In Italy, there's a move to protect olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce

Between revelations by Italian police in December linking organized crime to 7,000 tons of counterfeit olive oil, and an estimated four-fold increase in adulterated extra virgin following the dismal 2014 olive harvest, there is no denying that fraud remains rampant. With 72 percent worldwide sales of olive oil at stake and all eyes on industry practices, Italy is fighting back.

EU and Italian government and trade organizations, including members of parliament, the Italian Trade Agency, UNAPROL (a consortium of Italian olive oil producers), and even an emissary of the Vatican, met last month to both address the problem of olive oil fraud and to outline their plans for a comeback.

“We must recuperate our damaged reputation,” said Colomba Mongiello, an Italian senator and president of the Counterfeiting Commission. She was responding to a survey conducted at Expo Milan 2015 in October, showing that 99 percent of foreign visitors involved believed that Italian olive oil was adulterated and that the consumer was being cheated. “Our objective is to reach the U.S. market and make them understand the difference between what looks Italian and what is Italian,” she said.

Officials meet

From left, ITA Director General Roberto Luongo, publisher and designer Franco Maria Ricci and Italian senator Colomba Mongiello spoke passionately at the Extract olive oil conference in Rome. Credit: Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce/Forktales

From left, ITA Director General Roberto Luongo, publisher and designer Franco Maria Ricci and Italian senator Colomba Mongiello spoke passionately at the Extract olive oil conference in Rome. Credit: Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce/Forktales

The conference, billed “Extract,” is part of a larger Italian effort to promote the country’s food and wine in the U.S., where imitation products labeled with Italian names, or colors of the Italian flag, are often mistaken for genuine imports. The strategy is two-pronged: legislating tougher penalties for fraud by going after Italian producers who don’t follow regulations, and launching the largest marketing effort ever made to inform American consumers how to taste and use extra virgin olive oil.

“We have to do the same thing we do with wine to get people to understand olive oil,” said culture guru Franco Maria Ricci, who spoke. “Four-year old children in France are taught that wine is an angel. Italy is an olive oil culture and [its] significance needs to be transmitted in the same way …. If we don’t understand its qualities and terroir, we won’t understand its value.”

Crime has always been associated with olive oil, a substance so precious and prized in Mediterranean culture that its production and trade has invariably had a dark side. Merchants have been known to cut extra virgin with cheap oil to increase their profits since ancient times, and farmers had to fear brigands waiting in ambush as they transported oil to market.

Today there is a different kind of criminal on the olive oil trail. It is the unscrupulous producer who intentionally mislabels oils to mislead consumers into thinking they are buying genuine Italian virgin olive oil when they are not. These murky practices have both hurt ethical producers and confused consumers. As journalist and Zester Daily contributor Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of “Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil,” told me recently, “The problem … is that there are two kinds of olive oil in the world: commodity oil and excellent oil, which is usually estate-bottled and always very carefully produced …. [but] we keep trying to judge excellent oil as a commodity and vice versa.”

World’s best olive oil

An 850-year-old olive tree in the vineyards of Azienda Agricola Amastuola in Puglia. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

An 850-year-old olive tree in the vineyards of Azienda Agricola Amastuola in Puglia. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

If Italy, which arguably produces the best olive oil in the world, has been a hotbed of fraud, it is also at the forefront of combating crime in the business. Where else are police trained to sniff out fakes at every stage of the supply chain? And who, but the Italians, have a system–IGP (Protected Geographical Indication) and the more stringent DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin)—that regulates the way it is made and that can lead us to the very trees it came from, and practically, the humans who crafted it?

From the terraced slopes and soft valleys of Italy’s central regions and the microclimates of Veneto and Liguria, to the expansive southern plateaus and sun-drenched islands, come some of the most sublime olives oils, produced by artisans who have the passion for making it in their bloodlines. Like the country’s new breed of winemakers who focus on quality over quantity, they are making delicious oils with the flavor peculiarities of their particular landscape. Utilizing the benefits of modern technology for cultivation while practicing sustainable growing and traditional picking methods, they are no doubt making better oil than their ancestors did.

How to buy good olive oil

Second-generation producers Francesca and Paola Billi of Castelnuovo di Farfa in Lazio have won many awards for their estate-bottled La Mola olive oil DOP. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Second-generation producers Francesca and Paola Billi of Castelnuovo di Farfa in Lazio have won many awards for their estate-bottled La Mola olive oil DOP. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

That said, not all well-made olive oil carries the DOP seal. If we were to limit ourselves to those alone, we would miss out on many fine extra-virgins. As with “USDA Organic,” the rigorous and costly bureaucratic process discourages many a small ethical producer from applying.

Assuming you are not an expert, the best approach to finding good olive oil is not unlike that for choosing good wine: Find a knowledgeable retailer to guide you. If such a place doesn’t exist in your neighborhood, you can order online from vendors whose buyers are experts. Each of these retailers carries a selection of fresh olive oil that is ethically produced from the current harvest:

Gustiamo in New York City, New York (www.gustiamo.com)

Market Hall Foods in Oakland, California (www.markethallfoods.com)

Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan (www.zingermans.com)

Main photo: In Italy, there’s a move to protect olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce/Forktales

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Visitors can tour Julia Child’s kitchen at the National Museum of American History. Credit: Courtesy of the National Museum of American History

When you visit the Smithsonian, you see Julia Child’s kitchen literally enshrined. It is surrounded by plexiglass, but you can see all of it and even “step inside” at places, while the kitchen itself is surrounded by videos of Julia. You get a sense of the real Julia, while you are also awed to be in the actual space inhabited by the First Lady of Food Television. Her seminal series “The French Chef” has just been re-released on the online TV site Twitch — bringing Julia once again into the public spotlight.

I was reminded of the cultural status of chefs at the Smithsonian’s Food History Gala. It was a public event to present the first ever Julia Child Award to Jacques Pépin. Taking place in the grand hall of the Smithsonian’s American History Museum, the location made it clear where chefs stand today in the pantheon of American greats. They stand right next to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Literally.

Todd Schulkin, executive director of the Julia Child Foundation, felt the space was appropriate. “It was very meaningful to be in the flag hall,” he said “under the image of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ ”

An ‘anonymous labor’

The first ever Julia Child Award was given to Jacques Pépin, who worked closely with Child. Credit: Photo courtesy of Jacques Pépin

The first ever Julia Child Award was given to Jacques Pépin, who worked closely with Child. Credit: Photo courtesy of Jacques Pépin

Marcus Samuelsson, author of “Yes, Chef,” reminded the distinguished guests that “being a chef was an anonymous labor for a long time.” Their high-flying cultural status is newfound. Even the evening’s celebrant, Jacques Pépin, spent the early part of his career as the corporate chef for Howard Johnson’s.

And it’s not just food stars, but food itself that has become a cultural touchstone. The Smithsonian’s Food History Weekend, kicked off by the gala, was followed by two more days of events and workshops that showcased innovation in American food culture. And the conversation didn’t stop with the weekend. The Smithsonian has embraced food history with the American Food History Project. It features monthly events that place food culture on the same level with such celebrated icons as Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe hat and Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers.

But there was a wistfulness underpinning the gala dinner. Many of the speakers of the evening — including the celebrated Chef Pépin — remarked on the strangeness of being cultural superstars. They all seemed to feel a sense of concern: being “enshrined” can also mean losing touch. A classic artifact like Julia’s Kitchen must be preserved by plexiglass. But a chef shouldn’t be. Superstars can find themselves living in a bubble, and it takes work to avoid this fate.

A sense of fun

Marcus Samuelsson; Eric Spivey, chairman of The Julia Child Foundation; Jacques Pépin; and Sara Moulton at the Food History Gala. Credit: Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History

Marcus Samuelsson; Eric Spivey, chairman of The Julia Child Foundation; Jacques Pépin; and Sara Moulton at the Food History Gala. Credit: Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History

Most of the pantheon at the gala seemed to be deeply aware of this. Sara Moulton pointed out that Julia’s real métier was television — the great leveler. In Moulton’s first job in television, Julia Child told her: “smile for the camera.” Now on her own television series, Moulton keeps that smile and counsels her guests to “smile constantly and for no particular reason.” It’s not an act — it’s an acknowledgment of the reality of the joy of food. While setting up a food demo on a set, Julia said to Sara: “Aren’t we having fun?” Moulton had to think about it, then the truth dawned: “Yes, she said, “Yes, we are!”

It’s the sense of fun, the sheer joy of preparing food, which made Julia Child an icon — the first food superstar of our culture. The joyous face of Jacques Pépin as he accepted the Julia Child Award made it clear that he is a fitting inheritor. Perhaps there’s no better recipient than the man who has been creating food television since 1997. As Marcus Samuelson put it: “Julia started it. Jacques caught the baton.”

I got a sudden shock of the humanity of our great chefs on the last day of the Smithsonian’s Food History Weekend. I was leaving the American History museum when I ran into Anne Willan and Todd Schulkin coming in the doors. Willan, of course, is the founder of the iconic cooking school École de Cuisine La Varenne and author of “La Varenne Practique.” I was delighted to see them, and Willan explained she was coming to the Smithsonian to experience Julia’s Kitchen. “I’ve never seen it,” she said. Then she stopped with a frown, “Well, I have, of course, when I cooked in it with Julia. But I’ve never seen it…” She stopped again. “I’ve never seen it behind glass,” she finished.

The Smithsonian and the Julia Child Foundation are well aware of the danger of putting something behind glass. “Enshrining” both preserves — and distances. So on the same floor as Julia’s Kitchen, children can now interact with a miniature version of Julia’s Kitchen at the “Wegmans Wonderplace” exhibition, allowing them to grab pans from the famous pegboard wall and whip up a hollandaise sauce on the pretend stove. Events like Food History Weekends, and awards for populists like Jacques Pépin, can keep food culture personal, intimate and connected.

Main photo: Visitors can tour Julia Child’s kitchen at the National Museum of American History. Credit: Courtesy of the National Museum of American History

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Main photo: Contestants battle with eggs last Easter Monday in the town of Fanano, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Each year on Easter Monday, residents of Fanano, a picturesque hill town in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, arm themselves with hard-boiled eggs to do battle in the village square. Young and old alike participate in this centuries-old tradition that started in the sixth century as a way for townsfolk of all social levels, nobility and commoners, rich and poor, to compete on a level battlefield for a day.

Eggs have long been a symbol of Easter and even back in pagan times were associated with new life and springtime. Eggs were especially highly valued as food in medieval times, so winning an egg was considered quite a prize, with the poorer folks hoping their winnings might feed the family for several days.

Cracking Contests

Brightly colored Easter eggs are distributed to townspeople in Italy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Brightly colored Easter eggs are distributed to townspeople in Italy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Young and old alike today compete in this ancient “Cracking Contest” — Coccin Cocetto. How do you play? Each participant puts an egg onto a long wooden board and gathers round. A designated person randomly selects eggs from the row and distributes them to the first two contestants, who square off and bang their eggs together. The person whose egg cracks first loses. The winner takes possession of the broken egg, and then battles the next opponent. One contestant must hold his egg still, while the other hits it. Who gets to hit is determined either by a coin flip or by shooting odds or evens.

“It isn’t about luck,” explained Massimo, a dapper resident who has been playing, and often winning, for over 60 years. “You can win if you are the one holding still or hitting. Each has a technique.” He then went on to beat this author six times in a row, alternating between being the hitter and the hit-ee!

Most locals bring their own hard-boiled eggs to the event, but the town graciously provides colorful eggs free of charge for anyone who didn’t bring their own.

While in Fanano, you can continue the medieval theme with a visit to the town’s lovely 11th-century Montefiorino Fortress and exquisite ninth-century Romanesque church. There are also lovely trails for hiking and biking nearby. After you’ve worked up an appetite, be sure to stay for lunch or dinner.

Like all food in Emilia-Romagna, the local fare is indescribably delicious. Traditional dishes include crescentine, the area’s famed flat bread; gnocco fritto, fried squares of dough; and rosette, rolls of fresh pasta filled with cheese and topped with meat sauce.

The day after Easter, called Pasquetta or Il Lunedi dell’Angelo, “Angel’s Monday,” is a day off throughout Italy, and Italians traditionally go on picnics. Typical picnic foods include raw fava beans eaten with pecorino cheese and casatello, savory bread filled with proscuitto and cheese topped with hard-boiled eggs still in their shells. Celebrate spring with basotti, a traditional Emilia-Romagna dish made with egg noodles

Basotti (Crunchy-Tender Pasta Squares)

An easy to assemble Basotti recipe is made with egg pasta. Credit: Courtesy of Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes of Italy (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan

An easy-to-assemble Basotti recipe is made with egg pasta. Credit: Courtesy of “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes of Italy” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), by Francine Segan

Courtesy of “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes of Italy” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), by Francine Segan

This recipe is simple to assemble, but must be made with egg pasta, either fresh or dried. You’ll only need 1/2 pound of pasta, as egg pasta expands as it bakes and absorbs the cheese and broth. Speaking of broth, since it provides most of the flavor, it’s best to use homemade.

Prep time: 5 minutes
Bake time: 40 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

10 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons finely ground bread crumbs

1/2 pound egg tagliolini or another very thin egg noodle

About 2 cups grated Grana Padano or other aged cheese

Nutmeg

4 cups rich pork, beef or chicken broth, preferably homemade

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Generously butter an 8 x 15-inch metal baking pan and sprinkle with bread crumbs.

2. Put half of the uncooked pasta in the pan and top with 5 tablespoons of very thinly sliced butter, 3/4 cup of the grated cheese and 1 tablespoon freshly grated nutmeg. Add the remaining pasta, in a thin scattered layer, on top. Top with another 5 tablespoons of very thinly sliced butter and more nutmeg.

3. Bring the stock to a boil. Ladle over the pasta until just covered. Sprinkle with 3/4 cup grated cheese. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until firm to the touch.

4. Raise the oven to 475 F.

5. Top pasta with 1/2 cup grated cheese, and bake for a few minutes until crispy on top.

Main photo: Contestants battle with eggs last Easter Monday in the town of Fanano, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

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Savory Yogurt Bowl. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

The recent trend of meals served in bowls continues to show its appeal for so many reasons. Bowls continue to be quite popular on restaurant menus too, with endlessly clever combinations to suit any diet or meal.

As Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold put it, “Avocado toast? That was so last year. We are now in the age of the phenomenon I have come to think of as Things in a Bowl, a culinary invention that may depend on rice, pasta, whole grains or legumes but usually includes a poached egg of one sort or another and always, always comes with kale.”

Well, not always kale. On a recent trip through Santa Barbara, California, I had a delicious quinoa breakfast bowl at Backyard Bowls. The Southern California chain offers a choice of quinoa, acai, oatmeal, yogurt and muesli as the base, then builds on that with fresh fruit, nut milks and butters, nuts, granola, dried fruit and seeds. Diners can choose spirulina, bee pollen, goji berries and other super foods to sprinkle on top for added nutrition. My quinoa bowl with cashew milk, berries and honey was just the ticket, comforting, sweet and rib-sticking.

Another Santa Barbara outpost, Buddha Bowls, makes savory concoctions then stuffs them in hollowed-out bread bowls. Some of the fillings include chili, macaroni and cheese with bacon, Hawaiian barbecue and Mediterranean flavors with hummus and veggies — recipes designed to appeal to the mostly student population in that area.

Another restaurant just up the coast from Santa Barbara — Calafia Café in Palo Alto, California — uses noodles, lentils, brown rice and roasted yams for the base of its bowls then adds vegetables and proteins for either vegan or carnivore eaters. One of my favorites is the Fiery Bottom BBQ Pork Bowl with braised pork, barbecue sauce, sautéed spinach, fried quail egg, roasted yams and brown rice.

The Plant Café, another small California chain, has a dynamite bowl featuring wild salmon with ginger lime sauce and seasonal vegetables over soba noodles.

Even some yogurt purveyors have waded in – after all, yogurt was the base for some of the first bowls ever, usually served with granola and fruit. Putting a new twist on that mixture, Pinkberry added a line of savory Greek yogurt bowls to its offerings a few years back. Cucumbers, olive oil, sunflower crackers, toasted quinoa and pumpkin seeds were among the toppings. Pinkberry has since taken these items off its menu, but I like the idea for its versatility and for how easily it translates to the home cook.

Heck, when you have your pantry and fridge to choose from, many iterations of grain, noodle, vegetable, herb, bean, spice, seed or oil could work for a nutritious bowl, making a snappy lunch, snack or even appetizer to share in a jiffy.

Besides being a fantastic way to get food on the table quickly, bowls present a handy opportunity for using up leftovers. Think of the rice you cooked two nights ago, the leftover roasted chicken from Sunday and the asparagus and carrots that need to get used up. Steam the asparagus until tender/crisp and layer baby salad greens, then rice and then chicken in bowls. Top with coarsely grated carrots, the asparagus and some sesame seeds then drizzle with teriyaki sauce.

Or you could take the salad greens-chicken-rice combination a different direction with the addition of cilantro, pinto beans and avocado or use leftover noodles instead of rice and change up the vegetables. Heat up the ingredients or serve at room temperature depending on personal preference. To add spark and versatility, have on hand a few sauces such as salsa, chimichurri, Thai curry, peanut or lemon vinaigrette for drizzling on top.

So whether you’re a trendsetter or not, making bowls at home is easy, fun and quick. Here are a couple recipes to chew on:

Quinoa Breakfast Bowl

Quinoa breakfast bowl. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

Quinoa breakfast bowl. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

Yield: 1 serving

Ingredients

1 cup water

1/2 cup quinoa

2 tablespoons golden raisins

1/4 cup almond milk

4 strawberries, stemmed and quartered

1 tablespoon unsweetened coconut flakes, toasted

2 tablespoon slivered almonds, toasted

1 teaspoon agave syrup

Directions

1. Bring water and quinoa to a boil then lower heat and cover. After 10 minutes, stir in the raisins and continue to cook until the grains open up into translucent flat disks and liquid is absorbed, about 5 to 10 minutes longer.

2. Stir in almond milk and pour into a bowl. Arrange berries on top then sprinkle with coconut and almonds and drizzle with agave syrup. Eat while still warm.

Mexican-style Pinto Bean Bowl

Mexican-style Pinto Bean Bowl. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

Mexican-style Pinto Bean Bowl. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

Yield: 1 serving

Ingredients

1/4 cup shredded red cabbage

Juice of 1/2 lime

Butter, enough to grease frying pan

1 egg

1/2 cup whole pinto beans, warmed

1/4 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

1 teaspoon chopped cilantro

1/4 avocado

Directions

1. Toss the cabbage with the lime juice and set aside.

2. Heat a small frying pan and add a little butter. Fry the egg to a perfect sunny side up. While the egg is cooking, layer the beans in a bowl, then top with the cooked egg then cabbage salad.

3. Scatter the tomatoes over the top and sprinkle with the cilantro, then perch the avocado on top. Serve immediately.

Savory Yogurt Bowl

Yield: 1 serving

Ingredients

1 cup nonfat Greek yogurt, whipped with a whisk to enhance silken texture

1/2 cup cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut in small dice

1/4 cup sesame sticks, broken into small pieces

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon gray Maldon sea salt

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon pure New Mexico chile powder

Directions

1. Layer yogurt in a bowl. Top with cucumber, then sesame sticks. Drizzle oil over all then sprinkle with salt and chile powder to taste.

Main photo: Savory Yogurt Bowl. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brooke Jackson

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Lilac has been open since 2012 on historic Montana Avenue in downtown Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Montana is called “the last best place,” a long-cherished refrain that applies now more than ever to its increasingly innovative restaurants. Here, diners can taste not just local Montana ingredients, but the spirit of the state itself.

One restaurant that embodies that spirit is Lilac in downtown Billings, the largest city in Montana. The restaurant has earned local adoration and national accolades. The year after it opened, Lilac was the only restaurant in the state to be included in OpenTable’s Diners’ Choice Awards for the Top 100 American Fare Restaurants in the United States.

Crafting good food, good staff

Jeremy Engebretson, proprietor and chef of Lilac in Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Jeremy Engebretson, proprietor and chef of Lilac in Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

At Lilac, glossy black and pearly white subway tiles frame a short row of bar seating that anchors the restaurant space and provides an unobstructed view directly into the kitchen. There is no haughty mystery, overwrought culinary performance or exclusivity here.

Rather, proprietor and chef Jeremy Engebretson describes Lilac’s food with prose so succinct and assertive it would cause Ernest Hemingway to sit up and take notice: “Local from scratch, responsible cooking. Modern American food with a fistful of approachability.”

Even given the area’s short growing season and challenging kinks in local distribution chains, Montana has ranked among the top 10 states nationally for commitment to locally produced food by Strolling of the Heifers Locavore Index. For Lilac, Engebretson, who grew up in Montana and neighboring Wyoming, describes local as “a regional idea here,” one that is more “Montana-centric than Montana-only.”

It’s a food worldview that brings ingredients like Montana-grown grains, produce, beef, cheese and honey together with, for example, wild boar from Denver or Texas and seafood from around the world.

Cooking as ‘a soulful experience’

A pear gazpacho with pickled pear, Meyer lemon and parsley gremolata. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

A pear gazpacho with pickled pear, Meyer lemon and parsley gremolata. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Expanding upon these ingredients and flavors, Lilac’s menu builds from the ground up. “The sense of accomplishment you get from seeing a project from beginning to end is a soulful experience,” Engebretson says. “I believe that to be true in those who do things like make pasta, as well as those who make things such as tables.”

And Lilac’s staff makes pasta. Lots of it. Every day. They also butcher whole animals, grind beef, concoct salad dressings, craft ice creams and bake bread — all this (and more) in a kitchen so tiny no casual observer could imagine such an enthusiastically artisan stream of activity pouring from it.

These close quarters are part of what crafts a deeply committed team, comfortable in the back of the house and the front. Ask any server or chef at Lilac where an ingredient comes from, how a dish is prepared or what they’d recommend, and they can tell you, because they know. They’ve done it. Chefs and cooks share their intimate knowledge as they serve from a seasonal menu.

Dishes range from duck fat fingerling potatoes to octopus fritti, wild boar chop with cornbread dressing, roasted parsnip and a maple mustard glaze to a vegetarian option: grilled zucchini naan with gruyere, ancho aioli and micro salad. At the same time, servers make gnocchi, manage the pantry and prep desserts, like the sticky toffee pudding, which has been on the menu since Lilac opened with every component made in-house.

Innovative but approachable

A smoked brisket with cheddar dumpling, roasted carrot and horseradish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

A smoked brisket with cheddar dumpling, roasted carrot and horseradish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

Describing the restaurant’s style as modern American cooking, Engebretson asserts, “Modern and approachability go hand in hand.” The cheeseburger with bacon jam and house-made fries is a constant on the menu, and Engebretson insists it always will be. Concurrently, he says that modern American cooking means embracing all “the ingredients, technologies and ideas that speak to us today.”

It can mean hydrocolloids, sous vide cooking and variations on flavor profiles, as well as interpretations of classic dishes, traditional techniques and a heritage focus.

Serving up dishes with a uniquely Montana sensibility, Lilac aspires to a dualistic set of goals that unite innovation, frankness and a strong sense of purpose. In one vein, the restaurant endeavors to “blend a myriad of philosophies” at a democratic price point. “At the same time,” Engebretson pragmatically states, “one can say we’re just trying to serve people dinner. The variance of those two elements encapsulates the challenge of the restaurant, on every level. I’m OK with that.”

Main Photo: Lilac has been open since 2012 on historic Montana Avenue in downtown Billings, Montana. Credit: Copyright 2016 Louis Habeck

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Fresh eggs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

“My girls are laying so fast I can’t keep up with them,” Martha says.  She has arrived at my door with another dozen eggs, fresh from her henhouse, no doubt laid within the past 24 hours.

In Italy an egg that fresh is a treasure. It’s called a “uova da bere,” a drinkable egg, and it’s often turned into something called zabaglione, which is not perhaps what you think it is because it is not cooked at all. For this kind of zabaglione you use the freshest egg, preferably one still a little warm from the hen’s body, and a good heaping teaspoonful of sugar. You beat the egg and the sugar together in a small bowl, using a fork or mini whisk, beating it steadily for about 10 or 15 minutes until the mixture is thick and syrupy. Sometimes a few drops of Marsala wine get beaten in as well. And then at breakfast you simply sip the lush, gooey mixture with a spoon, emitting little sighs of pleasure as you do so. (The egg-and-sugar sauce called zabaglione goes one step further and beats the mixture over — but not in — boiling water until it is thicker, almost like a runny pudding. It’s delicious served with fresh seasonal berries, so keep it in mind for strawberry season, not many weeks away.)

Martha, however, is a down-to-earth Maine girl like me, and the very idea of a breakfast of sugar and raw eggs is not on her cultural horizon. Nor on mine. Leave that to the Italians.

A Mediterranean-inspired egg dish

Spring chickens and their hen house. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Spring chickens and their henhouse. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Instead, I decided to use the spring bounty of eggs to make a seasonal favorite from another part of the Mediterranean, the island of Crete.

Quick timeout for a food iconography lesson: Do you ever wonder at the association between Easter and eggs? When you think about hens and their lifestyle, it’s pretty obvious. Hens stop laying in winter, when the daylight hours grow short, then start up again in spring. In the natural rhythm of things, eggs become plentiful precisely at this time of year, when the light is growing stronger day by day. So Easter, whether Catholic or Orthodox, is symbolized all over the Mediterranean by eggs as icons of rebirth. So why in our modern supermarkets do we have eggs all year round? Because our hens are exposed to artificial light, often 24 hours a day, and that keeps them going strong. Or not so strong, because they must usually be replaced after 18 to 24 months.

Make this recipe your own

Wild greens for sale at a market in Crete. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Wild greens for sale at a market in Crete. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Back to Crete, where sfougata, a combination of eggs, cheese and vegetables, somewhere between a soufflé and a frittata, is popular for all those times when household cooks are strapped to come up with something cheap, filling and delicious. In spring, that combination usually includes greens, but I could equally imagine doing this in the autumn with mushrooms or slivers of winter squash toasted in olive oil, and at the height of summer it would be delicious with fresh roasted peppers and little chunks of eggplant. But for spring, I did it with some delicate new spinach I picked up at the farmers market along with sliced zucchini. Quintessential to the flavor, it seems to me, is a handful of finely minced dill added at the very end, so the taste stays forward.

My advice? Make this once the way I’ve detailed below, then start to experiment, using leeks instead of spring onions, or a mixture of foraged and cultivated greens (dandelion greens, beet greens, chard, maybe even a little Chinese broccoli), or adding a couple of small diced potatoes to the skillet with the other vegetables. Another great spring vegetable combination, and very much in the Mediterranean spirit, would be asparagus and fava beans, if available, or fresh peas if not.

Let your imagination play with the recipe, and you’ll find all sorts of uses for what could become fundamental to your repertoire — and a savior for all those times when you simply have run out of time and inspiration.

Although the total time listed is 1 1/2 hours, this can be broken down into manageable chunks. Make the vegetables ahead of time (even a day ahead), taking about 45 minutes, then mix up the eggs and cheese just before the meal, stir in the prepared vegetables, and bake for 25 minutes.

Sfougato of Zucchini and Spinach

Sfougato of Zucchini and Spinach. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sfougato of Zucchini and Spinach. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Prep time: About 30 minutes.

Cook time: About 1 hour.

Total time: About 1 1/2 hours.

Yield: 4 servings as a main course, 6 as a starter.

Ingredients

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided

5 or 6 spring onions, about 1/2 pound, including green tops, chopped to make 1 1/2 cups

1 pound zucchini (2 medium zucchini), thinly sliced, to make about 2 to 3 cups

6 ounces to 8 ounces fresh spinach, slivered (about 4 cups)

1 cup finely chopped fresh dill or finely chopped fresh mint, leaves only

6 eggs

1/2 cup whole milk

About 1 cup coarsely grated Cretan graviera cheese or Swiss gruyere (or use a mixture of gruyere and parmigiano reggiano)

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pinch of Middle Eastern red chili pepper

Directions

Heat half the olive oil in a big, heavy skillet over medium-low heat and gently sauté the onions until translucent, about 5 or 6 minutes. Add the zucchini and cook briefly. As soon as the zucchini slices start to soften, stir in the spinach, mixing thoroughly. If the pan seems a little dry, add 1/2 cup of water, cover the pan and cook gently until the spinach is softened and the zucchini slices are tender. If there are excess juices, raise the heat and cook rapidly to evaporate the extra liquid. Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the dill, mixing well.

Use the remaining oil to grease the bottom of a rectangular oven dish that is approximately 11 inches by 8 inches. Heat the oven to 375 F.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs with the milk. Add the grated cheese and fold in the vegetables. Add salt and pepper to taste, along with a pinch of Middle Eastern red pepper flakes.

Pour the mixture into the oven dish and transfer to the hot oven. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until the eggs are set and the top is nicely browned.

Remove from the oven and let sit for 10 or 15 minutes before serving. This dish can also be served at room temperature — a nice suggestion for lunch on a hot day.

Main image: Fresh eggs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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At Alta Colina, a tasting on the vineyard tour is under an old oak tree. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Vineyard tours were once reserved for people in the industry along with members of the media and wine clubs. Now, though, a handful of wineries in Paso Robles on California’s Central Coast are redefining the wine-tasting experience and making such tours available to visitors by appointment. Among them, Adelaida Cellars, Halter Ranch, Alta Colina and Steinbeck Vineyards will immerse visitors in the region’s terroir and wines.

Visiting the vineyards in spring catches bud break on vines, signaling the end of winter dormancy. The fields are a riot of color, with mustard flower, lupine and cover crops such as clover and barley planted between vine rows, creating a picture-perfect vineyardscape.

An opportunity to showcase the vineyards

Cindy Steinbeck with her 3-year-old pooch Cri-Cri atop Steinbeck Vineyards in Paso Robles, California’s, Geneseo District. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Cindy Steinbeck with her 3-year-old pooch Cri-Cri atop Steinbeck Vineyards in Paso Robles, California’s, Geneseo District. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

At Steinbeck Vineyards, tours were initiated by fifth-generation farmer Cindy Steinbeck in 2003 to showcase the family’s ranch.

Since the 1880s and for seven generations, the Steinbeck family has been the steward of a 600-acre property, 520 acres of which are planted with 13 grape varieties sourced by such noted wineries as Eberle, Justin and J. Lohr. The Steinbecks started bottling their wine in 2006 with a small production focusing on Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah and Viognier.

The one-hour “Crash Course” tour (named after the B26 aircraft that crashed on the property in 1956) with Steinbeck and her 3-year-old Yorkie, Cri-Cri, is a roller-coaster journey through the vineyards. Tours change with the seasons.

“In fall we encourage visitors to walk around the vineyards, give them clippers to taste the fruit,” Steinbeck said.

The winery from top to bottom, inside and out

The caves at Halter Ranch Vineyard. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

The caves at Halter Ranch Vineyard. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Bob Tillman’s two-hour Top-to-Bottom tour of Alta Colina starts in the hillside vineyards and works its way down to the tasting room, where the groups savor the Rhône blends. “This is not a produced tour, no tours are the same,” he said of the exploration of the 130-acre ranch, which has 31 acres planted with Rhône grape varieties.

Heading up to 500 feet elevation, tour groups see the exposed calcareous-rich hillside and learn about different types of trellising in the vineyards while trekking knee-deep in wildflowers dotting the organic Grenache vineyard.

“This gives you a vague idea of behind the scene of what goes in the bottle,” Tillman said.

Under an old oak tree, Tillman poured the 2012 Baja Colina, a white Rhône blend of Marsanne, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc. “We are actually tasting wines in an environment where they are grown,” he said. The wine tastes delicious, laced with aromatics filling the air — and some debris from the nearby oak tree.

It’s a heady experience tasting Adelaida Cellars’s silky Pinot Noir standing amid the legendary HMR Pinot Noir vineyard. Or the minerality of Zinfandel at the foot of Michael’s Zinfandel Vineyard planted at 1,800 feet elevation, rich with rocky limestone soil.

Tailgating too

Tailgating at the historic HMR Vineyard with the 2013 Pinot Noir. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Tailgating at the historic HMR Vineyard with the 2013 Pinot Noir. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Adelaida Cellars’ Tour, Taste & Tailgate (TT&T) takes visitors through such iconic vineyards as Viking, Anna’s and HMR. (Planted in 1964 by Beverly Hills cardiologist Stanley Hoffman, HMR is regarded as the oldest Pinot Noir-producing vineyard on the Central Coast).

Glenn Mitton, the winery’s ambassador, begins the tour at the newly remodeled winery and hospitality center, where visitors taste a white and red Rhône blend from Anna’s vineyard and the inky Syrah Reserve, among others.

Rising to 2,300 feet, the vast 1,900-acre estate is planted with 700-plus acres of organic walnut orchards and 157 acres of vineyards.

Mitton pointed to owl boxes and raptor perches used for pest control and rows of neatly tucked netting under the vines. “We pull up the net over the vines like panty hose,” Mitton said of the bird-control practice used in the summer.

Dating back to the 1880s, the 2,000-acre Halter Ranch Vineyard is nature’s haven, with a mere 280 acres planted to Bordeaux and Rhône varieties. The rest of the ranch is dotted with redwood and oak trees and home to some 52 species of birds. The ranch is lush with gardens, a 5-acre holding pond and the seasonal Las Tablas Creek, which also functions as a wildlife corridor.

At Lion’s Point, the tour includes a taste of the refreshing 2015 Rosé of red Rhône varieties and, further up the hill, the 2013 Ancestor, a rich blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot.  A gentle breeze blew in some debris from a massive, ancestral oak estimated to be 500 years old and known as the largest coast live oak in California.

Upon returning to the winery and its 20,000-square-foot caves, visitors finish with a tasting of Rhône and Bordeaux blends that reflect the history and terroir of the ranch.

Trekking through Paso Robles’ scenic hillside vineyards offers a wine experience well beyond the swirl-sniff-sip scene of the tasting room.

Main photo: At Alta Colina, a tasting on the vineyard tour is under an old oak tree. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

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Toast Ale is made from a special Belgian recipe that includes fresh, surplus bread. All profits go to the charity called Feedback, which supports the fight against food waste, making Toast Ale the best thing since … well, you know. Credit: Copyright 2016 Publicis

Toast Ale is a liquid message in a bottle: a beer brewed in the UK with fresh, surplus bread that would otherwise be thrown away, it highlights the problem of global food waste, starting with our daily loaf.

It tastes good, too.

Newly launched and brewed in London, Toast Ale recently won Best New Beverage Concept at the FoodBev awards, and has been lauded on British television by celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver. There has already been so much interest from people in the U.S. that Toast Ale has plans to launch in New York.

But this is a here-today, gone-tomorrow type of beer, and if the man behind this ephemeral brew has his way, production will eventually dry up — and there will be plenty to celebrate.

The founder’s strange dream

Tristram Stuart is one of the world’s leading food waste activists, but even he was once accused of wasting food - - three grains of rice left at the bottom of a bowl of food he had eaten in China. Listen to that story and more in his Ted Talk, “The Global Food Waste Scandal.” Credit: Copyright 2016 Erik Nordlund

Tristram Stuart is one of the world’s leading food waste activists, but even he was once accused of wasting food — three grains of rice left at the bottom of a bowl of food he had eaten in China. Listen to that story and more in his Ted Talk, “The Global Food Waste Scandal.” Credit: Copyright 2016 Erik Nordlund

“We hope to put ourselves out of business. The day there’s no waste bread is the day Toast Ale can no longer exist,” said Tristram Stuart, Toast Ale founder, food waste activist, and author of “Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal,” a book nominated for a James Beard Foundation award in 2010.

Global food waste not only involves hunger, but greenhouse gas emissions and water waste. A 2013 UN FAO report estimated “that each year, approximately one third of all food produced for human consumption in the world is lost or wasted.” Uneaten bread is one of the most shocking examples. According to Toast Ale, around 44% of bread in the UK, alone, is thrown away, including 24 million slices a year in UK homes.

Stuart discovered a passion to fight food waste when he was teenager raising pigs at his home in Sussex, selling off the pork locally to earn extra pocket money. He fed them unwanted food he collected from his local baker, greengrocer, and his school cafeteria. One morning, he noticed a particularly appetizing loaf with sundried tomatoes, which he ate for breakfast as he was feeding his pigs — proof that much of the food destined for the garbage is perfectly good to eat.

Toast Ale is brewed in London by Hackney Brewery, which uses 100% green energy that comes from windmills, and gives spent grain to local farmers to use for animal feed. Toasted bread used to brew Toast Ale adds caramel notes that balance the bitter hops, giving a malty taste similar to amber ales and wheat beers. Jon Swain from Hackney Brewery said, “The important thing for us, as brewers, was to create a beer that tasted good and stood up against other craft beers.”

Putting excess bread to good use

Making Toast Ale at Hackney Brewery, where toasted surplus bread collected from bakeries, delis and commercial sandwich makers is added during the mash stage. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tom Moggach

Making Toast Ale at Hackney Brewery, where toasted surplus bread collected from bakeries, delis and commercial sandwich makers is added during the mash stage. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tom Moggach

Toast Ale uses all kinds of unwanted bread — white and brown — collected from many sources, from artisanal bakeries to commercial sandwich makers, who typically waste bread by discarding the “heels” of the loaf. “We were pleasantly surprised that the taste of the finished beer wasn’t too different — therefore we could use all types of bread,” said Andrew Schein of Toast Ale.

Although Toast Ale gives new shelf life to surplus bread, its mission is to encourage everyone to find creative ways to stop wasting bread in the first place. (Note to commercial sandwich makers: My husband adores bread heels — I’m sure he’s not alone — so I challenge you to make a virtue of them by creating a range of “Well-Heeled” sandwiches. How about a pulled pork sandwich called “Pigs in High Heels”?)

All proceeds from Toast Ale go to Stuart’s charity, Feedback, an umbrella organization for his three main food waste campaigns:

Feeding the 5000: Free public feasts, using food that would otherwise be wasted, held in cities all over the world.

The Gleaning Network UK: Volunteers harvest surplus farm produce that would be left to rot and redistribute it to UK charities.

The Pig Idea: Seeks to change laws that restrict food waste being used to feed pigs.

The inspiration and recipe for Toast Ale came from the bread beer, Babylone, brewed by the innovative Brussels Beer Project brewery, in Belgium. Brewing beer with bread is as old as beer making itself. According to the article, Brewing: A legacy of ancient times by David M. Kiefer, published in 2001 in the American Chemical Society’s magazine, Today’s Chemist at Work, “Frequently, the dried malt was formed into small, lightly baked loaves. When a batch of fresh beer was to be brewed, these beer breads would be crumbled, mixed with cereals, and soaked in water.”

Bread is a beloved, ancient staple that is often taken for granted. In the Biblical story of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, the disciples collected 12 baskets of scraps after the outdoor feast. It’s not clear what they did with them. People have traditionally transformed unwanted bread into French Toast and bread pudding, or croutons and breadcrumbs.

Now home brewers can make their own bread beer — the Toast Ale recipe has just been published on its website.

Main photo: Toast Ale is made from a special Belgian recipe that includes fresh, surplus bread. All profits go to the charity called Feedback, which supports the fight against food waste, making Toast Ale the best thing since … well, you know. Credit: Copyright 2016 Publicis

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