Travel Souvenirs in my Recipe Box
Enjoying the edible experiences on trips has been a special focus. However, taking pictures of food and talking about wonderful taste experiences soon were not enough for me . I wanted my friends to experience the joy of the tastes and aromas of what I loved. More than the pictures or a ceramic plate to serve food , I wanted to bring home the food itself.
I knew that cooks were not going to turn over their culinary secrets to me, a stranger (or to anyone, most likely). So, once I made this decision, I began to be more aware of what I ate when I ate it. When I first began I relied on my memory for the picture of the food as it was served. Now, the ubiquitous cell phone aids my efforts. But looks are just part of the picture.
Recreating a recipe relies on being able to balance the flavors savored and have a basic knowledge of the herbs and spices used in that cuisine. For years, I tried to duplicate a gumbo from New Orleans but just missed it. Then, I learned about file gumbo (sassafras), purchased it and using shrimp fresh from our Carolina coasts, my gumbo sings New Orleans jazz notes with the best of them!
Now, with the advent of the internet it is much easier to recreate recipes—even when techniques are not familiar. I take a photo of the dish I want to recreate after tasting it, make notes on the ingredients I think I taste and when I get home I search for recipes for the item as it was named and for others like it in the same area. When I am really unsure of an herb or other ingredient I do a search for the herbs and spices common to the area—this helps me make the final decision on which herb to use.
Yes, understanding the interaction of the ingredients from a lifetime of using the same ones (basically) is a huge help. But now, with the internet ready to reveal secrets of regional cooking from around the world, I think I might also be able to recreate a recipe from Asia or South America or Eastern Europe with the help of someone else on the trip who is from that ethnic group or researching similar recipes on the net.
In addition, I often buy a small recipe book from the area to bring home, hoping it will help inform me about the way ingredients are blended and which herbs and spices go with which meats and vegetables. When I was researching recipes from Turkey to look for a recipe for lentils and eggplant, I purchased a couple of books and supplemented what I learned in them with information from the internet.
For instance, on tasting Farro Soup two years ago in Lucca, Italy, my first step was to take a picture. The next step was to convince my husband to return a second night to that restaurant so I could eat it again. (We rarely eat in the same restaurant twice on a trip!) On the second tasting, I paid close attention to the texture, guessing that at least now in the modern era an immersion blender had been put to work on the beans and after that, a few more had been added. Farro is a grain much loved by the ancient Romans and still very much enjoyed in the region of Tuscany.
When we returned home, I researched recipes. Many of those also had photos. Most were too thin looking. At last, I found one that confirmed my suspicions about the immersion blender. However, the herbs used in that recipe did not match the flavors of the soup I had enjoyed in what was one of the oldest eating establishments in the town. I made some concessions to modern American life—I tired the recipe with dry beans that I cooked and I tried it with canned beans, drained and rinsed. My personal preference is to stick with the cans for convenience since the dry beans I could get here (after I used up the ones I bought in Italy) were not quite the same as the Italian ones in shape or flavor.
Two of my family’s favorites are souvenirs from a trip my husband and I took to Sicily while I was pregnant with our daughter, first and most successful effort was on a trip to Southern Italy while pregnant with our daughter, 37 years ago. I ‘ve shared the Farfalle with Spinach recipe with Sun News readers before. That one was not very hard to recreate, but the steps I had to take to re-create Involtini di Pesce Spada (Swordfish involtini) were more difficult.
We discovered the restaurant that served the swordfish involtini (rolled and stuffed) on a side street in Taormina Sicily. These were the days before the internet top ten suggestions. We found the restaurant by chance, looking at the menu and asking our hotel for suggestions. I don’t remember what I ordered that night. My husband ordered the swordfish. As soon as he tasted it, he pronounced it “delicious.” And offered me a taste. One forkful was enough to convince me I should try to make it once we returned home to Virginia.
I took a second taste, but before I ate it, I spread the filling out on my plate, inspecting it—bread crumbs, pignoli nuts, raisins or possibly currants. I guessed that there was a bit of oregano, some parsley and maybe, maybe a hint of pecorino romano in the filling along with olive oil to give it moisture. Were the nuts roasted first? Hmm. I wrote down my notes and ideas in my trip notebook and when I got home, I began to experiment. The technique of rolling up the fish was not new to me—thin meat, thin fish, the basic involtini technique as already part of my cooking repertoire. I did have to experiment with tying the fish with thin string instead of using heavy string or wooden toothpicks. I tried cooking by sauté and quick heating in the oven.
It took a number of tries to get the filling right. Moreover, it is difficult to find swordfish cut as thin filet here in the states so I have often used other white fish in its place. I’ve tried tilapia, flounder and even halibut and sole. Sole worked the best (for me) as a substitute for the swordfish.
After trying regular and golden raisins and even currants, I settled on the golden raisin for this recipe. Although I’m sure the chef in Taormina grates day-old wonderful Italian bread for the crumbs for the filling, (carefully mixed with basil, mint, and parsley with maybe a hint of oregano) I use Progresso bread crumbs and add a bit of fresh parsley and basil (sometimes mint).
In 2007, thirty years after our first visit, we managed to find that little restaurant again. It had been expanded and now the man’s son ran it and supervised the kitchen. This time we both ordered Swordfish Involtini, found that it tasted the same as it did years ago and determined that my effort was inde3ed, very close to the original!
Is it worth all of this work to bring home a taste of the place you loved? To me , yes. The recipe is better than a photograph. Recreating a recipe reaches taste, smell and touch (in the texture) in my memory. And the best part of recipe souvenirs is that each time I raise a fork or spoon of my re-created treasure, the experience calls up the entire sequence of events on our trip, not just that one meal with the added benefit that once I have worked out the recipe, I can share it with you.
Seven Steps to Help Recreate a Recipe Souvenir
Photograph the dish at the restaurant
Taste it for its separate ingredients. If there is a filling, spread it out on the plate and study it.
Look up the flavors of the region
If you are unfamiliar with the type of cooking your are trying, purchase a cookbook from the area
Look up the recipe by the name used in the restaurant and other, close names, on the internet
Do not be afraid to substitute American ingredients for authentic ones you cannot get here.
Recipe for Farro Soup (A specialty of Lucca, Italy)
Adapted from tasting and research of several recipes
This only makes two portions
1 small onion, chopped fine
1 small carrot, chopped fine
1 stick celery, chopped fine
1-2 ounces of pancetta,(optional. I’ve still not decided if this is necessary)
1 sprig rosemary
2-3 fresh sage leaves
1 sprig thyme
Half of a 14-ounce can peeled tomatoes
1 can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
About 3 cups of water or chicken broth (I prefer the broth)
1 cup of farro (semi-pearled or pearled, not whole-grain)
Salt and pepper
Heat the olive oil in a wide soup pot or saucepan; add the chopped onion, carrot, and celery and gently cook until soft and translucent. Add the pancetta and continue cooking until the fat has melted. Add herbs and peeled tomatoes and season with salt and pepper.
Add the can of red beans, along with their liquid. Stir to combine everything and add 2 cups of water. Bring the mixture to a simmer, cook 10 minutes uncovered, then remove from heat. Remove the rosemary stem and blend (an immersion blender is ideal for this) until smooth.
Add the farro to the bean purée (along with another cup of water or broth to loosen it, using more or less as necessary) and continue cooking over low heat for about 30 to 40 minutes. Stir every now and then to check that the soup is not sticking to the bottom of the pan, until the farro is cooked al dente (with a pleasant bite to it, like pasta). It should be a fairly thick soup but you can add more water to your liking. Check for seasoning.
Serve the soup with freshly ground black pepper and extra virgin olive oil drizzled over the top.
Note: In Tuscany they might also sprinkle parmigiano reggiano (grated) on top, but I prefer pecorino romano.
Involtini Pesce Spada from Taormina
1 ½ pounds of swordfish (or other) flat filets
1 ¾ cups Progresso Italian bread crumbs
¼ cup pignoli nuts, chopped
3 Tablespoons chopped Italian Parsley
2 T golden raisins
2 T pecorino romano cheese
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
1 Tablespoon of olive oil for the stuffing
½ teaspoon each, marjoram, thyme,
(oregano, basil, and mint too if you want)
1 cut up lemon to serve with the fish
3-4 Tablespoons of olive oil for sautéing the fish
Mix stuffing ingredients
Spread out on fish pieces
Roll the fish pieces
Secure each roll with thin string
Sauté the fish in the olive oil
If it looks like the fish is not cooking in the center of the roll,
Add a bit of water, steam with lid on and then
Re-crisp for a minute in the oil with the lid off.