Tomato Bruschetta, Italy and the World Cup

Bruschetta Tomato tf

It’s World Cup Football Championship time again. For those of you not in touch with this sporting rite, it is THE international football championship that takes place worldwide every four years. Don’t get me wrong. I hardly watch football (that’s soccer for you Americans). But, I am, after all, married to a Dane and lived many years in Europe where if you are not following at least a teensy bit of football in the news or on the television, you are living in a shoebox.

The World Cup also makes me think of Italy, where we often vacationed when we lived in Europe. Four years ago we were doing just that when the Italians won the last championship. What an impression that made. We were in Rome when the quarterfinals took place. As tourists, we naively ventured into the city for dinner during the quarterfinals match. While the restaurants were open, they were sparsely populated – and only with wayward tourists such as us. The staff were, to say the least, distracted, hovering over radios or watching small televisions in the kitchens or at the bar. We quickly deduced that we might as well just settle back and root for our new favorite football team without being overly critical about erratic table service. After our meal we knew there was no hope in finding a taxi driver to bring us back to our hotel until after the match. So, we wandered into another restaurant with a lounge and cheered on Italy as they won. From that moment on the streets came alive with revelers, cars honking, sirens blaring. This continued well into the night, long after we had gone to bed. It was just the quarterfinals.

The semi-finals took place after we left Rome for Tuscany, where we shared a villa with some friends near Montepulciano. The afternoon of the match, we wandered the crooked, narrow streets of the medieval village and came upon the town square, or Piazza. An enormous screen was being erected against a building façade while rows of folding chairs filled the open space, encircling the fountain to create an outdoor theater. It made me think of the film Cinema Paradiso. No worries if you didn’t own a television – all the villagers would gather that evening and watch the football match together, cheering on their team.

The finals played on one of our last nights in Italy. We had moved to the Isle of Elba and were staying in at the lovely Villa Ottone. The staff was professional and proper, the clientelle was well-heeled and dignified. So, imagine the night of the finals, in the middle of the first dinner service, when a tuxedoed maître d’ wheeled a television into the center of the dining terrace. As if on cue, all protocol was suspended. Waiters, busboys and hotel staff gathered around the television. Diners pulled up their chairs, balancing dinner plates on their laps. The French tourists cheered on France. The Italian tourists and staff cheered on the Italians. We were all caught up in a passionate TV dinner for the next 2 hours. When we finished eating we crowded into the bar, squeezing into sofas, balancing on the arms of chairs, sitting cross-legged on the floor, elbow to elbow with our fellow football fans. A Swedish photographer bought us a round of drinks. We reciprocated and bought drinks for the French couple sitting at our feet. The bartender invited our children to perch on the bar and gave them free sodas. Together we cheered and booed as Italy won the world cup. What an equalizer. Who said that English is the international language?

This year the World Cup takes place in South Africa. But I cannot help but think of Italy whenever it takes place. If I had to create something to eat while watching a football match it would be Tomato Bruschetta.

Tomato Bruschetta

Tomato Bruschetta
Makes 8

For the tomatoes:
1 pound cherry or grape tomatoes, cut in 1/4″ pieces or quartered if small
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For the bread:
8 slices levain or peasant bread, cut 1/2″ thick
1 large garlic clove, lightly smashed but still intact
Extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt

1/2 cup basil leaves, shredded plus whole leaves for garnish

Prepare the tomatoes:
Combine all the ingredients together in a bowl and toss to combine. Taste to adjust seasoning. Let sit at room temperature while bread is prepared.

Prepare the bread:
Preheat oven grill or griddle pan. Rub bread on both sides with garlic. Brush lightly with olive oil. Sprinkle a pinch of salt over bread. Grill, turning once, until both sides are golden.

Arrange bread in one layer on a platter. Stir shredded basil into the tomatoes. Top bread with tomatoes. Garnish with fresh basil leaves and serve immediately.

Honey Roasted Fig Crostini

Honey Roasted Fig Crostini

Recipe updated from the TasteFood archives.

One of the best aspects of Italian food is the simplicity of ingredients in its cuisine. Simplicity is the name of the game in this Italian-inspired appetizer featuring the summer’s ripest figs. Perched on crusty, garlicky crostini with just-melted, creamy buffalo mozzarella, crispy, salty prosciutto and fresh basil leaves, all that is needed is a brush of sweet, runny honey and a good grinding of freshly ground black pepper to finish.  The result is a mouthful of complimenting textures and sweet, salty, peppery flavors that might even transport you for a brief moment to the hills of Tuscany. 

Crostini with Honey Roasted Figs, Mozzarella and Prosciutto Crisps
Makes approximately 16 crostini

One baguette, sliced diagonally, 1/4″ thick
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small garlic clove, minced
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 slices prosciutto
8 green or purple figs, trimmed, sliced lengthwise, about 1/4″ thick
3 tablespoons honey
2 buffalo mozzarellas, drained
Fresh basil leaves
Extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

Prepare crostini:
Preheat oven to 350 F. (180 C.)
Combine olive oil, garlic and salt in a small bowl.
Arrange baguette slices on oven rack.  Lightly brush oil over bread.  Place bread in oven and bake until edges are golden brown.  Turn off heat.  Keep bread in oven additional 15 minutes as they continue to harden.  Remove from oven and cool on rack.
Crostini can be made up to 4 hours in advance.  Store in airtight plastic container at room temperature.

Prepare prosciutto:
Arrange slices in one layer on non-stick oven tray or parchment paper.  Place in preheated 350 F. oven.  Bake 15 minutes.  Turn off heat, but do not remove prosciutto for another 15 minutes.  (The longer the prosciutto remains in the oven, the crispier it will become.)  Remove from oven.  Break prosciutto slices in half and set aside.  Prosciutto can be made up to 4 hours in advance.  Store in airtight plastic container and refrigerate.  Allow to come to room temperature before assembling crostini.

Assemble crostini:
Preheat oven grill.
Divide each mozzarella in half horizontally.  Cut each half into 4 slices.  Place one slice on each crostini.  Top with one layer of fig slices.  Brush figs with honey.  Place crostini under oven grill and grill unti figs begin to turn color and cheese begins to melt.
Remove from oven and arrange on serving plate.  Top each crostini with a prosciutto crisp and basil leaf.  Drizzle with olive oil, grind fresh pepper over and serve immediately.

Sautéed Garlic Shrimp with Minted Pea Purée and Pecorino

Sautéed Garlic Shrimp with Minted Pea Purée and Pecorino

Shrimp and Pea Puree

English peas are nature’s superior answer to fast food.  Sweet and crisp, they taste best popped straight from the shell into the mouth; no need to bother with cooking.  At this time of year peas are abundant, and when I go to the farmers’ market I find myself using up all of my spare money on brown bags overflowing with peas.  Today was no different:  I came home from the market with several pounds of peas, cascading out of their overstuffed bags, mingling with bunches of fresh mint, chives, and edible kale flowers. Once home, I quickly confiscated a singular bag to stash away and later transform into a pea puree while the rest of the family and visiting friends grabbed handfuls of peas as they passed through the kitchen.

The pea puree is delicious as is, but my favorite way to serve it is with shellfish.  The briny sweetness of shrimp, scallops or lobster is a perfect compliment to the sweetness of the peas, while the pearly coral colors of the shellfish contrast beautifully with the vivid green pea color.  I like to present the following recipe  in small glasses or demi-tasse cups with the shellfish perched on top.

English Peas

Sautéed Garlic Shrimp with Minted Pea Purée and Pecorino
Serves 8 as an appetizer

2 cups shelled English peas
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons grated Pecorino Romano cheese
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

½ teaspoon dried chili flakes
1 large garlic clove, minced
16 large shrimp, peeled with tails intact, deveined
2 tablespoons dry white wine

Pecorino Romano shavings
Freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil

Fresh chives for garnish
Kale flowers (optional)

Prepare Pea Purée:
Bring 4 cups of water to a boil in a large saucepan. Add 1 teaspoon salt and the peas. Reduce heat and simmer until peas are tender. Remove from heat; drain peas, reserving 1 cup cooking liquid.
Combine peas and 1/4 cup cooking liquid in food processor and purée until smooth. Add more water to desired consistency. Transfer to bowl. Stir in 2 tablespoons olive oil, Pecorino and fresh mint. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep warm.

Prepare Shrimp:
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a sauté pan. Add garlic and chili flakes. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add shrimp in one layer and cook, turning once, until pink on the outside and opaque in the center, about 1 minute per side. Add wine and cook 30 seconds to allow alcohol to evaporate. Remove from heat. Divide warm pea purée among 8 demi-tasse cups or martini glasses. Arrange 2 shrimp over purée. Top with Pecorino shavings, freshly ground black pepper and drizzle olive oil over. Garnish with chives and edible flowers.

Kale Flowers

Grilled Eggplant and Heirloom Tomato Stacks with Basil and Tomato Coulis

Grilled Eggplant and Heirloom Tomato Stacks with Basil and Tomato Coulis

Eggplant Sandwich TasteFood

Eggplants love the grill, and I love to grill eggplants – or aubergines as they are so elegantly referred to in other countries. Eggplants comes in many sizes and shapes, while the most common variety is the plump, pear-shaped and, well, aubergine colored vegetable found year round in our markets.

When it comes to the barbecue the versatile, yet subtle, eggplant is the workhorse of grilled vegetables. Its mellow, buttery flavor and firm texture lends well to the barbecue, as it hold its shape during grilling and serves as a perfect vehicle for spicy, smoky, flamboyant flavors. Eggplants may be simply prepared with olive oil, salt and pepper and served in stand-alone fashion – or tossed with a medley of Provençal-style vegetables as a grilled accompaniment to meat and fish.  Cut in planks, and use as a vessel for a dollop of creamy tsatsiki for an easy crowd-friendly appetizer – or stack grilled slices with tomato, basil and goat cheese for an impressive beginning to a dinner.

This recipe is easy to prepare, delicious and fresh to eat. The smoky eggplant combines beautifully with cool garlicky goat cheese, juicy sweet tomatoes and crisp fresh basil leaves.  Serve as an elegant appetizer or on a bed of arugula for a dramatic salad.

Grilled Eggplant and Heirloom Tomato Stacks with Basil and Tomato Coulis

Makes 8 stacks

1 to 2  narrow, firm eggplants, sliced horizontally 1/4-inch thick to yield 16 slices
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups soft goat cheese
1 garlic clove, minced
2 large heirloom tomatoes, sliced horizontally 1/4-inch thick to yield 8 slices
16 large basil leaves
1/4 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 cup tomato coulis (see below)

Prepare Eggplant:
Preheat oven broiler or prepare grill. Lightly brush eggplant slices on both sides with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Arrrange on baking tray and broil in oven, turning once, until golden brown, about 3 minutes per side. (Or grill over direct medium heat until charred and tender, turning once, 6 to 8 minutes). Transfer to plate to cool.

Arrange Stacks:
Whisk goat cheese, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper in a small bowl.
Arrange 1/2 of the eggplant slices on a platter.  Spoon 1 to 2 teaspoons goat cheese over the eggplant, then top with 1 basil leaf. Place a tomato slice over the basil and spread 1 to 2 teaspoons goat cheese over the tomato. Place a second eggplant slice over the goat cheese. Top with one teaspoon goat cheese and basil leaf.  Lightly drizzle 2 to 3 teaspoons Tomato Coulis over and around the eggplant stack. Garnish with one teaspoon grated Pecorino Romano cheese.  Serve immediately.

Heirloom Tomatoes TasteFood

Tomato Coulis:
Makes about 1 cup

1 pound ripe plum tomatoes, peeled and seeded (see below), coarsely chopped
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine tomatoes, garlic and olive oil in bowl of food processor.  Process until smooth.  Add salt and pepper. Let stand at room temperature for one hour before serving.  (Coulis may be made one day in advance. Cover and refrigerate). Serve at room temperature.

Cooking Class – How to Peel and Seed a Tomato:

1.  Take a paring knife and cut out the stem: Make shallow incisions around the stem and scoop out the stem.
2.  With same knife, make a shallow X-incision in bottom of tomato.
3.  Bring a saucepan of water to a rolling boil.  Plunge tomato into water for 10 seconds.  Remove and submerge in a bowl of ice water.
4.  Remove the cooled tomato from the water.  Peel away skin.
5.  To seed the tomato, cut the tomato in half.  Use your fingers to scoop out seeds.


Spaghetti alla Norma: Sicilian-Style Pasta with Eggplant, Tomatoes, Basil and Ricotta

Alla norma

This divine Sicilian pasta dish often elicits the question: Who is Norma?  Theories abound, and one of them is that the dish was named in honor of Bellini, a native of Catania, Sicily.  Bellini’s opera “Norma” was so popular with his compatriots, that it inspired the creation of a new superlative – una vera Norma – to sing praise of any good deed or object.  Years later, the author Nino Martaglio tasted this traditional dish from Sicily and was so delighted by it that he called in Spaghetti alla Norma.  You will agree that this dish is una vera Norma.

Sicilian-Style Pasta with Eggplant, Tomatoes, Basil and Ricotta  Spaghetti alla Norma
Serves 4

1 large firm eggplant (aubergine)
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
I small yellow onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 28 oz./800 g. can Italian plum tomatoes
2 teaspoons dried oregano
Pinch of sugar

1 lb./500 g. dried spaghetti

1/2 cup shaved Ricotta Salata or Pecorino Romano cheese, plus extra for garnish
Handful fresh basil leaves
Fresh buffalo mozzarella, cut in slivers

Prepare the eggplant:
Trim ends.  Cut horizontally in 1/4″ slices. Arrange in one layer on baking tray.  Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Grill in oven, turning once, until browned and softened.  Remove.  Cut the slices in thirds.  Set aside.

Prepare tomato sauce:
Heat two tablespoons olive oil in skillet over medium-high heat.  Add onion and sauté until it begins to give off juices, about 2 minutes.  Add garlic and sauté one minute.  Add tomatoes with juices and oregano.  Simmer 10 minutes, stirring to break up tomatoes.  Add sugar.  Stir in eggplant slices and simmer additional 10 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

While the sauce is cooking, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Add spaghetti and cook until al dente.  Drain.  Return spaghetti to pot and add eggplant mixture.  Add 1/2 cup ricotta salata.  Toss to combine.  Serve garnished with fresh basil leaves, slivers of buffalo mozzarella cheese and extra ricotta salata.

Tomato, Mozzarella and Basil – a Holy Trinity

Tomato, Mozzarella and Basil – a Holy Trinity

Ripe sun-kissed tomatoes, vibrant aromatic basil, pristine white mozzarella: the holy trinity of Italian cuisine.  These seasonal ingredients are best associated with summertime and are all that is needed for an Insalata Caprese, or Tomato Mozzarella Salad. The ubiquitous salad from the island of Capri makes use of the simplest, freshest ingredients of the summer season, underscoring what best defines Italian cooking.

Insalata Caprese

To prepare an Insalata Caprese or Tomato Mozzarella Salad:
Simply slice ripe, unrefrigerated tomatoes and fresh buffalo mozzarella and layer them with fresh basil leaves on a platter.  Drizzle with high quality extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

This trio of tomatoes, mozzarella and basil can easily be applied to other delicious dishes.  Equally simple, all that is necessary is a little rearrangement and garnish.  Add to Crostini for an appetizer or toss with Farfalle and grated Pecorino Romano for an easy pasta salad.

Crostini Caprese

Crostini Caprese – Crostini with Tomato, Basil, Mozzarella
Makes 12 crostini

12 slices baguette, cut on the diagonal
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves

12 slices ripe, unrefrigerated tomatoes
12 slices buffalo mozzarella
12 large basil leaves
Freshly ground black pepper
Sea salt

6 pitted kalamata olives, halved lengthwise
Arugula sprouts or fresh basil leaves, cut in chiffonade

Brush baguette slices with olive oil.  Rub with garlic cloves.  Arrange on baking sheet and grill in oven until lightly toasted, turning once.  Remove.
Arrange basil leaf on each crostini.  Top with tomato slice and mozzarella slice.  Sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper and sea salt.  Drizzle lightly with additional olive oil.
Garnish with kalamata olive half and top with arugula sprouts or Basil Chiffonade.

To make Basil Chiffonade:
Stack 3-4 large basil leaves.  Roll up the stack starting from long side of the leaves.  Finely slice roll, horizontally across leaf to create fine ribbons.

Pesce al Sale – Whole Fish Baked in Sea Salt

Pesce al Sale 003

I often prepare a whole fish in sea salt when we entertain friends. This is a dish that is surprisingly easy to prepare despite its dramatic presentation. The entire fish is encased in sea salt, baked in the oven and presented whole at the table. Its hardened crust of sea salt and egg white is cracked open to reveal a succulent, steaming and aromatic fish.  Have your fishmonger clean and descale the fish when you purchase it. The fish can be baked simply as is, or stuffed with a combination of lemon slices, garlic, and fennel fronds. Serve the fillets drizzled with your best extra-virgin olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon. It’s also a good time to break out the special sea salt flakes or fleur de sel that you may be saving for a special occasion.

Pesce al Sale filets

Whole Fish Baked in Sea Salt – Pesce al Sale

Serves 6

One whole fish, 5 to 6 pounds, such as snapper, rock cod, or sea bass, cleaned, gutted, and scaled
1 lemon, sliced
2 to 3 fennel fronds, cut into 3-inch pieces
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
4 pounds coarse sea salt
2 large egg whites

Extra-virgin olive oil
Lemon wedges
Sea salt flakes
Parsley Gremolata (see below)

1. Preheat the oven to 450°F (225°C)
2. Pat the fish dry with a paper towel. Place the lemon slices, fennel, and garlic in the cavity of the fish, without over-stuffing.
3. Combine the salt and egg whites in a bowl and mix well to moisten the salt. Spread 1/3 of the salt mixture on the bottom of a large baking dish. Lay the fish on top. Pour the remaining salt over the fish, covering completely. (The tail can remain exposed if needed.)
4. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until an instant read thermometer reads 135°F. (If the fish is stuffed with lemon and fennel, it may require additional cooking time, approximately 10 minutes.)
5. Remove the fish from the oven and crack the crust open with a small hammer or knife. Remove and discard the crust. Lift away the skin and fillet the fish on one side, then flip the fish and repeat on the other side.
6. Arrange the fillets on warm serving plates. Drizzle with a little extra-virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Sprinkle with sea salt flakes and garnish with the parsley gremolata. Serve immediately.

Parsley Gremolata:
Combine 1/2 cup finely chopped Italian parsley, 1 minced garlic clove, and the finely grated zest of one untreated lemon in a bowl.  Season to taste with a pinch of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

*This recipe was chosen as the winner in a competition hosted by Food52 and will be published in their upcoming cookbook.  You can find this recipe and many other delicious recipes on their site, and have a chance to cast your votes for favorite recipes.

Whole Fish Baked in Sea Salt