A Puglian Condiment

Maria Grazia picks sage leaves and strips thyme stems as she explains her kitchen philosophy to me. “You are born a cook; you do not become one. You have to have it in your blood.”

We’re cooking together in her kitchen at Masseria Potenti, a sprawling, stark white farmhouse turned luxury resort, which she runs with her daughter, Chiara, and husband, Paolo. The masseria is nestled in the wildness of the Salento coast in southern Puglia, at the very tip of the heel of Italy’s boot. The flat desert landscapes, flowering cacti, and rugged, crated coastlines make this landscape feel otherworldly, as if this could be the very end of the earth.

“The kitchen is the most important place in the house,” she says as she rolls out the focaccia dough. “Our emotions pass through food. Sad food means sad diners.” She grew up in these fields of wild flowers and bougainvillea. Her family was well known in the area and very well to do, but, she tells me with very serious eyes, hers was an ugly childhood.

She’s been cooking for 53 years. She and Chiara have built a visually stunning hotel, and yet they manage to make you feel like you’re staying in their home. The various sitting rooms all connected by an open-air floor plan are adorned with day beds, antique furniture, family photos and cabinets of Maria Grazia’s linens. During my first at dinner at the masseria, Maria Grazia stopped at my table to introduce herself and asked whether I was staying with anyone. When I said I was alone, she put one hand on my shoulder and said: Here you’re always at Home; you are never alone.

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Masseria Potenti by night

We start mixing flour and water to make the pasta dough for orecchiette. I ask her what is her favorite thing to cook.

“I change every day, so it’s necessary to change in the kitchen. I hate monotony.” She pauses to yell to one of the cooks on the other side of the kitchen inquiring about the lunch salad. “I want a beautiful salad today, Franci. No tuna, no egg. I want beautiful greens.” She turns back to me and jokingly refers to herself as la strega, the witch, as she wrangles her wild mane of curls into a barrette. It’s clear that none of her cooks match her intensity, which I find mesmerizing.

There are touches of nature everywhere around the masseria: olive branches adorning the overhang at the tables, wild flowers overflowing from giant vases on every table, massive clusters of cacti with sprouting fichi di india dotted around the property. “Nature is my poetry. When I’m overwhelmed with an emotion like anger, I just go out into nature and she soothes me. Natural beauty, that it is the fountain of joy.”

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Flowering cacti border walls

When Maria Grazia cooks, she keeps a big bowl of wild herbs – mint, thyme, sage, lavender – close at hand. As we fill the focaccia I notice she tosses in whole herbs with the stems before adding the vegetables. I ask her why she doesn’t chop her herbs: I prefer to be able to read them.

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Maria Grazia rolling out focaccia dough

Trise di Verdure in Agrodolce

  • Servings: 4 cups
  • Difficulty: easy
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Maria Grazia starts each day in the kitchen making a batch of this. She uses it in just about everything: as a filling stuffed bread, tossed with eggs, in pasta, as a condiment for toast. She doesn’t add chili, but I like to add a pinch to the vegetables before they roast. Maria Grazia is a crusder against kitchen waste admonishing her cooks to use every bit of the vegetable. This is one of her favorite ways to use up vegetables languishing in the crisper. Feel free to sub whatever you have on hand that needs to be used up.

  • 2 tropea onions, or 1 red onion, sliced in small wedges
  • 1 medium-sized eggplant, sliced in small wedges
  • 4 long sweet peppers, or 2 red bell peppers, sliced in small wedges
  • 2 zucchini, sliced in small wedges
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1 handful golden raisins
  • Pinch of Sicilian oregano
  • Pinch chili flake
  • ¼ cup good red wine vinegar
  • ¼ cup olive oil

Preheat the oven to 350.

Toss all the vegetables in a bowl with salt and olive oil. Add the raisins, oregano and chili. Spread in a shallow roasting tray and roast until softened and caramelized, stirring periodically, about 45 mins-1 hour.

Sprinkle the vinegar over the hot vegetables. Cool before using as a filling.

 

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The best eggplant

I recently discovered a new technique for cooking eggplant courtesy of a Cal Peternell recipe from The New York Times Cooking Web site. Cal was one of the downstairs chefs when I staged at Chez Panisse several summers ago. Chez Panisse is such a special place, and Cal’s cool, even-handed energy seemed to suit the restaurant very well. I remember walking by the picnic table one afternoon while the dinner cooks had their menu meeting and watching him casually shuck English peas while waxing poetic about the origins of gazpacho. I’ve heard wonderful things about his books and urge you to investigate them further.

In this recipe, he has you pre-salt eggplants that have been striped, then sears the slices in a heavy-bottomed skillet with a weighted pan on top, a la pollo al mattone. This produces both a lovely crust and coaxes out some of the extra liquid out of the eggplants, leaving behind sweet, tender and juicy eggplant flesh that he douses with a perky Asian-inspired dressing and fresh herbs. Here’s my take on it.

Melanzane al Mattone with Ginger, Scallions and Toasted Peanuts

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: medium
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Courtesy of The New York Times/Cal Peternell

  • 2 pounds globe eggplants, or similar variety
  • Kosher salt
  • 2-4 T neutral oil, such as grapeseed
  • ½ cup unsalted peanuts
  • 1 T cumin seed
  • 2 T chile-garlic paste, such as sambal oelek
  • 1 ½” piece ginger, grated using a Microplane (save the juice and add to the sauce!)
  • 1.5 T white miso
  • ½ bunch scallions, sliced thinly on an angle
  • 1 cup cilantro leaves
  • 1 lime

Stripe the eggplant by peeling the skin in parts, leaving behind a striped design. Slice 1/4” thick, salt the slices, and lay on a sheet tray lined with roasting rack to draw out some of the moisture (and bitterness if eggplants aren’t freshly harvested), about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile make the sauce. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and toast the peanuts until lightly browned, 10-12 minutes. Once the peanuts are done toasting, turn the oven down to 200 degrees. Toast the cumin seeds in a skillet over medium-high heat until fragrant, 1-2 minutes. Cool and crush the seeds in a mortar. Add the cumin tp a small bowl with the chili-garlic paste, grated ginger, miso and a couple tablespoons of warm water. Whisk well and set aside.

Blot the eggplant slices dry with paper towels. Set a heavy-bottomed skillet such as cast-iron over high heat. Once the pan is pre-heated, about 5 minutes, add 2 T oil and the eggplant slices (you’ll likely need to do this in two or three batches). Place a piece of tinfoil over the eggplant slices and then another heavy-bottomed skillet on top to weight it down. Turn the heat to medium. Cook for 2-3 minutes before checking. If the slices are nicely browned, flip and cook the other side. If not, leave for another minute or two before flipping.

Once the eggplant is finished cooking, set on a sheet tray and leave in the oven to keep warm.

To serve, arrange the eggplant on a platter in a pretty shingled pattern. Douse generously with the dressing, then sprinkle with chopped toasted peanuts, scallions and cilantro. Squeeze some lime juice over the top and serve.

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Bittersweet

It took me a while to learn to love bitter flavors. Now I can’t imagine life without dark chocolate, raw kale, black coffee, dandelion greens and a boozy Negroni every now and again.

It’s true that our taste buds evolved to be wary of bitter flavors in foods as they can be a sign of poison or toxins. This also explains why we’re predisposed to like sweet flavors as they were generally deemed to be less risky. In fact science has identified over 1,000 chemicals that elicit a bitter response in the brain. Incidentally, scientists are also finding tremendous health benefits linked to eating bitter foods.

Radicchio is one of my favorite foods with strong bitter notes. Right now there are some stunning varieties at the market with equally charming names: Bel Fiore, Virtus, Castelfranco, Treviso. Some of them have leaves that look like painted canvasses. Most loose their beautiful color when cooked, but the flavor that emerges when sautéed with a little garlic and chili will more than make up for the drab color.

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Sweetness is a classic flavor pairing with bitter foods, which explains why you see balsamic so often drizzle over chicory salads. Jennifer McLagan’s book, Bitter, does an excellent job explaining how to cook with this largely misunderstood flavor. Indeed fat plays nicely with bitterness, as does salt. You get both in this pasta dish: Fat from the butter mounted in at the end and salt from the melted anchovy and pecorino cheese. It all comes together in less time it would take to order in. The hardest part is getting off the couch to set a pot of water to boil.

Tagliatelle with radicchio-anchovy soffritto

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: easy
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  • 2 T extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, sliced
  • 4 branches thyme, stripped
  • 4 anchovy fillets
  • Pinch chili flake
  • Zest from 1 lemon
  • ½ head radicchio, sliced
  • 1 pound tagliatelle
  • 1 T butter, cut into small cubes
  • Grated pecorino romano

For the pasta, boil a large pot of water. Add two large pinches of salt.

In a medium sauté pan, gently simmer the garlic to soften but now browned, 2-3 minutes. Add the whole thyme leaves and anchovy. Cook until the anchovy starts to disintegrate, 2-3 minutes. Add the chili flake and lemon zest and bloom, 30 seconds. Add the radicchio and stir well, cooking a few more minutes until it collapses. Add a kiss of pasta water and set to a gentle simmer as you cook the pasta.

Once the water is boiling, add the pasta. Stir gently with a closed tongs or large fork so pasta doesn’t clump together. Cook 1 minute less than package instructions. Drain pasta, reserving 1 cup of pasta water. Add the pasta to the soffritto, sauté and toss to incorporate the soffritto into the pasta. Cook for another minute, adding some pasta water to loosen it enough so you can toss it easily. Off the heat, add the butter and a small handful of cheese. Toss vigorously to incorporate, adding a little more water if needed. Serve in bowls and sprinkle with a little more pecorino.

radicchio pasta

 

A cold drink

I met Heather and Ashraf through Heather’s brother, Chris. He and I were colleagues in a small business workshop a couple years ago, and he hired me to cook for Heather and Ashraf as a gift. I went on a Saturday morning and forgot to confirm my arrival time. I knocked on their apartment door with an armful of groceries while they were still sleeping. Despite my faux pas, they roused themselves out of bed and welcomed me into their home, chatting amiably with me from their perch in the living room as I made tabbouleh and braised lentils.

By the time I met them, they were several years into managing care for Ashraf, who has ALS. As I cooked in their open-air kitchen, I watched Heather lift Ashraf off his wheelchair and onto the sofa with the delicate grace and intimacy of a mother laying her baby down to rest. She gently positioned his head on a set of pillows wedged between the wall and the crest of the sofa and rested his feet on a chair cushioned with a small pillow. I felt my breath catch in my chest and turned away to pretend to look for something in the fridge so I could cry in private.

From the beginning, Ashraf has been fully engaged in our exchanges. He asks me questions through Heather about my culinary training and my childhood growing up just north of Chicago. A Palestinian immigrant who came to the U.S. alone with nothing, Ashraf clearly possesses a unique blend of tenacity and unceasing curiosity that must have contributed to his success here. As I’ve learn more about his experience assimilating and building a life in the U.S., I wonder how much that experience prepared him to confront what has to be the greatest challenge of his life: slowly loosing connection to a life and identity built around mobility, speech and physical autonomy and stepping into this liminal space where uncertainty is omnipresent. On most days, the majority of us can get by without confronting our mortality; if we think of it at all, it’s a vague notion that we may or may not have to face at some point in the distant future. Living with a disease like ALS reveals the brutal, raw truth that, as I once heard the poet Marie Howe say, we are all both living and dying at the same time. Art knows this and can hold it for us.

Ashraf smiles and winks at me as we talk, asking about my love life and talking about how “freaking good” the steak and baked potato was at his favorite steak house. Simultaneously he labors to inhale and exhale with the assistance of a breathing machine. I watch this and sense him stepping bravely into that liminal space while maintaining fidelity to his fundamental humanness.

*

On a visit last week, they made me lemonade. I’m not normally a juice person. I’ll take iced coffee or water over pretty much anything. But Peace Corps ingrained in me a Pavlovian response to accept any offering when I’m in someone else’s home. Plus their lemonade had little flecks of mint dispersed throughout the light yellow liquid saturated with big ice cubes, and I love mint almost as much as I love iced coffee.

It was hot out. The sweat still clung to my hairline and the creases of my upper inner thighs. The icey liquid shot straight down my throat and cooled me down instantly, as if someone had wrapped my body in a giant ice pack. It was just sweet enough to abate the pucker prompted by the sharp acidity that freshly squeezed lemon juice packs.

Heather explained how she grew up on Countrytime powdered lemonade. On her first visit to Palestine to meet Ashraf’s family, she noted the ubiquity of lemon trees and watched his father make fresh lemonade everyday and was struck by how simple it was. I had a similar experience drinking fresh agua de Jamaica every day when I lived with a Mexican family in Chiapas.

Hours passed. We sipped on lemonade as the conversation traversed diverse terrain: family, work, self-esteem, spirituality, tolerance, love, grief. At one point, we circled back to a favorite topic, the idea of complementarity born out of quantum mechanics. I first learned about this principle from this excellent interview with Nobel physicist Frank Wilczek. It is the idea that two things, which are seemingly at odds with each other, can both be true. In the interview, Wilczek explains: You have to view the world in different ways to do it justice. Each view can be rich and internally consistent … but they may be mutually incompatible, and to do full justice to reality, you have to take both into account.

Niels Bohr, the progenitor of the theory of complementarity, pointed to various properties observed in the physical realm, such as the fact that light can be observed as both a particle and a wave, but not both simultaneously. We talked about how hard it is for the human brain to hold two opposing truths at once, how much easier and more comfortable it is to bifurcate and label: good vs. bad, wrong vs. right, true vs. false. I return to that quote from Marie Howe to remind myself that the function of art is to embrace the dissonance and to teach people to dance with it.

The next night I started a new novel and found this quote from Niels Bohr in the epigraph: There are two sorts of truth: trivialities, where the opposite is obviously impossible, and deep truths, which are characterized by their opposite also being a deep truth. Watching Heather and Ashraf together, I’m reminded of a deep truth: Life is both glorious and horrifying. Heather said ALS has been the most horrendous experience of their life, and yet somehow through all of the suffering, their marriage and love for each other has gotten stronger. If that’s not a summation of the human experience, I don’t know what is.

*

These are Heather’s instructions that she sent via text. I added a bit for context, but I like how nonchalant it comes off. Heather uses a blender to both dissolve the sugar (she doesn’t bother making simple syrup) and to break down the mint into fine, confetti-esque flecks. This isn’t something you need a recipe for; taste your way through it, and send me a message if you need help.

One note: this would be delectable with a kiss of vodka or gin if the mood strikes and the moment’s right, but the virgin version is sublime as the temperatures continue to creep up unceasingly.

Ashraf’s Lemonade

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: easy
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  • 4 lemons, juiced (roughly ½ C depending on size of lemons)
  • ½ C sugar
  • Water + ice (start with 2 C and dilute as necessary)
  • Handful of fresh mint leaves

Add the sugar and water first to the blender. Sugar needs to dissolve in water before adding lemon and mint, so I use a blender. Use a smallish amount of water to dissolve the sugar, then add mint and blend, then add lemon, ice and water to taste. You could do a simple syrup, but I’m lazy.

Add as much mint as you like, but add it as you’re ready to drink since it doesn’t keep.

Any Excuse to Eat Aiöli

Here’s an axiom that perfectly describes my culinary predilections: I will find any excuse to eat aiöli.

This is where I found myself the other day driving home with aiöli on the brain. Even though the weather has been mild and breezy the past couple of days, I’m still inclined to avoid turning on the stove. Maybe it’s a product of lingering sentimentality over scorching summers in Rome that felt too hot for clothing, much less a hot oven. I like the rhythm of eating raw, cool things in these months. So I turned my attention toward cold things that go with garlicky mayonnaise. Luckily, that list is long.

Essentially it turned into a deconstructed salade niçoise alongside sharp slices of crusty baguette and thick, luscious aioli. These are the types of meals I most treasure that come together naturally and make good use of whatever’s already sitting in the crisper, eager to be useful. It makes me feel virtuous and industrious, the kind of meal I imagine M.F.K. Fischer eating with her husband in Dijon after they moved into their very own tiny third-floor flat above a patiserre, where she likens the kitchen to a one you’d find in a place like New York “where people cook on stoves hidden in their bureau drawers”.

To eat this dish you could either make your own open-faced sammies or simply graze leisurely on the delicious piles of produce dipped in aiöli and Dijon then sprinkled with a kiss of Maldon salt. I was born to graze, perhaps because of my seemingly unending appetite. The end of any meal is the hardest part for me to stomach, and grazing over a platter of delicious bits and pieces prolongs the whole process. I eat slower, and for a longer period of time, thus softening the blow of finalities.

Make this platter with whatever vegetables and cooked items you may have in the fridge. Just about any produce – cooked or raw –that is remotely dip-friendly will do: blanched asparagus, pickled beets, blanched string beans, sugar snaps, boiled baby potatoes, wedges of fennel, carrot spears. I’m not much of a meat person, but certainly poached chicken would be at home here, as would broiled salmon, marinated anchovies, tinned sardines, and, of course, hard-boiled eggs.

The point is to stick with tradition and avoid the stove. Blanch whatever vegetables need a bit of softening and then hurry outside to enjoy the last drips of a sunset with a friend and a glass of something cool.

A couple notes about aiöli: Technically this French sauce should be made with all extra virgin olive oil. For my tastes, that produces a rather piquant sauce. I prefer to soften it slightly by using half neutral oil and half olive oil, but the choice is yours. Also consider that it can take a moment for the raw garlic flavor to bloom in the sauce, so add half of it and then give it a moment to settle in. You can always add more, but it’s hard to go back once you’ve committed.

Aiöli + Things to Eat with It

  • Servings: 2 hungry people
  • Difficulty: easy
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Aiöli:

  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 C neutral oil, such as sunflower or grapeseed oil
  • 1 C extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 2 t red wine vinegar
  • 2 t kosher salt
  • 2 garlic cloves, pasted

Assembly:

  • Blanched green beans, dressed in lemon, olive oil and kosher salt
  • French breakfast radishes, halved if they’re large, with tops in tact if they’re not wilted
  • Boiled new potatoes, dressed in olive oil and Maldon salt
  • Avocado wedges, sprinkled with Maldon salt and lemon juice
  • Sliced heirloom tomatoes, dressed in olive oil, Maldon and red wine vinegar
  • Feta cheese, chunked in large pieces
  • Crusty bread

To make the aiöli, whisk the egg yolks in a small bowl with half the garlic, a pinch of salt and a touch of water. Slowly start adding the oil, whisking constantly. Once the mixture starts to thicken, you can add the oil more rapidly. As the mixture thickens, add a touch of lemon juice to thin it slightly. Continue adding the rest of the oil, thinning with lemon juice as needed, until the mixture is thick like Hellman’s. Add the rest of the lemon juice (if you haven’t already) and vinegar. Taste and adjust the seasoning accordingly with more lemon juice and/or salt.

To assemble the platter, have all the vegetables individually seasoned at the ready. I like to start from the top left corner of the platter and work my way down adding piles. Consider various heights, textures and, of course, colors as you assemble. In the words of Tim Gunn, make it nice.

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Sarah Grueneberg’s Oven-dried Tomatoes

I don’t know if Sarah invented these, but she taught me how to make them when I worked in the kitchen at Monteverde. They are so simple and so delicious. She served them as a garnish for their pasta al pomodoro, which would suit me just fine as my last meal on earth. I like them in nearly everything.

One of my favorite Ottolenghi recipes leverages a similar technique with plum tomatoes as a welcome pop of color and flavor in an herby lentil salad. In Sarah’s classic version, the tomatoes are lightly coated with salt and oil and slow-roasted, but you could certainly sprinkle in some chopped herbs, chili flake or other spices. I especially like toasted coriander, and minced thyme is particularly apropos in this preparation.

Make a simple lemon risotto and fold these in at the end with some chopped parsley, parm and butter. Or roast some eggplants and dress with mint, yogurt sauce and these tomatoes. They also make a delectable kitchen snack.

Oven-dried Tomatoes

  • Servings: 1 half-sheet tray
  • Difficulty: easy
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  • 12 ounces round, juicy cherry tomatoes
  • 2 t kosher salt
  • 2 T extra virgin olive oil

Slice the tomatoes in half vertically (through the core where they were attached to the vine). Toss in a mixing bowl with the salt and olive oil. Lay evenly in one layer on a parchment-lined sheet tray with the cut-side facing up.

Roast at 250 degrees for a couple hours, turning the sheet trays halfway through to encourage even cooking. The tomatoes are done once they’ve begun to shrivel slightly and have relinquished most of their water. If they still look plumped and juicy, let them go a little longer. Let cool and serve to your heart’s content.

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A Ligurian feast

Over the past month, I’ve taken a deep dive into the gastronomical culture of Liguria, which culminated in this week’s Ligurian-themed dinner paying homage to this beautiful slice of Italy.

While it’s the third smallest region in the country, following Valle d’Aosta and Molise, Liguria’s capital, Genoa, is the sixth largest city in Italy and home to a massive port that vies with Marseille and Barcelona for the title of largest port in the Mediterranean. Its diminutive geography speaks nothing of its rich and mighty culinary traditions.

To me this region is a study in contrasts. Food writer Fred Plotkin writes in Recipes from Paradise that at the heart of the development of Ligurian civilization and culture is “a dialogue between land and sea.” This truth is born out in the geography of the region, a narrow ribbon of land shaped like a rainbow on the northern coast of Italy sandwiched between the Mediterranean coastline and the Apennines. Almost all aspects of life become an intimate conversation between land and sea, the entroterra and the costa, including the cuisine.

Vegetables and fresh herbs are the cornerstone of Ligurian cooking. Some attribute such incomparably flavorful vegetables and herbs like Genovese basil to the unique terrior of sea salt-soaked air and seemingly unworkable limestone-rich soils. In spite of the challenges presented by living in steeply terraced spaces wedged between land and sea, the Ligurians have learned how to farm the land and thus produce a prodigious amount of vegetables, flowers and fresh herbs. Plotkin claims Liguria has more sunshine than other Italian region (how he measured this I’m not sure) and mentions that temperatures never reach below freezing, which he attributes to the warming breezes coming off the Mediterranean along with the omnipresent sunshine. This makes me thing of Liguria as the Italian version of California. So basically paradise. If you’ve ever been to Cinque Terre or any other spot along Liguria’s enchanting coastline, you’d be hard-pressed not to agree.

The olive oil here is made primarily from Taggiasca olives, which possess a subtle sweetness akin to pine nuts or almonds. If you’re accustomed to the sharp, bracing oils from parts of Tuscany and Umbria, it can be a shock to experience such smooth-tasting oil. I find extra-virgin olive oil from Liguria the perfect choice for dressing and finishing dishes.

In Ligurian cooking fragrance is prized above all else. Plotkin says they refer to theirs as La Cucina Perfumata, the Perfumed Kitchen. Pounding fresh herbs in a mortar and pestle will give you a very honest sense of what they’re talking about.

In addition to vegetables, the Ligurians rely heavily on a broad repertoire of raw or lightly cooked sauces, most of which leverage the abundance of the aforementioned fresh herbs. Perhaps the most famous sauce from the region is pesto, which in its purest form consists exclusively of basil, salt, olive oil and cheese. As the name suggests, it is a sauce made by using a pestle to pound the ingredients in a mortar. Plotkin is vociferous in his rejection of a food processor or, God forbid, a blender. It arrests the flavor from the basil and soils the sauce. Most modern cooks would disagree. You be the judge.

Thank you to everyone who came out last night’s dinner. It is such a privilege to serve and commune with you over the food from this country I love so dearly.

Pesto Classico

  • Servings: 1 cup
  • Difficulty: easy
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Fred Plotkin offers 15 different recipes for pesto in his Ligurian cookbook, Recipes from Paradise. There are many ways to make this sauce, but classically they all insist on the use of a mortar and pestle. If you don’t have one or simply cannot be bothered, you can defer to the faithful food processor. It’s also helpful to hunt down Genovese basil, which tends to have smaller, more tender and flavorful leaves.

Recipe courtesy of Recipes from Paradise by Fred Plotkin

  • 2 cups fresh basil leaves, Genovese if you can find
  • 2 small garlic cloves, peeled
  • 3 T pine nuts
  • 2T finely grated parm
  • 2T finely grated pecorino romano
  • 3-4T extra virgin olive oil (from Liguria, of course)
  • 1 pound pasta

Add a small handful of basil leaves to the mortar with a pinch of salt and crush the leaves and salt with the pestle using a firm rhythm. Add more leaves as you go this until it’s all in the mortar. Add the garlic once the basil is mostly broken down into pieces. Then add the pine nuts and continue pounding until reduced to a paste.

Add the cheeses and stir to combine. Add the olive oil slowly until you reach a smooth, creamy consistency. You may not want to add all the olive oil, depending on your taste preferences.

To make the pasta, boil it in an abundance of heavily salted water. Add a large spoonful of pesto to a mixing bowl and a teaspoon of cooking water to warm the sauce through. Once the pasta is al dente, drain well (saving a coffee cups worth of pasta water for tossing) then transfer the pasta to the mixing bowl. Use a spatula to evenly incorporate the pasta and sauce, adding a little pasta water as needed to get a loose enough consistency to where the pesto clings tightly to the noodles. Taste and add a bit more cheese, salt and/or olive oil if needed.

Pasta with pesto is one of the only pastas I like just as much hot as I do cold as leftovers. When storing pesto in the fridge, add a thin layer of olive oil to prevent the basil from oxidizing.

 

How to share a meal

I found this piece I wrote from last July. I stopped visiting this particular hospice patient not too long after this encounter as her health stabilized enough to transfer her to another facility. I still remember this day with great fondness.

*

The other week I went on a routine hospice visit to see a patient in a nursing home on the north side. She’s mostly immobile and doesn’t talk much. We’ve been visiting for almost a month now, and I sometimes struggle with the silence that ensues after I hold her hand to greet her. I usually play some music on my phone or bring something to read to her during our visits. She seems to enjoy poetry. She’ll turn her head toward me and smile as I read aloud about love, loss, nostalgia and joy. In these moments, I’m reminded that you don’t need to speak to commune with another.

Her roommate, Ms. D., is ambulatory and notably more alert than my patient. I would guess she’s there for rehabilitation care, although she also doesn’t speak and only has mobility with one arm. I wonder whether she suffered from a stroke.

On this day, Ms. D had a visitor. He trundled into the room and winked at the patient with whom I was visiting. Hello Gorgeous, he said to her in a booming voice that filled the small room before striding over to Ms. D. My patient’s face broke into a wide smile.

He wore dark boot-cut jeans and a long sleeve button down, which he assiduously tucked into his fitted jeans. This get-up reminded me of those cowboy types that were ubiquitous in San Antonio. His trim figure suggested he exercised, but not in a gym. He carried a flip phone.

Ms. D was sitting by the window. She perked right up as soon as he entered the room. He wheeled her eating table toward the windows then set down a brown paper bag stained with grease. He opened two cans of Squirt, thoroughly coated with condensation, and placed one close to Ms. D’s good hand before dragging another chair over toward the table.

I got you your favorite. Fried fish sandwiches from that shop around the corner.

The thick midsummer air hung low and heavy, adhering the skin of my inner thighs together. I could feel a single bead of sweat travel all the way down the length of my spine. As they ate, Ms. D’s visitor used a paper napkin to wipe away the sweat on his forehead.

He complained to her about all the changes happening in their neighborhood – I swear, D, you wouldn’t even recognize it anymore. He worried aloud about an impending doctors appointment and lamented over how quixotic retirement seemed. Ms. D nodded, cupping her good hand around her ear when she was having trouble understanding him, at which point he’d patiently reiterate whatever he’d said in a markedly slower, louder voice.

When she struggled to unwrap her sandwich with one hand, he reached over to help her unveil a perfectly golden piece of fried fish encased in a bleached white soft bun. She bit into her sandwich with the ferocity of a wild dog tearing into a fresh carcass. Hunger takes so many forms.

I know you don’t like the food here, he said as he wiped a crumb off her face. She grunted as she chewed.

From my corner I sat with my patient and watched these two people commune over a couple of fish sandwiches at a bedside table in a nursing home that smelled like sweat and scalded milk. It felt intrusive to stand witness to such an intimate exchange between two strangers. Then I thought about restaurants where this sort of thing happens all the time in plain sight.

Then again, does it really? How often do we sit across from someone and actually see them? It takes times to commune and requires one’s complete attention. Time and Attention: Two precious resources about which, I suspect, we understand very little.

While I make my living cooking for other people, I rarely make it a point to observe others communing over food. When this happens you see two people settle into themselves, releasing into the supple tenderness that comes with hunger sated. One of these hungers, the need to be seen, is universal. In these moments of quiet reckoning, there is a radical letting alone of one self, a relinquishment of whatever forms of self-protection we might normally cling to in exchange for intimacy in its purest form.

In this way, sharing a meal elevates a normally pedestrian act to something sacred. I remember a meal of buttery tagliolini and ashy Sicilian red wine that I shared with a former partner in Rome many years ago. The food only served as a medium to reinforce our ineffable connection to one another. Whenever the waiter came to check on us, I felt myself yanked out of this state of suspended wonder into a reality that felt strange and disorienting.

I remember a meal in a hospital in Chicago a couple winters ago. My mother was staying overnight after surgery. She, my sister and I took turns passing around take-out containers and gossiping about who knows what. The food brought us closer into ourselves and to each other. For a moment that hospital room became a protective cocoon where nothing beyond a couple containers of pasta and the sound of our own laughter seemed relevant.

I remember a meal on a beach in Positano. I was barefoot in a bathing suit drinking white wine and sopping up the precious liquid from a bowl of steamed mussels. The sound of the ocean lapping against the shore and kids screaming as the tide chased them echoed in the background. I remember the feeling of the cold sand in between my toes contrasted with the pervasive heat of the sun on the tops of my shoulders. I remember how my dining companions and I couldn’t stop laughing. I remember feeling like there was nothing more beyond that moment.

Sharing a meal with another person is like passing through a sacred portal. Where once you felt a cold, unending longing, now there is soft, abiding contentment to steal you against the longing that will inevitably ensue after the last glass of wine is drunk and the final bits of chocolate sponge cake are dispensed.

Not really rouille

Everything in the kitchen starts with a plan, even if it’s just a menu sketch in your head. As the day rolls on and the second espresso begins to wear off, things can start to go off the rails, at which point you’re forced to forgo the plan and meet things as they unfold in front of you. You forget to set a timer for the broccoli and it goes from lightly roasted to charred. You’re distracted as you mix the cake batter and forget to add the sugar, setting yourself back an hour as you quickly scramble to mix fresh batter. The grocery store doesn’t have any salmon, and you have to retool your game plan for dinner.

If you’re a skilled cook, these speed bumps are simply part of the process, not enough to knock you off course and just enough to keep you nimble and curious. As in life, we have to take what’s handed to us and make it work rather than stand in protest bemoaning our circumstances. Blessedly, these roadblocks can turn into inspired kitchen moments if we’re in the right frame of mind to receive them that way. The Stones were right: You may not always get what you want, but you usually get what you need.

Last week I was browsing Simon Hopkinson’s chapter on saffron and was struck with inspiration to make rouille, a lip-smacking garlic sauce laced with saffron and vinegar, often served with Provençal bouillabaisse. Simon says that while this sauce is often served alongside fish stew, it goes just as well with deep-fried calamari, goujons of sole or grilled chicken.

The dictionary defines rouille as a peppery garlic sauce, which seems sufficiently broad to encompass just about anything with raw or lightly cooked garlic in it. It strikes me as the French version of salsa verde, a generic catchall that has as many renditions as there are cooks. Simon’s version of rouille has both raw and cooked egg yolks, the latter of which I didn’t have on hand and wasn’t compelled to make, although I did appreciate the addition of anchovies and mustard.

I browsed the New York Times Cooking archive to see how other chefs characterized rouille. Jonathan Reynolds’s version includes the dregs from chicken bouillabaisse along with half of a cooked potato and Spanish paprika. Meanwhile, Amanda Hesser’s recipe has you steep saffron threads in vinegar before amalgamating that into a well-whisked egg yolk along with lemon juice and garlic, then vigorously whisking in the oil – so basically saffron aiöli. Martha Rose Shulman adds a kiss of tomato paste and a pinch of cayenne. Florence Fabricant’s version came closest to what I had in mind with the addition of old bread and a small chili pepper bloomed in water with the saffron.

I decided to serve rouille with pan-seared cod and set out to buy the fish for dinner later that evening. I generally keep a well-stocked pantry, which I believe is the secret to any form of regular and self-satisfying cooking. After returning from my shopping, I threw my apron on and set out to make the sauce. I was utterly dismayed when I couldn’t find the small vial of saffron I was sure I had tucked in the spice drawer. Someone (me) used the last of it and forgot to put it on the list.

With no saffron in sight, I had a decision to make. Rouille without saffron was not rouille at all, but something else entirely. I don’t live close to grocery store and couldn’t imagine battling rush-hour traffic to run to Whole Foods. Saffron is arguably the most expensive spice in the world, so unlike sugar or flour, it doesn’t lend itself to a polite knock on a neighbor’s door asking for help.

I had romesco on the brain after making it for a client the week before. Romesco and rouille could be very distant cousins in that they’re both oil-based sauces, although romesco doesn’t include egg yolks and thus isn’t as tightly emulsified as rouille. I decided to steer this tottering ship in that direction since I had everything else I needed to make romesco on hand, a small victory in and of itself.

This Spanish sauce is often served with grilled fish, although its vibrant flavors lend themselves well to chicken, roasted vegetables and even steak. In Honey from a Weed, Patience Gray tracks romesco’s origins to sofregit, the Catalan version of soffritto, finely chopped aromatic herbs and vegetables gently fried in olive oil that serves as the basis for much of Italian cooking. Sofregit usually starts with a finely minced onion simmered in olive oil, to which you add tomato and proceed with the recipe.

For romesco, the tomatoes are either sautéed or broiled. Old bread that’s fried in olive oil features prominently, as do toasted almonds. It’s surprising in its simplicity and so delectable you’ll be tempted to eat it straight with a spoon, like peanut butter or really good fudge sauce. One of my old cooking colleagues in Rome, a culinary neophyte, was so overwhelmed with pleasure when she first tasted this sauce that she couldn’t stop talking about it. On my way to the bathroom, I stumbled across her, spoon in mouth, holding a small bowl of the sauce having tucked herself away in the corner of the kitchen. In response to my quizzical look, she said: It’s just so delicious. I can’t help myself.

Now that’s a testimonial.

*

If you have saffron on hand and are cooking seafood tonight, consider making Anthony Bourdain’s recipe for rouille, or if you’re like me and forgot to re-stock the saffron, try making romesco.

The first time I made this sauce, the recipe included roasted red pepper. I was surprised to learn most recipes are strictly tomato-based. I like the roasted pepper addition as it adds a hint of smokiness-sweetness to the sauce, but if you’re a purist, leave it out.

Romesco

  • Servings: about a cup
  • Difficulty: easy
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Adapted from Martha Rose Shulman/NYT Cooking

  • ½ roasted red pepper, charred, peeled, de-seeded
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, or 2 Roma tomatoes
  • 2 garlic cloves, pasted
  • 1 handful day-old breadcrumbs, crumbled (I keep a bag of these in my freezer)
  • ¼ cup toasted almonds (skinless, if possible)
  • 2 pinches pimentón picante
  • 1 pinch pimentón dulce
  • 2 t Italian flat-leaf parsley, rough chop
  • Kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper
  • 1 T sherry vinegar
  • ½ C extra virgin olive oil, divided

Prepare the pepper by charring it on the stove top. Once sufficiently blackened on all sides, put it in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap to steam. As the pepper steams, set the oven to broil and place the tomatoes on a tinfoil-lined ¼ sheet tray. Broil the tomatoes until evenly browned, 4-6 minutes, tossing halfway. Set aside to cool.

De-seed and peel the pepper using the back of a knife or a bench scraper.

Place ¼ cup olive oil in a small sauté pan. Fry the breadcrumbs in the oil until evenly browned. Strain and reserve the oil for another use.

Paste the garlic on a cutting board by chopping it roughly, adding a pinch of salt and running the back of a chef’s knife over the mixture until its sufficiently broken down to a paste-like consistency. Add this to a food processor along with the bread, almonds, pimentón picante and pimentón dulce. Process to a paste-like consistency. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the peppers, tomatoes, 2 pinches salt and pepper. Blend well. With the motor running, add the vinegar and then add the olive oil in a steady stream. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed.

This sauce is best at room temperature. When possible, let it rest for an hour before serving.

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A moral reckoning

I once came very close to killing an animal.

I was at the chicken slaughterhouse on the farm at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. A handful of other cooks and I were on a weekly field excursion. The kitchen leadership organized these field trips as a way to encourage us to explore the farm and learn more about the origins of some of the ingredients we were using in the kitchen.

Inside the slaughterhouse, there was a row of metal cones secured to a sterile wall of stainless steel. They looked like perfect little soldiers prepared to advance to the front lines. The backsplash was pristine, a blank canvass for the carnage that would soon ensue.

We all filed into the room brimming with curious excitement. None of us had ever slaughtered anything before. The foreman who managed the poultry slaughtering grabbed a chicken from the outdoor pen and held it upside down by its feet. This gentle rocking back and forth calms the animal, he said. The chicken flapped its wings fiercely as he carefully lowered its body into the cone, but once it had settled into this new orientation the animal quieted. The position of the chicken in the cone and its soft, quiet gaze reminded me of a student hanging upside down in a sling in yoga class.

The foreman removed a long, sharp knife from its leather case attached to his chain tool belt. He moved quickly and with intent, like a skilled samurai, making one swift slice across the chicken’s neck. Blood poured out from the incision onto the floor and the wall while the chicken’s body convulsed violently within the cone for several seconds producing an awful thrumping sound like tennis shoes tossing around in a dryer. The foreman assured us that these were just reflexive muscle spasms and that the animal was already dead and wasn’t experiencing any pain. Even still, it was a grotesque tableau. The Jackson Pollack bloodstains stood out stark as a full moon in a starless sky against the stainless steel walls.

Our cohort lined up to take our turns with the knife. I watched my peers slice across their chickens’ throats with relative facilitate and ease. Some of them chatted with the foreman about the scalding and defeathering process post-slaughter while others talked freely amongst themselves.

The foreman refilled the cone with another chicken. I had made it to the front of the line. It’s just like butchery, I told myself. It had a nice life, and it’s definitely going to chicken heaven. He moved to hand me his finely honed knife. I went to reach for it, but my feet were frozen in place. My mouth tasted like dry cotton, and my mind was busy anthropomorphizing the inverted chicken now facing me, imagining all the horrible thoughts that must be running through his head as he waited for me to take his life. In that moment, I was struck still by the incredible fragility of life, and the wanton way that too many of us approach eating animals.

“Well?” the foreman said.

I paused for what felt like an eternity. He passed the knife to the next person in line.

*

My slaughterhouse experience did not turn me into a vegetarian, although I couldn’t eat chicken for months afterward. The visit did prove to be an essential exercise in cultivating a deeper awareness and a sincere reverence around the act of eating meat. I understand in a way that I couldn’t have before that experience that the process of eating animals necessarily includes suffering on behalf of the animals we’re eating and the people who slaughter them for us. It’s unpleasant, but it’s fundamentally true. I believe that in order to eat meat with integrity it is imperative that you understand and accept the truth of that suffering.

Meat-eaters have participated in this process for centuries. The Hunt was once a celebrated and revered right of passage. We used to slaughter animals as joyous offerings to the gods; some cultures still do this. It wasn’t until the relatively recent advent of industrial agriculture that we lost the fundamental human connection this process.

I don’t eat much meat anymore. I started to loose a taste for it once I began cooking professionally. I attribute it to a combination of handling a lot of raw meat along with an increased awareness around the state of industrial agriculture and, in particular, the way we raise and slaughter animals in the U.S. I really don’t miss it all that much. It’s a funny thing how abstaining from something can actually lessen its allure (although I doubt the same holds true for coffee, at least for me). No doubt the indelible memory of my slaughterhouse experience lives on in my subconscious and motivates me to abstain. I’m also sensitive to the environmental impact of eating meat, along with the deplorable conditions many slaughterhouse works are forced to exist in. The New York Times Food section recently published an excellent guide to cooking and eating consciously as  climate change continues to wreck havoc on the planet.

I’m not dogmatic about abstaining from eating animal products. I love prosciutto (the good stuff sliced right off the ham leg) and find the combination of manchego and membrillo, a Spanish quince paste, absolutely sensational (have you tried them together on a grilled cheese? Heaven). I see no reason to abstain from such otherworldly pleasures on occasion. When I do eat meat, I buy the most expensive stuff I can afford, which is usually the most humanely raised.

But I prefer to eat mostly vegetables, alongside pasta, grains and pulses, which are defined as the edible seeds of various crops from the legume family. It’s fitting that I cook Italian food since that cuisine, like the majority of the Mediterranean, has long heralded the joys of vegetarian cookery, like Sicilian caponata, Venetian risi i bisi, Tuscan ribollita and Roman vignarola. One of the keys to success with dishes such as these is to cook them during the appropriate season. No one cooks with eggplant in December there.

Although Italians cook with plenty of animal proteins, they often bring a light touch to it. It’s common to see dishes that use animal products as an accent rather than the focal point, like adding anchovies or colatura di alici to a pasta sauce or braise to give it some extra oomph. The leftovers from a large braise are repurposed into pasta fillings, and every piece of the animal is used. This isn’t because of some romantic notion of sustainability; so much of Italian cooking is grounded in the historical reality of scarcity.

While it may be true that vegetables at the supermarket are not as flavorful as what you might find at an outdoor Italian market (depends on where you live), it’s still abundantly possible to cook a delicious meal without meat. To satiate a meat-oriented mind, consider starting with some variety of veggie meatball or fritter. I love these veggie balls with garlic-tahini-yogurt sauce from Tara Parker-Pope. Deborah Madison has an excellent recipe for green pea fritters in Vegetable Literacy that also uses dried green peas (much like falafel, which leverages the strength and integrity of pulsed raw, soaked chickpeas). Amy Chaplin’s recipe for quinoa white bean burgers is well worth the effort. Served on a whole grain bun with her special sauce, I hardly remember hamburgers.

Here is a hearty perennial staple in my non-meat repertoire from Sara Forte’s book The Sprouted Kitchen.

Sara Forte’s Lentil Meatballs

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: medium
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Recipe courtesy of The Sprouted Kitchen

  • 1 cup lentils, sorted and rinsed*
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 T extra-virgin olive oil
  • ¾ cup ricotta
  • ¼ cup Parmesan
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ t fennel seed, toasted and crushed in mortar
  • 2 T parsley, chopped
  • 1 t thyme, chopped
  • Couple pinches kosher salt
  • Freshly cracked black pepper
  • 2/3 cup breadcrumbs

Cook the lentils in water until tender, about 20 minutes. Be sure the lentils are fully cooked before proceeding. If necessary, add more water to the pot. Once fully cooked, drain well and cool.

Add the cooled, drained lentils to food processor and pulse to form a chunky puree. Add the eggs, olive oil, ricotta, Parmesan, garlic, fennel seed, parsley, thyme, salt and pepper. Pulse five times. Turn the mixture into a mixing bowl and add the breadcrumbs. Stir to combine and set aside to rest, at least 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a sheet tray with parchment paper. Test a meatball by rolling a 1-inch ball with your hands. If the mixture is too wet and won’t stay together, add another tablespoon or two of breadcrumbs. Once you have the mixture to the right consistency, roll the meatballs and bake until nicely browned on the top and warmed through, about 15 minutes.

Serve in a wrap or over a bed of salad greens with your favorite version of pesto, tzatziki or basil-spiked caponata.

*Note: When cooking lentils, take the time to spread them out on a sheet tray and pick through carefully to ensure there aren’t any rocks or stones lingering in the mix. Then rinse and proceed with the recipe.