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Alone on a warm evening in the not too distant past, I cooked myself a steak and opened a bottle of okay Sangiovese. Earlier that day I had picked up a bunch of purslane at the Greenmarket, and I decided to use it as a bed for my meager-looking skirt steak. What the hell. I wasn’t expecting much from the meal. But it turned out this was one of the best dinners of a year full of anxiety-packed, insoluble family issues. A solitary night, a chic but quickly assembled dinner, the swing of Gotan Project on my iPod. I started to feel pulled-together. It’s nice when that happens.

Skirt is a favorite cut of mine. It’s tender when cooked pink, has great flavor, and is easy to sear on a stove-top grill plate. I don’t eat a lot of steak, but I don’t have a problem with it. I’m also not overly concerned with saturated fat. Dietary thought on this subject is changing. The insulin assault on our bodies caused by sugar and carbs is possibly looking to be a bigger problem. My grandparents were brought up on olive oil and lard. That was the Southern Italian way. I’m sticking with it.

I’ve Italianized my steak dinner to the hilt, adding anchovies, capers, lemon, summer garlic, and fresh marjoram. Purslane, with its deep citrusy taste and moist texture, needs little dressing, so I left it in the nude, letting my steak juices and all the Italian flourishes trickle down, pulling the dish together.

But what exactly is purslane?

I love this strange, juicy, weed-like plant. It’s both lemony and peppery, best left raw or quickly sautéed to preserve its moisture. It’s actually a succulent, and you can find it growing on lawns and sometimes even up from cracks in sidewalks in the summer months. I treat it as an herb, throwing its stems into salads, scattering its leaves on a finished dish, or using it as an herby bed for meat or fish, as I’ve done here. It’s also full of Omega-3 fatty acids, the same healthful stuff you find in fatty fish, which makes it a good coupling with our supermarket grain-fed beef, which unfortunately has had most of its Omega-3 bred out of it.

 Skirt Steak on Purslane with a Lemon Anchovy Vinaigrette

 (Serves 2)

For the steak:

1 ¾- to 1-pound skirt steak, cut in two
½ teaspoon Aleppo pepper
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon sugar

For the vinaigrette:

1 large clove summer garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice, or more to taste
4 oil-packed anchovies, minced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
A few large sprigs of marjoram, the leaves lightly chopped
Freshly ground black pepper

Plus:

A big handful of purslane, some of the thicker stems removed
6 cherry tomatoes, halved
A palmful of salt-packed capers, soaked in several changes of cool water and then well rinsed.

Season the steaks on both sides with the Aleppo, some salt, black pepper, and the sugar.

Set up a stove-top grill plate over high heat. While the grill is heating, whisk together all the ingredients for the vinaigrette.

Divide the purslane up onto two dinner plates. Place the cherry tomatoes around it.

Grill the steaks (no need for oil here) until seared on one side, about 2 minutes or so, depending on their thickness. Give them a turn, and grill until rare or medium rare (you really don’t want to go further than this, as skirt steak can get tough if overcooked).

Pull the steaks from the grill and lay them over the purslane. Spoon the vinaigrette over the steaks, and garnish with the capers.

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Salade Nicoise

IMG_6762Photo by Lisa Silvestri

My new column for the June issue of Curves magazine. It’s an elegant classic. Full of health, low in calories. I hope you like it.

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tumblr_mlc3l1mEMn1qbhp9xo1_1280Still Life with Cat Stealing Squid from a Plate, Giuseppe Recco, seventeenth century.

Italian seafood salads are among my favorite dishes. I always hoped one would show up on my family’s patio table during a summer barbecue, and often it did, the first thing there. As a kid I was especially crazy about the versions that included scungilli, with its odd musky undertones and chewy texture. I realize many people don’t like scungilli, and you don’t see it around much anymore, even in old-school red sauce joints. Phil Karlin, my fish man at Union Square, carries it, caught right off the North Fork. I’m not sure who aside from me buys it. I also like cold mussel salads with lots of celery and fennel. I’m crazy for hot seared shrimp piled onto a bed of cool greens. And I like calamari salad anyway I can get it.

Classic Italian seafood salads fall into the category of things that are delicious to eat when you’re on a diet but that may have slipped your mind. When I think about it, I realize there exist many such dishes, mainly because much of the Mediterranean diet is intrinsically healthy and low-cal. No tinkering required.

I grew up eating these salads at home and in restaurants. Many of the restaurant versions were terrible, reflecting the worst of Italian-American cooking. Their chief faults, as I see them, were too much dried oregano, too much garlic, overcooked seafood, way too much vinegar, raw green bell peppers or chunks of red onion, all of which overtook the seafood’s delicate flavor. I still find recipes like that on the Internet. Very depressing. A potentially beautiful dish thrown overboard.

But I’m not going back in time, and neither are you. Try this warm version with calamari and chickpeas mixed with greens. I’ve suggested frisée, but any other sturdy early summer green, such as young curly chicory, will do. Arugula and watercress wilt on contact with warm oil, so save them for a different dish.

Happy healthy eating to you.

(Serves 4 as a main course)

Extra-virgin olive oil
1½ cups cooked chickpeas, drained and well-dried
2 long red peperoncino chilies, cut into thin rings
2 scallions, thinly sliced, using some of the tender green part
1 teaspoon za’atar Middle Eastern spice mix, plus a bit more for garnish
Salt
1½ pounds small calamari, cleaned and cut into rings, the tentacles left whole
2 fresh summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced
The grated zest from 1 lemon, plus about a teaspoon of its juice, or a little more to taste
6 large sprigs thyme, the leaves chopped
6 large marjoram sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
1 medium head frisée lettuce, torn into pieces

Set out a large, nice looking salad bowl.

In a large skillet, heat about a tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat. When hot, add the chickpeas, the peperoncino, the scallions, the za’atar, and a little salt. Sauté quickly, just until the chili softens and gives off an aroma and the chickpeas take on a little crunch. Pour into the salad bowl.

Without cleaning out the skillet, add another tablespoon of olive oil, and turn the heat to high. When really hot, add the calamari, the garlic, the lemon zest, and a little salt. Sear the calamari quickly, just until it’s opaque and tender. Add the thyme, and stir it in. Add all this to the salad bowl.

Add the frisée and the marjoram to the salad.

Drizzle on about a tablespoon of fresh olive oil and the lemon juice. Season with a bit more salt, and toss. Sprinkle with a little extra za’atar. Serve right away.

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130310-lgeStill life by Julian Merrow-Smith.

Your Italian Diet

Recipe: Asparagus and Celery Soup with Celery Gremolata

Many readers have told me that they really like my monthly diet column for Curves magazine. I like it too. It’s been a stimulating but at times mind-boggling challenge, coming up with 400-calorie main course meals in a bowl. One thing I’ve certainly learned is how easy it is to eat too much. And after almost two years writing the Curves column, I feel I’ve now got the thing down.

So with you in mind, I’m going to extend my Curves forum to my blog, giving you all sorts of seasonal, low-calorie, mostly Italian recipes. They won’t be as strict as the ones for Curves, and I’m not listing numbers for calories, carbs, fats, or salt. That won’t be my style here, but I will assure you that any recipe I post will be healthy, low-calorie, and sensibly portioned (if a bit more generous than the ones for Curves).

The beautiful truth is that much of Southern Italian cooking falls naturally into this category. You just need to be careful about what you choose to cook. Which is where I can really help you. I’ll be posting some classics, but mostly, as is my way, giving you fresh, creative takes on Italian themes. I won’t be going near any diet ingredients, such as reduced fat cheeses or those awful cooking sprays. You’ll get real food, with recipes composed in a contemporary, natural, and I hope elegant style.

Cutting simple carbohydrates and sugar and upping vegetables is my goal. What about fat? I’m not as fat-phobic as some diet types are. I love fats of all kinds. They add flavor. I’ll be using, in addition to delicious, monounsaturated extra-virgin olive oil, things like pork fat, fatty fish, and cheese, but I’ll work them in so they flow into the dish without taking over (did you know that olive oil and just about all fats contain 120 calories a tablespoon? I used to pour oil over my food with abandon. Now I think about what I’m adding and why. Will more oil add more flavor, or just drown the dish in a greasy slick?)

What about pasta, you ask? I could live without pasta as easily as I could live without my red Gabrielle lipstick by Chanel. It’s not gonna happen, ever. But I will change up my pasta offerings. I’ll be suggesting that you eat pasta only as a first course, the way it’s traditionally served in Italy. I’m not sure how we got so far off track with pasta in this country. The portions are totally out of control. (I know people who eat an entire pound on their own. How do they even get it down?)

Which brings me to asparagus. I thought I’d implode waiting for it to show up in my markets. Spring in New York has been and still is damn cold. Every growing thing has been late. But now we’ve got the local stuff coming in, and I can relax a little. I’ve been especially eager to cook up some asparagus soup. Every spring I look for ways to make it a little differently.

This soup is in the crema style, which in Italian culinary terms means a purée but not one that necessarily contains cream. I don’t usually add many flavors to a spring vegetable soup, preferring to keep it simple and pure, but somehow I thought of celery this time around. Celery with asparagus. Yes, that sounded right. I tried it and really liked the way the two flavors married. I finished the soup with a spoonful of Parmigiano and a gremolata  made with parsley leaves, celery, and lemon. It came out really nice.

Please let me know if there are specific dishes you’d like to see here. I’m going to lay off the pizzas, paninis, and desserts for a while, since they really have no place in a weight-loss program, but anything else, just ask.

Asparagus and Celery Soup with Celery Gremolata

(Serves 5)

Extra-virgin olive oil
2 small spring onions, chopped, using some of the tender green stem
2 inner celery stalks, chopped, plus the leaves from about 5 stalks
2 pounds asparagus, the tough ends removed, blanched for about 1 minute and then plunged into ice water (this helps preserve the bright green color).
1 or 2 cloves spring garlic, sliced
1 large Yukon Gold potato, peeled and chopped
Salt
Freshly grated black pepper
About 5 large sprigs flat-leaf parsley
The grated zest from 1 lemon, plus a squeeze of its juice
1 heaping tablespoon grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

Drizzle about a tablespoon of olive oil into a large soup pot. Heat it over a medium flame. Add the onion and the celery (but not the celery leaves), and sauté for about a minute, just to release their flavors. Chop the asparagus into pieces, and add them to the pot, along with the garlic and potato. Give it all a good stir, and sauté for about 3 minutes. Now add enough water to just cover the vegetables

Bring the soup to a boil, and let it cook at a low bubble, uncovered, until everything is tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Season with salt and black pepper.

While the soup is cooking, chop the parsley and celery leaves together. Mix in the lemon zest and a pinch of salt. That’s the gremolata.

Purée the soup in a food processor or with one of those wand things (I think the food processor does a better job with asparagus, which is so fibrous).

When you’re ready to serve, reheat the soup, and then check the seasoning. Add a tiny squeeze of lemon juice, the Parmigiano, and a drizzle of fresh olive oil, and give it all a stir. Ladle the soup into bowls, and top each bowl with a generous sprinkling of the gremolata.

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salts_and_spices_pictures_3Spice of Life, by Kelly McCollam.

 Recipe: Lasagna with Spring Greens, Guanciale, and Spiced Besciamella

It’s been a cold spring in New York. Must be lasagna season. But not any lasagna, not the beloved Southern Italian lasagnas of my childhood, filled with ricotta, meatballs, sausage, tomatoes, mozzarella. One with a lighter style. I had to take a trip to the Genoa of my mind to decide my direction here. And there it was, a food memory of Liguria, its beautiful pesto lasagna, made by alternating layers of Genoese pesto and besciamella between sheets of pasta. As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the genius dishes of Italian cooking. A streamlined concept that is surely worth improvising on. I figured I’d replace the pesto with a mess o’ young spring greens, make a thin, smooth besciamella, and that would do it. Then I started fiddling with spices.

The flavor of besciamella (Italian béchamel) is pretty much set. My usual is everyone’s usual, with nutmeg, a pinch of cayenne, and a bay leaf, producing a deep milky taste with a hint of spice. This time around I decided to go fragrant. I wanted a bit more spice, but I didn’t want the dish to scream curry. So I started adding a pinch of this, then tasting, then a pinch of that and another taste. I called it a day when the bubbling aroma turned warm and rich but hadn’t gone Asian on me. Where I stopped was at allspice, cardamom, coriander, and Aleppo pepper, while keeping the nutmeg and bay leaf. I think it worked well with the wilted greens and guanciale filling.

What I believe:

I believe lasagna should be loose and flowing. When I cut a piece and put it on a plate, it should breath. Not spread into a big, sloppy mess, but just relax. I don’t let lasagna “rest” when I take it from the oven. No need, the way I cook it. I construct it not so deep and cook it on high heat, uncovered, for a crisp top and a lighter interior. That way enough liquid evaporates without the thing overcooking into a compact block.

Lasagna with Spring Greens, Guanciale, and Spiced Besciamella

 (Serves 6)

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 ⅛ teaspoon) of Aleppo pepper, black pepper, allspice, cardamom, coriander, and nutmeg
Salt

For the rest:

Extra-virgin olive oil
¼ pound guanciale, cut into small cubes
2 shallots, chopped
2 garlic cloves, sliced
5 cups mixed greens, leaving a bit of water clinging to them: spinach, baby kale, arugula, mustard, the leafy part of broccoli rabe, and anything tender enough to collapse with a quick sauté
Salt
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, where ever you can find room (sometimes draped over the rim of my bathtub)

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 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. That should do it. 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 softened. Now 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 enough for you to add the rest of them. Cook, uncovered, until they’re just tender, about 4 minutes (sprinkle with a little water if they’re dry). Season with salt, black pepper, and a little Aleppo.

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 put 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, ending with a layer of pasta. Now mix a tablespoon of olive oil with about 2 tablespoons of warm water, and pour it over the pasta. I like to do this when I’m not working with a liquidy sauce. A bit of moisture assurance. Finish with the remaining besciamella and a sprinkling of grana.

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

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photo 2

Here’s my May column for MyCurves. Happy Spring to you.

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CoorteStrawberries1705TheHagueMhuisWStill life with Strawberries, Adriaen Coorte, 1705.

Recipe: Strawberries with Vermouth, Vanilla, Orange, and Basil, Served with Ricotta Cream

Impatience is a personality trait of many cooks, don’t you agree? Foodthe raw ingredients, the cooking, eatingit’s all a flash in the pan. There’s so much pressure to capture the moment. And there’s seasonal pressure, too. You know what I’m talking about, that gnawing agitation, most profound in early spring. I make trips to my Greenmarket, optimistically snooping around, but seeing nothing but those cute but culinarily unappealing fiddleheads. I then march off, anxious, my face all screwed up, only to stop, in desperation, at my super duper mercato to pick up my stand-in asparagus and strawberries, not accepting that I should wait for the good stuff, the local stuff. So I give in. I don’t play farm girl. I can’t wait. My Klonopin-craving brain buys the pumped up Florida produce and brings it all home. The stuff smells like close to nothing, unblemished nothing. How do I coax flavor out of it? We cooks have our ways.

Strawberries with Vermouth, Vanilla, Orange, and Basil, Served with Ricotta Cream

 (Serves 5 or 6)

 1½ cups dry vermouth
A drizzle of Cointreau
½ cup sugar, or a bit more if your fruit is less sweet
½ a moist vanilla bean, split lengthwise
2 long strips orange peel
2 pints small strawberries, hulled but left whole (or larger ones,cut in half)
A handful of small basil leaves, left whole (or larger ones ripped in two)
2 cups whole milk ricotta
A drizzle of whole milk

Place the vermouth, sugar, vanilla bean, Cointreau, and orange peel in a saucepan. Add about ¼ cup of water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Turn the heat down a touch, and let the mixture bubble, uncovered, until reduced by about half (which should leave about a cup of liquid, maybe a bit less). Let cool completely. When cooled it should have the consistency of a loose syrup.

Put the ricotta and a drizzle of milk in a food processor and pulse a few times until it’s smooth.

When you’re ready to serve, put the strawberries in a serving bowl, add the basil leaves, and pour the syrup over the berries, giving them a gentle stir.

Spoon some ricotta into wine or parfait glasses. Add some strawberries to each, and finish with a big drizzle of their syrup.

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largeAsparagus Still Life, by Marie Cosindas.

Recipe: Chicken Liver Salad with Haricots Verts and Gentle Herbs

Here’s a different Easter dinner, with an asparagus soup, a chicken liver salad, and strawberries with ricotta and orange flower water.

Why? Easter means eggs means rebirth. Where there are eggs, there will be chickens. Where there are chickens, there will be slaughtered chickens. Where you have slaughtered chickens, you will have chicken livers, which are an extremely delicious but often overlooked food. I get cravings for chicken livers (maybe I’m part vampiress). I love them in pasta, but my all-time favorite preparation is to quick sear them in butter, add a splash of cognac, and toss them, hot and still pink in the center, over a cool salad. A spring salad with them will include what’s just poking up from the earthmint, chervil, chives, watercress, baby lettuces of all varieties, maybe a few young radishes, unformed garlic, maybe sugar snap peas or string beans, tiny leeks. Whatever I find that looks pretty, I’ll toss together. Fluidity, spontaneity, and peace of mind, even if that’s not a description of my current mental state. I will try to bring these qualities to my springtime cooking. Rebirth.

This salad, with its fragrant chicken livers, tarragon, and chives, will be the centerpiece of my Easter dinner. But I’m starting off my meal with an asparagus soup, the one here, a purée, topped with a basil and almond pesto. It’s from an older post, but it seems a good match. I think an Italian rosato wine will be nice with both the soup and the salad. And to end my Easter dinner, I’m going not with a classic pastiera, which I love and have already eaten huge amounts of, pre-Easter, but instead with strawberries topped with a dollop of sweetened ricotta. I like adding a few scrapings of nutmeg and drops of orange flower water to the ricotta, along with sugar. I thin it out with a bit of milk, and give it a quick whirl in the food processor.

My menu is definitely not traditional in any culture, but this particular Easter, which will be sunny but a tad nippy, the flavors and the streamlined simplicity of these dishes are speaking to me (no, I’m not on a diet). If they speak to you, too, why not give them a try.

Have a great Easter.

Chicken Liver Salad with Haricots Verts and Gentle Herbs

(Serves 2)

A handful of haricots verts, trimmed, briefly blanched, dropped into cold water, then drained
About 2 cups young spring greens (watercress, baby arugula, red or green soft leaf lettuces, whatever looks best to you)
2 French breakfast radishes, sliced into thin rounds
8 sprigs tarragon, stemmed
A palmful of flat-leaf parsley leaves
A few baby scallions, sliced
1 stalk young garlic, sliced
1 teaspoon Spanish Sherry vinegar
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
Salt
Black pepper
A big pinch of nutmeg
1 teaspoon crème fraiche
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
¾ pounds organic chicken livers, trimmed and cut in two or three
A splash of cognac or brandy
A few chives, cut into ½-inch lengths

Choose a nice looking salad bowl (white porcelain, I’m thinking, to hold greens and browns). Add all the greens, the haricots verts, radishes, tarragon, parsley, scallions, and young garlic.

In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, mustard, salt, black pepper, nutmeg, crème fraiche, and about 1½ tablespoons of olive oil (use a really nice one). Add a little more vinegar or olive to taste, but don’t go nuts with the vinegar.

Get a skillet hot over high heat. Add the butter and a drizzle of olive oil. Dry off the livers, and season them with salt and black pepper. Put them in the skillet, spreading them out. Sear them quickly, until browned well on one side, about a minute (be careful, as they can spit and pop). Now turn them over and brown the other side, about a minute more. You want them to stay pink at the center. Add a splash of cognac, and watch it flame up.

Toss the greens with the dressing, and then add the chicken livers. Garnish with chives. Serve right away.

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Women with Fish

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The Fish

 I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
if you could call it a lip
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnelsuntil everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

Elizabeth Bishop

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KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Recipe: Israeli Couscous with Calamari, Spring Peas, and Saffron

When The da Fiore Cookbook came out, in 2003, I was eager to get a copy. I’ve still never managed to eat at the now very famous restaurant, in Venice, one of Marcella Hazan’s favorites, but I liked the idea of it from word one. Venice, water, a lady chef, plus gentle flavors for fish, pasta, risotto, and vegetables, all quite different from the Southern Italian palate I was then exclusively working with. I especially liked the way Mara Martin, the chef and owner, treated pasta. A little butter, leeks, white wine, carrots, an occasional drizzle of cream, saffron, sweet spices like nutmeg and cinnamon, Parmigiano Reggiano with seafoodjust a sprinkling. No hot chilies, barely a tomato, no oregano, rosemary used as a gentle undertone.

Venetian cooking, especially when offered by da Fiore, is complex but remains gentle to both eye and palate. It’s about both the sea and seasonal vegetables. Like Southern Italian, my hometown cooking, it never gets tired for me. I’ll always love anchovies, garlic, and pecorino, but I also welcome lightness. Da Fiore’s food seems to me a touch angelic.

Here’s a recipe inspired by Signora Martin’s “Fusilli with Squid and Peas.” She adds pancetta, a bit of cinnamon, thyme, and Parmigiano. I chose saffron, another favorite spice of hers but not one she used in her fusilli recipe. Saffron and butter make an amazing pairing, sweet, opulent, but weightless on the tongue. And butter with peas you really can’t beat.

I make a little spice broth with saffron and a few other things, and add it at the end, gently coaxing all the ingredients together. No cheese in my version. It didn’t blend well with the saffron.

dsc_0007

Israeli Couscous with Calamari, Spring Peas, and Saffron

(Serves 4 as a first course)

1 cup chicken broth
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
A pinch of ground cinnamon
A large pinch of saffron threads, dried and ground
Salt
A big pinch of sugar
1½ cups Israeli couscous
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 small white onion, finely chopped
1 stem young garlic, chopped
5 sprigs thyme, the leaves chopped
1 cup freshly shucked peas, briefly blanched, then cooled under cold water, then drained
A splash of semi-dry white wine
1 pound small calamari, sliced into rings
Black pepper
A handful of flat-leaf parsley, the leaves lightly chopped

Pour the chicken broth into a small pot. Add the cinnamon, allspice, sugar, and saffron. Turn on the heat, and let boil gently for about 4 minutes. Add a pinch of salt, and turn off the heat. Let sit.

Set up a medium pot with water, add salt, and bring it to a boil. Add the couscous.

In a large sauté pan, heat about a tablespoon of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter. Sauté the onion over medium heat until softened. Add the garlic and the thyme. Add the blanched peas and a bit of salt, and sauté about a minute. Add a splash of wine, and let it boil off. Add the spice broth, and simmer about 4 minutes, just until the peas are tender. Turn off the heat.

When the couscous is al dente, drain it, and place it in a large serving bowl. Add a drizzle of olive oil and a few turns of black pepper. Toss.

Dry off the calamari. Put a large skillet on high heat. Add the remaining butter and a drizzle of olive oil. When hot, add the calamari, seasoning with salt and black pepper, and sauté very quickly, just until it loses its transparency. Tip the calamari into the couscous. Add the peas with all their broth. Add the parsley. Toss. Taste for seasoning.

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