Yucca flower gratin. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

With its widely recognizable dagger-sharp leaves, the yucca plant (Yucca spp.), offers up a particularly tasty food in its flower petals. Yucca, not to be confused with yuca (Manihot esculenta), is native to arid regions of the Americas, and is popular as a water-wise ornamental plant elsewhere.

In traditional dishes, yucca flowers often appear paired with eggs. The flavor of yucca flowers is akin to artichoke, which makes them an interesting springboard for cooking. In an attempt to re-create the flavors of stuffed artichoke, I’ve found it worthwhile to serve yucca flowers as a gratin topped with a crunchy layer of seasoned bread crumbs.

When harvesting yucca flowers, select ones that are newly opened and appear unblemished. Pass over any flowers that are wilted or appear to have been taken over by insects. Foraging wild foods is not unlike selecting produce at the market in that you look for foods that are in good condition. You can pick more than one yucca flower per plant, as it won’t cause significant damage. Yucca is a sturdy plant with a large taproot. Keep in mind, however, that certain animals feed on yucca flowers, and they are a habitat for yucca moths. I like to shake each flower after I’ve plucked it to free any moths that might be inside.

Yucca flowers can cause throat irritation in some people if eaten raw, so it’s likely best to use them in cooked preparations, particularly if you are new to the plant as a food. Traditionally, yucca petals are removed from their reproductive parts. To prepare yucca flowers for cooking, simply strip the petals from the pistil and stamen.

For a girl growing up in a hot stretch of the prairie in the Western United States, yucca plants were always a part of the tableau. As a kid, I learned early on to play carefully when there were yucca and cacti around, so as not to get hurt. It wasn’t until I was an adult and began foraging in earnest that I discovered those plants that were as familiar to me as the backs of my hands were also edible.

Yucca flowers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Yucca flowers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

I’ve been working with my own local yucca, Yucca glauca, also known as Great Plains yucca, for many years, especially enjoying the flowers. Unlike some species of yucca, Great Plains yucca develops nonfragrant flowers, the petals of which are quite waxy in texture when raw. I’ve enjoyed the flowers of yucca in more traditional preparations with eggs, as well as in soups and stir-fries. Until recently, my favorite way to prepare yucca flowers has been to steam the petals, and then preserve them as one would an oil pickle like artichoke hearts.

This year, while reading an older cookbook about Mexican herbs, I caught sight of one short sentence that instructed to add a spoonful of flour to steamed yucca flowers, and pan-cook the mixture as patties. I tried this method and was slightly off-put by the glueyness created by the flour. However, the flavor of the yucca in flour, particularly where it had browned, was undeniably good.

The next day, I took the recipe in a slightly different direction. I seasoned steamed yucca petals well with salt, pepper and onion powder. Then, instead of adding flour and attempting to make cakes, I added dried bread crumbs, and put the crumble into a hot pan coated with some oil. Once browned, the yucca and bread crumb mixture was easily the best yucca preparation I’d tasted. The flowers were still succulent and sweet, and their slight bitterness was enhanced by extra savory flavors added through the golden bread crumbs. This preparation of yucca flowers can be used in a number of ways. It’s good enough to stand alone as a side dish, and it makes an excellent pasta topping. My favorite way to use yucca flowers sautéed with bread crumbs is to make quesadillas with queso Oaxaca.

I’ve also used the crunchy bread crumb and yucca combo successfully in a dish that comes as close as I can to turning yucca into stuffed artichoke — yucca flower gratin. You can always tell I’ve been binge-watching Jacques Pepin when I have the urge to stuff all of my wild edible plants into a gratin. Nobody at my table complains, however, because gratins are both classic and a tastebud-friendly way to serve foraged produce.

Yucca Flower Gratin

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

6 cups yucca petals

1 1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs

1 shallot, minced

1/2 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese

3 teaspoons chopped fresh herbs such thyme, parsley and chives

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Directions

1. Begin by steaming the yucca petals just until they turn translucent and pale green, 1 to 2 minutes. Let them cool to room temperature.

2. In a bowl, combine the bread crumbs, cheese, herbs, garlic powder, salt and a little freshly ground black pepper using a fork. Add 2 tablespoons of oil and continue stirring the mixture until the all of the bread crumbs appear to have been coated with the oil.

3. Heat a skillet over medium. Add the remaining tablespoon of oil. Sauté the minced shallot for 1 minute, then add the steamed yucca petals and a sprinkling of salt.

4. Add a large handful of the seasoned bread crumbs to the yucca petals, about 3/4 cup, and continue cooking the yucca, stirring frequently and scraping up stuck bits as needed, until they take on a deep medium brown color. Because the yucca is already cooked, you are simply looking to add a layer of flavor through the browning achieved by the Maillard reaction.

5. Remove the yucca from the heat. Evenly divide the browned yucca between four lightly greased 8-ounce ramekins.  Top each ramekin full of yucca with what remains of the seasoned bread crumbs.

6. Place the ramekins under the broiler of an oven just until the bread crumbs turn an irresistible shade of brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes before serving.

Main photo: Yucca flower gratin. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

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Burgundian Caroline Parent-Gros, whose family has spent 14 generations in the wine business, believes the family's best wines are ahead of her. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

They say you can never step into the same river twice, and I recognized the truth in this statement on a recent return to Burgundy, France.

It’s been 20 years since I first stumbled across this glorious culinary corner of the world, which sparked an enthusiasm for wine. But the current is always rushing, the banks shifting, the river changing course.

Some things seem eternal: Pommard and Volnay are still sleepy little stone walled villages, Beaune is the vibrant wine capital, and the wines and the congregation of tiny producers who make them continue to be unparalleled.

But change is afoot. On April 27 of this year, the region was hammered by a spring frost, the latest in a string of devastating weather events. Year after year, it seems that Burgundy’s notoriously capricious weather grows more volatile, and the littlest producers are hit the hardest by the changing climate. One wonders how they will survive.

The vineyards around the Château du clos de Vougeot are among the most prized in the world, but in recent years the weather has driven smaller yields. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

The vineyards around the Château du clos de Vougeot are among the most prized in the world, but in recent years the weather has driven smaller yields. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

Scrappy farmers, prized wines

Burgundy is a tiny sliver of a wine region, crammed into the east-facing slope of a low-slung ridgeline running south from the city of Dijon. Burgundian wines are the world’s most prized and expensive. Yet the people who make the best of them are the smallest producers, scrappy farmers rich in precious parcels of vineyard land but poor in cash flow. These small vignerons could sell their plots for a fortune — and some of them do — and live out the rest of their lives in luxury. But thankfully most choose to work the land and farm grapes, bottling their own small allotments in the tradition of their parents and grandparents.

I explored a corner of this life in my novel “Vintage” and the last time I walked the stone walled vineyards and cobbled streets of Pommard and Volnay was in my imagination. Now I’m back in the real Burgundy, reevaluating what I imagined while interviewing winemakers for a documentary about this current difficult year.

Some of the producers have lost 90 percent of their 2016 crop. Other recent harvests have borne less fruit due to hail, storms and violent swings in weather. If you study the records, you can see a dramatic shift in harvest dates. In the past it was normal for harvest to begin in October or November. 2003 saw the first ever August harvest. More have followed.

Wine producers look into the future

In the vast network of cellars of Francois Parent beneath the street of Beaune, two years’ worth of wine fit into a space that used to hold only one.

Thierry Violot-Guillemard manages his family's estate with his son; he wonders if small producers can survive in the new normal of Burgundy's changing weather. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

Thierry Violot-Guillemard manages his family’s estate with his son; he wonders if small producers can survive in the new normal of Burgundy’s changing weather. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

Caroline Parent-Gros manages sales and marketing for the family estates. Her forefather, Étienne Parent, supplied wine to Thomas Jefferson; America is still their biggest export market. But now with less wine to sell, that legacy may be in jeopardy. When asked about this year’s slim harvest, she says, “I think that we can face another year … but maybe not one more.” Still, she remains optimistic. “You always expect to make the vintage. Even if you have some great and exceptional wine, you always expect something like the jackpot.” She believes her family’s best wines will still be made in the future.

Thierry Violot-Guillemard is a scrappy farmer who oozes Burgundian character, from his gnomish ruggedness to his broom of a mustache. He’s survived years of bad harvests and a crushing motorcycle accident that has required dozens of surgeries. But even that didn’t slow him down. He produces sought-after wines from his home and facility from the tiny town of Pommard. Though he expresses doubt that small producers will be able to survive another 40 years, he’s grooming his son Joannes to take the reigns of the family business. The legacy will continue.

Thiebault Hubert is a Volnay vigneron with a sunny disposition and a deep commitment to the terroir of his family’s vineyards. To preserve it, he’s turned to soft-touch biodynamic practices, eschewing chemicals and tilling the rows with horse and plow. He believes that to survive, small producers must adapt. “We know that we will actually, maybe never produce the quantities that we produced 15 years ago,” he told us. But he sees a silver lining, as the scarcity of fruit will drive a greater focus on quality.

Thiebault Hubert believes smaller yields are here to stay, but he also feels this will drive even better quality. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

Thiebault Hubert believes smaller yields are here to stay, but he also feels this will drive even better quality. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

Burgundy’s survival

Burgundy is not the same place I visited 20 years ago. And some day hail cannons may sound from the hillsides, disrupting a pleasant stroll through leafy vineyards. But Burgundians will survive. That’s something I learned from the Burgundian characters I wrote about in “Vintage.” And from the real people on whom they are based.

Fact and fiction may not always meet up. The Burgundy I wrote about is different from the one I see now. But somewhere in a vineyard, or in a dark, damp cellar, fact and fiction come together as they always must. Burgundy, and the spirit that drives it, is forever.

Main photo: Burgundian Caroline Parent-Gros, whose family has spent 14 generations in the wine business, believes the family’s best wines are ahead of her. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

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Chef Koji Kimura enjoys conversation over the sushi counter with his regulars, but his demeanor becomes much more serious when he is crafting and presenting sushi to his customers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

This story begins 20 years ago.

While researching my first book, “The Japanese Kitchen,” I met Tsuyoshi Iio, the fourth-generation president of Iio Jozo, a family-owned, small rice vinegar production company founded in 1893 in Kyoto Prefecture, Japan.

Iio Jozo is the most honest and respected rice vinegar producer in Japan. It’s not just the company’s exceptional tasting rice vinegar, but most important, its vinegar is safe to consume. Here’s what I mean.

Best rice vinegar

Iio Jozo's Akasu, the best and only long-aged sake lees vinegar in Japan. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

Iio Jozo’s Akasu, the best and only long-aged sake lees vinegar in Japan. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

Tsuyoshi’s father, Terunosuke Iio, was a visionary president of the company. During the 1950s, Japan became caught up in rapid postwar economic development. The use of strong agricultural chemicals — to increase and speed up the production — became the norm. But soon tadpoles, wild insects and animals disappeared from rice paddies. Farmers suffered from mysterious diseases.

At that time, Terunosuke Iio read the Japanese translation of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and decided he wanted to use only organic rice in his vinegar production. But it took him two years to persuade enough farmers to agree to raise rice organically. All the farmers were aware of the toxic influence of chemicals, but most could not be persuaded to return to the labor intensive, chemical-free farming practices.

Today Iio Jozo Company is run by an energetic fifth-generation president, Akihiro Iio. It has been producing 3- to 5-year-aged Akasu for years. Recently the company began aging it up to 15 years, upon receiving a request from a sushi chef in Nagoya Prefecture.

Aji (horse mackerel) fresh, not aged, from Wakayama Prefecture. Aji is an oily fish, so the sushi is always topped with a mound of grated ginger and thinly sliced chives as a mouth refresher. But Chef Kimura hides the ginger and chives between the fish and sushi rice. He says, "Those condiments are unnecessary for our eyes. Our taste and texture sensors enjoy the harmony of the fish and the condiments only in our mouth." Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

Aji (horse mackerel) fresh, not aged, from Wakayama Prefecture. Aji is an oily fish, so the sushi is always topped with a mound of grated ginger and thinly sliced chives as a mouth refresher. But Chef Kimura hides the ginger and chives between the fish and sushi rice. He says, “Those condiments are unnecessary for our eyes. Our taste and texture sensors enjoy the harmony of the fish and the condiments only in our mouth.” Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

Aged fish

A complete, miraculous transition — this was my experience at Sushi Kimura, a tiny seven counter-seat sushi bar restaurant in Futako Tamagawa, just one hour from central Tokyo by train.

At this restaurant, Chef Koji Kimura has developed a special kind of nigiri sushi.

He uses fish that has been cured and aged — some up to 90 days. This aged fish does not spoil nor become stinky; it acquires much umami and a quite tender texture.

Chef Kimura discovered it almost by accident.

After opening his small restaurant, he waited for customers night after night, for weeks. The fresh fish he had purchased and prepared did not keep for long. “There were lots of waste,” he said.

Instead of giving up,  Kimura was determined to find out how long he could age and improve the fish. Bleeding, salting, de-salting, shaving the surface, observing — every day for months his hard work brought him to a startling accomplishment. He successfully produced delicious, safe-to-eat fish through aging up to 90 days.

Chef Kimura proudly exhibits a bottle of Iio Jozo rice vinegar (left) behind his sushi counter. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

Chef Kimura proudly exhibits a bottle of Iio Jozo rice vinegar (left) behind his sushi counter. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

In order to create the perfect match for such fish, Kimura cooks his rice to a rather firm texture and flavors it with Akasu (“red color-tinged rice vinegar”).

The use of Akasu in the preparation of sushi rice produces a distinctive, strong yeasty fragrance and taste, and a faint reddish brown color. Akasu was made from sake lees, the solids left over from fermenting rice to make sake; it was the vinegar used at the time of the invention of nigiri sushi in the city of Edo.

And, thus the marriage of two unique businesses — Kimura Sushi’s aged fish and Iio Jozo’s Akasu. Together they produce a new dining experience, one with deep historical roots.

A harmony of flavors

This appetizer before my sushi course is "abalone risotto." It consists of sushi rice with tender-cooked cubed abalone flavored with a sauce made with abalone liver resulting in a creamy texture with a distinctive flavor and a hint of bitterness. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

This appetizer before my sushi course is “abalone risotto.” It consists of sushi rice with tender-cooked cubed abalone flavored with a sauce made with abalone liver resulting in a creamy texture with a distinctive flavor and a hint of bitterness. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

For my meal at Kimura Sushi, I began with 10-day aged shiro-amadai (white horsehead) on top of a small squeeze of sushi rice. It was tender and sweet with a surprising touch of firmness.

Fourteen-day aged kinme (alfonsino) was melting tender with umami that was further elevated by the Akasu. To my surprise, kinme loses two-thirds of its original weight during the aging process.

Fourteen-day aged kinme (alfonsino). Kinme is a very expensive fish in Japan that can not be wasted. Its white flesh is noted for its sweet and oily flavor. Chef Kimura’s aging process results in fish that is tender and creamy, but not broken down and mushy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

Fourteen-day aged kinme (alfonsino). Kinme is a very expensive fish in Japan that can not be wasted. Its white flesh is noted for its sweet and oily flavor. Chef Kimura’s aging process results in fish that is tender and creamy, but not broken down and mushy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

Aji (horse mackerel) from Wakayama Prefecture was fresh, crunchy and delicious. Tai snapper was lightly cured in kelp.

But the climax was unthinkable before my visit: 60-day aged makajiki (striped marlin).

Chef Kimura's 60-day cured makajiki (striped marlin) proved that properly aged fish can develop so many wonderful new and delicious flavors. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

Chef Kimura’s 60-day cured makajiki (striped marlin) proved that properly aged fish can develop so many wonderful new and delicious flavors. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

I closed my eyes to concentrate all of my senses on the fish. Caramel, coffee, cream, sweet … a miraculous harmony of flavors swept through my mouth. Aging matters — probably it’s much better for the fish than for me.

Main photo: Chef Koji Kimura enjoys conversation over the sushi counter with his regulars, but his demeanor becomes much more serious when he is crafting and presenting sushi to his customers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

 

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Samantha O’Keefe went from being a newcomer to winemaking to now having highly touted wine. Credit: Courtesy of Lismore Estate Vineyards

Back in 2000, Los Angeles native Samantha O’Keefe took a major chance on a winemaking career and an untested wine region when she purchased a farm in South Africa’s Overberg. Today, her Lismore Estate Vineyards wines consistently achieve 90+ ratings from Robert Parker and other industry heavyweights, and she’s considered a pioneer of a region that is making world-class wine. “It’s been an overnight success after 14 years of slogging away,” she says with dry humor.

It all started 16 years ago, when O’Keefe, whose career was in TV development, and her then-husband decided to travel in South Africa. They ended up planting roots in Cape Town, where they looked for a business they could develop. One rainy Sunday with their 5-month-old baby, they drove out to a farm on the outskirts of Greyton, a small town at the base of the Riviersonderend mountain range. As they stood at the bottom of the property and looked up at its dramatic slopes, her husband said: “We could make wine here.”

Pioneers in the region

Lismore Estate Vineyards sits on the outskirts of Greyton, at the base of the Riviersonderend mountain range. Credit: Courtesy of Lismore Estate Vineyards

Lismore Estate Vineyards sits on the outskirts of Greyton, at the base of the Riviersonderend mountain range. Credit: Courtesy of Lismore Estate Vineyards

Neither had made wine before and there were no vineyards on the farm, or within 40 miles of Greyton. Four days later, they made an offer on Lismore farm.

Crazy? “It was a vision,” says O’Keefe. The deal was contingent on the results of an extensive viticulturist report, which came back showing favorable cool climate terroir with shale soils. “The research showed that the terroir was similar to that of the Northern Rhone. At the time, everybody was pushing cool climate planting, but Greyton was overlooked, maybe because there was nothing out here.”

The couple spoke to a few local winemakers, including Peter Finlayson, the highly respected first winemaker in nearby Hemel-En-Aarde Valley. “Peter said that if we succeeded, we’d be pioneers. If we failed, no one would care. When all was said and done, we made an educated guess that it could be very special.” By 2004, they had planted 36,000 vines: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Northern Rhone varietals Syrah and Viognier, the two that are Lismore’s most critically acclaimed today and “taste like nothing else coming out of South Africa,” she says.

They then set about building their dream house, “a cross between Cape vernacular and California ranch,” high up on the 740-acre property, and they had a second child. There were many initial shocks, including a house that was way over budget, but this was nothing compared to what happened on the eve of Lismore’s first harvest in 2008, when O’Keefe’s husband unexpectedly left. “It was a shock, but the next day I had to get up and start making wine.” A few months later, the global financial crisis hit, and things got even tougher.

“I had borrowed millions of rands that I needed to pay back, when suddenly the world ground to a complete standstill. I was desperate and tried to sell the farm but couldn’t. Finally I was able to sell 20 percent of the property, which enabled me to pay off my debt.”

Gaining notice

A worker at Lismore Estates, which consistently achieves 90+ ratings from Robert Parker and other industry heavyweights. Credit: Courtesy of Lismore Estate Vineyards

A worker at Lismore Estates, which consistently achieves 90+ ratings from Robert Parker and other industry heavyweights. Credit: Courtesy of Lismore Estate Vineyards

In 2012, friends pooled funds to buy O’Keefe a ticket to London, so that she could participate in the Beautiful South, a show featuring wines from South Africa, Argentina and Chile. At the show, she stood across from Neal Martin, who she didn’t know was a Robert Parker reviewer. After tasting her wine, Martin said: “I hope you have distribution, because when people read my report they’ll be banging down your door.” He gave her Chardonnay and Viognier 92 points. That’s when things started to change, for the better.

Today, she is most proud of her Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc, “a wine that is outside of the box by South African standards, more winemaker-driven than my others, and more style than terroir.” The list of Lismore accolades is long, with her 2014 Syrah on the Robert Parker Wine Advocate Best 50 List of 2015 and the 2013 Lismore Viognier named one of Tim Atkin’s Wines of the Year. More than half her wines are exported to the United States and Europe.

The fact that a virgin winemaker could make such a success is as captivating as her wines. O’Keefe is proud, but also grounded. “Winemaking is not rocket science. It’s chemistry, which I’ve always loved, as well as schlep. I also had the best minds in the area on speed dial.”

There are still no other commercial producers in Greyton, but O’Keefe thinks it’s only a matter of time before she has winemaking neighbors. “South Africa is a really exciting place to be in the wine industry today,” she says. “Small producers have the freedom to experiment and push boundaries, and we are benchmarking wines against the best of the world for the first time.”

The Lismore Estate wines can be bought at timelesswines.com.

Main photo: Samantha O’Keefe went from being a newcomer to winemaking to now having highly touted wine. Credit: Courtesy of Lismore Estate Vineyards

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Combine sparkling water with fruits to make your own natural fruit drinks. Credit: Courtesy of Galvanina

Bottled-at-the-source mineral water is delightfully refreshing, and with no calories or chemicals, is a drink that’s good for you and a base for many make-your-own sparkling beverages. It’s also ideal for cooking, with countless ways to improve basic recipes.

Vegetables

Add some sparkling water to make this cauliflower with orange marmalade glaze. Credit: Courtesy of "Shakespeare's Kitchen"

Add some sparkling water to make this cauliflower with orange marmalade glaze. Credit: Courtesy of “Shakespeare’s Kitchen”

For bright green broccoli and vividly orange carrots, cook them in sparkling mineral water. “Boil vegetables in sparkling water to preserve color and vitamins. Mineral water decreases oxidation and the loss of chlorophyll and carotenoid pigments, and keeps vegetable’s bright colors,” says Rino Mini, CEO of Galvanina natural spring water, renowned since ancient Roman times. “Sparkling mineral water also softens vegetables so you can reduce cooking time, better preserving the vegetable’s vitamins and nutrients. It lets you skip the step of plunging cooked vegetables in ice-cold water to retain their color.”

Tempura and fritters

Use sparkling water for better batter. Simply mix flour with sparkling water, dip your favorite vegetables, seafood or fish in the batter and then lightly fry. The sparkling water will make anything you fry extra crunchy.

Sparkling iced drinks

Instead of buying sodas, make your own. Sparkling water creates festive thirst-quenchers but without the added calories of bottled drinks. Combine sparkling water with lemon or other fruit juice for your own homemade natural fruit drinks.  Add it to your favorite brewed tea or coffee for natural sparkling iced tea or coffee. “Use sparkling water in your coffee-brewing machine. Not only will it make chemical-free espresso or coffee but it has the delightful added advantage of keeping your machine from building unpleasant residue,” says Mini.

Cake, waffles, crepes and pancakes

Add sparkling mineral water instead of water or other liquids in cake recipes or cake mixes. The sparkling water makes it rise nicely and results in a fluffier texture. Great too with waffles: substitute one part of the milk for the water and follow the recipe as you normally would. Try it in your favorite crepe and pancake recipes. Replace half of the milk in the recipe for fizzy spring water for a improved texture. You’ll be thrilled with the delicious light and airy crunch.

Angel Food Cake

Add sparkling water to cake recipes for a fluffier texture. Credit: Courtesy "Opera Lover’s Cookbook"

Add sparkling water to cake recipes for a fluffier texture. Credit: Courtesy of “Opera Lover’s Cookbook “

Recipe courtesy of Opera Lover’s Cookbook (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Prep time: 5 minutes

Baking time: 35 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients

12 large egg whites, room temperature

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup sparkling spring water, such as Galvanina

1 teaspoon vanilla or maple extract

2 teaspoons cream of tartar

1 cup cake flour

3/4 cup superfine sugar

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Generously butter and flour a Bundt or tube pan. Reserve.

2. In a large mixing bowl, using an electric mixer set on high, whip the egg whites, salt, water, extract and cream of tartar until the egg whites form soft peaks, about 5 minutes. Reduce the mixer speed to medium and slowly add the cake flour and sugar until just combined.

3. Pour the batter into the prepared Bundt pan and bake until golden, about 35 minutes.

4. Carefully invert the pan onto a wire rack and allow it to cool upside-down for about an hour, which prevents the cake from falling. Run a knife around the edges to remove the cake.

Main photo: Combine sparkling water with fruits to make your own natural fruit drinks. Credit: Courtesy of Galvanina

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Grilled fish with oregano, chile and olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

The summer grill party is one of the most beloved of summer gastronomic experiences. On the Fourth of July we fire up the grill, people gather round impatiently, and on go the hamburgers, the hot dogs, the pork spareribs, the chicken breasts, the steaks. But why not take your grilling game up a notch this year?

Taking on a challenge can mean grilling something you don’t usually try, working with a theme, or grilling something big that needs attention and then to be carved, such as a whole half turkey breast on the bone with its skin. There’s an amazing taste if you’ve never tried. It comes off the grill and you slice it like a big ham. One could go the non-simple direction, such as stuffed roll-ups of veal scallopini or spit-roasted meat.

For a themed meal, grill something from a particular cuisine, or paired foods, or something historical, or foods of the same color or cut, or mixed grills. In the recipes below the theme is three kinds of fish steaks and three kinds of fresh herbs. Choose three kinds of firm fleshed fish steak and pair them with a fresh herb for grilling. Here are three that work.

Grilled swordfish with fresh orange juice and fresh thyme

Grilled swordfish in fresh orange juice and thyme. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Grilled swordfish in fresh orange juice and thyme. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

This preparation is inspired by the way they would cook swordfish in Sicily. Swordfish is very popular in Sicily as they are found in the Straits of Messina and elsewhere around Sicily. The firm flesh of swordfish is perfect for grilling.

Prep and cooking time: 1 1/4 hours

Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Juice of 2 oranges

1 bay leaf, crumbled

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

Two 5-ounce swordfish steaks, 3/4 inch thick

3 tablespoons fresh thyme and thyme sprigs for garnish

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Prepare a hot charcoal fire or preheat a gas grill on high for 20 minutes.

2. In a ceramic or glass baking pan, swish the olive oil, orange juice, bay leaf, and garlic until mixed. Place the swordfish steaks in the marinade and coat with the thyme and salt and pepper and leave for 1 to 2 hours.

3. Grill the swordfish on the hottest part of the grill and grill until almost springy to the touch, 6 to 8 minutes in all, basting with the leftover marinade and turning carefully only once. Remove from the grill and serve.

Grilled fish with oregano, chile and olive oil

If there is one thing I miss since I moved to California, it’s bluefish, which we can’t get here. Bluefish is a dark-fleshed Atlantic fish when raw that is excellent grilled over a hot fire for a few minutes. When the “blues are running” as they say in New England or Long Island, grills come out and people make all kinds of things with bluefish: bluefish balls, bluefish fritters, bluefish pate, bluefish grill. If you’re elsewhere in the country, then you’ll want to use mackerel, bonito, yellowtail, mahimahi, or angelshark. Note in the recipe that you are using fillets, not steaks, and the fillet needs its skin on.

Prep and cooking time: 25 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

3 garlic cloves, mashed to a paste in a mortar

4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh oregano leaves

1 dried red chile, crumbled

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 1/2 pounds bluefish or bonito fillets (about 3/4 inch thick)

Directions

1. Prepare a hot charcoal fire or preheat the gas grill on high for 15 minutes.

2. Lightly brush the grill with some olive oil. Stir together the remaining olive oil, garlic, oregano, chile, salt and pepper. Coat the bluefish with this mixture and lay skin side down on the grill.

3. Grill for 5 to 6 minutes while basting occasionally. Carefully flip the fish with a spatula and grill another 5 to 6 minutes, basting some more. Remove to a platter and serve.

Grilled salmon with tomato relish and mint

Grilled salmon with tomato relish and mint. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Grilled salmon with tomato relish and mint. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

The grilled salmon gets a treatment of salsa cruda, a raw sauce made of tomato, garlic and mint that can be made quickly in a food processor, which whips it into a froth very quickly. Serve the sauce on the side or spooned on top of the salmon.

Prep and cooking time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

6 ripe plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and drained of water

1/2 cup loosely-packed fresh mint leaves

2 garlic cloves

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 1/2 pounds salmon fillet, in 4 pieces

Directions

1. Preheat a gas grill on high for 20 minutes or preheat a broiler or prepare a charcoal fire.

2. Place the tomatoes, mint leaves, garlic, and olive oil in the food processor and run until the salsa is frothy, 30 to 45 seconds. Season with salt and pepper and stir.

3. Season the salmon with oil, salt, and pepper on both sides and place skin side down on the grill. After 4 to 5 minutes, flip with a spatula and grill for another 3 to 5 minutes depending on the thickness of the fish. Serve immediately with the salsa.

Main photo: Grilled fish with oregano, chile and olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

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Grilling the perfect bird. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

It’s hot, you’re busy and company’s coming for dinner. Nothing’s easier than tossing some chicken on the grill. Am I right?

Not at all! Think about it: When was the last time you had a properly cooked piece of chicken from somebody’s backyard grill?

“Never” is my guess — even from your own. Don’t take it personally. The fact is that hardly anybody knows how to grill chicken that isn’t coal-blackened or outright charred in some places or practically raw in others.

The trouble is the chicken. While it’s a favorite choice for grilling, especially in summer, the how-tos are not obvious. Chicken is nothing like burgers or hot dogs, pork chops or rib steaks; it’s tricky to deal with the fat under the skin that drips onto the fire and causes flare-ups. What makes matters worse is marinade, which causes the grill to smoke heavily, turning your chicken gray instead of enticingly browned.

On top of that, it’s tough to determine when chicken is done all the way through; it always seems to take longer than it should. So you pull it off too soon and end up with (gulp) pink, undercooked chicken.

So who am I to give advice? Well, I wrote a cookbook all about cooking every cut of grass-fed beef, and now I’m tackling poultry. Listen, I’ve had my own share of chicken troubles in the past. The worst was when I served underdone chicken to a Muslim exchange student who told me that it was against his religion to eat it. That low point kicked off a self-improvement project: learning the techniques for grilling chicken right.

Top 5 grilling tips

Crispy, juicy grilled chicken with pesto. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

Crispy, juicy grilled chicken with pesto. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

1. Use bone-in, skin-on chicken pieces. Grilling experts highly recommend thighs, and I agree that they are the moistest, but legs, breasts and wings also benefit when the bones and skin are left intact, as they help to insulate the meat from overcooking — and they make it taste much better. (However, if you’re committed to boneless, skinless chicken breasts, the techniques you practice with the remaining tips will help you master those, too, with practice.) Pasture-raised chickens, especially those from heritage breeds, are not only tastier but also more sustainable than factory-farmed birds, so seek them out in your area at the farmers market or local grocer.

2. Season the chicken well with salt and save the marinades for after cooking. Most people make their first mistake before they even fire up the grill: They don’t season the chicken enough. With your best-quality kosher or sea salt, sprinkle all sides of the chicken pieces as if you’re dusting them finely with confectioner’s sugar. Everyone loves marinated chicken, but submerging your chicken in any sauce — even barbecue sauce — will bring you more cooking complications, not more flavor.

3. Preheat your grill to medium-high heat and control those flames. Unlike other foods that respond well to intense heat, chicken calls for moderate or medium-high heat (between 350 F and 400 F). Whether using a charcoal or gas grill, test the heat patterns by placing your open palm about 5 inches above the grate. If you can hold it there for 5 seconds, you’re in range. Also note where the heat is less intense. In the event of a flare-up, immediately move the chicken to these cooler parts of the grill to prevent charring.

4. Brown chicken pieces skin side down for longer than you think you should. Always cook the chicken skin side down first and plan to leave it there until it is nearly all the way cooked. Why? You’ll end up with crispy and beautifully browned skin (remember, it insulates the meat), plus the chicken will be cooked evenly to the bone. In general, it takes at least 30 minutes to cook bone-in chicken at this temperature, so aim for cooking it skin side down for three-quarters of the total cooking time — 20 to 25 minutes — before flipping and finishing it on the second side.

5. Use your grill like an oven. After laying the chicken pieces on the grate, put on the lid. Now your grill will radiate the heat above as well as below, which is exactly what chicken needs to get cooked all the way through. The lid also controls air flow and keeps the flames on a charcoal grill from getting out of hand. Dripping fat will likely incite flare-ups, so monitor the cooking and move the chicken away from flames to those cooler areas of the grill whenever necessary. If you’re at all uncertain that the chicken is done, insert the tip of an instant-read thermometer close to the bone or just cut into the center for a visual check.

Foolproof finishing strategies

Once your chicken is seasoned and fully cooked to an enticing golden brown, let it rest near the heat for 15 minutes or so. Grilled chicken doesn’t need much embellishment, although cilantro pesto, peach chutney or avocado salsa — or any other fresh and tangy sauce — will liven it up.

But what about those pesky marinades? Think wings, which are first deep-fried and then tossed with sauce. The same principle applies to grilled chicken: Cook it well first, then brush or toss it with any homemade or bottled marinade or sauce. Let it warm-marinate until ready to serve or put it back on the grill for a few minutes to marry the sauce to the chicken as it reheats.

Now you’re the expert.

Main photo: Grilling the perfect bird. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

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Matteo Cocchetti’s innovative version uses lake sardine, beef filet slowly cooked and parsley sauce. Credit: Copyright 2016 Arianna Mora

Italy’s beautiful Lake Iseo is the venue for artist Christo’s latest project, “The Floating Piers,” a 52-foot-wide, 2.7-mile pathway on the water from the town of Sulzano to the Monte Isola island, continuing along pedestrian roads from Peschiera to Sensole, then reaching to San Paolo Island. The project runs through July 3.

Floating piers

Christo’s saffron-colored “The Floating Piers” connects islands and the mainland on Italy’s Lake Iseo. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wolfgang Volz for Christo

Christo’s saffron-colored “The Floating Piers” connects islands and the mainland on Italy’s Lake Iseo. Credit: Wolfgang Volz Copyright 2016 Christo

The artist describes the sensation of strolling along the floating piers as “walking on the back of a whale” and, yes, it is a long walk indeed.

If you are lucky enough to experience this, you’ll probably be hungry after your walk. There are many osterias along the lakeside promenade where you can enjoy the traditional dish of manzo all’olio di Rovato, or Rovato beef in oil. (Rovato is a small town located in the Franciacorta hills, close to the lake.)

At the time of the Republic of San Marco, the meat market in Rovato, in northern Italy, was the most important one on the route from Venice to Milan. Merchants coming from Liguria used to bring the typical products of their land, such as oil and anchovies, which are central to this beef dish.

The dish can be accurately dated to the second half of the 16th century, when the recipe was written down by a noblewoman, Donna Veronica Porcellaga. It has been a family recipe for five centuries, handed down from one generation to the next, so that each family has its own version. It consists of three basic ingredients: olive oil, anchovies and the lean meat called cappello del prete (priest’s hat), usually used for bollito misto. Garlic, bread crumbs and some vegetables are also added. According to experts, the trick is to sear the beef quickly on the sides so it cooks slowly and remains tender, keeping all the juices in.

Rovato beef reinvented

Vittorio Fusari’s version is served with broccoli, spinach, cicory, baguette-shaped polenta, green sauce, fresh anchovies and pressed olives. Credit: Copyright 2016 Masaka Zukurihara

Vittorio Fusari’s version is served with broccoli, spinach, chicory, baguette-shaped polenta, green sauce, fresh anchovies and pressed olives. Credit: Copyright 2016 Masaka Zukurihara

Just like art, this 500-year-old recipe can be made in the traditional spirit — or it can be revisited with an innovative twist, as Christo does with his projects.

Three local top chefs have different takes on it.

Stefano Cerveri from Due Colombe in Borgonato di Cortefranca keeps alive the family tradition and remains faithful to Granma Elvira’s cooking, a classic version dated 1955 and enriched with a spoon of acacia honey.

Matteo Cocchetti from Dispensa Pani e Vini Franciacorta serves a slightly nontraditional dish, a beef filet cooked at low temperature with dried lake sardines and parsley sauce.

Finally, Vittorio Fusari, born and raised between the Franciacorta wineries, is a true philosopher when it comes to local cuisine. At magnificent Palazzo Lana Berlucchi, he serves an innovative version, vacuum-sealing the meat and slowly warming it up to 125 F, then taking off the packaging and slowly cooking it in his own extra virgin lemon-flavored olive oil at 150 F. The meat lies over a green bed made with broccoli, spinach and chicory, and served with baguette-shaped polenta, green sauce, fresh anchovies and pressed olives.

“I believe that a traditional recipe may be changed only if you respect it, know it well and love it,” says Fusari, “and that’s exactly the opposite of demolishing it.”

Manzo all’olio

Stefano Cerveri at Due Colombe uses his grandmother’s traditional recipe, which dates to 1955.  Credit: Copyright 2016 Luigi Brozzi

Stefano Cerveri at Due Colombe uses his grandmother’s traditional recipe, which dates to 1955. Credit: Copyright 2016 Luigi Brozzi

Cooking Time: 3 1/2 hours

Total Time: 4 hours and 20 minutes

Yield: 4 Servings

Ingredients

3 pounds of lean meat
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
9 tablespoons butter
3 anchovies in oil
1 carrot
6 fresh leaves of spinach
1 pound whole-grain wheat flour
3 garlic cloves
4 cups warm water
2 tablespoons cornstarch

Directions

1. Saute the anchovies in butter, adding the chopped onion and the garlic cloves.

2. Cut the meat long, making two pieces, and brown the pieces in the pan for 10 minutes. Add about 4 cups warm water and slow-cook the meat for at least three hours, removing the fat that comes to the surface.

3. Halfway through, add the oil. Mix a handful of cornstarch with a little water and add it to thicken the sauce.

4. Remove the meat and cut it into slices of about 3 inches. Strain the sauce into another saucepan, add the carrot and finely chopped spinach and, if necessary, a teaspoon of cornstarch to thicken further.

5. Serve accompanied by polenta or a steamed potato.

Main photo: Matteo Cocchetti’s innovative version uses lake sardine, beef filet slowly cooked and parsley sauce. Credit: Copyright 2016 Arianna Mora

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