Italian summer cooking

Italian summer cooking: tonnarelli with mullet and tomato sauce

First off: let me thank all who actually seemed to enjoy last week's post. It was very heartfelt, not sure that it had much to do with cooking, it was really about what my heart needed to say. I was touched to see that I can be appreciated for more than my stoveside manners... with beloved nieces and nephews

I have been here this week, ours is the house in the middle, which has been in my mother's family since the 50's.

Between siblings and cousins, spouses and offspring we have been averaging 15 to 20 around the table and it's been glorious. I revel in every moment of the banter, the differences, the laughter, the memories we share and we continue to make together.

Food is, of course, one of the ways we commune. Wednesday I gleefully found red mullet at the market, a treat not easy to happen in San Francisco. This is what happened next, to much family acclaim.


Tonnarelli al sugo rosso di triglia Tonnarelli with red mullet and tomato sauce

Tonnarelli is a pasta cut typical of Abruzzo. They are an egg based long kind of spaghetti cut through a chitarra, a tool with metal strings through which a thick sheet of egg dough is pushed to obtain rustic, toothsome spaghetti with a square or rectangular section. The ones I used were a dried kind from a small artisan pastificio. Good linguine or pici can be used in this recipe to good effect.

for 6 people

mullets getting ready for sauce

1 pound red mullet 2 garlic cloves 1 handful basil leaves salt to taste 1 cups very ripe cherry tomatoes EV olive oil 2 tablespoons tomato concentrate pepper to taste 1 pound tonnarelli (or other pasta of choice)

Scale and gut the mullet and cut off the fins. Separate the fillets from the heads and spines. Keep everything except the fins and guts. Sprinkle with salt.

Mince the garlic and basil into a paste with a generous pinch of salt. Quarter the tomatoes.

Gently heat the garlic and basil paste with the olive oil in a sauté pan. Add the mullet fillets, heads and spines and sauté on high heat until they change color. Add the quartered tomatoes and let soften.

the mullet sugo

Stir in the tomato concentrate and add some warm water. Braise slowly, covered for about 35 to 40 minutes, adding a bit of water at a time if necessary.

The fish will become undone and shred into sauce. Pick out the heads and bones, making sure to pick off the tasty flesh and let it fall into the sauce. Adjust salt and pepper.

Cook the tonnarelli very al dente in a pot of salted boiling water. When quite al dente, about 2 to 3 minutes from done, transfer into the pan with the sauce using a hand held strainer. Finish cooking using the pasta water.

The starchy water will bind with the sauce around the pasta. When it is ready, finish with a drizzle of olive oil and some fresh basil. Serve immediately.

mullets meeting their blessed end

Camping greens

I didn't know, until I moved to California, that people go camping for fun. I still am not sure why, but at least I have learned enough by now to come out relatively unscathed from a yearly weekend of excess nature, sun burns, caked in dirt and grit in my teeth. My child and his best friend at the camp site (photo by Gianni Neiviller)

That's what I did last weekend, and while my back is just beginning to recover, skunks are just leaving my nightmares and the loft is finally rid of dust, what matters most is that it was great family time, spent making lasting memories with beloved friends.

While walking along the beach, my inner forager detected wild fennel and a very cute little rabbit.

The rabbit must have read my mind because it quickly retreated, so I settled for the fennel, which I used to the campsite's acclaim.

I don't have any pictures of the food as I was too busy keeping my jeans clean and fighting off raccoons, so I hope you will be happy with flowers, a landscape and some children.

Enjoy these improvised greens. Next year I will be going for that rabbit.


Wild fennel

Camping greens

3 to 4 good handfuls of the wild fennel that grows so generously all along our coast 1 sweet yellow onion 1 handful of hazelnuts (you can substitute with any nuts and or seeds you have: walnuts, almonds, pecans, flax or pumpkin seeds) salt and pepper to taste

3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil (yes I go camping with a tin of olive oil, extra virgin and from Tuscany, no less) 1 bag pre-washed cooking greens (I had baby kale, but any greens will work) 1 lemon

Wash and roughly chop the fennel. Slice the onion in paper thin half moons. Chop the hazelnuts.

Heat the olive oil in a skillet on your camp stove or fire and soften the onion with a pinch of salt. Add the nuts and toast for 2 to 3 minutes.

Now add the fennel and cook until the stalks have softened. Lastly, add the greens and braise down until everything comes together softly and is ready to enjoy with whatever you are putting on the grill that night.

Adjust salt and pepper and serve with lemon wedges.

Beautiful California coastline

Wild geranium


Mamma in my kitchen

She loved us, my four siblings and me, fiercely and unwaveringly as her life slid along peaks and valleys. At times she kept us and at times we became her keepers. She left us too early. It's been almost six years and not a day I fail to mourn the loss of all she still had to say and to rejoice in the blind and extraordinary luck of having been born her daughter. Gardenias were her favorMamma croppedite flowers. She laughed hard and she cried hard. She loved intensely and was loved back. She had unique aesthetics and style. She was ahead of her time and steeped into it. She respected the sacred and enjoyed the profane. She made mistakes and taught invaluable lessons. Her spirit was full of contradiction and her heart was steady.

Her hand in the kitchen was unpredictable and always right. She rarely bowed to the constraints of a recipe. Around a square country table, by a fire place and a window upholstered by ivy, she gifted us some of her best, lovingly attempting at our girths.

Magic was always boiling in a pot, drying on a rack, baking in the oven, resting in the refrigerator. Visions of her hands harvesting, frying, braising, gathering, preserving marked the seasons of childhood.

When I watch my own hands at work, I like to think that some of my mother's gifts are still here, in my very own kitchen, for my very own child.

Grazie mamma.

La panzanella più buona del mondo~The world's best summer bread salad (recipe adapted for my California kitchen from the memories of my mom's legendary panzanella)

1/2 loaf stale crusty country breadPanzanella  cropped salt and pepper to taste 3 ripe tomatoes 1/2 red onion 1 cup large basil leaves 1 small cucumber (optional) 2 handfuls arugula or other wild salad red wine vinegar olive oil

Cut the bread in chunks and wet them with cold water. Mom always said the trick to a good panzanella is how one treats the bread. Do not completely soak, rather wet gently, in a small quantity of water coming not more that half way up the sides of your bread chunks.

Also, the older the bread, the longer water will take to moisten all the way to the center. So while a a very stale loaf might sit in water for a bit, a fresher one might only need a quick rinse under a running faucet and no soaking at all.

Whatever the case, be sure that, once well moistened, your bread of choice is squeezed until no more water drips out of it no matter how hard you wring. Place in a bowl, season with salt and pepper to taste, drizzle with some vinegar to where it suits your buds and set aside.

Cut the tomatoes in fairly skinny wedges. Slice the onion in paper thin half moons. Tear the basil leaves with your hands. Slice the cucumber quite thinly (I much prefer cucumber in the dish, though sometimes my mother used red bell pepper instead. You can also entirely omit one or the other).

Add the tomatoes, onions, basil, cucumber and arugula to the bread chunks. Toss all the ingredients well and dress with a generous amount of olive oil. Toss some more and taste to ensure the balance of salt, vinegar and oil is to your liking. Adjust as needed.


  • Panzanella is even more delicious the day after, just spruce up with some fresh greens and refresh with a drizzle of olive oil
  • For slicing the onion and cucumber, the ideal tool is a mandolin