Italian summer cooking: moscardini and cicale di mare

It's 9pm, still light, the crickets rub their limbs to a tune that melts with the song I'm playing on the iPad from which I'm writing this. My 13 year old nephew is untangling a fishing line, my child is drowsily narrating his day on a boat through the window, a nanny is getting the 6 and under set ready for bed after a day of sun, sand and sea. Somewhere sisters and cousins are plotting an ice cream and alcohol run after the kids are asleep. These are the cherished sounds of summer life in Ansedonia. I have been coming here all my life and I love it, I love the sensations I experience nowhere else. Tonight, it's a favorite dress scented with the braising of moscardini and my mouth gently cut by wrestling with a plateful of cicale di mare.

Cicale di mare or canocchie are mantis shrimp: flattish shellfish, about the size of a prawn, light grey in color when raw, with a soft but peskily spiky shell, their sweetness is unrivaled in the category. They have a limited season during which their flavor and desirability changes depending on how close they are to being laden with eggs. You don't eat cicale, you ungracefully suck them out of the shell. The race to brave the thorny shells is part of the fun: at the end of the meal, he with the highest mound of empty carcasses and the most shredded lips wins.

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I like cicale simply prepared, as their flavor needs no intrusion. I season a pot of water with 1 or 2 lemon slices, a fistful of parsley, a splash of white wine and a handful of coarse sea salt. When the water boils, I drop in the cicale, cover them and turn the heat off. I leave them for about 10 minutes then drain the water, arrange the cicale on a plate and douse them with lemon juice and olive oil.

Moscardini or musky octopus are a spotted brown rather than mottled dark grey with a smaller, stouter head and shorter tentacles lined with only one row of suction cups. Their flavor is less invasive than that of regular octopus, their flesh tasting undefinably of the waves and salt in which they float.

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I braised the moscardini in tomato with basil, garlic, olives and capers. Of the kilo I made, not a speck was left, mostly thank to my 6 year old nephew's appreciation. I have made similar recipes back in San Francisco, my other home, and though it might not be as poetically loaded, the yield is still delicious.

Moscardini in umido con olive e capperi Tomato braised moscardini with olives and capers

for 6 people 1.5 pounds moscardini (or baby octopus or fresh squid) 1/2 pound sweet small tomatoes (sugar plum or very ripe cherry) 2 garlic cloves 1 generous handful basil leaves salt to taste olive oil splash dry white wine 2 tablespoons tomato concentrate 1/2 cup black olives 1/4 cup capers packed in salt pepper to taste

If you are in Italy, the fishmonger will clean your moscardini for you. Should you be somewhere with no such luck, then you will need to clean your critter of choice as follows.

Octopus: turn the head inside out and remove the innards, rinse and turn back over. Turn the tentacles around, you will see a little beak in the center of the tentacles, squeeze it out. I like leaving the eyes in, as I feel no guilt in being looked at by my food, but if you are squeamish, then either poke and squeeze free the eyes or carefully cut them out with scissors.

Squid or calamari: divide the body from the tentacles, turn the tentacles around and squeeze out the beak. Treat the eyes as above. Remove the bone and the guts from the body and rinse clean.

In either case do not remove the skin, it is a decidedly non-Italian thing to do.

Cut the tomatoes in half or quarters, depending on their size. Peel the garlic and mince it with the basil leaves and a generous pinch of salt. Rinse, pit and half the olives. Wash the salt off the capers and soak in warm water until ready to use them.

In a shallow sauce pot gently soften the garlic and basil mince into some olive oil without burning. Add the critters and sauté over high heat until they start changing color. Season with salt and deglaze with wine.

Add the tomato pieces and sauté until the tomatoes start to soften, about 5 minutes. Stir in the concentrate then add some warm water, just so that it covers the bottom third.

20130704-182742.jpg Mix in the olives and capers and turn down the heat. Braise slowly, adding warm water only when necessary. They will need to cook for at least 45 minutes and up to over an hour, depending on the size of the selected cephalopod, they should be fork tender.

Adjust salt and pepper and serve warm to room temperature with some toasted crusty bread. You can add some heat by using red pepper flakes rather than black pepper.

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