Friday, November 16, 2012


Autumn is represented by many things: colorful leaves, apples, jackets and sweaters and boots for cooler weather. But perhaps most representative of the change in the kitchen from summer garden to fall's harvest bounty? The pumpkin. 

In the U.S., the image we have of pumpkins is often of the jack-o-lantern. The members of the pumpkin family that we generally consider good eating fall under the "squash" moniker: butternut, acorn, spaghetti...but they're all members of the gourd family, which also incidentally includes cucumbers, melons, and zucchini. 

These plants are all native to The Americas -- particularly Central America and Mexico -- which is why pumpkin and squash are often featured in our traditional Thanksgiving meal. Pumpkin can go savory or sweet (or straddle the line between the two): served as a vegetable dish, roasted with garlic, onions, and savory herbs...or in the traditional pumpkin pie, pumpkin cheesecake, doughnuts, even ice cream. 

It's said that Columbus brought pumpkin back to Spain from the New World, introducing this (among many other food items) into the European culinary vernacular. Like so many other vegetables and fruits that have become integral to Italian cooking, pumpkin landed on the Italian peninsula with Spanish and Portuguese Jews after the Inquisition. Venice, the city that invented the word ghetto (stemming from gettare, to throw or toss aside) to describe the neighborhoods where Jews were "thrown out", also gave rise to numerous dishes that include pumpkin, and the Jewish population of Mantua is often credited with creating the much-loved ravioli con la zucca. In the Jewish-Italian tradition, pumpkin pastas often combine savory and sweet elements. 
Ravioli are stuffed with a pumpkin puree and are served with sage and butter sauce, and topped either with parmigiano (savory) or crumbled amaretti cookies (sweet) -- and sometimes with mostarda di Cremona, from the town of Cremona -- candied fruit in a mustard-flavored syrup that accents the sweetness of the pumpkin filling. 

Any way you slice it, these pumpkin dishes are of a northern Italian bent. But pumpkin is also popular in Rome, where the country's largest Jewish population resides. I often purchased chunks of zucca gialla at the market in Campo de' Fiori, instructing my "guy" Claudio to cut me the perfect size slice for what I was making. Sometimes the pumpkin would get roasted, or thinly sliced and grilled. 
Sometimes I would turn the pumpkin into a warming risotto, like they often do in the Veneto in colder months. Sometimes I would also buy the zucchine flowers. A favorite Roman antipasto is fiori di zucca fritti, stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies, and battered and fried, found in every pizzeria worth its sale in Rome. I'd often prepare them stuffed with an herbed ricotta and goat cheese mixture, topped with a butter and herb sauce. I've done my fair share of cooking with pumpkin products.

One of my favorite dishes to make is a simple pasta dish. I often taught it during my autumn and winter cooking classes in Rome, and it's remained a favorite of mine since I started cooking professionally. The sous chef at San Domenico NY once made a similar version as a special on the menu. I remember loving it, and over the years I tweaked it and made it my own. I like to think it's something that's a little bit Roman, a little bit northern Italian and Italian-Jewish, a little bit New York, a little bit New World. A little bit like me -- at heart, anyway.


3-4 TBS extra-virgin olive oil
4 TBS. unsalted butter
1 clove garlic
1 small-medium-sized butternut squash or other creamy pumpkin variety
8 oz. heavy cream
Salt & pepper to taste
1 lb. ziti, bombolotti, or short pasta of choice
1/2 cup grated pecorino romano (for the Roman touch) or parmigiano reggiano
Fresh thyme or chiffonade of basil

- Bring a large pot of water and one medium pot of water to a boil. Once boiling, add a generous dash of salt to the water.

- Peel the squash and/or pumpkin and cut into 1-2-inch dice.

- Boil squash in large pot of boiling water until tender but not falling apart, about 15 minutes. Drain...OR roast the pumpkin on a sheet pan in the oven, tossed with olive oil and salt and pepper, until tender, 30 minutes or so.

- Heat a large skillet over medium heat, and add the oil and butter together, until bubbling. Add garlic clove (whole) and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes.

- Add squash/pumpkin and saute over medium heat for 5 minutes. Turn down heat and cook covered for another 10 minutes.

- Add cream and cook for another 5-10 minutes, stirring. The squash/pumpkin flesh should break down into a chunky sauce.

- Cook the pasta until tender but firm, al dente.

- Remove pasta from the water with tongs, or drain in a colander and add it to the pan.

- Turn pasta to coat, add the pecorino, and turn to mix thoroughly. Add fresh thyme and/or basil and serve.


Friday, November 2, 2012

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Primo -- Rockland, Maine

Primo, in Italian, can be a double entendre: it means first (and often the best), but also primary, as in ingredients. And at PRIMO restaurant in Rockland, Maine, where the growing season is shorter than in many places in America, chef Melissa Kelly has managed to draw on the natural resources of the land. She runs what she dubs a "full circle kitchen," the idea of which I love. 

Like most kitchens that understand the restaurant business model for turning a profit, the idea of not wasting anything figures heavily. But Chef Kelly also raises animals for food, from hens to pigs, collecting eggs, curing meat -- and grows vegetables on acres of land and in greenhouses, harvesting edible flowers and collecting honey produced on-site. Not everything she uses comes from her land, but everything that comes from her land gets used. The rest is filled in by local producers she knows and trusts. In a time when so many chefs throw around terms like "locavore" and "farm-to-table," Primo is really doing it, as they've done for years, and the end result is a happy place to eat and drink. 

Primo encompasses both an American culinary ethos and an Italian adherence to tradition. Seasonality is obviously paramount in a kitchen so reliant on produce and proteins that are grown and raised locally: this has always been the way Italians cook, and eat. The idea of vegetables and fruits playing pivotal roles in a cuisine -- also Italian. So is the custom of serving cheeses and salumi and artisanal pizza, all center stage here. What's American about Primo is the dedication and hard work that are behind making this restaurant a success despite the odds, and that the driving force behind this is a woman -- something all too rare in the restaurant industry, though the U.S leads the way in this department.

So here, I'm writing less of a review of the restaurant's menu -- that changes a little too frequently -- and more of the restaurant on the whole. Though I can tell you that it's worth trying their house-made salumi and local cheeses. It's definitely worth considering one of their homemade pizzas, and often there's a pizza bianca with some seasonal greens, local tomatoes, and delicious, gooey cheese.
Quite often you can find a great foie gras appetizer, like the one pictured here, seared to perfection over garlic toast with champagne grapes and a frisee salad with figs and a sour-sweet port sauce. Who can argue with classic flavor pairings and high-quality ingredients, especially when it's so lovingly presented on colorful dishes?

Primi -- that's Italian for first courses, mostly pastas -- are expertly-prepared at Primo. And the pasta is homemade, like the fettucine served with shrimp, arugula pesto, roasted tomatoes, and lots of parmigiano (though most seafood pastas do not get cheese under any circumstances, shrimp is the one sometime-exception to that rule. I'm assuming Chef Kelly knows this about Italian food...)
Main courses include various iterations of local seafood, like cod, or dayboat scallops, sometimes even the ubiquitous Maine lobster. But chances are, even if the ingredients are common in these parts, the preparations won't be. Seared duck breast gets paired with an earthy warm farro salad and grilled cipollini, and grilled swordfish gets a spicy tomato-and-chile broth over charred vegetables. And all dishes get a flourish of homegrown greens and edible flowers so they look picture-perfect. 
Sometimes the dishes are a little heavy-handed in their presentation. Sometimes one too many ingredients are used in a dish. Not everything is perfect. But that's also part of the charm here. You can't find fault with the quality of the ingredients, nor the provenance. The flavor is there, as is the love in the preparation. And pride in the whole operation. When our attentive waiter found out I am a chef, he pulled me aside on my way back from the ladies' room and offered me a tour of the establishment. He showed me the other dining rooms and more casual bar where locals come to order pizza, appetizers, and share a bottle of wine. He brought me into the kitchen and explained how things work, where their in-house primary ingredients become their homemade menu items. It was a general and thorough behind-the-scenes: transparency, and pride in what they do as a team. They were happy to share all of this with a colleague, and I really appreciated it. 

We all loved our meal, some of us visitors from Manhattan, others relative natives who live nearby and can call Primo a top-notch local spot. Lucky them. In this restaurant they have a warm and wonderful place where they can eat, and dine (we know these are two different things), welcomed to a homey spot where the food is a bit more formal than the service, but neither is overbearing. And they can rest assured that the food they're eating has been raised, cultivated, butchered, caught, cooked, and served with love and pride. We need more places like this in America, and everywhere.

2 South Main Street 
Rockland, Maine
(207) 596.0770 

*Additional locations now in Orlando, FL and Tuscon, AZ