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A caper shrub growing out of a wall in Pantelleria.

I’m still finding tomatoes at the Union Square Greenmarket. The other day I took home a buck’s worth in a soggy paper bag. They were all cracked and oozing, their skins already slipping off. What a mess. But they did smell like tomatoes, to their credit, tomatoes edging toward a sweet, rotting death. I pulled their skins off easily, didn’t even have to boil them. They weren’t really edible raw, so I figured I’d make some kind of a cooked sauce. If you’ve got summer tomatoes put up, or are inclined to buy a can of good Italian plums, you can use those instead of my saved-from-the-crypt variety.

After squeezing the seeds from my fragrant bowl of mush, I began to think about transforming them into a gentle red agrodolce. A little sweet and a little acid. Red wine and a drizzle of honey did the deed. I came up with a real old-fashioned cooked sauce, one too concentrated and intense for a pasta sauce. I made that other type of Italian sauce, a condimento, something reduced and used to accompany fish or vegetables, possibly grilled lamb, or to spread onto crostini.

Capers were the flavor I chose to highlight, so I used nice ones. I like the salt-packed Sicilian ones they produce on the dry, windy island of Pantelleria. Gustiamo carries an excellent brand.  They need a bit of soaking to remove their salt and reveal their floral beauty.

I considered different ways of cooking the cod, baking or broiling, but ultimately decided on a pan sauté, giving the fish a thin, spice-infused coating of flour to crisp it up and hold it together (cod can flake a bit). Cod is easiest to flip and handle when you have thick fillets, so try and find those. You could do the dish with monkfish. That would be really lovely. Either way.

To round out this low-carb dinner, trying serving it with escarole sautéed with garlic and a bit of hot chili. That worked for me.

Pan-Seared Cod with Red Wine Caper Sauce

(Serves 4)

For the sauce:

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large shallot, cut into fine dice
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
1 fresh bay leaf
5 thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
2 small rosemary sprigs, leaves chopped
½ cup dry, non-oaky red wine
About 4 medium tomatoes, skinned, drained, and chopped, or a 15-ounce can of whole tomatoes, well chopped and lightly drained
½ cup chicken broth or water
½ teaspoon honey
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
A palmful of salt-packed capers, soaked and rinsed
About 6 large sprigs of flat-leaf parsley, the leaves lightly chopped

For the cod:

4 thick chunks codfish fillet, skinned (about ½ pound, or a little less, each)
About ½ cup all-purpose flour
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A big pinch of sugar
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground coriander seed
Extra-virgin olive oil
Lemon wedges

To make the sauce: Set a large skillet over medium heat. Add a good drizzle of olive oil. Add the shallot, and let it soften for a minute or so. Add the garlic, allspice, bay leaf, thyme,  and rosemary, and sauté to release their flavors. Add the red wine, and let it bubble for a minute. Add the tomatoes and chicken broth, and let cook, uncovered, at a good bubble for about 5 minutes. Add the honey, and season with salt and pepper. Cook another 5 minutes. The sauce should have thickened a bit. Turn off the heat, and stir in the butter and the capers.

On a big plate, mix together the flour, salt, black pepper, sugar, allspice, and coriander. Coat the cod pieces on all sides in the flour mix.

Put a heavy-bottomed skilled on the stove (cast iron is good), and turn the heat to medium-high. Add a generous amount of olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the cod, browning it well on both sides, turning it gently. Cook until just firm but still tender, about 5 minutes, depending on the thickness of your fish.

Reheat the sauce, and add the parsley.

Plate the fish, and top it with a big spoonful of the sauce. Garnish with a lemon wedge. Serve with escarole or another well-seasoned green vegetable.

giusseppe_recco_fish

Still Life With Fish, Giuseppe Recco, 1634-1695.

People always ask cooks, what’s your favorite pasta dish, or dessert, or main course, or, even more broadly, what’s your favorite dish of any kind. It seems they can’t help themselves. Journalists do it too (not that they’re not people, but you know what I meanyou’d think they’d be sharper). I’m astonished that this goes on. The question is unanswerable. Cooks cook because they love food. Any cook who gives an answer to the question is lying. But, strangely, when someone asks me what’s the best dish if they want to lose weight, I have an answer. Fish soup, I always say. I can’t help myself. I believe it’s true, because fish soup, any great fish soup, is healthy and delicious, and you can’t sustain weight loss if your food isn’t delicious. I remember having this exact conversation with Nigella Lawson’s sister, when she was living in New York. She told me that the then publicly unknown Nigella wanted to lose weight. Could I suggest a good dish for her to eat? Yes, fish soup would be the thing, I said. I wonder if the advice ever reached her.

My mother often made zuppa di pesce for Christmas Eve, full of shellfish and calamari and sometimes lobster. I loved it so much I’d dream about it before and after Christmas. Now I make simpler versions for midweek meals, maybe just with mussels, adding chickpeas or cannellini beans. I’ve never met a fish soup I didn’t like, as long as it was made with really fresh seafood.

Here’s another one. We’ve all been given the go-ahead to add a little saturated fat into our diets, which is great news, since a little goes a long way in creating deliciousness. This soup contains mussels and calamari, tomatoes, a bit of butter, and a final dollop of crème fraîche. It’s amazing how that lump of crème immediately pulls the taste in a new direction. Before the addition, it’s a good Southern Italian soup; after, well, I’m not sure what it is, but it’s rich and possibly a touch French.

Again, in keeping with my new slant, very low carbs here. Forget about the bread but make sure you have a good green salad waiting. I add it to the soup bowl when I’ve finished eating the soup, so the greens pick up whatever tomato wine broth is left. That’s a good way to get your mind off bread. I swear it works.

Zuppa di Pesce with Crème Fraîche, Leeks, and Thyme

(Serves 4)

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 leeks, chopped, the white part only
1 carrot, peeled and cut into small dice
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
About ¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
8 large thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
A small glass of dry vermouth
1 cup light chicken broth
1 28-ounce can plum tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 pound mussels, well washed
1 pound of small to medium-size calamari, cut into thin rings, the tentacles left whole
Salt
Black pepper
A heaping tablespoon of crème fraîche
A handful of flat leaf parsley, the leaves lightly chopped

Get out a big, wide casserole type pot, and heat it over medium flame. Add a big drizzle of olive oil and the butter. Add the leeks and carrot, and sauté until fragrant. Add the garlic, nutmeg, and thyme, and continue sautéing until the vegetables are soft, about 5 minutes.

Add the vermouth, and let it bubble for a few minutes. Add the chicken broth and the tomatoes, and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down a bit, and let simmer at a low bubble, uncovered, for about 8 minutes.

When you’re ready to serve the dish, add the mussels, giving them a good stir, and cook them until they’ve opened. Add the calamari, and cook just until opaque, about another 2 minutes. Turn off the heat. Season with salt and black pepper, and add the crème fraîche. Stir, tasting for seasoning. Add the parsley, and take it to the table.

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Still Life with Cheese and Salami, Cesare Tallone, 1853-1919.

Chopping with a good chef’s knife is one of the simple but solid pleasures of my adult life. It never lets me down. I don’t cut myself anymore, not like when I was first learning. I can drink wine, play tango music, talk trash, and form perfect little cubes, all at the same time. Now, there’s an accomplishment worth growing up for.

Here’s a dish where you get to do lots of chopping, which should be soothing. And it’s another of my low-carb recipes. I hope everyone is enjoying these as much as I am. They’re turning out to be a very good way to eat. I keep all the Italian flavors I love but ditch the unhealthy starch. Type 2 diabetes runs in my family, and I want nothing to do with it.

This is a roasted version of a chopped salad. I thought it would be nice for the cool evening nip that’s now in the air, or at least is around New Yorklandia.

Please let me know if there are any low-carb Italian-inspired dishes you’d like me to create recipes for. I’d be happy to do so.

Italian Chopped Salad for Early Fall

 (Serves 2)

About 8 cherry tomatoes, cut in half
1 large fennel bulb, trimmed and cut into cubes
2 celery stalks, cut into large dice, plus the leaves from about 3 stalks, left whole
2 leeks, well cleaned, the white and the very lightest green part cut into large dice
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 garlic clove, crushed
A few gratings of nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
A handful of frisée lettuce or chicory, torn into small pieces
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, left whole
A few large sprigs of marjoram, the leaves left whole
A handful of black olives (Niçoise are nice for this)
A small chunk of soft, young caciocavallo cheese, cut into small cubes
A small chunk of soppressata, not too dry, skinned and cut into small cubes

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Put the tomatoes, celery, fennel, and leek on a sheet pan. Drizzle with olive oil, and season with salt and black pepper. Toss everything well with your fingers so it’s all well coated. Roast for about 10-12 minutes, just until the vegetables start to brown at the edges but still hold their shapes. Take the pan from the oven, and let it sit for a few minutes to cool.

In a small bowl, mix the lemon juice, garlic, and about 1½ tablespoons of olive oil with a little salt, black pepper, and nutmeg.

Put the frisée in a shallow salad bowl. Add all the roasted vegetables, the parsley, marjoram, celery leaves, olives, caciocavallo, and soppressata. Pour the vinaigrette over the salad. Toss. Serve right away.

still-life-with-green-soup.jpg!BlogStill Life with Soup, Fernando Botero.

I’m fascinated by dried chickpeas. They seem so impenetrable. Rolling them around in the palm of my hand, I find it hard to believe they can become real food. Ceci neri, the black ones, seem especially unlikely. They’re pitch black, hard as steel, and look like lumpy stones. They’re grown in Puglia, a region close to my heart. I can just imagine my ancestors cooking up a pot of these little rocks in their dirt-floored house in their poverty-stricken town, maybe serving them with a thread of olive oil and a side of tooth-cracking taralli. As romantic as that sounds, boy am I glad they got out of there.

All dried cecis take time to reconstitute, but the black ones require real patience. I soaked them overnight and then cooked them low and slow, partially covered, in lots of water laced with a drizzle of olive oil and a bay leaf. After about three hours they were finally tender but still holding their shape, which I appreciated; it’s so frustrating when beans crumble or turn mushy. The cooking water was black, and the chickpeas were still black. I guess they have a lot of black in them. And they gave off an aroma like roasted chestnuts. That was nice. If you see a bag of ceci neri, pick them up. They’ll liven up your kitchen. Just remember that they take a while. I used about two cooked cups for this soup, but I made the entire bag, not a bad idea considering how long they take to cook. I made a chickpea and shrimp salad the next night

Once I had them cooked, I was thinking I’d put together a traditional minestrone using them with a variety of late summer vegetables. But then I decided I wanted to rein it in. No tomatoes, no string beans, just yellow and butternut squash. I guess I was feeling the summer-to-fall transition in the air.

The soup looked beautiful in a spooky sort of way, with all those little black balls floating around amid the yellow and orange squash. And its taste was unexpectedly rich, partly from the ceci neri and partly because I included pancetta. You really can’t go wrong with pork fat.

I decided on using chickpeas for this soup because they have lots of fiber and a low glycemic index, so they fit in nicely with my attempt to eat less quickly digested carbohydrates.

I hope you enjoy this recipe.

orecchiette-con-ceci-neri-e-salsiccia-1

Minestra with Summer and Fall Squash and Ceci Neri

 For the Pesto:

½ cup very fresh walnut halves
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
1 cup basil leaves, washed and dried
½ cup parsley leaves, washed and dried
½ cup grated Piave or grana Padano cheese
About ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt

For the soup:

Extra-virgin olive oil
A thick chunk of pancetta, cut into small dice (about ½ cup or so)
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
1 garlic clove, sliced
About 2 cups cooked ceci neri, drained (see cooking instructions above)
A few large thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
1 fresh bay leaf
A few big grindings of nutmeg
Salt
Black pepper
1½ cups butternut squash, cubed small
1 quart light chicken broth
1½ cups small cubed yellow summer squash

To make the pesto: Put the walnuts and the garlic in a food processor, and pulse until well chopped. Add the basil and the parsley, and pulse until everything looks bright green. Now add the grated cheese, the olive oil, and a little salt. Give it a few more pulses, adding a little more oil if needed to loosen it. Transfer to a small bowl, and cover the top with plastic wrap so it doesn’t darken.

To make the soup: Drizzle a little olive oil into a large soup pot. Add the pancetta, and cook until crisp. Add the onion and the carrot, and let them soften. Add the garlic and the black chick peas. Season with the thyme, bay leaf, nutmeg, salt, and pepper, and sauté for about 3 minutes.

Add the butternut squash, and sauté a minute or so. Add the chicken broth, and bring it to a boil. Turn the heat down a touch, add the yellow squash, and cook at a lively bubble, uncovered, until all the vegetables are tender, adding warm water if needed to cover everything. Turn off the heat, and let the soup sit about an hour (this will help blend all the flavors and further soften the cecis).

When you’re ready to serve, reheat the soup. Check for seasoning. Ladle out bowlfuls, and top each one with a dollop of pesto.

Women with Fish

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” I create beauty. The world asks to be filled with beauty. A person who does not use her creative talents is wasting away in a world filled with stink. This is my most recent creation. It is a thing of beauty. I cannot rest when my mind is plugged with creative energy that remains frozen. I create with shrimp. Shrimp can be frozen. Shrimp are the most beautiful thing on earth. What would the world be without shrimp? What would I be if I could not reach out and touch shrimp? I would be an empty vessel. Shrimp are my life. Soon this creation will turn to stink. The party has been cancelled. Creation is ephemeral. Tomorrow I will create fresh beauty with more shrimp. My life could not be more beautiful.”

-Miss Mary Inglese, shrimp artist

orient_47Still Life with Eggplant, Matisse.

The eggplant represents everything that is my ancestral past. When I hold one in my hands it pushes me to create. Is this some ancient responsibility beckoning from my Southern Italian roots? Melodramatic, you say. Yes. True to my heart. Yes. I see eggplant as a rich base note above which much of the cooking of the Mezzogiorno rises. Right now the Greenmarket is full of eggplants, huge purple black ones, types with violet and tan stripes, some smooth and white like lacquer, tiny bright purple ones, and the big round Sicilian variety that sits kind of squat.

I recently bought some blue-black ones that were shaped like Japanese eggplants, long and slightly curled, but thicker, with a more substantial skin. I was told they were a Chinese variety. Their insides cooked quickly and released sweetness.

As I guess you know, I’ve been experimenting with low-carb Italian cooking in the past few months. Many of you have responded positively. I think a huge culinary hurdle in fashioning low-carb meals is coming up with side dishes, for fish or another proteins, that aren’t automatically potatoes, rice, or refined grains. Our minds go there. They’ve been programmed to. That doesn’t have to be.

I had these long, curved eggplants, and I purchased fennel bulbs and beautiful September tomatoes. The combination suggested to me a type of ciambotta, but the fennel got me thinking of the Provençal dish La Bohémienne, fennel and zucchini cooked “gypsy style.” No one quite knows why it’s called that. Seems it’s a Marseillais version of ratatouille. In any case, I used my eggplant and fennel, added the tomato and other things that felt right, and came up with a soulful side dish for just about any simply prepared meat. Or have it on its own, maybe followed by a green salad and a chunk of young caciocavallo cheese.

Eggplant Braised with Fennel and Fresh Tomatoes

 (Serves 4)

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 summer onion, chopped
2 medium fennel bulbs, cored and diced
4 or 5 medium-size Asian eggplants, skinned and cut into cubes
2 summer garlic cloves, sliced
½ tablespoon ground fennel seed
1 medium sprig rosemary, the leaves chopped
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 large summer tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
A splash of sweet vermouth
A few drops of Spanish sherry vinegar
A few large sprigs of tarragon, the leaves lightly chopped

Set up a large skillet over medium heat. Add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and let it get hot. Add the onion and the fennel, and get them softening for a few minutes. Now add the eggplant, and sauté until it’s about halfway cooked. Add the garlic, fennel seed, and rosemary. Season with salt and black pepper, and cook to release their fragrances, about a minute. Add the tomatoes, and cook, uncovered, until everything is just tender and the tomatoes have released some liquid. Add the sweet vermouth, and let it boil away. Add a splash of water, and cook another few minutes. There should be a bit of liquid left in the skillet. When everything is tender, turn off the heat and add a few drops of the vinegar and the tarragon. Taste for seasoning. Now add a drizzle of fresh olive oil. Serve hot or at room temperature.

tuscan_green_beans__vegetables_food_and_drink__still_life__6a0bb905a4edd567a8a31c50045c2143

Green beans are not glamorous. And they’re not voluptuous like tomatoes, or sultry like eggplants. When picked young they’re cute and flexible and have a very green taste, which is fine, but to my palate it always falls a bit flat. It’s now green bean season, and they need our help.

For some reason I got it in my head that walnuts would be good with green beans, so I’ve been playing around with that concept. First I tossed them with a walnut pesto, which tasted really good but looked like a clumpy mess. So I then decided to deconstruct my pesto, adding each ingredient to the beans individually so the texture would be chunkier, not creamy. And the taste became clear, lively even.

If you would like to have a good, solid low-carb summer meal, make these string beans. Serve them with a grilled steak (I used a hanger rubbed with a bit of smoked paprika), and a simple heirloom tomato salad, dressed with your best olive oil, sea salt, and a scattering of mint leaves. Open up a bottle of Sangiovese, ditch the bread, and transport yourself into end-of-summer low-carb heaven. This meal really lifted my mood.

Green Beans with Walnuts, Basil, and Lemon Zest

(Serves 4)

 About ¾ pound green beans, prepped
½ cup very fresh walnut halves, lightly toasted and then roughly chopped
1 summer garlic clove, minced
The grated zest from 1 large lemon
About 1½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
A big pinch of ground nutmeg
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A handful of basil leaves, ripped in two

Set up a medium pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Drop in the green beans, and blanch them until they’re tender but still have a touch of crispness. Drain them well, and put them in a nice looking serving bowl.

Add all the other ingredients, and toss well. The heat from the beans will release all the oils and essences of the nuts, herbs, garlic, and lemon, making the beans quite fragrant. I hope you’ll like it.

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