Spanish Mackerel with Sicilian Flavours

Spanish mackerel is a cheap and sustainably wild-caught fish that is overlooked in preference for the ubiquitous farmed salmon; this is unfortunate as you can create a wonderful fish dinner for half the price and with a bit of a flavour hit. Spanish mackerel is an oily fish that is best when cooked with robust and citrusy flavours and this version based on a Sicilian dish works a treat. Traditionally fresh tomatoes are added but I have substituted orange juice and white wine for some acidity instead. I think the orange, along with the fresh bay leaves, adds some beautiful perfumed aromatics which I am sure you will enjoy. Serve with roasted potato slices and a green salad.

  • 2 Spanish mackerel cutlets
  • 1 tbs pine nuts
  • olive oil
  • salt
  • 1 small onion, finely sliced
  • 8 parsley stalks without the leaves, finely sliced
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 tbs salted capers, rinsed
  • 1 tbs green olives, de-seeded and chopped
  • 1 tbs currents
  • juice of 1 orange
  • 1/2 glass white wine
  • 3 fresh bay leaves
  • a few thin strips of orange rind for garnish

Salt the mackerel cutlets. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a fry pan over medium heat. Brown the Spanish mackerel cutlets for one minute on each side. Remove for the pan and set aside. Add the pine nuts to the pan and colour to a light golden brown, remove them to a saucer and set aside. Gently sauté the sliced onion and parsley stalks until the onion is soft and golden. Add the garlic, capers, currents, olives and bay leaves and sauté for a few minutes. Add the wine and orange juice and stir to reduce the sauce slightly. Return the fish and cook on medium heat for approximately 3 minutes a side, until just cooked. Remove the fish to a serving plate and reduce the sauce further, if necessary, to a syrupy consistency and spoon over the fish. Garnish with a few orange strips.

Spaghetti alle Vongole

Spaghetti alle Vongole, spaghetti with clams is a delicious Italian pasta dish which I love to cook but I can’t help being reminded of my first trip to Italy, specifically while on a train to Florence, every time I see clams or think of cooking them. As it was a public holiday the train leaving Rome for Florence was overbooked and the aisles so tightly packed with people it was only with considerable contortions and by raising our packs above our heads that we managed to reach our seats. After politely ejecting the people minding our reserved seats we eventually wedged ourselves into position as the train silently glided out of Roma Termini. Some time into our journey we heard a commotion from the other end of the carriage. Two women were rapidly moving down the carriage, one walking backwards fanning the other women’s ghostly face with a newspaper, all the while crying out , “Le vongole, le vongole!” What earlier seemed like a physical impossibility became like the biblical parting of the sea, everyone bending outward like trained synchronized swimmers. Once the crisis passed there was a collective sigh of relief and my first thought was what were vongole and should we avoid them? On reflection a lot of people attribute their ill feeling to the last meal they had. Food poisoning takes several hours to manifest itself, so in all likelihood lunchtime clams were perhaps not the culprit. In any case I didn’t encounter clams in Florence and it wasn’t until a subsequent trip to Syracuse, Sicily that I had my first spaghetti alle vongole. What I tasted that day was the sea on my plate and it was nothing short of sensational. It surpassed all my experiences with spaghetti marinara and I realised these little shellfish really pack a flavour punch that didn’t need any tricking up by a chef or help from other expensive shellfish. Unlike scallops, prawns and Morton Bay bugs there is little meaty substance to clams but you will be surprised by their deliciousness. We are lucky to have wonderful clams, fished sustainably on South Australia’s Eyre peninsula. Buy them loose at the fish market or as 1 kg bags of pre-washed South Australian vongole from fish mongers ($24/kg, hearty meal for two). Despite being pre-washed sand can be hard to remove, so always give the clams a further quick soaking and rinse in running water and then they are ready to toss into a hot frying pan with a lid where they will open, release their juices and cook in less than five minutes. Add a little white wine, herbs, garlic, chili flakes or a good tomato sugo and then toss with drained spaghetti. No need for Parmesan, just a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.  Eating spaghetti alle vongole involves using your fingers to suck off the clam meat from the shell while twirling the pasta onto a fork with your other hand. An empty bowl on the table can serve as your personal shell midden. I really enjoy eating it this way but those of you who prefer to keep an elegant distance from shellfish might want to remove most the clam meat before adding any sauce and tossing with the pasta. Reserve a few in-shell specimens to place on top of the pasta and maintain the rustic look.

A Roman Villa And Cucina Povera

Cucina povera, Italian for poor kitchen, is not so much poor as imaginative as it involves creating something really tasty out of a few simple ingredients. The ability to conjure something out of foraged or left over ingredients that is thoughtful and heartwarming always inspires me and it was on a trip to Sicily that I found an example of cucina povera that was truly inspirational.
While aimlessly roaming around by car we happened on a Roman villa, a UNESCO world heritage site, off the main road that traverses the hilly centre of the island of Sicily. The remains of the 4th century AD Villa Romana del Casale turned out to be fascinating, with magnificently preserved floor mosaics in each room, one depicting hunting scenes and another showing women in bikinis exercising with dumbbells. An early Roman aerobic class perhaps.

Before we knew it, it was closing time, and being the last to leave we found ourselves driving out into the darkness, not entirely sure where we were and without accommodation planned. This was pre-GPS days. Seeing a sign for the town of Piazza Armerina, we headed there and once we secured a sparsely furnished room in the local convent we ventured out in search of dinner. We walked for what seemed like an hour, not finding a single place open, virtually no one on the street and a bitterly cold wind blowing. One can never be sure in Italy if one is too early or too late for dinner; it depends on the region and the climate. We eventually stumbled on a friendly, warmly lit place that seemed to have just opened (obviously we were too early). It was here that I had the most delicious pasta simply flavoured with sautéed onion, breadcrumbs, anchovy and just a touch of saffron. In regions of Southern Italy breadcrumbs can substitute for expensive grated Parmesan and, while this pasta may seem simple, it was cooked with such care to bring out the sweet onion flavour and the lovely crunch of breadcrumbs that it needed nothing else. This was a great example of cucina povera and I told the waitress how much I loved it. An elegant woman on a neighboring table seemed to be complaining of something and later our waitress told us she didn’t like that pasta specialty and being from Rome perhaps she didn’t understand the nature of the dish, at which point the waitress and I gave each other a knowing nod. Romans, what did they ever do for us? I know, the list is long, not to mention 4th century villas with hot running water and the food of the capital is regarded by some as the best in Italy. But there is a lot to love about the food of the poor South and a lot it can teach us about how to cook, how to interpret flavour, how to build on it or not. In deference to both I have taken the essence of that Sicilian pasta and added a touch of Roman excess by adding chopped green prawns, fresh peas and a little more saffron. I think you will really like this dish for its simplicity, exotic flavour and enjoyable crunch.

Spaghettoni with Prawns, Peas,  Saffron and Breadcrumbs

For Two

  • 3 tbs olive oil
  • 2 brown shallots, finely diced
  • pinch of salt
  • generous pinch of saffron
  • 1/3 cup dried breadcrumbs
  • 300 g spaghettoni (slightly thicker than normal spaghetti) or any other quality dried pasta
  • generous pinch of salt for the pasta water
  • a handful fresh peas
  • 6 green prawns, cleaned and sliced into 3 or 4 pieces

Saute the shallots in the olive oil very gently until translucent. Meanwhile place a large pot of water on the stove for the pasta and bring to the boil. Slightly grind the saffron in a mortar and pestle, leaving some threads intact for effect. Add 1 tbs warm water from the kettle to the saffron to dissolve it and add it immediately to the shallots. Cook on low heat for a minute. Do not cook on high heat for or for a long time as the saffron will become bitter. Add the breadcrumbs and stir until they absorb all the oil and become a little toasted. Turn off the heat. Add the salt to the rapidly boiling water, then the pasta and the peas and cook until al dente. When the pasta is nearly ready return the saffron flavoured shallots and crumbs to the heat and add the sliced prawns, stir until they just turn opaque. Drain the pasta well, toss with the prawns, onions and crumbs, and enjoy.



Chirashi In Autumn

As the autumn leaves begin to scatter in the wind, I am reminded of a November visit to Japan where I not only enjoyed the changing colours of the trees but a visit to the famous Tokyo fish market where I encountered chirashi. Chirashi means scattered, a descriptive name for unassembled sushi served in a rice bowl. Raw or cooked pieces of fish, shellfish and vegetables are put on top of sweet, vinegared Japanese rice. The freshness of the fish at the Tsukiji market was amazing and although the concept of eating a raw prawn was a little daunting at first, it tasted just fine. Putting pieces of salmon, tuna, avocado, cucumber, fish roe on top the cooled rice can be done by fanning out the slices in little clusters according to type or by a random placement of everything. As with anything in Japan both approaches are done artfully. However, it is not meant to be a fussy dish but one easily and quickly prepared at home without the skill of a sushi master. Contrasts of colour and texture are key to an attractive chirashi and freshness of ingredients is a given. Sushi grade fish is getting easier to buy at Japanese grocers and fishmongers around Melbourne but if you are out of luck a lightly poached and flaked salmon works well too. Another ingredient that is delicious to add to chirashi is roasted nori (seaweed sheets used for nori rolls). It can be bought in packets as small roasted strips or you can briefly pass a nori sheet over the gas flame and cut it with scissors yourself. I find the texture and taste of crispy nori is fabulous and can understand why Japanese stores also sell hand rolls with the nori sheet separated from the rice roll by cellophane, allowing you to assemble it just before eating.

Tokyo chirashi

chirashi from Tokyo fish market


Some suggested ingredients for chirashi

  • tuna
  • salmon
  • kingfish
  • cooked prawns
  • Yarra Valley caviar
  • pickled ginger
  • wasabi
  • avocado
  • cucumber
  • daikon
  • pickled lotus root
  • enoki mushrooms, raw
  • plain Japanese egg omelette, sliced
  • blanched green beans, sugar snap peas, snow peas or asparagus
  • shiso (perilla) leaf
  • chives
  • roasted nori strips

Simple vinegared rice for chirashi

For Two

  • 180 g Japanese rice
  • 220 ml water
  • 50 ml rice bran vinegar
  • 11/2 tbs caster sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Wash the rice well under running water and then place it in a small, enamel cooking pot with the water and leave to soak for 15-30 minutes. Heat the rice until it starts to boil, then turn down to a very low simmer and cook with a tight fitting lid for 13 minutes. This is the best method for cooking small amounts of rice. Gently warm the vinegar, sugar and salt until dissolved. Using a wooden paddle moistened with water, spread the warm rice out on a tray and then sprinkle the seasoned vinegar over the paddle to help spread it over the rice. Gently mix through by moving the paddle up under and then over the rice a few times. Fan the rice as you do this to rapidly cool it and stop it becoming mushy. When the rice is completely cool divide it into two rice bowls and scatter your chosen ingredients on top.


Stuffed Calamari

Stuffed calamari is one of my all time favorites, so whenever I see smaller calamari, about the size of my hand, I buy them for this dish; big ones are not quite as tender and are too much for one person to eat. Calamari are a very Melbourne thing, they are plentiful in the bay and a staple in every fish and chip shop, Greek eatery and a majority of pubs and bistros around town. Popular crumbed or dusted in flour and fried, they are affectionately known as rubber bands, mostly for the few times we have all encounter chewy little overcooked numbers.
Growing up in Melbourne with an enthusiastic fisherman father, I spent a lot of my childhood fishing on piers around the bay and was always fascinated by the extremely long poles used by, the mostly Greek, men jigging for calamari. Jigging means you make the jig or lure dance erratically, a little like a drunken sailor’s jig, to attract the squid.  Cephalopods are extremely elusive and tricky to catch, so on the rare occasion one was nabbed there would be much excitement in the little pier community which otherwise kept pretty quiet, all eyes fixed on the middle distance. I don’t know the reasons why we never fished for them; maybe it ran along ethnic lines but I don’t recall ever eating calamari at home. While I never got to try out jigging, I did try my hand in the kitchen and after some early attempts at creating rubber bands I have since learned to cook calamari successfully, including marinated and barbecued, coated and fried, in risotto and slowly stewed with tomato and peas or a spicy chorizo. The trick is you either cook them quickly or stew gently for a long time but nothing in between. A few years ago I tried cooking Guy Grossi’s recipe for stuffed calamari and was amazed how easy and wonderful cooking calamari this way was. The stuffing is simple; the tentacles are sautéed with a chopped shallot, garlic, parsley, cooked peas and lemon zest and bound together with breadcrumbs. Grossi makes the unusual addition of a small amount of grated ginger which really lifts the flavour and gives it a very gentle heat. Browned and then cooked in white wine for no more than 10 minutes, it is a quick and delicious meal, guaranteed to attract attention.

squid tubes cleaned

Stuffed Calamari

For Two

  • 2 medium calamari, complete with wings and tentacles
  • 1 shallot, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, chopped
  • olive oil
  • a handful of peas, blanched
  • 1/2 tsp grated ginger
  • 2 tbs chopped parsley
  • zest of a small lemon
  • 1/3 cup dried breadcrumbs or panko
  • 1 glass of white wine

Ask the fishmonger to clean the calamari for you but make you say you want the flaps on the side and the tentacles. They are easy to clean yourself if you don’t mind getting your fingers inside to gently pull out the inside bits and the transparent, plastic-like comb. Rinse the empty tubes under the tap and pat dry with paper towel. Chop the flaps and tentacles into small pieces.  You will need a heavy based frying pan with a lid to cook these on the stove or you can use the stove top and finish cooking them in a 180ºC oven if you have a pan that can go from stove to oven.

Gently saute the chopped shallot and ginger in olive oil with a little salt. Add the chopped calamari pieces, garlic and parsley and stir for a minute. Turn the heat off and add the zest, peas and breadcrumbs, adding enough crumbs to bring the ingredients together for a stuffing.  Using a teaspoon stuff the calamari, securing the end with a toothpick. Return to the pan and brown the stuffed calamari on all sides. Add the wine, scrapping any bits from the surface with a wooden spoon. Turn down the heat, cover with the lid and cook for 10 minutes. Remove the stuffed calamari to a serving plate and further reduce the wine to syrupy consistency and spoon it over the calamari.