Friday, June 28, 2013

LOCAL INGREDIENT: Gambero Rosso

Il Gambero Rosso. The Red Prawn. It's the name of Italy's most important dining and wine guide (and now culinary center and TV cooking channel). It's the name of the legendary osteria in the story of Pinocchio, to which the Fox and the Cat lead Pinocchio, where they eat a huge meal. And most importantly, it's the variety of red shrimp in the Mediterranean, especially common off the coast of Sicily and southern Italy, that's one of the most delicate and delicious flavors that exists in these waters. The gambero rosso del Mediterraneo (Aristaeomorpha foliacea) is a fiery crimson color before it's cooked, and remains this bright red after it's been exposed to heat, unlike most other shrimp that turn from gray to orangey-pink.  
For me, the first time I tried gamberi rossi in Italy, it was love at first sight. Its flavor is much more delicate than that of any other shrimp, its color beautiful on the plate. This was my entrata into understanding the importance and beauty of eating simply-prepared, high-quality local seafood that one might not be able to find in other parts of the world. I've never seen the gambero rosso in America, though perhaps some upscale seafood eateries are importing it somewhere stateside. But it's a go-to whenever I'm in any coastal area in southern Italy. I seek it out. I always order it when I find it on a menu. I prefer it uncooked. And since the Mediterranean red prawn lives at a depth of between 200 - 1000 meters beneath the sea -- deeper waters tend to be cleaner waters -- its wonderfully delicate flesh is amazing when eaten raw.

The flavor is briny and lacks the iodine punch that some shrimp deliver, and the texture is melt-in-your-mouth. When I was in Puglia recently, in the southernmost part of the heel of the "boot" of Italy, my friend and I headed to Gallipoli, an adorable whitewashed-and-pastel town surrounded by sandy beaches with Caribbean-colored water. We headed into town after a day at the beach, to get a gelato and nose around the shops. And as we walked up to the gelateria, along the water, I saw below us a small piazza where fisherman were coming in with their catches, and tables were being set up for a makeshift evening fish market. 
My friend Monica, who moved down to Puglia from Rome with her husband Marcello, and has lived in the area for a few years, had told me earlier that Gallipoli was renowned for its gamberi rossi -- possibly the best on the Italian peninsula (I'm excluding the island-region of Sicily, as they'd claim to have the best on the planet!) Naturally my priority was to head to the fish market directly after finishing our gelati. There, among the varieties of fish and various sizes of calamari, were the beautiful ruby-colored shellfish I'd been hoping to find. I asked how much they cost, knowing that their price tag in Rome can run as high as 40 euros per kilo. "Dodici" said the fishmonger, and I tried to hide my smile. 12 euros, less than 8 U.S. dollars a pound! I bought a kilo and we headed back to our friends' house for aperitivi. When my friend Jessica had asked earlier in the day what a gambero rosso tastes like, I told her it was delicate and rich, basically "the burrata of the shrimp world" -- and having feasted on burrata a-plenty of late (the cheese originated in Puglia), she knew exactly what that meant. 
When we got back, our 4 friends were already sipping vino rosato poolside in the cortile. So I quickly showered and dressed for dinner, then headed directly to the kitchen to prepare the red shrimp for us. This is a simple preparation that highlights the shrimp's rich flavor and texture, leaving it uncomplicated and allowing you to taste the true gambero rosso flavor. 

To prepare: I cleaned the shrimp, removing the shells (don't discard! Keep the heads and shells to make a wonderfully flavorful shellfish stock!)...and cleaning out the intestinal line with a knife. Then I split the shrimp in half lengthwise. I rinsed the shrimp very briefly under water and dried them before spreading them out on two plates to make a layer of what is essentially shrimp carpaccio. Then, I very simply squeezed a bit of fresh lemon over top (and if I'd had a microplane, I would've added some zest, too), topped with some herbed salt (you can mix sea salt or kosher salt in a food processor with your favorite herbs to make your own), and sprinkled some of the wonderfully buttery and green Pugliese olive oil on top. And that's it. We enjoyed it with some local rose wine, and it was the perfect treat to accompany our lively conversation as the warm southern Italian sun sank behind the walls of the courtyard. 


Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Toast To Dads, And To You, Patrick!

I met Patrick just weeks before his 27th birthday. Looking back on that now, it amazes me: we were both so young and optimistic and the city of Rome held so much potential for us. We'd make it our oyster. And for years, it felt like we had done just that.
 
Being back in Italy this year for another June, another one of Patrick's birthdays, without him -- it feels strange, surreal. It's been two years since we organized his memorial party here in Rome, and though time does help soften the pain of missing him to some extent, these vie and vicolipiazze and passaggi are imbued with the history of all of us. Patrick was such a big part of my life in Rome that it always seemed half-empty to me whenever he wasn't here. 


Today, I'm in Florence as I write this. Firenze: the beautiful, small gem of a city where I first lived as a student. It's the place that made me fall in love with Italy, and Italian food and culture and art and the people. And it's where Patrick's older sister still lives with her family, and where his mother Barb lived for many years while we were all in Rome. We'd spend Christmas Eve in chilly Florence with Barb and Erica and the family, enjoying some home cooking and exchanging gifts, drinking eggnog (my first taste of the dangerous elixir!), and laughing into the wee hours. Of course these streets, too, hold countless memories for me. It's strange to think how just being in Florence or Rome makes me about as happy -- both content and elated -- as I can possibly be, and at the same time, as forlorn as I can imagine feeling. 


Patrick and his boys


Still, when I think of June in Italy, Patrick embodies this time and place. His birthday, and now Father's Day, are bittersweet holidays, as I'm reminded of what a wonderful father he was to his two boys, how he saved them and did everything he could to give them a wonderful childhood in the time that he had. And I'm reminded of the birthday celebrations we shared on many June tenths in the warm heat, and on the numerous terraces of Roman friends, and in the back streets of Trastevere (indeed, it felt like "our" neighborhood, as if we owned it).


The gang at Patrick's farewell Roma dinner
I fondly remember the farewell dinner I prepared for Patrick when he decided to leave Rome and move back to the States. It was a series of Patrick's favorite dishes -- simple, hearty fare like steak and potatoes and salad. Lots of cocktails, of course. And for dessert? I used a little creativity to come up with something that said Patrick, in a nutshell: Jack Daniels ice cream, with a coke-and-chocolate sauce. Jack and coke was his drink of choice. 
Patrick, guitar, bottle of Jack
I kept a bottle of Jack at my apartment on permanent "rotation" for our many happy hours we'd have each week. So I thought it was only right, in the heat of the approaching summer, that everyone share Patrick's drink of choice for dessert. With a cherry on top.

Try it. It's actually delicious, and a perfect way to toast to Patrick -- to wonderful Junes remembered, and to beloved fathers the world over, who deserve to have their cocktail and eat it too, in one delicious cup.



JACK-AND-COKE SUNDAE

For the ice cream:

3 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sugar
6 egg yolks
1/3 cup Jack Daniels whiskey
pinch of salt

-In a sauce pot, heat the milk, cream, and 1/4 cup sugar over low heat until bubbles form around the edges.

-In the meantime, whisk the egg yolks with the remaining 1/4 cup sugar.
-When the milk mixture starts to simmer, pour half of it into the yolk mixture, and whisk quickly to incorporate (you're trying to avoid scrambled eggs here). 
-Pour that mixture back into the sauce pot, whisk to incorporate, and heat on low, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of the wooden spoon.
-Take off of the heat, add the Jack Daniels and the salt, and stir.
-Set the sauce pot in an ice bath to cool. Once cooled significantly, cover the surface of the cream mixture with plastic wrap to prevent a skin from forming. Place in fridge overnight.
-The following day, spin cold mixture in an ice cream maker and freeze.

For the coke-and-chocolate sauce:

half liter of Coca Cola (not diet!)
6 ounces of dark or semi-sweet chocolate, in chips or chopped

-In a small pot, heat the coke and reduce to 1/3 of its volume.

-Add the chocolate, cover for a minute, then whisk to smooth.

Serve the Jack Daniels ice cream with the warm coke-and-chocolate sauce and top with a maraschino cherry. Cin-cin!