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My Sicilian Grandfather

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Recipe below: Fusilli with Swordfish, Eggplant, and Almonds

I’ve seen only one photo of Errico, my Sicilian grandfather, taken somewhere in Westchester I believe. If others exist, I wouldn’t know where to look for them. Errico, later Eric, who I’m named for, is a person I know little about. My mother and her sister never talk about him unless prodded, and even then I never get much. My aunt Pat, when I recently asked, referred to him as a “bandito.” That was the first time I heard that word used for him. I’d previously heard him described as a tap dancer, a pastry chef (he baked cassata for my mother’s birthdays), a bookie, or all three. My father mentioned that Errico had been in prison at some point. Once my mother had come home from school to find that police had ripped the phone from the wall (I learned this from my Dad, not from her). Aunt Pat said “he was involved in various things, on a low level.” He has no gravestone. I know because I looked.

That photo, which has somehow now disappeared, showed a young man, maybe mid-thirties, prominent nose, brown eyes, lanky build, dark skinned like a North African, and prematurely bald. He is standing to the side of a group of people I don’t recognize. He’s not smiling. I wonder if he knew then that he didn’t have many years left. My grandfather died in his forties. His wife, my grandmother, followed not long after. My mother and her sister lost their parents early, which is terrible. But they also, for some mysterious reason, decided to cut ties with their father’s family, a group that included, I believe, eight siblings. I recently learned that my great grandfather, Eric’s father, lived into the late 1970s, and not far from us. I can’t begin to understand this complete blackout. I know almost nothing about my Sicilian background. I sometimes let myself think about the ifs. If Errico had lived a long life, maybe, just maybe, I could have heard stories, cooked with him. My mother says he made spaghetti with lobster, and ravioli filled with ricotta and cinnamon, on Christmas Eve. Are you kidding me, and I missed this? If only my mother or aunt or someone had kept a door open, a phone call now and then, Christmas cards, I would have a more intimate connection to the island I’ve grown to love. But unfortunately it’s a place that remains almost as much a mystery as my mother’s ghostly family.

Tracing my grandfather’s roots has led nowhere. The more I grill my mother the pissier she gets, and I’ve been at her for forty years. I’m now at peace with this, kind of. I keep looking, no longer with names of distant relatives or clues to an ancestral town but with the island’s intricate food, which has a pull on me like no other. When I cook caponata or pasta con le sarde I see my grandfather’s Moorish good looks staring back at me. And I sometimes even feel his hand guiding me in the kitchen. I have no idea what his voice sounded like. A New York accent tinged with an Italian cadence, I assume. I think about that from time to time.

My extensive research into Sicilian cooking has revealed many alluring but at first thought and sometimes first taste odd flavor combinations. Sardines with fennel, anchovies, raisins, pine nuts, and saffron; sweet pastry flavored with cinnamon encasing a savory filling of lamb and pecorino; pumpkin with honey, vinegar, and mint. Eggplant and swordfish first struck me as an odd couple, but it makes perfect sense to Sicilians. It’s natural that cooks on the island would find a way to bring together two of its most traditional foods, and pasta is the perfect medium for softening the blow of those two seemingly dissonant ingredients landing on the same plate. I think the dish works beautifully. I’ve added almonds, another classic Sicilian product, one of many brought to the island by the Arabs. If you’ve never tasted the almonds grown in Noto, in southeastern Sicily, you really need to. I’ve always wondered why no almond I ever knew tasted like almond extract. Well, now I know it’s possible. (If you’re interested in tasting these extraordinary almonds, you can order them from www.gustiamo.com, as I did for this pasta.)

I make variations on this swordfish and eggplant theme often, and I’ve grown to love it. While cooking this particular version I fantasized about having a conversation with Errico, asking what he thought of the eggplant I chose, the texture of the fish. Is there enough sauce, too much? Does it taste real? Maybe he would have left out the mint, and just gone with basil alone. I’ll never know.

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Fusilli with Swordfish, Eggplant, and Almonds

(Serves 4 to 6)

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 shallot, cut into small dice
1 large or 2 medium eggplants, cut into cubes, partially skinned
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Salt
5 allspice berries, crushed to a powder
Black pepper
About 20 cherry tomatoes, cut in half
2 splashes of red vermouth
1 pound fusilli
1 pound swordfish, skinned and cut into cubes
A big pinch of sugar
About 5 large sprigs of mint, lightly chopped
About a dozen basil leaves, lightly chopped
A handful of blanched almonds, lightly toasted and roughly chopped

Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil.

In a large sauté pan, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. When hot, add the eggplant and the shallot, and sauté until the eggplant starts to soften, stirring it every so often, for about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, season with salt, allspice, and black pepper, and continue cooking until the eggplant is lightly browned and just tender, about another 4 minutes.

Add the cherry tomatoes, and sauté until they just start to give off juice, about 4 minutes longer. Add a splash of vermouth, and let it bubble for a few second. Turn off the heat.

Add a generous amount of salt to the pasta water, and drop in the fusilli.

In a smaller sauté pan, heat a tablespoon of olive oil over high heat. Season the swordfish with salt and the sugar. Add the swordfish to the smaller pan, and cook quickly, just until tender, about 3 minutes or so. Add a splash of vermouth, and let it bubble a few seconds. Add the swordfish to the eggplant, and give it a stir.

When the fusilli is al dente, pour it into a large serving bowl, saving about ½ cup of the cooking water. Add a generous drizzle of fresh olive oil, the mint, and the basil, and toss quickly. Add the swordfish sauce and enough pasta cooking water to allow the sauce to lightly coat the pasta. Toss again, tasting for seasoning. Garnish with the toasted almonds.

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Carciofi alla Romana

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Recipe below: Carciofi alla Romana

An artichoke’s taste is deeply vegetal and slightly bitter with a final burst of sweetness that to me tastes a bit like Splenda. The sweetness can be startling, especially if you enhance it with a sip of wine. And the texture varies depending on where you’re at. The tender outer leaves are slippery, the stem sturdier with a touch of fiber, and the heart a creamy gift, nature’s paté.

Carciofi alla Romana is a dish of tender, braised artichokes, usually paired down to stem and heart, flavored with mentuccia, a kind of wild mint. It’s the second most famous artichoke dish in Rome (the first being carciofi alla giudia, with big fried ones that look like crisped-up sunflowers). Mentuccia is a type of calamint used in Lazio and in Southern Italy with artichokes and mushrooms in particular. It’s also great with cecis and white beans. I grew mentuccia this summer ,and it took off like crazy in its little pot. I can’t imagine finding it in New York during the winter, but I’ve discovered that more or less equal parts spearmint and marjoram, though not an exact replica, get to the spirit of thing.

Preparing artichokes has frequently been a fraught experience for me. The globe variety we have here is similar to what Romans use for this preparation (the Romanesco type is rounder and usually left with a longer stem). Any big, fat artichoke involves a lot of whittling away to get it fork-ready and to my thinking produces a ton of waste. When I dump a pile of leaves and trimmings into the garbage I get a guilty feeling that makes all my pulling and scraping seem wanton. To avoid that angst and labor, I look for the baby ones. They’re a cinch to clean, no chokes, and hardly any tough leaves. These babies are actually stunted globes that happen to be lower on the stalk and don’t get as much sun, so they stop growing before developing much that’s inedible. They’re an agricultural shortcut.

I’ve just started finding good looking California artichokes, both big and baby, in my markets.They seem about a month early—strange, but I’m not complaining. If you’ve never made Carfiofi alla Romana, you should give it a try. The reduced braising liquid, a mix of the artichoke juices, olive oil, garlic, wine, and the mint, offers a unique taste, like tamed earth. I like the dish best just slightly warm, or at room temperature. Try serving it alone as a first course, followed by pan-seared lamb chops, perhaps. But it’s also excellent as part of an antipasto offering.

Carciofi alla Romana

(Serves 4)

The juice from 2 lemons
About 15 baby artichokes
10 large sprigs spearmint
10 large sprigs marjoram
2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
Salt
Extra-virgin olive oil
A glass of Frascati or another light, unoaked white wine
Coarse black pepper

Pour the lemon juice into a large bowl, saving about a tablespoon of it to use later. Fill the bowl with cold water.

Cut about a half inch off the tops of the artichokes. Pull off a few layers of tough, outer leaves, and then peel and trim the stem. Discard the trimmings, and drop each trimmed artichoke, as you finish working with it, into the lemon water, to stop oxidation.

Put the mint, marjoram, garlic, a tablespoon or so of olive oil, and a touch of salt in a food processor, and pulse until the herbs are nicely minced.

Drain the artichokes and dry them as best you can.

Stuff a little of the herb mixture between the leaves of each artichoke.

Get out a large, heavy bottomed pan that will hold all the artichokes (cast iron or enamel will both work well). Add about 3 tablespoons of olive oil ,and get it hot over medium heat. Add the artichokes, seasoning them with a little salt, and sauté, turning them in the oil, until fragrant and glistening, about 3 minutes or so. Add the wine, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Add about ⅓ cup of warm water. Cover the pan, and let the artichokes braise, turning them every so often, until they’re just fork tender. This should take about 20 minutes, depending on the size of your artichokes. Uncover the pan in the last few minutes of cooking to reduce the liquids. You should have just enough moisture to form a light glaze on the artichokes. Season with a drizzle of fresh olive oil, coarse black pepper, and a squeeze of lemon juice.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

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W13th-113-SpainRestaurant-2.jpgSpain restaurant, on West 13th Street, opened in 1966 and still going strong.

Recipe below: Calamari Filled with Pine Nuts and Raisins, in a Saffron White Wine Sauce

I just finished reading a book called Grape Olive Pig, by Matt Goulding, a memoir of his intimate (he married a Catalunyan) and culinary experiences in Spain and also a history of the country’s diverse regions, focusing on the land, the sea, the oppression, the creativity, and how the Spanish people produced their passionate culture, one I’m in awe of.

Somehow this fine book got me thinking about how lucky I was to grow up in New York, exposed to so many different cultures, tasting an amazing variety of food at a young age. Aside from enjoying the Southern Italian dishes that emerged from our own kitchen, we often went out to eat Greek, Romanian, Vietnamese, Moroccan, Jewish dairy (not too many of those places left), Scandinavian, German, Soul Food, Turkish. My first boyfriend came from a Russian Orthodox family. His mother’s stuffed cabbage, bathed in an ivory colored cream sauce, seemed so exotic. I can still recall the sweet bitter flavor (dill, I’m thinking), and the angular beauty of my boyfriend’s mom as she brought it and other fascinating dishes to the table, such as a boozy homemade cherry preserve that drove me wild.

My Irish Grandmother worked as a waitress in a Syrian restaurant, and my Sicilian grandfather supplied that restaurant with grape leaves they used for stuffing. He grew wine grapes in their tiny backyard and had plenty of sturdy leaves to spare.  This restaurant was called Nader’s and was run by Ralph Nader’s parents. They were into food. The son, not so much, but he certainly was, and still is, passionate about other things. When I first started working in restaurants myself, my first chef had me making French blood sausage and animelles—beef testicles—flaming in cognac. (He also had me skinning rabbits, which was horrifying.) At another restaurant I learned how to cook Northern Italian food, which, as a granddaughter of the Mezzogiorno, I found as foreign as the cooking of Mongolia.

After reading Grape Olive Pig, I’ve had Spanish flavors swirling around my brain. There’s a Spanish restaurant in Chelsea a few blocks from my apartment that serves a squid ink paella that was completely new to me. It’s nothing more than a thin layer of crisp-bottomed, black-tinted rice with tender squid rings baked on top. It’s absolutely addictive. The place is called Socarrat, a word for the crunchy baked-on rice at the bottom of a paella pan. The Spanish actually have a word for that. Amazing. Socarrat is a far cry from the gummy-paella-and-over-sugared-Sangria places I frequented as a kid. A few of those places still exist downtown. I have a deep nostalgia for them, and I still stop in every so often. The food is exactly the same, frozen in time.

So right now I want to cook with saffron, pimenton de La Vera, piment d’Espelette, crustaceans, cephalopods, and pork fat. I ate a tenderly cooked stuffed squid dish about two dozen years ago at a Basque-inspired restaurant near the United Nations. I recall that it contained raisins and pine nuts, and its oily, winey sauce was tinted orange from saffron. I find it difficult to duplicate a dish after so many years, but I nonetheless like to try, as a kind of puzzle to solve. So here’s my interpretation of that memorable dish. I’ve added basil, which, I’m sure wasn’t in the original, but I like basil with saffron (I can’t recall any herb; maybe there was parsley). My version is not exact, but it’s close, and it tastes good, and, most important, it’s spiritually real.

Calamari Filled with Pine Nuts and Raisins, in a Saffron White Wine Sauce

(Serves 4)

2 pounds squid, on the small side, cleaned, with the tentacles
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 scallions, finely chopped, using a little of the tender green part
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
⅓ cup pine nuts
⅓ cup yellow raisins, soaked in ¼ cup dry white wine
¾ cup homemade breadcrumbs, not too finely ground
1 heaping tablespoon grated, young manchego cheese
1 jumbo egg, lightly beaten
Salt
Piment d’Espelette, to taste
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
About 8 basil leaves, chopped, plus a few nice looking smaller ones for garnish
½ cup light fish broth or chicken broth (I prefer chicken broth here)
A big pinch of saffron threads, dried over a low heat if moist and then finely ground
½ cup dry white wine

Chop the squid tentacles finely. You’ll need about ¾ cup.

In a medium sauté pan, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the tentacles, scallion, garlic, and pine nuts, and sauté until the squid is just cooked through and the pine nuts are starting to turn golden, about a minute. Add the raisins with their soaking wine, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Turn off the heat, and take the pan off the burner. Add the breadcrumbs, the manchego, and the egg, and season with salt, piment, cinnamon, and the basil. Drizzle in a little fresh olive oil, and give it all a quick mix.

Add the saffron to the broth, and give it a stir so it starts to dissolve.

Dry off the squid bodies, and fill them about ¾ high with the stuffing, trying not to pack it in too densely. Close up the openings with toothpicks.

In a large sauté pan that’ll hold all the squid without crowding, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Season the squid with a little salt, and lay it in the pan. Sauté, turning the pieces once, until they’ve lost their transparent look and hopefully taken on a little color, about 2 minutes (sometimes it’s hard to get any browning on sautéed squid; don’t worry too much about that). Now add the white wine and the saffron broth. Turn the heat to low, cover the pan, and simmer, turning occasionally, until the squid is tender, about ½ hour.

Remove the toothpicks, and slice the squid into thick rings, laying it out on four dinner plates (you can also leave the pieces whole, if you prefer). Distribute the pan sauce over the servings, and garnish with basil leaves and a sprinkling of piment. I served this with crusty country bread and followed it with an escarole salad.

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A Winter Menu

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New York Snow, by Richard Marsh.

Recipe Below: Stuffed Peppers with Lamb, Goat Cheese, Sweet Spices, and a Honey and Mint Tomato Sauce

Here’s a Winter menu for you:

Crostini with Anchovy Butter and Thyme
Stuffed Peppers with Lamb, Goat Cheese, Sweet Spices, and a Honey and Mint Tomato Sauce
Orange Salad with Escarole and Walnuts

Winter is a circumscribed but potentially creative time for me, as it is for any cook. Even without zucchini blossoms or armfuls of basil to play with, I find winter cooking, post-holidays, liberating if I organize my thoughts. I no longer feel any obligation to turn out hundreds of Nonna’s annoyingly complicated Christmas cookies stuffed with forty ingredients and then fried in a gallon of olive oil, or any other damned Christmas cookies that call out from my past. Those assignments are over. I can get on with my culinary life.

Where does my dead-of-winter cooking take me? I tend to hoard food in the winter. If I see a good looking bag of oranges at the supermarket, I’ll buy the whole bag. I’ll stuff my freezer with sausages and tubs of homemade chicken broth, my pantry with canned tomatoes. I learned anxiety hoarding from my father, who foodwise was prepared for any disaster (we had three freezers in our Long Island home). So winters have me looking for ways to use up stuff I’ve jammed into my little kitchen—a load of pistachios before they go rancid, bags of risotto rice, cassoulet beans, Israeli couscous, farro, cavatelli, end chunks of pecorino, taleggio, gorgonzola, and that huge head of escarole I bought because it looked so bouncy compared with the lifeless red leaf and Boston lettuces. I’ve currently got five jars of anchovies because, well, I’m not sure why, but when I see good ones I buy them. Never can have too many anchovies. You’d be amazed how I slip them into dishes where they’re least expected. Beef stew, for instance.

This menu came into being partly as a race against time, but also for a need to brighten my evenings with salty, sweet, and spicy tastes. I now find myself turning to Southern Italian classics that get finished in the oven, such as stuffed peppers. But I also feel a need to expand that Mezzogiorno flavor palate with Mediterranean touches from Greece, Turkey, and Morocco. And in winter I long to gather lots of people around my table and entice them with a bit of food drama.

The orange salad with escarole and walnuts I have in mind is an improvisation on one I first learned from Paula Wolfert’s soul-expanding book Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco. Her recipe came back to me while I gazed at a big bag of cara cara oranges on my counter. I didn’t go back and look it up, but I remembered the basic idea. It had touches of sweetness. She used chicory, I’m pretty sure, so I used my big old escarole, which is a member of the chicory family. I added thin-sliced red onion and peeled a few of my cara caras. The vinaigrette was a mix of orange juice, sherry vinegar, olive oil, salt, black pepper, a pinch of allspice, and a few drops of orange flower water. Ms. Wolfert, I believe, used cinnamon, which is more traditional.

For the anchovy butter on the crostini, I just mashed anchovies into softened, unsalted butter, using a mortar and pestle, adding thyme at the end. It came out quite fluffy. I spread it thick on untoasted baguette slices so it didn’t melt. For some reason, I like it with a negroni. I mean, no food really goes with a negroni, but this works well enough.

The stuffed pepper recipe satisfied my need for warmth, for poetry, and for cleaning out my refrigerator.

Happy winter cooking, everyone.

Stuffed Peppers with Lamb, Goat Cheese, Sweet Spices, and a Honey and Mint Tomato Sauce

(Serves 4)

For the tomato sauce:

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium shallot, cut into small dice
1 large garlic clove, thinly sliced
A splash of red vermouth
1 35-ounce can of good whole tomatoes, well chopped (if your tomatoes contain purée, pour most of that off, as it may make the sauce unpleasantly creamy)
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon honey
Salt
Black pepper
A splash of chicken broth
About 6 large mint sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped

For the peppers:

4 green bell peppers, cut in half lengthwise, the seeds removed
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
¾ pound ground lamb
A big pinch of sugar
1 medium shallot, cut into small dice
1 large garlic clove, thinly sliced
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground allspice
Aleppo pepper, to taste
A splash of red vermouth, plus a little more for baking
A splash of chicken broth
1  1/2 cups cooked long-grain rice, white or brown
About 5 large sprigs flat-leaf parsley, the leaves lightly chopped
⅓ cup lightly toasted pine nuts
1 small log of soft, young goat cheese, crumbled

Make the tomato sauce: Drizzle about a tablespoon or so of olive oil into a sauté pan over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the shallot, and let it soften. Add the garlic, and sauté until it gives off fragrance, about a minute. Add a splash of vermouth, and let it boil off. Add the tomatoes, cinnamon, honey, salt, and black pepper. Cook, uncovered, at a medium bubble for 5 minutes. Add a splash of chicken broth, and cook for a few minutes longer. Turn off the heat, and let the pan of sauce sit on the burner while you work on the peppers.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Rub the peppers all over with olive oil. Season them with a little salt, and place them on a sheet pan, cut side up. Roast until fragrant and just starting to soften, about 15 minutes. Take them from the oven, and let them rest while you make the filling.

In a large sauté pan, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the lamb and the sugar (which will help the lamb brown). Sauté until lightly browned, about 4 minutes or so. Add the shallot and all the spices, including some salt. Sauté a minute, and then add the garlic. Continue sautéing until the lamb is crumbly and cooked through, about another 3 or 4 minutes. Add the vermouth, and let it boil away. Add a splash of chicken broth. Take the pan from the heat, and add the rice, stirring it in. Let it cool for a few minutes. Then add the parsley, pine nuts, and goat cheese, mixing lightly.

Choose a baking dish that will hold all the pepper halves with a little wiggle room. Coat the dish with olive oil. Fill the peppers with the rice mixture, and place them in the dish, cut side up. Drizzle the top with a little more olive oil and another splash of vermouth. Cover the dish with foil, and bake for 15 minutes. Uncover, and bake until the tops are lightly browned and the peppers are tender, about 15 minutes longer.

Reheat the tomato sauce, if needed, and add the mint. Spoon some sauce over each serving.

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myvespainting

The winter of 1977, when I moved into my first Manhattan apartment, was an exciting if sleazy time to be in the city. Fine with me. My place was right off Union Square, the pre-Greenmarket Union Square that no one except drug dealers and derelicts would dare enter even in daylight, which gave it a certain charm. My life would have been a bit better if I’d had a little soldi, but my bank account was beyond ridiculous. About three days a week I had literally no money. I had graduated from college, but that hadn’t helped direct me to reasonable employment. I was as lost as ever. So I worked at various freak show bookstores—at the Strand and then in the surreal circus known as “the phones” at the back of the 18th Street Barnes & Noble. That was a row of elementary school desks jammed with phones (not cell phones) and spiral notepads, stuffed away near the storage room. People would call and you’d have to race around the vast store scanning the shelves for a particular book while your customer hung on the line. It was a sweaty race and probably very good exercise, if I’d given a crap back then. I met lots of enchanting and seductive people at those jobs, but the money remained problematic.

I began searching for dishes from my childhood that seemed doable on my salary. Spaghetti puttanesca was mostly a winter dish when I was a kid, a pantry pasta made with canned tomatoes and bits of salty preserved things such as anchovies that my mother always had on hand. Not only was it one of my favorite pastas, but I figured I could scrape together the pennies it cost. So I went out collecting what I now consider were some of the poorest quality Italian ingredients on the market—metallic anchovies, limy olives that hinted of poison, capers that exploded into shreds at the touch of heat, stale oregano that broke down into dust, and canned tomatoes that went from acidic to horrendously acidic after hitting the pan. Buitoni pasta or an equivalent. My mother sometimes added canned tuna to her puttanesca, a touch I loved. I’d occasionally throw in a can, preferably olive oil packed, if I could swing it, since that was what she used. On occasions I’d just steal that. Yes, I stole Italian tuna. A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. I’d have to say the only thing that truly saved these dishes were the hot pepper flakes my friends dumped into napkins at Stromboli Pizza and then brought up to my dark, stuffy, cockroach-ridden apartment. Those friends were wanderers with varying degrees of ambition and all as broke as I was.

I cooked many versions of this pasta for a few years. It was sad and damn frustrating to see how lousy my cooking was, because of lack of funds. When living with my parents I had cooked great pasta all the time, and they had seemed to have money to buy good olives. How did they do it? After a few years on my own, I got educated at finding better quality ingredients, if not at making money. I grew pickier about my garlic. I bought fresh herbs like parsley and basil, which weren’t all that easy to find at supermarkets then. I went to Bleecker Street, Little Italy, and Arthur Avenue for the good stuff. It was interesting to discover that buying quality, at the time, at least, wasn’t that much more expensive than buying garbage.

Puttanesca is not strictly a Neapolitan dish, as some people think. It’s made throughout the South, with variations. The backbone of a traditional puttanesca is the Southern Italian trilogy of olives, capers, and anchovies, but in some regions and even households they’ll keep the capers and drop the olives, or vice versa. I can’t imagine not including anchovies. That, I think, must be some type of sin. Even considering regional adjustments, there’s not much improvisation room with this pasta—I mean, without turning it into something else. For instance, I’ve tried it without tomatoes and come up with a bowl of greasy, salty goodness, but I wouldn’t call it puttanesca.

Switching up my fresh herbs has been the key to variety. My mother, if I recall correctly, used flat-leaf parsley only. I love puttanesca with marjoram or Thai basil. A mix of thyme and parsley is also lovely. My more recent and somewhat better-heeled puttanesca attempts have evolved to cover a broader territory. This week I made one with seared cherry tomatoes, so decent in winter, fresh tuna, abundant mint leaves, and a sprinkling of za’atar, adding black olives and of course anchovies. I may be cooking dangerously on the edge here, but it still tastes like puttanesca to me. Please don’t call the Italian food police.

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Christmas at the Improv

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It’s the day before Christmas Eve, and because of matters of mental health I’ve just now begun thinking about Christmas Eve dinner. Traditionally at our house it’s the big fish dinner, but this year it’s gonna be not so big. I’ve decided on improvisations on classics such as pizza di scarola, this one Frenchified with comté and Niçoise olives, because, well, they’re what I’ve got in the fridge. And—I can hardly believe this—I’m making only one fish dish. But it’s bucatini with clams, the king of Christmas Eve fish offerings. This year I’m going to add thyme, a touch of Pimenton de la Vera, to give it a smoky edge, and, I think, roasted yellow cherry tomatoes. I can’t skip the Sicilian blood orange and fennel salad, so that’ll be in its rightful place. And for the grand finale, I’ll be making my stupidly easy crustless ricotta cake flavored with orange flower water. For me that beautiful essence is the aroma of Christmas.

Okay, so I’m knocking this thing out, a little edgy, probably a Xanax or two added to the mix, but it’s all going to be fine. As my friend Barbara says, “Just light a lot of candles. Then no one can see the dust.” So true.

Merry Christmas to all my wonderful and faithful readers. I know you’re all cooking up something nice, no matter what your mental state. Because that’s what we cooks do.

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Women with Fish

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A happy Vigilia di Natale from Women with Fish.

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