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Heirloom tomato sauce

Heirloomtomatosauce

Summer is a time of simplicity.

I’ve been trying to simplify on multiple fronts lately — cutting away unnecessary complications. Somehow, though, every time I trim away one complicating factor in life, at least one other springs forth whence it came. Life is a complex garden to tend.

Food, on the other hand, does genuinely get simpler during the summer months. The bounty of the season serves up a riot of colors and flavors that need only a gentle hand to bring forth their already robust offerings.

I adore the heirloom tomatoes we get here in the Bay Area. I won’t get into the seemingly neverending dialog about whether our tomatoes are better or worse than those back east — like corn, my memories are of richly-flavored vegetables that I have yet to parallel out here — but rather suggest that these are an entirely different creature, worthy in their own way and on their own merits.

While maybe not as burstingly flavorful as New Jersey romas (to say nothing of genuine San Marzanos from the slopes of Vesuvius), they do have a wonderful, bright acidity and, of course, a particularly charming appearance. I love their gnarled, bulbous shapes and pastel colors. especially the ones that seem to bleed from a cheery yellow to dusky sunset pink. Skyblue-pink, my grandmother used to call that color.

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The paesan’ glossary

This is a post I’ve been mulling over in my mind for some time, keeping it in my back pocket for a while now. But this week’s Fatted Calf newsletter spurred me into action. In it, I found, like Marcia, yet another culinary compatriot exulting his Italian-American heritage. Some highlights:

I was raised on pasta, weaned from mothers’ milk and plunked down in  front of a bowl of buttery pastina. My family ate macaroni three or  four times a week…I pitied the people around me who purged pasta from their  diet and when that carbohydrate fearing freak of a doctor dropped dead  I smiled inside. And then I made myself a bowl of spaghetti aglio olio.

Words plucked from my own heart and head.

My mother is full-blooded Italian, though it’s not as linear as all that. Her father’s parents came from Reggio di Calabria, the very tippiest toe of the boot (read: practically Sicily); her mother’s mother’s parents came from Benevento, in Campania, about an hour from Napoli; and her mother’s father came from the diminutive mountain town of Salle in Abruzzi, which today has a population of just 400.

Long story short, a patchwork quilt of Southern Italian paesani. These and thousands of other emigrant meridionali settled in my hometown of Schenectady, NY. It’s important to understand that, at that time, in the early 20th Century, Italy itself was still barely unified, and so these emigrants, while ostensibly (and to the untrained American eye) generically "Italian," each had a completely distinct and discrete culture. Schenectady became a micro-melting pot of these Southern Italian cultures and dialects. These were by and large poor, uneducated people, and their vernacular was coarse. The combination of multiple dialects resulted in something even more gritty.

I did not learn Italian growing up; even my mother, only a generation or two separated from the Old Country, only learned how to count and swear. (The grandparents would slip into Italian when they didn’t want the kids to hear what they were saying.)  But what I was not aware of was how much dialectic had seeped into my everyday speech, how much was woven so deeply into my family’s linguistic patterns that I simply took them for granted. And it wasn’t until I studied Italian in the classroom that I understood how modified these words were from modern, standard Italian.

My mother tells me that, when she went away to college, she struggled in the grocery store in Syracuse, because she couldn’t find scharole. That’s because it was called escarole. Language is food is culture; all three things are irrevocably tied to our sense of self.

So, I thought I would include a little glossary of terms, so you know what the hell I am talking about should we meet face-to-face. For, though I may write escarole, I will almost surely say scharole.

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Halibut in acqua pazza ai carciofi

Halibutacquapazza

How can you resist making something called "crazy water?"

I first had fish in acqua pazza during a trip to, where else, Italy — specifically, while we were on the Amalfi Coast. To be honest, I don’t remember whether it was in Sorrento, Positano or some other gorgeous town, but I do remember the dish rather distinctly. In that case, it was a whole, small fish swimming (or as the case may be, not) in a thin, briny, herbed broth tinged with red and dotted with pools of olive oil. In many ways, it embodies the delicious simplicity of southern Italian food, a dish cooked in its own deconstructed environment.

I had largely forgotten about it until recently; my friend Julie has been on a little acqua pazza bender of late. And so as I peered into my fridge, assessing the waning freshness of the previous week’s haul of produce from the farmer’s market, I decided to get all pazza on some halibut. But, of course, I had to take my liberties.

Not that there’s any one recipe. However, the standard equation appears to be simply a couple of herbs, some tomatoes, wine and/or stock (though traditionally the stock would have been seawater), a touch of chili pepper and fish. I modeled mine off a recipe from Cucina Italiana, which called for fennel. I didn’t have fennel, but I did have some wee artichokes that had to get used pronto. Hey, it’s all Italian, right?

All in all, a satisfying and simple dish, though I might have blanched the artichokes ahead to get them a little more tender. The broth was flavorful and complex, and the fish perfectly cooked — still supple and moist.

Oh, and those green logs? Favas, the first I’ve made this season. The nice lady at Knoll Farms suggested that they were still young and tender enough to be roasted and eaten whole, pods and all. Well … not so much. The pods were definitely too tough to eat. However, it certainly made for the least labor-intensive fava beans ever, and it was kind of fun to extract the creamy, roasted beans from their housings.


One year ago today … I made a lovely berry gratin.

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White bean, bitter green, something marine

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Can someone please tell me why it’s so dang hard to find escarole in this town? All winter long I’ve kept an eye peeled for this most versatile (and most Italian) green, to little avail. In fact, I must confess a wee sin: When I wrote about escarole soup a while back, I ended up using a leafy endive, which is botanically practically the same thing, but still. There, I feel better getting that off my chest.

Anyway. Ever since last month’s visit to Taverna Santi, the memory of my first course has haunted me ever since. Creamy white beans. The acerbic tang of braised escarole. The sun-bright note of preserved lemons. And shrimp — nuff said. I knew this was a dish I would fold into my own repertoire.

Except, dammit, no escarole. And yet, to a degree that amazed me this year, an abundance of dandelion greens. Big, toothy spears of the stuff, everywhere I looked. Even frickin’ Bell Market is carrying the stuff, and they barely carry normal groceries.

I like dandelion greens, a trait I apparently share with my maternal grandmother. (She passed when I was still an infant, so all my knowledge of her is hearsay.) Grandma Mary like dandelion green sandwiches, a snack I have yet to reproduce. But I like them braised, that’s for sure.

Yet they can be fairly intensely bitter, even for a bitter lover like me. This is why bland, white beans make such a fabulous counterpart.

I’ve made this a couple times now, both warm and chilled, and it’s a winner of a dish. I’d suggest making the salad well ahead and chilling; the flavors marry well and it keeps its form better if you choose to get fancy and whip out the ring molds. And you know you want to.

This is also another of my typical "recipes" — I can’t promise precision nor perfection. Rather, this is another algebraic equation with very forgiving variables. Where Santi used ginormous broad beans, I used smaller runner cellini beans from Rancho Gordo, which I adore. And while I would have very much loved to use escarole, as did Santi, the dandelion greens certainly made the flavor of this dish pop with bright bitterness.

But maybe, someday, I’ll have the opportunity to make this with escarole.

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Limoncello di Hillsborough

Limoncello_di_hillsborough

While the state of California was in the grip of the worst freeze in recent history, and citrus producers up and down the valley were suffering catastrophic losses, I enjoyed a bumper crop. Our friends Donna and Dennis had recently moved into a gorgeous house in Hillsborough, complete with a petite but prolific lemon tree in the back yard. One night, they brought us a paper shopping bag full of them.

Some were ready for use right away; others were still on the hard side and would benefit from a little quiet time in the corner, extending our enjoyment. Over the next couple of months, I made spaghetti al limone, chicken with fennel and lemon, a monster batch of preserved lemons and lord only knows how many vodka tonics. And we still had a mountain of the things left over.

I practically had to make limoncello.

I’ve been meaning to do so for quite some time. I’ve often been inspired to do so by my good friend Anita, a fine ‘cellist in her own right. She’s made not only limoncello but a seriously heady bergamocello, an ethereally perfumed Buddhacello (from a Buddha’s hand citron) and a difficult-to-name bloodorangecello, as well as any number of other interesting concoctions (such as a seriously complex nocino that I am still enjoying precious sips of, sparingly, two years later).

At its most basic definition, limoncello is simply the combination of a lemon-infused neutral liquor mixed with simple syrup. It’s less a recipe than a technique or, as I often think of such things, an equation. Algebra.

L=(((((v*p)+z)*t)-z)+(s+w))*t

To wit: Limoncello is the product of lemon zest and vodka of a given proof, left together for a quantity of time, after which you strain out the zest; to which you then add a simple syrup of sugar and water and let it rest again for a period of time to mellow and blend. How much of each of those variables is what drives your final product.

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Escarole soup

Two doors down the street is a flat-roofed apartment building; its roof is the immediate foreground of the view from our kitchen window. During the winter, it tends to flood with rainwater, creating an Okavango-esque wetlands that draws gaggles of birds of all kinds. The past two mornings our private lake has been completely frozen solid.

This has added a layer of amusement to our own little nature show. We chuckle as robins and sparrows skitter across the icy surface. Even more interesting is watching the crows figure out how to crack the shell and pull up glittering chips of ice that they wield with pride but obviously have no idea what to do with next.

Cold weather is soup weather. Escarole soup is one of my favorites, and it was my grandfather’s, too.

When he was ill with cancer, the chemotherapy left him with no appetite and no saliva even if he had one. Knowing this was his favorite soup, my mother brought over a pot of it one day. When she got home from running errands, the phone was ringing; it was him. “There’s something wrong with your soup,” he said. “Oh?” She asked, baffled. “It’s all gone,” he replied.

Today would have been my grandfather’s birthday. And thought he’s been gone nearly 20 years, I still think of him often. A hearty bowl of this soup is a fitting way to commemorate him.

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Feeling good

Lentilsngreens

"It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life/And I’m feeling good…" -Nina Simone

Moreover, it’s a new year, and I’m feeling good. Good about the year’s prospects. Good about where I am, and where I’m going. Good.

I’m an optimistic person by nature, and not especially superstitious, but that didn’t stop me from preparing and eating a traditional New Year’s Day meal that’s meant to inspire good fortune for the upcoming 365.

Many people know about the Southern tradition of eating black-eyed peas and collard greens; in fact it was a popular topic on the food blogs. Fewer people are aware that Italians have a beany tradition all their own, involving lentils. And me, I have to Italian everything up a bit.

The real traditional dish involves cotechino, a pork sausage. I hadn’t planned that far ahead, and just stuck with some (very good) Niman Ranch applewood-smoked bacon. The greens were Swiss chard purchased from the farmer’s market on Saturday, prepared how I always do them, with garlic, chili flake and lemon. Oh, and bacon.

The bread was also homemade, and really excellent. But I feel it deserves a post of its own, so stay tuned for that.

It’s not pretty food (the colors got some enhanced saturation thanks to the magic of Photoshop), and certainly not food I would serve company. But the flavors were solid and the overall dish was humble, hearty and satisfying. Good, even.

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Sauce

Cimg2401Typical Monday water-cooler conversation:

Coworker: "What did you do this weekend?"

Me: "Oh, you know, typical. Dinner with friends on Saturday, and a day in the kitchen on Sunday. Made some chicken stock and a big pot of sauce."

Coworker: "Oh yeah? What kind of sauce?"

Me: "Um, sauce."

Sauce. If I use the word preceded by "a big pot of" then it means one thing and one thing only: A bubbling cauldron of slow-cooked pasta sauce. I’m told some Eye-talian families call it gravy, but that’s just crazy talk. It’s sauce.

This is mother’s milk, the most basic staple of my family’s culinary heritage. The idea of buying pasta sauce in a jar is inconceivable, unimaginable, even offensive. Once in a great while I may cave in and purchase some housemade sauce from someplace like PastaGina, which is serviceable, but in the end I’m always left craving the real deal.

I always make the same sauce, and I never make the same sauce twice. The basics are always the same, yet the specifics change each time. I am not alone in this regard. My grandmother used to make her sauce with meatballs, Italian sausage and sometimes bresaola (that’s bruh-ZHAWL), but if there was leftover chicken or pork, in it went. For a number of years I modified the sauce to accommodate my vegetarianism. Nowadays I throw in whatever captures my fancy, starting with whatever’s in the fridge.

Too often, I cheat, I skimp on one step or another in the interest of saving time or avoiding the inevitable burden of prepping ingredients. While the sauce will not suffer unduly by the occasional indiscretion, it invariably benefits from its fully deserved attention. Sauce takes time. And love. And a lot of chopping.

The anchor of our Christmas baskets was a home-canned jar of porcini mushroom pasta sauce. This was no time to cut corners. Each step, each detail must be followed through completely, lest we be gifting a subpar product. And that would never do.

And so we made a quadruple batch, painstakingly chopping, sautéeing, stewing until we reached a final product, shuttled quickly into jars and sealed away for posterity. Though we of course tasted the sauce in the moment, it wasn’t until Christmas Day proper that we opened a jar for ourselves and made a quick lasagna from it. I couldn’t have been happier with the result — intensely perfumed with porcini, rich and unctuous.

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La Vigilia: Feast of the Seven Fishes

Shellfish

I always thought I sensed a kindred spirit in Marcia Gagliardi, author of The Tablehopper. But when she spoke of her own family’s Christmas Eve fish fest, I knew we were not only paisani (her name gave that part away), but culinary cousins.

La vigilia is as far as I know a uniquely Southern Italian affair, a feast involving seven fish dishes. There’s no specific menu to follow; each family has its own traditional dishes it brings to the table. In my family, there was always baccalà, sometimes two different preparations, a big bowl of shrimp and heaping portions of spaghetti all’aglio e olio, a small portion of which was made with alici, or anchovies.

Not long after she moved to California, my mother had an epiphany. We were no longer gathering in such large groups (Christmas Eve at Aunt Anne’s would sometimes be upwards of 30 people), so it was impractical to come up with seven discrete fish dishes for a small crowd. Why not line them all up and take them down in one fell swoop, and do it California style? Cioppino is the logical answer.

This year it was just four of us, so cioppino made perfect sense. But the one dish I crave every year, the one that sends me back to my childhood on Christmas Eve, is the spaghetti all’aglio e olio con alici, spaghetti with olive oil and garlic with anchovies. So six fishes in the cioppino and one pasta dish later, Christmas Eve was served.

Oh, and we also made the famous no-knead bread that everyone — everyone — has been buzzing about. There’s clearly no knead need to recount the details of the process, but my brief take on it is this: It works reasonably well. I love the crispy crust and the meaty texture of the bread. However, the crumb is quite dense, and not especially absorbent, which is more what I was after to accompany the cioppino. Still, considering how little effort is involved, it’s completely worthwhile.

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Pescheria Joey & Eddie’s

Pescheria1 Tuesday night (last week), we baked for some friends who were going out of town. Wednesday night, we prepared for Thanksgiving. Thursday night, we consumed Thanksgiving. Friday morning we baked pies. Friday night, we consumed another Thanksgiving meal at a friend’s place. Saturday, we were sick of the kitchen.

Truly, from Tuesday evening straight through Friday afternoon, basically the only time we left our kitchen was to sleep or go to the bathroom. Now, we like our kitchen; we like it a lot. But by the end of the fourth day it began to seem cagelike.

Saturday, a gloriously sunny day, we made an excursion up to Acacia Vineyard. We’re members of the club there, and had to run up to pick up a shipment. We had a quick round of tasting, and a (now twicedepicted here) leftover turkey sandwich in the car. By the time we got home, we couldn’t bear the thought of cooking.

Having just emerged from two Thanksgivings, the very concept of meat was anathema. My palate wanted a 180º turn from turkey, stuffing and gravy. I wanted light, clean flavors. I wanted seafood.

We had been meaning to check out (the clumsily-named) Pescheria Joey & Eddie’s, which opened last month in the former Yianni’s space down on lower Church Street, but had given them some time to work out the inevitable kinks post-opening. This seemed like as good a time as any.

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