February 21, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Stealing ambrosia

By |2018-03-21T18:50:21+01:00July 22nd, 2012|"Suzanne's Taste"|
No hushpuppies or cheese grits casseroles for Apicius.

ecipe thieves abound. I’ve written two cookbooks, and I am sure I’ve seen some of my recipes tweaked a bit and then some, but I’m proud to say that I, too, “borrow.” Who of us in the kitchen has never added a little more olive oil, left out the green pepper (eck!), or thrown in a handful of chopped basil and called it our own invention? Yes, I’m a recipe thief at times, fully believing that my tweaks are better than thy tweaks, that my pared-down ingredients and fast techniques can simplify cooking for beginners or pros, and that even the most complicated multi-ingredient French classic or a simple pasta can sometimes benefit from a little more of this or a little less of that.

Cooks from other countries, I have sometimes noticed, tend to be a bit wary of American cooks. What do they know, after all, about a culinary culture that began BC with honeyed wines and anchovy sauces, raising eels for the emperors in hallowed nurseries by the sea to satisfy palates of gold? Then again, Apicius — the Roman originator of cookbook writing — was in no position to whip up a good plate of hushpuppies or a cheese grits casserole. Still, he probably “borrowed” a few innovative touches himself, maybe relying on Empire gossip.

Today’s Americans, meanwhile, thrive on the myriad pleasures of pizza, pasta, sushi, Chinese, Korean and Southeast Asian foods, to mention only a few. We borrow, beg and steal from so many unusual sources. In my mother’s stash of 4 x 6 filing cards on which many of her recipes are preserved in lovely script for posterity (she was an English teacher and penmanship was primary), I found everything from Ceciles’s ginger cookies — the best I’ve ever tasted — to Sissie’s famous melt-in-the-mouth spinach soufflé, Cecile being the 14-year old daughter of a bridge chum and Sissie, my recipe-collecting aunt, who had a running competition in the kitchen with my mother for years. They both won.

My mother was an original and talented tweaker. Her rich cornbread stuffing was untouchable, given away as gifts at Thanksgiving along with the recipe on the aforementioned filing card, except for one tiny secret – chili powder in the cornbread mix. Cooks are famous for omitting a tiny detail when asked how to duplicate an unforgettable dish. I remember a slight pause after having questioned a friend about her ricotta cake. “Is that all,” I asked, “because there is something else in there, I’m sure, something fruity that gives it that zip.” A pinch of cinnamon? A few grains of salt, indispensable in many recipes containing eggs and cream. Ah-ha! Light dawned. A touch of orange peel, grated fine and stirred into the last fold of egg whites before baking. But did she tell me at the start? No way.

All of this is a lead-in to a dish given me in our little town in France by a neighbor, Madame Edwige, a cook of extraordinary skills, a cook about whom everyone knows and who is lauded for her exquisite, subtle boquerones, marinated fresh anchovies. As it turns out, she, being retired, helps the local caterer with her paella, beignets, brandade, escalivade and other Catalan delights, which are sold at outrageous take-out prices and worth every sou, thanks to Edwidge.

We have become culinary friends, debating how best to peel and clean artichokes or when the season for salted cod really begins (autumn) or whether to use whole eggs or more yolks and less whites in the crème catalane. I took her one of my focacce and some pesto made with pistachio nuts one day when my rosemary was at its peak and the basil sweet and fragrant, and as I passed her window the next day she handed me a small container for two and said only, “You might want some fresh ground pepper on this.”

“This” turned out to be one of those delights that occur just when taste buds think they’ve pretty much “seen” everything. We sat outside at our table in the lovely beginning of a Mediterranean summer and spooned Edwige’s “fruit” salad onto our plates, thinking it a little appetizer or even dessert to go with the rest of lunch.

It was fruit ambrosia with smoked herring as a surprise ingredient, sweet and sharp at the same time, and all that was needed was some good bread and nice cool glass of Rousillon rosé. I was sorry the container had been so small…

So this recipe is what you serve to knock your guest’s socks off:

— Marinate a package of smoked herring filets (usually about four to a package) in olive oil, lemon juice and thin slices of sweet onion for an hour or overnight. Cut up all the fruits of summer: peaches, mangoes, nectarines, apricots, melon and a little apple thrown in, if they are still good (Pink Lady lasts well into July).

— Cut the herring into little pieces, along with the onion, and toss everything together, adding a squeeze of lemon and a little more olive oil. My tweak was a tiny bit of grated lemon or orange peel, depending on your taste. (Oh, and I forgot to tell you. Should I tell you? Okay, cut the fruits and fish into very small dice. It will make the dish sing.

— Serve on a large lettuce leaf with fresh grated pepper on each serving.

And thank you, Edwidge, for giving this very happy thief such a precious jewel to steal.

About the Author:

Suzanne Dunaway, a longtime major magazine writer and artist, is the author and illustrator of "Rome, At Home, The Spirit of La Cucina Romana in Your Own Kitchen" (Broadway Books) and "No Need To Knead, Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes" (Hyperion). She taught cooking for 15 years privately and at cooking schools in Los Angeles, and now maintains a personal website and a blog. She divides her time between southern France and Italy.