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Women with Fish

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My great aunt Gina with her collection of fishing tackle.

Recipe below: Sole à la Bordelaise with White Truffles, by Sister Angelica

This is my mother’s aunt Regina. My great aunt. Quite cute, I think. She was a Franciscan nun, a member of the Poor Clares. The family called her Gina, but her working title was Sister Angelica. I didn’t know her well. We met a few times when I was a maybe eight or nine. At the time she was working at a hardware store in Glen Cove, Long Island. She somehow knew a lot about small metal gadgets, so this job was, as my grandmother said, “a perfect match.” Not long after, when she chose her true calling, Aunt Gina moved south, to Alabama, to the Convent of the Poor Clares. I’m not sure if her entering a convent or going south perplexed my family more, but she seemed happy down there. It was then that we began hearing stories about her new-found interest in fishing, which she was apparently allowed to do as a nun. She said fishing was holy. My family didn’t care all that much about holy. When my grandmother wrote to her she always asked about her social life. I don’t think Grandma quite understood the whole nun concept. She seemed to think Gina would find a nice guy down there and get married. I mean, get real, Grandma. In her replies Aunt Gina wrote almost exclusively about fishing and fishing tackle. She was specific in her ideas about tackle. She was learning to customize the hooks to make them more forgiving. She also wrote about fish cookery.

Considering that she was a nun of an order that prescribed to the simplest life, some of the dishes she mentioned were surprisingly elaborate. Cream sauces, lots of butter, white truffles, Beluga caviar, champagne, chanterelles. She must have had quite a food budget. Her letters were always the same—fishing, fish hooks, fish cooking. My grandmother worried that Gina had been “completely sucked in by God and fish.” “Drowned,” she once said. The Aunt Gina situation started to get on everyone’s nerves. Correspondence slowed.

When I was 14 I went through a transformative cooking experience of my own. I became a baker. I hunkered down in our family kitchen to turn out zucchini bread, ricotta cheesecake, carrot muffins, maple scones, pignoli cookies, sausage lasagna, anchovy pizza, calzones, all to the bewilderment of my parents. They ultimately sent me to a psychiatrist, which was totally unnecessary.

Word of my kitchen “troubles” got around. Evidently my grandmother wrote to Aunt Gina, possibly looking for spiritual guidance. I’m not sure Gina gave any, and considering her own obsessions, I can’t imagine she would have thought there was anything so terrible going on. I had never been happier in my life.

Shorty after that, Gina died, and I received a package from Alabama. What could she have wanted to send me, rosaries, fishing tackle? I unwrapped the bulky package and found inside it five little metal boxes with gold crosses painted on the tops. They contained a decade’s worth of fish recipes, her own recipes, written out on small cards in a tight hand. My parents seemed angry. They thought the gift would only encourage me. The fish focus did make me nervous, and the recipes seemed too complicated. It was strange to me that this Italian-American’s recipes were almost all haute French. There was a card for poached oysters with fennel vinaigrette, and one for something called Lobster Cherbourg, which contained egg yolks and Calvados, and there was sole Meunière with caviar, and scallops with black butter and truffles. I felt I was entering another dimension, a strangely decadent one. On the card for salmon with cream, tarragon, and chanterelles, she had penciled a note that read “Octopus and squid are holy creatures, not to be eaten but to be observed and idolized.” I don’t know where Aunt Gina picked up her pagan leanings, but in terms of fish cooking, she must have had access to Larousse Gastronomique or books equally serious. The recipes were picky and rigid, filled with religious asides, and they all looked fantastically delicious. I realized years later that one of them had been lifted almost intact from the cookbook Vincent Price wrote, which I picked up at a used bookshop when I moved into the city. I recognized it immediately. It was for a whole fish stuffed with vinegar and wine-soaked croutons and then steamed in a dishwasher. She wrote on the card, “Brilliant idea. Saint Zita would approve.” How such an unorthodox book had turned up at a convent was beyond me.

One thing I came to believe as I studied her recipe cards was that she might never have actually cooked any of the dishes. The more I learned about cooking, following recipes, adapting them to my own taste, creating my own, the more these ones seemed vague yet formal and strangely empty, almost as if she was just a translator. And there were no amounts or servings indicated, as if she were cooking in the sky, not for people around a table. Was this just the fantasy life of a mostly silent nun? At first the idea made me sad. What did she do with her life? But as I focused more deeply, I felt her passion, against convent restrictions, pouring out of the courtly little cards. They weren’t empty; they were written in a sort of code. She was doing what she could to create a private intense life. She wasn’t a loser or a nut. She was a virtuoso.

Sole à la Bordelaise with White Truffles, by Sister Angelica

Kill the fish with mercy and fillet it with the utmost neatness, or your dinner will be horribly bitter.

Peel some button mushrooms with a sharp knife until they are snow white. Cook them in a good amount of butter. Do not drop any mushrooms on the floor or there will be hell to pay.

Butter a casserole dish, and sprinkle the bottom with finely chopped shallots and carrots. Do not cut yourself while chopping, since the bleeding will be hard to stop. Season the fillets of sole with salt and pepper, and arrange them in the dish. Add a bouquet garni and a good amount of white Bordeaux wine. Do not use any other type of wine or the fish will disintegrate while cooking.

Poach the fillets until they’re done, and then drain them, retaining the liquid you drain. Arrange the fillets on a serving dish surrounded by the mushrooms. Add 2 tablespoons of demi-glace to the cooking liquid and reduce by half. Add a knob of butter, sieve the cooking liquid, and pour it over the fillets. Shave a good amount of white truffle over the fish.

Serve only to people you hold in high esteem.

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1384415-7Still life with hand and red bell pepper, Pablo Secca

Recipe below: Fettuccine with Red Pepper Purée, Chickpeas, and a Touch of Honey

While thinking up ideas for Pasta Improvvisata, my first book, I came around to a truth about my cooking: No matter how creative I try to get, departing from classics, dreaming up stuff my grandmother would have found unacceptable, I always stay within the palate of Southern Italy. It isn’t a conscious decision. It’s just where things fall. It keeps me evolving but still connected to my heritage. It’s a good place for me to be.

One of the recipes in Pasta Improvvisata was a penne with a puréed sweet pepper and basil sauce. It was something I’d never had before. My family had made pasta with bell peppers, but always just sliced up and sautéed, usually along with a little tomato, and maybe a few anchovies thrown in. It was a good dish, to be sure, but my puréed version had a suaveness to it, an elegance, that told me to reach for fettuccine, not rigatoni. Humble ingredients gone fancy.

Right now, at September’s end, the best sweet and hot peppers are in my local markets. And the jolt of warm weather has made them better than I expected. Even the usually solid green Italian frying peppers have grown rich and red. And jalapeños, too, have been allowed to go all crimson, something I’d never see in a grocery store. Big growers never let those beauties go the distance.

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Last week at the Union Square Greenmarket.

I decided to revisit this pepper purée concept, but with a new take, coming up with a revamping of pasta e fagioli. I used a mix of red bell and red Italian frying peppers and one red jalapeño. Add a Jimmy Nardello if you can find one, the sweet Southern Italian import that’s so popular with Italian Americans; I’m going to try growing it next year. I added chickpeas and a Sicilian mix of flavors, including cinnamon, mint, and a hint of honey, which you’ll taste only far in the background, so the dish is not openly sweet.

I’m pretty sure my grandmother would have found the result perplexing, and she’d have muttered her typical response, “This tastes different,” meaning it was foreign and she wouldn’t eat it. Ah, so be it. She didn’t live long enough to see how chefs in Southern Italy have pushed forward with their cuisine, using traditional ingredients in new ways. But luckily I have, and I love it.

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Fettuccine with Red Pepper Purée, Chickpeas, and a Touch of Honey

(Serves 5 as a first course)

6 very ripe, sweet red peppers, bells or frying or a mix
1 red jalapeño pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large shallot, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
¼ teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
The leaves from about 6 large sprigs of thyme, chopped
Salt
¼ cup dry vermouth
¾ cup homemade or good quality prepared chicken broth (or broth from your chickpeas)
The grated zest from 1 lemon
1½ cups cooked chickpeas, preferably homemade*
1 pound fettuccine
1 teaspoon runny wildflower honey (a mild one such as orange blossom is a good choice)
A handful of spearmint leaves, cut into thin strips if large, left whole if small
A chunk of Fiore Sardo (Sardinian pecorino) cheese

(*I would cook up a bag of chickpeas, use a cup or so for this pasta, and save the rest for a salad or to include in a main course or to use to make a more traditional pasta con ceci.)

Put all the peppers on a sheet pan, and place the pan under a broiler, turning the peppers often until they’re charred all over. Peel and seed them, and cut them into large chunks. (I like this way of roasting peppers for a puréed pasta sauce, as the skins slip off easily, leaving very little of the black bits you’d get from grilling.)

In a large skillet, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the shallots, and sauté until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, the roasted peppers, the allspice, cinnamon, thyme, and a sprinkling of salt, and sauté until everything is soft and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add the vermouth, and let it boil for about a minute. Add the chicken broth and lemon zest, and simmer, uncovered, for another 2 minutes, just to blend all the flavors. Pour everything into the bowl of a food processor, and purée until smooth.

In a same pan you cooked the peppers in, heat about a tablespoon of olive oil over medium flame. When hot, add the chickpeas, seasoning with a little salt. Sauté until they just become lightly crisp, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile bring a big pot of pasta cooking water to a boil, and salt it generously. Add the fettuccine.

Add the pepper purée back to the pan with the chickpeas, and reheat it gently. Add the honey, letting it melt into the sauce.

When the fettuccine is tender, drain it, saving about ½ cup of the cooking water.

Pour the fettuccine into a large pasta serving bowl. Add the pepper sauce, and toss, drizzling in a little pasta cooking water, if needed, to loosen the texture. Grate on some Fiore Sardo, and give it a another quick toss. Garnish with the mint leaves. Serve right away, bringing the rest of the cheese to the table.

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Woman in the Garden, by Gabriele Münter.

Recipe below: Lemon Verbena Olive Oil Cake

Every year around mid-September a lump settles in my throat. Agita with a big dose of reflux. It’s my body telling me my herb garden is winding down. I dry, I oil, I pickle, I freeze, trying to preserve what I can. But the results are never as transforming as the sight of moist leaves, wet soil, heavy bending plants, and aromas so powerful they can send me on a mini-LSD trip.

After months of being tended, these gorgeous herbs have taken on the role of flamboyant relatives. I’ve cheered and berated them. I’ve watched some struggle while others went into botanic overdrive. But now my luscious green family is ready to head underground. I must get get hyper-creative.

This year along with all the usual herbs, I’ve got Thai basil, fennel, anise hyssop, tarragon, lovage, rose geranium, and two lemon verbena plants that are still high and mighty. The aroma of the lemon verbena is unreal, smelling more like the most intense room freshener than like anything that could occur in nature. And therein lies its beauty. But it’s also tricky to cook with. The leaves are tough, not tender like basil, so they need to be minced or pulled out. Used raw they’re wonderful (they makes an amazing ice cream), but wet heat, as in a braise, dulls their brightness. Baking, applying a good dry heat, nudges them to reveal unforeseen qualities.

Here I finely chop the leaves from a few large branches and add them to an olive oil cake I make variations on all the time. What an aroma. The verbena, my fruity Sicilian olive oil, and a touch of vanilla merge in the heat to produce a complex taste that I wouldn’t have expected. I guess I imagined just lemon, but what I got was something rounder.

Thank you lemon verbena. Such a nice way to wrap up the growing season. Even my agita is starting to go away. But what am I going to do with all that drooping anise hyssop?

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One of my lemon verbena plants, and Buddy behind the door.

Lemon Verbena Olive Oil Cake

(Serves 8)

1 tablespoon or so soft butter for the pan (or use olive oil)
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
3 big branches fresh lemon verbena, the leaves finely chopped (about ⅓ cup chopped)
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil (not a biting green Tuscan one, but a more mellow type; I used Olio Verde, a lush Sicilian brand)
The grated zest from 2 lemons, and the juice from 1 of them
1 tablespoon limoncello liqueur
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 extra large large eggs
¾ cup sugar
Powdered sugar for dusting.

Butter a 9-inch springform pan. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Sift the flour with the baking powder and the salt. Add the chopped lemon verbena, mixing it in.

In a small bowl, mix the olive oil with the lemon zest and juice, the limoncello, and the vanilla.

In the bowl of a standing mixer or with a handheld mixer, beat the eggs with the sugar until they’re light and fluffy. Gradually add the flour to the egg mixture until it’s just blended in. Add the olive oil mixture, and mix quickly, until just blended.

Pour the batter into the pan and bake until golden and springy in the center, about 35 minutes. Let cool and then dust the top with powdered sugar.

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Still Life of an Italian Kitchen, by Perry Milou.

Recipe below: My Pasta alla Trapanese

Often when I’m in the kitchen cooking alone, imaginary conversations flow through my head. Sometimes they’re with friends or family who have died, or they’re with people I’ve lost touch with, or occasionally they involve fantasy chats with people I wish I knew. Sometimes these dialogues are deeply revealing, sometimes maudlin, but more often they’re just mundane rhythms that catch at a truth.

My father died too young more than a decade ago. When I first became interested in cooking, as a teenager, we often had goofy little talks about food. I can’t remember any conversation word for word, but I like to imagine that he’s still with me, shooting the shit about things he loves—tomato sauce, peaches in red wine, mango smoothies, roasted peppers, steaks on the grill. I try to capture the cadence of his voice, hear the Westchester Italian swing of it. I’m pretty sure I never made this Trapanese pesto for him, but I’m making it now, and he seems to like it.

Dick: Boy, this is hot.

Me: You sprinkle pepper flakes on everything, even on cantaloupe. I figured you’d go for this.

Dick: But that stuff’s not this hot.

Me: That red crap in the jar is stale. You put layers of it on pizza, but it’s just dust.

Dick: It’s not stale. That’s the way it was designed. It looks hotter than it is, from the color.

Me: So you think pepper flakes are born stale?

Dick: What?

Me: You think they start out stale?

Dick: Yes, that’s what I think, Smartass.

Me: I used fresh peppers here. The ones you grow, the long red ones. They’re not traditional in this pasta at all, but I threw them in. They’re all turning red at once.

Dick: I thought you said this was pesto.

Me: It’s a different type. It’s Sicilian.

Dick: Tastes Mexican. Tastes like taco sauce.

Me: It’s a variation on a Sicilian pesto.

Dick: It’s not green, for one thing.

Me: It’s a variation on a Sicilian pesto.

Dick: This is unrecognizable as pesto. For starts, there’s no basil in here.

Me: I don’t think I’ve made you Sicilian pesto before. It’s from Trapani. There actually is basil, but mint also. It’s mixed in. You’ve got tons of mint back there.

Dick: I’ve had pesto plenty, by you and by everyone, and this is not it. Not with tomatoes. No way.

Me: It’s deconstructed.

Dick: What the hell are you talking about?

Me: It’s usually more chopped. I leave it chunky.

Dick: You spend a lot of time cooking. You training to become a maid?

Me: Yeah, that’s my goal. God.

Dick: I liked that macaroni you made last week, with the raw tomatoes.

Me: Daddy, this is basically the same thing, but without the almonds. That had capers. And it didn’t have mint. This is a finer dice. There is basil in here. I don’t know why you don’t taste it. You can even see it. When did you open this wine? It taste like prunes. It’s gross.

Dick: That’s because it’s stale, like the pepper flakes.

Me: Well there’s certainly a lot of stale stuff in this place. I’d like to replace the entire herb cabinet, the pepper flakes, the fennel seeds. The dried dill smells like pee, and whatever anyone uses that celery salt for, there are three bottles of it, one with some old crust on the top. You can’t even open them.

Dick: You know what’s stale? That boyfriend of yours crouched in the corner with the harmonica. Hillbilly Joe. That’s what’s stale.

Me: I’d have to agree with you on that one. I think maybe he’s an alcoholic, or a borderline one.

Dick: That’s just great. Where do you find these guys? They crouch. They don’t smile. They don’t talk. This one looks like a photo from the Civil War. Miserable granite face.

Me: Oh my god.

Dick: You’re laughing. I mean it. I’d like not to have to see that creep lurking around the house.

Me: I’m working on it, I swear. He’s weirdly hard to get rid of.

Dick: You think that’s funny?

Me:  I don’t know. I guess.

Dick: A real laugh riot.

Me: So how do you like the pasta?

Dick: Now that it’s cooled down, I really like it. I like the hot pepper. It’s hot but not too hot. It tastes sort of Mexican.

Me: You grow good peppers. I love everything you’ve got in that garden.

Dick: I didn’t know you liked my garden so much. How’d you like to help me with some weeding?

Me: I’d do that.

Dick: You’d have to wear something other than ballet slippers.

Me: I think I could handle that.

Dick: How about this: I’ll load the dishwasher, you start on the weeds. I’ll be right out.

Me: But it’s already dark out.

Dick: I’ll grab a flashlight.

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My Pesto Alla Trapanese

(Serves 6 as a first course)

This Sicilian pesto is traditionally more pulverized than I serve it. I don’t like the muddiness that develops when tomatoes and basil and nuts get mushed together, so I chop everything finely and just give it all a toss. No grinding here, and the colors stay vibrant.

Busiate is a long, coiled Sicilian pasta, usually made from durum wheat. Gustiamo sells a deeply wheaty-tasting version with a chewy texture made from tumminia, an heirloom wheat reintroduced in Sicily by Filippo Drago, who grows it there and produces this lovely pasta from it. It brings this classic dish to new heights of pleasure. Sicilian almonds from Noto and vin cotto are also available from Gustiamo.

4 large, round summer tomatoes, seeded and cut into small dice
Salt
1 fresh garlic clove, minced
½ teaspoon vin cotto (cooked grape must, also called cotto mosto or saba)
½ a fresh red peperoncino chili, minced
A big pinch of allspice (about ⅛ teaspoon)
Extra-virgin olive oil. A Sicilian brand like Ravida or Olio Verde would be great
1 pound busiate
½ cup Sicilian or Spanish Maracona almonds, roughly chopped, plus a palmful left whole to scatter over the top
About 2 dozen basil leaves, roughly chopped, plus a handful of small ones left whole for garnish
A small bunch of spearmint leaves, lightly chopped
Salt
A chunk of ricotta salata or primo sale cheese for grating

Put the chopped tomatoes in a strainer. Sprinkle on a little salt, and give them a toss. Put a bowl under the strainer to catch the juice, and let them drain for about ½ hour, saving the tomato water.

Pour the tomatoes into a large pasta bowl. Add the garlic, vin cotto, peperoncino, and allspice. Add ⅓ cup olive oil. Give everything a stir, and let it sit for about 20 minutes to develop flavor.

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

Add the chopped almonds to the tomatoes.

When the busiate is al dente, drain it well, and add it to the tomatoes. Add the chopped basil and mint, and season with a little more salt. Toss, adding a drizzle more olive oil and, if it all seems dry, some of the tomato water. Grate a little ricotta salata or primo sale on top, and toss gently.

Garnish with the whole almonds and the whole basil leaves. Bring the cheese to the table for anyone who might want a little more. Serve hot or warm.

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Harissa, Fresh and Hot

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My Carolina reapers, coming in fast and furious.

Recipe below: Harissa, Fresh and Hot

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I’m now growing the hottest chili known to man. My brother, Richie, a tattooed chef with a healthy interest in extreme heat, came to visit this spring bearing gifts. He brought me seedlings. One was a chile de árbol, a semi-hot long Mexican pepper often seen dried and hanging in braids in Mexican restaurants. The other was a Carolina reaper, the hottest chili on the planet, with a Scoville heat unit of 1,569,300, which is 500 times hotter than Tabasco and more potent than the pure pepper spray I once carried around to scare off potential rapists. Both of the plants have been thriving on my sunny deck, growing strong, shiny chilies, some, just now, turning red. I’ve been both excited and terrified by the reapers, so of course with my first ripe one I had to give it a go by making a batch of harissa, the Moroccan hot sauce used on many couscous dishes.

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My brother’s arm.

I wasn’t sure how to proceed with the ugly, lumpy flamer, so I began cautiously, thinking I’d mix one reaper with four sweet red bells. I wanted a fresh sauce, so I didn’t roast the peppers or add any dried ones. I was afraid to chop my reaper, so I just dumped everything in the food processor for a preliminary grind. With every pulse of the blade my eyes, lips, and cheeks burned warmer and warmer. A pink rash came up on my neck. But I carried on.

Then onto the stove it all went. Since I wanted it to stay red, the entire cooking took only about 10 minutes. I added some of my usual Moroccan spices—cinnamon, cumin, ginger, and coriander—which I could smell clearly and sweetly in the pot even as my eyes watered and my neck burned from the steam. I then let the pepper mass rest before giving it a good purée. When I finally got around to tasting my harissa, the power of the grim reaper knocked me out. It was the devil himself.

I would say it was definitely the hottest thing I had ever tasted. Must husband wouldn’t go near it. A little dab in a couscous dish was about all I could take. But I liked the concept, so I made it again, the same recipe but using a red Scotch bonnet, plenty hot in its own right, in place of the reaper. That turned out more manageable, still incendiary but with an improved balance of sweet spice and heat, more in keeping with Moroccan style.

If you try this recipe, go with your heart, not your hipster head. Try a Carolina reaper if you dare, or a ghost pepper, only a notch of two milder. I really liked the Scotch bonnet, but a habanero, which is related to the bonnet, still has good heat yet won’t blister your sinuses. A red jalapeño will produce a gentler result. You might want to use two of them.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do with all my Carolina reapers clustered on their vines and getting riper by the day. I’m thinking about putting a basket of them out on my yard, with a sign reading 50 cents each, consume at your own peril, or possibly giving them away to the local bikers. Or maybe some Brooklynites will pass through town and buy them up.

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Harissa, Fresh and Hot

(Makes about 2 cups)

4 very ripe red bell peppers, seeded and roughly chopped
1 hot red pepper, your choice, stemmed but left whole
1 summer garlic clove, peeled and roughly chopped
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
½ teaspoon each of ground cinnamon, cumin, coriander seed, and ginger
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar

Put the bell peppers and the hot one in a food processor (wear gloves if you’re dealing with a reaper or a ghost). Add the garlic. Give it a few good pulses to give everything a uniform, medium chop.

Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium flame. Add the peppers, and season with salt, all the spices, and the sugar. Sauté until everything is soft and fragrant. If you’re using a reaper or a ghost, you may want to pull your face away from the steam. Seriously. Let simmer for about 5 minutes or so. Now add the vinegar and a splash of water to loosen it up. Cook for another 3 or 4 minutes.

Let cool for about 30 minutes.

Now put the pepper mix back into the food processor, and work it until it’s fairly smooth, adding a little water if it’s too thick. Taste for seasoning. If it’s crazy hot, you can always add more sweet peppers.

It will last about two weeks refrigerated.

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The Villa Oplontis, in Torre Annunziata, Campania.

Recipe below: Ciambotta with Summer Herbs

I didn’t come from a religious family. I came from a vague one. I don’t believe my parents thought it through enough to reject Catholicism or claim atheism. The subject just never came up. If they contemplated those big questions, they never shared it with us. They were busy going out to dinner and throwing cocktail parties, which was fine with me. But when I was about four years old, they were busted.  My grandmother got wind of the fact that I had  never been baptized, and the holy water hit the fan.

So off I went to a church, with my parents’ close friends Billy and Reggie Passarelli as my sponsors. I don’t think any photos of the occasion exist, but Billy and Reggie always dressed with style, so I’m sure my mother approved, at least on the fashion front. According to Billy and Reggie, I screamed to the priest, No shampoo!,” but I guess I got one anyway. However, the sacrament doesn’t seem to have soaked through. I never felt one Catholic pinprick, but the ritual did give me the opportunity to get to know two wonderful people, my godparents. And they took their role seriously, in their way. I never got a religious lecture from either of them, but I got a lot of attention, and they bought me a for real diamond ring. I couldn’t believe it. It’s an elegant art deco thing that I began wearing at about 12, and it’s still on my finger today.

The Passarellis later lived in the house in Rye, New York, where my mother had grown up and where I lived until I was about six. My parents sold it to them when we moved to Long Island. It was a cute two stories in what was then known as Double Rye, meaning one Rye for the Irish, another for the Italians. It was only a few blocks away from Playland, and I have eerie memories of the screams let out by evening riders of the Wild Mouse, a fast and swooping roller coaster. I now wonder if that contributed to my lifelong anxious nature.

During a few summers, when I was in junior high or thereabouts, my sister Liti and I would spend a parent-free overnight or three with my godparents in that little house. They were sophisticated but a tad goofy. Aunt” Reggie resembled Diana Ross, Italian-style. She dressed in short skirts and shiny, low-heeled pumps and was really skinny. She had an artichoky haircut in ever-changing colors (wigs?), and of course she smoked. Uncle” Billy was super cute, with round dark eyes and an elegant Roman nose. He reminded me of a swarthier version of Perry Como. At the time of one of our visits I was painting day-glo portraits of women with serpents for hair. Billy was interested. He suggested I add black, which I did to good effect. It provided depth, but also made those idiotic colors even sharper, which at the time I felt was an awesome achievement. Reggie thought I should henna my own hair, so I went ahead with a brilliant maroon shade to mostly rave reviews. They were attentive and inquiring, they drove a convertible, and they seriously seemed to like us. But, of course, they didn’t have to live with us full-time. I often wondered what that would have been like.

Billy loved to cook, especially at the height of summer, when the superbness of his Italian guy vegetable garden was in full force. For Billy, this meant only one thing—ciambotta. He made a kind of wild-man version, using a big iron pot he’d hoist onto his outdoor grill. This was not the ciambotta I was familiar with, a vegetarian stew of tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers. It was a crazy mix that also included string beans, potatoes, chunks of corn on the cob, zucchini, basket wine, pecorino cheese rinds, and lumps of pork sausage. He’d ladle it out hot, into deep bowls, sticking pieces of grilled bread into each serving. This was a Neapolitan-American concoction of the highest order, and it was fabulous.

I’ve written about ciambotta twice before on this blog, offering two different recipes, one topped with baked eggs. Neither included corn or sausage. That was Billy’s department. A feature of many of my recent recipes is an abundant use of fresh herbs. Right now, in high August, my garden is thick and fluffy with herbs of all types. So here, my new ciambotta is not flavored with a scattering of dried oregano, like my mother would have used (I can’t remember what Billy used; fresh basil, I think), but rather reflects the aromas of my tangled, fragrant garden. I’ve added summer savory early on so it opens up with the heat. Then I throw in Thai basil and marjoram at the end. The ciambotta accepts all these new flavors gracefully.

Billy Passarelli recently passed away. A sad turning point for me. This recipe is dedicated to my godparents. They may not have brought me closer to God, but they added a lot of soul to my life.

Ciambotta with Summer Herbs

(Serves 4)

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 small chunk  pancetta, cut into small cubes (about  ½ cup)
3 red summer scallions, chopped
2 small inner celery stalks, chopped, plus a handful of celery leaves, lightly chopped
½ a red bell pepper, cut into small dice
½ a fresh red peperoncino, minced
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
A few large sprigs of summer savory, the leaves chopped
4 little new potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes
1 medium eggplant, unpeeled, cut into small cubes
2 medium zucchini, cut into small cubes
Salt
¼ cup dry Marsala wine
3 medium, round summer tomatoes, peeled, seeded, chopped, lightly salted, and left to drain over a bowl in a colander for about 20 minutes (save the tomato water)
½ cup light chicken broth
A handful of Thai basil leaves, lightly chopped
A few large marjoram sprigs, the leaves chopped
Freshly grated pecorino cheese (I like pecorino Toscano or Sarde for this; you want something rich but not as sharp as Romano usually is when bought in the U.S.)

In a large pot, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the pancetta, and let it crisp. Add the scallion, celery, bell pepper, peperoncino, garlic, and savory, and sauté until everything is fragrant and softened, about 4 minutes. Add the potatoes, the eggplant, and the zucchini, season with salt, and sauté about 5 minutes longer. Pour in the Marsala, and let it boil away. Add the tomatoes and the chicken broth. Let cook at a low bubble, partially covered, until the vegetables are all tender, about another 20 minutes. Add the herbs and the celery leaves. The ciambotta should be thick but not stiff, so add a little tomato water, if you need to, to correct the texture.

Serve hot, with  a drizzle of fresh olive oil and grated pecorino on top.

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Still Life with Tomatoes, by Peter Nahum.

Recipe below: Tomatoes, Ricotta Salata, and Purslane with a Tomato Marjoram Vinaigrette

This is the first year I’ve grown tomatoes all by myself. I used to help my father with his garden when I was a kid, and I became almost addicted to the aroma of tomato leaves. I couldn’t go near the plants without rubbing a leaf between my fingers to release that unique bittersweet scent. But when I left my childhood home for stranger experiences, tomato plants went out of my life. Living in a New York City apartment for the last 30 years, I haven’t had much land. But now, miraculously, I have a small house. I’ve got tomatoes again, and that gorgeous smell has reentered my life.

My friend Barbara gave me three spindly one-inch-high sprouts that she had started from Italian seeds under the skylight of her Washington Heights apartment. I planted them in what I thought was a big enough terracotta pot and plopped it on my sunny deck. I would have loved to put them directly in the ground, but when I tried to plant some sunflower seeds last spring I discovered that the soil around my house is about 90 percent stone (some of the stones really huge) and 10 percent rock-hard clay. Next year I’ll get around to  building some raised beds.

We’ve had a lot of rain this summer, and good sun. My Principe Borghese cherry, Calabrian grape, and Italian mystery tomatoes all look happy, but they possibly feel the strain of being intertwined. Had I known the little things would grow to seven feet tall in only two months, I would have put them in something bigger. Now they’re a crazy tangle of stalks, bending, a few sadly breaking, with the weight of tier after tier of little green fruits, some just starting to show pinkish orange or, in the case of my Principe Borgheses, turning a deep bluish red. I’ve staked the robust things several times, but they’ve just kept shooting up. When they got truly out of control, I asked Barbara what to do, and she said to tie them to the railing. Now they’re all tumbling over the deck in a beautiful cascade. I can’t tell one variety from another. I suppose it’ll all work out, but it’s making me anxious.

While I wait for my tomato drama to unfold, I’ve been buying all sorts of varieties from farm stands. There’s nothing I love better tomato wise than a tomato salad with a tomato vinaigrette. Tomatoes two ways: It’s the way to go in the summer when you just can’t get enough of the gorgeous fruits.

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My tomato plants.

 

Tomatoes, Ricotta Salata, and Purslane with a Tomato Marjoram Vinaigrette

(Serves 4)

For the vinaigrette:

1 large, round red summer tomato, peeled, seeded, and roughly chopped
Salt
A big pinch of ground allspice
½ a small, fresh garlic clove
1½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon verjuice* or rice wine vinegar
5 sprigs marjoram, the leaves chopped

Plus:

5 medium heirloom tomatoes, in a nice mix, sliced into not-too-thin rounds
A handful of purslane
About 15 basil leaves
¼ pound ricotta salata
Salt
Black pepper

*Verjuice is the juice from pressed unripe grapes. It’s sour but not as acidic as most vinegars.  I use it when I need a little acid, not the big jolt many vinegars provide. It’s especially nice with summer tomatoes, as it heightens their taste without being too puckering. Rice wine vinegar is another way to go with tomatoes. I don’t think red wine vinegar has any right to dress a great tomato.

To make the vinaigrette, put the chopped tomato in a strainer, sprinkle on a little salt, and let it drain for about 20 minutes, saving the tomato water. Then place the tomato, the allspice, chopped garlic, olive oil, and verjuice or rice vinegar in a food processor, and pulse until well blended and quite smooth. Pour the tomato mix into a little bowl. Add the marjoram and a bit more salt, if needed. If the vinaigrette is too thick, add a little of the tomato water. Taste for a good balance of acidity and sweetness, and correct, if needed, with a few drops more verjuice or rice vinegar, or a little sugar, depending.

Lay the purslane around the circumference of a curved oval or round platter. Arrange the tomato slices in a circular pattern to fill the inside area. Stick the basil leaves here and there between the tomato slices. Season with a little salt.

Drizzle the vinaigrette over the tomatoes. Now shave or slice the ricotta salata over the tomatoes, using as much or as little as you like. Finish with a good amount of black pepper.

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