Rigatoni with Eggplant, Burst Tomatoes, and Basil-Pignoli Crunch

This is a wonderful time of year for this lusty pasta dish, surely one Cristforo Colombo might have enjoyed today.  I created a version of this dish for Bon Appetit last year but have made some adjustments since. Now I make it with mezzi rigatoni (a shorter version) and fresh buffalo mozzarella.  Any fresh mozzarella will do, and provola (smoked mozzarella) is also pretty divine.

Happy Columbus Day.  Enjoy the long weekend-- a great one for cooking.   To drink?  Try a high-end Barbera or re-discover Chianti.

1 unpeeled large eggplant (1-3/4 pounds), cut into 1/2 inch cubes 2 medium yellow peppers, cut into 1/2-inch squares 2 cups grape tomatoes 3 large garlic cloves 1/3 cup olive oil 2 cups packed fresh basil leaves 1 cup freshly-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano 1/4 cup pine nuts 28-ounces whole tomatoes in juice 1 cup heavy cream 1 pound mezzi rigatoni 1 pound fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Lightly oil a large rimmed baking sheet and add eggplant and peppers.  Cut tomatoes in half and add to baking sheet.  Using a garlic press, squeeze 1 garlic clove onto vegetables. Drizzle with oil and toss. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast until vegetables are tender, stirring often, 35 to 40 minutes.  Combine 2/3 cup basil, 1/2 cup Parmesan, pine nuts, and 1 garlic clove in a processor. Blend just until crumbly and season with salt.  Blend tomatoes with juice, cream, 1-1/3 cups basil, and 1 garlic clove in processor until smooth.  Season with salt and pepper. Cook pasta in pot of boiling water until just tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally; drain.  Return to pot.  Toss with vegetables, sauce and 1/2 cup Parmesan.  Transfer to a 13x2x9 inch baking dish.  Sprinkle with mozzarella and pint nut topping.  Bake 25 to 35 minutes.  Let stand 10 minutes and serve.  Serves 8

A Radically Delicious Burger

Big Juicy Sun-dried Tomato Burger

These days, hamburger meat has gone gourmet, so your market may offer upscale blends of ground chuck and brisket, or ground chuck and short rib meat. Experiment if  you wish, or use your own combination of chuck and sirloin.  The secret flavor and juiciness comes from grated onion pulp. Garnish as you wish:  With slices of juicy tomatoes, fresh basil and a gob of gooey cheese -- your choice.  I'm into using havarti these days or take your taste buds in a different direction with thin slices of Bucheron goat cheese. Open a big zinfandel and keep the burgers rare to medium-rare.

3-1/2 pounds ground beef (not lean) 14 ounces sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil 1 large yellow onion 1/4 cup finely minced fresh basil 2 teaspoons ground cumin 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar 8 kaiser rolls or your favorite bread or focaccia 8 thin slices of cheese, sliced tomatoes, fresh basil leaves

Put the beef in a large bowl. Drain the sun-dried tomatoes; reserving 2 tablespoons of the oil. Chop the tomatoes into very small pieces to get 1-1/3 cups and add to the bowl. Cut the onion in half; grate on the large holes of a box grater.  Add 1/2 cup grated onion pulp and juice to the bowl. Add the reserved tomato oil, basil, cumin, 1/2 teaspoon salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper. Use your hands to blend; do not overmix. Form the mixture into 8 thick patties.  Season lightly with salt and pepper. Grill or broil the burgers about 3 minutes on each side for medium-rare.  Splash with balsamic vinegar and top with cheese, sliced tomatoes and basil. Serve on toasted rolls. Makes 8

Recipe Day: Basil with Benefits

I was off and running do to volunteer work at Beth Israel Hospital (I will be working in the emergency room and on another unit as a "Pastoral Care" volunteer), and ran right through the Union Square farmer's market when I remembered my promise (a few days ago) to share some wonderful basil recipes with you. The market was abundant with piles of sweet corn and juicy peaches unwittingly waiting for an unexpected partner:  Ocimum basilicum. Below you will find a recipe for "green corn" -- in which boiled sweet corn gets rubbed with a fist full of fresh basil leaves and coarse salt, and a recipe for the quickest dessert imaginable, based on ripe peaches and a basil chiffonade. Both are adapted from Radically Simple and truly are. Not only does basil have a unique flavor profile (which most of us adore), it also has distinctive medicinal properties -- both anti-microbial and anti-fungal.  As Hippocrates once said, "Let food be our medicine, and medicine be our food," we are continually blessed, protected, cleansed, bolstered, buoyed and emboldened with inadvertent health benefits from the food we eat.  Basil's health-promoting factors are due mostly to their flavonoids and volatile oils which protect cell structures and chromosomes from radiation and oxygen-based damage. Basil is remarkably high in Vitamin K which is essential for bone building, heart protection, and in aiding blood clotting. Its vibrant essential oils make it an anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory agent. All that, and its wondrous contribution to pesto!, may make this one of the world's most desirable herbs.

There are over 60 varieties of basil to choose from. But you can just begin with one. I grow it in my window box that hangs off my sunny kitchen window -- a fistful at a time.

"Green Corn" Rub steamy ears of fresh corn with fresh basil and you'll inhale a perfume that screams "Summer!"

6 large ears fresh sweet corn, shucked fistful of large fresh basil leaves 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, in small pieces 1 lime

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Add the corn, return to a boil, and cook 3 minutes.  Wash the basil and dry very well.  Sprinkle with kosher salt. Transfer the corn to a platter.  Rub each ear with salted basil leaves.  Dot with butter; squeeze lime juice on top.   Serves 6 Peaches with Sweet Basil This is a winning, and unexpected, combination of flavors.  Enjoy.

4 very ripe large peaches 1/2 cup peach schnapps, chilled 2 tablespoons wildflower honey 1/3 cup julienned fresh basil

Wash and dry the peaches.  Cut into thin wedges and place in a bowl.  Stir together the schnapps, honey, half the basil, and 1/4 cup ice water.  Pour over the peaches and stir.  Transfer to 4 wine glasses.  Scatter with the remaining basil.

A New Look at Basil

In the late 1970's, when curly parsley was not only the essential herb but the ubiquitous garnish, I remember my joy in the herbaceous perfume of fresh basil wafting through my cooking class in Florence, Italy. No one knew much about it then. Pesto had barely hit our shores and it was almost impossible to find in even the best supermarkets. Clearly things have changed and so it was exciting to be invited to be a guest on Martha Stewart's radio show "Everyday Food" the other day, to talk about basil and new things to do with it. Once upon a time, there was a serious issue of how to store it during the winter -- between layers of coarse salt, or suspended in olive oil and frozen, or whirled into pesto to use during the cold winter -- but thankfully, basil is now an essential herb, and ubiquitous garnish, and is available fresh all year long. During the course of the half-hour show, we talked about myriad new ways to use it, grow it, and discussed the different varieties available, from Thai basil, to holy basil, to chocolate, peppermint and pineapple basil. Sandy and I both agreed that it is the more generic "sweet basil" that has captured our hearts. The host of the show, Sandy Gluck, shared an idea for pureeing fresh basil into ricotta and using it as a base for bruschetta. My cheese-making buddy, Laurie Sandow, told me about a wonderful soda she read about using fresh basil, strawberries, balsamic vinegar and agave syrup. And in Radically Simple, there are a dozen hip recipes showing contemporary new ways to use it. And here is sampling of delicious ideas to get you started.

Wrap large shrimp in large basil leaves. Wrap tightly with  small strips of prosciutto. Saute in garlic olive oil.

Make fragrant basil butter: Process 1 stick sweet butter with ½ cup fresh basil leaves and a pinch of curry.

Swirl freshly prepared pesto into thick yogurt. Spread on warm grilled bread.

Grate yellow squash and zucchini on large holes of box grater. Saute in butter with lots of freshly chopped basil.

Cut a ½-inch-x-4 inch channel in thick swordfish steaks. Stuff with a stack of tightly-rolled basil leaves. Poach in olive oil.

Try basil mayonnaise: Process 1 cup homemade or store-bought mayonnaise with 1 cup basil, a clove of garlic and a few, optional, anchovy fillets.

Steep basil leaves in lemon vodka. Freeze.

Gently warm orange blossom honey. Add whole basil leaves. Stir and pour into mason jars.

Basil toasts: Bake ½-inch thick slices of baguette until crisp. Rub with a split garlic clove and fresh basil leaves until fragrant and “green”.

Morning snack: Spread lightly buttered toast with bitter orange marmalade. Sprinkle with a chiffonade of fresh basil.

Cut ripe peaches into thin wedges. Place in wine goblets. Splash with peach schnapps and julienned basil.

Strawberry-basil tea: Puree 1-pint strawberries with 8 basil leaves and sugar. Cover amply with boiling water. Steep 15 minutes. Strain into teacups.

Look for my basil-scrubbed toast, "green" corn, and many other basil recipes in the days to follow. Buy lots at your farmer's market this weekend and breathe deeply.

Linguine with Zucchini

Not only is this pasta dish fun to say, but it is delicious and wickedly simple to make. The rest of its title includes the summer words, "lemon zest & basil." Since it is made with fresh pasta (the kind you can buy), it can be made in 10 minutes, as I promised yesterday.  It is a favorite go-to summer supper for us at home -- often preceded by a Salad Caprese (but one where I swap watermelon for the tomatoes, goat cheese for the mozzarella, and cilantro for the basil!). The combination of flavors is divine, and the zucchini gets lightly floured and cooked until golden brown in olive oil. It would be very interesting to end this summer meal with another promised idea from our trip to Italy -- chocolate eggplant!  But I'm looking for my photos and trying to find a good recipe to share. Stay tuned. Linguine with Zucchini, Lemon Zest & Basil  (adapted from Radically Simple) When thin slices of lightly floured zucchini are fried then tossed with bits of crispy basil and showered with fragrant lemon zest (oh, how I long for the lemons of Capri!), you gets lots of complexity for something quite simple.

2 medium zucchini, trimmed 6 tablespoons olive oil 1 large clove garlic, peeled and smashed 1/4 cup Wondra flour 1/3 cup chopped fresh basil 12 ounces fresh linguine 1 large lemon 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Slice the zucchini into thin rounds. Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a very large skillet. Add the garlic and discard the garlic when browned. Dust the zucchini with the flour. Add to the skillet and cook over high heat until dark golden and soft, about 6 minutes. Add the basil and cook 1 minute. Cook the pasta in the boiling water 3 minutes, or until tender.  Drain the pasta well and toss with the remaining 3 tablespoons oil. Spoon the zucchini and pan juices over the pasta.  Grate the zest of the lemon on top and squeeze a little juice over all.  Sprinkle with the cheese. Serves 4

Remembering Pesto

The first time I had pesto was in 1978 in Florence, Italy.  I was studying with cooking teacher Giuliano Bugialli, whose book "The Fine Art of Italian Cooking" (1977), informed my personal cooking style forever. My outlook on seasonality and simplicity was born that summer -- the summer of '78 as I remember it -- when I was chef to New York Mayor Ed Koch and lived at Gracie Mansion with Hizzoner.  It was the soft breeze that came through the windowed kitchen door on Guiliano's terrace that transfixed me silently and totally.  Overlooking an elegant side street in Florence, the perfume of basil wafted into the part of my brain that would, from then on, trigger memories of my collective trips to that town -- a "living museum" as I called it then. I was 24 and although I had traveled to Italy, France, Norway and other ports of call, it was the collision of food and culture, art and history made edible, that enamored me. I remember loving the protocol of an Italian meal, how boiled things were served with boiled things, and fried foods with other fried foods.  That you never changed the order of a meal, and that sitting down to eat was a cultural institution as important as almost any other.  I was struck with the orderliness and logic of pairing certain pasta shapes with particular sauces, and how differently fresh pasta was treated from dried pasta.  I loved learning that good canned tomatoes were the sine qua non of the Italian pantry and that one opted for lusty dried oregano instead of fresh.

But this morning I'm remembering pesto -- because the smell of fresh basil is wafting through my kitchen window as a morning offering from my window box.  I also look forward to walking the Union Square market this morning (after all, it's Wednesday) and thinking of that special time in my culinary journey.  I will remember drying freshly-made pasta over a broom handle that teetered upon two facing chairs, I will remember the slices of simply-fried eggplant splashed with vinegar and dotted with chopped garlic and that dreamy basil, I will remember the roast duck stuffed with pancetta, sage and juniper -- that is equally nice, I might add, made with basil.  And of course, there was pasta al pesto whenever you chose.  Moving into my own world of radical simplicity, this week I will slice fresh peaches, splash them with peach schnapps and stir in a bit of julienned basil; I will make scrubbed toast -- and grill thick slices of peasant bread, rub them with a cut clove of garlic, and a fistful of basil leaves that I will scrape along the nubby texture.  A drizzle of olive oil, coarse salt, and presto! -- the herbal equivalent of the tomato-scrubbed bread one would find in Barcelona. And I will do the same with ears of simply boiled corn, rub it with basil until perfumed and slightly green.  A little melted butter and...

The first restaurant that made pesto famous was a chic spot in Greenwich village owned and run by the wonderful Alfredo Viazzi.  Some of you may remember.

Buy some basil.  Create some memories of your own.

Morning Meditation

I have written today's entry in advance as I am at a retreat at the beautiful Garrison Institute (a former monastery) on the Hudson River in Garrison, New York. The Garrison Institute, the brainchild of our friends Jonathan and Diana Rose, is a center for contemplation, action, and transformation.  "It is a unique center for leaders, activists and professionals on the front lines of social change to reflect, grow and deepen the connection and insight with which they engage the world."  This particular retreat is called The Whole of the Path: Virtue, Mind-training and Wisdom -- cultivating generosity, integrity, attention and compassion.   And while this experience is not about food...in a way, it is.  Shelley Boris, who heads the kitchens at Garrison, is a very gifted chef.  Her intelligence and compassionate approach to cooking is felt by everyone there.  Shelley is always mindful of the communal table -- which is literally how one eats in the massive, sun-lit dining room.  The food is elemental and deeply connected to the earth from which it comes.  Most of it local, some grown on the vast property, sustainable, and always nourishing.  And while I enjoy eating alone most of the time, it is also nice to share stories and experiences with others around the table.  Food is ritual here, three times a day, and in itself is a meditation.  Hopefully Shelley will share some of her recipes with me so that I can share them with you.  Each meal has its own virtues but I think I like breakfast best.  Her cheese biscuits (with scallions) are the best I have ever had and her food is generally so compelling that you feel virtuous with every bite.  And the coffee (thank goodness they serve it!) is good and strong.

I look forward to being in touch with you again on Monday morning.  Meanwhile, I leave you with a recipe for the weekend: Cheese Strata with Prosciutto, Basil and Spinach This is my recipe for an assemble-ahead dish that’s perfect for a weekend brunch.  You assemble it the night before (or early in the morning) so that the layers -- or striations -- of bread, cheese and spinach soak up the egg-and-milk base.  Baked for 1 hour, the result is custardy, rich and quiche-like.  If you don't eat pork, you can substitute smoked turkey for the prosciutto, or leave it out altogether -- just add a bit more spinach.

3-1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter 16 slices firm white sliced bread, crusts removed 8 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto 8 ounces feta cheese, crumbled 4 ounces provolone cheese, shredded 1/4 cup finely minced scallions, white and green parts 4 ounces fresh baby spinach 1/2 cup finely julienned fresh basil 5 extra-large eggs 2 cups half-and-half 1/2 teaspoon Sriracha or hot sauce

Butter a 12-x-7-inch glass or ceramic dish with 1/2 tablespoon of the butter.  Cover the bottom with 6 slices of bread, plus 1 slice cut in half to fill the spaces.  Evenly cover the bread with half the prosciutto.  Sprinkle with half of the feta, provolone, scallions, spinach, and basil.  Repeat to make a second layer.  Cut the remaining 2 bread slices into 1/4-inch cubes; scatter over the top.  Beat together the eggs, half-and-half, and hot sauce.  Pour over the strata; press down firmly with a spatula.  Melt the remaining 3 tablespoons butter and drizzle over the top.  Cover; refrigerate 5 hours or overnight.  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.  Uncover and bake 1 hour until golden.  Serves 8.

From my book, “Radically Simple: Brilliant Flavors with Breathtaking Ease”