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Recipe:  Castelluccio Lentils with Cotechino and Leeks

Happy New Year to all my Italian-food-loving friends. Do you have your lentil pot going? As many of you already know, New Year’s Day dinner in much of Italy revolves around lenticchie. Italians think their round shape makes them resemble coins. Eating them on the first of the year brings good luck and wealth, and if you really want to make a ton of money, eat them with a cotechino sausage. It’s an excellent combination, rich and opulent. Every New Year I find cotechino, a big fat sausage originating in Modena, at several Italian markets in New York. I get mine from Buon Italia. It’s traditionally poached, sliced thick, and then laid out on a bed of herby lentils. I use Castelluccio lentils from Umbria for this. Their greenish beige color and matte finish make them look and feel like mini-polka-dot ceramics, especially when I run them, uncooked, through my fingers. And they keep their cute round shape when cooked.

In bocca al lupo!

Castelluccio Lentils with Cotechino and Leeks

Makes 6 servings

1 pound Castelluccio lentils (Le Puy lentils from France are similar and maybe easier to find)
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
½ teaspoon ground allspice
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
¼ pound pancetta, chopped into small cubes
5 medium leeks, the white part only, finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and cut into small dice
4 rosemary sprigs, leaves well chopped
1 2½-to-3-pound cotechino sausage
A handful of flat-leaf parsley sprigs, leaves chopped, plus extra sprigs for garnish

In a large saucepan, cover the lentils with about 3 inches of cold water, add the bay leaves, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, and simmer for 15 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon of the vinegar, the allspice, and a generous pinch salt, and cook for 5 minutes, until the lentils are just tender. Drain, and discard the bay leaves.

In a small bowl, whisk 3 tablespoons of olive oil with the mustard and the remaining vinegar. Season with salt and pepper.

In a large skillet, heat about a tablespoon of olive oil. Add the pancetta, and cook over moderately high heat 3 to 4 minutes, until lightly browned. Add the leeks and the carrot, and cook 5 minutes, until beginning to soften. Add the lentils, and sauté, stirring, about a minute. Turn off the heat. Stir in the vinaigrette, parsley, and rosemary. Add a little salt and pepper.

While the lentils are cooking, prepare the cotechino. Pierce the sausage skin in a few places. Place it in a large pot, and cover with cool water by 4 inches or so. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes.

Spoon the lentils out into a wide serving bowl. Slice the sausage thickly on an angle, and arrange on top. Garnish with parsley sprigs, and serve. If you like, you can serve a bowl of salsa verde on the side. Oh, and the cotechino cooking water makes an excellent broth for soup.

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Recipe: Baccalà Mantecato and Peperonata Bruschetta

In the last week or so several people have asked me about baccalà mantecato, knowing that I always make it for Christmas Eve. This salt cod preparation is not my usual Southern Italian fare. It comes from Venice, and it’s essentially the same as Provençale brandade. I’ve had versions of it in Liguria, too. It’s fluffy (mantecare means to whip) and mellow. People who say they don’t like baccalà almost always like this. It’s traditionally been the opener to my big Christmas Eve fish dinner. It’s a perfect fit with couscous-stuffed shrimp, spaghetti with clam sauce, zuppa di pesce, orange and fennel salad, or whatever I decide on for any given year.

Christmas Eve has always been my favorite holiday meal. Its food incorporates many of my favorite flavors, such as baccalà, and is pure joy for me to prepare. Lots of fish, lots of wine and candles, lots of people, lots of drama. Unfortunately, Christmas has now become quite hard for my family and me. A few years ago my mother had an operation that has, so far, left her unable to eat by mouth, a frustrating situation for anyone but in a food-centric Italian family like ours, up there in the realm of heartbreak. It’s almost impossible for her and us kids to get around this, taking a lot of creative thinking to shift the focus from the traditional food-heavy Christmas Eve and go in a more forgiving direction. A return to Catholicism doesn’t seem to be an option. Music helps, Verdi, Modugno, but the forbidden heart of the evening is always there, the platters of shrimp, the aroma of garlic and mint, the gorgeous color of blood oranges. What to do? What I do now is cut way way back. At first I found this upsetting, but now it’s really okay, actually the only way.

I might not be making seven or thirteen fish dishes this year. They, from experience, would just make my mother withdraw into a dark place. But nothing’s going to stop me from making this baccalà.

We all have our problems, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a Merry Christmas. Best to you.

Baccalà Mantecato and Peperonata Bruschetta

(Serves 5 or 6 as an antipasto)

1½ pounds salt cod (try to get the thicker middle section, which has fewer bones and less skin to deal with)
1 fresh bay leaf
½ cup dry white wine
1 baking potato, cooked soft, peeled, and roughly mashed
1 large 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 milk
About a dozen slices of Italian bread
2 roasted red bell peppers, skinned, seeded, and cut into thick strips
Sprigs of marjoram for garnish

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. Toward the end, taste a bit to see if a sufficient amount of salt has leeched out. 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 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 any bones and 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, and 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. Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of milk, and pulse again. You shouldn’t need any salt.

Scrape the baccalà from the food processor, and spoon it into a bowl.

Toss the roasted pepper strips in a little olive oil, and season with a pinch of salt.

When you’re ready to serve, place the bread slices on a sheet pan, and toast them on one side under a broiler. Take them out, give them a flip, and spoon some baccala mantecato on each one. Top with two strips of the roasted pepper (a cross pattern would be in spirit). Now put them back under the broiler to lightly toast the bread and warm the cod, about a minute or so. Garnish with marjoram sprigs, and serve warm.

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Recipe: Punterelle with Seared Shrimp and Anchovy Croutons

I have in my anxious cook’s hands a beautiful head of punterelle, the esteemed winter green of Rome, available there, and now here, from November to February. It’s a type of chicory most often served uncooked and dressed with anchovy, garlic, vinegar, and olive oil. I was, luckily, in Rome the first time I tasted it, and it came close to blowing my mind. For starters I couldn’t believe I was eating a green I’d never seen before, all curls and spikes, and in addition it was tossed with anchovy, a longtime top-ten flavor for me. The salad was an elegant mix of salt and bitter. Simple but commanding.

In Rome punterelle is served as a first-course salad, but in my own kitchen I’ve elaborated on the classic, making it more of a meal, working in shrimp and using anchovies to flavor croutons. The result is a true Mediterranean diet delight, combining a little seafood, a handful of greens, herbs, and garlic to produce big flavor. Its wonderful taste and health benefits recall for me the origin of the word diet. It comes from the Greek diaita, meaning way of living, and has nothing in common with the punitive tone the word has taken on today. The Greeks were talking about the normal flow of things, work, sleep, eating, social life, art, environment. I wish my life could be less anxious. There are some things I don’t have much control over, such as the normal flow of my workload, feast or famine for the most part, but I’m definitely the master of my kitchen. I cook what I love.

Punterelle does needs a little prep, but it’s not a huge deal. You want it to go all curly. In Rome I’ve seen it already cut and curled in big bins in open-air markets. No such luck here. It’s a little hard to find around New York town. Check out Italian groceries and higher-end shops. I also find it at Greenmarkets. To achieve the punterelle do, you’ll need to slice the shoots and tender stalks horizontally down the middle, chop them into manageable pieces, and then plunge them into ice water. Then watch them curl.

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Punterelle with Seared Shrimp and Anchovy Croutons

(Serves 2)

1 medium bunch punterelle, trimmed (if you can’t find punterelle, use frisée lettuce or curly chicory)
1 small shallot, thinly sliced
A few dill sprigs, lightly chopped
1 teaspoon lemon juice, plus the grated zest from the entire lemon
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup dry bread cubes, made from day-old Italian bread
4 oil-packed anchovies, minced
6 jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined but with the tail left on

Cut all the tender punterelle shoots horizontally through the middle and then into approximately 3-inch pieces. Include any small buds you find. Place them all in a bowl of ice water, and let them sit for about a half hour. Most of them should start to curl. Now take them from the water, and spin dry.

Place the punterelle, the shallot, and the dill in a medium salad bowl.

In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice with half of the minced anchovy, about 2 tablespoons of olive oil, the garlic clove, and some black pepper, pressing on the garlic to release its flavor.

In a small skillet, heat a tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the bread cubes and the remaining anchovy and a few turns of black pepper, and sauté until golden and crisp, about 2 minutes.

Sprinkle the lemon zest on the shrimp, and season with salt and pepper. Set up another skillet over high heat, adding a thin film of olive oil. When hot, add the shrimp, and sauté quickly, just until tender, about 2 minutes.

Dress the salad with the vinaigrette, and divide it onto two plates. Place three shrimp around each salad, and scatter the croutons on top.

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Women with Fish

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This lovely fish lady looks happy, but actually she’s had a rough life. Pammy was a friend of my godmother, Regina, who also worked at Marineland, not as a mermaid but as a dolphin feeder. Pam’s struggle to keep her weight low enough to slither into her costume, month after month, year after year, was common knowledge among the other Marineland employees. The diet pills she lived on made her jittery and short-tempered, sometimes causing dramatic confrontations  that would bring Regina to tears, even though they were truly the best of friends. Pam once accused my godmother of feeding the dolphins putrid pompano innards, an accusation  that I’m sure was simply not true. Regina loved her dolphins and only served them the best.

Pammy’s head was full of noise, and it was the noise deep in her brain, the anxious whooshing of the ocean, the constant chattering of seagulls, commotion that couldn’t be tamped down by shots of the best scotch, that was the worst side-effect of all the medication. Her head was full of  the sea, preventing sleep, destroying her smile. Poor Pam was becoming the Judy Garland of the marine world.

Pammy often spoke with Regina about her weight problem. Why, Pam wondered, couldn’t they just give her a slightly bigger fish tail, something with a little breathing room?  Ask the boss, Regina urged, but when she finally got enough courage to face down the big man, he told her, “That, Pam, would be defeating the purpose.” She understood, sort of, and she struggled, holding on to her sometimes humiliating but lucrative job for too long.

As the years went by, Regina watched helpless as her friend turned into a bitter and exhausted, but still svelte, older mermaid. Pammy was clearly spent. But she carried on, until one  sultry day, right after New Year’s, when she just disappeared. Regina suspected she had been knocked up by a dolphin trainer she’d lately been drinking Kahlua with, but if anyone knew for sure, no one was saying. Her five fishtail outfits were missing. Strange. Where would she need a wardrobe like that, except at Marineland, my godmother wondered. Several months went by. Detectives showed up, long lost cousins called, and her tiny cottage in the Las Olas Riverfront section of Fort Lauderdale was turned upside down; nothing. Regina was distressed. Could she be gone?

Then in the middle of the dull month of March, Regina got a surprise phone call. It was Pammy. She was, as Regina initially thought, pregnant with the Kahlua man’s child, and she had a new job. Pam now held a position at Sea World in San Diego, working as a mermaid. Regina couldn’t believe she had left for the same damn job. But, as Pammy pointed out, “here they’ll let me keep my child,” and, she proudly added, ” they don’t care that I’m getting fat. I might even give up the diet pills”. Well, my godmother thought, that is more or less some pretty decent news.

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young_jo-radicchiowithbowl-smallRadicchio di Treviso with a Bowl, Jo Young, 2011.

Recipe: Radicchio di Treviso Roasted with Anchovies, Butter, and Parmigiano Breadcrumbs

Thanksgiving dinner is okay, but truthfully it’s never been my favorite collection of flavors. In my opinion it always needs a few anchovies.

I’m just now finding the pleasurably bitter, wine-red-colored radicchio called rosso di Treviso in my markets. It’s really a beautiful thing, like a cross between a Belgian endive (which it’s related to) and a red tulip. I specifically mean the Treviso variety named Precoce, I believe because it’s the first to be harvested. There’s also a type called Tardivo that resembles a dark red and white cluster of long, skinny fingers. It’s a knockout, but unfortunately I can’t find it very often. Still, I’m happy with the compact Precoce. It’s excellent either grilled or roasted. For Thanksgiving, roasting is my choice.

Radicchio can handle heavy seasoning, and even the addition of anchovies won’t mask all that wonderful Italian bitterness. The salty little fish meld with it, producing a taste that’s truly greater than the sum of its parts—as often happens when you combine profound flavors. You so need a dish like this to cut through all the stuffing, turkey, gravy, and mess of gentle, somewhat sweet, soft vegetables that always show up on the Thanksgiving table. I see it as an Italian version of cranberry sauce, serving the same jolting purpose but in a more elegant way.

Happy Thanksgiving to you.

Radicchio di Treviso Roasted with Anchovies, Butter, and Parmigiano Breadcrumbs

(Serves 6 or 7 as a side dish)

Extra-virgin olive oil
8 radicchio di Treviso, cut in half lengthwise (I used small ones; their size varies greatly, and if you can only find large radicchio, judge how much you’ll need and add a few minutes to the cooking time)
½ cup dry vermouth
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 garlic clove, peeled and lightly crushed
6 oil-packed anchovies, minced
½ cup homemade, not too finely ground breadcrumbs
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
½ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
A few large thyme sprigs, leaves chopped

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Choose a shallow baking dish that will fit all the cut radicchio in one layer. Coat it with a little olive oil. Lay the radicchio in the dish, cut side up. Pour the vermouth over the radicchio.

In a small saucepan, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil with the butter, the garlic clove, and the anchovies, just until melted. Press down on the garlic a bit to release its flavor, and then discard it. Pour the butter mixture over the radicchio.

Bake, uncovered, until the radicchio is wilted and tender when poked with a knife, about 12 to 15 minutes .

Mix the breadcrumbs with the cheese, a drizzle of olive oil, and the thyme. Season with a pinch of salt (remember, you’ve already added  anchovies) and more liberally with black pepper. Sprinkle this over the top. Run the radicchio under a broiler, just until the crumbs are lightly golden and crisp, about a minute or so. Serve hot or warm.

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Radicchio, Noah Verrier, 2008.

Recipe: Cavatappi with Radicchio, Fontina, and Walnuts

Radicchio sometimes has me stumped. Bringing those pretty red things into my kitchen can send me straight to cooking block hell. Another salad with a scattering of radicchio? That’s just not how it’s supposed to be. In Italy, no matter how popular the tre colore salad has become there, most people serve radicchio cooked. But when it’s heated, its bitter taste and diminished beauty can be disheartening. However, I took a vow many years ago never to be defeated by any vegetable. And so it will be.

The challenge is to find flavors that marry well with radicchio’s bitterness. That isn’t an issue when I’m just throwing it into a salad, but cook it and its flavor opens up, wandering all over the dish, making it hard to imagine served any way other than unadorned. Still, I’ve had my triumphs, getting my best results by adding strong or rich contrasting flavors such as anchovies, pancetta, and certain distinct cheeses, like gorgonzola or the fontina I’ve used in this pasta. Fontina is very umami. It’s a complex and truly savory cheese. It tempers the cooked radicchio, making it alluringly bitter, not overbearingly so. It melts into a creamy sauce, clinging to the pasta and to the vegetables but without the one-note quality you can get when you simply add a flood of cream.

I find three types of radicchio, a member of the chicory family, in my markets, although in Italy there are many more. The round, tightly wound Chioggia variety is a constant presence in all food shops. The long, dark, red-striped Rosso di Treviso I see mostly in cool months. The radicchio that looks like a glamorous, fully blooming rose, white with thin pinkish striping, the one from Castelfranco, I find only occasionally. These and all the other varieties were originally developed in the Veneto and Trentino regions.

With its rich, well-defined flavors, this dish is for me a clear example of a pasta best as a first course, the way it’s almost always served in Italy. In my effort to balance carbs, proteins, and fats in my own diet, I’ve been trying to reacquaint myself with the true Mediterranean diet. Pasta, except on holidays, was a main course in my family, and that’s what I got used to growing up. Reining in my Italian-American habit of eating has not always been successful. I still love sitting down to a huge bowl of pasta and nothing else. But in Italian tradition, one pound of pasta serves six. (Really.) That’s not such a hardship. Small can be big. It makes me delight in every mouthful. I’d follow this pasta with a piece of roasted chicken and a green salad. That’s a well balanced meal.

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Cavatappi with Radicchio, Fontina, and Walnuts

(Serves 6)

Salt
1 pound cavatappi
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium-size round radicchio, cored and cut into approximately 1-inch-thick strips
2 large leeks, the white and tender green parts, diced
1 cup really fresh walnut halves
A splash of sweet Marsala, or another semi-sweet wine
A few big scrapings of fresh nutmeg
½ pound fontina Val d’Aosta cheese, cut into small cubes
A generous handful of flat-leaf parsley, lightly chopped
A few sage leaves, lightly chopped

Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water. Add a generous amount of salt, and bring it to a boil. Drop in the cavatappi, and give it a stir so it doesn’t stick together.

In a large skillet, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add  the leeks, and sauté until just starting to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the radicchio and the walnuts,  seasoning with a little salt. Sauté until the walnuts are fragrant and the radicchio has wilted, about another 4 minutes. Add the Marsala and the nutmeg, and cook about a minute longer.

Turn the heat to low, and add the fontina, stirring it around to help it melt. Turn off the heat.

When the cavatappi is al dente, drain it, saving about a cup of the cooking water. Add the pasta to the skillet, along with enough pasta cooking water to loosen the sauce. Stir until the fontina has melted (off the heat should work well, as the heat from the pasta and the skillet will be just enough to finish cooking the sauce). Transfer to a big bowl, add the fresh herbs, and toss gently. Serve hot.

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Camille Pissarro Woman Gathering Herbs, 1880Woman Gathering Herbs, Camille Pissarro, 1880.

Recipe: Escarole Salad with Sautéed Rosemary Pears, Pine Nuts, and Ricotta Salata

Italian-Americans were way ahead of everyone else in their love of bitter, a cooking angle that’s recently been taken up by restaurant chefs around the country. Bitter greens are now trendy, but their pull has always been in my blood. And on it goes, a bittersweet holdover from my ancestors’ days spent foraging for wild greens on sun-baked hillsides. Arugula, broccoli rabe, dandelions, escarole, and chicories of all sorts were on my family table when I was a kid, cooked and raw. Arugula wasn’t available at all in most markets in the sixties and seventies. My father planted cuttings that our neighbors had smuggled in from Sorrento. The stuff grew like the weed it is, taking over his little garden. Dandelions we picked from our lawn. I adored all those greens back then, and my admiration just grows. I’m constantly looking for new ways to serve them, stepping away easily from the traditional garlic and olive oil treatment.

My mother made raw escarole salads, usually with red onion, tomato, and maybe a handful of cubed provolone (this was before it was popular to shave cheese), tossing it all in a simple vinaigrette, whose only drawback, as far as I was concerned, was the presence of dried oregano, never a favorite taste for me. It was a great salad, and escarole is my favorite salad green. I love its ruffly edged, sturdy leaves, and light green color. It is faintly bitter when raw but also juicy, and it’s a really good mixer. Capacollo, pecorino, fruit, nuts—whatever you want to add, it can take it, so it’s an excellent base for improvisation.

Here’s my new fall take on the escarole salad.

Escarole Salad with Sautéed Rosemary Pears, Pine Nuts, and Ricotta Salata

(Serves 4)

2 ripe but firm pears (green or red Anjou, Bartlett, or Bosc would be my choice), unpeeled and cut into approximately ¼-inch-thick slices
Extra-virgin olive oil
A small shallot, red if available, thinly sliced
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A big pinch of sugar
2 sprigs rosemary, leaves well chopped
1 large head escarole, torn into small pieces
A big handful of pine nuts, lightly toasted
¼ pound ricotta salata, crumbled
1½ teaspoons Spanish sherry vinegar
½ teaspoon soy sauce
A few scrapings of nutmeg
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed

In a medium skillet, heat about a tablespoon of olive oil over high flame. When hot, add the pears and shallots, and season with a tiny pinch of salt, black pepper, a big pinch of sugar, and the rosemary. Sauté quickly, just until the rosemary gives off its aroma, about a minute or so. You only want to take the raw edge off the pears, not cook them through.

Place the escarole, pine nuts, and ricotta salata in a large salad bowl. Add the pears.

Whisk together the vinegar, soy sauce, nutmeg, garlic clove, and about 2 tablespoons or so of olive oil, seasoning with salt and black pepper. Pour this over the salad. Toss gently.

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