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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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niccca7oise.jpgStill Life with Italian Tuna, by Caron Eastgate Dann.

Recipe below: Tonnato Crostini with Roasted Peppers and a Spring Herb Salad

I learned how to make vitello tonnato when I working at Le Madri restaurant many years back. An Italian cook named Matteo was ordered to teach me the tonnato part of the thing. He spoke only a few words of English, but my Italian was somewhat passable, so I thought we’d get on well enough. We started by making a simple maionese in the food processor, using egg yolks and olive oil. That went fine. Then he told me to add Italian tuna, anchovies, and capers, and then to “make liquid” the sauce with wine, veal cooking broth, and a little lemon juice. The smell was gorgeous. And it was familiar, too,  because my mother used to make a tonnato, but she used Hellmann’s, and its odd sweetly sharp taste came blasting through, despite all the anchovies and such. This was so much better.

So Matteo went off and left me to “make it perfetto.” After a bit of adjusting it seemed pretty perfetto to me, so I called him back for a taste. He tilted the food processor bowl toward him. He looked troubled. “More strong,” he said, and he walked away. Okay. So I added more anchovies, more capers, more lemon. He returned again, looked into the bowl, and now he was clearly pissed. He repeated “more strong,” but louder. So I began to add yet more capers. Then he kind of lost it. He screamed at me in Italian: I refused to follow directions, I did as I fuck pleased, and did I think I was the chef? Sweat dripped from his ears. He looked like he was going to hit me. It was getting very bad quickly. He called me “stupid” and then another word I didn’t understand. Finally the actual chef came over to see what the commotion was. Would I be fired over tonnato? I sure hoped not. I really liked this job. But we quickly got to the bottom of it. It turned out that to Matteo “more strong” meant thicker, not stronger in flavor. Had he just used the Italian word densa, I would have known what he wanted. Not altogether unsurprisingly, about a month later he got fired, after he broke his girlfriend’s arm. She was a timid Tuscan girl who waitressed at the restaurant. It looked like her nose had been broken too, from what I could see.

Despite my rocky introduction to constructing a tonnato, I love this sauce. It contains many of the elements of Italian cooking that are dear to my heart, olive oil to start with, and then anchovies and capers and lemon. It’s sea-tasting without being fishy. The olive oil comes through clearly. I like to use an oil that’s bright and golden and not too bitter. The sauce looks like mayonnaise, but there’s nothing too mayonnaisey about it. It’s great in its classic role, paired with thin-sliced poached veal for vitello tonnato, but it’s so good that sometimes I just whip up a bowl of it as a dip for pinzimonia, or raw vegetables. It’s especially good with fennel, celery, cucumber, and endive. It makes a nice pasta sauce, if you thin it with cooking water and maybe add pine nuts and arugula or fresh herbs like flat-leaf parsley. I’ve made stuffed eggs by mixing cooked yolks with tonnato sauce, basil, dill, and chopped cornichons. Delicious. I really like it with roasted sweet peppers, too. It reminds me of the red peppers filled with Italian tuna salad (meaning olives and capers included) that my mother occasionally made for company, before she decided it was outmoded. I’m hanging on to the flavor combination for this just-verging-on-spring salad. I hope you’ll enjoy it. You can even make vitello tonnato with it, if you want.

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Tonnato Crostini with Roasted Peppers and a Spring Herb Salad

(Serves 4)

For the tonnato sauce:

2 extra-large egg yolks, at room temperature
¾ cup extra-virgin olive (one that’s not too biting, maybe Sicilian rather than Tuscan; I like Ravidá and Olio Verde)
1 5-ounce can Italian tuna, packed in olive oil (I like the Flott and Toninno brands), drained and crumbled
1 tablespoon salt-packed capers, soaked in several changes of water for ½ hour and then drained, plus a palmful of soaked capers for garnish
3 anchovy fillets, rinsed and chopped
1 tablespoon dry vermouth
About ¼ cup chicken broth
Lemon juice
Salt
Black pepper

For the salad:

A handful of chives, cut into 1-inch lengths
A handful of tarragon sprigs
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves
About a dozen small basil leaves
A small head of frisée lettuce, torn into small pieces
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
A big pinch of ground nutmeg
Black pepper

Plus:

1 roasted red pepper, peeled, seeded, and cut into strips
1 baguette, cut into rounds on an angle (three slices per serving)

Put the egg yolks in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until they’re pale yellow, about a minute or so. Start adding the olive oil in a very thin stream. When it looks like it’s catching (getting thick), start adding it a little faster. When the oil is all used up, your mayonnaise should be quite thick.

Now add the tuna, anchovies, capers, and vermouth, and pulse until everything is fairly smooth. Add enough chicken broth to loosen it all to a still thick but verging-on-pourable sauce (start with a tablespoon, which may be all you need). Season with lemon juice, salt, and black pepper, and give it a final pulse. Pour it into a bowl, and leave it at room temperature. It will set up a bit.

Place all the herbs and lettuce in a bowl.

Toast the bread rounds on both sides.

Add the lemon juice and olive oil to the salad, and season it with salt, black pepper, and the nutmeg. Toss it gently.

Divide the salad onto four plates. Spoon some tonnato sauce onto each slice of toast. Top with a few slices of roasted pepper. Place three crostini around each salad. Garnish the crostini with the extra capers, and give them all a drizzle of fresh olive oil.

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Women with Fish

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I am not jealous
of what came before me.

Come with a man
on your shoulders,
come with a hundred men in your hair,
come with a thousand men between your breasts and your feet,
come like a river full of drowned men
which flows down to the wild sea,
to the eternal surf, to Time!

Bring them all
to where I am waiting for you;
we shall always be alone,
we shall always be you and I alone on earth
to start our life!

 

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Still Life with Sardines, by Abad.

Recipe below: Bucatini con le Sarde a Mare

There used to be Sicilian restaurant called Siracusa in downtown Manhattan that closed about ten years ago, and I still think about its ricotta gelato and the escarole torta. They also made a traditional pasta con le sarde (a waiter once told me the chef talked to the fish). It was the only place in town I could get it, and there were times back then when I really needed it, as I still do now. It was put together with devotion, all the flavors—saffron, fennel, raisins, pine nuts—in place. The purveyors even managed to track down wild fennel. Some nights the dish was great, some good, others not so good. It all depended on the freshness of the sardines.

There are only a handful of eating places in New York now that advertise themselves as Sicilian. Cacio e Vino in the East Village is one. They make a great caponata served with panelle, the fried chickpea pancakes that are traditional to the  island. I also love their pasta with cuttlefish ink, with its shiny, slick look. When a recent craving for pasta con le sarde hit me,  I went back to this cozy place and ordered a bowl. In fact, I went back three times in two weeks to taste it. They know what they’re doing, even down to the scattering of breadcrumbs and the al dente bucatini. On my first try the sardines were quite fresh, and all the flavors came together in a sweet and savory way. I could taste the saffron, an expensive touch restaurants often leave out. Another time the same dish had a fishy, oily taste, probably the difference between just delivered and day-old (or two-day-old) sardines. That’s the fragility of these little fish.

Many food people will tell you that you can’t transport authenticity. I don’t find that to be true in New York. With the ingredients we have access to, and a dedicated, often native-born chef, I’ve had dishes that were almost identical in taste, and certainly in spirit, to ones I’d had in Italy. But I’ve found that New York’s sardines can make or break a dish. I see them all the time now in my markets, but they’re never as fresh as what I’ve had in Palermo. The oil-packed fish goes off quickly, so if you don’t catch its freshness fast, it’s not going to sing to you. It quickly turns to garbage. The sardines I see in my markets either come from Portugal or are brought down from Rhode Island (that’s what the fish sellers tell me, so I believe them). So these fish have already been on some journey by the time they reach the market, and it’s hard to say what class they traveled. It could have been coach, or even steerage. What I do now is call my fish shop and ask when the sardines will arrive (at Citarella it’s often Thursday). That way I can at least get them at their best.

When I have a need to cook up a batch of pasta con le sarde but my market says to wait for a better opportunity, I turn to Bucatini con le Sarde a Mare, where the sardines are left in the sea. It’s a real cucina povera dish and a good one. It has all the flavors of pasta con sarde, but with one big ingredient missing. Here’s my version of this traditional pasta.

Bucatini con le Sarde a Mare

(Serves 3 as a first course)

12 salt packed anchovies
Extra-virgin olive oil
¾ cup homemade breadcrumbs, not too finely ground
Salt
½ teaspoon sugar
¾ pound bucatini
1 large Vidalia onion, cut into small dice
1 medium fennel bulb, cut into small dice, plus its fronds, lightly chopped (find one with a lot of fronds, if you can)
½ teaspoon fennel pollen
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

⅓ cup golden raisins, soaked in ⅓ cup dry vermouth
A big pinch of saffron, dried, ground, and soaked in about ¼ cup hot water
⅓ cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
Coarsely ground black pepper
About 5 or 6 large dill sprigs, chopped

Rinse the anchovies in cool water to remove salt. Run your finger down the backbone of each fish to pull off the fillets.  Soak the fillets in several changes of cool water for about 20 minutes to remove interior salt. Pat them dry and then put them in a small bowl, drizzling a bit of good olive oil over the top.

Heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. When hot, add the breadcrumbs, and sauté until just turning golden and crisp, about 2 minutes. Add salt and the sugar, and stir it in. Pour the crumbs into a small bowl, and set aside.

Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add a good amount of salt, and drop in the bucatini.

Pour about 2 tablespoons of olive oil into a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onion and the fennel, and sauté until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the fennel pollen and the garlic, and sauté a minute longer.

Chop the anchovies and add them to the pan, stirring them around to warm through.

Add the raisins with their soaking liquid, the saffron water, and the pine nuts. Season with black pepper and a little salt.

When the bucatini is al dente, drain it, saving about a cup of the cooking water, and place it in a warmed pasta bowl.

Add the anchovy sauce along with about 2 tablespoons of fresh olive oil. Add the fennel fronds and dill. Grind in a bit more black pepper, and give it all a toss, adding enough cooking water to help form a light sauce that coats the strands of pasta lightly. Serve right away, with a generous sprinkling of breadcrumbs on top of each serving.

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