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Flavor Jolts: Citrus and Chiles (How to make anything taste delicious)

Peppers

As this winter drags on, and the snow keeps falling, my thoughts drift to the woman we met in Southern Italy with her giant bottle of fig conserve. I love the photo of her–the big smile and her joy in having a supply of flavor to last all winter. If I were the one in the photo, my jar of winter flavor would be full of the brightness of citrus and the heat of chiles.

Fig Preserve

If I had just one bottle of something wonderful to get me through the winter, it would Justin’s Smoked Jalapeno Sauce. Justin takes red-ripe jalapeno peppers (he chooses them because they are thick fleshed, hot, and fruity), smokes them in his dad’s smoker (a metal box holding a gas flame, pan of wood chips, and racks for holding layers of chiles), blends the smoked chiles with vinegar, and puts the sauce in jars. Delicious, un-messed-with chile flavor.

Justin's Hot Sauce

I use Justin’s sauce frequently–a little slug in a pot of beans or stew, mixed with diced tomato and fresh herbs for salsa, mashed with avocado and diced onion for guacamole, blended with soft cheese, or splashed into a tapenade or hummus. Perhaps the most memorable use of this sauce was the Thanksgiving Day Bloody Mary prepared by Justin’s cousin– a flavor slam including green olives stuffed with blue cheese, celery, and pepperoncini in addition to the Smoked Jalapeno Sauce.

The sauce is a great stand-in for fresh chiles because it has such a bright, pure taste. It’s the kind of sauce that makes you say, “Wow. If you bottled and sold this stuff, you could get rich!” But that’s the point– processing changes the flavor. What you make at home with fresh ingredients tastes better. With a good supply of fresh lemons and limes, a jar of preserved lemons, and plenty of fresh and dried chiles, you can make anything taste good.

Zhoug 

What a great name! This is what to make if you don’t have a supply of Justin’s Smoked Jalapeno Salsa. Zhoug is an herb-packed green chile salsa created by the Yemeni community in Israel.

Ingredients: 3 medium-hot green chiles (Anaheim or Hungarian Wax), 1 jalapeno or serrano chile, 1 cup chopped cilantro leaves, 1/2 cup chopped parsley leaves, 1 Tbs minced garlic, 1 Tbs. finely chopped preserved lemon or fresh lemon juice, 1/2 tsp sea salt, 1 tsp toasted and ground cumin seed, 1/4 tsp ground cardamom, 1/8 tsp ground cloves

Stem, seed, and chop the chiles. Use a large mortar and pestle or food processor to pound or chop all the ingredients to make a thick salsa.

Serve zhoug with pita breads and anything you would like to stuff into them–grilled meats or chicken, lentil or chickpea salad, hummus, roasted vegetables…Or put a bowl on the table to liven up hearty soups, lentil and beans dishes, and grain salads.

Harissa

Harrisa

A North African chile -spice paste, Harissa can be fiery hot or moderately hot, depending on the amount and type of chiles used. I like to make it with fresh roasted red chiles when they ripen in the fall, but dried chiles work any time of year. Use any variety of hot red chiles, choosing your heat level from mildly-hot poblano (ancho) or New Mexico-type chiles to red ripe jalapeno, cayenne, or hotter.

Ingredients: 9 to 12 oz. fresh red hot chiles, or 4 or 5 ancho or dried New Mexico/ California chiles (2 oz, or 3/4 cup small dried hot chiles (about 1 1/2 oz), 1 tsp coriander seeds, 1 tsp cumin seeds, 1 1/2 tsp caraway seeds, 4 to 6 lightly smashed garlic cloves, 1 medium-small onion or 2 to 3 shallots, 2 finely chopped sundried tomatoes or 1 1/2 tsp tomato paste (optional), 2 to 4 Tbs olive oil, 2 to 3 Tbs lemon juice, 1/2 tsp salt

Roast fresh chiles over a gas flame or grill fire until the skin is blistered and charred all over. Put them in a bowl and cover with a towel to let the steam loosen the skins. Peel and seed, unless you want extra heat. Toast dried chiles briefly; cover with warm water and soak 30 to 40 minutes, until soft. Dry roast the cumin and caraway 30 seconds or so, and the coriander seed 1 to 2 minutes on a heavy skillet over medium heat. Cool, and grind to a powder. Slice the onion or shallots about 1/3-inch thick and dry roast 5 to 6 minutes per side.

Put all the ingredients in a food processor (drain, seed, and chop soaked chiles) and process to a smooth paste. Add more olive oil or water to thin. Store in a small jar with a thin layer of olive oil on top. Harissa wiil keep in the refrigerator 2 to 3 weeks, or in the freezer up to 3 months.

Use Harissa as a condiment for grilled meats or roasted vegetables, stir it into soups and stews, or serve it with couscous or rice pilaf. Combine some harissa with extra virgin olive oil or yogurt for dipping bread or steamed vegetables. My favorite: harissa and goat cheese smeared on a cracker or tortilla.

Romesco

Dried Peppers

Romesco is the great pepper sauce of Spain, rich with toasted nuts and flavored with the mildly spicy nyora pepper. The ancho chile of Mexico is easily available and makes a reasonable substitute.

Ingredients: 1 large ancho chile, 1 head roasted garlic, 1/4 cup toasted almonds or hazelnuts, 2 plum tomatoes (roasted, oven-dried, or canned), 1 large roasted red bell pepper (fresh or canned), 2 garlic cloves mashed with a pinch of coarse salt, 2 tsp red wine vinegar, 2 tsp balsamic vinegar, 1/8 tsp red chile flakes or cayenne, salt and black pepper

Split the ancho chile in half, remove the stem and seeds, and toast 15 to 20 seconds on a hot skillet. Cover the chile with warm water and soak until soft, 30 to 40 minutes.

Use a food processor to finely chop the almonds. Add the drained and chopped chile and roasted garlic cloves and process to a paste. Add the tomato, peeled and seeded bell pepper, raw garlic, and 2 Tbs olive oil and process to a smooth puree. Season to taste with vinegar, hot chile, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Stir in more olive oil as desired.

Variations (of which there are many!): Make the sauce with 2 ancho chiles and omit the roasted red bell pepper. Or make the sauce with a combination of roasted red bell peppers and Harissa or other chile paste. Add 1/4 cup fine toasted bread crumbs to the puree to thicken the sauce.

Romesco is a delicious topping for fish or grilled meats, a seasoning for braises, or a sauce for steamed new potatoes, grilled or braised leeks or spring onions, or roasted fennel or cauliflower.

*Thai Chile-Garlic Paste: A simple way to brighten your life, as well as your food.

Put it on a tortilla

Put a little dab on anything that needs the spark of life–noodles, fried rice, scrambled eggs….Mix some with equal parts lime juice, toasted sesame oil, and soy sauce to make a dressing for Asian noodle salads.

Ingredients: 4 fresh serrano chiles (or 2 Thai bird and 1 or 2 jalapeno chiles), 1 Tbs chopped garlic, 1/8 tsp coarse sea salt, 1 Tbs fresh lime juice, 1/2 tsp lime zest

Seed, stem, and chop the chiles. Pound the chiles, garlic, and salt together using a mortar and pestle. Stir in the lime juice and zest.

 Yuzu Kosho

Yuzu Kosho is a Japanese chile-citrus paste. Yuzu is a fragrant-skinned lemon-like Japanese citrus that, like the bitter limes or sour oranges of Mexico, is hard to duplicate. I use Meyer lemon or a combination of orange, lemon, and grapefruit zests. I made an experimental batch with equal parts of Justin’s Smoked Jalapeno Sauce and preserved lemons and oranges. Unconventional, but outrageously good!

Ingredients: 3 to 4 Tbs citrus zest, 4 small fresh green or red chiles (something like a Thai bird chile or serrano), 1 Tbs coarse sea salt or more, to taste

Use a microplane (it will change your life) to remove the zest. Put the zest (or substitute equal amount preserved lemon) in a mortar with the seeded and chopped chiles and salt. Grind to paste. Store in a small glass jar in the refrigerator.

Eat this with roasted root vegetables, a bowl of noodles or rice, or with stir-fries. I ate it on everything until it was gone.

 Quick Pickled Lemons from Jerusalem (the cookbook)

While I waited (actually, I didn’t) four weeks for my preserved lemons to become more delicious, as Ottalenghi and Tamimi promised, I tried another of their recipes. These lemon slices are ready to eat in just 24 hours and are just as quick to become an addictive condiment. Playing around with the spices is fun–more or less chile, maybe a little fennel, cardamom, or black pepper…I added a little fresh thyme to some, rosemary another time.

Ingredients: 1 small red chile (fresh or dried), 3 Tbs fresh lemon juice, 3 organic unwaxed lemons (I used Meyer), 1 1/2 tsp coarse sea salt, 1 crushed garlic clove, 1/4 tsp toasted and ground cumin seed, 1/2 tsp toasted and ground coriander seeds, 1 tsp sweet or hot paprika, sugar (optional)

Seed and chop the chile. Using a mortar and pestle, pound the chile to a paste with a pinch of salt and 1 tsp lemon juice (include the garlic clove in the paste for stronger garlic flavor). Cut the lemons in half, or quarters if large. Slice crosswise as thinly as possible. Put all the ingredients into a bowl and rub the flavorings into the lemon slices with your hands. Add 1 to 3 Tbs sugar, if you like. The Meyer lemons are sweet enough for me without sugar. Leave covered for 24 hours. Transfer to a clean glass container with a tight fitting lid. Store in the refrigerator up to 2 weeks.

Serve these slices with couscous and rice dishes, stews and braises, salads and sandwiches, dips and spreads… any time you want some bright, sharp flavor.

Stars of the Summer Garden

Ratatouille

We wait all summer for this: red-ripe tomatoes, fat purple eggplant, sweet red peppers, and summer squash galore. Now is the time to capture those flavors, while they’re at their height, and what better dish than Ratatouille (the name even sounds like a celebration) to celebrate the stars of the summer garden? The dish originates in Southern France, where a medley of vegetables is sautéed in generous amounts of olive oil and layered into a casserole, or ragout. My version strayed over into Sicily or Spain. I grill my vegetables, so what I am making is really more like Ratatouille’s Catalan relative, Escalivada, meaning “baked over embers.” I like the fire-roasted flavor and the way the grilling makes it easy for each vegetable to keep its individual identity and texture intact. Oven roasting is a good alternative to grilling–the principle is the same: Cook the vegetables separately with high heat to caramelize the juices and concentrate the flavor. Marry the flavors after the vegetables are cooked and highlight with fresh herbs, garlic, and a splash of fresh lemon juice or balsamic vinegar. 

Ratatouille  Escalivada 

Grilled Ratatouille 

EggplantVegetables: 2 medium eggplants (about 1 1/4 pounds), 2 medium red onions, 2 or 3 large red or yellow bell peppers (or Italian roasting peppers), 4 small or 2 medium zucchini, 10 plum or 5 to 6 medium round red-ripe tomatoes (1 1/2 pounds), 6 to 8 large garlic cloves, a handful torn basil leaves, and 2 Tbs chopped mixed fresh herbs: parsley, thyme, marjoram, oregano…

Additional ingredients: extra virgin olive oil, fresh lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, coarse sea salt or kosher salt, and freshly ground black pepper.

Heat a gas or charcoal grill to medium-high while you prepare the vegetables. Thinly slice the garlic and heat it in a small pan with 1/3-cup extra virgin olive oil just until bubbles begin to rise around the garlic. Turn off the heat and set aside. Peel lengthwise strips of skin off the eggplant, leaving stripes, and cut into 1/2 inch slices (if the eggplant are small, cut them lengthwise); cut the onions into quarters or 1/2-inch thick slices and secure with toothpicks; cut the zucchini into halves or quarters lengthwise; cut the plum tomatoes in half . Leave the peppers whole. Brush the eggplant, onion, tomatoes and zucchini with the garlic oil (reserve the garlic!) to coat well. Sprinkle lightly with coarse salt.

Grill the vegetables: If using a gas grill, start grilling with all burners on medium-high to high (it depends on how hot your grill gets). Arrange the vegetables on the hot grill– brown one side, then flip and brown the other. Grill with the lid down. If you grill over charcoal, build a two-zone fire to have a hot side and a medium-low side. Grill the vegetables uncovered over the hot coals to sear both sides; move to the cooler side and cover to finish cooking.

Eggplant and zucchini can be grilled at the same time–they both take 4 to 6 minutes per side and need to be checked often. Grill the onions, peppers, and plum tomatoes together for a total of about 10 to 12 minutes. Move the onions and tomatoes to low heat if they need further cooking after searing both sides. Rotate the peppers until the skin is charred on all sides and put them in a paper bag to cool before peeling.

Don’t undercook! The great flavor comes from the juices caramelizing at high heat. The vegetables should be well browned and tender inside. As they finish cooking, transfer to a large platter or baking dish.

Peel the tomatoes if you like; separate the onion into layers or rings; peel and cut the peppers into thick slices, cut the zucchini and eggplant into 1-inch pieces. Gently combine the vegetables in a large serving bowl or shallow platter– mixed or layered or arranged in an artful design, however you like. Distribute the slivers of garlic, basil leaves and chopped herbs; add a squeeze or two fresh lemon juice or a splash balsamic vinegar, salt and black pepper to taste. For a Sicilian touch, add 1/2 tsp ground cumin seed, 1/2 tsp paprika, and 2 or 3 minced hot red chiles.

Oven-Roasting: Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees F. Cut the eggplant into 1/2-inch slices; brush each side with olive oil, sprinkle with kosher salt, and place the slices on a baking sheet or roasting pan. Quarter the zucchini and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces; slice the onions lengthwise into wedges; seed the peppers and cut into thick slices; peel the garlic cloves and leave them whole; cut the tomatoes in half and gently squeeze out the seeds, salt them lightly and place upside down in a colander to drain. Toss the zucchini, onion, garlic, and peppers with 4 Tbs extra virgin olive oil, two tsp chopped rosemary, a few sprigs thyme, and sprinkle with kosher salt. Spread the vegetables on a large roasting pan in a single layer. Put both pans in the oven. After 15 minutes, flip the eggplant over and stir the vegetables gently.  Place the tomatoes cut side up on a baking sheet.  Roast all the vegetables another 15 to 20 minutes, until tender and starting to char. When done, chop the eggplant into chunks. Scrape all the vegetables and their juices into a bowl; toss with fresh herbs and fresh lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste.

We ate our Ratatouille wrapped in freshly made pita bread, with yogurt sauce, cucumber salad, and a big pot of brown lentils cooked with Andouille sausage.

Here’s what to do with extra Ratatouille: Eat it on crusty toasted bread; toss it with pasta; serve it along side grilled meat or chicken kebabs…or on top of grilled fish; eat it with couscous; wrap it in a flatbread; add more chiles and make it into salsa; mix it into a salad of white beans and olives; top a pizza, fill an omelet or a calzone…

Eggplant Dinner

Eggplant

Roasted or grilled slices of eggplant (even zucchini!) are so good, you may want to stop right there. Follow the directions for oven roasting or grilling and make a topping for the crusty, succulent eggplant. Zucchini slices make excellent roll-ups. Any kind of bruschetta topping is good on roasted eggplant or zucchini–here are a few ideas:

*Bean Salad: Warm 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil with 2 tsp whole cumin seed, about 1 minute. When the cumin is fragrant, add a finely chopped onion and sauté until soft, 5 or 6 minutes. Add 1 Tbs finely chopped garlic and 1 or 2 finely chopped fresh hot red chiles (use sweet peppers if you don’t like heat). Sauté 1 minute. Add 1 1/2 cups cooked garbanzo or white beans and stir to combine, add salt to taste. Cook over low heat 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and toss with 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley, 2 Tbs chopped fresh mint, and 2 or 3 tsp fresh lemon juice

Red Peppers*Roasted Red Pepper Salsa: Roast 1 or 2 red bell peppers with the eggplant. When the peppers are charred (about 15-20 minutes), take them from the oven and cover them with a kitchen towel for 10 to 20 minutes. Peel off the skin, remove the seeds, and chop the peppers into small dice. Mix with a few Tbs finely chopped red onion, 1 clove minced garlic, 1 Tbs capers, a few Tbs chopped green and black olives, 2 Tbs chopped fresh mint, and balsamic vinegar to taste.

Eggplant with Nasturtium*Goat Cheese and Nasturtium Flowers

*Spicy Greens with Feta Cheese: Dress some chopped arugula and spicy mesclun greens with extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Toss with crumbled feta and toasted walnuts or pine nuts.

Egglpant Wraps*Herbed Ricotta with Ham and Tomato: Mix 1 cup whole milk ricotta with 1 Tbs finely chopped mint, 1 tsp finely chopped thyme, 1/2 tsp lemon zest, and 3 Tbs freshly grated parmesan or pecorino. Spread a spoonful of cheese over a thin slice of ham and top with chopped sundried or fresh tomato.

Brown Lentils with Sausage

I’m including this recipe because the lentils paired so well with the ratatouille in a flatbread meal. Besides, the dish is endorsed by Martha, who would rather paint than cook, so if she asks for a recipe I know it is good.

Rinse 2 cups lentils and put them in a saucepan with 3 or 4 sprigs fresh thyme, a big sprig fresh rosemary, a small hot chile, 1/2 tsp salt, and 6 cups water. Bring to a boil, cover the pot, and simmer 20 minutes, or until barely tender.

While the lentils cook, warm 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil in a good-sized sauté pan or Dutch oven with 1 bay leaf and 1 tsp crushed cumin seed. Stir in 1 1/2 cups chopped onion and sauté 2 or 3 minutes. Stir in 1 cup finely chopped carrot, reduce the heat to low, and cover the pot. Allow to cook about 5 minutes, until the onion and carrot have softened. Stir in 2 minced garlic, 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes, 2 tsp finely chopped rosemary, 2 tsp thyme leaves, and 1/2 tsp salt. Cook 1 minute. Add 4 cups chopped fresh tomatoes and 1 cup green beans, cut in small pieces. Simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes.

When the lentils are ready, drain off the extra liquid (save for soup broth) and add them to the vegetables, along with chunks or slices of cooked sausage (I grilled the Andouille sausage). Stir to combine and simmer 5 to 10 minutes to blend the flavors. Stir in a few Tbs chopped parsley and cilantro leaves. Taste for seasoning and add a splash of balsamic vinegar or fresh lemon juice.

Note: About 1 1/2 cups Tabouli salad from lunch went into these lentils, as well. The pot made just enough for 8 people.

Yogurt Sauce

Mix 1 cup whole milk or Greek-style strained yogurt with 1/2 tsp freshly toasted and ground cumin seed and 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper. Stir in 2 Tbs chopped fresh mint, 6 to 8 chopped basil leaves, 1 minced garlic clove, a little lemon zest, and salt to taste.

Using the Bounty–Soups of Summer

This is the time of year every gardener wonders what to do with all the vegetables piling up outside the kitchen door. Make soup! All these soups are wonderful hot or cold, and any extra freezes well.

Beet Borscht with Spices from the Silk Road

Beets

A mixture of red and gold beets is extra beautiful and delicious.

Warm 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil (or other vegetable oil) in a large pot over medium heat. Sauté 1 large onion (quartered and thinly sliced), 2 diced carrots, 1 thinly sliced celery stalk, and 2 bay leaves until the onion is softened, 5 or 6 minutes. Stir in 2 thinly sliced garlic cloves, 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper, 1 tsp ground cumin seed, 1 tsp smoked paprika or Aleppo pepper, 1 tsp ground coriander seed and 1 tsp salt. Cook 1 minute. Add 6 cups chicken or vegetable broth and bring to a boil.

Add 1 to 1 1/2 pound beets, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks (about 3 1/2 to 4 cups), 2 medium new potatoes, cut in 3/4-inch cubes, and 1/2 head thinly sliced cabbage  (about 3 cups). Cover the pot and simmer 45 minutes.

Add 1 cup chopped beet greens and 1 cup diced tomato (fresh or canned). Add more broth or water if the soup is too thick. Simmer 5 minutes, or until all the vegetables are tender. Stir in 1/4 cup chopped fresh dill, 1 Tbs cider vinegar, and 2 tsp balsamic vinegar. Taste for seasoning and add more salt or vinegar to taste.

Serve with sour cream or yogurt sauce and finely chopped green onions.

Yogurt Sauce

Mix together 1 cup whole milk yogurt, 1 garlic clove mashed to a paste with 1/4 tsp kosher salt, 1/2 tsp ground cumin seed, 2 tsp fresh lime juice, 1 tsp lime zest, and 2 Tbs chopped dill or mint.

 Summer Squash Soup with Curry Spices and Cilantro-Mint Pesto

Squash

I love summer squashes in all their many shapes and colors–they are spectacular in the garden. This year I am growing a beautiful patty pan type called “Sun Burst”, as well as “Italian Striped” and “Salman”zucchini. This soup will be pale yellow or pale green, depending on the type of squash available.

Warm 1 Tbs extra virgin olive oil and 1 Tbs butter over medium heat in a large pot. Stir in 1 large chopped white onion. Sauté until the onion is softened, about 5-6 minutes. Add 2 thinly sliced garlic cloves, 1 Tbs finely chopped fresh ginger, and 1 seeded and chopped jalapeno pepper; stir 1 minute. Add 1 1/2 lbs (about 2 quarts chopped) summer squash and stir to coat with the oil. Sprinkle with 1 tsp kosher or sea salt.

Add the spices: toast 1 tsp cumin seed and 1 tsp coriander seed on an iron skillet over medium heat until fragrant, shaking the pan or stirring constantly. Transfer to a mortar or spice grinder and grind to a fine powder. Stir in 1 1/2 tsp paprika, 1/2 tsp turmeric, a very small pinch of cardamom, and 1/4 tsp cayenne. Stir the spices into the vegetables.

Add 3 cups chicken or vegetable broth and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer 15 to 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are completely tender. Remove from the heat. When cooled slightly, puree the soup in a blender. Adjust the seasonings by adding a bit of curry powder or a spoonful of tomato paste or salsa. Blend in 1 cup whole milk yogurt and add salt and black pepper to taste.

Return the soup to the pot and stir in 1 to 2 Tbs fresh lemon juice. Gently reheat before serving, or cool and serve at room temperature or chilled. Garnish with chopped chives and cilantro leaves and swirl in some Cilantro-Mint Pesto.

Cilantro-Mint Pesto 

Use a food processor or blender to puree 1 1/2 cups cilantro stems and leaves, 1/2 cup Thai basil leaves, 1/2 cup mint leaves, 2 large garlic cloves, 1 Tbs minced ginger, 1 jalapeno pepper, 2-3 Tbs fresh lemon or lime juice, 1 tsp zest, 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil (or peanut or sesame oil) and salt to taste. Add water to thin, if needed. Optional: 1/4 cup roasted peanuts, pumpkin seeds, or cashews

Smoky Gazpacho

Tomatoes

A cooked gazpacho…or is it a borsht? This Gazpacho is chunky and hearty, made smoky by grilled vegetables and a chicken broth made from the flavorful remains of garlic-herb grilled chicken.

Make the chicken broth by simmering the carcasses of two grilled chickens in a crock-pot overnight. Strain the broth and refrigerate. When cool, remove the fat from the surface. I freeze the broth in ice cube trays; the frozen broth cools the soup when it goes in the blender with the vegetables.

Vegetables for Gazpacho: 2 or 3 red bell peppers, 2 pounds red-ripe tomatoes, 3 small red onions, 2 or 3 small zucchini, 1 or 2 jalapeno or other medium-hot chiles, 2 or 3 large garlic cloves, 1/2 cup mixed fresh herbs (basil, parsley, cilantro, mint, chives, tarragon, thyme…)

Heat a gas or charcoal grill while you prepare the vegetables. Chop the herbs; seed and chop the hot chiles. Mash the garlic to a paste with 1/4 tsp kosher salt. Combine the garlic paste with 2 Tbs fresh lemon juice; set aside. Seed and cut the peppers into quarters; halve the onions lengthwise; cut the zucchini in half lengthwise. Toss these vegetables with olive oil to coat well; sprinkle with a little kosher salt. Grill the tomatoes whole, until the skin is blistered and beginning to char all over–5 or 6 minutes. Grill the cut vegetables about 5 minutes on each side, until they are soft and slightly charred.

Put the peeled tomatoes, peppers, onion, zucchini, hot peppers, chopped herbs, and garlic-lemon mixture in a blender or food processor. Pulse to make a chunky salsa-like mixture. Add water, or chicken or vegetable broth to thin to the consistency you like. Add a little salsa or chile sauce for more zip. Season to taste with salt and black pepper, more lemon juice, balsamic, or red wine vinegar. Chill the soup , if desired.

Serve sprinkled with more fresh herbs. Pass bowls of diced cucumber and finely chopped onion, and hot garlic croutons.

Olive Oil

Olive Oil: Virgin, Extra Virgin, and Delicious

Black Olives

Here is what I learned about olive oil in Italy. It carries the flavor of where the olives grow…sometimes peppery, sometimes herbal, sometimes floral, mild or sharp. It is a flavoring in and of itself. Actually, I knew that. The most memorable olive oil I ever tasted was the oil made from olives that Drew and I helped pick in Yugoslavia way back in the old days. We helped our landlord harvest his trees and took the olives to the local mill, where they were pressed into beautiful green, flavorful oil. It tasted alive.

Olive oil pressed on the farm where we stayed in Abruzzo was so peppery and sharp we were shocked. Serra Gambetta produces a golden amber oil, with an aroma of herbs and a slight taste of bitter almond. Stir it into some cooked greens or some boiled beans, drizzle it on bread or a bowl of chopped tomatoes…you have something good.

There are “ordinary virgins” and “extra virgins “in the world of olive oil. “Extra virgin” is made from the first pressing of raw olives and is the most flavorful. It’s useful to buy a few jars and do a side-by-side taste test to get an idea of the range of flavors. .”Ordinary virgin” is produced from a subsequent pressing and has less distinctive flavor (sometimes that’s what you want). Many extra virgin or virgin olive oils found in the supermarket are mild-flavored and affordable–I use them all the time for cooking. Really great olive oil is expensive, so I use it when it will really be tasted.

This is how you take care of good olive oil. Store it in a cool place–not next to the stove where it is handy! Air is the enemy, so if you buy it in a large container, pour it into several smaller jars (dark glass, please) once it is open.

Making an Ordinary Extra Virgin into Something Special

Green Olives in Italy

 “Ordinary extra virgin” sounds like an oxymoron, but there is a lot of it around.  Infusing ordinary extra virgin olive oil with other flavors can transform it into a drizzle-worthy condiment.

*The easiest way to bump up the flavor of olive oil is to infuse it with olives. Fill a jar half way with unpitted olives and fill the rest of the jar with olive oil. Screw on the lid and store in a dark, cool place. The oil will soon taste more interesting, and the olive are wonderful, too.

*Pour oil over sun-dried tomatoes and let them impart their flavor and color to the oil. I like to use this to drizzle on pasta, pizza or focaccia, make a tapenade, or dress a salad or cooked vegetables.

*Flavor oil with lemon zest and garlic: Make a paste with 1 garlic clove, the zest of 1 lemon, and a pinch of coarse salt. Gradually stir in 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil.

*Infuse oil with tender herbs such as basil, chives, mint, or tarragon: Finely chop the herbs and pound them to a coarse paste in a mortar or small wooden bowl. Gradually stir in the olive oil. Use about 1/4 cup herbs for 1/2 cup oil. Infuse 30 minutes or so before using.

*Infuse oil with strong herbs such as rosemary, sage, thyme, or savory: These woody herbs need a little heat to extract their flavor. Use 4 to 6 Tbs chopped fresh leaves, singly or in combination, to infuse 1 cup extra virgin olive oil. Heat the herbs and oil together in a small pan over low heat until small bubbles rise around the leaves. Cook 3 minutes over very low heat. Remove from heat and infuse 2 to 12 hours. Strain before storing in the refrigerator.

*My favorite: Rosemary, thyme, red chile, and garlic. Chop the flavorings. Heat them gently in olive oil and steep 1 hour or so before using. Drizzle on grilled, roasted or steamed vegetables, pasta or polenta, bean salads, bread or pizza. I usually make this in small amounts and don’t bother to strain it.

Olive Trees in Italy