LTIAh, summer! When farmstands are laden with eggplants and tomatoes and peppers, and a happy home cook can revel in the bright flavors, turning out lively, colorful vegetable dishes for hot-weather dining – ratatouille, panzanella, gazpacho, caponata. I made the season’s first caponata this week, using my own recipe from La Tavola Italiana.

I didn’t much like caponata when I first tasted it, long ago. The one I had came out of a can, and my recollection is that it was mostly mud-colored, with an indeterminate flavor and a mushy texture. Much later, my first encounter with a freshly made one was a revelation.

Many good variations on caponata are possible. Ingredients and quantities are very flexible, but to my mind there are some limits – which are not always observed in the recipes I’ve seen. First, caponata is not a spread: it’s chunky. Second, it absolutely has to contain eggplant. (Believe me, some don’t.) Third, the components must be sauteed in olive oil. As you might guess, I like my own version. These are its ingredients:


Ingredients B


Those vegetables take a lot of chopping. My gallant knife-wielding husband took on the task for me, as always. (That’s not pure altruism: Tom likes caponata too.) Here they are, awaiting their baptism in the sauté pan.


chopped stuff


The first item to go into an inch of hot olive oil was the eggplant, after it had been salted, set in a colander for half an hour to give up some of its moisture, and lightly squeezed dry in a linen cloth. As soon as the eggplant had softened sufficiently and lightly browned in the hot oil, I drained it onto a plate and replaced it with the pieces of green pepper. When they had joined the eggplant on the plate, I drew off most of the olive oil, leaving just enough to soften the onion and celery, and then added the tomato for 10 minutes. In a separate little pot I briefly simmered the vinegar, capers, sugar, salt, and pepper.

The eggplant and peppers went back into the pan, along with the vinegar mixture, the pine nuts, and the olives, and everything simmered together for 10 more minutes. (A word about the olives: I usually buy oil-cured black ones, but this day I had some big green Castelvetranos in the refrigerator, which I pitted and chunked up, and they were beautiful in the mix. I’ll use them again.)

Caponata needs at least a few hours to sit at room temperature before serving, so the flavors have time to blend and harmonize. When they’ve done that, it’s really a delicious concoction, an ideal hot-weather first course or picnic dish.


my caponata


Leftovers – when there are any – keep well for a few days in the refrigerator.


caponataP.S.  There’s one other recipe for caponata that I like as well as my own. It’s the one made by Adelina, Inspector Montalbano’s housekeeper in the Sicilian mystery novels by Andrea Camilleri. It’s unlike any other caponata I’ve encountered. I’ve written about it here.

Making a meal of dishes featured in Andrea Camilleri’s novels about the Sicilian police inspector Salvo Montalbano seems to have become an annual event for me.

When, in the middle of an investigation, our hero is struck by “his customary wolflike hunger,” the meals he eats are described with such gusto that I’d give montalbano cookbookanything to be able to join him at the table. That not being possible, my next choice is to page through Stefania Campo’s I segreti della tavola di Montalbano: Le ricette di Andrea Camilleri and plan a dinner around some of that cookbook’s recipes. I’ve written about my results here four times in the past four years; so to keep up the tradition, here’s this year’s installment – one dish from each of three of the novels, which I made for a small dinner party with friends who are also Montalbano fans.


With aperitifs in the living room, I made a sfincione, which is a kind of focaccia or thick-crust Sicilian pizza, very popular even here in the US, that’s mentioned in Excursion to Tindari. Montalbano himself doesn’t eat this. He hears about it from a garrulous old citizen he’s questioning, who tries to describe the entire meal his nephew, who lives in Tindari, served him on the day of the titular excursion – starting with a sfincione.



The book’s recipe calls for already-risen bread dough (purchased, presumably), into which you are to knead grated pecorino, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt. I made my own dough, using my favorite focaccia recipe. I pressed it into a pan, spread over it a quickly made tomato-onion sauce, dotted it with bits of anchovies, strewed on shavings of caciocavallo cheese, and baked it in a hot oven until just barely done.

I did all this early in the day, so in the evening all I had to do was add a topping of fine breadcrumbs sauteed in olive oil and return the pan to the oven for 10 minutes. Cut into small squares, the sfincione was a very tasty snack. We made short work of it.

Sfincione finishing


Polpettine di polipetti

Of the day’s three dishes, this was the most unusual one, which I was most eager to make: octopus croquettes. One of Montalbano’s two favorite restaurants is the eponymous trattoria of his friend Calogero. In The Smell of the Night he arrives there at lunchtime with that wolflike hunger of his and eats spaghetti in squid ink followed by a dozen fried octopus meatballs. They sounded fascinating, but since I had never even heard of making croquettes from octopus, much less tasted any, I didn’t want to chance them as the main course of my dinner party, so I made them as a hot antipasto.

It was quite a production. Here are the main stages:



I had already-cooked octopus tentacles in the freezer, left over from a previous cooking event. We put them through the meat grinder (those are Tom’s hands in the picture) and I mixed in grated pecorino cheese, bread soaked in white wine and squeezed almost dry, garlic, parsley, and an egg. I shaped the mixture into balls, put them in refrigerator for a few hours to firm up, dipped them in egg and then breadcrumbs, and fried them. All this this was early in the afternoon. At dinner time I reheated the croquettes in the oven.

Alongside, we served cut-up lemons and a spicy tomato sauce (Tom’s idea and invention). With great curiosity, everyone tasted them. Oh, dear! While they were perfectly acceptable croquettes, they had no flavor of octopus. Squeezes of lemon brought out a hint of it, but so mildly that the basic ingredient could have been any white meat – chicken, pork, veal, even alligator or rattlesnake. I suspect it was the pecorino that masked the flavor of the octopus, but you couldn’t even taste cheese as such. We all ate a few, but the dish was a letdown – edible, certainly, but far from exciting. I can’t believe Calogero wouldn’t have made it better.

Agnello alla cacciatora

Every reader of the novels knows that Montalbano would much rather dine on fish than meat. He doesn’t get that choice on an occasion in The Voice of the Violin: Calogero’s place is closed that day and he tries La Cacciatora, an osteria 20 kilometers inland from the coast. When the proprietor asks him what he’ll have, Montalbano says “Bring me whatever you like.”

He receives a fiery hot pasta to start, followed by the house’s lamb hunter’s style. He likes it, particularly enjoying the “pleasant fragrance of onion and oregano.” That made me a bit suspicious of the cookbook’s recipe, which contains black olives, capers, celery, red wine, tomato paste, only a little onion, and no oregano. (I added some at the end.)

lamb cacciatora


It was a pleasant enough lamb braise. But it would have seemed much more Sicilian to us – and probably more interesting – if it had been made with swordfish rather than lamb. I’ll bet Montalbano would have liked it that way too.

The lamb I cooked a whole day in advance, since stews and braises generally taste better if given some time for their flavors to develop and blend. Which they did, but not in a way as to really excite our palates. On the positive side, none of these three dishes seemed to have been at all harmed for having been done in advance and reheated. A very useful attribute for a busy dinner-party cook.

Pulpo a la Carlos

Back in the ‘70s, Tom and I often dined at a small Greenwich Village restaurant called El Rincón de España. We particularly loved the owner-chef’s specialty of octopus in a tangy red sauce, Pulpo a la Carlos. We didn’t know much about Spanish food then, and we never figured out what gave the dish its unusual flavor. (Innocents as we were, it didn’t occur to us to ask.) As time moved on, we grew away from El Rincón (it closed long ago), and it was many years before I became seriously interested in Spanish cooking.

Fast forward to the present. The food on our recent trip to Spain had given us a Pimentonstaste for pimentón – smoked paprika – tins of which we’d brought back and begun experimenting with. One evening Tom concocted a marinade for some shrimp to be broiled, using olive oil, garlic, oregano, and hot pimentón. The first taste of the shrimp was a Proustian moment for us both: This had to be the way Carlos did his pulpo!


Of course, I had to try it. I was able to buy cooked octopus in a local store, which was a great time- and labor-saver:

cooked octopus

(That’s 2⅓ pounds of octopus – much more than I needed for the two of us, but there’s another octopus recipe, not Spanish, that I intend to try, which I’ll report on here in due time.)


Casas MammaI also checked my Spanish cookbooks and found a recipe for Pulpo Encebollado (Octopus with Paprika in Simmered Onions) in Penelope Casas’s La Cocina de Mamá that used similar ingredients. It didn’t include a marinade, but the rest of the technique looked good, so I basically adopted it. Another good sign: The headnote mentioned that this was a recipe from Galicia, where octopus is enormously popular. El Rincón’s Carlos was also Galician.


So: Tom cut up a pound of the octopus tentacles into one-inch pieces and I froze the rest. I simmered 2 minced garlic cloves, 2 teaspoons of hot pimentón, and ½ teaspoon of salt in ⅓ cup of olive oil. When it was cool I poured it over the octopus pieces and let them marinate for a couple of hours, stirring occasionally.

marinating octopus


In the evening I poured off that seasoned oil and in it softened ¾ cup of minced onions, slowly and covered, so they almost dissolved. Then I added the octopus, stirred in just a little water to keep it from frying, and heated it all through.

final cooking


It was simply gorgeous. Was it indeed the Pulpo a la Carlos we’d eaten so many years ago? We’re not certain, but it came as close as reminiscence allows. Maybe Carlos added a little tomato puree, to make the whole dish a bit saucier?  I can try that next time – and there will be a next time. Octopus is delicious: Low in fat, high in protein, packed with vitamins and minerals, it has to be the world’s meatiest mollusk. Its succulent flesh seemed to revel in the contrast with the lively pimentón sauce. The plain rice I served alongside absorbed that sauce with enthusiasm, too. It’s an extraordinary pleasure to rediscover – after 40 years! – such a great culinary treat.

octopus plated

You can find recipes in the most unexpected places. Having been summoned to jury duty recently, I loaded up my Kindle with mystery novels to distract me during the downtime that jury service usually involves. Sure enough, there were hours and hours with nothing to do but read. And read I did.

clammed upOne of my e-books was Clammed Up, by Barbara Ross. It’s set in a seaside Maine town where the heroine’s family runs a summer clambake business – which is threatened by the murder of a prospective customer on the family’s island, where the clambakes are held. Recipes for the dishes served at the clambakes appear in a separate section at the end of the book, and several of them looked very good. So I copied down three of them in longhand (alas, you can’t print from a Kindle) and, when my jury service was over, I tried them out. This post is about the first two recipes I made.


Snowdon Family Clam Chowder

I was immediately interested in the recipe for clam chowder. Because many of the New England chowders I’ve tasted have been excessively floury, I usually prefer red Manhattan-style chowder. But I once had a fabulous white clam chowder in a restaurant in Maine, which taught me that it can be a glorious dish. This recipe looked as if it might be like that one, because it was richer in clam flavors and had more cream than any other New England-style chowder recipes I’d ever tried.

The recipe called for a pint of shucked and chopped clams. Scorning the canned variety, I trotted out to my fish market and picked up two dozen good-sized cherrystones. I can open live clams when necessary, but these looked as if they’d be obstinate, so in the afternoon I set them up in a steamer, watched carefully, and as soon as each one opened its shell just a crack, took it out, opened it the rest of the way, and carefully saved its liquor.




The clams were fresh and sweet-smelling, still effectively raw, and when Tom had chopped them for me, they made just the right amount. A good start.

The cooking began with the usual chowder technique: rendering chopped bacon, adding chopped onion, then cubed potatoes, then the clams’ own liquor, two bottles of clam juice, and thyme, and cooking until the potatoes were tender. As dinner time approached I heated equal parts of milk and half and half, and stirred that into the soup pot, along with the clams. But here’s when the recipe went astray: It had me keep the chowder simmering for another 10 minutes after that.

I’d never seen a recipe that kept chowder on the heat so long after adding the dairy products, but I thought maybe this was a tightly guarded Maine chowdermaker’s secret, so I did as directed. Bad idea. As I feared, they curdled. Tiny gobbets of white curds formed and floated all over the surface of the chowder, leaving the rest of the liquid thin and watery looking. Ugly.


clam chowder


Despite the appearance, it didn’t taste too bad – at least, I didn’t think so, though the clams themselves had toughened more than they should have. Tom was more unhappy with the chowder, even saying he couldn’t taste much clam flavor. Whatever, it was not a success.

I wonder if there might have been a typo in my Kindle edition – saying 10 minutes at the end when it should have been 1 minute. But I’m not hopeful enough about that to try the recipe again.


Snowdon Family Blueberry Grunt

This was a new dish for me: I’d never even heard of blueberry grunt before reading the book. (You’d think a blueberry grunt was the hired hand who gathered the berries, wouldn’t you?) This recipe is simple enough to make. Put blueberries, sugar, and a little water into a deep casserole; set in a 400° oven for 20 minutes. Mix up a sweet biscuit dough (flour, butter, sugar, baking powder, salt, milk). Take out the blueberries and drop on spoonfuls of the dough.


uncooked grunt


My dough was too thick and sticky to drop in neat spoonfuls, but I managed to tease globs of it onto the berries. Back into the oven the dish went for another 20 minutes. I let it cool a little before serving, so we wouldn’t scald our tongues on boiling-hot blueberries.


blueberry grunt


This was a very pleasant, homey dessert – good fresh biscuits floating in a rich, warm blueberry quasi-jam. It seems to be an unusual version because it’s oven-baked. When I’d gone online to learn a bit about grunts, all the recipes I found were to be cooked on top of the stove. That way, the dough dollops appear to stay soft and white, more like dumplings. Some sites claim that you can hear them emitting grunts as they rise: hence the name. I liked my browned, crunchy biscuits very much, but when I make the recipe again – and this one I will make again – I might try it once the other way, just for the sound effects.

This is going to be a story of extended, earnest, culinary efforts that were totally unsuccessful. They were not entirely without consolations, but they fell far short of the goal. It all started last December, when De Robertis, a family-owned Italian pastry shop in Manhattan’s East Village, closed after 110 years in business.




To downtown New Yorkers, its demise was as devastating as if the Statue of Liberty had stepped off its pedestal and walked away. I was one of the chief mourners, mainly because for decades I’d been addicted to De Robertis’s almond-studded biscotti. Light, crunchy, nutty, gently anise flavored, these were my Platonic ideal of biscotti. Nowhere else, in this city rich in biscotti and their kin, had I found any to equal them.

My very last De Robertis biscotto

My very last De Robertis biscotto


After a futile round of re-trying the biscotti from other local Italian bakeries, it occurred to me that, having enjoyed many hundreds of the De Robertis ones over the years, I should be able to find or adapt a recipe that would allow me to approximate them at home. So I set forth on my quest, filled with innocent (but unmerited) confidence and eager (but soon to be dashed) hopes.

There are tons of different biscotti recipes in cookbooks and on the Web, using all manner of ingredients and flavorings, but I needed to focus on almonds and anise, which narrowed the options for me. The procedure itself is simple enough: Mix up a dough, shape it into rolls, bake them not quite to doneness; slice them, lay out the slices, and bake them again until browned, crisp, and dry. Stored in a tin, they keep almost forever.


My first attempt was based on a recipe from my friend Joan, which I had made and enjoyed in the days before I fell in love with De Robertis. It calls for butter, eggs, anise extract, vanilla, flour, baking powder, salt, and grated walnuts. I switched almonds for walnuts, reduced the sugar somewhat, and doubled the amount of anise.

That didn’t work. I must have gotten the proportions wrong, because they came out rough, fat, and extremely crumbly – almost fell apart in the slicing, which they’d never done when I followed the recipe exactly.

Joan's biscotti

They even refused to get very brown. As cookies they were reasonably tasty, but nothing like what I was aiming for.


sopranos family bookA few weeks later I was ready to try again. For my second attempt I turned to the recipe for Biscotti d’Anice in The Sopranos Family Cookbook. The De Robertis biscotti were Italian-American, right? What’s more Italian-American than the Sopranos? (The book’s recipes are actually by Michele Scicolone, also a friend.) The recipe had no butter – which I’d realized was what made my first batch so cookie-like – but used an extensively creamed base of eggs, sugar, anise extract and vanilla. Into that were to be folded flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and aniseed to make a thick batter. I substituted a lot of slivered almonds for the aniseed.

The batter had to be baked in a square pan, turning it into a cake, which was then to be cut into strips for the second baking. Unusual.

soprano biscotti

Though unconventionally shaped for biscotti, these crisped and browned well, but they were more delicate in texture and much sweeter than De Robertis’s. The almonds were barely noticeable. Again, not what I wanted.


LTIWhen I was ready to enter the fray again I decided to try working with a purely Italian-Italian recipe: my own Biscotti di Prato from La Tavola Italiana. These have plenty of almond flavor, though no anise. Other ingredients are the usual flour, sugar, salt, and egg, but no butter and no vanilla; baking soda, not baking powder; and toasted almonds. I made a small batch, adding a good dose of anise extract.

my biscotti

These came closer to what I wanted, in look as well as flavor. But they’d utterly refused to brown this time, even though I’d given them a very long second baking (looks as if I overfloured the outsides), and there was no taste of the anise at all. Sigh.


Baking with JuliaAfter that I essentially gave up. But I still longed for good biscotti, even if they weren’t just like my late lamented ones. The other day, browsing through Baking with Julia, I came upon a recipe for Hazelnut Biscotti, which started out by saying “It’s the baking soda in the dough that gives these biscotti their wonderful open, crunchy texture.” Aha – maybe that was why my own recipe had come closer than the others! So I tried it.


Julia hazelnuts

Again, the result was nothing like the original goal, but these were very good indeed. The texture was as promised, and the hazelnut flavor was lovely. They were still sweeter than I like, but I can cut back the sugar next time. Guess I’ll just have to train myself to be content with these and with my own un-adapted recipe, above. De Robertis, ave atque vale!

Last month the food pages of the Times had an article called “Potato Salad Done Right.” I fully endorse that concept, but for me all four of the recipes given were firmly in the category Done Wrong. I’m an old-fashioned-potato-salad purist, but it’s not just the trendy ingredients (kimchi, sriracha, and lime juice?) that I object to. It’s that they all call for the potatoes to be cut in big chunks. De gustibus and all that, but I do not want a salad of halved golf balls. Potatoes for salad should be sliced.

My ideal potato salad is a simple one my mother made all through my childhood, and I’ve made ever since. Tom agrees with me in the main points of potato-salad principle, but the version he makes has some differences. In 46 years of married life, neither of us has managed to convert the other. This week we decided to do a test: each of us to make a bowlful, taste both together, and see how they compare.

For salad you need waxy, not mealy, potatoes: boilers rather than bakers. I used to use plain white “all-purpose” ones, as my mother did, but as most of those have been rendered virtually tasteless by modern agribusiness, I incline to Yukon Gold, which usually just about hold together when sliced hot. Tom likes to use red Bliss, but he lets them cool before slicing, making them less prone to crumbling.



So we each took a pound of our preferred potatoes and boiled them in their skins in salted water. When they were tender, Tom let his cool for a while, but I peeled and peelingsliced mine immediately. That is not the fun part, but I minimize burning fingers by impaling each one on a three-pronged fork to peel. I’ve always understood that hot potatoes will absorb oil, vinegar, and condiments better than cool ones. Tom doesn’t think the temperature matters: He doesn’t believe that anyone in the old German delis that provided his model for potato salad ever went to that kind of trouble.

This time some of my potatoes did crumble in the slicing, but I carefully moved them to a bowl, adding some thin slivers of Spanish onion. I dressed the veg with olive oil, salt, and pepper, tossing very gently with a wooden spoon; finally a sprinkle of wine vinegar and a good coating of mayonnaise. I covered the bowl with plastic wrap and left my potato salad to cool on the kitchen counter.

Tom, meanwhile, had prepared a dressing in the bowl for his potatoes, making a slurry of olive oil, Dijon mustard, and vinegar. When the potatoes were cool he peeled and sliced them into the bowl, tossed them with the dressing and some chopped spring red onions, salt, and pepper, and finished the dish with mayonnaise. Some of his spuds also crumbled instead of staying in neat slices.

When our two salads were ready for the contest, we dug in.

both salads


Well, it wasn’t much of a duel. There was almost nothing to differentiate them. Both kinds of potatoes and both techniques made decent, tasty salads. My potatoes were slightly yellower, Tom’s slightly whiter. His had a faint flavor of the mustard. Both seemed to have absorbed about the same amount of the flavorings. But both were also much mealier than they should have been – not properly al dente. It’s harder and harder to find a reliably waxy potato these days, I fear. Too bad!

And too bad for all those years when I burned my fingers peeling and slicing potatoes hot off the boil! I won’t do it any more, I guess. There is at least that much to be said for the experimental method.

Some edible items seem to take root in my freezer or pantry. It’s not that I don’t want to use them – I do – but somehow the right moment doesn’t arrive. The Hatch chileslatest one was a large can of Hatch green chiles, which had been sitting in the pantry long enough for its use-by date to be looming. It was absolutely time to make something with it.

Hatch green chiles are a special kind of New Mexico chiles, grown only in that state’s Hatch Valley, along the Rio Grande. My can was the mild variety, though there are hotter ones if you’re lucky enough to find them.

I don’t know a lot about New Mexico cooking, but from a trip in that region some years ago, Tom and I did develop a genuine passion for dishes made with green chiles. Back home, the dish we’ve had our best luck with was a green chile stew recipe I found online. It’s from Central Market in Texas, which probably makes it anathema to all good New Mexicans – but hey, we’re gringos, and it tastes good to us.

When I opened my can of chiles I was surprised at how many it contained: This was a solid pack, and they were firm, clean, fragrant vegetables.


can contents


No way I was going to be able to use them all at once, so I deseeded and chopped up about a cup’s worth, carefully wrapped the remaining ones, and put them in the freezer for another day.

The recipe starts with browning cubes of boneless pork in olive oil. I’d defrosted a generous pound of meaty country-style pork ribs, and Tom cut them up for me. Using a little artistic license, I asked him for larger pieces than cubes: That wasn’t canonical, but I wanted to try it. I also decided to use lard instead of olive oil, for a porkier oomph.



When the meat was browned I added chopped onions and garlic, cooked a few minutes, sprinkled on flour, cooked a little more, stirring. Next came a cup of chopped tomatoes, the chiles, salt, pepper, and a tiny pinch of sugar; finally a big potato cubed and two cups of broth. All that cooked gently, covered, for about two hours, until the pork was tender.

The chiles were indeed mild, but quite authoritative in the stew, providing a distinctive flavor and gentle warmth. I served it with black beans, rice, guacamole, and white corn tortillas, making a fine Southwestern combination.




Though these Hatch chiles were canned, they were better tasting than either the fresh or the frozen ones we’d occasionally been able to buy here before. So good was their effect that if I make the stew again with the rest of this batch I intend to cut back the amount of tomato, so the chile will be greener. Or perhaps try a totally green chile recipe: We have fond memories of a bowl of what seemed a simple green chile puree that we ravened down in a nondescript diner somewhere near Sonoita, New Mexico.

*     *     *

Post script: It wasn’t long until the rest of the Hatch chiles got their day in the spotlight. Tom was the instigator, since we’d invited his brother and wife for dinner and he’d had ideas about ways to get that recipe greener and spicier. So out of the freezer came the remaining chiles. This time I became the cook’s assistant, as he proceeded to make the recipe his own.

For starters, he went heavy on the meat: The recipe calls for 2 pounds of pork to serve 6 to 8; Tom used 2½ pounds for the 4 of us. He cut the meat fairly small – not quite the little cubes the recipe indicated, but more normal stewlike chunks than in my earlier version.

pork browning


He increased the proportion of onion, reduced the tomato by half, used all the remaining Hatch chiles, and added – his secret ingredient ­– three chipotles in adobo, minced.



After that, he more or less followed the original recipe’s ingredients and steps. It produced quite a hefty pot of chile, which scented the kitchen with the spiciness of the chipotles as it simmered along. I envisioned enough leftovers for another meal for Tom and me.

At the dinner table, after a first course of guacamole and chips, we served the chile with black beans, rice, and fresh corn tortillas.


second stew served


To our surprise, it was not the fiery dish that we’d expected, much to my brother-in-law’s relief and my sister-in-law’s disappointment. The Hatch chiles provided fine flavor again, but they had lost almost all their heat, compared to the first time around. Also, except for those cooking aromas, we couldn’t discern the chipotles at all. That was a pity but, fortunately, not enough to spoil our enjoyment: The ingredients did blend into a good, harmonious stew. At the end of dinner, there were just three chunks of pork left in the bowl.




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