Here’s my February column for MyCurves magazine. It’s another 400 calorie dinner, this one based on the classic Sicilian winter salad of oranges and fennel. I’ve added chicory, seared shrimp, red onion, black olives, and good olive oil. It’s a one dish meal. I hope you like it.
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Recipe: Lasagnette con Crema di Rapini
What else can I do with my all-time favorite green vegetable? I’m talking about broccoli rabe, a source of bittersweet culinary memories for almost every Italian-American I know. We ate tons of it when I was a kid. There were a few years, when I first left my family home, when I couldn’t stand the smell of the stuff. But now, again as when I was a child, I can’t get enough of it. If I want something delicious I can cook when my brain is on vacation, I make orecchietti with broccoli rabe and sausage, or orecchietti with broccoli rabe and anchovies. Two beautiful dishes, little cognitive function needed. Lately, when my head has been clearer, I’ve wondered how else I could work this fabulous vegetable into a really good pasta. Well, how about a slightly lumpy, beautifully bitter purée? I tried it, and I loved the result.
In Italian food talk, crema doesn’t usually indicate the inclusion of cream. It refers to a purée, an ingredient made smooth. There’s no cream in this preparation, just well-cooked broccoli rabe and a few appropriate seasonings, given a quick run through the food processor.
Lasagnette con Crema di Rapini
(Serves 4 as a first course)
1 very large bunch Broccoli rabe, well trimmed of tough stems
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 small garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 oil-packed anchovies, roughly chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
About ½ cup light chicken broth (or a good vegetable broth)
¾ pound lasagnette
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup or so of grated Grana Padano cheese
The grated zest of one large lemon
A large handful of pine nuts, lightly toasted
Set up a big pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Add salt. Add the broccoli rabe, and boil until it’s tender, about 5 minutes. Plunge the broccoli rabe into a water bath to cool, and then drain it well.
In a large skillet, sauté the garlic and anchovy in about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the broccoli rabe, season it with a little salt and black pepper, and sauté until soft and fragrant, about 3 or 4 minutes. Add the chicken broth, and simmer a minute longer. Add the broccoli rabe with all the skillet liquid to a food processor, and pulse until you have a slightly chunky purée (you want some texture, not a completely smooth paste).
Bring the water back to a boil, and add the lasagnette.
Place the grated Grana Padano, the butter, and the lemon zest in a large serving bowl.
When al dente, drain the lasagnette, saving a little of the cooking water.
Add the lasagnette to the bowl. Toss quickly. Add the broccoli rabe crema and the pine nuts, and toss again, adding a little of the cooking water to loosen it up, if needed. Taste for seasoning.
Recipe: Broccoli with Toasted Walnuts
Italians are the best vegetable cooks I know, striking the perfect balance between the food’s innate goodness and enhancement. Sometimes all it takes is olive oil, a touch of garlic, and salt. They see vegetables as equals to meat and fish and often serve them as a separate course. I love that kind of respect. I’ve never met an Italian home cook who could possibly offer up a platter of undercooked steamed broccoli.
Even now, with America more and more obsessed with food, it’s weird how vegetables can be treated as an afterthought here. I find this most perplexing when I encounter it in Italian restaurants. Even in fancy Manhattan, vegetables can be completely unadorned and sent out as a inert lump on your plate. What is up with that?
Recently I ate at an Italian seafood restaurant near my home in the West Village. The place smelled of freshly shucked oysters, and the Falanghina I ordered was excellent. My entrée was a perfectly grilled, whole, quite expensive pompano, stuffed to overflowing with fresh rosemary and thyme. It was wonderful, but it shared the plate with very lightly steamed broccoli and string beans, both completely flavorless and tough. How about a little salt? Is that so difficult? Another recent time, at another place, I ordered a crisp and juicy pan-fried pork cutlet seasoned deftly with lemon and capers but served with a side of that dreaded boiled broccoli. Excuse me, waiter, can I get a little olive oil over here?
Anyone who is a regular reader of mine knows that I almost never diss restaurants. Having toiled in restaurant kitchens for years, I know how damned hard it is to keep quality high night after night. Line cooking was the hardest job I ever did. But I do have an issue with vegetable preparations at more than a few Italian places in Manhattan. I’m not going to name those two trattorias I just referred to, but I’ll tell you it took all my patience not to go running into the kitchen screaming, “Why? Why?” I recall the NYU cafeteria doing a better job with broccoli.
Have you experienced this? Don’t those chefs want their friends and families to eat more vegetables? Have they ever cooked with an Italian grandmother? Garlic, olive oil, hot pepper, white wine, lemon zest, pine nuts, olives, basil, oregano, anchovies, a thread of good vinegar, a pinch of salt. I mean really.
And here’s a Mediterranean diet update for you: A new analyses published in the Journal of the American Medical Association says a diet rich in olive oil and nuts helps cut the risk of atherosclerosis, a build up of plaque in the arteries. So eat your broccoli with toasted walnuts. Good and good for you.
Broccoli with Toasted Walnuts
(Serves 4 as a first course or a side)
1 large bunch broccoli
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 ¼-inch-thick slice pancetta, cut into small cubes
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
A few big scrapings of nutmeg (about 1/8 teaspoon)
A splash of dry Marsala
A big handful of very fresh walnuts, lightly toasted and then roughly chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
The grated zest from a small lemon
Peel the stalks of the broccoli, and cut them into slices. Cut the heads into small florettes (you want to use everything except the tough end).
Set up a medium-size pot of water. Bring it to a boil, and add some salt. Add the broccoli, and blanch for about 2 minutes. Drain, and plunge the broccoli into an ice bath to stop the cooking and bring up its green color. Drain well.
Pour about 2 tablespoons of olive oil into a large skillet. Turn the heat to medium. When the oil is hot, add the pancetta, and sauté until it’s just starting to crisp and has given up much of its fat. Add the garlic, and sauté for a minute to release its flavor. Add the broccoli, and season with nutmeg and a big pinch of salt. Sauté until the broccoli is just tender and fragrant, about 3 minutes or so (this step will coax flavor from the broccoli and lightly caramelize it). Add a splash of Marsala, and let it boil away. Add the walnuts, and season with black pepper. Give it another brief sauté to blend all the flavors. Add a drizzle of fresh olive oil and the lemon zest. Serve hot or at room temp. This is great with roast chicken or pork chops. I also like it solo, with a few slices of olive oil and garlic-brushed bruschetta.
Recipe: Ricotta Torta with Honey and Orange Flower Water
For me ricotta has always been one of the most soothing foods. Its subtle flavor is hard to pin down. I know it when I taste it or smell it, but it’s so elusive it almost isn’t there. Maybe that’s its appeal. All I know is that ricotta has a huge pull on my soul, calming me when I’m anxious, exciting me when I’m bored. It signals the emergence of a dish of stuffed shells or ravioli or lasagna. What I taste first in those beautiful preparations is the oozing ricotta, lightly scented with nutmeg and maybe parsley. How that particular flavor jumps out amid all that sausage, tomato, and garlic is beyond my comprehension, but there it is, up front.
This holiday season, I wanted to work ricotta into at least one of my meals. I bought a big container of locally made fancy stuff at Murray’s cheese shop, on Bleecker Street. It was milky, with a touch of tang. How lovely.
Things got strained and strange over Christmas, as I knew they would. As you may recall from my Christmas post, my mother can’t eat by mouth anymore, so as the household cook I found this year’s holidays loaded with anxiety. Not a lot of soothing going on. How do you make a holiday meal for a family where the matriarch doesn’t eat? Make the food appealing but inconspicuous? What could that even mean? Make the food boring? Make less of it? Get takeout? I managed to plan a good Christmas one-pot meal, a big pasta with shrimp, brandy, and a lot of fresh herbs, but at 7 p.m. I still had that tub of ricotta sitting useless in my refrigerator. I became, well, not frantic exactly, but in need of a Negroni, which I made for myself. Gotta use up that ricotta or it’ll go bad. That would be a sin. Should I make a ricotta cheesecake? It’s so time-consuming with that crust and lattice top. And it’s more of an Easter thing. But whatever. I thought for a moment more and decided to just throw a cake-like concoction together quickly by beating egg whites and then combining the ricotta and flavorings together in the food processor. Into the oven it went. At least I used the ricotta. I made myself another Negroni. At best I was expecting some sort of soggy ricotta pancake. Instead I got a delicious, tender torta di ricotta, senza crust, but simple and so fragrant.
I felt peaceful eating this torta, almost carefree, as if I were dropping in on someone else’s Christmas. It was strangely transporting, right when I needed it. Who made that cake anyway? Must have been the ricotta Christmas fairy. Thank you Mr. Fairy. Wait a minute. I’ve made things like it before. That was no fairy, that was me. My old cooking brain had just kicked in, working on automatic pilot. Thank you, old brain full of good Italian recipes.
Ricotta Torta with Honey and Orange Flower Water
About a tablespoon or so of softened butter, to grease the pan
6 extra-large eggs
½ cup sugar
½ cup orange blossom honey (or some other mild honey)
A big pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon orange flower water
The grated zest from 1 large lemon and 1 large orange
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 large container whole milk ricotta (about 30 ounces)
¼ teaspoon baking powder
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Grease a nine-inch springform pan with the butter.
Separate the eggs, placing the yolks in a food processor and the whites in the bowl for your mixer (either a standing or handheld one).
Add the sugar, honey, salt, vanilla, orange flower water, and lemon zest to the food processor, and give it all a few good pulses. Now add the ricotta, the nutmeg, and the baking powder, and process until the mixture is smooth. Pour this into a large bowl.
Whip the egg whites until they achieve the classic stiff-peaks stage.
Add half the egg whites to the bowl, and gently fold them in. Now add the rest of the egg whites, and fold until just blended.
Pour this into the greased pan, and bake until the cake is browned and puffy and feels fairly firm in the center, about 50 or 60 minutes.
Place the cake on a rack. It will immediately deflate a bit, but that’s normal. Let it cool, and then remove the rim of the pan. You can now dust it with powdered sugar, if you like.
Here’s my November column for Curves Fitness magazine. It’s a big, warm meal in a bowl, full of cannellini beans, escarole, shrimp, capers, garlic, oregano, all great Italian flavors. And it’s only 400 calories a serving. Can’t beat that. I hope you enjoy it.
This man is trying to kill his wife with mercury.