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You know that great Tuscan chicken liver paté, the one you spread onto warm crostini and sometimes garnish with a scattering of chopped sage? Yes, I love it too. I make it for parties. It’s one of those preparations that look fancy but are truly easy. For my version, I sauté the chicken livers in olive oil and butter, then add anchovy, shallot, capers, sometimes garlic and juniper berries, sage, and then a splash of cognac or grappa, and maybe Marsala or vermouth, too. Then into the food processor it goes. The resulting smooth paste I spoon into a pretty bowl and let rest for a few hours, so all the elements can blend and the texture become velvety. I love this mix of flavors so much I was recently compelled to use it in another way, and a pasta dish was born.

I deconstructed the paté, upping its onion family component to use as a soffrito for my sauce. I sautéed the livers separately, to keep them pinker than you would for a paté, but added more booze and broth to my soffrito, making sure the pasta would be well coated. I went easy on the sage, which, we all know, can give off a musty taste if overdone. In fact, I added a touch of rosemary to balance things out.

I’m really happy with this pasta. I hope you are too. It feels like winter to me.

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Cavatelli with Chicken Livers, Soft Onion, Marsala, and Capers

 (Serves 4 as a main course pasta)

Extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 really large Vidalia onion, cut into small dice
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
4 anchovy fillets, minced (high-quality oil-packed is best for this)
2 large sprigs rosemary, the leaves chopped
2 juniper berries, crushed
Salt
Black pepper
¼ cup dry Marsala
¾ cup homemade or high-quality purchased chicken broth
1 pound cavatelli pasta
1 pound organic chicken livers, trimmed and cut into approximately ½ inch lobes
A splash of cognac
About 8 sage leaves, cut into chiffonade
A big palmful of capers (preferably salt-packed Sicilian ones)
The zest from 1 lemon
A chunk of grana Padano cheese

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

In the meantime, put a large skillet over a medium flame and heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil with 1 tablespoon of the butter. Add the onion, and let it soften for about 6 minutes. Turn the heat down a bit if the onion starts to brown too much. Now add the garlic, anchovy, rosemary, and juniper berries. Add a pinch of salt (very little, because of the anchovies) and black pepper. Let the mix sauté for about 3 minutes or so, to release all the flavors.

Add the Marsala, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Now add the chicken broth, and simmer, uncovered, until the sauce reduces a bit. It should still be a little brothy.

Add salt to the pasta water, and drop in the cavatelli.

Set up a heavy-bottomed skillet (cast iron is good) over high heat. Add a big drizzle of olive oil and the remaining tablespoon of butter.

Dry off the livers. When the oil and butter are really hot, add the livers to the skillet. Brown them on one side, give them a turn, and brown the other side. This should take only a few minutes. You want them to stay pink inside. Be careful when turning them, as they can spit and pop. Now add a splash of cognac, and let it burn off. It may flame up (I love that), so stand back a bit.

Add the livers to the onion sauce. Add the sage, capers, and lemon zest.

When the cavatelli is al dente, pour it into a serving bowl, leaving a little water clinging to it. Add the chicken liver sauce and about a tablespoon of grated grana Padano. Toss and taste for seasoning. Bring the rest of the cheese to the table.

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00001431A 13th-century Italian herb book.

Perfect meals exist. I know. I’ve eaten them, thought about them, and even cooked a few. They can be simple, a few slices of mild pecorino drizzled with wildflower honey, or more elaborate, such as a porterhouse steak grilled rare and topped with anchovy butter. It’s 9:30 a.m. as I write this, but just mentioning that steak makes me want to cook one up now. I’ve even got a tub of anchovy butter in the fridge. What Italian girl would be without one?

Fried cutlets are another perfect meal for me. When I was a kid, we had fried boneless cutlets all the time. Every Italian-American family had them, veal on special occasions but more often chicken. They were egged, coated with breadcrumbs and grated cheese, and then fried in olive oil. Their aroma was out of this world. Oily, hot, moist, and salty, and with a squeeze of lemon they hit all the points of delicious. We served them with sautéed escarole or broccoli or a chicory salad. They were one of my childhood dream meals.

At some point, I’m not sure exactly when, maybe in the late ’70s, early ’80s, cutlets with salad piled on top began showing up on Italian menus in and around New York City, usually going by the name veal Milanese (or chicken Milanese, depending). Cotoletta alla Milanese is a real dish from Milan, but traditionally this opulent veal cutlet is cooked on the bone and served with lemon wedges and a side of potatoes or another vegetable. The bone-free cutlet is a humbler slice,  and the more recent (in the last 40 years, that is) top hat of greens seems to be a restaurant addition, one I’ve eaten in Naples, Glen Cove, and Manhattan (maybe you can get it in Milan, too). What a great idea. All the lemony dressing trickles down onto the meat, and the contrast between hot and oily and cold and puckery is thrilling when it’s all well put together but depressing when the dish is tough, cold, soggy, unseasoned, or the cook just doesn’t seem to give a crap. There’s a place around the corner from me on 14th Street where that last problem is in evidence. My perfect meal less than perfect. Che vergogna.

That’s why you’ll often do best making the dish yourself. I made it last night. I felt like going with pork this time. Pork cutlets are very good when cooked fast and left juicy. And I thought I’d winter up the green salad topping by adding roasted tomatoes seasoned with rosemary and thyme, strong herbs you usually don’t find tossed with lettuce. It worked because the heat from the tomatoes softened their sharp edges. I also added fresh sage, a classic with pork, to the breadcrumb mix.

Pork Cutlets with Roasted Tomatoes and Wintry Herbs

 (Serves 4)

1½ pints grape tomatoes
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
3 or 4 sprigs rosemary, the leaves chopped
About 8 thyme sprigs, stemmed
1 medium-size head frisée lettuce, torn into small pieces
2 pounds pork cutlets, lightly pounded (they should be very thin)
2 eggs
¾ cup homemade breadcrumbs
½ cup grated grana Padano cheese
About 6 sage leaves, chopped
The zest from 1 large lemon, plus a little of its juice and 4 lemon wedges
1 small garlic clove, minced
Black pepper
A big pinch of cayenne pepper
A palmful of lightly toasted pine nuts

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place the tomatoes on a baking sheet. Drizzle on a little olive oil, and sprinkle with salt. Bake until lightly browned and starting to collapse, about 15 minutes. You’ll probably want to shake the tomatoes around a few times so they cook evenly. Take them from the oven, and scatter on the rosemary and thyme. Let cool for about 10 minutes or so.

Put the frisée in a salad bowl. Add the tomatoes.

Dry off the cutlets with paper towels.

Crack the eggs onto a large plate, and whisk lightly.

On another large plate, mix together the breadcrumbs, grana Padano, lemon zest, sage, garlic, black pepper, a little cayenne, and some salt.

Get out two large skillets, and place them over high flame. Pour about ¼ inch of olive oil into each one.

Dip the cutlets in the egg, and then in the breadcrumbs.

When the oil is hot, fry the cutlets, turning them once, until browned on both sides. Lift them out with a slotted spatula. Put them directly onto four plates.

Drizzle about a tablespoon or so of olive oil over the salad. Now add about a teaspoon of the lemon juice. Season with salt and black pepper. Toss, adding more olive oil or lemon juice if needed.

Mound the salad up on the cutlets, and garnish with the pine nuts and the lemon wedges. Serve right away.

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Women with Fish

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I just had a head scan and look what they found? Terrible, but I’m not really surprised.

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conch_shell

When was the last time I made stuffed shells? When did I last eat them? I don’t know. Twelve, fourteen years ago? I don’t see them around much anymore, unless, possibly, they have them at Sbarro’s. Does Sbarro’s still exist?

My mother made them often. They were her default manicotti, having a similar taste but being less work, because she didn’t have to shove the stuffing into floppy, slippery tubes. Her filling was usually just ricotta mixed with cheese, parsley, and a touch of nutmeg, and she topped the shells with tomato sauce and grated pecorino. I can’t remember if she used mozzarella. She must have, occasionally. Sometimes she covered them with a meat sauce, if she had some left over. And then the whole thing was baked. I loved it. All the kids in the neighborhood loved it. Many, miraculously, showed up at our table on stuffed shells night.

For years now, sadly, I’ve thought of the dish as an Italian-American embarrassment, inelegant and even dopey, probably because I associate it with crappy restaurants. But stuffed dried pasta is a real thing, invented in Italy’s south, where dried pasta rules. I haven’t eaten stuffed shells often down there; in Naples I’ve more frequently seen paccheri, sort of a giant rigatoni stuffed with ricotta and mozzarella, often baked, really just a mini version of manicotti.

Why have I been thinking so much about stuffed shells lately? Maybe because my mother is in the hospital. They certainly remind me of her. But also I’ve been thinking about their shape. Italians often model foods on nature, especially pastas. Orecchietti, farfalle, vermicelli, and conchiglioni, the large shells I’m talking about here (the word means big sea shells), are good examples. This tradition speaks to my pantheistic heart.

The stuffed shells I grew up with and ate all around town were almost always prepared pretty much the same way. That’s probably another reason I dropped them when I started running my own kitchen. Culinarily speaking, and possibly in other ways as well, I like nothing better than to take a tradition and mess it up a bit. I think it’s time to bring this homey dish back and maybe infuse it with an air of grace. Not too much; just enough to make it exciting again.

Conchiglioni with Ricotta, Saucisson Sec, and Arugula, with a Tomato and Rosemary Sauce

(Serves 4)

1 pound giant pasta shells
Salt
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups whole milk ricotta
1 teaspoon ground allspice
Black pepper
A large chunk of pecorino Toscano cheese, cut into tiny cubes (you’ll want about 3/4 cup cubed), plus about ¾ cup grated
6 thick slices saucisson sec*, the casing removed, the sausage cut into tiny cubes (again, about 3/4 cup cubed)
Baby arugula*, lightly chopped (about 1 packed cup)

For the sauce:

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large shallot, cut into small dice
1 thin carrot, peeled and cut into small dice
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
5 large sprigs rosemary, the leaves chopped
1 35-ounce can San Marzano tomatoes, well chopped, plus the juice
½ cup homemade or high-quality purchased chicken broth
Salt
Black pepper
A few drops of sherry wine vinegar

*I chose saucisson sec because it tends to have a softer texture than many Italian dried salamis. The brand I most often use is Les Trois Petits Cochons. But if you find a not-too-hard soppressata, for instance, by all means go ahead and use that instead.

*I use arugula in this stuffing, but in the past I’ve made lasagna filling by mixing radicchio, another bitter vegetable, with the ricotta. I love the way the flavor of radicchio marries with rosemary’s taste.I sauté it first to take the edge off. You can substitute it for the arugula, if you like.

Set up a big pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add salt. Drop in the shells, and cook until al dente. Drain them, and briefly run them under cold water to cool them. Let them drain again, and then toss them with a little olive oil so they don’t stick together.

In a large bowl, mix together the ricotta, the allspice, some black pepper, and little salt. Give it all a brief mix, and then add the cubed pecorino, the saucisson sec, and the arugula. Drizzle in a little olive oil, and mix well.

Make the sauce: In a large skillet, heat the butter and a drizzle of olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallot and carrot, and sauté until softened. Add the garlic and the rosemary, and sauté for a minute to release their flavors. Add the tomatoes and the broth, and cook at a medium bubble, uncovered, for about 8 minutes. Season with salt and black pepper, and add a few drops of the vinegar.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Choose a baking dish that will hold all the shells without crowding. Drizzle a film of olive oil onto its surface.

Fill the shells with the ricotta mixture, and place them filling side up in the dish. (I had a bunch of broken shells that I couldn’t use, so I wound up with leftover filling. If you have any left over, try tossing it with hot penne. Really good.) Pour the tomato sauce over the top, drizzle with a little fresh olive oil, and sprinkle on the grated pecorino.

Bake until hot and bubbling, about 20 minutes.

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sophia-champagne-2

Wow, look at this. Sophia all glammed up for New Year’s Eve, and she doesn’t bother to shave her armpits. What beautifully Italian sentiment. I didn’t shave my armpits until I was about 20. I was a superstitious hippie child who thought it would bring me bad vibes.

I still have a strain of pagan superstition running through my Southern Italian blood. Good and evil spirits sprung from the earth and sky have a pull on me. I do everything I can to attract good spirits.

On News Year’s Day Italians in many regions eat lentils. They’re thought to resemble coins, and eating them, according to custom, brings you wealth and good fortune in the new year. Who would want to gamble with that? Not me, I tell you.

In Italy, good-luck lentils are usually served with cotechino, a big, juicy pork sausage, or a stuffed pig’s trotter called zampone. Those are grand pairings, but this year I felt like lightening it up. I wanted fish with my lentils, though the fish had to be substantial. Monkfish has an almost lobstery texture and sweet taste that I love. For this recipe I bought a whole, thick fillet and roasted it as I would a piece of tender beef. I figured it would be luxurious enough to sit in the place of honor on top of my good luck lentils. And I added rosemary that pulls the dish further into the realm of deep and wintry. I’m happy with this. And I’m convinced it will attract lots of good vibes.

I go out of my way to find French or Italian lentils for certain dishes. They stay firm. American and Indian ones are perfect for soup, since they break down into a slightly lumpy purée, but for this dish I wanted ones with integrity and beauty that would cook up looking like the little coins they’re supposed to signify. Umbrian lentils are usually a pretty mottled tan. Le Puy lentils from France are a lovely shade of light gray-green that I’ve always thought would make a perfect living room paint color. Both varieties are fairly easy to locate in good grocery stores.

Good luck to all my Italian cooking fanatic friends out there, and a happy and prosperous New Year.

Rosemary Roasted Monkfish with Leeks and Lentils

(Serves 4)

2 cups Italian or French lentils
1 bay leaf, fresh if available
2 pounds monkfish fillet (one big fillet is best for slicing, but two smaller ones will work fine)
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon ground fennel seed
10 thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
6 large rosemary sprigs, the leaves chopped, plus a handful of sprigs for garnish
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium leek, the white and tender light green parts only, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and cut into small dice
1 celery stalk, cut into small dice
2 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
1 cup homemade or good-tasting prepared chicken broth
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
½ tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 dozen or so red grape tomatoes

Place the lentils in a medium pot. Cover them with cool water by at least 3 inches. Add the bay leaf. Bring to a boil over high heat. Turn the heat to medium low, and cook at a low bubble, uncovered, until the lentils are just tender, about 15 minutes. Drain, and remove the bay leaf.

Rub the monkfish fillets all over with the fennel seed, half the chopped thyme, half the rosemary, and salt and black pepper, and set them aside.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

In a large skillet, heat a little olive oil over medium heat. Add the leeks, carrot, and celery, and sauté until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, and sauté about a half minute longer. Add the lentils and the rest of the chopped thyme and rosemary, and season with salt and black pepper. Sauté a minute to blend the flavors. Add the mustard and the chicken broth. Give it a good stir and simmer, uncovered, for about 2 minutes. Turn off the heat, and add the red wine vinegar.

In an ovenproof skillet (cast iron is perfect), heat a generous drizzle of olive oil on medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add the monkfish, and brown on both sides. Place the grape tomatoes around the fish. Transfer the fish to the oven, and roast until it’s just cooked through, 6 to 10 minutes, depending on its thickness. Take the fish from the oven, and cut it into thick slices on an angle.

Pour the lentils out onto a curve-sided serving plate. Place the fish slices on top. Scatter the tomatoes around the fish. Drizzle with fresh olive oil, and garnish with rosemary sprigs.

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mussels

For those of you who read my previous post, a sad tale of feeding tubes and culinary confusion, I’m now reporting something more uplifting. Originally, in a desperate attempt to keep things cheerful for the two members of my family who can’t eat normally anymore, I said I’d sneak only one dish onto the table on Christmas Eve, no fuss, no tears. Those of us who are lucky enough to still eat would just wolf it down fast. But the more I envisioned this evening, a severely pared down Christmas Eve, it just seemed so wrong. La Vigilia di Natale, the parade of fishes, has always been my favorite food holiday of the year. Could I let it go so easily?

I’ve thought it over, and I now feel it won’t do the infirm any good to see the world around them sink to their level. It might just bring more sadness. And, I ask you, who’s holidays are perfect, and would we even want them to be? My one lone dish, conceived so as not to offend, now seems silly. I’ve decided to just do what I love, and that’s to cook my little Italian heart out.

So in the spirit of the evening, I’ve decided that in addition to my clams with fregola, I’ll also include mussels baked with a Sicilian nut pesto, something that has become a classic in my house. And I definitely will make rosemary-and-garlic-marinated olives, and possibly some type of fish crudo to start, maybe scallops with orange zest. Raw fish goes really well with prosecco. It’s a little late to start soaking salt cod, so I’ll scrap that, but an octopus and potato salad would be nice. I always serve a blood orange salad with red onion and mint. It’s a must after so much seafood.  And then, who knows, I might even make a ricotta cheese cake, mainly so the apartment will smell like orange blossom water. La Vigilia returns. Tradition prevails. We’ll see how it goes.

Mussels with Sicilian Nut Pesto

(Serves 4 as an antipasto)

For the pesto:

¼ cup shelled unsalted pistachios
¼ cup pine nuts
¼ cup blanched almonds
1  small clove fresh garlic, roughly chopped
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, preferably an estate-bottled Sicilian one such as Ravida
Salt
The grated zest from 1 lemon

For the mussels:

1½ pounds very fresh mussels, washed and, if necessary, debearded
½ cup dry white wine
½ cup freshly grated grana Padana cheese
A drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves

Place all the nuts and the garlic in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse a few times to give them a rough chop. Add about ¼ cup of olive oil, salt, and the lemon zest, and pulse a few more times, just until you have a very rough paste (you want to keep some texture).

Put the mussels in a large pot with the white wine, and turn the heat to medium high. Cook them, stirring frequently, until they open, about 4 minutes. With a big strainer or slotted spoon, lift the mussels out of the pot, and transfer them to a bowl. Let them cool a bit. Strain the mussel cooking liquid into a small bowl.

When the mussels are cool enough to handle, remove them from their shells. Then choose the nicest looking shells, and place one mussel in each. Add about 2 tablespoons of the mussel cooking broth to the pesto, and give it a stir. Top each mussel with about a teaspoon of the nut pesto and then with a little of the grana Padano. Place them all on a sheet pan or in a shallow baking dish, and drizzle them with a little fresh olive oil.

Run the mussels under the broiler, about 6 inches from the heat source, just until the cheese starts to turn golden (you don’t want to burn the nuts), probably about 2 or 3 minutes. Arrange them on a serving platter (or keep them in the baking dish), and garnish them with the parsley leaves. Serve hot.

 

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Clams for Christmas Eve

shellfish

Recipe: Fregola with Clams and Sweet Vermouth

There was a time not too long ago when I made many fish dishes for Christmas Eve. I spent days preparing them. This was when everyone in my family was still living and healthy. Things have changed. My father died more than ten years ago. My mother is now on a feeding tube, and, in an odd coincidence, my husband’s father is now also on a feeding tube. I can’t get too exciting about preparing an elaborate dinner in the presence of two people who ingest Ensure through holes in their stomachs. This new reality is heartbreaking for everyone, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Embarrassment, shame, guilt, emotions that have always run high in my family, have hit the roof.

Okay, holidays can be stressful, but I always had my kitchen to hide in. What a hot, sweaty, pleasure it is, how much I do love cooking for people I love, especially when they can actually eat. I really wasn’t sure how I was going to handle the situation this year. I thought about just acting as if Christmas didn’t exist. But food isn’t everything. It isn’t? What is everything? Being together despite how crappy and mortified everyone feels? I guess that’s the right answer.

What I’ve decided to do this year is to cook an inconspicuous Christmas Eve dinner. I’ll make one good dish and just kind of stick it on the table, as if this were any other night. This way no one gets hurt but we still have Christmas Eve together, maybe not in high Southern Italian style, but facts are facts. Not focusing on food is completely foreign to me and my family, so these damn feeding tubes really are the ultimate insult. I hate them with a passion. This year I’ll be concentrating on other things, like trying to make the old people in my life as happy as possible. And there are always gifts to open, and the Louis Prima Christmas album.

Merry Christmas to you and yours.

Fregola with Clams and Sweet Vermouth

(Serves 4 as a main course)

Salt
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 thick slice pancetta, cut into small cubes
1 large shallot, minced
1 small celery rib, cut into small dice
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 allspice, ground to a powder
1 fresh red chili, minced (a peperoncino is perfect)
¼ cup sweet vermouth
1 cup chicken broth
¾ pound large fregola pasta
About 4 dozen littleneck or Manila clams (they’re basically the same), the smaller the better, soaked and well scrubbed
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
The grated zest from 1 large lemon
About 6 large sprigs of marjoram
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, stemmed

Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Season with salt.

In a large skillet, big enough to hold all the clams when opened, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the pancetta, and sauté until just crisp. Add the shallot, celery, garlic, allspice, and hot chili, and sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the vermouth, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Add the chicken broth, a pinch of salt, and simmer uncovered for about 5 minutes longer.

Add the clams, and cook partially covered for a few minutes. Take off the cover, and give them a stir. As the clams open, use tongs to pull them from the sauce into a bowl. They won’t all open at once, and if you leave the early openers in the skillet, they’ll be overcooked by the time the rest decide to pop. Drizzle the clams with a little olive oil. Turn off the heat.

When about half of the clams have opened, drop the fregola into the water. When the fregola is al dente, after about 10 minutes, drain it, and pour it out onto a large, shallow serving bowl. Give it a generous drizzle of olive oil, and add the lemon zest and the marjoram. Give it a quick toss. Add the clams back to the skillet, along with the butter, and heat gently for about 30 seconds. Pour the clams and sauce over the fregola. Taste for salt. If your clams are salty, you might not need to add any more. Garnish with the parsley leaves.

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