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Woman with Fish

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I’m a strong woman with a righteous fish hat.

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Still Life with Chicken, by bijijoo.

Recipe below: Chicken Liver Crostini with Watercress and Radish Salad

Roman Polanski seems to have a deep interest in watching blonde women eat raw meat. In his film Repulsion, you see Catherine Deneuve gnaw on a bloody steak and also tote a raw, skinned rabbit around in her purse. Then in Rosemary’s Baby, you watch Mia Farrow devour raw calf’s liver in a satanic fit. I first saw both of those films when I was a teenager. You’d think watching that carnage would have disgusted me, but not so fast. As a budding cook, I was fascinated by the idea of someone eating raw liver. It’s smooth, shiny, and springy to the touch, so different from, say, hamburger meat. It must, I thought, be something special.

Maybe not surprisingly, I turned out to be a liver lover, especially chicken liver. I do, however, prefer it cooked, though, yes, I have tried raw chicken livers. Their taste isn’t bad, but their mouth feel is troublesome. The thing with liver is that you don’t want it raw, but you don’t want it hammered either. People who are grossed out by liver, in my opinion, have eaten it overcooked, when it’s tough, depressingly gray, and irony. Cooked right—quickly and left pink within—it’s creamy and has an intriguing mineral undertaste.

Some of my favorite pastas have included chicken livers, either with tomato, in the Mezzogiorno fashion, or with a white sauce, created with the mingling of a soffrito, some booze, and a little chicken broth. Here’s my recipe for the latter. Another favorite preparation, one that’s quick and elegant, is to caramelize chicken livers over high heat, leaving them pink at the center, splash on some cognac, and then toss them into a salad of bitter greens. That gives you a beautiful marriage of flavors, just about the best thing I’ve found to ease myself out of a hangover, especially when taken with a glass of light, dry wine such as a frascati. If you’d like to try it, here’s my recipe.

 

At the moment my favorite way with chicken livers is in a pâté. The classic Tuscan version usually contains capers, a touch of anchovy, and fresh sage. I’ve been making it that way for years. But lately I’ve wanted to change it up, toward a more French style built on butter, brandy, and gentle seasoning. Unlike most classic pâtés, which can take half a day to prepare, the chicken liver types come together in only about twenty minutes. This one is very smooth, with hints of thyme and sweet spices. In this recipe, I serve the pâté with a salad, but if you prefer, just send it out in a ramekin, along with crackers or toast points (remember those?).

Chicken Liver Crostini with Watercress and Radish Salad

(Serves 4 as a first course)

For the pâté:

¾ stick unsalted butter, softened
About ¾ pound chicken livers, trimmed and cut into approximately 1-inch pieces
1 shallot, minced
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
¼ teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
1 fresh bay leaf
4 large sprigs thyme, the leaves lightly chopped, plus the leaves from a few more sprigs for garnish
Salt
A tablespoon of cognac, calvados, or brandy
Black pepper

Plus:

1 baguette, cut into thin rounds on an angle

For the salad:

2 bunches watercress, stemmed
5 gentle spring radishes, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon Spanish sherry vinegar
Salt

In a medium sauté pan, heat a tablespoon of butter over medium heat. Add the chicken livers, shallot, garlic, allspice, nutmeg, bay leaf, and thyme. Season with salt, and sauté over medium flame until the livers are cooked through but have a bit of pink left in the middle. You’re not going for browning here. You just want them tender. This should take about 4 minutes.

Add the cognac, and let it bubble for a few seconds (be careful, as it can flame up). Take the pan off the heat, and let the livers cool down for a few minutes. You should have a tiny bit of liquid in the pan. If not, add a splash of warm water.

Remove the bay leaf, and add the livers and any cooking liquid to a food processor. Pulse until roughly puréed.

Add the softened butter and a few grindings of black pepper. Purée until everything is blended and smooth. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt if needed.

Spoon the pâté into a ramekin or a shallow ceramic bowl. Refrigerate for several hours before serving. This will help it firm up and develop flavor.

To serve, place the watercress and the sliced radish in a salad bowl. Pour on the olive oil, and sprinkle on the vinegar. Season with a little salt and toss. Toast the bread rounds (three per serving), and spread a thick layer of pâté on each one. Divide the salad onto 4 plates and surround each serving with three crostini. Garnish the crostini with thyme leaves.

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Italian Vegetable Garden, by Simona Cristofari.

Recipe below: Peppers and Eggs

Arriving home on Long Island at 4 a.m. or so from another night of Manhattan club-hopping, exhausted and starving as only a teenager can be, I’d sometimes wander out to my father’s little backyard garden to grab a tomato or a pepper, or parsley, or anything that would help me turn out a fast dish of eggs or a sandwich. Occasionally I’d run into my father back there, in the semi-dark, wearing a bathrobe or pajama bottoms, the orange coal of his Winston glowing. He’d be weeding, picking dead leaves, evaluating the growth of his eggplants, the zucchini, pinching back his now huge basil plants. At first I was startled to see him there at such an odd hour, but soon it became unsurprising. It was just what he did. We’d chat briefly about my evening, about the group of rotating gay boys I went out with, which always made him shake his head and laugh.

My hunger made me not want to linger in the damp garden. I’d be thinking that the peppers looked very much ready for picking. “I’m going in to make peppers and eggs,” I’d say. “Do you want some?” The light would be just starting to come up, bringing his bushy herb plot into focus. The Italian parsley was so big its leaves drooped to the ground. He’d look over at his tangle of plants, some held up by broken pool cues, and grab two half-red Italian frying peppers, a handful of basil, and a few sprigs of oregano. “I’ll make the eggs,” he’d say. He liked cooking eggs.

At the kitchen table I’d pour us diet root beer and run a wet paper towel over my face in an effort to remove what remained of the evening’s ridiculous makeup job. I was still wearing the turquoise-colored, Pucci-inspired muumuu I had found in the depths of my mother’s closet. It now smelled of dried sweat and amyl nitrite.

He cooked the eggs quickly, adding garlic and salt. I found a hunk of semi-stale Arthur Avenue bread and put it on the table. I was so hungry I could hardly stand it. The mingling aromas of torn basil and peppers smelled so good. My father tilted the pan, scraping and folding until the eggs were firm. It wasn’t an omelet, and it wasn’t scrambled eggs. It was something in between. We just called it peppers and eggs. An Italian-American classic. It was one of the best meals of my young life.

Here’s how I like to make it:

Peppers and Eggs

For two servings, you’ll need an Italian frying pepper, preferably one that has passed through its pure green phase and is starting to show some red. Seed and slice it. Chop up a scallion, including most of the tender green part. Clean a handful of basil leaves, and then give them a rough chop. Pull the leaves off a large oregano sprig, leaving them whole. Whisk six eggs in a small bowl.

Get a sauté pan hot over medium heat. Add a tablespoon or so of good olive oil, swirling it around to coat the pan. Now add the pepper slices, and sauté them until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the scallion, and let it soften for a minute longer.

Add the eggs, letting them sit for about 30 seconds. Scatter on the herbs, and season with salt and black pepper. Now, using a flexible, heatproof spatula, start pulling the eggs in from the edges toward the center, letting the uncooked parts run into the pan bottom. You don’t want to do a scrambling motion; you want long strokes, so you get more of a lumpy omelet effect. Keep pulling back on the eggs until they’re just set but have not browned at all. You’re not going for runny French eggs here, but you also don’t want them dry.

Cut the eggs in half, and slide them onto two plates. This is best served with good Italian bread and either an espresso, a glass of white wine, or a diet root beer, depending.

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Still Life with Squid, by Lucian Freud (not particularly springlike, but this is the best painting of squid I’ve ever seen).


Recipe below: Braised Calamari with Peas, Potatoes, and Spring Herbs

Calamari with spring peas is a suave combination. Both ingredients, when impeccably fresh, are sweet, and their mingling sweetnesses, one vegetal, one aquatic, blend to produce a unique culinary flavor.  Around May I start thinking of the taste. It’s one of the ways spring enters my chilled soul.

I’ve cooked I don’t know how many pasta variations using these two ingredients. I’ve made a Venetian-inspired calamari and pea risotto with saffron and basil. Just thinking about that aroma drives me a little wild. It’s good in a frittata, too. Grilled squid with a side of peas sautéed with spring onions and prosciutto makes an excellent first-of-the-season BBQ festa (add a bowl of strawberries steeped in cool red wine, and it’s complete).

To my mind, squid with peas speaks of Sicily, but the coupling shows up in Genoa, in Venice, in Puglia, just about anyplace in Italy that’s close to water. In the Mezzogiorno, tomato is often included. I’m not a fan of that; I find that it dilutes the gorgeousness of the union (and tomatoes and peas aren’t in season at the same time anyway). What makes more sense to me is gentle spices with spring herbs. I’ve added nutmeg and star anise, but just a hint of each. If you’ve never tasted that spice pairing, try grinding them together and take a good whiff. It’s transporting (to where I’m not quite sure, but somewhere far from where you are). Tarragon and young basil create a complex anisey flavor, so I included them too. You can substitute chervil for either of those fine herbs. Or combine all three. Garnish the dish with clipped chives if you like. In Sicily, mint is traditional. I love that too, but here I wanted to mix it up a bit. I love being generous with spring herbs.

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Braised Calamari with Peas, Potatoes, and Spring Herbs

(Serves 4)

Extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup well-chopped pancetta
2½ pounds medium-size squid, cleaned and cut into rings, the tentacles left whole (or halved if really large)
A big pinch of sugar
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground star anise
1 large shallot, cut into small dice
Salt
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
A big splash of dry vermouth
1 cup light chicken broth
1 fresh bay leaf
3 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes
Black pepper
2 cups fresh spring peas
1 heaping tablespoon unsalted butter
A handful of tarragon sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped, or chervil sprigs left whole
About a dozen young basil leaves, left whole if small, otherwise cut in half
A sprinkling of clipped chives for garnish (optional)

In a large casserole fitted with a lid, heat about a tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Add the pancetta, and cook it until just starting to crisp. Add the squid, the sugar, the nutmeg and star anise, and the shallot, and sauté a minute or so to coat the squid with oil. Season with a little salt, and add the garlic, letting it soften for about half a minute. Add the vermouth, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Add the chicken broth and the bay leaf, and bring it to a boil. Then lower the heat, cover the pot, and simmer gently for about ½ hour.

Add the potatoes and cook for another 5 minutes.

Next add the peas and simmer, uncovered, until the squid is tender and the potatoes and peas are just cooked through, about 8 minutes longer. It should be a bit brothy. If it’s too tight, add a little chicken broth or water.

Season with black pepper and more salt, if needed. Add the butter and herbs, and stir them in. Top with a sprinkling of chopped chives, if you like. Serve hot with slices of bruschetta brushed with olive oil and a little garlic.

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Still Life with Fish, Bread, and Olives, by Pieter Claesz.

Recipe below: Halibut with an Olivata Crust

Isn’t it wonderful when a loved but somehow forgotten dish comes back into your life? Fish baked with a crusty top was fashionable when I was a kid. My mother often served it to company, because it was easy, looked fancy, and tasted good. She mixed breadcrumbs, dried oregano, sometimes anchovies or capers, and garlic and packed it all down on cod fillets. Occasionally she’d add pine nuts or almonds. The resulting dish was crunchy, oily, and tender, loaded with the flavors of Southern Italy. That covers many culinary must-haves for me.

When did I last cook it? I can’t remember. When you cook as much as I do, certain foods get pushed aside to make room for newer, more exciting creations. But then those old dishes, if they’re good ones, always find their way back into my culinary consciousness, either for an obvious reason, such as seeing them on a menu, or in random thoughts, like in a dream. I often dream about food. Most cooks do.

My reawakening to crust-topped fish came while I was paging through a French-language cookbook at a library sale. I saw a photo of what looked just like my mother’s crunchy fish. I thought, how old-fashioned but how perfect. I could taste it, feel the textures on my tongue. I needed to make it, right away.

The topping for such a dish can vary, but the technique won’t, and you’ll want to get it down. I’ve found that cooking the fish quickly in a hot oven is essential for a crisp top and a moist interior. If your heat is low, you’ll wind up with a flabby topping and steamed-out fish that smells like your college cafeteria. So I give it a blast in a 450-degree oven until it’s just tender, pull it out, and let it sit for about 3 or 4 minutes before serving it. That allows the fish to firm up and heat through to perfection, so you get that tidy little fish package that plates up so nicely.

Halibut with an Olivata Crust

⅓ cup black olives (Gaeta are a good choice), rinsed, patted dry, and pitted
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large shallot, cut into small dice
½ cup breadcrumbs, not too finely ground
6 big sprigs thyme, the leaves chopped, plus the leaves from about 5 or so sprigs for garnish
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
The grated zest from 1 big lemon
Salt
Black pepper
4 pieces halibut, skinned (about 6 ounces each), about ½ or ¾ inch thick
A big splash of brandy or cognac
The leaves from few big sprigs of flat-leaf parsley, left whole

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Pulse the olives with a tablespoon of olive oil in the food processor until finely chopped but not puréed.

In a sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallots, and sauté until soft, about a minute. Add the breadcrumbs, and heat until crisp, another minute or so. Take the pan off the heat, and add the olive mixture, stirring to blend it in. Add the thyme, mustard, and lemon zest. Season with black pepper. Taste to see if it needs salt (if your olives are salty, you might not want to add any salt). The mixture should stick together when pressed between your fingers. If it’s too dry, add a little more olive oil.

Choose a low-sided baking dish that will hold the fish with out crowding. Drizzle the bottom with olive oil, and lay the halibut in the dish, leaving a little space between the pieces. Press an approximately ¼-inch-thick layer of the breadcrumb mix on the top of each piece of fish. Give everything another drizzle of olive oil, and drizzle the brandy over the fish.

Bake until the fish is just cooked through and its top is crispy, about 5 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish. Take the fish from the oven, and let sit for about 3 minutes, so it can firm up a bit. Plate, garnishing with the reserved thyme and parsley leaves. I like this served with asparagus vinaigrette or a watercress side salad.

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I went searching for a good pasta con le sarde and discovered that there are only a handful of Sicilian restaurants in Manhattan. Most of them are only marginally Sicilian, and more pan–Southern Italian. I mentioned this lack in a recent post, and a reader wrote to ask if I had ever been to Gastronomia Norma. No. I had never even heard of it. He thought it was very good and said I should check it out. Well, it turned out to be a few blocks from my mother’s apartment, so I got to the lovely little place quickly, and I’d like to tell you about it.

On first take the restaurant looks like a slightly fancy pizza joint, but as I settled in and gazed around I noticed gorgeous pottery hanging on the wall, dark green and tan, a color scheme I recalled from buying similar pieces near Menfi, in the southwest of Sicily. I learned that the owner had brought the big plates from his hometown of Trapani. There are also wide-mouthed yellow ceramic pots, tall, dark green glass vases, and baskets. The espresso machine and the meat slicer are gorgeous and shiny. A lot of thought went into the ambiance and also, more important, into finding authentic ingredients, as I knew from my first bite of caponata. The man behind the food and the pretty décor is Salvatore Fraterrigo, a native Sicilian but one quite familiar with the New York restaurant world, having worked at Il Buco and at I Trulli, two excellent Italian places. He’s a lively and attentive host, even when the place gets crowded, and it does.

Gastronomia Norma is not a full-on restaurant. It offers no secondi. Pasta and pizza, both baked in the wood-burning oven, are the main things here. But there is also a selection of piccoli piatti, all classic Sicilian, including three types of arancine, Sicilian rice balls. The rice in the squid ink arancine is black as black can be, and the thing is filled with chopped shrimp and tomato. It had my name written all over it. My friend tried the eggplant-filled one, which was also delicious.  And you can get taglieri, excellent salumi and cheese platters, all fashioned from high-quality ingredients. I really liked the carpaccio di polipo, octopus cut prosciutto-thin and garnished with orange, fennel, and olives. The caponata was exactly right, with soft collapsed eggplant, whole green olives, and plenty of agro-dolce flavor. It came with grilled bruschetta brushed with olive oil. And speaking of olives, I loved the olive bowl, marinated in cinnamon and fennel, a combination that encapsulates what is special about Sicilian flavors.

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I hoped to find an eggplant and ricotta salata pizza, and there it was, the Norma. The eggplant was cooked dark and caramelized, making it especially appealing. The crust on all the pizzas has that yeasty, pully, bubbled up, lightly charred flavor and texture that I always look for but rarely find. For me a pizza place without an anchovy pizza is a sorry, sad place. No problem at Gastronomia Norma. It’s got two. The one with roasted cherry tomatoes and pecorino was my favorite, its anchovies first-rate Sicilian-packed. The pizza with mortadella and ricotta was also a knockout, and I loved the pizza with Italian tuna, black olives, and mozzarella, too.

You can enjoy the house-made porchetta in cabbuci, sandwiches made with Sicilian wood-fired rolls, or on pizzas or as a piccoli piatti. I had a cabbucio, of soft and fatty porchetta, provolone, and arugula, with a glass of rosato as my dinner one night, after visiting my mother down the block. And they make my all time favorite cabbucio, the cunsato, with tomatoes, anchovies, primo sale (very young pecorino), and olives, all soaked in good olive oil. I first tasted a cunsato in San Vito lo Capo, in northwestern Sicily, at a beach-side stand, and I went crazy for it. Good anchovies, of course, were a main draw, but the entire package was perfect. And here it is at Gastronomia Norma.

And Norma had what I wanted most of all, an excellent pasta con le sarde, made as a timballo and baked in the pizza oven. I was hesitant when the dark-crusted, impenetrable-looking dome came to my table. It had been fashioned in a mold and turned out onto the plate. How could it be anything but solid and dry? But when I broke it open, luscious spaghetti with all the expected aromas of fennel, sardine, and saffron came pouring out. Raisins and pine nuts were properly present. And it had lots of sardines, some of them almost puréed, some in big pieces. I was very happy with it.

The baked anelletti, with beef ragù and peas, came in a wide baking dish, its bottom lined with tender eggplant slices, its top crisp with breadcrumbs. It was also spot on. I had that with a glass of the house frappato, a light and really fresh-tasting wine made from a Sicilian grape. On another night I ordered a bottle of Cerasuola, a wine I first tasted in Sicily, a mix of frappato and Nero d’avola, fruity but deeply flavored, with, thankfully, no oak anywhere to be found.

I’ve yet to try the homemade sausage, or the saffron and ragù arancine, or the porchetta pizza, or the panelle, a fried chickpea pancake that’s Sicilian specialty. And there are many more Sicilian wines I’m aching to drink.

I will be back.

Gastronomia Norma is at 438 Third Avenue, between 30th and 31st Streets, in Manhattan. (212) 889-0600.

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Baked anelletti, in the back, their arancine con nero di seppia in the pretty white bowl, and glasses of frappato.

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Still Life with a Bowl of Peas, Valencian School.

If you’re behind on your Easter dinner planning and need a quick but traditional Italian verdura, this here is it, especially if you make it with frozen peas—no shelling involved, and in New York frozen is all we’ve got for now. I say this is traditional. Well, the peas, pancetta, and onion combo is classic, but I’ve added some other flavors to deepen and round out the taste experience. I include nutmeg, allspice, coriander seed, vermouth, and fresh mint. This makes a beautiful side for lamb or in an all-vegetable Easter table. You can even leave out the pancetta if you like, but it’s definitely better with it in. Frankly I’d be happy with just this one dish, some good bread, a few glasses of rosé wine, and a slice of pastiera for dessert. What more could one need?

Happy Easter to all my Italian cook friends.

Easter Peas with Pancetta, Onion, Mint, and Warm Spices

(Serves 4)

Extra-virgin olive oil
¼ pound pancetta, cut into small cubes
1 large Vidalia onion, cut into small dice
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon ground coriander seed
3 cups freshly shucked peas (or you can use frozen, thawed, and well drained)
¼ cup dry vermouth
¼ cup chicken broth
Salt
Black pepper
10 spearmint sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped

In a large skillet, heat about a tablespoon or so of olive oil over a medium flame. Add the pancetta, and sauté it until crisp but not too darkened. Add the onion and all the spices, and sauté until the onion has softened and everything is fragrant, about 3 minutes or so. Add the peas, and sauté for a minute. Add the vermouth, letting it bubble for a few seconds. Add the chicken broth, and cover the skillet, to allow the peas to cook through to just tender. Fresh peas will take about 4 minutes; the frozen ones go faster. When they’re almost tender, uncover the skillet to let some liquid evaporate. Season with a little salt (the pancetta is salty, so taste first) and black pepper.

Pour the peas with all their skillet juices into a wide serving bowl. Drizzle on a little fresh olive oil and scatter on the mint. Serve right away.

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