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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)
Salt
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.

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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
Salt

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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Recipe below: Buddy’s Bucatini with Shrimp and Sicilian Pesto

Having my beloved kitty Buddy die during this virus lockdown added a huge extra layer of loneliness, grief, and confusion to the situation. Last night we buried his ashes in our little backyard flower garden, now called Buddy’s garden. A thought occurred to me while watering the garden afterward. If I watered Buddy’s ashes enough, he would grow back. He’d come back, full and healthy. It was just one of those fleeting thoughts.

After the burial we celebrated by preparing one of Buddy’s favorite foods, shrimp.  Buddy loved seafood of any kind. He sniffed it out the second I walked in from the store with it. But he was picky. It had to be super fresh. Day-old calamari was quickly examined and then ignored (the haughty walk-away). We called him Mr. Freschissima. A cat who understood the necessity of food perfection as much as I do.

This sweet-smelling wild-caught shrimp (Buddy would surely have approved) got tossed with bucatini and a Sicilian pesto. Sicilian style pesto is delicious, but it’s not normally much to look at. It’s made by grinding raw tomatoes, almonds, garlic, basil, sometimes mint, and olive oil in a mortar until you have a rough reddish-brown paste. I chopped all the ingredients separately and then combined them, resulting in a tidier look. The taste was also brighter, less homogenized.

This recipe is for you, Buddy. I’ll keep working on my seafood cooking, perfecting it, in celebration of you.

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Buddy’s Bucatini with Shrimp and Sicilian Pesto

(Serves 4)

1½ pounds large shrimp, shelled and deveined (but save the shells to make a little broth)
Extra-virgin olive oil
A few splashes of rosé wine
Salt
Piment d’Espelette
2 pints of sweet grape tomatoes, cut in half, also drained briefly if they seem really watery
A big handful of really fresh, blanched almonds, lightly toasted and then roughly chopped
1 small fresh garlic clove, minced
1 pound bucatini
A palmful of fresh spearmint leaves, chopped
A palmful of fresh basil leaves, chopped
A palmful of wild fennel fronds, chopped (or a big pinch of fennel pollen)
2 tablespoons grated grana Padano cheese

Get out a small saucepan, and set it over medium heat. Drizzle in a little olive oil. Add the shrimp shells, and stir them around until they turn pink, about 2 minutes. Add a splash of rosé wine and about a cup and a half of water. Add a little salt and some piment. Cook at a low boil until it’s reduced by half. Strain the shrimp broth into a small bowl, covering it to keep it warm.

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

Get out a big pasta serving bowl. Put in it the tomatoes, the almonds, and the garlic. Season with salt and pimenton, and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil, stirring everything around.

Drop the bucatini into the water.

Set up a large sauté pan over high heat. Add a big drizzle of olive oil. When hot, add the shrimp, spreading them out in one layer. Season with salt and pimenton, and cook, without moving them around, until they start to go pink, 2 minutes or so. Turn them over and quickly cook their other side, about another minute. Add a splash of rosé, letting it bubble for a few second. Pour the shrimp with pan juices into the bowl with the tomatoes. Add the reserved shrimp broth.

Drain the bucatini, and add it to the bowl. Add all the herbs, a drizzle of fresh olive oil, and the grana Padano. Toss gently, tasting for seasoning and adding more salt or pimenton if you think it can use it. Serve right away.

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Insects on a Sprig of Rosemary, by Jan van Kessel.

Recipe below: Linguine with Clams, Lemon, and Rosemary

Rosemary is one of the great aromas in my life. But it wasn’t in my young life. My father never planted it, my parents never cooked with it, except on our Easter lamb, and there it was always dried, a dusty remnant of its true self. I’m trying to think when it became important for me. Possibly when I first grew herbs on my University Place roof in the early eighties. No one was allowed to be up there, but the super didn’t give a crap, he even seemed interested, especially by the basil, an herb that as an Eastern European he was unfamiliar with.

The roof was white hot, and my rosemary grew like it was pushing out of cracks in a Southern Mediterranean villa. Around that time I remember often cooking chicken with rosemary, lemon, and garlic. I was proud of its fascinating aroma. All my friends ate it, over and over. And then at some point I got a small in-the-freezer ice cream maker and thought it would be cool to try strawberry and raspberry sorbetto with rosemary added. That was a revelation, sweet and piney. I also remember experimenting with a salsa verde for pork chops by adding rosemary and capers, and thinking I’d created a masterpiece. Then I found a recipe for an olive oil cake with rosemary and orange. That was so delicious I could hardly believe it. My tiny, unventilated apartment was filled with the aroma of sweet resin. Right in the middle of my Mudd Club days, I was playing with a lot of rosemary.

I’m not sure I’ve ever used rosemary with clams before. That’s not traditional or even usual, but I thought the brine-and-pine combo might work. It did. Rosemary is strong and deep, and it takes well to heat, unlike the leafier herbs that can get swallowed up. So, clam juice, white wine, garlic, rosemary, lemon zest . . . I think you’ll like this.

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Linguine with Clams, Lemon, and Rosemary

(Serves 3 to 4)

4 to 5 dozen small clams (littlenecks are a good choice)
3/4 cup dry, non-oaky white wine
Sea salt
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 small shallot, chopped
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 large sprigs rosemary, the leaves chopped
The grated zest from 2 large lemons, plus about 1 tablespoon of their juice
Dried peperoncini to taste
½ cup light chicken broth
1 pound linguine
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
A big handful of flat-leaf parsley, the leaves lightly chopped

Clean the clams well in several changes of cool water, and then drain them.

Get out a large pot. Put the clams and the wine in it. Bring it to a boil, turn the heat down a touch, cover the pot, and let the clams heat, stirring them around a few times, until they just start to open. The thing about clams is that they won’t all open at the same time, so once a few of them start opening, uncover the pot and start pulling them out with tongs into a big bowl, one by one. This is important. You don’t want the open ones sitting in the liquid overcooking while you wait for the rest of them to open.

Strain the clam cooking liquid and set it aside.

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

Get out a large, wide sauté pan, big enough to hold all the clams, and put it over medium heat. Drizzle in about 3 tablespoons of good olive oil. Add the shallot, and let it soften. Add the garlic, the rosemary, the lemon zest, and some peperoncini. Sauté until everything is fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the clam cooking liquid and the chicken broth.

Put the linguine in the water.

Let the clam broth simmer on low heat for about a minute or so to reduce. Then add the clams back to the broth, and turn off the heat, stirring everything around to coat the clams in broth. Add a drizzle of fresh olive oil.

When the linguine is al dente, drain it, and pour it into a big, wide serving bowl. Add the butter and the lemon juice, and toss. Add the clams with all their broth. Scatter on the parsley, and toss again. Taste to see if you need salt. If your clams are very salty you may not. Serve right away.

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A caper bush.

Recipe below: Warm Potato Salad with Lovage and Sicilian Capers

My lovage came back. I guess it didn’t mind our snowy early May as much as I did. My chives too. Other stuff would have, but I yanked it. Last year I planted what turned out to be acrid oregano, so I got rid of it at the first frost. I had stupidly put in mint, which naturally and furiously took over the entire garden, so that had to go. I will pot it separately this year. My thyme, marjoram, and savory got engulfed by some stringy invader that looked like masses of yellow threads, so all that got ripped up and, as suggested by my Agway man, actually burned. I’m hoping to do much better this year, rolling out a more organized approach.

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Lovage in my garden.

Lovage took me a while to love. It’s a strong herb, with a taste something like jacked-up celery, or celery made into perfume. It’s hauntingly beautiful when used conservatively,  but merely haunting if you go overboard with it. I’ve learned restraint (people make lovage pesto; I’m not sure I’d want that). And I now realize that lovage marries very well with capers. But you’ve got to get good capers.

My favorite capers come from Pantelleria, an island to the south of Sicily, closer to Tunisia than to the Sicilian mainland. The Mediterranean caper bush grows like crazy in the island’s volcanic soil. The capers are big, almost juicy, and they taste like the flower buds that they in fact are. They’re packed in Trapani sea salt, not vinegar, which renders them sweet and floral, not sour. You just need to soak them to get rid of excess salt. I get mine from Gustiamo. You should give those Sicilian ones a try. I swear you’ll never go back to the little sour things again.

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Warm Potato Salad with Lovage and Sicilian Capers

1½ pounds small Yukon Gold or fingerling potatoes
1 tablespoon dry vermouth
1 teaspoon sherry wine vinegar, or possibly a little more
A big pinch of sugar
Salt
A big pinch of ground allspice
2 tender inner celery stalks, chopped
1 small shallot, thinly sliced
A palmful of Sicilian salt-packed capers, soaked and rinsed
Extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
About 8 lovage leaves, lightly chopped (if you don’t have lovage, use celery leaves)

Put the potatoes in a big pan, and cover them with water by at least 3 inches. Bring it to a boil, then turn it down a notch, and cook the potatoes just until they’re just tender, about 8 minutes. Poke into one to make sure.

Drain the potatoes. When they’re cool enough to handle but still really hot, cut them in half, and put them in a big, attractive serving bowl. Drizzle on the vermouth and the vinegar, and season with salt, the sugar, and the allspice. Toss gently with your hands. Let sit for about ten minutes, so the potatoes can soak up all the seasoning.

Add the celery, shallot, and capers. Drizzle on 2 tablespoons of really good olive oil (Sicilian would be excellent—try Ravida). Grind on a good amount of fresh black pepper, and scatter on the lovage. Toss gently, tasting for seasoning and adding more vinegar or salt if needed. Serve warm.

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Crepes and Salad, by Julie Galante.

Recipe below: Crespelle with Ricotta and Many Herbs

The quarantine has steered my dream time toward people from my culinary past. Maria Guarnaschelli, my first cookbook editor, who I haven’t heard from in years, recently made a grand appearance. I was always a little scared of her. She continues to scare me in my sleep.

After New York got locked down I moved upstate to ride it out, feeling a little guilty for leaving my city but also grateful to have an escape. Recently I had a nightmare set in our upstate house. I was messing around in the kitchen with an old fashioned hand-cranked meat grinder. I don’t actually own one, but I remember my grandmother using one. I was putting ricotta through it, and it was making a disgusting mess. As ricotta shot out over counter and floor, anxiety ground its way up my esophagus. A car appeared in the driveway. Maria Guarnaschelli and some guy with bleached blond hair got out.

“Finally, I’ve found out where you’re living,” she said, striding into the house as if she owned it. “You can’t get away from me. Do you have Sicilian wine?” Yes. “Can you get us some?” I asked her if she shouldn’t be wearing a mask. She blew that off. “Do you have any antipasti? Roasted peppers or something?” I didn’t. “What’s for dinner?” I said I was making manicotti with crespelle, and that was why there was ricotta all over the floor. “I hope you have enough for fifteen people. The office will be here any minute.” Now several more cars pulled up, and throngs of people came into the kitchen, none of them wearing masks and definitely not social-distancing. They drank wine and laughed like at a party.  “We’re not supposed to be doing this,” I said. “Oh lighten up,” Maria snapped. Now I was terrified. Not only could I get the virus from any one of these unruly city people, but also I didn’t have enough for them to eat. I went upstairs to ask my husband what to do. He said, “How do I know? They’re your friends.”

I woke up scared. Then I went ahead and made crespelle, just to put a cap on my dream. And I made a lot of it.

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Crespelle with Ricotta and Many Herbs

(Serves 4 to 5, making about 12 7-inch crepes)

For the crespelle:

1¼ cups regular flour
4 large eggs
Salt
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for cooking
1 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon cognac or grappa

For the filling:

2 cups baby arugula
2 cups baby spinach (or a mix of spinach and Swiss Chard)
1 cup lightly chopped basil leaves, plus a little extra for the top
1 cup lightly chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves, plus a little extra for the top
The leaves from 5 large marjoram sprigs
The leaves from a few large thyme sprigs
32 ounces whole-milk ricotta
1 garlic clove, minced
Salt
Black pepper
A few big gratings of nutmeg
2 eggs
1 cup grated grana Padano cheese, plus another ½ cup to sprinkle on the top

For the tomato sauce:

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large shallot, chopped
A splash of sweet vermouth
1 35-ounce can tomatoes, well chopped and lightly drained
A few big sprigs of marjoram, the leaves chopped
A few big sprigs of thyme, the leaves chopped
Salt
Black pepper

For the besciamella:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 tablespoons regular flour
1 quart whole milk
Salt
1 fresh bay leaf
½ teaspoon nutmeg
A big pinch of Piment d’espelette

To make the crespelle batter, put all the crespelle ingredients into the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until smooth. The batter should have the consistency of thick cream. If it’s too thick, add a little more milk. Pour the batter into a bowl, and let it sit for about 30 minutes before you use it. That will allow the flour to absorb the liquid and let the gluten relax, so you get a nice tender crepe.

Now cook the crespelle: I used a 7-inch omelet pan, but if you’ve got a proper crêpe pan, a little bigger or smaller, choose that. Any small sauté pan will do. With these olive oil crespelle, I never find sticking a problem, so you don’t need a nonstick pan. Put the pan over a medium flame, and let it heat up. Pour in just enough olive oil to coat the pan. Pull the pan from the heat, and ladle in a bit less than a quarter cup of batter, tilting the pan quickly in a circular movement to spread the batter. (You’ll get the hang of it. The first few usually don’t come out too well. Once the heat is regulated and you get the feel of it, trust me, you’ll find it fairly easy.) Let the crespella cook just until you notice it coloring lightly at the edge. Then shake the pan, moving the crespella away from you, and slip a spatula underneath. Give it a fast, confident flip. If it folds up a bit, just straighten it out with your fingers (these things are a lot sturdier than you’d think). Cook on the other side for about 30 seconds,. Then slide it onto a big plate.

Make the rest of the crespelle the same way, adding a drizzle of olive oil to the pan when needed. Stack the crespelle up on top of one another (they won’t stick, I swear). If you like, you can refrigerate them until you want to assemble the dish.

To make the filling: Blanch all the greens and herbs in a pot of boiling water for about 2 minutes. Drain and run cold water over them to stop the cooking and bring up their green color. Squeeze out as much water as possible, and then give them a few good chops. Put the chopped greens in a bowl, and then add all the other ingredients for the filling, mixing well.

To make the sauce: Melt the butter in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the shallot, and let it soften for about a minute.  Add the sweet vermouth, and let it bubble for 10 or 15 seconds. Add the tomatoes and the herbs, and season with salt and black pepper. Cook, uncovered, for about 5 minutes (not much longer, because you want the sauce to stay fresh tasting). Turn off the heat.

To make the besciamella: In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the flour, and whisk until it’s blended into the butter. Sauté for a minute or so, without letting it brown, to get rid of the raw taste. Add all the milk, and whisk well again to blend. Add all the spices and a decent amount of salt. Whisk a few more times, and then let the mix slowly heat, whisking frequently. Keep whisking while keeping it at a low bubble, until the sauce becomes thick and smooth, about another 4 minutes or so. That should do it. Cover the surface with plastic wrap, so it doesn’t form a skin.

Heat the oven to 425 degrees.

Get out a baking dish big enough to snuggly hold the soon-to-be-rolled crespelle.  Or use two dishes. I usually do that. Oil it or them lightly with olive oil.

Fill each crepe with an ample layer of the ricotta filling, and roll it up. Place them all in the baking dish(es). Cover them with the besciamella.

Dot the top with blobs of tomato sauce (see the photo below), scatter on the remaining basil and parsley, and top with grana Padano. Give everything a drizzle of fresh olive oil and a few grindings of fresh black pepper, and bake uncovered until hot, bubbling, and lightly browned at the edges, about 20 to 25 minutes.

Let the crespelle sit for about 10 minutes before you cut them. It’s traditional to cut them into squares, as you would lasagna, instead of serving each person 1 or 2 whole, long crespelle. It really does look lovely that way.

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Crespelle ready for the oven.

Women with Fish

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I’ve finally been punished for all the octopi I’ve hacked up, hammered, boiled, and grilled in the past thirty years.  I guess it’s too late to say I’m sorry.