TODAY I’M GOING TO PRETEND I’M IN NICE at La Zucca Magica, not in New York City with Snow Blizzard Nemo happening outside my window. It’s citrus season—hooray!— and a bowl of beautiful oranges makes my fantasy almost seem real.
OK, SO I COULDN’T CHOOSE ONE DISH. LUNCH. LUNCH IS THE BEST Mediterranean dish at Chef Sara Jenkins’s Bar Extra in the East Village. Perch yourself on a stool at the long bar, pick almost anything on the midday menu, and you’ll likely find a Mediterranean-inspired combo: a trio of eggplant purée, spicy red pepper walnut purée and cucumber and labne, with Sardinian flatbread; a Swiss chard and ricotta tart; salad of farro, tomato, cucumber, olive oil and red wine vinegar. Ribolitta, a warming Tuscan bean and vegetable soup, was tempting, but we were early and it wasn’t quite ready yet. (Oh, kale, where are you?)
We decided to start with another special, an arugula, shaved sunchoke and red onion salad, with a yogurt dressing ($6)—It was crisp and fresh and, sipping on hibiscus tea served Brooklyn-style in a Mason jar, I was already content.
After our salad, my friend Carol ordered the spicy grilled “Kimcheese” sandwich ($8), which she pronounced delicious, and I had the surryano ham sandwich
($10) made with cantaloupe melon butter (very delicate, but, yes, there was the cantaloupe) and cornichons on stecca
, a baguette-like bread. Surryano
, I learned, is a dry-cured ham made from Berkshire pork in Surry, Virginia. Clever name. Tasty in my sandwich.
The Extra Bar, which is right next door to Porsena, Jenkins’s pasta dinner restaurant, just opened in September, so being closed because of losing power for days post-Sandy—and refrigerated food—wasn’t exactly what they needed, but it wasn’t too long before they were announcing, “We’re back—boot straps up, knives sharpened, stove tops afire.” Lucky us.
In the evening, this friendly lunch counter turns into a wine bar, serving small plates and wines from around the Mediterranean. I walked by one evening and it looked so convivial. I’ll definitely be back—for lunch or a rosé, depending on the time of day and/or my mood! Mondays are always a good choice—$1 oysters all day long.
Want to learn how to cook like this at home?
Jenkins will be teaching a class at De Gustibus Cooking School tonight, November 29, 5:30–8 pm, sharing classic holiday dishes from Tuscany. $95. The school is located on the 8th floor of Macy’s. Get tickets here.
Porsena Extra Bar
21 East 7th Street
New York, NY
ORANGES, RADISHES AND RED ONION make a lovely salad on their own; Moroccan, Tunisian and Egyptian cooking all have tasty examples. For this meal, I decided to add fennel, for a welcome crunch—and because there it was, at the market
. The dressing is an orange citronette (using orange juice as the acid, instead of lemon or vinegar). To prepare the orange segments, cut off each end of the orange, stand it on end and, using a sharp knife, cut downward in an arc, taking the pith and peel off. Finally, separate each segment from the membrane. (Here’s a handy video from Food52
if you’d like a demo.)
2 fennel bulbs, halved, cored, then very thinly sliced to create crescent shapes
2 oranges, peeled and in segments, membranes removed
4 radishes, thinly sliced (a mandoline makes this easy)
1/2 small red onion, halved, then very thinly sliced
Handful of mint leaves
For the citronette:
Zest and juice of one orange
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tsp Dijon mustard
Freshly ground black pepper
Combine fennel, orange segments, radishes and onion in a bowl.
In a separate bowl, combine the orange zest and juice with the mustard, then whisk in the olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Pour citronette into the bowl with the fennel combo, add mint leaves and toss gently.
I’VE COME ACROSS MANY DIFFERENT VERSIONS of Tunisian and Moroccan carrot salads. Some are made with julienned raw carrots, often with raisins added. This one, though, is made with cooked carrots, which are tossed with a spicy citronette at the end. (Tunisian carrot salad is sometimes garnished with hard-boiled eggs and olives, a version that would make a great light lunch on its own.) A good harissa (hot chili sauce), made at Les Moulins Mahjoub in Tunisia, is available at Le Pain Quotidien.
Serves 4, as side dish
1 lb carrots, peeled and cut into thin (1/4-inch) angled slices
2-3 tbs lemon juice (depending how lemony you want it)
½ tsp ground cumin
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp cayenne (or more, to taste)
1/8 tsp harissa
4 tbs extra-virgin olive oil
Handful of flat-leaf parlsey, chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
Boil a medium saucepan of salted water and cook the carrot slices for 5 to 6 minutes. Don’t let them get mushy.
While the carrots are cooking, whisk together the lemon juice, spices, harissa and extra-virgin olive oil in a small bowl.
Drain carrots, let cool a little and place in a bowl.
Add the citronette to the carrots and the parsley and toss gently. Let stand for 10 minutes or so, so that the flavors combine.
Add salt and pepper to taste.
DAVID TANIS, WHO FOR MANY YEARS WAS CHEF AT CHEZ PANISSE, was writing in the Times
last week about how chutneys, relishes and pickles can brighten up the traditional Thanksgiving turkey, gravy and stuffing. He wasn’t dissing the Thanksgiving meal, but he pointed out that the usual add-ons to this trio, delicious as they may be, “simply seem to add more richness.”
That got me thinking: Wouldn’t the much-loved citrus notes in Mediterranean cooking also help “brighten up an otherwise one-note meal,” as Tanis put it? When I first got interested in Med cuisine, I was amazed and thrilled by all the different uses of oranges and lemons and grapefruits. Grapefruit and fennel salsa with roasted halibut
, sliced oranges with black olive spread
or in a salad with beets, lemon zest on a roasted chicken dish.
Lemons, especially, have become a pantry staple now for me.
But back to Thanksgiving. Carrots and fennel were plentiful at the farmers’ market this week. I thought they might work well for my citrus-y mission and complement the traditional Thanksgiving menu as well.
The dishes I came up with are both inspired by the countries on the southern shores of the Mediterranean—Morocco and Tunisia in particular. The cooked carrot salad is lemony and redolent of the spices of the Maghreb. The fennel, orange and radish salad incorporates the zest and juice of an orange, as well as orange segments, with fresh mint adding the final flavor boost. Both certainly add a bright note and lightness to the meal. I can even see leaving the fennel salad til the end of the meal, as a little palate cleanser before those fabulous desserts.
I JUST GOT MY WEEKLY E-MAIL FROM MERMAID’S GARDEN, the CSF (Community Supported Fishery) I belong to, telling me what fish had been caught this week for me—and the other 200+ CSF members. Monkfish!
I will never forget the first time I ate monkfish. We were on the road somewhere in southern France—on the outskirts of Orange, I think, in the Vaucluse—and we stopped at a bistro for dinner. On the menu, under Poisson, was something called lotte. “What is this lotte?” I inquired. “Une espèce de poisson,” was the reply (“a type of fish”), which was about as helpful as when I had asked—this time in bilingual Montréal—“what is the soupe du jour?” and the answer came back: “the soup of the day.” Really? I’d been hoping for a few more details. For starters, was lotte an ocean fish, from the Mediterranean, a lake, a stream? Was it mackerel cousin or might-as-well-be-Dover-sole? Anyway, I decided to take a leap of faith, and it turned out to be delicious. I’ve eaten it more than a few times since, especially enjoying it in Mediterranean soups and stews.
This time around, thanks to Bianca and Mark at Mermaid’s Garden, I learn quite a bit more about the fish itself. As they wrote in their e-mail:
“There are a lot of interesting things about Lophius americanus, but perhaps the most curious thing about this fish is what and how it eats. Recently we got an email telling us about a monkfish that was caught with seven ducks in its belly! We passed the news along to a fisherman friend of ours on the Cape, who said, “A monkfish tried to eat my leg once. Did some good damage to my boots.” Turns out that monkfish will eat just about anything they can fit into their gigantic mouths, which may be why another common name for the fish is devilfish. Monkfish are anglers, which means they catch their prey using a lure called an esca that is attached to the top of the fish’s head. Anything that touches the esca triggers an automatic reflex of the monkfish’s jaw. Monkfish like their dinner to come to them, so they mostly spend their time buried into the sea floor or “walking” slowly along it on their sturdy pectoral fins.”
I also learn from them that in the late 1990s, monkfish populations had become overfished. “This fact, combined with the fact that most monkfish are caught in trawls, which can harm the ocean floor, led to monkfish being an unsustainable choice.” However, today, “monkfish populations exceed target levels, and both trawl and gill net fishermen employ quite a few mechanisms to reduce bycatch.”
My particular monkfish was gill netted off Montauk on the F/V Sea Devil—pretty funny, considering the fish’s nickname—“by a fisherman who refers to himself as Billy the Kid. Known to others simply as ‘the kid.’ (We are not making this up, Mark and Bianca write, “pinky swear.”)
Monkfish may be one of the ugliest fish in the sea, but its taste redeems it: fresh, slightly sweet, with a firm texture, it’s been called “poor man’s lobster.” And it’s full of goodness: niacin, vitamins B6 and B12, potassium, as well as being very good source of selenium. It has a gray membrane surrounding the flesh, which your fishmonger can remove, or you can do it yourself (with the help of this video—start at minute 3:10).
How to Cook It? Knowing that Mediterranean cuisines like to use monkfish, I start browsing my cookbooks and the web, looking for recipes. I find monkfish couscous, roasted monkfish with tomatoes and olives, Andalusian monkfish ragout. Jamie Oliver has what looks like a delicious grilled or roasted monkfish with black olive sauce and lemon mash, just the kind of full-of-Mediterranean-flavors dish I like. Sara Jenkins’s Olives and Oranges, includes a monkfish dish with her wintertime take on Sicilian caponata, made from olives, potatoes and sun-dried tomatoes. I made this the last time we had monkfish, and I’d be happy to eat it again, but I’m in the mood to be adventurous. Mark Usewicz, the chef behind Mermaid’s Garden (Bianca’s a marine biologist) has posted a couple of delicious sounding recipes on Mermaid’s Garden’s Facebook page: Mark’s Monkfish with Clams and Cranberry Beans and Mark’s Fish in Mustard Curry. (I noticed this week that Dave Pasternack’s Il Pesce, Eataly’s fish restaurant, has a monkfish/clam combo on its menu right now, too: Crispy Monkfish Cheeks with Local Clams, Steamers and Meyer Lemon Aioli. The cheeks are quite small and a prized delicacy, I hear.)
To tell you the truth, these dishes all sound good, making it hard to choose. In the end, though, to take advantage of how super, super fresh I know this fish will be, I decide on Monkfish “Carpaccio,” from Patricia Wells At Home in Provence. The recipe is beyond simple: thinly sliced monkfish, which is then grilled for less than a minute, with only olive oil, lemon juice, chives and sea salt added. I like the idea of the sweet flesh of the fish taking center stage. To accompany it, I’ll make a simple green salad, and I have the perfect bottle of Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, from Domaine de la Pinardière, chilling in the fridge. Crisp, clean tastes all around.