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Storm Break, Venice Fish Market, by Phong Trinh.

Recipe below: Sautéed Red Snapper with Orange Zest and Fennel

I don’t have fond memories of baked fish. The Fashion Institute of Technology cafeteria served hotel pans full of baked cod every night, its sour steam permeating the air, hitting me the minute I walked in the door. The fillets were beige and dry, despite all the murky juices they exuded. Other specialties at the otherwise wonderful trade school included boiled cauliflower topped with salad cream, something I’d never heard of, and stiff squares of what were labeled scrambled eggs, served with a side of acidic salsa. Coming from my parents’ Italian-American kitchen, I found it all a shock. You’d think a fashion school could come up with something a little more fashionable. After a few months I could no longer stand the smell of the place, especially its stinking cod, and I started holding spaghetti puttanesca parties in my dorm. An improvement.

What is it about baking that brings out the worst in a white, boneless slab of seafood, sometimes giving it the smell of a public bathroom? Okay, maybe I’m slightly inflating the problem,  but other people, especially cooks with good noses, must agree to some extent. Even if the fish is super fresh, baking it, especially at low heat, seems to accentuate its innate fishiness. I guess topping it with crumbs and herbs helps, but, still, it wouldn’t be my first choice. If I’ve got a nice fillet of red snapper or sea bass, or salmon, I’m most likely going to sauté it.

Sautéing seals in the juices and coats the fillet in flavorful butter or olive oil, or, as I love most, a mix of both. More often than not I keep the skin on (unless it will cook up flabby, as with mackerel, for instance). The skin will hold it together, making it easier to flip, but more important it will add crunch, a lovely contrast with the soft flesh beneath.

There are a several good ways to sauté fish fillets. The method I like best for skin-on fish is the one I show you here. It’s easy high-heat cooking that will make you feel in control. I hope you enjoy it.

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Sautéed Red Snapper with Orange Zest and Fennel

(Serves 2)

2 Red snapper or sea bass fillets, about 8 ounces each, with their skin on
Salt
Black pepper
½ teaspoon fennel pollen or ground fennel seed
½ teaspoon sugar
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
The grated zest and juice from 1 orange and 1 lemon, plus the juice from the lemon and the juice from half of the orange
About 10 basil leaves, cut into chiffonade

Pat the fillets dry with a paper towel. Then score them lightly through the skin in two or three places, depending on how long they are. That will help them cook evenly and prevent them from curling up during cooking (it also will aid in crisping up their skin, most important for flavor and texture). Season the fish with salt, black pepper, the sugar (this will help it brown), and the fennel pollen, getting some into the slits in the skin.

Pull out a large sauté pan, and get it hot over high heat. Add a tablespoon of butter and a tablespoon or a little more of olive oil, and let that heat through. When it’s bubbling and hot, place the red snapper in the pan, skin side down. Let it cook without moving it around at all. You want the skin to really brown up. This can take a few minutes, so try not to get too impatient. When the edges of the fillets look nicely browned and they start smelling sweet and good and move easily when you shake the pan, give them a gentle flip, and let them cook on the other side until just tender, a minute or so longer, depending, again, on their thickness. This stage of the cooking will go faster than you’d think, so maybe don’t walk away. You may poke a thin knife into one of the scored areas if you’re not sure about its doneness. If it goes in easily and doesn’t feel tight and resilient, it’s done.

Take the fish from the skillet and plate it, skin side up, on two warm dinner plates.

Now, I usually like to make a quick pan sauce. Unfortunately high heat fish cooking doesn’t leave the most delicious pan juices. Often they’re a bit burnt and oily. So discard all that, and take out a fresh small sauté pan. Turn the heat to medium high. Drizzle in a thread of olive oil, and add the orange and lemon zests, shaking the pan around until everything is fragrant, only about 30 seconds. Pour in the lemon and orange juice, letting it boil for about 30 seconds longer, and add a pinch of salt. Pull the pan from the heat, and whisk in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Pour the liquid over the fish, and scatter on the basil. Serve right away.

I like to serve crisp skin-on fish with Israeli couscous or rice simply tossed with butter and fresh herbs, and maybe a scattering of small chopped tomatoes.

Women with Fish

 

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A basket of fish, a horse, and a good pair of shoes. A more than fine day.

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Recipe below: Calamari Filled with Swiss Chard and Pine Nuts and Braised in Vermouth

When I moved into the city, in the mid-seventies, I often ate at a cheap Italian place in the West Village whose entrance was charmingly down a few steps from street level. It was a soothing hideaway that  got me away from the complicated street life of the time. Why can’t I remember it’s name? I’m thinking Mariella’s or Angelina’s, but that’s not quite right. It may have been on West 4th Street. I Googled it but came up with nothing familiar. I guess it was too long ago. The small space was close and candlelit, and it had the slightly sour smell of cooked tomato paste typical of many Italian American restaurants back then. The food was pretty much what you’d expect, except that they did have a few weird things on the menu. First off, they served a meatball the size of a bocce ball. That was odd enough. I mean, I’ve seen some big Italian-American meatballs in my day, but that was outrageous. Another eccentric dish was their stuffed calamari.

One over-filled, torpedo-size (they were into big) squid was plopped on top of tomato-sauced bucatini, which sounds normal enough, except that the calamari stuffing was pure mozzarella. No filler, breadcrumbs, chopped tentacles, herbs, nothing. And it was hard to cut. The thing kept slipping out from under your knife. Then once you got into it, the stringy mozzarella poured out onto the pasta, leaving a big, empty cephalopod on top. It was like eating Italian food in a funhouse. It did, however, taste pretty good, so I’d order it just about every time I went, always surprised anew when I cut into the bloated thing and the hot white cheese came spilling out.

I’ve never been tempted to duplicate that dish at home. It was purely a thing of its setting. I do think about it almost every time I make stuffed squid, though, and I still occasionally wonder who came up with the unworkable but nonetheless alluring dish.

I offer that little memory as an introduction to my newest stuffed calamari creation. This one is more traditional, except that instead of being breadcrumb-heavy, it’s greens-heavy. I recently made another of my Swiss chard torte (they have become a fixation), and it occurred to me that the stuffing, with a few adjustments, would probably work well in calamari. I added ground taralli as a binder and then just jacked up the flavors all around. I wanted to do without the more usual tomato sauce braise, so I made a mix of vermouth and chicken stock. The resulting sauce, after straining, was quite elegant and rich.

I served the calamari with warm ceci, because I had a big pot of them in the refrigerator, already cooked. Rice or fregola might have been even nicer, since they would have soaked up the loose broth better. And, by the way, I’ve found that the best way to stuff calamari is with your fingers.

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Calamari Filled with Swiss Chard and Pine Nuts and Braised in Vermouth

(Serves 3)

1 bunch Swiss chard, the leaves chopped, the thick parts of the stalks removed
8 medium squid (about 4 inches long), cleaned, with a few tentacles
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 shallot, minced
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced, plus 1 peeled and left whole for braising
2 oil-packed anchovies, well chopped
3 taralli, ground to a not-too-fine crumb
A palmful of toasted pine nuts, plus a bit more for garnish
The grated zest from 1 lemon
4 large sprigs marjoram, plus 2 more for garnish
¼ cup grated grana Padano cheese
Salt
Black pepper
1 egg, lightly whisked
1 tablespoon  butter
1 sprig rosemary
¼ cup dry vermouth
½ cup chicken broth

Set up a medium pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Add the chard, and blanch it for a minute. Drain it, and then run cold water over it, to bring up the green color and stop the cooking. Squeeze as much liquid out of it as you can, and then give it a few extra chops.

Chop the squid tentacles well. You’ll want only about ½ cup, so if you have more, give it to your kitty.

In a medium sauté pan, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame.  Add the shallot, and sauté until soft, about a minute or so. Now add the garlic and the tentacles, and cook until the squid bits are translucent, only about 30 seconds. Turn off the heat, and add the chard, anchovies, taralli, pine nuts, lemon zest, marjoram, and grana Padano. Season with salt and black pepper, and stir everything around. Add the egg, and stir it in. The mixture should be moist. If not, add a drizzle of olive oil.

Fill the calamari about ¾ way with the chard mixture, and close up the open ends with toothpicks (the calamari will shrink when cooked, so you don’t want to overfill them or they might explode).

Choose a sauté pan large enough to hold all the filled calamari in one layer with a little wiggle room. Put the pan over medium-high heat, and drizzle on a tablespoon or so of olive oil and the butter. When hot, add the calamari. Season with salt and black pepper, and slip in the garlic clove and the rosemary sprig. Turn the calamari  in the pan once or twice so the pieces brown lightly on both sides.

Next add the vermouth and the chicken broth. Let bubble for a few seconds, and then turn the heat to low, cover the pan, and let the calamari braise until tender, turning it once or twice. This should take about 30 minutes.

Remove it to a warmed serving dish. Strain the braising liquid into a small cup. Cut the calamari into thick slices, on an angle, and arrange it on plates. Spoon a good amount of the vermouth sauce over it, and garnish  with the pine nuts and the remaining marjoram.

Here’s a video of me making one of my favorite things ever, an olive oil and white wine dough for a torta. As you’ll see, it’s easier and more forgiving than most tart crusts. I’ve filled in with Swiss chard, almonds, and marjoram, but you can use it for sweet stuff ,too, like pears for instance. Here’s the full recipe, and the finished tart is right below.

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Natura Morta con Tulipani, Garogani, e Finnochio, by Giovanni Bartolena.

Recipe below: Vellutata di Finocchi with Castelvetrano Olives and Tarragon

Some people are crazy about fennel. For others, fennel and anisey tastes are one big ball of yuck. I love fennel and its cousin anise, but I can understand the turnoff. They can leave a lingering scent that follows some people around in a nagging way. I used to dislike tarragon, which has a fennel taste. Now I love it. I don’t know how that happened, but I’m glad it did. I still can’t tolerate cilantro, but that’s another story.

The world of fennel is all about shading. That’s what sorts out preferences. For instance, someone might dislike Pernod or any fennel or anise liqueur but love fennel seeds in a grilled Italian sausage. I love both, and I love eating and drinking them together. Or someone might not like crunching on a raw bulb fennel but love chervil, which to me tastes similar, or maybe love a breakfast bun scented with anise seed while disliking a ricotta cake flavored with anisette (or could no one dislike that?). And then there’s star anise. It’s a strange spice. First off, it looks like a star, not a little ball or a stick, like most spices. And it’s strong, overpowering to chew on. It makes my mouth numb. But if I throw one or two stars into a white wine poaching liquid for, say, pears, the flavor opens up super sweet and clear in its anisey way, like an unfamiliar incense in a church in a foreign land.

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Making my fennel broth.

I’ve grown fennel-like herbs such as anise hyssop, bronze fennel, chervil, and of course French tarragon (for which, by the way, dragoncello is the Italian word). Wild fennel, with its fluffy fronds, the kind that grows along highways in Sicily and California and Provence, is one of my favorite fennels, ripe and grassy. It’s the defining flavor in pasta con le sarde. And if you’re the type, like me, who can never get enough fennel, then fennel pollen is something I know you’ve got in your kitchen. I use that stuff all the time. It’s like fennel seeds jacked to eleven. Some people find fennel-like undertones in basil. I don’t, and I don’t include that here. Basil stands alone. As does licorice.

Bulb fennel, or Florence fennel, as it’s also called, is easy to find in supermarkets now, but I never see anyone buying it except me. I use it all the time, raw with good olive oil as an antipasto and in salads, but also braised. If you don’t like it raw, try it braised or simmered, where it softens to a sweet murmur. This puréed soup I offer you, in Italian a crema or vellutata, is delicate, no crunch, no bitter, but still retaining that exotic edge that will always announce itself as fennel. Oh, and I must mention that I made a fennel stock using all the fennel trimmings. There’s a lot of waste with fennel, so that’s a great way to use it up. This stock gave my soup another layer of fennel flavor. I hope you’ll try making it.

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Vellutata di Finocchi with Castelvetrano Olives and Tarragon

(Serves 4)

For the fennel broth:

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 shallot or small onion, roughly chopped
Fennel trimmings (from the fennel, below)
1 carrot, roughly chopped
A small palmful of fennel seeds
A stalk of celery, with the leaves, if you have them
A few sprigs of tarragon
A pinch of salt

For the soup:

Extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 fennel bulbs, well trimmed and chopped into medium chunks (saving all the trimmings and fronds for the broth)
1 large baking potato, skinned and chopped
1 large shallot, diced
About ½ teaspoon of fennel pollen
Fennel broth (see the recipe below), or about 4 cups vegetable broth or a mix of chicken broth and water
¼ teaspoon of dry saffron, ground to a powder
Salt
Black pepper
2 tablespoons crème fraîche
A few drops of tarragon vinegar
About a dozen Castelvetrano olives, pitted and roughly chopped
A few big sprigs of tarragon, the leaves chopped

To make the fennel broth, drizzle about a tablespoon or so of olive oil into a medium pot. Let it get hot over medium heat. Add all the other ingredients, and let them sauté for a minute or so, just to release all their flavors. Cover everything with cool water, bring it to a boil, and then turn the heat down a bit and let it simmer at a gentle bubble for about 30 minutes. Strain. Depending on how much trimming you started with, you’ll get 3 to 4 cups.

To make the soup, get out a large pot, and in it heat a few tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the butter, the fennel, the potato, the shallot, and the fennel pollen. Let sauté for a few minutes. Now add the fennel broth (or any other broth you’re using), adding a little water if needed to just cover the vegetables. Bring everything to a boil. Turn the heat down a little, and let it cook at a low bubble, partially covered.

Put your ground saffron into a small bowl. Spoon out about ½ cup of the hot broth, and pour it over the saffron, allowing the saffron to bloom. The broth should be bright orange. Add it, along with some salt and black pepper, to the soup pot.

Now just simmer everything until the fennel chunks are very tender, about ½ hour or so, adding a bit more water or broth if the liquid gets low.

Let the soup cool for a few minutes, and then purée it in a food processor. Return it to a clean pot, and stir in the crème fraîche. Add a few drops of tarragon vinegar (this will lift it up a bit), and taste for salt and pepper.

Reheat the soup if necessary, and ladle it out into bowls. Garnish with the chopped olives and the tarragon.

 

 

 

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Still Life with Radishes and Pâté, by Leon Bonvin, 1864.

Recipe below: Tuscan Chicken Liver Pâté

I assume that most of my readers love chicken livers, because I do. They’re excellent with pasta  or over a bitter greens salad. The classic Tuscan chicken liver pâté is one of my favorite dishes of all time. I latched on to it early in my cooking career, finding the recipe in Giuliano Bugialli’s The Fine Art of Italian Cooking. His version includes a good amount of juniper berries and sage, in addition to capers and anchovies. I made it his way a few times, and then I started playing around.

The capers and anchovies were keepers, but I’ve never liked sage when its leaves get all ground up, as they did in that pâté, creating an overall mustiness or sourness. That was the only taste that held me back from loving the pâté completely. However, I took care of the problem early on, by replacing the sage with a mix of rosemary and thyme, yielding, to my palate, a warmer taste. And recently I’m liking a touch of allspice and lemon zest, too, as you’ll see in my new recipe.

It’s traditional to serve this on thin slices of toasted country bread, brushed first with good olive oil. That’s what I still do. A pickled vegetable or fresh radishes make a perfect accompaniment.  You can garnish the crostini with sprigs of rosemary if you like. And wine, you’ve got to have wine with this rich pâté. A Tuscan vernaccia di San Gimignano will balance out all these flavors nicely.

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Not my photo, but of my old recipe in Food & Wine.

Tuscan Chicken Liver Pâté

(Serves 6 as an antipasto)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium shallot
2 juniper berries, lightly crushed
3 oil-packed anchovy fillets, roughly chopped
A small palmful of salt-packed capers, soaked and drained
A few thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
A large sprig of rosemary, the leaves chopped
½ teaspoon ground allspice
The grated zest from 1 lemon
A splash of dry vermouth
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
¾ pound chicken livers, trimmed and cut into approximately 1-inch pieces
Salt
Coarsely ground black pepper
A splash of cognac, brandy, or grappa

In a medium-size skillet, heat the olive oil over medium flame. Add the shallot, juniper berries, anchovy, capers, thyme, rosemary, allspice, and lemon zest. Sauté until everything is fragrant and the shallot is soft, about 2 minutes. Add the vermouth, and let it bubble for a few seconds, leaving some liquid in the pan.

In another medium skillet, heat the butter over high flame. When it’s hot and bubbling, add the livers, seasoning them with salt and black pepper, and sauté them briefly on both sides, leaving them just a touch pink in the middle. That should take about 2 minutes. Pour on the cognac, and let it flame up (fun, but watch your eyelashes).  Transfer the livers and their cooking juices into the bowl of a food processor. Scrape the shallot mixture out of the other pan with a rubber spatula, and put it in the food processor as well, making sure to include all the cooking juices. Add a little salt and black pepper and a drizzle of fresh olive oil, and pulse until the pâté is fairly smooth (or you can leave it a little chunkier, if you prefer).

Scrape the pâté into a ceramic crock or a glass pâté jar, smoothing out the top. Cover the container, and stick it in the fridge for about an hour to help it firm up. Bring it to room temperature before serving.

 

 

 

Women with Fish

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Every day seemed like another shit show. I was beyond lonely. Messing around with my cat, making grilled cheese in my broiler. Talk about anxiety. But then last week I got really pissed and decided to walk over to the marina. I stared down to the cold water, and just started grabbing. Skinny, round, big-mouthed, tight-lipped, silvery, pink, peachy, all slippery. Some got away. Others I threw away, until finally I snagged my big, bulky man. And I didn’t care how many discards I had to trample on to get him.