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Recipe below: Penne with Chicken Livers, Summer Tomatoes, Cognac, and Sage

In Diana Vreeland’s “Why Don’t You?” column in Vogue, she would dare us to do all sorts of zany things like ride down Fifth Avenue on a leopard wearing nothing but a pair of jewel-incrusted Roger Vivier court shoes, and other wild fashion stunts. I’m thinking of starting a food version of that column, suggesting you try cooking something you might not want to, for fear or disgust.

This gets me thinking about chicken livers, which happen to be one of my favorite foods. I understand that a lot of people don’t love them, whether from the way they look, reflecting too strongly on what they actually are, or maybe just thinking they don’t like the taste. Okay, I sort of get that. But all I ask is that you try them this way, in a pasta dish, with beautiful end-of-summer tomatoes and a lot of fresh herbs.

Here are a few tricks to making delicious chicken livers: First, buy really good ones, not the nasty Perdue brand, and make sure they’re really fresh. Dry them well, so you can get a good crispy sauté. Also—I learned this in my years of restaurant cooking—a last-minute flame-up with cognac or brandy or grappa or a fruity eau de vie will do wonders to remove that slightly irony taste that many find unappealing. Also you must not overcook them. A uniform gray throughout is no good. Ideally a touch of pink in the center is chicken liver perfect.

For herbs, sage and liver are a time-honored combo, so I went with them. But to round out the dish I added rosemary, too, incorporating it during the cooking so it mellowed out. The sage I cut into chiffonade and scattered in on at the end. I sometimes find that if you chop sage finely and leave it too long on the heat it can get a musty taste. This way it stays fresh, without opening up and permeating the whole dish.

Penne with Chicken Livers, Summer Tomatoes, Cognac, and Sage

  • Servings: 4 as a main course
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1 pound good quality organic chicken livers
Salt
Black pepper
A big pinch of sugar
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, possibly a little more
1 large shallot, cut into small dice
1 small carrot, cut into small dice
¼ teaspoon allspice
4 or 5 small sprigs rosemary, the leaves well chopped
A splash of sweet vermouth
4 or 5 medium round summer tomatoes, peeled, seeded, cut into medium dice, and then drained for about 15 minutes (but save the tomato water)
1 pound penne
A splash of cognac or brandy
About 6 sage leaves, cut into chiffonade, plus a few nice-looking whole sprigs for garnish
A chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano or grana Padano cheese

Trim the chicken livers of any connecting sinewy tissue, and then cut them into approximately 1-inch chunks. Dry them well, and stick them in a bowl. Sprinkle on a little salt, black pepper, the sugar, and a drizzle of olive oil. Give them a toss.

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

While the water is coming to a boil, get out a large skillet, and set it over medium heat. Add a drizzle of olive oil and half of the butter. Add the shallot and carrot, and sauté them until softened, about 4 minutes or so. Add the allspice and the rosemary, season with a little salt and black pepper, and cook a minute longer, just to release their flavors. Add the splash of sweet vermouth, letting it bubble out. Add the tomatoes, and simmer, uncovered, for about 5 minutes. You really just want to heat them through, not cooking them much, to preserve their freshness. Turn off the heat.

Put the penne in the boiling water.

Get out another large skillet, and get it hot over high heat. Add the rest of the butter. When the butter is bubbling, add the chicken livers, spreading them out over the pan. Let them cook without moving them around at all until you can see them start to brown nicely, about 3 minutes or so. Using tongs, turn the livers, and brown the other side, about a minute or two longer. You want them to stay a touch pink at the center. They may sputter and pop a little while cooking. Don’t let that upset you. It’s normal. Just stand back a bit. Add the cognac, which will most likely flame up. I find it exciting. Shake the pan for a few seconds, just until the flames die down, and then add the livers to the tomato sauce.

Drain the penne, and pour it into a large serving bowl. Add a drizzle of olive oil and the sage chiffonade, and give it a toss. Add the tomato liver sauce, and toss gently, adding some of the tomato water if it seems dry. You can also add a bit more butter, if you like (I usually like). Check for seasoning, and then garnish with the sage sprigs and serve right away, bringing the cheese to the table for grating.

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Still Life with Apricots, Luis Melendez, Naples, 1716–1780.

Recipe below: Apricot Tart with Almonds and Thyme

Growing up in New York I’ve almost never had a decent apricot. Seems we don’t know how to grow them here. Even in season at farmers’ markets they’re usually sour or, even worse, mealy and tasteless. I asked the people at Migliorelli Farm in Tivoli about this and was told that apricots are “temperamental” and have a “short period of perfect ripeness.” My brother, who lives north of L.A., says the local apricots out there are much better than we get. I was upset to hear that.

Cooking helps immensely. The ones I found recently were pretty sour but also juicy and  just so pretty I had to buy them. The ones Migliorelli grows are a deep orange with splotches of pinky red. They smelled good, sort of like apricots should, so I thought heat and sugar would wake them up. And they did.

This tart was inspired by a Patricia Wells recipe I learned about many years ago. The technique is so easy compared with pâte brisée–based tarts. What you do is basically make a cookie dough and press it into a tart pan. You don’t even have to roll it out. And forget about the annoying blind-baking bean-and-aluminum-foil procedure. You just stick it in the oven to firm it up a bit before filling it. Cut the apricots in half (small plums also work well), stick them cut side up in the pan, and pour a cream and egg mix over the top. I flavored my custard with almonds and a drizzle of orzata syrup, which I love and which is less obnoxious than that crappy, ultra strong almond extract, the ruin of so many Italian American pastry shops.

The mix of apricots and almonds can’t be beat, and, as I’ve just discovered, adding fresh thyme brings the whole thing together with a weird hit of savoriness.

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

Apricot Tart with Almonds and Thyme

For the crust:

1 stick unsalted butter, melted and then cooled to room temperature, plus a little extra butter to grease the pan
⅓ cup sugar
1 tablespoon orzata syrup
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
The grated zest from 1 small lemon
1½ cups regular flour
A pinch of salt
1 tablespoon finely ground almonds

For the custard:

1 heaping tablespoon crème fraîche
½ cup heavy cream
1 large egg
1 teaspoon regular flour
1 tablespoon orzata syrup
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons runny wildflower honey
About 6 sprigs thyme, the leaves lightly chopped, plus of few nice looking sprigs for garnish

Plus:

About 1½ pounds ripe local apricots, pitted and halved (a bit sour is better than mealy), cut in half and pitted

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Put all the ingredients for the crust except for the ground almonds in a bowl, and mix them together until you have a crumbly, moist mass. Coat the tart pan with a little butter, and then dump the crust into the center of the pan, pressing it all around until you have a nice, relatively even crust all around. Build the sides up a touch to allow for shrinkage. Poke the bottom lightly with a fork in several places.

Stick the tart pan in the oven until the crust is very lightly golden at the edges and puffs a bit in the center, about 12 minutes or so.

Take the tart pan out of the oven and sprinkle the almonds more or less evenly over the floor of the crust.

Put all the ingredients for the custard in a bowl, and whisk until smooth.

Arrange the apricots, cut side up, in the tart pan. Pour the custard mix over them, being careful not to get any over the rim.

Bake until the crust is golden and the custard looks set, about 35 minutes. Garnish with the thyme sprigs. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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Pink and Sage Green, by Jennifer Hornyak.

Recipe below: Grilled Pork Chops with Caper Sage Salsa

I love a grilled pork chop. When it’s properly done the fat gets all crispy and there’s a slight pink at the bone. My nostalgia for grilled pork grows partly from childhood memories of my father’s boozy summer grill nights, when everything and everybody was amply toasted and things were not often properly done. It’s a mixed bag of recall, but it gives me mostly a good feeling.

Dick would start his grill nights with a “mart,” meaning a good-size glass of vodka on the rocks with a twist. He’d have a few of those and then move on to the big bottle of mouth-puckering Chianti. The pork went on a fire that never was given a chance to die down to suitable-for-cooking orange coal. Flames shot up, and the meat almost always emerged burnt on the outside and still cold in the middle. My mother would scream that everything was “completely blackened. Disgusting. And raw.” There was a lingering fear of trichinosis back in the late sixties and early seventies, so the “raw” question stirred panic in Italian American moms (maybe in all moms, but it seems the Italian ones were always especially prone to medical scares). We ate all the blackened raw pork anyway and sort of loved it. The few pork chops that were actually overcooked in addition to being blackened (no trichinosis there), were coveted. I actually preferred the rare ones. They were more like steak. I also thought I knew that trichinosis was a thing of the past. All the pork chops, in whatever stage, got topped with fire-roasted onions and peppers, and that was a good touch. I suppose our grill nights might possibly have been just as unruly without the booze, but I guess we’ll never know.

I still love grilled pork chops, especially soaked in a simple marinade. Here I prepare a marinade with a hint of the sea. When I “man” the grill now, I try to not get too bombed and actually pay attention to what I’m doing, which in a way seems like less fun than when my father was at the grill, but I guess it’s a tradeoff. I like my pork cooked juicy, with that little touch of pink. I try for that and usually more or less succeed.

Sage is a strange-smelling herb. I like it, but sometimes it stumps me. I search for new ways to use it, especially since I’ve got so much of it in a patch that comes back bigger every year. This sage and caper salsa was a surprise. I was expecting it to be kind of harsh, but the good olive oil, the capers, and the pine nuts seemed to bring out the sweetness in the herb. Sage is lovely on pork, classic, but also, I have discovered, on whole grilled trout. And try it on thick slices of roasted pumpkin or butternut squash, as the summer moves toward its end.

Happy summer grilling to you.

Grilled Pork Chops with Caper Sage Salsa

4 large bone-in pork loin chops

For the marinade:

2 teaspoons Thai fish sauce or Italian colatura
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 summer garlic cloves, crushed
Black pepper
1 tablespoon sweet vermouth
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
A little salt

For the salsa (makes about 1 ½ cups, probably a bit more than you’ll need, but it’ll keep for a day or two without losing too much flavor):

¾ cup fresh sage leaves
½ cup flat-leaf parsley leaves
½ cup Sicilian capers, soaked for about 20 minutes, rinsed, and drained
½ cup really good extra-virgin olive oil (I used Olio Verde, a Sicilian brand)
A palmful of pine nuts (about 1½ tablespoons)
1 small fresh, summer garlic clove, lightly crushed
The grated zest from 1 small lemon, plus a squeeze of its juice
Salt
Black pepper

Dry off the pork chops and lay them out in a shallow pan. Mix all the ingredients for the marinade together and pour it over the meat, turning them over a few times so everything is nicely distributed. Let marinate in the refrigerator for about 2 hours.

To make the salsa: Set up a small pot of water and bring it to a boil. Add the sage and parsley leaves. Blanch them for a minute, and then pour them into a colander and let cold water run over them to set their good green color. Squeeze out as much water as possible.

Put the blanched herbs and all the other salsa ingredients in a food processor, and pulse about 6 times or so, until the mix has a loose but rough green pesto-like consistency. Don’t let it pulse so much that you wind up with a smooth purée. Scrape the salsa out into a small bowl.

Take the pork chops out of the refrigerator about a half hour before you want to cook them. While they’re coming to room temperature, set up your charcoal grill and let it burn down to orange coals (not my father’s impatient flame fire).

Rub oil on the grill surface. Take the pork chops from the marinade, letting excess marinade drip off, and place them on the grill. If it starts to flame up, lower its cover. Let the meat cook until you’ve got good grill marks and the chops move easily when you give them a nudge, about 4 minutes. Flip them, and grill their other side. If your fire is really hot you might want to move them slightly off to the side so they can cook without browning too much. Another 4 minutes is about right for cooked but with a touch of pink at the bone, but that really depends on your fire and the thickness of the meat, so it’s a personal judgment call.

When your chops are done, give them a final sprinkling of salt, and plate them. Top each serving with a big dollop of the salsa, and serve right away.

If find that these chops go really well with ratatouille and grilled country bread rubbed with summer garlic and brushed with good olive oil.

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These peaceful fish and lady are happy to be underwater, where they hear a lot of rumbling. This painting is by Sergio Fiorentino. This is a portrait of me.

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Still Life with Peaches, by Paul Gaugin.

Recipe below: Crostata with Summer Peaches and Rosemary

Fruit and herbs. I’m always looking for good new combinations of fruit with fresh herbs. And in my culinary travels this summer I’ve discovered I love rosemary with stone fruit. Not too much rosemary; just a small amount will perfume the fruit with a gentle evergreen aroma. Too much and you might wind up with harsh medicine. So follow me here, and I’ll show you how nice it can be.

I first tried this flavor combo last week with small yellow plums, called lemon plums, that I found at the Union Square market, making a rosemary-scented syrup that I poured hot over the stoned fruit, letting it soak in. It was piney and sweet. Then I moved on to peaches, which had just become available at Migliorelli, my farm stand in Rhinebeck. They had both yellow and white peaches. I chose the white ones for this, but I left their mottled red skins on for color and richness of taste. Before I went about putting this crostata together, I sliced a peach, placed a few rosemary needles on it, and ate it. The taste was a mix of sweet, pine, lemon, and, I thought, also a hint of black pepper. That was what I was hoping for.

Heat both mellows and deepens flavor, depending on what you’re working with. For instance here the peaches became less acidic, more just melting sweet with a hit of citrus. The rosemary lost its harsh edge, but also spread its flavor throughout the crostata in a softened way. All good.

When apricots show up at my markets, in the next week or so, I’m going to try using rosemary on them, maybe in a sorbetto. I’m not sure, but stay tuned.

And happy summer herb cooking at all my friends.

Crostata with Summer Peaches and Rosemary

For the pastry:

2 1/4 cups regular flour
1 tablespoon sugar, plus a little more for sprinkling on the crust
A pinch of salt
2 small sprigs rosemary, the leaves well chopped (about 1 teaspoon chopped)
1½ sticks cold unsalted butter, cut into small dice, plus a little more for greasing the sheet pan
¼ cup cold white wine
1 egg yolk, for brushing on the crust

For the filling:

4 large or 5 medium-size summer peaches, unpeeled and sliced
¼ cup sugar
2 small sprigs rosemary, the leaves well chopped (about 1 teaspoon chopped)
A tiny pinch of salt
A pinch of ground allspice
A tiny splash of Kirsch or grappa (about 1 teaspoon)
A big squeeze of fresh lemon juice

To make the pastry, put the flour in a food processor. Add the sugar, salt, and rosemary, and give it a few pulses to blend everything. Add the butter, and give it a few quick pulses to break up the butter into tiny bits. Add the white wine, and pulse a few more times, just until you have a crumbly, moist mass. Don’t pulse so much that it works into a ball.

Turn the dough out onto a work surface, and press it into a ball. Cover it with plastic, and stick it in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours (you can also leave it overnight, if you like).

About a half hour before you plan on cooking the crostata, put the sliced peaches in a large bowl. Add the sugar, rosemary, salt, and allspice. Add the Kirsch and the lemon juice, and give everything a toss.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees, and rub a large sheet pan with butter.

Take the pastry from the refrigerator, and let it warm up for about 15 minutes.

Flour a work surface, and roll the pastry out into a 12- or 13-inch round, trimming the edges to make it even. Place it on a large, standard-size sheet pan, which is 13 inches wide, so it should fit perfectly.

Lift the peaches out of the bowl with a slotted spoon so most of the liquid gets left behind (you don’t want the crostata to get too soggy), and place them in the center of the pastry, pressing them down a bit so the fruit comes to about 1½ inches from the rim. Pull up the edge of the pastry, and fold it back toward the center, pressing it all around so it makes a pretty tight package (see my photo above for what it should look like).

Put the egg yolk in a glass with a splash of water, and whisk it around. Brush the crust with the egg wash, and then sprinkle it with a little sugar.

Bake the crostata until it’s golden and fragrant, about 30 to 35 minutes. Then let it rest for about ½ hour before cutting.

I like to serve it with sweetened ricotta or crème fraîche or whipped cream—or with nothing. A glass of Beaujolais is a wonderful accompaniment, reminding me of the bowls of peaches in red wine my father used to bring out for summer cookouts.

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First Cherries of the Season, by Vita Schager.

Recipe below: Cherry Clafoutis with Bay and Lemon Thyme

Cherry clafoutis as traditionally made in the Limousin region of France uses whole, unpitted cherries.  I never wanted to serve it that way, for fear of choking someone, especially when my swallowing-compromised mother was still alive. So every summer I’d consider making a cherry clafoutis and ultimately decide to forget it, even though the thought drove me crazy with culinary romance. Also I wanted to pit the cherries, but I stupidly couldn’t figure out how. Why it took me so long to break down and buy a cherry pitter I’m not sure, but I think I had it in my head that there was no way a simple little gadget that cost nine dollars could get the pit out while leaving the cherry more or less whole. I was dead wrong. The things work. Buy one. I only use it in June and July, when cherries are in season, but it has contributed to my life in a big way.

After I got through with the pitting, which took all of five minutes, I needed to think about herbs, as I wanted to add some sort of herb flavoring to the batter. The usual additions are kirsch and vanilla, which I love and did add, but since dairy, especially cream, accepts flavors so readily, I decided to also add fresh bay leaves and sprigs of lemon thyme to the standard milk-and-cream mix and give that a quick heat-and-steep. You’ll want only fresh bay leaves here. Dried would impart a musty flavor, which would really not be good at all. If you don’t have lemon thyme, regular thyme and a piece of lemon peel will work beautifully. Lemon verbena is also a nice way to go.

I love the bay leaf and lemon thyme combination so much, I’m already thinking about other ways to use it, both sweet and savory. Stay tuned.

I used a shallow 11-by-8-inch oval baking dish for the clafoutis, but any more-or-less equivalent-size round or rectangular dish will work fine.

Cherry Clafoutis with Bay and Lemon Thyme

1/2 cup whole milk
3/4 cup heavy cream
2 fresh bay leaves, ripped in half
5 sprigs lemon thyme
A pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1½ pints sweet summer cherries, pitted
1 tablespoon sugar, plus ⅓ cup for the batter
1 tablespoon kirsch liqueur
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus a little more for greasing the baking dish
2 large eggs
⅓ cup all-purpose flour

Put the milk and cream in a saucepan. Add the bay leaves, the lemon thyme, a pinch of salt, and the vanilla, and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat, and let it steep for about an hour to develop flavor.

While the cream mixture is steeping, put the pitted cherries in a bowl, and add the tablespoon of sugar and the kirsch. Give them a quick toss, and let them sit to soak in the sugar and cherry flavors.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat the baking dish lightly with butter.

When the cream mixture has steeped for an hour, put the 2 tablespoons of butter in a small saucepan, and cook over medium heat until it turns golden brown, about 4 minutes.

Put the ⅓ cup of sugar and the eggs in a mixing bowl, and whisk them together. Add the flour, whisking it in. Pull the herbs from the cream mixture (or strain it), discarding them, and add the herb cream to the bowl. Add the browned butter, and mix everything well. Add the cherries, with any juices they’ve given off.

Pour it all into the baking dish, and bake until it has puffed up and is lightly browned, about 35 minutes. If the center hasn’t puffed and still looks wobbly, cook a few minutes longer.

Let the clafoutis sit for about 15 minutes so it can firm up. It’ll deflate as it cools, but that’s the way it goes. Serve slightly warm.

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