Those tan and brown matchsticks are wheat plants, trapped in ice sheets. Oh my, I thought, what are we going to eat next year? Credit: Rachel Lodder

One of my best food friends is white pastry wheat. White refers to the tint of the bran — wheats are either white or red. Pastry means a soft wheat, one with low levels of gluten-forming proteins. Those proteins are what help build the gluten matrix when using hard or bread wheats; soft wheats make tender cakes and quick breads. The pancakes I make from Farmer Ground Flour’s organic, stone ground whole wheat pastry flour are the definition of perfect in my family, the pancake of request for my 11-year-old’s birthday. The pancake that means pancake and home.

Farmer Ground Flour is a mill that stone grinds organically grown New York State grains. Grain farmer Thor Oechsner is part owner in the mill; he and his fields, and millers Greg Mol and Neal Johnston, are great help as I try to understand flour from field to griddle.

Golden wheat heads, a couple of weeks before harvest. Credit: Amy Halloran

Golden wheat heads, a couple of weeks before harvest. Credit: Amy Halloran

My favorite wheat gets planted in the fall. Fall crops go in the ground in September or October, early enough for the seeds to grow a few inches before winter. Fall planting helps seeds get a head start on weed seeds that sit in the ground. Spring can be pretty wet, and hard for farmers to get in the field, so that’s another advantage of this habit. Grains take to this system pretty well, since they are the edible seeds of certain grasses, and much like a lawn, these grass crops go dormant.

Snow cover helps protect the crop. A certain amount of winterkill is expected in fall planted crops, but this past winter, things looked pretty dicey. In New York’s Finger Lakes region, plenty of snowstorms hit but the snow melted quickly. In low spots, that melt turned to ponds.

Beyond this local hint of doom, there was some general anxiety in the wheat world about supply and prices. By March, stores of North American organic wheat had dwindled. The 2013 wheat crop was limited by continued drought in the arid Southern Plains; regional supplies in the Northeast were limited by a very wet season. Larger organic mills were turning to Argentina for bread wheat. This fact, plus political pressures in Eastern Europe, created worry about what this year could bring for harvest. Late freezes hitting the Plains States during greenup, the time when fall planted grains start to grow, fueled my wonder.

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Soft white pastry wheat in April. Credit: Amy Halloran

Mid-April, I took a drive to Ithaca, N.Y., to see how my future pancake flour was doing. Amazingly, some of the fields were greening up quite nicely. Sure, there were spots where the plants did not survive, but those tan tips that sat over iced snow were getting crowded by green growth. What a delight to see.

This is what the field looks like now, a couple of weeks before harvest: a field of wheat rows, as American as a box of cereal. Look at those green stalks peaking through the gold heads. Ah, breakfast.

Why did this field and other fields recover? Winterkill is also known as winter survival. Plants that had enough room bounced back from the harsh conditions and grew well. Another factor was the plants having strong enough roots to withstand the pressures of temperature changes from winter through spring.

This tiny rye plant just didn’t have enough roots to hang on to the ground as temperature swings pulled the dirt together into frozen clumps. It was frost heaved. Credit: Amy Halloran

This frost-heaved rye plant lacked the roots to survive. Credit: Amy Halloran

This tiny rye plant (pictured right) didn’t make it. It just didn’t have enough roots to hang on to the ground as temperature swings pulled the dirt together into frozen clumps. It was frost heaved.

Winter survival is tricky. Too little growth and the earth kicks out the plant. Too much, and the long green leaves attract mold, or other smothering problems. The malting barley crop in New York suffered a 50% loss due to winterkill, which is understandable, as growers are just figuring out how to make this crop work. The state’s 2013 Farm Brewery Law, which ties licensing for a certain kind of brewery to use of state agricultural products, such as grains, hops and honey, has caused a bit of barley fever.

A work in progress

Growing wheat and barley outside of the grain belts is a work in progress. Grain farming and processing, like malting, concentrated in the Midwest, Plains States and Northwest in the late 19th and early 20th century; this consolidation wiped out knowledge and infrastructure for how to grow grain crops in the Northeast. Farms grow grains for dairies, but cows eat differently than we do. And they do not drink spirits or beer.

Growing grains for malting, distilling and flour markets is more complicated than growing for animal feed. These specialty markets need different seed varieties and fertilization practices to hit certain performance markers, like protein levels. Growing food grade grain also requires more cleaning, and careful post harvest handling and storage. The learning curve is steep as people switch from commodity production to community enterprises.

I’m lucky to have a window on these grain ventures, and see people cooperate as they try to figure out what works. Right now, my pancake-flour-in-the-making looks good. The crop isn’t in the bin yet; there’s still time for weather to wreak havoc. But the farmers and researchers I’ve talked to are optimistic. Yields will be down, but there will be wheat.

Main photo: Those tan and brown matchsticks are wheat plants, trapped in ice sheets. Oh my, I thought, what are we going to eat next year? Credit: Rachel Lodder

 

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Spaghetti with Sun-Burst Tomatoes. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sun, Sea & Olives: Forty years ago, I took my young family to live in the hill country between Tuscany and Umbria, Italy. Our mountain neighbors were all self-sufficient farmers, raising almost their entire food supply themselves. They grew vegetables and beans, harvested chestnuts and mushrooms, raised pigs, chickens, rabbits and sometimes sheep. Only salt and pepper for curing pork, coffee and infrequently a piece of chocolate came from a shop in town, 20 kilometers (12 miles) away.

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Of course they made wine — thin, sour stuff — and pressed their olives to make musty, fusty oil (pork fat was much more to their liking). And they grew their own wheat, threshed it and had it ground into flour for the unsalted bread that was then and still is today a Tuscan staple without which no meal is complete. Sometimes, in fact, bread was the meal, maybe with a thin slice of prosciutto or guanciale from the family pig or a dribble of rancid oil to add flavor.

So wheat was the primary crop, the survival mechanism on which everything else depended, and the annual harvest in July was a moment fraught with anxiety that erupted into celebration once the anxiety was relieved. Our valley had one threshing machine, and it went from farm to farm, each day fetching up in a different place, and the farm folk followed it. When it arrived at our neighbors’ farm, people descended for miles around to help with the hot, dirty, tiring work of the harvest and take part in the feast and dancing that followed.

I think about all this now because it is once again harvest time in the Mediterranean. The wheat harvest begins in North Africa in June, rolling north, across Anatolia, Italy, and Spain, as the tall stalks fall to the cutting blades. The landscape that was green a month earlier is bleached now with the color of ripening grain and then golden with the chaff left behind after the harvesters have come through. Our neighbors no longer grow their own wheat, but the harvest is still critical throughout Tuscany.

Durum wheat, the go-to choice for pasta

A lot of this wheat, especially in the hotter, drier parts to the south, is hard durum wheat (Triticum turgidum, var. durum), the venerable species used for so many traditional Mediterranean preparations, from bulgur (burghul) to tarhana to couscous to pasta. American cookbook writers used to claim durum semolina was difficult to work in the home, that you needed special heavy equipment to turn it into pasta. But in fact, throughout the south of Italy, especially in Puglia, hard durum wheat, as semola or semolina, is regularly used in home kitchens to make orecchiette and other traditional pastas. And the great breads of Altamura and Laterza get much of their character and their golden color from being made with locally grown durum wheat, using a slow-rising lievito madre (what we might call sourdough) and baked in a wood-fired oven.

Italian law requires all commercial pasta to be made from durum wheat, one reason why Italian pasta in general is of such high quality. The government is concerned with maintaining quality because Italians are world-champion pasta eaters — between 26 and 28 kilos (61.6 pounds) per capita annually depending on the study. And most of that is commercial or boxed pasta (called in Italian pasta secca).

A more useful distinction to keep in mind, however, is the one between industrial and artisanal pasta. The artisanal product is generally of much higher quality, and, like most artisanal things, costs more, a reflection of greater care in production. To qualify as artisanal, pasta must be made at consistently low temperatures (no higher than 122 degrees F) from start to finish, extruded through bronze dyes (producing a roughened surface) and dried slowly. Low temperatures keep the wheat from cooking, so it retains its pale color; the high temperatures and Teflon dyes of industrially produced pasta result in a golden yellow color and a sleek, plasticized surface.

Gragnano, a small city south of Naples, has been at least since the 18th century one of those places Italians cite for high-quality artisanal pasta. Why? Several historical reasons — access to excellent durum wheat through the port of Amalfi, just over the Lattari mountains on the Golfo di Salerno; clean, fresh water cascading from those same mountains to power the grist mills that ground the grain; and a constant flow of brisk breezes to dry the pasta, which once hung on rods in the streets of Gragnano until it was ready to ship to hungry Naples across the bay. Nowadays, Gragnano has a coveted Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) from the European Union, a certification that pasta with that seal has been made according to precise regulations.

 

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Threshed wheat. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Pastificio Faella is one of nine Gragnano producers that make IGT pasta. I spent some time recently in Gragnano with Pastificio Faella’s Sergio Cinque. As we toured the factory, Cinque described the various phases of drying and the importance of each one. “If it’s not done properly,” he said, “there’s a real risk of fermentation and that will result in pasta with an acid flavor.”

But it was the perfume of wheat that imbued the small factory with its warm, nutty, slightly dusty fragrance. To understand the high quality of artisanal pasta, Cinque suggested this test: Prepare equal quantities, say 100 grams, of ordinary commercial pasta and Pasta Faella. Bring two pots of water to a boil and add the pasta, one to each pot. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes and then measure.

You’ll find, he said, that the Faella pasta will expand notably in the water, while ordinary pasta will remain the same. That’s because under high-temperature drying, a crystallization — another word is plastification — takes place, and the pasta doesn’t absorb water at the same rate. What that means is that artisanal pasta is more easily digested and gives a greater sense of satiety with less of the actual food.

I left with a kilo package of Faella’s excellent spaghetti tucked under my arm. When I got home, I turned it into this pasta dish, a variation on one in my daughter Sara Jenkins’ lovely cookbook, “Olives and Oranges.”

Spaghetti With Sun-Burst Tomatoes

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 or 3 pints (1½ pounds to 2 pounds) mixed small tomatoes—cherry, grape and currant
  • Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • About 1 pound (500 grams) spaghetti, preferably IGT Gragnano
  • Handful of chopped fresh arugula, leaves only (discard tough stems)
  • ⅔ cup grated or shaved bottarga or freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions

  1. Bring 4 to 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil.
  2. While the water is heating, add the oil to a large, heavy skillet and set over medium-high heat. When the oil is very hot (but not smoking), add half the tomatoes, sprinkle them quickly with salt and cook, tossing the skillet, until the tomatoes start to wrinkle and collapse. Add the rest of the tomatoes and continue cooking and tossing for another 2 minutes. (Yes, some of the tomatoes will be more cooked than others—that’s the point.)
  3. Push the tomatoes to one side and add the garlic to the pan. As the garlic starts to soften, mix it in with the tomatoes, gently pressing the tomatoes to release some of their juices. When the sauce is thick, remove from the heat and add a pinch of salt and a few turns of the pepper mill. Keep the sauce warm until the pasta is done.
  4. Add a big spoonful of salt to the pasta water and let it come to the boil again, then plunge in the pasta and give it a stir with a long-handled spoon. Cover the pot until the water returns to the boil, then remove the lid and let the pasta cook vigorously until done—about 10 minutes.
  5. Prepare a warm serving bowl by adding some pasta water to the bowl to heat it up, but don’t forget to tip the water out before you add the pasta to the bowl.
  6. Drain the pasta, transfer to the warm bowl and immediately toss with the warm tomato sauce, stirring in the arugula. Toss again, then sprinkle with the bottarga or cheese and serve immediately.

Notes

If possible, select from an array of little grape and cherry tomatoes, mixing them up for a colorful presentation. We like to serve this with grated bottarga (salted and dried fish roe) on top, but you could also serve it with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Main photo: Spaghetti With Sun-Burst Tomatoes. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Balsamic cherry pie

Driving along shoulderless highways in northern Michigan, it’s hard to miss row after row of Montmorency cherry trees loaded with fruit waiting to be baked into pies or squeezed into a liquid elixir that scientists and doctors assign superfruit status.

With more than 2 million cherry trees, Michigan produces over 70% of the country’s tart cherry crop, and July is the start of the season for a fruit that has been credited with controlling cholesterol, lowering weight and boosting heart health. Not to mention being at the heart of a mean cherry pie.

The tart cherry’s superfruit status is due to its high levels of an antioxidant called anthocyanin, which is also responsible for the cherry’s intensely sour flavor and bright red color.

Tart cherries might well deserve a medal for their healthy attributes, but I’d much rather test their ability to satisfy my craving for the yin-yang balance of sweet and tart enveloped in one glorious double-crusted pie. That’s because tart cherries, not sweet, have always been the basis for the best cherry pie. Bakers can control the amount of sweetness with sugar and the tangy essence of tart cherries keeps the pie from becoming cloyingly sweet.

In a part of the country where any proper pie judge will tell you that cherry pies are not to be trifled with, I decided to go out on a limb and conducted a loosely structured pie contest of my own. In traditional measure, blue ribbons become a battle between best crust and most cherry-packed (but least gooey) filling, and awards only go to those that deliver both.

Ferreting out the best the region had to offer, I sampled options from The Cherry Hut, a 92-year old pie-making institution in the little town of Beulah (8 points for cherry-packed filling), to local behemoth Cherry Republic (9 points for crunchy, tender crust). Naturally, I couldn’t avoid including a few farm stand options in between. In the end, a roadside pie spiced with a bit of balsamic vinegar took the prize for my personal favorite. Cask-aged balsamic, which delivers its own magic blend of sweet and tart, was the perfect complement to the fruit and provided a deep base of flavor to the freshly harvested cherries.

But after all that pie, I was feeling a bit sleepy, and no wonder. Did I mention that tart cherries contain melatonin, a natural hormone that helps you sleep at night?

Cherry Balsamic Pie

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Yield: 12 servings

The winning farm stand pie inspired my interpretation of the classic Michigan cherry pie. I’ve blended a rich, cask-aged balsamic vinegar into the filling and added a bit of Fiori di Sicilia, a blend of floral, citrus and vanilla essences, to keep the flavors bright.

Ingredients

  • Pie dough, enough for two crusts, chilled
  • 3 pounds, pitted fresh or frozen (do not thaw) tart cherries
  • ⅓ cup Pie Enhancer (or 6 tablespoons flour)
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons cask-aged balsamic vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon Fiori de Sicilia extract (or vanilla extract)
  • Egg
  • Sparkling sugar

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Roll out enough dough for one crust and place in 9- to 10-inch deep dish pie plate, leaving a 2-inch overhang. Return to refrigerator while assembling filling to keep dough cold.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, toss to combine cherries, Pie Enhancer or flour, sugar, salt, balsamic vinegar and Fiori di Sicilia. Fill pie dish and return to refrigerator again while preparing top crust.
  3. Roll out remaining pie dough and trim into 1-inch slices. Weave for latticework and gently transfer over filling. Turn lower crust up and over edges of lattice and crimp with fingers or fork.
  4. Whisk egg with 2 tablespoons water and gently brush over top crust. Sprinkle with sparkling sugar.
  5. Place the pie on a baking sheet and bake for 1 hour to 1 hour 20 minutes, crust will be golden brown and fruit will be gently bubbling when done. Remove to rack to cool.

Notes

Not one to cling to tradition, when I find a new ingredient that is a big improvement over my old ways, I embrace it. Such is the case with King Arthur Flour’s Pie Enhancer, which I use to thicken fruit pies. A blend of superfine sugar, modified corn starch (aka Instant Clear Gel) and ascorbic acid, it sets the pie juices but avoids that gluey texture that flour sometimes imparts. But follow your own tradition and if flour works best for you, then substitute 5 tablespoons of flour for the Pie Enhancer and increase the amount of sugar in the filling for a total of ⅓ cup sugar.

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Nonna Italia's Pizza Baby. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

I’m sipping a local rosé at a corner table in Nonna Italia ristorante, not far from the ferry stop in the charming old town of Stresa, on Lago Maggiore, Italy. Stresa is north of Milan in lake country, the beautiful region known for mountain vistas, ancient villas and George Clooney’s pad, even though George is at Como, one lake over.

Donato and Roberta Tagliente are the owners of this friendly spot that gets more crowded than a jar of Italian anchovies. During the week, come early or late and dine comfortably; weekends are a madhouse, especially in August, when Nonna Italia is open daily and outside tables spill into the narrow cobblestone walk street.

Nonna Italia

Via Garibaldi 32

Stresa, Lago Maggiore, Italy

Telephone: 03 23 93 39 22

info@nonnaitalia.net

www.nonnaitalia.net

Summer hours (June through September): Open seven days, but closed for lunch Mondays and Tuesdays except for August, when it is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week.

Winter hours: Closed Tuesdays and for two weeks during Christmas and the New Year holidays.

Pizza Baby for kids and kids at heart

Friendly servers Maya and Alice (fluent in several languages) effortlessly take care of everyone, even though the place is packed with people downing pizzas, risotto and their famous “mixto” plate of three local cheeses, jams and honey, prosciutto, coppa and pancetta with gnocco fritto, fried and lightly salted pizza dough squares, instead of bread.

About 15 years ago, when Puglia-born Chef Donato had a tiny takeout pizza stand, he came up with the idea of a child-friendly pie that invited grumpy kids to dig in with a grin. Pizza Baby was born. He’s now a local celebrity (watch out, George) at 2-year-old Nonna Italia, where children clamor for a sun-shaped pizza with a smiley face.

Don’t get me wrong, this pizza is definitely not just for kids. Donato starts with Italy’s best 00 flour and lovingly forms each ball of yeasty raised dough by hand. Pizza Baby is the same size as a regular pizza, but Donato clips the 14-inch circle of dough with a pizza wheel in 1-inch cuts around the edge in eight evenly spaced spots.

He then brings the dough between two cuts together and pinches it tight to form a triangle; he does this eight times around the pie, finally gently pulling at the points to nudge the dough into a neat circle. The same intensely delicious tomato sauce that’s used for all the restaurant’s pizzas is ladled on top and spread around. Donato then generously covers the sauce with local mozzarella like a heavy winter snow on nearby ski slopes; a paddle slides underneath, and in a flash it’s into the hot oven. A few minutes later, a golden crust with slightly charred edges and bubbly, melted cheese lets you know that the pie is done.

Again using the paddle, Donato slides the pizza onto a serving plate. Now for the fun part: He affectionately arranges two black-olive half eyes, a cherry tomato nose and a curved slice of cucumber for the sun’s bright smile.

As I bite into one of the super-crispy, slightly thick and oven-charred raised triangles, I notice how the yeasty dough’s air pockets add to the sublime texture. This is definitely a flavorful pizza for grownups who love a great crust. Happy faces all around.

View the videos below to see how easy the process is to make the sun shape, and then try your hand at making a Pizza Baby at home. Preheat your oven to the highest setting, and then place the rack and a cookie sheet (or, better yet, a pizza stone) at the lowest level. Use homemade or purchased dough and sauce, and have the few toppings at hand.

Main  photo: Nonna Italia’s Pizza Baby. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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Megan Miller of Bitty Foods. Credit: Jonathan Snyder

Crickets, love ‘em or leave ‘em, are the soundtrack to our summer nights. Megan Miller, co-founder of Bitty Foods, sees them a bit differently.

“When I think of crickets, I think of the future of food,” she says. “Insects are in fact the most efficient form of protein on planet earth.” Miller spoke about the benefits of eating insects at TEDxManhattan, a one-day conference featuring leading innovators in the food movement. (See video of her talk below).

Insects are eaten in many cultures, but Miller is well aware that many people find the idea less than appetizing. Bitty Foods has taken steps to reduce the barriers its products might face by turning crickets into something more palatable.

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

“It might be difficult for a lot people to consider eating whole insects, but they become a lot more manageable when they’re in the format of cricket flour,” she said.

The flour is made from whole insects dried and milled into a fine powder. Bitty Foods sells the flour, which has been mixed with other ingredients that enable it to be substituted for baking flour, as well as cookies made from cricket flour. These are available in three flavors: chocolate chip, chocolate cardamom and orange ginger.

These products represent the beginning of what is envisioned as a complete line of goods, beyond just snacks. As Miller explains, the vision is to take foods “that are normally completely carb-based and boost them with protein so you end up getting a much more nutritious meal.”

“The basic premise is that we are trying to introduce people in the U.S. to edible insects with delicious foods with good design,” she said. “We have gotten a really great reception faster than we expected.”

Miller lists five of the many reasons why the idea of eating insects should be taken seriously by those concerned about their health and/or the environment:

  1. Cricket flour has 7 grams of protein per quarter-cup serving as well as healthy fats, vitamins and minerals. Bitty Foods’ cricket flour is also gluten-free.
  2. Insects can be grown with very little land and very little water. If you feed crickets 10 pounds of feed, they will produce 9 pounds of edible cricket protein. By contrast, it takes 10 pounds of feed to get 1 pound of beef.
  3. If eating insects becomes common, we could reclaim some of the 30% of the Earth’s land surface — one-third of the Earth — which is currently being used by the livestock industry to grow animals and the grains the animals eat.
  4. We could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 18% if insects become a part of the mainstream food supply.
  5. Having insects take the place of more resource-intensive sources of protein could lower the cost of food all around the world by about 33%. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has published a report  concluding that edible insects may be the key to stabilizing the global food supply.

 

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Chocolate chip with cricket flour. Credit: Jonathan Snyder

Miller notes that there are 2,000 species of insects that can be, and are, eaten by people. She chose crickets because they don’t carry any diseases that are transmissible to humans and they don’t destroy crops, so people don’t have negative connotations. “I think crickets have a very nice cultural association for Westerners, with the nice chirping and the summer nights,” Miller says.

Bitty Foods now sells its products through its website, www.bittyfoods.com. The company recently began working with a food distributor and hopes to be in stores within a few months, starting in its home market of the Bay Area and then expanding to New York City.

Miller, who began her career as a trend forecaster and consumer researcher before turning to edible insects, thinks that edible insects are on the cusp of becoming trendy.

“I see a powerful shift happening in the way that people think about food,” she said. “People are more interested in sustainability than ever before and understanding where their food comes from. And thanks to the Internet we’re constantly being exposed to new trends and new ideas and even new cuisines.”

As a result, she predicts, “There’s an emerging edible insect industry in the U.S. In the next decade, insects will move from being a crazy, edgy food to being a completely mainstream food for most people.”

Main photo: Megan Miller in her Bitty Foods kitchen. Credit: Courtesy of Bitty Foods

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

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Clams on a grill pan. Credit: Kathy Hunt

Midway through summer I start craving a bit more excitement from my grill. Sure, I keep the usual burgers and kebabs on the menu. However, for a flashy, festive meal that’s a snap to create, I add bivalves to my barbecue.

Bivalves, a class of mollusk, possess two hinged shells, or valves, held together by a single muscle. Sound familiar? It should. This group consists of oysters, clams, mussels and scallops. Of these, clams, mussels and scallops all receive invitations to my cookouts.

Why aren’t oysters included on the guest list? It’s because of the “no R” rule — don’t consume oysters in a month without an “r” in its name. This is not an old wives’ tale. During the months of May through August, oysters spawn and become watery and unpalatable. Not even a smoky grill will improve their state.

Bivalves provide a chance of pace on the grill

Of the bivalve trio, the clam, specifically the East Coast littleneck clam, is a particular favorite of mine. Less than 2 inches in diameter, these are the smallest hard-shell clams. They are also the tenderest and one of the eco-friendliest.

Along with its sweet, somewhat briny taste, what I love about the littleneck clam is that it cleans itself, siphoning water into and out of its shell, pushing out debris as it goes.

Keeping this self-cleaning trait in mind, about a half hour before placing them on the grill, I lay my littlenecks in a bowl filled with cold water and pour a generous amount of salt over them. The clams immediately begin to push out the salted water and any sediment that has collected in their shells. You can watch the grains of sand and dirt float to the top of the bowl.

After 20 to 25 minutes have passed, I arrange the debris-free clams on a sheet of tin foil. Although this may seem like a mundane task, I stay on my toes, looking out for fastidious or feisty clams among the bunch. These invariably spit water at me.

Placing the foil on my preheated grill, I cover and cook the clams for five to eight minutes. They’re finished when all their shells have opened. Any that don’t open I discard.

The grilled clams, with their juices pooling in their shells, can be topped with a dollop of hot sauce, squeeze of citrus juice, drop of butter or pinch of ground black pepper. Juicy and mildly salty, they’re equally delicious without any adornments.

Clams on ice. Credit: Kathy Hunt

Clams on ice. Credit: Kathy Hunt

Mussels require a smidgen more effort. Look at a mussel and the first thing you’ll notice is a cluster of scruffy threads attached to it. Known as a beard, these fibers allow the mussel to cling to and grow on rocks and other substrate. Although useful to the mussel, they’re of no value to me and must be scraped off with a knife.

Beards removed, I scrub the mussels under running water with a stiff brush. If they seem heavy or dirty, I soak them in a bowl of cold water for an hour before draining and washing them off again.

Cleaning finally completed, I follow the same cooking steps used for clams. As for dressing the grilled mussels, I consider what complements their sweet, moist meat and adorn them with such ingredients as chives, shallots, mustard, lemon juice, tarragon vinegar or garlic-laced butter.

Scallops differ from the other two in that they’re shucked at sea immediately after being harvested. As a result, I don’t have much cleaning to do. I just rinse the meat under water and move on to cooking.

Unfortunately, the lack of shells means I have an increased risk of the scallops drying out on the grill. To combat this possibility, I generously coat the scallops with olive oil before laying them on a hot grill. After seasoning each with salt and pepper, I cook them for two to three minutes per side or until the translucent flesh has turned a beautiful pearl color. I immediately remove the scallops to prevent overcooking.

Similar to clams and mussels, scallops require few, if any, extra ingredients. A dusting of cayenne, scallions, shallots, and vinegar or lemon or lime juice will balance out their sweetness, while a splash of cream or white wine will enhance it. Chervil, parsley or thyme likewise pair well with these plump and flavorful bivalves.

The next time that you fire up your grill, add some bivalves to your barbecue. Simple, quick and flavorful, they’re a welcome addition to any summer feast.

Grilled Clams With Lemon-Basil Butter

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 40 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 servings.

From “Fish Market” (Running Press, 2013). If you don’t have an outdoor grill, you can make these on a grill pan.

Ingredients

  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • Grated zest of 2 lemons
  • 3 tablespoons fresh basil, minced
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 5 dozen medium-sized hard-shelled clams such as top neck or cherrystone, scrubbed

Directions

  1. Preheat the grill on high.
  2. In a glass bowl in the microwave or in a small pan on the stovetop, melt the butter. Allow the butter to cool slightly, about 10 minutes, and then add the lemon juice, zest, basil and pepper. Stir together and set aside.
  3. Place a layer of tin foil on the grill and then place the clams on top of the foil. Cover the grill and allow the clams to cook for 8 to 10 minutes.
  4. After tossing out any unopened clams, place the grilled clams in a bowl or on a platter and drizzle the lemon-basil butter over the top of them. Serve immediately.

Main photo: Clams on a grill pan. Credit: Kathy Hunt

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Bruschetta with Umbrian olive oil. Credit: Sue Style

Little, landlocked Umbria is not the obvious choice for those looking to vacation in Italy. For many people, all roads lead to Rome. For others it’s the Amalfi Coast, or Tuscany, the Cinque Terre or even Puglia. But Umbria has many trump cards and plenty to recommend it, especially in summer. Here are five reasons to place the region high on your bucket list.

Because it’s not Tuscany, though it’s right next door

If you’re the kind to prefer the challenge of crab to the sweet simplicity of lobster, then you may be one to favor Umbria over its better-known neighbor. Umbria is Tuscany’s country cousin, gently rustic with a clutch of unshowy, medieval hilltop villages — think Montefalco, Spello and Bevagna — set in rolling green countryside and framed by swathes of silvery olive groves and holm oak forests. It has fewer busloads of tourists and more mindful travelers (like you and me).

To feast on summer truffles

Known locally as scorzoni – the name evokes their rough, almost warty peel (avere la scorza dura means “to be thick-skinned” — these fragrant tartufi are harvested by faithful truffle hounds between May and August. Summer truffles are not so crazily scented (nor as crazily priced) as their winter or white counterparts, but they still pack a seductive punch. Buy them fresh or put up in jars from any of the tiny Aladdin’s-cave delicatessens that are such a tempting feature of Umbria’s towns, packed with strings of sausages, red onions, peppers, hunks of local cheese, bags of pasta and other delights.

At La Vecchia Farmacia just through the Porta Vecchia leading into beautiful, earthquake-ravaged Nocera Umbra, la mamma does a mean antipastone (jumbo-sized antipasto) of local cured meats, melon, sharp sheep’s-milk cheese with crunchy honey and a succulent truffle omelet thrown in as a wild card, followed by strangozzi, robust ropes of typically Umbrian pasta showered with tartufi.

For the exciting wines from Umbria

Italy has a dizzying number of grape varieties, few of them household names and many barely known outside their immediate vicinity. Umbria has its fair share of these strictly local varieties, which are well worth seeking out.

Grechetto was used traditionally in white blends, but is increasingly made as a varietal. The resulting wine can be anything from pale straw colored to a deeper gold with citrus-like, peachy aromas and a good backbone because of its naturally high acidity.

 

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Summer truffles in a jar. Credit: Sue Style

With Trebbiano Spoletino, things get even more interesting. Not to be confused with boring old Trebbiano (aka Ugni Blanc) from anywhere else, the Spoletino variety gives honeyed, golden wines of distinctive character and a mind of their own. Traditionally in Umbria (and still today in some wineries), Spoletino vines were planted at the foot of mature trees, up which they clambered — they were known as vigne maritate, vines that are “married with” the trees.

The Umbrian red to look for is Sagrantino, distinguished and meaty with deep color, pronounced cherry and blackberry flavors and good tannins: a wine to have and to hold.

Taste a selection with a simple meal at Il Pinturicchio in Spello, whose owner, Mirko Trippa Buono, is a member of the Italian Sommeliers Association. Or for a lesson in what’s on the move in the Umbrian wine world, book a tasting at Arnaldo Caprai, a large (336 acre, 136 hectare) winery with a slick, state-of-the-art tasting parlor and wine shop outside Montefalco, where Marco Caprai has made it his business to explore and experiment with these age-old Umbrian varieties, especially Sagrantino, and bring them to their fullest expressive potential.

For a drop of Umbrian DOP olive oil

The region’s gorgeous, herbaceous extra virgin oil is pressed from Moraiolo, Frantoio and Leccino olives. The area between Assisi and Spoleto is regarded as one of the best sub-regions in the Umbria DOP (protected designation of origin), and you’ll find countless places dotted along the Strada dell’Olio (olive oil route) where you can taste and buy EVOO, ready for drizzling over your next batch of bruschetta.

Le Case Gialle above Bevagna and Marfuga in Campello di Clitunno are two of the top, prize-winning producers, both of them with an agriturismo (farmhouse bed and breakfast) attached. Also worth a visit is the Fondazione Lungarotti belonging to the eminent Lungarotti winemaking family in Torgiano, which includes both a Museum of Olives and Oil (MOO) and a Wine Museum (MUVIT).

For the spirituality

Most people flock to Assisi, but it can be quite a challenge to keep hold of the spiritual dimension there, surrounded as you inevitably are by the nervous chatter of umbrella-chasing tour groups. An early morning visit will spare you the worst of the crowds and give you a few quiet moments to enjoy the superb scenes from the life of St. Francis frescoed onto the walls of the Upper Church.

For an altogether different experience, seek out some of the smaller, out-of-the-way abbeys such as the 12th-century Abbazia di Sassovivo outside Foligno, famous for its Romanesque cloister of double columns decorated with marble and mosaic motifs, still a working monastery of the Piccoli Fratelli di Gesú and a haven of peace and tranquility. In the corner of the tiny garden stands a statue of the Virgin. Beside it a sign reads, in Italian, “This space set aside for private prayer,” and then — in English — “No picnic please!”

Main photo: Bruschetta with Umbrian olive oil. Credit: Sue Style

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A tatin of new potatoes. Credit: Kerrin Rousset

New potatoes are the summer cook’s best friend. Firm and waxy with a wonderful sweet flavor and gossamer-thin skins, there’s no need to peel them — in fact it would be criminal to do so, for loads of flavor and much of the goodness lurks just under the skin.

All they need is a good scrub and — voilà — they’re good to go. Drop them into a pan of judiciously salted water, bring to a boil, cook till tender and serve with fresh butter and snipped mint leaves.

Plenty of ways to enjoy new potatoes

Boiling is not the only way to go with new potatoes. Because they keep their figure when cooked, they respond well to roasting or baking. For real drama and a winning dish that never fails to draw gasps from guests, try a “tatin” of new potatoes baked under a salty, herby crust. The whole thing is inverted for serving, like a tarte tatin, to reveal the spuds in all their golden glory. Or cut them almost in half, slide a bay leaf into the cut, drizzle with olive oil and roast till golden.

And remember that new potatoes come in many colors; any potato that is harvested early, be it white, gold, russet, red or purple, qualifies as new. A dish of purple potatoes mixed with brilliant green sugar snap peas and anointed with a little melted butter makes an arresting summer statement.

 

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New potatoes with bay leaves. Credit: Sue Style

“Tatin” of New Potatoes With an Herby Salt Crust

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 1 to 1¼ hours

Total time: About 1½ hours

Yield: Serves 6 to 8

Ingredients

18 to 24 medium-sized new potatoes

14 ounces (400 grams) flour

14 ounces (400 grams) kosher salt

1 tablespoon dried herbes de Provence or thyme

2 egg whites

A scant cup (about 200 milliliters) warm water

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 425 F (220 degrees C). Scrub the potatoes, but do not peel them.

2. Mix together the flour, salt and herbs in a large bowl.

3. Make a well in the center of the flour mix and add egg whites.

4. Add the water, gradually draw in the flour and salt from the sides and mix together till it forms a stiff dough.

5. Knead on a floured surface till smooth — if too sticky to your hands, add sprinkles of flour. If too dry, splash on a little more water and work it in.

6. Cut a piece of baking parchment to fit the bottom of a 12-inch (30-centimeter) cake pan.

7. Arrange the potatoes close together in the pan to form a flower shape and drizzle with olive oil.

8. Roll out the crust thickly on a floured board to the same diameter as the pan.

9. Lay it on top of the potatoes, tucking it inside the pan edge so there’s no overhang and the potatoes are snugly encased beneath the dough.

10. Bake the potatoes for 1 to 1¼ hours or until the crust is golden brown and hard and you can hear sizzling noises from the potatoes.

11. Leave the pan in the turned off oven till ready to serve.

12. Invert a large plate over the pan and carefully turn the tatin out onto the plate. The crust will form a base and the potatoes will be uppermost.

13. To serve, spear potatoes with a fork and lift them off the crust. Discard the crust, which is impossibly salty.

Roasted New Potatoes With Bay Leaves and Olive Oil

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 1 hour

Total time: 1 hour 10 minutes

Yield: Serves 6 to 8

Ingredients

24 medium-sized new potatoes

24 bay leaves

A drizzle of olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 400 F (200 degrees C). Scrub the potatoes well, but do not peel.

2. Make a deep, lengthwise cut in each potato without going right through and slide a bay leaf inside each one.

3. Brush a little olive oil in the bottom of a baking tin or ovenproof dish just large enough to take all the potatoes in one layer.

4. Arrange the potatoes tightly together in the dish with the bay leaves uppermost, season with salt and pepper and drizzle with more olive oil.

5. Bake the potatoes for about an hour or until golden and fragrant.

Purple Potatoes and Sugar Snap Peas With Herbs

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 20-25 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: Serves 2 to 3

Ingredients

1 pound (450 grams) small purple potatoes

7 ounces (200 grams) sugar snap peas

1 teaspoon salt

1 ounce (25 grams) sweet butter

A handful of fresh herbs, roughly chopped (try mint, chives and flat-leaf parsley)

Directions

1. Scrub the potatoes well, but do not peel.

2. Trim the sugar snap peas.

3. Put the potatoes in a saucepan with water to cover and the salt.

4. Bring to a boil and boil for 15-20 minutes or until the potatoes are tender when pierced with the point of a sharp knife.

5. Add the sugar snap peas and boil for 2-3 minutes more or until barely tender and still beautifully green.

6. Drain the vegetables, melt the butter in the pan, return the vegetables to the pan and roll them around in the butter till sizzling.

7. Tip the vegetables into a dish and sprinkle with chopped herbs.

Main photo: A tatin of new potatoes. Credit: Kerrin Rousset

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