Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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Recipe below: Eggplant Lasagna with a Hint of Moussaka

Eggplant is a big part of my life. When I was a kid it was always around, in our backyard garden, on our kitchen counter, in the oven, on our dining room table, bulbous and black, round and violet. It was normal food, the way string beans might be for most Americans. Nothing much has changed between me and eggplant. I know its smell both raw and cooked. Raw, it smells somewhat bitter but also grassy. Its texture is spongy. You really don’t want to eat it that way, although you could. It’s not poisonous. When cooked it smells mainly of whatever you’ve cooked along with it—garlic, basil, caciocavallo—but it keeps an underlying sweetness, and a creamy texture emerges, maybe with a faint hit of supermarket mushroom. I find its flavor irresistible, and when properly cooked its texture is unique. Soft but with integrity.

Eggplant is a vegetable (a fruit technically) that came from India to Southern Italy with Arab settlers in the ninth century. It is not, like tomatoes and chilis, a New world plant that slowly got worked into Southern Italian cuisine. Considering how much I loved eggplant from an early age, I don’t remember too many preparations from my Italian American youth. Parmigiana, of course. And then there were cutlets—breaded, fried slices that we kids grabbed before they got layered into the parmigiana. They eventually became a dish in themselves, because everyone loved their greasy crispiness. I remember eggplant rollatini filled with ricotta and covered with tomato sauce. There was also a vinegary eggplant shoved into jars. My grandmother made that, but we also bought it from Italian delis. Sometimes it was leathery. I’m not sure how it got that way, but I think it was from being dried out in the oven. In any case the vinegar-drenched stuff wasn’t my favorite, as I wasn’t a big acid eater.

I’ve since experimented with all sorts of Southern Italian ways with eggplant, such as eggplant “meat” balls and pasta alla Norma. I’ve gone wild for Richard Olney’s baked eggplant custard, with eggs and cream, no tomatoes. That was a recipe from Provence the Beautiful, an extravagant book that after a few read-throughs made me feel I’d been had. At some point I discovered the Amalfi Coast’s baked eggplant and chocolate dessert, a tourist favorite that you would think was a recent chef’s creation but in fact is a real traditional dish. It’s really delicious. If you’d like to give it a try, here’s a recipe.

I then went on to make baba ghanoush and many other North African, Middle Eastern, and Greek eggplant dishes, using spices not popular with my contemporary Italian people, who were more into herbs. Eggplant stuffed with rice or couscous or wheat berries and its own scooped out and put back insides, sometimes with whatnots of meat added. I did it my mother’s way, with garlic, basil, and oregano, and I did it Paula Wolfert’s way, with saffron, cinnamon, ginger, and cumin.

One of the most popular Greek eggplant dishes is moussaka, baked with ground lamb in addition to the eggplant, topped with a thick béchamel, and the whole thing seasoned with cinnamon. I love that. When I decided to make this eggplant lasagna, I think I conflated the two and unconsciously came up with a hybrid. But the funny thing is that my sweet spiced eggplant lasagna is most likely closer to what eggplant dishes tasted like in Southern Italy’s pre-tomato time, when there was a freer hand with spices than there is now. I was pretty happy with it. It’s still eggplant season in my New York habitat. If it is where you are, too, maybe you’d like to give this a try.

Eggplant Lasagna with a Hint of Moussaka

I used a 14-by-9-inch oval baking dish for this, but anything more or less equivalent will work fine.

For the eggplant:

2 large eggplants, partially skinned and cut into ½-inch disks
Extra-virgin olive oil
Black pepper
A sprinkling of ground cinnamon

For the tomato sauce:

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 small summer onion, chopped
2 summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced
7 or 8 medium-size round summer tomatoes, peeled, squeezed of seeds, roughly chopped, and drained for 20 minutes (but retain any tomato water they throw off)
1 fresh bay leaf
A big pinch of sugar
A bigger pinch of ground cinnamon
Sea salt
Black pepper
A splash of sweet Marsala

For the béchamel:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons regular flour
3 cups whole milk
1 fresh bay leaf
1 garlic clove, lightly crushed
½ teaspoon allspice
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
Sea salt
Piment d’espelette to taste
1 large egg yolk


1 pound fresh lasagna sheets, boiled, cooled, and laid out in the usual way, which at my house is all over the place.
1½ cups freshly grated parmigiano Reggiano
A big handful of basil leaves, lightly chopped
A palmful of marjoram leaves, lightly chopped

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Coat a sheet pan with a little olive oil (you might need to use two sheet pans). Lay the eggplant rounds on it, and brush the tops of the rounds with more olive oil. Season with salt, black pepper, and a sprinkling of cinnamon. Bake until golden and tender, about 15 minutes or so. I didn’t bother to turn them over. They baked up fine without that.

Leave the oven on while you get on with the rest of the recipe.

Make the tomato sauce: Take out a large skillet, and get it hot over medium heat. Drizzle in about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the onion, and let it soften for a few minutes. Add the garlic, and sauté until it’s fragrant but doesn’t take on much color. Add the tomatoes, the bay leaf, sugar, cinnamon, salt, and black pepper, and let simmer at a low boil for about 5 minutes. Pour in the Marsala, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Turn off the heat. If the sauce seems too tight, add a little of the reserved tomato water.

Drizzle some olive oil into the baking dish, and put down the layer of pasta. Spoon on a layer of tomato sauce, and then a layer of eggplant. Sprinkle on some of the grated Parmigiano, and then scatter on some of the basil and marjoram.

Repeat to make two more layers, ending up with a layer of pasta, holding back a bit of the grated Parmigiano for the top.

Now make the béchamel: Get out a medium-size saucepan, and set it over medium heat. Add the butter, and let it melt. Add the flour, and whisk it into the butter to form a paste. Let cook for a few seconds, to burn off some of the raw flour taste. Now add the milk and all the seasonings. Whisk everything to blend, and let the sauce heat through, whisking frequently until the sauce starts to bubble and becomes thick. Let it cook for about a minute longer, and then take it off the heat. Wait for a minute or so, so it can cool slightly, and then add the egg yolk, whisking it in.

Pour the béchamel over the lasagna, and top it with a final sprinkling of Parmigiano. Bake, uncovered, until the top is golden with little bits of brown and the whole thing is bubbling, about 25 minutes. Let it rest for about 10 minutes or so before serving.

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Recipe below: Cremolata

As if this summer weren’t already strange enough, I had to come down with babesiosis, a tick-borne infection my doctor described as the American malaria. It’s been a joyless ride that I’m still fighting to get through. When I first got sick I had been on an ice cream making tear, churning out all sorts of summery fruit concoctions. I also had just perfected my recipe for cremolata, the Italian American ice milk of summer. I’d been craving it, and being unable to find it in my upstate New York hideaway, I knew I’d just have to make it myself. Anyway, these strange times call for exceptionally appealing food.

In Italy cremolata just means a sweet fruit flavored ice. In Italian American culture, specifically in the New York and New Jersey region, it means an ice milk flavored with vanilla and almonds. Which is one of the most gentle, soothing indicators of hot weather for us East Coast Italian types. It’s light on the tongue, not quite an ice, but not full-on ice cream either. Many Italian pastry shops make it. Rocco’s on Bleecker Street is where I’ve been getting it for about forty years. It appears around mid-June and goes on the retreat again at the end of August. I couldn’t locate information on its history, so I’m not sure when this particular Italian American ice milk was invented. If anyone out there knows about this, please let me know.

The version I came up with is a bit creamier than the original, but when I tried cutting back on the fat, it got too icy, so I just went with it. The flavor is right on. Use the best vanilla, good almonds, and serious milk products, and you’ll be rewarded. Even if it isn’t a flavor from your childhood, I think you’ll like it.



(Makes about a quart)

1½ cups heavy cream
2½ cups whole milk
A pinch of Sicilian sea salt
½ cup sugar
¼ cup powdered sugar
1 cup skin-on whole almonds, toasted and roughly chopped
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons high quality vanilla extract
2 tablespoons Orzata syrup

Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl. Taste for sweetness. You might want more sugar, though I didn’t. Stick the bowl in the refrigerator to chill, for a few hours or overnight.

Next pour the mix into an ice cream machine, and process until nice and slushy. Scoop it out into a container with a lid, and freeze it until it sets up, probably an hour or two.

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Recipe below:Pasta alla Norma

There has been for decades on the Upper East Side of Manhattan a restaurant called Isle of Capri. It’s always had an old-fashioned continental glamor that as a kid I thought was the living end. My family would go there after shopping at Bloomingdale’s, which is a block away. But we also went for birthdays and just for a night out. It opened in 1955. It was never an expensive place, but it was and still is super festive, with its blood-red paint and Greek plaster wall inlays.

When I was an older kid, it turned into a date night stop. On one memorable evening I went there with my high school boyfriend, a sweet but pretentious guy who wanted badly to be James Joyce and managed to will himself into early-onset alcoholism. The evening went well enough, I guess. Between us we had just had enough money to pay the bill with a half-assed tip.

When we got out we couldn’t find his car, which had been parked right in front.  And his car was hard to miss, being 75 percent rust. We walked around and around the block frantically until it dawned on us that it had probably been towed. And sure enough, after we walked all the way to the tow pound in the foreboding darkness of the West Side Highway, we were told we needed something like $120 in cash to get it out. I’m not sure the car was worth that much. We were horrified. My boyfriend took out a flask of something, lit a Winston, and started to cry. I felt abandoned, standing around at molestation central with this degenerate crybaby. I finally broke down and called my father. Being the dad he was, he drove in, bailed us out, and took me home. My relationship with James Joyce manqué went downhill from there.

I’ve digressed a little here, but the reason I brought up the Isle of Capri in the first place was for its pasta Siciliana. I’m pretty sure I ordered it every time I went there. It was a dish of penne with tomatoes, strips of eggplant, and mozzarella, kind of glued together and not exactly baked, as I recall. I loved it with a passion. I haven’t been to the place in at least 10 years, and they no longer have the dish on the menu.

I love pasta with eggplant in all its variations. The Sicilian classic, pasta alla Norma, is basically what I ate at Isle of Capri. I make it all the time at home, a more involved version, adding ricotta salata, mint, basil, almonds, and cinnamon, and draping slices of fried eggplant on top. As my life has evolved, so has my pasta. Here’s the way I do it.


Pasta alla Norma

(Serves 5)

Extra-virgin olive oil
2 large summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 fresh red peperoncino, minced
About 2 cups diced eggplant, partially skinned, plus 1 big long partially skinned eggplant cut into thin rounds
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ cup sweet Marsala
5 medium-size round summer tomatoes, skinned, seeded, diced (about 2½ cups or so), and well drained to remove excess water (reserve the tomato water for loosening the pasta if needed)
Freshly ground black pepper
A generous pinch of piment d’Espelette
1 pound penne or rigatoni
A chunk of ricotta salata
⅓ cup blanched almonds, lightly toasted and roughly chopped
A handful of spearmint sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
A handful of basil leaves, lightly chopped

In a large skillet, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the garlic, peperoncino, chopped eggplant, and cinnamon, all at the same time, and sauté until the eggplant is fragrant and golden, about 7 minutes or so. Add the Marsala, and let it boil away. Add the tomatoes, and season with salt, black pepper and some piment. Let simmer, uncovered, at a low bubble for about 8 minutes, just until the eggplant is cooked through. You might need to add a splash of water if the sauce looks dry. Turn off the heat.

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

While the water is coming to a boil, set out a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Salt and pepper the eggplant rounds, and place them in the pan, letting them cook until golden on one side, about 2 minutes. Give them a flip, and cook them until just tender. Lay them out on paper towels.

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

When the penne is al dente, drain it, and pour it into a large serving bowl. Reheat the eggplant sauce if necessary, checking for seasoning, and pour it over the pasta. Add a little of the reserved tomato water to loosen the sauce, if needed. Grate in about a heaping tablespoon of the ricotta salata, using the large holes on your grater, and about half of the basil and mint, and give it a toss. Drape the eggplant slices on top. Grate on a little more ricotta salata. Scatter on the almonds, and garnish with the rest of the basil and the mint. Serve hot.

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Peppers and Eggs

still life, vegetables, meat

Recipe below: Peppers and Eggs

Summer, 1973: Arriving back home in Roslyn Harbor at 4 a.m. or so, sweaty and starving after another night of Manhattan club-hopping, I’d wander out to my father’s little backyard garden and grab a tomato or a pepper, anything that would help me turn out a fast dish of eggs or a sandwich. I’d occasionally run into him back there in the semi-dark, wearing a bathrobe or pajama bottoms, the orange coal of his Kent cigarette glowing. He’d be weeding, picking, evaluating his eggplants and zucchini, pinching back his basil. At first I was startled to see him there, but soon I got used to it. It was what he did in the summer; I just never knew about it until I began my late-night discoing. We’d chat briefly about my evening, about the rotating group of gay boys I’d gone out with, and he’d shake his head and snicker.

I was so hungry from seven hours of nonstop twirling that those peppers would look really good. “I think I’ll make peppers and eggs. Do you want some?” Now the light would be just starting to come up, bringing the giant basil plants into focus. That was a lot of basil. I guess a lot of pesto. He’d stare down the peppers, some held up by being strung to broken pool cues, and grab two half-red Italian frying ones, a handful of basil, and a few sprigs of oregano. “I’ll make the eggs.” He liked cooking eggs.

At the kitchen table I poured us diet root beer and ran a wet paper towel over my face to try to remove what was left of my Liza with a Z makeup job. I was still wearing the turquoise Pucci-inspired muumuu I had found in the depths of my mother’s closet. It now smelled of  amyl nitrate.

I found a hunk of semi-stale Arthur Avenue bread and put in on the table. I was so hungry I could hardly stand the mingling aromas of torn basil and peppers. My father tilted the pan, scraping and folding, until the eggs were firm. It wasn’t an omelet, it wasn’t scrambled eggs exactly, but something in between. We just called it peppers and eggs. One of the best dishes of my Italian-American girlhood.

IMG (11)

My father.

Here’s how I make peppers and eggs:

Peppers and Eggs

For two servings, you’ll need one or two Italian frying peppers, preferably ones that have passed through their pure green phase and are starting to show some red. Seed and slice them. Chop up a scallion, including most of the tender green part (also add a sliced garlic clove if you like). Clean a handful of basil leaves, and then give them a rough chop. Pull the leaves off of 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. Then add the peppers, and sauté them until softened, about 6 minutes. Next add the scallion, and let that 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 spatula, started pulling the eggs back from the edges, letting the uncooked part 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, but you also don’t want them dry.

Cut the mass of egg in half with your spatula and slide it onto two plates. It is best served with good Italian bread and either an espresso, a glass of white wine, or a diet root beer, depending on your need.

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Wheatfield with Crows, by Vincent Van Gogh.

Recipe below: Busiate with Summer Tomatoes, Pistachios, Mint, and Basil

When do you think we’ll be able to travel again? Who knows. Luckily we cooks can travel in our minds and retrieve culinary aromas from days gone by. I’ve lately been thinking a lot about Sicily. When I was working on my second book, The Flavors of Southern Italy, I went to Trapani to visit a man named Wolfango Jezek, who had just started making excellent olive oil. When I got there, with my husband and his parents, I had no idea Wolfango’s wife had prepared a multi-course Trapani-style lunch for us. It was fragrant beyond belief. Everything—the Sicilian pesto, the roasted eggplant, the braised lamb, even the bread—seemed to hint of cinnamon. I asked her about that, I said, “Cannella?” At least I think I got that word out. She said, no, she hadn’t put any canella in anything. I didn’t believe her, though I don’t know why she would have lied.

Cinnamon does get used in Sicilian cooking. My mother’s father added it in place of the more commonplace nutmeg in dishes made with ricotta, for instance. It and almond, pistachio, orange, lemon, basil, mint, oregano, marjoram, bay leaf, orange flower water, rose water, and fennel are just some of the ingredients that contribute to the Sicilian palate that drives me wild in the kitchen.

Here is a tomato-based sauce that incorporates many of the flavors of around Trapani. It’s sort of a cooked version of the pesto Wolfango’s wife made for us that day, way back when we could leave our homes and get on planes. I’ve added fresh summer garlic, bay leaf, pistachio, basil, mint, pecorino, and, of course, a touch of cinnamon.

Busiate is a Trapanese pasta traditionally made by wrapping strips of dough around a busa, a grass stem. You can now find dried versions. The most interesting ones are made with ancient wheat varieties, notably tumminia. Gustiamo.com carries an excellent one made by Filippo Drago. It’s deeply wheaty and quite elegant.


Busiate with Summer Tomatoes, Pistachios, Mint, and Basil

(Serves 3)

5 medium summer tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and cut into medium dice
Sea salt
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large shallot, cut into small dice
2 summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 fresh bay leaf
About ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
Aleppo pepper
½ teaspoon sugar
A big splash of dry Marsala
1 pound busiate pasta
A big handful of pistachios
A handful of basil leaves, lightly chopped
A smaller handful of spearmint leaves, lightly chopped
A chunk of mild pecorino cheese (Toscano or a Sicilian one; I’d avoid Romano, which tends to be harsh)

If your tomatoes seem really juicy, toss them in a bit of salt and put them in a strainer to drain for about 20 minutes (save the tomato water, as you might want it later to loosen the sauce).

Set up a big pot of pasta cooking water, adding a good amount of salt, and bring it to a boil.

Set out a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add a generous amount of olive oil. Add the shallot, and let it soften for a few minutes. Add the garlic, bay leaf, some Aleppo, cinnamon, and the sugar, and heat briefly, just to release all those fragrances. Next add the tomatoes and some salt, and cook at a low bubble for 5 minutes. Add a splash of Marsala, and let it heat through. Turn off the flame.

Drop the busiate into the water, and cook until al dente. It’s a somewhat soft dried pasta and in my experience  doesn’t take quite as long as the more usual durum wheat kind.

When the pasta is done, pour it into a wide serving bowl. Drizzle on a tablespoon or so of fresh olive oil, and toss gently. Add the tomatoes, pistachios, basil, and mint and more Aleppo or salt if needed. Grate on about a tablespoon or so of the pecorino, and toss again. Add pasta cooking water or any tomato water you might have if it seems dry. Bring the rest of the cheese to the table. Serve.

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Fresh Berries in a French Cup, by Joseph Keiffer, 2020.

Recipe below: Strawberry Sorbetto with Lemon Zest and Rosé Wine

I decided to broaden my Covid life by ordering myself a new ice cream maker. The one I had, a wedding gift, which makes it three decades old, was cranky and warped, not unlike me these days. Now I have a big new stainless box that whizzes along, turning out stuff that’s really smooth. I’m not a big sweets cook, and most ice cream I try I find too rich. I don’t like pully ice cream, with eggs and lots of cream. I pattern my ice cream after the cremolata they serve at Rocco’s, on Bleecker Street. It’s an Italian American almond ice, actually a cross between an ice and an ice cream. It seems to be made from milk, maybe some cream, toasted almonds, possibly a bit of almond extract, and sugar. I’ll be writing down my recipe for it and be back to you soon.

But since it’s high strawberry season up here in the beauteous Hudson Valley, my first try with my new machine was a strawberry sorbetto. That’s an easy thing to make, no cooking required. At the last minute I decided to splash in some rosé wine. I needed something to loosen and open up the strawberry purée, and the wine was sitting on the counter (water was not an option). It added a subtle boozy fizzle.

I’ll let you know how the rest of this ice cream adventure goes. Next up is definitely the cremolata, and then it’ll be peach season. And I’m also thinking maybe sweet-and-savory, something with cucumbers or fennel, or an herb ice with basil or mint or lemon verbena or rosemary. Something to think about.


Strawberry Sorbetto with Lemon Zest and Rosé Wine

(Makes about 1½ pints)

2 pints sweet local strawberries, hulled
½ cup sugar (or less, depending on the sweetness of your strawberries)
1/4 cup powdered sugar
½ cup rosé wine
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
The grated zest and half the juice from 1 lemon
1 pinch of salt
1 heaping tablespoon crème fraîche

Put all the ingredients except the crème fraîche into a food processor, and work them until they’re smooth and a beautiful bright pink. Taste to test for sugar—you may want to add more, depending on the sweetness of your strawberries (mine were medium sweet). Add the crème fraîche, and pulse a few times to blend it in. The mix will be even pinker now.  Refrigerate the mixture for a few hours. You want it to be cold before you put it in your ice cream maker.

Freeze it in your machine until it’s well thickened. Scrape it into a big bowl with a lid, and freeze it for a few hours to further firm it up.

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Recipe below: Rice Salad with Zucchini, Black Olives, Mint, and Basil

I started making rice salads in the late 1980s after I became disgusted by all the pasta salads I was seeing, some even made by friends. I look at pasta salad as an American way of screwing up a timeless Italian marvel. Mushy, gummy, full of raw green peppers, overcooked chicken breast, dried cranberries, tons of vinegar. It’s bad enough when someone subjects penne to this treatment, but why would anyone serve tortellini this way? Ask any cook from Bologna her opinion of the weird dish. See what she says.

Rice salads are another matter. When I was researching The Flavors of Southern Italy, my second book, I spent time in Sicily. I remember vividly one lunch at a restaurant in Trapani. It had an elaborate antipasto table, and the place was packed. Everyone came for that table. It wasn’t just a heap of stupidly made odds and ends. Real passion went into it. There were snails in tomato sauce, grilled sardines, octopus agrodolce, pumpkin agrodolce, peppers stuffed with sausage, white beans with wild fennel, and not one but three rice salads. One with olives and capers, another with tomatoes and mint, and a third with some kind of salumi.  For me it underlined the legitimacy I’d always sensed in rice salad. It has integrity.

You see more rice dishes in Sicily than in other areas of the South, although Puglia also has its share. Rice isn’t grown there anymore, but during Arab rule in the tenth century it was planted with sophisticated irrigation that allowed it to flourish on the arid land. So there’s a history, and rice still works its way into many dishes, most famously into Sicily’s saffron-scented arancini.

I usually make rice salad when I have leftover plain rice, either long- or medium-grain. Risotto rice, with its high starch, is not good for salad, making it clumpy and gummy. If I cook new rice just for a salad, I let it cool before I toss it with other ingredients. That way everything stays clean and separate. This is a place to use your best olive oil, for it goes on raw, in all its unadulterated glory. My salad here has first-of-the-season little green and yellow zucchini, plus a hit of black olives and lots of herbs. In a month or so, I’ll be making ones with tomatoes and also with eggplant. They’re all good.


Rice Salad with Zucchini, Black Olives, Mint, and Basil

(Serves 4 to 5)

6 or so tiny young zucchini, a mix of green and yellow if possible, cut into small cubes
Extra-virgin olive oil, one that’s really good (I used Ravida)
Black pepper
A big pinch of allspice
1 small summer onion, cut into small dice
2 young summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons sweet vermouth
2 cups cooked long- or medium-grain rice (not risotto rice), at room temperature
A handful of lightly toasted pine nuts
A handful of good black olives, pitted (Niçoise are nice, or for something stronger, try the wrinkled Moroccan kind)
1 tablespoon white miso, at room temperature
1 tablespoon sherry wine vinegar
Aleppo pepper to taste
A handful of basil leaves, lightly chopped
A smaller handful of spearmint leaves, lightly chopped

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Place the cubed zucchini on a sheet pan. Drizzle them with olive oil, and season with salt, black pepper, and the allspice. Roast until golden and just tender, about 6 or 7 minutes. In the last minute or so of cooking, scatter on the onion and garlic. Pull the pan from the oven, and splash on 1 tablespoon of the sweet vermouth, just to loosen all the good cooking bits.

Place the rice in a nice looking wide serving bowl. Season it with a little salt, and drizzle on a thread of olive oil. Now scrape the zucchini, along with any pan liquid, into the bowl. Add the olives and the pine nuts, and toss gently.

In a small bowl, whisk together the miso, the sherry vinegar, the remaining tablespoon of vermouth, and 2½ tablespoons of olive oil, seasoning with salt and black pepper. Pour this over the rice. Sprinkle on some Aleppo, and add the herbs. Toss well. Taste for seasoning, adding a bit more vinegar, salt, or olive oil if needed. Serve at room temperature.

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Still Life with Mussels, by Jack Knox.

Recipe below: Baked Mussels with Almonds, Lemon, and Summer Savory

So many of us are now cooking every day and every night, and we all can hit burnout. I have. But usually I recover quickly. For those of you who don’t rebound quite so fast, I’m here to help. I can give you fresh ways to look at old dishes, ideas for Italianizing spring and summer produce, and a few unusual culinary thoughts you might appreciate, ones lurking just beneath the surface of this miserable shutdown. No one wants to put lifeless food on the table, especially now. Dinner, for many of us, has become the highlight of our diminished day. I have the advantage of never getting bored with cooking. Frustrated, angry, yes, burnt out, yes, but my curiosity has so far stayed intact, and I’m grateful. I think being an improvisational cook helps. I’m not constrained by set-in-stone recipes, as my grandmother was. I almost never make a dish the same way twice. So if you’re looking to expand your culinary horizons, please feel free to write and ask me just about anything. Anything cooking related, that is.

When I recently put a photo of baked mussels up on Instagram, many Italian-leaning cooks said they’d never heard of them. I said they’re essentially baked clams but made with mussels. Everyone knew about baked clams and how to prepare them. But mussels are great the same way, and cheaper. If you score some fine ones, give this a try.

To make baked mussels you’ll want to steam them open in some vino, press a crumbly topping into the half shells, and run them under the broiler. The whole thing comes together in about 15 minutes. I’ve never met a cat that didn’t love them. For the crumbly topping, this time I ground up a handful of taralli instead of using breadcrumbs (you can, of course, use breadcrumbs). The texture of the crumbs is important. You don’t want them too finely ground or too wet. You know when you get mushy baked clams at a crappy red sauce joint? That’s what you need to avoid. I wanted to add fresh marjoram to the crumbs, but the marjoram I’ve planted is not looking very lively at the moment, so I chose summer savory instead. It’s kind of strong, but just a few sprigs worked out nicely. I also ground up a handful of almonds. You need, I feel, some kind of acid for this dish to sparkle, so dry vermouth and lemon zest and juice played their parts.  The crispy, oily, herby mussels were excellent with a glass of Primitivo rosato from Puglia.

This crumbly topping also works wonderfully on baked shrimp (just sprinkle it on raw shrimp and stick them in a really hot oven until tender and golden).

And, remember, if you have any Italian cooking-related questions, drop me a line.


Baked Mussels with Almonds, Lemon, and Summer Savory

(Serves 4 as an antipasto)

2 dozen mussels, well cleaned
½ cup dry vermouth
A handful of ground up taralli or 1 cup homemade breadcrumbs, not too finely ground
½ cup fresh almonds, ground
The juice and zest from 1 small lemon
1 small garlic clove, minced
Black pepper
2 tablespoons grated grana Padano cheese
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus a little more for drizzling
2 big sprigs summer savory or thyme, the leaves chopped
A palmful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped

Put the mussels in a large pot, pour on the vermouth, and set the flame to high. Cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the mussels open. Pull out the mussels into a bowl, and then pour their cooking liquid through a strainer into a small bowl. Taste the broth. If your mussels were in good shape, it should be sweet and saline.

Put all the rest of the ingredients, except the salt, into a bowl ,and mix everything well. Pour in about a tablespoon of the mussel cooking liquid, stirring it in. Taste for seasoning, adding salt, if needed (the cooking liquid may provide enough, but that depends on how salty your mussels are).

Pull off the top shell from each of the mussels. Press a little of the crumb mix against each half mussel, and lay them out, crumb side up, on a broiler pan. Drizzle with a little fresh olive oil, and run them under the broiler, about 4 inches from the heat, just until they start to turn golden. Eat them hot.

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