Bright Salmon-Pink Mexican Papaya Table Salsa. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Zaslavsky

The jalapeño vs. the serrano: What exactly is the difference between the two most popular fresh chiles in the U.S. and Mexico?

Both are vibrant emerald green, with the larger jalapeño looking like a serrano on steroids. Jalapeños tend to be beefier, while serranos are more slender. Both have a torpedo shape that tapers to a point and curved green stems and smooth skins with no soft spots or wrinkles.

Bigger not always better when it comes to chiles

And as with almost all chiles, the rule of thumb applies: the larger the chile, the milder it is. In this case, the larger jalapeño is milder than the spicier serrano. But bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. Sometimes bigger is just, well, bigger.

Jalapeños and serranos belong to the common Capsicum annuum family of peppers and can easily be found year round in most supermarket produce sections thanks to domestic and imported crops. Jalapeños (named after the city of Jalapa, Veracruz, Mexico, sometimes spelled Xalapeños after the local spelling of Xalapa) measure about 4 inches long and an inch wide at the stem end. Serranos (translates to “from the mountains” because they were first grown in the high-elevation mountains of Puebla, east of Mexico City) measure about 3 inches long and a half-inch wide at the stem end.

Their flavors are similar, and I find an excellent way to appreciate any subtle differences is to taste them when they turn bright red. That’s when they are at their peak of ripeness and when their spice intensity drops and they become slightly mellow, almost sweet. I always look for red-ripe chiles in late summer at farmers markets.

Make salsas to compare jalapeños and serranos

A favorite way to understand their differences is to make two simple table salsas (see recipes below). Choose either green or red for both chiles, and remove the seeds from both to control the unadorned (no onion, cilantro, etc.) heat.

When choosing between the two for a recipe, decide whether you’re looking for a lot of green flavor or more spice with less vegetable taste. For example, when I whirl up fresh fruit table salsas I choose serrano because I want the specific fruit flavor to be front and center but with plenty of backup chile heat. I choose green jalapeños for tomatillo salsas where a spicy chile with plenty of green bean vegetable flavor adds to the green sauce. Of course, they can be used interchangeably; add less serrano or more jalapeño and you’re all set.

After jalapeños and serranos ripen and turn red, they are dried and sometimes smoked. For size comparison, there are about 8 dried jalapeños per ounce or 11 dried serranos per ounce. A good rule of thumb is 10 pounds of fresh chiles weigh 1 pound when dried. The dried form of each chile has a different name: a dried, red jalapeño is a jalapeño seco and a dried, red serrano is simply called a chile seco.

Fiery hot, the small, 1½-inch chile seco has a slight citrus flavor and is usually found ground (sometimes called tipico and balin) and added to cooked sauces for heat.

A dried and smoked red jalapeño is a chile chipotle. Other dried and smoked chipotles are called morita and meco. The morita is a dark red, almost black, shiny, smoky, leathery chile that can vary in length from an inch to 4 inches. Many smaller moritas are canned in adobo (a chile-tomato sauce) and called chiles chipotles en adobo. The easy-to-use chiles are readily available in 7- to 8-ounce cans. After removing a few for a recipe, you can freeze the rest. The usually larger meco is smoked at least twice as long and turns medium brown with the look of an old, fuzzy brown tobacco leaf. Aficionados relish its spicy, super-smoky qualities.

The prized red-ripe, fresh jalapeño called huachinango (the same name as the famous Gulf red snapper fish because its stripes simulate the fish scale pattern) comes from central Mexico, mostly around Puebla and Veracruz. Usually found during the hottest summer months, it is easy to identify the coveted, 4- to 5-inch beauty, which has thin white lines running vertically on its skin. When dried and smoked, the thick-skinned delicacy becomes an extra-large, expensive chipotle meco grande with a subtle chocolate aroma.

Mail-order sources

Melissas.com: Melissa’s sells fresh and dried chiles. 5325 Soto St., Vernon, CA 90058. (800) 588-0151. Hours: 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Fridays

Spices.com: Spices Inc. is a mail-order company that sells dried chiles. (888) 762-8642

Simple Green Chile Table Salsa Taste Test

If you have sensitive skin, wear gloves while preparing these salsas. Choose either all green or all red chiles for both jalapeños and serranos.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: Makes 1/3 cup of each salsa.

Ingredients

2 ounces (1 or 2) fresh jalapeño chiles, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped

2 ounces (3 or 4) fresh serrano chiles, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped

Corn chips or warmed corn tortillas

Directions

1. Put the jalapeño chiles in a blender jar. Measure in 2 tablespoons water. Purée on high 20 seconds until foamy. Pour into a serving bowl.

2. Rinse the blender jar.

3. Put the serrano chiles in the blender. Measure in 2 tablespoons water. Purée on high 20 seconds until foamy. Pour into another serving bowl.

4. Taste with corn chips or warm corn tortillas.

Bright Salmon-Pink Mexican Papaya Table Salsa

If you have sensitive skin, wear gloves while preparing this salsa.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: Makes about 2 cups.

Ingredients

1 very ripe Mexican papaya, about 12 inches long and 6 inches in diameter

2 Mexican (aka Key) limes, juiced (about 3 tablespoons)

1 medium (3 inches) white onion, coarsely chopped

2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon sea or kosher salt

2 serrano chiles

1/2 cup chopped cilantro leaves

Directions

1. Cut the papaya in half vertically. Scoop out the black seeds from one of the halves. Peel it and chop it, measuring out 3 cups chopped fruit. Put it into a blender or processor. (Wrap the remaining fruit in plastic and save for another use, such as smoothies or slices with a squirt of lime.)

2. Pour the lime juice on the papaya. Blend 5 seconds.

3. Add the onion, sugar and salt and whirl again 5 seconds. Pour the slightly chunky mixture into a serving bowl.

4. Stem and mince one of the 2 chiles and stir it (with seeds) into the papaya along with the cilantro. Taste. If you want a spicier salsa, stir in more of the remaining minced chile. Adjust salt or lime juice if necessary.

Notes: Don’t process the salmon-colored papaya, green chiles and cilantro together all at once or they will turn into an off-putting brownish mash (although the taste will still be great).

Save the papaya’s black seeds. Rinse and then dry them on a baking sheet in a low oven (200 F) for about an hour. Cool completely. The spicy seeds can be ground like peppercorns.

Main photo: Bright Salmon-Pink Mexican Papaya Table Salsa. Credit: Copyright Nancy Zaslavsky

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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

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Sopa aguada de fideo, or wet noodle soup. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Mexico loves sopa de fideo, or noodle soup. One, sopa aguada de fideo, which translates to “wet” noodle soup, is like the good, old chicken noodle soup we know and love. A second soup, sopa seca de fideo, or “dry” noodle soup, involves first browning the noodles in hot oil before they soften when absorbing flavorful liquids; it’s a spaghetti-like dish, but it’s called sopa, making it confusing at best. Finally, there’s leftover sopa seca de fideo, made by flattening the leftover noodles in a hot skillet to morph them into a crisp fideo pancake masterpiece.

Pasta or rice made by browning the starch before adding liquid is a pilaf, called sopa seca in Mexico. During their conquests, Arabs and Turks introduced pilafs to Spain, possibly with what is widely known today as Armenian pilaf — a Middle Eastern combination of rice and pasta. Spain, in turn, brought the technique to Mexico along with the European custom of starting meals with soup and then a pasta or rice before the main course.

Cooks have known for ages that noodles take on an additional dimension of toasty, meaty nuttiness when they are sautéed in oil before they finish cooking and softening in broth. “Dry” noodles eventually drink in all the liquid, and their soft texture becomes a perfect spaghetti-like plate of pasta for Monday-to-Friday family meals ideal for children.

Make noodle soup your own with flavor variations

Some delicious flavor variations on sopa seca de fideos include adding a minced chile chipotle en adobo with a tablespoon of the adobo sauce for smoky-spice flavor; adding thinly sliced rings of fried mild ancho chile for taste and texture; substituting four tomatillos for the two tomatoes for a green sauce; and topping it with an avocado cut into cubes and Mexican crema (or sour cream) for luxurious richness. Fresh vegetables such as finely shredded cabbage, squash blossoms and quelites (wild greens similar to spinach) are all wonderful, as well as everyday leftovers.

Another easy home-style dish you can make from sopa seca de fideo is the ever-popular toasted, golden brown fideo pancake made from a bowl of leftover “dry” noodles. As soon as oil starts spitting in a hot skillet, you can dump in the cooked pasta and flatten the mound with a spatula, making a sort of pancake. Soon the bottom will be browned, and you can flip it over and crisp the other side. A fideo pancake can be made with whatever amount of leftover sopa seca de fideo you have on hand, from a cup to a quart depending on the size of your skillet.

In Mexico, pasta nests are the popular choice for noodle sopa, either wet or dry. In the U.S., the Italian brand DiCecco offers the thinnest angel-hair nests readily available. Other nests are thicker, like spaghetti. I prefer Italian or American pasta because most Mexican brands tend to get soggy fast and then become downright mushy. Use what you can get and whatever style suits your palate.

Some of the ingredients in sopa aguada de fideo, or wet noodle soup. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Some of the ingredients in sopa aguada de fideo, or wet noodle soup. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Sopa Aguada de Fideo (Wet Soup)

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

2 quarts water (To save time, you can use 2 quarts low-sodium, organic chicken broth and skip to Step 3)

1 4-pound chicken, cut into pieces, including the neck and back

1 white onion, peeled and cut in quarters vertically through the stem and root ends

2 carrots, cut in half

1 jalapeño chile, stemmed, cut in half and seeded for a mildly spicy broth

1 teaspoon sea or kosher salt

8 whole black peppercorns

4 ounces dried, thin pasta such as whole nests or vermicelli broken in half

Sea salt or kosher salt to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 Mexican (a.k.a. Key) lime, if desired

2 ounces dry noodles

Directions

1. Put the chicken in a large, deep pot with 2 quarts water, onion, carrots, chile, salt and peppercorns. Be sure the chicken is covered with water; if it’s not, add more. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer 45 minutes, uncovered, skimming off fat that floats to the surface, until the chicken is cooked.

2. Remove the chicken and cool. Strain the broth into a clean pot and cool. Save the carrots for the soup, discard the other vegetables. Refrigerate the broth and when cold remove any congealed fat that forms on top.

3. Put aside 2 cups broth if you plan to make sopa seca de fideo. Bring the broth to a boil with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste, and the lime juice if you’d like. (Hint: The flavor makes the soup!)

4. Break the noodles into the boiling broth and boil until they are cooked through. Toss in some shredded chicken and reserve the rest for other uses. Cook a minute or two to heat the chicken before serving.

Sopa seca de fideo. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Sopa seca de fideo. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Sopa Seca de Fideo (Dry Soup)

Prep time: 40 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: 2 to 4 servings

Ingredients

2 cups chicken broth, divided

1/2 cup white onion, roughly chopped

4 garlic cloves, roughly chopped

1 jalapeño chile, stemmed, seeded (for less spice) and roughly chopped

2 red-ripe plum tomatoes, roughly chopped

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 ounces pasta nests, or thin spaghetti broken in half to fit into the bottom of the pot

1/4 cup cilantro or flat-leaf parsley leaves

1/2 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/4 cup queso fresco, queso añejo or parmesan cheese

Note: Cooked vegetables and meats (leftovers are great!) or another spicy chile are tasty additions to sopa seca.

Directions

1. Pour 1/2 cup of the broth into a blender jar with the onion, garlic, chile and tomatoes. Blend until smooth. Pour in another cup of broth and blend again.

2. Heat the oil in a heavy skillet. Brown the broken-up pasta nests (or spaghetti broken in half or other small pasta shapes) in the oil over low-medium heat until they turn a deep, golden brown, about 5 minutes.

3. Pour the blender ingredients over the toasted pasta (It will sizzle!), scraping the pasta from the pan to prevent sticking, and cook 3 minutes. If desired, add 1/2 cup to 1 cup shredded chicken, leftover vegetables or meats.

4. Pour in the remaining 1/2 cup broth with the cilantro, salt and pepper into the bubbling mixture and stir. Cover the skillet, turn down the heat to low and cook 5 to 6 minutes (3 minutes for angel hair) until the pasta is cooked through.

5. To serve, spoon the sopa seca onto plates or into bowls and scatter with cheese. Refrigerate the leftovers and save for a fideo pancake.

A fideo pancake. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

A fideo pancake. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Fideo Pancake

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 10 to 20 minutes, depending on size and thickness of pancake

Total time: 15 to 30 minutes

Yield: The pancake or pancakes can serve as many as desired, depending on how much leftover sopa seca de fideo is available to use.

Ingredients

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

Leftover sopa seca de fideo

1/4 cup shredded fast-melting quesillo de Oaxaca, Jack or mozzarella cheese, if desired

Directions

1. As soon as the oil starts spitting in a non-stick skillet, dump in leftover cold sopa seca de fideos and spread the mound into a flat pancake with a spatula. Cook, uncovered, over medium heat. In about 10 minutes, the bottom will be brown and crisp.

2. Flip the pancake to brown the other side by sliding a wide spatula under it, loosening any pasta that sticks, and flip it over. If the pancake is large and fills the pan, put a large plate face down over the skillet, hold the skillet by its handle and flip it and the plate over and the pancake will be on the plate. Put the skillet back on the stove and slide the pancake into the remaining oil to brown the other side and heat through. If desired, scatter shredded cheese on top and brown under a broiler until bubbling hot before serving.

Main photo: Sopa Aguada de Fideo, or wet noodle soup. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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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

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Polenta pasticciata, in

Corn polenta has traveled the globe to become a staple in world-class restaurants. Yet for more than 400 years, it sustained the peoples of Italy’s poor northeastern regions. Its origins go back even further, to the pulmentum of the Romans that was a mainstay of the commoner. Prior to the 17th century — before corn was transplanted to Italy from the New World — this porridge was made from hulled and crushed grains of various kinds, including farro (also known in English as “emmer”), barley and millet as well as chestnut, fava bean or chickpea flour.

Polenta as a staple

After maize took firm root in the soils of northern Italy, it became the primary staple. It wasn’t eaten fresh but rather dried and ground into polenta. For four centuries, it alone kept the wolf from the door for the common people in Veneto and Lombardy. In the 1800s, it became fashionable for the wealthy to eat it until it was ubiquitous at every meal, accompanying virtually every dish, as bread does today in other regions.

The poor ate it plain — there was often little else to eat. The upper class added condiments to it or made it into elaborate baked dishes called pasticci. Eventually, cornmeal infiltrated central and southern Italy, including the island of Sardinia, where my ancestors ate it with tomatoey stewed lamb tripe or layered with meat sauce and sheep’s cheese, much like lasagna, in a baked dish called polenta pasticciata.

In its simplest guise, polenta is served “loose” as a side dish, like its close cousin, the grits of the American south. It can be flavored simply with a dribble of olive oil or butter and Parmigiano cheese for a dish called polenta unta. Cooks in Italy’s Alpine regions like to slather it with soft cheeses such as runny gorgonzola dolce or taleggio. Often, it provides a bed for soaking up the tasty juices of cooked meats (such as sausages) or vegetables, for instance sautéed mushrooms. Or it might be turned out onto a marble slab, allowed to set, then cut into pieces that have countless uses. When fried or grilled, they become crostini di polenta, polenta “toasts.” For pasticciata, the squares are layered with a sauce and topped with cheese before baking, much like lasagna.

Traditional and modern cooking methods

Cooking polenta in the traditional copper paiolo is still a daily ritual in some parts of the polenta belt (Veneto, Piedmont, Trentino-Alto Adige, and Lombardy), though restaurant chefs typically replace the wooden stirring tool, called a bastone, with an electric stirring mechanism that attaches to the pot. For home cooking, a sturdy wooden spoon will do, provided it has a long handle to prevent splattering and/or burning your hand. (The whisk is not commonly used in Italy, but I have found that a heavy professional grade one is ideal for turning out a fine, lump-free polenta.) You’ll also need a heavy-bottomed pot.

But the real secret to perfect results lies not so much in the equipment as in the method. Continual stirring in one direction (clockwise, according to tradition) transforms cornmeal into billows of creamy golden polenta. The addition of the grains in a slow, steady stream a pioggia, “like rain,” assures that they are incorporated smoothly. If the polenta seems to be drying out before it is cooked, a little boiling water is added to keep it soft and easy to stir. Polenta is ready when it pulls away easily from the sides of the pan with the spoon. (The COOK’s test kitchen developed a microwave technique that requires minimal stirring to accompany an article I wrote in 1989 that received much attention, and some years later, Marcella Hazan published a recipe titled “Polenta by No-Stirring” in her book “Essentials of Italian Cooking,” which produces good results. I recently asked Victor Hazan, the late author’s husband and collaborator, about it, and he explained the derivation of the method. See my post on Forktales for the details.)

Polenta may be yellow or white, depending on the maize variety. Both are milled into fine or coarse grinds. The fine type is preferred for loose polenta. The coarse grind produces pleasantly gritty, rustic-style polenta that the Italians say can be sensed sotto i denti, “under the teeth.” It is ideal for cutting into pieces, as described earlier. (Note that the American type of cornmeal typically used for muffins or cornbread is not interchangeable with polenta; it is a different product entirely and will produce an inedible, cement-like porridge if cooked in water.)

Nowadays, there is another factor to consider. “Instant” polenta, which is pre-cooked before it is dehydrated, has virtually replaced the long-cooking kind — even in Italy. Although one can get it on the table much more quickly, it doesn’t compare to the richly flavored, silky original that can take 40 minutes or more to cook. Like so many “new and improved” foods, convenience is put ahead of quality and flavor. However, quick-cooking polenta does work well in dishes with several components, so you can have success making my maternal grandmother Giulia’s polenta pasticciata with either variety. Nonna Giulia Esu died long before I was born, but her recipe for this provincial Sardinian dish was one of her jewels that was passed down by my mother.

Nonna Giulia’s Polenta “Lasagna” With Pork and Red Wine Ragù

Note: The finest pecorino (sheep) cheeses are produced in Sardinia, Lazio and Tuscany. You can find the young, semi-soft varieties at most fine cheesemongers; alternatively, you can substitute Spanish Manchego as directed.

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: About 1 hour

Total time: About 2 1/4 hours

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

For the sauce:

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 onion, minced

1 large clove garlic, minced

1 carrot, chopped

1 small celery stalk with leaves, chopped

1 teaspoon pulverized fennel seeds

1 pound ground pork

½ cup good-quality dry red wine

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1 (35-ounce) can plum tomatoes, drained, seeded and chopped, juices reserved

3 tablespoons minced fresh basil leaves

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

For the polenta:

7 1/2 cups water

1 tablespoon kosher salt

2 cups fine- or coarse-grained imported Italian yellow polenta or “quick-cook” polenta

Olive oil for preparing work surface and baking dish

To assemble:

1/2 pound semi-soft pecorino such as Fior di Sardegna (or Manchego aged three to six months), shredded

Directions

For the sauce:

1. Warm the oil in a skillet. Stir in the onion, garlic, carrot and celery and sauté over medium-low heat until vegetables are soft, 12 to 15 minutes.

2. Add the fennel seeds, pork and continue to sauté until the meat colors lightly, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Stir in the wine and allow to evaporate (about 1 minute).

3. Dilute the tomato paste in a few tablespoons of the reserved canned-tomato juices and add it to the skillet, followed by the tomatoes with another 1/2 cup of the reserved juices, basil and salt. Stir well. Partially cover and simmer over the lowest possible heat for 1 hour, stirring frequently. The sauce should become thick and fragrant. If it seems to be drying out, add a few more tablespoons of the reserved tomato juices.

For the polenta:

1. While the ragù is simmering, bring the water to a boil in a large saucepan. (Keep a kettle of boiling water on the back burner should you need extra.) Add the salt.

2. Stirring constantly with a long-handled wooden spoon, add the polenta in a slow, constant stream to prevent lumps from forming. Simmer, stirring constantly, until the polenta is very thick and creamy and pulls away from the side of the pan, about 40 minutes. If you are using quick-cook polenta, you may need to add a little boiling water to ensure that it doesn’t get too thick. (You can also cook it longer than the instructions specify in order to obtain a creamy consistency — up to 20 minutes or so, adding more boiling water as needed.)

3. Use a rubber spatula dipped into hot water to spread the polenta out into a rectangle about 1/4-inch thick. Let set until cooled completely and firm, about 15 minutes. Cut into even 3-inch-by-4-inch rectangles; set aside. Lightly oil a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish.

To assemble:

1. Heat the oven to 450 F.

2. Arrange half the polenta pieces on the bottom of the baking dish. Top them with half of the sauce and spread to cover. Sprinkle half the cheese over the sauce. Repeat with another layer of sauce, followed by the remaining cheese. Bake until heated through and the cheese is golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes.

3. Let stand for 10 minutes. Cut into pieces and serve.

Main photo: Polenta pasticciata, in “Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul,” by Julia della Croce (Kyle Books). Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton

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Despite a bad harvest, plenty of quality olive oils are still available if you know where to look. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sun, Sea & Olives: By now, lovers of extra virgin olive oil have heard the unhappy news of this season’s harvest in Italy, Spain, and France.

zester new

Severe, ongoing drought cut the Spanish harvest in half, which is even more drastic when you consider Spain is responsible for almost half the olive oil consumed worldwide. In France and Italy, it was the dreaded olive fly, Bactrocera oleae (formerly Dacus oleae), that wreaked havoc. Both countries had significant losses. French oil, a minor player on the world scene but beloved by many, was harder hit — a 50 percent loss over previous years, according to the usually authoritative Olive Oil Times. With few exceptions, much of the Italian peninsula was devastated. Central Italy, including Tuscany and Umbria, where much high-quality Italian oil is produced, was particularly hard hit. Total national production is expected to drop by 35 percent over the previous year.

I witnessed much of this from the mini-farm my family maintains high in the hills between Tuscany and Umbria. We have just 150 trees and ordinarily count on producing upwards of at least 125 liters of superb oil. But this year, our resa (yield) was down to 8 percent (in other words, 100 kilos of olives will produce 8 kilos of oil). We usually expect a resa of at least 12 percent — and our total was lower than expected. Not devastating, no, and the oil was exceptional. We were lucky, though, probably because at our altitude, about 2,000 feet, the olive fly has a hard time surviving.

Let me sidestep quickly to explain the olive fly, la mosca. It’s a chicken-and-egg story, so I’ll plunge into the middle. When the soil warms, between March and May depending on climate and weather, tiny adult female flies emerge from their underground pupal stage and soon start seeking maturing olive fruits in which to deposit eggs. The larvae are monophage, meaning they can only subsist on olive flesh, so mother flies solicitously seek the right environment for their babies. A female may deposit 10 to 12 eggs daily, one per olive. And one female may deposit several generations throughout the warmer months. That’s all it takes. The eggs hatch, the maggots feed on the olive fruit — tunneling through it and exposing the fruit to oxidation and rot — and then they drop and burrow into the earth to await another cycle.

La mosca, we were always told, cannot survive at higher altitudes. I interpreted that to mean something about elevation being so displeasing to the bug that it would not climb to our high mountain valley. Olive fly damage, we believed, was restricted to low, marshy, coastal areas of Italy. But this year’s devastation put that theory to rest. Turns out it’s not the altitude but the climate — cold winters with freezing temperatures, which we normally experience in the mountains, kill off any olive grubs before they hatch.

Unfortunately, the 2013-2014 winter was exceptionally mild, the kind of weather that led us to say, callously, “If this is global warming, I’ll take it!” We congratulated each other on our good fortune.

That turned out to be a big mistake, although we were still lucky in the mountains. Our olives were damaged, but not as devastatingly as other growers even 100 feet lower.

Skeptical, I picked a sample batch and took it to the frantoio, the mill where we take our olives. Should we pick, I asked, or just not bother. “No, no,” said Mr. Landi, the miller. “These are fine. These are the best I’ve seen anywhere around. Go ahead and pick!”

Bad olives from the harvest. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Bad olives from the harvest. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

And he was right. I saw cartloads of olives turned away from the mill, in such bad shape — shriveled, moldy, half rotten, destroyed by the mosca — that Landi refused them. The frantoio, which usually operates 24/7 from roughly Oct. 20 till the end of December, closed down in early November. There were no olives left to press.

The inevitable question is: What can be done to prevent this from happening again? There are many suggestions, some fantastical and some deeply realistic, but simply waiting for the climate to re-regulate itself is not on the boards. The climate has changed, irrevocably, as it has throughout the world, and farmers have to live with it.

But an even more pressing question comes from consumers: What can we buy? Whom can we trust? Where can we get reliable oil? Or is there none available at all? (See the list below for my recommendations.)

Once we had our new oil back from the press, we celebrated as usual with an old Tuscan tradition, the zuppa frantoiana, a combined bean and farro soup that is a most elegant way to enjoy fresh, new oil. Coupled with bruschetta (or fettunta), a toasted bread crust liberally bathed in the new oil, it is as close to heaven as a Tuscan olive farmer ever hopes to get.

Tuscan Zuppa Frantoiana (Farro and beans with new oil)

Zuppa Frantoiana. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Zuppa Frantoiana. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

If fresh oil isn’t available, use a robust, well-flavored oil from Tuscany or Umbria; a Picual from Andalusia or a Coratina from Puglia would also be a good choice. This recipe is from my new book, “Virgin Territory,”  published in February by Houghton Mifflin.

Prep time: 20 to 30 minutes

Cook time: 1 1/2 hours

Total time: About 2 hours

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients     

1 1/2 cups dried beans, preferably speckled cranberry beans or borlotti, soaked for several hours or overnight

1 medium carrot, chopped

2 small yellow onions; 1 chopped, 1 left whole

1 or 2 bay leaves

1 1/2 cups farro (emmer wheat berries)

4 garlic cloves, divided

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

8 to 10 thin slices dense, grainy Italian country-style bread, preferably at least a day old

4 to 6 tablespoons olio nuovo (fresh new olive oil), if available, for serving

2 tablespoons finely minced flat-leaf parsley, or more to taste

Directions       

1. Drain the beans and transfer to a large saucepan with carrot, the chopped onion and bay leaf. Cover with fresh water to a depth of 1 inch, bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer, covered, until the beans are very soft, 40 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the age of the beans. Keep a kettle of water simmering and add more water to the beans as they absorb the liquid. They should always be covered with water but not swimming in it.

2. The farro should not need soaking, but rinse it briefly in a colander to get rid of any dust. In a medium saucepan, cover the rinsed and drained farro with boiling water to a depth of 1 inch. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the farro is tender.

3. When the beans are very soft, set aside about 1/2 cup whole beans. Discard the bay leaf and purée the remainder of the beans with all their liquid and the vegetables cooked with them. Use a food processor, a stick blender or put them through a food mill.

4. Drain the farro, reserving the liquid, and add to the puréed beans. Stir in the reserved whole beans.

5. Chop the remaining onion with 3 of the garlic cloves until finely minced. Sauté the onion and garlic in 1/4 cup of the oil over medium heat until soft. Add to the pureed beans and mix well. Taste and add salt if necessary and plenty of black pepper.

6. Lightly toast the bread slices. Halve the remaining garlic clove and rub the slices well with garlic on both sides. When ready to serve, set a toast slice in the bottom of each soup plate and dribble a liberal dose of fresh new oil over each slice. Spoon hot soup over the bread and add another dollop of new oil to the top, without stirring it in. Sprinkle with parsley and serve immediately, passing more fresh new oil to pour over the top.

What should I buy?

Despite this year’s calamity in major olive oil producing countries, there is good oil, even excellent oil, available from producers who were able to control the fly or were sufficiently protected by their microclimate. I’ve tasted these oils and can attest that they are superior, although almost universally a little bland compared to years’ past.

Healthy olives. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Healthy olives. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Keep in mind that oil from a year ago, the 2013-14 season, if it has been properly handled, is also still excellent. As you should do with any fine food product, check the labels, read the fine print and make sure you’re getting what you pay for. Stricter European Union labeling laws enacted in December 2014 require greater transparency and make it easier to determine where products originate. Dealing with online suppliers (see list below) is often better than going to a local gourmet shop, where they may not know much about fine extra virgin, even though they talk the talk.

Here are the oils I’ve tasted recently and unhesitatingly recommend:

Frescobaldi Laudemio: one of the few good Tuscans available this year, Frescobaldi is part of Laudemio, a consortium of top Tuscan producers of fine extra virgin. Imported by Manicaretti.

Titone: certified organic, from western Sicily, consistent award-winner in international competitions; imported by Manicaretti.

Olio Verde: Castelvetrano, southwestern Sicily, made uniquely from nocellara di Belice olives, harvested very green; imported by Manicaretti.

Pianogrillo: made from Tondo Iblea olives in the hills north of Ragusa in east central Sicily; available from Gustiamo.

Il Tratturello: from Molise, made with Gentile di Larino olives along with other varieties, and harvested very early (usually late September); available from Gustiamo.

Cru di Cures: from Lazio, made with a variety of olives, including relatively rare Raja and Carboncella cultivars; available from Gustiamo.

Benzas: made in Liguria, with traditional taggiasca olive that produces a much sweeter oil than most Italians; available from Gustiamo.

Castillo de Canena Picual: certified biodynamic and organic, made in Andalucia and a good example of what can be done with Picual, a problematic but widely used cultivar.

Castillo de Canena arbequina: made in Andalucia with Arbequina olives; like taggiasca, arbequinas tend to make a softer, sweeter oil.

California Olive Ranch, Limited Reserve: first new harvest oil from California, often sold out by March or April, but other COR olive oils are available in retail outlets and from California Olive Ranch’s online shop.

Séka Hills: made from Arbequina olives grown and produced by the indigenous Yocha Dehe Wintun nation in the Capay Valley, Yolo County, northwest of Sacramento; Seka Hills is also packaging in a 3-liter bag-in-box, a great, convenient way to maintain extra virgin in top conditions — see its website for more information. Available from Market Hall Foods and other retailers.

Morganster, Stellenbosch: a Tuscan-style oil from South Africa, imported by The Rogers Collection, available from retail outlets and online at Amazon.com. Southern Hemisphere oils, harvested in spring, are available in the U.S. usually in summer.

Finally, while writing this I received a sample of RAW, an excellent Palestinian new harvest oil, unfiltered and with great spicy flavors, produced by Canaan Fair Trade in Jenin in the northern West Bank. The Eastern Mediterranean has a long history of coping with hot weather problems such as the olive fly — this may be where Italian and French producers need to go to figure out how to work with new climate challenges. Available from www.canaanfairtrade.com.

Trustworthy olive oil importers and distributors

The following are importers and distributors whom I’ve learned to trust over the years. Some are online purveyors, while others distribute through retail outlets.

Gustiamo imports Italian food products, available through the company’s web site and in retail outlets.

Manicaretti imports and distributes Italian food products, available in many retail outlets.

Market Hall Foods retails fine food products, including imported and California olive oils.

Olio2go imports mostly Italian olive oils, selling through its website and at a retail shop in Fairfax, Virginia.

The Rogers Collection imports and distributes high-quality oils and other food products from Spain, Italy, Greece, Tunisia and South Africa.

Main photo: Despite a bad harvest, plenty of quality olive oils are available if you know where to look. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Lamb and eggplant meatballs in tomato sauce for Valentine’s Day. Credit: Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

It’s that time of year when a rash of stories appears to suggest, despite hard science to the contrary, that certain foods — oysters, chocolate or what have you — fire up the libido. A recipe, on the other hand, can have a different kind of romantic power. It might stir up memories or evoke our roots, allowing us to mingle, in a metaphorical way, with our ancestors. For some people, certain foods, whether pasta or potatoes, are imbued with symbolic meaning. The Umbrians, for example, link love and meatballs. Their region, coincidentally, is the birthplace of St. Valentine, the patron saint of lovers, affianced couples and happy marriages (not to mention beekeepers, plagues, epilepsy and fainting episodes).

The lore and lure of the meatball

According to the late Umbrian cookbook writer Guglielma Corsi in her classic “Un Secolo di Cucina Umbra” (“A Century of Umbrian Cooking”), it was once a custom among country people for a prospective mother-in-law to invite her son’s bride-to-be for a home-cooked meal the day before their wedding and present her with a platter of meatballs. The future mother-in-law would offer her one, impaled on a fork, saying, “Daughter-in-law, may you be the joy of my home. Will you bring discord or union?” The bride was meant to answer, of course, “Union,” after which the mother-in-law would respond, “Then eat your polpettina.” A promise of domestic harmony, sealed with a meatball. It’s perhaps not a surprising custom considering Umbria’s Etruscan ancestors, those mysterious first settlers of Italy who, historians tell us, believed that every food harbored a spirit.

In the years since I first crisscrossed Umbria to study its traditions and foods, I, too, have come to believe that a good meatball is a talisman for domestic happiness. Thinking like an Etruscan, I can equate its plumpness as a symbol of abundance, its spherical form with wholeness, good health and the infinite potential of love. Who, in any case (vegetarians aside), doesn’t love a good meatball?

Recipe variations around the world

As with everything else Italian, there is controversy about what constitutes a meatball’s proper structure. For the tenderest meatballs, some say to add water to the ground meat mixture; others add ricotta. Still others swear by blending in sausage meat or pancetta — fat makes for both flavor and moistness. Signora Corsi’s polpettine, a complex blend of three different fresh-ground meats as well as prosciutto, two kinds of cheese, egg, garlic, lemon zest, bread and marjoram, are probably as close to perfection as a meatball can come. But the Bolognese, who consider their cuisine unparalleled, like theirs “straight up,” with no fillers added to the meat, egg, and herb mixture. The succulence of their polpette is because of the addition of a healthy dose of minced mortadella. The Neapolitans sometimes add sultanas and pine nuts to theirs, a Baroque touch befitting their city. The Sardinians may use rice instead of bread, especially for meatballs that will be served at wedding feasts.

The meatball universe extends well beyond Italy. The Greeks spice them with cumin and oregano. A Colombian chef I know grinds together lamb and chorizo, then coats the meatballs with romesco sauce after cooking. A Spanish friend who runs a superb little restaurant near my house adds ground anise seeds to a mixture of beef, pork and veal, which he roasts in his wood-fired clay oven before serving the meatballs with a dollop of burrata in a puddle of tomato sauce. Persian recipes may blend yellow split peas with ground meat, pine nuts or dried fruits. Turkish mixtures are perfumed with cinnamon or saffron. And so on around the world.

I love them all, but the most tender is the result of a recipe I came up with one summer when the eggplants in my garden dangled from their vines ready for the picking, and I had just brought home a couple of pounds of fresh-ground lamb from the market. I roasted the eggplants until they were entirely collapsed and smoky, scooped out their flesh and plied the pulp with the meat mixture gingerly (overworking it results in a rubbery texture). I added scarce other ingredients besides garlic, rosemary and plenty of parsley — as anyone who is as fond of lamb as I am knows, the meat alone packs a big flavor punch. The eggplant sweetens and foils its gaminess.

No matter which kind of meatballs you make, there are many ways to serve them. Sometimes I offer them as an appetizer, threaded onto rosemary skewers. I might whip together hummus, Greek yogurt and cumin for a dip. Probably everyone’s favorite is meatballs al pomodoro. The color red is a universal symbol of love, passion and happiness, so that’s how I suggest you serve them on Valentine’s Day, whether you are feeding kin, friends, or lovers.

Lamb and Eggplant Meatballs in Simple Tomato Sauce

Prep time: 40 minutes

Cook time: About 40 minutes

Total time: About 1 hour 20 minutes

Yield: 20 meatballs

Ingredients

1 medium eggplant

1 cup day-old sturdy bread such as sourdough or country loaf, crusts removed and cut into 1/4-inch cubes (2 ounces trimmed weight)

1 egg

Scant 1 teaspoon fine sea salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black or white pepper

1 large clove garlic, minced

1 pound ground lamb leg or shoulder

3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

2 tablespoons fresh minced rosemary or 2 teaspoons dried crushed rosemary

Extra virgin or pure olive oil for frying

2 cups homemade meatless tomato sauce of your choice

Directions

1. Preheat an oven to 400 F.

2. Grease a baking sheet lightly with olive oil. Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise and place each half face down on it. Roast about 30 minutes, until it is entirely collapsed, soft and lightly charred on the cut side. Meanwhile, place the bread cubes in a shallow soup bowl and cover with water. Soak until moistened, several minutes. Drain and squeeze excess water from the bread.

3. When the eggplant is cool enough to handle, cut off the stem. Chop finely.

4. In an ample mixing bowl, whisk together the egg, sea salt, pepper and garlic. Stir in the prepared bread cubes. Use your hands to break them up until they are well blended with the egg mixture. Add the chopped eggplant, ground lamb, parsley and rosemary. Using your fingers, mix the ingredients together without overworking them. If you have time, chill the mixture before forming the meatballs; this step can help you shape it into perfectly round spheres, but it is not essential.

5. With wet hands, form the mixture into equally sized balls about 1 1/4 inches in diameter, no larger than golf balls.

6. Prepare a platter with two layers of paper towels next to the burner over which you will be cooking. In an ample skillet or frying pan, pour enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan and warm it over medium heat. Fry the meatballs in batches to avoid overcrowding; there should be plenty of room around each for proper searing. When they have developed a light crust and look golden brown, about 10 minutes, transfer them to the paper towels to drain. If necessary, drain off smoky oil and add fresh oil to the pan to prevent the bits that settle on the bottom from burning. Warm the oil once again and finish frying.

7. If you are serving the meatballs in tomato sauce, warm it in a saucepan over medium heat and slip the browned meatballs into them. Cook them through, about 20 minutes. Serve at once. If you plan to make the meatballs in advance, cool and store them, with or without the tomato sauce, in a covered storage container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Alternatively, freeze them for up to 3 months.

Main photo: Lamb and eggplant meatballs in tomato sauce for Valentine’s Day. Credit: Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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Beef and Guinness stew. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Not so long ago, most Americans’ idea of how to enjoy beef was to dig into a slab of steak as big as the plate it was served on. Thankfully, culinary fashions have changed. Today, the so-called lesser cuts are giving the primes a run for their money not only because they are cheaper but because they have more flavor. Delicious parts like short ribs and oxtail are so much the rage, that they, too, have become wildly pricey.

To my mind, chuck and blade steak, still relatively economical, are two of the most promising cuts for braising, my favorite cooking method for meat in general. This simple technique of searing and caramelizing foods in fat or oil before simmering them in a cooking liquid, often alcoholic, enriches their flavor and tenderizes them at the same time. Add vegetables, and you’ve made a classic stew. Not only are stews nourishing and sustaining in cold weather but, when made ahead, they actually improve.

The raw materials of stews around the world

There are pedestrian variants consisting simply of meat and root vegetables. And then there are the more artful braises at which the French are so adept, exemplified by boeuf à la Bourguignonne, which is laced during long, slow cooking with the namesake region’s fabled wine. The Italians have their own variations on the theme: The Sicilians enrich their spezzatino with Marsala, for instance, while the Piedmontese dedicate an entire bottle of Barolo for every kilo of beef in their brasato. The Belgians make heady carbonnades with beef chunks, abundant mushrooms and onions braised in light beer with a hint of vinegar and sugar. All of these braised stews are based on cheap cuts, the fat and connective tissue of which render the meat moist and incredibly tender during long, slow cooking.

For me, one of the most delicious is Ireland’s traditional beef stew fortified with rich, dark stout, a beer brewed with roasted, malted barley. The English have their version in the old prescription for “Sussex stew,” a beef braise simmered with mushroom ketchup and ale, but I believe no cooking liquid suits an Irish stew more than Dublin’s Guinness. This malty stout is creamy with a pleasant bitterness that makes for a powerful yet subtle cooking liquid, imparting its own complex layer of flavor while producing a velvety gravy. The resulting dish is one with a double life: Eat it as a stew, or cover it with a crust for a pie.

Candlelight dinner on St. Patrick’s Day. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Candlelight dinner on St. Patrick’s Day. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

What makes stout particularly suited to beef stews is what Chrissie Manion Zaepoor of Kookoolan Farms — a stout expert, craft mead maker and pasture-raised meat producer in Yamhill, Oregon — calls “roastiness.” “It’s like espresso,” she says. “It has a smoky, grilled flavor that’s nice with beef, and it’s herbaceous in a way that wine isn’t.”

Just how much stout to add depends on the other ingredients. Too little and, well, you’re missing the point; too much and the stew will be bitter. I find the best proportion is about one-third stout to two-thirds stock. Guinness is an old reliable for the Irish purist, but you can experiment with any of the local craft stouts that are widely available these days, each of which will impart their own individual character.

As for the stock, its quality is essential to the success of the stew. I rarely rely on commercially made stock, which (besides being close to tasteless) too often contains sugar, green pepper, mushroom or other ingredients I would not use in my own recipe. But if need be, I find most commercial chicken stocks more palatable than their beef counterparts. Whether the stock is homemade or store-bought, adding stout will enrich it.

What to drink with Irish stew?

The pleasure of eating this singular stew is increased manyfold when it is accompanied by a swig of the same good stout you’ve cooked with. The pleasant bitterness of the drink rises to the rich, deep flavors of the braise and so nicely sets off the sugars in the onions and carrots. The Irish, like the rest of their compatriates in the British Isles, drink their beer cool, not cold, like a fine red wine. Pour with care for a full, creamy head. On St. Patrick’s Day, be sure to have on hand a loaf of soda bread peppered with caraway seeds to slather with soft Irish butter for the proper holiday spirit. Slainte!

Irish Beef-and-Beer Stew

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cook time: About 2 1/4 hours

Total time: About 3 hours

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

4 pounds well-sourced (preferably organic) blade steaks or boneless beef chuck-eye roast, trimmed of excess fat, cut into 1 1/4-inch pieces

3/4 cup good-quality unsalted butter, preferably Irish

3 medium onions, chopped

3 large cloves garlic, peeled and smashed

Stems from 1 bunch parsley, minced

3 bay leaves

2 teaspoons dried herbes de Provence

1 1/4 cups stout, such as Guinness

2 3/4 cups homemade, salt-free meat stock, or low-sodium chicken broth

3 carrots, peeled and sliced

3 turnips, peeled and cubed

4 to 5 teaspoons fine sea salt, or to taste

Freshly milled black pepper to taste

3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

2 pounds small Yukon Gold, fingerling or Red Bliss potatoes, scrubbed, skin on

8 ounces freshly picked and shelled or frozen petite peas (optional)

Directions

1. Blot the meat with paper towels to remove moisture. In a heavy, ample, oven-proof braiser or Dutch oven, warm 1/4 cup of the butter over medium heat. Slip in just enough meat cubes to leave sufficient room around each one for proper searing. You will need to brown the meat in several batches, adding up to 1/4 cup of the remaining butter as needed (reserve the rest for browning vegetables later). Each batch will take about 10 minutes to brown all over; when it’s done, transfer it to a large bowl and repeat the process until all the meat is browned before starting the next.

2. Add the onion and garlic to the pan and sauté until they are softened and lightly caramelized, about 4 minutes. Stir occasionally to dislodge any meat bits from the pan surface. Stir in the parsley stems, bay leaves and dried herbs and sauté for another minute or two.

3. Return the browned meat and its juices to the pan. Pour in the stout followed by the stock. Stir the ingredients together well and bring to a simmer. Cover the pot and cook over the lowest possible heat for 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. (I like to set a metal heat diffuser, called a “flame tamer,” between the flame and the pot to neutralize any hot spots and ensure even cooking.) Alternatively, you can heat the oven to 300 F, slide the covered pot onto the middle shelf and cook for 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally.

4. Meanwhile, in a separate, ample skillet, warm the remaining butter. Add the carrots and turnips and sauté until they are nicely colored, 10 to 12 minutes. Reserve.

5. After 1 1/2 hours, stir the carrots and turnips into the stew. Cook for another 45 minutes, or until both the meat and root vegetables are very tender. When it is done, add salt and pepper to taste.

6. In the meantime, cover the potatoes in 3 inches of cold water and bring to a boil; then simmer over medium heat until tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and keep warm.

7. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour with enough cold water (or cold stock) to make a thin, smooth paste or slurry. If you have been cooking the stew in the oven, remove it now and put it on the stove top over low heat.

8. Remove the cover from the pot and stir the slurry into the stew a little at a time to blend well. Add the peas if desired. Simmer until the gravy thickens and heats through and the peas are warm, no more than 5 minutes. Serve hot with boiled potatoes.

Notes: Using a well-marbled cut that will be rendered moist and tender during cooking is important to the success of any meat stew. Shoulder cuts, including blade steak or chuck, are ideal; avoid leg meat, which will be dry and tough by comparison. Searing small batches in hot butter before adding the cooking liquid caramelizes them, creating another layer of flavor. The root vegetables are sautéed separately and incorporated late to prevent them from disintegrating into the gravy. Peas are optional; I love them for their little bursts of sweetness, but don’t overcook! Boiled potatoes go well with the stew, and there will be plenty of gravy to sauce them. The stew will keep in a refrigerator for up to four days, or it can be frozen. To make a pie, cool the stew and divide it into individual crocks or larger baking dishes, as you prefer, then top with your favorite unsweetened pie crust or puff pastry. Brush the crust with egg wash (a whole egg yolk thinned with a little cold water or milk). Preheat the oven to 400 F and bake until it is heated through and the crust is golden, about 20 minutes, depending on pie size.

Main photo: Beef and Guinness stew. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales 

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