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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.

Women with Fish

Photo of a woman selling Red Snapper at Split fish market, Dalmatian Coast, Croatia, Europe. This photo of a woman selling Red Snapper was taken in Split Fish Market. The fish market is a pungent affair, but well worth a visit to check out the days catch.

” I’ve been selling fish since I was a little girl. It wasn’t my intention to stay at this  job for 15 years, I just got hooked, I guess, by the unexpected male attention, a mix of revulsion and attraction that must be very powerful for these guys. So far, it’s worked out nicely.”

–Tecla from Bari

 

wadsworth_still-life-fish1958-220Still Life with Fish, by Pablo Picasso.

Recipe below: Butter-Sautéed Cod with Capers and Sage

Sage is a classy herb, elegant but a bit difficult. It comes in many varieties, all with subtle color variations—gray green, blue green, khaki, army green, sometimes with soft striping. Nothing too flashy. Common culinary sage is deep olive, with a thickish leaf, a velvety texture, and a pattern on the leaf that reminds me a little of the surface of my tongue. The aroma is strong even without your ripping into it. There’s a camphor smell there, which is not uncommon for a member of the mint family. But when gently heated, sage opens up with a pungent sweetness. I love this herb, and I often feature it as a primary flavor, but you really don’t want to use too much. And please don’t even think about the acrid dried stuff. A mere pinch of that will ruin your dish.

Sage never used to be something I’d experiment with much. Somehow it has figured in my head as regally inflexible. It’s musky, with an almost non-food smell, but it’s also warming and familiar to Italian cooks. It belongs in saltimbocca, gnocchi, or ricotta ravioli with sage butter, or in pasta or risotto with butternut squash or pumpkin. My mother added sage to pasta e fagioli. I do that. I tasted cannellini bean salad in Tuscany that contained sage and celery, and I make that that way now. I’ve learned to fry sage leaves and scatter them over orecchiette with sausage. I roast little potatoes and add fresh sage at the end so that it’ll crisp up but not burn (burnt sage can be very bitter). These are all fairly traditional Italian ways with sage.

Fish with sage can be tricky. I ate a superb trout cooked with sage in Norcia, Umbria, many years back, and it has stuck in my culinary head. I’ve tried sage with other fish and found out two things. First, it works best with less saline types of fish, river fish for sure but also mild white ocean fish, such as the cod I’ve chosen here. Second, and I think this is important, butter seems to be a key to sage’s success with fish. It suavely bridges the two ingredients, creating a mellow zone that equals deliciousness. To my palate, olive oil just can’t produce the same effect.

For this recipe, I’m using the time-honored restaurant technique of sautéing and basting a fish in butter until just cooked through. I add flavorings at different points, allowing the hot butter and fish juices to mingle with my sage, shallot, garlic, and lemon, producing a quick but remarkably rich pan sauce.

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The perfect pan for this recipe is my 10-inch All-Clad sauté pan. It fits two fish fillets nicely, with enough extra room for basting, and it’s light enough for easy tilting.

(Serves 2)

2 approximately 1-inch-thick cod fillets (about 7 ounces each), skinned
Salt
Black pepper
The grated zest and juice from 1 small lemon
A few big scrapings of nutmeg
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 shallot, minced
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
¼ cup salt-packed Sicilian capers, soaked, rinsed, and dried
8 sage leaves, cut down the middle lengthwise

Season the  fillets on both sides with salt, black pepper, the lemon zest, and the nutmeg.

In a medium-size sauté pan, heat the butter over medium flame. When the butter has melted and is starting to foam, add the shallot, and let it soften for a few seconds. Now add the fish, presentation side down. Without moving the fish around at all, tilt the pan toward you, and spoon the butter over the fish. Continue spooning the butter over the top of the fish until you see the bottom edges of the fish start to turn golden and it’s easy to move around without sticking, about 3 minutes. Now give the fillets a flip. Add the garlic, the capers, and the sage, and start basting again. Lower the heat so the fish can cook through, continuing to baste all the while. This will probably take about another 2 minutes, depending on the thickness of your fish.The butter will likely turn a bit golden, but that is a good thing. (Note:  If your fillets are thicker than an inch, you might need to cover the pan for a minute or so after you give it a flip so you retain some moisture, allowing  the fish to cook through without the butter burning). When the fillets are just tender (starting to flake a bit but still holding their shape), use a slotted spatula to place them on warmed serving plates. Squeeze a little lemon juice over them, and then spoon on some buttery caper-sage sauce from the pan, topping with a pinch of salt and a grinding of fresh pepper.

I like to place the fish on a bed of escarole sautéed with olive oil and a little garlic, but it’s delicious just on its own, too.

img_7864Night squid fishing off Procida.

Recipe below: Cavatelli with Calamari, Escarole, and Almond Breadcrumbs

Donald Trump probably thinks one element of Italian-American life is pretty great—all those stereotyped mob thugs, dead, alive, fictional, lurking about, their threats, the bloodshed, the heinous business deals, all hyped on TV and in the movies. I imagine that’s the only side of my heritage that would appeal to him. When I think about this unsocialized man, I want to hold tighter to the culture, art, and beauty I grew up with. My Southern Italian grandparents were the Mexicans of their day, some of my father’s family even sneaking into the country illegally. And of course, when I reflect on my rich ancestry, I zero right in on their gorgeous cooking, making dishes Donald, with his infantile tastes, wouldn’t even consider food. Can you imagine him sitting down to a bowl of calamari and escarole? He doesn’t have the soul.

My family cooked a lot of seafood. I grew up appreciating all sorts of shellfish—octopus, scungilli, eel. I was also introduced to a huge variety of vegetables, I think far more than most kids, instilling in me an early love of intriguingly bitter greens. Green, bitter, and a touch of saline make a perfect trio, one with a deep-rooted flavor memories for me. I understand these dishes, and when I cook them for friends who may not have grown up with this palate, they inevitably understand, not only because it all makes culinary sense but because it’s just divine.

escarole

(Serves 2 as a main course)

1 medium head escarole, chopped (you’ll want about 2½ cups)
Salt
Extra-virgin olive oil
⅓ cup homemade breadcrumbs
⅓ cup blanched almonds, lightly toasted and then roughly ground
A pinch of sugar
Black pepper
½ pound cavatelli
2 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 anchovy fillets, minced
A few big scrapings of nutmeg
½ cup chicken broth, or possibly a little more
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound small, tender squid, cut into rings, the tentacles left whole
The grated zest from 1 small lemon
6 or 7 large thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
A big splash dry vermouth (about ¼ cup)
A heaping tablespoon of freshly grated Grana Padano cheese

Put up a big pot of pasta cooking water. Add a good amount of salt, and bring it to a boil. Add the escarole, and blanch for 2 minutes. Scoop it from the water into an ice bath to stop the cooking. Squeeze out as much water as possible, and set the escarole aside.

In a small sauté pan over medium heat, drizzle about a teaspoon of olive oil. Add the breadcrumbs and the ground almonds, season with the sugar and a little salt and pepper, and sauté until everything is golden and fragrant, about a minute or so. Transfer to a small bowl.

Bring the water back to a boil, and drop in the cavatelli.

In a large sauté pan, heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic, and let it soften for a minute. Add the escarole, anchovies, and nutmeg. Season with a little salt and some black pepper, and sauté until everything is fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the chicken broth. Turn off the heat.

In another sauté pan, heat the butter over high heat. When the pan is hot, add the calamari, lemon zest, and thyme. Season with a tiny bit of salt and black pepper, and sauté quickly, just until the calamari becomes opaque, about a minute or so. Add the vermouth, letting it bubble for a few seconds, and then pour the calamari, with all its pan juices, into the escarole pan. Mix everything around, adding a good drizzle of fresh olive oil.

When the cavatelli is al dente, drain it, and add it to the pan. Toss over low heat very briefly, about 30 seconds, just to blend the flavors. Add a little more chicken broth to loosen the sauce, if needed.

Pour the pasta into a heated serving bowl. Add the Grana Padano, and toss gently. Serve right away, with a scattering of the almond breadcrumbs on top.

andres-segovia-still-life-with-seashells
Still Life with Seashells, by Andres Segovia.

Recipe below: Scallops Crudo with Lemon Thyme, Peperoncino, and Pine Nuts

I will eat any funky, spiky, mushy, or rubbery raw piece of seafood put in front of me, and, luckily, with no ill effect, so far. I like raw octopus, clams, shrimp, mackerel, and every ceviche I’ve ever tasted, except those too loaded with cilantro. I’ve sampled lots of crudo, Italy’s answer to sushi, which seems to be more popular here than over there. I have been served raw sea urchin, swordfish, and tuna in Sicily. In Puglia I’ve tasted anchovies and sardines, lightly “cooked” in lemon and olive oil. All good, especially the Palermo beach sea urchins. But I can’t say I’ve spent much time preparing raw fish in my own home, at least not in a while. I feel that’s about to change. I think it has to do with the fresh herb season coming to an end.

As the warm weather starts to slip away I feel that common human confusion, energized to start new projects but also nostalgic for heat and how good it makes my body feel. Lately I get a little scared of the cold. Culinarily speaking, I’m eyeing my remaining herb pots with sadness, thinking death is right around the corner. After fussing over the occasionally recalcitrant plants all summer, I’m hoping I can coax some of them into hibernation, like our big, round woodchucks, until the spring.

I’ve still got a bushy pot of lemon thyme on my deck, but I plan to bring it in soon and attempt to winter it over. In my experience the most successful winter-surviving herbs have been the woody Mediterranean ones, perennials like thyme, rosemary, oregano, and sage. Of course, nothing is truly a perennial in cold Manhattan or upstate New York, where I now have my small cottage. But every spring the mint in my city stoop pot wakes up and grows crazily with shoots and long roots. That herb has tenacity. The  power of weeds.

My lemon thyme still looks and smells so beautiful that I’ve decided to capture some of its fleeting essence by adding it to this scallop crudo. Lemon thyme and raw scallops, I’ve discovered, tastes even better than lemon thyme with cooked scallops. This is a true crudo, not a ceviche that would need marinating, so the entire dish comes together in a few minutes. You want to keep the scallops pristinely raw and tender.

I’ve added a little colatura to the preparation. That’s a Southern Italian anchovy-based fish sauce. It’s pungent and rich and imparts an umami taste sensation similar to that of soy sauce. It’s very much worth getting to know, You’ll want only a few drops here, to heighten, not overpower, the sweetness of the scallops. I use a brand called Netunno, which is produced on the Amalfi Coast. It’s sold by gustiamo.com, the fine Italian food importer.

I always find when creating raw seafood dishes that I need to be careful adding flavors. I tinkered with this one for a while and finally found what I think is a good balance of acidy, sweet, and saline. The pine nuts add warmth and creaminess, the lemon thyme is assertive, the peperoncino adds subtle heat. If you don’t have colatura, you can use soy sauce. I prefer shoyu, the white version, which won’t mask the whiteness of the scallops.

(Serves 2 as a first course)

4 large, dry sea scallops, the side muscles removed, thinly sliced crosswise (sticking the scallops in the freezer for about 5 minutes before slicing them will help you get thin, even slices, but don’t let them freeze; you want them just cold)
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice, plus the grated zest from 1 lemon
A pinch of sugar
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil (use a fruity one, low on bitterness)
5 drops colatura or shoyu white soy sauce.
5 large sprigs lemon thyme, stemmed, the leaves lightly chopped, plus the leaves from a few more sprigs for garnish
½ fresh, red peperoncino, seeded and minced
1 scallion, white and tender green, minced
A small palmful of lightly toasted pine nuts
Coarse sea salt

Lay the scallop slices out on two small plates, arranging them in a circle.

In a small bowl, mix together the lemon juice and zest, sugar, olive oil, colatura, lemon thyme, and pepperoncino.

Drizzle the dressing onto the scallops. Sprinkle on the scallion and the pine nuts, and season with a little coarse sea salt. Garnish with the remaining thyme leaves. Serve right away.

I like the idea of following this light dish with a quick pasta, maybe spaghetti with a cherry tomato sauce, or penne with zucchini and ricotta.

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Recipe below: Pasta alla Norma, Early Fall Style

Watching the rise of a presidential candidate who seems to have no morals, warmth, or humanity, all the hallmarks of a sociopath, has put my soul in an dark place. I wake up some mornings with the deep creeps. How did we go so low? In the seventies and eighties in New York this man was considered a vulgar joke, about on the level of World Championship Wrestling. If my father were alive, how could he believe it?

Before watching the first debate with some friends, I thought about what I wanted to serve. I knew it should be something that reached back into my ancestry, grounding me, making me feel whole and connected. I chose pasta alla Norma, the great eggplant dish from Catania, always one of my favorites. I happened to have some bruised, cracked sauce tomatoes, and a couple of dark, classic bowling-pin shaped eggplants, all from Migliorelli Farm. Nostalgia for the end of summer was setting in while misery at this ugly, stupid election ate away at my gut. So, pasta alla Norma it was. The debate didn’t lessen my disgust for that narcissistic slob, but the pasta tasted great. I know our candidate’s childish taste in food. He wouldn’t go near this beautiful dish. And anyone who wouldn’t love pasta alla Norma is a loser. Sad.

(Serves 5)

Extra-virgin olive oil
2 large summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 fresh red peperoncino, minced
About 2 cups diced eggplant, the skin left on, plus 1 small unskinned eggplant cut into thin rounds
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ cup sweet Marsala
4 or 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 pimenton d’ Espelette pepper
About 8 large marjoram sprigs, the leaves only, plus a small palmful of leaves for garnish
1 pound penne
A chunk of ricotta salata
⅓ cup blanched almonds, lightly toasted and roughly chopped
A few large mint sprigs, the 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, 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 marjoram, and season with salt, black pepper, and pimenton. Let simmer, uncovered, at a low bubble for about 8 minutes, just until the eggplant is cooked through. 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 until just tender. Lay them out on paper towels.

Add a generous amount of salt to the boiling 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, 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 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 remaining marjoram and the mint. Serve hot.

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