On holiday in Italy, J and I broke off from the larger group. We ditched them in Rome with a bottle of Limoncello stuffed in our bag, and set off to explore the coast. Two girls ready for life with the locals, we were also two keen food snobs (a delight to be in Italy).
We began our journey heading south to Napoli. As we de-boarded the train, the energy and life of the city engulfed us. Two out-of-place New Yorkers, we felt at home amongst the bustle of locals. We found a cheap hotel near the train, threw our bags down, and headed to city central. We walked the narrow backstreets where young boys kicked soccer balls against the building walls. Laundry hung at haphazard angles overhead. Women teetered out the window, calling loudly to the children below. Men sat in small groups busily talking with their hands. We found the central piazza where the teenagers sat around the fountain. Surrounding the fountain were coffee shops where the twenty-somethingers flirted the afternoon away. We found a small stairway and sat down, taking in the spirit of the city.
Our stomachs growled as night came. We wandered into the commercial downtown and asked locals where to get some good seafood. In a winding backstreet full of street-hawkers, we were pointed into a restaurant. Led up to the second floor, we were seated on a balcony that overlooked the street. The smells overwhelmed us, and our stomachs deceived us—we ordered more than any two mortals could ever finish, daring ourselves to clear the plates.
For starters, I ordered grilled calamari: Perfect oval squid bodies, with a full bunch of tentacles. I slowly plucked each single tentacle and dropped it into my mouth. These little critters were the right ratio of chew to crispy grilled flavor, drizzled in olive oil and garlic. For my entrée I had mussels. The most perfect mussels I have ever had swimming in a red tomato sauce: salty-sweet and a model broth consistency for easy scooping. J and I passed our dishes back and forth, well aware we were nearing the bursting point. The third hour of the meal rolled around and we began giggling in disbelief of our good fortune and full bellies. Our gluttony had driven us too far: we had consumed everything. We rolled ourselves out of the restaurant and back to our hotel. We slept the most content night that trip with visions of the ocean dancing in our head: we were satisfied.
A few years later, my mother would take my little brother and me to an Italian restaurant in Chicago. Hoping to re-create my fading memory of the gluttonous Napoli feast, I happily ordered the mussels. As family tradition would dictate, my brother decided on the fried calamari appetizer for the table. Rings of crispy calamari arrived. It is a dish that is easily ruined if the batter is too thick or soggy. These critters were a delight. Soon a half-moon bowl arrived overflowing with blue shells and hidden orange treasures. The broth in this mussel batch was thick with tomatoes. Pearls of white beans accompanied the texture and flavor of the dish to perfection. Buttery, salty, and savory, I was brought back to my gluttony. I sopped the final drops up with a crispy crustini: pure heaven.
This meal was inspired by past and future memories of calamari and mussels, probably my two favorite seafood dishes (lobster is up there too). For the calamari, D and I used the batter we use for our fried chicken. Because we use farm-fresh cornmeal (ordered direct from an Indiana farm), the texture is a bit grainy. For something as delicate and chewy as calamari, I think this texture fought a little too much with the dish. If extra-fine cornmeal is used, I think it would be perfect since the taste of the corn is an excellent compliment to the dish. At first D pooh-poohed my cocktail sauce. Soon he was licking the dish exclaiming, “but I didn’t think it would be so good!” It is the most simple of condiments to make (a dollop of ketchup and a heaping spoonful of good fresh horseradish).
I created this mussel recipe from memory and combined what I believe to be good compliments to the dish. This meal is far to easy and inexpensive not to eat more often. The result was a succulent tomato-based sauce with a hint of cream to amplify the texture and flavor. I think with some white wine, this sauce would have been even better (we were too lazy to run down the street to get some), without wine, it is very fresh tasting. The best part of this dish was our vegetable side: a steamed artichoke. Once all mussels were consumed and we were left with a bowl of tomato broth, the spoon-like leaves of the artichoke was used to scoop up the sauce and enjoy with the meaty earthiness of the vegetable.
Pre-Cooking Note: Be careful when cooking with hot oil. The key to cooking with oil is that it must be extremely hot for a quick fry. The oil splatters easily so it is advisable to wear an oven mitt over the hand, long sleeves, or use long tongs to place the food into the skillet. Remember to gently place the food down to prevent unnecessary splatter.
Serves 2. Prep + Cook time= 15 minutes.
* ½ pound fresh calamari rings
* ¾ cup cornmeal
* ¾ cup breadcrumbs (or flour)
* salt/ pepper to taste
* 1 tsp paprika
* 1 egg, beaten
* 3 cups vegetable oil
1) In a high-rimmed skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat until hot. While oil is heating, beat egg in a small bowl. Place the calamari rings into the bowl and stir to coat. In another bowl, mix the dry ingredients (cornmeal, breadcrumbs, salt, pepper, paprika). Toss the calamari in the dry mixture to coat well.
2) To test heat of oil, place on calamari into the skillet. If calamari sizzles, the pan is ready. Fill skillet with calamari. Cook about 2 minutes, flip, cook 2 minutes more. You may want to cover the pan to prevent splatter.
3) Remove calamari onto a napkin to absorb some oil. Transfer to serving plate and enjoy with a sprinkle of fresh lemon juice or cocktail sauce.
Pre-Cooking Note: Mussels are in season October- April, so now is a perfect time to enjoy these bivalves. They can really be eaten all year round, but it should be noted that spawning season is late spring and try to avoid them at this time. When buying fresh mussels, make sure all shells are closed. Any open shells should close immediately when tapped lightly with your finger. If they do not close, throw them away. These dead mussels will contaminate the fresh ones. Also discard any mussels with cracked shells, feel heavy (full of sand), or feel loose when shaken (mussel is dead). Trust your nose: anything that smells overly fishy is probably no good. You can store mussels for up to 2 days in your refrigerator. Place them in a bowl, covered with a damp cloth. Do not place them in an airtight container or in fresh water, this will kill them. Before cooking, debeard and scrub the shells clean under cold running water.
MUSSELS IN TOMATO-WHITE BEAN SAUCE
Serves 2. Prep + Cook time= 20 minutes.
* 2 lbs fresh mussels, debearded
* 2 Tbl olive oil
* 4 cloves garlic, crushed
* 1 small vine ripe tomato, cubed
* 1-½ cups water (or white wine)
* 1- 5oz can tomato paste
* 1-½ cups white Northern beans, thoroughly rinsed
* 1 Tbl dry parsley
* Fresh pepper to taste
* ¼ cup cream (half and half or milk works too)
1) In a large saucepan or pot, warm the olive oil over medium heat. While warming, clean the mussels well under running water.
2) When oil is warm, add garlic and sauté about 2 minutes so aroma is let out and garlic begins to turn golden. Add water (or wine) and chopped tomato. Let simmer for about 2 minutes to break down the tomato. Add mussels, cover to steam about 4 minutes. Watch for mussels to open.
3) Add tomato paste, beans, parsley, pepper and stir to distribute evenly. Cover and allow to simmer 5-8 minutes. Turn heat off and add cream, stir. Serve with crustini or fresh bread.