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Peaches and Almonds, by Auguste Renoir, 1901.

Recipe below: Orzata and Olive Oil Cake

In normal times I’m one of those cooks who shop for dinner every day. There’s nothing in my freezer except vodka, gin, and ice cubes. Things sure have changed. I now worry constantly about feeding my people. Right now my people are my husband, Fred, my sister, Liti, often our neighbor Adrianne, my cats, Buddy and Little Red, and now Liti’s cat, Delilah.

Previously dinner was the only meal I cooked, and it was usually a recipe I’d been working on for a book or a magazine, or for this blog. So I gathered last-minute ingredients at 6 p.m. from West Side Market or Citarella or the Chelsea Market, and that was that. I bought what I needed for the recipe. I’ve never thought much about breakfast or lunch. I never had kids, because, frankly, I didn’t think I’d be able to take care of them. So no kids’ breakfast or lunch to prepare, my husband ate lunch at work, I went out to the deli for a sandwich or had leftovers, and my sister lived blocks away. Now I worry there’s nothing in the house for the meal. I’m making peppers and eggs and gashouse eggs and tuna salad sandwiches and grilled cheese with bad tomatoes. I need to remember to keep peanut butter in the house, and salami, and milk, and apples, and tons of cat food. I’ve finally become what I’ve always dreaded, a housewife. It feels weird.

Now I, like everyone, try to shop only once a week, and my small freezer is full. Sausages, ground meat, homemade chicken stock. I make chili and ragù, freezing half of it for a later date. I’ve also been making my olive oil yogurt cake again. It’s good for breakfast. Not too sweet, sort of healthy, I guess. I usually flavor it with vanilla or brandy or sometimes orange or lemon zest. Yesterday I noticed an ancient bottle of orzata syrup behind all my vinegars. I hadn’t used that in at least a year. It was a bit furry around the rim, but it smelled wonderful.  Every Italian-American has a bottle of this almond-flavored syrup hanging around. We used it all the time when I was a kid, mostly adding it to seltzer. My father would often plop a lump of lemon ice in our orzata sodas. That was the best summer drink ever. I don’t think about orzata much anymore, maybe because I’m not so fond of sweet drinks these days, preferring dry wine. But there it was, so I decided to add some to my olive oil yogurt cake. The result was subtle and kind of cozy. You might want to give this simple cake a try.

Stay safe. Eat olive oil cake.

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Orzata and Olive Oil Cake

2 cups all-purpose flour
A pinch of salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
2 large eggs
1 cup whole milk plain yogurt
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons orzata
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup blanched almonds, toasted, cooled, and roughly chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Rub a little olive oil into a loaf pan.

Put the flour in a medium bowl. Add the baking powder, salt, and nutmeg, and give it all a good stir.

In another bowl, combine the eggs, yogurt, sugar, and the orzata, and mix well. You can use a beater, but often I don’t bother.

Add the flour mix to the yogurt mix, stirring everything together. Add the olive oil, working it in. Now add the almonds, and give it all a quick stir.

Pour the batter into the loaf pan. Bake until browned and puffy, about 45 minutes.

I find this cake is as good with prosecco as it is with espresso.

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Still Life with Duck Eggs and Herbs, by William Robinson.

Recipe below: Arugula and Chickweed Pesto with Almonds and Gruyère

I never used to be particularly jealous of birds, but now I am. Especially the blue jays that seem to be laughing at our predicament. But in a happier vein, I just ordered a ton of herbs. I can’t start planting for probably another three or four weeks, but I wanted to put in my order ahead, because there are rumors of plant and seed hoarding, and I believe them. Everyone with a yard is going gardening crazy. The nursery I go to sells out in normal times, so I’m not taking chances on my lemon verbena now.

Before my own herbs get going, I satisfy my desire with store-bought ones and wild stuff I pull up in my yard. Chickweed is all over the place now. I love it. It tastes a bit like raw corn (or maybe more like corn silk). That might sound like a weird flavor to put into pesto, but it’s good. Maybe it wouldn’t be good straight, but mixed with arugula it sweetens up in an interesting way, and the Gruyère and butter I’ve uncharacteristically added here give the whole thing richness. If you don’t have any chickweed (but take a look around, you just might—right now mine is popping up with little white flowers), parsley will work well in its place.

I used this pesto on pasta, but it was also good the next day spooned over scrambled eggs. I can also see smearing it on a grilled cheese sandwich or stuffing it under the skin of chicken before grilling.

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Arugula and Chickweed Pesto with Almonds and Gruyère

(Makes enough for 1 pound of pasta)

3 big handfuls of baby arugula
1 smaller handful of chickweed (or you can use parsley)
½ cup blanched almonds
1 small garlic clove, roughly chopped
½ cup grated Gruyère cheese
½ cup grated grana Padano cheese
Salt
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

Set up a medium-size pot of water, and bring it to a boil.

Put in the arugula and the chickweed or parsley, and blanch then for a minute. Put them in a colander, and run cold water over them to set their color. Drain them well, squeezing out as much water as you can.

Put the almonds in the bowl of a food processor, and grind them well. Add the greens, the garlic, both cheeses, a good amount of salt, and the olive oil, and pulse until it’s all fairly smooth and a nice light green color. Add the butter, and pulse to blend that in. If the pesto seems too dense, add a little more oil.

If you’re using this for pasta, you’ll want to work in a little pasta cooking water while tossing it, to make it creamy.

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Still Life with Casserole Dish, Onions, Garlic, and Carrots, by Catherine Edmunds.

Recipe below: Spezzatino of Lamb with Fennel, Carrots, and Peas

Have you all found ways to keep busy? I hope so. If it weren’t for cooking, I don’t know what I’d be doing, or how I’d be doing, truly. I’m sure a lot of you feel the same. And, I must add, if liquor stores hadn’t been declared an essential business, I’d be way deep inside my own bad head by now. I tend to get withdrawn when scared, and wine can be liberating. There is, of course, with booze, the problem of diminishing returns, but so far I’m nowhere near that hazard.

Last night I decided to make Easter dinner. Since I have no idea what day it is, it may as well be Easter. Here’s my version of agnello con piselli, a Roman lamb stew that’s made for that holiday. It’s usually thickened with eggs. I’ve never been crazy about the texture that creates, so here I’ve just upped the vegetables, adding fennel and carrots, and worked in a slurry at the end to add body.

Try serving this delicate stew over fettuccine tossed with butter and more fennel fronds, or with bruschetta brushed with olive oil. An escarole salad is a good follow-up, with Rodda Peeps for dessert.

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Spezzatino of Lamb with Fennel, Carrots, and Peas

(Serves 5)

2½ pounds lamb shoulder, cut into 1½-inch cubes
Salt
1 teaspoon ground fennel seed
1 tablespoon sugar
Black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large fennel bulb, cored and cut into medium chunks, reserving the fronds
4 or 5 carrots, cut into thick ovals on an angle
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
4 or 5 large sprigs of rosemary, the leaves chopped
2 fresh bay leaves
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 anchovy fillets, chopped
1 cup dry vermouth
3 cups homemade chicken broth
1 tablespoon honey
1½ cups fresh peas, or a package of frozen peas
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1½ tablespoons flour

Dry off the lamb chunks, and toss them with the ground fennel seed, some salt, black pepper, and the sugar.

Get out a large casserole fitted with a lid. Pour in about 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and get it hot over medium high heat. Brown the lamb well, doing it in batches so you don’t crowd it.

Turn the heat down a bit, and add the onion, the fennel, and the carrots. Sauté for about 2 minutes. Add the garlic, rosemary, cinnamon, bay leaves, and anchovies, and sauté it all until fragrant, about another minute or so.

Add the vermouth, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Now add the chicken broth and the honey. Add more broth or water, if needed, to just cover the meat. Season with a bit more salt and black pepper, and bring it to a boil.

Turn the heat to very low, cover the pot, and simmer gently until the lamb is tender, about 1½ hours. Don’t be tempted to let it go much longer. It’ll get dry. Lamb stew cooks faster than beef stew.

Skim any scum off the top. I find that lamb throws scum.

In a small bowl, mix the softened butter together with the flour. Add a big ladle of stew broth, and mix it in well. Pour this into the stew, and stir it in. Let it cook at a simmer for a minute or so to thicken the sauce.

Add the peas, and cook until they’re tender, another minute or two. Taste for seasoning, perhaps adding more salt, pepper, rosemary, a bit more cinnamon, or a drizzle more honey to balance the flavors. Add the fennel fronds. Serve.

 

Women with Fish

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In my mind, I’m all cooped up, but in my soul I’m riding high.

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Still Life with Tuna, by Sunshine Art.

Recipe below: Cavatappi with Tuna, Black Olives, and Arugula

I assume that most of my readers are, like me, getting through this period of isolation with the help of cooking. In normal times I wake up thinking about what I’ll make for dinner. Now I think about that constantly. I know that many cooks are reaching back into their childhoods and pulling out dishes from memories, both good and bad. I certainly am.

There’s no dish that reminds me more of my mother than pasta with canned tuna. It showed up on the table when she was angry, or at least that’s how it seemed to me. If I recall correctly, she served a version of this the night she hurled a piece of fruit at me, an apple, I believe, missing me but hitting my friend Scott in the head so hard that the barrel chair he was sitting on went spinning. Yes, I believe that was one of our pasta with canned tuna nights.

My mother made various versions of the dish, most often a sort of puttanesca with capers and olives and canned tomatoes, and also a pasta with tuna and peas, with or without tomatoes. I loved all the various takes. I haven’t made it in a while, but today I realized that though my Italian pantry was getting low, I still had all the fixings for this perfect one-dish meal. Maybe my sister will throw a wine bottle at me. I kind of hope so. Just to liven things up.

Get good tuna in olive oil. I like Flott and Agostino Recco, both from Sicily, and Ortiz, from Spain.  Prolonged heating messes up the delicate taste of the fish, so you’ll want to add it at the last minute and just warm it through. I understand that it’s not easy to find good stuff at the markets these days. I don’t usually buy Barilla pasta or Cento tomatoes, but that was all they had, and I feel lucky I got it. Do the best you can. It’s a very forgiving dish.

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Isolation era provisions.

Cavatappi with Tuna, Black Olives, and Arugula

(Serves 4 as a piatto unico)

Salt
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 shallot or small onion, chopped
1 or 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
A splash of sweet vermouth
1 28-ounce can Italian tomatoes, well chopped, with the juice
Aleppo pepper
1 pound cavatappi, fusilli, or penne pasta
A palmful of shriveled Moroccan olives, pitted
2 7-ounce jars or cans good tuna packed in olive oil, drained
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
5 or 6 big sprigs marjoram or oregano, the leaves lightly chopped
A big handful of baby arugula
Grana Padano cheese for the table.

Set up a big pot of pasta cooking water, add a lot of salt, and bring it to a boil.

While the water is heating, get out a large skillet, and drizzle in about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallot or onion, and sauté until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, and cook until fragrant, about a minute longer. Add the vermouth, and let it bubble out. Add the tomatoes, season with salt and some Aleppo, and cook at a lively bubble for about 5 minutes.

Drop the pasta into the boiling water.

Turn the heat off under the tomato sauce. Add the tuna, the olives, the marjoram or oregano, and the butter, and stir everything around.

When the pasta is al dente, pour it into a big serving bowl, saving a little of the cooking water.

Pour on the tomato and tuna sauce, and toss, adding a little cooking water if needed. Check for seasoning. Add the arugula, and toss again quickly.  Bring the grana Padano to the table for those who want it. I like cheese with this tuna dish.

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Recipe below: Focaccia with Tomato, Rosemary, and Pancetta

Last night all the restaurants and bars in New York City were ordered closed. This creates an especially strange feeling, since food places are the soul of the city, at least for me. No more hanging out. While I try to wrap my head around that development, I’ve decided it’s time to make dough, with a long, slow rise to turn suffocation into coziness.

It seems I’ve almost always got on hand canned tomatoes, and pancetta, and garlic, and smatterings of fresh supermarket herbs. I might not have milk (or Windex, for that matter), but at least I can usually make a pizza, or, as I decided this time, a focaccia. I like focaccia less spongy, more pizza-like than they make it in central Italy. Mine is similar to a New Haven tomato pie. No cheese; very sparse but highly flavored condimento on top. If we were still allowed to congregate, I could feed a crowd with it.

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Focaccia with Tomato, Rosemary, and Pancetta

For the dough:

3 cups unbleached flour
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 package instant yeast
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup warm water (around 115 degrees Fahrenheit)

For the top:

1 26-ounce can chopped tomatoes, very well drained (I used a 26-ounce box of Pomi chopped Italian tomatoes. I find that if I drain them really well and scatter them over the focaccia, it’s almost like using fresh. Really good taste.)
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 thick slice pancetta, chopped into little cubes
1 long sprig rosemary, the leaves chopped
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon allspice
A little piment d’Espelette pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
A few drops of Spanish sherry wine vinegar

To make the dough, put the flour in the bowl of a food processor. Add the sugar, salt, and yeast, and pulse a few times, just to mix everything. Add the olive oil and the water, and pulse until it all comes together in a ball.

Dump the dough out onto a floured work surface, and knead it until it’s smooth, about 5 minutes.

Place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover it with a towel, and let it sit until doubled in size, about 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.

Punch down the dough, and then flatten it and press it out onto an oiled baking sheet. It should pretty much cover the entire pan, but it doesn’t need to go to the ends. Press down with your fingertips over the surface of the dough to form little indentations everywhere. Let it sit for about 45 minutes so it can rise a bit.

In the meantime, mix all the ingredients for the topping together in a small bowl, seasoning well with the salt and black pepper and Espelette.

When the dough has risen again, smear the tomato mixture over the top. Bake until the rim has browned, about 12 minutes or so. Serve hot or warm, cut into small squares,

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Still Life with Artichokes, by Toni Silber-Delerive.

Recipe below: Scialatielli with Artichokes, Lemon, Tarragon, and Parsley

At a time like this, one of the best things to do is cook. Being semi-housebound in fear of a raging virus is an excellent opportunity to expand your culinary horizons by tackling something that has always made you nervous, like skinning live eels or boiling up a whole beef tongue—or dealing with a pile of thorn-covered artichokes.

One of the problems most people have with artichokes is confronting the waste. If you want to prep our big globe type to eat, not with drawn butter but in a pasta dish, you have to throw out almost everything except the most tender leaves and a snip of the stem. I have a hard time coping with that myself. And all the work it takes to get to that tender little edible pile can be discouraging. The solution is baby artichokes. I’m now finding them in my markets again. What a gift. So easy to clean, and quick, too. No chokes. Excellent flavor. The little ones are from the same plant as our globes. They’re just miniatures that pop out lower down on the stalk. A bonus. For me, unless I’m making my grandmother’s humongous sausage-stuffed artichokes (a meal in itself, although it never was for her), I go for the babies.

This time, for pasta for four, I used about two dozen. I sat in front of the TV watching the latest coronavirus news and had the whole batch cleaned in about 15 minutes. I set up my usual (for artichokes) big bowl of lemony water (even though these are small, they still oxidize quickly when cut). With each artichoke I pulled off two or three layers of tough leaves, trimmed the top down about ½ inch, scraped the stem a bit, trimming it if the end looked tough, and them cut it in half or quarters lengthwise, depending on its size (I went for the really small ones). That’s it. Now they were ready to braise or to roast. I love these babies with pasta. Here I made a gentle springtime sauce using soft herbs, wine, and Parmigiano.

Don’t ignore spring artichokes. Just find yourself the runts. They provide a delicious shortcut.

And just a word about the pasta I used here. Scialatielli was originally a fresh pasta from along the Amalfi coast, sometimes with milk in its dough. It’s often served with seafood sauces. To me it’s like a much thicker, shorter, chewier linguini. I’ve never made it fresh, but the dried Setaro brand I used was delicious. You can substitute pasta alla chitarra or fettuccine, but keep an eye out for the real thing.

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Scialatielli with Artichokes, Lemon, Tarragon, and Parsley

(Serves 4)

About 2 dozen baby artichokes
2 large lemons
Sea salt
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 shallots, cut into small dice
Black pepper
A few grinds of fresh nutmeg (about ½ teaspoon)
A big splash of dry white wine
¾ cup light chicken broth or vegetable broth (or just use water)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, very lightly chopped
About 6 or 7 large tarragon sprigs, the leaves chopped
1 pound scialatielli or pasta alla chitarra or fettuccine or bucatini
A chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

Halve one of the lemons, and squeeze its juice into a big bowl of cold water.

Sharpen your knife (dealing with any type of artichoke is easier with a good sharp blade, as the vegetable can be slippery). Grab an artichoke, and pull off and discard its tough outer leaves until you get to the tender lighter green ones. Slice off the top about ½ inch from the top, and discard that. If the stem looks tough, give it a light peel, and trim the bottom if you think it will be chewy (often it’s tender all the way down). Now halve or quarter the thing lengthwise, and drop the pieces in the water. Do the same with all the rest.

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

In the meantime, get out a big skillet, and set in over medium heat. Add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and let it heat through. Drain the artichokes well, and add them to the skillet. Scatter the shallots on top, seasoning everything with salt, some black pepper, and the nutmeg. Sauté until the vegetables have softened a bit, about 3 or 4 minutes. Grate the zest of the remaining lemon over the top, and squeeze on about a tablespoon of its juice. Add the white wine, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Now add the broth or a little water, partially cover the skillet, and simmer until the artichokes are just tender, about another 6 minutes. Turn off the heat, and let the sauce rest.

Drop the pasta into the water, and cook it until it’s al dente. When it’s done, drain it, and pour it into a big serving bowl. Add the butter and a drizzle of fresh olive oil, and give it a toss. Add the artichoke sauce, the parsley, the tarragon, and a few big gratings of the Parmigiano.  Season with a little more salt and black pepper, and toss. Serve hot, bringing the chunk of Parmigiano to the table for grating.