Recipe 7 – Spaghetti ai ricci (with sea urchins)

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My take on the Spaghetti ai Ricci

Rizzi as they are called in Maltese remind me of my lazy childhood summer days. Swimming on the beach at St Paul’s Bay overlooking St Paul’s Islands (see below), parents of young children would go snorkelling to pick up the sea urchins. Time flies and this must have been a good 30 or so years ago.

They would go snorkelling for an hour, fill up a plastic bag with sea urchins which were caught from the rocks or seabed and then come back to the beach were the mothers and fathers would get a knife, gently cut open the sea urchin in half and give it to the children with a spoon to scoop out or else serve on top of bread like a very rustic version of bruschetta. These memories still make my mouth water given the sea urchins would have an incredible but delicate taste of the sea.

It is said that the presence of sea urchins at sea reflects the cleanliness of the sea water. I am not sure whether this urban legend is to be believed or not but over the years this tradition has since been lost and there was even a time when sea urchins were becoming rather rare.

I remember going many years without tasting rizzi although in Malta they have now found their way to many restaurants served the Italian way with pasta, mainly spaghetti or linguini. Since many years now, any fish restaurant in Malta worth its salt serves this dish when the sea urchins are available. In many cases the sea urchins are imported from Italy.

And whenever I return to my home country, nearly nine years after leaving, the only thing I crave is pasta with sea urchin which is nearly impossible to find in continental Europe.

There are a few restaurants which prepare it in the simplest of ways which is the best approach to dealing with sea urchins (we used to eat them raw when I was young and some of the most delicious sushi I have tasted in Japan were with raw sea urchins).

So here is my take on the Spaghetti bir-rizzi as the dish would be called in Maltese. This is a very quick and simple dish to make. But it is delicious and worth trying if you can find the ingredients.

Ingredients (serves 4)

  • 500 grammes spaghetti
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • Best quality extra virgin olive oil
  • Sea urchins (you will need a tub or two depending on the size)
  • 12 cherry tomatoes
  • Chopped parsley

Method

1. Boil the water to cook the pasta. Once the water is ready and you are ready to boil the spaghetti, you can start preparing the sauce.

2. Add three to four tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil to a pan and fry the chopped garlic to give the oil some fragrance. I normally retain the garlic but if you find it overpowering, you can crush it to release the aromas and then remove it once brown. As the pasta starts to boil add the chopped cherry tomatoes to the pan and cook for a few minutes.

3. The cherry tomatoes should not be overcooked. Just as the pasta is about to be cooked add half the sea urchins and stir into the sauce with a ladle of the cooking boiling water to melt the sea urchin.

4. Drain the pasta and throw it into the saucepan and cook for an additional one minute adding the remaining sea urchins and chopped parsley. Finish off with a drizzle of the best extra virgin olive oil you can find. Serve immediately.

Wine serving suggestion: This is a Southern Mediterranean dish so I would pair it with a fragrant wine from the South of Italy or even Malta if you can find it. A Falanghina from Campania or an Insolia from Sicily would work very well. I would also try it with a Vermentino from Sardegna or Malta.

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Nostalgic memories of St Paul’s Bay
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Recipe 6: Tuna with a Mediterranean salsa

IMG_0363The season for lampuki (a typical Mediterranean fish that is incredibly popular in Malta and one of the most traditional fish you can find at this time of year) has just started but the fish at the fishmongers were still small so I opted for tuna steaks.

The temperature is still extremely high in Malta making cooking anything elaborate a bit complicated. The fishmonger was making brisk business as queues lined up to get fresh fish for lunch or dinner.

To beat the heat in the kitchen, there is no better way then to get fresh tuna steaks that cook in minutes and prepare a very quick ‘salsa’ which needs no cooking and which is mouthwatering.

I therefore prepared the quick sauce to accompany the tuna steaks. I chopped one shallot and added sherry vinegar to the shallots to add some acidity. Then I seasoned with Maldon sea salt. I chopped some green olives in, added some pine nuts, a clove of garlic (finely chopped), some cherry tomatoes and chopped parsley. Once all the ingredients were in the bowl, I started to add some extra virgin olive oil to create an emulsion. Once the sauce was ready, I adjusted the seasoning by adding some freshly ground pepper and was then ready to cook the tuna.

I heated a griddle pan on a high heat, seasoned the tuna on one side and drizzled just a bit of olive oil. I then put the seasoned tuna on the seasoned side on the hot griddle pan and left to cook until the sides started to cook. I like my tuna rare. If rare is too much for you, then go for medium to medium rare but do not overcook the tuna because it will not taste well.

I then topped each plate with the quick Mediterranean salsa and served with some pan-fried potatoes and roast vegetables.

Ingredients (serves 4)

  • Four tuna steaks
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Maldon sea salt
  • Sherry vinegar
  • One shallot
  • 10 cherry tomatoes
  • A handful of green olives
  • Chopped parsley
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed and chopped
  • A tablespoon of pine nuts.

Method

1. Prepare the Mediterranean salsa. Chop the shallots. Place in a bowl and soften with the sherry vinegar (I used around 4 tablespoons). Season with salt. Leave the shallots in the vinegar while you chop the other ingredients. Chop the green olives and add to the shallots. Then add the pine nuts, cherry tomatoes, the garlic and the chopped parsley. Add extra virgin olive oil and mix the sauce until you get an emulsion which turns the sauce golden. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning.

2. Heat the grill on a high heat. Season the tuna steaks and cook on the first side for around 5 minutes (depending on the thickness). Season the fish on the side which is not being grilled and turn the fish for a few more minutes.

3. Serve immediately.

Wine suggestion: Tuna is a versatile fish when it comes to wine pairing but given the summer heat and the cold sauce you need some acidity. I opted for a Chablis Burgundy which worked perfectly with the tuna.

 

Recipe 5: Raw marinated prawns with orange zest

IMG_5184The cicadas are screaming like there is no tomorrow, it is impossible to walk in the sun as the temperature soars above 30C. To joke, some people bluff that if it gets any hotter, they might fry an egg on their car bonnet. This is life in the Mediterranean on a hot summer’s day.

To refresh oneself in these conditions, water is essential, either to drink and rehydrate or else to jump into and cool down. Then comes the evening and the cicadas make way to long lazy evenings, preferably outdoors. There is a smell of burning charcoal wherever you walk. People are outdoors because the houses inside still retain the heat that has accumulated during the day.

As the sun starts to set, a nice breeze suddenly arrives. This is the time to enjoy the fruits of ones work.

In this case, the recipe below is the essence of simplicity. What you need is a good relationship with your fishmonger. Tell him or her what you have in mind, make sure what you are buying is extremely fresh and then let the ingredients do the showing off. Nothing tastes of freshness as these raw marinated prawns.

Serves four as part of an antipasto. With this I served some grilled calamari and a tartare of tuna (see recipes in subsequent posts).

Ingredients

  • 12 fresh prawns
  • One lemon
  • Zest of one orange.
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Maldon sea salt (You can use fleur de sel)

Method

1. Clean the prawns. Remove the head, peel the skin one by one and rinse in cold water. Then remove the vein. What I do is cut a very small incision in the middle of the prawn and then remove with the blunt edge of the knife. Clean them again in cold water.

2. Place the peeled raw prawns in a plate or bowl. Add the juice of one lemon and a good drizzle of extra virgin olive oil (the best you can find). and then mix the prawns with the mixture to ensure that the prawns are all covered with the mixture. Then add the zest of one small orange of top for added acidity and freshness and sprinkle some salt on top.

3. Keep in the refrigerator until ready to serve (within two hours).

4. Enjoy.

Drinking recommendation: Raw prawns have a certain sweetness which cuts through the acidity of the lemon juice and orange zest. This dish screams Southern Mediterranean so I would stick with an acidic wine from South Italy. A Falanghina or Fiano d’Avellino from Campania would work extremely well as would a fresh Insolia from Sicily. I would also recommend it with a Vermentino from Sardegna, Tuscany or Liguria

 

Recipe 4: Pasta with fresh tuna and slivered almonds

IMG_0327The good fresh fish shops in Mediterranean countries are a joy to visit. When you have a kitchen available, all you need is to just follow your instinct and choose what is fresh and appealing.

A visit to my favourite fish shop in Malta led me to fresh tuna, which at the moment is available in abundance and incredibly cheap.

What I miss most about the Mediterranean is sea urchins or what we call in Maltese rizzi and in Italian ricci. I have been dreaming of a Spaghetti ai Ricci for a rather long time now. It is the thing I probably miss most from my home country

But alas it was not available at my fish shop and it seems unlikely to be available anytime soon (probably the restaurants at this time of year buy whatever they can find given it is peak tourist season).

There was an incredible choice but given the fact that the fresh tuna looking incredibly good, I opted for penne with tuna. The following is the recipe.

Ingredients (Serves 4)

  • 500 grammes fresh tuna diced
  • 500 grammes pasta (I choose penne but you can also opt for something else)
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 24 green olives chopped
  • 4 fresh tomatoes
  • 60 grammes slivered almonds
  • 125ml of white wine
  • A handful of fresh basil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon sugar.

Method

1. Boil enough water for the pasta. I normally calculate around 1 litre for every 100 grammes of pasta.

2. When tuna is in season, fresh tomatoes are also in season therefore use fresh tomatoes for this recipe. I normally pierce the tomatoes and place them in boiling water for 30 seconds. They can then be peeled very easily. Remove the seeds and then chop finely.

3. Chop the garlic. Pan fry the garlic in around 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Just before it starts to colour add the tomatoes and stir. Add the sugar and salt and pepper to taste and stir occasionally for around 10 minutes.

4. While the tomato sauce is cooking, finely dice the tuna and slice the olives. Add the olives to the sauce after around 10 minutes.

5. In another pan, brown the slivered almonds making sure they do not burn. If you are using a non-stick pan you do not need to add anything. (You can also do it in a grill but make sure they do not burn). Once they have a golden colour remove from the heat.

6. Throw the pasta into the boiling water (that has been adequately salted) and cook according to instructions. (For al dente pasta, I always stop the cooking at least one minute before the instructions since I mix the pasta to the sauce and continue cooking for around a minute).

7. Once the pasta is cooking, add the tuna to the sauce and the white wine and increase the heat to medium. You should make sure that the tuna is not overcooked. Once the tuna has coloured keep the sauce warm. Add the slivered almonds and shredded basil and season to taste.

8. Drain the pasta and then add to the sauce and continue cooking for around 1 minute. Serve immediately with an additional drizzle of extra virgin olive oil to taste.

Wine suggestion: It is summer and this is a summery pasta dish with fresh Mediterranean ingredients. Tuna is a versatile fish which can even be enjoyed with a light red wine. However my recommendation would be a nice Sicilian white wine. A blend of Chardonnay and Insolia (the Angimbe from Cusumano for example) would work wonders with this dish. Most pasta dishes marry well with Italian wines. Another option for a white wine would be a Falanghina from the Campania region. A Vermentino from Sardegna or Tuscany would also work well.

Recipe 3: Guinea Fowl with chickpeas and olives

20140729-200628-72388103.jpgCooking is a passion but on a daily basis it can sometimes become difficult especially when you try to juggle with 100 things.

Quick midweek recipes, or those which you can prepare quickly while retaining the wow factor are therefore always winners.

This recipe is great because it can easily be prepared in less than 30 minutes. With its bold flavours it is both good as a quick midweek supper and also fit to be served if you are hosting.

Guinea fowl is one of my new favourites given I can find it pretty easily at my local butcher. I hope you try this recipe because it is really easy to make and also delicious.

Guinea Fowl with chickpeas and olives (Serves 4)

Ingredients

  • Four guinea fowl breasts
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • Butter
  • One can of the best quality chickpeas you can find
  • 24 olives
  • 4 Anchovies
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 50ml of Madeira (you can also use Marsala)
  • Fresh basil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Rosemary

Method

1. Season the guinea fowl breasts. Add the olive oil and butter to a pan and toss in the rosemary.

2. Pan fry the guinea fowl breasts. It should take around 7 minutes on each side for the guinea fowl to be cooked through.

3. Remove the guinea fowl from the pan. (At this stage, I normally put in a warm plate, cover with aluminium foil and place in the oven at a very low temperature (around 80 to 100C). You should also remove the rosemary at this stage.

4. Deglaze the pan by adding the Madeira or Marsala. Add garlic and anchovies and let the latter dissolve by mixing gently. Then throw in the chickpeas and olives and cook for a few minutes until warm and slightly caramelised.

5. Place the guinea fowl back into the pan and add the fresh basil and serve with the cooking sauces.

Wine suggestion:  Being summer, I would opt for a white wine or else a light red wine. A creamy Chardonnay from Burgundy would work very well with this dish. It would also work very well with a red wine like Barbera or Nebbiolo from Italy.

 

 

Recipe 2 – Charred Aubergine Salad

20140720-231424-83664975.jpgBarbecues should not be boring. There is nothing like sausages or burgers on the barbecue but grilling outdoors can also be sophisticated. It all depends on your level of ambition.

Before grilling meat or fish, I always like to prepare vegetables on the barbecue. Chargrilling peppers, onions, courgettes, aubergine, leeks, potato you name it. With the right condiments (herbs, olive oil and balsamic vinegar they are second to none) they can make for an excellent antipasto or perfect accompaniment to meat or fish.

Among foodies or those who regularly view the BBC, Raymond Blanc needs no introduction. He is a French chef who settled in the UK many years ago. He is the chef of a Michelin starred restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. He is passionate about cooking and his charisma whenever he is presenting a television programme is always visible.

This winter, BBC had a superb series by Raymond Blanc on How to Cook and one of the programmes was about grilling. The following, which I have tried twice to great acclaim is an adaptation of his recipe. It is easy but impressive. The flavours are strong but harmonious. This is an exceptional vegetarian starter. I love my meat, I love my fish but if all vegetarian dishes were like this I could be eating many more vegetarian dishes.

Whenever I have tried recipes from Raymond Blanc or else adapted his ideas I have never been disappointed. So I really recommend you try the following dish.

Ingredients (serves 4)

  • 3 Aubergines
  • 1 Garlic Clove
  • Juice of half a lemon (or to taste)
  • 1 fresh chilli
  • 6 dates
  • 1 tin of good quality chickpeas
  • Ricotta salata (if you do not have this, you can also use fresh ricotta)
  • Toasted Almond flakes
  • Fresh coriander
  • Mint
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Balsamic vinegar

Method

1. Once the barbecue is hot, place the aubergines on and ensure that the skin is ‘burnt’. Turn frequently. Once you see that the aubergines have softened, remove from the barbecue and wait for them to cool down slightly. The aubergine will have a very smoky flavour because of the charred skin.

2. Half the aubergine and scoop out the flesh. Place into a bowl, season with salt and pepper and stir in some extra virgin olive oil. Add the garlic and half the chili with the lemon juice and stir. Then add the chopped dates, a handful of chickpeas, chopped mint and coriander to taste (a handful of each should suffice). You can now put the mixture into the refrigerator until you plate the dish.

3. Spoon the mixture into the plates, add some chickpeas to garnish on the side of the mixture, then top with some toasted almond flakes to add texture, a handful of the remaining chopped chili  and then crumble the ricotta salata. Drizzle the best quality olive oil you can find and then add a few drops of balsamic vinegar.

Raymond Blanc had suggested using feta cheese in his recipe but I have tried it both with ricotta salata and with fresh ricotta and it works extremely well. Enjoy.

 

 

 

 

Recipe 1 – A taste of the sea

20140720-172158-62518499.jpgThe weather has been extremely hot in Belgium over the past three days. On Friday evening, the temperature hovered around 30C and therefore I felt a great urge to eat some seafood as a reminder of summer holidays.

To me, shellfish and fish are always a reminder of summer and holidays. If there is one dish which I crave for but which alas is so difficult to find away from the Mediterranean is a pasta with sea urchins which is pure heaven when sea urchins is available. It is normally the first thing I try to eat whenever I go back home to Malta. It is also something I look out for when I am in the South of Italy or Sicily.

I headed to the fish shop close to our home to see what inspired me. Many times this is how I get inspiration for cooking. Nothing beats the joy of having no plan for lunch or supper and improvising on the basis of what you find on the market.

I found the famous Moules de Bouchot (small mussels from France which are incredibly tasty) and therefore mussels it would be for dinner, together with a mix of shellfish including calamari and scallops.

Few things reminds me of the sea and the taste of the sea more than fresh mussels. And while Belgium, France and the Netherlands are renowned for their mussels, they are cooked slightly differently in the Mediterranean. The main difference is that extra virgin olive oil is used instead of butter and no celery is used.

Belgium is known for many things. Its beer, chocolates, french fries and also mussels. There are many restaurants specialising in mussels and the methods of cooking them vary considerably. I prefer mine the Mediterranean way. In this case the simpler the recipe the better the result.

Many tell me that they find cooking shellfish or fish intimidating. I tend to disagree. I started cooking in my 20s and it was with fish and shellfish that I actually started. Once you get past the basics (which basically means finding a fishmonger you trust and asking how to cook things which you would not normally consider), you can be sure to go ahead for more complicated fare.

So the first recipe I share on this blog is a simple one. The only complicated thing is to clean the mussels which trust me is part of the fun.

Ingredients

(Serves two as a starter or else four as part of an antipasto)

  • 1 Kilo of Mussels,
  • 3 cloves of garlic finely chopped.
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • White wine
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Method

1. Clean the mussels. On many occasions, the mussels can be bought already cleaned compared to the past where you would need to remove not only the beard but sometimes also dirt which stuck to the shells. To remove the ‘beard’ is easy. Pull towards you with a knife and force the beard out. Once you clean the mussels, place them in a bowl of clean water. Go through each one and discard any which are open or which float in the water. You can keep them in the fridge until you cook them (the day you buy them).

2. Crush the garlic and chop roughly, then sweat in the extra virgin olive oil (around three tablespoons). Then add a splash of wine (a cup of wine should be enough) and bring to boil.

3. Once the mixture is boiling add the mussels and parsley and put a lid on the saucepan. Give the pan a shake from time to time but try not to open the lid too often. The mussels should be ready within minutes when you see that they are all open.

4. Mussels are salty so you do not need to add any salt but they are extremely good with freshly ground black pepper. Serve immediately ideally with fresh bread to dip into the ‘soup’ at the bottom of the pan.

Wine suggestion: It is the common norm to drink white wine with shellfish or fish. In this case, nothing goes better than a white wine. I had this with a Vermentino from Sardegna which worked extremely well. You could also try it with a Sicilian fruity white such as a blend of Insolia and Chardonnay or a French Muscadet.