Shirataki (Zero calorie noodles)

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Shirataki is the name of a type of noodles, originally from Japan, that have a very interesting characteristic: they contain virtually no calories and, for this reason, they are very suitable for whoever needs to control his/her weight.

These noodles are made from the flour obtained from the root of a plant called konjac; they are made out of water for the 97% and also contain Glucomannan, a dietary fibre believed to help in weight loss.
The name means ‘white waterfall’, a reference to their translucent appearance; they have little flavour of their own and a gelatinous, pleasantly chewy texture, and can be used as a low-carb (or rather no-carb) replacement for pasta (mainly spaghetti) or other types of noodles.

I came across this ingredient reading a Dukan book.

I am not a big fan of the Dukan diet as such, but it contains a few principles that I like and, although I have never embraced the method, I have to say that reading the introduction of his book changed, to the better, the way I look at food and eat (after all, Pierre Dukan is a nutritionist, therefore he’s got a very deep knowledge of the matter). Although the conclusions he draws are  too extreme in my opinion, the idea of selecting the food you eat so that you can keep the calories low whilst not feeling hungry (which is the very foundation of the Dukan method) is a good way to lose weight healthily and maintain the results.

Shirataki noodles do exactly this, as they will fill you up with virtually no calories, and can be used, for example, for having a light dinner without going to bed hungry. The typical scenario I have in mind is someone with a sedentary job, coming back home after a day at work where all the physical activity was those 2 flights of stairs to reach the office.
We will still need food, but not so much as we would like to eat, because our body hasn’t used a lot of energy: something like shirataki is perfect in this kind of situation, and that’s when I eat them (for example a Shirataki stir fry with some veggies and meat or seafood), whilst I tend to have something more substantial when I exercise.

I will post more detailed recipes; for now, bear in mind that:

  • They can replace other types of noodles or even spaghetti (although the difference in texture is huge)
  • If you buy the wet ones, which come in water inside a sealed package, rinse them before cooking
  • ,They can be boiled or stir-fried and the cooking time is quite short (about 3 minutes)

QUINOA

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Quinoa is a plant native to the Andes and has been known for over fives thousand years. It was a staple food of the Incas, who considered it sacred, and it was referred to as the ‘mother grain’ (Chisaya Mama) or ‘gold of the Incas’.
It comes in a variety of colours (white, pale yellow, red, brown and black) and nowadays is sold in grains, flour or flakes.

Although generally referred to as a grain (mainly due to its appearance), technically is the seed of a leafy plant called Chenopodium quinoa, which is distantly related to the spinach plant.
The grain itself is small and round, with a fine band around it, which ends with a sort of tiny ‘tail’. This tail is hardly noticeable in the raw grain, but it spirals out when it cooks, making it look like a sort of ring, clearly visible around the grain.

The most interesting thing about quinoa is that it can be considered an almost complete food: very high in proteins, full of vitamins, gluten-free, cholesterol-free and, last but not least, delicious.

Something that needs to be mentioned is quinoa protein content. As you might know, proteins are the building blocks of our bodies, and are made by chains of amino acids. Amino acids can be grouped in non-essential (i.e. those that our body can produce) and essential (those that our body cannot produce and need to be obtained from food).

Animal proteins contain all the essential amino acids, whilst vegetable proteins, in general don’t.

However, quinoa is an exception to this rule as it contains all the essential amino acids, thus providing complete proteins, to the extent that the quality of its protein has been likened by the World Health Organisation as being closest to milk.

This characteristic makes it a very important addition to a vegetarian or (even more) vegan diet, or it can simply be useful for someone who wants to cut down on meat.

In addition, quinoa contains more calcium than cow’s milk, has got excellent antioxidant properties, is rich in fibre, contains more unsaturated fats than any grain plus a low Glycemic index (i.e. the carbs are released slowly and steadily in the blood stream and this gives the body more time to use the energy without turning them into fat).

Having said this about the benefits of quinoa, we can now switch to the culinary part, which is just as important, because the only way to stick to a healthy diet is enjoying it. If eating healthy food is seen as a sacrifice, it will not work in the long run.
Rather than giving a specific recipe, I will explain how to cook the quinoa in its grain form, which is the most common, and for now simply think that you could use it as a replacement for boiled rice, for example. Detailed recipes will come in the next posts.

This is the process:

  • First I suggest that you rinse thoroughly the grains. This is needed because quinoa seeds are covered in a soapy-like substance called ‘saponin’. Saponin is very bitter and prevents birds and insects from eating the seeds.
    Although commercially available quinoa normally comes pre-washed and ready to cook, it is good practice to rinse it. In order to do that, simply place it in a fine sieve and rinse under cold tap water, rubbing it between your finger tips, and drain well.
    Due to the size of the grains, you will need a very fine sieve.
  • The second step is optional, and it is toasting, which adds a nutty taste. To do that, dry-roast the grains in a pan until the start to pop (a bit like pop corn but on a much smaller scale; you won’t need to keep the lid on) and release a nice nutty aroma. White quinoa is ready when it turns golden brown, other colours are more difficult to asses.
    Some people like it toasted, some don’t, and it also depends on what you are using your quinoa for, so I suggest you try both and decide for yourself.
  • Finally, place the rinsed (and toasted if you like it) quinoa in a sauce pan with three parts liquid (water, vegetable stock or even milk), salt to taste, bring it to the boil and then simmer gently until all the liquid has been absorbed (10-15 minutes)
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Your quinoa is now read y to be used as part of another dish, a salad or instead of rice.

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.

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

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