Forced rhubarb is bright pink in color. Credit: Sue Style

Rhubarb excites mixed emotions. Ambrose Bierce, dyspeptic satirist and author of “The Devil’s Dictionary,” described it as “the vegetable essence of stomach ache.” John Thorne, the pen behind the cult culinary newsletter Simple Cooking, is clearly a fan, fantasizing about those two ideal mates, rhubarb and strawberries, “whose tastes and textures meld into a sort of subtle transcendental oneness.”

You may — like Bierce — despise this curious vegetable (into which botanical category it more accurately falls). Or perhaps you share Thorne’s fondness for it and are currently celebrating its reappearance in markets, shops and gardens after the seemingly endless winter. Either way, you can hardly miss it if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, for its moment is now.

Rhubarb’s color comes from light, or lack thereof

Broadly speaking, rhubarb falls into two categories. Firstly, there is the so-called “forced” kind, which appears in late winter and early spring. It is cultivated in warm sheds in total darkness and in some places is still traditionally picked by candlelight.

Because the plant is never exposed to light, photosynthesis does not occur. The stalks take on a brilliant, lipstick-pink color while the (inedible) leaves are a rather anemic yellow. Rhubarb treated in this way is also the tenderest and most flavorsome. Some of the most celebrated is grown in the Rhubarb Triangle in west Yorkshire, England, which in 2010 received Protected Designation of Origin, or PDO, status under the name Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb.

The second type is field rhubarb, which appears from late spring through summer, depending on the local climate. Because this kind is grown outdoors in full daylight, the stalks are pale green in color and tinged with only a suspicion of pink, and the texture is noticeably coarser and the foliage deep green.

You can use either sort for this delicious, meringue-topped tart, which has its roots in Alsace, France, but it’s undeniably prettier if you use forced rhubarb. If using field rhubarb, you may need to peel away the outer, fibrous layer before chopping it in pieces.

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Field rhubarb. Credit: Sue Style

To avoid the risk of a soggy bottom to your tart (ever-present with rhubarb because of its high water content), dredge the fruit with sugar and leave it in a bowl for several hours, or better still overnight. This way it will render much of its juice.

The baking then falls into three steps. First, bake the sugared fruit “dry” in its pastry case, then mix some of the juice with cornstarch, egg and cream, pour it over the fruit and bake again. Finally, daub it with the meringue and return the tart to the oven for its final baking. The ground nuts act as extra waterproofing between fruit and pastry, as well as adding an agreeably nutty crunch.

Rhubarb Tart with Meringue Topping

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

1¾ pounds (800 grams) rhubarb

10 ounces (300 grams) sugar, divided

8 ounces (250 grams) piecrust or puff pastry

2 to 3 tablespoons ground almonds or hazelnuts

2 teaspoons cornstarch

1 egg

½ cup (150 milliliters) crème fraîche or light cream

3 egg whites, plus a pinch of salt

Directions

1. Trim the rhubarb, cut in 1-inch (2-centimeter) chunks and put them in a bowl.

2. Sprinkle with 5 ounces (150 grams) of the sugar, mix up well and leave to macerate for several hours or overnight until the rhubarb releases most of its juice. Stir occasionally to make sure the sugar is well distributed.

3. Tip the rhubarb into a colander set over a bowl. Reserve the juice.

4. Heat the oven to 400 F (200 C).

5. Roll out the pastry and settle it into a 12-inch (30-centimeter) quiche pan with a removable base. Prick the pastry with a fork and scatter a thin layer of ground nuts in the bottom.

6. Arrange the rhubarb on top of the nuts.

7. Bake for 20 minutes or until the pastry is beginning to color and the rhubarb is lightly cooked.

8. Measure out half a cup of the reserved juice and mix in the cornstarch, stirring till smooth. Add this to the egg and crème fraîche, whisking well together till smooth.

9. Remove the tart from oven and pour the mixture over the fruit.

10. Return the tart to the oven and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes or until the custard is lightly set.

11. Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff, add the remaining 5 ounces (150 grams) of the sugar and continue beating till stiff and glossy and you could turn the bowl upside down without the whites falling out.

12. Remove the tart from oven and reduce the temperature to 325 F (170 C).

13. Spoon the meringue mixture over the top, fluff it up with a fork and return the tart to the oven for another 15 to 20 minutes or until the meringue is firm and very lightly colored.

14. Cool the tart on a rack. Serve at room temperature for maximum flavor.

Main photo: Forced rhubarb is bright pink in color. Credit: Sue Style

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Bittercress is brilliant stir-fried. Credit: Susan Lutz

The concept of foraging brings to mind a post-apocalyptic landscape and survivalist rations, so I wasn’t expecting to start a foraging walk on the manicured lawn of a lush suburban park just north of Washington, D.C.

I squatted on the lawn, watching a bearded man dig through the thick ground cover with a small spade until he pulled up a clump of green by the roots.

“Bittercress,” he said. He pulled off a sprig and put it in his mouth, then passed the rest around to my fellow foragers. “Try a piece. It’s got a little bite, but it’s amazing stir-fried.”

I pulled off a sprig and put it in my mouth, surprised by both its sharpness and its raw freshness. Forager Matt Cohen encouraged us each to paw through the grass in search of our own clump of bittercress, helpfully pointing out the important details: several stalks all growing from a central point, five-to-nine paired leaflets, and a single leaf at the tip of the stalk.

Cohen’s quest expanded into the rest of the park lawn, uncovering chickweed, dandelions, onion grass and garlic mustard. He crushed the leaves of the garlic mustard and encouraged us all to do the same: The aroma is unmistakable. It’s also one of the few clear signs that a plant is safe to eat, Cohen explained. If it smells like garlic or onion, it’s usually not poisonous. In fact, it can be delicious: “Garlic mustard makes an incredible pesto,” he said.

Cohen began his career as a forager 20 years ago, when he abandoned his career as a computer programmer to become a full-time landscaper and avid amateur wild-plant forager. He counsels people to begin foraging as he began, by finding edible plants in the most common areas, suburban lawns.

Cohen supplied us with specific methods for identifying edible plants, but also gave us bigger-picture tips for someone just beginning to investigate wild foraging. Like so many things, foraging begins with the concept: location, location, location.

Matt Cohen’s Top Five Location Tips for Beginning Foragers:

  • Start in your own backyard if you have one. Learn the most common weeds and find out which ones are edible.
  • Next, move on to vacant lots, waste areas and spots that are neglected. There are lots of weeds there, but be careful to avoid possible sources of contamination, such as areas frequented by dogs and dog walkers.
  • Learn about invasive plants, which are usually free for the taking. Public park officials often hire volunteers to remove invasive species from the local ecosystem. You can help the environment while creating a delicious meal.
  • If you live in a city, check out community gardens. Gardeners are often excited to have help with the never-ending task of weeding.
  • Always know the land you want to forage and get permission from the owner.

We walked further into the Maryland woods in search of wilder fare. We passed a large patch of snow, when suddenly Cohen excitedly spun around. “Skunk cabbage!” he said. The foul-smelling purplish plant poking through the snow heralds the coming of spring.

Further in the woods Cohen pointed out a series of small, bright green shoots, spreading out in the undergrowth. He explained that its common name is spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), but foragers have a different name for it. They call it fairy spuds. Cohen revealed why when he showed us the diminutive potato that dangled within its roots. It’s a wild food eaten by Native Americans and early settlers alike.

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Forager Matt Cohen discovers the skunk cabbage, a harbinger of spring. Credit: Susan Lutz

Then Cohen stopped at a bare, leafless birch tree. Using a pocketknife, he drilled a small hole into the trunk, then stuck a small bamboo stick into the hole. We waited patiently, staring at the unmoving stick, until a small crystal drop of  birch sap appeared at its end. We each took a turn touching our fingers to each drop as it appeared, then tasting the wet sweet sap.

Cohen then revealed a steel maple tap he had placed in a maple tree just an hour before. Beneath the tap was a jar nearly overflowing with a clear liquid. We passed the jar around and when it came to me, I lifted the light clear liquid and drank. It was like fresh spring water, with an edge of sweetness. It was one of the most amazing things I’d ever tasted — water from inside a tree.

It brought back to me the recent cross-country move I had made, from warm, always-sunny Southern California to the bare, early-spring chill of the East Coast. The lushness of Los Angeles may seem alluring, but it’s easy to become accustomed to abundance and take it for granted. In a world with winter, the first stalks of skunk cabbage are greeted with pleasure. Tiny clumps in the lawn can become a stir-fried delicacy. And deep inside a tree, gathering all winter, a hidden fountain of water courses through the trunk, sweet enough to turn into pancake syrup.

My new home is full of surprises.

Bittercress Stir-Fry

Courtesy of Matt Cohen

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ cup field garlic (also known as onion grass)

4 cups bittercress

1-2 tablespoons tamari

Directions

1. Heat up the olive oil over medium heat.

2. Chop field garlic bulb and greens.

3. Cook for a few minutes in olive oil.

4. Finely chop bittercress and add to field garlic.

5. Add tamari to taste.

6. Cook another 5 minutes and serve as a side dish.

Main photo: Bittercress is brilliant stir-fried. Credit: Susan Lutz

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A lunch plate consisting of rice, green bean poriyal and chapati; in the bowls are sambhar and two types of vegetable curries. To drink, lassi and cumin water. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

The Ayurvedic lifestyle works for me. The practice combines a vegetarian diet and herbal tonics with massages, meditation and yoga.

On my recent trip to India, I visited my favorite retreat, Ayurvedagram Heritage Wellness Center. Although the retreat recommends a seven-day stay for the Panchakarma detox treatment, I could spare only five days. At the end of my stay I felt relaxed and refreshed and dropped four pounds while enjoying delicious South Indian food.

This is my fifth visit to this holistic retreat, which is a 90-minute drive to the outskirts of Bangalore in South India. Leaving the city’s chaos, pollution and dusty roads behind, the retreat includes a tropical garden lush with coconut and papaya trees, a flower-filled garden bursting with colorful marigolds and hibiscus, fragrant medicinal shrubs and potted tulsi plants. Sparrow tweets and a koyal’s serenade fill the cool air. Resident geese and mallard ducks waddle around, while baby lizards leap around the lotus-filled pond.

The 15-acre Ayurvedagram property is operated by the Katra Group, based in Kerala, India. The retreat’s 26 cottages, designed in 19th-century Kerala design, are spread around a spacious garden adorned with various stone deities and brass lamps. The facility includes a gym, a library and an amphitheater.

The intricately carved reception building, once the Queen’s Palace from the Aranamula Royal Family, was transported here from Kerala and restored to its original state. All the cottages, crafted in teak or rosewood, are historical ancestral homes from Kerala that were transported and restored to their original grandeur.

Ayurveda regimens planned to suit an individual’s needs

Ayurvedagram is a healing retreat for specific ailments such as arthritis, obesity, diabetes and spinal and joint disorders. But I am here for its signature Panchakarma, a detox and rejuvenation program. The daily regimen includes two massage treatments, three sessions of yoga, meditation and pranayama (breathing techniques) and a delicious sathvic (vegetarian) South Indian cuisine that includes a range of six colors in every meal.

Ayurveda, the science or knowledge of life, is an ancient Indian practice that aims for attaining ideal physical, mental and spiritual health through herbal tonics, medicinal massage therapies, yoga, meditation and a balanced diet.

According to Ayurveda, the human body is made of five elements — air, water, fire, earth and ether. These elements wake up a person’s energy, or dosha. There are three doshas (body types) — Vata, Pitta and Kapha — each with a certain function in our bodies. A body can be a combination of one, two or all three doshas.

An initial consultation with one of the three resident doctors at Ayurvedagram establishes the visitor’s dosha, and a food and therapy program is planned accordingly. A typical Ayurvedic food preparation uses turmeric, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, cardamom, cumin, fennel, coriander and herbs such as tulsi, mint and cilantro.

Ghee (clarified butter) is essential in cooking because it’s the only natural product that is able to permeate all cells, Dr. Man Mohan explained. “It can break blood-brain barrier and it assists in delivery of food nutrients in targeted areas.”

Some of the produce used by chef Nagaraj and his team comes from the retreat’s patch of organic garden. The menu is predominantly South Indian, starting with the traditional breakfast of dosa (rice and lentil crepe), idli (steamed rice buns) served with coconut and mint chutney and sambhar (lentils with vegetables).

Lunch consists of two types of lentils, three different vegetable curries, rice and chapati.

Dinner offers a similar menu with different vegetable dishes. A typical poriyal dish (using assorted vegetables), chutneys, sambhar and rasam (a lentil broth) accompany both lunch and dinner. And there’s always plenty of fresh fruit and warm cumin-scented water with all three meals.

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Chef Nagaraj cooking cabbage and carrot poriyal. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

On my departure, Dr. Nibhan John gave me a tour of the medicinal garden. Leaves, roots, flowers and bark from 60 some trees and shrubs are used in various healing decoctions, powders and pastes. Orange blossoms from the large Asoka tree are used for gynecological disorders. External preparations from the Rasna are utilized for arthritic inflammation. Oil from the leaves of Vitpala Wrightia Tinctoria is good for psoriasis, while an external application of hibiscus flowers and leaves mashed in water helps hair growth.

Some commonly used herbs and spices have healing properties also. Cilantro (as a green chutney) is a good appetizer, and cinnamon mixed in warm milk or water assists in lactation for nursing mothers. Tulsi leaves (Indian basil) immersed in steam inhalers relieve sinus congestion, and turmeric not only has antiseptic properties but is also used to heal cuts and bruises and dental problems and treat asthma.

Garlic as an antioxidant helps lower blood pressure, and ginger is a soothing remedy for digestive disorders. Cloves are generously used in Indian cooking, and its oil, a rich source of anesthetic and antiseptic agents, is used by dentists as an oral anesthetic.

A morning session with Nagaraj enriched me with a handful of recipes. Here are a couple of them.

Carrot and Cabbage Poriyal (Ayurvedagram recipe)

Channa dal and urud dal, shredded dry coconut, curry leaves and ghee can be found at all Indian markets.

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

2 tablespoons vegetable oil (or ghee)

½ teaspoon black mustard seeds

½ teaspoon channa dal

½ teaspoon urud dal

3 to 4 whole dry red chilies

2-inch piece of ginger, chopped finely

1 medium onion, chopped finely

6 to 8 fresh curry leaves

1 cup dry coconut, shredded

Half a head of medium cabbage, shredded

3 carrots, shredded

Salt and pepper to taste

¼ cup water

Cilantro leaves (for garnish)

Directions

1. Heat oil in a wok-style pan and add mustard seeds, channa dal, urud dal and red chilies. This is called tempering, or tadka, and should take a couple of minutes to get the ingredients sizzling and toasty. Mustard seeds tend to pop, so make sure you keep a lid on the wok.

2. Add ginger, onion and curry leaves; stir well for 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Add grated coconut and lastly the shredded cabbage and carrots and salt and pepper to taste.

4. Stir the mixture well and add ¼ cup water. Lower the heat. Cover the wok and let the vegetables cook for about 10 minutes till tender.

5. Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve as a side vegetable dish or as a salad at room temperature.

Ayurvedagram Herbal Tea

Aids in alleviating cough and chest congestion

Serve 4

Ingredients

5 leaves of lemon grass

6 to 8 tulsi leaves or basil leaves

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

5 to 6 green cardamom seeds, crushed

¼ teaspoon dry ginger

1 tablespoon coriander seeds

4¼ cups water

Directions

1. Boil all ingredients in water for 5 minutes with the lid closed.

2. Strain and serve hot.

Top photo: A lunch plate consisting of rice, green bean poriyal and chapati; in the bowls are sambhar and two types of vegetable curries. Also, to drink, there’s lassi and cumin water. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

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Gorditas de Piloncillo. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Forty days and 40 nights of vegetarian eating are underway in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Don’t cry for us, Argentina; there’s no hardship here, as local Catholics look forward to meatless specialties known as comida cuaresmeña (Lenten foods) reserved for the spring. From Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday before Easter, cherished recipes are culled from handwritten family notebooks to feed legions of hungry pageant participants.

Pre-dawn firecrackers and skyrockets set off by priests in church yards get everyone up to take part in processions during Semana Santa, the week leading up to Easter. The events are widely regarded as some of Mexico’s most elaborate, starring thousands of emotional believers dressed in costume without a single paid actor in sight.

Good Friday is the culmination of weeks of nonstop pageantry with long, unbearably slow and tortuous dragging of crosses through cobblestoned streets to the dispirited beat of a single drum. As they perspire in the hot afternoon sun, solemn men and women in dark dress with purple sashes brace heavy saint statues on their shoulders, but press forward. Children through seniors represent angels and ancient mourners, and wave after wave of their faithful parishioners trod onward in the depths of despair. Parade watchers are stacked along the route in hushed silence. Devotion runs deep and true.

Gorditas among the Lenten offerings

Marching like this brings on a mean hunger. Besides a gazillion bean dishes, most regional Lenten répertoires are rounded out by cheese-stuffed fat tortillas lovingly called gorditas, “or little fat ones”; pipiánes, protein-rich pumpkin-seed sauces poured over vegetables; patties made with countless nonmeat combinations; and soups galore. And then we have Gorditas de Piloncillo. Certainly not your typical gordita, and about as well known today as hardtack, its beginning is centuries old — with a bit of delightful religiosity thanks to the Spanish-Mexican addiction to tradition.

Generations of local women have sold them outside the San Juan de Dios church (a half block from the market) from noon to 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays only during Lent. Today at least a dozen ladies in embroidered aprons from surrounding neighborhoods sit, all lined up curbside, each pan-frying sublimely sweet, crisp tortilla turnovers. It’s hard to choose whom to buy from, but I look for sellers with smiling faces taking pesos with one hand and cooking with the other, or better yet, with an assistant handling cash. Another tip: Stay clear when the church school recess bell rings — chaos reigns as screaming kids stampede to be first in line.

For years I thought teeny, wooden tortilla presses I saw in Mexican markets were toys. Man oh man am I surprised as I watch grown women gently press out children’s tea-party-sized, 3-inch tortillas! Remedios Martinez, sitting under her signature shade umbrella, grabs a tiny ball of masa (corn dough) flavored with canela (Mexican cinnamon), anise seeds and ground chile — she likes guajillo but says others use cascabel — and then presses it into a thin tortilla. She drops a teaspoon of crumbled piloncillo (raw brown sugar) in the center, folds it over and slides it into shimmering-hot vegetable oil to crisp and brown.

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Easter Week procession, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Credit: Steve Smith Photography

Not at all like the more usual regional offering — round, stuffed gorditas — these delicate mini tacos are really different. The spoonful of sugar dramatically transforms into a crunchy glaze as the gordita cools and hardens with an interior as brittle as a candied apple. God can definitely be found biting into a Gordita de Piloncillo.

Gorditas de Piloncillo (Sweet, Crisp Turnovers)

Remedios Martinez miraculously cranks out 800 Gorditas de Piloncillo each day from her street-side, oilcloth-covered folding card table and mesquite wood-fired brazier; they remain crunchy for about four hours and then lose their glamour.

Makes about 30

Ingredients

2 cups masa harina

3 tablespoons ground canela (Mexican cinnamon)

2 tablespoons anise seeds

3 tablespoons ground or flaked dried guajillo or cascabel chile

½ pound grated piloncillo (raw brown sugar available in cones), or dark brown sugar

Vegetable oil

Directions

1. Using a stand mixer, mix the masa harina, canela, anise seeds and chile with about 2 cups warm water to get a soft dough.

2. Pull off rounded tablespoons of dough and form into small balls about the size of Ping-Pong balls. Place on a baking sheet and cover with a damp tea towel to keep the balls moist until the dough runs out.

3. Using a freezer baggie, cut 2 squares of the thick plastic slightly larger than the diameter of the press and place one on the bottom part of a tortilla press. Center a masa ball on the plastic. Cover the masa with the other square of plastic. Lower the top of the press and gently push on the handle. Open the press, turn the tortilla (with plastic) 180 degrees, and push again to make a small, 3-inch round. Open the press. The tortilla will have plastic stuck on the top and bottom. Peel away the top plastic, then gently flip the tortilla over into your other hand and carefully peel that plastic away. Put 1 teaspoon piloncillo in the center, fold over and press the edges together. Lay on a tray. Repeat with a few others.

4. Pour vegetable oil ¼-inch deep into a wide skillet and heat to rippling hot 360 F to 370 F. Test the heat by dropping a small piece of dough into the oil. It should sizzle and turn deep golden within 10 seconds.

5. Slide three or four gorditas at a time into the hot oil. Turn until brown, less than 1 minute. Remove to an opened-up paper bag to drain and crisp.

6. Repeat in batches of three or four with the remaining dough.

Top photo: Gorditas de Piloncillo. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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Eggs in a basket. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sun, Sea & Olives: It’s the simplest, most basic of foods, the one cooks turn to when there’s nothing to eat in the house — because there’s almost always an egg or two or three available, ready to be scrambled into a quick supper, or tossed with hot pasta to make a rich carbonara or poached in chicken stock to turn that unassuming broth into chicken soup.

AolivesAnd it has to be the easiest thing in a cook’s repertoire: You know what they say about a hapless cook — she can’t even boil an egg!

Spring and eggs go together. That’s because as the light begins to strengthen and the grass starts to green, the hens begin to lay once more, which is why eggs are so closely tied to the two great Mediterranean spring festivals, Passover and Easter. The egg on the Seder plate and the colored eggs in the Easter basket are there to announce that winter is over and new life has begun. (Yes, I know the Seder egg is supposedly a stand-in for the sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple, but it’s hard to resist spring symbolism all the same.)

Fortunately, eggs are starting to creep out from under the dishonor in which they were held for decades, vilified for high cholesterol content and banned from the tables of anyone who feared heart disease. No longer! Modern researchers agree that dietary cholesterol is not a problem for most people. Dietary cholesterol does not make elevated serum or blood cholesterol, which is more likely to be attributed to a diet high in saturated fat, or to unhappy luck of the genes.

Eggs pack a protein punch — and are chock full of vitamins and minerals

Eggs, as traditional kitchen folklore has always held, are good for you, an excellent source of protein, of course, low in total fat and with zero carbs and just 71 calories in a large egg. They are good sources of iron, selenium, phosphorus and riboflavin, as well as vitamin B12. They’re also well supplied with the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which protect against macular degeneration, among other benefits. Did your mother tell you eggs are good for your eyes? Mine did, and she was right!

Sun, Sea & Olives

One in an occasional series on the Mediterranean diet.


More from Zester Daily

» The ABCs of the Mediterranean diet save lives in a new way

» Mediterranean diet news isn’t new, but good to remember

» Which was first? The egg

» In search of good eggs

So get out the eggs and get to work.

But what kind of eggs will you buy? Cage free, free range, pastured, pasteurized, organic? The choice is confusing, but for the most and best flavor, my vote goes to eggs bought from the farmer who tends the chickens. Straight to the source, you’ll find out how those chickens are raised, what they’ve been fed and how long ago the eggs were laid.

Although brown eggs are favored in New England and white eggs preferred elsewhere, the flavor and goodness are exactly the same. But here’s an interesting fact to put in your egg file: Eggs in North America must be washed before they can be sold. Not a bad idea, you’re thinking? Think again. Eggs come with a natural protective coating that gets dissolved in the wash water. In Italy, where I live part of the year, eggs don’t have to be refrigerated, while in the U.S., I’m told, it’s best to keep them, if not refrigerated, in a very cool place to make up for their lack of protection. (You may find that eggs bought from the farmer have not been washed.)

And what about salmonella? If you think eggs are risky, cook them thoroughly, either hard-boiling or baking in cakes or cookies. Hard cooked eggs can quickly become deviled eggs, a seriously delicious if old-fashioned treat. Do them up Mediterranean style, mixing the yolks with a little mustard, some capers and a few green olives chopped together with fresh green herbs, the whole bound with a dab of olive oil and another dab of mayonnaise. Or serve them plain, garnished with a black- or green-olive tapenade.

Take a tip from the Italian kitchen and drop eggs, one after the other, into a bean-and-pasta soup, then serve up a poached egg with each soup portion, perhaps with a little Parmigiano-Reggiano sprinkled on top. Another dazzling Mediterranean egg trick I learned from Maria Jose San Roman, a great chef from Alicante in southeast Spain: Use gently fried eggs as a sauce to top sautéed potatoes. Cook sliced potatoes (in olive oil, of course), then arrange on a platter, season generously, and top with eggs similarly fried, the yolks basted with hot oil so that when they break they make a rich, golden sauce for the potatoes. Nothing could be simpler — or better.

One of my favorite Mediterranean treats consists of eggs served atop the sumptuously tasty concoction called shakshouka in North Africa and sciakisciuki on the island of Pantelleria in Italy. There’s a place in the delightfully shabby old city of Jaffa, Israel, called Dr. Shakshouka, a huge favorite with tourists. If you overlook the visitors, you can get a delicious shakshouka, often served with eggs, for lunch.

I played around with the recipe for a while and here’s what came out — salt-cured lemons are my own personal touch, but they give such a North African flavor that I couldn’t resist stirring them in at the end. You can make this hotter or sweeter as you wish by increasing or decreasing the ratio of paprika to chili. Another virtue of the sauce: You can make it ahead of time, even several days, and refrigerate until you’re ready to reheat and serve.

Shakshouka with eggs. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Shakshouka with eggs. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Shakshouka

Makes enough for 2 to 3 main-course servings, 4 to 6 if part of a larger meal

Ingredients

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil plus a little more for garnish

3 or 4 sweet red (bell) peppers, cored and chopped, not too fine, to make 4 cups

4 to 6 garlic cloves, minced

1 large or 2 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped not too fine

1 teaspoon sugar, if desired

2 tablespoons tomato concentrate dissolved in ¼ cup of hot water

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

1 or 2 teaspoons medium-hot ground or flaked chili pepper (Aleppo pepper if available), plus a little more for the garnish if you wish

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 tablespoon capers, rinsed of excess salt

½ small salt-preserved lemon, slivered, if available

¼ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

¼ cup finely chopped cilantro

4 or 6 large eggs

Directions

1. Roast the cumin and coriander seeds, stirring in a dry skillet on high heat, just until the fragrance starts to rise.

2. Remove the skillet from the heat and let it cool slightly before adding the oil, chopped peppers and garlic. Gently sauté the peppers and garlic in oil until the vegetables are very soft, 15 to 20 minutes.

3. Stir in the tomatoes, which will give off quite a lot of liquid. If the tomatoes are not fully mature, add a little sugar to bring out the flavor. Cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, then stir in the diluted tomato concentrate, along with the paprika and chili pepper.

4. Add the salt and black pepper. If the sauce is a little dry, add ¼ cup or more of water and cook down for another 15 minutes or so to bring all the flavors together and thicken the sauce slightly. The consistency should be that of a tomato sauce for pasta.

5. Taste and adjust the seasoning. When the sauce is ready, stir in the capers and the slivered salted lemon, if you have it (and if not, a good spritz of lemon juice will be fine). At this point, you can refrigerate the sauce if you’re not ready to make the eggs right away.

6. When you’re ready to continue, turn the oven on to 350 F.

7. Reheat the sauce over medium-low heat, then stir in the parsley and cilantro. Transfer the sauce to a lightly oiled baking dish.

8. Use a big serving spoon to make four to six large indentations in the sauce. Crack an egg and drop it into each indentation. Transfer the baking dish, uncovered, to the oven and cook the eggs just until the whites are set and the yolks are still a little runny, about 15 to 20 minutes. Do not overcook. If the eggs are not sufficiently set at this point, run the baking dish under the broiler for a minute or two just to firm up the eggs.

9. Remove from the oven and sprinkle each egg with a little more salt, black pepper and if you wish, ground chili pepper. Add a dribble of olive oil over all and serve immediately.

Note: It’s a good idea to serve crusty bread, toasted if you wish, for scooping up the sauce.

Top photo: Eggs in a basket. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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A slice of rapini pie. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

I just made the pie of my dreams. The Ligurians might call it torta pasqualina, Easter tart, a savory spring pastry usually filled with spinach, chard or borage. Theirs is enveloped in 20 layers of a delicate, lean dough stretched with olive oil into paper-thin sheets — 10 on the bottom, 10 on top. Mine is encased in a flaky tent of buttery American pie crust. The filling? It too commemorates spring, but it contains none of the traditional vegetables. No timid spinach here, no sweet, fading chard. My pie is a renegade. Unlike the Italian original, it is filled with the big, bold flavors of rapini, or broccoli rabe as it is called in the United States.

RAPINI, BY ANY NAME


What it's called around the globe:

Bitter broccoli: America

Broccoletti (broccoli-like): Rome

Broccoletti di rapa (broccoli-like turnip greens): Rome/Lazio

Broccoli raab: America

Broccoli rabe: America

Cime di rapa (“turnip tops”): Italy

Cima di rapa (“turnip top”): Italy

Friggiarelli (tender, baby rapini buds): Naples/Campania

Friarelli (tender, baby rapini buds): Naples/Campania

Friarielli (tender, baby rapini buds): Naples/Campania

Frigitelli (tender, baby rapini buds): Rome/Lazio

Rape (shortened from cime di rape): Italy

Rapi (colloquial): Umbria

Rapine: Italy

Rapini, rapini: southern Italy, America

Rappini: Sicily

“Robb”: America

Vruocculi: Calabria/Italy


More from Zester Daily:

» Tips for cooking great brassicas

» Vegan country collard greens

» Give turnip greens the Italian treatment

» Turning rapini into funky kimchi

Rapini was relatively unknown in the northern regions of Italy, or in America until recent years. Arguably the tastiest of all greens that descend from the wild plants that have carpeted southern Italy since primordial times, rapini mingled with onion, garlic, tangy pecorino, smoky bacon and just enough egg to hold it all together under a flaky crust is a new take on an ancient pie.

I developed the recipe as part of my promotional relationship with the California rapini growers D’Arrigo Brothers, which owns the Andy Boy broccoli rabe brand. Most of the market rapini, which has been grown in the United States since the early 1970s, comes from the D’Arrigo growers in California, a farming family that put down their Sicilian roots in rich Salinas soil in 1924.

They were the first to recover the heirloom seed on the mountain slopes of their native Sicily. (There, the vegetable is known as “rappini” with a double “p.”) They also were the first to adapt the plant (Brassica rapa ruvo, cime di rapa in Italian, literally, “turnip tops”) to the California climate.

If you are one of those eaters who has tried rapini but found it too bitter to enjoy, you will discover its sweet side if you cook it the Italian way. The trick is to first boil rapini in plenty of salted water. After draining, and while it is still somewhat wet, coddle the rapini in a sauté pan with warm, high-quality olive oil infused with fresh garlic.

We all know that boiling vegetables in salted water transforms their flavor. This is especially true in the case of rapini, or broccoli rabe, which goes from bitter to pleasantly pungent after brief boiling. I asked food science expert and best-selling author Harold McGee for the scientific explanation. McGee is the author of several books on the chemistry and history of food. He also writes a column for The New York Times.

“Boiling leaches out some flavor components, and some salt will get into the tissues and suppress the sensation of bitterness. This is well documented but not yet understood,” McGee said. “The impression of sweetness may also have to do with the boiling damaging the cell walls and making the cell fluids, sugars included, more accessible to the taste buds.”

Besides the cooking method, consider the season. Vegetables always taste best when they are grown and eaten according to nature’s rhythms, and rapini is no exception.

“At the end of April,” said Gabriela D’Arrigo, a third-generation member of the clan, “those greens are at their peak season, and sweeter than any other time of year.”

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Broccoletti capati, "ready-to-go rapini" for sale at the Campo dei Fiori market, Rome. The Roman name for the vegetable is "broccoletti di rapa." Credit: Paolo Destefanis / www.paolodestefanis.com

Rapini Pie

Serves 6 to 8

This is my emigrant version of Italy’s torta pasqualina, also called scarpazzone. “Scarpa,” shoe, refers to the frugal peasant practice of including the stalk along with the leaves in the filling mixture. I do the same here, using the entirety of two rapini bunches, stems and tops alike (they really shrink after boiling). In the traditional spinach or chard version, pancetta pairs irresistibly with those mild, garlicky greens, but I prefer smoky bacon as a counterpoint to the pungent rapini in my newfound filling.

For the crust:

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons salt

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, well chilled or frozen

6 tablespoons solid vegetable shortening, well chilled or frozen

1 large egg

1 tablespoon lemon juice or unflavored vinegar

5 to 7 tablespoons ice water, just as needed

For the filling:

2 bunches rapini (“broccoli rabe”)

2 tablespoons kosher salt

3 slices bacon, chopped

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 large onion, chopped

1 large clove garlic, finely chopped

3 large eggs, beaten

1 tablespoon fine dried bread crumbs

½ cup freshly grated medium-aged pecorino such as Fior di Sardegna or cacio Toscano

½ teaspoon salt

freshly milled black pepper to taste

For the egg glaze:

1 egg yolk, beaten well with pinch of salt

Directions for the pie pastry

1. Combine the flour and salt and pulse a few times in a food processor to blend.

2. Add the cold butter and vegetable shortening and pulse only until the fat is cut into bits the size of peas.

3. Through the processor’s feed tube, add the egg and lemon juice or vinegar, pulse once or twice, then add the ice water one tablespoon at a time, pulsing once or twice between additions, only until dough begins to show some clumps. Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the inside walls of the vessel. Do not form a dough ball on the blade.

4. Turn dough out onto a piece of wax paper (if it looks sandy and dry, sprinkle on a tiny bit more water) and use your hands to bring it together into a ball. It should hold the form of your fingers when squeezed. Wrap the dough well in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or for up to 5 days until you are ready to make the filling.

Note: If butter and vegetable shortening were frozen, dough can be rolled without prior chilling.

Directions for the filling

1. Wash the rapini in cold water, drain.

2. Detach and separate the stems from the tops of the vegetable. Set the tops and the leaves aside. Using a small, sharp knife, peel any especially tough skin from the thicker lower stalks, much like you would peel the tough skin from the bottom of asparagus stalks.

3. Fill a large pot with plenty of water to cover all the greens and bring to a rolling boil. Add the kosher salt and the peeled stems, cover partially, and boil over high heat for 7 minutes. Now add the florets and leaves and cook them together with the stems for 3 minutes more. Drain the greens and allow them to cool. With your hands, squeeze out as much water as you can. Chop them finely and set aside.

4. Warm a large, heavy skillet over medium heat and cook the bacon until it begins to color, about 7 minutes. Drain off excess fat, stir in the butter and add the onion to the pan. Adjust the heat to medium-low and sauté until the onion is transparent, another 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic and continue to sauté gently for about another 3 minutes until it softens and the onions are lightly colored, but do not brown the mixture. Stir in the rapini mixture, turning it over with the bacon and onion mixture to combine. Set aside to cool.

5. In an ample bowl, beat the eggs lightly and mix in the bread crumbs, grated cheese, salt and pepper. Use a rubber spatula to fold in the cooled rapini mixture, blending well.

6. Preheat an oven to 350 F. Select a 10-inch tart pan or pie tin. Butter it lightly. Divide the chilled dough into two portions, one slightly larger than the other. To use, roll out the larger ball of dough on a lightly floured, wide sheet of parchment or waxed paper using a floured rolling pin. Form an 11-inch round. Drape it around the pin and transfer it to the pie pan. Press it gently onto the bottom and sides.

7. Spoon in the filling.

8. Roll out the second ball of dough in the same manner into a slightly smaller circle. Lay it over the filling. Crimp the edges together to seal and trim off any excess to form an even edge. Cut a slash in the top to allow steam to escape. If there are any dough scraps, gather them up, re-roll them, and cut out leaves or rosettes. Decorate the top of the pie with the cutouts, pressing them gently onto the crust.

9. Brush the crust with the beaten egg and bake in the preheated oven until golden, about 1 hour, 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and transfer it to a rack to cool for about 10 minutes. Serve hot or warm, cut into wedges.

Note: This pie keeps well in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Reheat it in an oven preheated to 350 F until warm throughout, 20 to 30 minutes.

Top photo: A slice of rapini pie. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

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A shepherd in the mountains near Sigishoara, Transylvania. Credit: Cordell Barron

In the Carpathian mountains of Transylvania, western Romania, where transhumance — the movement of animals between winter and summer pastures — is still practiced, shepherds will now be settling their animals in the high meadows after a trek that could have lasted five weeks or more. Late autumn last year, these shepherds left with their flocks to walk hundreds of kilometers east, to the Danube floodplains, or northwest, to the lowland plains near Hungary. Now they’re back in their summer home.

A lack of historical records makes it impossible to establish a precise time that long-distance transhumance began in the Carpathians but, since the region’s shepherd communities date to the pre-Roman Dacians, it is likely that this form of year-round grazing has been practiced since then. They are part of a tradition that stretches throughout the Balkans to northern and central Greece and Albania; their movements between these countries were only curtailed by World War I, when new country borders were created and passports were needed to cross them.

Timing the spring trek

One income source for the shepherds is the lamb they can provide for Easter tables. Romanians consider a 10-kilogram (22-pound) lamb the perfect size for this, so the animal needs to be eight to 10 weeks old. The shepherds time their trek to arrive in the Carpathian uplands for lambing to take place there around early March, depending on when the Orthodox Easter falls that year. Flocks comprise sheep belonging to a number of villagers, and each sheep is marked, to distinguish it from a neighbor’s.

This biannual journey enriches the landscapes the animals cross by fertilizing the soils in the migratory corridors with sheep dung and encourages a remarkably rich biodiversity by transporting fruits and seeds on the wool. It has also, over the centuries, led to extensive cultural exchanges as the shepherds traveled long distances in search of grazing, and many contemporary traditions — in food, literature and song — have their roots in this practice.

Both landscapes and traditions are now in danger of disappearing. Land that has been an open route for the shepherds for centuries is becoming privately owned, motorists don’t take kindly to a flock of hundreds of sheep crossing the road in front of them, and many flocks are now transported in trucks.

A mobile dairy

Mamaliga fritters with mushroom sauce and pickled peppers. Credit: Rosemary Barron

Mamaliga fritters with mushroom sauce and pickled peppers. Credit: Rosemary Barron

During the trek, the ewes’ milk is made into cas and urda, two fresh cheeses similar in texture, respectively, to ricotta and Greek mizythra, and cascaval, a semi-hard cheese that’s kept for up to three months. Later in the summer, when the milk has a higher fat content, it’s turned into a feta-like cheese called telemea. The curds are salted, wrapped into cheesecloth orbs, and hung for 24 hours before they are placed on slatted wooden shelves to settle into heavy discs of mountain cheese. The nutrient-rich whey is given to the pigs and sheepdogs. Some of the cheeses are allocated to the sheep owners, the remainder sold at local markets.

Over the centuries, the shepherds have perfected the art of turning fresh milk into products that can be kept longer than a few hours. As well as cheeses, they make smantana, similar to soured cream or thick yogurt, which is the perfect accompaniment to another easily transportable food that has come to be known as the national dish of Romania, mamaliga.

Understanding Mamaliga

Mamaliga, a thick porridge made from maize flour (cornmeal), is similar to the polenta of northern Italy and other parts of the Balkans. Served in a huge variety of ways, it’s not unusual to find mamaliga on Romanian tables for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As cornmeal is easy to store, transport and cook, it is the perfect staple food for a long trek. The shepherds make mamaliga in large cauldrons suspended over an open fire and are particularly fond of it with small game and sarmale (stuffed fresh or slightly fermented cabbage leaves). Often, though, it’s eaten alone, with smantana or cheese, or wrapped around fresh, white cheese to make a grapefruit-size ball (or “bear”), which is wrapped in foil and baked in charcoal.

The best mamaliga is made from coarse, stone-ground cornmeal that retains some of the hull and germ of the grain, producing a thick, yellow-gold porridge with a slightly crunchy texture. For Romanian cooks, the making of mamaliga involves many rituals, some of which touch on the semi-mystical in the same way as bread-baking and grape-stomping do, and they use a special saucepan (ceaun) for the process. Modern cooks, however, frequently use a commercial coarse cornmeal that considerably cuts the preparation time. Both types of cornmeal are suitable for making these fitters, a popular to way to serve mamaliga at home.

Mamaliga Fritters With Mushroom Sauce

For a true taste of Transylvania, use a mixture of sunflower oil and butter to fry the fritters, though olive oil gives a fine, if Mediterranean-flavored result, too. Serve with braised rabbit or chicken, with any manner of vegetables, or with mushrooms in sour cream.

Serves 3 to 4

For the mamaliga:

½ cup whole milk

1 cup water

¾ teaspoon fine-grain sea salt

1 scant cup coarse cornmeal (maize flour), preferably organic

3 tablespoons organic sunflower oil

2 tablespoons butter

For the mushroom sauce:

1 tablespoon butter

6 ounces wild, field or button mushrooms, wiped clean, trimmed and thinly sliced

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

3 to 4 tablespoons sour cream, to taste

3 tablespoons lightly chopped fresh dill

For serving:

Watercress sprigs or other green leaves

Small pickled peppers

Directions

1. Combine the milk and water in a heavy saucepan, add the salt, and bring to barely a boil

2. Pour in the cornmeal in a slow, steady stream, stirring constantly in a clockwise direction with a wooden spoon. Over a low heat, simmer uncovered for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, until the mixture is thick enough to just support the spoon standing upright. Set aside uncovered for 10 minutes

(If you are using a commercial cornmeal, follow the directions for a thick mixture.)

3. To make the mushroom sauce, melt 1 tablespoon butter in a small, heavy saucepan set over low heat. Add the mushrooms, cover the pan, and simmer 6-8 minutes (button mushrooms) to up to 15 minutes (field or wild mushrooms), until soft. Strain the mushrooms over a bowl and set both mushrooms and liquor aside.

4. Turn out the cornmeal (mamaliga) onto a wooden board and spread into a 1-inch-thick layer with a spatula or palette knife. Smooth the surface and neaten the edges. Cut into 2×3-inch rectangles, or any shape you prefer (but keep manageable in size, otherwise they will break up later). Use the palette knife to loosen each one from the board

5. Set a frying pan over low-medium heat and add the sunflower oil and 2 tablespoons butter. When hot but not smoking, fry the fritters until golden brown on both sides, turning once.

6. Meanwhile, check the mushroom cooking liquor. If there is more than 4 tablespoons, reduce in a heavy pan set over medium heat. Lower the heat, add the mushrooms and stir in the sour cream. Heat to hot but not boiling (or the cream will curdle and spoil the appearance of the dish). Gently stir in the dill and add salt and pepper (the sauce should be highly seasoned)

7. Transfer the fritters to a warm platter and surround with watercress, pickles, and the mushroom sauce.

Top photo: A shepherd in the mountains near Sigishoara, Transylvania. Credit: Cordell Barron

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An illustration of lunch in Provence, France. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Palm Sunday, the Sunday before the movable Christian feast of Easter that this year falls on April 13, marks the allotted date of Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem through streets strewn with palm fronds, a moment of optimism in the run-up to the gloom of Good Friday.

Thereafter, devout households use palm fronds to decorate streets, balconies and churches to commemorate the unfolding events of Easter week. Splendidly robed Greek Orthodox monks on the island of Patmos, Greece, re-enact the Last Supper beneath arches of palm fronds with a meal of bread and wine.

Elsewhere, as the Christian message spread, congregations in non-palm-tree regions (anyone without a Mediterranean coastline) adapted an older tradition, that of bringing budded greenery indoors to celebrate the return of spring. Willow wands and young growths of hazel and birch — though never hawthorn, which was considered to bring misfortune — were brought indoors and set to unfurl their leaves by the fireside. In Germany, branches of evergreens — holly or yew — were draped with pretzels and apples, a reminder of divine responsibility to restore fertility to fields and woods.

Today, chickpeas are a sign of thanks in Provence

In France, particularly Provence, a similar sentiment was expressed by hanging candied fruits and sugar cookies wrapped in brightly colored paper on branches of olive and bay. In the regional capital, Marseilles, the proper food for Palm Sunday is chickpeas, pois chiches, the result, as legend has it, of the arrival during the Great Famine — and there were many such throughout the Middle Ages — of a shipload of chickpeas from Egypt, much to the relief of the starving citizens who thereafter commemorated the occasion with chickpea soup.

Since then, by way of giving thanks, chickpea soup is traditionally eaten on Palm Sunday both in Marseilles and the surrounding countryside. This I learned when taking time out from family duties in the 1990s to complete my second novel in a borrowed chateau in the region — huge and drafty and heated by a kitchen range with an insatiable appetite for firewood collected from the forest.

Lambesc was the nearest market town, and Saturday was market day. At the end of a morning’s bargaining, it was usual for exhausted stall holders and customers to queue up for exotic dishes prepared with considerable showmanship by a member of Marseilles’ multiethnic community. Most popular were Moroccan couscous, Spanish paella sold by the scoop and Vietnamese nem,  neat little finger-length rolls of shredded vegetables enclosed in a rice pancake, much like Chinese spring rolls, and deep-fried to order.

There was, too, a local specialité du jour offered by the traiteur — a purveyor of ready-prepared dishes, cheese and charcuterie — from a table outside his shop fronting the market square. As soon as I took my place in the queue, the day’s recipe was discussed and embellished by the rest of the queue for the benefit of l’ecrivaine, the writer, myself. In Provence, everyone knows everyone else’s business, and they value their painters and poets and respect the need for a visiting writer to eat good food.

A re-creation of the Last Supper by Greek monks on the island of Patmos, Greece. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

A re-creation of the Last Supper by Greek monks on the island of Patmos, Greece. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

The traiteur’s menu changed with the season and, when appropriate, featured dishes traditional to festivals of the Roman Catholic Church. Meatless dishes were on offer throughout Lent, though prohibitions on enriching them with olive oil or even the odd lardons of bacon were disregarded. Tomorrow being Palm Sunday, I was assured as I joined the traiteur’s Saturday queue, the proper food was soupe aux pois chiches, a thick chickpea soup to be finished, when reheated at home, with the last of the winter’s cheese.

“Bon appetit, madame,” said the traiteur as he ladled out a generous portion. “And don’t forget the cheese.”

Soupe de pois chiche au fromage (Chickpea soup with cheese)

A meatless soup is proper during the last week of Lent, a somber time in the run-up to Easter, though the inclusion of eggs and cheese is a concession to the lighter mood of Palm Sunday, when people traditionally went to the graveyard to decorate ancestors’ final resting places with flowers. 

Serves 4 as a main dish

Ingredients

1 pound (500 grams) chickpeas, soaked overnight in cold water

2 mature carrots, diced

2 sticks celery, washed and chopped

1 sprig of thyme

1 sprig of rosemary

1 or 2 bay leaves

¼ cup olive oil

A dozen peppercorns, crushed

Salt to taste

For finishing:

2 eggs forked with 4 tablespoons grated cheese

Directions

1. Drain the chickpeas.

2. Bring 4 pints of water to a boil. Add the chickpeas and the rest of the ingredients except the salt.

3. Bring the pot back to a boil. Lid tightly and leave to cook at a rolling simmer for about 2 hours.

4. Add the salt to the soup when the chickpeas are soft.

5. Pour a ladle full of the hot broth into the egg-and-cheese mixture. Off the heat, whisk the mixture into the soup. Do not reboil or the eggs will curdle and your lovely velvety thickening will vanish.

6. Serve with bread, more grated cheese and a salad of lovely spring leaves — young dandelion, lamb’s lettuce, sorrel, chicory — dressed quite plainly with lemon juice, a slick of good oil and salt.

Top illustration: Lunch in Provence, France. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

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