Dill, by Stephanie St. John.
Recipe below: Penne with Swordfish, Capers, Almonds, and Dill
The only time I remember having dill as a kid was when my mother would make her “American” potato salad. The potato salad was held together with Hellmann’s and may have included sweet pickles. And it had dill, possibly dried, I’m thinking, which wasn’t perhaps my ideal initiation into that bold, beautiful herb. Strangely I can’t remember if I liked the potato salad. It was just one of those things that fulfilled the starch quota when pasta wasn’t appropriate (when would that be exactly?), appearing at some point during the summer, usually when hot dogs were on the menu.
Dill is almost never used in Italian cooking (or in traditional French cooking either). Now when I think of dill I first recall non-Italian dishes that I’ve grown to love, such as borscht, gravlax, picked herring, cucumber salads, yogurt sauces, and Greek spanakopita. It’s an herb native to Southern Russia, Western Asia, and the Eastern Mediterranean and has never taken hold in Italy, even in the South, where you’d think it would appeal to their affinity for bold flavors. But basil wasn’t native to Italy either, and look how that’s changed the flavor of Italian cooking. Dill certainly would be easy enough to grow down there. Possibly wild fennel and fennel seeds have filled the niche that dill and dill seed would have occupied.
Even though I didn’t grow up with much dill in my life, I now love it, and I look for ways to sneak it into my Italian dishes. It’s best when mixed in with a more traditional herb such as fennel, basil, or parsley, so it doesn’t completely throw the taste off kilter. Recently I made a caponata, the Sicilian agro-dolce eggplant dish that usually contains basil or parsley. By adding a little dill along with the parsley I got it closer to eggplant preparations like baba ghanoush or the Greek melitzanosalata, both of which often include dill. I loved the result.
And with fish, as the Scandinavians well know, dill’s a natural. Many years ago I tried substituting the wild fennel in pasta con le sarde, which is impossible to find on the East coast unless you grow it yourself, with a mix of bulb fennel fronds and a few dill sprigs. The flavor was not spot on, but I loved the result. I’m pretty sure a straight-up Palermitan would not be pleased with my altered version of his city’s classic, so I named it New York-style and left it at that.
The dill in my herb garden is now exploding with umbrella-like yellow flower clusters. Seeds will follow, and I’ll try and collect some for drying. My plant is also home to several beautiful yellow-and-black-striped caterpillars, which I have learned will soon enough turn into eastern black swallowtail butterflies. They love to eat Queen Anne’s lace and all members of the carrot family, which includes my dill. Watching them eat is interesting.. They lift their heads, bunch up their necks, bob a bit, and then slowly chew down a dill frond. Then they relax. I’m careful not to disrupt their resting spots when I take my cuttings.
My soon-to-be eastern black swallowtail butterfly.
I’ve again been thinking about combining fish and pasta with dill, and I’ve come up with this new Sicilian-inspired dish using swordfish. This time I mixed the dill with a little fennel pollen, and I thought the blend tasted excellent. See what you think.
Extra-virgin olive oil
¾ cup dry homemade breadcrumbs
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon fennel pollen
4 scallions, thinly sliced, using most of the tender green part
2 summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced
About 20 summer cherry tomatoes, cut in half
4 anchovy fillets, roughly chopped
1 pound penne
¾ to 1 pound swordfish, skinned and cut into ½-inch cubes
A big pinch of sugar
A splash of dry vermouth
About 10 large dill sprigs, chopped
⅓ cup slivered almonds, toasted
⅓ cup salt-packed capers, soaked and well rinsed
In a small skillet, heat a tablespoon of olive oil over medium flame. Add the breadcrumbs, seasoning them with salt, black pepper, and half of the fennel pollen. When they just begin to turn crisp and golden, after about a minute, pull them from the heat, and put them in a small bowl.
Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the scallions, and let them sauté until softened, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic, and cook until it gives off aroma but doesn’t color, about 30 seconds. Now add the cherry tomatoes, and sauté until they start to soften and throw off some juice. Add the anchovies, and stir them in. Turn off the heat.
Start cooking the penne.
Toss the swordfish cubes with about a tablespoon or so of olive oil, the sugar, the remaining fennel pollen, and a little salt and pepper. Heat a large skillet (cast iron is good) over high heat. When it’s really hot, add the swordfish, spreading it out in more or less one layer. Let it brown well on one side without moving it around at all, about 2 minutes. (I don’t bother to turn the pieces; I’m just after color on one side, to provide flavor and texture. When I’ve tried browning the other side I’ve found it easy to overcook the fish, and already the fish will continue to cook a bit when you add it to the tomato sauce.) Add the splash of vermouth, let it bubble for a few seconds, and then add the swordfish, with all its cooking juices, to the tomato mix. Give it a good stir.
When the penne is al dente, drain it, saving about a half cup of the cooking water, and place the pasta in a large serving bowl. Add a big drizzle of fresh olive oil, the dill, the almonds, and the capers, and toss. Now pour on the swordfish sauce, and give it all another toss, adding a little of the cooking water if needed for moisture. Serve hot, topping each bowl with a generous amount of the breadcrumbs.