Friday, July 19, 2013

RECIPE: Saute' di Cozze (Sauteed Mussels)

In the heat of July, when stepping outside during sunlight hours seems like asking too much, we tend to eat more than our fair share of salads and cold foods. But sometimes, we want something more, something actually cooked -- albeit quickly, so as not to warm up our kitchens too much. Preparing a quick, easy seafood dish seems about right. 

This mussel dish, Saute' di Cozze, is just perfect: it's a taste of the sea that's light and flavorful and only takes a few minutes to prepare. It's great as an appetizer on its own, or as a main course (maybe with some homemade fries?), and can even be tossed with some pasta for a filling primo piatto. Add some chopped tomatoes for color and sweetness, a pinch of saffron for a southern French twist. Substitute the parsley with cilantro for the Portuguese version of this dish, or grind a lot of black pepper into the mussel pot as they're cooking for an Italian variation called pepato di cozze. There's lots to play with here. Enjoy it and make it your own -- but make it, pronto. The perfect summer seafood saute' is in your future!

Saute’ di Cozze 
Serves 4 people

4-5 TBS. extra-virgin olive oil
1-2 cloves of garlic, peeled and left whole
5  lbs. fresh mussels
½ cup white wine
Bunch of parsley (Italian flat-leaf), chopped finely
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Salt + pepper to taste

- In a large bowl/pot of water, add the mussels and a healthy bit of salt or cornmeal. Let sit for 10 minutes. Then, using your hands, pick up a handful of mussels in each hand, lift them out of the water a bit, and scrub together using the mussels themselves to clean the outer shells. Repeat several times, changing the water to clean.

- Drain mussels, and using your fingers, quickly peel away the “beard” (the hairy-looking thing hanging from the lip of the mussel shell). It will require a quick yank, so hold the mussel closed with one hand, and quickly rip off the beard with the other. Do this on all the mussels that have beards.

- Heat a large skillet over medium heat, and add the olive oil and garlic to cook for one minute.

- Add the mussels and stir a bit. Add the white wine, the parsley, and cover, cooking over medium-low heat for 3 minutes. Add the chili flakes and salt and pepper to taste, and continue cooking until the shells of the mussels have fully opened. Mix to make sure all are opened, adding olive oil and/or salt & pepper to taste, and turn to coat thoroughly. Serve at once with nice, crusty bread.

Friday, July 12, 2013

QUICK BITES: Sgroppino

Il Bel Paese in the summertime: there's no place quite like it on earth. When the temperatures rise in Italy, we tend to spend entire leisurely days in the sun, and close to water. Around Rome, the quickest escape is to the beaches of Ostia and Torvaianica, only about 15 miles from the heart of the city.

One of my favorite memories of life in Italy is the feeling I'd have, returning from a day at the beach: suntanned skin, salt in my hair, I'd clean off under a quick shower and then dress and head out to dinner with friends. This meal needed to be light and fresh, so as not to weigh me down in the intense Italian heat and humidity. Inevitably, this meant seafood. And nothing is more refreshing after a meal of fish tartare and carpaccio, pasta alle vongole or branzino baked in a salt crust, than a sgroppino served in a frosted champagne flute.

For the record, I'm not big on Italian desserts. There are only a handful in the repertoire anyway. And I've always believed in the idea of cocktail-as-dessert: it makes sense, aids in the digestion process, and keeps the drinks flowing even after the meal is technically over. The sgroppino is this wonderful combination of refreshing dessert with liquor that acts as a digestivo: perfect! Of course, like any Italian invention there is the original (said to hail from the area around Venice, also where tiramisu' originates -- quite the elegant epicures, those Venetians!)...and then there are the other versions. A true sgroppino should not be a drink with a ball of sorbetto plopped into it. Nor should it be a 'slushie' with a champagne floater. It is the perfect equilibrium of lemon sorbetto (that means it's made without dairy) + vodka + prosecco. Punto. 

Now, there are those who add a bit of limoncello to the recipe, and actually it's an addition that I don't protest, since I am of the school of "everything is better with limoncello." It's kind of a southern Italian tweak to the northern original, and I can't argue with that. The lemons from the Amalfi coast are big and beautiful and lend their particular variety of concentrated citrus flavor to the liquor, and therefore any drink containing it. But on the whole, the basic recipe, on which it's hard to improve, is comprised of just three ingredients. And like Italian cuisine, with Italian drinks, the high quality of the handful of ingredients is of the utmost importance.

1. Sorbetto al limone: You should use either homemade sorbet or a brand you trust to use all-natural ingredients, without chemicals or loads of stabilizers. Ciao Bella and Il Laboratorio del Gelato are great Italian-style options available stateside. You'll want to make sure this is thawed a little bit so it can be mixed with the other ingredients. Let it sit out at room temperature for 15 minutes before using it.

2.) Vodka: Of course this should be high-quality too, even though it's going to be mixed with other ingredients. Think well-produced, clean vodkas like Belvedere, Ketel One, or a locally-produced option. Although I'm a fan of Grey Goose, I left it off of the list because it's French...out of respect for the Italians, who would prefer not to have the French mixed up in their Italian cocktails, grazie.

3.) Prosecco: This is not sparkling wine, not spumante, even -- it's prosecco. That's the name of the grape and the name of the drink made from that grape, and that's what should be used in this cocktail/digestivo. It's drier, crisper than other sparkling white wines and since it's made in the Veneto, it goes into this Veneto-created mix. I adore most prosecchi, but Nino Franco happens to put out an excellent product. He's also a cool guy -- I visited his estate and tasted his product over the course of 30-plus years, and it's incredibly well-made. Bottoms up.

Once you have all of these ingredients at the right temperatures (sorbetto softened, vodka and prosecco well-chilled), you mix them together, either with a whisk in a chilled bowl, or quickly in a blender. E basta. It should be the consistency of a slushie or a loose granita: liquid enough to drink from the glass, but thick enough to be able to use a spoon as well. Serve in frosted champagne flutes or tall shot glasses -- even an icy martini glass would work, though it's not classic. The important thing is that the consistency is right, you can taste the alcohol...and that it's consumed subito, right away.

Buon estate a tutti! Happy summer, everyone!