Sunday, January 7, 2018

Around the World in 80 Dishes: Italy

As I continue my personal culinary challenge, Around the World in 80 Dishes, I find myself in nearly the same situation as a few weeks ago.  Back then, my beautiful Angel bought a whole duck for me to cook; and, I decided that I would make Peking Duck.  After making that decision, and perusing the aisles of the local Asian grocery store, I realized that the Peking Duck could satisfy the challenge to make a main course for the country of China

Fast forward those few weeks to the days before Christmas Eve.  I had decided to make a Christmas Eve feast.  Drawing inspiration from the fact that the families of my beautiful Angel and myself originate in part from Italy, I decided to make the Feast of Seven Fishes, or, as it would be known in Italy, La VigiliaSeven courses, each made with a different fish or seafood.   As I prepared for this feast, which was the second largest cooking experience I have undertaken (the largest was my Guest Chef  Night experience), I decided that this would satisfy my challenge to make a main course for the country of Italy.  

This challenge presented the same fundamental issue for me as that China challenge.  Like China, Italy has numerous regions, each with its own cuisine.  Each of those cuisines has its own history, influences, and character.  However, unlike my last challenge, I had decided that each course or dish of the Feast of Seven Fishes would come from a different region.  In the end, I had a dish from Friuli-Venezia-Guilia, Apulia, Umbria, Abruzzo, Calabria, Sardinia and Sicily.  And, as some of my challenges have involved multiple dishes, I have decided that all of the dishes would be part of this challenge.  Thus, while it may have been my second largest cooking experience, the challenge to cook a main course from Italy is the largest test of the Around in the World in 80 dishes.  All of the dishes made it into this post.  So, without further ado:


The first course or appetizer begins in the region of Friuli-Venezia-Guilia, a very small region in northeastern Italy.   This region's history underlies its cuisine, with influences from Venice, with those of Austrian and Slavic cuisines.  Following northern Italian cuisine, polenta is a staple in this region, which is served along stewed meats, games and cheeses.  These meats and game include venison and rabbit.  They also include gulasch, which is a stew of beef and peppers (and, a great example of the Slavic influence upon the cuisine).  

Drawing from the shores around its capital, Trieste, I am starting with a recipe that brings together shrimp with the staple of polenta.  I digressed from the recipe by simply warming the polenta in the oven, then plating it with the shrimp and drizzling the mushrooms and sauce around the shrimp.  The result was a great start to the dinner.

Recipe from Culinaria Italia (pg. 19)
Serves 6-8

2 pounds of shrimp
1 handful of fresh mushrooms
1 clove of garlic, chopped finely
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
3/4 cup white wine
4 cups vegetable stock
Freshly ground pepper

1.  Prepare the polenta. Prepare the polenta to a soft consistency.  Cool and cut into slices and place them on a greased backing sheet so that the slices cover it completely, overlapping slightly.  Preheat the oven to 350 to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

2.  Prepare the sauce.  Clean the mushrooms and chop finely.  Peel the shrimp and saute them in a little butter in the saucepan.  Add the mushrooms, garlic and parsley.  Pour some of the white wine and vegetable stock and bring to a boil.  Add the rest only if needed  Season with freshly ground pepper and nutmeg, and arrange on top of the polenta slices.  Bake for a few minutes in the preheated oven.


The next course takes us all the way down the eastern coast of Italy to Apulia or Puglia.  The southeastern region has a coastline along the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, as well as the Gulf of Taranto.  This wide access to the sea allows for seafood to play an important role in the cuisine of the region, with fish, octopus, squid and even sea urchins gracing the dishes.

But it is the Gulf of Taranto that provides the oysters.  No feast would be complete without oysters.  While I love eating them raw, I found a recipe for broiling/roasting the oysters with just a few ingredients.  The recipe simply calls for breadcrumbs, parsley, oregano, lemon juice and olive oil.  It is just another case where simplicity breeds deliciousness.  For this course, I used salty hog oysters, which I think come from Maine.  These oysters serve as the centerpiece for the second course, Ostriche Arrosto.

Recipe from Culinaria Italia (pg. 373)
Serves 1

Ingredients (per person):
6 oysters
Chopped parsley
1 clove garlic, chopped
Lemon Juice
Olive Oil
Salt and pepper

1.  Prepare the oysters.  Remove the upper shelves and place the lower halves containing the oyster meat on a wire rack.  Sprinkle the parsley and garlic evenly over the oysters, followed by the breadcrumbs and oregano, then drizzle 2-3 drops of lemon juice and a little olive oil.

2.  Roast the oysters.  Season with salt and pepper and broil for 15 minutes.


The third appetizer takes us north along Italy's Adriatic coast to the region of Abruzzo.  That stretch of coastline, with ports such as like Pescara and Ortona, allows Abruzzo to have a very diverse seafood cuisine of various fish and shellfish, just like its southern neighbors.

The key to a dish from this region is to use one of its signature ingredients.  Two such ingredients come to mind: peperoncino and saffron.  Abbruzese cuisine is known for being spicy, with a liberal use of peppers.  Yet, it is croccus sativus, whose dried stems give us saffron, that truly interests me.  The flowers brought to this province more than 450 years ago by a priest name Santelli, and they grow on the Navelli Plain in the L'Aquila province.  While cultivated in Abruzzo, saffron is not a common ingredient in regional cuisine.  It finds its way into the cuisines of neighboring regions, such as Le Marche or Emilia-Romagna, where it provides its signature yellow color to dishes.

It is that yellow color that makes the broth of Cozze allo Zafferano stand out.  The broth is made from white wine and water, but the saffron gives it a bright yellow color.  In making this recipe, I did make one change: I left the mussels in their shell rather than taking off the top part of the shell.  This saved a lot of time and I think the whole shell provides a better presentation.  

Recipe from Food and Memories of Abruzzo (pg. 21)
Serves 4-6

2 pounds of mussels, scrubbed and debearded
2 shallots, each quartered or 1 onion quartered
2 sprigs fresh Italian parsley
1 sprig fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
3/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup water
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon saffron
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1.  Steam the mussels.  Place all of the ingredients in a large skillet . Cook over medium heat, shaking the skillet often, until the mussels open, 5 to 8 minutes.  Remove the open mussels and discard half of the shell.  Discard the mussels that have not opened.  Place the remaining half of with the mollusk on a serving plate.  Keep warm.

2.  Finish the dish.  With a slotted spoon remove the solids from the skillet and discard.  Strain the liquid through a towel into a small saucepan.  Bring the liquid to a boil and if there is more than 3/4 cup reduce it by boiling it.  Pour the liquid over the mussels and serve.  This dish can also be served chilled. 


Given the more than 4,700 miles of coastline, it would be easy to create seven dishes from Italian regions that border either the Adriatic or the Tyrhennian Seas.  After all, fifteen of the twenty Italian regions have some portion of their territory that touches the sea.  To make this a true challenge, I needed to make a dish from one of the five landlocked regions.  The region I chose is Umbria.

The dish is a play on a traditional Umbrian dish: Polpette in Umido or Meatballs in Broth.  The meatballs are traditionally made with pork from the renown Umbrian pigs.  Given pork is not on the menu for a Feast of Seven Fishes or La Vigilia feast, I decided to make fish meatballs.  To be true to the landlocked nature of the Umbrian region, I needed a freshwater fish.  The two obvious choices are trout and catfish.  Given the meatier texture of catfish, I thought it would work better as meatballs.

Given the experimental nature of this dish, I kept the meatballs pretty simple.  Catfish, bread crumbs  (with Italian seasoning, thereby providing some basil and oregano) and eggs, with some salt and pepper.  I refrigerated the meatballs to firm them up before baking them to preserve their shape.   The meatballs were then warmed in the broth prior to serving. 

Recipe inspired by Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy (196-197)
Serves 4

1 pound of freshwater fish fillets (such as catfish or trout)
1 large egg, beaten with a pinch of salt
1/4 cup of fine dread breadcrumbs, 
Freshly ground black pepper and salt
3 to 4 quarts of seafood stock
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh parsley
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
10 peppercorns
Dried basil, oregano or pepper flakes, optional. 

1.  Make the broth.  You can make a fish broth ahead of time if you have the heads and bones.  Just bring them short of a boil with an onion, fresh thyme, fresh parsley, bay leaves and peppercorns and cook for about one hour.  If you get pre-made seafood stock or broth, then just add the fresh herbs and bring short to a boil and cook for about an hour. .

2.  Prepare the meatballs.  Wash the fish fillets and pat them dry with a paper towel. Cut the fish into large pieces and place into a food processor.  Pulse the fish multiple times until the fish is the right texture for meatballs, about 10 to 12 times.  Do not over-pulse the fish or the meatballs will not work.  Add the fish to a bowl and then add the egg and breadcrumbs.  You can also add some dried basil, oregano and even pepper flakes, all of which is optional.  Season with salt and pepper.  Combine the ingredients together.  Make twelve fishballs.  Refrigerate the fishballs for about 30 minutes.

3.  Bake the meatballs.  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.  Bake the meatballs for 20 minutes, turning them once after 10 minutes.

4.  Finish the dish.  Once the meatballs are baked, add them to the broth and let them rest for about 20 minutes more.


To this point, all of the dishes have come from regions along the Adriatic Sea, as well as one landlocked region.  It is time to head west to the Italian coastline along the Tyrrhenian Sea.  The starting point is the southwestern region of Calabria, which is the "toe' in the Italian "boot."  Calabria shares one thing in common with Abruzzo: the use of pepper to make spicy dishes.

When it comes to seafood, fish is the predominant protein for Calabrian dishes.  For the fifth course of this feast, however, I wanted to make something with squid or calamari.  I found a Calabrian recipe for Calamari Piccanti or spicy calamari.  This recipe uses red pepper flakes to give it that Calabrian character.  While I ordinarily add more pepper flakes to make a dish truly spicy, I stuck to the amounts called for in the recipe.

Recipe from Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy (pg. 339)
Serves 6

2 pounds cleaned calamari, whole bodies and tentacles
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
6 plump garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 1/2 teaspoons of kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon peperoncino flakes
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian parsley

1. Prepare the calamari. Dry the calamari well and put in a large bowl  Pour over them 12 cup of the olive oil and add the garlic, a teaspoon of salt and peperoncino.  Toss to coat and let marinate at room temperature for 30 minutes to an hour.  

2.  Make the dressing.  When you are ready to cook the calamari, make the dressing.  Whisk together the remaining 1/4 cup of olive oil, the lemon juice, the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and the chopped parsley until emulsified.

3.  Cook the calamari.  Set the skillet over high eat and it when it is very hot, lift the calamari out of the marinade with tongs, let it dry briefly and then lay a bat of them flat in the dry skillet.  Sear the calamari, turning several times until the edges of the bodies are caramelized and crispy, about 2 minutes per batch.  If you are using unskinned calamari, the skin will darken to a deep reddish hue.  

4.  Finish the dish  As the calamari comes out of the skillet, arrange them on a warmed platter, when all of the calamari is done, drizzle the dressing over them and serve right away.


The culinary experience leaves the mainland for the island of Sardegna or Sardinia.  I have a fascination with this island, having previously explored its cuisine when I made Insalata dell'Aragosta or Sardinian Lobster Salad.  Fish and lobsters predominate the seafood cuisine of the island.  However, I wanted to make something different.  I scoured recipes until I found one using octopus.  I love eating octopus.  I have had it many times as Pulpo Gallego (Octopus with paprika) at Spanish restaurants.  The dish is octopus served with potatoes and paprika.  I have also had it grilled at Greek restaurants, served just on its own or perhaps dressed with a combination of olive oil and lemon juice.

For the sixth course, I found an octopus and potato salad from Sardinia.  This dish connects Spain and Greece for me, bringing together the potatoes from Pulpo Gallego with the olive oil and lemon juice of the Greek version.  A nod to the historical influences that have come and gone like the waves that crash on the shores of the Island.   The addition of celery leaves and parsley leaves give this salad its own character.  

Recipe from How to Eataly (p. 240)
Serves 4

1 octopus (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1 tablespoon fine sea salt
2 medium Yukon Gold potatoes
1/4 cup loosely packed flat leaf parsley leaves
1 red onion
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup loosely packed celery leaves

1.  Cook the octopus.  Place the octopus in a large pot and add water just to cover.  Sprinkle in the 1 tablespoon of salt.  Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until the octopus is tender, about 50 minutes.  Drain and set aside to cool slightly but not completely.  

2.  Cook the potatoes.  Place the potatoes in a separate pot and add water to cover.  Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until the potatoes are easily pierced with a paring knife, about 30 minutes.  Drain and set aside to cool slightly but not completely.  When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel them and cut into 1/2 inch slices.  Place in a large bowl.

3.  Continue to prepare the octopus.  Separate the octopus head and tentacle. Chop the tentacles and place them in the bowl with the potato slices.  Remove the internal sac from the head if it hasn't been removed already, then chop the head and add to the bowl.   

4.  Continue to prepare the salad.  Roughly chop the parsley and add to the bowl.  Halve and thinly slice the onion and add that to the bowl along with the celery.  In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar and olive oil and season with salt and pepper.  Drizzle the dressing over the salad and toss to combine. 

5.  Finish the dish.  The salad benefits from sitting at room temperature for an hour or so or you can refrigerate it and bring it back to room temperature before serving. Garnish with celery leaves.


The final course of this seven course dish constitutes the challenge for my Around the World in 80 Dishes.  This course takes us to Sicily, an island well known for its fish and shellfish dishes.  One truly Sicilian dish, Cuscusu or Couscous with Fish, actually displays the wonderful influences upon the island's cuisine.  The use of couscous, as well as saffron, is a nod to the influence of the Arabs, who ruled the island from 827 A.D. to 1091 A.D.  While Cuscusu may have Arabic origins, the Sicilians have made it their own.  They steam the couscous over fish broth, made from a variety of fishes (such as scorpion fish, bogue and eel), rather than a meat broth as is done in Northern Africa.

While I could steam the couscous over a fish broth (I made one for this feast), I ultimately decided to use the fish broth to make the coucous in the traditional fashion.  The "traditional fashion" means following the directions on the side of the box.  In my defense, I have made Cuscusu by steaming the couscous in the past.  Having completed several dishes, including a couple (such as the octopus salad) that could satisfy the main dish requirement, I decided I needed a break.  The completion f the dish still satisfies the challenge of making a main course.  

Recipe adapted from Regional Italian Cuisine (pg 288-289)
Serves 4 to 6

10 ounces or 1 2/3 cups couscous
1 teaspoon saffron
1 pinch powdered cloves
1 pinch cinnamon
Salt and freshly ground pepper
6 cups seafood stock

1.  Prepare the couscous. Dissolve the saffron in some of the seafood stock.  Bring enough seafood stock to a boil to prepare the couscous according to the package.  Reserve the remaining seafood stock.   Season the couscous with salt , pepper, powdered cloves, cinnamon and grated nutmeg.  

2. Prepare the fish.  Bring about 2 cups of stock to a boil in a deep pot.  Place the fish in the stock and simmer on medium heat for 5 to 10 minutes.  Chop the remaining parsley

3.  Finish the dish.  Place the couscous on a preheated platter.  Top the couscous with the pieces of fish and sprinkle with the chopped parsley.  Serve immediately.

*     *     *   

This was an amazing culinary tour around the country of Italy.  I never thought I could complete seven dishes in one night, let alone that the dishes would come out looking presentable.   This challenge was a success in many ways and it has galvanized me toward working on the next one.  Until that time...


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