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still-life-with-green-soup.jpg!BlogStill Life with Soup, Fernando Botero.

I’m fascinated by dried chickpeas. They seem so impenetrable. Rolling them around in the palm of my hand, I find it hard to believe they can become real food. Ceci neri, the black ones, seem especially unlikely. They’re pitch black, hard as steel, and look like lumpy stones. They’re grown in Puglia, a region close to my heart. I can just imagine my ancestors cooking up a pot of these little rocks in their dirt-floored house in their poverty-stricken town, maybe serving them with a thread of olive oil and a side of tooth-cracking taralli. As romantic as that sounds, boy am I glad they got out of there.

All dried cecis take time to reconstitute, but the black ones require real patience. I soaked them overnight and then cooked them low and slow, partially covered, in lots of water laced with a drizzle of olive oil and a bay leaf. After about three hours they were finally tender but still holding their shape, which I appreciated; it’s so frustrating when beans crumble or turn mushy. The cooking water was black, and the chickpeas were still black. I guess they have a lot of black in them. And they gave off an aroma like roasted chestnuts. That was nice. If you see a bag of ceci neri, pick them up. They’ll liven up your kitchen. Just remember that they take a while. I used about two cooked cups for this soup, but I made the entire bag, not a bad idea considering how long they take to cook. I made a chickpea and shrimp salad the next night

Once I had them cooked, I was thinking I’d put together a traditional minestrone using them with a variety of late summer vegetables. But then I decided I wanted to rein it in. No tomatoes, no string beans, just yellow and butternut squash. I guess I was feeling the summer-to-fall transition in the air.

The soup looked beautiful in a spooky sort of way, with all those little black balls floating around amid the yellow and orange squash. And its taste was unexpectedly rich, partly from the ceci neri and partly because I included pancetta. You really can’t go wrong with pork fat.

I decided on using chickpeas for this soup because they have lots of fiber and a low glycemic index, so they fit in nicely with my attempt to eat less quickly digested carbohydrates.

I hope you enjoy this recipe.

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Minestra with Summer and Fall Squash and Ceci Neri

 For the Pesto:

½ cup very fresh walnut halves
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
1 cup basil leaves, washed and dried
½ cup parsley leaves, washed and dried
½ cup grated Piave or grana Padano cheese
About ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt

For the soup:

Extra-virgin olive oil
A thick chunk of pancetta, cut into small dice (about ½ cup or so)
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
1 garlic clove, sliced
About 2 cups cooked ceci neri, drained (see cooking instructions above)
A few large thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
1 fresh bay leaf
A few big grindings of nutmeg
Salt
Black pepper
1½ cups butternut squash, cubed small
1 quart light chicken broth
1½ cups small cubed yellow summer squash

To make the pesto: Put the walnuts and the garlic in a food processor, and pulse until well chopped. Add the basil and the parsley, and pulse until everything looks bright green. Now add the grated cheese, the olive oil, and a little salt. Give it a few more pulses, adding a little more oil if needed to loosen it. Transfer to a small bowl, and cover the top with plastic wrap so it doesn’t darken.

To make the soup: Drizzle a little olive oil into a large soup pot. Add the pancetta, and cook until crisp. Add the onion and the carrot, and let them soften. Add the garlic and the black chick peas. Season with the thyme, bay leaf, nutmeg, salt, and pepper, and sauté for about 3 minutes.

Add the butternut squash, and sauté a minute or so. Add the chicken broth, and bring it to a boil. Turn the heat down a touch, add the yellow squash, and cook at a lively bubble, uncovered, until all the vegetables are tender, adding warm water if needed to cover everything. Turn off the heat, and let the soup sit about an hour (this will help blend all the flavors and further soften the cecis).

When you’re ready to serve, reheat the soup. Check for seasoning. Ladle out bowlfuls, and top each one with a dollop of pesto.

Women with Fish

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” I create beauty. The world asks to be filled with beauty. A person who does not use her creative talents is wasting away in a world filled with stink. This is my most recent creation. It is a thing of beauty. I cannot rest when my mind is plugged with creative energy that remains frozen. I create with shrimp. Shrimp can be frozen. Shrimp are the most beautiful thing on earth. What would the world be without shrimp? What would I be if I could not reach out and touch shrimp? I would be an empty vessel. Shrimp are my life. Soon this creation will turn to stink. The party has been cancelled. Creation is ephemeral. Tomorrow I will create fresh beauty with more shrimp. My life could not be more beautiful.”

-Miss Mary Inglese, shrimp artist

orient_47Still Life with Eggplant, Matisse.

The eggplant represents everything that is my ancestral past. When I hold one in my hands it pushes me to create. Is this some ancient responsibility beckoning from my Southern Italian roots? Melodramatic, you say. Yes. True to my heart. Yes. I see eggplant as a rich base note above which much of the cooking of the Mezzogiorno rises. Right now the Greenmarket is full of eggplants, huge purple black ones, types with violet and tan stripes, some smooth and white like lacquer, tiny bright purple ones, and the big round Sicilian variety that sits kind of squat.

I recently bought some blue-black ones that were shaped like Japanese eggplants, long and slightly curled, but thicker, with a more substantial skin. I was told they were a Chinese variety. Their insides cooked quickly and released sweetness.

As I guess you know, I’ve been experimenting with low-carb Italian cooking in the past few months. Many of you have responded positively. I think a huge culinary hurdle in fashioning low-carb meals is coming up with side dishes, for fish or another proteins, that aren’t automatically potatoes, rice, or refined grains. Our minds go there. They’ve been programmed to. That doesn’t have to be.

I had these long, curved eggplants, and I purchased fennel bulbs and beautiful September tomatoes. The combination suggested to me a type of ciambotta, but the fennel got me thinking of the Provençal dish La Bohémienne, fennel and zucchini cooked “gypsy style.” No one quite knows why it’s called that. Seems it’s a Marseillais version of ratatouille. In any case, I used my eggplant and fennel, added the tomato and other things that felt right, and came up with a soulful side dish for just about any simply prepared meat. Or have it on its own, maybe followed by a green salad and a chunk of young caciocavallo cheese.

Eggplant Braised with Fennel and Fresh Tomatoes

 (Serves 4)

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 summer onion, chopped
2 medium fennel bulbs, cored and diced
4 or 5 medium-size Asian eggplants, skinned and cut into cubes
2 summer garlic cloves, sliced
½ tablespoon ground fennel seed
1 medium sprig rosemary, the leaves chopped
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 large summer tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
A splash of sweet vermouth
A few drops of Spanish sherry vinegar
A few large sprigs of tarragon, the leaves lightly chopped

Set up a large skillet over medium heat. Add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and let it get hot. Add the onion and the fennel, and get them softening for a few minutes. Now add the eggplant, and sauté until it’s about halfway cooked. Add the garlic, fennel seed, and rosemary. Season with salt and black pepper, and cook to release their fragrances, about a minute. Add the tomatoes, and cook, uncovered, until everything is just tender and the tomatoes have released some liquid. Add the sweet vermouth, and let it boil away. Add a splash of water, and cook another few minutes. There should be a bit of liquid left in the skillet. When everything is tender, turn off the heat and add a few drops of the vinegar and the tarragon. Taste for seasoning. Now add a drizzle of fresh olive oil. Serve hot or at room temperature.

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Green beans are not glamorous. And they’re not voluptuous like tomatoes, or sultry like eggplants. When picked young they’re cute and flexible and have a very green taste, which is fine, but to my palate it always falls a bit flat. It’s now green bean season, and they need our help.

For some reason I got it in my head that walnuts would be good with green beans, so I’ve been playing around with that concept. First I tossed them with a walnut pesto, which tasted really good but looked like a clumpy mess. So I then decided to deconstruct my pesto, adding each ingredient to the beans individually so the texture would be chunkier, not creamy. And the taste became clear, lively even.

If you would like to have a good, solid low-carb summer meal, make these string beans. Serve them with a grilled steak (I used a hanger rubbed with a bit of smoked paprika), and a simple heirloom tomato salad, dressed with your best olive oil, sea salt, and a scattering of mint leaves. Open up a bottle of Sangiovese, ditch the bread, and transport yourself into end-of-summer low-carb heaven. This meal really lifted my mood.

Green Beans with Walnuts, Basil, and Lemon Zest

(Serves 4)

 About ¾ pound green beans, prepped
½ cup very fresh walnut halves, lightly toasted and then roughly chopped
1 summer garlic clove, minced
The grated zest from 1 large lemon
About 1½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
A big pinch of ground nutmeg
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A handful of basil leaves, ripped in two

Set up a medium pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Drop in the green beans, and blanch them until they’re tender but still have a touch of crispness. Drain them well, and put them in a nice looking serving bowl.

Add all the other ingredients, and toss well. The heat from the beans will release all the oils and essences of the nuts, herbs, garlic, and lemon, making the beans quite fragrant. I hope you’ll like it.

Felix Vallotton-957538

Tomatoes and Meat, Felix Vallotton, 1865-1925.

The city where I live is now heavy with recession chic. I see a lot of meatballsin carts, in storefronts, and now in some chain stores. The trendier places have lines. Standing in line for a meatball. Molto strano. You gets no bread with one meatball. That’s what the song said, but now, I think, you do get bread, and you can order a $13 glass of vino, too. Some of the meatballs look familiar, some come with “Hawaiian” sauce. I suppose that must be some kind of fruit glaze.

I’ve tried a few of the roving meatball trucks. Not bad, but as every Southern Mediterranean cook knows, you gets the best meatballs when you makes them yourself. Some cooks stay true to Grandma’s original, some mix it up. I like to do both.

I’ve been thinking about meatballs lately, thinking about how to present them, first off in a low-carb style but also how to make them feel like summer.

Bread and pasta are both classic meatball accompaniments. You’ve got to have something to sop up all that great sauce (maybe not with the Hawaiian version). But what about an uncooked tomato sauce, a pomodoro crudo, mixed with greens, with the hot-from-the-skillet meatballs sitting on top? The greens get tangled with the sauce and a forkful of crisp-edged meatball. That is a well-rounded mouthful, allowing you to forget about the missing bread, hopefully. Chunky sauce and greens are an overlooked marriage of tastes. The dish feels like summer, a hearty late summer.

A note on the amounts of carbohydrates in my recipes: My aim is to cut way back on the easily digested carbs, such as sugar, potatoes, rice, pasta, and white bread. I do include many vegetables and small amounts of whole grains, beans, and legumes, which can have carbs but also lots of vitamins and fiber. This is not the Atkins diet. It’s just an attempt to limit the crud you eat while creating really good Italian and Mediterranean food that you’ll love. I also try to moderate fats, but without using any phony low-fat cheeses or dairy. I buy the best cheeses and olive oil I can and work as many of the drier, less fatty grating cheeses into my recipes, such as pecorino or Parmigiano. I work hard to make my recipes delicious so as not to send any dietary hardship your way. Eating this way should be a pleasure.

IMG_0265Tomatoes from my friend Barbara’s garden. Beautiful.

Lamb and Ricotta Salata Meatballs on Pomodoro Crudo and Arugula

(Serves 4)

For the meatballs:

 1½ pounds ground lamb
1 heaping tablespoon breadcrumbs, not too dry, not too finely ground
1 garlic clove, minced
⅛ teaspoon ground cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon spicy paprika, plus a little more for garnish (I used Basque piment d’espelette)
2 egg yolks
½ cup grated ricotta salata, plus extra for garnish
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, well chopped
A few large sprigs of marjoram, the leaves chopped, plus a little more for garnish
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A generous drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for sautéing.

For the pomodoro crudo and arugula:

3 very large summer tomatoes, peeled, seeded, diced, and drained for about 20 minutes
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 summer garlic clove, very thinly sliced
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A few drops of Spanish sherry vinegar
A few sprigs of marjoram leaves, chopped
A large handful of wild or baby arugula, stemmed

To make the meatballs: Place all the ingredients for the meatballs in a big bowl, and mix them well with your fingers. Try not to pack down the meat too much. Keeping it a bit airy will give it a tender texture. Form it into medium-size balls, about an inch across.

To make the pomodoro crudo: Place the chopped tomatoes in a bowl. Add about a tablespoon of olive oil, the garlic, salt, and pepper, and a few drops of Spanish sherry vinegar. Mix well, and let sit for about 20 minutes, so the flavors can blend.

When you’re ready to serve the dish, pour about a half inch of olive oil into a large skillet over medium high heat. When hot, add the meatballs, and brown them well on all sides, leaving their centers slightly pink. This should take about 5 minutes.

Spoon the pomodoro crudo into four shallow pasta bowls. Now scatter on the arugula. Drain the meatballs on paper towels, and place three or four of them in each bowl, on top of the sauce. Sprinkle ricotta salata and a pinch of spicy paprika over each bowl. Scatter on the remaining marjoram, and finish each bowl with a drizzle of fresh olive oil. Serve hot.

Women with Fish

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This cauldron I’m holding is not for cooking fish. It’s for returning fish to the sea. It’s actually a chute that goes through that table directly into the Atlantic Ocean. I understand that most of these fish are already dead, but some are pregnant and, once returned to the sea, will be able to give birth to live babies. I didn’t catch these fish, but I collected them, stole them actually, from fishermen while they were staring off into the sunset. I steal fish, then I dress in blue and send the fish home. The sea is now full of dead fish. I was under the impression that this was a good thing. But now I’m not so sure. I just can’t stop myself.

Still_life_with_shrimp,_ramps,_flowers_and_a_glass_vaseStill Life with Shrimp, Ramps, Flowers, and a Glass, Franz Ykens, 1601-1693.

When I was a kid, shrimp was special. Not as special as lobster, but up there. Spaghettini with shrimp was for Christmas Eve, period. So was shrimp “scampi,” made with breadcrumbs, herbs, garlic, white wine, and, inexplicably, butter. Shrimp scampi was too good for olive oil. And my family sometimes found it with the heads still intact, usually on Arthur Avenue, in the Bronx. That was just too much excitement. Now shrimp is all over the place. Sometime soon I’m expecting to see it at Dunkin’ Donuts, worked into an ice cream topping, maybe.

I’m bringing this up because I’m confused by the abundance of shrimp. I figured wild shrimp would be better than farmed, but after some research, now I see that that’s not so clear. The wild shrimp I most often find are from Colombia, and they and many other foreign wild shrimp are caught with trawl nets that take up all sorts of other sea life with them, such as endangered sea turtles.

Farmed shrimp from Asia and South America are, for the most part, not sustainable. They threaten wetlands and are given hormones and, because of their bacteria-laden environments, antibiotics. Shrimp farms are now cropping up in the U.S., and I hope we can look to them to provide a healthier, better regulated alternative. I’d ideally like to eat fresh East Coast shrimp, but those seem hard to locate even in season. I’d pay more for them and eat them less often.

If we don’t want to eat garbage and damage our already fragile earth, we cooks need to keep on top of this. At the moment, what places are the worst offenders? China? Venezuela? When I’m in doubt, I check at http://www.seafoodwatch.org, where I obtained much of the info for this post. I’m still perplexed when I go to my fish shop and see eight kinds of shrimp, all from different countries, some farmed, some wild. It’s a shame. Shrimp is a delicious low-carb food that has served as the base for some of my best culinary whims. I want to eat it, and I love it, so you can be sure I’ll be keeping up on this issue and passing along to you what I learn.

Back to the fine low-carb beauty of this recipe. While probing my culinary bean for a side dish to go with these shrimp, I immediately thought of faro or wheat berries, but since those aren’t on my low-carb program, I had to search deeper. Zucchini is a vegetable I reach for when I want something rich but not a potato. It has a solid presence, a gentle taste, and soaks up sauce well. And in summer you’ve got tons of it.

You’ll need two short metal skewers for this recipe.

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Grilled Shrimp Spiedini with Rosemary Salsa, Zucchini, Leeks, and Fennel

(Serves 2)

For the rosemary salsa:

3 large sprigs rosemary, the leaves well chopped
4 large sprigs flat leaf parsley, the leaves well chopped
1 summer garlic clove, minced
Salt
A pinch of sugar
The grated zest from 1 lemon
The grated zest from 1 orange
1 tablespoon lemon juice
About 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

For everything else:

6 to 8 jumbo shrimp (3 to 4 per person, depending on desire), peeled and deveined but with the tails left on
1 tablespoon ground fennel seed
Salt
Piment d’espelette dried red pepper
A pinch of sugar
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 medium summer zucchini, cut into thin rounds
1 large fennel bulb, trimmed and cut into thin rounds
2 young summer leeks, cleaned, the white part cut into thin rounds
2 anchovy fillets, minced
Salt
Black pepper
A squeeze of lemon juice

In a small bowl, mix all the ingredients for the salsa together. Let sit at room temperature while you proceed with the recipe.

Put 3 or 4 shrimp on each skewer. Season them all over with the fennel, salt, a decent sized pinch of pimenton, depending on how spicy you like it, and the sugar, pressing the spices into the shrimp. Stick the shrimp back in the refrigerator.

In a large skillet, heat a little olive oil over medium flame. Add the zucchini, fennel, and leeks, all at the same time. Add the anchovy, and season with a little salt and more generously with black pepper. Sauté quickly until the vegetables have a golden edge but are still holding their shape, about 5 minutes. Give them a tiny squeeze of lemon juice.

Put a stove-top grill pan over high heat (or use an outdoor grill).

Drizzle the shrimp with just a touch of olive oil. When the grill is hot, lay the skewers on it, and grill quickly until the shrimp is just browned, about 2 minutes on each side. That’s for real jumbos. For smaller ones, you’ll want to cut down the time. Keep them juicy.

Set out two plates. Spoon some of the zucchini onto each plate. Place a skewer next to the zucchini. Drizzle some of the rosemary salsa on top.

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