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Recipes from my quarantine cooking challenge

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

My take on orata all'acqua pazza (sea bream in "crazy water," or a garlicky tomato sauce)

If you are my mom, my friend, my mom's friend, or someone who likes pictures of pasta, you may have participated in my quarantine cooking challenge on Instagram, which means that you sent me one to three ingredients to use in my game designed to get me out of a six-weeks-of-lockdown-induced cooking rut. If you were one of those people, I thank you again and happily announce that it worked! I am once again feeling inspired in the kitchen.

For anyone who doesn't know, those ingredients became the makings of my shopping list and then the makings of several delicious meals throughout last week. Here's what the participants proposed and what I made. To read about the lessons I learned along the way, check out my article on Medium.

The ingredients

The recipes

Mushroom risotto with hazelnut browned butter 

Ingredients for 4 servings:

1 carrot

1 celery stalk

1 onion, divided

1/3 cup hazelnuts, peeled and roughly chopped

6 tablespoons butter

1/2 pound mushrooms, roughly chopped

2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary, sage, and/or thyme

1 1/2 to 2 cups risotto rice

3 tablespoons dry white wine

salt and pepper, to taste

grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, to taste


1. Make vegetable stock: Cut carrot, celery, and 3/4 of onion into large pieces, place into a pot, and fill with water. Bring to a boil and let simmer for at least 45 minutes and for the remainder of the cooking process. Finely dice the remaining 1/4 onion and set aside.

2. Make hazelnut browned butter: Melt butter in a saucepan and add hazelnuts. Allow the butter to foam and brown, simultaneously stirring the hazelnuts to toast. When the butter is brown and the hazelnuts are fragrant and toasted, about 5 minutes, remove from heat. Strain the butter and save in a glass for later. Allow the hazelnuts to dry on a paper towel.

3. Crisp mushrooms: Heat olive oil in a nonstick pan over high heat. When pan is searing hot, add mushrooms and season with salt and pepper. (You may need to do this in batches so you can give them plenty of room to crisp.) Toss occasionally. Add herbs when mushrooms are nearly finished. Set mushrooms aside when very golden brown.

4. Make risotto: Sauté reserved onion over low heat, and season with salt. When soft, add rice and toast over low heat, about 5 minutes. When the rice is opaque only in the center, deglaze the pot with wine. When wine has evaporated, add 3 ladles of stock. Resist the urge to over-stir, otherwise the starches will release at the beginning of the cooking and the risotto will not be as creamy. Continue adding liquid as the stock evaporates and the rice softens. When rice is cooked and most of the final scoop of stock has been absorbed, about 12 minutes, remove from heat. Vigorously stir in the browned butter and half of the mushrooms. Add cheese and more stock as needed until the risotto is thick and creamy but sufficiently hydrated. Plate, topped with remaining mushrooms and hazelnuts, and serve.

Sardine toasts with caper-raisin compound butter

Ingredients for 2 servings:

3 tablespoons room-temperature butter

1 tablespoon capers, rinsed

1 1/2 tablespoons raisins, soaked in lemon juice and water to rehydrate, about 20 minutes

1 1/2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted and roughly chopped

1 tablespoon parsley, chopped

1 teaspoon lemon zest

4 pieces bread, toasted

1 tin sardines, big bones removed, torn into bite-size pieces


1. Make compound butter: Finely chop the capers, raisins, pine nuts, and parsley. Combine with lemon zest and butter, using a spoon or mortar and pestle, until thoroughly mixed.

2. Assemble: Spread butter generously onto toast and top with sardines.

Anchovy- and mozzarella-stuffed fried zucchini flowers

Ingredients for 1-2 servings:

Neutral vegetable oil

5 zucchini flowers

3 tablespoons buffalo mozzarella, patted dry with a paper towel

4 anchovy filets, chopped

2 tablespoons flour

1 pinch salt

2/3 cup sparkling water


1. Prepare oil: Heat oil to about 330 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Prepare filling and flowers: Rinse the flowers, pat dry, and remove the pistils in the center. Mix the mozzarella and anchovy into a paste, and gently stuff the mixture into each flower. (It's OK if they tear a bit; you can press them closed, and they will close up better with the batter.)

3. Prepare batter: Combine flour and salt. Slowly whisk in water until no lumps remain.

4. Fry flowers: Dunk each flower into the batter, completely coating each one. Gently shake off any excess batter before adding to oil. Fry 2 to 3 flowers at a time until golden, about 4 minutes. Lay on a paper towel to dry, and sprinkle with salt immediately. (You have the option of double-frying in case you like them extra crispy. I did this.) Serve immediately.

Spaghetti with olives, capers, and sea-bream stock

Ingredients for 1 serving:

Scraps (bones and head) from one sea bream or another white fish

3 cloves garlic, divided

1 leek, divided

1 onion, divided

1 tablespoon butter

3 tablespoons dry white wine

1 tablespoon black peppercorns 100 grams spaghetti or another long pasta A few green olives, pitted and chopped

1 tablespoon capers, rinsed and chopped

Lemon juice, to taste


1. Make stock: Rinse fish scraps of any coagulated blood or gunk. Break into manageable pieces and set aside. Peel garlic cloves, setting 1 clove aside for the pasta. Thickly slice most of the onion and most of the leek, setting aside some of each for the pasta (reserve the whiter part of the leek for the pasta). Heat butter in a pot. Add garlic, onion, and leek, sautéing until fragrant and softened. Add fish scraps to toast for about 3 minutes. Deglaze with white wine. When wine has evaporated, fill the pot with water. Add peppercorns and parsley, and let simmer for 1 hour. Strain, and set aside.

2. Make pasta: Cook pasta in boiling salted water. Meanwhile, finely chop the remaining onion, garlic, and leek, and sauté in a pan with olive oil and salt. Don't brown them too much; just soften them until they are fragrant. Little by little, add fish stock to the pan, allowing to simmer and reduce 2 or 3 times until thickened and saucy. Add cooked pasta to the pan, stirring vigorously, adding stock and extra olive oil as needed until the pasta is evenly coated. Stir in the olives and capers. Serve immediately, topped with lemon juice and parsley if desired.

Pan-seared sea bream with “acqua pazza” tomato sauce

Ingredients for 2 servings:

1 onion, sliced

2-3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced

2 big handfuls cherry tomatoes, sliced into halves

Red pepper flakes, if desired 3 tablespoons dry white wine

1/2 cup fish stock (using method from previous recipe), plus more as needed

1 handful fresh basil

2 skin-on sea bream fillets, de-boned and patted dry with paper towels


My tomato sauce

1. Make sauce: Sauté onion and garlic in olive oil until fragrant and lightly golden brown. Add tomatoes, seasoning with salt as well as red pepper flakes if desired. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes just begin to burst. Now, deglaze the pan with white wine. When wine has evaporated, add half of the fish stock. Continue cooking, adding more stock as the liquid reduces, until tomatoes reach the level of jamminess you like. (I like the sauce to be very thick and jammy, but you might like the tomatoes to be firmer.) When sauce is finished, remove from heat and stir in basil leaves. (You will likely have sauce leftover, which I suggest you use for pasta!)

2. Cook fish: Season sea bream fillets on both sides with salt and pepper. Place skin-side down in a pan with very hot olive oil, and fry until skin is crispy and fillets are opaque about halfway through, about 2 minutes. (You should use a generous amount of oil and can shake the pan a bit to make sure the fish doesn't stick.) Flip fillets and cook until just opaque throughout, about 30 more seconds. Serve on top of the tomato sauce with extra basil on top.

Mustard-marinated lamb chops with stuffed artichokes

Ingredients for 2 servings:

4 rib chops from a rack of lamb

1 clove garlic, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

A few sprigs fresh rosemary, chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil


1. Make artichokes: Use Juls' Kitchen's great recipe for carciofi ritti, which are Tuscan-style artichokes stuffed with garlic, pancetta, and parsley and braised in olive oil and water until tender.

2. Cook lamb: Season ribs on both sides with salt and pepper. Combine garlic, mustard, rosemary, and oil, and rub mixture on lamb chops until evenly coated. Cover lamb chops and marinate in the fridge for at least 30 minutes. Before cooking, remove any pieces of garlic that have stuck to the meat. Sear in hot olive oil until golden and cooked through, about 2 minutes per side. Serve with stuffed artichokes.

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Sara Cagle
Sara Cagle
Jun 16, 2020

@jamesesites Thank you for reading! I really appreciate it. Sure thing. I would fill up a medium-size pot, which should hold around 8 cups. I hope you like it!


I just discovered your writing on Medium and came to your website. Your posts a beautiful way to visit Italy. I would love to follow your recipe for mushroom risotto. Could you tell me how much water you are using for making the stock?

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