put enough flour in deepdish and season with salt and pepper.
    • Lightly dredge each crab in flour. Shake off excess flour.
    • When oil butter mixture is hot, gently lay the crabs in the pan, top side down first. Sauté 3 – 4 minutes per side until the crabs turn a deep orange colour.
    • Note: Do not crowd crabs in the pan. Cook in batches, if necessary.
    • Serve immediately with lemon wedges.


    Salmon Avocado Concasse’



    This is a Marco classic :) 


    I discovered this dish first in a restaurant in Italy and when looking for ideas for a light and fresh appetizer I decided to try to reproduce it at home.


    Here’s what’s needed (4 people):


    Two ripe avocados

    • 4-6 medium sized tomatoes on the vine (depending on the size)
    • A can of chickpeas
    • Fresh salmon filet (200gr - 12oz) 
    • 2% Milk
    • Fresh Thyme
    • Honey
    • 2 shallots
    • Extra Virgin olive oil
    • Salt
    • Red peppercorn
    • Lemon


    First thing to do is to marinate the salmon. I prepare a mix with milk, salt, thyme leaves, a bit of honey and let the salmon filet rest in it completely submerged overnight in the fridge.


    In a dutch oven saucepan, I then put two teaspoons of oil, salt and chopped shallots and stir until it turns light brown. I then lower the burner and let it cool down for a couple of minutes, after which I add a bit of the marinade mix and lay down the salmon with the skin at the bottom. I then close the dutch oven and let cook for about 20 minutes at medium to low burner. Every 5 minutes I open the pan and make sure that the salmon has not completely dried up, adding the rest of the marinade mix as needed.


    Since I’m going to have to chop the filet, I sometimes cut it in the thickest part with a wooden spoon to check if it’s cooked all the way through.


    Once it’s done, I put the salmon on a plate, cover it with another plate and put it in the fridge for about 30 minutes to chill.


    Now starts the fun part :) The avocado and tomatoes need to be chopped coarsely and stored temporarily in two separate cups.


    I know of at least 5 ways of opening an Avocado. This is the one I use: cut in half longitudinally, take the pit out, cut the skin also longitudinally in half for each of the halves and peel it off. If the avocado is ripe, that should come out quite easily.


    Once chopped, I put it in a container adding squeezed lemon (it would darken otherwise due to oxidation), olive oil and a pinch of salt.



    I then cut the tomatoes, remove most of the seeds, and chop them in chunks of the same size as the avocado. Also put in a container with salt and oil, no lemon this time - the tomato’s acidity would do.


    Chick peas time. Chopping chick peas with the chopping knife is definitely not recommended. Neither using a blender. It creates a paste and we need a different consistency. I use a food mill or ‘passatutto’ which is a very manual, very old fashioned but very efficient piece of equipment for food processing, and it also has the added benefit of removing all chick peas skin from the paste.


    But it still requires quite a bit of patience since the chickpeas will tend to form a layer on the filter. The secret is to (slowly) turn it backwards to detach the layer and then keep rotating until the only thing left on the inside of the filter are the skins.


    I recommend to put a plate underneath the food mill and transfer the ground chickpeas to a container as it fills up. I use the whole can of chickpeas and at the end collect the paste that is stuck at the bottom of the food mill with a spoon. 


    Time to take the salmon out of the fridge, and chop it in small pieces with a wooden spoon, putting it in a container with olive oil and a pinch of salt. I somehow do not like to touch it with metal. 


    At this moment, in front of me I have four bowls with: chopped Avocado, chopped tomatoes, ground chickpeas, chopped salmon. 


    I take four cylindrical glass molds and carefully smear them with olive oil on the inside, using a paper towel.


    Then the building phase start: I first put a layer of salmon, then a layer of avocado, then a layer of tomatoes, then a layer of ground chickpeas to ‘seal’ the bottom. The oil inside the cups will prevent the concasse’ to stick.


    At this point, I put the four bowls in the fridge and leave them for about 30 minutes.





    ..and after 30 minutes, I take a large serving plate and, one by one, ‘flip’ the bowl with a rapid movement, pat the bottom (now top) of the bowl and lift it up gently. The concasse’ should stay together nicely. 


    Final touch: a bit of oil, and 4-5 red peppercorns on top of each.


    And if everything went well, it should look like this







    Buon Appetito!



    Vermicelli Capperi e Olive

    You know when someone asks us…if you had to pick one dish as your number one favourite…you know, the culinary equivalent of the book or the song you would bring to a desert island…well this would be a serious contender.

    There’s something about the primal simplicity of the combination of tomatoes, capers and olives that almost shines a ray of mediterranean sun on us when we eat it, and inevitably brings my wife and I back to the places (different, but both on the Mediterranean coast) where we were born. She can actually cook this dish better than I do, being from Southern Italy where that ray of sun shines in its own peculiar way and definitely more often than in my rainy neck of the woods.

    There it is…





    What’s great about Vermicelli Capperi e Olive is that it’s extremely simple to prepare. And quick. But like with most simple things, the quality of the ingredients is what makes the difference from celestial to average to plain awful.

    This is what I use (for 4 people)

    • 500 Gr of Barilla Vermicelli #8 (it’s extremely important that they are manufactured in Italy, check the label).
    • One clove of garlic
    • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
    • A bunch of parsley
    • One can of Pomodorini cherry tomatoes (I use Mutti’s, there are other excellent Italian brands - and again where they come from is what makes the difference, more on that later)
    • 2-300 gr of Olive di Gaeta (Kalamata are an OK substitute)
    • 50 Gr of Capperi di Pantelleria sotto sale (small ones, in salt)
    • Coarse sea salt


    I start by putting 3 tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil in a medium sized saucepan, and let it heat up at about 1/3rd of burner strength for about 2 minutes. Add a pinch of salt and the peeled clove of garlic. Stir gently with a wooden spoon until the garlic is light brown (very light).


    Add about one third of the Pomodorini can, another tablespoon of oil and keep stirring for about 5 minutes until the tomato sauce starts thickening.


    Beforehand I prepared the Olive di Gaeta by pitting them and cutting them in half. I do not use any tools to pit the olives, just a small knife cutting the olive all around and removing the pit with a circular movement. The ‘rough’ irregular halves are somehow one of the characteristics of the dish, so I do not worry too much about accuracy, just making sure the olive slices are not too small.


    I leave the capers whole - that’s why I prefer the smaller ones. I rinse them quickly to remove the excess salt, dry them with paper towel and put them in a small dish with a few drops of oil.


    Parsley is finely chopped (with a cooking knife - do not use any mechanical tools such as blenders etc because the high speed of the blade causes the juices to separate from the leaf and drying them up)


    Time now to add capers and olives to the mix. Capers are naturally salty so there’s no need to add any additional salt.


    Keep stirring for a couple of minutes to mix them with the sauce, and add two or three pinches of parsley.


    Time now to add the rest of the Pomodorini can, lower the gas temperature to just a bit above simmer, stir well for a minute or so and then close the saucepan with a lid. I let it cook for about ten minutes, just enough time to put the large Pasta pot on the stove and let the water boil.


    I add a fistful of coarse salt to the boiling water and drop the vermicelli, making sure not to break them. Since they are likely taller than the pot, you can gently curve them down as they get softer, making sure they are all covered with water as quickly as possible.


    I take the lid off the saucepan and stir the sauce, increasing the gas level if I see that the sauce is too watery. Keep stirring gently (do not break the capers and olives) with the wooden spoon.


    Like in most sauce pasta dishes, I like to separate about 1/3rd of the sauce and put it in a heated saucepan on the side.


    After about 10-11 minutes, the vermicelli should be at a very al dente consistency, but without a crunchy center. Barilla suggests 13 minutes, but as always with pasta it really depends on many factors so it’s best to keep tasting and be ready to act quickly:)


    Drain the pasta and add it in the saucepan, stirring with two wooden spoons and adding 2-3 tablespoons of oil to mix the sauce evenly with the pasta. I keep doing it for at least two minutes, then serve the four portions on (preferably) pre-heated flat dishes. 


    The finishing touch is adding 2-3 spoons of the sauce from the separate saucepan on top of the pasta, and a pinch of chopped parsley.


    Accompany with a medium body red, like Merlot Lamaione di Frescobaldi


    Buon appetito!









    How to make a good espresso at home

    Many people have asked me what’s the secret for a good espresso made at home. 


    I specify at home, since if you really want a taste of the real thing, there’s nothing like a real espresso at the bar - and mind you not every bar - best I have ever had so far being St Eustachio in Rome, a legend that lives up to its name.


    As you know, in Italy having an espresso is not a social thing. The whole experience lasts 2-3 minutes with probably 30 seconds spent enjoying the espresso - one of the reasons in Italy the expression ‘let’s go for a coffee’ is almost like saying goodbye ;)


    Back to espresso at home. Obviously the starting point is … the coffee itself. A necessary but not sufficient condition, as mathematicians would say. Good italian coffee brands are readily available in many stores these days, my favourite ones being Kimbo, Illy and Lavazza Qualita’ Rossa. 


    With a good coffee mix you are about 50% there. The rest is in the coffee machine, and the way you prepare it to some extent.


    I’m not going to consider home versions of professional coffee machines - some of them are actually pretty good, but they fall into the category of ‘substitute’ of the real bar experience.

    Let’s instead talk about Moka espresso. A tradition that probably goes back thousands of years, even before the bar coffee machines were created. Moka espresso is its own thing, and if made properly can be a truly enjoyable experience.

    I can safely say that when it comes to choosing a Moka, there’s really no choice other than the Bialetti moka. 


    That’s a true classic, unchanged for decades and even without any data I can say that there’s probably at least one Bialetti moka in every Italian home, in and out of Italy.


    What’s not as well known is that there are probably not two Mokas that are identical…because their life is different. Two mokas are like two identical twins, who may have completely different life experiences and end up with quite distinct personalities.


    There’s something scientific and magical at the same time in the way coffee interacts with the Moka’s metal and bonds in a certain way to change its characteristics over time, deeply impacting the taste of the espresso.


    Therefore, rule number one - and possibly the only rule - is to love your Moka and take good care of it as something that will keep improve over time and you will eventually pass it from generation to generation.


    Here’s how you do that:



    • Once you buy your Moka, ‘burn it in’ by making at least 4-5 rounds of coffee which you …sigh..can probably want to throw away because it really won’t taste good. It will probably require at least 100 cycles before you can start tasting a glimpse of the real flavour.
    • Never wash it with soap. Just rinse it gently with water and make it dry by leaving it disassembled on a cloth. Residues of coffee will accumulate in the chamber and start the ..transformation process.
    • Use it frequently. Daily use is recommended, and remember that if you let is stay idle for over a week you’ll have to do another quick burn-in cycle depending on the length of the period. 




    Now to the actual making of the coffee. The procedure is very simple: you first fill the bottom part with water (I use brita-filtered water - calcium is not good for the taste and for the Moka) until just above the exhaust valve level. Put the coffee in the container without pressing it, making a little ‘mountain’ that raises a couple of CMs from the edge. Screw in the top part of the Moka.


    Temperature level is important. In my Bertazzoni stove I have a special burner for coffee, which is small enough so that the flame stays below the Moka. If you don’t have that, just use a flame reducer. 


    For electric stoves, you may have to put the Moka at the edge of the burner to avoid melting the plastic handle…

    Burner temperature must be relatively low, say 1/4 of full power. In about 5 minutes, the Moka will start making the characteristic ‘bubbling’ noise and coffee will start coming out from the small hole at the top. 


    Here’s where you will know if the temperature is right: if it’s the right temperature, the coffee will come out with a steady flow without sputtering, so that you could potentially keep the lid open (not recommended) without making a mess all around.


    Once all the coffee has come out and you only see bubbles being expelled, turn off the gas and serve immediately. 


    Pre-heating the cups is very important so that the coffee does not cool down immediately (you can put hot water in them, remove it and dry the cups with a cloth).


    Lots of people drink coffee ‘black’ with no sugar, I tend to put a spoon of sugar at the bottom of the cup before pouring the coffee, and then stir quickly to produce a bit of foam.


    Enjoy your espresso,


    M

    "Polipetti" octopus Spaghetti

    Octopus is a great tasting mollusc  but requires some careful preparation in order not to become hard or chewy, mushy or any combination of the above. A well prepared octopus is firm but gives in easily and consistently throughout, much like “al dente’ pasta.


    For this dish I used small octopus, also known as ‘polipetti’ that I found at Chelsea Market in New York. They have been previously tenderized in a very natural way, i.e. throwing them repeatedly against a hard surface :) You’re going to need to do that if your polipetti are not tenderized, just be careful not to splatter octopus parts all over.


    Each baby octopus is about 100 gr (3.5 OZ). I bought four for 4 servings.



    The rest of the ingredients

    • 2 shallots
    • 1 bunch of chives
    • 1 bunch of thyme
    • 1 clove of garlic
    •  a box of medium sized cherry tomatoes
    • Coarse sea salt
    • Fine sea salt
    • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
    • 1 cup of dry white wine
    • 500Gr of spaghetti. I used Garofalo spaghetti but Barilla #5 spaghetti are fine too (just check the box to ensure they are made in Italy..one day I will write a post about the art and science of pasta selection i promise).
    • 1 can of Mutti Polpa di Pomodoro (400 Gr - 14OZ)


    Let’s get started!:
    I begin by removing the skin from the shallots and chop them together with 4-5 leaves of chives and the same quantity of thyme leaves,  cut six cherry tomatoes in four parts and put a bit of oil and salt on top.
    Take the polipetti and use a sharp carving knife to cut them in pieces of about 2-3 cm each (1 inch) - cut the head sideways to form small rings and the part where the tentacles are connected to the head radially in smaller pieces (it tends to be a bit harder).
    I then put four teaspoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil in a medium sized saucepan and let it heat it up for a couple of minutes at medium heat. General note: a range with good temperature control is of course highly recommended, gas stoves being notoriously very good at it. I use a Bertazzoni Master Series because I like the low-BTU burners which give me even more accurate control and adapt to smaller saucepans.
    Remove the skin from the garlic clove, crush it with the bottom of a glass and put it in the hot oil adding a pinch of fine salt until it browns a bit - be careful not to burn it.
    It’s now time to add the herb mix we prepared with shallots, chives and thyme, and the cut cherry tomatoes. I stir them using a flat wooden spoon and start adding the white wine very slowly so that it evaporates almost instantly, but at the same time I’m not letting it go completely dry to avoid burning. I use about half of the wine glass, keep stirring for about 5 minutes until the shallots become light brown.
    Time to add the octopus: I keep stirring and adding the rest of the wine, adding water if necessary to prevent it from drying. Add two pinches of coarse sea salt. I generally lower the gas temperature now to just a bit above simmering. High temperature makes the Octopus meat become harder.
    Continue for about 5 minutes, then add the whole can of tomato paste while keeping stirring. I generally remove the garlic clove at this point - do not sweat if you cannot find it.
    I like the dutch-oven type of saucepan, but any lid that tightly seals the saucepan would do. The advantage of the dutch oven is the weight of the lid which creates an airtight chamber and allows for moisture to remain in the pan.
    Cook with the closed lid for 20 minutes, checking after 15 minutes or so and stirring for a few seconds before losing the lid again. 
    I cook the last 10 minutes without the lid, to allow the water that has developed from the octopus and the tomatoes to evaporate. Depending on how much water has been released, it may be necessary to cook it for longer until the sauce becomes quite creamy and not ‘watery’ in consistency.
    In the meantime, I have set a pot of water to boil. When the sauce looks just about close to the perfect consistency, I drop the spaghetti in the boiling water (after adding a fistful of coarse salt in the water) and at the same time lower the sauce’s gas level to simmer.
    Presentation is a very important part of the work, for that purpose it’s time to go through the extra effort of heating up a small saucepan and put about 1/3 of the sauce in it, separate from the main saucepan. Both saucepans to simmer.
    Spaghetti will be ready in about 8 to 10 minutes depending on the brand. Make sure you taste them - they are ready when they feel exactly the same consistency throughout (no crunchy core), but still very firm. Better to start tasting at the 7 minutes mark.
    Once ready, drain them in the colander and put them in the large saucepan where most of the sauce is, adding 3 or 4 tablespoon of olive oil, and using two serving spoons to mix the sauce throughout.
    Back to presentation: I put the spaghetti in the serving plates, and add the rest of the sauce (the one I set aside on the other saucepan) on top, ‘spraying’ a bit of cut chives on it. Add a tiny bit of olive oil and serve away!


    Recommended wines:
    Drouhin Chablis Domaine de Vaudon
    Venica & Venica Sauvignon Ronco delle Mele

    Buon Appetito!
    M