Pasta con pesce spada e melanzane

We're already in the last week of July, which makes me a little sad as it means we only really have one more month left to Summer, my very favorite season of the year. On the plus side, though, the end of July also means that its time for this month's round of Cucina Conversations, and you can hardly be mad at a group of delicious recipes gathered together by various talented bloggers, now can you? Our July topic is seafood, perfectly in theme for the Summer when we're all spending our weekends by the sea and no one is up for eating anything too heavy. Here's what my fellow bloggers have whipped up this month:

Daniela of La Dani Gourmet has shared her recipe for impepata di cozze (mussels cooked with lots of black pepper); 

Marialuisa over at Marmellata di Cipolle has made gnocchi verde mare, or gnocchi with seafood;

Carmen of The Heirloom Chronicles opted for calamari ripieni al sugo, or stuffed squid;

Lisa aka Italian Kiwi will be making a zuppa di calamari e patate, or squid and potato soup;

Last but not least, Rosemarie over at Turin Mamma will be preparing acciughe al verde, or anchovies with basil, garlic, and parlsey.

Now! Let's talk seafood. I'll be upfront here -- generally speaking, seafood isn't on the top of my "Favorite Foods" list, and thus not something I cook too often (in fact, this blog has only a handful of seafood recipes). This could be because we didn't eat a lot of seafood growing up -- my mom also preferred pasta to fish, I guess -- but I think my feelings towards seafood were solidified in my teen years, when I tried my first lobster, served to me at a 
(fixed menu) dinner with the family of my boyfriend at the time. I remember my lobster arriving to my place setting in all its clawed, spiky, ruby-red glory, flanked by corn on the cob and potatoes, plus melted butter for dipping. But appearances can be deceiving -- picturesque plate or not, what followed was a mighty struggle, Girl vs Lobster, where I spent the better part of the dinner trying to crack open the claws and shell of the lobster to get the meat (kind of insipid, in the end, not worth the effort) and ended up frustrated, sweaty, and a bit embarrassed as I watched my fellow diners eat their lobsters with gusto. "It's part of the fun!" insisted my then-boyfriend, kindly taking over for me at a certain point when the struggle got particularly ugly. I chalked my lobster failure up to a few things -- lack of upper body strength! a faulty lobster shell-cracker thingie! -- but there was no denying it. After Lobstergate 2008, I decided I definitely wasn't a huge fan of seafood, with its bones and scales and claws and shells, and I decided I'd much prefer a straightforward steak any day. 

But people change! As I've gotten a little older, my taste buds have made a few concessions, rethought a few things, tried and been pleasantly surprised by a few dishes. I may never warm up to lobster (I shouldn't have to battle for my dinner), oysters (too slimy) or squid (its a texture thing) but I have found I do like shrimp, salmon, tuna, mussels (especially if served with fries) and swordfish. In short, there are exceptions to every rule, which brings us to today's recipe for pasta con pesce spada e melanzane, or pasta with swordfish and eggplant.

I first tried this dish during my year abroad in Bologna, Italy, at a restaurant called Il Veliero. It was one of the first restaurants we discovered in the neighborhood we lived in, and their pasta with swordfish and eggplant was what I ordered nearly every time we went. This version comes quite close to the one at the Il Veliero, with lots of juicy summer tomatoes, creamy mild eggplant, and substantial, steak-like swordfish, all tied together with 
a sprinkling of bright fresh parsley. Its extremely easy to throw together -- there's a bit of chopping involved, but nothing harder than that -- and is supremely Summer-y, a nice change of pace from the usual spaghetti alle vongole that is so popular here in Italy June-August. 

A couple of notes: To salt or not to salt the eggplant? There's a bit of debate on this, as explained here. Generally, if you buy a young, non-seedy eggplant (i.e one that is firm and not mushy) you don't have to worry about salting, and in fact, I never bother with it. I used casarecce pasta because I think it has a cool shape, but feel free to use whatever sort of pasta you'd like -- Il Veliero always used paccheri. I left the tomatoes raw, as I like the texture contrast and tomatoes are so nice in the Summer you don't need to do much to them, but feel free to saute them along with the eggplant if you want them to be cooked. If you're not a fan of parsley, basil would be nice here, and if you want to switch things up a little, you could probably substitute tuna for the swordfish.

PASTA CON PESCE SPADA E MELANZANE

Ingredients:
3/4 of a pound (360 grams, to be exact) pasta
About 1 pound (460 grams, to be exact) swordfish
1 large eggplant (mine was about 1 pound or 500 grams)
2 cups (300 grams) cherry tomatoes
A generous 1/2 cup (120ml) white wine
3 cloves garlic
A bunch of parsley, chopped

Directions:
Put a pot of water on to boil for your pasta, then start with your swordfish. Cut the swordfish up in to cubes, removing the skin and any other tendons or tough pieces of fish you might encounter. Set aside.
Move on to your eggplant next. Cut the eggplant in to roughly the same size cubes as you did the swordfish. Heat a good amount of olive oil (enough to coat the bottom of the pan, and then some -- eggplant absorbs a lot of oil so it needs a bit more to get it cooking) in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the eggplant and cook until golden and softened, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste as you go. Remove the eggplant from the skillet with a slotted spoon and leave on a paper towel lined plate (or cutting board) to drain any excess oil. In the meantime, add the pasta of your choice to the now boiling water, and cook according to package directions.
While the pasta is cooking, add the swordfish and two of the garlic cloves to the pan where the eggplant was. You might need to add a little extra olive oil at this point -- I had added enough for the eggplant so I didn't, but see how it goes for you. Cook the swordfish and garlic in the pan just until the swordfish starts to brown, then add the wine to the pan. Let the wine cook down, about 4 or 5 minutes.
When the wine is evaporated, add the eggplant, tomatoes, and parsley to the pan. Remove the garlic cloves and discard. Taste and season with salt and pepper, if needed. Added the drained pasta and toss everything together.
Serve the pasta immediately with a little extra parsley sprinkled over the top, if you'd like. Serves 4 generously.

























Naples + Sperlonga

The cooking, baking, and recipe testing I usually reserve at least some of the weekend for has been replaced with a little traveling this Summer. There are the weddings, first of all -- I've been invited to 8 (!!!) this year, most of them in the Summer, requiring a bit of travel -- plus the fact that my oven, already faulty on the best of days, has finally given out, more specifically in a cloud of eye-stinging black smoke that came out of the top of the stove (yikes). While I wait for my landlords to find a solution, I've put my baking and some of my cooking on hold, spending my past two weekends outside the Eternal City -- a weekend in Naples, this past one in Sperlonga, and this upcoming one in Venice (more on that next week) because its not Summer without a little vacation, right? 

Translation: I haven't had much time to cook for you lately, but here are some photos of my days off, take these instead!

NAPLES
My sister and I traveled to Naples, Italy, two weeks ago to meet up with Anna Larkin, a friend from college who you might remember from this post on NYC and also this one. Anna also chose Bologna, Italy, as her study abroad destination for one magical year back in 2009, which we hands-down all agree was the best year of our lives so far (you really can't beat study abroad). She's the most optimistic and infectiously sunny person I know, as well as the funniest -- its nearly impossible to be in a bad mood when Anna is around. Anna is also an awesome baker, even appearing on Food Network's Bakers vs Fakers where she won the show with her Chocolate Halzenut Pretzel Cupcake recipe (!!!) She's one of my very favorite people and I was so happy to see her in Naples. Here's us back in our college days:
Anna works in New York City, now, and while we usually meet up there, we were able to meet up in Naples this time (much easier from Rome) where Anna was spending the weekend on her way back from visiting her family in Ischia. Anna being a fellow foodie, she was thankfully on the same page regarding the purpose of the visit, which was, of course: Pizza (what else could be top priority in Naples?!) Anna came prepared, sending us ahead of time a list of possible pizzerie for Neapolitan pizza (feel free to use these as suggestions):
We ended up opting for Pizzeria di Matteo in Via dei Tribunali for dinner, arriving at 7:30 to avoid any lines (this was a good idea -- when we left around 9:30, there was a line of people waiting outside). All three of us went for the classic Margherita con la bufala, or tomato sauce, basil, and mozzarella di bufala, on a thick crust, something worth mentioning as Neapolitan pizza distinguishes itself from Roman pizza primarily in its crust. Roman pizza has a super thin crust, while Neapolitan pizza has a thicker crust. Here it is below -- have you ever seen anything so gorgeous?! 
Like any good expats who have spent extended amounts of time in Italy, we polished off all of our individual (but very large) pizzas as we had learned to do, no problem. We also shared a fritti misti platter as an appetizer, with all sorts of fried goods (fried dough! fried potato croquettes!) which are also typical of Naples. Just a light Summer meal, really.
The next day, my sister and I explored the city a bit as Anna had left for New York on an early flight (see you at Christmas, Anna!) It wasn't my first time in Naples -- I had been there in 2012, shortly after moving to Rome -- and hadn't gotten a great impression of the city the first time around. I found it too chaotic, too dirty, and overall a bit intimidating. This time, however (after nearly 6 years of living in Rome, a city that is not exactly the picture of tidiness and order) I found the city to be charming, honest, with a "take-it-or-leave-it" or "what you see is what you get" sort of way. On my second trip to Naples I could see that the city is quite beautiful, the people are kind, and the food is spectacular -- I won't wait another 5 years before traveling there again. 
 
Before getting our afternoon train, we finished our short stay in Naples off with lunch, spaghetti con cozze e pecorino, or rather, spaghetti with mussels and Pecorino cheese. While seafood and cheese don't usually mix in Italian cooking, they do make some exceptions, sometimes, with cozze e pecorino being one of them. It was delicious and the perfect send-off to a weekend in Naples -- special thanks to our friend Mari for the excellent restaurant suggestion!


SPERLONGA
After a weekend near the sea in Naples and a long week in a new job at FAO that I am not having the easiest time adjusting to, I felt like a weekend by the beach was in order, so we booked a bed and breakfast in Sperlonga, a little town about an hour and a half outside Rome by train, right by the sea. Since food is always a priority -- the restaurant on the beach had not only spaghetti alle vongole and other seafood but also prosciutto e melone and caprese, two of my heat-less Summer standbys, plus a specialty of the region, tiella, which is a savory pie with either a scarola (escarole) or polpo (octopus) filling. Delish. 
To finish off the post, here are a few photos of the beach, mostly so you can see how blue the water is (after years of going to the beach in Rhode Island, with the not-so-calm, not-so-clean water of the Atlantic Ocean, this always impresses me). We had our own umbrella and lounge chairs, the water was the perfect temperature, and there was even a little breeze so it wasn't even so hot out. I read an entire book, got somewhat of a tan, and slept late. What more could you want in a weekend?!




That's all for now! I'll be back next week with hopefully an (oven-less) recipe and another post on a trip to Venice. Have a good week everyone!

































Rice-Stuffed Tomatoes with Potatoes

In a city where even the simplest things become difficult -- going to the bank to pay rent or the post office to send a package is always an adventure, public transportation is touch-and-go, and customer service is non-existent -- I've learned to appreciate the little things in Rome that make life just a tiny bit easier. There are the incredibly convenient negozi cinesi, small, crowded shops where you can buy literally everything you could ever need -- cleaning products, office supplies, light bulbs, headphones, make up, nail polish, Christmas decorations, baking supplies, toiletries, luggage, to name just a few -- making one-stop shopping a breeze. There's the fact that traveling out of the city, when you've had enough of it, is easily done, too -- thanks to Trenitalia you can hop on a train from Termini station and be out of the city to somewhere quieter and calmer in just an hour or two, with tickets purchased easily online. There is also the tavola calda.

If you're not familiar -- the tavola calda is fast food, done the Italian way, a magical place that sells prepared food to-go -- pastas, veggies, meat, fish, pizza by the slice, you name it -- that makes for a delicious, fresh, home-cooked meal, all without ever lifting a finger. The tavola calda is a lifesaver for anyone who 1.) has no time to cook or 2.) doesn't want to cook, but 3.) still wants to eat well. The tavola calda is also perfect for lunch on-the-go, when you have to bring something to a dinner party but don't know how to cook, or if you're feeding a big group. I happen to love a good tavola calda -- my favorite one is La Molisana, right near my apartment -- and my favorite tavola calda offering is pomodori ripieni di riso alla romana, or rather, rice-stuffed tomatoes served with roast potatoes, a Roman classic. They are typical of tavole calde -- they're in every one I've ever come across in Rome -- but if you're not living in or traveling to the Eternal City any time soon, here's how to make them at home. 

So! These rice-stuffed tomatoes are one of the few vegan recipes I have on the blog, and its lack of pancetta or Parmesan or cream allows each individual ingredient to shine its brightest, with none of the flavor lost. This dish is simple and straight-forward, no nonsense -- the rice is intensely tomato-y, allowing the Summer tomato to show off a little, the basil is bright and flowery, and the potatoes are seasoned with nothing more than a little olive oil and salt, which is all they ever really need. Of course if you really wanted to, you could dress things up with some cheese -- cheese is always tempting -- but I don't think you much need to here. Bonus: these are excellent served room temperature on those Summer days where the idea of eating anything more than tepid is overwhelming. PLUS, each tomato has its own little tomato hat-lid, which I find pretty adorable. 

A couple of notes: I'm not a huge fan of garlic, so I just let a clove or two marinate in the tomato/rice mixture for half an hour, then removed it. If you like garlic, feel free to very finely chop the clove, add it to the rice/tomato mixture, and leave it there. Feel free to also double the recipe if you are serving a bigger crowd. You can also use bell peppers instead of tomatoes if you want, or a combination of both, and I think zucchine would actually work here too. Finally, these are great served at room temperature or warm. 

Looking for other tomato-y recipes? I've got this Spaghetti with Tomatoes and Basil, this Tomato Cobbler, these Tomato Basil Shortcakes, this Cherry Tomato Crostata, this Fettuccine with Brie, Tomatoes, and Basil, Roasted Tomato Basil Soup, and Sun-dried Tomato Pesto. For more stuffed veggies -- I have these Zucchine Ripiene.

RICE-STUFFED TOMATOES WITH POTATOES (AKA POMODORI RIPIENI DI RISO ALLA ROMANA)

Ingredients:
4 large tomatoes (pomodori da riso if you're shopping in Italy)
10 tablespoons (100 grams) Arborio rice, rinsed under water
6 basil leaves, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon salt and then a little more to taste
Pepper
2 garlic cloves, cut in to large pieces
1 teaspoon olive oil

4 potatoes
Olive oil

Directions:
Start with your tomatoes. Using a sharp knife, cut the "lid" off the tomato (the part with the green leaves) and set it aside. Use a spoon to hollow out the tomato, putting the juices and pulp in a bowl. Be careful not to break the tomato when you do this. When the tomato is completely hollowed out, turn it over on a paper towel lined plate or cutting board to let them drain. Repeat with all the tomatoes.
Next, blend the tomato pulp and juice in a blender or food processor until everything is pureed. Don't worry if there are seeds in the tomato mixture -- they blend in just fine. Once you have a tomato puree, put it in a bowl along with the rice, 1/2 teaspoon salt, pepper, garlic basil leaves, and 1 teaspoon of olive oil. Let the rice sit there for half an hour to absorb all the flavors and soften up a little. Taste the tomato mixture and add more salt to taste, if you'd like (I think I ended up using 1/2 a teaspoon and a tiny bit more).
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). While the rice is doing its thing and the oven is heating up, start with the potatoes. Peel four potatoes (I used Russet) and cut them in to chunks, putting them in the baking pan as you go. Toss them with a little olive oil to coat and salt to taste and toss everything together directly in the baking pan. Once the half an hour is up, take your tomatoes that have been draining, place them among the potatoes in the baking pan, and fill them with the tomato/rice mixture, being sure to include some juice in each tomato so the rice has liquid to cook in.
Place the reserved tomato lids on their respective tomatoes, drizzle everything with a little olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and pepper, and place in the oven to bake.
 
Bake the tomatoes and potatoes for about 45 minutes, or until the potatoes and rice are cooked through, and the tomatoes are soft. Serve warm or room temperature with some potatoes alongside. Serves 4.




















Insalata di Fagioli e Tonno

After living 22 years in in the U.S,  where air conditioning is abundant, moving to Rome was a bit of a shock. Let me explain: I come from a country that cherishes air conditioning (affectionately nicknamed “a.c”) in the hotter months, and subsequently uses it with abandon. Stores and restaurants are icy cold, the temperature in movie theaters are so low that you need to bring a sweatshirt to comfortably watch a film in August, and its rare to find a house in the States not equipped with air conditioning. Rewind to my first ever trip to Italy in August 2003 -- two weeks traveling all around the country -- where I quickly learned that Italy, already infernally hot in the Summer, was suffering a record heat wave, and…"a.c" was almost nowhere to be found. We stayed a few nights in Calabria in a hotel that did not have air conditioning, not even one fan, and none of us slept that night, seeking refuge on our hotel room balconies, desperately hoping for a breeze. I fell asleep with my cheek against the window in our rented van on the way to Abano, and woke up with half my face sunburned. We accepted that we would spend the next 14 days covered in sweat, took numerous cold showers a day, and nearly cried when we discovered our hotel in Rome had a swimming pool. That sort of thing.

Long story short, air conditioning isn't a thing in Italy. It’s pricey, for one thing – at most, my friends here have one air conditioning unit in one room – and anyways, the heat is nothing that a good old electric fan can’t handle. On top of all this, my Italian friends and relatives also believe that air conditioning is – gasp! – bad for you. Too much cold air gives you a cold; the switch from a cold room the hot temperature outside confuses your body and could also give you a cold; cold air blowing on the back of your neck, especially a sweaty one, can block the muscles in your neck, they say, and I even have a friend who has an air conditioning unit in his living room, but never uses it for fear of falling ill. I'm not sure I agree with them – if anything, its the excess of heat that can make you sick, right?! – but Italians seem convinced of this, just as Americans are convinced that pineapple and ham belong together on pizza, so we’ll just chalk it up to cultural differences, shall we? 

But to this recipe! Italy may not be big on air conditioning, but it does compensate in the form of delicious, low or no heat dishes; there's refreshingly cold gelato, for starters, plus granita, and ice cold watermelon sold on the streets; there’s room temperature insalata di riso, insalata caprese, and panzanella, plus fantastic prosciutto, tomatoes, and cheese for when you just want to assemble a a few things and not cook dinner. One of my go-to, low-key, heat free dishes in the Summer is insalata tonno e fagioli -- tuna and bean salad -- which is beyond simple to make, provided of course you can mix a few ingredients in a bowl. It's light and refreshing and lemon-y, filling enough for dinner, and good for you, too, which gives it extra brownie points (because let's be honest, the healthy recipes on here are far and few between). Its just what you want for dinner in your air conditioning-less kitchen in the middle of a boiling Summer, and takes about 5 minutes to make.

A couple of notes: I used canned cannellini as they're what I had on hand and are much faster, but if you have dried beans, you'll need to do a little more prep -- be sure to soak them in water at least 12 hours (or overnight) and then drain them and place them in a pot of enough water to cover. Bring the pot of water to a boil and cook for about 50 minutes, adding a little salt in at the end about 3 minutes before the cooking time is up. Drain and let cool completely. The quantities below are all flexible -- adjust according to your tastes and preferences. Feel free to make substitutions or add whatever else you want -- chickpeas instead of cannellini, parsley instead of the basil, or Kalamata olives instead of the black olives, for example. If you are patient, this is extra good served cold after time in the fridge, where the flavors are also allowed to meld and develop.

Looking for more low-key, heat-free recipes? I've got Insalata di Riso, Prosciutto, Nectarines, and Burrata, Corn, Avocado, and Tomato Salad, Basil Pesto, Pistachio Pesto, Sun-dried Tomato Pesto, Avocado Basil DipWatermelon, Arugula, and Feta Salad, and Greek Panzanella.

INSALATA DI FAGIOLI E TONNO

Ingredients:
2 (160 grams each) cans of tuna, packed in oil
2 (400 grams each) cannellini beans, drained and rinsed briefly under cold water
A handful of basil leaves, thinly sliced 
4 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 teaspoons lemon zest
2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
3/4 cup black olives, halved
1/2 teaspoon salt
Pepper

Directions:
This one is pretty simple -- whisk together the olive oil and lemon juice in a small bowl. Mix together the tuna, beans, basil, tomatoes, olives, and lemon zest in a larger bowl. Pour the lemon and olive oil mixture over the salad, toss, and season everything well with salt and pepper -- I used about 1/2 teaspoon salt but add this a little at a time in case your cannellini have more salt than mine did. Eat as is or do as I do and let it get nice and cold in the refrigerator to make it extra Summer-friendly and let the flavors develop. Serves 4.