Black Bean Soup With Mexican Pesto. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Looking for a black Halloween food to make grown-ups howl with delight? Black Bean Soup With Mexican Pesto tastes like it took all day simmering on the back burner, getting rich and thick from hours of loving attention.

But when time is too short to stir dried beans in a witch’s cauldron, canned black beans that have been carefully rinsed are the fast and easy answer to perfect results, because they’ll be intensely flavored and then puréed smooth in the resulting soup.

My favorite black bean soups are from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, specifically around the city of Mérida; their unctuous, creamy textures contain no cream and are packed with characteristic layers of flavor from gargantuan amounts of herbs and a whisper of regional habañero chile. For decadence, locals often swirl in a spoonful of crema for special occasions, and Halloween is definitely such an occasion, at least in the U.S.

You start by making a flavor bomb similar to an Italian pesto to embellish the finished soup: Pull a big handful of basil leaves off stems, add cilantro and, if you can get some of the herb, throw in a little epazote with spicy habañero chile for traditional tastes. Because pine nuts aren’t found in the Yucatan, substitute pecans, Mexico’s national nut, for the right texture profile. For cheese, my choice is a not-too-salty queso añejo (aged queso fresco), or use Parmigiano-Reggiano. Only the best-quality extra virgin olive oil will do for its fruitiness, and then finish the soup with Merida sunshine: a generous squirt of bright Mexican (aka Key) lime juice.

Mexican pesto. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Mexican pesto. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Black Bean Soup With Mexican Pesto

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: Makes 4 servings (may be doubled)

Ingredients

For the pesto:

4 large cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped

¼ cup coarsely chopped pecans

1 fresh habañero chile

¼ teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt

⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 cup basil leaves, tightly packed

½ cup cilantro leaves

10 epazote leaves (if available)

¼ cup grated queso añejo or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil

For the soup:

The soup's ingredients include habañero chile, garlic, pecans and cilantro. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

The soup’s ingredients include habañero chile, garlic, pecans and cilantro. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

One 3-inch white onion, coarsely chopped

2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

½-inch piece of the habañero chile, minced

Three 15-ounce cans organic black beans

2 cups organic chicken broth, divided

2 Mexican (aka Key) limes

Sea or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

½ cup Mexican crema, or sour cream thinned with a little milk

Directions

For the pesto:

1. Combine the garlic, pecans, a tiny ¼-to-½-inch piece of the chile finely chopped (wear disposable gloves while doing this), salt and pepper in a food processor. Process for 10 seconds. Toss in the basil, cilantro and epazote and grind again for 10 seconds. Turn the processor off and scrape the sides with a spatula to get everything down into the mixture.

2. Add the cheese. Turn the machine back on and pour the oil slowly through the feed tube, processing until the mixture is fully incorporated and smooth. Taste carefully for saltiness and if the sauce is spicy enough — it should be hot! If not, mince another small piece of the chile and process again to fully incorporate the bits. Taste again and adjust accordingly.

3. Using a rubber spatula, scrape into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and set aside.

For the soup:

1. Heat the oil in a large pot and sauté the onion until translucent. Toss in the garlic and chile and cook until starting to brown. Remove from the heat.

2. Rinse the beans carefully for a few minutes. Scrape the onion, garlic and chile into the processor using a spatula and then dump in the beans. (You may have to do this in two batches.) Process until smooth, adding 1 cup of broth. Pour back into the pot.

3. Mix in the remaining 1 cup of broth. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat to a simmer, squeeze in the lime juice and season the bland beans assertively to taste with salt and pepper. Simmer 10 minutes.

4. To serve, ladle the soup into bowls and top with a generous tablespoonful of pesto on each. If using, swirl a tablespoon of crema in a circle around the pesto and pass the remaining crema in a small bowl.

Main photo: Black Bean Soup With Mexican Pesto. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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Sign on Fior di Latte window. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

It wasn’t much more than 100 years ago that Boulder, on the storied Colorado foothills, was a lively frontier town at the gateway of the Rockies, a bustling supply base for miners venturing into the mountains prospecting for gold and silver. Today, the city of Boulder, still possessed of the pioneer spirit, is a mecca for a different kind of trailblazer, the American artisan.

If the early settlers had meager materials with which to found a cuisine, their descendants raise heritage wild Russian boar, East Friesian dairy sheep and Italian honey bees. They have learned about wine in Friuli and cheese in Tuscany, but they haven’t forgotten their heritage. They’re breeding bison, eating knotweed and foraging for mushrooms in the hills.

It’s not surprising that this is where Chefs Collaborative, a group of chefs, food producers, and movers and shakers in the food industry, would choose to meet for their annual summit, themed “Moving Mountains, Scaling Change.”

Flying over Boulder, the high plains conjured wild mustangs and Spaghetti Westernsa change of scenery from the sultry beaches of Rimini, where I had just been two weeks earlier for the Gelato World Tour finals. Still running on gelato fumes, I was now in for three heady days of meeting and eating, Colorado style. We talked hogs. We talked beef. We talked sheep. We talked chicken. We talked humane ranching; grass-fed, sustainable animal husbandry; natural curing; GMO and factory farming. We talked how to distribute small-scale harvests and handcrafted foods to a wider public. Generally, we celebrated food.

But the gelato gods weren’t done with me. Taking a breather from our think tank, we ventured onto Pearl Street in Boulder’s colorful historic district, where a shop window with this inscription caught my eye:

“We promise to never serve you gelato that wasn’t made today.”

The real stuff

I knew that could mean only one thing. Someone who had learned the art in Italy was making the real stuff — silky, small-batch, gelato from scratch — in this Colorado town.

We wandered into the shop, Fior di Latte, and sure enough, the gelatière, Bryce Licht, told us that he and his wife had learned the art in Italy. Five years ago, he left his native Boulder for the Veneto on a research grant. At first he studied marketing. Then, he said, he fell in love with Giulia De Meo, a Venetian. She taught him how to cook genuine Italian food. Gelato was their obsession. “We decided to start our own business and apprenticed with gelatièri who had shops in Treviso,” he said. “One of them was the Italian gelato champion in 2011. We got to see behind the scenes … and we fell in love with the business.”

dellaCroce_BryceLicht.2

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Bryce Licht, gelatière. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

The couple moved back to Boulder and immersed themselves in the local food scene, selling their gelato from a cart at the farmers market and supplying neighborhood restaurants. They lucked out again when they found a sliver of a space in which to set up shop in the hub of the hip main street.

As we talked, I scanned the pans overflowing with delicious-looking fruit, nut and chocolate gelatos when my eyes pounced on a mound studded with fresh pear. Could it be? Yes! With my first lick, I was transported back to the Lido in Venice, where an old man with a gelato cart had piled spun frozen pear ambrosia onto cones for my little girls and me one summer many years ago. I’ve been yearning for that elusive flavor ever since.

Seasonal fruit

While I scarfed down the gelato, Licht explained their obsession with using fresh seasonal fruit whenever they find it.

“I saw local pears at the farmers market, and so I’m making gelato with them now,” he said. “Soon it’ll be pumpkins and butternut.”

Fior di Latte's pear gelato. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

Fior di Latte’s pear gelato. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

Fior di Latte will offer two varieties. One is a pumpkin and Chinese five-spice with star anise, cloves, cinnamon, Sichuan pepper and fennel. The other is more traditional in Venice. “It really tastes just like a delicious pumpkin with no added spices other than [sugar] and a pinch of salt,” Licht said. “Of course, the pumpkin is fresh.”

The couple source all their supplies carefully. “We use only natural ingredients, no exceptions. Anything that doesn’t live up to these standards is just not gelato,” Licht said. He also said they use pistachios from Sicily, hazelnuts from Piemonte and almonds from California and toast them before blending them into a paste.

Eating the pear gelato, Italy and Colorado merged. It was both the essence of what I had eaten in Venice so many years ago, and the stuff of what those of us at the summit saw as the way forward. It embodied, I realized, two sides of the same cone.

 Main photo: Sign on Fior di Latte window. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

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Sweet Potato and Lima Bean Tagine. Reprinted with permission from

“Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean and Southern Flavors Remixed” (Ten Speed Press, 2014), the latest cookbook from nationally recognized food activist and eco-chef Bryant Terry, delivers flavor and fun with a political punch.

Do you cook to music? Once you get into Afro-Vegan, you will get your groove on, too. With plant-based menus becoming more popular, get ready to rock your vegan souls to another level.

During a recent interview, Terry said that he cooks with an attitude about health, flavor and fun. He wants to improve the health of people of color who exceed the general population with a long list of diseases like obesity, diabetes and cancer. Indeed, his scholarly work was immersed in studies about the intersection of food, racism, poverty, malnutrition, environment and health.

“Celebrating the flavor profiles of African Diaspora food is the best way I know how to improve the health of people of African descent,” Terry said. “I would like to impact their physical, spiritual and emotional health through food knowledge, celebration of culture and connection to planet Earth,” he added.

Terry’s book teaches history, too. “I want people to recognize that the current farm-to-table movement originated with us — black people.”

Terry reminds us that most of the American cuisine originated from African, Caribbean and Southern traditions. “Our food was always flavorful plant-based cooking and never boring. Far from it!”

Not your usual vegan

Taking issue with standard vegan fare, he said: “Why do we think of vegan as bland, hippie food? Many vegan restaurants are so disappointing, and there’s no excuse for lack of flavor and joy.”

Terry’s recipes are really edible collages, and re-creating them can be fun. Instead or wine or beer, he pairs his recipes with Afrocentric soundtracks, memories, books and films. These pairings might remind you of Vertamae Smart Grosvenor’s “Vibration Cooking” book popular in the ’70s. She combined music and dancing in the kitchen to encourage good “vibrations” in the pot.

Terry showed his Southern charm by bowing down to the grand dame of Southern cooking, Miss Edna Lewis. He re-imagined her fruitcake from a photograph and created Spiced Persimmon Bundt Cake With Orange Glaze. This lovely dessert is paired with Miriam Makeba’s song “A Piece of Ground” and “To Us, All Flowers Are Roses: Poems by Lorna Goodison.”

Romare Bearden tribute

This jazzy cookbook is a tribute to artist Romare Bearden, whose supersized quote guided Terry through the writing of it: “The artist has to be something like a whale swimming with his mouth wide open, absorbing everything until he has what he really needs.”

Do you love sweet potatoes, okras, black eye peas, beans, nuts, watermelon and greens galore? If so, here are some learn new ways to turn them out. Through these pages, you will have fun assembling all the ingredients, shopping in ethnic groceries and searching for the music, books and film pairings. Most of all, you will enjoy the journey of learning how to “vegan-ize” a variety of Creole, Caribbean and Southern dishes. Try making the Jamaican Patties With Maque Choux to the soundtrack of “Brass in Africa” by Hypnotic Brass Ensemble from Best of BBE 2011. Then watch the film “Life and Debt,” directed by Stephanie Black, while eating this simple street food. Your taste buds will wake up with happiness and excitement.

Maque Choux is a Louisiana side dish made with corn, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions and bacon, butter or cream. The pastry for this meatless patty is made with flour, turmeric, sea salt and coconut oil. The plant-based Maque Choux filling was Caribbean-ized by adding cumin, thyme, black pepper, cinnamon, allspice, cayenne, corn broth, coconut milk and lime juice.

Healthy, fresh meals

Terry’s cooking genes come from his grandparents and parents in Memphis via rural Mississippi. They nurtured edible gardens and prepared simple healthy, fresh meals.

He said he expanded his repertoire in Louisiana, where he earned an English literature degree from Xavier University and developed a passion for Creole and Cajun food. “That’s where I first tasted savory breakfasts, beignet and coffee.” Living in Brooklyn as a starving New York University grad student, Terry dined on tasty and affordable Caribbean street food such as Trinidadian roti and Jamaican patties. “My combined travels and studies in Harlem and other diverse black communities helped me trace and interpret the arc of food’s African ancestry,” he said.

When Terry moved to Oakland, Calif., he said he discovered East African foods, especially Ethiopian flavors, and Asian food too. He called his cooking style “Afro-Asian.” He and his Chinese wife and their two children enjoy growing bok choy, collards and mustard greens in their Oakland backyard garden.

Terry said he started his work in grassroots in Brooklyn, where an all-girls black basketball team booed him off the stage for bad-mouthing McDonald’s hamburgers.

“Even in cooking school my teachers and classmates laughed at me when I said I wanted to create food programs for low-income urban youth. All they wanted to do was work in a restaurant. My family was very supportive. But some of them did not see my vision. They wondered where I was going with an English degree from Xavier, a history master’s degree from NYU and chef’s training program at the National Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts in NYC.”

Who’s laughing now? Every aspect of Terry’s educational and professional studies found application in his books and work.

“Today, I feel very proud to inspire the next generation of food activists,” he said, adding that a recent highlight of his career was giving the graduation speech at UC Berkeley.

No need to pair veganism with perfectionism

“I’m not pushing veganism as perfect. I am simply offering some tools and options. I am a chef. I love cooking and sharing the joy of healthy food. I don’t separate food from culture. When we understand food from seed to table and learn that process, we all become more invested in our own health,” he said.

“More schools now use urban gardens, farmers markets, plant-based eating, cooking and preserving classes to teach life skills. That’s my kind of activism,” he said. The chef said he was inspired by the Black Panther’s children’s breakfast programs of the ’60s and ’70s.

Spices, soups and street food

The book is organized into chapters with titles like “Spices, Sauces, Heat,” “Soups, Stews, Tagines” and “Street Food, Snacks, Small Bites.” Amazing and enticing photographs are interspersed between the pages. Sample recipes include: “Tofu Curry With Mustard Greens,” “Crunchy Bean and Okra Fritters With Mango-Habanero Sauce,” and “Sweet Potato and Pumpkin Soup.” Several dishes use African spices and sauces such as berbere, chermoula and harissa.

My favorite recipe was the “Sweet Potato Granola With Molasses-Glazed Walnuts.” Once the cinnamon and nutmeg aromas filled my kitchen everyone thought I was baking pie. With this recipe, you will never buy granola again. Be forewarned, once you open this cookbook, you will get hungry, head for the kitchen, go grocery shopping, go back to the kitchen, turn on some music and dance as you cook up a storm.

The book begins with “Permission to Speak,” an introduction by Jessica B. Harris, a noted educator, culinary historian and author of 12 books. Reflecting on her travels through Africa, and her grandmother and mother’s larder, Harris said of Terry: “In Afro-Vegan, he amply and ably demonstrates that he knows that food and culture are inseparable and that history is always there on the plate.”

Cocoa-Spice Cake with Crystallized Ginger and Coconut-Chocolate Ganache

Yield: 8 to 16 servings

Soundtrack: “Marcus Garvey” by Burning Spear from “Marcus Garvey/Garvey’s Ghost”

Book: “The Other Side of Paradise: A Memoir” by Staceyann Chin

Ingredients

Bryant's cocoa-spiced cake with crystallized ginger and coconut-chocolate ganache. Reprinted with permission from "Afro-Vegan" by Bryant Terry. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. Photography (c) 2014 by Paige Green

Bryant’s cocoa-spiced cake with crystallized ginger and coconut-chocolate ganache. Reprinted with permission from “Afro-Vegan” by Bryant Terry. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. Photography (c) 2014 by Paige Green

For the cake:

¼ cup coconut oil, melted, plus more for oiling

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon fine raw cane sugar

¾ cup whole wheat pastry flour

¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour

6 tablespoons unsweetened natural cocoa powder (not Dutch-processed)

1¼ teaspoons baking soda

½ teaspoon fine sea salt

Scant ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons coconut milk

¼ cup packed mashed ripe avocado (about 1⁄2 medium avocado)

2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon dark Jamaican rum

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 ounces crystallized ginger, finely chopped (about 1⁄2 cup)

For the ganache:

5 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate, finely chopped

¾ cup coconut milk

5 tablespoons raw cane sugar

⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon dark Jamaican rum (optional)

12 thin slices crystallized ginger

 Whenever I serve this cake, folks can’t believe it’s vegan, and they always get a kick out of it when I tell them that I include avocado to add moisture and natural cream­iness. My assistant, Amanda Yee, came up with the idea of pouring a coconut-chocolate ganache over the cake. You can stop there and enjoy chocolaty bliss, or take it to the next level by pairing it with Vanilla Spice Rum Shakes.

 Directions

  1. To make the cake, preheat the oven to 375 F. Oil an 8-inch round cake pan with 2-inch sides.
  2. Sift the sugar, flours, cocoa powder, bak­ing soda, salt, cayenne, and nutmeg into a large bowl and stir with a whisk until well blended.
  3. Put the coconut milk, oil, avocado, rum, vinegar, and vanilla extract in a blender and process until smooth (or put them in a large bowl and blend with an immer­sion blender until smooth). Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and add the wet ingredients and the ginger. Fold together until uniformly mixed. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and spread in an even layer. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool in the pan for 15 minutes. Slide a butter knife around the edge, then invert the cake onto a rack and let cool to room temperature.
  4. To make the ganache, put the chocolate in a medium heatproof bowl. Put the coconut milk, sugar, and cayenne in a small saucepan and heat until steam­ing hot (avoid boiling), stirring often, until the sugar has dissolved. Slowly pour over the chocolate and let stand until the chocolate is melted, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the rum and whisk until completely smooth. Let stand at room temperature, stirring occasionally, until slightly cooled but pourable, about 5 minutes.
  5. To glaze the cake, pour the ganache evenly over the cake and let stand until the ganache is set, about 30 minutes. Garnish with the ginger slices.

Main photo caption: Sweet Potato and Lima Bean Tagine. Reprinted with permission from “Afro-Vegan” by Bryant Terry. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. Photography (c) 2014 by Paige Green

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Bottles of olive oil. Credit: iStockPhoto

I brought a jug of dark green Sicilian olive oil, freshly pressed from a friend’s farm, back to my home in the hills along the border between Tuscany and Umbria. “È buono,” said my neighbor, Arnaldo, when he tasted it. “It’s good but … non ė genuino.”

Non ė genuino – it’s about the worst thing an Italian can say about another Italian’s food, whether oil, cheese, wine or pork ragù. It translates as “it’s not the real thing,” but what it really means is, “This is not the way we do it here, not the way our forebears have been doing it since Etruscan times, and not, in fact, the right way.”

In this case, caro Arnaldo, I beg to differ. What I had offered was a fresh-tasting oil made from Nocellara del Belice olives, picked green and pressed immediately, radiant with the almond-to-artichoke flavors characteristic of that varietal, which is grown mostly in and around western Sicily’s Belice valley. Moreover, it was lush, verdant and fresh from the press — I knew because I was there when it happened.

This encounter led me to think about the astonishing variety of foods that proliferate throughout the long, skinny, undulating boot that is Italy, and about the intense pride each region, each province, each little mountain village or coastal fishing port takes in its own traditions.

Italians, it almost goes without saying, invented the locavore phenomenon — and invented it a long time ago. It’s what makes a culinary tour of this remarkable country so seductive and astonishing.

What makes olive oils great?

But it’s also a trap of deception. A New York Times reporter — who happens to be a friend of mine — fell into that trap recently when writing about Umbrian olive oil. “Our oil,” her informants told her (I’m extrapolating), “is not like that sweet Tuscan oil. Our oil has character!”

Sweet oil? Tuscan? Really? Peppery, fruity, bitter, complex — these are the characteristics I taste in a well-made Tuscan oil. But not sweet.

Umbrian olive oil can be, and often is, excellent. The main local cultivar is Moraiolo, which is high in antioxidants that give it an overwhelming intensity, so much so that producers blend Moraiolo olives with others to calm that muscular quality. But Umbrian olive oil is also hard to distinguish from Tuscan oil. In fact, I would argue almost all high-quality central Italian oils — made from a mix of olives (Frantoio, Leccino, Pendolino and Moraiolo are the usual blend); often grown at high altitudes; usually harvested when still immature and pressed immediately thereafter — typically share certain acerbic flavors and peppery aromas that are redolent of freshly cut grass, artichoke or tomato leaves. I doubt most North American consumers, even well-educated ones, confronted with a selection of oils from Umbria and Tuscany, could tell them apart.

There are, I’m told, more than 500 olive cultivars grown in Italy, some of them widely known and grown such as Leccino, universally valued for its resistance to low temperatures, and some of them only from very specific regions, like Dritto, an olive that appears to be exclusive to the Abruzzi, or Perenzana olives from northern Puglia. With the spread of olive culture to other regions of the world — California, Chile, South Africa, New Zealand — some of these cultivars are being grown far from their native soil, and the oil made from them often suffers as a result — non ė genuino!

Or at least that’s what Italians believe, and my heart — and my palate — agrees. The best oils taste of that elusive characteristic called terroir — a combination of environment (soil structure, altitude, climate, weather), variety and technology, both traditional and modern, adjusted to match time-honored local tastes. In Provence, for instance, local taste demands a fusty flavor, the result of anaerobic fermentation in the olives, producing an oil considered defective elsewhere.

But I also believe North Americans are fortunate not to be trapped in the locavore delusion. We have access to olive oils from all over Italy, indeed from all over the world. How to deal with that abundance can be a problem, but it’s a problem we should welcome. Unlike those Umbrian producers, we can buy an Umbrian oil and a Tuscan one and taste them side by side, along with one, perhaps, from Puglia, or Sicily, or even from Verona in northern Italy. Or indeed Tunisia or Spain or New Zealand.

The tree said to be the oldest olive tree in Umbria, Italy. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

The tree said to be the oldest olive tree in Umbria, Italy. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

The revolution starts here

Now I’m going to tell you something radical: I have tried to love olive oils from retail outlets across the entire U.S., but with few exceptions, I have almost always been disappointed. Many retailers simply don’t recognize the importance of harvest dates or the critical significance of maintaining oils in dark, cool environments. They display bottles under shop lights in order to entice customers, and they’ve paid top dollar for oil when it first arrives on the market, so even if it stays around a while, the price still has to reflect their costs.

So more and more, my advice is to go to online distributors, many of whom get their oil directly from the producer and most of whom keep their precious bottles warehoused in a dark, cool environment. Here are a few I recommend; I’ve also noted where there are retail stores. Note that the first three sell only Italian olive oils; the rest carry a variety from many other areas, including California:

Main photo: Bottles of olive oil. Credit: iStockPhoto

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Bucatini Dome

Dried pasta can cost anywhere from $1 to $7 or more per pound. Pasta is just flour and water, so what, if anything, makes the expensive stuff any better? Is there a taste and texture difference between brands? Is artisanal pasta worth the price?

I traveled throughout Italy to find out, interviewing food bloggers, chefs, pasta manufacturers and home cooks. Every Italian I spoke with emphatically believed that he or she could taste the difference and that good pasta wasn’t cheap, but was worth the price. I listened to technical explanations of the difference between Teflon and bronze extrusion, the value of water, length and types of drying techinques.

They were all convincing, but I was finally won over completely when I attended the food festival I Primi d’Italia, dedicated to Italy’s famed first-course specialties: pasta, risotto and polenta. The festival is held each year in Umbria, in the historic town of Foligno, which is completely transformed with tasting and demo stations in every piazza, courtyard and cobblestone street as it plays host to this delightful event.

I attended a workshop on how to evaluate dried pasta led by Gennaro Esposito, a two-star Michelin chef from Naples. He did a side-by-side test that highlighted the ways to tell so-so pasta from great pasta.

Try this at home

Try it yourself at home. It’s easiest to see the difference using spaghetti, so select an artisanal imported Italian pasta, and compare it to a bargain brand.

Fill two pots with the same amount of water and salt and bring to a boil. So that it’s a blind test, ask a friend to help so you don’t know which pasta is which. Have your friend put in the same amount of pasta to each pot. After a minute or two, stir the pastas and take a whiff of the water. Which pasta has a fresh wheat aroma?

  1. Once the pasta is al dente, drain, and test its ability to absorb sauce. Put a few strands of each into two different bowls with a little water and after several minutes note which pasta absorbed more water. That means it will better absorb sauce and is the better pasta.
  2. Then pinch both types of pasta between your thumb and index finger. The inferior pasta will be gummy to the touch and soft in the middle, while the better pasta stays al dente.
  3. Finally, taste each pasta plain, with no sauce. That should be enough to convince you!
fresh pasta

A chef presses pasta. Great pasta doesn’t mush. Credit: Francine Segan.

Ways to Spot Superior Pasta

To learn how to spot superior pasta I visited Garofalo, a famed Naples pasta company, where I was taught that superior pasta, when raw, should be yellow (not white), it should smell like fine wheat, and it should break cleanly and easily—without scattering bits about.

When cooked, it should:

  1. Taste delicious, even without sauce.
  2. Have a lovely aroma, like crusty bread.
  3. Leave the cooking water clear and uncloudy.
  4. Stick to the sauce. If the sauce slides off, it’s a sign that the pasta was not properly dried. Pasta that is too slippery means that the past maker rushed the drying process using a high temperature, which causes the pasta’s starch to form a sort of glaze on the pasta, making it shiny and impenetrable for sauces.
  5. Remain firm the last bite. If left in a plate without sauce, it should not collapse and lose its shape.

To underscore just how important good pasta is, the team at Garofalo taught me a fabulous show-stopping recipe. It really underscores the characteristics of quality pasta — the ability to keep from getting mushy when cooked.

Bucatini Dome (Cupola di Bucatini)

It’s hard to top this dish for pure drama. The stately dome of pasta houses a colorful filling of string beans, carrots, zucchini and plenty of rich Italian cheese.

But don’t get intimidated. It’s actually quite easy to create. The trick is to use bucatini, which are thick long pasta that keep their shape as you coil them into the round dome cake pan. If you don’t have one, use a metal bowl instead. Don’t let lack of equipment keep you from tackling this architecturally magnificent — and delicious — dish.

Prep time: 40 minutes

Cooking time: 30 minutes

Total time: 70 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

14 tablespoons butter, plus more for the pan

5 slender zucchini (about 2 pounds), minced

3 medium carrots, minced

¾ pound haricot verts or very thin string beans, minced

1¼ pounds bucatini

2 eggs, beaten

½ cup grated pecorino cheese

Black pepper

¾ pound deli-sliced high-quality provolone cheese

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Very generously butter an 8- to 9-inch dome-shaped oven-safe container such as a Pyrex or metal bowl.

2. Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a large frying pan and add zucchini; fry until soft. Put the zucchini into a large bowl. Using the same pan, cook the carrots and string beans in 1 tablespoon of butter over low heat, covered, until tender, adding a few drops of water, if needed. Stir into the bowl with the zucchini until well combined. Set aside 1 cup of this vegetable mixture as garnish for later.

3.  Cook the pasta in boiling salted water for ⅔ of the package’s recommended time. Drain and divide, putting ¾ of the pasta into the large bowl of vegetables and the remaining ¼ into a small bowl with 2 tablespoons of butter. Set aside; the small bowl, it will be used for the outer part of the dome.

4.  Add 9 tablespoons of butter to the pasta-vegetable bowl and stir until the butter melts, then stir in the beaten eggs, pecorino cheese, and freshly grated black pepper. Using kitchen scissors, cut into the pasta mixture so it is broken up a little. Set aside.

5. From the plain buttered pasta, using one strand and starting in the center of the prepared domed container, twirl the pasta around itself to form a coil. Continue the coil with another strand of pasta starting where the last strand ended so it is in one continuous line; continue with additional strands until half way up the pan. Line the pasta with slices of  cheese, pressing the cheese firmly against the pasta. Put in half of the vegetable-pasta mixture, pressing firmly into the bottom and sides of the bowl to remove any air pockets and densely pack the filling. Top with cheese slices.

6. Continue coiling the plain pasta around the dome to the top, adding a strand at the exact spot the last ended. Line the sides with more cheese slices and top with the remaining vegetable-pasta mixture and slices of cheese. Press the pasta down firmly with a spatula or wooden spoon. This is key to getting a nice compact dome that stays together nicely when sliced. Cut the remaining plain buttered pasta with scissors and press on top of the mixture.

7. Cover the bowl with aluminum foil and bake for 15 minutes, then remove the foil and bake uncovered for another 15 minutes, until golden and set. Let rest 10 minutes, then put a serving plate on top of the bowl, and invert it. Hit with a wooden spoon to help the pasta release from the pan, and, using the tip of a spoon or butter knife along the bottom edge of the bowl, begin to remove the bowl from the pasta. Serve garnished with the reserved cup of minced vegetables.

Main photo: Bucatini Dome houses string beans, carrots, zucchini and plenty of cheese. Credit: “Pasta Modern” by Francine Segan

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Father Paul Dumais. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

The Rev. Paul Dumais has spent much of his free time in the past year sorting truth from rumor concerning the science behind a traditional comfort food in his home state of Maine.

Dumais, a Catholic priest who lives in Lewiston, has been studying the chemical composition of ployes (rhymes with toys). He’s attempting to discern the scientific facts about the batter for these traditional French Acadian buckwheat pancakes or flatbreads from the theatrical stories passed down by generations of Acadian people living in northern Maine.

For example, his grandmother would use only Rumford baking powder in her ployes. “The rumor was that if you didn’t use Rumford’s, your ployes would turn green,” said Dumais, adding that he can’t scientifically support that claim.

He can, though, methodically corroborate his grandmother’s “feel” for when there is enough water in the mix because he’s calculated that a hydration rate of 170% (170 grams of water to 100 grams of flour) makes the best ployes. If the batter is too thick, they don’t cook evenly. If it’s too thin, the finished product is not hearty enough to do its job of providing a simple carbohydrate filler food for the local population. One serving of ployes has 100 calories, 21 grams of carbs and 2 grams of protein.

Dumais says “flatbread” is a more accurate term than “pancake” for ployes because they are not traditionally eaten for breakfast and traditionally not served with maple syrup. They are buttered, rolled and served at lunch or dinner with savory dishes like creton, a pork spread containing onions and spices; baked beans; and an Acadian chicken stew called fricot.

Never flip a ploye

Ployes are never, ever flipped like a flapjack. The batter, which must not be over mixed, is portioned on a dry, hot griddle; swished once into a 4- or 5-inch circle; and cooked face up so you can see the heat “fait les yeux” or “make the eyes.” Those “eyes” are the air bubbles that dot the surface of perfectly cooked ployes.

Dumais is a Mainer in the true sense of the word. He serves as Catholic chaplain to Central Maine Medical Center and Bates College and is a founding member of the Fraternity of St. Philip Neri. He was born and raised in the small town of Madawaska, which sits in the middle of a place called “the Valley” in Aroostook County. “The Valley” forms part of the international border with Canada along the St. John River. Madawaska, which now has a population of 4,000, was founded by French-speaking agrarian settlers in 1785 after they were forcefully dispersed by the English from the region of Acadie, a part of New France that included sections of what we now recognize as Eastern Quebec and the Maritime Provinces.

Ployes mixes from Bouchard Family Farms. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

Ployes mixes from Bouchard Family Farms. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

Dumais is armed with both taste memory and newfangled kitchen gadgets (like his  infrared thermometer, a highly accurate kitchen scale and his preferred Danish dough whisk) and is enthusiastically fond of mixing experimentation with deep-set culinary tradition. His end game — spurred on by his Great Aunt Prescille’s faint memory — is to produce a ploye batter much like his great-great-grandmother made from local grains and natural, ambient yeast.

Dumais recently evangelized the scientific wonders of ployes at the annual Kneading Conference in Skowhegan. The starting point in his public demonstration involves ready-made ployes mixes from two sources: his cousins’ garage in Frenchville, and the more commercially available mix sold by Bouchard Family Farms. The measurements — 1 cup of ployes mix to 1⅓ cups of cold water — are spelled out on the side of the stand-up paper sacks. So are instructions for letting the batter rest for 5 minutes, the proper amount for each ploye (3 ounces), recommended thickness (⅛ inch) and expected cooking time (60 to 90 seconds). Dumais does advise users of these mixes to play with the amount of water added as he believes the viscosity should be a bit thinner than the labels’ recipe prescribes.

The ingredients for these mixes comprise a simple list and look much like his mother’s “from scratch” recipe (below), which serves as his second data point. Here he likes to demonstrate his hydration discoveries, making dramatic pouring gestures of too-slow ploye dough that has only 100 percent hydration and requires the cook to work too hard to spread it on the hot griddle. He also shows how too-fast batter quickly seeps across the boundaries of its allotted griddle real estate.

Sharing tips for success

But Dumais gets most animated when he presents his progress on developing a recipe for the naturally leavened ployes he suspects his ancestors made, even though he has been unable to find historical documentation of this process in the University of Maine Acadian Archives. He relays the story of when he tasted a savory pancake made by a Somali immigrant named Angela at a potluck dinner celebrating an urban farming program run by St. Mary’s Nutrition Center in Lewiston last winter. They did not have a spoken language in common, but it didn’t matter. With bread as a cultural currency they both understood, Angela could convey that the secret to her bread was a yogurt-based starter that she kept in a jar and from that jar she began each new batch of pancakes.

A vertical stack. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

A vertical stack. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

It clicked for Dumais at that moment and he ran with the fermented flour starter idea, playing with flour amounts and types, feeding times, temperatures and hydration ratios. “Then one day, I made a batch. Watched and tasted. And finally thought, ‘Why, I think I’ve got it!’ ” Dumais said.

As he poured, swished once to form the right-sized circumference for the flatbread and watched for the heat to fait les yeux, Dumais said, “Now that is a ploye my mémé could be proud of.” These ployes looked much like the others, but had a bit of a sourdough finish.

In honor of the 2014 Acadian World Congress held in multiple locations along the U.S.-Canadian border over two weeks in August, Dumais hosted a continual feast near an ancestral homestead.

“My personal little quest was to reintroduce the naturally leavened ployes in honor of the event,” Dumais said. One evening he cooked alongside his mother to create some chicken stew and his new recipe for old-fashioned ployes for family.

Just as his mother had done every other time she’d eaten Acadian chicken stew, Dumais said for this meal “she buttered a ploye, rolled it up and dunked the end in her stew and remarked to another family member: ‘These are made without baking powder. They are very good.’

“Part of what might be difficult to appreciate is that people eat ployes all the time. … My mother was able to appreciate the moment largely because I had been in conversation with her all along,” he said.

People enjoyed Dumais’ ployes, but it “was an understated return of the traditional Acadian flatbread,” he said. The fact that they were made with family, for family, in an open-air kitchen on the banks of the St. John River near a cedar cabin built by his grandfather was satisfaction enough for him.

Ployes from scratch

This is Father Paul Dumais’  formula to replicate his mother’s ployes, traditional French Acadian buckwheat savory flatbreads. A scientifically enthusiastic baker, he highly recommends weighing the dry ingredients to yield the most authentic ployes.

Prep time: 1 minute

Cook time: 9 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes (including rest time of about 5 minutes for the batter)

Yield: 10 ployes

Ingredients

100 grams (½ cup plus 1 tablespoon) buckwheat flour

100 grams (a scant ¾ cup) all-purpose flour (Dumais uses King Arthur)

4 grams (½ teaspoon) salt

6 grams (2 teaspoons) baking powder (Dumais uses Rumford)

340 grams (1¾ cup) cold water (possibly more)

Directions

1. Preheat a griddle to 400 F.

2. Stir together buckwheat and all-purpose flours, salt and baking powder in a large bowl. Using a wire whisk, beat in the cold water until all the lumps are dissolved.

3. Let the batter sit for approximately 5 to 10 minutes.

4. In a circular motion, use back of spoon to spread 3 ounces of batter to ⅛ inch thick circles that are 5 inches in diameter. Cook ployes for 1½ minutes until the tops are bubbly and dry. Remove from griddle and serve warm, slathered with butter, with savory soups and stews.

Main photo: Father Paul Dumais. Credit: Christine B. Rudalevige

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A sign posted by Quivira’s guru Jim Barauski writes the tenets of Biodynamic farming for all to see. Credit: Katherine Leiner

Travel through Northern California and signs of the severe drought are everywhere. In suburban Healdsburg, front lawns are dead, flowers faded, home vegetable gardens finished weeks early. The same can be seen in Sebastopol, Sonoma and Santa Rosa. The Russian River above Redwood Valley is dry.

An article in “The Press Democrat” in Santa Rosa reported a high school sophomore’s unique water fence concept, a fence that stores rainwater. Ingenious. But there’s been no rain to store for at least three months.

California’s groundwater resources are in jeopardy, declining for many years at rates never seen before.

“Reliable groundwater supplies in California are essential to the health and well-being of all Americans. About half of the fruits and vegetables are grown in California. Without an improved management of groundwater in the state, California’s agricultural capacity will become smaller and unreliable,” says Miles Reiter, chairman and CEO of Driscoll’s, a leading supplier of fresh berries.

How are wineries faring in drought?

If the drought is endangering fruits and vegetables, what are its effects on the region’s vineyards?

Quivira and DaVero, two vineyards in the Dry Creek Valley, have incorporated the practices of biodynamic farming.

Biodynamics is a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, food production and nutrition. It stresses a holistic understanding of agriculture, treating all aspects of a farm, from soil fertility to the livestock, as interrelated. The principles, that agriculture seeks to heal the earth, were introduced by Rudolf Steiner in 1924.

People tending biodynamic vineyards have spent years conditioning their soils with preparations made of fermented manure, minerals and herbs, and understanding the use of earthly and cosmic rhythms and cycles in creating a healthy farm.

Biodynamic farmers also pioneered some of the first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) ventures. CSAs began taking root in Europe and Japan in the 1960s, and the movement had come to the United States by the mid-1980s.

Biodynamic guru

Quivira Vineyards and Winery specializes in small-lot wines from varietals specifically matched to the effects of hot summer days and cool coastal nights on its soil.

Jim Barauski, the biodynamic guru for Quivira says, “Going biodynamic was a decision made with a conscience toward moving away from cultivation and building better soils. Anthroposophy is the spiritual science behind biodynamics. If we take something out of the soil, we put something better back in. We feed the microbiotic life with natural, time-tested techniques.”

The winery’s large demonstration garden is a real awakening. The herbs and berries are neatly arranged in beds, the signage hand-printed and not a weed in sight. The beehives — a design called Golden Hives — were designed for the health and development of the colony and to minimize the impact from human interaction (more frequent opening of hives weakens their health).

Vineyard manager Ned Horton says he quietly works with the bees and rarely, if ever, gets stung.

“The health of the bees has been challenged on many levels, and the difference in bien (one-being, or oneness, that describes a bee colony) has to be understood within the context of the global landscape and the current one-dimensional human world view. The challenges for the well-being of the bees reflect our own struggle in our striving for health and happiness. The bees are intended to support the gardens and herbs, and the gardens of course, support the wines,” Horton says.

Each year, Quivira also plants a substantial amount of cover crops, which helps conserve water use. These plants also decompose, fortifying the soil, and open pathways for worms that aerate the soil, eventually creating a balance or a homeostasis.

Winemaker Hugh Chappelle says, “The light from the environment falls into matter so there is some quality of light in the wine. The entire vineyard is, in a way, like a human being, so complex and so individual. But as much as possible, each living thing on the farm supports the other.”

Winery started with olives

DaVero Farms and Winery, started by Ridgely Evers and Colleen McGlynn in 1982, is a 30-acre farm on which the couple had planted one olive tree. In 1990 they began to import olive trees from Tuscany. Through the years, their olive oil has been acknowledged as some of the best in the world.

In 2000, the couple planted their first small vineyard in Sangiovese and then the rare Sagrantino, Italian varietals because the Dry Creek Valley’s climate is similar to that of the Mediterranean region, characterized by hot, dry summer days and cool nights.

In 2007 Evers and McGlynn began the process of converting DaVero to biodynamic. Mary Foley, the original soil manager, transformed the soil into a vibrant, healthy farm. Foley, however, moved to the Sierra and advises from afar; Michael Presley now has the job.

As the tour finished with a lunch and wine tasting, the temperature at the vineyard had hit 95 degrees.

Presley promised it would begin to rain on Sept. 22. “It always does,” he claims.

Having seen a series of seemingly magical transformations through biodynamic gardening at the wineries, anything seemed possible.

It rained on Sept. 18.

cauliflowersalad

cauliflowersalad
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Roasted Cauliflower salad by Colleen McGlynn, who started DaVero Farms and Winery in Healdsburg, Calif., in 1982. Credit: Katherine Leiner

Colleen McGlynn’s Roasted Cauliflower

Prep time: 25 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
Ingredients
1 head cauliflower
1 garlic glove
3 pieces of anchovy
1 wedge preserved lemon
Fruity olive oil
2 tablespoons golden raisins
2 tablespoons salted capers
Chili flakes, to taste
Handful of Italian parsley leaves, chopped
Kosher salt and pepper
Directions
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Separate cauliflower into florets and toss in a bowl with a film of mild olive oil, salt to taste, spread on a sheet pan and put into 350 F oven for 10-15 minutes, or until browned.
3. Make a vinaigrette by mashing together the garlic, anchovy and lemon wedge into a paste. (If you don’t have preserved lemon, you can substitute the zest and juice of one lemon.) Put into a bowl, squeeze in the lemon juice and a “good glug” of fruity olive oil.  Stir together.
4. Combine the warm cauliflower with the raisins, capers, a pinch of chili flakes and chopped parsley, add to the vinaigrette.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Serve at room temperature.

Main photo: Quivira Vineyards and Winery’s Jim Barauski has posted a sign outlining the tenets of biodynamic farming. Credit: Katherine Leiner

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Smiling sugar skulls are a mainstay of Mexico's Day of the Dead celebrations on Nov. 1 and 2.

Many cultures around the world honor departed ancestors with holidays each year. Some feature altars. Some burn incense. But feasting is the common thread that runs through many of the celebrations.

The dead are part of that — with food offerings left in their honor.

In Mexico’s two-day Day of the Dead celebration — el Día de los Muertos — Nov. 1 celebrates the lives of departed infants and children. Nov. 2 honors those who died as adults. On both days, families provide the favorite food and drink of the departed.

In China, families set out plates of food during for their ancestors at the Hungry Ghost Festival. An empty place at the dinner table is sometimes left for an ancestor to join in the feast.

The Hungry Ghost Festival, which is thousands of years old, is traditionally celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. Chinese families place ancestral artifacts on a table, burn incense and display photographs of the dead.

Remembering the dead with food, flowers and festive décor

Mexico’s tradition also features colorful altars to honor ancestors.

MexicanSugarSkull.com offers this detail on the offerings — ofrendas — that families set out on their Day of the Dead altars:

“They are decorated with candles, buckets of flowers (wild marigolds called cempasuchil and bright red cock’s combs), mounds of fruit, peanuts, plates of turkey mole, stacks of tortillas and big Day-of-the-Dead breads called pan de muerto. The altar needs to have lots of food, bottles of soda, hot cocoa and water for the weary spirits. Toys and candies are left for the angelitos, and on Nov. 2, cigarettes and shots of mezcal are offered to the adult spirits. Little folk art skeletons and sugar skulls, purchased at open-air markets, provide the final touches.

 

The Day of the Dead sugar skulls are an example of the festive way that the Mexican culture approaches death -- with an air of celebration as a way to joyfully remember departed loved ones. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

The Day of the Dead sugar skulls are an example of the festive way that the Mexican culture approaches death — with an air of celebration as a way to joyfully remember departed loved ones. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Mexico’s Day of the Dead is believed to trace its origins to pre-Hispanic Aztec rituals. After the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, the celebrations were moved to coincide with the Christian holidays of All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2).

Not just a Mexican holiday anymore

Today, Day of the Dead has grown in popularity far behind the borders of Mexico and Latin America. The traditional observance from central and southern Mexico can now be seen in Día de los Muertos imagery and art around the world.

You can purchase just about anything you need for your own Day of the Dead celebration. From sugar skull molds to authentic Mexican Día de los Muertos folk art pieces, which are sometimes used as an altar decoration by celebrants.  The happy skeletons are shown doing many different things, from cooking to selling wares at the market. There are even skeleton mariachi bands. Families will purchase the colorful skeletons that depict activities their departed family member enjoyed in life.

Creating Mexican calaveras - the sugar skulls that are omnipresent in Day of the Dead celebrations - is an easy holiday activity for families. Youngsters get as much joy out of decorating the skulls as their parents do.

Creating Mexican calaveras – the sugar skulls that are omnipresent in Day of the Dead celebrations – is an easy holiday activity for families. Youngsters enjoy decorating the skulls as much as their parents do. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Making sugar skull decorations is very simple, using only three ingredients and a mold. The fun part is decorating them. I recruited my 7-year-old daughter and her friend to decorate the skulls. The kit came months ago, and my daughter had been bugging me since the day it arrived to make them. Not only was it a fun activity, it gave me a chance to talk about honoring our ancestors and remembering them in a fun — not sad — way.

I encourage families to make the skulls together, even decorating the skulls to resemble the deceased in their families and extended families.

Día de los Muertos Sugar Skulls

Prep time: 10 minutes

Drying time: 8 hours

Yield: 5 medium skulls

Ingredients

For the sugar skulls:

3 cups granulated sugar

3 teaspoons meringue powder

3 teaspoons water

For the royal icing:

1 pound powdered sugar

⅓ cup water

¼ cup meringue powder

Gel paste food coloring, assorted colors

Directions

For the sugar skulls:

1. In a medium bowl, mix the sugar and meringue powder.

2. Sprinkle the water over the sugar mixture.

3. Using clean hands, knead the mixture until all the sugar is moistened and it feels like wet sand. Make sure there are no lumps.

4. Pack the mix firmly into the sugar skull mold.

5. Carefully invert the mold onto a baking sheet or piece of cardboard.

6. Gently tap the mold to release the sugar skull from the mold.

7. Let the skulls dry for at least 8 hours to overnight.

8. Decorate the skulls with royal icing.

For the royal icing:

1. In a stand mixer, beat the icing until it makes stiff peaks.

2. Divide the icing and use paste food coloring to make assorted colors.

3. Using a piping bag, decorate the skulls as desired.

Main photo: Mexican sugar skulls for Day of the Dead celebrations. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee 

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