Blue Hill at Stone Barns Pocantico Hills, New York. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Zester Daily’s community of food writers recently put their heads together to create a bucket list of restaurants too wonderful to miss. These are the places where we’ve eaten that we tell our dearest friends they must visit. These are the places that, at journey’s end, make the whole trip worthwhile.

While beautiful settings are often part of the package with these restaurants, the food is the main attraction. That does not mean these dining rooms are all well known outside of their home towns. Our list includes high-toned and down-home restaurants scattered across the country. And we obviously enjoy dining with family and friends. If children are beyond booster seats and moderately well-behaved, they can join your dinner party at nearly all of these restaurants.

We’ve eaten at these places and know the chefs are creating some of America’s best food. As you plot your summer vacation, we hope this list of American eateries will inspire a few dinner detours. Happy travels!

More from Zester Daily:

» Battling chefs? Not these 5 European standouts
» Havana nights: Cuba’s new dining hot spots
» Chefs let British food shine at at Swiss gourmet fest
» Onyx chef’s modern Japanese take on fish

Main photo: Blue Hill at Stone Barns Pocantico Hills, New York. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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Nukazuke, or pickled vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

Traditional pickled foods have become increasingly popular, with their palate-pleasing spicy, sour, sweet and salty flavors and varied textures that provide health benefits as well as serving as a digestive aid.

The most popular traditional pickled foods in America are dill pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi — all of which share one thing in common: They are vegetables pickled in a brine, vinegar or other solutions and then left to ferment, a process called lacto-fermentation. Just the sound of the words make our stomachs feel better.

How does lacto-fermentation work? During fermentation, a beneficial bacteria called Lactobacillus, which is present on the surface of all vegetables and fruits, begins to metabolize its sugars into lactic acid; this is a natural preservative that inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria.

Eating pickled foods in moderation keeps your gut flora healthy and supports immune function by providing an increase in B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, digestive enzymes and other immune chemicals that fight off harmful bacteria.

Pickling: A universal practice

Among fermented foods, pickles remain popular in the U.S., along with sauerkraut and kimchi. Credit: Copyright Thinkstock

Among fermented foods, pickles remain popular in the U.S., along with sauerkraut and kimchi. Credit: Copyright Thinkstock

The universe of lacto-fermented foods includes so much more than dill pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi. Since ancient times, people around the world have used this method to preserve vegetables and fruits when refrigeration was not available, and the tradition of pickling has carried on.

The Japanese have a diverse variety of pickles that use solid rather than liquid pickling mediums as such miso, sake lees and rice bran — all of which undergo the process of lacto-fermentation. The result is a distinctly tangy, crunchy and delicious assortment of pickles.

I am particularly fond of the nutty aroma and mild flavor of nukazuke, a traditional Japanese pickling method using fermented rice bran. Like wheat bran, rice bran is the outer layer of the grain that is removed during the milling process. In the U.S., most of the bran gets sold off to produce cattle feed and dog food, but the Japanese use it to pickle any type of firm vegetable, including carrots, cucumbers, cabbage, radish, zucchini, kabocha and burdock. The vegetables are buried in nukadoko, the fermented medium, to pickle for just a couple hours or overnight and reused again. The flavor of nukazuke is not as sour or spicy as kimchi or sauerkraut, but the health benefits are just as high.

How to maintain the nukadoko medium

Your nukadoko base for fermenting should be kept in a cool place and mixed daily to maintain it. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

Your nukadoko base for fermenting should be kept in a cool place and mixed daily to maintain it. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

Maintaining a nukadoko medium involves one crucial task: keeping it alive. You must stir the medium with your hands once a day to aerate it, so the bacteria can breathe and do their thing. It takes no more than a minute of your time, so you can incorporate it into your daily ritual.

Nukadoko also loves the good bacteria that live on your hands, so don’t use a wooden spoon. You will notice the medium has a distinct sour smell, which indicates the bacteria are actively working. I find the smell rather pleasant.

I keep my nukadoko in the pantry, which makes the daily stirring an easy task, but some people prefer to keep it in the garage. When choosing a spot to keep it, be sure it’s a cool place. If you don’t have one, you can keep it in the refrigerator, but the fermentation process will be much slower.

Every family has its own version of nukadoko. In the old days, one of the heirloom gifts a Japanese mother passed onto her daughter as a wedding gift was nukadoko, and it was not uncommon to find a nukadoko that was more than 50 years old.

Sad to say, this custom is disappearing in Japan and convenient foods are taking over. However, a slow movement is underway to restore traditional foods like nukazuke, including here in America. I have third- and fourth-generation Japanese-Americans who come to my pickling workshops to learn how to make their grandmothers’ nukazuke.

Sourcing nuka

Fresh organic rice bran can be used to create a pickling medium. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

Fresh organic rice bran can be used to create a pickling medium. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

Sourcing rice bran in the U.S. is an easier task than I thought, because rice is grown widely in California. You can buy stabilized bran (commonly pasteurized) at Japanese markets or online, or ask your local rice farmer if they have some to sell. I contacted my friend Robin Koda at Koda Farms in South Dos Palos, one of the oldest rice farms in California, and she was happy to supply me with her raw bran, knowing its intended purpose.

One of my students commented that making nuka pickles is a bit like making compost, and it’s true. You will need a clay jar, an enameled pot or glass bin with a lid. I have an enameled pickling jar that’s about 30 years old, and it still works perfectly. The nukadoko medium has a texture similar to a wet sand or soft miso paste. Preparation of nukadoko takes about a week. If you have any leftover rice bran, keep it in the refrigerator or freezer because it is highly perishable.

Making nukadoko may seem a little tedious and time-consuming, but once you have been trained in the medium, you can keep it for years and pass it on to friends and loved ones. That’s what I enjoy doing.

Nuka Pickle Medium (Nukadoko) and Nuka Pickles

Vegetable scraps being used to train the nukadoko pickling base. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

Vegetable scraps being used to train the nukadoko pickling base. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

Ingredients

2 1/2 pounds of rice bran (nuka)

6 ounces sea salt

7 1/2 cups of filtered water

1 (6-inch) piece of konbu, cut up into small pieces

4 to 5 Japanese red chili peppers, seeded

Discarded ends and peels of vegetables (such as cabbage, carrots, cucumbers and daikon radish, but not onions)

2 garlic cloves, peeled (optional)

Directions

For making the nukadoko:

1. Place the rice bran in a heavy cast-iron pan and toast it over low heat. Use a wooden spoon or spatula to stir the bran so it doesn’t burn. The toasting process takes about 10 minutes. Once done, remove from heat and let stand.

2. In a separate large pot, combine the salt and water and bring to a simmer. Mix to dissolve the salt to make a brine. Remove from heat.

3. Slowly add the brine to the rice bran and mix it with a paddle until it reaches a consistency comparable to slightly moist sand.

5. Add konbu, chili peppers and garlic (if using) to the mixture.

For training the nukadoko and pickling:

1. Start by putting various vegetables scraps (try cabbage leaves, eggplant, celery and carrots) in the rice bran bed for about three days to allow them to lightly ferment. Take them out and discard them.

2. Repeat this three or four times, then you are ready to start pickling.

3. The nukadoko will develop a unique aroma and look like wet sand. At this point, a fermenting culture has been established and the nukadoko is alive and contains active organisms such as yeast and lactobacilli. You can now start putting vegetables into the nukadoko for fermenting. To speed the pickling process, you can rub a little salt on whole or large chunks of vegetables such as cucumber and carrots before you put them into the nukadoko. If the nukadoko becomes too wet, just add a little bit of rice bran with salt or a piece of day-old bread. Again, place fresh vegetables into the base for 1 to 2 days. Cucumbers may take only 2 to 3 hours on a warm day and 4 to 6 hours on a cold day.

Tips for maintaining the nukadoko base:

You will need to mix the nukadoko base once a day, turning it with your hand. If it the base feels dry, pour in a little beer. (Flat beer will work fine.)

If your most recent batch of pickles tastes too sour, add fresh nuka and salt (5 parts nuka to 1 part sea salt).

If you are traveling, you should move the nukadoko base to the refrigerator. The bacteria will go dormant, but you can reactivate them by giving the base a stir and leaving it out at room temperature. If you see any mold build up, simply scrape it off and add some fresh nuka to the mix.

Main photo: Nukazuke, or pickled vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

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Bolted lettuce in the garden. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

Water scarcity is not the only issue that climate change is forcing those of us in California who garden, whether on a small or large scale, to think about. I’ve been learning that lesson this spring as I watch plants bolt within weeks, sometimes, after setting them in the earth.

Bolting is when plants convert to producing seeds, leaving the leaves tough and — usually — inedible. I had planted romaine and red leaf starts, mâche, arugula and spinach, oak leaf and frisée, and broadcast a beautiful collection of French seeds from Georgeanne Brennan’s La Vie Rustic.

Bolted lettuce is tough, but doesn’t need to go to waste

Bolted lettuce, at center, stands tall in the garden. Credit: Copyright 2012 Flickr user woodleywonderworks

Bolted lettuce, at center, stands tall in the garden. Credit: Copyright 2012 Flickr user woodleywonderworks

But with hot September Santa Ana winds blowing in March, my crops were confused, and they still are. Broccoli went to seed long before I could harvest much in the way of florets. Baby lettuces are going to seed before they are larger than my hand, and those I planted as starts have grown into tall lettuce trees, the leaves tough and sticky.

I rarely throw out food though, and none of my bolted produce is going to waste. I learned long ago when I lived in France that a salad need not be the only home for lettuce. Bolted romaine may not be tender enough for a Caesar salad, but it can withstand the high heat of a stir-fry, and it makes a terrific spring or winter soup.

Lettuce, fresh ingredients are perfect in soup

Ingredients for lettuce soup: lettuce, leeks, herbs, potatoes, onions and garlic. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

Ingredients for lettuce soup: lettuce, leeks, herbs, potatoes, onions and garlic. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

I’ve pulled and cooked most of my lettuce by now as I turn my garden over to tomatoes. But I haven’t pulled it all, and there will be more for dishes like these. Though I learned about cooking lettuce from the French, I’m now taking cues from many cuisines. I stir-fry lettuce with tofu and with shrimp, and I’ve been blanching the bitter frisées in salted boiling water, then sautéing them in olive oil with garlic to accompany polenta or mashed fava beans, Appulia-style. If I find my bolted wild arugula too pungent to eat on its own, I chop it up and cook it quickly in olive oil, to toss with pasta.

If next year brings us another hot, dry fall and winter in California, I will not change my gardening routine. I’ll plant my winter lettuce garden as I do every year, but I’ll change my repertoire of dishes, and by necessity veer from the raw to the cooked.

Romaine, Leek and Potato Soup

Romaine lettuce, leek and potato soup.

Romaine lettuce, leek and potato soup. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 1 hour

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 small or 1/2 medium-size onion, chopped

2 leeks (3/4 pound), white and light green parts only, sliced and rinsed well (about 2 1/4 cups; save the dark parts for the bouquet garni and stock)

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 large russet or 2 Yukon gold potatoes (10 ounces), peeled and diced

5 cups chicken stock, vegetable stock or water

A bouquet garni made with a cleaned leaf from the dark part of the leek, a bay leaf and a few sprigs each parsley and thyme, and a Parmesan rind, tied together

Salt to taste

1 large head (3/4 pound) romaine lettuce, washed and coarsely chopped (6 cups)

Freshly ground pepper

Garlic croutons, chopped fresh parsley and/or chives, and hazelnut oil for garnish

Directions

1. If you do not have stock, make a quick vegetable stock with the leek trimmings and a few cloves of garlic while you prepare the other vegetables.

2. Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy soup pot over medium heat and add the onion and leek. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt and the garlic and cook, stirring, until the garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the potatoes, stock and bouquet garni, and bring to a simmer. Add salt to taste, cover and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes.

3. Stir in the lettuce leaves and continue to simmer for another 15 minutes. The potatoes should be thoroughly tender and falling apart.

4. Using an immersion blender, or in a blender, purée the soup until smooth. I prefer to use an immersion blender, and then put the soup through the coarse blade of a food mill. That way you get some nice texture, but you get rid of the fibers from the lettuce. If you want a smooth, silky texture, strain the soup through a medium strainer, pushing it through the strainer with a pestle, spatula or the bowl of a ladle. Return the soup to the heat, add lots of freshly ground pepper, taste and adjust salt. Heat through and serve, garnishing each bowl with garlic croutons, chopped fresh parsley or chives and a drizzle of hazelnut oil.

Note: The soup can be made a day ahead and reheated or served cold.

Stir-fried Brown Rice With Green Garlic, Lettuce and Tofu

Stir-fried Rice&Lettuce

Stir-fried rice and lettuce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 8 minutes

Total time: 23 minutes

Yield: 2 generous servings

Ingredients

1 egg, beaten

Salt to taste

2 tablespoons grapeseed oil or peanut oil

1/2 pound tofu, cut in 1/2-inch dice and blotted on paper towels

Soy sauce to taste

1 tablespoon minced ginger

1 tablespoon minced green garlic

1 teaspoon minced jalapeño or serrano chile (more to taste)

1/4 pound lettuce, cut in 1/2-inch wide strips (4 cups)

2 cups cooked brown rice

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

1 tablespoon Thai fish sauce

Directions

1. Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or a 12-inch skillet over high heat until a drop of water evaporates within a second or two when added to the pan. Season the beaten egg with a little salt. Swirl 1 teaspoon of the oil into the wok or pan. Make sure that the bottom of the wok or pan is coated with oil and add the egg, swirling the pan so that the egg forms a thin pancake. Cook until set, which should happen in less than 30 seconds. Using a spatula, turn the egg over and cook for 5 to 10 more seconds, until thoroughly set, then transfer to a plate or cutting board. Using the edge of your spatula or a paring knife, cut into 1/4-inch-wide strips. Set aside.

2. Swirl another tablespoon of oil into the wok or pan and add the tofu. Stir-fry until lightly colored, about 2 minutes. Season to taste with soy sauce and stir-fry for another few seconds, then remove to the plate with the egg.

3. Swirl the remaining oil into the wok or pan and add the garlic, ginger and chile. Stir-fry no more than 10 seconds, until fragrant, and add the lettuce. Stir-fry until the lettuce wilts, about 2 minutes. Add the rice and stir-fry, pressing the rice into the pan and scooping it up, for a minute or two, until fragrant and hot. Return the tofu and egg to the wok along with the cilantro and fish sauce, stir-fry for another 30 seconds to a minute, until everything is hot and nicely mixed together, and serve.

Main photo: Bolted lettuce stands tall amid the flowers in the garden. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

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Chocolate-dipped Watermelon slices sprinkled with sea salt. Credit: Copyright 2015 Zester Media

Watermelon’s dribble-down-your-chin deliciousness adds an exclamation mark to any summer picnic. Memories of seed-spitting contests followed by a run through the sprinklers are the essence of childhood.

But there is so much more to love about watermelon. It is summer’s most versatile food. Dress it up or keep it simple. Soups, curries, salsas and salads; watermelon’s savory sweetness deserves a place at every meal. Let your imagination go!

Whether you use the fruit in cocktails, healthy smoothies or a simple Mexican agua fresca with watermelon juice and a squeeze of lime, drink in the goodness of watermelon.

Check out these 10 killer ideas; you will never see watermelon the same way again.

More from Zester Daily:

» Watermelon salad heaven starts with the right melon
» Watermelon + seeds
» Japan’s fruit fetish
» Ring in the new year with simplicity and health

Main photo: Chocolate-dipped Watermelon slices sprinkled with sea salt. Credit: Copyright 2015 Zester Media

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Some of Colomé’s oldest Malbec vines, planted in the mid-19th century and grown on pergolas. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Malbec is to Argentina as the Golden Gate Bridge is to San Francisco: impossible to imagine one without the other. Yet this deeply colored, exuberant purple grape that is automatically associated with Argentina came originally from France. Known as Cot in its original homeland, Cahors, where it continues to play a leading in the wines of that region, it was brought over by French agronomist Michel Pouget in 1852.

But it’s in the vineyards all along the eastern edge of the Andes that the Malbec vine has really found its feet. There are now more than 30,000 hectares (76,000 acres) planted throughout Argentina — six times as much as in its  homeland.

In its adopted home, the grape is celebrated for its ability to make huge quantities of juicy, fruity, uncomplicated red wine at a fair price — perfect for the upcoming barbecue season. But there’s a new wave of Malbecs that merit more than the obligatory char-grilled steak.

On a recent visit to Mendoza and Salta, two of the country’s most significant wine regions, I found (aside from a warm welcome and some gorgeous wines) a buzz of excitement, plenty of experimentation and a firm belief in what has become Argentina’s signature red wine grape.

Per Se Vines

Edy del Popolo inspects the terroir in his vineyard in Gualtallary, in Mendoza’s Valle de Uco. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Edy del Popolo inspects the terroir in his vineyard in Gualtallary, in Mendoza’s Valle de Uco. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Edy del Popolo’s microwinery Per Se Vines has just 1.5 hectares (barely 4 acres) of vineyards in Gualtallary, a top appellation in the Valle de Uco south of Mendoza, and the first harvest was in 2012. Plantings are principally Malbec with a little Cabernet Franc, and wines combine the two in varying proportions.

“I like non-interventionist viticulture” is how del Popolo explains his wine-making philosophy. “I want the place to express itself without my fingerprint showing.”

Per Se Jubileus (mainly Malbec “with a few bunches of Cabernet Franc thrown in”) is a joyous wine with good, ripe tannins, while La Craie (a Malbec-Cab Franc blend) is restrained elegance overlaid with subtle hints of orange and lemon zest.

Montechez

Montechez vineyards in Altamira at the foot of the Andes, protected from hail by netting and equipped with drip irrigation. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Montechez vineyards in Altamira at the foot of the Andes, protected from hail by netting and equipped with drip irrigation. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Fincas y Bodegas Montechez is another new venture in Mendoza’s Valle de Uco but on quite a different scale with 100 hectares (250 acres). In the prime appellation of Altamira, serried ranks of newly planted vines — every row drip-irrigated and draped in anti-hail netting — stretch as far as the eye can see, framed by the snowcapped Andes.

The aptly named Vivo is a bright, lively Malbec, briefly aged in used French and American oak barrels and designed for early drinking. Reserva is discreet and elegant after a slightly longer spell in used barrels, while Limited Edition, with 16 months in all French oak (new and used), is the aristocrat, dark and brooding and promising a long and distinguished life.

Lagarde

A collection of Lagarde Malbec and Cabernet Franc bottles in the winery shop in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

A collection of Lagarde Malbec and Cabernet Franc bottles in the winery shop in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

The Lagarde estate in Luján de Cuyo comprises about 245 hectares (619 acres), including a parcel of 100-year-old Malbec vines. Founded in 1897 and one of the oldest wineries in Mendoza, it nonetheless looks resolutely forward — “Honoring the past, imagining the future” is the house motto, explained Sofia Pescarmona, who runs the estate jointly with her sister, Lucila.

They were the first in Argentina to introduce Viognier, the aromatic Rhone white. Their house pink, 50 percent Malbec and 50 percent Pinot Noir, is a delight with all the fruit and fragrance that’s missing from many a rosé. On the Malbec front, there’s a whole slew of juicy 100 percent varietals (Primeras Viñas, Guarda, Lagarde and Altas Cumbres ). For a special occasion, look for the super-elegant blend Henry Gran Guarda, a very Bordelais mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc.

Bodega Colomé

Colomé vineyard manager Andrés Hoy explains the importance of terroir in wine making. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Colomé vineyard manager Andrés Hoy explains the importance of terroir in wine making. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Bodega Colomé is hidden away up a bone-shaking track in a remote and spectacularly beautiful valley in the northwestern province of Salta, close to the Bolivian border. Wine growing here, at 2,300 meters (7,000 feet) above sea level in desert-like conditions with an annual rainfall of barely 120 millimeters (4 inches), is not for the fainthearted.

Established in 1831 and now owned by Hess Family Wine Estates, Colomé produces several whites, including Salta’s signature wine Torrontés and three Malbecs: Estate, a Malbec-rich wine with a small proportion of other red varieties; Auténtico, 100 percent Malbec, unoaked and unfiltered with rich red fruit flavors; and Reserva, made with fruit from vines aged between 60 and 150 years, with a two-year spell in new French oak barrels and one more in bottle.

Bodega San Pedro de Yacochuya

Arnaldo Etchart, joint owner of Bodega San Pedro Yacochuya, in his vineyards above Salta's Calchaquí Valley, Salta Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Arnaldo Etchart, joint owner of Bodega San Pedro Yacochuya, in his vineyards above Salta’s Calchaquí Valley. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Bodega San Pedro de Yacochuya is a boutique winery in Salta’s Calchaquí Valley, a joint venture between the Etchart family and French winemaker Michel Rolland. The estate’s 20 hectares (50 acres) used to be planted largely with Torrontés, the finely aromatic white grape that thrives in the rarefied altitudes of the northwest. Nowadays Malbec rules, plus Cabernet Sauvignon and a little Tannat.

Ranked by Wine Advocate as one of Argentina’s top five wineries (Parker points abound here), they make three impressive reds in which the Rolland fingerprint is clearly visible: opulent and mouth-filling Malbec Yacochuya has a little Cabernet Sauvignon added to the mix and is aged in new oak; San Pedro de Yacochuya is a dense and delicious 100 percent Malbec; and the impressive Yacochuya made from 60-year-old Malbec vines is one to cellar.

Bodega Tukma

Painstaking selection of grapes for Bodega Tukma’s top-of-the-range Gran Corte, before de-stemming and crushing Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Painstaking selection of grapes for Bodega Tukma’s top-of-the-range Gran Corte, before de-stemming and crushing
Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

José Louis Mounier, one of Salta’s most celebrated winemakers with an impressive track record working for many of the region’s top wineries, is responsible for wine making at Bodega Tukma in Tolombón, south of Cafayate. The estate has about 25 hectares (62 acres) of vineyards scattered throughout the Calchaquí Valley, with red wine production centred on Tolombón.

The entry-level Malbec Reserva is an uncomplicated, fruit-forward Malbec that’s perfect with a plate of empanadas, while Gran Corte, a blend with Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon for which the grapes are rigorously selected and the wine aged for one year in new French oak, calls for your best piece of bife (steak).

Consult www.wine-searcher.com for worldwide availability and prices of all wines mentioned.

Main photo: Some of Colomé’s oldest Malbec vines, planted in the mid-19th century and grown on pergolas. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

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Gostner Schwaige

Traveling to Europe this summer? If your plans include Italy, Germany, France, England, Spain, Sweden, Belgium or Denmark, Zester Daily’s community of food writers knows a few restaurants you won’t want to miss. These are our favorite spots — our personal bucket list of dining destinations we share with our closest friends.

The most important thing for us is the food. It has to be exceptional.  But we also love beautiful places and nice people, so rest assured that our favorite spots will feed you body and soul. Alfresco dining ranks high on our preferences. And we are equally fond of the culinary extremes of cutting-edge innovation and home-spun comfort. We celebrate cultural traditions wherever they are delivered with care and an emphasis on freshness and flavor.

As you chart your European vacation, allow for side trips to these delightful dining rooms. Some will dazzle you. Others will enfold you. None will disappoint. Happy travels!


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» 12 top U.S. restaurants worth a summer trip
» A farm-to-table road trip
» Celebrity chefs share 9 secrets to perfect summer pasta
» One way to salvage road trip dining in the West
» ‘Perennial Plate’ series a sustainable trip of a lifetime

Main photo: High on a peak in the Dolomites — accessible only by gondola, horse-driven carriage or skis – sits Gostner Schwaige, a rustic cabin where chef Franz Mulser serves exquisite South Tyrolean cuisine. Credit: Copyright 2015 South Tyrol Marketing Corporation

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A Tunisian woman picks olives in the fields. Credit: Copyright Les Moulins Mahjoub

Ari Weinzweig got a front-row tasting of Tunisian extra virgin olive oil five years ago, while visiting a sun-drenched Tunisian family farm that’s been making oil since 1891. How did it taste?

“Delicious,” says Weinzweig, co-owner and founding partner of Zingerman’s Delicatessen, now part of the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses in Michigan. “It’s kind of buttery with a little bit of pepper at the end. It doesn’t really overwhelm the food. It adds complexity and flavor.” Weinzweig likens the flavor to southern French oils, “or in a way to the gentle but full flavored oils of eastern Sicily.”

Today, Zingerman’s is among many U.S. retailers selling that oil, from Les Moulins Mahjoub, operator of a 500-acre farm about 25 miles west of Tunis. It’s among a number of quality Tunisian olive oils increasingly landing on global store shelves — this from a country that is the No. 2 olive oil producer, behind Spain.

 A break from the past: from barrels to bottles

Tunisian olive oil has been described as "kind of buttery with a little bit of pepper at the end." Credit: Copyright 2015 Roger Fillion

Tunisian olive oil has been described as “kind of buttery with a little bit of pepper at the end.” Credit: Copyright 2015 Roger Fillion

A decade ago, much of Tunisia’s olive oil was sold in bulk — think barrels — to Italy and Spain. There, it was blended with other olive oils, and resold under non-Tunisian labels. That’s changing.

Tunisian olive oil makers, many of them artisanal producers, are bottling and labeling their oils. They’re winning medals at international competitions — and giving Tunisia needed hard currency. “This is the future for Tunisia,” says Malek Labidi Debbabi, brand manager at Safir, a Tunis-based provider of olive oil.

It’s happening in a nation that underwent a revolution in 2011. Protesters ousted an autocrat. He was replaced with an elected government. The uprising inspired Arab protesters elsewhere, and put Tunisia on the map. Now, Tunisian olive oil companies aim to capitalize the nation’ new-found attention. It’s about branding. “This is what we are looking at — a brand that says: ‘Made in Tunisia,’ ” says Ikhlas Haddar, a director at Tunisia’s Ministry of Trade. (Full disclosure: The Tunisian government paid for my trip.)

A global olive oil producer

Tunisian olive oil makers, many of them artisanal producers, are bottling and labeling their oils. Credit: Copyright Les Moulins Mahjoub

Tunisian olive oil makers, many of them artisanal producers, are bottling and labeling their oils. Credit: Copyright Les Moulins Mahjoub

 

This year, Tunisia became the world’s No. 2 olive oil producer, displacing Italy. Credit a bumper olive crop — output quadrupled — and a poor crop in Italy. Much of the oil is sent abroad. On average, Tunisia exports 150 thousand tons of olive oil a year, including 16 thousand tons of bottled oil, according to the government. In 2006, exports of bottled olive oil accounted for 1% of exports, according to government officials, who want that percentage to rise to 30% within a couple of years.

The government says 80 Tunisian olive oil brands are exported. They go to the United States, Europe, Japan, Russia, South America and elsewhere. Cecilia Muriel, owner of Medolea, an award-winning producer about 20 miles south of Tunis, says: “I have a label. I have an identity. I have a story. … Things are changing, and we have better and better olive oil.”

In the United States, retailers selling Tunisian olive oil include Dean & Deluca, Trader Joe’s, Cost Plus World Market, Amazon.com, Kalustyan’s and Food Town. Quality brands include Terra Delyssa and Rivière d’Or.

Tunisian olive oil in the kitchen

At Primo restaurant in Rockland, Maine, Melissa Kelly drizzles her food with Tunisian olive oil. Credit: Copyright Greta Rybus

At Primo restaurant in Rockland, Maine, Melissa Kelly drizzles her food with Tunisian olive oil. Credit: Copyright Greta Rybus

Melissa Kelly, a James Beard award-winning chef, is a Tunisian convert, using Les Moulin Mahjoub oil in her Rockland, Maine, restaurant, Primo. “I really love the flavor — the spice to it,” Kelly says.

At Primo, Kelly uses the oil to garnish whipped ricotta served with focaccia and fava beans. “It balances out the sweetness of the ricotta,” she says. Similarly, Kelly drizzles the oil on pasta sauced with a red pepper and pork ragù: “The oil’s peppery note balances out the sweetness of the red pepper.”

An olive oil-centric cuisine

At the heart of shakshouka, a poached egg and spicy tomato dish, is olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2015 Roger Fillion

At the heart of shakshouka, a poached egg and spicy tomato dish, is olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2015 Roger Fillion

The ingredients for “Brand Tunisia” include: 80 million olive trees dating back 3,000 years; a climate ripe for olives; and an olive oil-centric cuisine. Think of the spicy chili paste harissa — great on anything, from meat to veggies — and the poached egg and spicy tomato dish shakshouka.

“You can’t imagine that food without olive oil,” says Mediterranean food authority Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of  “Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil.”  She notes Tunisians use their oil for frying, baking, garnishing and making many dishes — from couscous to fish soup. “It’s the DNA of the cuisine.”

Majid Mahjoub, Les Moulins Mahjoub general manager, says: “All of our cuisine is built around olive oil. The olive oil reveals all the tastes.”

Olive oil primes the economy

The olive sector accounts for 20% of agricultural jobs in Tunisia. Credit: Copyright Les Moulins Mahjoub

The olive sector accounts for 20% of agricultural jobs in Tunisia. Credit: Copyright Les Moulins Mahjoub

 

Olive oil exports account for 40% of Tunisia’s agricultural exports, and 10% of total exports, according to government data. The olive sector accounts for 20% of agricultural jobs.

Olive oil employs about 270,000 people, says the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has helped Tunisian olive oil companies switch from bulk to bottles. The agency says olive oil is Tunisia’s No. 5 source of foreign currency earnings.

“It’s a pretty substantial sector for the country’s economy,” says Fariborz Ghadar, professor of global management, policies and planning at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business.

Tunisian Orange-Olive Oil Cake (Gâteau à l’Orange)

Blood Orange Olive Oil cake

This delicious orange-olive oil cake is a favorite recipe from the Mahjoub family, who make it with a blood orange called maltaise de Tunisie, which gives the cake a beautiful red blush color. Credit: Copyright 2015 Roger Fillion

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 50 minutes

Total time: 1 hour 5 minutes

Yield: 8 servings (one 9-inch cake)

From The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook: A Delicious Alternative for Lifelong Health” (Bantam, 2008), by Nancy Harmon Jenkins. Reprinted with permission from the author.

This delicious orange-olive oil cake is a favorite recipe from the Mahjoub family, makers of very fine extra virgin olive oil and other traditional products in northern Tunisia. The Mahjoubs make it with a blood orange called maltaise de Tunisie, which gives the cake a beautiful red blush color, but when I can’t get blood oranges, I make it with small thin-skinned Florida juice oranges. (Thick-skinned navel oranges won’t work.) It’s important to use organically raised oranges, since the whole fruit, skin and all, is called for; otherwise, scrub the oranges very carefully with warm soapy water.

Ingredients

Butter and flour for the cake pan

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

2 small organically raised oranges, preferably blood oranges (about ¾ pound)

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

4 large eggs

1 ½ cup sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Confectioner’s sugar (optional)

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Butter and flour a 9-inch springform cake pan.

2. Sift together the flour, baking powder and baking soda.

3. Slice off the tops and bottoms of each orange where the skin is thick and discard. Cut the oranges into chunks, skin and all, discarding the seeds, which would make the batter bitter. Transfer the orange chunks to a food processor and pulse to a chunky purée. Add the olive oil, pouring it through the feed tube while the processor is running, and mix to a lovely pink cream.

4. In a separate large bowl, beat the eggs until very thick and lemon colored, gradually beating in the sugar. Beat in the vanilla.

5. Fold about a third of the flour mixture into the eggs, then about a third of the orange mixture, continuing to add and fold in the dry and liquid mixtures until everything is thoroughly combined.

6. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake for 20 minutes, then lower the temperature to 325 F and bake 30 minutes longer or until the cake is golden on top and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

7. Remove and let cool. Then invert on a cake rack and dust lightly, if you want, with confectioners’ sugar.

Main photo: A Tunisian woman picks olives in the fields. Credit: Copyright Les Moulins Mahjoub

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Andrew Zimmern takes a simple grilled broccoli rabe, tosses it with cooked pasta and tops it with easy-to-make lemony bread crumbs. Credit: Copyright Madeleine Hill

Pasta is the perfect summer food. It’s easy to cook, light, healthy and can be served in all sorts of exciting ways. It can be paired with virtually anything — grilled or even raw veggies, cheese, seafood and meat. Pasta is great hot or cold. It is versatile enough for a quick midweek meal or an elegant weekend dinner party. Fancy or simple, it’s always a favorite for potlucks and backyard barbecues, and pasta can be served as a side or main dish.

Here’s what Andrew Zimmern, Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich and other celebrity chefs are serving this summer.

Taking it to the grill

Andrew Zimmern, host of Travel Channel's "Bizarre Foods," adds grilled foods to his pasta for a quick, flavorful meal. Credit: Copyright Andrew Zimmern

Andrew Zimmern, host of Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods,” adds grilled foods to his pasta for a quick, flavorful meal. Credit: Copyright Andrew Zimmern

Andrew Zimmern does wonders with simple grilled broccoli rabe, tossing it with cooked pasta and topping it with easy-to-make lemony bread crumbs. “You’ll freak, in a good way,”  says the colorful Zimmern. He explains the dish’s inspiration: “I was having dinner at Chi Spacca in Los Angeles and one of the side dishes we tried was charred broccoli rabe drizzled with olive oil and lemon. It was perfect. I thought about this dish every day for weeks! So I merged the ideas and created this elegant summer pasta.”

Charred Broccoli Rabe With Chitarra & Lemony Bread Crumbs

Originally published in Andrew Zimmern’s “Kitchen Adventures” on foodandwine.com.

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

For the bread crumbs

1/4 pound day-old Italian bread, torn into chunks

1/4 cup lightly packed flat-leaf parsley leaves

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

1 small garlic clove, minced

Salt

Pepper

For the pasta

1 pound broccoli rabe, stem tips trimmed

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Salt

Pepper

1 pound chitarra or spaghetti

3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, for serving

Directions

1. Make the bread crumbs

2. Preheat the oven to 375 F. In a food processor, pulse the bread with the parsley, olive oil, zest and garlic until coarse crumbs form. Season with salt and pepper, then spread on a large rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 7 to 10 minutes, until golden and crisp; let cool.

3. Make the pasta.

4. Light a grill. In a large bowl, toss the broccoli rabe with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill over high heat, turning occasionally, until crisply tender and lightly charred all over, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a work surface and let cool slightly, then finely chop.

5. Meanwhile, in a large saucepan of salted boiling water, cook the pasta until al dente. Reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking water, then drain the pasta.

6. Wipe out the saucepan and heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil in it until shimmering. Add the garlic and crushed red pepper and cook over moderately high heat, stirring, until fragrant and just starting to brown, about 1 minute. Add the pasta, broccoli rabe, reserved cooking water, lemon juice and the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and cook, tossing, until the pasta is coated, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

7. Transfer the pasta to a serving bowl and scatter some bread crumbs on top. Serve right away, passing additional bread crumbs at the table.

Make ahead: The lemony bread crumbs can be refrigerated for up to 4 days. Toast in a 325 F oven for 5 minutes before using.

Using sweet ripe tomatoes

Mario Batali's penne with sweet ripe tomatoes makes for a classic summer dish. Credit: Copyright “Molto Gusto,” by Mario Batali

Mario Batali’s penne with sweet ripe tomatoes makes for a classic summer dish. Credit: Copyright “Molto Gusto,” by Mario Batali

Mario Batali’s penne with raw tomatoes is a perfect way to enjoy summer sweet ripe tomatoes. Like all the recipes in “Molto Gusto,” this one is an Italian classic. “What seems to be all the rage in the smart world of foodies is simply an extension of the traditional Italian table,” says Batali, winner of numerous awards, including “Man of the Year” in the chef category by GQ Magazine in 1999. Batali’s excellent recipe makes a great summer meal, followed by a simple green salad.

Cherry on the top

Lidia Bastianich's penne with cherry tomatoes, basil and mozzarella is a no-cook alternative. Credit: Copyright Marcus Nilsson from “Lidia’s Favorite Recipes Cookbook” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013)

Lidia Bastianich’s penne with cherry tomatoes, basil and mozzarella is a no-cook alternative. Credit: Copyright Marcus Nilsson from “Lidia’s Favorite Recipes Cookbook” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013)

Lidia Bastianich, a regular on public television since 1998 (in 2014, she launched her fifth TV series, “Lidia’s Kitchen”), has taught Americans hundreds of ways to enjoy pasta in her dozen-plus cookbooks. Penne with cherry tomatoes, basil and mozzarella is a no-cook condiment for pasta that’s perfect for the lazy days of summer. For a juicier taste, she advises using cherry tomatoes sold still on the vine.

Vietnamese beef and noodle salad

Katie Lee, co-host of Food Network’s “The Kitchen,” makes a cool and simple Vietnamese beef and noodle salad bowl. Credit: Copyright Lucy Schaeffer, from “Endless Summer Cookbook” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2015)

Katie Lee, co-host of Food Network’s “The Kitchen,” makes a cool and simple Vietnamese beef and noodle salad bowl. Credit: Copyright Lucy Schaeffer, from “Endless Summer Cookbook” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2015)

Katie Lee, co-host of Food Network’s “The Kitchen,” shares more than 100 recipes in her latest book “Endless Summer Cookbook” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2015), such as this cool and simple-to-make Vietnamese beef and noodle salad bowl. Lee says, “I put all of the items in separate bowls and let people make their own combinations.” Customize your own bowl with beef, noodles, dressing, cucumber, carrots and herbs.

Pasta sushi

Pasta sushi makes a terrific appetizer on warm summer nights.  Credit: Copyright Lucy Schaeffer, from “Pasta Modern” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2013)

Pasta sushi makes a terrific appetizer on warm summer nights. Credit: Copyright Lucy Schaeffer, from “Pasta Modern” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2013)

Italy’s two-star Michelin chef Davide Scabin invented “pasta sushi” a few years ago by substituting pasta shells for the white rice, making beautiful, Japanese-inspired but Italian-flavored, one-bite appetizers. Boil the shells, toss with lemon juice and olive oil, and fill with your favorite seafood from simple tuna salad to fancy poached lobster topped with caviar. “I use mono-origin kamut flour pasta, Monograno Felicetti, because it stays firm and tastes great at room temperature,” Scabin says.

Terrific as an appetizer on warm summer nights, set out a variety of fillings — oysters, smoked salmon, minced herbs, cream cheese — and let guests customize their own sushi pasta.

Using ancient grain pasta

A no-cook sauce with Greek yogurt, sour cream and tahini top this grain pasta. Credit: Copyright Erin Kunkel, from “Simply Ancient Grains” (Ten Speed Press, 2015)

A no-cook sauce with Greek yogurt, sour cream and tahini top this grain pasta. Credit: Copyright Erin Kunkel, from “Simply Ancient Grains” (Ten Speed Press, 2015)

Maria Speck, author of the new “Simply Ancient Grains” and “Ancient Grains for Modern Meals,” was a winner of the Julia Child Award and honored for writing one of the 100 best cookbooks of the past 25 years by Cooking Light. She sings the praises of pasta, noting that “even if your cupboards are bare, you can create an alluring meal in minutes.”

Among the ancient grain pasta she recommends are farro and Kamut pasta.

This luscious no-cook Mediterranean-influenced sauce with thick Greek yogurt, sour cream and tahini is spiced up with red chili pepper, garlic and a sprinkle of aromatic nigella and sesame seeds. Serve it alone with a peppery arugula salad or as a side to grilled steak, burgers, lamb chops or chicken.

Using vegetable extracts

Red cabbage juice produces pasta with a deep purple color. Credit: Copyright Francine Segan, from “Pasta Modern” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2013)

Red cabbage juice produces pasta with a deep purple color. Credit: Copyright Francine Segan, from “Pasta Modern” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2013)

At Milan’s Michelin-star restaurant VUN, chef Andrea Aprea cooks pasta in vegetable extracts. Here it’s red cabbage juice, which produces pasta with a glorious purple color and lovely earthy flavor. It’s topped with creamy burrata cheese for sweet richness, a touch of smoked fish for depth, pine nuts for crunch and watercress for fresh brightness. It’s a thrilling combination of vibrant colors, rich flavors and varied textures.

Couscous salad

A summer couscous salad uses light and fresh raw summer vegetables. Credit: Copyright Steve Giralt, from “Healthy Pasta: The Sexy, Skinny and Smart Way to Eat Your Favorite Food” (Alfred A. Knopf)

A summer couscous salad uses light and fresh raw summer vegetables. Credit: Copyright Steve Giralt, from “Healthy Pasta: The Sexy, Skinny, and Smart Way to Eat Your Favorite Food” (Alfred A. Knopf)

Joseph Bastianich, television celebrity, restaurant owner, wine expert and son of Lidia Bastianich, teams up with his sister, Tanya Bastianich Manuali, to write “Healthy Pasta: The Sexy, Skinny, and Smart Way to Eat Your Favorite Food.” Try their couscous salad, which is ideal for the summer because it’s light and uses fresh, crunchy, raw summer vegetables.  Make it with carrots, celery and peppers, or add your own favorites such as raw sugar snap peas.

Making a healthier pasta

Fresh lobster meat and corn liven up this summer pasta. Credit: Copyright Steve Giralt, from “Healthy Pasta: The Sexy, Skinny and Smart Way to Eat Your Favorite Food” (Alfred A. Knopf)

Fresh lobster meat and corn liven up this summer pasta. Credit: Copyright Steve Giralt, from “Healthy Pasta: The Sexy, Skinny, and Smart Way to Eat Your Favorite Food” (Alfred A. Knopf)

“Lobster and corn is the perfect summer combination, conjuring up visions of New England’s seashore,” say Tanya Bastianich Manuali and Joseph Bastianich, who have created more than 100 recipes each under 500 calories, like this simple-to-make elegant dish. Tanya explains the health benefits to eating pasta cooked just until firm or al dente: “A pasta with bite means you have to chew more, and chewing stimulates your digestive enzymes. More chewing also means a longer and slower eating time, which allows the body to feel satisfied.”

Casarecce with Corn and Lobster

From “Healthy Pasta: The Sexy, Skinny and Smart Way to Eat Your Favorite Food” (Alfred A. Knopf) by Joseph Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali

Two 1 1/2-pound lobsters will yield about 2 1/2 cups lobster meat. Cooking the pasta in the lobster cooking water will lend a subtle taste of the sea to the dish. You could also add the corn cobs to the cooking water to further incorporate that flavor as well. Casarecce are tube-shaped pasta, rolled like a scroll. You can substitute gemelli.

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

2 (1½-pound) lobsters

2 cups low-sodium chicken broth

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 ounces pancetta, diced

2 celery stalks, chopped (about 1 cup), plus 1/2 cup tender leaves

2 cups chopped scallions

4 ears of corn, kernels removed from the cobs (about 2 cups)

2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, chopped

Kosher salt

Crushed red pepper flakes

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 pound casarecce

1 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped

1 cup fresh Italian parsley leaves, chopped

Directions

1. Bring a very large pot of salted water to a boil. Once it’s boiling, add the lobsters. Cover and boil until the lobsters are cooked through, about 10 to 12 minutes. Rinse under cold water and let cool. Return the water to a boil for the pasta.

2. Remove the tiny legs from the bodies of the lobsters and put them into a small saucepan with the chicken broth. Simmer while you prepare the other ingredients, then strain, discarding the lobster parts.

3. Remove the lobster meat from the tail and large claws and cut into 1/2-inch chunks.

4. In a large skillet over medium heat, add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the pancetta and cook until the fat is rendered, about 4 minutes. Add the chopped celery and cook until it begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the scallions and cook until wilted, about 3 minutes. Add the corn kernels and toss to coat in the oil. Add the thyme and season with salt and red pepper flakes. Add the white wine, bring to a simmer, and cook until reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Add the strained chicken broth and let simmer while you cook the pasta.

5. Add the casarecce to the lobster cooking water. When the sauce is ready and the pasta is al dente, add the lobster meat, basil and parsley to the sauce. Remove the pasta with a spider or small strainer and add directly to the sauce, reserving the pasta water. Toss to coat the pasta with the sauce, adding a splash of pasta water if the pasta seems dry. Drizzle with the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Serve immediately.

Main photo: Andrew Zimmern takes a simple grilled broccoli rabe, tosses it with cooked pasta and tops it with easy-to-make lemony bread crumbs. Credit: Copyright Madeleine Hill

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