Easter is almost here, which means it’s just a few more Fridays to Lent. Growing up in Italy, we tried to have seafood every Friday, even during non-Lent weeks. Surrounded by the ocean, it’s easy to opt for seafood any day of the week. In the US, the seafood section at the supermarket is the most expensive spot, so good seafood is almost a luxury! Whereas in southern Italy, it’s relatively inexpensive, you can also catch your own!
Quick, delicious and with a hint of crunch, these mussels au Gratin are a wonderful option for a quick week-night dinner when you want something delicious and healthy, but time is of the essence. This is another staple served in Calabria, Sicily and Puglia, where the surrounding oceans offer a bounty of fresh seafood. Be sure to spend a few minutes scrubbing the mussels clean and debearding any noticeable hair. To mix things up, you can follow the same exact recipe with clams.
Mussels au Gratin
Serves: 4 – 6
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 pounds mussels, cleaned and debearded
½ cup dry white wine
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
2 garlic cloves, minced
Juice of half lemon
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Sea salt to taste
We’re in the middle of Lent and, if you’re like me and many other Italians, you’re wondering what to eat on Friday. Sure, seafood is the obvious choice, but what are some other dishes ideal for this time of year when we’re limiting our meat intake?
In 2019, right before tourism shut down, I led a food and wine tour of Sicily. Of course, being just that, a food and wine tour, we had our share of delicious Sicilian cuisine. One dish that kept popping up in many restaurants was the dish simply known on the island as “La Norma.” When you go to any restaurant and you request this, everyone will know what you’re talking about. No, you’re not asking for the waitress or hostess named Norma, but the iconic pasta dish prepared with eggplants and tomatoes, and often topped with shaved ricotta salata, or, if that is not available, a tablespoon of fresh ricotta can be substitute. It’s a specialty of the city of Catania, but it’s served all over the eastern side of the island.
This dish is typical Sicilian in that it’s economical, hardy and convenient, and uses limited, but high quality ingredients. If you have never prepared it before, you will be surprised at how easy it is. If you have made it before, perhaps now is the time to make it again. It will be perfect for Friday night dinner.
Pasta alla Norma
Serves 4 – 6 as a first course
2 – 3 medium eggplants (about 1½ lbs)
4 tablespoons olive oil (plus extra as needed)
Salt and pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
2 tablespoons chopped basil
1 can (28 oz) crushed tomatoes, or San Marzano tomatoes
½ teaspoon dried oregano
¾ to 1 lb pasta of your choice
½ cup grated ricotta salata (or fresh ricotta)
Grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese (optional)
Growing up in southern Italy, I ate my share of ricotta. I have now traveled to much of Italy leading food and wine tours, and have eating some amazing food all over the peninsula, but I must confess, the flavor of the ricotta in Calabria is second to none. When I’m in Calabria, I eat it just about daily. The beauty of ricotta is that it’s so versatile. You can literally enjoy it from breakfast, to lunch, to dinner, to afternoon snack! In the morning, it’s wonderful for breakfast. Yes, you can enjoy it for breakfast on some toasted bread, a drizzle of honey, or as my dad enjoyed it, with a teaspoon of cherry preserve on top. At lunch it’s great in panini or added to a frittata, and for dinner, well, stuff some shells, bake some pasta or make some cannelloni! And let’s not forget how wonderful it is in desserts. It’s just the perfect ingredient for both sweet and savory dishes.
These crostini are perfect for appetizers, but also make a great lunch on their own. Serve before dinner to whet the appetite, or prepare a plateful for when guests come over, and enjoy with some white wine They also make the perfect light lunch! Of course, this is just one idea, you can also top them with anchovies, olives, capers, honey, or any other flavor that you love! It’s the simple things that are the most enjoyed.
Ricotta & Sundried Tomatoes Crostini
Serves 4 as appetizers
4 – 6 thick slices of Italian bread
1⁄4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup whole milk ricotta
Ground black pepper (optional)
Coarse sea salt
2 – 3 oz sundried tomatoes marinated in olive oil
1. Preheat the oven to broil. Place a rack on the very top shelf.
2. Lightly brush one side of the bread slices with the olive oil. Place bread on a baking sheet and place in the oven for 1 – 2 minutes. Bread should be slightly
charred but not burned. (It can quickly burn so do not walk away from the oven.)
3. In a small bowl, using a fork, gently mix the ricotta to break it up. Add ground black pepper, is using.
4. Top each of the bread slices with a large tablespoon of the ricotta. Add a light sprinkle of salt and top with top with the tomatoes. Feel free to add a bit of the oil that the tomatoes came in. Serve immediately while hot and crisp.
Eaten year-round, but especially on March 19th, the day Italy celebrates the feast day of St. Joseph, this humble dish calls for just a few ingredients. The name comes from the main ingredient used, the breadcrumbs, which is said to resemble the sawdust left behind after a carpenter’s workday. This pasta is also often served as a first course on Christmas Eve, a day Italians traditionally enjoy seafood recipes or other meatless dishes. The recipe below serves about 4 - 5 people, but you can adjust accordingly. Prep time is minimal at best, and it all takes well under 30 minutes to prepare. Plus, it’s what I call a “pantry pasta,” you should have everything you need in your panty or cupboards. Make this dish more satiating with some raisins and pine nuts. Add them to step 1 while toasting the breadcrumbs. These are typical Sicilian additions to this dish.
Also, I find toasted bread crumbs much more flavorful than plain bread crumbs, so when you’re making this recipe, toast a double batch and save the rest in the refrigerator for later. They’re great for coating chicken for chicken Parmesan cutlets.
St. Joseph’s Day Pasta
½ cup olive oil, divided
2 cups unseasoned breadcrumbs
Table salt for the pasta water
1 pound bucatini, spaghetti, fettuccini, or other long pasta
8 anchovy fillets, chopped
Crushed red pepper flakes
1. In a large sauté pan over medium heat, heat ¼ cup of oil. Add the breadcrumbs and mix with a wooden spoon. Toast the breadcrumbs until lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Set aside in a small bowl.
2. Meanwhile, in a 6-quart pot over high heat, bring about 4 quarts of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta, stir, and cook to just under al dente, about 2 minutes less than the box instructs.
3. Meanwhile, as the pasta cooks, in the same sauté pan used for the bread crumbs, add the remaining ¼ cup of oil, chopped anchovies and the oil they came in, and red pepper flakes, and cook over low heat until the oil is hot but not burning, and the anchovies break down.
4. Drain the pasta, reserving 2 or 3 tablespoons of pasta water. Add the pasta to the sauté pan. Coat evenly, adding a few tablespoons of the pasta water, or additional oil, if it’s looking dry. Continue until the pasta is fully cooked to the al dente state.
5. Turn the heat off, and add most of the breadcrumbs to the pasta, stirring to coat evenly. Season with additional salt, if needed. Plate the pasta and top each dish with the remaining breadcrumbs.
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