16 October 2010
In my recent postings about wild fennel liqueur, I failed to mention where I where I first learned about it and how to make it. In November of 2002, I had the opportunity to cook a book signing dinner at Chez Panisse for Vincent Schiavelli, the actor and cookbook author. I had been focused on Italian food for some time and was thrilled to collaborate with him on the menu. Vincent was of Sicilian decent, having grown up in a Sicilian ghetto in Brooklyn, where english was not a necessity, long before Brooklyn was the fashionable place it is today. His first cookbook, Bruculinu America: Remembrances of a Sicilian-American Brooklyn, is about growing up in the embrace of family and a community of Sicilian immigrants, eating Sicilian food, helping his grandmother cook sauce and many other traditional dishes. It's a charming book in which the stories of community and home merge with the recipes, as I imagine they did in his life; these things are always inseparable.
The book we cooked from, his second, is Many Beautiful Things; Stories and recipes from Polizzi Generosa, about his ancestral home, where he had kept house and lived part time. It's a lovely, hand-illustrated book by a lovely man who had an immense sense of history and where he came from, and therefore who he was. At the end of the book he has an entire section about making liqueurs, simple but definitive recipes and instructions that enlightened and excited me. We served wild fennel liqueur as an aperitivo at the dinner, and it was the perfect beginning to a wonderful meal. To his delight -- and mine -- we served coppa I had made. I learned, suddenly at the last minute, that it was incorrect to use fresh sardines in pasta with broccoli, that it had to be made from tinned sardines. We had to rush out and buy some from a nearby Italian deli.
The menu was:
wild fennel liqueur
antipasto: cooked carrot salad; pumpkin caponata; rapini omelette; sweet and sour meatballs; coppa
pasta with broccoli (and tinned sardines)
veal shoulder roast with Marsala
dessert was almond crostata
Vincent was endlessly charming, generous, and enthusiastic, and we had immense fun cooking for him. He kept in loose touch in the following years, and though he invited us many times over, I never made it to his home in Polizzi Generosa. Vincent was a heavy smoker, and he died there in 2005, of lung cancer, in the home his grandfather had grown up in but had left behind for Bruculinu, America.
We all learn initially from someone else, some inspiration, then go on to develop our own thinking about our craft or art; it's like finding one's own voice. It is important to me to always keep in mind where I came from, who my mentors are, and to give them the respect and recognition they deserve. Deserving is a difficult idea -- how does one come to deserve something, and how are others to respect that? For me, it's a coming together of understanding, appreciation, and love. That, and remembering who you are. People sometimes to forget who they've learned from, and where they've come from. Without that, you can't know who you are. I always try to keep these notions in the forefront of my mind. I always say, no new food has been cooked in two hundred years. (That doesn't mean it hasn't been improved upon!) I think about that every time I cook. I explain to young cooks learning the craft of making prosciutto or other dry cured meats, that one stands in a river of tradition that goes back 2000 years.
That is my thanks to and respect for him, both of which he deserves.
One of the forgotten wonders I returned to in California was dry farmed Early Girl tomatoes. None are like them. I will take grievous grief for saying this, but I have almost forsaken heirlooms -- Brandywines (which I saw almost none of upon returning to California), Cherokees, Green Zebras, Stupice, even Marvel Stripes, though I still like in principle Black Prince – for Early Girls. I have been swept away by them. Early Girls have all the splendid qualities one wishes for in a tomato: proper firmness; longevity that keeps them from going soft too soon; deep, concentrated, complex flavor; lovely, rich color; gentle, honest sweetness; no watery-ness. Heirlooms struggle to meet these standards. I understand the charm of heirlooms, and their visual beauty, but if it’s flavor you’re after, there’s really no choice but the dry farmed Early Girls.
I prepared food at home often in London, but it was hot there this summer, so we were eating simple, hardly cooked dishes: a lot of spectacular burrata from La Fromagerie, with ripe, red Italian datterini tomatoes, capers, basil, and barely sweet, aged Greek wine vinegar from the Peloponnesus; sometimes it was with a spectacular pounded caper-garlic-marjoram-olive oil slurry, or Sardinian dried oregano; or it was Salade Niçoise with lots of vegetables and orangey-yellow aioli made from exquisite farm eggs we found at the Sunday morning Marylebone Farmers Market, The Marylebone market was about 30 minutes' walk across town from our flat in Little Venice. We’d cross Edgware Road, where no English is spoken, walk along Crawford Street, quiet on Sunday morning, pass through Paddington Green (which was nowhere near Paddington!), and into the market located in a car park behind Marylebone High Street. The market sold beautiful organic produce, all of it English, all of it within a couple hours’ drive of central London. There’s a lovely, historical narrative about the origin of the Marylebone name, but that’s for a later story.
Lately, I have returned to cooking here at home, something I hadn’t done for a long time. Being away in London for so many months was the true reason, but other distractions have had their influence as well.
It is the most satisfying and wonderful thing to walk out your door and pick what’s for dinner tonight. We grow lovely tomatoes at home in our garden, and lots and lots of garlic, another of my manias, along with wild fennel. My friend Leslie gave me a small jar of perfect, astonishingly fragrant, carefully cleaned coriander seed she grew in her garden, and I add a few of those to the tomatoes, along with a few slivers of garlic from my plot. Or plots. There are several plots of garlic. Mania, indeed.
A recipe, easy as can be
Choose ripe, firm, deep red, dry farmed Early Girls. Remove the stem, leave the skin on, and place the tomatoes stem side down, skin side up, in a shallow roasting pan, casserole, or sauté pan that holds them closely but not tightly; there should be some small amount of space between them. Use stainless steel or ceramic. Drizzle the tomatoes lightly with olive oil – Ligurian oil is especially nice – sprinkle them lightly with sea salt, slip a few halved garlic cloves between the tomatoes, toss in a couple of small dry chilies, and sprinkle in a few coriander seeds. I like to leave the coriander seeds whole, rather than pulverize them, so you get little explosions of flavor when you crush them between your teeth. You can add a few fennel seeds, or herbs, if you wish, but I keep it very simple. Drizzle with a little more oil, sprinkle a little more salt over, and they’re ready to go. I don’t have a wood-burning oven at home – maybe you do -- but I simulate it with my steadfast commercial US Range, cranked up to about 500ºF. I give it 45 minutes to heat up fully.
Roast the tomatoes in the hot oven for 30-35 minutes, until the flesh of the tomatoes is soft and giving, and their skin is blistered and blackened. You will end up with tomatoes whose flavor is concentrated to an even greater degree, awash in a rich, viscous sauce of juiciness, saltiness, and lovely acidity, all melded by the olive oil. Of course the tomatoes are best eaten that day, but they will keep in the fridge, covered, for several days. I’m lazy and often leave them out at room temperature for as long as a day or two. I don’t worry too much about spoilage with this kind of cooked food. It usually gets eaten pretty quickly anyway.
We like them on bruschette, with mozzarella, on fresh or dried noodles with basil and ricotta salata or pecorino sardo, in minestrone with pesto. We ate them tonight with Anson Mills’ terrific Rustic Coarse Polenta Integrale with fresh corn, finished with Reggiano Parmesan and a little sweet butter, just to be sure. Last week we served the tomatoes in fish stew with olives and capers, two weeks before that we pulled off the skins and stirred them into our bouillabaisse. They’re lovely with grilled whole fish and wild fennel. Really, they go well in any dish that calls for delicious tomatoes. This is the wonder of homegrown.