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First Cherries of the Season, by Vita Schager.

Recipe below: Cherry Clafoutis with Bay and Lemon Thyme

Cherry clafoutis as traditionally made in the Limousin region of France uses whole, unpitted cherries.  I never wanted to serve it that way, for fear of choking someone, especially when my swallowing-compromised mother was still alive. So every summer I’d consider making a cherry clafoutis and ultimately decide to forget it, even though the thought drove me crazy with culinary romance. Also I wanted to pit the cherries, but I stupidly couldn’t figure out how. Why it took me so long to break down and buy a cherry pitter I’m not sure, but I think I had it in my head that there was no way a simple little gadget that cost nine dollars could get the pit out while leaving the cherry more or less whole. I was dead wrong. The things work. Buy one. I only use it in June and July, when cherries are in season, but it has contributed to my life in a big way.

After I got through with the pitting, which took all of five minutes, I needed to think about herbs, as I wanted to add some sort of herb flavoring to the batter. The usual additions are kirsch and vanilla, which I love and did add, but since dairy, especially cream, accepts flavors so readily, I decided to also add fresh bay leaves and sprigs of lemon thyme to the standard milk-and-cream mix and give that a quick heat-and-steep. You’ll want only fresh bay leaves here. Dried would impart a musty flavor, which would really not be good at all. If you don’t have lemon thyme, regular thyme and a piece of lemon peel will work beautifully. Lemon verbena is also a nice way to go.

I love the bay leaf and lemon thyme combination so much, I’m already thinking about other ways to use it, both sweet and savory. Stay tuned.

I used a shallow 11-by-8-inch oval baking dish for the clafoutis, but any more-or-less equivalent-size round or rectangular dish will work fine.

Cherry Clafoutis with Bay and Lemon Thyme

1/2 cup whole milk
3/4 cup heavy cream
2 fresh bay leaves, ripped in half
5 sprigs lemon thyme
A pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1½ pints sweet summer cherries, pitted
1 tablespoon sugar, plus ⅓ cup for the batter
1 tablespoon kirsch liqueur
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus a little more for greasing the baking dish
2 large eggs
⅓ cup all-purpose flour

Put the milk and cream in a saucepan. Add the bay leaves, the lemon thyme, a pinch of salt, and the vanilla, and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat, and let it steep for about an hour to develop flavor.

While the cream mixture is steeping, put the pitted cherries in a bowl, and add the tablespoon of sugar and the kirsch. Give them a quick toss, and let them sit to soak in the sugar and cherry flavors.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat the baking dish lightly with butter.

When the cream mixture has steeped for an hour, put the 2 tablespoons of butter in a small saucepan, and cook over medium heat until it turns golden brown, about 4 minutes.

Put the ⅓ cup of sugar and the eggs in a mixing bowl, and whisk them together. Add the flour, whisking it in. Pull the herbs from the cream mixture (or strain it), discarding them, and add the herb cream to the bowl. Add the browned butter, and mix everything well. Add the cherries, with any juices they’ve given off.

Pour it all into the baking dish, and bake until it has puffed up and is lightly browned, about 35 minutes. If the center hasn’t puffed and still looks wobbly, cook a few minutes longer.

Let the clafoutis sit for about 15 minutes so it can firm up. It’ll deflate as it cools, but that’s the way it goes. Serve slightly warm.

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When I first moved to Manhattan from my Long Island childhood home, in the late 1970s, Downtown was an enticingly raw place. My studio apartment near Union Square got broken into a lot, once two days in a row. I started growing pots of basil on the roof, because I missed my father’s backyard garden. Soon one of the old women on my floor, who we referred to as Miss Alabama, a big butch in men’s boxers with a Southern drawl, told me if I continued to go up there to garden, someone would come along and slit my privates from end to end. Men were waiting, she repeatedly warned me. I was more worried about being assaulted by Miss Alabama than by a stranger on the roof—and those pots of basil brought me great joy. They opened a world of fresh sweet aroma and flavor and green wonder for me. Not only did I ignore Miss Alabama’s warnings, I went bigger, adding parsley, thyme, fennel, oregano, rosemary, and wild arugula.

I’ve since grown herbs in city stoop pots, on windowsills, under grow lamps in winter, in a garden in upstate New York, and on the roof of God’s Love We Deliver—they have a big, gorgeous herb garden up there which for a while I helped tend.

I have found herb gardening in Manhattan extremely rewarding, an endless hit of aroma and freshness, Not that it doesn’t have its drawbacks. People steal my plants. All the time. Who thinks it’s the height of accomplishment and city fun to get shitfaced and rip out marjoram at three in the morning? That’s upsetting, but it has never deterred me. I just keep planting. The joy of going out to my stoop while cooking dinner and scissoring a few sprigs of rosemary or basil is just too great.

When I was a child my father kept a tidy Italian man’s garden, growing tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, the triumvirate of Southern Italian soul cooking, and he always had basil, flat-leaf parsley, oregano, sage, rosemary, and spikey arugula (from cuttings our next door neighbor had smuggled back from Sorrento). Fresh herbs feel like home to me. At my wedding I carried a bouquet of them, heavy on the rosemary and thyme. I wish it had been bigger, much bigger. If I had my wedding to do over now, I’d wear a headdress of herbs as well, and give each guest a small bouquet to take home. And I should have had an herb-themed wedding dinner and a cake decorated with basil and mint. But that’s okay. I’m making up for it now.

I’m extremely lucky to now have, in addition to my city stoop pots, my own herb garden upstate. I stare at it and fuss with it dozens of times a day. Herbs are my friends. Truly. They are great company. I talk to them. I plant kinds that complement each other next to each other, like basil and marjoram, or fennel and parsley, so they’ll have something is common when they chat among themselves. Maybe it’s my imagination, but I’m pretty sure this year my bronze fennel, parsley, and lemon verbena are leaning in together, not just toward the sun. I must have made the correct arrangement.

My ancestors in Southern Italy, going back hundreds of years, cooked with the same herbs I grow and use today, and knowing that connects me to them, though otherwise they are somewhat of a mystery to me. The wild fennel liqueur I make in August, a Neapolitan specialty, is probably close in flavor to the liqueur my great grandfather made. I bake rosemary-flavored taralli, little, round crackers, that taste like the ones my family would have eaten in their poor little town in Campania. I’m sure of this because I have gone there and tasted them at the source, eating ones made by my grandmother’s cousin Tony, who grew all his herbs in his dusty little backyard garden, the same way his grandfather had.

So it’s early summer again and my upstate garden is just starting to fill in. This year I planted some companion flowers, nasturtium and marigolds mostly, to deter bugs and disease. So far it all looks pretty good. At this stage when some of my plants such as basil are still small, I’ll wait to start using them lavishly so they have a chance to grow bushy. July and August are when I really let loose and go wild with herbs. Stay tuned.

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Red Scallop, by Mary Hubley.

Recipe below: Riso Nero Venere with Scallops, Saffron, Pastis, and Basil

A good way to expand your cooking knowledge is by buying an ingredient you don’t use and making yourself cook with it. Sounds obvious, but I think we all know how easy it is to recycle the same things over and over (penne with tomato sauce again?). I recently bought a bag of riso nero, Italian black rice, just because I hadn’t cooked any in years.

Riso venere, or Venus rice, as they call it, is mostly grown in the Lombardy and Piedmont areas. As I said, it had been a while, so I wasn’t expecting its color to change with cooking, from black to a very dark, sultry, gorgeous purple. A lovely thing to witness. I’m thinking that tells me it’s got a lot of the same antioxidant properties as other purple and red foods such as berries and grapes. When I looked it up, I found that it is in fact rich in fiber and in minerals like calcium, manganese, selenium, magnesium, phosphorous, zinc, and iron, which all make it much more nutritious than the denatured white rice you probably, like me, eat a lot of. It certainly tastes and smells richer. Some people say it smells like freshly baked bread. I get that. I’ve also heard sandalwood. That I don’t pick up.

Italian black rice is a hybrid of emperor’s rice, from China, also known as forbidden rice (meaning forbidden for anyone other than the emperor; seems he didn’t want his people to be healthy, and he also thought it an aphrodisiac that, if released to the public, could leave the masses out of control). The original Chinese version grows best in warmer climates. This variety was created to grow in cooler places such as Northern Italy.

For my recipe I pulled up some classic Marseille flavors, saffron, pastis, basil, and thyme. The dish itself is elaborate and feels very special-occasion to me. I found great-looking scallops at my farmers’ market, so I decided to make this for my husband’s birthday. He loved it. Seafood goes beautifully with this rice. You can use shrimp or calamari or clams instead of scallops. Or, if you prefer, you can leave out the seafood entirely and just serve the saffron pastis black riso alone, or as a side dish. The rice is so intrinsically flavorful, you might at times want to serve it very simply, maybe just tossed with soft herbs (basil, parsley, tarragon, chives, fennel), pine nuts, and good olive oil. It also makes a nice summer rice salad with seasonal vegetables such as zucchini with summer garlic and mint. And it looks beautiful on a picnic table.

I chose a riso nero from Pacifico Crespi, a producer in Piemonte. It’s imported by Gustiamo. You can also get a riso nero from a company called Marhaba at Kalustyan, and you can find several other producers on Amazon, but I like the Gustiamo one the best.

If you give this rice a try, let me know how it turns out.

Riso Nero Venere with Scallops, Saffron, Pastis, and Basil

12 or so large sea scallops, the side muscles removed (if your scallops are really large, like mine were, three per person should be plenty, but see what you come up with and judge for yourself if you think you’ll need more or you’re big eaters)
The grated zest from 1 lemon
½ teaspoon runny honey
Calabrian chili paste, just a touch for the scallops and another little touch for the tomatoes
Extra-virgin olive oil
1½ cups riso nero venere
1 large shallot, cut into small dice
A few large thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
1½ pints sweet grape tomatoes
A big splash of dry vermouth
1 tablespoon white miso, plus a big pinch of dry ground saffron threads, both dissolved in ½ cup warm water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
A splash of pastis, such as Pernod
A handful of torn basil leaves

Put the scallops in a large bowl. Add the lemon zest, the honey, a touch of Calabrian chili paste, a bit of salt, and a drizzle of olive oil. Toss it all around, and stick it in the fridge until you’re ready to cook the scallops (you can refrigerate them for a few hours, but for optimal freshness I wouldn’t leave them overnight).

Fill a medium saucepan about halfway with water. Add salt, and bring it to a boil. Add the rice, and give it a stir. Turn the heat down so it cooks at a low bubble, partially cover the pan, and cook until just tender. Because black rice still contains its bran, it takes longer than white rice, more like cooking brown rice, so figure about 30 minutes. I cook black rice more like pasta, in lots of water. When it’s al dente tender, drain it, and toss it with a drizzle of olive oil.

Set out a large sauté pan over medium high heat. Add a big drizzle of olive oil. Add the shallot, the thyme, the tomatoes, and a little salt, and cook, shaking the pan around a few times, until the tomatoes start to burst and give off some juice, about 5 minutes or so. Add the vermouth, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Add the miso saffron water, stirring it in and letting it simmer for about a minute. Add a touch of the Calabrian chili paste.

Add the rice to the tomatoes, stirring everything well. Taste for seasoning. Keep it warm over a low flame.

In another large skillet, heat the butter and a drizzle of olive oil over high heat. When the pan is hot, add the scallops, spacing them out so they’re not crowded. Let them brown, without moving them around at all, for about 2 minutes. Give them a flip, and quickly brown their other side for about a minute or so longer. Add the pastis, and let it bubble away.

Add half the basil to the rice, and pour it onto a large serving platter. Arrange the scallops on top. Pour any pan sauces you might have over the top. Scatter on the remaining basil. Serve right away.

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Pair of Wild Herbs, by Sophie Labayle.

Recipe below: Risotto with Preboggion, Upstate New York–Style

I love a big foraged armful of spring greens from my upstate New York backyard. They’re the best thing to eat not just for health but mostly because I like them. They look good too, with their various shades of green. I’m especially drawn to dark leaves, like the ones on stinging nettles. And all this rummaging around drags me back in time to my Puglian and Campanian ancestors. I imagine that Achille, Fortunata, Caprina, Tecla, Assunta, and Leonardo also liked the look and aroma of wild weeds and herbs. Dandelions smell pissy and sweet. The wild thyme and mint around my place are pungent, almost too bitter to eat, but a little heat tames them, so they’re good in a marinade for stuff destined for the grill. The southern Italian foraging genes that I imagine I have in me are great for a touch of romantic misery. But there’s no misery for me, and hardly even any effort. That was probably not the case for my dirt poor (but possibly dirt rich in some respects) ancestors in Southern Italy, whose lives likely depended on those greens. I can wander around my backyard ripping up weeds while sipping a cold glass of rosé. Kind of decadent, but interesting.

The first thing I ever foraged was wild garlic, although back when I was a kid we called it onion grass. It was all over the place in my not-so-rural Long Island community. I and a few of my buddies used to rip up the bulbs with their chive-like tops and take them to a secluded place in the woods, start a scary little fire, and cook them up in a beat-up aluminum pan I found in our basement. We sautéed the onion grass in a pungent and in retrospect not great quality olive oil I took from our family kitchen. The whole thing had an intense, unfamiliar smell, different from the sweeter supermarket garlic I was used to. I remember cooking hot dogs back there, too, and now that I think of it I’m almost sure we ate the wild garlic on blackened hot dogs we speared with sticks. Not bad for a wild adventure 30 minutes from Manhattan. I also gathered dandelion greens, dropping them into our dinnertime salad bowl. My grandmother taught me about dandelions.

Preboggion is a Ligurian mix of wild greens and herbs. The name may come from the Ligurian dialect verb preboggî, which means to preboil. It’s used as a filling for pansoti, a type of swollen-looking ravioli, in soups such as minestrone, and stuffed into torte, tossed with pasta, or just eaten boiled and dressed with olive oil. I love the aroma of boiling preboggion. In Genoa I ordered it as a contorni that also contained potatoes, and I couldn’t stop eating it, really wanting a second serving but knowing I’d never finish it all. Depending on the time of year, preboggion can include borage, dandelion, nettles, galatsida (a type of Mediterranean daisy), wild chard, rampion (another Mediterranean flower, with leaves that taste like spinach), parsley, fennel, anise, or marjoram.

Here’s some of the stuff I found; stinging nettles, dandelions, ramps, and garlic mustard.

For my Upstate New York version, I found stinging nettles, field cress, garlic mustard, dandelion, wild garlic, and wild thyme. I threw in a bit of Swiss chard and some marjoram I had in the fridge. Later in the season I can find purslane and lamb’s-quarters, which tastes like strong spinach. In a month or so I’ll add borage, which I grow myself. That’s often an element in the wild Ligurian mixes, but I can’t find it wild around here. It tastes like cucumber, both the leaves and the electric-blue, star-shaped flowers. I also grow fennel. I can’t find that wild around here either, but it’s another item Ligurian cooks often include.

In my recipe I’ve listed all the wild greens and herbs I used, but you can make a nice version of preboggion with stuff from the farmer’s market or grocery store. I’d suggest a mix of arugula, Swiss chard, spinach, chicory, and maybe some watercress. And a few herbs such as marjoram, thyme, and parsley or basil.

Risotto with Preboggion, Upstate New York–Style

For the preboggion:

A handful each of  stemmed field cress, stinging nettles (the leaves pulled from the tough stems using gloves), garlic mustard, dandelion greens, and Swiss chard
The leaves from about 6 big sprigs of marjoram
A handful of basil leaves
The green tops from a few ramps
Extra-virgin olive oil

For the rest of the risotto:

6 cups vegetable broth or light chicken broth
Extra-virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large spring onion, cut into small dice, using a lot of the tender green part
The leaves from a few big sprigs of thyme, lightly chopped
2 cups carnaroli rice
A few scrapings of nutmeg
½ cup dry vermouth
Black pepper
½ cup freshly grated grana Padano cheese (I don’t like this risotto cheese-heavy; I want to taste the greens)

Set up a big pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Add all the greens and herbs. Blanch them for about 2 minutes. Drain them into a colander. Run cold water over them, to stop the cooking and set their color. Squeeze out as much water out as you can. You’ll want about 1½ cups of blanched greens for the risotto. If you have extra, add it to a soup or a pasta dish, or just eat it drizzled with good olive oil and a little salt. You want to make the blanched greens and herbs into a simple pesto, so put them into a food processor, add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil and a little salt, and pulse 4 or 5 times, until you have a kind of rough purée. Scrape the purée into a small bowl.

Pour the broth into a saucepan, and bring it to a boil. Turn down the heat to low, and keep the broth at a simmer.

Get out a large, wide pan with not too high sides. This is best for risotto since the surface area provides good evaporation. Add a big drizzle of olive oil and half the butter, and get it hot over medium heat. Add the onion and the thyme, and sauté until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add the rice, season it with a little salt and the nutmeg, and sauté it until it’s well coated with oil and is just starting to toast, about 3 more minutes (although it shouldn’t actually start to brown, so don’t let it get that far). Add the vermouth, and let it bubble away.

Start adding a few ladles of broth, stirring often until the pan goes almost dry. You want to continue adding broth, stirring, and letting the pan go almost dry until the rice is just tender. In my experience the process takes about 17 or 18 minutes. After about 15 minutes, when the consistency starts to look creamy, give it a taste to see if it’s tender but al dente.

When the rice is just tender, add the preboggion, stirring it in. The rice will turn a lovely deep green. Turn off the heat, and add the rest of the butter, the grana Padano, and some black pepper, stirring it all in. Add a bit more broth to retain a loose but not soupy consistency. Taste for salt, and ladle the risotto into bowls. Serve right away.

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Nettles, by Emma Clarke.

Recipe below: Homemade Stinging Nettle Pappardelle with a Walnut and Spring Onion Condimento

It starts every April. I find myself roaming around my backyard looking for edible green stuff popping up. Garlic mustard, dandelion, chickweed, wild garlic. I eat all of them. I even have a romance about them, which seems to grow stronger every spring. I guess I’m channeling my Puglian grandmother, who walked the Westchester golf courses in search of the tenderest spring dandelion leaves, to the embarrassment of most of our family. She made a dandelion and baby meatball soup that was an all-time favorite of mine.

What I cherish most this time of year, what I most hope to find, is stinging nettles. This year, so far, to my disappointment, I haven’t found any in my yard. I’m not sure why. There are usually some around, growing up on the edges of our stone wall, among other places. This was disturbing when I really wanted to make stinging nettle pesto. The dish marks the beginning of spring for me, and if I don’t make it there will be a hollowness in my soul. So I went to the Union Square Greenmarket looking for nettles, and I found them being sold by a guy who had a lot of unusual green things. I actually paid for the “weed”. And I made a most delicious pesto. If you’d like to try it, here’s a video showing how I make it.

Then the other day while checking out my newly sprouted garlic, which I planted in November in my neighbor Adrianne’s vegetable garden, I noticed a lot of little stinging nettle plants there, scattered through her newly mulched plot. I couldn’t believe it. Nettles must like good soil and mulch as well as distressed misery locations like against my stone wall. (That doesn’t really surprise me. I’d love to have a $3,000 mattress.) So I picked all those highbrow stinging nettles and went ahead with my second most favorite thing to make with them, fresh pasta. It came out really well, a pretty deep green. It tastes a bit like a cross between spinach and potting soil, but in a good way.

I hope you’ll try it. To me it’s special, even a bit magical.

Note: Stinging nettles have been used in Europe for hundreds of years for various medical purposes, mainly as a diuretic but also for calming joint pain. I recently checked on webMD, and it claimed that stinging nettles are effective for treating enlarged prostrate, hay fever, arthritis, and possibly high blood pressure and blood sugar. So you might as well give them a try.

Homemade Stinging Nettles Pappardelle with a Walnut and Spring Onion Condimento

For the stinging nettle pappardelle:

A good-size bunch of stinging nettles
3 large eggs
2½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading
½ cup semolina flour, plus more for rolling

For the walnut condimento:

Extra-virgin olive oil
1½ cups very fresh walnuts, well chopped
1 small spring onion, cut into small dice, including some of the tender green part
1 spring garlic clove, minced
3 anchovy fillets, chopped
A big pinch of sugar
Black pepper
The grated zest from 1 lemon
About 6 large marjoram sprigs, the leaves chopped
The leaves from about 10 big parsley sprigs, lightly chopped
A chunk of grana Padano cheese

Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. I like to insert a strainer pot inside so I can use the water both for blanching the nettles and then for cooking the pasta. Add a good amount of salt.

While wearing gloves or just being careful, cut off all the thick, tough stems from the nettles, below where the leaves are, and discard them. Put the remaining leaf ends of the nettles in the pot, and blanch them for about 2 minutes. Lift them from the water into a colander, and run cold water over them to bring up their green color. You’ll see that when they’re cooked their stingers completely disappear. Squeeze out as much water as you can (you’ll also notice how strangely dry they feel, almost as if they’re waterproof).  

Now remove any remaining big stems from the leaves, leaving only leaves and the most tender tiny stems. You’ll want about a packed cup or so of blanched nettles. You can use any extra to include in the pasta sauce, if you like, or in an omelet or a soup.

Put the nettles in a food processor, and give them a few good pulses. Add the eggs, and process until you have a fairly unified looking purée (it’ll be a bit streaky, but that’s it’s nature and is really nice). Add the flours and a little salt, and pulse until you have a shaggy ball. If it seems too wet for pasta dough, add a little more flour and pulse it to blend. If it’s too dry, add a drizzle of water, pulsing it in.

Sprinkle a bit of flour on a work surface, and dump the pasta ball out on it. Knead the dough until it’s smooth, about 8 minutes. Cover it with plastic, and let it rest about a half an hour so it can relax.

Dust two sheet pans with flour.

Dust a work surface with flour. Cut the pasta into two parts, and put one aside in plastic wrap. Now what you want to do it start rolling out your dough. I used a mattarello for this, a long, narrow wooden rolling pin. I recently bought a new one on Amazon.

Roll out the dough as thin as you can, adding more semolina or regular flour as you go, to prevent sticking. It’s hard to explain the best way to do this. If it’s your first time hand-rolling pasta you might want to study a couple of YouTube videos on the subject, or just use your hand-cranked pasta roller to make long sheets. My hand-rolled piece stretched out to an about 15-inch squarish shape. Do the same with the other piece of dough that you had set aside. Then let your two pasta sheets dry for about 40 minutes, so they lose some tackiness. That will make them easier to cut.

Cut each pasta sheet in half, and dust its top with semolina or regular flour. Loosely roll up each piece into a cylinder, and cut it into ¼-inch slices, making a quick cut. I rolled mine lengthwise, so my pappardelle were quite long, but that is a judgment call for you, depending on the shape of your pasta sheet and how long you like your pappardelle. Toss the pieces onto the sheet pans, unrolling them as you do. You should now have long strips of pappardelle.  Make sure they’re all lightly coated with semolina, so you won’t have a problem with sticking.

When you’re ready to serve, bring the cooking water back to a boil.

While the water is heating, take out a large sauté pan, and set it over medium heat. Add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the walnuts, onion, garlic, anchovies, sugar, a little salt, and some black pepper. Sauté it all until the walnuts just start to toast, about 2 minutes. Turn off the heat.

Drop the pappardelle into the water, and cook it until just tender, about 4 minutes. Drain it, leaving some water clinging to the strands and also saving about a cup of the cooking water.

Add the pasta to the walnut condimento. Toss it gently over low heat, while adding the lemon zest, a few tablespoons more olive oil, and a bit more cooking water if you need it to coat everything well. Add the marjoram and parsley, and toss again, tasting for salt and black pepper.

Transfer the pasta to a large, wide serving bowl, and sprinkle the top with a tablespoon or so of grated grana Padano, mixing it in. Serve right away, bring the rest of the cheese to the table.

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Parsley, Lemon, China, by Rick Osborn.

Recipe below: Fettuccine with Scallops and Parsley Lemon Pesto

Easter was sweet this year. Cold but sweet. My friend Katy came and stayed a few days. We had a face-stinging mini hailstorm during the afternoon. I made a pastiera, as per usual, and this year I also cooked a lamb stew with white wine, rosemary, and peas. We danced the tango, we fed bananas to raccoons, and we drank my finocchietto liqueur, which is a bit high on the alcoholic side. A lot goes a too long way, I discovered. Easter was sweet. Now I want to start focusing on my herb garden.

I’ve been eyeing my little garden for signs of spring life. The chives have come up, my salad burnet is popping through, and so is the hyssop. But what I’m waiting for is parsley. It was so beautiful last year, full, dark, and strongly flavored. I’m not sure it made it through the winter, but I really hope so.

I’ve come to respect parsley immensely since planting my own. It’s an elegant herb with tons of personality. Previously, when I only bought it at the supermarket, I sometimes found it unfocused, an herb for mindless scattering. This thinking can get into a cook’s head, but it’s faulty thinking. The stuff is special.

To strengthen my appreciation of parsley, all I need to do is think of salsa verde—parsley pounded with olive oil, sometimes garlic or capers, always a bit of lemon or vinegar, and anchovies never hurt. How many times have I eaten variations on this easy Italian sauce. What would grilled swordfish be without it?

Just to make sure we’re all thinking of the same herb, I’m talking about flat-leaf parsley, Italian parsley, not the curly 1960s restaurant garnish type, which doesn’t have the same strong, clear flavor. What is that flavor? It’s always hard to describe the taste of something that’s like nothing else, but there are elements of parsley’s makeup that remind me of other things. For instance, when I chew a leaf it often tastes of the sea. Is this my imagination, since for so many years I’ve eaten it as a condiment for fish? I don’t know. Aside from the seaside, what else do I taste? I taste something like spring grass, maybe with a vague protein undertone. The stems have lots of juicy concentrated oils. I always use them in a salsa verde.

Linguine with clams. I can’t imagine it without lots of fresh flat-leaf parsley. And I’ve come to love a salad of almost nothing but parsley tossed with olive oil and a squirt of lemon juice. That makes a good bed for roast chicken. I love the way the chicken juices drip down and mingle with the simple dressing to make it something more complex. Parsley mixed with fresh mint is a good teaming, as is parsley with basil, and lately I particularly love parsley mixed with fresh lemon grass, which is especially good stuffed inside a whole roasted sea bass.

In late summer, when we have good tomatoes, I make a sandwich with sesame bread, thick tomato slices, a few anchovy fillets, olive oil, black pepper, and an ample layer of whole parsley leaves. Tastes like Mondello beach, in Palermo. I also love setting up a big pot on the outside grill, loading it with Long Island mussels, garlic, dry vermouth, and lots of parsley, and just letting it bubble away until everything gives its everything to everything else and it becomes a steaming wonder meal. 

I mentioned how much I admire a good salsa verde, which is really a type of pesto (from pestare, to crush). For the pesto in this pasta I’ve replace the basil in a classic Genoese pesto with parsley. I’ve kept the cheese and nuts, but to make it blend more naturally with scallops, I’ve added lemon zest. I think it works really well. Pull out your good olive oil for this one.

Fettuccine with Scallops and Parsley Lemon Pesto

  • Servings: 4 as a main course
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For the parsley lemon pesto:

1½ cups flat-leaf parsley leaves (it’s okay to leave on some tender stem)
½ cup pine nuts
1 small garlic clove, peeled and roughly chopped (make sure it smells fresh and hasn’t sprouted)
Sea salt
Freshly grated black pepper
The grated zest from 1 large lemon
½ cup grated Montasio (or Piave or grana Padano) cheese
1 cup really good olive oil (I used Olio Verde, a Sicilian brand)

For the rest of the dish:

12 large, dry sea scallops (3 per person), the side muscle removed
A big pinch of sugar
Black pepper
Aleppo pepper
1 pound fettuccine
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
A handful of lightly toasted pine nuts for garnish

To make the pesto:

Fill a medium saucepan about halfway with water. Bring it to a boil, and add the parsley. Blanch it for about a minute. Pour it into a colander, and run cold water over it to stop its cooking and set its nice green color. Squeeze out as much water as you can. (This will keep the pesto from going dark right away, but it won’t affect the flavor, or might tamp it down a touch, but that’s a tradeoff. I find oxidized pesto completely unappealing, so this works for me.)

Put the blanched parsley and all the other pesto ingredients into the bowl of a food processor. Give it all a few long pulses, until it’s just nicely emulsified but still has a bit of texture.

I like to use any pesto right when I make it, but this will keep good flavor for a day or two. If you decide to refrigerate it, just bring it back to room temperature before using it. But ideally make it not too long before putting together this dish.

To make the rest of the dish:

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

Dry the scallops well and toss them in a little salt, a tiny bit of sugar (this will help them brown), and black and Aleppo pepper to taste.

Get out a large, wide pasta serving bowl and set it near the stove to warm a bit. Spoon in the pesto.

Drop the fettuccine in the boiling water, and give it a quick stir to make sure it doesn’t stick.

Find a big cast iron or other sturdy skillet, and set it on high heat. Add about two tablespoons of olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the scallops, and let them brown without moving them around at all, about 2 minutes. Give them a turn, and quickly color the other side, only about a minute longer.

Drain the fettuccine, saving about a cup of the cooking water, and add it to the bowl with the pesto. Add the butter and a little of the cooking water, and toss gently. It should look creamy and cover the pasta nicely. Arrange the scallops on top, and garnish with the pine nuts. Serve right away.

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Just a little correction: I usually make this recipe with a gallon of milk. In this video I used a half gallon, which came out fine. But if you want to make this at home, I’d suggest going with the whole gallon, so here are the proportions:

1 gallon whole milk, 1 quart buttermilk, 1 pint heavy cream (optional), a little salt, if you like.

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Still Life with Knife on Gray Table, by Mutlu Ertac.

Recipe below: Fava and Caciocavallo Salad with Torn Mint Leaves.

My first cooking job was at Restaurant Florent, in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. It was in many ways a wonderful job, but being a freshman cook I understandably got stuck with some of the more menial tasks. One was preparing what the Mexican busboys and I called “parsley ball” (I shared the job with them). We were instructed to stem whole bunches of beautiful flat-leaf parsley, pile them into a big mound of leaves, and then whack at the mound with a chef’s knife over and over and over and over until it resembled a pile of sad green mush, all the parsley flavor lost to the cutting board. And that wasn’t the end of it. Next the mush had to be wrapped in a towel and squeezed and squeezed until every drop of life was wrung out of it. That was “parsley ball.” It was used as a generic garnish on just about everything that left the kitchen. I found it tragic. It was no way to treat fresh herbs.

My favorite way with most herbs is a quick light few chops with a chef’s knife. I keep my knives really sharp so I get a good, clean swipe. That releases an herb’s oils, giving deep flavor without pulverizing the poor thing. I find it works nicely when you’re adding an herb to a dish during cooking, but it also makes for a lovely last-minute hit of flavor, or a casual garnish.

I also like to add whole sprigs of herbs at the end of cooking or to uncooked dishes. For instance when I’m seasoning olives I’ll toss in a handful of thyme or rosemary sprigs. They flavor the entire bowl but also give a sweet little jolt of flavor when you get a piece clinging to an olive. Sprigs of soft herbs like basil, parsley, mint, and tarragon, when snipped off in little leaf clusters, give you a beautiful way of finishing hot and cold dishes, providing you choose herbs that complement the flavors in the dish. Random herb scattering is not helpful. It just clutters your dish and muddies your culinary head.

If you want to get fancy, with leafy herbs such as basil, lovage, or sage you can do a chiffonade. You simply roll up a few leaves into a tight tube and then cut it widthwise into thin rounds. They’ll open into long, thin strips that give off an intense blast of herb and also look beautiful, especially on cold dishes, where they’ll stay bright and springy (heat will eventually wilt any delicate, leafy herb to some extent). If you don’t want to bother with that, tear whole leaves with your fingers and scatter them over the top of, say, a cold seafood salad or a caprese (in that case I’m talking basil), for great flavor. It may not look tidy, but the haphazard fall of torn leaves will definitely give your dish a nice folklorico feel.

I always love seeing whole herb leaves tossed into a salad or scattered on top of a warm dish. They make me feel the cook cared enough to go for pure glamor. When I make couscous I often toss in chopped mint or Thai basil and then drop a handful of whole mint or Thai basil leaves, sometimes both, over the top. It feels like an announcement of freshness. You can do this with any soft, leafy herb, as long as it works with the dish—for instance if you’ve braised pork shoulder with red wine, juniper, and sage, you might set aside a handful of nice looking sage leaves to garnish each serving. There’s beauty and consistency there.

A mezzaluna as an herb-chopping device looks charming and even a bit romantic, and it’s Italian, but it’s not for me. I have one. I actually have two. I bought them both in Italy, one in Puglia and the other in Liguria, but I didn’t grow up with the instrument and somehow the rocking motion feels awkward to me, plus I’m uncomfortable having both of my hands tied up in chopping. I need a free hand to move stuff around. I trained in professional kitchens on a Wüsthof eight-inch chef’s knife, and at this point the knife feels like an extension of my hand, so I’m sticking with it.

Since spring is coming now and fava beans will soon show up in the markets, I thought this fava bean and caciocavallo salad with torn mint leaves would be just the thing. Use your best olive oil on it.

Fava and Caciocavallo Salad with Torn Mint Leaves

  • Servings: 2 as a springtime lunch
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Buy about 2 pounds of fava beans. Shuck them. Set up a big pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Put the favas in the water, and blanch them for about 15 seconds. Pour them into a colander, and run cold water over them until they’re cool. Now, and here comes the tedious but perversely fun part, with your thumbnail puncture each fava to split its skin near the seam, and then squeeze out the bright green, now skinless, bean into a large bowl. Do this with all the beans.

Take about ½ pound of caciocavallo cheese, remove its waxy surface, and cut it into small cubes, about the size of the beans. Add them to the bowl. Drizzle on a good amount, at least ¼ cup, of your best olive oil (I used Olio Verde, a grassy Sicilian brand). Add a little salt, freshly ground black pepper, and a few drops of rice wine vinegar (very little), and give everything a gentle toss. Tear about a dozen spearmint leaves in half, and scatter them over the top. I like to serve this with good Italian bread, usually piling up the salad on a slice and spooning any oil remaining in the bowl over it. It is best with a glass of Southern Italian rosato. I especially like Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo wines.

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