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marjoramWild marjoram in full flower. It must smell divine. I wish I were there.

Recipe: Seared Calamari with Marjoram, Basil, and Ricotta Salata

Beautiful marjoram, the herb of love and good fortune in the Italian kitchen: I see it now on my windowsill, and it looks like it’s doing well, but I have a gnawing feeling that something bad will happen soon, that it will wither and shrink and ultimately die. I must stop thinking like this.

Herbs grow from rocks, from cracked earth, and in blazing, dry heat. Herbs even grow in the excitement and misery that is Manhattan. Herbs are ancient, their flavors unchanged from when my great-great grandparents were pulling mentuccia and fennel up on the dusty slopes of Puglia. I’ve got herbs growing high and bushy in stoop pots that are almost out on the street. This year my basil is doing well. But, as I said, the marjoram is making me anxious.

In the past I’ve wanted to honor my homegrown herbs by presenting them solo. This year, I’m not sure why, I’m more interested in combining their flavors. It’s exciting to see how blending two or more herbs changes them, creating a new taste. That certainly happened when I added both basil and marjoram to my sautéed calamari. The marjoram tempered the base note of clove in the basil (basil and clove share a common aromatic oil), and the basil suppressed some of the marjoram’s floral tones, leaving it tasting more like its cousin oregano, but without oregano’s harshness. Oregano, usually dried, and basil are a common enough Southern Italian combo, and the taste of this calamari reminds me of many dishes from my childhood. Substituting marjoram and letting it mingle with basil gives me the flavor memory I want, but updated, making it, in my opinion, a little bit better.

(Serves 4)

Extra-virgin olive oil
1½ pounds small calamari, cleaned and cut into rings, the tentacles left whole
1 stalk summer garlic, sliced
1 whole star anise
Salt
Black pepper
A tiny splash of dry vermouth
About 6 canned San Marzano tomatoes, well chopped and very well drained
6 large marjoram sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
A handful of basil leaves, cut into strips
About ½ cup crumbled ricotta Salata

Choose a large, heavy bottomed pan, and get it hot over high heat. Add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. When that’s hot, add the calamari, spreading it out to cover the pan. Add the garlic and the star anise. Season with salt and black pepper, and sauté quickly, about a minute.

Add the vermouth, letting it boil away. Add the tomatoes, and cook at a lively bubble just to take off their raw edge, about 2 minutes. Pull the pan from the heat, and add the marjoram, basil, and about a tablespoon of the ricotta salata, stirring everything to blend. Taste for seasoning. Drizzle with a thread of fresh olive oil.

Pour the calamari into a wide serving dish, and top with the remaining ricotta salata. Serve with garlic bruschetta brushed with olive oil.

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Recipe: Warm Potato Salad with Chives, Tarragon, and Parsley

Planting flowers and herbs in pots out on the sidewalk in New York City is asking for trouble, but what can I do? I have a big urge to plant, and this is the space Mother Nature has lent me. During warm months I wake up many a morning in fear that my beautiful herbs and geraniums will have been ripped out and flung onto the street, or pulled out and stolen. It happens at least once a year. I have a hard time figuring out the mentality of someone who steals fennel or marjoram. It doesn’t fit any criminal profile I know. The vandalism is usually done in the early morning, around two or three. I live on the ground floor, so once or twice I’ve heard people banging around out there. I assume they are drunk or drugged stragglers, whose lives are just not complete without collecting a pilfered parsley plant, trotting down the street with it, and then dumping it in a garbage can at the end of the block. I guess owning it for those fleeting minutes makes the person vital. People tell me to just let it go, but it’s hard. I’d really like to run after these idiots, but idiots who are drunk or drugged can be scary. Best to stay inside and let the destruction unfold.

So far so good this year. My stoop pots are thriving, my windowsills are covered with red flowers. I did briefly have trouble with my tarragon, but after chats with friends and farmers I realize I was drowning it. It was rotting at the base. I cut it way back, adding the limp leaves to a small bottle of champagne vinegar (which I used in this salad) and letting the plant dry out. Now it’s coming back, shooting up all new sprigs. I’m so happy. I can’t stand killing things.

To celebrate my happy herb pots, I made a potato salad with all the herbs I have growing high and wild right now. Chives, parsley, and a little tarragon, the fines herbes of the French kitchen minus the chervil. (I can never grow chervil. It shrivels up into dry, frilly crisps in no time. I don’t know what I do wrong with it. Help would be greatly appreciated.) The secret to gaining intensity with this salad is tossing the warm potatoes with a little vinegar and wine and letting the liquid sit and soak in for a few minutes before adding anything else. That will give you a deeper than skin-deep taste. It’s not really much of a secret; French cooks have been doing it for decades.

These potatoes, a plate of prosciutto, a bowl of watercress, and a few glasses of springtime rosé make a wonderful meal.

I love my herb pots.

Warm Potato Salad with Chives, Tarragon, and Parsley

(Serves 4)

1 bag baby Yukon Gold potatoes (1½ pounds or so), cut in half
Salt
1 teaspoon tarragon vinegar, or maybe a little more
1 tablespoon dry white or rosé wine
A big pinch of ground allspice
Chives, tarragon, and parsley, all lightly chopped (you’ll want about a half cup, total)
Extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground Black pepper

Put the potatoes in a pot, and cover them with warm water by about 3 inches. Add some salt, and turn the heat to high. Bring to a boil. Turn the heat down a bit, and cook at a lively bubbly until the potatoes are just tender but the skins haven’t started to detach, about 10 minutes, checking their tenderness once or twice during cooking. Drain well.

Place the potatoes in a big bowl. Drizzle with tarragon vinegar and wine. Sprinkle on the allspice, and give them a toss with your fingers. Let them sit for a few minutes, and then give them another toss. They should have soaked up most of the liquid.

Now add all the chopped herbs, a bit more salt, and big drizzle of really good olive oil. Add black pepper, and toss. Check for seasoning. You might need a few more drops of vinegar. Serve warm.

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Women with Fish

26A1597-fish

I have heard that a 120 pound skirt of fish strung together on metal wire is a toning exercise for an acrobat.

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My Herb Pots, Part One

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Recipes: Chervil, Chive, and Tarragon Salsa Verde; Mint, Basil, and Thyme Salsa Verde

My apartment building has two decent-size round pots on its stoop, on either side of the entrance. Except for one I-wouldn’t-harm-a-weed neighbor, I’m the only person in the building interested in planting anything in them. The weed lady, if given the opportunity, will fill the pots with anything from a vacant lot or the wild that catches her eye, and such a plant is likely to quickly take over. Every year I race to get my herbs and spring flowers started before she can fill the pots, and luckily for me, she’s always happy to see my chives, tarragon, and rosemary shoot up. Fancy herbs need homes, too.

I’m just starting my planting now. I’ve fished out all the cigarette butts and more repulsive city detritus, worked over the soil, and added new dirt. It’s dark and moist. So far I’ve put in flat-leaf parsley, regular basil, rosemary, thyme, sage, chives, and tarragon. I’ve also got seeds for tiny, spiky arugula starting in one of my window pots. I treat it like an herb. It comes up strong for three or four weeks and then poops out, so when it emerges I use it all, in a pesto or a salad.

At the moment my favorite herbs are marjoram, Thai basil, and wild fennel, none of which I can yet find at my Greenmarket. I planted them last year and was excited to see the fennel and Thai basil do well for much of the summer. I was saddened by the marjoram. It fizzled out after about a week. I love that herb so much. I replaced it with Greek oregano, but I hardly ever used that, finding it too harsh. Luckily I don’t see it coming back up, at least not yet (but it’s a tough little soul and may show its dark leaves any day now). Eventually I’ll locate some fennel and Thai basil and add them to my group. And I’ll try marjoram again. I really hope it has a better summer than last.

Every spring I start chopping and grinding herbs. I’m big on unusual pestos and improvised salsa verdes. The aromas and the knife work are exciting and soothing. Salsa verde is best when the herbs are chopped by hand. A pesto needs a more emulsified texture, so a food processor, or, if you’re into it, a mortar and pestle, is better for those.

Mixing these herbs and letting their oils flow together is for me surprisingly more like chemistry than cooking. Even though I think I know what these combos should taste like, they almost never quite do. The whole is often greater than the sum of the parts, and unexpected. But it can work the other way. Tarragon and basil, two gently anisy-tasting herbs, taste soapy to me when ground together, but basil mixed with parsley is sweetly grassy with just an undertone of anise. Last week when I wanted a good salsa verde for grilled squid and octopus, I thought to put mint, basil, and thyme together. I hesitated at first, worrying that the thyme would dominate too forcefully, but I went ahead and was surprised by its rich yet not jarring perfume. Coincidently, I learned recently when reading Vegetable Literacy, by Deborah Madison, that these three herbs are botanically related. I’m not sure what that has to do with the fact that they tasted good together. Anise and caraway, both members of the umbelliferae family, taste terrible together.

All my herb condimenti are olive oil based. I prefer to use a mellower oil for them, such as one from Liguria or Puglia. I find that the bite of Tuscan oils can interfere with the herbs’ freshness, and can turn a salsa bitter.

Here are two good herb combos to get you started. Each makes about ¾ of a cup, enough to serve 4 as a condiment.

Chervil, Chive, and Tarragon Salsa Verde

A big handful of chervil
A dozen large tarragon sprigs, stemmed
About a dozen chives
The grated zest from 1 small lemon, plus a squeeze of its juice
A few drops of vanilla extract
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
Black pepper

With a good chef’s knife or a mezzaluna, chop all the herbs well. You’ll want them to look like little flecks. Put them in a small bowl. Add the lemon zest and vanilla. Add enough olive oil to achieve a spoonable but not too thick consistency. Season with salt, black pepper, and a little lemon juice. Let sit for about ½ hour to develop good flavor, but try to serve on the day it’s made.

Try it on blanched asparagus, carrots, or leeks, on poached fish, spooned over scrambled eggs, or tossed with farfalle.

Mint, Basil, and Thyme Salsa Verde

About 20 medium basil leaves
About 10 medium spearmint leaves
5 large sprigs thyme, the leaves stemmed
1 spring garlic clove, peeled
A palmful of small, salt-packed capers, soaked, rinsed, and dried
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
A few drops of champagne vinegar.

Chop all the herbs until you have a pile of little flecks. Smash the garlic with the side of your knife, and mince it. Roughly chop the capers. Put it all in a small bowl. Add enough oil to get a thick but drizzly consistency. Season with salt and a few drops of champagne vinegar, and give it a good mix. Let sit for about ½ hour, and try to use it the day you make it.

I like this one on grilled fish or chicken. It’s also nice stirred into a spring minestrone or drizzled over grilled peppers or eggplant.

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ddf21f2cc3eaaf7e989b5af501c8bf78A fish market in Naples.

Long skinny pasta with clams. It’s the best. A beauty of the Southern Italian table. I try not to make it too often, for fear of it losing its specialness. It’s for Christmas Eve, or a childhood birthday, or to make when I need a reason to be grateful. For me clams hit all the right taste buds, and they have a fascinating look. I love the delicate clinks they make when I knock them together in a bowl of cool water. I love the sand settling on the bottom of that bowl. The perfection of pasta with clams makes me feel there’s unity in an oftentimes unaligned world. Yes, I’m serious. Clams with stringy pasta calms me.

The classic “white” version has always been my favorite, with its simple sauce of the clams’ briny juices, white wine, lots of garlic, a squeeze of lemon, flat-leaf parsley, and often red pepper flakes (an American touch; Italians tend to use whole dried peppers, which they crumble). Linguine, the flat spaghetti, is the classic pasta for clams. It’s wonderful, but I prefer bucatini. I like the way the clammy broth works its way up into the pasta’s opening, flavoring it from within and without. I sometimes add pancetta, more Spanish than Italian in spirit, and I play around with the herbs. One thing I never add is any member of the onion family. I can’t say exactly why, but I’ve never tasted an onion presence in any pasta dish with clams. It just seems instinctively wrong, something that wouldn’t mesh. Tomatoes are an option, of course, producing a “red” sauce.

And so it was the other day. When I felt adrift and alone, I thought of clams. What to do? Buy some, my flaky little brain told me. So I did, but just enough for two. Then my sister Liti called, feeling adrift and alone herself. Come over for dinner is of course what I said. But I didn’t quite have enough clams for three (and when I make this, I want everyone to have a lot of clams). It was late, and I was too lazy to go back to Citarella. I initially intended to make a white version, but now I knew I had to stretch the clams with something. I did have a few pints of grape tomatoes, so I knew they would get integrated into the dish.

I have to say, I’m never happy with pasta and clams swimming in a full-on tomato sauce. I prefer little hits of tomato interspersed throughout. I want to taste garlic, olive oil, white wine, lemon, and clams. So I decided to roast the tiny tomatoes and add them at the last minute, so they stayed whole and didn’t mingle too much with everything else. I also added thyme and fresh chili to this one. Pretty damned good. Everyone was happy and I hope relatively calm (almost spells clam; that proves my theory).

clams 009

Bucatini with Clams, Roasted Tomatoes, and Thyme

(Serves 4 as a main course)

2 pints grape tomatoes
Salt
Extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup dry white wine
½ cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 dozen small Little Neck or Manila clams, soaked and cleaned
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 fresh peperoncino, minced
1 pound bucatini
1 branch of thyme, the leaves lightly chopped
A handful of flat-leaf parsley, the leaves chopped
Lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Spread the tomatoes out on a sheet pan. Drizzle them with a little olive oil, and season with salt. Toss well with your fingers to distribute the oil. Roast in the oven until lightly browned and tender, about 15 minutes or so. Take the tomatoes from the oven, and let them sit on the sheet pan while you continue with the recipe.

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

While the pasta is coming to a boil, pour the white wine and chicken broth into a wide pot. Add the butter and a big drizzle of olive oil. Turn the heat to medium high, and bring the pot to a boil. Now add the clams, and cook them until they’ve opened. You’ll want to partially cover the pot in the beginning and then take the cover off and stir the clams around a few times so they cook evenly. When they’ve opened, turn off the heat, and let the clams sit in their liquid.

Drop the bucatini into the water.

Pour about 3 tablespoons of olive oil into a large, wide skillet, and let it get hot over medium heat. Add the garlic and the fresh chili, and sauté until fragrant, about a minute or so. Add the clams, with all their liquid, and the thyme, and stir everything around for a few seconds. Turn off the heat.

When the bucatini is al dente, drain it, leaving some of the cooking water clinging to it. Place it in a large serving bowl, and give it a drizzle of fresh olive oil.

Pour the clams and their liquid over the bucatini. Add the tomatoes and the parsley, and squeeze on a little lemon juice. Add another drizzle of olive oil, and toss well. Serve hot.

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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
Salt

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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Growing_Cauliflower

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
Salt
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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