How many times have you been inspired to photograph a dish only to find that the image captured on your camera’s LCD screen is nowhere near as beautiful, or appetizing, as the dish sitting in front of you? Unwilling to give up you shoot another, and another — until your dinner companion, or a waiter, taps you on the shoulder and says, “You better eat that before it gets cold.”
Great food photography is mostly about technique, and with a little practice you can master the basics. Once you’ve developed technical skills, add inspiration and passion (because every photographer should love his or her subject). You’ll be amazed at the results.
To advance your food photographs, check out the slideshow.
More Zester Daily stories with slideshows from David Hagerman:
Main photo: Find your style: Shoot what you enjoy. Experiment with lighting, lens, shooting positions, subjects and situations until you find a style that expresses how you feel about food. Credit: Copyright David Hagerman
Although cauliflowers are sold in our supermarkets all year round, this beautiful member of the wild cabbage family (Brassica oleracea) is at its bright and healthy best in early spring. Cauliflowers harvested at that time have had the benefit of a longer growing season (about 80 days, instead of 50 days for their summer-grown counterparts), allowing their valuable nutrients more time to develop.
The cauliflower, whose name derives from the Latin caulis (stem) and floris (flower) is actually a cabbage bred for its flowers. The edible part of the plant, the head of tender stems and flower buds, is known as a curd. Similarly to broccoli and calabrese (close relatives), the cauliflower stores nutrients for the developing flowers at the base of the buds, so a fresh, crisp curd is packed full of vitamins and minerals. Its Latin botanical name, Brassica oleracea var. botrytis (meaning cluster, or grapelike), is an apt description of this remarkably clever vegetable, which grows with a protective layer of leaves curled around its head.
Hats off to the French, though, for giving cauliflower (chou-fleur, or cabbage-flower,) a prettier, and horticulturally more correct name, than the rather pedestrian Anglo-Saxon “flower on a stalk.”
There is disagreement over the origin of the cauliflower. Some say it was developed by 11th century Arab gardeners, or by Romans a thousand years earlier. But the wild cabbage grew throughout the ancient eastern Mediterranean and, with its tendency to produce “freaks,” prototypes of the cauliflower probably originated spontaneously in different places. Curious gardeners have since, through seed selection, improved nature’s work and we are now reaping the benefits.
Medieval Italian kitchens and, later, those of Louis XIV of France, served stylish and elegant cauliflower dishes. Catherine de Medici is said to have appreciated the lovely vegetable, and to have introduced it to France to help alleviate arthritis. But its earlier French name, chou de Chypre, suggests it arrived from Cyprus and Cypriots are, understandably, happy to claim its origin. For the past 200 years, the cauliflower has been a popular winter vegetable in northern Europe, but without its former prestige in serious kitchens. Until now.
With cauliflowers piled high in our markets, this inexpensive and highly nutritious brassica is at last losing its humble status and taking its rightful place on our tables. A reputation for being bland and soggy is the fault of the cook, not of the cauliflower. Its very gentleness is the perfect foil to many fine flavors, and it takes only a few minutes to cook.
“Organic” and “local” have real meaning when selecting cauliflowers: snails, aphids and caterpillars love them, so pesticides are often used and, once harvested, their nutrients and flavor dissipate quickly. Most cauliflowers are attractively creamy-white, but we also have wonderfully colorful varieties. Buy cauliflowers that smell and look fresh, with deep-green, outer leaves and tight heads; avoid brown-spotted white ones, or dull-looking purple, yellow or green heads. Size doesn’t affect flavor, but age does: older cauliflowers taste and smell stronger.
Richer in vitamins and minerals than any other brassica, cauliflowers are an excellent source of vitamin C, folic acid and potassium; a very good source of niacin, copper, manganese and vitamins A, K, B5 and B6; and a good source for protein, phosphorous, magnesium and vitamins B2 and B3. Raw, they are even better.
Cauliflower cooks quickly: Keep florets whole or cut large ones in half and simmer in a little water or steam for five minutes. After this time, cauliflower loses 20% to 30% of its phytochemicals; after 10 minutes, 40% disappear. Where possible, cook in ways that don’t commit nutricide – in soups and stews, grilled or baked. In its wonderful ability to host spicy flavors, some of the best preparations for cauliflower can be found in the kitchens of the Indian subcontinent and the Mediterranean. With winter soon drawing to an end, it’s time to enjoy the vegetable that has spent the past three months developing the nutrients we need to take us into a healthy spring.
Cauliflower cooks quickly: keep florets whole or cut large ones in half and simmer in a little water or steam for five minutes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary Barron
Simple Greek ways to serve
Serve raw or lightly-steamed small florets with a dip of mashed anchovy, capers, herbs, and olive oil or with hummus, small radishes and young wild green leaves.
Mix thinly sliced cauliflower florets and fine-julienned carrots with olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt, lightly chopped flat-leaf parsley, and Greek oregano (rigani ).
Dip small florets in a light garbanzo-flour batter and gently fry the fritters in olive oil; serve with olive oil and lemon juice mayonnaise, olives, and lemon wedges.
Cauliflower à la Greque
À la Greque (French for “in the Greek style”) describes a method of cooking, one that presumably a French cook/traveler admired and added to his/her own kitchen repertoire. There are many versions of this popular dish, but most are a pale imitation of the original Greek creation. Buy the freshest cauliflower you can find and, for a lightly spiced dish, prepare two hours ahead; for a more mellow taste and texture, leave overnight in the marinade.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 12 minutes
Total time: 17 minutes
Yield: 8 for a meze serving, 4 as a vegetable dish
4 cups small cauliflower florets
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons dried coriander seeds
1 cup dry white wine
3 bay leaves
1/2 tablespoon aromatic honey such as Hymettus
1 tablespoon cracked black peppercorns
Coarse-grain sea salt to taste
4 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon lemon zest, in very thin strips, optional
1. Trim most of the stem from the florets and cut an “x” in the base of each with a small sharp knife. Blanch 1 minute in boiling water, drain, and set aside.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy saucepan over low heat. Add the coriander seeds and florets in a single layer and stir with a wooden spoon to coat with the olive oil. Add the wine, bay leaves, honey, pepper and salt. Bring just to a boil, cover, reduce the heat, and simmer 10 minutes or until tender.
3. Transfer the contents of the pan to a nonreactive bowl and set aside until cool. Cover the bowl and shake it gently to redistribute the marinade.
4. To serve, taste the marinade. If more salt is needed, combine with the parsley. Transfer the cauliflower to a shallow serving bowl and pour over most of the marinade (strain it first, if you prefer). Sprinkle with parsley and lemon zest and serve with the lemon wedges.
Main photo: Buy the freshest cauliflower you can find for Cauliflower à la Greque. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary Barron
Wash you hands. Cover your mouth when you cough. Don’t share a glass. Eat your vegetables. Get plenty of rest. Drink lots of liquids. Take your vitamins. Get some fresh air. Keep your hands away from your face.
The list goes on and on. These were the entreaties of my mom and Nana growing up. We would roll our eyes. Their wisdom is now bantered about with abandon by television newscasters, near and far. As if these were earth-shattering discoveries on how to avoid getting a cold or the flu.
The words came along with a long list of home remedies. Did you ever have a bathroom sink filled with hot, steaming water, to be told to hang your head over it? Once you were in position, a towel was tented over your head so you could breathe in all the steam to break up your congestion. What about that Vicks? My mom would take a finger full, put it in a tissue, fold up the tissue, and stick it under my pajama top.
Or, if while having a bout of the croup, you sat on the edge of the tub while steaming hot water poured out of the shower head to help open your airways. When I suffered from the croup, I was given a “cocktail,” most nights before bed. It was either a teaspoon of rye, 1 teaspoon of sugar and some water, or a 7 and 7, in child proportions, of course. Who knew that that nightly “cocktail” would prevent bouts of the croup? I think the “cocktails” relaxed me enough to sleep through the night. To this day, when I smell rye or whiskey, I think of that nightly cocktail.
Mom knows best. Through the ages, our ancestors understood how to avoid ailments or cure them with homemade concoctions. Many are similar across cultures, but I have learned there are some very interesting cures for what ails you.
Gogol-Mogol is an eastern European cure for a sore throat and laryngitis that uses egg yolks, milk and honey. Credit: Carole Murko
Take Gogol-Mogol. It is an eastern European cure for a sore throat and laryngitis. There are many “stories” as to where the catchy name derived. I was told the name may have become popular from a famous Soviet children’s book written in the 1960s, Dr. Aybolit, which means Dr. Oh Hurts! I have also read that there was once a Russian singer named Gogol who lost his voice and the remedy restored his voice. Others say it was invented after World War I as a cheap, nutritious meal. Whatever the case, Gogol-Mogol is a go to remedy for many.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 3 to 4 minutes
Yield: 1 serving
2 eggs yolks
2 tablespoons of sugar or 2 to 3 tablespoons of honey
1 cup milk
1. Mix the egg yolks with the sugar.
2. Heat the milk almost to a boil and remove from heat.
3. Slowly add the yolk and sugar mixture into the hot milk while vigorously whisking to prevent the eggs from cooking.
4. Serve in a mug and drink up.
I stumbled upon fire cider at a fall festival several years ago. A young couple was giving away samples, suggesting a daily dose would keep you healthy. One swig of it cleared my sinuses, and I felt like I was breathing fire. They sell it under the name Shire City Herbals. I have used it effectively to ward off a sore throat by taking a swig every few hours until the symptoms go away. Feel free to check out their offerings. I, of course, knew I could find the recipe and have found it in a few reliable places, most notably in one of Rosemary Gladstar’s book, “Herbs for Common Ailments.” Here’s Gladstar’s recipe:
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 3 to 4 minutes
Total time: 3 to 4 weeks
Yield: 1 pint
1/4 cup grated horseradish
1 onion, chopped
1 head of garlic, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons turmeric
1 quart mason jar
1 quart apple cider vinegar
1 cup honey
1. Combine horseradish, onion, garlic and turmeric in a one-quart mason jar.
2. Heat the apple cider vinegar until it is warm, not hot. Pour into the mason jar and cover. Warming the cider hastens the process of drawing out the nutrients from the herbs.
3. Let stand for 3 to 4 weeks in a warm place. A sunny window would be perfect.
4. Strain and then add honey and a pinch or two of cayenne.
Sore Throat Elixir
There is nothing more simple, or more comforting, than Sore Throat Elixir made of lemon, hot water and honey. Credit: Carole Murko
And lest I forget my nana’s sore throat elixir! I don’t know what it is about old wives’ tales and concoctions, but many of them are useful and actually work. I, for one, will always go for a natural remedy as I think we are an over-prescribed, over-medicated society. I’ll stick to aspirin, chicken soup, and hot lemon and honey over NyQuil any day. For me, just one sip of hot lemon and honey starts the healing process and reminds me of my nana’s love. Perhaps it’s that combo that does the trick.
Prep time: 1 minute
Cook time: 10 minutes
Yield: 2 servings
1 to 2 cups of water
1. Place the lemon on a counter and roll it under the palm of your hand for 30 seconds to loosen the juice.
2. Cut the lemon into quarters, squeeze the juice into a small pan; add the quarters.
3. Add a cup or two of water, and bring to a boil.
4. Put a tablespoon or any amount of honey you like (to taste) in a mug.
5. Pour hot lemon juice through a strainer into mug, stir and let the soothing begin!
One last remedy was shared by a dear friend last winter. He swears by oregano oil. When he feels the first twinge of a sore throat coming on, he puts 2 drops under his tongue. It’s strong and actually quite vile. I can again attest to its effectiveness. I have used it twice and it warded off the flu or cold. But be warned it is a tall order to stomach, and it’s not for the faint of heart. Hold your nose, pray to your higher power and hope for the best!
Main photo: Fire Cider is sure to remedy what ails you. Credit: Carole Murko
In 2005, a group of seven Pinot Noir specialists from the West Coast banded together at the behest of their importer/distributor in Colorado to do a promotional tour of the state. The events they hosted under the irreverent banner of the Pinot Posse — motto: “No stinkin’ badges and no Cabs” — were such a smash the tour has become an annual tradition.
Granted, their success may have gotten a boost from a little movie called “Sideways,” released nationwide in 2005. Before it, mainstream America knew little about domestic production of the Burgundian grape; today Pacific Pinot Noir needs no introduction. But that doesn’t mean even savvy wine drinkers know everything there is to know.
After a dinner at Denver’s Table 6, I asked some of the producers to explain what they think consumers should understand about their signature grape.
How did you come to recognize the potential for Pinot Noir in your area?
Dan Kosta, Kosta Browne, Sonoma County, California: I’ve been drinking Burgundy since I was 5 years old, so Pinot Noir has always played a big part in my life. However, in the late 1980s, I really started discovering the potential of Russian River Pinots, particularly in the wines made by Joseph Swan, Dehlinger, Rochioli, Williams Selyem and others. These were not the lean, soulless wines that many California producers were making at the time. There was complexity and elegance, and they inspired us to focus on Sonoma County Pinot.
Peter Cargasacchi, CargasacchiandPoint Concepción, Santa Barbara County, California: Since the late 1980s, I’d been drinking Pinots from Sanford Winery here in the Sta. Rita Hills. Richard Sanford was a neighbor, and over a period of 10 years, he convinced me that my high-pH, calcareous soils were similar to the great sites in Burgundy. So in 1998 I started planting Pinot Noir for him, Siduri and Babcock.
Ed Kurtzman, August West, Russian River Valley, California: When I started making Pinot Noir, in 1994, I was working with well-established vineyards: Bien Nacido, planted in 1973, and Chalone, planted in 1946. So I kind of walked into Pinot as it was already in motion. Then I began working with Santa Lucia Highlands in 1999, when it was still a young appellation with first-crop vineyards. Same thing with the Russian River Valley/Sonoma Coast: So many of the vineyards there were planted between 1997 and 2004. It has been interesting to have worked with both old vines and young vines. I wasn’t someone who recognized the potential for Pinot Noir so much as someone who gladly participated in its popularity.
Jenne Lee Bonaccorsi, Bonaccorsi Wine Co., Santa Barbara County, California: When my late husband, Michael, and I started making wine in 1999, our goal was always to go to the Russian River. But we had to keep our day jobs, and the closest wine region was Santa Barbara. We planned to learn there and move on at some point. Then we tasted some of Greg Brewer’s wines. They were phenomenal, and we could not figure out how this region was so overlooked. We made a very specific choice to stay. Of course, back then, Cabernet was king, and Pinot Noir was not very popular. We had to really talk restaurants and wine stores into purchasing it.
What don’t a lot of American drinkers know or understand about Pinot Noir that you wish they did?
Jim Prosser, J.K. Carriere, Willamette Valley, Oregon: I wish more people understood it from a classic, historical perspective: It’s basically a connoisseur’s wine due to its subtlety, complexity and movement. It’s the antithesis of an in-your-face wine; it’s more come hither, more about enticement, and its acid combines with, rather than overwhelms, food.
Kurtzman: That color is only important when it comes to high points from Robert Parker or Wine Spectator. Pinot Noir is naturally a thin-skinned, light-colored red wine. People will hold one of my Pinots up to the light, in their glass, and they’ll say, “Hey, what a light wine.” All they have to do is taste it — it’s full of aromas and flavors.
Bonaccorsi: I think we as Americans drink wine too young, especially Pinot. People understand about aging varietals like Cabernet, but they tend to drink American Pinots upon release. They may not need to be aged as long as Burgundies, but they can definitely benefit from a few years. At this point, my 2010 Pinot and 2009 Syrah are tasting well.
Pinot Posse members David O’Reilly, from left, Jim Prosser, Ed Kurtzman and Dan Kosta at an event at Table 6 in Denver. Credit: Copyright 2015 Ryan Olsen
What’s your personal favorite food to serve with Pinot Noir and why?
Kosta: This, of course, depends on seasonality, but I tend to lean toward lighter meats and earthy vegetables. In the spring, rack of lamb with morel mushrooms is perfect. Chicken, salmon and pork dishes usually work great. One hint that I offer in the kitchen is to pay attention to the quantity and quality of salt — don’t be afraid to use it! Good salt can really bring out great flavors in Pinot Noir.
Kurtzman: Anything made with duck goes well with Pinot: duck breast, duck confit, duck burritos, duck with scrambled eggs, duck-bacon pizza.
Prosser: Maybe it’s because I’m from Oregon, but charcoal-grilled Columbia River salmon and Pinot is ridiculously good.
Bonaccorsi: The idea of white wine with fish and red wine with meat is very tired; food has changed in leaps and bounds since the days of beef Wellington, and the same is true of pairings. With that said, there is nothing better than a grilled steak and a glass of Pinot Noir.
What are domestic Pinot’s most distinctive qualities — what sensory clues should a wine drinker look for? How best to serve it to show off those qualities?
David O’Reilly, Owen Roe, Willamette Valley, Oregon, and Yakima Valley, Washington: In evaluating American Pinot Noir, I tend first to note the deeper ruby color. It is also more intensely aromatic and flavored than Burgundy, with a lovely, silky richness. The expression of domestic Pinot Noir varies along with the diverse growing areas: wines from the cooler Russian River sites, Santa Rita Hills and Oregon tend to be more fresh-fruited, while wines from the warmer Santa Lucia Highlands and Sonoma will have more power and richness.
However, one defining feature of all is immediate approachability, so I tend not to decant younger domestic Pinots. Only after some cellaring, when the wine is throwing a little sediment, do I decant. The perfect serving temperature is the same as for Old World Pinots: 55 to 60 F.
Most domestic Pinots are very fruit-forward, with good acidity and softer tannins. Look for bright red fruit like cherry and raspberry and darker fruit such as currant and plum, as well as some spiciness and a cola finish. The use of new oak is judicious, to keep the wine in balance. Here in California, we don’t need to worry about ripeness, so the winemaker can pick at the time that’s ideal for them to get the flavor profile they ultimately want.
I believe that decanting all wines is a good idea. If they are young, this will open them up and encourage them to evolve in the decanter. For me the ideal drinking temperature is between 65 and 70 F.
What can consumers expect with respect to the wines you’re releasing this year?
Cargasacchi: Our wines will be ripe and dark, balanced by acidity, and will increase people’s vocabulary and singing ability!
Prosser: Well, from J.K. Carriere, you can always expect higher-acid, classic wines that are made for food and built for age. The wines from the 2012 vintage that are out now are gorgeous and will cellar as well as or better than any domestic Pinot. But I don’t make much, so it tends to move pretty fast!
Kurtzman: The 2013s from August West will be on the riper side, similar to the 2009s. Right now, they’re a little closed down, since they’re so young — but as the year progresses, they’ll open up to reveal the incredible growing season that was 2013.
Kosta: The 2013 wines are complex and luscious. Our Pinot Noirs are fruit-driven, with depth and structure that remind me of the intensity of 2005 and 2007. Hold them for a year, if possible.
Main photo: Pinot Posse members Ed Kurtzman, left, and David O’Reilly during an event at Table 6 in Denver. Credit: Copyright 2015 Ryan Olsen
Not so long ago, most Americans’ idea of how to enjoy beef was to dig into a slab of steak as big as the plate it was served on. Thankfully, culinary fashions have changed. Today, the so-called lesser cuts are giving the primes a run for their money not only because they are cheaper but because they have more flavor. Delicious parts like short ribs and oxtail are so much the rage, that they, too, have become wildly pricey.
To my mind, chuck and blade steak, still relatively economical, are two of the most promising cuts for braising, my favorite cooking method for meat in general. This simple technique of searing and caramelizing foods in fat or oil before simmering them in a cooking liquid, often alcoholic, enriches their flavor and tenderizes them at the same time. Add vegetables, and you’ve made a classic stew. Not only are stews nourishing and sustaining in cold weather but, when made ahead, they actually improve.
There are pedestrian variants consisting simply of meat and root vegetables. And then there are the more artful braises at which the French are so adept, exemplified by boeuf à la Bourguignonne, which is laced during long, slow cooking with the namesake region’s fabled wine. The Italians have their own variations on the theme: The Sicilians enrich their spezzatino with Marsala, for instance, while the Piedmontese dedicate an entire bottle of Barolo for every kilo of beef in their brasato. The Belgians make heady carbonnades with beef chunks, abundant mushrooms and onions braised in light beer with a hint of vinegar and sugar. All of these braised stews are based on cheap cuts, the fat and connective tissue of which render the meat moist and incredibly tender during long, slow cooking.
For me, one of the most delicious is Ireland’s traditional beef stew fortified with rich, dark stout, a beer brewed with roasted, malted barley. The English have their version in the old prescription for “Sussex stew,” a beef braise simmered with mushroom ketchup and ale, but I believe no cooking liquid suits an Irish stew more than Dublin’s Guinness. This malty stout is creamy with a pleasant bitterness that makes for a powerful yet subtle cooking liquid, imparting its own complex layer of flavor while producing a velvety gravy. The resulting dish is one with a double life: Eat it as a stew, or cover it with a crust for a pie.
Candlelight dinner on St. Patrick’s Day. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales
What makes stout particularly suited to beef stews is what Chrissie Manion Zaepoor of Kookoolan Farms — a stout expert, craft mead maker and pasture-raised meat producer in Yamhill, Oregon — calls “roastiness.” “It’s like espresso,” she says. “It has a smoky, grilled flavor that’s nice with beef, and it’s herbaceous in a way that wine isn’t.”
Just how much stout to add depends on the other ingredients. Too little and, well, you’re missing the point; too much and the stew will be bitter. I find the best proportion is about one-third stout to two-thirds stock. Guinness is an old reliable for the Irish purist, but you can experiment with any of the local craft stouts that are widely available these days, each of which will impart their own individual character.
As for the stock, its quality is essential to the success of the stew. I rarely rely on commercially made stock, which (besides being close to tasteless) too often contains sugar, green pepper, mushroom or other ingredients I would not use in my own recipe. But if need be, I find most commercial chicken stocks more palatable than their beef counterparts. Whether the stock is homemade or store-bought, adding stout will enrich it.
What to drink with Irish stew?
The pleasure of eating this singular stew is increased manyfold when it is accompanied by a swig of the same good stout you’ve cooked with. The pleasant bitterness of the drink rises to the rich, deep flavors of the braise and so nicely sets off the sugars in the onions and carrots. The Irish, like the rest of their compatriates in the British Isles, drink their beer cool, not cold, like a fine red wine. Pour with care for a full, creamy head. On St. Patrick’s Day, be sure to have on hand a loaf of soda bread peppered with caraway seeds to slather with soft Irish butter for the proper holiday spirit. Slainte!
Irish Beef-and-Beer Stew
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: About 2 1/4 hours
Total time: About 3 hours
Yield: 8 servings
4 pounds well-sourced (preferably organic) blade steaks or boneless beef chuck-eye roast, trimmed of excess fat, cut into 1 1/4-inch pieces
3/4 cup good-quality unsalted butter, preferably Irish
2 pounds small Yukon Gold, fingerling or Red Bliss potatoes, scrubbed, skin on
8 ounces freshly picked and shelled or frozen petite peas (optional)
1. Blot the meat with paper towels to remove moisture. In a heavy, ample, oven-proof braiser or Dutch oven, warm 1/4 cup of the butter over medium heat. Slip in just enough meat cubes to leave sufficient room around each one for proper searing. You will need to brown the meat in several batches, adding up to 1/4 cup of the remaining butter as needed (reserve the rest for browning vegetables later). Each batch will take about 10 minutes to brown all over; when it’s done, transfer it to a large bowl and repeat the process until all the meat is browned before starting the next.
2. Add the onion and garlic to the pan and sauté until they are softened and lightly caramelized, about 4 minutes. Stir occasionally to dislodge any meat bits from the pan surface. Stir in the parsley stems, bay leaves and dried herbs and sauté for another minute or two.
3. Return the browned meat and its juices to the pan. Pour in the stout followed by the stock. Stir the ingredients together well and bring to a simmer. Cover the pot and cook over the lowest possible heat for 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. (I like to set a metal heat diffuser, called a “flame tamer,” between the flame and the pot to neutralize any hot spots and ensure even cooking.) Alternatively, you can heat the oven to 300 F, slide the covered pot onto the middle shelf and cook for 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally.
4. Meanwhile, in a separate, ample skillet, warm the remaining butter. Add the carrots and turnips and sauté until they are nicely colored, 10 to 12 minutes. Reserve.
5. After 1 1/2 hours, stir the carrots and turnips into the stew. Cook for another 45 minutes, or until both the meat and root vegetables are very tender. When it is done, add salt and pepper to taste.
6. In the meantime, cover the potatoes in 3 inches of cold water and bring to a boil; then simmer over medium heat until tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and keep warm.
7. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour with enough cold water (or cold stock) to make a thin, smooth paste or slurry. If you have been cooking the stew in the oven, remove it now and put it on the stove top over low heat.
8. Remove the cover from the pot and stir the slurry into the stew a little at a time to blend well. Add the peas if desired. Simmer until the gravy thickens and heats through and the peas are warm, no more than 5 minutes. Serve hot with boiled potatoes.
Notes: Using a well-marbled cut that will be rendered moist and tender during cooking is important to the success of any meat stew. Shoulder cuts, including blade steak or chuck, are ideal; avoid leg meat, which will be dry and tough by comparison. Searing small batches in hot butter before adding the cooking liquid caramelizes them, creating another layer of flavor. The root vegetables are sautéed separately and incorporated late to prevent them from disintegrating into the gravy. Peas are optional; I love them for their little bursts of sweetness, but don’t overcook! Boiled potatoes go well with the stew, and there will be plenty of gravy to sauce them. The stew will keep in a refrigerator for up to four days, or it can be frozen. To make a pie, cool the stew and divide it into individual crocks or larger baking dishes, as you prefer, then top with your favorite unsweetened pie crust or puff pastry. Brush the crust with egg wash (a whole egg yolk thinned with a little cold water or milk). Preheat the oven to 400 F and bake until it is heated through and the crust is golden, about 20 minutes, depending on pie size.
Main photo: Beef and Guinness stew. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales
Corn polenta has traveled the globe to become a staple in world-class restaurants. Yet for more than 400 years, it sustained the peoples of Italy’s poor northeastern regions. Its origins go back even further, to the pulmentum of the Romans that was a mainstay of the commoner. Prior to the 17th century — before corn was transplanted to Italy from the New World — this porridge was made from hulled and crushed grains of various kinds, including farro (also known in English as “emmer”), barley and millet as well as chestnut, fava bean or chickpea flour.
Polenta as a staple
After maize took firm root in the soils of northern Italy, it became the primary staple. It wasn’t eaten fresh but rather dried and ground into polenta. For four centuries, it alone kept the wolf from the door for the common people in Veneto and Lombardy. In the 1800s, it became fashionable for the wealthy to eat it until it was ubiquitous at every meal, accompanying virtually every dish, as bread does today in other regions.
The poor ate it plain — there was often little else to eat. The upper class added condiments to it or made it into elaborate baked dishes called pasticci. Eventually, cornmeal infiltrated central and southern Italy, including the island of Sardinia, where my ancestors ate it with tomatoey stewed lamb tripe or layered with meat sauce and sheep’s cheese, much like lasagna, in a baked dish called polenta pasticciata.
In its simplest guise, polenta is served “loose” as a side dish, like its close cousin, the grits of the American south. It can be flavored simply with a dribble of olive oil or butter and Parmigiano cheese for a dish called polenta unta. Cooks in Italy’s Alpine regions like to slather it with soft cheeses such as runny gorgonzola dolce or taleggio. Often, it provides a bed for soaking up the tasty juices of cooked meats (such as sausages) or vegetables, for instance sautéed mushrooms. Or it might be turned out onto a marble slab, allowed to set, then cut into pieces that have countless uses. When fried or grilled, they become crostini di polenta, polenta “toasts.” For pasticciata, the squares are layered with a sauce and topped with cheese before baking, much like lasagna.
Traditional and modern cooking methods
Cooking polenta in the traditional copper paiolo is still a daily ritual in some parts of the polenta belt (Veneto, Piedmont, Trentino-Alto Adige, and Lombardy), though restaurant chefs typically replace the wooden stirring tool, called a bastone, with an electric stirring mechanism that attaches to the pot. For home cooking, a sturdy wooden spoon will do, provided it has a long handle to prevent splattering and/or burning your hand. (The whisk is not commonly used in Italy, but I have found that a heavy professional grade one is ideal for turning out a fine, lump-free polenta.) You’ll also need a heavy-bottomed pot.
But the real secret to perfect results lies not so much in the equipment as in the method. Continual stirring in one direction (clockwise, according to tradition) transforms cornmeal into billows of creamy golden polenta. The addition of the grains in a slow, steady stream a pioggia, “like rain,” assures that they are incorporated smoothly. If the polenta seems to be drying out before it is cooked, a little boiling water is added to keep it soft and easy to stir. Polenta is ready when it pulls away easily from the sides of the pan with the spoon. (The COOK’s test kitchen developed a microwave technique that requires minimal stirring to accompany an article I wrote in 1989 that received much attention, and some years later, Marcella Hazan published a recipe titled “Polenta by No-Stirring” in her book “Essentials of Italian Cooking,” which produces good results. I recently asked Victor Hazan, the late author’s husband and collaborator, about it, and he explained the derivation of the method. See my post on Forktales for the details.)
Polenta may be yellow or white, depending on the maize variety. Both are milled into fine or coarse grinds. The fine type is preferred for loose polenta. The coarse grind produces pleasantly gritty, rustic-style polenta that the Italians say can be sensed sotto i denti, “under the teeth.” It is ideal for cutting into pieces, as described earlier. (Note that the American type of cornmeal typically used for muffins or cornbread is not interchangeable with polenta; it is a different product entirely and will produce an inedible, cement-like porridge if cooked in water.)
Nowadays, there is another factor to consider. “Instant” polenta, which is pre-cooked before it is dehydrated, has virtually replaced the long-cooking kind — even in Italy. Although one can get it on the table much more quickly, it doesn’t compare to the richly flavored, silky original that can take 40 minutes or more to cook. Like so many “new and improved” foods, convenience is put ahead of quality and flavor. However, quick-cooking polenta does work well in dishes with several components, so you can have success making my maternal grandmother Giulia’s polenta pasticciata with either variety. Nonna Giulia Esu died long before I was born, but her recipe for this provincial Sardinian dish was one of her jewels that was passed down by my mother.
Nonna Giulia’s Polenta “Lasagna” With Pork and Red Wine Ragù
Note: The finest pecorino (sheep) cheeses are produced in Sardinia, Lazio and Tuscany. You can find the young, semi-soft varieties at most fine cheesemongers; alternatively, you can substitute Spanish Manchego as directed.
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: About 1 hour
Total time: About 2 1/4 hours
Yield: 8 servings
For the sauce:
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, minced
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 carrot, chopped
1 small celery stalk with leaves, chopped
1 teaspoon pulverized fennel seeds
1 pound ground pork
½ cup good-quality dry red wine
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 (35-ounce) can plum tomatoes, drained, seeded and chopped, juices reserved
3 tablespoons minced fresh basil leaves
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
For the polenta:
7 1/2 cups water
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 cups fine- or coarse-grained imported Italian yellow polenta or “quick-cook” polenta
Olive oil for preparing work surface and baking dish
1/2 pound semi-soft pecorino such as Fior di Sardegna (or Manchego aged three to six months), shredded
For the sauce:
1. Warm the oil in a skillet. Stir in the onion, garlic, carrot and celery and sauté over medium-low heat until vegetables are soft, 12 to 15 minutes.
2. Add the fennel seeds, pork and continue to sauté until the meat colors lightly, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Stir in the wine and allow to evaporate (about 1 minute).
3. Dilute the tomato paste in a few tablespoons of the reserved canned-tomato juices and add it to the skillet, followed by the tomatoes with another 1/2 cup of the reserved juices, basil and salt. Stir well. Partially cover and simmer over the lowest possible heat for 1 hour, stirring frequently. The sauce should become thick and fragrant. If it seems to be drying out, add a few more tablespoons of the reserved tomato juices.
For the polenta:
1. While the ragù is simmering, bring the water to a boil in a large saucepan. (Keep a kettle of boiling water on the back burner should you need extra.) Add the salt.
2. Stirring constantly with a long-handled wooden spoon, add the polenta in a slow, constant stream to prevent lumps from forming. Simmer, stirring constantly, until the polenta is very thick and creamy and pulls away from the side of the pan, about 40 minutes. If you are using quick-cook polenta, you may need to add a little boiling water to ensure that it doesn’t get too thick. (You can also cook it longer than the instructions specify in order to obtain a creamy consistency — up to 20 minutes or so, adding more boiling water as needed.)
3. Use a rubber spatula dipped into hot water to spread the polenta out into a rectangle about 1/4-inch thick. Let set until cooled completely and firm, about 15 minutes. Cut into even 3-inch-by-4-inch rectangles; set aside. Lightly oil a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish.
1. Heat the oven to 450 F.
2. Arrange half the polenta pieces on the bottom of the baking dish. Top them with half of the sauce and spread to cover. Sprinkle half the cheese over the sauce. Repeat with another layer of sauce, followed by the remaining cheese. Bake until heated through and the cheese is golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes.
3. Let stand for 10 minutes. Cut into pieces and serve.
Main photo: Polenta pasticciata, in “Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul,” by Julia della Croce (Kyle Books). Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton
There are more than 25,000 cookbook titles listed on Amazon. It’s certainly a buyer’s market. But which ones to buy, either for use in the kitchen or viewing on the coffee table?
The International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) — a worldwide forum for the exchange of information, knowledge and inspiration within the professional food and beverage community — last week narrowed the field for cookbook lovers with its selections of what it considers the best cookbooks published in 2014.
The awards program received more than 500 submissions in 20 categories, including American and international sweet and savory cooking; restaurant- and chef-centered books and those homing in on culinary travel; e-cookbooks and culinary history; and literary food writing and photography. The program is widely lauded as the most selective in the industry due to its two-tier judging process that requires recipe testing in all relevant categories.
One cookbook is selected as the Cookbook of the Year. All winners will be announced at the IACP annual conference March 27-30 in Washington, D.C.
This slideshow provides a snapshot of the finalists in each category.
It’s not what most people think of when they envision the famously light, healthy “Mediterranean diet.” But hearty dishes like smoked game meats; the mélange of cabbage, fish, eggs, cheese, olive oil, pepper, garlic and sweet wine dubbed monokythron (literally, “one-pot”); and the fermented fish sauce garum were once common fare in the region whose traditional dietary patterns are now seen by many as a global model for better eating.
Evidence that the Mediterranean diet as we now know it was not predominant in the region during the long Byzantine era (roughly the years 330 to 1453) has been gathered by Dr. Ilias Anagnostakis from the National Hellenic Research Foundation in Athens. His findings have sparked controversy in his home country, he says.
Anagnostakis believes that previous assumptions about historical diets in the region are erroneous because they were largely based on what was eaten in monasteries, which kept meticulous records of the food produced on-site. The diet of Byzantine monks consisted largely of grains, pulses, vegetables and wine, with a high level of honey production — possibly as a source of beeswax for making candles, or of substitute calories to make up for a lack of meat and dairy. Either way, “it was not indicative of the Byzantine diet as a whole,” says Anagnostakis, noting that “religious calendars imposed some kind of dietary restriction [on monks] almost half of the days of the year.”
Olive oil, the cornerstone of today’s Mediterranean diet, was “something initially available mainly to the wealthy class, and it was used more for lighting, grooming and hygiene; large-scale production for food came later,” says Anagnostakis, whose research was presented recently at a lecture hosted by the Consulate General of Greece in Istanbul, Turkey. He says that archeological evidence from Byzantine sites shows that “game hunting and fish-eating were more common than previously believed — smoked and preserved meats were a very important part of the diet.”
While the Mediterranean diet as we now know it may be a bit newer than previously believed, a similar culinary philosophy emanating from the same region long predates the Byzantines, whose empire rose in the eastern Mediterranean in the 4th century.
The Greek physician Hippocrates, who lived some 700 years earlier, “put forth a holistic medical approach of nutrition, diet and exercise that was a forerunner of today’s ‘lifestyle medicine,’ ” Dr. Angelos Sikalidis, an assistant professor of nutrition at Yeni Yüzyıl University in Istanbul, said at the same lecture event.
Another classical figure, the ancient Greek poet and philosopher Archestratus, can be thought of as the “father of gastronomy,” according to Sikalidis, who has been researching past and present dietary habits and nutrition in the Aegean region along with his Yeni Yüzyıl colleague Dr. Aleksandra Kristo. Way back in 350 BCE or thereabouts, Archestratus wrote of the importance of “raw foods of good quality, combined harmoniously, with lighter sauces and moderate spices that don’t interfere with the foods’ natural flavors,” Sikalidis says. “He also praised fish and noted the importance of season and location in deciding what to eat.”
A diet born of necessity
Such principles, of course, didn’t necessarily reflect the actual diet of the general populace, which largely ate what was available to them — from the fermented fish and preserved meat of the Byzantine era to the legumes, grains, olive oil, vegetables and fruits deemed so heart-healthy by outside researchers in the 20th century.
“This diet came out of necessity rather than choice,” Sikalidis says, noting the irony that as people from other countries started “discovering” it, Greeks and Turks themselves started to rely on a less healthy and less plant-based diet, following global trends.
As a result, he says, “heart diseases and cancer are now major causes of death in the Aegean region.” Greece also has the highest percentage of overweight children among Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) countries, according to data released by that group last year.
One major driver of this change was Greece’s joining of the European Union in 1981. This brought the country under Europe’s common agriculture policy and led to the abandonment of healthy, but unsubsidized crops like legumes, nuts and citrus fruits, according to Pavlos Georgiadis, the Greece coordinator of the Slow Food Youth Network. But the country’s ongoing economic crisis has lately been planting the seeds for a reversal as a new generation once again tries to make a living from the land. In his video-blog series “Farming on Crisis,” Georgiadis profiled young farmers, many of them urban transplants, who are creating job opportunities for themselves while helping revive diverse, low-impact agriculture. His own family’s business, Calypso, grows an ancient olive variety unknown outside its northeastern Greece region.
Sikalidis is among those who see hope in such developments. “There have been good efforts recently to preserve or revive old agricultural practices; preserving food traditions is a way to protect our health, and vice versa,” he says. “Consumers can be a powerful force in choosing between these older and newer ways of eating.”
Main photo: Olive oil and vegetables are among the building blocks of what is thought of as the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. Credit: iStock