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Natura Morta con Tulipani, Garogani, e Finnochio, by Giovanni Bartolena.

Recipe below: Vellutata di Finocchi with Castelvetrano Olives and Tarragon

Some people are crazy about fennel. For others, fennel and anisey tastes are one big ball of yuck. I love fennel and its cousin anise, but I can understand the turnoff. They can leave a lingering scent that follows some people around in a nagging way. I used to dislike tarragon, which has a fennel taste. Now I love it. I don’t know how that happened, but I’m glad it did. I still can’t tolerate cilantro, but that’s another story.

The world of fennel is all about shading. That’s what sorts out preferences. For instance, someone might dislike Pernod or any fennel or anise liqueur but love fennel seeds in a grilled Italian sausage. I love both, and I love eating and drinking them together. Or someone might not like crunching on a raw bulb fennel but love chervil, which to me tastes similar, or maybe love a breakfast bun scented with anise seed while disliking a ricotta cake flavored with anisette (or could no one dislike that?). And then there’s star anise. It’s a strange spice. First off, it looks like a star, not a little ball or a stick, like most spices. And it’s strong, overpowering to chew on. It makes my mouth numb. But if I throw one or two stars into a white wine poaching liquid for, say, pears, the flavor opens up super sweet and clear in its anisey way, like an unfamiliar incense in a church in a foreign land.

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Making my fennel broth.

I’ve grown fennel-like herbs such as anise hyssop, bronze fennel, chervil, and of course French tarragon (for which, by the way, dragoncello is the Italian word). Wild fennel, with its fluffy fronds, the kind that grows along highways in Sicily and California and Provence, is one of my favorite fennels, ripe and grassy. It’s the defining flavor in pasta con le sarde. And if you’re the type, like me, who can never get enough fennel, then fennel pollen is something I know you’ve got in your kitchen. I use that stuff all the time. It’s like fennel seeds jacked to eleven. Some people find fennel-like undertones in basil. I don’t, and I don’t include that here. Basil stands alone. As does licorice.

Bulb fennel, or Florence fennel, as it’s also called, is easy to find in supermarkets now, but I never see anyone buying it except me. I use it all the time, raw with good olive oil as an antipasto and in salads, but also braised. If you don’t like it raw, try it braised or simmered, where it softens to a sweet murmur. This puréed soup I offer you, in Italian a crema or vellutata, is delicate, no crunch, no bitter, but still retaining that exotic edge that will always announce itself as fennel. Oh, and I must mention that I made a fennel stock using all the fennel trimmings. There’s a lot of waste with fennel, so that’s a great way to use it up. This stock gave my soup another layer of fennel flavor. I hope you’ll try making it.

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Vellutata di Finocchi with Castelvetrano Olives and Tarragon

(Serves 4)

For the fennel broth:

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 shallot or small onion, roughly chopped
Fennel trimmings (from the fennel, below)
1 carrot, roughly chopped
A small palmful of fennel seeds
A stalk of celery, with the leaves, if you have them
A few sprigs of tarragon
A pinch of salt

For the soup:

Extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 fennel bulbs, well trimmed and chopped into medium chunks (saving all the trimmings and fronds for the broth)
1 large baking potato, skinned and chopped
1 large shallot, diced
About ½ teaspoon of fennel pollen
Fennel broth (see the recipe below), or about 4 cups vegetable broth or a mix of chicken broth and water
¼ teaspoon of dry saffron, ground to a powder
Salt
Black pepper
2 tablespoons crème fraîche
A few drops of tarragon vinegar
About a dozen Castelvetrano olives, pitted and roughly chopped
A few big sprigs of tarragon, the leaves chopped

To make the fennel broth, drizzle about a tablespoon or so of olive oil into a medium pot. Let it get hot over medium heat. Add all the other ingredients, and let them sauté for a minute or so, just to release all their flavors. Cover everything with cool water, bring it to a boil, and then turn the heat down a bit and let it simmer at a gentle bubble for about 30 minutes. Strain. Depending on how much trimming you started with, you’ll get 3 to 4 cups.

To make the soup, get out a large pot, and in it heat a few tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the butter, the fennel, the potato, the shallot, and the fennel pollen. Let sauté for a few minutes. Now add the fennel broth (or any other broth you’re using), adding a little water if needed to just cover the vegetables. Bring everything to a boil. Turn the heat down a little, and let it cook at a low bubble, partially covered.

Put your ground saffron into a small bowl. Spoon out about ½ cup of the hot broth, and pour it over the saffron, allowing the saffron to bloom. The broth should be bright orange. Add it, along with some salt and black pepper, to the soup pot.

Now just simmer everything until the fennel chunks are very tender, about ½ hour or so, adding a bit more water or broth if the liquid gets low.

Let the soup cool for a few minutes, and then purée it in a food processor. Return it to a clean pot, and stir in the crème fraîche. Add a few drops of tarragon vinegar (this will lift it up a bit), and taste for salt and pepper.

Reheat the soup if necessary, and ladle it out into bowls. Garnish with the chopped olives and the tarragon.

 

 

 

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Still Life with Radishes and Pâté, by Leon Bonvin, 1864.

Recipe below: Tuscan Chicken Liver Pâté

I assume that most of my readers love chicken livers, because I do. They’re excellent with pasta  or over a bitter greens salad. The classic Tuscan chicken liver pâté is one of my favorite dishes of all time. I latched on to it early in my cooking career, finding the recipe in Giuliano Bugialli’s The Fine Art of Italian Cooking. His version includes a good amount of juniper berries and sage, in addition to capers and anchovies. I made it his way a few times, and then I started playing around.

The capers and anchovies were keepers, but I’ve never liked sage when its leaves get all ground up, as they did in that pâté, creating an overall mustiness or sourness. That was the only taste that held me back from loving the pâté completely. However, I took care of the problem early on, by replacing the sage with a mix of rosemary and thyme, yielding, to my palate, a warmer taste. And recently I’m liking a touch of allspice and lemon zest, too, as you’ll see in my new recipe.

It’s traditional to serve this on thin slices of toasted country bread, brushed first with good olive oil. That’s what I still do. A pickled vegetable or fresh radishes make a perfect accompaniment.  You can garnish the crostini with sprigs of rosemary if you like. And wine, you’ve got to have wine with this rich pâté. A Tuscan vernaccia di San Gimignano will balance out all these flavors nicely.

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Not my photo, but of my old recipe in Food & Wine.

Tuscan Chicken Liver Pâté

(Serves 6 as an antipasto)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium shallot
2 juniper berries, lightly crushed
3 oil-packed anchovy fillets, roughly chopped
A small palmful of salt-packed capers, soaked and drained
A few thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
A large sprig of rosemary, the leaves chopped
½ teaspoon ground allspice
The grated zest from 1 lemon
A splash of dry vermouth
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
¾ pound chicken livers, trimmed and cut into approximately 1-inch pieces
Salt
Coarsely ground black pepper
A splash of cognac, brandy, or grappa

In a medium-size skillet, heat the olive oil over medium flame. Add the shallot, juniper berries, anchovy, capers, thyme, rosemary, allspice, and lemon zest. Sauté until everything is fragrant and the shallot is soft, about 2 minutes. Add the vermouth, and let it bubble for a few seconds, leaving some liquid in the pan.

In another medium skillet, heat the butter over high flame. When it’s hot and bubbling, add the livers, seasoning them with salt and black pepper, and sauté them briefly on both sides, leaving them just a touch pink in the middle. That should take about 2 minutes. Pour on the cognac, and let it flame up (fun, but watch your eyelashes).  Transfer the livers and their cooking juices into the bowl of a food processor. Scrape the shallot mixture out of the other pan with a rubber spatula, and put it in the food processor as well, making sure to include all the cooking juices. Add a little salt and black pepper and a drizzle of fresh olive oil, and pulse until the pâté is fairly smooth (or you can leave it a little chunkier, if you prefer).

Scrape the pâté into a ceramic crock or a glass pâté jar, smoothing out the top. Cover the container, and stick it in the fridge for about an hour to help it firm up. Bring it to room temperature before serving.

 

 

 

Women with Fish

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Every day seemed like another shit show. I was beyond lonely. Messing around with my cat, making grilled cheese in my broiler. Talk about anxiety. But then last week I got really pissed and decided to walk over to the marina. I stared down to the cold water, and just started grabbing. Skinny, round, big-mouthed, tight-lipped, silvery, pink, peachy, all slippery. Some got away. Others I threw away, until finally I snagged my big, bulky man. And I didn’t care how many discards I had to trample on to get him.

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Lemon, Gitanes, Ribbon, and Spoon, by Joseph Keiffer (jpkeiffer.com).

Recipe below: Linguine with Lemon, Butter, and Basil

I remember the lemon pasta craze of the 1980s. I think it started in Rome and then worked its way over here. This was not long after the penne alla vodka craze. My mother made a lot of penne alla vodka. It was cheap and quick. My father loved it. I don’t remember her making lemon pasta, though, but it was something I took up after I moved out of the house. I served it to my city gang. Lots of cream-coated fettuccine flecked with lemon zest and anchored by Parmigiano, or what was called Parmesan at Gristedes. I even put a recipe for it in Pasta Improvvisata, my first cookbook. Man, that stuff was good. But I never felt too good after eating it. It quickly congealed into a sold mass. My teeth and tongue stayed coated with lemon mousse for hours. Even low-grade pinot grigio didn’t wash it away. Lots of cream does weird things to my head, making me happy at first and then, later on, kind of depressed. A little like alcohol, now that I think of it.

And speaking of depressed, it’s now February, my least favorite month, if you don’t count March. It’s hard to keep a seasonal kitchen right now, but I try, cooking whatever roots and impenetrable gourds I can dig out of the Greenmarket bins. The bright spot in this low time is gorgeous citrus. The fragrant lemons at Citarella got me wanting lemon pasta again. But no cream this time around. I’m thinking more of a linguine-with-clam-sauce version, but without the clams. Lemon, herbs, olive oil, a little onion, white wine, and butter at the end.

Yes, it came out nice. Sunny winter in a bowl.

Linguine with Lemon, Butter, and Basil

(Serves 2)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
The grated zest from 3 lemons, plus the juice from 1
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt
¼ cup dry vermouth
Coarsely ground black pepper
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
The green tops from 2 scallions, very thinly sliced
½ pound linguine
A small handful of basil leaves, cut into chiffonade

Set up a pot of pasta cooking water, throw in a good amount of salt, and bring it to a boil. Drop in the linguine.

Get out a large skillet, and set it over medium heat. Add the olive oil and the lemon zest, and sauté for about a minute, to release the oil from the zest. Add the sugar and a little salt, and sauté for a few seconds longer. Add the vermouth, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Now add the lemon juice, and let it bubble for about a half a minute, just to reduce it slightly.

When the linguine is al dente, drain it, saving about a half a cup of the cooking water, and add the linguine to the skillet. With the heat now on low, add the butter, a good amount of coarse black pepper, and maybe a little more salt, and toss well. Turn off the heat, and add the Parmigiano, the scallions, and the basil, tossing again, and adding a little cooking water if needed to loosen the sauce.

Portion out the linguine into two bowls, and eat it hot.

Variation: You can add shrimp or scallops to this. Just sauté them in a hot skillet, deglaze with a shot of vermouth or limoncello, and add them to the pasta during the final pan toss.

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Recipe below: Erbazzone

I make savory tarts so often that I sometimes wonder what’s up with me. I don’t completely understand my strong attraction. I think I’m drawn to things that are contained. I like to fill. I’m very much into tortas stuffed with swordfish, lamb, or artichokes, but I especially love them made with leafy greens. Those, as they bake, often smell like muddy garden, a good smell. And to my culinary mind, a tart filled with Swiss chard, spinach, arugula, or escarole is the perfect food, containing everything a person needs, except for wine, of course. A torta is encased, which makes it elegant but also portable, another reason to like it.  I’ve often thought the question of what you’d want for your last meal was stupid. How could you ever choose? But now that I’m again considering the savory greens torta, I’m pretty sure that’s what I’d want. Wild herbs, green leaves, olive oil, wheat—my ancestry come full circle.

The pizza di scarola of my childhood is etched in my brain forever. It’s special yet humble, with escarole, olives, garlic, anchovies, pine nuts, and sometimes capers and pine nuts, too. The Southern Italian pantry in full swing. I used to find these closed pies at slice pizza joints, when Italians actually ran those places. Sadly, no more. Pizza di scarola and a glass of prosecco are usually the first things I serve everyone on Christmas Eve.

And then there’s another greens torta that I love, different in aroma, from up north in Emilia Romagna. Erbazzone is flavored with pancetta and Parmigiano Reggiano. Its taste is warmer than that of its sharper Neapolitan sister. I like using a mix of Swiss chard, spinach, and arugula in it, but any relatively tender green will work well. Baby kale is okay. And for your erbazzone you’ll want good pancetta and a hunk of parmigiano or grana Padano. You can make it deep dish in a tart pan, but I’ve more often seen it rolled directly onto a sheet pan, or, traditionally, on a paddle slipped into a wood burning oven, which I unfortunately don’t yet have. I like it that flatter way. It makes the crust more prominent. And if you stick your torta on the very lowest rack of your oven, it will get a nice crisp bottom.

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Erbazzone

(Serves 8 as an antipasto)

For the crust:

2½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
cup extra-virgin olive oil
¾ cup white wine or dry vermouth

For the filling:

Salt
5 cups leafy greens (they’ll cook down to nothing); a mix of Swiss chard, spinach, arugula would be nice, but use whatever you have, all cleaned and chopped)
Extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup cubed pancetta
1 small onion or shallot, cut into small dice
2 small fresh garlic cloves, thinly sliced
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves (about ½ cup), chopped
A few large sprigs each of dill and either thyme or marjoram, chopped
The grated zest from ½ lemon
Black pepper
¾ cup  freshly grated Parmigiana Reggiano cheese
2 large eggs, lightly whisked, plus 1 egg yolk mixed with a little water for brushing over the top

To make the crust: Put the flour in a large bowl. Stir in the sugar and salt. Mix together in a cup the olive oil and the wine or vermouth, and pour it over the flour, mixing it in with a wooden spoon. If the mix seems dry, add a drizzle more of vermouth or water. When you have a nice moist mass of lumpy dough, dump it out onto a work surface, knead it a few times, and then quickly squeeze it all together until you’ve got a big ball. Wrap the dough in plastic, and let it sit, unrefrigerated, for about an hour.

Blanch all the greens for about a minute in a pot of boiling salted water. Drain them, and run them under cold water to stop their cooking. Squeeze as much water from them as you can, and give them a few extra chops.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

In a large skillet, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the pancetta, and cook it until it’s just crisp. Add the onion or shallot, and let it soften for a minute or so. Add the garlic, and sauté for a few seconds, to release its flavor. Turn off the heat, and add the greens and the herbs, season with salt, black pepper, and the lemon zest, and stir to mix well, adding a drizzle of fresh olive oil if needed. Let it all cool for about 10 minutes, and then add the Parmigiana and the whisked eggs, stirring them in.

Cut the dough into two parts, one slightly bigger than the other. Roll out the larger part to an approximately 10-inch round, and drape it onto a lightly oiled sheet pan. Spoon the filling onto the dough, and smooth it down. Roll out the other piece of dough, and place it on top of the filling. Pull up the overhang, and crimp the edges all around. Make a few slashes in the top, and brush with the egg wash. Bake until browned and fragrant, about 35 minutes. Let rest about ½ hour before slicing.

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.