May 2008

Posted on May 31, 2008 in Archives

May 21, 2008 Gnocchi di Patate al Pesto and Grilled Artichokes
I first saw potato gnocchi made in 1982, high up in the Ligurian Appenines, near the village Rossiglione, at Barulè, the home of my friends the Martinis (see photo, below, at May 7). Though barely fifteen miles from Genoa, it took us about an hour in the car to get there through the winding switchbacks that snake through the hills above the Stura Valley. The food of the area is distinctly Ligurian, though the terrain is piedmont. Gavi, the simple white wine of the region, is made on that village’s hills, two valleys over to the northeast (officially in the region known as the Piedmont). As the crow flies, Gavi is barely 10 miles away. North of these hills, the Lombard plains stretch to Milan and beyond, where the rich cuisine is one of butter, rice, pork, and cheese. But in the hills above Genoa, the food is decidedly peasant fare, of foraged greens and mushrooms, homemade pasta, wild strawberries, and, if company is expected, perhaps a yard hen sacrificed to the stewing pot.
At the time, I — and few other Americans — had ever heard of potato gnocchi or pesto. Barely a handful of American restaurants served either. At Barulè, Celeste Martini made hers with just-dug white boiling potatoes in summer — not the drier, well-aged potatoes that many books recommend, and certainly not the mealy Idahos that I know from experience make superior, lighter gnocchi (“cosi leggeri che volano,” an Italian might boast — so light they fly!). I’ve never seen a russet potato in Italy — what we call Idahos or baking potatoes, and I can’t find any evidence of their being grown there. But use them in this recipe and — even if you’re an expert gnocchi maker — you’ll find how much better they are.
I’ve been exchanging emails about gnocchi back and forth with my friend Gianni Martini, who still lives in Genoa and who has transformed the simple Barulè farmhouse into his country home. He wrote:
La ricetta di Celestina prevedere questi ingredienti: patate, farina, acqua e sale. Mia sorella aggiunge all’impasto un rosso d’uovo e un’altra versione prevede di aggiungere un poco di olio di oliva ….
(Celestina’s recipe calls for potato, flour, water, and salt. My sister adds an egg yolk and another version calls for adding a little olive oil ….)
He was quick to add,  se le patate sono molto umide NON sempre è necessaria di mettere anche l’acqua, anzi qualche volta può far diventare l’impasto troppo mollo!
(If the potatoes are very moist, it’s NOT always necessary to add water, for sometimes it can make the pasta too soft!)
In another email, he wrote:
La morbidezza ideale degli gnocchi è dovuta alla giusta quantità di farina e patate, indicativamente 300g farina per un chilo di patate ancora crude. Il tipo di patata ideale per gli gnocchi è la patata bianca e nuova (ultima raccolta che è in estate).
(The ideal texture of gnocchi depends on the right quantitiy of flour and potato, specifically, 300g of flour
[10-1/2 ounces in weight, about 5 cups in volume] per kilo [2.2 pounds] of raw potato. The ideal potato for gnocchi is the newly dug white potato of summer.)
I might say that it’s hard to not fry chicken the way your mother and grandmother did, even if they used Crisco. I’m recommending older potatoes (ones that are “cured,” and NOT recently dug, though they should be perfectly firm to the touch) because they will have less water. Most Italian recipes I’ve found call for boiling or steaming the potatoes, but I use Idahos and simply bake them and mash them immediately after pulling them out of the oven. Matt Kramer, the wine columnist for Wine Spectator, and author of the excellent A Passion for Piedmont (Wm. Morrow, 1997),  does the same, though he uses far more potato in his ratio and adds whole eggs. He rightfully claims that his are “lighter (and better) because of the use of baking potatoes, which you don’t see in Piedmont,” but I swear mine are even more so.
The following recipe is just a description of the method. I usually make gnocchi for just two people, using one baking potato. It’s easy to simply multiply the recipe, but you’ll need a very large countertop if you plan to make gnocchi for more than 4 people. My ratio of potato to flour is identical to Gianni’s: 1 cup of flour (about 5 ounces in weight) to 1 average Idaho (about 1 pound in weight).
Preheat the oven to 400o. Wash one potato for every two people. Pierce one side of the potato in several places, and place directly on an oven rack, pierced side up, and allow to bake until the potato gives to the touch when lightly squeezed, about an hour. Remove from the oven to a clean countertop, holding the potato in a dish towel. Slice the potato in half, then slice it in half again, down to, but not into the skin. Slice those halves in half, also down to, but not into the skin (see photo).
Grab the potato with a towel and squeeze the flesh out away from the skin, onto the counter. I do not discard the skin. Instead, I place it on a baking sheet, drizzle it with olive oil, and heavily season it with salt and pepper and put it back in the oven, which is now turned off. By the time I remember that it’s in there, it will have crisped. It’s the cook’s snack before dinner.
Using a food mill or ricer or simply a potato masher or fork, mash the potato well so that there are no lumps. For each potato, have a cup of all-purpose flour with a pinch of fine salt nearby. I sift 3/4 cup of the flour all over the mashed potato and work at first with a fork or potato masher, then I begin to use my hands to knead it lightly together. Remember, the softer the flour and the lighter the touch, the more delicate the gnocchi. Still, you must thoroughly mix the dough until it will hold together in ropelike strands. I never add egg or water or oil, but will occasionally wet my hands. I begin rolling the dough back and forth, forming a rolling pin shape. I cut that long sausage-like roll into several pieces, covering all but one with a flour-dusted dishcloth. I then roll each of the rolls out until it is 3/4″ thick. I dust with the remaining flour, if necessary, while I work.               
Using a sharp knife, I then cut the dough into gnocchi, about 3/4″ long. Each potato should yield about 75 gnocchi, perfect for two servings.
Using a light, but firm, touch, I roll each gnoccho under the back sides of the tines of a fork, making each one roll up a bit, and leaving an indentation that will hold the sauce (see photo, below).
As soon as all the gnocchi have been made, I make sure that they are not touching each other and I cover them with the flour-dusted dishcloth until cooking. I don’t like them to sit too long, and try to make these shortly before I plan to serve them.
To cook gnochhi, I bring a large pot of water to a boil and add the gnocchi, no more than 25 at a time. They cook in about 2 minutes, rising to the surface. I remove them to a bowl with a skimmer or slotted spoon, and cover them while I cook the remaining gnocchi.
When all the gnocchi are cooked, I add pesto (half the recipe linked to here per two people) and serve immediately with crusty bread and a glass of Gavi, followed by a salad. Last night I grilled baby artichoke quarters and added them to mesclun from our stoop garden.
For the artichokes, I prepared them as for frying (see February 15), purposely leaving one layer of tough leaves on the outside. I halved the cleaned chokes and placed them down in a dressing made of 2/3 olive oil to 1/3 freshly squeezed lemon juice, seasoned well with salt and pepper. I grilled them over a fairly hot fire for about 5 minutes on each side, allowing the outer leaves to char. I then removed them to a platter to cool, pouring the marinade back over them. I then removed the charred leaves, cut the halves in half, and tossed the grilled chokes with the mesclun. Delicious. (See photos, below.)
May 20, 2008: So-Called Baby Artichokes
A couple of weeks ago we went out to eat with some friends to Bistro d’Oc, a Languedocien restaurant in downtown Washington where I ordered the lambs’ brains sautéed with capers. A friend gave me a hard time the next day, asking me if I felt smarter, having eaten “baby lambs’ brains,” to which I gave her a hard time, telling her that only humans have babies and that “baby lamb” is redundant and imbued with a type of moralizing about food that I don’t appreciate. But mine is an uphill battle when even the National Zoo labels its kits, cubs, pups and calves, “babies.”
This morning I went to our big local supermarket on the way home from the gym and saw a package of so-called “Baby Artichokes.” I had to laugh because I remember having the same battle with my editor at Workman when I wrote The Fearless Frying Cookbook. She won, as you can see in the photo. At the store, I got into a spirited conversation with an lovely woman whose name is Yvette. We were talking mostly about the upcoming presidential election, but when she saw me grab the pack of artichokes, she wanted to know how to prepare them. I posted the recipe from that book on February 15. At the checkout counter, the person ringing up my purchases also wanted to know. I gave them both my card. What amazes me about the producers of these chokes is that the recipes that they offer are so wasteful, instructing you to remove all but the tiniest center of the choke, as though they were large and mature ones. (See the last paragraph of the blog entry above this one.)
May 16, 2008: Of Family, Gardening, and Leftovers
Many of you have asked where I’ve been the past couple of weeks. Lots of my time I’ve spent in communication with my family members and doctors concerning my father’s health. He’s been diagnosed with a serious illness and we are all trying to figure out the best path to take to maximize his comfort. When my mother was stricken with leukemia in the early 1980s. he cared for her lovingly around the clock for over a year. We want to be sure that he receives at least that much care. I would like to thank those of you who have been in touch with your concern. I’m truly appreciative.
I’ve also been attending to spring gardening chores, both at home and at our friends’ country home where I often reap the benefits of their fruit trees and vegetable plants. Last weekend in their garden we planted heirloom seedlings that I had raised in trays only to have 5 inches of rain on Sunday and Monday. I feared few would have survived, but Chuck called me today from the Eastern Shore and said that no plants were lost! It was unseasonably cold last weekend, so I cooked a leg of lamb. This week I’ve dealt with its leftovers.
The cooler weather has also afforded me a bumper crop of salad greens that normally would have begun to burn up in the heat on my stoop by now. I’ve got several long rectangular pots of meslun that have provided us with a half dozen salads already, as well as pots sporting healthy crops of two kinds of arugula. Rocket (from the French, roquette), as arugula was called in colonial days (when it was a common kitchen garden plant), is one of my favorite greens. In 1995 I brought back seeds of wild rocket (Rucola selvatica in Italian), from Puglia, where it grows nearly everywhere you look, amongst the dolmen and olives, the poppies and wheat, the figs and vines. Its taste is much brighter than the common garden variety, though domestication has softened its famous aftertaste somewhat. Its “slimmer, sharper form” (as Elizabeth Schnedier has described it) is slower growing (50 days to maturity) than common rocket, but it is much tastier. Look for the Franchi brand in finer garden shops or online at www.growitalian.com. The scientific nomenclature is mind-boggling, the way it often is for members of the vast Brassicaceae or Cruciferae plant families. Type “rucola selvatica” into a search engine and you’ll see what I mean. Though often classified as annuals, both varieties grow as perennials here in the Mid-Atlantic and will naturalize and spread. One of my favorite ways to serve them is in a salad with walnuts and apples:
Arugula Salad with Walnuts and Apples
3/8 cup walnut oil
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tart apples, cored and sliced
8 cups arugula leaves, preferably the “wild” kind
1/2 cup toasted walnut pieces
Beat the oils and lemon juice together, season with salt and pepper to taste, and, just before serving, pour over the other ingredients and toss well.
Serves 4.
Kasha and Lamb Strudel
Kasha, toasted buckwheat groats, is a delicious alternative to pasta, rice, couscous, or polenta. And unlike bulgur, made from wheat, it is a perfect dish to serve folks with gluten allergies. The word, which is Romanian via Russian, doesn’t even appear in my edition of the OED, from 1988, which attests, I think, to the longstanding effects of the Iron Curtain. Kasha is country food, made by peasants from wheat, millet, and barley, as well as buckwheat. In George Lang’s seminal The Cuisine of Hungary (Atheneum, 1971), his kása recipe calls for millet. He wrote, “This is ancient Hungarian food, perhaps somewhat strange and certainly very hearty. … The closest English equivalent for the word kása is ‘porridge,’ but porridge suggests something quite different. The word is Slavic in origin; according to a Russian proverb, ‘We all consider kása a mother.”
My friend, the great food writer Elizabeth Schneider (whom I often quote here, as on arugula, above), wrote in 1982, “Why buckwheat (in its roasted form called kasha) is not universally adored is incomprehensible to me. In the United States it seems to be appreciated almost exclusively by the descendants of Central Europeans and by ‘health-food’ fanatics.” In her recipe, she paired the nutty grain with cabbage and walnuts in phyllo, serving it with a yogurt dill sauce.
Her recipe was a point of departure for the following. Typically, kasha is served as a side dish, tossed in a skillet with beaten egg, then simmered in broth, covered (which is to say “steamed”) until it is has absorbed the liquid, like rice. Mushrooms and onions are more common additions than not. I’ve replaced the walnuts in Elizabeth’s dish with mushrooms, added leftover lamb, and put the walnuts in the salad, above. I serve it with the cucumber-yogurt salad (raita) from The New Southern Cook.
My meal is perhaps more Middle Eastern than Middle European, though Paul Kovi’s Transylvanian Cuisine (Crown, 1985) describes the kása of the Sabbatarians as filling “short pastry or strudel dough with goose or pheasant meat, or fish.” Because I found beautiful fresh okra in the supermarket, I bought some to accompany this meal. The meal is beginning to sound more Greek or Turkish or Indian, but I haven’t got time to do more research today: we’ve got a lively social weekend planned, including a review dinner out tonight with Tom Sietsema, the Washington Post’s restaurant critic, tonight. If you’re interested in following culinary pathways, for this meal you might start with yogurt. Wikipedia’s entry gives you an idea of how far-reaching and complicated culinary history can be.
Most of my cooking is done with an eye toward tradition, but without recipes. While preparing this meal serendipity played several roles. After preparing the garlic and olive oil for the raita, for example, I then placed the walnuts for the salad in the same pan and roasted them in the oven preheating for the strudel. Similarly, I found the plain yogurt I had in my refrigerator very watery, so I drained it as for yogurt “cheese,” more at Greek yogurt, which you can now buy. My tried and true recipe for raita calls for two cucumbers, but in fact I used one large one. I implore you to use your own personal experience, your intuition, and your common sense when following recipes. In other words, season to taste!
This recipe will make three strudel rolls from one of the two packages that come in the one-pound packs of frozen phyllo dough found in most supermarkets. The three rolls will serve 6 people. Mikel and I only ate one of the rolls, and I froze the remaining two.
I almost never use my microwave, but I did put the butter in a glass bowl and zapped it for about 40 seconds to melt it. After mincing the mushrooms in the food processor, I use the same bowl to chop the parsley leaves.
I used leftover cooked lamb leg in the recipe, but you could also use fresh lamb meat. Just sauté it before using it if you do.
Kasha is now widely available in supermarkets. I buy the medium grind. Wolff’s is a reliable brand.
Remove one of the inner packages of a one-pound box of frozen phyllo dough from the freezer several hours before you plan to serve this meal. It should thaw at room temperature for about two hours.
8 ounces mushrooms
3 tablespoons unsalted butter plus 9 tablespoons, melted (total 1-1/2 sticks)
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
6 ounces cooked lamb
ground cumin, cayenne, and cinnamon to taste
1/2 cup kasha
1 large egg, beaten
1 to 1-1/4 cups broth, stock, or bouillon of your choice, boiling
1 loosely packed cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, minced (1/4 cup minced)
20-24 sheets (one inner package from a frozen, one-pound box) phyllo dough
Rub any debris off the mushrooms and place them in the work bowl of a food processor and mince fine. You should have about 2 cups, minced. Over medium heat, melt 3 tablespoons of butter in a heavy skillet that has a lid and add the minced mushrooms, seasoning them to taste with salt and pepper. You want to cook almost all of the water out of the mushrooms, for about 10 minutes. Add the onion and lamb, stir well, and turn down the heat to medium low. Sprinkle with the cumin, cayenne, and cinnamon, seasoning the mixture to taste. Cook until the meat sweats and the onions are translucent, about another 10 minutes.
Add the kasha and the beaten egg, stirring them into the mixture, scrambling the egg and mixing everything together well for about 1 or 2 minutes. Add 1 cup of the boiling broth, stir well, set at a simmer, cover, and cook for 5 to 10 minutes or until the broth is absorbed and the kasha is no longer crunchy. Add another 1/4 cup of broth if needed.
Turn off the heat and dump the mixture out onto a cool ceramic platter or marble or granite slab, fluffing the mixture with a fork to separate the kasha grains. Allow to cool completely, then evenly toss the parsley into the mixture (see photo).
About an hour and a half before you are ready to serve dinner, assemble your ingredients for the strudel. You will need four work areas: one to hold the unfilled phyllo leaves, one to hold the leaves being filled, one for the filling, and one to hold the baking sheet. Preheat the oven to 425o and either lightly grease a baking sheet or use a pan lined with a silicone baking sheet such as those made by Silpat.
Wet two dish towels and wring them out. Place one on a counter and cover with a piece of wax paper. Have your melted butter and a pastry brush nearby. Open the roll of phyllo sheets and place on a clean countertop. Cover with the covering that wrapped the roll of sheets or with another sheet of wax paper and cover with the second damp towel to keep the phyllo from drying out.
Lay one sheet of phyllo on the clean wax paper and paint it with a coat of melted butter. Layer a second sheet on top and paint with butter, continuing until you have done 7 or 8 sheets (the phyllo packages typically hold 20 to 24 sheets; this recipe makes three strudels).
Place a third of the filling on the near side of the strudel sheets. Using the wax paper to help you, lift up the edge and fold it over, tucking the filling into a the bottom third of the sheets. Fold the ends over to seal them, tucking any stray pieces of filling into the roll, and fold over like a burrito, but not too tight. Lift the filled strudel up onto the baking pan, then paint with more of the butter.
Continue the process to make two more rolls, then refrigerate the strudels to firm the butter.
At this point you can wrap the strudels well, label them, and freeze them for use later. They won’t be quite as crispy when cooked later, but they will still be scrumptious. Thaw them in the refrigerator overnight, unwrap them, place them on a greased baking sheet, and allow to come to room temperature before baking, as follows.
Place in the preheated oven for 10 minutes, then turn down the heat to 350o and bake for an additional 25 to 30 minutes or until golden brown. Serve with raita, below, the arugula and walnut salad, and another vegetable of your choice. I served okra (recipe follows).
Steamed Okra

I love okra and have never understood why other folks don’t. Its mucilaginous qualities put some folks off, but if you have beautiful, just-picked okra with no signs of brown or frozen whole pods, you can steam it so that it’s not slimy at all.
You will need 1/4 pound of fresh okra per person. Trim the okra just where the stem begins, down to, but not into, the pods (see photo). Put a very small amount of water in a pan, add the okra and cover tightly. Cook over medium high heat, so that the okra steams, for 7 to10 minutes, or until a knife easily pierces the okra pods and they are still bright green. All of the water cook will probably cook out of the pot. Open the lid, pour off any water,  and dress the okra with a bit of butter and salt and pepper to taste.
Cucumbers and Yogurt (Raita or Tzatziki)
With its vibrant history of merchant ships and the heavy English influence of colonial days, the South has long revered the foods of India. Curries and rice dishes such as Chicken Country Captain are favorites both here and on the subcontinent, and the vast array of chutneys, relishes, and pickles that accompany them appear virtually the same in both cuisines. Many side dishes, such as this one inspired by an Indian raita are meant to complement the main dish, though I like it alone as well.
The same dish is called tzatziki in Greece. The word is dervied from the Turkish word for chutney. Cooling dishes such as these are meant to compliment spicy ones. The words, and dishes, travelled around the globe following the trade, spice, and slave routes.
I puree leftovers of this dish with a clear tomato soup (see below) and serve it cold, garnished with a little dill. The dill is a refreshing touch, and raitas from northern India often include it. You may use cilantro or mint, or both, if you prefer. With this lamb dish, I used both dill and mint.
2 large cucumbers
salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup plain yogurt
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh dill leaves or a combination of dill and mint
Peel the cucumbers and slice in half lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds and cut the halfs into several strips. Place them in a colander and sprinkle heavily with salt. Allow them to drain for about 30 minutes.
In a very small pan over medium heat, cook the garlic in the oil for about 2 minutes. Do not let it brown. Add to the yogurt and stir in well. Add the dill leaves, with no stems, and mix in well.
Wipe the cucumbers dry with a paper or cloth towel, then dice them. Add them to the yoghurt and mix well. Refrigerate for an hour before serving.
Serves 3 to 4.
Tomato Bouillon (photo © by Kelly Bugden, from
This is an elegant soup, flavorful and bright, the perfect starter for a spring or summer meal. If you can’t find vine-ripened tomatoes, use the best canned ones available, San Marzano if available. I first had it at the table of Bessie Hanahan. Bessie’s cook, Lucille Grant, long considered one of Charleston’s best, prepared the soup for us after Bessie first saw the recipe in the Ft. Lauderdale Jr. League cookbook, but it has become our own.
I puree the leftovers of this soup with the yogurt-cucumber salad (above) and serve it cold.
1 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup finely diced carrot
1/4 cup finely diced celery
4 tablespoons butter
6 medium vine-ripe tomatoes, cut into wedges (about 5 cups), or one 28-ounce can plus one 14-1/2 ounce
       can of high-quality tomatoes
2-1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon salt
several sprigs of fresh parsley, plus a little extra for garnish
1 sprig of fresh cut thyme
1 bay leaf
i quart chicken stock
freshly ground white pepper
1/2 cup sour cream or crème fraîche (optional)
fresh chives (optional)
Sauté the onion, carrot, and celery in the butter in a large sauté pan until the vegetables are soft, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes, the tomato paste, the garlic, the salt, and the herbs. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, reduce the heat, cover the pan, and allow to simmer for 20 minutes. Strain well.
Add the stock to the sauté pan, then add the strained tomato mixture. Simmer for another 15 minutes, then correct the seasoning with white pepper. Strain a second time if desired.
Serve warm, garnished, if desired, with a dollop of sour cream or crème fraîche and a few chives.
Makes 6 servings.
Debbie Recommends: Bordeaux Blanc Appellation Contrôlée.
May 7, 2008: Frittate e Sorbetti
The answer to the old “if you were on a desert island and could only have two foods” question has always been an easy one for me: I’d ask for eggs and, in lieu of a second food, something to help me catch fish. I all but lived on eggs and beer in college, and I’m sure I could live on eggs and fish if I had to; I love them both so. I don’t eat eggs as much as I used to, but there’s hardly a preparation of them that I don’t like, from simply poached to sweet concoctions with the whites such as angel food cake and meringues. I also adore custards, though I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. I’m a sucker for the eggy sauces, mayonnaise and hollandaise, and cannot resist a platter of devilled eggs.When I lived in northern Italy, I was struck by the similarities among many of their traditional foods and the foods of the American South. Polenta was no more than cornmeal mush. The profusion of ice creams and other desserts laid bare a sweet tooth as bad as southerners’. The eggplants and tomatoes in their markets looked like many backyard gardens back home. And, up in the hills behind Genoa, with its well-seasoned cast iron skillets, wood-burning stoves, and the use of wild greens, the cooking, like the culture, was not unlike that of the southern reaches of Appalachia.

We would go to the home of the Martinis (see photo, above), the parents of my friend Gianni, in the Ligurian Appenines, where we would base ourselves for early morning and late afternoon mushroom hunts. Celeste, his mother,  would cook an omelet filled with wild greens in her pot-bellied stove fueled by fruit-tree cuttings. In Genoa, Gianni would cook his frittata on top of the stove, inverting the omelet onto a plate after the eggs had set and sliding it back into the skillet to complete the cooking. This country omelet is more closely akin to Spain’s filled with potatoes than to its loftier French cousin. And with its mixed potherbs, the frittata, as it’s called in Italy, rightfully belongs in any southern cook’s repertory.

To approximate the taste of wild Ligurian or Appalachian potherbs, I combine a good handful of herbs with about a pound of leafy green vegetables, always including some bitter greens. I might include a few leaves each of mitsuba (Japanese parsley) from my herb garden, along with chicory, French sorrel, sage, basil, lovage, chervil, hyssop, and a little tansy. Borage is invariably included in Liguria, as is wild marjoram. To these, I add about a pound of whatever mixed greens are available from the greengrocer (and there’s usually a preponderance) — a handful each of Swiss chard, spinach, watercress, parsley, arugula, kale, and mustard and beet greens. When serving three or four, I remove the outer leaves from three heads of Belgian endive and add them to the mix, reserving the rest as a bed for a salad. Washed, picked clean and drained, the herbs and greens should weigh about a pound, still wet. They will fill an average colander — about 12 loosely packed cups.

I bake these Italian-inspired omelets in well-seasoned cast-iron pans, then place the skillets in closed cardboard boxes to keep them warm to take on fall picnics. I serve them with a salad of onions and roasted peppers, or fennel and tomatoes, or pickled beets.

These recipes are mere guidelines. I rarely follow a recipe when making frittata, but I do use these proportions. Last night I added leftover cooked broccoli raab (see May 1, below), roasted peppers, and diced, cooked potato to the eggs (see photo).

Frittata or Rustic Omelet of Potherbs and Potatoes

For the potherbs:
a handful of fresh herbs of your choice
1 pound of fresh mixed greens, including some bitter ones (see text above)

Fill the sink with cold water and add the herbs and greens. Shake them around in the water until they are free of all dirt and sand. It may take several changes of water. Stem the greens, discarding any blemished or yellow leaves, and place the greens in a colander to drain. It should be full of greens (about 12 loosely packed cups). Drained but still wet, they should weigh about a pound.

With kitchen shears in one hand, grab handfuls of the washed greens. Over a large kettle set on low heat, cut the greens into small pieces, allowing them to fall into the empty pot. Cook the greens with only the water that clings to them over low heat, uncovered, stirring frequently, for about 15 minutes, or until they are completely wilted but still bright green.

Remove the greens from the pot and drain, squeezing all of the juice from them by twisting them in a clean towel. Reserve the juice for use in vegetable soups. Set the prepared potherbs aside.

For the omelet:
2 tablespoons olive oil
8 to 10 eggs
salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 pound (2 to 3 medium) potatoes, cooked, peeled, and diced
prepared potherbs (above)

Turn on the oven broiler. (See Note.) In a well-seasoned, 10-inch, cast iron skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Swirl it so that the bottom and sides of the pan are coated.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs until foamy. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then add the potatoes and potherbs. Pour the mixture into the skillet and lower the heat. Sprinkle the top of the omelet with salt and pepper.

Cook over low heat until the frittata is well set, about 10 to 12 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally, and running a knife between the edge of the omelet and the pan, letting any of the egg mixture trickle down the sides so that it is evenly cooked. When well set, remove the pan from the burner and put the omelet under the broiler, about 4 inches from the heat. Cook until it is puffy and golden, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the oven and let the omelet cool in the pan a few minutes before serving it warm, or at room temperature, from the skillet.
Serves 4 to 6.
Debbie Recommends: A white wine from Bordeaux or Gascony.

Frittata of Grilled Vegetables

1 eggplant, average size
salt
1 ripe tomato, average size
1 fennel bulb
1/4 cup olive oil, divided
8 to 10 eggs
freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil

Slice the eggplant lengthwise into several thick slices. Place them in a colander and sprinkle liberally with salt. Turn the slices over and sprinkle the other side. Leave to drain.

Build a charcoal fire or preheat a gas grill to medium hot. Cut the tomato in half horizontally and place cut sides down on a platter. Core the fennel bulb and place it with the tomato. When the eggplant has drained some of its moisture and the fire is hot, wipe the salt from the eggplant slices with a paper or cloth towel and add them to the platter.

Lightly brush the eggplant slices, the tomato skins, and the fennel with some of the olive oil, then place them on the grill, oiled sides down. Cover the grill and cook until the eggplant is scored with grill marks and the tomato skin shrinks from the flesh. Lightly brush the top sides of the vegetables and turn them. Cook for a few minutes on the second side, then remove to the platter.

Peel the eggplant slices and dice them. Core, peel, seed, and dice the tomato halves. Chop the fennel bulb. Pat any excess moisture or oil off the vegetables.

Turn on the oven broiler. (See Note.) In a well-seasoned, 10-inch, cast iron skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Swirl it so that the bottom and sides of the pan are coated.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs until foamy. Season to taste with salt and pepper (remembering that the eggplant may be salty), then add the grilled vegetables. Pour the mixture into the skillet and lower the heat. Sprinkle the top of the omelet with salt, pepper, and the chopped basil.

Cook over low heat until the frittata is well-set, about 10 to 12 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally, and running a knife between the edge of the omelet and the pan, letting any of the egg mixture trickle down the sides so that it is evenly cooked.

When well-set, remove the pan from the burner and put the omelet under the broiler, about 4 inches from the heat. Cook until it is puffy and golden, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the oven and let the omelet cool in the pan a few minutes before serving it warm, or at room temperature, from the skillet.
Serves 4 to 6.
Note: These omelets can be baked entirely in the oven at 350o for about 45 minutes instead of cooking them on top of the stove.
Debbie Recommends: Rully Blanc from the Côte Chalonnaise.

Sorbet

Frank Lee, one of a handful of Charleston chefs who are actually southern (and he is a native South Carolinian to boot!), taught me to make sorbet according to an ancient French method:

Grind your fruit, strain it well, and add sugar syrup till it floats an egg. Freeze and serve.

He taught me the method after I tasted his incomparably delicious, sweet and sour sorbet made from local muscadines that he served me at Slightly North of Broad in Charleston many years ago.

Muscadines, scuppernongs, catawbas, and concords are native American “slip-skin” varieties of grapes that are known for their tough and tart skins and their insanely sweet flesh that clings to the seeds. For pies and tarts, the skinning and seeding of the grapes is a real labor of love, But for sorbet, you simply grind the grapes, seeds and all, in a food processor and strain it well. Two pounds of grapes will yield about 2 cups of juice.

Sugar syrup is made by dissolving sugar in half the same quantity of water. I put the sugar in a pan on the stove and being heating it while stirring, stopping the second that all the sugar crystals are dissolved, then setting it aside to completely cool. A cup of sugar dissolved in ½ cup of water will yield about 1-1/2 cups of sugar syrup. It only takes about 1-1/4 cups of syrup to float an egg in 2 cups of muscadine juice. You can store leftover syrup tightly sealed in a sterilized, covered jar in the refrigerator, but I’m not sure for how long. I’ve had sugar syrup last for months; other times it has molded, so do be sure to sterilize the jar and lid.

Use a fresh egg in the shell and lower it down into an upright container such as a plastic pitcher holding the fruit juice. Slowly pour the cooled sryup into the juice while stirring gently. As the sugar density increases, the egg will rise to the surface. Stop adding syrup when about ¼ of the egg floats above the surface. The sorbet mixture will probably taste very sweet, but will not taste as sweet when it is frozen.

I simply freeze the sorbet in my Donvier hand-cranked ice cream maker that I store in my freezer. Follow the instructions on your machine, or, if you don’t have one, you can freeze the sorbet in a metal bowl, opening the freezer every ten minutes and whisking it with a heavy whisk, until it has reached the desired consistency. Store in airtight plastic containers in the freezer and eat as soon as possible.

When I have houseguests, the way I have had the past two weekends, I always like to have a big tub of cut-up fruit in the refrigerator for breakfast. I typically cut up cantaloupe, oranges, and pineapple. Sometimes I add mango and/or berries. And I always add fresh banana, but only as it’s served. If there is any left over, I remove any banana pieces.

After my guests have left, I puree the cut up fruit (adding more if necessary) to make a mixed fruit sorbet, following these guidelines. If the fruit is less than ripe, poach it in the sugar syrup (and peaches, pears, and plums will always taste better if poached first). If you want your sorbet to be creamy, add a touch of alcohol (such as raspberry liqueur or a flavored vodka), but go lightly: too much alcohol will keep the sorbet from freezing, the way too much sugar will. The sorbet in the photo above was made from three-day-old fruit salad of melon, oranges, pineapple, and blackberries pureed with a splash of Triple Sec. I added about 1/2 cup of sugar syrup to a cup of pureed fruit. When it just began to taste too sweet, I stopped adding syrup and froze the mixture. It’s delicious.

You can add herbs for intriguing flavors, but it’s best, I’ve found, to add them to the sugar syrup just as it the crystals melt. You can remove the herbs after the syrup has cooled. I also like to use lavender sugar (see November 12, 2007) to make the syrup.

May 2, 2008: Fennel
It was the week of my twelfth birthday when Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published, forever changing the way Americans thought about food. My father was in Europe with Fritz Hollings, then Governor of South Carolina, trying to attract foreign industry to the state. My mother, perhaps then more than ever, was totally immersed in her cooking; Dad was always bringing home fabulous bottles of rare vintages and stories of meals in the world’s finest restaurants. We would take family trips to New York or San Francisco and stay in fairly modest hotels, but always dine in the best eateries. Friends would ask me at school what we had eaten at home the night before, then roar with laughter when I would say “squid” — which they knew I would have had to go buy at the bait shop in the “colored” neighborhood. It’s not that people were racist — though some certainly were. It’s just that this was Orangeburg, South Carolina, in a very different time. (Just two years before Hollings was elected, Strom Thurmond had spoken for 24 hours and 27 minutes AGAINST civil rights, setting a filibuster record.) Mother would have the local grocers bring in flats of vegetables they had never heard of, and then she would get her bridge club to buy them with her. I loved going to Mary Fanning’s house for Sieva beans or to Louis Rosen’s for fried chicken — we had to beg for “normal” food at home. But how I loved my mother’s cooking!I would come home from school and find her immersed in the enormous tome, Larousse Gastronomique — also published that year, or poring over the Julia Child collaboration. But never once did I see a cookbook in the kitchen. Mother taught me early on that recipes were merely guides, and that books were to be treated with care. She was a natural in the kitchen, but she was continually expanding her culinary repertoire. When she died in 1982, I inherited her enormous collection of cookbooks, all in pristine condition. To this day I do not take recipes literally nor take my cookbooks into the kitchen. Like Mother, I might find some beautiful fennel at the farmers’ market, then come home and read what Elizabeth Schneider or Richard Olney or the editors of Larousse have written about the vegetable, then go into the kitchen on my own. If I do want to follow a recipe, I make notes on little slips of paper.

I find Mastering the Art of French Cooking difficult to follow, misleading, and a far cry from the French food I love — cookbooks have come a long way in the past 40 years and I have lived in France and know the real thing. But Julia Child did help lift the American cook out of the drudgery of the kitchen of gloppy casseroles, and set her free to soar through the uncharted constellations of the univers culinaire. I’m also no fan of Julia’s, having personally suffered an unwarranted attack once, but Mastering the Art does have its brilliant moments: the first recipe in the first chapter, for potage parmentier (leek or onion and potato soup), begins: “Leek and potato soup smells good, tastes good, and is simplicity itself to make. It is also versatile as a soup base; add watercress and you have a watercress soup, or stir in cream and chill for a vichyssoise. To change the formula a bit, add carrots, string beans, cauliflower, broccoli, or anything you think would go with it, and vary the proportions as you wish.”

Fennel is something I think goes with it very well, and, contrary to what many books say, it is now readily available in mid-summer. A common plant in 18th century Charleston kitchen gardens, fennel — or finocchio — had all but disappeared from the local culinary vernacular until the late 1980s when it began appearing in supermarkets. It was once so commonly planted in the Southeast that it has naturalized locally in some areas. Old homesites along riverbanks are often dotted with the feathery, dill-like stalks of “wild” or “dog” fennel. Native to the Mediterranean and southern Asia, finocchio probably came to the Lowcountry with early Greek settlers, though by the time of Senator Thurmond’s filibuster, when Charleston’s Ladies of the Philoptochos Society compiled its excellent Popular Greek Recipes, it was no longer mentioned.

Fennel’s flavor is often compared to licorice (which belongs to a completely different plant family) or to anise (only vaguely related) and many grocers have the annoying habit of marketing it as anise, adding to the confusion. Some might find fennel’s sweet, celery-like crispness more to their liking than the bittersweetness of aniseed. When I lived in Italy, we would dip fresh, chilled ribs of raw fennel into salted olive oil as an appetizer, in the same way Sandlappers (residents of the lowcountry) might dunk celery in pimiento cheese. Perhaps THE classic preparation is “à la Grecque,” that is, poached in a seasoned court bouillon and served chilled. In southern France, fish is grilled over a fire of the dried stalks. You can stuff fresh stalks into the cavity of whole, oily fish such as blues or Spanish mackerels for a similar effect.

Tonight I made this elegant, simple soup, that is delicious either hot or cold.

Fennel Soup

Buy fennel bulbs with the feathery stalks attached. For every 2 servings you will need about a cup of chopped fennel bulb, a 1/4 cup of loosely packed, chopped fennel leaves without stems, and 2 cups of the stock of your choice. I buy an extra fennel plant and make stock the night before with the fennel as the predominant aromatic in the stockpot.

For the soup, sauté the fennel in a little butter with sliced leek or onion, then add the stock to the pan with a 1/2 pound of peeled and diced potatoes for every two people. Add some salt to taste (Julia says to oversalt as “salt loses savor in a cold dish”) and simmer until all the vegetables are tender, about 45 minutes. Put the fennel leaves in the bowl of a food processor and chop fine, then add the soup in batches, and purée it. Correct the seasoning and add some whipping cream if desired. Chill, then serve in chilled bowls with a garnish of more fennel leaves, fresh dill, or chives.

May 1, 2008: Mama and Ducks 

My mother, who would have turned 88 yesterday, was a very good cook, limited only somewhat by the selections that the grocers in our small southern town offered. I say “somewhat” because if she wanted something that they normally didn’t carry, such as artichokes or capers, she would get the grocers to special order it for her, and if she had to buy an entire flat or case, she would convince the members of her bridge and garden clubs to share it with her, thus expanding the culinary horizons of everyone in her circle of friends. Of course, Charleston, with its long and illustrious culinary history, wasn’t far away, and we always shopped at Harold’s Cabin there, where we could buy good wines, cheeses, and charcuterie even in the 1950s. Living in the mostly rural South, however, was not the culinary wasteland you might imagine: nearly everyone had a kitchen garden of sorts, and squash, watermelons, tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers were always available from someone’s plot in the summer. Many yards had figs, pears, plums, and pecans. Malossol caviar, from Atlantic sturgeon, was cured in Georgetown, South Carolina, no farther away than Charleston, and Columbia, the state capital, was only 40 miles away. At Asmer’s, in Columbia’s Five Points, my father often bought wine to fill our “cellar.” We didn’t have an actual cellar in the lowcountry, but he would send me into the crawl space under the house with the finer bottles to lay down. Some of those wines, such as the 1949 Chambolle Musigny he had bought as futures when I was born, lay there undisturbed for nearly 30 years.We also supplemented our larder with squirrels, rabbits, quail, dove, frogs, freshwater bass and bream, and wild ducks; deer hunters shared venison with us as well. Shrimp, flounder, and crab were available on a nearly daily basis. Dad hunted less and less as his income increased and his hobbies segued from sports cars to boats, but I have always loved fish and game of all kinds, and grew to love farm-raised duck when I lived in France. I can’t remember ever having “Long Island duckling,” as it’s often called, when I was growing up, but for the past 20 years, I’ve bought fresh ducks nearly every time I’ve found them. Today duck has (finally) come into favor with the American public (as fat fears seem to have mercifully receded) and I often see packages of fresh breasts and legs in my local supermarket. I think my waste-not/want-not mother would be thrilled to see what all I do with these birds.

I often make confit by cooking the legs in duck fat in a slow cooker, but duck breasts are probably my favorite “red” meat. (see December 20, 2007, for more duck recipes). While I’m a fool for slow-roasted duck that falls from the bone, I love duck breasts cooked quickly and separately from the rest of the body, or cured in salt and served as prosciutto. The French call a boneless breast of duck a magret. To obtain two magrets from a duck, place a whole unskinned duck on its back, with its neck end toward you, on a cutting board. Slice down the very center the full length of the bird, through the skin and flesh to the breastbone, then down along the breastbone on each side. Attached to the breastbone there is a narrow strip of meat which has a tendon running through it. The breast halves will easily separate from this “tenderloin.” Bring the tip of the knife down to the wishbone, which forms an arch around the neck cavity, and cut the breast meat free from it on each side. Then, holding a breast half in one hand and the knife in the other, pull each breast half away from the rib cage, running the knife over the “tenderloin” and along the rib cage. Pull the halves out away from the body, and slice them free from the wing joints. At this point, you may use kitchen shears, if you prefer, to cut around the magrets to free them completely from the body. This method may be unorthodox in butchering circles, but it is easy for even the novice, and eliminates the possibility of cutting into the flesh of the breast. If not using the rest of the duck immediately, sprinkle it with salt and return it to the refrigerator.

Duck Breast Hams

I like to serve thin slices of this “ham” with melon or with preserved fruit such as pear chutney (see the recipe at December 17, 2007) or plum sauce (see below). Take two duck breasts with skin attached and rub them with a mixture of  1 tablespoon of pure salt and 1 teaspoon of herbes de Provence or my herbal mix (recipe at February 4, 2008). Place the breasts on a nonreactive plate in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, drain off any liquid that may have gathered, wipe the breasts dry, and wrap each magret in several layers of cheesecloth. If you live in a cool, dry climate, you can hang them in an airy place to cure. In the Lowcountry and other warm and humid environments, you’ll need to refrigerate them, suspended, so that they don’t touch each other or other objects. They will be cured in about a week. Remove them from the cheesecloth and slice as thinly as possible.

Plum Sauce
Use this simple sauce with game dishes and as a foil for hot and spicy grilled items.
1-1/2 cups pitted ripe plums
1/2 cup port or a bold, fruity wine such as a homemade plum or berry wine or an Australian red
Simmer the fruit and the wine together in a saucepan for a few minutes, until it begins to thicken, strain well, and cool to room temperature before serving.Duck Breasts on the Grill

Several hours before eating, slice the skin of each duck breast down to, but not into, the flesh, in three or four evenly spaced places. A cup of freshly picked mixed herbs from the garden, several cloves of garlic, and a teaspoon of dried herbs mixed with salt (see my herbal mix at February 4, 2008) are thrown into the work bowl of the food processor and evenly ground to coat each set of magrets. Put them on a nonreactive plate, covered, in the refrigerator until ready to grill.

Build a charcoal fire off to one side in a covered grill and let it burn until the coals are all evenly gray. Place the duck breasts, skin side down, on the grill several inches over the fire, and cook them until the skin is seared and cooked crispy brown, about 4 or 5 minutes. Fat from the duck may drip into the coals and ignite. If so, move the breasts to the side of the grill not over the fire, and cover the grill. Close all of the grill vents if necessary to kill the flames. After the skin side is cooked, turn the duck breasts over and place them on the fireless side of the grill. Continue cooking for no more than three minutes. The breast should be rare, springing back when poked with a finger. Allow the meat to rest for a few minutes, then slice diagonally into several pieces, through the slashes already made in the skin. Serve immediately.

Duck Breasts with Leeks and Pears

This is a dish I came up with at my friend Richard Little’s house many moons ago. I hesitate to say that I “invented” or “created” the dish since it’s based on traditional ideas from several cultures, nor will I say that I “developed” the recipe because it happened one night exactly as I present it here and I’ve never changed it. I’ve known Richard for nearly 30 years. He owned a gay club in Charleston, but when he saw AIDS coming in the early 80s, he decided to dedicate his life to its eradication. He became a widely respected doctor and has specialized in AIDS-related malignancies at the NIH for 15 years; he moved over to the Cancer Institute last year. It’s been great living in the same town with him again. He recently began building a new kitchen at his Dupont Circle home and I look forward to its completion so that we can inspire each other again therein.

You will need a Chinese bamboo steamer, or something equivalent, for this recipe. As the pears need not be ripe, you can make this at any time of the year, but in the Lowcountry I used to make it in late summer when the hard, local Keiffer pears were in season.

About Pears
To test a pear for ripeness, grasp it like a grenade and push down firmly on the shoulder near the stem with your thumb. A pear just shy of ripeness will give slightly. For this recipe, you don’t want fully ripe pears, but if you want to eat the pears out of hand or with cheese after dinner, be sure that the pear easily gives way to the pressure of your thumb. Pears, like bananas, will continue to ripen after you purchase them. I rarely buy them perfectly ripe, unless I intend to eat them on the same day. The French say, “Il y a justement dix minutes dans la vie d’une poire” – there are exactly ten minutes in the life of a pear (when it’s perfectly ripe). When I lived in France,

I could buy dozens of varieties of pears – some for cooking and some for dessert, and heirloom varieties have been appearing in American farmers markets for years. For this recipe, however, I’d suggest the commonly available Anjou variety, available from fall through spring in most supermarkets, or the Bartlett, from midsummer to December. If you buy pears to eat out of hand, choose ones that are almost ripe, put them in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator, and take them out early in the morning on the day that you plan to serve them.2 leeks
1 cup duck or chicken stock
2 magrets (see text, above), with skin
salt and pepper
3 partially ripe pears (see About Pears, above)

Cut off most of the green from the leeks and slice them vertically in half down to the base. Rinse them thoroughly under cold running water until they are free of grit, then cut off the base and slice them into thin vertical strips. Put them in a skillet or wok over which a bamboo or stainless steel steamer will fit, cover with the stock, and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer. Score the skin of the duck in a crosshatch pattern, slicing it  down to, but not into, the flesh. Sprinkle the breasts with salt and pepper. In a hot frying pan, sear the duck breasts by cooking them skin side down until the skin is crispy and brown. Remove the pan from the heat and turn the breasts over on the other side to sear quickly, then remove the breasts to the steamer, skin side up.

Peel, halve, and core the pears, and slice in thin slices vertically. Add the slices to the leeks, put the steamer with the breasts on top of the pan, cover the steamer, and allow the breasts to steam in the leek and pear vapors for about seven minutes. Remove the breasts to a cutting board to relax for a few minutes.

The breasts should be medium rare, and the juices should flow clearly when sliced. Slice the breasts on the bias, diagonally, through the cuts already made, and serve with the pear and leek mixture and other accompaniments (see below for suggestions).
Yields 2 servings.
Sometimes I serve this with green beans that have been parboiled, then stir-fried quickly with some ginger and garlic in the fat rendered from the searing of the duck breasts. Last night I parboiled a pound of peeled  and cut-up turnips (three average size) in a cup of chicken stock, covered, for about 10 minutes, then browned them in the duck fat while the breasts steamed. I also served broccoli raab, as follows:
Broccoli Raab
This isn’t much of a recipe, but more at how I cook many greens.(see Wilted Collards at December 17, 2007, for example). I buy a bunch of broccoli raab (also known as rapini or broccoletti rabe; spellings vary widely). Many stores sell the Andy Boy® brand, which is owned by the D’Arrigo family, who have been cultivating it in America since the 20s. Its bitterness is a welcome addition to dishes such as these that feature sweet pears and caramelized turnips. An average bunch weighs about 1-1/2 pounds and will make 4 servings.
Fill a sink with water and plunge the broccoli raab into the water, shaking it around to clean it thoroughly. Take out each stem and cut off the base where it is discolored or split and discard. Cut the toughest parts of the stem into pieces one to two inches long and separate them from the leaves and tops.
Place a stockpot that has a lid over high heat and pour in a few tablespoons of olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the chopped stems and stir-fry for a few minutes, adding a little water to the pot. Turn down the heat  a little and cover the pot, allowing the stems to braise for a few minutes. Then add the leaves and tops with the water that clings to them, along with some peeled and sliced garlic and some hot pepper flakes, if desired. Stir the vegetables all around, making sure they are coated with oil, adding more if necessary. Add a good pinch of salt and a little more water if necessary. Cover the pot again and let braise until done to your liking. Do not overcook the broccoli raab; it will take anywhere from another 5 to 10 minutes. Take them off the heat the minute you see them losing their bright green color. Slightly olive in color is fine, but if they begin to turn too drab, they will taste drab as well. You want them to have a little bit of crunch, which adds to the mystique that the bitterness provides. There are even more varieties than spellings, and the season affects its characterisitcs as well, so you’ll need to be an astute observer when cooking this delightful green vegetable. If you’re unsure, taste it often while cooking, remembering that it will continue to cook in a hot, covered pot.
Here’s a photo of last night’s meal, with the duck with leeks and pears, the turnips, and the broccoli raab.