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3ce8e09f8d1967b4f3ae25279a249e3dWorshiping the Tulsi Plant, Pahari School, circa 1750.

Recipe below: Grilled Summer Zucchini with Thai Basil Crème Fraîche

I sometimes experience deep sadness when forced to serve people what I know is inferior food. This was never a worse problem than when I worked in catering in the late 1980s.

Back then grilled vegetables had to make an appearance at almost every event. It didn’t matter the time of year; caterers were certain that if guests didn’t see a platter of grilled vegetables somewhere, the party would be a social failure. I recall one event in particular, for 850 people, that took place in Grand Central Terminal. I don’t remember the theme or why it was held in such a lovely place, but a few other annoyed cooks and I spent three days grilling various vegetables and stacking them in hotel pans. Spongy zucchini in February? Had to have it. Bitter eggplant? Bring it on. And to make matters worse, the vegetables were served not even at room temperature but dead cold, along with some “spring” pesto that tasted a tad rancid after suffocating in plastic tubs for 48 hours. But it wasn’t the temperature that bothered me as much as the horrible gas taste left from cooking all the stuff on commercial grills. When I uncovered the hotel pans and served it all up, that noxious smell came blasting back at me. Gassy, blackened, and often still raw. This was always the case during my grilled vegetable days. Such an injustice. Nobody, even drugged-up partygoers, deserved to eat such stupid food.

I haven’t done catering in several decades, but creating food that’s not my best for anyone still disturbs me. I get angry even if I’m alone in my own kitchen cooking for my family. Every dish of pasta or plate of chicken needs thought and complete attention. I’m especially set off by bad ingredients. They can make me scream. But I also mean when something I’m cooking just doesn’t come out right. That, for me, is a deep-rooted disappointment. It’s a failure. I’ve let people down, friends, people I wanted to nurture or impress. But most of all, I’ve let myself down. And the longer I cook, the more pissed I get when things don’t go as planned. I’m hard on myself, but I’m also in love with celebration, so when a dish turns out as planned, or even better, well, that is the payoff, that is why I cook, and why I continue to cook.

I’ll tell you one thing, though: You can’t fail with this basil crème fraîche. It just tastes wonderful. Thai basil, or tulsi (holy basil), as it’s called in India, gives off an aroma and taste that drives me a little wild. To me it has a sharper and more licorice flavor than other basils, and it looks beautiful, with purple veining and dark, slender leaves. It was long so glorified in India that they hardly ever used it in cooking (only in tea). They kept the plants for ceremony, mostly for burials and weddings, arranging them and sprigs from them for presentation, or just strewing around the leaves. Luckily for me I’m a pantheist, so I get to eat just about anything I want, and I want to eat Thai basil. It’s growing extremely well at my little place upstate, better than the Genovese variety, even. For my basil-flavored cream I used a mix of both varieties, and the blend produces a full, sweet flavor, a sum greater than the parts. Later in the summer, when tomatoes are perfect, I’m going to add a dollop of the cream to my zuppa di pomodoro fresco.

Happy summer cooking to you.

(Serves 4)

8 large sprigs Thai basil, plus extra leaves for garnish
8 large sprigs regular (Genovese) basil
¾ cup crème fraîche
¼ teaspoon allspice
About 20 young summer zucchini, about 3 inches long, cut in half lengthwise
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
1 teaspoon sumac
3 summer scallions, cut into thin rounds, including most of the tender green stem

Stem the basil, and blanch the leaves in a small pot of boiling water for 30 seconds. Drain into an ice bath to cool. Now squeeze out as much water as you can.

Place the crème fraîche in a bowl. Chop the basil finely, and add it to the bowl, along with the allspice. Mix well. Let sit at room temperature while you continue with the recipe.

Place the zucchini in a shallow bowl or on a platter, drizzle on a good amount of olive oil, and season with salt and Aleppo. Toss well.

Start your charcoal, and let it burn down to a nice blue-pink low-flame intensity. I use a perforated grill plate over my grill to cut down on excessive charring. It gives the zucchini time to cook through and brown, avoiding that upsetting black-on-the-outside raw-on-the-inside problem that direct grilling can produce.

When your coals are hot and ready, place the grill plate over the grill, and then let it heat for about 5 minutes. Brush it with a little olive oil. Put your zucchini on the grill, cut side down, and grill until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Turn it over, and grill its skin sides. After about a minute, give one piece a poke with a skewer to see if it’s tender. You want it cooked through but not falling apart. When it’s really young, the halves maybe only about ½ inch thick, this can go quickly.

When the zucchini is nicely grilled, lay it out on a curved platter, and sprinkle it with the sumac and maybe a touch more salt, if you like. Scatter on the scallions and the extra Thai basil leaves. Serve hot, with a dollop with the crème fraîche.

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Mosaic_in_Villa_Romana_del_Casale,_by_Jerzy_Strzelecki,_06.jpg
Ancient Roman grilling, in a fresco at Piazza Armerina, Sicily.

Recipe below: Grilled Peperoncino Chicken with Spice and Herb Yogurt Salsa

Grilled fat smells really good to me. Sizzle chicken skin over red-blue charcoal, and it will crisp up to form a coating that tastes fantastic, feels good going down, and protects the juicy meat it encloses. I think back on the barbecues of my childhood, in our little New York backyard, the sagging green awning over the grill catching all the smoke, our eyes burning (we could have moved the grill out from under, but no one ever did, because, who knows,  it could start to rain), a big wheel of luganega inevitably starting the show (a light appetizer, to my father’s way of thinking).

For years and years that theatrical sausage, held together with wooden skewers, and its aroma defined our family cookouts. But lately, messing around on my own grill. I’ve found that chicken brings back my most intense flavor memories. My father, the grill master of my childhood, is long gone, so now it’s up to me to keep that fire burning. Chicken, my father always said, is “a tricky son of a bitch.” You had to pay real attention to hit the perfect midpoint between “blackened to death,” as my mother called it, and raw. Each piece of chicken had to be repeatedly evaluated, more red wine consumed, a thigh moved around or turned, a drumstick taken off early, others left to cook longer, to avoid “bloody at the bone,” which nobody could tolerate. The worst was blackened to death and still bloody at the bone. We’ve probably all been there at some point. It’s complicated.

At my new upstate cottage, I’m getting myself reacquainted with the grill. I first cooked shrimp, a whole sea bass, steak, and lamb kebabs. All went smoothly. Last week I tried chicken, using only dark meat. (Breast meat is easy to dry out, which is one reason my father’s chicken got unnecessarily complicated, so I avoid it.) Even so, I felt his little grill dance begin in my head, working its way down to my tongs and spatula. I began moving pieces around. Some were darkening too fast, others looked flabby. At least my mother wasn’t around to supervise. So up to the warming rack some pieces went, while others got shoved to the side, away from the direct flame. The red wine flowed. Things started to come together. And, I have to report, my chicken eventually came out just about perfectcrisp, not too black, juicy inside, and spicy with fresh peperoncino, the way my father often seasoned it. Playing daddy is fun.

I’ve paired this diavolo chicken with something my father would never have thought to make, a North Africa-inspired spice and herb yogurt. I’m now growing dozens of herbs upstate, way more than I had room for on my city windowsills, and I try to come up with new ways to use them as often as I can. For this salsa I chose spearmint and lemon thyme; if you like cilantro,  use that in place of the thyme. Italian parsley or basil would be good, too.

(Serves 4)

For the yogurt salsa:

½ teaspoon cardamom seeds
½ teaspoon coriander seeds
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
1½ cups full-fat Greek yogurt
1 summer garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt
12 big sprigs spearmint, the leaves well chopped
6 or so large sprigs lemon thyme, the leaves chopped, plus a palmful of small sprigs to garnish the chicken
A squeeze of fresh lemon juice

For the chicken:

6 whole chicken legs, cut into thighs and drumsticks
4 summer garlic cloves, peeled and lightly smashed
1 tablespoon za’atar spice mix
1 fresh red peperoncino, minced
1 teaspoon pimenton de la vera (Spanish paprika), or another medium-spicy smoked paprika
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 shot cognac or grappa
1 teaspoon warm, runny honey
Salt
4 chopped scallions, for garnish

Toast the cardamom, coriander, and cumin seeds over low flame just until their aroma rises up from the pan. They shouldn’t color. Stick them in a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle, and grind well. Put the yogurt in a small bowl. Add the garlic and the ground spices, and whisk in the olive oil. Add the spearmint and lemon thyme and some sea salt. Add enough lemon juice to give it all a light kick. Stir everything well. Now thin the sauce with a little warm water. (It should be liquid enough to run off a spoon into a thick puddle on your plate, but still thick.) Let sit while you prepare the chicken.

Put the chicken in a big bowl and add all the other “for the chicken” ingredients except the scallions. Toss well, and let sit at room temperature while you start up your grill.

I use charcoal, so I need about a half hour to get to glowing coals with no wicked flames. Whenever your grill is ready, place the chicken on it, presentation side up. If it flames up, cover the top until the flame dies down. Grill until the skin is well browned and crispy but not the dreaded black that drove my mother crazy. Give the pieces a turn, and crisp up their other side. Then move them to the edge of the grill, to let them cook through without taking on too much more color. This whole process should take about a half hour, and since you’re using all dark meat, the pieces should cook through evenly in about that time. If you find that the thighs need a little longer, move the drumsticks to the warming rack. Test for doneness by pressing on the thigh meat or the thickest part of the drum stick. It should be firm but still have a little spring to it.

Pile the chicken up on a big platter. Scatter on the scallions and the palmful of lemon thyme. I always add a little more sea salt after grilling, since a lot of it will have been grilled off, but that’s up to you.

Serve with the yogurt salsa.

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manon+gauthier+via+carnet+imaginaire
Thyme, by Manon Gauthier.

Recipes below: Black Olive and Thyme Butter for Summer Radishes; Wild Fennel, Thai Basil, and Parsley Pesto, for Grilled Fish

Ever since I started growing my own herbs, first on my city window sills and in stoop pots, and now at a small upstate house I just purchased, they have had a strong pull on me. Last week I wrote about my need to consume rosemary. The urge hasn’t abated. I always liked rosemary, but only with certain things, like lamb, of course, and beans, and roasted winter vegetables, and stews, and a sweet rosemary polenta cake that I’ve been making for years. Now I think it goes with just about anything. I don’t often have particular food cravings. Usually I just want to eat whatever’s in front of me. I guess rosemary has become part of my physical and psychological evolution, which I hope isn’t a sign that something unpleasant is lurking inside my body in desperate need of herbal remedy.

Thyme is different. It has been a favorite herb of mine for a long time, but I’ve overused it, maybe even abused it. It’s my less harsh replacement for oregano in many classic Southern Italian dishes. I use it early in cooking, as I would a bay leaf, to add intensity. But thyme is too special to use indiscriminately. Adding an herb should be a dedicated decision. I’m now rethinking thyme, giving it more respect. Background noise no more. I’m putting it up front, using it as the wild, ancient flavor that it originally was and still is. And I want to taste it raw.

IMG_1282.JPGPart of my upstate herb garden. Here I’ve got epazote, mentuccia, thyme, opal and Thai basil, fennel, chives, and parsley.

Black Olive and Thyme Butter for Summer Radishes

I’ve used this and many other compound herb butters on many things. This one is especially good on grilled chicken or fish. Any that’s left over can be refrigerated and used cold on hot food. It will melt right in. I’ve found that after about 4 days it tends to lose some oomph, so I make it in small batches.

Note: I’ve tried a food processor for this butter, but I find that the color gets murky, losing some of its aesthetic charm. I prefer to chop all the ingredients separately, fold them into the softened butter, and then let the butter sit for about a half hour to meld all the flavors.

(Serves 4 as an appetizer)

1 stick unsalted butter, softened
6 black Niçoise olives, well dried, pitted, and minced
About 5 chives, minced
The grated zest from 1 lemon
6 large thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped, plus a little extra for garnish
Sea salt
A pinch of allspice
A big bunch of French breakfast radishes, or another seasonal radish, sliced in half lengthwise, leaving some of the tender green stem

Put the well-softened butter in a small serving bowl. Add the minced olives, chives, lemon zest, thyme leaves, a big pinch of sea salt, and the allspice. Mash everything together with a fork until it’s well blended. Wipe down the sides of the bowl, and let the butter sit for about a half hour.

When you’re ready to serve it, just spread a little of the butter on the cut side of your radishes. Garnish with extra thyme leaves. This is a good antipasto with a glass of rosé wine or prosecco.

Wild Fennel, Thai Basil, and Parsley Pesto, for Grilled Fish

I used this on grilled swordfish, and the next morning I spooned some over scrambled eggs. It was also good that afternoon, spread on a grilled fontina sandwich.

(Serves 6)

½ cup blanched, lightly toasted almonds
1 summer garlic clove
½ cup wild fennel fronds (or the tops from bulb fennel, plus a big pinch of fennel pollen)
½ cup Thai basil leaves
½ cup flat-leaf parsley leaves
½ cup good, fruity olive oil
Sea salt
The grated zest from 1 small lemon

Place the almonds and garlic in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse to a rough grind. Add all the rest of the ingredients, and pulse until you have a smooth, not too thick, bright green sauce. If it’s too tight, add a little more oil.

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Women with Fish

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If you could see her through my eyes, she wouldn’t look fishy at all.

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3Insects on a Sprig of Rosemary, by Jan van Kessler the Elder, 1653.

Recipe below: Strawberries with Rosemary Honey Syrup and Ricotta

I’ve been getting strong cravings for rosemary. Seems like a strange thing for my body to demand, but that is what’s been happening. And the desire is growing. The other night I ordered my routine takeout chicken, which is always decently seasoned, but I had to shower it with rosemary, and I did, lots of chopped sprigs until it veered toward the medicinal. But I wanted all that, and it tasted right to me. Also lately I’ve been flavoring many types of seafood with rosemary, where in the past I would have chosen a less woodsy herb, maybe basil or marjoram. I added rosemary to a white wine clam sauce. I’d never done that before, but it was just what the doctor ordered. I added pancetta and tomato that perfectly balanced all the piney notes, and those clams really hit the spot. I also made rosemary almond biscotti. And I bought rosemary gelato, which zeroed right in on my need, even though, oddly enough, I’m not generally an ice cream fan.

I was curious about what might be fueling this new craving, so I, of course, Googled it. Seems rosemary has always been thought to have healing properties. And most interestingly it turns out this resinous herb, with its woody stems and potent oil, has been used to help manage depression and anxiety for hundreds of years. Anxiety I’ve got by the truckload, so that might account for my wanting it so badly. Hey, it’s no Klonopin, but I do sense a slight lessening of my jitters.

Strawberries with rosemary whipped cream, custard, or goat cheese are all dishes I’ve heard of, mostly in the French kitchen. A touch of deep resin with sweet fruit makes so much culinary sense, especially lately. I’ve Italianized this recipe by including ricotta, which cushions the strong herb nicely. Try this for dessert or breakfast or as a midnight desperation dish with a glass or two of rosato. Your worries will start to slip away.

(Serves 2 to 3)

For the syrup:

3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon wild lower honey (I used acacia)
3 big sprigs rosemary, lightly crushed with the side of the knife to release their oil, plus a few small sprigs for garnish
A small piece of vanilla bean, split
A long peel of lemon skin
1½ cup dry white wine

Plus:

1 pint small, local strawberries, left whole (Tristar are a good variety), or larger ones cut in halves or quarters
About 1½ cups high-quality whole milk ricotta
Freshly ground black pepper

Put all the ingredients for the syrup in a small saucepan, and simmer over medium heat until large bubbles appear on the surface, about 5 minutes (the bubbles will let you know that it has properly thickened). Let sit for about 5 minutes on the turned-off burner to further blend the flavors. Now strain into a small bowl (or just pick out the herbs and such). Stick the bowl in the refrigerator until cool.

Before using the syrup, bring it to room temperature.

Place the strawberries in a bowl. Pour the syrup over the top, and toss gently.

Portion out the ricotta in small bowls or big wine glasses. Spoon on the strawberries and then some of their syrup. Finish with a few grindings of black pepper, and garnish with rosemary sprigs.

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field-of-thyme-eileen-digiacomo
Field of Thyme, by Eileen DiGiacomo.

Recipe below: Asparagus Tortino with Fontina and Thyme

I wasn’t sure what to call this improvisational baked thing I recently made using leftover asparagus vinaigrette. Because it had two Italian cheeses, Fontina and Parmigiano, I wanted to give it an Italian name. Maybe it was a sformata, a type of molded, dense soufflé, but when that preparation includes vegetables, they’re almost always puréed; here I left the asparagus in pieces. A sformata also is typically held together with béchamel, something I didn’t use, so that term was, as it turned out, not at all a match. My construction is more like a savory clafouti, the sweet French flan traditionally made with black cherries, but that’s, uh, not Italian. Torta is the classic Italian term for a baked sweet eggy dessert, with or without a crust. Tortino is the name often given to its savory sister, producing, among other mutations, something resembling a puffy, oven baked frittata. Close enough. I settled on that.

It’s sometimes hard to label dishes when you improvise as much as I do, but I  try. I want to make sure I don’t stray too much from the spirit of Italian cooking even when I invent. If I can find a solid category that fits my new creation, I know I’m not far from home.

I liked the texture of this tortino so much, I’m already imagining variations, perhaps with leftover sautéed greens such as escarole, Swiss chard, or spinach, especially if seasoned with summer garlic or young onion. Maybe I’d throw in toasted pine nuts or a little crisp pancetta. I used a good amount of fresh thyme in my asparagus version, which is a natural with cheesy custardy things. But parsley  could stand in, resulting in a fresher finish. I’m thinking I’ll try this dish again in July, when I can get perfect cherry tomatoes. Marjoram or basil would be good with those.

(Serves 4 as a brunch or light supper)

About a tablespoon or so of softened butter
½ cup grated Parmigiano cheese
A medium bunch of asparagus*, trimmed, blanched, and cut on an angle into approximately inch-long pieces (if the stalks still seem tough after trimming, give them a quick peel)
2 scallions, cut into thin rings, using just the leafy green part (save the bulb end for another use)
3 large eggs, at room temperature
¼ cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
⅔ cup whole milk
2 tablespoons crème fraîche
½ teaspoon runny honey
⅓ cup grated fontina Val d’Aosta cheese (use the large holes of the grater for this)
About 6 large thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped, plus leaves from a few more sprigs for garnish
The grated zest from 1 lemon
A few big scrapings of nutmeg (about ⅛ teaspoon)
Salt
Black pepper.

*The asparagus I used were dressed with a light lemon vinaigrette, adding a little extra flavor to the dish. But freshly blanched nude asparagus will work just as well.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter a baking dish, and then sprinkle in the Parmigiano, shaking it around to coat the bottom and up the sides, saving about a tablespoon or so to sprinkle on the top. (I used a 9-inch round dish with 3-inch sides, but an 8-by-8 square would be a fine alternative).

Scatter the asparagus pieces in the pan. Scatter on the chopped green scallion.

Put the eggs, flour, baking powder, milk, crème fraîche, and honey in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse briefly to blend. Add the fontina, thyme, lemon zest, and nutmeg, and season with salt and black pepper. Pulse a few more times to mix everything well. Pour this evenly over the asparagus, and sprinkle with the remaining Parmigiano.

Bake until lightly browned and puffy, about 35 minutes. Let sit for about 5 minutes to firm up a bit before serving. Garnish with the remaining thyme leaves. Serve with a green salad that has a touch of bitter from arugula, chicory, dandelion, escarole, or radicchio.

 

 

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Tokarski_Still_life_with_peaPeas, by Mateusz Tokarski, 1795.

Recipe below: Snap Peas with Pepato, Lemon Zest, and Mint

I’ve always had a hard time fitting snap peas into my life. They aren’t as delicate as shell peas or as bittersweet as fava beans. They’re pea and pod in one, ideally to be eaten when young and tender. My father used to grow them in his cramped backyard garden. I thought they tasted like lawn clippings sprinkled with Splenda. I decided some time ago to add them to my list of overrated green things, which already included snow peas and fiddleheads. But since I’ve started treating snap peas with stronger seasonings, I’ve come around. My former method was butter, maybe a gentle herb, and that’s about it. I’d been told so often to let seasonal produce speak for itself that the message sank in too well. Sometimes reverence for local produce can be oppressive. These lumpy little pods can certainly take a little sharp and salt and strong pepper.

For this recipe I chose to add spearmint, a classic with shell peas, pecorino pepato, traditional with raw favas, and lemon zest, just because. You could go with basil and Parmigiano instead, for a gentler flavor. As far as cooking goes, for me snap peas are best when briefly sautéed over fairly high heat, with no liquid added, which should take 2 to 3 minutes tops.

Pepato is a semi-hard pecorino from Sicily that’s studded with whole black peppercorns (there’s also a younger, less assertive version, but for this dish you’ll want the aged kind). When  the cheese is shaved or grated, the peppercorns break up, falling into the dish and giving you strong bites of pepper here and there. I love those unpredictable hits of flavor. The cheese itself is sharp, but with touches of sweetness that blend in well with the strident greenness of snap peas. I’ve seen a lot of domestic pepato in my New York supermarkets. Do yourself a favor and avoid it. It’s acrid, with no depth of flavor whatever. Look for the good stuff, pepato pecorino Siciliana DOP.

(Serves 3 to 4)

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large shallot, minced
¾ pound  young snap peas, the strings removed
A handful of pea shoots, if available (use only tender shoots)
The grated zest from 1 large lemon
Salt
About a dozen or so spearmint leaves, lightly chopped
A small chunk of Sicilian pepato cheese

Choose a large skillet that will hold the peas without crowding. Drizzle a tablespoon or so of oil into the skillet, and get it hot over medium-high heat. Add the shallot and the snap peas, and sauté, shaking the peas around, until they just start to soften, about 2 minutes. Add the pea shoots, if you’re using them, and the lemon zest, and sauté a minute longer. Season with salt. The peas should be shiny with oil and bright green, possibly with flecks of brown from the heat, and crisp tender to the bite. If you achieve that, you’re getting the best flavor out of the things.

Tilt the peas onto a large serving platter.  Drizzle with a thread of fresh olive oil, and scatter on the mint, tossing to incorporate it into the peas. Scrape about 10 shavings of pepato over the top. Serve hot.

 

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