Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Spaghetti with bacon, leeks and clams

Last night I went to the beach bar here by the lake to have a quick drink and —as it often happens at the Bar Lido— one quick drink turned into many and I spent there a few hours downing spritz and chatting with the locals. I find myself in a weird 'in between' status here, where technically I'm not a local (not only I'm not from the village, I'm not even Swiss), but in actuality I hang out at said bar so much I've come to know many by name. 

It was a beautiful night, with the sun setting behind the mountains and the lake reflecting the light all around us. It was also chilly, as a northern wind picked up and made me shiver first and grab a jacket second. It was right then and there that I started realizing that summer is almost over. It struck me as funny because for the past eight years, I experienced no such change. Or at least I didn't experience such an obvious one for, no matter what people think, season do change in Florida. The changes are subtle, but they are there.

Here on the other hand, it was August 30th and, after a day of beautiful sun that screamed summer, a brisk breeze reminded me that summer won't last much longer. And here's the kicker. After having bitched and moaned that I love the cold and I don't mind summer being over for eight years, last night I found myself feeling a little sad, as if I were not ready to let go of the summer quite yet. It was a fleeting feeling, one that lasted only a few seconds, before the realization that all the things I love about winter are about to start happening around me. But it was there nevertheless. 

So when I came home I decided to make myself a dish that put together a little bit of summer —clams— and a little bit of fall —bacon and leeks. It was just what I needed. Only a few spoonfuls made me realize that yes, summer is almost over, but it was a great one and there will be more great ones in the future. And also that fall is almost here, and I've always loved the fall, so at least I have something to look forward to.

(Serves 4)

1 box spaghetti
2 1/2 pounds clams, washed and ready to use
3 leeks
6 ounces good quality bacon, cut into strips
A glass of dry white wine
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Place washed clams in a large skillet and pour wine over them. Cook over medium high heat until clams open. Discard those that don't. Reserve the cooking liquid and set aside.

Cook pasta according to package direction, adding the clams cooking liquid to the pot.

Wash and cut leeks into this strips. Saute them together with bacon over medium low heat with a little olive oil for about 5 minutes. Add clams, stir well together and remove from heat.

When pasta is ready, add it to the skillet, mix well with sauce over medium heat and serve immediately.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Salmon with mustard and dill

I don't know what's wrong with me and Sundays. Unlike most people, I've never liked them. Even as child, I used to think Sundays had a certain halo of sadness hovering over them, a halo that said 'the weekend is over'. One that also said 'you should do something and have fun today, before the new week starts'. But somehow I never found anything fun or exciting to do on Sundays and dreaded the Sunday boredom much more than the 'back to the grind' routine of any given Monday.

What can I say? I've always been a weird child like that, a child that hated Sundays and preferred books to tv. Especially on Sundays. TV on Sundays, in Italy, is worse than the plague. It must be avoided at all costs. 

As a teen and a 20-something I kept quiet about my not liking Sundays, but kept not liking them all the same. I didn't like them for different reasons than those of my childhood. Or, maybe, I should say that some new reasons piled up, high on top of the already existing ones. The reasons were plentiful. Sundays come after Saturday nights and Saturday nights always bore expectations of the great things that could have happened, but never delivered. At least not to me. I usually spent Sundays thinking about the boy I happened to like at the time kissing some other girl at the party or bar or whatever I had been at the night before. 

Now that I'm —do I dare say it?— almost 30, I still spend my Sundays in a similar fashion. I sit around and waste a perfectly good day thinking of what happened or not happened on Saturday night, or what happened or not happened in my 20s.

What does all of this have to do with salmon and dill, you might be wondering by now? Absolutely nothing. I'm not going to sit here and pretend that the two things are somehow related, because they are not. And don't let my sour mood deter you from trying this recipe, because it's absolutely amazing and yet very simple to assemble. I found it on my friend Emily's blog, which you should check out if you haven't yet. The only thing I changed from the original recipe is that I used plain white yogurt instead of sour cream because sour cream is not readily available here in Italy, but that's a substitution I've made several times successfully, so feel free to use either one. 

(Adapted from Emily's recipe)
1 cup plain yogurt
1/3 cup chopped fresh dill
3 tablespoons finely chopped onion
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 1/2 pound center-cut salmon filet with skin
2 teaspoons minced garlic

Whisk yogurt, dill, onion, garlic and mustard in small bowl to blend. Season sauce to taste with salt and pepper. Let stand at room temperature for 1 hour.

Lightly oil baking sheet. Place salmon, skin side down, on prepared sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and spread with 1/3 cup of the dill and mustard sauce.

Bake salmon until just opaque in the center, about 20 minutes at 400 degrees. Serve with remaining sauce.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Avocado "boats" with tuna salad

Ahhhh... here I am. Back home and already bored. I have to say that it's kind of hard to spend a few days in a city as awesome as Barcelona and come back to a tiny village by a Swiss lake. I mean, it's great to be here and all, but it's no Barcelona.

While I was there I made sure I sampled as much food as humanly possible, which is very easy over there for two reasons. The first one is that it's cheap. The second is that with tapas you get to try lots of different things without over-stuffing yourself. Ok, who am I trying to kid? I did over-stuff myself anyways. But it was worth it. Croquettes, clams, snails, potatoes and, needless to say, tons and tons of jamon serrano and jamon iberico, the Spanish equivalents of prosciutto. I had it everyday, multiple times a day, usually starting at breakfast. Yes, it's that good.
Other than eating —and drinking— my heart out I did all the usual sightseeing, enjoying the many amazing churches and buildings the city has to offer. It was an intense four days and the fact that I was there alone made each day even more intense, making me feel as if I had moved there or something. Which is something that one day I'd like to do. As I was driving the 660 miles that separate Barcelona from Switzerland yesterday, I was musing about living in Barcelona for a couple of months to learn Spanish. I mean, since I'm here, I might as well do something that makes me a better a person, and knowing more foreign languages in my opinion always makes you a better person. So that's the idea I'm toying with.

And, as most ideas do, it came to me as I was sitting idly at a bar —waht a surprise, right?— that served tapas. Someone in the table next to me asked to the waiter "What does aguacate mean?" It turns out it means avocado. I was baffled, because for all my life I always assumed that 'avocado' was a Spanish word. Turns out, it isn't. Turns out I need to go studying Spanish. In Barcelona.

Serves 4

2 ripe Haas avocados, halved and pitted
1 can of tuna in olive oil, drained
1/2 red onion, chopped
1 tomato, chopped
1 lemon
! tablespoon olive oil
Salt and crushed red pepper, to taste

In a bowl mix the tuna with the chopped onion and tomato until it flakes. Season it with salt, crushed red pepper to taste. Divide mixture in four equal parts and place it in each avocado half. 
Mix olive oil and the juice of half lemon and drizzle the boats.

Note: if you are not going to serve this dish right away, either wait until the last minute to cut the avocados open or drizzle them with lime or lemon juice to keep them from browning.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Chicken cakes with spicy horseradish sauce

Remember the good ol' days when I lived in Florida and every other recipe I posted involved chicken? Well, those days are long gone. Not only because I haven't breathed Florida air since April 22nd, but most of all —and this is the tidbit of news that may shock some of you— I haven't eaten any chicken since that very same day.
Crazy, right?

Well, yes and no.

To most Americans, and to my pre-April 22nd self, it certainly sounds crazy.I mean, chicken is easy. Cheap. Even nutritious. In one word, it's a staple.

Well, not so much in Italy. Nobody eats chicken regularly here, other than the odd roasted chicken on Sundays. Other than that, Italians do not enjoy and do not serve chicken as often as Americans do. Mention a chicken dish to a random Italian guy, my dad for instance, and he'll scoff. The reasons are many, but most of them have something to do with the fact that chicken itself is not the most flavorful of meats and, to make it good, you have to season the shit out of it or marinate it or cover it in sauce. Which makes most Italians shrug and say: Why don;t you eat something that is good without all these things then? 

What can I say? Every population has its obsessions, most of which are food related, especially when it comes to Italians. But that explains why I never ate the stuff growing up and, I'm guessing, that's why ever since I moved back here I haven't eaten it anymore.

Except that, a few nights ago, I was going through the only cookbook I took with me from Florida —a four pounder, hard cover version of "The Essential Dinner Tonight" by Cooking Light that caused me a lot of backache while I was transporting it in my backpack across airports and oceans— and I started recognizing all these chicken recipes that Tommy and I have loved back when I lived in Florida. And I don't know if it's the sentimental factor playing a big part in this (it most certainly is, since I've been very sentimental lately), but I've found myself longing for chicken.

I know. If my dad and/or the Italian government read this, they will disown me and probably burn my passport. 

Still, I since I was longing for a piece of freaking chicken breast cooked any freaking way, I went to the local Swiss grocery store, called Coop. Yes, like a chicken coop. Only it actually means co-op. But I digress. I went into the Coop and looked for chicken breast, knowing that all of the sudden I could no longer live without a piece of pollo. Well, boys and girls, let me tell you one thing. The Swiss must be very proud of their chickens, because to buy a mere 9 ounces of chicken breast I had to shell out 9 Swiss francs, which is about $8.50. But I was on a mission, so I whipped out my (un)trusty AmEx and came home with my loot, which I turned into one of my all-time favorite recipes: chicken cakes with spicy horseradish sauce. 

And although I call it "all time", by now you all must know that this is not a recipe from my childhood, since —to this day— whenever I tell my parents I'm having chicken for dinner, they laugh and say "we're sorry".

Oh, well. To those of you who don't have a problem with chicken, I highly recommend this recipe: it's tasty and it's moist. And Dad, in case you're reading this, it makes the chicken so good you don't even know you are having chicken.

Adapted from Cooking Light
Serves 4

1 cup bread crumbs
1  pound  skinless, boneless chicken breast
1/4  cup  chopped fresh chives
3  tablespoons  low-fat plain yogurt
1  teaspoon  Cajun seasoning
1/4  teaspoon  salt
2  large egg whites
2  teaspoons oil 

For the sauce:
2  tablespoons  low-fat yogurt
2  teaspoons  prepared horseradish
1  teaspoon  minced garlic
1/8  teaspoon  salt 

To prepare cakes, place chicken in food processor and pulse until ground. Combine chicken, chives, 3 tablespoons yogurt and seasoning, 1/4 teaspoon salt, egg whites, and breadcrumbs in a medium bowl; mix well.

Divide mixture into 8 equal portions, shaping each into a 1/2-inch-thick patty.

Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add patties; cook 7 minutes on each side or until done.

To prepare sauce, combine 2 tablespoons yogurt and remaining ingredients in a small bowl. Serve with cakes.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Cortado con hielo

Sundays don't really feel like Sundays in August. They are sort of a soft, wimpy version of a real Sunday —I mean, they are still fun and ok, but they don't really feel like a break from the rest of the week. At least not here, where everyone has gone on vacation and nobody will be back until around the 20th. That's Europe for you. When I was little, in the early 80s, if you were not going anywhere in between the 10th and the 20th of August you had to stock up. I'm not joking. Everything was closed, and when I say everything I mean it. Grocery stores were closed, for crying out loud.

Nowadays things have changed and some stores and restaurants are open even in mid August, but one thing hasn't changed: everyone is gone. Well, everyone except me. I'm here, sitting on the couch, watching the rain fall on this dreary Ferragosto (August 15th), feeling a little bored and a little blue. The forecast promises me better weather tomorrow, Tuesday and Wednesday and then, Thursday, I'm going on vacation so —really— I shouldn't feel too bored or too blue. I do have things to do, mind you, but they happen to be the kind of things I don't feel like doing at the moment, like laundry or packing for my trip.

What I need this morning is a pick-me-up and —although the weather surely doesn't make it feel like it's the middle of August— a nice, Spanish-style iced coffee is in order. Next week I'll be sipping many of these in Barcelona and that, I have to admit, immediately makes me feel less bored and blue.

One espresso
A splash of milk
One teaspoon of sugar
Ice cubes

Fill a tumbler with ice cubes.
Make a good, strong espresso, stir in sugar until it dissolves, stir in milk and pour over ice. Mix until cold and enjoy.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Pan seared tomino cheese with bacon and bay leaf

Sometimes I get so lazy, it's not even funny. Take any of the these days —long August days spent by the lake, just the cat and I, with plenty of time on my hands to do whatever needs to be done. Mounds of laundry before I leave for France and Spain next week. Finding a dry cleaner to take all my sweaters to be cleaned before the fall is here. Making complicated and phenomenal dishes, like, I don't know, aspic or something. If I liked aspic, which I don't.

My point is, I have all the time in the world these days —the house guests are gone, I still have a few days before leaving myself— and what am I doing? Squat. I sit around, musing about life, love and freedom, which are all very noble and interesting concepts but, do they get stains off my jeans or do they iron out creases on my t-shirts? Unfortunately not.

Even when it comes to food I am being lazy these days. And I'm not talking about making aspic —something I wouldn't think of doing even on my most productive day— I'm talking about the fact that lately I've found myself making recipes that literally take three ingredients and five minutes to be ready. And, trust me, when you are musing about free will, fate and world peace, they are a real godsend. Because, no matter how philosophical you are being, you still need food in your belly.

Serves 2

2 tomini (a smaller, slightly firmer version of brie) 3 inches in diameter
6 slices thin cut bacon
2 bay leaves

Wrap each tomino with three slices of bacon. Place one bay leaf on each.
Heat a skillet over medium high heat, place bacon wrapped cheese in it (no butter or olive oil necessary) and cook three minutes on each side, until bacon looks cooked and cheese begins to ooze out. Serve immediately.   

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Spaghetti with clams, cherry tomatoes and saffron

When I was almost two years old, my parents and I went on a summer vacation to Isola del Giglio, a small island off the coast of Tuscany, close to bigger, more famous Isola d'Elba. It was a quiet family vacation that involved lots of hanging out at the local beach and eating simple local dishes which were, as they are on most islands, mostly seafood based. My mom especially enjoyed spaghetti with clams —the garlic and white wine, no tomato version. The version any spaghetti with clams purist loves. And although I wasn't even two years old, I loved clams so much I snatched them from my mom's plate with my chubby little fingers, leaving her with a dish of spaghetti in olive oil and parsley.

To this day, spaghetti with clams is one of my favorite pasta dishes and I love both the white and the red versions —there's something about the briny saltiness of the clams that makes me want to eat more and more of it. So the other day, when I found both clams and cherry tomatoes on sale at the grocery store I couldn't resist and decided to whip up some spaghetti with clams. The addition of saffron is something I thought of at the last minute, an idea that hit me because I had once eaten a guazzetto of clams and mussels in a tomato saffron broth and thought it was amazing. I have to say that it added a certain something to my dish, even though I'm sure my spaghetti with clams purist mom wouldn't agree.
Serves 4

3/4 pound spaghetti
2 cups cherry tomatoes, quartered
Extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves of garlic
1 glass dry white wine
1 teaspoon saffron
2 pounds littleneck clams
Crushed red pepper

Heat up some olive oil in a large skillet. Add garlic and red hot pepper and make it fizzle, without burning it. Add well-washed clams, drizzle with a glass of white wine, cover and wait until they open. When they are opened, remove most clams from their shells, leaving only a few for decoration. Discard any clams that haven't opened. Return clams to pan, add cherry tomatoes and saffron and keep warm over low heat.

In the mean time, cook spaghetti, and drain them slightly undercooked. Add them to clams, sautè everything for a couple of minutes and serve.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Tortilla de patatas

As you might have noticed from my recent posts, I have gone to Madrid for a few days and fallen in love with Spain. Not only I enjoyed the trip, the people and the city itself, I also discovered many dishes I absolutely love and rediscovered others that I loved already but had forgotten about. One of them is tortilla de patatas, an amazingly simple yet satisfying and delicious dish my dad used to make for me when I was little. Just so we don't get all confused, the term "tortilla" is Spain refers to what Italians call frittata and Americans (and many others) call omelet, not to what you make tacos or burritos with. How the two terms ended up meaning two completely different things is lost on me, but if someone knows it, please do tell —I have been wondering about it for years.

I made the tortilla using a recipe I found in a book I bought at the Madrid airport, because god forbid that I go somewhere without buying a cookbook. What can I say? I'm obsessed. Plus, our flight back to Milano was delayed a couple of hours and I was bored. So there, I have a good excuse this time. Anyway, the tortilla turned out great and made happy a crowd that is very difficult to please. See, I have these girlfriends, most of whom I've known since the 6th grade, who are a walking and talking collection of allergies with a plethora of food related problems and ideas that make it pretty much impossible finding something that we all can eat. There's two vegetarians, there's a dairy intolerant, two who have to eat gluten free and then there's me —I'm only allergic to crab, which makes me by far the easiest to feed. But I had promised I'd cook them a meal, so I started going through cookbooks, blogs and magazines like crazy. And then it dawned on me. Tortilla de patatas was the perfect solution to our little situation. Everyone loved it (or so they said) and I even got to use my brand new book. Perfect, right?


3/4 cup olive oil
6 large potatoes, thinly sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
1large onion, thinly sliced
6 large eggs.

Heat the oil in a 9-inch skillet, add potato pieces, and onions and cook on medium heat for about 20 minutes, turning occasionally until potatoes are tender.

Beat eggs in a large bowl with a fork. Salt and pepper to taste.

Using a slotted spoon transfer the potatoes in the same bowl as the beaten eggs, pressing them so that eggs cover them completely. Let sit for 15 minutes.

Discard most of the oil from the pan, reserving 2 tbsps of it. Heat it back up, add potato-egg mixture, and cook on medium-high heat. When the potatoes start to brown, put a plate on top of the skillet and flip to cook the other side. Cut into wedges and enjoy!


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