Seabass & Aubergine

071———————————————————————————

TECHNIQUES NEEDED:
Grilled Aubergines

INGREDIENTS (4 people)
4 sea bass fillets (150 – 200g each)
800 g aubergines
Smoked Salt
Sea salt
20 cherry tomatoes on the vine
Sun-dried Tomatoes, 2 halves, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
Olive Oil
Extra Virgin Olive oil (to drizzle)
Chives (or parsley), finely chopped
——————————————————————————
If I was told that I can eat only one type of fish for the next 12 months, I would definitely go for sea bass. If fresh and cooked properly is tender and pleasantly moist, and its subtle, delicate flavour makes it extremely versatile as it will work with virtually any accompaniment.

This recipe uses grilled aubergines and roast cherry tomatoes, and these flavours work just beautifully together.

AUBERGINES
Peel (optional) and slice them 1/2 cm thick, purge, pat dry, brush with oil and grill (see Grilled Aubergines for details):.

When they cool down and can be handled, cut the aubergines in small cubes
Heat 1 tbsp. olive oil and gently cook the minced garlic, sun-dried tomatoes and anchovy fillets, being very careful not to brown the garlic
When the anchovy has dissolved into the oil, add the aubergine and sauté for 3 minutes

ROAST CHERRY TOMATOES:

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C
  2. Wash the tomatoes an place in a roasting tin, lined with baking parchment
  3. Drizzle with olive oil and a bit of Sherry vinegar, sprinkle with salt
  4. Cook in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the skin starts blistering

SEA BASS FILLETS:

  1. Check with your finger for any pin bones and remove them with tweezers if it’s the case
  2. With a sharp knife, make shallow incisions on the skin, about 1/2 cm apart from each other. Pinch the fillet between the thumb and index as shown below, it will make it easier:
    037
  3. Sprinkle with smoked salt, cover with cling film and refrigerate for 20 minutes
  4. Heat 3 tbsp. of oil in a large skillet, pat the fillets dry on both sides and place the fillets, skin side down, on the pan.
  5. The heat will make the skin retract and the fillet curve: press the fillets down with a spoon or a fish slice until they can hold the shape. NOTE: It’s very important that there is direct contact between the skin and the pan, because you want the fillets to cook quickly and the skin to get crispy. If you are making more than one fillet, you can place a weight on top of it. I use a ramekin in the picture below:
    009
  6. Cook on high heat until the upper side is almost white
  7. Turn them and cook the other side for 30 seconds

To serve, make a bed of aubergines and place the fillet, skin side up, on top of it, with the roasted tomatoes, on the side; drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with finely chopped chives (or parsley)

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).

093

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.

096

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!)

120

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.

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.
————————————————————————————
Ingredients:

5 eggs
150g white sugar
150g plain flour (or, preferably, 75g flour and 75g cornstarch)
————————————————————————————

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)

Frutti di Mare (Seafood pasta sauce)

103

—————————————————————————————————

Basic techniques needed:

Tomato Sauce
And at least one of the following:

How to steam mussels
Prawns & prawn stock
———————————————————————————————

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

——————————————————————————————

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
    098
  • 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.

078 091

  • 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
  • 098
  • 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)

Meatballs

Ingredients:

500g beef, veal or pork meat
1 medium egg
25 ml whole milk
80g red onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
15g finely chopped parsley
10g breadcrumbs
10g Salt

The first consideration is on the meat that should be used: I indicated beef, veal or pork, as they can be used alternatively or together, or two out of three can be used – most people do not have an issue with beef, but veal is rather expensive and hard to find in the UK, and some do not eat pork and not only for religious reasons.

I haven’t included lamb because (apart from being generally quite fatty), it’s got a very strong flavour and you should use it only if the other ingredients of choice work well with it.
However, rather than the type of meat, as the choice depends on your taste and circumstances, I would like to focus on the amount of fat that the meat should contain.

Health-conscious people will be tempted to buy lean or even extra lean mince, but the result will be that your meatballs will be quite dry and not very pleasant.

On the other hand, choosing meat with a very high fat content will give you very nice meatballs but will have a bad effect on your waistline (and cholesterol level etc.).

I found out that a good compromise is a mince with a fat content of 10-15%, that will keep your meatballs moist and won’t hit you too hard on the calories side. If you are buying pre-packed mince, the fat content per 100g will be clearly stated on the label (they even show it on a pie chart nowadays), otherwise you can ask your butcher.

Once that the meat has been chosen, we can focus on the other ingredients: onion, garlic and parsley will add some flavour; these meatballs are quite neutral because I am mainly explaining the process, but I will provide more recipes that include other ingredients, herbs and spices to offer more variety.

The other ingredients are needed to give the right texture: the milk will make your meat softer, the eggs, as their proteins coagulate during the cooking process, will make the meat balls firm and the breadcrumbs will make the mix less sticky and easier to work, as well as firming the meatballs up as they cook.

The preparation, once that all the ingredients have been measured (you won’t need to measure them every time, but I suggest you do it at least the first times, till you get a bit of practice) is very simple:

  1. Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl (if you have a planetary mixer you can use the K-beater)
  2. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes
  3. Using the palm of your hands, make little balls

Once made, the meatballs can be cooked in many different ways, the most popular one in Italy probably being in tomato sauce.

To do that, simply bring the tomato sauce to a simmer and gently place the meatballs in it, shaking slightly the pan but without stirring at the beginning or they will break. They will be ready in 15 minutes

Tomato Sauce

Tomato sauce is one of the most popular sauces in Italian cooking. It is normally served with pasta but can be used in many different recipes.
What I describe here is the most basic and, so to speak, neutral tomato sauce. Other ingredients can be added depending on what the sauce is for, but these are the steps to obtain a very good base.

————————————————————————————-
INGREDIENTS

800g peeled tomatoes
400ml water
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped (See: how to Chop an onion in Basics)
3 garlic cloves, finely chooped
1 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
————————————————————————————-

A consideration on the tomatoes: you might use fresh tomatoes instead, but since not all tomatoes are suitable for a sauce and they need to be treated before cooking, we can stick to peeled tomatoes for now as they guarantee consistent results, as long as you buy good quality ones.

First, sweat your onion in two tablespoons of olive oil, on a very low flame, and after 4-5 minutes, add the garlic, being careful as it will burn very quickly if the oil is too hot. A minute or so should be enough for the garlic, and now it’s time to add the tomatoes.
When adding the tomatoes, what we want is to get rid of the seeds and the bits of skin still attached to them. Back in the days, a vegetable mill was used; although it is still a good tool to have, it is pretty time consuming to use and to wash, and people simply prefer using a hand blender.

075

The problem using a hand blender is that the seeds will stay intact; therefore, what I normally do, is to blend the tomatoes and them pass them through a sieve:

You can see below all the seeds that would otherwise have gone into your sauce:

062

As you can see, I’ve added some water at the end; all recipes that you will see call for a fairly long cooking time, from 30 to 90 minutes let’s say: if you don’t add some water to open up your sauce it will become too thick, will stick to the bottom of the pan and eventually burn.

The quantity of water can vary depending on how long you want to cook the sauce for, how thick you want it to be , but half of the weight of the tomatoes is a good starting point.
After adding the water, bring the sauce to the boil quickly and then turn down and simmer gently for at least 40 minutes or until the sauce reaches the desired thickness. I also suggest that you skim the surface every now and then as a foam will form:

064066

Towards the end, add the salt and sugar
NOTE: the above quantities of salt and sugar are only a rough guideline, and I suggest that you add them little by little and taste the sauce; with a bit of practice you will know what the right quantity is. Also, some people don’t add sugar to their tomato sauce; I do it firstly because tomatoes have their own acidity and the sweetness of the sugar counterbalances it very well; furthermore, if I’m using peeled tomatoes this is even more important as citric acid is added to them as a preservative

Another important thing to take into account is that this sauce tastes better if you let it cool down before using it