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.

purslane2

purslane2
Picture 1 of 4

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

Read More
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

Read More

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

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

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

limoncello

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

Amaretto

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

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

Amaro

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

Asti

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

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

asti spumante

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

Asti Moscato

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

Barolo Chinato

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

Brachetto d’Acqui

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

Galliano

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

Grappa

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

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

Limoncello

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

Malvasia delle Lipari

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

Marsala

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

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

Moscadello di Montalcino

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

Nocino

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

Passito

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

Sambuca

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

cantucci+vin-santo

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

Vin Santo

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

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

Read More
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

Read More
Frédérique Jules and David Lanher. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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

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

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

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

In Paris, the empire continues to grow

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

Plan a visit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gluten-free takes hold

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

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

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

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

Racines debuts in New York

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skill and strength

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

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

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

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

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

caputo-cork2

caputo-cork2
Picture 1 of 3

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

Read More
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

Read More
A collection of Elizabeth David's cookery books.

Sixty years ago, Elizabeth David’s book “Italian Food” first appeared and transformed the way we Brits, and probably many other foodies worldwide, lived and thought about food.

Back then, in 1954, Britain was a nation emerging from the dreary mediocrity of food rationing, cooking to the lowest common denominator and generally oblivious of anything that might appeal to the senses. Typical recipe collections of the period were driven by the rigid principles of home economy, focusing on how to make the best use of tinned ingredients such as Spam.

We were a nation whose culinary imagination was in serious need of stimulation. This stimulus David supplied in the form of a book enhanced by Renato Guttuso’s powerful black-and-white illustrations. (She had met Guttuso, a Sicilian painter, while visiting the Rialto fish market in Venice.) It was articulated by a strong structure that moved from equipment to ingredients to the different elements of a meal and by contents focused on authenticity, flavor, appearance and regionalism. The book’s digressions into the history and cultural associations of pasta, for example, were unknown in other British cookbooks of the time.

David herself had broken with the conventions of English life, abandoning the debutante circuit and her upper-class background for a role as an actress in an open air theater. She considered a career as a painter before, with brutal honesty, recognizing that she lacked the talent. Apart from a brief marriage in the 1940s, her love life was also unconventional: With one lover, she rather recklessly sailed a small boat from Antibes in France to Sicily in May 1940 as the Second World War gathered momentum. She was surprised and annoyed when they were interned there as spies. Released undaunted, they traveled first to Greece and then, as the German advance accelerated, to Egypt.

When David eventually returned to England, she decided to make a living by writing about cooking, and got a series of articles published in Harper’s Bazaar that eventually turned into her first book, “A Book of Mediterranean Food.” After another book, “French Country Cooking,” her editor commissioned her to write “Italian Food.”

David’s research in Italy, which took up most of 1952, was painstaking and comprehensive. She traveled around the country, staying with friends and their friends. The results of this immersion in Italian culture were that she had a genuine understanding of the many regional cuisines of which “Italian” cooking was composed, and indeed an appreciation of the way in which these regions had only been amalgamated into a unified Italy less than 100 years earlier. She also understood how the country’s varied geography and climate influenced its produce. Hence she could offer a convincing explanation of why you could get an excellent “bistecca di bue” steak in Florence while a region less favoured by nature would produce something far less worthy of appreciation. She understood and explained the cultural and horticultural divides that led to the predominance of pasta in the south and rice and polenta in the north.

Garlic, olive oil and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese were among the Italian ingredients that were scarce in the U.K. until Elizabeth David's book came out.  Credit: Jane McMorland Hunter

Ingredients such as these were scarce in the U.K. until Elizabeth David’s book came out.
Credit: Jane McMorland Hunter

David’s book fell on a willing audience and changed our lives — or at least our parents’ and grandparents’ lives. Although it was not her first, Italian food was at the time more remote and more exotic than the cuisine of France (“A Book of Mediterranean Food” focused mostly on southern France). The book’s illustrations and descriptions inspired a demand for gourmet and imported ingredients outside a few specialty shops in London. We, the authors, remember our parents discussing the necessity of a trip to London to procure the ingredients for one of David’s risotti. The pattern of supply eventually evolved to meet this new demand. Garlic, unheard of outside London in 1954, invaded our greengrocers and eventually the new-fangled supermarkets. Olive oil, once regarded as a treatment for earache to be bought from a chemist, eventually became available by the liter in most good food shops.

The restaurant industry felt David’s influence as well. “Italian” restaurants began to appear whose offerings were more authentic and reflected regional origins.

Focusing on dining details

Finally, David’s concerns with presentation led us to reconsider not only the way we cooked our food, but the way we served it. In the 1960s, David opened a cookware shop where everything met her standards of usefulness and her discerning taste. These standards were so high that the store was unprofitable. She famously refused to stock anything of which she even mildly disapproved: Customers asking for garlic presses were told they were useless items and that they should go away if that was what they wanted. But it was precisely this perfectionism that created the books and articles from which her reputation grew, and made her something of a British national treasure.

David’s literary body of work was not limited to Italian cuisine. She went on to write about French provincial cooking, English baking and other subjects. She racked up many distinctions, including the honorary order of chivalry Commander of the British Empire (CBE), before her death in 1992. But her true legacy was opening the door for Britons to a new world of the senses, and helping them to discover and enjoy food and drink, a pleasure that has only grown in the years since.

Main photo: A collection of Elizabeth David’s cookery books. Credit: Jane McMorland Hunter

Read More