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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
Salt

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
Salt
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.

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:

Salt
12 large, dry sea scallops (3 per person), the side muscle removed
Salt
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.

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.

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.

Escarole and Rainbow Radishes, by M. Susan Broussard.

Recipe below: Gemelli with Escarole, Anchovies, Raisins, and Pine Nuts

 “That’s a lot of sca-roll.” That’s what years ago I heard my uncle Jack snottily and jealously joke after seeing my dad drive up in yet another new Cadillac. Translated, that meant, “You paid big time for that, Dicky boy.” Sca-roll meant money, but more specifically green cash. My father Richard, known as Dick, paid for many big ticket items in cash. Not unusual in his circle. And sca-roll was also, as every Italian American learned at an early age, a very fine green vegetable.

The Italian name for the green is scarola, but we called it sca-roll or sometimes shka-roll, actually more often the latter. Escarole is the French spelling, which America seemed to have adopted. The plant is a chicory, related to endive, originally from the East Indies before moving into Sicily and then up north, settling in Campania and surrounding areas, where it was revered. Most of the original shka-roll eaters in America had it presented to them by their Neapolitan, Calabrian, or Sicilian elders, who either brought seeds over or hunted them down on arrival in the USA. Couldn’t do without scarola. Southern Italians in Italy lived on greens, both domesticated and foraged.

When I was a kid in the sixties and seventies, nobody ate the stuff except Italians, but we ate it a lot. It was something that made us other, though in New York there were so many Italian Americans it didn’t seem very other to me, except when an Irish school chum came for dinner. Then there would be yuck, ick, gross, which nobody could understand—and she would truly horrify my family by asking for a glass of orange juice to go with her spaghetti. Now, that was the real yuck, ick, gross.

Every meal had to have greens. It was medicine, kept the blood flowing. For my grandmother it was escarole or dandelions or spinach. I remember watching her eat big bowls of escarole when she was going through one of her migraine depressions. Self-medicating. That seemed tragic when I was a kid. My mom made sure escarole or chicory salad came out every night at some point during the meal. In her mind a meal was not complete without a bracing salad.

Escarole, along with broccoli rabe, is still extremely popular with Italian Americans. I guess people can flee from the bitter earth but you can’t chase the bitter edge out of them. I certainly feel that way. I love bitter, and in the world of Italian bitter stuff, escarole is pretty tame. Broccoli rabe and radicchio, for instance, are both much more bitter.

There were many dishes that needed escarole. Escarole with olive oil and garlic and dried chili flakes was a standard. And then there were escarole with raisins and pine nuts, no dried chili flakes; escarole with cannellini beans; escarole with ceci; escarole with anchovies and penne; orecchiette with escarole and sausage (as a change from the more common broccoli rabe and sausage); soup with red beans and escarole; soup with escarole and baby meatballs or chunks of pancetta; escarole with eggs, not exactly a frittata, more like scrambled eggs made with long, broad sweeps of a spatula to create I kind of flat but loose omelet; escarole salad with croutons and pecorino, sort of like a Caesar except not creamy. Escarole is excellent piled on grilled bread for a kind of hard-to-eat bruschetta. And there’s also a labor-intensive and in my opinion rather stupid Neapolitan preparation of a whole stuffed escarole head tied with string and braised. I tried making it a few time and found it a complete mess to cut and serve. I also love escarole with shrimp and fresh hot chilies. And then there’s the gorgeous pizza di scarola, something so special to me that I only make it on Christmas Eve. But my all time fave way with shka-roll is in a pasta with the classic raisin and pine nut duo and a good hit of anchovy. Here’s my slightly updated version.

Gemelli with Escarole, Anchovies, Raisins, and Pine Nuts

  • Servings: 4 as a main-course pasta
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1 large head good-looking escarole, or two medium heads (you want a lot of escarole here)
Salt
1 pound gemelli (I used the Setaro brand from Naples—you can order it and many other shapes from Buonitalia)
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large shallot, cut into small dice
2 very fresh unsprouted garlic cloves, very thinly sliced
5 or 6 oil-packed anchovies, chopped (I’ve lately been really liking the Ortiz brand)
5 large thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
½ teaspoon ground allspice
1 fresh red peperoncino, minced (or as much or as little as you like)
About ½ cup raisins soaked in a small glass of dry white wine
½ to ¾ cup lightly toasted pine nuts

I always blanch my escarole. It isn’t absolutely necessary, but I really want to preserve its green color. It looks so much more appealing. I don’t do it to remove bitterness; I love bitter, and frankly escarole is really very mild. So, I set up a big pot of water, preferably with a pasta drainer insert so I can blanch and drain the escarole and then keep the water to cook the pasta. To do this, bring the water to a boil, and add a good amount of salt. Add the escarole, pushing it down with a wooden spoon until it’s all submerged. Blanch it for about a minute. Pull the drainer up and out, and run the escarole under cold water. That will set its color. Squeeze out as much water as you can, and turn the escarole out onto a few sheets of paper towels so it can continue draining.

Bring the water back to a boil, and drop in the gemelli.

Get out a large sauté pan, and put in over medium heat. Add a generous amount of olive oil, and let it warm up. Add the shallot, and sauté until it just starts to soften, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic, anchovies, thyme, allspice, and peperoncino, and sauté until everything is fragrant and the flavors are melding, a few minutes longer.

Add the escarole, spreading it out in the pan. Season with a touch of salt (remember that the anchovies are salty), and stir it around to coat it well with the anchovy and all the other flavors. Add a little more olive oil if you think it needs it. When the escarole is warmed through and nicely sautéed, add the raisins with their soaking wine, letting it bubble for a few seconds.

When the gemelli is al dente, drain it, saving a little of the cooking water.

If your pan is big enough, add the gemelli to the escarole, and give it a final quick toss over medium heat for a few seconds. Though this is ideal, it’s not always possible. You need a gigantic pan to hold all that, and most people don’t have one. Alternately, pour the gemelli into a large warmed serving bowl, and pour the escarole, with all its pan juices, on top. Add the pine nuts. Give it a good toss, adding a little of the cooking water to loosen it up. Finish with a drizzle of fresh olive oil. Serve right away. I prefer this pasta without cheese, but a few gratings of a young pecorino won’t hurt anyone. My sister Liti prefers it that way.

Women with Fish

Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,
And I’ll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise
Doth ask a drink divine;
But might I of Giuseppe’s colatura sup,
I would not change for thine …

Mint in My Pot, by Mutlu Ertac.

A Cook and Her Herbs” will be a new regular feature on my blog. Once a month I’ll post about my love of herbs. I’ll offer recipes, personal stories, historical notes on herbs’ uses in Mediterranean cooking, health facts and myths, all sorts of cooking wisdom, and, as always, beautiful artwork and food photos. I decided to write my first herb post in the dead of winter mainly because I find the season challenging for the herb-obsessed like me, and I figured you could use all the help you could get.

I hope you enjoy it. Please send along any thoughts you have about my postings and any ideas you’d like to see covered here.  Happy winter cooking to you. It’s been a long one. And don’t forget to look at my YouTube videos. I’m posting “A Cook and Her Herbs” videos monthly, too. And they’re often on different topics from my monthly text posts.

Recipe below: Pistachio Mint Pesto

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve grabbed a package of sage or oregano or rosemary at a supermarket and thrown it in my cart only to get home and find almost the entire contents browned and rotten. I’m talking about the herbs you find in the little hard plastic packages lined up in rows in the produce department. Winter is when I’m forced to buy that stuff, since there’s no other option, and the letdown for me can be profound. As you know, I love my herbs. When I see them mistreated, I take it personally. The supermarket stuff often looks fine from the front of the package, but had I bothered to flip it over, I would have seen how desiccated it was. Of course, sometimes it looks really bad from the front. And occasionally, and here’s the most annoying thing, it looks good from the front and the back, but the middle is screwed-up moldy. Now I always open the herb packs to see if there’s anything funky going on inside. Many herbs that aren’t big sellers, marjoram among them, sit on the shelf too long, and nobody pays attention.

Make sure you give them a good looking over before you buy.

When they’re not all moldy or dried out, or moldy and dried out, the herbs I buy at the supermarket usually taste okay, but being mass-produced they’re often on the mild side, compared with ones you grow yourself or buy at farm stands. That doesn’t make them bad. You just have to be sure to always taste a leaf to determine how much you’ll need. You might want to add a bit more to get the effect you want.

Oregano is pretty easy to find in supermarkets year-round now, easier than marjoram, but it’s hard to know if you’ll find Greek or Italian oregano in those little packages. My local West Side Market usually stocks Italian oregano, but when go to Citarella, it’s always the stronger, less flowery Greek. Greek oregano has bigger leaves and is slightly darker in color. I now open the packages and give them a good look and smell to make sure I’m getting what I want. I often prefer Italian oregano, but it depends on what I’m cooking. For instance, I want Greek oregano in a spinach and feta pie. It’s only right.

Parsley and mint are fairly dependable winter supermarket finds, and usually in pretty good shape. Basil, on the other hand, is almost never good in the winter. I’m not sure why that is. You’d think anything grown in a greenhouse would at least be serviceable. In Liguria they grow basil in huge greenhouses all year round, and it’s excellent, but the stuff I get is cat-pissy and mostly blackened at the tips, and also strangely sandy. So the hell with that.

I use both parsley and mint in this pistachio pesto, which to my way of thinking is a good winter substitute for the more summery Genoa pesto. I make that only when I can get the best basil. Regardless of the trials of winter, I try to keep working fresh herbs year-round, not only to brighten up my cooking but also for their strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.  Every little bit helps.

I tossed this rich, mellow pesto with a pound of busiate, a long, twisted traditional Sicilian pasta. Seemed like a really good match, considering that it involves most of the ingredients for a classic Trapanese pesto, excepting the tomatoes. You can use it as a condiment for seafood or vegetables (it’s excellent on roasted eggplant). And if you’re tossing it with pasta, remember to save a cup of the pasta cooking water to loosen it up and make it creamy.

A note on pistachios: Although wildly expensive, the Sicilian pistachios from the town of Bronte are exceptional. Turkish pistachios are also excellent, and I often buy them. I saw both at Kalustyan’s the other day, but considering that I was also purchasing a not so mini tin of Spanish saffron, the potential bill scared me, so I went for California-grown. They were better than I expected, rich and sweet and flecked with green, which is nice when  making pesto. There’s nothing more depressing than gray pesto. Oh, and one other thing: I’ve tried toasting boring nuts such as almonds, pistachios, pine nuts, and walnuts to make them more flavorful for pesto, but it doesn’t work. I think pesto needs the taste of virgin nuts. I find that a strong toasted-nut taste overpowers the fresh herbs and throws the delicate medley off balance. That’s just me. I know people who do it, but I don’t think my people should.

Pistachio Mint Pesto

  • Servings: Enough to dress a pound of pasta or to use as a condiment or salsa for 4 or 5 servings of fish or vegetables
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1 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves
¾ cup spearmint leaves
1½ cups shelled and unsalted pistachios
1 small garlic clove, peeled and roughly chopped (make sure it smells fresh and hasn’t sprouted)
Sea salt
The grated zest from 1 small lemon
½ cup grated Piave or grana Padano cheese
1 cup really good olive oil (I used Olio Verde, a Sicilian brand)

Fill a medium saucepan about halfway with water. Bring it to a boil, and add the parsley and mint. Blanch them for about a minute. Pour them into a colander, and run cold water over them to stop their cooking and set their nice green color. Squeeze out as much water as you can. This keeps the pesto from going dark right away but it doesn’t affect the flavor. Well, maybe it tamps it down a touch, but it’s a tradeoff. I find oxidized pesto completely unappealing, so this works for me.

Put all the ingredients into the bowl of a food processor. Give it all a few long pulses, just until it’s nicely emulsified but still has a bit of texture. If it seems too thick, add a little more olive oil. You’ll notice there’s no pepper of any kind in it. I prefer most pestos without pepper, especially ones made with basil or mint, which are peppery themselves.

I like to use pesto right when I make it, but it will keep good flavor for a day or two. Just bring it back to room temperature before using it, if you decided to refrigerate it.

Aperitif with Bread and Sausage, by Dean Wittle.

Recipe below: A Quick Winter Ragù with Sausage, Rosemary, Fennel, and a Splash of Cream

I find winter supermarket shopping bleak. No Greenmarket cantaloupes, no backyard beefsteaks. As a picky, bordering on really picky, food shopper, I try to keep my supermarket visits down to maintenance only—onions, carrots, celery, broccoli, milk, plastic packs of somewhat fresh herbs, decent grana Padano, but definitely not a terrible thing called American fontina, which I bought once out of desperation and never again. Most of the lettuce is okay, but the other day I sniffed a pile of really good looking escarole and it smelled oddly like the mildewy inside of a bathing cap. I can’t imagine how that could be. Am I just a super snotty shopper who brings on her own depression? I know this sounds exaggerated, but a package of rotten, I mean really smelly, chicken I bought a few days ago literally had me in tears. Angry tears.

I’ve stopped buying fresh Italian sausage at supermarkets because I’ve been burned too many times, not only because of the sour, industrial quality of much of it, and problems with the pork industry in general, but also because half the time it’s rotten. I mean it stinks. If you’re going to sell mass-produced, processed ground meat, it might as well be fresh. Don’t you think? Evidently my 14th Street grocery store doesn’t think so. Sell-by dates have little meaning over there. And don’t get me started on their chicken rotation, or nonrotation. If you’re going to bother to stock phony free-range chicken, you may as well keep it fresh.  And when the cashier asks if I want my receipt? Damn right, I want it. You’ll be seeing me back here with that high-stinking chicken in no time. The whole thing is so frustrating.

I really should make my own Italian sausage. It’s easy, and it feels really good. I think I’ll start again soon. I wish I had kept my grandmother’s meat grinder. It was an old hand-cranked thing that clamped on to a table and looked ancient and beautiful to my eyes. I had it in my college dorm room for a while. I’m not sure why I brought it there. Maybe back then I thought of it as found art. Not sure.

So this winter I walk miles through New York sleet, wind, and deep freeze to get myself a decent sausage. Actually I don’t have to go all that far, usually just over to Faicco’s, on Bleecker Street, about 15 blocks away, a fun slide on ice-slicked sidewalks (I also trudge over there for my tripe, the only place I can find it anymore). And the surprise is that Faicco’s good, fresh sausage doesn’t cost any more than the supermarket’s rotten one.

I’ve spent much of this winter in Italian food shops, the few that are left in downtown Manhattan. I can find excellent house-made mozzarella at a place called Sergimmo on Sixth Avenue. They also carry a Sicilian primo sale I can’t find anywhere else. I love Buon’Italia  in the Chelsea Market. They’ve also make good fresh sausage, and it’s where I buy my cotechino for New Year’s Day. And they carry a huge selection of Setaro dried pasta. There’s a new caffè on Perry Street, right behind the Village Vanguard, that’s run by a Tuscan food exporter called Sogno Toscano, and it carries porchetta, bresaola, speck, guanciale, lardo, culatello, pecorino aged in grape must, pickled artichokes and eggplant, and good canned tomatoes. It is a wonderful addition to the neighborhood, and boldly opened right in the middle of Covid. I haven’t made it down to Di Palo’s in Little Italy yet this winter, but I will. I’m also planning a trip to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx to stock up on pantry staples like capers and anchovies and olives and dried sausage, all at really good prices. I can mostly keep my bad self out the supermarket, if I try.

If you can make or otherwise get your hands on some high-quality Italian pork sausage, I advise you to cook this dish. Most ragù sauces take at least two hours of long simmering. This sausage version will be ready in about 40 minutes. I know you’ve seen me use a blend of rosemary and fennel before. I return to it again and again. It’s worth it for its intrinsic beauty, especially when it comes to winter cooking.

A Quick Winter Ragù with Sausage, Rosemary, Fennel, and a Splash of Cream

  • Servings: 4 as a main course
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Extra-virgin olive oil
1 fennel bulb, cored and cut into small dice, the fronds all saved and chopped
A palmful of fennel seeds
1 fresh bay leaf
1 large sweet onion, cut into small dice
1 large carrot, cut into small dice
4 or 5 very thin slices soppressata or another good salami, finely diced (this is optional, but nice you if have the meat on hand)
About ½ pound fresh Italian sausage (I used 3 medium sausages), the casings removed and the meat pulled into pieces (and if you’ve got fennel seeds in yours, you might want to omit the fennel seeds in the recipe, or use less)
5 or 6 big fresh (not dried) rosemary sprigs, the leaves well chopped
Salt
Black pepper
A big pinch of sugar
½ glass dry white wine
1 35-ounce can good Italian tomatoes, well chopped (if they’re swimming in tomato purée, I drain some off—to me it always makes a sauce too homogenized-feeling)
1 cup chicken broth
½ cup heavy cream
1 pound rigatoni or ziti or penne pasta
Pecorino Toscano cheese for grating

Get out a large sauté pan or casserole fitted with a lid. Add a big drizzle of olive oil over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the fennel and its fronds, fennel seeds, bay leaf, onion, carrot, and diced soppressata. Let it sauté until everything is fragrant, about 4 minutes or so. Add the sausage and the rosemary, and season it all with salt and black pepper and the sugar. Keep sautéing, breaking up the sausage into smaller pieces with a spoon, until the sausage starts to brown, probably about another 5 minutes. Add the white wine, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Add the tomatoes and the chicken broth. Let it all come to a boil. Turn the heat down a notch, and cover the pot, letting everything simmer gently until it all comes together in a fragrant, slightly suspending looking sauce. This should take about 40 minutes. You’ll want to stir it around every so often as it cooks.

Uncover the pot, and add the cream, stirring it in. Let it simmer, uncovered, for a few minutes, just to blend all the flavors. Give it a taste and adjust the seasoning.

Now you’re ready to cook your pasta al dente and toss it with the ragù. I think a nice pecorino Toscano is the best cheese for this. It’s more assertive than Parmigiano, but less sharp that a pecorino Romano.

Still Life with Octopus and Tomatoes, by Beata Skorek.

Recipe below: Bucatini with Octopus, Vermouth, and Basil

Lately I’ve been loitering around Eataly on 23rd Street. It tricks me into feeling I’ve travelled somewhere, maybe Florence, somewhere with big food shops filled with great Italian stuff. Eataly can be difficult, with its crowds and complicated floor plan, but there’s no denying it’s got some great Italian products. I don’t buy there all the time, but occasionally I do. Sometimes its pricing is just too bizarre, though. I recently intended to purchase a small head of puntarella, a type of chicory, but found, to my amazement when I brought it to the counter, that the tiny head of lettuce would have cost me $28.  Living in New York, I’m usually not shocked by food prices, but this was crazy, don’t you think?  However, some things there are reasonable. Cheeses, for instance. I was surprised to find a caciocavallo from Irpinia in Campania, a place not far from my ancestral village of Castelfranco in Miscano. Both localities are famous for this cow’s milk (or occasionally sheep’s milk) cheese, but Irpinia finally found a way to export it, and I’m grateful that Eataly stocks it.

Eataly also has an interesting seafood department, reliably carrying hard to find things such as fresh anchovies and head-on scampi, the kind I like to stuff, and a good selection of whole fish (not just farmed branzino). On my last visit I saw octopus tentacles as thick as I’d ever seen in my life and of such gelatinous repulsiveness that I had to buy a few. Two of the monsters were enough for dinner for four. (They were sold detached from the head. I wonder how big that head would have been.)

There are several ways to cook big octopus. First off, most people buy whole ones that have been previously frozen, since that tenderizes them, which means you don’t have to spend time slamming them against a rock. They’re also cleaned, meaning the head has been emptied out, which cuts down on kitchen trauma. Most recipes ask you to first blanch your octopus in boiling water for as long as it takes to make it tender. That can be an hour or longer, depending on what you’re dealing with. And then there’s another way, more of an Italian granny way, which is to just stick it in a pot with no liquid at all, cover it, and sort of steam heat it into submission. Also I had a friend whose mother used to just sit an octopus up on a sheet pan and heat it in the oven until it softened up. Very strange to witness, but it did work. Sort of like baking a potato.

My method is a hybrid way. I put the octopus in a pot, pour on a little vermouth or wine, add aromatics (garlic, hot chile, onion, celery, bay leaf, herbs, depending), cover it, and then let it steam braise. This tenderizes it nicely and has the added benefit of gently seasoning it throughout.

I know a lot of people are kind of grossed out by the thought of cooking an octopus, but this recipe is a lot easier than you might think, and the resulting sauce is sensational. I hope you’ll give it a try.

Bucatini with Octopus, Vermouth, and Basil

(Serves 4)

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 sweet onion, like Vidalia, cut into medium dice
1 carrot, cut into medium dice
1 celery stalk, plus the leaves from about 3 stalks, cut into medium dice, the leaves lightly chopped
2 fresh bay leaves
5 or 6 large sprigs fresh thyme
2 garlic cloves, peeled but left whole
1 small fresh red chili pepper, cut in half lengthwise (seeded, if you like less heat)
1 medium-large octopus, previously cleaned and frozen
1 cup dry vermouth
1 35-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, lightly drained and well chopped
Salt
A handful of fresh basil leaves, lightly chopped
1 pound bucatini

Get out a large stove-top casserole with a cover (I used a Le Creuset oval pot). Add a big drizzle of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, celery plus its leaves, bay leaves, thyme, garlic cloves, and chili. Let it all sauté for 2 or 3 minutes so it can become fragrant. Add the octopus, turning it over a few times to coat it in the oil and aromatics. I don’t add salt here since often the broth the octopus lets off is somewhat salty, and also extra salt can toughen it.

After the octopus has warmed through in the oil for a few minutes, add the vermouth, and let it bubble. Cover the dish, turn the heat down to really low, and let it simmer until the octopus is tender. This can take a while, in my experience at least an hour. My octopus, this time, was thick so it took even longer. Just test it every so often by poking it with a thin knife. If you get any rubbery resistance, it’s not done yet. You’ll also want to turn the octopus over a few times during cooking, to make sure it simmers evenly.

After a bit, it should start smelling pretty good. That is a sign you’re getting there. Test again. When a skinny knife goes through easily, it’s ready. Turn off the flame, and lift the octopus from the pot onto a cutting board, preferably one with a juice-catching moat, like you’d use for a steak.

Check to see how much broth you have in the pot. If you’ve got too much, the resulting sauce will be too liquidy. If you have more than 2 cups, take some out and save it for some other use. (I froze some of mine. It makes a great addition to a fish stew, for instance. I could have boiled it down, but it was very intense already and I didn’t want it to become too salty. This is a judgement call.)

After you get your broth level right, let the octopus cool enough so you can handle it.

While it’s cooling, add the tomatoes to the pot and simmer them, uncovered, on medium heat for about 15 minutes.

What I do now is cut the tentacles (legs actually) at the base of the head (I didn’t have the head this time around; if you have it you can slice it up and add it to the sauce, but I find its texture often dry, so I usually discard it). I then pull some of the soft skin off the tentacles. It slips right off. I don’t remove all of it, just some of it, and leave the suckers on. The soft skin does add some flavor, but the texture is a little weird, so I just remove part of it. But that’s up to you. Next cut the tentacles into approximately ½-inch pieces.

Return the octopus pieces and any juice they have given off back to the pot. Simmer about 10 minutes longer, just to let all the flavors come together. Taste the sauce to see if it needs salt. Mine usually needs a little, but that depends on how much exudes from the octopus. Add the basil. You can also add a drizzle of fresh olive her if you like. Can’t hurt.

Now you’re ready to cook your bucatini perfectly al dente and toss it with the octopus sauce. I’m not always particularly strict about the no-cheese-with-seafood “rule,” but in this dish I feel that cheese will conflict with the delicate taste of the sauce, so I leave it out. 

You can also present the sauce, without pasta, just in bowls, possibly with a cup or so of cooked ceci thrown in, alongside garlic-rubbed bruschetta slices to dunk in it. Either way, it’s a good thing.