Flash in the Pan: Italian Ligurian sauce with a New World twist
Eagle County CO, Colorado
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” I was in Turin, Italy last month for the biennial gathering of the Slow Food movement. When it ended, I rented a fast car to help make the most of my 36 hours left in Italy. My plan was to see and eat as much as possible, not necessarily in that order, before my time was up.
I drove by night from Turin, in the Alps, down to the Ligurian coast, reaching the Mediterranean sea at the port town of Savona, from where ferries depart to Corsica and Sardinia.
This is the heart of Liguria, a thin strip of land along the northwest Mediterranean coast of Italy. With France to the west and Tuscany to the southeast, and with verdant mountains full of olive groves, a climate well-suited for growing almost any fruit or vegetable, and a sea full of seafood, Liguria is well positioned for good food.
In Savona I ate some beautiful crescent-shaped ravioli stuffed with scallops served over split lobsters. The ravioli were dressed in a certain sauce that I saw again and again during my whirlwind food tour. The many variations of sauce, which I soon understood was what was meant by “Ligurian style” on menus, framed my dwindling, precious hours in Italy.
The sauce was different every time, but always included tomatoes, capers, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic, shallots, and fresh parsley. Once, on a piece of sole, the sauce contained fresh dill and crushed hot peppers, and was called “Sicilian-style.” At the amazing La Casa dei Capitani in Genova, where I ate my last meal in Italy, I had lampuga (the local name for mahi-mahi) cooked “Ligurian style,” served atop a bed of olive oil-infused baked potato slices and garnished with a sprig of fresh oregano, more succulent than any oregano I’d ever had.
I also had my share of outrageous delicacies cooked in other ways, like baby octopus with peas, lobster in cauliflower sauce, and clams in a garbanzo bean sauce that was so good I licked the shells clean.
These gastronomic experiences left me inspired to bring some of Italy’s reverence for all things food – the many acts that create it, and how it is consumed – back home with me. Italy may be the birthplace of the Holy Roman Church, but the holiest place I ever saw there was the dining room table.
Here in the New World we’ve only had a few hundred years to figure out the possibilities of the raw ingredients at our disposal, while the Europeans have had millennia. But we can build on their head start and develop a cuisine of comparable elegance at home. We can make sauce of garbanzo beans and cauliflower, and we can add morels, and serve it over bison steaks, too. We too can and should worship our ingredients, and we certainly have what we need to make a molto bene Ligurian-style sauce from American ingredients.
I did bring home some Italian capers, for use in my attempts to unlock the secrets of the Ligurian sauce. Capers, like olives, are cured (by pickling or salting) before use, which transforms the bland and woody flower buds, imbuing a weird mustardy heat and a pungent tanginess that strikes a perfect tone, like some obscure jazz chord, when used correctly.
My capers, like most, came from the Mediterranean, but it won’t be long until domestic capers are widely available. North America’s largest caper farm, at a full third of an acre, was planted in Los Angeles County by Peter and Gretchen Rude in 2005. The Rudes found the inspiration for this project on their European honeymoon, and were determined to do what they could to recreate European food culture here at home. Domestic, organic capers are already available at Whole Foods, and more caper operations are coming soon, according to Richard Molinar, a University of California Cooperative Extension small farm specialist. Molinar believes capers could become a valuable specialty crop for California’s small farmers.
The olives commonly used in Ligurian sauce resemble Nicoise olives: small, oil-cured, pungent, and with a color range from brown to black. For local flavor I’ve been experimenting with California olives. Plump, green, half-cured olives work especially well in this week’s featured recipe: Halibut Poached in Ligurian Sauce.
Everything in my Ligurian-style sauce was or could have been grown in the U.S.A., and many of these items grow on my own back forty.
While a few tablespoons of olive oil heats in a skillet on medium heat, cut two large cloves of garlic lengthwise into slices and place them in the oil. When you can smell the garlic, add a small handful of pine nuts, a teaspoon of crushed red pepper, two medium tomatoes, fresh or frozen and chopped into large chunks, and a large shallot sliced into rounds that show the concentric rings, which will unravel as it cooks.
Add a tablespoon of capers and a handful or two of olives. Squeeze a slice of fresh lime over a pound of halibut and place the fish in the middle of the pan over medium heat. The tomatoes will release water as they cook down, turning the frying to a simmer. Turn it into a poach by pouring in half a cup of port or white wine. Add half a cup of water, three bay leaves, and simmer with the lid on for about 15 minutes.
Turn the halibut often as the sauce matures, season with salt and pepper, and deglaze with more wine if it starts to stick. When it gets thick and saucy, but still maintains distinct tomato chunks, stir in some chopped fresh parsley and serve with either pasta (tossed with raw garlic and olive oil), or slices of a buttery potato ” try Rose Apple Fingerlings or Yellow Finns ” that have been baked with salt, pepper, and olive oil.
The tomatoes, wine, garlic, oil, and shallots, melt into a smooth flavor that’s studded with the capers, pine nuts, and olives, which add bursts of flavor as they are bitten into. The halibut, meanwhile, holds its own, it’s subtle but solid flavor balancing the Ligurian sauce in a savory dance of mutual completion that could draw more tears than a tragic opera.
Ari LeVaux writes a weekly food column for the Vail Daily. E-mail comments about
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