At your event, do a blind tasting. The best way to do that is to hide the label, which limits the discussion to how individual wines look, smell and taste. Credit: Copyright 2015 Zester Media

Friends who love wine love to drink wine together. Throwing a wine tasting with friends elevates the everyday into an event.

Wine tastings are easy to organize. The trick is to feature wines that collectively tell a story. It can be a group of wines that are based on the same grape — Pinot Noirs, Syrahs, Sauvignon Blancs — or wines from a region, such as California’s Santa Ynez Valley, France’s Rhone River Valley or the Piedmont region of Italy. If you combine the two concepts and taste wines made in a specific region with a particular grape, you can really geek out.

I recently gathered with a group of women who make their livings producing, promoting, selling or explaining wine. Tasting with these generous, curious women was as enlightening as it was fun.

Follow the slideshow to learn their tips for throwing a wine tasting that both novices and experts will enjoy. Our Pinot Noir tasting revealed a surprise that sent us all running to the wine store the next day.

Gérard Boulay, Sancerre Rouge, Chavignol, Loire, France, 2011, $27. Rich, succulent aromas and earthy tarragon and black pepper flavors with a long, complex finish, this crowd-pleaser had everyone cheering. A terrific wine at a great price. 15 thumbs up. Credit: Copyright 2015 Zester Media

Gérard Boulay, Sancerre Rouge, Chavignol, Loire, France, 2011, $27. Rich, succulent aromas and earthy tarragon and black pepper flavors with a long, complex finish, this crowd-pleaser had everyone cheering. A terrific wine at a great price. 15 thumbs up. Credit: Copyright 2015 Zester Media

Our favorite Pinot Noirs:

» Sancerre Rouge
» Domaine Henri Gouges, Nuits St. George
» Domaine Lafarge, Volnay
» Mt. Difficulty, Roaring Meg Pinot Noir
» Elke Vineyards, Donnelly Creek Vineyard Pinot Noir
» Belle Pente Vineyard, Estate Reserve Pinot Noir

 

More from Zester Daily:

» Q&A: A winery chef’s view on food and wine pairing
» Rudy Kurniawan
» Review: The must-haves for wine lovers on your list
» America, land of wine drinkers and producers

Main photo: At your event, do a blind tasting. The best way to do that is to hide the label, which limits the discussion to how individual wines look, smell and taste. Credit: Copyright 2015 Zester Media

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Buy the freshest cauliflower you can find for Cauliflower à la Greque. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary Barron

Although cauliflowers are sold in our supermarkets all year round, this beautiful member of the wild cabbage family (Brassica oleracea) is at its bright and healthy best in early spring. Cauliflowers harvested at that time have had the benefit of a longer growing season (about 80 days, instead of 50 days for their summer-grown counterparts), allowing their valuable nutrients more time to develop.

The cauliflower, whose name derives from the Latin caulis (stem) and floris (flower) is actually a cabbage bred for its flowers. The edible part of the plant, the head of tender stems and flower buds, is known as a curd. Similarly to broccoli and calabrese (close relatives), the cauliflower stores nutrients for the developing flowers at the base of the buds, so a fresh, crisp curd is packed full of vitamins and minerals. Its Latin botanical name, Brassica oleracea var. botrytis (meaning cluster, or grapelike), is an apt description of this remarkably clever vegetable, which grows with a protective layer of leaves curled around its head.

Hats off to the French, though, for giving cauliflower (chou-fleur, or cabbage-flower,) a prettier, and horticulturally more correct name, than the rather pedestrian Anglo-Saxon “flower on a stalk.”

Mysterious origins

There is disagreement over the origin of the cauliflower. Some say it was developed by 11th century Arab gardeners, or by Romans a thousand years earlier. But the wild cabbage grew throughout the ancient eastern Mediterranean and, with its tendency to produce “freaks,” prototypes of the cauliflower probably originated spontaneously in different places. Curious gardeners have since, through seed selection, improved nature’s work and we are now reaping the benefits.

Medieval Italian kitchens and, later, those of Louis XIV of France, served stylish and elegant cauliflower dishes. Catherine de Medici is said to have appreciated the lovely vegetable, and to have introduced it to France to help alleviate arthritis. But its earlier French name, chou de Chypre, suggests it arrived from Cyprus and Cypriots are, understandably, happy to claim its origin. For the past 200 years, the cauliflower has been a popular winter vegetable in northern Europe, but without its former prestige in serious kitchens. Until now.

Hardly humble

With cauliflowers piled high in our markets, this inexpensive and highly nutritious brassica is at last losing its humble status and taking its rightful place on our tables. A reputation for being bland and soggy is the fault of the cook, not of the cauliflower. Its very gentleness is the perfect foil to many fine flavors, and it takes only a few minutes to cook.

“Organic” and “local” have real meaning when selecting cauliflowers: snails, aphids and caterpillars love them, so pesticides are often used and, once harvested, their nutrients and flavor dissipate quickly. Most cauliflowers are attractively creamy-white, but we also have wonderfully colorful varieties. Buy cauliflowers that smell and look fresh, with deep-green, outer leaves and tight heads; avoid brown-spotted white ones, or dull-looking purple, yellow or green heads. Size doesn’t affect flavor, but age does: older cauliflowers taste and smell stronger.

Richer in vitamins and minerals than any other brassica, cauliflowers are an excellent source of vitamin C, folic acid and potassium; a very good source of niacin, copper, manganese and vitamins A, K, B5 and B6; and a good source for protein, phosphorous, magnesium and vitamins B2 and B3. Raw, they are even better.

Avoid nutricide

Cauliflower cooks quickly: Keep florets whole or cut large ones in half and simmer in a little water or steam for five minutes. After this time, cauliflower loses 20% to 30% of its phytochemicals; after 10 minutes, 40% disappear. Where possible, cook in ways that don’t commit nutricide – in soups and stews, grilled or baked. In its wonderful ability to host spicy flavors, some of the best preparations for cauliflower can be found in the kitchens of the Indian subcontinent and the Mediterranean. With winter soon drawing to an end, it’s time to enjoy the vegetable that has spent the past three months developing the nutrients we need to take us into a healthy spring.

The cauliflower is actually a cabbage bred for its flowers.

Cauliflower cooks quickly: keep florets whole or cut large ones in half and simmer in a little water or steam for five minutes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary Barron

 Simple Greek ways to serve

  • Serve raw or lightly-steamed small florets with a dip of mashed anchovy, capers, herbs, and olive oil or with hummus, small radishes and young wild green leaves.
  • Mix thinly sliced cauliflower florets and fine-julienned carrots with olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt, lightly chopped flat-leaf parsley, and Greek oregano (rigani ).
  • Dip small florets in a light garbanzo-flour batter and gently fry the fritters in olive oil; serve with olive oil and lemon juice mayonnaise, olives, and lemon wedges.

Cauliflower à la Greque

À la Greque (French for “in the Greek style”) describes a method of cooking, one that presumably a French cook/traveler admired and added to his/her own kitchen repertoire. There are many versions of this popular dish, but most are a pale imitation of the original Greek creation. Buy the freshest cauliflower you can find and, for a lightly spiced dish, prepare two hours ahead; for a more mellow taste and texture, leave overnight in the marinade.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 12 minutes

Total time: 17 minutes

Yield: 8 for a meze serving, 4 as a vegetable dish

Ingredients

4 cups small cauliflower florets

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons dried coriander seeds

1 cup dry white wine

3 bay leaves

1/2 tablespoon aromatic honey such as Hymettus

1 tablespoon cracked black peppercorns

Coarse-grain sea salt to taste

For serving:

4 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon lemon zest, in very thin strips, optional

Lemon wedges

Directions

1. Trim most of the stem from the florets and cut an “x” in the base of each with a small sharp knife. Blanch 1 minute in boiling water, drain, and set aside.

2. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy saucepan over low heat. Add the coriander seeds and florets in a single layer and stir with a wooden spoon to coat with the olive oil. Add the wine, bay leaves, honey, pepper and salt. Bring just to a boil, cover, reduce the heat, and simmer 10 minutes or until tender.

3. Transfer the contents of the pan to a nonreactive bowl and set aside until cool. Cover the bowl and shake it gently to redistribute the marinade.

4. To serve, taste the marinade. If more salt is needed, combine with the parsley. Transfer the cauliflower to a shallow serving bowl and pour over most of the marinade (strain it first, if you prefer). Sprinkle with parsley and lemon zest and serve with the lemon wedges.

Main photo: Buy the freshest cauliflower you can find for Cauliflower à la Greque. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary Barron

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Orecchiette are easy to make. Credit: Copyright 2015 Christine B. Rudalevige

My children have favored orecchiette since they realized they could suction these little ear-shaped pasta to the roofs of their mouths. Demonstrating this titillating feat to other eaters violates both the no-playing-with-your-food and the no-talking-with-your-mouth-full dinnertime rules, certainly. But nonetheless, the ticklish sensation and noisy release of said suction always reduces the table to giggles.

From the cook’s point of view, the cupped-shaped pasta nestle bits and pieces of chunky, quickly thrown-together sauces inside their curves for flavor surprises throughout the meal. And the somewhat chewy texture gives eaters more satisfaction than short weeknight dinner prep times typically provides.

Until a month ago I always bought dried orecchiette, literally translated from the Italian as ear (orecchio) plus small (etto). That was true until chef Ilma Jeil Lopez showed me how easy these little suckers are to make. Lopez and her husband, chef Damian Sansonetti, own Piccolo, a tiny but trendy Italian restaurant in Portland, Maine, where they make all of the pasta they serve.

Orecchiette go from raw ingredients to swimming in the sauce in about 30 minutes flat. Truly, I kid you not.

Orecchiette is the easiest pasta in the world to make, chef Lopez told a group of adult students who had traipsed through knee-high snow banks into her restaurant early on a cold Saturday in January to glean from her information about cooking and baking with different types of flours.

Step 1: Measuring the ingredients

Lopez’s recipe for orecchiette requires only four ingredients: equal parts “00” flour (very finely ground soft wheat flour), semolina flour (a courser ground durum wheat flour typically used to make dried pasta) and water (Lopez suggest 225 grams of each flour and 225 milliliters water), and a generous glug (about 10 milliliters) of flavorful olive oil. The recipe includes no eggs to complicate the matter like most other fresh pasta formulas.

Step 2: Making the dough

The ingredients are combined in a bowl, kneaded into a ball on a clean surface until the dough is smooth inside and out, and rested for 5 minutes.

Step 3: Forming the little ears

Chunks are sliced from the dough, rolled into snakes, sliced into thumbnail-sized pieces, and deeply indented with a fingertip. That last bit is meditative if you do it alone, or works as a good distraction while trying to extract information out of your teens. Either works for me.

Should you want to make a double batch, fresh orecchiette freeze well. To do that, spread them out on a sheet pan and freeze them on the pan first. Once they are frozen, you can put them in plastic bags.

Step 4: Making the sauce

Orecchiette’s roots are in the southern Italian region of Puglia, where they are dressed in a simple sauce of blanched broccoli rabe that is cooked in the same water as the pasta, sautéed garlic and red chilies, and grated Parmesan or Romano cheese. Chef Lopez served her students orecchiette with a mélange of pre-roasted vegetables, browned butter, orange zest and shaved Parmesan. I like mine best with a pancetta-driven carbonara sauce as it comes together very quickly.

Step 5: Cooking the pasta

Handmade orecchiette cook in a boiling pot of heavily salted water. They do you the courtesy of floating to the surface when they are ready to eat, which typically takes only 2 to 3 minutes.

Easy cleanup

One of the bonuses of this type of pasta comes on the flip side when cleaning up. Other than sprinkling a baking tray with a skim coat of semolina flour to house the orecchiette while they await their turn in the pot, there is no extra flour to coax out from between the rollers of a pasta machine, wipe off the counter, sweep up from the floor, or shake off your clothing.

From the quick start to the easy finish, what’s not to love about these cute little ears, even on a weeknight?

Orecchiette With Roasted Vegetables and Brown Butter

This recipe is one adapted from what chef Ilma Jeil Lopez, who owns Piccolo in Portland, Maine, taught cooking class students how to use the orecchiette they made so easily with their own hands.

Prep time: 25 minutes (plus 30 minutes if not using pre-roasted vegetables)

Cook time: 5 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes (60 if not using pre-roasted vegetables)

Yield: 4 generous servings

Ingredients

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 teaspoon red chili pepper flakes

1 cup roasted cauliflower, roughly chopped

1/2 cup greens, sautéed in olive oil, roughly chopped

1/2 cup roasted tomatoes, roughly chopped

1/2 cup roasted eggplant, roughly chopped

1/4 cup sautéed onions, roughly chopped

Salt and pepper

1 pound orecchiette

Orange zest

1/2 cup shaved Parmesan cheese

Directions

1. Place a large pot of salted water over high heat.

2. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium high heat. The butter will foam and then start to brown.

3. When it starts to brown, stir in red chili flakes. Cook for 15 seconds and then stir in cauliflower, greens, tomatoes, eggplant and onions.

4. Stir gently until sauce is heated through. Season with salt and pepper.

5. Cook orecchiette (2 to 3 minutes if fresh, according to packaged instruction if dried) in the large pot of salted water.

6. Drain pasta and add it to sauté pan. Gently stir. Check to see if it needs additional salt and pepper.

7. Grate orange zest over pasta and top with cheese shavings. Serve immediately.

Main image: Orecchiette are easy to make. Credit: Copyright 2015 Christine Burns Rudalevige

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Sardinian Tomatoes. Credit: Kathy Hunt

 

Growing up with a father who suffered from cardiovascular disease, I learned at an early age how to eat healthfully. Hot dogs, fried chicken and steaks rarely graced our dinner table. Instead, we ate boatloads of low-fat and vitamin- and mineral-rich seafood, grains and produce.

Among the fish we consumed, sardines still top my list of favorite heart-healthy foods. Available in fresh and canned forms, these oily fish are chock-full of flavor and omega-3 fatty acids.

What’s so great about omega-3s? According to the American Heart Association, these fatty acids lessen the risk of abnormal heartbeats and reduce high triglyceride levels that may contribute to atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. They also have a positive impact on high blood pressure and overall cardiovascular health.

“It has long been appreciated that societies who eat diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids have a lower incidence of heart disease. For example, prior to the western influences of fast-food chains, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia had a diet predominantly of fish and had very low heart disease rates. We discovered that one of the main components of the fish diet that was beneficial was omega-3,” says Dr. Paul Checchia, director of cardiovascular care at Texas Children’s Hospital.

Along with sardines’ wholesomeness, I love these petite, iridescent fish for their versatility. They go well with an array of other heart-healthy foods, including spinach, tomatoes, red bell peppers, carrots, walnuts, oranges, raisins, kidney beans, black beans and whole grains. They also partner with other omega-3-rich seafood such as anchovies.

Sardines lend themselves to many preparations, flavor pairings

When fresh, sardines can be grilled, broiled, baked, poached, sautéed or marinated. Their dark, oily flesh responds well to direct heat, making them the perfect fit for barbecues and charcoal grills.

Their bold flavor likewise engenders them to simple preparations. Sprinkle ground black pepper, vinegar or citrus juice over your cooked sardines and, in a snap, you’ve got a delicious repast.

Although they tend to be overlooked by today’s home cooks, sardines have a long and storied culinary past. Named for the island Sardinia, where they were found in abundance, they have supported generations of European fishermen.

Sardines live in both Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In fact, from the 1920s through the 1940s, they served as the backbone of America’s largest, most profitable Pacific Coast fisheries. Monterey, California’s, famed Cannery Row owes its success to sardines.

Canned sardines, in turn, owe their existence to the French and Napoleon Bonaparte, who needed a way to store and transport protein-rich rations for his troops. Through the ingenuity of French brewer Nicolas Appert and British merchant Peter Durand, sardines became the first canned fish and one of the first canned foods.

The French weren’t the only ones to benefit from sardine canning. In the 20th century these 10- to 14-inch fish fed American soldiers during two world wars. They also provided jobs for vast numbers of workers.

As is often the case, rampant popularity led to the sardine’s downfall. Overfishing and the ocean’s natural growth cycle depleted the supply. Without sardines in the supermarkets, shoppers turned to canned tuna for cheap, portable and easy-to-prepare meals.

In recent years sardine populations have rebounded in the Pacific. This is wonderful news for environmentally minded, health-conscious consumers. As small-sized bottom feeders who eat plankton, sardines don’t take on heavy metals and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) as other fish do. Low in contaminants and high in protein, vitamins B-12 and D, and omega-3s fatty acids, Pacific sardines have been deemed a “best choice” by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.

When shopping for sardines, I have the option of fresh or canned. With fresh sardines, I look for shiny, silvery skins; plump bodies; bright eyes; and firm, pinkish, moderately oily flesh.

Because these fish are fatty, they spoil easily. To ensure my sardines are safe to eat, I do a quick sniff test. If a sardine smells overly fishy or pungent, I skip that fish. Highly perishable, sardines should be cooked the day of purchase.

Packed in thick, clear oil, canned sardines possess expiration dates and should be consumed accordingly. Until I’m ready to use them, I store the cans in a cool spot in my kitchen and periodically flip them so all the fish are coated in oil.

If you peek into my kitchen cupboard, you’ll invariably see at least two tins of sardines tucked in there. I use them in everything from bread spreads and vegetable dips to pastas and pissaladières. When I crave an especially heart-healthy entrée, I make the following dish, Sardinian Tomatoes. Featuring lycopene- and beta-carotene-rich tomatoes; fiber- and iron-packed barley; vitamin C- and A-filled red bell peppers; and, of course, sardines, it’s a delightfully nutritious meal.

Sardinian Tomatoes

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 8 stuffed tomatoes

Ingredients

8 large, ripe tomatoes

1 red bell pepper

1/2 small red onion

8 ounces canned sardines, drained and patted dry

1 1/2 cups cooked barley

1/4 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley

3/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Juice of 1 lemon

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided, plus more for greasing the baking dish

1/4 cup panko bread crumbs

2 teaspoons granulated onion

1/2 teaspoon salt

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease a large baking dish with olive oil and set aside.

2. Slice off the tops of the tomatoes. Scoop out the seeds, leaving an inch of flesh inside the tomatoes.

3. Dice the red pepper and onion. Slice the sardines into bite-sized chunks and put them, along with the pepper and onion, into a mixing bowl. Add the barley to the bowl.

4. Roughly chop the parsley. Add it, the thyme and black pepper to the bowl and toss to combine. Drizzle the lemon juice and half of the olive oil over the mixture and toss again.

5. In a small bowl combine the bread crumbs, granulated onion and salt. Add the remaining olive oil and stir until all the crumbs are coated.

6. Put equal amounts of sardine-barley stuffing into each tomato, filling each to the top. Sprinkle the bread crumb mixture over the filling. Place the stuffed tomatoes in the baking dish and bake, uncovered, for 12 to 15 minutes or until the tomatoes have softened slightly and the crumbs have browned. Remove and serve warm.

Main photo: Sardinian Tomatoes. Credit: Kathy Hunt

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Black cod wrapped in a bamboo leaf sits in sweet soy sauce. Credit: Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts

I had just begun eating a meal at Onyx, a restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel in Westlake Village, California, eagerly catching up with a couple of friends, when all conversation stopped.

So delicious was this cuisine, touted as “modern Japanese,” with unexpected flavors and textures that seemed to speak to us in an elemental way, that my friends and I just looked at each other with smiles growing on our faces.

Each plate of sushi and sashimi that arrived at the table was an artistic arrangement of food, so striking and beautiful that it looked like a mini sculpture. As we ate these glistening pieces of fish, we were transported by the lightness and diversity of tastes.

Then there was the main dish — blackened miso cod. It was so juicy and flavorful that I really needed to know: Who created this fabulous food?

His name is Masa Shimakawa, and I soon learned why he understands fish better than most.

All things fish

Masa not only cooks with fish, but he scuba dives, is a fly fisherman and he was born and raised in Hakodate, Japan, a port city almost entirely surrounded by ocean and known for its fresh seafood dishes.

“Everyone cooks with fish in my hometown,” Masa said when I interviewed him a few weeks later. People there eat fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner. “Most people in Japan cook fish on a charcoal grill,” he added. “It’s very simple.”

Masa likes to see fish in their own element. “On vacation, I go deep sea diving around the Channel Islands and I also go scuba diving to Hawaii and Caribbean,” he says.

And he’s an experienced fisherman. “I like fly fishing — tying my own fly — in the Channel Islands. Or I go into small creeks in the mountains, the Eastern Sierra — there are beautiful streams there — to fish golden trout. It’s a four-hour drive for middle-of-nowhere fishing,” he said.

He has traveled to countries in Asia and South America, seeking out street food and local markets. “I want to see what people are eating on a daily basis.” He says he has been most inspired by Vietnam and Singapore.

From Japan to California

His career began as a dishwasher in a small cafe when he was a teenager. He attended the Hakodate Professional Cooking School and later became a sushi chef in Tokyo. He got a job at a sushi restaurant in Montreal, then Chicago and then New York, before arriving at the Four Seasons in Westlake Village in 2006.

The resort includes the California Health and Longevity Institute, which offers health, fitness and nutrition consultations as well as spa services. The light and fresh food at Onyx makes it the perfect place for Longevity Institute clients to come for dinner.

For his Onyx creations, Masa buys fish from local Southern California sources as well as from Japan. One of his favorites is Hawaiian sea bass. “I marinate it with Yuzu, Japanese soy sauce, overnight.” As for what is meant by “modern Japanese,” Masa explains: “It’s not too traditional. I use outside accents — Western and Southeast Asia seasonings, all mashed up.”

One part of the secret to the flavorful fish is the sauces he creates for marinating. For the black cod? “I marinate it in miso paste with sake, and a little bit of sugar, overnight. Next day, I rinse off the miso,” then he oven-roasts the fish.

No need to be intimidated about buying or cooking fish, Masa says. Here are some of his tips:

•    Buy at a fish market whenever possible.

•    Look for bright, clear eyes.

•    Look for vivid red gills.

•    No matter how you cook fish, use your finger to judge when it’s done. “I push the fish gently to see how deep my finger goes. It should be soft, but the skin should spring back. If it’s too hard, the fish has been overcooked.”

•    As for sauces? “It’s all about simplicity,” Masa says. Just use butter, salt, pepper and lemon juice, he suggests. The idea, he says, is to create a light sauce that allows you to “enjoy the character of the fish.”

What about the old rule of cooking fish 5 minutes for every inch of thickness? Masa shrugs. Knowing when fish is done cooking has to “come with experience,” he says.

The success of Onyx may be that Masa enjoys experimenting with new recipes, which he tries out on his staff. He is intuitive, and he has had years of experience cooking fish. But how does it all taste just so … perfect? There are some secrets he’s not sharing. “I have some tricks,” he says with a smile.

Main photo: Black cod wrapped in a bamboo leaf sits in sweet soy sauce. Credit: Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts

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Main photo: Black-Eyed Peas Salad. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

I used to think of black-eyed peas as a purely American food, much loved in the South. Despite the time I spent living in Austin, I’ve never made them the way Texans do, using ham hocks or salt pork for flavoring, and I’ve had more than one run-in with staunch traditionalists who have challenged — even berated — my vegetarian approach.

Even now that I’m not a strict vegetarian (albeit it’s the way I eat most of the time) I prefer black-eyed peas that have not been simmered with pork products. I love their earthy depth of flavor and I have never thought, “Gee, these would be really great if they just had some pork to flavor them.” They have plenty going for them on their own.

As I’ve researched the cuisines of the Mediterranean over the years, I have learned that these beans are an important staple in that part of the world, especially in Greece and North Africa. They are the backbone of some of my favorite Mediterranean dishes.

Black-eyed peas are native to Africa. According to cookbook author and Zester contributor Clifford A. Wright, they had arrived in the northern Mediterranean by about 300 B.C. and were cultivated by the Romans. The beans traveled to South America with the slave trade, but they came to North America via the Mediterranean. They are much loved in Greece, where they are stewed in abundant olive oil, often with greens, or used in lighter salads or bean dishes and seasoned with wild fennel, mint, dill and parsley.

In Tunisia, a country with a rich repertoire of vegetable stews or tagines where you are not likely to see pork with beans (because of Muslim dietary rules), black-eyed peas are simmered with abundant spices, vegetables like greens and fennel, and lots of fresh herbs — cilantro, parsley, mint. The spicy bean tagines are ladled over couscous. These dishes are complex, with an array of seasonings — harissa, caraway and coriander seeds, cumin and garlic.

But my favorite black-eyed peas are the ones that I make year after year. I cook the beans with onion, garlic and bay leaf, then toss them while warm with a cumin-infused vinaigrette, chopped bell peppers, and lots of cilantro. The balance of flavors is perfect. It’s a traditional good-luck dish on New Year’s Day, but it never fails to leave me feeling optimistic about the future — no matter the time of year.

Black-Eyed Peas Salad with Cumin Vinaigrette

You can serve this salad warm or chilled. I often make the beans several days ahead, marinate them in the vinaigrette, and add the chopped pepper and cilantro after I reheat the beans in the vinaigrette.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 1 hour

Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 as a starter, 4 to 6 as a main dish

Ingredients

For the beans:

1 medium onion, cut in half

1 pound black-eyed peas, washed and picked over

2 quarts water

2 or 3 garlic cloves, minced

1 bay leaf

Salt to taste

For the dressing and salad:

1/4 cup red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar

1 garlic clove, minced

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

2 teaspoons lightly toasted cumin, ground

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/2 cup broth from the beans

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 large red bell pepper, diced

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

Directions

1. Combine the onion, black-eyed peas and the water in a soup pot or Dutch oven and bring to a gentle boil. Skim off any foam from the surface of the water. Add the garlic, bay leaf and salt to taste (about 2 teaspoons). Reduce the heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes. Taste and add more salt if desired. Cover and simmer 10 to 15 minutes, until the beans are tender but not falling apart. Remove from the heat. Remove onion halves and bay leaf. Carefully drain the beans through a colander or strainer set over a bowl and transfer to a large salad bowl. Measure out 1/2 cup of the bean broth.

2. In a pyrex measuring cup or small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, garlic, salt, pepper, cumin, and mustard. Whisk in the bean broth, then the olive oil. Taste and adjust seasonings. Stir the dressing into the warm beans. Stir in the red pepper and cilantro, and serve, or allow to cool and serve at room temperature.

Greek Black-Eyed Peas With Wild Fennel

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 1 hour

Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 as a starter, 4 to 6 as a main dish

Ingredients

1 pound black-eyed peas

1/4 cup olive oil

1 onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 cups wild fennel leaves, chopped

1 15-ounce can tomatoes, drained and pureed in a food processor

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Additional chopped fennel for garnish (optional)

Directions

1. Wash and pick over the beans. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large, heavy soup pot or Dutch oven and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and fennel leaves and cook, stirring, for a minute, until the garlic is fragrant and the fennel beginning to wilt. Stir in the tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Add the black-eyed peas and enough water to cover by an inch, and stir together. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer 30 minutes.

2. Add salt to taste (about 2 teaspoons) and freshly ground pepper, and continue to simmer until the beans are tender, another 15 minutes. Stir in the remaining olive oil. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve warm or hot, garnished with additional chopped wild fennel if desired.

Couscous With Black-Eyed Peas and Chard

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours

Total time: up to 2 hours

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

Chard stalks, diced

4 large garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon coriander seeds, lightly toasted and ground

1 teaspoon caraway seeds, lightly toasted and ground

2 teaspoons cumin seeds, lightly toasted and ground

2 cups black-eyed peas, rinsed

2 tablespoons harissa (or more to taste; substitute 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper if harissa is unavailable), plus additional for serving

2 tablespoons tomato paste

Salt, preferably kosher salt, to taste

1 to 1 1/2 pounds Swiss chard, stemmed, washed thoroughly in 2 changes of water, and coarsely chopped

1 large bunch parsley or cilantro (or a combination), stemmed, washed and chopped

2 cups couscous, reconstituted and steamed until fluffy and hot

Directions

1. Heat the oil over medium heat in a heavy casserole or Dutch oven and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add a generous pinch of salt, the chard stalks, garlic and ground spices, and stir together for about a minute, until the garlic is fragrant. Add the black-eyed peas and 3 quarts water, and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes. Add the harissa or cayenne, the tomato paste and salt to taste, cover and simmer another 15 to 30 minutes, until the beans are tender and fragrant. Strain off 1/2 cup of the liquid and set aside to add to the couscous when you reconstitute it.

2. Stir in the chard a handful at a time, allowing each handful to cook down a bit before adding the next. Simmer 5 to 10 minutes, until the chard is tender and fragrant. Stir in the parsley and/or cilantro and simmer another few minutes. Remove from the heat. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding salt, garlic or harissa as desired.

3. Reconstitute and warm the couscous while the black-eyed peas are cooking. Shortly before serving, transfer to a wide serving bowl, such as a pasta bowl, or directly to wide soup plates. Spoon on the black-eyed peas and greens with plenty of broth, and serve, passing additional harissa at the table.

Main photo: Black-Eyed Peas Salad. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

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Find your style: Shoot what you enjoy. Experiment with lighting, lens, shooting positions, subjects and situations until you find a style that expresses how you feel about food. Credit: Copyright David Hagerman

How many times have you been inspired to photograph a dish only to find that the image captured on your camera’s LCD screen is nowhere near as beautiful, or appetizing, as the dish sitting in front of you? Unwilling to give up you shoot another, and another — until your dinner companion, or a waiter, taps you on the shoulder and says, “You better eat that before it gets cold.”

Great food photography is mostly about technique, and with a little practice you can master the basics. Once you’ve developed technical skills, add inspiration and passion (because every photographer should love his or her subject). You’ll be amazed at the results.

To advance your food photographs, check out the slideshow.

More Zester Daily stories with slideshows from David Hagerman:

» A professional’s tips for shooting photos of markets

» The heart of Lao cuisine

» Food and the open flame

» Endangered Thai treasure

Main photo: Find your style: Shoot what you enjoy. Experiment with lighting, lens, shooting positions, subjects and situations until you find a style that expresses how you feel about food. Credit: Copyright David Hagerman

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Wines from Le Domaine d'Henri. Credit: Courtesy of Le Domaine d'Henri

On my recent visit to Chablis, France, I asked to see new producers and was slightly taken aback to find the name Michel Laroche at the top of the list. Laroche has been making wine, and then running a thriving business, ever since his very first harvest back in the terrible vintage of 1963. Over the years he has been at the forefront of innovation in Chablis, with horizons stretching far beyond the narrow valley of the river Serein. And now he has reinvented himself as a true vigneron, cultivating the grapes for the wine that he makes.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when expansion of the Chablis vineyards was at its height, Laroche was responsible for the development of a large négociant business, buying the grapes or juice for wine, and the growth of the family estate to some 100 hectares (about 247 acres). Not content with Chablis, he developed a wine estate in the Languedoc, Mas la Chevalière, outside Béziers for vins de pays (country wine), because he wanted to try his hand at red wine. In 2005, he bought a wine estate in South Africa, l’Avenir; there was also a venture in Chile. He was a fervent promoter of screw caps at a time when the French market deemed them an anathema. And making use of his wife Gwénaël’s talent for interior design, he opened an elegant hotel and wine bar in Chablis itself. Then in 2010, he sold out to Advini, a company run by the Languedoc family, Jeanjean, which incorporates several wine estates in the key vineyard areas of France.

Laroche can always be relied upon for a perceptive overview of the Chablis market. A former manager of the town’s main bank described him as un grand homme du marketing (a great marketeer) — and she should know, as she doubtless saw the business plans of most of the vignerons of the appellation. After the fusion with Advini, Laroche stayed on for a two-year transition period, consulting on marketing, but now has returned to his roots and become a vigneron, based on his father’s original vines. Appropriately, Laroche’s new venture is called Le Domaine d’Henri after his father, and the label features a charming photograph of his parents enjoying a harvest meal in their vineyard. Laroche has four children, and his two daughters, Céline and Margaux, work with him. Although his sons have taken different career paths, Laroche insists that it is a family business for them all.

The core of the estate is 14 hectares (34.6 acres) of vineyards that belonged to his father and he has bought 8 more hectares (19.8 acres). They are mostly on the right bank of the Serein and include several plots of Fourchaume. There is a new cellar on the outskirts of the town. The vineyards are run organically, but the label does not say so because Laroche wishes to reserve the right to use a conventional spray if the climate demands it, as it did in 2013. His winemaker is Thibaud Baudin, who has worked in the Côte d’Or and in New Zealand, and then most recently for Advini at Domaine Laroche.

Michel Laroche and his daughter Margaux, who works with him at Le Domaine d'Henri. Credit: Courtesy of Le Domaine d'Henri

Michel Laroche and his daughter Margaux, who works with him at Le Domaine d’Henri. Credit: Courtesy of Le Domaine d’Henri

However, these days Laroche is very much involved with wine making and vineyard work in a way that the scale of Domaine Laroche had not allowed him for several years – and he is in his element. You can sense his enjoyment at serving wines in which he has played a vital role. As he put it, “le jeu, the game, is to produce quality. It is like a new profession, with a new perspective.” And these days he can spend as much time as he likes in his vineyards, so that he feels so much closer to the product. “I’ve returned to its source.”

As well as simple Chablis from vineyards in the hills above the village of Maligny, Laroche has created a range of three premier crus from the prestigious Fourchaume region. Here you sense his marketing expertise. The first small vintage of Domaine d’Henri was in 2012, and I was lucky enough to be able to taste the wines.

The basic Fourchaume, if a premier cru can be basic, is a blend of several plots. Just 11% of it is fermented and aged in wood, and then blended with the vat-aged wine in the June following the harvest. The year 2012 was a fine vintage in Chablis, so no chaptalization was necessary, and the wine is firm and has great minerality. The Cuvée Vieilles Vignes comes from older wines that were planted in 1970. Here the percentage of oak aging is 21% and the taste is firmer and steelier, with a taut finish. And the third Fourchaume, Cuvée Heritage, comes from vines that were planted in 1937, from a vineyard that Henri bought rather than planted himself. There is just one new barrel out of five, with 37% of the cuvée fermented and aged in oak. The higher percentage of oak makes for a more oxidative style, with more structure and richer flavors. In 2012 they made just 4,000 bottles of Cuvée Heritage, including some magnums and jeroboams.

When I asked Laroche what he considered to be the biggest change in Chablis over the years, he replied without hesitation, “The very positive development of the awareness that we are an appellation with a great potential.”

Back in 1963, most people considered themselves farmers, merely scraping a living from their vines with the aim of quantity, not quality. These days it is the quality of Chablis that provides the excitement, and that is Laroche’s aim as a new vigneron.

Main photo: Wines from Le Domaine d’Henri. Credit: Courtesy of Le Domaine d’Henri

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