Here she is, the liberated mermaid, a sardine girl who can now be more than just a disturbing tease.
Recipe: Asparagus with Anchovy Almond Breadcrumbs
In my ongoing quest to work a little anchovy into just about every dish I put on the table, I’ve recently revisited the marriage of asparagus and anchovies. I’d been focusing on using asparagus in gentle spring pastas or with herby vinaigrettes, forgetting how well it stands up to bolder flavors. I don’t know why I let this beautiful match drift away, but it has now found its way back to my kitchen, and my life is much improved.
Actually, to my Southern Italian palate, almost all green vegetables go well with a hit of anchovy, except possibly spinach. I just can’t make that taste association. When spinach was first introduced to Sicily by the Arabs, around 800 A.D., the natives soon sent it packing, and it moved north, where it found its true Italian home. And, with Catherine de’ Medici’s love of it, the vegetable eventually became associated with the dishes of Florence, her birthplace. Southern Italians don’t do much with spinach, preferring greens with a touch of bitter. It’s almost impossible to find in the markets down there, maybe because it goes better with cream and fontina than with anchovies.
At any rate, anchovies are certainly excellent with asparagus, and I’ve given this recipe a full-on Southern treatment. For my breadcrumbs I used ground up taralli, which worked great. (Try to find an imported brand, such as Puglia Sapori. They have the best flavor.) I didn’t even have to toast them. I just stuck them in my food processor along with a handful of almonds, mixed that with the anchovies and a few other strong flavors, and came up with an instant topping for my fresh-from-New Jersey asparagus. Try this with grilled rosemary-flavored lamb chops.
(Serves 3 to 4 as a side dish or first course)
1 large bunch medium-thick spring asparagus, ends trimmed, and stalks peeled if they seem tough
8 plain taralli, roughly ground in a food processor (you’ll want about ¾ cup ground)
½ cup blanched almonds, lightly toasted and then roughly ground in a food processor
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
7 oil-packed anchovies, minced
The grated zest and juice from 1 medium lemon
8 large thyme sprigs, leaves lightly chopped
2 small cloves of fresh spring garlic, minced
Piment d’Espelette or another medium hot, dried, ground chili
Blanch the asparagus spears in a pot of boiling water for 3 to 4 minutes, depending on their thickness. You’ll want them left a bit crunchy. Scoop them from the water into a bowl of ice water to cool and bring up their green color. Drain well.
When you’re ready to serve the asparagus, preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
In a medium skillet, heat about 3 tablespoons of olive oil with the butter, over low heat. Add the anchovies, and let them melt into the oils. Turn off the heat, and add the ground taralli, almonds, and the rest of the ingredients, seasoning with a pinch of salt and the hot chili to taste. Mix everything well. The crumbs should be moist. If they seem dry, add more olive oil.
Place the asparagus spears in a baking dish that fits them snugly with some overlap. Drizzle them with a little olive oil and a pinch of salt, turning them around in it to coat them lightly. Evenly sprinkle on the taralli mixture. Now bake until the crumbs are just crisp, about 12 minutes or so. Serve hot or warm.
Recipe: Tagliatelle with Chanterelles, Favas, and Basil
An annoying defect in my body chemistry makes me allergic to porcini mushrooms. It’s not a standard allergy (swollen tongue, closed throat, choking, hives, the symptoms people with, for instance, true peanut allergies suffer from). It’s more of a food intolerance (vomiting, fever, cramping, sometimes lasting for three days). This inability to cook with, eat, or even take in the aroma of the grand porcini mushroom, one of the stars of the Italian table, is ironic and infuriating for an Italian cook, and it’s one of the reasons I became an atheist.
Luckily this stupid problem doesn’t carry over to other wild mushrooms, so every spring I anticipate the arrival of the chanterelle with excitement. I love this mushroom. And it’s not just for the French. In Italy they’re called finferli or gallinacci, and they’re cooked with pasta or risotto or just sautéed with olive oil and herbs and eaten on bruschetta. In the Northeast and in many other places in the U.S. they pop up in the spring under various trees, not discriminating between oaks, pines, firs, or spruces, so if you’ve got the knowhow (and you really need to know how), you can go and collect them in the woods. I play it safe and get mine from a forager in Ulster County who brings them to the Union Square market.
I often cook them with pasta. It’s such a perfect combination. The gentle floral aroma of chanterelles lets the taste of the pasta come through. I looked for other subtle ingredients to include in the dish so the taste of the mushrooms wouldn’t in anyway be compromised, and I chose fava beans, because they’re in season and they marry beautifully with this mushroom. For more on the slightly irritating ritual of prepping fava beans, see my previous post.
Tagliatelle with Chanterelles, Favas, and Basil
(Serves 2 as a main course)
¾ pound fresh fava beans, in their pods
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 small spring onion, cut into small dice
1 spring garlic stalk, thinly sliced, using some of the green top
¾ pound chanterelle mushrooms, halved, or, if very large, quartered
A large pinch of ground coriander
Freshly ground black pepper
A splash of cognac or brandy
¾ pound homemade or fresh store-bought tagliatelle
½ cup homemade or high-quality purchased chicken broth, or possibly a bit more
The grated zest from 1 small lemon
A heaping tablespoon of crème fraîche
A handful of basil leaves, cut into chiffonade
A small chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Remove the fava beans from their pods. Set up a small pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Add the beans, and blanch them for 2 minutes. Scoop them out with a strainer spoon into a bowl of ice water. Drain them. Now remove the outer skin from each bean. Put the lovely green favas in a small bowl.
Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt.
In a large skillet, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, and let it soften for about 2 minutes. Now add the chanterelles, the garlic, the coriander, and a little salt and black pepper. Sauté a few minutes to soften the mushrooms. Now add the cognac or brandy, and let it burn off.
Drop the tagliatelle into the boiling water.
Add the chicken broth to the skillet, and let everything in it simmer until the mushrooms are tender, about 3 minutes longer. Turn the heat off under the skillet, and add the lemon zest, crème fraîche, and the favas, seasoning with a little more salt and black pepper. The heat from the sauce will further cook the favas, leaving them tender but firm.
When ready, drain the tagliatelle, and place it in a warmed serving bowl. Drizzle it with some fresh olive oil, and give it a toss. Now add the chanterelle sauce, about a heaping tablespoon of grated Parmigiano, and the basil, and toss again gently. If the sauce seems dry, add a splash of chicken broth. Bring the rest of the cheese to the table.
Recipe: Fava Bean Salad with Chicory, Pecorino Toscano, and Tarragon
It was while running the garde manger station at Le Madri restaurant many moons ago that I learned how to prep fava beans. I was young and anxious, and all the fast, sweaty self-assuredness going on around me made me terrified. So when the chef dumped a gigantic pile of long, green, overblown-looking bean pods at my station and explained what I was supposed to do with them, I thought it was either a sick joke or I was being punished for some kitchen crime I had unwittingly committed.
“Take all the beans out of the pods, then blanch them, and then remove the skin from each bean. Using your thumbnail helps.” Are you kidding me? I have to pull these thin skins off all these measly beans? There were more than a hundred pods, which meant, oh, 700 or 800 beans. I was especially disturbed because every time Chef gave me a task he expected it done in about five minutes. But I forged ahead in a controlled panic. About an hour and a half later I had a small bowl, probably about three cups, of smooth, skinless, brilliantly green firm little beans, and what I assumed was early onset arthritis in my thumbs and index fingers. I was exhausted. That didn’t bother me so much. My main concern was that it had taken so long. But in that hour and a half chef hadn’t yelled at me. Fabio, the pain-in-the-ass grill guy, hadn’t made fun of me for being saddled with such a fiddly task (like he did when I had to run a gigantic pile of baby artichokes through the prosciutto slicer, a job more terrifying than tedious). A lot of the kitchen crew had just walked past and smiled. I guess everyone felt sorry for me.
Fava bean season at an expensive Italian restaurant is a big deal, and obviously labor intensive. And I wasn’t asked to do this only once. It became a three-times-a-week task for months, and I never got any faster at it (lacking any fingernails to speak of, I devised a clumsy method using a paring knife; to Chef’s credit he gave me a helper after the second go-round). And you can be sure this spring restaurant ritual still goes on. Fledgling cooks all over town are no doubt rethinking their career choice at this moment.
But if you want to experience fava beans, and I do, because I absolutely love them, there’s no way around it, you’ve gotta get those skins off, or the beans will be bitter. Luckily for me, I no longer cook in a restaurant (lucky for the restaurants, too). I can now buy a small bag of favas and leisurely go about my prepping while watching animal shows or listening to old tango records. Now it’s enjoyable.
In Tuscany and other parts of Italy favas are traditionally combined with pecorino. That truly is an excellent marriage of flavors. I’ve tried using other cheeses, such as Asiago or Parmigiano, but I always go back to a gently aged Tuscan pecorino. It really is the best match (try to avoid pecorino Romano; it’s too sharp). In Tuscany that’s the entire dish, pecorino and favas. Beautiful, but I sometimes like to take it a step further and add other spring vegetables, lettuces, or herbs, creating a salad proper and dressing it lightly with good olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. At Le Madre they often wound up in a warm morel salad with wild arugula and pecorino.
This spring I’m adding young chicory, chives, and pine nuts. I’ve come to like fresh mint with fava salads, but this time I took a chance with tarragon and I was pleased with the way it blended with the chives.
Please don’t let my restaurant experience dissuade you from buying favas and performing what can actually be a lovely Zen task, especially if you’re only preparing something for two, not two hundred. You’ll be rewarded with a special spring treat.
Fava Bean Salad with Chicory, Pecorino Toscano, and Tarragon
1 pound fava beans in their pods
A small bunch of frisée lettuce or chicory, torn into small pieces (about 1½ cups)
About 6 chives, with purple blossoms if you can find them, chopped into half-inch lengths
½ cup pine nuts, toasted
6 large sprigs tarragon, leaves lightly chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
About a teaspoon of fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, the best you’ve got
¼ pound aged pecorino Toscano cheese
Remove the fava beans from their pods. Set up a medium pot of water ,and bring it to a boil. Add the favas, and blanch them for about 2 minutes. Lift them from the water with a large strainer spoon into a bowl of ice water. Drain them when cool. Now peel off the outer skin on each bean to reveal their smooth, bright green surface (I’m not telling you exactly how to accomplish this. It’s best to just do a few and find your way. And it’s not particularly hard).
Place the frisée or chicory in a small salad bowl. Add the favas, the chives, the pine nuts, and the tarragon. Mix the lemon juice with the olive oil, and season with salt and black pepper. Pour this over the salad, and toss. Now shave about 10 thin slices of the pecorino over the salad, and toss again very gently, trying not to break up the cheese too much.
Evolution, Ted Sabarese
Haven’t you pretty much had it with photos of people who look like their dogs? Dopey, right? But take a look at this. This lady looks like her fish. Isn’t that special? There’s really no cuteness here, I guess because the fish is dead. I wonder what people would think of those dog photos if the dogs were dead, or if the people who were supposed to look like their dogs were dead? Now that would be a horse of a different color. We’ve come to expect fish to be dead because we eat them. And actually now that I think about it, if this woman’s fish were alive it would be depressing, because then I might think the fish was her pet, or her lover. Pet fish are no fun. I’ve never had a fish as a lover. I wouldn’t know how to approach one. I think she’s going to eat this fish raw. I sure hope she saves the eyeballs just in case she ever needs a transplant.
Still Life with Cheese and Olives, Floris Van Dijck, 1615-1620.
The Color of Food, Part One
Recipe: Orecchiette with Broccoli, Bay Scallops, and My Ras el Hanout
I’ve been visualizing the spring greenery that will soon make an appearance at my farmers’ market. I love all the shades of green that nature dreams up, the silvery green of olive leaves, the emerald green of damp moss, the gentle gray green of a stinky, moldy cheese. Green is said to be soothing. That isn’t true for me. I find it invigorating. Green kicks my brain into gear. Looking at green things, like a handful of fresh chervil or a bunch of spring asparagus, focuses me. It seems to make it easier for me to create good food. I usually don’t get stuck in a cooking stupor when I’m confronted with a variety of green, with olives, parsley, capers, green olive oil. I know what to do with green. I’ll make a salsa verde.
I’ve always had strong attachments to colors, associating certain ones with numbers, and the number-color pairings that came to me as a kid still hold: Red is 5, 3 is yellow, 7 is purple, 9 is green. The numbers come up in my head in their numerical form, not written out. I didn’t have numbers for some colors, such as blue. I’m not sure why. Maybe because there isn’t much blue food out there.
I especially like being close to green, my number 9, not necessarily wearing it, since it blends too well with my olive complexion, making me look sickly, but I love sunlight on green glass, and I collect green pottery, and when it comes to food, green is a catalyst for me. Which somehow brings to mind my grandmother’s sautéed broccoli, so soaked with flavor, with garlic, olive oil, white wine, flecks of anchovy, a sprinkling of hot pepper. So delicious. And, oh, the color, so gray.
To preserve the Southern Italian flavor of her homeland, she perpetuated the long, slow cooking style of her ancestors, infusing every fiber of that broccoli—stalks, leaves, and all—with richness. What a glorious sloppy mess it was. As a kid I loved the taste of that broccoli, but now I find it depressing even to think about. What I do to broccoli, I’m sure, would have my grandmother shaking her head in disgust. I blanch it and then shock it in ice water to preserve its brilliant green color. This seems kind of ludicrous even to me, but I can’t stop myself. I want that color. I don’t go so far as to serve crunchy vegetables with no flavor. That would be an Italian culinary sin, but neither do I cook them for hours, as she seemed to do. She’d put on the broccoli, cover the pot, and then go watch As the World Turns and Search for Tomorrow and The Edge of Night.
Harnessing the color of food can be a losing battle, but sometimes it should be. Electric-green roman cauliflower turns pale green when cooked, even with my compulsive blanching. That’s the way it is. It’s a pretty color, certainly not as amazing as when uncooked but not bad. Green beans go gray if you don’t blanch them first. Just ask my grandmother, who would simmer them in tomato sauce for what seemed like days. They were fabulous, but boy were they ugly. My goal as a cook is to capture color while creating flavor. Heat both robs and begets. I’m still trying to work out that delicate little balance.
Orecchiette with Broccoli, Bay Scallops, and My Ras el Hanout
(Serves 4 or 5 as a main-course pasta)
1 pound broccoli, cut into small flowerets, stems trimmed and peeled and cut into small cubes
2 tablespoons butter
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 Vidalia onion, cut into small dice
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 anchovy fillets, chopped
About 6 large thyme sprigs, leaves chopped
1 teaspoon my ras el hanout (see note and recipe below)
Dried hot chili flakes, such as Aleppo
1 pound orecchiette
1 pound bay scallops
A splash of dry white wine
½ cup chicken broth
A squeeze of lemon juice
½ cup lightly toasted pine nuts
Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Drop in the broccoli, and blanch it for about a minute. Scoop it from the water with a large strainer spoon, into a colander, and run cold water over it. Now let it drain on paper towels.
Add a generous amount of salt to the water, and bring it back to a boil
In a large skillet, heat the butter and about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, and let it soften for about a minute. Add the broccoli, garlic, anchovies, thyme, and ras el hanout, and sauté for about two minutes longer.
Drop the orecchiette into the pot.
Add the scallops to the skillet, season everything with salt and hot chili to taste, and sauté until the scallops are just tender, about a minute. Add the wine, and let it bubble a few seconds. Add the chicken broth, and turn off the heat.
When the orecchiette is al dente, drain it, and add it to the skillet, along with a little lemon juice and the pine nuts. Toss everything well over low heat for about 30 seconds. Transfer to a warmed pasta bowl. Serve hot or warm.
Note: Ras el hanout, a Moroccan spice mix used for couscous and tagines, is a wonderful thing to include in Southern Italian cooking. I make my own, leaving out the usual cumin and cardamom and concentrating more on spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, fennel, and anise, flavors more at home in a Sicilian kitchen. I use it in small doses, not wanting to overwhelm the flavors of the main ingredients, and doing so is also more Sicilian than North African in style. My recipe for ras el hanout makes more than you’ll need for this dish, but consider that a plus. Play with it. I can tell you from experience, it’s great as a dry rub on grilled lamb, or worked into a chicken stew, one containing fennel and olives for instance, or as a flavoring for braised eggplant.
My Ras el Hanout
1 tablespoon anise seeds, lightly toasted
1 tablespoon fennel seeds, lightly toasted
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
¼ stick cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground ginger
Put all the whole spices in a spice grinder, and grind to a powder. Add the ground nutmeg and ginger, and mix well. This will stay fresh in a covered spice jar for about a month.