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Archive for the ‘2003’ Category

Reinventing Family Recipes

Recipes:

Gardiniera with Saffron
Braised endive with Garlic Cream
The Russo Family’s Cinnamon Ravioloni with Tomato and Shallot Sauce
Lobster with Tomato and Brandy
Pork Braciole with Provolone, Parsley, and Capers

In my family, traditional family recipes are not exactly a tradition. Many recipes haven’t been preserved and passed down so much as delegated to the category of no-longer-cooked-but-sometimes-talked-about, or even no-longer-cooked-and-completely-forgotten. Since I seem to have made it my life’s mission to promote the greatness of Southern Italian cooking, I’ve tried to keep my childhood’s flavors alive by cooking dishes like my mother’s baby meatballs with string beans and potatoes. That was something that I loved very much as a kid but that my mother doesn’t have much interest in now (I’ve had a recipe for it on this Web site since Fall 2000). I realize I make it a little different from my mother’s version, since my memory is imperfect and fantasy tends to prevail over fact when I’m in the kitchen anyway (I add pine nuts and pancetta and white wine, ingredients I’m pretty sure didn’t play a part in the original).

Beyond such recipes that have fallen from use in my lifetime, I have another layer of food memories knocking around; hearsay recipes. They are more ghostly. They’re mainly dishes my mother remembers from her childhood but never cooked herself. Her parents both died young, and much of their cooking slipped through her fingers. I’ve since tried recreating several very enticing-sounding dishes from her memory, such as a sweet cinnamon ravioloni her Sicilian grandmother used to make. It was a great family favorite, and it has now come back into her life (with a few alterations) and, luckily, into mine.

For me preserving family recipes also means discovering for the first time the origins of traditional family tastes. When I first visited the town of Castelfranco in Miscano, where everyone on my father’s side was born, I saw why my grandmother’s meatballs contained raisins, and why she added wild dandelions to her soups, but I also discovered many dishes in and around that dry little hill town on the border of Puglia and Campania that were new to me, like pasta with fava beans and onions, cooked without a trace of tomato. I learned that antipasto dishes like the sharp, vinegary vegetable giardiniera my grandfather always ate out of store-bought jars, or the cans of eggplant caponata we had stacked in the pantry, could in fact be nuanced and exotic when homemade.

My trips to Castelfranco, to Sicily, and to other parts of Southern Italy have kept broadening my thinking about Southern Italian cooking and inspiring me to create new family traditions. My mother’s classic fish-based Christmas Eve dinner always consisted of Italian-American standards like linguine with clam sauce and garlicky scampi. I still cook many of those same dishes for the holidays, but over the years I’ve developed my own family favorites. I now include braised endive with anchovy cream every Thanksgiving, and puréed salt cod with black olives, and a ricotta and tomato tart, on Christmas Eve. My husband and friends know they can look forward to those every year. (The ricotta and tomato tart recipe went up on this site in Fall 2001.)

Traditions have been loosely held in my world, but that’s not so bad. I’m sure I’d never have felt compelled to wander all over Southern Italy, or to track down old family recipes with such fervor, if a perfectly complete past had been handed to me intact. Here are a few of the new found and newly minted recipes that I’ve recently added to my evolving repertoire of family favorites. I hope you’ll enjoy them.

Gardiniera with Saffron

Little pickled vegetables are popular throughout Southern Italy, where they’re usually eaten alongside something rich and fatty like soppressata. Giardiniera, which means garden-style, is the name for a pickled vegetable assortment that usually includes cauliflower, carrot, sometimes celery or fennel, and hot or sweet peppers. My grandfather bought jars of Progresso giardiniera and ate it in the morning. I got the feeling that along with raw eggs, which he sucked out through little holes in their shells, giardiniera was his idea of a hangover remedy. The jarred versions from my childhood were none too subtle. When I make my own, I produce a kinder, gentler version. This recipe is scented with saffron. That’s not traditional, but saffron’s aromatic bitterness blends well with vinegar, so I think it’s a good addition.

(Makes about 2 cups of giardiniera)

About a half of a small cauliflower, cut into small flowerets
2 carrots peeled, 2 celery stalks, a large fennel bulb, and a large red bell pepper, all cut into chunks about the same size as the cauliflower.
2 garlic cloves, peeled but left whole
A cup of dry white wine
A cup of high quality white wine vinegar (I like using champagne vinegar for its delicate flavor)
2 tablespoons of sugar
A large pinch of saffron threads, ground to a powder with a mortar and pestle
A bay leaf
About 10 fennel seeds
Salt

Put up a large pot of water and bring it to a boil. Drop in all the vegetables, including the garlic, and boil for about 3 minutes. Drain them into a colander and run cold water over them to stop the cooking and to bring up their colors. Let them drain well and then place the vegetables in a large bowl.

In a medium sauce pot, pour in the white wine and the vinegar. Add the sugar, saffron, bay leaf, fennel seeds, and a generous pinch of salt. Bring this to a boil over high heat, lower the heat to medium, and let the mixture bubble for about 5 minutes.

Pour the vinegar mixture over the vegetables and toss everything well. Taste for seasoning. It should be highly seasoned and, because of all the other strong flavors, can take a fair amount of salt. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate it overnight (this allows the liquid to permeate the vegetables, deepening their flavors). Now it’s ready to serve.

I like giardiniera not only with cured meats like soppressata or capocolla, but as an accompaniment to strong cheeses like provolone, or even with meat stews, to cut the richness.

Braised Endive with Garlic Cream

Thanksgiving dinner at my grandparents’ always involved a brazen mix of dishes: Waldorf salad with canned tangerine sections and marshmallows; artichokes filled with sausage; lasagna with ricotta and tomatoes; sweet potatoes baked with pineapple chunks; cranberry sauce; a huge overcooked turkey; a big bowl of raw fennel and olives; pumpkin pie; and fried struffoli. It left me, even as a kid, confused and exhausted, with a sense of missing the natural flow of things.

Now when I work out my Thanksgiving menu, it tends to fall naturally into turkey and a few Southern Italian­style vegetable dishes. Endive is not a vegetable I recall ever eating anywhere in Southern Italy, but it is a member of the chicory family, with that bitter quality so beloved in the South. It marries beautifully with sweet, slow-cooked garlic, and together they’ve become a new addition to my Thanksgiving table.

(Serves 4 or 5)

1 large garlic clove, minced
A pint of non-ultrapasteurized heavy cream
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A few scrapings of fresh nutmeg
2 tablespoons of unsalted butter
Extra virgin olive oil
8 Belgian endives, any bruised outer leaves removed and the stem end trimmed, but otherwise left whole
A few thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
About 3 tablespoons of freshly grated young pecorino
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, lightly chopped

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a small bowl, mix the cream with the garlic. Season with salt, black pepper, and nutmeg. Give it a stir and let sit, unrefrigerated, while you get on with the recipe (this will allow the garlic to open up and release its flavor).

In a skillet large enough to hold all the endives in one layer, heat the butter and a drizzle of olive oil over a medium flame. Add the endives, the thyme, and a pinch of salt, and sauté the endives, turning them occasionally until they’re golden all over.

Place the endives in a nice-looking baking dish that will fit them snugly (I used an eight-by-twelve-inch ceramic dish). Pour the garlic cream over the top, cover with aluminum foil, and bake for 45 minutes. Uncover the dish and spoon some of the cream over the endive. Sprinkle the top with the pecorino and put the dish back in the oven, uncovered; then bake until it is bubbling and the top has lightly browned, about another 15 minutes. By now the cream will have reduced and the endives will be very tender, with the top lightly browned. Garnish with parsley and serve.

The Russo Family’s Cinnamon Ravioloni with Tomato and Shallot Sauce

My mother’s father was Sicilian, but she doesn’t much care to talk about old family recipes, perhaps because both her parents died very young. She’ll remember pieces of dishes in a vague way and then not want to discuss them further when I ask for details. Here’s one she remembers more vividly, evidently because some of the Italian ladies in her neighborhood would talk about how unusual the seasoning was (I suppose that was their idea of gossip). This was a dish of big raviolis filled with a slightly sweet cinnamon-scented ricotta (the other women used nutmeg, and no sugar). I’ve recreated it from my mother’s memory, and she says I’ve got the taste pretty much on target. She says she usually had it dressed with homemade tomato paste that her grandmother dried on boards in her Connecticut backyard, maybe thinned with a little water. She says the paste was so concentrated it was almost black. That’s not to my taste, so I’ve come up with a lighter sauce.

(Serves 4 as a first course)

For the pasta:

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading and rolling
4 large eggs
A pinch of salt
A drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil

For the filling:

1 1/2 cups ricotta, drained
1 large egg
A pinch of ground cinnamon (less than 1/8 teaspoon, as you want only a hint of it)
About 1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons grated Grana Padano cheese, plus a chunk to bring to the table
Freshly ground black pepper
Salt

For the sauce:

Extra-virgin olive oil
2 shallots, thinly sliced
1 35-ounce can of plum tomatoes, chopped, with the juice
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Make the pasta: Mound the flour out on a work surface and make a big hole in the middle of it. Crack the eggs into the hole and add a little salt and a drizzle of olive oil. Start mixing the flour into the eggs with a fork, pulling in flour from the sides. When you have a mass of sticky dough balls, start working them together with your hands until you have a nice big ball, continuing to pull in flour as you do. Flour another work area and tip the dough ball out onto it, leaving behind any little bits of dough and flour that have not been incorporated. Now knead the dough until it is smooth and satiny, about 5 or 6 minutes. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let it rest for about a half an hour.

While the dough is resting, mix all the ingredients for the filling together in a bowl. The filling should be very slightly sweet with a subtle cinnamon edge, but it will also have a salty note from the pecorino. Put the bowl in the refrigerator while you roll out the pasta (this will firm it up a bit, making it easier to fill the ravioloni with).

Divide the dough into four pieces, keeping each covered with plastic wrap until you work with it, so it doesn’t dry out. Run a piece of the dough through the widest setting on a hand-cranked pasta machine two times. Start running it through thinner and thinner settings until you get to the next to last setting and the pasta is very thin and smooth. Lay the pasta sheets out on a floured surface. Roll out another piece of dough in the same way and lay it alongside the other one. Drop heaping tablespoons of the ricotta filling at even intervals on one of the pasta strips. Place the other pasta strip on top and press around the filling to get rid of any air pockets. Cut the pasta into approximately 2 1/2- or 3-inch squares and seal the edges all around with the tines of a fork, making a little ridged pattern. (This is how my grandmother made hers; I frequently use a 3-inch ravioli cutter, which is very convenient but makes them all uniform, so when I want a real old-fashioned look, I do them by hand.) You should get about 16 to 18 ravioloni. Lay the ravioloni out on a well-floured sheet pan. Roll out the remaining two pieces of dough and make and fill the ravioloni in the same fashion. Cover them all loosely with a towel to keep them moist. I would also turn them over once if they sit for more than an hour (they can sometimes get soggy and stick to the sheet pan). If they need to sit for longer than a few hours, refrigerate them, loosely covered.

To make the sauce, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Add the shallots and let them soften for about 3 or 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes, season with salt and black pepper, and simmer at a low bubble, stirring frequently for about 15 minutes. Add the parsley.

When you’re ready to serve the ravioloni, set up a large pot of pasta cooking water and bring it to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt. Add the ravioloni and boil them just until they float to the surface, about 3 or 4 minutes. Scoop them from the water with a large strainer, letting all the cooking water drip off, and place them on a large warmed platter (Pouring them into a colander might break them apart; this method is much gentler.) Pour the sauce over the top and drizzle everything with fresh olive oil. Serve right away, bringing a chunk of Grana Padano to the table for grating.

Lobster with Tomato and Brandy

I’ve never understood the idea of drenching sweet, delicate lobster in an intensely spicy tomato sauce, fra diavolo­style, either with hot peppers or with a lot of black pepper; I find that this defeats the lobster’s reason for being (or for being eaten, at least). A Christmas Eve dish my mother’s father made was lobster simmered in a rich, boozy tomato sauce with no peppers. Here is my version, based on my mother’s recollections.

For the best texture, I should be adding raw cut-up lobster to the sauce, but after working in a restaurant where I was ordered to chop cratefuls of live lobsters, sometimes a hundred at a time, and bursting into tears on one occasion at the overwhelming carnage of the task, I don’t think I can ever butcher even one of them live again. So I boil them, whole, until they’re about half-cooked, and then chop them up. It is admittedly a compromise solution, but it works pretty well to achieve the velvety, tender texture you want for the dish.

(Serves 4 as a main course)

Extra-virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, very thinly sliced, plus a whole garlic clove for the bruschetta
2 bay leaves, fresh if possible
A few generous gratings of nutmeg
A tiny pinch of ground clove
Salt (sea salt is a nice touch here)
1 35-ounce can diced plum tomatoes (Muir Glen is my favorite brand)
1/2 cup low-salt canned chicken broth (or a very light fish broth)
Freshly ground black pepper
4 live 1 1/2-pound lobsters
Four tablespoons unsalted butter
A small wineglass of brandy or cognac
A few sprigs of tarragon, the leaves lightly chopped
A generous handful of basil leaves, lightly chopped, plus a few whole sprigs for garnish
A large handful of pine nuts, lightly toasted

Set up a very large lobster pot full of water and bring it to a boil.

Meanwhile in a large skillet heat about 3 tablespoons of olive oil over a medium flame. Add the garlic and sauté briefly, just until it gives off its aroma, about a minute or so. Add the bay leaves, nutmeg, clove, the tomatoes, and the chicken broth, and cook uncovered at a lively simmer for about 5 minutes (you want the sauce to stay fresh and brightly colored, so don’t let it go any longer). Season with salt and ground black pepper. Turn off the heat.

Add a heaping tablespoon of sea salt to the water, let it return to a hard boil, and drop in the lobsters. Cover the pot and boil for 5 minutes (they will be almost half cooked). Lift the lobsters from the water and let them cool enough so you can handle them. Pull off their claws and hit each claw with a hammer to crack it (cover the claws with a kitchen towel first, so shell fragments don’t fly all over the place). Do this over a large plate or something that will catch all the juices. Cut the bodies in half lengthwise, also making sure no juices get away. Add all the lobster juices to the skillet, and stir them into the sauce.

In a very large skillet that will hold all the lobster pieces and the sauce, melt the butter over medium high heat (you can use two skillets if you need to). Add the lobster pieces (shell still on), placing the bodies flesh side down, and sauté them in the butter for about a minute. Season with a pinch of salt and more generously with black pepper, and pour on the brandy or cognac, letting it bubble until it is almost evaporated. Pour on the tomato sauce, and stir to blend it. Turn the heat down to low and let everything simmer for about 5 minutes, just to finish cooking the lobster and blend the flavors. Turn the lobster pieces over and add the chopped tarragon and the basil. The sauce should be a little brothy and studded with chunks of tomato. Taste for seasoning.

Place the lobster pieces in a wide, shallow serving bowl, and pour the sauce over them. Sprinkle with the toasted pine nuts, and garnish with basil sprigs. Serve hot.

Pork Braciole with Provolone, Parsley, and Capers

The aroma of parsley mingling with that of an assertive grating cheese like provolone is a kitchen smell from my childhood that still plays an important roll in some of my recipes. My mother always made braciole (stuffed meat rolls) with beef, but I prefer pork for it, because that meat seems to cook up juicier and retain more taste after long simmering (beef gives up a lot of its flavor to the sauce).

A note about the pork for this recipe: At Faicco’s butcher shop on New York’s Bleecker Street, where I buy all my pork products, they slice the braciole from the shoulder cut. Usually the slices measure about five inches by six and weigh more than half a pound apiece. However, smaller slices work just as well for this recipe. If the slices are a little thick, I thin them with a meat pounder. For easy rolling, you want them no thicker than about an eighth of an inch.

You’ll need kitchen string for this recipe

(Serves 4)

1 garlic clove
A large bunch of flat-leaf parsley, stemmed (about a cup of packed leaves), plus a small handful of whole leaves reserved for garnish
A large handful of salt-packed capers, soaked for about 20 minutes in several changes of water and rinsed
3/4 cup grated provolone cheese (try to find a imported Southern Italian cheese, not a domestic brand, which can be salty and lacking in finesse)
Salt
A few pinches of ground cayenne pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
About 3 pounds of pork, cut for braciole (see above)
3 medium shallots, cut into small dice
2 cloves, ground to a powder in a mortar and pestle
A bay leaf
A wineglass of dry white wine
A 35-ounce can of plum tomatoes, well chopped, with the juice

Place the garlic, parsley, and capers in the bowl of a food processor and pulse briefly until roughly chopped (you don’t want a paste). Transfer the mixture into a small bowl and add the grated provolone, a pinch of salt (not much, since the cheese and capers will be slightly salty), the cayenne pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil. Mix everything together.

Lay the pork slices out on a work surface. Spoon a heaping tablespoon of filling onto each slice and spread it out to about 1/4 inch from the end all around. Roll up the braciole lengthwise and tie each in about 3 or 4 places with string. They’ll look like they’re a lot of meat, but they’ll shrink down considerably during cooking.

Choose a casserole fitted with a lid and big enough to hold all the braciole and the sauce. Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in it over medium heat. Season the braciole with salt and a pinch of cayenne and place them in the casserole. Take your time to brown them well all over (the browning will add great flavor to the sauce). Scatter on the shallots and season the meat with the ground cloves. Sauté a few minutes longer, just until the shallots have softened and given off flavor.

Add the white wine and let it boil for a couple of minutes, scraping up any cooked-on juices from the bottom of the casserole. Add the tomatoes and a pinch more salt. The braciole should be almost completely covered by the liquid (just poking out a little); if they’re not, add a bit of warm water. Cover the casserole, lower the heat, and simmer, turning the braciole occasionally, until they are very tender, about 2 hours. You’ll need to skim the surface once or twice during cooking. Uncover the casserole for the last half hour of cooking so the sauce can reduce.

When you’re ready to serve the braciole, lift them from the casserole onto a cutting surface. The sauce should be reduced to a medium thickness (it is not meant to be a dense tomato sauce). If it seems a little too liquid, boil it over high heat for a few minutes. You also may need to give the surface a quick skim. Taste for seasoning, adding another little pinch of cayenne pepper if you like and a little salt if needed. Remove the string from the braciole, and cut them into approximately 1/4-inch slices on a slight angle. Place them on a warmed serving plate and spoon a little of the sauce over the top (you can pour the remaining sauce into a small serving bowl and bring it to the table). Garnish the plate with the whole parsley leaves.

It’s customary to serve pasta dressed with the braciole sauce as a first course and then serve the meat second. You can certainly do this if you like, but I prefer to forgo the pasta and instead offer a dish of roasted potatoes or rice, bringing the extra sauce to the table so guests can use it to pour on the rice or to sop it up with bread.

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Celebrating Early Fall Produce

Recipes:

Tomato, Fennel, Leek, and Celery Salad with Caciocavallo Cheese
Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe, Prosciutto, and White Wine
Roast Chicken with Rosemary and Last-of-the-Season Garlic
Pumpkin Agro Dolce with Vinegar and Basil
Baked Apples with Pine Nuts and Raisins

Fall’s the start of the new year in Manhattan, a time when the city wakes up after the heavy, sluggish summer and a time when I never fantasize about living anywhere else. But the rebirth of the city also signals an ending, since I know my Greenmarket will soon be winding down. I’ll have my last chances to cook with real tomatoes, six varieties of plums, basil with a bite, and local lettuces, each with a unique flavor. In mid-September baskets of Concord grapes appear in the stalls. They fill the air with a sweetness that seems unreal to me, more like synthetic candy than a living, growing thing, but they’re gorgeous in their shades of purple and translucent green, and they make an amazing sorbetto if you cut their sweetness with a splash of dry red wine (this recipe will be in my new book on Southern Italian flavors, due out in the spring). New York State’s apples are beautiful, and I’m grateful to the farmers who go to the trouble of growing so many varieties that I thought were long gone. Even growing up in New York, I was only really aware of Macintosh, Delicious, and Granny Smith. Now I can have Cortland, Baldwin, Golden Russet, Jonagold, Macoun, Jonathan, Northern Spy, Cox’s Orange Pippin, or Winesap, and those are just a few of the varieties I’ve noticed. Then come the pumpkins and the Brussels sprouts. After which it gets cold, and the farm ladies start putting out their depressing balls of wool, which are the signal for me that the market is as good as in hibernation until May.

In the early fall I find myself assembling menus that are more formal than I usually design in the summer. As the city pulls itself together again, so do I. All of a sudden a dinner with several courses and maybe two wines seems like a proper offering. Instead of bringing everything to the table at once, like I’m apt to do in the summer, I pace a meal, forcing friends stay and talk a little longer. I start lighting dinner candles again.

When the weather has begun to cool but the sun is still strong, in late September and October, I cook transitional food. I hoard the last of the local tomatoes and use summery herbs like basil and parsley in everything, knowing that their strong farm flavors soon won’t be around again until next year. At the same time I start to move away from my usual steamy Mediterranean-inspired cooking by slipping hard squashes, leeks, sage, potatoes, rosemary, and cabbage into my dishes, preparing my culinary self for the cold weather to come. These adjustments can sometimes result in clumsy cooking, but when I feel lost, I inevitably turn to Southern Italy for inspiration. Even Neapolitans cook with pumpkin and cabbage, after all.

Using crunchy, uncooked vegetables in place of delicate leafy greens is a good way to make the switch from summer to fall salads. For my early fall menu here I take leeks, fennel, and celery, slice them thinly so they’re not too clunky, and toss them with last-of-the-season tomatoes for a refreshing first course. I used little green Zebra tomatoes, but whatever you have that can be cut into wedges will be fine. The caciocavallo cheese and black olives I also added provide saltiness and richness.

When I serve pasta as a first course in true Italian style, as I’ve decided to for this menu, I always try to streamline its flavors so I don’t exhaust everyone’s palate before the meal is even half through. Here I highlight the stemmy broccoli rabe I always find at the Greenmarket in early fall, and I mellow out its bitterness with bits of prosciutto. These two courses could really be the whole meal and in summer pasta and salad often is, but if you’ve got your guests’ attention, I see no reason not to continue on to a meat course and a vegetable side dish, especially if you serve small portions of everything. Even when I serve a succession of courses, I try to think of each dish as equal in importance. After many years of what I feel is thoughtful cooking, I’ve stopped thinking so much in terms of main course or first course. I try to view a meal as a group of dishes that have a natural flow of flavors and textures.

After my pasta, I offer a roast chicken with the woodsy, cool-weather aroma of rosemary, a taste of lushness after the bitter broccoli rabe. I’ve included a somewhat pungent sweet-and-sour Sicilian pumpkin dish to serve with the chicken. I’m always looking for unexpected things to do with fall squashes, since they can be a little bland, and I find the usual sweet purées and soups unappealing after about a spoonful. Zucca all’agro dolce is a sweet-and-sour Sicilian dish made with pumpkin or another squash. Its more often found on antipasto tables than as a side dish, but I find its pungency is a good match for poultry (not only for chicken but for rich, fatty duck as well). When I first tasted this dish in Sicily years ago, I found it strange, with its mint, sugar, and touch of cinnamon all mixed together with garlic and vinegar. Its flavor has grown on me, and now I make it every fall. Zucca all’agro dolce is most often flavored with mint, but since I’ve chosen to serve mine with a rosemary-scented chicken, I thought basil would blend more naturally on the taste buds, so I’ve used that instead. For dessert I have baked apples flavored with white wine and the classic Sicilian-Arab duo of raisins and pine nuts.

Lately I’ve been liking a light red Sicilian wine called Cerasuolo di Vittoria, which is made from Sicily’s indigenous Frappato grape. It works well with all the dishes in this meal, starting with the salad, with its caciocavallo cheese, and even tastes good with the vinegary pumpkin. I like this light, slightly acidic wine served slightly chilled, as you might serve a young Beaujolais. Valle dell’Acate is a good producer to look for.

Tomato, Fennel, Leek, and Celery Salad with Caciocavallo Cheese

(Serves 4)

2 medium-size late-summer tomatoes, seeded, chopped into medium dice, and drained in a colander for about 20 minutes
1 large fennel bulb, trimmed, cored, and very thinly sliced
2 celery stalks, thinly sliced, plus the leaves from about 5 stalks, left whole
1 leek, well cleaned, the white and the very lightest green part sliced into very thin rounds
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, left whole
A handful of black olives (Niçoise are nice for this)
A small chunk of caciocavallo cheese
Extra-virgin olive oil
Lemon juice
1 anchovy fillet, minced
A few gratings of nutmeg
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper

When you’re ready to serve the salad, place the tomatoes, fennel, celery with leaves, leek, parsley, and olives in a large salad bowl. With a sharp vegetable peeler, add about a dozen generous shavings of the caciocavallo. Drizzle about 3 tablespoons of good olive oil over everything, and squeeze on about a teaspoon or so of lemon juice (having tomatoes here, you don’t want an overly acid dressing). Add the minced anchovy, and sprinkle the salad with salt, a little nutmeg, and black pepper. Toss everything gently and taste for a good balance of olive oil to acid, adjusting it if you need to.

Serve right away.

Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe, Prosciutto, and White Wine

Orecchiette with cima di rape (broccoli rabe) may be the most popular pasta dish in Puglia. I’ve had it many times in Puglian towns, always without meat but often with a touch of anchovy and a little hot chili. The Italian-American version almost always contains sausage. I find that a little heavy, but I like the dish with pork, so I’ve included a bit of chopped prosciutto here.

Orecchiette is a Puglian pasta, made with water and semolina, that is shaped like little hollow half circles (the name actually means little ears, and I suppose they do look a little like that). Orecchiette is still made by hand by some patient Puglian women, but they make good commercial brands that you can buy here too. Look for one by Sapore di Puglia. It has a desirable roughed-up matte texture and cooks up properly chewy.

If you want to make the more traditional Puglian non-meat version, leave out the prosciutto and prosciutto fat and add about four anchovy fillets and one dried red chili, crumbled, when you add the garlic in the recipe.

(Serves 4)

2 bunches of broccoli rabe, stemmed and lightly chopped
Salt
1 pound orecchiette
Extra-virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Freshly ground black pepper
A small wineglass of dry white wine
5 thin slices of prosciutto di Parma, the excess fat removed (but chop and save the fat)
A half-pound chunk of Grana Padano cheese

Put up a large pot of pasta cooking water. Add a generous amount of salt, and bring it to a boil. Add the broccoli rabe, and blanch it for 2 minutes. Scoop the broccoli rabe from the pot with a large strainer spoon, and put it in a colander. Run cold water over it to stop the cooking and to preserve its bright green color. When it is cold, squeeze out all the excess water with your hands (I usually go through it again at this point to remove any remaining thick stems too).

Start cooking the orecchiette.

In a skillet large enough to hold all the sauce and the pasta, heat about 4 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the chopped prosciutto fat and the garlic, and sauté until the garlic is just turning the lightest shade of gold and the fat has melted. Add the broccoli rabe, season with salt and black pepper, and sauté until it is well coated with oil, about 3 minutes. Add the white wine, and let it boil for a minute, leaving some liquid in the skillet.

When the orecchiette is al dente, drain it, leaving a little water clinging to it, and add it to the skillet. Grate on a tablespoon or so of Grana Padano. Add a drizzle of fresh olive oil, and toss everything gently for a minute to blend all the flavors. Transfer to a large serving bowl. Bring the remaining chunk of Grana Padano to the table for those who might like extra.

Roast Chicken with Rosemary and Last-of-the-Season Garlic

The classic Italian marriage of rosemary and garlic is one that I love, and I find it especially enticing when they’re blended in a subtle manner, since both ingredients can be aggressive when used in abundance. I season the chicken with them only on the inside, and I balance everything out with the gentle acidity of dry white wine.

(Serves 4)

1 approximately 3 1/2-pound free range chicken
3 branches of rosemary
5 cloves of moist garlic, unpeeled but lightly crushed with the side of a knife
A few pats of softened, unsalted butter
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A few scrapings of nutmeg
A large wineglass of dry white wine
A drizzle of champagne vinegar

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Dry off the chicken and place the rosemary branches and crushed garlic cloves in its cavity. (There’s no need to close it up, and it doesn’t matter if some of the herbs stick out a bit.) Choose a low-sided baking dish that will allow a few inches of free space around the chicken (this will let it crisp up nicely). Rub the chicken with the softened butter and place it in the dish. Drizzle a little olive oil over the top. Season generously with salt, black pepper, and a few scrapings of fresh nutmeg. Place the chicken in the oven, legs facing the back (where it’s usually hottest), and bake, uncovered, for about 15 minutes. Pour the wine into the dish and bake for another hour and 15 minutes, basting every once in a while. You should always have at least a half inch of liquid in the dish. If it starts to evaporate too much, add a little warm water. The chicken should now be golden and crisp. Take it from the oven, and let it sit in the baking dish for about 5 minutes. Then pick the chicken up using a kitchen towel, and tilt the open end into the baking dish so all the rosemary and garlic-scented juices can be incorporated into the sauce (I sometimes instead insert a long serving fork into the cavity and pull it out that way). Place the chicken on a serving platter, and cover it loosely with aluminum foil until you’re ready to serve it.

Spoon off all the excess fat from the chicken juices and place the baking dish over a low flame, scraping up all the cooked-on bits from the bottom with a whisk. When the juices start to bubble, add a tiny drizzle of vinegar, whisking it into the sauce (this will bring up all the flavors). Taste to see if it could use some salt or a little fresh black pepper. Pour the sauce through a strainer into a small sauce boat. Carve the chicken, and spoon some of the sauce over each serving.

Pumpkin Agro Dolce with Vinegar and Basil

This is a version of one of Sicily’s much-loved agro dolce (sweet and sour) dishes, which are made all over the island. They get their characteristic taste from a blending of vinegar with sugar or honey.

(Serves 4 as a side dish)

A small wineglass of dry white wine
About a teaspoon of sugar
A tiny pinch of ground cinnamon
About a tablespoon of champagne vinegar
Extra-virgin olive oil
Half a small cheese pumpkin (about a pound and a half), peeled, seeded, and cut into approximately 1-inch-thick slices
2 garlic cloves, peeled
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A small handful of basil leaves, lightly chopped

In a small saucepan, mix the white wine with the sugar, a pinch of cinnamon, and the champagne vinegar. Let it bubble over medium heat for about 2 minutes, just to dissolve the sugar and to burn off some of the alcohol.

Pour about half an inch of olive oil into a large skillet and let it get hot over a medium flame. Add the pumpkin slices and the garlic cloves, season everything generously with salt and black pepper, and let the slices cook without moving them around at all until they’re lightly browned on one side. Flip them over and brown the other side. Pour off all but about 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Pour the wine mixture over the pumpkin, turn the heat to low, and cover the skillet. Cook gently for about another 4 minutes, just until the pumpkin is fork tender but not falling apart.

Turn off the heat, uncover the skillet, and let the pumpkin cool for a few minutes in the skillet to help it absorb all the flavors. Add the basil. The dish should have a subtle sweet-and-sour taste, more mellow than sharp. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Baked Apples with Pine Nuts and Raisins

If you travel to Southern Italy in the winter, you’ll be surprised to find baked apples sitting on dessert wagons, especially in Campagna. Apples are so much a part of my New York upbringing that I was amazed to learn they could even grow in the Mezzogiorno. I’ve never seen this exact recipe anywhere, but combining these ingredients makes so much sense to me that I can’t believe some cook, somewhere in Southern Italy, hasn’t come up with it as well.

(Makes 6 apples)

6 baking apples (I used a Jonathan apple for this, but Cortland or another firm, not too sweet variety will also work well)
3 tablespoons of unsalted butter, softened
A few gratings of nutmeg
A drizzle of olive oil
2 tablespoons wildflower honey
2 tablespoons sugar
A large wineglass of dry white wine
A handful of raisins
A handful of pine nuts, lightly toasted

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Core the apples and cut away of round section of skin from the top of each one so you have a collar around each one. Slice a thin layer off the bottom of each apple so they will stand upright. Choose a baking dish that will fit them snugly, and coat it with about a tablespoon of the butter. Place the apples in the dish, and dot the remaining butter over and inside them. Sprinkle on the nutmeg, and give them a drizzle of olive oil. Drizzle on the honey, and sprinkle them with sugar. Pour the wine around the apples (you’ll want about an inch of wine in the dish), and bake, uncovered, until they are tender, about 50 minutes to an hour, depending on the variety you use. Baste the apples occasionally while cooking to keep them moist on top.

Remove the apples to a serving platter. Strain the cooking liquid through a fine strainer into a small saucepan. Add the raisins, and boil the liquid down over high heat until it is syrupy (you should have about 1/2 cup). Pour this over the apples, and scatter on the pine nuts. Serve warm.

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The Pleasures of Summer

Recipes:

Fried Zucchini Blossoms with Mozzarella and Sun-Dried Tomatoes
Wheat Berries with Zucchini, Pine Nuts, and Ricotta
String Bean and Tomato Salad with Celery and Bottarga
Baked Eggplant with Parsley Pesto
Grilled Sardines with Hot Pine Nut Vinaigrette
Grilled Leg of Lamb with Tomatoes, Mint, and Honey
Cantaloupe with Marsala
Peach and Basil Pizza

If you love to cook, summer can make you tense with excitement. There are days I walk through the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan feeling overwhelmed by the abundance and choices. Greed mixed with confusion can be productive for a cook. I want everything, and often enough I buy everything. The colors are electric: eggplants in five different shades of purple, zucchini blossoms in day-glow yellow, plum-colored tomatoes, tomato-colored plums, huge bunches of green basil, thyme with little lavender blossoms, pink radishes, orange peppers, huge bins of garnet-colored cherries. It’s like trying to choose from a display case of 150 different lipstick shades. I lug my big bags home and lay my purchases out on the kitchen counter and stare, trying to make sense of it all. I play mix and match, making piles of things I might like to cook together, eventually sorting everything. Here are a few summer recipes I came up with after the sorting. They are all from my forthcoming book, Creating Southern Italian Flavor, which will be published by Wiley next year. I hope they will help jump-start your summer cooking.

Fried Zucchini Blossoms with Mozzarella and Sun-Dried Tomatoes

One night when I was a kid my family was eating over at the home of our neighbor Gloria Mastellone, an excellent cook whose family is from Sorrento in Campania, and she fried up a batch of stuffed zucchini blossoms and brought them to the table. My father took a bite of one of the hot blossoms, and a big, mad bumble bee flew out and buzzed around the dining room. Since then I always check the insides of the blossoms for any bugs that might be hiding in them.

A classic filling for these beautiful yellow blossoms is mozzarella and anchovy. I love that, but for my version I’ve chosen to include sun-dried tomatoes, which add their own brand of saltiness, and fresh marjoram.

(Serves 4 or 5 as an antipasto offering )

About 20 fresh zucchini blossoms
A small ball of mozzarella (about 1/2 pound), cut into medium cubes (just big enough to comfortably fit inside the blossom)
8 sun-dried tomatoes (preferably ones preserved in oil), cut into strips
A few sprigs of marjoram, the leaves lightly chopped, plus a few whole sprigs for garnish

For the batter:

1 cup all-purpose flour
A tiny pinch of baking powder (a little less than 1/8 teaspoon)
A generous pinch of salt
A few scrapings of fresh nutmeg
About 3/4 cup cold water
Extra-virgin olive oil for frying (an inexpensive, bulk supermarket brand is a reasonable choice here)

Zucchini blossoms should be very fresh and unwilted when you buy them. They are quite perishable and will keep for only about a day, so plan on using them right away. Sticking their stems in a small glass of water in the refrigerator will sometimes prolong their freshness for an extra day. To clean the blossoms for this recipe, open each one up and pinch off its stamen, checking while you do for any dirt (or bugs) that might be trapped inside. Then wipe their surface with a damp paper towel. I try not to actually wash zucchini blossoms (they easily become waterlogged), but if they’re really dirty, dunk them very briefly in a sink full of cool water, lift them out right away, and drain them on paper towels.

Gently place a piece of mozzarella in each blossom. Add a few pieces of sun-dried tomato and a few marjoram leaves. Twist the tops of the blossoms to close them up. You can refrigerate the filled blossoms for a few hours before frying them.

To make the batter, put the flour in a medium mixing bowl. Add the baking powder, salt, and nutmeg and stir well to blend all the ingredients. Add the cold water and whisk until the batter is smooth (it should be a little thicker than heavy cream). Let sit while you set up the oil.

I don’t always love frying at home, but these can be done in only a few inches of oil, so they’re not really deep fried, and it’s not such an ordeal. I like using a straight-sided sauté pan, about 4 inches deep, for this frying. It contains the oil in a way I’m comfortable with (much better than a sloping pan). Fill the pan with about 2 inches of oil and set it over a medium flame (ideally 360 to 365 degrees, but I honestly never use a thermometer; I just wait until the surface shimmers from the heat and then add a few drops of batter). If the batter bubbles and turns golden right away I know the oil is ready. If the batter sits in the pan with no movement, the oil is too cold; if it burns quickly, it’s too hot.

Dip the blossoms in the batter, letting excess batter drip off. Fry them in batches, probably about five at a time; crowding the pan will lower the oil temperature. Turn them when they look golden and crispy. They should take about 4 minutes or so. Pull the blossoms from the pan with tongs and set on paper towels for a moment to soak up excess oil. Place the blossoms on a serving dish and sprinkle with salt and black pepper and the marjoram sprigs. Serve right away.

Wheat Berries with Zucchini, Pine Nuts, and Ricotta

Whole wheat berries are used in Southern Italy to make all sorts of salads and soups and for cuccia, a mix of wheat berries, ricotta, and something sweet like sugar or cocoa. Make sure to buy hard wheat berries (usually labeled Hard Spring Wheat); soft winter wheat ones cook up a little too mushy. You can find wheat berries at health-food stores and at Middle Eastern markets.

To make a summer wheat berry salad with tomatoes and basil, drain the cooked wheat berries from this recipe, pour them into a large serving bowl, and drizzle on a little olive oil; chop up two large summer tomatoes, seed them, and let them drain in a colander for about 15 minutes, just to get rid of excess juice; add the tomatoes, a handful of lightly chopped basil, a few gratings of Grana Padano cheese (not too much, as you just want a taste, and excess will make the wheat gummy), and a thinly sliced garlic clove to the bowl; season with salt and black pepper, add a fresh drizzle of oil, and toss it gently; and serve at room temperature. This salad definitely tastes best made fresh and not refrigerated, as chilling flattens the taste of beautiful summer tomatoes.

(Serves 4 as a first course or side dish)

1 1/2 cups hard wheat berries
1 bay leaf, fresh if possible
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 thin slices of pancetta, cut into small dice
4 or 5 scallions, thinly sliced, using some tender green
5 tiny young zucchini, cut into small cubes
A splash of dry white wine
The grated zest from 1 lemon
A handful of pine nuts, lightly toasted
A generous handful of basil leaves, lightly chopped
1 cup fresh ricotta

Place the wheat berries in a large pot and cover them with about 4 inches of cold water. Add the bay leaf and bring the water to a boil. Adjust the heat to medium-low and cook the wheat, uncovered, at a low boil (a bit more vigorous than a simmer but not a rolling boil) for about 45 minutes. Add hot water if the water diminishes to less than an inch above the wheat. When done, the grains will have swelled to about twice their size, and they’ll be tender to the bite with just a bit of resistance. Some of the grains will have started to burst, but this is normal. Drain well and pour the wheat berries into a large serving bowl. Remove the bay leaf. Drizzle with a few tablespoons of olive oil and season lightly with salt and black pepper. Give it a gentle mix.

In a large skillet, heat about 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the pancetta and sauté until crisp, about 4 minutes. Add the scallions and the zucchini and sauté until the zucchini is just tender, about 5 minutes (if you have really young, tender zucchini it will cook quickly). Season with a little salt and black pepper. Add the white wine and let it bubble for a few seconds (the wine will loosen up juices on the bottom of the skillet so they can be incorporated into the dish, adding a lot of flavor). Add the zucchini with all the skillet juices to the wheat berries. Add the pine nuts, lemon zest, and basil. Add a drizzle of fresh olive oil and toss everything gently. Taste for seasoning. You may want to add a little fresh lemon juice to pick up the flavors. Serve warm in small pasta bowls with a dollop of ricotta on top of each serving.

String Bean and Tomato Salad with Celery and Bottarga

We had a lot of string-bean salads when I was a child, and I never found them too exciting, especially the limp, vinegary ones that came from Italian delis. I dress mine just before serving so everything stays crisp. A few chopped anchovies are a classic addition, but here I use bottarga, the pressed tuna or gray mullet roe famous in Sicily and Sardinia, which gives this simple summer dish an exciting, salty bite.

(Serves 4)

3/4 pound tender summer string beans, trimmed but left whole (if they’re not in season, use haricots verts, which you can find in good shape year-round at gourmet shops)
3 tender inner stalks of celery, thinly sliced, plus the leaves from about 5 stalks, lightly chopped
1 large red shallot, thinly sliced
1 pint red cherry tomatoes, cut in half
A few large sprigs of marjoram, the leaves lightly chopped
Extra-virgin olive oil
A tiny splash of champagne vinegar
A pinch of salt
Freshly ground black pepper
About 12 scrapings of bottarga (preferably gray mullet roe from Sardinia)

Set up a medium-size pot of water and bring it to a boil. Add the string beans and blanch them for about 3 minutes. Scoop them from the water with a large strainer into a colander and run cold water over them to preserve their green color. Let them drain.

When you’re ready to serve the salad, place the string beans, celery, celery leaves, shallot, cherry tomatoes, and marjoram in a large salad bowl. Pour on about 3 tablespoons of fruity extra-virgin olive oil and the tiniest splash of champagne vinegar (you don’t need much on top of the acidity of the tomatoes). Add the smallest pinch of salt (remember that the bottarga is very salty) and a few grindings of black pepper. Toss everything gently. With a sharp vegetable peeler, shave about a dozen or so scrapings of bottarga into the bowl and give it another gentle toss. Divide the salad onto small plates and serve right away.

Baked Eggpplant with Parsley Pesto

If you really love parsley, as I do, make a parsley pesto, where its flavor can really shine. I rub the pesto into the flesh of halved eggplants and bake them in a hot oven. For something so simple, the dish has really rich flavor.

I use very small eggplants for this, about four inches long and dark and purple Larger ones bake up a little mushy in the center. I also make it with the long, skinny Japanese variety.

(Serves 4 or 5 as a side dish)

1 large garlic clove, peeled
2 salt-packed anchovies, filleted, soaked in cool water for about 20 minutes, and drained
1 medium shallot
A large handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves
Extra-virgin olive oil
Black pepper
Salt
4 small eggplants, cut in half lengthwise

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Make the pesto: Place the garlic, anchovies, and shallot in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to a paste. Add the parsley, about 1/4 cup of olive oil, and a little salt and a more generous amount of black pepper. Pulse a few times until everything is just blended and not yet becoming a purée.

With a thin, sharp knife, score the eggplants through the flesh in a large diamond pattern, cutting about halfway down (be careful not to cut into the skin). Spread a generous amount of the pesto on each eggplant, working it down into the cuts. Place them on a lightly oiled sheet pan and bake until they’re lightly browned and tender, about 1/2 hour (depending on the size of the eggplants).

You can serve these hot, but the flavors may be more vibrant if you eat them at room temperature.

Grilled Sardines with Hot Pine Nut Vinaigrette

I love the pungent smell of sardines on a grill, and when I find really fresh sardines in the market I always like to grill them. I usually find them flown in from Portugal. They’re best the day they arrive. If you see them at your market, ask when they usually arrive (mine come in every Thursday). That way you can get them at their best. The creaminess of the pine nuts marries very well with the rich oiliness of the little fish.

About cleaning sardines: For this recipe all you really need to do it gut and scale them. I leave the backbone, head, and tail intact. You can ask your fish seller to do this, but it’s pretty easy. While running the sardine under cool water, rub the scales away with your fingers (they come off easily and don’t need to be scraped off like the ones on larger fish). Stick a small knife into the middle of the belly and make a one-inch lengthwise slit. Pull out the insides with your fingers and wash each fish inside and out with cool water. That’s it.

(Serves 4 as a first course or a light meal)

For the vinaigrette:

1/2 cup very fresh pine nuts
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
The zest and juice from 1 large lemon
A pinch of sugar
A tiny splash of white wine
A handful of flat leaf parsley leaves, chopped

12 sardines, gutted and scaled, but with the heads left on (see above)
Salt (preferably sea salt)
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
The juice from one lemon
1 head chicory or frisée, cleaned and separated into long leaves

Place the pine nuts in a medium skillet and toast them over low heat, stirring them around occasionally until they are nicely golden. Add about 1/2 cup of olive oil, a pinch of salt, black pepper, a pinch of sugar, the zest and juice of a lemon, and a splash of white wine. Let this bubble for a minute and then turn off the heat, leaving the skillet on the turned-off burner.

Set up a stove-top grill plate (or an outside grill) and get it very hot. Toss the sardines lightly in olive oil, a little salt, black pepper, and lemon juice. Grill them until good char marks appear, about a minute or so, and turn once, grilling the other side, about another minute or so. This should cook them through, but large ones will take a little longer. Line a large serving plate with the chicory or frisée. Lift the sardines from the grill with tongs and place them on the serving plate. Reheat the pine-nut sauce for a few seconds, just until it’s hot, adding a splash of water to loosen it up if necessary. Scatter the parsley leaves over the sardines, and pour on the pine-nut sauce. Serve hot.

Grilled Leg of Lamb with Tomatoes, Mint, and Honey

Lamb is often flavored with fennel seeds or rosemary in Sicily as in other parts of Southern Italy. For this quick grill, however, I’ve chosen for the main flavoring mint, another herb used frequently in Sicilian cooking. As the British have long known, mint goes beautifully with lamb. I’ve blended it with tomatoes and a touch of honey, which not only adds sweetness but gives the meat a crisp crust. Black pepper is an important ingredient because it balances the acidity and sweetness of the other ingredients.

My butcher almost always has boned leg of lamb ready to buy in large or small pieces. If yours doesn’t, ask him to bone and butterfly a leg (butterflying flattens the meat out to a more-or-less even thickness, usually about two inches at its thickest but always be a little uneven from the nature of the cut).

Leftover grilled lamb makes excellent sandwiches. To prepare them I usually toast Italian bread, brush it with olive oil, and layer on the lamb and any remaining tomatoes. Sometimes I add crumbled Ricotta Salata or Feta cheese before closing it up.

(Makes 6 main-course servings)

For the lamb:

An approximately 4-pound piece of boned and butterflied leg of lamb (see above)
About 4 garlic cloves, peeled and cut into slivers
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 bay leaves
A few large marjoram or oregano sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
A handful of mint sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
1 medium wineglass dry Marsala wine
About 2 tablespoons of honey (a wildflower honey is nice for this)
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt

For the tomatoes:

2 pints of cherry tomatoes, stemmed but left whole
About 3 scallions, cut into thin rounds, using some of the tender green part
A drizzle of honey
A few large mint sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
A few large marjoram or oregano sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
Salt
A drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil

Place the lamb in a shallow dish. Make a few little cuts into the surface in various places and insert the garlic slivers. Sprinkle the cinnamon over the lamb. Add the bay leaves, marjoram or oregano, and mint. Drizzle on the honey and pour the glass of Marsala over the meat. Pour on a little olive oil, grind on a generous amount of black pepper, and turn the lamb over a few times in the marinade so all the flavors are well distributed. Ideally this should sit for a few hours or even refrigerated overnight, but if you’re pressed for time, just let it sit unrefrigerated while you set up your grill.

Start your fire and let it burn down until you have hot, whitish coals but no flame (if the fire is too hot and active, you’ll wind up burning the outside of the lamb while the inside remains raw). Pull the lamb from the marinade and season it well on both sides with salt. Start grilling the lamb, fat side down, about 5 inches from the heat. Grill until it’s well crusted, about 10 minutes. Turn and grill the other side, about 8 to 10 minutes longer. If at any time you sense it is getting too black, move it over to the side of the grill where the heat is milder. Since boned leg of lamb is uneven in thickness, you will always wind up with some pink and some more well-done meat (something for everyone), so aim for the thickest parts to be medium-rare (about 130 degrees if you want to measure the temperature with a meat thermometer). Take the lamb from the grill and place it on a cutting board that will catch all the juices. Let it rest for about 10 minutes before cutting into it.

While the lamb is resting, grill the tomatoes. You can use a wire grill basket to prevent the cherry tomatoes from dropping into the fire; I usually just poke a few holes in a piece of aluminum foil and pile them onto that. Put the tomatoes on the grill and cook them, shaking them around a bit, until they just start to burst and take on a little color, about 3 or 4 minutes. Place them in a small bowl and add the scallions, the honey, and about half of the mint and marjoram or oregano. Season with salt and black pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. Toss gently.

Carve the lamb into thin slices and arrange it on a serving platter in a circular pattern, leaving a little space open in the center of the platter. Pour the tomatoes into the center. Pour any lamb juices that have collected over the lamb. Give everything a fresh grinding of black pepper, maybe a little salt if you want it, and a drizzle of fresh olive oil. Scatter on the remaining herbs and serve right away (it will also taste really good at room temperature).

Cantaloupe with Marsala

When I first smelled these two fragrant ingredients together, I knew how good this was going to taste. They’re a classic Sicilian pairing of flavors that works best with a really ripe summer cantaloupe and a high-quality Marsala like Florio.

(Serves 4)

1 large, ripe cantaloupe
1 large wineglass sweet Marsala wine (if you have only dry Marsala, add about a tablespoon of sugar)
A drizzle of honey
A few short strips of lemon peel
A pinch of salt
A few mint sprigs for garnish

I usually don’t get fussy about using kitchen gadgets in my recipes, but I have to say that using a melon baller here makes a big difference in the presentation of this dessert. So halve the cantaloupe, remove the seeds, and then scoop out all the insides with the melon baller into a pretty serving bowl. Pour on the Marsala, and add the honey, lemon peel, and a tiny pinch of salt (the salt heightens the flavor of the melon in a subtle but worthwhile way; my grandfather always ate cantaloupe wedges heavily sprinkled with salt). Give it all a few good stirs, cover the bowl, and refrigerate until everything is chilled, stirring occasionally. Serve cool, garnished with the mint sprigs.

Peach and Basil Pizza

Flavoring peaches with basil is an idea I got from my grandmother’s cousin Tony when I went to visit him in Campolattaro, a small town in Campania to which he moved in the 1980s after spending most of his adult life in Westchester County, New York. His cellar, filled with an amazing assortment of preserved fruits and vegetables, contained jars of peaches with a few basil leaves stuck into each one. I had thought basil leaves were used to flavor only preserved tomatoes, and I didn’t ask him about it at the time. However, though I never sampled those peaches I thought about them from time to time over the years, wondering how they would taste. I finally got to putting peaches and basil together and realized that Tony had been on to something.

Several things go by the name pizza in Southern Italy, including open-face sweet tarts like this one. Pizza dolce like this usually includes fresh or candied fruit and nuts.

For the crust:

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
A generous pinch of salt
1 tablespoon sugar
About 2 or 3 tablespoons chilled dry white wine
1 large egg
The zest from about 1/2 lemon
1 stick unsalted butter, cold and cut into small dice

5 ripe peaches, unpeeled and cut into thin wedges
4 tablespoons sugar
The zest from 1 lemon
A splash of Amaretto liqueur
A handful of whole, blanched almonds, lightly toasted and roughly ground in a food processor
A small handful of basil leaves, lightly chopped
Powdered sugar for garnish, if you like

To make the crust, put the flour in the bowl of a food processor. Add the salt, sugar, and lemon zest and pulse once or twice to blend everything. In a small bowl whisk the egg together with the white wine. Add the butter to the food processor and pulse two or three times, just until the butter is broken up into little pea-size bits. Pour the egg-and-wine mixture over the dough and pulse once or twice more, just to blend it. The dough should just start to come together and look crumbly and moist.. Turn the dough out onto a counter and press it into a ball. Give it a few brief kneads with the palm of your hand to make sure it holds together. Wrap it in plastic wrap, and refrigerate it for about 30 minutes

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Place the peaches in a bowl and toss them with the sugar, lemon zest, and Amaretto.

Take the dough from the refrigerator and sprinkle a work surface with a little flour. Roll the dough out into a large round, about 12 inches, trimming the edges to make it rounder. Sprinkle the ground almonds over the surface, leaving a 3-inch border. Scatter on the basil. Pile the peaches into the center of the circle and let them spread out in a natural way, leaving a 3-inch border all around. Now fold the edge up and around the fruit, giving the dough little tucks to hold it in place and create a ruffly border. You should have a large opening in the middle where the peaches stick out.

Bake until the crust is a deep golden brown, about 35 to 40 minutes.

Let cool for about 1/2 hour and then dust with powdered sugar if you like.

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Recipes:

Cannellini Bean Soup with Cockles and Chard
Chicken Soup with Pumpkin and Escarole
Dandelion and Baby Meatball Soup
Minestra of Cabbage, Wheat Berries, and Sausage

As Winter deepens, I’m honing recipes for my book on Southern Italian flavors. Many of them are based on family dishes, but others are purely personal, a product of my ongoing involvement with the cooking of my grandparents’ birthplaces. When I recently turned my attention to winter soups, I began thinking about the greens-and-meat-based soups my grandmother often made, all with a bitter edge because they were filled with dandelions, chicory, and escarole. She actually foraged for dandelions at the Westchester golf course where my grandfather worked as the club pro. These soups were enriched with tiny meatballs, chunks of sausage, or little pieces of what my mother disapprovingly referred to as “fat,” which actually were pancetta (which essentially is fat, I suppose). I loved these soups, and I’ve made them the focus of the winter soup collection for my new book.

Winter is when I appreciate soup the most, preferring big meal-in-a-bowl varieties to the more delicate, brothy first-course soups that are often served at fancy occasions like weddings or baptisms in Southern Italy. In fact, I must be a lightweight eater, for whenever I’m served soup as a first course, no matter how little, when the main course comes I can only pick at it. This is a phenomenon my grandmother understood, but she insisted the reason was due to the American habit of eating hot brothy soup with a cold beverage like soda. Cold drinks were banned from her table when she served soup, because she thought the hot and cold liquids would somehow fight in your stomach, giving you painful cramps or, worse, preventing you from eating more. Thick meal-in-a-bowl soups were exempt from this rule, though, presumably because they were more like solid food.

Some of my favorite winter meals begin with some sort of antipasto, like sliced prosciutto or capocollo with maybe some raw or pickled vegetables and a little mozzarella, then move to a big soup, served with crusty Arthur Avenue-style bread, wine, a green salad to follow, and finally a piece of fruit (or if I’m ambitious enough to make it, a fruit tart).

Minestra maritata is a Southern Italian term for soup that “marries” several vegetables, usually greens. I’ve read food historians who say maritata more accurately refers to a soup that blends meat and greens, and it is true that all the maritatas I’ve come across in Southern Italy have included some type of meat, usually pork, traditionally the most widely available. These soups tend toward improvisation, the only constant being the greens and meat. Pasta is generally not included. In Foggia, a Northern Puglian town very close to where my grandmother was born, the traditional maritata often contains escarole, chicory, wild fennel, celery, pancetta, and pecorino. In her excellent cookbook Flavors of Puglia, Nancy Harmon Jenkins includes a recipe for a maritata that has similar ingredients but is baked in the oven with a pecorino-and-bread-crumb crust.

Big soups can be broth-based, but often only water is used, since they get so much flavor anyway from their myriad ingredients. Minestrone is the classic Italian big soup. It takes many forms and can contain just about any combination of vegetables, plus a pasta or a grain, though the Southern Italian preference for carefully judging the quality of ingredients steers cooks away from clutter. The kitchen-sink approach to soup making is not part of Southern tradition. I always try to use discretion and streamline my ingredient choices, highlighting one or two seasonal vegetables, including only one or two herbs, and judging any meat of fish addition by evaluating what it will bring to the soup’s finished taste and appearance.

Here are four winter soups that I’d say fall in the big-soup category. They are improvisational by design, so feel free to make adjustments to suit your taste. For instance, my cannellini bean soup with cockles and chard is just as good made with mussels and escarole, a variation I sometimes make.

Happy winter cooking to you, and please write me with comments on my recipes or any food questions or recipes you might want to share.

Cannellini Bean Soup with Cockles and Chard

I love any dish that marries beans with shellfish. The combination is popular in Puglia and around the Naples area, turning up in pasta dishes and in soups like this one. This soup is substantial enough to serve as is, but often when I make it I grill a few pieces of crusty Italian bread on my stovetop grill plate, rub them with garlic, and brush them with a little olive oil. That makes the classic, simple Italian bruschetta, and it goes very well with this soup.

If you can’t find cannellini beans, Great Northern beans will do fine. They are slightly smaller and a little less creamy when cooked, but still purée nicely. I chose cockles for the soup because their small shells look very pretty mingling with the beans, but small littleneck clams, or any hard-shelled clams, can replace them. Choose the tiniest ones you can find.

(Serves 6)

2 cups dried cannellini beans, soaked overnight in cool water that covers them by at least 4 inches
2 bay leaves
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
A small chunk of fatty prosciutto end, chopped
2 leeks, cut into small dice
2 celery stalks, cut into small dice
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1 small fresh red chile pepper, seeded and minced (for just a hint of heat)
A few small sprigs of rosemary
2 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped (or a small can of diced tomatoes, drained)
2 pounds cockles, well washed
A large wineglass of dry white wine
A medium bunch of chard, the thick center ribs removed and the leaves roughly chopped
A handful of basil leaves, lightly chopped

Drain the beans and place them in a large pot. Cover them with cool water by about 4 inches. Add the bay leaves and turn the heat to high. When the water comes to a boil, turn the heat down very low, partially cover the pot, and cook at a simmer without stirring at all, until the beans are tender, about 1 1/2 hours (but test them after an hour to see how far along they’ve come). When the beans are tender, turn off the heat, uncover the pot, add a drizzle of olive oil, and season with salt (adding salt while they’re cooking can toughen their skins). Let the beans sit on the turned-off burner for about 20 minutes (this will further tenderize them gently). Scoop out about a quarter of the beans, along with a little of the cooking water, and purée them in a food processor until they’re very smooth. Set them aside.

In a large soup pot, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the prosciutto, and let it crisp up. Add the leeks, celery, garlic cloves, chile, and rosemary, and sauté until everything is soft and fragrant, about 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes, and sauté for a few minutes longer. Add the bean purée and the remaining whole beans, along with all their cooking liquid. Season with a little salt and let everything simmer over medium low heat for about 10 minutes.

In the meantime, place the cockles in a medium-size pot and pour the white wine over them. Cook the cockles over high heat, stirring them frequently, until they’ve opened. Lift them from the pot and add them to the soup. Strain their cooking liquid, to remove any sand that they may have given off, and add it to the soup pot, along with the chard and the basil. Turn off the heat and let the chard wilt for a few minutes. The soup should be of a medium thickness (not thick enough to stand a spoon in, but not brothy either; with a certain amount of body). If it seems too thick, add a little hot water. Check the seasoning, and add a bit more salt if needed. Serve hot.

Chicken Soup with Pumpkin and Escarole

Here I’ve blended classic fall flavors, pumpkin, cooked greens, and the woodsy aromas of rosemary and Marsala wine, to produce a new Italian-style big soup. Any small pasta or broken spaghetti can be used for the soup, but I prefer very small types such as orzo or acini. I’ve found a pasta called grattoni, made by Rustichella d’Abruzzi, an excellent artisanal pasta producer in Italy, that looks like little seed pearls and gives the soup an elegant appearance. Tubetti (tiny tubes) or anellini (little rings) are also good choices.

(Serves 4 or 5)

Olive oil
1 slice fatty end-cut prosciutto, well chopped
1 large onion, cut into small dice
2 carrots, cut into small dice
1 3 1/2-pound chicken
Salt
Black pepper
2 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly crushed
A few gratings of nutmeg
A few small sprigs of rosemary, the leaves chopped
A large wineglass of dry Marsala
1 quart homemade or low-salt-canned chicken broth
A large piece of pumpkin, peeled and cut into small cubes (about 2 cups)
1/2 cup small soup pasta (see above), cooked al dente, drained, and tossed in a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt
1 medium head escarole, washed, dried, and well chopped
1 cup grated Grana Padano cheese

Choose a large casserole or heavy-bottomed soup pot fitted with a lid. Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. When hot, add the prosciutto, onion, and carrots, and sauté a few minutes to soften. Add the chicken, seasoning it with salt, pepper, nutmeg, and rosemary, and brown lightly all over, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, and sauté a minute or so, just to release its flavor. Add the Marsala, and let it reduce by half. Add the chicken broth and enough water to just cover the chicken. Turn the heat to low, cover the casserole, and simmer, turning the chicken occasionally, until it is very tender, about an hour and a quarter.

Remove the chicken from the broth. Skim most of the fat from the surface of the broth. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, pull the meat off it and cut into little chunks. Discard the skin and bones. Return the broth to a boil. Add the pumpkin, and cook uncovered until tender but not falling apart, about 10 minutes. Add the chicken, the pasta, and the escarole. Simmer on low heat about 2 or 3 minutes, just to blend the flavors and wilt the escarole. Taste for seasoning, adding a bit more salt, black pepper, fresh rosemary, and/or a pinch of nutmeg to balance the flavors. Serve hot, topped with a sprinkling of Grana Padano.

Dandelion and Baby Meatball Soup

One of the constant torments of my mother’s life is my hounding her for old family recipes that she insists she can’t recall. I remembered a dandelion soup of my father’s mother’s very vaguely, probably because she stopped making it after I was a little girl (this happened a lot in my family; Italian dishes gradually disappeared and were seamlessly replaced by steaks, baked potatoes, boxed macaroni and cheese, and other things we grew to love, like Pop Tarts and TV dinners). The recipe that results from this distant recollection is more a composite sketch than historical fact; the dandelions are from my father’s mother, the little slivers of cheese in the bottom of the bowl a habit of my mother’s father. The baby meatballs were I think part of another family soup, a chicken broth with little meatballs poached in it, but my mother says her meatball soup always included greens. Here is a minestra maritata improvised from fragments of memory.

Since you have no whole chicken stewing in this soup, unlike in the previous recipe, a good homemade broth is essential. An easy way to make a traditional Southern Italian-style light meat broth it is by buying a package of chicken wings, asking your butcher for a couple of veal bones, and simmering them together with the traditional Southern Italian flavorings tomato, garlic, and herbs for about 1 1/2 hours.

(Serves 4)

1 pound ground pork
1 garlic clove, minced
2 eggs
About 1/2 cup grated Grana Padano cheese, plus a handful of the cheese cut into thin slivers
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, well chopped
A few sprigs of oregano or marjoram, the leaves chopped
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, cut into small dice
2 celery stalks, cut into small dice, plus the leaves, chopped
A medium bunch of dandelions, stemmed and chopped into small pieces
A baguette, cut into thin rounds

For the broth:

1 pound chicken wings
3 or 4 veal bones
Extra-virgin olive oil
A half an onion
A stalk of celery, cut in half
A small carrot
A half a tomato
1 bay leaf
A few sprigs of flat-leaf parsley
1 garlic clove, lightly crushed
1 whole clove or allspice
A few black peppercorns
Salt

To make the broth, put the chicken wings and veal bones in a large soup pot. Turn the heat to medium, and drizzle on a little olive oil. Turn the bones over and let them brown lightly; then brown them on the other side. Add all the other ingredients and sauté a few minutes longer, just so they can release their flavors. Add about 2 quarts of cool water and let it come to a slow boil. Turn the heat to low, and simmer uncovered for about 1 1/2 hours. Pour the broth through a strainer into a container. Skim off any excess fat from the top, and season with a little salt. You can make this a day ahead, if you like. Refrigerate it if you’re not using it right away.

To make the meatballs, put the ground pork in a bowl. Add the garlic, eggs, grated Grana Padano, parsley, and oregano or marjoram. Season with salt and black pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. Mix everything together with your hands. Roll the meat into tiny meatballs, as small as you can manage (marble-size or a touch bigger is perfect).

In a large soup pot, heat about 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the chopped onion and celery, including the leaves, and sauté until soft and fragrant, about 4 minutes. Add the broth, and bring it to a boil. Lower the heat a bit, and gently add the meatballs and the dandelions. Let the meatballs just cook through, about 4 minutes. By this time the dandelions should also be tender.

Toast the baguette slices, and place one or two in each soup bowl. Drizzle each one with a little olive oil, and sprinkle on the slivers of Grana Padano. Ladle the hot soup over the toast. Serve hot.

Minestra of Cabbage, Wheat Berries, and Sausage

I’m always surprised how often I see cabbage, a very northern seeming vegetable, on Southern Italian menus. I’ve been served braised cabbage in Basilicata several times as part of an antipasto assortment, one time loaded with so much hot chile I could barely eat it. Cabbage stuffed with sausage and rice is a dish my mother used to make, having learned it, I think, from my father’s mother. In Puglia I had a cabbage stuffed with salt cod as part of an antipasto platter. The vegetable rarely inspires me, though, but I force myself to buy and cook it, hoping something good will happen. Here is something good. It is a variation on a rice-and-cabbage soup I was served in central Campania, in a small restaurant near my grandmother’s birthplace, Castelfranco in Miscano. I’ve substituted wheat berries for the rice, added sausage instead of pancetta, and played around with the flavorings.

Choose hard spring-wheat berries, not soft winter-wheat ones. Both are generally available at health food shops and Middle Eastern markets. Farro, a grain similar to spelt that is popular in Umbrian cooking, makes a good substitute for the wheat berries. You can cook it the same way as them, but it doesn’t take as long. If you use it, check the package for the cooking time.

(Serves 4)

3/4 cup hard wheat berries
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
3 medium-size Italian pork sausages, removed from their casings and crumbled
About half a medium head of green cabbage, thinly sliced (about 2 cups sliced)
1 large, sweet onion, such as Vidalia, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly crushed
Freshly ground black pepper
A small wineglass of dry white wine
A bay leaf
A few thyme branches, the leaves chopped
A few sage leaves, chopped
A quart of chicken broth or homemade light meat broth (as in my Dandelion and Meatball Soup recipe), or a mix of low-salt canned chicken broth and water
A splash of sherry-wine vinegar
A chunk of Pecorino cheese for grating
A baguette, cut into thin rounds

Put the wheat berries in a medium sauce pot and cover them with cool water by about four inches. Place over high heat and bring to a boil. Turn the heat to medium low, and simmer, uncovered, at a low bubble until the wheat berries are tender to the bite, about 45 minutes (they should taste pleasantly crunchy, not hard; some will burst, but that’s normal). If the water gets low at any point, add hot water to the pot. When the berries are tender, drain them and put them in a small bowl. Add a drizzle of olive oil and a generous pinch of salt, and give them a toss.

In a large soup pot, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over high heat. When it’s hot, add the sausage, breaking it up into smaller bits with your spoon, and brown well. Turn the heat to medium, and add the cabbage, the onion, and the garlic cloves. Season with salt and black pepper, and sauté until the vegetables are nice and soft, about 15 minutes (if they start to stick, add a little more olive oil). Add the white wine, and let it bubble down to almost nothing. Add the bay leaf, thyme, and sage and the broth. Bring to a boil, and then turn the heat down a little and let the soup simmer, partially covered, for about 20 minutes (you want the cabbage very tender, Southern Italian style, and not at all crunchy). Depending on how fatty your sausages are, you may need to skim the soup once or twice.

Uncover the pot, add the wheat berries, and let the soup simmer for about another 5 minutes, just to blend all the flavors. Add a splash of sherry-wine vinegar (or good-quality white-wine vinegar) and taste for seasoning. The vinegar will sharpen the flavors, but you may need a little extra salt or black pepper, or a few more sage leaves to add freshness.

When you’re ready to serve the soup, toast the baguette slices on both sides and drop one or two into each soup bowl. While the toast is still hot, grate Pecorino over it and into the bowl. Pour the hot soup into the bowl. Serve right away.

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