Bianchetti Fritti (Fried Bianchetti)

I’m writing from the island of Sardinia, off the west coast of Italy, where the food is just as stunning and unique as the beaches. Seafood is the key here, and fresh fish can be bought straight off the boat from local fisherman as well as in the markets. In addition to the seafood, Sardinia, like all regions in Italy, has its own distinct culinary traditions, including a flat bread called Pane Carasau, a cous-cous-like pasta called Fregola, a fried cheese dessert served with honey called Seadas, and a wide range of other confectionary delights.

One of the more particular local specialties is a traditional sheep milk cheese that contains live maggots, called Casu Marzu. While I did not try the maggot cheese, there were a plethora of other local dairy products to make up for my lack of bravery, including Pecorino Sardo, smoked Scamorza and “cagliata di latte“, or milk that had gone off and thickened into clumps that was served with honey. There is also a plethora of sweets and biscotti – one that I have found to be especially intriguing is the Tiricche, pictured below. Agriturismo restaurants are another gastronomic pleasure – these are rural restaurants usually located on farms that use organic products grown by the owners themselves.

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Tiricche: A sweet typical of Northern Sardinia and found during Easter, made of a puff pastry, ground almonds, orange grind, and sapa (cooked wine)

I’m staying in a village near Porto Rotondo, a small city on the northeastern Sardinian coast. Luckily for me, I have the benefit of a real Italian mamma, the Italian’s mother, from whom I can learn some authentic Sardinian-style cooking. While the Italian and his family are not from Sardinia, they have spent every summer in the vicinity of Porto Rotondo for the past 30 years. One of the first things we cooked is Bianchetti Fritti, or Fried Bianchetti.

Bianchetti are a tiny sardine-like fish that can be bought at a market or fished with a net straight out of the sea. They are not unique to Sardinia and are found along various Mediterranean coastlines, but they are a staple on the menus of most fish restaurants on the island. Fishing them is one of the Italian’s favorite childhood memories from his summers spent in Sardinia, and as such we decided to go the adventurous route and break out the fishing net rather than buy them from a market.

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The Italian and his fishing net

Catching fish in a net is actually harder than it sounds, and the first time we went out we came back empty handed, as it was midday and the fish weren’t hungry for the bread we were using to lure them out. The second time we went out again around 6 pm and they were everywhere. Picking them off the net was the hardest part – they were very wiggly and slippery and kept trying to jump out of our container! But at the end we came back satisfied and with enough fish for a good antipasto.

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Our catch of the day

Cooking the fish is surprisingly easy, although eating them is not for the squirmish. The bianchetti are so small that it would be impossible to clean and gut them, and therefore you simply eat them whole – eyes, innards, scales and all. The recipe we used didn’t have any exact measurements but was done by feel and eye – the way a real Italian mamma cooks.

Bianchetti Fritti (Fried Bianchetti)

Place Bianchetti in sieve and rinse under cold running water. Let them air dry or pat dry with paper towel.

Heat vegetable oil in a pan.

Toss the Bianchetti in a bowl of flour until evenly covered.  Fry them in pan until golden brown (about 3-4 minutes), shuffling them constantly in the pan. Be careful not to stir them or they will break. Remove from pan and place on paper towels to soak up excess oil.

Serve hot with lemon or lime.

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Bianchetti Fritti

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Tilapia al Cartoccio (Baked Tilapia in Foil)

Tonight we decided to try a recipe for tilapia, a fish that I’ve had frequently in America but the Italian had never heard of. Apparently tilapia is relatively new to Italy, while in the US it is the third most farmed fish after salmon and catfish. Tilapia is a very lean, white fish that has almost no flavor of its own, so it is a good fish to try out with a strong sauce.

The recipe we found was from an Italian website, In Cucina Con i Surgelati, and it featured a delicious sauce made of capers, anchovies, and white wine. The recipe uses a very Italian manner of cooking fish called “al Cartoccio”, which refers to wrapping the fish in foil, parchment paper or, traditionally, an oiled brown paper bag and creating a packet before baking it in the oven. “Al Cartoccio” is often translated as “in a package” because the diner gets to pull back the paper and discover the deliciousness within. Italians cook all types of fish this way and even have a recipe for Spaghetti al Cartoccio!

We bought our tilapia from Seven Sisters market and they were whole, although the recipe can also be done with tilapia fillets.

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Tilapia al Cartoccio (Baked Tilapia in Foil)

Recipe for 4 people, preparation time 40 minutes. Pre-heat oven to 180 C (350 F).

Ingredients:

Tilapia fillets (4)

Butter (2.5 Tbs)

Fresh parsley (handful)

Chopped onions (2, or 4 small)

Anchovies (4 strips, washed and de-salted)

Capers (6 tsp)

White wine (1 cup)

Chili peppers (a pinch)

Salt and pepper (to taste)

Preparation:

Defrost fish if using frozen fillets.

Wash the capers and cook them in a pan over a low-medium flame along with the butter, chili peppers, chopped onions, anchovies and parsley. Cook the sauce for about 10 minutes or until the onions are cooked.

Tear off four pieces of tin foil and place each fish on its own foil. Pour one-fourth of the sauce over each fish, and then 1/4 cup of wine over that.

Wrap the foil around the fish so that it covers the head and the tail ends and crimp these edges, but leave a pocket of air between the body of the fish and the top of the foil.

Cook in oven around 40 minutes at 180 C (350 F).

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The finished product. Excellent, flavorful sauce with a light fish.

Seppie con Piselli (Cuttlefish with Peas)

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The Italian and I decided to take advantage of the beautiful London sun over the weekend and walk to a nearby area called Seven Sisters, where there is a farmers market with stands and storefronts selling fresh produce, meats and fish. In addition to buying sacks of peaches, apricots, watermelon, berries and other delicious-looking fruit, we stopped at the fishmonger, a favorite of ours for wide variety of fresh, whole fish. We saw something new at the stand this time around – cuttlefish, or seppia in Italian. Neither of us had ever cooked cuttlefish before, but the Italian, with his seafaring childhood spent on the coast of Sardinia each summer, felt confident that we could figure it out.  So we bought a few and found a recipe, and it was delicious!

The recipe we found was from the Italian cooking website Giallo Zafferano, a favorite of the Italian’s. The dish, cuttlefish with peas, is very popular in the Lazio region of Italy, where Rome is located. It turned out excellently – very light and fresh, perfect for the hot summer!

Seppie con Piselli (Cuttlefish with Peas)

Recipe for 4 people, preparation time 30 minutes.

Ingredients: 

1 kg cuttlefish (cleaned)

Vegetable broth (0.5 Litre)

Olive Oil (4 Tbs)

1 Onion (chopped finely)

Garden Peas (500 grams)

Canned tomatoes (350 grams)

Chopped fresh parsley (2 Tbs)

White wine (one cup)

Salt and Pepper (to taste)

Preparation:

Clean the cuttlefish and remove the bone, get rid of the blank ink then rinse under running water. Cut the squid into strips or rings.

Place oil in saucepan and add finely chopped onions and parsley. When the onion is browned add the cuttlefish.

Add salt and pepper and then add a small cup of white wine. When the wine has evaporated add the garden peas and canned tomatoes.

Cook for an hour on low heat, and add thevegetable broth as needed to keep the dish moist.

Season again with salt and pepper before removing from heat. Serve immediately.