Early Herbs


Mary Magdalene mistakes Jesus for the gardener, painted by Agnolo Bronzino in 1561.

Recipes below: String Beans and Potatoes with Wild Arugula and Almond Pesto; Cucumber Salad with Burnet and Breakfast Radishes

I plant my herb garden in stages, to avoid gardening burnout. I used to love gardening burnout. I’d get so elatedly wasted. But as I’ve gotten older, I find it a little scary. Ticks, knee pain, sunstroke. I’ve had Lyme twice. But still I need my herbs, so I press on.

I do pot gardening, so, every spring it all starts from scratch. The reason for this is that the soil in upstate New York is about 95 percent rock. Backbreaking work even just dropping in seeds. One of these days I’ll construct a big raised bed, I guess. But for now I’ve got a good collection of big terra cotta pots. They smell wonderful when wet, and I think they’re beautiful.

My first plantings this year were from the greatest hits parade—thyme, rosemary, oregano, sage. It felt good to get those in, giving them time to grow large (I put in a lot of thyme, especially). Then I went ahead and planted a huge pot of wild arugula seeds. With luck they’ll sprout in a few weeks. I got the seeds from Seeds from Italy, an excellent source for Sicilian eggplant, cicoria rosa, Calabrian chilies, mentuccia, and more. Their arugula is the real deal, cultivated from wild and not like the big blousy bunches you find in the supermarkets or the prepackaged baby stuff. If it ever comes up it’ll be forte. My father grew a similar spiky, super bitter arugula in our backyard for 30 years. It was a gift from our neighbor who smuggled it back from Sorrento in the early sixties, and it was so intense that most of my friends wouldn’t touch my mother’s salads. Poison in a bowl, but, in my opinion, wonderful poison. Unfortunately, I haven’t had much luck growing my own. Maybe Long Island, where I grew up, is closer to Mediterranean than the Hudson Valley. I’m trying again. I’ll let you know how it goes.

I’ve also planted salad burnet, which I’ve been curious about for some time but hadn’t previously seen at any of my usual herb buying haunts. It’s originally a Mediterranean plant, a member of the rose family. Evidently it grows wild in upstate New York, but I haven’t found any (and I’ve been looking). Luckily this year I spotted small pots of it at Northern Dutchess Botanical Gardens, a big place in Milan (pronounced MY-lan), New York, with an extensive selection including some oddball stuff. If you’re ever up near Rhinebeck, check them out. My burnet seems to be taking well to its big pot. At the moment, it tastes faintly of sweet cucumber, but I’ve read that in really hot weather it will take on a watermelon taste. Can’t wait for that, if actually true.

This week I’ll move on to the leafier herbs.

salad burnet with pixie leaves unfolding.jpeg

Salad burnet.

String Beans and Potatoes with Wild Arugula and Almond Pesto

I got the idea for this from the traditional Genoese pasta with pesto, which also often contains little diced potatoes and string beans. I just left out the pasta and changed up the pesto.

(Serves 4)

About a cup of small, spikey arugula
1 small clove of spring garlic, smashed
⅓ cup very fresh blanched almonds
Extra-virgin olive oil (about ¼ cup)
¼ cup grated grana Padano cheese
Sea salt
½ pound string beans, trimmed and cut in half if really long
1 pound of really tiny Yukon Gold potatoes, left whole (if you can only find bigger ones, cut them in half)

Put up a small pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Add the arugula, and blanch it for about 30 seconds. Drain it, and then plunge it into a bowl of cold water to stop the cooking. This will set its deep green color. Now drain it well, and squeeze it out.

Put the garlic and the almonds in a food processor, and pulse them until well ground. Add the arugula and about ¼ cup of good olive oil. Pulse until blended. Add the grana Padano and a little salt, and pulse again, until the mix is quite smooth. Add a little more olive oil if it seems dry. The pesto is best made shortly before you want to serve it.

Put up a medium-size pot of water, add a little salt, and bring it to a boil. Drop in the string beans, and blanch until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Scoop them from the water with a big strainer spoon, and run them under cold water to bring up their green color.

Add the potatoes to the string bean cooking water, and boil until just tender.  Drain them, saving about ½ cup of the cooking water.

Put the string beans and the warm potatoes into a nice looking serving bowl. Add the pesto, and toss, adding enough cooking water to make a creamy coating (probably only a tablespoon or so). Serve right away.

Cucumber Salad with Burnet and Breakfast Radishes

(Serves 4)

1½ English cucumbers (the Persian variety is also good for this, if you can find it), stripe-peeled and cut into thin rounds
3 French breakfast radishes, sliced on an angle
1 red scallion, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Black pepper
A pinch of sugar
A pinch of piment d’espelette
A handful of salad burnet leaves, stemmed (A few big sprigs of tarragon are also nice here instead, even though their flavor is completely different, or you can use both, a good mix)

Combine the cucumber, radishes, and scallions in a wide serving bowl. Mix the rice wine vinegar, soy, and olive oil together, seasoning with salt, black pepper, a pinch of sugar, and a little espelette. Pour the mixture over the salad, and toss. Scatter on the burnet leaves, and toss gently. Serve now or a little later.


Spring fresco, ca. 1600 B.C., Akrotiri, Greece.

Recipe below: Lamb with Spring Peas, Saffron, and Ginger

When I first tasted a Moroccan lamb couscous I couldn’t completely sort out the foreign, deep sweetness on my tongue. It wasn’t a curry exactly, at least not one of the 6th Street heaps I was used to. It was curry-like but cleaner, I’d say. There was a gentle pull of flavors that never grew weary on my palate the way some too involved curries can. At the time I hadn’t yet been to a good Moroccan restaurant. That first lamb couscous was one I cooked for myself, in the early 80’s, from a recipe in Paula Wolfert’s Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco. That fall and winter I cooked my way through the entire book. What a mind blower. I had been brought up on excellent Southern Italian food, and what Wolfert was writing about had some similarities, but it went off on a beautiful tangent, adding subtle spices in intriguing ways. I learned that you add only a few spices to any dish. In the case of that lamb couscous, it was the combination of saffron, ginger, and cinnamon that mingled to produce the soft, haunting taste that pulled me right into a new culinary world.

New York’s weather has finally, after a gray and cold six months, turned warm. The daffodils are up. I decided to test a lamb and spring pea recipe in celebration. The root of this particular lamb dish is Sicilian, an Easter stew I’ve made many times, flavoring it traditionally with bay leaf, white wine, and rosemary. This time around I had Paula Wolfert’s Moroccan version in mind. I have to admit I’m occasionally disappointed by the simplicity of Sicilian cooking. I guess I want it to taste more of its long Arab and Moorish past. Sicily has many of the same ingredients—olives, figs, mint, honey, orange flower water, saffron, pistachios, and prickly pears, and they’re all used to make gorgeous food. But for the most part, spices have drifted out of Southern Italian cooking, replaced largely by fresh herbs. I miss the spices.

Sometimes I cook up altered versions of traditional dishes, embellishing them to live up to my fantasies. Here I’ve borrowed my favorite Moroccan triumvirate of flavors—saffron, cinnamon, and ginger—to create a Sicilian-Moroccan hybrid but one with restraint. Adding layers to my familial cooking does give me freedom, but when I fear I’m verging into the realm of betrayal, I pull back. I dread 3 a.m. wake up calls from unrevealed ancestors telling me I’ve gone too far. Ridiculous, but there you are. So any of my Sicilian, Neapolitan, Tunisian, Moroccan hybrid recipes will always make for a fairly seamless blend. Still, I have to say, some of my excursions in this direction have made me very happy.

Happy spring cooking to you.

Lamb with Spring Peas, Saffron, and Ginger

(Serves 4 or 5)

2½ to 3 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, cut into roughly 2-inch cubes
Freshly ground black pepper
A sprinkling of sugar
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 round white spring onion, chopped, using all of the tender green stem
1 fresh bay leaf
1 tablespoon flour
A big splash of dry white wine
4 cups light chicken broth
A large pinch of saffron threads, dried, ground, and dissolved in a few tablespoons of hot water
4 spring carrots (a variety of colors is nice here), cut into thick rounds
1½ cups freshly shucked spring peas
1 tablespoon runny honey
⅓ cup whole toasted almonds, roughly chopped
About 10 big sprigs of fresh spearmint leaves, stemmed

Dry the lamb well and then toss it in salt, black pepper, sugar, ginger, and cinnamon. Heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil in a large casserole fitted with a lid. When it’s hot, add the lamb, and brown it well on all sides. You might want to do this in batches if the casserole gets too crowded. The lamb should smell of sweet spice. Next add the onion and bay leaf, and sauté, turning the lamb in the onion, until the onion has softened. Sprinkle on the flour, and stir it around so it coats everything well and loses its raw taste. Add the white wine, and let it bubble away. Add the broth and the saffron water. Add water if needed to just cover the meat. Bring everything to a boil.

Turn the heat to low, cover the pot, and simmer for about an hour. Now add the carrots, and continue cooking until the lamb is very tender, about an hour or so longer. Add the peas and the honey, and cook, uncovered, until the peas are just cooked through, about 10 minutes. Check for seasoning, adding salt and definitely a little more fresh black pepper. The broth should be soupy but have a little body from the addition of the flour. Skim the top, turn off the heat, and let the stew sit for a few hours to develop flavor (I find that this will also further tenderize the meat).

When you’re ready to serve it, gently reheat it, and then ladle it out into big bowls, garnished with the almonds and the mint. It will be nice with a side of buttery couscous or grilled bruschetta brushed with olive oil.

And here’s a little Vivaldi for you.


Recipe below: Penne with Peas, Watercress, and Spring Garlic

Spring peas sautéed with delicate lettuce was a highbrow dish in seventeenth-century France, where garden peas were all the rage. It was especially popular with the ladies. The combo is still served in France. When I first heard about peas with lettuce, I found  it odd (why would anyone cook  lettuce?) but also alluring. Certain food pairings that I’ve come across in my studies or just in life have had a strong pull, a tug of the exotic. They’ve gotten embedded in my brain, filed away as beautifully foreign, meaning, I guess, not Southern Italian. Radishes with butter. Pork with prunes. Manchego with quince. Peas with lettuce. Peculiar in concept, but all have made perfect sense once I tasted them.

So here’s peas cooked with Bibb lettuce, a green so delicate that it melts almost into a slime at the slightest touch of heat. As it turns out, that’s a good sort of slime, and it makes for a well-balanced dish, with back tastes of both sweet and bitter. There’s a reason for its longevity.

I played around with this spring pairing, looking to fit it more neatly into my Italian world, and came up with, what else, a pasta dish. I first tried the recipe with Boston lettuce (basically the same as Bibb), cutting it into chiffonade and wilting it into the pasta. I wasn’t crazy about the mouth feel or the mushy look of the result, and the sturdy pasta threw off the naturally delicate balance. I then tried romaine, which looked better, but I didn’t love the taste (I don’t like the dulled-out taste of romaine in much of anything, even in Caesar salad).  Arugula? Too strong against the peas. I finally settled on watercress. I like its unique gentle bitterness, and the dark green of the cress against the lighter green of the peas tosses up nicely with penne.  Pasta e piselli, a classic, but this time with lettuce. Spring is here, finally.


Penne with Peas, Watercress, and Spring Garlic

(Serves 6 a first course)

2 cups shelled peas (from about 1½ pounds of peas in their pods, and save a handful of the pods)
2 cups light chicken broth
Extra-virgin olive oil
A  1/4-inch round of pancetta, well chopped
1  large spring onion, chopped, including the tender green stem
1 stalk spring garlic, chopped, leaving behind any tough part
A few big thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
A few big scrapings of nutmeg
Black pepper
A splash of dry marsala
1 pound penne
2 bunches watercress, well stemmed
A chunk of Montasio or Piave cheese

Pull out a medium-size pot and put the reserved pea pods in it. Pour on the chicken broth, and bring it to a boil. Turn the heat down, and let it simmer, uncovered, for about 10 minutes. Strain the broth into a cup or a small bowl. It should have a gentle sweet pea aroma.

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

Get out a large sauté pan, and set it over medium heat. Add a drizzle of olive oil and the pancetta, and sauté until crisp. Add the onion, garlic, thyme, and nutmeg, and season with salt and black pepper. Let it all soften and grow fragrant. Now add the peas, turning them around in the soffritto for a minute or so. Add the splash of Marsala, and let it bubble away. Add the chicken broth, and cook until the peas are just tender, about 4 minutes. Turn off the heat, and add 2 tablespoons of butter, stirring it in.

When the penne is al dente, drain it, and add it to the pan with the peas. Toss it all quickly over low heat until everything is well blended.

Pour the penne into a big pasta bowl. Scatter on the watercress. Add a little more salt and black pepper and a few big gratings of the cheese. Toss. The heat of the pasta will lightly wilt the watercress. Serve right away, bringing the rest of the cheese to the table.

And here’s a little video to go with it:




Women with Fish


Frida with Japanese Fighting Fish and Bubble Crown, by Sarah Ashley Longmore.


Recipe below: Fettuccine with a Spring Soffritto, Peas, and Speck

When I create a recipe, as thrilled as I sometimes get with the outcome I never come up with something completely new. (Is there anything new under the Mediterranean sun?)  What I do is work the flavor memories of my mind. I move them around to vary the patterns. I take into consideration flavor combinations that become more than the sum of their parts, such as the blending of rosemary and fennel seed, the traditional aroma of a well cooked porchetta, or the mingling or vanilla and orange flower water, the underpinning of pastiera di grano, the Southern Italian Easter pie that I love more than any other dessert.

These combinations lie at the heart of my cooking, Southern Italian and Mediterranean tastes that no matter how I bend them are a little familiar to anyone who cooks or eats in that area of the world or who, like me, works with ancestral flavors on foreign soil.

I’ve been contemplating what improvisational cooking really means to me, and I’ve found myself jotting down a short a list of recurring flavor combos that I use as kicking off points. The traditional Southern Mediterranean pairing of garlic and olive oil can serve as both beginning and end, as in spaghetti aglio e olio, or as just a starting point, if, say, I decide to layer together fresh oregano, tangerine zest, and white wine, and pour the result over a whole sea bass as a marinade, before hefting the fish onto a grill. The creativity is deciding what to add and what to take away.

Here are a bunch of flavor combinations that I imagine pop into the heads of many Italian cooks when they set out to create a meal. If you have other recurring themes rattling around in your head, feel free to send them along.

Orange flour water and vanilla: the unmistakable aroma of pastiera di grano, the Campanian Easter pie. You can layer in fresh orange zest or candied orange for extra oomph. I often do.

Lemon and vanilla: the underlying taste of  panettone. There’s even exists Fiori di Sicilia, a ready-made liquid mix of this classic flavor combination that many panettone cooks rely on. Drizzle in some anisette for a haunting trio, perfect for ciambella, the Italian bundt cake.

Rosemary and fennel: the traditional flavoring for porchetta and also excellent, I’ve found, on strong fish like sardines or mackerel. Fennel pollen is beautiful to use in place of the seeds.

Raisins and pine nuts: the classic Spanish-Arab pairing used in Sicilian meatballs and many Sicilian dishes of the agro dolce category, such as caponata. I love this combo in a savory vegetable torta, where the addition of pecorino and fresh marjoram round out the flavor.

Garlic and olive oil: aglio e olio, the backbone of Southern Italian cooking, and, on its own, one of the best condimenti for spaghetti. Add hot chili and anchovies and a sprinkling of breadcrumbs to create my favorite midnight pasta.

Olive oil, garlic, green olives, and capers: add fresh mint, parsley, and oregano and you’ve created a salsa verde, perfect over grilled shrimp or spooned onto mozzarella. Add tomatoes and you’ve got the starting point for a puttanesca sauce. You can flesh it out with anchovies, fresh oregano, parsley, and even some good canned tuna.

Soffritto of onion, celery, and carrot: a  base for ragù and simmered sauces and stews. What would osso bucco be without it? I sauté onion, celery, fennel, and fresh chili in olive oil as a starting point for pasta e fagiole. And for a gentle tomato sauce, I like to begin by sweating shallot and carrot in butter and then maybe adding a splash of sweet vermouth before I throw in the tomatoes.

Ricotta and nutmeg: if you add sugar you’ve got the filling for a pasticciotto; if instead you include chopped parsley, you can stuff manicotta. Ricotta and cinnamon make the best filling for Sicilian style cannoli, and also for my grandfather’s big Christmas ravioli.

Fennel and saffron: the underpinning for pasta con le sarde. You’ll then go on to add raisins and pine nuts to make the dish complete.

Parmigiano and butter: just a magical blending of flavors. Add a few leaves of fresh sage for an almost instant sauce for spinach ravioli.

Anchovies and butter: I’d eat this on anything. Add parsley and thyme to make a great compound butter for steak.

Pancetta or guanciale and onion: add tomato and hot chili for bucatini all’ amatriciana.  Add garlic, white wine, rosemary, and maybe a handful of mushrooms for pollo alla cacciatora.

Recipe: Fettuccine with a Spring Soffritto, Peas, and Speck

Here I start with a soffritto of young leeks, carrots, celery leaves, and spring garlic, and then go on with the spring theme by adding fresh peas. I thought about adding mint, which goes so well with peas, but somehow the speck seemed to cancel that idea out.

(Serves 2 as a light main course)

For the soffritto you’ll want 2 young leeks, well chopped, 1 chopped carrot, a handful of celery leaves, and 1 chopped stalk of spring garlic (before it starts to form cloves). Pull out a big sauté pan, and drizzle in some good olive oil and a pat of butter. Add all your soffritto vegetables, and sauté them over medium heat until everything is soft and fragrant, about 4 minutes. Season them with a little salt, pepper, and a few scrapings of nutmeg.

Now add a cup or so of freshly shucked peas, giving them a little stir in the soffrito. Add a big splash of dry vermouth, and let it bubble off. Add a cup of light chicken broth, partially cover the pan, and simmer until the peas are tender, about 3 or 4 minutes. Turn off the heat, and stir in ¼ cup of crème fraîche.

Cook ¾ pound of fettuccine until it’s just tender, drain it, and add it to the pan. Then add 4 or 5 thin slices of speck cut into julienne. Toss everything well over low heat, adding more chicken broth or crème fraîche if you need to adjust the texture (it should be a bit creamy). Add a few more twists of fresh black pepper and several generous gratings of grana Padano or parmigiano cheese. Toss again, taste for seasoning, and plate it.


Pomeriggio a Fiesole, by Baccio Maria Bacci, 1926.

Recipes below: Eggplant Purée with Saffron and Pistachios; Pan-Roasted Chicken with Parsnips and Shallots

As a kid, I found meals at my grandmother’s trying. They were New York Italian-American to the max. Incongruous food, one dish after another—salami, provolone, and giardiniera, then a Waldorf salad (her favorite), followed by sausage lasagna or ravioli, turkey or pork chops with vinegar peppers, stuffed artichokes, cranberry sauce from a can, dandelions with garlic and oil, mashed potatoes, Romano beans in tomato sauce. Plates were constantly being whisked away and replaced with new plates. Nanny seemed to never sit down. She hovered over the table like a giant hummingbird, breathing down your neck, grabbing serving spoons, laying down heavy platters. I felt such a relief when the glass bowl of raw fennel appeared, a signal that the meal was trailing off. But that was still before the pignoli cookies, chocolate cake, and German prune pastries my grandfather loved, and the Strega and Anisette. After that, walnuts in shells, tangerines, espresso, and cigarettes, for hours. Exhausting, even a little frightening. A child held hostage at table. And that wasn’t just on holidays.  Oddly now, decades later, the thought of those dinners fills me with joy and calm. We had all the time in the world back then. Or so it seemed.

I’ve decided we all need longer meals, maybe not quite as dragged out as when Nanny orchestrated the night, but an hour and a half minimum for dinner, even during the week. Dinners that culminate in a relaxed stupor are good for the soul. There was something pure about Nanny’s style, where everything was a separate course. Very Italian. I vote for that, but possibly omitting the Waldorf salad.

Lengthy dining is validating for a cook, too. Many people don’t seem to grasp the fact that the cook can feel like hired help in her own home. There’s almost nothing more demoralizing than watching a tableful of friends or relatives shovel down a beautiful dinner in twenty minutes.  Two hours of thoughtful cooking instantly turned to poop.

I’m not going to run around like my hectic old Nanny—that was painful to watch—but a few good dishes, made ahead and leisurely paced, produce a nice flow. And the key is made ahead.  Many vegetable dishes in Southern Italy and around the Mediterranean are prepared early in the day and served later, at room temperature, and they taste best that way, their flavors coaxed to blossom while they sit and cool. I peruse the antipasto table of my mind and pull out one or two fine dishes. One will be an appetizer, something fun, like crostini with roasted sweet peppers, to eat standing up, like you’re at a party. Then on to a sit-down first course, say a cannellini bean salad with good olive oil and fresh sage, served unaccompanied. That way you can really get to appreciate that olive oil you paid so much for. Then I’ll usually follow with something I’ve roasted or stewed, maybe a pork loin  with aioli (there’s that good olive oil again). Then a green salad. Cheese. Fruit. Maybe some nuts. I’m all for bringing back nuts in shells, with nutcrackers. A great ritual. Soothing. And, as my mother taught me, making slightly too much food is freeing. You can accommodate a last-minute drop-in without freaking out. Maybe I’m alone in this, but I love an unexpected guest.

One possible drawback to a lengthy dinner is too much drinking. A problem for me, at least. Remember the water. Buy a decent-looking pitcher and fill it with good tasting water. Forget the ice cubes. Icy drinks are a real palate killer. And buy good wine. You’ll respect it more and savor every sip, maybe even drinking less.

Here’s a menu for a leisurely dinner for two, all made ahead, with leftovers for lunch the next day, or enough to accommodate a dinner time drop-in. The meal will go well with a rich Italian rosato, such as a Cerasuola from Abruzzo.


Eggplant Purée with Saffron and Pistachios, served with carta di musica or crostini
Broccoli Rabe with Pancetta and Chilies
Pan-roasted Chicken with Parsnips and Shallots
Boston Lettuce and Dandelion Salad
Pears with Young Pecorino and Wildflower Honey

Eggplant Purée with Saffron and Pistachios

Here’s my Sicilian take on baba ganoush. No tahini here; I use yogurt instead, but the technique is similar.

You’ll need, a pinch of saffron, two medium eggplants, good olive oil, a small chopped shallot, a sliced garlic clove, salt, black pepper, a pinch of sugar, a little ground cumin, Greek yogurt, a handful of shelled, unsalted pistachios, and a palmful of chopped dill or fennel sprigs.

First you’ll want to grind the saffron threads to a powder and dissolve them in a few tablespoons of hot water, giving them a good stir. Next roast the eggplants in a hot oven until they’re soft and collapsed. Scrape out their insides. Sauté the shallot and the garlic in a little olive oil until it’s soft. Add the eggplant, and season it with salt, black pepper, a pinch of sugar, and a bigger pinch of cumin. Cook until everything is fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add the saffron water, and then transfer the eggplant mixture to a food processor, and give it a few pulses. Add a heaping tablespoon of Greek yogurt, a big drizzle of fresh olive oil, and a handful of chopped, unsalted pistachios. Pulse just until blended—you’ll want to keep a little texture. Turn the purée out into a bowl, and stir in some chopped dill or fennel. Garnish with a little more of the herbs and chopped pistachios.

Pan-Roasted Chicken with Parsnips and Shallots

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees.

Set out eight chicken thighs, skin on, preferably bone in, on a big sheet pan. Skin and cut in half 3 shallots. Skin 3 parsnips and 2 carrots, and cut them into approximately 1-inch rounds. Add the vegetables to the sheet pan, and drizzle everything generously with olive oil, season with salt, black pepper, some Aleppo pepper, and a sprinkling of ras el hanout. Scatter on chopped fresh thyme, a little rosemary, and a spritz of sherry wine vinegar. Mix all the ingredients well with your hands. Turn the chicken pieces skin side up, and spread everything out in more or less one layer. Roast until the chicken is fragrant, browned, and just tender, about a half an hour. You can serve this as soon as it’s ready or let it sit. Hot or warm is fine; room temperature is good, too.

Women with Fish



ALTHOUGH you hide in the ebb and flow
Of the pale tide when the moon has set,
The people of coming days will know
About the casting out of my net,
And how you have leaped times out of mind
Over the little silver cords,
And think that you were hard and unkind,
And blame you with many bitter words.