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Lemon, Gitanes, Ribbon, and Spoon, by Joseph Keiffer (jpkeiffer.com).

Recipe below: Linguine with Lemon, Butter, and Basil

I remember the lemon pasta craze of the 1980s. I think it started in Rome and then worked its way over here. This was not long after the penne alla vodka craze. My mother made a lot of penne alla vodka. It was cheap and quick. My father loved it. I don’t remember her making lemon pasta, though, but it was something I took up after I moved out of the house. I served it to my city gang. Lots of cream-coated fettuccine flecked with lemon zest and anchored by Parmigiano, or what was called Parmesan at Gristedes. I even put a recipe for it in Pasta Improvvisata, my first cookbook. Man, that stuff was good. But I never felt too good after eating it. It quickly congealed into a sold mass. My teeth and tongue stayed coated with lemon mousse for hours. Even low-grade pinot grigio didn’t wash it away. Lots of cream does weird things to my head, making me happy at first and then, later on, kind of depressed. A little like alcohol, now that I think of it.

And speaking of depressed, it’s now February, my least favorite month, if you don’t count March. It’s hard to keep a seasonal kitchen right now, but I try, cooking whatever roots and impenetrable gourds I can dig out of the Greenmarket bins. The bright spot in this low time is gorgeous citrus. The fragrant lemons at Citarella got me wanting lemon pasta again. But no cream this time around. I’m thinking more of a linguine-with-clam-sauce version, but without the clams. Lemon, herbs, olive oil, a little onion, white wine, and butter at the end.

Yes, it came out nice. Sunny winter in a bowl.

Linguine with Lemon, Butter, and Basil

(Serves 2)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
The grated zest from 3 lemons, plus the juice from 1
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt
¼ cup dry vermouth
Coarsely ground black pepper
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
The green tops from 2 scallions, very thinly sliced
½ pound linguine
A small handful of basil leaves, cut into chiffonade

Set up a pot of pasta cooking water, throw in a good amount of salt, and bring it to a boil. Drop in the linguine.

Get out a large skillet, and set it over medium heat. Add the olive oil and the lemon zest, and sauté for about a minute, to release the oil from the zest. Add the sugar and a little salt, and sauté for a few seconds longer. Add the vermouth, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Now add the lemon juice, and let it bubble for about a half a minute, just to reduce it slightly.

When the linguine is al dente, drain it, saving about a half a cup of the cooking water, and add the linguine to the skillet. With the heat now on low, add the butter, a good amount of coarse black pepper, and maybe a little more salt, and toss well. Turn off the heat, and add the Parmigiano, the scallions, and the basil, tossing again, and adding a little cooking water if needed to loosen the sauce.

Portion out the linguine into two bowls, and eat it hot.

Variation: You can add shrimp or scallops to this. Just sauté them in a hot skillet, deglaze with a shot of vermouth or limoncello, and add them to the pasta during the final pan toss.

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Recipe below: Erbazzone

I make savory tarts so often that I sometimes wonder what’s up with me. I don’t completely understand my strong attraction. I think I’m drawn to things that are contained. I like to fill. I’m very much into tortas stuffed with swordfish, lamb, or artichokes, but I especially love them made with leafy greens. Those, as they bake, often smell like muddy garden, a good smell. And to my culinary mind, a tart filled with Swiss chard, spinach, arugula, or escarole is the perfect food, containing everything a person needs, except for wine, of course. A torta is encased, which makes it elegant but also portable, another reason to like it.  I’ve often thought the question of what you’d want for your last meal was stupid. How could you ever choose? But now that I’m again considering the savory greens torta, I’m pretty sure that’s what I’d want. Wild herbs, green leaves, olive oil, wheat—my ancestry come full circle.

The pizza di scarola of my childhood is etched in my brain forever. It’s special yet humble, with escarole, olives, garlic, anchovies, pine nuts, and sometimes capers and pine nuts, too. The Southern Italian pantry in full swing. I used to find these closed pies at slice pizza joints, when Italians actually ran those places. Sadly, no more. Pizza di scarola and a glass of prosecco are usually the first things I serve everyone on Christmas Eve.

And then there’s another greens torta that I love, different in aroma, from up north in Emilia Romagna. Erbazzone is flavored with pancetta and Parmigiano Reggiano. Its taste is warmer than that of its sharper Neapolitan sister. I like using a mix of Swiss chard, spinach, and arugula in it, but any relatively tender green will work well. Baby kale is okay. And for your erbazzone you’ll want good pancetta and a hunk of parmigiano or grana Padano. You can make it deep dish in a tart pan, but I’ve more often seen it rolled directly onto a sheet pan, or, traditionally, on a paddle slipped into a wood burning oven, which I unfortunately don’t yet have. I like it that flatter way. It makes the crust more prominent. And if you stick your torta on the very lowest rack of your oven, it will get a nice crisp bottom.

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Erbazzone

(Serves 8 as an antipasto)

For the crust:

2½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
cup extra-virgin olive oil
¾ cup white wine or dry vermouth

For the filling:

Salt
5 cups leafy greens (they’ll cook down to nothing); a mix of Swiss chard, spinach, arugula would be nice, but use whatever you have, all cleaned and chopped)
Extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup cubed pancetta
1 small onion or shallot, cut into small dice
2 small fresh garlic cloves, thinly sliced
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves (about ½ cup), chopped
A few large sprigs each of dill and either thyme or marjoram, chopped
The grated zest from ½ lemon
Black pepper
¾ cup  freshly grated Parmigiana Reggiano cheese
2 large eggs, lightly whisked, plus 1 egg yolk mixed with a little water for brushing over the top

To make the crust: Put the flour in a large bowl. Stir in the sugar and salt. Mix together in a cup the olive oil and the wine or vermouth, and pour it over the flour, mixing it in with a wooden spoon. If the mix seems dry, add a drizzle more of vermouth or water. When you have a nice moist mass of lumpy dough, dump it out onto a work surface, knead it a few times, and then quickly squeeze it all together until you’ve got a big ball. Wrap the dough in plastic, and let it sit, unrefrigerated, for about an hour.

Blanch all the greens for about a minute in a pot of boiling salted water. Drain them, and run them under cold water to stop their cooking. Squeeze as much water from them as you can, and give them a few extra chops.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

In a large skillet, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the pancetta, and cook it until it’s just crisp. Add the onion or shallot, and let it soften for a minute or so. Add the garlic, and sauté for a few seconds, to release its flavor. Turn off the heat, and add the greens and the herbs, season with salt, black pepper, and the lemon zest, and stir to mix well, adding a drizzle of fresh olive oil if needed. Let it all cool for about 10 minutes, and then add the Parmigiana and the whisked eggs, stirring them in.

Cut the dough into two parts, one slightly bigger than the other. Roll out the larger part to an approximately 10-inch round, and drape it onto a lightly oiled sheet pan. Spoon the filling onto the dough, and smooth it down. Roll out the other piece of dough, and place it on top of the filling. Pull up the overhang, and crimp the edges all around. Make a few slashes in the top, and brush with the egg wash. Bake until browned and fragrant, about 35 minutes. Let rest about ½ hour before slicing.

Anchovy Mayonnaise: A Video.

Finocchi Sott’Aceto

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Fennel, by Michele Clamp

Recipe below: Finocchi Sott’Aceto

Italian-American men and their vinegared food. My father, my grandfather, my cousins, they scarfed it down, sometimes while hanging in the backyard, midday, digging the stuff out of a jar with nothing but a 7 Up for accompaniment. The pickled stuff was never homemade that I can remember. It was purchased at Italian delis. Giardiniera, heavy on the pickled cauliflower, vinegared hot cherry peppers, pickled sweet peppers, vinegared eggplant that looked like leather but when swallowed sent puckering messages to your inner ear. Some people like that kind of thing. My sister inherited the taste. She loves vinegar.

I never could handle heavy acid. My salad dressings use ½ teaspoon of vinegar to 2 tablespoons of olive oil or thereabouts. I’m not big on squeezing a lot of lemon over fish either. I don’t even love lemonade. But I have to say there’s nothing that goes better with salami than a well-made vinegared vegetable. I always want that, but the jarred stuff usually knocks my taste buds out. Now I try to make my own as often as possible.

I think the main problem with most purchased Italian pickle things is the quality of the vinegar, which is kind of harsh. With homemade you can easily overcome that. Also the freshness of the spices stays under your control, and you can adjust for personal taste.

Here’s how I go about doing finocchi sott’aceto. It’s not as aceto as some, more agro dolce in fact. I add sweetness and lots of anisey spices. I really like it with fatty salume, such as soppressata or cacciatorini. It’s also nice as an accompaniment to rillettes or duck paté. I think it’s a good recipe to play around with, sticking with the general proportions but maybe changing up the herbs and spices to suit yourself. I’ve also used a similar marinade for vinegared carrots and shallots.

All vinegared foods do weird things to wine, making both the pickle and the vino you drink with it taste a little evil, but that’s just life. I’ll eat a piece of pickle and then smooth the way for wine with a good bite of fatty salami. There’s always an answer in the wonderful world of food.

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Finocchi Sott’Aceto

(Makes 1 quart)

3 fennel bulbs, cored and thickly sliced, plus of few big sprigs of the feathery tops
A large branch of tarragon
A few black peppercorns
A big pinch of fennel pollen
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 whole star anise
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
About 3 whole allspice
1 tablespoon sea salt
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon mild honey, such as acacia or orange blossom
¼ cup champagne vinegar
⅓ cup rice wine vinegar

Set out a 1-quart Ball jar or a similar wide-mouth jar with a lid.

Pack the fennel and its reserved sprigs into the jar. Add the tarragon.

Combine all the other ingredients in a saucepan. Add about a cup of water, and bring everything to a boil over medium heat. Turn the heat down a touch, and simmer for about 3 minutes, just to blend all the flavors.

Pour the hot vinegar mix over the fennel, adding a little more water if needed to cover. Let cool and then cover. Put the jar in the refrigerator for 3 days, shaking it once in a while to distribute all the flavors. After that the fennel should be well penetrated with flavor. I like to bring it to room temperature for eating, but that’s up to you. It will last about a month in the fridge.

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Recipe below: Impanata di Pesce Spada

There was a time when the teenage me and my slightly younger sister were in Rome with my mother. A strange trip for many reasons, but mainly because we went without my father, which was highly unusual. I’m not sure how it came about, but there we were having breakfast at the Bernini Bristol, our clean and ugly hotel, when I made the mistake of ordering soft-boiled eggs. Evidently Italians didn’t eat eggs for breakfast, ever. It was offered on the tourist menu, but it mortified my mother to the point where, looking nervously around the dining room, she acted like she didn’t even know me. She was humiliated, steaming mad. It was hilarious, on some level, but also upsetting. Was she going to bitch me out for the entire trip? I also learned at that time: no cappuccino after 11 a.m. And then there was one other important matter, a point I had had drilled into my head from childhood but that was underlined again on our trip: no grated cheese on fish. That was serious, a sin in most parts of Italy. But not, as I’ve since discovered, in Sicily.

When I was researching my book The Flavors of Southern Italy, fish and cheese dishes kept popping up around me—almost all of them Sicilian. They were all highly interesting. Mozzarella or Ragusano with anchovies (a great pairing), swordfish involtini with caciocavallo, sarde beccafico (sardines stuffed with raisins, pine nuts, breadcrumbs, and often a mild pecorino). When I first tasted a baked pasta con le sarde in Palermo, it had a little cheese mixed in, holding it together. I found a recipe for gamberi con la conza in the excellent Sicily book put out by the Silver Spoon Kitchen, where breadcrumbs, almonds, and Parmigiano are sprinkled over baked shrimp. Sounds good, a little like Greece’s shrimp Santorini, although that uses feta. Pane cunzato, a warm panino with anchovies, primo sale, oregano, and tomatoes, is another Sicilian dish that blends cheese and fish deliciously. Here’s my recipe for it.

And then there’s impanata di pesce spada, an elaborate, enclosed torta that contains pine nuts, raisins, capers, caciocavallo, orange, and swordfish. It’s a specialty of Messina. When I came across that masterpiece, I knew I needed to include it in my book. It’s still one of my favorite Sicilian creations. There’s a tuna version from Agrigento that also contains cheese, usually primo sale. Sicilians understand that sometimes a little cheese, usually a fairly mild one, can up the flavor of seafood, not mask it. I wish the rest of the country could lighten up.

Here I’ve updated my recipe for that Sicilian fish torta, streamlining it a bit so it’s easier to put together.

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Impanata di Pesce Spada

(Serves 8 as an antipasto or a first course)

You’ll want a standard 9-inch pie pan for this torta.

For the crust:

2½ cups all-purpose flour
The grated zest of 1 large orange
2 tablespoons of sugar
A big pinch of salt
1½ sticks cold, unsalted butter, cut into little bits, plus a little extra for buttering the pan
About 4 tablespoons cold white wine

For the filling:

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, finely diced
1 tender inner celery stalk, with the leaves, finely diced
A big handful of pine nuts
1 15-ounce can plum tomatoes, chopped and drained
Salt
Black pepper
A big pinch of ground cinnamon
A handful of golden raisins, soaked in about ¼ cup dry Marsala
A palmful of salt packed capers, soaked and drained
1 pound swordfish, skinned and cut into ½ cubes
A handful of flat-leaf parsley, lightly chopped
A few sprigs of wild fennel or dill
1 cup grated caciocavallo cheese
1 egg lightly beaten, plus an egg yolk whisked with a little water to brush over the top

To make the crust: In a food processor, combine the flour, orange zest, salt, and sugar. Pulse a few times to blend. Add the butter, and pulse once or twice until the butter is about the size of lentils. Add the Marsala, and pulse a few more times to get a crumbly, moist-looking texture. Don’t let it work itself into a ball. Dump the dough out onto a work surface, and squeeze it into a ball. Knead briefly a few times to make sure it holds together. Cut the dough into two pieces, one a little larger than the other, wrap them in plastic, and refrigerate them for about an hour.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Take the dough from the refrigerator so it can warm up for a bit for easier rolling.

To make the filling: In a large skillet, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the onion and celery and celery leaves, and sauté until soft and fragrant, about 4 minutes. Add the pine nuts, and sauté until lightly golden, about a minute or so longer. Add the tomatoes, and season with salt, black pepper, and a little cinnamon. Let cook for about 5 minutes. Add the raisins, with their Marsala, and the capers. Simmer another minute or so. The sauce should be fairly dry. Let it cool for a few minutes, and then stir in the egg.

Butter your pie pan.

Flour a work surface, and roll out each ball of dough into a round, making the large piece about 11 inches across and the smaller one about 9 inches. Fit the larger piece into the pie pan, letting its edges hang over the rim. Spread the swordfish out on top of the dough. Season it with a little salt and black pepper, and give it a drizzle of olive oil. Scatter on the parsley and the wild fennel or dill, and then the grated caciocavallo. Pour on the tomato sauce, spreading it evenly. Place the other dough round on top, and pull up the edges of the bottom dough to form a border, folding and pinching together the dough all around. Make a few slits in the dough to let air escape, and brush the entire top with the egg wash.

Bake until the torta is nicely browned, about 50 minutes. Let it sit for about ½ hour before serving. That will make it easier to cut.

Migliaccio

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Recipe below: Migliaccio

Ricotta is one of the defining tastes of my life. Yes it’s white and mushy, but its milky, sweet fragrance, with an almost undetectable acidity, has embedded itself in my soul. I think that underlying acid is what makes it unmistakable, plain out of the tub. Scent it with pecorino and parsley in a filling for manicotti, or with orange flower water and cinnamon for an Easter cake, and it moves from familiar to transcendent.

For years I’ve made two types of ricotta cake. One, usually a pastiera, has a crust and a lattice top, is firm with whole eggs, and sometimes has candied citron, orange flower water, and wheat berries, which are a necessity if you want to call it a pastiera. The other is a crustless cake made light with whipped egg whites and scented with lemon and orange zest. It collapses a bit when cooled, like an hour-old soufflé. Now I’ve added a third, migliaccio, a ricotta cake that falls somewhere in between.

Migliaccio is a Neapolitan specialty that’s cooked up for Carnevale. I’ve known about it for a long time, but somehow I figured it was close enough to the ones I already had in my repertoire not to bother with. However, the name stuck in my head, coming up every so often to say, cook me. Finally this Christmas Eve I did. What a wonderful thing it turned out to be, firm enough to stand on its own without the support of a crust, but delicate in the mouth. The addition of semolina flour somehow smoothed out the ricotta, which could have been grainy, creating a springy pillow of love.

Miglio is Italian for millet, and evidently this cake was originally made with that, not semolina. Even the ricotta is a later addition. When I researched modern-day recipes, I found them all pretty similar. You cook the semolina in a mix of milk and water, producing something similar to the first stages of cream puff pastry. This step seems essential, or at least traditional. I’m not sure why the water is in there, but I went with it because I was told to. Another tradition is simmering a whole lemon peel in the milk. That makes for an elegant visual, but I don’t find that it provides much flavor, so I grated the zest instead, to release more of its oil.

This cake is usually flavored with lemon, sometimes a shot of limoncello, and vanilla, a fragrant Southern Italian staple. I found I wanted the aroma of anisette, so I went with that, underlining it with a big pinch of star anise. The smell while it baked was just what I imagined, exactly what I wanted. Christmas at my grandparents’ house. All that was missing was the odor of Pop’s cigar smoke.

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Migliaccio

(Serves 8 to 10)

2 cups whole milk
1 3/4 cups water
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus a little more for the pan
The grated zest from 1 large lemon
A big pinch of salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground star anise
1 cup semolina
4 large eggs
1 cup sugar
12 ounces whole milk ricotta
2 tablespoons anisette
2 teaspoons good quality vanilla extract
Powdered sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Butter a 9-inch springform pan.

Pour the milk and water into a saucepan. Add the butter, the lemon zest, the star anise, and a big pinch of salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat.

Turn the heat down a touch, and add the semolina, stirring all the while. Let it all cook, stirring to prevent lumps, for about 5 minutes, after which you’ll have a sticky paste.

While letting the semolina cool a bit, combine the eggs and sugar, and blend them in a standing mixer until they’re lightly colored, about 2 minutes. Add the ricotta, the anisette, and the vanilla, and blend just until it all comes together. Add the semolina mixture to the ricotta, and blend quickly to combine.

Pour the batter into the pan, and bake it for 50 minutes to an hour. At the end the top should be lightly brown, the sides firm, and the middle a bit soft. It will firm up as it cools. When it’s cool, dust its top with powdered sugar.