Thursday, July 28, 2011

Sardine Spring Rolls with Basil, Pickled Chiles, Cucumber, Spicy Oil, and Peanuts

Think I might have mentioned this once before, maybe twice, but I'm a huge fan of fresh sardines. They are bold in flavor (but in a good way), environmentally friendly, inexpensive, and healthy to boot (lots of omega-3 fatty acids). Was first introduced to the humble sardine in Greece several years ago, and have been on a mission ever since to seek them out wherever and whenever possible. In recent years, particularly in Chicago, I've increasingly noted their presence on menus and in grocery stores/fish markets. However, since moving to Washington, DC, have been unsuccessful in tracking them down. The fish guy at Whole Foods continues to reassure me that they get sardines from time to time, but I keep checking and have yet to see any around. Anyone know of a good fish market in the DC area where I might find fresh sardines?

In the mean time, I've begun to experiment with different brands of canned sardines, and I have to say, they are quite flavorful. Amongst the four brands I've sampled so far, there isn't a discernible difference in taste or quality. I like to stick to the ones packed in extra-virgin olive oil. Some are packed in a very mild chili oil mixture, which is a nice touch. Canned sardines are easy to find and are very inexpensive; they range in price from around $1.39 (for the Moroccan Sardines at Rodman's) to $3.00 (for the California and Portuguese varieties at Whole Foods).

So, given my affinity for these tinned fishes, I've begun to experiment with new ways to enjoy them. This rendition -- sardine spring rolls with basil, pickled peppers, cucumber, chili oil, and peanuts -- is loosely based on a maki roll that I practically inhaled the other night at Kaz Sushi. They make a maki with eel, basil, chili oil, and pickled Fresno chiles. Sushi is something I think is best left to the experts, but a simple spring roll is a breeze to prepare.

Anyone else share the same affinity for canned sardines? Would love to hear about your favorite way to enjoy them.

Casa Lusa Portuguese sardines in hot sauce.

Prepping all the ingredients for the filling ahead of time makes assembly a snap. The pickled chiles and red chili oil can be prepared a few days in advance. Am positively addicted to this chili oil. I keep making more and it keeps disappearing. I put it on just about everything, and often just eat it straight from the bowl.

Sardine Spring Rolls
Spring roll wrappers
Canned sardines
Cucumber, seeds removed, julienned
Pickled peppers (recipe to follow)
Basil leaves, sliced in half length wise
Sprouts (such as sunflower, broccoli, radish)
Peanuts, coarsely chopped
red chili oil (refer to this post for the recipe)

Take one spring roll wrapper and run under warm water until it begins to soften. In the center of the wrapper, lay down four pieces of basil, two sardine fillets, a few pieces of cucumber and pickled chiles, and some sprouts. Drizzle a bit of chili oil and a sprinkling of chopped peanuts on top. Roll the sides inward, and then the top, and tightly roll so that the basil is on top.

Pickled Chile Peppers
1 pound mild fresh chile peppers, such as fresno, anaheim, cubanelle, seeded and thinly sliced length-wise
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon sea salt

Bring the water, vinegar, and salt to a boil in a small pot. Simmer for 5 minutes. Add the peppers and simmer for an additional 5 minutes. Let cool to room temperature. Refrigerate.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Taralli, a Southern Italian Snack

Taralli, a typical Southern Italian crunchy snack, kind of like a bread stick, but formed in the shape of a ring. They are simply made with flour, olive oil and wine, and flavored with various spices/herbs, like fennel seeds, rosemary, oregano, chili peppers, black pepper, or cheese. Similar to baking bagels (well, proper bagels at least), they are first boiled and then baked in the oven until golden.

It took a bit of experimenting to get them to taste the way I wanted. I played around with different types of flour, herbs--fresh versus dried, and spice level. After several reiterations, and some trial and error, I am very happy with the final outcome.

While I typically like to incorporate a little bit of whole grain flour into recipes, sometimes it's best not to mess with tradition. Traditionally, taralli are made with "00" flour. When I replaced half of the "00" with whole wheat, the dough was way too dry, not springy or stretchy, just kind of fell apart. Also, took me a little while to get the spice level just right. Little by little, I added a bit more black pepper, crushed red pepper flakes, and dried rosemary, until they were just the way I wanted them.

These are my new favorite snack.

Rolled out, formed into a ring, and resting while awaiting a bath in boiling water, before going into the oven.

 Red Pepper and Rosemary Taralli
4 1/2 c. "00" flour
1 1/2 tablespoons sea salt + 1 tablespoon for boiling water
1 1/2 tablespoons crushed red pepper flakes
1 cup dry white wine  ,
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons dried rosemary

Place flour, 1 1/2  tablespoon salt, herbs, pepper into the bowl of a food processor. Add the wine and oil, and process until it forms a smooth dough.

Lightly brush a bowl with olive oil and sprinkle it generously with flour. Place the dough in the bowl, and dust the top with flour. Cover with plastic wrap and let dough rest for 2 hours. You can also refrigerate the dough overnight in an airtight container, and bring it to room temperature the next day.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a large pot, bring 4 quarts of water to a boil, reduce to a simmer. Season with 1 tablespoon of salt.

Brush cookie sheets lightly with olive oil. Have paper towels ready to drain taralli as they come out of the water.

Divide the dough into 4 pieces, leaving the other 3 pieces in the bowl, covered. Flour your work surface and knead the dough lightly. Roll the dough into a long thin rope. Take the end of the rope and form a ring, pressing the edges of the dough together.  Repeat with the rest of the dough.

Working in batches of 4-6 taralli at a time, drop the rings into the simmering water. They will sink, and then rise to the surface after a few minutes (be patient, it takes a minute or two for them to start to rise). Let them float for an additional 30-45 seconds once they rise to the surface.

Remove each with a slotted spoon. Place the boiled taralli on paper towels to drain. Transfer them to the lightly oiled baking sheets. Repeat until all the taralli have been boiled.

Bake taralli for 45 minutes until they are golden. Let cool on a rack. Store in an air tight container for up to 2 weeks.

A few shots from a recent trip to Sicily...

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Gazpacho with Anchovy Toasts

It's summer and that means it's prime time for tomatoes. Nothing beats fresh, locally-grown tomatoes, especially heirloom varietals (the uglier the better). Like many of you, I eagerly await for these beauties to arrive; and for good reason, a store bought tomato will never taste as good as a tomato that has ripened on the vine, and grown with love. NEVER!

This reminds me of a piece I heard recently on NPR, The Troubled History of the-Supermarket Tomato. The podcast highlights how supermarket tomatoes are bred for high yield and durability, but not flavor. Depending on the time of year, at certain times of the winter, 90 percent of the fresh tomatoes that we find in supermarkets are grown in Florida. However,  Florida's climate and soil are completely unsuitable for growing tomatoes, and are susceptible to a multitude of pests. Accordingly, farmers drench their fields in pesticides and fertilizers.The tomatoes are picked when they are still green and unripened, and then exposed to ethylene gas, which causes them to turn red, before being transported across the country to a grocery store near you -- perfectly shaped, shiny and red, and absolutely tasteless.There's an even darker side to the tomato than this; that is, a long-troubled history of slave labor. Take a listen when you have a moment.

That being said, the local tomato must be celebrated. I've decided to pay tribute by preparing a chilled tomato soup, gazpacho, Andalusian style, along with some anchovy toasts slathered with fresh tomato, garlic, and anchovies. What a perfect, refreshing lunch on a hot and muggy 90+ degree day here in Washington, D.C. (strange not to say Chicago; just moved to D.C.). When you have fresh ingredients, you don't have to do much to transform them into something special and flavorful. Just toss all the ingredients in a food processor or blender, chill, and enjoy. Let mother nature shine!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Oh, Sicily...

Haven't posted in a while given "research" (albeit unpaid) in Italy; more specifically, eating my way through Rome and Sicily. Came back a few pounds heavier, my wallet a bit lighter, but visited some breathtaking places and savored truly amazing food, including some of the freshest seafood imaginable.

This post is on memorable places I dined at in Sicily (post on Rome to follow). What can I say about Sicily? It's a beautiful island with lots to discover. A bit rustic and rough around the edges, with hidden gems, an expansive coastline (with the Tyrrehenian Sea to the north, the Ionian Sea to the east, and the Mediterranean Sea to the south), lush volcanic soil (including some active volcanoes -- Mt. Etna, Stromboli), Baroque architecture, ancient ruins (Greek and Roman), and, most importantly, a plethora of great food.

Due to its proximity to North Africa, you are likely to see the Arab influence in many Sicilian dishes, such as the presence of apricots and citrus, couscous, raisins, pistachios, almonds, and spices like cinnamon, saffron, and nutmeg. The mix of such ingredients makes Sicilian cuisine unique compared to that found on mainland Italy. Furthermore, due to the rich volcanic soils, especially around Mt. Etna, there is some excellent wine to be had.

There was an abundance of restaurants and food to explore along the way, but I've narrowed down my list to the ones that stood out the most (a difficult, but enjoyable feat). So, if you find yourself in Sicily, I hope this post helps with your culinary odyssey.   

We landed first in Palermo; a bit of a gritty town, but worth spending a day or two in order to wander around the various neighborhood markets. While many of the restaurants were good, there were a few that were exceptional. My favorite spot was Trattoria al Piccolo Nopali, followed by Zia Pina. 

If you happen to see uova di spada (the eggs of swordfish) on the menu, I highly encourage that you give it a try (you won't be disappointed). It's not always easy to find. Occasionally, I'd see it listed on the menu, but when inquired about, it never seemed to be available (possibly, the locals were not willing to share with tourists? Or, maybe, it was just early in the season?). Nonetheless, there were a few places along the way where I was able to track some down. Sometimes dressed with nothing more than good olive oil and a squeeze of lemon, other times, added to pasta, each preparation was equally delicious.

The dish below was from Trattoria al Piccolo Nopali, a favorite trattoria among locals, and not too heavily trafficked by tourists. If I lived in Palermo, I would definitely be a regular here. The uova di spada was served with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon -- divine!

And my favorite, grilled octopus...

Zia Pina is only open for lunch, and, as you can see, lures passerby with a wide assortment of traditional Sicilian dishes laid out on the table for your choosing. Such dishes include caponata (sweet and sour eggplant), involtini (stuffed and rolled vegetables and/or fish), sardine balls, roasted melanzanne (eggplant), tomatoes, and zucchini, and an assortment of fresh seafood and fish, to name a few.

Take a stroll around the many (loud and gruff) markets in Palermo, and throughout Sicily for that matter. When hunger eventually calls as you explore a market, make a stop for some street food, such as a spleen sandwich (common street fare).

It's not everyday you see a whole tuna being dragged down the middle of the street.

Bluefin tuna is fished off the coast of Sicily between May and June. Thus, it is very common to see tuna on menus this time of year. Doesn't get much fresher than this. To truly appreciate its flavor, enjoy it raw (ask for tonno crudo).

Aeolian Islands
If you are looking to get away from it all, then the Aeolian Islands are an ideal destination. Seven tiny volcanic out-crops form the Aeolian Islands, floating off the northeast coast of Sicily, in the Tyrrhenian Sea, -- named after the demigod of winds, Aeolus. The shape of the Aeolian Islands was formed by volcanic activity. Stromboli is the only island today with current volcanic activity.

Our first stop was the Island of Lipari, followed by Filicudi, and, finally, Salina.

A bit more trafficked than some of the more remote Aeolian islands, Lipari remains serene (well, at least in June), with lots of beauty, a bustling little port, plenty of fresh seafood, and beautiful beaches to explore.

There are many restaurants near the main port serving typical Sicilian fare and fresh seafood, but my favorite dining spot was an agrotourismo called U Zu Peppino (about 5 miles from the port). If you give them a call, they'll arrange to pick you up near your hotel. We had the antipasti, macaroni with tomatoes and eggplant, and grilled lamb. As an agrotourismo, they grow their produce on site, so it doesn't get much fresher than this.

And, of course, my day would not be complete without a cup of granita (especially from Pasticceria Subba). The cafe (coffee) and pistachio were my favorites.

If you are looking to get away from it all, to disconnect and unwind, to lay on a hammock with a good book, then Filicudi is the place for you. It's a tiny little island, just a dot in the sea, about 6 square miles, with a population of 400.  

While small in size, the few restaurants on this island are churning out some terrific food.

Try the Paccheri al Pesto di Pistachio at La Sirena. It looks rather simple, but each bite is packed with flavor, just the right amount of basil, pistacchio, lemon, and oil, and the pasta is cooked perfectly al dente. I could eat this everyday and never grow tired of it. In fact, try everything on the menu at La Sirena, I don't think you can go wrong. The chef knows what he's doing. And if you see uova di spada on the menu, order it. Unfortunately, when we arrived they were just opening for the season and didn't yet have uova di spada, or so they say (still a bit skeptical about whether they are willing to share with tourists).

Paccheri al pesto di pistacchio.

The totano (a type of squid) ripieno orientale, was another highlight.

Spaghetti alle mandorle (almond pesto).

Roasted vegetables with fresh ricotta.

Always nice to finish a meal with a glass of Malvasia.

As you walk around Filicudi, you will see lots of wild fennel growing on the sides of the
road. Not surprisingly, fennel finds its way into many dishes.

Pasta con le sarde (traditionally prepared with sardines, though sometimes with tuna) e finocchietto (fennel), is a staple in Sicilian cuisine. This version was from a tranquil little place we stayed (hammock included), La Villa Rossa.

Pasta con tonno e finnochietto.

You'll also find Sicilian citrons growing all around the islands...

Gastronomically, Salina is best known for three products: fish, capers, and a sweet dessert wine called Malvasia. Salina's most famous beach is at Polara, located between the Tyrrhenian Sea and the slopes of an extinct volcano.This particular breathtaking beach was the site for the 1994 Italian film, Il Postino.

Pensione Mamma Santina
You'll find traditional Aeolian recipes at Mamma Santinas. First opened in 1978 as a restaurant, it now serves as a hotel and restaurant. Our chef recommended the Spaghetti Mamma Santina with 14 herbs (from herbs grown in their rooftop garden), which was delicious, along with an order of gamberetti con uova.

Spaghetti Mamma Santina.

Gamberetti (small shrimp).

Da Alfredo
Make a stop at Da Alfredo, at least once a day, for a refreshing granita (especially the pistacchio, almond, and cafe granita).

Another colorful street market along the way...

Mount Etna and Around
At 3,329 meters, Mt. Etna is Italy's highest peak, and the largest active volcano in Europe. It's in an almost constant state of activity and eruptions, with its most frequent eruption in January 2011. There are 4 craters at the top; the two you are most likely to see are Cratere Sud-Est (southeast) and Bocca Nuova, the youngest of the four. You can hike or take a guided tour to the tops of these craters. Unfortunately, due to heavy storms in the area the day we were there, the guided tour was canceled. So, we went with plan B, and found a small family run trattoria, where we spent the afternoon eating and drinking wine.

The volcanic soil of Mt. Etna, provides the right balance of minerals, for the production of wine. Try the Nerello Mascalese, especially from areas like Passopisciaro

Patrick posing with his new friends from the trattoria (near Mount Etna)...

Siracusa and Around
There is no shortage of great places to eat in Siracusa and the surrounding area, such as Ortygia and Marzamemi.

The markets in Ortygia were amongst my favorite, with all sorts of culinary finds, including ricci (urchin), lumache (snails), homemade empanadas, and an abundance of cheese, sausage, fruits, and vegetables.

Was pleasantly surprised by this little, hidden gem of a restaurant recommended by the cute little B&B we stayed at. A small family run place, with a fixed menu based on the local catch of the day. We started with an antipasti di mare (gamberoni, spada (swordfish), and acciughe (fresh anchovies), followed by capaznate (giant clam) and gamberoni fritta (fried shrimp), and crochette de neonatona (baby fish and shrimp), followed by spaghetti con patelle, lumache di mare (sea snails), cozze, vongole (clams), pomodoro (tomato), and parsley, followed by spada involtini (stuffed and rolled swordfish), and for dessert lemon sorbet. What a feast!

Another fantastic seafood restaurant, not in the guide books, but recommended and heavily trafficked by locals (prepare to wait, but totally worth it). The pasta with uova di spada (swordfish eggs), is up there with some of the best pasta I've ever eaten. The sauce was simply divine. Save some room for dessert, particularly the in-house made pistachio gelato.

Pasta with uova di spada.

Make a stop at restaurant Perbacco, especially for the frutti di mare crudo (mixed raw seafood platter with oysters, mussels, clams, and shrimp).

From our balcony...

The Cape Area (southeast Sicily)

Marzamemi is a quiet fishing town and low-key resort in the summer months in the southeast of Sicily. There's not much to see or do here, except swim in the aqua blue waters, and eat some amazing fish, seafood, and pasta. It's also the site of the old tuna packing plants, and a good place to stop if you are interested in buying some bottarga (tuna, swordfish, or mullet roe), and other local fish-related products.

Taverna L Cialoma
A cute, little taverna in the main square, offers some exceptional food. Had the marinated raw tuna, followed by spaghetti with seppia di nero, and roasted zuchinni and peppers.

Al Boccone
Another option is restaurant Al Boccone, just outside the main square, with a view overlooking the Gulf of Noto. Had the gamberoni crudo and their "award-winning" spaghetti with pistachios and bottarga.

 Gamberoni crudo (raw shrimp).

 Spaghetti with pistachio and bottarga.

Portopalo di Capo Passero
If you follow the road, just south of Marzamemi, you'll end up at the very southeast corner of Sicily. A great place to relax on the beach for the day, and if you are lucky enough, enjoy some fresh ricci (sea urchin).

Ahhh, ricci. It doesn't get much fresher than this. Was hanging out on the rocks, and noticed a guy snorkeling for urchin, octopus, and squid. We inquired about his catch, and he was nice enough to share a couple of ricci with us.

Just pop them open and scoop out the fresh roe. The best way to describe the flavor, is that it tastes like the sea.

Ricci = Sea Urchin = :-)

The Noto Coast and Around
Located just 25 miles south of Syracuse, Noto is known for its Baroque palazzi and churches. Spectacular at any time of the day, it is especially beautiful in the early evening, when the reddish-gold buildings take on a golden glow as the sun sets.  

It gets quite hot in the summer, so be sure to stop at Caffe Sicilia, and cool off with a trio of frozen granita (had the cafe, almond, and blood orange).  

If you need a small break from the sun and water, Modica, with its steeply stacked medieval center and spectacular Baroque architecture, is a stunning place to rest your head for the night. 

Enjoy the chocolates at the well-known and celebrated, Antica Dolceria Bonajuto (founded in 1880). Still made in the traditional way, the chocolate has a granular consistency, and a deep intense flavor. Be sure to buy a couple to bring back.

Agrigento (Valley of the Temples)
Along the southern, Mediterranean coast, you can retrace the glories of Sicily's Greek past, and walk amongst the remains of the Valley of the Temples (but maybe, just an hour or two, then time for lunch and a swim).

Golgo di Castellammare and Around


Scopello, just west of Golfo di Castellammare, lies a postcard picturesque hamlet (also the location for one of the scenes in Ocean's Twelve), perfect for a lazy day of swimming, reading, and admiring its pure beauty.

Trapani, in the northwest corner of Sicily, located on the sea route to Tunisia, is known for its couscous (or cuscus in Sicily) allla trapanese (in a soup of fish, garlic, chile, tomatoes, saffron, cinnamon, and nutmeg). Hidden in the old Jewish ghetto, you'll find a small family run restaurant, Cantina Siciliana, well known for their expertly spiced cuscus alla trapanese.

Buon appetito!!