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Still Live with Favas, by Catherine Abel.

This isn’t a recipe so much as it is a reminder. Recipes are often like that for me, just notes to wake up memories, telling me something like, I haven’t made that in a while, but now that I think of it, I want to taste it again. So I’m hoping this will remind you to eat fava beans soon. Their season is now. They are admittedly a lot of work. In fact I got so burnt out from shucking, blanching, and then peeling them during my restaurant days that I thought I’d never prepare them again. But here I’m not talking crateloads of them, like when I was a cook a Le Madri, but only a big bagful. At Le Madri we weren’t allowed to Zen out during the task. We had to stay alert, and we had to be really fast. At home you can Zen all you want and take your time. I brought my load out of the kitchen and into the living room, where I peeled while chatting with my husband about the George Floyd trial, not a joyful subject, but with my anger escalating the work went fast.

Caciocavallo di Castelfranco in Miscano.

In Tuscany fava beans are often paired with young pecorino cheeses. That is a beautiful thing. I had on hand a big wedge of Silano caciocavallo, from Calabria. It’s one of my favorite cheeses. Sweet, bitter, soft textured. Good caciocavallo is made throughout Southern Italy, and especially in my ancestral town of Castelfranco in Miscano, on the border of Puglia and Campania. Both Silano and the Castelfranco are PDO cheeses, protected designation of origin, made from cow’s or sheep’s milk or a mix of both. In the fall I serve caciocavallo with pears. But springtime is for fava beans, so that’s where it landed now. Here’s what you’ll want to do to make this salad for four people.

Buy about 2 pounds of fava beans. Shuck them. Set up a big pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Put the favas in the water, and blanch them for about 10 seconds. Pour them into a colander, and run cold water over them until they’re cool. Now, and here comes the tedious part, with your thumbnail puncture each fava to split the skin near the seam, and then squeeze out the bright green, now skinless, bean into a large bowl. Do this with all the beans.

Take about ½ pound of caciocavallo, remove its waxy surface, and cut it into small cubes, about the size of the beans. Add them to the bowl. Drizzle on a good amount of your best olive oil, at least ¼ cup. I used Ravida, a really fine Sicilian oil. Add a little salt, freshly ground black pepper, and a few drops of rice wine vinegar (very little), and give everything a gentle toss. Slice about 10 spearmint leaves into chiffonade, and scatter them over the top. I like to serve this with good Italian bread, usually piling up the salad on a slice and spooning on any oil remaining in the bowl. This is best with a glass of Southern Italian rosato. I especially like Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo wines.

My Easter Pastiera

Recipe below: My Easter Pastiera

Last summer, in June, right in the middle of the hot-weather Covid shutdown, my cat Buddy died. A terrible thing. We buried him in a little round garden behind our house, now known as Buddy’s garden. Fred found a narrow piece of slate in the woods to serve as a gravestone. Several years ago I had planted lots of flower bulbs back there, but due to crazy deer action, and probably other critters, ground hogs, rabbits, not sure, I never saw a flower. They were eaten down to the base before they had a chance.

This spring I bought some good deer repellent and doused the area. Now we have white and purple crocuses blossoming up all around Buddy’s grave. And all my other bulbs, daffodils and double-petal tulips and irises, are also coming through the ground and will have the chance to flower. This is the best Easter present. A rebirth in the prettiest way.

My pantheistic Easter solely concerns awakening, of the earth and of me, which I need more than usual this year, after the months of excessive wine drinking and shut-in life. I always mark the celebration by making a pastiera, the Southern Italian ricotta and grain pie, full of eggs and the Arab scents of orange flower water and cinnamon.  I’ve never before posted a recipe for it, feeling that each Easter I make it slightly differently, but this year I’m so happy with how it came out, I’m sharing it with all my cooking friends.

Happy rebirth to everyone.

My Easter Pastiera

I used a 9-inch pie pan this time around.

For the pasta frolla:

2½ cups regular flour, plus a little more for rolling
A big pinch of salt
½ cup powdered sugar
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
The grated zest from 1 large lemon
1½ sticks cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes, plus a little more for buttering the pan
2 large eggs, lightly whisked
About 2 tablespoons dry vermouth, maybe a bit more

For the farro mixture:

¾ cup farro
2 cups whole milk
A pinch of salt
1 teaspoon regular sugar

For the rest of the filling:

2 cups whole milk ricotta
¾ cups powdered sugar
1 large egg, plus 2 eggs yolks
A pinch of salt
1 teaspoon orange flower water
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
The grated zest from 1 large lemon
2 heaping tablespoons orange marmalade

Plus:

One egg whisked with a little water, to serve as an egg wash

To make the pasta frolla, pour the flour into the bowl of a food processor. Add the salt, sugar, nutmeg, and lemon zest, and give it a few pulses, just to blend everything. Add the butter, and pulse a few more times, breaking the pieces up a bit. Add the eggs and the vermouth, and do a few more pulses, just until it forms a crumbly ball. If it seems too dry, add a drizzle more vermouth.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work area, and give it a few quick kneads. Then press it together, and wrap it in plastic. Stick it in the refrigerator for at least an hour before you roll it out. That will make it easier to roll.

To prepare the farro mixture, pour the ingredients into a small saucepan. Cook them over medium heat until the grains are tender, about 15 minutes. If there’s still milky liquid, drain it.

To continue with the filling, put the ricotta in a large mixing bowl. Add the cooked farro and all the other ingredients. Mix well, and give it a taste to see if you might need more sugar or something.

Set the oven to 375 degrees. Butter the pie pan.

Take the dough from the refrigerator. If it’s only been in there for an hour or so, it should be ripe for rolling. If it’s super cold, you may need to let it warm for a little time. In any case, flour a work area. Cut off and set aside about ¼ of the dough to use for lattice strips. Roll the big portion out into a large round, and then drape it into the pie pan, pressing it down around the edges. Stick that in the refrigerator while you make the lattice.

Roll out the smaller piece of dough into a rectangle about the length of the pie pan. With a sharp knife, cut 8 approximately ½-inch-thick strips. If you don’t get 8 strips, don’t worry. You’ll be able to fashion a few more from the pie pan trimming.

Take the pie pan from the refrigerator, and pour in the filling. If it looks like you have too much filling, hold back on some. You can use any extra for the small crustless custard, sticking it in the oven along with the pastiera. Brush the edges of the dough all around with the egg wash. Arrange the lattice strips criss-crossed over the top, pressing them down all around the edge so they adhere. You can weave them in and out in the more sophisticated way, or just cheat and lay them across one another.

Now trim all around the pie so you have a neat round. If you need more lattice strips, you can make them with the trimming. Brush the lattice and all around the edges with the egg wash.

Put the pastiera in the oven, and bake it until it’s nicely golden all over, about 40 minutes.

Let it rest about an hour before serving. I find prosecco an especially good match for this beautiful pie.

Recipe below: Scacciata with Broccoli Rabe, Caciocavallo, and Black Olives

I’ve never met a savory vegetable torta I didn’t like. I keep coming back to them. They’re my idea of a perfect food. They can be knife-and-fork or portable, but they’re always contained. For me the best ones include greens and herbs, preferably with a bitter element tucked in, too. Anyone who’s been following my cooking over the years knows my love of torte filled with Swiss chard or escarole, punctuated with salty or sweet, such as capers, olives, anchovies, or, at the other end of the spectrum, pancetta, pine nuts, pistachios, raisins, bit of dates.

My olive oil and wine torta crust is a legend in my own mind, my go-to encasement for a savory torta. But this time I fashioned a Sicilian scacciata, a double-crusted filled pie that takes a yeast dough and usually semolina flour, plus either lard or olive oil. It’s basically a flat calzone, most often made with vegetables, depending on where in Sicily the cook lives. Cauliflower, eggplant and tomato, potato, and broccoli are all typical. I chose broccoli rabe for its beloved bitterness, adding anchovy, olives, pine nuts, fennel seeds, caciocavallo, marjoram, scallion, and garlic—a whole pantry load. I’ve also made one using cauliflower instead of the broccoli rabe. It was good, but not as good.

I’ve seen these things done round on a pizza tray or, my preference, rectangular on a half sheet pan. You should roll the dough thin, which can be a bit tricky except that you can easily patch up little holes with a pinch of the fingers.

Scacciata with Broccoli Rabe, Caciocavallo, and Black Olives

For the dough:

1½ cups regular flour
1 cup semolina flour, plus a little more for kneading and rolling
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 packet yeast
1 cup warm water
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus a drizzle mixed with a little water to brush on top

For the filling:

2 bunches broccoli rabe, the thick stems removed
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 scallions, cut into thin rounds, including some of the tender green part
3 oil-packed anchovy fillets, chopped
A palmful of pine nuts
1 large fresh garlic clove, thinly sliced
A palmful of fennel seeds, ground
Salt
Aleppo pepper
About 1 cup grated caciocavallo cheese  
A handful of black olives, pitted (I used the shriveled Moroccan type)
A few large sprigs of marjoram, the leaves chopped

To make the dough, put both flours in the bowl of a food processor. Add the salt, sugar, and yeast, and pulse a few times to distribute everything. Add the warm water and the olive oil, and pulse a few more times until it all comes together in a sticky ball.

Sprinkle a little semolina on a work surface, and tilt out the dough. Knead the dough until it’s nice and smooth, adding more semolina if necessary to prevent sticking, probably 7 or 8 minutes. Drizzle a little oil into a big bowl. Turn the dough over in the oil to coat it well. Cover the bowl with a kitchen bowl and let it rise until doubled in size, about 2 hours. Then punch the dough down, cut it in half and let it rise again for about a half hour.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. While the dough is doing its second rise, set up a large pot of water, add some salt, and bring it to a boil. Add the broccoli rabe, and blanch for about 4 minutes. Drain it into a colander, and run cold water over it to stop the cooking and set its lovely green color. Squeeze as much water out of it as possible, and then chop in well.

In a large sauté pan, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the scallion, anchovy, pine nuts, garlic, and ground fennel seeds, and sauté until just fragrant, only about a minute (you want to keep the flavors fresh). Turn off the heat, and add the broccoli rabe, seasoning it with salt and Aleppo, mixing everything around well, and adding another little drizzle of fresh olive oil. Let it cool for a few minutes, and then add the cheese, the olives, and the marjoram, mixing well.

Coat a half sheet pan with olive oil. Roll one of the dough pieces out into a large rectangle, and drape it onto the sheet pan, pressing in out to the edges as best you can. Spoon on the filling, leaving about a half inch all around. Roll out the other piece of dough, and drape it over the top, pressing down around the edges to seal it. Trim all around to make a nice uniform shape. Next crimp the edges to help seal it further and make it look pretty and finished. Make a bunch of little air holes on the top (I used a barbecue skewer), and brush the top with the olive oil water mix. Bake until the top is nicely golden, about 20 minutes.

You can serve the scacciata, hot, warm, or at room temperature. I like to cut it into squares.

Women with Fish

I’ve died and gone to heaven.

Sardinian Still Life, by Susan Grundy.

Recipe below: Saffron Tagliatelle with Sausage-and-Fennel Ragù

A storm is coming. Snow, lots of it. I usually love that, but now I fear it’ll just add to the current confinement of our lives. So I’m thinking about flavors. Fennel, saffron, and rosemary. What does combining those three things sound like to you? Good, weird, stupid? If you’ve never tried it, I think you should. There’s a touch of magic in it. You know how some flavor combinations produce a taste distinct from their parts, a new flavor, such as when you mix various spices to create a curry? This is not one of those instances. When you blend fennel, saffron, and rosemary, you still taste each distinctly. Not much melding. Which is, in this case, beauty. It’s hard to understand why curries blend so readily. Possibly because most of the spices have similar strengths. With these three, I think rosemary is so strong and resiny that it stands up well against the fennel and saffron, refusing to give in. And fennel and saffron, while milder, are also two really specific, unusual hits on the palate.

The pasta sauce I’ve made with this combo is a variation on a Sardinian creation I first learned about from Giuliano Bugialli’s book The Foods of Sicily and Sardinia. It’s most often tossed with malloreddus, a type of semolina gnocchi. I’ve made malloreddus, but it’s kind of a pain in the ass, so I didn’t bother this time. Instead I rolled out semolina-and-saffron tagliatelle. Semolina dough is really easy to work with. I just spun out the pasta with my old hand-cranked pasta machine. It was a pleasure to make, and it’s a lovely thing to have for the big snow that’s coming. Now I’m getting excited about the snow. My plan is to have this for dinner and then go marching down 13th Street in the fluffy, not-yet-filth-covered powder.

Saffron Tagliatelle with Sausage-and-Fennel Ragù

(Serves 4)

For the tagliatelle:

3 cups semolina flour, plus more for kneading and rolling
1 teaspoon salt
A big pinch of saffron threads, dried and ground in a mortar and pestle
About 1½ cups warm water

For the ragù:

1 cup good-quality chicken broth
A big pinch of saffron threads, dried and ground with a mortar and pestle
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 round of pancetta, ¼ inch thick, chopped
4 Italian sweet sausages, with fennel seeds if possible, the skins removed and discarded
About 20 fennel seeds, ground with a mortar and pestle (maybe a little less if there’s lots of fennel in your sausage)
1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
The leaves from a long sprig of rosemary, chopped
Sea salt
A crumbled dried hot red chili
A big splash of white wine
1 35-ounce can good Italian tomatoes, chopped, with the juice
½ cup cream
A big chunk of Pecorino Sardo cheese

To make the pasta, get out a large bowl, and pour in the semolina. Add the salt, and stir it around to distribute it.  In another bowl, add the saffron to the warm water, letting it dissolve for a minute. Pour that into the bowl with the semolina, and mix everything around with a spoon until you have sticky mass. Work it with your hands just to bring everything together into a ball.

Pour a good amount of semolina out onto a work surface, and turn the dough out onto it. Coat your hands well with semolina, and start kneading until the dough is smooth and softly springs back when you give it a poke. This will take 8 minutes or so, so just zone into it. Add more semolina whenever it gets sticky. When the dough is nice and smooth, wrap it in plastic, and let it rest for an hour.

Divide the dough into quarters, and keeping the pieces you’re not immediately working with wrapped in plastic. Dust your pasta machine with semolina, and start running a piece of dough through until you’re down to the next-to-last setting. It’ll get pretty long, so you’ll probably want to cut it in half at some point. Do this with all the dough. Then lay out the sheets on a semolina-dusted counter or table. Let them dry for about 20 minutes so they can firm up a bit.

Get out 2 sheet pans, and dust them with semolina. Run the pasta sheets through your pasta machine on the tagliatelle setting. Place the tagliatelle on the sheet pans as they come out of the machine, sprinkling semolina over them to coat them well. You can arrange them in loose bundles. If you’ve got enough semolina on them, they won’t stick together. The pasta can sit this way for a few hours.

To make the ragù, dissolve the ground saffron in the chicken broth, and set it aside.

Get a big saucepan hot over medium heat. Drizzle in a tablespoon of olive oil. Add the pancetta, and let it brown. Add the sausage, the fennel seeds, and the onion, and let them all brown lightly, about 5 minutes. Add the rosemary and the dried chili, and season everything with a little salt.

Add the wine, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Add the tomatoes and the saffron chicken broth. Bring to a boil. Then turn down the heat, cover the pan, and let the sauce simmer for about an hour. Then remove it from the heat, and stir in the cream.

Set up a big pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add the tagliatelle, and cook it until it all floats to the top, probably 4 or 5 minutes.

Reheat the sauce and taste it for seasoning.

Drain the tagliatelle, saving about ½ cup of the cooking water.

Pour the tagliatelle into a large serving bowl. Pour the sauce over the pasta. Add a little of the cooking water if you need to thin it. Grate on a bit of the pecorino, and give everything a good toss. Bring the rest of the cheese to the table.

A mural at Baccalunch, a salt cod–themed restaurant in Florence.

Recipe below: Baccalà Mantecato for a Winter Lockdown

I make baccalà mantecato, whipped salt cod, for Christmas Eve every year, except not this past year. Family troubles and Covid prevented it. I scaled my fish extravaganza down to one fine dish of calamari stuffed with Swiss chard. It was good, but it didn’t provide the crazy, expansive table that I love on that magical night, with clam and mussel and lobster shells all over the place, and lots of candles. It was just the two of us, and we ate too early. Christmas Eve is supposed to be a late-night affair, but we were bored and restless. Is the lockdown turning you into my old Uncle Pat, yelling for dinner at 4:30, with the poodle and the parakeet at the same seating? Damn, I hope not. My sister and I made fun of him constantly, with his 5 o’clock after-dinner snoring and farting, his wild, gray mafia eyebrows twitching, the poodle on his lap.

Whatever you’ve got going now in terms of dinner arrangements, you will find that cooking something beautiful helps. This salt cod dish has a lot of romance going for it. It’s served at bars in Venice, as little cicchetti, or snacks, with a glass of wine, at the dividing line between work and family. Happy hour.

Baccalà mantecato is often offered at room temperature in Venice. Nice, but I’ve come to prefer it hot and gratinéed with a crusty top of breadcrumbs and Parmigiano or Grana Padano. That’s my recipe here. Have your guests spoon it onto toasted crostini, or let them scoop it up with thick slices of raw fennel. A bowl of olives and a glass of white wine or prosecco are pretty much mandatory accompaniments.

 Baccalà Mantecato for a Winter Lockdown

(Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer)

1 pound salt cod (look for the fat middle section, which has less bones and skin)
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 fresh bay leaf
A big splash of dry vermouth
1 large baking potato, baked until tender, skinned, and roughly mashed
½ cup of milk
¼ cup heavy cream
2 small garlic cloves, thinly sliced
A few big gratings of nutmeg
The grated zest from 1 lemon
5 or 6 large thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
Black pepper
Piment d’espellete
A small chunk of Grana Padano cheese, grated (you’ll want about ½ cup)
½ cup panko breadcrumbs

You’ll need to soak your salt cod in a big pot of cold water, changing the water several times. In my experience, you usually need two days of soaking to remove enough salt, but after a day taste a piece from the center to see where you’re at. Once the fish is sufficiently desalted, put it in a big pan, drizzle it with a little olive oil, add the bay leaf and the vermouth, and then cover it with cool water. Bring it to a boil, and then turn the heat down to a simmer, and let it gently poach, just until the cod can easily be pulled apart with a knife, usually about 5 to 6 minutes, depending on its thickness.

Take the cod from the pan, and pull it into small pieces, discarding any skin or bones. Drop the pieces into the bowl of a food processor. You can get rid of the poaching liquid.

Add the potato, milk, cream, garlic, nutmeg, lemon zest, thyme, a little black pepper, and a touch of espelette. Pulse quickly a few times to break everything up. Drizzle in about ¼ cup of good olive oil, and pulse a few more times, just until you have a relatively smooth consistency. I like to leave a little texture.

Oil a baking dish, and spoon in the baccalà.  You can stick it in the fridge for a day or two before serving, if you like.

When you’re ready to serve it, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Mix the panko with the grana Padano and a little olive oil. Sprinkle it evenly over the top of the baccalà, and stick the baccalà in the oven until it’s hot and bubbly and lightly browned, about 20 minutes.

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

Recipe below: Cavatelli with Artichoke, Saffron, and Ginger

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

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

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

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

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

Cavatelli with Artichoke, Saffron, and Ginger

(Serves 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chicken in a Pot with Grappa, Parsnips, and Carrots

(Serves 3)

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

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bar Pitti’s Rigatoni

Bar Pitti, by Hugh Chapman, 2015.

Recipe below: Rigatoni Pitti 

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

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

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

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

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

FLASH: Recipe update

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

Rigatoni Pitti

(Serves 4) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope everyone has a good Christmas.

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

Zuppa di Pesce with Marsala, Crème Fraîche, and Basil

(Serves 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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