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A package of Italian leaf celery seeds.

Recipe below: Breaded Swordfish with Caper Celery Sauce and a Tomato Herb Salad

September is here, and my herbs are getting leggy, shooting up, searching for the warmth of the sun and finding it fading. Another growing season circles the drain. Sad. But I’ve still got lots of lovage and leaf celery. Those two are unstoppable. I don’t generally use a lot of either during the summer, just a hint in a dish, afraid that their strengths will overpower. But now I’m under the gun. Don’t want them to go to waste, and neither one dries well, so I’ve tried highlighting them here in two ways, first in a sort of chunky salsa verde, and then mixed into a little side salad, where I could also use up the handful of cherry tomatoes I still had hanging on the vines. I’m glad I did. The flavors were beautiful. Fall-like, deep but still fresh enough to evoke warm weather feelings.

Leaf celery is celery grown for its leaves, not for its stalks. Its stalks are spindly, its leaves abundant. They’re highly perfumed, but I’ve discovered that you can use a bit more without overkill. Not so with lovage, another celery-flavor herb but more like celery on overdrive. That stuff is rough trade. Two or three leaves in a pot of beans is all that pot can take. Raw in a sauce, the way I’ve used it here, you want to team it up with another strong taste, capers for instance, to balance out its power. In small doses it’s a lovely, truly savory herb. Too much and you’d rather be mopping your floor with it.

You’ll notice that I used ground-up taralli here. I didn’t have any other means of creating breadcrumbs unless I left the apartment, and I didn’t feel like doing that. They work well if you coat them in a bit of olive oil so they don’t get too dry.

Note: If you don’t have leaf celery, use the leaves from regular celery. They’ll taste good, too. If you don’t have lovage, well, maybe you’re lucky.

Breaded Swordfish with Caper Celery Sauce and a Tomato Herb Salad

(Serves 2)

For the caper celery sauce:

½ cup Sicilian salt-packed capers, soaked for about ½ hour and then rinsed and drained
¾ cup leaf celery leaves or regular celery leaves, lightly chopped
2 or 3 lovage leaves, lightly chopped
1 scallion, sliced into thin rounds, using all the tender green part
The juice and grated zest from 1 small lemon
About 4 tablespoons best-quality extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt

For the salad:

12 cherry tomatoes, cut in half
A handful of leaf celery leaves, lightly ripped
2 lovage leaves, ripped in half
1 garlic clove, smashed with the side of a knife
A drizzle of lemon juice
Black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil

For the fish:

12 fennel-flavored taralli
¼ cup grated Grana Padano cheese
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 swordfish steaks (locally fished in the North Atlantic, if possible), about 1½ inches thick and about 6 to 7 ounces each, the skin removed
Black pepper

Put all the ingredients for the caper celery sauce in a small bowl, and give them a good mix. Let the sauce sit to develop flavor while you get on with the rest of the dish. For the salad, put the tomatoes and herbs in a bowl. Make a quick vinaigrette with the garlic, lemon juice, salt, black pepper, and some more of your good olive oil. Pour the vinaigrette over the tomatoes, and give them a quick toss. Remove the garlic.

Put the taralli in a food processor, and grind finely. Add the Grana Padano, a little salt, and a drizzle of olive oil, and pulse a few times until the mix looks a bit moist. Pour it out onto a plate.

Season the swordfish lightly with salt and black pepper, and then press it into the taralli crumbs, coating it well both top and bottom.

Set up a shallow-sided sauté pan, and pour in about ½ inch of olive oil. Let it get hot over medium-high heat. Add the swordfish steaks, and cook them without moving them around at all until they’re golden on one side, about 4 minutes or so. Give them a flip, and brown their other side, turning down the heat a little so they can cook through without too much darkening, about another 4 minutes, just until the fish is tender when poked with a knife. Swordfish dries out easily, so keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t overcook.

Plate the swordfish, spooning a good amount of the caper sauce on top. Arrange the tomato salad a little to the side. Serve right away.

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Sausage Maker, by MIchael DeBrito, 2008.

Recipe below: Orecchiette with Swiss Chard, Fennel Sausage, and Lemon

It has been the summer of rain. Many of my herbs have got waterlogged and root rot. My basil, one of my most loved plants, turned yellow and drooped and then just wilted altogether. And I planted a lot of basil—Genoa basil, sweet basil, Thai basil, whose taste drives me crazy, opal basil, cinnamon basil. All those plants just tanked. This caused me much anxiety. I kept replanting, and finally I just gave up and bought basil from farmers’ markets (although I certainly couldn’t find all the beautiful varieties that I wanted growing in my little garden). How are they keeping their basil healthy? When I asked at Migliorelli farms, she just said, yeah, it’s been a strange year. Professional farmers have their ways, and I guess we’re not allowed to know about them. Dying and dead basil remains a summer torment.

I’ve become so alarmed at not having basil that whenever I see it at a farm stand I buy it, not knowing exactly what I’ll use it for and worried I might waste some of the huge bunch I’m forced to purchase. I’ve been throwing it into dishes where in the past I wouldn’t have thought would work, for instance, in this pasta where the main ingredient is Swiss chard. Swiss chard and basil seem an odd couple, the chard being strong, slightly bitter, and even a little metallic. I often don’t use any herb with chard, and almost never with broccoli rabe, another green that I find is complete in itself.  But this time, with my chard, I threw in a big handful of basil at the end, because I had bought so much, and, you know. . . . And something good came of it. The two tastes melded into one, the basil tamping down the bitter chard and introducing a sweetness that seemed to be born of the mix, not a characteristic of either of these ingredients itself. Live and learn about herbs.

Orecchiette with Swiss Chard, Fennel Sausage, and Lemon

(Serves 2)

1 large bunch Swiss chard, stemmed and lightly chopped
½ pound orecchiette
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 sweet Italian sausages with fennel seeds, the casings removed, the meat chopped
2 summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 red peperoncino, sliced into thin rounds
A big splash of dry white wine
A big splash of chicken broth
The grated zest from 1 large lemon
A handful of basil leaves, lightly chopped
A chunk of pecorino Toscano cheese

Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water. Add salt, and bring it to a boil. Add the Swiss chard, and blanch it for about a minute. Using a large strainer spoon, scoop the chard out of the water and into a colander. Run cold water over it to bring up its green color. Squeeze as much water out of it as you can, and give it another quick chop.

Bring the water back to a boil, and drop in the orecchiette.

In a large sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the sausage, and sauté until it’s lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and peperoncino, and sauté another minute to release their flavors. Season with a little salt.

Add the chard, and sauté for a minute. Add the splash of wine, and let it bubble for a minute. Add the chicken broth and the lemon zest, and simmer for a minute, just to blend all the flavors. Turn off the heat.

When the orecchiette is al dente, drain it, saving a little of the cooking water, and add the orecchiette to the sauté pan, tossing everything around to blend well.

Pour the pasta into a serving bowl. Add the basil and a heaping tablespoon of pecorino, and toss gently, adding a little pasta cooking water if you need it to loosen the sauce. Serve right away, with extra pecorino brought to the table.

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Recipe below: String Bean and Potato Salad with Gently Pickled Shallots and Marjoram

This is my slightly evolved version of an Italian-American summer classic, the string bean and potato salad with red onion that my family, and everyone else’s Italo Americano family, made for summer cookouts (we didn’t even call them barbecues back then). It’s especially good served alongside grilled pork sausages flavored with fennel. Follow that with grilled corn and then peaches in red wine, and you’ve got a perfect summer meal.

The beauty of this salad lies in its simplicity, but of course I had to go complicate things, although, in this case, I don’t think wrongly. The raw red onions this usually includes are fine, but I felt a little brightness wouldn’t hurt—just a little—so I worked out a gentle pickling method for shallots. You could use the same method for red onions, but I’m always drawn to shallots’ complexity, and I went with them. What keeps the pickle from being too aggressive is rice wine vinegar. Don’t be tempted to substitute regular white wine vinegar. That would throw the balance off. And, going ahead with my update of this classic, I included fresh marjoram in place of the dried oregano that most of my paesani reach for. Live and learn, or live and unlearn, depending on your point of view. Anyway, I’m really happy with how it came out.

Happy summer cooking to everyone.

String Bean and Potato Salad with Gently Pickled Shallots and Marjoram

(Serves 4)

For the gently pickled shallots:

4 medium shallots
½ cup rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
A dozen or so fennel seeds
1 tablespoon coarsely ground sea salt


5 medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into medium cubes
¾ pound string beans, trimmed and cut in half on an angle
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar
Extra-virgin olive oil, the best you have
Black pepper
A few large thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
About 6 marjoram sprigs, the leaves chopped

To make the gently pickled shallots: Peel the shallots, and trim off their ends. Cut them in quarters lengthwise, and pull them apart so they fall into pieces. In a medium-size saucepan, combine the vinegar, sugar, fennel seeds, and salt. Add about ½ cup of water, and bring it to a boil, letting it bubble about a half a minute, just until the salt and sugar dissolve. Put the shallots in a shallow bowl, and pour the vinegar mix over them. To keep them submerged I usually cover them with a small plate. Let them sit until cooled. Now you can either leave them in the bowl with plastic wrap pressed against them, or transfer them to a jar with a lid. In any case, leave them in the refrigerator overnight, so they can develop flavor. I find they stay fresh and good for only about 4 days, so I make small batches and make sure to use them fairly soon.

To make the salad: Put the cubed potatoes in a medium-size saucepan, and cover them with cool water. Bring to a boil and cook until just tender, about 5 minutes. Drain them. Set up another pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Add the string beans, and blanch them until tender but still firm, about 4 minutes. Drain them, and run cold water over them to set their green color.

Put the warm potatoes in a shallow serving bowl. In a small bowl mix the mustard together with the rice wine vinegar. Add about a tablespoon of olive oil, and pour the liquid over the potatoes, gently mixing it in.

Add the string beans and a palmful of the pickled shallots. Season everything with salt and black pepper, and add the thyme and marjoram. Drizzle with another tablespoon or so of good olive oil, and toss everything gently, trying not to break up the potatoes. Serve right away, or at least soon.

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Still Life with Cherries and Peaches, by Paul Cezanne.

Recipe below: Cherry Torta with Lemon Verbena

Cherries are amazing—in form, in taste, in color. After decades of just eating cherries straight, I realized that I hardly ever cooked with them. Why? Because they usually need to be pitted. Not having come from a baking family, I never knew cherry pitters existed until I started cooking professionally. Even then I never used one. And I never bought one to try. Why? Because I never believed it would work. But it does work. It’s like a miracle. It pops the pit right out without mutilating the fruit. Incredible.

So now I’ve finally got a cherry pitter, and the first thing I made is a clafoutis. I know traditionally you’re supposed to keep the pits in for clafoutis, but that always seemed stupid to me, so over the years I made the custardy thing with everything but cherries, even once with olives, which, perversely, I did pit, but I did that by hand, easy compared with pitting cherries by hand. But, boy, a pitted cherry clafoutis is really good.

And then a few days ago I moved on to a pitted cherry torta. The style of this tart and its technique I learned about many years ago from a recipe in one of Patricia Wells’s Provence books.  I was drawn to it chiefly because the dough was a pat-in-the-pan cookie type. No rolling, no chilling. Her recipe, I believe, called for apricots. I’ve made so many improvisations on it in the last decade that I can no longer remember what the true, first version was, but this rendition has morphed into my standard.  You can do it with other types of fruit, but pitting the cherries is more than half the fun.

Note: Lemon verbena leaves can be a bit tough, so if I’m not planning to strain them out of the sauce, I mince them, as I did here.

Cherry Torta with Lemon Verbena

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

For the cherries:

2 pints sweet cherries
1 tablespoon sugar
A splash of limoncello

For the crust:

8 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon limoncello
1 teaspoon vanilla
A pinch of salt
1½ cups regular flour
A handful of blanched almonds, finely ground

For the cream:

¾ cup crème fraîche, at room temperature
1 extra large egg
1 tablespoon limoncello
½ teaspoon vanilla
The grated zest from 1 small lemon
6 or 7 lemon verbena leaves, minced
3 tablespoons powdered sugar, plus more for garnish
1 tablespoon of regular flour

Pit the cherries with a cherry pitter (see how tidy it is?). Stick them in a colander sitting over a bowl, sprinkle them with about a tablespoon of sugar and a splash of limoncello, and let them sit for about an hour so they can let off excess juice (save the juice to add to a vodka and soda, a little bonus for the cook).

Melt the butter in a small sauce pan, and then let it cool.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Pour the butter into a medium-size bowl. Use your fingers to wipe the remaining butter out of the pan, and grease your tart pan with it.

Add the rest of the crust ingredients to the bowl, except for the almonds, and mix them together until you have a moist crumbly mass. If it seems dry, add a few more drops of limoncello. Press the mass into the tart pan. It should make a quite thin crust. Stick the tart pan in the oven for about 15 minutes, just to set the crust a bit. It should get a little puffy and lightly golden at the edges. Sprinkle the almonds evenly inside the crust.

Put all the ingredients for the cream in a food processor, and pulse a few times until they’re well blended.

Arrange the cherries in the tart pan in one layer. If any don’t fit, eat them. Starting in the middle of the tart, slowly pour the cream over the cherries, taking care not to pour any over the edge of the crust (if by chance it looks like you have too much, just hold some back).

Bake until the crust is lightly browned and the cream has set, about 35 to 40 minutes.

Let the tart cool, and then sprinkle it with powdered sugar.

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French Breakfast Radishes, by Felicity House.

Recipe below: Radish and Cucumber Salad with Burnet and Anchovy Vinaigrette

I feel I achieve a small hit of magic when I combine a few raw seasonal ingredients into a successful plate of food. To me cucumbers and radishes have always seemed right together. They’re both a little bitter and burpy. But I made some little cucumber and radish combinations and thought, something is missing here. It turned out they reminded me of the puntarella salads I’ve eaten many times in Rome, always with anchovies. So I added anchovies. I wasn’t sorry.

I had something else in mind for this dish, too. When I first started my herb garden up here in Rhinebeck four springs ago, I had never heard of salad burnet, but when I was choosing starter plants, I noticed a strange looking thingy where I bought herbs, a plant that grew in a star pattern flat across the ground. I had to get it. I didn’t realize salad burnet tasted like cucumber until I got it home. I’m so glad the plant found me. It comes back bigger and weirder every spring. It’s wonderful added to green salads, but also scattered over grilled fish at the last minute. It also makes a fantastic compound butter, which is great on fish or melted over vegetable kebabs. Burnet is nice with summer tomatoes, too. It doesn’t love being cooked to death; it wants to be raw, so I always add it to a hot dish at the last minute. And here’s a bonus: It makes the best flavored vinegar I’ve ever had, up there even with tarragon. I make a bottle every spring, usually with rice wine vinegar as the base, but good white wine or champagne vinegar works fine, too. I just shove a palmful of burnet sprigs into a bottle of vinegar and let it sit for about a week or so. Simple but excellent as can be. I used it here to double boost the dish’s cucumber flavor. All good hot weather magic.

Radish and Cucumber Salad with Burnet and Anchovy Vinaigrette

(Serves 4)

6 or 7 spring radishes (I used the long French breakfast variety), cut into thin rounds
2 English cucumbers, stripe-peeled and cut into thin rounds
1 spring onion, cut into thin rounds, using all the tender green part
4 or 5 oil-packed anchovy fillets, well minced
2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar (or burnet vinegar if you can make it)
Extra-virgin olive oil
Black pepper
A handful of tender salad burnet sprigs

Lay the radish slices and the cucumber slices out on separate paper towels. Sprinkle them lightly with salt, and let them sit for about 10 minutes to sweat out some moisture. Pat them down to blot off moisture. Then lay them out on a platter in a nice looking pattern, any that appeals to you. Scatter on the onion.

Put the minced anchovy in a small bowl, and add the vinegar, giving it a good stir. The anchovies will start to dissolve a little. Add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and stir it around. Taste. You might need more vinegar, and, depending on your anchovies, you could need a pinch of salt.

Drizzle the anchovy dressing over the salad, and then grind on some fresh black pepper. Arrange the burnet sprigs on top. Serve right away.

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Women with Fish

What I really want isn’t fish.

It’s bread.

When I wake up what I always want

Isn’t fish.

It’s bread.

As the day goes by I think of

All the forms bread can take.

And what I really want is a baguette.

More than anything.

This fish is a beauty.

But it isn’t bread.

If I pray hard enough,

I’m hoping,

I can transform this fish into bread.

What I really want,

More than anything,

Is a baguette.

Bring to me a baguette,

And I’ll bring to you always

My lasting peace.

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Asparagus, Steel, Rubber, by Jonathan Pocock.

Recipe below: Asparagus Soup with Dill and Ramps

Every spring I look forward to making smooth soups with whatever excellent green stuff shows up at the market. The other day I found asparagus, ramps, and dill, so I had a general idea what the result was going to be. The initially gave me pause, being an herb I don’t use much and definitely not a flavor from my Southern Italian childhood. But I like it from time to time, especially in a Greek spinach pie. It seems to work well with uniquely assertive green vegetables such as asparagus, and it also can act, as in this case, as a leveler to the garlicky oniony flavor of ramps.

I love just about all puréed green soups, hot or cold, but a depressing problem can arise with them. They often go olive green, or even gray. Sometimes it helps to preblanch and then cold shock the vegetables before you start in with the actual soup cooking. I’ve tried that with asparagus, but the bright color didn’t hold once the vegetable went tender. What I did do here was blanch the dill and the leafy ramp tops, locking in their color and adding them toward the end. That worked somewhat.

I didn’t add any cream to this soup. Instead I finished it off with a drizzle of good olive oil. I really like the flavor blend here. I ate it both hot and, the next day, cold. It was good both ways. If you can’t find ramps, try getting your hands on a few young spring scallions, and use the entire things. I’d say two or three would be about right for this.

Asparagus Soup with Dill and Ramps

(Serves 4)

6 or 7 ramps
About 6 big dill sprigs, plus a handful of sprigs for garnish
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 celery stalk, chopped, plus the leaves
1 baking potato, peeled and cut into cubes
A big bunch of local asparagus (about 1½ pounds), trimmed of its tough ends
¼ teaspoon fennel pollen
A few scrapings of fresh nutmeg
¼ cup dry vermouth
2 cups light chicken broth or vegetable broth
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Freshly ground black pepper
A few drops of rice wine vinegar

The first thing you’ll want to do is separate the white ramp bulbs from the leafy ramp tops. Slice the bulbs, and give the leaves a rough chop.

Set up a medium pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Add a little salt. Throw in the ramp tops and the dill (not the sprigs, to be used for garnish), and blanch for 30 seconds. Drain into a colander, and then run cold water over everything to set the color.

In a good-size soup pot, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the ramp bulbs, the celery and its leaves, the potato, and the asparagus. Season with salt, the fennel pollen, and the nutmeg, and sauté until everything is well coated with oil and fragrant, about 4 minutes. Add the vermouth, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Add the chicken or vegetable broth and enough water to just cover the vegetables. Let cook, uncovered, at a low boil for about 5 minutes. Now add the blanched ramp tops and dill, and continue cooking until it’s all just tender, probably about another 8 minutes, adding additional water if needed. Turn off the heat, and let sit for about 10 minutes so all the flavors can blend.

Purée the soup in a food processor, and then return it to a clean pot. Add the butter, and season with black pepper and a little more salt, if needed. Taste to see if you might need a few drops of rice wine vinegar to bring up all the flavors (I did). Add additional water if needed to get a consistency you like. I like my greens soups a bit loose.

You can now reheat the soup and serve it hot, each bowl drizzled with good olive oil and finished with a scattering of fresh dill, or you can chill it and serve it cold. Both will be good.

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