Santa Maria di Leuca at Puglia’s southernmost point, where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet. The lighthouse stands atop the Japigo promontory, described by Virgil in The Aeneid. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

If the heel of the Boot, Apulia — Puglia in Italian — has long lagged behind other Italian regions in terms of modernization, parts of it have nonetheless become havens for the likes of royals, film stars and cognoscenti. How could it be otherwise for a peninsula surrounded by 500 miles of coastline and lapped by the pristine waters of two seas? Still, its heart beats to an ancient tempo, heedless of the increasing tourist invasions. This is Greek Italy, and it is steeped in its past. Nowhere is that more striking than at the Pugliese table.

Once upon a wine

The historic casks in the monumental cellar at Torre Quattro date from the era when Puglia's wines were exported in bulk. The casks are about 10 feet in diameter. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

The historic casks in the monumental cellar at Torre Quattro date from the era when Puglia’s wines were exported in bulk. The casks are about 10 feet in diameter. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

On a recent tour of the region’s wineries with an American delegation of importers eager to learn about the ambitious undertakings of a new breed of producers, I found vintners at once devoted to the preservation of their traditions and determined to make unique world-class wines. Whereas previous generations geared their production toward volume of output for foreign markets (mainly France as well as northern Italy) at the expense of quality — a practice that goes back to the Phoenicians — today’s winemakers tend relatively small vineyards and grow native grape varietals barely known outside the immediate area. The consensus among the dozen buyers in our midst was that the wines were good — some very, very good — while selling for less than other wines in their class.

Terroir, terroir, terroir

The organic vineyards and 800-year-old olive trees at Vigneto Amastuolo have been the focus of an ambitious restoration of Martina Franca, Taranto, an important 15th-century agricultural center on the Ionic side of the peninsula. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

The organic vineyards and 800-year-old olive trees at Vigneto Amastuolo have been the focus of an ambitious restoration of Martina Franca, Taranto, an important 15th-century agricultural center on the Ionic side of the peninsula. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Climatic conditions vary throughout Puglia. On the northern plateaus, known collectively as the Murge, the winters are temperate and the temperatures cooler than they are in the Salento, the bottom of the heel, which can be convection-hot in summer, though cooled somewhat by the play of sea currents and breezes blowing across the Adriatic from the Balkans. But overall the region is perhaps the hottest in Italy, baked by the favugno, as the dry wind that blows in from Africa is called here.

If the soil is productive, it’s due less to topography than to the stewardship of the terrain over centuries. For millennia, the Pugliese have supplied the lion’s share of Italy’s three principal staples: wine, wheat and olive oil. They still do, and grow enough table grapes, olives, almonds, cereals and vegetables to feed the rest of Italy and export abroad.

In step with their forebears, many of the vintners I met said that, by working with the natural conditions and the native grapes that thrive there — such as Primitivo, Negroamaro and Nero di Troia — they avoid the soil-punishing practices of modern growing techniques. “We are linked to the traditions of our area,” said Dr. Marina Saponari, sommelier at Valle dell’Asso in Santeramo in Colle, Bari, a limestone plateau in the Murge. “We don’t irrigate or add water at all, because too much humidity causes fungus; we work with the soil, not against it, (plowing) in a horizontal direction to retain the moisture naturally.” “Besides,” said Giuseppe Bino, an oenologist at Vigneto Amastuola in Martina Franca, “organic methods are so much better for your health. And when the wines are aged naturally, you taste real grapes.”

Filippo Montanaro of Vigneto Amastuola, on the Ionian side of the peninsula, described his family’s dedication to organic practices as a way to at once revitalize abandoned agricultural lands and recover an indigenous archeological site that dates to the Bronze Age. Subsequent civilizations inhabited the same high plateau, a strategic point overlooking the Gulf of Taranto from which, on a clear day, you can see all the way to Greece and Calabria. Amastuola’s vines and fruit orchards today carpet the soil in which the Greeks planted grapes and olive trees 2,000 years ago. On the estate, a 15th-century masseria — an ancient Apulian farmhouse where raw ingredients were processed into everything from wine and oil to dairy products, salumi, bread and preserves — is being restored to function as it once did, said Montanaro, whose father, Giuseppe, acquired the 100-hectare estate (almost 250 acres) in 2003. The family has launched an ambitious restoration, including the revitalization of long-neglected 800-year-old olive trees. “Family tradition is very important,” said Giuseppe Sportelli, commercial director and husband of Ilaria (one of three Montanaro siblings that help manage the property), explaining that the monumental project was not just work but a “passione.” Giuseppe Montanaro himself finds that explanation inadequate. “It goes beyond enthusiasm,” he explained, “It is the desperation that the man of the south feels that makes miracles like this happen.”

Food of the ancients

Making the traditional pasta of Puglia, orecchiette, on the street in Barivecchia. Pensioners like this woman sell their pasta from home to supplement their incomes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Making the traditional pasta of Puglia, orecchiette, on the street in Barivecchia. Pensioners like this woman sell their pasta from home to supplement their incomes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Like these winemakers, local chefs also honor the past, looking to the ancestral cooking of their grandmothers for inspiration. I learned the Pugliese mantra of “homegrown and homemade” early, from my paternal grandparents — poor emigrants to America from the very landscape I have described. Some things have changed since they abandoned the fields of Toritto, in which they had toiled as sharecroppers, for lack of enough food for themselves. And some things have not. “Our cooking is based on a paisana (peasant) tradition,” said Anna Gennari of Conzorzio Produttori Vini Manduria, a 400-partner cooperative of Primitivo grape growers in Manduria. “The cooking was simple and not much different throughout the provinces because Puglia was poor,” said Saponari, who is not only a sommelier but also a well-known cooking teacher in Bari.

Cutting-edge Michelin-starred restaurants have been making headlines in recent years for pioneering menus sourced from their local terroir, but Pugliese chefs have always done so. They are weaned on the ancestral flavors and seductive bitterness of wild dandelion greens, mustards, hyacinth bulbs (Muscari racemosum or lampascioni) and other native plants. Unlike in other regions where the tourist routes are more deeply worn, the heritage foods of Puglia — what the Italians call piatti tipici — persist, whether in hotels, simple trattorie or private homes. These include durum-wheat pasta, either fresh or dried, characteristically flavored with cime di rapa (“turnip tops”), simple tomato sauce, or chickpeas; fava-bean purée eaten alongside cooked bitter greens; the ring-shaped breadsticks called taralli, sweet or savory; calzone-like panzerotti and a panoply of other breads and pastries, baked or fried; vegetables, vegetables, vegetables (but little meat); milky fresh cheeses; and fiery peppers — all dressed, naturally, with the numinous olive oil.

Chefs riding the trend for recycling “trash” food could learn something from these old ways: take the traditional pane arso of the cucina povera (“the poor kitchen”), a dark bread made by blending the flour of charred hard wheat with semolina. The custom of incorporating the two harks back to the feudal-estate system, when peasants collected the scorched grains that remained after the post-harvest burning of the fields. Rich-tasting, with a seductively bitter edge, the bread packs 4,000 years of the people’s history into one bite.

Pranzo della domenica: Sunday supper

At a welcome dinner for American wine buyers, we cleaned our plates of traditional local fare. TerrAnima proprietor Piero Conte is standing in the back. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

At a welcome dinner for American wine buyers, we cleaned our plates of traditional local fare. TerrAnima proprietor Piero Conte is standing in the back. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

It’s on Sunday — a customary day of feasting — when Puglia’s cooks pull out all the stops. This is when the meat dishes come out, and the pasta is sauced with ragù, meatballs and braciole.

Gathering together in Bari with the wine buyers, I ate just these braciole — which the locals call bombette (“little bombs”) in the delightful TerrAnima, a Slow Food-endorsed restaurant dedicated to the dishes of the region (its name translates as “Earth and Soul”). If they sound heavy, perish the thought! They are delicate little rolls of meat, lined with pancetta inside and out and stuffed with cheese, garlic and parsley before they are bundled, tied and roasted.

Here’s to the spirit of the pranzo della domenica. Bring on the bombette and by all means, pour the Primitivo!

Bombette (Little Bombs): Stuffed Meat Rolls

Bombette, a Pugliese obsession: strips of meat rolled with pancetta, parsley and caciocavallo cheese. Traditionally made with horsemeat, my version substitutes veal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Bombette, a Pugliese obsession: strips of meat rolled with pancetta, parsley and caciocavallo cheese. Traditionally made with horsemeat, my version substitutes veal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: About 20 minutes

Total time: About 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Note: These appetizers are traditionally made with horsemeat (not for the likes of former equestrians such as myself), but veal or beef are also used. Whichever you choose, ask the butcher to flatten the meat as thin as possible (1/8 inch is ideal) without tearing it — or pound it yourself if you know how.

Ingredients

1 pound cutlets (scaloppine) from top round of veal, cut into 4 thin slices about 4 inches by 8 inches and pounded to no more than 1/8-inch thick, or 2 half-pound pieces boneless beef top round, pounded to 1/8-inch from 1/4-inch thickness

Extra virgin olive oil

1 small garlic clove, peeled and bruised slightly

Fine sea salt

Freshly milled black pepper

16 thin slices of pancetta

2 tablespoons  fresh minced parsley leaves

3 ounces fresh, semi-soft caciocavallo cheese, cut into 8 matchsticks

Toothpicks for serving

Directions

1. Preheat an oven to 400 F. Select a broiler-proof baking pan large enough to accommodate 8 meat rolls without crowding and grease it lightly with olive oil.

2. Use paper towels to blot the meat dry. Cut each piece horizontally into smaller pieces to yield 8 pieces of meat that are about the same shape and size (about 4 by 4 inches). Rub both sides with the garlic clove (which you can then discard) and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper.

3. Sandwich 1 piece of meat between two slices of pancetta. Sprinkle one side with some of the parsley and arrange a matchstick of cheese crosswise on the center. Beginning at one end, roll it up, gathering the pancetta along with it as you make the roll and tucking in any meat edges that stick out. Secure the bundle with a toothpick and transfer it to the oiled baking pan. Repeat the procedure with the remaining 7 pieces of meat and place in the pan.

4. Slide the pan onto the middle rack of the oven. Roast for 15 minutes, then remove the pan from the oven and change the setting to broil. Turn the rolls over and place the pan under the broiler to color them lightly, about 2 minutes. Take care to keep the pan juices from flaming. Remove at once, pour any remaining pan juices over the rolls and serve immediately.

Main photo: Santa Maria di Leuca at Puglia’s southernmost point, where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet. The lighthouse stands atop the Japigo promontory, described by Virgil in “The Aeneid.” Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

 

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Every variety of artisanal salt has a unique flavor profile, thanks in part to the type and quantity of minerals it contains. Credit: 2015 Copyright Susan Lutz

Professional chefs and home cooks are discovering artisanal salt with a vengeance. No longer content with 50-pound bags of Morton or Diamond Crystal flake salt, chefs are using a bewildering array of salts from around the world in a dizzying variety of ways.

The reasons become clear on a visit to J. Q. Dickinson Salt-Works in Malden, West Virginia, where CEO Nancy Bruns is a seventh-generation salt-maker. In 2013 Nancy and her brother, Lewis Payne, revived their family’s historic salt-making business high in the Allegheny Mountains. In the past two years, their salt has become a favorite with chefs across the country. I spent the day at the salt-works and discussed the importance of salt with a variety of chefs who use Dickinson’s handmade product.

The reasons that artisanal salt has become important are many,  but seven reasons keep coming up.

Artisanal salt adds unique flavor

 Harvesting salt at Dickinson’s Salt-Works in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia.  Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Harvesting salt at Dickinson’s Salt-Works in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Whether it’s rock salt from the Himalayas or open-air evaporated salt from the Mediterranean coast of France, each form of artisanal salt has its own flavor profile.

Aaron Keefer, trained chef and culinary gardener at The French Laundry in Napa Valley, California, says the flavor of artisanal salt is hard to describe. “Any salt makes things taste better, but artisan salt has a more rounded flavor that adds a little something extra to the dish that you can’t put your finger on, but in the end you know it’s better.”

Good stories make good salt

A brine-settling vat at the old salt-works operation at Dickinson’s Salt-Works.  Credit: Courtesy of the J. Q. Dickinson family

A brine-settling vat at the old salt-works operation at Dickinson’s Salt-Works. Credit: Courtesy of the J. Q. Dickinson family

Artisanal salt always comes with a good story. Dickinson’s Salt-Works began just after the American Revolution, when Bruns’ ancestors began processing salt from the local briny pools. By the time of the Civil War, it was the biggest salt producer in the country. By the end of World War II, commercial salt production in West Virginia had essentially disappeared.

“I love the story,” Keefer says. “Dickinson’s salt was very popular, then it was defunct, then it was brought back in modern times.” But for Keefer, the heart of the story goes back even further: “What made it stand out for me is that the American Indians used it, and the method of extraction was unique.”

Bruns knows that there’s more to branding than simply a great product. “We have a great story which makes it a very authentic brand,” she says. “Seven generations of salt-making in one family on the same land is hard to beat.”

Balance: Minerality vs. salinity

Interior of hoop house for evaporating salt at Dickinson Salt-Works Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Interior of hoop house for evaporating salt at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

The key to an artisanal salt is the balance between minerality and salinity. A pink Himalayan rock salt has enough iron to give it its pink color. Celtic sea salt might have far fewer trace minerals. But each type balances the amount of the chemical sodium chloride, and the other minerals in the water source.

Bruns sources her product from a 400 million-year-old underground sea that geologists call “the Iapetus Ocean.” “Our source is very protected,” she says. “We are not drawing our brine from an exposed, open ocean where there is always the possibility of contamination.” The initial brine from her 350-foot well is rich in magnesium, calcium, potassium, manganese and especially iron. Bruns, a former chef, processes the brine to create a salt that has a unique appeal for other chefs.

Matt Baker, executive chef at City Perch Kitchen + Bar in Bethesda, Maryland, has become a fan of Dickinson’s salt: “The grain is nice and plump, so it holds its shape well while also having a medium level of salinity to the finish on the palate.”

Terroir: As vital in salt as it is in wine

Hoop houses and tanks at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Hoop houses and tanks at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Like wine, artisanal salt has terroir, the word winemakers use to describe that indefinable sense of place that gives each wine its unique personality.

Dickinson’s salt is pumped from more than 300 feet below the ground and evaporated in a series of small hoop houses. Dickinson Salt-Works uses handmade techniques drawn from a 200-year-old legacy. “We think of our salt as an agricultural product,” Bruns says. “It comes from the land, and we move the brine several times to maximize the flavor.”

Ian Boden, chef-owner of The Shack in Staunton, Virginia, says that good artisanal salt “has the taste of its place,” and Dickinson’s salt certainly does. “You can tell that it’s harvested from underneath a mountain because its mineral content is so high. It’s like using Hawaiian black salt — it has that earthy, funky, ash flavor. Except it’s not ash, it’s the mountains of West Virginia.”

The texture of artisanal salt adds contrast

Salt crystals forming in salt beds at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Salt crystals forming in salt beds at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Unlike the quickly dissolving grains of highly refined industrial salt, the texture of artisanal salt brings contrast to a dish. What most of us think of as texture is the result of a combination of factors including crystal structure, grain size and moisture content. Sometimes, it is texture alone that makes an artisanal salt memorable. All salts are either mined from rock or evaporated from saltwater lakes, springs or oceans. The majority of artisanal salts are evaporative, and the method of evaporation has a profound impact on the texture of the salt.

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Chef Boden says the unique character of Dickinson’s salt comes from its texture, which is the result of the solar evaporation process. “To be brutally honest, if you lined up 15 salts, I couldn’t tell you where each one came from, but I think there’s definitely a difference. If you lined salts up, I could tell by feeling it that it was Dickinson’s salt, most definitely.”

Chefs from east to west agree that Dickinson’s salt has a texture that can’t be beat. Baker of City Perch Kitchen + Bar discovered Dickinson’s salt through the restaurant’s mixologist Adam Seger and hasn’t looked back. “I instantly fell in love with the salt. What makes it great is its subtleness and medium-size grain.”

Keefer has also noticed the distinct texture of Dickinson’s salt. “It seems like all salts are shaped just a little bit differently. I like the grind on it — the flake on it — it’s a good all-around salt. I’ve used it both with fish and with meat and been very happy with the results.” Keefer adds, “Try as many different salts as possible and you’ll find a favorite.”

Artisanal salt gives a pop of flavor at the finish

 Nancy Bruns harvests salt at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Nancy Bruns harvests salt at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Artisanal salts are more expensive than industrially produced salts because of the time and resources required to produce them, but this increased price this doesn’t stop chefs from using artisanal salts in a variety of dishes. Keefer explains: “Everybody’s concerned about the price of artisan salt, but a little goes a long way. Use it as a finishing salt, not as a base salt.”

“Salt is there to make things taste more like themselves,” Boden says. But finishing salt is used in a slightly different way. “You put a little finishing salt on the dish and you get a pop of something unexpected. That’s really what we’re using it for — that textural and salinity contrast on a finished plate.”

Each chef uses finishing salt in a distinct and personal way. Baker reports: “We use Dickinson’s salt to finish a lot of our meats and fresh dishes like burrata cheese, seared tuna and foie gras torchon. The texture of the grains makes it melt in your mouth perfectly with a clean finish.”

The unexpected: Artisanal salt inspires creative chefs

Chocolate caramel tart finished with evaporated sea salt. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Chocolate caramel tart finished with evaporated sea salt. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Artisanal salt pumps up the flavor in unexpected dishes like desserts and cocktails. “I like to add a pinch of salt to a lot of my desserts — whether I’m making a cherry pie or chocolate frosting,” Keefer says. “I don’t put in enough to make it salty, but a pinch of salt adds a surprising amount of flavor.”

Baker has found a variety of unique applications for Dickinson’s salt. “At the bar we use it to rim our Forbidden Fruit Margarita and our Bloody Maryland.” Baker even uses Dickinson’s nigari (a by-product of the salt-making process) as the starter for his house-made ricotta cheese. He couldn’t be happier with the results. The nigari, which is traditionally used to make tofu, “gives the cheese a fresh bite of salinity and a hint of pepper.”

Dickinson Salt-Works has recently introduced a salt with a finer grain. Chef Boden at The Shack plans to experiment with it in his own take on traditional charcuterie, curing and fermenting. “It’s something I want to do. It brings a certain earthiness to the components.”

Artisanal salts are as varied as the almost endless places across the globe in which salt is mined or harvested. And it is these unique flavors and textures that inspire chefs — and the rest of us — to use artisanal salt in creative and ever-evolving ways.

Main photo: Every variety of artisanal salt has a unique flavor profile, thanks in part to the type and quantity of minerals it contains. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

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Brassica rapa at the Palo del Colle market in Puglia, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Summer has yet to deliver its full range of vegetables, but one stalwart crop that keeps on giving is Brassica rapa (from rapum, Latin for “turnip”). Brimming with flavor, this vegetable is known variously in its native Italy as cime di rapa (“turnip tops”), broccoletti di rape or just rape (pronounced räp’-eh), rapi, rappini, friarielli, vrucculi and a gaggle of other aliases, depending on local dialects.

And as “if this is not confusing enough,” says Daniel Nagengast — who imports 700 different heritage seeds to the United States for his company Seeds from Italy — “there are perhaps 15 different cime varieties in southern Italy, and I keep on finding more.” Each has its own physical characteristics, growing patterns and flavor nuances. But what they all have in common is a bold, seductive bitterness in their raw state, not to mention a powerful nutritional profile.

Cime di rapa varieties in the greenhouse at Stone Barns Center for  Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Cime di rapa varieties in the greenhouse at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Old varieties are new again

Although most Americans are familiar only with the tidy, commercially grown bunches sold in supermarkets under the name of “broccoli rabe” (a debased form of Italian native speakers prickle at), small-scale farmers around the country are creating a new awareness of Brassica rapa’s formidable culinary powers. A wide range of varieties are  popping up in local farmers markets and CSAs, and chefs are demanding heirloom types whose flavors recall the earth they are grown in. “San Francisco and New York high-end restaurants start the trends,” says Nagengast, explaining why he is crisscrossing southern Italy in search of variants unknown outside their native environment. “Then it takes off.” The idea is that savvy home cooks, like chefs, will seek them out for the same reasons they do certain wines and cheeses: distinctive terroir. Several of Nagengast’s transplanted seeds have been sown by Jack Algiere, farm director at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York, who grows them to be served at James Beard award-winning chef Dan Barber’s groundbreaking restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

Boiled rapini are flavored with the delicious drippings of porchetta at Mozzarella e Vino in New York City. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Boiled rapini are flavored with the delicious drippings of porchetta at Mozzarella e Vino in New York City. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

The old familiar ways with rapini

As much as the vegetable intrigues people, the extent of most Americans’ experience with Brassica rapa is as a side dish cooked with olive oil and garlic. Properly, this basic preparation involves parboiling the greens before sautéing them. First, peel the stems as you would asparagus legs to ensure that they cook at the same rate as the tops. Next, parboil them for two minutes — just long enough to bring out their sweet overtones. Then drain them, saving some of the cooking water. From here, you’ll sauté them with good olive oil, garlic and (optionally) chili flakes, moistening them with a little of the water you have set aside. (You could also change up the recipe by substituting onion and bacon for the garlic and hot pepper, the way Southern cooks make collards, kale and other field greens.) Now you can eat them as is or use them as directed in the recipes that follow.

Chef Viola Buitioni’s garlicky Umbrian "rapi e patate." Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Chef Viola Buitioni’s garlicky Umbrian “rapi e patate.” Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Rapini and potatoes

For a more complex side dish, combine your garlicky sautéed greens with other vegetables: sautéed cime di rapa alongside a puree of fava beans, or ‘ncapriata, is food of legend in Puglia, brought together with the magic of high-quality olive oil. Chickpeas or white beans also make delicious and nutritious purees for the greens. Probably one of the happiest vegetarian marriages is between rapini and richly flavored potatoes such as Yellow Finns, Yukon Golds or fingerlings. I like chef Viola Buitoni’s way of tossing her sautéed greens with crisply fried tubers, an Umbrian-style dish she calls rapi e patate. If the greens are the feisty part of the couple, the potatoes are the sweet-tempered half.

Whole-wheat gemelli with rapini, bacon and chickpeas, which are creamier if you peel the skins off first. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Whole-wheat gemelli with rapini, bacon and chickpeas, which are creamier if you peel the skins off first. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Not just a side dish

In Puglia, it is common to cook the greens simultaneously with pasta in the same pot and, after draining, tossing them quickly together in olive oil flavored with garlic. Per the Italian tradition whereby meat is a second course, sausages might follow; but for a one-dish variation, I sometimes add warmed, crushed anise seeds and crumbled sausage to the pasta and greens. And there are so many other ways to dish out rapini and pasta. For instance, you can toss your garlicky sautéed greens together with diced bacon, chickpeas and just-cooked short pasta in a wide skillet; I like to use whole-wheat gemelli (“twins”) or penne imported from Italy. Be sure to save some of the hot pasta cooking water; combined with the olive oil and juices from the prepared rapini, it forms a sauce. Pass a cruet of your best olive oil at the table for finishing.

Imported Italian linguine with shrimp, Brassica rapa and hot pepper, inspired by a Venetian dish. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Imported Italian linguine with shrimp, Brassica rapa and hot pepper, inspired by a Venetian dish. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Rapini and seafood

Or consider seafood. The Venetians have a particular fondness for the charms of bitter ingredients, including cime di rapa (to use their term); surrounded by water as they are, they often combine the vegetables they cultivate on the lagoon islands with their Adriatic catch. Here is a heavenly dish I ate in a trattoria some years ago on the little island of Burano. It was originally made with fresh tagiolini and a local species of prawn called cannocchie, but it is just as good with linguine and shrimp (or other types of fresh seafood, such as clams or scallops). Start by parboiling your rapini (save the cooking water) and sautéeing the shrimp in fragrant olive oil with garlic and red pepper in a skillet wide enough to accommodate the pasta later. As soon as the shellfish is lightly colored, add dry white wine and let simmer gently for a minute or two, until the alcohol evaporates. Finally, toss in the rapini, cover the pan and turn off the heat. In the meantime, cook the linguine in the reserved cooking water. Drain, again reserving a little of the water, and add the pasta to the skillet. Toss the ingredients together gently, moistening them with a little pasta water if necessary.

Rosa Ross’s stir-fried beef and rapini in place of the traditional "gai lan," Chinese flowering broccoli. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Rosa Ross’s stir-fried beef and rapini in place of the traditional “gai lan,” Chinese flowering broccoli. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

When bitter is sweet: An Asian spin

Author Jennifer McLagan has devoted an entire book to explaining why a taste for bitterness is the hallmark of discerning cooks and educated eaters. “Food without bitterness lacks depth and complexity,” she writes in “Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes.” I rather like the gentle Chinese way of describing the yin-yang perfection achieved when balancing bitter, salty or sour flavors (yin) with sweet and spicy ones (yang).

“We love bitter melon and flowering mustard greens and things like that,” says Hong Kong-born American chef Rosa Ross, author of “Beyond Bok Choy: A Cook’s Guide to Asian Vegetables” and other Chinese cookbooks. So, for example, in the original Chinese version of the dish Americans known as beef with broccoli, the bitter green called gai lan must be used — but “when I can’t find it here, I substitute Italian bitter broccoli,” Ross says.

Pizza topped with sweet fennel pork sausage, sautéed rapini, cacio Romano (soft Roman sheep’s cheese) and serrano pepper. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Pizza topped with sweet fennel pork sausage, sautéed rapini, cacio Romano (soft Roman sheep’s cheese) and serrano pepper. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Pizzas and pockets

Many pizzerias offer pies spread with vegetables — but they can be more alluring to the eye than they are tasty. A pizza topped with rapini, sausage and tangy cheese is a different, flavor-packed story. To make it, start by preparing your own dough; while it rises, parboil and sauté the greens per our basic recipe and, separately, sauté some crumbled sausage. Spread them both over the dough before baking; scatter cheese on top only in the last few minutes of baking to prevent it from burning. (Mozzarella is too bland in this case, so best to use a young, melting sheep’s cheese or soft Asiago fresco.) You can use the same ingredients as filling for calzones.

Rapini pie with an American-style crust makes for a twist on Italian tradition. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Rapini pie with an American-style crust makes for a twist on Italian tradition. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Rapini pie

On a similar theme, last spring I created a new interpretation of the traditional torta pasqualina (“Easter pie”), a savory pastry made of strudel-like dough filled with spring greens such as chard or spinach. Once again, I used an American-style pie crust because I love its structure and crumb — and I also substituted rapini in the filling, mixing them with egg and freshly grated Parmigiano to yield astonishingly good results. They have so much flavor that no additional ingredients are needed, save salt and pepper. Along with a side dish or two, this pie is substantial enough for a dinner; it can also be cut into smaller servings for an appetizer. I’ve been known to improvise with good frozen puff pastry as well, using the same filling to make small hand pies.

Imported fusilli with rapini pesto, almond shards and pecorino Toscano. Fusilli are exceptionally suitable because the coils trap the pesto. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Imported fusilli with rapini pesto, almond shards and pecorino Toscano. Fusilli are exceptionally suitable because the coils trap the pesto. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Purees and pesto

We are nearly there, dear reader, but how can we overlook transforming these mighty greens into a purée for eating as is or making into a sauce? If you will first peel the skin from the stalks, you will prevent its fibrous texture from getting in the way of a silky creamed side dish or a velvety pesto. Then cut the stalks into several pieces to make them easier to work with and boil them, along with the leaves and buds, for at least seven minutes. Be sure to drain the greens well before pureeing them in a food processor with a little softened butter or good olive oil. You can eat them just as they are, creamy and hot, seasoned with another dab of butter or dribble of olive oil, plus a touch of coarse sea salt — they’re as good as creamed spinach, even without the roux.

Or, for a gorgeous and delicious alternative to the ubiquitous basil pesto, blend the purée with a touch of garlic; grated, aged sheep’s cheese or Parmigiano; and a little olive oil — because the cooked stems are full-bodied and naturally creamy, you’ll find it unnecessary to use as much oil as many pestos call for. You can also include pine nuts or almonds if you’d like. Like its basil counterpart, rapini pesto should accompany pasta cuts sturdy enough to carry it — linguine, bucatini, medium macaroni, potato gnocchi — or you can stir it into minestrone.

Rapini butter stirred into alphabet pasta makes ideal baby food. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Rapini butter stirred into alphabet pasta makes ideal baby food. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Back to the beginning

It’s only too well-known that a preponderance of American children and adults alike hate vegetables — a fact that people in other parts of the temperate world find puzzling, especially as plants are the very stuff that humans most need for proper nourishment. I could write a book exploring the reasons for this, but consider just one for a moment. Although the theory that children need bland foods until they are old enough to handle more intense flavors is bandied about in credulous circles, experts tell us that the taste for particular foods is developed in infancy. The fare we are fed as children — whether it is good or not — is what we crave as adults. Pastina (“miniature pasta”) with butter is an Italian baby’s first solid food, revisited in adulthood whenever comfort food is in order. When my children were babies, I stirred rapini puree and butter into pastina for them, and they loved it. (Like any pasta, pastina tastes best served piping hot immediately after cooking — but naturally, it should be cooled down to warm for babies.) This is an ideal way to develop an infant’s taste for these miraculously healthful greens.

Main photo: Brassica rapa at the Palo del Colle market in Puglia, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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Bing cherry infused vodka in quart jars. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Infusing vodka with fruit is perfect for summer and holiday entertaining. Colorful and easy to make, all you do is place the washed fruit into a clean glass jar, pour in the unflavored vodka, cover and store until the fruit has transferred its flavors to the vodka. The resulting infused spirit can be sipped by itself or used in a deliciously refreshing cocktail. That’s it. Wash, pour, cover, wait and enjoy.

Flavored vs. infused

Umeshu after one year. Credit: Copyright David Latt

Umeshu, after one year. Credit: Copyright David Latt

All the popular spirits — bourbon, tequila, gin, brandy and rum — can be infused with savory or sweet flavors. Vodka is the easiest because it is more neutral than the others.

You may have seen vodkas labeled as infused with lemons, oranges, cranberries, pomegranates and raspberries. In point of fact, they are actually flavored artificially. The taste of those vodkas ranges from passable to medicinal.

Creating your own flavors allows you to control the quality and the strength of the infusion. Using a farmers-market-fresh approach will bring a farm-to-table excellence to your cocktails.

How long to infuse?

Ume or green at Marukai Market (West Los Angeles, CA), sold to make umeshu. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Ume or green plums at Marukai Market in West Los Angeles. They’re used to make umeshu. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Generally speaking, soft fruit needs less time to transfer its flavors. Strawberries for instance need only a few hours or a day at most. With quick infusions, taste frequently and strain out the fruit when you have the flavor you want. When the fruit is removed, the infusion stops.

With a firmer fruit such as cherries, infusion can take longer. To make the Italian liqueur limoncello, lemon peels remain in the vodka for several months. When making umeshu, Japanese plum wine made with green plums called ume, the plums take a year to complete the infusion process.

When making infusions, no need to use premium vodkas. The fruit so dominates the flavor, buying affordable vodka is definitely the way to go.

Infused vodkas can be used as the basis of any number of cocktails. Personally, I enjoy them over ice, neat or with a mix of soda water. Simpler is better. The result is deliciously refreshing, especially on a warm summer day.

Cherry-Infused Vodka

Bing cherries being washed in a colander. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Bing cherries are best for vodka infusions. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Buy good quality, unblemished cherries, preferably Bing cherries because they are fat and sweet. The cherries can be pitted, in which case they will give up their flavor more quickly. But over time the cherries will become less firm. I prefer to keep them whole so they can be served as an adult dessert.

Use glass jars, any size you have on hand. Wash the jars and tops in hot, soapy water and rinse well. Quart juice or canning jars work very well. Use the cherries separately as a dessert by themselves, with plain yogurt or as a topping on ice cream.

The infused vodka can be served cold as a shooter with a cherry as garnish or in a mixed cocktail of your choice. Leave the cherry whole or finely chop when using as a garnish.

Add more vodka when needed to keep the cherries covered. Keep refrigerated.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Infusion time: a week to a month

Yield: two quarts

Ingredients

3 pounds fresh cherries, preferably Bing, washed, pat dried, stems removed

1 quart unflavored vodka

Directions

1. Examine each cherry. Reserve for another use any that are blemished or over ripe.

2. Remove and discard any stems.

3. Place the whole cherries into the jars.

4. Fill with unflavored vodka.

5. Cap and place in the back of the refrigerator.

6. Serve cold. Pour the infused vodka into small glasses garnished with cherries (whole or finely chopped) from the jar.

7. Add vodka to keep the cherries covered. Refrigerate.

Umeshu or Japanese Plum Wine

Ume or green plums, Japanese rock sugar, unflavored vodka in a glass jar to make umeshu. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Mix ume or green plums, Japanese rock sugar, unflavored vodka in a glass jar to make umeshu. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Although frequently called plum wine, ume is actually more of a apricot and umeshu is a liqueur. Available in Japanese and Korean markets, ume are also sold in Middle Eastern grocery stores. Armenians and Iranians eat the unripened plums raw but do not use them to prepare a liquor. In Asia, ume are also eaten preserved in salt and called umebsoshi in Japan.

Sold at a premium price because of the short growing season in the spring, only use green, unripe fruit. Ripe ume should not be used.

Mention umeshu to someone from Japan and invariably they will smile

Umeshu shooters with chopped macerated ume (Japanese green plums). Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Umeshu shooters with chopped macerated ume (Japanese green plums). Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

Traditionally umeshu is made by grandmothers. In the spring when the plums appear in the markets, dull green and hard as rocks, the grandmothers buy up all they can find, place them in a large jar, add rock sugar and shōchū (similar in taste to vodka). The jar is placed under the sink and everyone waits a year until the plums soften and the shōchū has mellowed.

After a year in their sweetened, alcoholic bath, the ume can be eaten. I like to include them in the cocktail, either whole or cut off the pit, chopped up and added as a flavor garnish that can be eaten with a small spoon.

Only use unblemished, unripe fruit.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Infusion time: one year

Yield: 2 quarts umeshu, 2 quarts macerated umeIngredients

2 pounds ume or green plums, washed, stems removed

1 pound Japanese rock sugar

1.75 ml unflavored vodka

Directions

1. Wash well a gallon glass jar.

2. Place the ume into the jar.

3. Add the rock sugar.

4. Pour in the vodka. Stir well.

5. Cover.

6. Place in a dark, cool area where the jar will be undisturbed for a year.

7. Serve ice cold with macerated ume whole or chopped up as garnish.

 Top photo: Bing cherry-infused vodka in quart jars. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

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Nukazuke, or pickled vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

Traditional pickled foods have become increasingly popular, with their palate-pleasing spicy, sour, sweet and salty flavors and varied textures that provide health benefits as well as serving as a digestive aid.

The most popular traditional pickled foods in America are dill pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi — all of which share one thing in common: They are vegetables pickled in a brine, vinegar or other solutions and then left to ferment, a process called lacto-fermentation. Just the sound of the words make our stomachs feel better.

How does lacto-fermentation work? During fermentation, a beneficial bacteria called Lactobacillus, which is present on the surface of all vegetables and fruits, begins to metabolize its sugars into lactic acid; this is a natural preservative that inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria.

Eating pickled foods in moderation keeps your gut flora healthy and supports immune function by providing an increase in B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, digestive enzymes and other immune chemicals that fight off harmful bacteria.

Pickling: A universal practice

Among fermented foods, pickles remain popular in the U.S., along with sauerkraut and kimchi. Credit: Copyright Thinkstock

Among fermented foods, pickles remain popular in the U.S., along with sauerkraut and kimchi. Credit: Copyright Thinkstock

The universe of lacto-fermented foods includes so much more than dill pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi. Since ancient times, people around the world have used this method to preserve vegetables and fruits when refrigeration was not available, and the tradition of pickling has carried on.

The Japanese have a diverse variety of pickles that use solid rather than liquid pickling mediums as such miso, sake lees and rice bran — all of which undergo the process of lacto-fermentation. The result is a distinctly tangy, crunchy and delicious assortment of pickles.

I am particularly fond of the nutty aroma and mild flavor of nukazuke, a traditional Japanese pickling method using fermented rice bran. Like wheat bran, rice bran is the outer layer of the grain that is removed during the milling process. In the U.S., most of the bran gets sold off to produce cattle feed and dog food, but the Japanese use it to pickle any type of firm vegetable, including carrots, cucumbers, cabbage, radish, zucchini, kabocha and burdock. The vegetables are buried in nukadoko, the fermented medium, to pickle for just a couple hours or overnight and reused again. The flavor of nukazuke is not as sour or spicy as kimchi or sauerkraut, but the health benefits are just as high.

How to maintain the nukadoko medium

Your nukadoko base for fermenting should be kept in a cool place and mixed daily to maintain it. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

Your nukadoko base for fermenting should be kept in a cool place and mixed daily to maintain it. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

Maintaining a nukadoko medium involves one crucial task: keeping it alive. You must stir the medium with your hands once a day to aerate it, so the bacteria can breathe and do their thing. It takes no more than a minute of your time, so you can incorporate it into your daily ritual.

Nukadoko also loves the good bacteria that live on your hands, so don’t use a wooden spoon. You will notice the medium has a distinct sour smell, which indicates the bacteria are actively working. I find the smell rather pleasant.

I keep my nukadoko in the pantry, which makes the daily stirring an easy task, but some people prefer to keep it in the garage. When choosing a spot to keep it, be sure it’s a cool place. If you don’t have one, you can keep it in the refrigerator, but the fermentation process will be much slower.

Every family has its own version of nukadoko. In the old days, one of the heirloom gifts a Japanese mother passed onto her daughter as a wedding gift was nukadoko, and it was not uncommon to find a nukadoko that was more than 50 years old.

Sad to say, this custom is disappearing in Japan and convenient foods are taking over. However, a slow movement is underway to restore traditional foods like nukazuke, including here in America. I have third- and fourth-generation Japanese-Americans who come to my pickling workshops to learn how to make their grandmothers’ nukazuke.

Sourcing nuka

Fresh organic rice bran can be used to create a pickling medium. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

Fresh organic rice bran can be used to create a pickling medium. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

Sourcing rice bran in the U.S. is an easier task than I thought, because rice is grown widely in California. You can buy stabilized bran (commonly pasteurized) at Japanese markets or online, or ask your local rice farmer if they have some to sell. I contacted my friend Robin Koda at Koda Farms in South Dos Palos, one of the oldest rice farms in California, and she was happy to supply me with her raw bran, knowing its intended purpose.

One of my students commented that making nuka pickles is a bit like making compost, and it’s true. You will need a clay jar, an enameled pot or glass bin with a lid. I have an enameled pickling jar that’s about 30 years old, and it still works perfectly. The nukadoko medium has a texture similar to a wet sand or soft miso paste. Preparation of nukadoko takes about a week. If you have any leftover rice bran, keep it in the refrigerator or freezer because it is highly perishable.

Making nukadoko may seem a little tedious and time-consuming, but once you have been trained in the medium, you can keep it for years and pass it on to friends and loved ones. That’s what I enjoy doing.

Nuka Pickle Medium (Nukadoko) and Nuka Pickles

Vegetable scraps being used to train the nukadoko pickling base. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

Vegetable scraps being used to train the nukadoko pickling base. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

Ingredients

2 1/2 pounds of rice bran (nuka)

6 ounces sea salt

7 1/2 cups of filtered water

1 (6-inch) piece of konbu, cut up into small pieces

4 to 5 Japanese red chili peppers, seeded

Discarded ends and peels of vegetables (such as cabbage, carrots, cucumbers and daikon radish, but not onions)

2 garlic cloves, peeled (optional)

Directions

For making the nukadoko:

1. Place the rice bran in a heavy cast-iron pan and toast it over low heat. Use a wooden spoon or spatula to stir the bran so it doesn’t burn. The toasting process takes about 10 minutes. Once done, remove from heat and let stand.

2. In a separate large pot, combine the salt and water and bring to a simmer. Mix to dissolve the salt to make a brine. Remove from heat.

3. Slowly add the brine to the rice bran and mix it with a paddle until it reaches a consistency comparable to slightly moist sand.

5. Add konbu, chili peppers and garlic (if using) to the mixture.

For training the nukadoko and pickling:

1. Start by putting various vegetables scraps (try cabbage leaves, eggplant, celery and carrots) in the rice bran bed for about three days to allow them to lightly ferment. Take them out and discard them.

2. Repeat this three or four times, then you are ready to start pickling.

3. The nukadoko will develop a unique aroma and look like wet sand. At this point, a fermenting culture has been established and the nukadoko is alive and contains active organisms such as yeast and lactobacilli. You can now start putting vegetables into the nukadoko for fermenting. To speed the pickling process, you can rub a little salt on whole or large chunks of vegetables such as cucumber and carrots before you put them into the nukadoko. If the nukadoko becomes too wet, just add a little bit of rice bran with salt or a piece of day-old bread. Again, place fresh vegetables into the base for 1 to 2 days. Cucumbers may take only 2 to 3 hours on a warm day and 4 to 6 hours on a cold day.

Tips for maintaining the nukadoko base:

You will need to mix the nukadoko base once a day, turning it with your hand. If it the base feels dry, pour in a little beer. (Flat beer will work fine.)

If your most recent batch of pickles tastes too sour, add fresh nuka and salt (5 parts nuka to 1 part sea salt).

If you are traveling, you should move the nukadoko base to the refrigerator. The bacteria will go dormant, but you can reactivate them by giving the base a stir and leaving it out at room temperature. If you see any mold build up, simply scrape it off and add some fresh nuka to the mix.

Main photo: Nukazuke, or pickled vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

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A bowl of fresh cherries. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

American life is full of references to cherries, from George Washington chopping down a tree of them (Why did he do that?) to the popular song “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” sung by Ethel Merman in 1931. But the actual fruit itself, beloved by most, is a sweet, juicy reminder that spring is almost over and summer is just around the corner.

Here in California, our local cherry season lasts just a bit longer, while the Pacific Northwest and Midwestern harvests are still weeks away, guaranteeing that the cherished cherry will be in good supply until the end of July.

Pitting cherries

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A pitter is a handy tool for both cherries and olives. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

Many varieties of cherries are on the market these days. Some of my favorites are the sweet Brooks variety, the meaty Bing, the orange-red Queen Anne and the pink and yellow Rainier. Generally, the lighter-colored varieties are more fragile and need to be used up quickly.

Virtually any recipe using cherries begins with pitting them. The easiest way is with a pitter hand tool, which also works nicely on olives.

Sweet sauces

A brownie sundae topped with cherry sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

A brownie sundae topped with cherry sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

Cherries lend themselves quite well to both savory and sweet sauces. For a dessert sauce, combine 2 cups of pitted cherries with 1 cup of water and half a cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer 10 minutes. Add 1/4 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved with 2 tablespoons of water, and 1 tablespoon each of amaretto and fresh lemon juice. Continue cooking at a low simmer until mixture thickens. Serve over ice cream with brownies or as a topping for chocolate or sponge cakes with whipped cream.

Savory sauces

Sliced pork tenderloin topped with cherry sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

Sliced pork tenderloin topped with cherry sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

For an easy pan sauce for pork tenderloin, brown a 1- to 2-pound tenderloin in 1 teaspoon of olive oil in an oven-proof skillet until golden on all sides. Put the skillet in a 350 F oven until pork is done to your liking, (165 F internal temperature), about 20 to 25 minutes, depending on thickness. Pull the skillet out, move the tenderloin to a plate and tent with foil. Over medium-high heat, brown 2 tablespoons of finely chopped onion in the pan juices then deglaze with 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar. Cook down until liquid is reduced by half. Add 1 1/2 cups of pitted, halved cherries and sauté until they are tender and release their juice, about 7 minutes. Finish the sauce with 1 heaping tablespoon of crème fraiche. Slice the pork and fan out on plates, then top with the sauce. The sauce is also delicious with roast or grilled duck, chicken or turkey.

Salads

Salads topped with cherries. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

Salads topped with cherries. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

Tender spring greens pair perfectly with cherries in salads. Use 4 packed cups of mixed baby greens or baby spinach leaves with 1 cup of pitted and halved Queen Ann or Rainier cherries, 1/2 cup of crumbled blue cheese and 1/4 cup of toasted hazelnuts. Make a dressing using 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar (I like O brand) and 3 tablespoons hazelnut oil, whisking together until an emulsified dressing forms. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then toss with the salad and serve.

You can switch out the hazelnuts for toasted walnuts and use walnut oil in the dressing, and you can also substitute goat cheese for the blue cheese.

Dessert

A cherry-blueberry tart. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

A cherry-blueberry tart. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

Cherries are a dessert baker’s dream and work just as well in pies and tarts as they do in crumbles and cobblers. They pair well with apricots, peaches and berries of all kinds.

For a different take on pie, mix 3 cups pitted, stemmed and halved cherries (a red variety works best) with 3 cups blueberries, 2 ounces of butter and 4 1/2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice in a saucepan. Cook over medium heat until the blueberries release their juice and the cherries become slightly soft, about 5 minutes. Add 3 tablespoons flour, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 3/4  cup white sugar and 3/4 cup brown sugar; cook until mixture thickens, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add flour by 1/4 teaspoons if mixture doesn’t develop heavy syrup consistency. Remove from heat and cool. Fold in 3 cups of fresh blueberries and pour into a baked pie shell and chill until set. Serve with whipped cream.

To make the volume of filling for the pictured tart, reduce the quantities of all ingredients by two-thirds.

Cocktails and drinks

Cherries can add a taste of summer to your favorite cocktails. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

Cherries can add a taste of summer to your favorite cocktails. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

Whether you’re muddling, blending or slushing, cherries add a burst of flavor to warm-weather cocktails. Purée pitted cherries in a blender with lime juice, agave syrup and ice and then add tequila and triple sec for a spin on the traditional margarita. Or try a cherry julep: Muddle fresh cherries and mint with superfine sugar in a little water in the bottom of a highball glass, then fill the glass with crushed ice and pour in bourbon. Give it a stir, garnish with a mint sprig and gallop away.

For a sweet cherry take on the mojito, combine ¼ cup fresh mint leaves, 3 ounces rum, 1 1/2 ounces agave syrup, 1/2 ounce lime juice, 6 pitted cherries and 2 ice cubes in a blender jar. Blend on high speed until the mixture is slushy. Pour into glasses and garnish with 1 fresh cherry and a mint sprig.

How to buy and store cherries

When buying cherries, look for plump, firm fruit free of wrinkles and mold. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

When buying cherries, look for plump, firm fruit free of wrinkles and mold. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

If you can get cherries at your local farmers market, then taste your way through the vendors to find your favorite varieties. At grocery stores, try to taste before buying, if possible, to make sure cherries are sweet and ripe. Look for ones that are plump without wrinkles or mold and are firm to the touch.

Store cherries in the refrigerator for longer shelf life and wash just before using.

Given the fleeting nature of cherry season and the fruit’s amazing versatility, life can just be a bowl of cherries, at least until the end of July.

Main photo: A bowl of fresh cherries. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson

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No culinary excursion to Penang is complete without a few plates of char koay teow, rice noodles stir-fried with bean sprouts, Chinese chives, cockles and prawns. The best versions are fried in lard and cooked over charcoal. Credit: Copyright David Hagerman

When it comes to street food in Southeast Asia, Singapore and Bangkok receive the lion’s share of kudos. Yet it is Penang City — an urbanized island off the northwestern coast of peninsular Malaysia — whose street food scene offers all that those cities do and more, just an hour’s plane ride north of Singapore and 90 minutes south of Bangkok.

That’s why Penang, home to former British colonial port and UNESCO world heritage site George Town, is a weekend destination for residents of Singapore and Bangkok alike.

Have a hankering for Indian food? Chinese? You’ll find it in Penang

Like Singapore’s street food, Penang’s is wildly varied. Think wonton noodles, roti canai (flaky and crispy flatbreads cooked on a griddle and eaten with dal and curry) and mee goreng, yellow noodles fried with chili paste. All of this is  prepared and served within feet of each other, thanks to a population made up primarily of Chinese, Indians and Malays.

Like Bangkok and Singapore, Penang’s street food is served from the wee hours of the morning until late at night. And it isn’t limited to officially sanctioned hawker centers. In Penang, sellers serve their specialties from stalls parked beneath umbrellas on street corners and sidewalks, in kopitiam (coffee shops), and within and outside of food markets.

Street food that’s all in the family

In Penang, culinary skills built on the back of experience can be tasted in dishes served from one of the island’s many hawker stalls run by older and even second- or third-generation cooks.

Many on the island still use cooking methods and techniques that are being lost in other parts of the region. They commonly use live fire or coals. Many serve their dishes on banana leaves, which release an appetite-rousing scent when they come into contact with hot food. And, at a time when American cooks are just coming around to the versatility and deliciousness of lard, Penang’s Chinese hawkers have been capitalizing on it all along. They add cracklings to stir-fries and broths and drizzle liquid lard over dry noodle dishes.

Savor Penang with your eyes through this slideshow:

Main photo: No culinary excursion to Penang is complete without a few plates of char koay teow, rice noodles stir-fried with bean sprouts, Chinese chives, cockles and prawns. The best versions are fried in lard and cooked over charcoal.  Credit: Copyright David Hagerman

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Pasta isn't just for cold weather dinners anymore. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Everyone loves pasta, but during hot summer days a bowl of steaming pasta doesn’t sound that appealing.

Some people make cold macaroni salads, but I think pasta is not meant to be eaten cold and besides, those macaroni salads usually have mayonnaise in them and fill you up too much. The Italians have an ideal solution. Basically it’s a dish of hot pasta that cools down by virtue of being tossed with uncooked ingredients. They call it a salsa cruda. This is a raw sauce used with pasta. It’s quite popular during a hot summer.

The basic idea behind a salsa cruda is that the ingredients in the sauce are not cooked and are merely warmed by the hot pasta after it’s been drained.

Dressed up tuna and vegetables with bowties

Farfalle with raw sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Farfalle with raw sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

In the first dish, farfalle with raw sauce, the salsa cruda is made of canned tuna, fresh tomatoes, fresh basil and garlic. It is tossed with the farfalle, a butterfly or bowtie-shaped pasta.

A first course for a meal with grilled fish

Fettucine with raw sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Fettucine with raw sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

A second idea is fettuccine tossed with a melange of uncooked ingredients such as olives, capers, tomatoes, mint, lemon, parsley and garlic, which is typical of southern Italy and constitutes a raw sauce that screams “summer.” This is a nice first-course pasta before having grilled fish.

Letting your pasta cook its own sauce

Spaghetti with sardines, tomato and mint. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Spaghetti with sardines, tomato and mint. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

In a third preparation, also perfect for a hot summer day, the salsa cruda is made with canned sardines tossed with fresh mint and parsley, and ripe tomatoes that are heated through only by virtue of the cooked and hot spaghetti. It should be lukewarm when served and is nicely accompanied by crusty bread to soak up remaining sauce.

Creamy salsa cruda with ricotta

Tubetti with ricotta, artichoke, Prosciutto and mint. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Tubetti with ricotta, artichoke, Prosciutto and mint. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

This dish can be whipped up in no time as it uses a raw sauce with fresh ricotta that melts slowly from the heat of the pasta, but not completely, and with thinly sliced prosciutto. And better still would be to use fresh artichokes, if you don’t mind the work involved. Instead of garnishing with parsley, you garnish this dish with finely chopped tomato.

Fettuccine With Raw Sauce

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

3/4 pound spaghetti

Salt to taste

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint leaves

1 large ripe tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped

2 canned sardines in water, drained and broken apart

2 teaspoons capers, chopped

Extra virgin olive oil to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing.

2. In a large bowl that will hold all the pasta, stir the garlic, parsley and mint together and then mix with the tomato, sardines, capers, olive oil and a pinch of salt. Transfer the pasta to the bowl and toss with the sauce and abundant black pepper and serve.

Tubetti With Ricotta, Artichoke, Prosciutto and Mint

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1 pound tubetti or elbow macaroni

Salt to taste

1/2 pound ricotta cheese

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

8 to 9 fresh or canned artichoke foundations, chopped (14-to 16-ounce can) or 3 very large fresh artichokes, trimmed to their foundations

1/4 pound thinly sliced prosciutto, chopped

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh mint

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 small tomato, peeled, seeded, and finely chopped

Directions

1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing.

2. Meanwhile, in a bowl, gently toss the ricotta, olive oil, artichokes, prosciutto, mint, lemon juice, salt and pepper together. Transfer the pasta to the bowl and toss with the cheese and artichoke mixture. Sprinkle the tomato on top and serve.

Main photo: Pasta isn’t just for cold-weather dinners anymore. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

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