Archive for the ‘Skinny Guinea’ Category

Recipe: Parisian Tagliatelle with Girolles, Leeks, and Butter Broth

I just got back from a vacation in Paris with my husband and his pushing-90 parents. Now, you might say this wouldn’t  be your idea of a vacation, and it could possibly even be considered a bit masochistic. In theory I suppose it’s true that shuffling around beautiful Paris with two slow as they come, deaf oldsters could be a tad frustrating and not high on romance, and you’d be right, except that my in-laws are cheerful, up for anything, and oddly had more staying power than I did on some days. Pretty remarkable.

We rented a big apartment in the 10th, in a largely Arab and African neighborhood filled with wig shops and garish, cut-rate bridal gown stores. Women sold grilled corn and men sold counterfeit cigarettes by the Metro entrance, and there was a fabulous outdoor market with tons of head-on fish, loose spices, and bins of girolle mushrooms, which are now in season. The price of the mushrooms was so low compared with New York that I knew I needed to buy a large bag, take them back to our little Paris kitchen, and do something French with them.

Girolles are the mushrooms we know in the U.S. as chanterelles, the golden, trumpet shaped ones that some people say have an aroma of apricots, though I don’t get that from them. To me they smell like sweet, wet soil in the most wonderful way. Chanterelle nomenclature is a bit confusing in France. If you look up girolle here, it translates as chanterelle, but in France a chanterelle is not the golden mushroom we’re all familiar with—that’s the girolle—but a similarly shaped, though skinnier, dark gray mushroom. That’s what is called chanterelle in French markets, and it costs about six times as much as the girolle, more like what the golden ones cost in Manhattan, so I passed it by, being perfectly happy to purchase a huge bag of girolles for what I considered a song (and to me they are still chanterelles, no matter what anyone over there says).

Here’s the true French chanterelle, sometimes called chanterelle grise.

I decided to  make a French-inspired pasta, so I picked up some homemade tagliatelle, Breton butter, a chunk of Comte cheese, and a handful of leeks, parsley, and thyme, and headed back to our place to cook up a pasta that was rich but not terribly rich, not the way the cooks in Paris, in my opinion, sometimes screw up pasta by adding tons of cream and four different gooey cheeses. What I did was make a butter-based broth with all the girolle and leek trimmings and add it to the dish at the last minute for a slightly slippery, buttery effect, but still light on the palate. The girolles, or whatever they were, were fabulously flavorful. Boy, I wish they were as cheap in New York.

Parisian Tagliatelle with Girolles, Leeks, and Butter Broth

(Serves 2)

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ pound golden chanterelles, trimmed and cut in half lenghtwise if large (and make sure to save all the trimmings)
2 medium leeks, well cleaned, trimmed down to the tender white part and cut into thin rounds (and again, save all the trimmings)
1½ cups light chicken broth
½ pound fresh tagliatelle
2 small garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup fruity white wine
5 large thyme sprigs
A small handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, lightly chopped
A small chunk of Comte cheese

In a small saucepan, heat the butter over medium flame. Add all the mushroom and leek trimmings, and sauté until soft and fragrant, about 4 minutes. Add the chicken broth, and simmer until it’s reduced by about half (you should wind up with about ½ cup or so). This should take about 5 minutes. Taste for seasoning, adding a little salt if needed. The broth should look a bit creamy. Strain it into a small bowl.

Set up a pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt.

In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over a medium flame. Add the leeks, and let them soften for a minute. Add the mushrooms, seasoning with salt and black pepper, and sauté until fragrant, about another 4 minutes.

Drop the tagliatelle into the boiling water, and give it a stir.

Add the white wine to the mushrooms, and let it boil away. Add the mushroom broth and the thyme, and let simmer while the pasta is cooking.

When the tagliatelle is just tender, usually after about 3 or 4 minutes for fresh pasta, drain it, and pour it into a warmed serving bowl. Add a drizzle of olive oil, and give it a quick toss. Add the mushrooms with all their broth, a few gratings of fresh black pepper, and a heaping tablespoon of grated Comte. Add the parsley, and toss everything gently. Check for seasoning, adding more salt if needed. Serve right away, adding more Comte to each serving if you like.

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Recipe: Orecchiette with Cherry Tomatoes, Feta, and Marjoram

When I see a mini bowl of ditali with ceci beans going for $26 at a star chef’s restaurant here in ruthless old Manhattan, it makes my Puglian-Sicilian blood boil. One relatively new establishment, a one-stop pizzeria, caffè, wine bar, raw bar, ristorante, trattoria, food shop, wine shop, and cooking school, especially irks me, but that Disneyland of Italian cooking will go nameless because you’ll just think I’m jealous (and maybe I am a little), and you all know what I’m taking about anyway. That loud, pushy conglomerate makes me nostalgic for the little Italian groceries that used to be so common in the city, places you can still find on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx (although, granted, not necessarily run by Italians anymore). Maybe I should open one. Then my entire being could reek of provolone. That would be heaven.

I know I’ve spoken of my love for la cucina povera many times. That is the essence of true Southern Italian cooking, my heritage, and the fact that it isn’t particularly povera any more, at least not in Manhattan, is not a problem for me. I know I can take its cooking philosophy, basically the original Mediterranean diet, and make wonderful dishes inexpensively in my own home. Nothing makes me feel better than gathering up a few vegetables, pasta, a little cheese, some good olive oil, and creating something fine.

Some people think of la cucina povera as being one big, sloppy pot of beans. But the cooking is vibrant. You’ve got fish, meat, grains, tons of vegetables, cheese, fruit, olive oil, and a myriad way to work them, with the meat, fish, and cheeses, the more expensive items, playing a supporting, not starring, role. So you can and should buy the best of everything, because with this style of cooking it’s how you use what you buy that makes it healthy, economical, and beautiful.

Pancetta, guanciale and anchovies are my three favorite cucina povera flavor enhancers. A little goes a very long way and can elevate your cooking from dull to extremely interesting instantaneously. Here I’ve added a bit of pancetta to give a rich underpinning to the pasta sauce.

Two weeks ago my friend Barbara spent hours gathering up all the tomatoes she could salvage from Hurricane Irene, which hit hard in parts of upstate New York. Her plants were destroyed, and red and green tomatoes lay everywhere. She dropped off a big bag at my house. There were a few big heirloom types, but mostly she gave me ripe cherry tomatoes, ones that have a beautiful aroma with a  hint of tomato leaf to them, making them spicy and almost salty. I’ve been using them in everything, including several pasta dishes.  In this pasta, I tried to bring out their complex saltiness by including feta. Lately I very much prefer the mild French feta to most of the Greek ones I find, the French being gentler on the palate, which I feel is better for a pasta sauce, where you don’t want a taste that knocks you over the head, drowning out the pasta itself.

The blend of tomato and feta with marjoram is just exquisite. You might be tempted to substitute oregano, since it’s such a natural with feta, but do yourself a favor. Try this, and see how its subtler, more floral taste adds unexpected perfume to an ultra simple pasta.

Orecchiette with Cherry Tomatoes, Feta, and Marjoram


(Serves 5 as a first course)

Extra-virgin olive oil
½ pound mild French feta cheese, crumbled
6 large sprigs marjoram, the leaves very lightly chopped
1 pound orecchietti

1 approximately ⅛-inch-thick slice pancetta, cut into small cubes
1 fresh medium-hot red chili, such as a peperoncino, minced, including the seeds
2 pints cherry tomatoes, cut in half
1 large end-of-summer garlic clove, minced
A generous splash of sweet red vermouth
A big handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, very lightly chopped

Put up a big pot of pasta cooking water and bring it to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt.

In a large, warmed pasta bowl, add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil, the crumbled feta, and the marjoram. Give it a mix.

Drop the orecchiette into the water.

In a large skillet, heat a tablespoon of olive oil over medium flame. Add the pancetta, and let it get crisp. Add the peperoncino and the tomatoes, and sauté for about a minute. Now add the garlic, turn the heat up a tad, and cook until the tomatoes start to give off some juice, about 4 minutes. You don’t want to cook them much longer than that or their skins will start pulling away (not a huge sin, but it’s a nicer dish when you don’t have to pick those out of your teeth). Add the red vermouth, and let it bubble for about a minute. Season the tomatoes with a little salt, and turn off the heat.

When the orecchiette is al dente, drain it, leaving a little water clinging to it, and add it to the pasta bowl. Toss well. The heat of the pasta will start to melt the feta, giving it a creamy texture. Add the tomatoes, with all the skillet juices, and the parsley, and toss gently. Serve hot.

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Am I Italian?

From left, my uncle, Jack, my grandfather, Nick, and Dick, my dad, around 1936 or so.

Here’s another excerpt from The Making of an Italian Cook, an essay book I’m working on.

Am I Italian?

I always sensed something off about my family. Almost all the Italian-Americans I knew had a pride of heritage. We didn’t. Once my cousin Leslie asked me if I thought our family was German. That was peculiar. I believe she asked because despite all the obviously Italian food served by my father’s parents, my grandfather Nick had a passion for German cuisine, probably thinking it more refined or at least less immigrant than all the ‘oily’ vegetables that were brought to his table by his wife, my grandmother, Gertrude (and what Italian family would name a baby Gertrude? Sounds Germanic to me). In the winters when our extended family all shared a house in Hollywood Florida, the Hofbrauhaus was Nick’s favorite place to dine, and he’d order pigs knuckles there. In winter months, back in New York, he ate lunch at Luchow’s at least once a week, favoring the Wiener Schnitzel, which any real Italian will tell you is basically veal scallopine. We do have a lot of blond hair and blue eyes in the family, so I actually started to wonder myself when Leslie proposed this question. We were both teenagers at the time, so it was also perplexing that this matter hadn’t gotten straightened out earlier.

My grandmother insisted, when asked (which wasn’t often, since most of the cousins were put off by her surliness and migraine headaches), that she was born in Darien, Connecticut. Now, I knew Darien to be a WASP stronghold, so something was wrong here. No Italian was spoken at home, though I later learned that Nick spoke fluent Italian, but only to his help, the greenskeepers, and the caddies at the country clubs where he worked as a pro, the same profession my father took on. Nick changed our surname from Di Menna to De Mane, wore clothing out of Thin Man movies, and spoke with an exaggerated, almost Katharine Hepburn-style Yankee accent. It was strange. There was no “O Sole Mio”-ing, hand biting, or Malocchio threats in our family. And my uncle, my father’s brother, Jack, was a birdwatcher. What self respecting guinea would be caught doing that?

When the Italian cooking bug came over me in high school I thought about this odd situation often. I also wondered why most of my classmates assumed I was Jewish. When I told them I was Italian, they thought I was pulling some kind of downwardly mobile joke. I believe they figured that since I took Martha Graham dance classes and didn’t snap gum and wiggle my ass all over the school hallways, Italian I couldn’t be. Such stereotypes existed in Nassau County in the 1970s, perpetuated in part by me, because I felt them.

I let several years go by before I finally asked my aunt Judy about our hazy heritage. She was the only one left I hadn’t approached, figuring since she had married into the family, she’d really have no clue. She told me that nobody really talked about it. This I had already determined for myself. I was about to just accept that weird is weird and sometimes you have to move on, when she added that there were two aunts of my father’s, Filomena and Lucy Riccio, who actually kept in touch with relatives from the “old country” and even visited the “town” every few years. Wow. Was this ever news. A town, a real town? When I asked my father about this alleged town, and I could tell he was being perfectly honest, he said he had no idea. But Judy mentioned that it would be okay to discretely contact the two spinster great aunts, both in their 90s and living together in Port Chester, both retired make-up ladies who had worked in fancy drugstores, and both, I would soon discover, still keeping the trim but curvy figures they had had as young gals.

I was now living in the city and had several years of bar-hopping behind me, and I decided it was time I cooked again, a preoccupation that had consumed me for much of my teenagehood. And most important, this time around I knew I had to focus exclusively on Southern Italian food, the flavors I had grown up with, the palate I loved. To follow this path still thinking my father’s family might be German seemed perverse. So I set out to give the two old dames a call.

Coincidently, and sadly, my grandfather died just around the time I learned this liberating information from Judy, and the two Riccio “girls” happened to be present at his funeral. We were introduced there, so a phone call proved unnecessary.  These ladies, with their neat chignons (was our family actually French?), both as elegant as can be in high heels and pencil skirts, had heard I was planning to get in touch and couldn’t have been more thrilled to meet me face-to-face. After the funeral everyone went back to my uncle Jack’s house for the big lunch, salami, provolone, heroes with sausage and peppers, veal and peppers, baked rigatoni with sausage and peppers. But the Riccio girls had their plates stacked high with pignoli cookies, ricotta cheese cake, lemon puffs, cannolis, sugar-glazed taralli, and drank big tumblers of red wine. “We only eat dessert,” Filomena told me. So that’s the secret to their youthful figures, I thought, but also possibly to their somewhat batty dispositions. They were both oddly giggly, possibly a tad inappropriate at a funeral, but nobody reprimanded them, so I guess they got a pass (probably the family felt sorry for them, since neither ever married, or ignored them, jealous of their legs). But boy, did they want to talk about Castelfranco in Miscano, the little hilltown on the boarder of Puglia and Campania where my grandmother was born. In fact, that turned out to be where Nick came from too, where everyone in my father’s family came from. How is it nobody except these two old make-up queens from Port Chester took immense pride in their family background? It’s one of those mysteries of life, sort of. I say sort of because I’ve since come to understand that I hail from a family of snobs, and a dusty little chicken scratch hell hole in the middle of nowhere just wouldn’t do as an ancestral home. This town should be stuffed way in the back of the closet and suffocated to death, never to embarrass anyone again. It was as simple and as unfortunate as that. Lucy and Filomena gave me a list of names and addresses of relatives to contact in Castelfranco. Now I could finally get to work.

I started researching food from around Castelfranco’s landlocked area and what did I come up with? My grandmother’s cooking is what, down to the details—taralli with raw fennel and celery brought out after dinner, almost as a dessert; vinegar peppers stuffed with anchovies; peppers stuffed with sausage; dandelion soup; baby meatballs with diced potatoes held in suspension by cooked-down tomato paste; ciambotta loaded with every vegetable and herb from the summer garden; stubby pasta and ceci beans in an oniony broth; braised pork cooked in red wine, tomatoes, and dried oregano; flat fuzzy string beans stewed in tomato sauce; escarole cooked to death with hot pepper flakes and a bucket of olive oil.

Now I had a plan. I would visit Castelfranco. And was old Gert ever mad when she got wind of this. But Filomena and Lucy found the prospect of my making this trip titillating. However, they strongly urged me to attend the Castelfranco in Miscano reunion festival held every August in Stratford, Connecticut, before I set out on my Italian journey. Evidently many Castelfrancese had settled in Bridgeport and Stratford, and others, like most of my father’s relatives, wound up not far away in Port Chester and Rye, New York.

So off I went to Connecticut, along with my sister, Liti, and my newish boyfriend, Fred, to what turned out to be a rather sinister geriatric picnic where we were viewed as interlopers and maybe worse.

I hadn’t been told it was a potluck affair, and I arrived without a pot, so we started out on the wrong foot. Clusters of people sat and ate or played cards outside at picnic tables, and a bunch more gathered inside at a kind of community rec room. We were at least three decades younger than most of them. I introduced myself around. Some of these oldsters knew my grandparents, most had heard of them, saying they were the rich Castelfrancese, because Gert’s family owned a large construction business (although it seemed they all owned construction businesses). I was introduced to three women named Gertrude, but pronounced ger-TRU-day, the Italian way. At least that cleared up one mystery. Evidently Gertrude had once been a popular name for women in old Castelfranco, probably after a foreign saint they happened to fancy.

I hooked on to a guy named Riccio, since that was Filomena and Lucy’s last name and I assumed we were related. He said he didn’t think so, but then added that everyone was related, since there were only about ten surnames in Castelfranco (I had heard rumors that my grandparents were first cousins). I told Mr. Riccio I was interested in learning to cook Italian food. At first he got all excited and brought over a sampling of a baked eggplant thing that one of the Gertrudes had put together. It tasted exactly like the one my grandmother always made, with hard-boiled eggs worked into the layers, and provolone. He spoke about the Castelfranco cookbook the group had self-published and how excellent it was. But then I made the mistake of saying I was considering a career in cooking, which I actually wasn’t at the time, but it was interesting that I told him that, since about a year later it turned out to be true. I asked him if I could get a copy of the cookbook, my family heritage cookbook, and with that his attitude all of a sudden changed. He became suspicious and haughty, saying I was too young to have a copy (did I look too young to read?) and that Nick and Gertrude came from the snooty side of the clan (okay, he got that right).

I went on in my most charming (I thought) manner about how I’d been wanting to learn more about my background and how it all meant so much to me and how cooking seemed so much a part of it all (in the case of my family, the only part), but I got the feeling Mr. Riccio had decided I was a meddling journalist whose game was to get a hold of those coveted recipes and sell them to Gourmet or The New York Times, taking credit for the whole thing. I actually don’t know what the hell he was thinking, but he sure gave me a song and dance about that cookbook. He told me not to ask any of the Gertrudes about it, because it was so dear to them. So I changed the subject, sort of, and starting telling him about some of the dishes my family made, ones I really loved like braised mini-meatballs with string beans and tomatoes. Was this a typical Castelfranco preparation, I asked Mr. Riccio? And then he got this strange look in his eyes, almost as if he were dreaming (he may have been drunk by now) and started describing to me one “very special” recipe that was in this amazing, secret book.

He told me that in Castelfranco a distinguished and time-honored preparation was begun by hacking off a big hunk of raw pork (a pork shoulder, I asked? He didn’t answer me) and hanging it from a tree with thick rope, elevating it high—so any wild boars wouldn’t get at it, I assumed. Then you took a huge loaf of bread, ripped it open, and placed it on the ground directly beneath the pork. The pork, over a period of two weeks (no salting here?), would drip blood and fat on the bread, soaking it through completely (I suppose by  now even a wild animal would leave this rancid soaked bread alone). As a result, he explained, you’d have a complete meal, air-dried pork and blood-soaked bread. Hey, a few tumblers of Strega and you have the perfect Castelfranco meal. Was he trying to make fun of me or scare me away? I concluded it was a bit of both. This was truly baffling. Why were these people so suspicious and hostile and willing to go to such extremes to deter some curious kid who was obviously a member of the greater New York extended Castelfranco family? All I can say for sure is that he really didn’t want me to get my hands on that cookbook. And I didn’t.

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Still life with plums, 1935, by Georges Braque (I love this painting).

Recipe: Italian Plum Tart with Rosemary and Fennel

My attitude about my blog changes when I’m working on a book. Since a blog is basically a donation, when I’m collecting recipes for a book, in this case a food memoir, giving them away seems counterproductive. But a food blog, in my opinion, needs recipes. I always prefer blogs with more recipes and less food gossip. Gossip is harsh and boring; recipes are voluptuous. Lately I’ve been solving my blogging problem two ways. The first and best way has been by posting excerpts from my essay book. You seem to be enjoying these stories of my emerging cooking self. The second and not so great way is by putting up fewer recipes, which also means posting fewer blogs. So if you’ve noticed longer stretches between postings, that’s the reason why. It’s a dilemma, but I’ve come up with a solution. I’m going back to walking the streets of Manhattan and will be posting observations of Italian goings-on around town, which means posts about new restaurants, wine, cheese, and olive oil shops, more product reviews, feasts, and food trucks. It does seem like a new Italian restaurant or caffè opens up every week. It’s a mystery how they survive, and of course many of them don’t. But the good ones generally do very well, because, no surprise here, everyone loves Italian food.

I stopped posting restaurant reviews a few years ago, because I realized I had no interest in being a critic. After years spent cooking in restaurant kitchens myself, I know how excruciatingly hard it is. As a result, I now feel that if I have something bad to say, I’d rather say nothing. Such a good-hearted girl am I. So you won’t get dish from me, but what you will get are great recommendations. So I’ll start posting these again soon. And I’m looking forward to doing so, since working the city not only keeps me and you up to date on the Italian food scene but it gets me out of the house, something not so easy to do when I’m working on a book. So hopefully we’ll all be happy.

I know I said I wasn’t going to post as many recipes, but this one I couldn’t resist sharing with you. I love the little dark purple pointy Italian plums I’m finding at my Greenmarket right now. They’re good for open-face tarts, since they hold their shape and don’t give off a ton of juice, making the crust soggy. I’ve left this tart quite plain, no custard, no nuts, no eggs, just plums and the beautiful and quite haunting combination or rosemary and fennel. It’s great for breakfast.

Italian Plum Tart with Rosemary and Fennel

For the pastry:

1¾ cups all-purpose flour
A large pinch of salt
2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon ground fennel seed
1 stick plus 2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
3 to 4 tablespoons cold white wine, possibly a touch more

12 to 15 Italian purple plums, cut in half lengthwise and pitted
¾ cup sugar
½ teaspoon ground fennel seed
4 sprigs rosemary, the leaves chopped, plus a few whole sprigs for garnish

Pour the flour into a food processor. Add the salt, sugar, and ground fennel seed, and give it a few quick pulses to blend everything. Add the butter, and pulse a few times to break it up. Add the white wine, and pulse a few more times until the butter is about the size of lentils and the dough is moist but hasn’t come together in a ball. Pinch a bit of the dough. If it holds together, it’s ready. If it’s still dry, add another little drizzle of wine, and pulse once or twice more. Turn the dough out onto a clean surface, and press it together into a ball. Give it a few quick kneads until it comes together relatively neatly. Wrap the dough in plastic, and refrigerate for about 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Place the cut plums in a big bowl, and toss them well with the sugar, fennel, and rosemary. Do this right before you plan to roll out the dough. If the plums sit too long in the sugar, they’ll make the sugar dissolve and create a lot of liquid, which you don’t want in your tart.

Take the dough from the refrigerator, lightly flour a work surface, and roll it out to an approximately 13-inch shaggy oval. Trim the edges to make it smooth and more or less uniform (if you have a 12-inch oval platter you can trace around that, but the handmade rustico look is very appealing, so don’t worry about it too much). Butter a sheet pan, and place the dough oval on it. Take all the trimmings, and roll them out into a long rope. Wet the edges of the oval, and fashion the dough rope along this perimeter. Pinch down on it, forming a pretty border (see my photo for a design suggestion), making sure it sticks well to the oval base. Place the plums, cut side up, inside the pastry oval in a slightly overlapping arrangement. Scoop up any extra sugar and seasonings left in the bowl, and fill the insides of the plums with it.

Bake until the tart is golden and the plums have softened, about 35 minutes. Garnish with the rosemary sprigs. Let cool about ½ hour before serving.

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Cauliflower lady with a basket hat.

Recipe: Cauliflower and Fennel Soup with Chervil and Thyme

Lately I’ve been making a lot of puréed soups, mainly for my mother, whose age and aging temperament they sooth. I don’t generally have a plan. That is, I don’t have much in mind when I wander over to the Greenmarket and gaze around. I just look for stuff that seems easily blendable and not too sharp or spicy. This week I grabbed a big cauliflower and a few small bulb fennel and took them home.

It’s strange how a puréed vegetable soup, such as carrot for instance, can sometimes taste weakly of what it is, even when I refrain from adding elements that might get in the way of the vegetable’s pure taste, such as a heavy broth. The essence of carrot I find particularly elusive. I say this because last week I made a soup that was basically just carrot, and it tasted very little of carrot, and these were local, beautiful, dark orange, New Jersey specimens. It’s a mystery. Salt, lemon, a touch of sugar, all my easy-fix remedies, failed to up the soup’s flavor.

I’m happy to say that this week’s cauliflower and fennel pairing produced an exceptionally good soup, both flavors playing off each other to create a taste greater than the parts. I did jack it up with fennel seed and a drizzle of Pernod, but other than that I did my usual, which is usually not to tinker too much. The most important technique when making a good vegetable soup is to make sure you sauté the vegetable well in olive oil or butter to bring out its flavor. I did this with the carrots and still failed to get a result I was happy with, but if you just go and dump vegetables in boiling water without a preliminary sauté, you will fail every time, I assure you.

Cauliflower and Fennel Soup with Chervil and Thyme

(Serves 5)

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus an extra drizzle
2 medium shallots, thinly sliced
2 summer garlic bulbs, roughly chopped
2 small fennel bulbs, trimmed and sliced, including a small handful of the feathery fronds
About a dozen fennel seeds, ground to a powder
1 small branch of thyme
1 large baking potato, peeled and cut into cubes
1 large cauliflower, cut into large flowerets
Freshly ground black pepper
A generous pinch of Basque pimenton d’espelette
1 teaspoon Pernod or another pastis
1½ cups light chicken broth
A handful of chervil sprigs for garnish

Heat the 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large soup pot over medium flame. Add the shallots, garlic, and fennel, and sauté for a few minutes to release all their flavors. Add the fennel fronds, fennel seeds, thyme branch, potato, and cauliflower, season with salt and black pepper, and sauté a few minutes longer, coating everything well with the oil. Add the pimenton d’espelette, just a touch, and the pastis. Add the chicken broth and enough water to just cover the vegetables. Cook, uncovered, at a lively bubble, until all the vegetables are soft.

Remove the thyme branch, and then purée the soup with an immersion blender or in a food processor, and return it to the pot. Add more water if you think it’s too thick (I like mine a bit on the thin side), add a generous drizzle of fresh olive oil, and check the seasoning. Reheat gently, and serve, garnishing each bowl with chervil sprigs.

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Still Life with Squid, a fresco from Pompeii (it actually looks more like a cuttlefish to me).

Recipe: Grilled Calamari with Barley and Warm Rosemary Vinaigrette

Oh, boy, summer and grilled calamari. My Nassau County childhood. Nothing better. I love the way the tentacles curl up when they hit the grill and become alive. Really freaky. Have a salad or a bowl of dressed pasta waiting, throw your squid on the fire for a quick one two, and add them to your bowl. The grill juices will mix with your tomatoes, pesto, or vinaigrette to produce a lovely sauce.

With this creation I cooked up a bit of barley and mixed it with seared cherry tomatoes that I finished with a hot vinaigrette made from the tomato pan juices, rosemary, garlic, and splashes of both balsamic vinegar and red vermouth. I added the grilled calamari and a handful of chicory at the last minute. If I make this again I think I’ll use frisée instead, since it’s a little more tender.

I  grill these creatures when I can find extremely fresh, small ones. If you only see large calamari at your market, try a slow-simmered approach such as  this braised, stuffed squid I did for an Easter menu last year.

Grilled Calamari with Barley and Warm Rosemary Vinaigrette

(Serves 4)

1½ cups barley
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 pints grape tomatoes
Freshly ground black pepper
4 large sprigs rosemary, the leaves chopped
2 fresh summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon good quality balsamic vinegar
A splash of sweet red vermouth
1½ pounds small calamari, cleaned, the tentacles left whole
1 medium hot fresh chili, such as a jalapeño
1 small head chicory or frisée, torn into small pieces

Place the barley in a saucepan, and cover it with water by about 4 inches. Season with salt, and bring it to a boil. Adjust the heat so the barley simmers at a low bubble, uncovered, and cook until just tender, about 30 to 35 minutes, adding a little hot water if the level gets too low. Drain it well, and pour it into a large, shallow serving bowl. Give the barley a generous drizzle of olive oil, and toss.

In a large sauté pan, heat about 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. When hot, add the tomatoes, the rosemary, and the garlic, and sear until the tomatoes start to burst, about 4 minutes or so. Season with salt and black pepper. Add the balsamic vinegar and the sweet vermouth, and let them bubble for about 30 seconds. Turn off the heat. Add the tomatoes with all the pan juices to the barley.

Dry the calamari well, and toss it with a little olive oil, salt, and black pepper. Coat the jalapeño with a little oil as well. Set up a stovetop grill plate over high heat (or an outdoor grill with a steady, settled down flame). Place the calamari and the chili on the grill, and cook until grill marks appear, about a minute or so (make sure not to crowd the grill, so everything can grill properly). Give everything a turn, and grill the other side, about a minute longer. Add the calamari  to the barley. Mince the jalapeño, and add it, along with the chicory or the frisée, to the bowl. Give everything a gentle toss. Correct the seasoning. Serve right away.

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A still life with peaches,
found at Herculaneum.

Recipe: Peach Bruschetta with Red Onion, Ricotta, and Basil

The peaches are great this year, so sweet that my mind is trying to turn them savory. I’ve been adding them to salads, arranging them with prosciutto in place of cantaloupe, making peach soup with hot chilies. A pinch of salt does wonders for peaches. Here I’ve chosen red onion, a few drops of champagne vinegar, basil, olive oil, and black pepper to highlight their savory potential, mellowing it all out with a bed of gentle ricotta. Try these as an antipasto offering served with a glass of pink prosecco. The color combination is extraordinary. Such beauty summer sun and rain can produce.

Peach Bruschetta with Red Onion, Ricotta, and Basil

(Serves 4 as an antipasto)

3 ripe summer peaches, peeled and sliced into thin wedges
1 not-too-thin slice red onion, cut into little cubes
Extra-virgin olive oil
About ½ teaspoon Champagne vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
I baguette, cut on an angle into slices about ½ inch thick
1 cup whole milk ricotta
A dozen basil leaves, cut into chiffonade

Place the peaches in a bowl. Add the red onion. Drizzle about a tablespoon or so of olive oil over the peaches (enough to just coat them well). Add the vinegar, and season with a pinch of salt and black pepper. Toss gently.

Toast the baguette slices on both sides. Top each one with a slathering of ricotta. Spoon on a few peach slices, drizzling some of the peach liquid over the top. Garnish with the basil. Serve right away.

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Recipe: Braised Zucchini with Fennel, Black Olives, and Bay Leaves

Rumor has it Sicilians have devised 300 ways to prepare eggplant. That may be. Not so zucchini. Where is all that Sicilian creativity when we really need it? I was rummaging through my old half Sicilian head and also consulting my vast collection of Southern Italian cookbooks in search of zucchini inspiration and wasn’t coming up with anything particularly exciting. So I did what any good cook does. I switched gears and moved my culinary brain over to another venue. I chose Provence, not the real Provence but what my palate tells me is the Provence that should exist (and maybe it does). And I knew I needed to get a move on, since zucchini are everywhere now, getting stronger, bigger, multiplying, and they’re potentially so boring when not in the right hands. I think I have the right hands. Trust me, I’ve come up with something good.

Instead of reaching for anchovies (why do I always do that?), I chose thyme, bay leaf, a splash of pastis, and Niçoise olives to flavor up a handful of gorgeous, dark green, still relatively small zucchini I picked up at the Union Square market from my friends at Migliorelli Farm. And I decided to use a rather large baton cut (see photo), somehow reasoning that this was more French than the usual thin slices or small cubes I automatically go for when I’m fashioning an Italian zucchini recipe (they were how my grandmother and mother cut it, so I assume they’re the Italian way). Ever notice how vegetables can taste different depending on how you slice them? No? Give it some head thought next time. Zucchini, to my palate, tastes a drop fishy when cut into thin rounds, but in a good way (and, no, that’s not because I tend to add anchovies), but choosing the baton shape for this recipe I felt I achieved a mellower flavor, possibly, I’m thinking, because this cut is meatier, allowing less crispy caramelization and more clean zucchini flavor.

I ate this as a main course with bread, but it would go nicely with grilled fish, maybe a handful of little rougets, seasoned with olive oil and lemon.

Braised Zucchini with Fennel, Black Olives, and Bay Leaves

(Serves 4 or 5)

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large summer onion, cut into small dice, using some of the tender green stem
2 fennel bulbs, trimmed and cut into not too thin strips
5 medium zucchini, cut into approximately  2-inch batons, not too thick
Freshly ground black pepper
2 summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced
A drizzle of pastis, such as Pernod (about 2 teaspoons at the most)
2 large round summer tomatoes, peeled and chopped
2 fresh bay leaves
8 large thyme sprigs, stemmed, the leaves left whole
A handful of Niçoise olives, pitted or not

In a large skillet, heat about 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the onion and the fennel, and sauté until both are just starting to soften, about 4 minutes. Add the zucchini, season with salt and black pepper, and give everything a stir. Let this sauté about 2 minutes. Add the garlic, and let it release its perfume without browning. Add the pastis, and let it boil for a minute. Add the tomatoes and the bay leaves, and simmer at a lively bubble until all the vegetables are just tender and the tomatoes have given off some juice, about 5 minutes longer. Add the thyme and the olives, and give everything a good stir. Turn off the heat, and let the dish sit on the stove for about 5 minutes to allow the flavors to come together. Check for seasoning and add a drizzle of fresh olive oil. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.

Note: I put the olives in at the end so they wouldn’t simmer and add bitterness. That’s why you don’t see them in the photo, which I took half way through the cooking.

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The Wonder of Gluttony


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


Several years of disco dancing beat the cooking bug right out of me. I moved to the city, enrolled at N.Y.U., ostensibly to study journalism, thinking it would be useful to write about cheap wine or human rights abuse, now my two main interests, but I still had no life plan. And now that my cooking was temporarily pushed to a dormant area of my brain, I couldn’t get out of my own way. My teenage cooking gave me purpose, and now it was gone. Confusion set in, but oddly it didn’t even matter to me at that point (maybe not a good sign. I should have picked up on that one sooner). Bars took the place of discos and Mickey Ruskin’s 1 U, as it was called (its address was 1 University Place) was the most alluring place around, and conveniently located about four blocks from my dark, stiflingly overheated, roach infested studio apartment. Scott, attending Parsons School of Design, moved in caddy corner to me, finding a similar studio, but his had sunlight and no roaches. I took a job at Barnes & Noble, wrote journalism as if it were fiction, and got into a rolling rut of drinking tooth staining wine and trying to figure what I was suppose to do with straight men.

1 U didn’t have much design appeal. It was just a big, low ceiling box of a place, spare, not even dark, no coziness, and no boho trappings, like Max’s, Ruskin’s earlier club, except for the clientele. What it looked like was a suburban living room, but it served as a classroom for Larry Rivers and his fluid table of young and not so young groupies. Mickey Ruskin, with his phenomenally huge nose and famously greasy black hair made sure they weren’t bothered by riff raff like me. I preferred the bar anyway, a good place to bum cigarettes and seek out the gayest or most outlandish looking men in the place, and there were plenty of exotics to choose from (did I say I was trying to focus on straight men? Oh sorry, my mistake).

Even though I had stopped cooking cold turkey (actually up to this point I had never even cooked a turkey), I was still very attuned to flavors and aromas. The differences between the smoke from a Dunhill Red, an unfiltered Gauloise, or a Marlboro Light, the thick, oakey taste of a California Chardonnay, something I hated from sip one, deli salami cured with too much nitrites that choked the back of my throat, or the beautiful taste of cherries in season as opposed to the winter supermarket offerings, all these things I’m sure would have gone undetected before my frantic cooking stint of several years back. I had awakened my palate and, as I’d soon find out, it would never go back to sleep.

Sitting at Mickey’s bar one night with my cruddy glass of Cabernet (one night? For a while it seemed like it was every night), I made the acquaintance of the fattest man I have ever seen. He tapped me on the back, offering me an invitation to join him. “Thank you but I’m happy here,” is what I said, and I suppose that was true enough.  Oysters and Manhattans, he insisted, were a marriage made in heaven and he wanted me to share this experience with him. I think I was fascinated by his girth, maybe over 400 pounds, and, for such a huge man, his elegant gray linen suit and well ironed powder pink dress shirt. I let him take my arm and relocate me to a table right next to the River’s group. The Manhattans and Blue Point oysters came quickly. I had never had a Manhattan before, a mix of Rye, sweet vermouth, and a touch of bitters. I thought it tasted thick, a little smoky, and too sweet, but it was going down well enough even though I seldom drank straight liquor, maybe the occasional martini. I love oysters and ate them frequently with my father when we’d go to steak houses together, but with this particular drink I thought they tasted metallic. He finished his drink in about two gulps, slipping the oysters down quickly too, and they kept on coming, the Manhattans, the oysters.

 From what I remember, he seemed like a very nice man, although I can’t remember his name, possibly John. I told him I volunteered for Amnesty International, something I’d actually be doing since high school, and this began a kind of dry talk about Nigeria and the ban on political activity that had just been lifted, something that tragically didn’t last long enough. And as I recall he was a for real journalist, not a ‘to hell with the facts’ type like I obviously was studying to become. Possibly he wrote for The Wall Street Journal, I think I remember that, and I gathered he was somewhat of a political conservative, except in the field of eating. One thing for certain, he was obviously one of those insatiable people who never got enough, couldn’t put on the breaks, a type I’d heard about but not yet, in my young life, met, except for the few heroin addicts I’d know in high school. Addiction to drugs I came somewhat to understand, having watched several of my young friends deeply immersed, tragically to the point of no return, but to just eat and eat and eat with no fullness ever, this I couldn’t wrap my culinary head around. How is it, I though, that the food just doesn’t eventually fill the belly and start coming back up the throat? I suppose it’s a process that comes about by sheer will. His stomach must have been stretched to breaking. I have, I think, an fairly early cut off point when it comes to food, except for many types of pasta dishes such as spaghetti with clams and possibly penne with lamb ragu, but generally speaking I stop eating when I’m full (and there are still times when I can’t pull the plug quick enough on my red wine consumption, although at least now I drink better wine). This man, it seemed, could never ever get enough. As elegant as he was, he frightened me.

‘John’ must have put an order in for a non-stop flow of this very strange combination of flavors. I would have preferred a vodka martini with the oysters. Why did he like this so much? All in all I had maybe three drinks, possibly four. But he was ordering four for each of mine. A marriage made in heaven, he repeated. Each new marriage was seemingly a drop in the bucket for him. After a few rounds it started to not seem like such a good marriage to me. I stopped eating the oysters, but continued to drink. The Manhattans tasted better without the oysters so I concentrated on those. But then, wouldn’t you know it, I began to see him double, which was quite a shock, since his huge form now seemed to be taking up the entire room. My brow broke out in a sweat. A wave of nausea flooded up from under my rib cage. My heartbeat quickened. And then, of course, I was off, racing to the bathroom, puking so violently, I truly thought I was going to pass out (thankfully this didn’t happen. The thought of being 86ed from 1 U would have been a tragic uprooting).

It seemed I was in that bathroom for quite a long time, but Big ‘John’ never came looking for me. When I finally wrenched my head up from the toilet, a little blood running from my lip (had I slammed my face into the bowl?), I collected myself as best as I could, rinsing out my mouth, running my fingers through my damp hair, putting on a little blush (always makes a girl feel fresh after a bout of vomiting) and started walking toward the door, the nausea still churning, my throat on fire, but there he was, another 2 dozen oysters set out in front of him, two more Manhattans. “Come sit,” he said to me, cradling his arm around my waist, seemingly oblivious to the passing of time and what I might have been up to. But now I viewed him as the devil. What makes a person so insatiable? How is what he does relate to eating as most people understand it? What goes on in his brain that makes him need more and more and more and more, never ending, and why the hell did he think this food and beverage were a marriage made in heaven?

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Recipe: Zucchini Soup with Mint and Ricotta Cream

Okay, so zucchini is now here, and it’s just the beginning of a long season with this potentially boring vegetable. But get it now while it’s young and sleek and truly delicious, for soon it’ll be big and starchy and not much good for anything except stuffing and baking with rice, herbs, and sausage (actually a great Southern Italian standard, a real nonna dish).

If you have these things growing in your garden, I know you’re dreading the future, when your zucchini will start to multiply like crazy and grow huge as torpedoes. Don’t worry, I’ll be posting appropriate recipes for dealing with that problem later in the summer (including one for that sausage-stuffed zucchini), but for now, here’s a light and delicate soup to make with the firm little ones I’m now finding at my Greenmarkets.

Oh, and don’t forget the ultimate gift from zucchini, its lovely yellow blossoms. I’ll work on some new recipes for those, too, and send them along to you ASAP.

Happy zucchini season.

And for your listening pleasure, here’s Tim Curry singing “The Zucchini Song.”

Zucchini Soup with Mint and Ricotta Cream

(Serves 4)

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 fairly large spring onion, diced, using some of the tender green stalk
1 large starchy baking potato, peeled and cut into small dice
2 fresh spring garlic cloves, sliced
6 small young zucchini, unskinned and cut into medium dice
Freshly ground black pepper
About 5 big scrapings of nutmeg
1 cup chicken broth
The grated zest from 1 small lemon
1 cup whole milk ricotta
About 2 dozen fresh spearmint leaves

In a large soup pot, heat about 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the onion and the potato, and let them soften for a minute or so. Now add the garlic and the zucchini, season with salt, black pepper, and the nutmeg, and sauté to release all the flavors, about 2 minutes. Add the chicken broth, and then add enough water to just cover the vegetables. Bring to a boil. Turn the heat down a touch, and cook at a lively simmer, uncovered, until all the vegetables are tender when poked with a knife, about 15 minutes.

Purée the soup in a food processor until smooth, and pour it back into a clean pot. Add the lemon zest, and taste for seasoning, adding more salt and black pepper if you think you need it. The soup should have a medium-thick consistency, so add a little warm water if you have to.

Put the ricotta into a food processor. Add about 3 tablespoons of olive oil, a pinch of salt, and a few gratings of black pepper. Add a drizzle of hot water, and pulse until the mixture is smooth and creamy (it should have the consistency of crème fraîche). Put the ricotta mix in a small bowl. Chop up half of the mint leaves, and mix them into the ricotta.

When ready to serve, reheat the soup gently if necessary. Ladle it into soup bowls, and top each serving with a dollop of the ricotta cream. Cut the remaining mint into julienne, and scatter it on the soup.

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