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Urban Herbs on the Radio

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I recently spoke with Carmen Devito and Alice Marcus Krieg, hosts of  We Dig Plants, on Heritage Radio Network. We talked about urban herb gardening, women with fish, Southern Italian cooking, and other pleasures of summer. If you’d like to listen in, here’s the link:

http://www.heritageradionetwork.com/episodes/8422-We-Dig-Plants-Episodes-159-Chef-Erica-DeMane

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Mentuccia growing from between the rocks on an Umbrian farm.

Recipe: Warm Calamari Salad with Cecis and Mentuccia

You know how when you taste something that seems familiar, but not quite, it stirs a flavor memory but you can’t zero in on why? This has happened to me often in Italy. Mentuccia, a kind of wild mint I first tasted in Sicily, is one of those things that on first tasting have made me think, “Oh yes, that,” and then after absorbing their essence I’ve realized I actually never tasted them before.

My first experience with mentuccia was as a flavoring for braised artichokes. I assumed it was some unusual type of oregano, but as I let the fresh herb open up on my palate, I tasted spearmint and marjoram, with a touch of summer savory in the background. It held shadows of my father’s beloved oregano, his pizza herb, but it was gentler and more complex. It’s strange how mentuccia brings up memories of my childhood without having been part of the Italian-American kitchen.

Mentuccia, also known as nepitella, grows wild throughout the Mezzogiorno and in Lazio, Umbria, Tuscany, and Sardinia. Roman cooks traditionally use it to flavor artichokes, as do Sicilians. In Tuscany it’s used with mushrooms to produce a deep, wild earth flavor. Italians also like it in lamb and pork dishes, and with tomatoes. Oddly, I’ve never seen it scattered over a pizza.

This summer I planted mentuccia for the first time. I didn’t think it existed here, but when I did some research I found it goes by the name calamint in the English-speaking world, and soon I noticed it for sale at my Greenmarket, where it had been all along. I bought two plants and stuck them in my stoop pots. The stuff has taken off like the wild, inventive thing it is, its tiny dark green leaves filling up every available space between the petunias and the tarragon. And its taste is exactly how I remember it from my first time, in Sicily. I have been playing around with it in my kitchen. I wanted to pair it with chickpeas, I think because I associate summer savory, which it brings to mind, with dried beans. If you don’t have mentuccia, try a mix of marjoram, mint, and summer savory or thyme.

Next up, mentuccia pizza. Stay tuned.

(Serves 2)

A big handful of chicory or frisée, torn into pieces
½ teaspoon allspice
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon pimenton de La Vera (a smoked Spanish paprika that comes in several heat strengths; mine is only slightly spicy)
A big pinch of sugar
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup cooked chickpeas, drained and dried
1 long red peperoncino, cut into rings
2 scallions, thinly sliced, using some of the tender green
1 pound small calamari, cut into rings, the tentacles left whole
Salt
2 tablespoons breadcrumbs
1 fresh summer garlic clove, thinly sliced
The grated zest from 1 small lemon, plus some of its juice
A palmful of salt-packed Sicilian capers, soaked and drained
8 large sprigs mentuccia, the leaves lightly chopped

Set out a large, nice looking salad bowl. Add the chicory or frisée.

Mix the allspice, cumin, pimenton, and sugar together in a small bowl.

In a large skillet, heat about a tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat. When hot, add the chickpeas, the peperoncino, the scallions, half of the spice mix, and a little salt. Sauté quickly, just until the chili softens and gives off an aroma and the chickpeas take on a little crunch. Add this to the salad bowl.

Without cleaning out the skillet, add another tablespoon of olive oil, and turn the heat to high. When the pan’s really hot, add the calamari, the garlic, the lemon zest, the rest of the herb mix, the breadcrumbs, and a little salt. Sear the calamari quickly, just until it’s opaque and tender and the breadcrumbs are crisp. Add all this to the salad bowl, along with the capers and the mentuccia.

Drizzle on about a tablespoon of fresh olive oil and about half as much lemon juice. Season with a bit more salt, and toss. Serve right away.

Women with Fish

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Oh it’s you again. I rejected the sardine, now you’re back with an underweight sea bass.  There’s no fish you can bring that will alter me.  I won’t gaze at the aggressive squint in your eyes. I don’t like your nervy reach.  I don’t want the parched  smell of your skin or the tautness of your hair. You are not of the sea, you just acquire it. Go away and leave my slippery mind.

tumblr_m8mmcyCR7r1qbyk5qo1_500Zucchini and Bowl, Felice Casorati, 1942.

Recipe: Zucchini Sformato with Marjoram and Thyme

I have a love-hate relationship with the now year-long availability of fresh herbs. All those little plastic cases open easily enough but then are impossible to close. And the perfect herbs inside seem somewhat embalmed, their aroma faint, as if they landed from a far off planet. I use them because I need them. I vividly remember watching my father, in late August, harvest the last of the basil from his backyard garden, pulling the leaves from their woody stalks. He’d lay them out on our patio table, on squares of waxed paper, the leaves single file, each one covered with kosher salt, top them with a sheet of aluminum foil, and roll them all up into a bunch of tight tubes. I had never seen him perform anything so finicky. Into the freezer they’d go, until around Christmas, when he’d open a package and pull out a few of the now almost totally black leaves to throw into a pot of tomato sauce. A hint of summer. That was pretty damned charming of him, but also kind of sad. The leaves were terrible to look at. They did, strangely, smell like basil. It was always a shock to breathe that in during winter months. I can now buy plastic boxes of basil in January, if I want to. I can make basil pesto then. But I never do. Some things are sacred.

I’ve got great looking basil growing in my stoop pots right now. Other Mediterranean herbs such as fennel, marjoram, thyme, and mentuccia, oddly, also grow very well in Manhattan (go figure). I’ve dedicated my summer to trying out new herbal combinations. Marjoram mixed with thyme, I’ve discovered, produces a taste like a gentle, floral, and more complex oregano. It works well with bold dishes such as broiled mackerel, and also in this mild zucchini custard. Give it a try with eggplant, or sprinkled on hummus. You’ll find it a thing of beauty added to a summer tomato sauce. I can’t wait for that.

(Serves 4)

A little soft butter for greasing the dish
Extra-virgin olive oil
A few slices of fatty prosciutto end, diced
4 medium zucchini, cut into thin rounds
A big pinch of sugar
1 summer onion, cut into small dice
2 summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Salt
Black pepper
The grated zest from 1 small lemon
8 large sprigs of marjoram, the leaves chopped
8 large sprigs of thyme, the leaves chopped
⅓ cup flour
¾ cup milk
½ cup cream
¼ teaspoon mace
3 large eggs
½ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Butter an 11-inch round baking dish (any more of less equivalent size will do fine).

Heat a large skillet over medium-high flame. Add a drizzle of olive oil and the prosciutto, letting it cook a minute or so to release its fat. Add the zucchini and the pinch of sugar. Sauté until the zucchini has taken on a little color (the sugar will help this along), about 6 minutes. Add the onion, and continue cooking until the vegetables are tender but still holding their shape. Add the garlic, and season with salt, black pepper, and the lemon zest. Add half the marjoram and half the thyme.

Put the flour, milk, cream, mace, and eggs into the bowl of a food processor. Add a little salt and pepper. Pulse a few times to mix well. Now add the rest of the herbs and half of the grated cheese. Pulse to blend.

Tilt the zucchini into the baking dish, and smooth it out. Pour on the cream mixture. Scatter on the rest of the grated cheese. Bake until golden and puffy, about 30 minutes.

I like to eat this after about a 5-minute wait, so it’s still quite warm. It goes well with a green salad that contains a few bitter elements such as arugula or dandelion.

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Van Gogh, a lover of absinthe, was familiar with many herbs, including green anise, fennel, tarragon, wormwood, and angelica, all of which contribute to the outstanding drink’s green color and tempting fragrance.

Recipe: Chicken Braised with Tarragon and Lemon Verbena

By random planting, this year I got my tarragon and lemon verbena growing together in the same pot. Seeing them swaying together in the city breeze reminded me of that overused farm-to-table saying, “What grows together goes together.” Would that be true even if I had forced them on each other? Could their arranged marriage work out on the plate? I found the answer the other day when I made an impulsive culinary choice.

I didn’t start out loving tarragon. I didn’t grow up with it, and it’s not used much in Italian cooking. My Italian teacher wasn’t even familiar with the Italian word for it, dragoncella, meaning little dragon. Italian cooks are more likely to use fennel seed, basil, or anise seed, which all, like tarragon, have an anise tone to them. I was forced to confront tarragon head-on when I got my first cooking job, which happened to be at a French bistro. What I thought of as a soapy and gag-inducing aroma and taste turned alluring when I started making tarragon butter sauce for sole, tarragon mustard vinaigrette, and tarragon chicken with shallots and white wine.

It’s strange the way our tastes change, but it’s even stranger how old taste memories can come flooding back, interrupting a new norm. The other day I was picking tarragon, and I brought some to my nose, and there was that old soapy, gaggy aroma from days gone by. What was going on? I thought I had evolved. My dinner of tarragon chicken suddenly turned to poison, in my mind.

I had to do something about that, and quick. I decided to grab some lemon verbena and add it to the dish. That amazing herb brightened the slight soapiness of the tarragon, imparting the sweetest essence of lemon from my dreams. It’s a good combination. You must try it. Lemon verbena leaves are a bit tough, so make sure to chop them well.

(Serves 4)

Extra-virgin olive oil
Butter
5 chicken legs, separated into thighs and drumsticks
Salt
Black pepper
1 large shallot, cut into small dice
1 tender, inner celery stalk, cut into small dice
2 summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced
½ teaspoon ground anise seed
¼ cup dry vermouth
¾ cup chicken broth
A handful of tarragon leaves, chopped, plus sprigs for garnish
A smaller handful of lemon verbena leaves, well chopped, plus sprigs for garnish
A tiny splash of tarragon vinegar
A handful of green olives (picholines are a good choice)

Choose a large, heavy-bottomed skillet, and get it hot over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon or so of olive oil and 1 of butter. When bubbling, add the chicken, seasoning it well with salt and black pepper. Brown the chicken on both sides, and then lift it from the skillet. Pour off any excess fat (you’ll want to leave in at least 2 tablespoons, for flavor and for a silky sauce). Add the shallot and the celery, and sauté until tender, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, and sauté a few seconds, just to release its aroma.

Put the chicken back in the skillet. Sprinkle on the anise. Add the vermouth, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Add the broth. Bring to a boil. Now turn the heat to low, cover the skillet, and braise until the chicken is tender, about 15 minutes.

Pull the chicken from the skillet and place it on a serving platter.

Add the tarragon and lemon verbena to the skillet, and cook the sauce down to reduce it a bit. Turn off the heat, and add a drizzle of tarragon vinegar, the olives, and a tablespoon of fresh butter. Add a sprinkling of salt and a few more turns of black pepper. Pour the sauce over the chicken. Garnish with tarragon and lemon verbena sprigs.

I love this dressed simply with olive oil and a little salt and served with wheat berries, emmer, or faro.

marjoramWild marjoram in full flower. It must smell divine. I wish I were there.

Recipe: Seared Calamari with Marjoram, Basil, and Ricotta Salata

Beautiful marjoram, the herb of love and good fortune in the Italian kitchen: I see it now on my windowsill, and it looks like it’s doing well, but I have a gnawing feeling that something bad will happen soon, that it will wither and shrink and ultimately die. I must stop thinking like this.

Herbs grow from rocks, from cracked earth, and in blazing, dry heat. Herbs even grow in the excitement and misery that is Manhattan. Herbs are ancient, their flavors unchanged from when my great-great grandparents were pulling mentuccia and fennel up on the dusty slopes of Puglia. I’ve got herbs growing high and bushy in stoop pots that are almost out on the street. This year my basil is doing well. But, as I said, the marjoram is making me anxious.

In the past I’ve wanted to honor my homegrown herbs by presenting them solo. This year, I’m not sure why, I’m more interested in combining their flavors. It’s exciting to see how blending two or more herbs changes them, creating a new taste. That certainly happened when I added both basil and marjoram to my sautéed calamari. The marjoram tempered the base note of clove in the basil (basil and clove share a common aromatic oil), and the basil suppressed some of the marjoram’s floral tones, leaving it tasting more like its cousin oregano, but without oregano’s harshness. Oregano, usually dried, and basil are a common enough Southern Italian combo, and the taste of this calamari reminds me of many dishes from my childhood. Substituting marjoram and letting it mingle with basil gives me the flavor memory I want, but updated, making it, in my opinion, a little bit better.

(Serves 4)

Extra-virgin olive oil
1½ pounds small calamari, cleaned and cut into rings, the tentacles left whole
1 stalk summer garlic, sliced
1 whole star anise
Salt
Black pepper
A tiny splash of dry vermouth
About 6 canned San Marzano tomatoes, well chopped and very well drained
6 large marjoram sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
A handful of basil leaves, cut into strips
About ½ cup crumbled ricotta Salata

Choose a large, heavy bottomed pan, and get it hot over high heat. Add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. When that’s hot, add the calamari, spreading it out to cover the pan. Add the garlic and the star anise. Season with salt and black pepper, and sauté quickly, about a minute.

Add the vermouth, letting it boil away. Add the tomatoes, and cook at a lively bubble just to take off their raw edge, about 2 minutes. Pull the pan from the heat, and add the marjoram, basil, and about a tablespoon of the ricotta salata, stirring everything to blend. Taste for seasoning. Drizzle with a thread of fresh olive oil.

Pour the calamari into a wide serving dish, and top with the remaining ricotta salata. Serve with garlic bruschetta brushed with olive oil.

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Recipe: Warm Potato Salad with Chives, Tarragon, and Parsley

Planting flowers and herbs in pots out on the sidewalk in New York City is asking for trouble, but what can I do? I have a big urge to plant, and this is the space Mother Nature has lent me. During warm months I wake up many a morning in fear that my beautiful herbs and geraniums will have been ripped out and flung onto the street, or pulled out and stolen. It happens at least once a year. I have a hard time figuring out the mentality of someone who steals fennel or marjoram. It doesn’t fit any criminal profile I know. The vandalism is usually done in the early morning, around two or three. I live on the ground floor, so once or twice I’ve heard people banging around out there. I assume they are drunk or drugged stragglers, whose lives are just not complete without collecting a pilfered parsley plant, trotting down the street with it, and then dumping it in a garbage can at the end of the block. I guess owning it for those fleeting minutes makes the person vital. People tell me to just let it go, but it’s hard. I’d really like to run after these idiots, but idiots who are drunk or drugged can be scary. Best to stay inside and let the destruction unfold.

So far so good this year. My stoop pots are thriving, my windowsills are covered with red flowers. I did briefly have trouble with my tarragon, but after chats with friends and farmers I realize I was drowning it. It was rotting at the base. I cut it way back, adding the limp leaves to a small bottle of champagne vinegar (which I used in this salad) and letting the plant dry out. Now it’s coming back, shooting up all new sprigs. I’m so happy. I can’t stand killing things.

To celebrate my happy herb pots, I made a potato salad with all the herbs I have growing high and wild right now. Chives, parsley, and a little tarragon, the fines herbes of the French kitchen minus the chervil. (I can never grow chervil. It shrivels up into dry, frilly crisps in no time. I don’t know what I do wrong with it. Help would be greatly appreciated.) The secret to gaining intensity with this salad is tossing the warm potatoes with a little vinegar and wine and letting the liquid sit and soak in for a few minutes before adding anything else. That will give you a deeper than skin-deep taste. It’s not really much of a secret; French cooks have been doing it for decades.

These potatoes, a plate of prosciutto, a bowl of watercress, and a few glasses of springtime rosé make a wonderful meal.

I love my herb pots.

Warm Potato Salad with Chives, Tarragon, and Parsley

(Serves 4)

1 bag baby Yukon Gold potatoes (1½ pounds or so), cut in half
Salt
1 teaspoon tarragon vinegar, or maybe a little more
1 tablespoon dry white or rosé wine
A big pinch of ground allspice
Chives, tarragon, and parsley, all lightly chopped (you’ll want about a half cup, total)
Extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground Black pepper

Put the potatoes in a pot, and cover them with warm water by about 3 inches. Add some salt, and turn the heat to high. Bring to a boil. Turn the heat down a bit, and cook at a lively bubbly until the potatoes are just tender but the skins haven’t started to detach, about 10 minutes, checking their tenderness once or twice during cooking. Drain well.

Place the potatoes in a big bowl. Drizzle with tarragon vinegar and wine. Sprinkle on the allspice, and give them a toss with your fingers. Let them sit for a few minutes, and then give them another toss. They should have soaked up most of the liquid.

Now add all the chopped herbs, a bit more salt, and big drizzle of really good olive oil. Add black pepper, and toss. Check for seasoning. You might need a few more drops of vinegar. Serve warm.

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