Freshly milled oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

It’s an old story — you’ve heard it before, and not just from me — but it’s coming around again. Predictably, just as U.S. specialty markets begin to trumpet the arrival of fresh new-harvest, extra virgin olive oil comes the warning that it ain’t what it seems.

According to journalist Tom Mueller, speaking on the popular CBS News program “60 Minutes,” an astonishing 80 percent of the extra virgin olive oil sold in the United States does not meet the standards for extra virgin.

That statement requires some clarification. To be characterized as extra virgin, legal parameters must be met. They are set by the International Olive Council, and they are liberal. The oil, for instance, must have only 0.8 percent free oleic fatty acid and a peroxide content of 20 milliequivalents, or meq.

But there’s more. To qualify as extra virgin, an oil must be free of defects, with perfect flavor and aroma. And that’s where a lot of extra virgin oil on sale in the U.S. falls down, usually because it is too old (Unlike wine, olive oil does not improve with age.) or has been exposed to damaging light, heat and/or atmosphere. The finest extra virgin will deteriorate very quickly. I know firsthand because once in Tuscany I deliberately exposed a glassful of extra virgin, milled just days earlier from my own olives. Within a week of exposure, it was unrecognizable, pale in color and with almost no flavor or aroma except for the slight development, as yet inchoate, of rancidity.

Much of the 80% of substandard extra virgin oil cited by Mueller (if indeed the figure is accurate, which I tend to doubt) was probably legally produced, bottled and shipped. But once it left the producer’s hands, all bets were off.

Buyer beware

An olive tree. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

An olive tree. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Let me give a disturbing example: In my local Whole Foods I bought a bottle of oil from a Sicilian producer whom I know well, one who makes his award-winning product with scrupulous care. And it shows: The oil has a robust flavor you associate with new oils made from barely mature olives and picked just 12 to 24 hours before pressing. Yet, the oil I purchased was pale yellow, indicating exposure to too much light, and it was unmistakably rancid, so much so I had to spit it out at the first taste.

So buyer beware, or caveat emptor, as they said back in Rome.

The conclusion of this somewhat misguided “60 Minutes” report was simple: The problem with Italian olive oil is a creation — like so many Italian problems — of the Mafia, a catch-all for everything wrong with Italy. And we Americans, who sometimes seem to fear the Mafia as much as we fear ISIS, certainly don’t want to give any support, financial or otherwise, to the dons. So should we all stop buying Italian olive oil?

Hang on a minute. If Italy is ground zero for olive oil fraud, the country is also recognized as ground zero for fraud protection, with not one but three national police forces responsible: the Carabinieri (like state police only national), the Guardia di Finanza (the tax police) and the Corpo Forestale, park rangers who also have the responsibility of investigating counterfeit foods and pursuing anti-Mafia activities. It was the Carabinieri in Turin last November who charged seven top olive oil companies with commercial fraud, among them Carapelli, Bertolli, Sasso and Coricelli. All were accused of selling as extra virgin, at extra virgin prices, oils that barely qualified as second-tier virgin, resulting in a 30% rip-off on the price.

Do the names sound familiar? They should. All these brands are in wide distribution outside Italy (as well as within), and especially in the U.S. through supermarkets and big-box stores. Although media have targeted the brands as “Italian,” in fact Carapelli, Sasso and Bertolli, which all began life a century or more ago as Italian family companies, are now owned by the Spanish multinational Deoleo. On its website, Deoleo promotes itself as “the world leader in the olive oil market.” That’s no stretch — Deoleo owns seven of the most widely sold olive oils in the world, including the abovementioned.

As frauds go, I have to confess, I don’t find this one all that shocking. Selling oil that barely reaches the cheap virgin qualification as more expensive extra virgin? It’s a bit like selling cheap toilet water as Chanel No. 5, and it’s tempting to fault consumers for their ignorance. If you can’t tell the difference between eau de toilette and a Chanel classic, it’s your problem, honey, not mine. Nonetheless, fraud is fraud. While this may be fairly entry-level fraud, it is still deceptive. And illegal. And possibly dangerous to the health of people who consume a great deal of what they believe is heart-healthy extra virgin olive oil.

The core of the problem is that, even in Italy and other regions known for producing fine oil, most consumers, including experienced chefs, have little or no idea what top-quality extra-virgin olive oil ought to taste like. Here’s a simple tip: It should leave your mouth feeling clean, not the least bit greasy, and it should have the fresh, herbal fragrance and flavor of just-cut grass. You’ve never actually tasted fresh-cut grass? Get out there behind the lawn mower and try it. It’s not going to kill you!) The flavor and aroma of fine, fresh olive oil can get a lot more subtle than that, and experienced tasters will detect nuances, from roasted nuts to citrus to green tomatoes and tomato leaves, but basically if you keep in mind the adjectives fresh, grassy, herbal, clean, you’ll be on the right track.

What to look for in olive oil

Quality olive oil abounds, if you know what to look for. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Quality olive oil abounds, if you know what to look for. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

A well-made olive oil will have a good balance of three basic characteristics: the fruity flavors of sound, healthy olives, and the bitterness and piquancy (pepperiness) that are indications of the presence of antioxidants that make olive oil the fat you want on your table for all its great health benefits. What should be avoided is oil that has a flat, tired flavor, that tastes of rancidity, that leaves your mouth feeling coated with fat or that tastes like a jar of commercial tapenade that was opened three weeks ago and got lost in the back of the refrigerator.

Fortunately, now is a perfect time to educate your palate with the outstanding flavors of fresh, well-made olive oil. From the Mediterranean — especially Italy — and from California, producers are rushing olio nuovo, new-harvest oil, to market. It is expensive, but worth investing in, if only to give you a firm base-line sense of what excellence is all about. Once you’ve tasted it, you will never again mistake bad oil for good.

Here are just a few I have tasted and liked. Please note these are not by any means the extent of fine extra virgin olive oils; these are specifically new oils that I have tasted recently.

From Gustiamo in New York:

Pianogrillo from Sicily, $38.25 for 500 milliliters.

Tratturello from Molise, $44.50 for 750 milliliters.

Rio Grifone, organic from Tuscany, $39.50 for 500 milliliters.

From Market Hall Foods in Oakland, California:

Séka Hills, top-ranked Californian oil, $18 for 250 milliliters.

Titone, award-winning Sicilian organic, $28 for 250 milliliters.

Olio Verde from Sicily, single cultivar, nocellara del Belice, $38 for 500 milliliters.

From Olio2go in Fairfax, Virginia:

Capezzana from Tuscany, $44.50 for 500 milliliters.

Frescobaldi from Tuscany, with the prestigious Laudemio seal, $32.95 for 250 milliliters.

Villa Zattopera from Sicily, single cultivar, tondo Iblea, $36.95 for 500 milliliters.

Direct from the producer, California Olive Ranch:

COR Limited Reserve, $19.99 for 500 milliliters.

Main photo: Freshly milled oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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A tasting of Blandy's Madeira wines. Note the difference in colors, depending on the grape variety used and the age of the wine. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

“Where are the vineyards?” I wondered aloud on a recent visit to Madeira, the small volcanic island belonging to Portugal, perched out in the Atlantic, about 400 miles off the coast of Morocco.

Wine has been the principal product of the island for more than 400 years. Its fame is such that you might reasonably expect on arrival to be greeted with wave upon wave of vitis vinifera, rather as you do when traveling through France’s Champagne region. On the contrary, what you mostly see planted on poios, centuries-old terraces stacked steeply up from the island’s coastal fringe, are verdant banana palms, their floppy green leaves rattled by the frequent winds that gust in off the Atlantic.

Hidden vineyards

Terraces planted with banana palms -- and a few vines -- above Camara de Lobos, Madeira. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Terraces planted with banana palms — and a few vines — above Camara de Lobos, Madeira. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

I did eventually spot some vines. The holdings are tiny and widely scattered, hanging on for dear life and threatened both by the bananas and the newly built houses and apartments that increasingly encroach on the available space. Trained in the traditional manner over wooden pergolas, the vines often have a crop of potatoes, cabbages, zucchini and beans planted at their feet to make full use of the scarce — and exceedingly fertile — ground.

Despite the near invisibility of its vineyards, Madeira’s wine remains one of the world’s leading fortified wines. Once highly fashionable and sought after, it was reputed to be George Washington’s favored tipple and was served at his presidential inauguration. The term “fortified” means the wine is bolstered by adding grape spirit, which raises its alcohol content (typically to 19% in the case of Madeira, as opposed to the usual 12% to 14% range for table wines), as well as giving it a longer life. Port, that other celebrated Portuguese fortified wine, gets a shot of grape spirit too, but there the similarity ends, because the grape varieties involved and — above all — the process employed in making Madeira differ in significant ways from those used in Port production.

A happy accident

Bottles of 1966 Madeira wine in Blandy's cellars. The grape variety (Bual), date of vintage and winemaker are stenciled in traditional style directly onto the bottles. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Bottles of 1966 Madeira wine in Blandy’s cellars. The grape variety (Bual), date of vintage and winemaker are stenciled in traditional style directly onto the bottles. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

The wine starts out life in the usual way, with the grapes picked in late summer, then crushed and fermented, and grape spirit added to arrest fermentation — so far, so familiar. From here, things start to get interesting. During its long journey to maturity, Madeira is exposed to the unlikely twin enemies of heat and air, to emerge not only unspoiled but with extraordinary added layers of flavor and complexity. As Richard Mayson puts it in his recently published book “Madeira: the Islands and Their Wines,” “Heat and air, both the sworn enemies of most wines and winemakers, conspire to turn madeira into one of the most enthralling of the world’s wines, as well as one of its most resilient.”

The discovery that wine could be heated and come to no harm — and even improved by it — was a happy accident. The island has always been strategically important for trans-Atlantic shipping, and over the centuries, countless vessels have paused here to restock with provisions before the long sea journey from Europe across the Atlantic to the Americas and beyond. Provisions always included casks of wine, which by the nature of things were exposed on board to great heat. When the ships berthed and the wine was found to be perfectly good — even better than when it departed — the shippers set about reproducing the same conditions in their cellars back home, placing the huge, wooden wine casks on the upper floors of their wineries to bask in the summer heat.

Worth the expense

Casks of Madeira wine maturing in the cellars of Blandy's, a leading Madeira producer. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Casks of Madeira wine maturing in the cellars of Blandy’s, a leading Madeira producer. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Nowadays, a faster (and cheaper) way to reproduce this step is to heat the wine artificially in large containers called estufas, but the finest Madeiras are still aged in wooden casks, heated only by the island’s year-round sunshine. This process, called the canteiro method, is lengthier and more gentle and gives the wines their characteristic, slightly caramelized, faintly smoky aromas with exotic hints of honey and dried fruits.

A premium bottle of Madeira is always expensive, because of the time and skill needed to nurse it to perfection. One consolation — and a considerable selling point — is that once the wines have survived the rigors of heating and oxidation, they are good to go for up to 100 years. Blandy’s, one of the top Madeira producers based in the capital, Funchal, still has a barrel of 1920 wine stored in its cellar, awaiting its moment.

Once bottled, Madeira can be opened and sampled, the cork replaced and the bottle stored upright in a dark place for weeks or months without the contents coming to any harm. “If ever there was a wine to take away with you to a desert island,” comments Mayson, “this is it.”

Today, the chief market for Madeira is France, followed by the island of Madeira itself. Portugal, surprisingly, consumes little Madeira, but the UK remains a big fan, with Japan, Germany and the U.S. not far behind. Check www.winesearcher.com for your nearest supplier.

Top Madeira producers (commonly known as “shippers”) include Blandy’s, Henriques & Henriques, Barbeito and H.M. Borges.

Main photo: A tasting of Blandy’s Madeira wines. Note the difference in colors, depending on the grape variety used and the age of the wine. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

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Citrus fruits can help add flavor to everything from salads to dressings in winter, when many other fresh fruits are not in season. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

The orange trees outside the window are laden with fruit turning the colors of a sunset and pulling the branches down with their weight. The lemon tree is full of new buds awaiting a glimpse of sun before they burst open while baby lemons turn from green to yellow among the buds and last season’s fruit drops on the ground.

This is the season of citrus, and just about every corner of the U.S. has grapefruits, limes, lemons, tangerines and oranges in produce bins at farmers markets and grocery stores. The versatility of the different varieties makes it easy to include them in your daily diet in exciting and delicious ways. One of the best is to add the peeled, segmented fruit to salads or recipes.

How to segment a citrus fruit

Using a sharp knife, cut off the top and bottom of the fruit so it stands flat and stable on the cutting board. Carefully cut the skin off the flesh from top to bottom, rotating the fruit as you go, until all the skin and white pith is off the flesh. Then cut each segment from the membrane. Work over a bowl to catch all the juice for use in dressings, cocktails, smoothies or just to drink.

Oranges and tangerines

Oranges and tangerines are a good choice for adding flavor to a smoothie. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

Oranges and tangerines are a good choice for adding flavor to a smoothie. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

Oranges and tangerines — with names like navel, Cara Cara, clementine and Satsuma — may be the most popular citrus fruits. For eating out of hand or squeezing for juice, these sweet, tasty citrus have no match.

  • Try them peeled in a smoothie for breakfast; I like to use three oranges or tangerines, a banana and a good handful of spinach, which dyes the smoothie emerald green.
  • Zest the skin and add a tablespoon to your favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe for a zingy blast — there is nothing like the combo of chocolate with orange.
  • Add segments to raw spinach and thinly sliced red onion for a tangy salad. Toss with a quick dressing of rice vinegar, honey, a dash of sesame oil and olive oil, then top with a sprinkle of sesame seeds.

Limes

One use for limes: using the juice for making fresh guacamole. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

One use for limes: using the juice for making fresh guacamole. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

Limes are one of nature’s seasonings and are absolute necessities for a well-stocked bar, in Southeast Asian cooking and as part of a gutsy margarita.

  • Add the juice to avocados, cilantro, salt and garlic for a creamy bowl of guacamole.
  • Stir coconut milk and lime juice with a good curry paste (I like Sukhi’s or Patak’s) then simmer briefly to make a sauce. Add cooked chicken, sliced fresh mango or peeled pears, peas and chopped sautéed onion for a quick chicken curry. Serve with steamed basmati rice and naan.
  • Make a marinade using the juice and zest of one lime with soy sauce, minced garlic, minced jalapeño and a drop or two of honey. Use on mild white fish, chicken, shrimp or skirt or flank steak cooked on the grill.

Grapefruit

These somewhat unwieldy fruits are too large to take in a lunch box, require a knife to cut or peel and have a surprisingly tart/sweet flavor, but what would winter be without this juicy fruit? In salads, dressings, juices, sodas and cocktails, both pink and yellow grapefruit add a tart/sweet smack of flavor. My favorite varieties are Oro Blanco and Melo Gold.

  • To make a healthy winter salad, mix segments of grapefruit and slices of ripe avocado with a mix of arugula and spinach, shavings of fennel and a sprinkle of toasted pumpkin seeds over the top. Make a dressing with the grapefruit juice saved from segmenting, balsamic vinegar, a drizzle of honey and olive oil.
  • For a quick snack, cut a grapefruit into medium-size wedges and eat, pulling the sections off the skin. Stand over the sink or the juice will dribble down your front.
  • For a warming winter cocktail, shake vodka and ice with grapefruit and lime juices in a cocktail shaker. Strain into glasses and fill with pomegranate soda. Add a couple of cubes of ice and enjoy.

Lemons

Lemon juice adds nice flavor to dressings. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

Lemon juice adds nice flavor to dressings. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

Lemons are the most versatile of citrus fruits, used year-round and the world over. For squeezing on fish, adding the juice to marinades, dressings, curd, iced tea and cocktails, or zesting the skin into gremolata, baked goods and even pasta, every part of the lemon can be put to good use.

  • For a salad dressing that can be your go-to, whisk the juice of half a lemon, chopped garlic to taste, a dab of Dijon mustard, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Gradually whisk in olive oil to form an emulsion.
  • Pile the zest of one lemon, a handful of parsley, ½ teaspoon of fresh rosemary needles, 1 large clove garlic and salt and pepper on a cutting board. Finely chop all ingredients together into a paste. Mix with a little olive oil and spread on halibut, albacore tuna, chicken or pork then grill over coals or sear in a hot pan, lower heat and cook to desired doneness. It’s a heavenly smell!
  • Combine lemon juice, a pinch of zest, honey and a knob of peeled fresh ginger in a teacup. Fill with boiling water and steep 2 minutes then sip for cough and cold relief.

Tools for citrus fruits

Working with citrus fruits requires a few basic kitchen tools. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

Working with citrus fruits requires a few basic kitchen tools. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

Pictured above are must-have tools for working with citrus fruits. A handled microplane grater is perfect for zesting citrus quickly and easily. Before microplanes were born, we had the most pathetic zesting tools, now this guy makes it painless.

A small wooden reamer is what I use to juice limes and lemons, it squeezes out every drop. The large juicing reamer is good for any citrus fruit and traps the seeds as well. It also snaps onto measuring cups or bowls for easy catchment of juice.

Main photo: Citrus fruits can help add flavor to everything from salads to dressings in winter, when many other fresh fruits are not in season. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

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A retro melon baller taken out of retirement. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

The C word– that is, clutter — is this year’s mantra. Or rather the D word — declutter.

When the utensil drawer jams and you need a hard hat to open a cupboard, it’s time to get a grip. But where to start? What’s the plan? What can be saved and what can be tossed?

Certain tools are essential: can openers, wooden spoons, rolling pins. My desert island luxury would be a concave board and a mezzaluna, which is brilliant for speed chopping, is easy to clean and provides Pilates-like therapy, thanks to the gentle rocking motion.

Cost does not always equal value. My Rolls-Royce of a garlic crusher languishes unloved because it failed in its primary task of effectively and evenly crushing the clove. Yet a freebie plastic kiwi fruit knife-cum-scoop is the perfect example of form and function — and excellent for al desko lunches.

Sometimes, of course, you really do get what you pay for: a sugar thermometer that won’t shatter, a marble pastry slab, a razor-sharp grater or a quietly powerful hand blender.

But there is no excuse for hoarding and cradling little-used gadgets and ropy old kitchenalia.

So, breathe deeply and liberate your drawers. To help in the decision-making, here are eight gadgets that have lost their way.

Melon baller

This is a gadget conceived for a single purpose: to cut little, round balls from melon flesh. The holes allow juice to drain during the process.

The basic technique is to press, rotate and scoop. It is a technique I have completely failed to master. My spheres are unruly shards, but I claim that as intended.

Some ballers have different-sized bowls at each end. Beginners should not try to use them simultaneously.

Butter curler

A Captain Hook-type butter curler. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

A Captain Hook-type butter curler. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

This frightening gadget is designed to produce decorative shapes from chilled butter. My pitiful attempts, however, usually ended with a greasy mess until I saw the light and simply stopped trying.

Now the butter curler lives in the same drawer as the melon baller. It’s time to say goodbye, old friends.

Grape scissors

Ornate grape scissors straight out of “Downton Abbey.” Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Ornate grape scissors straight out of “Downton Abbey.” Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

The Victorians generally did not approve of eating food with the fingers. It was instant social death unless you kept to the proscribed rules.

Only after the grapes had been correctly cut was it permissible to use fingers. Grape scissors were part of an army of utensils that also included sardine tongs, oyster forks and lobster picks. Boy, those Victorian housewives knew how to spend, spend, spend.

Lemon squeezer

Lemon slice squeezer in action. Or not. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Lemon slice squeezer in action. Or not. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

I’m all for a bit of refinement, but this is too naff for words. It contains one measly, flimsy little wedge from which you just get a dribble of drops. It is awkward to use, and you can never get the slice size right. But most of all, it is mean-spirited. I rest my case.

Avocado dishes

A pair of avocado dishes showing the wrong way to serve them. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

A pair of avocado dishes showing the wrong way to serve them. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

These are so very “Mad Men.” When we first encountered this thrilling new fruit — or is it a vegetable? — it posed a problem: how to eat it once you overcame the testicular shape, lizard-like skin and super-sized pit.

Tableware manufacturers were quick off the mark, and before you could say guacamole, these dishes hit the shops. You didn’t even have to peel the avocados. Simply cut open, remove the stone and dump in the vinaigrette or shrimp mayo. Martini time!

Today they are a rare sight. I suppose there’s not much else you can do with them once their basic function goes. So, my pretty ones, it’s off with you to the great avocado grove in the sky.

Cruet stand

Once a symbol of genteel living, the cruet stand has become increasingly redundant. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Once a symbol of genteel living, the cruet stand has become increasingly redundant. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

This thrift-shop find makes me a little sad. Made in the 1930s or ’40s, the pressed glass condiment container must once have been someone’s pride and joy.

But does anyone use them anymore? How many even know what cruet means? Or care? Grinders, mills and bowls have pushed them into domestic oblivion. I regretfully conclude it is time for the cruet to retire from active service.

Egg slicer

Boiled eggs meet their fate in the metal egg slicer. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Boiled eggs meet their fate in the metal egg slicer. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

The egg slicer is one of life’s most useless gadgets. Like a medieval instrument of torture, the slotted base holds a hard-boiled egg, upon which a hinged blade of fine wires whips down like a guillotine.

Invented in the 1950s, it slices eggs thinly and evenly, but, honestly, would you really want to? Occasionally, desperate columnists suggest other uses, like cutting strawberries and mushrooms.

So, no, it doesn’t make life that little bit easier, and when it comes to washing it, it is a lethal menace.

Sardine can key

A new-fangled sardine can with a ring tab. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

A newfangled sardine can with a ring tab. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Once upon a time, the search for the sardine key was like a mythical quest. It usually came in two pieces. The slotted part enabled you to roll back the lid, then you could lift out the sardines with the shovel- shaped bit.

Even then, you could never open the lid fully and would usually cut yourself on the sharp edges.

The pull tab changed everything. There are those who hanker for oil drips and bleeding fingers, but why? For my part, the key can stay lost. RIP, sardine can key.

Main image: A retro melon baller taken out of retirement. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

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French-style roast chicken. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

“You can always judge the quality of a cook or a restaurant by roast chicken,” wrote Julia Child in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” It was a bold statement, but it reflected a certain historic reverence for the fowl, which in France has historically been considered “the best of all birds covered by the name of poultry,” as 20th-century French culinary authority André Simon put it in his “A Concise Encyclopedia of Gastronomy.” Even my mother, a fine Italian cook, raved about the delicious roast chicken in France. After visiting our relations in Paris, she would always speculate about what it was that made the chicken so tasty and delicate. The chickens for sale in butcher shops there were plump without being fatty, their flesh pink, not yellow. Try as she would, she couldn’t reproduce the same results with the commodity chickens (“machine-made,” as they were known in our family) she faced back home in New York.

How to buy the best bird

A proud French chef. Credit: Copyright 2015 Laura Cornell, courtesy of Laura Cornell and Julia della Croce

A proud French chef. Credit: Copyright 2015 Laura Cornell, courtesy of Laura Cornell and Julia della Croce

The first secret of the famous roast chickens of France concerns their feed and rearing. Take the famous poulet Bresse, a “controlled” breed that is considered the most flavorful in the world. The birds roam freely, happily pecking and scratching in the grass, their foraged food supplemented with milk and corn. These prime specimens carry their own official appellation d’origine contrôlée, a set of regulations that guarantees their authenticity, much like wine. In the past, to acquire chickens of similar quality here in the States, you needed to know a good local farmer or raise them yourself; today, however, wholesome poultry has become commonplace in American markets, and I am convinced that anyone who starts out with a well-fed, free-range bird can duplicate the delicious poulet rôti.

The other secret to roast chicken is the size and freshness of the bird, along with a few roasting techniques that are traditionally practiced by French home cooks and professionals alike. “Too small a bird does not roast well in the oven because its flesh is cooked before its skin has time to turn the expected appetizing golden color,” French chef and teacher Madeleine Kamman explained in her authoritative “The Making of a Cook.” On the other hand, a bird weighing larger than three to four pounds takes longer to cook through to the bone, by which time the breast is overcooked. Most chefs concur that a six-month bird weighing in at four pounds, the smallest in the so-named “roaster” category, is ideal. At that weight, the bird has more meat on it than younger, so-called “fryers,” and it is still tender.

Technique classique

An even prouder French chef. Credit: Copyright 2015 Laura Cornell, courtesy of Laura Cornell and Julia della Croce

An even prouder French chef. Credit: Copyright 2015 Laura Cornell, courtesy of Laura Cornell and Julia della Croce

As for roasting, I learned the method early on at Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School, which taught classic French cuisine. Years later, when Italian cooking became all the rage, I would spend many happy hours teaching there, but when I first met Peter, I was a young food writer with an assignment to write an instructive article on proper roasting techniques. When I called him with some questions, he invited me to sit in on a class he taught devoted entirely to roasting chicken. The results were a revelation, and even now, I can say that the chicken I ate that evening was one of the most delicious I have ever tasted: crusty-skinned and juicy. Even the breast, which I usually avoid, was moist and tasty, saturated with the flavors of butter and tarragon. I was initiated. The recipe became a keeper in my otherwise largely Italian repertoire.

The classic, straight oven-roasting method involves starting at a fairly high temperature to sear and brown the skin, then lowering it to cook the meat through. The technique follows, unaltered over the years save for a few tweaks — the most important being pre-salting and then air-chilling the bird before cooking, a simple step that keeps the moisture in and results in astonishing flavor and crispy skin.

Poulet rôti: A cheat sheet

Trussing the bird. A proud French chef. Credit: Copyright 2015 Laura Cornell, courtesy of Laura Cornell and Julia della Croce

Trussing the bird. A proud French chef. Credit: Copyright 2015 Laura Cornell, courtesy of Laura Cornell and Julia della Croce

Preparing the bird:

  • To keep the juices in, truss the bird using cotton kitchen twine, tying the ankles together and drawing them close to the breast. You can either tuck the wings under the back or tie a string around the girth to fasten them.

The roasting pan and other equipment:

  • To prevent the bird from steaming rather than roasting, you must select a  pan of the right shape and size: it should be just large enough to fit the bird easily and no larger. For a 4-pound bird, it should be 8 x 11 inches and no more than 2 inches deep, fitted with a V-rack that elevates the bird above the sides of the pan.
  • An alternative to a rack is to elevate the chicken on a single layer of thickly sliced carrots and onions (or lemon slices, if you like).
  • Fowl takes on the flavor of all the other ingredients in the roasting pan. Carrots and onions are the classic aromatics. If the vegetables are permitted to burn (which is likely if the pan is too large for the bird), the roast will take on their bitterness.
  • Use a good meat thermometer to test doneness. Cheap ones lose their accuracy after a few uses.
  • If you make stuffing, bake it in a separate buttered dish.

Turning and basting:

  • While everyone would probably agree that the best way to ensure a juicy bird with crisp skin is to spit-roast it, turning and basting in the home oven simulates the rotisserie principle. Use melted butter, good olive oil or a mixture of the two for basting, not broth — it makes the skin flabby.
  • Each time you remove the bird from the oven to turn and baste, shut the oven door immediately. Even a minute with the door open will throw off the temperature and cooking time.
  • Allow the chicken to rest 20 to 30 minutes before carving. This helps the bird to retain its juices; instead of immediately running out at the point of a knife, they will retreat into the tissues of the bird and stay there.

French-Roast Chicken With Herbs, Garlic and Pan Gravy

The perfect poulet. Credit: Copyright 2010 Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton in “Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes To Comfort Your Soul” (Kyle Books), Julia della Croce

The perfect poulet. Credit: Copyright 2010 Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton in “Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes To Comfort Your Soul” (Kyle Books), Julia della Croce

Prep time: 30 minutes, plus 8 to 48 hours for chilling

Cooking time: Approximately 1 1/4 hour

Total time: About 2 hours

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

4 large cloves garlic

3 tablespoons soft unsalted butter, plus additional melted butter or good olive oil for basting

1 (4-pound) free-range chicken

Fine sea salt

Freshly ground pepper

1 bunch fresh tarragon sprigs; alternatively, rosemary or thyme if you prefer

3 to 4 teaspoons kosher salt

Suggested equipment: 8 x 11 x 2-inch baking pan, V-rack to fit the pan, instant-read meat thermometer, cotton kitchen twine

Directions

1. Grate one garlic clove finely, preferably with a microplane grater, and blend it with the soft butter. Holding the chicken over a sink, drain any liquid out of the cavity and remove any giblets. Use paper towels to blot the chicken well inside and out until it is absolutely dry (no need to wash it). Remove excess fat from the chicken, taking care not to tear the skin. Sprinkle the cavity lightly with sea salt and pepper and slip in the remaining garlic cloves and some of the herb sprigs of your choice. Gently and carefully separate the skin from the flesh of the breast and thighs without tearing, using your fingers or the rounded end of a wooden spoon. With your fingers, insert the garlic butter into the pockets, smearing as much of the flesh as you can. Push in the remaining herb. Rub the inside of the neck cavity with any garlic butter that remains. Sprinkle kosher salt and pepper on the skin, covering all surfaces. Transfer the bird, breast side up, to a rack on a platter to allow air circulation and chill, loosely covered with a thin cotton dish towel, for 8 to 48 hours.

2. Before cooking, bring the bird to room temperature for 1 hour. Preheat an oven to 450 F (425 F convection) for at least 20 minutes. Preheat your roasting pan, which should fit the dimensions given in the cook’s tips section above.

3. Make sure that the skin is completely dry. Truss the chicken using cotton kitchen twine, drawing the legs close to the breast to plump up the bird until it forms a snug ball and then tying the ankles together securely. Tuck the wings under the back; alternatively, pass string around its girth and tie the wings securely. Brush melted butter or olive oil on the entire surface of the bird and place it breast-up on a cold oiled V-rack in the preheated roasting pan.

4. Slide the pan onto the middle oven rack, legs facing the oven rear where the temperature is hotter. Roast for 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and reduce the oven temperature to 375 F (350 F for convection) Turn the bird on one side and baste with butter or olive oil. Return it to the oven and roast for 20 minutes. Then repeat the procedure for the other side, roasting for 20 minutes more. Take the chicken out to check the internal temperature, inserting the instant-read thermometer into the thigh at the thickest part, away from the bone. It should register at 170 F.  If the bird is not cooked through, flip it on its back and return it to the oven for 5-minute increments until it reaches the right temperature. It should be a uniform golden color with crisp, taut skin. Transfer the bird to a carving board with a gutter that will capture its juices. Remove the strings and let it rest for 30 minutes in a warm place.

5. While the bird is resting, make the gravy. Use a wooden spoon to dislodge any bits of meat stuck to the bottom of the roasting pan. Add 3 to 4 tablespoons water to the drippings. Warm the roasting pan on the stove top over medium heat. Simmer to reduce the liquid to about 1/2 cup, then pour through a fine mesh strainer. Separate the grease from the natural juices using a spoon or a fat separator. Check for seasoning.

6. When the bird has rested, detach the wings and legs at the joints. Use a very sharp carving knife to cut the breast into thin slices. Arrange all nicely on a warm platter. Discard the herbs in the cavity. Add any juices that have collected during carving to the gravy you have made. Pour a little of the gravy over the carved chicken and pass the rest at the table.

Main photo: French-style roast chicken. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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Manjit S. Gill, executive chef for ITC Hotels, champions a greener approach. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Chefs can play an important role in the fight against climate change by helping to reduce carbon emissions and sourcing local foods, even when working in luxury hotels.

Manjit S. Gill, executive chef for the eco-award-winning Indian group ITC Hotels, is a champion for a sustainable, greener approach to dining. He oversees the food for all 11 of the company’s Luxury Collection hotels, many of which have multiple restaurants within them.

Showcasing traditional ingredients

Finger millet and charoli nut pancakes are on the breakfast menu at the ITC hotels, Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Finger millet and charoli nut pancakes are on the ITC hotel breakfast menu in Delhi. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

“Each ITC hotel maintains a connection to its region through food and architecture,” he says. “In the case of our local foods, we are working alongside Slow Food to showcase forgotten grains and traditional ingredients that can be sourced nearby. In Delhi, for instance, our breakfast offering includes finger millet and charoli nut pancakes with aloe vera and black currant relish, as well as a complex porridge made from seven ancient grains. You can’t be competitive today if you’re not practicing sustainability.”

Indigenous Terra Madre

Carla Capalbo reports from the Terra Madre event in India. This is the last in a series. Previous stories:

»  Native cultures push for sustainable food solutions

»  The fight to preserve traditional pastureland

» In India, remote villages hold fast to food traditions

ITC is the world’s largest green luxury company and has achieved platinum-level status with the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The hotels recycle their water and solid waste while producing 70 percent of their energy from wind, sun and other renewables.

Gill, a Sikh and lifelong vegetarian, recently participated in Indigenous Terra Madre, held in Shillong, in the northeastern Indian region of Meghalaya. The event brought together representatives from food-making communities around the globe to share knowledge and strengthen connections. He was there with other Indian members of Slow Food’s Chefs’ Alliance, a network of international chefs committed to biodiversity and local food sourcing.

“Food can feed our minds, bodies and souls, but only if it’s ethically sourced,” he says. “In India we also believe that food can’t be nutritious if it’s not tasty, and that it should be a balance of the six tastes: sweet, salt, sour, bitter, pungent and astringent. You must have some of each at every meal. That’s why it’s important to know how to use spices, working with whole spices and only grinding them as they are needed to retain maximum flavor.”

Luxury and sustainability

The Grand Bharat, just outside of Delhi, is an award-winning ITC destination hotel with four restaurants. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

The Grand Bharat, just outside of Delhi, is an award-winning ITC destination hotel with four restaurants. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Gill has plenty of opportunity to expand these ideas in his busy schedule. In Delhi, where the group has several high-end hotels, Gill works closely with the executive chefs of each hotel, as well as with ITC’s state-of-the art training facility.

Not only does the Hospitality Management Institute have full amenities — from teaching kitchens to lecture halls and IT rooms — but trainees get to fine-tune their skills at the five-star Grand Bharat hotel that opened in 2014 in the countryside just south of Delhi. It is already considered one of the world’s top luxury hotels.

“The Grand Bharat was a dream project. It was designed from the ground up, with lots of space, so we were able to include a large farm for growing herbs and vegetables for our own use, as well as construct windmills and solar power stations to supply its energy,” Gill said. Other projects support women in the hotel business, local farmers and animal husbandry practices.

Chef focuses on modern fusion, traditional cuisine

Naan bread bakes in the tandoor oven at Bukhara restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Naan bread bakes in the tandoor oven at Bukhara restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

The food within the hotel restaurants varies in style. The Grand Bharat’s four restaurants showcase modern fusion dishes as well as traditional Indian cuisine, like the succulent Mewati barbecue specialities. At the Hotel Maurya, in the heart of New Delhi, Bukhara restaurant has won numerous awards — including a place in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list — for traditional Indian food cooked in tandoor ovens. Bukhara, which has been open for 35 years, also offers a complex lentil dal that is simmered for 18 hours and some of the city’s greatest naan breads.

Chef Gill is particularly excited about the Royal Vega restaurant in ITC’s recently opened Grand Chola hotel in Chennai. “As a committed vegetarian, I’ve finally had the opportunity to create a high-end vegetarian restaurant, something I had always dreamed of doing,” he said. “Many Indians from all walks of life are vegetarian, yet ambitious vegetarian restaurants are few and far between. So this project is providing me with great happiness.”

Main photo: Manjit S. Gill, executive chef for ITC Hotels, champions a greener approach. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

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Wild porcini mushrooms. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Upon drying, the flavor of porcini mushrooms is intensified, making them the king of dried mushrooms in the kitchen. Whether you are a forager or purchase your dried porcini, you can use them to great advantage when seeking to add richness to your cooking. With a little imagination, you can inject umami into some unexpected places.

Porcini flourish in the height of summer in Colorado. Plucky mushroom hunters venture into the Rockies early in the day, seeking out the local species of porcini, one known for having a deep auburn cap responsible for its name Boletus rubriceps.

Fresh porcini are dense and heavy, feeling more like a potato in hand than an equally sized commercial mushroom such as portobello. As a celebration, I cook the first and best porcini of each trip fresh, often atop white pizza or simple pasta. Fresh porcini are surprisingly mild. If you serve them with more assertive flavors, such as in a tomato sauce, their flavor is nearly lost.

Where porcini truly excel are as dried mushrooms. Dehydrating them deepens their aromas of loam, minerals and cocoa. To open a jar of dried porcini is to be bowled over with the scent of the woods. For this reason, I spend most of my time cleaning, slicing, and drying my porcini harvest for later use. In a typical year, I like to have several gallons of dried porcini awaiting me in my pantry.

You might expect to use dried porcini in soups and risotto, but they have a much better reach than just the expected dishes. They can be used to add potent mushroom depth to recipes, and also to add a punch of umami in unexpected places. Dried porcini can be used in a number of ways, from rehydrated slices to powder, contributing savory richness at every turn. They are a workhorse and a staple in my home. I realize my good fortune in being able to reach for a handful of porcini whenever the mood strikes. However, even people who have to purchase dried porcini can get a lot of distance from their flavor, and add a special element to everyday dishes. Store-bought dried porcini are expensive. Small amounts of them can be combined with less expensive fresh mushrooms for a nice effect.

Instant gravy from porcini mushrooms

Porcini gravy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Porcini gravy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Dried porcini can be ground into a fine powder using a mortar and pestle or an electric spice mill. The powder from ½ cup of dried porcini combined with a tablespoon of cornstarch, ½ tablespoon of salt, pinches of onion powder, garlic powder, thyme, sumac and black pepper can be whisked together with 1 ½ cups of cold water and brought to a quick boil for gravy.

Mix the dry ingredients together ahead of time to keep on hand for when you need gravy in minutes, or if you have vegetarian guests at your table. Instant porcini gravy pairs with nearly every kind of meat, is a natural spooned over mashed potatoes and works well in casseroles.

Porcini soy sauce

Porcini soy sauce. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Porcini soy sauce. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Simply combine dried porcini with your favorite soy sauce and let them infuse together for at least a week before sampling. Porcini add an element of complexity to ordinary soy sauce. This works beautifully in Asian recipes and also makes for an unexpected element in other styles of cooking. Save those salty soaked mushrooms to season your soups.

Bouillon cubes

Porcini bouillon. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Porcini bouillon. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Combine porcini powder, onion powder, salt, soy and powdered dry gelatin with enough water to bind, and you have homemade bouillon. The bouillon are equally functional as camp food or to take in your work lunch. You can form the bouillon into actual cubes or balls while still wet, then set them out to dry. Or you can keep the mixture dry and pack single servings into snack-sized containers. Take it one step further and box up the porcini bouillon, a few dried vegetables and some dry quick-cooking noodles, and you’ve got a classic instant noodle lunch that needs only the addition of hot water.

Hot chocolate

Porcini hot chocolate. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Porcini hot chocolate. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Want to make your hot chocolate decadent without adding alcohol? Stir in a little dried porcini powder. It may sound like an odd combination. However, dried porcini have notes of chocolate in their scent, and they add an earthiness to hot chocolate that keeps it from being cloyingly sweet. Porcini hot chocolate is especially nice topped with whipped cream and a sprinkling of bitter cocoa powder.

Deviled eggs

Porcini deviled eggs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Porcini deviled eggs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Add a new twist to deviled eggs by stirring a spoonful of dried porcini powder into the yolk filling. This is where you step outside the box and start using your creativity with your precious porcini. Imagine all the possibilities when it comes to distributing that mushroom goodness. Take your family favorites for a walk in the wild woods. Do you eat meatloaf once a week? Try adding a tablespoon of porcini powder to the mix. Do you always have a pot of stock bubbling? It’s another great place to add porcini. Are you known for your special homemade barbecue sauce? Try increasing the flavor with dried porcini. The possibilities for bumping up the savory element in your cooking with dried porcini are as limitless as your creativity.

Main photo: Wild porcini mushrooms. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

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Cut-out sugar cookies decorated with sprinkles and frosting. Credit: Copyright 2015 Lynne Curry

Sugar cookies are as essential to the Christmas season as lighted trees, wrapping paper and “Jingle Bells.” While there are as many varieties of holiday cookies as there are Christmas carols — from Linzer cookies to Mexican wedding cookies — I am talking here strictly about decorated sugar cookies.

I grew up with one grandmother in Boston and the other in Buffalo, New York. Their sugar cookies were as different as those two cities. My New England grandmother’s were extra buttery and lightly baked, almost shortbread-like; my New York state grandmother’s version was chewier and baked to a golden brown. Both were washed with egg white and showered with colored sprinkles before baking. I devoured both kinds with equal abandon.

How can there be so much variation in something as simple as a sugar cookie? This question hit me at a holiday party last year, when several friends brought their families’ versions of this holiday classic. As I tasted each one, the cookies were as distinct as snowflakes.

Sugar cookie dough basics

A selection of sugar cookie varieties. Credit: Copyright 2015 Lynne Curry

A selection of sugar cookie varieties. Credit: Copyright 2015 Lynne Curry

When it comes to sugar cookie recipes, the ingredients are universal: flour, baking powder or baking soda, butter, sugar, egg and vanilla (and sometimes milk). So, what causes all the variability?

I gathered a collection of five time-tested recipes and analyzed them. The biggest difference? Ratios, in baker’s terms, or the proportions of the three main ingredients: flour, butter and sugar. These ingredients are the “structural” elements of the cookies, and the ratio of each building block is what makes each cookie unique.

The biggest determinant of taste and texture is the ratio of butter to flour. Among the five recipes, the highest butter percentage was more than 50% of the flour and the lowest came in at just more than 30%. The quantity of sugar also varied wildly from recipe to recipe; the most astonishing example was two recipes that each contained three cups of flour, but one of the recipes called for three times as much sugar as the other (1 1/2 cups compared with 1/2 cup). Any of these ratios largely affect whether cookies turn out cakier, chewier or more crumbly. Interestingly, all the other ingredient ratios, from eggs to baking powder, were more consistent across the board. But each minor change can result in such subtle differences as the flavor of salt or vanilla in the baked cookie. You can’t know it until you taste it.

Baking know-how

The basic sugar cookie recipe can be cut out into seasonally festive shapes and designs. Credit: Copyright 2015 Lynne Curry

The basic sugar cookie recipe can be cut out into seasonally festive shapes and designs. Credit: Copyright 2015 Lynne Curry

The baker, too, introduces variability in such simple recipes as this, especially through measuring and mixing techniques. For example, there are two methods for measuring flour: scoop and sweep or dip. The scoop-and-sweep method has become a standard for recipe writers because it is more consistent. The “dip” method can often pack down the flour too much. Nowadays, more recipes include weights, encouraging bakers to use digital scales, which are more precise and eliminate the need for measuring cups altogether.

Similarly, during the mixing, many bakers falter in the first step of creaming the butter with the sugar. When mixed long enough — about 3 minutes at medium speed in a stand mixer — the butter aerates while the sugar creates the air pockets that the action of the baking powder or soda enlarge to produce the lightest baked treats.

Butter temperature is a third potential pitfall in sugar cookie production. The ideal is room temperature butter — spreadable but still solid, preserving the emulsion of water with butterfat. When it is too cold or too warm, the butter cannot aerate properly to give the dough good structure. The right temperature is also important for shaping and baking, so chilling the dough both after mixing and after cutting shapes makes the best-looking cookies.

All-around cookie dough

Thumbprint cookies are one of many varieties of sugar cookies. Credit: Copyright 2015 Lynne Curry

Thumbprint cookies are one of many varieties of sugar cookies. Credit: Copyright 2015 Lynne Curry

After I tested the five recipes and sampled them side by side with an open mind, I discovered that there is no such thing as a dud sugar cookie. The truth is, the ultimate sugar cookie is the one you like best, whether the recipe is from your grandmother, the local paper or Food52.

What truly makes the sugar cookie a standout — apart from its wonderful simplicity — is the fact that it is the most multitasking cookie of all. With one dough in your repertoire, it’s possible to craft a whole dessert tray worth of distinct Christmas cookies.

Other than using sugar cookie dough for rolled and cut cookies, you can also shape it into sandwich cookies, thumbprints, bars or even slice-and-bake cookies from your freezer. You can flavor the dough with lemon or orange zest, spices like cardamom or nutmeg or almond flavoring — all to your taste. Or, mix in chopped nuts, dark chocolate or crystallized ginger.

When it comes to decorating cut-out sugar cookies, there are two camps: the sprinklers and the frosters. I am firmly in the colored sprinkles camp, both because of my Christmas cookie heritage and because I find most frostings make the whole endeavor too sweet.

No matter the recipe, the true goal is to celebrate the stellar pleasures of the sugar cookie that come but once a year.

Main photo: Cut-out sugar cookies decorated with sprinkles and frosting. Credit: Copyright 2015 Lynne Curry

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