A mezcal Saladito by Marcos Tello. Credit: David Latt

This year, the gloomy, wet, cold winter seemed to last forever. Happily all that is a dim memory now. With heat and humidity back in our lives, it’s time for ice cold beverages, with new concoctions always welcome. Increasingly, mezcal (also spelled mescal) is appearing in trendsetting bars and liquor stores and inventive mixologists are using it to make fun and refreshing cocktails, perfect for summer.

All tequilas are mezcal but not all mezcals are tequilas

The Mexican government controls how and where mezcal and tequila are produced. It is as diligent in protecting the integrity of those appellations as is the French government in its guarantee that a wine labeled Bordeaux comes from that region.

There is still a lot of confusion about mezcal, beginning with what exactly is it? To get to the heart of the matter, I talked with mixologist Marcos Tello, who consults with El Silencio, a distillery in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Tello explained that both mezcal and tequila are made from the agave or maguey plant. Although there are dozens of agave varieties that are employed to make mezcal, for a distillate to be licensed by the government as tequila, only the blue agave may be used.

Tequila and mezcal are grown and bottled in different, designated regions but there are some overlaps. Tequila is primarily grown and distilled in the Mexican states of Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit and Tamaulipas.

Mezcal is exclusively manufactured in Durango, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas and Zacatecas but both mezcal and tequila are produced in the states of Guanajuato and Oaxaca.

Most mezcal is manufactured from a single type of plant, usually espadin agave. Sometimes agaves are blended to create a balanced flavor as is the case with El Silencio Mezcal, which blends espadin, tobasiche and Mexicano agaves.

Roasted, not steamed

To prepare the agave plant for fermentation, the body of the plant is trimmed of its thick leaves. What is left, the “piña,” looks like a pineapple. To make tequila, the piña is steamed and then fermented. For mezcal, the next step is crucial in creating the spirit’s distinctive flavor. Before fermentation, the piña is roasted in an underground pit. For aficionados, the resulting smoky aroma gives mezcal a quality similar to scotch and whiskey.

Like tequila, mezcal is graded. Joven (“young”), the first grade, indicates a mescal that was bottled within 60 days of being distilled. Reposado (“rested”) is aged longer, between two months and a year. If mezcal is aged in small oak barrels for at least six months and as many as four years, then it is labeled añejo (“aged”).

Among other classifications, there is also pechuga (“breast”), which denotes a small-batch mezcal that after completing two distillations is given a flavor-enhancing step in which fruits (plums, apples, pineapples and plantains), almonds, uncooked rice and a chicken breast with the skin removed are added. Yes, you read that correctly, a raw chicken breast, which is suspended over the fermenting distillate, the juices and fat helping balance the fruit flavors.

Mezcal cannot be substituted for tequila in all recipes. The deeply nuanced smoky flavor can overpower the ingredients used in many tequila cocktails. To illustrate mezcal’s distinctive qualities, Tello created a signature cocktail he calls a Saladito.

As with any cocktail that employs robust flavor components, the least expensive grade of mezcal should be used. Save the reposado, añejo and pechuga to sip and enjoy neat or on the rocks.

Saladito (courtesy of Marcos Tello)

Yield: 1 serving

Proust wrote that when he was presented with a plate of madeleines, childhood memories of an “exquisite pleasure” consumed him. Saladitos have a similar impact on Tello. The inexpensive Mexican candy originally from China is made from chile-salted, dried plums. Tello was inspired by homemade versions of the candy. On hot summer days, children would press a saladito into the middle of a lemon or lime and drink the juice as relief from the oppressive heat. That flavor memory inspired his creation of a mezcal cocktail that has sweetness lurking behind the smoky citrus notes. To add a salty-heat garnish to the cocktail, Tello uses a popular Mexican prepared seasoning called Tajin, a mixture of salt, dehydrated lime juice and pepper powder. If Tajin is not readily available, a similar effect can be created by mixing your own version as described here.

Ingredients

  • ¾ ounce honey syrup (see below)
  • 2 ounces mezcal (Tello recommends El Silencio Joven)
  • ¾ ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
  • ¼ teaspoon Tajin seasoning or combine 2 parts fine granulated sea salt to 1 part cayenne pepper

Directions

  1. Prepare the honey syrup by combining 3 parts honey with 1 part hot water. Mix well. Refrigerate to cool. Reserve.
  2. Fill a cocktail shaker or a large (16-ounce) glass with ice.
  3. Add the mezcal, honey syrup and lime juice.
  4. Place a lid over the top and shake vigorously.
  5. Open the shaker, cover the top with a bar strainer (also known as a Hawthorne Strainer) and pour into a cocktail glass.
  6. Dust the top of the cocktail with Tajin seasoning or the cayenne-salt mix.
  7. Serve chilled.

Main photo: A mezcal Saladito by Marcos Tello. Credit: David Latt

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A variety of vegetables and herbs for sale. Credit: Rose Winer

Now that the warmer months have rolled around, you’re probably eager to get your hands on as much delicious summer produce as possible. Bright juicy berries, delicate asparagus, zesty herbs — the possibilities for lively summer dishes are endless! So how can you find nearby farmers markets that carry the produce you want? And once you’re there, how can you learn to select perfectly ripe, pesticide-free items — and store them so they stay fresh? Plus, shouldn’t there be an easier way to find seasonal recipes than digging through hundreds of cookbooks? For all of your summer produce needs, look no further than your phone. These five apps will guide you to the best local, seasonal and sustainable items and teach you how to maximize their freshness and flavor while minimizing your spending and environmental impact.

1. Farmstand

Farmstand App screen shot. Credit: Rose Winer

Farmstand’s Activity feed. Credit: Rose Winer

Farmstand seamlessly blends information about local seasonal produce with the sharing aspects of social media, all on an engaging and colorful interface. The app provides access to directions, hours, photos, events, deals and other helpful information on more than 8,700 farmers markets around the world. After finding markets nearby, you can satisfy your inner Instagram lover by sharing photos, recipes and thoughts with other users and browsing their favorite produce. Plus, the app’s 365-degree social media profile — including blog, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and website pages — allows you to access Farmstand’s information from whatever platform you prefer, and will continue to inform you about new produce, deals and recipes. If all this weren’t enough, the mission of Farmstand’s creators — to “make it easy to eat local, prevent food waste, and get food to those in need” — secures Farmstand’s No. 1 ranking on my list.

Available on: iPhone and iPod Touch

Price: Free

2. Fresh Food Finder

Looking for the simplest way possible to find local in-season produce? Fresh Food Finder is your best bet. With this app you can find farmers markets nearby, search for a specific market or filter for markets by certain features. Fresh Food Finder also shows a variety of information for each market that can include hours, directions, website, available goods and payment options. The interface — while less modern and colorful than the likes of Farmstand — is extremely simple and user friendly.

Available on: Android, iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch

Price: Free

 

Fresh Food Finder's home page, left, and a sample produce page from the Harvest app, right. Credit: Rose Winer

Fresh Food Finder’s home page, left, and
a sample produce page from the Harvest app, right. Credit: Rose Winer

3. Harvest

Having Harvest is like having a local farmer in your back pocket. The app provides tips for selecting high-quality, ripe produce and tells you how to store foods properly at home to maximize their freshness. Harvest also shows pesticide levels so that you know when it’s worth splurging on organic items — which is healthy for both you and your wallet. On the app’s clean, vibrant interface you can see which produce is in season near you or simply search by produce type. Though it can’t display nearby markets and it’s not free, Harvest merits the small price for those who seek to educate themselves about extending the freshness and lowering the pesticides in their food.

Available on: iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch

Price: $1.99

4. Seasons

The seasonal breakdown of produce offered by Seasons app. Credit: Rose Winer

The seasonal breakdown of produce offered by Seasons app. Credit: Rose Winer

Seasons is the best app for tracking the natural growing seasons of produce in your region. The app divides 214 fruits and veggies into four categories: coming into season, in season, at season end and in season all year. You can filter items by month, produce type, or local or import season. Each food is accompanied by a graph of its local and import seasons, a photo and a description. Once you’ve determined which in-season fare you want, you can find farmers markets near you and directions to them — though you aren’t able to search for specific markets or filter markets by the produce you want as in Fresh Food Finder. Although you have to pay for Seasons, it could be a worthy investment if you want to stay particularly attuned to the natural growing cycles of your favorite local produce.

Available on: iPhone and iPod Touch

Price: $1.99

 

5. Locavore

Locavore's GPS function at work. Credit: Rose Winer

Locavore’s GPS function at work. Credit: Rose Winer

Locavore helps you find out what produce is in season near you, where it’s available and how to cook it. The app tracks what produce is in season where you are and then helps you find that produce at farmers markets nearby. Once you’ve brought your seasonal goodies home, voilà — Locavore shows you recipes that feature them. You can share local market discoveries and favorite recipes with others through Locavore’s Facebook page. Although Locavore’s offerings give it great potential, a recent update has made the interface less user friendly and brought in bugs that prevent it from loading maps and other information. Hopefully a forthcoming update will resolve these issues.

Available on: Android, iPhone, iPad and iPad Touch

Price: Free

 

 

Main photo: A variety of vegetables and herbs for sale. Credit: Rose Winer

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Menu cards illustrated by Monica Rawlins for dinners at her home. Credit: Monica Rawlins

Anyone for delicious little frivolities with an aristocratic pedigree?

The peculiarly English habit of serving something savory as the final course in a meal — the place usually occupied by cheese — was still in fashion in the grander country houses of England until about half a century ago, when it dropped out of favor in domestic kitchens, although the custom didn’t entirely vanish in London’s gentlemen’s clubs and at formal civic occasions.

Savory bites originally intended to show off host’s good fortune

The savory — for those who’ve never been confronted by this small and salty bite on toast immediately after dessert — is a Victorian introduction to the British menu designed to show off the servants and the silver with as many courses as possible in the high old days of empire. Classics of the genre were roasted marrow bones; deviled herring roes; sweetbreads; chicken livers; smoked fish; salted anchovies pounded with butter; and prunes or oysters wrapped in bacon and flashed under the grill (devils and angels on horseback, respectively).

Savories, simple to prepare and good with the gentlemen’s port, suited the style of the relatively servantless 1920s. Agnes Jekyll, a columnist at the London Times, devotes an entire chapter to them in her book “Kitchen Essays” (London, 1922). Agnes’ sister-in-law Gertrude, known as Lady Jekyll, suggests puff-pastry boats as a more elegant vehicle than toast, as these can be prepared in advance and filled “with all manner of cargo such as eggs scrambled with cheese, or cold hard-boiled and chopped with a little gherkin and capers, sardines made into a purée beneath a thin veil of a soufflé mixture or a savoury custard, slightly browned in the oven; anchovies beaten with cream into a cold cayenne mousse, or coming chilled from the refrigerator with a thin sprinkle of cress.”

Place cards created by Monica Rawlins for meals at her home. Credit: Monica Rawlins

Place cards created by Monica Rawlins for meals at her home. Credit: Monica Rawlins

Agnes Jekyll’s readership at the time included my husband’s godmother, Monica Rawlins — born at the turn of the century — who acted as her father’s hostess at the family home, Syston Manor in Somerset, after the early death of her mother. Miss Rawlins’ delightful illustrated menus indicate six courses, concluding with the savory. As the youngest of three daughters and three sons (two killed in World War I), she was expected to remain unmarried at home — all very “Downton Abbey.” But she escaped to live a bohemian life as an artist in Wales, never married and left me, the widow of her godson, a glove box full of her menu cards and her annotated Edwardian-era cookbooks in the remote farmhouse that was hers for the rest of her life, and where I now live.

Savories are simple, delicious and too good to lose for lack of a menu opening. Serve them in much the same way as tapas or mezze, in combination and all on the table at the same time.

Choose four recipes to share between four people as the main course — no need for starters, though a green salad would not come amiss. Savories are also perfect for a summer lunch or a candlelit kitchen supper.

Queen Victoria’s Beef Marrow Toasts

Her Imperial Majesty’s chef, Charles Francatelli, confided to his readership that his royal employer, in spite of rumors concerning her health after the death of her beloved Prince Albert, was fortified with this little treat every day.

Serves 4

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 5 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Ingredients

2 beef or veal marrow bones

4 slices of white bread

Salt and pepper to taste

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot or spring onion

Juice of 1 lemon

Directions

1. Have the butcher break the bone open to allow you to get at the marrow. Remove the raw marrow and cut it into hazelnut-sized pieces.

2. When you’re ready to serve, poach the marrow pieces delicately in a little boiling salted water for one minute only, and then drain immediately.

3. Meanwhile, toast the bread and then cut it into squares.

4. Pile the marrow on the hot toast, season with salt and pepper, sprinkle with the parsley, onion and a squeeze of lemon and serve without delay — marrow sets as it cools.

Lady Jekyll’s Mushroom Toasts

This was Miss Rawlins’ favorite savory, made with the big, flat field mushrooms that spring up overnight in the sheep pastures surrounding her house in the Welsh hills.

Yield: 4 servings

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

2 ounces butter

8 large open-cap mushrooms

Salt to taste

8 tablespoons thick cream

1 teaspoon English mustard

White pepper to taste

Bread rounds for serving

Directions

1. Melt the butter in a frying pan and lay in the caps (save the stalks for a sauce or soup). Salt lightly and be patient while they lose their moisture and begin to fry. First they will sizzle, and then juices will run.

2. Meanwhile, combine the cream with the mustard and pepper and mix well.

3. Transfer the mushrooms carefully to a gratin dish when done. Finish each cap with a tablespoon of the cream seasoned with mustard and pepper.

4. Slip the dish under a grill or broiler until the cream bubbles.

5. Serve on bread toasted in the buttery juices left in the pan — get the pan good and hot so the bread is really crisp.

The Duchess of Windsor’s Doigts au Fromage (Fingers of Cheese)

The former Mrs. Simpson — hostess-with-the-mostest in postwar Paris — astonished her sophisticated guests with her English savories, an idea unknown in France. “A meal,” she said, “should always be witty and include a surprise.” Frozen cheese fingers supplies both.

Yield: 4 servings

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Freeze Time: 2 to 3 hours

Total Time: start 2 to 3 hours ahead, 30 minutes prep and finish

Ingredients

1 medium-ripe camembert, crusts removed

1 heaped tablespoon curd cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

¼ pint (½ cup) heavy cream, whipped stiff

Grated parmesan for dusting

Directions

1. Blend the camembert and curd cheese together by pushing them through a sieve or chop thoroughly in the food processor.

2. Season with salt and pepper and fold in the whipped cream.

3. Spread a layer the thickness of your thumb on a baking tray lined with cling film. Turn out the cheese mixture onto a hard, clean surface and cut into fingers.

4. Dust with finely grated parmesan and serve ice cold. This is perfect served with ripe strawberries dressed with a few drops of balsamic vinegar.

Main illustration: Menu cards illustrated by Monica Rawlins for dinners at her home. Credit: Monica Rawlins

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Dark and Stormy rum cocktail at Crystal Cove. Credit: Chris Fager

The view from the deck of the old wooden shack is a sweeping panorama of unspoiled Southern California sand and waves below a low cliff dotted with similarly ramshackle dwellings.

We are accustomed to an Orange County coastline stripped of its humble past. Yet here is a reminder of that lost world.

Founded by squatters in the 1920s, Crystal Cove was favored by Prohibition-era rumrunners who landed their illegal cargo here in the dark of night. Itinerant plein air painters immortalized this hidden beach and claimed it as their home.

By the 1980s, the state of California was on a mission to “clean up” the dangerously decrepit community.  Descendants of the founders fought back. Just when it appeared certain everything would be razed so that a massive hotel development could rise, the Laguna Beach community and other neighbors raised the funds necessary to preserve this tattered love note from California’s past.

We lifted our glasses of rum punch in honor of our friend Jennifer’s grandmother who once owned the cottage where we had gathered for cocktails. The particular privilege of growing up in such an unaffected oceanfront retreat has never been lost on our friend. She loves the fact that it remains exactly as she enjoyed it 50 years ago and now is available to everyone.

Of the 46 cottages in Crystal Cove, so far 29 have been restored. Two- and three-bedroom houses with full kitchens rent for less than $250 a night.

They were built for a nickel, says Harry Helling, president of the nonprofit Crystal Cove Alliance, which manages the California State Parks property. Renovating them without disturbing their original look costs as much as $750,000 each.

It’s “vernacular” architecture, he explains, a fancy term for using whatever is available to build a community. Most of the cottages were cobbled together from flotsam that washed ashore. A fancy teak bathroom sink was discovered in one home, a prize probably stripped from a shipwrecked sailboat.

Earthquake-proofing walls made out of 80-year-old pilfered highway billboards can be a challenge, says Helling.

Crystal Cove guests can skip the cooking and enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Beachcomber Cafe. An inviting broad, wooden terrace overlooks the ocean for al fresco dining.

 

View from the tasting cottage at Crystal Cove. Credit: Corie Brown

View from the tasting cottage at Crystal Cove. Credit: Corie Brown
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View from the tasting cottage at Crystal Cove. Credit: Chris Fager

As the sun sinks low in the sky, families continue to play on the beach. Lovers return from strolling along the more than three miles of state park beach. No one rushes. We savor the moment with a Dark and Stormy made with Gosling’s Black Seal rum.

It is the only rum you can use if you are making a proper Dark and Stormy, Helling insists. In researching the history of the cove, the Prohibition-era cocktail culture has become a centerpiece of the Beachcomber’s bar service. Rum is the favored spirit.

He treats us to four of his concoctions. The cocktail hour ends as the sun sinks below the horizon. We amble over to the Beachcomber for a starlit dinner.

Four rum cocktail recipes, courtesy of Harry Helling.

Paradise Rum Swizzle

With a nod to the Barbados drink whisked with the stem of a native plant, Helling uses Rhum Barbancourt from Haiti. The swizzle sticks are Crystal Cove driftwood.

Ingredients

2 ounce Rhum Barbancourt

1 ounce fresh honeydew juice

1 ounce coconut water

½ ounce fresh lemon juice

½ ounce simple syrup (1 part water to 1 part sugar)

4 dashes of Angostura bitters

Directions

Pack a glass with crushed ice, swizzle rum, syrup and juices, top with bitters and sprig of mint.

Prohibition Punch

Helling adapted this recipe from the one served at Campbell Apartment, a 1920s apartment-turned-bar in New York City’s Grand Central Station. It is made by the pitcherful.

Ingredients

12 ounce Pusser’s British Navy Rum

3 ounces Grand Marnier

2 ounces fresh lime juice

20 ounces mango juice and water (1:1)

6 ounces cranberry juice

Champagne

Directions

Shake with ice, strain and float champagne on top with a pineapple garni.

Dark and Stormy

Invented in Bermuda just after World War I, Dark ‘n’ Stormy is a trademark-protected cocktail of rum and ginger beer. Helling adds lime juice — and so changes the spelling of the cocktail.

Ingredients

2 ounce Gosling’s Black Seal Bermuda Black Rum

4 ounce ginger beer

½ ounce fresh lime juice

Directions

Pour the ginger beer into a glassful of cracked ice and then add the Gosling’s topped with lime juice. Garnish with a fresh lime wedge.

Barrel Aged Rum Manhattan

It is increasingly popular to age rum in an oak cask to make a sipping drink. Helling served one from Venezuela.

Ingredients

2 ounces Ron Anejo Pampero Aniversario

1 ounce Carpano Antica Formula vermouth

½ ounce homemade bay leaf bitters

Directions

Pour the rum over an oversized ice cube in a short glass and stir with vermouth and bitters. Garnish with rum marinated blueberries and a flamed orange peel.

Main photo: Dark and Stormy rum cocktail at Crystal Cove. Credit: Chris Fager

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Community Plate features seasonal ingredients and is the place to be for families, the laptop brigade and local business owners breakfasting before work. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

News travels faster in small towns than on social media, so when Parade Magazine announced last week that my hometown of McMinnville, Ore., was a finalist in a race for the Best Main Street in America, the town’s good gossip suddenly took on a national flavor. Parade praised McMinnville’s Third Street for its picturesque main drag, its homegrown festivals and its award-winning restaurants and tasting rooms.

I hope when people come to town they discover that what sets McMinnville apart is the food –  not just the restaurants we love, but how differently people eat here. After all, Third Street is not just a quaint strolling village for wine-country tourists — though its antique storefronts, friendly people and the way every person crossing the street  stops traffic might suggest otherwise. Third Street, our Main Street, is the backbone for the food system, and all tendrils reach out from it.

 

Third Street

Third Street
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Third Street draws residents with its picturesque main drag, its homegrown festivals and its award-winning restaurants and tasting rooms. Credit: Chuck Hillestad

Pride in food

Our restaurants use local food as a source of pride and a matter of fact. For Thistle, a farm-to-table restaurant of the highest caliber, sourcing local is its calling card, the ethos that drives its turn-of-the-century (as in, last century) menu. Thistle has received a lot of deserved attention for the almost holy way its chefs approach food, but the truth is nearly all of the great restaurants on Third Street source from home. Bistro Maison, where diners can relax in the most gracious service in wine country, uses local produce because there is simply no better way to coax out exceptional flavors using French techniques. Nick’s Italian Café has long used seasonal eating to give real Italian specialties a wine country kick, topping Neapolitan-style pizza with nettles from near the river or lacing sultry Dungeness crab through its lasagna. When you eat a patty melt at Crescent Cafe, you are tasting the owners’ own cattle. What we’re discovering as each year passes is a small-town food scene rising to the demands of an international wine public but still keeping the flavors, ingredients and traditions of this place alive.

The restaurant scene is easy for tourists to experience. It is not uncommon for us to meet visitors from Texas who flew in just to eat here. But McMinnville is also the first place I have lived where shopping at the grocery store seems to be an afterthought. If you want honey, you’re not buying it in little bear jars from the shelf, you’re probably getting it in two-gallon jugs from your honey guy. If you eat eggs, they are probably from your own chickens or from your best friend’s. Other places may make a fetish out of vegetable growing, but you don’t get points here for growing a garden. If you have the space, you are feeding your family from your backyard. Half of my friends are part of a full community supported agriculture (CSA) diet and eat according to the seasons. When my friend Jasper orders his Stumptown latte at Community Plate, a breakfast and lunch hotspot, he brings the milk from his own cow.

A culture of sharing

People here live truly hyphenated lives, with eggs in many, many baskets, and for most of them, their hyphens connect in some way to the food system. A chiropractor might run a sideline salsa business, a freelance tech guy might have his hand in kimchi, winery owners might share their homemade peppermint bark at a local food swap. Everyone has access to something special and everyone shares.

Usually, you don’t have a way to get at the fabric of a place until you’ve lived it over time, but for my family, McMinnville was a quick lesson. When we arrived here in December of 2011, I was two months pregnant. When our second child was born, complete strangers walked food into our kitchen every day for three full weeks. Not casseroles, mind you. Full roasted chickens. Lovingly tended sage and rosemary potatoes. Salad greens dotted with edible flowers. What McMinnville understands more than anything else is how to feed people.

People in McMinnville know how good they have it. Not all of Oregon’s small towns have the infrastructure or the climate to eat like this. A few hours south and far to the east, in other small towns, food scarcity is a real issue. In Brownsville, the last grocery store closed shop a few years ago and the town decided to cover over its baseball diamond with a community garden to help people have better access to food. Far to the east, some towns have to drive more than an hour to find a grocery store.

I haven’t decided whether I really want McMinnville to be the Best Main Street in America. The journalist in me gets starry-eyed at the prospect of having our ordinary lives valued on such a national stage. But the budding small-town girl in me keeps thinking about what it really feels like to come in second. In the moment, you feel so close to the prize that it feels like heartbreak, but afterward, all you feel is the drive for improvement, the room for growth.

Win or lose, as every small-town denizen knows, it feels good to be part of the parade. I’ve been in three small-town parades since I moved here and know now that it is like being invited to the table. The joy comes from feeling the energy of the crowd.

Main photo: Community Plate features seasonal ingredients and is the place to be for families, the laptop brigade and local business owners breakfasting before work. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

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Some bánh tráng nướng vendors prefer to fold the grilled rice paper in half instead of cutting it into wedges. Credit: Cameron Stauch

This is most likely the best and easiest snack prepared on the grill that you’ve never heard of. Although it’s a favorite after-school treat of Vietnamese youths, I can guarantee that once you have mastered this simple recipe your adult friends will swarm your barbecue as they sip on their beers and cocktails.

Bánh tráng nướng, rice paper grilled over coals and lightly topped with a variety of ingredients, is a relatively new snack to hit the streets of Vietnam’s major cities. It apparently originated in the hill town of Dalat before making its way to Ho Chi Minh City a few years ago and then spreading upwards to the center and north of the country.

The epicenter of bánh tráng nướng vendors in Ho Chi Minh City at the moment is found around Ho Con Rua, or Turtle Lake, a busy roundabout in the city’s third district, whereas just a few vendors can be found within the old citadel in Hue and from my knowledge there is just one in Hanoi.

Street food vendors create inventive and tasty treats

While the outer sidewalk of Turtle Lake is crowded with cafes and restaurants, the inner sidewalk hosts young and creative street vendors dishing out their own variations of grilled rice paper and a few other inventive treats, including bánh tráng trộn, an addictive and mouthwatering mélange of half-inch fingers of rice paper, shredded green mango, dried shrimp, beef or squid, herbs, peanuts, fried shallots and their cooking oil, hard-boiled quail eggs, squirts of calamansi lime, drizzles of annatto seed oil and/or fish sauce; or bánh trứng nướng, in which quail eggs are fried in a round mold with triangle compartments then topped with tiny dried shrimp, sliced sausage (a Vietnamese version of  the Chinese Lap Cheong), green onions and fried shallots and then covered to cook for a few minutes before being plated and finished with some sprigs of Vietnamese coriander and chili sauce. Hồ lô  nướng, skewered and grilled pork and sausage balls, and bắp xào, stir-fried corn kernels made to your liking, are also prepared by surrounding vendors.

The basic Ho Chi Minh City version of bánh tráng nướng tends to be a spoon of cooked ground pork, sliced green onions and a cracked quail egg spread evenly over rice paper and toasted over the heat of a grill. After a few minutes, when it is no longer translucent, it is drizzled with a sriracha-style chili sauce and folded in half.

The Dalat version is more elaborately prepared on a thicker rice paper; it features a cracked chicken egg topped pizza style with slices of sausage, tiny dried shrimp, assorted cooked seafood, green onions and cheese. My favorite, and the recipe I share below, is the first version I tasted when visiting Hue.

A few simple rules need to be followed to achieve a well-toasted, flavorful treat that doesn’t fall apart during cooking. First, it’s best to grill the rice paper gradually over a medium-heat charcoal barbecue. A gas-flamed barbecue will do, but keep away from the flames so as not to burn the edges of the rice paper. If you are also grilling the main course, you’ll want to set aside part of the grill for the rice paper and cook them short-order style, one or two at a time.

 

ricepaper2

ricepaper2
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Dalat prepared pizza style with shredded chicken in Hanoi and cut into segments with scissors. Credit: Cameron Stauch

Second, a simple tablespoon or two of flavorful toppings is all that is required. With too much, the paper may break under the weight. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, make sure not too much egg is spread on the rice paper because it will make it soggy and prevent it from properly toasting or remaining crisp.

Once you have mastered the cooking technique, I encourage you to play around by adding different toppings, remembering they should be dry, or relatively free of moisture, and customize the flavor profile to your own or your guests’ preferences.

Don’t be surprised if this addictive crunchy snack becomes a staple this barbecue season.

Grilled Rice Paper With Paté, Quail Egg and Chili Sauce

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

  • 12 (8-inch) round rice paper
  • 6 ounces coarse country-style paté
  • ¾ cup thinly sliced spring onions
  • 12 quail eggs
  • Sweet chili sauce, such as sriracha

Directions

  1. Place a sheet of rice paper onto a plate or tray and top with 1 tablespoon each of paté and spring onions.
  2. Crack a quail egg over the paté. Using the back of a spoon or knife, spread the mixture evenly over the entire surface of the rice paper.
  3. Place the rice paper onto the grill, positioning it over a spot where the charcoal is of a consistent medium heat. Use a pair of tongs to rotate the rice paper as you see and hear parts of it toasting.
  4. After a few minutes, when the rice paper is no longer translucent, drizzle some chili sauce on top.
  5. Fold the grilled rice paper in half and serve.
  6. Repeat with the remaining ingredients. Note: If quail eggs cannot be found, this can also be done with chicken eggs. Scramble two eggs in a small bowl and replace each quail egg with just 2 teaspoons of uncooked, scrambled egg.

Notes

Prep time: 5 minutes, plus preheating grill. Cook time: 3 minutes per rice paper

Main photo: Some bánh tráng nướng vendors prefer to fold the grilled rice paper in half instead of cutting it into wedges. Credit: Cameron Stauch

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National Doughnut Day, June 6: The Battle of the Sinker, as I like to call it, may not come close to the sinking of the Lusitania as the turning point of World War I, but, in the 100th anniversary year of the beginning of that dreadful conflict, it’s worth recalling how the doughnut stepped up to help defeat the pitiless Hun.  Admittedly, there were casualties along the way.

This World War I battle began as an old rusty truck filled with about 100 apple pies and 7,000 Salvation Army doughnuts broke down a mile in back of American lines in full view of the German lines. As the New York Times reported under the headline “Foe Bombards Stalled Truckload of Pastry,” what ensued was a furious barrage of German shells. It was now 1918 and the Germans were desperate.  Seventy projectiles fell in the first half hour and continued for the rest of the afternoon. That night the driver tried to rescue the truck but was driven back by bombardment, which rained down for seven hours more.

The next morning, fearing for the doughy cargo, a soldier on a motorbike raced past the stranded truck at 75 mph and returned to breathlessly report that the doughnuts were still safe. When the soldiers learned of the pastries’ plight, a hundred of them volunteered to rescue the quickly staling dough rings, but alas they too were driven back by shells and poisonous gas. Eventually after four days of furious shelling, the Kaiser’s gunners sent up eight balloons to better gauge the range. And that was it. The doughnuts were smashed to oblivion. And the guns fell silent.

An American officer at the scene swore to “make the Boches pay dearly for their unforgivable vandalism.”  The incident became famous across the Western Front.  The doughnuts may have lost the battle but the war made them into winners, an edible symbol what the boys were fighting for.

Doughnuts and the Sallies

Needless to say, it wasn’t just trucks full of fried dough that were at risk of being blown to kingdom come on a daily basis. It was the women who made the doughnuts: Salvation Army volunteers such as Gladys and Irene McIntyre, sisters from Mount Vernon, N.Y., who handed out coffee and doughnuts under a rain of shells until the Army brass ordered them to retreat. Or Cora Van Norden, outfitted with a revolver, a helmet and gas mask, who barely escaped an enemy barrage as she was returning from an allied graveyard. The Salvation Army had entered the war right along the American Expeditionary Force (as the U.S. contingent was named) in 1917.

Back home, the Salvation Army had a bit of crackpot reputation, but this quickly changed once their members arrived in the trenches. To the mud-stained, blood-soaked soldiers, the primarily female volunteers came to represent the women they’d left behind, a physical incarnation of the idea of mom and apple pie. Indeed the volunteers tried to make apple pies and even fudge in the early days, but the reality of the field kitchens made this well-nigh impossible.

 

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Mace comes from the outside shell of a nutmeg. Credit: Michael Krondl

Helen Purviance’s vision

Then Helen Purviance came up with the idea of doughnuts. The ingredients were easier to obtain than for apple pies, and you didn’t need a stove. In the coming months the doughnuts became inextricably linked with the Sallies, as the volunteers were called.

Purviance’s companion-in-arms Margaret Sheldon estimated that she cooked more than a million doughnuts before the war was out. All mixed, cut and fried by hand. (See recipe.)

The war was a turning point for doughnuts, as much as it was for the Salvation Army. Before the war, doughnuts were widely associated with New England, but afterward they became the all-American treat. Doughnut bakeries large and small were established to piggyback on the sinker’s celebrity. The Salvation Army used them in most of its fundraising efforts. National Doughnut Day (the first Friday in June) was eventually established in 1938 as a consequence of the organization’s fund drive for a Chicago home for unmarried women. If you gave a donation, you got a doughnut, but the trouble was it was just printed on a piece of paper. Oddly, it proved effective nevertheless.

Margaret Sheldon’s recipe

Four decades after the Kaiser had been served his just desserts, Margaret Sheldon revealed her recipe for the doughnuts that had helped win the Great War. It made 400 large doughnuts or 500 small ones:

18 pounds of flour

7 pounds sugar

12 ounces of good baking powder

3 ounces salt

3 ounces of good mace

6 big cans of evaporated milk

8 cans water

1 pound lard

It works, even if the results are most definitely worthy of the name “sinkers.” Adding some eggs would lighten the doughnuts considerably, but eggs would have been a fragile luxury on the Western Front. If you’re interested in reliving history, the following recipe is somewhat more manageable. Eat them while they’re still warm — no gas mask, helmet or revolver necessary. 

Salvation Army Doughnuts

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Yield: 2 dozen

Ingredients

  • 1½ pounds all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons ground mace
  • 9 ounces sugar
  • 1½ ounces lard (or shortening)
  • 1 (5-ounce) can evaporated milk
  • ¾ cup water
  • lard for frying (or use vegetable shortening)
  • powdered or granulated sugar for coating

Directions

  1. Sift the flour, baking powder, salt and mace together in a medium bowl and set aside.
  2. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the 9 ounces sugar and lard at low speed, until homogenous, about 1 minute. Stir together the evaporated milk and water.
  3. Add the flour mixture to sugar mixture in three additions, each time alternating with the milk mix. After each addition, mix on low speed until just combined and scrape the sides of the bowl. The dough will be very sticky, like wet cookie dough.
  4. Transfer the dough to a clean bowl, press plastic wrap directly onto the dough’s surface to cover, and refrigerate at least 1 hour (or up to 24 hours).
  5. Using a deep fryer or a heavy pan, heat at least 2 inches of the lard or shortening to 370 F. If you’re not using a deep fryer with a built-in thermostat, check the temperature using a candy or deep-fry thermometer.
  6. The dough is on the sticky side, so don’t be afraid to use enough flour to avoid it sticking to the generously floured work surface or the cutter. Using floured hands, gently press the dough into a round about 1-inch thick. Dust the top of the dough with flour, then use a floured rolling pin to roll the dough to about ½-inch thick. Dip a 3-inch doughnut cutter into flour and then cut out as many rounds as you can, dipping the cutter into the flour before each cut. Fold and re-roll the dough to make extra doughnuts and cut again. You may want to refrigerate it for a few minutes to make it easier to roll. Do not re-roll a third time as this will result in tough doughnuts.
  7. Shake any excess flour off the doughnuts before carefully adding them to the hot fat a few at a time, taking care not to crowd them. Once the doughnuts float, fry for about 60 seconds per side or until deep golden brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels. Cool on a rack. Toss with granulated or powdered sugar while still warm.

Notes

In addition to 30 minutes prep time, allow 1 hour for the dough to rest. Cooking time is two minutes per batch and will depend on how big your pot is. For a medium-sized pot that has room for only four at a time, the cooking time will be about 15 minutes.

Main photo: One of the Salvation Army “Sallies,” as the female volunteers were called, and a soldier. Credit: Courtesy of the Salvation Army

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Preparing Italian Romano beans for the pot. Credit: Paolo Destefanis from

An Italian-American friend, now happily domiciled in Italy, remarked that there was one thing he couldn’t abide about Italian food in his otherwise happy eating adventures there. “They don’t like their vegetables crunchy,” he protested.

He is quite right. When it comes to cooking vegetables, “al dente” is not their cue. Like me, they like them tender and sweet. The crunch crowd will no doubt challenge this, citing, perhaps, the prowess of the Chinese with their crisp, stir-fry style. I could concur, but I would no more stir-fry green beans than my Chinese friend might cook rice my way — sticky rice for her; soupy, Italian-style risotto for me; and vive la différence!

From other quarters, I am told steaming conserves more vitamins than boiling. I have never been willing to sacrifice the pleasures of a boiled bean for the preservation of a few micronutrients, but if I ever suffer remorse at the thought of killing off a few, a recent report will quiet those doubts. Italian scientists evaluating cooking methods concluded that none retains 100% of the nutrients. Hurrah! Never again will I have to suffer the reproach of purportedly health-minded folk when I admit that my vegetables taste so good because I boil them. In a recent story on rapini, I gave the scientific explanation for why this sweetens vegetables. (In a nutritional analysis, research shows a slight increase in natural sugars when food is boiled rather than steamed.) You need only compare the taste between a steamed and a properly boiled batch of beans as proof that cooking past the crunch point, but just before the beans become too soft, delivers their best flavor and sugary qualities.

Green Beans, Italian Style

Green beans, (Phaseolus vulgaris, Leguminosae), a native plant of the New World, are one of summer’s gifts I most eagerly await. They are the unripe pods of the bean plant, named green beans for this reason, though there are yellow, red and purple types, and other hues that span the color spectrum. (The seeds cradled within, referred to as “shell beans,” are the beans we typically dry and rehydrate before cooking.) There are so many varieties that botanists have stopped counting. (The whims of fashion, even in the botanical world, make cultivars come and go, and new ones debut now and then.)

Boiled Italian Romano beans, hot, steamy and ready for anointing with the best olive oil. Credit: Paolo Destefanis

Boiled Italian Romano beans, hot, steamy and ready for anointing with the best olive oil. Credit: Paolo Destefanis

Probably no vegetable suffers more from mis-cooking. They are usually undercooked in favor of crunch. (If the beans are old, there will be no crunch, but rubberiness.) Or, they are overcooked because of supermarket conditions in which the poor specimens arrive many weeks after they have been severed from their umbilical vines in Mexico or Chile or another faraway place, and shipped thousands of miles, arriving shell-shocked and sapped of any life. Many people complain that no matter how long they cook supermarket-variety green beans, they remain tough. Such old beans deserve a resting place in the compost bin, not a workout in the cooking pot.

Like tomatoes or corn, green beans are best eaten soon after they are harvested, before the seeds begin to bulge in their pods and brown markings appear. If you have a farmers market nearby, ask whether their beans have been picked that morning. If not, wait until they can promise you they’ll treat them with the same respect they show their corn. “Day-picked” should apply to green beans as much as to maize.

Growing techniques

Best of all, grow them if you can. Once you have tasted green beans straight from the vine and cooked properly, store-bought will never do. Romano flat beans, Kentucky Wonders, Sultan’s Crescents, Haricots Verts, German Pole Beans and Indie Gold are among those that have had a turn in my garden. The long and flat, meaty Italian snap beans that are stringless, variously called Romano, Roma, Rampicanti or Marconi are, hands down, my favorites. Nothing compares to their flavor, not to mention the thrill of seeing their long, broad pods swinging and twirling on the vines. They grow up to 10 inches if you let them, and still cook up tender, but stop at 5 inches — remember, newborn! I reseed the bed every three weeks until August for an extended harvest into the fall. Plant them after the soil warms up well, sit back and get ready for some fun. You can nearly hear them grow. If you can’t keep up with the harvest, you can find comfort in knowing the overgrown pods can be left to mature on the vine until you are ready to reap their big, fat seeds for using fresh or storing, dried.

So remember, the key to great-tasting green beans, whether you plant or buy them, is twofold. First, youth and freshness are vital—newborn are best, but no older than a few days. Second, boil them until they nearly melt (but not quite!) on your tongue at the first bite. You might realize that you have never really tasted green beans before in their grassy, buttery glory, bursting with the essence of summer.

Garden Green Beans, Italian Style

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 6 minutes

Total Time: 11 minutes

Yield: 4 side-dish servings

The supermarket offerings of my childhood in a small American town didn't satisfy my mother, who before marrying and coming to America was accustomed to shopping for vegetables in the overflowing stalls of Rome's radiant street markets. Our family planted a garden every spring. Since then, my life has been filled with gardens, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Whether you buy green beans freshly picked from a farmer or can grow your own, make them the way the Italians do, still hot from the colander, anointed with the best extra virgin olive oil and, if you like, a memory of fine sea salt. They are a revelation.

Ingredients

  • 1½ pounds freshly picked green beans
  • kosher salt
  • best quality extra virgin olive oil
  • fine sea salt

Directions

  1. Wash the beans in cold water to remove any grit.
  2. Snip the umbilical tips, leaving the pointed ends intact.
  3. Fill an ample pot with enough cold water to generously cover the beans.
  4. Bring the water to a rolling boil. Add 2 tablespoons kosher salt. Cook the beans over high heat until there is no crunch left, but they are not overcooked, 5 to 6 minutes, depending on the variety and size of the beans. (Roman flat beans will take longer than smaller types.)
  5. Drain at once, transfer to a serving bowl, and dress with the olive oil. Sprinkle lightly with fine sea salt at the table, if you like.

Notes

Variations: You can squeeze fresh lemon over the beans at the table, but I like them plain and simple. Another variation is to coddle them briefly, once cooked, in extra virgin olive oil into which you have first dissolved a few drained anchovy filets preserved under oil.

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For Gardeners: Sources for Italian-Style Flat Green Snap Beans

The two principal categories gardeners are concerned with, the climbers (pole variety) and the low-growing bush beans, are available from these sustainable seed companies.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds
Seeds From Italy
Seeds of Change
Territorial Seed Co.

Main photo: Preparing Italian Romano beans for the pot. Credit: Paolo Destefanis from “Veneto: Authentic Recipes from Venice and the Italian Northeast” by Julia della Croce (Chronicle Books, 2003)

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