1. walnuts_wine_pumpkinWalnuts, Wine, and Pumpkin, by Jeffrey Hayes.

Recipe below: Pumpkin Lasagne with Mascarpone and Parsley Sage Pesto

The pumpkin is a strange fruit, hard to penetrate, full of soggy fiber and seeds, with a hint of sweetness (or at least a suggestion that it would be open to some sugar) but also a touch of sour in some varieties. It’s a challenge in the kitchen. When I was a kid growing up on the North Shore of Long Island, there were still lots of pumpkin fields, some right near my house. We’d run through them each fall, by the alluring rows of orange balls that looked like they had landed from another planet. Of course we’d smash a few and steal a few, and when we got them home we’d have no idea you could actually cook them (the pumpkin you ate came in cans, right?). We’d just make jack-o’-lanterns, or throw them at cars (oh, those carefree days). Sadly, most of those pumpkin fields are now gone, replaced by mind-numbing rows of ranch houses.

Not long after pumpkins and other hard-skinned squashes reached Europe from the New World, Italians, especially poor ones, figured out good ways to cook them, making ravioli, risotto, gnocchi, and savory tarts like the absolutely delicious torta di zucca from Liguria that I often make for Thanksgiving. (Here’s my recipe.) Italians were undeterred by the fruits’ hard, grooved surface and by the torment of breaking them apart in a civilized fashion. Italian-Americans have, for the most part, decided it’s not worth the effort. I’ve cut myself a bunch of times when my knife slipped off a pumpkin skin, causing a shockingly bloody mess. The things can be trouble.

There’s a Sicilian dish, one that’s an acquired taste, that I mention when people ask me how Southern Italians deal with pumpkin. To make it you need to peel and slice a pumpkin, then sauté it with garlic, vinegar, sometimes a bit of hot chili, and fresh mint. In my opinion its taste is strange, but it makes sense served as a side with salumi, cutting through the pork fat with its soured up vegetableness. It’s a stretch on the agro-dolce (sweet and sour) treatment (though light on the dolce) that works so nicely with fish or rabbit or eggplant. If you’d like to give it a try, you can find my recipe here.

When I decide to go for it and cook pumpkin, I’ll buy a hacked off piece at the Greenmarket. I look for pieces of cheese pumpkin, since its skin is smoother and easier to get rid of than that of the deeply grooved varieties. It also has less fiber and a richer texture than the common jack-o’-lantern. Pumpkin chunks are easy enough to bake, if you want to wind up with a purée, but for slices, you’ll need to peel it. Frankly, often I’ll just use a butternut squash and forget the pumpkin. Butternut is more one-note, not as complex tasting but easy to ramp up, especially with fatty pork things like sausage or pancetta, and also with herbs and spices. With butternut squash I look for ones with long necks. I separate the neck from the round seeded part, keeping the round part to roast. You can easily cut a slice off the top of the neck, stand the thing upright, and just work down with a sharp knife, removing the skin. Then you cut it into slices or cubes, depending. No seeds to deal with.

A really good dish is pumpkin lasagna. I had one last month at Ai Tre Scalini, a hip, fairly new trattoria in Rome. It seemed to have some mascarpone worked in, and a parsley pesto drizzled on top after baking. I figured out my own version. It tasted oddly different from the Roman one, but in a good way. Maybe it was my addition of sage, or possibly the type of pumpkin (I used a cheese pumpkin). I’m not sure what kind of pumpkin Ai Tre Scalini used. If you ask an Italian what sort a winter squash or a pumpkin is, they always say it’s zucca. It’s all zucca over there.

Here’s a vegetarian fall lasagna, a good first course for your Thanksgiving table but also great on its own. You might follow it with a green salad that contains touches of bitterness, such as a chicory, arugula, or escarole one, to contrast with the squash’s slight sweetness.

Pumpkin Lasagne with Mascarpone and Parsley Sage Pesto

(Serves 6 as a first course)

Extra-virgin olive oil
A 2 pound hunk of pumpkin, cut into ¼-inch slices, or use  2 medium, long-necked butternut squash
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
Black pepper
2 medium leeks, the white part only, well chopped
1 1/2 cups mascarpone
3/4 cup grated fontina cheese (use a large-hole grater, since the cheese is soft)
½ cup grated grana Padano cheese
1/4 teaspoon ground mace
1 pound fresh lasagna sheets

For the pesto:

1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley leaves (about ¾ cup lightly packed)
6 sage leaves
½ cup very fresh walnuts
1 small garlic clove, roughly chopped
A little salt
⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Coat 2 sheet pans with a little olive oil. Place the pumpkin or butternut squash slices on the pans. Mix the balsamic vinegar with about 1½ tablespoons of olive oil, and brush it onto the squash slices. Season with salt and black pepper. Bake until just tender, about 15 minutes.

While the squash is baking, make the pesto: Put just enough water in a saucepan to cover a handful of herbs, and bring it to a boil. Drop in the parsley and sage, and blanch for about a minute. Pull the herbs out with a strainer spoon, and run them under cold water to set their green color. Squeeze out as much water as possible. Put the walnuts and the garlic in the bowl of a food processor, and grind them to a rough chop. Add the parsley and sage and little salt, and pulse until the herbs are chopped. Now drizzle in about ⅓ cup of olive oil, and pulse until you have a fairly smooth paste. You should be able to drizzle it, so if it seems too thick, work in a tablespoon of warm water.

Sauté the leeks in a little olive oil until they’re soft and fragrant. Pull the pan from the heat, and add the mascarpone, the mace, and some salt and black pepper. Stir well until the mascarpone melts.

Boil the lasagna sheets in the usual way.

Choose an approximately 8 x 12 inch lasagna dish, and drizzle a little olive oil in the bottom (I used an equivalent oval dish, for a less formal look). Lay down a layer of pasta. Add a layer of pumpkin (or butternut squash). Drizzle on some of the mascarpone mix. Dot the top with pesto, and sprinkle with the grated cheese mix. Put down another layer of pasta, and top it with a layer of all the remaining squash, a little more mascarpone, and a bit more of the grated cheese. Drizzle on a tiny bit more of the pesto, saving about 1½ tablespoons for later. Add a final layer of pasta, put down the remaining mascarpone, and a rest of the grated cheese. Give the top a few grindings of black pepper.

Bake, uncovered, until the top is golden and the lasagna is bubbling, about 20 minutes.

Pull the lasagna from the oven, and drizzle on the remaining pesto. The lasagna doesn’t need to rest, since it isn’t very liquidy, so you can serve it right away.

C2213C42-E080-4CE9-BE90-E40E367A7168Perfect spaghetti carbonara at Da Danilo, in Rome.

Here I am on a new podcast, talking to you about classic Roman dishes, spaghetti carbonara in particular. I love this dish, and after a recent trip to Rome I’ve made changes in my carbonara cooking technique to come up with what I feel is a real Roman trattoria result. I hope you enjoy my talk. And below it is my new and improved recipe. Give it a try and tell me how it comes out. Spaghetti carbonara is a dish of pure beauty. I think I might even make it for Thanksgiving.

See if you can find guanciale, cured pork jowl, for it. It’ll give you that true Roman flavor.

Spaghetti Carbonara My Way

(Serves 4 as a first course)

2 large eggs, plus 2 egg yolks
½ cup grated pecorino Sardo or Romano cheese
½ cup grated grana Padano cheese
¾ pounds spaghetti or bucatini
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 ½-inch-thick slices of guanciale (or pancetta), cut into thin strips (about ¾ cup)
¼ cup dry white wine
Coarsely ground black pepper

Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt.

Mix the two cheeses together in a small bowl. Place the eggs and 2 heaping tablespoons of the cheese mixture in another small bowl, and stir well.

Drop the spaghetti or bucatini into the pot, and give it a quick stir to make sure it doesn’t stick.

In a large skillet, big enough to hold all the pasta, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the guanciale or pancetta, and cook it slowly until it’s very crisp and has given off much of its fat, about 5 minutes. Add the white wine, and let it bubble for about 30 seconds; you don’t want to boil it away completely, but just enough to loosen all the caramelized skillet bits, so you can incorporate them into your sauce. Turn off the heat, but keep the skillet on the turned off burner.

When the spaghetti is just about ready, pour the egg and cheese mixture into the skillet, adding a touch of salt and an ample amount of freshly grated black pepper.

When the spaghetti is al dente, drain it, saving about ½ cup of the cooking water, and add the pasta to the skillet. Toss very well. The waning heat from the skillet and the heat from the pasta will lightly cook the eggs, creating a thick sauce that will coat every strand of pasta. This should take at least a minute of tossing, maybe a bit longer. If it seems too thick, add a teaspoon of pasta cooking water, and toss until everything is well coated, thick, and glossy, with only a touch of liquid left pooling on the bottom of the skillet. Serve right away, offering extra cheese at the table.

Women with Fish


When I was twelve I had a deep desire to bear a child. The jealousy I felt when my mother’s pregnant friends dropped by was overwhelming. She served pignoli cookies, which were the most expensive ones in the shop. She brewed black coffee. She allowed them to smoke. And there I was, lurking in the hallway, smelling their white soap, breathing in their cigarettes, focused on their bellies, not believing how big they’d become. Their laziness both fascinated and infuriated me.

For some reason I mentioned this feeling to my father. He nervously told me to try out for the school tennis club; an odd piece of advice, but it served me right for bringing him too far into my dark world. Tennis, seriously? So I did nothing but continue to fester in my own resentment. And this terrible feeling lasting almost two years. What an ordeal.

My sickening obsession did fade, but only to be replaced by another urge. Now, as urgently, I needed to handle and cook fish. Coming from an Italian family, this was acceptable. My parents took me to both of the nearby fish shops and let me buy whatever I wanted. They were just so happy to see me smile. I soon realized my favorite thing was to cook a whole fish. I needed to know the bones were still in place. My mother showed me how to season it with lemon, dried oregano, and oil. I was in heaven.

Twenty-one years have passed since I grilled my first fish. I now own Claudia’s, a seafood restaurant in Glen Cove, Long Island, working my way up from fry girl, to chef, to completely taking over (and renaming it). I never had kids. I guess I never truly wanted them. Those years of jealousy are far behind me. There have been some rough times at my lovely fish shack, but I’ve kept the quality high and I’m proud of my work. Life is good. Fish are better. Follow your dream.

–Claudia Russo

Monet_-_Stilleben_mit_FleischStill Life with Meat, by Claude Monet.

Recipe below: Beef Shank Ragù with Rosemary, Lemon, and Marrow Purée

I may have jumped the gun a bit with this recipe. I was itching to cook something fall-like, so I bought beef shank at a Catskills farm last weekend and decided I’d make a ragù. It came out rich and complex, which made me happy, but I probably would have appreciated it more in January than on the 75-degree October night when I sat down to eat it. Cooking a sauce that takes three hours or more can uplift a needy soul on a cold day, but now my tiny apartment grew steamy and oppressive and I felt trapped by my own creation. At least I came up with a successful recipe to have ready when it truly becomes cold and I want an excuse to squirrel up in my hut.

When thinking through this dish, I recalled that beef alone could make a one-note ragù. By giving it a base of pancetta, bay leaf, allspice, a cup of stock, and wine, I managed to round out the flavor. And of course the marrow, added at the end, is a huge bonus. I normally don’t like overloading a dish with too many ingredients, but when it comes to tough cuts of meat that take forever, essentially stews, a seeming horde of flavors will meld, leaving no hard edges, just depth and warmth. For me this is one of the techniques that distinguish much cold weather cooking from summer fare. I often cook a little harder in the winter, but it’s worth it.

P.S. I’m leaving for Rome in a few days and plan on spending a good amount of time exploring the new or improved food markets there. I’m hoping to post a few market podcasts, so please stay tuned. And it’s porcini season.

Beef Shank Ragù with Rosemary, Lemon, and Marrow Purée

(Serves 4 as a main-course pasta dish)

2 wide center-cut slices of beef shank, about 1½ inches thick
Black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 ¼-inch-thick round of pancetta, well chopped
1 large onion, cut into small dice
2 thin carrots, cut into small dice
1 fresh bay leaf
About ½ teaspoon ground allspice
4 big sprigs rosemary, the leaves well chopped
5 large thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup chicken broth
1 35-ounce can plum tomatoes, lightly drained and chopped
The grated zest from 1 large lemon
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, lightly chopped
1 pound fresh tagliatelle
A chunk of grana Padano cheese

Choose a large casserole fitted with a lid. Salt and pepper the beef shank on both sides. Pour about a tablespoon or so of olive oil into the pot, and let it get hot over a medium-high flame. Add the shanks, and brown them well on both sides. Take the meat from the pot, and set it aside for a moment.

Add the pancetta to the pot, and let its fat cook off. Add the onion, carrot, bay leaf, allspice, and the rosemary and the thyme. Sauté until everything is soft and fragrant. Return the meat to the pot. Add the wine, and let it bubble for about a minute. Add the chicken broth and the tomatoes and a bit more salt and black pepper. Bring to a boil. Now turn the heat down really low, cover the pot, and simmer, turning the meat a few times, until the meat is very tender, probably around 3 hours. Free-range meat can take even longer. If you prefer, stick the casserole in a 325-degree oven.

When tender, pull out the beef shank, and let it sit until it’s cool enough to handle. Skim the sauce. With a small spoon, scoop out all the marrow, and purée it in a food processor along with a big ladleful of the sauce. Return this to the pot.

Now shred the meat up, and add it to the sauce. If the ragù is too thick, add a little more chicken stock or water. Check for seasoning.

When ready to serve, cook the tagliatelle, and transfer it to a big pasta serving bowl. Add a big drizzle of olive oil, the lemon zest, and the parsley. Toss gently. Reheat the ragù if needed, and pour it over the pasta. Add about a tablespoon of grated grana Padano, and toss well. Serve hot, bringing the rest of the cheese to the table.

img_00175kcMy Somewhat Famous Tomato Platter, by Sharyn Dimmick.

Here’s a another talk about the last-of-the-season tomatoes. This time I’m focusing on really fresh-tasting cooked sauces, perfect for changing weather. I hope you enjoy.

Still Life with Tomatoes and Wine, by Mati Klarwein.

Hi, all my Italian cooking friends. Here is my first podcast. I’m going to be posting talks that explore seasonal themes in improvisational cooking. The subject of this one is the last of the summer’s tomatoes, and what to do with them. I’ll be putting up these talks once or twice a month, to start with. If you like them, I’ll do more. Leave feedback if you like. I hope you’ll enjoy them.

Still Life with Tomatoes, by Paul Gauguin.

Recipe: Braised Chicken with Late Summer Tomatoes, Crème Fraîche, and Black Olives

There are many not so good things about having an aging mom who doesn’t get around much anymore. Among the not so good is that I can’t really go anywhere with her except, it seems, the hairdresser or the emergency room. But there are strangely a few good things, like always knowing that when I come over she’ll be sitting in her chair and will usually smile at me (or occasionally, instead, ignore me and smile at Giada De Laurentiis, which I find highly annoying). Another good thing, I’ve discovered, is cooking dinner at her place. If I want dinner when I visit, it’s either delivery or do it myself. She can’t really stand long enough to pull off any extensive stove action, so it’s up to me. But there are some issues: The kitchen is partly taken over by pill bottles, medical wipes, throat swabs, sharp smelling gargles, and boxes of Ensure. And for some reason she doesn’t seem to have many decent pots or pans left. I have no idea what happened to them. It seems they’ve been partly replaced by QVC Lock & Lock plastic tubs in various sizes. I’m not sure what she needs those for. And now she’s got something that looks like an inordinately deep wok with a handle. I can’t imagine what that was designed to do (it’s no good for stir-frying), but I have used it to boil ziti. She never had anything like it when I was growing up. Must have been another QVC late-night purchase.

I make a lot of pasta at her place. It’s usually quick, with minimal cleanup, which I strive for, since she seems to get upset if too many dishes are taken from the shelves and moved onto the countertops. Lately I’m a little sick of pasta, so I’ve started making braised chicken dishes. I’ll use chicken thighs and legs and bring over stuff I want to use up from my own refrigerator—an end chunk of pancetta, a handful of cremini mushrooms, a few sprigs of thyme, a couple of bruised early fall tomatoes, the half-dead remains of a bottle of Côtes du Rhône. I usually wind up with variations on chicken alla cacciatora, coq au vin, or a fricassee, all extremely improvisational in spirit.

The braising fills my mother’s apartment with the old aromas of home, when she cooked and cooked well. The simmering wine, tomatoes, and herbs mask the medicinal smells of the place and seem to make everyone feel a bit less anxious about the future, sometimes. And the activity gives me something to do besides looking at her while she doesn’t say much. Cooking always makes me more grounded. That’s a huge reward in some circumstances.

Braised Chicken with Late Summer Tomatoes, Crème Fraîche, and Black Olives

(Serves 4)

Extra-virgin olive oil
10 chicken thighs, the bones and skin on
Black pepper
A big pinch of sugar
Piment d’espelette pepper to taste
1 ¼-inch round of pancetta, well chopped
1 large shallot, chopped
1 bay leaf, fresh if available
3 large sprigs rosemary, the leaves chopped
About ¼ teaspoon ground mace
A splash of cognac or brandy
½ cup chicken broth
3 round summer tomatoes, skinned, chopped, seeded, and drained for about 20 minutes
1 heaping tablespoon crème fraîche
A handful of good black olives, not too salty (Niçoise or Gaetas work well here)

Choose a large, heavy-bottom skillet (not so easy at my mother’s place), and get it hot over medium flame. Season the chicken with salt, black pepper, the sugar (which will help it brown), and the piment. Add a tablespoon or so of olive oil, and slide in the chicken thighs, skin side down. Brown them well, and then give them a flip. Brown the other sides, and remove the chicken from the skillet. Pour off all but about a tablespoon or so of oil. Add the pancetta, and cook until crisp. Add the shallot, the bay leaf, half of the rosemary, and the mace, and sauté until the shallot has softened and the herbs have released some flavor. Put the chicken thighs back in the pan, along with any juices they have given off. Add the cognac, and let it bubble away. Add the chicken broth and the tomatoes, and bring to a boil. Now lower the heat, cover the skillet, and simmer until the chicken is just tender, about 15 to 20 minutes, turning the pieces once or twice. Add the crème fraîche and the rest of the rosemary, and give it a good stir.

Place the chicken on a serving platter. Turn the heat to high, and reduce the sauce for a few minutes. Add the olives. Taste for seasoning, and pour over the chicken.

This, a salad, and some good bread usually do it over at Mom’s, but rice is a nice touch, if you’ve got a pot to make it in.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 225 other followers

%d bloggers like this: