Wednesday, February 28, 2018

RECIPES BY REQUEST: Calamari in Guazzetto

Since the response to the photo I posted on social media elicited quite a few oohs and ahhs, I promised some people I'd post the recipe in my blog's "Recipe By Request" section. But first, of course, I had to write the recipe.

For this particular recipe, we're talking the classic Italian IN GUAZZETTO preparation, which basically means it's something slowly stewed in what it usually olive oil, white wine, a little broth, and often cherry tomato, onion, and garlic. It's a standard, particularly in southern Italy, where it's most commonly made with seafood or fish of some kind. This version is a bit fancier than your average in guazzetto, but fully in the tradition of using local ingredients and flavors of the southern half of the Italian peninsula. The stew is often served in some kind of shallow stew pot, cast-iron mini skillet, or some such stove-to-table vessel. It's a rustic presentation that I love.

Squid -- calamari, in Italian -- can be a tricky creature to cook, though I adore making it and eating it, for its versatility and briny, tender deliciousness...when it's done right, that is. Who hasn't endured a rubbery squid situation, which becomes an over-mastication situation, which is elevated to a sore jaw and where-can-I-spit-this-out dilemma? Don't let it reach an I-refuse-to-cook-calamari-conundrum! Following a few easy steps will provide you with a painless calamari cooking experience. The basic theory is this: squid is a protein which benefits from either a very quick, 2-3 minute toss in the pan (or deep fryer), or a longer, lower-temp stew on the stove. It's about hitting that sweet spot -- or rather, about avoiding the peak of the hill. What do I mean? Fammi spiegare (let me explain).

Basically all proteins all have a little cooking hill, as it were. A short cooking time will allow them to cook either to rare, or medium rare (in the case of a more dense protein like a steak or a chop), or juuuust enough to be perfectly tender and cooked through to be edible, as in the case with shrimp, scallops, calamari, etc. The longer you cook them, the higher up that hill you climb. When you reach the top of the hill is when the protein has reached its most firm, fully-cooked point -- which is when you DON'T want to eat it. Think a well-done steak, or shrimp that's been cooked to the point of being rolled up little balls of iodine-laden beach pebbles. Non bene! What we want is the sweet spot on almost-flat ground, as it were. So, you either sear the steak and enjoy it medium-rare, or throw it in a stew for 3 hours and enjoy the falling-apart tenderness that is a good boeuf daube. Similarly, calamari is either flash-fried or -sauteed, or stewed for longer, though the longer cooking time for squid is far shorter than for a beef stew. It's more like 3 minutes on the short end or 30 minutes-plus on the long end. Still, time flies when you're stewing calamari! (Okay no one says that, but we could try to make it a thing). As you will learn from doing, the slow braise is totally worth it and really a cinch once you get the hang of it. The recipe that follows is proof positive of that. 

Serves 2

1/2 cup top quality olive oil
4 cloves garlic, sliced
2 stalks celery, finely diced
1 small red onion, sliced into thin half-moons
2 liberal tablespoons of 'nduja Calabrian sausage*
1.5 pounds cleaned calamari, separated into tentacles and tubes sliced into rings
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
2 tablespoons capers with a touch of their brine
1/4 cup dry white wine (preferably Italian)
1/4 cup fish stock (optional)
liberal squeeze of lemon juice
chopped parsley, to taste
salt and pepper, to taste

(*'nduja sausage can be hard to find, though it's DEFINITELY worth seeking out. A decent substitute would be andouille sausage, whipped in a food processor with some olive oil to soften -- or even a soft Mexican chorizo could fill in here. Otherwise, make your own mixture of smoked bacon or pork belly, lots of chili flakes, and olive oil or lard pulsed in a food processor).

- Heat a cast iron or heavy-bottomed skillet on medium-high until when you hold your hand over it, you can feel a good bit of heat. Pour in enough of the olive oil to coat the bottom of the skillet. 
- Throw in the celery and onion and let that cook for 2-3 minutes until it begins to soften. Add the sliced garlic. Turn the heat down to medium.
- Toss in the calamari and 1/2 of the cherry tomatoes, 'nduja, and capers + brine, and stir to mix the flavors up a bit. Cover and cook on medium-low for 5 minutes.
- Remove the cover and pour in the white wine. Let this cook, cover off, for another 5 minutes until the alcohol burns off but you still have plenty of liquid. 
- Sprinkle in some salt and pepper to taste and cover the calamari and continue cooking on medium-low for another 10 minutes.
- Remove the cover, toss in the second half of the cherry tomatoes, a bit more olive oil, and cover again to cook for another 10 minutes or so (if the calamari is a little dry here, you can add the fish stock, or even water, at this point).
- Test for doneness of the calamari. If it's not tender enough, keep cooking over low heat, covered, until it is.
- When calamari is tender, remove the cover and add the lemon juice and half of the chopped parsley. Taste and adjust salt and pepper as needed.
- Finish with a drizzle of olive oil and the rest of the freshly chopped parsley, and serve directly from the cooking skillet/vessel, with plenty of crusty bread to sop up the delicious sauce!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018


"Heartbeet" salad for a client's Valentine's dinner party
Anyone can write about chocolate or champagne or romantic getaways for Valentine's Day. But to me, beets are actually the perfect food on which to focus for San Valentino. (Witness the heart-shaped beets in the salad above).

And beets are having a moment. In the 20th century, this would have confounded me. I was, seemingly, a born beet-hater, notorious for my acrobatic skills and back bends to avoid having pureed beets spoon-fed to me from the time I was a wee baby. As a child, I knew beets mostly in borscht form in Jewish delis, and as the coloring agent in the horseradish that accompanied my father's beloved (and to me, gag-inducing) matjes herring. It was all very eastern European old-school. In the interim, however, I've grown to adore beets, and like to play with their flavor and texture as much as I love using their bright color to make gorgeous plates of food, fuchsia dressings, and aiolis and sauces. The beets greens are delicious too -- which really speaks to my adoration of whole-vegetable cooking.

The rich, wine-dark magenta of many beets (they come in other brilliant colors and patterns, of course), are a perfect late winter vegetable: a root veggie to brighten cold weather cooking, which can get heavy...and a gorgeous color that speaks to the love and romance of February's romantic holiday: Valentine's Day. That these veggies are actually good for your heart is just the icing on the (healthy) cake.

So first, some history. The wild beet, the ancestor of the beet with which we're familiar today, is thought to have originated in prehistoric times in North Africa, and grew wild along Asian and European seashores. In these earlier times, people exclusively ate the beet greens and not the roots. The ancient Romans were actually one of the first civilizations to cultivate beets to use their roots as food. (You have to love the ancient Romans). The tribes that invaded Rome were responsible for spreading beets throughout northern Europe where they were first used for animal fodder, and later for human consumption, becoming more popular in the 16th century.

Beets' value grew in the 19th century when it was discovered that they were a concentrated source of sugar, and the first beet sugar factory was built in Poland at that time. And when access to sugar cane was restricted by the British, Napoleon decreed that the beet be used as the primary source of sugar, catalyzing its popularity even further. Around this same time, beets were first brought to the United States, where they now also flourish. Today the leading commercial producers of beets include the United States, Russia, France, Poland, and Germany.

As for the nutritional benefits of beets, preliminary research shows beetroot juice to reduce blood pressure in hypertensive individuals and so it may have an effect on mechanisms of cardiovascular disease. Beets are a unique source of phytonutrients called betalainsBetanin and vulgaxanthin are the two best-studied betalains derived from beets, and both have been shown to provide antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and detoxification support -- which make beets a good source for likely risk reduction of many types of cancer, including colon, stomach, nerve, lung, breast, prostate, and testicular cancers. Even well before current-day scientific evidence, those living in the middle ages knew something was special about beets: back then, beetroot was used as a treatment for a variety of conditions, especially illnesses relating to digestion and the blood.

More good news: beets belong to the chenopod family — along with chard, spinach and quinoa — which continue to show an increasing number of health benefits not readily available from other food families. The red and yellow betalain pigments found in chenopods, their unique epoxyxanthophyll carotenoids, and the special connection between their overall phytonutrients and our nervous system health (including specialized nervous system organs like the eyes), point to a unique health value in beets. 

When selecting beets at your local market, choose small or medium-sized beets whose roots are firm, smooth-skinned and deep in color. Smaller, younger beets may be so tender that peeling won't be needed after they're cooked. These beets are also wonderful grated or sliced paper-thin in salads, and for topping proteins. While the quality of the attached beets greens does not reflect that of the roots, if you're going to consume this very nutritious part of the plant, look for greens that appear fresh, tender, and have a lively green color. One great way to utilize beets and their greens in one single dish is the Greek-inspired preparation of skordalia: it's a whipped potato-garlic mixture that's half-way between a sauce and a dip, and very delicious, usually served with a combination of roasted or boiled beets, which can also be served with their greens sauteed in olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic. Here, I've made it with purple potatoes for a colorful dish that's great for a gathering.

I often speak about the connection between color and nutrition: the more colorful your plate, the better-balanced your nutritional intake will be. And we also eat with our eyes, so what better way to have a gorgeous, healthful meal than to "eat the rainbow" as it were? Beets help in bringing bright colors and their inherent vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to the plate. Beets can range in color from pure white to golden to deep, dark burgundy. This dish pictured is a Moroccan-spiced salad of beets and carrots that have been roasted, peeled, and cubed. I used the carrot and beet greens to make a pesto to serve along the outer rim of the plated salad. This is an elegant appetizer, vegetarian-friendly, and nutritious and delicious. It checks all the boxes!

Chioggia beets, or "candycane" beets as they're nicknamed, are amazing, with concentric circles  visible as you slice through them, in brilliant crimson and white or pink. The liquid you get from cooking beets or marinating beets can be used to make countless beautifully-colored sauces and dishes. It's the great base for a magenta vinaigrette, and it makes one gorgeous pink aioli just perfect for a romantic Valentine's Day meal. You can still make that electric-colored borscht, which when updated seems very modern and in line with the popularity of Eastern and Northern European foods. You can still pickle eggs in the briny beet juice, which makes for very pretty deviled eggs.

As a vegan-friendly substitute to beef tartare, I often do a beet tartare, which is meaty and earthy and delicious. A beet-tahini dip served with crudite is also a great party hors d'oeuvre. And around Hanukkah, and in fact year round, an interesting version of potato latkes is the beet-and-carrot latke. And since veggie juicing has become so popular, and beets-and-vodka are a natural Eastern European pairing, you can even make your cocktails healthy: beautiful, vibrant beetini anyone? 

Beets are so versatile! You're really limited only by your own imagination...

Happy and healthy Valentine's Day, everyone! xoxo