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The winter of 1977, when I moved into my first Manhattan apartment, was an exciting if sleazy time to be in the city. Fine with me. My place was right off Union Square, the pre-Greenmarket Union Square that no one except drug dealers and derelicts would dare enter even in daylight, which gave it a certain charm. My life would have been a bit better if I’d had a little soldi, but my bank account was beyond ridiculous. About three days a week I had literally no money. I had graduated from college, but that hadn’t helped direct me to reasonable employment. I was as lost as ever. So I worked at various freak show bookstores—at the Strand and then in the surreal circus known as “the phones” at the back of the 18th Street Barnes & Noble. That was a row of elementary school desks jammed with phones (not cell phones) and spiral notepads, stuffed away near the storage room. People would call and you’d have to race around the vast store scanning the shelves for a particular book while your customer hung on the line. It was a sweaty race and probably very good exercise, if I’d given a crap back then. I met lots of enchanting and seductive people at those jobs, but the money remained problematic.

I began searching for dishes from my childhood that seemed doable on my salary. Spaghetti puttanesca was mostly a winter dish when I was a kid, a pantry pasta made with canned tomatoes and bits of salty preserved things such as anchovies that my mother always had on hand. Not only was it one of my favorite pastas, but I figured I could scrape together the pennies it cost. So I went out collecting what I now consider were some of the poorest quality Italian ingredients on the market—metallic anchovies, limy olives that hinted of poison, capers that exploded into shreds at the touch of heat, stale oregano that broke down into dust, and canned tomatoes that went from acidic to horrendously acidic after hitting the pan. Buitoni pasta or an equivalent. My mother sometimes added canned tuna to her puttanesca, a touch I loved. I’d occasionally throw in a can, preferably olive oil packed, if I could swing it, since that was what she used. On occasions I’d just steal that. Yes, I stole Italian tuna. A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. I’d have to say the only thing that truly saved these dishes were the hot pepper flakes my friends dumped into napkins at Stromboli Pizza and then brought up to my dark, stuffy, cockroach-ridden apartment. Those friends were wanderers with varying degrees of ambition and all as broke as I was.

I cooked many versions of this pasta for a few years. It was sad and damn frustrating to see how lousy my cooking was, because of lack of funds. When living with my parents I had cooked great pasta all the time, and they had seemed to have money to buy good olives. How did they do it? After a few years on my own, I got educated at finding better quality ingredients, if not at making money. I grew pickier about my garlic. I bought fresh herbs like parsley and basil, which weren’t all that easy to find at supermarkets then. I went to Bleecker Street, Little Italy, and Arthur Avenue for the good stuff. It was interesting to discover that buying quality, at the time, at least, wasn’t that much more expensive than buying garbage.

Puttanesca is not strictly a Neapolitan dish, as some people think. It’s made throughout the South, with variations. The backbone of a traditional puttanesca is the Southern Italian trilogy of olives, capers, and anchovies, but in some regions and even households they’ll keep the capers and drop the olives, or vice versa. I can’t imagine not including anchovies. That, I think, must be some type of sin. Even considering regional adjustments, there’s not much improvisation room with this pasta—I mean, without turning it into something else. For instance, I’ve tried it without tomatoes and come up with a bowl of greasy, salty goodness, but I wouldn’t call it puttanesca.

Switching up my fresh herbs has been the key to variety. My mother, if I recall correctly, used flat-leaf parsley only. I love puttanesca with marjoram or Thai basil. A mix of thyme and parsley is also lovely. My more recent and somewhat better-heeled puttanesca attempts have evolved to cover a broader territory. This week I made one with seared cherry tomatoes, so decent in winter, fresh tuna, abundant mint leaves, and a sprinkling of za’atar, adding black olives and of course anchovies. I may be cooking dangerously on the edge here, but it still tastes like puttanesca to me. Please don’t call the Italian food police.

Christmas at the Improv

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It’s the day before Christmas Eve, and because of matters of mental health I’ve just now begun thinking about Christmas Eve dinner. Traditionally at our house it’s the big fish dinner, but this year it’s gonna be not so big. I’ve decided on improvisations on classics such as pizza di scarola, this one Frenchified with comté and Niçoise olives, because, well, they’re what I’ve got in the fridge. And—I can hardly believe this—I’m making only one fish dish. But it’s bucatini with clams, the king of Christmas Eve fish offerings. This year I’m going to add thyme, a touch of Pimenton de la Vera, to give it a smoky edge, and, I think, roasted yellow cherry tomatoes. I can’t skip the Sicilian blood orange and fennel salad, so that’ll be in its rightful place. And for the grand finale, I’ll be making my stupidly easy crustless ricotta cake flavored with orange flower water. For me that beautiful essence is the aroma of Christmas.

Okay, so I’m knocking this thing out, a little edgy, probably a Xanax or two added to the mix, but it’s all going to be fine. As my friend Barbara says, “Just light a lot of candles. Then no one can see the dust.” So true.

Merry Christmas to all my wonderful and faithful readers. I know you’re all cooking up something nice, no matter what your mental state. Because that’s what we cooks do.

Women with Fish

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A happy Vigilia di Natale from Women with Fish.

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Una Musica, by Caravaggio.

Recipe below: Baccalà With Marsala, Roasted Tomatoes, and Pine Nuts

As a pantheist and therefore a nonbeliever in Jesus as the son of god, I find that much of the standard religious aspect of Christmas escapes me. It did even when I was a child. Catholicism never resonated, except possibly as a bunch of idle threats. I already had rewards, guilt, and punishment coming at me from all sides. I didn’t need more, no matter how alluringly packaged.

I do love most Catholic churches, and I was captivated when I was young by their abundance of red and gold. But I loved red and gold anything—frames for fancy paintings, nail polish, ribbons, book edges, tights. And I enjoyed staring at the clumsy but sweet nativity scenes that dotted my New York neighborhood, with the loving and serene Mary, her oddly chubby kid, and all those sheep. They showed me a rural world I had no experience with. It seemed so exotic.

Christmas is for the kids, I always heard the adults say. And it’s true that children absorb excitement while their elders just try to keep it all together without too much stress and hold the vodka consumption down to a moderate flow. Kids have always had mystery gifts to anticipate , while adults pretty much knew what they were getting. There was wild kitchen activity that as a kid I wasn’t really part of, shiny decorations my sister and I were instructed to arrange, making a mess of them until finally Dad had to intervene, cigarette dangling from his mouth. Will he light the tinsel on fire? Will he light us on fire? And in our family there was music all day, all night, not religious, more the usual lineup of Italian-American singers of the sixties and seventies. Connie Francis with Christmas in her heart and the Italian favorites her father forced her to sing. Jerry Vale, Louis Prima, Sammy, Dean, and of course Frank. But also the Beatles, Louis Armstrong, the Kinks, Joan Baez, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and a sprinkling of opera’s greatest hits, from Madama Butterfly, Tosca, La Traviata. Loud music, and the aroma of shellfish, tomatoes, and wine bubbling away in various pots. Cats smashing tree ornaments and dragging raw squid under the beds. It was a good kind of frantic.

The gorgeous Caravaggio above sums up what I now, as an adult, want from Christmas. Music. All the music that moves me, and loud. This year I’ll soak my salt cod listening to Osvaldo Pugliese, Caetano Veloso, maybe early Leonard Cohen, probably Van Dyke Parks, and Callas, always Callas. And just like when I was a kid, there will be a constant need to check that the cats aren’t up to no good. And now, making sure my sister, or someone, isn’t hunched up in a corner crying, or even worse, silently rocking and withdrawn. Silent night.

I give thanks to all the good things this year has brought me. A long desired cottage in the Hudson Valley, a clearer sense of my culinary mission, good friends, and decent health. I’m still fascinated by icicles, and by the birds of our New York winters, blue jays, pileated woodpeckers, and the stunning cardinal, the male a brilliant solid red, the lady done up in soft green with red accents. Truly a miracle of nature.

For Christmas, I’ll try to let the bad stuff—family problems, personal crap, and the seemingly endless barrage of political and social injustices—recede into the background, and just enjoy life.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a sweet time.

(Serves 4 or 5 as a main course)

1½ pounds salt cold, choosing the thick, white middle cut, sliced into approximately 2-inch-wide chunks (easiest to do with a good kitchen scissor)
1 pint grape tomatoes
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium Vidalia onion, thinly sliced
3 medium Yukon Gold potatoes (not the baby ones), peeled and thickly sliced
About 8 big scrapings of nutmeg
¼ teaspoon fennel pollen
5 medium sprigs rosemary, the leaves chopped, plus a few small sprigs for garnish
Freshly ground black pepper
Piment d’Espelette
⅓ cup dry Marsala
1 cup light chicken broth, either homemade or low-salt canned
¼ cup lightly toasted pine nuts
Salt, if needed

Soak the salt cod in cold water for at least 24 hours, changing the water 10 times to remove excess salt. Taste a piece of cod to see if enough salt has been drawn out. If it still tastes too salty, soak it for another 6 hours.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Lay out the tomatoes on a sheet pan. Season with salt and pepper, and drizzle with olive oil. Roast until lightly browned and just starting to burst, about 15 minutes or so. Remove the pan from the oven, and let it sit.

Dry the cod pieces with paper towels. In a skillet large enough to hold everything more or less in one layer, heat about three tablespoons of olive oil over high heat. Add the cod, skin side up, and brown it on one side. Lift the cod from the skillet, and set it aside for a moment. Turn the heat to medium, add the onion and the potatoes, and sprinkle with the nutmeg, fennel pollen, rosemary, and some black pepper. Sauté for a few minutes to brown everything lightly. Add the Marsala, and let it boil for 2 minutes. Add the chicken broth, and bring it to a boil. Turn the heat down a bit, and simmer, uncovered, for about 5 minutes.

Put the cod back in the skillet, and simmer, covered, until the cod and potatoes are both tender, about 10 to 12 minutes (the really thick pieces of cod should be turned once, so they cook evenly). When done, the cod will flake when poked through with a knife. In the last 5 minutes of cooking, add the grape tomatoes. You should have about an inch of liquid left in the pan (add a splash of warm water if you don’t). Taste to see if it needs salt (it may or may not, depending on the saltiness of the cod). Drizzle with fresh olive oil and a sprinkling of the Piment d’Espelette. To serve, lift the cod pieces out, and place them on a large, warmed platter. Pour the potatoes and the rest of the sauce over the top. Garnish with the pine nuts and the rosemary sprigs.

eb4f22b1d3f3a44c4184a8743e9be4abThe FIAT 500 Giardiniera, a station wagon—maybe to transport large amounts of pickled vegetables.

Recipe below: La Giardiniera with Saffron and Sweet Wine

All the men in my family had a high tolerance for vinegar. It was astonishing to watch my grandfather eat an entire jar of pickled peppers for lunch, and with a pot of black coffee, no less. Acid upon acid, down it all went, with never a wince. According to Pop, any vegetable was at its most natural sottaceto (under vinegar). I think his love of vinegar contributed to his stern if not ornery disposition, but it’s hard to say if he was born that way or the vinegar eased him into it. In any case, that peculiar lunch would have me running for Prilosec in no time.

Giardiniera, which means garden-style, is the name of a chunky, Neapolitan pickled vegetable assortment that usually includes cauliflower, carrot, sometimes celery or fennel, and hot or sweet peppers. Olives or gherkins can be thrown in as well. As a kid I was never crazy about it. As far as I can remember, nobody in my family made the stuff. It was bought at the Italian market, its power trapped in jars until let loose into little bowls, causing pungent Italian-American tears to run down my cheeks. It’s a classic accompaniment to capocolla and soppressata and to strong cheeses such as provolone and pecorino. My mother set a version of this antipasto plate out on Christmas day. The aroma from the meats and cheeses, together with the vibrant colors of the giardiniera, made a tribal symbol of Christmas. I tended to eat around the giardiniera. I get why the combination should have been lovely, but, as it turned out, I had to start making giardiniera myself before I really appreciated it.

Once I set up my own Italian kitchen, I worked out ways to soften the thing. I cut back on the vinegar and added more wine. I took out the gherkins. I played with the spices. The recipe here is scented with saffron. That’s not traditional, but saffron’s floral and gently bitter notes blend well with the agrodolce base, so it works for me. I’ve also added fennel and coriander seeds and sweet wine, giving my version more of a Sicilian than Neapolitan flavor. Muscat de Beaumes de Venise was my wine of choice here. It’s not as syrupy sweet as some moscatos, so the result is more complex—a little sweet, a little minerally. It’s also less expensive than most dessert wines, so I felt okay pouring almost half a bottle into this brew. The remaining wine is of course wonderful served alongside Christmas biscotti.

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(Makes about 3 cups cups of giardiniera)

About half a medium cauliflower, cut into small flowerets
2 peeled carrots, 2 celery stalks, a large fennel bulb, and a large red bell pepper, all cut into chunks about the same size as the cauliflower ones
2 garlic cloves, peeled but left whole
2 cups Muscat de Beaumes de Venise wine
1 cup high quality white wine vinegar (I like to use champagne vinegar, with its delicate flavor)
A large pinch of saffron threads, ground to a powder with a mortar and pestle (about ¼ teaspoon ground)
1 fresh bay leaf
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
I teaspoon coriander seeds
½ teaspoon piment d’Espelette
½ teaspoon salt

Put up a large pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Drop in all the vegetables, including the garlic, and boil for about 3 minutes. Drain them into a colander, and run cold water over them to stop the cooking and bring up their colors. After they’ve drained well, place them in a large bowl.

Pour the muscat and the vinegar into a medium saucepan. Add the saffron, bay leaf, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, piment d’Espelette, and salt. Bring it all to a boil over high heat, lower the heat to medium, and let the mixture bubble, uncovered, for about 4 minutes.

Pour the vinegar mixture over the vegetables, and toss everything well. Let it cool, stirring everything a few times. Now cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and refrigerate it overnight, or transfer to a jar with a lid. The overnight rest will allow the vinegar mix to penetrate all the vegetables, deepening their flavor. Then the giardiniera will be ready to serve, and it’ll keep refrigerated for about a week or so.

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Still Life with Cauliflower, by Louis-Edouard Toulet.

Recipe below: Ziti with Spice-Roasted Cauliflower and Almond Celery Pesto

Isn’t it peculiar when an everyday food you grew up with and liked well enough suddenly becomes trendy? It’s that way for me now with cauliflower. It’s not the most glamorous vegetable, but it does have its intrigue, if you’re drawn to big, lumpy, stinky, round things. Frankly I think chefs are getting somewhat desperate for attention. First kale, than Brussels sprouts, now this. The cauliflower “steak” that’s been traveling around the restaurant circuit for several years now is an interesting concept. And what about the whole roasted version that looks like a nuked human brain? I recently saw that on a Manhattan menu for $48.  Scary. On the other hand, pan or oven roasting is always a good method for bringing out this vegetable’s deeply hidden charm. But you can do that at home for a couple of bucks.

The aroma of boiled cauliflower is a childhood memory of mine, and not a good one. That pissy, steamy odor really carried from my grandmother’s cruciferous kitchen to fill every inch of the house. But once the air cleared, the finished product, usually pasta or soup or some sort of gratin, was enticing, especially if it included cheese. Any cheese.

A classic Southern Italian pasta with cauliflower (or broccoli rabe, or regular broccoli) often includes anchovies, garlic, and hot pepper. I often make a version of it when I’m home alone or come in late and the rest of the household is sleeping. But here I’ve settled on a different set of flavors, playing the greenness of celery and parsley against fennel, allspice, and Aleppo pepper. The aggregate taste would be hard to pin down, I think, if I didn’t know what was in it, especially since it’s all tempered with Grana Padano and almonds. It tastes of Arab Sicily, but it’s not a Sicilian dish. It’s just what I felt like mixing up.

(Serves five)

For the pesto:

⅓ cup celery leaves
½ cup flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
⅓ cup very fresh slivered almonds, plus a palmful lightly toasted, for garnish
⅓ cup grated Grana Padano cheese
The grated zest from 1 lemon
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt

For the rest:

1 large cauliflower, any color, cut into small florets
1 teaspoon ground fennel seed
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
½ teaspoon ground allspice
A big pinch of sugar
Salt
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound ziti

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Fill a small saucepan most of the way with water, and bring it to a boil. Drop in the celery and parsley leaves. Blanch for about a minute. Scoop the leaves from the water, and drop them into an ice bath to stop the cooking and set their color. Then squeeze out as much water as possible from them.

Place all the remaining pesto ingredients in a food processor, adding about 2 tablespoons of olive oil and a little salt. Pulse until you have a fairly smooth green paste. If it seems dry and crumbly, add a little more olive oil. Put the pesto in a small bowl, and press a piece of plastic wrap over the top.

Lay the cauliflower on a sheet pan. Scatter on the fennel, Aleppo, sugar, and a sprinkling of salt. Drizzle with a tablespoon or so of olive oil, and toss to coat well. Roast until golden, tender, and fragrant, about 15 minutes. You don’t want it too dark and dry, since it will be mixing with pasta, so stop cooking it before that point.

Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water and bring it to a boil. Add salt. Drop in the ziti, and cook until al dente.

Drain the ziti, saving about a cup of the cooking water. Put the ziti in a large, warmed serving bowl. Add the cauliflower and pesto, plus enough cooking water to create a creamy sauce. Toss well. Garnish with the reserved almonds. Serve hot.

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Recipe below: Torta with Escarole, Sausage, Almonds, and Fennel

Of all the themes in Southern Italian cooking, nothing, absolutely nothing, hits home for me more than savory pies, not even pasta, which is extremely dear to my heart. The first savory torte I ever tasted was most definitely the pizza rustica my family bought every Easter. The first time I tried it I was expecting sweetness. It looked so much like the ricotta cheesecakes that were also part of our Easter scene that it had to be sweet. But with one bite it opened up in my mouth with luscious savoriness. This is a high, solid pie filled with ricotta, prosciutto, provolone, and salami, encased in pastry, sometimes with a lattice top. My parents never made their own, but as soon as the cooking bug hit me, when I was 14, it was one of the first things I tried in the kitchen. The process was involved for a novice, and I needed more than a few attempts to work the pastry into something I could actually roll. But after several dusty, crumbly messes, the thing finally came out so well I couldn’t believe I had made it. I was on a cooking high for days. Where did I get the recipe? Not from a relative, so it must have been in a book. I can’t remember, but I made so many pizza rusticas my family got sick of seeing them and smelling them. My parents instructed me to trot them around to neighbors, who, refreshingly, appreciated them.

After that triumph, I learned how to make my grandmother’s torta di scarola, a very different creature. That was flat, green, greasy, and salty with anchovies, and the crust was made with olive oil. How peculiar it seemed. It too became a fixation.

For years now I’ve been delving into the vast repertoire of classic savory tortas, some rich, some austere, with varying notes of bitter and salty and even touches of sweetness. Their seasonings can include the entire Southern Italian pantry—pine nuts, pistachios, almonds, raisins, anchovies, mint, oregano, rosemary, fennel, honey, citrus zest. And I’ve come up with many improvisations on the theme, all holding the flavors of Southern Italian close at hand.

The torta I’ve assembled here is a far-flung variation on a double-crusted Christmas torta they make around Campania. It always includes both greens and fish. When I was a kid my mother’s friend Gloria, whose family came from Sorrento, made one with salt cold and escarole. It also contained almonds or pine nuts and raisins and, I think, capers. Everything Gloria made was excellent, but this really knocked me out. Somehow while reflecting on this particular torta, I decided to replace the fish with sausage. That made it completely unlike the original, but I just thought I’d mention my inspiration.

Oh, and another thing. I’ve taken some liberties with the pasta frolla, the pastry. I’ve added olive oil along with the usual butter. I’ve found that that makes the crust incredibly flaky and light, better for the rich filling I’ve chosen.

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You’ll need a 10-inch quiche or tart pan with a removable bottom.

For the pastry:

2 cups flour
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into little pieces
The grated zest from 1 lemon
1 extra large egg, plus 1 egg yolk beaten with a little water to brush over the top
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
About 3 tablespoons cold, dry vermouth, or possibly a little more

For the filling:

Salt
2 large heads escarole, the leaves cut into small pieces
Extra-virgin olive oil
½ pound Italian pork sausage, removed from its casings
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
A splash of dry vermouth (about 2 tablespoons)
The grated zest from 1 lemon
½ teaspoon lightly toasted fennel seeds, finely ground
About 6 large thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
Black pepper
Aleppo pepper
⅓ cup slivered almonds, lightly toasted
1 extra large egg, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons grated pecorino Toscano or Grana Padano cheese

To make the pastry, place the flour, salt, sugar, and nutmeg in the bowl of a food processor, and give it a few pulses to blend. Add the butter, pulsing a few times to break it into tiny pieces. In a small bowl, mix together the whole egg, lemon zest, olive oil, and 3 tablespoons of the vermouth. Pour this over the dough, and pulse very briefly, until the dough looks moist and crumbly but hasn’t formed a ball. You should be able to press a bit of it together between your fingers and have it stick. Add more vermouth if it’s still dry. Dump the crumbly dough out onto a work surface, and press it into a ball, giving it a few quick kneads. Divide the dough into two sections, one a little larger than the other, and wrap them in plastic wrap. Place in the refrigerator at least and hour and a half before you want to assemble the torta. Or you can keep it overnight.

Set up a medium pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Add some salt, and then add the escarole, blanching it for about 2 minutes. Drain and plunge it into an ice bath to stop the cooking. Now drain it again, and then squeeze out as much excess water as possible. Chop it well.

Take your dough from the refrigerator to let it warm up at bit.

In a large skillet, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium high flame. Add the sausage, breaking it up with your spoon, and sauté it until it’s lightly browned, about 3 minutes. In the last few moments of cooking, add the garlic. Now add the vermouth, and let it bubble until almost evaporated. Turn off the heat, and remove the pan from the stove. Add the escarole, lemon zest, fennel seed, thyme, the almonds, the egg, and the pecorino or Grana Padano. Season with salt, black pepper, and a little of the Aleppo, and mix everything well.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Coat your tart pan with a thin layer of olive oil, and place it on a sheet pan.

Roll the larger piece of dough out into a big circle. Drape it into the tart pan, leaving about an inch of overhang. Press the dough into the corners so it fits snugly. Stick it in the refrigerator.

Now roll out the smaller piece of dough to about the dimension of the pan, a little over 10 inches across.

Take the tart pan from the fridge, and fill it with the escarole sausage mix. Give it a drizzle of fresh olive oil. Place the smaller dough circle on top, pressing it to stick to the bottom dough rim. Now, with a pair of scissors, trim the overhang to about ½ inch all around. Make little folds all around so you have an attractive and nicely sealed border.  Cut three little air slits in the top, and brush the tart with the egg wash.

Bake until golden, about 40 minutes. Let sit 15 minutes before slicing.

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