Extra virgin olive oils made in hot climates have not had a great reputation. Oils from Sicily and Puglia in Italy and Andalusia, Spain, and other Mediterranean regions, where harvest temperatures are often searing, are frequently dismissed by exacting consumers. And with good reason: Far too many suffer from a major defect called fustiness.
What does fustiness taste like? I know it on my palate, but I can’t always summon words to describe it. To me, it tastes like badly preserved black olives and smells like moldy hay in a neglected corner of the barn. (But few people recognize that aroma in this day and age.) Fusty oils lack the complex bitterness, pungency and rich fruitiness that characterize good, fresh, well-made oil. And they usually leave an unpleasant, greasy feeling in your mouth.
The cause of fustiness
Olive oil can have a fusty quality when olives are stored in burlap bags and there is a delay in the time between when the olives are harvested and when they are processed at the mill. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins
But fustiness is so common that for many people it remains the true taste of olive oil. All too often, in rankings of extra virgin olive oils in national publications, it’s the fusty ones that win top honors. Nevertheless, fustiness is a defect, and a major one.
How does this happen? Usually fustiness develops because of a delay between the harvest of the olives and the conversion into oil at the mill. In the days before the use of continuous-cycle, stainless-steel equipment to process olives and produce oil, that delay could last many days, even weeks. In addition, many farmers were convinced that olives left to “rest” after harvest actually yielded more oil. They don’t, and the oil they do yield is defective because olives piled up in a corner of the frantoio (mill) or packed into burlap bags undergo anaerobic, or lactic acid, fermentation, and that’s what produces fustiness. That fermented effect is almost endemic in hot-climate oils where temperatures at harvest are intense, as they often are in October and early November in regions of southern Italy and Spain, as well as North Africa.
A change for the better
Olives ready for the mill. Credit: Copyright 215 Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Now, growing numbers of smart, usually small-scale producers are changing that hot-climate flavor profile for the better. How? Simply by speeding up the gap between harvest and pressing — the best producers make oil in a matter of hours rather than days — and maintaining a pristine milling environment, sometimes even using air conditioning to cool the mill and storage areas. What that means for discerning consumers is more and better oil from places in the world that were not known for excellence.
I’m a big fan of many southern oils. I’ve written in the past about Pianogrillo from the Monte Iblea mountains in east-central Sicily, a perennial favorite, as well as Olio Verde from the Belice Valley down near the sea on the south coast of the island, and Titone from the west coast between Marsala and Trapani.
But recently I’ve been introduced to several other Sicilian oils, including Mastri di San Basilio, made by the Padova family in the Val d’Ispica, a region of southeastern Sicily that is, somewhat surprisingly, south of the city of Tunis. Their riserva is a blend of moresca and rare verdese olives with lots of fresh green almond flavors that make it an ideal garnish for summery vegetables, whether raw or cooked.
Another Sicilian newcomer is Barbàra from the same western region as Titone, made primarily from cerasuola olives mixed with mild biancolilla and the local cultivar nocellara del Belice. Barbàra’s round, fruity flavor ends with pleasantly marked bitterness in the aftertaste. I liked it with a few drops of lemon juice as a garnish for simple grilled fish.
And then there’s Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, with a climate akin to that of Greece. Olio di Melli’s Re Manfredi oil from the Gargano peninsula, the spur on the heel of the boot, is a lushly piquant oil made from ogliarolo and coratina olives. Another candidate among top southern climate oils is Crudo, made by the family of Gaetano Schiralli from ogliarola olives in Bitetto, not far from Puglia’s Adriatic coast. The name says it all: Crudo means raw. This is an oil to use in its raw state on the fabled platters of raw fish and shellfish that are the specialty of the region. A plate of raw oysters with a drop of raw Crudo on each one is a revelation.
(The Puglia region was hard hit by a vicious Xyllela bacterium last year, but it has not so far been detected in the areas described, and authorities hope to confine it to the Basso Salento.)
Not to be outdone, the Spanish region of Andalusia seems like one vast olive grove stretching across southern Spain. It’s a hot region where the bulk of Spain’s low-cost, highly commercialized production takes place, but it is also home to some extremely astute growers, including Melgarejo, whose oil is highly touted, though I have not tasted it recently. One of my favorites is Castillo de Canena, which wins awards for its growing portfolio, the latest of which is a smoked olive oil. While I hold no brief for flavored olive oils, I think Canena makes some of the finest olive oils in Spain, including especially its picual, which I tasted again very recently — and was once again bowled over by the effect it has on a fresh-from-my-garden tomato, exalting the fruitiness of the tomato without overwhelming it. Just a simple raw tomato, sliced, sprinkled with sea salt, with a glug of Canena’s picual, is a perfect summer lunch at my house. Try it on toast for breakfast!
Olive oil recommendations
A selection of good oils from hot climates. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Here are some contacts for sourcing these oils. Note that Mastri di San Basilio is shipped from Italy via UPS. The producer, Francesco Padova, has had no problems with this system and ships, he says, all over the world.
My husband and I spent our first year of marriage in Stockholm. As newlyweds we were deliriously happy, but as grad students we were broke. Our best entertainment consisted of visiting the city’s beautiful food hall, where we longingly eyed all the seafood we couldn’t afford. After a while, a kindly fishmonger named Tommy Henriksson took pity on us and introduced us to some local fish within our budget. Tommy taught us to make magic with fresh herring and cod — fish so inexpensive they were taken for granted. We learned how to pan-fry herring and to sear cod in a blazing hot cast-iron skillet with plenty of salt. It cooked up into beautiful, moist flakes.
But times have changed, and we can no longer take cod for granted. By 1994, the once-bounteous stock of cod in Georges Bank, a continental shelf off the coast of New England, had been depleted from overfishing. And although strict quotas were put into place, these protective measures came too late. Our native fish stocks still haven’t recovered.
A freshly caught skrei. The fish is now threatened by industrial development. Credit: Copyright 2014 Stefan Wettainen
The world’s largest population of native cod now swims in the Barents Sea, which washes the far northern coasts of Norway and Russia.
These cod are called skrei, from an Old Norse word meaning “to wander.” And wander they do. The skrei live for five years in the Barents’ nutrient-rich waters, where they acquire exceptional flavor. They then migrate to spawn in the Lofoten Islands, an archipelago off Norway’s northern coast.
Until the 1980s, when wet-fish and factory trawlers began to proliferate, small-boat fishing was the islanders’ lifeblood. They lived by the annual rhythms of the fisheries and revered all parts of the cod. By simmering the cod with its liver, roe and a little whey, they made a traditional one-pot meal called mølje. Besides adding depth of flavor, the liver’s high content of vitamin D kept people healthy during the dark, sun-starved winters.
The importance of cod
Cod drying racks stand empty in the Lofoten Islands in Norway. Credit: Copyright 2014 Stefan Wettainen
Cod’s importance to the North dates from the earliest recorded times, both for its nutritional and commercial values. The Vikings were trading dried skrei by the 10th century. Today, the fish continues to be dried in various traditional ways, two of which are recognized by Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, an international effort to identify and catalog unique regional food items.
For tørrfisk (stockfish), the cod is line-caught, then quickly gutted and beheaded before being brought to shore. Two fish of similar size are bound together by their tails and draped on wooden racks to dry for two or three months in the salt air. Klippfisk (salt cod) is prepared farther south on Norway’s coast where large, flat rocks rise at the edge of the sea. The rocks are cleaned and spread with salt before split cod is laid out on them to dry into a delicacy that is less hard and brittle than tørrfisk. My personal favorite is boknafisk, cod that has been only partially dried in the salt air. When poached, its texture turns silken.
Population is threatened
A dried cod tail in Norway. The Barents Sea population faces depletion. Credit: Copyright 2014 Stefan Wettainen
The Barents fisheries have been generally well regulated. Norwegians recognize that a healthy population of cod also means rich populations of valuable groundfish like haddock and pollock. But this piscatorial treasure is now threatened. In 2010, after years of negotiation, Norway and Russia ratified the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean Maritime Delimitation Treaty, which opened the waters to commercial interests.
The sea contains rich oil and natural gas deposits, and corporations on both sides of the border are eager to begin exploiting them. And although Norway is highly sensitive to environmental concerns, Russia is not. Pressure is increasing to drill for oil and gas in one of the last truly pristine places on earth.
Preservation is vital
As the annual catch has declined, the Lofoten Islands in Norway have become less a working fishing community than a holiday destination. Credit: Copyright 2014 Stefan Wettainen
Undamaged ecosystems are essential for fish to thrive. Unless carefully regulated, the oil and gas extraction industries will deplete the Barents Sea’s resources and then move on, leaving behind oil boom debris and polluted seabeds. The World Wildlife Fund expressed concern as far back as 2004, well before the international treaty was signed, over the potential loss of the Barents Sea habitat to overfishing and industrial development.
Because of the decline in the annual catch, the Lofotens are already less a working fishing community than a holiday destination. Rows of wooden drying racks now stand empty on some island beaches, like so many looming sculptures memorializing a once-crucial livelihood and tradition. Cod encapsulates the collective history of the Barents region and the Lofoten Islands. It is vital that we preserve the last healthy population of wild cod and protect these waters that nourish not only the body but the soul.
Main photo: Cod are hung out to dry in Norway. Credit: Copyright 2014 Stefan Wettainen
In fact, I didn’t know until recently that Halloween wasn’t celebrated in America until the late 19th century when Irish immigrants brought the Oct. 31 celebration to the United States and that the tradition of trick or treating didn’t become established until after World War II. I knew that because my mom told me that growing up in Manhattan in the 1920s they never trick or treated.
So if there is no traditional Halloween food, it seems ideal for each family to invent one. When I lived in Massachusetts and my three children were little, we took them around the neighborhood in a short-lived frenzy of trick or treating, returning home for them to examine their candy and for us to hide three-quarters of it.
One-pot meals to warm up little devils
Braised lamb and eggplant. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright
Then we would eat dinner, which often was something I put on the stove before we left with the spooks and goblins. Usually it was some one-pot meal that could cook unattended and to which we could return enjoying the heavenly wafting smells of lusciousness.
Since nothing was traditional, these meals became purely inventive. The kids were ravenous because late October is cold in New England and rushing house to house is tiring work for a kid. If it wasn’t nailed down, my kids would eat it.
A warm dinner to make you forget about candy
Braised buffalo short ribs in ragout. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright
There were several dishes they liked. Lamb with mushrooms and onions, braised veal with cabbage lasagna, my mom’s lasagna, which we called grandma’s lasagna, and pork with lentils were all demolished by my little hungry witches and goblins. They never did figure out that we tossed out several tons of their candy.
Braising lends itself to dishes that can be Halloween classics
Pork with lentils. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright
Many of these Halloween stews and braises are long lost, because in those days I wouldn’t necessarily write them down. But one doesn’t really need to follow a recipe because the whole idea is slap-it-together-easy.
Here’s a braised veal recipe to start, but as you see by the photos, anything works, such as lamb and eggplant, pork and lentils, beef ragout or braised short ribs in ragout.
Braised Veal or Pork With Cabbage Lasagna
Braised Veal With Cabbage Lasagna. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright
A shoulder roast of veal is not a terribly expensive cut and it makes a nice family dinner. You can use a pork shoulder, too. I use a pig’s ear or pork skin instead of the bacon because they are flavorful without being fatty and can be discarded, but they’re hard to find, so bacon is fine. As for the lasagna, you don’t have to boil it when using the so called instant no-boil lasagna, just layer them dry. This is a delicious dinner that kept everyone in my family happy after one particularly cold Halloween outing.
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 4 hours (unattended)
Total time: 4 hours, 45 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
One 3-pound boneless veal shoulder roast, tied with kitchen twine
1 1/2 cups freshly grated pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1. In a flameproof casserole, melt the butter with 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat, then brown the veal roast on all sides, about 6 minutes. Pour in the wine and reduce until it is nearly evaporated, about 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, add the tomato sauce, partially cover, and simmer for 3 to 4 hours, turning the roast occasionally. Transfer the roast to a serving platter and remove the butcher’s twine.
2. While the veal is roasting, prepare the cabbage lasagna. Bring a pot of lightly salted water to the boil and cook the cabbage for 10 minutes. Remove the cabbage and when cool enough to handle and separate the leaves. Layer the bottom of the pot in which you boiled the cabbage with half the bacon. Layer the cabbage leaves on top with a light sprinkle of salt. Lay the remaining slab bacon slices on top, pour in the chicken broth, cover, and cook on a medium heat for 45 to 50 minutes. Drain.
3. Place the pancetta in a small frying pan and cook over medium heat until slightly crispy and rendered of some fat, stirring occasionally, about 6 minutes. Set aside.
4. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly, and add the lasagna. Drain as soon as the lasagna is limp, about 1 minute. Reserve in a pot of cold water so the leaves of lasagna do not stick together.
5. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
6. Spread some olive oil on the bottom of a baking dish or lasagna pan and cover with lasagna, cabbage, pancetta, salt and pepper, a drizzle of olive oil, pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and garlic, in that order. Continue in this order until you run out of ingredients, ending with a layer of lasagna, cheese and a drizzle of olive oil. Cover with aluminum foil and bake 40 minutes.
7. Slice the veal, pour a few ladles of sauce over the meat and serve with the cabbage lasagna.
Main photo: Beef ragout. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright
You can judge a Parisian cafe by its croque. If a cafe can’t get these simple ham and cheese sandwiches right, what hope is there for their more complex fare? After tasting a dozen croques this summer, I must insist that France place Monsieur and Madame Croque (and the traditional cafe) on the endangered species list.
Fortunately, the few delicious versions I tasted prove all is not lost. Monsieur Croque is, of course, a grilled or toasted ham and cheese sandwich on sweet white bread — pain de mie — that’s dressed (ideally) with either creamy béchamel or cheesy Mornay sauce. Grated cheese, either Gruyère or Emmental, is layered inside (over the ham) and on top of the sandwich, and then browned top and bottom (with butter) until the melted cheese (with or without added sauce) starts to drip down the sides.
Madame Croque is exactly the same, but she sports a fried egg “hat” on her saucy head. This ever-popular culinary couple celebrated their 100th anniversary in 2001, according to most culinary historians.
The word croque comes from the French verb, croquer, “to bite,” or in some circles, “to crunch.” Hence the awkward translation, “Crunchy Mister.” Here then are the croques I crunched during my recent summer sejour (stay) in Paris — the good, the bad and the ugly. I’ve grouped them by price because with the Parisian croque, you generally get what you pay for.
Croques less than 8 euros
At Café Duc d’Albret, the best inexpensive croque I tasted in Paris and one of the best overall: dripping with cheese and béchamel sauce, a nicely toasted bottom bread slice and made-to-order. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris
Le Duc d’Albret, rue Danielle-Casanova, 6 euros
La Fontaine, rue Cuvier, 7.5 euros
When I came across Le Duc d’Albret, a hole-in-the-wall cafe near avenue de l’Opéra, and saw croques on the menu starting at 6 euros (add 1 or 2 euros for the madame version and Poilâne bread, Paris’ popular upscale artisanal loaf), I assumed it would be a disappointment. Au contraire, it was excellent, toasted (top and bottom) by the owner in a commercial toaster oven while I watched. This croque even had béchamel in the center, giving it a creamy texture. Funky as the setup was, this was a made-to-order croque. As the owner, Madame Madeira, explained to me, “You cannot make a croque in advance.”
At La Fontaine, a friend’s favorite morning mom-and-pop cafe near the lovely Jardins des Plantes in the 5th arrondissement, their somewhat pricier croque set the stage for a string of similar disappointments — most notably croques preassembled (sometimes off premises or frozen), untoasted bottoms and with little if any béchamel sauce to help moisten an otherwise dry sandwich.
What good are Monsieur and Madame Croque without toasty bottoms and gooey interiors and tops? It can be done without the sauce, which was not part of the recipe for the original croques 100 years ago, but sauceless croques need lots of cheese and some butter in the toasting to produce a juicy croque.
Croques from 8 to 10 euros
While the top of this croque at Les Deux Palais was burnt in spots, the condition underneath was even worse. The bottom slice of bread was not even warm, let alone toasted. And note the absence of any cheese in the interior of the sandwich. An abuse of the name ”croque monsieur.” Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris
Le Ponthieu Café, ave. Franklin Roosevelt, 10 euros
Café Dada, ave. des Ternes, 8 euros
Café Les Deux Palais, blvd. du Palais, 9.5 euros
Café Les Mouettes, rue de Bac, 9 euros
Café La Palette, rue de Seine, 10.5 euros
At this higher price point, you’d expect croques at least as good as Le Duc d’Albret’s, but that was not the case this summer. At upscale Le Ponthieu, the Poilâne croque was not toasted on the bottom and there was no sign of béchamel. Too dry!
At hip Café Dada, I boldly sent back the half-toasted béchamel-free Poilâne croque and it came back a bit warmer but far from toasted. A double homicide! At elegant Les Deux Palais, things got even worse — untoasted bottom, commercial sandwich bread, no béchamel and minimal ham. Utterly inedible!
The croque madame at Les Mouettes on charming rue de Bac was decently made, but the fried egg was overcooked. Madame Croque without her runny yolk? Sacre bleu!
At La Palette, in the heart of the artsy 6th arrondissement, the open-faced croque was made on Poilâne’s rustic sourdough bread. It was nicely toasted, but I don’t think sourdough bread is right for a croque (Poilâine’s pain de mie is perfect). The slight sweetness of pain de mie complements the dark nutty flavor of the Gruyère cheese, which may be one of the secrets of the croque’s enduring international success.
Croques from 12 to 16 euros
The only croque offered at Café Select in the heart of Montparnasse’s historic cafe scene is a croque madame. They call it the Croque Select and it’s worthy of its moniker. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris
Café Select, blvd. du Montparnasse, 16.5 euros
Les Deux Magots, Place St. Germain, 12.5 euros
La Closerie des Lilas, blvd. du Montparnasse, gratis at bar
These three celebrated artist cafes on the left-bank, though no longer the center of the avant garde in Paris, are all producing very good croques. The well-made and tasty Croque Select at Café Select is, in fact, a croque madame — there is no choice on the menu.
At Les Deux Magots, the open-faced croque had the distinction of being the only one I had this summer with a béchamel sauce tasting of nutmeg, the favored spice for this creamy white sauce. A pleasant croque.
Hemingway’s haunt, La Closerie des Lilas, did not have croques on the menu, but the night I had dinner there, tiny tooth-picked croque squares, buttery and properly toasted, were served at the bar as hors d’oeuvres. Delicious.
Croques over 20 euros
At Café de la Paix you pay a premium for what originated as a cheap cafe snack in the early 1900s. But this rich confection is no mere sandwich. Moistened with béchamel, well-toasted top and bottom and artfully presented, the croque is accompanied by very good pommes frites and a green salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris
Café de la Paix, Place de l’Opéra, 20 euros
Café Fouquet’s, ave. des Champs-Élysées, 28 euros
For 20 euros and above, a croque should be everything a croque can be, and much, much more. This was indeed the case at Café de la Paix, a fashionable cafe/restaurant with Belle Epoch interiors and a rich literary history dating back to the 19th century.
The Paix croque tasted like rich pastry; the moist interior, adequate béchamel and a well-toasted top and bottom provided an explosion of flavor and texture. The pain de mie was sliced thinner than with most croques I sampled, to the sandwich’s crispy advantage, and the ham a bit thicker, which gave added flavor and texture. The presentation was impressive: The center was cut out of the croque body and served as a separate “croquette.” Green salad was stuffed into the body’s circular void. Excellent pommes frites came in a separate basket.
This was now my benchmark for a great croque. Although ridiculously expensive, the Paix croque was 8 euros less and more satisfying than the double-decker monster croque at the elite watering hole, Café Fouquet’s, on the Champs-Élysées. Sure, the Fouquet’s croque was enough for four and came with salad, excellent frites and several miniature financier dessert cakes at the end. But the sandwich itself, again on the dry side, does not sit as high in my pantheon of Parisian croques as Café de la Paix’s tour de force.
Will the Parisian croque croak?
Monsier Croque and Madame Croque have been around for more than 100 years. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris
Something has to be done to save the Parisian croque! Especially at a moderate 8 to 10 euros. If a good croque cannot be made profitably at that price, it should not be on the cafe’s menu.
There have been stories of late about the official Parisian tourism office’s efforts to boost the sagging fortunes of traditional Parisian cafes by transforming the often arrogant and unfriendly garçon de caféinto a nicer tourist-friendly fellow.
I suggest, instead, that the grand panjandrums at the Parisian tourism office apply their resources to improving Monsieur Croque, not Monsieur Garcon, who is just fine the way he is. Why not create AOC (Appelation d’Origine Contrôlée)-style guidelines for the croque monsieur, as for wine, cheese, eggs and other products?
For a sandwich to be labeled on a Parisian menu as a croque monsieur or madame, it must be:
Assembled on the premises
Cooked to order
Made with imported Gruyère or Emmental
Butter used in the toasting or grilling process
Toasted top and bottom
Contain either béchamel or Mornay sauce
These simple standards would help elevate the moribund Parisian croque (and cafe) to its former glory and help restore France’s reputation as the gastronomic capital of Europe — one croque at a time.
Main photo: Stacked in a Parisian shop display case, these inexpensive croques can be taken home and reheated as snacks or light meals. Note the translation on the sales tag, “Toasted Ham,” directed, no doubt, at hungry Anglophone tourists. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris
With Thanksgiving just around the corner, many of us are thinking of menus, making shopping lists and planning table arrangements. While the meal has certain traditions that remain the same year in and year out, it is refreshing to add new dishes that speak to the season by using what’s available now.
Persimmons are one of those ingredients with a season from October to January. A much misunderstood fruit, the orange globes come in two varieties: the squat and firm Fuyu, which can be eaten as soon as it is deep orange, and the Hachiya, which has a teardrop shape that needs to ripen to a squishy softness before it’s ready to use.
One idea for a Thanksgiving dessert recipe is a tart of sliced Fuyu persimmons encased in rich hazelnut shortbread dough. The top is glazed with apricot jam for gloss and showered with crystalized turinado sugar for show. Each slice is topped with a dollop of whipped cream and is sure to keep diners from missing pumpkin pie.
Speaking of pumpkin, ice cream made with this harvest squash can serve as the topping for a spicy gingerbread sauced with caramel and sprinkled with a few grains of sea salt. Rich pumpkin ice cream is available in grocery stores and specialty shops at this time of year, as is delectable caramel sauce. The gingerbread is super quick to mix up and bake, so this elegant dessert’s classy flavors belie the ease of putting it together. Trader Joe’s makes a decent version of the ice cream and sauce, or check Whole Foods or your favorite grocery store for top-quality caramel sauce (I love Fran’s Classic) and pumpkin ice cream.
Apples and fresh olive oil are two more ingredients that are plentiful and seasonal in November. They come together in mini Bundt cakes, which are all the rage right now. The apples add a moist richness, and the olive oil is a healthy fat, a welcome ingredient after the cholesterol-busting turkey dinner. If you don’t have mini Bundt pans, the cake can be made in a deep round pan or two layer cake pans. Each little cake is topped with bourbon-laced mascarpone cream and chopped walnuts, adding a touch of decadence.
Another decadent and somewhat traditional dessert for Thanksgiving is pecan pie. My northeastern relatives always made it with maple syrup, which is a perfect match for nutty, crunchy pecans. The combination of maple with brown sugar, butter and corn syrup creates a butterscotch-caramel flavor and texture that makes a fine ending to the holiday meal. This recipe is very easy and quick to make, especially if you use a purchased piecrust.
So shake up tradition around the Thanksgiving table this year and bake some unusual tarts, pies and cakes that take advantage of what’s in season now.
Spiced Persimmon Tart With Hazelnut Crust
One idea for a Thanksgiving dessert recipe is Spiced Persimmon Tart With Hazelnut Crust. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson
Prep time: 35 minutes
Bake time: 35 minutes
Total time: 70 minutes
Yield: 10 servings
For the crust:
1 cup flour
1/2 cup hazelnuts, toasted
1/4 cup powdered sugar
Pinch of salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold butter, cut in pieces
For the filling:
3 Fuyu persimmons, about 1/2 pound each, peeled, cored and sliced 1/4-inch thick
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon dried ginger
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1 tablespoon apricot jam, melted
1/2 teaspoon large-crystal turbinado sugar
For the crust:
Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease tart pan thoroughly.
Put flour, nuts, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse on and off until the nuts are ground into flour and the ingredients are well mixed.
Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal.
Add the egg and pulse until the dough clumps together.
Press the dough on the bottom and sides of a 4-inch-by-14-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. (You can also use a 9-inch square pan or a round tart pan.)
For the filling:
Combine the persimmons with lemon juice, sugar and spices and stir until all slices are coated.
Layer the fruit decoratively in prepared crust so the slices overlap.
Bake for 35 to 40 minutes until crust is golden brown and persimmons are tender.
Remove from oven and, while hot, brush fruit slices with apricot jam. Let cool slightly then sprinkle evenly with turbinado crystals.
Cool on a rack then remove the sides of the pan.
At serving time, top each slice of tart with a dollop of whipped cream.
Gingerbread With Pumpkin Ice Cream and Salted Caramel
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
Total time: 55 minutes
Yield: 12 servings
For the cake:
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup canola oil
1 teaspoon baking soda dissolved in 1 tablespoon hot water
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup boiling water
Pumpkin ice cream
Caramel sauce, warmed gently in microwave
French gray sea salt
Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch square glass baking dish.
Whisk eggs, sugar, molasses, spices and oil in a medium bowl until smooth.
Stir in the dissolved baking soda then beat in the flour, whisking until all lumps are gone.
Add the boiling water and stir lightly until it’s incorporated. The batter will be quite thin.
Pour into the prepared pan and bake about 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on a rack.
At serving time, cut squares of gingerbread and put on plates. Top with a scoop of ice cream and a drizzle of warm caramel. Sprinkle a few grains of sea salt on top of each serving.
Mini Apple Bundt Cakes With Mascarpone Bourbon Cream
Mini Apple Bundt Cakes With Marscapone Bourbon Cream. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson
Prep time: 15 minutes
Bake time: 40 minutes
Total time: 55 minutes
Yield: 6 mini Bundt cakes, plus 2 cupcakes
For the cake:
3/4 cup good, fresh olive oil (I like California Olive Ranch)
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
3 cups cored, unpeeled grated tart apples
1 teaspoon vanilla
For the cream:
8 ounces mascarpone cheese
2 tablespoons bourbon
1/2 cup heavy cream whipped with 1 teaspoon powdered sugar to soft peaks
1/4 cup chopped walnuts, toasted
Preheat oven to 325 F. Grease the Bundt pans very well with canola spray.
Whisk the oil, sugar and eggs together until light and fluffy.
Whisk in the dry ingredients and mix just until well combined.
Fold in the apples and vanilla.
Fill the Bundt pans to 1/2-inch from the top. Use any remaining batter for cupcakes.
Bake 40 to 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean. Cool on a rack.
Make the cream by stirring the mascarpone and bourbon together until smooth, then gently fold in whipped cream.
For serving, place a mini Bundt cake on each plate and mound a generous dollop of bourbon cream in the center hole. Sprinkle with chopped walnuts.
Maple Pecan Pie
Maple Pecan Pie. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson
Prep time: 20 minutes
Bake time: 1 hour
Total time: 1 hour 20 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
For the filling:
3/4 cup Grade B maple syrup
1/2 cup white corn syrup
3/4 cup brown sugar
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, cut in pieces
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups pecans
1 (9-inch) pie shell
Preheat oven to 350 F. Combine syrups, sugar and butter in a medium saucepan and stir over medium heat until butter is melted. Raise heat and bring mixture to a boil for one minute. Set aside to cool until lukewarm.
Whisk in the eggs, vanilla and salt until well combined.
Fold in 1 cup of pecans.
Pour filling into pie shell.
Sprinkle 1 cup of pecans evenly over the top of the pie.
Place on a baking sheet or tray to catch any drips and bake for one hour or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.
Cool on a rack.
At serving time, cut the pie into wedges and top each piece with whipped cream.
Main photo: Gingerbread With Pumpkin Ice Cream and Salted Caramel. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson
High-end vinegar is going through something of a renaissance among foodies, chefs and home cooks. Vinegar is alive. Literally. At least before it’s pasteurized — a step taken by most manufacturers to make vinegar shelf stable. I’m on a quest to make my own vinegar, the kind that must be consumed quickly while at its peak acidity level, or fed at regular intervals to keep it alive. This living vinegar is tastier, healthier — and can give you better bragging rights — than the expensive pasteurized product you’re likely to find in gourmet food stores.
I dove into the world of DIY vinegar at the home of America’s greatest promoter of maker lifestyle: Thomas Jefferson. The Monticello Heritage Harvest festival is an annual celebration of food, history and the do-it-yourself spirit of the American Revolution, where authors and PhDs rub shoulders with urban homesteaders — a gathering that my husband calls “Historians ‘n’ Hippies.” My guides in the art of vinegar production come from both ends of this spectrum: Sandor Katz, author of “The Art of Fermentation,” and Gabriele Rausse, a pioneer of modern Virginian wine making and director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello.
Ancient roots of vinegar culture
A hillside vineyard at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz
Vinegar appears in the human record at the dawn of civilization. Vinegar residue has been found in Egyptian urns from 3000 BC. Vinegar is mentioned as a tasty treat in the Bible and as medicinal treatment for colds in the works of Hippocrates. Apple cider vinegar was a cure-all in colonial America, but by the time of the American Revolution, people such as Thomas Jefferson explored vinegar as the ultimate addition to fine dining. Jefferson’s years in Paris made him a connoisseur of vinegar — and culinary historian Damon Lee Fowler declared Jefferson was positively “addicted” to tarragon vinegar.
Making your own
Sandor Katz takes a loose approach to the process of making your own vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz
There are extremely elaborate, highly measured ways to accomplish the transformation of fruit juice or wine into fine vinegar. But Sandor Katz takes a loose, DIY approach to the process. Acetic-acid-producing bacteria called acetobacter and yeast — the two microorganisms required for vinegar making — are all around us. “You don’t have to be a microbiologist,” said Katz, when I expressed my concerns about making fruit scrap vinegar. “Not to worry: vinegar makes itself.” My process began with fruit scraps. While making a pie, I found myself with a pile of peach skins and several less-than-perfect chunks of fruit. I would begin with this, starting the process of turning fruit sugar into alcohol.
Step one: Sugar to alcohol
The production of alcohol in my peach scrap vinegar also yields carbon dioxide bubbles. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz
Vinegar requires two steps to turn fruit scraps into vinegar. First, yeast naturally found on fruit turns sugars in the fruit into alcohol — a process called alcoholic fermentation. And second, acetobacter converts the alcohol into acetic acid. A home brewer or winemaker will use specific types of fruit sugar and add a specific type of yeast to the mixture. For my purposes, I just mixed the fruit scraps with a sugar solution in a Mason jar following Katz’s recipe in his first book, “Wild Fermentation.” Then I covered the top with a paper towel secured with a rubber band and let the natural yeasts on the fruit (and in my kitchen) find their way to it. Yeast consumed the sugar, excreting carbon dioxide bubbles and ethanol in the process. I gently swirled the mixture around in the jar every once in a while and within a week, I could see the telltale bubbles that showed alcohol was being created.
Step two: Alcohol to acetic acid
A “mother” begins to form in my peach skin vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz
My goal was not low-alcohol peach hooch. There’s a second step: turning alcohol into an acetic acid mixture that tastes delicious. “The word we use is French,” Katz said. “Vin aigre just means ‘sour wine.’ It is the consolation prize when alcohol goes bad.” I strained out the chunks of peach skin to stop the alcohol-creation process, then put the golden liquid into a new container with a scrap of thin kitchen towel over the top of the jar. Katz’s approach to this step is extremely simple: just let it sit there. The peach alcohol soon began to get stringy gelatinous threads that eventually massed into a noticeable translucent layer on top of my peach mixture. At first glance, it seemed like a food-safety disaster, but it’s actually the start of the vinegar magic.
A historic how-to series for home cooks, canners and kids
This was the beginning of the “vinegar mother,” a gelatinous membrane made mostly of cellulose produced by the acetobacter. It is the “starter” from which more vinegar can be created. After two weeks, a quick whiff at the top of the jar revealed the powerful tang of transformation.
I poured some of the vinegar into a shot glass. It tasted sharp, with a hint of sweetness — a distinct peach taste to the delicious acidic liquid. I plan to let this sit for a couple of more weeks, until it reaches its peak of acidity. I have a dozen plans for this: salad dressing, marinade, potato salad, even mayonnaise.
Making fruit scrap vinegar was an interesting experiment, but this kind of live vinegar needs to be used fairly quickly, while at its maximum acidity level, or heat-pasteurized and stored in a closed narrow-necked bottle for long-term storage. I wasn’t interested in the details of heating and storing this kind of vinegar safely. And it is crucial to pay attention to these details because as the acidity level in vinegar drops, other microorganisms can start to take over — a potentially dangerous situation from a food-safety standpoint. I wanted to find an easy sustainable way to keep vinegar alive in my own kitchen, so I turned to a classic Italian method for making wine vinegar.
An alternate step: Acquire a mother
A thick vinegar mother in my kitchen. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz
The traditional method of making vinegar with wine begins with acquiring a “mother of vinegar” from a vinegar-making friend or from a wine-making supply store. I was generously given a small jar of this vinegar mother by Rausse. A passionate winemaker and vinegar maker, Rausse makes vinegar in his home every day using a “mother” that came from his grandmother’s house in Italy. When I asked him how long he had had his vinegar mother, he told me, “Since I was born.”
I was honored. My vinegar mother had its birth on another continent three generations ago. But such a legacy requires dedication and focus. I learned about the care and feeding of vinegar mothers at Rausse’s vinegar-making demonstration at Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival.
Keep your vinegar alive
Gabriele Rausse, Monticello’s director of Gardens and Grounds, in Monticello’s vineyard. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz
The key to good vinegar, according to both Katz and Rausse, is to consume it while it is still alive. Most vinegar that you buy in the grocery store or gourmet shop has been pasteurized — the living organisms killed for the sake of shelf-stability and food safety. There is an important place for pasteurized vinegar, most notably in food preservation.
The USDA recommends that only vinegar with an acidity level of at least 5 percent should be used for pickling fruits and vegetables. Because the acidity level of homemade vinegar is unknown, it should never be used for pickling. I follow this rule in my own kitchen and encourage others to do the same. But when I want to dress a salad, I reach for live vinegar.
Up until now, I’ve bought commercially produced vinegar with live bacterial cultures (Bragg’s makes a good one from apple cider). In a few months, I hope I’ll be reaching for vinegar with a living history instead. My homemade vinegar will tell the story of at least three generations of Italian vinegar makers, with additional flavors from my own kitchen. Over time, I’m sure my homemade vinegar will transform into something unrecognizable to Gabriele Rausse and his grandmother, but I hope it will be a delicious heirloom that I’ll be able to pass on to friends and family over the years and eventually to my own grandchildren. Time will tell.
Main photo: Peach skins were used to make homemade peach vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz
Grenache is in the midst of a renaissance in California, proving that decades of abuse can’t keep a great wine grape down. Two decades ago, it was being pulled out of California vineyards at an alarming rate. An increasingly sophisticated American wine-drinking public was giving up the simple, fruity jug wines into which most California Grenache had gone in favor of darker, more robust red grapes. Between 1994 and 2004, Grenache acreage declined from 12,107 to 7,762, and to 5,909 in 2014.
A tale of two Grenaches
Once in decline, Grenache is back in production and receiving much buzz. Credit: Copyright Bob Dickey
At the same time, Grenache has never received so much buzz. Writers with such diverse tastes as Wine Spectator’s James Laube (“Grenache … is proving to be one of the most exciting and enticing wines to emerge in California in the past decade, capable of stardom”) and the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Bonné (“The hopes for Grenache ascendent have come to pass”) have championed the grape in recent years. And wineries are betting on Grenache’s future. A search in Wine Spectator’s California ratings database for Grenache from the 1994 vintage returns 11 matches, just two of which were red wines labeled Grenache (an additional three were Grenache rosés, and the other six blends that included the grape). By 2004, the same search returns 30 matches, 13 of which were labeled Grenache. From 2012 (the most recent vintage for which most reds have been submitted for review), the search returns 130 matches, 45 of which were labeled Grenache.
Both the decline and the renaissance can be understood by looking at where Grenache was and is being planted. In 1994, just 256 acres, less than 2 percent of the total, was found in the coastal or mountain counties that make California’s best wines. The rest was found in the deep, fertile soils of the Central Valley, where it was a key component of the field blends that went unacknowledged into jug wines (think “Hearty Burgundy” and the like). As those wines lost popularity in the American market, so too did the demand for the simple, fruity juice that Grenache produced in its Central Valley home.
But all locations are not the same for California Grenache. Over the same two decades that overall acreage has declined by more than half, the acreage in the high-quality coastal and mountain areas increased 437 percent, to 1,376 acres. Even so, in premium areas, Grenache has become downright scarce, even though it is productive and easy to grow. In the Central Coast, Grenache is now one of the most in-demand grapes and commands a premium price, averaging $1,797 per ton in 2014, higher than Merlot ($1,056 a ton), Syrah ($1,357 a ton), Zinfandel ($1,407 a ton) and even Cabernet Sauvignon ($1,464 a ton).
The world’s grape
Grenache is grown at Chateau de Beaucastel, in France’s Rhone Valley, known for the wine. Credit: Copyright 2010 Chateau de Beaucastel
Grenache is long overdue for its California renaissance. Widely planted in France, Spain and Australia, Grenache is the world’s second-most-planted grape by acreage. It makes up some 60 percent of the acreage in the Rhone Valley and 70 percent of the acreage in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Add in significant plantings in Spain and Australia, as well as the thousands of acres in California, and Grenache accounts for the second-greatest worldwide acreage of any wine grape.
It is little surprise why. Grenache is a vigorous grape, relatively easy to grow and productive. It produces fruit with both good sugars (producing full body) and good acids (maintaining freshness). It makes wines that are nearly always cheerful, full of fruit and refreshing. There’s a useful white-skinned variant (Grenache Blanc) and even a pink-skinned one (Grenache Gris).
Whether in a Cotes-du-Rhone or a Rioja, an Australian GSM or a Provence rosé, wines based on Grenache provide enormous pleasure for a typically reasonable price.
So what happened in California?
The bad old days
Tablas Creek is once again nurturing vines for Grenache. Credit: Copyright 2002 Tablas Creek Vineyard
Grenache in California has had a checkered history. Largely planted in the Central Valley and irrigated extensively because of its ability to produce enormous crops when given enough water, Grenache formed the (unacknowledged) core of many of the jug wines in the 1960s and 1970s. I’ve heard tales of Grenache producing as much as 20 tons per acre in parts of the Central Valley. Even as recently as 2012, California’s Grape Crush Pricing District 13 (including Fresno, Madera and Tulare Counties, which contains most of the Central Valley Grenache acreage) produced 50,029 tons of fruit from 3,640 acres of Grenache: an average of 13.7 tons per acre. For comparison, our highest-ever yield per acre from our vineyard was 3.6 tons per acre, in 2006.
As you might expect, grapes produced at those massive yields are rarely distinguished. And in the rare cases where it was bottled on its own in the 1960s and 1970s, “California Grenache” was simple, light in color, and often sweet. The grape had fallen decisively out of favor by the 1980s, when a new generation of producers, mostly in Napa, focused their attention, and the attention of the American market, on the classic grapes of Bordeaux. Acreage in California declined correspondingly, from a peak near 20,000 acres in the 1980s to 11,000 acres in 2000 and just 5,909 acres today.
And yet, in the reasons for Grenache’s decline lie the seeds of its rebirth.
Why now, for Grenache?
The American wine market’s openness to new varieties has helped bring Grenache back. Credit: Copyright Cheryl Quist
Several factors are driving a new interest in Grenache. First, the whole category of Rhone varieties has a new generation of devotees, both among consumers and among producers. American producers, inspired by the growing availability of high-quality examples from the Rhone Valley and convinced that California’s Mediterranean climateshould be a congenial one for the Rhone’s Mediterranean grapes, started making wine in increasing numbers through the 1990s. With critical mass came organizations like Rhone Rangers, Hospice du Rhone and the Grenache Association, all dedicated to providing Rhone lovers a community in which to discover new favorites.
The American wine market’s increasing openness to new varieties, and the growth of the tasting room culture, allowed many of these maverick producers to connect with enthusiastic customers in a way that would have been inconceivable two decades ago. Blends, too, have become a hot category in recent years, and it’s hard to think of a grape that has benefited more than Grenache, whose combination of full body, generous fruit, moderate tannins and refreshing acidity make it an exemplary blending partner.
Grenache can be made in many styles, from robust and high-octane to ethereal and highly spiced, which allows it to appeal to both winemakers looking to make wines to impress with their hedonistic appeal, and those looking to make wines that are more ethereal and intellectual.
And yet, it’s likely that none of this would have happened without new clones.
Clones to the rescue
At Tablas Creek, clones from France were brought in as the vineyard started growing grapes for Grenache. Credit: Copyright 2002 Tablas Creek Vineyard
At Tablas Creek, we brought in clones of all our grapes from our partners at Beaucastel, and Grenache was a major reason why we decided to go through the considerable time and expense of doing so. When we started to research the available clones of Grenache in California, we were not excited by what we found: enormous clusters with massive berries, much larger than we were used to seeing at Beaucastel, with flavors that were fruity and friendly enough but not exciting. Sure, some of that could be attributed to being overirrigated, overcropped and planted in the wrong places, but we thought there was something inherently different about the raw material. It was this conclusion that cemented our decision to bring in our own clones from France rather than make the best of the clones that were available here.
We weren’t the only people to bring in new clones of Grenache, but the net effect of the arrival of new clones in the mid-1990s was dramatic. A new generation of producers started planting Grenache in the high-quality coastal and mountain appellations where its previous footprint had been negligible. Acreage statistics at the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that in coastal and foothills counties its acreage has grown at about 10 percent per year since 1995. The 1,000-plus acres of new plantings in high-quality areas has driven a critical resurgence for Grenache.
Celebrating Grenache’s present
Organizations such as Rhone Rangers are championing Grenache. Credit: Copyright Bob Dickey
How about the Rhone Rangers? This organization of some 120 wineries, mostly from California but also including producers of Grenache and other Rhone-style grapes from Washington, Oregon, Virginia, Arizona and Michigan, holds two big events each year, in San Francisco (late spring) and in Los Angeles (Nov. 6-7). It also oversees local chapters in Paso Robles, El Dorado, California North Coast, Santa Barbara, and Virginia, and has organized a traveling show that has taken Grenache and its brethren in recent years to Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York and Seattle. For information, visit Rhone Rangers.
Hospice du Rhone has celebrated producers working with Rhone varieties with a four-day blowout of seminars, tastings, lunches, dinners, an auction and a legendary collection of after-hours parties most years since 1991. The 2016 celebration will be held in Paso Robles on April 14-16. For more, visit Hospice du Rhone.
The wines of France’s Rhone Valley are predominantly Grenache, from humble Cotes du Rhones to the greatest Chateauneuf du Papes. This is also true of most southern French rosés. These are all promoted by Inter-Rhone. For a complete listing of their events and activities, visit Inter-Rhone’s website.
Grenache even has an international day, organized by the Grenache Association each year on the third Friday in September (this year, it was Sept. 18) with tastings organized in Rhone-producing regions from France to Australia to South Africa to California.
A bright future for Grenache
A tasting in California of Rhone varieties had a heavy focus on Grenache wines. Credit: Copyright 2014 Jason Haas
What’s next for Grenache here in America? It seems like it’s poised for a surge, for many reasons. Quality has never been better. In California, the grape is increasingly being planted in the right places, and just as important being pulled out of the wrong places. The clones that are available are better than they’ve ever been before. In general, the producers who are working with Grenache now are Rhone specialists, which suggests it’s in the hands of people who will know what to do with it, unlike, say, Syrah, which was planted speculatively in lots of the wrong locations by growers who were guessing at what California’s next big grape would be. (Syrah is only now recovering after years in the wilderness.)
In the vineyard, Grenache is particularly well suited to dry-farming, ever more important in a future where droughts are likely to become more frequent and more severe. And it has shown around the world it can thrive in many different soils, in a range of moderate to warm climates, and be made, according to a winemaker’s taste, in a variety of styles, from bright and spicy to deeply fruity and luscious.
The wine press and trade seems solidly behind Grenache right now; nearly every writer I’ve spoken with in the last few years has remarked on how they think Grenache is poised for greatness in America. And the market seems increasingly comfortable with blends, where Grenache shines.
Will Grenache be the next big thing in California? I’m not sure I would wish that on it. But will it see success over the coming decades? I think that’s an easy prediction.
Main photo: Suddenly, Grenache grown in California is coming back into favor. Credit: Copyright 2013 Tablas Creek Vineyard
With Europe on edge after the bombings in Paris, it is good to be reminded of the joy of sharing a meal with strangers. But what happens when you don’t know anyone at a dinner party, not even the host?
During a recent evening in Brussels, I rang the doorbell of a complete stranger’s home promptly at 7 p.m. His ground-floor apartment was in an art nouveau-style row house built in the 1930s. The door opened, and Maher, an Egyptian political science Ph.D. candidate at Ghent University, gave me a warm welcome. (He, like other hosts of such dinners, chooses not to publicize his full name.)
I was the first to arrive for his “Egyptian Evening” (dinner and a movie), and as I took off my coat in the entryway, I resisted the temptation to blurt out that famous quote from “A Streetcar Named Desire”:
“I’ve always depended on the kindness (and in this case, the cooking skills) of strangers.”
BookaLokal — a new dining experience
This “Sumptuous Spice: An Indian Home-Cooked Dinner” in Boston cost $35 per person. The hostess, Raka-Larissa, Indian-born and raised in London, now lives in Boston and is a biological scientist by day and a passionate home cook by night. One recent out-of-town guest wrote a long review of her “Sumptuous Spice” dinner on Raka-Larissa’s BookaLokal page, noting, “It was apparent that the food was cooked with love.” Credit: Copyright 2015 Angel Leung
Maher is just one of nearly 1,000 BookaLokal hosts in 47 countries, in more than 100 cities around the world. BookaLokal is a group dining website. To sign up for a dinner, go to bookalokal.com, choose which city you wish to dine in, browse the dinners, choose one and pay online.
The site was founded in 2012 in the Brussels kitchen of Evelyne White, a 32-year-old harpist, travel enthusiast and former investor from New York. I got to ask her a few questions before the dinner. Here’s what she told me about this unique dining experience.
How did you come up with the idea for BookaLokal?
Evelyne White: “I was inspired by the success of ‘sharing’ companies like Airbnb. If people can open their homes to strangers, why not open their kitchens and dining room tables?”
How does BookaLokal differ from other group dining sites?
Evelyne White: “BookaLokal has the widest range of hosts, from amateur hosts to professional chefs. Whereas some of our competitor sites only allow top chefs to join the site, we believe the best experiences can sometimes come from people like you and me, who are just passionate about hosting and meeting new people.”
This “Chocolate Making Class” held in Washington, D.C., cost $60 per person. Guests learn about the history of chocolate and how to make their own truffles and chocolate lollipops from Ismael, a professional chocolatier and culinary and pastry chef who speaks Arabic, French and Spanish. One reviewer, who attended on Valentine’s Day, called it a “great date night.” Credit: Copyright 2015 Meira Neggaz
This was certainly true of Maher, who is also the former editor-in-chief of The Daily News Egypt. He was an engaging host who gently steered us through the evening as if we were all old chums. We were a cozy group of eight in all (if you include one guest’s toddler), who hailed from countries such as Egypt, Portugal, Turkey and America.
Meals made with love
At the “Egyptian Evening” dinner in Brussels (which cost a mere $17 per person), guests served themselves at the buffet. Credit: Copyright 2015 Diane Fresquez
The homemade dinner, served buffet-style, was simple and delicious: baba ganoush and pita bread; vegetables (peas, zucchini and carrots) cooked in tomato sauce and flavored with pepper, cinnamon and lemon juice; and kebab halla (beef cooked in creamy onion sauce) served with rice.
For the “Egyptian Evening” dinner, guests and host ate while watching “Ana Hurra” (“I Am Free”), an Egyptian feminist film from 1959. Credit: Copyright 2015 Diane Fresquez
After serving ourselves, we settled down in the darkened living room to eat our dinner in front of “Ana Hurra” (“I Am Free”), an entertaining, thought-provoking Egyptian feminist film from 1959, which Maher projected on his living room wall.
Maher isn’t the only host with creative dining ideas: From a recent look at what’s offered on the BookaLokal website, choices include “Dinner Served on a Vintage Boat, Docked in the Amalfi Harbor,” Amalfi, Italy ($55); “Pig Roast and Comfort Food,” Washington, D.C. ($50); and “Dinner Inspired by Famous Food Quotes,” given by a former opera singer in New York City ($100).
A variety of venues
In addition to dinner, some hosts provide a variety of other eating and drinking experiences, such as “Seville Tapas and Wine Tour,” Spain ($50), and “IndianBuffet and Bollywood Dance Lesson,” Belgium ($42).
Worried about language barriers? Languages spoken by each host are listed on their profile page. Maher speaks English and Arabic; Ester, who lives in Rome, speaks Italian, English and Spanish.
“Our hosts come in all shapes and sizes,” said White. “We have culinary students, experienced host families, supper club organizers, and people with a passion for sharing their culture and connecting with new people.”
What are BookaLokal’s plans for the future?
Evelyne White: “Although BookaLokal started as a social dining site (a place to meet new people), we are seeing increased interest in private dining. If a host serves amazing Portuguese food for groups of six to 10 guests, why not book the host for a dinner with your own group of 10 friends?”
After the Egyptian film, we helped ourselves to more wine and Egyptian black tea (with cloves), and had a relaxed discussion about the film, women’s rights and Egyptian politics. Talking with people you don’t know within the confines of dinner at a stranger’s house is oddly liberating — perhaps similar to the surprise and delight of striking up pleasant conversations with strangers on an airplane. BookaLokal is a great dining choice for tourists visiting a new country, expats living abroad, and anyone interested in being inspired — and maybe even transported to another culture — by good food and stimulating conversation. As the Egyptian evening came to an end, I was reminded of another quote, this one from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savairn’s book “The Physiology of Taste” (1825):
“Let the progress of the meal be slow, for dinner is the last business of the day; and let the guests conduct themselves like travelers due to reach their destination together.”
Main photo: The “Dinner at the Artist’s Home and Studio” in Amsterdam ($37 per person) featured ciabatta with salmon, crème fraîche, horseradish and dill; lasagna with pancetta and artichoke; and affogato al caffè. The hostess’s apartment is on the ground floor facing the IJ harbor, and when the weather is nice, she serves dinner outside on the quay. Credit: Copyright 2015 www.petrahart.com