Purslane, Corn, Squash and Squash Blossom Soup. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Mexicans have foraged verdolagas (purslane, or Portulaca oleracea), a native of India and Persia, for centuries, and it remains a favorite green from Tijuana to Cancun. Because the annual plant isn’t a bit fussy about a sprout site, and because it’s a succulent, it germinates easily from a cutting or seed and needs little water once started.

Wild purslane is thrilled with most any sunny spot, where it spreads flat on the ground quickly from a single root and multiplies like chickenpox in kindergarten after it goes to seed. Sadly it’s less cherished in the U.S., where the plant is best known as a common weed and a gardener’s biggest nightmare. Farm-grown purslane, unlike in the wild, grows vertically, and can reach knee high for easy harvesting.

Green with a red blush on some of the 40 cultivated varieties, its edible ½-inch to 2-inch long leaves look like delicate baby jade plants. Larger leaves and stems are crunchy with a mouth feel like cactus paddles and okra but more delicate, with a tangy, slightly salty citrus-pepper bite.

With purslane, flavor depends on when it’s picked

In the book “In Defense of Food,” Michael Pollan calls purslane one of the most nutritious plants on earth. It contains more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable, on par with some fish. When the plant is thirsty, it switches to photosynthesis: At night, its leaves trap carbon dioxide, which converts into malic acid, and in daylight, the acid transforms into glucose. Purslane has 10 times the acid content in the morning vs. when it’s picked in the afternoon, so expect it to be slightly sour in breakfast quesadillas and almost sweet at dinner.

Mexicans cherish the plant’s citrus taste and look forward to the warm summer months when it is widely available. Tiny, delicate half-inch leaves are perfect for salads and to tuck into sandwiches; thick, larger leaves and thick stems cut into pieces are best for a more toothsome bite in cooked dishes, especially soups and rustic stews, where their natural pectin is appreciated for thickening qualities.

I suggest looking for luscious cultivated bunches at a greengrocer, Mexican market or farmers market rather than scrounging around town hunting for miserly sidewalk shoots. Unless you’re a fan of foraging, you probably won’t have a clue what time of day the store-bought purslane was picked; even so, its juicy leaf texture will woo you back for more.

Once picked or purchased, keep purslane fresh for another day or two in a container out of the sun with cut stems in a few inches of fresh water. Most people cut off and discard the thickest, chewy stem bottoms and use only delicate stem tops and leaves in recipes.

As in other Mexican soups and sauces, flavor and texture are everything. This soup is perfect for the family or when friends stop by; if fussy grandmothers are invited to a special-occasion dinner, strain the finished soup for a traditionally upscale smooth liquid.

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Purslane from Coleman Family Farm at the farmers market in Santa Monica, Calif. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Purslane, Corn, Squash and Squash Blossom Soup (Sopa de Verdolagas, Maiz, Calabazas y Flores de Calabazas)

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 50 minutes

Total Time: 60 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 servings.

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 cup chopped white onion
  • 2 to 2½ cups scraped kernels from 3 ears summer sweet corn
  • 3 yellow zucchini or crookneck squash, about 6 inches each
  • 3 cups purslane leaves with delicate stems, 2 tablespoons of the tiniest half-inch leaves reserved for garnish
  • 2 large handfuls squash blossoms, 6 reserved for garnish
  • 1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth at room temperature
  • ⅓ cup grated Mexican queso añejo or Parmesan cheese
  • ½ cup Mexican crema or sour cream

Directions

  1. Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Toss in the onion and cook, stirring every few minutes until translucent. Add the corn kernels, stir and continue cooking 5 minutes. Cut the squash in quarters lengthwise and then into half-inch slices. Scoop into the pot and stir, cooking another 5 minutes.
  2. Pull off leaves and delicate stems from the thick purslane stems, enough to have about 3 cups. Add them to the pot and stir. Turn down the heat and simmer gently 5 minutes.
  3. Remove the five sharp green sepals at the base of each squash blossom. Snap off the stems from six of the prettiest blossoms and reserve for garnish. Slide the other blossoms and stems into the pot. Cook, stirring for a minute, and then turn off the heat.
  4. Ladle half the hot vegetables into a blender or processor. Pour in 1 cup broth. With the air vent open, purée 30 seconds and pour into the used mixing bowl. Ladle the remaining hot vegetables into the blender with another cup of broth. Purée 30 seconds, but this time pour it into the cooking pot. Scrape the purée from the bowl into the pot with a rubber spatula. Pour in the remaining broth. Bring to a fast boil (big bubbles you can’t stir down), and then lower the heat to a bare simmer for 2 minutes.
  5. Ladle into serving bowls. Garnish each with one of the reserved squash blossoms in the center, a sprinkle of grated cheese, some tiny purslane leaves and a small dollop of crema.

Main photo: Purslane, Corn, Squash and Squash Blossom Soup. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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Cheese at Neal's Yard Dairy. Credit: Brooke Jackson

Back in the late 1970s, the cheese industry was just that: a commodity-style big agriculture business. Over the past 40 years, however, an offshoot of wholesale cheese manufacturing began to bloom, giving birth to the robust artisan cheese movement we know today. One little shop in London is, in part, responsible for this transformation.

Neal’s Yard Dairy, originally tucked into a charming courtyard in Covent Garden, is widely recognized as one of the finest purveyors of farmstead and artisan cheeses in the world, but its path to getting there started in an unassuming storefront, selling bulk cheeses of unclear origin.

Cheese shop seeks out handmade cheeses

In 1979, recent food science graduate Randolph Hodgson stumbled upon a job in Neal’s Yard Dairy’s fledgling London cheese shop. The dairy made several fresh cheeses as well as crème fraiche and Greek-style yogurt. Hodgson procured additional cheeses from a wholesaler to round out its offerings but found he knew very little about their sources. This made them difficult to sell in the method that the shop employed — offering detailed tastings to customers.

A farmstead cheese called Devon Garland arrived one day from Hilary Charnley, which was intriguing to Hodgson because now he could put a cheese with a cheesemaker. He went to the farm to learn more, and Charnley suggested other local cheesemakers to visit in the area. Suddenly the door opened up to new opportunities for both Neal’s Yard and farmstead cheeses from the British Isles. He came back laden with cheeses from the Devon countryside and, in the process, learned more about how cheese is made, aged and handled.

From there, Neal’s Yard Dairy grew to include more handmade cheeses from the United Kingdom and Ireland, and the backrooms and bowels of the store became areas for maturing and storing the cheeses. Each cheese was prominently labeled with the name of the cheesemaker and where it was from. Knowledgeable cheese mongers waited on each customer, finding out what they liked and giving them tastes of whatever they wanted to try.

Because the cheeses are properly pampered, the freshness and flavor is unparalleled. “Neal’s Yard Dairy has played a critical role in supporting and promoting fine British cheese,” cheese expert and food writer Janet Fletcher said. “I think of it as a highly reliable brand. Randolph Hodgson has been a tireless advocate for traditional methods and quality, and his influence has been enormous. Montgomery’s Cheddar, Colston Bassett Stilton, Lincolnshire Poacher, Duckett’s Caerphilly … a lot of these classic British cheeses would not be known in the U.S. if not for NYD.”

But Hodgson did far more than just find great cheese made down on the farm. Neal’s Yard Dairy was, and still is, committed to preserving and promoting traditional cheeses as well as improving the public’s awareness and appreciation of them. The goal has always been to create a market for these heritage cheeses and support a livelihood for the people who make them. And it is precisely this model that encouraged others to jump into the artisan cheese business — making, selling or both.

Sue Conley and Peggy Smith from Northern California’s Cowgirl Creamery spent time at Neal’s Yard before they opened their operation. In fact, the first time they actually made cheese was at the dairy. It was 1995, during a visit to learn about all the facets of the business: cheesemaking, retail, aging and wholesale.

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Cheeses at Neal’s Yard Dairy in London. Credit: Brooke Jackson

“A light went on for us during that trip,” they write in their recent book “Cowgirl Creamery Cooks.” “We looked at each other and said, ‘We could do that too — we can find cheesemakers in California and create a venue where their products can be sold!’ ”

With the increased focus on slow food and the diversification of the dairy industry in many countries because of the low cost of milk, more people are making cheese than ever before. Twenty years ago, the U.S. had about 75 artisan cheesemakers; now they number in the hundreds. Likewise in the British Isles, where a massive artisan and farmstead cheese revival began in the latter half of the 20th century with more creative dairy people hopping on the bandwagon each year.

Neal’s Yard Dairy has encouraged many of these folks and helped them learn their craft. That influence has spread across the pond, according to Fletcher. “The cheesemakers that NYD nurtured have certainly inspired our [U.S.] cheesemakers,” she said.

Cheese lovers visiting England must make a pilgrimage to Neal’s Yard Dairy, a temple to all things that really matter about cheese. Stepping into the shop near Covent Garden (a second store is located at the Borough Market), the unmistakable barnyard aroma of cheese surrounds you, and wheels and wedges of the stuff create turrets and towers on every available surface. Cheese mongers slice tastes of anything you take a fancy to, and the quality and freshness rate among the top taste experiences for any cheeses sampled. The Colston Bassett Stilton, a cheese I’ve eaten often, had a cleaner flavor and creamier texture than I’d ever encountered, and several cheddars sampled were superb.

Although it may be foolhardy to assume Neal’s Yard Dairy is responsible for the explosion in artisan and farmstead cheesemakers in Britain and the U.S., its continued influence on this burgeoning business is undeniable.

Main photo: Cheese at Neal’s Yard Dairy. Credit: Brooke Jackson

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Using best beginner canning tips yields, from left, homemade apple butter, sweet pickles, rose water marmalade, tomatoes, and green beans even on busy days in cramped kitchen quarters. Credit: Susan Lutz

The process of canning food can seem daunting at first. There’s a long list of equipment to assemble, complex instructions to follow, and the nagging feeling that if you do it wrong you may inadvertently spoil the fruits of your labor. I’ve done my fair share of canning, but after moving four times in the past five years, I’ve been repeatedly thrust back into beginner mode. Even for an experienced food preservationist, canning food in an unfamiliar kitchen is like being a newbie again.

With each move and each misplaced box of Mason jars, I have returned to basics. And nothing is more basic to a well-stocked kitchen than canning. I enter my new kitchen like all first-time canners — open to many possibilities as I begin to work in unfamiliar territory. With these tips and strategies you’ll stay organized and ready to preserve that bushel of fragrant peaches you couldn’t resist at your local farmers market.

5 best canning tricks for beginners

1. Create a canning center somewhere in your home.

Nothing will derail your project faster than an inability to find your tools. The location for your canning center doesn’t have to be large or fancy. It doesn’t even need to be in the kitchen. For the past year, I’ve kept my canning supplies in two giant plastic storage containers. One container corrals my canner, various small tools and my favorite canning recipes. The second container is full of canning jars stacked in their original storage flats or carefully wrapped in packing paper. Choose any color you like for your system. (My containers are bright blue — unlike any other storage container I own.) Just make sure that you can identify your canning supplies at 20 paces, even in a crowded storage room or basement.

2. Be a jar hoarder and an equipment re-gifter.

I hesitate to tell anyone to be a hoarder, but it is necessary to have a  selection of jar sizes on hand if you want to can a variety of foods. Whether you’re new to canning or you’ve purged your home of jars before a cross-country move as I did, you’ll need to stock up on jars. Look at your favorite recipes — or recipes you want to try — and see what kind of jars (and how many) the recipe requires. I hoard every canning jar that comes my way. I also watch for sales at my local hardware store and big box stores. Canning jars start going on sale in late summer, especially in stores that consider canning a summer-only pursuit.

You can free up space for your jar stash by purging your home of unnecessary kitchen equipment. I get rid of any tool I haven’t used in two years and generously gift my friends and neighbors with tools I no longer use.

3. Test your equipment before you want to use it.

If you don’t use all the burners on your stove on a regular basis, check them to make sure they’re operational — especially the largest front burner. Check all glass canning jars for nicks and cracks. Be sure that metal rings are free of rust. It’s easy to break a thermometer or discover that the batteries have corroded inside your favorite kitchen timer since you last used it. The time to discover these problems is before you have a flat of ripe strawberries sitting on your kitchen counter. If the tools and jars look OK, wash them in hot soapy water (except electronic devices, of course) and let them dry thoroughly before starting your project.

4. Allow twice as much time as you think you need for the process.

It’s amazing how long it can take to read directions, especially for a beginner. Recipes are usually written for experienced cooks, and I’ve found that they often underestimate the time required. Read the amount of work time suggested by your recipe and double it. This will give you time to hunt down missing tools and still finish your project before you need to pick kids up from school or make dinner. If you finish early, congratulate yourself and use the time to make yourself a cup of tea after all your hard work. The dirty dishes can wait.

5. Conduct a test run.

I do a dry run of every canning project as I start to boil water in my canner. (This is yet another reason to double the time required for any recipe.) It may seem silly — especially if you’ve already read the directions once — but it’s easy to make mistakes or take the layout of your kitchen for granted while working under pressure. You won’t realize how far away your stove is from the closest available countertop until you try to unload a dozen boiling jars from a steaming canner. And potholders always seem to run away just as the timer goes off. A dry run will help you work out the kinks in your process and put the tools you need in the place you’ll need them.

Main photo: Using the best beginner canning tips yields homemade apple butter, sweet pickles, rose water marmalade, tomatoes and green beans, even on busy days in cramped kitchen quarters. Credit: Susan Lutz

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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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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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Main photo: Rolando Beramendi, left, founder of Manicaretti, with business partner, Sara Wilson, checking her cellphone, in the background. Credit: Julia della Croce

Just as fashionistas flock to the runways every season, culinary passionistas swarm the annual Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City for a staggering display of edibles from around the world. Everything from beet yogurt to  white truffle brie to bourbon pickles to duck bacon — what used to be called “gourmet,” now, “specialty food” — is represented and this year’s spectacular was the largest on record, with more than 2,700 exhibitors from more than 49 countries sprawled over 369,000 square feet at the Jacob Javits Convention Center.

I hoped it meant that quality food products were on the rise, but after working my way through the exhibits, I wondered whether we’re any closer to that than we were more than 30 years ago when Mimi Sheraton ruffled feathers by writing in the New York Times, “a good 75% of what was passed off as fancy last week at the Coliseum could just as easily be labeled junk.”

Fancy Food’s right and wrong

What is “Fancy Food” anyway? To me, it’s a microcosm of what’s right — and wrong — in today’s food world. On the one hand, we find genuine products from around the world that illustrate the durability of artisanal traditions in the face of a global economy that threatens the very existence of small farmers. On the other hand, the aisles (as mirrored in markets across America) are crammed with novelties inside beautiful jars and packages.

There’s stuff that struts the fashion, like bacon marmalade, smoked chocolate chips and — yet again — kale, a vegetable I like well enough, but not in my muffins. One year, when slipping fruit into everything was trending, it was tomato and raspberry “marinara.” Is nothing sacred? Much doesn’t fit into the category of actual food, and an awful lot of it is revved up with chemical flavorings, steroids for food.

Nevertheless, the show brings to light unique and worthy products that restaurant chefs seize upon — food such as Mugolio, a sweet pine bud syrup redolent with wild Alpine herbs made by a forager from the Trentino Alps, where the locals have been making it for centuries, or wood-roasted Calabrian figs swaddled in their own leaves.

Unless a discriminating retailer brings such ingredients to market after discovering them at the show, jewels like these don’t typically make their way to home cooks who, by using them, could just as easily elevate their food as chefs do. At the show, I always make it a point to catch up with maverick importers such as Rolando Beramendi (Manicaretti), Ari Weinzweig (Zingerman’s) and Beatrice Ughi (Gustiamo), who go off the highways and even off the map to track down exceptional producers.

Marta Lisi of Attavola. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

Marta Lisi of Attavola. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

Another is Marta Lisi, who discovered the wood-roasted figs and sells them and other artisanal products from Italy’s diverse regions to a few U.S. retailers. I’m a fig aficionado, and I never tasted figs so delectable as these. Headquartered in Sicily, her company, Attavola, distributes her family’s traditional Salento oils as well as a new citrus-olive oil under the label of Piana degli Ulivi. Recently I tasted all of these splendid oils at their estate in Miggiano, Puglia, which has been making olive oil for 750 years. Lisi also runs tasting tours to small “intergenerational” food and wine producers who are off the tourist track.

Discoveries

At Manicaretti’s booth, while dipping a spoon into a jar of Il Colle del Gusto pistachio spread to give me a taste, Beramendi recounted wandering the open market in Rieti, a hilltop city near Rome, and finding a couple selling pistachio and chocolate-hazelnut spreads that looked like Nutella but tasted a lot better. “I told them on the spot that I’d buy everything they made,” he said. Before he knew it, he was back at their farm, sleeves rolled up and helping them to make more. His newest product, ZeroTre, is the first line of organic artisanal vegetable pastinas introduced into this country, the brainchild of an Abruzzese elementary schoolteacher whose family happens to be in the pasta business. It is a product I consider long overdue here, as readers of my column know.

Beatrice Ughi of Gustiamo and Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman's in the foreground, with producer Sergio Cinque of Faella Pastificio, left, and Edoardo Dal Santo, right, of the Gustiamo staff in the background. Credit: Gustiamo

Beatrice Ughi of Gustiamo and Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s in the foreground, with producer Sergio Cinque of Faella Pastificio, left, and Edoardo Dal Santo, right, of the Gustiamo staff in the background. Credit: Gustiamo

Gustiamo’s Ughi is as fierce a champion as there could be for the products she hand-picks. She’s been a veritable Joan of Arc for her San Marzano tomato producers, denouncing the big corporations for their fraudulent practice of counterfeiting “San Marzanos” to make us think we’re buying the real thing. Another of her finds, Sant’Eustachio coffee, has had a cult following since it was established in 1938. International celebrities and discriminating locals alike flock to its cafe in Rome, just across from the Italian Senate where the organic and fair trade beans are roasted over a wood fire. Even though the open fires are illegal in Rome, the government never shuts them down. What politician would want to be without his Sant’Eustachio espresso?

Ultimately, “Fancy Food” may seem to symbolize the tastes of an affluent society for new and exotic foods. Yet, in the best of all worlds, it also celebrates the enduring cultures of those whose lives are inextricably tied to the vitality of their soil. The Fancy Food Show, along with other exhibitions such as the International Artisans Show in Florence I attended just two months earlier, provide an invaluable platform for new generations who continue the ancient traditions.

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Attavola’s wood-roasted fig ball. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

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Fancy Food Show product highlights

Benedetto Cavalieri Pasta: artisan dried semolino pasta from the Salento | From Cavalieri’s own local heritage wheat; bronze die-extruded, intense wheat flavor, ideal elasticity and chewiness | Producer: Benedetto Cavalieri, Puglia, Italy | 1999 sofi award winner, best pasta

Broccolo Friariello di Napoli: friarielli in extra virgin olive oil | As yet undiscovered in the U.S., friarielli is a variety of broccoli rabe that has inspired endless poetry in Naples; preserved in the producer’s own olive oil, to toss with pasta. | Producer: Maida Farm, Campania, Italy

Crunchy Capers: dried capers (new product) | Exceptional floral flavor and big crunch; the best thing you could ever put over deviled eggs. | Producer: Gabriele Lasagni/La Nicchia, Pantelleria, Sicily, Italy | 2014 sofi awards nominee

Faella Pasta: artisan dried semolino pasta from Gragnano, the original pasta-producing area around Naples | Anelli Rigati, ridged rings” are elusive outside of a few of Italy’s regions; it’s about time they were exported here; great for pasta e fagioli — the beans fall right into the holes. | Producer: Pasta Faella

Gustarosso Pomodoro S. Marzano D.O.P.: The real San Marzano plum tomato, meaty and simply the richest-flavored tomato in the world, grown in the Sarno Valley, near Naples | Producer: Danicoop

Marina Colonna’s Citrus Oils: bergamot, clementine and lemon extra virgin olive oils | The citrus zest is pressed with the estate’s olives, resulting in delicate and fragrant oils that are suitable for finishing and baking. | Producer: Marina Colonna, Molise, Italy

Mostarda: Mixed fruit mostarda | Lombardy’s unique, ancient sweet and pungent fruit preserve, spiked with zingy mustard oil; an essential ingredient in the pumpkin tortelli of Mantova; accompaniment to the region’s famous boiled meat dish, even better with roasts. Producer: Corte Donda, Lombardy, Italy

Mugolio: rare pine cone bud syrup | The Alp’s answer to maple syrup, with complex and delicate wild flower and rosemary essences, used for finishing anything from roasted pork, poultry and game to topping ice cream and panna cotta. | Producer: Eleonora Cunacci/Primitivizia, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, Italy

Palloni di Ficchi: wood-roasted fig ball | Just eat it. It’s incredibly good. | Producer: Dolci Pensieri di Calabri, Calabria, Italy | Importer: Attavola

Piana degli Ulivi: extra virgin olive oils | Estate bottled extra virgin olive oils from Cellina di Nardò, and Ogliarola Salentina olives from the Lisi family trees; also, a new, intensely citrus extra virgin olive oil made from pressing one-third lemon fruit with two-thirds olives — for finishing and flavoring. | Producer: Merico Maria Rosa, Puglia

Pomodoro del Piennolo del Vesuvio D.O.P.: These famous organic cluster tomatoes from the mineral-rich volcanic soil of Vesuvius are an ideal balance of sweetness and acidity; they’re what make Neapolitan pizzas and tomato sauces incomparable. | Producer: Casa Barone, Campania, Italy

Pistacchiosa, Noccioliva, Granellona Brut: pistachio or hazelnut-chocolate spreads (smooth or chunky) made with extra virgin olive oil | Move over Nutella, not only does this stuff taste lightyears better; it’s actually good for you. | Producer: Il Colle del Gusto, Lazio

Sant’Eustachio: Wood-roasted Arabica espresso | With coffee quality on the decline, Italians have resorted to inventing new ways of drinking it — more and more “latte,” “macchiato” and the like. Not so with Sant’Eustachio — they drink this straight up. | Producer: Raimondo and Roberto Ricci, Lazio

TreZero: Organic pastina (new product) | Italy’s baby food, four varieties: zucchini-spinach, pumpkin-carrot-tomato; gluten-free; classic wheat | artisanal process | Producer: Rustichella, Abruzzo, Italy

Main photo: Rolando Beramendi, left, founder of Manicaretti, with business partner, Sara Wilson, working on her cellphone in the background. Credit: Julia della Croce

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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.)

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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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Community Plate features seasonal ingredients and is the place to be for families, the laptop brigade and local business owners breakfasting before work. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

News travels faster in small towns than on social media, so when Parade Magazine announced last week that my hometown of McMinnville, Ore., was a finalist in a race for the Best Main Street in America, the town’s good gossip suddenly took on a national flavor. Parade praised McMinnville’s Third Street for its picturesque main drag, its homegrown festivals and its award-winning restaurants and tasting rooms.

I hope when people come to town they discover that what sets McMinnville apart is the food —  not just the restaurants we love, but how differently people eat here. After all, Third Street is not just a quaint strolling village for wine-country tourists — though its antique storefronts, friendly people and the way every person crossing the street  stops traffic might suggest otherwise. Third Street, our Main Street, is the backbone for the food system, and all tendrils reach out from it.

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Third Street draws residents with its picturesque main drag, its homegrown festivals and its award-winning restaurants and tasting rooms. Credit: Chuck Hillestad

Pride in food

Our restaurants use local food as a source of pride and a matter of fact. For Thistle, a farm-to-table restaurant of the highest caliber, sourcing local is its calling card, the ethos that drives its turn-of-the-century (as in, last century) menu. Thistle has received a lot of deserved attention for the almost holy way its chefs approach food, but the truth is nearly all of the great restaurants on Third Street source from home. Bistro Maison, where diners can relax in the most gracious service in wine country, uses local produce because there is simply no better way to coax out exceptional flavors using French techniques. Nick’s Italian Café has long used seasonal eating to give real Italian specialties a wine country kick, topping Neapolitan-style pizza with nettles from near the river or lacing sultry Dungeness crab through its lasagna. When you eat a patty melt at Crescent Cafe, you are tasting the owners’ own cattle. What we’re discovering as each year passes is a small-town food scene rising to the demands of an international wine public but still keeping the flavors, ingredients and traditions of this place alive.

The restaurant scene is easy for tourists to experience. It is not uncommon for us to meet visitors from Texas who flew in just to eat here. But McMinnville is also the first place I have lived where shopping at the grocery store seems to be an afterthought. If you want honey, you’re not buying it in little bear jars from the shelf, you’re probably getting it in two-gallon jugs from your honey guy. If you eat eggs, they are probably from your own chickens or from your best friend’s. Other places may make a fetish out of vegetable growing, but you don’t get points here for growing a garden. If you have the space, you are feeding your family from your backyard. Half of my friends are part of a full community supported agriculture (CSA) diet and eat according to the seasons. When my friend Jasper orders his Stumptown latte at Community Plate, a breakfast and lunch hotspot, he brings the milk from his own cow.

A culture of sharing

People here live truly hyphenated lives, with eggs in many, many baskets, and for most of them, their hyphens connect in some way to the food system. A chiropractor might run a sideline salsa business, a freelance tech guy might have his hand in kimchi, winery owners might share their homemade peppermint bark at a local food swap. Everyone has access to something special and everyone shares.

Usually, you don’t have a way to get at the fabric of a place until you’ve lived it over time, but for my family, McMinnville was a quick lesson. When we arrived here in December of 2011, I was two months pregnant. When our second child was born, complete strangers walked food into our kitchen every day for three full weeks. Not casseroles, mind you. Full roasted chickens. Lovingly tended sage and rosemary potatoes. Salad greens dotted with edible flowers. What McMinnville understands more than anything else is how to feed people.

People in McMinnville know how good they have it. Not all of Oregon’s small towns have the infrastructure or the climate to eat like this. A few hours south and far to the east, in other small towns, food scarcity is a real issue. In Brownsville, the last grocery store closed shop a few years ago and the town decided to cover over its baseball diamond with a community garden to help people have better access to food. Far to the east, some towns have to drive more than an hour to find a grocery store.

I haven’t decided whether I really want McMinnville to be the Best Main Street in America. The journalist in me gets starry-eyed at the prospect of having our ordinary lives valued on such a national stage. But the budding small-town girl in me keeps thinking about what it really feels like to come in second. In the moment, you feel so close to the prize that it feels like heartbreak, but afterward, all you feel is the drive for improvement, the room for growth.

Win or lose, as every small-town denizen knows, it feels good to be part of the parade. I’ve been in three small-town parades since I moved here and know now that it is like being invited to the table. The joy comes from feeling the energy of the crowd.

Main photo: Community Plate features seasonal ingredients and is the place to be for families, the laptop brigade and local business owners breakfasting before work. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

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