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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.

Women with Fish

26A1597-fish

I have heard that a 120 pound skirt of fish strung together on metal wire is a toning exercise for an acrobat.

My Herb Pots, Part One

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Recipes: Chervil, Chive, and Tarragon Salsa Verde; Mint, Basil, and Thyme Salsa Verde

My apartment building has two decent-size round pots on its stoop, on either side of the entrance. Except for one I-wouldn’t-harm-a-weed neighbor, I’m the only person in the building interested in planting anything in them. The weed lady, if given the opportunity, will fill the pots with anything from a vacant lot or the wild that catches her eye, and such a plant is likely to quickly take over. Every year I race to get my herbs and spring flowers started before she can fill the pots, and luckily for me, she’s always happy to see my chives, tarragon, and rosemary shoot up. Fancy herbs need homes, too.

I’m just starting my planting now. I’ve fished out all the cigarette butts and more repulsive city detritus, worked over the soil, and added new dirt. It’s dark and moist. So far I’ve put in flat-leaf parsley, regular basil, rosemary, thyme, sage, chives, and tarragon. I’ve also got seeds for tiny, spiky arugula starting in one of my window pots. I treat it like an herb. It comes up strong for three or four weeks and then poops out, so when it emerges I use it all, in a pesto or a salad.

At the moment my favorite herbs are marjoram, Thai basil, and wild fennel, none of which I can yet find at my Greenmarket. I planted them last year and was excited to see the fennel and Thai basil do well for much of the summer. I was saddened by the marjoram. It fizzled out after about a week. I love that herb so much. I replaced it with Greek oregano, but I hardly ever used that, finding it too harsh. Luckily I don’t see it coming back up, at least not yet (but it’s a tough little soul and may show its dark leaves any day now). Eventually I’ll locate some fennel and Thai basil and add them to my group. And I’ll try marjoram again. I really hope it has a better summer than last.

Every spring I start chopping and grinding herbs. I’m big on unusual pestos and improvised salsa verdes. The aromas and the knife work are exciting and soothing. Salsa verde is best when the herbs are chopped by hand. A pesto needs a more emulsified texture, so a food processor, or, if you’re into it, a mortar and pestle, is better for those.

Mixing these herbs and letting their oils flow together is for me surprisingly more like chemistry than cooking. Even though I think I know what these combos should taste like, they almost never quite do. The whole is often greater than the sum of the parts, and unexpected. But it can work the other way. Tarragon and basil, two gently anisy-tasting herbs, taste soapy to me when ground together, but basil mixed with parsley is sweetly grassy with just an undertone of anise. Last week when I wanted a good salsa verde for grilled squid and octopus, I thought to put mint, basil, and thyme together. I hesitated at first, worrying that the thyme would dominate too forcefully, but I went ahead and was surprised by its rich yet not jarring perfume. Coincidently, I learned recently when reading Vegetable Literacy, by Deborah Madison, that these three herbs are botanically related. I’m not sure what that has to do with the fact that they tasted good together. Anise and caraway, both members of the umbelliferae family, taste terrible together.

All my herb condimenti are olive oil based. I prefer to use a mellower oil for them, such as one from Liguria or Puglia. I find that the bite of Tuscan oils can interfere with the herbs’ freshness, and can turn a salsa bitter.

Here are two good herb combos to get you started. Each makes about ¾ of a cup, enough to serve 4 as a condiment.

Chervil, Chive, and Tarragon Salsa Verde

A big handful of chervil
A dozen large tarragon sprigs, stemmed
About a dozen chives
The grated zest from 1 small lemon, plus a squeeze of its juice
A few drops of vanilla extract
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
Black pepper

With a good chef’s knife or a mezzaluna, chop all the herbs well. You’ll want them to look like little flecks. Put them in a small bowl. Add the lemon zest and vanilla. Add enough olive oil to achieve a spoonable but not too thick consistency. Season with salt, black pepper, and a little lemon juice. Let sit for about ½ hour to develop good flavor, but try to serve on the day it’s made.

Try it on blanched asparagus, carrots, or leeks, on poached fish, spooned over scrambled eggs, or tossed with farfalle.

Mint, Basil, and Thyme Salsa Verde

About 20 medium basil leaves
About 10 medium spearmint leaves
5 large sprigs thyme, the leaves stemmed
1 spring garlic clove, peeled
A palmful of small, salt-packed capers, soaked, rinsed, and dried
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
A few drops of champagne vinegar.

Chop all the herbs until you have a pile of little flecks. Smash the garlic with the side of your knife, and mince it. Roughly chop the capers. Put it all in a small bowl. Add enough oil to get a thick but drizzly consistency. Season with salt and a few drops of champagne vinegar, and give it a good mix. Let sit for about ½ hour, and try to use it the day you make it.

I like this one on grilled fish or chicken. It’s also nice stirred into a spring minestrone or drizzled over grilled peppers or eggplant.

ddf21f2cc3eaaf7e989b5af501c8bf78A fish market in Naples.

Long skinny pasta with clams. It’s the best. A beauty of the Southern Italian table. I try not to make it too often, for fear of it losing its specialness. It’s for Christmas Eve, or a childhood birthday, or to make when I need a reason to be grateful. For me clams hit all the right taste buds, and they have a fascinating look. I love the delicate clinks they make when I knock them together in a bowl of cool water. I love the sand settling on the bottom of that bowl. The perfection of pasta with clams makes me feel there’s unity in an oftentimes unaligned world. Yes, I’m serious. Clams with stringy pasta calms me.

The classic “white” version has always been my favorite, with its simple sauce of the clams’ briny juices, white wine, lots of garlic, a squeeze of lemon, flat-leaf parsley, and often red pepper flakes (an American touch; Italians tend to use whole dried peppers, which they crumble). Linguine, the flat spaghetti, is the classic pasta for clams. It’s wonderful, but I prefer bucatini. I like the way the clammy broth works its way up into the pasta’s opening, flavoring it from within and without. I sometimes add pancetta, more Spanish than Italian in spirit, and I play around with the herbs. One thing I never add is any member of the onion family. I can’t say exactly why, but I’ve never tasted an onion presence in any pasta dish with clams. It just seems instinctively wrong, something that wouldn’t mesh. Tomatoes are an option, of course, producing a “red” sauce.

And so it was the other day. When I felt adrift and alone, I thought of clams. What to do? Buy some, my flaky little brain told me. So I did, but just enough for two. Then my sister Liti called, feeling adrift and alone herself. Come over for dinner is of course what I said. But I didn’t quite have enough clams for three (and when I make this, I want everyone to have a lot of clams). It was late, and I was too lazy to go back to Citarella. I initially intended to make a white version, but now I knew I had to stretch the clams with something. I did have a few pints of grape tomatoes, so I knew they would get integrated into the dish.

I have to say, I’m never happy with pasta and clams swimming in a full-on tomato sauce. I prefer little hits of tomato interspersed throughout. I want to taste garlic, olive oil, white wine, lemon, and clams. So I decided to roast the tiny tomatoes and add them at the last minute, so they stayed whole and didn’t mingle too much with everything else. I also added thyme and fresh chili to this one. Pretty damned good. Everyone was happy and I hope relatively calm (almost spells clam; that proves my theory).

clams 009

Bucatini with Clams, Roasted Tomatoes, and Thyme

(Serves 4 as a main course)

2 pints grape tomatoes
Salt
Extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup dry white wine
½ cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 dozen small Little Neck or Manila clams, soaked and cleaned
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 fresh peperoncino, minced
1 pound bucatini
1 branch of thyme, the leaves lightly chopped
A handful of flat-leaf parsley, the leaves chopped
Lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Spread the tomatoes out on a sheet pan. Drizzle them with a little olive oil, and season with salt. Toss well with your fingers to distribute the oil. Roast in the oven until lightly browned and tender, about 15 minutes or so. Take the tomatoes from the oven, and let them sit on the sheet pan while you continue with the recipe.

Set up a pot of pasta cooking water, add salt, and bring it to a boil.

While the pasta is coming to a boil, pour the white wine and chicken broth into a wide pot. Add the butter and a big drizzle of olive oil. Turn the heat to medium high, and bring the pot to a boil. Now add the clams, and cook them until they’ve opened. You’ll want to partially cover the pot in the beginning and then take the cover off and stir the clams around a few times so they cook evenly. When they’ve opened, turn off the heat, and let the clams sit in their liquid.

Drop the bucatini into the water.

Pour about 3 tablespoons of olive oil into a large, wide skillet, and let it get hot over medium heat. Add the garlic and the fresh chili, and sauté until fragrant, about a minute or so. Add the clams, with all their liquid, and the thyme, and stir everything around for a few seconds. Turn off the heat.

When the bucatini is al dente, drain it, leaving some of the cooking water clinging to it. Place it in a large serving bowl, and give it a drizzle of fresh olive oil.

Pour the clams and their liquid over the bucatini. Add the tomatoes and the parsley, and squeeze on a little lemon juice. Add another drizzle of olive oil, and toss well. Serve hot.

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