Waste not want not, leftovers from an Italian Christmas

Though the quickly ending year is leaving quite a bit to be desired behind, all in all I can say that there were nothing but upsides this past December 25th. They are:

Christmas morning
Christmas morning
  • Spending Christmas morning in bed with the amore piccolo and the amore grande watching "The Interview"
  • Finding Christmas joy in cooking and hosting a meal for 30, and managing to sit them all
  • Knowing at least 30 people who understand that the first item on this list completely justifies delaying festivities by 3 hours
  • Discovering that the 12 days of Christmas START rather than end on Christmas Day (did everyone know that? If so, shouldn't someone have told me on by Day 2 or 3 of my Italian holiday table series??)
  • Having enough leftovers to continue the series for several days
Christmas dinner 2014
Christmas dinner 2014

First up: repurposing that lone octopus tentacle swimming in its own perfect broth. This one accounted for 2 meals, one of spaghetti-below and one of risotto-coming soon...

Spaghetti al sugo di polpo piccante

Spaghetti with spicy octopus sauce


for 6 people

lone octopus tentacle from recipe described here

1 garlic clove

1 handful basil leaves

2 tablespoon tomato concentrate

1 cup octopus stock olive oil

red pepper flakes to taste

splash dry white wine

salt to taste


Cut the octopus tentacles in very small morsels. Smash and peel the garlic clove.

Stack the basil leaves, roll them longitudinally and slice them in very thin ribbons.

Heat the octopus stock and dilute the tomato concentrate in it.

Pour 3 to 4 tablespoons of olive oil, the garlic clove and half the basil in a sautè pan. Gently heat everything until the fragrance of the garlic wafts to your nostrils.

Discard the garlic clove and add the cut octopus. Warm for a couple of minutes and deglaze with the wine.

Wait until the wine smells caressing rather than acrid then add the octopus stock with the tomato concentrate.

While it is gently simmering to slightly reduce, cook the spaghetti in salted boiling water.

Using a handheld strainer transfer the spaghetti into the sautè pan about 4 minutes before the suggested cooking time printed on the package.

Finish cooking by gradually adding small amounts of the water in which the spaghetti cooked. Be mindful to add the liquid in small amounts so that the pasta has a chance to absorb it. If too much liquid is added, one is bound to end with with either overcooked or soupy pasta.

When the spaghetti have reached the consistency most palatable to you, finish with a short stream of olive oil and serve immediately in a warm platter after garnishing with the remainder of the basil.


  • You might have noticed that I omit the salt from this recipe except for what goes in the water for the pasta. That is by design in that the octopus stock is more often than not salty enough to carry it on to the rest of the dish, however, I do suggest that you try the sauce to make sure it is agreeable to your preferred level of saltiness

The 12 days of Natale, recipes for the Italian holiday table. Day 9: polpo

Today is fish day. No it will not be 7 fishes, rather just one veeeery long cooking octopus. Below are pictures of what is happening in my kitchen as I write.

Merry Christmas!


Polpo alla Luciana

Braised octopus


for 6 to 8 people

3 to 4 pounds octopus

salt to taste

1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 handful parsley

1 ripe large tomato-if in season

OR 2 or 3 canned tomatoes

OR 2 tablespoon tomato concentrate

2 garlic cloves

pepper to taste


Lightly sprinkle salt on the octopus and place it in a Dutch oven. Add the olive oil and wine.

Rinse and add the parsley, stems off.

Chunk the fresh tomato or smash the canned one with your hands. Smash and peel the garlic. Add them to the rest of the ingredients-or add the tomato concentrate.

Season with pepper-or red pepper flakes if you want to give it a kick.

Seal the pot with a layer of parchment paper and tie it around its circumference with kitchen twine. Cover tightly with the lid and place over the lowest heat your stovetop can dispense.

Cook slowly and lovingly for 3 to 4 hours, or more if you have a big octopus, without ever opening and unsealing the pot.

Bask in the fragrance until you deem it ready.

Open and drain the octopus from its water. You can serve it as is, cool it and make a salad with it, mince it for a pasta sauce.

Whatever you do, keep the stock it has produced so we can use it for our days of leftover fun.


  • This is an old Italian classic, there are versions that use onion and/or celery for a richer stock
  • I have made this also without wine, or using basil in the summer
  • A pinch of oregano adds a delightful dimension
  • The stock will be rather intense so do not add salt or reduce, otherwise you will not be able to use it
  • Lastly: a picture of my child and some of his cousins after having eaten spaghetti with a sauce from the recipe above last summer in Tuscany
Topini che mangiano il polpo della zia Viola
Topini che mangiano il polpo della zia Viola

Winter holidays fare: baby octopus and calamari salad

It's become tradition, every early December my friend Elisabetta Fagioli and I mark the advent of the Christmas season with a holiday food and wine pairing workshop at the Italian Cultural Institute in San Francisco. Elisabetta is a 3rd level sommelier specialized in Italian wines and for an hour or so she and I chat about the Italian holiday table and the whys and hows of dishes likely to be served during one or another of the many festivities this season brings.

For the eating and drinking part of the evening, we choose 3 different dishes from various regions, I prepare them and Elisabetta expertly picks wines most suited for the flavors. This year she focused on bubbly wines.

Such fun was had last Tuesday, on the very day when I woke up to find my voice almost completely erased by a sore throat. Since I could say very little, the food needed to speak for itself. Apparently it did, as several attendees have asked for recipes and information about my classes.

Here is how to make the starter, my take on an octopus salad that my Sicilian friend Maria Luisa Manca tells me is a staple on Christmas Eve in her region.

Insalata di polipetti e calamari Baby octopus and calamari salad

for 6 people

the dish with the sprkling wine Elisabetta recommends

1.5 pounds baby octopus (or an adult octopus will also work) 1.5 pounds calamari 1/2 yellow onion 1 celery stalk 2 to 3 sprigs parsley 1 Meyer lemon splash dry white wine 2 tablespoon salt 1 handful parsley leaves olive oil salt and pepper to taste 1 garlic clove

Before we delve into the procedure, let's chat about what to do when you first bring tentacled creatures to your kitchen.

One can generally find them clean. I prefer performing the task myself, because if they are whole they are less likely to have been previously frozen, but I also find the job deliciously relaxing, my brain wonders off into a cottony, fishy cloud of which I enjoy the sensorial aspect and the sense of accomplishment which comes with completing the work.

Should you decide that you are going to clean them yourself, here's how you do it.

Octopus (baby or adult): turn over the tentacles and squeeze out the beak that is hiding underneath in the center hole. Turn back over, snip the eyes with scissors and squeeze them out. Now cut a little slit around the head, enough to be able to turn it inside out, and strip away the guts, brains and ink sac (you can keep that for other cooking if you'd like). Rinse and you're done.

Calamari: turn over the tentacles and squeeze out the beak that is hiding underneath in the center hole. Turn back over, snip the eyes with scissors and squeeze them out. Sneak your finger into the body to pull out the bone (you will feel it, it rests on the side where the little flaps are, it is hard and feels a little like a feather in the center). Grasp the body at the tip and squeeze your way down to eliminate the guts and brain. Rinse and you're done.

A few more tips: I like to leave the skins on, as in my opinion it makes it that much tastier. If you'd rather doff the skin, it is much easier to do so once the critters are cooked, though you can also patiently do it while cleaning.

My zia Milla, one of the best cooks with whom I grew up summers in Italy, is of the school of thought that you only remove the beak and bone, but leave in the guts and brains. My mother used to remember my 5 year old self in awe of the gustatory experience that was zia Milla's stewed octopus. Apparently I said "And she leaves the brain in!".  The dish since became polpi col cervello (octopus with brain) and to this day, it is one of my favorite dish of octopus, in itself one of my top 10 foods.

Back to the recipe now...

Once the seafood is clean, fill a pot with water and add the parsley sprigs, onion, celery stalk, 2 slices of lemon, the white wine and tablespoons of salt. Bring to a boil.

Drop the calamari in the water, cover with the lid and turn off the heat. Let sit for about 20 minutes. Strain out of the water with a slotted spoon and set aside to cool.

Bring the water back to the boil and drop in the baby octopus. When the water starts boiling again, turn the heat down and simmer until the octopuses are tender and easily chewable. (It will take about 20 minutes for the baby ones and longer for large ones, with timing depending on the size). Drain and set aside to cool.

While the seafood is cooking, grate the zest and squeeze the juice of the Meyer lemon, pick and clean the parsley leaves and smash the garlic clove.

Place the juice, zest and parsley in a small food processor with salt and pepper to taste. Stir the blade while gradually adding olive oil in a stream (this can also be done with a handheld immersion blender). Continue until you reach a balance of fat and acid your palate finds satisfying. Adjust salt and pepper if necessary. Transfer to a jar and drop in the garlic clove.

Divide the bodies from the tentacles of the calamari and baby octopus. Cut the calamari bodies in thick rings. (If using large octopus, cut in pieces suitable for a salad).

Combine the seafood in a bowl and season generously with the dressing from which you will have removed the garlic clove.


  • When buying large octopus, choose those with 2 rows of suction cups, they are the ones that live in the rocks and are tastier and more delicate than their sand dwelling brothers.


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.