Before the internet, as some of you may recall, food companies often added recipes to their packaging that would suggest ways to use their products. Of course, the limited space on the package restricted these recipes to relatively simple dishes, but I still remember my mother cutting them out and adding them to her hand-painted tin recipe box, yet another culinary icon of a bygone era.
During these seemingly amalgamating days of self-quarantine (a.k.a. lock-up), I’m constantly finding food that’s either going bad or needs using up. I attribute this regrettable position to buying more than we need out of fear of running out or of an item’s becoming unavailable. Something we never did when, in happier days, we food shopped almost daily.
While self-quarantining these days, I’m cooking even more often than usual. I might attribute this increase to my attempt to avoid waste by using up ingredients before they go bad. I’m sure many of you face the same predicament. We buy more than we need at the market fearing that a long sought-after item might not be available the next time we’re there.
A recent case in point for me was with Roma tomatoes. Because the ones I purchased needed a little more ripening, I had set them aside on window sill where they enjoyed some California sunshine. Well, the proverbial out-of-sight out-of-mind maxim proved true and, if my better half hadn’t noticed them just in time, they might have been out-of-kitchen.
Yes; another shrimp dish. But during these times, they’re the only fresh seafood that’s readily available to us. Moreover, they’re a steal at $5.99/pound; easy to prepare for a weeknight; and utterly delicious.
Some zucchini in the fridge from our local farmers market brought to mind a recipe from Lidia’s Celebrate Like an Italian that I had come across a few weeks ago. Like many of the recipes in this book, this one yields enough food to serve 6 to 8. Therefore, since I was cooking only for two, I cut down on some, but not all, of the ingredients. For example, rather than cooking two pounds of shrimp, I used one and similarly reduced the number of zucchini from four to two.
Having endless hours at home these days, I decided to do some housecleaning on my computer, deleting old emails, files, and photos that were just taking up a lot of space. This chore eventually led me to the largest folder on my Mac, labeled “Recipes.”
I use this folder to collect ideas for posts from online sources like Epicurious, Food & Wine, the New York Times “Cooking” site, and the like. Not surprisingly it’s huge, bulging with recipes, some dating back six or seven years. Almost all of them include source information, which facilitates giving credit to their originators.
Our Christmas Eve menu is always the same. The main course is lobsters fra diavolo, made according to a recipe I developed from watching my Neapolitan aunt make them every Christmas eve and only on that vigil. If I requested them on any other occasion, she refused. For her, as they are for me, they were special; something to be anticipated and then consumed with great relish. I still remember my diminutive aunt slaughtering the live lobsters; a task that as she got older she relegated to me. “Center the cleaver right between their eyes,” she said. “And press down hard; don’t hesitate.” And this memory brings me such great joy.
Despite growing up in an Italian-American household, I never heard of the “Feast of the Seven Fishes” until much later in my life. For us, Christmas Eve meant one thing: lobsters fra diavolo. They were the focal point of an elaborate dinner that started with appetizers, which included an insalata frutta di mare, a seafood salad with calamari, shrimp, and celery dressed with lemon juice and olive oil. Occasionally there was also a plate of white-fish salad. After the cold appetizers, came a platter of baked clams, which concluded the antipasto portion of the meal.
We then went on to the pasta, which was always linguine alle vongole, linguine with clam sauce, always white, which was then followed by the main course: lobsters fra diavolo. Each of us was served an individual lobster. Even as a child, I had my own. Of course, my dad had to help me battle with it to extract its sweet meat napped with my aunt’s spicy tomato sauce. But as a child, it was the lobster’s savory bread stuffing that I enjoyed the most.
I really started cooking seriously in the late 70s, always inspired by my Neapolitan aunt’s and Sicilian mother’s cooking, but sparked even more so by the not yet celebrated Julia Child on my local PBS channel. I read and read books by chefs like Elizabeth David and later on Alice Waters who focused on seasonal cuisine; on fundamental cookbooks like the Grammar of Cooking by Carol Braider or The Saucier’s Apprentice by Raymond Sokolov; on the standard cookbooks like The James Beard Cookbook, The Joy of Cooking, The New York Times Cookbook. I consulted huge tomes like the Larousse Gastronomique and the two-volume Gourmet Cookbook as well as tiny books like The Omelette Cookbook by Narcissa Chamberlain. And at the same time subscribed to almost every food magazine there was. I read and experimented; often failing but sometimes blissfully successful.
Perhaps I’m growing nostalgic (I just turned 70), but I think there was a golden age of cookbooks between the mid 80s and early 90s when I saw more serious and scholarly writers like Nancy Harmon Jenkins, Lynn Rosetto Kasper, Fred Plotkin, to name a few, and Paula Wolfert, who introduced today’s recipe in her 1985 cookbook Mediterranean Cooking.
Before I knew it, I had amassed quite a collection of cookbooks, somewhere between two and three hundred. Disaster struck, however, and I lost 90% of my collection in 2012 to a flood caused by Hurricane Sandy.
Finding Wolfert’s recipe online started me thinking about cookbooks and motivated me to make it once again.
For a side dish, I served orzo sprinkled with olive oil and seasoned with fresh mint and lemon zest
Shrimp and Feta Cheese a la Tourkolimano
1/2 cup chopped onion
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped
2 cups fresh or canned tomato sauce
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup chopped parsley
Freshly ground pepper and a dash of salt
Pinch of cayenne
1 1/2 to 2 pounds raw shrimp (about 50)
1 cup crumbled feta cheese
1.- Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Peel and de-vein the shrimp.
2.- In a skillet cook the onions in olive oil until translucent.
3.- Add the garlic, tomato sauce, wine, half the parsley, salt, pepper and cayenne. Simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes, stirring often. The tomato sauce should be rather thick.
4.- Add the shrimp to the sauce and cook 5 minutes.
5.- Place the cheese in the baking dish.
6.- Cover with the shrimp and tomato sauce and set in the oven to bake 10 minutes.
7.- Sprinkle with remaining parsley and serve very hot.
Makes 4 servings.
Wine Pairing: Syrah, Rose
The other night when plans to dine out fell through at the last minute, I had to whip up something fast for dinner at home. Earlier in the day, I caught Giada De Laurentiis on the Food Network preparing a quick and easy shrimp sauté with pesto and thought why not make that tonight. Here’s a link to the recipe with a video.
I didn’t plan to write this recipe up until I tasted the final product, so I only have the one photo of the finished dish. My one reservation was using Parmigiano with seafood, but it worked. Having a plethora of basil on hand and not being able to find fresh mint, I omitted it and just used basil. I also substituted on-sale large shrimp rather than the jumbo. Finally, rather than adding my pesto to the pan, I chose to add the cooked shrimp to my pesto and tossed them with it in the bowl.
Served with steamed rice and a chilled Sauvignon Blanc, this was a perfect dish for a warm spring evening on the terrace.
Giada de Laurentiis’s Jumbo Shrimp with Basil and Mint Pesto
3/4 cups lightly packed fresh mint leaves
1/2 cup lightly packed fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
1 garlic clove
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds uncooked jumbo shrimp, peeled and de-veined
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Blend the mint, basil, pine nuts, and garlic in a food processor until finely chopped. With the machine running, gradually add 1/4 cup of olive oil, processing until well blended. Transfer the pesto to a medium bowl. Stir in the Parmesan. Season, to taste, with salt and pepper.
Toss the shrimp with the extra-virgin olive oil in a large bowl to coat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and toss again.
Heat a heavy large skillet over high heat. Working in 2 batches, add the shrimp and sauté until just cooked through, about 3 minutes.
Toss the shrimp with enough pesto to coat.
Transfer the shrimp to a platter and serve.
Wine Pairing: Sauvignon Blanc, Vermentino
For some reason, I really don’t know why, I’ve always been afraid to cook calamari. As I was growing up, it was always one of my favorite meals on a Friday, when meatless meals were still mandatory for Catholics. More often than not, my aunt would prepare them stewed in a simple marinara sauce. They were either whole, stuffed with softened white bread that she combined with the chopped tentacles, eggs, and parsley, or cut up into rings. The stuffed version were usually served with pasta; the rings, with friselle, which might best be described as thick, rectangular, twice-baked bread biscuits, which were used to sop up the sauce. Once in a while, my aunt would also serve them cut into rings, lightly battered, and deep-fried, accompanied only by lemon wedges—but never with tomato sauce.
Wanting to recreate these dishes at home, I eventually confronted my fear of cooking these delectable creatures and started to deep fry calamari with, I might add, considerable success. Cooking them in sauce, however, continued to remain a challenge—until last Friday. That morning, I had intended to buy some Manila clams, which I intended to cook with Sardinian fregola. But when I got to the fish market, I spotted some beautiful calamari, glistening a lustrous white interlaced with light purple from the tentacles. I decided that it was time to take the plunge and stew them in tomato sauce.
Although I was confident about the sauce, I wasn’t quite sure how long I needed to cook the calamari. Almost every source I consulted warned against overcooking them, which would make them rubbery. Indeed, I knew this from my experience with frying. In fact, the majority of recipes I read suggested preparing the sauce separately and then adding the squid and cooking them for two minutes. Somehow, I wasn’t comfortable with this method, as I really wanted my sauce to be deeply flavored with the calamari and vice versa. I was certain that my aunt simmered her calamari slowly, but I wasn’t sure for how long.
Finally, I turned to one of my go-to books on Neapolitan cooking, Naples at Tableby Arthur Schwartz. It was here that I found a recipe that resembled closely my aunt’s preparation. It called for preparing a classic marinara and adding the calamari to the sauce after the first five minutes of cooking. The fish and the sauce are then gently simmered uncovered for about 30 minutes or until the sauce has thickened and the calamari are tender.
This was the recipe I used, and with some only minor variations (adding some salt and increasing the amount of tomatoes), I came very close to replicating my aunt’s stewed calamari. I served them over pasta. Next time, however, I’ll stuff them.
Calamari In Cassuola (Squid Stewed with Tomatoes) adapted from Naples at Table by Arthur Schwartz
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, lightly smashed
¼ teaspoon or more hot red pepper flakes
1 28-ounce can imported whole peeled tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, with their juices
¼ teaspoon dried oregano
Salt to taste
1½ fresh, cleaned calamari cut into ¼-inch rings, tentacles cut in half
¼ cup finely cut flat-leaf parsley
1. In a 2½ – to 3-quart saucepan or stovetop casserole, over low heat, combine the olive oil, the garlic, and the hot pepper. Cook until the garlic is soft and beginning to color on all sides, pressing the garlic into the oil a few times to release its flavor. Remove the garlic.
2. Add the tomatoes, the oregano, and the salt to taste and, with a wooden spoon, break up and coarsely crush the tomatoes. Increase the heat to medium high and simmer briskly, uncovered, for 5 minutes.
3. Reduce the heat to low, stir the calamari into the sauce and continue to simmer steadily, uncovered for about 30 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened and the calamari are tender. Some calamari may take longer to cook, in which case you may need to add a tablespoon or as many as a few tablespoons of water so the sauce doesn’t become too reduced.
4. Add the parsley and cook for another 15 seconds.
Note: I added the parsley after transferring the calamari to a skillet for tossing with the pasta.
5. Serve very hot, as is, with bread, or over freselle, or, as I did, tossed with pasta.
Wine Pairing: Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso