I always wear my shiny, black Mary Janes when I go fishing in respect of the fish, our short lives, and our much needed nourishment.
I always wear my shiny, black Mary Janes when I go fishing in respect of the fish, our short lives, and our much needed nourishment.
Interior with Eggplants, by Henri Matisse.
Recipe below: Caponata with Lovage, Thai Basil, and Golden Raisins
I confess that my parents stopped making their own caponata when we discovered the version Progresso packed in those pretty little cans. We fell in love. In retrospect, Progresso’s caponata, which they stopped manufacturing only a few years ago, was quite bland compared with homemade, but we were amazed that such an exotic dish even existed in commercial form in this country. It was a fine tribute to the power of the Italian-American community. Caponata was one of those weird foods we’d buy at Italian groceries, like salty, rubbery lupini beans, and hot cherry peppers stuffed with oil drenched tuna. They perplexed my non-Italian friends. For me, life wasn’t complete without them.
But now for decades I’ve made my own caponata. It’s one of those high-aroma cooking experiences you don’t want to miss. Consider cooking up a batch immediately. All the major components, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, and herbs, are in peak season right now and just waiting for you to harness their powers.
Caponata is of Sicilian origin, one of those full-bodied Spanish- and possibly Arab-inspired dishes with strange ingredients that combine to open up lusciously on the tongue (pasta con le sarde is another). Eggplant is caponata’s anchor, and agrodolce gives it swing. It’s an old dish (tomato being a recent addition), which when done up for high-class Sicilians traditionally included Baroque touches such as chocolate, cinnamon, hard-boiled eggs aged in vinegar, and even baby octopus, anchovies, and clams (now there’s an odd combination). I still make versions that include chopped pear, fennel, and green olives, and I added a touch of cinnamon to my recipe here. I can’t imagine caponata without capers, raisins, and pine nuts (or, more often in my case, almonds or pistachios), a time-honored trio in many Sicilian dishes.
Basil, parsley, and mint are traditional herbs for caponata. But this year, since I’ve fallen hard for lovage, I decided to add that instead. And it makes sense, since celery is almost always a component of the dish and lovage has a strong celery-like flavor. If you don’t have it, use a palmful of celery leaves instead. I liked the idea of underscoring the exotic here. The lovage has hints of curry, and the Thai basil, which I’ve also included, has undertones of clove, so it fits the bill.
How to eat caponata? I don’t care what anyone says, caponata is not ratatouille. It shares basic ingredients, such as eggplant, but the seasoning couldn’t be more different. Its agrodolce boldness steers it toward the antipasto category. I like it served room temperature on toast as crostini. It’s also great served alongside soppressata or capocolla.
A variation on my caponata, this time with pistachios and green olives.
(Serves 6 as an antipasto dish)
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 firm medium-size eggplants, unpeeled and cut into small dice
A drizzle of honey (about 1 teaspoon)
A pinch of cinnamon (about ⅛ teaspoon)
1 red bell pepper, seeded, ribbed, and cut into small dice
1 medium onion, cut into small dice
2 teaspoons Spanish sherry vinegar
3 small, inner celery ribs, cut into small dice, plus a handful of celery leaves (especially if you don’t have lovage)
A handful of golden raisins, soaked in a few tablespoons of dry Marsala
1 large, round summer tomato, skinned and cut into small dice
2 teaspoons sugar
A palmful of salt-packed capers, soaked and rinsed
A handful of Thai basil leaves, lightly chopped, plus a few whole sprigs for garnish
6 lovage leaves, lightly chopped
A big handful of blanched almonds, lightly toasted and roughly chopped
Have a large serving bowl ready near the stove. In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the eggplant, and sauté until it’s tender but still keeping its shape, about 8 minutes. Season with a little salt and the cinnamon. Add the honey, giving everything a mix. Spoon the eggplant out into the bowl.
Add a drizzle of olive oil to the skillet, add the red pepper and onion, and sauté over medium heat until softened, about 4 minutes or so. Add 1 teaspoon of the vinegar, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Add this mixture to the bowl with the eggplant.
Add another drizzle of olive oil to the skillet, and then add the celery and celery leaves, sautéing until they just start to soften, about 2 minutes. Add the raisins, with their Marsala soaking liquid, and let the Marsala bubble for a few seconds. Add this all to the bowl, and give everything a gentle toss.
Add one more drizzle of olive oil to the skillet, keeping the heat at medium. Add the tomatoes, seasoning them with a little salt. Add the sugar, and sauté the tomatoes for about 2 minutes (you want them to remain red and fresh-tasting). Add the other teaspoon of vinegar, and let it boil for a few seconds. Pour the tomatoes into the bowl.
Add the capers and a few big grindings of black pepper to the bowl. Add the Thai basil, the lovage, and about ¾ of the almonds. Give everything another mix. Taste for seasoning. The caponata should have a gentle, well-balanced sweet-and-sour taste. Add a little more salt if needed to bring all the flavors into focus. Let the dish sit and come to room temperature. Give it another taste, just to check the seasoning. (Dishes taste different at different temperatures, and this one in particular will change flavors as all the various components meld. It might need a little drizzle of vinegar or a bit more black pepper.) Garnish with the remaining almonds and the Thai basil sprigs.
Still Life with Raicilla and Tomatoes, by David Sullins, 2014.
Recipe below: Tomato Soup with Marjoram Blossoms and Mascarpone
I grew up surrounded by my dad’s homegrown tomatoes. He was proud of his summer garden. Some years there were so many that my friends and I, unbelievably, would smash them in each other’s faces, or squash them down our pants. It was heartbreaking for him, but what’s a stoned-out teenager on Long Island to do at 11 p.m. on a sweltering night when the folks are out to dinner? I’m now so sensitive to food waste that thinking about that thoughtless destruction gives me grief, forty years later.
We ate so many tomatoes that I did take them for granted. They showed up in pasta, of course, but also in sandwiches, salads, in my homemade bloody mary mix, and just eaten raw with a little salt. We tried sun-drying them, not so sucessfully. But a soup made of only tomatoes? Never. That was not Southern Italian food as I knew it. Tomato soup, if we really had to have it, came from a can. We’d heat it ourselves for a quick lunch (I never saw my parents eat the stuff). Pappa al pomodoro or crema di pomodoro was not on our wavelength (tomato sauce, sure, but that was for pasta, not to pour into a bowl and luxuriate in unadulterated). I don’t think I tasted real tomato soup until I visited Tuscany, in my late twenties.
Now I consider tomato soup made with peak summer tomatoes culinary splendor, up there with fettuccine with shaved truffles. Seriously. It’s a beautiful thing, and now is the time to make it. Like most Italian cooks, I immediately think of basil when considering the tomato, but while gazing at my herb garden I decided that this time I’d go with thyme as a base flavor to cook into the soup, and then add marjoram at the end, for a burst of raw herb gorgeousness. My marjoram is flowering now, and the lush plant throws off a bold and sweet aroma as I brush my hand against it. It’s a treasure.
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium summer onion, diced
2 fresh summer garlic cloves, roughly chopped
½ teaspoon freshly ground allspice
1 fresh bay leaf
A splash of dry Marsala
About 5 large thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
2½ pounds round red summer tomatoes (not plums), peeled, seeded, and roughly chopped, preserving any juice that they give off
A pinch of sugar, if needed
A few drops of sherry wine vinegar, if needed
About ½ cup mascarpone, thinned with a little warm water.
A handful of marjoram blossoms and buds (if you don’t have blossoms, just use some chopped leaves)
Get out a soup pot, and place it over medium heat. Add a big drizzle of olive oil and the butter. Add the onion, and let it soften for about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and the allspice, and sauté until you can smell the aroma, about a minute. Add a splash of Marsala, and let it cook out. Add the tomatoes, and sauté about a minute. Now add the thyme leaves, bay leaf, and a little salt. Cook, uncovered, at a lively bubble for 10 minutes. You want to cook this high-temperature and fast, to preserve a fresh taste and bright color. After those 10 minutes the tomatoes will have given off juice but the tomato chunks won’t be completely broken down. That is exactly what you’re looking for. Turn off the heat, and let sit for about 5 minutes to develop flavor.
Now purée the soup in a food processor. It’s fine if it has some seeds and a little texture. That adds taste and character. Pour the soup back into the pot, and give it a taste. You’re looking for a good balance between sweet and acid. If it seems too acid, add a pinch of sugar, if your tomatoes were not quite lively enough, add a few drops of vinegar. You want to correct your produce, but in a subtle way. Now add a big pinch of piment d’Espelette and a little more salt, if needed. Add a drizzle of fresh olive oil.
To serve, reheat if necessary. Ladle the soup into bowls, and garnish with a dollop of mascarpone and the marjoram flowers and buds, or leaves. If you’d like to serve the soup cold, swirl about a tablespoon of the mascarpone in while it’s still hot, then chill it, and garnish it with the marjoram. Both ways are good.
My Aunt Reggie found deep comfort in meditating with her fish. For those precious 20 minutes a day, her ruminations faded. She stopped worrying about her disillusionment with the Workers Party. Her sister’s grandkids dealing crystal meth in the wilds of Avellino, Italy, was truly out of her hands. Even the chronic throbbing in her left big toe traveled miles out to sea. With her fish on her lap and the concerns of her day drifting out to sea, life was pretty good. She awoke to a clearer point of view. Anyone could see that my uncle Jack was jealous of her fish, although he kept it to himself. He had issues too, but beyond his 5 p.m. Johnnie Walker and diet lemonade, he never found that same gentle release. May we all be lucky enough to find such solace during our strange journeys through this complex world.
Dill, by Stephanie St. John.
Recipe below: Penne with Swordfish, Capers, Almonds, and Dill
The only time I remember having dill as a kid was when my mother would make her “American” potato salad. The potato salad was held together with Hellmann’s and may have included sweet pickles. And it had dill, possibly dried, I’m thinking, which wasn’t perhaps my ideal initiation into that bold, beautiful herb. Strangely I can’t remember if I liked the potato salad. It was just one of those things that fulfilled the starch quota when pasta wasn’t appropriate (when would that be exactly?), appearing at some point during the summer, usually when hot dogs were on the menu.
Dill is almost never used in Italian cooking (or in traditional French cooking either). Now when I think of dill I first recall non-Italian dishes that I’ve grown to love, such as borscht, gravlax, picked herring, cucumber salads, yogurt sauces, and Greek spanakopita. It’s an herb native to Southern Russia, Western Asia, and the Eastern Mediterranean and has never taken hold in Italy, even in the South, where you’d think it would appeal to their affinity for bold flavors. But basil wasn’t native to Italy either, and look how that’s changed the flavor of Italian cooking. Dill certainly would be easy enough to grow down there. Possibly wild fennel and fennel seeds have filled the niche that dill and dill seed would have occupied.
Even though I didn’t grow up with much dill in my life, I now love it, and I look for ways to sneak it into my Italian dishes. It’s best when mixed in with a more traditional herb such as fennel, basil, or parsley, so it doesn’t completely throw the taste off kilter. Recently I made a caponata, the Sicilian agro-dolce eggplant dish that usually contains basil or parsley. By adding a little dill along with the parsley I got it closer to eggplant preparations like baba ghanoush or the Greek melitzanosalata, both of which often include dill. I think it came out great.
And with fish, as the Scandinavians well know, dill’s a natural. Many years ago I tried substituting the wild fennel in pasta con le sarde, which is impossible to find on the East coast unless you grow it yourself, with a mix of bulb fennel fronds and a few dill sprigs. The flavor was not spot on, but I loved the result. I’m pretty sure a straight-up Palermitan would not be pleased with my altered version of his city’s classic, so I named it New York-style and left it at that.
The dill in my herb garden is now exploding with umbrella-like yellow flower clusters. Seeds will follow, and I’ll try and collect some for drying. My plant is also home to several beautiful yellow-and-black-striped caterpillars, which I have learned will soon enough turn into eastern black swallowtail butterflies. They love to eat Queen Anne’s lace and all members of the carrot family, which includes my dill. Watching them eat is interesting.. They lift their heads, bunch up their necks, bob a bit, and then slowly chew down a dill frond. Then they relax. I’m careful not to disrupt their resting spots when I take my cuttings.
My soon-to-be eastern black swallowtail butterfly.
I’ve again been thinking about combining fish and pasta with dill, and I’ve come up with this new Sicilian-inspired dish using swordfish. This time I mixed the dill with a little fennel pollen, and I thought the blend tasted excellent. See what you think.
Extra-virgin olive oil
¾ cup dry homemade breadcrumbs
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon fennel pollen
4 scallions, thinly sliced, using most of the tender green part
2 summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced
About 20 summer cherry tomatoes, cut in half
4 anchovy fillets, roughly chopped
1 pound penne
¾ to 1 pound swordfish, skinned and cut into ½-inch cubes
A big pinch of sugar
A splash of dry vermouth
About 10 large dill sprigs, chopped
⅓ cup slivered almonds, toasted
⅓ cup salt-packed capers, soaked and well rinsed
In a small skillet, heat a tablespoon of olive oil over medium flame. Add the breadcrumbs, seasoning them with salt, black pepper, and half of the fennel pollen. When they just begin to turn crisp and golden, after about a minute, pull them from the heat, and put them in a small bowl.
Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the scallions, and let them sauté until softened, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic, and cook until it gives off aroma but doesn’t color, about 30 seconds. Now add the cherry tomatoes, and sauté until they start to soften and throw off some juice. Add the anchovies, and stir them in. Turn off the heat.
Start cooking the penne.
Toss the swordfish cubes with about a tablespoon or so of olive oil, the sugar, the remaining fennel pollen, and a little salt and pepper. Heat a large skillet (cast iron is good) over high heat. When it’s really hot, add the swordfish, spreading it out in more or less one layer. Let it brown well on one side without moving it around at all, about 2 minutes. (I don’t bother to turn the pieces; I’m just after color on one side, to provide flavor and texture. When I’ve tried browning the other side I’ve found it easy to overcook the fish, and already the fish will continue to cook a bit when you add it to the tomato sauce.) Add the splash of vermouth, let it bubble for a few seconds, and then add the swordfish, with all its cooking juices, to the tomato mix. Give it a good stir.
When the penne is al dente, drain it, saving about a half cup of the cooking water, and place the pasta in a large serving bowl. Add a big drizzle of fresh olive oil, the dill, the almonds, and the capers, and toss. Now pour on the swordfish sauce, and give it all another toss, adding a little of the cooking water if needed for moisture. Serve hot, topping each bowl with a generous amount of the breadcrumbs.
Lovage, by Fiona Morgan.
Recipe below: Smoked Trout Salad with Avocado, Green Olives, and Lovage
I always prided myself on eating and liking any odd or foreign flavor put in front of me, but then I came up against cilantro. That was decades ago, but I still can’t get my taste buds to accept it. I read recently that Julia Child couldn’t stand the taste or smell of cilantro either, so I at least I feel I’m in good company, as a cook. Shiso too I find a huge problem. I’m always picking those pretty leaves out of my sushi rolls and hiding them under my plate. I struggle with these flavors and try to understand my aversion.
Smell and taste evolved to provoke strong responses, partly so we could avoid threats, such as poisons, but also to give pleasure, so we’d eat and stay vigorous. People like me, who never experienced cilantro or shiso at an early age, have no taste memory of it. Because of that I somehow sense my tongue only recognizes a threat, the soapy taste that causes that gag response in so many cilantro haters, and none of the pleasant notes that make it alluring to others. Knowing this, I assumed I could condition my Southern Italian palate over time. After all I grew up in New York eating Mexican, Thai, and Indian food. So far it hasn’t worked. All these years later, ridiculously, I’m still picking little green bits out of my food. I wish I could get over it.
I mention my cilantro issue because I now have a large herb garden, and I’ve been reaching out to plant culinary flavors I’m not completely familiar with. Lovage is one. I had previously brought bunches of it back from the Greenmarket but found its strong celery aroma odd. It had celery attributes, mostly the bitter and flatter ones, but it lacked, to my palate, celery’s fruity high notes. Yet I planted some anyway. It’s grown strong and righteous. Lovage is a beautiful herb, with large, dark green three-pointed leaves and thick stalks. In late spring, when I first put in my seedlings, I’d catch a whiff when I brushed against them. I’d rub the leaves between my fingers, take a sniff, but not be turned on my what I smelled. So I’d pass the lovage by on my way to pick some fennel or Thai basil.
A few weeks ago I finally broke lose and started using a few leaves here and there, in places where I would use celery, such as a sofritto or a salad. At first the taste was a strain on my palate, not as severe as with cilantro, but still. I’d rather it weren’t in my salad or my pasta or my pesto. But then I started noticing lovely undertones to the herb. Something like a gentle Indian curry flavor emerged. I didn’t take long to get to like it, and then, after a few culinary voyages, to really love it. Success. This makes me very happy. Lovage mixed with parsley or basil makes a wonderful pesto that is excellent on grilled fish. And it marries well with smoked fish, cutting through its richness, as I learned when I concocted this smoked trout salad. If you don’t know the herb, check it out. This is its season.
Oh, and I’ve been working on my own smoked trout recipe, which will be up shortly.
1 large head frisée lettuce, torn into small pieces
2 tender, inner celery stalks, thinly sliced, plus their leaves, lightly chopped
2 scallions, cut into thin rounds, using most of the tender green part
2 smoked trout fillets (about ½ pound), skinned and broken into bite-size pieces
A handful of green olives (I used Picholine)
A dozen lovage leaves, lightly chopped
4 large sprigs tarragon, the leaves lightly chopped
1 ripe avocado, sliced
For the dressing:
About 1 teaspoon lemon juice, plus the grated zest from 1 small lemon
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon crème fraîche
Place the frisée in a large, wide salad bowl. Add the celery, scallions, trout, and olives.
Whisk all the ingredients for the dressing together in a small bowl. You’ll probably need about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. I like my dressings low acid; feel free to add more lemon juice if you prefer more pungency.
Add the lovage, tarragon, and celery leaves to the salad. Add the dressing and toss. Place the avocado slices around the edges of the bowl. Serve right away.
Worshiping the Tulsi Plant, Pahari School, circa 1750.
Recipe below: Grilled Summer Zucchini with Thai Basil Crème Fraîche
I sometimes experience deep sadness when forced to serve people what I know is inferior food. This was never a worse problem than when I worked in catering in the late 1980s.
Back then grilled vegetables had to make an appearance at almost every event. It didn’t matter the time of year; caterers were certain that if guests didn’t see a platter of grilled vegetables somewhere, the party would be a social failure. I recall one event in particular, for 850 people, that took place in Grand Central Terminal. I don’t remember the theme or why it was held in such a lovely place, but a few other annoyed cooks and I spent three days grilling various vegetables and stacking them in hotel pans. Spongy zucchini in February? Had to have it. Bitter eggplant? Bring it on. And to make matters worse, the vegetables were served not even at room temperature but dead cold, along with some “spring” pesto that tasted a tad rancid after suffocating in plastic tubs for 48 hours. But it wasn’t the temperature that bothered me as much as the horrible gas taste left from cooking all the stuff on commercial grills. When I uncovered the hotel pans and served it all up, that noxious smell came blasting back at me. Gassy, blackened, and often still raw. This was always the case during my grilled vegetable days. Such an injustice. Nobody, even drugged-up partygoers, deserved to eat such stupid food.
I haven’t done catering in several decades, but creating food that’s not my best for anyone still disturbs me. I get angry even if I’m alone in my own kitchen cooking for my family. Every dish of pasta or plate of chicken needs thought and complete attention. I’m especially set off by bad ingredients. They can make me scream. But I also mean when something I’m cooking just doesn’t come out right. That, for me, is a deep-rooted disappointment. It’s a failure. I’ve let people down, friends, people I wanted to nurture or impress. But most of all, I’ve let myself down. And the longer I cook, the more pissed I get when things don’t go as planned. I’m hard on myself, but I’m also in love with celebration, so when a dish turns out as planned, or even better, well, that is the payoff, that is why I cook, and why I continue to cook.
I’ll tell you one thing, though: You can’t fail with this basil crème fraîche. It just tastes wonderful. Thai basil, or tulsi (holy basil), as it’s called in India, gives off an aroma and taste that drives me a little wild. To me it has a sharper and more licorice flavor than other basils, and it looks beautiful, with purple veining and dark, slender leaves. It was long so glorified in India that they hardly ever used it in cooking (only in tea). They kept the plants for ceremony, mostly for burials and weddings, arranging them and sprigs from them for presentation, or just strewing around the leaves. Luckily for me I’m a pantheist, so I get to eat just about anything I want, and I want to eat Thai basil. It’s growing extremely well at my little place upstate, better than the Genovese variety, even. For my basil-flavored cream I used a mix of both varieties, and the blend produces a full, sweet flavor, a sum greater than the parts. Later in the summer, when tomatoes are perfect, I’m going to add a dollop of the cream to my zuppa di pomodoro fresco.
Happy summer cooking to you.
8 large sprigs Thai basil, plus extra leaves for garnish
8 large sprigs regular (Genovese) basil
¾ cup crème fraîche
¼ teaspoon allspice
About 20 young summer zucchini, about 3 inches long, cut in half lengthwise
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
1 teaspoon sumac
3 summer scallions, cut into thin rounds, including most of the tender green stem
Stem the basil, and blanch the leaves in a small pot of boiling water for 30 seconds. Drain into an ice bath to cool. Now squeeze out as much water as you can.
Place the crème fraîche in a bowl. Chop the basil finely, and add it to the bowl, along with the allspice. Mix well. Let sit at room temperature while you continue with the recipe.
Place the zucchini in a shallow bowl or on a platter, drizzle on a good amount of olive oil, and season with salt and Aleppo. Toss well.
Start your charcoal, and let it burn down to a nice blue-pink low-flame intensity. I use a perforated grill plate over my grill to cut down on excessive charring. It gives the zucchini time to cook through and brown, avoiding that upsetting black-on-the-outside raw-on-the-inside problem that direct grilling can produce.
When your coals are hot and ready, place the grill plate over the grill, and then let it heat for about 5 minutes. Brush it with a little olive oil. Put your zucchini on the grill, cut side down, and grill until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Turn it over, and grill its skin sides. After about a minute, give one piece a poke with a skewer to see if it’s tender. You want it cooked through but not falling apart. When it’s really young, the halves maybe only about ½ inch thick, this can go quickly.
When the zucchini is nicely grilled, lay it out on a curved platter, and sprinkle it with the sumac and maybe a touch more salt, if you like. Scatter on the scallions and the extra Thai basil leaves. Serve hot, with a dollop with the crème fraîche.