Wednesday, May 31, 2006

holy squid!

Yesterday's New York Times online lists 'guilt-free fish' in Holy Mackerel... which happens to omit a class of seafood I've been thinking about since I prepared a member the other day with sublime results: cephalopods. Calamari are probably no big deal to anyone who enjoys seafood, but can you recognize a well-cooked octopus? Let alone the difference between a polpo and a moscardino? (both translate as 'octopus' but are different species: moscardini are littler critters)

My accidental discovery of the culinary possibilities of seppie, or cuttlefish, began with an exasperating trip to the market where my normal fishmongers were closed and the one I found open had nothing I knew how to prepare or could purchase without selling a kidney. So I bought a kilo of cheap and hideous seppie, filthy in their own ink. I got the fishman to clean them for me, batting eyelashes and asking very very nicely. The cleaning is no small task -- I would have mangled them if I'd done it myself. Like all cephalopods, seppie have a creepy, alien anatomy : an oblong cartiledge familiar to bird owners as the white thing for Tweety to sharpen his beak on, disporportionately large eyes, a beak and ring of teeth hidden at the base of the tentacles. The fishman wrapped the pieces up neatly, still in their own ink, and I cycled home to get them in the fridge. I marinated them for about an hour in the juice of a lemon, olive oil and a little salt, then grilled them on a cast-iron griddle about 8 minutes a side, deglazed the griddle with a glug of white wine and drizzled the juices over top.

Prepared simply, the seppie were fabulous: tender and the sea flavors undisguised. My friends and I finished our portions and fought to wipe the pan with pieces of bread, not leaving a drop of inky sauce wasted.

Which brings me back to the omission of these mollusks from the guilt-free fish list. The over-fishing of certain popular fishes, like Chilean seabass, was a major motivation for the NYTimes article. There are many underused fishes deserving of fine restaurant and home cook attention. But there are also the throw-away fishes that wind up trailing at the end of a fisherman's line, often equally deserving of a place at table. As a child I was told stories of how fisherman in my native North Carolina in recent history considered shrimp nothing more than bait. Having cleaned several times my own weight in shrimp, I understand how these weird underwater bugs might seem unworthy of the effort to render them edible. But today we rarely see them with their ugly faces still attached -- they come decapitated, shelled, deveined, without legs and often precooked to our markets. I recently pointed out cicale, or canocchie, to my father as an example of the unfamiliar seafoods available here. He responded, "They have those are in North Carolina too. But no one eats them."
While it is possible to inadvertently pierce a lip trying to eat what little meat is in the cicala tail, the flavors are rich and worth a little effort. They are often included whole in a zuppa di pesce, a fish stew, for the depth these flavors add to the sauce. I can imagine them as an addition to fish stocks, and they'd make a marvelous bisque.

So here is my own fish list, of the Italian seafoods I think are worth some attention and certainly deserving of a fate more dignified than bait. Italian names are followed by a rough translation to English and the scientific name for specificity. These are no beauty queens, but delicious, I promise.

Part I: Cephalopods
polpo -- octopus (Octopus vulgaris)

moscardino -- baby octopus (Eledone moschata)

moscardino bianco -- baby white octopus (Eledone cirrhosa)

calamaro -- squid (Loligo vulgaris)

calamaretto -- baby squid (Alloteuthis media)

seppia -- cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis)

totano -- squid (Ilex coindetii)

Saturday, May 27, 2006

I won't bore you with the contrite prodigal blogger drivel, but lately I've been spending my spare writing time planning a new project for the blogosphere. Or rather, a real, permanent web home for my food and travel writing, in anticipation of shifting my energies permanently towards that part of my life.

Some hints of what you can expect: articles on lesser wine varieties, descriptions of my visits to local sagre, the festivals in little Italian towns celebrating their one major product, food history, essays on biodiversity, recipes...

Friday, May 26, 2006

cinque terre fotos

Last week I took brief trip with my parents to the Cinque Terre : Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore, 5 towns perched in the maritime Alps on the coast of Liguria. The trails that connect the towns were difficult in some places, but rewarded our efforts with spectacular views...

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

busy days... arranging interviews and preparing for a visit from my parents.

I was thinking this morning about energy conservation -- prompted by the hot water shortage as I was washing up and simultaneously running the washing machine. It seems to me that the differences between Italian and American housekeeping have everything to do with energy and water conservation.

Some examples of ordinary Italian energy-savers:

There are no clothes driers here. None. Brilliant! Clothes dry on their own if you just hang them out. My apartment is equipped with an ingenious indoor, invisible, space-saving clothesline. My laundry disappears into the rafters for a day until I take it down crisp and warm from the hot air that wafts there.

Likewise with dishes: why dry the dishes or waste energy having a dishwasher superheat them when you can put them in a rack? Better yet, build the rack into the kitchen cupboard over the sink where the water can drain safely. Attractive, easy, no-brainer.

Hot water heaters don't need enormous reservoirs kept continuously heated. My Italian water heater only heats water as I consume it -- the trick here is to limit the volume used to give the heater time to keep heating. So running the appliances and showering at the same time is impossible, but that seems a small price to pay. Also, the water heater gets turned off when I'm not around. No consumption, no energy used, no money lost.

My favorite: the big flush / little flush. There are two options for the toilet, depending on how big a flush is needed. I don't think I need to explain. little flush saves water.

Sparing use of air conditioners -- I don't know anyone who has an air conditioner in their home. Shutters keep out the sun during the day, open windows let in cool air at night. Ok, sometimes it is uncomfortable. But there are none of those unpleasant moments when you enter a building in sweltering August to find yourself flash-frozen. I think the building materials -- stone and concrete rather than wooden houses -- make this more realistic.

BICYCLES! goddamn the organization of the US around private automobiles. I hate cars. The advantage to living in a city that predates the automobile by millenia is that it is maladapted to car traffic. I am often the fastest vehicile on the road on my bicycle. Here we live closer together, travel shorter distances, and get more exercise biking and walking. Tangentally, about exercise -- the popularity of 'spinning' is mind boggling to me. Get on a real bike and go somewhere, d@*#(&!

And on that note, I'm off to buy groceries, on my bike. self-righteously.