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My favorite Van Gogh painting, with onions and a copy of French chemist and politician F. V. Raspail’s Manuel Annuaire de la Santé, from 1889.

Recipe below: Onion Torta with Pancetta and Thyme

I almost never use garlic in the winter. What I usually find I’m not crazy about—the softneck type, mass-produced in California and piled high in supermarkets. It almost always tastes acrid to me. I used to try to work with it, but I finally asked myself why. Now I say resist. A winter tomato sauce with just onion or shallot or leek is wonderful.

In April, field garlic will start popping up in my yard and around sidewalks and parking lots across much of the Northeast. On Long Island when I was a kid, we used to call this stuff onion grass, and I’d eat lots of it. I’d take a tin of anchovies, maybe a jar of pimento-stuffed cocktail olives, and a box of Triscuits and sit in my backyard, yanking up the little bulbs and fashioning a type of demented dollhouse antipasto. I felt so grown up. Nobody I knew thought to actually cook with field garlic back then. I do now, though. Both the chive-like tops and the little bulbs are gentle and delicious. Sort of a low-rent version of ramps.

But what I really wait for is the cultivated hardneck garlic that starts appearing at my Greenmarket, and in my own little garden, around June, when its immature shoots pop up looking like scallions, the bulbs not even formed into separate cloves yet. I pull up some of these adolescent garlics myself, but most of my homegrown I let rest underground until early August, when they’ll be fully developed, intense and sweet. The hardneck varieties, which have better flavor than softneck, don’t dry well. They need to be used either freshly dug or within two months. That’s why industrial garlic growers don’t grow them. Softnecks dry, and they keep through long, cold winters, although they do eventually grow those bitter green sprouts, and by that time they really start tasting crappy.

It’s still only mid-January, cold, gray, and brown in New York. It’ll be a while before I can experience garlic beautitude. So in the meantime I’ve decided to go full-on onion. I’ve always liked a slow braise of onion. French onion soup and pasta alla Genovese, both with lots of soft onion, are two of my favorite winter dishes. For this rustico onion torta I’ve used the Vidalia variety, because I thought its sweetness would work well with the chunk of pancetta I had on hand. A little lemon zest and a splash of dry white wine in the filling prevents the sweet onion from overpowering. I also included some of the thyme I rescued in December from my on-the-verge-of-freezing garden. Thyme and sweet onion are a gorgeous match.

Happy Winter cooking to you.

Onion Torta with Pancetta and Thyme

You’ll want a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom, preferably one with smooth, not fluted, sides, for a rustic look.

For the crust:

2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
5 thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
⅓ cup dry white wine, or possibly a drizzle more

For the filling:

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 ½-inch-thick round of pancetta, cut into small dice
2 large Vidalia onions, thinly sliced
Salt
6 or 7 long thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Black pepper
The grated zest from 1 small lemon
A splash of white wine
1 extra large egg
½ cup heavy cream

To make the dough, put the flour into a big bowl. Add the salt, sugar, and thyme, and give it all a quick mix. Mix together the olive oil and the wine, and pour it over the flour. Mix everything around with a wooden spoon until you have a bowl of damp clumps. Squeeze a section of the dough together with your hand. It should stick together. If it seems dry, add a drizzle more of wine, and work that in. Dump the clumps out onto the counter, and squeeze them all together into a ball, giving it a few quick kneads with the palm of your hand. Flatten it out into a thick disk, and wrap it in plastic. Let it sit at room temperature for about an hour, so the dough can relax. If you want to make the dough the day before, it’ll be fine just sitting out overnight. I find that when I refrigerate olive oil dough, even if I let it come back to room temperature, the texture will be not as loose and harder to work with.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

To make the filling, get out a large sauté pan, and set it over medium heat. Drizzle in a little olive oil, and add the pancetta, letting it cook until it has given off much of its fat and its meat is crisp. Add the onion and a little salt. Sauté for about 5 minutes, letting the onion soften and get fragrant. Add the thyme, nutmeg, some black pepper, and the lemon zest, and continue cooking until the onion is very soft and is just starting to take on a little color, about 8 minutes longer. Give it a splash of wine, and let it bubble away. Turn off the heat, and let it cool down for about 10 minutes. Mix the egg with the cream, and give it a good stir. Add that to the onion mix, mixing it in well. Taste the filling for seasoning.

Roll the dough out into a large circle that’ll fit into your tart pan with about an inch of overhang. Drape it into the pan, and press it down. Pour in the filling, and smooth it out. Trim off and discard most of the dough overhang. Pinch the rim of the tart to raise it a little, crimping it all around. Give the top of the tart a drizzle of fresh olive oil, and bake it until its crust is lightly browned and its filling is set and golden, about 30 to 35 minutes. Let it sit for about a half hour before slicing.

Study in Red Number 5, by Robert Galick.

Recipe below: Five-Ingredient Winter Tomato Sauce

When I was about seven or eight I started seeing colors with numbers. A color would jump out at me when I thought of or saw a certain number. Five was red. Eight was forest green. Three was yellow. Seventeen was violet. Eleven was always light green, a pea green. Every number below twenty had a color. Then when I was around 16, all the colors mysteriously went away.

Forty plus years went by with no colors, and then about two months ago they came back. Not all of them, though. So far there are only three.  Five is still red, and it’s the strongest by far. That was true long ago as well. It’s a clear, bright red, a tomato red. Three is yellow. Eight is still forest green. But that’s it.

When the colors started flashing again, my first thought was, what’s going on, am I having a stroke? I was a bit scared, but I quickly eased back into it and started to enjoy my colors, hoping they would stay and more would follow.

I tried to think back to when I was young and it all started, wanting to remember if I liked the visions then. It’s hard to describe what they’re like, then and even now. I think back then they were a mixed blessing. I loved the colors sparking in my head, but they also could be intrusive, like when I was supposed to be learning arithmetic and the numbers and colors just created chaos. That is most likely why I never really learned any math in a solid fashion. It didn’t hold me back too much, but I think it might account for why I never measure anything when I’m cooking, unless I need to set a recipe for others to follow.

My colors have returned in time for the new year. I take this as a good sign, maybe for a lively year to come.  So here’s a simple five-ingredient winter tomato sauce that starts out with bright red canned tomatoes, a solid number five. They turn a little darker when you cook them, taking them out of that category. I don’t have a number for maroon. I can’t remember if I ever did. But, in any case, the taste is good, smoothed over by butter, sweet onion, and rosemary.

This will make enough for a pound of pasta. I especially like it on ricotta gnocchi or as a sauce for merguez-stuffed peppers. My mom often added peas to this kind of simple sauce. I love that too, as you can see in my photo, and pea green always went with eleven. It would be nice if that came back.

Five-Ingredient Winter Tomato Sauce

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small Vidalia onion, cut into small dice
¼ cup sweet vermouth
1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, well chopped, including the juice (I often buy the San Merican brand, which has bright color and a solid mouth feel)
1 long sprig rosemary, the leaves well chopped
Salt and black pepper

Get out a wide shallow pan, and put it over medium heat. Add the butter, and let it warm through. Add the onion, and sauté until it’s soft and fragrant, about 4 minutes. Add the sweet vermouth, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Add the tomatoes and the rosemary, and season with salt and black pepper. Turn the heat to medium high, and cook the sauce at a lively bubble for five minutes. Turn off the heat, and let it sit for a few minutes more, just to meld all the flavors. Check for seasoning. The sauce should be fairly loose. If it’s too cooked down, add a splash of water.

Women with Fish

A story with a beginning but no end.

Pearl Clam Shell, by Denisa Mansfield.

Recipe below: Fusilli Lunghi with Clams, Pancetta, and Sweet Pimentón

I recently got back from a trip to Andalusian Spain, where I went partly to look into the life of Federico Garcia Lorca but also to eat a lot of ham and seafood.

The jamón was excellent. It’s on every menu. You find those big legs hanging in almost all the food stores, along with ropes of dark red morcilla, the blood sausage I’m also crazy about. After a few days of eating lots of cured pork products, I went into ham fat overload. The stuff is rich. But I didn’t get sick of seafood, especially shellfish. Southern Spanish cooks have a way with clams, usually involving garlic, olive oil, and sherry.  The clams are simply opened over a high flame, their juices mixing with the sherry and everything else, and then quickly brought to the table, often sprinkled with pimentón, either sweet or hot. I love the dish.

I have a long history with clams, mainly because my father was in love with them. He dug for them with his buddies on the Glen Cove beach in all sorts of weather. He steamed them in a big black pot that had a spigot at the bottom for the delicious hot juice to pour out of, to drink straight or mixed with vodka. Clams raw, on the half shell, served with cocktail sauce, were a big Italian American thing in the sixties and seventies, a mandatory appetizer before a ribeye at Manero’s Steakhouse in Roslyn, where we’d go for birthdays and such. Back then clams were a man’s game, like cigars, but I was into the sport, all of it—digging, cooking, and eating them, and even cleaning up. I loved hearing the clink of many empty clam shells as I dropped them into the garbage can.

Clams still mean Christmas Eve to me. My mother almost always cooked some form of them with pasta every year. I now do the same, alternating red and white versions, sometimes adding a splash of Pernod or cognac, and mixing up the herbs. I like rosemary with clams, but basil often wins out. I often also throw a plate of baked clams into the seafood mix, lately with a Sicilian or pistachio pesto on top.

Since I’m still in a post-travel Spanish food head, this Christmas Eve I may go with this fusilli lunghi with clams, dry sherry, and sweet pimenton. It’s a really fragrant dish. I added pancetta to it. If you’re a stickler for Catholic tradition, you can leave out the meat, or make it for New Year’s.

I love fusilli lunghi. It’s a little slippery to get into your mouth, but that’s half the fun. The one I buy is made by Setaro, an excellent Neapolitan company. For a neater eating experience, you can certainly go with spaghetti instead. In any case, Buonitalia offers a huge assortment of Setaro pasta shapes. Anything you can imagine, and some really big ones like their giant lumaconi, paccheri, and candele lunghe. Their bucatini is also excellent.

For this pasta I used a mild pimentón del la Vera. You can use a hot one if you prefer. I like the La Dalia brand. This dried chili is used often in Southern Spanish dishes, on poached octopus, on potatoes, and sprinkled over many fish-type tapas. I kind of got addicted to it, but it can overpower you with smoke if you let it. And the Spanish sometimes let it. I try to use it sparingly.

Happy Christmas cooking to you all.

Fusilli Lunghi with Clams, Pancetta, and Sweet Pimentón

Salt
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 ¼-inch-thick round of pancetta, cut into small dice
1 large shallot, cut into small dice
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
6 large thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
3 pounds Manila clams, well scrubbed
A small glass of dry sherry
1 pound fusilli lunghi or another long pasta
The juice and grated zest from 1 large lemon
1/2 teaspoon sweet pimentón
A big handful of basil leaves, lightly chopped

Set up a pot of well-salted pasta cooking water over high heat.

Get out a pot big enough to hold all the clams once they’ve opened. Set it over medium heat. Add about ¼ cup of olive oil. When it’s hot, add the pancetta, cooking it until just crisp. Add the shallot, and let it soften. Add the garlic and the thyme, and sauté for a few minutes to open up their flavors. Add the clams and the sherry, cover the pot, and let them heat through, stirring them around occasionally so they cook evenly.

Drop the pasta into the boiling water.

The clams should start opening in about 5 minutes. I find that Manila clams tend to all open at pretty much the same time. Once they’ve opened, turn off the heat, so they don’t overcook. Add the lemon juice and zest and the pimentón.

When the pasta is al dente, drain it, leaving a bit of water clinging to it, and tip it into a large serving bowl. Drizzle it with a bit of olive oil, and give it a quick toss. Add the clam sauce and the basil, tossing well. Taste for salt—you may or may not want to add some, depending on how salty your clams are. Serve right away.

Still Life with Soup Tureen, by Oskar Moll.

Recipe below: Minestrone with Pumpkin, Parsnip, Borlotti Beans, and Rosemary

Minestrone, the big chunky vegetable soup of Italy, is traditionally cooked long and slow for a uniform flavor that many people find comforting. Not me. There’s something about that sour long-boiled vegetable taste that turns me off. The minestrone of my childhood, both Progresso and homemade, was so disappointing, bland, boring. And I wasn’t crazy about the soup’s look and texture either. I cook my minestrone hard and fast. My grandmother would definitely not approve. Her summer minestrone was soft and greenish brown from its zucchini, yellow squash, and string beans, with a suggestion of maroon from its long-cooked backyard tomato. I know long-cooked vegetables are a Southern Italian thing, the idea being to try to coax nuances out of the vegetables. But you reach a point of diminishing returns, and my people have crossed it many times. My family used to cook broccoli rabe down to practically a purée. I haven’t made it that way for decades. Why grow or buy beautiful vegetables and then go boil the crap out of them?

I’m not saying a minestrone should be al dente. That would be completely un-Italian. You do need to release flavor with cooking. I’m looking for the perfect sweet spot of tender but not falling apart. This is especially important with pumpkin, butternut squash, and sweet potato, all of which disintegrate into a mush with almost no encouragement. I like having the beautifully colored little bits of vegetable collapse in my mouth, not in my bowl. The cooking time for this is only about half an hour. I think my grandmother let hers go through a whole afternoon of soap operas.

I served this fall soup topped with a spoonful of parsley sage pesto. I thought that was a nice match with the rosemary. If you’d like to give it a try, you can find my recipe for the pesto here.

Minestrone with Pumpkin, Parsnip, Borlotti Beans, and Rosemary

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 ¼-pound chunk of pancetta, cut into small cubes
1 large onion, diced
2 celery stalks, cut into medium dice, plus their leaves, lightly chopped
¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
3 carrots, cut into medium dice
1 sweet potato, peeled and cut into medium dice
3 parsnips, peeled and cut into medium dice
1½ cups chopped pumpkin or butternut squash (chopped to about the same size as all the other vegetables)
6 medium rosemary sprigs, the leaves chopped
6 thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
2 fresh bay leaves
Salt
Black pepper
½ cup dry vermouth
1 quart homemade chicken broth
1 15-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, well chopped
1 1-pound bag Rancho Gordo cranberry beans, cooked until just tender and then drained
A drizzle of rice wine vinegar, if needed

Get out a big soup pot, and drizzle into it about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Get it hot over medium heat, and then add the pancetta, letting it release its fat and crisp up a bit. Add the onion, celery plus leaves, nutmeg, and carrot, and let cook for about 4 minutes. Add the sweet potato, parsnip, pumpkin or butternut squash, half of the rosemary and thyme, and both bay leaves. Season with salt and black pepper, and let sauté, stirring everything around occasionally, for another 5 minutes.

Add the vermouth, and let it bubble away. Add the chicken broth and the tomatoes. Bring to a boil, and then turn the heat down just a touch, and cook, uncovered, at a medium boil, until the vegetables are all just tender, about 15 minutes. You’ll probably need to skim the surface at this point.

Add all the beans and enough warm water to achieve a medium loose soup consistency. Let cook for about another 5 minutes. Taste for a good balance of flavors, adding a tiny drizzle of rice wine vinegar, if needed, to bring up the acidity.

Add the remaining herbs and taste for seasoning, adding more salt or black pepper, if needed. Add a drizzle of fresh olive oil.

Serve hot or warm, with or without the sage parsley pesto. If you don’t use the pesto, you might like to top each bowl with a grating of grana Padano cheese.

I Love Chili con Carne

Red Hot Chili Peppers, by Maria Kireev.

Recipes below: My Chili con Carne; My Hot Sauce, Mexican Style

If you’ve never tasted chili as imagined in the culinary head of an Italian American girl, you’re in for a treat. I am the chili queen of the West Village, or at least I’d like to think so. Over the years I’ve been playing around with my recipe, and I believe I’ve now gotten it down, a good blend of North Mexican, Southern Texan, Northeastern American, and Southern Italian. Sound like a mess? It works for me.

I grew up with chili. Every other Wednesday it appeared on my public school lunch tray, very brown, very sour. It trended in 1970s New York, a thing at all-night diners, the perfect hangover helper. Diner chili was often dull beyond belief, helped by a coating of Tabasco. Every Italian American mom I knew made chili, mine included. It’s similar to putting together a good ragù Bolognese, so the reflexes are in place. My mother made great ragù, with nutmeg, white wine, milk, and a touch of tomato. Her chili was okay, but it wasn’t in her blood, so generic ingredients, such as supermarket chili powder, took over. I can’t stand the taste of that stuff.  Chili cooking is not in my blood either, but I just figured it out. First off, no musty chili powder. I instead go with a mix of dried ancho, smoked paprika, and cumin, and then I add soft notes with cinnamon and allspice. It tastes like country cooking. Whose country I’m not sure.

So here’s my version. I make it with a mix of beef and pork. It’s a medium-hot chili that suits my husband and sister, who can’t take too much heat. I serve it with my hot sauce on the side (the recipe for that is here, too).

My Chili con Carne

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound ground beef chuck
1 pound ground pork
1 chorizo sausage, finely diced
Salt
1 tablespoon wildflower honey
1 large onion, diced
1 cubanelle pepper, diced
1 poblano pepper, diced
1 jalapeño pepper, diced
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 fresh bay leaves
1 teaspoon each of dried ancho chili powder, sweet smoked Spanish paprika, ground cumin, ground cinnamon, and ground allspice
1 cup dark beer
1 14½-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, chopped and lightly drained
1 cup chicken broth
1 1-pound bag Rancho Gordo Ayocote Negro beans, cooked until just tender and left sitting in their cooking liquid
About 8 sprigs of fresh Italian oregano, the leaves lightly chopped
The juice from about ½ a lime

Get out a big casserole-type pan fitted with a good lid. Set it over medium heat, and pour in a few tablespoons of olive oil. Add all the beef, pork, and sausage, breaking it up with a wooden spoon so it covers the pan bottom. Season with a little salt, and drizzle in the honey. Let the meat brown a bit. Add the onion, all the peppers, the garlic, and the bay leaves. Cook down until everything is soft and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add all the ancho, paprika, cumin, cinnamon, and allspice, and cook another few minutes so their flavors can open up.

Add the beer, and let it bubble out. Add the tomatoes and the broth. Turn the heat to low, cover the pan, and let it simmer for about an hour.

Add the beans with about ½ cup of their cooking liquid. Simmer for another half hour. If the chili looks very liquidy, cook it uncovered.

Taste for seasoning. You’ll probably need more salt, but also consider the spices. I often add a little extra cumin at the end. You might want to add more ancho or a little more fresh jalapeño. Add the chopped oregano and a squeeze of lime.

I like to serve my chili over rice, with a dollop of crema, a drizzle of hot sauce, and possibly some chopped scallion greens.

My Hot Sauce, Mexican Style

  • Servings: About 1½ cups
  • Print

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 Scotch bonnet pepper, chopped
4 Red bell peppers, seeded and chopped
1 shallot, chopped
1 garlic clove, peeled and smashed
1 fresh bay leaf
A few thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
A big pinch of allspice
A big pinch of cumin
A big pinch of hot smoked Spanish paprika
A drizzle of rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt

Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the Scotch bonnet and red bell peppers, shallot, garlic, bay leaf, thyme, allspice, cumin, and paprika. Cook until everything is fragrant and just starting to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the vinegar and sugar, some salt, and a splash of water. Lower the heat, cover the pan, and simmer until everything is very soft, about another 8 minutes. There should be some liquid left in the pan. If not, add more water. Purée in a food processor. Adjust the seasoning, and pour into a bowl. This should last about 2 weeks in the fridge.

Shrimp Painting, by Suntola ART.

Recipe below: Shrimp Saganaki with Feta, Dill, and Marjoram

There used to be a small Greek restaurant, or more accurately a kind of a diner-restaurant, on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 14th Street, right around the corner from my Manhattan apartment. Mykonos was a casual place with average Greek food, and you could also get an American-cheese omelet or a hamburger. I liked their spanakopita with a side of Greek salad, which was what I almost always ordered. And they served a super-resinated retsina, which I always ordered. I ate there a lot. One afternoon, having a real need to get out of the small study in my small apartment, I walked in and sat down, feeling pretty good about myself. I didn’t order my usual spanakopita but chose instead something called shrimp saganaki, because I didn’t know what it was, and the mix of shrimp and feta sounded so terrible I just had to try it. This must have been about 25 years ago.

Everything went well enough with my retsina, but I was feeling anxious about a piece I was on an early deadline for for Food & Wine magazine, “How to Grill Summer Fruit”—hard to write in January. My bubbling plate of shrimp and feta and tomatoes arrived. It looked decent and smelled like dill and dried oregano. Not bad at all. But for some reason, seemingly out of nowhere and for no reason, I started to cry. I tried to choke it back, but that just made it worse. Everyone in the place stared. The waiters asked if I was all right. I said yes. They whispered to one another in Greek. I thought if I didn’t pull myself together they might call the police (as if the cops didn’t have anything better to do). I had a job. I wasn’t living alone. I had friends. But at that moment I felt like a creep. Was I turning into one of those West Village wack jobs who drink alcohol in diners at one in the afternoon? I hoped not. Maybe I was at a point in my life where I was just all-around scared.  Maybe I actually had no idea how I was going to write that fruit article. Maybe I was hoping my Italian American father would walk in and bring me back home. These were all possibilities.

After what seemed an embarrassingly long time, I stopped crying. I apologized. The waiters assured me everything was okay. I felt like a mess and knew I looked red and blotchy. One of them reheated my dish. A nice touch. He also brought me another retsina, a free one. An even nicer touch. I then ate the whole shrimp thing and loved it (although the shrimp was a tad overcooked—I suppose it would have been better had I eaten it when it was delivered). Shrimp with feta turned out to be a good thing. The waiter then brought me a baklava, also for free. Maybe I should have cried in restaurants more often.

This saganaki shrimp creation was a 1960s-era Greek dish that made its way to this country largely via Greek-owned diners and restaurants. It’s an elaboration on a cooked cheese preparation also called saganaki, which is just the name for the crockery it’s cooked in. I still order it when I see it offered, and it hasn’t made me cry since, which I take as a sign of my maturity. Symposium, an old-time place on the Upper West Side, makes it, and it’s not bad there. Not great though. Mykonos is long gone, so I can’t have it there anymore. I’ve ordered it at other restaurants, other Greek diners, and found it unreliable. It requires a delicate balance. You need lovely shrimp, good fresh or canned tomatoes, fresh herbs, and a tangy but not chemical-tasting feta. It’s not usually great at a diner, but higher-quality Greek places often get it right.

If you cook it at home, as I often do, you can make this potentially lovely dish sing sweetly. I like to prepare it at the end of the summer and in early fall, when I’ve still got local tomatoes and lots of herbs in my garden. Like now. Marjoram and dill might seem a strange combination, but, as I’ve discovered, they really aren’t. Dill mixed with oregano is a common flavoring in Greece, so, by extension, marjoram, oregano’s gentler more floral sister, has to be good—better even, and less harsh. I’ve added a little cinnamon and honey to the tomato sauce because I’ve tasted and liked those flavors in some versions.

I’ve been saddened this year with summer’s end. Not crying saddened, but just kind of dulled out. Making this shrimp saganaki again, with what’s left of my homegrown tomatoes and herbs, really picked me up. Maybe it can help you too.

Shrimp Saganaki with Feta, Dill, and Marjoram

2 pounds shell-on extra-large wild-caught shrimp
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
8 dill sprigs, lightly chopped, plus some sprigs for garnish
A big splash of dry vermouth
5 medium-size round end-of-summer tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
The grated zest from 1 lemon
A pinch of sugar
Aleppo pepper
2 medium shallots, diced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
A big pinch of ground cinnamon (about ¼ teaspoon)
1 teaspoon runny wildflower honey
About 8 medium marjoram sprigs, chopped, plus a few whole sprigs for garnish
A 6-ounce chunk of Greek or French feta cheese (French is a bit milder)

First you’ll want to make a quick shrimp broth with the shrimp shells, so shell and devein the shrimp, putting all the shells in a medium saucepan. Add a big drizzle of olive oil, a little salt, and a big sprig of dill. Sauté the shells until they all turn pink, about a minute or so. This will intensify their flavor. Add the vermouth, and let it bubble away for a minute or so. Pour in about 1½ cups of water, and let everything simmer at a low bubble for about 15 minutes. By then the broth will have deepened in flavor and reduced. It should smell sweet and shrimpy. You’ll want about ¾ cup of nicely flavored broth, so let it cook a little longer if it still looks watery. Strain the broth into a small bowl, and set it aside.

While your broth is bubbling away, place your chopped tomatoes in a colander, sprinkle them with a little salt, and let them drain into a bowl for about 15 minutes. Summer tomatoes can be very juicy, and you may wind up with too much liquid in your finished dish if you don’t drain them. But keep the tomato water, just in case you find you need a little moisture later.

Put the shrimp in a bowl, drizzle it with a little olive oil, and season it with salt, the lemon zest, a pinch of sugar, and some Aleppo pepper to taste. Give it a good toss.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

In a large, wide skillet (cast iron is a good choice), heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallot, and sauté until it’s soft and fragrant, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and the cinnamon and a bit more Aleppo, and sauté a minute longer, just to release their flavors. Add the tomatoes, the honey, the chopped marjoram, the remaining dill, and a little salt, and simmer, uncovered, for about 5 minutes. Add the shrimp broth, and continue cooking about 5 minutes longer. You don’t want it to go too long, as the sauce will continue cooking in the oven.

Arrange the shrimp on top of the sauce. Crumble the feta over the top, and give everything a good drizzle of olive oil.

Stick the skillet in the hot oven, and roast, uncovered, until the shrimp is just cooked through and tender, about 7 or 8 minutes. Garnish with the marjoram and dill sprigs, and serve hot.  A side of orzo or couscous will be very nice with it.

Recipe below: Penne with Chicken Livers, Summer Tomatoes, Cognac, and Sage

In Diana Vreeland’s “Why Don’t You?” column in Vogue, she would dare us to do all sorts of zany things like ride down Fifth Avenue on a leopard wearing nothing but a pair of jewel-incrusted Roger Vivier court shoes, and other wild fashion stunts. I’m thinking of starting a food version of that column, suggesting you try cooking something you might not want to, for fear or disgust.

This gets me thinking about chicken livers, which happen to be one of my favorite foods. I understand that a lot of people don’t love them, whether from the way they look, reflecting too strongly on what they actually are, or maybe just thinking they don’t like the taste. Okay, I sort of get that. But all I ask is that you try them this way, in a pasta dish, with beautiful end-of-summer tomatoes and a lot of fresh herbs.

Here are a few tricks to making delicious chicken livers: First, buy really good ones, not the nasty Perdue brand, and make sure they’re really fresh. Dry them well, so you can get a good crispy sauté. Also—I learned this in my years of restaurant cooking—a last-minute flame-up with cognac or brandy or grappa or a fruity eau de vie will do wonders to remove that slightly irony taste that many find unappealing. Also you must not overcook them. A uniform gray throughout is no good. Ideally a touch of pink in the center is chicken liver perfect.

For herbs, sage and liver are a time-honored combo, so I went with them. But to round out the dish I added rosemary, too, incorporating it during the cooking so it mellowed out. The sage I cut into chiffonade and scattered in on at the end. I sometimes find that if you chop sage finely and leave it too long on the heat it can get a musty taste. This way it stays fresh, without opening up and permeating the whole dish.

Penne with Chicken Livers, Summer Tomatoes, Cognac, and Sage

  • Servings: 4 as a main course
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1 pound good quality organic chicken livers
Salt
Black pepper
A big pinch of sugar
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, possibly a little more
1 large shallot, cut into small dice
1 small carrot, cut into small dice
¼ teaspoon allspice
4 or 5 small sprigs rosemary, the leaves well chopped
A splash of sweet vermouth
4 or 5 medium round summer tomatoes, peeled, seeded, cut into medium dice, and then drained for about 15 minutes (but save the tomato water)
1 pound penne
A splash of cognac or brandy
About 6 sage leaves, cut into chiffonade, plus a few nice-looking whole sprigs for garnish
A chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano or grana Padano cheese

Trim the chicken livers of any connecting sinewy tissue, and then cut them into approximately 1-inch chunks. Dry them well, and stick them in a bowl. Sprinkle on a little salt, black pepper, the sugar, and a drizzle of olive oil. Give them a toss.

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

While the water is coming to a boil, get out a large skillet, and set it over medium heat. Add a drizzle of olive oil and half of the butter. Add the shallot and carrot, and sauté them until softened, about 4 minutes or so. Add the allspice and the rosemary, season with a little salt and black pepper, and cook a minute longer, just to release their flavors. Add the splash of sweet vermouth, letting it bubble out. Add the tomatoes, and simmer, uncovered, for about 5 minutes. You really just want to heat them through, not cooking them much, to preserve their freshness. Turn off the heat.

Put the penne in the boiling water.

Get out another large skillet, and get it hot over high heat. Add the rest of the butter. When the butter is bubbling, add the chicken livers, spreading them out over the pan. Let them cook without moving them around at all until you can see them start to brown nicely, about 3 minutes or so. Using tongs, turn the livers, and brown the other side, about a minute or two longer. You want them to stay a touch pink at the center. They may sputter and pop a little while cooking. Don’t let that upset you. It’s normal. Just stand back a bit. Add the cognac, which will most likely flame up. I find it exciting. Shake the pan for a few seconds, just until the flames die down, and then add the livers to the tomato sauce.

Drain the penne, and pour it into a large serving bowl. Add a drizzle of olive oil and the sage chiffonade, and give it a toss. Add the tomato liver sauce, and toss gently, adding some of the tomato water if it seems dry. You can also add a bit more butter, if you like (I usually like). Check for seasoning, and then garnish with the sage sprigs and serve right away, bringing the cheese to the table for grating.

Still Life with Apricots, Luis Melendez, Naples, 1716–1780.

Recipe below: Apricot Tart with Almonds and Thyme

Growing up in New York I’ve almost never had a decent apricot. Seems we don’t know how to grow them here. Even in season at farmers’ markets they’re usually sour or, even worse, mealy and tasteless. I asked the people at Migliorelli Farm in Tivoli about this and was told that apricots are “temperamental” and have a “short period of perfect ripeness.” My brother, who lives north of L.A., says the local apricots out there are much better than we get. I was upset to hear that.

Cooking helps immensely. The ones I found recently were pretty sour but also juicy and  just so pretty I had to buy them. The ones Migliorelli grows are a deep orange with splotches of pinky red. They smelled good, sort of like apricots should, so I thought heat and sugar would wake them up. And they did.

This tart was inspired by a Patricia Wells recipe I learned about many years ago. The technique is so easy compared with pâte brisée–based tarts. What you do is basically make a cookie dough and press it into a tart pan. You don’t even have to roll it out. And forget about the annoying blind-baking bean-and-aluminum-foil procedure. You just stick it in the oven to firm it up a bit before filling it. Cut the apricots in half (small plums also work well), stick them cut side up in the pan, and pour a cream and egg mix over the top. I flavored my custard with almonds and a drizzle of orzata syrup, which I love and which is less obnoxious than that crappy, ultra strong almond extract, the ruin of so many Italian American pastry shops.

The mix of apricots and almonds can’t be beat, and, as I’ve just discovered, adding fresh thyme brings the whole thing together with a weird hit of savoriness.

You’ll want a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom.

Apricot Tart with Almonds and Thyme

For the crust:

1 stick unsalted butter, melted and then cooled to room temperature, plus a little extra butter to grease the pan
⅓ cup sugar
1 tablespoon orzata syrup
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
The grated zest from 1 small lemon
1½ cups regular flour
A pinch of salt
1 tablespoon finely ground almonds

For the custard:

1 heaping tablespoon crème fraîche
½ cup heavy cream
1 large egg
1 teaspoon regular flour
1 tablespoon orzata syrup
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons runny wildflower honey
About 6 sprigs thyme, the leaves lightly chopped, plus of few nice looking sprigs for garnish

Plus:

About 1½ pounds ripe local apricots, pitted and halved (a bit sour is better than mealy), cut in half and pitted

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Put all the ingredients for the crust except for the ground almonds in a bowl, and mix them together until you have a crumbly, moist mass. Coat the tart pan with a little butter, and then dump the crust into the center of the pan, pressing it all around until you have a nice, relatively even crust all around. Build the sides up a touch to allow for shrinkage. Poke the bottom lightly with a fork in several places.

Stick the tart pan in the oven until the crust is very lightly golden at the edges and puffs a bit in the center, about 12 minutes or so.

Take the tart pan out of the oven and sprinkle the almonds more or less evenly over the floor of the crust.

Put all the ingredients for the custard in a bowl, and whisk until smooth.

Arrange the apricots, cut side up, in the tart pan. Pour the custard mix over them, being careful not to get any over the rim.

Bake until the crust is golden and the custard looks set, about 35 minutes. Garnish with the thyme sprigs. Serve warm or at room temperature.