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Attempting to Capture Taste (Movement #2), squid ink applied by tongue on paper, by Christopher Reynolds.

Recipe below: Squid Ink Spaghetti with Tomatoes, Anchovies, and Saffron

If you have followed my cooking over the years, you know I love anchovies. As my style continues to evolve, anchovies endure. Pizza, to me, means anchovy pizza. Mozzarella with anchovies, ricotta with anchovies, spaghetti with anchovies, anchovy butter on lamb chops, anchovies eaten straight from the jar at 3 a.m. when I can’t sleep. For cooking, I prefer the deep musky taste of good oil-packed ones. The salt-packed are wonderful too, best marinated and eaten almost like fresh, but mostly when I want anchovies in a pasta, oil-packed are what I crave. I know you’re asking which ones I like best. Well, for me the best supermarket brands are Ortiz, from Spain, and the Italian Agostino Recca. You can spend more on fancier ones, but you really needn’t. Both of these are excellent to cook with.

Squid ink pasta cooks up slippery black, with a subtle salinity. I find it extremely attractive. It’s wonderful with an anchovy-based sauce like this one. I used Rustichella d’Abruzzo brand pasta. Setaro also makes a really good squid ink spaghetti.

Despite the amount of anchovy in this sauce, the dish is surprisingly sweet and gentle. Butter, shallots, saffron, and pine nuts give it luxury. Tomatoes and white wine add acidity. I like food with this kind of balance.

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Squid Ink Spaghetti with Tomatoes, Anchovies, and Saffron

(Serves 4 or 5)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large shallot, cut into small dice
8 or so thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
10 oil-packed anchovy fillets, roughly chopped
A palmful of pine nuts
1 pound squid ink spaghetti
2 pints grape tomatoes, halved
A big splash of white wine
A large pinch of saffron threads, dried and ground and then dissolved in a few tablespoons of warm water
½ cup chicken broth, or possibly a touch more
Piment d’Espelette to taste
A handful of basil leaves, lightly chopped
Salt, if needed

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

While the water is heating, set a large skillet over medium heat. Add a tablespoon of butter and a big drizzle of olive oil. Add the shallot, thyme, and anchovies, and sauté until everything is soft and fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add the pine nuts, and let them go golden, about a minute longer.

Drop the pasta in the pot.

Turn the heat up a bit under the butter and pine nuts, and add the tomatoes, letting them sear until they give off juice, about 3 minutes. Add a splash of white wine, and let it bubble out. Add the saffron water and the chicken broth, and simmer on low heat for a minute or so. Turn off the heat.

When the pasta is al dente, drain it, and pour it into a large serving bowl. Add the rest of the butter, and toss. Add the anchovy tomato sauce, a hit of Piment d’Espelette, and the basil. Add a bit more chicken broth if the sauce seems to need moisture. Add a little salt, if you want, and toss gently. Serve right away.

And for your listening pleasure, here’s a little tale by the J. Geils Band called “No Anchovies, Please.”

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Recipe below: Pasta Puttanesca with Fresh Cod, Black Olives, and Tarragon

When my first book, Pasta Improvvisata, came out, I did an interview with Erica Marcus, the food writer for Newsday. As the book’s theme was improvisation, she showed up at my apartment with a grab bag of ingredients I had no advance notice of. My job was to make an improvised pasta from it all. And she didn’t make it easy. One of the ingredients was fresh tarragon. That concerned me. Tarragon is not an herb used in Southern Italian cooking, and since my goal in the book was to create new pastas while staying inside the Southern Mediterranean orbit, I didn’t think it would work out very well.

I can’t remember exactly what kind of dish I came up with. I think it contained prosciutto, maybe cherry tomatoes, fettuccine, and, of course, the dreaded tarragon. All I can remember was being relieved that it tasted pretty good. We both enjoyed a nice Italian lunch with a bottle of Orvieto.

I happen to love tarragon. I now often try it when my Italian mind might say add fennel or basil. The flavors are not dissimilar, all being on the fennel-anise spectrum. Tarragon is to my palate more anise than fennel, but it goes really well with almost all things tomato, like this sauce.

So here’s an improvised puttanesca. I’ve added olives, capers, and anchovies, all standard. I had a great looking thick piece of cod that I needed to use immediately, and I had tarragon. So there you go. This came out better than expected. Delicious even. Don’t you love when that happens?

Note: There’s an important thing to remember about tarragon, if you’re buying it in a grocery or farmers’ market, or you want to grow it yourself: Make sure you get true French tarragon. That’s the superb culinary variety. Tarragons labeled Mexican (also known as Mexican marigold mint) or Russian are different. Both are harsher and lack that sweet  anise aroma. And they look a little different, too, having fatter and darker leaves. Those herbs, in my opinion, aren’t great to cook with, though I’d take the Mexican over the Russian in a pinch.

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Pasta Puttanesca with Fresh Cod, Black Olives, and Tarragon

(Serves 4 or 5)

1½ pounds thick cod fillet, skinned and cut into approximately 1-inch chunks
Salt
Black pepper
A big pinch of fennel pollen or ground fennel seed
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, cut into small dice
1 celery stalk, with the leaves from 3 stalks, chopped
3 oil-packed anchovy fillets, chopped
¼ cup dry vermouth
½ cup chicken broth
1 28-ounce can plum tomatoes, drained and chopped
A palmful of salt-packed Sicilian capers, soaked and drained
A palmful of black olives, pitted and pulled in half (I used the wrinkled Moroccan type)
2 tablespoons butter
1 pound gemelli or penne
Aleppo pepper
About 8 or so large tarragon sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
About 8 or so large sprigs of flat-leaf parsley, the leaves lightly chopped

Toss the cod chunks in salt, black pepper, and the fennel pollen or seed. Drizzle in a little olive oil, and let sit unrefrigerated.

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

While the water is heating, set up a large skillet over medium heat.  Add a tablespoon or so of olive oil. Add the onion and celery, with the leaves, and sauté until softened and fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add the anchovies, working them in. Add the vermouth, letting it bubble out for a few seconds. Add the chicken broth and the tomatoes. Add a little salt and black pepper, and simmer at a low bubble for 10 minutes, just long enough to bring the flavors together.

Start cooking the pasta.

Over low heat, add the capers and olives to the tomato sauce. Add the cod chunks, and simmer just until they’re tender, only a minute or so.  Add a sprinkling of Aleppo and the tarragon.

When the pasta is al dente, drain it, and pour it into a large serving bowl. Add the butter, and toss. Add the cod sauce and the parsley, and toss gently, so you don’t break up the cod. Serve right away.

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Fish and Tomatoes, by Chaim Soutine, 1924.

Recipe below: Sautéed Hake with Butter, Ginger, and Pine Nuts

Fish fillets sautéed in lots of butter. I get pleasure just writing that. Fish with butter is perfect. It isn’t something I grew up with. Fish was always cooked in olive oil then, unless my mother was making her Gourmet magazine version of trout amandine, which I loved. But I seem to have been eating fish cooked in tons of butter in restaurants forever. Much butter, a little salt, a shot of acid. It’s easy to do at home, too. You just continuously spoon bubbling hot butter over fish fillets until they’re cooked. The fish gets infused with butter, and thus with richness and tenderness. It is extremely good.

I used hake for my version here because that was what looked freshest at my market. Mild white fillets work best, and you could use sea bass or halibut. The natural oils from salmon or mackerel would overwhelm the butter. And for this particular technique you’ll want skinless fillets, so the butter can easily infuse the fish, soaking in for an opulent taste.

The butter left over from this cooking technique is often a bit strong-tasting, so I usually make a little sauce or condimento separately. This time I seared grape tomatoes with fresh ginger and rosemary. Ginger might seem a weird spice to pair with tomatoes, but as you’ll see, it works well, adding depth and a spiky sweetness. And rosemary is surprisingly good mixed with ginger. I never knew that before I tried it here.

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Sautéed Hake with Butter, Ginger, and Pine Nuts

(Serves 2)

2 skinless fillets of hake or another white fish such as sea bass, bronzino, halibut, or cod
Salt
Black pepper
½ teaspoon ground ginger
A pinch of sugar
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 shallot, minced
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
½ teaspoon allspice
1 pint grape tomatoes
A splash of white or rosé wine
A handful of pine nuts, lightly toasted
A few large rosemary sprigs, the leaves chopped, plus a bit more to garnish the fish
Piment d’Espelette to taste
The juice from 1 lemon

Dry off the fish fillets, and season them with salt, black pepper, ground ginger, and a pinch of sugar. Let them sit while you prepare the sauce.

In a medium sauté pan, heat a tablespoon of the butter and a drizzle of olive oil over medium high heat. Add the shallot and the ginger and the allspice. Sauté until the shallot is softened a bit, about a minute or so. Add the tomatoes and the rosemary, season with salt, and cook until they just start to crack their skins but are still holding their shape, about 4 minutes. Add the wine, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Turn off the heat. Add the pine nuts and a little Espelette.

In a wide sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of butter over medium high heat until it’s bubbling. Place the fish fillets in the pan, presentation side down, and cook them, without moving them at all, until you can see that their edges are browning nicely. This should take about 4 minutes. Shake the pan a bit. If the fillets move around and aren’t sticking, they’re ready to be flipped. Give them a turn with a spatula. Add the rest of the butter and the lemon juice, saving a squeeze for the tomatoes. Continue cooking the fillets, spooning the lemon butter over the top repeatedly, for a few minutes more until the fish is just tender. Season the top of the fish with a little more salt, a sprinkling of Espelette, and the rest of the rosemary. Lift the fish out of the pan and onto plates with a slotted spatula.

Turn on the heat under the tomatoes to reheat it a touch. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and a splash of water if it seems dry.

Give the tomatoes a taste to check for seasoning, and then serve them out next to and slightly over the fish. Serve right away.

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Women with Fish

Steve Thornton

The have and the have nots.

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Anchovy Butter

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Orange Gown, by Anita Volschenk.

Recipe below: Anchovy Butter

Last week I invited a few friends over to taste test my recipe for a Moroccan-inspired braised squid (which I’ve posted here). I needed an easy antipasto that everyone would like and that wouldn’t require enough thinking to take my mind off the squid (which came out really well). Anchovy butter came to mind. I love the stuff, just a fluffy mix of anchovies and good butter, plus maybe an herb, marjoram, thyme, or mint, served on crostini or on radishes or endive leaves. It was always a big hit during my catering days in the 1980s. I have to say I don’t miss catering. It’s too strange and stressful a job. But it does come with the bonus, especially in Manhattan, of getting to see lots of fancy-ass apartments. A cheap thrill, I know, but a thrill nonetheless. I remember one weird gig in particular where anchovy butter came into play.

This was a cocktail party in an I guess Edwardian-style former mansion, two floors of which now belonged to Shere Hite, the author of The Hite Report, a controversial book about female sexuality that had come out in the 1970s. The party was on Fifth Avenue around 64th or 65th Street. It revolved around a piano recital given by her classical pianist husband. From what I could tell it was a benefit or celebration for some type of Portuguese version of the Knights of Malta (there are so many strange clubs out there). As the evening got underway, men dressed in what looked like drum major outfits, with thick sashes across their chests, filled up Miss Hite’s pastel blue main room, under a high ceiling decorated with white cherubs, angels, and ribbons. There was an intensely polished parquet floor. and long, ornate windows, more cherubs around them. A grand piano sat in the middle of it all. I had never seen a dwelling of such old-fashioned opulence, except in a museum.

I hadn’t met Miss Hite before, and when I saw her gliding toward me as I set up the kitchen I wasn’t sure she was real. Her age was hard to figure, either teenage or a well preserved fiftyish. Fascinating. She was dressed in a bright orange strapless ball gown, and her arms and neck were skinny and fragile. Her long, wavy hair glowed a strange shade of peach. Her face didn’t glow. It was white and lineless, Kabuki-like. She was kind of gorgeous. I stared blankly as she gave me vague commands. And then the piano music began.

I can’t remember what else I put on the menu that night, possibly chives, salmon roe, crème fraîche, or other 1980s catering standards (with chervil? We used a lot of chervil back then), but the anchovy butter I do recall, because it tasted a little flat. It was to be spread on crostini and then topped with a twirl of roasted pepper. I opened the refrigerator to look for something to pep it up, not sure what exactly, mustard or lemon, maybe, but Miss Hite’s fridge contained nothing that resembled food. It was filled with rows of vials, of medicines or vitamins, maybe. Glass ampules that seemed completely in place with the surroundings. What century was this? There was writing on them, but I couldn’t figure out what it indicated. I did, however, have a sense that they were somehow connected to her otherworldly beauty. Needless to say, the anchovy butter went out as is. The rest of the party is a blur. I got moderately drunk on her good champagne, and the next thing I knew, the drum majors had left and I was cleaning up the mess.

I wasn’t sure what had become of my hosts, so there was no one to ask about a freight elevator or some inconspicuous way I could dispose of two black bags full of garbage. I went down and asked the doorman, and he said just bring them down on the regular elevator and he’d take care of them. Okay. So I dragged the bags onto the elevator, figuring since it was late I’d run into no one. But there was a woman there. I said hello. She said, “ Can help you with that?” “Oh no, that’s all right. It’s messy.” “I’m used to messy,” she said. This was a black woman, and it was late, so in this insanely fancy building I first guessed she might be someone’s maid. Terrible, I know. But she looked familiar. Pretty, with a turned up nose and lovely eyes. Then I got it. “Excuse me, are you Donna Summer?” “Yes. I live on the next floor.” “Oh, wow. You’re the best. I love you” is the stupidity I think I came out with. She smiled and said, “You sure you don’t need help with that?”

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So, here’s how you make anchovy butter:

Anchovy Butter

Let a stick of good quality unsalted butter sit out until soft. While it’s softening, soak 7 or 8 oil-packed anchovies (I like Agostino Recca) in a little warm water for about 10 minutes, and then drain them. Put the butter and the drained anchovies in a food processor bowl. Add a few turns of black pepper, a touch of nutmeg, and the leaves from 3 or 4 sprigs of thyme. Pulse just until you have a fluffy mass, maybe about 5 pulses. Taste it, and add a few drops of lemon juice or tarragon vinegar, or possibly even salt, if you think it needs them. Scrape out the anchovy butter into a small bowl.

It’s best used right away, but if you need to refrigerate it, that’s okay; just make sure you get it back to room temperature softness so you can spread it. I use it for many things. It’s wonderful on a tomato sandwich, or melted over braised fennel, or on endive leaves, radishes, or celery, for an antipasto. Or try tossing it with al dente spaghetti or working a little into scrambled eggs. And it’s great melted over grilled steak or lamb chops, too.

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Recipe below: Braised Calamari with Sweet Spices

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

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

A note about preparing saffron:

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

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Braised Calamari with Sweet Spices

(Serves 4)

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

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

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

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

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

Right before serving, scatter on the almonds and basil.

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

 

 

 

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