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Felix Vallotton-957538

Tomatoes and Meat, Felix Vallotton, 1865-1925.

The city where I live is now heavy with recession chic. I see a lot of meatballsin carts, in storefronts, and now in some chain stores. The trendier places have lines. Standing in line for a meatball. Molto strano. You gets no bread with one meatball. That’s what the song said, but now, I think, you do get bread, and you can order a $13 glass of vino, too. Some of the meatballs look familiar, some come with “Hawaiian” sauce. I suppose that must be some kind of fruit glaze.

I’ve tried a few of the roving meatball trucks. Not bad, but as every Southern Mediterranean cook knows, you gets the best meatballs when you makes them yourself. Some cooks stay true to Grandma’s original, some mix it up. I like to do both.

I’ve been thinking about meatballs lately, thinking about how to present them, first off in a low-carb style but also how to make them feel like summer.

Bread and pasta are both classic meatball accompaniments. You’ve got to have something to sop up all that great sauce (maybe not with the Hawaiian version). But what about an uncooked tomato sauce, a pomodoro crudo, mixed with greens, with the hot-from-the-skillet meatballs sitting on top? The greens get tangled with the sauce and a forkful of crisp-edged meatball. That is a well-rounded mouthful, allowing you to forget about the missing bread, hopefully. Chunky sauce and greens are an overlooked marriage of tastes. The dish feels like summer, a hearty late summer.

A note on the amounts of carbohydrates in my recipes: My aim is to cut way back on the easily digested carbs, such as sugar, potatoes, rice, pasta, and white bread. I do include many vegetables and small amounts of whole grains, beans, and legumes, which can have carbs but also lots of vitamins and fiber. This is not the Atkins diet. It’s just an attempt to limit the crud you eat while creating really good Italian and Mediterranean food that you’ll love. I also try to moderate fats, but without using any phony low-fat cheeses or dairy. I buy the best cheeses and olive oil I can and work as many of the drier, less fatty grating cheeses into my recipes, such as pecorino or Parmigiano. I work hard to make my recipes delicious so as not to send any dietary hardship your way. Eating this way should be a pleasure.

IMG_0265Tomatoes from my friend Barbara’s garden. Beautiful.

Lamb and Ricotta Salata Meatballs on Pomodoro Crudo and Arugula

(Serves 4)

For the meatballs:

 1½ pounds ground lamb
1 heaping tablespoon breadcrumbs, not too dry, not too finely ground
1 garlic clove, minced
⅛ teaspoon ground cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon spicy paprika, plus a little more for garnish (I used Basque piment d’espelette)
2 egg yolks
½ cup grated ricotta salata, plus extra for garnish
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, well chopped
A few large sprigs of marjoram, the leaves chopped, plus a little more for garnish
Freshly ground black pepper
A generous drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for sautéing.

For the pomodoro crudo and arugula:

3 very large summer tomatoes, peeled, seeded, diced, and drained for about 20 minutes
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 summer garlic clove, very thinly sliced
Freshly ground black pepper
A few drops of Spanish sherry vinegar
A few sprigs of marjoram leaves, chopped
A large handful of wild or baby arugula, stemmed

To make the meatballs: Place all the ingredients for the meatballs in a big bowl, and mix them well with your fingers. Try not to pack down the meat too much. Keeping it a bit airy will give it a tender texture. Form it into medium-size balls, about an inch across.

To make the pomodoro crudo: Place the chopped tomatoes in a bowl. Add about a tablespoon of olive oil, the garlic, salt, and pepper, and a few drops of Spanish sherry vinegar. Mix well, and let sit for about 20 minutes, so the flavors can blend.

When you’re ready to serve the dish, pour about a half inch of olive oil into a large skillet over medium high heat. When hot, add the meatballs, and brown them well on all sides, leaving their centers slightly pink. This should take about 5 minutes.

Spoon the pomodoro crudo into four shallow pasta bowls. Now scatter on the arugula. Drain the meatballs on paper towels, and place three or four of them in each bowl, on top of the sauce. Sprinkle ricotta salata and a pinch of spicy paprika over each bowl. Scatter on the remaining marjoram, and finish each bowl with a drizzle of fresh olive oil. Serve hot.

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Women with Fish


This cauldron I’m holding is not for cooking fish. It’s for returning fish to the sea. It’s actually a chute that goes through that table directly into the Atlantic Ocean. I understand that most of these fish are already dead, but some are pregnant and, once returned to the sea, will be able to give birth to live babies. I didn’t catch these fish, but I collected them, stole them actually, from fishermen while they were staring off into the sunset. I steal fish, then I dress in blue and send the fish home. The sea is now full of dead fish. I was under the impression that this was a good thing. But now I’m not so sure. I just can’t stop myself.

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Still_life_with_shrimp,_ramps,_flowers_and_a_glass_vaseStill Life with Shrimp, Ramps, Flowers, and a Glass, Franz Ykens, 1601-1693.

When I was a kid, shrimp was special. Not as special as lobster, but up there. Spaghettini with shrimp was for Christmas Eve, period. So was shrimp “scampi,” made with breadcrumbs, herbs, garlic, white wine, and, inexplicably, butter. Shrimp scampi was too good for olive oil. And my family sometimes found it with the heads still intact, usually on Arthur Avenue, in the Bronx. That was just too much excitement. Now shrimp is all over the place. Sometime soon I’m expecting to see it at Dunkin’ Donuts, worked into an ice cream topping, maybe.

I’m bringing this up because I’m confused by the abundance of shrimp. I figured wild shrimp would be better than farmed, but after some research, now I see that that’s not so clear. The wild shrimp I most often find are from Colombia, and they and many other foreign wild shrimp are caught with trawl nets that take up all sorts of other sea life with them, such as endangered sea turtles.

Farmed shrimp from Asia and South America are, for the most part, not sustainable. They threaten wetlands and are given hormones and, because of their bacteria-laden environments, antibiotics. Shrimp farms are now cropping up in the U.S., and I hope we can look to them to provide a healthier, better regulated alternative. I’d ideally like to eat fresh East Coast shrimp, but those seem hard to locate even in season. I’d pay more for them and eat them less often.

If we don’t want to eat garbage and damage our already fragile earth, we cooks need to keep on top of this. At the moment, what places are the worst offenders? China? Venezuela? When I’m in doubt, I check at http://www.seafoodwatch.org, where I obtained much of the info for this post. I’m still perplexed when I go to my fish shop and see eight kinds of shrimp, all from different countries, some farmed, some wild. It’s a shame. Shrimp is a delicious low-carb food that has served as the base for some of my best culinary whims. I want to eat it, and I love it, so you can be sure I’ll be keeping up on this issue and passing along to you what I learn.

Back to the fine low-carb beauty of this recipe. While probing my culinary bean for a side dish to go with these shrimp, I immediately thought of faro or wheat berries, but since those aren’t on my low-carb program, I had to search deeper. Zucchini is a vegetable I reach for when I want something rich but not a potato. It has a solid presence, a gentle taste, and soaks up sauce well. And in summer you’ve got tons of it.

You’ll need two short metal skewers for this recipe.


Grilled Shrimp Spiedini with Rosemary Salsa, Zucchini, Leeks, and Fennel

(Serves 2)

For the rosemary salsa:

3 large sprigs rosemary, the leaves well chopped
4 large sprigs flat leaf parsley, the leaves well chopped
1 summer garlic clove, minced
A pinch of sugar
The grated zest from 1 lemon
The grated zest from 1 orange
1 tablespoon lemon juice
About 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

For everything else:

6 to 8 jumbo shrimp (3 to 4 per person, depending on desire), peeled and deveined but with the tails left on
1 tablespoon ground fennel seed
Piment d’espelette dried red pepper
A pinch of sugar
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 medium summer zucchini, cut into thin rounds
1 large fennel bulb, trimmed and cut into thin rounds
2 young summer leeks, cleaned, the white part cut into thin rounds
2 anchovy fillets, minced
Black pepper
A squeeze of lemon juice

In a small bowl, mix all the ingredients for the salsa together. Let sit at room temperature while you proceed with the recipe.

Put 3 or 4 shrimp on each skewer. Season them all over with the fennel, salt, a decent sized pinch of pimenton, depending on how spicy you like it, and the sugar, pressing the spices into the shrimp. Stick the shrimp back in the refrigerator.

In a large skillet, heat a little olive oil over medium flame. Add the zucchini, fennel, and leeks, all at the same time. Add the anchovy, and season with a little salt and more generously with black pepper. Sauté quickly until the vegetables have a golden edge but are still holding their shape, about 5 minutes. Give them a tiny squeeze of lemon juice.

Put a stove-top grill pan over high heat (or use an outdoor grill).

Drizzle the shrimp with just a touch of olive oil. When the grill is hot, lay the skewers on it, and grill quickly until the shrimp is just browned, about 2 minutes on each side. That’s for real jumbos. For smaller ones, you’ll want to cut down the time. Keep them juicy.

Set out two plates. Spoon some of the zucchini onto each plate. Place a skewer next to the zucchini. Drizzle some of the rosemary salsa on top.

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meat-and-eggs-1918.jpg!BlogMeat, Pepper, and Eggs, Felix Vallotton, 1918.

I want hamburgers often, and I want them rare. Lately I’ve liked them better than a steak. There’s something about the tenderness of a good burger, a perfect package, that when you bite into it it always seems like a little surprise (although not so good a surprise if you’ve overcooked it). Burgers are one of those foods that are both pedestrian and celebratory. I love shaping them, something you really can’t do with a steak unless for some reason you’re compelled to cut heart patterns or stars, which I’ve never seen even at any of the more far-reaching catering places I worked for.

If the idea of supermarket ground meat grosses you out, as it now does me, you can easily grind it yourself. I buy a hunk of beef chuck, the best cut for burgers, since it has more fat than sirloin. If you want you can purchase grass-fed beef, which is higher in omega-3 (or you could buy ground meat at a farmers’ market, which for me is a tad expensive, but every once in a while I go for it). When grinding it myself, I cut my beef hunk into smaller pieces and then throw a few at a time into my food processor and pulse quickly. It works really well. The more you try it, the more you’ll come to feel when you’ve got a perfect, uniform chop. That way you’ll be sure your chopmeat came from one cow, not some grab bag of corporate animal sludge. Of course, you can use a meat grinder, but mine, which belonged to my sausage-obsessed grandmother, is so old and rusty at this point that the food processor works much better. Just to make it more luscious, I add a drizzle of olive oil into the mix before forming the patties.

You’ve probably noticed that lately I’ve been focusing on low-carb Italian and Mediterranean, so no bun here. Of course you can have one, but cutting the carbs really does help you lose weight. That’s what many of my readers have been asking for, so I decided to oblige. I’m getting used to this way of eating. It’s extremely creative. I’m trying to present combination dishes, such as this one, that make a full meal without a carb side. They really force you to you work your vegetables.

I’d round out this burger dinner with a summer tomato salad and a lightly chilled Sangiovese. At the end of the meal you can add a few peach slices to your wine, a beautiful Southern Italian touch.


Hamburgers with Thyme Peperonata and Caper Berries

(Serves 4)

For the peperonata:

 4 red summer bell peppers
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 summer garlic cloves, sliced
2 anchovy fillets, minced
A splash of sweet vermouth
About 6 thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped, plus 4 large sprigs for garnish
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
A dozen caper berries

For the burgers:

1¾ pounds ground chuck
Black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
8 or so leaves Bibb lettuce

To make the peperonata, place the peppers on a sheet pan, and coat them with a little olive oil. Turn on the broiler, and broil them about 6 inches from the heat source, turning them often, until they’re charred all over. I like this method better than grilling outside or over a gas flame because it takes away the inner rawness that can leave the peppers bitter.

Cover the peppers with a towel or throw them in a paper bag, and let them steam in their own heat for about 10 minutes. Now peel and seed them, and cut them into strips.

In a medium skillet, heat a tablespoon of olive oil over medium flame. Add the pepper strips, garlic, and salt, and sauté until the garlic gives off its aroma, about a minute. Now add the sweet vermouth, and let it bubble away. Add the thyme and the mustard, mixing them in. Cook about a minute longer. Now turn off the heat, and let the peperonata sit in the skillet. This will help it develop flavor. After about 5 minutes, transfer it to a bowl, and give it a drizzle of fresh olive oil.

Place the ground meat in a bowl. Add about a tablespoon of olive oil, and season with salt and black pepper. Mix gently. Shape the meat into four thick patties.

Cook the patties on either an outside grill or a stove-top grill plate. I like mine very rare, but anything from almost raw to medium-rare, in my opinion, is acceptable. If you’re going to hammer them, I really don’t see the point of wasting good meat. So give them the touch test. Soft in the center is rare. Heading toward medium rare you’ll feel a bit of springiness.

While your burgers are cooking, set out 4 plates, and place a few leaves of the Bibb lettuce on each. Place a hamburger on each. Top with the peperonata (which I think is best slightly warm or at room temperature). Garnish with caper berries and thyme sprigs.

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Still Life with FishStill life with fish, Gaetano Cusati, circa 1700.

Mozzarella with tomatoes. You’d have to be brain-dead to say no to that. But mozzarella with swordfish? One of the big shocks of my Italian culinary life was visiting Sicily and seeing how often they pair fish with cheese, something I was brought up to consider bad manners. I discovered in Palermo that a sprinkling of pecorino on baked tuna is a wonderful thing. Spaghetti with shrimp and tomatoes and a little aged caciocavallo, that tasted just fine, too. I also noticed that cheese, along with bread crumbs, herbs, and maybe pine nuts and raisins, makes a wonderful filling for stuffed sardines.

Somehow I was thinking recently that the meatiness of swordfish, a popular fish in Sicily, and the plushness of mozzarella would produce a pleasant match. And they did. I tell you, it was really good.

Swordfish with salmoriglio sauce is a Palermo classic. The sauce is so simple yet has such intense flavor, you won’t believe it. Just herbs, your best olive oil, lemon, and  a touch of garlic. There are cooked and uncooked versions. For summer, I like it cool and fresh. It’s used on meat and fish, but it’s also great on mozzarella, so I suppose that’s how the connection found its way into my head. This is a piatto unico, a meal on a plate. You’ll want the salmoriglio to spill off the fish so a little works its way onto the salad. All the flavors should blend. Since these flavors are distinct, the blend will be a vibrant one. Sicilian food is like that, even when improvised.

So here’s another low-carb Mediterranean offering for you pleasure-seeking dieters. Ditch the bread, but go for a glass of good Italian rosato.

Happy summer.


Seared Swordfish with Salmoriglio and a Tomato, Mozzarella, and Celery Leaf Salad

(Serves two)

For the salmoriglio:

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
The juice from half a large lemon
1 summer garlic clove, minced
About 6 sprigs each fresh marjoram and oregano, the leaves chopped

For the salad:

8 summer cherry tomatoes, cut in half and drained for about ½ hour
½ pound not-too-soft mozzarella, cut into medium cubes
½ cup celery leaves, left whole
A few thin slices red shallot
3 sprigs marjoram, the leaves left whole
Extra-virgin olive oil
A drizzle of lemon juice
A palmful of baby arugula

2 thick slices, about ½ pound each, swordfish steak
Black pepper
A drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil

In a small bowl, mix all the ingredients for the salmoriglio together. Set aside. This should be made about ½ hour before serving, but not much longer or the herbs will lose their freshness.

In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients for the salad except the arugula, and give them a toss.

Put a heavy-bottomed skillet (cast iron will work well) over medium-high flame. Season the swordfish with salt and black pepper, and coat each side with a little olive oil.

When the skillet is hot, add the swordfish and sear, without moving the pieces around, until the bottoms are nicely browned and the fish moves easily in the skillet. Give them a flip, and brown the other side. The entire cooking time shouldn’t be more than about 4 to 5 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish. You’ll want to keep the center a bit underdone, since swordfish can easily become dry.

Place the fish on two dinner plates. Put a little mound of arugula next to the fish. Divide the salad up onto the arugula. Drizzle the salmoriglio over the fish. Serve right away.

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Woman with Fish


One of my fashion icons holding a hollow fish. Have I been led astray into a land of emptiness? I must find a way back while retaining high boho style. Help.

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201Still Life with Olives, Gerald Roling.

Fried olives are an intricate and exotic treat. They’re worth the bit of effort they take to prepare. I first came across them in Rome decades ago, made by a chef named Maria Romani at her fish restaurant, Il Pellicano. She was originally from the Le Marche region, where fried stuffed olives are a tradition, usually filled with pork. Signora Romani’s olives contained some type of seafood, shrimp maybe (it was a long time ago), and were breaded, fried, and served as one of the earlier courses in a multi-course meal. Everything was wonderful, but the olives were a mind blower. Such flavor, such labor. A strange feature of the restaurant was that dishes were brought out one after another, ten, twelve of them, until you told the waiter you couldn’t eat another bite. After you’d given the word, out would come a lemon sorbetto, and that was that. The restaurant hasn’t existed in years. I wonder what happened to Signora Romani? I’m going to give her an Internet search right now. . . . Well, I didn’t come up with anything. If anyone knows if she’s still cooking, or even still walks this earth, please tell me.

I love most fried foods, but olives have an agro-dolce-ness that plays extra well against the crispy, oiliness of a fried crust. Mild green olives, in my opinion, work the best. The Ascolana olives of Le Marche, which have a mild but bright flavor, are what inspired that region’s fried olive recipes, I believe. I can’t imagine frying a strong, wrinkled black Moroccan olive, no matter how much I love them. They don’t have enough juice or quiet acidity. Green Cerignolas from Puglia also have the right qualities for frying.

People worry that fried food is bad for you. Please don’t worry. Southern Italy perfected fried food, and the Mezzogiorno was included in the big 1960s Mediterranean diet study because it had an extremely healthy lifestyle. They fry things that are good for you, such as cauliflower, or sardines, not Milky Ways (well, zeppole, but just for le feste). Also the food is usually just dusted with a little flour or breadcrumbs, not a thick batter that becomes a grease-hogging encasement. Often they use olive oil and fry quickly so the oil doesn’t break down. And, maybe most important, fried food in Southern Italy is served as an antipasto, not a main course. Plus, you don’t need a gallon of oil. I fried these olives in about 2 inches of olive oil. That’s all they require. This is really a lovely salad. Give it a try.  And since I’ve included cheese and sausage in this salad, I didn’t bother to stuff them, so the prep is minimal. The olives are also good on their own, maybe served with some young pecorino, a few slices of prosciutto, and a glass of Grillo wine.


Escarole Salad with Fried Olives, Capocollo, and Asiago

(Serves two)

For the salad:

2 big handfuls of young summer escarole or frisée (any green that is not a big wilter will work)
About 8 big shavings of aged Asiago
6 slices capocollo, cut into thin strips
2 very thin slices red onion
A small handful of tiny basil leaves
The leaves from a few large sprigs of marjoram
1 summer garlic clove, crushed
1 teaspoon Spanish sherry vinegar
A pinch of salt
Black pepper
About 1½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

For the olives:

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
10 Cerignola or Ascolana green olives, pitted (or any large green olive, as long as they’re not too salty. You can rinse ones that seem briny)
½ cup regular white flour
2 eggs, lightly beaten
¾ cup homemade dry breadcrumbs
6 or so large thyme sprigs, the leaves well chopped
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon ground fennel seed
1 tablespoon grated aged Asiago cheese
¼ teaspoon Aleppo pepper, or a pinch of cayenne
A few big grindings of black pepper

Place the lettuce in a nice looking salad bowl. Scatter on the Asiago, capocollo, onion, and the herbs.

Whisk the garlic, vinegar, salt, black pepper, and olive oil together, and set aside.

Pour the oil for the olives into a medium saucepan, and get it hot over high heat. You’ll want about 2 inches or so of oil.

While the oil is heating, place the breadcrumbs on a plate, and add the thyme, allspice, fennel, tablespoon of Asiago, Aleppo, and black pepper. Mix well.

Dry the olives, and coat them lightly in flour. Now dip them in the egg, shaking off excess.

Roll the olives in the breadcrumb mixture, coating them well all over. Stick them in the refrigerator while the oil is heating. This will help their coatings adhere.

When the oil is hot (test by flicking in a few drops of water; it should immediately sizzle), add the olives, and fry until golden all around (do this in two batches if they’re crowded). Lift them from the oil onto paper towels with a slotted spoon.

Toss the salad with the vinaigrette, and then scatter the hot olives on top. Serve right away.

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