Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Pesce spada alla ghiotta

I try to be open-minded when I visit my favorite local fish market. Although I might walk in with a plan of buying Manila clams to make a pasta sauce or of picking up a piece of black cod to marinate in miso, I remind myself to take a careful look at what else is in the case and to be flexible.  That’s why a couple of weeks ago I set out for the Monterey Fish Market in Berkeley to buy some scallops, but came home with a beautiful piece of swordfish.

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960’s, it seemed to me that every grocery store and seafood restaurant sold swordfish. Then the fish disappeared. I remember hearing about high mercury levels in local catches. Or was it overfished? Whatever the reason(s) swordfish vanished, you can buy it now, but with this caveat: the EPA cautions “women who might become pregnant; women who are pregnant; nursing mothers; (and) young children” against eating swordfish, shark, king mackerel or tilefish, because they contain high levels of mercury.  The EPA writes that “nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of methylmercury. However, larger fish that have lived longer have the highest levels...because they’ve had more time to accumulate it.”

Noting the EPA’s warning (but more than reasonably satisfied that I do not fall in any high-risk group), I arrived home with my swordfish steak.

When I think swordfish, I think Sicily. I pulled an armful of Sicilian cookbooks off my library shelf. I wanted a dish with with tomatoes, olives and capers.  After looking at all of the variations on this theme, I decided to go with a recipe entitled Pesce spada alla ghiotta (translated as Tasty swordfish) from an Italian/English language cookbook called Sicilia in cucina – The flavours of Sicily (2013) from SIME Books. I like this recipe’s absolute simplicity. It takes very little time to make—maybe 30 minutes, tops—and tastes absolutely fantastic: bold yet fresh. Here’s the English version of Pesce spada alla ghiotta, which serves 4.

300 g (10½ oz) swordfish, sliced
200 g (7 oz) potatoes
200 g (7 oz) canned peeled tomatoes
½ onion
green olives, pitted
1 tablespoon desalinated capers
chilli (sic) pepper
extra virgin olive oil

Sauté the chopped onion in plenty of oil and add the olives, desalinated capers, peeled tomatoes, chilli (sic) pepper, salt and pepper.

Cook for 20 minutes.

Add the swordfish and cook for a further 5 minutes.

Boil the potatoes separately. Peel and slice them, then add to the fish. Sprinkle with chopped basil.

I’ll add a few notes to the above. I like to cube the swordfish because I think this helps to keep the fish from getting overcooked and dry. I use about 10 large castelvetrano olives and red-skinned potatoes. If you want to skip the potatoes, I think the swordfish and its sauce work very well with rigatoni. The book’s editor pairs the dish with a 2009 Italian frapatto and nero d’avola blend from Arianna Occhipinti called “SP 68”. Fantastic choice. Paul Marcus Wines in Berkeley often has this hard-to-find red wine, but the shop was currently out of its stock when I dropped in to pick up a bottle (or two…or three). But the shop did have Occhipinti’s frappato, which costs more, but goes wonderfully with Pesce spada alla ghiotta.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Bread and Butter Pudding

I like Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories (1994) and Second Helpings of Roast Chicken (2001) very much indeed. (See here and here.) Hopkinson penned his first Roast Chicken offering with Lindsey Bareham, a food writer with more than a few cookbooks under her belt. While Hopkinson and Bareham worked on Roast Chicken and Other Stories, they “began to reminisce about the hotel and restaurant dishes they had grown up with and always loved….” Think Chicken Kiev, Duck à l’Orange, Boeuf à la Bourguignonne, Trout with Almonds, Crêpes Suzette and Pêche Flambee. This reverie led to The Prawn Cocktail Years, a collection of winsome dishes that have fallen out of favor due to the ever-shifting sands of food trends. If you are over a certain age, you’ll recognize these dishes from a bygone era of dining. It is as you’ve picked up a vintage issue of the now defunct Gourmet Magazine.

But the thing is, these dishes can taste delicious! Yes, many an ambivalent kitchen wreaked havoc upon these foods, but that doesn’t mean the dish itself was bad in the first place. Thus, the stated purpose of The Prawn Cocktail Years: “…to redefine the Great British Meal and rescue other similarly maligned classic dishes from years of abuse, restoring them to their former status.” I dare say that when Bareham and Hopkinson wrote these words in 1997, they were ahead of the culinary curve: Deviled Eggs and Angels on Horseback are hot again.

Flipping through The Prawn Cocktail Years, I came across a number of recipes I wanted to try, including Bareham and Hopkinson’s take on Bread and Butter Pudding. Topped with orange marmalade, the dessert is easy to make and tastes outstanding. Fine ingredients will produce the best results, so go for the good stuff with this recipe.

Serves 4-6

400ml milk
1 vanilla pod
2 tbsp caster sugar
approximately 75g soft butter
125g white bread, medium sliced, crusts removed
75g sultanas
3 large eggs
freshly grated nutmeg
350g good quality marmalade
200ml whipping cream.

Pre-heat the oven to 325ºF/160ºC/gas mark 3.

Bring the milk slowly to the boil with the vanilla pod, giving it a good bashing to release the tiny seeds, and simmer gently for 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, stir in the sugar until it dissolves, and cover with a lid to infuse while you deal with the bread.

Butter a 1-litre shallow ovenproof dish. Spread the bread with butter, cut it in half diagonally, then into quarters. Arrange the slices in the dish and distribute the sultanas between them.

Whisk the eggs in a bowl. Remove the vanilla pod (which can be saved and re-used) and whisk in the milk and whipping cream. Pour the eggy milk over the bread, making sure that all the sultanas remain covered. Dust the surface with grated nutmeg and dot with any remaining butter. Leave the dish to stand for 20 minutes.

Heat the marmalade in a small pan until it turns liquid. Pour through a sieve to catch the peel. Using a pastry brush or spoon, smear the top of the pudding with a generous glaze of marmalade. Bake for 35-40 minutes until the custard has set and the top has billowed and turned golden with crunchy bits where the bread has poked through the custard. Allow it to settle and cool slightly. Serve the remaining strained marmalade in a jug to be spooned over each helping, along with cold, thick cream.

Note: You could, if you wish, chop the strained peel and add it to the pudding with the sultanas; alternatively the sultanas could be soaked in hot rum or whisky—or either alcohol could be added to the marmalade sauce.

Some things to consider when making this dish: If you use the sultanas (or chopped, thick-cut orange peel), do make sure that they are well tucked in and buried between the slices of bread. Otherwise you risk a dish topped with burnt and bitter bits of fruit.

If your marmalade is chock-full of heavy, thick-cut peel, you will want to liquefy more than 350 grams; you want enough liquid jam to coat the soaked bread. And speaking of bread, cut the crust off before weighting out 125 grams.

Sunday, June 22, 2014


This is the last post in my recent series on comfort food recipes. I wrote this series to memorialize, share and celebrate a handful of worthy recipes from family and friends. The first post features a simple American chicken braise (here); the second explores an Italian spinach gnocco (here). Today’s recipe makes an Armenian fermented cabbage, wheat berry and beef stew called tutoo (sometimes spelled tutu and tatoo). The recipe comes from my paternal grandmother who was the only member of my family that made this dish because, I’m guessing, the fermentation process scared away anyone else in my family interested in making it. In truth, once you get comfortable with fermenting the cabbage, the recipe is a snap. Hopefully, this post demystifies the process and encourages you to make this unique and comforting Armenian stew.

Tutoo means sour in Armenian, and the stew can live up to its name. The dish includes both fermented cabbage and the brine used to pickle the cabbage. Most Armenian cookbooks and on-line recipes call for a 10-day fermentation period. This duration might be perfectly fine depending upon one’s taste, but my family likes its tutoo really sour. My dad will sometimes squeeze lemon juice into his stew if it doesn’t meet his sour threshold. To keep the lemons at bay, I let the cabbage ferment for around 21 days.

My grandmother made her tutoo without a written recipe. My grandfather adored the stew, so she knew the recipe by heart.  In order to learn how to make it, I filmed my grandmother while she prepared the cabbage to ferment and again when she cooked the stew. During the filming, she patiently waited as I measured out all the ingredients. Since that time—over 20 years past as I write this post—I have converted the amounts of the brining ingredients from volumes to metric weights, which I think produces more consistent results.

For the Fermented Cabbage

90 grams sea salt
3 kilograms water
45 grams hard red wheat berries
5 grams sugar
55 grams champagne vinegar
3 heads small-sized cabbage, cored and cut into 1/8-inch wedges

1) In a large pot, add the salt and water and bring to a boil. Cool the brine to 120ºF.

2) While the brine cools, rinse the wheat berries and put them into a wide-mouth 1-gallon glass jar. Add the sugar and vinegar. Tightly pack the cabbage wedges into the jar. As you work your way to the top of the jar you may need to cut the wedges into smaller pieces. Don’t worry if you cannot fit all three heads of cabbage into the jar; tightly pack in as much of the cabbage as possible.

 3) Pour the brine into the jar to cover the cabbage. Insert a small plate or bowl into the jar’s mouth to help keep the cabbage submerged in the brine. Loosely cap the jar. Retain 1 cup of brine to add to the jar during fermentation to keep the cabbage covered with liquid.

4) Place the jar on a plate (in case your fermentation bubbles over) and store out of direct sunlight in your kitchen.  Ferment the cabbage for 21 days (or to taste) at room temperature. Check on the cabbage every day or so to make sure it is submerged in brine. Use the retained brine to top off the jar as necessary.

For the Stew

2 pounds bone-in beef short ribs, each rib cut into 3-inch pieces
beef bone(s) [optional]
½ cup hard red wheat berries
2 medium onions, halved and sliced
fermented cabbage, cut into 2-inch pieces
8 ounces tomato sauce
1 tablespoon dried sweet basil
⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper

1) Remove any excess fat from the beef ribs. Place the ribs (and beef bone(s), if using) in a heavy enameled 7-quart pot. Strain the brine from the fermented cabbage into the pot. Rinse and add the ½ cup wheat berries to the pot. (Do not use the spent berries from the fermentation jar; throw these berries out). Bring the pot to a boil, reduce to a gentle simmer and cook for 1 hour. Skim off any impurities.

2) After 1 hour, remove the beef bone(s), if using. Add the sliced onions, fermented cabbage, tomato sauce, dried sweet basil and cayenne pepper. Bring pot back to a gentle simmer, cover and cook for approximately 2 hours until the beef becomes tender.

I imagine that everyone has a food that, upon taking in its smell or the first bite, magically transports one back to childhood. So it is for me with this dish. When I smell it cooking, it is like when the food critic Anton Ego in Pixar’s Ratatouille first samples Remy’s version of the film’s titular dish. I am back at my grandmother’s table, surrounded with family, sharing a special meal that, yes, takes weeks to make, but tastes so delicious and comforting. Its rarity made it all the more special. How can I let such a glorious food fade away with time and the passing of a generation of Armenian grandmothers? I cannot, so I happily share this family recipe.