Clams

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Clams (vongole in Italian) are a type of bivalve, extremely popular in Italian cuisine thanks to their intense but yet delicate flavour, and the fact that they require minimal manipulation and still provide fantastic results.

We have seen How to steam mussels , and the process for clams is very similar, what changes is essentially the way they need to be cleaned in order to get rid of all the sand and other impurities that you will find as they burrow under the sea floor.
Also, ask your fishmonger if they have already been purged (normally it is the case); if not, put them in a bowl filled with salty water and let them sit for several hours to expel all the grit and sand. Once that your clams have been purged, this is the process to follow:

  1. Put the clams in a large bowl and fill it with cold water
  2. Rub them between the palms of your hand as in the picture. Don’t be too gentle, you will need a bit of force:
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  3. You will see that the water becomes cloudy:
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  4. Change the water and repeat the operation several times until the water stays clear after rubbing the shells:
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    NOTE: some suggest to rub the shells with a stiff brush; that method works well with larger clams but the one I use works better for smaller ones, which are the ones I normally cook
  5. Discard all the broken shells and the ones that are not tightly closed
  6. Put them in a pan large enough to allow some extra room as the shells will open up and the overall volume will increase; add a splash of water (or white wine if you prefer). You can also add some crushed garlic if you like it.
  7. Cook on medium-high heat, with the lid on, for a few minutes, until they open up. NOTE: as usual with fish and seafood, overcooking is the most common mistake, so you should really pay attention and make sure that you take them off the heat as soon as they open up, otherwise they will shrink and will become tough and rubbery.
  8. Let them cool down with the lid on if not using immediately
  9. Discard all the shells that did not open up
  10. Using a colander lined with muslin cloth, strain the liquid released by the clams; you want to use it in your recipe as it’s packed with flavour.

Swordfish & Samphire tagliatelle (Tagliatelle al pasce spada e asparago di mare)

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Samphire is a plant that leaves in salt marshes and is in season, in the UK, roughly speaking, from May to September.
It’s got a bright green colour and an intense, salty flavour, and, used in moderation (because of its high salt content), can give an interesting twist to fish & seafood dishes.
Here I use it with swordfish and fresh tomato in a pasta dish, and it works beautifully in terms of colour, flavour and texture.
As usual, the most important advice with fish and seafood is that it requires minimal cooking, and this dish is no exception: your goal here will be to keep your swordfish moist and your samphire crunchy

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INGREDIENTS (4 people)

360g tagliatelle
200g swordfish
16 cherry tomatoes
3 anchovy fillets
200 ml dry white wine (optional, you can simply use water instead)
1 tbsp. finely chopped onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
Finely chopped parsley
Samphire, cut in 1-inch pieces, a handful
Salt

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Basic Techniques needed:
How to cook pasta

  1. Bring a large pan of water to the boil
  2. Dice the swordfish steaks, you will need fairly small bits
  3. Chop the onion (see How to chop an onion in Basics), mince the garlic and chop the parsley
  4. Wash the tomatoes, prick their skin with the tip of a knife and plunge them into the boiling water in the pot you will use for the pasta, then put them in a bowl filled with cold (better iced) water;
  5. Sweat the onion in 2 tbsp. olive oil for 5 minutes
  6. In the meantime, peel the tomatoes and quarter them
  7. Add the garlic and the anchovy fillets and cook on low heat
  8. When the anchovy fillets have dissolved into the oil, add the tomatoes and the wine (or water if not using it)
  9. When the liquid has reduced to 1/2, add the samphire
  10. When the liquid has reduced to 1/3, add the swordfish and cook for 1 minute, till the pieces turn white on all sides
  11. Cook the pasta in plenty of salty water (see How to cook pasta)
  12. 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 NOTE: in this case you might want to add the swordfish when the pasta is almost ready to avoid overcooking it

Sage & Marsala Chicken

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***This is a simple and quick, but very tasty nonetheless, recipe for everyday cooking, shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes to make***

Marsala chicken is an Italian classic; here I make a version with sage, as the two flavours work very well together. In this recipe I use thigh fillets as it’s by far my favourite part of the chicken and virtually the only one I use.

NOTE: Marsala is a Sicilian fortified wine  (14-20% alcohol by volume), much appreciated in Italian cooking. If unable to find it, you can replace it with Sherry for this recipe.

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INGREDIENTS (serves 4):
800 chicken thigh fillets, diced
Plain flour (to coat the meat)
10 sage leaves, roughly chopped
1 small red onion (about 150g), roughly chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
150ml semi-dry Marsala
Salt
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  1. Dice the thigh fillets in small pieces, an inch or whatever you like, but make sure they are all the same size to allow even cooking
  2. Coat with flour: this is very important for a few reasons. First, the flour will draw out some of the moisture of the meat, which in turn will cook more quickly and better; second, it will help the browning of the meat, resulting in a better flavour; third, when you add the Marsala (but this is valid for any liquid you use), the cooked starch will create a nice glaze that will enhance the appearance of your dish
  3. Cook in a pan or a wok, with 2 tbsp olive oil, on high heat, until brown on all sides, and season with salt. NOTE: if the pan is not big enough to cook all the meat at once, cook it in smaller batches (the pieces have to fit in a single layer, every piece has to be in direct contact with the bottom of the pan)
  4. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside, preferably in a warm place
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  5. In the same pan, sweat the onions with the sage on low heat for five minutes, then add the garlic and cook for another minute
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  6. Put the meat back in the pan, add the wine, and cook on high heat for a few minutes, until the liquid has reduced and a nice glaze has formed
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You can serve it with a salad or roasted vegetables on the side

Mock Sausage Rolls

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Sausage roll, for the non-British readers, is a typical British savoury dish/snack, made out of sausage meat wrapped in puff pastry.

I am a big fan of puff pastry (although I have it seldom and in moderation due to its high fat content), and I love something soft or tender wrapped in crispy, flaky pastry – a Wellington or a Pithivier are prime examples of this.

Once I was taught by a chef how to make a sausage roll by wrapping spiced pork meat in puff pastry; I loved that technique and the appearance of the dish, but not so much the flavour, so I started to think how I could make a version that would suit my taste.

This is how I came up with the idea of Mock Sausage Rolls, which is simply something that looks exactly like a sausage roll but with a different filling; no need to say that the possibilities are endless and you can use any ingredient or combination of ingredients you like; here I use mushrooms and aubergines, which is one of my favs, with the addition of Parmesan and Parma ham.
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INGREDIENTS (make 8-10 rolls)

500 g ready-made puff pastry
200 g Parma Ham
1 kg Aubergine
300 g closed cup mushrooms
2 garlic cloves
Sun-dried tomatoes in oil (optional)
50 g Parmesan cheese
30 g Breadcrumbs
2 eggs
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  1. First, make the filling:
    For the aubergines (see: Grilled Aubergines ):
    Slice and purge the aubergines
    Pat them dry, brush with oil and grill
    For the mushrooms (see: Sauteed Mushrooms ):
    Slice the mushrooms; Sautee them in olive oil with minced garlic and salt
  2. When the mushrooms and the aubergines have cooled down, mince them with a knife, or pulse them in a food processor until coarsely chopped (along with the sundried tomato, if using it). IMPORTANT:  you don’t want to make them too liquid, otherwise the filling will not hold its shape
  3. In a bowl, mix this paste with the Parmesan, breadcrumbs and 1 egg plus 1 egg white – you will need to keep the other yolk for your egg wash (see points 11-12-13)
  4. Roll out the puff pastry. You can buy the ready-rolled one but I find it too thick and difficult to work with, so I normally buy a block and roll out the quantity I need to the thickness of a 1 Pound coin (about 3 mm)
  5. Trim the edges of the pastry sheet to give it a regular shape and line the middle with the Parma ham slices, making them overlap slightly
  6. Arrange the mix on top of the ham, giving it the shape of a sausage
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  7. Wrap the mix with the Parma ham, it will make it easier to roll the pastry
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  8. Brush the edges of the pastry sheet with water
  9. Roll the pastry around the filling, pressing lightly to seal it
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  10. Keeping the seam side down, score the upper side of the roll to give it a proper sausage roll appearance
  11. Using a sharp knife, cut the individual rolls, making sure they are all of the same size
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  12. Make the egg wash by beating the spare yolk with 1 tbsp. of water
  13. Brush the pastry with egg wash and refrigerate until ready to bake or at least for 15 minutes NOTE: refrigerating the puff pastry will help it rise
  14. When ready to bake brush for the second time with egg wash. NOTE: it is the egg wash that gives puff pastry the nice brown colour you normally see, it’s not the pastry itself, which otherwise will stay pale and whitish, and not very attractive
  15. Bake at 180 C for 20 minutes or until golden brown and risen

Roast Peppers

Peppers are amongst the tastiest vegetables

Follow this simple process to get rid of the skin, and you will have a fantastic taste and texture and they will be easier to digest too. Please note that these guidelines are for red peppers, which are the sweetest and easiest to peel. For yellow and even more for green peppers, you will need to increase the cooking time.

Preheat the oven at 220C

First, I suggest that you trim them before cooking, otherwise they will get sticky and it will be difficult to remove all the seeds: make a circular cut around the stalk and remove it (most of the seeds will come out as well), and remove also the white membranes inside.

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Cut them in half lengthwise and rinse thoroughly, and place them in a baking tray lined with parchment. See below the picture showing the two halves and all the parts that should be discarded:

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Put the peppers in the oven for 45 minutes, checking them very 15 minutes and turning them every 15 minutes to allow even cooking.

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They are ready when they are soft and the skin blisters. It’s also a good sign if they start turning black, it will give a nice smoky aroma.

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Take out of the oven, and now a very important moment: when still piping hot, the peppers need to be placed in an AIRTIGHT container to cool down. What happens is that the steam that generates inside makes the skin separate completely from the flesh.

TIP: A plastic container can be used, but then it will smell of peppers forever, especially if you don’t have a dishwasher. I suggest that you use cook-in bags for this task.

When they are cool they can be peeled very easily (see video below) and eaten as they are (in a salad for example) or used for other preparations.

Octopus Salad

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INGREDIENTS (4 people)

For the emulsion:
3 tbsp. Extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp. Lemon Juice
1 tbsp. Sherry Vinegar
2 tsp. White sugar
2 tsp. Anchovy Paste
1/2 garlic clove, minced

1 kg Octopus
1 Carrot
1 Celery stalk
6 Cherry Tomatoes, quartered
Parsley, finely chopped
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Basics needed: Octopus

Octopus salad is a very popular dish in Italy. There are many different variants, pretty much every individual/family will have his own way of making it. There is one thing that all versions have in common though, and is the fact that some acidity is needed to get the best out of  the octopus, so an emulsion of extra virgin olive oil and lemon (or vinegar, or both) is normally used.

This recipe follows the same principle; however, the emulsion I use here is loosely inspired by Pad Thai, one of my favourite dishes of any cuisine. Pad Thai owes its characteristic flavour to a sauce that the Thais make mixing tamarind (for acidity), palm sugar (for sweetness) and fish or soy sauce (for saltiness and Umami). Here I replace those Asian ingredients with Western ones to obtain the same combination of tastes, although acidity will be prevalent: lemon juice and vinegar (I use Sherry vinegar as it’s got more depth of flavour than ordinary vinegar) for acidity, plain sugar for sweetness and anchovy paste for saltiness and Umami. I also add some minced garlic, for two reasons: its flavour works very well with octopus (just be careful and don’t be too liberal with it, it should not be overpowering) and also because it contains tensioactive molecules that will stabilise the emulsion.

This is the entire process:

  1. Wash, clean and boil the octopus , and let it cool down in the cooking water (see Octopus for the details)
  2. Dice the head and slice the tentacles; some people like big chunks, I prefer it cut in small pieces, with the exception of the tips of the tentacles, which I keep for presentation purposes (as you can see in the picture); put it in a bowl;
  3. Make the emulsion, whisking all the ingredients in a bowl until they are mixed and the anchovy paste has dissolved
  4. Pour the emulsion over the diced octopus, cover with cling film and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes, or more if time allows it (the longer, the better)
  5. When ready to serve, prepare the vegetables: after washing them, quarter the cherry tomatoes, peel the carrots and then cut them in long threads. That can be done in different ways (with a mandolin, a food processor or even a knife if you are skillful enough). Here I use a Julienne peeler, which is a very quick and effective way to obtain that result
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  6. Add the vegetables and a generous handful of finely chopped parsley to the octopus and mix them together.

Octopus

Octopus is a very popular ingredient in Italian cooking (at least in the coastal areas), and it’s got a lot of qualities, as it is very tasty, low in fat, high in proteins and inexpensive.
Something that puts many people off, however, is the fact that it’s got a reputation for being very tough and rubbery. I definitely agree that it will be virtually inedible if not cooked properly, but if you follow this process, you will get the most tender octopus for your salad or any other dish you want to make.

First of all, as I often do when I talk about seafood, the question is whether buying it frozen is acceptable. Personally, I always buy the fresh one, but freezing it is a necessary step when it comes to octopus.
The reason for this is that, as you probably know, water, when it freezes, expands. This means that, when you freeze foods, the ice crystals that forms inside, by expanding will break down the structure to some extent. This is the reason why, for example, defrosted veggies look mushy and not very firm.
However, this process works in our favour in the case of octopus, as the ice crystals will break down its tough structure, resulting in a more tender meat (the octopus will still need a long cooking time to reach the desired texture though).

When the octopus has been frozen, defrosted and thoroughly washed (pay extra attention as you my find dirt stuck to the suckers), you can prepare it: empty out the head and remove the mouth and the eyes. At this point it’s ready for cooking: if making more than one octopus, I suggest that you cook only octopuses of similar size together, otherwise, due to different cooking times, the results will be inconsistent:

  1. Bring a large pan of water to the boil, add salt (about 5 g per litre) and a bay leaf; you can add half glass (or a different quantity depending on the amount of water) of vinegar if you like it
  2. To give the tentacles a nice, curly appearance, grab the octopus by its head and plunge the tentacles into the boiling water, three times, leaving them in the water for a few seconds each time.
    Bring it back to the boil and then turn down to a gentle simmer
  3. Simmer for 1 to 2 hours or whatever time is needed depending on the size of the octopus
  4. To check if it’s ready, prick the tentacles near the head; if it’s tender your octopus is cooked
  5. Turn off as soon as it’s ready, overcooking will ruin the texture of your octopus
  6. IMPORTANT: do not remove it from the pan right away but let it cool down in the cooking water instead
  7. Let it cool down in the water. You can remove it from the water when still warm as long as it’s not piping hot; the reason is that, if you remove it when still hot, steam will escape; since steam is simply water in the gas phase, this means that your octopus will dry out and toughen up