Still Life with Cheese and Olives, Floris Van Dijck, 1615-1620.
The Color of Food, Part One
Recipe: Orecchiette with Broccoli, Bay Scallops, and My Ras el Hanout
I’ve been visualizing the spring greenery that will soon make an appearance at my farmers’ market. I love all the shades of green that nature dreams up, the silvery green of olive leaves, the emerald green of damp moss, the gentle gray green of a stinky, moldy cheese. Green is said to be soothing. That isn’t true for me. I find it invigorating. Green kicks my brain into gear. Looking at green things, like a handful of fresh chervil or a bunch of spring asparagus, focuses me. It seems to make it easier for me to create good food. I usually don’t get stuck in a cooking stupor when I’m confronted with a variety of green, with olives, parsley, capers, green olive oil. I know what to do with green. I’ll make a salsa verde.
I’ve always had strong attachments to colors, associating certain ones with numbers, and the number-color pairings that came to me as a kid still hold: Red is 5, 3 is yellow, 7 is purple, 9 is green. The numbers come up in my head in their numerical form, not written out. I didn’t have numbers for some colors, such as blue. I’m not sure why. Maybe because there isn’t much blue food out there.
I especially like being close to green, my number 9, not necessarily wearing it, since it blends too well with my olive complexion, making me look sickly, but I love sunlight on green glass, and I collect green pottery, and when it comes to food, green is a catalyst for me. Which somehow brings to mind my grandmother’s sautéed broccoli, so soaked with flavor, with garlic, olive oil, white wine, flecks of anchovy, a sprinkling of hot pepper. So delicious. And, oh, the color, so gray.
To preserve the Southern Italian flavor of her homeland, she perpetuated the long, slow cooking style of her ancestors, infusing every fiber of that broccoli—stalks, leaves, and all—with richness. What a glorious sloppy mess it was. As a kid I loved the taste of that broccoli, but now I find it depressing even to think about. What I do to broccoli, I’m sure, would have my grandmother shaking her head in disgust. I blanch it and then shock it in ice water to preserve its brilliant green color. This seems kind of ludicrous even to me, but I can’t stop myself. I want that color. I don’t go so far as to serve crunchy vegetables with no flavor. That would be an Italian culinary sin, but neither do I cook them for hours, as she seemed to do. She’d put on the broccoli, cover the pot, and then go watch As the World Turns and Search for Tomorrow and The Edge of Night.
Harnessing the color of food can be a losing battle, but sometimes it should be. Electric-green roman cauliflower turns pale green when cooked, even with my compulsive blanching. That’s the way it is. It’s a pretty color, certainly not as amazing as when uncooked but not bad. Green beans go gray if you don’t blanch them first. Just ask my grandmother, who would simmer them in tomato sauce for what seemed like days. They were fabulous, but boy were they ugly. My goal as a cook is to capture color while creating flavor. Heat both robs and begets. I’m still trying to work out that delicate little balance.
Orecchiette with Broccoli, Bay Scallops, and My Ras el Hanout
(Serves 4 or 5 as a main-course pasta)
1 pound broccoli, cut into small flowerets, stems trimmed and peeled and cut into small cubes
2 tablespoons butter
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 Vidalia onion, cut into small dice
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 anchovy fillets, chopped
About 6 large thyme sprigs, leaves chopped
1 teaspoon my ras el hanout (see note and recipe below)
Dried hot chili flakes, such as Aleppo
1 pound orecchiette
1 pound bay scallops
A splash of dry white wine
½ cup chicken broth
A squeeze of lemon juice
½ cup lightly toasted pine nuts
Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Drop in the broccoli, and blanch it for about a minute. Scoop it from the water with a large strainer spoon, into a colander, and run cold water over it. Now let it drain on paper towels.
Add a generous amount of salt to the water, and bring it back to a boil
In a large skillet, heat the butter and about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, and let it soften for about a minute. Add the broccoli, garlic, anchovies, thyme, and ras el hanout, and sauté for about two minutes longer.
Drop the orecchiette into the pot.
Add the scallops to the skillet, season everything with salt and hot chili to taste, and sauté until the scallops are just tender, about a minute. Add the wine, and let it bubble a few seconds. Add the chicken broth, and turn off the heat.
When the orecchiette is al dente, drain it, and add it to the skillet, along with a little lemon juice and the pine nuts. Toss everything well over low heat for about 30 seconds. Transfer to a warmed pasta bowl. Serve hot or warm.
Note: Ras el hanout, a Moroccan spice mix used for couscous and tagines, is a wonderful thing to include in Southern Italian cooking. I make my own, leaving out the usual cumin and cardamom and concentrating more on spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, fennel, and anise, flavors more at home in a Sicilian kitchen. I use it in small doses, not wanting to overwhelm the flavors of the main ingredients, and doing so is also more Sicilian than North African in style. My recipe for ras el hanout makes more than you’ll need for this dish, but consider that a plus. Play with it. I can tell you from experience, it’s great as a dry rub on grilled lamb, or worked into a chicken stew, one containing fennel and olives for instance, or as a flavoring for braised eggplant.
My Ras el Hanout
1 tablespoon anise seeds, lightly toasted
1 tablespoon fennel seeds, lightly toasted
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
¼ stick cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground ginger
Put all the whole spices in a spice grinder, and grind to a powder. Add the ground nutmeg and ginger, and mix well. This will stay fresh in a covered spice jar for about a month.