Wheat Field with Crows, Vincent Van Gogh.

My friend Marie moved to Paris about a dozen years ago and then became vegan. No duck rillettes or Camembert? No Day-Glo macaroons? What do you make of this seemingly intelligent New Yorker refusing their superior food? I’m not exactly sure how she’s faring with Parisian society, but she sure has stuck to her principles.

She was back in town the other night, and I wanted to cook for her. Making good food for vegans isn’t difficult, even for a pork-fat-and-cheese-obsessed type like me, although if she hadn’t relented on her ban on olive oil for the night I would have been in big trouble.

I had a bag of emmer and a cauliflower, and I decided to take these fine ingredients in a bistro direction (I think I’m more enthralled by Paris than Marie is). I’ve had lots of whole grains—spelt, emmer, and einkorn—on my shelves lately, having collected them from farmers who grow the ancient varieties in upstate New York and sell them at the Union Square Greenmarket. I always thought that Italy’s farro was emmer, but now that I know that farro can actually be any of these three wheat varieties—emmer, spelt, or einkorn—I find cooking them all the more interesting. I’ve seen packages of farro in Italy labeled piccolo, which I now know means einkorn; medio, meaning emmer; and grande, for spelt. The stuff I can buy at  New York supermarkets is labeled simply farro, so it’s hard to tell what it is, and it is pearled, meaning some of the bran, where much the fiber and nutrients lie, has been tumbled off, presumably for faster cooking. I’m not interested in fast cooking. I prefer slow, verging on annoying, so I’m happy to find unadulterated whole grains at my Greenmarket.

And I’m getting to know the differences in taste and texture between these three varieties. I’m not sure I could yet distinguish each one in a blind test, but I’m thinking I like emmer best. It seems to have the strongest wheat flavor.

I love the decidedly un-Italian mix of mustard, tarragon, and capers. It’s good on fish and chicken, and when it’s made into a vinaigrette, it’s a vibrant dressing for the roasted vegetables that form the anchor for this salad. If you’d like to dissociate yourself from the vegan angle of this dish, serve it with a side of soppressata or another good salumi and a wedge of Gruyere.

Warm Cauliflower and Farro Salad with Mustard and Tarragon

(Serves 4 as a main course)

1½ cups farro
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large cauliflower, cut into small florets
1 large shallot, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
½ teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon dried ginger
Black pepper
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
About 10 large tarragon sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
A dozen or so basil leaves, lightly chopped
A palmful of salt-packed capers, soaked, rinsed, and drained
A small head of frisée lettuce, torn into small pieces

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Cook the farro in boiling salted water until just tender to the bite. Mine took about 25 minutes, but supermarket types can cook faster, usually in 15 minutes or so. Drain it and tip it into a large serving bowl.

While the farro is cooking, lay out the cauliflower on a sheet pan. Drizzle it with olive oil, season it with a little salt, and toss it well. Roast until it’s just starting to turn golden, about 10 minutes. Now scatter on the shallots, garlic, allspice, ginger, and a little black pepper. Roast about 5 to 8 minutes longer, or until it’s lightly browned and tender. Add the cauliflower to the farro.

In a small bowl, mix the lemon juice with the mustard. Add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and season with salt and black pepper. Pour this over the farro. Add the herbs, capers, and frisée. Toss well. Taste for seasoning, adding more lemon juice or mustard, if needed.

Serve warm.








wooded-parsnips-21570944Still Life with Parsnip, by Caralie Smith.

Recipe below: Parsnip and Apple Soup with Sage and Parsley Oil

I worked at Restaurant Florent in the mid-eighties. It was my first cooking job. The place was, as you might think, kind of wild and much of the time fun, but it required more physically and emotionally hard work than I was trained to take on. At times I experienced uncomfortable levels of anxiety and exhaustion—meaning the job turned out to be just about perfect for me. I worked under a lunch chef named Renée, who initiated me into that complex world as gently as she could, and I’m grateful to her.

Renée had a close friend who often stopped into Florent for lunch. One of that friend’s favorite foods was parsnips, and when there were parsnips in the house (we included them in our couscous royale), Renée would  try to work them into her friend’s meals. I remember making gratins, soufflés, and soups all perfumed with the lovely root vegetable. Before working at Florent I hadn’t had many encounters with parsnips. They weren’t part of my Italian-American vegetable heritage. I did grow up with a lot of unusual vegetables, such as zucca lunga, with its long tendrils used for pasta, escarole, broccoli rabe, electric-green Roman cauliflower, Italian frying peppers, dandelion, and real wild arugula. Those were all foreign things my father grew in his little backyard garden. But I never gave much thought to parsnips. If as a kid I noticed them at all, I probably thought they were some kind of pale carrot (which they’re related to). To my knowledge my parents or grandparents never bought them, and I never even smelled one. But at Florent I grew to love their odd perfume and their creamy yellow hue. They were earthy and sweet when raw, and sweeter and stronger-tasting when cooked, with a slight background flavor of parsley, which they’re also related to. (If you buy parsnips with their feathery tops still attached, you’ll notice that the leaves look much like flat-leaf parsley leaves.)

One thing about parsnips, unlike, say, carrots, is that when you cook them, the dish you get will shout parsnips. I find that enthralling. When I cooked parsnips at Florent, I learned that roasting them let off their complex sweetness, and quickly sautéing thin slices was rewarding, but what I loved best was putting hot boiled parsnips into a food processor and whirling them to a smooth, golden purée. The aroma that shot up from the hole in that industrial machine was magical. It’s one of the best of the many food memories from my hundreds of days spent in that tight, hot restaurant kitchen.

I’ve been finding big wintered-over parsnips at my Greenmarket lately. Here’s a soup I made the other night. It’s sweet and smooth and filled with the essence of parsnip.

Parsnip and Apple Soup with Sage and Parsley Oil

(Serves 6)

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 medium shallots, chopped
1 good sized carrot, peeled and chopped
1 small celery stalk, chopped, plus a handful of leaves, chopped
5 medium parsnips, peeled and chopped
1  sweet tart apple, plus ½ an apple (Cortland or Macoun have a good sweet-acid balance that works well here), peeled, seeded, and chopped
½ teaspoon quatre épices*
About 5 large thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
A splash of sweet vermouth
2 cups chicken broth
A few drops of Spanish sherry vinegar
1 heaping tablespoon crème fraîche

For the sage and parsley oil:

⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
10 sage leaves
About 10 large sprigs flat-leaf parsley leaves
A pinch of sugar

*Quatre epices is a blend of four spices used in both sweet and savory French cooking. I make mine with a more or less equal blend of black pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger. Some versions replace the nutmeg with clove or allspice. I occasionally do that if I want a more forceful blend.

In a large soup pot heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil and the butter over medium heat. Add the shallots, carrot, celery plus leaves, and parsnips, and sauté until the vegetables start to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the apple, the quatre épices, and the thyme, and season with salt. Sauté a minute or so longer to release the flavors of the seasoning. Add a splash of sweet vermouth, and let it boil away. Add the chicken broth and enough water to just cover the vegetables. Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat a touch. Simmer at a low bubble, uncovered, until everything is very tender, about 15 to 20 minutes.

While the soup is cooking, make the sage and parsley oil: Place all the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor, and purée. Let the oil sit in the bowl for about 5 minutes, so the flavors can meld. Then pour it through a fine sieve into a small bowl, pressing on the herbs to extract all their flavor. Set aside.

Purée the soup with an immersion blender until smooth. Add a few drops of sherry vinegar and the crème fraîche. Taste for seasoning. The soup should have the consistency of a very heavy cream, maybe a little thicker, but if it’s too thick, add a little water.

When you’re ready to serve the soup, reheat it if necessary. Ladle out bowlfuls, and give each one a generous swirl of the sage and parsley oil.

130131 pistachiosPistachios, by Youqing Wang.

Recipe below: Christmas Biscotti with Pistachios and Cardamom

My grandmother didn’t bake, and neither does my mother. We never had homemade desserts, except when I decided to try making something annoyingly complicated, like cannoli. And I’m not much of a baker, so my early attempts were disastrous. We were definitely a savory Italian household. Lots of cooking went on all the time, but not much sweet stuff came out of our kitchen. That is still true for me. I’m not a dessert person. I get all my empty calories from wine. But I do love biscotti, probably because they’re best dipped in wine. Over the years I’ve come up with a really easy, excellent biscotti-making technique that turns out a crisply shattering, but not tooth cracking, texture. It requires little more than putting all the ingredients in a food processor and giving it a few pulses.

I play with flavorings all the time. This year I made a batch with pistachios and cardamom to bring to a friend’s Christmas party. The combination is a knockout. Cardamom is an amazing spice. For me it’s soapy, foreign, and magical. It awakens the sweetness center in my brain without having even a touch of sweetness. When it’s freshly ground, it smells like floor cleaner from my public schooled childhood, but in a good way. And I do like grinding it myself. The aroma that wafts from my little spice grinder is transporting. I’m not sure where I’m transported to, exactly, maybe to a far cleaner household, but it certainly alters my mood for the better.

Merry Christmas to all my cook friends.

Christmas Biscotti with Pistachios and Cardamom

 1¾ cups unbleached white flour, plus a little more for the counter
1 cup sugar, plus a little more for sprinkling
1 teaspoon baking powder
A big pinch of salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground cardamom
A few grindings of black pepper
3/4 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into small dice, plus a little more for greasing the pan
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon dry white wine
1½ cups shelled unsalted pistachios

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Lightly grease a sheet pan with butter.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, cardamom, and a touch of black pepper. Give it all a few pulses to blend everything.

Add the butter, and pulse until it’s in tiny pieces.

Mix the eggs, vanilla, and white wine together in a small bowl, and pour the mix over the dough. Add the pistachios, and pulse a few more times, until you have a moist, crumbly dough. Don’t let it form a ball. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and press it into a ball.

Cut the dough in half, and roll out two long logs. Place the logs on the sheet pan, making sure they’re about 3 inches apart. Flatten the tops slightly, and sprinkle with sugar.

Bake until lightly golden, about 30 minutes. Take the pan from the oven, and let the logs cool for about 10 minutes. Now take them off the pan, and cut them into approximately ½-inch slices, on an angle. Do this with a big chef’s knife, using a quick chop (a serrated knife would cause them to crumble).

Put the biscotti back on the sheet pan, cut side up, and bake them for another 10 minutes, or until the tops are lightly browned. Let them cool on the pan.

il_570xN.738935233_7knfPasta Machine, by Rachel Wilcox.

Here’s a new podcast. It’s a talk about lasagnas, how I put them together, what styles I like, and the way I like to cook and serve them. I hope you enjoy it. Please leave comments, and share recipes too, if you like. I love to hear from you.

Lasagna with Wilted Greens, Guanciale, and Spiced Besciamella

(Serves 6 as a first course)

For the spiced besciamella:

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
1 fresh bay leaf
A big pinch each (about 1/8 teaspoon) Aleppo pepper, black pepper, allspice, cardamom, coriander seed, and nutmeg

For the rest:

 Extra-virgin olive oil
¼ pound guanciale, cut into small cubes
2 shallots, chopped
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
5 cups tender mixed greens, stemmed, leaving a bit of water clinging to them: perhaps spinach, baby kale, arugula, mustard, chard, the leafy part of broccoli rabe, or anything tender enough to collapse with a quick sauté
Black pepper
Aleppo pepper
1½ cups freshly grated grana Padano cheese
¾ pound fresh lasagna sheets, boiled, cooled, and laid out in the usual way

To make the besciamella: In a medium pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the flour, and whisk until it’s blended into the butter. Sauté for a minute or so, without letting it brown, to get rid of the raw taste. Add all the milk, and whisk well to blend. Add all the spices and a decent amount of salt. Whisk a few times, and then let it slowly heat, whisking frequently. Keep whisking while keeping it at a low bubble, until the sauce becomes thick and smooth, about another 3 minutes.  You’ll now have a not too thick sauce, one that won’t add heaviness to your lasagna and will allow it to breath a bit. Cover the surface with plastic wrap so it doesn’t form a skin.

In a large, deep skillet, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the guanciale, and let it render some of its fat. Add the shallot, and sauté until it softens. Next add the garlic, and cook just until fragrant, a few seconds. Add as much of the greens as you can, turning them in the oil until they wilt. When they’ve left enough space, add the rest of them. Cook, uncovered, until they’re just tender, about 4 minutes. Season with salt, black pepper, and a little Aleppo. Now pull them out of the skillet, leaving all excess water behind. Give the greens a good chop (this will make the lasagna easier to cut).

Preheat the oven to 425 degree.

Choose an approximately 10-by-12-inch baking dish about 2 inches deep. Drizzle in a little olive oil to lightly cover the bottom of the dish, and lay down a layer of pasta. Make a layer of greens, drizzle in a layer of besciamella, and sprinkle on some grana Padano. Repeat the process, using up the rest of the greens but holding back about ¼ cup of besciamella and a little of the grana Padano. Put down a final layer of pasta, the remaining besciamella, and the rest of the grana Padano. The pasta layers can be a little haphazardly arranged, hanging over the pan a bit. In fact, I prefer them that way.

Bake uncovered until the lasagna is hot and bubbling and the edges are browned, about 20 minutes or so. Then by the time you get it to the table, it’ll be ready to cut.



  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


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