Recipe below: Orecchiette with Swordfish, Black Olives, Orange, and Arugula

Anna Magnani, my favorite Italian film star, loved to invite her famous friends over to her place in Rome and cook pasta for them late at night. One night the film director Roberto Rossellini arrived wearing one of his signature white linen suits. They were in the middle of a rocky romance at the time, and not long after he made himself comfortable in the high-ceilinged, cat-filled apartment, he received a note from Ingrid Bergman, who was about to replace Magnani as the love of his life. Magnani watched him read the note and grew distraught. While tossing a big bowl of pasta, she asked him, “Is this the way you like it, Roberto?” “Yes it’s fine,” he replied. “Would you like a little more peperoncino?” she asked. “It’s perfect,” he said. “Then here it is,” roared Magnani, and she dumped the pasta and tomato sauce all over his expensive linen suit. Never a dull moment with my girl Anna. I would love to have been at that pasta party.

Cooking late-night pasta has a history for me, too, with groups both agitated and amiable (as Anna knew, you really can’t predict how a party is gonna go down). It started during my club-hopping period in the seventies and eighties.  One particular evening I headed downtown to the Mudd Club with a group from Barnes & Noble, where I was working part-time while attending, although not too attentively, New York University. It was a sweaty, intense night, like always at the Mudd Club. I and what was left of this bunch returned to my apartment at 4 a.m. or so, everyone starving,  exhausted,  but still keyed up (that’s what hours of loud punk and colliding bodies would do to you). A few bottles of crappy wine were opened. I dumped two pounds of penne into boiling water, and when it was a little too al dente, as it turned out, I tossed it into a big bowl, along with two sticks of butter and lots of pre-grated ‘grana Padano’ (it said it was grana Padano, but who could be sure?). I don’t think I even added black pepper. It was one of the most delicious pasta dishes we had ever eaten (at that early point in our lives). We talked about it for years. And, interestingly I never duplicated it to the same level of perfection, even after I started buying real grana Padano.  One truth about cooking: There’s always something about time and place that makes each meal unique. That’s for certain.

I continued trying my damnedest to pull together memorable late-night dinners. The results varied, but soon I had a fairly reliable group of pastas that we all looked forward to early in the a.m., wherever we wound up—spaghetti aglio olio, spaghetti with anchovies, pasta alla carbonara, penne alla vodka, ziti with mushrooms and cream, fettuccine with prosciutto and frozen peas. As I grew confident, these dishes became more creative. We all started chipping in for fancier ingredients, like  bresaola and salmon caviar.

Here’s a 15-minute pasta I like to think Anna could have made for her late-night friends  (although I don’t think her ex-boyfriend was worthy of it). It’s quick but lusty. Good with a bottle of prosecco. I just cooked it up for a late dinner for my husband and me, so it’s a recipe for two, but you can easily double it.

IMG_5712 2

Orecchiette with Swordfish, Black Olives, Orange, and Arugula

(Serves 2)

About ½ pound inch-thick swordfish, skinned and cut into ½-inch cubes
½ teaspoon fennel pollen
1 teaspoon sugar
Aleppo pepper to taste
½ pound orecchiette pasta
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 pint grape tomatoes
2 fresh garlic cloves, very thinly sliced
3 oil-packed anchovies, roughly chopped
The grated zest from 1 large orange
A handful of black olives, pitted and cut in half
A generous splash of dry white wine
A handful of baby arugula, well stemmed and lightly chopped

Put the tuna cubes in a bowl, and toss them with the fennel pollen, a little salt, some Aleppo, and the sugar.

Set up a pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add salt, and drop in the orecchiette.

In a medium skillet, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over high heat. When the skillet is very hot, add the grape tomatoes and the garlic, and sear quickly, just until the tomatoes start to burst and give off some juice, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add the anchovies and a pinch of salt. Add the white wine, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Add the orange zest and the  olives, and turn off the heat.

In another medium skillet, heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil over high heat, and when it’s really hot, add the swordfish chunks and sear them quickly, until they’re lightly browned (the sugar will aid in this) but still pink at the center, about 2 minutes. Add the swordfish to the tomatoes.

When the orecchiette is al dente, drain it, leaving a bit of water clinging to it, and pour it into a serving bowl. Add the tomato-and-swordfish sauce and a generous drizzle of fresh olive oil. Toss gently. Add the arugula, and give it a quick toss. Serve right away.




Viva la Vida, by Frieda Kahlo, 1954 (her last painting).

Recipe below: Ziti with Pumpkin, Tomatoes, Pancetta, and Sage

“Color helps to express light, not the physical phenomenon but the only light that really exists, that in the artist’s brain.” —Henri Matisse, 1945

In my opinion, this truth from Matisse also sums up the thought process of a creative cook. Color often precedes aroma. The colors that light up my brain are mostly summer colors, those of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, a hunk of blood red lamb ready for the grill, a basket of damp green herbs. Still life with Southern Italian vegetables. Colors are guides. They ignite the commotion that puts knives and flames into action.

Red tomatoes, green tomatillos, violet eggplants, ripe chilies, purple potatoes: These are all nightshades, vegetables with a touch of danger built in. A coincidence? I don’t think so. Summer colors have an uneasy pull. Their ripeness is visual. Cooking them is often optional. Can that gorgeous red orange chili burn my lips and swell my neck, or will it fall on the right edge of manageable, with hints of deliciousness? I’ll have to rip one open to find out.

And summer produce can be exceedingly juicy. If I bite into a purple red tomato or a peach, will it explode into liquid, or will I be able to slice and arrange those colors in a logical pattern? Either way, it’s what I want. Watermelons, cantaloupes, honeydew.  I cut them open to release watery sweetness. It’s a mini shock to expect a pinky red interior and discover bright yellow. In my Italian world, we always sprinkle a little salt on just about any melon. Its flavor then goes ten times. That is the chemistry behind pairing melon with prosciutto.

The burnished golds of fall don’t come easy for me. The dense flesh of autumn’s fruits and vegetables forces me to put the brakes on. In October I start to rely on smell, not color, to guide my creative impulses. Orange pumpkins are bright but hard to get into, and once I’ve managed to pry one open, I have to think, what do I do with this fibrous inside that smells so raw? Butternut and acorn squashes. How many times have I cut myself trying to crack the code of one of those things? They have a tendency to skid off the blade, out of control (more of a problem decades ago, when I was first sharpening my knife skills). And there’s that raw vegetable smell again. White cauliflower smells like almost nothing raw, but roast it with olive oil and thyme and it opens up. Celery root, with its gnarly dirt skin, has a wonderful aroma, but it’s no beauty. Ditto parsnips, with their whiff of the incense of my hippie childhood. I can make good things with fall vegetables, but at the moment my attention is not in sync with the season. That will inevitably change when my red geraniums freeze over and my shiny tight-skinned tomatoes are a fading dream.

Here’s a recipe that borrows a little from both seasons. An ode to early fall, and my way of coping with loss while moving forward in the expected culinary manner.

Happy fall cooking to you.

Ziti with Pumpkin, Tomatoes, Pancetta, and Sage

This is an updated version of a recipe that first appeared in my book The Flavors of Southern Italy. I would never have thought to pair pumpkin with tomatoes until I tasted them together in Campania, in a pasta served in a town not far from my ancestral home of Castelfranco in Miscano. Southern Italians have always struggled with pumpkin, coming up with odd treatments that include tons of vinegar, in agro dolce style. Here I add tomatoes. Their subtle acidity lifts the blandness of the pumpkin, upping the flavors of both vegetables.

(Serves 5 to 6 as a first course, or 4 as a main)

Part of 1 cheese pumpkin, seeded, peeled, and cut into small cubes (you’ll want about 2 cups cubed). You can substitute butternut squash if you like.
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large shallot, cut into small dice
A big pinch of cinnamon
A big pinch of sugar
¼ pound pancetta (about ¼ inch), cut into small cubes
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
A big pinch of allspice (about ⅛ teaspoon or so)
3 large end-of-the-season tomatoes (I’m still finding them at my Greenmarket), peeled, seeded, chopped, and lightly drained (or use a 28-ounce can of tomatoes, chopped and lightly drained)
A big splash of dry Marsala
½ cup light chicken broth
Aleppo pepper
1 pound ziti
8 small fresh sage leaves, cut into chiffonade
A chunk of pecorino Toscano cheese

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Place the pumpkin cubes on a sheet pan. Drizzle on enough olive oil to coat everything lightly.  Season with salt, and scatter on the shallots. Sprinkle on the cinnamon and sugar, and toss everything well. Roast until the pumpkin is just tender but still holding its shape, about 20 minutes.

Set up a pan of pasta cooking water over high heat, and bring it to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt, and drop in the ziti.

In a large sauté pan, heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil over medium flame. Add the pancetta, and sauté it until fairly crisp. Add the garlic, and let it soften for a few seconds. Now turn the heat up a bit, and add the tomatoes, seasoning them with a little salt and the allspice. Cook until they’re just starting to give off juice but are not completely collapsed, about 4 minutes. Add the Marsala, and let it boil away. Add the chicken broth, season with Aleppo to taste, and turn off the heat.

When the ziti is al dente, drain it, saving about ½ cup of the cooking water. Tilt the ziti into a large serving bowl, and drizzle it with fresh olive oil. Add the tomatoes, with all their cooking juices. Now add the pumpkin. Add the sage, and toss well, adding a little of the cooking liquid to loosen the sauce if needed. Grate some pecorino over the top, and bring the rest of the cheese to the table. Serve right away.

Women with Fish


My great aunt Gina with her collection of fishing tackle.

Recipe below: Sole à la Bordelaise with White Truffles, by Sister Angelica

This is my mother’s aunt Regina. My great aunt. Quite cute, I think. She was a Franciscan nun, a member of the Poor Clares. The family called her Gina, but her working title was Sister Angelica. I didn’t know her well. We met a few times when I was a maybe eight or nine. At the time she was working at a hardware store in Glen Cove, Long Island. She somehow knew a lot about small metal gadgets, so this job was, as my grandmother said, “a perfect match.” Not long after, when she chose her true calling, Aunt Gina moved south, to Alabama, to the Convent of the Poor Clares. I’m not sure if her entering a convent or going south perplexed my family more, but she seemed happy down there. It was then that we began hearing stories about her new-found interest in fishing, which she was apparently allowed to do as a nun. She said fishing was holy. My family didn’t care all that much about holy. When my grandmother wrote to her she always asked about her social life. I don’t think Grandma quite understood the whole nun concept. She seemed to think Gina would find a nice guy down there and get married. I mean, get real, Grandma. In her replies Aunt Gina wrote almost exclusively about fishing and fishing tackle. She was specific in her ideas about tackle. She was learning to customize the hooks to make them more forgiving. She also wrote about fish cookery.

Considering that she was a nun of an order that prescribed to the simplest life, some of the dishes she mentioned were surprisingly elaborate. Cream sauces, lots of butter, white truffles, Beluga caviar, champagne, chanterelles. She must have had quite a food budget. Her letters were always the same—fishing, fish hooks, fish cooking. My grandmother worried that Gina had been “completely sucked in by God and fish.” “Drowned,” she once said. The Aunt Gina situation started to get on everyone’s nerves. Correspondence slowed.

When I was 14 I went through a transformative cooking experience of my own. I became a baker. I hunkered down in our family kitchen to turn out zucchini bread, ricotta cheesecake, carrot muffins, maple scones, pignoli cookies, sausage lasagna, anchovy pizza, calzones, all to the bewilderment of my parents. They ultimately sent me to a psychiatrist, which was totally unnecessary.

Word of my kitchen “troubles” got around. Evidently my grandmother wrote to Aunt Gina, possibly looking for spiritual guidance. I’m not sure Gina gave any, and considering her own obsessions, I can’t imagine she would have thought there was anything so terrible going on. I had never been happier in my life.

Shorty after that, Gina died, and I received a package from Alabama. What could she have wanted to send me, rosaries, fishing tackle? I unwrapped the bulky package and found inside it five little metal boxes with gold crosses painted on the tops. They contained a decade’s worth of fish recipes, her own recipes, written out on small cards in a tight hand. My parents seemed angry. They thought the gift would only encourage me. The fish focus did make me nervous, and the recipes seemed too complicated. It was strange to me that this Italian-American’s recipes were almost all haute French. There was a card for poached oysters with fennel vinaigrette, and one for something called Lobster Cherbourg, which contained egg yolks and Calvados, and there was sole Meunière with caviar, and scallops with black butter and truffles. I felt I was entering another dimension, a strangely decadent one. On the card for salmon with cream, tarragon, and chanterelles, she had penciled a note that read “Octopus and squid are holy creatures, not to be eaten but to be observed and idolized.” I don’t know where Aunt Gina picked up her pagan leanings, but in terms of fish cooking, she must have had access to Larousse Gastronomique or books equally serious. The recipes were picky and rigid, filled with religious asides, and they all looked fantastically delicious. I realized years later that one of them had been lifted almost intact from the cookbook Vincent Price wrote, which I picked up at a used bookshop when I moved into the city. I recognized it immediately. It was for a whole fish stuffed with vinegar and wine-soaked croutons and then steamed in a dishwasher. She wrote on the card, “Brilliant idea. Saint Zita would approve.” How such an unorthodox book had turned up at a convent was beyond me.

One thing I came to believe as I studied her recipe cards was that she might never have actually cooked any of the dishes. The more I learned about cooking, following recipes, adapting them to my own taste, creating my own, the more these ones seemed vague yet formal and strangely empty, almost as if she was just a translator. And there were no amounts or servings indicated, as if she were cooking in the sky, not for people around a table. Was this just the fantasy life of a mostly silent nun? At first the idea made me sad. What did she do with her life? But as I focused more deeply, I felt her passion, against convent restrictions, pouring out of the courtly little cards. They weren’t empty; they were written in a sort of code. She was doing what she could to create a private intense life. She wasn’t a loser or a nut. She was a virtuoso.

Sole à la Bordelaise with White Truffles, by Sister Angelica

Kill the fish with mercy and fillet it with the utmost neatness, or your dinner will be horribly bitter.

Peel some button mushrooms with a sharp knife until they are snow white. Cook them in a good amount of butter. Do not drop any mushrooms on the floor or there will be hell to pay.

Butter a casserole dish, and sprinkle the bottom with finely chopped shallots and carrots. Do not cut yourself while chopping, since the bleeding will be hard to stop. Season the fillets of sole with salt and pepper, and arrange them in the dish. Add a bouquet garni and a good amount of white Bordeaux wine. Do not use any other type of wine or the fish will disintegrate while cooking.

Poach the fillets until they’re done, and then drain them, retaining the liquid you drain. Arrange the fillets on a serving dish surrounded by the mushrooms. Add 2 tablespoons of demi-glace to the cooking liquid and reduce by half. Add a knob of butter, sieve the cooking liquid, and pour it over the fillets. Shave a good amount of white truffle over the fish.

Serve only to people you hold in high esteem.

1384415-7Still life with hand and red bell pepper, Pablo Secca

Recipe below: Fettuccine with Red Pepper Purée, Chickpeas, and a Touch of Honey

While thinking up ideas for Pasta Improvvisata, my first book, I came around to a truth about my cooking: No matter how creative I try to get, departing from classics, dreaming up stuff my grandmother would have found unacceptable, I always stay within the palate of Southern Italy. It isn’t a conscious decision. It’s just where things fall. It keeps me evolving but still connected to my heritage. It’s a good place for me to be.

One of the recipes in Pasta Improvvisata was a penne with a puréed sweet pepper and basil sauce. It was something I’d never had before. My family had made pasta with bell peppers, but always just sliced up and sautéed, usually along with a little tomato, and maybe a few anchovies thrown in. It was a good dish, to be sure, but my puréed version had a suaveness to it, an elegance, that told me to reach for fettuccine, not rigatoni. Humble ingredients gone fancy.

Right now, at September’s end, the best sweet and hot peppers are in my local markets. And the jolt of warm weather has made them better than I expected. Even the usually solid green Italian frying peppers have grown rich and red. And jalapeños, too, have been allowed to go all crimson, something I’d never see in a grocery store. Big growers never let those beauties go the distance.


Last week at the Union Square Greenmarket.

I decided to revisit this pepper purée concept, but with a new take, coming up with a revamping of pasta e fagioli. I used a mix of red bell and red Italian frying peppers and one red jalapeño. Add a Jimmy Nardello if you can find one, the sweet Southern Italian import that’s so popular with Italian Americans; I’m going to try growing it next year. I added chickpeas and a Sicilian mix of flavors, including cinnamon, mint, and a hint of honey, which you’ll taste only far in the background, so the dish is not openly sweet.

I’m pretty sure my grandmother would have found the result perplexing, and she’d have muttered her typical response, “This tastes different,” meaning it was foreign and she wouldn’t eat it. Ah, so be it. She didn’t live long enough to see how chefs in Southern Italy have pushed forward with their cuisine, using traditional ingredients in new ways. But luckily I have, and I love it.


Fettuccine with Red Pepper Purée, Chickpeas, and a Touch of Honey

(Serves 5 as a first course)

6 very ripe, sweet red peppers, bells or frying or a mix
1 red jalapeño pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large shallot, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
¼ teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
The leaves from about 6 large sprigs of thyme, chopped
¼ cup dry vermouth
¾ cup homemade or good quality prepared chicken broth (or broth from your chickpeas)
The grated zest from 1 lemon
1½ cups cooked chickpeas, preferably homemade*
1 pound fettuccine
1 teaspoon runny wildflower honey (a mild one such as orange blossom is a good choice)
A handful of spearmint leaves, cut into thin strips if large, left whole if small
A chunk of Fiore Sardo (Sardinian pecorino) cheese

(*I would cook up a bag of chickpeas, use a cup or so for this pasta, and save the rest for a salad or to include in a main course or to use to make a more traditional pasta con ceci.)

Put all the peppers on a sheet pan, and place the pan under a broiler, turning the peppers often until they’re charred all over. Peel and seed them, and cut them into large chunks. (I like this way of roasting peppers for a puréed pasta sauce, as the skins slip off easily, leaving very little of the black bits you’d get from grilling.)

In a large skillet, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the shallots, and sauté until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, the roasted peppers, the allspice, cinnamon, thyme, and a sprinkling of salt, and sauté until everything is soft and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add the vermouth, and let it boil for about a minute. Add the chicken broth and lemon zest, and simmer, uncovered, for another 2 minutes, just to blend all the flavors. Pour everything into the bowl of a food processor, and purée until smooth.

In a same pan you cooked the peppers in, heat about a tablespoon of olive oil over medium flame. When hot, add the chickpeas, seasoning with a little salt. Sauté until they just become lightly crisp, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile bring a big pot of pasta cooking water to a boil, and salt it generously. Add the fettuccine.

Add the pepper purée back to the pan with the chickpeas, and reheat it gently. Add the honey, letting it melt into the sauce.

When the fettuccine is tender, drain it, saving about ½ cup of the cooking water.

Pour the fettuccine into a large pasta serving bowl. Add the pepper sauce, and toss, drizzling in a little pasta cooking water, if needed, to loosen the texture. Grate on some Fiore Sardo, and give it a another quick toss. Garnish with the mint leaves. Serve right away, bringing the rest of the cheese to the table.


Woman in the Garden, by Gabriele Münter.

Recipe below: Lemon Verbena Olive Oil Cake

Every year around mid-September a lump settles in my throat. Agita with a big dose of reflux. It’s my body telling me my herb garden is winding down. I dry, I oil, I pickle, I freeze, trying to preserve what I can. But the results are never as transforming as the sight of moist leaves, wet soil, heavy bending plants, and aromas so powerful they can send me on a mini-LSD trip.

After months of being tended, these gorgeous herbs have taken on the role of flamboyant relatives. I’ve cheered and berated them. I’ve watched some struggle while others went into botanic overdrive. But now my luscious green family is ready to head underground. I must get get hyper-creative.

This year along with all the usual herbs, I’ve got Thai basil, fennel, anise hyssop, tarragon, lovage, rose geranium, and two lemon verbena plants that are still high and mighty. The aroma of the lemon verbena is unreal, smelling more like the most intense room freshener than like anything that could occur in nature. And therein lies its beauty. But it’s also tricky to cook with. The leaves are tough, not tender like basil, so they need to be minced or pulled out. Used raw they’re wonderful (they makes an amazing ice cream), but wet heat, as in a braise, dulls their brightness. Baking, applying a good dry heat, nudges them to reveal unforeseen qualities.

Here I finely chop the leaves from a few large branches and add them to an olive oil cake I make variations on all the time. What an aroma. The verbena, my fruity Sicilian olive oil, and a touch of vanilla merge in the heat to produce a complex taste that I wouldn’t have expected. I guess I imagined just lemon, but what I got was something rounder.

Thank you lemon verbena. Such a nice way to wrap up the growing season. Even my agita is starting to go away. But what am I going to do with all that drooping anise hyssop?


One of my lemon verbena plants, and Buddy behind the door.

Lemon Verbena Olive Oil Cake

(Serves 8)

1 tablespoon or so soft butter for the pan (or use olive oil)
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
3 big branches fresh lemon verbena, the leaves finely chopped (about ⅓ cup chopped)
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil (not a biting green Tuscan one, but a more mellow type; I used Olio Verde, a lush Sicilian brand)
The grated zest from 2 lemons, and the juice from 1 of them
1 tablespoon limoncello liqueur
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 extra large large eggs
¾ cup sugar
Powdered sugar for dusting.

Butter a 9-inch springform pan. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Sift the flour with the baking powder and the salt. Add the chopped lemon verbena, mixing it in.

In a small bowl, mix the olive oil with the lemon zest and juice, the limoncello, and the vanilla.

In the bowl of a standing mixer or with a handheld mixer, beat the eggs with the sugar until they’re light and fluffy. Gradually add the flour to the egg mixture until it’s just blended in. Add the olive oil mixture, and mix quickly, until just blended.

Pour the batter into the pan and bake until golden and springy in the center, about 35 minutes. Let cool and then dust the top with powdered sugar.


Still Life of an Italian Kitchen, by Perry Milou.

Recipe below: My Pasta alla Trapanese

Often when I’m in the kitchen cooking alone, imaginary conversations flow through my head. Sometimes they’re with friends or family who have died, or they’re with people I’ve lost touch with, or occasionally they involve fantasy chats with people I wish I knew. Sometimes these dialogues are deeply revealing, sometimes maudlin, but more often they’re just mundane rhythms that catch at a truth.

My father died too young more than a decade ago. When I first became interested in cooking, as a teenager, we often had goofy little talks about food. I can’t remember any conversation word for word, but I like to imagine that he’s still with me, shooting the shit about things he loves—tomato sauce, peaches in red wine, mango smoothies, roasted peppers, steaks on the grill. I try to capture the cadence of his voice, hear the Westchester Italian swing of it. I’m pretty sure I never made this Trapanese pesto for him, but I’m making it now, and he seems to like it.

Dick: Boy, this is hot.

Me: You sprinkle pepper flakes on everything, even on cantaloupe. I figured you’d go for this.

Dick: But that stuff’s not this hot.

Me: That red crap in the jar is stale. You put layers of it on pizza, but it’s just dust.

Dick: It’s not stale. That’s the way it was designed. It looks hotter than it is, from the color.

Me: So you think pepper flakes are born stale?

Dick: What?

Me: You think they start out stale?

Dick: Yes, that’s what I think, Smartass.

Me: I used fresh peppers here. The ones you grow, the long red ones. They’re not traditional in this pasta at all, but I threw them in. They’re all turning red at once.

Dick: I thought you said this was pesto.

Me: It’s a different type. It’s Sicilian.

Dick: Tastes Mexican. Tastes like taco sauce.

Me: It’s a variation on a Sicilian pesto.

Dick: It’s not green, for one thing.

Me: It’s a variation on a Sicilian pesto.

Dick: This is unrecognizable as pesto. For starts, there’s no basil in here.

Me: I don’t think I’ve made you Sicilian pesto before. It’s from Trapani. There actually is basil, but mint also. It’s mixed in. You’ve got tons of mint back there.

Dick: I’ve had pesto plenty, by you and by everyone, and this is not it. Not with tomatoes. No way.

Me: It’s deconstructed.

Dick: What the hell are you talking about?

Me: It’s usually more chopped. I leave it chunky.

Dick: You spend a lot of time cooking. You training to become a maid?

Me: Yeah, that’s my goal. God.

Dick: I liked that macaroni you made last week, with the raw tomatoes.

Me: Daddy, this is basically the same thing, but without the almonds. That had capers. And it didn’t have mint. This is a finer dice. There is basil in here. I don’t know why you don’t taste it. You can even see it. When did you open this wine? It taste like prunes. It’s gross.

Dick: That’s because it’s stale, like the pepper flakes.

Me: Well there’s certainly a lot of stale stuff in this place. I’d like to replace the entire herb cabinet, the pepper flakes, the fennel seeds. The dried dill smells like pee, and whatever anyone uses that celery salt for, there are three bottles of it, one with some old crust on the top. You can’t even open them.

Dick: You know what’s stale? That boyfriend of yours crouched in the corner with the harmonica. Hillbilly Joe. That’s what’s stale.

Me: I’d have to agree with you on that one. I think maybe he’s an alcoholic, or a borderline one.

Dick: That’s just great. Where do you find these guys? They crouch. They don’t smile. They don’t talk. This one looks like a photo from the Civil War. Miserable granite face.

Me: Oh my god.

Dick: You’re laughing. I mean it. I’d like not to have to see that creep lurking around the house.

Me: I’m working on it, I swear. He’s weirdly hard to get rid of.

Dick: You think that’s funny?

Me:  I don’t know. I guess.

Dick: A real laugh riot.

Me: So how do you like the pasta?

Dick: Now that it’s cooled down, I really like it. I like the hot pepper. It’s hot but not too hot. It tastes sort of Mexican.

Me: You grow good peppers. I love everything you’ve got in that garden.

Dick: I didn’t know you liked my garden so much. How’d you like to help me with some weeding?

Me: I’d do that.

Dick: You’d have to wear something other than ballet slippers.

Me: I think I could handle that.

Dick: How about this: I’ll load the dishwasher, you start on the weeds. I’ll be right out.

Me: But it’s already dark out.

Dick: I’ll grab a flashlight.


My Pesto Alla Trapanese

(Serves 6 as a first course)

This Sicilian pesto is traditionally more pulverized than I serve it. I don’t like the muddiness that develops when tomatoes and basil and nuts get mushed together, so I chop everything finely and just give it all a toss. No grinding here, and the colors stay vibrant.

Busiate is a long, coiled Sicilian pasta, usually made from durum wheat. Gustiamo sells a deeply wheaty-tasting version with a chewy texture made from tumminia, an heirloom wheat reintroduced in Sicily by Filippo Drago, who grows it there and produces this lovely pasta from it. It brings this classic dish to new heights of pleasure. Sicilian almonds from Noto and vin cotto are also available from Gustiamo.

4 large, round summer tomatoes, seeded and cut into small dice
1 fresh garlic clove, minced
½ teaspoon vin cotto (cooked grape must, also called cotto mosto or saba)
½ a fresh red peperoncino chili, minced
A big pinch of allspice (about ⅛ teaspoon)
Extra-virgin olive oil. A Sicilian brand like Ravida or Olio Verde would be great
1 pound busiate
½ cup Sicilian or Spanish Maracona almonds, roughly chopped, plus a palmful left whole to scatter over the top
About 2 dozen basil leaves, roughly chopped, plus a handful of small ones left whole for garnish
A small bunch of spearmint leaves, lightly chopped
A chunk of ricotta salata or primo sale cheese for grating

Put the chopped tomatoes in a strainer. Sprinkle on a little salt, and give them a toss. Put a bowl under the strainer to catch the juice, and let them drain for about ½ hour, saving the tomato water.

Pour the tomatoes into a large pasta bowl. Add the garlic, vin cotto, peperoncino, and allspice. Add ⅓ cup olive oil. Give everything a stir, and let it sit for about 20 minutes to develop flavor.

Set up a pot of pasta cooking water, add salt, and bring it to a boil. Drop in the busiate.

Add the chopped almonds to the tomatoes.

When the busiate is al dente, drain it well, and add it to the tomatoes. Add the chopped basil and mint, and season with a little more salt. Toss, adding a drizzle more olive oil and, if it all seems dry, some of the tomato water. Grate a little ricotta salata or primo sale on top, and toss gently.

Garnish with the whole almonds and the whole basil leaves. Bring the cheese to the table for anyone who might want a little more. Serve hot or warm.

Harissa, Fresh and Hot


My Carolina reapers, coming in fast and furious.

Recipe below: Harissa, Fresh and Hot

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I’m now growing the hottest chili known to man. My brother, Richie, a tattooed chef with a healthy interest in extreme heat, came to visit this spring bearing gifts. He brought me seedlings. One was a chile de árbol, a semi-hot long Mexican pepper often seen dried and hanging in braids in Mexican restaurants. The other was a Carolina reaper, the hottest chili on the planet, with a Scoville heat unit of 1,569,300, which is 500 times hotter than Tabasco and more potent than the pure pepper spray I once carried around to scare off potential rapists. Both of the plants have been thriving on my sunny deck, growing strong, shiny chilies, some, just now, turning red. I’ve been both excited and terrified by the reapers, so of course with my first ripe one I had to give it a go by making a batch of harissa, the Moroccan hot sauce used on many couscous dishes.


My brother’s arm.

I wasn’t sure how to proceed with the ugly, lumpy flamer, so I began cautiously, thinking I’d mix one reaper with four sweet red bells. I wanted a fresh sauce, so I didn’t roast the peppers or add any dried ones. I was afraid to chop my reaper, so I just dumped everything in the food processor for a preliminary grind. With every pulse of the blade my eyes, lips, and cheeks burned warmer and warmer. A pink rash came up on my neck. But I carried on.

Then onto the stove it all went. Since I wanted it to stay red, the entire cooking took only about 10 minutes. I added some of my usual Moroccan spices—cinnamon, cumin, ginger, and coriander—which I could smell clearly and sweetly in the pot even as my eyes watered and my neck burned from the steam. I then let the pepper mass rest before giving it a good purée. When I finally got around to tasting my harissa, the power of the grim reaper knocked me out. It was the devil himself.

I would say it was definitely the hottest thing I had ever tasted. Must husband wouldn’t go near it. A little dab in a couscous dish was about all I could take. But I liked the concept, so I made it again, the same recipe but using a red Scotch bonnet, plenty hot in its own right, in place of the reaper. That turned out more manageable, still incendiary but with an improved balance of sweet spice and heat, more in keeping with Moroccan style.

If you try this recipe, go with your heart, not your hipster head. Try a Carolina reaper if you dare, or a ghost pepper, only a notch of two milder. I really liked the Scotch bonnet, but a habanero, which is related to the bonnet, still has good heat yet won’t blister your sinuses. A red jalapeño will produce a gentler result. You might want to use two of them.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do with all my Carolina reapers clustered on their vines and getting riper by the day. I’m thinking about putting a basket of them out on my yard, with a sign reading 50 cents each, consume at your own peril, or possibly giving them away to the local bikers. Or maybe some Brooklynites will pass through town and buy them up.


Harissa, Fresh and Hot

(Makes about 2 cups)

4 very ripe red bell peppers, seeded and roughly chopped
1 hot red pepper, your choice, stemmed but left whole
1 summer garlic clove, peeled and roughly chopped
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon each of ground cinnamon, cumin, coriander seed, and ginger
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar

Put the bell peppers and the hot one in a food processor (wear gloves if you’re dealing with a reaper or a ghost). Add the garlic. Give it a few good pulses to give everything a uniform, medium chop.

Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium flame. Add the peppers, and season with salt, all the spices, and the sugar. Sauté until everything is soft and fragrant. If you’re using a reaper or a ghost, you may want to pull your face away from the steam. Seriously. Let simmer for about 5 minutes or so. Now add the vinegar and a splash of water to loosen it up. Cook for another 3 or 4 minutes.

Let cool for about 30 minutes.

Now put the pepper mix back into the food processor, and work it until it’s fairly smooth, adding a little water if it’s too thick. Taste for seasoning. If it’s crazy hot, you can always add more sweet peppers.

It will last about two weeks refrigerated.