Growing Pesto

serving 2

pesto & pasta

We moved a few months ago and one of the perks of the new place is garden room. My inner love for soil and green is having a — literal — field day. Yes, after 30 years of NYC life (which I loved) I’m very happy to get my hands in the dirt!

We’re growing string beans, peas, carrots, brussels sprouts, tomatoes, ghost peppers, AND from seeds brought back from Italy: cicoria, Roman artichokes, Italian onions, and hot red cherry peppers.

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carrots, peas, string beans, Italian cicoria, Brussels sprouts

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artichokes, zinnias, Italian onions (plus ceramic painted cat from Mexico)

And, of course, my favorite complement of herbs. I’d been growing herbs at our last patio garden and thrilled to the ability of going out the back door to snip herbs fresh for cooking. (Unlike being on the 6th floor of an apartment building staring out the window at cement.) Now we’ve got some more space for more herbs.

The basil plant that went into the ground about a month ago, filled out so fast into a sizable bush, and already started to flower.

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basil plant

We thought: man, we have to harvest some of this. Man, we HAVE to make some pesto!

cut basil

harvesting basil and parsley

I love when I have to make pesto. We even bought a fancy pasta to have with it (this expensive pasta was on sale…yay!): Cipriani’s tagliarelle…

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Cipriano tagliarelle

You know, you don’t have to wait for basil to grow to have pesto. You can make pesto from any green thing you like. Here’s what I like: arugula, watercress, parsley, mint, even  spinach & broccoli rabe. Mix them up. A few greens together. I’ve even pared down the traditional recipe and often leave out garlic (kinda strong). I love adding nuts, but not always pine nuts. Sometimes almonds (they love this in Sicily) or walnuts. I don’t add cheese until the pesto is mixed with the pasta. Cheese sometimes turns the pesto too gooey.

Here’s what I cooked up the other day.

For an aromatic I used shallot. Peeled & rough chopped. For the nuts: I used walnuts…

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shallot & walnuts

We cut a lot of basil from the plant but also cut some parsley.

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cut basil & parsley

Pinch the leaves from the stems. Discard stems.

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pick off the leaves of the herbs

Place shallots & nuts & basil & parsley leaves in the bowl of a food processor.

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shallot & walnuts in processor

Add some salt & pepper & drizzle a few turns of olive oil.

olive oil

adding olive oil

Pulse until broken down, but don’t go crazy. You don’t want a puree.

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pulsed pesto ready to use

Scrape the pesto into your serving bowl. Meanwhile bring a pasta pot of water to a boil. Salt water generously, add pasta. Cook to al dente.

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Cipriani tagliarelle

Before you drain the pasta spoon some pasta water into the pesto to loosen it and make it more like a sauce…less like a paste.

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add pasta water to pesto

Drain pasta and add to pesto. Toss well. Add some more pasta water to moisten. Drizzle some more olive oil to flavor and moisten.

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pasta & pesto

Dust with cheese, and bring some cheese to the table for individual servings.

serving

your serving of pasta & pesto

 

You’ll get deep fresh flavor. Garden umami. Satisfying and so quick!

Fresh Pesto w Pasta

2 cups basil leaves or combination of herbs i.e. parsley or mint

1 medium shallot, peeled & rough chopped

1/2 cup walnuts

olive oil for drizzling

12 ounces pasta (your favorite — any can work)

salt & pepper to taste

1 cup grated parmigiano or pecorino

Pinch the leaves off the sprigs of herbs. Discard stems. Place herb leaves, shallots & walnuts in the bowl of a food processor. Season with salt & pepper. Drizzle some olive oil (about 1/3 cup or to your liking). Pulse until broken down but not a full “puree.”

Meanwhile bring a pasta pot of water to a boil. Salt generously. Boil pasta until al dente.

Add some pasta water to the pesto to loosen and make more like a sauce. Add drained pasta. Toss to coat well. Add some more pasta water and/or drizzle more olive oil to moisten and flavor. Dust with grated cheese. Pass more cheese at the table for individual servings.

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last bite

 

Scrambled Eggs Tacos

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scrambled eggs tacos

Here’s a recipe that you make up as you go along. So not only are the eggs scrambled, but so is the recipe.

These tacos serendipitously arrived at my table just as Cinco de Mayo is fast approaching. I didn’t plan it. It just happened. The urge hit.

But you can actually plan to make this for breakfast on the 5th. Then the celebration comes to your house, too.

These breakfast tacos (or lunch tacos or dinner tacos or midnight-snack tacos) are taste-buds-popping delicious. And…

You make it up as you go along.

Here’s what I made up:

ingredient uno: scrambled eggs!

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scrambled eggs

ingredient dos: diced scallion mixed into the eggs (along w salt & pepper & a bit of grated cheese)

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scrambled eggs w scallions

ingredient tres: corn tortillas, the smallish 5-6-inch ones, heated in a cast iron pan (I put a teaspoon of oil to start and then don’t add any more oil after that — it makes a little smoke, but cooking will do that) until they get a little golden…brown…or even black in spots.

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heated, browned, oh-so-good tortillas

ingredient cuatro: choose side items, condiments, aromatics, yumful toppings that will pull it all together. I chose: diced fresh grape tomatoes mixed with parsley, a bit of olive oil, & salt…shredded asiago cheese….

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tomatoes & asiago cheese (scallions for the eggs)

…minced pancetta & minced prosciutto sautéed in a little olive oil…

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pancetta & prosciutto

…some fresh baby arugula…

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baby arugula

ingredient cinco: I also made a quick sauce of mayo, lemon juice & horse radish.

To eat: place a tortilla on your plate, pile on some scrambled eggs…

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scrambled eggs

…top with tomatoes, cheese, pancetta-prosciutto, arugula, some sauce…then fold and bite, nibble, and gulp your way to the last bite. Repeat.

The make-it-up-as-you-go part includes flavors that you love; stuff you happen to have in the refrigerator; ingredients you crave so much you’ll travel miles to get them to put in your tortilla, and/or the ones I just suggested (oooh, good ones!).

Peperonata

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peppers-the rainbow

I was surprised when my mom had no clue about this dish. Where’d I learn it then? Somewhere along the way it snuck into my repertoire… and easily makes a frequent appearance. We’re not in farmer’s market pepper season now, but that doesn’t stop the shops from selling peppers. And I take the bait.

It’s an easy dish and speaks some real Italian. All you do is stem and seed bell peppers and slice them into thick strips. Sauté peppers with sliced onion in some olive oil until the hodgepodge is a bit wilted and, not exactly super-soft, but to the tooth (al dente!).

I reach for the red, yellow, or orange peppers. But I’d guess that green peppers were the original ingredient. Green peppers were the only pepper I knew growing up. And green peppers pop up in Italy a lot, too. I’m just not a big fan of the greens. The flavor is stronger and twists in a direction I don’t always like to go. BUT, by all means. Toss them in.

I fiddle with the classic and also add some chucks of zucchini, and/or a cut-up fresh tomato, a few capers sometimes, and for a bit of punch, a drizzle of a favorite vinegar…and, for a bit of crunch, sometimes I sprinkle with toasted breadcrumb. Oh, and fresh herbs if you’ve got them on hand. Thyme. Basil. Mint. Sage?

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sauteing peperonata

Call it a side dish. Call it a main dish. Call it a pasta sauce. Call it peperonata. (But don’t call it a taxi– I’m still eating.)

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peperonata

Peperonata

3 red & yellow peppers, stems, seeds and membrane discarded

3 small zucchini

2 medium tomatoes

2-3 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, peeled & sliced in half-moons

salt & pepper to taste

1/4 cup capers

2-3 tablespoons favorite vinegar

2-3 sprigs fresh basil or mint, or combination

1/4 cup breadcrumbs, lightly toasted in a pan with a drizzle of olive oil

Cut the peppers into thick slices. Cut the zucchini into inch-thick half-moons. Cut the tomatoes into wedges.

Heat some olive oil in a medium saucepan. Add the onion. Cook for a few minutes until softened, then add the peppers. Cook for about 4-5 minutes until the peppers have softened. Add the zucchini and tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer until zucchini is softened and tomatoes break down a bit, about 5-6 minutes. Stir in the capers. Drizzle some vinegar. Tear leaves of basil or mint and add to mixture. Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle the toasted breadcrumb. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Lobster fra Diavolo

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Lobster fra Diavolo

One of my most favorite things about the Christmas season is Christmas Eve dinner. It’s the best meal of the whole year. And that’s because of the Italian inspiration called: the Night of the Seven Fishes.

Believe me, every year I try to get SEVEN fishes on the menu. But I usually end up with about 5. This year, we felt relaxed and casual and only had 3. But what a THREE.

My mom, sister and I decided to go to Costco on Christmas Eve morning (Duane resisted the Costco Christmas merriment–read: crowds). We knew they would have their impressive holiday fish island, piled with ice, and piled with great seafood. We thought: whatever looks good, we’ll buy it, then figure out our menu.

We rushed our huge carts up the wide-wide aisle to the seafood oasis. (One year, we got there late and watched 2 of the last 3 bags of clams go…arrggh!) We reached the icy array and there was plenty of sea creatures still available. We grabbed a big bag of little neck clams from Cedar Key, FL. We got a big bag of mussels from FL, too. Then we couldn’t resist the freshest, most beautiful lobster tails we’d ever seen. Pale, marbled brown and grey, with specks of orange. These were from Honduras. We got 4 tails, about 1 lb. each. One for each of us.

I’ve always found Costco’s fish & seafood quality to be pretty top-notch. Each of our seafood treasures had the fresh scent of the salty sea. We took it all home, chatting in the car about how we’d cook it up.

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this year’s three fishes

We decided to really keep it simple with favorites we knew well and love more.

We cooked Clams Oreganata…

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baked clams oreganata

…Steamed Mussels with wine, garlic & herbs…

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steamed mussels

…And Lobster Fra Diavolo–the Holy Grail of Italian seafood dishes. I’ve only had it a handful of times in my entire life. I remember my family making it on Long Island one year. I remember something like it in Italy. I may have tried once or twice on my own many years ago but the memory is blurry, watery, like bobbing up and down along the surface of the green-blue Atlantic.

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get me near an ocean and all’s right with the world

Of course, Maine lobster is the only lobster I knew growing up. In NY, our lobsters were from Maine. (Altho, my mom tells stories of family members fishing for lobster off the shores of Brooklyn where the Verrazano Bridge now stands.)

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Verrazano Bridge

In my 30 years of NYC living there were quarterly treks to one of 3 Spanish restaurants in Manhattan that each served special lobster dinners. These started at $12.95 for a pound and a quarter lobster (steamed or broiled) with a salad and side (rice pilaf or sliced roasted potatoes).

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ancient picture I found online of one of our faves on Bleecker Street

I had a circle of girlfriends who drooled on cue when these quarterly adventures came up on our calendars. At the table, over our first glass of wine (or Sangria–it was a Spanish restaurant, remember), we argued for half an hour over steamed or broiled (even tho we had each already decided how we wanted our lobster cooked on the subway ride over). Then we argued, while eating, as to which parts of the lobster should be eaten first. I go for sucking on the legs, then the cracking the claws, then eating any other shreds of meat in the body along with the tomalley, and saving the tail for last (with melted butter). These were 3-hour-long sittings because the other thing on the menu was a large quantity of laughter. Eventually, the dinners would jump in price to $13.95, $15.95, $18.95, until someone moved away, or we started to lose touch, or we just stopped going. (Sad face.)

Friends of Duane–Donna and Mike Dion–who actually live in Maine (and grew up there) treated us to a lobster feast a couple of years ago. They had a huge pot outside for steaming them. (Mike also grilled a few steaks and some corn, & Donna steamed a whole side of salmon, and heated a huge pot bubbling with steamers.) THAT was the best lobster I ever EVER tasted. Just caught that day. Probably from down the road.

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the Dion’s lobster feast

But back to Costco, Honduras, and Christmas Eve. Explosive special moments happen whenever/wherever/however lobster is served.

Fra diavolo means from the devil. Which means the dish is hot and spicy. We use crushed red pepper flakes, but feel free to go crazier with heat. If your eyes water while you bite into the tail that’s okay. We don’t get that hot here, but you’re welcome to do so. We’re afraid of losing any bit of that LOBSTER taste. So we go easy with the hot. It’s more like an elbow poked in your side, and less like an elbow poked in your eye.

Lobster Fra Diavolo (for 4)

4 1 lb. lobster tails

1/4 cup olive oil

2-3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon fresh parsley leaves, minced

1/4 cup dry white wine

1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes

1 lb. spaghetti or linguine

salt & black pepper to taste

Put a pasta pot of water on the stove to heat.

Using a good pair of kitchen shears, cut the inner shells of each lobster tail in half, lengthwise. Then cut the outer shells, and the meat, in half lengthwise. Now you have 8 cleanly cut halves of lobster tails (see photo below).

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan till hot. Add the lobster tails. Cook on a lively heat, turning them occasionally, until the meat turns opaque white, about 5-6 minutes. Remove tails to a bowl, and set aside.

Add garlic, red pepper flakes, oregano and parsley to the pan. Cook on a lively heat, stirring, until the garlic begins to soften and turn color lightly, about 2-3 minutes. Add the wine. Let the wine sizzle while you scrape to unstick any bits that have stuck to the pan. When the wine has evaporated by half, add the tomatoes. Stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer for 10 minutes.

When the pasta water has come to a boil, season generously with salt. Add the pasta, stir to keep strands from sticking until pasta water boils rapidly. Cook to al dente. Half way through cooking the pasta, add the lobster tails (and any accumulated juices) to the tomato sauce. Cover askew and let simmer 5 minutes.

Drain pasta. Add to a serving bowl. Add tomato sauce to coat. Serve each person 2 halves of lobster tail with a nice serving of pasta. Drizzle some extra sauce on top.

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cutting tails in half

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sautéed tails

lobster fra diavolo

Lobster fra Diavolo

shells

the shells

 

 

 

 

Italian Cooking Party cookbook!

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It was a while in the making but it’s finally here! My new cookbook.

Italian Cooking Party

A Little Bit of Italy at Home

“Italian Cooking Party” captures the spirit and excitement of my Nashville Italian cooking parties. Over 100 authentic Italian recipes to cook at home and inspire your own Italian cooking parties.

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With hints on how to stock your Italian kitchen, recipes for each course of the Italian table, scrumptious menus, how to linger at the table Italian-style, plus taking it on the road to Italy.

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I’ve been leading Italian cooking parties in Nashville since 2009 to an enthusiastic circle of cooking enthusiasts. The intimate parties inspire Italian culture in the kitchen and at the table.

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That authentic Italian touch fills the book with my recipes and tips for everyone to bring a little bit of Italy home: Italian Cooking Party

Alimentum Books

178 pages

$30

Click here for more info.

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My Crazy Breakfasts

biscuits and butter

biscuits and butter

I live in the South and for breakfast I sometimes have biscuits. And sometimes I have grits. (Not on the same day.) This is not new to my new Southern living. When I lived in NYC I often ate biscuits for breakfast. And sometimes made grits. I love biscuits. And I love grits.

So my biscuit roots and my grits roots are not Southern roots. My favorite biscuit recipe is from Betty Crocker’s 1950 cookbook, a book my mom had when I was a baby and so I have it, too.

Betty Crocker

Betty Crocker

My mom was born and raised in Brooklyn and she made Betty Crocker’s biscuits. That’s how I learned it.

My grits recipe snuck into my repertoire somewhere in the 1990’s while living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and followed me to Spuyten Duyvil in the Bronx and has followed me to the South. (Sorry, everyone, I use instant grits…what do you expect a New Yorker to do?) I call my breakfast grits “crazy grits” because they are certifiable.

These are both breakfasts I eagerly look forward to. Mondays are usually grits mornings (Duane says it’s his favorite breakfast). For a while I refrained from making biscuits at all because we were trying to lose weight and bready, starchy things are weighty. But just this past Sunday morning I threw diet to the wind and made biscuits. I could (literally) eat the whole batch, but I didn’t. But I wanted to.

Page 67. That’s the page Betty Crocker’s biscuits are on. Even if I think I have it memorized I take out the book (red Pennsylvania Dutch pattern with a missing spine) and go immediately to page 67 for the recipe.

page 67

page 67

This past Sunday, tho, I just went with my whimsy (and left the book on the shelf). A cup and a half of flour. A teaspoon and a half of baking powder, a large pinch of salt, a bit of aleppo, 4 tablespoons of butter, cut in with a pastry cutter. Betty then adds milk. I was feeling devil-may-care. I had a leftover 1/4 cup of ricotta. And a leftover 1/2 cup of heavy cream. Oh yeah.

I barely knead it. Just push together to stick and pat into a thick disk.

I barely knead it. Just push together to stick and pat into a thick disk.

cut biscuit dough straight down. no wiggling.

cut biscuit dough straight down. no wiggling.

just baked biscuits

just baked biscuits

Over easy eggs. A few chorizo sausages chopped up. Some summer sliced tomatoes. And biscuits and butter.

breakfast of champions. or silly people. or both.

breakfast of champions. or silly people. or both.

On Monday… the grits. Here’s why they’re crazy. I top them with a sauté of vegetables (etc) that are hanging out in the refrigerator. This time there were 3 kinds of tomatoes, 2 kinds of peppers, mushrooms, onion, scallions, arugula, and some more chorizo. I sauté these up in a medium fry pan, while the grits simmer in a medium saucepan. I add salt, parmigiano, cumin and some aleppo to the grits. I add cumin, salt, pepper, turmeric (just a tad) to the veggies. Sometimes I splash a bit of vermouth.

vegetable saute

vegetable saute

The grits go first into the bowl and then the tasty chopped wonders on top. Duane adds one of his hot toppings: ghost pepper sauce, tabasco, or sriracha. I just take it straight.

grits for me and Duane

grits for me and Duane

grits for me

grits for me

Breakfast. Break that fast with delicious. Nothing much Italian about these dishes, but a palate must roam.

my friend, the biscuit

my friend, the biscuit

 

Got tomatoes? Make a quick, fresh, pasta sauce.

tomatoes at Rialto Market in Venice

tomatoes at Rialto Market in Venice

Summertime and the tomatoes are easy. And they’re here. Lots of them.

The multi varieties in the markets make me feel a bit giddy inside. The color alone widens my eye pupils sending waves of exciting energy. Yes, just looking at them brings happiness.

We know there’s just a small summer window for summer locally-grown tomatoes (the ones in the photo above were “imported” from Sicily to Venice). Just a small window when tomatoes are really GOOD. When all we have to do to enjoy them is slice ’em up (maybe add a few grains of salt) and just eat.

tomatoes

But if you’re raking in bushels-full then it’s time to make some fresh tomato sauce. You can freeze the sauce (in dinner-time amounts) in plastic containers or ziplock bags. Or with just 6-8 tomatoes you can make some sauce just for tonight. It’s easy!

In the recipe below is the technique called tomato “concasse,” where you peel and seed the tomato and cut it into pieces. Eliminating the peel and seeds takes away any rough or bitter taste, leaving a smooth, buttery tomato for your sauce.

peeled tomatoes

peeled tomatoes

fresh tomato sauce

fresh tomato sauce

Flavor your sauce with onion and/or garlic and fresh herbs.

fresh tomato sauce

fresh tomato sauce

Choose your favorite pasta shape (any will do) and take your bowl of pasta and fresh tomato sauce outside, in the garden, on the terrace (or at least by a summery window). Sip a cool glass of wine. Immerse yourself in summer.

Fresh Tomato Sauce

6-8 large ripe tomatoes

3-4 tablespoons olive oil

1 small onion, peeled and diced

2-3 garlic cloves, smashed

1/2 cup dry white wine

salt & pepper to taste

handful torn basil or mint leaves

Using a paring knife, core the tomatoes (just cut out the stem end). Cut a superficial “x” at the bottom of each tomato. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, big enough to hold the tomatoes. Drop in tomatoes to boiling water and cook for 2-3 minutes. Lift out tomatoes with a slotted spoon and place immediately in an ice water bath (large bowl with about 2 cup ice and added water). Once tomatoes have cooled down take them out of water and they should be easy to peel. Discard skins. Cut tomatoes in quarters and using your fingers, slide out most of the seeds.

Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan. Add the onion and garlic. Cook until onion softens and garlic colors lightly. Add the wine. Let it cook until almost evaporated. Add tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Let simmer, covered askew, about 20-30 minutes. Using a wooden spoon, smash the pieces of tomato to break them down a bit. Boil your pasta. Unite with sauce! Add a sprinkling of grated cheese.

tomatoes in Rialto Market in Venice

tomatoes in Rialto Market in Venice