Archive for the ‘Skinny Guinea’ Category

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)

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)
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:


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
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
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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Marcella and Me

Here’s another excerpt from my book in progress,  tentatively titled The Making of an Italian Cook.

Marcella and Me

My University Place apartment replaced our Long Island kitchen as the hub of my self-imposed cooking self-school. My new kitchen was a narrow sliver, but with one of those deep double porcelain sinks, which I loved for its old New York beauty. Aside from that I had my Royal Rose tenement-issue stove, which really was beyond the pale (when I moved into the place, in the late ’70s, the previous tenant had actually left a cooked steak in the broiler (he must have been in a hurry), which I discovered after trying to track down what I assumed was a dead mouse slowly dissolving under a floorboard. I could barely turn around in the small cooking space, but that was okay. I used my “dining room” table as a prep station and made out pretty well (God, I even ran a catering business from that apartment for a while, years later). I had a good set of cast iron skillets and a serious Wusthof knife set, complete with a blue canvas knife roll, that my father had bought me for a moving-in gift, one of the most opulent presents I’ve ever received.

Now instead of hanging out at bars with Larry Rivers, my main evening activity became, for a few months at any rate, making meatballs. I had watched Mo, my mother, make the things a zillion times, so I didn’t think I needed a recipe. Her side of the family is Sicilian, and she often made her father’s raisin and pine nut meatballs, which I just loved. So I was baffled that my first half dozen tries came out so miserably. They were hard and dry and just made me sad. What I didn’t realize, until I put some serious thought into the matter, was that the more compact the meat, the denser the meatball would be. Finally I got it. Don’t keep smacking them around, stop squeezing them so much, quit working the life out of the mix. Okay, good. Problem solved. But when I told Mo that I’d replaced her milk-soaked soft bread with dried breadcrumbs, she looked at me with a blend of amazement and disgust and, if I recall correctly, said, “Are you nuts?” What did I know? As it turned out, dried bread yields dry meatballs. I finally came up with very good meatballs, but in the process I realized that purchasing a few good cookbooks was in order.

The first book I bought  was The Classic Italian Cookbook, by Marcella Hazan. It had been out for about five years, she was now famous, and everyone seemed to love her. How could I go wrong? But I did go wrong. I’ve thought long about this and have come to realize that Marcella Hazan and I, despite how lovely and truly interesting her recipes were, we, as people who cooked, were just not a good match. Our personalities clashed like crazy, from her pages to my soul. It was like going out on a date with someone you just knew from the start wasn’t your type, but you kept going back for more, hoping something would click.

I felt as if her recipes were dangling in space—and at times crashing down on my head like some outside grinding noise you hear but can’t trace the source of (hidden electrical wires? that traffic counting device on the corner?), the kind of noise that can be familiar but still upsetting. Why on earth was this so? I at first concluded that since Marcella didn’t write, or evidently speak, English well, and her husband translated most of her words, he, Victor, was standing between us. There was for me an impenetrable sternness in the pages, and he, after all, is a wine writer and therefore more of an academic than an artist. I believed at the time, back in the late ’70s, that his tone must have covered up some of Marcella’s free spirit. But I don’t know either of them, so I can’t attest to their personalities. It was just a hunch. And the more I delved into the book, the more I began to believe that she was as much to blame. (Later, when I learned she had been a chemistry major, I was almost sure of it.)

I was looking for a coaxing voice and a compelling story. As wonderful as her recipes sounded, I couldn’t find a way in. I wanted a vulnerability, a jiggle, an oops-a-braciole-just-rolled-under-the-counter-but-I’ll-serve-it-anyway spirit. I couldn’t find it. I wanted to know how her soul made her want to cook. I snooped as much as possible, trying to read between the lines, but with out much luck, so I finally decided to page through the book and just make every recipe she had that included anchovies. That was a plan.

Marcella Hazan does seem to admire anchovies. I made her orecchiette with broccoli and anchovy sauce, which looked like something my grandmother would have come up with, and it tasted great. I loved her roasted peppers with anchovies. My family made roasted peppers and always served anchovies, but to my recollection they never blended them together. I understood that my selected use of this big book had its limits, and that I was being unfair and ignorant, but I couldn’t help myself. Then my relationship with Marcella went from bad to worse.

This was, I believe, 1978, a year when vitello tonnato was raging in the suburbs. My mother made it a few times, and I went wild for it. It was the party dish supreme, replacing cheese fondue in many a Long Island mom’s repertoire, an expected  cocktail hour offering on our block. My mother’s recipe for vitello tonnato, like much of her cooking that was not Southern Italian, came from Gourmet magazine.

In my crypt-like Manhattan apartment, I decided that was what I had to make, being the party girl I still was. I could cook it and invite a bunch of friends and have a hip little dinner. Plus the recipe contained anchovies, so I could continue with my theme approach to cooking with Marcella. So I checked the index, and there it was on page 276. It looked good, if possibly a bit expensive. Now, you have to understand that going out and purchasing a boneless veal roast at this time in my life was a bold decision. I was averaging around $40 or $50 in my bank account, whatever I could put away from my not so lucrative job as information phone gal at the Barnes & Noble store on 18th Street (this was of course pre-computer, so every time a customer called about a book, I’d have to physically run through the store and pull it off the shelf—boy, what an exhausting bore). At any rate, I trotted over to Ottomanelli and bought my two-or-so-pound roast with high hopes. I invited a few friends and told them to bring white wine (Soave Bolla, of course). I followed Marcella Hazan’s recipe exactly, expecting the result to taste as enticing as what my mother had made, but what I came out with was a big, sloppy mound of fishy cat food, with peculiar metallic and acidic undertones.

The veal itself, I realized, wasn’t the problem. That simmered up fairly well (low and slow were the instructions, and that worked), but after purchasing the veal, I had had no money left for the fancy Italian tuna I’d grown up eating and instead had bought cheap American tuna packed in who knows what, and a bottle of “olive oil” that most likely I could just as well have purchased at a hardware store. My friend Scott was the only person who liked the dish, and I could tell he wasn’t just being kind, but then he was a person who had spent two weeks in Paris eating every meal at McDonald’s. For me it was such a disappointment, I actually cried, a long, sloppy wine-drunk cry. I sensed that my low-grade purchases were the problem, but I blamed Marcella anyway.

God damn it, why wasn’t this woman helping me more? Why couldn’t I taste and see what I was doing? I started to feel culinarily demented. I made perfectly decent, even good Italian food, in my mother’s kitchen and with no book or guidance except my nose, hands, and memory. Was it Marcella’s lack of Southern hospitality? I decided that must be the case. I was stuck in a rut. I briefly shut down my studies and let a dark shadow fall over my sharp Wusthof knives. But not for long.

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Recipe: Focaccia with Caramelized Onions, Black Olives and Ras el Hanout

I find this collage extremely beautiful. I discovered it on the Internet while doing my usual trolling for food-related art. I couldn’t, however, find an artist to attribute it to, so I thought I’d just put up it for all my readers to see, and possibly the artist would come forth. I liked the religious/onion motif so much that I knew I had to respond to it with a recipe. Even though I’m not religious, this art really speaks to me. I love the sweet look on the guy’s face, and I love all the pink, red, and white shiny stuff, mostly onions, hanging off his head. That’s about as religious as I get.  And when I think religion at all, I usually think bread, so here’s a focaccia I thought the man in this collage would enjoy. Of course it had to rely on onions as its main flavoring, but a seasoning  I chose gives it real depth, I feel. Ras el hanout is a spice mix used in Moroccan cooking. It goes very well with caramelized onions, imparting layers of flavor and pulling them away from what can sometimes be a one-note sweetness. It’s a blend of warm spices, usually containing anise, fennel, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cumin, black pepper, sometimes nutmeg or allspice or rose petal, and often a bunch of other more exotic stuff, such as belladonna leaves, which can be hard to find here (and possibly a little toxic). I often make my own, but lately I’ve been buying a pre-mixed one from Kalustyan’s. It’s excellent. Mr. Onion Priest, this is for you.

Focaccia with Caramelized Onions, Black Olives and Ras el Hanout

For the dough:

1 package active dry yeast
1½ cups warm water (110-115 degrees)
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 to 3½ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt

For the top:

Extra-virgin olive oil
2 large sweet onions, such as Vidalia, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon sugar
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
8 or so large thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
1 teaspoon ras el hanout
Freshly ground black pepper
A splash of dry Marsala
A handful of wrinkly, Moroccan black olives, pitted

Pour the warm water into a large bowl. Sprinkle in the yeast, giving it a quick stir to dissolve clumps, and let sit until frothy, about 8 minutes.

Add the olive oil to the yeast mixture. Then add 3 cups of flour and the salt. Stir the mixture until you have a nice soft dough. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface, and knead quickly, just until it’s smooth and elastic, about 3 or 4 minutes, adding a little more flour if needed to make it easier to work with. The dough will be quite soft.

Oil a large bowl, and place the dough in it, turning the dough once to coat the top with oil. Cover with a kitchen towel, and let rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in size, about 1½ hours.

Coat a 10-by-15-inch sheet pan well with olive oil. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface, and knead very briefly to get out any air bubbles, then place it on the oiled pan. Stretch and pat the dough out to fit the pan. Now make indentations all over the dough with your fingertips. Give the focaccia a drizzle of olive oil, cover it with plastic wrap, and let it sit again until it’s puffy, about 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

In a large sauté pan, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the sliced onion, and sauté until it’s very soft and taking on a little color, about 10 minutes. If it starts to stick, cover the pan for a minute or so, or add a tiny splash of water. Add the sugar, the garlic, the thyme, and the ras el hanout, and season with salt and black pepper. Sauté a few minutes longer, until the spices and garlic are released and the onions are soft and nicely golden. Add a splash of Marsala, and let it boil away.

Uncover the focaccia, and spread out the onions over it. Scatter the olives on top. Give everything an extra drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and black pepper. Bake for 15 minutes. Lower the heat to 375 degrees, and bake for about 15 minutes longer, or until the focaccia is golden brown. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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Gelato Like a Flower

A branch of Amorino Gelateria opened this year two  blocks from my sister Liti’s apartment on University Place in Manhattan (that would be at 11th Street).  Liti and I took a little stroll over there the other day to see what all the fuss was about, and boy was that place crowded. The first Amorino shop opened  in Paris  in 2002,  I believe on the Ile Saint-Louis, which must have given the ice cream makers at the famous Berthillon a small heart attack. It was started by two guys from Reggio Emilia and  is now a franchise with shops around France and in Shanghai (but as far as I know none in Italy). It became famous for its beautifully and unusually turned out cones. Amorino presents its gelato in a floral design—I believe it’s meant to resemble a rose—by slapping petals of ice cream in a circular fashion, creating an extremely pretty if fleeting work of art (and this gelato melts quickly, so you gotta get this bloom down subito). I’d been looking forward to seeing this up close and personal, and I can say I wasn’t disappointed. I found the design stunning.

There are three sizes of cones, but the floral patterns works out best on the big ones, and it’s especially impressive if you choose two or three contrasting shades of gelato. Here in this photo, above, I’ve got vanilla, salted caramel, and cappuccino, a really gorgeous color combination. I saw another person ordering coconut (basically white) with a dark cherry at the center, which was lovely for about five seconds until it turned into a big, slightly bloody-looking offering (but still delicious, I would imagine).

I have to admit that the lure of this place for me is really in the artwork. My sister and another friend loved the gelato, but me, maybe I’m perverse, I found it too rich. When did Italian gelato become indistinguishable from heavy French egg-and-cream ice cream, or Haagen-Dazs, for that matter? I always thought the difference between ice cream and gelato was in the amount of fat. The gelatos I sampled in Italy, especially in Sicily, were always lighter, with an emphasis on the flavoring, the mouth feel was not as pully and thick. I’ll never forget the gelato I ate in the town of Noto, in flavors like orange blossom, jasmine, tangerine,  pistachio, almond, and rose petal, made by the late great gelato master Corrado Costanzo. He used only ingredients that were  available locally. The flavors burst forth, and the texture, more milky than creamy, served as a context for the main ingredient. I loved those creations, and to me they are what gelato is all about. Is true gelato a thing of the past? Is all gelato now exactly the same as French ice cream? It seems to be going in that direction.

Now, I can’t fault Amorino for not complying with my idea of what gelato should be. Its flavors, the ones we tasted, were fabulous. The banana my sister ordered,  that sultry salted caramel, and the lovely vanilla were lush and pure, and everyone in this very busy shop obviously loved them. And honestly I’m such a sucker for style, the flower design alone will have me coming back just to see the various color combinations people order and how they open up in the cone. Still, I must say I still really miss old fashioned Italian gelato.

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Recipe: Lasagnette with Lobster, Crème Fraîche, and Grappa

I suppose many people would look at the artwork on this Schiaparelli dress and see a depiction of sex, and that’s the way it was interpreted when it was modeled by Wallis Simpson for a famous 1937 Vogue fashion shoot by Cecil Beaton. I believe the spread was actually an attempt to modify Ms. Simpson’s somewhat slutty image, only to backfire because of what most people perceived as the dress’s sexual connotation (the placement of the lobster, falling right between her legs, didn’t help). But I interpret it differently. I see the lobster design as a strong symbol of the deliciousness of food. If we don’t eat we die, and if we don’t eat good food we may die of a deadened palate. If the lobster on this dress were depicted alive, maybe I’d think differently, but this lobster is bright red, which means it has been cooked, and it is obviously dead, from the way it’s hanging limp. For me this is a design that glorifies good things to eat, of which in my opinion there are far too few representations in the fashion world. Enough with the florals already. I would love to own a dress with a green olive motif. I’ll have to discuss that with Marc Jacobs the next time I bump into him in the West Village.

Years ago I had a cotton sundress that was printed with slices of lemons and limes. It was a sleeveless shirtwaist, and it made me extremely happy whenever I wore it. I wore it year round, even in the winter, reasoning that citrus was in season then, making the flimsy thing appropriate for January. It always reminded me of gin and tonic with a slice of lemon or lime stuck on the side of the glass.

But this lobster dress, a famous collaboration between Salvador Dali and Miss Schiaparelli, which I saw up close at the Duke and Duchess of Windsor show at the Met in, I believe, 2002, is quite light and summery despite carrying such a huge design (it is not a weighty ball gown). It works if you think of it as a really long lobster bib. To me it would be the perfect thing to wear to a clambake. I’d definitely want to be eating lobster while wearing it. And its color is unusual. It’s pink red, not the true orangey red of a cooked lobster. Its pinky red reminds me of a certain shade of lipstick that looks quite frightening—but in a good way—on me and other people with olive skin, but it also recalls tomatoes mixed with a touch of cream, the color of penne alla vodka, in fact. I wanted to capture that color when I went about creating this lobster pasta, in honor of what I consider to be a still exciting fashion design. And I think I got it.

Lasagnette with Lobster, Crème Fraîche, and Grappa

(Serves 4 as a main course)

3 small lobsters (about 1½ pounds each)
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium shallots, cut into small dice
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
6 large thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
1 small inner celery stalk, cut into small dice, plus the leaves from about 4 stalks, chopped
A generous pinch of sugar
About 8 big scrapings of nutmeg
A generous pinch of Aleppo pepper (or a smaller pinch of cayenne)
⅓ cup grappa
1 35-ounce can high-quality Italian plum tomatoes, with the juice, well chopped
¼ cup crème fraîche
1 pound lasagnette pasta
A dozen basil leaves, lightly chopped, plus a few whole sprigs for garnish

For the best flavor and texture, the lobsters for this dish should be sautéed raw. This means either hacking them up alive (something I no longer have the stomach for) or, my new solution, having your fish seller kill them for you. You just have to make sure you cook them within about six hours. Once you get your lobsters home, you’ll need to cut them into pieces. Get a sharp, heavy knife or a cleaver, and start by cutting the lobsters in half horizontally through the top of the shell. Remove the head sac, located on either side of the top of the shell. Then separate the tail sections from the head sections. Remove the claws and front legs in one piece, and give the claws a swift whack with the back of your knife or cleaver to crack them. You’ll notice a long, dark intestinal tract running along the top of one of the tail sections; pull that out. Remove the tomalley, and the roe if you find any, and place in a small bowl, mashing it up a bit.

If you don’t want to bother with all this, just have your fish seller cut up your lobsters for you.

Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water over high heat.

In a medium saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the butter over medium heat. Add the shallots, celery and leaves, thyme, a pinch of sugar, salt, Aleppo or cayenne, and nutmeg, and sauté until soft and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, and let it soften for about 30 seconds. Add half of the grappa, and let it bubble until almost dry. Add the tomatoes and a splash of water, and simmer, uncovered, for about 8 minutes. Turn off the heat.

In a very large sauté skillet (or two smaller ones), heat two tablespoons of olive oil (a little more if you’re using two skillets) over medium-high heat. When hot, add the lobster pieces, shell side down, and sauté until they turn pink, about 4 minutes. Turn the pieces over, and sauté for a minute on the other side. Now add the remaining grappa, and let it bubble away. Add the tomato sauce, and the tomalley and roe, if you have it, and let everything simmer, uncovered, until the  lobster is just tender, about 5 minutes. The sauce will be a bit loose. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt and a pinch of Aleppo or cayenne if desired (this is not meant to be a full-on Fra Diavolo hot sauce; you really want just a hint of heat).

While the lobster is simmering, add a generous amount of salt to the boiling pasta water, and drop the lasagnette into the pot. Cook until al dente. Drain the pasta, leaving a little water clinging to it, and pour it onto a very large serving platter. Drizzle with a generous amount of olive oil, and give it a toss. Add the crème fraiche and the chopped basil to the lobster sauce, giving it a good stir, and pour it over the top. Garnish with the basil sprigs. Serve right away.

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