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Sauteed Oyster Mushrooms with Nepitella & Porcini
from Chef Jonathan Miller

This recipe is adapted from a dish that Andy and Julia's friend, Joyce Goldstein demonstrated at a book shop in Vancouver. I happen to have a copy of the recipe and it was the first recipe I used when I first tried making something with nepitella, which is an herb that has oregano and mint like overtones, but is something all its own. Once you soak your porcinis, this is a lightening fast dish to prepare. Have some bread around to eat with it!

1/2 oz dry porcini mushrooms
olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 oz pancetta, diced
leaves from 2-3 sprigs nepitella
1 lb oyster mushrooms, left whole, or if large, halved
dry white wine or vermouth
1 T butter

Bring a cup of water to a simmer, remove from heat, and drop the porcinis into it. Cover and let steep for 30 minutes. Drain, reserving the liquid.
Chop your porcinis, then heat a large skillet.
Add a little olive oil to the skillet, then saute the garlic and pancetta in it over medium heat until the pancetta begins to release its fat, a couple minutes.
Add the oyster mushrooms with half the nepitella leaves, raise the heat, and saute briskly until the oyster mushrooms soften, about 6 minutes.
Add a splash or three of the wine, the chopped porcinis, and cook the wine down to a syrup. Now add the porcini soaking liquid and the rest of the nepitella. Simmer until the ragout is as thick or thin as you like it, then remove from heat, mounting it with the tablespoon of butter and a hit of salt. Stir until the butter melts, then taste, adjusting salt if necessary. Finish with a sprinkling of parsley and serve right away while still warm.

Tomato Sauce with Pasta
from Chef Jonathan Miller

I don't make enough pasta dishes for my family. At least this is what I'm told by my wife and kids. I'm also going to add some garlic. The real question is whether or not to peel your tomatoes. My answer is, how much do you love the people for whom you're cooking? Peeling is another painstaking step, prolonging the satisfaction and relaxation of eating your own sauce. Not peeling makes this sauce quick work, but less refined, a bit less sweet, and not quite as special. You decide. I tell everyone in my classes that my home is not the French Laundry, so why do all that extra work? Sometimes, though, it's nice to have something special, and peeling and seeding your tomatoes will definitely make your sauce shine.

1 large onion, chopped
olive oil
4-6 branches nepitella (tied together if you like)
2 bay leaves
1 1/2 lb roma tomatoes
3 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1/3 - 1/2 lb pasta, any shape

If you are peeling your tomatoes, do that step first: score the blossom end of the tomato with a small "X". Drop the tomatoes into boiling water for a slow ten count. Remove with a strainer and allow them to cool, or dip them into cold water to quickly cool them. Peel the skins off, remove the stem, and slice them in half. If you are wooing a lover, be sure to take out the seeds by running your finger through the middle of the tomatoes, massaging them out. Do this over a strainer set over a bowl so you can catch all the liquid and pectin.
Roughly chop the tomatoes, combine them with any juices you collected, and set aside.
Heat some olive oil in a medium saucepan and add the onion, nepitella branches, and the bay leaves. Saute until softened, about 8 minutes, then add the tomatoes and their liquid. Stir well, then add about a teaspoon of salt to encourage the tomatoes to break down. After about 5 minutes, add the sliced garlic. Cook over medium low heat, stirring regularly, until the tomato sauce is reduced and super tasty, anywhere from 15 minutes to 45, depending on how strong you want to make it. Taste and adjust seasoning as you see fit. Remove the nepitella sprigs and the bay leaves. If you are a pepper lover, now's the time to add it, but I don't prefer it in this dish.
Cook your pasta in heavily salted water until al dente, then drain. Toss the pasta shapes with a tiny bit of sauce to keep them from sticking together, then serve the two dishes together, allowing your delicious sauce to be ladled on by your guests or family. I don't use parmesan with a homemade sauce like this, but a glug of burrata is always nice!

Nepitella Thoughts from Andy

Nepi is a town in the province of Viterbo, Italy, about an hour north of Rome. It's an old town, dating back to Etruscan times and was once known as Nepet, or Nepete. Nepitella, the aromatic herb, grows wild in the hills around Nepi and takes its name, Calamitha nepeta, from the town, as has the herb, Catnip, or Nepeta cataria.

Nepitella and Catnip are related, in the sense that both plants are members of the wider mint family, but your kitten is unlikely to catch a buzz off nepitella. The active ingredient in catnip that excites cats is the bicyclic monoterpenoid, nepetalctone, which appears to be lacking in nepitella. My cat, Sarah, is a catnip stoner and she wears the catnip plants in my garden ragged with her attentions, but she leaves my nepitella plants alone.

Nepitella is a useful herb for humans who like to cook. Also called "mentuccia," you can find it used in Italian cookery as an aromatic to flavor all sorts of dishes from beef and lamb through tomatoes and summer squash. It may be just the herb you need to give the dish you're preparing that "Roman" flavor you could never achieve before. But be careful! Nepitella is a strong flavored herb and a little goes a long way. 

You can treat this herb as you would its cousin, oregano. That is, spread the stems out on a plate and put it in a warm, dry place out of direct sunlight, and allow it to dry. When it's dry enough to crumble crunch it up into a little jar with a tight fitting lid so that you have some on hand to sprinkle over a pizza or add to a pan of red sauce or frying zucchini.

copyright 2014 Andy Griffin


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