Tag Archives: italian food

M&M Enterprise Cooking, Vol. VIII

Fusilli con gamberi e melanzane – September 8

Cooking, being an inexact science, sometimes surprises and sometimes disappoints. It reminds one of musical improv or other strange mixings where sometimes, you can follow the instructions and end up with an inferior product, and sometimes, it all just works. If yesterday was the former, today was the latter.

An adaptation of this. I’m intrigued by seafood and eggplant dishes, so expect another similar dish to follow, perhaps with mussels. It’s a very southern combo, quite different to the cucina veneta that I know best.

coming together…

I think one thing that made a difference is that I salted the eggplant for much longer than I intended. I sliced thin, then cubed. I also scored some wine, really the remains of a bottle of 13% American chardonnay and thus not suitable for drinking, but perfect for the magic that cooking with alcohol seems to bring. (My brother, who makes me look like the amateur that I am, is more aware of the chemical reactions involved.) I also washed and dried (as best I could) the slices before cubing.

While this was going on I was thawed my Italian branded, but Thai-caught shrimp.

Sautéed one large garlic clove, added the eggplants, let them get soft, added a good dash of the wine. Put on the pasta water to boil.

Once the eggplant were soft, I added another can of these magic Victoria cherry tomatoes. (Not having the polpa that the recipe called for.)

I am lucky enough to have fresh basil growing outside (yes, war zone herb garden), so I topped with that, frozen parsley and dried oregano.

Mixed well with a dash of the pasta water and let it evaporate.

It came out smashingly. I’m surprised I was able to control myself enough to save some for later. I had a healthy appetite thanks to this morning’s 10K — although war zone running is perhaps best left for another blog.

Now, off to the PX to see if they’ve resolved their shipment issues. If nothing else, I need some more canned tomatoes.

I invite readers to send in ideas for okra.


M&M Enterprise Cooking, Vol. VII

Peperonata all’Afghana – September 7

Peperonata all’afghan
al forno

By dint of kindness and good luck, I obtained three bags of fresh veg lately — eggplants, fresh tomatoes (thankfully, since the ones flown into here are a crime), okra, peppers, onions, and cucumbers. So what to do other than to make one of the delicious Mediterranean eggplant and pepper dishes — in France it’s ratatouille, in the Balkans it’s pindjur or ajvar, and in Italy, it’s peperonata or parmigiana. Having already covered the latter, I thought I’d do the former.

I thought the peppers were sweet, and even tasted one, but some hot ones got in my batch, so mainly I was worried that it’d be too hot. Hot it was, but not inedible. I didn’t really have enough time to do a fully 80-90 minute bake, so I cooked on the stove and in the oven.

As with all eggplant dishes, I sliced and salted first. I had the makings of a Northern-style soffritto in my fridge from the salad bar (diced celery, carrots and onion). Not normally to be used in a Southern dish, but waste not want not. I tossed that in, along with a garlic clove, then the salted and washed eggplant slices, and let it cook down. Since eggplants are a sponge that will take as much EVOO as you have, I had to add a little more oil to prevent sticking. After that mix got soft, I added a can of these excellent Victoria cherry tomatoes (I’m saving the fresh ones for salad or seafood dishes). Then I added the chopped peppers, long green crooked ones, and (since I thought they were sweet) a dash of red dried peperoncino and some oregano. I let the mix cook down over fairly high heat as I boiled water for the gomiti and penne (figuring I’d uphold the cucina povera Neapolitan tradition of mixing leftover types of pasta). I’d pre-heated the oven, so I tossed the peperonata in with a liberal amount of grana padano (again, I’d rather use pecorino but I’m hoarding it for later — this is war zone cooking, c’mon).

When the pasta was al dente, I removed it from the oven and tossed everything, along with a spoonful of the starchy reserved water.

It was decent enough to where I finished the whole thing. I think it would have been better the next day, maybe. I also might’ve liked the blend the ingredients together for a smoother consistency. I definitely would have used less hot peppers (and I like hot). Not bad, but seemed to be missing something. Maybe the Northern soffritto was a mistake. At any rate, it was nice to have fresh vegetables.

Today: some manner of shrimp and eggplant dish.


M&M Enterprise Cooking, Vol. VI

September 3 — Pasta con bietola e pancetta

Warning: this dish looks much healthier than it probably is

With the leftover pancetta from the amatriciana and some frozen bietola, I had a couple of options. Basically an amalgamation of these two recipes.

I did a soffritto with EVOO, frozen onions (working on obtaining fresh ones) and peperoncino while I boiled the bietola. I had the rind (cotenna) of the pancetta, so not wanting to waste, I threw that in and let the fat render down into the EVOO.

I strained out the bietola, kept the water boiling, added the greens to the soffritto, and added the fusilli to the water. (As anyone who’s made the Ligurian classic trofie al pesto con patate e fagiolini knows, there’s magic to cooking pasta in same water used to cook greens.) When the pasta was just al dente, I strained and tossed the whole thing in the soffritto, which of course by this time had a good amount of pork fat in it. The fusilli turned a dark color due to the fat. I then threw in a few pomodori al forno (Saclà, Italian PX) — these are semi-dried, so much fatter and juicier than the usual sun-dried ones. I tossed the whole thing with grana padano (Italian PX), not pecorino as I’d have preferred, and the result was excellent. But then again, as grandmothers from both the Southern U.S. and the southern part of the boot know, fat from the belly of the pig does make things good. As my dad would say, “now you’re cookin’ with grease!”

I’m learning how to moderate with very quick-warming and very hot burners (my moka boils up almost instantly in the morning), so the key here was to cook the pancetta and cotenna very slowly. I also took the time to slice the pancetta very, very thin, almost like bacon. (It pays to cook when not starving sometimes.)

M&M Enterprise Cooking, Vol. IV

gli spaghetti all’amatriciana

I took a break from cooking and eating as I had another stomach bug, the second in as many months. M&M Enterprise Cooking started as a way to avoid food-borne illness but there are a lot of ways to get sick. As a colleague asked, “did you touch a doorknob?” So as long as I’m able to handle it, M&M will continue. Today I went ahead with the plan to make spaghetti all’amatriciana.

Amatriciana, like many simple regional dishes, has many variations and there are a lot of opinions about it: onions or not, white wine or not, pancetta or guanciale, spaghetti or bucatini. I’ll leave it to the curious to look around the internet, although I’ll caution all readers against the New York Times article of January 2008, which exacerbates a number of ridiculous misconceptions about Italian cookery that American travelers have.

This simple and inexpensive dish was a go-to for my Veneta wife and I when we were dating and first married, so I’ve used a variation of her recipe, which differs from stalwart Giallo Zafferano’s in that she never reserved the guanciale/pancetta. What can I say, she’s not from the south, but lived with meridionali for a long time. I prefer to add a bit of wine, but it’s not easy or cheap to get alcohol here, so I forwent this time.

As per usual, the first thing you always do for timing is put on the big pot of cold water to boil for the pasta.

Unlike the wine, I was able to obtain a 200 gram piece of pancetta tesa from the ever-reliable Italian PX. I used somewhere between half and three-quarters of it, cutting off the rind and reserving it for a later bean dish. I cut it straight through, leaving a hunk of pink meat in the middle and fat on either side. I tossed that in some good EVOO and added some frozen onions (Italian PX, hard to get fresh here).

all manner of frozen goodness

This is where it gets tricky — the onions will burn quickly, and you want all the pork fat to cook off into the EVOO. I managed to avoid burning, but my onions got a little more caramelized that I’d normally prefer. I then added some organic red pepper flakes (these came from Amazon).

Next, I tossed in a 400g can of good cherry tomatoes (Victoria, €1.90, Italian PX). I turned up the heat a bit, now that I had some liquid to prevent burning, mashed the tomatoes and kept stirring till it all got to a good consistency.

The Granoro spaghetti (half of a 500g pack, €1.50 at the Italian PX) cooked al dente in about four minutes (always undercook a little, as you’ll finish it all in the pan). As I was draining, I added some of the starchy water to the condimento.

I mixed everything, as one must do, while adding liberal amounts of Grana Padano (the PX has been out of the more authentic Pecorino Romano for the past two weeks).

I plated it carefully, added a tiny bit more cheese, and tiny bit of the Zucchi EVOO (not what I used for cooking).

The result was better than I expected. It all came together well in the mixing, and the pasta itself absorbed the wetter parts of the sauce. The peperoncini and pancetta conspired to make a smoky, earthy flavor. My only regret is that some white wine would have brought that out more, and pecorino even more.

There’s still a hunk of pancetta left, so there’s a chance to revisit.

Humanitarian note: don’t forget that Amatrice, the town the dish gets its name from, was hard-hit by an earthquake two years ago. There’s a festival promoting their local culture starting today, if you’re in the region.

Next up: cooking with frozen seafood, something the PX seems to never run low on.







M&M Enterprise Cooking, Vol. V

Spinaci saltati

spinaci saltati con feta

Here’s an easy one, with a Balkan touch.

Frozen spinach, courtesy Italian PX. Immersed in boiling water for 3-5 minutes, then drained and put into the waiting pan with Zucchi EVOO, a garlic clove (bazaar) and a finely chopped red pepper (DFAC). Let sauté till the oil is absorbed, add chunks of DOP feta (again, Italian PX), mix well, serve.

If the peperoncini prove too much, calm the system with some Twinings nighttime calm camomile and peppermint tea (Amazon).

Why saltati? From saltare —  they’ve jumped into the pan (and hopefully into your mouth).


M&M Enterprise Cooking, Vol. IV

Penne all’Arrabiata

cooking down

Five tomatoes and a long hot red pepper sitting in my fridge for a week meant that it was time for this dish. This is about as simple as it gets, so the real challenge here was properly skinning and seeding the tomatoes. I basically followed this recipe by Giallo Zafferano’s Sonia Peronaci to the letter. My mom taught me her mom’s method for peeling tomatoes — immerse for a few seconds in boiling water, run under cold water, and then the skin comes off easily. Grandma would apparently then just squeeze them directly into the cooking vessel. (She was of Scottish, not Italian, extraction.) This method is fine but it’s a bit hard on the old hands. Sonia’s method, which calls for making an X-shaped cut on the top of the tomato and then immersing in a bowl of ice, offers a slight improvement.

adding pecorino

Granoro penne, the end of the DOP pecorino (which, I note, to date has not been restocked), frozen parsley all from the Italian PX.

Tomatoes from a vendor at the bazaar.

Chili pepper from the cafeteria.

Also a bit of organic Zucchi EVOO at the end.

finished product


The problem with this dish, like with the shrimp, is that the tomatoes on offer are simply not that juicy. I used five, which seems way too many for one dish of pastasciutta normally. But these things don’t cook down much, and what juice there is remains thin and watery.

Think it would have been superior with some canned cherry tomatoes or passata, which I’ll keep in mind for the next pastasciutta dish — all’amatriciana.


M&M Enterprise Cooking, Vol. III

pasta alla norma con salsiccia

As my Italian-American college roommate taught me long ago, there’s something about letting any tomato-based dish cool overnight that does magic things to it the next day. Not a whole lot to say about today’s dish — all the basic ingredients and their sourcing were described in the previous post. Today’s task was simply to boil water and add Granoro penne rigate for 9 minutes while last night’s parmigiana pugliese re-heated in the oven. Drain the pasta, mix everything in the pot, top with some DOP pecorino and the organic Zucchi EVOO, and eccociqua — a delightful sort of pasta alla norma con salsiccia.

Mixing in the pot is absolutely essential, another tip from my old roommate of origini meridionali I learnt before ever even setting foot in Italy. Yet many non-Italian cooks don’t do it and I can’t fathom why, or why not. The just-cooked pasta will be porous and ready to accept the flavor of whatever you’re eating it with — it’s a quick and easy trick that adds a lot of flavor. This ties into a greater idea that non-Italian cooks focus on the “sauce” (more properly a condimento) more than the pasta itself — a cardinal mistake in not only my opinion but likely that of 58 million Italians. This 21-year old New York Times article makes that point in excellent detail.


M&M Enterprise Cooking, Vol. II

August 22. Una specie di parmigiana di melanzane. 

Parmigiana con mozzarella e salsiccia

I bought long local eggplants at the bazaar last week, sautéed them in Spanish EVOO with garlic, layered with them cafeteria provided mozzarella slices, threw in some gifted modest tomato sauce (Hunt’s in a can, Prego in a jar), baked for a half hour at 180C, secured cooked Italian sausage from the cafeteria, sliced that and some DOP pecorino, and added it on top, let it bake at 180 for another thirty minutes, let it cool and topped the whole thing with the good Italian organic EVOO and some basil grown in the garden here. Let it cool for a bit and it was fairly delightful. Using substandard tomatoes breaks a cardinal rule, but — war zone rules. The sausage gives it a Pugliese twist; it’s similar to this recipe, which I found after the fact, although I didn’t batter or deep fry the eggplants. 

Kept half for today’s penne lunch. 

Of course, the name of the dish, ubiquitous in east coast sub shops, certainly has little to do with the city in Emilia — this should be a known quantity to all who care at this point — but I was intrigued to learn that parmiciana may come from its Turkish name patlıcan, itself an Arabic borrowing, which was, of course, what we called them in Macedonia as well. The Italian wiki (“Attribuzione siciliana“) has some good theorizing.

How the storied fruit of Solanum melongena ended up with so many different names is its own story and the interested should be able to turn up some good explanations with minimal Googling. Here’s one of many, although the author is a little too credulous at times — mela insana (apple of madness) for melanzana is pure folk etymology. 

M&M Enterprise Cooking, Vol. I

In the model of a less-evil Milo Minderbinder, I thought I’d show people what kind of food one can whip up with limited resources in a war zone.  Having a full range and stove helps, but the crucial ingredient is, of course, an Italian PX.

August 7

Starting simple — bieta (or bietola in Veneto) sautéed in a pan with garlic. Both frozen garlic and bietola from the Italian PX.

bietola saltata in padella

August 9

gamberi in padella con pomodori

Shrimp fusilli, basically a version of the Italian classic gamberi in padella con pomodoro fresco.

Not a huge success. Tomatoes sourced from the dining facility. You can clearly see that the dry tomatoes didn’t melt and form a nice sauce, as I hoped they would. I even pierced then with a fork and squashed them in the pan.

Frozen shrimp, caught in Thailand, sourced from the Italian PX.

I didn’t have long pasta which would have been more appropriate.

pasta di soia con bietole ripassate

August 13

A kind soul leaving gave me organic edamame spaghetti. I’m trying to cut carbs so I thought I’d give it a shot.

Frozen bietola boiled for a few minutes with some sea salt brought from home.

Tossed pasta in water.

Made a soffritto on the side with frozen garlic, some paprika and herbs de Provence. Threw in a can of Airone tuna.

Drained it well. Tossed in the bietola. Stirred well. Added fresh lemon juice, jarred olives, and jarred sun dried tomatoes.

It came out well. Basically an adapted version of this.

August 16

Parmigiana di melanzane

A classic on both sides of the pond. I got frozen eggplants at the Italian PX. Had the EVOO and frozen garlic. Got a burrata from the cafeteria and some of their cooked tomato sauce. Had some good Victoria passata (again, Italian PX) at home. Another kind soul had gifted me some oregano.

August 19

Due primi di pesce

For the first one (left) I brought home some scallops from the cafeteria’s weekly “surf and turf night” and had some lemon slices (usually for iced tea) at home. I also had some leftover skewered veggies from an event the previous night. I made a soffritto, this time with fresh garlic, added the vegetables, tossed in the scallops, added the al dente pasta and squeezed the lemon when it was done. I wasn’t really hungry so I ended up eating just the scallops and vegetables and leaving the pasta.

For this second dish (right) I recycled the lunch pasta. Made another soffritto with garlic and an local red pepper, tossed in Italian passata, some of the gifted basil, mixed in the spaghetti, added jarred green olives and capers (again, Italian PX) and a can of tuna someone left on my doorstep since they left post. Same nice person left me truffle oil (unopened!) and I topped with that. This dish was the clear winner.

48 Hours of Eating in the Fragrant Harbor

All prices in USD, not HKD. 

We went to Hong Kong for a variety of reasons but near the top of the list was to eat. What we learned quickly is that food in Hong Kong is really expensive. But it’s good. Not only non-toxic (a serious concern in China that dampens my usual try-everything ethos) but often all-organic.

For a late Saturday lunch, we ventured to Linguini Fini, an Italo-American place in a mall of restaurants. Not a food court, but a high rise wherein each floor was a different restaurant.  The elevator opened directly into the lobby. Decor nice, food generally decent. Excellent burger. A bit small, but with smashed garlic and homemade ketchup and bright nice tomatoes and lettuce. You don’t see that in China — if so, be scared. But it was $23. S– got some ok pasta that was advertised as served with a veal, pig head and tripe ragu’ but it wasn’t that meaty. Pasta overcooked. $26. Bottle of Rogue beer? $12. Espresso? $7 each. Good espresso, though. Bit of a ripoff, but I have to remind S– and myself that this is still Asia and so such food may be exotic and pricey here. Plus Hong Kong seems loaded with British bankers making loads of pounds sterling. Total: $89.

Dinner was better. After braving the hour and a half wait for a funicular car and taking in the stunning views on Victoria Peak, we found Cafe Deco, a spacious place with a stellar view of Hong Kong. Very international menu, the type that usually inspires suspicion (pizza! kebabs! pasta! steak!) menu but they pulled it off. A huge multi-ethnic party of mainly men, led by an enormous mangione, seemed to be determined to test every different type of cuisine, and weren’t beyond giving the staff impromptu lessons as to how food should be prepared or served. We were more modest and split a 14 oz. New Zealand steak, a glass of Mondavi, an excellent salad with grilled parmigiano, asparagus and zucchini. Fresh baked-to-order baguette. For dessert, a fruit platter of fresh, real, non-toxic fruit. A little more than lunch at $92.

After seeing the vaunted (and twenty-year-old — most of my record collection is older than this guy) Tian Tan Buddha, we found ourselves stuck in Ngong Ping, a tasteful tourist village on Lantau Island. Opting to go local finally, we settled on Cantonese lunch at Pak Loh Garden, a large and fairly unremarkable place. Food was plain but decent: two kinds of pork dumplings off the dim sum menu, a huge bowl of veggies, mushrooms and noodles, and some grilled pork with mustard. Tea for two and they had the gall to charge $2 for some pre-meal peanuts. Total: 44 bucks. Thus better to get Cantonese in the real Canton, and no, I don’t believe the old Hong Kong saw that all the good Cantonese chefs fled the mainland for Hong Kong in 1949.

Saltimbocca and bucatini all’amatriciana at Posto Pubblico. Technical problems with WordPress prevent me from uploading more for some reason…

On our last night we managed to go to Hong Kong’s SoHo, a warren of narrow streets winding uphill with loads of hip places to eat, drink and live. We indulged in outdoor dining, which sane people should not do in Guangzhou, at Posto Pubblico, another New York-style Italian place. This one was a vast improvement over our mall experience and S– was happier. A heaping plate of spicy bucatini all’amatriciana with basil and wine-spiked saltimbocca alla romana that favorably compared with my favorite Roman joint in Milano. They brought good bread twice without being asked and I got a good glass of Montepulciano. The waiter was neither unctuous nor over-familiar and as he chased away a beggar dressed as a monk he chuckled to us, “Hong Kong’s biggest scam.” Price: $78. This is why we came here. S– went to freshen up and I sat there in the cool night air listening to the hypnotic house music and thought that with a full bottle I might sit there all night and relive my expat experiences of a decade ago, but that was not to be.

We’ll go back to SoHo to try the Mexican place, the two Argentinian steak places and the three other Italian places. I have faith as they seem geared to those who actually know food, not the desperate, meekly content expats who might think “I don’t care if these nachos are made with orange Doritos that include the toy; this is the only Mexican i’m getting for two years.”

Also worth a visit: the gleaming, ultra-luxe IFC shopping mall along the waterfront. A stop at Singapore-based TWC Tea is an elegant repose after a day of sightseeing, and for about $27, you can pick two teapots from a list of literally hundreds of teas, and enjoy some delicate macarons. For $22 you can take a box of 15 cotton teabags home. Bonus: if you forget that you are in a shiny, steel-and-glass mall, you can pretend you are in 19th-century Europe somewhere.

Our only complaint was the Harbourview, our hotel, which was a bit lacking, especially after our very nice accommodations in Guangzhou. Elevator service was lacking, our view was of a creepy courtyard, and there were few perks — not even free wi-fi. But it was very central, and we didn’t spend much time in it. Here in Guangzhou, we tend to spend more time at home, but that’s mostly thanks to pollution.

The difference between Hong Kong and the mainland is hard to overstate. Most importantly for us, the air is clean-seeming, breathable and it smells like the sea. There was a gentle breeze and generally, it was nice to be outside. During our 48 hours there, it was rainy and cool. No oppressive humidity that orders your brain, trained in the valleys of the Ohio and Po Rivers, to run indoors as quickly as humanly possibly or face certain death by heat stroke, dehydration or exhaustion or all three. No mind-bending pollution. No assault on the senses of every kind of fetid smell you can imagine from organic (rotting pig blood? sewage? stinky tofu?) to chemical (paint thinner? asbestos? vaporizing steel? collapsing village? cocktail of all?). Most everything is orderly in that quintessential English fashion. Everyone, mostly, speaks English. After a few starts, I gave up trying with Mandarin, although I heard a quite a few tourists from the mainland speaking its gong-like, ringing tones. Cantonese sounds less harsh; more tones make it rich and florid. An L.A. transplant of Taiwanese origin I know says it’s the French to Mandarin’s English, although I’m not sure about that.

Hong Kong’s prevailing ethos — the luxury that money buys — has a lot more in common with London or NY or Milan than China, where the ethos is just pure money. Moreover, there’s a general feeling of uprootedness and confusion in China that is hard to capture or describe in a few words. Enormous highways and skyscrapers rise out of nothing. Traffic surges erratically and becomes horrible in second. People walking to work while doing taiji, sometimes even walking backwards. Old ladies cycle against the traffic on huge five-lane highways. People wander along the center lines on these same highways. The empty feeling of massive luxury complexes is highlighted by the huge labor surplus (5-10 people working in one small store, many just standing around). In a gleaming new train station, people sit shoeless on steps amid commuters, eating lunch. A wall breaks away to reveal a construction site, through which workers use forklifts to cart box after box of hundreds of just-hatched chicks, and commuters rush down sparkling new escalators. In short, it can be alien to the newcomer. This feeling was absent in Hong Kong, which I found very familiar despite vast differences in the language and local culture. Chalk one up for the people of the fragrant harbor.