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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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Still Life with Eggplant, by Henri Matisse.

Recipe below: Eggplant Antipasto with Crème Fraîche and Thyme

The first New Yorkgrown eggplants have arrived at my Greenmarket. What a fine time this always is for me. This vegetable symbolizes, even more than tomatoes, what I find best about my Southern Italian heritage. My people were burdened souls with a talent for creating beauty out of dirt, heat, and just little moisture. The regal eggplant, easy to grow in hot, dusty soil, was a crown in that tradition. It’s the most delicious vegetable on earth, to my palate, and it has the added bonus of being gorgeous.

The other night I had a gal friend over for a much anticipated  bowl of pasta with Genoese pesto, a dish I cook up only in high summer, when it’s at its best. Making pesto is a ritual and a celebration. I like to follow this special dish with a heirloom tomato salad, seasoned with sea salt and my best olive oil. And to serve before the pasta? Eggplant. What else? So off I went to the Greenmarket looking for my fave, the Rosa Bianca, a round, Sicilian type with violet and white stripes. I couldn’t find any. I was disappointed until I saw pile of lovely Prosperas, another Italian variety. They’re dark, round, heavy, and so shiny.

I guess I had baba ganoush in mind for my antipasto offering, but the tub of tahini I thought I had in the fridge was nowhere to be found. I did however, notice an almost spent container of crème fraîche, so I figured I’d use that up, hoping for the best.

And it worked, very nicely. A French-and-Italian inspired baba ganoush was what emerged, and it was a keeper. It’s brighter than the classic, thanks to the crème fraîche. Gentle and light was the way the recipe was heading, so I decided not to grill the eggplants, which would  have given them that traditional baba ganoush smokey taste, but to roast them instead. Then I added fresh thyme, a little tomato, and a bit of ras el hanout, a sweet Moroccan spice mix.

You can use any type of eggplant for this, but make sure it’s locally grown. There’s such a difference. When I cut into a seasonal beauty, it gives off an aroma of vegetal earth, deep and rich, not the faint sourness that a winter eggplant can exude.

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Prospera eggplant, an Italian heirloom. Gorgeous.

Eggplant Antipasto with Crème Fraîche and Thyme

(Serves 4 to 6)

2 medium eggplants, cut in half lengthwise
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
Black pepper
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 medium shallot, minced
1 summer garlic clove, minced
½ teaspoon ras el hanout
½ teaspoon sugar
2 small summer tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and cut into small dice (as in a concassé)
1½ tablespoons crème fraîche
About 8 large thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Score the cut side of each eggplant half in a crisscross, without digging into the skin. Drizzle the pieces liberally with olive oil, and place them skin side down on a baking sheet. Season with salt and black pepper, and roast until lightly browned and softened throughout, about ½ hour (test a piece with a knife to make sure it’s soft). Let it cool for about 15 minutes, and then scoop out the flesh with a large spoon. Discard the skins.

Put the eggplant flesh in a food processor, and pulse two or three times, just to give it a rough chop (you’re not looking for a smooth purée here).

Melt a tablespoon of butter in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the shallot, and let it soften for about a minute. Add the garlic, and sauté for a few seconds, just to release its flavor. Add the eggplant, the ras el hanout, and the sugar, season with a little salt and black pepper, and sauté until everything is well blended and fragrant, about 2 minutes. Take the pan off the heat, and add the tomatoes, folding them in.

Let everything cool for about 5 minutes. Now add the crème fraîche and the thyme, mixing it well.

Spoon the eggplant into a nice looking bowl. Serve with crostini.

To enjoy a soft, creamy texture, offer this at room temperature, preferably soon after making. Crème fraîche firms up with refrigeration.

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How I Make Pesto

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Still Life with Mortar and Pestle, by Steve Capper.

Recipes below: Pesto with Parsley, Marjoram, and Walnuts; Pesto with Mint, Almonds, and Pecorino Romano

A mortar and pestle is a beautiful thing. If I lost control of my purchasing impulse I’d buy tons of them. But in the real world I own three, a dark wooden one for mashing up moist stuff like anchovies or avocados, a smaller white marble type I use mostly for dry spices, and a medium-size ceramic one whose surface is roughed up for better traction. It’s perfect for grinding fresh herbs. That’s what I use for pesto, when I make it that way.

I’ve eaten classic basil pesto in Liguria, the place of its birth, and I’m always amazed by how creamy it usually is, and how light green. Surely this must be because everyone there makes it the old fashioned way, by hand, with a mortar and pestle. Wait a minute, a restaurant that serves 200 covers a night is grinding pesto by hand? I don’t think so. They’ve got to be doing what I’ve started doing.

The therapeutic value of  manually working herbs and garlic into a paste is significant. When I rotate and press the pestle in a repeated circular motion, releasing aromas into the air, something goes quiet in my head, ridding me of nasty rumination. When I make pesto for two, that’s the way I go. I love to pour a glass of wine and start grinding away. Restorative. But when I need to feed a big group, all that grinding (which can take way over an hour) actually increases my anxiety. It has even made me cry. At times like that, out comes the food processor. My mortar and pestle produces a creamier pesto, less rough-edged, one that clings to troffie or fusilli artfully. I’ve never quite gotten that perfection with my food processor—until recently, when I changed the way I used it.

Years ago, when I first made food processor pesto, I was cautious. Basil seemed so delicate, so thin-leaved that I didn’t want to traumatize it, so I stopped my grinding just when I achieved emulsion. But there remained a slight grittiness, a not completely blended look and mouth feel. Yet I was afraid to over process it, afraid it would oxidize, from, I figured, repeated contact with metal. Why did I fear that? I knew that pesto turns dark mainly from exposure to air, but I convinced myself that the blade was partly to blame.

It wasn’t. When I got over that stupidity, I started to let my pesto process for a little longer than instinct dictated. And, what do you know, I come up with something smooth and creamy and richer tasting than when I had stopped at my previous tentative point. All it took was a little more oomph. I start with the nuts and garlic, then add the herbs, then the cheese, then the oil, and then I let it all go for a full minute, without pulsing, allowing it to whip and fluff up. I’m happy with this new texture and the way it clings to pasta. It’s more like mortar and pestle style. Not quite as luscious, but close.

Pesto will darken quickly however I make it, even as it sits, just tossed, in a bowl on my dining room table. That disturbs me, but now, more often than not, I blanch and shock the herbs. This, I’ve been told, is highly unorthodox, although I did learn it while cooking at Le Madre, a high-end Italian-run Manhattan restaurant, so I’ve figured it was, on some level, legit. Now I use this technique with classic Genoa pesto and with any other herb-based pesto improvisation I come up with.

Here are a couple of non-basil pestos you might like to try. In the first one, I use Liguria’s other favorite herb, marjoram, adding parsley and walnuts, which sometimes replace pine nuts in Genoa pesto. In Liguria they don’t add black pepper or any kind of pepper to pesto, feeling it would compete with the punch of the herbs. I agree with that completely, so I don’t add any here.

It doesn’t taste like the classic, but it sure is good, and not just on pasta. Try it spooned over grilled fish or vegetables. Or make my new favorite, marjoram pesto tossed with gemelli and then topped with just grilled shrimp. Pure beauty.

I’m also including a mint and almond pesto for your consideration. I recently served it with tuna and red pepper spiedini, and they made a good match. It’s also nice spooned over a summer tomato salad.

Whenever I toss pesto with pasta, I make sure and work in a little of the cooking water to loosen it up, ensuring creamy coverage. You can thin down any pesto with a little water if you want a more pourable sauce to drizzle over fish, meat, or vegetables.

The proportions in these two pesto recipes are what feels right to me. To my palate, most pesto I’ve tasted in this country contain way too much garlic. Four or five cloves to a cup or so of herbs is overkill. Pesto is a delicate balance. I never use a sharp cheese, such as pecorino Romano, in a pesto. I don’t add black pepper. My oil will always be mild but of high quality. I pass along these ideas to you hoping you’ll consider them while finding your own balance of flavors.

Pesto with Parsley, Marjoram, and Walnuts

(Enough for a pound of pasta or as a condimento for 4)

1½ cups flat-leaf parsley leaves
½ cup marjoram leaves
½ cup very fresh shelled walnuts
1 large summer garlic clove, roughly chopped
½ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese
⅓ cup grated Pecorino Sardo cheese (I find Pecorino Romano too harsh for this)
About ½ cup-extra virgin olive oil (one on the mellow side, not too biting)
Salt

Set up a medium pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Add all the herbs, and blanch for about 30 seconds. Drain into a colander, and run under cold water to stop the cooking and set their color. Drain well, and then squeeze out as much water as you can. You’ll now have a small mossy lump that doesn’t look like much, but, don’t worry, the flavor will be quite concentrated.

Put the walnuts in a food processor, and pulse until fairly well ground. Add the garlic and all the herbs, and pulse until all is moist, crumbly, and green. Add the cheese, the olive oil, and a little salt, and process until you’ve got a smooth, not too thick paste. If the pesto is still crumbly or clumping up, add a little more olive oil until it runs smooth.

Pesto with Mint, Almonds, and Pecorino Toscano

(Good for 1 pound of pasta or as a condimento for 4)

2 cups fresh spearmint leaves
½ cup blanched almonds, roughly chopped
⅛ teaspoon allspice
1 large summer garlic clove, roughly chopped
½ cup aged Pecorino Toscano cheese, grated
⅓ cup grated Piave cheese
About ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil (again, a mellow one; you don’t want a sharp Tuscan oil here)
Salt

Blanch the mint in a pot of boiling water for 30 seconds. Drain, and run it under cold water to bring up its color. Squeeze out as much water as you can.

Put the almonds, allspice, and garlic in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until well chopped. Add the mint, and pulse until it’s incorporated and everything is green. Add the cheese, olive oil, and a little salt, and process until the mixture is smooth. If it’s a little dry, add a drizzle more of oil.

The blanching should hold the color in both of these pestos for few days, but I’d try to use them as soon as possible to capture them at the height of their flavor.

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