The antipasti station at an Autogrill in Italy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Terra Brockman

“Great food” and “highway rest stop” are not phrases I would normally utter in the same breath. But that was before I experienced the Italian Autogrill.

At about 500 locations across Italy, you can get gas, go to the bathroom and then, very likely, have a better dining experience than at most Italian restaurants in the United States.

Perhaps you’d like to choose your steak from the glistening display of fresh meat, and tell the chef how you’d like it cooked. Or maybe the pasta station, with its many pots of boiling water waiting for your choice of pasta and sauce, is calling to you. How about a spaghetti alle vongole prepared while you wait? In those few minutes while the pasta is being cooked to perfection, and the clams are opening up in their white wine sauce, you might wander over to the antipasti station and choose a beautiful plate of prosciutto, mozzarella and arugula. Then, since you are in Italy, pick up a nice half bottle of local wine and settle in for what could very well be one of the best meals of your life.

The Autogrill offers not only great food but valuable insights into the values and priorities of a culture. Italians enjoy modern life, efficiency and convenience as much as anyone, but modernity and convenience need not compromise food. At the Autogrill, whether you go for the whole dining experience, or just grab a freshly made panino, you will get healthy, delicious food made with great ingredients and great care. It’s slow food fast. Or fast food slow. Either way, the Autogrill is where the fast life of the autostrada meets the Slow Food values of quality ingredients prepared with pride.

Now, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I start salivating at the sight of the bright red swooping A of the Autogrill franchise, and make excuses to stop there more often than strictly necessary.

Capri Sandwich

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: None

Total time: 10 minutes

Ingredients

1 piece of focaccia, split in half, or 2 slices Italian, French or sourdough bread

Mayonnaise, to spread, as thickly or thinly as you like

Sprinkling of dried oregano

1 leaf of lettuce

1 thick slice of tomato

2 or 3 thin slices of prosciutto cotto

1 generous piece of fresh mozzarella, ideally from a fresh ball of mozzarella di bufala

Directions

1. Warm the bread in the toaster oven, taking it out before it’s actually toasted.

2. Swipe some mayonnaise on what will become the two inside parts of the sandwich and sprinkle with oregano.

3. Assemble your sandwich, starting with lettuce on the bottom, followed by the tomato, prosciutto and mozzarella.

Main photo: The antipasti station at an Autogrill. Credit: Copyright 2015 Terra Brockman

Read More
Muhammara-burrata pain au levain toast with pickled radish. Credit: Muhammara-burrata pain au levain toast with pickled radish. Credit: David Latt

The lesser partner of center-stage bacon and eggs at breakfast, toast is often pushed to the edges of the plate waiting for a bit of butter and jam. But toast is forgotten no longer. Chef Jason Travi of Superba Food + Bread in Venice, California, has placed toast center stage, and not just for breakfast. No longer just dressed in sweet jams, toast appears on the restaurant’s menu topped with sautéed kale, prosciutto, avocado, smoked trout and muhammara, the spicy Middle Eastern condiment.

Why toast? Why now?

Dishes long associated with childhood meals have been improved with quality ingredients to the delight of diners. Chefs gave kid-friendly mac and cheese a makeover by adding English cheddar, fresh Maine lobster and truffle oil.

Travi was following a toast trend begun by all accounts by chef Giulietta Maria Carrelli of Trouble Coffee & Coconut Club in the San Francisco Bay area. At Superba Food + Bread, chef Travi took me into his kitchen for a video demonstration of a signature dish: grilled toast with walnut muhammara and burrata. Before we began, he talked about his partnership with Jonathan Eng, the baker responsible for making the freshly baked breads used in the restaurant.

Good toast requires great bread

At Superba Food + Bread, Eng was encouraged to be innovative. The restaurant promoted collaboration. Often Eng will come up with an idea for a new bread. He and Travi would then explore toppings that would be a good match for the texture and flavor of the new bread. Sometimes Travi asked for a bread to go with a particular dish, such as the sprouted wheat loaf he asked Eng to make with millet, flax and sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seeds. While the many sandwiches on the menu come with a variety of breads, all the toasts are made with the pain au levain.

To make his version of the classic French sourdough, Eng modified the recipe using a 16-hour cold fermentation. Using an Italian Bassanina Tubix steam pipe oven, he bakes the pain au levain loaves in 750- and 1,500-gram sizes. Both are used in the restaurant and sold in the bakery.

The only way the restaurant will be guaranteed to have freshly baked bread for the day’s service is if Eng starts work at 2 a.m. six days a week. When he arrives, the cleaning crew is just leaving. For a few hours he enjoys having the quiet restaurant all to himself. By the time Travi’s crew arrives for the breakfast service, Eng has his loafs stacked high on the wood counters, ready for the day’s diners.

A mother’s recipe passed down to her son, the chef

Chef Travi remembers watching his mother cook when he was growing up. From her Lebanese family, she learned to prepare Middle Eastern classics. One particular dish stayed in his memory, her muhammara, a spicy dip made with peppers, walnuts, bread crumbs and olive oil.

To complement the spicy flavors of the muhammara, Travi adds freshly made burrata and the crunch of pickled radish.

Muhammara-Burrata Toast With Pickled Radish

While the spread will work on any bread, Eng encourages using a good quality sourdough that is baked fresh and eschews preservatives. Although ready-made bread crumbs can be used, the quality of the muhammara will be improved when they are homemade.

The muhammara can be made the day of use or reserved covered in the refrigerator for up to five days. The radishes should pickle for two days and then can be refrigerated in an airtight container in the pickling liquid for several days.

The Aleppo powder Travi prefers is frequently unavailable. He suggests substituting cayenne powder. The heat from the two are different, so taste and adjust the amount used.

Pomegranate molasses is available in Middle Eastern and Israeli markets and sometimes in the International sections of supermarkets.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 whole red pepper, washed, to yield ¾ cup roasted red peppers

6 slices freshly baked bread, divided

¼ cup raw walnuts

1½ teaspoons pomegranate molasses

¼ teaspoon ground cumin

¼ teaspoon ground coriander

¼ to ½ teaspoon Aleppo powder or cayenne

1 tablespoon olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 cups fresh burrata

1 tablespoon Italian parsley leaves, washed, dried

1 tablespoon pickled radishes (see recipe below)

Directions

1. Heat oven to 450 F. Place the whole red pepper on a piece of parchment paper or a Silpat sheet on a baking sheet. Cook 15 to 30 minutes depending on size or until the skin is lightly browned and the flesh is tender. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.

2. When the pepper is cool to the touch, use a pairing knife to cut off the stem and peel away the skin. Discard the skin and seeds. Finely chop the flesh. Measure out the amount needed in the recipe and reserve the remainder for another use in a refrigerated, airtight container.

3. Tear two slices of fresh bread into pieces. Heat a nonstick pan. Toast the pieces in the pan. Remove. Allow to cool. Place into a blender and pulse to make crumbs. Return the bread crumbs to the pan. Do not use oil. Toast the bread crumbs until lightly brown. Set aside to cool. Measure out the amount needed in the recipe and reserve the remainder for another use in a refrigerated, airtight container.

4. Reduce the oven to 325 F. Place the walnut pieces on a piece of parchment paper or a Silpat sheet on a baking sheet. Bake about 10 to 12 minutes or until lightly brown.

5. Remove and allow to cool.

6. Place red peppers, walnuts, pomegranate molasses, ground cumin, ground coriander, Aleppo powder or cayenne and olive oil into a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth.

7. Taste and adjust flavor by adding sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

8. Heat a grill or a grill-pan. Place the remaining bread slices on the grill just long enough for grill marks to appear. Remove.

9. Place the toast slices on a cutting board and then spread a layer of muhammara on each slice. Decoratively spoon on three or four teaspoon-sized mounds of burrata, season with sea salt and black pepper, sprinkle on pickled radish and parsley leaves.

Lebanese-Style Pickled Radish

At a supermarket or farmers market, buy fat, firm radishes with unwilted leaves attached to ensure they are freshly picked.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 2 minutes

Pickling time: 2 days

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

2 large radishes, washed, stems and root ends removed

¼ cup water

¼ cup white vinegar

¼ cup white sugar

Directions

1. Clean the radishes to remove all dirt. Cut away any blemishes and discard.

2. Using a sharp chef’s knife, julienne the radishes, cutting from stem top to root end. The strips should be as uniform as possible, about 1/8-inch thick.

3. Place the julienned radishes in a non-reactive bowl.

4. Place water, vinegar and sugar into a small saucepan. Bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve sugar.

5. Pour the hot liquid over the radish. Cover. Let sit on the counter 2 days.

6. The pickled radish will keep up to a week in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Main photo: Muhammara-burrata pain au levain toast with pickled radish. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Read More
Walnuts, oranges and orange blossom water make these hamantaschen burst with flavor. Credit: Copyright MayIHaveThatRecipe.com

The most recognizable symbol for the Jewish holiday of Purim is a three-cornered cookie, called a hamantaschen.

Purim, which begins March 4, is a particularly joyful festival, nicknamed the Id-al-Sukkar, or the sugar holiday, by Muslims because sweet treats are plentiful. It is a sweet spirited holiday, notwithstanding the ancient Persian tale associated with it featuring complex plot twists of deceit, prejudice, politics, sexual intrigue and revenge.

Purim is a time for celebratory imbibing of alcohol, vibrant costumes and joyful, raucous parties with comedians cracking jokes all night, called a Purim schpeil.

Now, all that is fun, but honestly, for Jews of Ashkenazi descent — especially those who aren’t particularly religious or observant — it’s all about that triangular cookie — that gloriously crisp sweetness embracing an unctuous, fruit filling.

Or maybe it’s about a plush, thick-rimmed yeast pastry version that is punctuated by the intriguingly textured sweet poppy seed filling. Or maybe it’s a savory three-cornered pastry, perfect as an amuse-bouche.

Hamantaschen, you see, are anything but boring. And they are nothing new. The first version was likely the poppy seed or mohn filling, even giving the cookie its name — ha-mohn-taschen, or haman’s hat (Haman was the villain in the ancient tale). Classic versions are wonderful and worthy of your time, every time, every year.

But like any cookie, the classic recipes inspire tremendous creativity among cooks. A survey of some of the web’s cooks, writers, bloggers, recipe developers and chefs reveals a wide swath of variations so numerous and enticing that it will seduce your palate and leave you eagerly awaiting next year’s treats.


Check out these websites for creative variations of the classic hamantaschen recipe:

» TheKitchn

» Tori Avey

» LilMissCakes

» The Kosher Foodies

» The Joy of Kosher

» WhatJewWannaEat

» Busy in Brooklyn

» Kitchen Tested

» CouldntBeParve

» Alibabka

» The Jewish Daily Forward

» My Jewish Learning

» May I Have That Recipe

» Ronnie Fein

» The Weiser Kitchen

Main photo: Walnuts, oranges and orange blossom water make these hamantaschen burst with flavor. Credit: Copyright MayIHaveThatRecipe.com

Read More
New England snowstorms have sent customers to their supermarkets. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

Being stuck in the house because of monumental snowstorms is nothing new for me because I grew up in Wisconsin. But before this winter I had never seen the amount of snow that has buried the Boston area where I now live — eight to 10 feet accumulated in successive storms, accompanied by freezing temperatures.

Communities have created “snow farms,” formerly empty spaces where truckloads of snow from streets and sidewalks is dumped. We have been warned to clear our roofs to avoid cave-ins and have been bombarded with tips to do that safely. If we were unable to rake off snowy roofs, one suggestion was that we stuff a pair of pantyhose with noncorrosive ice melt and fling it onto the roof. But when seen from a distance, wouldn’t this get-up look like half of a murdered female body? I don’t want to think about it. Instead, I rush to crowded grocery stores between storms and stock up on food I don’t really need.

This siege mentality put me in mind of the horror of real sieges such as Leningrad in World War II when the Germans put the city under blockade and starved the citizenry. People were reduced to catching and eating domestic animals, digging up and devouring tulip bulbs from public gardens, and licking off wallpaper paste from walls. In contrast, what I am going through — a fear of running out of canned tomatoes in case I want lasagna — is a minor, if not decadent, concern. Nevertheless, off I go to the supermarket to stock up, and along with my neighbors fill my cart just as fast as store employees refill the shelves.

Stocked for any situation

I should say at the outset that I have three freezers that are always stocked with meat, bread and rolls, vegetables and cooked dishes such as thick soups and meat rolled in cabbage, our favorite winter dish. The truth is I probably could eat well for a couple of months if the snowstorms continued and made shopping impossible. Losing power concerns me, but I do have a wood-burning fireplace and would be able to grill steaks and chops and oversee a weenie roast complete with s’mores. When a friend asked me what I would do if power went out and my freezers stopped working I said, “Why I would bury all the food in a snowbank,” and we certainly have plenty of those.

Where the fear of scarcity takes us

Although I am well-supplied, I rush to the supermarket to stock up on what I think I must have if I am housebound. I first load up on staples. When I see the store’s supply of bread is depleted, I go to the baking department and, to my surprise, see that most of the flour is momentarily gone too. I stock up on other staples, buying half-and-half for coffee and a favorite brand of plain yogurt for my usual breakfast of  yogurt parfaits. Getting more coffee is not a problem because I buy large quantities online, but I do pick up grapes as well as a crate of clementines, which have been especially good this year. I cannot help but notice how much food is available. Grocery workers are everywhere, replenishing the shelves with abundant supplies. I fill my cart with canned goods — salmon, tuna fish, sardines, whatever can be eaten straight from the can, for you never know.

Retail therapy

I decide to go after goods I don’t normally buy, feel-good luxuries such as a Stilton from Neal’s Yard Dairy and plenty of candy, my junk food of choice. I only need the suggestion of hardship to think I deserve chocolate-covered peanuts or licorice from Australia. I look at other people’s carts and see huge jugs of bottled water and wonder whether some think that municipal water supplies will be endangered. I also see carts full of pretzels and chips, which I suppose serve as compensatory junk food. At home I struggle to find room on pantry shelves for recent purchases, then do the equivalent of window shopping by looking at favorite online food sites.

No matter what side of the street you live, there's no escaping the snowstorms this winter in New England. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

There’s no escaping the snowstorms this winter in New England. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

Perspective amid the snow

At the back of my mind is the realization of just how lucky I am to be living in a country where only 6% of the household budget is spent on food, unlike poorer countries of the world where 40% to 50% must be spent, and 15% in the more prosperous European countries, as professor Anne McCants pointed out in a paper delivered at the MIT symposium “Consuming Food, Producing Culture.” I become aware that shopping for food and anything else has become a pleasant, and often, idle pastime. And when I think about my recent stocking-up foray to the grocery store, I recall how the aisles were cluttered not only with frantic shoppers but also with store clerks restocking shelves with massive loads of food, and I think again of the siege in Leningrad where people died of starvation. That it occurred in the winter is the only thing my Boston experience shares with that real siege. In all other respects I have it good, especially since I won’t have to think about how to cook the family cat and how that would taste.

Pantry Pea and Carrot Soup

Adapted from a recipe in “Season to Taste” by Jeannette Ferrary and Louise Fiszer. I like this version because it is fast and because I usually have the ingredients on hand. Plus, it is really good.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 55 minutes

Total time: 1 hour 10 minutes

Ingredients

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 medium onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, chopped

2 celery stalks, chopped

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 pound carrots, cleaned and sliced 1/8-inch thick

6 cups chicken stock (canned is fine)

1 cup green split peas

Salt and pepper

Directions

1. Using a large saucepan, heat oil and sauté onion, garlic and celery for 5 minutes.

2. Add cumin and carrots and cook 2 minutes.

3. Add stock, bring to a boil and add split peas.

4. Simmer partially covered for 45 minutes or until peas are very tender

5. Purée 2 cups of soup mixture in a food processor or blender and return to rest of the soup in the pot.

6. Taste for salt and pepper.

Main photo: The more the snow falls, the less is available on supermarket shelves as customers panic and buy out stores. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber

Read More
Stephane Riffault’s Pinot Noir comes from a parcel called La Noue which gives its name to his rosé and his red Sancerre. Credit: Copyright Denis Bomer

Sancerre’s greatest secret is its red wines made from Pinot Noir.

At the eastern border of France’s Loire Valley, Sancerre is known for its benchmark Sauvignon Blancs, but this was not always the case. Pinot Noir historically covered Sancerre’s hillsides until phylloxera began its devastation of the region’s vines sometime around 1865. (Indeed, it is said the Champenois came here in search of raw material.)

Among the many varieties planted to reconstitute the vineyards, it was Sauvignon Blanc that proved perfectly adapted to the climate and the soils of Sancerre and today accounts for roughly 80% of the volume. Pinot Noir — for either rosé or rouge — makes up the balance.

Until recently most producers treated their reds pretty much as an afterthought. Now Pinot Noir is getting serious attention. The wines may not yet plumb the depths of, say, Vôsne-Romanée, but the best ought to make Burgundy take notice. Sancerre rouge is getting better every day.

For the most part, these are seductive, light- to medium-bodied reds with vibrant flavors of cherry, plum and strawberry. Bottlings from older vines or prime parcels may be more structured, with hints of sweet spices, black tea and orange zests. They are supremely satisfying and absolute charmers. Most should be drunk slightly chilled.

Listed here are three of my favorite producers. Their grapes grow on one of Sancerre’s three soil types: “white soils,” composed of clay and limestone, also known as Kimmeridgian marl (the same soils as Chablis) on the westernmost hillsides of the zone; pebbly compact limestone, on the slopes and low hills; and flinty clay, or Silex, on the hills at the eastern limits of the appellation. All three vintners harvest by hand, keep yields low, and age their reds, at least in part, in oak barrels.

Domaine Claude & Stéphane Riffault

Thirtysomething Stéphane Riffault is one of my favorite discoveries. After studying viticulture and enology in Beaune, Riffault worked with Olivier Leflaive (Burgundy) and at Chateau Angelus (Saint Emilion) before returning to Sancerre, where he is in the process of converting the family property to organic viticulture. His reds are bottled without filtration.

Riffault’s Pinot Noir comes from a parcel called La Noue which gives its name to his rosé and his red Sancerre. Lovely balance and juicy red fruit characterized the (still too) young 2013. The 2008, however, was cool, silken and fine of grain. Wonderfully fresh, pure and fluid, it had deep flavors of cherry and black tea. (A second bottling, Les Chailloux, is not sold in the United States.)

Domaine Lucien Crochet

Lucien’s son Gilles, a Dijon-trained enologist, has long been one of Sancerre’s best ambassadors, making fine-tuned, concentrated, eco-friendly Sancerres, among them, two Sancerre rouges.

The basic bottling is La Croix du Roy. The 2011 was pale (vintage oblige) with lovely, mingled scents of small red berries. Cool, harmonious and lightly oaky, with a distinctly salty thread, it should be drinking beautifully when it arrives in the United States this fall. The 2010 is limpid and airborne, seasoned with oak, at once delicate and forceful.

Crochet’s Cuvée Prestige rouge is made from the Crochet’s oldest Pinot Noir vines and is produced only in the best vintages, most recently in 2005, 2009 and 2012 (the last won’t be released for another year or two).

The fragrant 2009 was pellucid and firm, a smooth, fresh gourmandise. The vivacious 2005 was similarly delicate but dignified, with rose petal accents, emerging flavors of oak and an appetizing bitter note in the finish.

Domaine Vincent Gaudry

Gaudry’s wines are sui generis … and downright fascinating. Gaudry says he works with his energy and his emotions and is guided by an old vigneron who “speaks the language of energy.” His mentor also provided him with great grapes, to wit, Pinot Fin, a pre-phylloxeric, pre-clonal version of today’s Pinot Noir that the old vintner planted 50 years ago by Selection Massale.

The grapes now make Gaudry’s “Les Garennes,” an unfiltered red, the 2013 of which was utterly seductive, silky, delicate and infinitely nuanced.

With the coarser, ruddier “Pinot Noir” we know today, Gaudry makes Vincengetorix, also unfiltered. The 2009 was dense, pure, cool, and lightly tannic, with flavors of spice and black tea — full of character and mesmerizing.

There are so many wonderful Sancerre rouges and so little space. Herewith, wholehearted recommendations for the following Domaines:

• Francois Crochet
• Pascal & Nicolas Reverdy
• Bailly-Reverdy
• Pierre Morin
• Dominique Roger
• Roblin, Vacheron
• Serge Laloue

Prices range from $22 to $40, and up to $66 for deluxe bottlings. And in case you’re wondering, all these winemakers also make terrific white Sancerres.

For more information about French wines, read “Earthly Delights From The Garden Of France: Wines Of The Loire,” by Jacqueline Friedrich.

Main photo: Harvest time at La Noue vineyard. Credit: Copyright 2015 Denis Bomer

Read More
Invented in 1922, blenders populated upwards of five million American kitchens by midcentury. Credit: iStock/Eva-Katalin

Blenders today are ubiquitous and taken for granted, but there was a time when these humble kitchen tools were central to aspirational American cooking — with one cookbook elevating the appliance to its proper place in the kitchen.

Ann Seranne, a lesser-known but prolific cookbook author, published “The Blender Cookbook” in 1961 with Eileen Gaden after they both left editorial positions at Gourmet Magazine to form a food consulting company. Inspired by their consulting for Waring, the first major American blender manufacturer, Seranne and Gaden began work on a blender cookbook. Invented in 1922 by Stephen Poplawski, blenders populated upwards of 5 million American kitchens by midcentury. In his musings on the appliance, however, Craig Claiborne of The New York Times bemoaned that the average housewife used her blender for little more than daiquiris and whiskey sours. At the same time, gourmands from Julia Child to Alice B. Toklas embraced the appliance’s abilities, even as they favored more traditional techniques.

Describing herself as “a devoted disciple of the electric blender,” Seranne assured readers that next to the stove and refrigerator, the blender was the kitchen’s most essential appliance, a “treasure” worthy of a permanent place on the kitchen counter. Wrapped up in both haute cuisine and convenience cooking, Seranne and Gaden brought this enthusiasm to home cooks with “The Blender Cookbook.” With dozens of black and white illustrations, the text features more than 500 recipes not only for dips, soups, sauces and drinks, but also for scrambled eggs, turkey stuffing, crab-and-macaroni casserole, meat loaf, beef Stroganoff, lamb curry, white-fish quenelles with sauce Normande, and fruit tarts.

In his initial review, titled “Blender Magic,” Claiborne honored Seranne’s contribution, asserting that the cookbook “fills a culinary void that has been apparent since the first blender was placed on the market nearly three decades ago.” Overall, he rated the cookbook as the “most comprehensive and imaginative and by all odds the best” among blender texts. Although Claiborne critiqued one of the recipes (a blended minestrone recipe that he quipped was simply “not minestrone”), he lauded Seranne’s hollandaise sauce. Easily whipped up in mere seconds with the blender’s aid, Claiborne proclaimed, “This alone should qualify her for some sort of gastronomic hall of fame.”

Far beyond a gimmicky contribution, “The Blender Cookbook” appeared in Claiborne’s round-up of the year’s best cookbooks, alongside seminal gastronomic tomes, such as the English translation of “Larousee Gastronomique,” “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (which he called “a masterpiece”), the newest edition of “The James Beard Cookbook,” and Claiborne’s own “The New York Times Cook Book.”

The 1960s cookbook boom

Among such esteemed company, “The Blender Cookbook” came into being during a meaningful culinary moment. In her Oct. 23, 1961, New York Times article, “Food: Cookbook Boom,” June Owen wrote that more cookbooks were to be published that year than ever before.

Nika Hazelton, a well-known cookbook author and food writer, echoed this sentiment, albeit more colorfully, in 1963, when she observed, “Americans are taking to cookbooks the way the Romans took to orgies.” Orgies aside, Owen situated cookbook publishing and sales within broader changes in American culture. She argued that etiquette rules, like those penned by Emily Post, which quieted discussions of cooking at the hostess’ table, had shifted. As Americans developed a “tremendous interest in food,” kitchen labors became a topic of newly suitable conversation over dinner.

In her analysis of these burgeoning food interests, Owen also engaged David Reisman, Nathan Galzer and Reuel Denney’s “The Lonely Crowd,” a sociological study, both landmark and contested, first published in 1950 and again in 1961, in the midst of this cookbook boom. Reisman traced growing interest in cooking to the rise of servant-less households among the middle class, which shifted the responsibility for cooking. He also cited the increasing abundance of food that made eating well an accessible luxury for more than just the supremely affluent. He argued, as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu also would, that under such conditions, food became a primary method for demonstrating taste and social status.

Cookbooks in midcentury America — focusing on desserts, eggs, ethnic cuisine or even blenders — served as both the means and symbols of this upward mobility. Or as Hazelton quipped on the price of cookbooks, “You’ve got to spend a little to build up your reputation as a gourmet, which appears to be the current ambition of every red-blooded American” — a sentiment not too far afield from today’s mainstreamed and seemingly ever increasing interest in food and cooking, sipping and tasting, cookbook buying and kitchen outfitting.

Ann Seranne, kitchen sorceress

Beyond the prominent position of “The Blender Cookbook” in the 1960s culinary canon, what do we know of the woman behind the blender? Originally from Canada, Ann Seranne came to the United States in the 1930s and worked her way to executive editor at Gourmet before she began her consulting partnership with Gaden in the mid-1950s. Throughout her career, Seranne published not just “The Blender Cookbook,” but more than two dozen cookbooks, including “Ann Seranne’s Good Food & How to Cook It,” “Good Food Without Meat,” “The Complete Book of Home Preserving” and “The Art of Egg Cookery.”

Claiborne wrote fondly of her in The New York Times, describing her as a tall (she was 5′ 8″), blond, handsome woman; “a born cook;” an indefatigable food consultant; and “a kitchen sorceress who would rather cook than eat.” His description of her 1963 cookbook, “The Complete Book of Desserts,” may have applied to her as well: “At once as down to earth as an apple fritter and as sophisticated as a cream-filled génoise.”

Impressive as they are, Seranne’s cookbooks were but one of her life’s accomplishments. She nurtured twin passions for cooking and breeding Yorkshire terriers, five of which shared her New York home and whose breeding line claimed more than 60 championships. Her canine brood supped on a ragout of beef, lamb shanks, parsley, carrots and garlic; garlic being her dogs’ most favored flavor. When famed dog show reporter Walter Fletcher purportedly asked Sarenne of the similarities between cooking and dog breeding, she replied, “Both contain equal parts science, art and luck.”

Main photo: Invented in 1922, blenders populated upwards of 5 million American kitchens by midcentury. Credit: iStock/Eva-Katalin

Read More
Jamaica Quesadillas. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Zaslavsky

Jamaica, spelled like the Caribbean island but pronounced ha-MY-ka, a flower in the hibiscus family, makes one of Mexico’s most beloved and refreshing drinks, agua de jamaica. The ruby-red, tart, sweet yet often mouth-puckering refresher can be spotted in huge glass jars in almost every traditional market across the country.

By contrast, at high-end restaurants — from the southern state of Oaxaca’s Casa Oaxaca through Mexico City’s Pujol to the country’s northwest corner at Tijuana’s Mission 19 — trendy mixologists serve jamaica cocktails shaken or stirred. These pros know the sexy red color sparkles in Mexican Cosmopolitans (non-aged, clear tequila and jamaica vs. vodka and cranberry) when a customer desires to sip from a chic martini glass.

You can buy dried jamaica flowers, Hibiscus sabdariffa, in bulk at Mexican markets or in cellophane-wrapped packs hanging from hooks near dried chiles. Always be sure the jamaica is from Mexico and not from China; the cheaper Chinese product (the catch!) has insipid flavor and weak color. And don’t confuse this hibiscus with the huge-flowered plants called hibiscus blossoming in all their glory in tropical and subtropical back yards.

You can brew jamaica as tea, then strain and discard the flowers. It is rarely served as hot tea in warm climates except as a calming cure for urinary tract infections. Think of jamaica and its curative powers as Mexico’s answer to cranberry juice. Both extremely tart, the brilliant crimson liquids must be sweetened to be easily drinkable, and science has confirmed metabolites in their juice prevent E. coli from sticking to other bacteria, limiting its ability to grow and multiply. In most cases, minor infections are improved in a day after downing four cups of either drink, hot or cold.

In Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca‘s rug weaving center, Zapotec chef Abigail Mendoza of Tlamanalli restaurant brews agua de jamaica strong and sweetens it with panela, cones of deep brown unrefined sugar called piloncillo in most other regions of Mexico. She makes it in and serves it from a bulbous pitcher with narrow top. Mendoza whips up the drink using a molinillo (a hard-carved wooden foaming too) until the top is covered with copious bubbly foam. The foam is an important part of any traditional drink in this part of Mexico because people feel the drink’s spirit is in the foam and without bubbles the drink has no life, or is at best past its prime.

Besides hot tea and agua de jamaica, highly flavored jamaica simple syrup is a joy to have on hand for various uses, especially cocktails; its sweet-sour flavor is similar to pomegranate molasses and some balsamic vinegars. Try the sophisticated flavor over strawberries and vanilla bean ice cream. In the past few years, jamaica salad dressings have popped up in restaurants everywhere and are delicious yet simple to make. Modern-style restaurant bar menus offer quesadillas (folded corn tortillas with melted cheese inside) de jamaica, although many in Mexico City have no cheese — odd, but trés cool bar snacks with the hipster low-fat crowd. High-end gourmet shops sell elaborate candied jamaica flowers to decorate fine desserts. On the other hand, a longtime childhood favorite is the traditional, beloved jamaica frozen ice pop found at street corner push carts. (Hear the bell?)

Jamaica Tea (Agua de Jamaica)

This tea can be served hot or cold.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: About 4 cups

Ingredients

4 cups water, plus more for diluting

1 cup dried jamaica flowers (Mexican, not Chinese)

Ice, if desired

1 cup sugar (white, brown or agave syrup), or more to taste

Directions

1. Stir the jamaica into the water in a saucepan and bring it to a boil. Turn off the heat, and let the flowers steep 20 minutes.

2. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a container. Add water to dilute to your liking.

3. Heat to serve hot or chill with ice to serve cold. Stir in sweetener to taste, or add sweetener separately to each cup or glass. The tea will keep for three days refrigerated.

Jamaica Simple Syrup

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 40 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: About 1 cup

Ingredients

4 cups Jamaica Tea, unsweetened (see recipe above)

1 cup white sugar

Pinch sea salt or kosher salt

Directions

1. Boil the unsweetened jamaica tea until it is reduced by half, about 20 to 25 minutes.

2. Add the sugar and a pinch of salt and boil until it is reduced by half again, to 1 cup, about 20 minutes more.

3. Remove from the heat and cool until the strong bubbles die down. Carefully pour the hot, thick syrup into an airtight glass jar. The syrup will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator.

Jamaica Salad Dressing

Prep time: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: About 1/2 cup

Ingredients

3 1/2 tablespoons Jamaica Simple Syrup (see recipe above)

1/4 teaspoon sea or kosher salt

6 grinds black peppercorns

1 small clove garlic, smashed and finely chopped

2 tablespoons Mexican lime (aka Key) juice

1/3 cup quality extra virgin olive oil

10 jamaica flowers, finely chopped

Directions

1. Measure Jamaica Simple Syrup into a small bowl. Whisk in the salt, pepper, garlic and lime juice.

2. Slowly pour in the oil, whisking until fully blended.

3. Whisk in the chopped flowers. Pour as much as desired over chilled salad greens of your choice and toss.

Note: This dressing is a real treat on a salad with queso fresco, feta or goat cheese scattered on top.

Jamaica Quesadillas

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 8 quesadillas

Ingredients

2 cups water

1/2 cup coarsely chopped jamaica flowers

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons sugar or agave syrup

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 jalapeño chile, stemmed and finely chopped (You can keep the seeds for spice.)

8 corn tortillas, about 8 inches in diameter

2 cups shredded melting cheese, such as quesillo de Oaxaca, mozzarella or Jack

Directions

1. Stir the jamaica into a saucepan of water and bring it to a boil. Turn off the heat, and let the flowers steep 10 minutes.

2. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing to extract all liquid into a container, saving the flowers. Reserve the tea for another purpose.

3. Heat the oil in a small skillet. Add the flowers, sweetener, salt and chopped chile. Sauté over medium-low heat until sticky, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat.

4. Put the tortillas on a preheated, medium-hot ungreased griddle. Spoon some of the jamaica mixture to one side of each tortilla and then pile with cheese, keeping it away from the edges. Fold the empty tortilla half over the half with jamaica. Press with a spatula. When the bottoms of the tortillas crisp a bit, flip them over to crisp the other sides and melt the cheese.

5. Remove to a cutting board and cut into wedges.

Main photo: Jamaica Quesadillas. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Zaslavsky

Read More
Rigatoni con la Pagliata (Rigatoni With Chitterlings). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Virtually everyone who has been to Italy has been to Rome, but not everyone who has been to Rome has had Roman cuisine. Most of the famous foods of Rome, such as pizza, fettuccine alfredo or spaghetti carbonara, either were invented for tourists or came from elsewhere.

The Romans eat in a way that is nearly hidden from the tourist. Their meals are heavy on offal and first-course pasta dishes.

Italian cookbook author Anna Gosetti della Salda boldly declared “la cucina romana doesn’t exist,” but I’m not sure I agree. She goes on to explain that it can’t be said to exist because “no Roman ever created those masterpieces of culinary art that are the pride of almost all other regional cuisines of Italy. Despite this the fact remains incontestable that you eat well in Rome and the food is good and almost everywhere.”

Paolo Monelli, who was one of Italy’s most distinguished journalists, was also honest in his appraisal of the cuisine of Rome, declaring it “the most plebeian that exists in the peninsula; flavorful, of course, aggressive, multicolored, but rural, created by the taste of goat-herders, of cowboys, buffalo herders, and the incivility of the recipes from the ghetto.”

The most succinct summation of la cucina romana, although insipid, was that of food writer Ada Boni who said that “la cucina romana è una cucina semplice, sana, nutrient e saporita” (Roman cuisine is a cuisine that is simple, healthy, nutritious and flavorful). A dish of pasta and offal would be an example.

‘Fifth’ quarter of the cow

Pride of place of a dish that strikes to the soul of Roman cuisine is rigatoni co’ la pajata, a unique recipe made from the small intestine of the suckling calf. In Romanesco dialect, rigatoni co’ la pajata (or pagliata) can be translated as rigatoni with chitterlings. It is probably the most unique dish of Rome utilizing a component of the quinto quarto, the “fifth” quarter of the cow (that is, the head, tail and offal). It is without doubt a dish derived from cucina povera, the cuisine of the poor.

It is made from cow or calf chitterlings, that is, the duodenum, the small or first part of the intestine where the enzymatic breakdown of food occurs. Roman gourmets call for beef believing that beef is more flavorful than veal.

However, unique to the dish is the fact that although the intestine is washed and thoroughly cleaned, the chyme is not removed so when it is cooked there is a rich, creamy and slightly sour taste mixed with the tomatoes of the sauce. The chyme is the semiliquid mass of partially digested food that passes from the stomach through the pyloric sphincter into the duodenum of the cow. The process of cleaning the duodendum is quite laborious because one does not want to lose the chyme, but that is the job of the butcher and the cook merely has to prepare the dish.

For four to six people you need 4 pounds of chitterlings. In the United States you will probably have to use pork chitterlings and those from Louis Foods are ideal. Lardo is cured pork fatback (not lard, which is called strutto in Italian) and can be found in better supermarkets such as Whole Foods and in Italian markets. Some domestic American companies are also making lardo.

Rigatoni con la Pagliata (Rigatoni with Chitterlings)

Prep time: About 10 minutes

Cooking time: 3 3/4 hours

Total time: About 4 hours

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

One 5-pound package cleaned pork chitterlings, cut into 4-inch pieces

1 tablespoon pork lard or olive oil

1 medium onion, sliced

1 celery stalk, chopped

1/4 pound lardo, prosciutto fat or pancetta, or a mixture of the three, chopped

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 cups dry white wine, separated

One 28-ounce can tomato purée

Bouquet garni, tied with kitchen twine, consisting of 10 sprigs parsley and 1 sprig rosemary

1 clove

2 1/2 cups water

1 pound rigatoni

1/4 pound Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino romano cheese, freshly grated

Directions

1. Place the pork chitterlings in a stockpot, cover with water, bring to a boil over high heat and boil for 1 hour. Drain; once cool, cut into pieces half the size and set aside until needed.

2. In a large flameproof casserole, melt the lard over medium heat, then cook, stirring, the onion, celery, lardo and garlic until soft, about 6 minutes. Add the chitterlings, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, until sticking to the bottom and turning light golden, about 6 minutes. Add 1 cup wine. Once the wine evaporates, add the tomato purée, bouquet garni, clove and water. When the liquid starts to bubble, reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring and moistening with the remaining white wine until tender, about 2 to 2 1/2 hours. The sauce should be dense though, so continue cooking if necessary.

3. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly, then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing. Transfer the pasta to a large serving platter and spoon the chitterlings and sauce over it; serve with the cheese.

Main photo: Rigatoni con la Pagliata (Rigatoni With Chitterlings). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Read More