Archive for the ‘Skinny Guinea’ Category

Girl with Fish, Nguyen Trung, 1990.

This beautiful woman has the new year all worked out. She’s got her fish. She’s serene and clear-eyed. She knows how to dress simply, and she knows how to cook. This silver fish will be brushed with oil and ginger and placed on a wood fire, not even gutted. Happy New Year to you Miss Fish Girl. All will be well.

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Still-Life-With-Walnuts,-Olives-In-A-Glass-Jar,-A-Partly-Peeled-Lemon-And-A-Glass-Of-Red-WineStill Life with Walnuts, Olives in a Glass Jar, a Partly Peeled Lemon, and a Glass of Red Wine, Miquel Parra, 1780-1846.

Recipe: U spaghett’antalina for la Vigilia di Natale

Pasta with walnuts. What a lovely thing that is. Spaghetti tossed with a walnut pesto is a dish I often make in cool weather. I just throw really fresh walnut halves, a garlic clove, grana Padano, extra-virgin olive oil (plus often a splash of walnut oil, if I have it), and abundant parsley into a food processor and pulse a few times until I’ve got a chunky paste. Sometimes I add butter, too. It’s a rich pasta that’s perfect for a first course, nice before rosemary roasted lamb, for instance.

Walnuts remind me of Christmas. My father always had a bowl of them, along with a simple nutcracker, hanging around the house somewhere during the holidays. Nuts with shells. Doesn’t that seem a thing of the past? Actually I’m not sure if I’d ever be up to making my walnut pesto if I had to shell and grind the nuts by hand. That, I feel, would be depressing, especially since I’m usually alone in the kitchen, working away, or sometimes it’s just me and Maria Callas, which is much more interesting.

Well, now on to Christmas Eve dinner. La Vigilia, the big fish dinner. My favorite meal of the year. I never know what I’ll be making until a few days before, and I change the menu every year. Since this year I’ve got walnuts on the brain (and possibly a brain the size of a walnut, at this stage of my life), I’m reminded of a Neapolitan walnut-and-anchovy pasta that’s traditional for this meatless though lavish meal. U spaghett’antalina is what it’s called in dialect, and the dish is fabulous. The annual walnut harvest in the Sorrento peninsula happens in the late fall, so by the time Christmas comes around the market is filled with really fresh, flavorful walnuts, which are famous throughout Italy. This beautiful pasta appears on a lot of Christmas Eve tables, both around Naples and in Italian-American households. My family never made it. We almost always had linguine with clam sauce to start, but since I’m now thinking about walnuts, this lovely pasta seems like the right thing to kick off my Christmas Eve menu this year.

Here’s the way I make it.

U spaghett’antalina for la Vigilia di Natale

(Serves 5)

1½ cups very fresh walnut halves
Sea salt
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, very thinly sliced
10 oil-packed anchovies, minced
1 pound spaghetti
A pinch of sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon Fra Angelico liqueur (or a walnut liqueur, if you have it)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
About ½ cup very lightly chopped flat leaf parsley
5  marjoram sprigs, leaves lightly chopped

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spread the walnuts out on a sheet pan, and roast them until just fragrant, about 5 minutes. Make sure to watch that they don’t burn. You just want them lightly golden.  Now stick them in a food processor, and pulse a few times, to give them a rough chop.

Set up a big pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Season with a good amount of salt, and drop in the spaghetti.

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over a medium-low flame. Add the garlic and the anchovies, and sauté until fragrant, about a minute or so. Add the walnuts, seasoning them with salt, black pepper, and a little sugar, and sauté a minute just to coat them with oil. Add the liqueur, and let it boil away.

When the pasta is al dente, drain it, saving about ½ cup of the pasta water, and transfer it to a warmed serving bowl. Add the butter, and toss. Add the walnut sauce with all the skillet juices, the parsley, and the marjoram, and toss, adding a little pasta water if necessary to loosen the sauce. Taste to see if it needs more salt or black pepper. Serve hot.

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oranges flamingo
Modern Wilderness, Kevin Sloan, 2012.

Recipe: Orange Salad with Pistachios, Black Olives, and Orange Vinaigrette

I give thanks to Mother Nature for oranges. They can make a cold, gray day sunny. They are winter glamor. Right now I find an abundance of oranges in my supermarket, piled up in bins, ready to go tumbling all over the store if I remove one with a lack of finesse. Even with this abundance, each orange seems special to me. Almost no other natural food smells quite so lovely at this time of year.

And after years of immersing myself in Southern Italian food, oranges remind me primarily of one thing, one place, Sicily, where they play a meaningful role in the island’s cooking. Savory Sicilian dishes made with oranges, what a lure they are, and what an unexpected taste they have, a taste I can only describe as exotic.

The savory orange salads of Sicily are a standout even in the vast world of Italian culinary invention. They can be seasoned with sea salt, black pepper, olives, chicory, olive oil, orange flower water, hot chilies, arugula, red onion, fennel, oregano, almonds, scallions, mint, pine nuts. In Palermo I’ve had them with just a sprinkle of salt and a drizzle of good olive oil, but I’ve also been served and created dishes that included just about all of the above. The saltier, the more savory the better, as far as I’m concerned. Orange salads are best made with fruit that’s not not too sweet, but Sicilians can make a sweet orange less so with ease (with biting olive oil, red onion, sea salt, or black pepper to do the trick). The salads are a perfect palate cleanser after a pasta con ricci (with sea urchins) or swordfish involtini. Some kind of orange salad always winds up on my table as the crowning conclusion to my big Christmas Eve fish extravaganza.

I grew up, like most Americans, thinking of oranges as primarily good for morning juice or, after a chemical transformation, as a coating for Creamsicles. Then I started reading Sicilian cookbooks, discovered the existence of these salads, and began to contemplate a strange bowl of seemingly incongruous ingredients as part of my dinner. Well, that sent my culinary head spinning.

Just about any variety of orange will do, as long as they’re fragrant and juicy. In a few weeks I’ll find blood oranges in the markets and I’ll certainly be using those, both for their beauty and bitter sweet flavor.

In Sicily these salads are finished simply with good olive oil. A formal dressing isn’t usually needed with the acidity of the oranges. But I got to thinking that a good way to turn up the orangeness of the salad would be by making a gentle vinaigrette using some of the zest, so its oil could open up, bathing the salad in another layer of orange.

Orange Salad with Pistachios, Black Olives, and Orange Vinaigrette

(Serves 4)

1 medium head frisée lettuce, torn into small pieces
3 or 4 medium oranges, one zested, and then all of them peeled and cut into thin rounds
½ a medium red onion, sliced into thin rounds
A handful of rich tasting black olives (I used Niçoise)
A handful of unsalted, shelled pistachios, lightly toasted
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
2½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (I used Ravida, a very fruity Sicilian estate oil)
About 6 large spearmint sprigs, leaves very lightly chopped

Choose a large, curved serving platter, and lay out the frisée on it. Arrange the orange slices on top of the lettuce in a circular pattern. Now place the onion slices on top. Scatter on the olives and the pistachios. Give everything a gentle sprinkle of sea salt and black pepper (you’ll be adding a bit more to the dressing, so don’t overdo it here).

In a small bowl, whisk together the orange zest, the lemon juice, and the olive oil, adding a pinch more salt and a few grindings of black pepper. Let it sit for a minute or two, and then pour it over the salad. Garnish with the mint, and serve.

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Pumpkin Torta from Liguria

Books, Shoe, and Pumpkin, Henriette Picker, 2012. To see more of her work, visit www.hspicker.com.

Recipe: Torta di Zucca from Moneglia, Liguria

Almost the only parts of Thanksgiving dinner I ever liked were the Italian dishes my family made to go with all the American stuff, sausage-stuffed artichokes, breadcrumb-and-herb-stuffed mushrooms, broccoli rabe with fennel seeds and garlic. But I really like cranberry sauce, too, especially the way my mother made it, with lots of orange sections and Triple Sec. Now that I think of it, it tasted very Sicilian.

Every year I try to come up with new Italian dishes to slip into the occasion. Currently I happen to be going through a deep attraction to Italian savory tarts, and recently while searching around for regional ones I didn’t yet know, I came across references to torta di zucca, an excellent-sounding pumpkin torta from Liguria, made in the town of Moneglia for its annual Sagra di Zucca pumpkin festival. It’s flavored with Parmigiano and marjoram, a signature herb in Liguria. I was immediately intrigued.

I love the idea of non-sweet, non-pumpkin pie, spiced-up pumpkin. It seems that even in Italy that’s hard to come by. Whenever I’ve had pumpkin-filled ravioli or other pasta it has also contained something sweet, such as amaretto cookies or sugar and cinnamon. I also associate such as pasta with a sage butter sauce, something I very much like, but marjoram struck me as a good change.

I went about gathering up as many recipes as I could for this fine-sounding torta creation and weighed their pros and cons as I saw them. Never actually having tasted the thing on its home turf, I had to imagine what would make it the best it could be. The recipes varied greatly, so I knew that every cook made it a little differently. One was a double-crusted pie with lots of onion, another included dried porcini mushrooms. In one the pumpkin was baked and puréed; another had it cubed. Some contained garlic, which I immediately nixed. Several were open-face torts with breadcrumbs baked on top. That sounded great, so I went for it, along with marjoram, one of my absolute favorite herbs, and the Parmigiano, both of which were present in every recipe, and I came up with a version that felt right for me. Someday I’ll have to get myself to that Sagra di Zucca in Moneglia, but for now this will have to do. And it really is quite wonderful.

Happy Thanksgiving from your personal Italian cook.

Torta di Zucca from Moneglia, Liguria

For the crust:

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup dry Marsala or dry vermouth

For the filling:

½ a small pumpkin (I used one of those squat, tan cheese pumpkins), you’ll want enough to get about 2 cups of puree
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large shallot, minced
A splash of dry Marsala or dry vermouth
Freshly ground black pepper
2 jumbo eggs, at room temperature, lightly whisked
½ cup whole milk ricotta, drained if watery
¾ cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
A handful of lightly toasted pine nuts
6 marjoram sprigs, leaves lightly chopped, plus a little extra for garnish if you like
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ cup homemade breadcrumbs, not too finely ground

You’ll want a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom.

To make the crust: Put the flour in a large bowl. Sprinkle on the sugar and salt, and mix it around. In a small bowl, mix the olive oil with the Marsala. Pour this over the flour, and mix with a wooden spoon until you have a sticky mass of dough balls. Tilt it out onto a work space, very briefly give it a few kneads, and then press it together into a ball. Wrap it in plastic, and let it sit, unrefrigerated, about an hour.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Remove the seeds from the pumpkin half. Drizzle it with a little olive oil, and wrap it in aluminum foil. Place it on a sheet pan, and bake until it’s tender when poked with a knife, about 40 minutes or so.

When the pumpkin is cool enough to handle, scoop out the insides into a bowl, measuring out about 2 cups.

In a small skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and sauté the shallot until it’s soft. Add a tiny splash of Marsala to loosen up cooked-on bits, and pour the mix over the pumpkin. Add all the other ingredients for the filling, except the breadcrumbs, and mix well. Taste for seasoning.

Toss the breadcrumbs with a tablespoon or so of olive oil, and season them lightly with salt and black pepper.

Place a sheet pan on the bottom rack in the oven and let it heat up. Baking a torta on a hot sheet pan will prevent the soggy bottom that’s often a problem.

Roll out the dough, and drape it into the tart pan, trimming any overhang. Build the sides up a bit with your fingers so it sticks out a little from the rim.

Pour the filling into the dough, and smooth down the top. Sprinkle with the breadcrumbs.

Place the tart in the oven on the sheet pan and bake until the crust is lightly browned and the filling is firm and golden, about 40 minutes.

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Recipe: Polpettone for Hurricane Sandy

Even when I’m culinarily extravagant, which I think happens to any professional cook, I try my hardest never to be wasteful. I get a sickening pang in my heart if I let something spoil because of inattentiveness. Unfortunately, sometimes waste can’t be helped, but still it makes me feel bad when it happens.

The day before Hurricane Sandy struck I stood in line at Westside Market, with hundreds of other crazed looking West Villagers, and bought up anything I could get my little mitts on, cans of tomatoes, sardines, tuna, bags of penne, rigatoni, ziti, dried cecis, cauliflower, bananas, a zillion heads of escarole, for some unexplained reason, but meat, too, pork, beef, chicken, lots of it. You’d think being a food pro it would have occurred to me that if the lights went out, refrigeration would go out too, but with all the pushing and grabbing at the hectic market, I threw whatever was closest at hand into my cart, happy just to have lots of stuff. I figured I’d have a crowd of people flooding into my tiny apartment, camping out and needing to be fed. That’s what had happened when the World Trade Center imploded, and also during various heat-related blackouts over the years. It didn’t happen this time. Everyone was scattered and isolated.

Cooking sausage ragù and pork with ceci beans in my freezing cold, candlelit kitchen was a novel challenge. At least our gas wasn’t turned off, unlike my mother’s, so I could light the burners with a match. And we had water, unlike many people. Not hot water, but cold water I could boil to cook pasta. By the third day, with my now hot refrigerator filled with packages of chopped meat and rotting escarole, I decided I should make a polpettone, a meatloaf. But damned if the meat in the big hot germ box didn’t smell a little off. Gee, what a bummer. Should I cook it anyway? The inside of the refrigerator smelled exactly like when I’ve on occasion located a dead and rotting mouse under a bookcase. What would it be like to come down with food poisoning in a freezing cold, blacked out apartment? At least if my husband and I needed to puke for a few hours, we could flush the toilet, something many friends couldn’t at that moment do, but ultimately I decided that taking the chance could add insult to injury (or possibly the other way around). So the ground pork, ground chuck, and ground veal all had to go. This pained me and made me feel incredibly obtuse for having bought so much perishable stuff. I guess I hadn’t thought the blackout would last so long. But then why did I buy so much? The answer: pure panic. I think Italians in particular are prone to this type of frantic hoarding. I’ve seen it with my family here and in Italy, how they go apeshit every year preserving in vinegar or oil every garden eggplant and pepper, every leaf of basil, jamming up the basement with rows of jars and bottles as if there weren’t a grocery store anywhere.

Interestingly, I don’t think West Side Market lost much. During the storm I saw guys loading big trucks with perishables and presumably transporting it all to their Upper West Side branch, where, as some of my friends who live up there have told me, you’d never have even known a hurricane had barreled through. Having seen that made me feel even more guilty. If I had just left all that meat in the store and not been so greedy, it would have fed somebody.

Here’s the recipe for the polpettone I finally did get around to making, the day the lights came on. It was quite delicious.

Polpettone for Hurricane Sandy

(Serves 4 or 5)

1 pound ground pork
1 pound ground beef, preferably chuck
The soft insides from 2 slices of Italian bread, torn into small pieces (about a cup)
1 heaping tablespoon crème fraîche
A splash of milk
Extra-virgin olive oil
6 thin slices pancetta, 1 well chopped, 5 left whole
1 celery stalk, cut into small dice, plus a handful of celery leaves, chopped
1 medium shallot, cut into small dice
1 small carrot, cut into small dice
2 small garlic cloves, minced
Dry white wine
2 large eggs
6 large thyme sprigs, leaves chopped
A handful of Italian parsley leaves, chopped
½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground allspice
Freshly ground black pepper
¾ cup grated grana padano

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Put the ground meat in a large bowl.

Put the torn bread in a small bowl. Add the crème fraîche and a splash of milk, and mix everything around with a fork until it’s mushy. Pour this onto the meat.

In a medium skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the chopped pancetta, and sauté until it’s just starting to crisp. Add the celery, shallot, and carrot, and sauté until softened. Add the garlic, and sauté a few seconds, just to release its flavor. Add a splash of white wine, let it bubble for a few seconds, and then pour everything over the meat in the large bowl.

Now add all the remaining ingredients, except the sliced pancetta, seasoning well with salt and black pepper (and don’t forget the celery leaves). Add a drizzle of olive oil, and mix well but gently, trying not to make the meat too compact (or you’ll have a dense meatloaf).

Choose a baking dish that will fit the meatloaf with a little free room all around. Drizzle the bottom of the dish with olive oil. Shape the meat into a big log, and tilt it into the dish. Lay the slices of pancetta over the top. Give it a splash of white wine and then a good drizzle of olive oil. Bake until just tender, about 30 to 35 minutes.

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Foodscapes, by Carl Warner.

Recipe: Pasta e Ceci with Saffron and Leeks

Two flavors, when blended, can sometimes produce a third taste that is entirely new and even unexpected. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. And even an old cook like me (I think seasoned is the word), someone who has experimented with herbs, spices, and aromatic vegetables for a long time, can be surprised. That’s pretty wonderful. In recent posts I’ve talked about mixing rosemary with allspice, mustard with anchovies, and marjoram with fennel seeds. Each of those pairings produced a third taste that I couldn’t have completely predicted. Today I want to tell you what happened when I paired rosemary with saffron.

Saffron isn’t a spice I would automatically include in a cucina povera dish such as pasta e fagioli. It seems a tad high-end. I often add rosemary or sage to my fazool and leave it at that. This time I did use rosemary, but—and I think this happened because the cecis made me think of North Africa—I also added a bit of saffron. I can’t recall previously blending the two flavors, but the taste was sensational. Both ingredients have a distinct bitter edge, and I’m certain that had I overdone it with either or both the results wouldn’t have been as alluring. But in small amounts this mingling produced a bittersweet exotic perfume with a fullness of flavor that surprised me. I feel that the saffron took the sharp edge off the rosemary, and the rosemary made the saffron taste a little sweet. If I were served this dish without knowing what was in it, I’m not even sure I could pick out the two tastes. Just separating them was even hard, despite the fact that I knew very well what was in there. Now, I’m sure the leeks and pancetta contributed to the lushness, the roundness of this particular pasta, but despite all the competition, this new, third flavor really pushed through.

Pasta e Ceci with Saffron and Leeks

(Serves 4 as a main course pasta)

2 15-ounce cans chickpeas (I’ve been liking Goya lately), rinsed and dried
Extra-virgin olive oil
About a dozen saffron threads
¼ pound chunk of pancetta, cut into small cubes
2 medium leeks, well cleaned and trimmed, cut into small dice
2 medium celery stalks, cut into small dice, plus a handful of celery leaves, lightly chopped
3 sprigs rosemary, leaves well chopped
A splash of dry white wine
1 cup good chicken broth (homemade, if possible)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound ditali or penne corte
A big handful of flat leaf parsley, leaves lightly chopped
A chunk of pecorino Toscano cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Spread the chickpeas out on a sheet pan. Toss them lightly with olive oil and a little salt. Roast until they’re very lightly golden and just starting to look firm, about 20 minutes. I find this concentrates the flavor of canned chickpeas and improves their texture.

Put the saffron threads in a small sauté pan, turn the heat to very low, and warm them, just until they dry out. Now grind them to a powder in a mortar and pestle.

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

In a large skillet, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the pancetta, and sauté until it’s crisp but not too browned. Add the leeks, the celery, and the rosemary, and sauté until softened and fragrant, about 5 minutes.

Drop the pasta into the water, and give it a quick stir.

Add the chickpeas to the skillet, season with a little salt, and sauté until they’re coated with flavor, about 2 or 3 minutes. Add the wine, and let it boil away. Add the chicken broth and the saffron, and simmer for a minute or so to blend all the flavors.

When the pasta is al dente, drain it, and pour it into a large, warmed serving bowl. Drizzle with a few tablespoons of fresh olive oil, and toss. Add the ceci sauce, the parsley and the celery leaves, and a few big grindings of black pepper. Grate on a little pecorino Toscano, and toss again. Bring the rest of the cheese to the table.

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My Pizza di Scarola

Flowering Vegetables, Edward Burra, 1957.

Recipe: My Pizza di Scarola

Pizza di scarola is a Neapolitan specialty that was originally made for Christmas but for many decades has also been popular year-round street food in Naples. I could easily find wedges of this double-crusted escarole torta in New York pizza places when I was a kid, but I haven’t seen it anywhere in at least ten years. That’s a shame, since it can be outstanding. But time marches on, and most of the by-the-slice places here aren’t even run by Italians anymore, so their cooks probably have no idea of this wonderful creation.

Pizza di scarola is a classic, but even classics can have an improvisational side. I almost always use an olive oil crust, but a yeast dough is common too, making it more like a calzone. I really like the texture and taste of the olive oil dough best, and that’s what I used for this recipe, but I once made it with a lard crust, and that was pretty damned good too. So you really have some leeway here.

Flavoring additions that I’m familiar with can include black or green olives, capers, pine nuts, raisins, anchovies (which, I feel, are not negotiable), caciocavallo, or some other Southern cheese such as mozzarella. I flavor up mine differently all the time. If you take a look at a version I posted a few years back, you’ll see I used black olives and Raschera, a Northern (what?) cow’s milk cheese. But this time I really wanted the escarole to come forward, so I omitted the cheese completely and included only ingredients I thought would boost the greens feel of the thing. I added green olives and pine nuts, a little garlic, and anchovies of course, but I also threw in a tiny bit of both mustard and fresh thyme, not typical Neapolitan touches by any stretch, but for me they did the trick, making this version lighter while highlighting the delicate bitterness escarole gives off when cooked.

I’ve tasted versions of pizza di scarola that contained just about nothing but escarole, and I’ve sampled ones that encompassed an entire grab bag of Neapolitan flavors (including some of the first ones I made myself, in a culinary past when I knew no restraint). What’s in your pizza di scarola? I’d love to know.

My Pizza di Scarola

You’ll want a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom, or a tart ring.

For the crust:

2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 cup dry vermouth

For the filling:

1 very large head escarole, washed and cut into small pieces (you’ll want about 4 cups, uncooked)
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 small, fresh, medium hot red chili, seeded and minced
4 anchovy fillets, chopped
A large pinch of sugar
A big handful of lightly toasted pine nuts
A teaspoon of Dijon mustard
6 large thyme sprigs, leaves chopped
About 10 green picholine olives, pitted and chopped
1 extra large egg, lightly whisked

To make the crust: Put the flour in a large bowl. Stir in the sugar and salt. Mix the olive oil and vermouth together in a cup, and pour it over the flour, mixing it in with a wooden spoon. If the mix seems dry, add a drizzle more of vermouth or water. When you have a nice moist mass of lumpy dough, dump it out onto a work surface, knead it a few times, and then quickly squeeze it all together until you’ve got a big ball. Wrap the dough in plastic, and let it sit, unrefrigerated, for about an hour.

Blanch the escarole in a pot of boiling water for about 2 minutes. Drain it and run it under cold water to stop the cooking. Now squeeze as much water from the escarole as you can, and give it a few extra chops.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

In a large skillet, heat about 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the garlic and hot chili, and let them soften for a few seconds. Add the escarole, the anchovies, the pinch of sugar, and a little salt. Sauté until all the flavors are well distributed, about a minute or so. Add the mustard, pine nuts, thyme, and olives, and mix them in. Let cool for about 10 minutes, and then add about half of the beaten egg, stirring it in.

Place your tart pan or ring on a baking sheet.

Cut the dough into two parts, one slightly bigger than the other. Roll out the larger part and drape it into your tart pan or ring, leaving a little overhang. Spoon the escarole filling onto the dough and smooth it down. Roll out the other piece of dough, and place it on top of the filling. Pull up the overhang, and crimp the edges all around. Make a few slashes in the top, and brush with the rest of the beaten egg. Bake until browned and fragrant, about 40 minutes. Let rest about ½ hour before slicing.

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Flowers, Apples, and Tomatoes, Kateryna Bilokur, 1950.

Recipe: Tomato Torta with Rosemary and Montasio

It’s last call for local tomatoes here in the New York area, so I decided to give them an elegant sendoff. I had a bag of big, beautiful cherry tomatoes grown by my friend Barbara in her upstate garden. Some were quite soft. A tart, I figured, was the thing, since oven blasting would help them retain their shape and preserve their brilliant crimson color. For a filling I mixed aged Montasio, a firm and slightly sweet cow’s milk cheese from Friuli, with crème fraîche and a hit of allspice. I added a little rosemary to the crust and to the filling. I love the way allspice blends with rosemary. It softens the slight  medicinal edge the herb can sometimes give off, lending it warmth while creating a unique woodsy flavor that makes me feel cozy in cooler weather. This gorgeous herb-spice combo is also great in an apple tart.

Tomato Torta with Rosemary and Montasio

(Serves 6 as an antipasto offering)

You’ll need a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom.

For the crust:

2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 large sprig rosemary, leaves well chopped
⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup dry vermouth or white wine

For the filling:

About 2 dozen large cherry tomatoes, cut in half
2 large sprigs rosemary, leaves well chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons crème fraîche
1 jumbo egg
½ cup grated Montasio cheese
1 small garlic clove, minced
¼ teaspoon ground allspice

To make the crust: Pour the flour into a bowl. Sprinkle on the salt and rosemary, and mix them in. Mix the olive oil with the vermouth, and pour over the flour. Mix well with a wooden spoon. Now turn the dough out onto a work space, and knead it very briefly, just until it forms a ball. (You don’t want to overwork this dough. It should look a little streaky.) Wrap it in plastic, and let it sit, unrefrigerated, for about an hour.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Put the halved tomatoes in a bowl. Sprinkle on the rosemary, a little salt, black pepper, and the sugar. Add about a tablespoon of olive oil, and toss the tomatoes so they’re well coated.

In a small bowl whisk together the crème fraîche, egg, Montasio, garlic, and allspice, seasoning it all with a little salt and black pepper. The mix should be very smooth and have the consistency of very heavy cream. If it seems too thick, add a drizzle of milk and whisk it in.

Place the tart pan on a sheet pan. Roll out the dough, and drape it into the tart pan, trimming any overhang.

Working in a circular pattern, place the tomatoes, cut side up, in the tart pan, overlapping them a bit. Discard any liquid given off by the tomatoes (or use the liquid in a pasta or stew sauce).

Now pour the crème fraîche mixture over the tomatoes, being careful not to drip any outside the dough. Give the top a drizzle of olive oil.

Bake until the crust is golden and the tomatoes have a nice roasted look, about 45 minutes. Let cool for about 20 minutes before serving.

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Still life with Calla Lilies and Swiss Chard by Carolyn Fox

Recipe: Swiss Chard Torta with Marjoram and Fennel Seed

I believe there is a running theme in the life of every dedicated cook. My theme is making fairly traditional, mostly Southern Italian dishes over and over, but never making them exactly the same way twice. Especially the savory torta.

My first encounter with an Italian savory torta was in the form of a New York style calzone, which I loved from first bite, with its pully yeast crust and hot, oozing ricotta filling. Any savory pie type of preparation, either single or double crusted, can be called a torta, though there are dozens of regional names for the things. Pizza rustica, the traditional savory Easter torta, usually made with a short crust and filled with salami, prosciutto, and various cheeses and often finished with a pretty lattice top, was another early meeting I had with Italian savory pastry, but my childhood absolute favorite was the Neapolitan pizza di scarola, a double-crusted flat torta filled with escarole, olives, anchovies, and capers, a common offering at many pizza places way back then (sadly, this fabulous creation is hard to find at by-the-slice places nowadays). It was the first torta I made when I was first teaching myself Southern Italian cooking, and I was extremely proud of the result.

Liguria also makes greens-filled tortas, especially ones cooked with Swiss chard. They traditionally include raisins, pine nuts, and a touch of a hard grating cheese such as grana Padano. The crust is inevitably a quick mix of flour and good olive oil. I’ve been cooking up variations on that for decades, but, in keeping with my style, I make those a little different every time. For the past few years that’s been a matter of fooling around with different herbs and spices, both in the crust and in the filling.

Combining flavors has taught me a lot about what I call the “third taste,” which I create by mixing together two flavors I don’t often use, coming up with something new. That’s not so novel a concept, I know, but depending on what I’m blending the results can be better than expected or even completely unexpected. For this fall’s version of my chard torta, I’ve used marjoram and fennel seed, two flavors I love on their own but have never, to my recollection, blended (except, now that I think of it, with the addition of hot chili, which masked their subtlety). Marjoram, a flowery, gentler  cousin to oregano, is a common herb in Ligurian cooking, not as popular as basil but certainly up there, so it was a natural. Fennel seed I often use to flavor cooked greens such as broccoli rabe or dandelions, so I added that as well. The tart cooked up with a wild edge. Combining the two flavors created a taste similar to that of nepitella, a wild mint used often in Southern Italy. In the past I’ve described its taste as a mix of basil and oregano, but somehow the marjoram and fennel seed blend hit closer for me. It also managed, with the bitter edge fennel provides, to make the Swiss chard less sweet, even with the standard addition of raisins. Very interesting. I can certainly see using this combo with pasta and broccoli, or as a flavoring for peperonata.

The key for me is not just to reach into my bag of Italian tricks but to really think about what each flavor I decide on truly tastes like. I try to meditate on that flavor. Then I pick another and do the same thing. Now I’ve got the two flavors in my head. Next I put them both in my mouth, just raw, and chomp on them a bit. That gives me a good idea of where I’ll be heading, but it’s not the entire story by any stretch. The game is to then wait and see how the combination works in a dish, how it blends with the other ingredients I’ll be adding, and how heat may alter the outcome.

Swiss Chard Torta with Marjoram and Fennel Seed

Have on hand a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. To get a more rustic look, choose one with smooth, not fluted, sides, if possible. Or use a tart ring, if you prefer.

 (Serves 8 as an appetizer, or 4 as a main course served with a side salad)

For the crust:

2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon fennel seeds, lightly toasted and finely ground
1/3 cup dry Marsala
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

For the filling:

2 big bunches Swiss chard, thick stalks removed, leaves roughly chopped
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 shallot, minced
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, lightly toasted
¼ cup sliced almonds, lightly toasted
¼ cup yellow raisins, soaked in a 2 tablespoons Marsala or white wine
5 or 6 marjoram sprigs, leaves chopped
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
¾ cup grated grana Padano cheese

In a large bowl mix together the flour, the salt, and the ground fennel. Add the Marsala, stirring it in briefly. Add the olive oil, and stir until you’ve got a sticky ball. Turn out the dough onto a clean surface, and knead quickly until it’s relatively smooth, only about a minute or so. The dough will feel a little oily. Wrap the dough in plastic, and let it rest, unrefrigerated, for about an hour.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

While the dough is resting, set up a large pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Blanch the Swiss chard for about 2 minutes. Drain it into a colander, and run cold water over it to stop the cooking and to bring up its green color. Squeeze as much water out of the chard as you can. Then give the chard a few extra chops.

In a large sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallot, and sauté until it softens, about a minute or so. Add the chard, seasoning with the salt, black pepper, and the fennel seeds, and sauté about 2 minutes longer. Add the raisins, with their soaking liquid, and the almonds. Take the pan off the heat, and add the marjoram. Let it all cool for a few minutes, then add the eggs and the grana Padano, mixing them in well.

Roll out the dough, and drape it into your 9-inch pan or tart ring (if using the ring, place it on a Silpat-lined baking sheet), leaving a little overhang all around. Add the filling, smoothing out the top. Trim the dough overhang neatly all around. Drizzle the top with a little olive oil. Bake until the crust is browned and the filling is firm, about 40 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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Recipe: Pear Salad with Fennel and Ricotta Salata

It’s that time again, time for the longed for but tragic, at least for me, appearance of local pears at my Greenmarket, an indicator of the summer’s end. Today is also September 11, the anniversary of a tragedy that conjures up no longing. Be grateful for mixed feelings, I say to myself.

So another school year begins, and here I am furthering my education again by creating something nice with pears. And I did have some mixed feelings here. Since this is a period of transition, I wanted to keep a lightness to this early fall dish, so I included basil and tarragon, which are still growing well in my stoop pots. The fall notes are, well, the pear, of course, but then also the toasted pine nuts, the fennel, and the assertive cheese. If pears make you too sad, try substituting fresh figs, a fruit so fleeting you don’t really have time to ruminate over its significance. You just enjoy it. But then again, ruminating is, I think, good for me. It helps fuel culinary creativity.

Pear Salad with Fennel and Ricotta Salata

(Serves 2)

A large handful of frisée lettuce, torn into pieces
1 firm but fragrant pear, cored and thinly sliced
1 medium fennel bulb, cored and very thinly sliced
½ red shallot, very thinly sliced
A little less than ¼ pound ricotta salata, crumbled
About 10 basil leaves, cut into chiffonade
A few large sprigs of tarragon, leaves lightly chopped
1 teaspoon Spanish sherry vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
A few gratings of fresh nutmeg
2½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
A palmful of pine nuts, lightly toasted

Place the frisée, the pear and fennel slices, and the shallot in a medium salad bowl. Scatter on the ricotta salata, the basil, and the tarragon.

In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, a little salt, a few big turns of black pepper, the nutmeg, and the olive oil, and pour this over the salad. Toss gently. Garnish with the pine nuts. Serve right away.

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