Month: September 2014

Sharpening Your Knife Skills

Today I thought I’d share a dish with you I have prepared countless time. It is straightforward to prepare, great as a side or an underlay accompaniment to the main meal, and incorporates ingredients that should be readily available in most kitchen larders. And it is kind of festive on some level.

Consider it upscale “home fries”—only that the size of the ingredients are confetti-like, and it is flecked with color where home fries are mainly all the same neutral color. For those who enjoy a good potato dish, this is a keeper.

I named it Confetti Potatoes.

This recipe generously serves two people, allowing leftovers which, as one option, can be combined with eggs and smoked salmon as a Sunday morning breakfast . . . but I’ll leave that up to you to sort out.

4 medium potatoes (I used 2 gold and 2 purple varieties just to add a little more color)
1 large sweet onion
2 celery stalks with leaves
2 fennel stalks with fronds
1 medium carrot
3 garlic cloves
4 to 5 sprigs of parsley, both leaves and stems
Oil (I used Cuban oregano-infused olive oil and some rendered duck fat)
Salt and pepper
Celery seed
Fennel seed—bay leaf—rosemary dust (dried seed and herbs are ground to a fine powder in a spice grinder)

Mince or finely chop all the vegetables (à la confetti), keeping them separated, with the potatoes approximately 1/4 inch in size. Yes, I realize this is a lot of prep work, but you have to bear the cross if you want to wear the crown! And, it helps sharpen your knife skills.

Over moderate heat using a heavy sauté pan, heat the oil until hot but not smoking. Drop a couple of onion pieces into the center of the pan and if they begin to gently sizzle the pan is ready.

Begin by sautéing the onions until they are softened. Initially season at this point and stir to combine.

Add the garlic, again stirring to combine and do not burn! Adjust the heat as needed, you are looking for a slow sizzle here.

Next add the minced celery, fennel, and carrot, stirring to combine, and sauté until the carrots begin to soften and the mix begins to take on some light color.

Add the potatoes and again stir to combine. Add some additional oil as needed to prevent sticking and add another layer of seasoning. Then turn over the potatoes to incorporate into the mix.

Finally, sprinkle the minced parsley over the top and fold into the mix. Check and adjust the heat if the mix seems to be sticking too much, although there will be some that you want to scrape up and incorporate.

Continue the slow sauté until the potatoes are tender but not too soft as you want them to keep their shape.

Turn out into a bowl and either serve immediately, or gently warm later when the meal is assembled. FYI, this potato recipe is actually better on the second day. And sure, it’s perfectly okay to steal a forkful before serving—you should be tasting as you go anyway.

I hope you get to try this dish and find new ways to use it as part of your regular kitchen repertoire. Let me know how it turns out.



A National Dish with Many Influences

Thinking about the evening meal, I can’t help focusing on something from the sea on a Friday night. And for me, one of my favorite seafood-centric cuisines originates in Sicily.

Borrowing inspiration from the late Marcella Hazan’s important work, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, I quote: “The cooking of Sicily dazzles us with its fluent use of a more vivid vocabulary of ingredients than any other cuisine in Italy is accustomed to command.”

So what better dish to prepare on a Friday night, which embodies that perspective and what some call the national dish of Sicily, than Pasta con le Sarde (Pasta chi sari)—pasta with sardines.

I think the name understates a dish that is really full of complex flavors derived from a few ingredients and has been satisfying many generations over hundreds of years. As I understand the story, back in 827 or 831 there was this military fellow Euplemius, a Greek ex-pat who fled Sicily to an Arab kingdom in northern Africa. He returned leading an army of Arab soldiers to the port city of Mazara del Vallo with the mission to take over the “neighborhood!” It seems that he requested his Arab cooks to prepare something to feed the army and using the local ingredients of fresh sardines, wild fennel, currants, saffron, and pine nuts, they created this dish which has evolved over time to become a hearty sauce now served over pasta.

The dish is typically associated with the capital city of Palermo, however there are many variations throughout Sicily. My grandmother and aunt from the town of Sciacca on the southwest coast of the island, handed down their recipe which I have prepared countless times, evolving into what I intend to prepare for tonight’s meal.

There are two compromises and a couple of substitutions I have made in my version of this classic. Fresh sardines are unpredictable and mostly unavailable on short notice. And unless you reside in northern California, the likelihood of finding wild fennel in your area is slim. So instead I substitute canned sardines of which I have tried many options. The brand I am currently happy with is Wild Planet Pacific Wild Sardines.

Working around the wild fennel, simply use the tops (stalks and fronds) of two or more cultivated fennel plants plus a 1/4 teaspoon of toasted fennel seeds, crushed using a mortar and pestle.

A couple of other substitutions and/or additions from the original Euplemius creation are yellow raisins in place of the currants, a teaspoon of anchovy puree, garlic, and toasted bread crumbs.

Here’s how I approach this dish today (the measurements are all approximate).

Olive oil
1 large onion, minced
Tops from two fennel bulbs (stalks and fronds), chopped
2 to 3 garlic cloves, chopped
Pinch of saffron threads softened in 1 teaspoon water
1/4 cup yellow raisins
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds, toasted and crushed
1/4 cup toasted bread crumbs
2 tablespoons rough chopped parsley
Black pepper and hot red pepper flakes to taste

Add the olive oil to a large sauté pan and begin by cooking the onions over moderate heat until they begin to soften. Add the garlic and combine with the onion, cooking for another 2 minutes. Add the fennel and combine with the onion-garlic mix and cook until all the vegetables are melded, softened, and have a little color. Add a little more oil if the sauté seems dry or begins to stick. Stir at frequent intervals.

Next add the saffron with the soaking water, raisins, pine nuts, and fennel seed, stirring to combine. Keep the sauce warm while you’re cooking the pasta. Of all the pasta options, bucatini is a favorite; allow 1/4 lb per person.

When the pasta is cooked, drain, saving some of the water to add to the sauce as needed. Turn out the cooked pasta into the pan with the sauce, raise the heat, and stir to combine, adding some of the water from the pasta if the mixture seems too thick.

Serve in warm bowls sprinkled with the toasted bread crumbs, chopped parsley, and the two peppers to taste.

If you decide to try this dish, let me know what pasta shape you chose and how your version turned out.

• • •


Thank you to Jean and Linda for pointing out my omission. Yikes! I left out the star ingredient in both the ingredients list and when and how to introduce it in preparation of the dish.

My editor and I missed the omission (but I can’t fault the editor because she doesn’t cook!)

The sardines:

If you are using fresh, I would recommend 8 fish, scaled and deboned. If you are using canned, 2 to 3 cans, drained but left whole.

Once all the ingredients are added to the sauté pan (which in this case is a 14-inch diameter pan with a heavy bottom and curved sides) as described, scatter the sardines over the top and gently fold into the mix. Some will break up but that is okay.

Follow the remainder of the recipe instructions from the point of adding the cooked pasta.

Sorry for the omission, but that is why we are still test driving this process. I’m sure some of you simply made the assumption, so thanks for giving me a pass this time.