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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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Women with Fish

(c) BRIDGEMAN; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

As curator of Women with Fish, I’ve noticed some unexpected patterns. A recurring theme is women with fish on their heads. I wondered why that might be. Women in many countries traditionally carry baskets of food on their heads, for transport, but these fish are not in baskets. They serve as hats, or possibly decoration. I like the feel of it.  I guess a lot of people sense that it’s right. But why?

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While writing my monthly column for the now defunct MyCurves magazine, I was often driven a little crazy by how regimented my ingredient amounts had to be. That did not fit my freewheeling lifestyle. After decades of recipe writing, all of a sudden I needed to measure out every grain of salt and drop of olive oil, and even stuff chopped herbs into teaspoons. To anyone who’s followed my career, you know I’m an improvisational type, which  has always been reflected in my recipe writing style. From the beginning I sensed that my readers had a culinary foundation that would allow them to make their own calls on many ingredient amounts and improvise to suit their tastes. My style grew partly as a give-and-take with my audience. This made me happy. But ultimately the MyCurves column made me very happy too, or maybe enlightened is a better word. Yes, it was enlightening to see just how much or little of everything I was putting into my food, to be forced to confront it. Five tablespoons of olive oil in a pan of broccoli rabe? Really? That’s more than 600 calories. Writing for MyCurves even changed some of my eating habits. I no longer glug through 25 ounces of olive oil a week. Nobody needs that much oil, no matter how good it is for you.

Okay, so I accept that diet organizations (this was the magazine of the Curves fitness chain) have their rules for ingredient amounts. But there were no set rules concerning the actual body of a MyCurves recipe. At least no one mentioned anything to me. At first I automatically thought conservative, even doctor-like. It seemed some of their other writers were working in that direction. After all, this was a serious publication. Some of its readers were clinically obese, and they were relying on me for help. But did I need to bark out military-like orders? I quickly realized I needn’t, and in fact people trying to lose weight deserve all the warmth and comfort they can get. Don’t you think? So I wrote the recipes in my usual way, with a friendly voice and plenty of experience to back me up. That worked out just fine, and, in my opinion, even softened the set-in-stone ingredient listings.

And now I’m developing low-carb dishes for my own blog. Are they diet recipes? I mean, the point of low-carb is partly to lose weight (but also to make sure you don’t develop anything nasty like adult-onset diabetes). I wondered if my recipe style would change when I went low-carb. I soon understood that these recipes could contain absolutely no restrictions. All I’m doing here is creating good Italian dishes that are naturally very low in carbs. No rigidity, no compromise. I just wasn’t going near pasta, potatoes, pizza, or risotto. There’s a big world of Italian food out there that’s naturally low-carb and fantastic. I sometime forget that myself.

So here’s a really good recipe for lentils, a legume I really love. When I starting looking into its carb load, I got some really good news. First off, it’s high in fiber and protein, with only 12 grams of carbs in ½ cup. And its glycemic index, the indicator of how fast and how high a food will raise our blood glucose, is low, around 30. That is mainly because you digest them slowly. Lentils are one of the lowest-carb beans you can eat.

For this soup I’ve chosen the tiny, tanish lentils grown in Umbria. They keep their shape even when cooked tooth-tender, unlike most lentils, which break down almost into a purée. They produce a soup that’s more brothy and elegant. I get beautiful ones from Gustiamo, the best Italian food importer in the country that I know of.  French Le Puy lentils, which are green, cook up in a similar fashion and can sometimes be found at specialty shops.  Either variety will work  well here. Also, just a few words about the sausage in this soup: It’s intended as a seasoning, not a major presence, and that’s why there’s so little of it. The lentils have so much flavor that I didn’t want to overpower them. I think you’ll find that the balance is right.

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Umbrian Lentil Soup with Andouille and Escarole

(Serves 5 to 6)

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 celery stalk, diced, plus a handful of celery leaves, lightly chopped
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
About ½ teaspoon ground allspice
7 or 8 large sprigs thyme, the leaves chopped
1 andouille sausage, cut into very small cubes
1¾ cups dried Umbrian or Le Puy lentils (no soaking needed with lentilsanother reason to love them)
Salt
Black pepper
A pinch of sugar
A splash of dry vermouth
1 quart light chicken broth
1 small head escarole, cut into very small pieces (about 1½ cups cut)
A drizzle of good red wine vinegar
A lump of unsalted butter

Choose a big soup pot with a lid. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and let it warm over medium flame. Add the onion, carrot, celery, and its leaves, and let them soften for about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, allspice, thyme, and andouille, and sauté until the sausage and the seasonings are releasing their aromas, about 4 minutes. Add the lentils, salt, black pepper, and sugar, and sauté until the lentils are well coated with seasoning, another 2 or 3 minutes. Add the vermouth, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Add the chicken broth, and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down a touch, partially cover the pan, and cook at a low bubble until the lentils are tender, about 35 to 40 minutes. You’ll want to add warm water if the liquid gets too low, so check every once in a while. Give the surface a good skim.

Now add the escarole, and let it wilt into the soup. Adjust the texture by adding more hot water, or a little more broth if you prefer. I like my soup a bit loose.

Turn off the heat and add the butter and a few drops of vinegar to balance out the flavors. Taste for seasoning. That’s it.

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