If it’s Friday. . . it’s Pesce!

My Risotto ai Gamberi!

Last week I had tweeted this picture and I promised that I would have followed up with a post, so here I am, as promised.

Risotto ai gamberi (Risotto with shrimp) is one of my favorite dish to prepare. It is comforting and fresh at the same time, perfect for Spring.  To me it represents the fusion of Northern and Southern Italy, a good example of Mediterranean diet and just simple goodness.

Risotto is a way of preparing riso (rice) rather than a recipe. The archetype of risotto is “Risotto alla Milanese“, you know. . .  that wonderful yellow risotto – with zafferano (saffron) – that is always married to the “Ossobuco“.

Although the Northern Regions of Lombardia and Piemonte are the capitals of rice, the use of the rice in cooking started in Naples (yes, I know I am biased!) where it was brought by the Spaniards in the fourteenth century. The Neapolitan, however, rapidly became “mangiamaccheroni” (pasta eater) and the rice soon travelled North. In Northern Italy, in particular in the wet Valle del Po (Po Valley), the cultivation of rice found the perfect environment. The immage of the flooded risaie (rice field) are quite impressive.

In 1949, the Italian movie Riso Amaro (Bitter Rice), nominated for the 1950 Academy Award for Best Motion Picture Story, was shot in the countryside and rice-fields of the Po Valley. The story deals with the vicissitudes of the mondine (rice-weeders).

Yet, how can we forget the Sartù? It is one of the richest and elaborated piatti (dish), based on rice, of the traditional Neapolitan cuisine. In the ‘700, Naples was ruled by the French Royal House of Bourbons. The chefs of the Royal French Court developed this recipe; its original French name was Sur-Tout which then became Sartù.

 The Sartù is a sort of rice dome stuffed with meatballs, sausage, peas, mushrooms, boiled eggs, mozzarella and more. . . my husband’s grandmother – nonna Lucia –  used to make it and my husband still rave about it. I am not ready yet for this elaborated preparation but I promised myself that one day I shall try. I will keep you posted.

Back to the rice, there are different varieties of rice: riso tondo or comune (round rice or common), riso fino (fine-rice or rice up), riso semifino (semi-fine rice), riso ultrafino (grain rice, super fine).

The variety of rice you use will affect the recipe. The best rice for risotto is the Vialone Nano, which belongs to the semifino variety. Arborio and Carnaroli, both in the ultrafino variety, are good alternatives.

Carnaroli and Arborio

The Vialone Nano has medium long grains and it has a good ability to release the starch that ensures the creaminess of the risotto. The Arborio and Carnaroli have large and long grain and release less starch.

Once you master the art of preparing the basic risotto, you can let your imagination fly and create any combination you like. I am from Southern Italy and yet, Risotto is one my favorite dish. I make risotto with anything I fancy and anything that it is in season: asparagus, radicchio, lemon, beans, zucchini, potatoes, peas, artichokes, mushroom, butternut squash, safron, gorgonzola cheese, cuttlefish ink, seafood. . . and of course with shrimp!

In my recipe, Risotto, the most typical preparation of Northern Italy, meets the flavor of the Mediterranean Sea and the culture of fish of Southern Italy . . .what better combination!

So here it is, for yet another meatless Friday (or meatless Monday), I give you My Risotto ai Gamberi. This recipe is my own, I have experimented through the years and although it is not the canonic recipe, it is my family’s favorite. To me, that’s all that matters. I hope you will give it a try, I am sure you will love it!

Ricetta Risotto ai Gamberi

Risotto with shrimp

Ingredients for 4 people

2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

4 tbsp unsalted butter

1 medium onion finely chopped

2 cups rice – Vialone Nano, Carnaroli or Arborio (Carnaroli is what I had on hand)

20 medium/large shrimp

1/2 cup dry white wine (I also like to use Marsala wine which will make the dish slightly sweeter)

1/4 cup heavy cream

fresh parsley (or few sage leaves)

For the broth

4 -1/2 cups of cold water

2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil

shrimp skin and heads (also tails if you decide to remove them)

1/2 medium onion roughly chopped

1 leek sliced

2 tsp tomato paste

few black pepper grain

salt

Directions

Start with the broth.

Peel the shrimp and remove the head. I like to leave the tail but you can remove it if you want. In a sauce pan heat 2 tsp of extra-virgin olive oil and add the skins and heads (and tails) of the shrimp. Add the onion and leek, stir to coat with oil. Add the cold water, the black pepper grains, and the 2 teaspoons of tomato paste.  Stir to dissolve the tomato paste, this will give the risotto a pretty pink color. Bring to boil and let simmer for 20 minutes, add salt to taste and keep it warm.

Meanwhile devein the shrimp.

In a heavy-bottom pan, heat the oil and 2 tbsp of butter with the onion. Once the onion has softened add the shrimp and and cook on both side until they had taken on color. Remove the shrimp from the pan and set them aside keeping them warm.

Take eight (8) of the shrimp and transfer into the bowl of a food processor, add 1/4 cup of broth and purée the shrimp. Add 1/4 cup of heavy cream and blend together. Set aside.

Add a 1 tbsp of butter and scrape the bottom of the pan to release the bits of shrimp. Add the  rice to the pan and toss to coat with the oil/butter. When the rice is translucent, add the wine and stir until the wine evaporates.

Strain the broth and start adding 1/2 cup at the time, stirring with a wooden spoon, until all of the liquid has been absorbed. Continue adding the broth 1/2 cup at the time, stirring constantly.

After about 15 minutes, add the shrimp purée and the whole shrimp. Stir to combine and continue cooking and stirring for additional 2-3 minutes while keeping adding the broth as necessary.

Taste the rice for texture and seasoning, it should be al dente, tender but not mushy.

When the rice is ready, turn off the heat and stir in the remaining butter, this last step is called mantecare, which I cannot really translate but it makes the risotto perfetto (perfect), so don’t skip it!

Spoon your risotto into serving bowl, sprinkle with freshly grounded pepper and top it with fresh prezzemolo (parsley) – which is typical –  or, as I did, just decorate with a fresh, small foglia di salvia (sage leaf).

Isn't pretty?

Eat it right away!

Friday night flavorful meatless dinner

Who said that the days of magro (days of fasting or meatless) cannot be flavorful?

Do you know that during the Middle Age, the Christian’s observance of Lent and the various religious fasts added up to an estimated 130 days a year?

The Italian cuisine is rich of exquisite meatless dishes based on fish and vegetables, and today I am going to share with you My Friday night dinner. Two recipes, simple enough to require only a handful of ingredients and only 30 minutes of your time, but at the same time, rich of flavor, comforting and satisfying.

Pesce Spada in salmoriglio (Swordfish in Salmoriglio), with a side of Melanzane a funghetto.

Both dishes are perfect examples of Mediterranean diet. In fact, fish, vegetable, olive oil, and aromatic herbs are the staples of this diet.

The pesce spada in salmoriglio is a typical recipe of both the Calabria and the Sicilia  regions. The melanzane a funghetto is a contorno (side dish)  typical of the Neapolitan cuisine. For the eggplant, I use my mom’s recipe which also happens to be my husband’s favorite. In the most canonical version of the recipe, the eggplants are deep fried, the tomato sauce is cooked separately and the two ingredients are combined only at the end. My mom’s recipe, however, is a little lighter, because the eggplants are not deep fried.

The swordfish is simply grilled or – when it’s cold outside – seared in a skillet, and it is then drizzled with the salmoriglio, which is a raw sauce made with olive oil, fresh parsley, fresh oregano, lemon, garlic, and capers. As often happens, there are several variations of this sauce, some with capers some without, some where the sauce is simmered  a bagnomaria (wet bath) and some where the ingredients are simply emulsified. I do use the capers and I do the wet bath.

I shall say that in the preparation of the salmoriglio the use of the fresh oregano is important because is less pungent than the dry oregano, but I have to confess that last night I realized too late that my oregano’s plant had not survived the winter and that I had forgotten to buy a fresh spring at the market. Solution: use dry oregano, a little stronger flavor but, still good.

Well, I am sad to say that the oregano was not the only thing missing. . . the whole herbs section went forgotten! The BASIL!! How could I have forgotten the basil for my eggplant? Oh, I have an excuse: at the end of summer I freeze my fresh basil. Few weeks ago, however, my freezer broke and I was forced to throw away everything. . . including my basil. My mom’s melanzane a funghetto without the sweet scented basil would have been a big NO-NO, yet my husband and I enjoyed the dish and were happy to have leftover for today’s lunch.

RICETTA PESCE SPADA IN SALMORIGLIO

Swordfish is Salmoriglio Sauce

Ingredients for  4 persons

4 swordfish steak, not too tick

A handful of flat-leaf parsley

2 sprigs of fresh oregano

1 garlic clove

1 tablespoon of capers ( I prefer caper in salt)

The juice of 1 lemon

1 tsp of grated lemon zest

extra virgin olive oil

salt and pepper.

Directions

Start with the salmoriglio sauce. Finely chop the garlic, oregano and parsley with a knife or, like me with a mezzaluna (half-moon chopper) – did I tell you this is one my favorite kitchen gadget? – and set aside.

In a small bowl wisk together ¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil, the lemon juice and a pinch of salt. Wisk the ingredients, set the bowl in a small pan with simmering water on low heat – this is the bagnomaria (water bath) – and add the minced garlic, parsley and oregano, wisk and let the sauce slowly warm up.

Lastly add the chopped capers and the grated lemon zest. One more wisk and it’s ready!

For the fish,  grease a grill grate with olive oil and set it over high heat. Sprinkle both sides of the fish with kosher salt and black pepper.

Once the grill is hot, cook the swordfish, for about 5 minutes per side ( 3-4 minutes for thin steak).

The flash has to be opaque. Make sure it is nice and browned at least on one side.

Plate the swordfish and drizzle with the sauce on top.

Doesn’t it look delicious?

And to go along . . .

RICETTA MELANZANE A FUNGHETTO

(In Naples these are called Mulignane a fungetiello)

Ingredients for four persons

4 eggplants (possibly the Italian kind, long and small)

1 can of chopped plum tomatoes ( San Marzano are the best)

extra virgin olive oil

1 glove of garlic

salt

few leaves of basil

Directions

Dice the eggplant, transfer to a colander sprinkle with salt, cover with a flat plate and put something heavy on top. Let sit for 1 hour so the eggplant will release all the bitter water out of the eggplant. Rinse, squeeze and pat dry.

In a frying pan heat 6 tablespoon of olive oil with a clove of crushed garlic. When the oil is warm and the garlic is golden, add the eggplant, stir well so they are coated with the fragrant oil and cook for 10-15 minutes on medium heat.

Add the chopped plum tomatoes and salt to taste.

Cook 10  more minutes. Lastly add the hand chopped basil – NO BASIL IN MINE THIS TIME! –

This is not just a delicious side dish, think of it as a great appetizer along with some fresh mozzarella or, on top of crostini (toasted bread bruschetta style).

NOTE: A funghetto, means in a small mushrooms style. When the eggplants are diced in small cubes and fried the are indeed similar to mushrooms.

The Mediterranean Diet. . . and a recipe too!

Did you know that with the New Year 2.6 million people started a diet? And did you know that 92% of those 2.6 million are already off the wagon?

I am not kidding, I was just reading an article about it.

I know for experience that it is not easy to stick to a diet. I tried them all, Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, Atkins, South Beach and so on.

What throws me off is the idea of dieting itself; the idea that you have to constantly think about the food you can or cannot eat, the measuring, the fat, the sugars, the carbs. . . wow that is a job  in itself!

I finally told myself, I am Italian, from Southern Italy, my mom used to cook delicious food everyday and still, she looked great and definitely she was never on a diet, so what’s the secret?

The secret is that healthy eating was a way of life, it was the way my mom grew up, it was part of her culture.

The secret was what, in the late 1950, the American professor Ancel Keys  defined as the Mediterranean Diet (Dieta Mediterranea).

Professor Keys was with the Allied troops in Greece and then in Southern Italy where he noticed the absence of obesity and that the rate of  heart attack was  very low.

He also noticed that the diet of these areas was completely different from the American diet.

From these observations, professor Keys, later developed a full study around the Mediterranean Diet.

The history of the Mediterranean cuisine is complex and connected to the people who lived on the coasts of this sea.

The model of The Mediterranean Diet has its roots in the Ancient Greek which deeply influenced the Etruscan and Roman cultures.

These cultures, in fact, cherished all products from agriculture, in particular wheat, olives and vines. The cuisine was distinguished by the use of vegetables, fish, fruit and dessert. These were then integrated by cheese and small quantity of meats.

The meals were consumed three times a day : colazione (breakfast), pranzo (lunch) and cena (supper). This is how they are still consumed in Italy

This diet soon clashed with that of the Barbarians which invaded Italy in the High Middle Age (around 560). The Barbarian populations were mostly nomads, their diet was primarily based on gaming, fishing and wild berries. They also bred pigs and used their meat, but also their fat. The cereals were primarily used for the production of beer rather than bread.

This dietary style spread partially in the original Greek-Roman style.

The regions in the North of Italy quickly adopted the new diet of the barbarians, while the populations of Central-Southern Italy were disinclined to these changes and remained faithful to their cuisine, maintaining their identity and originality.

On November 16, 2010 the Mediterranean Diet has been recognized by the UNESCO as a virtuous model of health and intangible cultural World Heritage.

The term “diet” (dieta) refers to the Greek etymon “diaita” or way of life (stile di vita). The recognition from the UNESCO is precisely the recognition of a set of practices, expressions, knowledge and skills, that have allowed the populations around the  Mediterranean Sea to create, over the course of centuries, a synthesis between the cultural environment, the social organization and, the art of eating.

Image from "The Oldways"

The Mediterranean Diet emphasizes:

Eating primarily plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts

Using healthy fats such as olive oil

Using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods

Limiting the intake of red meat

Eating fish and poultry at least twice a week

The late addition of getting plenty of physical exercise and drinking red wine in moderation, makes of this ancient diet a true model of healthy and modern lifestyle.

We can all try to stick to these simple guidelines and still eat flavorful foods – Italian of course!

One of the secrets is to keep your recipe simple. My mom never used more than 5 ingredients in her recipes!  Also use  local, seasonal ingredients, watch for your portions, and take the time to really enjoy every bite of your meal. Every meal in Italy is a ritual, you sit at the tables with your family and you share the food but also the worries and the happy moments of your day.

Let’s give it a try! To get you started I will share the recipe of the Minestrone.

The Minestrone well represents the style of the Mediterranean diet. It is in fact a complete meal with its combination of fresh vegetables and greens, the use of beans, which provide the necessary protein, and small quantity of carbohydrates. You can opt to use small pasta (like ditalini) or rice. You can also use barley or farro.

Ricetta del Minestrone

Ingredients for 6

4 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil

1/2 onion finely sliced

1 carrot diced

1 celery stalk diced

1 large potato peeled and diced

1/2 lb. Swiss chard chopped

1/4 of Savoy cabbage chopped (original recipe uses lettuce)

2 ripe plum tomatoes seeded and chopped

4 oz. string beans (cut into thirds)

6 leaves of basil chopped

2 cups of canned  cannellini beans

salt and black pepper to taste

6 cups of water

Rinds of Parmigiano-Reggiano (optional – I always add it when I use rice)

1/2 lb of short pasta or 2 fistful of rice/person

Directions:

In a large pot heat 4 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and sautè the onion, and  basil. Let the onion softened and take a little color then add all the vegetables except for the tomatoes and the beans.

Add salt and pepper, stir, cover and let cook on low heat for 10 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and the water, stir, cover and let simmer for 2 hours.

The next two steps are optional, they are my personal preference.

After one hour add the rinds of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and continue cooking for 45 additional minutes. The cheese rinds melt and make the minestrone more flavorful.

In the bowl of a food processor add half of the cannellini beans and 3-4 cups of the vegetables from the pot. Run the food processor until you obtain a creamy mixture. Add the mixture back into the pot, taste for salt and pepper and add as needed.

Cover and let simmer for additional 15 minutes.

After a total of 2 hours, add the pasta (or rice) and the remaining beans. Cook until the pasta is ready. (If you opt to use rice, let cook without stirring – not even once! – for 15-20 minutes. Do not overcook!)

Serve warm with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with Parmigiano cheese.

Perfetto!

NOTES:

I particularly like to use rice whose starch, along with the creamed vegetables, gives the minestrone a slightly creamy texture.

Barley and/or farro require a longer cooking time. If you opt to use one of these two grains,  you can add them to the vegetable mixture along with the  creamed vegetables, and then cook for 1 additional hour.