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Anchovy Mayonnaise: A Video.

Finocchi Sott’Aceto

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Fennel, by Michele Clamp

Recipe below: Finocchi Sott’Aceto

Italian-American men and their vinegared food. My father, my grandfather, my cousins, they scarfed it down, sometimes while hanging in the backyard, midday, digging the stuff out of a jar with nothing but a 7 Up for accompaniment. The pickled stuff was never homemade that I can remember. It was purchased at Italian delis. Giardiniera, heavy on the pickled cauliflower, vinegared hot cherry peppers, pickled sweet peppers, vinegared eggplant that looked like leather but when swallowed sent puckering messages to your inner ear. Some people like that kind of thing. My sister inherited the taste. She loves vinegar.

I never could handle heavy acid. My salad dressings use ½ teaspoon of vinegar to 2 tablespoons of olive oil or thereabouts. I’m not big on squeezing a lot of lemon over fish either. I don’t even love lemonade. But I have to say there’s nothing that goes better with salami than a well-made vinegared vegetable. I always want that, but the jarred stuff usually knocks my taste buds out. Now I try to make my own as often as possible.

I think the main problem with most purchased Italian pickle things is the quality of the vinegar, which is kind of harsh. With homemade you can easily overcome that. Also the freshness of the spices stays under your control, and you can adjust for personal taste.

Here’s how I go about doing finocchi sott’aceto. It’s not as aceto as some, more agro dolce in fact. I add sweetness and lots of anisey spices. I really like it with fatty salume, such as soppressata or cacciatorini. It’s also nice as an accompaniment to rillettes or duck paté. I think it’s a good recipe to play around with, sticking with the general proportions but maybe changing up the herbs and spices to suit yourself. I’ve also used a similar marinade for vinegared carrots and shallots.

All vinegared foods do weird things to wine, making both the pickle and the vino you drink with it taste a little evil, but that’s just life. I’ll eat a piece of pickle and then smooth the way for wine with a good bite of fatty salami. There’s always an answer in the wonderful world of food.

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Finocchi Sott’Aceto

(Makes 1 quart)

3 fennel bulbs, cored and thickly sliced, plus of few big sprigs of the feathery tops
A large branch of tarragon
A few black peppercorns
A big pinch of fennel pollen
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 whole star anise
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
About 3 whole allspice
1 tablespoon sea salt
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon mild honey, such as acacia or orange blossom
¼ cup champagne vinegar
⅓ cup rice wine vinegar

Set out a 1-quart Ball jar or a similar wide-mouth jar with a lid.

Pack the fennel and its reserved sprigs into the jar. Add the tarragon.

Combine all the other ingredients in a saucepan. Add about a cup of water, and bring everything to a boil over medium heat. Turn the heat down a touch, and simmer for about 3 minutes, just to blend all the flavors.

Pour the hot vinegar mix over the fennel, adding a little more water if needed to cover. Let cool and then cover. Put the jar in the refrigerator for 3 days, shaking it once in a while to distribute all the flavors. After that the fennel should be well penetrated with flavor. I like to bring it to room temperature for eating, but that’s up to you. It will last about a month in the fridge.

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Recipe below: Impanata di Pesce Spada

There was a time when the teenage me and my slightly younger sister were in Rome with my mother. A strange trip for many reasons, but mainly because we went without my father, which was highly unusual. I’m not sure how it came about, but there we were having breakfast at the Bernini Bristol, our clean and ugly hotel, when I made the mistake of ordering soft-boiled eggs. Evidently Italians didn’t eat eggs for breakfast, ever. It was offered on the tourist menu, but it mortified my mother to the point where, looking nervously around the dining room, she acted like she didn’t even know me. She was humiliated, steaming mad. It was hilarious, on some level, but also upsetting. Was she going to bitch me out for the entire trip? I also learned at that time: no cappuccino after 11 a.m. And then there was one other important matter, a point I had had drilled into my head from childhood but that was underlined again on our trip: no grated cheese on fish. That was serious, a sin in most parts of Italy. But not, as I’ve since discovered, in Sicily.

When I was researching my book The Flavors of Southern Italy, fish and cheese dishes kept popping up around me—almost all of them Sicilian. They were all highly interesting. Mozzarella or Ragusano with anchovies (a great pairing), swordfish involtini with caciocavallo, sarde beccafico (sardines stuffed with raisins, pine nuts, breadcrumbs, and often a mild pecorino). When I first tasted a baked pasta con le sarde in Palermo, it had a little cheese mixed in, holding it together. I found a recipe for gamberi con la conza in the excellent Sicily book put out by the Silver Spoon Kitchen, where breadcrumbs, almonds, and Parmigiano are sprinkled over baked shrimp. Sounds good, a little like Greece’s shrimp Santorini, although that uses feta. Pane cunzato, a warm panino with anchovies, primo sale, oregano, and tomatoes, is another Sicilian dish that blends cheese and fish deliciously. Here’s my recipe for it.

And then there’s impanata di pesce spada, an elaborate, enclosed torta that contains pine nuts, raisins, capers, caciocavallo, orange, and swordfish. It’s a specialty of Messina. When I came across that masterpiece, I knew I needed to include it in my book. It’s still one of my favorite Sicilian creations. There’s a tuna version from Agrigento that also contains cheese, usually primo sale. Sicilians understand that sometimes a little cheese, usually a fairly mild one, can up the flavor of seafood, not mask it. I wish the rest of the country could lighten up.

Here I’ve updated my recipe for that Sicilian fish torta, streamlining it a bit so it’s easier to put together.

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Impanata di Pesce Spada

(Serves 8 as an antipasto or a first course)

You’ll want a standard 9-inch pie pan for this torta.

For the crust:

2½ cups all-purpose flour
The grated zest of 1 large orange
2 tablespoons of sugar
A big pinch of salt
1½ sticks cold, unsalted butter, cut into little bits, plus a little extra for buttering the pan
About 4 tablespoons cold white wine

For the filling:

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, finely diced
1 tender inner celery stalk, with the leaves, finely diced
A big handful of pine nuts
1 15-ounce can plum tomatoes, chopped and drained
Salt
Black pepper
A big pinch of ground cinnamon
A handful of golden raisins, soaked in about ¼ cup dry Marsala
A palmful of salt packed capers, soaked and drained
1 pound swordfish, skinned and cut into ½ cubes
A handful of flat-leaf parsley, lightly chopped
A few sprigs of wild fennel or dill
1 cup grated caciocavallo cheese
1 egg lightly beaten, plus an egg yolk whisked with a little water to brush over the top

To make the crust: In a food processor, combine the flour, orange zest, salt, and sugar. Pulse a few times to blend. Add the butter, and pulse once or twice until the butter is about the size of lentils. Add the Marsala, and pulse a few more times to get a crumbly, moist-looking texture. Don’t let it work itself into a ball. Dump the dough out onto a work surface, and squeeze it into a ball. Knead briefly a few times to make sure it holds together. Cut the dough into two pieces, one a little larger than the other, wrap them in plastic, and refrigerate them for about an hour.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Take the dough from the refrigerator so it can warm up for a bit for easier rolling.

To make the filling: In a large skillet, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the onion and celery and celery leaves, and sauté until soft and fragrant, about 4 minutes. Add the pine nuts, and sauté until lightly golden, about a minute or so longer. Add the tomatoes, and season with salt, black pepper, and a little cinnamon. Let cook for about 5 minutes. Add the raisins, with their Marsala, and the capers. Simmer another minute or so. The sauce should be fairly dry. Let it cool for a few minutes, and then stir in the egg.

Butter your pie pan.

Flour a work surface, and roll out each ball of dough into a round, making the large piece about 11 inches across and the smaller one about 9 inches. Fit the larger piece into the pie pan, letting its edges hang over the rim. Spread the swordfish out on top of the dough. Season it with a little salt and black pepper, and give it a drizzle of olive oil. Scatter on the parsley and the wild fennel or dill, and then the grated caciocavallo. Pour on the tomato sauce, spreading it evenly. Place the other dough round on top, and pull up the edges of the bottom dough to form a border, folding and pinching together the dough all around. Make a few slits in the dough to let air escape, and brush the entire top with the egg wash.

Bake until the torta is nicely browned, about 50 minutes. Let it sit for about ½ hour before serving. That will make it easier to cut.

Migliaccio

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Recipe below: Migliaccio

Ricotta is one of the defining tastes of my life. Yes it’s white and mushy, but its milky, sweet fragrance, with an almost undetectable acidity, has embedded itself in my soul. I think that underlying acid is what makes it unmistakable, plain out of the tub. Scent it with pecorino and parsley in a filling for manicotti, or with orange flower water and cinnamon for an Easter cake, and it moves from familiar to transcendent.

For years I’ve made two types of ricotta cake. One, usually a pastiera, has a crust and a lattice top, is firm with whole eggs, and sometimes has candied citron, orange flower water, and wheat berries, which are a necessity if you want to call it a pastiera. The other is a crustless cake made light with whipped egg whites and scented with lemon and orange zest. It collapses a bit when cooled, like an hour-old soufflé. Now I’ve added a third, migliaccio, a ricotta cake that falls somewhere in between.

Migliaccio is a Neapolitan specialty that’s cooked up for Carnevale. I’ve known about it for a long time, but somehow I figured it was close enough to the ones I already had in my repertoire not to bother with. However, the name stuck in my head, coming up every so often to say, cook me. Finally this Christmas Eve I did. What a wonderful thing it turned out to be, firm enough to stand on its own without the support of a crust, but delicate in the mouth. The addition of semolina flour somehow smoothed out the ricotta, which could have been grainy, creating a springy pillow of love.

Miglio is Italian for millet, and evidently this cake was originally made with that, not semolina. Even the ricotta is a later addition. When I researched modern-day recipes, I found them all pretty similar. You cook the semolina in a mix of milk and water, producing something similar to the first stages of cream puff pastry. This step seems essential, or at least traditional. I’m not sure why the water is in there, but I went with it because I was told to. Another tradition is simmering a whole lemon peel in the milk. That makes for an elegant visual, but I don’t find that it provides much flavor, so I grated the zest instead, to release more of its oil.

This cake is usually flavored with lemon, sometimes a shot of limoncello, and vanilla, a fragrant Southern Italian staple. I found I wanted the aroma of anisette, so I went with that, underlining it with a big pinch of star anise. The smell while it baked was just what I imagined, exactly what I wanted. Christmas at my grandparents’ house. All that was missing was the odor of Pop’s cigar smoke.

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Migliaccio

(Serves 8 to 10)

2 cups whole milk
1 3/4 cups water
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus a little more for the pan
The grated zest from 1 large lemon
A big pinch of salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground star anise
1 cup semolina
4 large eggs
1 cup sugar
12 ounces whole milk ricotta
2 tablespoons anisette
2 teaspoons good quality vanilla extract
Powdered sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Butter a 9-inch springform pan.

Pour the milk and water into a saucepan. Add the butter, the lemon zest, the star anise, and a big pinch of salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat.

Turn the heat down a touch, and add the semolina, stirring all the while. Let it all cook, stirring to prevent lumps, for about 5 minutes, after which you’ll have a sticky paste.

While letting the semolina cool a bit, combine the eggs and sugar, and blend them in a standing mixer until they’re lightly colored, about 2 minutes. Add the ricotta, the anisette, and the vanilla, and blend just until it all comes together. Add the semolina mixture to the ricotta, and blend quickly to combine.

Pour the batter into the pan, and bake it for 50 minutes to an hour. At the end the top should be lightly brown, the sides firm, and the middle a bit soft. It will firm up as it cools. When it’s cool, dust its top with powdered sugar.

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Recipes below: Oven-Dried Tomatoes; Christmas Eve Orecchiette with Cauliflower, Sun Dried Tomatoes, Anchovies, and Marjoram

The rise and fall of sun-dried tomatoes. Where did they all go? Remember the craze that started, in New York at least, in the mid 1970s? They were a new taste for me. Even growing up in a Southern Italian household, I hadn’t seen them much used by Italian Americans of my generation, until the chefs turned us all on. But once that happened they were easily worked into our family meals. The ones my mother got back then were precious imports, from Campania or Sicily. They were literally sun-dried and then packed in good olive oil, and their sweet and sour and acid intensity burst forth with no harshness. Jewels in a jar. In my opinion the olive oil bath is important to their flavor. The sun-drieds that became more available later on were packed dry and then meant to be reconstituted in water. They always tasted a little sour to me.

My mother threw sun-dried tomatoes into tuna salads and chicory salads, salami sandwiches, spaghetti aglio e olio, roasted peppers, chicken parmigiana, grilled pork chops. I loved watching her dig a few of the tomatoes out of the jar, dripping with oil, and scatter them over just about anything. Instant elegance.

I moved into the city just about when the sun-dried trend peaked. Those days I was sometimes so out of money but so needing Italian reinforcements that I’d head over to Balducci’s and steal sun-dried tomatoes and anchovies, shoving them down the front of my jeans. I’m not sure how I got the nerve to do that. Desperation for a taste of home, I guess. And it was oddly easy to steal stuff back then. I assume not looking like a junkie helped. I’d head back to my dark studio apartment with my delicacies and make sandwiches on stale hamburger buns. I remember living on those, or variations on them, for weeks at a time. Those were strange days.

A few years later the sun-dried thing had gone so mainstream and gotten so overdone that upscale restaurants would no longer touch them. Good cooks were embarrassed to serve them to guests. And worst of all, American producers started turning them out en masse, factory-dehydrated, no sun in sight, bitter and leathery (in Italy even the factory ones are actually sun-dried). A terrible product, debasing the Italian original. And then they dropped off the planet. Now you only see them at crappy salad bars, or possibly at the Olive Garden.

But when I think about the long, gentle process needed to produce good sun-dried tomatoes, I’m reminded again of what a beautiful and valid Southern Italian invention the things are. Families still dry tomatoes on rooftops in Campania, Puglia, and Calabria, preserving them for the cool months ahead.  My mother told me her grandfather used to set out big wooden boards in their backyard in Rye, New York, to dry tomatoes and also to make tomato paste. I wish I could have seen that and known what Westchester sun-drieds tasted like.

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Lately I’ve needed to experience that heightened tomato taste again. It seems so Christmasy. So I went about making some oven-dried tomatoes, which I hadn’t done in ages. The results were salty, dense, and sweet, maybe not as complex as true sun dried, but I was really happy with them.  If you’d like to try, here’s how I did it:

Oven-Dried Tomatoes

(Makes about 1½ cups)

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees

Cut 2 pints of cherry tomatoes in half. Toss with a little olive oil and a good sprinkling of Sicilian sea salt. (Sicilian isn’t essential, but it adds a nice historical touch. And do try to use sea salt, as the sea imparts a briny flavor to the tomatoes. Sel gris from France is another good choice. I don’t like and never use Kosher salt. It tastes to me like chemicals.)

Lay the tomatoes out on a parchment-lined sheet pan, cut side up, and stick them in the oven. Let them slow roast until they’re slightly shriveled but still damp in the center. This will take  2½ hours or so.

Take the tomatoes from the oven, and scatter on a few sprigs of marjoram and thyme. Let them cool.

Put them in a jar fitted with a lid, and cover them completely with good olive oil.  They’ll keep refrigerated for about a month, and they’ll be great with many pasta preparations. Here’s one I’m thinking about serving on Christmas Eve:

Christmas Eve Orecchiette with Cauliflower, Sun Dried Tomatoes, Anchovies, and Marjoram

(Serves 6 as a first course)

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large cauliflower, cut into ½ inch florets (since you won’t parboil here, it’s important to cut the pieces small, to sauté or braise quickly in the pan)
1 large shallot, cut into small dice
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
4 or 5 oil-packed anchovies, minced
Salt
A drizzle of honey
½ teaspoon freshly ground cumin
A generous sprinkling of Aleppo pepper
A splash of dry vermouth
1 pound orecchiette
6 or 7 oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes (the good ones you buy are usually plums, not the cherries I dried, so you don’t need too many), cut into thin strips
6 or so big sprigs of fresh marjoram, the leaves lightly chopped
A half-pound piece of ricotta salata

Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water, season it with salt, and bring it to a boil.

In the meantime, get out a large skillet, and get it hot over medium heat. Add a glug of olive oil, and let it heat through. Add the cauliflower, and pan roast it, stirring it around occasionally so it cooks evenly, for about 5 minutes. When it starts to get tender and golden, add the shallots, garlic, and anchovies. Season with a touch of salt, the honey, the cumin, and some Aleppo. Let it cook a minute or so longer, just until it’s tender all the way through.

Drop the orecchiette in the water.

Add a big splash of vermouth to the cauliflower, and let it bubble for a few seconds.  Scatter on the sun-dried tomatoes, and turn off the heat.

When the orecchiette is al dente, drain it, saving about a cup of the cooking water. Tip the pasta into a large serving bowl. Drizzle with a little olive oil, and toss gently.

Add the cauliflower sauce, another drizzle of olive oil, and the marjoram, and toss, adding enough of the cooking water to loosen the sauce. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt or Aleppo if needed.

Serve hot, grating a good amount of ricotta salata on each serving.