Squash and Mussels Soup

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Basic techniques needed: How to steam mussels

INGREDIENTS
800 g Pumpkin or squash
600g Mussels
1/2 Onion, finely chopped
4 Anchovy fillets
3 Garlic cloves, minced
White wine (optional)
1 tbsp Tomato paste

Chives, finely chopped, to sprinkle

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I got inspiration for this recipe from a TV program, that was showing a soup made with cubed pumpkin, mussels and other spices. I immediately liked the idea of combining the sweetness of pumpkin (or squash, if pumpkin is not in season), with the saltiness of mussels.
Unlike the recipe I saw, I do not add spices (just anchovy fillets and tomato paste, that are natural flavour enhancers, and the tomato will also give a more vivid colour) as I like the flavour of the main ingredients to stand out, and I blend the cooked pumpkin to have a smoother texture (otherwise you can mash it with a potato masher if you like it more chunky).

  1. Trim and de-seed the squash, and cut it in cubes (about 1/2 inch side)
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  2. Steam the mussel as in How to steam mussels , preserving their liquid
  3. Sweat the onion in 2 tbsp. olive oil for 5 minutes, then add the garlic and anchovy fillets, and cook on low heat until the anchovy has dissolved into the oil
  4. Add the cubed squash and cover with cold water (or a light fish stock if using it)
  5. Bring to the boil and then turn down to a gentle simmer, and the liquid from the mussels and the tomato paste
  6. When the squash is soft and cooked through, blend it with a hand blender (or mash it with a potato masher).
  7. Taste it and season with salt if needed
  8. Add the mussels: when you do it, I suggest that you shell about 3/4 of them and leave only the remaining 1/4 in the shell; by doing that, it will be easier to eat the soup without getting too many shells in your plate but you will still keep some whole mussels for colour and presentation purposes.
  9. Serve in bowls or deep plates, sprinkling with finely chopped chives

How to steam mussels

Mussels are one of my favs. if they are fresh and prepared in the right way, they will give you the real taste of the sea.  However, they are very delicate and need to be treated with care because,  as it happens very often with fish and seafood, overcooking is a very common mistake and will spoil the result.

If you want to have an excellent result in terms of both flavour and texture, follow these simple steps.

First of all, you need to clean them: usually you will find a bit of seaweed coming out of the shell: pull it off (this is probably the most tedious part of the process).

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Discard all the broken shells; once done, put them in a colander and rinse.

Put them in a pan large enough to allow some extra room as the shells will open up and the overall volume will increase and add a splash of water (or white wine if you prefer). You can add some crushed garlic if you like it.

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With the lid on, cook on medium heat and, when they start opening up, stir them with a wooden spoon to allow even cooking (put the lid back on afterwards).

Do not cook for more than 3-4 minutes after they start opening up, and discard all the shells that didn’t open. If not using immediately, keep the lid on (if too much steam escapes, it will make the mussels dry, you want them soft and moist!)

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The mussels will release a lot of liquid which is packed with flavour: you just need to strain it before using it. Use a colander (or even better a conical strainer if you have one) lined with muslin (kitchen paper will do if you don’t have it but it’s a bit more hard work and it gets ripped quite easily). By doing that you will make sure that no sand or other impurities will find their way into your plate.

Spaghetti ai Cannolicchi (Spaghetti with Razor Clams)

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INGREDIENTS (4 people)

360g spaghetti (or linguine)
12 razor clams
16 cherry tomatoes
3 anchovy fillets
100 ml dry white wine (optional)
1 tbsp. finely chopped onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
Finely chopped parsley
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Basic Techniques needed:
Razor Clams
How to cook pastaIf you are able to find razor clams (you will need to ask a real fishmonger, it’s not something you will find in a UK supermarket), this is a very quick and simply seafood pasta recipe that will not fail to impress your guests.

First, get organised:
Chop the onion (see How to chop an onion in Basics), mince the garlic and chop the parsley

When everything is ready, you can start cooking:

  1. Prepare the razor clams as below (see Razor Clams for details):
    Rinse them in running water
  2. Put them in a pan with a splash of water and cover
    Cook on medium heat for 2-3 minutes until the shells open up
    Once opened, discard the dark sac you will find in the middle of the clam
    Filter the liquid they have released as you will use it in your recipe
    Cut them in 1-inch pieces and then lengthwise
  3. Peel the tomatoes: prick their skin with the tip of a knife and plunge them into the bolilng water in the pot you will use for the pasta, then put them in a bowl filled with cold (better iced) water;
  4. Sweat the onion in 2 tbsp. olive oil for 4 minutes
  5. Add the garlic and the anchovy fillets and keep cooking on low heat
  6. When the anchovy fillets have dissolved into the oil, add the liquid from the clams and 100 ml water or white wine if using it;
  7. Peel the tomatoes, quarter them and add them to the sauce; cook on low heat
  8. When the liquid has reduced to 1/3, add the razor clams
  9. Cook the pasta in plenty of salty water (see How to cook pasta)
  10. Add the sauce to the cooked pasta, sprinkle with finely chopped parsley and serve
    TIP: instead of cooking the pasta completely, drain it a couple of minutes before the cooking time indicated on the packaging and finish it off with the sauce, adding a few tbsp. of its cooking water to prevent it form becoming too dry; the pasta will absorb all the flavours

Razor Clams

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Razor clams owe their English name to their resemblance to the handle of an old fashioned straight razor, whilst they are called cannolicchi in Italian because their shape is also similar a small cane -canna in Italian (in fact, another name is bamboo clam).

Razor clams live in the sand in the seashore and, although not often commercially fished (mainly because they are quite difficult to catch due fact that they can burrow incredibly quickly in mud or sand soil), they are regarded as a delicacy.

Compared to other shellfish such as cockles and clams, or mussels, they have a sweeter, less salty and more delicate flavour, that makes them one of my favourites, something that I always buy when they are available

They are very simple to prepare too, are good both cold and warm, and can be the main ingredient of a quick and tasty pasta dish or a delicious salad.

See below how to prepare them:

  1. First, rinse them in running water
  2. Put them in a pan with a splash of water (I suggest you don’t use white wine as they will be ready very quickly and there would be no time to cook off the alcohol) and cover
  3. Cook on medium heat for 2-3 minutes until the shells open up
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  4. Once opened you will just need to discard the dark sac you will find in the middle of the clam (I assume it’s the stomach but I do not have any scientific knowledge to support this statementt), as it’s normally very gritty
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  5. As usual with shellfish, filter the liquid they have released as it’s packed with flavour and you should use it in your recipe

Pan di Spagna (Italian sponge base)

Chocolate Pand di Spagna

Pan di Spagna is the most popular sponge base in Italy, a success that is hardly surprising as it is very light in texture and neutral in flavour, so that it can be used pretty much with anything. Growing up in Italy, I’ve always known it, and when I saw the recipe for the first time I was surprised by the fact that no yeast is used. In fact, only three ingredients are needed, eggs, sugar and flour, and it is the correct manipulation of the ingredients that makes it rise and become so soft.
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Ingredients:

5 eggs
150g white sugar
150g plain flour (or, preferably, 75g flour and 75g cornstarch)
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The reason why this sponge works without yeast is due to a property of eggs, that have the capacity of incorporating air when whisked (this capacity is obvious also when making a meringue, that uses only the egg whites, for example).
Therefore, the eggs are whisked with the sugar until they reach the desired consistency (see below), and then the flour is incorporated, being careful that the volume of the mixture is reduced as little as possible. Imagine that like a structure with microscopic air bubbles, a bit like a sponge, but fluid: the heat, during baking, will make the air expand, thus making the cake raise; at the same time the heat will cook the eggs and the flour, making them hard enough to hold that shape.

See below the process. I suggest that you line the baking tray and sift the flour beforehand if you are using an electric hand whisk, whilst you can do it while whisking if using a planetary mixer:

  1. Preheat the oven at 180C
  2. Line a baking tray with baking parchment
  3. Sift the flour and starch together or (this is quicker) whisk them with a hand whisk (it will have the same effect as sifting)
  4. Using a planetary mixer or an electric whisk, work the eggs with the sugar until it forms ribbons. It takes 10 to 15 minutes, so quite a bit of work but it’s worth it. This step is very important and needs some considerations:
    – If using an electric hand whisk, work like a planetary would, moving it in a circle, it will be quicker
    -In Italian we say that the mix is ready when it ‘writes’, i.e., when you lift the whisk (after switching off!), the mix that falls leaves a trail on the surface

    This is the sort of trail that the mix should leave on the surface when you lift the whisk

    This is the sort of trail that the mix should leave on the surface when you lift the whisk

  5. When the mix ‘writes’, we are ready to incorporate the flour; this is a critical step, as you need to be fast and light handed at the same time. Some chefs even suggest that you use your hands but I think it’s way too messy and use a wooden spoon or -even better- a silicon spatula. Throw the flour/ cornstarch into the mix all at once and fold it in with quick upward strokes; the mix will lose some volume but your goal here is to keep as much volume as possible
  6. When all the flour has been incorporated, put the mix in the baking tray that has previously been lined, and bake without opening the oven for at least 20 minutes
  7. Cooking time can vary, but it is around 30 minutes; to check if it’s ready, insert a cocktail stick in the middle: the sponge is ready when it comes out clean
  8. Do not take out of the oven immediately or it will collapse: turn it off and let it cool down inside for at least 15 minutes

After that the base is normally sliced and used for assembling a cake

VARIATIONS:

LEMON:
The good thing of pan di Spagna is its neutral flavour that makes it suitable for virtually any type of cream; however, someone (me included to be honest) might find it boring: to add a bit of freshness, add the filtered juice of half lemon to the eggs and sugar before you start whisking.
IMPORTANT: add it before you start whisking, if you add it at the end it will ruin it!

CHOCOLATE:
Depending on what you are using it for, a chocolate pan di Spagna will be more suitable than a plain one: simply mix 50g of cocoa powder with 50g of flour and 50g of corn starch (some recipes say 75g of cocoa with 75g of flour/corn starch, but I tried and the proportion I gave you works better for me)

Prawns & prawn stock

First, a consideration on prawns/shrimps and whether you should buy them fresh or frozen. I say this because prawns are an exception to the general rule that we should always buy fresh ingredients and the difference between fresh and frozen ones is not so big. Furthermore, most of the prawns you buy is frozen at sea and shipped to us because fresh shrimp has a very short shelf-life. When you buy it ‘fresh’, unless you know the fishmonger and can trust what he says, it is likely to be defrosted (maybe even a couple of days before), rather than fresh. Therefore I suggest that you buy the frozen ones and defrost them just before use.

Unless, like I said, you can source the fresh ones from a trusted supplier. Do not buy precooked ones!

If using frozen prawns, you can defrost them quickly placing them in a bowl filled with cold water. Some suggest putting them in a bowl under running water, allowing overflowing as it is faster.

A second consideration is whole shrimps vs tails. In the UK you will mainly find prawn tails. They are quicker and easier to use, but don’t have much flavour. Back home (I’m from Sardinia), prawns are normally cooked whole and the head is actually considered the part with most flavour, and rightly so; I remember making a dish once, back home, using only the tails and being told off because I had discarded the heads; since that person definitely had a point, I took that complaint very seriously and started to think how I could keep the flavour without forcing my guest to shell their prawns as they are eating (which can be quite awkward).
This is why I started making a stock with the heads and shells and adding it to the dish, in order to offer the practicality of serving the tails but keeping the flavour of the whole thing

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This is how to shell the prawns (obviously you will need to defrost them as above if using frozen ones):

  1. Remove the head
  2. Remove the shell, leaving only the last bit as it will look nice in your presentation
  3. Using a sharp knife, make a shallow cut at the back of the tail and extract the vein (usually it’s black, it might be transparent)
  4. Cover and chill until ready to use

NOTE: what the recipes usually call ‘vein’ is actually the intestine of the prawn; it’s not harmful to eat, but it might be a bit gritty. Furthermore, that incision, when the tail is cooked, will create a nice ‘butterflied’ look

Now let’s make the stock with the heads and shells; a prawns stock can be made in many different ways (and you will find many different recipes), but I find that this process gives a better taste and texture.

NOTE: I’m indicating 1/2 litre of water for 12 large or 16 medium prawns, you can make a proportion based on how many prawns you are cooking:

1) Heat 1 tablespoon of olive or rapeseed oil in a pan
2) Add the prawns shells and heads and cook until they turn red

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3) Add 1/2 litre of water, bring to the boil, add 1 tbsp. tomato paste and 1 tsp. anchovy paste
4) Simmer for 15 minutes, skimming the surface
5) Take the pan with the shells off the fire, and blend (using a hand blender)
6) Passing it through a fine sieve lined with muslin, transfer to a clean pan or any suitable container if not using immediately

A consideration on seasoning: I have not forgotten the salt, but I will normally use thiis stock for other preparations, and it’s likely to be reduced further depending on what I’m doing, so the salt should be added whilst preparing the final dish.

Frutti di Mare (Seafood pasta sauce)

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Basic techniques needed:

Tomato Sauce
And at least one of the following:

How to steam mussels
Prawns & prawn stock
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Ingredients (for 4 people):

1/2 onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
4 anchovy fillets
800g peeled tomatoes
Salt & sugar, to taste
Finely chopped parsley, to taste
Chilli pepper (optional but recommended)

600g of clams OR 600g of mussels OR 300g of each
6 large or 8 medium prawns
500g squid OR 500g cuttlefish

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Frutti di mare is the generic Italian word for seafood. Basically, we say ‘sea fruits’ instead of seafood.

However, meaning of the name aside, pasta with seafood is by far one of my favourites, as long as it is made properly and using good quality ingredients. In a nutshell, what I will describe here is a tomato sauce (see Tomato Sauce in Basics, you will just add some anchovy fillets when sweating the onions and squid or cuttlefish before adding the tomato) with the addition of various types of seafood, most of which will be cooked separately to get the best flavour and texture out of them, and then added to the sauce.

Also note that, since all the ingredients have to be fresh (although prawns and squid can be an exception, and I will explain it), and any reputable fishmonger that sells fresh fish will NOT have everything everyday, you will have to select the ingredients when doing your shopping. Therefore, I will provide guidance on different types of seafood but bear in mind that you don’t need to use them altogether, I would say that three works very well for me, I normally include squid or cuttlefish, that I cook with the sauce, some shellfish (either mussels or clams) and crustaceans (shrimps, but also langostines are good). If I find it fresh, I also love crab, as it gives a fantastic flavour. However, it needs to be treated after cooking or taken off the sauce and used separately as we will see.

NOTE: If you are using mussels, clams and/or prawns, prepare them before you start making the sauce, as you will need to use the liquid for your sauce:

How to steam mussels
Prawns & prawn stock

Also, the only items that you will cook with the sauce from the beginning are the squids (or cuttlefish if using). Shellfish needs to be cooked separately and added at the end, crustaceans (like prawns), once shelled, need to be added at the end as they required minimal cooking

This is the process. In order to understand this recipe, read it through to the end, as I will explain certain things at the end.

So. after you have cooked the clams or mussels and filtered their liquid, and made the prawns stock if using it do the following:

  • Sweat the onion for 5 minutes in 2 tbsp. of olive oil
  • Add the minced garlic and anchovy fillet
  • When the anchovy fillets have dissolved into the oil, add the squid (or cuttlefish), prepared as below (Next paragraph: How to treat seafood)
  • Cook gently without adding any liquid; the squid/ cuttlefish will release its own water, and cook on low heat until it has almost completely evaporated
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  • Add the tomato (blended and passed through a sieve – see Tomato Sauce)
  • Add some liquid:
    1) if using prawns, use the stock, made as described in Prawns & prawn stock
    2) if using mussels or clams, use the liquid, filtered as described in  How to steam mussels
    Even better if you use both!
  • Bring to the boil and then simmer, skimming the surface, for an hour or until the desired thickness is reached – if using crab, add it when the sauce is simmering -see below for cooking times
  • Season wilt salt and sugar
  • Add the other ingredients: prawns, shellfish or whatever you like (see below for cooking times)
  • Add a good handful of finely chopped parsley and some chilli pepper (optional but recommended)
  • Let it cool down completely before using it.

HOW TO TREAT SEAFOOD:

 

Squid and cuttlefish will make your sauce more substantial and will also add interesting note to your dish. Since I like to be in control of the outcome when I cook, I prefer to cook them separately and add them to the sauce at the end, when the sauce is ready; cooking them in the sauce you might end up overcooking them

SQUID
First, some consideration on the product: make sure you buy unprocessed squid . Squid can be fresh or defrosted, it will still be good, but do not buy any precooked one; also, be wary of the so-called calamari (which indicates squid rings in English but is simply the plural for squid in Italian), as it might be processed as well and go for the whole squid; if unsure on how to clean it, have your fishmonger do it for you.
Once cleaned, lay the squid tube on the cutting board and you will find a groove inside; with a very sharp knife, cut along that to open the tube up. You will see that the two sides do not have the same consistency, the outside is harder and the inside is softer
You can cut it in small pieces now, otherwise, you can give it a Chinese style criss-cross pattern that will make it look better when cooked: using a very sharp knife and being light-handed, make shallow incisions; it is preferable to do this on the softer side; whilst it is preferable to cut it into pieces with the harder side up.

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  • Once that has been cut, season with salt and cook gently in a tbsp. of oil without adding any liquid; the squid/ cuttlefish will release its own water, and cook on low heat until it has almost completely evaporated
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  • At that point, try if itstender enough; if not, add a splash of liquid (water or white wine, depending on your taste) and cook until the desired texture is reached (you might need to repeat the operation)

CUTTLEFISH: to some extent it is similar to squid once cooked, although much different as it’s got a big bone and the body is not a tube like squid; it’s also got a much bigger ink sac (the ink can be used as an ingredient in many other preparations) and it is more tender and requires a shorter cooking time compared to squid.
Other than that, what I said about the criss-cross pattern applies to it as well

MUSSELS: either mussels or clams is a must in a seafood sauce, it won’t just look and taste right without. Mussels are very delicate and the long cooking time of the sauce would destroy them; furthermore, the liquid that they release needs to be filtered, as it might contain sand and other impurities, therefore you should cook them separately.
See How to steam mussels for more details. I suggest that you cook the mussels and filter their liquid before adding the tomato sauce to the squid (or cuttlefish base). At this point you should know that you need to add some liquid to the tomato in order to simmer your sauce, and you can add that liquid instead of /along with the water.
IMPORTANT: the liquid is very salty, so that will reduce the amount of salt you need to add to the sauce
Cooking time in the sauce: add them to the sauce after turning the heat off as the  mussels should be completely cooked already and overcooking will ruin them

CLAMS: clams are cooked pretty much like mussels, the only difference is that they do not have bits of seaweed coming out of the shell but will need to be rinsed thoroughly before cooking. Everything else is the same, including filtering the liquid and adding it to the sauce
Cooking time in the sauce: you can add them after turning the heat off as the  clams should be completely cooked (same as mussels)

PRAWNS
See: Prawns & prawn stock :
Shells and de-vein the prawns, make a stock with the heads and shells, add it to the tomato sauce and simmer until it reaches the desired thickness.
You can cut the tails as you wish: in small pieces, or lengthwise (they will take a nice spiral shape when they cook), or just leave them whole and place one on top of the pasta for a nice presentation
Cooking time in the sauce: prawn tails require minimal cooking, 3-4 minutes is enough

CRAB
I do not suggest a whole crab for your sauce, unless you’ve got a massive pot. Also, use fresh crab (it should actually be still alive when you buy it). If only precooked crab is available, just leave it, it’s pointless.
To make it easier I suggest that you buy the claws only (obviously is available and fresh): cook them in the sauce until you smell the crab (you won’t miss it it’s a very distinctive aroma), then take them off the sauce, rinse and break the shells to extract the pulp. The pulp can then be added to the sauce, but personally I prefer using it for other preparations (a filling for ravioli, a mousse, a fish cake just to name the most obvious)