Prep several small, slender-ish artichokes (think morelli or violet, not globes): Strip away all the tough outer leaves, cut off the tops, and scrape the outer fibrous layer from the stem. Quarter length-wise and remove the fuzzy choke (which should be minimal) and soak in fresh lemon juice diluted with water while you mince some garlic and deseed and dice a few small tomatoes. Heat some olive oil in a casserole/tegame, add the garlic and cook for a minute or so, then add the drained artichoke pieces. Salt and pepper well, combine, cover and cook until the stems are tender, adding water if the garlic starts to stick or brown and turning the artichokes occasionally. About half-way through the cooking, add the tomato, and when just ready garnish the artichokes with mint, fresh or dried.
The classic panzanella salad, with its key ingredients of fresh tomato, basil, and cucumber, is a quintessentially summer dish. But if you’ve got the basics on hand, why not improvise a different seasonal version? For this, I used green and yellow (surely hot-house) bell peppers, radishes, onion, and parsley. Soak the stale bread in cold water for about 10 minutes, longer if the bread is rock-hard-stale to start with. Squeeze the bread thoroughly until all the water is expressed. Crumble the bread into a salad bowl. Add your sliced veggies, olive oil, white vinegar, salt & pepper. Toss well and serve cold or room temp.
One of the things I like about Nigella Lawson is she never shies from fats. Drain, skim, or trim off excess fat are indications you just don’t associate with her. For this salad, inspired by the recipe for bacon and egg salad in Nigella Kitchen: Recipes from the Heart of the Home, fats from the cooked pancetta cubes make the dressing base. Don’t judge. It’s amazing.
mixed salad greens or 1 head of escarole
3 or 4 eggs
125 grams (½ cup) cubed pancetta
1 small bunch parsley
1 tsp each of Dijon mustard, balsamic vinegar, Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbls olive oil
salt & pepper
Arrange the greens/lettuce in a salad bowl. Rinse and chop the parsley. Boil the eggs for 7-8 minutes. When the eggs have cooled, peel and slice them lengthwise into quarters. Set aside.
Cook the pancetta over medium heat, stirring regularly, until the cubes turn dark and crunchy. Turn off the heat. Using a slotted spoon or spatula, scoop the pancetta from the pan and leave the residual fats. Toss the pancetta cubes in with the greens. Add the mustard, vinegar, and Worcestershire sauce to the pan and turn the heat back on low. Combine until a sauce forms. If the dressing is too thick, add a bit more vinegar. Let the sauce cool slightly and drizzle it over the salad. Now add the eggs, parsley, and olive oil to the salad, along with a pinch of salt and pepper. Toss gently but thoroughly.
Every Ash Wednesday in the town of Gradoli a peculiarly-named event takes place. The Pranzo del Purgatorio or ‘Purgatory Lunch’ is a communal meal organized by the Confraternità del Purgatorio, whose members go about town collecting ‘fat’ donations like prosciutto and other salumi from locals, items that are then auctioned in the town piazza to fund the lunch. The humble, centuries-old menu consists of fish from nearby Lake Bolsena, olive oil and wine produced in the area, and a special variety of stewed white beans. These beans, in fact, have for so long been associated with Gradoli and the brotherhood that they’ve come to be known simply as Fagioli del Purgatorio—purgatory beans.
There’s one way to cook the small, soft-skinned, no-soak purgatory bean (300+ years of tradition will cement tastes, I guess). The recipe, like the Gradoli lunch event itself, is meant to be what Italians call magro, meaning lean, as it is the first meal of the Lenten season. So, when making my own batch of purgatory beans, I did my best to get in the spirit of the thing by beating back a decadent urge to toss a few chunks of pancetta into my soffritto. Instead, I followed the recipe I found repeatedly on the web. The quantities below are for a very large pot of beans.
500 grams of dried fagioli del purgatorio
3 large garlic cloves
4 fresh sage leaves
2 bay leaves
½ a white onion
3 Tbls olive oil plus more for drizzling
salt & pepper
water (or….see below)
Peel and dice the onion and garlic. Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot. Cook the onion and garlic until soft then add the sage and cook for another minute. Add the dry beans and enough water to cover them plus about 1.5 inches. Now add the bay leaves, stir well and cover the pot. Cook for 60 to 90 minutes, checking them regularly. They are ready when the consistency is to your liking. When the heat is off, add a level tablespoon of salt and stir thoroughly. Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and fresh ground pepper.
(Incidentally, I used some savory leftover chicken broth for about half of the cooking liquid. Don’t tell!)
Here’s a simple, really yummy side dish inspired by Deborah Madison, from her ever-reliable ‘Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.’
1 large green cauliflower, aka ‘broccoflower’
1 cup circa of mixed greens
for the butter:
115 grams (about ¼ pound ) butter
2 Tbls minced fresh parsley
2 Tbls minced scallion
1 large garlic clove, grated or pressed
1-2 Tbls Dijon mustard
salt & freshly ground pepper (about ¼ tsp of each)
Start with the butter. Set the butter out in room temperature until soft. Add all the other ingredients and blend well with a wooden spoon.
Carefully cut the cauliflower into intact florets and steam until al dente, (about 5 to 6 minutes). Meanwhile, arrange the greens on a serving plate. Gently toss the still-warm florets with about two tablespoons of the butter until the pieces are covered. Transfer to the plate of greens and serve warm.
You can store the butter in a crock for future use. Madison says you can put the butter on a piece of wax paper, roll it into a cylinder shape, and freeze. Once frozen, the butter can be cut in slices and used for any recipe as needed.
If you’ve still got a few stubborn clusters of tomatoes clinging to the vine, and like me have had your fill of caprese salads and summer salsas, try these out.
4 or 5 medium round tomatoes
1 small container or round of chèvre
shoots of 2 or 3 green onions (aka scallions)
Rinse and finely chop the onion shoots, only the green parts, and set aside. Take the cheese out of the fridge to soften (and taste it, to test for its level of saltiness) . Slice the tomatoes in half and grill first on the ‘bottoms’ for a few minutes. Gently turn and grill on the open flat side until the tomato is just starting to char. Remove to a plate. Drop a small dollop or chunk of the goat cheese on each half, and carefully spread it over the surface of the tomato. Now sprinkle the chopped onion over all the pieces. Chives would also work in place of the onion. Depending on the cheese, the tomato rounds might do with a light dusting of salt. Black pepper, too.
Some years back a friend of mine in California self-published a cookbook. Full of quirks and anecdotes—like the disclosure about untested recipes (they ‘may, in fact, be crap’)—Bill Pollock’s Eat Happy brings together recipes learned from family, friends, and the odd pro chef in a collection infused with traces of its creator’s rather unique personality. And that’s what I love most about having it in my kitchen: it’s a keepsake, a memento from my pre-Italy life of a friendship with a memorable someone whom, alas, I don’t really see anymore. But it’s also a solid resource in its own right, and I turn to it frequently for inspiration.
Eat Happy lives in the two-inch space atop my La Cucina Italiana encyclopedia, always open to the ever-useful conversion chart on page 137, a page second only in smudginess to page 21’s Blender Caesar Dressing. Now, let’s pause here. I know you cooks. Many of you are frowning at this moment. Hell, I could practically hear the collective snicker as your eyes passed over the word ‘blender’. And I understand. I, too, hold certain select recipes to be sacrosanct. I become very rude and superior, for instance, over the use of tomato or tomato sauce in lasagne, a charmless bastardization of the tomato-less classic (see what I mean?), as well as any version of guacamole with more than three ingredients, the avo included (and do not even think of adding anything citrus, fool).
All cooks are guilty of this. Convinced that some recipes are beyond improvement, each of has at least once in our lives inwardly censured a spouse or in-law for having tampered with our darling ‘right way’ recipes. Even when their heretical versions turn out well, our reaction typically goes something like ‘Well now, who would have thought it possible?’ Such irrational biases must be linked somehow to our childhood experiences of certain foods, and an unconscious concern to safeguard our memories of those foods against the corruptions of others. But that’s another post.
Back to the salad dressing. The unconventional method is the best thing about this recipe. It’s fast. It’s neat. You can make it in advance. Your hands don’t get slimy. When it’s ready, just transfer to a glass jar and let the dressing chill until salad time. The stabs of nostalgia notwithstanding, grabbing Eat Happy from its spot on the shelf and flipping to page 21 always makes think of friends, long for home, and smile. So I suppose that’s the best thing about this recipe, come to think of it.
For the dressing
1 large clove of garlic, minced
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup lemon juice
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
½ tsp salt
½ teaspoon pepper
½ cup olive oil (my change from ‘salad oil’)
1 squirt (about 1 inch) of anchovy paste (my addition)
3 oil-packed small anchovies (my addition)
For the homemade croutons
3 slices of thick wheat or multi-grain sliced bread
2 Tbls of olive oil
2 pinches of salt
1 head of Romaine lettuce
For the dressing, combine all the ingredients except the oil and whole anchovies in the blender. Blend until well combined. With the blender on the lowest setting, slowly pour the olive oil ‘in a thin stream’ until the dressing thickens. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before using, but take out from the fridge about 5 minutes prior to use. (Keeps in the fridge for three days.)
Now make the croutons. Heat the oven to 175º C / 350º F on the grill setting. Slice the bread into cubes and place on a large baking sheet. Drizzle with the olive oil and sprinkle with the salt. Use your hands to toss the bread cubes until they are evenly covered with the salt and oil. Place on the highest shelf of the oven for a few minutes, keeping a close eye on them. When they are dark brown on one side, remove and toss again (using a spatula or similar tool since they are now too hot to touch). Keep toasting until they are very dark brown on all sides (or mostly). You want them really toasted, almost too crunchy to eat at this point. Set them aside to cool.
Separate the Romaine leaves and rinse them. Gently tear the leaves, keeping the tender hearts intact. Place in a large bowl. Shake the dressing well and pour over the lettuce. Add the now-cooled croutons. Toss thoroughly, sprinkle with a bit more grated Parmesan, and serve with a few tiny oil-packed anchovies (optional, but don’t be a wimp).
Veggies tend to dominate my summer cooking. That’s a good thing, to be sure (lighter, healthier, and all that). But let’s face it. Vegetables get boring. For as far back as I can recall, I have been dutifully steaming, saucing, and sautéing vegetables all summer long. This year, I’ve been craving change, yearning to venture out into new, decadent vegetable frontiers. I’m pretty sure I deserve it. After all, my mom never had to resort to Velveeta to trick me into eating my greens.
It started back in May, in one of those innocent ‘what would happen if I added this to this?’ cooking thoughts we all entertain from time to time. An uncommonly long rainy season delayed many springtime delights for a tortuous few weeks longer than usual. Asparagus was particularly stubborn; I pounced the moment I spotted a bundle. Admittedly, my relationship history with asparagus is one of extremes. While it’s truly my favorite of vegetables, by the time it’s finally available in local produce bins, having longed for it all winter, I go nuts. I’ll eat it every day for the short period in which it is fresh, local, and reasonably priced—to the point of growing sick of it. This year was no different. Well that’s not true. This year was worse (it was the extended wait, you see). I made it so often, I actually started to ignore asparagus at the market. Then I got an idea:
Trim and blanch one bunch of asparagus for 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl of ice water, then drain and gently dry. Arrange the asparagus on a plate and put them in the fridge while you make the dressing. Blend ½ cup (about a handful) of crumbled soft goat cheese with ¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil, ¼ fresh lemon juice, and a pinch of salt. Blend the ingredients well but do not try to make the dressing smooth. You want it chunky and crumbly. Now drizzle this all over the chilled asparagus and dust with ground black pepper. I’ll never ignore you again, my darling.
Summer arrived, and with it the myriad varieties of sweet and hot peppers, including the ubiquitous-in-summer friggitello. This mild, not-terribly seedy pepper and I go way back. They’re great for frying (hence the name), and they’re also nicely-suited to stuffing and baking. One evening, uninspired, and feeling guilty about the neglected friggitelli occupying the crisper, I decided to try something new:
Grill the de-capped and de-seeded friggitelli until they are soft and slightly blackened. Remove them to a plate, top them with grated Asiago cheese—I would have used Monterey Jack but alas it is not available where I live—and then generous squirts of Sriracha sauce. Hot damn! These were mighty good.
As you’ve probably discerned by now, cheese is the star of this show. Thanks to cheese, my veggies and I have rekindled our tired, too-comfortable love this summer. A mere garnish in the above two dishes, cheese takes front and center in this next one:
Gather several leaves and sprigs of fresh sage, basil, thyme. Rinse the herbs if needed and arrange them on a platter or board. Roughly chop some other green veggies like zucchini or broccoli, grill or steam them, salt to taste, and set aside. Over medium coals (or on a grooved grill pan, oiled), grill the tomino rounds a few minutes on each side, flipping only once, until they are slightly charred and just starting to break open. Transfer them immediately to the bed of herbs (with a large, steel spatula—the melting tomino will stick to anything plastic). Add the other vegetables and dress all with extra virgin and fresh ground black pepper. Encourage the gooey tomino to spill over the herbs a little bit before eating. I call this my ‘melted cheese salad’. I’m a genius, right?
Next up is a recipe I am indebted to for having successfully brought the tomato back into my favor. Don’t get me wrong—I adore tomatoes. But excess (would you say dozens of kilos from July to early October is excessive?) invariably spoils a good thing, even our favorite thing. This recipe will have you sending love notes and shaving your legs every day for the tomato in your life:
Slice several large round tomatoes in half. Grill them first, a few minutes first on the undersides and then on the open (flat) side. Let them char a little. Transfer them to a baking dish, flat side facing up. Cover each piece in this order with: a little olive oil, salt and pepper, a sprinkling of bread crumbs, and several small chunks of chèvre (the more aged the better). Broil them for about 5 minutes on the highest setting or until the cheese bubbles and browns. Let cool before serving. Now go buy your tomato something pretty.
Now for a recipe that reverses the veggie-to-cheese ratio a bit. Oh, who am I kidding? There are no veggies here. Just savory, warm, gorgeous French brie cheese:
Wrap several fresh, large sage leaves all around a wedge of brie and secure all with cooking twine. Grill the wedge over a low-to-medium coals, about 5 minutes on the first side, or until the sage just starts to blacken. Very carefully flip the brie, once only, and grill for 3 to 4 minutes on the second side. Remove from the grill the second the melting brie starts to escape. Transfer to a cheese board, delicately cut away the twine with scissors, and scoop these dollops of heaven onto crackers.
I stole this last, life-changing recipe from the foul-mouthed vegan master Thug Kitchen (put the kids to bed before opening this link, seriously). While I appreciate the creativity that goes in to making any dish sans butter/cheese/meat appealing, it’s not TK’s vegan flair that keeps me returning to the site. You’ll see. Anyway, a few months ago the Thug published a recipe for grilled Romaine lettuce. I tried it, swapping out a vegan-friendly dressing for—you guessed it—cheese. Lots of grated, aged-many-months perfect Parmesan. I won’t say this touch made a good recipe great. That would insult the Thug and me both. Rather, I turned an outstanding recipe into a gob-smacking miracle for the mouth. It’s just not vegan (who’s only pretty when I’m drunk, anyway).
Slice the full heads of Romaine in half length-wise and dress with olive oil, salt and pepper. On the inside (flat) half, sprinkle generous amounts of grated Parmesan, pressing the cheese down into the crevices of the lettuce halves. When your coals are calm but still glowing, place the halves outer (round) side down on the grill and let grill for about 5 minutes, or until the outer leaves are charred. Then gently flip the halves, but don’t abandon them as the oil will spill out and cause a flame-up. They’re done after about 3 minutes, or when the flat side is nicely browned and the cheese is melted. Transfer the lettuces to a platter and dress if needed with a little more olive oil and cheese.
I’m heading down to my vegetable patch now to see about this tasty little number, a bright orange bell pepper who caught my eye last week and is surely ripe for picking. Don’t tell the tomato.
I really believe in and try to practice—honest I do—rule #39 from Michael Pollan’s Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual: ‘Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.’ You’ll eat foods like French fries, nachos, and ice cream a lot less often if you make them yourself. You’ll also save money and rekindle your taste for real food (that fast and processed foods destroys). Not convinced? Try these home-made onion rings and get back to me.
Peel and slice two large, any-color onions into 1/4-inch thick rounds, separate the rings and set aside. Pour enough olive oil (or oil/fat of your choice) into a large pan to cover the rings fully while they fry. Now for the batter.
As with chicken broth, mac ‘n cheese and guacamole, a batter recipe is a very personal thing to a cook. Some like their batter pasty thick. Some use beer, others water and/or milk. Some never unite the ingredients together but instead pass items through various ‘baths’—flour, egg, bread crumbs. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no single best recipe. So why worry about it? Experiment with batter. Start with one egg and a couple tablespoons of flour and whisk well. Add liquid of your choice, and go from there. You’ll soon hit on your batter. This is my husband Luca’s recipe for batter, or pastella in Italian:
about 1/3 cup white flour
about 1/3 cup carbonated water
splash of milk
pinch of salt
1 ice cube
He whisks all the ingredients together, then drops an ice cube in the bowl at the end that he lets sit in the batter while he works. I’ve no idea why. But it’s a fabulous batter.
Heat the oil until a dollop of batter sizzles dramatically and begins to golden immediately when dropped in the pan. Using tongs, dip your onion rings into the batter and gently shake off the excess before placing in the oil. Fry for about four minutes on each side but keep on eye on them so they don’t burn. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined bowl and lightly sprinkle with salt. Pepper, too, if you like it.
Tonight I made a salad of sliced apricots, chèvre, and walnuts. Such seemingly inharmonious ingredients caused my Tuscan hubby to ask me if this was a ‘real’ recipe. To which I replied, ‘It’s French.’ How sly am I, right? It instantly became a proper legitimate dish, my salade d’abricot. Slice the fruit, crumble or chunk in the cheese, toss with the walnuts, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and fresh ground pepper.