Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Nettle Sting, by Lizzie Harper.

Recipe below: Gemelli with Nettle Lemon Pesto and Mussels

The thing about stinging nettles is that they really do sting. I was surprised to learn this. I thought it was just romantic folklore. They don’t sting bad, just a little, but if you keep grabbing them without gloves, your hands will likely blow up and get red and itchy. You just need gloves, and then there’s no problem. And once the nettles are blanched their little sting is completely gone, never to come back.

The first time I ever ate stinging nettles was in Rome many years ago. They were in a beautiful jade green risotto, a little on the loose side. The taste was an earthy mix of spinach and potting soil. I loved it. I came back from that trip wondering if I could ever find nettles in New York. And I did find them, at the Union Square market in Manhattan. I tried to duplicate my Roman risotto. It came out pretty well and I was very proud of myself. And then years later, when I got my little house in upstate New York, to my astonishment I discovered a big patch of stinging nettles growing in the backyard. That was some huge excitement. Now I cook with them every spring.

My stinging nettle patch.

Stinging nettles are called ortiche in Italy. They’re most common in the middle and north of the country, where the soil is moister. Since my Roman experience, I’ve eaten ortiche several times in Liguria, usually as an ingredient in preboggion, the wild herb mix that’s used to fill pansoti, a bloated little ravioli, and other nice things, like savory torte, soup, and frittate.  I’ve recently discovered that it makes an excellent pesto.

I originally made my ortica pesto using the classic Ligurian basil pesto formula, simply replacing the basil with blanched nettles. Last night I cut back on the cheese, replaced the pine nuts with pistachios, and added a good amount of lemon zest. I tossed the resulting deep green pesto with steamed mussels and gemelli. I think another mild seafood such as scallops or trout would work just as well. You could certainly serve the nettles simply tossed with pasta, no fish, but the mussel combo was, in my opinion, a success.

I really love the color of blanched nettles. They’re a deep, almost bluish-tinged green. You’ll really notice that when you’re squeezing them dry, when lots of lovely emerald water will cascade into your sink.

Gemelli with Nettle Lemon Pesto and Mussels

For the pesto:

1 medium bouquet of stinging nettles, gathered wearing gloves (I cut them about 6 inches from the tops, stems and all)
1 spring garlic clove, chopped
¾ cup unsalted shelled pistachios
¾ cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
The grated zest from one lemon
Extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

For the mussels:

1½ pounds mussels, cleaned
A drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil
About ½ cup dry vermouth


¾ pound gemelli

Still wearing your gloves, pull all the leaves off of the nettle stems. Discard the stems. Set up a pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Drop in the leaves, and blanch them for about a minute. Drain them into a colander, and run cold water over them to stop the cooking and to bring up their brilliant green color. Squeeze out as much water as you can. Aside from all the lovely green water that they’ll produce, you’ll also probably notice that the leaves feel dry, which I found to be an odd sensation.

Put the garlic and the pistachios in a food processor, and pulse until you have a rough chop. Add the nettles, Parmigiano, lemon zest, and about ⅓ cup of good olive oil. Season with salt and black pepper, and pulse until you have a smooth paste, adding more olive oil if needed to get a creamy consistency.

Put the mussels in a large pot. Drizzle them with some olive oil, and pour on the vermouth. Cover the pot, and let the heat come up a bit. Uncover the pot, and cook the mussels, stirring them around occasionally until they open. When they’re cool enough to handle, take them from their shells, and place them in a bowl. Strain the mussel cooking broth, and pour about ½ cup of it over the mussels. Cover the mussels to keep them warm.

Cook the gemelli in a large pot of salted water until it’s al dente. Drain it, saving about a cup of the cooking water. Pour the pasta into a large serving bowl. Add the mussels with their liquid. Add about half the pesto and a little of the cooking water. Give everything a good toss, adding a bit more of the pesto if needed, and subsequently a little more of the cooking water to make it creamy. Serve right away. Leftover nettle pesto is great in a frittata.

Read Full Post »

Asparagus, by Anastasiya Kharchenko.

Recipe below: Asparagus with Anchovy Parmigiano Breadcrumbs

For many people asparagus tastes like grass. Like grass but sweet. I guess I’d somewhat agree, but what does this even mean exactly? Fresh mown grass, or cooked grass? Lawn grass or wild grass? Grassy is something people say when trying to describe the tastes of many green vegetables. It’s sort of like when people say that cheeses or mushrooms or dairy products taste nutty. I’ve even heard people say that particular nuts, almonds for instance, taste nutty. Which means I guess, that they taste likes other nuts, and that all nuts taste similar—which they don’t. Describing the taste of food is hard. Food writers struggle with it all the time. The frustrating thing is that you can’t convey a taste without comparing it to something else. How do you get around that? This spring I’ve been trying to concentrate on the taste and smell of asparagus. It’s hard. I mean green asparagus, not white or purple, which are variations I don’t find at spring farm stands. Raw asparagus has no smell, and its taste registers only a faint sweet bitterness for me. But cooking it brings out all kinds of tastes. Grassy? Maybe. But for me, I now realize, asparagus tastes like a cross between artichoke and broccoli. I’ve settled in on that description for now.

Asparagus, Pecorino and Crackers, by Amy Weiskopf.

And what about asparagus pee? That aroma is really something special. I look forward to it every spring. It never fails me. It’s asparagusic acid that causes it, a chemical unique to asparagus and commented on since the dawn of the vegetable. The acid gets broken down in your gut into sulfur. Sulfur itself can smell disgusting, as in heavily cabbage-laced fart, but to me asparagus sulfur isn’t nasty. It’s a kind of sweet sulfur. It’s a marker of spring for me. And did you know that about 30 percent of people can’t smell their asparagus pee? The medical explanation for this is that some people break sulfur down better than others, leaving little left to smell. I have another theory: Some people just smell things better than others. I think I’m a super smeller.

Penne Asparagus, by Patti Zeigler.

Asparagus with Anchovy Parmigiana Breadcrumbs

1 large bunch medium-thick spring asparagus (1 pound or a little more), the tough ends trimmed
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
5 or 6 oil-packed anchovies, minced
1 small clove fresh spring garlic, minced
¾ cup panko breadcrumbs
¾ cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
½ teaspoon sugar
The grated zest and juice from 1 medium lemon
8 or so large thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
Freshly ground black pepper

Blanch the asparagus in a pot of boiling water for 3 to 4 minutes, depending on its thickness. You’ll want it left a bit crunchy, since it will briefly cook again in the oven. Scoop the asparagus from the water into a bowl of ice water to cool it and bring up its green color. Drain it well on paper towels.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

In a medium skillet, heat a tablespoon of olive oil and the butter over medium-low heat. Add the anchovies and the garlic and briefly let them melt and release their flavors into the oils. Turn off the heat, and add the breadcrumbs, the Parmigiano, the sugar, the lemon zest (but not the juice just yet), and the thyme, seasoning with salt and black pepper. Mix everything well. The crumbs should be moist. If they seem dry, add a little more olive oil.

Place the asparagus spears in a baking dish with enough room to spread out a bit. Some overlap is fine. Drizzle them with a little olive oil, the lemon juice, and some salt, turning them around in it to coat them lightly.  Sprinkle the breadcrumb mix more or less evenly over the asparagus, leaving the tips and bottoms free from crumbs. Bake until the crumbs are golden and crisp, about 8 minutes or so. Serve hot or warm.

Read Full Post »

Morelscapes by Don Huber

Recipe below: Braised Chicken with Morels, Tarragon, and Thyme

Last night we had a thunderstorm that lasted for more than an hour. It was the low rumbling kind but with hardly any lightning, so the night sky remained dark. The rain wasn’t heavy, which was a good thing, as in a heavy rain we often lose power and I wasn’t in the mood for that (sometimes I am). I sat in bed with the cats, listening to the entire show. The cats weren’t scared, but they were upright and alert, with big eyes. A storm like this one, without lightning, is odd to sit through, but it let my head wander to thoughts of spring food, of everything I was eager to cook again. I focused on morels, with their honeycomb weenie caps, dry texture, and hollow insides.

Yesterday I had gone out looking for morels, searching in the correct places, around the moist, decaying crud that builds up under elms, ash, and old apple trees. I’ve had this house in the Hudson Valley for seven years. Every April when morel season starts, I go a little apeshit looking for them, but I’ve never found any. A neighbor, Larry, brought me about a dozen huge ones several years ago, all about six inches long, that he found somewhere around here. He wouldn’t say where. I wasn’t furious with him, but I was definitely irritated, and he knew it. I sliced them all in half, lengthwise, checking for bugs, which are common in these mushrooms, but I didn’t find any, so I just quickly sautéed his mega morels in butter and splashed them with grappa. That is one of the best ways to bring out their earth flavor. And just so you know, you don’t want to eat them raw; their toxins need to be heated out and away.

Today, after last night’s rain, I figured I’d go out again, looking. But it’s still raining, so I guess I’ll wait until later, when things dry out a bit.

In the meantime I want to share with you a very good recipe for chicken with dish that I made the other night with morels I had bought at Eataly for $55 a pound. I swear that was the price. I bought exactly ten of them, and the bill came to $12. I justified the expense by telling myself that at least I didn’t get the golden morels, the lighter ones piled up next to the run-of-the-mill ones I did buy. Those were going for $85 a pound. I have a love-hate relationship with that store.

This recipe is a pretty straightforward braise. Morels, chicken, and tarragon are a classic French trio, but I decided to strengthen it by adding thyme at the beginning of cooking, as an underpinning, and then introducing the tarragon right at the end, so it wouldn’t lose any of its potency. I was really happy with the result, and it produced lots of rich, earthy sauce to flavor rice I served with it.

Morel season is just beginning up here, and I’ll continue to scout around, like I always do. I don’t have high hopes for success, but you never know. I might get lucky. I’ll keep you posted.

Braised Chicken with Morels, Tarragon, and Thyme

½ cup all-purpose flour
Black pepper
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground coriander seed
8 chicken thighs, including their bone and skin, or a mix of thighs and drumsticks
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large shallot, finely diced
A dozen or more morels, cut in half lengthwise (and don’t forget to check for bugs)
6 large thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
A big splash of cognac or brandy
A small glass of dry vermouth
1 cup good-quality chicken broth
1 heaping tablespoon crème fraîche
About 8 large tarragon sprigs, the leaves chopped

Pour the flour out onto a plate. Add salt, black pepper, and the allspice and coriander seed, mixing everything together.

Dry off the chicken pieces, and season them with a little salt and black pepper. Coat them all lightly with the seasoned flour.

Get out a large skillet, and set it over medium high heat. Add a drizzle of olive oil and the butter, and let it heat up. Add the chicken, skin side down, and let it cook without moving it around until it’s well browned and about halfway cooked through, probably around  6 or 7 minutes. You may need to turn the heat down a bit if it’s browning too quickly. Next flip the chicken over, and cook it until it’s just tender with a touch of pink at the bone, about another 6 minutes. Take the chicken out of the pan and place it on a plate, skin side up. Pour off some, but not all, of the pan fat.

Add the shallot, morels, and thyme, and season with salt and black pepper. Sauté until the mushrooms have softened some and start giving off a nice earthy fragrance. Splash on the cognac, and let it boil away. Add the vermouth, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Add the chicken broth. Turn the heat to medium low, and simmer for about 5 minutes to lightly reduce the sauce. Add the crème fraîche, stirring it in, and let it simmer and blend in.

Return the chicken to the pan, skin side up. Scatter on the tarragon, and heat the chicken through over a low flame, spooning some of the sauce on it and letting the whole thing come together, about another five minutes. Check for seasoning, and serve hot.

You’ll have a rich sauce, so you’ll best serve the dish with something that will soak it up, like plain rice or orzo.

Read Full Post »

Women with Fish

I think it’s important to look well groomed and neat. I like to feel clean even if I’m not clean.

Read Full Post »

Still Life with Dainties, Rosemary, Wine, Jewels, and a Burning Candle, by Clara Peeters.

Recipe below: Penne with Clams and Red Pepper Rosemary Sauce.

I’m always cold in March. There’s never enough heat inside or out. Candles are good, though. Not that they give off heat, but they create an illusion.

I’ve never been a fan of scented candles. Patchouli, musk, sandalwood and me never got along, and patchouli in general has been known to give me the gags. It was in the air when I was a teenager. I’ve rejected men who wore it. Those oppressive scents are big in the scented candle business, so I’ve always disliked all scented candles as intrusive and even nauseating.

But as the New York cold drags on to the last mess of sloppy, gray sadness, I’ve turned to candles to create a contained space around my couch, along with my Mediterranean cookbooks, my wirebound notebook, cheap Pilot Varsity pens I buy in bulk, Italian food catalogs, biographies of dead gay artists, and, a new addition, a rosemary candle to bring the whole cocoon into focus. It smells not like perfume but more like food, like the polenta, rosemary, and olive oil cake I sometimes cook up for my husband’s breakfast. I’ve tried other scented candles I thought might work—bergamot, bitter orange, mint, sage (sage was disgusting)—but the rosemary one just fell naturally into place.

Rosemary the naked herb smells thick. It feels thick and even sticky. It’s like adding a piece of a tree to your food rather than adding a regular herb. It’s not truly savory either. It has sweetness underneath all its piney bitter. It’s not fresh like young pine sprigs. It’s richer. If I fry a sprig and eat it hot, it tastes sweet. If I eat a sprig raw, it’s bitter and can even make me want to spit it out.  But it’s good infused raw in olive oil or cream, or in vodka. A rosemary vodka martini is substantial, especially if you use a little more vermouth than you might normally think proper and garnish it with green olives and a fresh rosemary sprig. If you’re not crazy about martinis, you can simply flavor green brownish Taggiasca olives (my favorites) with fresh rosemary sprigs, strips of lemon or orange zest, and Ligurian olive oil. I’ve made rosemary pesto, cutting it only with a little parsley. Its sweet pine scent, when it’s ground down with pine nuts and grassy olive oil, creates exotic beauty to spoon over grilled swordfish or even grilled bread. 

Have you ever dripped rosemary-vanilla syrup over sliced blood orange?  That can be mind blowing. So can rosemary-vanilla ice cream. And if in summer you have your own bush and you’re lucky enough to gather some of its blue flowers, try scattering them over rosemary roasted potatoes. I grow an upright rosemary variety called Tuscan Blue. I’ve found that rosemary goes with almost anything. I know because I’ve tried it with almost everything.

Most cooks say rosemary should be used with a light touch; I say not necessarily. I used quite a bit in this clam pasta, but it didn’t compete in an obnoxious way since I balanced it with the clams, for one, but also with roasted red pepper and hits of both fennel seed and hot chili. I loved the way that made a red clam sauce but not a tomato sauce. I sort of knew what it would taste like when I dreamed it up, but it was even better.

Penne with Clams and Red Pepper Rosemary Sauce

3 to 4 dozen small clams, well cleaned (I used 3 dozen littlenecks that were closer to medium-size. If yours are really small, you’ll likely want 4 dozen)
¾ cup dry sherry
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 red bell peppers, roasted, skinned, seeded, and roughly chopped (I strongly advise you roast your own. All the jarred peppers I’ve tried are too acidic and full of preservatives, giving them a chemical taste)
4 canned plum tomatoes, skinned and chopped
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large shallot, minced
1 juicy garlic clove, thinly sliced
1 large sprig rosemary, the leaves well chopped (about a tablespoon)
1 teaspoon fennel pollen or ground fennel seeds
1 fresh bay leaf
1 teaspoon sugar
A big pinch of dried Calabrian chili flakes
1 pound penne
A palmful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, lightly chopped

Put the clams in a big pot. Pour on the sherry. Turn the heat to medium high, cover the pan, and cook until the clams start to open, stirring them around occasionally. I take each clam from the pot as it opens and stick them in a bowl. In my experience, clams, unlike mussels, don’t all open around the same time, so this way I’m assured that none of them overcooks. Strain the clam cooking liquid into a bowl (to make sure there’s no sand in the broth), and set it aside. When the clams are cool enough to handle, shuck them, and stick their meat in a bowl. Give it a drizzle of good olive oil.

Put the roasted peppers and tomatoes in a food processor, and pulse until fairly smooth but still with a little texture.

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

While the water is boiling, take out a large sauté pan, and set it over medium heat. Add a drizzle of olive oil and a tablespoon of the butter. Add the shallot, and sauté until it’s soft, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic, rosemary, fennel pollen or seed, bay leaf, sugar, a little salt, and the chili flakes, and sauté everything to release its flavors, about another minute. Add the reserved clam cooking liquid and the puréed pepper-and-tomato mixture. Turn the heat down a bit and simmer to blend the new flavors, about 4 minutes. Add the shucked clams with any liquid they may have given off, and then turn off the heat.

While the sauce is simmering, cook the penne.

When the penne is al dente, drain it, saving a little of its cooking water. Pour the penne into a large serving bowl, add the remaining butter, and give it a good toss. Pour on the clam sauce, add the parsley, and toss again, adding a little pasta cooking water, if needed, to loosen it. Serve right away.

Read Full Post »

Still Life with Duck, by Chaim Soutine, 1924.

Recipe below: Duck Ragù with Black Olives and Orange

In the early 1980s when I met the man who was to become my husband, he was involved in a rented group house out in Riverhead, Long Island. About ten friends rented the house. I eventually became a member of the group, with both good and really bad outcomes. There was one woman who was nasty to me for no apparent reason, I came to think of her as pinch-faced and bitter and maybe even slightly unhinged. At one point a string of pearls my father had given me for Christmas disappeared from my room. I suspected her of taking it, but I never confronted her because I couldn’t truly imagine anyone doing such a creepy thing, even though she was pretty creepy. They were never found, and now, 35 years later, I’m still convinced it was her.

They called this fairly large, two-story, seen better days house and its property the duck farm, because it had once actually been one. You could still wander the acreage and enter a few of the dilapidated barns and imagine all the ducks crammed in there quacking like crazy. Long Island used to have a lot of duck farms, but by this time there were only a handful left. We’d occasionally purchase a few ducks for our group meals. Compared with now, they were cheap. I cooked many ducks back then, mostly roasting them whole, making sauces from oranges or cherries or green olives and rosemary, or once with kumquats, that one sort of a bitter mess but still good if you drank enough cheap red wine. The nasty person didn’t come to the table when I cooked dinner. At first that made me uncomfortable, but after a while I didn’t give a shit. I really liked cooking in the big square kitchen, its cupboard filled with authentic Fiestaware in haunting colors like mauve, olive, and teal.

I tried different duck roasting methods, since back then I was just learning, from hot and fast to low and slow and to low and really slow, and what I discovered, which was frustrating and also a bit of a mystery, was that often the duck would taste like liver. I was perplexed. It never tasted like that in Chinatown. I don’t detect that taste now when I cook duck. It might be that by now I’m just better at cooking it, but I also wonder if maybe there was too much blood left in those Long Island ducks, too much iron in the muscle. Lazy duck farmers? I’m not sure, but duck is high in not only iron but also magnesium, selenium, phosphorus, and B vitamins, so it has good healthy gaminess going on. You can’t expect it to be bland, but that liver taste was a stretch for my palate. I now find it easier to cook the breast and legs separately. I buy D’Artagnan mulard duck breasts and legs at Citarella. Mulard is a cross between Muscovy and Peking breeds. As far as I can remember, all the Long Island ducks were Peking, which had more fat and less meat. Mulard ducks are dark and meaty.

For this recipe you’ll need three whole duck legs. They get cooked low and slow until you can pull the meat off with your fingers and throw it all back into the sauce to create a rich ragù. I’ve chosen flavors—orange, and black olives—that I initially thought of as Provençal, but I’ve also added cinnamon, which in the final tasting gives it a Sicilian aroma, or possibly a Venetian Renaissance one. In any case it is really good, and I hope you’ll give it a try.

Duck Ragù with Black Olives and Orange

  • Servings: 4 as a main course
  • Print

3 duck legs (I used D’Artagnan mulard duck legs)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 onion, cut into small dice
1 carrot, cut into small dice
1 celery stalk, cut into small dice, plus a handful of leaves, if you have them, lightly chopped
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon allspice
¾ cup of dry vermouth (I really like Dolin)
2 cups homemade chicken broth
2 fresh bay leaves
1 teaspoon honey
1½ cups well-chopped canned tomatoes
The juice from 1 large orange and the grated zest from 1½  
A palmful of black Taggiasca or Niçoise olives, pitted if you like
Possibly a few drops of rice wine vinegar
1½ pounds fresh tagliatelle or pappardelle
About a dozen basil leaves, lightly chopped
A good-sized chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Lightly score the duck through its fatty skin in a crisscross pattern. Rub the legs with salt and pepper. Get out a large casserole fitted with a lid (I used an 11-inch-long oval Le Creuset). Get it hot over medium heat, and add the duck legs, skin side down. Let them give off much of their fat and get a bit brown. That should take about 5 minutes. Flip them over, and brown their undersides, about another 4 minutes. Take them out, and stick them in a bowl or on a plate.

Pour off all but about 2 tablespoons of the duck fat (I had more than a cup of fat at this point, so I froze it for a later use, probably in something involving potatoes). Turn the heat back to medium, and add the onion, carrot, celery (and leaves if you have them), cinnamon, allspice, and a little more salt and black pepper. Sauté until everything is soft and fragrant. Put the duck and any juices it has given off back in the casserole, and sauté for another minute or so. Add the vermouth, and let it bubble for about a minute. Add the chicken broth, bay leaves, honey, and tomatoes, and bring it to a boil. Cover the casserole, and stick it in the hot oven.

After about an hour, open to pot, and add the orange juice and zest. If the liquid has cooked down a lot, you may want to add a bit more chicken broth or a little water. Give the duck legs a turn, cover the pot, and put it back in the oven for another 1½ hours.

Take the casserole from the oven. By this time the duck should be tender and pretty much falling off the bone. Remove the duck legs from the pot, and place them on a large plate. Let them sit until they’re cool enough to handle.

The sauce should have a nice maroon sheen to it and have thickened but still be loose enough to make a clingy pasta sauce. Skim off any excess fat.

When the duck is somewhat cool, pull off all the meat and shred it up a bit with your fingers, dropping it all into the pot with the sauce. Add the olives, and give it a good stir. Check the consistency and judge whether you might need to add a little water or broth. Give it a taste. I find sometimes that the richness of duck needs a little extra acid, and even here with all the vermouth, tomato, and orange, I found I wanted a few drops of rice wine vinegar to brighten the flavors. You may also want more black pepper.

Cook your tagliatelle or pappardelle until tender. While the pasta is cooking, put a low flame under the sauce to gently keep it hot.

Drain the pasta, and pour it into a large serving bowl. Add the duck sauce and the basil, and gently toss. Serve right away, bringing the chunk of Parmigiano to the table for grating.

Read Full Post »

Spinach and Carrots on a White Wooden Chair, by Natasha Breen.

Recipe below: Penne Rigate with Spinach, Prosciutto, and Cream

Before I started cooking professionally I worked at Amnesty International for several years, first in membership, then as a caseworker, and finally as an ill-equipped writer for their newsletter. What I really wanted to do was get into a big sweaty kitchen with sharp knives, flames, and good Italian food, and that would come soon enough.

My volunteer assistant at AI was a middle-aged woman named Nancy Wilford, a proper blonde whose husband John wrote for The New York Times. I’m not sure what drove her to show up every day to stuff envelopes, lady the switchboard, and help me sort through all the  political prisoner mail that piled up like you wouldn’t believe, at least 50 percent of which was from crazy people. All the wacko stuff got jammed into what we called the microwave file. Mark David Chapman, the horrible man who shot John Lennon, wrote me a bunch of letters in a scratchy little script, insisting he was a political prisoner. There were also letters from supposed relatives of escapees from the imperial Russian Romanov family massacre. Those people were tedious. Occasionally one would even show up at the office, dressed in red and gold, cross-body sash, pointy mustache, and epaulets, and covered in medals. They really got on my nerves.

Nancy was interested in Italian food, and once she found out it was my passion we talked about it almost daily. She mentioned several times a dish that she and John were “mad for,” and maybe the only somewhat Italian thing they made at home. It was penne with spinach and cream, that’s it, frozen spinach, cream, and no salt (a high blood pressure issue, I think). She said they couldn’t get enough of it. It sounded so plain and boring it made me sad as hell to hear her going on about it. She was so in love with the simple pasta that I didn’t want to one-up her by mentioning that my Italian-American mother made something similar but included prosciutto, Parmigiano, nutmeg, garlic, white wine, and sometimes peas. I remember my mother washing the spinach for the dish in three changes of water. Remember how dirty spinach was back then?  

That was a “Northern Italian” pasta, different from the tomatoey things my mother usually served, and probably borrowed from the Pappagallo restaurant in Glen Head, Long Island, my parents’ favorite fancy place in the sixties and seventies. I think she called it pasta Florentine. Just about anything containing spinach that appeared on an Italian restaurant menu back then was called Florentine. It was a simpler time.

I hadn’t thought about this pasta for ages, and I hadn’t thought about Nancy Wilford much either, except that I’d heard she had died a few years ago, which made me gloomy and nostalgic for my unruly youth. She was nervous and giggly, but I was always happy to see her sitting in my office with her blonde flip hairdo, looking determined to do a thorough, if unpaid, job. She wouldn’t except a salary—didn’t want it, didn’t need it, she said.

A few days ago I realized my refrigerator held all the ingredients to produce a version of my mother’s penne with spinach, prosciutto, and cream. I think it must have been something like thirty years since I had last cooked this one up. So here it is, pretty much as I remembered it, and I’m happy to report it’s not just nostalgically good, but truly, truly good. I hope you’ll give it a try.

Penne Rigate with Spinach, Prosciutto, and Cream

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large shallot, minced
A medium-size bag prewashed baby spinach
A few big scrapings of nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
½ pound penne rigate or regular penne
A splash of dry vermouth
½ cup heavy cream
¼ cup crème fraîche
3 very thin slices prosciutto di Parma, cut into ribbons
A small chunk of Parmigiano cheese

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

While the water is coming to a boil, set out a large skillet over medium heat. Add half the butter and the shallot, and sauté until the shallot is soft and fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add the spinach, and let it wilt down, turning it around in the skillet so it cooks evenly, and adding the nutmeg, a little salt, and some black pepper. While the spinach is cooking down, drop the penne into the water.

Cook the spinach until it’s just wilted but with a bit of life left in it. Give it a splash of vermouth, and let that bubble out. Add the cream and the crème fraîche, stirring them in and letting them cook down for about a minute or two.

When the penne is al dente, drain it, and pour it into a wide serving bowl. Add the rest of the butter, and give it a quick toss.

Add the spinach sauce and the prosciutto, and grate on about a tablespoon or so of Parmigiano. Toss again. Give it a taste, adding more black pepper if you like. Serve right away, bringing the rest of the cheese to the table.

Read Full Post »

Alison with a Chicken Painting, by Nancy Long.

Recipe below: Fettuccine with Chicken Liver, Prosciutto, and Thyme

I’ve been thinking about foods people love, things they even crave. Chocolate is a big crave for a lot of people. It’s not my thing. I seem to crave red wine often, maybe a little too often. I’m also drawn to food that tastes a bit metallic, like canned seafood (especially Spanish mussels) and all types of liver. It’s made me wonder if I had an iron deficiency, but I don’t think so, since I take a multivitamin. I think the craving is not in my body but in my soul. Metallic and bitter tastes are just part of what I am.

I especially love chicken livers for their creaminess. Cooking them fast over high heat so they caramelize on the outside but stay pink and tender on the inside is the only way. And a good flame of cognac at the end and you really set their lusciousness.

If you love chicken livers as I do, or even if you sort of think you like them, or for that matter if you think you don’t like them, give this recipe a try. I’d love to convert you.

Fettuccine with Chicken Liver, Prosciutto, and Thyme

Extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium shallots, cut into small dice
Black pepper
2 fresh bay leaves
6 long thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ cup dry vermouth
½ cup homemade chicken broth
3 thin slices prosciutto, cut into skinny strips
1 pound fresh fettuccine
1 pound chicken livers, trimmed, cut into approximately ½-inch pieces, and well dried
½ teaspoon sugar
A splash of cognac
A few drops of rice wine vinegar
A palmful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, lightly chopped
A chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

Get out a large sauté pan, and place it over medium heat. Add a big drizzle of olive oil and a tablespoon of butter. Add the shallots, seasoning with a little salt and black pepper. Add the bay leaves, half of the thyme, and the nutmeg. Sauté until fragrant, about 4 minutes or so. Add the vermouth, and let it bubble a bit. Add the chicken broth and the prosciutto, turn the heat down a notch, and simmer for about 5 minutes.

While the sauce is simmering, set up a pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add salt. Drop in the fettuccine.

Take out a medium sauté pan, and get it hot over high heat.

Toss the chicken livers with a little salt, black pepper, and the sugar. Add the rest of the butter to the pan, and let it get hot and foamy. Add the livers, spreading them out in one layer, and brown them quickly on one side. Give them a flip, and cook them another minute. You want them to be a bit crispy on the outside and still pink at the center. Add the cognac, being careful—it will probably flame up, but that’s what you want. Shake the pan a bit, and then tilt the livers into the shallot sauce. Add the rest of the thyme. Give the livers and sauce a taste. If it all seems too sweet, add a few drops of rice wine vinegar (very little), to bring up its acidity.

When the fettuccine is tender, drain it. Pour it into a large serving bowl. Add the chicken liver sauce, the parsley, and a drizzle of fresh olive oil. Toss gently. Taste for seasoning. Grate a little Parmigiano over the top, and bring the rest of the cheese to the table.

Read Full Post »

Recipe below: Tagliatelle with Shrimp, Rosemary, and Ginger

I love my Southern Italian Mediterranean food. Those are the flavors of my life that I was exposed to at an early age and have been cooking with for decades. There is, however, a frustration spot. Spices. Modern Italian cooking uses very few of them. There’s not much left from the old Spice Route days. Black pepper is still used, a lot (maybe too much), and nutmeg and cinnamon are both still found in Southern Italy in sweet and savory dishes such as my grandfather’s Christmas Eve ricotta-and-cinnamon-filled ravioli. There’s also saffron, one of my favorite spices. But that’s about it, even if I travel north into Tuscany or Emilia Romania. Herbs have replaced a lot of spiciness over the years. I couldn’t cook without herbs, but I need spices too. And I sneak them in here and there, trying to do so without pushing my flavors beyond recognizable contemporary Italian style.

One of my Italian culinary projects is to poke around to find dishes where spices are still used. I have found good spice in some Sicilian dishes, such as couscous, where the Moorish influence is obvious in the presence of cinnamon, saffron, and bay leaf. I’ve also hunted around in Venetian cooking, as Venice was the hub of the Italian spice trade, I figured they’d have some spice lurking around, ginger, maybe, or clove or star anise.

I often start my research in my ridiculously large cookbook collection that I’ve accumulated over 40 years. I’ve got good books, some quite dusty, others really new. I keep adding, and I almost never get rid of anything. Recently I pulled out The da Fiore Cookbook, with recipes from that famous Venetian restaurant. I’ve often drawn inspiration from many of its fish dishes, and I still find them fresh and unusual even after many years (the book came out in 2003). Mara Martin, the chef there, got the idea for one of her sweet and sour (“saor”) fish dishes from a fourteenth-century Venetian cookbook that included ginger in its old preparation for preserving fish. She even called this dish saor alla Marco Polo, because its distinguishing ingredient, ginger, was brought to Venice after the explorer’s travels to China. Ginger isn’t used much in any region of Italy these days, but it’s such a compelling addition to seafood, I knew I’d have to try it in my own Italian way. I thought immediately of rosemary and how its flavor and ginger’s have always seemed similar to me. Both are sharp, ginger being more biting and rosemary having that distinct strong pine burn on the tongue. Both seasonings, in fact, give you a nice little tongue burn.

So here you have my shrimp pasta with rosemary and ginger, to my culinary mind a truly legitimate Italian dish, with flavors from long ago but made contemporary. I hope you’ll try it.

Tagliatelle with Shrimp, Rosemary, and Ginger

  • Servings: 3 as a first course or 4 as a main course
  • Print

Extra-virgin olive oil
1½ pounds wild-caught large shrimp, peeled and the peels saved
½ cup dry vermouth (I really like Dolin)
Black pepper
A big pinch of sugar
1 ¼-inch-thick round of pancetta, cut into small dice
1 large shallot, cut into small dice
1 nob of fresh ginger, grated (you’ll want about a tablespoon)
3 long sprigs rosemary, the leaves well chopped
2 pints grape tomatoes
1 pound fresh tagliatelle
5 or so large sprigs Italian parsley, lightly chopped
A small hunk of grana Padano cheese

The first thing you want to do is make a quick shrimp broth. It will add so much flavor to a pasta dish like this. So get out a small saucepan, and set it over medium heat. Drizzle in about a tablespoon or so of olive oil. When it’s hot, add the shrimp shells and sauté them until they turn pink, about 3 minutes. Add the vermouth, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Add 2 cups of water and bring everything to a boil. Turn the heat down a touch, and cook, uncovered, at a low bubble for about 10 minutes. It should start smelling very sweet and shrimpy. Add a little salt and strain the broth into a small bowl. You should have about a cup or so.

Put the peeled shrimp in a small bowl and drizzle on a little olive oil. Season with salt, black pepper, and the sugar, and give it a quick toss.

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

In the meantime, get out a large skillet, and set it over medium heat. Add a little olive oil and the pancetta, and sauté until the pancetta is crisp. Add the shallot, ginger, and half the rosemary, and sauté to release their flavors. Add the tomatoes, and season with salt and black pepper. Cook the tomatoes until they just start to burst but still more or less hold their shape, about 5 or 6 minutes. Then add the shrimp broth, turn the heat down a bit, and let everything simmer for a few minutes to blend the flavors.

Drop the tagliatelle in the water.

Turn the heat off under the sauce.

Pull out a medium-size skillet, and get it hot over high heat. Add the shrimp, and sear it quickly on both sides, leaving it juicy and tender. This should take only about 2 minutes. Add the shrimp to the sauce, along with any skillet juices.

When the tagliatelle is tender, drain it, and tilt it into a large serving bowl. Add the shrimp sauce, the rest of the rosemary, and the parsley. Toss gently.  Grate on about a tablespoon or so of grana Padano, and toss again lightly. Taste for seasoning. Serve hot, passing the rest of the cheese at the table if you like.

Read Full Post »

My favorite Van Gogh painting, with onions and a copy of French chemist and politician F. V. Raspail’s Manuel Annuaire de la Santé, from 1889.

Recipe below: Onion Torta with Pancetta and Thyme

I almost never use garlic in the winter. What I usually find I’m not crazy about—the softneck type, mass-produced in California and piled high in supermarkets. It almost always tastes acrid to me. I used to try to work with it, but I finally asked myself why. Now I say resist. A winter tomato sauce with just onion or shallot or leek is wonderful.

In April, field garlic will start popping up in my yard and around sidewalks and parking lots across much of the Northeast. On Long Island when I was a kid, we used to call this stuff onion grass, and I’d eat lots of it. I’d take a tin of anchovies, maybe a jar of pimento-stuffed cocktail olives, and a box of Triscuits and sit in my backyard, yanking up the little bulbs and fashioning a type of demented dollhouse antipasto. I felt so grown up. Nobody I knew thought to actually cook with field garlic back then. I do now, though. Both the chive-like tops and the little bulbs are gentle and delicious. Sort of a low-rent version of ramps.

But what I really wait for is the cultivated hardneck garlic that starts appearing at my Greenmarket, and in my own little garden, around June, when its immature shoots pop up looking like scallions, the bulbs not even formed into separate cloves yet. I pull up some of these adolescent garlics myself, but most of my homegrown I let rest underground until early August, when they’ll be fully developed, intense and sweet. The hardneck varieties, which have better flavor than softneck, don’t dry well. They need to be used either freshly dug or within two months. That’s why industrial garlic growers don’t grow them. Softnecks dry, and they keep through long, cold winters, although they do eventually grow those bitter green sprouts, and by that time they really start tasting crappy.

It’s still only mid-January, cold, gray, and brown in New York. It’ll be a while before I can experience garlic beautitude. So in the meantime I’ve decided to go full-on onion. I’ve always liked a slow braise of onion. French onion soup and pasta alla Genovese, both with lots of soft onion, are two of my favorite winter dishes. For this rustico onion torta I’ve used the Vidalia variety, because I thought its sweetness would work well with the chunk of pancetta I had on hand. A little lemon zest and a splash of dry white wine in the filling prevents the sweet onion from overpowering. I also included some of the thyme I rescued in December from my on-the-verge-of-freezing garden. Thyme and sweet onion are a gorgeous match.

Happy Winter cooking to you.

Onion Torta with Pancetta and Thyme

You’ll want a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom, preferably one with smooth, not fluted, sides, for a rustic look.

For the crust:

2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
5 thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
⅓ cup dry white wine, or possibly a drizzle more

For the filling:

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 ½-inch-thick round of pancetta, cut into small dice
2 large Vidalia onions, thinly sliced
6 or 7 long thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Black pepper
The grated zest from 1 small lemon
A splash of white wine
1 extra large egg
½ cup heavy cream

To make the dough, put the flour into a big bowl. Add the salt, sugar, and thyme, and give it all a quick mix. Mix together the olive oil and the wine, and pour it over the flour. Mix everything around with a wooden spoon until you have a bowl of damp clumps. Squeeze a section of the dough together with your hand. It should stick together. If it seems dry, add a drizzle more of wine, and work that in. Dump the clumps out onto the counter, and squeeze them all together into a ball, giving it a few quick kneads with the palm of your hand. Flatten it out into a thick disk, and wrap it in plastic. Let it sit at room temperature for about an hour, so the dough can relax. If you want to make the dough the day before, it’ll be fine just sitting out overnight. I find that when I refrigerate olive oil dough, even if I let it come back to room temperature, the texture will be not as loose and harder to work with.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

To make the filling, get out a large sauté pan, and set it over medium heat. Drizzle in a little olive oil, and add the pancetta, letting it cook until it has given off much of its fat and its meat is crisp. Add the onion and a little salt. Sauté for about 5 minutes, letting the onion soften and get fragrant. Add the thyme, nutmeg, some black pepper, and the lemon zest, and continue cooking until the onion is very soft and is just starting to take on a little color, about 8 minutes longer. Give it a splash of wine, and let it bubble away. Turn off the heat, and let it cool down for about 10 minutes. Mix the egg with the cream, and give it a good stir. Add that to the onion mix, mixing it in well. Taste the filling for seasoning.

Roll the dough out into a large circle that’ll fit into your tart pan with about an inch of overhang. Drape it into the pan, and press it down. Pour in the filling, and smooth it out. Trim off and discard most of the dough overhang. Pinch the rim of the tart to raise it a little, crimping it all around. Give the top of the tart a drizzle of fresh olive oil, and bake it until its crust is lightly browned and its filling is set and golden, about 30 to 35 minutes. Let it sit for about a half hour before slicing.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »