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Women with Fish

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Just because I’m completely blind doesn’t mean I don’t want to be seen. See me. See my fish.

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7291115172a12977a4ce9d37c928672bStill Life with Garlic and Lucinda’s Tomato, by Sarah Jane Moon.

Recipe below: Tomato Torta with Fontina, Mustard, and Tarragon

Per I Ospiti

In my relatively long time on this earth, I’ve never owned anything. Well, nothing major. I must admit I do have a nice collection of Repetto shoes, but I’ve always rented apartments and cars. Now I own a house. Incredible. Owning, it turns out, has supplied me with unexpected feelings. It’s more intimate than I would have imagined. And cooking in my  house has taken on both a protective quality and a formality that’s new to me. I’m hoping it’s a transitional thing.

Over all the decades of cooking I’ve done in my city apartment, I’ve always said to myself, “Tonight friends are coming for dinner,” or “Friends are stopping by for a glass of wine.” Or, when the affairs turned into intense production numbers, “Tonight twenty friends are coming for an eight-course Sicilian dinner.” But at my new house I’ve started thinking of my friends as guests. “Guests are coming for drinks.” Now, these are for most part the same friends. Odd. I wonder if a reserve has set in with ownership, or maybe awkwardness at being in a new and much bigger kitchen. It also might have something to do with the fact that some of these guests stay the night, and not just because they get drunk and fall asleep in the bathtub, but as actual invitees. I now need towels, and sheets, and doors that close. I have two extra bedrooms, sometimes with people inside them wearing bathrobes. What a concept.

One thing I am finding is the need to have more stuff on hand, more cheese, olives, wine, and bread. People show up, excited to see the place. I cook things that can be cut into pieces and passed around, high hostess style, and I’ve been making  a lot of savory tarts. They’re relatively easy but fancy looking. Antipasti at the ready. You might want to try this one, which is really a celebration of the last of the summer tomatoes. It has been a great year for tomatoes.

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You’ll want a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom.

(Serves 6 as an antipasto)

For the dough:

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup dry white wine

For the torta:

Extra-virgin olive oil
5 medium round summer tomatoes (any color, or a mix of colors), sliced into not-too-thin rounds and set on paper towels to absorb some moisture
2 heaping tablespoons crème fraîche
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 small garlic clove, minced
½ teaspoon allspice
1 large egg
Salt
Black pepper
8 large sprigs tarragon, the leaves lightly chopped
¾ cup grated fontina Val d’Aosta cheese (use the large holes of your grater, as the cheese is somewhat soft)
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten with a little water, to brush on the crust

To make the dough: Place the flour in a medium bowl. Add all the other ingredients, and mix with a wooden spoon until you have a moist crumbly mass. Now squeeze the dough together with your hands so it clumps. Tilt it out onto a workspace, and knead and press it together very briefly, just until you have a ball.  Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and let it rest, unrefrigerated, for an hour.

After the dough has rested, heat the oven to 425 degrees. Lightly oil your tart pan.

Roll out the dough. You’ll see that it’s very easy to work with. You won’t even need to flour your workspace. Drape the dough into the tart pan, leaving about ½ inch of overhang. Press the inside so the dough is up again the sides of the pan. Trim off excess by taking a rolling pin around the perimeter. Now build up the sides, by pushing the dough a bit higher than the tart rim. This will prevent it from shrinking too much during baking.

In a small bowl, whisk together the creme fraîche, Dijon, garlic, allspice, and egg. Season with a little salt and black pepper. Whisk in about a teaspoon or so of warm water to loosen the mixture to a still thick but pourable consistency.

Place the tomatoes in the tart pan in a slightly overlapping circular pattern. Season them lightly with salt and black pepper. Pour the crème fraîche mix evenly over the tomatoes, making sure not to let any run under the edge of the dough. Scatter the tarragon evenly over the top and sprinkle on the fontina. Brush the edges of the dough with the egg wash.

Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the crust turns golden and the inside is set. Let rest about 10 minutes before slicing. It will be good warm or at room temperature, and it will be especially nice with a glass of Falanghina or another mineraly Italian white wine.

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Antonio_Sicurezza_-_Still_life_with_anchoviesStill Life with Anchovies, by Antonio Sicurezza, 1972.

Recipe Below: Pane Cunzato

Anyone who follows my blog knows how crazy I am for anchovies. In my opinion a sandwich of only anchovies is a beautiful thing. In the summer a drippy tomato sandwich with olive oil and just about any decent bread is always a hit. The addition of a few anchovies elevates it to high art. When I first visited Sicily and was introduced to pane cunzato, a panino of peasant origin that contains tomatoes, anchovies, and primo sale, well, that was just too much. That sandwich was designed just for me. It tugged at my Sicilian soul.

Cunzare means to dress. In its most peasant form, dressing pane cunzato can mean only a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of dried oregano. With good oil, that’s a nice panino. But now we expect pane cunzato (or cunzatu, as it’s more often spelled in Sicily) to have tomatoes, anchovies, dried oregano, and primo sale, a very young pecorino cheese. And like many foods with humble roots, it has become somewhat trendy, with Sicilian chefs sometimes getting a little too creative, presenting it as an open-face bruschetta with its ingredients artfully arranged in a peak, or as a giant roll stuffed with eggplant, tomatoes, tuna, capers, and olives, making it more like the Niçoise pan bagnat, which I love. But the cunzato was originally conceived as a much simpler food.

I first tasted cunzato in San Vito lo Capo, Sicily, a beach town famous for the grand couscous festival it holds every June. I rolled into town way past couscous and beach season, but a few panini shops were open, and I zeroed right in on the sandwiches that contained anchovies. I wasn’t wrong to do so. The cunzato was soft and hot, made with bread that seemed pulled straight from the oven, not toasted. Usually these are round flat rolls made with durum wheat flour. When I fashion a cunzato at home I often purchase small focaccie from Sullivan Street Bakery, and after filling them I wrap them in foil and stick them in the oven for about 5 minutes, so they steam heat.

Since I’ve gone herb wild this summer, this time around I’ve replaced the traditional dried oregano in this cunzato with fresh marjoram and a little lemon thyme. Really delicious, but if you want to experience a more authentic version, find good Sicilian dried oregano and just crumble a little into each panino.

Note: If you can’t find primo sale, a young Sicilian or Tuscan pecorino will work well. The cheese should be soft. You don’t want an aged, hard pecorino here.

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Not my photo, but a good one, from Scopello, Sicily.

(Makes 2 single-serving cunzati)

2 sandwich-size focaccie, without added flavor such as rosemary, sliced horizontally.
Extra-virgin Sicilian olive oil (Olio Verde is a great choice)
2 large, round summer tomatoes, thinly sliced
Salt
9 salt-packed Sicilian anchovies, filleted, soaked, and then roughly chopped
¼ pound primo sale or another young, soft pecorino cheese, grated with the large hole of your grater, or shaved
A few large sprigs of fresh marjoram, the leaves lightly chopped
A few large sprigs of lemon thyme or regular thyme, the leaves lightly chopped
1 fresh summer garlic clove, minced
Black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Place the bottom sides of the focaccie on two large pieces of aluminum foil, cut side up (the foil should be just big enough to wrap up the panini when filled). Drizzle the cut faces of them and the top sides (all four pieces) with a generous amount of extra-virgin olive oil. Layer the tomatoes onto the face-up bottom sides, and season with a very little bit of salt. Scatter on the anchovies. Top with the cheese. Sprinkle with the herbs, garlic, and black pepper.

Close up the panini, and wrap them in the foil. Press lightly to flatten them a bit. Stick them in the oven for about 5 minutes, just to warm them through.

I find that cunzati taste especially good with a glass of grillo, a crisp, dry Sicilian white wine.

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Women with Fish

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I always wear my shiny, black Mary Janes when I go fishing in respect of the fish, our short lives, and our much needed nourishment.

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orient_47Interior with Eggplants, by Henri Matisse.

Recipe below: Caponata with Lovage, Thai Basil, and Golden Raisins

I confess that my parents stopped making their own caponata when we discovered the version Progresso packed in those pretty little cans. We fell in love. In retrospect, Progresso’s caponata, which they stopped manufacturing only a few years ago, was quite bland compared with homemade, but we were amazed that such an exotic dish even existed in commercial form in this country. It was a fine tribute to the power of the Italian-American community. Caponata was one of those weird foods we’d buy at Italian groceries, like salty, rubbery lupini beans, and hot cherry peppers stuffed with oil drenched tuna. They perplexed my non-Italian friends. For me, life wasn’t complete without them.

But now for decades I’ve made my own caponata. It’s one of those high-aroma cooking experiences you don’t want to miss. Consider cooking up a batch immediately. All the major components, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, and herbs, are in peak season right now and just waiting for you to harness their powers.

Caponata is of Sicilian origin, one of those full-bodied Spanish- and possibly Arab-inspired dishes with strange ingredients that combine to open up lusciously on the tongue (pasta con le sarde is another). Eggplant is caponata’s anchor, and agrodolce gives it swing. It’s an old dish (tomato being a recent addition), which when done up for high-class Sicilians traditionally included Baroque touches such as chocolate, cinnamon, hard-boiled eggs aged in vinegar, and even baby octopus, anchovies, and clams (now there’s an odd combination). I still make versions that include chopped pear, fennel, and green olives, and I added a touch of cinnamon to my recipe here. I can’t imagine caponata without capers, raisins, and pine nuts (or, more often in my case, almonds or pistachios), a time-honored trio in many Sicilian dishes.

Basil, parsley, and mint are traditional herbs for caponata. But this year, since I’ve fallen hard for lovage, I decided to add that instead. And it makes sense, since celery is almost always a component of the dish and lovage has a strong celery-like flavor. If you don’t have it, use a palmful of celery leaves instead. I liked the idea of underscoring the exotic here. The lovage has hints of curry, and the Thai basil, which I’ve also included, has undertones of clove, so it fits the bill.

How to eat caponata? I don’t care what anyone says, caponata is not ratatouille. It shares basic ingredients, such as eggplant, but the seasoning couldn’t be more different. Its agrodolce boldness steers it toward the antipasto category. I like it served room temperature on toast as crostini. It’s also great served alongside soppressata or capocolla.

IMG_1328A variation on my caponata, this time with pistachios and green olives.

(Serves 6 as an antipasto dish)

Extra-virgin olive oil
2 firm medium-size eggplants, unpeeled and cut into small dice
Salt
A drizzle of honey (about 1 teaspoon)
A pinch of cinnamon (about ⅛ teaspoon)
1 red bell pepper, seeded, ribbed, and cut into small dice
1 medium onion, cut into small dice
2 teaspoons Spanish sherry vinegar
3 small, inner celery ribs, cut into small dice, plus a handful of celery leaves (especially if you don’t have lovage)
A handful of golden raisins, soaked in a few tablespoons of dry Marsala
1 large, round summer tomato, skinned and cut into small dice
2 teaspoons sugar
A palmful of salt-packed capers, soaked and rinsed
Black pepper
A handful of Thai basil leaves, lightly chopped, plus a few whole sprigs for garnish
6 lovage leaves, lightly chopped
A big handful of blanched almonds, lightly toasted and roughly chopped

Have a large serving bowl ready near the stove. In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the eggplant, and sauté until it’s tender but still keeping its shape, about 8 minutes. Season with a little salt and the cinnamon. Add the honey, giving everything a mix. Spoon the eggplant out into the bowl.

Add a drizzle of olive oil to the skillet, add the red pepper and onion, and sauté over medium heat until softened, about 4 minutes or so. Add 1 teaspoon of the vinegar, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Add this mixture to the bowl with the eggplant.

Add another drizzle of olive oil to the skillet, and then add the celery and celery leaves, sautéing until they just start to soften, about 2 minutes. Add the raisins, with their Marsala soaking liquid, and let the Marsala bubble for a few seconds. Add this all to the bowl, and give everything a gentle toss.

Add one more drizzle of olive oil to the skillet, keeping the heat at medium. Add the tomatoes, seasoning them with a little salt. Add the sugar, and sauté the tomatoes for about 2 minutes (you want them to remain red and fresh-tasting). Add the other teaspoon of vinegar, and let it boil for a few seconds. Pour the tomatoes into the bowl.

Add the capers and a few big grindings of black pepper to the bowl. Add the Thai basil, the lovage, and about ¾ of the almonds. Give everything another mix. Taste for seasoning. The caponata should have a gentle, well-balanced sweet-and-sour taste. Add a little more salt if needed to bring all the flavors into focus. Let the dish sit and come to room temperature. Give it another taste, just to check the seasoning. (Dishes taste different at different temperatures, and this one in particular will change flavors as all the various components meld. It might need a little drizzle of vinegar or a bit more black pepper.) Garnish with the remaining almonds and the Thai basil sprigs.

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still-life-with-raicilla-and-tomatoes-david-sullins
Still Life with Raicilla and Tomatoes, by David Sullins, 2014.

Recipe below: Tomato Soup with Marjoram Blossoms and Mascarpone

I grew up surrounded by my dad’s homegrown tomatoes. He was proud of his summer garden. Some years there were so many that my friends and I, unbelievably, would smash them in each other’s faces, or squash them down our pants. It was heartbreaking for him, but what’s a stoned-out teenager on Long Island to do at 11 p.m. on a sweltering night when the folks are out to dinner? I’m now so sensitive to food waste that thinking about that thoughtless destruction gives me grief, forty years later.

We ate so many tomatoes that I did take them for granted. They showed up in pasta, of course, but also in sandwiches, salads, in my homemade bloody mary mix, and just eaten raw with a little salt. We tried sun-drying them, not so sucessfully. But a soup made of only tomatoes? Never. That was not Southern Italian food as I knew it. Tomato soup, if we really had to have it, came from a can. We’d heat it ourselves for a quick lunch (I never saw my parents eat the stuff). Pappa al pomodoro or crema di pomodoro was not on our wavelength (tomato sauce, sure, but that was for pasta, not to pour into a bowl and luxuriate in unadulterated). I don’t think I tasted real tomato soup until I visited Tuscany, in my late twenties.

Now I consider tomato soup made with peak summer tomatoes culinary splendor, up there with fettuccine with shaved truffles. Seriously. It’s a beautiful thing, and now is the time to make it. Like most Italian cooks, I immediately think of basil when considering the tomato, but while gazing at my herb garden I decided that this time I’d go with thyme as a base flavor to cook into the soup, and then add marjoram at the end, for a burst of raw herb gorgeousness. My marjoram is flowering now, and the lush plant throws off a bold and sweet aroma as I brush my hand against it. It’s a treasure.

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(Serves 5)

Extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium summer onion, diced
2 fresh summer garlic cloves, roughly chopped
½ teaspoon freshly ground allspice
1 fresh bay leaf
A splash of dry Marsala
About 5 large thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
2½ pounds round red summer tomatoes (not plums), peeled, seeded, and roughly chopped, preserving any juice that they give off
Salt
Piment d’Espelette
A pinch of sugar, if needed
A few drops of sherry wine vinegar, if needed
About ½ cup mascarpone, thinned with a little warm water.
A handful of marjoram blossoms and buds (if you don’t have blossoms, just use some chopped leaves)

Get out a soup pot, and place it over medium heat. Add a big drizzle of olive oil and the butter. Add the onion, and let it soften for about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and the allspice, and sauté until you can smell the aroma, about a minute. Add a splash of Marsala, and let it cook out. Add the tomatoes, and sauté about a minute. Now add the thyme leaves, bay leaf, and a little salt. Cook, uncovered, at a lively bubble for 10 minutes. You want to cook this high-temperature and fast, to preserve a fresh taste and bright color. After those 10 minutes the tomatoes will have given off juice but the tomato chunks won’t be completely broken down. That is exactly what you’re looking for. Turn off the heat, and let sit for about 5 minutes to develop flavor.

Now purée the soup in a food processor. It’s fine if it has some seeds and a little texture. That adds taste and character. Pour the soup back into the pot, and give it a taste. You’re looking for a good balance between sweet and acid. If it seems too acid, add a pinch of sugar, if your tomatoes were not quite lively enough, add a few drops of vinegar.  You want to correct your produce, but in a subtle way. Now add a big pinch of piment d’Espelette and a little more salt, if needed. Add a drizzle of fresh olive oil.

To serve, reheat if necessary. Ladle the soup into bowls, and garnish with a dollop of mascarpone and the marjoram flowers and buds, or leaves. If you’d like to serve the soup cold, swirl about a tablespoon of the mascarpone in while it’s still hot, then chill it, and garnish it with the marjoram. Both ways are good.

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Women with Fish

mimifish.jpg

My Aunt Reggie found deep comfort in meditating with her fish. For those precious 20 minutes a day, her ruminations faded. She stopped worrying about her disillusionment  with the  Workers Party. Her sister’s grandkids dealing crystal meth in the wilds of Avellino, Italy, was truly out of her hands. Even the chronic throbbing in her left big toe traveled miles out to sea. With her fish on her lap and the concerns of her day drifting out to sea, life was pretty good. She awoke to a clearer point of view. Anyone could see that my uncle Jack was jealous of her fish, although he kept it to himself. He had issues too, but beyond his 5 p.m. Johnnie Walker and diet lemonade, he never found that same  gentle release. May we all be lucky enough to find such solace during our strange journeys through this complex world.

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