Saturday, April 23, 2011


Whenever I see Scott Conant or some other Tv-inflated, self-aggrandized Italian food expert shudder at the thought of cheese on fish or seafood I want to scream. All over the South and especially Sicily cheese is liberally rolled into swordfish involtini, sprinkled on frutti de mare pizzas, and featured in tielle like this one, a baked casserole of potatoes, mussels, and summer squash -- a specialty of Puglia. A Southern coastal region, Pulgia (like Sicily) is brimming with culinary specialties like tangy sheep's milk cheeses and abundant fish from the local waters. Perhaps the combination of cheese and fish is seen less frequently across the boot because there are relatively few regions with both specialties. Maybe it's because cheese is a luxury ingredient (bread crumbs became traditional in many regions because of cheese's expense) and would be seen as (or actually would be) an extravagance. Or potentially it's because, as chefs profess, the assertive cheese masks the flavor of the delicate fish -- or maybe it's because these chefs have never been invited to eat a real family dinner in a real (Southern) Italian home. I am a home cook and I'll follow the lead of the Italian casalinga every time.
Whatever the reason, Italians use far less cheese than we drown our dishes in here but still the special salty favor perks up this traditional dish.
First I glossed the bottom of a baking dish with olive oil and bread crumbs. Then I layered in thinly sliced potatoes (freshly harvested from our garden), matchsticks of zucchini, sliced onions, parmesan, parsley and more bread crumbs drizzling as I went with olive oil, S&P. Next came a layer of mussels on the half shell. I tried to open them as I would an oysters but without good results so I resorted to steaming the mollusks for just a few minutes until they popped open and pulling the top shell. I topped the mussels with bread crumbs, parsley, parmesan, and olive oil and layered on the rest of the potatoes, onions, squash, and parsley -- still drizzling as I went with olive oil, S&P and adding a sprinkle of parmesan and breadcrumbs on top. I finished off the casserole with another layer of mussels, and still more parmesan, olive oil, bread crumbs, and parsley. Just before baking I drizzled in about 1 1/2 cup of the mussel cooking liquid and brought the covered pot up to a boil on the stove. I popped the casserole (still covered) into the oven for 35 - 40 minutes and then an additional 30 without the cover.
The results were tender soft potatoes that whispered of the sea, sweet mussels, and a delicate broth just right for thick slices of toasted bread.
It's not chef's food I guess. And probably not refined.
But as James said, "You can't get anything this good in a restaurant. . . I'm never taking you out to dinner."

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