Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sea Bass in Olive Crust: To Die For (But I'm Glad I Didn't)

You know those food magazine interviews that ask famous chefs and cook book authors what they would like to eat as their final meals?

Have you given yours any thought?

Last Sunday night I seriously believed my last meal on this Earth was going to be sea bass roasted in an olive tapenade crust. Not because that's what I finally decided on, but because it was what I had just polished off when dying in a fiery inferno seemed imminent.

OK. I'm exaggerating a little. But not by much. Here's what really happened.

Carlo -- the super-helpful night desk guy at my hotel -- suggested a nearby osteria for good Adriatic seafood. Great place, but could have done without the tableful of loud, Midwestern senior citizens. I don't know what they were celebrating (or not, they complained constantly), but from the looks of them I'm going to say that their 50th birthdays were some time ago.

Trying to tune them out, I enjoyed prosciutto with pineapple (good), seafood risotto (shrimp were overdone) and sea bass in olive tapenade with roasted tomatoes, fennel and peppers on the side (to die for -- okay, okay I'm getting to that part).

Finally, the seniors left (still complaining) and I was able to peruse the dessert menu in peace ... until I smelled something burning -- and not from the kitchen. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a thin ribbon of smoke and then leaping flames. One of the departed tourists had thrown his discarded cloth napkin a little too close to the lit candle!

The wait staff were nowhere in sight. I was in that little back room reserved for Americans and Brits -- you know the one with no exterior door and grill work over the one window? Yeah, that one. Apparently, Italy's fire codes are not as strict as ours are. Oddly enough no one else in the room seemed to notice the conflagration threatening to annihilate all of us.

I threw my napkin over the flames, slapped at them frantically and doused the smouldering remains with my carafe of water. Finally the folks at the next table roused themselves from their discussion about global economics and, with typical British reserve, congratulated me on a job jolly well done.

Disaster averted, I REALLY enjoyed dessert (and not just because it was on the house ) of biscotti dipped in sweet dessert wine.

Now about that sea bass: tender, moist, flaky with the olives providing a tangy, salty complement to the delicately flavored fish It's definitely going onto my short list of prospective last meals.

I'm just glad it didn't have to be this one.

Sea Bass Roasted in Tapenade
I'm not sure how close this is to the osteria's recipe. I adapted this from Bon Appetit, and they got it from Joe's Crab Shack in Miami. If you can't find Atlantic sea bass, red snapper or halibut should work as well. Some people also claim haddock is close.

1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs made from soft white bread
1/3 cup Kalamata olives or other brine-cured black olives, pitted
1/3 cup roasted red peppers from jar, drained (again, roast your own peppers if that's an option. Much sweeter. Make extra to serve alongside.)
3 tablespoons purchased pesto ( if you grow your own basil, make your own by blending some leaves in a foold processor with olive oil, toasted pine nuts and a few cloves of garlic; it tastes way better)
3 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
6 6-ounce sea bass fillets
Lemon wedges
Fresh parsley sprigs (optional)

Combine first 4 ingredients in processor. Add 2 tablespoons oil and puree until almost smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (Tapenade can be made 3 days ahead. Cover and chill.)

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Heat remaining 11/2 tablespoons oil in heavy large skillet over high heat. Sprinkle sea bass with salt and pepper. Working in batches if necessary, add fish to skillet and cook 2 minutes per side. Transfer to rimmed baking sheet. Spread 2 tablespoons tapenade atop each fish fillet. Bake fish until opaque in center, about 8 minutes. Transfer to plates. Garnish with lemon wedges and with parsley sprigs, if desired.

The osteria served this with roasted tomatoes, fennel and colored bell peppers on the side.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Venice: Land of Liver Lovers

I am that rare person who loves liver. When I was growing up, this made my mother very happy because she loved it, too. The two of us often happily chowed down on pan-fried liver with sauteed onions while my father and sister wrinkled their noses at us.

Despite my fondness for offal, I rarely eat liver now that my mother is gone. I've never mastered the art of preparing it properly. Very few American restaurants offer it on their menus. We seem to have become a nation of buffalo wings. Last week, I almost wept with joy when I learned that fegato -- calf's liver with onions -- is a classic, and affordable, Venetian osteria and trattoria menu staple.

In Fegato alla Veneziana, thinly sliced calf's liver (which is more tender and milder tasting than beef liver) is pan fried, and served with slow-cooked sliced onions and a sauce of pan drippings deglazed with red wine or beef broth and a splash of balsamic vinegar. It is usally served with polenta, the preferred carb of the Veneto region.

Fegato alla Veneziana

Pan-frying the liver tends to overcook and toughen the tender liver in the blink of an eye if you're not careful. This recipe is adapted from Mario Batali. It's really easy.

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
5-8 onions, very thinly sliced *
1 pound calves liver, thinly sliced
1/3 cup red wine or beef broth
A few drops of balsamic vinegar

Heat the olive oil with 3 tablespoons of the butter in a large, heavy saute pan over a medium flame. Add the onions and cook them over low heat until they are very soft but not colored for about 1 hour.

Salt the onions and remove them to a warm platter. Add liver to the pan, salting and cooking for 30 to 45 seconds on each side. Work in batches if necessary to avoid overcrowding the pan. When done, place the liver over the onions and keep warm.

Add wine or broth the pan and scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to dislodge any browned bits. Add the remaining tablespoon of butter and pour it over the liver and onions. Drizzle with vinegar and serve immediately along side cooked or grilled polenta. Also good over rice or mashed potatoes.

* NOTE: The original recipe calls for 8 onions; I find this many onions imparts a very sweet taste to the dish so I use fewer onions, but some people prefer it sweet. Go with whatever floats your boat.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Venetian Cuisine: Deja Vu All Over Again

When I travel, I am always up for a new adventure, but then I am also fond of places with a tinge of the familiar.

Venice, with its meandering alley ways, peaceful piazzas and decaying architecture, put me in mind of my grandparents' native island of Hvar in the Dalmatian region of Croatia, and not a little of New Orleans.

Likewise the tiny trattorias dotting the back alleys far away from the tourist joints around San Marco, serve up food strongly reminiscent of Point Cadet: stuffed sardines, fried anchovies, pasta i fagoli, baccala, calf's liver with onion, seafood spaghetti and fried seafood platters. This really did not surprise me. For centuries, Dalmatia was ruled by the Republic of Venice and, years later, Dalmatian immigrants "ruled" the very eastern tip of Biloxi.

One of my favorite meals in Venice was my last dinner at Taverna Ciardi, a little restaurant/bar in the Cannaregio neighborhood. The menu was small, but market-driven, the mood relaxed with lots of locals (always a good sign). It was almost like eating at home -- in more ways than one.

We started with polenta topped with tiny baby Adriatic shrimp -- a Venetian version of shrimp and grits. Polenta really is just good old-fashioned stone-ground grits, the kind you so rarely get here anymore now that everybody has gone the "instant" route. These shrimp are so teensy -- much smaller than anything I've ever seen come out of the Gulf -- yet so sweet and flavorful.

Baby shrimp made their appearance again in the Spaghetti Taverna Ciardi -- which changes every day depending upon what they find at the market. Lucky for me, the market that particular day offered clams and mussels which together with garlic and white wine made for a simple, but delicious, pasta course.

For dessert, I had the taverna's signature cake studded with pears and apples and flavored with nutmeg and lemon zest. It looked like pound cake and tasted like bread pudding -- another familiar taste!

So what's the point of leaving home, you might well ask. As familiar as it was in many ways, Venice offers up many sensory delights you won't find anywhere else. Read all about them on my other blog, "The House Where The Black Cat Lives."

Until you can go yourself, here's a recipe for Taverna Ciardi-inspired shrimp with polenta, seafood spaghetti and apple-pear torta. Pour yourself a nice glass of Pinot Grigio (preferably from the Veneto region), pull up a chair to your dock (or your swimming pool or bird bath) and pretend you're sitting alongside a Venetian canal.

Salute and buon appetito!

Garlic Shrimp with Grits

The Venetians call this classic dish schie con polenta but it's okay if you just call it shrimp and grits -- that's what it is. I adapted this from a recipe in Food and Wine magazine.

6 1/2 cups water
Salt to taste (I like a lot; polenta can be kind of bland on its own)
1 3/4 cups white polenta (10 ounces). (If you can't find polenta in your neck of the woods, substitute stone-ground grits. Do not, repeat do not, use instant or quick grits. You want the kind your maw-maw used to cook.)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds shrimp, shelled and deveined
2-3 large garlic cloves, very finely chopped

In a large saucepan, combine the water with a large pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Add the polenta in a thin stream, whisking constantly.

Reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the polenta is thick and the grains are tender, about 20 minutes. Stir in the butter, season the polenta with salt and pepper and keep warm.

In a very large skillet, heat the olive oil until shimmering. Season the shrimp with salt and pepper. Add them to the skillet and cook over high heat until they are lightly browned on one side, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic, turn the shrimp over and cook until cooked through, about 1 minute longer.

Transfer the polenta to shallow bowls. Top with the shrimp and some of the garlic oil from the skillet. Serve immediately.

Spaghetti a la Taverna Ciardi

1/4 cup dry white wine
2 dozen mussels, scrubbed
2 dozen littleneck clams, scrubbed
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4-8 garlic cloves, minced (depends on how much you love garlic. It's Halloween so I like to keep the vampires at bay and add all of them)
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 pound spaghetti
1 pound of small shrimp or 3/4 pound medium shrimp--shelled, deveined and halved crosswise
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Bring the wine to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the mussels, cover and cook over high heat until they open, about 2 minutes. Using tongs, transfer the mussels to a bowl. Add the clams to the saucepan, cover and cook until they start to open. Transfer them to the bowl with the mussels. Pour the cooking liquid into a glass measuring cup (discard the grit if you can). Shell the mussels and clams and return to the bowl.

Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan. Add the garlic and cook over low heat until golden, being careful not to burn. Add the red pepper and cook over moderate heat. Add the reserved shellfish cooking liquid and simmer over moderate heat until slightly reduced, about 3 minutes.

Cook the spaghetti in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until al dente. Meanwhile, bring the sauce to a simmer over moderate heat. Add the shrimp and cook for 1 minute. Add the reserved mussels and clams and simmer briefly to heat through.

Drain the spaghetti and return it to the pot. Add the seafood sauce and toss to coat. Season with salt and black pepper and transfer to a warmed bowl. Sprinkle with the parsley and serve immediately.
Note: As far as I could tell, there were no tomatoes in Taverna Ciardi's sauce; however, I have had seafood spaghetti on Hvar tossed in a very light tomato-spiked seafood broth that was extremely tasty. If you would like that version, add a pint of cherry or grape tomatoes to the skillet when you add the red pepper and cook for four minutes, crushing the tomatoes with a wooden spoon as they soften, just before you add the seafood stock.

Torta with Apples and Pears

This recipe makes a very dense, rustic cake. I've also seen it made with figs. Add a pinch of cinnamon if you crave more spice.

2 1/2 cups flour
2/3 sugar
3 eggs
2/3 melted, unsalted butter
grated zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
1/3 cup milk
3 apples or pears or a combination. Use ripe, firm fruit.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine all ingredients except the fruit. Mix until batter is smooth.

Butter and flour a 9″ springform pan. Pour in the batter. Peel and core fruit, then slice thinly and arrange in a circle pattern on top of batter. Fruit may sink slightly into the batter.

Bake the cake until a wooden toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 1 hour.
Remove from oven and let cake cool slightly on wire rack. Remove the pan sides and slip the cake onto a serving plate. Serve at room temperature.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

French Dressing on "Piece-a Pie": A Biloxi Classic

If you grew up in Biloxi, a slice just ain't a slice without a healthy squirt of French (or Catalina) dressing on it. It's as necessary as the extra grated Parmesan or red pepper flakes. It is now so ubiqitous that even the chain pizza joints, put it on the tables and ask their takeout customers how many dressings they want.

But that wasn't always the case. The phenomenon allegedly started at Biloxi's premier pizza spot, Hugo's Pizza on Division Street .

When my mom worked at Keesler Air Force Base's exchange in the 1950s, she and her work pals hung out at Hugo's after a night of bowling. High school students from Biloxi High, Notre Dame, Sacred Heart and D'Iberville piled into Hugos after football games. It was a popular hangout for the KAFB crowd. People drove from all over the Coast just to sample one of Hugo's famous "pizza pies."

My Croatian-born grandfather thought it was called "piece-a-pie" and always referred to it as such. Ironically I had some of the best pizza this side of Hugo's in his hometown of Starigrad on the Croatian island of Hvar.

Early Hugo's regulars don't remember the French dressing being on the pizza. It started making its appearance sometime in the 60's and was a permanent fixture by the end of that decade. Nor is anyone sure exactly how it started. It was a probably an accident. Hugo's served some incredible salad as well as great pizza. It may simply have been one of those flukes of the salad getting onto the pizza. Happy accidents like that create classics all the time -- like Toll House cookies.

Hugo's changed hands sometime in the 1970s, and the pizza was just never the same after that. But by this time French dressing on pizza was firmly entrenched on Biloxi's collective palate.

When I went to the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg in 1979, even the local Pizza Hut there was routinely putting French dressing on the tables to satisfy their students from Biloxi. And from there it went viral.

Now, if you're not from Biloxi, and this sounds weird to you, don't knock it until you try it. French dressing adds a extra flavor dimension to mediocre takeout or frozen pizza. It was the only thing that made that crappy "Tony's Pizza" that the USM Commons served edible. I don't know that I would add it to a gourmet wood-fired pizza with exotic ingredients like goat cheese, kalamata olives or grilled lamb. But it's a great topper for the classics -- pepperoni, cheese and sausage.
Any brand of bottled French or Catalina dressing works. Use whichever one floats your boat, although I personally find the fat-free versions too sweet (and, really, if you're eating pizza are you really THAT worried about the fat. Go for it). And as for the difference between French and Catalina dressing -- there is none. Different names, same product.

Obviously, the best dressing is the kind you make yourself. I like the following recipe. It's a little extra trouble, but doesn't your "piece-a-pie" deserve the very best?

Homemade French Dressing

Now I have no idea what French dressing recipe Hugo's used. This doesn't claim to be their recipe. It's just one I came across that I like. It's a "red" dressing with a little "bite" to it. If you find it's too sweet for your taste, decrease the amount of sugar. While it calls for white wine vinegar, feel free to substitute red wine vinegar or balsamic (which adds a nice touch) if you prefer or if that's what you have on hand. And, after you drizzle it on your pizza, be sure to save some for your salad. It's great just on plain iceberg lettuce.

2/3 cup ketchup
3/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 small onion, quartered
2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

Prepare the dressing by combining the ketchup, sugar, vinegar, oil, onion, paprika and Worcestershire sauce in a blender or food processor. Blend until the onion is well chopped. Chill and serve.