Underwood cans of wine from the Union Wine Co. Credit: Union Wine Co.

Summer may be on its way out, but autumn weather brings a new promise of leaves to be peeped, apples to be picked and trips to the country in cooler weather. Whether you take to the road in your car, on your bike or on a train, a well-stocked picnic basket or knapsack is an ideal complement to the day.

With less worry about the summer heat and insects ruining your moveable feast, the thought of a cool-weather picnic is made more appealing thanks to the wide variety of single-serve wines built for portability and proportioned serving.

Single-serve wines are not a new phenomenon, per se. Certainly, small bottles, as one might find in a hotel minibar or an airplane, have been around a long time, but those tend to be glass, making them less ideal for on-the-go enjoyment, and they also require bringing along stemware for imbibing.

Novel packaging part of the single-serve wine game

Newer versions of single-serve wines have come to market in a variety of clever forms, leveraging unbreakable packaging materials like plastic and tin in portion sizes of one or two drinks. Often, the uniqueness of the packaging can be the biggest draw, because, with a few exceptions, the wines are mainly serviceable rather than spectacular — and at a price many will find too high given that, as with most mini or single-serve food and drink items, the cost per glass often outstrips the cost of an entire bottle.

Yet among these offerings there are those that don’t sacrifice taste or quality regardless of the sexy packaging. The versions detailed below represent a variety to choose from, many of them quite good of their own accord.

But first, a tip for buying and storing single serve wines: Non-glass packaging is not conducive to long storage times, as with traditional glass bottles. Tin and plastic can alter the taste of the wines if held long enough, particularly in fluctuating temperatures.

If you prefer to go with a total bottle experience, a variety of portable wine stoppers, such as the multicolored Rabbit Flipper/Pourer, are inexpensive enough to have on hand to re-cork that better bottle. And when you’re done, handy Wine Wipes purport to ensure your pearly whites stay that way, even after a couple of glasses of red (about $8 for a pack of 12).

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Bottles of FlyWine. Credit: FlyWine

Sofia Blanc de Blanc Mini: Dry but slightly sweet with good effervescence, each wee scarlet can comes complete with its own matching straw. While convenient to consume like a grown-up soda, the taste is better when decanted into a champagne flute. (187ml, ¾ cup, 6.3 ounces. $18 to $20 per four-pack of single-serve cans).

Baby Voga Italia Sparkling: The chic bottle may call to mind a fancy hand-soap dispenser or bottle of perfume, but the single-serve sparkling wine has a solid, respectable flavor. Great to have on hand for those special occasions that may call for a toast but just a sip will do. (187ml, ¾ cup, 6.3 ounces, $6 to $7)

FlyWine: This line of Sonoma Valley, California, reds and whites under the monikers “The Kitchen Sink” “Fly Your Way” and “The Party Starter” respectively are packaged in glass bottles with a TSA-approved volume of liquid so that it can be purchased for in-flight travel. The wines are solid table wines without fanfare and though pricier than most in-flight options, they’re tastier too. (100ml, 3.3 ounces, $10 to $13)

Stack: So named because its Reidl-esque plastic glasses stack on top of one another, these wines come in Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Cabernet and Merlot. The white wines were quite sharp with the taste of alcohol, but the reds were somewhat better. While the glasses are adorable, the foil seal is very close to the top of the liquid so even when removed, there is little chance for the wine to breathe. It’s also a bit difficult to drink toward the bottom of the glass because of the narrowness of the mouth. There are better options at the price point, but those little glasses are cute. (187ml, ¾ cup, 6.3 ounces, $15 per four-pack)

Steelhead Vineyards Wine for One: Available in Merlot and Chardonnay, Steelhead’s single-serve offering is easily the most elegant self-contained wine. The plastic wine glass fits over the plastic bottle, forming a seal that is twisted off, and then the glass is ready to use. Like other offerings, the wines are solid and not harsh — good enough for simple picnic or barbecue fare. (12 pack, 187ml, ¾ cup, 6.3 ounces, $49)

Union Wine Co. Underwood: Equal to two glasses, this slick canned wine is a delightful surprise. Easy to transport and easy to enjoy, this wine is not bubbly but simple, still wine. It must be said that the taste of the can is subtly present in the Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, and while the can is pretty cool, the price might be too much to pay for novelty when for not too much more you can get a pretty good bottle of wine packaged the old-fashioned way. (375ml, 12.6 ounces, 2 servings, $6)

Vini: Cleverly packaged as giant vials bundled together in packs of four to equal one bottle, Vini comes in red and white blended table wine. Single varietals are in the works. As with Fly Wine, this product benefits from being packaged in glass, which doesn’t compromise the wine taste. Certainly drinkable, the real appeal of this product is in the tactile nature of the container, which fits pleasantly in the hand. (187ml, ¾ cup, 6.3 ounces, $9 to $10 per vial)

Zipz: Shaped like a traditional stemmed wine glass, these plastic goblets are available in vintage year Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay. The packs can be purchased as single varietals or mixed. Overall the wines were a bit harsh and did not hold up as well as the other single-serve options, but they were the most useful to transport and easy to drink. (187ml, ¾ cup, 6.3 ounces, $40 per 12 pack)

Main photo: Underwood cans of wine from the Union Wine Co. Credit: Union Wine Co.

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Foragers' feast: Goat leg braised in forest floor and mugwort beer, parsnip chips and wild watercress. Credit: Seth Joel

When I first met Pascal Baudar he was driving a stripped-down red Jeep Wrangler with a bad muffler. Not exactly your typical image of a professional forager tiptoeing his way into the wild.

We were heading north toward the Angeles National Forest outside Los Angeles with a shopping list of stinging nettles, sycamore leaves, elderberry, rabbit tobacco, white clover and small ants. Try finding those items at your local Trader Joe’s.

Pascal is a certified master food preserver with a passion for the flavors of California. He’s the real deal and the culinary community in Los Angeles knows it. Chef’s eager to create uncommon and flavorful gourmet dishes rely on Pascal’s local food sources and his ability to provide unique ingredients with rousing flavors.

His partner, gourmet chef Mia Wasilevich, shares his passion for a cooking lifestyle based on self-reliance and sustainability. Together these soul mates created the Wild Food Lab Dinner Party series — the perfect opportunity for experimentation and culinary exploration. The items on our shopping list were the last bits and pieces Mia needed for their next big wild-food dinner party at the historic Zane Grey Estate in Altadena. What could be more intimate or more Californian?

Thirty people were about to share a 10-course wild food dinner hosted by Gloria Putnam and Steve Rudicel, founders of Mariposa Creamery. The evening began at 6 with mountain vinegar shrub cocktails on the back porch. The kitchen was alive with action. Mia worked with a handpicked group of four chefs skilled at multi-tasking. Posted on the wall was a course timetable. Moving around each other like ninjas, they sliced the duck prosciutto, clay-baked the trout, prepared the quail, braised the goat and rolled fresh chevre.

Gloria kept a crew of six servers plating and waiting on guests. Steve, a restaurateur, directed a wine pairing that included Chardonnay from Slovenia, Chenin blanc from Loire Valley, Champagne Delamote Brut Blanc de Blanc, and a rare Vigneti Massa Derthona Timorasso from Italy.

Pascal served as the master of ceremonies. As he introduced the wild food elements in each course and fielded guests’ questions, his French accent lent a stylish tone to his foraging expertise. With the approach of the final course — elderberry frozen custard with candied buckwheat flowers and coconut milk flan — the guests grew louder. A hearty round of applause arose for Mia and Pascal as the group toasted the flavors of California.

Main photo: Foragers’ feast: Goat leg braised in forest floor and mugwort beer, parsnip chips, wild watercress. Credit: Seth Joel

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Sweet cassata Siciliana cake. Credit: Cesare Zucca

Menfi, an engaging Sicilian town located southwest of Palermo and northwest of Agrigento, is known for its ceramics, the oil made from Nocellara olives and its viniculture. Only a few miles from the deep blue Mediterranean Sea, Menfi also carries the allure of the local food that combines traditional products with a simple yet delicious art of cooking.

Hungry for those Sicilian specialties? Here are six reasons Menfi stands apart from its neighboring towns.

1. Go spiny

My driver, Nino, passionately recounted details about the carciofo spinoso (or spiny artichoke), whose exterior bracts have a base color green with shades of violet and large golden spines. The Slow Food movement has placed this special artichoke on the list products worthy of protection. These ‘chokes are greatly aromatic, crispy yet delicate and delicious eaten raw, grilled, canned or cooked-through as a caponata and paté. Considered a medicinal plant for centuries, rich in antioxidants, it boasts a high percentage of cynarin, a polyphenol able to promote liver function and to improve bile activity.

2. Street food 

It’s a Sicilian tradition. Nino directed me to Signor Pino, Menfi’s most respected street vendor, who usually parks his cooking trailer in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele. At the top of the choices is the pane cà meusa, (spleen sandwich). It is a soft panino stuffed with small bits of previously boiled beef spleen, fried in a little bit of lard and served piping hot with a generous squeeze of fresh lemon. “The darker the spleen, the better the taste,” said Pino (aka Mr. Panelle from the very popular panelle, a type of fritters made from chickpea flour). Spleen is rarely on the menu, and it tastes a little bit like liver or kidney. Its soft pulp crumbles in your mouth like a blood sausage. Most either love it or hate it. For the record, I so loved it that I had two.

The Last Fisherman grilling sardines. Credit: Cesare Zucca

The Last Fisherman grilling sardines. Credit: Cesare Zucca

3. Giovanni, the Last (or the best?) Fisherman 

Menfi inhabitants call him “Ultimo Pescatore.” Giovanni Tarantino fishes at night or in the early morning after studying the moon. “A weaker moon is better, sardines are scared of the light! I choose the beaches of Porto Palo or Selinunte, I drop the net and wait. To prepare them, I usually skewer and grill over coals with a pitch of oregano. Hey, I am about to make a pasta with sardines and wild fennel, would you like to have a try?”

You bet I did. Legendary Sicilian hospitality exemplified.

4. Low libido?

Sicilians are ready to share a tasty secret. Take a sea urchin without poking your fingers, cut it in two, squeeze a little lemon and indulge in this delicacy, considered an aphrodisiac since the days of the ancient Greeks.

In the vicinity of Menfi, the morning markets offer succulent sea urchins to be eaten raw on the site. I loved their creamy sweetness that I found more similar to mussels than oysters. In Menfi a restaurant called Vittorio’s uses only female urchins colored in purple, green and brown to make a great pasta sauce.

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Raw sea urchins. Credit: Cesare Zucca

5. Don’t call them pizza

I had my first encounter with a slice of sfincione accompanied by a glass of the well-balanced Chardonnay by Planeta. Sfincione comes from the Latin spongia, meaning sponge, exactly the way its dough should be: soft and spongy, then topped with an intense sauce made of tomatoes, onions, bread crumbs, caciocavallo cheese and olive oil. Delicious.

In the nearby city of Sciacca, I tasted the tabisca saccense, a special kind of “pizza” stretched to a 23-inch oval shape, topped with roasted tomatoes, grated pecorino cheese and lots of onions. Finale touch: one black olive in the middle.

6. Have a glass

Since 1995, Menfi has been host of Inycon, a three-day wine festival, the which is oldest in Sicily. Blessed with consistently bright sunshine, Sicily’s classic Mediterranean climate is ideally suited to the production of excellent wines. Inycon offers a marathon of wine and food workshops. It features the cookingof Sicilian chefs, visits to wineries, walks through the vineyards, even great rides by horse or bycicles. The piazza hosts several wine tastings showcasing the production of local vineyards, including Planeta, Settesoli and Donnafugata. 

Evenings are magic. I loved the old courtyards in Vittoria Street, all decorated with lamps, candles and fabrics and surprisingly transformed from the neighbors into small restaurants, where often the chef is the real nonna (grandmother)living in the building. Everywhere is an array of food tasting, from the porchetta to pate’ tapas, from the sweet cake cassata siciliana (where else?) to seafood couscous. Great bread and local extra virgin olive oils will abound in their basic majesty.

These six good reasons should be added to the main one: The incomparable welcome that the inhabitants of Menfi will reserve to you making your visit preciously worth.

Main photo: Sweet cassata Siciliana cake. Credit: Cesare Zucca

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Corn grows in fields in California's Central Valley with large stacks of hay in the background. Credit: Deborah Madison

I grew up on the edge of California’s Central Valley. Although I’ve lived in New Mexico for the past 25 years, I often make the drive back to California. When I do, I cross the mountains at Tehachapi, descend to the valley floor at Bakersfield and am then faced with a choice: go up the fast, crowded Highway 99 or cross over to Interstate 5 for a less-frantic drive.

Invariably I choose the former. For years, I loved to be on that rough, fast road. It was familiar, and it felt good to be out of the desert and in that vast, edible valley. But lately I see it differently: a free view of agribusiness, a lesson in its features.

Agribusiness central to region

Driving up Highway 99, the names of towns roll over me, old familiars. They have their slogans, their welcoming gates and arches, and bits of history too. McFarland possesses The Heartbeat of Agriculture. Delano, the onetime home of Cesar Chavez, has two prisons and 29% unemployment. Tulare, its namesake lake once the largest freshwater one west of the Great Lakes (it’s now dry), is the home of the World Ag Expo and an agricultural museum. Fresno is hot and huge. I once lived there for three days before knowing I couldn’t, despite my affection for writer William Saroyan and his Armenian family who made a life there.

Somehow I feel I’ve had something to do with many of these places, whether knowing a good farmer near Fresno or marching with the United Farm Workers in Davis.

Occasionally, I get off the freeway and drive into the smaller towns. They are mostly narrow. Even in more middle-class towns, you have to drive only a block or two before you come to an almond-hulling yard next to a two-story house, orchards directly beyond. But despite all the food that grows in the Central Valley, there’s few places to eat except chain restaurants, unless you happen to get off in a mostly Mexican town, where you might find something good — and real.

The smaller towns are often very poor — much poorer than I remember from trips years ago. In the summer, you see people stooping to pick low-growing crops in the hot sun, scarves wrapped around their faces to protect from the wind, the brutal valley heat and, quite probably, traces of pesticides that burn the skin. But at other times of the year, there’s no one in the fields, so you have to wonder about employment — who is picking the food, where are they during the winter and how do they live? This valley has produced great wealth, but it’s far out of reach for the many who work in agribusiness.

Produce packinghouses

Other sights on the drive north from Bakersfield include enormous packinghouses for Halo tangerines, Sun World Peppers and other foods. You’ll see John Deere outlets, signs for tarps and tie-downs and yards of pallets, irrigation pipes and tractor parts. Billboards carry advertisements for welding services, residual weed control, trucking services and pesticides (“Stop This Bug From Killing California Citrus”) as well as the frequent reminder that “Food Grows Where Water Flows.”

Enormous silos are filled with feed and grain. The town of Ceres is introduced by its handsome, old, smaller silos, but after driving through it, I didn’t feel much connection to the Roman goddess of grain. When the silos were built, though, someone must have had her in mind. Herds of Holsteins stand in dirt under the shade of enormous sheds. They are fed from troughs, and there’s no grass in sight. These operations look industrial, but if you leave the highway and crisscross the valley, you see that they are family farms, albeit large ones. You can also see enormous fields of corn and gargantuan stacks of hay. Despite the drought, water is gushing from standpipes to irrigate fields of corn and alfalfa.

There are airfields for crop dusters, signs for full-service spreading and spraying, pumps, irrigation systems. You see gondolas for cotton and others for grapes. But you can’t see much of the almond orchards, vineyards, olive trees and other crops until you’re well out of the southern part of the valley. When orchards do come into view, you probably have no idea you’re looking at almond, walnut, pistachio and pecan trees unless you grew up there. Without signs, our ignorance remains intact.

World Ag Expo

One February, I was driving up Highway 99 during the World Ag Expo, so I exited in Tulare and went to see what it was about. In part, it’s a trade show, with enormous and amazingly expensive equipment on display. There are seminars too and domestic programs for the wives. The speaker that year was Oliver North. The previous year it was former President George W. Bush, which suggests the nature of big ag’s political alliances.

The 560-page catalog Ag Source gives insight into the business of farming — the equipment needed along with its size and capabilities. An ad for vineyard/orchard removal shows a bulldozer pushing over a large tree and promises efficient brush, stump and green-waste grinding. “Deep ripping” of land can be had for $300 an hour. Wells can be dug, and there are services that provide workers for harvesting cotton, garbanzos, garlic and other annual crops, as well as the perennial nuts, stone fruits and grapes. There are machines, trucks and tractors from small to enormous, from not too expensive to more than $300,000.

The fields you see as you drive by look innocent enough — plants growing in large areas that are no longer punctuated by the farmhouses with dense shade trees one used to see. The scale of everything needed to make California agriculture happen is supersized. If small farms are what you’re familiar with, the scope involved in agribusiness is beyond comprehension. And if you’re unfamiliar with agribusiness, for the price of a tank or two of gas and one or two days, it will reveal its many faces to you. Do it before it all reverts to the desert it is.

Main photo: Corn grows in fields in California’s Central Valley with large stacks of hay in the background. Credit: Deborah Madison

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Fettucine Alfredo. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

The rise and fall of fettuccine Alfredo is a story of a simple dish taken from its home and embellished with flourishes before sliding into culinary familiarity, dullness and bastardization.

Although it has its roots in Roman cuisine, it is nothing but a restaurant dish in Italy and America. Fettuccine Alfredo became a classic of Italian-American cooking, but today is often served as third-rate tourist food in the Little Italy emporiums catering to them in America’s cities.

This wasn’t always true. In the 1940s and 1950s, fettuccine Alfredo was a signature dish of continental-style French-service restaurants where waiters, with a flourish, would prepare the dish tableside in a chafing dish.

The classic story of its origins is that the dish was invented in a Roman trattoria on the Via della Scrofa near the Tiber River by Alfredo di Lelio, who opened his restaurant in the early part of the 20th century. He invented the dish for his wife, it is said, after she gave birth and lost her appetite.

The dish became famous to Americans after Hollywood stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford ate at Alfredo’s in 1927 and raved about his preparation called fettuccine Alfredo. It was in America that cream started entering the recipe and that fettuccine Alfredo began its descent to a thick, heavy, glop of pasta. The original, although meant to be rich, was also light and silky because all that was used was butter and Parmesan cheese: cream and eggs were never meant to be used.

Interestingly, Italians do not refer to this dish as fettuccine Alfredo — or when they do they’re well aware of the American connection — but rather fettuccine al triplo burro, fettuccine with triple the amount of butter, the name of the original dish. Even more interestingly, two great cookbooks on Roman cuisine Ada Boni’s “La Cucina Romana” and Livia Jannattoni’s “La Cucina Romana e del Lazio” do not mention fettuccine Alfredo, indicating that it never was part of Roman cooking but is culinary fantasy.

The dish should be made with fresh fettuccine, but dried works just fine as well. The quality of the butter and cheese in fettuccine Alfredo are paramount. I recommend the Parmigiano-Reggiano butter made from the same cow’s milk the famous Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is made from and which you must also use.

Fettuccine Alfredo

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 pound fresh fettuccine
  • ½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • ½ pound (about 4 cups) Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, freshly grated
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste (optional)

Directions

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing saving ¾ cup of the pasta cooking water.
  2. Meanwhile, cut the butter into thin pats or flakes and transfer half of them to a warmed large oval silver platter where you will do the final tossing. Place the cooked pasta over the butter, sprinkle the cheese on top. Toss, sprinkling some reserved pasta water. Add the remaining butter and toss, adding the pasta water to make the pasta look creamy. You will be tossing for 2 minutes. Sprinkle on the black pepper if desired. Serve immediately.

Main photo: Fettucine Alfredo. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Beach plum jelly. Credit: Kathy Gunst

Thirty seven years ago, I met a man on an island off Cape Cod, Mass., and we had a summer romance. We made fish stew and grilled local striped bass. We baked bread, picked wild island grapes and took long beach walks. And when the summer was over, I figured I’d go back to my life and he would return to his.

But it didn’t happen that way. The relationship turned out to be the real deal. Thirty years ago this month, we were married, and now we are back on this island celebrating those three decades together.

This island is a place that never disappoints. Every time we come here, I worry movie stars and politicians will have ruined the place. And although there is much hype and McMansions are now littered along some of the shoreline, this is still a place of pristine beauty.

So here we are again, cooking local seafood and taking long beach walks and early morning swims in the almost too cold ocean waters. This year there’s been a bit of a drought on the island, and that has translated to dry fields and spotty lawns. But it has also produced a bumper crop of beach plums.

Each year when we come here in late summer/early fall, I hunt the dirt roads and beach paths for the elusive beach plums. They look like a cross between an oversize blueberry and a black-purple grape. Beach plums are stone fruits, related to other plums, cherries and peaches. They flower in late spring and bear fruit in the early fall, depending on the weather.

They grow along sandy paths near salt water. They are often planted for erosion control and feed off of salty sprays and sandy soil. They are very sour and sometimes bitter, full of a crisp, distinctively fruity, almost earthy taste. They make terrific jelly.

The day we arrived, I walked to the beach and was shocked to find bushes bursting with fruit — thousands of beach plums. I ran back home and got a huge bucket and started picking. It didn’t take long to fill that bucket and then another.

Beach plum jelly a balance of bitter and sweet

Making beach plum jelly is a lot like making wild grape jelly. (In fact, the recipe below works well for both.) If it were a perfect world, I would add a lot less sweetener to the jelly, but the sourness needs balance, and I’ve found a mixture of white sugar and maple syrup works well.

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Beach plums. Credit: Kathy Gunst

This recipe involves several steps, but it is actually quite simple. The gorgeous deep purple-pink color and sweet, tart flavors are at home on the day’s first buttered toast or used to glaze a duck, spread on a sharp cheddar cheese sandwich or serve as a condiment with grilled leg of lamb.

The jelly makes a wonderful anniversary gift. Like a long marriage, it is a great balance of sweet and bitter.

Beach Plum Jelly

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Yield: 8 to 10 jars

Use beach plums, Concord grapes or a combination to make the jelly. It will keep in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed Mason jar for well more than a month or can be canned and kept in a cool, dark spot for up to a year. More prep time will be needed for picking, and cook time includes time to drain the cooked plums.

Ingredients

  • About 20 cups beach plums
  • 4 cups water
  • About 3 cups sugar
  • About 1 cup maple syrup
  • 1 to 2 ounces liquid pectin

Directions

  1. Prepping the beach plums is crucial to good jelly. Remove all stems, rotten or moldy plums, or under-ripe beach plums (which will be hard and pale pink or red like a cranberry). Wash thoroughly and then measure the fruit.
  2. Place the clean beach plums into a large pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil over high heat.
  3. Lower the heat and, stirring frequently, cook for about 10 to 15 minutes, or until the fruit is softened.
  4. Place a colander or sieve over a large bowl or pot and pour the fruit through it. Let it strain by gently pushing down on the fruit with a wooden spoon or spatula to extract as much juice as possible. I let my plums strain all day, covered with a piece of clean cheesecloth to avoid fruit flies. It can sit for hours.
  5. When you think all the juice has been extracted, measure how much you have. Add about 1/2 cup sweetener for each cup of beach plum juice. (A half-cup will give you sweet-tart jelly, while 1 cup will obviously give you a sweeter jelly). I like to add a combination of sugar and maple syrup.
  6. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved.
  7. Reduce heat to moderate and let simmer about 10 minutes.
  8. Add the pectin and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook about 10 minutes to allow the jelly to thicken.
  9. Taste for sweetness and adjust accordingly. To test for doneness, add a spoonful to a small plate and place in the freezer for 10 minutes. It should be quite thick.
  10. Put the jelly into sterilized jars and refrigerate or process for 20 minutes.

Main photo: Beach plum jelly. Credit: Kathy Gunst

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Splashing down in an apple-a-day world. Credit: iStockphoto / dmitryphotos

I hope you don’t think it’s rude, but I’m restoring my gut flora as I type. Ever since I discovered that 90% of my health lives in my gut, I decided to take action. At this very moment, I’ve got 10 probiotic strains and 100 billion live cultures on my stomach’s stage. I’m trying to revive my good bacteria because the warmup act was some heavy-metal thrashers.

I got tested for heavy metals, at my doctor’s behest, to see what was causing my liver congestion and inflammation. Turns out I have too much Alice Cooper. Sure, I have Freddie Mercury, Led Zeppelin and Metallica too, but my high volume of Alice, or aluminum, concerns me the most since my dad had Alzheimer’s. I’d like to detox, but not with one of those generic, kale-me-now juice cleanses. I want a chelation plan that’s tailored to my individual chemical body burden, or as I call it, Toxic Life Overload (TLO).

We all have TLO. I’m not special. The only difference is that I peed in some plastic jugs for two days, and now I’m acquainted with the whole Mötley Crüe. The fact is, we live in a chemical stew of toxic food, water, air and products that we clean with, sleep with and slather on our skin.

Industrial chemical pollution begins in the womb. Lead, mercury, pesticides, BPA and up to 232 industrial chemicals have been found in umbilical cord blood of newborns. The Environmental Working Group tested more than 200 people for 540 industrial chemicals and found 482 of them in their bodies. In 2010, the President’s Cancer Panel declared that the number of cancers caused by toxic chemicals is “grossly underestimated” and warned that Americans face “grievous harm” from largely unregulated chemicals that contaminate air, water and food.

The autoimmune effect

Is it a coincidence that over the last 30 years, the autoimmune epidemic has nearly tripled to more than 100 diseases? About 50 million Americans suffer from autoimmune disease — 75% of them women — including multiple sclerosis, lupus, Crohn’s, Celiac, chronic fatigue, thyroiditus, rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.

But I’m starting to think that knowing my TLO is TMI. I thought knowledge would lead to prevention, but I’m too busy worrying about Quiet Riot sneaking up on me to prevent anything but a good night’s sleep. From every BPA plastic container to each GMO corn kernel, I hear those Black Flag, Anthrax and Megadeth songs screaming in my head.

The new mind-body connection

Most diseases arise from the interaction between a person’s genetic makeup and the environmental agents to which he or she is exposed. Yet I’ve been reading up on the new science of epigenetics, which is the theory that your thoughts and beliefs can alter your gene expression. I’m talking major shifts in cellular activity leading to physiological changes. Optimism, altruism, visualization, healing energy, meditation and prayer are all said to have epigenetic effects.

Scientifically proven or not, many prominent doctors, scientists and health practitioners are touting this line of thinking. Dr. Bruce Lipton, author of  “The Biology of Belief” asserts that genes and DNA don’t control our biology — that DNA is controlled by signals from outside the cell, including the energetic messages emanating from our thoughts. Deepak Chopra claims there’s more and more evidence of the mind-body connection, and that we can transform our own biology by responding to all that we experience, including thoughts, feelings, words and actions. He says that regardless of the genes we inherit, change at this level allows us almost unlimited influence on our fate.

Does that mean if I change the way I think, my dad’s Alzheimer’s won’t necessarily be mine? But what about Alice Cooper? He’s not in my genetic makeup, but he’s still in my blood. Thank God he’s not in my makeup. Who needs all that black and white shmutz on their face? Hey, was that gratitude? Maybe it really works!

OK … here I go. I’m changing my tune. From now on, this Twisted Sister is gonna be more Pharrell Williams. Sure, his songs are lightweight, but at least they’re not heavy metal. If I could just turn down the volume, it might be music to my gut.

Because I’m happy … clap along … sing this song and turn off that Mötley Crüe … Happy … clap along, sing this song and stop stressin’ ’bout the stew …

Main photo: Splashing down in an apple-a-day world. Credit: iStockphoto / dmitryphotos

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Chocolate ravioli make for a sweet treat.

Pasta lovers, save room for dessert. Pasta can be enjoyed not just as a first course, but for dessert too! Pasta as a sweets course may sound trendy, but Italians have been making all sorts of desserts with it for centuries. From cutting-edge modern creations to traditional almond-pasta pie from Emilia, there are hundreds of sweets made with every shape of pasta, from angel hair to ziti. Plus, dozens of dessert ravioli.

Modern pasta desserts

Want a change from the same old, same old? Jumbo pasta shells coated in cocoa is one of my favorites from the many modern pasta desserts in Italy today. Luca  De Luca and the team at the Garofalo pasta company near Naples taught me this recipe while I was in Italy researching my book “Pasta Modern.” “Pasta shells can be filled with almost anything: vanilla custard, chocolate pudding, panna cotta, semifreddo, sorbet, granita, whipped cream and fresh berries, yogurt and honey — there are endless possibilities,” Luca said.

“Leave the gun, take the cannoli” is a popular line from “The Godfather,” showing just how popular the Italian dessert is. As anyone who’s ever tried knows, making cannoli shells is a huge challenge. It’s hard even for the most experienced home cooks. But now there’s a fun solution: cannoli made with pasta instead! Mezzi maniche, “half sleeves,” or little pasta tubes, are boiled then fried to create a crunchy, tasty container for the creamy sweet ricotta cannoli filling. They are a perfect pop-in-your-mouth, one-bite size. The fried mezzi maniche pasta are even good plain! Toss them in sugar and serve them with melted chocolate or with ice cream.

Spaghetti Sundae, a really fun, whimsical, kid pleaser, is spaghetti tossed in melted chocolate and served just like a sundae, deliciously cold-topped with your favorite sundae fixings.

It’s so simple you don’t even need a recipe. Just melt chocolate with a little olive oil and toss it with cooked pasta. Then top with any of the usual toppings: whipped cream, chopped nuts, sprinkles. Olive oil helps make the chocolate easier to melt, even in the microwave, and creates a super silky sheen. Olive oil also keeps the pasta from sticking together once it cools.

Fried pasta desserts

In Italy they have a saying, Fritti sono buoni anche gli zampi delle sedie — “Fried, even chair legs are delicious.” Pasta is certainly at the top of the list of delicious fried treats.

There are fried pasta desserts in almost every region of Italy. In Sicily, they fry a little forkful of angel hair and serve it topped with honey and chopped pistachios. It’s like a pasta cookie, crunchy on the outside and chewy in the center. In Tuscany and central Italy, they make a variation by frying thicker tagliatelle noodles nests, called nidi di tagliatelle per Carnevale. To make them, a few strands of fresh egg noodles are clumped into a little nest and fried. Since the noodles aren’t boiled first, only fresh egg pasta, not dried pasta, is used because it is softer. In Tuscany, the treat is created using chocolate noodles, made by incorporating cocoa powder into the pasta dough. The fried nests are drizzled with brandy-infused warm honey and topped with toasted almonds. In Emilia-Romagna, the nests are simply topped with confectioners’ sugar.

Dessert ravioli

Almost every region has its own sweet dessert ravioli, tortelli or mini-calzone recipes, with variations in fillings and shapes. Too difficult for me to recreate, but delicious for you to try if you are ever in Italy, are the chocolate ravioli filled with chocolate ricotta mousse and served in fresh strawberry puree from Osteria Pastella in Florence.

Ravioli filled with pureed chestnuts, chocolate, espresso, rum and ground nuts, caggiunitte, are an Abruzzo specialty. Lombardy’s specialty pasta dessert is fried tortelli filled with either jam or chocolate. I especially like the earthy combination of pureed chickpeas and jam filling in panzarotti con ceci of Puglia and Basilicata. Usually, ravioli can be tricky to make, because you have to get the dough very thin and seal them carefully since they’re going to be dashed about in rapidly boiling water like tiny ships in a storm. But because these ravioli are baked rather than boiled, you can make them thicker and don’t have to worry about them opening. It’s an easy way to work with dough.

Torta Riccolina

Torta Ricciolina, or angel hair pasta pie. Credit: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan

Angel Hair Pasta Pie (Torta Ricciolina)

From: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets,” by Francine Segan

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Baking Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 50 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Angel hair pasta, seasoned with chocolate and almonds, bakes into one of the most unusual, delicious pies I’ve ever tasted.

To make this classic Bolognese dessert, you absolutely must use fresh, not dried, egg pasta. If making your own pasta seems daunting, buy ready-made fresh instead. Most supermarkets sell ready-made fresh.

This is a great make-ahead dessert, as it’s much better the day after, once all the flavors have melded.

Ingredients

8 ounces, about 1 1/2 cups, whole blanched almonds

3/4 cup granulated sugar

Zest of 1 lemon

2 ounces, about 1/3 cup, finely chopped candied citron or candied orange peel

1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 pie crust, store bought or homemade

8 ounces fresh thin egg-pasta, such as tagliatelline or angel hair, store-bought or homemade

6 tablespoons butter, thinly sliced

1/3 cup rum

Directions

1. Grind the almonds and sugar in a food processor until it resembles coarse sand. Pulse in the zest, candied citron or orange peel, and cocoa powder until well combined. Divide into 3 parts.

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a 9- or 10-inch pie pan with the pie crust. Pot lots of holes in the bottom and sides of the crust with a fork.

3. Divide the pasta into three parts, with one part being slightly larger than the other two.

4. Line the pie pan with the larger portion of pasta and sprinkle with 1/3 of the almond mixture. Lift the pasta with the tip of a knife so it is loose and free form. Do not press the pasta down. Dot the pasta with thin slices of the butter.

5. Top with another layer of pasta sprinkled with a third of the almond mixture and more butter. Repeat for a third and final layer.

6. Loosely cover with aluminum foil, bake for 25 minutes, then remove the foil and continue baking uncovered for another 20-25 minutes until the top is golden and the center set.

7. Remove from the oven and immediately sprinkle the top of the pie with the rum. It will hiss and absorb quickly, with most of the alcohol evaporating, leaving just a lovely aroma and flavor.

8. Allow to cool to room temperature. Serve, preferably after it’s rested overnight or for 24 hours, topped with confectioners’ sugar.

Dessert pasta shells

Jumbo pasta shells coated in cocoa. Credit: “Pasta Modern” by Francine Segan

Chocolate Stuffed Shells (Conchiglioni dolci al cacao)

From: “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy,” by Francine Segan

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 24 large shells, serves 4 to 6

Use just cocoa powder for unsweetened shells that become a gorgeous reddish-brown color, or sweeten the cocoa powder with confectioners’ sugar for a lovely dark-colored sweet shell. Using a teaspoon, fill the shells with anything you like. Pictured here is milk chocolate and dark chocolate pudding.

Other fun options:

Ice cream, slice of banana, dollop fudge sauce and chopped nuts for a mini sundae

Ricotta, sugar, mini chocolate chips for a soft cannoli

Mascarpone cheese, sugar and drop of coffee for an instant tiramisu

Cream cheese, fruit jam and fresh fruit for Italian-style cheesecake

Ingredients

24 jumbo shells

Salt

1/4 cup cocoa powder

1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar

Fillings and garnishes: about 2 cups total of gelato, custard, whipped cream, fruit, yogurt, etc.

Directions

1. Cook the shells in lightly salted boiling water until al dente and drain.

2. For sweeter shells, put the cocoa powder and confectioners’ sugar, to taste, into a sturdy plastic food storage bag. Toss the shells, a few at a time, into the bag until fully coated with cocoa powder. For less-sweet shells, toss them in just cocoa powder. Fill with anything you like.

cannoli pasta bites

Mezzi maniche, or little pasta tubes, are boiled then fried to create a crunchy, tasty container for the creamy sweet ricotta cannoli filling. Credit: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan

Cannoli Pasta Bites (Mezzi Maniche Dolci)

From: “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy,” by Francine Segan

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 35 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Try this recipe once and, like me, I bet it will become one of your go-to desserts.

There are lots of ways to vary it. One of my favorite variations is to fill the fried pasta with mascarpone cheese sweetened with sugar and then dust with instant coffee granules and cocoa powder, for a riff on tiramisu.

Ingredients

1 cup ricotta

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 tablespoon finely chopped dark chocolate or mini chocolate chips

1 tablespoon minced candied orange peel

Pinch of ground cinnamon

1/4 pound mezzi maniche

Salt

Vegetable oil

Optional garnishes: chopped pistachios, chopped candied cherry or orange peel, cocoa powder or chopped chocolate

Directions

1. In a bowl, using a fork, mix the ricotta, sugar, chocolate, candied peel and cinnamon until well combined. Refrigerate until ready to use.

2. Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until very tender, about 1 minute longer than al dente. Drain the pasta well. Meanwhile, heat about 1 inch of vegetable oil in a very small saucepan until hot, but not smoking. Add half of the pasta and fry until golden and crisp, about 2 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel. Repeat with the remaining pasta.

3. When room temperature, roll the fried pasta in granulated sugar, then fill each with the ricotta mixture, either using an espresso spoon or by piping it in with a pastry bag. Garnish, if you like, with chopped pistachios, candied orange peel, grated chocolate or other toppings.

 

Sicilian Pasta Chips

In Sicily, they fry a little forkful of angel hair and serve it topped with honey and chopped pistachios. Credit: “Pasta Modern,” by Francine Segan

 

Sicilian Pasta Crisps (Pasta Fritta alla Siciliana)

From: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets,” by Francine Segan

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 25 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Twirled forkfuls of honey-sweetened spaghetti, crunchy on the edges and soft in the center — scrumptious and a snap to prepare.

Ingredients

1/3 pound angel hair pasta

Salt

Sunflower or other vegetable oil

1/4 cup honey

Zest of 1/2 orange, or 2 tablespoons finely minced candied orange peel, 2 teaspoons orange blossom water

Pistachios, finely crushed

Ground cinnamon

Directions

1. Cook the pasta in salted water according to package directions. Drain.

2. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine the honey, orange zest or candied orange peel, orange blossom water and 2 tablespoons of boiling water.

3. Put about 1/4 inch of oil in a small frying pan and heat until hot, but not smoking. Twirl small forkfuls of the pasta, drop them into the hot oil, and cook until golden and crisp at the edges. Turn, and cook on the other side for just a few seconds. Drain the pasta crisps on a plate lined with paper towels.

Arrange the pasta crisps on serving plate. Serve warm, drizzled with the honey mixture and topped with a sprinkle of pistachios and a pinch of cinnamon.

Sweet Chickpea Ravioli (Panzarotti con Ceci)

From: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets,” by Francine Segan

Prep Time: 45 minutes

Cook Time: 25 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Yield: 4 dozen

Ingredients

For the filling:

1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas (canned, or 4 ounces dry, soaked overnight and boiled until tender)

1 cup best-quality cherry jam

2 to 4 tablespoons sweet liqueur such as Amaretto, limoncello, mandarino, or a combination

Zest of 1/2 lemon

Honey or sugar, to taste

Ground cinnamon, to taste

1 egg

For the dough:

16 ounces, about 3 1/2 cups, all-purpose flour

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup white wine

2 tablespoons olive oil

Confectioners’ sugar

Directions

1. For the filling: Process the chickpeas through a food mill until you get a nice thick, smooth paste. Then mix in the jam and liqueur to taste. Stir in the zest and cinnamon to taste, and then add sugar or honey, if you like. Once you have tasted it and are happy with the flavor, then mix in the egg. You can make the filling several days ahead. Refrigerate until ready to use.

2. For the dough: Sift the flour, sugar and salt onto a clean work surface and make a well in the center. Heat the wine in a saucepan or in the microwave. Pour the oil and 1/4 cup of the wine into the well and incorporate the flour, a little at a time, until dough forms. Add warm water, a little at a time, if the dough feels tough. Knead the dough until smooth. Put into a plastic bag or wrap in plastic wrap.

3. To assemble: Preheat oven to 350 F. Line 2 or 3 baking sheets with parchment paper.

4. Spread out a large clean cotton cloth onto a work surface for assembling and cutting the ravioli.

5. Leaving the rest covered, take a small section, about an 1/8 of the of dough, and either pass it through a pasta maker (#3 hole size, not thinner) or use a rolling pin to create a 3 to 4-inch wide strip of dough. Make just 2 strips at a time, so you can fill and cut the ravioli without having the waiting dough get dry.

6. Lay a sheet of dough onto the cloth and drop a tablespoonful of the filling on the sheet, about 1 1/2 inches apart. Top with another layer of dough. Using your fingers, press the top layer of dough around the filling and using a ravioli cutter, cut out square-shaped ravioli. Repeat until you’ve used up all the dough and filling.

7. Put the ravioli onto the baking sheet and bake for about 25 minutes until golden.

8. Eat warm, sprinkled with powdered sugar or cold dipped in honey or mosto cotto or vin cotto.

Main photo: Chocolate ravioli make for a sweet treat. Credit: Osteria Pastella

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