Bottarga. Credit: Illustration by Elisabeth Luard

“Please taste our bottarga,” the Armani-clad saleswoman said in the sophisticated produce boutique in Via Cavour in Cagliari, Sardinia’s harbor capital.

Like all the islands of the Mediterranean, Sardinia, a region of Italy, has never lost its individuality in food ways, including a version of North Africa’s couscous, fregola, and bottarga, a salt-cured, sun-dried mullet roe whose origin is said to be Tunisia.

My visit was in mid-October of last year, and the Sardinian sky was blue but the wind was icy — a reason to take shelter in a shop that most surely sells overpriced foodstuffs to tourists.

I had no intention of spending my euros on fancy olive oils or walnuts preserved in honey. But bottarga is another matter.

Proffered with smiling courtesy on the blade of a cut-throat knife was a translucent reddish sliver of the real thing — a dehydrated, wax-coated, double-lobed egg sac of gray mullet, a middle-sized, torpedo-shaped, blunt-nosed, small-mouthed, seaweed-eating, opportunist bottom-feeder that floats amiably around harbors and yacht basins throughout the Mediterranean (and, incidentally, on the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S.). The rest of the fish is good eating, but the prize is the roe.

I tasted the bottarga, and the sliver covered no more than the tip of the tongue, but the flavor was concentrated, powerful, pungent, salty and sweet like caramelized sea spray. The texture was silky and chewy, like toffee.

Whatever the cost, I needed to have more. That’s what umami does to you — well, maybe not everyone, but anyone who’s ever tasted a perfect truffle fresh from the earth on a Tuscan hillside or eaten caviar from a silver spoon on a millionaire’s yacht. See what I mean?

“It’s — well, delicious,” I said. The woman nodded. “Of course,” she said.

She knew I was hooked. No need for her to explain that it was the new season’s supply. That the dealers come from the mainland and by Christmas it’ll be gone. That I’ll find it in other places — Sicily and Corsica, Italy; Greece; Turkey; and, of course, Tunisia — but this is the best.

I buy it. Of course I do.

So how do the Sardinians themselves like to eat their bottarga?

The woman in Armani smiles. “Perhaps with carta di musica, the thin pita breads we make in Sardinia. But for myself, I like it grated on the pasta instead of cheese. Or over a risotto or a bowl of fregola, Sardinian couscous, when the fishermen’s nets are empty. And it’s good on a salad of orange and raw onion, or with a sauce of dried figs or pistachios. Sardinian cooking is very practical. We use what we have. But best of all I like it like this — straight from the knife.”

Bottarga basics

Bottarga can be bought whole or grated in a jar, in which case you can be sure it’s dried stock from last year. In cooking, treat it as you would well-aged Parmesan — for finishing and adding a little protein to grain dishes. You can use it to prepare taramasalata, but it’ll need a good whizzing with water to soften it before proceeding with your usual recipe.

Fregola With Soffritto and Bottarga

Fregola, Sardinia’s large-grain couscous, is toasted for additional shelf life and is uneven in size and color. It’s traditional in the southern region around Cagliari (you won’t find it in the north) and has a deliciously caramelized flavor that perfectly complements the sweetness of the fish roe. If you can’t find fregola, use pasta rather than another kind of couscous.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

Fregola With Bottarga. Credit: Illustration by Elisabeth Luard

Fregola With Bottarga. Credit: Illustration by Elisabeth Luard

1 medium onion, finely slivered

2 to 3 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped

4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil

10 ounces fregola

3 to 4 ounces (1 wing) bottarga

Salt and pepper

For finishing:

Parsley

Lemon juice

Directions

1. Cook the onion and garlic very gently in the oil till it softens and gilds; take your time and don’t let it brown. This resulting mixture is the soffritto. Season the soffritto with salt and pepper.

2. Meanwhile, cook the fregola (or pasta) in plenty of boiling, salted water till tender — about 10 to 12 minutes — then drain and fork it up to separate the grains.

3. Toss lightly with the soffritto and top with fine shreds of bottarga. Finish with chopped parsley and a few drops of lemon juice.

Spaghetti With Dried Figs and Bottarga

This very Sardinian combination of dried fruit and fish can be used to dress any pasta. In winter, a salad of orange segments and raw onion can be finished with bottarga.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

2 to 3 dried figs, soaked to swell

4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

10 ounces spaghetti

1 wing of finely sliced bottarga (or 2 tablespoons grated)

Directions

1. Dice the figs and cook gently in olive oil until they soften to a cream. Season with pepper and a little salt and reserve.

2. Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in plenty of boiling, salted water till tender but still a little firm in the middle, then drain, leaving it a little damp. Toss the figgy sauce with the spaghetti in a warm bowl and top with the bottarga.

Linguine With Pistachios and Bottarga

This is a simple combination of homegrown Sardinian ingredients. If the bottarga is very hard, soften it in a little hot oil before you use it as a dressing.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 garlic clove

2 ounces shelled pistachios, roughly chopped

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

12 ounces fresh linguine

Salt and pepper to taste

3 to 4 tablespoons grated bottarga

Directions

1. Heat the oil in a small frying pan and fry the garlic clove till it takes a little color and perfumes the oil.

2. Add chopped pistachios and stir over a gentle heat till the nuts are lightly toasted. Stir in the parsley and remove from the heat.

3. Meanwhile, cook the pasta in plenty of boiling, salted water, drain and transfer to a warm serving bowl.

4. Toss the pasta with the pistachio dressing, season to taste with salt and pepper, and finish with grated bottarga.

Main illustration: Bottarga. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

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The Jack-o-Potion combines cachaça and cranberry. Credit: Owl's Brew.

Halloween may mean trick or treating for the kids, but as adults we also like to get into the holiday spirit (or spirits, as the case may be). If you are thinking of hosting a fun cocktail party for your friends, how do you really blow them away? With delicious treats and cocktails, of course. Anyone can serve wine, or a simple vodka soda, but these fun and festive drinks will leave a lasting impression on your guests.

The liqueurs below easily pair with a few other ingredients to give your guests a great treat this Halloween.

Owl’s Brew is the first ready-to-pour tea mixer — it is fresh brewed in micro-batches and all three flavors are designed to pair with a wide range of spirits, as well as beer and wine. This “tea crafted for cocktails” is making craft cocktails accessible to the at-home mixologist.

Pick Your Poison

2 parts Owl’s Brew Pink & Black

1 part white rum

Garnish: Orange slice and strawberry

Brew-Haha

2 parts Owl’s Brew The Classic

1 part tequila

Shake with jalapeño slices

Spooky Garnish: Green sugar rim

If you are looking to put your mixologist skills to the test and want some nontraditional recipes and new spirits to try, we have pulled together some other interesting recipes. Cachaça is one of the fastest growing spirits in the country, so why not test these recipes during a fun holiday. Everyone will be impressed with your newfound skills this Halloween.

The Witches Martini combines cachaça, apple cider, elderflower liqueur and lime juice. Credit: Owl's Brew.

The Witches Martini combines cachaça, apple cider, elderflower liqueur and lime juice. Credit: Owl’s Brew.

Witches Martini

2 ounces cachaça (Cuca Fresca Prata used here)

2½ ounces fresh apple cider

½ ounce elderflower liqueur

½ ounce fresh lime juice

Combine all ingredients in an ice-filled shaker and shake well. Strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with a cinnamon stick.

Jack-o-Potion 

This amazing cocktail is simple, but definitely a crowd pleaser. It is deliciously light and also very aromatic. Light the tip of the rosemary garnish for extra flare!

2 ounces cachaça

2 ounces cranberry juice

1 ounce fresh lime juice

1 ounce simple syrup (1 part sugar, 1 part water)

Combine all ingredients in an ice-filled shaker. Shake well and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a fresh piece of rosemary with a fresh cranberry on the end.

Mama’s Bite Margarita 

This tequila is infused with pineapple, mango and chili peppers, which gives it a nice kick. Credit: Owl's Brew.

This tequila is infused with pineapple, mango and chili peppers, which gives it a nice kick. Credit: Owl’s Brew.

If you are really interested in kicking it up a notch, this drink is from Mama’s Boy brands. Its tequila not only tastes smooth, but has a nice kick and flavor to it since it’s infused with pineapple, mango and chili peppers.

2 ounces Mama’s Boy tequila

1 teaspoon agave

½ ounce pineapple juice

½ ounce lime juice

Shake and strain over ice with a  sweet and spicy chili rim

Main photo: The Jack-o-Potion combines cachaça and cranberry juice. Credit: Owl’s Brew.

 

 

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Mussels. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

When I was growing up in Maine, mussels were poor folks’ food, an archetypical trash fish. Searching old New England cookbooks, you’d be hard-pressed to find a mention of mussels, though clams, crabs, even whelks are conspicuous.

I always remember my mother’s admonition when she spied the Baptist minister’s wife gleaning mussels from a rocky ledge near the beach where we spent sunny summer days. “There,” said my mother, always alert to social distinctions, “you see how poor the Baptists are — the minister has to eat mussels!”

I was well into my 20s and a long way from Maine before I dared tackle the suspect bivalves. And I was won over immediately. Compared to the chewy chowder clams I was used to, the plump, briny taste and soft texture of mussels were revelatory.

The tide turns on mussels

If mussels were poor folks’ food in Maine, in New York, where I gravitated as soon as I could get away from New England, one of the classiest items in town was Billi Bi soup, a delectable concoction of mussels simmered in loads of wine and cream, their briny broth thickened to velvet and rich with egg yolks. It was the toast of the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel back in the day, though nowadays it seems to have disappeared from the menu at that venerable institution.

New York’s mussel love may have had to do with the impact of immigrant populations on local cuisine. Greek, Italian and French cooks all have a natural appreciation for the mollusk. Still, Julia Child was advised, when working on the manuscript of what would become “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” that many Americans considered mussels to be downright poisonous.

Fearlessly, however, she included several recipes. And whether it was owing to Child’s influence or the growth of American travel abroad and investigation of more sophisticated cuisines, we were soon a nation convinced, and mussels today are as common as … well, they still don’t make the list of America’s 10 favorite fish, but there’s hardly a seafood restaurant anywhere that doesn’t have mussels on the menu year round.

Perhaps it’s because of the availability of aquacultured mussels. Even though mussels have been farmed for centuries, production in North America started to climb only in the 1990s and really took off after the turn of the century. Today’s minister’s wife is less apt to scavenge and more likely to dine on acquacultured mussels produced by the process of rope culture, which simply means long ropes that hang in orderly rows in clean, salty water, whether close in or offshore. The mussels, which start as seed hanging in mesh bags, eventually attach themselves to the ropes before growing to market size. This is a boon for cooks, because it means the tiresome practice of rinsing and purging the critters over and over and over again to get rid of sand is no longer necessary.

Cooks today have only to rinse mussels in a colander under running water then pull away and discard the beard — that whiskery, weedy stuff between the shells that attaches the mussel to its bed and comes off with a stout tug.

There are actually two types of mussels, the most common being Atlantic blue mussels, Mytilus edulis. This is the one most likely to be found in good fish markets, usually sold by the pound or by the quart in mesh bags. They’re grown widely along the Northeast coast, but especially in Maine and off Prince Edward Island. Bang’s Island mussels from Casco Bay, Maine, are a current favorite with many New England chefs (available from Harbor Fish Market in Portland). But the other kind, the Mediterranean black mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis), is also available, farmed in the cold waters of Washington’s Puget Sound. I recently had a shipment from Taylor Shellfish Farms in Washington, where Mediterranean mussels are currently on offer for $4.95 a pound — but be advised that overnight shipping, which is necessary, can add a lot to that cost. It makes sense to plan a big mussel feed and order a lot.

The black mussels were delicious — succulent, plump, tasty, every bit as exciting as those long-ago ones I sampled in New York and probably even better than what the Baptist minister’s wife was foraging on the ledge above the beach.

Mussels, as mentioned earlier, need only a quick rinse and de-bearding before they’re ready to cook. They should be cooked while still alive. Discard any with cracked shells, or that don’t close up their shells when lightly tapped against the side of the sink — a sign they’ve gone to mussel heaven.

I turned the Mediterranean mussels into what I like to think is a classic southern Italian pasta, even though I actually made up the dish on the spur of the moment to take advantage of their sparkling freshness.

Cavatelli With Mussels and Saffron Potatoes

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 35 minutes

Total time: 50 minutes

Yield: Makes enough for 4 main-course servings, 6 servings as a primo or first course

Ingredients

Cavatelli With Mussels and Saffron Potatoes. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Cavatelli With Mussels and Saffron Potatoes. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

5 pounds mussels (about 4 quarts)

3 stalks celery, diced to make about ½ cup

1 large shallot, diced to make about ½ cup

½ medium fennel bulb, diced to make about ½ cup

2 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped

½ cup extra virgin olive oil, divided

Small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, minced, to make ¼ cup, plus a few extra parsley leaves for a garnish

1½ cups dry white wine

1 pound waxy potatoes (fingerlings, yellow Finns or similar), diced small

Big pinch of saffron

Pinch of ground dried red chili such as piment d’Espelette or Aleppo pepper

½ pound cavatelli pasta

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Rinse the mussels under running water, pulling off beards. Set aside.

2. Combine celery, shallot, fennel, and garlic in a pan large enough to hold all the mussels. Stir in ¼ cup of olive oil and set over medium low heat. Cook gently while stirring until the vegetables are soft, then stir in minced parsley.

3. Add the wine and bring to a simmer. Tip in the cleaned mussels and cook, stirring occasionally to bring up the ones on the bottom, until all the mussels have opened. As they open, extract them and set aside in a deep plate or bowl. If after about 15 minutes there are still a few mussels that stubbornly refuse to open, discard them. Turn off the heat under the pan but keep it in a warm place.

4. In a separate skillet, combine the diced potatoes with the remaining oil and set over medium heat. Cook, stirring and tossing, until the potatoes start to brown along their edges. Toss the lightly browned potatoes into the mussel broth, adding the saffron and chili, and return the mussel pan to low heat to finish cooking the potatoes, just simmering them in the broth.

5. While the potatoes are finishing, shuck the mussels, discarding the shells. Add the shucked mussels to the potatoes, along with the saffron and chili.

6. Bring salted water to a boil in a pan and add the pasta. Cook until the pasta is almost al dente, then strain it and stir it into the mussel-potato combination. By this time the potatoes should be soft.

7. Add salt and plenty of black pepper, then taste and adjust the seasoning to taste. Serve immediately, either as a soup or as a pasta, garnishing with the whole parsley leaves.

Main photo: Mussels. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Macun

Macuncu are lollipop crafters, twirlers of stretchy, sweet, colorful syrups that are pooled in a deeply wedged tin that rests atop a folding tray. Their storefront is the street. Their shingle is a signature pull of glistening fruit and herb-stained syrups. It takes maybe 90 seconds for a macuncu to make a macun — a lollipop of Ottoman origin that dates back half a millennium.

I connected with that tradition last summer when I met Banu Özden of Yemek Sanatlari Merkezi, the Culinary Arts Center of Istanbul. At the time, I was curating a collection of international food craft tools. Özden was presenting an extraordinary visual archive of vessels and tools used by Istanbul’s street vendors over the past 200 years. I was thoroughly taken by the design ingenuity and material variety of the vendors. It seemed right to launch a series on food craft tools with this gem from the storied city that straddles two continents.

A SLICE OF LIFE


A series on international food craft tools

Next: Cane pressing tools, a profile of an American sugarcane mill

“It’s not taffy, it’s sticky stuff,” says Elchin Orer, an Eskişehir-raised, Washington, D.C.-based artist and interior designer, correcting my shorthand for macun. “It’s more of a heavy syrup that stays on the stick while you lick it. Kids love it. The vendors used to set up outside of school and we’d get one stick for 5 cents.”

Turkish yarn purveyor and master knitter Aylin Bener of İzmir agreed. She recalled the macuncus being as much a part of the school day as classroom instructors. “When school let out, he was there. Same vendor, same place, at the same time, every day. You don’t ask questions, you just expect him to be there to give you sweets!” To talk with Turks of a certain generation about macun is to understand the fleeting transaction as a total sensory experience. Buying macun and watching it crafted from a pinwheel of glistening sugar was as much fun as eating it.

A macuncu’s actions are like a conductor’s — rhythmic and knowing. With a syrup pull, called macun mablağı, in one hand and a wooden lollipop stick in another, macuncus lift, dollop, spin, pull, dip and repeat until their customer has the macun of their choice. No clunky globs, just elegant lines of jewel-toned syrups forming a corkscrew of up to five distinct tastes. Perhaps a crimson swirl made from cornelian cherry juice rests under a limey emerald twist — both topped with a glossy ivory spiral that’s heady with cinnamon or rose.

The ingredients for macun are quite simple: caster sugar, water, cream of tartar, citric acid and “the aromas” — which are usually spices or fruit essences. And, when needed, food coloring — often still naturally derived, though some vendors use synthetic colorants. The sugar, water, cream of tartar and citric acid are stirred together over a low heat until the sugar melts and the mixture begins to bubble. The heat is then turned off and an aroma and a natural coloring are added and mixed thoroughly. The whole sticky batch is then poured into one of the five sections of the macun tray. This process is repeated by the macuncu until his tray, his macun tepsisi, is filled with the flavors he wants to offer.

The tools of the itinerant macuncu are equally as simple: a tray, a holder, syrup pulls and candy sticks. The trays, called macun tepsisi, are large metal rounds several inches deep. As Özden explained, macun trays always have six sections: five that are triangular and form the syrup compartments and one small center bowl that cradles a lemon half. Originally they were produced by Ottoman coppersmiths who finished them in a customary tin dip (tinned copper).

Nowadays, given the rise in food service regulations, the glut of factory-prepared sweets and the decline of macuncus, Özden said that the macun tepsisi are almost always stainless steel, produced to code by just a handful of stainless-steel kitchen-supply manufacturers.

The syrup dipsticks — the macuncu’s conductor batons are called macun mablağı and they range from pantry butter knife to intricate wood-handled stainless-steel skewers depending on the location, means and style of the macuncu. Finally, before a freshly swirled macun is handed over to a customer, it is passed over a juicy lemon half at the center of the tray both for the tart flourish and to tighten the syrupy swirls.

Macuncu. Credit: Banu Özden, Turkish Cultural Foundation Yemek Sanatlari Merkezi

Macuncu. Credit: Banu Özden, Turkish Cultural Foundation Yemek Sanatlari Merkezi

The history of macun

While it is nostalgically recollected as an after-school treat (and now a touristic event), macun’s origins are medicinal. Much like an amaro or an herbal electuary, the original, “supreme” macun candy, mesir macunu, was a vehicle for a potent blend of curative digestive herbs, with the sugar acting as a preservative. A true elixir, it was a remedy for all that ailed one.

According to history, legend and Ottoman pharmacopeia, Hafsa Sultan, the mother of Suleiman the Magnificent was afflicted with a mysterious illness, incurable by court physicians, masseurs, cooks, the clergy. … Finally, a local pharmacist created mesir macunu, a special mix of herbs macerated in a sugary paste. The ambrosial medicine cured Hafsa Sultan.

Both the Queen Mother and Suleiman became evangelists of mesir macunu, and they began a tradition that continues today (the 474th Annual Manisa Mesir Festival took place in the spring of 2014) of preparing enough mesir macunu for their subjects’ well-being. Recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the festival involves a bevy of chefs replicating (by the ton) the ancient recipe of 41 spices and herbs. Once mixed, the mesir macunu is cut and wrapped by a designated team of women who then pass the candies along to imams that bless the candy before it is tossed to crowds from the Sultan Mosque’s minaret and domes.

Certainly, the street-side version, made with flourish and attention to craft, is as good for the daily spirit.

Main photo: Macun. Credit: Wikimedia / Nosferatü

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Jack-o'-lantern. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

Halloween is observed in countries around the world, but probably no one celebrates it with the gusto that the U.S. does: the gallows pranks; the ghoulish parades and masked parties; the trick-or-treating in costumes. And then there is the ubiquitous grinning jack-o’-lantern, carved from the season’s plentiful pumpkins.

What has come to represent Halloween more than the pumpkin? It doesn’t matter if it’s the jack-o’-lantern or pumpkin candy, pumpkin-head ghosts or the pumpkin-hurling headless horseman of Washington Irving legend (whose Sleepy Hollow grave I can all but see from my front porch). Cucurbita pepo, cultivar of the squash plant, is emblematic of the one day in the year when we mock the specter of death.

Along with the spirit of Halloween goes a devil-may-care attitude about eating sweets. What’s a Halloween vigil without pumpkin-themed treats? For those who’ve outgrown the candy corn and pumpkin marshmallows, why not go Greek for Halloween with baklava — pumpkin baklava, that is. If you like that flaky pastry, you might enjoy this lightened version even more.

For an American spin on an ancient classic, I can’t think of a better trick than to slip the proverbial pumpkin between the buttery layers of this autumnal treat. Here’s the recipe that a fine New Jersey cook and baker, the late Matina Colombotos, a second-generation Greek-American, taught me one October 30 years ago.

Pumpkin baklava with honey-walnut topping.

Pumpkin baklava with honey-walnut topping. Credit: Tom Hopkins

Matina’s Pumpkin or Squash Baklava With Honey-Walnut Topping

Baklava is a traditional nut-filled pastry that is soaked with honey or syrup. Matina layered the phyllo sheets with a sweetened squash mixture and drizzled a little honey over the baked pastry. To keep the phyllo moist while you work with it, cover the sheets with foil or waxed paper and then with a barely damp towel. Leftover phyllo can be wrapped, sealed tightly and refrigerated up to three days.

Prep Time: 1½ hours

Cooking Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Total Time: about 2 hours, 45 minutes

Yield: 18 pastries

Ingredients

2 pounds pie pumpkin or butternut squash, halved, seeded, peeled and coarsely grated (about 7 cups)

½ teaspoon salt

⅓ cup light brown sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

⅛ teaspoon nutmeg

24 phyllo sheets (13 inches by 9 inches each), thawed following package instructions

10 tablespoons butter, melted

1 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped fine (4½ ounces)

½ cup golden raisins (3 ounces)

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 375 F.

For the baklava:

2. Mix the squash and ½ teaspoon salt in a large colander set in the sink; let stand 45 minutes, frequently pressing on squash with the back of a spoon to release excess moisture. Transfer drained squash to a large bowl. Add brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg; toss to combine.

3. Place 1 sheet of phyllo in a buttered 13-by-9-inch baking pan. Brush phyllo sheet with some of the melted butter. Place a second sheet of phyllo over the first sheet and, again, brush with some of the melted butter. Repeat layering with 10 more sheets of phyllo, brushing each sheet with butter.

4. Spread squash mixture evenly over the layered phyllo and then sprinkle walnuts and raisins over the squash mixture. Place another sheet of phyllo over the squash mixture. Brush the phyllo sheet with melted butter. Repeat layering with remaining 11 sheets of phyllo, brushing each with butter.

5. With the long edge of the pan positioned toward you, cut the baklava, from top to bottom, into six strips that are about 2 inches wide. Turn the pan, short edge toward you, and cut the baklava into three 3-inch wide strips to make a total of 18 rectangles.

6. Adjust oven rack to the middle position. Bake 40 minutes; then reduce the oven temperature to 350 F and bake until the phyllo leave are golden, about 30 minutes longer.

For the topping:

7. Drizzle warm baklava with honey and sprinkle with walnuts. Cool slightly. Serve. (You can cool it completely, cover and store at room temperature up to two days.)

Main photo: Jack-o’-lantern. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

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Cynthia Hayes is the founder of the Southeastern African American Organic Network, or SAAFON, based in Savannah, Ga. Credit: Sarah Khan

The demographics of the United States reflect an increasingly global world, and so do the demographics of our farm operators. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released the nearly complete Agriculture Census for 2012, a database that is completed every five years.

FARMERS OF COLOR


 A three-part series to make visible the lives of the invisible

Part 1: Data, maps and a history of exclusion from land ownership.

Part 2: Female farmers of color.

Part 3: In moving pictures, farmers of color talk about their work, challenges and dreams in three short videos.

With each update to the census, the type of statistical information available increases, in particular in the area of farmers of color. Yet, a simple Google search on basic statistics and stories about Native American farmers or African-American female farmers, for example, uncovers few detailed stories.

More often than not, the information that can be found is about those who dominate the agriculture industry — white male farm operators. Numbers often determine what and who is covered in depth. But equally true is that this country has a long history of institutional exclusion and racism against Native American and African-American farmers, other farmers of color and women. Yet it is Native American and African-American farmers and their ecological knowledge of farming traditions that built this country.

Data on farmers of color in the United States

In the United States, the vast majority of farmers continue to be white men, but the number of farmers of color is increasing.

More than 80% of all principal farm operators in the U.S. — the person primarily responsible for the on-site, day-to-day operation of a farm or ranch, as defined by the USDA — are white men (1.7 million out of a total of 2.1 million), according to the 2012 Census. Of the total principal operators nationwide, 95 percent are white, including 96% of male farmers and 93% of female farmers.

farm1

farm1
Picture 1 of 3

Credit: Sarah Khan

Between 2007 and 2012 — the period included in the 2012 Agriculture Census — every category of minority principal farm operators increased. Latinos farmers increased significantly, followed by American Indian, African-American, Asian, multiracial and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders.

Where are these farmers of color — in what states and counties do they farm? This series of  four informational maps shows the top five states where farmers of color – Native American, African-American, Latino and Asian — are growing roots by county and state.

farm3

Credit: Sarah Khan

farm5

Credit: Sarah Khan

farm4

Credit: Sarah Khan

farm6

Credit: Sarah Khan

Historical exclusion of farmers

Civil rights abuses in USDA state offices existed from the agency’s inception, based on a 1997 USDA-commissioned investigation,”Civil Rights at the United States Department of Agriculture” and the General Accounting Office’s 2008 report “U.S. Department of Agriculture: Recommendations and Options to Address Management Deficiencies in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.” More recently, the nation witnessed the Pigford I and II settlements, class-action racial discrimination lawsuits filed by black farmers who were denied loans and other federal aid between 1981and 1996. Many farmers included in the settlement are still awaiting disbursement.

The Pigford settlements, which lately have been mired in accusations of fraud, highlight the country’s ongoing divisive stance about race and reparations. Meanwhile, other groups, including Latino, Native American and female farmers are seeking compensation and awaiting judgment or payment.

To quell growing discontent about reporting civil rights complaints, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack produced a civil rights fact sheet on “USDA Accomplishments 2009-2012.” As of July 2014, the USDA has announced grants to help veteran and farmers of color get started in the industry. Despite these efforts, a profound distrust of USDA offices and officials continues.

Reparations and the white environmental movement

Ta-Nehisi Coates recently published a piece on “The Case for Reparations” in the May 2014 issue of Atlantic. Coates begins by explaining how government programs, instituted from the end of slavery to the present, systematically denied, stole or swindled African-Americans out of their land and home ownership.

In June 2014, Carolyn Finney, a geographer at the University of California Berkeley, published Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African-Americans to the Great Outdoors in which she redefines African-Americans’ long and profound relationship to the environmental movement, though it has largely been invisible or ignored. Through her own family’s story of land dispossession and those of others, Finney has collected the stories of unseen pioneering African-Americans and their diverse connection and commitment to the great outdoors. Her research reinserts African Americans back into the predominantly white environmental movement narrative in the United States.

And finally, the Green 2.0 Working Group published The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations & Government Agencies in June. The report concluded that a green ceiling for people of color; unconscious bias, discrimination, and insular recruiting practices; and a lackluster effort and disinterest in addressing diversity still exist in environmental organizations across the country.

Finney’s book, Coates’ article and The State of Diversity In Environmental Organizations Report reveal a historical context that have allowed exclusion to persist to this day. Both Finney and Coates begin and end with land ownership and dispossession, and both elegantly shine a light on African-Americans and other people of color. They make visible the invisible, and they make people of color the main story.

Main photo: Cynthia Hayes is the founder of the Southeastern African American Organic Network, or SAAFON, based in Savannah, Ga. Credit: Sarah Khan

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Garlic tasting leads to a euphoria that is similar to a wine tasting. Credit: Terra Brockman

If you shop in mainstream grocery stores, you have probably only eaten one variety of garlic — or maybe two, California Early and California Late. Both are soft-neck cultivars with a middle-of-the-road flavor.

But there are hundreds of garlic varieties, and more and more small farmers are growing the pungent hard-neck cultivars, as well as other soft-neck cultivars from around the world. And what better way to experience a world of garlic flavors than to do a side-by-side garlic taste test.

I recently was host of such a garlic tasting with friends, neighbors and farm hands. We prepared eight garlic varieties, and with the seriousness of a wine-tasting, recorded the aroma and taste of each variety, raw and roasted.

As it turned out, tasting that much garlic over an hour or so led to euphoric and mildly mind-altering effects similar to those you might experience tasting wine. We also learned that the taste of a raw clove can depend on whether you get an outer surface slice or an inner core slice (the latter is much hotter). And we learned that taste is also dependent on how soon after harvest you are eating the garlic, since it is juicier and milder when it’s first harvested, and as it dries down, the flavors get concentrated. Growing conditions also affect taste, and in some weather and soil conditions, traditionally hot garlic can be mild, and mild garlic can turn hot.

All of which is to say, after reading our tasting notes below, go out on your own or with some friends to explore the wide world of garlic. You might even want to work your way through the 293 varieties of garlic gathered from around the world and kept at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s collection in Pullman, Wash.

FRENCH RED (Hardneck, Rocambole Type)

Aroma: Light and tangy, spicy

Taste (raw): Immediate bite on tongue like a hot radish; crunchy jicama texture; refined flavor after the initial hot burst; nicely balanced

Taste (roasted): Very mild; almost no garlic flavor; very faded; reminiscent of mashed potato with mild garlic butter

GERMAN EXTRA HARDY (Hardneck, Porcelain Type)

Aroma: Almost no aroma

Taste (raw): Very hot; sticks with you; long burn; mineral, iron, blood overtones; unashamed and ready for action

Taste (roasted): Caramelized; like a sweet garlic pudding

GERMAN RED (HARDNECK, Rocambole Type)

Aroma: Strong, classic garlic

Taste (raw): Mellow beginning, spice creeps up later; very delayed reaction with strong kick at the end; warming, buttery flavors before the kick

Taste (roasted): One of the very best when roasted; crème brulee with a hint of earthy musk

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Garlic tasting lineup. Credit: Terra Brockman

INCHELIUM RED (Softneck, Artichoke type, found on the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington) 

Aroma: Mild garlic aroma

Taste (raw): Very mild taste but with a major kick at the end; fairly one-dimensional, somewhat sterile, watered-down garlic flavor

Taste (roasted): Sweet but not interesting; reminiscent of Wheaties or puffed rice that sat in milk too long

KOREAN RED HOT (Hardneck, Rocambole type)

Aroma: A lot going on, deep, complex, varied, and very hard-to-define aromas

Taste (raw): Sassy! Complexity of a good Sriracha; complex with end kick of heat and a hint of chives

Taste (roasted): Complex and balanced; dressed or undressed, hands down the best; even vampires can’t resist it

MUSIC (Hardneck, Porcelain type, Italian variety brought to Canada by Al Music in the 1980s)

Aroma: Mild, crisp aromas

Taste (raw): Very crisp crunch; earthy, smoky, round flavors; a little bit of a radish bite and slight end kick; very delayed response, medium horse radish heat; wasabi factor up your nose, volatile elements take over nasal passages, pervasive, invasive, good for sinus issues

Taste (roasted): Sweet and pungent

NEW YORK WHITE (Softneck variety)

Aroma: Nice perfume.

Taste (raw): Very intense bite/burn, really sharp, very hot at first, then long slow mellowing; spicy and lingering

Taste (roasted): Garlic’s garlic, hint of licorice, nice balance, retains its kick even when roasted

RUSSIAN RED (Hardneck, Rocambole type)

Aroma: Spicy and earthy

Taste (raw): Very strong flavor and the most heat of all, burns entire inside of mouth, almost painful, ooh mama, I’m completely buzzed

Taste (roasted): Floral and nicely balanced.

And the overall winner at our garlic tasting was . . . Korean Red Hot. But don’t take our word for it. Seek out a half-dozen varieties from local farmers and do your own taste test.

Main photo: Garlic-tasting leads to a euphoria that is similar to a wine tasting. Credit: Terra Brockman

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Ground zero for heritage seed savers: Jefferson’s Monticello. Credit: Susan Lutz

Row after row of tomatoes fairly glowed from the wooden folding tables: pointy tipped Pittman Valley Plums, pale yellow Dr. Carolyns, globe-shaped Nepals and hearty Cherokee Purples. It was a rainbow-like assortment of 100 varieties that bore little resemblance to the bland, identical crimson globes in the supermarket aisle. The crowd was enthusiastic as it tasted, shared, argued and traded information, specimens and seeds.

I was at Monticello’s Harvest Festival at the tomato tables of  The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, an organization at the forefront of the heritage seed movement. It’s been working with gardeners and seed savers for nearly 40 years to help preserve our garden and food heritage. And there’s possibly no better place to celebrate these goals than the home of Thomas Jefferson, America’s Founding Foodie.

Now in its eighth year, Monticello’s Harvest Festival was founded by Ira Wallace, one of the current owner/workers of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. The festival, hosted by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, is a mixing bowl for chefs, gardeners and seed savers from across the country. For Wallace, it’s a community-building experience. Wallace admits that working in the sustainable food world can be tough sometimes, but that the festival is a great reminder of why she does what she does.

“Some days you feel really lonely and now I’ve found my tribe,” she said.

That tribe is a fascinating one that places passionate amateur and international experts on equal footing. At Monticello, I witnessed amateur seed savers discuss their process with internationally recognized authors. I came home with a vinegar mother — a starter for homemade vinegar — from one of America’s top winemakers.

Seed Exchange impact

For Wallace, that’s the point.

“This is for the people,” she said of the festival, “it’s not a scientific thing.” In fact, the location at Monticello only seems to highlight the ideals of Jefferson, who saw America’s future as a land of independent farmers. You may have only a suburban backyard or an urban window garden, but Wallace pointed out: “We want people to know that you don’t have to have a hybrid plant to have a good garden. Having some of your own seed gives people independence.”

Craig LeHullier is a great example of the impact of the Seed Exchange. A cheerful man with a graying beard, LeHullier is the father of the tomato variety called Cherokee Purple. In 1990, the Raleigh, N.C., native received an envelope of tomato seeds from a friend in Tennessee, with a note saying this was a single variety grown by a family in Tennessee for more than a century. They thought the tomatoes were originally grown by the Cherokee Indians before that. LeHullier planted the seeds and discovered an ugly purple monster that turned out to be one of the most delicious tomatoes he’d ever tasted.

LeHullier donated his seeds to the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and was given the honor of naming the variety. The Cherokee Purple has gone on to become a favorite across the United States. This is the seed-saving tribe at work: salvaging a nearly lost varietal before it disappears. As LeHullier said: “You gotta give it away so it never goes away.”

This is the essence of the Monticello Harvest Festival — and the thousands of festivals and seed swaps like it across the country. I witnessed Aaron Keefer, the culinary gardener at California’s French Laundry restaurant, in a passionate discussion about heirloom rice with Glenn Roberts. Roberts is the founder of Anson Mills, a South Carolina champion of traditional American grains and milling techniques.

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Ira Wallace, founder of Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival. Credit: Susan Lutz

Grain diversity

Heirloom rice species are beginning to catch the attention of high-end sustainable restaurants. Roberts said there are important reasons to maintain grain diversity — and you can find it in Jefferson’s era.

Jefferson had been badgering the local farmers for decades, insisting that they expand their rice-planting beyond a single variety. In 1827, South Carolina rice farmers faced a blight — destroying nearly the entire rice crop of the young nation. Fortunately, smaller farmers had saved seeds from other rice species and Carolina rice culture endured. “Diversity was the answer to success,” Roberts said. “At the time, rice farmers failed to listen and suffered the consequences.”

There was a deep knowledge base at the festival, and endless passion for a variety of food-related topics. The excitement of the speakers as they met and interacted was infectious. Here the teachers and students exchanged roles in the blink of an eye. Festival speakers wandered through vendor stalls and attended the lectures of other speakers. Anyone with a handful of seeds was an expert — at least at growing that single plant.

My mouth watered when I bit into a juicy purple globe at the overflowing tomato table — a variety grown by Jefferson himself. Wallace sent me home with a packet of Prudens Purple seeds to grow my own. I was equally excited by the fat Cherokee Purple handed to me by LeHullier.

Back at home I shared it with my husband and saved the seeds in a small envelope. Wallace’s vision of independent gardeners has deep roots — and it’s working.

“The focus is sustainability and bringing new plants to American culture,” she said. “That’s what Jefferson did.”

Main photo: Ground zero for heritage seed savers: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Credit: Susan Lutz

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