PASTA CON ZUCCHINE FRITTE (Pasta and fried zucchini)

Fresh Taste, Simplicity and Low Cost.

Sometimes the most simple ingredients make the most sumptuous dish.

My friend and I have just been discussing how fresh, young zucchini can make a great pasta sauce. They can be the  long, dark green skinned variety or the newer pale green ones. The round zucchini are becoming more common; these can be dark  or pale green in colour and some are variegated.

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Often, when guests come, I remind myself that having costly ingredients is not the most important factor. What is fresh, in season, and have they had it before, are far more important factors.

Pasta chi cucuzzeddi fritti (Sicilian), Pasta con zucchine fritte (Italian) is very common all over Sicily and consists of thinly sliced zucchini fried in extra virgin olive oil. Garlic is used to flavour the oil and is then discarded.

It is important to fry the zucchini in plenty of oil in a wide frypan – the zucchini will release liquid if they are overcrowded in the pan and if necessary fry the zucchini in batches.

My partner took some left over zucchini pasta to work and I was amazed when he reported to me that one of his collegues referred to this vegetable as tha blandest vegetable! I think I will need to invite this person to dinner.

Thin spaghetti is the favoured pasta for this dish – a coating of flavoured oil is preferred. Short, tubular or ridged, surfaced pasta may trap too much oil.

Like so many of the vegetable paste sauces it is made in minutes and makes me wonder why takeaways are seen as a quick solution.

 
spaghettini, 400g
zucchini 800g, sliced into approx 10 mm slices
garlic cloves, 4 squashed with the back of a knife
extra virgin olive oil, 1cup
salt and pepper
ricotta salata or pecorino pepato, grated
Heat the oil in a wide frypan and add the garlic. When it is golden discard it.
Ensure that the oil is very hot and add the zucchini – this will seal the surfaces. You could do this in a couple of batches but keep the oil very hot and add fresh oil to fry each batch.
Turn and toss till golden.
Place the fried zucchini into a bowl and add salt ( the salt is added at this stage otherwise the zucchini would have released their liquid).
Cook the pasta in salted water till al dente and drain.
Toss zucchini, oil and pasta together and add plenty of freshly ground pepper.
Serve with abundant freshly grated cheese and pepper.
 
VARIATION
· After the zucchini have been fried and set aside, reheat the oil (or add more), add about a cup of chopped parsley and 2 cloves of chopped garlic and fry this mixture for a few minutes before adding it to the pasta.
· For a favourite summer dish add a dollop of tomato salsa and fresh basil on top.
· Add a dollop of ricotta either with or without the tomato salsa.
· Chopped mint sprinkled on top of the dressed pasta is probably not traditional, but I like to do it – it accentuates the fresh zucchini taste.
And by the way… the ini at the end of any Italian word (zucchini) means small, those bigger than a finger are zucche (marrows).
Pick them young as they are intended to be.

 

WHERE I BUY MY SUSTAINABLE FISH (Happy Tuna, Queen Victoria Market)

I have always established and maintained a good relationship with all the businesses from whom I buy my produce and have been rewarded – I get very good service and the freshest produce. My fish vendor is a great example.
Happy+tuna+40125_96I consider myself very fortunate.

The seafood is always fresh, the small business is family run, and the sellers show respect for the product. I always know what I am buying because the names of the fish are clearly displayed (From 30 October 2007, The Australian Fish Names Standard – a joint initiative by the seafood industry and the Commonwealth Government – has required vendors and restaurants to use correct, nationally uniform names for all fish). Sometimes their labels also inform the buyer where they have been caught; I also know that I can always ask information about all the fish I purchase.

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At my fish vendor’s, from the counter, I can easily see whole fish being cleaned and cut into saleable portions. As part of the service, when I buy whole fish, I am asked if I would like it filleted on the spot or the few bones removed from the fillets and I know I can request different cuts or ask to vary the size of the portions without feeling embarrassed. I could not wish for better service from all the staff.

The best seafood is fresh, local and what is in season.

My first choice is to select fish, which are not in danger of extinction – sustainable fish.

I do not buy frozen or imported seafood and I am also very fussy about aquaculture.

Naples fish market 4

How fish is caught is crucial to ecological sustainability. The most common methods of commercial fishing are trawling, dredging, netting and trapping – all of which can have considerable impact through the bycatch (other fish and marine life and non-target species). All trawling and dredging damage the seafloor and seabed habitats. Wild fish, line caught (hook and line method) is the preferred, least evasive method of fishing and if I want quality produce, and if I wish to encourage Australian fishers to use more sustainable methods of fishing, I am prepared to pay for it. This may not always mean that I can afford my first choice of fish, however, in spite of my fish vendor being a small business, I can always find a selection of sustainable fish from the better choice category (classification used in the publication, Australia’s Sustainable Seafood Guide, by the Australian Conservation Society – AMCS).

There are specific websites/resources listing sustainable seafood in different countries.

Useful sites about sustainable fish:

 Australia:

Australian Conservation foundation
ACF is working with a number of environment groups to urge Australia’s governments to create a network of marine sanctuaries. You can find out more about these campaigns at Southwest Marine Sanctuaries, Coral Sea Heritage Park and East Coast Marine Sanctuaries.
The Australian Marine Conservation Society
Ocean watch
http://www.oceanwatch.org.au/OceanWatchAustralia-SustainableSeafoodForums.htm
 orate flat fish_0020

Italy:

http://www.moebiusonline.eu/fuorionda/Consumi_ittici.shtml

Canada:

http://www.seachoice.org/profile/result?rating=3

UK:

http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/oceans/what-we-are-doing/sustainable-seafood/sustainable-seafood-frequently-asked-questions

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US:
Also:
Friend of the sea
http://www.friendofthesea.org/
Fisheries and Aquaculture Department (different countries)
http://www.fao.org/fishery/countryprofiles/search/en
Marine Stewartship Council
snapper

Sustainable seafood guides (Marine Stewardship Council)

 

 

Of interest
AVAAZ.org

 

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SARDINE, CRUDE E CONDITE (Sardines – raw and marinaded)

Where would Sicilian food be without fish?

Sicily is an island, and a Catholic one at that, where the people were obliged to fast and abstain — refrain from eating meat — on certain days, mainly Lent and on Fridays.Catholics are no longer required not to eat meat on Fridays but Sicilians eat a lot of fish.
One very popular fish is the sardine, still relatively cheap in Sicily and easily available. The photograph was taken in the Palermo market in December 2008. At that time 4 euros were about $8.00 Australian.
 Sardines boxed
For example you cannot go to Sicily and not eat Pasta con le sarde. There are many regional variations of this sauce, often called by the same name, but the most famous is from Palermo made with wild fennel, pine nuts, saffron and currants.
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Sardines are perfect on a BBQ, and baked, but Sicilians also like them crude (raw) e conzate (and dressed), crude e condite in Italian. Although they are called raw, they are cooked by the lemon juice in the marinade.

Sardines are sustainable, and a good choice if you are concerned about the environment. Marinaded sardines make a great antipasto and lose that strong fishy taste that those people-who-do-not- like sardines hate.

When I first came to Australia we were unable to buy sardines, now they have become very popular (similar to squid, both were used for bait!).

The sardines must be fresh, freshly cleaned and filleted with no head, central spine or innards. Begin your preparations one day ahead.

INGREDIENTS

sardines, 1-3 per person
lemons, juice of 3-4
salt, pepper
garlic, 3 cloves, chopped
extra virgin olive oil
parsley and fresh oregano, ¾ cup, cut finely.

 

PROCESSES

Arrange the fish in one layer on a plate or wide vessel and pour the juice of the lemons on top (this lemon juice will be discarded).
Seal with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 3-6 hours. They are ready when they have turned almost white.
Drain the juice well. I use a colander and then quickly dry the fish on a paper towel.
Arrange the fillets in a single layer on a large plate.
Sprinkle the fish with herbs, garlic and salt and pepper.
Dress with the extra virgin olive oil, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate again for about an hour until ready to serve.

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COZZE-Mussels, Crostini (canapés)

Crostini made with mussels.

I do like mussels (called cozzuli in Sicilian and cozze in Italian) and they are sustainable, but more often than not I cook too many (usually steamed in a little white wine, garlic, parsley, chili and eaten with bread). What to do with left over mussel meat? This is not ever a problem, but for something different try these.

Crostini (from the Latin, crusta – crust) are thin slices of toasted bread, cut small, brushed with olive oil and then toasted. Crostini are eaten like canapés spread with different toppings (usually chicken livers) and served with drinks. But these Sicilian crostini are different and remind me of French toast. In this recipe, the mussel shells are discarded; the mussel meat is made into a paste and is then sandwiched between two small slices of bread. It is then dipped in beaten egg, and fried. They make wonderful morsels.

Perhaps there is some French influence in this recipe because it contains besciamella. Some Italian culinary historians believe it was brought to France by the Italian cooks of Marie de Medici but the most common story is that the court chef named the sauce after an important steward in Louis fourteenth’s court – Louis de Béchameil. Originally béchamel was made by adding cream to a thickened stock but the more common and more modern version is made by adding hot milk to a roux of butter and flour. Some béchamel also contains the vegetables found in stock.

INGREDIENTS
mussel meat, about 1 cup (chopped, Australian mussels are much larger than those found in Catania)
bread, thin slices, good quality, sourdough or pasta dura, no crusts. Day old bread will cut better. (I like to use sourdough baguettes – good size for mouths)
pecorino cheese, ½ cup , grated
eggs, 3 extra virgin olive oil for frying
tomato salsa, 1 cup (made with 500g of tomatoes, 2 garlic cloves, fresh basil leaves, sea salt, ¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil).
Place all of the ingredients and any liquid from the mussels in a saucepan and cook uncovered until reduced to about 1 cup. Use cool.

Besciamella (besciamelle or béchamel sauce), 1 cup:

1 tablespoons butter, 1 tablespoons flour, 1 cup milk, freshly ground nutmeg, salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
Melt the butter and add the flour in a saucepan over a moderate heat, cook the mixture while stirring with a wooden spoon for 1-2 minutes. Over the heat gradually add the milk while stirring to stop lumps occurring. When all the milk is added continue to cook while stirring until the mixture thickens (it should be quite thick). Season, add nutmeg, remove the pan and allow to cool.

PROCESSES
Mix the salsa, besciamella, ground pepper, mussel meat and cheese.
Cut the bread to size and thickness about 1cm.
Spread this mixture thickly between slices of bread, like when making sandwiches.
Dip the sandwiches briefly in the egg but allow the egg to soak in. Heat the extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan and fry the sandwiches on each side. Serve hot.

Chine va chjanu, va sanu e va luntanu (Sicilian proverb).
Chi va piano, va sano e va lontano. (Le cose fatte con calma sono le migliori).
The best things are made when calm.

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SICILIAN EDIBLE WEEDS and Greek VLITA

I have shopped at the Queen Victoria Market ever since I moved to Melbourne from Adelaide. I am always excited by new produce, whether it is new in season or because it is new to me. I saw the vlita at one of the stalls where I often buy my vegetables. I had never seen vlita before – sold as a very large bunch of a long, green leafy plant with its roots still attached. Greens leafy vegetables in January are not very common.

One of the stall owners is a Calabrese (from the region of Calabria in Southern Italy) so I assumed – incorrectly – that it was a wild green, traditionally eaten like spinach in Italy and one I was not familiar with.

As I continued my way down the aisle, the vlita was attracting a lot of attention, but from people of Greek heritage, not Italians. I was stopped four times and they were surprised to hear that I knew the name and that I intended to sauté it in olive oil with garlic. A couple of them mentioned the word horta.

Further down the aisle, I was stopped by yet another woman who told me these plants were much appreciated in her country – India. She said that she was more familiar with a purple tinged variety. So home I went with my various bits of information, determined to discover more.

Yes, vlita is a common weed in Australia, but it is a wild green and one of many gathered and eaten in other parts of the world including Greece, Japan, India, South America and Taiwan. The taste is a little like a beet or spinach, only more grassy.

Vlita belongs to the amaranth family and this variety is known as palmer amarynth.

The amaranthus tricolor or red amaranth is sold more in commercial quantities than the green variety and is a very attractive plant; the leaves are much more colourful than palmer amaranth and it is sold in many stalls which sell Asian vegetables.

Alternative names are een choi (Chinese) phak khom suan (Thai) radên (Vietnamese) bayam (Indonesian).

In different parts of Greece, it is usually served as a cooked green salad. Horta are leafy green vegetables or wild greens and vlita is one of these.

Some varieties of the plant are grown as a grain crop for their seeds – which are very nutritious and can be made into flour – and amaranth flour is becoming increasingly well known as a nutritious alternative to wheat, especially in America.

The young leaves and tender stalks are picked and eaten before the plant flowers. They were sold to me in large bunches with the roots attached – picked this way, they last longer.

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Wild greens are called erbe spontanie in Italian (spontaneous herbs) and Sicilians are very fond of them. They forage for them and can also buy them at the market.
segale_0053
Weeds, like vegetables are seasonal and collected by many people. Some of these wild greens are also sold in markets.
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Gira (or giriteddi), sparaceddi (wild asparagus) or amareddi are particularly popular.
wild greens seller_ seller_0030
Last October–December), when I was in Sicily there were lassine, sanapu, agghiti (wild spinach), urrania (borage) and wild fennel.
Borage_0214
Wild greens/ Edible weeds can be cooked alone or mixed with other green leaf vegetables.
See TORTA DI VERDURA (A vegetable flan or pie).
wild fennel BP1010291

Italians cook greens, as the Greeks do: blanched/ whilted and drained, then seasoned with salt, olive oil and lemon juice and presented hot or cold as a cooked salad.

My favourite cooking method (common mostly in the South of Italy) is to precook the greens in boiling, salted water, drain them well and then sauté them in olive oil, chilli and garlic. They can be eaten hot or cold.

 

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TORTINO DI FINOCCHI (A flan of cooked fennel)

I keep on seeing stunted specimens of fennel for sale in stalls at the Queen Victoria Market (Australia).

Where are they coming from at this time of year? One of the stall holders thought it was from Victoria or maybe Tasmania because it can still be cold there in certain parts at this time of year (January).
I am always amazed how people still want to buy produce which is well out of season. One such customer who was standing next to me at one of the stalls, bought some of these weedy specimens – small, dull and flat (late in the season with evidence of going to seed) and not very suitable for eating raw.
(Good specimens of fennel. The photo was taken at the Saturday morning street market in Greve, Tuscany in December 2008.).

It is easy to strike up a conversation while standing in front of a stall and the buyer was surprised when I told her that fennel can also be cooked.

My grandmother Maria (from Catania, Sicily) was fond of making a fennel tortino.
A torta in Italian is a torte or a cake, but it can also be a savoury cake, flan or pie. It is usually made of vegetables and partially baked. It may include pastry.
The ino as the ending in tortino implies that it is smaller, but this is not always the case. I have seen similar dishes called a sformato or a pasticcio and in Sicilian a turticedda. All this can be very confusing for a non-Italian, as basically they are the same things.
This tortino is made with fennel. Being an old Sicilian recipe breadcrumbs are used to thicken the vegetable dish rather than béchamel (white sauce) or eggs found in the modern recipes. Similar recipes are found all over Italy and if it is made in the the north, butter instead of oil and parmesan cheese rather than pecorino cheese are commonly used.

This dish is very versatile. I have presented it hot and cold, as a contorno (side vegetable dish) and as an antipasto. The fennel can be cooked beforehand and left until you are ready to assemble the dish or alternatively the tortino can be prepared and stored in the fridge (for 1-2 days).

The following recipe is for 6-8 people.

INGREDIENTS
fennel bulbs, (to weigh 1k)
onion, 1 large, finely sliced
parsley, 1 cup, chopped finely
oregano, dried, ½ tablespoon.
garlic, 2 cloves finely chopped
pecorino, 1 cup grated
extra virgin olive oil, about ¾ cup to sauté the fennel and some more to coat the oven dish and to drizzle on top of the ingredients.
salt and pepper,
coarse breadcrumbs, about 2 cups made from 1-3 day old, quality bread. This will be used to scatter over the sides and bottom of the oven dish and between the layers of fennel.

Optional – Use a little wine or stock, rather than water, to add to the fennel as it cooks (modern rather than traditional).

PROCESSES
Preheat the oven to 180C
Make breadcrumbs.
Slice the fennel lengthwise and thinly. If possible add the soft green fonts chopped finely, as these will add colour and flavour.
Sauté the onion in the extra virgin olive oil, then add the fennel until it is slightly softened and coloured.

Add salt and pepper. You may need to splash a little water or a little white wine to the vegetables and cover them with a lid until they begin to soften.
Select an oven dish, which will accommodate all of your ingredients (I use a pan which is about 10 cm deep).
Oil a baking dish (I use glass or ceramic ). Lard instead of olive oil was common in many of the older traditional recipes.
Sprinkle about 2 tablespoons of the breadcrumbs over the greased surface of the baking dish (be generous, as this process will prevent total sticking of the ingredients).
Mix the remaining breadcrumbs with the parsley, grated cheese and garlic. Begin with a layer of the fennel, then the breadcrumb mixture and repeat until you have used up all of the ingredients and you have at least 4 layers. Finish off with the bread mixture.
Compress the layers with your hands and top with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil .

Cover with a heavy lid or a layer of foil with a weight on top so as to keep all of the layers compressed. To prevent sticking, my Sicilian grandmother used an ovenproof, terracotta plate as the weight.

Place the dish into a preheated oven 180 C for about 40-50 mins.

Check to see if the fennel is soft (cooked.) If it is not cooked or if it appears too dry add a little more water (or wine or stock). Cover and return to the oven until it is cooked.
Remove the cover, drizzle with more extra virgin olive oil and bake for a further 10 minutes until it has a golden crust and the liquid has evaporated.
The tortino should resemble a moist cake and should slice easily.
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