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Portrait of a Baker, Terentius Nero, and His Wife, from the walls of Pompeii. I wonder if he used measuring spoons.

Recipe below: Olive Oil Yogurt Cake with Cardamom

For two reasons I don’t do elaborate baking. First, I have almost no sweet tooth. I know that’s odd for a daughter of the land of cannoli. All my empty calories come from wine, and wine seems to squelch my desire for sugar. Second, I get anxious when I have to measure precisely. I have an aversion to measuring cups and spoons, especially ⅓ and ¼ cup measures. And ¼ teaspoon also agitates me. Is there a ⅛ teaspoon measure? I hope not. I avoid preparations where I think I’ll have to deal with any of those things. And don’t get me started on scales.

Despite all that, I do a lot of baking. I get around my issues by choosing things that aren’t super sweet and, more important, will forgive me if I want to just wing it. I cook up sweet and savory tortes and all sorts of biscotti. I love farmhouse-type Italian cakes, like ciambelle, that are usually made in a bundt pan. And I often bake what in my family we call breakfast cakes, which means you can eat them at any time of the day. For those I most often use a big springform pan. Olive oil is my fat of choice. Those cakes tend toward white, not chocolate. I vary them by adding orange flower water, lemon zest, vanilla, almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, blueberries, pears, grappa, nutmeg, allspice, black pepper, star anise, cinnamon, or the cardamom and coriander seed I chose for this version.

Yogurt is a good thing to include in a breakfast cake. It adds moisture and a faint sourness that’s almost undetectable but pulls it away from birthday cake world. Same with olive oil. It lightens it up and produces a puffy texture that I love. I always choose a fruity extra-virgin one without a lot of bitter.

I like to use this and other simple cakes (such as my olive oil polenta variation) as points of departure for improvisation. For instance if you omit the spices here and instead add a drizzle of orange flower water and some orange zest and up the vanilla a bit, you’ll get something that tastes a little like a ricotta Easter cake. So play around.

Olive Oil Yogurt Cake with Cardamom

2 cups pastry flour
A big pinch of salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cardamom (or a little less if freshly ground)
1 teaspoon ground coriander seed
A few grindings of black pepper
2 large eggs
1 cup whole-milk plain yogurt (I prefer brands that are not too sharp and have the cream on top, like Brown Cow)
1 cup sugar (or a little extra if you like things sweeter)
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus a drizzle more for the pan (a fruity oil, not a biting Tuscan type)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
A splash of cognac or grappa

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Smear a little olive oil inside a 10-inch springform pan.

Put the flour in a big bowl. Add the baking powder, salt, and all the spices. Give it all a good stir.

Put the yogurt, eggs, and sugar into the bowl of a standing mixer (or use a hand mixer). Mix until they’re light and a little fluffy, about a minute or so. Add the flour gradually, until just mixed in. Then pour in the olive oil, vanilla, and cognac, mixing them until they’re just blended, maybe about 10 seconds.

Pour the batter into the pan, and bake it until its top is lightly browned and its center feels springy to the touch, about 35 to 40 minutes.

My Amaro

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It was about a year and a half ago, early in the fall, that I began thinking about making amaro. I had been drinking more of it than before. Bars were carrying a dozen brands, when previously if I asked for amaro, the barkeep most often had had no idea what I was talking about. Or if she understood, she pulled out the bottle of Sicilian Averna that was familiar from my father’s booze shelf. The sweetly severe staple of my parents’ dinner parties was now trending.

Amaro is Italian for bitter. It’s upfront taste is of bitter herbs.  I was always told it was a digestivo, which had to contain bitter something or it wouldn’t work. Some mornings I had watched my grandfather chug down some Fernet-Branca, a particularly strong amaro, mixed with a raw egg. I had found that fascinating and ghastly. He said it helped. Helped what? That was before I had experienced my first hangover. And it’s not just the Italians who are into bitter digestivi. The French make something similar called amer, and Germany has its version, too. What exactly are those bitter herbs? I Googled “amaro” and learned that gentian root is often the base flavor. I had a feeling. But secondary bittering agents can go into a good amaro, too. Complicated. A little spooky, even.

And as the Internet proved, some people do make their own amaro. I knew how I wanted mine to taste, patterning it after the lighter, more citrusy French amers I had recently sampled. I especially loved one called (I have no idea why) China China. No Fernet for me. I eased up on the punishing roots, adding more citrus and mellow spices. I wasn’t sure what my soft tones would be, so I studied various online recipes, all of which differed wildly, and pulled together what I thought would be an interesting jumble of flavors.

I added all my choices, bitter, mellow, acidic, and woodsy, to a big glass jar filled with vodka and hoped for the best. Some commercial brands, and even some homemade amari, have as many as thirty ingredients. That seemed overkill. I chose ten. Then I put my jar to sleep for a month, shaking it when I passed by. The aroma was powerful even after a few weeks—and familiar, too. It smelled like amaro, but without the sugar.

Then I added sugar, but not straight sugar, as some recipes instructed. I made a dark caramel, which adds sweetness but also, more important, infuses the amaro with another layer of bitter (burnt sugar is really bitter). It also deepens the color, in this case producing a rich burnt-orangey red.

After another month or so of rest, my amaro emerged as a complex but pleasantly bitter liqueur, with citrus and mellow tones from vanilla, anise hyssop, and lots of other roots and spices. It was so right on, I couldn’t believe it. It was exactly what I had wanted but had never dreamed I could create. I brought it out after dinner for friends. Gave it away at cooking classes. It was a hit. I was so jacked up, I felt like an instant amaro genius. I even had labels made. I loved this amaro. I’d go down to the basement at 3 a.m. just to sniff it in, maybe to give the jars another little shake. People urged me to go ahead and market it. And then things started to go wrong.

I took it around to several Hudson Valley distillers for a taste. One of them was particularly intrigued, but he said it would be expensive to produce. Also, New York distillers, most of them, legally needed their booze to contain about 75 percent locally grown ingredients. I could use their artisanal vodka as a base (made from upstate apples, in one case), but the rest of the flavorings were oddball roots and spices that weren’t local. And the oranges and lemons obviously weren’t either.

I didn’t get an immediate taker, but the interest in my amaro got me eager to make bigger amounts. I thought I’d need to, if I ever truly wanted to take it to market. So I tripled the recipe, realizing instinctively that some ingredients shouldn’t be tripled, the sugar, I imagined, but also, possibly, my bitter roots. This was incredibly difficult. I researched how to increase sugar in various types of drinks, but I didn’t find much useful information. So, I used my best judgment. And then I waited, tasting the batch before adding my caramel. It seemed harsh, but I wasn’t too worried, assuming it just needed time. Two months later, when it was pretty much done, the taste was all wrong.  The bigger recipe had produced an unblended, overly alcoholic, too sweet liquor, with odd jolts of sweet spice and unfocused bitter. I had lost my bearings.

I was upset but not deterred. So I made another big batch, a more educated batch, but I wound up with basically the same problems. Exasperating. Ultimately, I had two big glass jugs of unsalvageable amaro that had been sitting in my basement untouched for six months, haunting me. I needed to take action.

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And away it goes . . .

So last weekend I did what I had been wanting but fearing to do. I dumped it all down the sink. The aroma coming up from the drain was eye-stinging but kind of gorgeous. Had I made a mistake? Was the stuff actually okay? I think I’m sure it wasn’t, and in any case now it’s gone.

And then I made another batch, a small batch, using my original recipe.  Hopefully I’ll get my amaro back. This time I plan to keep it small and in-house. Wish me luck. And then maybe someday . . .

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Julia Child and Richard Olney relaxing in Provence.

It’s February 1st. A dark day. Not as cold as it has been, but still cold, and damp now, too. Black puffy coats keep passing by my window. Seems like a good time to start my yearly dead-of-winter cookbook scan, searching my shelves for some light. My eyes pass over the titles. Where do I want to go? This Tunisian one might lift my mood. Too bad it’s written in French. And all the books are jammed in so tight I can hardly pull one out without ripping off my fingernails. So,instead of dealing with that mess, I grab one of the oversize books I shove in horizontally on top. The one I’m drawn to has a cover photo of sun-dappled red geraniums, a plate of long pink radishes with their leafy tops, a loaf of rustic bread, a bottle of wine, a dish of some great looking pâté, and one of those big, yellow glazed confit-type pots, all on a perfectly faded pale green bench. Pretty damned charming. Looks really warm there, too. But why is it so cold in my apartment?

So I’m flipping through the super sunny looking Provence the Beautiful Cookbook, written by the not always so sunny Richard Olney. For a coffee table–type book, this one’s full of excellent recipes and serious information. It would have to be, written by Olney, who lived in the South of France and put more creative energy into the area’s cooking than Julia Child was capable of (sorry, Julia).

I am really missing good tomatoes right now, as that book is certainly driving home. I’d love some stuffed vegetables, and I don’t mean cabbage. Tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, sweet peppers. The aromatic ratatouille will have to wait. There are a lot of omelettes in the book. Maybe too many. But they all look runny ripe. If it’s not thrown into an omelette, it’s cooked into a gratin. I love a good gratin. Olney was a pro at improvising with leftovers, making the old seem new again. I’m not sure how he talked his editor into including six salt cod recipes in this glamorous book, but there they are. Nice soups, too, although most look like they’re studded with fresh tomato concasse, especially the clear soup, with its dots of red, a raw egg dropped into the middle, and a grating of hard cheese. So perfect for a cool summer night. I want that right now, but making it with canned tomatoes would just feel so wrong.

Page after page of sun-splashed ochre, Van Gogh yellow, burnt orange, bright orange, sea blue, and washed gray-green on shutters and lawn chairs. So much age-softened paint. Glasses full of red wine and rosé wine, set out in full daylight. You’d think nobody ate at night in Olney’s world. Bloomy cheeses on big green leaves. Piles of zucchini blossoms, tubs of impossibly red mini strawberries. Rosemary growing out of every ancient stone wall. Even the tripe looks light and airy. The annoyingly gorgeous photos of food and foliage were making me miserable. I closed the book and thought about dinner.

I walked through Westside Market, trying to decide what to buy, and everything looked deflated. The fish department smelled horrible. The tomatoes looked good but smelled weirdly like grapefruits. There was a whole wall of breakfast cereal. I had to get out of there. I walked a few blocks down to Citarella, hoping for fresh inspiration. The fish looked a million times better. A nice hunk of tuna got me thinking of a tuna and artichoke recipe I had admired in the Olney book, and the picture of a brothy bowl of it on a lichen-covered stone. The giant globe artichokes felt decent. I would pretend it was springtime. I bought the artichokes and the fish. I couldn’t remember what else was in the recipe, but I figured I had the basics covered. Mission pretty much accomplished. Provence the beautiful in cold, dirty Manhattan.

I sort of followed Olney’s recipe, but I cut the tuna cooking time down to keep the fish really tender. I added pancetta, because I add it to almost everything. I also included a marjoram pesto, just because I was craving fresh herbs so much in the cold, and Citarella had marjoram, a rarity. I wound up with a good dish, both rustic and elegant. A real mood changer. Thank you, Mr. Olney. It was just what I needed on this dead of winter night.

Braised Tuna and Artichokes with a Marjoram Pesto

(Serves 4)

Extra-virgin olive oil
1¾ pounds tuna steak, about 1½ inches thick, skinned and cut into 2-inch chunks
1 fresh bay leaf
The zest from 1 lemon
3 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly smashed
Freshly ground black pepper
2 thin slices pancetta, chopped
4 large artichokes, trimmed and quartered (see below) and placed in a bowl of cold water with the juice of 1 large lemon
1 large shallot, cut into small dice
Salt
½ cup dry white wine
5 canned plum tomatoes, drained and then well chopped
½ cup chicken broth, possibly a little more

For the pesto:

The leaves from about 10 large marjoram sprigs
A large handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves (about ¾ cup)
1 small (unsprouted) garlic clove, roughly chopped
A small handful of whole, blanched almonds, roughly chopped
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt

Trim the artichokes Italian-style—that is, the way big artichokes are always done in Italian restaurants: First set up a bowl of cold water with the juice of a large lemon. Working with one artichoke at a time, rip off and discard all the tough leaves until you get down to the tender light green ones (be thorough about this, so you don’t wind up with any tough bites). Slice off the tough stem ends, leaving about ½ inch of tender stem. Slice about ½ inch off the top of the artichoke, leaving just the bottom sections of the leaves. Peel the tough skin off the stem. Quarter the artichoke lengthwise, and cut out from each piece the fuzzy choke and any spiky, purplish leaves. You should end up with four arched, hollowed-out artichoke pieces. Drop them in the water, and repeat with the other artichokes.

Marinate the tuna: Place the fish in a shallow glass or ceramic bowl (sometimes metal can give fish an off taste). Pour over it about ¼ cup of olive oil, enough just to coat the fish well all over. Add the bay leaf, lemon zest, and garlic cloves, and grind on a generous amount of black pepper. Mix the whole thing with your hands so the flavors are evenly distributed. Let it sit for about a half hour.

Make the pesto: Set up a medium-size pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Drop in the marjoram and parsley leaves, and blanch them for about 30 seconds. Scoop them from the water with a large strainer spoon, and place them in a colander. Run cool water over them to stop their cooking and to preserve their green color. Squeeze all the water out of the herbs. This blanching will prevent them from oxidizing and turning dark as the pesto sits, always a danger with pesto. Place the garlic and pine nuts in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse a few times until they’re roughly ground. Add the blanched herbs and enough olive oil to create a rich texture (about ⅓ cup). Season with a little salt, and pulse a few more times until everything is blended but still has a bit of texture to it. Transfer the pesto to a small bowl, and press a piece of plastic wrap over the top to keep it nice and green.

Choose a large skillet that has a lid and is big enough to hold the tuna and artichokes in one layer. Over medium heat, add the pancetta and about 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the skillet, and sauté until the pancetta is crisp, about 4 minutes. Drain the artichoke pieces well, and add them and the shallot to the skillet. Season with a little salt, and sauté until both vegetables are lightly browned, about another 10 minutes. Add the tuna chunks and all the marinade, and sauté on one side until lightly golden. Turn the tuna pieces, season them with a bit more salt, and add the white wine, letting it boil away. Add the tomatoes and the chicken broth, and heat them through. Turn the heat to low, and cook at a simmer, covered, until the tuna and the artichokes are just tender, only about another 5 minutes. Add a little more broth, if needed, to be sure you have about an inch of liquid left in the pan. Turn off the heat, and let the dish sit for about 5 minutes before serving it (to give all the flavors a chance to blend).

Serve in soup bowls with a generous spoonful of pesto on top of each portion. Accompany with toasted baguette slices that have been rubbed with garlic and brushed with olive oil.

 

 

 

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Still Life with Skate, by James Ensor.

Recipe below: Cornmeal-Crusted Skate with Brown Butter, Thyme, and Capers

The skate is a strange, undulating creature. It looks and moves almost exactly like a ray, but it belongs to a different family. It lays eggs, instead of carrying its unborn inside its body, as a ray does. Like a ray, it has cartilage instead of bones, so it can roll through the sea with grace. And, what’s stranger, I eat it. A lot of people do. It tastes like sweet sea scallops, and its texture is most appealing, being both bouncy and tender. That’s because it’s loaded with collagen. When cooked it pulls apart into long tender ropes. I like eating it that way, instead of cutting it into neat slices.

For me, skate is best sautéed in a hot pan until brown and crisp. Many recipes suggest poaching, which is okay, but then I miss the contrast between crisp and tender that you get from a good sauté. The easiest way to cook a skate wing is by coating it with flour, crumbs, or, as I’ve chosen here, cornmeal, and then slipping it into a large pan (skate wings are wide) with a hot, bubbling mix of olive oil and butter. When both sides are browned, it’s done.

I’ve cooked skate using various flavors. Here’s my recipe for it with a puttanesca-type sauce. I also love it pan-seared and draped over a bed of spiced-up greens, such as Swiss chard or escarole. This time, though, I’ve gone back to a bistro classic. Brown butter and capers make a perfect marriage of flavors for this fish, especially if you also include lemon juice, as I’ve done here. I first learned this dish while working at Restaurant Florent. Not only did I get taught how to actually cook it, I also had to skin and fillet all the huge skate wings that arrived at our sweaty little kitchen. Filleting is a matter of cutting and lifting the flesh from the flexible cartilage, its inner skeleton. Tricky, but definitely doable. Try it some time. It’s sort of fun.

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Cornmeal-Crusted Skate with Brown Butter, Thyme, and Capers

(Serves 2, which is easiest, since skate wings are so large)

2 large skate fillets (have the cartilage removed by your fish dame, or train yourself to do it by watching a YouTube video)
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons crème fraîche
Salt
Black pepper
About ½ cup fine-ground corn meal
Pimenton d’espelette
The leaves from a handful of thyme sprigs, plus a few whole sprigs for garnish
Extra-virgin olive oil
About 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
A handful of salt-packed capers, soaked and rinsed
The juice from 1 large lemon

Dry off the skate. In a small bowl, mix together the mustard and the crème fraîche.  Season the mix with salt and black pepper.

Pour the cornmeal out onto a dinner plate. Season it with salt, black pepper, pimento d’espelette, and the thyme leaves.

Using a pastry brush, brush the skate on both sides with the mustard mix. Then coat it with the cornmeal.

Get out a very large cast-iron skillet, or some other pan with a good heavy bottom. Pour in enough olive oil to cover the bottom by about ⅛ inch. Add a heaping tablespoon of butter. Get the pan really hot, and then slide in the skate fillets. Sauté until they’re browning at the edges, which should take about 3 minutes. Then lift one and take a look under to make sure it’s well-browned all over. If so, give the fillets a flip, and brown the other side, about 3 minutes longer. That should do it.

Place the crispy skate on two dinner plates. Sprinkle it with a little lemon juice.

In a small saucepan, melt about 2½ tablespoons of butter over medium high heat. Let it cook until it just starts to brown. Take the pan off the stove, and add the capers and a big drizzle of lemon juice. Pour it over the skate. Garnish with thyme sprigs. Serve right away.

 

 

 

Women with Fish

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Formerly Known as Giant Squid

heavy, deep and dark.
louder, louder;
the twofold pounding
of clockwork respiration.

thud, (thud-thud)
goddess arms hang
into the abyss, like
dead weight.

depth obscures,
lesser life forms
meander on their own,
unaware of the wayward colossus.

/lonely/

a shroud of antiquity
suspended —
veiling the secret
of ages.

thud, [thud-thud]
percussive life
continues alone,
out of time.

evolving

longing

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Recipe below: Polenta Cake with Olive Oil and Orange Flower Water

Snow day bake-off. It’s a strong urge. Out my window snow whips by horizontally. I can barely see across the street. You don’t experience that lack of visibility often in Manhattan (for better or worse). At moments like this I wish I kept a full-stocked pantry, as I always hector my readers to do. Do what I say, not what I do. I really want to bake. I need to fill my kitchen with heat and old-world aromas. But going out shopping in this horror would break the spell. So what have I got here? A few oranges, lemons, eggs, some flour, a bag of bramata polenta—a medium grind—and lots of extracts and waters. Oh, great! I can make my polenta cake.

I say my polenta cake, but the truth is, this lovely creation didn’t start out as mine. It began life as Gina DePalma’s cake that she devised for the restaurant Babbo. The late, great DePalma excelled in desserts with rustic aromas and mouth feel, the kind I love best. I once told her that her polenta cake was my favorite recipe of hers but that over the years I’d altered it, steering it toward a more Southern Italian spirit. “That’s good,” she said. “Keep it lively.” Talent and charm in one woman. Nice.

So, Gina, in pastry chef heaven, here’s my tribute to your wonderful cake. Maybe there’s a light dusting of snow where you are, or more likely, of powdered sugar.

You’ll want a 9-inch springform pan for this.

Polenta Cake with Olive Oil and Orange Flower Water

(Serves 8)

1 tablespoon softened butter
¾ cup all-purpose flour
1½ cup fast-cooking medium ground polenta
2 teaspoons baking powder
A big pinch of salt
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 cup sugar
4 extra large eggs
The grated zest from 2 large oranges
The grated zest from 1 large lemon
½ teaspoon orange flower water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¾ cup fruity extra-virgin olive oil
Powdered sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees

Grease the springform pan with the softened butter.

In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, polenta, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg.

Place the sugar and eggs in a electric mixer, and beat until they’re fluffy and pale yellow.

Put the olive oil in a small bowl, and add the orange and lemon zests, the vanilla, and the orange flower water.

Add about half the flour to the mixer, blending it in. Add half the olive oil mixture, blending it in, too. Add the rest of the flour and then the remaining olive oil. Mix it all briefly, just until incorporated.

Pour the resulting batter into the pan.

Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the top is lightly browned and springy to the touch. Let it cool, and dust the top with confectioner’s sugar.

I like this served plain, maybe with a glass of Fiano di Avellino. Once when I served it for  a party I  was catering, I accompanied it with sweetened whipped ricotta and strawberries. That was very nice, too.

 

 

 

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Still Life with Shrimp, by Luciano Freire (1864-1935).

Recipe below: Zuppa di Pesce with Friselle

Having my mother die a month before Christmas is proving to be, as expected, a strange ride. I’m running trance-like, with no objective other than doing what’s needed—the paperwork, the phone calls, the sorting through. The rest is just a tugging sickness.

Theoretically I should feel a certain freedom. My mother had been ill for so long. But at the moment it all feels like a string of sad chores. Yet I do want to cook a traditional Christmas Eve dinner in her honor. I hope I can get it together. Cooking has always been my solace, my escape, and also a path to much fun. Maybe it’s a little early to find fun in any of this, but I’m thinking I can count on some physical and emotional restoration. Going through old photos has been, thankfully, easier than I’d have imagined. They bring back to mind what a great life she had.

Trying to push the ghost away, I find myself reflecting on all the different fish dishes my mother made on Christmas Eve, my absolute favorite holiday. She didn’t cook a ton of stuff, usually just three things, but she made it in abundance, just in case any neighborhood strays walked through the door.

The Christmas Eve dish I loved the best was her zuppa di pesce. She used only shellfish, always clams and mussels and sometimes large shrimp in their shells. The big treat was when she threw in a lobster, which looked amazing cracked up in that big white  bowl, with its orangey pink shell glistening wet in the winey sauce. The sauce was the thing, a mingling of garlic, white wine, a hint of tomato, and all the juices the shellfish threw off. That beautiful creation, giving off its sweet ocean steam, she always served with friselle.

Friselle showed up at our house only several times a year. Their place in our lives was prescribed, making them special. Christmas Eve was one of those times. They were mandatory with zuppa di pesce. Friselle are fat little savory biscotti, Neapolitan in origin, made with lard and seasoned with lots of cracked black pepper. They’re extremely hard, and when you bite into one you get this great oily, porky, crumbly, peppery taste that leaves a slick on the roof of your mouth. But they’re not supposed to be eaten undunked. You need to soften them in fish broth, getting them soaked and dense. That flavor combo is sensational (they’re also great soaked in wine). And just to get this straight, these are not the flat, round bagel-like toasts with the holes in the middle that go by the same name. These things look like bloated logs.

We never made friselle. We bought them, either at Razzano’s, our local Italian shop, in Glen Cove, or at Alleva, on Grand Street in the city. My several attempts at making them have not been a complete success. I have researched recipes on Italian websites, but the results have been weird, sort of scone-like, not hard enough, not greasy enough, not shattery enough. That has been frustrating.  And since I’ve been looking for the taste of my childhood, I’ve decided to forget it and just go back to Alleva and pick up a package. Or maybe, if I have the time, head up to Arthur Avenue, where several bakeries still make excellent friselle.

I styled my zuppa di pesce along the lines of my mother’s, but you’ll notice a few decidedly nontraditional additions, such as vanilla and nutmeg. Those sweet spices mellow the acidity of the wine and tomatoes that make up the body of the sauce, giving it a lusher flavor. So this is my slightly evolved but nonetheless true to spirit Christmas Eve zuppa. I think Mo would approve. I wish she could be at the table with us.

Merry Christmas to all my cooking friends.

TerranovaPepperFriselle

Zuppa di Pesce with Friselle

(Serves 4)

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 medium shallots, cut into small dice
1 carrot, peeled and cut into small dice
1 tender inner celery stalk, cut into small dice, plus a handful of celery leaves, lightly chopped
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
½ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
¼ of a vanilla bean, slit all the way down
10 large thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
Salt
Black pepper
A small glass of dry vermouth
1 cup light fish broth or chicken broth
1 35-ounce can plum tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 pound small manila clams
1 pound small mussels, well washed
8 medium-size head-on prawns, with their shells (or use large headless shrimp with the shells intact)
A handful of flat-leaf parsley, the leaves lightly chopped
Plus, 8 friselle

Get out a big, wide casserole-type pot, and put it over a medium flame. Add a big drizzle of olive oil and the butter. Add the shallots, carrot, and celery with its leaves, and sauté until fragrant. Add the garlic, nutmeg, vanilla bean, and the thyme, and continue sautéing until the vegetables are soft, about 5 minutes. Season with a little salt and black pepper.

Add the vermouth, and let it bubble for a few minutes. Add the fish or chicken broth and the tomatoes, and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down a bit, and let simmer, uncovered, at a low bubble for about 5 minutes.

When you’re ready to serve the dish, add the clams, giving them a good stir, and cook until some of them have opened (clams take longer than mussels and shrimp, so you’ll want to add them first). Then add the shrimp and the mussels, and cook until the mussels are open and the shrimp are just tender, about another 4 minutes or so. Turn off the heat. Season with a little more salt and black pepper. Give it all a drizzle of fresh olive oil, and taste for seasoning. Add the parsley, and take it to the table.

Ladle the zuppa into wide soup bowls, adding two friselle to each serving.