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Archive for the ‘2004’ Category

Christmas Day Apple Cake

Recipe:Torta di Miele

When I was a kid Christmas day always started early with a slice of pannetone and coffee (even when I was little I was served coffee on special occasions). The yeasty pannetone was more bread than cake, but it was sweet enough to be appealing to any kid. A few years ago I saw one of Mario Batali’s TV shows where he made a torta di Mele, a semi-sweet apple yeast cake. I’d eaten versions of that several times in central Italy, and the mother of a pizza maker in the West Village in Manhattan where I live used to bake one for his shop. The smell of it baking was enticing; sweet, slightly sour from the yeast, fruity, but with a strong cinnamon aroma. Maybe I detected a hint of some sort of liquor (grappa? brandy?). The cake didn’t really go with pizza, but often I’d drop into the shop just for a slice of it and a glass of wine. The pizza place is now gone, and I really miss that apple cake.I made up my own version by using Batali’s solid recipe as a base and adding spices and a bit of booze and more sugar until I came up with something close to the pizza shop’s cake. This year I’m making it for Christmas morning, in place of pannetone. You can serve it with espresso or cappuccino, but personally I like it best with a wake-up glass of prosecco. Merry Christmas to you!

Torta di Mele

(Serves 6 to 8)

1 tablespoon softened butter for greasing the pan
2 fairly plain biscotti (I used a mild almond-flavored type)
4 firm apples (Cortlands or Granny Smiths are good), skinned and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon Calvados or cognac
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup flour
A few generous scrapings of nutmeg
2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature, separated
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 package yeast
Powdered sugar for the top

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Butter a 9-inch springform pan. Place the biscotti in a food process and pulse to a crumb. Coat the pan with the biscotti crumbs, shaking out any excess.

In a large bowl, toss the apple slices with the Calvados or cognac, half the cinnamon, and a tablespoon of the sugar. Arrange the apples in the pan in a not-too-fussy circular fashion, making two layers.

In a large bowl mix until well blended the remaining sugar and cinnamon and the flour, nutmeg, egg yolks, milk, vanilla, and yeast. Let sit for about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, pour the egg whites into another bowl and beat with an electric blender until they’re stiff and glossy. Add the whites to the batter, folding them in until they’re just blended but still a bit streaky. Pour the batter over the apples and bake until the top is browned and feels springy (and a tester (I use a wooden shish kebab skewer) comes out dry when inserted into the top), about 50 minutes. Cool on a rack for about 1/2 hour. Remove the rim from the pan, leaving the cake on the base. Sprinkle with powdered sugar before serving.

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Salmon with Southern Italian Soul

Recipes:

Braised Salmon Pizzaiola with Gaeta Olives
Cavatelli with Fresh Salmon, Arugula, and Burst Cherry Tomatoes
Salmon Carpaccio with Marjoram and Pine Nut Vinaigrette
Seared Salmon on Fennel and Orange Salad

Salmon is not a fish native to Southern Italy, but it does show up on menus there, usually at upscale, contemporary restaurants where the chef likes to experiment. The chef is right to do so, for salmon’s rich, oily taste and texture marries beautifully with classic Southern Italian flavors such as capers, olives, anchovies, orange and lemon, fennel, artichokes, fine olive oil, tomatoes, arugula, basil (one of the best herbs for salmon), and good dry wine. I’ve explored some of these flavor combinations in the recipes I offer you here.

In my opinion salmon’s richness can get a little sickening; I find it needs to be broken up with fresh, sharp flavors. This is especially true for farmed Atlantic salmon, which is very rich. Wild pacific varieties, which I seem to find in my fish shops year round these days (I believe they’re frozen during harvest and then sold throughout the year), have unique flavors, with colors ranging from pale peach to crimson, and varying amounts of oil. King and sockeye are both really delicious. They’re rich in a more interesting way than the farmed variety.

I often serve some sort of salmon dish as part of my all-fish Christmas Eve dinner. Several years ago I made a salmon pizzaiola with Gaeta olives. The pizzaiola flavor in its purest form is achieved by blending the Southern Italian trio of tomatoes, oregano or marjoram, and some type of dry wine, producing a taste somewhat like pizza sauce. I prefer the gentler flowery flavor of marjoram over the dried oregano that they favor in Southern Italy. Salmon pizzaiola is an extremely simple dish, but one with vibrant flavor. I give you my recipe here.

Some Italian-inspired salmon dishes just don’t work, in my opinion. One of my all-time least favorite Italian-American restaurant items is pasta tossed with smoked salmon and cream. Heating brings out the worst in smoked salmon, and mixed with cream the strong smoky fish flavor permeates the entire dish. I actually find this a bit nauseating, and I have even left a restaurant when I saw it on the menu, since for me it’s a sign that the rest of the menu will be ill-conceived too. I have had success tossing chunks of freshly cooked salmon with pasta and adding various vegetables or a simple tomato sauce, and I include here a recipe for pasta with fresh salmon, arugula, and seared cherry tomatoes, which I think is delicious and in true Southern Italian style

Braised Salmon Pizzaiola with Gaeta Olives

(Serves 4 as a main course)

Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A generous pinch of ground nutmeg
4 approximately 1/2-pound salmon fillets (or a bit smaller), skinned (wild salmon is best, but you can get good results with the farmed variety too)
1 medium shallot, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
A generous splash of dry Marsala or dry vermouth
1 35-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, well chopped, with the juice
5 sprigs fresh marjoram, the leaves chopped
A handful of basil leaves, lightly chopped
A handful of Gaeta olives, pitted if you wish

In a large skillet, heat about a tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat. Season the salmon with salt, black pepper, and a few scrapings of nutmeg. Brown the salmon very well on the rounded, non-skin side about 4 or 5 minutes, and then remove it from the skillet, using a slotted spatula to let excess oil drain off. Pour out all the oil from the skillet and add a tablespoon of fresh olive oil (if there are any slightly burnt bits from the salmon cooking, wipe those out with a damp paper towel before adding the olive oil). Add the shallot and sauté for about a minute just to soften it. Add the garlic and let it sauté for about another 30 seconds, until everything is fragrant. Add the Marsala or vermouth and let it bubble away. Add the tomatoes, season with salt and black pepper, and simmer, uncovered, at a lively bubble for five minutes. Add the salmon, browned side up, turn the heat to low, and simmer until the salmon is just cooked through, about 4 minutes longer, spooning the sauce over the salmon frequently. Add the marjoram, the basil, and the olives and simmer a few seconds longer, just to blend all the flavors. Check for seasoning and add a bit more salt or black pepper if needed. Serve right away with good Italian bread, a green salad, and a glass of dry white wine.

Cavatelli with Fresh Salmon, Arugula, and Burst Cherry Tomatoes

(Serves 4 as a main course)

1 pound salmon fillet, skinned (I prefer a wild salmon variety for this, finding the oil from farmed salmon a bit strong for pasta)
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
A pinch of ground clove
6 large sprigs fresh thyme, the leaves chopped
1 pound cavatelli
2 pints sweet cherry or grape tomatoes
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 scallions, cut into thin rounds, using some of the tender green part
1/2 fresh, red chile, minced (and seeded if you like less heat)
A generous splash of dry white wine
1 large bunch arugula, stemmed and roughly chopped
A palmful of capers

Cut the salmon fillet into approximately 1/2-inch cubes and place them in a small bowl. Add a drizzle of olive oil, salt, the ground clove, and about half of the chopped thyme, and toss gently with your fingers to blend all the ingredients.

Set up a large pot of pasta-cooking water. Bring it to a boil and add a generous amount of salt. Drop in the cavatelli.

In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over high heat. When the skillet is very hot, add the tomatoes, garlic, scallions, fresh chile, and the remaining thyme all at once. Season with salt and sear the tomatoes, shaking the skillet occasionally, until they start to burst, about 4 minutes. Add the white wine, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Turn off the heat.

In a another skillet, heat another tablespoon of olive oil over a high flame. When the skillet is very hot, add the salmon cubes and brown them quickly, about 3 minutes, leaving the middle slightly pink.

When the cavatelli is al dente, drain and transfer to a large, warmed serving bowl. Add the tomatoes with all their pan juices, the capers, and the arugula. Add the salmon, leaving any skillet oil behind (too much salmon oil can give pasta an overly fishy taste). Give everything a generous drizzle of fresh olive oil and an extra sprinkle of salt. Toss gently (the heat of the pasta will wilt the arugula). Serve hot or warm.

Salmon Carpaccio with Marjoram and Pine Nut Vinaigrette

(Serves 6 as a first course)

3/4 pound very fresh salmon fillet, skinned (I prefer farmed salmon here since it’s very rich and oily and can stand up to a vinaigrette)
Extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt
The juice and zest from 1 small lemon
1 shallot, minced
5 large sprigs marjoram, leaves lightly chopped
A generous pinch of ground, dried red chile (I like Aleppo pepper)
A tiny pinch of sugar
1/2 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted

With a very sharp knife, cut the salmon on the bias into very thin slices, cutting almost parallel to the surface (the way you would cut smoked salmon). Lay the slices out in a sort of flower-petal pattern on six salad plates. Drizzle them lightly with extra-virgin olive oil and give each serving a sprinkling of sea salt.

In a small bowl, mix together 3 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, the lemon juice, zest, shallot, marjoram, a generous pinch of sea salt, the ground red chile, and a tiny pinch of sugar.

When you’re ready to serve, spoon a generous amount of the vinaigrette in the middle of each plate of salmon. Scatter on the pine nuts. Serve right away.

Seared Salmon on Fennel and Orange Salad

(Serves 4)

4 approximately 1/2-pound (or a bit smaller) salmon fillets, with the skin on (wild and farm-raised are both fine for this)
Salt
About 6 fennel seeds, ground to a powder
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 fennel bulbs, cored and thinly sliced, plus a handful of the feathery tops, chopped, for garnish
The zest from 1 orange, plus 3 oranges peeled and sliced into thin rounds
A small head of frisée lettuce, cut into bite-size pieces
1 large leek, well cleaned and sliced into thin rounds
2 oil-packed anchovies, minced
1 tablespoon Spanish sherry vinegar

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Press the ground fennel seeds, a bit of salt, and black pepper onto the skin of the salmon fillets.

Put the fennel, orange slices, frisée, and leek in a large salad bowl and set it aside.

In a small bowl, combine the orange zest, chopped anchovy, 3 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, and the sherry vinegar. Add a pinch of salt and a few grindings of black pepper. Whisk to blend.

In a large skillet, heat about a tablespoon of olive oil over high flame. When the skillet is hot, add the salmon fillets, skin side down, and sear until nicely browned, about 4 minutes. Place the skillet in the oven without turning the salmon.

Pour about 3/4 of the vinaigrette over the salad and toss. Divide the salad up onto 4 dinner plates. When the salmon is just cooked through, but still a bit pink in the center take it from the oven (probably about 4 minutes of oven time). Place one fillet, skin side up, on each salad. Drizzle the remaining vinaigrette over each fillet. Garnish with the chopped fennel tops. Serve right away.

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Recipes:

Pears with Star Anise, Vanilla, and White Wine, Served with Fresh Goat Cheese
Pears Poached with Bay Leaf, Orange Peel, and Rosé Wine, Served with Mascarpone and Pine Nuts
Pears Poached with Thyme, Cassis, and Honey, Served with Young Pecorino Cheese
Pears Poached with Rosé Wine and Cardamom, Served with Crème Fraiche
Pears Poached with Red Wine, Rosemary, and Black Pepper
Pears Poached with Marsala and Cinnamon, Served with Ricotta Cream and Pistachios

Lately I’ve been poaching a lot of pears in a variety of wines, herbs, and spices. They have a very Christmasy smell, reminding me of the hot spiced wine people served at holiday parties during the l970s (though not my family; they took their wine straight). Trying to figure out what combinations of wine and flavorings taste best I’ve gotten a bit carried away with this pear project, and actually at the moment I don’t even want to smell another pear. But I’d like to pass my best recipe discoveries on to you. (more…)

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The Double Life of Meatballs

Recipes:

Sicilian-Styled Grilled Meatballs with Lemon Peel and Bay Leaf
Currant and Pine Nut Meatballs with Escarole Salad
Ziti and Meatballs in a Rosemary Marsala Sauce

The aroma of polpettine, meatballs, frying in olive oil is one of the vivid taste memories of my childhood. A scent arises the moment the meatballs hit the hot oil, and an enticing sourness is released when the pecorino or provolone cheese that has been mixed in gets slightly scorched. These were the smells of Sunday supper. Every Italian American I’ve talked to about this memory has recalled their urge to grab a few just-seared meatballs and eat them before they got lowered into the big pot of dark red sauce to simmer. It was like licking frosting off the mixer blades before it went on the cake. Anyone who grew up in a family where they were prepared regularly knows that meatballs led two lives. In the first life they were crisp, juicy, greasy, with a core of pink, snatched hot from the pan. That was the appetizer of choice for me, with all its flavors, including cheese, garlic, parsley, and even a hint of nutmeg, vibrant and defined. The second life, really the main event, was when the finished dish arrived at the table, with the meatballs transformed by gentle simmering in sauce into tender, suave mouthfuls, infused with wine, tomato, and herbs.

One mellowly simmered meatball dish my mother often made when I was a kid included potatoes, string beans, and a winey tomato sauce. She made the meatballs with a mix of beef chuck and ground pork and sometimes included pine nuts and raisins, a custom of her father’s Sicilian family. I often make them that way, adding a pinch of cinnamon to round out all the flavors (this recipe can be found in my book The Flavors of Southern Italy). I also fondly remember baby meatballs simmered in a light broth along with bitter greens like dandelions or escarole. As a child I thought that a very refined dish. And my family served more rustic-style meatballs simmered in tomato sauce and presented alongside a bowl of penne or ziti dressed with some of the sauce. These meatballs were seasoned with a generous hit of pecorino, parsley, and nutmeg. Occasionally the meatballs appeared as a second course, after the pasta, accompanied by a vegetable such as broccoli rabe. I make versions of that classic dish all the time, playing with the seasoning, changing it to suit my mood. The one I offer you here is flavored with the musky fall aromas of Marsala wine and rosemary.

The hot, crisp, just-cooked first-life meatball was not considered a proper meal by my family, but I make it often now. I like to serve fragrant, just-sautéed meatballs over a cool salad, a mix of slightly bitter greens such as arugula or chicory with maybe a slightly sharp lemon-juice-and-olive-oil dressing to cut the meatballs’ richness. I offer you here a version of that, borrowing the pine-nut-and-raisin meatballs from my mother’s string bean dish to plop on top. Another option, when I want meatballs in their juicy, crisp state, is to grill them. For that I make versions of a classic Sicilian recipe of meatballs skewered with lemon leaves and cooked over a flame. I can’t often find lemon leaves in my markets, but a mix of lemon peel and fresh bay leaves works fine, providing a different aroma but one that preserves the spirit of the dish.

Meatballs were created to make a little meat go a long way, and they are a classic in the Italian cucina povera kitchen, but their aroma is so enticing that I view them as an opulent treat and tend to season them elaborately. If I’m serving grilled or sautéed meatballs, I’ll include a few sprigs of fresh herbs, such as mint, marjoram, flat-leaf parsley, or a bit of rosemary or sage, for a bright and vibrant taste. Often I add a little finely chopped salami to meatballs I’m only grilling; the quick cooking keeps the salami’s rich taste strong. Lemon or orange zest in the mix provides a shot of acidity to balance the meat’s heaviness. When I’m simmering meatballs in a sauce, I sometimes add minced shallot or onion, whose raw edge will mellow with the cooking. A little shot of Marsala or red wine often finds its way into the mix too. Pine nuts with either raisins or currants make up a classic seasoning duo in Southern Italian meatball recipes, and I occasionally use a handful of chopped pistachios or almonds instead of the pine nuts. A dollop of ricotta worked into the meat lightens the texture of a simmered meatball, and spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, ground fennel seed, or a hint of clove or allspice add a roundness of flavor while also releasing some of their own essence into the sauce.

Sicilian-Style Meatballs with Lemon Peel and Bay Leaf

These meatballs are very fragrant and juicy. Keep them a bit pink in the center and serve them with rice or couscous

(Serves 4, or 5 as a main course)

1 1/2 pounds ground pork
3 thin slices of soppressata, cut into very small dice
1 large egg
1 thick slice of day old Italian bread with its crust (the inside should still be a bit moist), ground to medium crumb in a food processor
1/2 cup grated Grana Padano cheese
Leaves from 4 marjoram sprigs, lightly chopped
A few gratings of nutmeg
The grated zest from 1 small lemon
1 tablespoon dry Marsala or vermouth
1 medium garlic clove, minced
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
About 24 fresh bay leaves, preferably the Turkish variety, soaked in a small bowl of water for 5 minutes (so they don’t burn)
The zest from 2 lemons, removed in wide pieces with a swivel style peeler or a sharp paring knife (including as little white pith as possible), plus 1 lemon, cut into wedges, for garnish
6 8-inch metal skewers (wooden ones are fine, but you’ll need to soak them in water for a few minutes so they don’t burn)

In a large bowl combine the ground pork, soppressata, egg, ground bread, Grana Padano, marjoram, nutmeg, lemon zest, Marsala or vermouth, and garlic. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, add a tablespoon of olive oil, and mix everything with your hands just until all the ingredients are well distributed. Form the mixture into approximately 1-inch meatballs (you should get about two dozen meatballs). Skewer the meatballs, putting a bay leaf and a piece of lemon peel between each one (use 6 skewers with only 4 meatballs on each for easy handling).

Season the skewers lightly with salt and a little fresh black pepper and drizzle them with olive oil.

Grill over medium heat on either an outdoor grill or a stovetop grill plate. Turn the skewers 4 times so they’re nicely browned all around. The total grilling time should be about 8 minutes. When they’re done they should have a very slight pinkness in the center.

Currant and Pine Nut Meatballs with Escarole Salad

I’ve made these meatballs without any bread filler, but include instead a little ricotta, which keeps them moist and light. They make for a casual meal meant to be shared with family or close friends who don’t mind straight-from-the-skillet informality, as the meatballs need to be plopped right on top of a waiting salad the second they’re browned and hot.

I like to serve them with a side of hot sauce. I usually have a tube of harisa, the Moroccan red-pepper sauce, hanging around the kitchen, and I thin it with a little hot water or broth and dab a bit on the meatballs.

(Serves 5 as a main course)

For the meatballs:

1 1/2 pounds ground pork
1/4 cup currants soaked in about 2 tablespoons dry white wine
1/4 cup pine nuts, plus a handful lightly toasted for garnish
A pinch of ground cinnamon (less than 1/8 teaspoon)
A drizzle of honey (about 1/4 teaspoon)
1/2 cup grated pecorino
1 garlic clove, minced
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/3 cup whole-milk ricotta
About 6 basil leaves, well chopped
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus about 1/2 cup more for sautéing
Salt
A pinch of cayenne pepper

For the salad:

1 large head escarole, cut into bite-size pieces
1 small shallot, thinly sliced
12 sweet cherry tomatoes, left whole (to echo the shape of the meatballs)
A small palmful of capers
1 teaspoon red-wine vinegar
A pinch of sugar
Salt
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients for the meatballs. Mix everything together quickly with your fingers, just until all the flavors are well distributed (overworking them can make them cook up a little tough). Form into 1-inch meatballs and refrigerate until you plan on sautéing them (since there’s no bread in them, the mix is a bit soft; keeping them refrigerated helps firm them up).

When you’re ready to assemble the salad, set out five large salad plates. In a large salad bowl, combine the escarole, shallot, cherry tomatoes, and capers. Pour the vinegar into a small bowl. Add a pinch of sugar and a slightly larger pinch of salt. Add the olive oil and whisk to blend.

In a large skillet, heat about 1/2 inch of olive oil over medium high flame. When the oil is hot, add the meatballs (if the skillet gets too crowded, do the meatballs in batches). Brown them all over, leaving them slightly pink at the center. This should take about 5 minutes of occasional turning. As they brown, place them on paper towels to absorb the excess oil.

Grind a little fresh black pepper over the escarole, add the dressing, and toss. Divide the salad up onto the plates. Place a few meatballs around each salad and garnish with toasted pine nuts. Serve right away.

Ziti and Meatballs in a Rosemary Marsala Sauce

When I’ve ordered pasta with meatballs in Southern Italy I’ve always been served it not with spaghetti but with a chunky, sturdy pasta like ziti or rigatoni, and the meatballs have almost always been on a separate plate. That’s how it was served in my family too. The flavors of Marsala and rosemary give this dish, to my culinary mind, the taste of autumn.

(Serves 4 or 5)

For the meatballs:

3/4 pound ground beef chuck
3/4 pound ground veal
3 very thin slices Prosciutto di Parma, excess fat removed and saved to use in the sauce, and the meat well chopped
1 small shallot, minced
The leaves from 1 medium sprig rosemary, minced
The leaves from a few large flat-leaf parsley sprigs, well chopped
1 clove, ground to powder
1 large egg
1/2 cup grated Grana Padano cheese
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus about 1/2 cup for sautéing the meatballs

For the sauce:

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
The prosciutto fat from the meatball recipe, well chopped
1 large shallot, minced
1 small carrot, peeled and cut into small dice
1 large garlic clove, very thinly sliced
2 large sprigs of rosemary, left whole
1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
1 clove, ground to powder
1/2 cup dry Marsala
2 28-ounce cans plum tomatoes, with juice, pulsed in a food processor until roughly chopped
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
The leaves from a few large flat-leaf parsley sprigs, lightly chopped
1 large chunk of Grana Padano cheese for grating

1 pound ziti, penne, or rigatoni

To make the meatballs: Put all the ingredients in a large bowl and mix with your hands just until everything is well distributed. Make sure to season well with salt and black pepper. Shape the mix into approximately half-inch balls and refrigerate until you cook them.

To make the sauce: In a large saucepot or casserole, heat the 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the prosciutto fat, shallot, and carrot and sauté until the vegetables have softened and the fat has dissolved, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, rosemary, bay leaf, and ground clove and sauté a minute or so longer, just until fragrant. Add the Marsala and let it boil for a few seconds. Add the tomatoes, season with salt and black pepper, and cook at a lively simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes.

While the sauce is simmering, set up a large skillet over medium-high flame and pour in the half cup of olive oil. When the oil is hot add the meatballs and brown them all over (you may need to do this in batches). When the meatballs are browned add them to the sauce, turn the heat down to low, and simmer, partially covered, until tender, about 35 minutes. Taste the sauce, adding a bit more salt and some freshly ground pepper if needed.

Set up a large pot of water for cooking the pasta and add a generous amount of salt. Bring to a boil and add the ziti.

Scoop the meatballs from the pot, along with some sauce, into a large serving bowl. Garnish with the chopped parsley. Keep warm.

When the ziti is al dente, drain it and add it to the sauce, giving everything a good toss over low heat to blend all the flavors. Transfer the ziti to a large warmed serving bowl and grate a little Grana Padano on top.

Serve the ziti first, with the remaining chunk of Grana Padano brought to the table, and then bring out the meatballs with a vegetable such as sautéed escarole or broccoli rabe, or a green salad.

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Recipes:

Chanterelle and Arugula Salad with Parmigiano and Cognac
Bruschetta with Mushrooms and Mascarpone
Mushrooms and Fennel Braised with Sweet Wine
Chanterelles Braised with String Beans and Tomatoes
Tagliatelle with Chanterelles, Dry Vermouth, and Prosciutto
Spaghetti with Roasted Pepper and Basil Purée

Several years ago, when I was in southeastern Sicily in a town called Gangi, I saw several locals traipsing through the woods hunting for mushrooms. I assumed they were gathering porcinis, and since I sadly happen to be highly allergic to porcinis, their activity struck me more as a threat than as a pleasure. But when I asked I learned that they were foraging for the pastel-orange chanterelles that Italians call finferli. They grow wild in that area. They looked very much like the fancy grocery-store chanterelles I was used to cooking, so I bravely ate some for dinner that night at a local restaurant. They were absolutely delicious simply sautéed with garlic and parsley, and I felt fine afterward. A few years later during the early fall I was in upstate New York, near Phoenicia, at an inn my husband and I have been going to for years, and the French owner told us that she’d been hunting for chanterelles in the woods all morning and had found so many she had put them on the evening menu. I was very surprised to learn that these special mushrooms grow wild only a few hours from Manhattan. After several very bad adventures in porcine eating, I’m always a little hesitant to try any wild mushroom, especially those collected by an amateur mycologist, but my memory of the wild chanterelles in Sicily gave me courage and desire. The upstate chanterelles looked identical to the ones I had tried in Sicily, but the kitchen prepared them French style, seeped in cream and cognac and finished with a flurry of tarragon; they tasted almost fruity.I went mushroom hunting for the first time this September in Duchess County, New York, near Rhinebeck, with a friend who had recently become interested in this pursuit. He showed me the cinnabar chanterelles that grew in clusters near logs in his woodsy backyard. They were about a quarter of the size of the more familiar peachy-beige chanterelles and their color was a brilliant pinky orange. They did however share the trademark chanterelle trumpet shape, and they smelled and tasted and looked very much like the larger ones. Also, they kept their bright color after cooking, though I did find their texture just a touch slippery. (more…)

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Recipes:

Italian Sausages with Grilled Grapes and Rosemary
Grilled Zucchini a Scapece
Potato Salad with Summer Garlic
Cantaloupe with Sweet Marsala

Italian Sausages with Grilled Grapes and Rosemary

Buy two or three Italian pork sausages per person. Place them on a medium grill about 3 or 4 inches from the flame, and grill them, turning them several times, until they’re browned all over and cooked through, about 10 minutes. While the sausages are grilling, place a large handful of seedless red grapes, a few small sprigs of chopped rosemary, a drizzle of olive oil, a pinch of salt, and a few grindings of black pepper on a large piece of aluminum foil. Close up the foil, and place the package on a low-heat area of the grill. Heat just until the grapes are fragrant and starting to soften but not fall apart, about 4 minutes. Place the sausages on a serving platter, and pour the grapes on top, along with any juices they’ve thrown off. Serve hot.

Grilled Zucchini a Scapece

The Sicilian term a scapece refers to a method of cooking where you sauté something, usually a vegetable, and then marinate it in vinegar, garlic, mint, or basil, or sometimes hot chilies. You then serve it at room temperature. For a grilled version, cut 4 medium-sized zucchini horizontally into approximately 1/4-inch slices (you want long, thin strips), brush them with olive oil, and grill them on a low area of the fire just until grill marks appear, turning once, about 2 minutes per side. Lay the slices on a platter. Sprinkle them with a bit of chopped fresh garlic, salt, and black pepper. Drizzle on a bit of good white wine or champagne vinegar (not more than about 1/2 teaspoon), and add a drizzle of fresh olive oil. Scatter on chopped mint leaves. Let the dish sit for about 15 minutes before serving, so it can develop flavor.

Potato Salad with Summer Garlic

I often wrap little new potatoes or fingerlings in aluminum foil and throw them on the grill, but making a simple potato salad with fresh herbs and summer garlic is easy enough too, and I love that. What you want to do is cut about 1 1/2 pounds or so of small potatoes in half and place them in a pot of warm water with a generous amount of salt. Put the pot on the hottest part of the grill and bring it to a boil. Cook until tender, about 12 minutes. Drain very well, and place the potatoes in a serving bowl. Sprinkle about a tablespoon of white wine over the potatoes and give them a toss. Let them sit for a few minutes, soaking up the wine. Place a heaping tablespoon of bottled mayonnaise into a small bowl, along with about a teaspoon of Dijon mustard. Add a finely minced summer garlic clove and a thinly sliced shallot. Now slowly drizzle in about a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil, whisking to blend it well (it’s amazing how a bit of good olive oil can make jarred mayonnaise taste like homemade). Season with salt and black pepper. Add a few chopped sprigs each of flat-leaf parsley and tarragon, and mix everything well. Pour this over the potatoes and toss. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Cantaloupe with Sweet Marsala

Here’s an amazing flavor combination I learned about in Sicily. Take a ripe summer cantaloupe, seed it, and cut it into small cubes (you can use a melon baller if you have one). Place the cantaloupe in a serving bowl, and pour on about 1/2 cup of sweet Marsala. Toss and let sit for a few minutes to develop flavor before serving. Garnish with mint sprigs, if you like.

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Recipes:

Lamb Spiedini with Peppers, Savory, and Ricotta Salata on Herb Salad
Grilled Eggplant Salad
Grilled Plums with Grappa and Mascarpone

Lamb Spiedini with Peppers, Savory, and Ricotta Salata on Herb Salad

Leg of lamb is perfect for grilling. It is tender and cooks quickly. You can grill a large, boneless piece or cut it into chunks for kebabs. For this dish, take about 2 pounds of boneless leg of lamb and cut it into approximately 2-inch chunks. Skewer them on four long skewers, alternating them with pieces of green bell pepper and sweet onion (Vidalia, for instance). Lay these spiedini (spiedini is Italian for shish kebab) on a platter, drizzle them with olive oil, and give them a splash of red wine. Grate on some lemon zest, and sprinkle on a few chopped sprigs of summer savory. Sprinkle a tiny bit of sugar over the spiedini (this will help them brown), and let them marinate for about 1/2 hour before cooking.

Grill the spiedini over medium heat about 3 or 4 inches from the coals. Season them with salt and black pepper as you turn them. You want a nice browned crust all around, but the middle should still be pink (aim for medium rare). About 10 to 12 minutes of grilling should do it.

While the spiedini are grilling, place a large bunch of flat-leaf parsley leaves, a smaller amount of basil leaves, and a few mint leaves or some tarragon on a large platter. You want enough whole herb leaves to make a nice bed for the spiedini. Dress with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice, salt, and black pepper. Place the spiedini on top, and scatter crumbled ricotta salata over the top of everything. Serve right away.

Grilled Eggplant Salad

Choose eggplants that are long and on the thin side. Coat three medium eggplants with olive oil and place them on a medium-low grill about 3 to 4 inches from the coals. Grill them slowly, turning them often, until they’re charred all over and soft through when poked with a knife. This should take about 20 minutes. At the same time grill a red bell pepper and a jalapeño pepper until charred all over. Skin the peppers and the eggplants, removing as much black as possible. Chop the peppers into small bits, and place them along with the eggplant in a serving bowl. Add a dollop of yogurt, a minced shallot, a minced garlic clove, salt, pepper, a squeeze of lemon juice, a tiny drizzle of honey, and a pinch of cinnamon. Add about a tablespoon of fresh olive oil and a few chopped mint and parsley leaves, and mix everything together. Serve with pita bread that you’ve lightly toasted on the grill.

Grilled Plums with Grappa and Mascarpone

Halve about 2 plums per person and remove their pits. Place them in a bowl, and add a drizzle of olive oil, a splash of grappa, and a tablespoon of sugar. Toss. Place the plums, cut side down, on a low grill, preferably a clean part where no meat was cooked. Grill slowly until grill marks appear and the fruit feels just slightly softened, about 4 minutes. Place the plums on a platter, sprinkle with a bit more grappa, and fill each plum with a dollop of mascarpone. Garnish with mint or basil sprigs. Eat hot.

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