Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Fried Calamari (Squid)

Through the years, I've gotten away from my childhood tradition of eating fried fish for Christmas eve, opting instead for dishes that are prepared in the oven or sauteéd on the stove top, like pasta with mixed shellfish, or swordfish involtini.  My kids threaten to mutiny if I omit those dishes, or the baccala mantecato or the stuffed squid (which my son now prepares) from the menu, but I have managed to wean everyone from the fried smelts, and all the other fried seafood, including squid. Aside from the difficulty of navigating several pans of sizzling, deep oil amid the chaos and confusion of choreographing seven to nine different dishes to be ready at the same time, frying fish just leaves a huge clean up job and a penetrating smell in the house that doesn't go away for a couple of days.
But a couple of nights after Christmas eve, when I was home alone and rummaging through the refrigerator, I found a container with a few squid that hadn't been used for our family dinner. I couldn't resist the urge to fry up some squid "rings." 
And let me just say, due to unforseen circumstances - which involved another leftover - namely a third of a bottle of Prosecco - these were the best fried squid rings I'd ever made - or eaten. The batter had the perfect lightness and crunch without being greasy and the squid were tender too. I've made fried squid using a simple dusting of flour, and I've made it with a batter of flour, eggs and beer. My favorite way has been to use just flour and San Pellegrino water, but I figured since I had the Prosecco, why not use the bubbly to give the batter a little "lift." With New Year's eve just a day away, you'll most likely have some Prosecco or Champagne in the house, so why not treat yourself to some fried calamari too?
Just mix some flour (I used about a cup) and pour in some Prosecco (start with 1/4 cup or so) until you get a consistency of a thin pudding. Add a little salt and a couple of dashes of cayenne pepper to give it some "zing." 
Slice the cleaned squid bodies into "rings." They're limp when you slice into them, but will take shape as soon as they hit the hot oil. Make sure the oil is good and hot. Test it first with a small piece before filling the whole pan with the squid.  Turn them over once, drain them on some paper towels and sprinkle with salt while they're hot.
Serve them immediately with lemon slices (or some tomato sauce) and hopefully, you'll have enough Prosecco leftover to pour a glass for yourself. 
But don't let my kids know I whipped up this batch of fried squid, or I'll be back on fry duty again next Christmas eve.
Buon Anno Amici! 
 May 2015 be filled with as much joy as you have given me, 
dear, faithful readers. - Ciao Chow Linda


Batter for Fried Calamari (can be used for other fish, or frying vegetables too)
printable recipe here

1 cup flour (approximately)
1/4 cup Prosecco (approximately)
dash of salt
dash of cayenne pepper

Add all the ingredients together, using a whisk to blend. Add more Prosecco (or seltzer water if you don't have enough Prosecco) until the batter is the consistency of a thin pudding.
Dip the sliced squid rings into the batter, lift with a fork to wipe off excess, then drop into hot oil. Turn once when golden on the first side and remove when golden on the second side. Drain on paper towels and season with salt immediately.

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Monday, December 22, 2014

Italian Gals Cookie Exchange

Over the years, I've whittled my Christmas cookie baking to two or three types. Fortunately, I know I can count on my father's wife to bring me a tin of pizzelle and my friend Lilli to bake me some of her almond paste cookies. But this year, I can add three more types of cookies to my cookie tray, thanks to a cookie exchange with three of my favorite Italian food bloggers, - Adri, Domenica and Marie
We started our first annual "Italian Gals Cookie Exchange," baking cookies and shipping them to each other at our homes across the United States - from  California and Illinois to Virginia and New Jersey.  Who says you have to live in the same town to have a cookie exchange?
The arrivals were greatly anticipated and felt like an early Christmas present.  The first two arrived on the same day, including Domenica's delicious cranberry hazelnut biscotti, one of the recipes that will be included in the newest cookbook she's written, about to be released in March, called "Ciao Biscotti."

 Adri's heavenly three-nut fingers came in a tin beautifully lined in striped tissue paper, with each pair of cookies individually delicately wrapped inside its own waxed paper envelope. The buttery cookies, with almonds, hazelnuts and pecans, just melted in the mouth.
And the reputation for Marie's legendary cucidati preceded the actual cookies. I've been reading about them for years, since she makes hundreds of them each Christmas and I've been so anxious to try them. They were every bit as delicious as what I had expected and brought back memories of Christmases with my late husband's Aunt Jenny, who baked a similar version. 
 My contribution were these chocolate-y, spicy cookies that my mother made each Christmas when I was growing up. She called them "brownies" but they're nothing like American brownies, except for the chocolate. In addition to the cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, there's another unexpected spice that gives them a zing. For me, they're a taste of my childhood and it wouldn't be Christmas without them. The recipe, adapted from Alfred Portale, is listed below, but you can see step by step photos of how to make them on a post I wrote here, shortly after I started the blog in 2008. They're actually based on a Sicilian cookie called either "tutu" or "toto," according to reports I received from readers. Sometimes they're even referred to as "Meatball cookies." I think you can see why.
 Also included on the plate below are a couple of "intorchiate," a cookie I wrote about in my last blog post.
I hope we four bloggers continue to maintain this tradition each year, and that we have inspired you to start your own cookie exchange, whether you live close to your friends, or far away. Just make sure to bake cookies that aren't too fragile so they won't break during shipment, and to keep it to a maximum of two dozen cookies and four people. Otherwise, you'll spend a lot on shipping and you'll be baking until la Befana comes home on January 6.
In the meantime, Buon Natale and best wishes for a wonderful 2015 to all my readers. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog through the year and for those of you who leave comments, an extra bacione.

Cocoa Christmas Cookies
or Italian "Brownies"

printable recipe here
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa
4 1/2 tsps. baking powder
2 tsps. cinnamon
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. black pepper
3 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup apricot jam
1/4 cup milk
2 cups chocolate chips

If using raisins and walnuts as Portale did, add 1 1/2 cups of each

glaze:
2 cups confectioner's sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice

1. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, cocoa, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, salt, black pepper. Combine and set aside.
2. With a heavy duty mixer, beat butter and sugar together until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating on medium speed for 1 minute after each addition. Beat in vanilla, jam, and milk. Set mixer to low and gradually add flour mixture, beating only until it is incorporated. Add the chocolate chips. The batter will be extremely stiff.
3. Place a large piece of waxed paper or parchment paper on the counter and flour it generously. Take a large spoon and scoop out a couple of heaping cups of the stiff batter onto the floured surface. Use a spoon to release it if needed. Flour your hands well and begin to shape the batter into a log shape, about an inch in diameter, rolling it back and forth on the floured surface. Use the paper to help mold it. Place the "logs" into the refrigerator for a couple of hours.
4. Remove from refrigerator and cut into sections about 1 1/2 inches wide. You can leave it this shape, or roll it between the palms of your hand into a flattened ball, which is the traditional shape.
5. Place balls on a parchment-lined or greased and floured cookie sheet, about 1 inch apart. Bake for about 10 minutes at 350 degrees. The tops will crack - this is normal. Transfer cookies to a rack and let cool. Cover with the glaze when completely cooled.
For the glaze:

Mix sifted confectioner's sugar and lemon juice with a spoon until the desired consistency. I make mine almost like a frosting rather than a glaze, which means you'll need to add more sugar. If you prefer yours to be more of a drizzle, adjust with more lemon juice.

This recipe makes about 6 to 7 dozen cookies and they freeze well. Just make sure the glaze is dry before putting them in the freezer. They will get hard if you leave them at for more than a week.

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Monday, December 15, 2014

Intorchiate and I Trulli



I first saw these cookies - called "intorchiate" - in Rosetta Costantino's wonderful book "Southern Italian Desserts." They're from the region of Puglia and I ate them for the first time while I was there this summer and stayed in the town of Alberobello.
Alberobello is a Unesco World Heritage Site and is known for its unique limestone buildings called "trulli." They're made in a conical shape using no mortar, a type of construction that dates to prehistoric times. You see them in various places in Puglia, but nowhere near as prevalent as you see in Alberobello, where they're occupied as homes and shops.
Some of the owners have converted their trulli for visitors and rent them to paying guests. The one we stayed in this past June is the charming end unit in the photo below.
They're larger than they seem. This one had a bedroom downstairs and a second bedroom in a loft, as well as a kitchen and dining area and bathroom. Everything was brand new and beautifully renovated.
Our landlady could not have been kinder, delivering home baked breakfast treats and fresh fruit in the morning. As we departed, she presented us with a tin of the family's olive oil, beautiful linens from her shop, and these intorchiate. They were so delicious, I had to keep myself from eating the whole bag in one fell swoop.

 Fortunately, (or maybe not for my waistline), Rosetta includes a recipe for the cookies in her cookbook, and with permission from her publisher, the recipe is provided below. In her book, Rosetta explains that the word "intorchiate" is a local dialect for "intertwined" and that the cookies are meant to represent arms in an embrace. They're traditionally made for baptisms and weddings but can be found in bakeries all over Puglia.
The dough is very similar to the red wine cookies my friend Milena makes, in that there's wine and oil in the dough, and they're dredged in sugar. But these intorchiate use white wine, while Milena's call for red wine.
Once you get the right consistency, the dough is very easy to roll into these twisted shapes. Initially however, the mixture was a bit too dry, so I needed to add a bit more oil and water. The ones from Rosetta's book call for twisting the dough to make three separate spaces, although the ones I ate in Italy had four twists. I also found Rosetta's dough to be a little less sweet than the ones I ate in Alberobello, and I might add a little more sugar next time I make them.
After twisting them, roll them in granulated sugar, then nestle an almond in each space. I used Marcona almonds, my favorite. 
Since I was in a Puglia state of mind after making these intorchiate, I made a reservation for dinner at the restaurant "I Trulli" and wanted to share photos of the delicious food I ate there Saturday night. If you're close enough to New York City, make a reservation and get set for a real treat.
As soon as you walk past the bar, you'll spot a wood-fired oven that's reminiscent of a trullo, with grey stones, similar to those on trullo roofs, clinging to the exterior of the oven.
 
The menu is loaded with offerings in every category, but we never got past the first page, which featured a multi-course dinner of Puglian specialties. Decision made easy - no further thinking required. The first thing to arrive at the table were these two panzerotti - fried dough - one filled with tomato and mozzarella cheese, the other with a savory and unforgettably delicious mixture of olives, anchovies and scallions.
Next came burrata cheese flown in from Italy and served on crostini with a bed of radicchio, every bit as creamy and flavorful as the burrata we ate in Puglia.
For the primo piatto you could choose between two hand-rolled pasta dishes - orecchiette in a rich rabbit ragù that had me lopping up the plate with bread "scarpetta" style.
Or opt for these cavatelli with broccoli rape and toasted almonds, bringing to mind fresh spring fields of wild greens. 
The main course was either succulent roasted lamb chops with a potato tiella and sautéed Swiss chard...
Or you might prefer a zuppa di pesce laden with lobster, shrimp, calamari, and another white fish. Long pieces of cooked fennel punctuated the aromatic and flavorful broth.
Lastly came these two sweet offerings that capped the perfect ending to a perfect meal - one was a warm fried dough pillow oozing with nutella, and the other was a cartellate, a fried cookie drizzled with honey.
On the way out the door, I spotted this octopus dish sitting on the counter, waiting to go to some patron's table.  It was all I could do to keep from digging into it with my fingers. How did I miss this on the menu? Oh that's right, I got seduced by the Puglian specialties on the first page and never looked further. Well, if I didn't already have plenty of other reasons, now I know I have to go back to I Trulli to try their octopus. 
The restaurant is also open for Christmas eve, featuring a "feast of the seven fishes" dinner. 
 My family would consider it blasphemous if I didn't cook our traditional fish dinner on Christmas eve, but some year, if I ever do abandon my kitchen duties, I know where I'd like to be - at I Trulli in New York City.
Even if you can't get to I Trulli for their Southern Italian specialties, you can still make Rosetta's addictive intorchiate cookies in your own kitchen - and just in time for Christmas baking.

One last thing - the winner to my recent giveaway was Heather Zysk. Heather, please contact me for information on how to claim your slate cheeseboard.

Intorchiate
recipe by Rosetta Costantino from Southern Italian Desserts
reprinted with permission of publisher

makes 36 cookies (I got 64)

3 3/4 cups (500 g) all-purpose flour
3/4 cup (150 g) granulated sugar, (I would use 1 cup next time since I'd like them a bit sweeter) plus more for coating cookies
1 T. baking powder
1/4 t. kosher salt
1/4 cup (56 g) unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup (60 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 cup (180 ml) white wine
about 3/4 cup (115 grams) blanched almonds for decorating

Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a food processor and pulse to combine. Add the butter, oil and wine and process until the mixture forms a sticky dough that balls up around the blade. (I added a little more oil and some water to the dough to get the right consistency.) Alternatively, you can mix the dough by hand, but it will require longer kneading to bring the dough together. Transfer to a flat surface and knead briefly to form a smooth dough. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or up to 4 hours.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. (177 degrees C) with racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.
Divide the dough into thirty-six approximately equal pieces; they will weigh about 3/4 ounce each (actually I got 64 cookies each weighing 3/4 ounce each). Roll a piece of dough with the palms of your hands against a flat surface to make a 10-inch rope that is about 1/2 inch thick. Fold the rope in half, then twist the two ends around one another to form a twist, with the dough strands crossing twice and meeting at the bottom to form three spaces. Press the ends together at the bottom to seal them. Space the cookies 1 inch apart on the prepared baking sheet. Continue forming the twists until you have filled one sheet with eighteen cookies. (You will make the second half while the first ones bake.)
Put about 1/4 cup sugar in a shallow bowl. Take one cookie at a time and press the top side into the sugar. (I pressed both top and bottom in the sugar. If you can find a larger granulated sugar, it looks prettier.) Return the cookie to the baking sheet sugar side up. After coating all of the cookies, press three blanched almonds into each cookie - one in each space - facing the pointed ends of the nuts running down from the top to the bottom of the cookie.
Bake the cookies on the bottom rack for 15 minutes, then rotate the pan and transfer it to the top rack until the cookies are light golden all over, about 15 minutes longer. Transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool.
While the first sheet bakes, form the remaining cookies on the second sheet. Bake the second sheet in the same manner after pulling the first from the oven.
Store the cooled cookies in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.
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Monday, December 8, 2014

Puff Pastry Bites, Uncommon Goods and a Giveaway


With the holidays approaching, you might want to have a few recipes for appetizers at the ready. These puff pastry bites couldn't be easier. They freeze well too. You use packaged puff pastry dough, and in my case, leftover vegetables. I already had some roasted butternut squash, swiss chard, mushrooms and caramelized onions for the gnocchi dish I posted here. But I had more than I needed, so I transformed the leftovers into these appetizers. Use any vegetables you like - artichoke hearts, broccoli bits or spinach also come to mind. Add some cheese too, for a richer taste. For the ones below, I just cut the pastry into little squares and popped them into a mini muffin tin, then filled them with the squash and caramelized onions before baking.
For these spirals, I rolled out a sheet of the puff pastry and spread it with a mixture of the chopped Swiss chard and mushrooms. Then I added a layer of asiago cheese and rolled it up like a jelly roll, sliced it and baked it.
I served them on these handsome slate boards that were sent to me by Uncommon Goods. The company sells a variety of high quality gifts, for men, women and children. You'll find a plethora of holiday shopping ideas on their website, including these beautiful slate boards.

They're made by Brooklynites whose family has owned a quarry in upstate New York for three generations. They're available in both a grey slate and a terra cotta color too and they look great when serving all sorts of food.
They're perfect for serving cheeses too, and arrive with pieces of chalk, especially useful if you're offering different kinds of cheeses.
  The company has a variety of other gifts available too, for both home entertaining or appropriate for gifting to men, women and children. Check out their site here.
Wouldn't you like to have one of these slateboards to use for your holiday entertaining? Just leave a message in the comments on the blog (NOT on email) saying whether you'd like the grey or terra cotta colored slate, and be sure to leave a way for me to contact you - email is best. I'll have the computer generate one lucky winner and the company will mail you the slate board a short time later. You'll love it!


Puff Pastry Bites
printable recipe here
1 package puff pastry, completely thawed
(I used leftover vegetable for the filling, but if you want to start from scratch use the following:)
2 T. olive oil
1/2 large onion, sliced thinly
1 cup butternut squash, diced into small pieces
2 T. olive oil
salt, pepper
fresh herbs, finely chopped (rosemary, thyme)

Sauté the onions in the olive oil until golden. Remove from the pan, set aside, but cut into small bits. Add 2 T. more olive oil and sauté the squash, adding a bit of water if the squash starts to stick to the pan. Season with salt, pepper and herbs, and when the squash is cooked through, add the onions back to the pan.
Spray a small muffin pan with non-stick spray. Cut the puff pastry in small squares and push them down into the spaces in the muffin pan. Fill with a mixture of the vegetables and bake in a 400 degree oven about 20 minutes or longer, or until the pastry is golden.

For the spirals, spread the puff pastry out flat then spread with the following:
chopped spinach that's been sautéed with minced onion, salt and pepper, mixed with sautéed, minced mushrooms (mine were leftovers). Spread some grated asiago cheese over the vegetables, then roll like a jelly roll. Cut into slices about 1/4 inch thick, then place on a cookie sheet and bake in a 400 degree oven about 20 minutes or longer, until pastry is golden.

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