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


How (not) to Plan a Trip to Europe

Italy 2008 009

Last summer, at about this time, I was on the internet browsing housing and travel opportunities to Europe for this summer.  We had just returned from a trip to Denmark and France, and I was already looking forward to returning this year.  Summer is our time to go back to our European roots where we lived as a family until our move to the U.S. 2 years ago.  In the summer, we have the luxury of time on our side with a long school holiday, the conveniences of telecommuting, and, luckily, many friends in numerous countries with guest bedrooms.  As I browsed the internet, I drooled over beautiful pictures of villas and imagined sitting by their pools, exploring the grounds, indulging in delicious meals and exploring nearby medievel villages.  I also figured I should start investing in some lottery tickets.

A requisite for the next trip would be a stop in Copenhagen.  It’s important for us to keep our connection with friends and our family life there.  However, if we were traveling all the distance to Europe, we hoped to arrange another trip – within our trip – to take advantage of setting foot on the European continent.  We would find that villa, that restaurant, that village.  But where?  It was easy to let the imagination run wild; we had many months to finalize our plans and dreaming is free.  Would we take our usual detour to the south of France or Tuscany?  Should we do something different and stay north, heading east to Stockholm or even St. Petersburg?  What about traveling back to where the children were born near Geneva?  Or, how about England, where we also lived – should we visit our old town and house, and stop by Stonehenge to check that it was still there?  The possibilities were endless.  Half the fun of travel is thinking and planning; there was plenty of time on our side.  I relished organizing our trip and made a mental note to purchase those lottery tickets. 

Then the new school year started.  Life became busy and scheduled.  And, as things go, my back went out (all that flying didn’t help.)  Any future travel plans were relegated to the back burner while my back healed and we focused on local life.  Fall turned to winter.  School marched on with kids, commitments, and goodness-knows the myriad things that need doing during the school year.  Christmas passed and spring arrived.  New job opportunities presented themselves.  (FYI: opportunity is a euphimism for “unforeseen change, stressful uncertainties, potential risks and/or possibilities.”)  Europe suddenly seemed far away while our present life teemed with houseguests, homework, school plays, work responsibilities and potential life changes.  Travel focused on local destinations: Tahoe for skiing, Carmel for beach, L.A. for American Girl Doll Store (ok, ok, but we are living in the U.S. for the first time ever in my daughter’s life.)  Before we knew it, school graduation was approaching, summer activities beckoned, and we still had not organized our trip – at all.  We tentatively waited, keeping options open while we were teased with the promise of  work commitments requiring travel to Europe (but where?)  In an attempt to wield some control over the situation, we purchased tickets to Denmark for 3 weeks in August, seemingly late enough in the summer for everything to sort itself out.

And suddenly the end of July arrived.  While we had a ticket to Copenhagen, we had a week wide open in our trip with no guest bedroom to borrow, during which we had hoped to travel elsewhere – our holiday in the holiday.  In a moment of wistful nostalgia, I went back to my well-perused vacation websites from last autumn, and lo and behold, I discover a pleasant surprise.  There are some specials out there for the (very) last minute traveler.  For those spontaneous, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants adventurers who are loathe to plan ahead, guess what?  Houses that haven’t rented are offering big discounts!  That beautiful villa I admired last September actually had a last minute vacancy … next week!  Not only that, instead of paying a king’s ransom for the whole caboodle for a week, we could have two en-suite bedrooms for 5 nights for less than the going rate at a local hotel – breakfast included, so I could over-indulge in Italian espressos.  Things are looking up!  So, as we pack and prepare for our trip, I realize that there is a whole world of last minute travel opportunities out there for the taking.  I shall remember this for our next trip next summer – which I hope to book in September. 

Football Party Food

No, I am not talking about the Superbowl. I am talking about UEFA.  It’s World Cup Football Championship time again and for those of you not interested in or in touch with this intenrationl rite, it is THE football championship that takes place worldwide every summer. Don’t get me wrong. I hardly watch football (that’s soccer for you Americans). But, after all, I am married to a Dane and spent many years in Europe where, come summer, 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. Two years ago we were vacationing in Italy at the time the Italians won the world cup. Now that left an impression I am still talking about. During the quarterfinals we were in Rome. Being the tourists we were, we naively ventured into the city for dinner during the quarterfinal match. While the restaurants were open, they were very empty except for wayward disoriented tourists such as ourselves. The staff were, to say the least, distracted, and we quickly deduced that we might as well just go with the flow, and root for our new favorite football team while not being overly critical about the spotty table service. After our meal we realized that there would be no hope in finding a taxi driver to bring us back to our hotel. So, we wandered into another restaurant with a lounge and cheered on our new favorite team as they won the match. 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 – and it was just the quarterfinals. The semi-finals took place after we left Rome for Tuscany where we were sharing a house with some friends near Montepulciano. The afternoon of the match, we wandered around the narrow streets of the medieval village and came upon the square, or Piazza, where an enormous screen was being erected against a building façade. Rows of folding chairs filled the Piazza, encircling the fountain, and an instant outdoor theater was in place where all the village residents would gather together that evening and watch the football match. It made me think of the film Cinema Paradiso.

The finals were played on one of our last nights in Italy. We had moved on to the Isle of Elba and were staying in a lovely hotel with an excellent restaurant. The staff was very professional and proper, and the clientelle was well-heeled and dignified, hailing from Europe, the Middle East and Russia. So, imagine the night of the finals, when in the middle of the first dinner service, a tuxedoed maître d’ wheeled a television into the center of the dining terrasse. On cue, all protocol was suspended, and waiters, busboys, hotel staff gathered around the television along with diners balancing dinner plates on their tuxedoed laps. The French tourists cheered on France and 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 the meal was finished we crowded into the bar, squeezing into already full 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 also 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?

Molo 13

Perhaps it’s the heat or perhaps I have the itch to travel right now. I am thinking of Italy. There are plenty of things to think about in Italy, but I am specifically thinking of a restaurant I dined at in Milan a number of years ago called Molo 13. This restaurant is one of those restaurants where if you are a tourist, if you do not have a local resident show it to you, you would never know it existed. This is the best kind of restaurant to eat in when traveling.

In my post Border Crossings, I mention a road trip to Milan, when I took with my friend, Deb, when I lived near Geneva. Aside from having a gun drawn on us by a particularly ruffled border guard at the French/Italian frontier, this was a very positive experience. As we drove on to Milan through the mountains of Aosta and Piemonte, we anticipated our arrival in the city, shopping along the Monte Napoleone, seeing the Duomo, and, of course, eating. In fact, we had a dinner scheduled for later that evening. The plan was that after checking into our hotel, we would drive to Malpensa airport where we would pick up my husband and his Italian colleague, Eugenio. They were returning from a business meeting in Rome, and Eugenio would take us to dinner at one of his favorite restaurants in Milan.

So arrived and checked in, Deb and I headed out, informed by the hotel’s concierge that signs to the airport would be clearly marked. We easily found the ring road that encircles Milan, a major motorway for commuters, that would take us to the airport some 35 km. away. As rush hour was peaking we were caught up in the whirlwind of the zooming traffic. Drivers sped past us, criss-crossing lanes from left to right and back again, taking turns tailgating each other. Crazy, dangerous, and wild were the operating adjectives at hand – it was automotive-chaos-theory at 200 km/hour. Appropriately, it was at this time that the headlights on my spiffy, sporty, somewhat older BMW failed. (There must be a football metaphor in there somewhere… Italian Exuberance:1  vs. German Reticence:0?)

In a split second we took stock of our situation: No map, no improved language skills since our brief exposure to Italian epithets at the border crossing, and now no functioning headlights, so even if we could read the road signs, we could hardly see them. At this moment, in most civilized societies this would be enough of a motive to just get off the road. But, this being Italy (very civilized, by the way, but in its own special way) there is a different principle applied to driving: it’s viewed as a sport; it’s adrenaline merging with testosterone; it’s an accumulation of many espressos. No lights? No problem!  Besides, now that we were caught up in the swirling vortex of the ring road, all physics of an easy, gentle trajectory towards a spontaneous exit went out the window. Either you plan your exit at least 5 km. in advance and preferably never leave the exit lane (very un-Italian.) Or you simply exit NOW! no matter what is in your way; things will just sort themselves out (very Italian.)

Well, we made it. (I am a schooled Boston driver, after all.) I have a memory of hurtling in the dark on the motorway and swerving sharply on 2 wheels when we saw the sign at the very last moment to the airport, cutting off several cars in our path. As I swerved again to avoid side-swiping an Alfa Romeo, I could have sworn I caught the approving nod of its Italian driver as I accelerated past him with no headlights. I was driving like a local.

So, imagine our relief when we finally arrived at our restaurant later that evening. The relief was replaced by delight as we entered Molo 13 and were overcome by the warm, lively, fully booked restaurant filled with Italians enjoying seafood specialties inspired by the Sardinian coast. We let Eugenio do the ordering and were treated to a multi-coursed feast beginning with assorted antipasti, followed by a sublime seafood risotto, and a main course of baked sea bass encrusted in sea salt. For the cheese course an enormous wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano was passed around the table, and we scooped out large chunks of the cheese with a spoon. (I still have that in mind as a cheese course for a very large dinner party.) The food was Italian at its best – uncomplicated and clean, showcasing the freshness of ingredients in their simplicity of use.

Since then, I have replicated the baked fish in sea salt recipe at home. It is a remarkably easy recipe and a beautiful way to present a whole fish. Break away the salt at the table for added effect. The fish will be succulent and flavorful, the only garnish needed is a drizzle of olive oil and fresh lemon juice.

Whole Fish Baked in Sea Salt – Pesce al Sale

Serves 4

One whole fish, about 2 lbs., such as snapper or sea bass, cleaned, scaled
Lemon slices March 2008 Salt Fish 005
1 egg white
2 pounds coarse sea salt

Extra-virgin olive oil
Lemon wedges

Preheat oven to 400 F.
Place lemon slices in cavity of the fish.
Combine egg white and sea salt in a bowl. Mix well to moisten salt.
Spread 1/3 salt mixture on bottom of an oven-proof baking dish. Lay fish on top. Pour remaining salt over fish, covering completely. If needed, tail can remain exposed.
Bake in oven 30 minutes.
Crack crust open with a small hammer or knife.  Remove and discard crust.
Fillet the fish. Serve drizzled with olive oil and lemon.