Blu Aubergine Blog

SEASONAL INGREDIENT: Citrus

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Normally, at this time of year, the citrus season is winding down. But with the numerous nor'easters to hit us in late March, a lot of the U.S. still looks like it's in the throes of winter. The especially awful flu season this year has run unabated, too, so our need for the Vitamin C that citrus provides is still as relevant now as it was in mid-January. Sigh.

Still, the days are thankfully longer now that we've sprung forward, and at least with April's approach, we can see a light at the end of the tunnel. But for now, the variety of citrus fruits available to us is a great bridge to get us from cold months and snowy storms over to budding life and milder weather. Citrus just tastes like the sun, doesn't it? And I've found that using it in unexpected ways, in both savory and sweet dishes, allows us to sprinkle a little sunshine throughout our meals, throughout our weeks.

Pine nut tart with grapefruit-rosemary sorbet and meringue kiss.JPG

We've long had winter access to Florida and California citrus (I'm partial to Florida, as I'm an east coast gal myself). My father occasionally sends me "care packages" of wooden crates filled with grapefruits and oranges, salve for my soul during my months of harsh hibernation in Manhattan. I eat these out of hand, or scoop out the sections of a grapefruit as a mid-morning snack. But I also use the grapefruit (ruby red, mmm) in my work, like in the homemade grapefruit-rosemary sorbet that I paired with the pine nut tart at left.

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A close sibling of the grapefruit in use and flavor is the pomelo. It's more dry than the grapefruit, so the sections peel out with less mess. And the actual pieces of pulp are large and pull apart easily. Pomelo is used in a lot of southeast Asian cooking, often paired with savory and spicy dishes like the spicy grilled river prawns and pomelo salad I once ate poolside in Bangkok. Pomelos are also a part of the Vietnamese salad with shredded chicken and cabbage that I love so much -- it's often replaced by grapefruit here in the States, but the original uses pomelo. Other large citrus that we use mostly for their skin or rind or juice -- and really, above all, we often use their scent -- are the citron, bergamot, calamansi, ugly fruit, and the etrog. Since we're focusing on what we eat and drink from the citrus species, we'll skip the details on these guys. They do provide the flavor for some delicious drinks, liqueurs, and vinegars however. Another time, another post.

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In Italy, I look forward to two types of citrus showing up in the markets. One is clementini, or clementines, which always signal to me the approach of the winter holidays. Christmas in Italy means that pretty much every household has a gorgeous painted ceramic bowl full of clementini on the kitchen or coffee table. The second type of citrus I pine for until winter is the Sicilian blood orange, known as arancia rossa in Italian. Their flesh ranges in color from fuchsia-tinged bright orange to deep, dark magenta. These sweet, barely-acidic babies become happily ubiquitous at the end of the calendar year and throughout winter. They're in salads -- particularly those of Sicilian origin, like the blood orange-fennel-olive salads I love at this time of year. They're in desserts. They go into spremute, or freshly-squeezed juices sold in bars and in markets all over Italy. They're also great paired with prosecco, for a gorgeously colored aperitivo cocktail that's better than any mimosa you've ever experienced.  

They're squeezed into vinaigrettes and made into sauces -- they happen to pair really well with steak fish to brighten a typical white wine sauce. They're an unexpected touch anywhere you'd normally use lemon or regular orange. They're delicious seared on the grill and paired with pork or duck. They're also great candied, dipped in chocolate. The possibilities are pretty endless, actually. And they're accessible now that they've become popular in the U.S.

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And then we have the other categories of orange-skinned citrus. Mandarins and tangerines are often slightly sweeter versions of oranges, larger than clementines but just as delicious and versatile. They're great paired with pomegranate in a spremuta, and my vendors in Campo de' Fiori in Rome have been selling these alongside their market stall now for years. Of course, the smallest of all these orange cousins is the kumquat -- a slightly tricky fruit, but one that can actually be eaten whole, peel and all (these are thin-skinned little guys), and do really well sliced and cooked in a sugar syrup so they're softened, half way to marmalade. 

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This kumquat syrup can be made into a compote with the addition of other fruits, it can be made into a chutney with spices and some savory elements, or used as a flavoring syrup with an herb or two to be used as the base for a cocktail or to be topped off with sparkling water. Kumquats also do well included in other dishes like the composed salad here, with shaved fennel, beets, wild asparagus, avocado, and sunflower seeds on a bed of Greek yogurt. Other varietals of orange-skinned citrus like the satsuma, the tangelo, and various cross-breeds have been flooding the citrus market in recent years. I try to sample these fruits when I see a variety I've not yet tasted, and I have to say I've liked just about everything I've tried.

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When it comes to a delicious acidic kick in cooking, limes are probably my star ingredient. They bring ceviche to life, they cut the richness of grilled meats in Mexican tacos and fajitas, they are pivotal in Southeast Asian marinades and dips, and they're the perfect finishing agent for freshly cooked seafood and freshly grilled veggies like corn on the cob -- I love smothering corn in a miso-lime butter. Limes are a must on any cocktail bar (dark and stormy, anyone?). Lime is also a wonderful ingredient for desserts. 

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A truly well-made slice of key lime pie is hard to beat. The key limes are deliciously tart and work well in tropical cuisine that matches the environment in which they're grown. Lime sorbetto is ultra-refreshing. And lime curd is delicious, and pairs well with berries, like in my raspberry-lime-ginger tart at right. We're now starting to see the availability of other varieties like finger limes in specialty markets these days. These are to regular limes what pomelos are to grapefruit, and are excellent when the pulp is used in savory preparations. Kaffir limes are amazing, particularly in southeast Asian cuisine, but they're relatively dry and so are best used for their aromatic zest and above all, for their gorgeous fresh leaves. Nothing, for me, compares to the flavor kaffir lime leaves impart to curries and stews and soups. And dried limes are a big part of the flavor profile in Persian cooking, a cuisine I love and am learning more about all the time.

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And then, of course, we have the lemon. I could write an entire post alone on lemons -- and I will, at some point. Having honeymooned last year on the Amalfi Coast of Italy, we walked through a pergola of lemon trees just to get from our suite to breakfast each morning in Anacapri. My friends had luscious lemon trees in the back yard of their B+B in Puglia. Even my friends with more than a corner of terrace space in Rome have citrus trees. And I've used lemon leaves in my cooking as well - they're great for wrapping things in and grilling. The amazing Italian lemons themselves go into everything from a light salad dressing to sauces for seafood to desserts and cakes and gelato and sorbetto and mmmmm, granita. They are served alongside tea (tè al limone) as well as a bistecca alla fiorentina. But lemons from all over the world help to add flavor to marinades and ceviches and meringue pies and tarts and candies, and anything at all that needs a little brightening of flavor.

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They are a part of the sgroppino, an after-dinner drink which I've already highlighted on this blog here: http://bluaubergine.blogspot.com/search?q=sgroppino -- but it's so delicious it's worth mentioning again. And the lemons of the Amalfi coast have long donated their rinds to the best cause of all: limoncello.  What lemons have added to our world of drinks alone makes them worthwhile! Limonana, the Israeli slushie drink of lemon and mint, is a refreshing glass of wonderfulness, improved upon by the addition of a little vodka. And the coccolimone drink and grattachecca sold on the streets of Rome in warm weather are a revelation.

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With the creation of the meyer lemon, which is a cross between a lemon and an orange, we have a best-of-both-worlds situation which allows us an interesting, mellowed citrus flavor to utilize in both sweet and savory. Lemon bars are given a tweak, and meyer lemon curd adds interest to the coconut cake and chocolate tuile at left. They're great in sauces and to make an aioli ethereal. Grilled and squeezed on seafood, they lend amazing dimension. There's very little a regular lemon can do that a meyer lemon won't improve. Give them a try the next time you find them in the market. In fact, pick up as many citrus varieties as you can get your hands on, then store them in the fruit bin in your fridge, and go in search of recipes that utilize these wondrous, versatile fruits. They'll help you bring on the spring!

 Haricots verts with almonds, beets, and orange supreme

Haricots verts with almonds, beets, and orange supreme

 Branzino topped with meyer lemon aioli, over roasted artichokes and sea beans

Branzino topped with meyer lemon aioli, over roasted artichokes and sea beans

 Moroccan honey-citrus cake, orangeflower citrus, roasted figs, sweetened yogurt

Moroccan honey-citrus cake, orangeflower citrus, roasted figs, sweetened yogurt

 Lemon sole over beluga lentils and wilted chard, roasted citrus beurre blanc

Lemon sole over beluga lentils and wilted chard, roasted citrus beurre blanc

 Southeast Asian style soft-shelled crabs with citrus-cucumber nuac mam, citrus segments and butter lettuce

Southeast Asian style soft-shelled crabs with citrus-cucumber nuac mam, citrus segments and butter lettuce

 Rustic Italian flourless lemon-almond-poppyseed cake, four berry sauce, lemon sugar whipped cream

Rustic Italian flourless lemon-almond-poppyseed cake, four berry sauce, lemon sugar whipped cream

 

 

 

 

SEASONAL INGREDIENT: Winter Veg

We're still suffering through winter weather (yes, snow in New York City today, people!). But the cold outside doesn't mean we can't enjoy some wonderful produce -- and specifically, winter vegetables -- indoors in our kitchens. There's beauty in their variety of flavor but also in their shapes, sizes, colors, and uses. It's never been easier to "eat the rainbow" of colors in vegetables alone, and many of these items are hearty enough to make into a soup, to pair with the rich meat stews of the season, or to skip the meat altogether and enjoy these gifts of nature on their own as a substantial, diet- and environment-friendly alternative to animal proteins. Below are some great options, as well as some ideas as to what to do with these wonderful winter veggies:

- Radicchio tardivo: This elegant, elongated variety of radicchio di Treviso comes from northeastern Italy around the town of Treviso in the Veneto. It has slim leaves that are white and tipped with burgundy, a result of a second "forced" growth process when the harvested heads are placed in growing tanks with flowing water for a second growth; they're then harvested late (hence "tardivo"). Their crisp, bitter leaves are a thing of beauty, and work especially well in dishes of the area, like a risotto or pasta with radicchio, gorgonzola, and walnuts. This veg is great grilled, or oven-roasted with a little balsamic and a sprinkling of sugar to take away the bitter edge. It's also great in a winter salad with endive and perhaps some kale or watercress.

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- Celery root, or Celeriac: This is quite literally the root of celery, but as a root vegetable it's got a bit of starch to it. You can slice into matchsticks to enjoy raw in a salad, or cook it with a potato or two to make a healthier, lower-carb version of mashed potatoes
(trick: the lack of gluten in the celeriac makes its substitution for mashed taters a great healthy upgrade, and you can put it in a food processor for a smooth puree without the gummy mess of potatoes alone). This also means it makes a fabulous soup -- it's great comfort food in cold weather, especially with some fried leeks and a drizzle of maple syrup on top.

- Cauliflower: Much has been made lately of the previously-lowly, pale head of cauliflower, and with good reason. This pallid cruciferous vegetable is actually really healthy for us, and is incredibly versatile. Cook the florets as is traditional and you can toss them with pasta, pine nuts, and raisins in olive oil with a splash of wine and you have a great pasta dish, Sicilian in origin. Pulse in a food processor and you have gluten-free couscous. Roast whole in the oven rubbed with olive oil, salt, and spices, and you have an excellent main course meat stand-in (You can also slice the cauliflower into "steaks" and serve vegetarian versions of steak preparations: cauliflower au poivre, anyone?).

- Broccolo romano, or Romanesco: This is what Romans refer to simply as a "broccolo" -- they think the dark green version that is our standard is "broccolo siciliano" (Sicilian broccoli). This is a popular side dish in Rome, cooked until meltingly tender in olive oil, with garlic and peperoncino. Mammamia! It's also tossed with pasta, and served in the disappearing-but-traditional Roman soup, broccoli ed arzilla made with stingray and roman broccoli in broth -- really delicious.

- Winter squash: This family includes butternut, spaghetti, acorn, delicata, and on and on. Roasted with just a drizzle of olive oil, a few cloves of garlic, and a sprinkling of sea salt, winter squash are healthful and a great substitute for potatoes alongside proteins. They can be pureed into amazing soups. They can be roasted alongside other vegetables. They can become filling for pastas like ravioli. Spaghetti squash can be served like its namesake pasta, in place of the pasta itself! And delicata squash can be served skin-on, for extra ease in prep...and extra fiber. These nubby veggies are versatile and amazingly delicious, and even the seeds should be saved, cleaned, and roasted to make into a healthy snack, to sprinkle on salads, to grind into a pesto...even to candy for dessert!

- Brussels sprouts: These mini-cabbages named after a Northern European city (still a mystery) have caught on again since the "new" century, and have become a ubiquitous side dish in restaurants from Manhattan to Minneapolis. And good for them! Because they're very good for us, another cruciferous veggie full of fiber and vitamins. I make mine with pancetta, shallots, balsamic or sherry vinegar, and a touch of honey -- and they're a perennial Thanksgiving favorite.

- Cabbage: Big brother to the brussels sprouts above, cabbage is another healthful, incredibly versatile veg. There are many varieties, including regular green or white cabbage, red cabbage, and savoy cabbage with its slightly curlier, thinner leaves. Cabbage can be shredded and eaten raw, as in cole slaw, or cooked, as in stewed cabbage (I like mine sweet-and-sour, like they make it in central Europe, stewed with some vinegar, salt and sugar). It can be fermented and transformed into kimchi, or simply eaten as part of a salad. It can be stuffed with ground meat or vegetables and stewed for stuffed cabbage or other savory packets or spring rolls. It's also great in a simple soup with a veggie broth, brightened with the acidity of a splash of vinegar. 

- Beets: Another underdog root veggie we root for (food pun!), the beet was and is still "having a moment" on menus across America. These former outcasts have experienced a renaissance, and I'm happy about that, because they're gorgeous and packed full of vitamins and antioxidants, and they make a great soup (borscht), a great salad ingredient, and a great side dish.

They're a substitute for the deep ruby color of raw beef, so vegan tartares now have new life. They can be golden or fuchsia or swirly candy-cane colored (chioggia beets), they can be sliced thinly or fried into chips or served julienned in a salad with lots of carrots and pistachios and fresh herbs and warm spices like cumin and ras-el-hanout...They pair really well with those carrots, but also with goat cheese and ricotta cheese, with nuts and herbs, they're great dressed with vinegars or with sweet-sour pomegranate molasses or silan date syrup for a Middle Eastern-North African vibe, and they're great in Central and Eastern European preparations, with dill and meat and potatoes and flaky smoked fish...they're as versatile as they are pretty, and as inexpensive health powerhouses, they can't be...well, you know...

Enjoy the healthy vegetable variety that comes with the winter season, and get your fill while you can!

QUICK BITE: Pizza a Taglio a Roscioli

Ah, pizza. Real Italian pizza. There are several ways to enjoy pizza, particularly in Rome. I adore pizza bianca, but that's for another time. Probably the way I eat pizza in Italy most frequently, and the easiest and quickest way to enjoy this Italian fast food, is pizza a taglio: pizza by the slice. Or, technically, by cut.

The Italian way to cut slices of pizza is not from a round pie, but rather from a long, rectangular slab of pizza, either made in a sheet pan tray, or cooked directly on the oven floor and hand-rolled out to a very oblong disc or an approximation of a rectangle. 

And it's often cut with scissors. That's right. It makes sense when you think about it. You point out how large or small a piece you'd like, and they literally cut you a piece to measure. It is then weighed and you pay by weight, so that pizzas that are loaded with lots of toppings, ranging from tuna and artichokes with mayo to chile pepper-parsley hot sauce to sausage and potatoes and porcini mushrooms...the more that is loaded on there, the more you pay per piece.

Giusto, no?

But what most expert chefs -- and eaters -- know is that often times, the simplest iteration of something, the purest form of the ideal, is the best. Roscioli  is a family-run business that's been around for decades. They've run what used to be a simple alimentari (specialty food store) since back in the '90s, when theirs was simply my local shop (that happened to carry Philadelphia cream cheese when none of the grocery stores did) -- an old reliable, if you will. With the new millenium, they ended up closing for a spell and completely remodeling to convert this into an upscale gastronomic temple to meats, cheeses, smoked fish, oils and vinegars...with an excellent restaurant and wine cellar added in for good measure.

Their bread bakery is down the street from their 'headquarters' and main restaurant (they've now expanded to include a local pizzeria nearby, and it seems they're always moving on to a new venture). This bread bakery is always busy and they have a great selection of classic Italian biscotti and pastries as well as their renowned bread and pizze (that's plural for pizza, kids). Their selection varies form day to day, but it's always delicious, and they always have the basics, which to me -- here, at least -- are the best. That's right, a simple pizza margherita ("plain" in American parlance), and in Rome what's referred to as pizza rossa ("red pizza") -- otherwise known as alla marinara, hold the oregano -- just tomato sauce, no cheese. The simplest of the simple. And in this case, the pizza dough and the tomato sauce are the only two ingredients you have. So they'd better be stellar.

Here you can see the specimen: a very thin, crackly crust. Blistered bubbles in the surface of the pizza dough itself, owing to extremely high temperatures of the pizza oven. Just a slick of tomato sauce and a brushing of olive oil to make the overall presentation glisten (one of my sayings regarding good food's appearance: it really shouldn't be matte). A sprinkling of Italian sea salt. And when you bite into the pizza, it needs some chew. Real, authentic, delicious pizza needs gluten to get that chewiness activated in the dough. And that's it. It couldn't really be more simple, though from the end result that's available out there, you'd think it would be one of the Italian (or otherwise) kitchen's greatest challenges. Roscioli rises to it, as do several other spots around Rome. I was just lucky enough to have Roscioli be my local. And I was also lucky enough to call Rome home, where a walk along the Tiber, pizza rossa in hand, is all in an afternoon.

MARKETS: Ortygia Island in Siracusa, Sicily

The island of Ortygia, the centro storico (historic center) within the city of Siracusa, Sicily, is a gorgeous spit of land connected to the mainland coastal town by a narrow channel and 3 small bridges. It's a typically Southern Italian ornate, mostly-baroque confection of narrow streets and wrought iron balconies, fortresses and cathedrals, and plenty of ruins and underground tunnels. It's as Greek in feel as it is Italian, and of course Siracusa actually defeated Athens in 413 A.D., so perhaps what we think of as Greek is actually just, well, Sicilian. Regardless, the name Ortygia (also Ortigia, same pronunciation in Italian) means "quail" and comes from the Greek ortyx

"Quail Island" has an old Jewish quarter that's probably the most charming section of a tiny island filled with charm. The Jewish community here in Siracusa was the second most populous in Sicily after Palermo, and was an integral part of the population before they were expelled by the Spanish kings in 1492. Here in the Giudecca (Jewish section), the beautiful architecture that lines the narrow vicoli is a blend of Medieval and Renassiance, Hebrew-Israelite and Sicilian Baroque. You can even visit the miqvah, the Jewish baths restored and open, on a limited basis, to the public. Water is such an integral part of life here on the Sicilian coast, where you're surrounded by it, you're on top of it, and you sustain human life with aquatic life.

Speaking of, we're focusing on the relatively small-but-beautiful food market of Ortygia today, teeming with life and Sicilian salesmen calling out their wares. The local aquatic life is, of course, something of which to be proud: branzini so fresh they're still in rigor mortis, ruby-red tuna famous in these parts. There's Sicilian swordfish as well as abundant sardines, calamari and scampi and shrimp and octopus...all beautifully displayed for purchase and cooking for lunch or dinner (though admittedly, I'd had an amazing seafood couscous the previous evening that was so filling that I could barely fathom eating anything more than a juicy peach the next day!).

The market itself is surrounded by inexpensive clothing and souvenir stalls, but the good part of the food market is mostly on Via de Benedictis, opening up onto the Piazza C. Battisti, abutting the shoreline, where there is also a famous specialty store owned by the Fratelli Burgio called Il Gusto dei Sapori Smarriti ("The Taste of Lost Flavors"). Here you can find countless local Sicilian cheeses, salumi,and specialty food items local to the island of Sicily. You can even ask them to make you sandwiches and put together a great picnic basket to take to the water or to the 4,600 year-old Greek ampitheater in town.

The market stalls offer spices sold from baskets, remnants of Sicily as a cultural crossroads. And in the general fruit and vegetable market, there are countless beautiful iterations of southern Italian produce, from numerous variations of eggplant and peppers and onions (including the torpedo-shaped red Tropea onions from Calabria, pictured here), to garlic and herbs. There are countless fruits available by the piece -- though they're so enticing, you'll want them by the bushel or the bag full, so yo can serve them by the bowlful (and they'd look even more delicious served in some of the stunning decorated ceramic pottery for which Sicily is famous. But I digress). Of course, each season in Sicily is reflected in the market, and I had the good fortune of being in Sicily in early August, when so many stone fruits and melons and berries and figs and fichi d'india ("Indian figs," what we call cactus pears) are abundant.

But of these fruits, possibly the most abundant and mind-boggling in its variety is the tomato. The market in Ortygia offered an impossibly vermilion collection of the most gorgeous tomatoes, in all shapes and sizes, I've ever seen. And the scent of them! They've never seen a refrigerator (nor should they), and the smell of ripe tomatoes, warm to the touch, sitting in the shade but in the Sicilian heat, vine-ripened....well, you get the idea. The photo at right is not enhanced in any way -- the red glow is as it was in 'real life'. You can see why I might wax poetic about this display.

And speaking of tomatoes, another wonderful aspect of Ortygia's market is the variety of Sicilian-specific products featured in its stalls. We're talking about local oregano, hung to dry and sold like bouquets of dried flowers. We're talking about those peerless Sicilian tomatoes, sun-dried to concentrate their flavor, and sold alongside other salt-cured, -brined, or otherwise salt-forward products, including Sicilian capers and caper berries, olives, and frutta secca (dried fruit) which includes sultanas, almonds, figs, and the world-renowned pistachios from Bronte. Everything is lovingly displayed, and the sellers of these items call to passers-by (often in Sicilian dialect, mind you), highlighting the extraordinary quality of all the foods this proud island has to offer. My recommendation? Get it all, everything you may have room for, in your kitchen, your fridge, your bags. Regret is for suckers, not Sicilians.

RECIPE: Ribollita (Tuscan minestrone bread soup)

There are few things better on a bitter cold day, or evening, than a bowl of ribollita, the cool weather Tuscan bread soup. It's made with a Tuscan minestrone base, to which stale bread is added -- preferably the tasteless, salt-free crusty bread that became a staple in Tuscany when an overwhelming majority of citizens refused to pay a steep salt tax. It's even been used to clean precious frescoes in Tuscan churches, as its texture is similar to a sponge (its stand-alone taste is fairly similar, too). 

How is a Tuscan minestrone different from your average minestrone, you may ask? It shares all of the basic vegetables, like celery, carrots, and onions, of course. But Tuscans, like their mangiafagioli (bean-eaters) moniker suggests, often add cannellini beans to dishes, for added heft, starch, and protein.

Their minestrone is no exception, so they use beans to replace the tiny pasta tubes that the rest of the Italian peninsula uses. They also add Tuscan kale (or lacinato), what in Italian is called cavolo nero (black kale) or cavolo laciniato (fringed kale). This is sliced or hand-torn into strips that get thrown into the minestrone, adding color and great nutrients and fiber to the soup. 

The thing that turns Tuscan minestrone into ribollita (which literally means "re-boiled") is the addition of bread. The Tuscans are a thrifty bunch, not ones to let bread go to waste simply because it's stale. So they have a series of bread-thickened soups in their culinary repertoire to make the most of it. Ribollita is the wintry version, and it's one of my all-time favorites. It freezes well, so you can make a huge pot of it during, say, a February snowstorm. You can eat it until (and if) you get sick of it, and freeze the rest for another blustery night.

RIBOLLITA

(Serves 4-8)

6 TBS. Olive oil, plus more for drizzling

1 onion, chopped into medium dice

1 carrot, chopped into medium dice

2 stalks celery, chopped into medium dice

3 cloves garlic

2 cups cooked or canned cannellini beans, drained

4 whole peeled tomatoes or 1 15-oz. can peeled tomatoes

8 cups vegetable stock or chicken stock

1 sprig fresh rosemary

2 sprigs fresh thyme

2 bunches chopped cavolo nero (black kale)

1 small loaf Tuscan (unsalted) or crusty peasant bread, preferably a day old

1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano cheese

Salt & pepper to taste

- Warm 6 TBS. of olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. When it's hot, toss in the onion, celery, carrot, and garlic. Sprinkle with a dash of salt and pepper and cook, stirring so the vegetables don't stick, until they're softened, about 5 minutes.

- Add the tomatoes and beans, stir and cook for 2 minutes. Add the broth and the rosemary and thyme, and cook for 15-20 minutes, so the flavors meld.

- Add the kale (and remove the herbs if you'd like), and stir to blend. Add salt and pepper to taste.

- Tearing the bread with your hands into bite-sized chunks, slowly add the bread to the broth, mixing to absorb the bread every 10 pieces or so. You may not use the whole loaf, but you may. The consistency should be a thick porridge. Let the soup cook another 15 minutes or so, simmering on low, so the bread breaks down and becomes integrated into the soup a bit. Taste to adjust for seasoning.

- To serve, ladle into bowls, drizzle generously with the highest-quality extra-virgin olive oil you can find (Tuscan is most relevant here), and sprinkle with grated parmigiano cheese.

Note: Like most soups, this one is even better the next day, or even the day after that. Since it's ribollita (re-boiled) anyway, it keeps very well for several days in the fridge, or for 2 months in the freezer.

RECIPE: Mid-Winter Grain Salad

This has been one loooong winter for the United States, and it's been a freezing, incredibly snowy one for those of us in the Northeast. I've been cooking lots of soups, and will continue to do so, and to enjoy their warming comfort until I can no longer stand to ladle a spoon of hot broth to my lips (a word to Mother Nature: that day is coming soon!) And I love my seasonal winter foods and comfort meals -- stews, roasted meats, root veggies, a nice afternoon tea with accompanying biscuits. But to brighten up my winter repertoire, a seasonal mid-winter grain saladis just the thing to give my palate a much-needed lift.

To start: pick a grain. I chose bulgur wheat here, as it's inexpensive, nutritionally sound, and one of the many bags of grains I had on hand in my pantry. Bulgur wheat has already been parboiled and dried when we purchase it, so technically it doesn't need to be boiled again to be reconstituted. But one excellent trick I've learned over the years, to add flavor and zing to this grain and eventually the dishes in which it ends up, is to cook the bulgur in a juice that will add flavor and color to the grain when it's cooked. Here I use a beet-carrot-green apple-lemon freshly pressed juice to give the wheat character and a bright color, not to mention added nutritional value as the grain absorbs the juice.

A second element that makes this salad soar is its use of various textures. The grain itself is nutty, chewy. Most grains are. I add crunch with a small dice of celery and green apple. Ditto the pomegranate arils. A softness comes from the roasted cubed butternut squash.

The third element is flavor. There's a great interplay between nutty (the grain) and vegetal (celery, parsley), sweet (the squash) and sour (pomegranate, apple). The vinaigrette, which contains rice vinegar as well as lemon juice, brightens everything with an acidic kick. The beauty is that the elements can be substituted and played with, according to what's on hand and what's in season -- and of course, what you like. 

I often add some red onion chopped finely, or shallot. I also sometimes add nuts for additional crunch, like pine nuts or chopped pecans, hazelnuts, almonds, pistachios, or walnuts. And in spring and summer I add seasonal veggies and fruits, swapping out the butternut squash for zucchini or asparagus or cherry tomatoes, the pomegranate for summer berries or stone fruit. Parsley can be substituted by abundant summer basil, and so on. And the vinaigrette can be played with, so instead of rice vinegar, use white balsamic, or raspberry vinegar, or sherry vinegar. Use avocado oil, or try pumpkin seed oil with pumpkin seeds as the nut in the salad. Use your imagination! And enjoy a healthy grain salad, mid-winter or any time. 

MID-WINTER BULGUR WHEAT SALAD

1 cup bulgur wheat

2 1/2 cups beet-carrot-apple-lemon juice

1 butternut squash, peeled and cubed into 1/2-inch dice

1 green apple, chopped into 1/4-inch dice

1/2 cup pomegranate arils

1/2 cup celery, chopped into 1/4-inch dice

1/2 bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped

1/8 cup rice vinegar

1 TBSP. dijon mustard

2 TBSP. ponzu

1 TSP. lemon juice

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

- Preheat an oven to 375 degrees F. Place the diced butternut squash on a baking sheet, sprinkle with salt and drizzle with olive oil, and toss with hands to coat evenly.

- Roast the butternut squash in the oven, tossing occasionally to cook evenly, until browned and starting to caramelize on the outside, about 30-45 minutes depending on the power of your oven. Set aside to cool.

- In a pot, bring the bulgur wheat and juice to a boil and cook covered until fully absorbed, about 8 minutes.Dump in a bowl and set aside to cool.

- Whisk together rice vinegar, dijon, ponzu, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. In a slow stream, add the oil and whisk to emulsify. This is your vinaigrette.

- Once the bulgur and butternut squash cool, mix together in a bowl with the celery, pomegranate, green apple, and parsley. Toss to mix.

- Drizzle the vinaigrette on top and toss again to mix.

*This salad is delicious right away, but as it sits in its dressing, the flavor improves, making it another example of a dish that gets better with age.

SEASONAL INGREDIENT + RECIPE: Puntarelle

In many ways, it's the essence of Italian Food: it's seasonal, it's hyper-local, and it's a great use of a vegetable that may otherwise go unused, uneaten, and unappreciated. Puntarelle.

Its season begins as the cold weather descends upon the center of the Italian peninsula, and puntarelle usually don't last much beyond the winter months. Puntarelle means "little tips" in Italian -- these are the tender bottom ends of a specific variety of cicoria, or chicory. Cicoria is a bitter leafy green usually par-boiled and either served cold with lemon or sauteed in olive oil with garlic and chile pepper. It's ubiquitous in Rome, much like sauteed spinach is in Florence. But in the winter months, roughly November to March, Romans focus on the puntarelle, the stems of the chicory plant which are cleaned of any leaves, sliced lengthwise in thin strips, and soaked in cold water until they curl up. 

You'll see older Roman women and men in the markets of Rome working with great dexterity over a bucket of water, peeling and slicing the puntarelle so that customers can buy them already cleaned and ready to use. Much like the beloved Roman artichokes, puntarelle are a labor-intensive labor of love. 

When making puntarelle, one begins with the dressing: an unctuous vinaigrette flavored with ground anchovies, fresh garlic, lemon, and wine vinegar, with a healthy glug-glug of top quality extra-virgin olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Then you mix this in with the cleaned puntarelle, and let it sit for 30 minutes or so. And then? Magic. The greens stay crispy, yet they absorb the flavor of the dressing, which you'll want to sop up with bread after you clean your dish of the greens.

It's a very old Roman recipe -- to my mind, probably assimilated into the Roman culinary canon from the city's Jewish community, because of its telltale use of anchovies (Jewish Romans often used {kosher} anchovies where Roman Catholics would use guanciale, or cured pork cheek, as a salty flavor base in a recipe). The cool thing about puntarelle? It's a super-extra-totally Roman vegetable, so even people in nearby areas like Abruzzo, Tuscany, and Le Marche don't get to enjoy the bitter-savory winter contorno

It's really the original Caesar salad, in a way -- and actually from the land of the Caesars. When in Rome? Head to the Campo de' Fiori market where you can purchase the greens and all the ingredients to make the salad at home. Then head to the famous Forno at the top of the piazza for some warm pizza bianca fresh out of the oven, to accompany the dish. 

If you're lucky, the Forno's sandwich shop, right across the tiny vicolo from the bakery, will be serving Pizza con le Puntarelle: a fabulous sandwich of the pizza bianca stuffed with puntarelle salad. Crunchy, chewy, warm, cool, salty, bitter, with the astringent zip of lemon and garlic...it's a heavenly Roman winter sandwich sure to make anyone a very happy campo-er.

When Rome is not your home? Puntarelle are, as noted, extremely local, though I have been lucky enough to stumble upon a special of puntarelle salad one cold winter night in New York, at the authentic and always-excellent Bar Pitti. When I asked the waiter in Italian where he'd managed to find puntarelle, he responded very simply, "eh, signora: dall'Italia. Ovviamente." From Italy. Obviously.

Puntarelle alla Romana

If you're not one of the lucky few who can get his or her hands on the real deal, you can approximate the texture and bitterness of the puntarelle by thinly slicing a mixture of celery and belgian endive lengthwise, then putting those slices in ice water so they curl a bit. Then mix with the dressing as you would the puntarelle. As with Caesar salad fans, you have those who like it heavy on the anchovies, and those who prefer a less fishy flavor. I think there should be a nice balance of flavor -- using the anchovy liberally, but mashed well, will give the dressing its best consistency.

8 oz. washed & dried puntarelle (sliced chicory stems curled in cold water)

1 clove garlic

1 lemon, for juicing

6 TBS. extra-virgin olive oil

1 TBS. red wine vinegar

1-2 anchovy fillets

salt & pepper to taste

- In a salad bowl, rub the garlic clove over the surface of the bowl and then with the tines of a fork, crush it a bit.

- Add the anchovy fillets and crush them with the fork as well.

- Squeeze the lemon juice over the garlic and anchovies, add the vinegar, and muddle the ingredients so they form a paste.

- Using the fork – or even better, a small whisk – add the olive oil in a thin stream until a vinaigrette forms.

- Add salt and pepper to taste, or more oil if necessary. Toss puntarelle in vinaigrette and serve.

SEASONAL INGREDIENT + RECIPE: Artichoke: The Prickly Sign of Primavera

artichoke.jpg

Few vegetables say spring like the artichoke. For me, in Rome, it was always the ultimate sign of la primavera, especially where I lived in the Jewish ghetto, which is known for its numerous restaurants specializing in the deep-fried "Jewish style" artichokes in-season. In the U.S., California provides almost 100 percent of the nation’s artichoke crop. Castroville, in Monterey County, calls itself “The Artichoke Center of the World,” and is host to an annual festival held since 1959, which celebrates the perennial thistle. Still, fifty years seems like a drop in the bucket, when we consider the fact that artichokes have been consumed in the Mediterranean region since the sixth century B.C.

From There to Here: A Brief History of the Thistle

Cynara cardunculus, the globe artichoke, is thought to have originated in Northern Africa. Its name comes from the Arabic al-kharshuf or ardi-shoky, meaning “ground-thorny,” which became carciofo (car-CHO-foe) in Italian. A relative of the cardoon, the artichoke was cultivated in Sicily during the Greek occupation, as early as 500 B.C., and eventually made its way to mainland Italy.

It reached Naples in the 9th century, and was supposedly brought north to Florence in the 1460’s by Filippo Strozzi, a wealthy Florentine banker who’d been exiled to Naples by the Medici family. From here, it traveled further north to Venice and then into southern France, reaching Avignon by about 1532. The artichoke spread throughout Europe to eventually flower in Henry VIII’s gardens in the 1540’s, though it had probably always been a staple in the Southern Mediterranean regions historically touched by Greek, and later Arab, influence: Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Southern France.

It was the French who first introduced the artichoke to 19th century Louisiana, and therefore to the American table, though Spanish immigrants are the ones credited with bringing the vegetable to California, where it’s flourished ever since.

When In Rome…

It’s the Roman artichoke, the carciofo romanesco, the Cynara scolymus: a gorgeous, deep purple-and-green globe. Synonymous with the celebrated Roman Spring, it's perfectly paired with Easter specialties like baby lamb, fava beans, asparagus, and spring peas. Anyone who has ever tried an artichoke in The Eternal City knows that there may be no better place on earth to eat one. It is the single most popular vegetable in Rome, and has become the city's culinary symbol.

The two most common local artichoke preparations are alla romana – Roman-style, slow braised in oil and wine with wild Roman mint and pecorino cheese, and alla giudea – Jewish-style, deep-fried twice so the crispy outer petals open up but the heart remains tender within. Unlike botanically similar varieties found elsewhere, the romanesco artichoke is eaten young, before it gets woody. This allows a greater portion of the flower to be edible, though local cooks generally pare down the leaves quite a bit. Romans tend to go straight for the tender heart.

Cooking with Carciofi 

Romans believe artichokes reduce cholesterol, cleanse the liver…and are an aphrodisiac to boot. Whatever their benefits may be, nutritional or otherwise, artichokes are labor-intensive but well worth the work.

A trip to any Roman market in the spring months will reveal numerous carciofare, or artichoke trimmers, in quick action with gloved hands, a sharp knife, and a container of water with cut lemons floating in it: the acidulated water keeps the chlorophyll oxidation to a minimum, so the artichokes remain green and beautiful. Look for artichokes that are heavy for their size, with tightly-packed leaves.

CARCIOFI ALLA ROMANA

4 artichokes

2 lemons

2 cloves garlic, minced

4 TBS. Chopped fresh flat leaf parsley

4 TBS. Chopped fresh mint or mentuccia

½ cup Pecorino Romano cheese, grated

1 cup dry white wine

2 TBS. Minced olive oil-packed anchovy fillets (optional)

salt & pepper to taste

extra-virgin olive oil, as needed (about 1-2 cups)

-Fill a large bowl with water and squeeze the juice of one of the lemons into it.

-Trim artichoke stems, cut the top of the artichoke bulb off, and peel the outer leaves of the artichoke.

-Carefully scoop out the choke with a melon baller or paring knife.

-As each artichoke is trimmed, put it into the acidulated water.

-In a small bowl, combine the garlic, parsley, mint, bread crumbs, and anchovies, if using. Season with salt & pepper.

-Pat dry the artichokes, stuff the stuffing mixture into the cavity left by the choke and between the leaves. Close leaves over filling.

- Place artichokes stem-up in a baking dish and add 1 part olive oil to 1 part white wine to 2 parts water, to almost cover artichoke bulb.

- Cover and cook until tender when tested with a toothpick/skewer, about 45 minutes to an hour (either in oven or on the stovetop).

- Can be served warm or eaten at room temperature, kept in the braising liquid. Serve with lemon wedges.

La Fiorentina

Yeah, I like vegetables. Sure, a good salad can be fab. And fresh seafood is one of my top gustatory pleasures, especially in warm weather. But what food really hits the spot, scratches an itch, makes me go ahhh? (Well, yes, chocolate...but that's for another time). For me, it's a primal thing. A visceral thing. And when I get that craving, I need it: meat. Specifically, beef. A wonderful, toothsome-but-tender steak. And the granddaddy of them all -- I don't care who you are, or where you're from -- is the bistecca alla fiorentina.

Now, I lived in Rome for a long time. And there are Tuscan restaurants in the country's capital city, for sure. But there's something about actually being in Tuscany that speaks to the overall experience of sinking one's teeth into this beautiful hunk of meat. I've enjoyed the bistecca alla fiorentina  in its city of origin, at some famous old-school trattorie in Florence ("fiorentina" means Florentine, for the uninitiated) -- which is great. There, you're surrounded by like-minded eaters, feasting on roasted rosemary potatoes, perhaps some wilted spinach sauteed in garlic and olive oil (another Florentine staple), and washing it all down with a nice Chianti. A recent trip to the outskirts of Florence had me enjoying just that, with the fiorentina artfully presented to us as the photo here shows, almost as if we were guests at a regal banquet: gorgeous, ruby-red beef sliced from the bone...bone included, of course!

But I've also enjoyed the bistecca in the countryside of Tuscany, sitting in the patio of a roadside trattoria in Chianti, hidden from view of passers-by. For a few lucky locals and my friends and I, the high flames of the outdoor grill licked the meat and singed its outer crust. Its only seasoning? A few twists of cracked pepper and sea salt, a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of that opaque Tuscan olive oil, in all its tannic, electric-green glory. Or in the outdoor patio restaurant of our agriturismo, overlooking hills where the very beef we're eating has been raised. 

Here it's served with a green peppercorn and rosemary-infused olive oil drizzle, and it's amazing, lip-smackingly tasty, particularly with another classical accompaniment: fagioli all'uccelletto ("bird style" cannellini beans, cooked with tomatoes and sage). Is it sweeter outside of the city, eaten closer to the Val di Chiana where the Chianina beef -- the beautiful bovine breed that makes the fiorentina what it is -- comes from? Sometimes it feels that way. But whether in the urban setting of Florence or the hills of Tuscany...well, either way, you're pretty close to paradiso!

Call it an Italian Porterhouse or T-bone, containing both the fillet and the controfiletto  -- the tenderloin and the short loin -- but the bistecca alla fiorentina must be about 3 fingers thick, and it must be cooked only to rare or medium rare, otherwise the consistency is ruined (let's not speak of the integrity of the beef itself). It requires no seasonings other than salt and pepper -- preferably a flaky sea salt with some texture. Then dress with great-quality olive oil and a squeeze of lemon to cut the richness of it all. Basta. That's all. When enjoying a great piece of meat, you need no more than the basics to really, profoundly scratch that itch, that carnal craving. Just add fire.