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.


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.


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.


Italian summer cooking: tonnarelli with mullet and tomato sauce

First off: let me thank all who actually seemed to enjoy last week's post. It was very heartfelt, not sure that it had much to do with cooking, it was really about what my heart needed to say. I was touched to see that I can be appreciated for more than my stoveside manners... with beloved nieces and nephews

I have been here this week, ours is the house in the middle, which has been in my mother's family since the 50's.

Between siblings and cousins, spouses and offspring we have been averaging 15 to 20 around the table and it's been glorious. I revel in every moment of the banter, the differences, the laughter, the memories we share and we continue to make together.

Food is, of course, one of the ways we commune. Wednesday I gleefully found red mullet at the market, a treat not easy to happen in San Francisco. This is what happened next, to much family acclaim.


Tonnarelli al sugo rosso di triglia Tonnarelli with red mullet and tomato sauce

Tonnarelli is a pasta cut typical of Abruzzo. They are an egg based long kind of spaghetti cut through a chitarra, a tool with metal strings through which a thick sheet of egg dough is pushed to obtain rustic, toothsome spaghetti with a square or rectangular section. The ones I used were a dried kind from a small artisan pastificio. Good linguine or pici can be used in this recipe to good effect.

for 6 people

mullets getting ready for sauce

1 pound red mullet 2 garlic cloves 1 handful basil leaves salt to taste 1 cups very ripe cherry tomatoes EV olive oil 2 tablespoons tomato concentrate pepper to taste 1 pound tonnarelli (or other pasta of choice)

Scale and gut the mullet and cut off the fins. Separate the fillets from the heads and spines. Keep everything except the fins and guts. Sprinkle with salt.

Mince the garlic and basil into a paste with a generous pinch of salt. Quarter the tomatoes.

Gently heat the garlic and basil paste with the olive oil in a sauté pan. Add the mullet fillets, heads and spines and sauté on high heat until they change color. Add the quartered tomatoes and let soften.

the mullet sugo

Stir in the tomato concentrate and add some warm water. Braise slowly, covered for about 35 to 40 minutes, adding a bit of water at a time if necessary.

The fish will become undone and shred into sauce. Pick out the heads and bones, making sure to pick off the tasty flesh and let it fall into the sauce. Adjust salt and pepper.

Cook the tonnarelli very al dente in a pot of salted boiling water. When quite al dente, about 2 to 3 minutes from done, transfer into the pan with the sauce using a hand held strainer. Finish cooking using the pasta water.

The starchy water will bind with the sauce around the pasta. When it is ready, finish with a drizzle of olive oil and some fresh basil. Serve immediately.

mullets meeting their blessed end