Red wine, rosemary, vanilla, a beautiful combination of flavors that cook down to a thick, glossy syrup that clings to the pears and makes for an elegant winter dessert, a study in pink and deep crimson. Not too sweet, but full of intensity. I hope you’ll try it. And if you’d like the recipe, it’s here.

Women with Fish

I’m nude. I’m languishing. The fish my uncle Nunzio brought this morning is sitting here waiting for me to fix it before it rots. If I cook something good, I’ll be a happy nude. If I just sit here holding my boobs like an dope, the fish will spoil and I’ll have made a sin. What should I cook? Maybe I’ll fillet it. Then I can coat it in olive oil and throw the fillets on the grill. That’s a good idea. In that case I should make a sauce. I have fresh marjoram. I have garlic. I have lemon. I’ll make a salsa verde with those things plus good olive oil. I have salt. I even have a fresh jalapeno. Maybe I’ll add that. That’s a good idea. If I grill the fish fillets and then spoon a bit of the salsa verde on top, not only will I have saved the fish from rotting, but I’ll have a really good dinner. I think I’ll do that. It’s better to cook the fish than to let it rot. That would not only be sad but also a sin, I think. Okay, great. I’m nude, but I’m not languishing. Now I’ve not only got a plan, but also a wonderful dinner. Thank you, uncle Nunzio for bringing me this really fresh fish, that at first I viewed as a burden, but now see as an opportunity.

Pear Shadows, by Nancy Merkle.

Recipe below: Pears Poached with Red Wine, Rosemary, and Vanilla

It sure is quiet out on the street. January tends to be a slow month in Manhattan, but this is ridiculous. The only real action I see is from Amazon delivery people. I really need to cook something with movement.   

My usual approach to winter cooking, especially now that it’s pandemic winter cooking, is to keep it vibrating. Produce may not feel completely alive this time of year, but I still want to create living, breathing culinary art. It takes concentration. A game I play is to choose favorite flavors, intense delicious flavors, and work them in a way that makes whatever other ingredients I use just wake up. Red wine, vanilla, and rosemary are three of my vibration flavors. I find them beautiful alone or blended. Here I’ve used all three to poach California pears.

I knew the flavors would be right, but still I had to locate my pears. I looked for ones that felt firm but still smelled like pear. They weren’t easy to find. Bartletts smelled like pear but were too soft to poach. I didn’t want to wind up with mush.  The brownish-skinned Bosc were solid hard and smelled oddly like a doctor’s office (or like the faux leather couch in a doctor’s office). I decided on Red Anjou, which were firm but alive in aroma and true pear character.

This dessert tastes excellent, and I love its look, too. The pears tint up pinky red, and the reduced wine syrup shines glossy like a ruby gem. I served the pears with sweetened mascarpone, but crème fraîche, ricotta, or vanilla ice cream would have been nice, too.

Happy winter Covid cooking to you.

Pears Poached with Red Wine, Rosemary, and Vanilla

(Serves 6)

6 ripe but firm pears (I used Anjou), preferably with their stems attached
1 750-ml bottle red wine (I used Côtes du Rhône, and it worked fine)
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 large rosemary sprigs, plus 6 sprigs for garnish
1 mandarin orange, cut into quarters
1 cup sugar
A pinch of salt

For the mascarpone:
1½ cups mascarpone, at room temperature
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Peel the pears, leaving their stems intact if they have them. If you like, core them with an apple corer. That make them easier to eat, but I didn’t bother, plus I didn’t have an apple corer.

Put the pears in a big, wide pot. I used a pasta pot, but anything wide enough so the pears fit in without sitting on top of one another. Add the wine, and then add enough water to cover the pears. Add the vanilla bean and extract, rosemary, orange, sugar, and salt.

Turn the heat to high, and bring it all to a boil. Turn the heat to low, partially cover the pot, and simmer until the pears are tender when poked with something thin and long, like a wooden skewer, which is what I used. Depending on your pears, this may go fast or may take a while. My Anjous needed about an hour. At the end your pears should be a beautiful, consistent light red color, and the poaching liquid should smell like sweet wine but more complex.

Delicately, so as not to bruise them, lift the pears out of the wine bath with a slotted spoon, and onto a platter.

Now you’ll want to reduce the wine. Turn the heat to medium high, and let it bubble away. It will probably take about a half hour, but keep an eye on it. You don’t want to reduce it to a hardball stage; you just want a nice thick, pourable syrup. Once it starts shimmering with big bubbles and coats a spoon, it’s ready.  Next you’ll want to pour it through a fine strainer into a small pot to remove all the bits of rosemary and things. I retrieved the vanilla bean to use as garnish, cutting it into shorter pieces. Let the liquid cool. It will get thicker as it cools.

Mix the mascarpone with the sugar and vanilla extract.

When you’re ready to serve, pour any liquid your pears have released from the plate into the syrup. Reheat the syrup, not to boiling hot but just warm enough to loosen it some and make it glossy. Place each pear in a small bowl, and pour some syrup over the top. Garnish with a piece of the vanilla bean, if you like, and a sprig of fresh rosemary. Plop a heaping tablespoon or so of the mascarpone next to each pear. Serve.

Still LIfe, by Yana Golikova.

Recipe below: Bitter Greens and Mandarin Orange Dust Salad, with an Anchovy Vinaigrette

After days of post-Christmas fog, both atmospheric and spiritual, I needed a lift, so I decided to dry a bunch of Mandarin orange peels and grind them to a dusty powder. This was so helpful. Sometimes a seemingly small culinary move can lift my soul much more than I expect. I put the dust in a bowl and sniffed it in every time I passed it on my kitchen counter.

I always have a net bag of Mandarin oranges hanging around this time of year. They peel so easily, section without effort, and have a good agro dolce balance. A hopeful note in winter’s bleak culinary scheme. And, as I’ve discovered, their skins can be quickly dried, to give off a concentrated citrus aroma. You know how you can feel yourself downsliding in January? You might be tempted to throw your head under a grow lamp, but maybe try making this Mandarin dust instead. It worked for me.

So I took these dried skins and whizzed them up in my mini spice grinder to create essence of Mandarin. I could immediately see the uses. Sprinkled over a Provençal beef stew, for instance, picking up on the orange rind that’s usually added but doesn’t provide much impact. Same with a bouillabaisse, letting the citrus mingle with the fennely pastis. That’s a match made in my Mediterranean dream head. It was also great sprinkled over my avocado toast.

I also thought about all the bitter greens that are so good this time of year. They would be beautiful in a salad tossed with a bit of my Mandarin dust. So I went to the Union Square Greenmarket looking for the radicchio man. He usually has the Treviso variety, both precoce and tardivo, the latter being the same plant but left in the field to mature and grow long purple-striped fingers. He also grows the Castelfranco type that looks like a big, pink, overblown rose. He has puntarella, too. It’s all so beautiful. But unfortunately he wasn’t there. So I went over to West Side Market and settled on decent looking heads of frisée and escarole and a white endive. I did see dandelion bunches there, too, and they would have been a nice touch, but they were all wilty.

Anchovies seemed a natural for the dressing, as their flavor tends to both heighten and sweeten the bitter greens (if you’ve ever had puntarella salad in Rome you know what I’m talking about). You can add sliced fennel and a handful of its fronds, if you like. However you put it together, this is, in my opinion, as vibrant and appealing as winter cooking gets. And the dust seals the deal.

Bitter Greens and Mandarin Orange Dust Salad, with an Anchovy Vinaigrette

(Serves 4)

For the mandarin orange dust:

As many Mandarin oranges as you want to dry

For the salad:

A large head of escarole or frisée, or a little of both
2 red or white endives or Treviso radicchios, if you can find them, the leaves separated
A handful of dandelion leaves, if available
2 mandarin oranges, peeled and sectioned
1 scallion, cut into thin rounds
4 oil-packed anchovy fillets (I like Ortiz brand), well chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed with the side of a knife
Black pepper
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
Extra-virgin olive oil, about 2 tablespoons

To make the Mandarin dust: Peel the oranges. Use as many as you like, depending on how much dust you want. It lasts for a while but starts losing a bit of aroma after a few weeks, so bear that in mind. Next, dry the skins. I have a countertop Breville mini oven with a convection mode, but any regular oven will work fine. If you have a dehydrator, you can use that. I don’t own one, so I laid the peels out on a grill rack, set the oven at 250 degrees, and stuck them in with the convection on. The peels took about an hour to dry out. Pretty fast.  After that I turned off the oven and left them in it for about a half hour just to make sure they were really bone dry.

Then, working in small batches, I whizzed the dried peels to a powder in my mini spice grinder, adding a pinch of salt to each batch (this, I find, helps bring up their flavor). That’s it. I made about a cup of dust, which I’ll be playing with over the next few weeks.

To make the salad: Put all the greens in a big salad bowl. Add the orange sections and the scallion. Put the chopped anchovies in a small bowl. Add the garlic clove, the vinegar, and the pepper. Give it a stir. I like to keep the anchovy in discernible bits, but if you prefer you can mash it up more. Add the olive oil, and season with a little salt, if you think you need it. Pour the vinaigrette over the salad, and give it a toss. Sprinkle a little of the dust over the top, or sprinkle it onto your individual servings, or both.

Baccalà is a Christmas Eve necessity for me. Many of my other fishes have fallen, either from streamlining the night or for lack of interest, but the baccalà stays. It’s special. It’s intense. It requires me to think ahead. And what an aroma! I’m not kidding. I love smelling it while it soaks, briny and pungent, and then after, when I poach it in wine, broth, tomatoes. Wherever I go with it, that soft poaching lets its sea perfume shine through. I’m talking about salt cod, baccalà, not stockfish, air dried cod, because baccalà is what my Southern Italian ancestors tell me to use.

There are various Christmas Eve preparations. There’s one with lots of potatoes and onions, the baccalà left in big chunks, everything simmering up together. I’ve gone the tomato, white wine, and black olive route more than once. I love that too. You can fry soaked baccalà to make a kind of fritter. Nice. But over the years baccalà mantecato, a dish associated with Venetian wine bars, has become my Christmas Eve tradition (an almost identical dish called brandade de morue is made in Provence). I poach the cod and then whip it up, with lots of olive oil, a little garlic, a bit of potato, occasionally a splash of cream, into a fishy mashed potato. I also add fresh herbs and often lemon zest. Often I smooth the mash into a gratin dish and run it under the broiler with crumbs on top, for good texture. Then it gets scooped out and spooned on toasted crostini. A wonderful party antipasto to serve with prosecco.

If you’d like to try some baccalà for Christmas Eve, remember that you’ll need to presoak it. Allow two days for that. You might not need all two days, but you could, depending on how salty your cod is. I’d rather have it oversoaked than not soaked enough. You can always add salt if you’ve washed all the salt down the drain. And when you buy your baccalà, look for thick, white center cuts, avoiding skinny little grizzly tail sections that’ll be mostly skin and bones. The stuff I got last year was from Canada and very good. A few days ago I saw nice looking baccalà at Eataly, so this year, I’ll probably go back and try that. To make sure your baccalà cooks up tender, not dull and dry, be gentle. Once the salt is soaked out, that hard board you started with will revert back to being almost fresh fish, so if you think of it that way you won’t be tempted to hammer the hell out of it. Soft heat, soft music, nice aromatics (fresh bay is wonderful for poaching salt cod).

If you grew up with baccalà, you know what I’m talking about here. If it’s your first time, you are in for a treat. It’s so exciting. I wish it were my first time.

Have a great Christmas Eve.

And here are three of my favorite Christmas Eve inspired baccala recipes:

Baccalà Mantecato for a Winter Lockdown

Baccalà with Marsala, Roasted Tomatoes, and Pine Nuts

Baccalà with Potatoes, Black Olives, and Marsala

Here’s my baccalà mantecato after a quick gratinée.

Still Life with Honey, by Gala Turovskaya.

Recipe below: Braised Eggplant with Cinnamon, Honey, and Mint

Acid with sweet. Savory with sweet. You encounter those combinations in Sicilian and other Mediterranean cuisines. Cinnamon, bay, and saffron are the flavors of Trapani’s fish couscous, and the first time I tasted it I screamed with recognition. My grandfather’s ricotta and cinnamon ravioli for Christmas Eve had a filling sweet with sugar and a tomato sauce dense and almost sour from its cooked-down tomato paste. A strange juxtaposition, but it really worked. That dish must have come from around Salerno, because that was where he was from. I think about those ravioli at odd times, such as when I’m planting flowers in April. I find myself dreaming of Christmas.

Eggplant is a vegetable that can go savory or sweet or both at the same time. I’ve eaten a chocolate eggplant “lasagna” from the Amalfi coast at the source several times, and I’ve recreated it at home, too. Absolutely delicious, its fried eggplant layered with bitter chocolate, candied citron or orange, almonds, and sometimes crumbled amaretti cookies. After seeing several recipes for a Moroccan Jewish candied eggplant, served both as a condiment and as a desert, I got around to making that one, too, using those little fairy eggplants you can find at the Union Square market in high summer. Very sweet and creamy, and strangely shiny.  There are Greek and Syrian versions of that dish that are similar, involving poaching whole baby eggplants in a spiced-up sugar syrup.

I can honestly say now that eggplant is my favorite vegetable (or fruit, biologically speaking). We ate it a lot growing up, pickled, breaded and fried, sott’olio, and of course, parmed. Eggplant parmigiano is a genius creation, one of the best my Southern Italian people ever came up with. It is traditionally completely savory, but I’ve messed with it, adding, at times, honey and my grandfather’s cinnamon.

Here’s another mostly savory but slightly sweet eggplant dish that I’ve tasted versions of in Sicily. There it was presented as a variation on caponata, with pine nuts, raisins, cinnamon, and honey, along with the agro dolce background that gives caponata its distinct sweet-sharp edge. Here I’ve left out much of the acid, making it more of a side dish than a condimento. Try it with pan-seared lamb chops, or just on its own as a vegetarian main course, maybe over polenta. It also makes an excellent pasta sauce, for, say, orecchiette. Why not?

You’ll notice that I use Japanese eggplant in this recipe. That’s because I find they work better than Italian ones off-season. They’re sweeter and less watery.

Braised Eggplant with Cinnamon, Honey, and Mint

(Serves 6 as a side dish)

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 sweet onion, cut into small dice
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 fresh red peperoncino, well chopped
4 Japanese eggplants, cut into medium dice
2 fresh bay leaves, torn in half
5 or 6 thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 whole cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon runny honey
¼ cup dry Marsala
1 35-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, well chopped
A big handful of spearmint leaves, lightly chopped

Get out a big sauté pan, and get it hot over medium heat. Add a big drizzle of olive oil and the onion. Sauté for about 3 or 4 minutes, just to get it a bit soft. Add the garlic, the peperoncino, and the eggplant. Season with a little salt, and sauté until the eggplant has softened somewhat, about 5 minutes. Add the bay leaves, thyme, ground cinnamon, cinnamon stick, and honey, and sauté for a few minutes more to release all those flavors. Add the Marsala, letting it bubble for a few seconds. Add the tomatoes, and let simmer, uncovered, at a low bubble for about 15 minutes, adding a drizzle of hot water if it all gets too thick. By this time the eggplant should be tender and all the flavors blended. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt or possibly honey to balance it out. Turn off the heat, and let the dish sit for about 5 minutes before serving. This will allow it to mellow further.

Add a drizzle of fresh olive oil and half of the mint, mixing it in. Scatter the rest of the mint on top just before serving. You can serve this dish hot, warm, or at room temperature.

Daryl in Wylde Thyme Farm, by Fiorentina Giannotta.

Recipe below: Pan-Fried Lamb Chops with a Thyme and Parmigiano Crust

Crust is often a good idea. Day-old pasta can be turned into a bubbly baked extravaganza just by the addition of a crispy cheese-and-breadcrumb topping. Crusts are transformative. Think of crème brûlée with its slick-patinaed sugar crust. Or the chicken cutlet, the backbone of the Italian-American kitchen. It needs a sturdy breadcrumb, garlic, and herb crust to be compelling, but that crust will turn boring white meat into something tender on the inside, crispy on the outside. Ideal food. Every culture has some sort of crust. Southern Italy, home to my people, goes for just about anything fried to a crisp. Fried dough, both sweet and savory. Little fish coated in flour and quick fried. Artichoke, zucchini blossoms, gizzards, bechamel balls, or salt cod coated with some sort of crumbly and then shocked in searing hot oil. I love eggplant cloaked in flour, egg, and then crumbs, pan-seared in olive oil until a crust coat forms around a gushy interior. I tell you: When in doubt, think crust.

And when you think you’ve got nothing to fashion into a crust, try grinding up a handful of fennel taralli, or black-pepper water crackers. Those work well. Lately I really like panko breadcrumbs for fashioning crisp things. I use them here on these lamb chops, but to cut down on bulkiness, I give them a quick few pulses in my food processor for a finer texture. Very nice when mixed with lots of thyme (you really want to taste the thyme) and Parmigiano.

I think these chops are best eaten alongside a bitter salad, maybe escarole and endive, dressed with a mustardy vinaigrette.

Pan-Fried Lamb Chops with a Thyme and Parmigiano Crust

(Serves 2)

6 loin lamb chops
Black pepper
2 egg yolks
Extra-virgin olive oil
1½ cups panko breadcrumbs, whirled in a food processor for a few seconds for a finer crumb
1 garlic clove, minced
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano or grana Padano cheese
The grated zest from 1 large lemon
8 big, fresh thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped, plus a handful of whole sprigs for garnish
A big pinch of piment d’Espelette
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 lemon, cut into quarters lengthwise, for garnish

Season the lamb chops with salt and pepper.

Put the egg yolks on a plate, and drizzle them with a thread of olive oil and about a tablespoon of water. Whisk lightly.

Pour the breadcrumbs out onto another plate. Add the garlic, cheese, lemon zest, and chopped thyme. Season with salt, black pepper, and the espelette, and give it a good stir. 

Pull out a big sauté pan, and pour in enough olive oil to cover the pan about ⅛ inch deep. Turn the heat to medium-high, and let the oil get hot. Add the butter, and let it melt into the oil.

One by one, dip the lamb chops in the egg and then in the breadcrumbs, pressing the crumbs into the meat.

Put the chops in the pan, and cook them, without moving them around at all, until nicely browned, about 4 minutes. Turn them over and cook them on the other side, about another 4 minutes for medium. They should now be crispy and golden all over.

Pull the chops from the pan onto a serving platter. Garnish them with lemon wedges and the thyme sprigs. Serve right away.

Bay Laurel, by Carol Ivey, 2018.

Recipe below: Ricotta Baked with Fresh Bay Leaves

I’ve been drawn to Sicilian flavors for a very long time. When I first discovered Sicilian cookbooks, just buying them got me motivated. I cooked my way through several, immediately seeing the differences in ingredients and culinary mindset from my Puglian-Campanian family’s food. I noticed less tomato, more sweet and savory touches, more Spanish and Arab aromas.

Pomp and Sustenance, by Mary Taylor Simeti, came out in the late 1980s. I read it more than I cooked from it. It’s dense like a historical novel with a backdrop of ornate pastries. I read it over and over. A few years later Giuliano Bugialli’s Foods of Sicily and Sardinia appeared. It had on-location photos of sausages, eggplants, sardines, and bucatini, positioned in front of volcanos or the sea, sometimes on pottery that was too bright, as if a little kid had glazed it. Mint decorated savory dishes. The dish that drew me in most was a big round of ricotta lined with bay leaves and then baked. The aroma of bay was already etched into my pleasure brain, engraved there by the bechamel my mother made for her lasagna. Bugialli wrote that the bay flavor in his ricotta was so powerful that it would have to be an acquired taste for some. I wanted to acquire it. I cooked it and fell in love.

I hadn’t thought about that beautiful baked ricotta in many years, but I recently was planning a video on cooking with bay laurel for my YouTube series, and I realized it would be a great thing to include. The aroma of the cheese cooking is deep, the bay giving off hints of allspice, vanilla, and black pepper as the oven heat causes the leaves to permeate the cheese. It brought me back to my years of discovery, when I first learned how alluring Sicilian cooking could be.

Here’s my version of Bugialli’s recipe. I no longer have the book, so I reconstructed the dish from my taste memory and was pleased it came out so well. I hope you’ll give it a try. And please use fresh bay leaves. They are the only way to go.

Ricotta Baked with Fresh Bay Leaves

32 ounces good-quality whole-milk ricotta
3 tablespoons melted butter
About 15 fresh bay leaves
3 large eggs
A handful of Taggiasca olives, pitted and roughly chopped
Black pepper
A few big scrapings of nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 375. If your ricotta seems watery, drain it for about 20 minutes.

Brush a 7-inch springform mold with melted butter, saving any remaining butter for later.  Cover the bottom of the pan with bay leaves. They needn’t overlap, so you’ll probably need to use about 6 or 7 of them.

In a large bowl, mix together the ricotta, the eggs, and the olives. Season with salt, black pepper, and the nutmeg. Pour the mixture into the pan. Slip the remaining bay leaves in all around the sides of the pan.  Drizzle the top with the remaining butter. Bake, uncovered, for about an hour, until the top is nicely browned and the whole thing is fairly set, aside from a slight jiggle in the center.

Take it from the oven, and let it sit for at least 45 minutes. This will allow the cheese to continue to firm up and pull away from the sides of the pan so it’s easier to unmold. Run a knife along the sides of the pan, and unmold the cheese. I like to serve it on crostini as an antipasto. It’s also great alongside a tomato salad or a bowl of caponata.