The Little Black Dress of Dinner

Pasta with Smoked Salmon "Acqua al 2"


Anyone who purports to know even a little about fashion knows that the one indispensable item in any woman’s wardrobe is the little black dress. It’s elegant, it’s sophisticated, it’s perfect for any occasion, and most importantly, you don’t have to think about it; you just throw it on and you’re dressed for anything, regardless of which way the fickle winds of fashion happen to be blowing the rest of your attire.

Well, believe it or not, I’ve actually survived for thirty years without a little black dress (in truth, I’ve bought several over the years, but none has ever been that black dress), but I do have something in my arsenal I couldn’t survive without. Let’s call it the little black dress of dinner.

To me, this edible little black dress represents nothing short of the holy grail of recipes. I mean, let’s face it – as much as I love to cook, sometimes I want to invite people over without having to spend twenty-four hours sweating into a pot of demiglace. I want to make something that’s impressive and unusual, but also foolproof and affordable. I want most of the ingredients to be already sitting in my refrigerator, or at most a fifteen-minute trip to the supermarket away. Heck, I want something that I can start making twenty minutes before my guests walk in the door and still be absolutely certain it will knock their socks into orbit around Pluto. I want something like this salmon pasta.

Recipes like this are, unfortunately, all too rare. Most dishes designed to impress are full of complicated techniques, esoteric ingredients and tedious prep work. This one couldn’t be farther from those if it tried. It takes literally twenty minutes from start to finish, pasta boiling time included (well, maybe a couple more if you want to get your onions nice and caramelized), and chances are, you’ve got more than half of the ingredients on hand already.

Most importantly, though, it is really, really good. I confirmed that first time I tasted it, ten years ago at the bustling Florentine restaurant Acqua al 2 (which, I see through the miracle of the internet, not only continues to flourish, but now has a sister restaurant in San Diego. Go figure!). Their gimmick was (and still is, it seems) a pasta sampler, a succession of five plates of pasta in every shape and size imaginable, each dressed with one of their legendary sauces: tangy salsa verde, earthy funghi porcini, spicy eggplant and tomato. Actually, I’m just guessing about those, as apart from this dish, I can’t recall a single thing I ate there that night. I only remember, midway through that parade of pasta, being floored by one of the most ridiculously tasty sauces I had ever eaten, atop noodles or not. It was salmony, but not too salmony, slightly sweet, subtly garlicky and thick with cream – I swear, if I had spoken better Italian, I would have asked to kiss the chef’s feet, or at least, would have asked for a bathtub-sized carton of the stuff to take home so I could have spent hours dissecting its components.

But I didn’t, so as soon as I got home I tinkered and tinkered until I managed to recreate that pasta, and even now, ten years on, it’s one of my most treasured recipes. Blushing pink and scandalously rich, it somehow manages to straddle that elusive line between sophistication and familiarity, comfort and excitement. I have served it to salmon-lovers, salmon-haters and salmon-ambivalents, and not a single one has ever refused seconds (or thirds, when they’re available). I even sleep better at night knowing this recipe is there, since one of my recurring nightmares involves an Iron-Chef-like scenario of having exactly one hour to whip up dinner for dozens of important people.

In that scenario, the food, thanks to this pasta, would be no problem; it’s just too bad I would have to spend the remaining forty minutes trying to decide what on earth to wear.

Pasta with Smoked Salmon "Acqua al 2"

As I’ve said, this is a perfect dish for company, but I also make it sometimes for just the two of us, in which case I cut the quantities in half. You’ll want to use a smoked salmon of reasonably good quality; I find that the ultra-cheap kinds are often unbearably salty and can have some textural issues, but whether it’s been hot or cold smoked doesn’t really make a difference since the salmon ends up cooked anyway (in case you don’t know the difference, cold-smoked usually comes in thin, supple slices and looks quite similar to raw, whereas hot smoked is usually sold in a chunk and has more of a firm, "cooked fish" appearance). Oh, and don’t tell any Italian grandmothers, but I have been known to occasionally gild this lily with some freshly-grated parmigiano reggiano (I know, blasphemy!), but strictly speaking, it really doesn’t need it.
Serves: 4

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2/3 cup (160ml) dry white wine or vermouth
1 8oz (200g) package cream cheese, cubed
1 cup (250ml) heavy cream
2 tablespoons tomato paste (concentrate)
1 tablespoon sugar, or more to taste
8-10oz (250-300g) smoked salmon (either hot or cold smoked works fine), cut in 1/2-inch (1cm) pieces
salt, to taste
1 lb. (450g) dried pasta, something hearty (my favorites for this dish are tagliatelle, penne, and bucatini)

lemon thyme or regular thyme, for garnish (optional)

Put a large pot of salted water on to boil. In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat and sauté the onion until golden and starting to caramelize, about 10-15 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté just until it loses its raw edge, about one minute more. Pour in the wine and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Add the cream cheese, stirring until it melts, and then the cream. Bring the mixture to a gentle boil, stirring constantly. Reduce the heat slightly and stir in the tomato paste, sugar and smoked salmon. Cook, stirring frequently, for about 5 more minutes, until the sauce is quite thick. Taste and add salt and/or a little more sugar as needed.

Cook the pasta in the boiling salted water until just al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving a little of the pasta water. In a large bowl or the empty pasta pot, toss the pasta with the sauce, adding in a little of the pasta water if needed to help the sauce coat the noodles evenly.

Serve immediately, garnished, if you like, with few leaves of lemon thyme. Unfortunately this sauce doesn’t reheat very well, but that’s is a great excuse not to have any leftovers. 🙂


As Long as There’s Chocolate…

Chocolate Panna Cotta with Vanilla Bean Syrup and Crushed Raspberries

Goodness me, what is this? A Valentine’s Day post?? Chez moi???

I know you were probably in too much of a chocolate-induced coma to notice, but both last year and the year before I did something pretty sneaky: I put a post up the day after Valentine’s and acted as if the holiday had never even happened. I certainly didn’t assault you with ideas for luscious last-minute Valentine’s Day desserts and I definitely didn’t put up photos in shades of pink and red so that even if I changed my mind at the last minute and tried to ignore the whole thing everybody would see right through it and know the truth. So why start now?

Well, I’ve had a change of heart. In fact, after spending most of my adult life avoiding it as assiduously as possible, I’ve decided that Valentine’s Day is actually – wait for it, this is big – worth celebrating after all.

Now please understand, my issues with Valentine’s Day don’t come from the hardened bitterness of having spent one too many of them alone. As you know, I’m a married woman, and have in fact spent the last ten years of my life passionately in love. But as much as that deserves celebrating, and as much as I love having an excuse to eats lots of chocolate, there’s always been a couple of things about Valentine’s Day that I cannot seem to make my peace with.

First, there’s the obligation. Maybe it’s just my nonconformist streak, but I really dislike people telling me what to do. In particular, I don’t like the idea that I’m supposed to show my love for someone on the same day and in exactly the same way as everyone else around the world – flowers, chocolates, dinner, yada yada yada. And I hate it that if I don’t, I risk implying that I don’t love him. How ridiculous is that? Love should be spontaneous, and surprising, and be demonstrated copiously and frequently rather than on the one day a year Hallmark, Inc. has set aside for that purpose.

Far worse than that, however, is the exclusive nature of the whole affair. I mean just think about it – how many other holidays are there that regularly exclude large numbers of people who want to celebrate them? Do we deny people the chance to celebrate Thanksgiving because they’re gluten-intolerant, or they don’t like turkey? Do we deny someone the chance to celebrate Christmas because they weren’t raised Catholic? Of course not, but somebody at some point decided that Valentine’s Day could only be celebrated by those who have romantic love in their lives, and if you don’t, well too bad – you’ll just have to sit at home, miserable and alone, while all your friends get showered with jewelry and chocolates and overpriced dinners. I mean really, as if being single wasn’t hard enough, what with the lack of tax breaks and the necessity of suffering through five days of leftovers every time you make a recipe from a cookbook, old St. Valentine has to pour salt on the wound too.

Nevertheless, the more I insisted on not celebrating Valentine’s Day in protest, the more I felt uneasy, like this wasn’t the right answer. Sure the day is hokey and commercialized and fraught with discrimination, but I’ve now come to the conclusion that the last thing we should do is stop celebrating it entirely. There is, by my count anyway, a chronic shortage of love in this world, and maybe, just maybe, what we ought to do is keep celebrating Valentine’s Day, but celebrate it just a little bit differently. Here’s what I propose. Forget about your husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend for the day – they should know how much you love them already, and if they don’t, promise them that you’ll spend the other 364 days of the year proving it – and instead, spend the day spreading love among people who don’t expect it: your co-workers, your neighbors, your parents and children, your friends. Buy them boxes of candy, bake them cookies, invite them over for a fabulous dinner that ends with the kind of indulgent chocolate dessert that normally only people in the throes of romance get to experience on this date. In short, help more people in this world feel loved, not less.

Who knows? I think it might just be crazy enough to work… that is, as long as there’s still plenty of chocolate involved.

Chocolate Panna Cotta with Vanilla Bean Syrup and Crushed Raspberries

I know many of you picked out your Valentine’s Day desserts weeks ago, but if you’re still sitting around, wondering what on earth you could whip up that would be quick, foolproof, decadent and chocolaty – and more importantly isn’t the same old mousse or flourless torte – I have exactly the dessert for you. It blends the silken wobbliness of a great panna cotta with the intensity of dark chocolate ganache, its bitter edge kept just this side of tame by a slick of vanilla-flecked syrup and the tang of crimson raspberries. It’s not only delicious, it’s downright sexy – which in my book is a plus no matter who you plan on sharing it with.
Serves: 4

For Panna Cotta:
1 tablespoon cold water
1 1/4 teaspoons unflavored powdered gelatin
1 1/2 cups (375ml) heavy cream
3 tablespoons sugar
pinch salt
3.5 oz (100g) fine bittersweet chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids), coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons liqueur of your choice: Frangelico, Amaretto, Bailey’s, Grand Marnier, Chambord… (optional, but recommended)

For Vanilla Syrup:
1/2 cup (100g) sugar
1 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise
1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 1/2 cups (375ml) water

For Raspberries:
1 package (somewhere around 12oz/350g) frozen unsweetened raspberries, thawed
4-5 tablespoons sugar, or to taste

Grease four ramekins or small dessert bowls with a little vegetable oil, wiping out the excess. Pour the 1 tablespoon cold water into another small bowl and sprinkle with the gelatin. Let stand for 5 minutes, or until softened.

Stir together the cream, sugar and salt in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. When the liquid comes to a simmer, stir in the gelatin mixture. Continue stirring for 30 seconds or until the gelatin is dissolved, but be careful – don’t let it boil. Remove from the heat, add the chocolate and whisk until the mixture is smooth. Stir in the liqueur. Divide the mixture between the greased ramekins or dessert bowls. Let cool for a few minutes, and then cover with plastic wrap, pressing it onto the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours or up to 8 hours, until set.

Meanwhile, make the syrup. Stir together the sugar, vanilla bean, lemon juice and 1 1/2 cups water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally to dissolve sugar. Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer until mixture has reduced to about 2/3 cup (160ml) and has the consistency of a thin syrup, 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool to room temperature, then remove the vanilla bean.

Place the thawed raspberries in a small bowl. Crush lightly with back of spoon. Stir in sugar to taste (they should still be a bit tart). Set aside until needed. 

To serve the panna cottas, fill a bowl with very hot water. Dip the ramekins or bowls into the water for about 20-30 seconds, then unmold onto plates, using the tip of a knife to help coax them out. (Alternatively, you can always just serve them in the ramekins.) Drizzle each one with a couple tablespoons of the vanilla syrup and plop a mound of the crushed raspberries alongside. Serve with the remaining syrup and raspberries on the side for people to add more as they like.


Tigres to the Rescue

Tigres (Spanish Stuffed Mussels)

In all honesty, I never expected to be bringing you this recipe. Well, certainly not now at any rate, when six weeks into your New Year’s resolutions (and mine – don’t remind me!) the last thing you need is a recipe instructing you to dust off the deep-fryer and plunge something béchamel-filled and crumb-coated inside.

But desperate times call for desperate measures, and in this case I’m feeling pretty desperate after a string of recipe experiments so mediocre I don’t even want to want to bore you with the details. Let’s just say there was a chicken involved in one, an eggplant in another, and a chocolate cake in the third (I know, can you believe that there are chocolate cakes out there so mediocre that half of them end up in my trash? I certainly didn’t until I saw it with my own eyes). The worst part was that none of them was outright bad in a way that would have at least had some comedic value; they were all just dull to the point where the leftovers sat forlornly in the fridge until we were forced to guiltily toss them out. And unlike many people I like leftovers (and hate guilt), so you can imagine how unremarkable these were.

Anyway, I’m telling you all this not to get your sympathy, but in a feeble attempt to justify the unconscionable thing I’m asking you to do, namely to set a bubbling pan of oil on the stove in February and make these mussels. Not only do they happen to be the most delicious thing I’ve managed to produce in weeks – okay, okay, the only delicious thing – but just the act of making them seems to evoke lazy days under a warm Mediterranean sun, exactly the kind I catch myself daydreaming about all too often these days.

The funny thing is, when I ate these the first time, it never crossed my mind for a minute that I’d ever be making them myself. I was in Murcia, soaking up the December sun at an outdoor table in the Plaza de Flores and valiantly attempting to sample every tapa on offer, and although these tigres – with their buttery béchamel crowns covering shells full of spicy mussel mince – were wildly good, they struck me as an awful lot of work for something meant to be devoured in ten minutes before dinner. More importantly, though, the events that transpired later that night convinced me that I would never be able to even think about anything I had eaten that day again, let alone attempt any of it in my own kitchen. But then I got home, and try as I might to forget those tigres, I couldn’t – and I found that every time I did think about them, my stomach began to rumble, not with pain, but with hunger. And if that’s not a sign that something deserves a second chance, I don’t know what is.

While not difficult by any means, these tigres are indeed a bit time-consuming, what with all the steaming, simmering, stuffing and frying. For a small number of people they’re by no means too much work, particularly if you can conscript a bit of help, but I probably wouldn’t attempt to make enough for a really large party or anything (then again, I think a better reason for not making them for a large party is because you’d never manage to get any for yourself!). What really makes up for any slight inconvenience in preparing them, however, is the absolute certainty that there will be no suffering a silent fate at back of the fridge for these babies. But you already knew that…right?

Tigres (Spanish Stuffed Mussels)

If you, like me, love the flavor of mussels but have a hard time getting your head around their texture, then this is the dish for you. Finely-chopped mussels are cooked briefly with onion, pepper and tomato – and a dash of hot chili, whose unexpected heat apparently gives these ‘tigers’ their name – before being re-filled in their shells, covered with a thick layer of nutmegy béchamel, and briefly fried. Crispy, creamy, wake-your-mouth-up spicy and complementing just about any kind of pre-dinner drink, these tigres are just about the perfect tapa, though no one says they can’t stand in for a real meal either. You can certainly make them with frozen pre-cooked mussels, but – no surprise here – they won’t be nearly as good, since before they’re frozen they tend to be cooked to a texture just this side of rubber. That said, it is much less hassle to go the frozen route, so if you do I’ll be happy to look the other way.
Serves: 8 as an appetizer

2 lbs. (1kg) mussels, live or frozen, cleaned
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 green Italian frying pepper, minced
1 small carrot, peeled and minced
2/3 cup (160ml) tomato puree or passata
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or more to taste
5 tablespoons (75g) butter
1/2 cup (70g) flour
2 cups (500ml) milk
salt, pepper and freshly-grated nutmeg
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1-2 cups (250-500ml) fine, dry bread crumbs

olive oil or vegetable oil for frying
lemon wedges, for serving

Once the mussels have been thoroughly cleaned, remove and discard any that are broken or that do not close when lightly tapped. Pour 2 cups of water into a large heavy pot, add the mussels and cover tightly. Place the pot over high heat and bring the liquid to a boil. When you see steam escaping from under the lid, reduce the heat and simmer the mussels until they begin to open, about 5 minutes, shaking the pan frequently. When all the mussels have opened, pour out the liquid and immediately run cold water into the pot to cool down the mussels. When cool enough, remove the mussels from their shells, discarding any that haven’t opened. (If using frozen mussels, simply defrost and shell.) Set the shells aside. Place the mussels into a food processor and pulse until finely chopped.

Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Sauté the onion, garlic, pepper and carrot, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are soft and golden, about 15-20 minutes.  Stir in the tomato puree, sugar, cayenne pepper, salt and 1/2 cup water, and continue to cook for about 10-15 minutes, until most of the liquid has evaporated and the mixture is very thick. Stir in the chopped mussels, correct the seasoning and remove from the heat.

Make the béchamel. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Stir in the flour, making a thick, pasty roux. Start adding the milk little by little, whisking the mixture vigorously after each addition until smooth. After all the milk has been added, bring the mixture to a gentle boil and continue cooking until the sauce is thick and smooth. Season to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg (it should be very well-seasoned). Remove from the heat and set aside to cool for about ten minutes.

Pour the bread crumbs onto a medium-sized plate. Break the eggs into a small mixing bowl and lightly beat. Be sure that the inside of the mussel shells are clean (scrape off any soft matter with a paring knife) and gently separate any that are still attached. Fill each shell with enough of the mussel mixture so that it comes about halfway up the inside of the shell (you probably won’t use all your shells). Cover the mussel mixture with a generous spoonful of the warm béchamel, mounding it slightly higher in the middle and sealing it to the shell around the edges. Dip each mussel, filled side only, first into the beaten egg, then quickly coat in the bread crumbs. Place shell-side down on a baking sheet and refrigerate at least an hour, preferably more.

Pour the olive or vegetable oil into a large, heavy-bottomed frying pan to a depth of about 1 inch and heat it over medium-high until a crust of bread fries vigorously on contact. Carefully fry the mussels, in batches, shell side up, until the breadcrumbs are golden. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

Serve immediately with spoons and lemon wedges.