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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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Zucchini, by Harry Stooshinoff.

Recipe below: Zucchini Gratin with Marjoram, Wild Fennel, and Parsley

Here’s a nice thing to eat while recuperating from a bout of summertime Lyme disease, as I am now. It’s so easy to throw together you can even do it with a raging fever. Add a green salad, maybe one with a mustard dressing to play against the richness of the gratin, and you’ve got a full meal.

This year my herb garden is especially robust, and is probably where I picked up Lyme in the first place. At any rate, lately I’ve been thinking up combinations of three or more herbs, which can be tricky. I want them to blend well, with no hard edges, but I still need to taste the essence of each one. An herb union that for me without a doubt works is the time-honored French fines herbes blend of parsley, chives, tarragon, and chervil. It marries two anisey tastes, one strong, one delicate, while the chives act more like a savory ingredient, and the parsley is just flat-out gorgeous, as in so many dishes.

Here I’ve chosen three classic Mediterranean herbs, relying on the idea that what grows together goes together. The flavor is strong but not hit-you-over-the-head herby, and I love the way the herbs open up in the setting of the custard that holds the whole thing together. I’m thinking this trio would also make a great pesto for pasta. I’m planning to try that as soon as dinner rolls around again.

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Zucchini Gratin with Marjoram, Wild Fennel, and Parsley

For this gratin I used an 8-x-11-inch oval Le Creuset baking dish. Anything more or less that size will work well.

(Serves 4 as a main course or 5 or 6 as a side dish)

A little softened butter to grease your pan
3 large eggs
¾ cup milk
3 tablespoons crème fraiche
¾ cup grated fontina Val d’Aosta cheese
¼ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
½ teaspoon quatre épices
1 tablespoon  cognac
Salt
Black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
5 medium summer zucchini, not too thick, cut into coins
1 summer onion, thinly sliced
1 fresh garlic clove, thinly sliced
½ teaspoon thin honey
5 sprigs of marjoram, the leaves lightly chopped
A few wild fennel fronds, well chopped
6 or so large sprigs of flat-leaf parsley, the leaves chopped

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees, and butter your gratin dish well (on the inside only).

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the eggs, milk, crème fraiche, cheeses, quatre epices, and cognac. Season with salt and black pepper, and whisk well.

In a large sauté pan, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high flame. When it’s hot, add the zucchini and the onion, and sauté until golden and fragrant, about 6 or 7 minutes. Add the garlic in the last minute of cooking. Season with salt, black pepper, and the honey. Add all the herbs, mixing them in.

Pour the zucchini into the gratin dish, smoothing it out. Give the cheese mixture a few more whisks, and pour it over top.

Bake until golden at the edges and just firm in the center, about ½ hour.

Let sit for about 10 minutes before serving.

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Woman with Fish

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I’m a strong woman with a righteous fish hat.

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Still Life with Chicken, by bijijoo.

Recipe below: Chicken Liver Crostini with Watercress and Radish Salad

Roman Polanski seems to have a deep interest in watching blonde women eat raw meat. In his film Repulsion, you see Catherine Deneuve gnaw on a bloody steak and also tote a raw, skinned rabbit around in her purse. Then in Rosemary’s Baby, you watch Mia Farrow devour raw calf’s liver in a satanic fit. I first saw both of those films when I was a teenager. You’d think watching that carnage would have disgusted me, but not so fast. As a budding cook, I was fascinated by the idea of someone eating raw liver. It’s smooth, shiny, and springy to the touch, so different from, say, hamburger meat. It must, I thought, be something special.

Maybe not surprisingly, I turned out to be a liver lover, especially chicken liver. I do, however, prefer it cooked, though, yes, I have tried raw chicken livers. Their taste isn’t bad, but their mouth feel is troublesome. The thing with liver is that you don’t want it raw, but you don’t want it hammered either. People who are grossed out by liver, in my opinion, have eaten it overcooked, when it’s tough, depressingly gray, and irony. Cooked right—quickly and left pink within—it’s creamy and has an intriguing mineral undertaste.

Some of my favorite pastas have included chicken livers, either with tomato, in the Mezzogiorno fashion, or with a white sauce, created with the mingling of a soffrito, some booze, and a little chicken broth. Here’s my recipe for the latter. Another favorite preparation, one that’s quick and elegant, is to caramelize chicken livers over high heat, leaving them pink at the center, splash on some cognac, and then toss them into a salad of bitter greens. That gives you a beautiful marriage of flavors, just about the best thing I’ve found to ease myself out of a hangover, especially when taken with a glass of light, dry wine such as a frascati. If you’d like to try it, here’s my recipe.

 

At the moment my favorite way with chicken livers is in a pâté. The classic Tuscan version usually contains capers, a touch of anchovy, and fresh sage. I’ve been making it that way for years. But lately I’ve wanted to change it up, toward a more French style built on butter, brandy, and gentle seasoning. Unlike most classic pâtés, which can take half a day to prepare, the chicken liver types come together in only about twenty minutes. This one is very smooth, with hints of thyme and sweet spices. In this recipe, I serve the pâté with a salad, but if you prefer, just send it out in a ramekin, along with crackers or toast points (remember those?).

Chicken Liver Crostini with Watercress and Radish Salad

(Serves 4 as a first course)

For the pâté:

¾ stick unsalted butter, softened
About ¾ pound chicken livers, trimmed and cut into approximately 1-inch pieces
1 shallot, minced
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
¼ teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
1 fresh bay leaf
4 large sprigs thyme, the leaves lightly chopped, plus the leaves from a few more sprigs for garnish
Salt
A tablespoon of cognac, calvados, or brandy
Black pepper

Plus:

1 baguette, cut into thin rounds on an angle

For the salad:

2 bunches watercress, stemmed
5 gentle spring radishes, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon Spanish sherry vinegar
Salt

In a medium sauté pan, heat a tablespoon of butter over medium heat. Add the chicken livers, shallot, garlic, allspice, nutmeg, bay leaf, and thyme. Season with salt, and sauté over medium flame until the livers are cooked through but have a bit of pink left in the middle. You’re not going for browning here. You just want them tender. This should take about 4 minutes.

Add the cognac, and let it bubble for a few seconds (be careful, as it can flame up). Take the pan off the heat, and let the livers cool down for a few minutes. You should have a tiny bit of liquid in the pan. If not, add a splash of warm water.

Remove the bay leaf, and add the livers and any cooking liquid to a food processor. Pulse until roughly puréed.

Add the softened butter and a few grindings of black pepper. Purée until everything is blended and smooth. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt if needed.

Spoon the pâté into a ramekin or a shallow ceramic bowl. Refrigerate for several hours before serving. This will help it firm up and develop flavor.

To serve, place the watercress and the sliced radish in a salad bowl. Pour on the olive oil, and sprinkle on the vinegar. Season with a little salt and toss. Toast the bread rounds (three per serving), and spread a thick layer of pâté on each one. Divide the salad onto 4 plates and surround each serving with three crostini. Garnish the crostini with thyme leaves.

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Italian Vegetable Garden, by Simona Cristofari.

Recipe below: Peppers and Eggs

Arriving home on Long Island at 4 a.m. or so from another night of Manhattan club-hopping, exhausted and starving as only a teenager can be, I’d sometimes wander out to my father’s little backyard garden to grab a tomato or a pepper, or parsley, or anything that would help me turn out a fast dish of eggs or a sandwich. Occasionally I’d run into my father back there, in the semi-dark, wearing a bathrobe or pajama bottoms, the orange coal of his Winston glowing. He’d be weeding, picking dead leaves, evaluating the growth of his eggplants, the zucchini, pinching back his now huge basil plants. At first I was startled to see him there at such an odd hour, but soon it became unsurprising. It was just what he did. We’d chat briefly about my evening, about the group of rotating gay boys I went out with, which always made him shake his head and laugh.

My hunger made me not want to linger in the damp garden. I’d be thinking that the peppers looked very much ready for picking. “I’m going in to make peppers and eggs,” I’d say. “Do you want some?” The light would be just starting to come up, bringing his bushy herb plot into focus. The Italian parsley was so big its leaves drooped to the ground. He’d look over at his tangle of plants, some held up by broken pool cues, and grab two half-red Italian frying peppers, a handful of basil, and a few sprigs of oregano. “I’ll make the eggs,” he’d say. He liked cooking eggs.

At the kitchen table I’d pour us diet root beer and run a wet paper towel over my face in an effort to remove what remained of the evening’s ridiculous makeup job. I was still wearing the turquoise-colored, Pucci-inspired muumuu I had found in the depths of my mother’s closet. It now smelled of dried sweat and amyl nitrite.

He cooked the eggs quickly, adding garlic and salt. I found a hunk of semi-stale Arthur Avenue bread and put it on the table. I was so hungry I could hardly stand it. The mingling aromas of torn basil and peppers smelled so good. My father tilted the pan, scraping and folding until the eggs were firm. It wasn’t an omelet, and it wasn’t scrambled eggs. It was something in between. We just called it peppers and eggs. An Italian-American classic. It was one of the best meals of my young life.

Here’s how I like to make it:

Peppers and Eggs

For two servings, you’ll need an Italian frying pepper, preferably one that has passed through its pure green phase and is starting to show some red. Seed and slice it. Chop up a scallion, including most of the tender green part. Clean a handful of basil leaves, and then give them a rough chop. Pull the leaves off a large oregano sprig, leaving them whole. Whisk six eggs in a small bowl.

Get a sauté pan hot over medium heat. Add a tablespoon or so of good olive oil, swirling it around to coat the pan. Now add the pepper slices, and sauté them until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the scallion, and let it soften for a minute longer.

Add the eggs, letting them sit for about 30 seconds. Scatter on the herbs, and season with salt and black pepper. Now, using a flexible, heatproof spatula, start pulling the eggs in from the edges toward the center, letting the uncooked parts run into the pan bottom. You don’t want to do a scrambling motion; you want long strokes, so you get more of a lumpy omelet effect. Keep pulling back on the eggs until they’re just set but have not browned at all. You’re not going for runny French eggs here, but you also don’t want them dry.

Cut the eggs in half, and slide them onto two plates. This is best served with good Italian bread and either an espresso, a glass of white wine, or a diet root beer, depending.

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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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