Vintage pasta label. Credit: Courtesy of Gerardo di Nola Pastificio, Naples

We’ve come a long way since the days when Americans thought Italian cuisine meant spaghetti or ziti in rivers of “marinara” set on red-checkered tablecloths. Even if mistaken notions persist about what genuine Italian cooking really is, we’ve embraced every new pasta that has come our way (think squid-ink fettuccine or agnolotti al plin), and we’ve become more sauce savvy, too. Amatriciana and puttanesca are commonplace in restaurant and home kitchens alike, and “carbonara” is a household word from New York to Nebraska. Arrabbiata, cacio e pepe, aglio e olio — you name it, we love them all.

Nevertheless, the canon of pasta-and-sauce pairings has remained something of a mystery outside the borders of Italy. The immense number of different shapes is daunting to us foreigners; out of sheer exasperation, we find ourselves asking, “Why so many?” There are “priests’ hats,” “wolves’ eyes” and “horses’ teeth,” “church bells,” “little loves” and “kiss catchers.” It is not enough to make pasta bows (farfalle); there must also be little bows (farfallette) and much bigger bows (farfalloni). There are not only small reeds called cannelle, but also very small reeds, large smooth reeds and large grooved reeds. Some shapes have more than one name (penne lisce and mostaccioli, for example, are one and the same).

A 19th-century graphic depicting rival pasta makers. Credit: Courtesy of Julia della Croce

A 19th-century graphic depicting rival pasta makers. Credit: Courtesy of Julia della Croce

The roots of this maccheroni madness go back to the fierce rivalry among dried-pasta manufacturers in 19th century Naples, where the southern Italian pasta industry mushroomed during the Industrial Revolution. At one point about 1,500 pastifici competed for business, engaging in price wars or introducing ever-newer products to lure customers to their brand. But probably more than anything, the seemingly endless variations reflect the expansive nature of the Italian people — their imagination and love of show.

The American versus the Italian approach

Americans are characteristically laissez-faire about pairing rules. James Beard once told me that he saw no reason to be bound by tradition; he believed we ought to be inventive with pasta recipes. By contrast, the Italians are always mindful of the pairing principles derived from a long history of pasta eating. Over the centuries, tried-and-true guidelines have emerged, based primarily on the ingredients in the dough and the architecture of each resulting shape — hard wheat or soft wheat, dried pasta or fresh, long or short, smooth or ridged. Various pastas absorb and combine with sauces in different ways depending on their wall thickness, density and structure.

Meanwhile, sauces — condimenti, as the Italians call themhave inherent texture, flavor and color attributes. The foundation of most is olive oil or butter, given body with tomato purée, meat, vegetables and/or cheese. The art of pairing can probably best be explained by herding all the unruly strands and little shapes into three separate tribes, as it were — each with their own swimming pools or sauces. (Here we will concern ourselves with dried pasta alone.)

Golden rules for pairing dried pasta and sauces

Strands

Lightweight

Capelli d’angelo (“angel hair”), cappellini (“fine hair”), vermicelli (“little worms”), fedelini (“very fine noodles”): Use all in broths or broth-based soups. The latter two, being thicker, are suitable for light, sieved tomato sauces, but none of these long, lightweight pastas can support dense cream-based or meat sauces.

Medium-weight

Spaghetti, spaghettini, spaghetti alla chitarra (“guitar-string spaghetti”), mezze linguine (“half linguine”): This group is sturdy enough for olive-oil sauces such as aglio e olio as well as tomato- or brothy seafood-based sauces that easily slip along the surface.

Heavyweight

Linguine (“long tongues,” aka bavette), perciatelli, bucatini, fusilli bucati lunghi (“long hollow coils”): Because these shapes have more weight than those in the previous subcategories, they will all support a relatively unctuous sauce such as basil pesto, but they are also sprightly enough to consort with sauces suited to medium-weight long pasta. By tradition, linguine is inexplicably inseparable from fish or shellfish sauces, though fluid tomato sauces make a pleasant match, too.

Spaghetti with fresh tomato and basil, a classic pairing. Credit: Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Spaghetti with fresh tomato and basil, a classic pairing. Credit: Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Tubes

The tubular shapes have relatively thick walls, which make them sturdy enough to support not only chunky tomato-based sauces with or without meat, as well as cheese or cream preparations. (Diagonal cuts are especially handy in this regard.) Despite the versatility of these shapes, the size of the ingredients in accompanying sauces should be kept in mind. For example, wide tubular cuts are big enough to trap meat bits and vegetable chunks (think rigatoni with broccoli and anchovies); not so in the case of petite variants such as pennette (“little quills”). Tubular shapes are also ideal for baked dishes because they hold their shape and firmness during a second cooking in the oven.

Anelli (“rings”), ditaloni (“thimbles”): Ideal for pasta e fagioli and other bean soups because the ring shape nests cannellini beans, lentils and such.

Penne (“quills”), penne rigate (“ridged quills”), penne lisce (“smooth quills”), pennette, rigatoni: These go with olive oil- or butter-based vegetable, meat and tomato sauces and also with cream-based concoctions. Olive oil-based sauces stick to ridged shapes better than to smooth ones. The slimmer pennette are best matched with light vegetable or tomato sauces containing, say, wild mushrooms or eggplant (though traditionalists wouldn’t dream of making pasta alla Norma with anything but spaghetti).

Quirky shapes

Farfalle (“butterflies”): Their delicate “wingspan” suits them to light sauces based on either olive oil or butter, as long as there are no big obstacles in their flight path.

Fusilli, fusilli corti (“short fusilli”), tortiglioni (hollow “spirals”), radiatori (“radiators”), gemelli (“twins”) and various twists: Shapes like these are designed to trap cheese and ricotta sauces or unctuous nut sauces, such as pestos. Ragù and other meat sauces love to collect in their coils, too.

Strozzapreti (“priest stranglers”): These handmade dried forms call for tomato, meat and sausage sauces.

Conchiglie (“shells”), riccioli (“curls”), ruote (“wheels”), lumache (“snails”): Short and stubby shapes such as these work well with hearty sauces featuring meat, vegetables, cheese or cream.

Main photo: Vintage pasta label. Credit: Courtesy of Gerardo di Nola Pastificio, Naples, reprinted from “Pasta Classica: The Art of Italian Pasta Cooking,” by Julia della Croce

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Lemon and crab risotto is made with champagne.

There’s nothing sadder than dumping even part of a bottle of Champagne that’s lost its fizz the day after New Year’s. So don’t do it.

If you didn’t remember to stop up your leftover Champagne and put it in the fridge, plan to incorporate the rest of your sparkling into a couple of easy dishes and start 2015 with a burst of creativity in the kitchen. You can rest easy knowing one of the highlights of your holiday revelry did not go to waste.

Champagnes and sparkling wines lose their bubbles at different rates and based on several factors. The warmer the environment, the more quickly the Champagne will release the carbon dioxide bubbles and go flat. Sparkling wines nearly always differ in how much carbonation is in the bottle. But once you’ve determined your Champagne is flat, there’s a bevy of options to save its flavor.

Champagne adds body to marinades, contrast to fruit syrups, subtle nuance to your favorite risotto dish, sweetness to soup. Without its fizz, it has lost that effervescence that made it so attractive in the first place and likely tastes too off to drink by itself, but it is just as versatile and a lovely addition to some of your favorite dishes. Actually, any recipe incorporating white wine would do well with a dose of flattened Champagne, but there can be some lingering sweetness, so be sure to take that into account when choosing how to use it.

Even if you have a bottle that’s been sitting corked in your fridge for a week, you can use what’s left over to give some of your everyday dishes a big, ambitious kick (as in the case of the crab and lemon risotto recipe, below), or just a small dose of surprise (like in Champagne French toast). All it takes to impart the lasting flavor of most flattened Champagnes into your favorite dishes is about a quarter to half a cup of leftover sparkling.

Here are some great dishes to try once your Champagne has gone flat.

1. Lemon Crab Risotto With Mint and Hot Pepper Flakes

Set a saucepan with four cups chicken stock to medium on one burner. On another burner, in a large-mouthed pan, sauté 1/4 cup shallots in 2 tablespoons of butter until they are translucent but not brown. Add 2 cups Arborio rice and 1/4 cup leftover Champagne, stirring constantly. Stir until liquid has evaporated. Keep adding hot stock and stirring until the rice has plumped. When all the stock has been incorporated, stir in 1 tablespoon of unsalted butter and the juice and rind from 1 lemon. Add 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese if desired. Just before serving, stir in 8 ounces of fresh crab meat. Garnish with hot pepper flakes and fresh torn mint leaves.

2. Champagne Syrup

In a saucepan, mix 1 cup leftover Champagne with 1/3 cup sugar and 1/2 cup water. Mix in the zest from one lemon plus 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice. Add one cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring often, for about 5 minutes, or until all the sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool for half an hour. Pour over your favorite pound cake, seasonal fruit or raspberries.

3. Sole Poached in Champagne

In a large, non-stick pan, sauté one chopped onion in 1 tablespoon of olive oil until soft. Add 1 teaspoon of salt, 1/2 teaspoon of  lemon rind and one finely chopped garlic cove. Lay fish on top of onions. Pour chopped tomatoes and parsley over fish, then pour 1/4 cup leftover Champagne around fish. Cover loosely with foil and cook over medium heat 8-10 minutes, or until fish flakes away.

4. Champagne Salad Dressing

Mix 1/2 cup mild-flavored extra virgin olive oil with 1/4 cup leftover Champagne, ¼ cup white wine vinegar, a pinch of sugar. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

5. Champagne French Toast

Use your favorite French toasting bread (we recommend day-old Challah) cut into slices 1-inch thick. Mix four large eggs at room temperature with 1/2 cup half and half, 1/4 cup Champagne and a teaspoon of sugar and a pinch of sea salt. Soak the bread in the egg and cream mixture for one minute and then fry in foamy hot butter on each side until golden.

6. Champagne Marinade for Salmon

Add 1/4 cup leftover Champagne to 1/3 cup olive oil. Mix 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard with 1/2 teaspoon dried basil leaves and 1/4 teaspoon thyme and a dash of salt and pepper. Marinate your favorite grilling fish in the marinade for at least two hours and brush with the marinade while grilling.

7. Champagne Soup

In a medium-sized saucepan, boil four cups vegetable stock with five de-skinned and chopped Anjou pears. Add the zest and juice of one lemon and 1 cup Champagne. Cook until pears are tender, about 10 minutes. Carefully puree the soup and stock until smooth in a food processor or with an immersion blender. Add the Champagne, lemon zest and juice and stir until smooth. Salt and pepper to taste.

Main photo: Lemon and Crab Risotto With Mint and Red Pepper Flakes is an inspired way to use some of your leftover Champagne or sparkling wine. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

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What new foods and dishes will appear on our plates in 2015? Credit: iStock

Pseudoscience and seductive headlines worked their black magic in 2014, enticing people to follow one misguided food fad after another. However, 2015 holds more promise.

We at Oldways — our nonprofit has spent the last quarter century guiding people to good health through heritage and cultural food traditions — predict that what’s old will be rediscovered in brand new ways. We see five food trends in our kitchens and on our dinner plates for the year ahead:

1. Whole grains become the new normal

Now that diners have discovered the nutty flavor and toothsome bite of whole grains, they are more willing to move from quinoa to more adventurous options like teff, sorghum and millet. Next up: Look for on-demand milled grains and more varieties of sprouted grains and sprouted grain flours, which will take baking to the next level.

2. African heritage cuisine goes mainstream

Thanks to chefs such as Marcus Samuelsson and Bryant Terry, as well as food historians such as Jessica B. Harris, African heritage cuisine has been elevated to new ranks. Based on whole, fresh plant foods, with a special emphasis on leafy greens, the traditional healthy eating patterns of African heritage, with roots in America, Africa, the Caribbean and South America, are making their way to more and more menus. In turn, more diners are discovering these healthy traditions of Africa. That’s also encouraging home cooks to explore and experiment with dishes like African peanut soup, Hoppin’ John and Jollof rice (also known as benachin).

3. All hail plants!

Interest in plant-based diets has reached an all time high. The trend has grown beyond just replacing meat. Today, vegetables are celebrated with innovative plant-centric plates such as zucchini baba ganoush and cauliflower steaks. In 2015, a number of less well known vegetable varieties will pop up at farmer’s markets, on more menus and on more plates. Look for tat soi and turnip greens as well as new and delicious hybrid vegetables like BrusselKale, a combination of two of America’s favorites.

Sara Baer-Sinnott, president of Oldways, a nonprofit food and nutrition education organization, sees five food patterns in the year ahead. Credit: Courtesy Oldways

Sara Baer-Sinnott, president of Oldways, a nonprofit food and nutrition education organization, sees five food patterns in the year ahead. Credit: Courtesy of Oldways

We will move beyond butternut to an amazing assortment of other squash: kabocha, delicata and sweet dumpling. Root vegetables such as rutabaga, watermelon radishes, purple potatoes and parsnips, also will rule. Even the U.S. government is considering a recommendation to eat more plant foods and less meat in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines.

4. Will it blend?

Home cooks looking to amp up the flavor are turning to herbs and spices with a twist.  Spice blends like Berbere, Baharat, Ras el Hanout and Herbes de Provence (from Ethiopia, the Middle East, North Africa and France respectively) are adding adventure in the kitchen. Cooks are discovering the allure of blending their own spices. And they’re taking cues from top chefs like Ana Sortun of the celebrated Cambridge-based Oleana. Not only do these home blends boost flavor without adding sodium or calories, they enable personalized flavor preferences.

5. Cultural condiments

The arts of preserving and fermenting foods — popular in traditional diets around the world — were originally created simply to extend the life of foods in a world without refrigeration. Today, more home cooks are learning these techniques and padding their pantries with homemade kimchi, craft pickles, sauerkraut and preserved lemons.

Main photo: What new foods and dishes will appear on our plates in 2015? Credit: iStock

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Find your style: Shoot what you enjoy. Experiment with lighting, lens, shooting positions, subjects and situations until you find a style that expresses how you feel about food. Credit: Copyright David Hagerman

How many times have you been inspired to photograph a dish only to find that the image captured on your camera’s LCD screen is nowhere near as beautiful, or appetizing, as the dish sitting in front of you? Unwilling to give up you shoot another, and another — until your dinner companion, or a waiter, taps you on the shoulder and says, “You better eat that before it gets cold.”

Great food photography is mostly about technique, and with a little practice you can master the basics. Once you’ve developed technical skills, add inspiration and passion (because every photographer should love his or her subject). You’ll be amazed at the results.

To advance your food photographs, check out the slideshow.

More Zester Daily stories with slideshows from David Hagerman:

» A professional’s tips for shooting photos of markets

» The heart of Lao cuisine

» Food and the open flame

» Endangered Thai treasure

Main photo: Find your style: Shoot what you enjoy. Experiment with lighting, lens, shooting positions, subjects and situations until you find a style that expresses how you feel about food. Credit: Copyright David Hagerman

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Manarola, on the Italian coast

It doesn’t take a large area to find a wide variety of food specialties, and five neighboring Italian coastal villages provide just that.

My destination was Cinque Terre, a short piece of the Ligurian coastline, just west of the border with Tuscany. Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore are five multicolored borghi (villages) overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. They are pretty close to each other, a few minutes distance by car or train. Better yet, a boat, weather permitting, will take you back and forth, making an unforgettable five-stop mini-cruise. If you like to hike, you can also reach them via a beautiful trail and enjoy spectacular sea views.

Food-wise, besides the classic products of Liguria, such as olive oil, pesto, walnut sauce and different varieties of focaccia, each “terra” (village with its surrounding land) has its own culinary specialties.

1. I did it! I ate the eyes!

It happened at the Trattoria dal Billy in Manarola. I was enjoying the antipasto di pesce, a 12-item platter of warm and cold fish, when the chef proudly showed me the catch of the day: a superb branzino (Mediterranean sea bass). How could I say no to such a beauty?

It was served with roasted potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and garden herbs, a perfect combination of the best the sea and the land could offer. Then the chef came back at my table, checked that I was enjoying it and insisted that I eat the fish eyes. Well, I closed my eyes and ate them. I had a pleasant surprise, they were not at all slimy, as I expected. They were more like a zesty touch that added a great seasoning to the delicate taste of the fish.

2. Fried goodness on the road

While in Cinque Terre, I loved to get lost in the windingsmall streets and passages called caruggi, where street vendors cook fried calamari, squid, shrimp and sardines, often sided by stands selling local vegetables. They were fried to perfection, wrapped in paper and garnished with a slice of lemon. Hot, crunchy and tasty. You eat them on the road.

3. Grazie Nonna!

“We have a surprise for you,” said Marzia Vivaldi and Luca Natale, the promoters of the Parco Nazionale Cinque Terre. “We will take you to the great restaurant Aristide (Via Discovolo, 138 Manarola), where Nonna Grazia will show you how to prepare her famous muscoli ripieni (stuffed mussels).” Nonna (Grandma in Italian) welcomed me with the most adorable smile and explained her secret recipe:

“It simple and easy. I make the stuffing with leftover bread, mussel meat, eggs, Parmesan, parsley and mortadella. I fill up the mussels, I cover with a generous fresh tomato and basil sauce, then I bake it. That’s it!”

As an Italian, hearing seafood and cheese, not to mention the addition of meat, mixed together, seemed somewhat heretical, but what a fantastic result.

4. Anchovies, what a treat!

Following a secular tradition, anchovies are caught with a seine net and a fishing lamp, then hand-processed within two or three days, carefully stratified in jars, pressed and covered with brine, making them tender and tasty, and allowing a perfect preservation. I tried them served with local olive oil, oregano, focaccia bread and butter. They were accompanied by a glass of Cinque Terre, the famous white wine of the area that requires mountain climbing abilities to produce, given the steep incline on which the grapes grow facing the sea.

5. Sciacchetrà: It’s time to toast

Imagine a secret bottle kept in the cave for years (sometimes more than 30). It’s the rich and velvety wine called sciacchetrà. This aged treasure resurges in occasion of a wedding as the greatest gift that the family of the groom could offer to the bride’s family. I had the privilege of opening a bottle that was more than 10 years old. It reminded me of a rich passito straw wine, sweet and liqueur-like. The color is intense: from golden shades to amber. The taste is a fruity, floral bouquet that is reminiscent of a Mediterranean garden: scents of nuts, apricot jam, nectarine, vanilla, chestnut honey and spices.

Grand finale: A dream accommodation

I ended my visit in the other location making up part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site: Porto Venere, a colorful and elegant resort with a delightful port. I followed the recommendation to have a candlelight dinner at Palmaria, the restaurant on the terrace of the magnificent renovated Grand Hotel, once a convent and now reopened as a four-star classy destination that offers impeccable service.

The restaurant’s view was spectacular. So was the menu. I obviously went for fish. I tried the most tender seared scallops with a baby potato cream and the exquisite Gran Bollito di Pesce a delicate boiled sea bass and shellfish stew, served with handmade mayonnaise.

You can visit the beautiful Cinque Terre in few days. A great period for trekking is from March to September. The right time to taste the unique cuisine … any day of the year!

Main photo: Manarola, one of the villages of Italy’s Cinque Terre. Credit: Cesare Zucca

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The average American consumes more than 19 teaspoons of sugar every day. That’s two to three times the recommended daily limit. Credit: iStock

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Surgeon General’s first authoritative report on smoking and health, rightly considered a landmark in public health. Since that first report in 1964, there have been 31 more Surgeon General reports on the effects of tobacco smoking.

Motivated by these reports, the percentage of Americans who smoke has dropped from 42% in 1964 to 18% in 2012 — still too high, but a real change.  Now, it’s time for the Surgeon General to issue a new report. We think it’s sugar’s turn.

Dear Surgeon General,

We need your help, Vivek Murthy. You’re now our nation’s top doctor and we need you. Sugar is a problem. We love it. We consume literally tons of it. But it doesn’t love us back.


In fact, our sugar habit is making us sick. You’re the one person in the country we can look to for a full diagnosis. We need you to step boldly into the conversation and assemble all the facts. Just as your predecessor did when he weighed in in 1964 on smoking.

In the 50 years since the tobacco study, there has been one report (in 1988) from the Surgeon General on health and nutrition. Over the last 26 years, the science of nutrition and health has advanced enormously. Thanks to modern research and data techniques, today we know a lot more about the impact of our eating habits on our health than we did 50 years ago. In particular, we need you to take a close look at the effects of the skyrocketing levels of sugar we consume.

As part of a growing body of scientific evidence, we now know that added sugar in America’s diet has a huge impact on public health. Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease — driven by high sugar consumption without the essential fiber that accompanies naturally occurring sugar in fruit — afflicts an estimated 31% of American adults and 13% of children. Excessive sugar consumption is also linked to heart disease and type 2 diabetes, affecting 16 million and 26 million Americans respectively. And the trend lines for our kid’s future are even gloomier.

Andrew Rosenberg is director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Credit: UCS

Andrew Rosenberg is director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Credit: UCS

More than 19 teaspoons every day

The average American consumes more than 19 teaspoons (82 grams) every day. That’s two to three times the recommended daily limit. Worse still, our overconsumption of sugar is fueled by healthy-seeming foods that hide sugar — products such as yogurt, tomato sauce and bread — behind synonyms such as barley malt, agave nectar, corn syrup and 61 other innocuous sounding names. Sugar is added to a whopping 74% of packaged foods.

And if that wasn’t enough, Americans are bombarded with slick advertising for products high in sugar. Advertising that is enormously well-funded (about $7 billion annually) and targets vulnerable populations such as children. It’s designed to manipulate the choices we make throughout our lives.

Pallavi Phartiyal is program manager for Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Credit: UCS

Pallavi Phartiyal is program manager for Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Credit: UCS

Overconsumption of sugar and its strain on our health and health care system need national attention. There is a momentum building across the country to address this problem. Berkeley, Calif., just passed the nation’s first tax on soda. The Food and Drug Administration recently advanced a proposal to include an “added sugar” line in the ubiquitous Nutrition Facts labels. And the dietary guidelines advisory committee, a panel of experts that advise the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, after considering the latest scientific evidence, supports an added sugar label. These are all glimmers of momentum. But you, Surgeon General, could be the engine that roars ahead.

When we have questions about our health, we go to the doctor. We need you, America’s top doctor, to help us understand the impact of added sugar on our health. It’s time for the Office of the Surgeon General to commission a report on a public health issue affecting so many Americans.

Doctor, can you help us?

Main photo: The average American consumes more than 19 teaspoons of sugar every day. That’s two to three times the recommended daily limit. Credit: iStock

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extra virgin olive oil potato chips

Spain is a country loved by culinary cognoscente for its extraordinarily diverse range of classics and creativity. But in every restaurant and every casa, there remains one constant ingredient: olive oil. Core to the much-acclaimed Mediterranean diet, its use is so prevalent that olive oil’s healthy values seep into everything. But it was still a surprise when I encountered “extra virgin” potato chips available in pharmacies here, which unlike their U.S. counterparts generally sell only medicine and skin-care products.

Potato chips condoned by medical experts? I needed no more encouragement to go out and test my options. I gathered four chip brands from Spanish grocery stores and the one from the pharmacy, all advertised as “made with olive oil” — most with an alluring cruet of olive oil on the package. A few brands claimed to use 100% olive oil, but only the pharmacy-stocked San Nicasio brand qualified their chips and the oil they fried them in as “extra virgin.”

San Nicasio went a step further, specifying the D.O. of both the olive oil and the potatoes (seriously, a Denominacion of Origen for potatoes?), the low-sodium Himalayan pink salt and the temperature at which the chips were fried in one of the most award-winning oils in the world, made by Almazaras de la Subbetica of Cordoba, Spain. The company clearly was fanatical about the quality of the chip. That all sounded intriguing but it was now time for the true measure — a blind taste test.

First, the smell test for freshness. As most olive oil fans know, olive oil is best when fresh and three environmental factors will have a negative effect on smell, taste and physical qualities: oxygen, light and excessive heat or cold. Rancidity is usually the most obvious signal that the oil has lost its best values. If you’ve ever smelled a stale jar of peanuts or worse yet, bit into one, you know the telltale flavor.

The selection of tested Spanish olive oil potato chips. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

The selection of tested Spanish olive oil potato chips. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Cracking open one bag at a time and taking a deep whiff revealed that some brands were past their prime, giving off a flat, almost mechanical aroma or slightly rancid smell, obviously fried with poor-quality oil. Two samples, one from the in-house Hacendado brand of Spain’s largest grocery chain, Mercadona, and San Nicasio had a nice, light aroma of potatoes and the San Nicasio chips smelled of fresh olive oil. It wasn’t until later that I learned the San Nicasio brand seals their airtight bags with nitrogen to avoid having the oil’s quality be degraded by exposure to oxygen. This attention to detail obviously worked.

Next, I evaluated visual cues of color, size and thickness. Two appeared darker and overcooked, the Hacendado and Lay’s Artesanal chips were almost too perfectly platinum blond and the San Nicasio brand was a fairly rich, natural yellow color. From an “eat with your eyes” perspective, I was drawn again to the rich-colored chips.

Finally, the true test of a potato chip: its flavor and crunch. Being all about the same thickness, they each delivered on the crunch test. But the real divide was apparent in the taste. I was looking for lightly salted, true potato flavor and a clean finish that would indicate quality olive oil. I’ll admit the Lay’s Artesanal came in a solid second for lightly salted flavor and crunch and being the largest chip manufacturer in the world, it should have enough experience to deliver the goods. But after all that testing, the San Nicasio chip I found in the pharmacy won across all categories. Healthy, flavorful and downright yummy.

Do you need a prescription from your doctor to indulge in San Nicasio chips? Not likely. But for fans of these thin, crispy wafers, you can at least tell yourself that they’re a health food.

Potato chips and eggs, a Spanish tapa.

Potato chips and eggs, a Spanish tapa. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Fried Eggs and Chips

Prep time: 0 minutes

Cooking time: 5 minutes

Total time: 5 minutes

Yield: 4 appetizer servings

Like elsewhere in the world, potato chips are most frequently enjoyed as a side snack to a midday meal or a sporting event. But in Spain, they are often included in scrambled eggs for mid-morning breakfast or paired with fried eggs for a rich tapas experience.

I first tried this dish presented by Spanish chef María José San Román while at Nancy Harmon Jenkins‘ Amorolio event in Tuscany and thought it a stroke of genius. I later discovered it’s a long-standing classic Spanish tapa for the home table. I’ve tried them both ways, but I’m partial to the liquid egg yolk and crispy-edged white atop the whole gooey mess.

Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil, 1/4-inch deep in saucepan

2 whole eggs

1 7-ounce bag of best-quality salted potato chips (In the U.S., chef José Andres sells the San Nicasio brand under his own label.)

Directions

1. Heat olive oil until just below smoke point.

2. Gently pour in whole eggs and cook until the white edges are crispy and the yolks still liquid.

3. Plate with a thin layer of chips, topped by the eggs. Break the yolks and sprinkle with more potato chips, giving the dish a gentle mix to incorporate.

Main photo: Extra virgin olive oil potato chips. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

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Buy the freshest cauliflower you can find for Cauliflower à la Greque. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary Barron

Although cauliflowers are sold in our supermarkets all year round, this beautiful member of the wild cabbage family (Brassica oleracea) is at its bright and healthy best in early spring. Cauliflowers harvested at that time have had the benefit of a longer growing season (about 80 days, instead of 50 days for their summer-grown counterparts), allowing their valuable nutrients more time to develop.

The cauliflower, whose name derives from the Latin caulis (stem) and floris (flower) is actually a cabbage bred for its flowers. The edible part of the plant, the head of tender stems and flower buds, is known as a curd. Similarly to broccoli and calabrese (close relatives), the cauliflower stores nutrients for the developing flowers at the base of the buds, so a fresh, crisp curd is packed full of vitamins and minerals. Its Latin botanical name, Brassica oleracea var. botrytis (meaning cluster, or grapelike), is an apt description of this remarkably clever vegetable, which grows with a protective layer of leaves curled around its head.

Hats off to the French, though, for giving cauliflower (chou-fleur, or cabbage-flower,) a prettier, and horticulturally more correct name, than the rather pedestrian Anglo-Saxon “flower on a stalk.”

Mysterious origins

There is disagreement over the origin of the cauliflower. Some say it was developed by 11th century Arab gardeners, or by Romans a thousand years earlier. But the wild cabbage grew throughout the ancient eastern Mediterranean and, with its tendency to produce “freaks,” prototypes of the cauliflower probably originated spontaneously in different places. Curious gardeners have since, through seed selection, improved nature’s work and we are now reaping the benefits.

Medieval Italian kitchens and, later, those of Louis XIV of France, served stylish and elegant cauliflower dishes. Catherine de Medici is said to have appreciated the lovely vegetable, and to have introduced it to France to help alleviate arthritis. But its earlier French name, chou de Chypre, suggests it arrived from Cyprus and Cypriots are, understandably, happy to claim its origin. For the past 200 years, the cauliflower has been a popular winter vegetable in northern Europe, but without its former prestige in serious kitchens. Until now.

Hardly humble

With cauliflowers piled high in our markets, this inexpensive and highly nutritious brassica is at last losing its humble status and taking its rightful place on our tables. A reputation for being bland and soggy is the fault of the cook, not of the cauliflower. Its very gentleness is the perfect foil to many fine flavors, and it takes only a few minutes to cook.

“Organic” and “local” have real meaning when selecting cauliflowers: snails, aphids and caterpillars love them, so pesticides are often used and, once harvested, their nutrients and flavor dissipate quickly. Most cauliflowers are attractively creamy-white, but we also have wonderfully colorful varieties. Buy cauliflowers that smell and look fresh, with deep-green, outer leaves and tight heads; avoid brown-spotted white ones, or dull-looking purple, yellow or green heads. Size doesn’t affect flavor, but age does: older cauliflowers taste and smell stronger.

Richer in vitamins and minerals than any other brassica, cauliflowers are an excellent source of vitamin C, folic acid and potassium; a very good source of niacin, copper, manganese and vitamins A, K, B5 and B6; and a good source for protein, phosphorous, magnesium and vitamins B2 and B3. Raw, they are even better.

Avoid nutricide

Cauliflower cooks quickly: Keep florets whole or cut large ones in half and simmer in a little water or steam for five minutes. After this time, cauliflower loses 20% to 30% of its phytochemicals; after 10 minutes, 40% disappear. Where possible, cook in ways that don’t commit nutricide – in soups and stews, grilled or baked. In its wonderful ability to host spicy flavors, some of the best preparations for cauliflower can be found in the kitchens of the Indian subcontinent and the Mediterranean. With winter soon drawing to an end, it’s time to enjoy the vegetable that has spent the past three months developing the nutrients we need to take us into a healthy spring.

The cauliflower is actually a cabbage bred for its flowers.

Cauliflower cooks quickly: keep florets whole or cut large ones in half and simmer in a little water or steam for five minutes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary Barron

 Simple Greek ways to serve

  • Serve raw or lightly-steamed small florets with a dip of mashed anchovy, capers, herbs, and olive oil or with hummus, small radishes and young wild green leaves.
  • Mix thinly sliced cauliflower florets and fine-julienned carrots with olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt, lightly chopped flat-leaf parsley, and Greek oregano (rigani ).
  • Dip small florets in a light garbanzo-flour batter and gently fry the fritters in olive oil; serve with olive oil and lemon juice mayonnaise, olives, and lemon wedges.

Cauliflower à la Greque

À la Greque (French for “in the Greek style”) describes a method of cooking, one that presumably a French cook/traveler admired and added to his/her own kitchen repertoire. There are many versions of this popular dish, but most are a pale imitation of the original Greek creation. Buy the freshest cauliflower you can find and, for a lightly spiced dish, prepare two hours ahead; for a more mellow taste and texture, leave overnight in the marinade.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 12 minutes

Total time: 17 minutes

Yield: 8 for a meze serving, 4 as a vegetable dish

Ingredients

4 cups small cauliflower florets

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons dried coriander seeds

1 cup dry white wine

3 bay leaves

1/2 tablespoon aromatic honey such as Hymettus

1 tablespoon cracked black peppercorns

Coarse-grain sea salt to taste

For serving:

4 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon lemon zest, in very thin strips, optional

Lemon wedges

Directions

1. Trim most of the stem from the florets and cut an “x” in the base of each with a small sharp knife. Blanch 1 minute in boiling water, drain, and set aside.

2. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy saucepan over low heat. Add the coriander seeds and florets in a single layer and stir with a wooden spoon to coat with the olive oil. Add the wine, bay leaves, honey, pepper and salt. Bring just to a boil, cover, reduce the heat, and simmer 10 minutes or until tender.

3. Transfer the contents of the pan to a nonreactive bowl and set aside until cool. Cover the bowl and shake it gently to redistribute the marinade.

4. To serve, taste the marinade. If more salt is needed, combine with the parsley. Transfer the cauliflower to a shallow serving bowl and pour over most of the marinade (strain it first, if you prefer). Sprinkle with parsley and lemon zest and serve with the lemon wedges.

Main photo: Buy the freshest cauliflower you can find for Cauliflower à la Greque. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary Barron

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