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Recipe below: Mushroom Ragù with Woody Herbs

I’ve been eating a lot of beef lately—in stews, steaks, meatballs, hamburgers (lots of hamburgers). Maybe because of the new cool weather, or maybe it just fell that way. I actually feel kind of gross, pissed off too, loaded up with meat and sick of wanting all that meat. So to lighten up my head, I’ve decided to focus on mushrooms.

Sometimes mushrooms are just the thing. They’re like nothing else we put in our mouths. A vegetable-like food with no chlorophyll. I mean, asparagus and carrots are more alike than are mushrooms and potatoes. Mushrooms and truffles are similar, but only a select few of us get to eat truffles with any regularity.

A ragù is an especially good thing to make with a pile of assorted mushrooms. Some cooks make one with dried mushrooms, or partly with dried. I like that, and I do that, but this time of year, when I can get local oysters and hens of the woods, I use all fresh, usually selecting small amounts of those two special ones and then adding bulk with creminis or whatever ones look decent at the supermarket. They all have good flavor, and when united in the same pot, they give you a fragrant sauce that’s good on pasta, polenta, scrambled eggs, or ladled out in a bowl, with bruschetta for dunking. The sauce also makes an excellent lasagna, if you smother the top with béchamel and use a good amount of Parmigiano between the layers.

My herb garden is edging toward its weather-beaten stage, but its woody stuff, rosemary, savory, sage, thyme, still stands erect. Mushrooms can take a lot of herbage, so I used a little of all of the above.

Please feel free to use this recipe as an outline for cooking with your own favorite mushrooms. The more diverse your assortment, the better the ragù will be. So hunt around and go for the best. Happy fall cooking to you.

Mushroom Ragù with Woody Herbs

(Makes enough to go with a pound of pasta or 4 servings of polenta)

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 ¼-inch-thick round of pancetta, chopped
2 medium shallots, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
4 pints mushrooms, a mix of wild and cultivated (I used oyster mushrooms, shiitakes, creminis, and one small hen of the woods), cleaned and sliced
Salt
Black pepper
½ teaspoon ground allspice
1 small wine glass dry Marsala
1 cup chicken broth, or possibly a little more
6 canned plum tomatoes, chopped
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
A few large sprigs of rosemary,  thyme, and savory, the leaves chopped
A few small sage leaves, chopped
A chunk of Parmigiano or grana Padano cheese for grating.

Take out a large sauté pan, and get it hot over medium heat. Add the pancetta and a drizzle of olive oil. Let the pancetta brown, and then add the shallot and celery, sautéing until it’s all softened.

Add all the mushrooms. Turn the heat up a notch, and sauté them, seasoning with salt, black pepper, and allspice, until they start to soften and give off some liquid, about 5 minutes or so.

Add the marsala, and let it bubble for a moment. Add 1 cup of chicken broth, the tomatoes, and all the herbs. Bring to a boil, and then turn the heat down to low, and cook at a gentle bubble, uncovered, until some of the liquid is cooked down and you get a rich mushroom aroma, about 10 minutes. Now add the butter, stirring it in. The sauce should stay fairly loose, so add a bit more chicken broth if it gets too cooked down.

Turn off the heat, and let the sauce settle for about 10 minutes.  Taste for seasoning.

However you decide to use your mushroom ragù, I’d  top it with a big grating of Parmigiano.

Big Beans with Leek and Fennel

Greek gigantes beans.

Recipe below: Big White Beans with Leek and Fennel

Back in March I hoarded beans. Many of us did. I still have most of them. It turned out my La Bohème all-bean diet wasn’t necessary. I could still purchase ribeye steaks and scallops. Oddly, though, I think of beans not as an economy food but as a luxury, like ribeyes and scallops. Beans are the gorgeous flavor trappers in a cassoulet, soaking up all the wine, garlic, and various meat juices you add to the pot. And I’ve always thought of the cannellini-heavy pasta fazool of my childhood as exotic—chic even. It seemed like one of my family’s little secrets, with its fresh sage and hot chili flecks dotting an otherwise white dish. But of course, fazool is commonplace cucina povera, so I’m not sure why I felt that way.  Cecis have also been a longtime favorite. Dried, they seem so dead and hard that nothing could ever wake them up. But they do come to life after a few hours of slow cooking, bursting into vibrancy especially when tossed with good olive oil and a little sea salt. I imagine they were one of the things my ancestors lived on in pre-tomato Southern Italy.

Lately I’m into big beans, like the Greek gigantes ones, or a similar type called corona (not named for the virus,).  I buy a variety called Royal Corona from Rancho Gordo. When I want the big, fat Greek ones, I usually find them at Kalustyans. Those are both excellent, but I especially like the corona, because their skins don’t slip off during cooking, which I find extremely annoying as it looks messy. They cook up clean and firm but with a creamy center.

This dish, flavored with just leeks, fennel, and a bit of sage, is streamlined and I think quite beautiful. I like eating it as a main event, with a few glasses of fiano di Avellino and a stubby candle providing the only light.

Big White Beans with Leek and Fennel

(Serves 4 or 5)

1 1-pound bag corona or Greek Gigantes beans
About 2 cups chicken broth
Water
A splash of soy sauce
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 fresh bay leaf
½ teaspoon ground allspice
1 garlic clove, lightly smashed
3 thin, young leeks, trimmed and cut into rounds
1 large fennel bulb, trimmed and cut into small cubes, saving and chopping a palmful of the fronds
A big pinch of fennel pollen or ground fennel seed
Salt
Black pepper
A splash of dry vermouth
About 5 small sage leaves, cut into chiffonade
A drizzle of rice wine vinegar

I don’t usually soak beans unless they’re really dry. If yours are really dry, soak them overnight and drain them just before cooking them. Otherwise just put them in a big pot. Add the chicken broth, and then add water to cover the beans by about three inches. Add a drizzle of soy sauce, a drizzle of olive oil, the allspice, the bay leaf, and the garlic. Turn the heat to high, and bring the liquid to a boil. Turn the heat down low, and wait until you’ve got a gentle simmer. Partially cover the pot, and wait a few more minutes to see if you need to turn down the heat further to keep the liquid just simmering.

Check on the beans from time to time to make sure the water hasn’t boiled down too much and they’re still at a gentle simmer. The Rancho Gordo Royal Corona beans I cooked took about an hour. Older beans, like the ones you typically buy at the supermarket, will be harder and may take a fair amount longer, even an hour or more longer, so just taste as you go. When the beans are firm but creamy throughout, drain them, saving about a cup of the cooking liquid. Drizzle them with a little fresh olive oil, and give them a bit of salt.

Pull out a skillet large enough to hold all the beans. Get it hot over medium heat. Add a big drizzle of olive oil. Add the leeks and the fennel (but not the fronds). Sauté until everything is fragrant but still has a crunch to it, about 3 or 4 minutes. Add the fennel pollen or ground fennel seed.

Now add the beans, seasoning with a little more salt and black pepper. Stir for a minute or so. Add the vermouth, and let it bubble away. Add about ¼ cup or so of the bean cooking liquid, just enough to moisten the beans but not make them soupy. If you forgot to save some cooking liquid, use chicken stock or water.

Turn off the heat, and add the sage and fennel fronds. Taste for seasoning, adding a tiny bit of rice wine vinegar to bring up the flavor if necessary. I like to give them a final drizzle of my best olive oil right before serving. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.

And here‘s the recipe.

Women with Fish

Women with suburban fish unite to save our country.

Recipe below: Eggplant Lasagna with a Hint of Moussaka

Eggplant is a big part of my life. When I was a kid it was always around, in our backyard garden, on our kitchen counter, in the oven, on our dining room table, bulbous and black, round and violet. It was normal food, the way string beans might be for most Americans. Nothing much has changed between me and eggplant. I know its smell both raw and cooked. Raw, it smells somewhat bitter but also grassy. Its texture is spongy. You really don’t want to eat it that way, although you could. It’s not poisonous. When cooked it smells mainly of whatever you’ve cooked along with it—garlic, basil, caciocavallo—but it keeps an underlying sweetness, and a creamy texture emerges, maybe with a faint hit of supermarket mushroom. I find its flavor irresistible, and when properly cooked its texture is unique. Soft but with integrity.

Eggplant is a vegetable (a fruit technically) that came from India to Southern Italy with Arab settlers in the ninth century. It is not, like tomatoes and chilis, a New world plant that slowly got worked into Southern Italian cuisine. Considering how much I loved eggplant from an early age, I don’t remember too many preparations from my Italian American youth. Parmigiana, of course. And then there were cutlets—breaded, fried slices that we kids grabbed before they got layered into the parmigiana. They eventually became a dish in themselves, because everyone loved their greasy crispiness. I remember eggplant rollatini filled with ricotta and covered with tomato sauce. There was also a vinegary eggplant shoved into jars. My grandmother made that, but we also bought it from Italian delis. Sometimes it was leathery. I’m not sure how it got that way, but I think it was from being dried out in the oven. In any case the vinegar-drenched stuff wasn’t my favorite, as I wasn’t a big acid eater.

I’ve since experimented with all sorts of Southern Italian ways with eggplant, such as eggplant “meat” balls and pasta alla Norma. I’ve gone wild for Richard Olney’s baked eggplant custard, with eggs and cream, no tomatoes. That was a recipe from Provence the Beautiful, an extravagant book that after a few read-throughs made me feel I’d been had. At some point I discovered the Amalfi Coast’s baked eggplant and chocolate dessert, a tourist favorite that you would think was a recent chef’s creation but in fact is a real traditional dish. It’s really delicious. If you’d like to give it a try, here’s a recipe.

I then went on to make baba ghanoush and many other North African, Middle Eastern, and Greek eggplant dishes, using spices not popular with my contemporary Italian people, who were more into herbs. Eggplant stuffed with rice or couscous or wheat berries and its own scooped out and put back insides, sometimes with whatnots of meat added. I did it my mother’s way, with garlic, basil, and oregano, and I did it Paula Wolfert’s way, with saffron, cinnamon, ginger, and cumin.

One of the most popular Greek eggplant dishes is moussaka, baked with ground lamb in addition to the eggplant, topped with a thick béchamel, and the whole thing seasoned with cinnamon. I love that. When I decided to make this eggplant lasagna, I think I conflated the two and unconsciously came up with a hybrid. But the funny thing is that my sweet spiced eggplant lasagna is most likely closer to what eggplant dishes tasted like in Southern Italy’s pre-tomato time, when there was a freer hand with spices than there is now. I was pretty happy with it. It’s still eggplant season in my New York habitat. If it is where you are, too, maybe you’d like to give this a try.

Eggplant Lasagna with a Hint of Moussaka

I used a 14-by-9-inch oval baking dish for this, but anything more or less equivalent will work fine.

For the eggplant:

2 large eggplants, partially skinned and cut into ½-inch disks
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
Black pepper
A sprinkling of ground cinnamon

For the tomato sauce:

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 small summer onion, chopped
2 summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced
7 or 8 medium-size round summer tomatoes, peeled, squeezed of seeds, roughly chopped, and drained for 20 minutes (but retain any tomato water they throw off)
1 fresh bay leaf
A big pinch of sugar
A bigger pinch of ground cinnamon
Sea salt
Black pepper
A splash of sweet Marsala

For the béchamel:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons regular flour
3 cups whole milk
1 fresh bay leaf
1 garlic clove, lightly crushed
½ teaspoon allspice
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
Sea salt
Piment d’espelette to taste
1 large egg yolk

Plus:

1 pound fresh lasagna sheets, boiled, cooled, and laid out in the usual way, which at my house is all over the place.
1½ cups freshly grated parmigiano Reggiano
A big handful of basil leaves, lightly chopped
A palmful of marjoram leaves, lightly chopped

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Coat a sheet pan with a little olive oil (you might need to use two sheet pans). Lay the eggplant rounds on it, and brush the tops of the rounds with more olive oil. Season with salt, black pepper, and a sprinkling of cinnamon. Bake until golden and tender, about 15 minutes or so. I didn’t bother to turn them over. They baked up fine without that.

Leave the oven on while you get on with the rest of the recipe.

Make the tomato sauce: Take out a large skillet, and get it hot over medium heat. Drizzle in about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the onion, and let it soften for a few minutes. Add the garlic, and sauté until it’s fragrant but doesn’t take on much color. Add the tomatoes, the bay leaf, sugar, cinnamon, salt, and black pepper, and let simmer at a low boil for about 5 minutes. Pour in the Marsala, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Turn off the heat. If the sauce seems too tight, add a little of the reserved tomato water.

Drizzle some olive oil into the baking dish, and put down the layer of pasta. Spoon on a layer of tomato sauce, and then a layer of eggplant. Sprinkle on some of the grated Parmigiano, and then scatter on some of the basil and marjoram.

Repeat to make two more layers, ending up with a layer of pasta, holding back a bit of the grated Parmigiano for the top.

Now make the béchamel: Get out a medium-size saucepan, and set it over medium heat. Add the butter, and let it melt. Add the flour, and whisk it into the butter to form a paste. Let cook for a few seconds, to burn off some of the raw flour taste. Now add the milk and all the seasonings. Whisk everything to blend, and let the sauce heat through, whisking frequently until the sauce starts to bubble and becomes thick. Let it cook for about a minute longer, and then take it off the heat. Wait for a minute or so, so it can cool slightly, and then add the egg yolk, whisking it in.

Pour the béchamel over the lasagna, and top it with a final sprinkling of Parmigiano. Bake, uncovered, until the top is golden with little bits of brown and the whole thing is bubbling, about 25 minutes. Let it rest for about 10 minutes or so before serving.

Cremolata

roccos

Recipe below: Cremolata

As if this summer weren’t already strange enough, I had to come down with babesiosis, a tick-borne infection my doctor described as the American malaria. It’s been a joyless ride that I’m still fighting to get through. When I first got sick I had been on an ice cream making tear, churning out all sorts of summery fruit concoctions. I also had just perfected my recipe for cremolata, the Italian American ice milk of summer. I’d been craving it, and being unable to find it in my upstate New York hideaway, I knew I’d just have to make it myself. Anyway, these strange times call for exceptionally appealing food.

In Italy cremolata just means a sweet fruit flavored ice. In Italian American culture, specifically in the New York and New Jersey region, it means an ice milk flavored with vanilla and almonds. Which is one of the most gentle, soothing indicators of hot weather for us East Coast Italian types. It’s light on the tongue, not quite an ice, but not full-on ice cream either. Many Italian pastry shops make it. Rocco’s on Bleecker Street is where I’ve been getting it for about forty years. It appears around mid-June and goes on the retreat again at the end of August. I couldn’t locate information on its history, so I’m not sure when this particular Italian American ice milk was invented. If anyone out there knows about this, please let me know.

The version I came up with is a bit creamier than the original, but when I tried cutting back on the fat, it got too icy, so I just went with it. The flavor is right on. Use the best vanilla, good almonds, and serious milk products, and you’ll be rewarded. Even if it isn’t a flavor from your childhood, I think you’ll like it.

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Cremolata

(Makes about a quart)

1½ cups heavy cream
2½ cups whole milk
A pinch of Sicilian sea salt
½ cup sugar
¼ cup powdered sugar
1 cup skin-on whole almonds, toasted and roughly chopped
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons high quality vanilla extract
2 tablespoons Orzata syrup

Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl. Taste for sweetness. You might want more sugar, though I didn’t. Stick the bowl in the refrigerator to chill, for a few hours or overnight.

Next pour the mix into an ice cream machine, and process until nice and slushy. Scoop it out into a container with a lid, and freeze it until it sets up, probably an hour or two.

57582

Recipe below:Pasta alla Norma

There has been for decades on the Upper East Side of Manhattan a restaurant called Isle of Capri. It’s always had an old-fashioned continental glamor that as a kid I thought was the living end. My family would go there after shopping at Bloomingdale’s, which is a block away. But we also went for birthdays and just for a night out. It opened in 1955. It was never an expensive place, but it was and still is super festive, with its blood-red paint and Greek plaster wall inlays.

When I was an older kid, it turned into a date night stop. On one memorable evening I went there with my high school boyfriend, a sweet but pretentious guy who wanted badly to be James Joyce and managed to will himself into early-onset alcoholism. The evening went well enough, I guess. Between us we had just had enough money to pay the bill with a half-assed tip.

When we got out we couldn’t find his car, which had been parked right in front.  And his car was hard to miss, being 75 percent rust. We walked around and around the block frantically until it dawned on us that it had probably been towed. And sure enough, after we walked all the way to the tow pound in the foreboding darkness of the West Side Highway, we were told we needed something like $120 in cash to get it out. I’m not sure the car was worth that much. We were horrified. My boyfriend took out a flask of something, lit a Winston, and started to cry. I felt abandoned, standing around at molestation central with this degenerate crybaby. I finally broke down and called my father. Being the dad he was, he drove in, bailed us out, and took me home. My relationship with James Joyce manqué went downhill from there.

I’ve digressed a little here, but the reason I brought up the Isle of Capri in the first place was for its pasta Siciliana. I’m pretty sure I ordered it every time I went there. It was a dish of penne with tomatoes, strips of eggplant, and mozzarella, kind of glued together and not exactly baked, as I recall. I loved it with a passion. I haven’t been to the place in at least 10 years, and they no longer have the dish on the menu.

I love pasta with eggplant in all its variations. The Sicilian classic, pasta alla Norma, is basically what I ate at Isle of Capri. I make it all the time at home, a more involved version, adding ricotta salata, mint, basil, almonds, and cinnamon, and draping slices of fried eggplant on top. As my life has evolved, so has my pasta. Here’s the way I do it.

IMG_4637[1]

Pasta alla Norma

(Serves 5)

Extra-virgin olive oil
2 large summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 fresh red peperoncino, minced
About 2 cups diced eggplant, partially skinned, plus 1 big long partially skinned eggplant cut into thin rounds
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ cup sweet Marsala
5 medium-size round summer tomatoes, skinned, seeded, diced (about 2½ cups or so), and well drained to remove excess water (reserve the tomato water for loosening the pasta if needed)
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A generous pinch of piment d’Espelette
1 pound penne or rigatoni
A chunk of ricotta salata
⅓ cup blanched almonds, lightly toasted and roughly chopped
A handful of spearmint sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
A handful of basil leaves, lightly chopped

In a large skillet, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the garlic, peperoncino, chopped eggplant, and cinnamon, all at the same time, and sauté until the eggplant is fragrant and golden, about 7 minutes or so. Add the Marsala, and let it boil away. Add the tomatoes, and season with salt, black pepper and some piment. Let simmer, uncovered, at a low bubble for about 8 minutes, just until the eggplant is cooked through. You might need to add a splash of water if the sauce looks dry. Turn off the heat.

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

While the water is coming to a boil, set out a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Salt and pepper the eggplant rounds, and place them in the pan, letting them cook until golden on one side, about 2 minutes. Give them a flip, and cook them until just tender. Lay them out on paper towels.

Add a generous amount of salt to the pasta water, and drop in the penne.

When the penne is al dente, drain it, and pour it into a large serving bowl. Reheat the eggplant sauce if necessary, checking for seasoning, and pour it over the pasta. Add a little of the reserved tomato water to loosen the sauce, if needed. Grate in about a heaping tablespoon of the ricotta salata, using the large holes on your grater, and about half of the basil and mint, and give it a toss. Drape the eggplant slices on top. Grate on a little more ricotta salata. Scatter on the almonds, and garnish with the rest of the basil and the mint. Serve hot.

Peppers and Eggs

still life, vegetables, meat

Recipe below: Peppers and Eggs

Summer, 1973: Arriving back home in Roslyn Harbor at 4 a.m. or so, sweaty and starving after another night of Manhattan club-hopping, I’d wander out to my father’s little backyard garden and grab a tomato or a pepper, anything that would help me turn out a fast dish of eggs or a sandwich. I’d occasionally run into him back there in the semi-dark, wearing a bathrobe or pajama bottoms, the orange coal of his Kent cigarette glowing. He’d be weeding, picking, evaluating his eggplants and zucchini, pinching back his basil. At first I was startled to see him there, but soon I got used to it. It was what he did in the summer; I just never knew about it until I began my late-night discoing. We’d chat briefly about my evening, about the rotating group of gay boys I’d gone out with, and he’d shake his head and snicker.

I was so hungry from seven hours of nonstop twirling that those peppers would look really good. “I think I’ll make peppers and eggs. Do you want some?” Now the light would be just starting to come up, bringing the giant basil plants into focus. That was a lot of basil. I guess a lot of pesto. He’d stare down the peppers, some held up by being strung to broken pool cues, and grab two half-red Italian frying ones, a handful of basil, and a few sprigs of oregano. “I’ll make the eggs.” He liked cooking eggs.

At the kitchen table I poured us diet root beer and ran a wet paper towel over my face to try to remove what was left of my Liza with a Z makeup job. I was still wearing the turquoise Pucci-inspired muumuu I had found in the depths of my mother’s closet. It now smelled of  amyl nitrate.

I found a hunk of semi-stale Arthur Avenue bread and put in on the table. I was so hungry I could hardly stand the mingling aromas of torn basil and peppers. My father tilted the pan, scraping and folding, until the eggs were firm. It wasn’t an omelet, it wasn’t scrambled eggs exactly, but something in between. We just called it peppers and eggs. One of the best dishes of my Italian-American girlhood.

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My father.

Here’s how I make peppers and eggs:

Peppers and Eggs

For two servings, you’ll need one or two Italian frying peppers, preferably ones that have passed through their pure green phase and are starting to show some red. Seed and slice them. Chop up a scallion, including most of the tender green part (also add a sliced garlic clove if you like). Clean a handful of basil leaves, and then give them a rough chop. Pull the leaves off of a large oregano sprig, leaving them whole. Whisk six eggs in a small bowl.

Get a sauté pan hot over medium heat. Add a tablespoon or so of good olive oil, swirling it around to coat the pan. Then add the peppers, and sauté them until softened, about 6 minutes. Next add the scallion, and let that soften for a minute longer.

Add the eggs, letting them sit for about 30 seconds. Scatter on the herbs, and season with salt and black pepper. Now, using a spatula, started pulling the eggs back from the edges, letting the uncooked part run into the pan bottom. You don’t want to do a scrambling motion. You want long strokes, so you get more of a lumpy omelet effect. Keep pulling back on the eggs until they’re just set but have not browned at all. You’re not going for runny French eggs, but you also don’t want them dry.

Cut the mass of egg in half with your spatula and slide it onto two plates. It is best served with good Italian bread and either an espresso, a glass of white wine, or a diet root beer, depending on your need.