After this month’s Slow Food conference concluded in Turin, Italy, I rented a fast car and pointed it toward the Mediterranean coast. I wanted to make the most of my remaining 36 hours in Italy, hoping to see and eat (not in that order) as much as I possibly could.
I left Turin, capital of Piedmont province in the foothills of the Alps, and drove down to Liguria province. A thin strip of land between mountains and sea, Liguria spans the armpit between the Italian and Iberian peninsulas, touching France to the west and Tuscany to the southeast.
Seafood being a regional specialty, I targeted options like baby octopus with peas and lobster with a cauliflower sauce along my route. The clams in garbanzo bean sauce were so good I licked the clamshells clean. Beautiful crescent-shaped ravioli stuffed with scallops atop split lobsters were dressed in a certain Ligurian-style sauce, versions of which I saw many times in my short stay.
While this Ligurian sauce came in many variations, each version included tomatoes, capers, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic, shallots and fresh parsley.
Once, with a piece of sole, the sauce also had fresh dill and crushed hot peppers, and was called “Sicilian-style.” And at La Casa dei Capitani in Genova, where I ate my last meal in Italy, I had lampuga (the Ligurian name for mahi-mahi) cooked this way, atop a bed of olive oil-drenched baked potato slices, and garnished with a juicy sprig of oregano.
That was the third course of a meal that left me dizzy, bloated and inspired to bring some of this extraordinary culinary elegance back home. Italy may have a centuries-long head start, but that doesn’t mean in time we can’t develop a cuisine of comparable elegance here at home. Why not make cauliflower sauce for our river crawdads? Why not make rainbow trout with Ligurian-style sauce made from New World ingredients?
After a few weeks of research I’ve come up with a halibut recipe that I’m confident could hold its own in the old country. The recipe—and how I developed it—follows.
I returned home with two jars of capers so I could get a head start unlocking the sauce. Capers, like olives, are cured (by pickling or salting) before being used in cooking. This transforms the bland and woody flower buds, imbuing an unusual mustard-y heat.
While my stash, like most capers, came from the Mediterranean, it won’t be long until capers will be available domestically. North America’s largest caper farm, at a full third-acre, has recently been planted in Los Angeles County by Peter and Gretchen Rude, who were inspired to do so after their European honeymoon. And more caper operations are coming soon. So we’d better get started in learning how to use them.
I’ve been buying European olives until more local options become available. The Good Food Store olive bar has those tiny pungent olives from Nice, France (just across the border from Liguria), which give a nostalgic authenticity to the sauce. But as soon as I find some good California-grown cooking olives, I’ll switch. Plump, green half-cured olives work especially well in this dish.
Aside from those olives and capers, everything else in my homegrown Ligurian sauce—the pine nuts, olive oil, parsley, shallots, tomatoes, garlic, bay leaves and dried, red-ripe Anaheim chiles—are domestic, with many items coming from my own back 40.
While a few tablespoons of olive oil heats in a skillet, cut some large cloves of garlic lengthwise into slices and lay them in the oil. When you can smell the garlic, add a small handful of pine nuts to fry in the garlicky oil. Add crushed red pepper and shallot slices, cut in rounds so that the concentric rings are visible. Also add tomatoes, fresh or frozen, chopped into large chunks.
Cooking on medium heat, the tomatoes will begin to give up water as they cook down, which turns the frying to a simmer. Add a tablespoon of capers and a handful or two of olives, and a piece of halibut, right in the middle of the pan. Pour a half cup of wine (conventional wisdom says white with fish, but I’ve had good luck here with Port), another half cup of water, add 2–4 bay leaves, and simmer with the lid on.
Turn the halibut every so often as the sauce matures, and adjust with salt and pepper. When it gets saucy, but still maintains chunks, stir in some chopped fresh parsley and serve with either pasta that’s been tossed with raw garlic and olive oil, or slices of salted baked potato drenched in olive oil.
Some of the ingredients in this dish, such as the tomatoes, wine, garlic, oil and shallots, melt into each other to create an integrated sauce. But other ingredients, like the capers, creamy pine nuts and olives, hold their own, adding a noticeable burst of flavor when stumbled upon. The halibut offered its own burst of flavor, and worked with the sauce in a dance that could draw more tears than a good Italian opera.
Ask Ari: Market pinch
Q: Dear Ari,
The Montana State Department of Agriculture has made a law, instigated by the large nursery dealers in the state, requiring everyone selling plants, from veggies to trees, to carry a nursery license. This license costs $120 the first year and $95 each following year.
The agency has notified the farmers’ markets that this law applies to anyone selling plants at the markets. If a local gardener has too many tomato plants and wants to get rid of a few, she’ll have to purchase this license. As the market manager in Hamilton, I’m finding this to be a heinous example of “big ag” screwing the little guy.
The only way we can change this is through legislation at the state level. It could be too late this year, unless a private group can step up to the plate and lobby for these changes in 2009. Ari, do you know of anyone who could help us market managers bring reality back to the government?
Valley Farmers Market Co-op Manager
A: Thanks for the note, Laura. I’d try contacting CFAC, the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition, here in Missoula. Anybody else have ideas?
Also, in this week’s mailbag I got a few spankings for not providing a recipe to Just Ducky, who wrote last week about the ducks she’d acquired from a trigger-happy neighbor. Though I did give JD some pointers on cleaning them, some readers wanted me to give more cooking guidance. I’m running out of space here, so let me just say that the above Ligurian recipe goes really well with duck breasts that have been fried in oil with salt and pepper, and then added to the sauce.
Send your food and garden queries to firstname.lastname@example.org.