Archive for the ‘2006’ Category

Sweet Little Strawberries


Tristar strawberries at the Union Square Greenmarket.


Strawberry and Watercress Salad with Pine Nuts and Chives
Strawberry Salad with Goat Cheese, Black Olives, and Basil
Frittata with Strawberries and Ricotta

I’ve enjoyed many highs, both natural and wine-induced, in Rome, my favorite city in the world. Culinary adventure has for many years been at the center of my life, and I try to scrape enough funds together to go back to Italy as often as I can. I’ve had the great fortune to be in Rome in the Spring when their fragoline di bosco, little strawberries cultivated from a wild variety, are in season. We stay at a hotel in the Aventino, one of the hills just outside downtown. Down the hill, in the Testaccio neighborhood, there’s a family-style trattoria with a boho edge to it called Cestia that I love. It’s right near the Protestant Cemetery, where John Keats and Gregory Corso are buried, and very close to the Pyramid of Cestius, built in 30 B.C. (hence the name of the restaurant), a still shockingly out-of-place structure even after I’ve gaped at it for many years. (more…)

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Potato Salad and Me

Potato salad.
Baby Yukon Gold Potato Salad with Tarragon, White Wine, and Shallots


Baby Yukon Gold Salad with Tarragon, White Wine, and Shallots
Red Bliss Potato Salad with Anchovies and Celery Leaves
Creamer Potato Salad with String Beans, Basil, and Pine Nuts
Fingerling Potato Salad with Capers, Red Onion, and Rosemary
Baby Yukon Gold Potato Salad with Marjoram, Roasted Tomatoes, and Summer Garlic
Red Bliss Potato Salad with Pancetta and Purslane

Today I reaffirmed my love of my own potato salads by making another of my olive-oil-based ones, this one seasoned with just shallots and tarragon. I know it sounds haughty, but hardly anyone I know makes potato salads as good as mine. Did I say that? But I have worked out a simple fragrance-producing technique that’s open to all sorts of improvisational touches, and if I keep the ingredients down to a minimum, the results always seem to please me very much.

My technique turns out clean potato salads in the Mediterranean tradition. Wine, lemon, and extra-virgin olive oil are my base flavors, the ones that produce the salads’ fragrant underpinnings. I usually start by dressing warm potatoes with wine and giving them a toss. Then comes olive oil, and maybe some lemon. Then I move on to my improvisations, which can include garlic, all sorts of onion things, and herbs or greens. I may then include stronger touches, including anchovies, capers, or pancetta. But that’s about as complicated as I get. I like to taste the waxy little potatoes through my simple seasonings.

I have to admit I didn’t start out loving potato salads. Not until I began making them myself. I grew up on New York deli potato salads, usually with mayonnaise, sometimes with hard-boiled eggs too, and often with chopped pickles. They were mushy and mayonnaisy and seemed gross. Even the “German” versions were peculiar, if slightly better, with bacon and paprika, but they were usually way too vinegary for me.

Where were the potato salads of my dreams? I knew they were out there, but not until I picked up Hemingway’s A Movable Feast when I was in high school and read his description of the oil-soaked, dripping bowls of potato salad he’d wolfed down with cold beers at the Brasserie Lipp in Paris did I begin to feel I’d been really gypped. After that enlightening read I began researching the subject, primarily in French cookbooks (and in a few Italian ones too), and I found loads of recipes for boiled potatoes tossed with good olive oil, a shallot, a few herbs. That was the taste I had been looking for.

It’s funny, though, because I knew that somewhere in my taste memory this type of dish was familiar to me. Eventually I realized why. My grandmother had used to make potatoes this way all the time, serving them at room temperature, sometimes with onion or garlic, with bits of anchovy or capers, or with parsley, oregano, or basil, but since nobody ever referred to that as a salad it never occurred to me that the object of my desire had been staring me right in the face. What I was looking for was already mine. I just had to bring it back into my life. This revelation occurred many years ago, but these potato salads are still a huge favorite of mine, especially in the summer with all the just-dug little potatoes at the Greenmarket.

So now that I’ve come full circle and sorted it all out, I offer you a few of the potato salad improvisations I’ve been coming up with lately, all based on summer produce. Use my Baby Yukon Gold Salad with Tarragon, White Wine, and Shallots as a master recipe. All the subsequent recipes are just variations, using the same basic technique as the first one.

Baby Yukon Gold Potato Salad with Tarragon, White Wine, and Shallots

(All the recipes serve 4, or 5 as a side dish)

2 pounds small Yukon gold potatoes, cut in half lengthwise
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
A squeeze of fresh lemon juice
2 small shallots, very thinly sliced
Freshly ground black pepper
A few scrapings of nutmeg
10 good size tarragon sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped

The most important step in preparing any of these potato salads is the cooking of the potatoes. Put them in a medium-size pot and cover them with cool water about 2 inches above them. Add a generous sprinkling of salt, and bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat just slightly, and let the potatoes boil, uncovered, until they’re just tender when poked with a sharp knife. Try not to cook them any longer or their skins will start to fall off and the potatoes themselves will fall apart. I like them to retain a firm, waxy texture. They also look very pretty smooth, uncrumbling, and glistening with their dressing. Most small potatoes cut in half, like the kinds I suggest for these salads, take about 5 to 6 minutes of boiling, but check after 4 minutes. When they start to smell like potatoes, you know they’re almost there.

Drain the potatoes in a colander until fairly dry (without shaking them, since that can break them up), and transfer them to a large serving bowl. Pour on the white wine, and toss gently. Let the warm potatoes sit soaking up the wine for about 2 or 3 minutes (pour off any excess). Drizzle on the olive oil and the squeeze of lemon juice. Add the shallots, nutmeg, black pepper, and tarragon, and give them another gentle toss. Taste to see if they need more salt. Serve warm or at room temperature. This sort of potato salad is best made not too long before serving and not refrigerated. I love this tarragon-flavored salad served with grilled or roasted chicken (and the chicken maybe seasoned with a little mustard and a bit of tarragon or parsley).

Red Bliss Potato Salad with Anchovies and Celery Leaves

Cook two pounds of red bliss potatoes (or any other small red potatoes) as in the above recipe, and drain. Place them in a serving bowl and toss with a teaspoon of sherry wine vinegar, two tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, four or five chopped anchovy fillets, one thinly sliced shallot, a handful of chopped celery leaves, and a few chopped thin, inner celery stalks. Season with a bit of cayenne or Aleppo pepper, and toss. You probably won’t need any extra salt. Serve warm or at room temperature. This salad is great alongside an oily fish. Try grilled sardines or mackerel or bluefish, possibly baked with chopped tomatoes and white wine.

Creamer Potato Salad with String Beans, Basil, and Pine Nuts

Cook two pounds of small creamer potatoes (or another small beige potato) as in the recipe at top, and drain. Place them in a serving bowl, and add a teaspoon of lemon juice, two tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, a small, minced summer garlic clove, two chopped scallions, and a handful of blanched string beans. Season with a pinch of salt and black pepper, and toss gently. Add a handful of basil, cut into thin strips, and a scattering of toasted pine nuts. Toss again. Serve warm or at room temperature. The last time I made this I served it with tuna steaks, grilled rare, sliced, and dressed with lemon zest and olive oil.

Fingerling Potato Salad with Capers, Red Onion, and Rosemary

Cook two pounds of fingerlings as in the recipe at top, drain well, and then place in a serving bowl. Pour on 1/4 cup of rosé wine, and give it a toss. Let this sit for about 3 minutes; then drain off any excess wine. Now add a few very thin slices of red onion, a palmful of capers, three small sprigs of chopped rosemary, two tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, 1/4 teaspoon of Dijon mustard, a pinch of sugar, a few scrapings of nutmeg, and some black pepper. Toss gently. Add a little salt if needed. Serve warm or at room temperature. This salad is at its best served with sautéed or grilled sausage, especially lightly smoked sausage or a good Italian pork sausage.

Baby Yukon Gold Potato Salad with Marjoram, Roasted Tomatoes, and Summer Garlic

Chop four plum tomatoes into small cubes and place them on a cookie sheet. Drizzle with a little olive oil, and sprinkle with salt. Roast in a preheated 400 degree oven until they’re lightly browned at the edges, about 10 minutes.

Cook two pounds of small Yukon gold potatoes as in the recipe at top, and drain. Place them in a serving bowl, and pour on 1/4 cup of dry vermouth, giving them a toss. Let the warm potatoes sit soaking up the vermouth for about 3 minutes and then drain off any excess. Now add two tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, a large, minced fresh summer garlic clove, the lightly chopped leaves from four marjoram sprigs, a pinch of salt, black pepper, and the roasted tomatoes, and give everything another toss. Serve warm or at room temperature. This is excellent with grilled, boneless leg of lamb or with pork chops sautéed with a few sliced summer bell peppers.

Red Bliss Potato Salad with Pancetta and Purslane

Cut two thin slices of pancetta into small cubes and sauté them in a tablespoon of olive oil until brown and crisp (but not black). Cook two pounds of red bliss potatoes (or another small red skinned potato) as in the recipe at top, drain well, and place in a serving bowl. Add the pancetta with its cooking oil, a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil, a generous squeeze of lemon juice, a pinch of salt, and some black pepper, and toss gently. Now add a small handful of purslane* torn into little bunches, two chopped scallions, and the chopped leaves from a few large thyme sprigs. Toss again. Serve warm or at room temperature. I love this one with grilled salmon.

*Purslane is a summer succulent that has a great crunch and a refreshing lemony tang. I find it at farmers’ markets beginning in July and in some highbrow supermarkets. If you can’t locate it, a handful of chopped dandelion greens will work well instead.






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Smooth Green Soup

Arugula and leek soup.
Cold arugula and leek soup with lemon olive oil.


Zucchini Soup with Basil Oil and Pistachio
Asparagus Soup with Tarragon and Whipped Goat Cheese
Cold Arugula and Leek Soup with Lemon Olive Oil

At the beginning of my cooking career, I went on a kick of making puréed soups in my mother’s old blender (the same one my parents used for whiskey sours). I thought puréed soups were very fancy, because we didn’t have them at home. They weren’t standard Southern Italian fare, and they were smooth and elegant, what I then thought of as French, so different from the thick, lumpy, chunky soups we ate, the ones filled with little pasta shapes, beans, cheese, and whatever vegetables were on hand, your basic Italian-American minestrone. (My smooth soup era coincided with my fettuccine Alfredo kick, and I ate so much of that then that it’s now, even 30 years later, something I can no longer stand the smell of). (more…)

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Sardinian artichokes.
Sardinian artichokes, spring 2005.


Spring Minestrone with Lamb, Tarragon, and Quadrucci
Artichokes with Squid, Potatoes, and Fennel Seed
Chicken with Morels, Coriander, and Nutmeg

I recently started a collection of little tagine-like spice jars (see my April photo) in deep, bold enameled colors, which are not spring colors. I’ve picked these pretty little containers up at various Moroccan shops in the city. I really can’t tell you what the connection might be to politics or to misery, but they’ve strangely gotten my mind somewhat off of the continuing death in Iraq. These little mini-tagines have even been appearing in my dreams, and in their true colors, purple, orange, deep red, replacing, to some extent, the mutilated-body nightmares I was experiencing. Dreaming about them and filling them with spices and looking at them have helped me to turn my attention to May cooking in a big way and retain a somewhat cheerful disposition, even as the spoiled brats in charge of our government have me in a state of rage. I understand this is me changing the subject, but I’ve attended a few antiwar protests in the past two years, have gathered with the 80 or so people who assemble in Union Square every few months (and their number won’t grow any bigger, I’m certain, unless Bush reinstates the draft), and I get a sinking, helpless feeling, so I might as well cook my way through the heartache. (more…)

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Aleppo pepper, sea salt, and Turkish pepper.
Aleppo pepper from Syria, Ravida’s Sicilian sea salt, and Maras Biber Turkish pepper, all from Kalustyan’s.


Veal Stew with Saffron, Basil, and Hedgehog Mushrooms
Linguine with Cockles, Saffron, and Rosemary

Orange Salad with Vanilla, Orange Flower Water, and Mint
Ciambella with Rosemary, Orange, and Vanilla

There’s a Middle Eastern and Indian grocery store on the East Side of Manhattan in the Twenties called Kalustyan’s (the area is referred to as Curry Hill, since it’s near Murray Hill and is loaded with Indian restaurants and shops). It’s a longish but scenic walk from my apartment, and I go there often, usually to buy things like Turkish pine nuts, Aleppo pepper, saffron, rose-water candies, or fresh dates on their stalks flown in from California (if you’ve never tasted a fresh date, you really should find a way to try one; they’re smooth and glossy skinned, but oozy and sweet inside; however, you’ll have to wait until late summer, when they’re in season). Often I stop into Kalustyan’s just to inhale the aroma of the packets of ground Indian and Middle Eastern spices (and to admire their gorgeous burnished colors, especially the various red hues of the dried peppers). This almost always perks me up when I’ve got a lagging culinary spirit, or just a messed up head in general. (more…)

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Orange and Rosemary

Florida oranges and me.


Orange Sorbetto with Vanilla and Rosemary
Mussels with Orange, Vanilla, Cream, and Rosemary
Lamb Stew with Orange, Rosemary, and Black Olives

Several years ago I jotted down a line in the food notebook I keep on my computer. I wrote, “Think about orange salad with vanilla and rosemary.” This was a dish that caught my attention as I flipped through Daniel Boulud’s Café Boulud Cookbook. A strange mix of flavors, I thought at the time. Then I wrote, “LOOK INTO THIS,” all in capitals. But the thought just sat there on my computer, slightly threatening with its upper-case verve, unexplored until this January, when my mother sent me a box of honeybell oranges from Florida. (more…)

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Lobster with tomatoes, cognac, and spaghetti.


Lobster with Tomatoes, Cognac, and Spaghetti
Slow-Cooked Duck with Green Olive Sauce

In the coldest part of every year I pull from my shelf James Villas’s l992 book The French Country Kitchen. I love this book both for what it is as for what it isn’t. What it isn’t is my kind of cooking. It’s eggy and buttery, full of duck fat and sausages. What it is is, among other things, a reminder to cook with turnips and cabbages and apples, things that don’t automatically run through my Italian-American mind. Winter is when my usual array of Mediterranean vegetables and herbs fails me, and this book is there for inspiration. (more…)

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My Flavor Diary

Pressed panini.
Pressed panini with fontina and prosciutto.


Baked Cavatappi with Fennel, Tomato, and Mozzarella
Pressed Panini with Fontina, Prosciutto, and Sweet Green Olivata
Pressed Mozzarella and Salami Panini with Sweet Vinegar Peppers

For years I’ve kept a file on my computer called “Food to Think About.” It’s a running journal of notes on foods or ingredients I’ve become interested in and want to learn more about, or specific dishes I’ve heard of or dreamt of and want to make sure I get around to making. I keep adding to it, and it gets longer and longer. From early November there’s an entry that just says, “tomatoes with fennel. Check Olney for Provencal combinations.” Olney means Richard Olney’s wonderful 1993 book Provence the Beautiful, a big coffee-table thing that is a lot richer and more nuanced than you’d think from its cover, in keeping with the high standards Olney always attained with his writing. I refer to it often for inspiration. I went back and checked Olney for the tomato-and-fennel recipe I thought I remembered, but it wasn’t there. It was in some other Provence book, but I couldn’t figure out which. I think this fennel-tomato idea became a fixation when the weather was turning cold because I wanted to hold onto some summer flavor, but I let the thought drift to the back of my culinary mind until December, when I needed to make a dish to feed a crowd for a fiftieth birthday party I was giving, for my friend Barbara. A baked pasta seemed like a good idea, so I plunged in and gave it the fennel-tomato treatment I’d been ruminating over, and a very good recipe was born (and a good time was had by all). Tomato does something very interesting to the taste of fennel; it cuts its sweetness and adds acidity, blending the best of both vegetables, creating a unique vegetable taste. Basil is a perfect herb to add to this combo since it has an anisey flavor that heightens fennel’s fennely one. (more…)

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