Linguine al Nero di Seppia

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***I was much interested, on several occasions, by watching the habits of an Octopus or cuttle-fish … they darted tail first, with the rapidity of an arrow, from one side of the pool to the other, at the same instant discolouring the water with a dark chestnut-brown ink.***
Charles Darwin

Basics needed: How to cook pasta

Cuttlefish is a mollusc (and not a fish like the English would suggest) that belongs to the class Cephalopoda, order Sepiidae (which has a common root with the Italian name, Seppia).

The class Cephalopoda includes also octopus and squid, and these molluscs all share an escape mechanism they use when they are attacked: they release a black pigment from their ink sack, which makes the water cloudy, confusing the predator and giving them enough time to jet away.

Of the three Cephalopoda I mentioned, cuttlefish is the one with the largest ink sack, and this is something with very interesting applications in cooking, as it can be used as a food colouring, like in this recipe.
Nero di Seppia, in fact, means cuttlefish ink (‘cuttlefish black’ would actually be the literal translation), and it is used as the main ingredient of a pasta sauce in coastal areas of Italy; it can also be used for Risotto, which is similar to the Spanish Arroz Negro (which means, literally, ‘Black Rice’)

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INGREDIENTS (serves four)
500 g cuttlefish (1 large or 2 small), cleaned, keeping the ink sac
1 tbsp white onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tbsp. olive oil
3 anchovy fillets

1 tbsp tomato paste
100 ml (1/2 glass) dry white wine
2 tbsp. Nam Pla (Thai fish sauce)*
1 tsp. white sugar
Cayenne pepper, to taste (optional but recommended)
Parsley, finely chopped

*: Optional (if not using, adjust the seasoning accordingly)
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  1. Clean the cuttlefish (or have the fishmonger do it for you): remove the cuttlebone, skin and internal organs, making sure you keep the ink sac (see below), then remove the eyes and mouth
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  2. Using a sharp knife score the head of the cuttlefish on the diagonal and then at 90 degrees, to create a criss-cross patter (score the inside as it is softer and easier). NOTE: this is not strictly necessary but will give a better result
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  4. Cut the cuttlefish in fairly small peaces as below:
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  5. Sweat the onion in olive oil for 5 minutes, then add the garlic and the anchovies, and the chilli if using it
  6. When the anchovies have dissolved into the oil, add the cuttlefish; it will start releasing its water: cook on a gentle heat until the water has almost completely evaporated
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  7. Mix the tomato paste, white wine, sugar and Nam Pla with 250 ml water and add to the pan
  8. Bring to the boil and add the ink sac, then simmer until it is reduced by half
  9. Cook your spaghetti till al dente (see How to cook pasta )

Spaghetti alle vongole

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INGREDIENTS (4 people)

360g spaghetti (or linguine)
1 kg clams
16 cherry tomatoes
3 anchovy fillets
100 ml dry white wine (optional)
3 garlic cloves, minced
Finely chopped parsley

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Basic Techniques needed:
Clams
How to cook pasta

Spaghetti alle Vongole is a very simple dish that will definitely impress your guests.
Follow this process and you will get the true taste of the sea:

  1.  Mince the garlic and chop the parsley
  2. Steam the clams (see Clams for details):
    Thoroughly wash the shells, discarding any broken ones
    Steam in a pan, lid on, until they open up
    Discard the shells that didn’t open
    Filter the liquid
  3. Shell about half of the clams, leaving the other half in the shell
  4. 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;
  5. In 2 tbsp. olive oil, shallow fry the minced garlic on very low heat, being very careful it doesn’t get brown (burnt garlic will ruin your dish), about 1 minute, then add the anchovy fillets
  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
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  8. When the liquid has reduced to 1/3, add the clams, including the shelled ones
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  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. NOTE: in this case, add the clams at the very end to avoid overcooking them

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 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

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.