Italians like to linger at the table, during and after a meal. Dessert is leisurely. Sweets are served along with a dessert wine or liqueur, not with coffee or tea, as is done in the States.

It’s only after dessert is finished that espresso and a so-called aid to digestion — digestivo — like grappa is served.

Here’s a glossary of Italy’s most popular desserts wines and liqueurs. One of my favorites is limoncello, a versatile liqueur terrific to cook with and drink. I drink it icy cold and always add a splash in fruit salad.

limoncello

Fruit salad makes a good pairing with limoncello. Credit: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets”

Amaretto

Amaretto, “little bitter,” is a sweet almond-flavored liqueur cordial.

Amaretto is an ingredient in hundreds of dessert recipes and is also paired with all sorts of Italian sweets, especially crunchy amaretti cookies. One of Italy’s best selling brands of amaretto is Disaronno Originale.

Amaro

Amaro is the term for a general category of bittersweet digestive, after-dinner drinks thought to aid digestion. Amaro, which means “bitter,” is generally made from various spices, herbs, fruits and alcohol. Popular since the Middle Ages, monks originally created these drinks as a medicinal remedy. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different types of amaro in Italy, with each region, city, and even village claiming its local specialty.

Asti

Asti, a sparkling dessert wine, is made with the Moscato Bianco grapes from the Langhe, Monferrato and Roero areas of Piedmont.

In Italy it is served in bowl-shaped glasses, rather than the thinner champagne flutes. The thinking is that the narrow flute exaggerates Asti’s sweetness, concentrating the liquid on the tip of the tongue, where the sweet taste buds are. It’s traditionally paired with yeasty cake like panettone.

asti spumante

Asti, a sparkling dessert wine, is made with the Moscato Bianco grapes. Credit: Consorzio dell’Asti

Asti Moscato

A dessert wine made in the Asti region of Piedmont using Moscato grapes. It’s less bubbly than Asti.

Barolo Chinato

An after-dinner digestivo from the Piedmont region, made with Barolo wine that has been steeped with spices such as cinnamon, coriander, mint and vanilla. It is a very smooth, aromatic beverage that pairs beautifully with chocolate.

Brachetto d’Acqui

Red sparkling dessert wine produced in the Piedmont. It is a blend of  Aleatico and Moscato Nero grapes.

Galliano

Bright yellow liqueur that’s a mix of dozens of herbs and spices. First made in Livorno in 1896 and named for 19th century Italian war hero Giuseppe Galliano. Used in cocktails, and as an after-dinner digestivo, it’s also a terrific flavoring for various dessert recipes.

Grappa

Grappa is a fragrant spirit, 75 t0 120 proof, made from the grape skins and other solids left over from the wine-making process. The name most likely comes from the Italian for bunch of grapes, grappolo d’uva.

In Italy, grappa is enjoyed after dessert, served in small, tulip-shaped or short grappa glasses. It is also exceptional paired with Italian chocolates. A splash of grappa is often added to espresso to create caffé corretto.

Limoncello

A lemon liqueur from the Amalfi Coast, Calabria and Sicily. Made by steeping lemon peels in alcohol and sugar, it can be enjoyed at room temperature, but I prefer it icy cold. Try adding a little heavy cream for a rich, smooth liquid dessert.

Malvasia delle Lipari

An amber-colored DOC dessert wine from Sicily with an apricot-honey taste and lovely aroma. Starting in the late 1960s in compliance with the European Economic Community, Italian wine was regulated. To earn DOC status (Denomination of Controlled Origin), a wine had to be made from grapes from a particular defined area and pass strict tests for standards in alcohol content, flavor, aroma, color and more. It ensures that the consumer is drinking an authentic wine, not a counterfeit, or adulterated one.

Marsala

Marsala is a DOC golden-colored fortified wine made with grapes grown in the Marsala region of Sicily. Marsala is made both sweet and dry. The dry is enjoyed chilled as an aperitif, while the sweet is sipped at room temperature as a dessert wine.

Marsala is used extensively in Italian cooking, especially in making sweets such as the classic zabaglione.

Moscadello di Montalcino

A DOC dessert wine from the Montalcino region of Tuscany made with aromatic white Muscat grapes. It is produced in three versions: still, sparkling and late-harvest.

Nocino

Nocino is a dark colored digestivo, made from unripe green walnuts.

Passito

Passito is dessert wine made by pressing partially dried grapes, dried to concentrate their sugar and flavor. One of Italy’s most acclaimed is Passito di Pantelleria from Sicily.

Sambuca

A colorless digestivo liqueur flavored with star anise. Sambuca is splashed in coffee, or served neat and with topped with three toasted espresso beans called con la mosca, “with flies.” Besides giving a little caffeine kick, chewing on the beans highlights Sambuca’s flavor.

cantucci+vin-santo

Vin Santo is often paired with cantucci, a crunchy almond biscotti. Credit: Corsini Biscotti

Vin Santo

Vin Santo, “holy wine,” is a smooth amber-colored wine made from Malvasia and Trebbiano grapes. Although made in many parts of Italy, it is most often associated with Tuscany, where it is often paired with cantucci, the area’s crunchy almond biscotti.

Main photo: Asti  is paired with panettone. Credit: Consorzio dell’Asti.

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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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Frédérique Jules and David Lanher. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

A bright bolt of energy is flashing through the food scene in the City of Light. In just five short years, Paris’ hippest food couple — David Lanher and Frédérique Jules — have worked their collective magic directing Parisians on how to eat and drink.

Today’s casual restaurant showcase farm-to-table vegetables, sustainably raised animal proteins and what Lanher calls “natural, clean wines” that are minimally processed with the least amount of technology and additives, especially sulfites. These wines — some organic, others biodynamic — are often the reason people flock to his restaurants.

The initiative started in 1996, when Lanher took off for a year of adventure and to achieve his dream of working in New York City, where he snagged a bartending job to practice English. Once back in France, he worked a few years in Paris’ upscale catering industry and then got his feet wet by opening two restaurants, Rue Balzac and Café Moderne.

Like Lanher, Jules had a dream of living in the U.S. and learning English and was drawn to a year of San Diego sunshine. All her life she had endured stomach problems, asthma and eczema and discovered in California she was both lactose- and gluten-intolerant. She changed her diet, and her health problems virtually vanished. Feeling physically strong, she returned to Paris with the dream of opening a gluten-free bakery and health spa.

In Paris, the empire continues to grow

Longtime friends, the 43-year-olds met again and became business, as well as personal, partners in 2008. Right around this time, Lanher found his personal mecca, Racines (which translates to “roots”), in the glass-domed Le Passage des Panoramas passageway built in 1799 in Paris’ 2nd arrondissement. Non-sulfured wines were, and still are, Lanher’s focus and the wine bistro’s pride. Wooden boards piled with superb charcuterie, foie gras de canard, plenty of organic produce and stunning cheeses rule. A hit from the start, people continue to covet the 20 seats at Racines and are willing to reserve well in advance.

Plan a visit

Racines: 8 Passage des Panoramas, 75002 Paris. Phone: +33 01 40 13 06 41. Hours: Noon to 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Mondays to Fridays. www.racinesparis.com

Racines 2: 39 Rue de l'Arbre Sec, 75001 Paris. Phone: +33 01 42 60 77 34. Hours: Noon to 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Mondays to Wednesday; noon to 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 to 11 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 7:30 to 11 p.m. Saturdays. www.racinesparis.com

Paradis: 14 Rue de Paradis, 75010 Paris. Phone: +33 01 45 23 57 98. Hours: 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Mondays to Saturdays. www.restaurant-paradis.com

Vivant Table: 43 Rue des Petites Écuries, 75010 Paris. Phone: +33 01 42 46 43 55. Hours: Noon to 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays. www.vivantparis.com

Vivant Cave: 43 Rue des Petites Écuries, 75010 Paris. Phone: +33 01 42 46 43 55. Hours: 6 p.m. to midnight Mondays to Saturdays. www.vivantparis.com

Racines NY: 94 Chambers St., New York, New York 10007. Phone: 212-227-3400. Hours: Bar opens at 5 p.m. and dinner service begins at 6 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays. www.racinesny.com

La Cremerie: 9 Rue des 4 Vents, 75006 Paris. Phone: +33 01 43 54 99 30. Hours: Noon to 2:30 p.m. lunch service and 7:30 to 11 p.m. dinner service Tuesdays to Saturdays. www.lacremerie.fr

Caffé Stern: 47 Passage des Panoramas 75002 Paris. Phone: +33 01 75 43 63 10. Hours: 9 a.m. opening for coffee and pastry, noon to 2:30 p.m. lunch service and 7:30 to 11 p.m. dinner service Tuesdays to Saturdays.

NOGLU Cafe: 16 Passage des Panoramas, 75002 Paris. Phone: +33 01 40 26 41 24. Hours: Noon to 3 p.m. lunch service Mondays to Fridays; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. brunch Saturdays; 7:30 to 11p.m. dinner service Saturdays. www.noglu.fr

NOGLU Boutique-Atelier bakery: 49 Passage des Panoramas, 75002 Paris. Phone: +33 01 42 36 52 50. Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays. www.noglu.fr

In 2011, Racines 2 opened a few blocks from the Louvre in the 1st arrondissement — a larger, more ambitious restaurant with a battery of serious chefs in an open kitchen with a garage-door-size opening to the dining room. A bottom-lit translucent stone table with casual communal seating for about two dozen anchors the L-shaped space with tables for 30 more.

One specialty at Racines 2 is chef Alexandre Navarro’s translation of impeccable produce: a bowl of summer-sweet teeny baby turnips, carrots, beets and impossibly delicate greens with large chunks of poached lobster — a fine match for the always-interesting cellar.

Gluten-free takes hold

With the bakery concept still on her mind and Lanher’s restaurant knowledge, Jules nixed the spa idea and in 2012 opened NOGLU, a bakery and cafe in the same charming passageway as Racines. A year later, a separate bakery across the walkway followed. In a city renowned for baguettes, who would have thought gluten-free baking would flourish?

The always-busy cafe is perfect for a quick lunch or take-away sandwich on gluten-free bread; a small room up the spiral staircase is just right for terrific Gianni Frasi coffee from Verona, Italy, and never-too-sweet sweets. NOGLU’s cookbook is the bible for French gluten-free cooks and is set to be published in English this year to spread Jules’ gospel.

With eagerness to promote his beloved natural wines, Lanher opened Paradis, a modern, boisterous brasserie in the hip 10th arrondissement. And then all hell broke loose in 2014 when Lanher opened the wildly popular Vivant Table, also in the 10th, in a 1928 storefront designed as a pet bird shop with original tile murals of birds. Soon after, Vivant Cave wine bar made its appearance next door, to the delight of the neighborhood.

Fast forward a few months, when Lanher spotted La Cremerie available in Paris’ 6th arrondissement. He snapped up the original dairy shop with its bright blue façade and kept the bistro/gourmet grocery shop/bar à vin interior as close to original as possible. It’s now the place for a glass of you-know-what kind of wine.

Racines debuts in New York

Lanher turned dream into reality when Racines NY debuted in Tribeca this spring. Business partner and sommelier Arnaud Tronche pours from the substantial 600-bottle wine list offering about 80 percent French and 20 percent Italian wines, along with a few others — most sulfite-free, “natural, clean wines.” French chef Frédéric Duca (one-star L’Instant d’Or in Paris) is in charge of the kitchen and continues to surprise with a market-focused menu. Pete Wells of The New York Times awarded Racines NY two stars in August.

Lanher loves spaces packed with historical and architectural details and seeks them out for new ventures. In August, he opened his latest project — Caffé Stern, an Italian restaurant with major wow factor. It occupies the most-coveted space in the now extraordinarily popular Passage des Panoramas, a wine cork’s toss from the original Racines and NOGLU. This historic monument location was the original Stern printing house (1849) for engraved cards coveted by royalty and dignitaries. Philippe Starck designed the interior, emphasizing the original carved wood paneling splendor. Massimiliano Alajmo, the celebrated Italian chef (Le Calandre in Padua, Caffè Quadri in Venice), pilots the kitchen.

So, what’s next up for the dynamic duo? Jules has her eye on New York and Los Angeles for NOGLU. Lanher is in the planning stages for Racines 2 NY. Their initial focus of clean wines and gluten-free foods continues to be their superhighway to stardom.

Main photo: Frédérique Jules and David Lanher. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky 

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Splashing down in an apple-a-day world. Credit: iStockphoto / dmitryphotos

I hope you don’t think it’s rude, but I’m restoring my gut flora as I type. Ever since I discovered that 90% of my health lives in my gut, I decided to take action. At this very moment, I’ve got 10 probiotic strains and 100 billion live cultures on my stomach’s stage. I’m trying to revive my good bacteria because the warmup act was some heavy-metal thrashers.

I got tested for heavy metals, at my doctor’s behest, to see what was causing my liver congestion and inflammation. Turns out I have too much Alice Cooper. Sure, I have Freddie Mercury, Led Zeppelin and Metallica too, but my high volume of Alice, or aluminum, concerns me the most since my dad had Alzheimer’s. I’d like to detox, but not with one of those generic, kale-me-now juice cleanses. I want a chelation plan that’s tailored to my individual chemical body burden, or as I call it, Toxic Life Overload (TLO).

We all have TLO. I’m not special. The only difference is that I peed in some plastic jugs for two days, and now I’m acquainted with the whole Mötley Crüe. The fact is, we live in a chemical stew of toxic food, water, air and products that we clean with, sleep with and slather on our skin.

Industrial chemical pollution begins in the womb. Lead, mercury, pesticides, BPA and up to 232 industrial chemicals have been found in umbilical cord blood of newborns. The Environmental Working Group tested more than 200 people for 540 industrial chemicals and found 482 of them in their bodies. In 2010, the President’s Cancer Panel declared that the number of cancers caused by toxic chemicals is “grossly underestimated” and warned that Americans face “grievous harm” from largely unregulated chemicals that contaminate air, water and food.

The autoimmune effect

Is it a coincidence that over the last 30 years, the autoimmune epidemic has nearly tripled to more than 100 diseases? About 50 million Americans suffer from autoimmune disease — 75% of them women — including multiple sclerosis, lupus, Crohn’s, Celiac, chronic fatigue, thyroiditus, rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.

But I’m starting to think that knowing my TLO is TMI. I thought knowledge would lead to prevention, but I’m too busy worrying about Quiet Riot sneaking up on me to prevent anything but a good night’s sleep. From every BPA plastic container to each GMO corn kernel, I hear those Black Flag, Anthrax and Megadeth songs screaming in my head.

The new mind-body connection

Most diseases arise from the interaction between a person’s genetic makeup and the environmental agents to which he or she is exposed. Yet I’ve been reading up on the new science of epigenetics, which is the theory that your thoughts and beliefs can alter your gene expression. I’m talking major shifts in cellular activity leading to physiological changes. Optimism, altruism, visualization, healing energy, meditation and prayer are all said to have epigenetic effects.

Scientifically proven or not, many prominent doctors, scientists and health practitioners are touting this line of thinking. Dr. Bruce Lipton, author of  “The Biology of Belief” asserts that genes and DNA don’t control our biology — that DNA is controlled by signals from outside the cell, including the energetic messages emanating from our thoughts. Deepak Chopra claims there’s more and more evidence of the mind-body connection, and that we can transform our own biology by responding to all that we experience, including thoughts, feelings, words and actions. He says that regardless of the genes we inherit, change at this level allows us almost unlimited influence on our fate.

Does that mean if I change the way I think, my dad’s Alzheimer’s won’t necessarily be mine? But what about Alice Cooper? He’s not in my genetic makeup, but he’s still in my blood. Thank God he’s not in my makeup. Who needs all that black and white shmutz on their face? Hey, was that gratitude? Maybe it really works!

OK … here I go. I’m changing my tune. From now on, this Twisted Sister is gonna be more Pharrell Williams. Sure, his songs are lightweight, but at least they’re not heavy metal. If I could just turn down the volume, it might be music to my gut.

Because I’m happy … clap along … sing this song and turn off that Mötley Crüe … Happy … clap along, sing this song and stop stressin’ ’bout the stew …

Main photo: Splashing down in an apple-a-day world. Credit: iStockphoto / dmitryphotos

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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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Hannah Glasse’s Butter Chicken. Credit: Laura Kelley

When we think of the diets of our founding fathers and mothers, we imagine porridges, breads, fresh and preserved fruits and vegetables, and gently flavored roast meats.  What most people don’t realize is that the colonists had a taste for exotic fare from all over the world and would pay dearly for delicacies from India, China, Indonesia and other places far from the shores of North America.

In addition to buying authentic food items, the colonists tried to recreate these dishes based on taste and the ingredients they had on hand. Unique dishes were devised that approximated Asian curries, soups and sauces; chutneys; and spicy fruit and vegetable pickles like mango and lemon pickles.

These Western adaptations of Asian dishes are usually edited out of reconstructed colonial menus offered at historical restaurants. Perhaps proprietors fear that modern customers would not associate these dishes with colonial menus and, therefore, would not buy them. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, these Asian-inspired dishes were popular menu items at local taverns and were often enjoyed as home-cooked meals.

Despite what we have been led to believe about our founders’ culinary choices —  they often liked it spicy.

Colonial curry recipe

The earliest mention of a colonial recipe for curry can be found in the mid-18th-century manuscripts of Anna De Peyster. It is a recipe for Butter Chicken, which is probably of Parsi origin, although versions of the dish are now enjoyed throughout Southern Asia and the Himalayas. De Peyster’s recipe uses mace, lemon zest and lemon juice, cream, and a bit of parsley and ground black pepper to produce a dish that is delicious but pales in comparison to the authentic South Asian standard.

Photo of advertisement for the first Curry Powder, 1784. Credit: British Library

Photo of advertisement for the first Curry Powder, 1784. Credit: British Library

More developed Western recipes for Butter Chicken are found in the 1774 edition of Hannah Glasse’s “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple” and the 1824 edition of Mary Randolph’s “The Virginia Housewife. Glasse’s recipe calls for ginger, turmeric and black pepper to flavor the stew of chicken and onions, and then finished with cream and lemon juice. Randolph’s recipe calls for a complex mix of spices, including turmeric, coriander and cumin seeds, ginger, nutmeg, mace and Cayenne pepper, to which onions, garlic and a small amount of lemon or orange juice is added to complete the curry. (For more information on historical curries see the Silk Road Gourmet website.

In the years between the publication of the curry recipes by Glasse and Randolph, curry powders became the rage in both British and American cuisine. The first commercially available curry mixes were sold in London in 1784.

Although the origins of curry powders are a bit obscure, research suggests they are a Western invention and were intended to recreate the Indian masala spice mixes that form the basis of many curries. While the ground spice mixes were often marketed under exotic, foreign banners, they were not used by Asian cooks. The intention of the makers was to provide a standardized spice mix that made it easier for Western cooks to make curries.

Fruit and vegetable pickles

Other types of Asian dishes that were popular in 18th century Britain and America were chutneys and spicy fruit and vegetable pickles called achar in Hindi.  Glasse’s 1774 book includes recipes for mango pickle and lemon pickle.

Her lemon pickle recipe uses 12 lemons sliced into quarters and salted for several days. To this is added sliced and salted ginger, parboiled and salted garlic cloves, a small handful of lightly bruised mustard seeds, and ground chili peppers. She calls for all ingredients to be mixed together after salting, covered with the best white-wine vinegar and then stored for one month before using.

If you compare Glasse’s recipe for lemon pickle with a modern recipe for South Indian Lemon Pickle (below), you will see the similarities between the two dishes.

South Indian Lemon Pickle Recipe 

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Yield: 4 to 5 cups

Ingredients

  • 1½ - 2 pounds lemons
  • ½ - ¾ cup salt
  • 4 teaspoons light mustard seeds
  • 1 tablespoon cilantro seeds
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • ½ cup mustard oil
  • ¼ cup light sesame oil
  • ¼ cup grape-seed oil
  • ½ teaspoon asafetida
  • 2 teaspoons red chili pepper, ground
  • 4 teaspoons fenugreek seeds, ground
  • ¾ cup lemon juice
  • ½ cup sugar (demerara or jaggery)

Directions

  1. Cut each of the lemons into eight pieces, and coat each piece in salt. Place slices into a jar and tamp down or squeeze as you go to release most of the juice in the lemons. Leave a couple of inches at the top of the jar to allow space for lemons to shift. 
  2. Cover and place on a sunny windowsill for 10 days to 2 weeks. Shake daily to mix the salt and the lemons. When the curing time has elapsed, the lemons will have softened significantly and reduced in volume. The lemons are ready when the peels are soft and pliable.
  3. Once the lemons have cured, lightly roast each of the whole spices separately in a dry sauté pan. They should be fragrant and just beginning to color when done. Be careful not to burn them or your pickle will have a scorched flavor instead of a lightly roasted one. Set aside to cool.
  4. Heat the oils in a sauté pan. When warm but not sizzling hot, remove from the fire, add the asafetida. Stir and cover the pan. Let sit for 2 to 3 minutes. Then add the rest of the whole roasted seeds and the ground spices; mix well. Cool for another five minutes, as you prepare the lemon slices.
  5. In a large bowl, mix the salted lemon slices, the lemon juice and the sugar until blended. Add the oil and spice mixture; mix well.
  6. Spoon the mixture into jars, cover, refrigerate 1 to 2 weeks before serving.
  7. As an alternative, place the mixture into properly sealed Mason jars, and set in a cool, dark place for 1-2 weeks before serving.  Store opened jars in the refrigerator.

Notes

Total curing time: 2 to 4 weeks

It is clear that Glasse is recreating the recipe based on the flavor of the pickle as opposed to adapting an Indian recipe to available ingredients and preparation methods. Unaware that the sourness of the pickle came from the play of salt and lemon juice, Glasse used vinegar as a souring agent.

What is interesting to me is that Glasse’s pickle isn’t all that bad. The South Indian recipe is certainly richer, sweeter and more complex, but for someone who had only tasted a foreign dish imported from thousands of miles away, Glasse did a great job approximating the recipe for lemon pickle.

Asian sauces

In addition to curries and South Asian pickles, the British and Americans of the 18th century were very interested in recreating Asian soy sauces and fish sauces. For example, an early attempt to produce an ingredient that introduced salt and umami to dishes was mushroom ketchup.

Indeed, the word “ketchup” is derived from the Indonesian word “kecap,” which is used broadly to describe fermented sauces but also specifically is used to denote the family of Indonesian soy sauces. Not knowing that soy sauces are usually produced from beans —  the most common being the soybean —  Westerners salted mushrooms for days or weeks and then harvested the liquid produced after degradation and crushing.

Mushroom ketchup was used to flavor savory stews of meat and vegetables and as an ingredient in savory sauces as well. It was an indispensable ingredient in the colonial kitchen —  and a Western recreation of what was then considered an exotic Asian flavor.

Main photo: Hannah Glasse’s Butter Chicken. Credit: Laura Kelley

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Cork trees can be harvested only every nine years. Credit: Courtesy of APCOR

The ax strikes the tree with a dry, hollow crack. The man wielding it carefully uses the edge of the blade to pry a thick piece of cork from the tree, then hands it down the ladder to a worker waiting below. In the surrounding forest, the crew continues separating the bark from the trees in the summer heat, until the day’s harvest is collected. There are no machines to do this work. It requires skill as well as physical strength, and the stamina to withstand 90-plus-degree temperatures, swarming flies and dry, thorny brush that tears at workers’ pant legs.

This was the scene I witnessed in late July, during the annual cork harvest in Coruche, Portugal’s cork capital. The harvest takes place each year between May and August, as it has for centuries.

Cork is the name for the bark of the cork oak tree (scientific name Quercus Suber L.), an ancient species dating back millions of years. Cork oaks grow primarily in Portugal, but also in France, Spain, Italy and Morocco. Because these unique trees have the ability to regenerate their outer layer of bark after it’s been stripped, there’s no need to cut down the trees in order to harvest the cork.

Portugal is the world’s largest producer of cork, and the country is home to nearly 2 million acres of cork forest, or montado. Cork trees can live 500 years or more if their bark has never been harvested, and up to 150 years if it has.

In the wine world, people often marvel at the patience of grape growers, who have to wait three years for a new vineyard to produce a usable crop. That’s nothing compared with the long-range planning required of Portugal’s cork farmers. Once a cork tree is planted, it takes 25 years before its bark can be harvested.

The first year’s bark isn’t good enough for wine stoppers, so it’s sold at a much cheaper rate for flooring and other byproducts. It takes nine years for the bark to regenerate before it can be harvested again, and even then, it still isn’t viable for wine corks. Only after nine more years, at the third harvest, does the tree produce bark that’s suitable for stoppers. In case you’ve lost count, that’s 43 years of waiting!

Skill and strength

Watching the harvest crew in action last month, I came to understand why these are the world’s highest-paid agricultural workers. Stripping the bark is hot, difficult work, and requires both care and muscle. The harvesting is done mainly by men, known as descortiçadores (debarkers),who earn up to 90 euros ($120) per day wielding sharp iron axes called machadas.

As my guide, Sofia Ramos of the Coruche Forestry Association, pointed out, this work cannot be done by just anyone; it takes specialized skill to remove the bark without damaging the trees. The technique is passed down through generations, and is not something that can easily be picked up by migrant workers from non-cork-producing regions. “They have ancient knowledge,” she told me, “and that is very valuable.”

As I stood in relative comfort, but still dripping with sweat and swatting flies, I watched the workers strip the gnarly gray-brown bark from the trees, leaving behind smooth trunks the color of mahogany. Moving swiftly and efficiently, it took each two-man team about 10 minutes to strip a tree before moving on to the next one.

Although the harvest process appeared to be fairly simple from my vantage point, I learned that it actually consists of many distinct steps:

First, a vertical cut is made in the bark, while at the same time, the edge of the ax is twisted to separate the outer from the inner bark. Second, the cork is separated from the tree by inserting the edge of the ax between the cork strip and the inner bark, and twisting the ax between the trunk and the cork strip. Next, a horizontal cut is made to define the size of the cork plank to be extracted. Finally, the plank is carefully removed from the tree so that it doesn’t split (the larger the planks, the greater their value.)

caputo-cork2

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Portugal's "debarkers" are the highest-paid agricultural workers in the world. Credit: Courtesy of APCOR

Once the tree has been stripped, it’s marked with a number, using the last digit of the year in which the extraction took place. This lets the forest manager know when the trees will be ready for the next harvest.

Each day’s cork planks are stacked onto tractor beds and transferred to a drying area where they rest for three weeks before being transported to a cork processing facility. There, the planks are boiled to remove impurities, trimmed, sorted, cut into strips and finally, punched into stoppers.

The next time I pull one of those stoppers from a wine bottle I’ll be thinking about Portugal’s miraculously regenerating cork trees, and the hardworking descortiçadores who harvest their bark.

Main photo: Cork trees can be harvested only every nine years. Credit: Courtesy of APCOR

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Mexico City's caldo de gallina. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Mexico City is one of the largest urban areas in the world, a throbbing metropolis that gives pause to even the most seasoned city lovers. I come from New York where I grew up in Little Italy and learned to love food in all its ethnic diversity, then moved south of the border almost 20 years ago where I commenced my career as a food writer. Here in “El D.F.,” tradition lives side by side with technology: 21st-century high speed Wi-Fi flies by as men with pushcarts declaim their wares or services in singsong style unchanged since the 19th. I, the perennial urban animal, am happy to exist in both eras. Here are some reasons why:

An afilador, or knife sharpener, in Mexico City. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

An afilador, or knife sharpener, in Mexico City. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

1. Knife sharpeners come to my door. Things are never dull around my kitchen as afiladores (as knife sharpeners are called in Spanish) circulate on bicycles, their distinctive whistle, an import from Spain, resounding through the neighborhood to alert the cutting impaired. Homemakers, chefs and other dull-bladed souls emerge from their kitchens to have knives, scissors, garden shears and the like expertly ground on a round stone that is turned by wheels of the very same bike, right there on the sidewalk.

2. My butcher will bone a chicken (or do anything else I want). Like most hopeful amateurs and semiprofessionals, I have watched Julia Child bone a whole chicken with little effort, promising that it’s not as hard as it seems. I wouldn’t know, as I’ve never had to do it. Here, we buy our birds at the old-fashioned market where butchers will gladly prepare according to customer needs. Breasts are boned and pounded, thighs cubed for brochettes. Beef or pork (or a mixture of both as you wish) is ground once or twice. Pork loins are flayed. My butcher Meche may think it a bit odd, but is happy to cut a boned chicken breast into long, thin slices, as my Chinese recipe requires. This would be an impossible dream for a knife-technique-impaired chef like me. Oh, and by the way, there’s no extra charge for this service.

3. I can eat a bowl of chicken soup on the street. Mexico City is host to an abundance of street stalls offering caldo de gallina: chicken soup. Huge pots of carcass-filled broth bubble away, proving that you don’t need a home to produce a homemade product. The soup, which can be ordered with breast, thigh, leg or nothing at all, is made rich by the addition of a spoonful of rice and garbanzos, a bit of raw onion and cilantro, a squeeze of lemon and some chile flakes to taste. Served with fresh warm corn tortillas, this heart warmer could even top that of the best Jewish grandmother.

4. Fresh squeezed orange juice is available year round. One of myriad fruit and juice stands is located right at my corner, offering round the clock fresh squeezed juices as well as cut up fruits for less than it costs to do it yourself. Fruit, while seasonal, is brought to the capital all year from the four corners of the republic. Mexico is home to jungles and mountains alike. Mangoes, best in the summer, are always available, as are succulent papayas, at least five varieties of bananas, berries and the more exotic mameys and zapotes. A full liter of orange or tangerine juice costs less than $2.

5. Handmade corn tortillas are easy to find. All neighborhoods in the city as well as provincial towns are host to a weekly tianguis (market). Vendors offer the freshest produce, meats and sundries. In the upscale and fashionable areas of the capital these street markets, in keeping with the needs of their sophisticated clients, stock items not typically used in a Mexican kitchen, such as arugula, kale, ginger, leeks and porcinis. As well, braid-sporting women from the country journey into this megalopolis, sacks on their weathered backs, to sell country bounty: wild greens known as quelites, freshly harvested and dried beans and, best of all, hand ground and fashioned corn tortillas. Aficionados know that these beat the tortilleria-bought kind by a landslide: The texture and rustic corn flavor is what it’s all about.

6. I can buy a great baguette around the corner. Some areas of the city have become the visible scene of a new immigration. Young Euro foodsters, coming from such places as the City of Light, where opening a business of any kind is cost prohibitive, or Spain where the economy is in the doldrums, are seeing opportunity knocking in the previously good-bread-starved New World. In middle-class to upscale neighborhoods, patisseries and French boulangeries are opening at, what to anyone trying to watch their weight, is an alarming rate. Beautiful artisanal bread is within arm’s reach. At the same time, friendly traditional panaderías continue to thrive — customers load aluminum trays with pan dulces for breakfast or supper and crunchy bolillos for lunch. Tradition lives side by side with the nouvelle vogue.

Sope de escamoles, or ant eggs. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Sope de escamoles, or ant eggs. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

7. We eat bugs. OK, so this is a mixed blessing. The truth is that I hate bugs, looking at them, eating them. I know they’re good for me, that they are a great source of protein and that consuming them has a long tradition in Mexican culinary history. Top chefs at about every highfalutin restaurant in town have been including creepy crawlies in their menus. Elena Reygadas (of Rosetta) creates artistic Italianate hors d’oeuvres using pretty little beetles. Alejandro Ruiz at his Guzina Oaxaca does a traditional salsa of chicatanas (flying ants to you and me). Meanwhile, ordinary folk delight in munching fried grasshoppers with their beer or a taco of gusanos de maguey (grubs), when the season hits. I’ll try them all and support the movement wholeheartedly and maybe someday I’ll even grow to be a bug lover. Whether I eat them or not, I love the fact that it’s part of the medley of Mexican cuisine.

7½. I can buy half a cauliflower in the market. In Mexico, miniscule amounts of almost everything are routinely sold. Aside from cauliflower, you can get a quarter of a cabbage, a pair of chicken feet, a single stalk of celery, or dos pesos of parsley — you can even buy a single cigarette. In a poor country, this makes great economic sense. My own reasoning is not so much economic as prudent — I have far fewer rotting vegetables in my frig these days.

Main photo: Mexico City’s chicken soup. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

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