Edibles, such as this package from Mitten Crate in Michigan, make great holiday gifts. Credit: Mitten Crate

You can’t go wrong with edible gifts at the holidays. Edibles send strong messages of sharing, goodwill, pride-of-place and uniqueness, while not cluttering up the recipient’s house for the rest of their lives. And for family and friends who cannot travel to you, a place-based edible always fits the bill.

Every state (and the nation’s capital) has a product just waiting to be discovered, sent and devoured.

Alabama: Goat cheese plays nicely with so many foods, especially the South’s pimento peppers. For a place-based kick and exciting centerpiece for a holiday cheese plate, try Bella Chevre‘s award-winning goat-cheese based pimento spread, more than a few steps up from the usual pimento cheese.

Alaska: Every holiday feast calls for a smoked salmon spread. But most seafood’s quality gets lost in the supply chain. Not so with 2 Sisters Seafood, located right on the wharf in Kenai. If sending a whole salmon filet feels too imposing, try a gift basket with shelf-stable smoked salmon products.

Arizona: The scions of Barry Goldwater have been slicing and dicing Arizona’s best fresh tomatoes, fruits, peppers and spices since 1989 to make Goldwater salsas. At the holidays, get a great gift package with four original sauces and the award-winning Bisbee barbecue sauce.

Arkansas: You could go for an entire gift basket from Kilwin’s sweets store, or you could opt for the classic Saltwater Taffy, with holiday packages featuring peppermint, eggnog, gingerbread and sugarplum flavors.

California: For a real surprise for your foodie friends, send them one of the infused products from Sonoma Syrup Co. Karin Campion crafts her infused syrups in small batches, creating perfection in syrups such as vanilla bean extract, Meyer lemon, mint, lavender, lime and salt caramel.

Colorado: The state’s distilling revolution is in full swing and is getting a kick with Cocktail Punk bitters, with flavors such as anise and fennel-layered orange, sage and mint in an Alpine-themed bitter, a cherry cocktail bitter that will make you forget syrupy grenadine forever.

Connecticut: For 20 years, Westport-based Biscotti Bites has been baking tasty little almond cookies perfect for serving with an afternoon coffee. Made using only good-for-you ingredients, they now come in almond, lemon and cocoa.

Delaware: Dolle’s saltwater taffy is the classic best and made for noshing even if you’re not beachside. The holidays bring all kinds of stocking stuffers, such as pumpkin spice taffy, deluxe Christmas misty mints and gummy Christmas trees and snowmen.

District of Columbia: The nation’s capital is indeed a state — of bliss — with the holiday package from Karen Mary Confectionary, which produces artisanal marshmallows in a five-flavor gift package: Classic Vanilla, Pumpkin Pie, Peppermint, Egg Nog, and Butterscotch, and Caramel Classic.

Florida: You could win hearts with any of the homemade cookies from 5th Avenue Confectionary, in Naples, but for a quintessentially Florida feel, send the key lime macadamia nut cookies. These are some well-traveled cookies, rich, buttery, with a zesty lime twinge and smooth white chocolate.

Georgia: The gold standard by which other honeys are measured, The Savannah Bee Company’s  Tupelo Honey is great in all of its forms —  raw, honeycombed, or even in body care products — but nothing beats a slow river of gold fresh from a bottle.

Hawaii: Lots of chocolatiers in the United States source directly from cocoa plantations. Waimeia Chocolate Company, on the Big Island, is its own. Try its 70 percent estate cacao truffles with macadamia nuts, with fruit undertones and a velvet finish.

Idaho: From sturgeon nurtured in the waters of Hagerman comes America’s contribution to the world caviar market, Tsar Nicoulai. The James Beard-award-winning company’s masterful harvesting techniques capture the distinctive, palate-cleansing, refined pop with a buttery aftertaste.

Illinois: When you’re Rare Bird, a jam is not just a jam but a work of art. Elizabeth Madden makes preserves in the French tradition with flavors  such as cranberry Clementine, Meyer lemon rosemary and passion fruit curd. Her Black Label exclusive flavors come in tiny batches and sell fast.

Indiana: With a pedigree hailed in Bon Appetit and Food and Wine, Chris and Mollie Eley brought some four-star experience to their meatery in Indianapolis, The Smoking Goose. The company doesn’t send everything, but its salumi gift box brings together the best of its craft.

Iowa: Chefs around the country call on La Quercia, in tiny Norwalk, for the best American prosciutto around. But recent years has seen the pork artisans add a whole array of other products that would surprise: spicy salami, rolled pancetta and a silky lardo made from back fat.

Kansas: PT’s Coffee Roasting Co. is truly a rags-to-richly-roasted story, going from a tiny espresso shop in 1993 to a purveyor of single origin roasts from around the globe today. Try the PT’s Sample Box of the Holiday Blend for an introduction to what this industry exemplar can do.

‘Cadillac of pecans’ for edible holiday gifts

Kentucky: The Kentucky Nut Corporation has been producing the “Cadillac of pecans” since 1940, and puts together a stellar array of holiday-themed nuts such as cinnamon glazed and pralines. Perfect for noshing at holiday cocktail parties.

Louisiana: With so much to choose from New Orleans, pick something that makes holiday breakfast easier with Café du Monde’s beignet mix, the secret to pre-mixed fluffy Louisiana-style doughnuts. Pair it with any of the coffees for a breakfast-themed gift basket.

Maine: The last remaining traditional stone-ground American Mustard mill, Rayes, of Eastport, grinds out yellow and brown mustards according to traditional techniques. Try its Hot Five gift pack of five spicy mustards for heat-seeking loved ones.

Maryland: For holidays, sometimes easy and pre-made is best. That goes for nothing more than for breakfast, for which we recommend Michele’s Granola, made fresh in small batches in Timonium. Seasonal varieties such as cranberry pecan carry a festive flair.

Massachusetts: The season demands a sprinkling of red, and Willows Cranberries, of Wareham, delivers. Gift boxes include a mix of cranberry sweets, spices, teas, chutneys and syrups featuring the face-puckering berries from the bogs.

Michigan: When in Michigan, why pick just one? Especially when you can order a Mitten Crate, from two young entrepreneurs who ship everything from bourbon and cherry products, Slow Jams, hop soda, single origin coffees and saltwater taffy, all made in the wolverine state.

Minnesota: Perfect for college-aged kids or young adults heading back after the holidays, Native Harvest’s Wild Rice blends are harvested directly from the Minnesota Lakes by tribal members, nuttier and healthier than grocery store alternatives.

Mississippi: Mississippi does condiments like no other. Get your classics such as Carolina chow chow and low-country style pumpkin preserves or go for the Muscadine chutney from Farmer’s Daughter Brand Pickles and Preserves.

Missouri: Christopher Elbow’s Artisanal Chocolates look like gift packages unto themselves. For the holidays, turn to the gift collections featuring gingerbread, champagne, winter-spiced caramel, egg nog, peppermint and rum raisin.

Montana: If you’ve never tried a huckleberry, Huckleberry Haven is a great place to start. The berries, similar in taste and nature to blueberries, only grow at elevations above 2,000 feet and have long been used in traditional medicine by native peoples of the Northwester United States.

Nebraska: Orders top out a week before Christmas for Nebraska Bison, high protein, lower in fat and raised responsibly on a ranch by Randy and Jane Miller without the use of steroids, antibiotics or growth hormones. Try the gift guide or, if you’ve got your main meal covered, get the jerky.

Nevada: The state may not be known for its artisanal foods (many joke that the state food is the buffet), but it is home to one of the best one-stop artisanal online food sites, selling everything artisanal under the sun: caviar, coffee, tea, chocolates, preserves, cheeses and more.

Much-needed herbal teas

New Hampshire: When all is said and done, you’re really just going to need a cup of tea from Portsmouth’s White Heron Tea and Coffee Community, which ships organic teas, including 15 varieties of much-needed herbal teas around the country.

New Jersey: Take a load off the holiday baking — and really blow away the cookie-lovers in your family — with Fat Boy’s Cookie Dough. Cranberry nut is the seasonal choice, but most everyone would really just rather have good old chocolate chip.

New Mexico: For a gift that can sit on a shelf, and beautifully, try balsamic vinegar from Traditional Aceto Balsamico of Monticello. Grown from organic estate grapes in New Mexico, it’s made using old-world methods and aged in seven fragrant woods.

New York: Brooklyn abounds with artisanal food producers, but few have elevated their craft quite so exceptionally as Mast Brothers chocolate makers, whose gorgeously packaged chocolate bars, many of them single-origin, including a new line made with goat’s and sheep’s milk.

North Carolina: Mark Oberbay turned his passion for discovering new flavor combinations into Big Spoon Roasters, makers of nut butters using fresh runner variety peanuts from the Carolinas, wildflower honeys from the the Piedmont, local pecans, California Mission-variety almonds and pristine sea salt.

North Dakota: Choke cherries, native to the prairies of North Dakota, add a festive punch with pride of place. High in antioxidants and mouth twistingly tart, Dakota Seasoning’s chokecherry jam will give any North Dakotan a Proustian moment.

Ohio: Askinosie dark milk. Bangkok peanut. Brambleberry crisp. Ndali Estate vanilla bean. Triumph (that’s absinthe ice cream with hand-piped meringue kisses and crushed bitter orange candy). Or just refuse to choose entirely from Jeni’s Ice Cream and join the pint club.

Oklahoma: Here’s an idea whose time has come: slathering a Christmas bird in Head Country  barbecue sauce. Try the mix-and-match case of 12 and you’ll be giving the gift of barbecue expertise this holiday season.

Oregon: If you think a salt can’t change you, you’ve never tried Portland-based Jacobsen Sea Salt, harvested from Netarts Bay on the Oregon Coast. A favorite of chefs around the country, the salts come in flavors such as Oregon pinot noir, vanilla, white truffle, and good old flaked, a must for every ambitious home cook.

Pennsylvania: Bacon. Yes, not because it was trendy in 2007, but because it’s the best when cured perfectly and sliced thin. Or take any of the other traditional Pennsylvania German products from S. Clyde Weaver, which has been smoking meats and creating farmstead cheeses since 1920.

Rhode Island: The state is home to a Humble Pie you’d be proud to eat. The company makes classic pies with a twist (think pumpkin hazelnut) using exceptional local ingredients such as Aquidneck Honey and maple sugar from the Bats of Bedlam Maple Farm.

South Carolina: In between meals, reach for the sweet stuff known as Carolina Crack, one of the state’s best peanut brittles, a fluffy brittle made in small batches by Jake Lyerly.

South Dakota: For a gift of meat that does some good, South Dakota’s Wild Idea Buffalo-meat gift boxes offer an excellent variety of products from grass-fed buffalo that roams the region’s prairie. It is tender, juicy, and grassy, as befits its pedigree.

Tennessee: The market keeps at Marché Artisan Foods in Nashville puts together an excellent basket featuring regional specialties such as Olive and Sinclair chocolate bars and brittles, Nashville Jam Company jellies, Williams Honey Farm honeys, Falls Mills flour, grits and Sunday Morning pancake mixes. Call to order a basket.

Texas: In lieu of BBQ sauce, try Dallas’s Mozzarella Company. Renowned cheese maker Paula Lambert puts together an exceptional cheese selection inspired by the region, and for the DIYers in the family, she will ship a make-your-own mozzarella kit.

Utah: In a state where other vices are often verboten, share the love at the holidays from Amano Artisan Chocolate with a 70 percent Dos Rios bar (or a sampler set). Sourced from the Dominican Republic, it’s one of the most unique on the planet, with chocolate evoking cinnamon and orange.

Vermont: Dragonfly Sugarworks is the epitome of what many Vermont syrup companies do best: work year-round to craft a range of graded syrup. For something extra special, try the Vermont Fancy, a light amber syrup with a delicate flavor perfect for pancakes, crepes or ice creams.

Virginia: Route 11 does a distinct American potato chip — made in small batches, perfect crispiness, real seasonings such as barbecue and classic salt and vinegar and a sweet potato chip like none other make the company one whose chips get sent around the world.

Edible and drinkable

Washington: If your only experience of Washington-roasted beans is that mermaid-clad Venti, try Caffe Vitta, which is gaining  national cred as a roaster of farm-direct single origin coffees from around the globe. The roaster also has a sweet collaboration pairing its coffees with local Theo Chocolates.

West Virginia: West Virginia Fruit and Berry uses fruit fresh from the mountain to fulfill any possible jam needs: blackberry, blueberry, raspberry, cherry, all made using no corn syrup. No-dairy apple and peach butters are a fresh change for those who eschew milk.

Wisconsin: To choose one Wisconsin cheese maker is an impossible task, but Roelli’s Cheese Haus, with a 100-year-history of making European-styled cheeses in Wisconsin, has upped its game in recent years with national awards for its Dumbarton Blue and Little Mountain alpine cheese.

Wyoming: Life in the West demands a certain level of heartiness. Enter Jackson Hole’s Bunnery Natural Foods, with a range of four granolas, sunflower-seeded oatmeal, coconut-vanilla pancake and waflle mix and a number of other choices for time-strapped holiday hosts.

What about you? Do you have a favorite artisanal food item from your state?

Main photo: Edibles, such as this package from Mitten Crate in Michigan, make great holiday gifts. Credit: Mitten Crate

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Speedy spaghetti with last-minute lemon sauce. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

“Pasta is to the Italians somewhere between a sacrament and a psychotropic drug.” So said Slow Food co-founder Folco Portinari of his countrymen’s food habits at a conference 20 years ago. He offered the startling fact that anthropologists studying Italy’s gastronomical landscape had tracked down as many as 1,000 forms of pasta. In the dried category alone, there were 350 variants, from the familiar spaghetti and fusilli to exotic shapes such as Ave Marias, cecamariti (“husband blinders”) and the racy cazzetti. Yet every now and then, a pasta maker comes up with another one.

Futurist spaghetti

The latest was recently introduced by Rustichella d’Abruzzo, which has been turning out some of the best dried pasta in the world for four generations — good enough for Pavarotti and Michelin-starred chefs alike. Its new product, recently launched at a New York City press event with considerable splash, is so revolutionary in the pasta universe that it could be likened to the discovery of a planet. Pasta Rapida 90″ is an artisan spaghetti conceived to cook in 90 seconds to commemorate the firm’s 90-year anniversary, the makers said, and to “end the controversy between Futurism and spaghetti.”

The comment refers to the Italian artistic and political movement that had its heyday in the 1920s — coincident with the founding of the company in 1924 by Gaetano Sergiacomo, maternal grandfather of proprietors Stefania and Gianluigi Peduzzi. In 1932, Futurism’s leading spokesman — poet, social reformer, misogynist and crackpot F.T. Marinetti — wrote “Cucina Futuristica,” a manifesto against pasta. He led a crusade to convince the Italians that their pasta “addiction” had produced a nation of dreamers that was mired in the past and would bring the country to ruin. Marinetti designed menus to prepare them for the “more aerial and rapid” lifestyle of the 20th century, but his campaign failed. Mussolini made the sleek new aluminum trains run on time, but he couldn’t outlaw pasta. Rustichella prevailed.


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The Rustichella pasta “family.” Credit: Rustichella D’Abruzzo

Tradition meets innovation

The funny thing about the Italians is that while they are steeped in tradition, they are forever embracing new ideas, whether they are designing Ferraris or making pasta. Rustichella is no exception. It is produced in the Vestina hills of Abruzzo, a region wedged between the Apennines and the sea that is rich with artisanal food traditions, having changed little since the sixth century, when it was described by one Ottavio Mamilio as “a breast that dispenses milk and honey.” The producers say it is the valley’s wheat — exceptional for its high protein content, mixed with mountain water, then extruded and dried at low temperatures for up to 56 hours (compared with 4 to 6 hours for industrial brands) — that makes their pasta so good.

From Abruzzo, then, you would expect the slowest of slow foods. Instead, Rapida 90″  is designed to cook in the shortest time possible — “without any sacrifice in flavor or porosity,”  the proprietors said at its debut. Though it is made with the same raw materials and passed through the same bronze dies as the company’s traditional spaghetti, giving it the desired roughness that sauces cling to, its creation required a serious engineering effort that took nearly two years. Rapida is not pre-cooked; there is no messing with the wheat endosperm where the proteins reside; there are no additives. The secret, which is under international patent, is in its shape. A conventional spaghetto is a cylinder with a hole in the middle invisible to the naked eye. As it boils, the gluten fills in the hole, cooking in about 10 minutes. Rapida, by contrast, is designed with a gap along its length that looks like a seam. It opens during cooking, enabling faster penetration of water. Seconds before the pasta is done, the “memory effect” of glutens causes the gap to close again, returning the strand to its original form.

The benefits

To the home cook, the breakthrough may not seem important, but for the professional chef, it is revolutionary. One of a restaurant kitchen’s biggest challenges is juggling simultaneous cooking procedures for multiple orders. Hence the all-too-common shortcut of pre-cooking the pasta, at risk of wasting portions that go unused. Rapida eliminates such waste, and the reduced cooking time, factored exponentially, means less energy use to boot.

After talks with Rapida’s chief designer, Giancarlo d’Annibale, I discovered that the new pasta has some health advantages as well. Because exposure to heat destroys wheat’s complex gluten structures, the shorter cooking time preserves more of the pasta’s protein.

I tasted Rapida at its debut, where Michelin-starred chef William Zonfa tossed it in a saffron-tinted sauce specked with leek confit and guanciale. Rapida has the rich flavor of durum wheat that only semolina pasta delivers, but because the invisible gap makes the strands less dense, it slides down the throat like delicate, fresh egg pasta. It was in my stomach before it left the pan.

All in all, we’d have to conclude that Rapida is a keeper. These pasta makers were using their noodles when they invented the new spaghetti-of-speed.

Rapida can be purchased in store or online at Dean & Deluca, Market Hall Foods or Murray’s. For further availability, visit the the importer’s website.

Last-Minute Lemon Sauce for Speedy Spaghetti

© Julia della Croce 2014

Make this quick sauce while the water for one package of Rapida is boiling.

Prep time: 4 minutes

Cook time: 2 minutes

Total time: 6 minutes

Yield: 4 servings


3/4 cup good extra virgin olive oil

6 small garlic cloves, halved and bruised

Zest of 4 large organic lemons

6 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/2 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley


In an ample, heavy skillet over low heat, warm the olive oil with the garlic for 2 minutes, pressing the cloves without smashing to release their flavor. Turn off the heat. Stir in the remaining ingredients just before adding the cooked pasta to the skillet. Serve piping hot.

Main photo: Speedy spaghetti with last-minute lemon sauce. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

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Shrimp Pasta With Classic Vinaigrette is a specialty of teen cook Arieanna McKnight of New Orleans. Credit: Dreamstime

“It must be so easy for you!”

That’s what I hear from fellow moms several times a week. They’re talking about one of the biggest bugaboos of the working parent: the home-cooked family dinner. Because I’m a professionally trained chef, they think I’m immune to that end-of-the-day hustle to think up a new meal and get it on the table.

In many ways, it’s true. My professional training is a boon, but just as often I, too, am stumped after a long day working to figure out what my family might eat with minimal fuss or complaint.

The dinnertime crunch is a very real issue for many working parents. So much so that in September, Slate published an article reviewing the findings of a pair of sociologists who determined the home-cooked meal is a source of stress and angst for families — particularly for moms.

They came to this conclusion after studying 150 moms for 250 hours, focusing on 12 families in particular. In the end, they concluded home-cooked meals were under-appreciated and caused stress, especially for low-income moms who can’t afford fresh produce and have poor kitchen setups. Even those who could afford better were stymied by the ingratitude of their families.

In short, the study concluded the home-cooked meal as an idealized goal is nothing short of tyranny — particularly for the mothers who attempt to produce it.

A spate of responses to the Slate article came swiftly. The New York Times quickly published replies, as did a variety of culinary luminaries. The commentary ranged from disbelief to admonishment that cooking shouldn’t be — isn’t — so hard.

Family dinner should be a family effort

But I have a different take on the issue. I won’t quibble that cooking can be hard after a long and tiring day — especially when lack of skill or resources make it difficult to even begin thinking about what’s for dinner.

When you work full time, it’s hard enough to want to make your own meal, much less come home and prepare food for other people. I spoke with one mom recently who said she had the “luxury” of a caregiver to help with her young children after school while she was still at work. The best helper she could find could barely cook, and the best cook was hardly a caregiver. The end result was that she came home after a long day and began preparing a meal for her already-starving school-age youngsters.

And she counted herself among the lucky ones because she could afford the help.

So what’s the solution to the tyranny of home cooking for working parents?

Don’t do it.

That’s right, I said it: Don’t do it. Don’t make it only your responsibility to pick the food, decide on the meal and then cook it, because right under your very noses you may have the best kitchen helpers you could find — and they won’t charge you a cent.

They’re your kids.

Now, I’m not suggesting pressing your youngsters into child labor or giving them full responsibility for making the meals at home. What I am suggesting is giving them credit for being able to pick out good food and having the willingness to prepare it.

I heard this loud and clear in the three years I worked on “FutureChefs: Recipes From Tomorrow’s Cooks Across the Nation and the World (Rodale, 2014).” Over and over again I heard from parents who weren’t cooks themselves, who struggled in the kitchen, but had kids who had a passion for cooking born from living in our food-obsessed world.

One young man, Tyler Trainer, not only began cooking for his family but started a small catering business when he was in his early teens — much to his parents shock. “We don’t know where he got it from,” his mom told me.

This was true whether or not the kids were from affluent families. Among many great examples is Arieanna McKnight of New Orleans, who is from what she calls a “low-income” family. She got involved with cooking watching her father use what he had in the kitchen to create great meals. As a middle-school student, she joined an activist group that engaged young people in the future of New Orleans — particularly school food and food justice issues.

Working with kids such as Arieanna and the other 100 or so kids in the book, I realized that often the “tyranny” of the scratch meal is one self-imposed by parents, especially those with older kids who are willing and able to help.

Of course, in the end, every parent and every family has to figure out what works for them. Time and money constraints are not to be taken lightly. But programs exist to teach kids to cook and make great choices and even help families buy fresh produce at limited cost, although they continue to be an overlooked resource in winning the battle for home-cooked meals.

In my opinion, these programs are the forward flank of an American movement back to the home kitchen — a movement based on strength, knowledge, pride and joy.

Is there a FutureChef hiding in your house?

Shrimp Pasta With Classic Vinaigrette

Yield: 6 servings

This recipe first appeared in on “FutureChefs: Recipes From Tomorrow’s Cooks Across the Nation and the World” and was created by Arieanna McKnight of New Orleans.

Arieanna teaches cooking classes at Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools, or “The Rethinkers,” a program created in 2006 to help low-income kids be part of the discussion about how to rebuild the city’s schools in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The program focuses on everything from school safety to building architecture to school food reform and has been able to overhaul school lunch programs to be healthier and fresher using a school lunch report card, which assesses the quality of school food.

“I started out as a middle-schooler at the program and now I’m teaching other kids,” said Arieanna, 17. She said learning about and becoming an advocate for food justice is one of the most important aspects of her education with the program. Last year, the teen cooked with Taste of the NFL in New Orleans, a nonprofit that creates “parties” around National Football League events, with proceeds going to fight hunger in the community.

Arieanna said her greatest influence is her father, who works as a chef in New Orleans’ French Quarter. “I live in a low-income family and we don’t always have as many things to work with,” she said. “I’ve watched my father always make us something good to eat, even if he didn’t have regular ingredients. It’s taught me to be creative with what I have.”

Shrimp Pasta With Classic Vinaigrette is her unique take on a classic New Orleans shrimp pasta salad. She uses crab boil to give the shrimp an intense flavor. Because local and seasonal eating is an important part of how she has come to rethink food, she uses Gulf shrimp for this recipe.


For the vinaigrette:

2 cloves minced garlic

2 teaspoons minced shallots

2 teaspoons minced fresh parsley

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

2 tablespoons coarse-grain mustard

Juice of 1 lemon

1/2 cup white balsamic vinegar

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the pasta:

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 pound pasta of your choice

For the shrimp:

1 pound large Gulf shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 tablespoon crab boil seasoning (such as Old Bay)

For the garnish:

1 large tomato, diced

6 fresh basil leaves, cut into a chiffonade, for garnish (optional; see note below for directions)


1. Make the vinaigrette by whisking all the ingredients together in a small bowl. Set aside.

2. In a large pot, bring 4 cups of water to a boil over medium heat. Add the salt and olive oil. Add the pasta and cook to al dente according to package directions. (The time will vary depending on the type of pasta you choose.) Drain and transfer to a large, deep platter or pasta bowl.

3. Meanwhile, cook the shrimp by placing them in a medium saucepan with just enough water to cover them. Stir in the crab boil seasoning and bring the mixture to a boil. Cook until the shrimp turn pink, 3 to 4 minutes.

4. Drain the shrimp and add to the pasta.

5. Add the vinaigrette to the pasta and shrimp and toss well. Add the diced tomato, toss again and garnish with basil leaves, if desired.

Note: To make a chiffonade, stack the leaves of fleshy herbs (such as basil) or other greens on top of one another and then tightly roll them into a small cylinder. Using a sharp knife, cut the cylinder crosswise into narrow slices. When the slices are unfurled, you will have thin slivers of herbs or greens.

Main image: Shrimp Pasta With Classic Vinaigrette is a specialty of teen cook Arieanna McKnight of New Orleans. Credit: Dreamstime

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Lunch from Tsukushi in Otaru, Japan. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

As a visitor, I’ve always been alternatively intrigued and frustrated by Japan’s food culture.

Intrigued because I know that behind almost every shoji door or noren divider there is probably a mouth-watering surprise of some sort.

Frustrated because my inability to speak or read the language — despite several years of college courses and patient tutors– leaves me unable to know exactly what I am walking into. I peek through what appear to be restaurant doorways and wonder: Can I afford what’s producing these stomach-rumbling aromas, and exactly what will I get?

So when a retired businessman offered to take me to his favorite spot for lunch during a recent visit to Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, I was thrilled. There is nothing better than sharing a local’s “everyday” fare.

I was not disappointed.

East meets West in Otaru, Japan

Otaru, a picturesque port town a half-hour train ride from Sapporo, the island’s capital, was built on the fortunes of fishermen and traders. Wrapped around Ishikari Bay, the city features a “Venice of the Far East” canal lined with old warehouses.

A short walk away is Sakaimichi Street, a historic shopping area whose 19th-century western-style buildings, once home for banks and trading companies, are now filled with trendy shops selling Hokkaido glassware and seaweed candy.

Otaru’s civic leaders are passionate about preserving history, and within a few blocks of the port there are museums devoted to the city’s history, the railway system, the Bank of Japan, Venetian art, music boxes and even literature.

Tsukushi is tucked away on a side street and just around the corner from the Literary Museum, where you can learn more about novelist Sei Ito, who was one of Otaru’s most famous residents. If a filmmaker was trying to cast an authentic Japanese seafood experience, this tiny restaurant looks the part.

Behind its sliding doors, Tsukushi boasts a three-sided bar built around a stone robata-yaki grill. Dried salmon and flatfish dangle from hooks on the ceiling and ceramic shochu jars line the bar. Five hundred yen ($4.25 U.S., according to a recent exchange rate) will buy a shot of the shochu, a potent Japanese liquor. Fluttering paper banners advertise the daily fare in bold brush strokes: seafood, seafood and more seafood.

We arrived shortly after the restaurant opened at 11:30 a.m., and the 11 stools filled rapidly with salarymen and women, utility workers and young female tourists. Linger too long and you’ll be asked to leave — politely of course. This is Japan, after all.


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An artist along the canal in Otaru, Japan. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

It was nearly a decade ago that Katsuhiko Kawanishi decided to go out on his own after cooking for more than a decade at other people’s hot stoves. The Hokkaido native named his restaurant Tsukushi after the horsetail plants whose green shoots mark the end of Hokkaido’s long winter.

Kawanishi starts his day early, meeting with one of the three or four main fish brokers who serve Otaru or visiting one of the local markets where fishermen bring in their daily catch. During my visit in early fall, the hakkaku, or sail-fin poacher, was in season. This unusual fish, whose large dorsal fin gives it the appearance of an eight-sided prehistoric monster, is a Hokkaido specialty and is eaten grilled or raw.

Unfortunately, there was no hakkaku on the menu the day I dropped in. But I still had more than a dozen different versions of donburi to pick from. Donburi, which means rice bowl, is a form of Japanese comfort food.

At Tsukushi, the donburi was covered with different types of sashimi, or raw fish, topped in turn with a sprinkle of salty dried seaweed called nori. For 500 yen ($4.25 U.S.), I was served a bowl of noodle soup, salty pickled vegetables and a bowl of steaming hot rice covered with thin slices of maguro tuna, squid and tobiko, delicate flying fish eggs. I chose the cheapest offering, but there were 15 kinds of donburi topped with everything from scallop and salmon eggs or crab, squid and salmon to sea urchin.

I returned the next day at lunch to try Tsukushi’s teishoku meal set, which included a piece of grilled fish accompanied by a bowl of rice, noodle soup, sashimi and pickled vegetables. For 630 yen ($5.35 U.S.), you could try one of seven varieties of grilled fish, including hokke (atka mackerel), sanma (saury pike) grilled with salt, or salmon collar.

In the evenings, Tsukushi becomes a robata-yaki restaurant, serving all kinds of grilled meats and seafood with beer and sake. Arrive before 6:30 p.m. and you can get a special meal set for 1,300 yen ($11.04 U.S.) that includes two drinks (beer or sake), sashimi, yakitori and pickles. And don’t tip the chef or waiter. That custom has still not caught on in Japan.

Unfortunately, I ran out of time long before I reached the end of the menu. But a couple visits to Tsukushi convinced me it is possible to eat very well on a budget in Japan with the right introduction. If you go, tell Kawanishi-san I sent you.

Main image: Lunch from Tsukushi in Otaru, Japan. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

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Frying latkes for Hanukkah. Credit: iStock/Lisafx

Latkes, doughnuts and fritters — in Jewish homes, everyone’s frying this month, much as we have been for the last 2,000 years or so. Frankly, you’ve got to love a religion that actually encourages you to eat deep-fried foods — especially with sour cream!

All Jewish festivals have a culinary dimension, and Hanukkah (which this year begins at sundown Dec. 16) is no exception. In fact, it’s at the very heart of the event, although it’s the oil that is the important thing. In other words, the frying rather than the fried. Jewish traditions encompass both the sweet and savory, but the Ashkenazi latke is arguably in pole position in the Hanukkah festival food repertoire.

Let me be clear. I am talking dirty. I am not dealing here with “latkes-lite,” baked in the oven rather than fried in the pan. To my mind, the former has lost sight of its meaning and origin in the story of the Maccabees and the miracle of the menorah in the temple. It’s also lost a lot of its taste.

Back in the day, in the Jewish shtetls of Eastern Europe, the run-up to Hanukkah was also the time for fattening poultry — “Hanukkah is coming and the geese are getting fat” — as the old Hyman family saying went. Cooking oil was hard to obtain, and the main source of kosher solid fat for meat cookery came from chickens, ducks and geese. Schmaltz is still a delicious substitute in which to fry your latkes instead of oil, although the health police would say it’s like choosing between a heart attack and, er, a heart attack.

Potatoes, an essential latke ingredient

It should also be remembered that potatoes — that other essential component of the latke — didn’t arrive in Europe until the 16th century, and were not widely cultivated throughout Russia, Poland, Lithuania and the Ukraine until the early to mid-19th century. Once they became a staple, however, Hanukkah in the shtetls was never the same. Potatoes and goose fat were an obvious combination to create a pancake that was quickly fried — and just as quickly consumed. Indeed, the potato latke was probably directly responsible for generations of generous Jewish hips.

Quantity is all very well. Indeed, it is a hallowed Jewish tradition, but we’ve become a little more discriminating since potato first met oil. The designer latke is everywhere. Theoretically, and indeed gastronomically, there is nothing wrong in this. As the essence of the festival is in the oil and the frying, latkes can be made with any vegetable from beetroot to zucchini. However, for traditionalists, the potato will always be at the heart of things. Speaking personally, a latke without the potato is like fancy without the schmancy.

Making latkes is a serious business, responsible for blood, sweat and tears in probably equal proportions. In order to be prepared for the ordeal ahead, I offer this simple (hah!) guide. Study, take Prozac and GO FRY.

Getting ready to make latkes. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Getting ready to make latkes. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Deconstructing the latke


You have to have the right potato. They should be floury not waxy.

Peeling or skin on?

This is where the trouble starts. Some leave the skin on, unless the potatoes are particularly coarse. Most insist peeled are best.


There are two routes to go: whole-soak or shredded-soak.

With the first, you peel and soak the whole potatoes in cold water for between 30 minutes and 24 hours.

With the second, you grate the potatoes and soak in cold water for at least half an hour, rinsing in a few changes of clean, cold water. Some use lightly salted water for soaking.

Most authorities agree that if you are not going to soak, grating should be done only about 15 minutes before cooking or the potatoes will turn brown.

Grating vs. shredding

In other words, short, stubby bits vs. long, thin bits. Or fine grate vs. coarse grate.

If you go for a fine grate, you have to make sure it does not become a gluey pulp.

One technique is to coarsely shred the potato and onion (we’ll come to the latter, shortly) in a processor, then pulse briefly before adding the eggs (we’ll come to those later as well).

Hand grater vs. processor

In many homes, men were traditionally given the job of grating, while the women hovered over the frying pan — but gender role appropriation aside, the big question is, do you grate by hand or with a food processor.

Some swear that only grating by hand gives the right chunky texture; they also swear a lot when the blood from their knuckles flavors the latke mix.

If using a processor, the issue is the grating disc vs. pulsing. It depends whether you want a crunchy latke or one with a smoother consistency.

One writer uses the medium shredding blade and lays the potatoes horizontally in the feed tube to maximize the length of the strands.

Another of my acquaintances uses the processor to separately grate the potato and onion. She then combines half the potato in the processor with the onion, egg, bindings and seasoning and whirls to combine. She then mixes in the rest of the shredded potatoes.


To use or not to use, that is the question. This is a subject that can be cited as grounds for divorce.

Some onion users grate it together with the potato, others separately. Some say the onion juice helps the potatoes to stop turning brown.

Some do not grate the onion but cut it into small chunks.

Some finely chop the onion by hand.

Some alternately grate some of the onions on the large holes of the grater and some of the potatoes on the smallest holes.

Some of us start to cry.

Making latkes for Hanukkah. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Making latkes for Hanukkah. Credit: Clarissa Hyman


We are now getting into advanced territory.

Once the potatoes and onion are ready, then everyone agrees they must be strained but should they be strained separately or together? Does it matter?

And what do you strain them in?

One writer places the potatoes in a colander, sprinkles them with salt, adds a layer of paper towels and tops with a heavy object.

Another lines a bowl with cheesecloth rather than using a colander. She holds this briefly under running water and squeezes it again thoroughly to remove excess moisture.

Many wring the grated potatoes and onions in a tea towel.

One poor soul cuts both the potatoes and onions into small dice, which she then grinds and drains. After adding eggs, seasoning and flour, she then drains again.

A subsection to this stage concerns the starch from the drained potato. You can collect the starch by straining the potato over a bowl, then pour off the liquid, leaving behind the potato starch/sediment. Do you use it or not?

Some swear by it. Others say it makes the latke go soggy. The Vilna Gaon does not pronounce on the issue.


Good cooking, as everyone knows, is about balance, which is always difficult in high heels.

Everyone has their own secret formula although one pound of potatoes to one large onion to two large beaten eggs works pretty well. One daring soul has been known to add an extra egg yolk.


This does not mean tying yourself to the kitchen table. It is a serious issue. One must debate the different merits of matzo meal vs. flour or a half-and-half mixture of both. Plain vs. self-rising flour? And if so, how much?

One authority makes his batter firm enough to scoop up with his hands, so he can pat it into a pancake leaving a few straggly strands along the edge. For others, this is simply too solid a mix.

A minority caucus votes for potato flour: This has the merit of making the latkes more compact, firmer and easier to handle but, honestly, they are just not as lovely to eat.

Other ingredients

Salt and pepper seems straightforward but my mother always insisted on white pepper, and who am I to disagree?

Lemon juice, sugar and caraway seeds have also made an appearance in the kitchens of those who should know better.


Now we’re really getting to the heavy stuff (perhaps that’s not the right word).

How large should a latke be? One or two tablespoon size? Do you flatten with the back of the spoon or a spatula?

Should they be thin or thick, what should be the surface to interior ratio, what about the crispy/creamy ratio?

Generally, the flatter they are, the crispier they will be — although if that’s how you like them, you probably live with someone who prefers thicker ones with a soft interior.

Fried latkes. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Fried latkes. Credit: Clarissa Hyman


It should be olive oil, although not necessarily your best extra virgin. Many people, however, use vegetable oil.

More complicated is the question of whether to deep or shallow fry. If the latter, how deep should the oil be in the pan? Half an inch? Or should the oil just “film” the bottom? Should you use a nonstick pan? Are you losing the will to live?


This is crucial. If the temperature of the oil is not hot enough, the latkes go very greasy and stodgy. If the oil is too hot, then the outside burns before the inside is cooked.

Good hints: Preheat the empty pan before adding the oil; bring the raw mixture to room temperature before cooking; listen for the sizzle when the latkes hit the pan; don’t crowd the pan, or they become soggy.


Freezing is possible, although purists insist they do lose a little je ne sais quoi. Frozen latkes should be fried from frozen or reheated in a hot oven on a wire rack to allow the hot air to circulate around the entire surface.

The X factor or the returnability factor

Ancient animosities aside, as all latkologists know, the test of a good latke is the returnability factor — are they so good you would return for more?


One batch is never enough. It takes several attempts to get it right — and apart from anything else, you have to keep testing the batch to see if it is up to standard.

But, at the end of the day, how can you ever judge a latke? It’s not just a question of shape, color, texture and taste but of emotional resonance, psychic energy, Jungian dreams and tribal loyalties. Not to mention hunger. Perhaps it’s simply a small miracle — which is why we’re frying now.

Main photo: Frying latkes for Hanukkah. Credit: iStock/Lisafx

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Main photo: Beet Chocolate Cake. Credit: Lynne Curry

I never thought of myself as a beet fanatic. Sure, I like this versatile root vegetable well enough, but only recently realized that beets are pivotal to the menu at my restaurant, the Lostine Tavern — roasted, raw, pickled and puréed. Along with two types of pickled beets, we feature beetroot on a hugely popular open-faced sandwich, grated beet in our tossed salad and a riveting beet panzanella salad. But the best-selling item of all is the chocolate beet cake.

That’s right: This cake contains beets. A curious item for a tavern in the heart of Oregon’s cattle country, but that’s how good this is.

It’s become so popular, some customers ask for it before they order their meal while others request it for birthday cakes. So tasty and moist, it has caused more than one avowed beet hater to eat his words.

An irresistible tower of three-tiered chocolate layer cake with fluffy dark chocolate frosting, this cake is a scene-stealer and a crowd-pleaser that belongs on any holiday table. The fact that it’s a veggie cake is both a nutritional plus and a conversation piece.

Why beets?

True enough, beets are a root vegetable, but using them in desserts is not as crazy as it sounds.

Beets have the highest concentration of sucrose among all vegetables. They are, after all, the source for granulated sugar.

Just like using carrot cake or pumpkin quick bread, beets are moisture insurance in cake baking. Fully cooked in simmering water and then pureed, the beets stealthily mingle with the cocoa powder, sugar and oil in the batter. Dark red beets tinge the color of the batter a shade toward red velvet cake. For anyone to know there are beets in this cake, you’ll have to tell them. Then, delight in their surprise.

Good desserts

Some may be happy to know that beets are a unique source of phytonutrients with strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. I just love knowing I’m getting another dose of veggies into my kids’ dessert.

The earthy sweetness of the beets heightens the flavors of the chocolate, rendering a cake that is none too sweet. I use this recipe for everything from birthday cupcakes to everyday snack cakes. It mixes in a single bowl and makes either three 8-inch round layers, two 9-by-13-inch sheet cakes or a lot of cupcakes.

The cake layers form a great base for embellishment with layers of cherry preserves and whipped cream, a light snow of powdered sugar or a scoop of vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce.

For the holidays, however, I take this cake to the hilt, slathering chocolate cream cheese frosting between three cake layers for a table centerpiece that is sure to capture everyone’s attention.

Beet Chocolate Cake

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 20 to 25 minutes

Total time: 35 to 40 minutes

Yield: 8 to 10 servings


2 1/2 cups puréed cooked beets
6 eggs, beaten
3/4 cup good-quality cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/2 cups vegetable oil
3 3/4 cups granulated sugar
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons salt


1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

2. Oil three 8-inch-round cake pans and line them with parchment paper.

3. In a small mixing bowl, beat the beets and eggs. Combine the cocoa powder, vanilla and oil in a large measuring cup.

4. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the sugar, flour, baking soda and salt until combined. Add the cocoa powder mixture to the flour and stir with a rubber spatula until well combined. Add the beet mixture and stir just until combined.

5. Pour the batter into the prepared pans. Bake until the sides of the cake pull away from the pan and a wooden skewer slid into the cake’s center comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes.

6. Cool the cakes for 10 minutes and tip them out of the pans onto wire racks to cool completely.

Dark Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting

Prep time: 10 minutes

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate
3 sticks unsalted butter (12 ounces), room temperature
12 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla
3 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar

1. Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a pan of simmering water. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool to room temperature.

2. In a stand mixer, use the whisk attachment to beat the butter and cream cheese until perfectly smooth. Add the vanilla and scrape down the sides of the bowl.

3. Add the confectioner’s sugar and blend on medium speed until it is fully incorporated. Add the cooled chocolate mixture and blend on medium-high speed until it is very smooth and light.

4. Spread one-third of the frosting on top of each of the cooled cake layers and stack them to create three tiers. Leave the sides unfrosted.

Main photo: Beet Chocolate Cake. Credit: Lynne Curry

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Rashid Nuri. Credit: Sarah Khan

Stories abound about farmers of color in the United States and their historic ties to the land. Current-day farmers carry nuanced stories about why their ancestors left and why they feel compelled to return: Is it spiritual, out of need, political or pleasure?

Gone are the post-Civil War days when some forsook farming to northern cities and industrial jobs. The descendants of the enslaved understood farm work as degrading and severe, something to be shunned at all costs.

Instead today’s farmers of color are reclaiming and revitalizing their historical ties to the land, a land full of riches their ancestors, distant and near, built.

Sandra Simone, of voice and vetch

Sandra Simone, a jazz singer, returned to the soil of her roots. Her life moved forward once she bought back a fraction of her ancestor’s land in rural Alabama. Watch and listen to Sandra.

Frankie Lee Michael, on native southern pecans

A part-time pecan farmer, Frankie Lee Michael carries on his father’s business of providing automated pecan shelling to local pecan farmers in Mississippi. Lee, of Native American heritage,  shares his perspective on pecans, desserts, the environment and the changing climate in this short film clip.

Rashid Nuri, on urban agriculture

Rashid Nuri of Truly Living Well has a long career in government and private sector. In this short film clip, Nuri describes why all people should have a right to healthy food, urban or rural, and he shares how he and his community are doing it in the heart of downtown Atlanta.

Main image: Rashid Nuri. Credit: Sarah Khan

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Sopa de lima. Credit: University of Texas Press

My first trip to Mexico began in  the Yucatán. I landed in Mérida, which as David Sterling describes in his brilliant new tome, “Yucatán,” is “a cosmopolitan grande dame standing at the crossroads, graciously welcoming home her global family.” I eventually became part of that family, moving to Mexico and becoming a citizen.

“Yucatán: Recipes From A Culinary Expedition”
By David Sterling. University of Texas Press, 2014, 576 pages
» Click here to buy the book

My initial encounter with the country, however, was on that trip back in 1973. My mother and I went for lunch shortly after arriving from New York. My first taste in this new world was of sopa de lima, a quintessential Yucatecan dish. The soup is a rich chicken soup perfumed by toasted strips of tortilla and slices of lima, a heady aromatic citrus native to the region. Its exotic scent became an indelible part of my psyche at that moment. A sip today conjures magical worlds for me like Proust’s madeleines.

"Yucatan: Recipes From a Culinary Expedition"

The Yucatán peninsula, historically isolated from much of the rest of Mexico, comprises the states of Yucatán, Campeche and Quintana Roo. It was populated by the descendants of the Maya, and later, by a mix of immigrants. Like all Mexican regional cooking, Yucatecan cuisine is a fusion of traditions, in this case primarily Mayan, Spanish, Lebanese and French. Nowhere else in the republic are these influences so obvious. And the celebration of its brilliant complexity is experiencing a revival. From market stands to restaurants with culinary institute-trained chefs, the eating-out scene here has grown by leaps and bounds. But the range of what is known and available has always been limited. The region’s cooking is well represented in the rest of the country, but usually by a narrow list of “greatest hit” dishes.

The great investigator, chronicler and chef Diana Kennedy laid the groundwork for unearthing, recording and promulgating Mexican regional food outside the country. She is to Mexico what Julia Child was to France, and she was similarly undervalued within its borders. Kennedy, who is now over 90, recently put together an acclaimed volume on Oaxaca. But she never did get around to celebrating the Yucatán. So with her blessing, Sterling has taken the reins. Kennedy’s blurb, which graces the back of the book, says it best: “I know of no other book in print today, or in the past for that matter, that explains so meticulously the ingredients and history of the foods of Yucatán.”

I don’t either. Sterling has done a magnificent job in every way.

Scholarly and readable

The subtitle of “Yucatán” is “Recipes From a Culinary Expedition.” But this is no mere cookbook. It is a work both scholarly but readable, informative and entertaining. It is beautifully designed and features the colorful photos and drawings from a team of photographers and illustrators, as well as archival material.

David Sterling

David Sterling. Credit: University of Texas Press

Chapters divide the book by geography — the market, the urban matrix, the fertile shores, the pueblos, as well as sections devoted to “pantry staples” and “kitchen technique.” There’s an astute mix of personal anecdotes, historical background and culinary analysis, in addition to the histories of individual dishes. The author is honest when he confesses, in a section entitled “La Cantina” that “I spent a few years in Yucatán before venturing inside a cantina. After all, aren’t these rugged, all-male enclaves dangerous dens of smoke, prostitutes and raucous drunks? … Eventually, though, my curiosity to see what was behind those seductive doors got the better of me and led me to try several cantinas.” He became a fan. Sterling is founder of Los Dos Cooking School in Mérida, the first and only culinary institute in Mexico devoted exclusively to Yucatecan cuisine. He resides and works there in a restored turn-of-the-century mansion.

To anyone venturing to the area, the book is an invaluable resource. A detailed history of the various migrations explains the complex recipes within. Rustic country dishes are elaborated upon. Pre-Hispanic cooking techniques — for example the “pib” method of marinating and pit roasting meats — are explained in detail. There are indeed recipes the home cook will never make — which is fine with me. This is not for the Rachael Ray “made easy” crowd.

Traditional dishes

Occasionally, substitutes for rare ingredients are suggested, but tradition is never compromised. For example, for the serious chef who wants to recreate the classic marinated suckling pig dish, cochinita pibil, a stove-top variation is suggested. Recipes for street foods include a variety of tamales, such as simple to prepare creamy colados. The recipe for Mucbilpollo, a large, baked festival tamal, offers a fascinating account of a cultural phenomenon, but it’s unlikely to inspire the average homemaker to reproduce it. No matter. There are also straightforward, elegant Spanish and Mayan influenced dishes: jurel en escabeche, a tuna-like fish cooked with tangy pickled onions, or hearty charcoal-grilled pork with achiote sauce. These are relatively easy to prepare, as is the classic, aforementioned sopa de lima or the iconic papadzules (egg-stuffed tortillas bathed in pumpkin seed and tomato sauces).

Many of these recipes have been culled from local chefs, from country cooks who use wood for fuel, and even from women of social standing who harbor their grandmother’s secrets. Some see the light for the first time here. Sterling should and will be lauded, as Kennedy has been, for his service to Mexican cooking and to gastronomy in general.

“Yucatán: Recipes From a Culinary Expedition” is a must for anyone with an interest in Mexican food, and in Mexico itself; bravo to the author and to the many cooks who have made it possible for him to share this wealth with us.

 Main photo: Sopa de lima. Credit: University of Texas Press

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