The cured salmon dish served at the dinner. Credit: Susan Haddleton

This summer, I undertook the daunting yet exciting task of cooking for some of my peers. The experience started when I submitted a paper for the 2014 Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, which was being held at St. Catherine’s College in Oxford, England.

This year’s theme was food markets, and my paper covered my thoughts about Nordic food past, present and future. I wanted to explain the history behind Nordic food and why all of a sudden it is in focus, along with what it has to offer other than just being a new trend.

My paper was accepted, and I was thrilled. I was going to Oxford and staying at St. Catherine’s. My academic career was interrupted a couple of years ago by my love for cooking, but with this experience I could now finally live out my dream of an Ivy League university experience.

No more than a few days after learning my paper was accepted, an email came in from one of the symposium trustees, Ursula Heinzelmann. Would I cook Nordic street food for the banquet Saturday night? I was a little hesitant, as I was excited about pretending to be an academic for the weekend.

Not to mention Nordic street food does not really exist. That’s hot dogs with remoulade sauce or open sandwiches on rye bread — not really material for an Oxford banquet.

After a few hours of in-depth thinking, I decided to accept, but I changed the concept. I wanted to cook the kind of supper I would do in my kitchen at home.

Deciding on a Nordic dinner menu no easy task

My head started to spin. Did I want to come up with something completely new or just cook some of my favorite things and share my love for my own food culture? I decided on a home-cooked Danish dinner, a simple, tasty menu.

My first menu selection was cured salmon with home-baked rye focaccia served with some favorite July vegetables: radishes and cucumbers. Testing this, I tried to cure the salmon with dry nettles, but it did not work. It tasted like herbal tea. Fresh nettles worked, but the season for nettle is over come July, so I decided on lovage, a spicy herb with an aftertaste of celery. It worked perfectly with the salmon. To accompany that, I thickened some heavy cream with lemon overnight and then added a lot of freshly grated horseradish, a bit of sugar and lots of black pepper to make a horseradish dressing.

For the main course I decided to serve black barley, which is a heritage grain that my friends at Skærtoft Mølle back home in Denmark started cultivating some years back. It’s now growing in small quantities. I wanted to use tarragon, fennel, cauliflower and celeriac. When I create a menu or a new recipe, I always start with the vegetables. For me, the vegetables are the center of the meal.

With that, I decided to serve one of my classic lamb stews with fennel, tarragon, white wine and elderflower cordial (see recipe below). The cheese for the meal I brought myself from Knuthenlund, a small organic producer in Denmark.

The pudding had to be a classic from the month of July: a cold buttermilk soup with cardamom biscuits. I contemplated going the chef way and revamping the pudding using the same ingredients, but I do not cook like that anymore. I cook things in a simple style. I do not plate it too much; I like to keep the food transparent and let the ingredients do the talking, so I stayed with the classic.

With one suitcase full of cheese and the other full of rye flour and black barley from Skærtoft Mølle, I set out for Oxford three days ahead of the dinner to start cooking everything from scratch. The first thing I did upon arrival was meet with and greet the staff and head chef in the kitchen.

That’s always an interesting experience. Head chefs do not in general like other chefs in their kitchen. They tend to compete heavily instead of exchanging ideas. The attitude is often that the head chef knows everything.

I have cooked in many kitchens around the world. First you start out humbly, trying to understand their system. This time was a little bit different because Tim Kelsey, the head chef at St. Catherine’s, and his team do this every year. I believe they both look forward and dread the event, as they never know what is going to happen. But they were very open and forthcoming with me.

I made my plans and started prepping with my new team. On Friday night, my sister Silla arrived to assist me, and on Saturday we worked all day. Silla cut 700 slices of cured salmon and I baked the bread, adjusted the buttermilk soup, cut vegetables, prepared the fresh herbs and made the stew. By about 6 p.m. Saturday, all 220 salmon dishes were lined up. The kitchen was 100 percent calm, and we were ready to get the food out.

This is the moment of bliss: You have worked for days and are just waiting for the action. You know you’ve put all your love into it. This is the moment I love the most in the kitchen; it’s the calm before the storm.

We ran a smooth service that night. I was happy with everything, but also apprehensive. Before the guests start eating, there’s no way to tell whether they will like it. I had high hopes and butterflies in my stomach. I mean, I was cooking for Claudia Roden! That doesn’t happen every day.

The meal was indeed very well received — people complimented us and asked questions about the flavors, the grain and how I had cooked the celeriac. I believe the dinner was a success, and I was overwhelmed and very proud as I went around the tables and talked to people. I had shown a corner of modern home-cooked Danish food.

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The kitchen staff at St. Catherine's preparing the dinner. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

Summer Lamb Stew

Prep Time: 1 hour

Cook Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Total Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 servings

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 pounds lamb, cut in cubes, from shoulder or leg
  • 3 leeks
  • 2 whole fennels
  • 4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 10 sprigs of tarragon
  • ½ cup elderflower cordial
  • 2 cups white wine
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • For serving:
  • 2 tablespoons fresh tarragon leaves

Directions

  1. Heat olive oil and butter in a large sauté pan and brown the meat on all sides. Do this in two batches if necessary. Do not boil the meat.
  2. Chop the vegetables. The leeks should be in 1 inch pieces, and the fennel should be in ½ inch slices.
  3. After the meat is browned, add the garlic, fennel seeds, bay leaves and tarragon to the sauté pan and mix well. Then add in ⅔ of the leeks and fennel, reserving the rest for later. Allow the mixture to sauté for a few minutes.
  4. Pour the elderflower cordial and white wine over the meat and vegetable mix, then sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Stir well and bring to a boil.
  5. Skim off any froth that rises to the surface, then turn down the heat and let it simmer for 45 to 55 minutes.
  6. When the lamb is tender, add the rest of the leeks and fennel and let simmer for 5 minutes more, then add more salt and pepper if necessary.
  7. Sprinkle with fresh tarragon before serving. The dish can be served with boiled barley or boiled new potatoes.

Main photo: The cured salmon dish served at the dinner. Credit: Susan Haddleton

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Cork trees can be harvested only every nine years. Credit: Courtesy of APCOR

The ax strikes the tree with a dry, hollow crack. The man wielding it carefully uses the edge of the blade to pry a thick piece of cork from the tree, then hands it down the ladder to a worker waiting below. In the surrounding forest, the crew continues separating the bark from the trees in the summer heat, until the day’s harvest is collected. There are no machines to do this work. It requires skill as well as physical strength, and the stamina to withstand 90-plus-degree temperatures, swarming flies and dry, thorny brush that tears at workers’ pant legs.

This was the scene I witnessed in late July, during the annual cork harvest in Coruche, Portugal’s cork capital. The harvest takes place each year between May and August, as it has for centuries.

Cork is the name for the bark of the cork oak tree (scientific name Quercus Suber L.), an ancient species dating back millions of years. Cork oaks grow primarily in Portugal, but also in France, Spain, Italy and Morocco. Because these unique trees have the ability to regenerate their outer layer of bark after it’s been stripped, there’s no need to cut down the trees in order to harvest the cork.

Portugal is the world’s largest producer of cork, and the country is home to nearly 2 million acres of cork forest, or montado. Cork trees can live 500 years or more if their bark has never been harvested, and up to 150 years if it has.

In the wine world, people often marvel at the patience of grape growers, who have to wait three years for a new vineyard to produce a usable crop. That’s nothing compared with the long-range planning required of Portugal’s cork farmers. Once a cork tree is planted, it takes 25 years before its bark can be harvested.

The first year’s bark isn’t good enough for wine stoppers, so it’s sold at a much cheaper rate for flooring and other byproducts. It takes nine years for the bark to regenerate before it can be harvested again, and even then, it still isn’t viable for wine corks. Only after nine more years, at the third harvest, does the tree produce bark that’s suitable for stoppers. In case you’ve lost count, that’s 43 years of waiting!

Skill and strength

Watching the harvest crew in action last month, I came to understand why these are the world’s highest-paid agricultural workers. Stripping the bark is hot, difficult work, and requires both care and muscle. The harvesting is done mainly by men, known as descortiçadores (debarkers),who earn up to 90 euros ($120) per day wielding sharp iron axes called machadas.

As my guide, Sofia Ramos of the Coruche Forestry Association, pointed out, this work cannot be done by just anyone; it takes specialized skill to remove the bark without damaging the trees. The technique is passed down through generations, and is not something that can easily be picked up by migrant workers from non-cork-producing regions. “They have ancient knowledge,” she told me, “and that is very valuable.”

As I stood in relative comfort, but still dripping with sweat and swatting flies, I watched the workers strip the gnarly gray-brown bark from the trees, leaving behind smooth trunks the color of mahogany. Moving swiftly and efficiently, it took each two-man team about 10 minutes to strip a tree before moving on to the next one.

Although the harvest process appeared to be fairly simple from my vantage point, I learned that it actually consists of many distinct steps:

First, a vertical cut is made in the bark, while at the same time, the edge of the ax is twisted to separate the outer from the inner bark. Second, the cork is separated from the tree by inserting the edge of the ax between the cork strip and the inner bark, and twisting the ax between the trunk and the cork strip. Next, a horizontal cut is made to define the size of the cork plank to be extracted. Finally, the plank is carefully removed from the tree so that it doesn’t split (the larger the planks, the greater their value.)

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Portugal's "debarkers" are the highest-paid agricultural workers in the world. Credit: Courtesy of APCOR

Once the tree has been stripped, it’s marked with a number, using the last digit of the year in which the extraction took place. This lets the forest manager know when the trees will be ready for the next harvest.

Each day’s cork planks are stacked onto tractor beds and transferred to a drying area where they rest for three weeks before being transported to a cork processing facility. There, the planks are boiled to remove impurities, trimmed, sorted, cut into strips and finally, punched into stoppers.

The next time I pull one of those stoppers from a wine bottle I’ll be thinking about Portugal’s miraculously regenerating cork trees, and the hardworking descortiçadores who harvest their bark.

Main photo: Cork trees can be harvested only every nine years. Credit: Courtesy of APCOR

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Colman's Mustard. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

I treasure a blue ceramic pot, the size of a pigeon’s egg, inscribed Colman’s. It has survived decades of kitchen clear-outs and is still used to mix and serve freshly mixed Original English Mustard.

The volcanic yellow paste is the capo of condiments. It has packed a blistering punch on British dining tables ever since the eponymous Mr. Jeremiah Colman went into business in Norwich 200 years ago.

The former flour-miller built his fortune with “the bit on the side of the plate,” invariably left once the meat and two veg of Sunday lunch have been eaten.

No one licks a plate clean of mustard.

Mustard may not be the essential desert island kitchen ingredient, but we would be the poorer without it: A smear of neon English mustard is an essential accompaniment to roast beef, pork pies and ham sandwiches and peerless for use in a range of old English recipes from deviled kidneys to cauliflower cheese, piccalilli and Welsh rarebit.

There are other English mustard brands available, as the phrase goes, but Colman’s, which claims 91% of total English mustard sales, will always be associated with Queen and country — and a platter of sliced, rare sirloin.

English mustard trade

In the 16th century the town of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire emerged as the center of the English mustard trade. Pounded and mixed with horseradish, balls of mustard seed were reconstituted with vinegar or verjuice.

In 1720, Mrs. Clements of Tewkesbury found a way to dry the seeds so they could be milled into a long-life powder that could then be “cut” with water. Mustard preparations were also used for medicinal purposes, such as curing toothaches and colds.

Colman’s came to dominate the market with its skillful blending of brown and white seeds and clever marketing. In 1866, the company was granted a Special Warrant as suppliers to Queen Victoria, and 30 years later launched its first ready-mixed mustard under the brand name Savora. The position was confirmed when it purchased rival manufacturer’s Keen’s, which gave its name to the phrase “keen as mustard.”

Mustard crop nearly lost

Homegrown mustard seeds were nearly wiped out in 2007 through a combination of bad weather, poor harvests and poor flavor from loss of seed diversity. Luckily, Colman’s (now owned by Unilever) had kept jars of dried mustard seeds going back decades: DNA profiling enabled the company to restore viability to the national mustard crop.

Branding expertise played a key part in Colman’s success from the start.

In 1926, Colman’s Mustard Club became all the rage. The famous bull’s head logo conveyed an image of strength. It helped that mustard was considered a particularly good accompaniment to beef. Or, as Chico Marx was later to put it in “Monkey Business,” “Mustard’s no good without roast beef.”

Mustard memorabilia are now collectors’ items, from branded Victorian pencil sharpeners to Royal Doulton mustard pots and enameled signs, as well as brilliant advertising posters. Visitors to the Norwich Mustard Shop invariably come away laden with magnets, teapots, lapel badges, shoppers, coasters, mugs and jigsaws. My favorite? The mustard-tin cufflinks.

Mix mustard to your taste

The mixing of the powder with water to suit your own heat preference was once a ritual in British homes. The powder is made from pure mustard flour, but the ready-made jars and toothpaste-tubes also contain sugar, salt, wheat flour, spice, citric acid and water. Sales of the latter, however, far outstrip the dried powder in a triumph of convenience over tradition.

Sadly, in this anniversary year, there are mutters of discontent. Original English Mustard fans complain the ready-made version is runnier, it drips off the food and has lost its bite. I can’t help but agree — which is why I’m sticking to the powder and my old blue jar.

TIP: Should you choose to prepare it yourself: Mix and let stand for 10 minutes for the flavor to develop. Also, always use cold water in your mix for a cleaner, sharper taste.

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A tin of Colman's Original Mustard Powder among other spices on a store cupboard shelf. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Colman’s Sausage Macerole*

Prep Time: 50 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

    For the filling:
  • 8 pork sausages
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 large onion, sliced
  • 3 cups halved closed-cup mushrooms
  • 2 heaping teaspoons of Colman's Instant Beef Gravy
  • ½ to 1 teaspoon Colman's English Mustard, or to taste
  • For the topping:
  • 2 cups dried macaroni
  • 1½ tablespoons reduced-fat spread
  • 2 cups reduced-fat milk (2%)
  • 5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon Colman’s English Mustard
  • 1 packed cup mature, reduced-fat cheddar cheese, shredded
  • ¼ packed cup Red Leicester cheese, shredded
  • Pepper, to season
  • (* Created especially by Colman’s for the 200th birthday)

Directions

  1. Preheat the grill. Arrange the sausages on the grill rack and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, turning often until browned.
  2. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a frying pan and cook the onion for 4 to 5 minutes, until browned. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring often, for 3 to 4 minutes.
  3. Dissolve the gravy in 7 fluid ounces of boiling water. Stir in the mustard, then add to the onion mixture. Slice the sausages and add them to the pan. Transfer to an oven-proof baking dish, allow to cool while making the topping.
  4. Cook the macaroni in lightly salted boiling water for 8 to 10 minutes. Meanwhile, combine the milk, spread and flour into a non-stick saucepan. Heat, stirring constantly with a whisk, to make a smooth sauce. Add the mustard and season with pepper. Stir in the cheddar cheese until melted.
  5. Drain the macaroni thoroughly and add to the cheese sauce. Spoon on top of the sausage mixture and sprinkle the Red Leicester cheese onto the surface.
  6. Preheat the oven to 400 F (200 C). Bake for 20 minutes, then broil the top for 3 to 4 minutes, until golden brown. Serve with green vegetables.

A Very Fine Rarebit

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

1 packed cup, plus 2 tablespoons hard cheese, shredded (I used Red Leicester cheese because the coloring intensifies the red-gold hue of the topping, but you can use any hard, strong cheese.

4 fluid ounces English ale

2 teaspoons freshly made English mustard

Freshly ground black pepper

4 slices of sourdough bread (or similar)

Butter

Directions

1. Preheat the grill to high.

2. Melt the cheese in a small pan with the ale, mustard and pepper; stir until melted. (This will take only a few minutes.)

3. Set aside while you toast and butter the bread.

4. Pour the mixture over the slices of buttered toast and brown under the grill.

Jolly good with a cup of tea — or the rest of the ale.

 

Gubbins Sauce

* Nathaniel Gubbins (a pseudonym for Edward Spencer) was a Victorian century gourmet and humorous writer who gave his name to this spicy sauce he described as “invaluable, especially for the sluggard.”

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 5 minutes

Total Time: 10 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

¼ cup unsalted butter

3 tablespoons English mustard

2 tablespoons tarragon vinegar

6 tablespoons heavy cream or sour cream

Cayenne or paprika (optional)

Directions

1. Melt the butter in a double boiler or in a bowl placed over a pan of simmering water.

2. Combine the mustard and vinegar, then add the cream.

3. Season with salt and pepper (and cayenne, if used).

4. Keep warm over the water until ready to serve. Gubbins suggested serving with roast chicken legs and thighs, but you can also use white meat. The sauce is also good with lamb cutlets.

 

Deviled Eggs

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: n/a

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

6 large eggs

6 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 teaspoons freshly made English mustard

Paprika (or cayenne)

Salt and black pepper

Chopped curly parsley (adds a suitably retro touch)

Directions

1. Boil the eggs until hard, plunge into cold water, let chill (this will help avoid any gray marks between yolk and white, and makes them easier to shell).

2. Shell the eggs, and cut in half lengthwise. Scoop out the yolks.

3. Mash the yolks (or press through a nylon sieve) with the mayonnaise, lemon juice, mustard, a pinch of paprika and seasoning to taste.

4. Spoon or pipe the mixture into the egg white halves, then sprinkle with the parsley.

Main photo: Colman’s Original English Mustard. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

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An aerial shot of Matthew Moore's replica of a suburban lot map, in which he grew 253 homes out of sorghum and made roads out of wheat. Credit: Matthew Moore Credit: Matthew Moore

If you knew it took 160 days to grow a carrot, would it change the way you think about eating one?

That’s the question that artist and farmer Matthew Moore set out to answer with a series of time-lapse videos of plants growing from seed to harvest. “If you went to the supermarket, bought a head of lettuce and you were able to see the life cycle of that plant in a few seconds or a few minutes, it might change the way you think about that food,” he said.

AUTHOR


PamWeisz of Change Food

Pam Weisz is deputy director of Change Food, a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.

Art, Moore said, “can put us into a state that words can’t describe — it completely simplifies everything.”

Moore talked about the importance of art in making people think about food at TEDxManhattan, a one-day conference in March featuring leading innovators in the food movement. (See embedded video below.)

In his poignant and emotional talk, Moore said that his story began when he realized that although he is the fourth generation on his family’s farm outside of Phoenix, “I’m also the last to farm this land” because of the massive amount of development going on in the region.

“When I returned to run the family business in the beginning of the last housing boom I just inherently knew that I had to document this process,” he said.

He began by artfully showing the impact of suburban sprawl on the land. In one picture-perfect example, he created a replica of a suburban lot map in which he grew 253 homes out of sorghum and made roads out of wheat.

“What art is so good at is asking questions,” he said. “The question I had was: Why does this make sense? Why is this the best, the highest use of this ground?”

Matthew Moore's floor plan embedded in wheat. Credit: Matthew Moore

Matthew Moore embeds a floor plan in wheat. Credit: Matthew Moore

He began to make his time-lapse videos on the theory that most people don’t understand what goes into growing the produce they eat, and that if they did, they might approach the supermarket with a different perspective.

Time-lapse messages

The time-lapse films were shown in a Utah supermarket as part of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. When consumers approached a selected vegetable, an LCD screen displayed that plant’s entire life cycle, set to music. And, Moore said, people watched. “We realized that it works,” he said. “I did all these conceptual projects, and all I had to do was let the plant tell the story.”

Moore is part of a larger movement using art to encourage people to think more about their food, at a time when consumer interest in food, and how it’s produced, is rising. Many artists are engaged in this work. Stefani Bardin used pills, designed to record video and sound from the gastrointestinal tract, to examine the effects of eating natural versus processed food; the resulting video has been watched more than 3 million times. Tattfoo Tan has developed a range of specialized paint colors matched to the colors of fruits and vegetables, known as the Nature Matching System. He’s used the system to create, among other things, a place mat that has been sold at the Museum of Modern Art Design Store. Photographer Henry Hargreaves created physical maps using iconic foods of countries for his Food Maps series.

Moore founded a nonprofit, the Digital Farm Collective, inspired by what he describes as “the increasing disconnect between consumers and the source of their food.” The DFC’s mission is to broaden the understanding of how food grows and preserve growing practices by telling the story of cultivated crops using video and digital media in schools and public spaces.

The DFC has sent cameras around the world, asking farmers to create time-lapse videos similar to those Moore has made. Interviews with farmers and practical data about produce as it grows from seed to harvest are also incorporated. This content is available in the DFC’s “Living Library.”

The DFC shares its work through two other programs. The first, Seedlings, provides curricula for schools to get kids engaged in gardening. “Through that we learn how better to communicate and inspire the next generation of growers and consumers,” Moore said. The second, Lifecycles, works to exhibit the DFC’s content in public spaces. For example, the group’s work was part of an exhibit at the San Jose Museum of Art in Northern California this year.

The goal, Moore said, is to inspire and educate. “Consumers play a role in food advocacy every time they go to the grocery store,” he said. “We have to understand the global implications of every choice that we make.

“And all I know is words won’t cut it sometimes,” he added. “Sometimes we need more.”

Main photo: An aerial shot of Matthew Moore’s replica of a suburban lot map, in which he grew 253 homes out of sorghum and made roads out of wheat. Credit: Matthew Moore

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Yellow corn soup with sautéed crab and chives. Credit: David Latt

As this best part of summer delivers a ready-to-eat bounty of fresh vegetables to the kitchen, Luigi Fineo, executive chef at West Hollywood’s RivaBella Ristorante, shows off a large bowl of Iowa yellow corn. With one taste, Fineo knew what he would do with these fat sun-ripened kernels. He would make a healthy, sweet tasting soup.

The youngest of five, Fineo grew up in southern Italy in Gioia del Colle. Like many chefs, he learned to love cooking in his mother’s kitchen. Helping to prepare the family’s meals, she taught him the basics. That early training would serve him well as he worked in demanding restaurants around the world from Francesco Berardinelli’s Shooeneck Ristorante in Falzes, Italy, to Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif..

From the outside, RivaBella has the appearance of just another upscale restaurant. Inside, the sprawling interior is set-dressed to look like an elegant version of a rustic Italian country inn. Full-sized trees and a 7-foot tall brick hearth dominate the interior. During the day when the retractable ceiling is open, the bright blue Southern California sky hangs overhead.

The current menu recalls the kitchen of Fineo’s mother and the refinements of his colleague, owner-chef Gino Angelini, who helped popularize quality Italian cooking in Los Angeles. The entrees include fine-dining versions of Italian classics: risotto with porcini mushrooms, spinach lasagna, Veal Milanese and pasta with broccolini and salmoriglio.

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A bowl of Iowa corn used to make a yellow corn soup with sautéed crab and chives, prepared by Chef Luigi Fineo in the kitchen at RivaBella Ristorante, West Hollywood, Calif. Credit: David Latt

Reflecting his time spent in Santa Monica’s La Botte where he earned a Michelin star, Fineo also enjoys using the high-tech tools that are popular in many contemporary restaurant kitchens.

For his slow-cooked lamb shoulder ragù, he adds summer flavor with peaches he dehydrates, then rehydrates in a white wine bath flavored with cinnamon, anise and bay leaves. The handmade pappardelle he serves with the ragù is made with flour, flavored with a fine pistachio powder that is first frozen in liquid nitrogen before being  ground into the fine powder.

Of the corn, by the corn and for the corn

When I first tasted the corn soup at RivaBella, it was so velvety, I asked if heavy cream or butter were used. The answer was neither.

In his kitchen for the video demonstration, Chef Fineo explained that he did not need cream or butter to create his soup. All he needed was farm-fresh Iowa corn, a little water, a pinch or two of salt and a lot of stirring.

Usually when Fineo makes soups, he begins with a sauté of shallots and aromatics. Cooking with corn, he’s inclined to roast the kernels. But with this sweet corn, he decided he didn’t need to add flavor and he didn’t need to employ any high-tech machines. To prepare his corn soup, he would return to the basics he learned from his mother.

Yellow Sweet Corn Soup

Total Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Because, essentially there is only one ingredient, use high quality, fresh corn to create a soup that is healthy and delicious. When picking corn, choose ears that have green, healthy husks and kernels that are plump. If the kernels are indented or the husks are brown, choose different ears. In the restaurant, the soup is served with fresh crabmeat to enhance its upscale qualities. But Fineo recommends that the soup is a treat served entirely as a vegetarian or vegan dish.

Ingredients

  • 12 ears yellow corn, shucked, washed, pat dried
  • ¾ cup water
  • Sea salt to taste
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh chives
  • ½ cup crab meat, preferably crab leg meat (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon butter (optional)
  • 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (optional)
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper (optional)

Directions

  1. Using a sharp knife, cut the raw kernels from the cobs.
  2. Working in batches, two cups at a time, place the kernels into a large blender and blend with just enough water, about one tablespoon water for each cup of kernels. To create a vortex, if needed, add more water.
  3. Blend each batch about 45 seconds.
  4. Again, working in batches, strain the resulting corn mash through a chinois or a fine meshed strainer, capturing the liquid in a large bowl. To release all the liquid, press on the corn mash gently, using the back of a large ladle or large kitchen spoon.
  5. Transfer the corn juice to a large saucepan or small stock pot and place uncovered on the stove.
  6. Using high heat, bring the liquid to a boil and then lower to medium.
  7. Using a wire whisk, gently stir the liquid 30 to 40 minutes until reaching the desired thickness. Very importantly, the liquid must be stirred constantly to prevent the corn’s sugars from sticking to the bottom and burning.
  8. As the liquid thickens, lower the heat.
  9. Taste and add sea salt as desired. Serve hot, topped with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of finely chopped chives.
  10. Optionally, in a non-stick pan on low heat, sauté the crab pieces in olive oil or butter until crispy on all sides, then place one or two pieces on top of each bowl of soup and garnish with chives and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Instead of crab, Chef Fineo also recommends using shrimp or scallops.
  11. Season with a pinch of sea salt and black pepper. Drain the crab on a paper towel. Place on top of the soup. Drizzle with olive oil and finely chopped chives.

Main photo: Yellow corn soup with sautéed crab and chives. Credit: David Latt

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Cookbooks from the 1960s were written for an audience less familiar with wine. Credit: Emily Contois

Unlike today, the bustling U.S. wine industry was much less prosperous in the 1960s. After more than a decade of Prohibition, in the 1920s and early ’30s, America’s wine culture had to be remade to some extent in the latter half of the 20th century, not experiencing a rebirth until around the early 1970s. With wine knowledge and consumption relatively low, how did cookbooks from the 1960s talk about it?

A classic general advice cookbook, “The New Good Housekeeping Cookbook,” published in 1963, dedicates nearly 10 pages to the topic. Near the end of the 700-page tome, a section poetically titled, “When there is wine,” starts at square one in the most basic of fashions, asking and answering the question, “What is wine?” After getting readers up to speed that wine is fermented grape juice and reviewing the basics of viniculture, the editors keep their focus stateside, summarizing U.S. production in California, New York and Ohio.

Written for an audience less familiar with wine, Good Housekeeping’s advice works to gently persuade the novice to cook and serve it. The editors promise that wine “can brighten your meals, bring new zest to your cooking, and add new smartness to your entertaining.” Furthermore, editors offer assurances that even as newcomers, readers can buy, store, cook and serve the beverage with panache. If a reader is unfamiliar with wine, the editors recommend talking to a reliable dealer. Editors also soothe a hostess’ concerns about proper wine-food combinations, stating, “It’s perfectly correct to serve any wine any time you wish.” The next eight pages elaborate in dizzying detail, however, exactly how, when, why, and in what glasses wine should be served.

How Julia Child Taught Wine

First published in 1968, Julia Child’s “The French Chef Cookbook” urges readers to think about wine differently. “Notes on Wine” appear in the book’s introductory section, and as we would expect from the “French Chef,” Child takes a kind but firm hand from the start, instructing the reader that wines used for cooking need not be expensive, but must be good. Rather than building confidence through simplification or shifting responsibility for wine selection to a dealer, Child empowers the reader. She gives pointed suggestions, but also says, “You will have to search around and experiment yourself to find the right cooking wines at the right price.”

Just as she encouraged housewives to accept the challenge of French cooking over the false sense of accomplishment provided by doctoring up packaged foods, Child coaches readers, providing the detail they need to choose a wine, use it in cooking and serve it with meals, so that they too may know “what delight there is in the perfect combination.” At its most basic core, this delight resides within a marriage between food and beverage that will “bring out the taste of the wine” and “accentuate all the subtle flavors of the food.”

Always zealous when it comes to food, Child encourages readers to become devout and dedicated students of wine. While she describes wine consumption as a “pleasant hobby,” she recommends that readers get started by not only buying wines, but also sampling and discussing them, keeping notes of their impressions, reading and thinking about wines, and above all enjoying them.

The school year will be upon us before we know it. Will you become a student of wine?

Main photo: Cookbooks from the 1960s were written for an audience less familiar with wine. Credit: Emily Contois

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Jellied wine with summer fruit. Credit: Laurie Smith

A wine gelée, or jello, is one of my favorite desserts any time of year, but especially at the extreme times — a very hot summer day or a cold wintery one. Not that I wouldn’t take pleasure in biting into the translucent, quivering cubes of a jellied wine whenever the opportunity presents itself, but it’s the very hot and very cold days that I appreciate it as a dessert.

In the summer we don’t have much of an appetite for desserts that involve crusts and cream, so a light, glistening jellied wine with fruit is ideal. In winter we may have had an especially hearty meal so to end, again, with no crusts but the amber cubes of a jellied Marsala with a bit of cream poured over (or not) fits the desire to finish on a sweet note, but not a heavy one.

Just about any wine will do in wine gelée

In summer I make wine gelées with white wines, champagnes, Prosecco, Asti Spumante — anything a bit frizzante is good. Even a vino verde, which can seem a little tart on sipping, works well. A rosé makes a beautiful jellied bowl of wine as well.

Once it has set, I cut the jellied wine crosswise both ways to make sparkling cubes, then spoon them into individual clear glass or crystal cups, interspersed with raspberries, blackberries or grapes or white peaches or nectarines cut into small pieces. Alternatively you can fill glasses with fruit, then pour the still-warm wine around it and refrigerate until it sets. Turn them out or serve them in the glass.

Toward fall, still a warm time of year, I start mixing figs, raspberries and pomegranate seeds with the gelée. Or I serve the gelée with cut-up aromatic melons, such as Galia, Passport or Ogen. You could serve it in the cavity of a small Cavaillon. A late harvest Riesling would be a wonderful wine to use in the fall.

For winter I turn to heavier wines, like sherry and Marsala, or a red, such as a Zinfandel or American Pinot Noir. A glowing amber or plum jewel-like dish is what you end up with. Instead of fruit, you might choose to pour a little cream over the wine. A nut cookie on the side provides a bit of crunch.

Here’s a recipe that will work for any wine, really. It’s not sweetened but a bit, so add more if you like your desserts really sweet.

Broken Jellied Wine With Summer Fruit

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Setting Time: 4 hours to 6 hours

Total Time: 4 hours 10 minutes to 6 hours 10 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings, depending on the amount of fruit used.

Ingredients

  • 1 package gelatin
  • ⅓ to ½ cup sugar
  • 2 cups wine, divided
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 to 1½ cups fruit, cut or sliced into small pieces

Directions

  1. Sprinkle the gelatin over ¼ cup cold water and set it aside to soften.
  2. Combine the sugar with ½ cup of wine in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, then simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat, and then stir in the softened gelatin. Stir until it’s thoroughly dissolved, then pour it into the rest of the wine.
  3. Mix well, then pour into a bowl or compote dish and refrigerate until set. Wine seems to take longer to set than cream or fruit juices, so plan on at least six hours, or even overnight for a firm set.
  4. Chop the jelly into cubes then serve in the compote or in wine or champagne glasses interspersed with the fruit.

Notes

After the wine has set, chop it into cubes and slivers just before serving so the pieces sparkle and glisten. Then serve the broken gelatin in wine glasses, interspersing the pieces with ripe summer fruits. It can also be served plain.

Main photo: Jellied wine with summer fruit. Credit: Laurie Smith

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Baby Zucchini Quick-Pickles,

It’s August. If you have your own garden and you like baby zucchini as much as I, you know that while some food columns are handwringing about what to do with bumper crops of squash, you’re hoping there will be enough. You plant your seeds in spring, and check the emerging zucchini carefully on your daily morning rounds. They grow so fast, you can nearly hear them stretching, and you know that you have to be ready to snatch the babies — every one of them — from their vines when they are a tender three inches long, four at the most. (I will never understand why few, if any, farmers pick them that small, even if they are so prolific as to force them to be plowed them under.)

If you don’t, before you know it, the squash are the size of baseball bats. One day, you see the blossoms unfurling on slender stems, barely bulging on their umbilical buds and on the next, they’ve given birth to hulking squash when, as my friend and master gardener Joan Gussow says, “there’s nothing to be done but cut the monster from the vine and sneak it into someone’s unlocked car.”

If those Goliath zucchini are lurking in the back of your mind, take my advice: Ensure both quantity and quality by picking the pubescent offspring as I say, before they go on a drinking spree and get watery on an adolescent growth spurt. Not only is this petite size ideal for everything from fritters to poaching to sautéing to grilling, it is perfect for pickling.

Pining for pickles

I mention “pickling” somewhat wistfully because it wasn’t until well past August last year that Laurel Robertson, another serious gardener-friend of mine, mentioned her southern Italian mother-in-law’s baby zucchini pickle recipe, and I’ve had to wait a full year to make them.

Robertson had plenty of practice putting up zucchini when she married into an immigrant family from Calabria. She was a tender 18, as she tells it, when she met her first husband Dominick while working at a horse stable and moved with him from a cozy New York suburb into a milking parlor on 135 acres in rural Montgomery County. It was the late 1960s and early ’70s when Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” was in every hippie’s heart . . .

We are stardust

We are golden

And we’ve got to get ourselves

Back to the garden

Dominick planted plenty of  “cucuzze,” vernacular for the squashes the Calabrians love. His resourceful mother, born and bred on the rugged soil of Cosenza, was Robertson’s domestic muse. “She cooked all the time, and there were always sausages hanging in the attic, pasta being rolled out in the kitchen, homemade wine, and all kinds of pickles,” my friend said. “So I pickled and jammed, jammed and pickled, and put up food for the entire year.” Her strategy for the zucchini onslaught was to pick and pickle the squash when they were tiny. That solved the problem of bumper-crop burnout and assured prime preserves at the same time. “They were delicious and so different from other pickles,” she said.

Of course, I asked for the recipe on the spot, and I’ve been longing for those zucchini pickles for a year. I have finally put up my first batch, and now I know that next year I’ll have to plant twice as many zucchini as I usually do to keep my larder stocked throughout the year with these meaty conservi, as the Italians call them. I could eat a jar of them in one afternoon.

Baby zucchini and summer squash. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

Baby zucchini and summer squash. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

If you can’t get the tiny zucchini I’m raving about from your garden or the markets, you can slice any type of larger summer squash into typical cucumber-pickle size spears (but don’t bother with the spongy monsters — they do belong in the compost bin). If you know how to pickle, process them for the long haul using the proper screw-top jars, as you would any other vegetable. If you don’t, you can make a “quick-pickle” that will last a week in a refrigerator with no pickling expertise at all. They are so easy to make, anyone who can boil water can do it. Besides having the few simple ingredients, all you need is a jar that is tall enough to accommodate the height of the picklings (or you can cut the zucchini into coins). Whichever pickle you choose, here is Robertson’s recipe, inspired by Rosa Gualano’s fiery Calabrian-style pickles.

Baby Zucchini Quick-Pickles

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: Makes 1 quart, or 4 to 6 servings

Select small tender squash about 3 to 5 inches long, preferably all the same size. You will get 6 to 8 of them in each quart jar, packing them tightly. Distilled vinegar is best because it is colorless and doesn’t muddy the clearness of the brine. Use Kosher salt, not table salt, which contain anti-caking agents that can cloud the brine. Sea salt, with its natural minerals, is an asset in cooking, but those elements can interfere with the pickling process. This recipe fills a 1-quart jar with zucchini or summer squash pickles. For larger quantities, increase the ingredients proportionately based on the number of quart jars you plan to fill.

Ingredients

  • 6 to 8 baby zucchini or summer squash, or larger zucchini, sliced lengthwise or crosswise to fit into the quart-jar
  • ½ teaspoon Kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 3 fresh basil leaves
  • Fresh hot red pepper such as Fresno or Thai chilies, optional
  • ½ cup white vinegar
  • ½ cup water
  • 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced lengthwise
  • Equipment for quick-pickling: any boil-proof glass jar with a lid.

Directions

  1. Wash the zucchini very well in cold running water, using a soft brush or cloth to remove any grit without damaging the skin. If the squash are 3 to 5 inches, use them whole. Slice off any brown coloring at the bulbous end. Trim the stem end slightly to make each the same length but leave it intact. If using larger zucchini, cut them in half lengthwise to fit into the jar or slice them into coins. Pack them snugly into quart jars to about 1 ¼ inch from the rim. Add the salt and cayenne pepper. Slip in the garlic slices, basil leaves, and hot red pepper, if using.
  2. Combine the vinegar and water in a stainless steel or other non-reactive pot and heat to a boil.
  3. Pour the boiling hot vinegar-water mixture over the zucchini to 1 inch from the rim. Seal the jar with its lid or cap. When the jar has cooled completely, store the jar in the refrigerator. The pickles are ready to eat in about 3 days. They can be kept, chilled, for up to a week.

Notes

Variation for long-term pickling:

Use proper quart-size glass canning jars with screw tops with vacuum lids appropriate for safe pickling. Discard any jars that are chipped. Fill them as for quick-pickling and bring the vinegar and water mixture to a boil. Pour the boiling hot mixture over the zucchini to 1 inch from the rim. In a tall pot, preferably a canning kettle, boil enough water to cover the jar. Cap the jars and do not over-tighten. You want the hot air to escape but you do not want water to enter the jar. Place the jar in the pot and bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove jars to a rack, cover with a towel to protect it from drafts. In about an hour when the jars cool you will hear the lids click as they seal. Tighten the rings and store. If the lids do not seal, keep the pickles in the fridge for up to a week.

Main photo: Baby Zucchini Quick-Pickles, “The Vegetable Chronicles,” by Julia della Croce. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

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