the ultimate comfort food: spaghetti with clams

When I need comfort food, there is very little than can compete with a big bowl of perfectly al dente spaghetti, butter, clams, garlic, and yes, a fabulous pecorino.  I don’t care if all of Italy sneers in my face because I enjoy shellfish with cheese. I happen to like it, so THERE.  I totally understand the argument that cheese can mask the natural aroma of great seafood, but I’m tired of this antiquated myth circling about that eating cheese and seafood will give you an upset stomach, and/or make you a trashy human being. It won’t and if you like the taste, I hereby give you permission to grate away.

This quick dish can be filed under 10-minute meals.

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 pound of pasta
  • 4 Tablespoons of butter
  • 1 medium shallot, loosely diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 cans of clams (I used the 6.5oz cans of Trader Joes’ Maine Whole Cherrystone Clams)
  • Salt to taste
  • Grated Pecorino or Pamesan (optional, to taste)

Recipe:

  • Vigorously salt a large vat of water and bring to a boil.
  • Throw in the pound of pasta once the water is hot and time it according to your preference. I usually cook spaghetti for 8 1/2 minutes, testing it along the way until it has the perfect bite.
  • Meanwhile as the water boils and pasta cooks, heat 2 Tablespoons of butter on a skillet. Be careful not to let it burn (I love ghee, or clarified butter for this very reason).
  • Once the pan is hot, toss in the shallots and cook for one to two minutes. Then add the garlic. After another minute finally add in the clams.
  • Drain the pasta and then throw it back into the pot, along with the clams. Toss 2 more Tablespoons of butter (or however much you need to get the pasta coated).
  • Salt to taste and grate fresh pecorino or parmesan over each serving (optional).

Rome: Getting your grub on in the Eternal City

Before going to Rome in December I spent a good amount of time practicing my Italian (food) vocabulary (“Il mio ragazzo è un vegetariano … mi dispiace, lui è strano”), studying up on my knowledge of Roman cuisine and scouring forums to figure out the all-important question of “Where the hell should we eat?” I am a somewhat spontaneous person but I don’t mess around with food when traveling, especially in this age of online resources and especially if you, like me, are hinged to a limited budget and don’t want any precious funds to go to waste on mediocre food. The resounding advice on many forums was rather depressing: “Rome doesn’t have a good restaurant culture.” I of course believed the throngs of ex-pats and locals who explain how every trattoria and ristorante is inferior, lacking in authenticy and tarred by tourism.

I tried not to fixate on the naysayers and kept reminding myself that even if we lived off rubbery pizza for a week, we were leaving to Sicily for Christmas where we would most certainly mangiare bene (huge post to come).

But, lucky for us, everyone was wrong about Rome.

Sure, Rome might be flooded with tourists, but there is a vibrant restaurant culture tucked away from the main piazzas and hidden down damp alleyways. I can promise you, that as someone who has eaten her way from Bari, Palermo, Napoli, the Amalfi Coast, Verona, Venezia, Sienna, Firenze and all the small villages in between, I can guarantee you that Rome is wearing its big boy pants. The key is to go off the beaten path, honor tradition and [wait for it] do as the Romans do (I give you permission to cringe…) But the adage is true. The majority of great places to dine at are located away from the main strips, serve locally-inspired fare and are filled with Italians (and I’m not talking about the strange hybrid-kind from Jersey.)

After a day of walking from the Vatican to the Colosseum  we wanted needed some hearty food to get us back up to the historic center. This trattoria pictured below, Taverna dei Quaranta serves simple, hearty, flavorful food and is highly recommended if you want to eat close to the Forum and Colosseum. We went during an “off” time (it was rather empty aside from a lingering party of Italians finishing their wine from lunch) but were treated kindly and left full and tipsy.

Before doing the whole Vatican thing one morning, Dhiren and I spontaneously stumbled upon the Italian version of Zabar’s, Castroni Caffe di Scaglione. This place is way cooler than any Willy Wonka candy shop. Your eyes (and wallet) will go nuts. Since we were in Rome days before Christmas, it was the perfect time to people watch and rummage through the seasonal products for Natale. After figuring out how to pay, we squeezed our way into a small spot on the coffee counter between a sea of morning”commuters” and had a perfect cappuccino and cornetto. We took an extra brioche stuffed with surprisingly-not-too-sweet-whipped cream to-go and received lots of stares from concerned Italians who had the misfortune of seeing us like this:

We were lucky enough to have stayed at a one-room B&B right in the heart of the historic district with ample dining options only steps away. One of our faves was Alfredo e Ada. Always a line out the door, this place boasts a cozy, dark atmosphere with a daily menu that changes according to what’s good at the market that day. Seasonal fare like radish and artichoke lasagnas, bacaloa and a to-kill-for carbonara are offered with no options for customization. In a world with way to many choices, this was happy news to me. Sometimes, all a type-A, over-analytical girl wants is to sit down, get comfortable and be told she doesn’t have options. EAT THIS AND SHUT UP. Yes, please.

I don’t care if it is 20 degrees outside, hailing or if I’m deathly sick: when I’m in Italy, I need gelato and good luck to anyone who tries to get in my way. I definitely ate an obscene amount of gelato on this trip. But out of all the places I dragged the boyfriend to, my favorite was hands-down Giolitti. Only after stumbling upon this place did we later find out its apparent history and popularity. The gelato is light, fluffy and topped with whipped cream. Highly recommended.

Another place that was relatively close to our B&B was Osteria de Memmo. We bumped into the place on accident while looking for another restaurant and now I know: this was an act of God. The food here is LEGIT. So legit, that I begged the boyfriend to bring us back a couple days later. It does have a radically different atmosphere compared to the working-class trattorias and pizza houses we typically find ourselves at. You will be surrounded by portly Milanese politicians eating piles of food, Italian desperate housewives with their Pucci clad, model husbands and sophisticated children eating swordfish. The clientele were too classy to stare at my boyfriend and I, who were poorly dressed, sweaty and brutish, lugging around a 5lb camera. The owner, Memmo, was really friendly, albeit intimidating in a “larger than life,” Godfather sort of way. We left with an extremely awkward photo with the man himself, although it won’t be seen here on account of our troll-like appearance.

The food at Memmo’s is fabulous. Flavorful pasta dishes and some of the best veal I’ve ever (or will ever) eat in my life. Though I didn’t try any of the seafood, from the looks of the place, it’s what you order here.

I’m a major pizza addict and snob and as such I knew that I had to try whatever great pizza Rome had to offer. (And to all those people who complain about how “You don’t eat pizza in Rome… it’s all about Napoli”: F You. Naples doesn’t have a copyright on good pizza.)

We were lucky to find Dar Poeta in Trastevere. First of all, this place is off the beaten path, down a dark alley in a hip part of town. Cool kids in leather jackets puff their cigarette smoke into the air while saying extremely witty and sarcastic things in Italian. Secondly, we were the only non-Italian speaking people in this place. Third, there was a long, long, awkward wait. All good signs. We sucked in our guts in order to shuffle into a tightly-packed room, sat down, chugged back a liter of wine  and enjoyed our mushroom and fresh mozzarella bufala pizzas.

Nearing the end of our week in Rome, we wanted to spend less money and eat some down-home, no-frills food. Our B&B owner recommended a place around the corner from Piazza Navona called Navona Notte. We were seriously skeptical, mainly because of the name and its proximity to the Piazza. We also made the mistake of trying to come here for lunch only to find it closed. Our B&B owner Luciano pointed out rather sarcastically that this restaurant has the word “Notte” in it for a reason. This is duly noted. When they were open, we were surprised to find a humble restaurant full of working-class Italians looking to get their grub on. The food is simple, cheap and delicious. They also serve pizza from a wood fire oven. I warn you that this place is located in a highly touristy area and so you will have several restaurant owners misguide you if you ask for directions. Many people will laugh at your face when they hear “Navona Notte” and try to distract and lure you by screaming “SPAGHETTI AND MEATBALLS!!!!” in your face. Do not falter my friend.

If you’re heading to Rome anytime soon, I recommend:

Taverna dei Quaranta
Via Claudia, 24  00184 Rome, Italy
+39 06-700-0550
(For great lunch and dinner fare close to the Colosseum)

Alfredo & Ada
Via dei Banchi Nuovi, 14  00186 Rome, Italy
+39 06-687-8842
(For their daily-changing menu. Fabulous spot for lunch or dinner. In the antique district.)

Castroni di Scaglione
Via Cola di Rienzo, 196, 00196 Rome, Italy
+39 06-687-4383
(For grocery products, sweets, souvenirs and fabulous pastries and coffee. Close to the Vatican.)

Giolitti 
Via degli Uffici del Vicario, 40  00186 Rome, Italy
+39 06-699-1243
(Great for gelato & coffee; historic and quaint)

Osteria de Memmo
Via dei Soldati, 22/23, 00186 Rome, Italy
Phone:+39 06-6813-5277
(Great for a special lunch or dinner; fantastic seafood, meat and pasta in an elegant atmosphere)

Dar Poeta
Vicolo del Bologna, 45  00153 Rome, Italy
+39 06-588-0516
(Located in a hip, youthful neighborhood, fantastic pizza)

Navona Notte
Via del Teatro Pace, 44  186 Rome, Italy
+39 06-686 9278
(Great for a dinner on a budget)

Italian Fig Cookie Day & A Very Happy New Year

Let me start by saying: 2011 was a fabulous year! It was full of family, food, travels, love and happiness. We got to go to New York, Connecticut, San Diego, Northern California on two occasions, Venice, Florence, Verona, Tuscany and Paris.  I acquired my first crock pot, pasta and ice cream maker in 2011, along with a wide range of smaller, nifty appliances. We moved into a bigger apartment with a bigger kitchen!  And there was generally a lot of cooking, new experiences, traveling, restaurants and fun. I hope 2012 treats us even half as well.

I hope you all had a wonderful and tasty December. I ate so many rich and delicious things. I’m definitely ready to shift to the obligatory post-New Year’s healthy eating and Weight Watchers counting. But for now, let’s reminisce:

 

Last month I did a lot of cooking for the end of the year celebrations: I made a nifty beef stew, my first calzone, lots of cookies, lemon bars, crepes among other things. In the middle of the month I went to my Aunt Marie’s in Huntington Beach, to join her, my Nana, Papa, Uncle Ron and cousin Keith in making our families’  annual fig cookies, also known as cuccidati. Growing up I remember my Nana making these every year! I didn’t like them as a kid (how many kids truly love dried figs?) but now I love them and the nostalgia they conjure up. The fig filling, which consists of nuts, spices and dried figs (or apricots in some cases), is made well in advance- I remember my Nana making it in November long before Christmas. This is not a “I-feel-like-a-cookie-in-30-minutes” kind of cookie.

My Aunt Marie gave me the recipe but insisted that I keep it secret. Normally I would go ahead and share any recipe I stumble upon on here, but I’m going to honor her wish and keep it in the family.

A simple google search led me to quite a few good recipes that are pretty similar though, just in case one of you wants to try them:

Food Network’s Recipe

Anna Maria Volpi’s Recipe

My Nana and Aunt Marie both made their own dough and filling, and in the spirit of friendly competition they kept their ingredients and tools segregated. Aunt Marie’s filling was denser, less sweet and chunkier, but her dough was a little easier to work with. Nana’s filling was sweeter (and thus, as a sugar addict I liked it more), but the dough was a little heartier and tougher to roll.

Both of their cookies turned out fabulous though and nearly indistinguishable.

Me, Papa and my mom’s cousin, Keith, joined in and helped roll, fill and sprinkle  (and of course, we ate a few cookies in the process). Aunt Marie also made a big spread for us, consisting of a pomegranate and persimmon salad, some pizzas and an eggplant and zucchini caponata. You gotta be well fed before working a cookie assembly line.

They blasted Frank Sinatra for a while and we had a great time. This will definitely be a tradition I pass down to my kids and grandchildren someday, and these photos and memories will be cherished for a long time! Next year I am going to start ahead of time and make my own batch to bring to the party!

What I personally love about assembling these is the creativity you can employ! You can make them bite-sized, larger, and roll them into different shapes and styles. Some people also drizzle icing on theirs, which I plan to do next year with mine. 

Aunt Marie & Nana

Hope you all had a very happy December, a Merry Christmas and a beautiful New Year!

Salmon, Fusilli & Homemade Pesto

I am so behind on posts, it’s border-line ridiculous. I have dozens of great recipes and posts to publish and I am devoting tonight towards writing  a few entries.

This morning Dhiren and I were talking about the impending New Year and 2012. I was complaining expressing how overwhelmed I feel with all my “projects.” I love photography, cooking, teaching and singing equally, but finding time for all of those things in one day is close to impossible. On top of this, I’m also committed to getting fit and losing weight (down 10lbs since September!) and that takes tons of time and a wholelotta commitment as well. Days when I’m able to sing, get some photography work done, cook, eat well, practice, work out and teach come about once a month. Most days I’m left feeling… frazzled.

BUT, Dhiren reminded me that the beauty of this food blog is that it helps to keep me sane. It’s nice having a hobby where you don’t feel a pressure make money with. It’s a total labor of love. And since I need to eat  on a daily basis (sometimes hourly) it’s easy to incorporate it in my life. So here’s a toast to this food blog, for keeping me sane in 2011 and giving me the chance to test out a LOT of different recipes and ideas in the kitchen.

Today I’m highlighting one of the tastiest dishes I’ve had in a long time– oh, and it’s healthy too! Salmon on a bed of fusilli topped with homemade pesto. Dhiren made the pesto, and since it’s his recipe, I’m going to ask him to write a guest post on it soon. This doesn’t even warrant a recipe, since I didn’t season the fish myself either.

I simply bought a package of Wild Pacific Chimichuri salmon at TJ’s, boiled the pasta, let Dhiren make the pesto and threw it all together. This was literally ready in 15 minutes! I LOVE easy, filling meals that keep you full for a long time.

The next couple posts will be much more detailed. Stay tuned for Sicilian Fig Cookies, Homemade Calzone and Bread Pudding! MMM. ‘Tis the season to break your diets.

Eating Out @ Claro’s Italian Market

A couple of the families I teach for live close to Claro’s Italian Market in Tustin. This means that once a week on my route, I am consumed with one thought:

Italian cookies.

We don’t really have many options here in Orange County when it comes to good, authentic Italian bakeries and stores. Growing up in Arcadia & Monrovia, CA I was lucky enough to live close to another Claro’s and I have tons of nostalgic memories of going there with my Nana on her trips to get fresh deli meat, cheeses and of course, cookies.

So, once in a while I cave in and make a pit stop for some of my favs. I really want to master some Italian cookie and pastry recipes (namely, the chocolate buttons, rainbow cookies, shells with cream, plain anisette cookies, Mom’s chocolate chip biscotti, fig cookies and sfogliatelle, which you can’t find in So Cal). My Nana is the person to go to for that Italian fig cookie recipe. Every year she makes them around Christmas and I hope to have her teach me this year so I can continue the tradition in my own home.

[gasp: stolen photo from the internet #1]

Anyhow, I went to Claro’s a few weeks ago to garner all of the ingredients for tiramisu which I brought to Dhi’s family reunion in Cayucos. The tiramisu turned out “ok.” You definitely need to soak the ladyfingers in authentic espresso and a liquer to give it any sort of oomph. Mine was only soaked in (dare I confess it) instant espresso. It was an Italian brand, but it was on a pinch since I was sans espresso maker at the time. The actual dessert is REALLY expensive to make though! I mean, for the sweet marsala and marscapone alone, you’re looking at a $15 cake.’

Anyhow, sweet dreams of cookies.

[gasp: stolen photo from the internet #2]

(PS: Despite having a crazy birthday week including a 6-course French meal, lots of cupcakes, sweets galore and many splurges, I lost 2lbs at my weigh-in today! How cool is that? The pilates, walking and counting points paid off for the rest of the week. I’m officially down 4.6lbs on Weight Watchers, and loving it. I’ll post more about it when I hit my 10% loss and have something substantial to boast about.)

Mushroom Risotto: A Step-By-Step Guide

I normally loathe making step-by-step guides. When I cook and am in the zone, it’s hard for me to break the flow and take out the camera. But, risotto is such a lengthy process, that it’s a little easier. These step-by-step guides take forever to write and assemble though, so enjoy this one while it lasts.

I have found that the key to good risotto is constant stirring for about 50 minutes to an hour, on medium-low heat. This requires a glass of wine, a chair to sit on, and some sort of book or smartphone to get you through the hour. It’s going to get hot and sweaty and your arm will feel like falling off.

At one point I whined to Dhiren that I was feeling dizzy, and he rescued me while I sat in the living room in front of the fan. So, it helps to have a significant other nearby to take over for you if you’re weak, like me.

Though even he complained, “You have to stir this for an hour?”

Here’s my step-by-step guide to a delicious risotto, adapted from this version on All Recipes.

  • 5 cups chicken broth, divided
  • Olive oil as needed
  • Combination of portobello, white mushrooms and/or crimini. I used a combination of all three. Use as much as you like. I used two portabellos, a bag of Crimini and 1/2 pound of white. It depends on your preference.
  • 2 shallots, diced
  • 1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • sea salt to taste
  • freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped chives
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Step 1: Prep your ingredients. As you need to be in front of the pan stirring, you won’t have time to chop and grate, so do it before. Clean and chop all your mushrooms & shallots, grate the Parmesan and have everything measured out.
Step 2: Heat up the chicken broth in a separate pot.
Step 3: In a big skillet, heat up some oil and cook the mushrooms until soft. They won’t be cooked much longer after this point, so be sure they are done. Pour the juice and mushrooms into a bowl and set aside.
Step 4: Heat some oil in the large skillet, and then saute the shallots until light.
Step 5: Pour in the rice and stir continuously until slightly clear.
Step 6: Play with your rice.
Step 7: Slowly pour in the wine, little by little and stir until it is fully incorporated.
Step 8: Add the chicken broth one ladle at a time, stirring constantly. Do not add the next ladle until all the broth is incorporated. This step should take anywhere from 50-60 minutes, depending on your skillet and heat. I like the starch to release slower, which takes a lower heat and more stirring. The rice should ooze like lava, but still remain a little al dente. Mushy risotto is no good.
Step 9: Once all the broth is incorporated, remove from heat and mix-in the mushrooms, butter, chives and Parmesan.
Step 10: Serve immediately and enjoy with wine and a salad.

One last dessert (for now…)

I’ve been whipping up way too many desserts lately, and it’s gonna stop. Yesterday I taught the boyfriend how to make brownies. We made a 9×9 round pan of them, and they were shamefully gone by the following morning. They were probably the best brownies I’ve had in years, but no– this honeymoon from health has to come to a stop for a while. I’ve noticed an unwelcome change in circumference and so I think I best lay off the dessert recipes in exchange for the healthy ones. BUT, before we delve into weeks of healthy eating, let’s have one more indulgence: Affogato, otherwise known as the adult version of a root beer float.

Make about 1/4 cup of DARK & BOLD coffee or espresso. I used a cloth tea strainer filled with finely grounded espresso bean and piping hot water, and it worked like a gem. Then pour that over a high-end vanilla ice cream or gelato and top with whipped cream if you have it lying around (or make it yourself if you’re feeling especially snazzy!)

It tastes better if it’s in a Morris cup too… none of this pretentious martini glass BS that you get in Italian restaurants.

Enjoy! Next up: healthy dinner, a special guest entry AND for an off-topic post, how to give yourself a rockin French manicure at home.