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Still Life with Artichokes, Flowers, and Glass Vessels, by Juan van der Hamen, 1631.

Recipe below: Cavatelli with Artichoke, Saffron, and Ginger

I’ve been dealing with some deep family troubles involving mental illness, luckily not my own. In an effort to have the “not my own” stick, I’ve been trying to carve out cubes of time free from the trouble. It’s not easy, but as an optimist, I’m not giving up. Today I’m thinking about artichokes.

Italy’s artichoke season reaches full swing in March. I’ve taken many of my Italy trips then, mainly because it’s off-season and cheaper. I recall a lunch at a steamy little trattoria in Genoa on a chilly day in early March—grilled calamari, wine, and the main event was slim, long-stemmed, pointy artichokes braised in olive oil, basil, and garlic. They were the best artichokes I’d ever tasted. What a fine day. I love Genoa. After lunch, on my way out, I was offered a big bouquet of mimosa flowers, in celebration of International Women’s Day, which is March 8. That was so unexpected. I didn’t know Europeans like to bestow flowers on that day. I felt honored and drunk. Mimosas in Italy are completely different from the feathery, fragrant, silk-like pink-and-white flowers that grow here, for instance on a small tree in front of the building next door to my New York City apartment (we also had one of those trees in our backyard on Long Island when I was a kid). At the Genoa restaurant I was handed a big bunch of fluffy yellow balls. Voluptuous.

Since that long-ago lunch I’ve kept up a romance with artichokes. The Northeast doesn’t do artichokes. All ours come from California, mostly from big growers, and in my experience only the big globe variety, the ones my mother used to stuff with sausage and breadcrumbs for Thanksgiving, make it to New York. In my mother’s preparation the artichoke was like an afterthought. There’s not much flavor in those hulking green balls, and there’s no real season for them here, not like in Italy, where they’re a fleeting late winter to early spring treasure. Here they’re grown all year except in August, when it’s too hot. Why can’t we raise those beautiful Ligurian artichokes (they’re actually a Sardinian variety)? Can’t someone grow them?

Annoyed though I am by the lack of romance in my local artichoke selection, I don’t stop cooking what I find here. I always look for the little “baby” ones that occasionally show up. Those little guys aren’t really babies. They’re siblings of the big globe types that grow lower down the stems. They don’t have the rich sweet bitter taste of the Italian ones, but at least they have no developed choke, so they’re easy to clean.

This week I found a big bag of baby artichokes at my supermarket. They felt a bit flabby, but I figured they’d be okay, so I decided to use them in a pasta dish. I love artichokes with saffron, a truly beautiful combination. I added fresh ginger, sort of a Venetian touch. The pasta came out really well, but the flavors I added were mostly what carried it. If you find even better artichokes than I used, this should be truly excellent.

Cavatelli with Artichoke, Saffron, and Ginger

(Serves 4)

A big pinch of saffron threads
1 cup light chicken stock or vegetable stock
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 dozen or so baby artichokes, trimmed down to the tender leaves, cut in half, and dropped into a bowl of cold water, adding the juice of 2 lemons
2 medium shallots, cut into small dice
Sea salt
1 garlic clove, sliced
6 or 7 sprigs thyme, the leaves chopped
1 green jalapeño pepper, minced, with the seeds
1 1-inch piece fresh ginger, minced (I don’t bother to peel it)
A big splash of dry sake or dry vermouth
1 pound cavatelli
The grated zest from a large lemon
A big handful of basil or mint leaves, lightly chopped
A chunk of pecorino Toscano cheese

If your saffron is moist (as it should be), put it in a small pan, and heat it gently over a low flame for about 30 seconds. This will firm it up enough so you can grind it in a mortar and pestle. Do so, and then sprinkle the ground saffron into the chicken or vegetable stock, and give it a good stir. The stock should turn a light pink.

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

While the water is coming to a boil, set a large sauté pan over medium heat, and drizzle in about 1½ tablespoons of olive oil. When the oil is hot, drain the artichokes, and add them to the pan, along with the shallots. Sprinkle with a little salt, and sauté until everything is fragrant and starting to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic, thyme, jalapeno, and ginger, and continue cooking to release all their flavors, about another 3 minutes.  

Add a good amount of salt to the boiling pasta water, and drop in the cavatelli.

Add the sake or vermouth to the artichokes, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Then add the chicken broth with saffron, and cook, uncovered, until the artichokes are just tender, another 5 minutes or so.

When the pasta is al dente, drain it, and pour it into a large serving bowl. Drizzle on a bit of fresh olive oil, and toss briefly. Add the artichoke sauce, and sprinkle on the lemon zest. Scatter on the basil or mint, and toss again. Check for seasoning, adding more salt, if needed. Grate on a little pecorino, and bring the pasta to the table, along with the rest of the cheese for anyone who might want more.

My Mother’s Hen, by Endre Penovac, 2016.

Recipe below: Chicken in a Pot with Grappa, Parsnips, and Carrots

You know what has started to feel like another lifetime? Hanging out in my childhood kitchen while my parents prepare dinner. I can’t even recall the color of the walls or the attached faux leather banquette we all sat on. Somewhere in that room there were turquoise, pale green, and light brown from the 1960s. My mother, the head cook and party planner, and my father, dishwasher and fruit salad and smoothie maker, are now both gone. Even some of the memories of what they cooked are retreating into the blue-black part of my brain where stuff may still exist but I’m no longer allowed to get at it. For instance, I can’t remember if my mother ever roasted a whole chicken. It seems impossible she wouldn’t have, but I can’t visualize a whole bird being brought to the table.

There were endless variations chicken of cacciatore (made with cut-up chicken), some with mushrooms, some with red peppers, sometimes with basil or rosemary, always with tomatoes and wine, but beyond that I don’t know. Oh wait, there was barbecue chicken on the grill, every summer. That was my father’s department. I think I would have liked it more if it hadn’t often been black on the outside and semi-raw in the middle. Grilling after three martinis.

I cook whole chicken all the time. It seems natural, organic. I’m not sure where I originally got the idea for this all-in-one-pot approach. I thought it might have been from Julia Child, but I almost never use her recipes, and when I looked up chicken in a pot in one of her books, the instructions spanned three pages and entailed browning the thing in the pot, turning it on its sides, back, and breast, and then taking it out, and then adding vegetables, and then putting it back. It didn’t look familiar to me at all. My other thought was that I first read about it in Dorie Greenspan’s big book Around My French Table, which I don’t seem to have anymore, or maybe never owned but just borrowed at some point. In any case, it’s not a dish I learned from Mom. But I love it.

It results in a tender steam-roasted chicken. You’re not going to get the lacquered, super crisp skin of when you hot-blast a chicken uncovered, but to my palate the delicate meat, both white and dark, and the ready-made, boozy gravy make it really special. Maybe you’d like to give it a try. Find yourself a high-quality chicken for it.

Chicken in a Pot with Grappa, Parsnips, and Carrots

(Serves 3)

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 approximately 3-pound chicken, trussed if you like (I didn’t bother)
Salt
2 teaspoons quatre épices
Black pepper, if needed
4 shallots, peeled and pulled apart into sections
4 thick carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch rounds
2 medium parsnips, peeled and cut into chunks
About 10 garlic cloves, unpeeled
5 rosemary sprigs, the leaves chopped, plus the leaves from a few sprigs for garnish
6 or so thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped, plus the leaves from a few sprigs for garnish
2 fresh bay leaves
¼ cup grappa
½ cup dry vermouth
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into little pieces
½ cup homemade chicken broth, or good-quality purchased broth

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Coat the chicken with olive oil, and season it well with salt and quatre épices (some commercial ones are black-pepper-heavy; if your spice mix doesn’t include a lot of black pepper, sprinkle on a little of that too).

Get out a big casserole with a tight-fitting lid. I used a 14-inch oval Le Creuset pot. Drizzle about a tablespoon of olive oil into it, and get it hot over medium heat.

Add the shallots, carrots, parsnips, and garlic, seasoning with some salt. Add the rosemary, thyme, and bay leaf, and sauté for a few minutes.

Shove the vegetables over to the sides, and lower the chicken in, breast side down. Let it sit there until the skin just starts to turn a bit golden, about 3 or 4 minutes. Then turn over the chicken. Pour the grappa and vermouth over the chicken, letting it bubble for a few seconds. Dot the chicken breast with the butter bits, cover the pot, and stick it in the oven to cook, undisturbed, for an hour.

Remove the pot from the oven. Take off the lid. The chicken should be a warm golden brown. Take the bird from the pot, and put it on a carving board. Add the chicken stock to the pot, and bring it to a boil. Scoop all the vegetables out with a slotted spoon and onto the edges of a big serving platter. Continue cooking down the pot liquid until it’s got a rich taste and a slightly thickened texture, adding a little salt or black pepper if you think it needs it. You might need to skim off some fat (I didn’t bother). Pour the gravy it into a bowl (I poured mine through a strainer for a smoother sauce, but it’s really up to you).  

Carve the chicken into serving pieces, and set them in the middle of the platter. You can add any juices the chicken gives off to the gravy bowl. Scatter on the remaining rosemary and thyme sprigs, and bring it all to the table.

Bar Pitti’s Rigatoni

Bar Pitti, by Hugh Chapman, 2015.

Recipe below: Rigatoni Pitti 

One evening about 15 years ago I walked into Bar Pitti, a neighborhood trattoria I’d been eating at since it opened in 1992, to ask a favor. I had a friend waiting outside in a van. He had muscular dystrophy and could barely walk with or without assistance. I had thought of Bar Pitti for dinner not only because the food was always good but also because it had no step up to get through the door and into the dining room, which my friend would never have been able to negotiate. I wondered if they had room for a party of eight, and possibly, if it wasn’t too much trouble, maybe if one of the bigger waiters could help my friend into his seat. I was doubtful, since the place, as usual, was packed. I saw only one empty table.

Not only did we get a table, but two of the waiters came to the van and hoisted my friend up to standing, steadying him as best as possible, and slowly walking him through the door and to our table, delicately lowering him into his seat. Now, this place is known to be a hipster celebrity and art crowd hangout. I eat there maybe once a month, but I’m a neighborhood type, not part of the Francesco Clemente gang that gathers almost every day for their four-hour lunches. But I was so impressed by their attention to my crippled friend and our unhip group, I just teared up. And he got the same service again when our lovely dinner was finished. The waiters lifted him from his seat, steadied him again (a little harder now after four wines), and walked him back to the van, lifting him onto the front seat and hooking the seatbelt. I’d always loved Bar Pitti, but now I loved it more than ever.

Their menu hasn’t changed at all since I first started going there almost 30 years ago, aside from a few seasonal dishes like puntarella and anchovy salad in the winter or the thick slices of local tomatoes drizzled with olive oil that show up in August. It is simple but thoughtful Italian cooking. Over the years I guess I’ve pretty much eaten my way through the menu, but I frequently return for the rigatoni Pitti, a solid bowl of al dente pasta studded with sausage and peas and bathed in a creamy tomato sauce. I’ve been thinking about how nice it would be to have that right now, at Bar Pitti, eating inside, all cozy with a bottle of Chianti and a few good friends. But of course that’s not possible. They do have outside heaters, but it’s freezing in Manhattan right now, and the heaters just don’t work well enough with the cold air whirling all around your feet and up to your face. So I decided to make rigatoni Pitti myself.

It is not a complicated dish, not difficult to figure out. Sometimes when I work out a restaurant dish at home I get the components right, as far as I can sense, but somehow don’t quite hit it. This time I felt I nailed it. I don’t believe the pancetta and rosemary I added are part of Pitti’s original, but they seemed right to me, adding roundness to the sauce. Pitti uses chicken sausage in the dish, which wouldn’t be my first choice, as I prefer regular Italian pork sausage for my home cooking, but it totally works. I’m not sure why they use chicken, maybe as a healthier choice, though you’d think all the cream in the sauce would cancel that out.  When I went to buy chicken sausage for the pasta, I was amazed at all the varieties I found, such as smoked apple chipotle, which would definitely not have been suitable. I settled on D’Artagnan’s Mediterranean-flavor chicken sausages. They were perfect.

This winter I’ve already seen several of my favorite Village restaurants close down. It’s sad beyond belief. I hope Bar Pitti can hold on. Once the temperature gets back above 30 degrees I’ll bundle up and go sit outside and enjoy this pasta at its source.  

FLASH: Recipe update

A Facebook friend and Bar Pitti regular just reminded me that Pitti actually uses turkey sausage for this pasta. So for absolute authenticity, try it with turkey, but I used chicken and it tasted almost identical to the original.

Rigatoni Pitti

(Serves 4) 

Extra-virgin olive oil 
1 ¼-inch-thick round of pancetta, well chopped 
1 large sweet onion, cut into small dice 
4 turkey or chicken sausages, the skin removed, the meat pulled into bits 
A few sprigs of rosemary, the leaves chopped 
A few big scrapings of nutmeg 
Salt 
Aleppo pepper 
A splash of dry white wine 
3/4 cup chicken broth 
1 35-ounce can San Marzano tomatoes, drained and chopped
1½ cups fresh or frozen peas
About 1/2 cup cream (you can always add a little more later on, if you think it needs it) 
A few drops of rice wine vinegar, if needed 
A chunk of grana Padano cheese
1 pound of rigatoni or penne pasta

Get out a large saucepan, and set it over medium heat. Drizzle in a little olive oil, and add the pancetta. Sauté until the pancetta just starts to crisp. Add the onion, the sausage, the rosemary, a little nutmeg, salt, and a bit of Aleppo pepper. Sauté until the meat is lightly browned, about 5 minutes or so. Add a splash of white wine, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Add the chicken broth, the tomatoes, and the peas, turn the heat down a bit, and let simmer until the sausage is tender, about 5 minutes.

While the sauce is simmering, bring a pot of pasta cooking water to a boil, adding an ample amount of salt. Add the rigatoni.

Add the cream to the pan, stirring it in. Let it simmer a few more minutes to blend the flavors. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt if needed and a little more Aleppo if you like that. I also added a few drops of rice wine vinegar. It helped bring up all the flavors. Depending on the acidity of your tomatoes and wine, you may or may not need that.

When the rigatoni is al dente, drain it, and pour it into a large serving bowl. Add the sauce, grate on a tablespoon or so of grana Padano, and toss well. Serve hot, bringing the rest of the cheese to the table.

The Volpi Nativity, fifteenth century (who is that kid with the big breasts in the bottom left corner?).

Recipe below: Zuppa di Pesce with Marsala, Crème Fraîche, and Basil

Early last night a big snow began in Manhattan. It infiltrated my dreams. Early this morning, around four I think, I dreamed I was looking out my front window onto 13th Street and large, gray fish with black and yellow stripes were marching around through the high snow. They had legs like chickens, and at first I thought they were chickens (last night I cooked a chicken, so that made some sense). But I could clearly see they were more in the bass family. I’ve recently been trying to figure out what to cook for my Christmas Eve fish night, so that might have triggered the dream, except that in my dream fish didn’t seem edible, they seemed like regular city dwellers trying to navigate the streets in a snowstorm. I’ve never thought of fish as pets or neighbors, but I have occasionally thought of them as equals.

Fish have been on my waking mind, too, lately. Almost every Christmas Eve I do some type of zuppa di pesce, always different. I tend toward all-shellfish, I guess because that’s what my mother made, but this year thick chunks of mild fish, like halibut, monkfish, and cod, seem appealing, and I’ve come up with something less Italo-Americano than usual, no garlic, no oregano, no acidic wine. Rather I’ve used Marsala, which I love to cook with, and a touch of sweet spice, and then leveled it out with a spoon of crème fraîche at the end.

I’m thinking that with this Christmas the insular event it’s got to be, I’ll make only a few dishes, but I want them all to be fine. So maybe pizza di scarola to start, then baked mussels with nut pesto, spaghetti with bottarga, and then a variation on this zuppa di pesce. I’m not sure about dessert. I’m not a big sweets person. Maybe an orange salad with cinnamon and mint, and a bottle of grappa for the table.

I hope everyone has a good Christmas.

For some reason I didn’t capture any shrimp in this shot. I think I ate them before I took the photo, but you get the idea.

Zuppa di Pesce with Marsala, Crème Fraîche, and Basil

(Serves 4)

1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined but saving the shells
Extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup dry Marsala
1½ cups light chicken broth, or water
1 teaspoon white miso
Sea salt
2 shallots, cut into small dice
1 carrot, cut into small dice
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
5 or 6 large thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
1 28-ounce can San Marzano tomatoes, chopped, with the juice
1 pound monkfish, cut into big chunks
1 pound halibut or thick cod fillet, cut into thick chunks
Aleppo pepper
2 tablespoons crème fraîche
A big handful of basil leaves, lightly chopped

Put the shrimp shells in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Drizzle in a little olive oil. Stir the shells around until they turn pink. Add the Marsala, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Pour in the chicken broth or water, add the miso, stir everything around, and then let it simmer at a lively bubble for about 15 minutes. Strain the shrimp broth into a bowl, and season it with a little salt.

Get out a large casserole, and set it over medium heat. Add a big drizzle of olive oil. Add the shallots and the carrot, nutmeg, allspice, and thyme, and sauté until everything is fragrant, about 4 minutes.

Add the shrimp broth and the tomatoes. Turn the heat up a bit, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, and let the sauce simmer, uncovered, for about 5 minutes, just to allow the flavors to blend.

Season the fish chunks with a little salt and some Aleppo, and add them to the broth, along with the shrimp. Cook, uncovered, until all the seafood is just tender, about 6 or 7 minutes depending on how thick your pieces are.

Turn off the heat, and add the crème fraîche, stirring it in. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt and/or Aleppo if you think you need it.

Add the basil, and bring the zuppa to the table.

My mother always served zuppa di pesce with crumbly Neapolitan biscuits made with black pepper and lard. They’re called friselle, but we always referred to them as lard biscuits.  These are different from the flat, dry bagel-shaped toasts also called lard biscuits. You can use those instead, if you prefer, sticking one in the bottom of each serving bowl before you pour on the zuppa. I didn’t have either on hand for my trial run, so I just dropped a couple of long taralli into the zuppa. Pretty good.

Women with Fish

Fisherman’s Wife, by Gül Pamuk.

Here’s what the Covid 50 looks like. It didn’t happen by eating just fish, I can tell you that. The pasta and pizza diet I’ve been on since April is catching up with me. Pasta with seafood, pizza with seafood, those are two of my most favorite things. During the lockdown I decided to go with it, all cooked at home, with love. I made pizza with clams and tomatoes, pizza with clams and no tomatoes, pizza with anchovies and mozzarella, orecchiette with clams and escarole, penne with shrimp and escarole, cavatelli with braised squid and peas, penne with seared squid and peas, busiate with swordfish and eggplant, busiate with swordfish and almonds, rigatoni with fresh tuna and pistachios, pappardelle with quinine and crab, ziti with canned tuna, capers, and olives, bucatini with sardines and wild fennel, spaghetti moscardini with a red wine reduction, spaghetti with bottarga and butter, spaghetti with sea urchin and orange, spaghetti with colatura and orange, penne puttanesca with monkfish and grief, gemelli with grilled shrimp and radicchio, fettuccine with piss, vinegar, and scallops,  ravioli filled with shrimp, ravioli filled with branzino, ravioli filled with tears, lasagnette with artichokes and octopus, pizza with artichokes and eel, pizza with mussels still in their shells, fusilli with mussels out of their shells. I also cooked a bunch of things with salt cod. And I could go on.

My signature striped boatneck doesn’t have the same boho impact when pulled over all this fat. So now I’ve decided to go on the famous Keats diet, prescribed by his doctor to treat his tuberculosis. It consisted of one anchovy a day and never leaving his apartment overlooking the Spanish Steps. The never leaving the apartment part I’ve got down, although I’m pretty sure he had a better view.

Thanksgiving Olives

A smaller Thanksgiving for sure. That seems okay to me. Too many relatives was never okay. It wasn’t a bad time, but I never loved thanksgiving food. I remember turkey and cigarettes and sambuca. Not terrible. I also remember the stuffed artichokes and braised fennel my grandmother made to Italianize the day. Aside from those lovely dishes, all the mushy stuff, mashed sweet potatoes, stuffing, mashed potatoes, I could do without. What I love is to pull a piece of crusty leg skin off the turkey, wrap it around some broccoli rabe, and then pour on some gravy. This was good, way better than the dried out breast meat that seemed so dreary.

I also love to make marinated olives, something my Nanny always offered, along with raw fennel and celery ( very Puglian).

So all you really need to do here is buy good olives. I used cerignolo green and Moroccan black. A nice mix, I think. Then I sprinkled the olives with fresh chopped rosemary, fennel pollen (or fennel seed), a few crushed garlic cloves (make sure they’re fresh), and coarse ground black pepper. I also added the chopped fronds from a fennel bulb. If you don’t have this, you can use parsley or a little chervil or even a bit of tarragon, but not too much.

Happy thanksgiving to all my friends. It’s a weird one, but we’ll all pull through.

xx

Brussels Sprouts and Egg, by Rick Pushinsky.

Recipe below: Casarecce Pasta with Capicola and Brussels Sprouts

Since moving back to the city in October, after a seven-month stay in upstate New York, I’ve been hyper aware of the sounds inside and outside my apartment. There’s an intermittent buzzing noise in the wall next to my stove. In all the 35 years I’ve been in this place, I never heard it before. Something new, I guess. Early mornings I hear a low rumbling outside my bedroom window. I hear it every morning, usually starting at about 3 a.m. It sounds as if the entire city might be rumbling, but it’s most intense right by my window. It’s also new, I think. Maybe I’m just more sensitive to sounds after spending so much time in the woods. I’m not sure.

Around 4 a.m. last night I heard a kid screaming, a young boy it seemed. I’m not sure what he was screaming. At first I thought it was “Help,” but then I realized it wasn’t. More like “Heyyyyy” repeatedly, and than banging, like banging on a door. He might have been locked out of his apartment, I guessed. I looked out my front windows and tried to see down the block. The sound seemed to be coming from the far end, not from my building in the middle of the block. I expected to hear sirens, but I never did. When I picked up my phone to call 911, the “heyyyyy” stopped. I guess someone returned home from their Covid party and let him in. I don’t know what it was all about, and nobody else in my building that I’ve spoken to heard it. At 5 a.m. the banging of our tenement heating system kicked in. After not hearing that all year, I found it jarring, too, but in a more comforting way.

All the strange noises aside, I’m glad to be back cooking in my city kitchen. It’s a long, narrow galley kitchen, I guess typical of the apartment’s railroad setup. The building, built in 1900, was originally lit by gas, so it’s definitely on the quaint side. On the downside, the entire structure is crumbling, inside and out. But I do love my kitchen. It’s sort of a restaurant arrangement, everything lined up, nowhere to turn. I don’t consider it a relaxed space. It’s a place to get things done. There’s an urgency built in that I like, although I’m not sure if it’s built into the kitchen or into me.

One of my big kicks is going to the Greenmarket, buying lots of vegetables, and spreading them out on my long butcher block, contemplating what to do with them. I did this the other night with a big mess of Brussels sprouts. I knew I was heading in the direction of pasta. The rest of the ingredients were odds and ends pulled from the fridge. It was a New York City success.

Casarecce Pasta with Capicola and Brussels Sprouts

(Serves 4)

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 small fresh serrano pepper, sliced into thin rounds
3 scallions, sliced into thin rounds, using a lot of the tender green part
Salt
½ pound Brussels sprouts, the ends trimmed, sliced thin
½ teaspoon allspice
1 big sprig rosemary, the leaves chopped
4 or 5 sprigs thyme, the leaves chopped
Black pepper, coarsely ground
5 slices sweet capicola
A splash of white wine
½ cup chicken broth
1 pound casarecce or gemelli or penne pasta
A few drops of rice wine vinegar
A chunk of pecorino Toscano cheese
A big handful of pine nuts, lightly toasted

This pasta comes together fairly quickly, so set up your pasta pot at the start, salting the water and setting it over high heat.

Get out a large sauté pan, and get it hot over medium heat. Add a big drizzle of olive oil. Add the serrano, scallions, Brussels sprouts, allspice, rosemary, and thyme, season with salt and black pepper, and sauté until everything is fragrant, about 3 or 4 minutes. Next add the capocolla and stir everything around.

Start cooking the pasta.

Add the white wine and the chicken broth to the sauté pan, and simmer, uncovered, until the Brussels sprouts are just tender but still a bit firm. This will take anywhere from 5 to 8 minutes, depending on how thick you sliced the sprouts. Taste for seasoning, adding a few drops of the rice vinegar to bring up the flavors and a little more salt if needed.

When the pasta is al dente, drain it, leaving a little water clinging to it, and pour it into a large serving bowl. Add the Brussels sprouts sauce. Add a drizzle of fresh olive oil and some more black pepper. Grate on about a tablespoon of so of the pecorino, and toss. Scatter on the pine nuts. Serve hot or warm, bringing the rest of the cheese to the table.

Eggplant (for Erica), by Greg Decker, 2020.

Recipe below: Eggplant Lasagna with Almonds, Mint, and Ricotta Salata

I know this may sound odd, but I occasionally think of eggplant as candy. When I was a kid, I’d grab a few breaded and just fried eggplant slices before my mother had the chance to layer them into the Parmigiano pan. I’d grab them off the oil-soaked paper towels, hot, and sprinkle them with powdered sugar. They were like zeppole, sweet, greasy, a little salty. If you’ve never tried this, you’re in for a treat.

I am the eggplant queen, or maybe the eggplant fiend. If you know me, you know I love the vegetable. Southern Italy and its eggplants are in me for good. Recently an incredible artist I know found himself painting an eggplant and somehow understood I needed to have the painting. So he made it for me. I am honored. Greg Decker created gorgeous eggplant art. He paints a lot more than eggplants, too. If you’re not familiar with his work, you might want to take a look at his website.

And speaking of eggplant art, a couple of months back I cooked up an eggplant lasagna with sweet spices, cinnamon, allspice, and ginger. I called it Eggplant Lasagna with a Hint of Moussaka. Its sweet savory edge reminded me of the faux zeppole I fashioned for myself as a child. I thought it was a success. And now, with the surprise gift of the eggplant painting, I’ve been inspired to think up another eggplant lasagna, with similar spicing but no béchamel this time; instead I’ve added two Southern Italian layers of ricotta seasoned with cinnamon and nutmeg. I’ve also added mint, almonds, and basil. It’s a less formal lasagna than the béchamel version, a bit tighter. It calls to mind food smells I remember from my visits to Sicily. Ricotta, eggplant, and cinnamon are my new culinary triumvirate.

Eggplant Lasagna with Almonds, Mint, and Ricotta Salata

(Serves 5 or 6)

For the eggplant:

2 large, firm eggplants, stripe-peeled and cut into ½-inch-thick rounds
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
2 teaspoons ras el hanout
Aleppo pepper to taste

For the tomato sauce:

Extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large shallots, chopped
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1 teaspoon ras el hanout
1 teaspoon allspice
2 fresh bay leaves
5 or so sprigs thyme, the leaves chopped
A big splash of sweet Marsala
Salt
Aleppo pepper
2 28-ounce cans Italian plum tomatoes, chopped, with juice

For the ricotta:

32 ounces (1 large tub) whole milk ricotta
1½ tablespoons sugar
A big pinch of salt
Black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Plus:

1 ¾-pound chunk of ricotta salata, grated
A bunch of basil, the leaves chopped
A smaller bunch of mint, the leaves chopped
A big handful of whole blanched almonds, lightly toasted and chopped
1 pound homemade or thin, fresh store-bought lasagna sheets, parboiled.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease a couple of sheet pans with olive oil. Lay on the eggplant slices, brushing their tops with oil. Season lightly with salt, ras el hanout, and Aleppo, and stick them in the oven until golden and tender, about 20 minutes. You don’t need to turn them. Let them cool a bit on the sheet pans.

To make the tomato sauce: Get out a good-size saucepan, and drizzle in a tablespoon or so of olive oil over medium heat. Add the butter and the shallots, and sauté until soft, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, the ras el hanout, the allspice, the bay leaf, and the thyme, and sauté until everything is fragrant, about another 2 minutes. Add the splash of Marsala, and let it bubble for a minute. Season with salt and Aleppo, and add the tomatoes. Cook at a lively bubble, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, and let the sauce rest.

Mix together all the ingredients for the ricotta in a bowl.

Get out a 10-by-14-inch rectangular baking dish, or one more or less equivalent. Drizzle a little olive oil in the bottom, and smear it around. Add a little of the tomato sauce, and put down a layer of lasagna sheets. Top with a layer of the ricotta. Sprinkle the top with ricotta salata and some of the mint and basil. Add another layer of lasagna sheets. Lay all the eggplant slices on top, topping them with more tomato sauce. Sprinkle with a little more ricotta salata, and scatter on the almonds. Put down another layer of lasagna sheets, and add the remaining ricotta, sprinkling again with ricotta salata and a bit more of the mint and basil. Add a final layer of lasagna sheets. Add the remaining tomato sauce, and sprinkle on the rest of the herbs and the remaining ricotta salata. Drizzle a bit of fresh olive oil over the top, and bake, uncovered, until golden and bubbling, about 35 minutes.

Let the lasagna rest for about 10 minutes before serving.

Women with Fish

This 17-year-old Filipino woman is carrying a fish baby. She’s holding photos of the father. I can’t wait to see what the kid looks like. A beautiful union.

Still Life with Pumpkins, by Louise August.

Recipe below: Minestra with Pumpkin, Farro, and Rosemary Gremolata

What a year. In June I contracted tick-borne malaria. Then my husband, who had recently had Lyme, came down with a mysterious attack of amnesia. And last week my sister suddenly needed brain surgery to remove a benign tumor. Now she can’t see out of her right eye, and her thoughts are drifting. This, her doctors say, will clear up in time, but she doesn’t believe it. All this with the Covid lockdown as a backdrop. I can’t say I’m feeling lighthearted. Summer is gone, and Tuesday is the election. Red wine helps. I love red wine, especially Beaujolais, but just about any decent red that’s not oaky is fine with me. Why do producers put all that oak in wine? Some of the Chianti and Rioja I used to love I now find undrinkable. I guess it started with winemakers thinking that Americans and Britons like oak because they have unsubtle palates. I hope the trend will come to an end.

And I love soup. Not thick a-spoon-stands-up-in-it soup but brothy soup with lots of good bits floating around. Also I feel that any type of minestrone or minestra (a lighter soup) must be kept under control. I’m not a fan of the kitchen-sink approach to soup. Even when I’m using up stuff in my fridge for an essentially cucina povera dish such as this minestra, I prefer to choose just a few seasonal vegetables, so each one stands out. There’s reason and elegance in this approach, I think. This soup is an orange-tinted one, by design. I thought of adding zucchini, but I decided against it, because I didn’t want to mess up the color scheme.

I hope you enjoy this cozy fall soup. And don’t forget to vote.

A note on gremolata: A gremolata is a fresh-chopped mix usually sprinkled on osso buco before serving. Parsley, lemon zest, and garlic are its most typical ingredients. Sometimes sage is added. Here I’ve included a little rosemary to pick up on the flavoring in the soup.

A note on farro: I cooked the farro separately in lightly salted boiling water until just tender and added it late in the preparation of the soup. That way it retained its individuality. The farro will swell up a little as it sits in the soup.

Minestra with Pumpkin, Farro, and Rosemary Gremolata

(Serves 5)

1 ½-inch round of pancetta, cut into small dice
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 sweet onion, chopped
2 celery stalks, cut into medium dice
3 orange carrots, cut into medium dice
2 cups pumpkin or butternut squash, cut into medium dice
2 yellow squashes, cut into medium dice
1 teaspoon ras el hanout spice mix
2 fresh bay leaves
Black pepper
Salt
A big splash of sweet vermouth
About 6 canned plum tomatoes, chopped
A few large sprigs of thyme, the leaves chopped
2 or 3 large sprigs of rosemary, the leaves chopped
1 quart light homemade chicken broth
2 cups cooked farro (see note above)
A few drops of rice wine vinegar

For the gremolata:

The leaves from a large sprig of rosemary
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 small garlic clove, peeled
A pinch of salt
The grated zest from 1 lemon

Get out a big soup pot, and drizzle a little olive oil into it. Add the pancetta, and cook over medium heat until it’s browned but not completely crisp. Add the onion, carrot, and celery, and sauté until it’s all just starting to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the pumpkin, yellow squash, ras el hanout, and bay leaf. Add some black pepper and a little salt, and sauté a minute or so to coat the vegetables with flavor. Add the vermouth, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Add the tomatoes, the broth, and the rosemary and thyme. Bring everything to a boil.

Turn the heat down a notch, and cook at a low boil, uncovered, until all the vegetables are tender but still holding their shapes, about 20 minutes, adding hot water, if needed, to keep it brothy.

Turn off the heat, and add the farro. Let the soup sit on the turned off burner for about 10 minutes. The farro will absorb flavor from the broth and swell up a little. Add more water if the soup becomes too thick. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt and black pepper, if needed, and a few drops of rice wine vinegar to bring up all the flavors.

While the soup is cooking, make the gremolata. Simply pile the herbs and the garlic up in a little mound, sprinkle on some salt, and chop it up finely. Add the lemon zest, mixing it in.

When you’re ready to serve the soup, reheat it if necessary. Ladle it out into big bowls, and sprinkle each serving with some of the gremolata. The soup will be at its best served with freshly grilled or toasted bruschetta brushed with olive oil and a little garlic.