Monday, July 6, 2015

Octopus, Beet and Citrus Salad

Cooking octopus in a home kitchen may be daunting to some of you out there, but it's no harder than cleaning and cooking squid. (What, you've never cooked squid either? Well then, check out this post and get going!)
After a fishing excursion off the coast of Sardinia years ago, where I helped haul in octopi and other fish, Ignazina and Gemi, the owners of the boat, moored on a deserted island and prepared a Lucullan feast, which included the thrashing of octopus on rocks before cooking the writhing creatures in a galley kitchen and turning it into the most transcendent octopus salad I've ever eaten. Here's a shot of Ignazina trying to corral the octopus into submission.

Since then, I've noticed that here in the Northeast U.S., octopus has become as ubiquitous on restaurant menus as tiramisu was in the 80s. Not that I'm complaining, because I love it and almost always order it when I see it. But it's almost always served the same way -- grilled in a salad.
But recently I ate an octopus salad at Trattoria Lucca in Charleston, S.C. that veered from the standard grilled fare. It was served with yellow beets and citrus fruits - a refreshing combo for a summer's day that I couldn't wait to duplicate once I got home. My version is not exactly the same as Lucca's, since I added way more octopus, beets and everything else, but I took my inspiration from the dish I ate at that wonderful restaurant in the Holy City.
Instead of roasting the beets, I boiled them and let them cool before attempting to peel. Maybe it's because I've forgotten about them and overcooked them in the oven, but I find it easier to peel boiled beets rather than roasted.  I used both yellow and pink and white striped Chioggia beets. You don't need to use a mandolin - hand slicing is fine.
I bought this whopper of an octopus at my local fish market - Nassau Seafood and it came frozen. The ones I buy are usually from Spain or Portugal.  Let the octopus sit in the refrigerator for two days or so until it's completely thawed out and what you have is something like this:

Expect a lot of shrinkage after cooking. Let it cool, then with your fingers, rub off any extraneous outer pink "skin."
Cut away the head and beak and discard. Then separate the "legs" with a knife.
At this point, I trimmed off the suckers from the tentacles, not something I always do, but in this case I made an exception.
It's not necessary, but with an octopus this large, the tentacles are also large and they're rubbery, a texture I'm not crazy about.
Once the octopus is cooked and trimmed, slice it on the diagonal and lay the pieces over the beets.
Then place sections of grapefruit and orange on top and a handful of watercress leaves in the center. Pour salad dressing on the top, shake some salt and pepper on top and add a final sprinkle of chopped edible flowers for color. (optional).

It's perfect for summertime entertaining.

If you'd like a recipe for octopus and potato salad, a typical combination found in seaside restaurants in Italy, click on this post.

And if you're yearning for an excuse to travel to Italy, how about joining us for a memoir writing retreat on gorgeous Lake Como? We have a few spots left, so don't delay. You don't have to have writing experience, just the desire to learn and improve. There will be time for afternoon excursions, relaxing, shopping and plenty of delicious eating too.
Check out Italy, In Other Words for more details.

Octopus, Beet and Citrus Salad

1 - 2 1/2 -3 pound cooked octopus (directions below)
about three four beets, cooked in water until tender, then peeled and sliced about 1/8" thick (use the yellow or Chioggia variety, (not the dark red variety)
1 grapefruit, cut into sections (do this over a bowl and save the juice for the dressing)
1 orange, cut into sections (do this over a bowl and save the juice for the dressing)
salt, pepper
for decoration:
watercress leaves
chopped up pansies, or other edible flowers

1/2 cup olive oil
juice from the orange and grapefruit used in the salad
white wine or white balsamic vinegar, to taste (the amount will depend on how much juice your have from the orange and grapefruit, but I like a proportion of about 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar)
1 tsp. honey
1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard

Mix everything in a jar and shake until everything is combined.

To cook an octopus
There are many ideas on how to cook octopus so that it's not tough - - from slow simmers in water, to putting a cork in the water to tenderize the octopus. Others say cooking it in water can "seize up" the octopus and toughen it. This method I outline uses no water, but rather lets the octopus cook in its own liquid. It works perfectly and produces a succulent octopus. Just don't buy baby octopus. They're too small and chewy and you won't get large enough pieces.
Start by gently heating about 1/4 cup olive oil in a large, lidded pot that can also go into the oven. (If you don't have one, cook the octopus in a lidded pot on the stove, then transfer to a glass or pyrex dish (covered) and place that in the oven. ) Place the whole octopus in the pot and cook at low heat for about 20 minutes. Remove from the stove and place in a preheated 300 degree oven for about an hour. Remove it from the oven and let it cool a bit. It will be very purple in color and will have shrunk significantly. Cut off the top of the head and the little pointy sharp beak and discard. Peel away the purple skin. Some of the suckers will peel off but many won't. You can leave them or not. I've served it both ways, but if it's a large octopus, the suckers are also large - and rubbery, so for this salad, I like to slice them off. Rinse under cool water and pat dry. Cut into bite-sized pieces on the diagonal.

Assemble the salad by slicing the beets in a pretty circular fashion on a platter, then layer the octopus and citrus pieces on top. Place a bunch of watercress in the center. Shake some salt and pepper all over the salad, then pour on the dressing. Decorate with minced edible flowers, like pansies.

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Monday, June 29, 2015

Pistachio Olive Oil Cake

I would never have made this cake if it weren't for two gifts that arrived simultaneously: a bag of pistachio flour from my neighbor Insung and a jar of pistachio paste from, importers of fine Italian artisanal foods.

As it turns out, it's not that hard to find pistachio flour. You can buy it online here. And now you can buy pistachio paste online too, from
I had bought pistachio paste on recent trips to Italy, and used it for gelato (click here for recipe), but armed with a new jar of pistachio paste, along with the pistachio flour gift direct from Sicily, I knew that a cake was in my future.
Combining the paste with mascarpone cheese yielded a rich, spreadable frosting for the cake, and I topped it with chocolate leaves.
  Using mint leaves from my garden, I "painted" some melted chocolate on the leaves, then placed them in the refrigerator for about a half hour. Don't leave them in the refrigerator too long, or they'll become so hardened that it becomes more difficult to peel the leaves from the chocolate. In this case, I used mint leaves growing in my garden as the base. 
 You could leave the cake in one layer, but why not split it in two and provide another vehicle for frosting? Use toothpicks to help guide the serrated knife evenly through the center of the cake.
Spread a little less than half the frosting on the inside layer, then cover and spread the rest of the frosting over the top and sides. Skip the chocolate leaves if that's too fussy for you, and just decorate with the chopped pistachios instead. threw a party this past Saturday at the company's warehouse, located in a gritty neighborhood in the Bronx. The walls at the site are decorated with highly creative and fanciful art created by local graffiti artists.
 The wall art adds a fun and spunky vibe to the outside courtyard of Gustiamo, words that could also be used to describe Neapolitan-born Beatrice Ughi, owner of the company. She started the business 15 years ago, after tossing aside her corporate career to pursue her passion for quality products from small Italian farms and producers. 
At this point, she's caught the notice of many high-end Italian restaurants, including New York City's Del Posto, who rely on ingredients from Gustiamo for their recipes.  
With my recent order, I've now got my own stash of wonderful Italian products to play with too, from small white purgatorio beans to a yellow tomato passata.  Stay tuned for future posts using these great ingredients - and check out their website on your own too.

Pistachio Olive Oil Cake

cake recipe adapted from

  • Cake
  • 1½ cups (180 g) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup (100 g) pistachio flour (see note)
  • 2 tablespoons lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup honey
  • ¼ cup whole milk
  • 3 large eggs
  • Preheat oven to 350˚. Grease and 8-inch round pan with oil.
  • To make the cake: In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, pistachio flour, lemon zest, baking soda, and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together the olive oil, honey, milk, and eggs. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir until combined.
  • Scoop the batter into the prepared pan and smooth out evenly. Bake for 20 to 22 minutes, until the cake is golden and has domed. Let cool for 10 minutes.
  • Once the cake has cooled, run a knife along the edges to loosen. Flip the cake over onto a cake plate and finish cooling.

  • Frosting:
    8 ounces mascarpone cheese, softened to room temperature
    1/2 jar Pistachio paste from (the full jar is about 9.8 ounces)
    1/4 cup confectioners' sugar

    For Decoration (optional): chopped pistachios and chocolate covered mint leaves

    Mix the mascarpone cheese, sugar and pistachio paste together in a mixer until smooth. Make sure the paste is thoroughly blended into the cheese, or else you'll have lumps or streaks of pistachio paste.

    Cut the cake in half using a sharp serrated knife. Spread part of the frosting on the inside of the cake; cover with the other half of the cake, and spread the rest of the frosting on the top and sides of the cake.
    Optional: Decorate with crushed pistachios on the side of the cake and with chocolate covered mint leaves.

    To make pistachio flour, take shelled, unsalted, roasted pistachios (buy them unshelled and save yourself some time) and pulse in ¼ of the pistachios in the food processor just until beginning to break down. Pass through a sieve to get the flour and return the pistachio pieces back to the food processor. Repeat until a good amount of the pistachios are flour (you will have meal left over, use it to top the cake.) Just be careful not to over pulse the nuts and turn them into butter- patience is key. If you try to make the cake with pistachio meal, the texture won't be the same.

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    Wednesday, June 24, 2015

    Charleston - The Holy City

    Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church
    This blog is primarily about food and travel, and I try to stay clear of polemic issues on this platform. But after beginning to compose a piece about my recent trip to Charleston, my brain and heart kept going back to the horrific shooting and killing of nine innocent people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the city's center. 
    I would feel remiss in not mentioning it here, and I am astonished not at just the cold-blooded way in which the killer attacked his victims, but at the remarkable act of forgiveness of members of the congregation, in the face of tremendous loss and grief to their families and community.
    Unfortunately, race is still a divisive issue in the U.S., while at the same time, all across Charleston and the U.S., people of all races, creeds and backgrounds have demonstrated solidarity for the unfathomable loss of life in this beautiful city in the American South. 
    In my own town of Princeton, N.J., religious leaders of all faiths will offer prayers and reflections tonight, followed by a candlelight vigil as darkness falls, to show support for the victims of the shootings. Similar events are taking place across the country, and I am sure that in Charleston, whose nickname is the "holy city," leaders of churches there are holding similar services.
    Here are a few photos I took recently of the many beautiful churches in this extraordinarily scenic city:
    Grace Episcopal Church
    St. Michael's Church
    St. Matthew's Lutheran Church
    French Huguenot Church
    St. Philip's Episcopal Church
    Charleston also lays claim to the second oldest synagogue in the nation, and the oldest in continuous use - the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue:

    The lovely religious institutions are just one of the many reasons to visit Charleston. 
    The gracious homes in the central area beckon with their beautiful gardens and elegant architecture: 
    Many of them are designed with side porches, called "piazzas."
    The houses were designed this way to take advantage of local winds.
    The gardens surrounding the homes are frequently as show-stopping as the houses themselves, with beautiful plantings and flower boxes.

    Magnolias were in full bloom on my recent visit there.

     The twisted limbs and vibrant green leaves of the live oak tree lent a mysterious appearance to many public spaces.

    For an overview of the city, a tour in a historic carriage, complete with a narrated history lesson, can't be beat.

    You're sure to see sweetgrass baskets for sale, one of the oldest art forms of African origin in the United States. The baskets were originally crafted for collecting rice and cotton in plantation fields, but are now quite pricey.
    For something more affordable, you can always buy a small "rosette" made of palm from one of the young people making them on street corners.
    There are many reasons to visit Charleston, but for this trip, the main attraction was the Spoleto Music festival, held each year at the end of May/beginning of June. Venues range from large outdoor spaces in front of the old customs house (above), to auditoriums in the College of Charleston campus.
    There are a cornucopia of cultural offerings to please anyone's taste, including Shakespeare from London's Globe Theater (above photo); to ballet, opera, jazz, symphonic music and choral singing too.

    Charleston has become quite the town for foodies too, and we ate some really outstanding food, including an exceptional octopus and citrus salad at Trattoria Lucca, our favorite dining spot of all we tried.
    Using this as inspiration, I recreated something similar after I got home - to be posted on Ciao Chow Linda soon.
    More from Lucca's - a creamy cauliflower sformato oozing with runny egg.
    And perfectly toothsome tagliolini with local crabmeat was delicious down to the last forkful.
    The gelato and sorbet was a refreshing way to finish the meal and included the following flavors, left to right: amaretti, basil, strawberry, ricotta gelato and lemon sorbet.

    I couldn't leave South Carolina without trying some good old Southern barbecue and this pork sandwich was exactly what I hoped it would be - smoky, tender and packed with flavor.

    Grits are a staple Southern dish, so I had to buy some from a local farmer's market downtown. I'll be cooking these up soon in a traditional shrimp and grits recipe. Stay tuned on Ciao Chow Linda for a future post on this Southern classic.
    To read more about the individual lives that were lost to the shooting in Charleston on June 17, 2015, click here for a short bio on each person's life and history, published in the Washington Post on June 18, 2015:
    May their souls rest in peace.

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