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moroccan spice market.jpg

Recipe below: Braised Calamari with Sweet Spices

I’ve long had a fascination with Moroccan cooking, starting in the late seventies, when I first read Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, by the brilliant Paula Wolfert. I cooked my way through that book (my first bisteya, what a sloppy mess that was), and many of the dishes embedded themselves in my brain for further consideration. I’ve since often used aspects of Moroccan cuisine as inspiration for improvising with my Southern Italian cooking. Many of its spices and ingredients turn up naturally in Sicilian food, with the island’s legacy of Arab rule, so including Moroccan touches in, say, an eggplant parmigiano can be seamless, if I do it right.

My grandfather Errico, who died in his mid-forties, I unfortunately didn’t know, but he is supposed to have been a great cook and a professional pastry chef for a while (he evidently made beautifully decorated cassate). My mother said he often added cinnamon and bay leaf to his tomato sauces, and cinnamon instead of nutmeg to the filling of his Christmas Eve ravioli. I now do that. When I first had couscous in Trapani, a fish couscous, which is more common there than Morocco’s chicken or lamb ones, bay leaf and cinnamon were the spices. Other times I’ve noticed saffron. For this calamari dish I’ve gone with cinnamon, ginger, saffron, and thyme. The flavors easily meld together, blending smoothly with the sweet squid broth. I really like the way it came out.

A note about preparing saffron:

Saffron should be a nice pile of bright red, slightly moist threads when you buy it. If it’s already brittle and dark, it’s too old. To make sure you get the biggest bang for your buck, you’ll want to grind it to something like a powder. If you put moist saffron threads into a stew or braise, they won’t open up completely. They really need to be pulverized. You can’t easily grind moist saffron, so what I always do is put a small pan over medium heat and get it hot. Then I turn off the heat and add my saffron threads, just the ones I’m immediately using. I let them sit in the residual heat until they’ve stiffened up a bit, probably only a minute or so. Once they’ve lost some moisture, I find them easy to grind in a mortar and pestle. Then I can soak the ground saffron in a little warm water, to release its full fragrance.


Braised Calamari with Sweet Spices

(Serves 4)

2 pounds smallish calamari, cleaned and cut into rings, the tentacles cut in half (if you can only find really large squid, make this dish another time)
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
A big pinch of sugar
Black pepper
Aleppo pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 shallots, diced
1 carrot, diced
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
½ cup dry Marsala
1 28-ounce can plum tomatoes, drained and well chopped
¾ cup chicken broth
A good pinch of saffron threads, dried, ground, and soaked in a little warm water (see note above)
7 or 8 large thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
1 cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon runny honey
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
A handful of basil leaves, lightly chopped
A palmful of blanched almonds, toasted and lightly chopped

Dry off the calamari well, and put it in a bowl. Sprinkle on half of both the cinnamon and the ginger. Add the sugar, some salt, black pepper, and a little Aleppo, and toss well.

Get out a wide, low-sided casserole or sauté pan fitted with a lid. Drizzle in a little olive oil, and when it’s hot, sauté the shallot over medium heat until it just starts to soften, about 3 minutes or so. Turn the heat up a notch, and add the calamari, spreading it out in the pan. Sprinkle the garlic on top, and sauté until the calamari turns opaque, about a minute or so. Add the Marsala, and let it bubble for about 30 seconds.

Add the tomatoes, chicken broth, saffron water, thyme, and cinnamon stick. Bring everything to a boil ,and then turn the heat to low, cover the pan, and simmer until the calamari is tender, about 45 minutes.

Uncover the pan, and add the honey and the butter. Taste for season, adding more salt, black pepper, or Aleppo pepper, if you think it needs it.

Right before serving, scatter on the almonds and basil.

I like to serve this with couscous or rice. I made the bigger Israeli-style couscous for it, flavoring it with a little butter and cinnamon.




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Woman with a Fish


And a man with a loaf.

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Still Life with Mushrooms, by Nicholas Vasilieff.

Recipe below: Gemelli with Pork Sausage and Mushroom Ragù

This is about as Southern Italian–tasting as a pasta gets. Yet it’s not a recognizable classic. It’s a hybrid. I don’t remember my mother making it exactly, or being served it in a trattoria in Benevento. It’s just a dish that makes sense, falls into place, cleans out the refrigerator after the holidays. One thing about being Italian American and a good cook is that you can create Southern Italian dishes and usually have them come out somewhat right tasting. Although I’ve certainly had my fuckups, like when I tried something like this using green grapes in place of the mushrooms (a take on sausages simmered with grapes, a Central Italian classic). What a mess that was. I may rethink it at some point and try it again, though, maybe in a risotto.


Still Life with Sausage and a Sea View, by Lilliana Spik.

You can use whatever mushrooms you like or can get, a mix of them if you want. And a fine-quality Italian sweet sausage works best, I find, although I’ve made similar things with merguez or andouille. The good thing about Italian pork sausage is its fat, which melts and adds flavor and mouth feel. So first try that, fresh and raw, with or without fennel seeds, it doesn’t matter.

This is a really satisfying pasta, simple and familiar even if you’ve never made anything like it before. Open a bottle of sangiovese, and eat a lot. You’ll feel good and warm.

Happy New Year.


Gemelli with Pork Sausage and Mushroom Ragù

(Serves 4)

Extra-virgin olive oil
A palmful of pancetta, cut into little cubes
1 large shallot, cut into small dice
1 celery stalk, plus the leaves from a few stalks, cut into small dice, the leaves lightly chopped
1 carrot, cut into small dice
3 Italian pork sausages, skinned and crumbled
A big pinch of sugar
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
5 large thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
1 long rosemary sprig, the leaves chopped
1 fresh bay leaf
2 big handfuls of mixed mushrooms, cut into medium dice
Black pepper
A big splash of dry Marsala (about ¼ cup)
1 28-ounce can plum tomatoes, chopped
¾ cup chicken broth
A few drops of sherry wine vinegar
1 pound gemelli
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
A palmful of flat leaf parsley leaves, lightly chopped
A big chunk of pecorino Sarde or Toscana cheese

Get out a large, wide, low-sided sauté pan fitted with a lid. Drizzle in a little olive oil over medium heat. When that’s hot, add the pancetta, and let it start to brown. Add the shallot, celery and leaves, carrot, and sausage. Sprinkle on the sugar and nutmeg, and sauté everything until the sausage is lightly browned, about 5 or 6 minutes. Now add the mushrooms and all the herbs. Season with salt and black pepper, and continue cooking until the mushrooms start to soften, about another 4 minutes. Add the Marsala, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Add the tomatoes and the chicken broth, bring to a boil, and then turn the heat to low and simmer, partially covered, for ½ hour. By then the flavors will have melded, but the taste will still be fresh and not too cooked down (this is a quick ragù, not one of those 3-hour types).

Turn off the heat, let the sauce rest, and boil your pasta water. You’ll be better able to judge the sauce’s flavor after it cools down a bit.

Cook the gemelli al dente, and then drain it, saving about ½ cup or so of the cooking water.

Pour the pasta into a big warmed serving bowl. Add the butter and the parsley, and give it a stir.

Taste the sauce, adding a few drops of the vinegar and more salt or pepper if needed. Pour it onto the pasta, and toss again, adding a bit of the pasta cooking water if needed.

Serve hot, bringing the chunk of pecorino to the table for grating.



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Nativity accessory, salt cod stall 20x22x44cm 2

A salt cod stall you can buy online for your nativity scene.

Recipe below: Baccalà with Potatoes, Black Olives, and Marsala

I love salt cod. It’s unique—not quite fish as we know it, but not quite not fish. Salty, solid, and extra special because I cook it only on Christmas Eve. The soaking starts a few days before, and that’s half the fun. The water gets cloudy as the cod rids itself of excess salt. Then you run through some clean water and start all over again. Sometimes after I finish soaking a big slab of it, I take a bite, raw, for that dense texture and almost indescribable flavor, like fish-scented incense, if anyone would ever invent such a thing. And after a gentle simmering, salt cod becomes slippery. The stuff is good on many levels.

For many Christmas Eves I’ve made baccalà mantecato, a whipped purée popular at Venetian wine bars and also known in southern France as brandade. It’s excellent loaded with good olive oil, garlic, and a bit of potato to fluff it out. I also add thyme and lemon zest. I love it spread on crostini, along with a bowl of black olives and a glass of Vernaccia or whatnot. But the sad fact is, almost no one I know likes it as much as I do, except for my husband’s mother, and she’s no longer alive. Kind of takes the drive out of the preparation. So I’ve scrapped it this year.

Instead I’m doing a more traditional Neapolitan baccalà dish, a stew of sorts. I’ve had it many ways, sometimes with lots of onion and no tomato, others with tomato, olives, capers, pine nuts. Sometimes with potato. I like that, so I went with the potato and the olives and lots of wintry herbs like thyme and rosemary. Also, adding Marsala gave it depth. Marsala is a good thing. But the main key to success, I think, is to flour and sauté the cod chunks separately, not just drop them nude into the sauce. That creates texture and a richer taste. It also thickens the sauce a bit.

Merry Christmas to all my salt cod–loving friends.


Baccala with Potatoes, Black Olives, and Marsala

(Serves 4)

2 pounds center-cut salt cod
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, diced
1 celery stalk, diced, plus the leaves, chopped
3 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into large dice
1 garlic clove, sliced
1 fresh bay leaf
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
A few large thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
A few large rosemary sprigs, the leaves chopped
½ cup dry Marsala
1 28-ounce can plum tomatoes, chopped
½ cup chicken broth, light fish broth, or vegetable broth
Black pepper
½ cup regular flour
A big pinch of piment d’Espelette
A big palmful of good black olives, such as Niçoise or, for a stronger flavor, the wrinkled Moroccan type
Salt, if needed
A few big sprigs of flat-leaf parsley, the leaves lightly chopped

First thing, you’ll need to soak the salt cod in a bowl of cold water for at least 2 days, changing the water often to rinse off the salt. At night I put the bowl in the refrigerator. After 2 days of soaking, taste a little piece. If it still seems too salty, soak it for at least another half day.

When the cod is sufficiently desalted, take it out, and pat it dry. Check for bones and skin, removing that stuff, and cut it into large chunks.

Now start the sauce. Put a wide, low-sided pan over medium heat, and drizzle in a tablespoon or so of olive oil. Add the onion and the celery plus leaves, and sauté for a minute or so, just to soften them. Add the potatoes, garlic, bay leaf, nutmeg, thyme, and rosemary. Sauté a minute or so longer, to release all their flavors.

Add the Marsala, and let it bubble out for a few seconds. Add the tomatoes and the broth, and simmer, partially covered, until the potatoes are just tender, about 7 or 8 minutes. Turn off the heat, and add the olives and a few big grinds of black pepper.

Put the flour on a plate, and season it with the espelette and the black pepper. Dredge the salt cod pieces in the flour.

In a wide sauté pan, heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil. When hot, add the cod pieces, and brown them quickly on both sides.

Transfer the browned cod to the pan with the tomato sauce, nestling them in. Turn the heat to medium low, and simmer for about 5 minutes, just until the fish is tender. Add a little more broth if you need to to loosen the sauce. Now taste the sauce for salt. Depending on how salty your fish is, you might not need any. So address that, and then drizzle with a little fresh olive oil and add a few more grinds of black pepper. Garnish with the parsley. Serve hot.

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Recipe below: Amaretto Cake for Christmas Morning

Christmas Eve was always a big deal when I was a kid. Shelling shrimp, steaming clams, looking for Scotch tape, hunting down oversized platters, chipping wax off candlesticks, sweeping up all the bulbs the cats destroyed, waiting for relatives and orphans to arrive. Sammy Davis, Jerry Vale, Ronnie Spector on the turntable. Ring a ding party. A glamorous evening. Christmas day was, in comparison, a bit of a drag. I can hardly even remember our meal that day. I think it wasn’t much of anything. We were cooked out, the place still smelling of baccala and cigarettes. I don’t know if I’m just getting stupid in my old age, but I really can’t recall if there was a ham or if we sent out for Chinese food. That seems unlikely for an Italian family, but my memory is weird here. In the morning there was panettone with butter, and espresso, that I know for a fact. Aside from that, I’ll have to ask my sister.

The big event for me now is still Christmas Eve. Christmas day I usually look for a place that’s open and go have an early dinner out, hamburgers or whatever. But Christmas morning is reserved for panettone. I love the panettone ritual very much. This year I decided to augment it with something of my own, something with a similar Christmasy scent. I zeroed in on Amaretto, a sticky little drink that always came out at the end at the Christmas Eve dinners of my childhood, along with Galliano and Strega, all kind of crazy tasting. An unusual culture created such peculiar beverages.

As a starting point I used the basic olive oil yogurt cake recipe I’ve been making for years. Very vanilla, lightly sweet. Delicious. I almonded it up with chopped almonds replacing some of the flour and a shot of Amaretto itself.

The aroma of this cake, when baking, and the taste of it, with the mingling of Amaretto and vanilla, reminds me of angel food, specifically the commercial angel food I adored as a kid. It’s good with espresso, absolutely, but I’m thinking it might even be better with a glass of Christmas morning prosecco. That seems about perfect.

Merry Christmas to all my Italian foodloving friends.


Amaretto Cake for Christmas Morning

1¾ cups regular flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
A big pinch of salt
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 large eggs
1 cup whole milk yogurt
1 cup sugar
½ cup fruity olive oil
2 tablespoons Amaretto
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
⅛ teaspoon almond extract
½ cup blanched almonds, preferably Sicilian, lightly toasted and then cut into a small chop

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a 9-inch loaf pan.

Put the flour in a bowl. Add the baking powder, salt, and nutmeg, and give everything a good mix.

In another bowl, break the eggs and add the yogurt and sugar, mixing well.

In a small bowl, combine the Amaretto, the vanilla, and the olive oil, and give it a stir.

Add the flour mix to the egg mix, and stir everything together. Pour in the olive oil mix and the almonds, and stir.

Pour the resulting batter into the loaf pan. Bake until puffed and browned and firm to the touch, about 45 to 50 minutes. Let sit for at least an hour before slicing.

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Still Life with Fennel, by Gilly Reeves-Hardcastle.

Recipe below: Portale’s Roasted Fennel Salad with Blood Orange and Black Rice

Flavors from Italian American holiday celebrations past lie embedded in my brain, starting at Thanksgiving and working through to New Year’s. Fennel stands out. That memory starts with the foreign and inappropriate-seeming (at the time) plate of raw fennel my grandmother trotted out between the Thanksgiving turkey and pecan pie (I later learned that raw fennel is a Puglian palate cleanser), as well as the orange and fennel salad that was always part of my childhood Christmas Eve. My birthday falls in between those holidays, and this year fennel played a part in that, too. For my birthday dinner I wanted to try Alfred Portale’s just-opened Italian restaurant called, of all things, Portale. I’ve long been a fan of the chef who opened Gotham. It has been a place for anniversaries and other special occasions for all of its 35 years (my parents took me there to celebrate the publishing of Pasta Improvvisata, my first cookbook). I respected him for sticking to his 12th Street location and not branching out to Tokyo or Las Vegas (although he did briefly have a steakhouse in Miami). You’d almost always see him at Gotham. A little guy, nervous, shiny bald, trim and fit, handsome.

He has now opened his first Italian place, which he has evidently wanted to do for a long time. I’m not going to review the restaurant here—the food was almost excellent (I did have a little problem with the short rib carpaccio concept)—but I did want to mention the fennel and orange salad I ordered, one of my all-time favorite things to eat around the holidays.

He used a mix of roasted and raw fennel, a new approach for me. I’ve only done raw. Also, the addition of black rice was interesting. It added color and texture and heft. For my home version I thought of replacing it with Israeli couscous or wheat berries, but then figured, just this once go against your nature and make it as the chef intended. So I did. It was delicious. Not exactly the same as Portale’s, but considering that I didn’t really know how that had been constructed, it was pretty close.

The rice Chef Portale uses for this salad is venere vero, a black variety from the Lombardy and Piedmont regions. Look for it online or at Italian specialty shops. It takes a little longer to cook than regular white rice, but you cook it the same way.


Portale’s Roasted Fennel Salad with Blood Orange and Black Rice

(Serves 4)

3 large fennel bulbs, trimmed, 2 cut widthwise into ¼-inch-thick slices, 1 very thinly sliced with a sharp knife or a mandolin; also save and lightly chop a handful of the fronds
Extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt
Coarse ground black pepper
1 cup cooked venere nero black rice
½ cup golden raisins, plumped in a little warm water if hard
1½ tablespoons sherry wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
A big pinch of sugar
1 big head frisée or chicory, torn into bite-size pieces
1 small shallot, thinly sliced
4 blood oranges, peeled and sliced into rounds
A big handful of shelled unsalted pistachios, preferably Sicilian

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the thickly sliced fennel on a sheet pan, drizzle it with olive oil, and season it with salt and black pepper. Roast until tender but still firm and lightly browned, 15 minutes or so.

Mix the black rice with the raisins and the fennel fronds, and season with salt and black pepper.

Set out four salad plates. Make a circular pattern alternating slices of orange with slices of roasted fennel along the edges of each plate.

In a small bowl combine the frisée, the raw fennel, and the shallot.

Whisk together the vinegar and the mustard and sugar. Whisk in 3 tablespoons of olive oil, and season with salt and black pepper. Taste for a good balance of acid, sweet, and mellow, and adjust if necessary.

Pour half of the vinaigrette over the rice and the rest onto the frisée. Toss both.

Portion the rice into the middle of each salad plate, spreading it around in a thin layer. Top each one with some frisée mix. Scatter on the pistachios. Serve. Or you can present it family style on one big platter, as I did. See photo.

Note: At the restaurant the rice and the roasted fennel were still slightly warm. That’s how I served it at home, too.

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Still Life, Carrots, by Plamen Petkov.

Recipe below: Roasted Carrots with Almonds, Basil, and Fig Vinaigrette

I’ve lived through many vegetable trends, with bean sprouts, micro greens, arugula, radicchio, sundried tomatoes, kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts. But the new carrot thing caught me off guard. It seems that now anything you can successfully roast, like most root vegetables, must have its day. Who knows, maybe parsnips will be next.  I love parsnips. Carrots, not so much, unless I really tinker with them.

I’ve always known that carrots respond well to sweet, but lately I like sweet and sour, agro dolce, even better. Balsamic vinegar, or pomegranate molasses, sweet and sour in one pour, are both wonderful with carrots. So is the time-honored combo of vinegar and honey, like I use for caponata and other agro dolce Italian dishes.

I was planning to make a sweet-sour roasted carrot dish for Thanksgiving, not sure how exactly, but certainly leaving them long, and leaving a portion of their tops on, as is now trending, but I sensed that my host needed something gloppier for the table, so I instead prepared a cauliflower gratin with tons of Gruyère. The carrot urge stayed in my head, so last night I grabbed a jar of fig jam from my fridge (fig jam is great with ricotta topped crostini, by the way), and used that as the starting point for this recipe. I wanted to keep it a bit Sicilian in flavor, so the almonds and basil fell right into place. It came out really nice, and I was happy in my culinary head. I served the carrots with roast chicken and lentils, a pretty good dinner all around. Check out this dish. See what you think.


Roasted Carrots with Almonds, Basil, and Fig Vinaigrette

(Serves 6)

2 bunches of farmers’ market carrots, multicolored if you like, halved lengthwise if thick, left whole if skinny, all but a short part of the green tops trimmed
Extra-virgin olive oil
A few big gratings of nutmeg
Black pepper
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons fig jam
3 scallions, cut into short pieces, including the tender green part
A big handful of whole, blanched almonds, lightly toasted and then roughly chopped
A handful of basil leaves, cut into chiffonade

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Lay the carrots out on a sheet pan. Drizzle them with olive oil, season them with salt, nutmeg, and black pepper, and toss them around with your fingers to distribute all the seasoning. Stick them in the oven, and roast them until they’re lightly browned and tender, about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on how thick they are.

While the carrots are roasting, whisk the vinegar and mustard together in a little bowl. Whisk in the fig jam and then about a 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Season with salt and black pepper. It’ll be a bit thick.

When the carrots are tender, pull them from the oven, scatter on the scallions, and drizzle on about half the vinaigrette. Let the carrots sit on the sheet pan for a moment to let the flavors warm and blend. Then lay them out on a platter. Drizzle them with the remaining vinaigrette, top them with the almonds, and garnish them with basil. Serve hot or warm.


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