Shellfish cacciucco with guanciale and farro.
One thing I love about Italian cooking is its melding of bold and gentle flavors-ricotta crostini with a strip of salty anchovy; braised chicken sharpened with strong lemon; pork chops with vinegar peppers. I keep such alluring juxtapositions in mind as I go about creating healthy, low-calorie Italian cooking. Capers, anchovies, pancetta and guanciale, prosciutto, orange zest, hot peppers, vinegar, sharp cheeses are all amazing flavors, and I’ve discovered that they’re crucial in controlling my appetite. It seems that satisfying my body with something intense and perfectly prepared is the best way to feel full fast. And faster than I’d have imagined it’s gotten my mind off of big bowls of fettuccine Alfredo or creamy rich baked ziti, the kind of mild, bloating foods that I always used to put mindlessly down my throat.
What I’ve realized I was aiming for was palate fatigue. I know this sounds sort of negative, but it’s actually very positive from a dieter’s point of view. I wanted to love my food, but I also wanted to be able to say, “That was delicious. Now I’ve had enough.” (Restraint is a very Italian trait, actually. I suppose it grows out of Catholicism. Just look at all those reed-thin saints they’ve got.)
Palate fatigue comes on fast when flavors are concentrated; there’s just so much gorgonzola or caper salsa verde you can eat in one sitting. And another added bonus: Many strong seasonings, things like herbs, chilies, and spices, add almost no calories at all. I think of them as little gifts to the cook.
So here for your palate-fatiguing pleasure I offer a light but intense shellfish stew seasoned to the hilt with guanciale, white wine, rosemary, garlic, and a good dose of fresh chili. This is essentially a cacciucco, a shellfish stew made in Livorno, a fun, liberal Mediterranean port city on the western edge of Tuscany.
With this dish I opened a bottle of Orvieto, a very light and fresh white but with a subtle bitter edge that for me mimics the sweet bitterness that is often apparent in shellfish.
A note about guanciale: This is an unsmoked, cured pork cheek used in some traditional Italian dishes such as pasta carbonara and all’amatriciana from around Lazio, and in many dishes in Central Italy. It has an extremely rich but oddly delicate flavor. It gives a dish unctuousness, I guess I would call it. I buy mine from Buon Italia at the Chelsea Market in Manhattan (you can go to www.buonitalia.com to place an order). If you can’t find it, use pancetta.
Shellfish Cacciucco with Guanciale and Farro
1 cup farro
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 slices guanciale, cut into small dice (about 1/2 cup chopped)
1 large shallot, minced
1 small inner celery stalk, cut into small dice, with the leaves, chopped
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 sprigs rosemary, the leaves chopped
1 fresh bay leaf
1 small red peperoncino, minced (discard the seeds for less heat)
3 strips of orange peel (each about 3 inches long)
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup homemade or high-quality purchased chicken broth
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, with the juice
2 dozen clams (littlenecks are perfect for this), well scrubbed and rinsed
1 1/2 pounds mussels, well scrubbed and rinsed
4 sea scallops in their shells, with the roe if possible
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, lightly chopped
Place the farro in a small pot and cover it with about four inches of cool water. Add a bit of salt and bring to a boil. Lower the heat a little and cook, uncovered, at a low boil until tender, about 16 to 18 minutes-tender but with a little bite. Drain and place in a small bowl, tossing with a drizzle of olive oil.
In a large pot fitted with a cover (something like a Dutch oven), heat a tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Add the guanciale, and sauté until it’s just starting to crisp, about 4 minutes. Add the shallot and the celery, and sauté until softened, about another 2 minutes. Add the garlic, rosemary, bay leaf, the peperoncino, and the orange peel, and a little salt, and sauté until everything is fragrant, about a minute.
Add the white wine and let it boil for a minute. Add the chicken broth and the tomatoes and bring everything to a boil. Lower the heat a touch and simmer at a lively bubble for about 8 minutes.
Add the clams, cover the pot, and cook until most of the clams have opened. Add the mussels and the scallops and the drained farro. Cover the pot again and cook until the mussels have opened, about another 4 minutes. By this time the scallops will also be cooked tender. Give everything a stir, and taste for seasoning, adding a little more salt if needed. The sauce should be brothy. Scatter on the parsley, and serve right away in big soup bowls.