Italian cooking is a very simple cuisine. What sets it apart from other cuisines is not by technique but by knowledge of the ingredients. Italians know that it’s the authenticity of the ingredients that makes their dishes absolutely delicious! There are not a lot of ingredients in a typical Italian dish but each of the ingredients are of the highest quality and freshness.
We bring this very essence into the making of our 825 MAIN Marinara Sauce. What sets it apart from other marinara sauces on the market is that fact that we make sure that the ingredients of the highest quality. And one thing that we bring to marinara sauce is fresh herbs. So I thought in this post I would like to really delve into fresh and dry herbs and Italian cooking.
Herbs are vital to Italian cooking. Having an herb garden is essential to every Italian cook. Basil goes hand in hand with tomatoes. They belong together. But I have to emphasize to use fresh basil. Dry basil has no flavor. Parsley is also another herb that has no flavor if it’s dry. And there is no excuse to not use fresh basil and fresh parsley in your cooking. They are both readily available in your local supermarket. As far as parsley there are 2 kinds that are available. There is Italian parsley and the curly parsley. The curly parsley has a bland parsley flavor and is used mostly for décor rather than flavor. Italian parsley or the flat leaf parsley is much bolder in flavor and used for cooking. So if a recipe calls for parsley be sure to get Italian flat leafed parsley.
Storage of your fresh herbs vary if they are soft with tender stems or hard with woody stems. Soft herbs are treated like flowers. You cut off the stems and place in a glass of fresh water. They can be stored in the fridge this way covered with a plastic bag. Basil is very sensitive and never store in the ridge but rather on your countertop. If it has a woody stem, those herbs should be wrapped in a damp paper towel and wrapped loosely in plastic wrap in the fridge.
Don’t get me wrong, Italians do use dry herbs but never, NEVER basil or parsley! If a label just lists basil or parsley without the word fresh then its a dry tasteless herb!
I am going to share with you three recipes that are herb intensive. I am going to share a Grilled Shrimp Pesto with 825 MAIN Marinara to dip into on the side, Ciabatta bread with an Italian Salsa Verde, and a Fennel Marinara Sauce using the 825 MAIN Marinara.
Shrimp (size at your discretion), peeled (tails left on) and deveined
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup basil leaves (There are numerous varieties of this spicy, aromatic herb, but sweet basil and bush basil are the most common. It is used mostly in dishes that contain tomatoes, and in salads, soups and on pizzas. Freshly chopped basil should be used whenever possible, as dried basil makes a poor substitute)
3 large garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (These devilishly hot flakes are used in traditional dishes like spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino and are found on almost every Italian table alongside the salt and pepper.)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1/4 cup pignoli or walnuts 825 MAIN Marinara Sauce for dipping
In a food processor or blender, combine the olive oil, basil, garlic, red pepper flakes, salt, Parmigiano-Reggiano and pignoli/walnuts. Process until the mixture is well blended. Reserve two tablespoons of the pesto in a bowl large enough to hold all of the shrimp and set aside. Pour the remaining pesto over the shrimp and let sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes to marinate.
If a grill is available all the better. If not just use a cast iron pan and cook shrimp until firm to the touch but do not overcook or they will be rubbery!
1 garlic clove, minced
3/4 teaspoon (or more) fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon (or more) black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
1/2 teaspoon (packed) grated lemon peel
3 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 cup (packed) chopped Italian parsley ( Italian parsley is the flat-leaved variety as opposed to the curly “moss” variety common in Britain and the United States. Flat-leaved parsley can usually be found at continental stores, where it is often called “continental parsley”. Its flavor is far more pungent than curly parsley, and for this reason it is generally used as a flavoring in Italian dishes rather than as a simple garnish. For Italian recipes where parsley is specified, try to obtain the flat-leaved variety; other parsley can be used as a substitute, but the flavor of the finished dish will not be quite the same. Dried parsley is tasteless.)
1 tablespoon drained capers (The small, green herb buds lend a piquant sour and salty flavor to salads, dressings, sauces, vegetables and a variety of main dishes. Capers are particularly common in Sicilian cooking, although from puttanesca sauce to the Milanese sauce with anchovies, the little berries can be found the length of the boot.)
2 anchovy fillets, minced
Procedures: Mix first 5 ingredients in small bowl.
Using back of wooden spoon, mash to paste. Whisk in lemon juice, then olive oil in thin stream until blended. Stir in parsley, capers, and anchovies. Season with more salt and pepper, if desired. DO AHEAD Can be made 6 hours ahead. Cover; chill. Bring to room temperature and re-whisk before using.
2 fennel bulbs, cored and sliced (Fennel-finocchio) Fennel is used in three ways in Italian cooking. The bulb, known as Florence fennel or finocchio, is used whole, sliced or quartered as a vegetable, and either braised or baked au gratin. It is also chopped raw in salads. Wild fennel stems (finocchiella) and the frondy leaves, which have the slightly bitter tang of aniseed, are used in cooking to flavour sauces, particularly in fish and sometimes pork dishes. They are also chopped and added to mayonnaise, eggs and cold fish dishes. Fennel seeds are a common flavoring in spiced sausages and other cooked meats, Finocchiona salame being the best known of these.)
2 large onions, peeled and sliced
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 jar of 825 MAIN Marinara Sauce
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan
1 pound short pasta
Preheat the oven to 450°F. Combine the fennel, onion, garlic, oil, chili flakes, fennel seeds, salt, and pepper in a roasting dish and roast, tossing once or twice during cooking, for 15 minutes.
In the meantime, bring a pot of salty water to boil and cook the pasta until al dente. Reserve some pasta cooking water.
After 15 minutes of roasting, stir in the 825 MAIN Marinara Sauce, combining well. Roast 5 to 10 minutes more, until the fennel is tender and starting to brown.
Drain the pasta and toss with the roasted vegetables and Parmesan, adding some pasta cooking water if necessary until the sauce is loosened and coats the pasta. Serve immediately.
I know I promised I was going to write down 50 recipes as my 2015 New Year’s Resolution but it took me longer than I expected to combine cooking, writing, pictures and memories. But no worries Jim and I will continue this fun project into 2016!
For the New Year I would like to share the recipe for Scallops Belvedere. But before I delve right into the recipe I thought I would tell you all about scallops. To cook scallops perfectly one needs to really understand scallops. As I have often say about Italian cooking it not just about the recipe but the quality of the ingredients!
We often see the typical white round scallop behind glass at the fish market. But were you aware that scallops are mollusks that have two beautiful convexly ridged, or scalloped, shells. I am sure you have all come across the scallop shell at one time or other while taking a walk on the beach looking for the perfect shell! The edible portion of the scallop is the white muscle that opens and closes the two shells and is called the “nut.” The reproductive glands known as “coral” are also edible, but not widely consumed here in the US.
In the US we have three kinds of scallops available: Sea scallops, bay scallops and calico scallops. For the Scallops Belvedere recipe, we use sea scallops. Sea scallops are relatively large, often 1½-2 inches in diameter, and are perfect for searing. We don’t recommend bay scallops because they are much smaller and not as good for searing. The Calico scallops are also not recommended because their shells are so tightly closed they must be steamed open before any further preparation. The season for fresh sea scallops and bay scallops runs from October through March, while fresh calico scallops are available from December through May. Of course frozen scallops are available year-round.
You may also come across “diver scallops”. It doesn’t mean anything but the manner in which the scallops were harvested. Divers go down and choose mature scallops by hand, leaving behind immature scallops as well as leaving the ocean floor alone. Since the ocean floor is not disturbed by the divers, diver scallops are usually less gritty than those harvested by bottom trawls. They are also more expensive than the ones harvested by trawling. Trawling is done by scraping the ocean floor and pulling up scallops without regard to maturity or to the damage possibly being done to the ocean floor.
One of the most important facts to look for in scallops is whether they are wet or dry scallops. Dry scallops are the best! Whatever you do not buy the wet scallops! Read on as I explain the differences and you will understand my reasons.
Unfortunately, most scallops that you find from your fish monger or supermarket are treated with sodium tripolyphosphate (STP), a chemical that, while it is safe to consume, it ruins the ability to get a perfect sear on the scallop. These chemically treated scallops are called wet scallops. STP loosens the structure of scallops making them sponge-like, where they soak up almost 30% of their original weight in water. This is an economical perk for fishmongers who sell scallops based on weight, but not for consumers who end up paying for the added water! What’s worse, the treatment makes scallops nearly impossible to sear because all that excess moisture floods the pan as soon as the scallops start to cook. The scallops end up being small, rubbery and pale with a soapy after-taste. You just can’t get the beautiful caramelization with a wet scallop that we want in a perfectly cooked scallop. Please take notice that if they are wet scallops they are just labeled as scallops.
Dry scallops are untreated and don’t expel as much water as they cook. Although they are pricier and have a much shorter shelf life than wet scallops, dry scallops are superior in quality, flavor, and ease of cooking. Because they aren’t treated, they are certainly fresher when you find them at the fish counter, with a sweeter, brinier flavor.
Now that I have explained that dry scallops are the ones to buy for this recipe, let me explain how to make sure you do get the dry scallops. Either ask the fishmonger or check the label! Fish counters selling dry scallops will most likely be proud of and advertise the fact that they are indeed dry. If it just states scallops most likely they are wet scallops. Second, look at the container the scallops are held in. If there’s milky white liquid in the container they are probably treated with TSP. Finally, take a good look at the scallops themselves. Wet scallops have a ghostly, opaque, pale white or orange-white appearance. Dry scallops will be fleshier and more translucent!
As an added note when purchasing scallops, make sure to buy from a reputable fishmonger and be sure to smell the scallops before purchase. The scallops should smell clean and sweet and like the ocean. If they have a strong fishy smell, do not buy them.
I checked our first 1961 menu to see if we served scallops back in the day. I found two entrees, fried scallops and scallops sautéed with mushrooms. I found it interesting that they were both listed as Cape Cod Scallops. Now that you understand all about scallops please enjoy the following recipe that quickly became a favorite!
Served over Mashed Potatoes and Steamed Green Beans.
8 (Dry) Sea Scallops (serves 2 people)
1/3 cup white wine
3 drops of tabasco sauce
4 sprigs of fresh Rosemary (pull apart leaves off of 2 sprigs and roughly chop) (save 2 sprigs for serving)
½ cup of Seafood Stock or Chicken Stock
Salt to taste around ½ tsp
1 tablespoon of fresh chopped parsley
4 tablespoons of butter
1 sliced clove of garlic
4 sundried tomatoes julienned
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons Canola oil (used for frying and sauteeing garlic)
Flour for dredging
Your favorite mashed potato recipe
Steamed green beans
Wash dry sea scallops and pat dry.
Dredge dry sea scallops in flour, generously coating each scallop.
Pour 1/3 cup of canola oil in skillet. Heat until smoking hot!
Sear scallops to a golden brown. Don’t be concerned if they are cooked thru. This is just to get a golden crust. About 3-5 minutes. Do not overcook.
Remove scallops from pan and set aside.
Drain most of the canola oil. Leave the skillet crusty with a bit of oil that’s left.
Deglaze the skillet with 1/3 cup of white wine over low heat stirring.
Add 3 drops of tabasco sauce
Add chopped rosemary,1/2 teaspoon of salt and ½ cup of seafood stock
In a separate skillet saute the one clove of sliced garlic until golden in 2 Tbs of canola oil. Quickly take off the burner and add the 2 TBS pf chopped parsley.
Add the garlic sauce to skillet.
Add 4 tablespoons of butter and 4 sundried tomatoes sliced into julienne strips.
Once it all comes to a simmer add the prepared scallops and heat thru.
Place mounds of mashed potatoes on each plate.
Mound mashed potatoes with scallops.
Dress plate with steamed green beans and sprigs of rosemary.
To talk about soft shell crabs I am always reminded of my dad. He loved the ocean. My dad taught us everything about the ocean, seafood and how to enjoy them both! Before I go on to discuss soft shell crabs as promised I would like to share my memories of my dad. I will refer him as Papa!
Papa had the biggest smile I had ever seen! In fact everything about Papa was big except in stature. He was only 5’7”. Not only was he always impeccably dressed, he always had a tan. He wore lots of rings and his pinkie ring was a huge diamond! As far as I can remember he always owned a red convertible.
It wasn’t always like this for my Dad. He was born in the little town of Monte di Procida. It has an area of less than 1 ½ square miles. Located on the southern coast of Italy near Naples, this little panoramic town is almost isolated from the rest of the towns. It sits on a perch overlooking the Gulf of Naples, the many towns below it and if you stand at my uncle’s house one can even see Sorrento and Gaeta as your eyes follow the coastline. The islands of Procida and Ischia are so close you can almost reach out to touch them and on a clear day Capri too! Its unique harbor has been utilized in ancient times since the Greeks. Now the harbor is filled with a fleet of fishing boats! My father grew up during WWII. During this time the beautiful town was also a strategic point for the Germans. It was used as a base for torpedo practice. Papa would often tell us some scary stories about that time. It was because of WWII and it’s destruction that my dad was determined to come to America for a better life. America changed my Dad’s life for the better and he became this bigger than life character that we looked up to!
One year when I was 9 years old he took all of us on a transcontinental cruise. Not only did he take his family but he also brought along his red Pontiac convertible. So my dad, along with my mom, my brother, my sister, I and the red Pontiac convertible crossed the Atlantic making several stops including, Portugal, the rock of Gibraltar, Spain, Genoa and finally Naples. I still can picture him and Nonna (his mom) driving with the top down in the little town of Monte di Procida. Nonna with a kerchief on her head to protect her hair from the wind sat so proudly next to her son. The red Pontiac convertible was as big as my dad’s ego! But unfortunately the fancy American car was not made for the narrow ancient streets that St. Paul once crossed on his way to Rome to see Caesar. Without a care in the world my dad squeezed through those streets waving to all the towns’ people, greeting them all by name. By the end of the trip the red Pontiac convertible sides were so dented in that we were barely able to open the doors. But no worries…my dad packed the red Pontiac convertible with us as we travelled back across the Atlantic to New York. When we arrived home he went and bought himself another one!
Traveling though Italy with my dad was such an experience. People were drawn to him. He had such a big personality. So warm and gracious! It was always such excitement when my dad went to visit his hometown. Everyone came over to greet him. Our house was like a café. We were always brewing espresso. It got to be as soon as I saw a car coming I wouldn’t even wait for my Nonna to ask me to make coffee. I immediately took out the moka pot and started the process. I also set out the little crystal aperitif glasses for the vermouth. Espresso, vermouth and limoncello were served! Before they left my dad would always give the guests a big chunk of American milk chocolate as a souvenir from America. My dad loved American milk chocolate so much so that he wanted to share with his family and friends back in Italy. As he does things so big he would order 40 pound slabs of milk chocolate from his favorite Italian bakery, Caffe Aurora, here in Poughkeepsie to bring back to Italy!
It was only one year that he brought over his red convertible I think he learned his lesson with the big American car because after that he would usually rent a FIAT 500! It was funny watching him load up his FIAT with watermelons because one thing about my father if he bought something for himself he always bought for his sisters too. He made everyone smile and laugh when they saw him pull up with his little Fiat and pull out watermelon after watermelon! The big smiles from everyone made my heart melt! And he was so funny teasing the market people. I love listening to his Montese sing song accent. The dad that I loved was the dad I saw in Italy. One summer he brought just my brother and me to visit Nonna in Italy. As a treat he brought my brother and I to Capri. It was so fun! It was such a special trip! But the best part was when we stopped for lunch at this rooftop restaurant overlooking the beautiful views of Capri. The waiter gazing at my dad’s bigger than life personality along with his striking blue eyes (all the more impressive with his dark tan) asked if he was Raff Vallone. As I watched my dad’s already broad smile get bigger, Papa asked the waiter, “tell me more who this Raff Vallone is!” All impressed that he looked like a movie star who was known for his rugged good looks my father just beamed! And my brother and I just sat a little taller thinking how handsome our father really was that other people thought so too!”
Soft Shell Crabs
Soft Shell Crabs are available at your seafood market from April to September. It’s during this time that crabs molt their old exoskeletons. These soft shell crabs are removed from the ocean as soon as they shed their shells to prevent hardening. The famous Maryland blue crabs that we are accustomed to hammering the outer shell and picking it apart to get to the delicious meat are now soft. After removing the mouthparts, the gills and the abdomen, the whole crab is now edible, shell and all! No work is involved in eating soft shell crabs! Soft shell crabs were a much anticipated menu item every spring at “the restaurant”! We had people from all over come for our Soft Shell Crabs. As you read on I will share all the secrets of cooking the soft shell crabs so you can make them just as good at home. Typically Soft Shell Crabs are fried but at “the restaurant” sautéed was the most popular. One of the ways we served them was in a Parisienne Sauce (please read recipe #11 blog post) for the home cook please understands that these crabs only survive a few days out of water. So when picking out your soft shell crabs make sure they are fresh! You can’t tell just by looking at them.
Secret #1 not only do you need to make sure they are plump don’t be embarrassed to give it the smell test too! They should smell clean and astringent!
Secret #2 refuse to have the fish monger clean the crabs for you or the crabs will lose all their liquid. Liquid is important so the crabs are very plump. Wait until you are ready to cook the crabs to clean. It’s easy to clean them!
Secret #3 I have given you step by step process for cleaning the crabs. And showed you how to prepare then with an egg batter. But you can also prepare them with just flour. Putting a floured soft shell crab (no egg batter) in hot oil results in the plumpest crabs ever.
Parisienne Sauce was a very popular sauce in the restaurant. It’s a buttery lemony sauce enhanced with the salty tanginess of capers. Capers are the highlight of this sauce. To understand capers one has to know capers. I thought I would share a little story about my childhood and some facts about the tiny delicate caper that’s packed with a huge flavor punch.
These little pungent Mediteranean capers come from the bud of blossoming bushes. I actually had the pleasure of seeing caper bushes. It was many years ago when my brother and I visited our grandparents at their home town on the island of Ischia, Italy. They took us for a leisurely walk through town and we visited the Castello Aragonese, a medieval castle built on volcanic rock. As we walked up to the castle, clinging to the cracked walls and cliffs were these unusual and attractive ornamental shrubs. They were thriving in the sunny hot dry climate of Ischia. The castle is nestled on volcanic rock in the middle of the sea. So these caper shrubs are evidently salt tolerant as well. My Nonno (grandfather) pointed out the capers on the shrubs. The bushy plant had a thick cluster of thorny branches and fleshy, egg shaped leaves. They were as high as five feet in some places, but most were sprawled out over rocks and soil.
Nonno explained that from April to June, the caper shrub’s tiny buds flower into large, sweet-scented, pink blooms clustered with long, violet stamens. The plants harvested for capers, however, rarely blossom. Workers endure hot sun, sharp thorns and rugged terrain throughout the summer to pick the precious buds as they ripen.
I loved this walk up to the castle listening to Nonno explain all of this in his rich napolitano cadence! The long steep climb winding around the castle with the ocean views were breathe taking. Nonno walked ahead explaining all the sites while my Nonna (grandmother) ambled behind slowly carrying her large purse under her arm. My brother and I found our Italian grandparents amusing. At one point we felt a sprinkling of rain as was common in the afternoons in Ischia, a sun shower. Nonno slowed down and turned to ask my Nonna if she was ok. In his tongue in cheek manner, he just shook his head as he watched Nonna dig into her large white purse and pull out a clear plastic rain bonnet for her head and a sweater for her shoulders. My brother and I were hysterically laughing not just at my Nonna but at Nonno’s reaction. What a special caper memory. I think of them whenever I use capers in my cooking.
Let me explain more about capers. Pickling process enhances the flavor of capers. Capers with their tart and briny flavors enrich sauces. Capers are a staple in the Italian kitchen. The tiny, piquant buds are enjoyed from region to region, from the north to the south. In Sicily capers are served in caponata, a summer side dish in which their salty bite cuts through the smooth buttery taste of slow cooked eggplant. In Ischia they are part of spaghetti alla puttanesca. The sauce consists of capers, tomatoes, olives and anchovies. These delicious little gems are often sprinkled over pizza, pasta, and fish dishes as a flavorful garnish.
Most capers come from wild plants, thoughout Spain and Italy—the two largest producers—they are cultivated. Sicily and the Aeolian island of Salina produce the majority of Italy’s capers. The best, though, come from Pantelleria. On this tiny island, halfway to Tunisia, volcanic soil and the heat of an intense Mediterranean sun create ideal growing conditions. The berries are also picked, and both are pickled for use as a seasoning and garnish. The bud, or caper, is pickled in salt and vinegar brine, then sold in vinegar or packed in salt. The berry—the larger, plump, mature fruit of the plant—resembles a green grape with faint, white stripes and, like olives, is served in pastas, salads or even as a garnish in martinis. When choosing capers, look for dark green buds packed tightly in sea salt, because those submerged in vinegar lack the subtle, natural taste of the salted ones. The smaller buds have a more delicate flavor while the larger ones have less taste and could be frauds—sometimes the similar-looking buds of the nasturtium plant are passed off as capers. The French term nonpareil is commonly used to denote the smallest buds; surfines are the next largest. True Italian capers, though, are sorted by millimeter with mechanized screens. They range from 7 millimeters to 16 millimeters. Unfortunately in stores their size is not often marked. Be sure to look for buds not larger than a raisin. If using salted capers, soak them for five to ten minutes and drain to remove excess salt. The large caper berries are eaten “as is” just as you would an olive. You can even serve them in your favorite martini!
1 cup of chicken stock
5 tablespoons of butter
¼ cup of fresh squeezed lemon juice ( Juice form 1 ½ lemons)
1 teaspoon of drained capers (nonpareil packed in brine)
3 dashes of Tabasco sauce
3 ounces of sherry
½ teaspoon of salt
Fresh ground pepper to taste
2 sprigs of chopped Italian parsley
Add all ingredients in a large skillet. Simmer on medium heat until reduced and slightly thickened. It usually takes about 10 minutes.
This sauce is used on Chicken Scallopini, Veal Scallopini, Scallops, Shrimp, Filet of Sole or Soft Shell Crabs.
For this recipe I used the Parisienne Sauce with Soft Shell Crabs. In my next post I will love to tell you all about Soft Shell Crabs… how to shop for them and how to cook them.
*Although the restaurant called this sauce Parisienne Sauce please don’t confuse it with the French version of Parisienne Sauce that uses cream and eggs.