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Every spring I plant one new herb. Something uncommon, often an herb I have no idea what to do with. I’ve grown angelica, lovage, epazote, mentuccia. I’ve learned to love a few of them; others I’ll never bother with again. This year I chose hyssop, an ancient Southern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern herb in the mint family.  Hyssop is so ancient it’s mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments. In Psalms 51:7 David says, “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” Well, let me tell you, I tried this, and it didn’t work. My skin remains the same old Mezzogiorno greenish gray. Possibly David didn’t mean physical cleansing, rather he was asking God to cleanse him spiritually as he confessed his sins of adultery and murder. I’m not sure how it can be determined that the herb I’m now growing on my deck is the exact one in the Bible, but contemplating the history of herbs is one of the reasons I love growing them and cooking with them (did my great-great-great grandparents in Southern Italy flavor eggplant with oregano like I do? Did the oregano taste the same? Did they use hyssop?)

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My hyssop is growing straight up and strong. It’s just starting to bloom bright purply blue flowers. It tastes to me like a mix of thyme and oregano with hints of summer savory and an undertone of camphor. Taking a sprig to chew, I find it harsh at first and ending with a numbness on my tongue. It’s supposed to be the original dried herb used in za’atar, the Middle Eastern mix that also contains sesame and sumac. Nowadays you’ll more often find za’atar made with dried oregano or thyme (at least that’s what the packages say), but the three herbs are used interchangeably in the Mideast, so I imagine you get what’s available. I can’t say I can make it out by taste, but evidently hyssop is one of the chief flavorings in Chartreuse, that strong green liquor made by Carthusian monks. I love it in a martini in place of dry vermouth.

Note that true hyssop, which I’m growing, is not the same as anise hyssop, a North and Central American wildflower, not technically an herb at all. Anise hyssop has leaves and flowers that do taste of anise but that also have, in my opinion, a strong undertone of gasoline. I grew that for the first time last year. It attracted a lot of bees, which was good, but its flavor was a drag. After I ate the flowers in a few salads, I was done. That’s when I decided to try the real hyssop.

Jekka McVicar, the best known herb farmer in England, is someone I often consult when faced with an unfamiliar herb. I learned from her that there are all kinds of medicinal uses for hyssop, most pretty ancient and none confirmed by Western medicine. Herbalists use it as an antiseptic (there’s that cleansing thing again) and to sooth sore throats and asthma. While reading through Jekka’s hyssop entries, I came across her recipe for roasted peppers filled with cherry tomatoes, hyssop, and anchovies. I knew immediately that pairing the strong herb with sweet peppers and anchovies was absolutely right, so I played around with the concept, adding mozzarella and other things to make it more a solid meal. I’m really happy with the way the herb came through, rich and savory, with no medicinal tone at all. Now I know that I can use hyssop pretty much any time I’d reach for thyme or oregano or summer savory. Herbal expansion calling from the souls of dead ancestors.

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Roasted Sweet Peppers with Mozzarella, Anchovy, and Hyssop

(Serves 6 as a first course)

3 red summer bell peppers, cut in half and seeded
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
2 medium summer tomatoes, seeded, cut into small dice, and then drained
A big ball of mozzarella (about a pound), cut into small cubes (you won’t want a just-made milky cheese, it would give off too much liquid during cooking, so buy a good one earlier and stick in in the refrigerator for a few hours to firm up)
1 large summer garlic clove, minced
6 oil-packed anchovies, roughly chopped
3 long sprigs hyssop, the leaves lightly chopped (or use a mix of fresh oregano and thyme), plus a few hyssop flowers or nice looking sprigs for garnish
Black pepper
A splash of dry white wine
¼ cup grated pecorino Toscano cheese
½ cup homemade breadcrumbs, not too finely ground

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Put the pepper halves on a sheet pan, cut side up. Sprinkle them with olive oil and a little salt. Roast them until they just start to get tender and fragrant, about 10 minutes (you don’t want them soft and collapsing, so rescue them before that). Pull them from the oven, and let them cool a bit.

In the meantime, put the mozzarella, tomato, garlic, and anchovies in a bowl. Add the hyssop, black pepper, a tiny bit of salt (remember that the anchovies are salty), and give it all a drizzle of olive oil. Toss.

Fill the peppers with the mozzarella mix. Drizzle a little white wine over each pepper. Mix the breadcrumbs with the pecorino, and sprinkle that over the peppers. Give them another little drizzle of olive oil and a touch of salt.

Bake until the peppers are tender, their insides are gooey, and the top is lightly golden, about 15 minutes. Garnish with the remaining hyssop. Serve right away.

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Recipe below: Rice Salad with Filetto di Pomodoro, Corn, Miso, and Basil

We had a dramatic rain in Manhattan last week. I got caught in it. I was walking down 14th Street, heading toward Seventh Avenue, when it suddenly came crashing down, unexpectedly, at least for me who hadn’t bothered with the weather report. Totally drenched, I made my way to a corner with leaky scaffolding and crammed in there, underneath the wood planks, with about thirty other soaking people. The thunder was the most raucous and crackling I can recall in a long time, and the rain came down almost horizontally.  A spotty dachshund cowered, but I felt free and good. Hard rain almost always lifts my spirits.

While waiting out the rain with my city mates, I thought of the backyard porch on Long Island where I grew up, which I loved especially when it rained hard. There I could be surrounded by rain but at the same time protected from it, just like on 14th Street. Our porch had a forest green canvas awning with white tassels, charmingly old-fashioned even back in the 1960s. During a hard rain I’d drag out my mother’s pasta pots and the bottom of our huge lobster cooker and set them up so they could collect rain water.  That was a hobby of mine. I’d sit on the cushioned love seat and listen to the thunder and watch the pots fill with water. Why? Was I trying to catch what might be needed for family well-being? We weren’t likely to face a life-threatening drought in Nassau County, twenty miles east of Manhattan. Maybe it was an element of housekeeping imprinted in my DNA, or some ancient Puglian relative guiding my survival instinct. Whatever provoked me, I collected rain water, a lot of it. And this wasn’t just an early childhood urge, like making mud pies. Water collecting lasted well into my late teens.

Unfortunately we eventually replaced our green canvas awning with an Italian-American update, a white aluminum roof that made machine gun sounds whenever it as much as drizzled, ruining the experience completely. Luckily, that wasn’t too many years before I moved into Manhattan and replaced the awning experience with city scaffolding.

Rain water harvesting is illegal in some states, because some arcane laws say rain doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to someone who may have laid claim to it far in the past—a wheat farmer or a cowboy, possibly—even if a cascade is pouring off your roof. New York doesn’t have that ridiculous law, or didn’t that I knew of at the time. I can’t say I harvested the water, exactly. It was more like hoarding it. I’d keep it for a few days and then, as I recall, pour it around my father’s tomato plants. He asked me to do that.

My father often talked about rain. He’d say, we could use some rain, or we really need a good rain. When I was very young I wasn’t sure what needing rain meant, growing up in a place that didn’t seem to need anything. I soon learned that he meant he wanted his tomatoes to be well provided for. Now that I grow my own tomatoes, rain has an added importance. I need it.

IMG_3047.JPGIn my opinion, tomatoes are nature’s greatest summer gift. A fine thing to do with them is to make an Italian-style rice salad, which is like a pasta salad but more authentically Italian. To cut down on excess wateriness in my rice salad, I slice the tomatoes into a filetto di pomodoro. That means I cut away all the seeds and watery gel from the inside of the tomatoes and then chop the remaining fillets. The deep red tomato bits look like a pile of rubies sitting on my counter (see the photo above). Don’t throw away those slippery seeds. You can take all that and throw it into a blender. Then you can easily strain it, making a thick tomato juice that’s great in a Bloody Mary, or for loosening up pastas or soups.

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Rice Salad with Filetto di Pomodoro, Corn, Miso, and Basil

(Serves 4 or 5)

3 medium-size summer tomatoes
2 cups cooked long- or medium-grain white rice
The kernels from 2 cooked ears of corn
1 small shallot, well chopped
A palmful of Niçoise black olives, pitted and lightly chopped
A palmful of toasted pine nuts
1 tablespoon white miso, at room temperature
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
A teaspoon of dry vermouth
1 small summer garlic clove, minced
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
Black pepper
A big pinch of pimento d’espelette
A handful of Thai basil leaves or regular basil (or a mix), roughly chopped

Quarter the tomatoes, and then cut out their insides, leaving the juicy, thick skin. Slice the skin into strips, and then cut the strips into little cubes (see the photo above). You’ve now got your filetto di pomodoro.  For suggestions on what to do with the tomatoes’ insides, see the essay above.

Place the rice in a nice-looking serving bowl; one more wide than deep is best. Add the filetto di pomodoro, the corn, the shallot, the olives, and the pine nuts. Give it all a toss.

Whisk the miso together with the rice vinegar, the vermouth, and the garlic. Whisk in 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Season the vinaigrette with salt, black pepper, and a little pimenton d’espelette. Pour this over the rice, adding the basil, and toss well. Let the rice sit for about a half hour so all the flavors can blend. Now give it another toss, correct the seasoning if necessary, and serve.

I find this especially good alongside grilled Italian sausages.

 

 

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Still Life with Goat Skull and Beets, by Viktoria Kiss.

Recipe below: Beet and Goat Cheese Torta with Olives and Summer Savory

“Great cooking favors the prepared hands” —Jacques Pépin

That is a fairly well-known quotation from M. Pepin about creativity. Its truth has never been more apparent to me than in the last few months, when I’ve tried painting illustrations for my next cookbook. I’d had the idea before but never acted on it. This time I started painting. Oh, boy.  When things didn’t turn out instantly impressive, I got demoralized. What was I expecting? Instant greatness? My culinary skills, at this point, are pretty well rooted, allowing me to improvise freely.  After decades of cooking in restaurants, creating recipes, and writing cookbooks, I’ve got what M. Pépin calls prepared hands. Painting is another story.

Feeling like a beginner at this point in my life, felt, well, bad. I was a decent painter in high school (as in 40 years ago), and figured it would all come flowing back. I made the situation worse by choosing to paint in gouache, a medium I was completely unfamiliar with. I’m not sure why I went for that, except that possibly my love for Leonetto Cappiello’s posters drew me to his opaque matte finishes and bold shadows. I was hoping to turn out a first painting with a blue-gray sky and a scattering of stars under which a guy in a shiny suit, with Italian bags beneath his eyes, would float away with a handful of zucchini. Perfect cookbook material, no? So far, it hasn’t turned out as planned. But I haven’t given up.

This artistic frustration has led me, as many things do, to the Greenmarket, searching for color and all-around inspiration. High summer is definitely in bloom there. Lots of varieties of beets, a vegetable with a strong pull on me. Are you familiar with the Chioggia beet? It’s bright burgundy outside, which seems normal enough, but when you cut it open you reveal a spiral of fuchsia and white, a candy-stripe swirl. Amazing. But this is not some designer hybrid. It’s the real deal, a Northern Italian heirloom that became popular in the nineteenth century. Chioggia beets are very sweet and tender, and, another big plus, they don’t bleed all over the place.  When they’re cooked, their brilliant spiral design is replaced with an ombré effect, with colors moving from dark pink to orange and then to a creamy beige. Quite beautiful in its own right.

IMG_3021.JPGSo I made this beet and goat cheese torta. It’s a lot more beautiful and delicious than any painting I can turn out at the moment. I offer it to you as a high summer thought. You’ll notice that it has touches of sweetness, in the beets, of course, but also in the sweet pasta frolla, and the honey-vinegar drizzle I add right before baking. But to balance that out, I’ve added olives and a strong herb, making it suitable for an antipasto pass-around. Nice with a glass of rosé.

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Beet and Goat Cheese Torta with Olives and Summer Savory

(Serves 8 as an antipasto)

For the pasta frolla:

2½ cups regular flour, plus a little more for rolling
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
½ teaspoon ground allspice
The grated zest from 1 lemon
1½ sticks butter, cut into tiny cubes
2 large eggs, lightly whisked
About 2 tablespoons dry vermouth, maybe a little more

For the filling:

6 small beets, either Chioggia or another variety that doesn’t bleed too much
1 8-ounce log of fresh goat cheese
3 tablespoons heavy cream
1 small summer garlic clove, minced
1 large egg
Salt
Black pepper
About 10 black Niçoise olives, pitted and cut in half
About 6 large sprigs of summer savory or thyme (or a mix), the leaves lightly chopped
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon runny honey
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar

To make the pasta frolla, put the flour, salt, sugar, allspice, and lemon zest in a food processor. Pulse a few times to mix.  Add the butter, and pulse until it’s broken up into pea-size bits. Add the eggs and vermouth, and pulse again, quickly,  just until all the ingredients come together into a crumbly, moist mass (pinch a bit of dough; if it doesn’t hold together, add a touch more vermouth and pulse again). Tilt the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface, and knead briefly, maybe 3 or 4 strokes, until it comes together in a ball. Wrap it in plastic, and refrigerate for an hour or so.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Wrap the beets in aluminum foil, stick them on a sheet pan, and roast them until fragrant and tender, about ½ hour (depending on the size of the beets they may need to go a little longer). Now let them cool until you can slip their skins off. Slice them into thin rounds.

Take the dough from the refrigerator, and let it warm up for about 15 minutes (this will make it easier to roll).

In the meantime, place the goat cheese, cream, egg, garlic, and a little salt and black pepper in a food processor. Pulse a few times to blend. Add the olives and the savory or thyme, and stir them in by hand (I don’t like pulsing the olives. It breaks them up too much).

Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface and drape it into the tart pan, leaving overhang. Pour in the goat cheese cream. Now arrange the beet slices in a circular, slightly overlapping pattern. Trim the edges.

In a small saucepan, heat the honey with the olive oil and the vinegar, just until the honey is melted, about 30 seconds. Pour this over the beets. Season the top with a little salt.

Bake at 425 degrees until the inside is puffed and the crust is lightly browned, about 30 minutes. Let the tart sit about ½ hour before slicing, so it can firm up a bit.

 

 

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Fig Basket, Villa Poppaea, Oplontis

 

Figs

D.H. Lawrence

 

The proper way to eat a fig, in society,
Is to split it in four, holding it by the stump,
And open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled four-petalled flower.
Then you throw away the skin
Which is just like a four-sepalled calyx,
After you have taken off the blossom with your lips.
But the vulgar way
Is just to put your mouth to the crack, and take out the flesh in one bite.
Every fruit has its secret.
The fig is a very secretive fruit.
As you see it standing growing, you feel at once it is symbolic:
And it seems male.
But when you come to know it better, you agree with the Romans, it is female.
The Italians vulgarly say, it stands for the female part; the fig-fruit:
The fissure, the yoni,
The wonderful moist conductivity towards the centre.
Involved,
Inturned,
The flowering all inward and womb-fibrilled;
And but one orifice.
The fig, the horse-shoe, the squash-blossom.
Symbols.
There was a flower that flowered inward, womb-ward;
Now there is a fruit like a ripe womb.
It was always a secret.
That’s how it should be, the female should always be secret.
There never was any standing aloft and unfolded on a bough
Like other flowers, in a revelation of petals;
Silver-pink peach, venetian green glass of medlars and sorb-apples,
Shallow wine-cups on short, bulging stems
Openly pledging heaven:
Here’s to the thorn in flower! Here is to Utterance!
The brave, adventurous rosaceæ.
Folded upon itself, and secret unutterable,
And milky-sapped, sap that curdles milk and makes ricotta,
Sap that smells strange on your fingers, that even goats won’t taste it;
Folded upon itself, enclosed like any Mohammedan woman,
Its nakedness all within-walls, its flowering forever unseen,
One small way of access only, and this close-curtained from the light;
Fig, fruit of the female mystery, covert and inward,
Mediterranean fruit, with your covert nakedness,
Where everything happens invisible, flowering and fertilisation, and fruiting
In the inwardness of your you, that eye will never see
Till it’s finished, and you’re over-ripe, and you burst to give up your ghost.
Till the drop of ripeness exudes,
And the year is over.
And then the fig has kept her secret long enough.
So it explodes, and you see through the fissure the scarlet.
And the fig is finished, the year is over.
That’s how the fig dies, showing her crimson through the purple slit
Like a wound, the exposure of her secret, on the open day.
Like a prostitute, the bursten fig, making a show of her secret.
That’s how women die too.
The year is fallen over-ripe,
The year of our women.
The year of our women is fallen over-ripe.
The secret is laid bare.
And rottenness soon sets in.
The year of our women is fallen over-ripe.
When Eve once knew in her mind that she was naked
She quickly sewed fig-leaves, and sewed the same for the man.
She’d been naked all her days before,
But till then, till that apple of knowledge, she hadn’t had the fact on her mind.
She got the fact on her mind, and quickly sewed fig-leaves.
And women have been sewing ever since.
But now they stitch to adorn the bursten fig, not to cover it.
They have their nakedness more than ever on their mind,
And they won’t let us forget it.
Now, the secret
Becomes an affirmation through moist, scarlet lips
That laugh at the Lord’s indignation.
What then, good Lord! cry the women.
We have kept our secret long enough.
We are a ripe fig.
Let us burst into affirmation.
They forget, ripe figs won’t keep.
Ripe figs won’t keep.
Honey-white figs of the north, black figs with scarlet inside, of the south.
Ripe figs won’t keep, won’t keep in any clime.
What then, when women the world over have all bursten into self-assertion?
And bursten figs won’t keep?
fig-tart

Fig Tart with Limoncello and Thyme

(Serves 6 to 8)

For the crust:

5 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons sugar
A pinch of salt
2 tablespoons Limoncello
1¾ cups all-purpose flour
4 thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped

For the custard:

¾ cup non-ultrapasteurized heavy cream
1 large egg
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon Limoncello
The grated zest from 1 lemon
4 thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
1 teaspoon finely ground flour, such as Wondra

Plus:

15 or 16 fresh figs, either black or green, cut in half lengthwise
Extra sugar for the top

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a small saucepan, melt the butter. Add the olive oil to the butter, give it a stir, and then let the butter mixture cool completely. With a pastry brush, use about a tablespoon of the melted butter mixture to coat a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom.

To make the crust: In a medium bowl, combine the remaining butter mixture with the sugar, salt, Limoncello, and about a tablespoon of water. Stir to blend. Add the flour and the thyme, and mix briefly until you have a mass of moist, crumbly dough (don’t blend so much that it forms a ball). Tip the dough into the tart pan, and pat it down and out to the edges and all the way up the side to form a thin crust. Bake for about 15 minutes, until lightly colored and slightly puffy.

In a small bowl, combine all the ingredients for the custard, and whisk until they’re well blended.

Place the figs, cut side up, in the crust, in a slightly overlapping circular pattern. Pour the custard evenly over the figs, and sprinkle the top with sugar. Bake until the crust is golden and the custard is set, about 45 minutes. Let sit for about ½ hour before serving.

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A Bunch of Carrots, by Kay Smith.

Recipes below: My Ras el Hanout; Carrots Roasted with Ras el Hanout and Summer Savory, Served with Crème Fraîche.

Growing up I didn’t have much contact with carrots. I’m trying to think if we ever even had them as a side dish when I was a kid. I don’t think so. They were for soffritto, little bits of orange that would float around in a ragù. My mother did put them out raw, along with celery and black olives, at cocktail parties, with blue cheese dip. I liked the dip.

What is the taste of a carrot?  It’s elusive. If I think too much about it I start to doubt my taste buds. Winter ones seem soapy. Early summer market carrots aren’t soapy. They’re sweeter, but, I don’t know, they just need something. Cooking helps, but even then, unless they come out somewhat spiced or candied, I’m not all that interested. Roasting is a very good way to concentrate their flavor, as are sweet and hot spices, too, or honey, salt, or, as I’ve just discovered, summer savory.

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My summer savory.

This is the first year I’ve grown that herb. The plant is already full and bushy. It tastes to me like a cross between thyme and oregano, so I’d give it a try anywhere I’d use those herbs, but it releases more strength than either of them, and it’s a little bitter, maybe closer in taste to a wild herb.

My Ras el Hanout

Toast cumin and coriander seeds, about a teaspoon of each. Then grind them together in a mortar and pestle, along with a small piece of Ceylon cinnamon stick. Add ground turmeric, sweet paprika, salt, dried ginger, and black pepper, about ½ teaspoon of each. Mix everything well. I like to leave the mix a little gritty, not too powdered. Close it up in a little jar. It will keep fragrant for about 2 months, providing you start out with fresh spices. I find it best to make in small batches, but feel free to double or triple this recipe if you think you’ll be using it up fast enough.

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My carrots, before roasting.

Carrots Roasted with Ras el Hanout and Summer Savory, Served with Crème Fraîche

(Serves 4)

2 bunches of thin summer carrots (multicolor will look especially pretty), scrubbed clean, leaving about ½ inch of their green stems (if your carrots are thick, as mine were, try cutting them lengthwise; see the photo above)
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
Aleppo pepper
1 teaspoon Ras el Hanout (see my recipe above or use a good store-bought brand)
1 scallion, cut into thin rounds, using some of the tender green part
1 tablespoon runny honey
A sprinkle of rice wine vinegar
10 large sprigs of summer savory, stemmed (if you don’t have it, use fresh thyme instead)
½ cup crème fraîche

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Lay the carrots out on a sheet pan. Drizzle them with olive oil, and toss them well. They should be nice and coated. Sprinkle with salt and a little Aleppo, and toss again. Stick them in the oven, and roast them for about 5 minutes. Pull them out, and give them a gentle toss. Sprinkle on the ras el hanout, the scallion, and drizzle with honey. Toss to blend it all. Put the carrots back in the oven, and roast them until they’re golden, tender, and fragrant, about another 10 minutes, depending on how thick they are. Pull them from the oven, sprinkle on the rice vinegar (just a little sprinkle), and then scatter on the summer savory.

Pile the carrots up on a good looking platter.  Give each serving a dollop of crème fraîche.

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An Arrangement of Peas, by Mark Brooks.

Recipe below: Conchigliette with Shell Peas, Fennel, Prosciutto, and Basil

“Improvisation is the expression of the accumulated yearnings, dreams, and wisdom of the soul.” —Yehudi Menuhin

Can this quote, attributed to a great violinist, be applied to pasta cooking? I think so. There’s nothing more soulful and dreamed up than a bowl of good pasta. It’s the best thing an Italian cook can offer you. I make spur-of-the moment pasta a lot, but it doesn’t often find its way onto my blog. Not original enough? Not special enough? Too everyday? Yes, I guess all of those things. But don’t you love when a whim just hits, when flavors blend effortlessly, and the thing cooks along like in a nice dream? No snags, no thinking, all floating. The aroma is right from step one. In warm weather, when I’ve got such good produce to work with, these unrehearsed pastas can be memorable. I’d make this again.

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Conchigliette with Shell Peas, Fennel, Prosciutto, and Basil

(Makes 2 large servings)

Salt
4 thin slices prosciutto di Parma or San Daniele, the fat removed, chopped, and saved, and the rest cut into thin strips
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 fennel bulb, cored and thinly sliced, chopping and saving a few of the big feathery fronds
1 small summer onion, sliced, using some of the green stem
1 cup freshly shelled peas
2 allspice, ground to a powder
6 or so fennel seeds, ground
A splash of rosé wine
½ cup of chicken broth, possibly a little more
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Black pepper
A few drops of rice wine vinegar
About a dozen basil leaves, cut into chiffonade
A small chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

Set up a pot of pasta cooking water. Add salt.

While that’s coming to a boil, get out a large sauté pan, and set it over medium heat. Add a generous drizzle of olive oil and the chopped prosciutto fat. When the fat starts to melt a bit, add the fennel and the onion, and sauté until softened, about 4 minutes.

Now add the peas, the allspice, and the fennel, and season with salt. Sauté for about a minute (this will bring out their flavor). Add the splash of rosé (or any crisp white wine), and let it boil away. Add the chicken broth, and simmer until the peas are just tender, about another 4 minutes or so.

Drop the conchigliette into the water, and cook until al dente.

Drain the pasta and add it to the sauté pan over a low heat. Add the butter, and season with black pepper and a few drops of the vinegar while tossing gently just until everything is mixed. Add a little more chicken broth, if it seems dry.

Pour the pasta into a serving bowl. Add the prosciutto and basil, and toss again. Serve with a generous grating of Parmigiano.

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Recipes below: Ricotta and Strawberry Torta with Anisette; Strawberries with Ricotta and Rosemary Syrup

Early morning anxiety is so predictable for me that I know exactly when I should reach out and find my colors. Staring hard at colors is an antidote, drawing me out, loosening the bad stuff. I’m now looking at my window box geraniums, reddish orange, light pink, peach. They’re catching the sun in spots. They look edible. Most things reddish or orangish look edible to me. Tomatoes. Strawberries.

Strawberries are just out. I picked up a few pints at the Greenmarket. I made a torta with one pint and an herby syrup for the others. Their colors, the more I look, should be simple to describe, but they’re actually hard. Deep red with tones of pink? Crimson? Sometimes they seem a little orange, depending on the type. That’s the thing about colors, they’re hard to tell someone about. I have these incredible geraniums, they’re orange verging on red, or red heading toward orange. I have strawberries that are red with under-hits of pinky blue. What that means to me it might not to you. Colors are personal. At times they seem empty but beautiful, but more often they’re confounding, especially the longer I look. When you really think about them they make you lose your words. Maybe that’s why color is salve for wasteful suffering. I can lose myself in color.

As a kid I was drawn to the tomatoes in my father’s small garden. I found red verging on orange, red verging on maroon, red verging on blue, depending. I loved slicing them to find out what went on inside (the same color as their skin?). I also loved watching their colors darken and their tastes change when they were heated. Tomato sauce is an amazing thing. It’ll be a while before we get good tomatoes around here.

tristars

When I bought my pints of strawberries, I knew wanted to pair them with something light colored, like cream or cheese, so that their juices could mingle, creating another color. Dark pink was what I wanted. I got that when I came up with this strawberry and ricotta torta. I knew everything would run a little. Actually the color is more pinky orange, like an old debutante’s lipstick.

If you don’t want to go the pasta frolla (pastry dough) route, you can get a similar color seep, more quickly, by making a syrup for your strawberries and pouring that over ricotta. I love rosemary with strawberries. It sounds like a strange pairing, but taste it and you’ll see. And the colors are beautiful.

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Ricotta and Strawberry Torta with Anisette

This is for a 9-inch open-face torta. I used a straight-sided tart pan with a removable bottom, to get a rustic look. Nicer than fluted, I think.

For the pasta frolla

2½ cups regular flour, plus a little more for rolling
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking powder
⅓ cup powdered sugar
The grated zest from 1 lemon
1½ sticks butter, cut into tiny cubes
2 large eggs, lightly whisked
About 2 tablespoons dry vermouth, maybe a little more

For the filling:

1 cup full-fat ricotta, well drained
⅓ cup powdered sugar
The grated zest from 1 lemon
1 tablespoon anisette or Sambuca
1 large egg
1 pint small spring strawberries, hulled but left whole (if you can find Tristar, they will be perfect)

To make the pasta frolla, put the flour, salt, baking powder, sugar, and lemon zest in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse a few times to blend everything. Add the butter, and give it a few good pulses, just until it is broken up into tiny bits. Add the eggs and vermouth, and pulse a few more times, until all the ingredients come together into a crumbly, moist mass. Tilt the dough out onto a floured work surface, and knead briefly, maybe with 3 or 4 strokes, until you’ve got a smooth ball. Wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for about an hour or so.

Take the dough out of the refrigerator about 15 minutes before you plan on rolling it.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Put all the ingredients for the filling, except for the strawberries, into a bowl, and mix well.

Grease the tart pan with a little butter. Roll out your dough, and drape it into the pan, leaving a little overhang. Place the strawberries, hulled sides down, in the pan (a nice circular pattern will look good). Pour on the filling. Now trim the edges of the dough, and go all around the pan making little folds.

Bake for about 35 minutes, or until the crust is golden and the insides look firm and a little puffed up. Let rest for about an hour before slicing.

Strawberries with Ricotta and Rosemary Syrup

Strawberries with rosemary whipped cream, or custard, or ice cream are all combinations I’ve heard of, mostly in the French kitchen A touch of rosemary’s deep resin flavor with sweet fruit makes so much culinary sense. I’ve Italianized my recipe by including ricotta, which cushions the strong herb nicely.

(Serves 2 to 3)

For the syrup:

3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon wildflower honey (I used acacia)
3 big sprigs of rosemary, lightly crushed with the side of a knife to release their oil, plus a few small sprigs for garnish
A small piece of vanilla bean, split
A long peel of lemon skin
1½ cups of dry white wine

Plus:

1 pint small local strawberries, left whole (again, Tristar are a good), or larger ones cut in half or quarters
About 1½ cups high quality whole-milk ricotta
Freshly ground black pepper

Put all the ingredients for the syrup in a small sauce pan, and simmer over medium heat until large bubbles appear on the surface, about 5 minutes or so (the bubbles will let you know that it has properly thickened). Let sit for about 5 minutes on the turned-off burner to further blend the flavors. Now strain into a small bowl. Stick the bowl in the refrigerator until cool.

Before using the syrup, bring it to room temperature.

Place the strawberries in a bowl.  Pour the syrup over the top, and toss gently.

Divide up the ricotta into small bowls or big wine glasses. Spoon on the strawberries and then some of their syrup. Finish with a few grindings of black pepper, and garnish with rosemary sprigs.