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Learning to Create

The biggest lesson I took away from cooking in restaurant kitchens was that they are no place to improvise. If you’re the executive chef, they are where you perfect your craft. If you’re a line cook, they’re where you go to learn. Customers expect a dish to taste the same every time, so if you start messing around, you will, I assure you, be fired. Improvisation was something I did at home.

“You may be very imaginative and creative in the kitchen, but you cannot take advantage of those qualities if you don’t know the basics. Have a great weekend.”

That is something Jacques Pépin recently wrote on his Facebook page. I love the “have a great weekend” part. I agree with him about the basics, sort of, but for me the two things happened simultaneously, getting imaginative and learning the basics. In my twenties, when I first got serious about cooking professionally, I went out and bought La Technique and La Methode, M. Pépin’s two excellent step-by-step teaching manuals. They looked serious, almost like medical books, with their black-and-white photos of oozy meat slabs and the like, but the guy on the cover seemed sweet and nurturing. I soon discovered that these instructive volumes would keep me riveted, knife in hand, through some rocky terrain such as boning a chicken, poaching whole fish, larding meat, curing gravlax, stuffing a veal breast, opening oysters (my first try resulted in a trip to the emergency room), constructing a giant sausage in brioche, trimming a rack of lamb, and making an iced vodka bottle (which I actually did for a party once, a wild and successful centerpiece). I learned all these amazing things from M. Pépin. He made me feel like a professional but also well taken care of, except during the oyster incident. That was no joke.

Growing up I ate a lot of great food, and I witnessed much kitchen activity, both calm and chaotic. But I can’t say I discerned any solid technique going on. My grandmother seemed to just throw stuff together in a kind of ancient Italian haze. But with these two books, page after page, right through to the end, I gained confidence. M. Pépin was my kitchen daddy.

I did attend restaurant school, but I dropped out not even half way through, because I was broke. I was pretty amazed when I then got offered jobs in restaurant kitchens despite having no experience. I realized right off that they weren’t jobs, exactly. They were endurance tests. Restaurants taught me how to work extremely fast, often with an unacceptable amount of angst, racing heart, and eventually a really painful thumb joint on my chopping hand, a lump of muscle buildup in my left shoulder (I’m left-handed), and ingrown toenails. Some people thrive under harsh conditions, relishing in the adrenaline surge. I’m not one of them. But I wasn’t allowed to refuse to skin rabbits or drown eels in vinegar, or to cut 55 live  lobsters in two, each with a hopefully swift whack of a knife. I’d cry almost every time I was yelled at, which was ridiculous, since being abused was just part of the package.

I wanted quiet and time in the kitchen. So I bought more cookbooks, many more, mostly Italian. I cooked at home peacefully during my off hours, playing with flavors and serving up my creations to all my friends. I loved Carlo Middione, Giuliano Bugialli, Paula Wolfert’s Mediterranean books. I read Artusi, and I grabbed a few of my mother’s books, ones by Anna Del Conte and Ada Boni. I admired Marcella Hazan and recognized her authority, but a reprimanding tone I sensed in her voice turned me off. I’m sure I could have learned more from her, but what can you do?

So Mr. Pépin is right. You need to sharpen your skills. But that didn’t stop me from playing around at the same time. And it shouldn’t stop you either, no matter what your level. I’ve always believed that where there’s a will there’s a way, whether the results are good or not so good. And it’s all ultimately good, because you’ll learn something, even from your most inedible messes. Believe me. I made a ton of them.

Salsa Verde with Basil, Marjoram, and Mint

This is one of the first sauces I learned to make on my own. It’s an Italian classic with no set recipe. You’re after green freshness, however you choose to get there, within reason. Parsley, capers, and good olive oil are one way to go. All herbs and garlic are another. Anchovies are often an excellent addition, depending on what you’ll be using the sauce for. Fresh hot chili sometimes has its place. But start out simple. Just think olive oil and fresh herbs, and start chopping. I like the mix of basil, marjoram, and mint below because it recalls the taste of mentuccia, the wild mint so often used in Sicilian cooking. This mild salsa verde is great tossed with spaghetti or spooned over grilled swordfish. And it makes a beautiful dressing for summer tomatoes.

(Makes about 1 cup)

A dozen or so basil leaves
12 large sprigs marjoram
12 large sprigs spearmint
¾ cup rich and buttery extra-virgin olive oil (maybe a Puglian or Ligurian brand rather than a really green, pungent Tuscan)
The grated zest from 1 large lemon zest, plus about a tablespoon of lemon juice
1 small, fresh garlic clove, minced
A few gratings of fresh nutmeg

Chop all the herbs well. Put them in a bowl. Add the olive oil, lemon zest and juice, garlic, nutmeg, and a little salt. Mix well. Let sit for about 10 minutes before serving, to deepen in flavor. The sauce will theoretically keep for a few days, but I find it loses freshness after a few hours, and its bright green color darkens. It’s so quick to make, I just throw it together at some point while preparing dinner. If I’m only cooking for two, I’ll make about half this amount.

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Here’s a hipped up version of a Neapolitan Christmas Eve dish called insalata di rinforzo.  Traditionally you toss boiled cauliflower with half of the Southern Italian pantry, including black and green olives, capers, anchovies, sometimes vinegar peppers, raisins and pine nuts, parsley, and always good olive oil. I’ve heard from many sources that the name, which means reinforcement salad, comes from the practice of adding more cauliflower as the dish gets consumed, making sure you’ll still have something to feed stragglers who might show up at your door. But Jo Bettoja, in her elegant book Family Recipes from the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, says the name actually derives from the dish’s role as a sturdy replacement for the meat you can’t eat on Christmas Eve. I thought octopus was the sturdy replacement, but in any event this is a robusto winter salad with great flavor.

The first time I made it was for a Christmas Eve dinner at my parents’. I came home from college for a big cook-a-thon with my mother and brother. Once we all sat down at the table, a weird fight broke out that nobody seemed to quite understand the cause of or be able to articulate the point of. There was some irritation whose source never came fully out in the open, or maybe we had too much vino, or waited too long for dinner, or all of the above. Whatever the reason, all of a sudden several of our non-family guests were putting on their coats and heading out to the Long Island Rail Road, to go back to the city in creepy silence. Could it have been my cauliflower? My sister thinks it was her saying she wanted to attend midnight mass, dragging out the evening to an unacceptable length. That was a strange Christmas Eve.

But back to insalata di rinforzo. I really like it, but there’s one part I’m never absolutely crazy about, the boiled taste of the cauliflower, which pokes through even after a toss with heavy seasoning. To avoid that I went ahead and created a roasted version. I also trimmed down the add-ins, choosing anchovies, of course, forgoing the olives and pickled stuff, but incorporating roasted sweet peppers, almonds, capers, fresh marjoram, and parsley. This reworked dish has a more contemporary texture but retains its traditional bold flavor. For me it works beautifully. I’m happy.

Roasted Cauliflower Salad with Capers, Almonds, and Marjoram

(Serves 4 as a side dish or first course)

1 large cauliflower, broken into florets
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon ground fennel seed
2 roasted and peeled red bell peppers, seeded and cut into medium chunks
1 fresh peperoncino, well chopped (seeded if you want less heat)
2 scallions, cut into thin rounds, using some of the tender green part
A palmful of whole blanched almonds, roughly chopped
A palmful of salt packed capers, soaked and rinsed
1 small garlic clove, minced
4 anchovy fillets, minced
Fresh lemon juice to taste
5 large marjoram sprigs
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, lightly chopped

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Place the cauliflower on a sheet pan. Drizzle it with olive oil, and season with salt and the ground fennel. Mix well to distribute the seasoning, and bake until the cauliflower just starts to turn brown at the edges and is tender, probably around 20 minutes, stirring it around a few times so it cooks evenly.

Now add the roasted peppers, peperoncino, scallions, and almonds, mixing them in with the cauliflower. Bake for another 5 minutes. By this time the cauliflower should be nicely browned and the other ingredients should have warmed through and released their essences.

Pull the pan from the oven. Scatter on the capers,  garlic,  and minced anchovies, and let the heat from the pan open up their flavors.

Transfer the cauliflower to a big serving bowl. Drizzle on some lemon juice and a thread of fresh olive oil. Add the marjoram and parsley. Toss and taste for seasoning. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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Women with Fish


A woman who can get down and under with sea creatures is an inspiration to all who love women with fish. R.I.P, Eugenie Clark, our shark lady.

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opThe Italian grandmothers of my dreams.

Recipe: Crespelle with Roasted Peppers, Prosciutto Cotto, and a Red Pepper Sauce

I don’t cook Italian food the way my grandmother did. When she made eggplant parmigiano, I knew exactly what I’d be getting, down to the perfectly lined up inner layer of sliced hard-boiled eggs. Her recipe (or her execution might be more accurate) was fixed and solid, performed with devotion and a need to feed. The thought of her varying it, even slightly, I’m sure never occurred. And I felt contented with her delicious but etched in stone cooking. Everyone did.

When I came into my own as a cook, I didn’t gravitate toward her style. I learned the traditions of Italian cooking from family, school, and books, but I now seldom make a dish exactly the same way twice. I’m a restless cook.

The one time I cooked for my grandmother happened when my urge to create was just starting to bud. I was around 23. I made manicotti, one of Nanny’s classics. I guess it was nervy of me, but I wanted to make something I thought everyone would like. So I gathered my aunt and uncle, my parents, my sister, and my resolute Nanny around the table. After the first bite, there was a pause in the eating, and then a silence. What was happening? I could feel my jaw start to clench with angst. And then she muttered, “This tastes different.” That’s all. Verdict reached and delivered. That hung a creepy fear over the table and pretty much ruined the evening. I had made the manicotti with crêpes instead of traditional pasta dough, messing with tradition and infringing on her authority.

But then a strange thing happened. After a few days and a good laugh with my sister, I felt unafraid of this close little group of steely critics. A happy liberation came over me. I never cooked for my grandmother again. I didn’t want to. I wanted to cook for myself. 

Crespelle with Roasted Peppers, Prosciutto Cotto, and a Red Pepper Sauce

(Serves 4 or 5, making about 12 7-inch crespelle)

For the crespelle:

1 cup all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
A generous pinch of salt
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for cooking
1 cup whole milk, possibly a little more
1 tablespoon grappa, cognac, or brandy

For the ricotta filling:

2 cups whole-milk ricotta
1 large egg
1 small garlic clove, minced
½ cup grated grana Padano cheese
A few big scrapings of nutmeg (about ⅛ teaspoon)
Freshly ground black pepper
About 8 thyme sprigs, leaves chopped, plus a handful of tender sprigs for garnish


Extra-virgin olive oil
6 red bell peppers, charred, peeled, seeded, and cut into thick strips
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
Freshly ground black pepper
A big pinch of sugar
½ cup chicken broth
½ cup heavy cream
½ pound prosciutto cotto, very thinly sliced
½ cup grated grana Padano cheese

For the crespelle batter, put all the crespelle ingredients into the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until very smooth. The result should have the consistency of thick cream. If it’s too thick, add a little more milk. Pour the batter into a bowl, and let it sit about 45 minutes before using (this will relax the gluten a bit, so you get a nice tender crêpe).

To cook the crespelle, I used a 7-inch omelet pan, but if you’ve got a proper crêpe pan, a little bigger or smaller, use that. Any small sauté pan will do the trick. With these olive oil crespelle, I never find sticking a problem, so you don’t need a nonstick pan. Put the pan over a medium flame, and let it heat up. Pour in just enough olive oil to coat the pan. Pull the pan from the heat, and ladle in a bit less than a quarter cup of batter, tilting the pan quickly in a circular movement to spread the batter. (You’ll get the hang of it. The first few usually don’t come out too well. Once the heat is regulated and you get the feel of it, trust me, you’ll find it fairly easy.) Let the crespella cook just until you notice it coloring lightly at the edge. Then shake the pan, moving the crespella away from you, and slip a spatula underneath. Give it a fast, confident flip. If it folds up a bit, just straighten it out with your fingers (these things are a lot sturdier than you’d think). Cook on the other side for about 30 seconds, and then slide onto a big plate.

Make the rest of the crespelle the same way, adding a drizzle of olive oil to the pan each time. Stack the crespelle up on top of one another (they won’t stick, I swear). If you like, you can refrigerate them until you want to assemble the dish.

Mix the ingredients for the ricotta filling together in a big bowl.

In a medium skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the red pepper slices, the garlic, a pinch of sugar, salt, and black pepper, and sauté for about 2 minutes, just to finish cooking the peppers and coat them with flavor.

Take about a quarter of the peppers out and place them in a food processor, including any juices that are left in the skillet. Work them into a purée. Add the chicken broth and the cream, and give it a few more pulses, just to blend everything. Season with a little salt. Transfer this sauce to a little bowl.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Lay the crespelle out on a work surface. Cover each one with a layer of the ricotta filling, leaving the ends of the crespelle uncovered. Now place a piece of prosciutto cotto and a few slices of the roasted peppers on top. Roll them up, and arrange them in a well-oiled baking dish that will hold them rather snugly (you can use two dishes, if that’s more convenient for you).

Drizzle the pepper sauce over the crespelle, and sprinkle on the grana Padano. This sauce is not meant to cover the entire dish. It just provides a little flavor boost and moisture. Bake until bubbling and lightly browned at the edges, about 15 minutes. Garnish with the thyme sprigs.

Serve hot. No need to let them rest. They’re quite firm. I like them served with a simple winter salad of mixed chicory-type lettuces, such as frisée and endive.

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Recipe: Spaghetti with Winter Tomato Sauce and Ricotta

I never heard the word soffritto when I was growing up, but I knew the aroma. Whenever my mother started a tomato sauce or a ragù I was aware of a deep, sweet essence of vegetable wafting through the kitchen. And when I finally bothered to watch what she was doing, I saw onion, carrot, celery, parsley, and sometimes garlic simmering in olive oil. That is a basic soffritto, the underpinning of just about every well-made Italian soup, braise, or sauce. It’s usually a first step, one that lays a solid foundation.

There’s no English equivalent for the word soffritto. I think that says something about the complexly moral Anglo-Saxon relationship with food, which M.F.K. Fisher struggled to come to terms with for much of her life. The French, of course, have a word, mirepoix, after the lackluster eighteenth-century Duc de Mirepoix, whose only accomplishment seems to have been persuading his personal chef to name this culinary method after him.

In Italy there are actually two words, one for each stage of the procedure. Battuto, from battere, meaning to pound or beat, refers to the chopping (or battering, I guess) of the raw ingredients. Soffritto, from soffriggere, to fry, is what happens when the stuff hits the pan, when the aromas begin. I’ve heard these terms used interchangeably, but I believe these are their proper meanings.

In its most traditional form a soffritto consists of onion, carrot, and celery, all sautéed in some type of fat. Leeks or shallots can be a good swap for the onion. Sometimes a little sweet or hot fresh chili is appropriate. You can add garlic if you want that flavor. Sometimes I add sturdy herbs such as rosemary or thyme, whose flavors get released by the heat and become full and mellow. I’m not crazy about sage in a soffritto, it always goes a little musty on me. And speaking of musty, I avoid all dried herbs, including Southern Italy’s much loved dried oregano. That stuff when cooked down spreads the scent of pencil lead into everything it touches. I understand that not everyone feels this way, but what can I say? Flat-leaf parsley is a classic in soffritto, but I don’t like the way it goes dark and loses its fresh edge. I prefer to add it when the dish is finished. I do like the flavor of celery leaves in certain dishes, so I’ll often add a handful to my soffritto in addition to or sometimes instead of the stalk. I always add celery leaves to my base for pasta e fagiole. My mother taught me that.

I recall my grandmother occasionally beginning her soffritto in warm lard or chicken fat. That smelled wonderful. Then at some point she began using Crisco, an ingredient that as a young hippie I was repulsed by on principle. Strangely I don’t recall the smell of it. Did it have a smell? Often I use a mix of butter and olive oil, if I’ll be making a braised chicken dish or a sauce containing wild mushrooms. That combination is a classic starting point for many risottos. Pancetta is my stand-in for lard. I use it frequently in a soffritto, even with otherwise all-vegetarian dishes, such as a summer ciambotta. Pancetta needs to go in before any other soffritto ingredient so it can release its fat and brown; if you add it along with, say, onion, the onion may burn before the pancetta is crisp.  With stew meat I usually remove it from the pan after browning and then begin the soffritto. Anchovies are good too, if they’re where you’re directing your flavor. I’ll add them after I sauté my onion or celery or whatever, so they don’t get overly sautéed and concentrated.

There are different ways to cook a soffritto. Sometimes I want a quick, lightly sautéed flavor so my dish stays fresh-tasting. I’ll heat my oil and cook my soffritto fast, so the vegetables retain a bit of rawness. But for, say, a beef ragu, I might want it to cook long and slow to develop more caramelization, which will ultimately deepen the finished dish. I suppose these two approaches are analogous to the light and dark roux used in the cooking of New Orleans, both correct but serving different purposes.

Here’s a recipe for a winter tomato sauce that I make variations of all the time. It’ll show you how to go about making a pretty standard soffritto that starts with pancetta. I find that a well turned out soffritto does amazing things for canned tomatoes. There’s a lot going on in this dish that you might not necessarily see in your pasta bowl but you’ll taste on your tongue. All because of the soffritto.


Spaghetti with Winter Tomato Sauce and Ricotta

 (Serves 5 as a first course)

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 approximately ¼-inch-thick round of pancetta, cut into small dice
1 large shallot, cut into small dice
1 large carrot, cut into small dice
1 small inner celery stalk, diced, with the leaves, lightly chopped
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 small sprigs rosemary, the leaves chopped
4 sprigs thyme, the leaves chopped
Black pepper
A big pinch of ground nutmeg
A splash of sweet vermouth
½ cup chicken broth
1 35-ounce can plum tomatoes, well chopped
1 pound spaghetti
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, lightly chopped
¾ cup whole milk ricotta
A chunk of grana Padano cheese

Choose a wide, shallow sauce pan, and place it over medium heat. Add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the pancetta, and sauté until it just starts to crisp but still retains a little tenderness. Now add the shallot, carrot, and the celery and its leaves. Sauté, stirring around occasionally until the mix is fragrant, soft, and just starting to turn lightly golden, about 5 minutes. If the vegetables start getting too browned before getting tender, turn the heat down of bit. Add the garlic, rosemary, and thyme. Season with a little salt, black pepper, and the nutmeg, and sauté to release these flavors, about another minute. You don’t want the garlic to get dark.

Add a splash of sweet vermouth, and let it bubble away. Add the chicken broth and the tomatoes, and cook, uncovered, at a lively bubble for about 10 minutes.

In the meantime set up a pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add salt, and drop in the spaghetti.

Turn the heat off under the sauce, and add the butter, mixing it in. Taste for seasoning.

When the spaghetti is al dente, drain the it (save about ½ cup of the cooking water), and tip it into a large, warmed serving bowl. Add the sauce, the parsley, and a drizzle of fresh olive oil. Toss well. Add a little of the cooking water if the texture is too thick, and toss again, briefly. Spoon a dollop of ricotta onto each serving, and finish with some grated grana Padano.

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Women with Fish


These sisters know how to knock off fish.

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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.


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
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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