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Women with Fish


Isabella Blow wearing her lobster hat.

I haven’t cooked lobster in quite a while. It has come down in price, and you’d think that would be inspiring, and it is, but the real reason is that I’ve become incapable of bringing a live thing into my kitchen and killing it. I understand this is a sort of retro attitude, with all the farm-to-table philosophy floating around out there in foodie world (especially in Manhattan, wouldn’t you know). But I’ve become a softy, and killing has become so difficult that even waterbugs are too much for my sensitive self. And forget about the occasional mouse that’s idiotic enough to wander into this cat-filled apartment. I’ve found myself snatching them from my cat’s mouth and trying to somehow relocate them out onto the sidewalk. I’m not becoming a vegetarian. I just want someone else, like a professional butcher, to perform my carnage. Maybe it’s got something to do with years of restaurant cooking, years of drowning live eels in vinegar, plunging knives in between lobsters’ eyes, slicing the mouths off soft-shelled crabs. In the kind of quantity that was needed for restaurant service, that all left a lingering feeling of personal genocide in my culinary soul.

But I think I will prepare lobster soon, probably with spaghetti. That way I can feed a group without having to procure a lot of lobsters. And I’ll ask my lobster seller to par-steam them for me. The wimp’s way out. That way they’ll be more or less raw when I hack them up—which is necessary for sautéing unless you want a rubbery lobster—but they’ll already be dead, like the gorgeous specimen on Miss Blow’s hat, and, sadly, like the gorgeous Miss Blow herself. Art certainly has its tragic side, and when the pursuit of it becomes just too sad, I find myself having to step back and let myself be a very good home cook and not always the kitchen artist I’ve at times considered myself to be. Be a good home cook. That is my New Year’s resolution. A new lobster pasta recipe will be up shortly.

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Happy New Year



A lentil field in Castelluccio, Umbria, covered with poppies.

A happy New Year to all my Italian food–loving friends. As many of you already know, New Year’s dinner in Italy revolves around lentils. Lenticchie, with their round shape, represent prosperity. They’re traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day to bring wealth and good fortune. I’ll be cooking up a pot of my much-loved Castelluccio lentils from Umbria this New Year (you can find them at many Italian specialty stores and at www.buonitalia.com). These beautiful greenish beige lentils keep their cute round coin shape when cooked, and they taste earthy and rich, especially with zampone or cotechino, two fresh sausages from Modena, the former stuffed into a pig’s trotter, that are also part of the Italian New Year’s good luck table. I got myself a cotechino, too, since I need all the luck I can get. And if you’d like to visit someplace spectacular, take a trip to Castelluccio in the Spring, when the valley will resemble this photo. If you’ve ever seen the somewhat sappy Zeffirelli movie ‘Brother Sun, Sister Moon’, about the life of Saint Francis, you might recognize the scenery. The entire thing was shot in Castelluccio.

I’ll see you next year with more recipes and tales from my Italian kitchen.

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Christmas in Alberobello, Puglia.

Recipe: Spaghetti with Bottarga, Lemon Zest, and Parsley

Are you a bit frantic this year trying to pull together a fabulous La Vigilia, the Christmas Eve fish feast, not even having the time to think out a decent menu? Well I am, but I’ve got a tip for you: Think bottarga, think spaghetti. Put them together and you’ve got an elegant Christmas Eve first course that prepares in the time it takes to boil the pasta.

If you’ve never brought a piece of bottarga into your home before, it’s time to start. Bottarga is salted fish roe. It has a lovely fishy flavor, it’s as elegant as fresh caviar, and it looks pretty shaved over pasta. If you love anchovies (and who doesn’t?), you’ll love this too, possibly even more. You add it to the pasta at the last minute, so it doesn’t start to cook and lose its deep, complex flavor.

Sicilian bottarga is salted, preserved tuna roe. In Sardinia it’s made from mullet. I kind of prefer the Sardinian version to the Sicilian. It’s a little less straight-on salty, and it’s richer and moister. It’s also a bit sweeter, lacking the slight bitter edge the Sicilian type can have (some people prefer that taste, but I don’t). You can purchase both Sicilian and Sardinian bottarga through Buonitalia.com. What you want to avoid is the pre-ground, powdered bottarga that comes in little plastic bags. It’s made from cruddy end cuts that are dehydrated and pulverized and sold to tourists in overpriced food shops in Sicily (I’ve also seen it at the Buon Italia store, in Chelsea Market). That stuff is a complete waste of money.

Everyone have a very Merry Christmas.


Sardinian bottarga.

Spaghetti with Bottarga, Lemon Zest, and Parsley

(Serves 5 as a first course)

Salt
1 pound spaghetti
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 large garlic cloves, very thinly sliced
1 large fresh red peperoncino, minced, including the seeds
¼ cup dry vermouth
The grated zest from 2 large lemons
About 4 to 5 ounces of bottarga (you’ll want about ¾ cup shaved)
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, the leaves lightly chopped

Put up a big pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt, and drop in the spaghetti.

In a skillet large enough to hold all the spaghetti, combine the olive oil, the garlic, and the peperoncino, and cook over medium-low heat, just until everything is fragrant, about 2 minutes. You don’t want the garlic to color very much. When it starts to just turn golden, add the vermouth, let it bubble a few seconds, and then turn off the heat. Now add the lemon zest, and stir it into the oil.

When the spaghetti is al dente, drain it, and add it to the skillet. Turn the heat to low, and toss until the pasta is well coated with oil.

Transfer the spaghetti to a warmed serving bowl. Add half of the parsley, and, with a sharp vegetable peeler, shave on half of the bottarga. Toss gently. Shave the rest of the bottarga over the top, and scatter on the remaining parsley. Serve right away.

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Recipe: Baccala Mantecato for La Vigilia

Baccala mantecato, whipped preserved cod, is not a Southern Italian dish. It’s Venetian, usually made with stockfish, an air-dried cod, but since I like salt cod better (it’s less stinky and has a more familiar taste to me), I make it with that. And I whip one up almost every Christmas Eve. I like it much better than the traditional Neapolitan or Sicilian baccala presentations, where chunks of the soaked fish are simmered or baked with potatoes and onions or tomatoes and chickpeas. These dishes often taste too fishy to me, but when salt cod is puréed with good olive oil, a touch of garlic, potato, and a drizzle of cream, the result is truly voluptuous. Every family  has its favorite baccala preparation for La Vigilia, Christmas Eve, and this one has been mine for about the last 20 years (my mother refused to make any type of baccala, feeling it was just too crass for her cosmopolitan world). I learned how to make brandade, the Provençal version of whipped cod, almost identical to the Venetian dish, while cooking at Florent, the sadly now defunct French diner in the now totally obnoxious Meatpacking District of Manhattan. I change the recipe slightly every time I make it. This year I’m including lemon zest, nutmeg, and thyme. These aren’t traditional (although they do taste really good), so if you’d prefer a purer version, consider them optional (or play around with the amounts to suit your taste).

I’ve lately been seeing baccala mantecato around town at a number of Italian and French wine bars. I almost always order it when I see it, and on almost every occasion I find it too salty (not soaked long enough) or too creamy and plain (too much cream, not enough good olive oil), or way too garlicky (boy aren’t I a picky little so and so?). But, you know, if you’re going to make something that requires two days of soaking and, as an added bonus, stinks up your kitchen, you might as well make it nice. And this dish can be heaven.

And for your listening pleasure, here’s the great Louie Prima singing “Zooma Zooma Baccala.” It doesn’t get any better than that.  (Wow, is that really true?)

Baccala Mantecato for La Vigilia

(Serves 5 or 6 as an antipasto)

1½ pounds salt cod (try to find the thicker middle section, which has fewer bones to deal with)
1 fresh bay leaf
½ cup dry white wine
1 large baking potato, cooked soft, peeled, and roughly mashed
1 medium garlic clove, minced
Extra-virgin olive oil
The grated zest from 1 small lemon
A few big gratings of nutmeg
5 or 6 thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
A few tablespoons of heavy cream
¾ cup homemade, not too finely ground breadcrumbs
A handful of black olives
Toasted bread made from slices of baguette, brushed with a little olive oil

You’ll need to soak the salt cod in a big pot of cold water for about a day and a half, changing the water a bunch of times (and putting the pot in the refrigerator overnight). After this, taste a bit to see if enough salt has leeched out of it. If not, soak it a little longer. Then drain it.

Place the salt cod (cut into pieces if necessary) in a large skillet. Add the bay leaf, and pour on the white wine. Add enough cool water to just cover the cod. Bring to a boil, and then turn the heat down to very low. Cover the skillet, and gently simmer the cod until it just begins to flake. This should take only about 15 minutes, maybe even less if you’ve got thin cuts. If it cooks any longer, it might become dry. Take the cod from the skillet, and when it’s cool enough to handle, pull off the bones and the skin.

Put the cod in a food processor, and give it a couple of pulses. Add the potato, the garlic, about ¼ cup of your best olive oil, the lemon zest, thyme, nutmeg, and some black pepper. Give it a few more pulses. You want a texture that’s creamy but not completely smooth, sort of like slightly lumpy mashed potatoes. Add about 2 tablespoons of cream, and pulse again. You shouldn’t need any salt.

Scrape the brandade from the food processor, and spoon it into an olive oil–coated shallow baking dish. Top with the breadcrumbs, and drizzle the top with olive oil.

When you’re ready to serve the dish, preheat the oven to 425 degrees, and heat it through, about 10 minutes. If the breadcrumbs don’t turn golden, run it under a broiler for a minute. Scatter on the olives, and serve with the warm toasts.

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Still Life with Shrimp, by Vincent Van Gogh.

Recipe:  Shrimp with Ceci, Star Anise, and Rosemary

Every Christmas Eve I try to cook one new fish dish, one I create just for that evening. I like it to have a contemporary feel while incorporating flavors from my childhood. On that special night, big shrimp were always present on our family table, usually in some configuration involving a fair amount of garlic. That’s a good memory. I love shrimp.  I also happen to think chickpeas and shrimp make a great combination, and since lately I’ve been having a little love affair with star anise, I decided to bring these three ingredients together. Star anise is a spice of much physical and aromatic beauty, well worth getting to know. It’s amazing as a flavoring for poached pears, and also for chicken, as I’ve recently discovered (a cook’s education is never done). Falling into the anise-and-fennel category, it’s a natural for just about any type of seafood, especially, to my palate, shell fish. Use whole stars for a saucy dish like this, or grind a little to use as a rub.

I understand that Christmas Eve dinner is etched in stone for many Italians. Not a dish can be missing; everything must be prepared exactly the same year after year. I’m not like that. I change things, and I also find that I prepare fewer dishes as time goes by. (Not seven anymore, that’s for certain. Maybe three.) That’s why I like this shrimp and chickpea combo. It’s a piatto unico, but one with tons of elegance, and to my culinary memory, anise (I believe I’m thinking Sambuca here) and rosemary (pine needles?) are both aromas of Christmases past.

I think the perfect accompaniment to this rich, saucy dish is couscous, seasoned maybe with a little butter, a pinch of sugar, and fennely or anisey herbs such as basil and a small amount of tarragon or chervil.

Star anise.

Shrimp with Ceci, Star Anise, and Rosemary

(Serves  5)

Extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds large shrimp, peeled and veined, saving the shells
A splash of Sambuca (about ⅛ cup)
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A big pinch of Aleppo pepper
A pinch of sugar
4 big sprigs rosemary, the leaved chopped
1 large shallot, minced
1 small carrot, cut into small dice
1 small inner celery stalk, cut into small dice
2 whole star anise
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 cups cooked ceci beans, preferably home-made, drained
1 35-ounce can tomatoes, with the juice, well chopped
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, stemmed but left whole

Drizzle a little olive oil into a saucepan, and get it hot over medium heat. Add the shrimp shells, and sauté them until they turn pink. Add the splash of Sambuca, and let it boil away. Add a little salt and black pepper, and cover the shells with water. Boil until it’s reduced to about ½ cup or so. Strain it into a small cup.

Place the shrimp in a large bowl. Sprinkle with salt, black pepper, Aleppo (or another medium spicy dried chili), a little sugar, and about half of the chopped rosemary. Drizzle on a thread of olive oil, and toss the shrimp well so all the seasoning is dispersed.

In a skillet large enough to hold the shrimp and chickpeas, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the carrot, shallot, celery, the remaining rosemary, and the star anise. Sauté until the vegetables are soft, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and the chick peas, season with a little salt and black pepper, and sauté to blend all the flavors, about 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and the shrimp broth, turn the heat to high, and let the sauce bubble, uncovered, for about 6 or 7 minutes. Turn off the heat.

In another large skillet, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over high heat. When hot, add the shrimp, and sear them on one side. Flip them, and sear the other side. This should take only about 2 minutes. Add the shrimp to the tomato chickpea sauce. Deglaze the skillet with a splash of hot water, and add that to the sauce. Let the shrimp sit in the hot sauce for a minute to finish cooking. Taste for seasoning, and then transfer everything into a large serving bowl. Garnish with the parsley leaves. Best served right away.

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The beautiful Chiesa Madre in Vizzini, Sicily, Peter’s grandmother’s hometown.

The Italian Recipe Exchange

Recipe: Pork Chops with Broccoli, Garlic, and Black Olives

Here’s a note I got from Peter Bocchieri, a blog reader, who wanted to share one of his Sicilian grandmother’s signature dishes: pork chops sautéed with broccoli, garlic,  and those rich, oil-cured, wrinkled black olives that I’m crazy about. This is something he loved as a child and now cooks for his own family:

Erica,

I just came across your blog and have enjoyed going through it. About a year ago I started my own blog to publish my family recipes. The majority of my recipes are simple family foods that I grew up eating. Almost a year and a half later I have compiled over 130 posts and stories about growing up Italian in Brooklyn.

I would like to share a very simple recipe my grandmother made all the time. I have never seen it anywhere else. The flavors and combination of ingredients are truly delicious. Simple but delicious. I guess the easiest way is to give you the link. I would love your feedback.

I checked out Peter’s blog post and really liked the looks of  the recipe. I often make a dish of sautéed broccoli with pancetta and black olives, so I knew this Southern Italian combination of flavors would work well. I was eager to test it out but  wanted to find out a little more about the background of the recipe, if he knew it. So he wrote back:

My Grandmother Lili Verga came from the town of Vizzini in the province of Catania. I can’t say if this was her original recipe or if she was taught it by her mother, Concetta Bruina. I know she made an Mpanada with sautéed garlic, broccoli, and olives, without the pork chops. It’s very possible she made this recipe in Italy with the purple cauliflower that was grown in that region and adopted it with broccoli when she came to America.

Unfortunately, she is no longer with us for me to get any more information on the dish. I know she made it often, and whenever she did I would run upstairs to her apartment and have a second dinner. I’m just glad I was observant and picked up her recipe. It’s one of the reasons I started the blog. I wanted to share my heirloom recipes with my family and children. Whatever audience I have picked up along the way is an unexpected plus. I really enjoy the comments I get from my readers and find the stories touch Italians as well as non-Italians.

I made the pork chops pretty much according to Peter’s directions, but I couldn’t help doing a little personal tweaking (what cook can?). All I really did was add a splash of white wine and a pinch of hot red pepper; otherwise the cooking method and ingredients are the same. This is an old-fashioned dish, so you don’t want crunchy broccoli. In fact it should even be a little soft. It’s all about flavor melding, not restaurant presentation. A restaurant, if it even made such a homey dish, would no doubt quick-blanch the broccoli and then “shock” it in ice water to stop its cooking and set its brilliant green color. Here you’ll want to cook it long enough to get very tender, so you achieve a rich, garlicky, olivey sauce, so good for soaking up with crusty Italian bread. This dish is a perfect example of what Southern Italy, culinarily speaking, does best, bringing together a few good ingredients to create a sum greater than the parts. You can check out Peter’s original recipe and blog post  by clicking here. He includes step by step photos, which is a nice touch.

Peter, thanks so much for sharing this Sicilian dish with my readers.

Pork Chops with Broccoli, Garlic, and Black Olives

(Serves 2 as a main course)

2 bone-in center-cut pork chops, about 1 inch thick
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound broccoli, cut into florets but leaving some of the tender stem intact (if you’d like to use a lot of the stem, like my grandmother always did, you should peel the tough parts)
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
A tiny splash of dry white wine
A  handful of oil-cured black olives (Moroccan olives are perfect for this)
A big pinch of dried red pepper flakes (I used Aleppo)

Choose a skillet large enough to hold the pork chops and the broccoli.  Dry the pork well, and season it on both sides with salt and black pepper.

Add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the pork chops, and brown them well on both sides (this should take only about 2 minutes per side). Take the chops from the pan, and place them on a plate.

Turn the heat down a touch, and add ¼ cup of water to the skillet. Add the broccoli, seasoning it with salt and black pepper. Cover the skillet, and let the broccoli steam/boil until it’s tender when poked with a knife, about 6 minutes. Uncover the skillet, and let any remaining water evaporate.

Push the broccoli to the side of the skillet, and add about 3 tablespoons of olive oil and the sliced garlic. Sauté until the garlic just starts to give off a good aroma but doesn’t color, about a minute.  Now mix the broccoli into the garlic, and sauté for about a minute to blend the flavors.

Return the pork chops back to the skillet, along with any juices they’ve given off. Add the olives, and mix everything well.  Add a tiny splash of white wine, cover the skillet, and simmer over low heat until the pork is just cooked through, about 4 minutes. Try not to let them go longer than that or they’ll get tough.

Sprinkle with the red chili flakes, and add a bit more salt if needed. You can serve this piping hot from the skillet, but the flavors are even better if you eat it warm.

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Still Life with Olives, Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin (1699-1779).

Recipe: Chicken with Fennel and Black Olives

I have to cook dinner again? Wow, when will it all stop? I guess when I’m dead. Not a problem. When I’m in doubt about what to make, I grab a package of chicken thighs, the indestructible warhorse of the modern kitchen. Low and slow heat after an initial browning produces really tender meat. You really can’t overcook the things (well, you can if you just blast the hell out of them, but I won’t let you do that). I think of chicken thighs as the meat of pasta. What I mean by this is that they’re so neutral, they’ll take to just about any flavoring. And that’s the fun part, choosing the add-ins.

A dish of raw fennel with olives always came to the table at my grandmother’s house after a big meal. This is a traditional Puglian palate cleanser, and its mingling of flavors has been etched in my palate for decades. I love it as a topping for pizza or in a panini, or with braised fish dishes. It’s also wonderful with chicken, but I find that bulb fennel itself doesn’t really add enough fennel flavor to stand up to the olives, so I’ve included ground fennel seed and a splash of pastis to jack it up a bit.

I served this with roasted yams and a side of wild rice with toasted pine nuts, shallots, and parsley. My sister said it tasted like Thanksgiving dinner. Sick of turkey? Try this chicken dish. It takes about 30 minutes.

Chicken with Fennel and Black Olives

(Serves 4)

Extra virgin olive oil
8 free range chicken thighs, with the skin
Salt
½ teaspoon ground fennel seeds
Freshly ground black pepper
2 medium shallots, cut into small dice
1 large fennel bulb, trimmed and cut into medium dice
1 large garlic clove, thinly sliced
3 large sprigs rosemary, the leaves chopped
A splash of Pernod or another pastis
½ cup chicken broth
⅓ cup crème fraîche
A handful of black olives (I used Gaetas because that’s what I had, but I think Niçoise, richer and less acidic, would be my first choice).
A few large sprigs of flat-leaf parsley, the leaves very lightly chopped

Dry off the chicken thighs, and sprinkle them on both sides with salt, the ground fennel, and black pepper.

In a large skillet, fitted with a lid, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the chicken, skin side down. Brown the pieces well on the skin side, and then flip them to brown the other side. Drain off excess oil (you’ll want to leave a little, though, since it provides good flavor.)

Now turn the heat down a touch, and add the shallots and the fennel, seasoning them with a little salt and black pepper. Sauté until the vegetables just start to soften, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and rosemary, and sauté a minute longer, just to release their flavors. Add the pastis (just a tiny splash), and let it boil away. Add the chicken broth, turn the heat to low, cover the skillet, and simmer until the chicken is just tender, no more than 15 minutes. Turn off the heat, and let the chicken sit on the stove for about 5 minutes. The residual skillet heat will help to further tenderize the chicken.

When you’re ready to serve, remove the chicken from the skillet onto a warmed serving platter. Add the crème fraîche to the skillet juices, and reduce it over high heat until thickened (to about the consistency of heavy cream). Add the black olives and the parsley, and give the sauce a stir. Check for seasoning, adding more salt or black pepper if needed. Pour the sauce over the chicken. Serve right away.

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