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Rebecca Charles' Blackberry Nectarine Crisp

After my vacation, when I could blissfully expect others to take over the reins at the stove and produce any number of delicious things (rabbit with rosemary or homemade tagliatelle with meat ragu and fresh peas, for example); where melons and apricots and tomatoes and zucchini tasted like the versions of themselves that we dream they should taste of; and yeasty pizza al taglio and flaky piadine and freshly made sheeps-milk ricotta - light as a cloud and almost quivery - abounded with plenty, it is an understatement to say that I had little interest in getting back to the kitchen.

I am probably preaching to an already-convinced choir that home cooking in Italy, where ingredients practically pulse with flavor and juice and freshness, completely surpasses any attempts I might make to approximate it in my kitchen here in New York. Over there, roasted tomatoes topped with chips of browned garlic, homemade bread crumbs from the unsalted loaves of the region and feathery wild fennel fronds, all bathed in a broth of olive oil and cooking juices, tasted of summer and sunshine and earth. If I attempted those here - even with the tomatoes of the Greenmarket - nothing as good would (could!) emerge.

So, it's taking me a few days to get back into the swing of things - to find my appetite for shopping, preparing, cooking and eating again. I'll find my hunger for all of this, I'm sure. But I'm still reveling in my memories of last week: of our dining room table crowded with the family I see too infrequently, of quickly-melting cones of gelato in the afternoon, of floral-scented berries plucked off the vines in the early morning hours when dew dappled all the grasses, of beach food that came in the form of homemade chitarrine with tiny squid and clams and shrimps, and of those roasted tomatoes that tasted so much like home.

Ben and I are off to Maine this weekend - I think a few days of New England summer food (corn! lobsters! blueberries!) and some bracing ocean air will be good medicine. And when Ben's mother invited us over for dinner at her place last night, I figured that preparing our dessert would be just the thing to get this cooking-shtick of mine back in gear. I chose to make a fruit crisp - laden with plump summer fruits. The recipe comes from the owner of Manhattan's Pearl Oyster Bar (and the ex-girlfriend of the owner of Pearl's undisputed rival, Mary's Fish Camp - oh, restaurant intrigue, is there anything better?) and was published in the New York Times three years ago.

I loved the combination of fat blackberries and aromatic nectarines. But the recipe was off. There was far too much sugar listed: a half-cup tossed with the nectarines would have been tooth-achingly sweet. I used just a tablespoon and found it to be plenty. Also, while the topping looked just fine raw, it all but melted into a cinnamon-flavored paste while in the oven. Yes, the flavor and texture of the jammy berries and ripe nectarines was luscious, but this was no crisp, as far as I'm concerned. A grunt? Perhaps. If you want a foolproof crisp topping, use Chris Kimball's from The Best Recipe. It holds up its shape and is delicious.

Rebecca Charles' Blackberry Nectarine Crisp
Serves 6

7 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 cups nectarines, pitted, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks (about 3 large nectarines)
1/2 cup granulated sugar (I used 1 tablespoon)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 heaping cup whole blackberries
Vanilla ice cream

1. Butter a 2-quart baking dish or six 8-ounces ramekins with 1 tablespoon of butter. Heat oven to 375 degrees. In a food processor, pulse flour, oats, brown sugar, cinnamon and salt once or twice to mix. Cut remaining butter into small chunks, add to flour mixture and pulse a few more times, until mixture just comes together into small crumbly clumps. Reserve.

2. In a large bowl, combine nectarines, granulated sugar and vanilla. Pour nectarines into baking dish or ramekins, scatter blackberries on top and sprinkle with the processed mixture. Bake 45 minutes, until bubbling. Serve immediately with vanilla ice cream.

Saying Goodbye Is Hard To Do


What a week it's been. Books were read, new swimsuits were purchased, berries were picked, families were bonded, mosquitos attacked, a wedding was attended, much suntanning occurred, and it all happened far too fast. I'm a lucky girl to have such an idyllic haven in Italy. Saying goodbye is absolutely wretched. In an attempt to tell you about the past week with any semblance of eloquence, I'll let the pictures do most of the talking.

A cloudless sky with a Renaissance arch.

Our car's big day!

Juicy berries from the garden.

A four-generational family portrait.

A candle at sunset, overlooking the fertile valley.

Chewy, larded pizza bianca, strewn with fragrant rosemary and coarse salt.

Urbino takes my breath away every single time I come around the bend in the road.

A seriously gorgeous wedding party.

Gone Fishing


For the next 10 days, I'll be in Italy visiting my mother and my grandfather (that's his tool shed you see up there) and various other members of my Italian family for some much-needed rest and relaxation. I plan on cooking very little, reading quite a bit, and watching as much soccer as I possibly can.

Thank you, dearest darlingest readers, for all your lovely words of encouragement. They've put a spring in my step.

Douglas Keane's Chilled Cucumber, Avocado and Buttermilk Soup


This seems like just the week for chilled, vegetal soups. Especially ones enriched with buttermilk and yogurt, giving the pureed vegetables a pleasant tang and lactic heft. As for ease of preparation, there isn't much that's simpler than chopping up a few cukes and avocados, and blitzing them into liquescence with some salt, sugar, vinegar and the aforementioned buttermilk and yogurt. All the fuzzy bits get strained out and the whole thing is chilled to a sublimely cooling state before being topped with mint strips and spooned up for dinner.

Douglas Keane, the chef at Market in St. Helena, provided the recipe to the LA Times a few years ago. I made the soup and ate a bowl one night, but I haven't been able to bring myself to finish the rest off all week. It's not the soup's fault - it's quite lovely really: the sweetness of the avocado mellowing out the more astringent qualities of the cucumbers and buttermilk, and don't you agree that everything in summer is improved by a topping of feathery strips of mint?

But the recent appearance of an entire family (clan? pride? gaggle?) of nuclear-sized cockroaches (waterbugs, my foot) in my apartment, my impending four-year anniversary at work (four years? What on God's green earth am I doing with my life?), an ongoing struggle with my insurance company (do they want me to cry every time I am forced to call them?), the miserable and defeating state of my bank account, and the fact that I'm long overdue for a vacation (6 months, people, is too long to work without a break, American work ethic be damned) is making me irritable and weepy and in need of nothing more than cereal for dinner and a big helping of french fries covered in chocolate sauce and love for lunch.

So, I'm leaving the healthy soup (probably providing good nutrition and glowing skin to boot) behind in search of something that will leave me feeling a bit more soothed and sheltered. Whether I can find that in food remains to be seen.

Vincent Schiavelli's Pasta chi Sardi a Mari


Did you know this man could cook? I'm sure most of you remember him as the belligerent ghost who tried to kick Patrick Swayze off the train in Ghost, but Schiavelli was also a gourmand and a writer who chronicled his childhood spent hanging around his Sicilian family in Brooklyn. I used to work at the company that publishes his books and one day I ran into him as he walked down the hallway to his editor's office. He was very tall and elegantly dressed, wearing a fedora. His familiar face caught me off-guard and I did a double-take before rounding the corner to the photocopying machine. I smiled to myself as I heard a familiar refrain echoing in my head, "Get off of my train!"

Schiavelli used to prepare regular dinners at the now-shuttered Alto Palato restaurant in West Hollywood. One of his pasta dishes bore a resemblance to the Sicilian classic, Pasta chi Sard (which, in Sicilian dialect, means Pasta with Sardines), but he cleverly renamed his dish Pasta chi Sardi a Mari (Pasta with Sardines Still in the Sea). I have a feeling this is the kind of dish my father would love, if he'd ever get his act together to actually buy fennel seeds or golden raisins. The LA Times adapted Schiavelli's recipe for the newspaper almost four years ago, and I finally got around to trying it last night for dinner.

This is one of those fantastic meals that looks so entirely unassuming, but manages to combine flavors in such a way that the final product is out of this world. And in just 20 minutes! For those of you who claim to hate anchovies, I swear to you (I really do!) that if you try this recipe, you won't even be able to taste them - they are a back note, a barely-there frisson of marine je-ne-sais-quoi, and completely inoffensive. The mellow garlic, herbal parsley, sweet raisins, and aromatic fennel seeds balance out the anchovies perfectly and the proportion of each ingredient in the recipe could teach recipe testers a thing or two about restraint.

You soak a few raisins in hot water, while carefully warming together oil, garlic, minced anchovies and the fennel seeds. You throw the chopped parsley into the skillet, and then bring a pot of water to boil for the pasta. Schiavelli calls for bucatini, but regular spaghetti can be substituted. While the spaghetti boils, you add the drained raisins to the fennel mixture, then add the cooked pasta and a healthy amount of cooking water. Over high heat, the water reduces, and acts as a thickener and a flavor-booster. Each strand of spaghetti is coated with a lightly flavored, green-flecked sauce, and the toasted pine nuts thrown in at the end add crunch.

If you use jarred anchovies (which are more convenient to keep around than tinned ones) and have fennel seeds and golden raisins lying around your pantry, this is the kind of dish that could become your rainy-day, late-night special. The kind of meal you throw together when there's nothing else in the house and it's too late for elaborate preparations of any kind. It's the best kind of fast food, simple and sophisticated.

Pasta Chi Sardi a Mari
Serves 4 to 6

1/4 cup golden raisins
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
4 anchovy filets, minced
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
6 tablespoons minced parsley
1 pound bucatini or spaghetti
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts

1. Cover the raisins with hot water and let soften 15 to 20 minutes.

2. Warm the olive oil, garlic, anchovies and fennel seeds in a skillet over medium-low heat. After about 5 minutes, the anchovies will begin to melt. Add the parsley and keep the mixture warm, but do not let the garlic scorch.

3. Cook the pasta in plenty of boiling, salted water. Drain the pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water, and add the noodles to the skillet with the sauce. Drain the raisins and add to the skillet. Increase the heat to high and add the reserved pasta water. Cook, stirring the mixture together, until most of the water has evaporated and the sauce clings to the noodles, about 3 minutes. Stir in the pine nuts. Serve immediately.



I have absolutely nothing to tell you about cooking-wise, because I spent the entire weekend devouring this book. It is the best thing I've read all year, and, people, I read for a living. Bill Buford, the former fiction editor for The New Yorker, worked as an unpaid grunt in Mario Batali's kitchen at Babbo and then traveled to Tuscany to apprentice under master butcher Dario Cecchini. The account of his time in the kitchen at Babbo and in Italy is beautifully written, hysterically funny, and totally, utterly captivating. It's the kind of book I wish wish wish never had to end.

And if I didn't already have an insatiable desire to eat at Babbo - just once! - I certainly do now.

John T. Edge's Hypocrite Pie


Reading about regional American food makes me go all soft inside. An interesting narrative, simple ingredients, straightforward preparation - it makes for a good book and usually pretty good eats. Maybe it's because I haven't seen very much of rural America, or because much of that kind of narrative is bound up in the romantic ideals of what America used to be like, but I could curl up on my couch and read about that stuff all day long.

So when the LA Times published an article about John T. Edge, food historian and Southern Food Alliance director, my ears perked up. The reviewer, Charles Perry, was exasperated with Edge, finding his books misinformed and often overblown. But what kept Perry (and me) intrigued was the selection of recipes that Edge included. Apparently they were both "unusual and worth trying" (italics mine). I didn't need much encouraging.

In a case of total serendipity, I had volunteered to bring dessert to my book club on The Known World by Edward P. Jones, a novel about slave-owning blacks in the antebellum South. Could there be a better opportunity to make 100-year old Hypocrite Pie from North Carolina? I suppose I should have gone at the recipe a bit more gimlet-eyed and left myself more baking time when Perry noted that the recipes needed "tweaking". But I figured the LA Times test kitchen did that tweaking for me before reprinting the recipe (well, they did adjust the sugar amount, so I'll be thankful for small mercies).

I whizzed together an all-butter crust and let it chill throughout the day before coming home and throwing the pie together. After sauteeing apples in butter and sugar and cinnamon until the apartment smelled like Thanksgiving, I layered them at the bottom of a crust-lined pie dish (make sure you roll out that crust as thin as thin can be - mine was too thick). Then I beat together the buttermilk custard and poured it over the apples. The raw pie smelled divine - the creamy sourness of the custard offset the sweet, spiced apples perfectly. I slid the pie into the oven and waited. And waited. And waited.

If I hadn't had to run to book club, I would have waited longer. But I couldn't. So after an hour of baking, I pulled the pie from the oven. The crust was pale as can be, and the custard wasn't much darker. It had set, though, and the knife test came out clean. But just as I thought, when we cut into the pie later, it could have used more time in the oven. And perhaps a wee parbaking of the crust before the filling was added. The custard tasted good, but it was still a bit too jiggly, and the crust at the bottom was soggy. However, the crisp and melting edges of the crust were toasty, almost shortbread-y against the sweet filling.

I loved the homey pie's mysterious name. I loved its ease of preparation and its vanilla custard smell. I loved imagining North Carolinians eating it at the dinner table a hundred years ago. I wish I'd had more time to bake the pie properly - to a gilded, firm state. Because I think I would have enjoyed it more had it not been so... pallid. But I'm glad I made it all the same.

Hypocrite Pie
Serves 8

6 tablespoons butter, divided, at room temperature
3 tart apples, peeled, cored and sliced
3/4 cup sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup buttermilk, room temperature
Unbaked crust for a 9-inch, deep-dish, 1-crust pie

1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a skillet. Add the apples, 1/4 cup of sugar, and the cinnamon. Cook over medium heat until the apples are tender, 4 or 5 minutes. Set aside.

2. In a large bowl, combine the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter with the remaining 1/2 cup sugar and beat until creamy. Beat in the eggs 1 at a time. Mix in the vanilla, flour and buttermilk and beat until silky.

3. Prick the bottom of the pie crust with a fork. Spoon the apples into the crust and spread them around as flat as possible. Pour in the buttermilk mixture, ensuring that it covers all the apples. Bake in the oven until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, 50 - 55 minutes (be prepared for it to take longer).