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Archive for the ‘2001’ Category

Recipes:
Seafood Salad with Lobster, Pistachios, and Lemon
Quick Shellfish Broth, to use in the sea-bass recipe
Strozzapreti with Mussels and Arugula Pesto
Whole Roasted Sea Bass with Sicilian Caper Sauce
Orange, Fennel, and Pomegranate Salad

Growing up in what I considered to be a relatively contemporary New York Italian-American family, I never had for Christmas eve dinner the seemingly endless procession of fish dishes I witnessed being prepared at the houses of my more “Italian” friends. Their feasts consisted of whole roasted eels, octopus salad, fresh anchovies, baccala, snails, scungilli, fried sardines, pasta with lobster, pasta with clams, pasta with calamari, swordfish slabs, and ten-pound whole fish with huge heads, not to mention the stuffed artichokes, stuffed tomatoes, and stuffed zucchini. All this was set out before four generations of screaming relatives. Not that that kind of gathering and gluttony wouldn’t have been a lot of fun; it just wasn’t my parents’ style. Southern Italian tradition prescribes seven, nine, or thirteen dishes on Christmas Eve, depending on the region, seven for the seven sacraments, nine for the Trinity multiplied by three, or thirteen for Jesus and his twelve disciples. My mother cooked just one fish dish, but it was always something wonderful like garlicky scampi or spaghetti with clam sauce, or my favorite, bucatini with mussels and hot pepper.

Our Christmas Eve was intimate, just parents and kids, but it always included several stray friends, like the girl down the block whose father had died when she was seven and whose mother had subsequently lost all Christmas spirit, or the chain-cigar-smoking friend of my father’s who always managed to get kicked out of his house on holidays. Dinner was served late, around 10:30 or 11. Candles played a big part in setting the atmosphere, possibly helping make up for the decided lack of explicit religious observance in our house. My mother would wear a long cocktail skirt, and an exciting sophisticated mood would fill the air.

After I moved from Long Island into Manhattan, in my early twenties, the entire family before long followed suit and left the island, my brother to Los Angeles and my parents eventually to West Palm Beach. But the family dispersal was not as dramatic for me as for some Italian-Americans, who were more accustomed to huge holiday gatherings. I had my sister living near me in the city, and before long I had a skinny WASP husband to impress with my newfound passion for Southern Italian cooking. But Christmas Eve in Manhattan soon became mostly a feast for friends. It’s amazing how many free spirits you can meet in this city and how uplifting it can be to bring them together for what in my case became more than ever a nondenominational celebration of life and friendship.

My mother always served just one spectacular fish dish, but I’ve found myself settling on three. The number has no spiritual import; it’s just what I can comfortably manage to turn out in my apartment kitchen without going nuts. Every year the dishes are slightly different, but they’ve grown to share a certain style that has now become tradition for me. I always serve a seafood salad with the cocktails. If I expect a lot of people to drop by, I’ll also make baccala mantecato, a Venetian dish of salt cod puréed with olive oil and garlic (it’s almost identical to Provencal brandade). Everyone then sits down to a pasta or rice first course that more often than not includes shellfish (I especially love pasta with mussels). Then I’ll serve a whole roasted fish, usually a sea bass but one year a huge salmon. Sometimes I’ll flavor it with black olives and tomatoes, and sometimes with garlic and fresh herbs, but I always keep it simple. Then comes the orange and fennel salad, which, in my opinion, is the best thing in the world to eat after all that fish.

What I love most about my city Christmas Eve celebration is its fluidity. Some people drop by for drinks, others stay for the whole evening. Pets are always welcome. Kids are invited, but only if they’ll tolerate squid. My friend Tobi always brings her Bedlington terrier, one year dressed in a faux-Burberry raincoat and a very Christmasy matching red-and-black plaid hat. Jay, my bartender friend, always conjures up one very fancy bottle of wine that none of us could ever have afforded to actually buy. The evening usually ends with some utterly informal dancing. I still love all the Louis Prima and Jerry Vale records my father played during our childhood Christmas Eves, and they still make their way onto the stereo.

Comparing your life now to that of your childhood is always tempting, and when you do it’s always easy to find something lacking, but I realize that my way of celebrating Christmas Eve is actually very similar to the way my family did it when I was a kid, a little fancy but free-spirited, and open to anyone with no place to go or no place they’d rather go. My father died eleven months ago after a relatively short but quite painful illness. As sad as this still is for me, it also brings an opportunity to have Christmas Eve dinner with my mother again, for the first time in many years. She has moved back to New York to be near me and my sister. This year will be a celebration of family and friends. I hope you’ll enjoy my menu too.

P.S. About wine: There is one advantage during the holidays to not having your own children. You can focus on wine instead of dessert. I always try to serve Southern Italian wines on Christmas Eve, and I’ve chosen three to go with this menu, all with very different characters. For the seafood salad I like a light, crisp Vermentino from Sardinia (it may be a bit of a stretch to call a Sardinian wine southern, but I like this one so much with cold seafood that I had to include it). For the pasta with mussels I’ve suggested Regaleali’s rosé, from Sicily, which has a gentle bitterness that is not only almost sweet with the briny mussels but complements the bitterness of the arugula as well. One of my favorite southern white wines is Fiano di Avellino, from Campania, which has a slightly honeyed edge. This beautiful wine has become a Christmas Eve tradition for me over the last few years. I always serve it with the main fish course. Feudi di San Gregorio is my favorite producer of Fiano di Avellino, and it is luckily fairly easy to find in this country.

Seafood Salad with Lobster, Pistachios, and Lemon

For me the most delicious seafood salads are ones that are simply designed, without any vinegar, raw green peppers, huge amounts of garlic, dried-pepper flakes, or any of the other harsh-tasting additions delis like to throw in. The most important ingredients are gently cooked, very fresh seafood and your best extra-virgin olive oil. I like to include just a very few flourishes. Here I’ve added pistachios, lemon zest, and a few gentle fresh herbs. For wine with it I’d select La Cala Vermentino di Sardegna, produced by Sella & Mosca.

At the end I’ve appended a recipe for a quick shellfish broth, in case you’d like to use the shells you’ll be left with to prepare one for the Whole Roasted Sea Bass with Sicilian Caper Sauce that’s part of the same menu.

(Serves 6 as an appetizer)

Sea salt
2 bay leaves, fresh if possible
2 live lobsters, approximately 2 1/2-pounds apiece
1 pound very fresh calamari, on the small side, cleaned and cut into rings, the tentacles left whole (if desired, save any trimmings for the broth for the sea-bass recipe)
1 pound medium shrimp, peeled but with the tails left on (if desired, save the peels for the broth for the sea-bass recipe)
About 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil (I’d ideally use a Sicilian oil like Ravida)
4 scallions, cut into thin rounds, using some of the tender green part
1 garlic clove, minced
A generous pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
The juice and zest from 1 lemon
1 teaspoon soy sauce (not the light variety)
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup unsalted shelled pistachios
A dozen basil leaves, cut into thin strips
A few large tarragon sprigs, the leaves chopped
A small handful of flat leaf parsley leaves, lightly chopped

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a heaping tablespoon of sea salt and the bay leaves. When the water returns to a boil, drop in the lobsters and boil them until the meat is completely cooked and tender, about 15 minutes for an approximately 2 1/2-pound lobster (cook them one at a time if you don’t have a very large pot). Remove the lobsters from the water and set them aside to cool. Return the water to a boil and add the calamari, cooking it just until it turns opaque, about 30 seconds (cooking longer will make it tough). Scoop the calamari from the water with a large strainer spoon and spread it out on a large sheet pan lined with paper towels. Return the water to a boil and add the shrimp, cooking them until they turn pink and are just tender, about 1 minute, depending on their size. Scoop them from the water and spread them out on another sheet pan lined with paper towels. Let cool.

When the lobsters are cool enough to handle, crack them open with kitchen scissors and a claw cracker, if needed. Remove all the meat from the tail and claws over a shallow pan so you can catch any juices. Cut the meat into not-too-thin slices, and, if you like, reserve the shells to make broth (below) for the sea-bass recipe.

Place all the ingredients for the salad, except the cooked seafood and the fresh herbs, into a large serving bowl. Blend well. Add the seafood and toss gently. Taste for seasoning, adding additional sea salt, black pepper, lemon, or olive oil if needed to balance the flavors. Right before serving, toss in the fresh herbs. This salad is best made about 1/2 to 1 hour before serving and not refrigerated. It can be served with slices of toasted Italian bread brushed with olive oil and eaten as a stand-up appetizer, or spooned over a bed of lightly dressed arugula or chicory for a sit down, plated first course.

Quick Shellfish Broth, to use in the sea-bass recipe:

Since you have all those shells, you may as well put them to good use. I use them for this quick broth for the sauce for the Whole Roasted Sea Bass with Sicilian Caper Sauce in the same menu. It has a gentle, sweet flavor that blends well with the capers and herbs that flavor the fish.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
The lobster shells, cracked into smaller pieces, plus any juices the lobster has given off
Any trimmings you have left from cutting the calamari (such as small tentacles you didn’t want in the salad)
The shrimp shells
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 garlic clove, mashed with the side of a knife
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the butter in a medium-size saucepan over a medium flame. Add the lobster and shrimp shells and squid trimmings, and sauté them about 3 or 4 minutes (the shrimp shells will turn pink). Add the white wine and let it reduce by half. Add the garlic and about 2 cups of cool water (depending on how you’ve broken up the lobster shells, the water may or may not cover them, but it doesn’t really matter). Bring to a boil over high heat and then turn the flame to medium and simmer at a low bubble for about 20 minutes. Strain the broth through a fine sieve and pour it into a clean saucepan. Discard all the shells. Boil the broth over high heat until it has reduced to about 1 cup. Season with salt and black pepper.

Strozzapreti with Mussels and Arugula Pesto

My favorite wine with this is Regaleali Rosato, a Sicilian rosé.

(Makes six first-course servings)

For the pesto:

1/2 cup whole blanched almonds
1 large garlic clove, peeled
1 large bunch arugula, washed, dried, and stemmed
A large handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, washed and dried
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup grated Fiore Sardo (Sardinian Pecorino) cheese, or an aged Pecorino Toscano cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound strozzapreti (gemelli or cavatelli are other good pasta choices)

For the mussels:

3 pounds small mussels, washed and, if necessary, bearded
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
A drizzle of olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

To make the pesto, place the almonds in the bowl of a food processor and grind them finely. Add the garlic, the arugula, the parsley, and the olive oil, and process briefly, just until you have a rough purée. Add the pecorino and process a few seconds to blend. Season with salt and black pepper. Transfer the mixture to a small bowl, and cover it with plastic wrap. You can make the pesto in the morning and refrigerate it, but make sure to bring it back to room temperature before dressing the pasta.

To cook the mussels, first discard any that don’t close after you’ve run them under cold water and then tapped them with your finger. Place the mussels in a large pot. Pour on the wine and add the butter and a drizzle of olive oil. Season with a few grindings of black pepper. Turn the heat to high and cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the mussels open, about 4 minutes. Lift them from the pot with a large strainer spoon and place them in a bowl. Reduce the cooking liquid over high heat until about 1/2 cup remains. Strain it through a medium-mesh strainer. Shell about half the mussels, leaving the smallest ones in their shells.

Cook the strozzapreti until it is al dente, and drain it well. Place it in a large, warmed serving bowl. Add the pesto and the strained mussel-cooking liquid, and toss to coat the pasta. Add the mussels, both in an out of their shells, and toss again gently. Put into into 6 bowls, and serve right away.

Whole Roasted Sea Bass with Sicilian Caper Sauce

Make an effort to find Sicilian salt-packed capers for this dish. They are sweet and floral, with none of the harshness the brine-packed ones can have. They grow on the islands of Pantelleria, Salina, and Lipari, off Sicily, and they’re not hard to find at Italian specialty shops in America. They’re usually packed in small plastic bags, but I’ve also seen them in plastic containers. Before you use them, soak them in several changes of cool water for about an hour, to rid them of excess salt.

You might want to serve a vegetable dish on the side with this. I usually make roasted Treviso radicchio (the long, not ball-shaped, kind) on Christmas Eve. It’s in season, and it’s delicious and pretty. One medium bunch per person should do. Just trim the root ends and place the bunches in an oiled baking dish in one layer (if you can find only very large bunches, cut them in half lengthwise). Add a splash of dry white wine, a little chopped garlic, a few sprigs of chopped thyme, and a generous drizzle of olive oil. Season well with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and roast uncovered at 450 degrees until the radicchio is wilted and tender, which should take about 15 minutes (you can put it in the oven along with the sea bass).

For a wine with this, I like the Fiano di Avellino made by Feudi di San Gregorio.

(Serves 6)

For the fish:

Approximately 1/2 cup olive oil
2 whole sea bass, about 3 1/2 pounds each, gutted and scaled, the heads left on
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tablespoon freshly ground nutmeg
4 or 5 rosemary branches, separated into sprigs
2 lemons, cut into thin slices
2 tablespoons sherry wine vinegar
1/2 cup dry white wine

For the sauce:

3 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium shallots, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 salt-packed anchovies, rinsed, filleted, soaked for 15 minutes in cool water, drained, and then chopped
1/2 cup dry white wine
The zest of 1 large lemon
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A few small sprigs of fresh rosemary, the leaves chopped
1/2 cup salt-packed Sicilian capers, soaked in several changes of water for about an hour to remove their excess salt and then drained
1 cup Quick Shellfish Broth or other light fish broth (frozen is okay, but if it’s very strong and fishy use half water and half broth)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Choose a large, low-sided baking dish that will hold both fish fairly snugly. Coat the dish lightly with olive oil.

Make 2 or 3 vertical slashes on both sides of both fish, cutting about half way into the flesh. Rub the fish with olive oil, and season liberally inside and out with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Sprinkle the nutmeg onto both sides of both fish. Place the rosemary sprigs in the slashes and inside the fish. Place half the lemon slices inside the fish. Place the fish in the baking dish, and arrange the remaining lemon slices around the fish. Sprinkle the fish with the vinegar, and pour the wine into the pan. Roast until the fish is just tender, about 25 to 30 minutes, depending on the fish’s size. If the dish starts to get dry during roasting, add a splash of water or a little more wine.

While the fish is roasting, make the sauce:.Heat the olive oil in a medium skillet on a medium flame. Add the shallots, and sauté them until they get soft and just start to turn golden. Add the garlic and the anchovies and sauté a minute longer, just to release their flavors but not allowing the garlic to color. Season with black pepper. Add the white wine, lemon zest, and rosemary, and boil down by half. Add the shellfish broth or fish broth and the capers, and simmer on a lively flame for a few minutes, just to blend the flavor, not to reduce the liquid. Add the butter, and let it melt into the sauce.

When the fish has 3 or 4 minutes left to roast, pour the sauce over it and return it to the oven. Check it for doneness by poking a sharp knife next to the backbone. If the flesh pulls away easily and shows no pink, it is done. To serve, remove the fish to a platter and fillet it. Spoon some sauce onto each serving. Make sure everyone gets a good amount of capers.

Orange, Fennel, and Pomegranate Salad

This time-honored Sicilian salad is in my opinion the only kind to eat after a big fish entrée. The pomegranate makes it look very Christmasy.

(Serves 6)

3 medium fennel bulbs, cored, trimmed, and very thinly sliced
4 medium oranges, peeled and all the white removed, and sliced into thin rounds
The seeds from about 1/2 a pomegranate
About 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
A pinch of ground cinnamon
Salt
Coarsely ground black pepper
A handful of fresh basil sprigs

Choose a large, festive serving platter. Place the fennel slices on the platter in one layer. Top with the orange slices in a circular pattern. Scatter on the pomegranate seeds. Cover the platter with plastic wrap, and refrigerate it until ready to serve. When serving, season with cinnamon, salt, and freshly ground black pepper, and drizzle on a generous amount of your best olive oil. Garnish with basil sprigs.

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Recipes:
Spaghetti with Roasted Beets, Escarole, and Anchovies
Spinach Salad with Pears, Spiced Walnuts, and Ricotta Salata
Warm Octopus and Potato Salad with Tomato-Marjoram Dressing
Ricotta Gelato for Christmas Eve

Recreating restaurant dishes in my home kitchen is both an ongoing joy for me and an occasional frustration. Since I cook constantly, I’ve gotten pretty good at figuring out dishes I’m served and identifying all their flavors. But it’s far easier to figure out what went into a quick-cooked dish than into a slow one like a ragu or a stew, and sometimes I can be stumped, though I taste with my eyes as well as my tongue, and if I can see an ingredient, recreating the dish is that much easier.

In braised, simmered, or stewed dishes the flavors tend to meld or even combine to form a nuanced and complex new flavor. This can be hard to dissect, especially when the point is to blend and mingle the ingredients for depth of flavor. But you can do so if you let the flavors linger on your tongue. You’ll start to taste its components, maybe red wine, a hint of clove, bacon. Just remember that many long-cooked dishes in restaurants begin with stock, so much of what you taste may be fish or beef stock. Although many restaurant chefs are flattered when you ask how they did it, I tend not to. I like to try to figure it out myself, if only as a point of pride. Doing so has led to me to interesting improvisations and discoveries about technique.

When you try to unlock the secret of a favorite restaurant dish, first consider its name on the menu. Some overly complicated American menus list just about every ingredient, sometimes laboriously adding where each was made or raised, but this fad seems happily to be going out of fashion. Ask your waiter what’s in the dish; he may know. When I cooked in restaurants, bored waiters were always snooping around the kitchen, asking questions and threatening to stick their fingers in the pots. When the plate comes to the table, smell it and stare at it hard. What does it look like? Does it have an aroma of saffron or rosemary? If you think you see chopped carrot, you probably do. Taste slowly. It’s amazing how when long-cooked, a carrot can give up almost all of its flavor to the sauce and and no longer taste like the original vegetable at all.

It’s usually easy to figure out if a dish was long- or short-cooked; telling how the specific ingredients in it were prepared can be much harder. When I first tasted Gigino’s spaghetti with beets, I noticed that the beets were a bit crunchy, so I assumed they’d been sliced raw and sautéed. I tried that at home and they came out too runny and too crunchy, so the next time I roasted them until quite tender, added olive oil, and then tossed them with the cooked spaghetti, after which I sautéed the escarole separately with the garlic and anchovy, reasoning that it would benefit from some seasoning, before adding it to the spaghetti. I don’t believe they sauté the escarole at Gigino, and I’m not sure about the beets either (maybe they steam them and then sauté them). But I really like my blend of roasted and sautéed vegetables, and even though my version contains the exact same ingredients as Gigino’s, my resulting plate of pasta is a little different in taste and texture.

My goal when I explore restaurant dishes at home is not to duplicate them exactly but to borrow what I consider a good idea and then go about making it my own. I’ve learned a lot about cooking doing this. So don’t be discouraged if you try to recreate a beloved restaurant meal and it comes out different (unless, of course, it’s inedible). If you really put your heart into it, your version may even be the better one. Good luck and have fun.

Spaghetti with Roasted Beets, Escarole, and Anchovies

Spaghetti del Padrino is the name of the original for this pink-tinted bowl of spaghetti on the menu at Gigino Trattoria, on Greenwich Street, in Tribeca, New York City.

(Serves 4 or 5)

3 medium beets, trimmed of their tops
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 large head escarole, washed, trimmed, and chopped
3 garlic cloves, very thinly sliced
3 whole salt-packed anchovies, filleted, rinsed of excess salt, and soaked in cool water for about 1/2 hour
A generous splash of dry white wine
1 pound spaghetti
A small handful of salt-packed capers, soaked for 1/2 hour in several changes of cool water and drained
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, lightly chopped

Wrap the beets in aluminum foil and roast them in a 400-degree oven until tender, about and hour and a half. Remove the foil and run the beets very briefly under cool water, cooling them slightly, and slip off their skins. Slice the beets into thin rounds, and then slice the rounds into strips. Place the strips (they should still be quite warm) in a large, warmed pasta-serving bowl. Drizzle on about 1/3 cup olive oil and season with salt and black pepper. Mix.

Set up a large pot of pasta-cooking water. Bring it to a boil and add a generous amount of salt. Add the escarole and blanch it for about a minute. Scoop it from the water into a colander with a large strainer spoon. Run cold water over it to preserve its color. Squeeze it dry with your hands.

Bring the water back to a hard boil and drop the spaghetti into it.

In a large skillet, heat about 1/4 cup of olive oil over a medium flame. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant and very lightly colored, about a minute. Chop the anchovies and add them and the escarole to the skillet. Sauté about a minute longer. Add the white wine and let it bubble a few seconds.

When the spaghetti is al dente, drain it, saving about 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Add the spaghetti to the serving bowl and toss. The beets will turn it bright pink. Add the escarole along with any skillet juices, the capers, and the parsley, and toss to blend well. Season with black pepper and a bit of salt if needed (you may not need any if the anchovies and capers are sufficiently salty). Add a splash of pasta-cooking water to loosen the sauce if needed. Serve right away.

This pasta is best without adding any type of grated cheese.

Spinach Salad with Pears, Spiced Walnuts, and Ricotta Salata

This is a simple, composed salad with a good balance of sweet and salty, inspired by a similar one served at Grano Trattoria, in Greenwich Village. The spice in the walnuts is my own addition.

(Serves 4)

For the walnuts:

A few drops of extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup very fresh walnut halves
A pinch of sea salt
A pinch of grated nutmeg
A pinch of grated cinnamon
A pinch of sugar
A pinch of cayenne

For the dressing:

1 garlic clove, peeled and lightly crushed
A pinch of grated nutmeg
A generous pinch of sea salt
About a tablespoon of fresh lemon juice, or a bit more to taste
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

For the salad:

2 ripe pears, cored and thinly sliced (red Anjou are especially pretty for this)
2 cups baby spinach leaves, washed, dried, and stemmed
1 shallot, very thinly sliced
1/4 pound ricotta salata, very thinly sliced or shaved

Heat a medium sauté pan over medium-low flame for a minute. Add the walnuts, a tiny drizzle of olive oil, the salt, nutmeg, cinnamon, sugar, and cayenne, and sauté, stirring frequently, until the walnuts are fragrant and lightly toasted, about 3 or 4 minutes.

Put all the ingredients for the dressing into a mixing bowl large enough to hold all the spinach, and whisk them until well blended.

When ready to serve, set out four salad plates and decorate their rims with the pear slices. Add the spinach and shallot to the mixing bowl and toss. Remove the garlic and put the spinach on the four plates. Place a few slices of ricotta salata on each and garnish with the walnuts. Serve right away.

Warm Octopus and Potato Salad with Tomato-Marjoram Dressing

This recipe is very loosely inspired by a warm octopus and potato salad that used to be on the menu at Le Zie, a fine Venetian trattoria in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. The vinaigrette is my addition. Le Zie’s version was mellower, more like a light stew; mine’s more a traditional Italian fish salad.

(Serves 4 as a first course or light lunch)

1 medium-size octopus, about 3 pounds, pre-cleaned, and thawed if frozen
1 bay leaf
2 garlic cloves, lightly crushed
About a half a bottle of dry white wine
A few sprigs of flat-leaf parsley, with their stems
Extra-virgin olive oil
10 small Yukon Gold potatoes, halved
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A splash of grappa or cognac
2 leeks, cleaned, trimmed, and cut into thin rounds
2 tender inner celery stalks, sliced, plus the leaves from about 4 stalks, chopped

For the vinaigrette:

4 canned plum tomatoes, drained
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
A tiny splash of balsamic vinegar
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A pinch of nutmeg
A few large sprigs fresh marjoram, leaves chopped, plus a few whole sprigs for garnish.

Place the octopus in a large pot. Add the bay leaf, white wine, parsley, garlic, and a drizzle of olive oil. Cover with cool water and bring to a boil. Turn the heat to low and simmer, partially covered, until the octopus is very tender, about 1 1/2 hours or longer (the octopus will curl up when it starts to cook and probably pop up out of the water a bit; if so, just add a little extra water to cover it). Start testing after about an hour; it is possible to overcook octopus and make it dry. (Cooking time for octopus can vary, and it is done when a knife goes easily into the thick tentacle area closest to the head, or else just taste-test a piece.) When the octopus is tender, lift it from the cooking liquid and let it cool slightly. Save the liquid.

Place the potatoes in a small saucepan full of cool water. Bring to a boil. Lower the heat and boil until the potatoes are tender, about 5 minutes. Drain them and place them in a large serving bowl. Spoon a few tablespoons of octopus cooking liquid over them and let them absorb it.

Place all the vinaigrette ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the tomatoes are in tiny pieces (not completely puréed) and everything is well blended. Taste for seasoning.

Cut the octopus by slicing the tentacles into bite-size pieces and the head area into rings (I sometimes discard the head, but that’s up to you. The thick skin covering the tentacles adds good flavor and is, in my opinion, part of its charm. Some cooks, especially in restaurants here (not in Italy, though) remove it. If you don’t like its texture, peel some of it away, but I wouldn’t bother. The sautéeing crisps it up a bit anyway.)

In a large skillet, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil over high heat. Add the octopus, seasoning with salt and black pepper, and sauté until it’s lightly browned, about 4 minutes. Add the splash of grappa and let it boil away. Transfer the octopus to the serving bowl with the potatoes. In the skillet they were just in, heat a few more tablespoons of olive oil and, when the oil’s hot, add the leeks and celery. Sauté about a minute, just to take the raw edge off. Place in the serving bowl. Add the celery leaves and pour on the vinaigrette. Toss gently. Taste for seasoning, and if needed to balance the flavors, add more salt, black pepper, a few drops of balsamic vinegar, or a bit more chopped marjoram. Garnish with marjoram sprigs. Serve warm.

Ricotta Gelato for Christmas Eve

I love having this ice cream with a stewed dried-fruit sauce, especially of prunes or figs, although kids may not go for that. I also like it with a fresh raspberry or blackberry sauce.

If you want to try making your own ricotta for this (not that store-bought won’t do fine), take a look at the easy ricotta recipe I put up in the fall.

(Serves 6)

1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 pounds whole-milk ricotta
1 pint heavy cream, not ultrapasteurized
A generous pinch (about 1/8 teaspoon) of grated cinnamon
1 teaspoon Madagascar vanilla extract
2 tablespoons dry Marsala (Florio is a good producer)
2 tablespoons wildflower honey

Place the sugar in a small saucepan and add cool water to cover it by about half an inch. Bring to a boil over medium heat and cook until the sugar is dissolved, about 5 minutes.

Place the ricotta in a food processor and process until very smooth. Add the sugar syrup and all the other ingredients and pulse the machine a few times to blend well. Refrigerate until the mixture is very cold.

Pour into an ice cream freezer, and freeze according to the freezer’s directions.

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Winter in New York, Italian Style

I haven’t yet made any plans to travel to Southern Italy this winter, but I can find plenty of great Italian cooking to enjoy in my own city. I can discover dishes from just about every region of the country, many of them Italian and homegrown chefs’ contemporary takes on Italian cooking. They are always worth tasting even when they don’t really succeed. My own cooking is strongly influenced by my travels to Southern Italy, but it’s also undeniably rooted in New York style. I’m strongly influenced by what I find at my greenmarket and by my continued samplings of dishes at Italian-inspired restaurants around town.

When I eat out I most often go to small neighborhood trattorias in the East or West Village and Lower Manhattan. Quality at these relatively modest places can range from superb to pretty good, and some of them offer one great dish in particular that keeps bringing me back. That’s certainly true of Gigino, in Tribeca, a place neighborhood people love for its friendly atmosphere and homey Italian cooking. They make one unusual pasta dish: spaghetti tossed with roasted beets, anchovies, and escarole. That may sound like an odd combination, but the blending of flavors works beautifully, and it is classic Southern Italian style to sneak a little anchovy into the sauce, not to introduce fishiness, but just to underscore both the sweetness and bitterness of the vegetables. I include on this Winter 2002 edition of my Web site, as part of a round-up of my own takes on some favorite dishes from Manhattan trattorias, my personal interpretation of that wonderful pasta.

Grano is another restaurant I salute in this round-up. It’s a storefront place on Greenwich Avenue in the West Village, run by Maurizio Crescenzo, a young chef from Salerno, a city below Naples in Campania. Maurizio is a hands-on chef who loves being at the stove, and he cooks from his heart, using only the Southern Italian flavors he grew up with. His pasta-with-fish dishes are always fragrant, and the fish always tender, which is not always the case in casual trattorias, where half the time dishwashers and prep boys with little instruction or desire to make a dish correctly fill in for the chefs. At Grano I almost always order a salad followed by a tagliatelle or other pasta with either calamari, shrimp, or lobster, generally simmered with tomato, white wine, and sometimes saffron and fresh herbs, some of the signature flavors of Southern Italian cooking. I especially love Maurizio’s winter salad of pears, ricotta salata, walnuts, and spinach, and that’s what I’ve prepared my version of for this Web site. Maurizio has an affection for the wines of his region and Southern Italy in general, and they are well represented on his wine list. I particularly like the Ciro Librandi Riserva Duca San Felice, a fruity but tannic red from Calabria, made with that region’s indigenous Gaglioppo grape.

Since I’ve wanted to expand my octopus repertoire, I’ve been ordering octopus whenever I see it on a menu. Le Zie, a trattoria on Seventh Avenue, in Chelsea, that serves Venetian food, offers a braised octopus with radicchio, tomato, and celery, ingredients that I wouldn’t have thought to combine. The vegetables are simmered together until soft and then topped with a whole, braised baby octopus. It’s a very good dish, with attractive bitter tones, but one I like even better is Le Zie’s warm potato-and-octopus salad. I haven’t seen it on the menu lately, but luckily my home version came out well. It was merely inspired by Le Zie’s version, not at all copied from it; mine is more a traditional salad dressed with a vinaigrette, while the restaurant’s is more stew-like.

New York City has but a handful of Sicilian restaurants, and the one I like best is a place on Fourth Avenue called Bussola. The restaurant has had several names and decorating themes over the years, but all apparently under the same owner (it was at one point called Briscola, after a Southern Italian card game that I can remember my grandfather’s friends all playing). Bussola has always served a fine pasta con le sarde, which is a hard dish to find done well in this town. One thing that hasn’t changed through Bussola’s makeovers is the appealingly sinister quality of its floor staff; another is its wonderful ricotta gelato, which I began duplicating at home after I first tasted it there many years ago, and which I share with you here.

I will continue to offer interpretations of New York trattoria dishes in future installments of my Web site. If you have any favorite dishes you’ve tasted and would like to recreate at home, please send them along to me at edemane@earthlink.net.

And now about Christmas: Even as a child I was a fish lover, able to devour a whole tin of anchovies as an after-school snack, and Italian Christmas Eve, with its traditional plethora of fish dishes, was always my favorite holiday. It still is. I present for 2001 a contemporary Christmas Eve menu patterned after some of the meals I’ve prepared each year for friends and family. It’s a pared-down version of the traditional Southern Italian Christmas Eve feast, which can contain up to thirteen fish courses. My courses are different every year, but the rhythm of the meal is always essentially the same. I start with a cold fish salad, go on to a pasta or rice dish, usually with shellfish, and then serve a whole fish surrounded sometimes with vegetables such as radicchio or artichokes. I’ll close the meal with a Sicilian orange salad, to refresh the palate after so much seafood.

These winter dishes are my way of celebrating Manhattan style. I always find November and December the most exhilarating months in the city, and this year, despite the hideous assault New York recently sustained, the warmth and excitement have all returned. Happy cooking, happy trattoria dining, and a merry winter to you all.

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