Seed swap in Orange County. Credit: Nicole Gregory

When I lived in New York City, I could not keep a single plant alive in my overheated apartment. So imagine my surprise when my husband and I moved to the warm Los Angeles climate and I discovered how easy it is to grow plants — including luscious vegetables — year-round.

Just put them into the ground, water them regularly and watch them grow.

But even as my expertise as backyard gardener grew over the years, I continued to depend on seedlings purchased from my local nursery. Growing vegetables from seeds, I’d heard, could yield good results. But, really, why bother?

Then I got the chance to find out at a seed swap that was taking place in Orange County.

“The idea is to grow vegetables and fruit that are perfectly suited to the local environment,” Sharael Kolberg told me. She is the community liaison for SEEDS Arts and Education, the nonprofit that organized the seed swap in Laguna Beach under the tall shady trees at the Anneliese School.

A new seed library is born

The group of about 100 gardening enthusiasts was also there to celebrate the inauguration of a seed library at the school, with food and Champagne, and a few words from local experts.

Small white boxes that looked like traditional library card drawers were set out on tables and visitors avidly perused the donated seed packets of squash, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and more — all organic and non-GMO.

Seed swap in Orange County

Sharael Kolberg, community liaison for SEEDS Arts and Education. Credit: Nicole Gregory

The primary reason to grow food from seeds? “It tastes good!” was Linda Elbert’s answer. A member of Slow Food Orange County, Elbert added that the food is local, fresh and picked when it’s ripe.

“Having seeds could be the difference between living and dying,” said Chris Prelitz of Transition Laguna Beach.

Prelitz, a local environmentalist, said that seed swapping is one way to create sustainable food habits and strengthen community bonds.

In the past, he said, immigrant farmers who had to flee their village for any reason would sew seeds into the lining of their clothing for safe keeping. It was that vital to keep their food supply going.

But as I soon learned, this live-or-die urgency about saving seeds is felt by many people today — though for a different reason.

Protect and save non-GMO seeds

Big agricultural businesses have been promoting and patenting — and forcing farmers to buy — their genetically modified seeds, and this has galvanized environmental activists around the world to protect and save heirloom, organic, non-GMO seeds.

Seed Savers Exchange for example, which began in 1975, offers an online seed swap that “saves and shares the heirloom seeds of our garden heritage, forming a living legacy that can be passed down through generations.”

The San Francisco Seed Library, opened in 2011, allows visitors to check out and donate seeds.

Seed swap in Orange County

Urban gardeners come to celebrate the opening of  a seed swap in Laguna Beach, Calif. Credit: Nicole Gregory

Though most preserve vegetable and fruit seeds, Kew Royal Botanical Gardens near London is dedicated to saving seeds from plants around the world that are under threat of extinction. And the Chicago Botanic Garden has a tall grass prairie seed bank to preserve native species.

The Indian group called Navdana, begun by feminist and activist Dr. Vandana Shiva, has organized more than 100 community seed banks across India to protect biodiversity and to support small farmers.

Concern about the spread of genetically modified seeds caused the Council for Responsible Genetics to create the Safe Seed Pledge. Seed sellers who sign it declare they do not buy or sell genetically engineered seeds.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has signed this pledge, as have more than 100 commercial seed sellers. This is important because in 2005 Monsanto, the primary developer of genetically modified crops, bought the vegetable seed company Seminis, which sells seeds under many brand names.

So it is gardeners and cooks in communities around the country who are actively preserving the health and diversity of organic, non-GMO seeds — and thus our good food.

In some parts of the world, swapping seeds is a tradition that has never stopped.

“When you travel through Italy, you see that each community grows its own produce, and makes its own cheeses, olive oils and meats,” Elbert said. “They all have slightly different soils and climate — there is tremendous diversity. Trading seeds is common among farmers.”

Since I had not brought any seeds to donate for the Orange County seed swap, it didn’t feel right for me to take any from the white drawers set out on the tables, but I was sorely tempted.

Luckily Meg Heisinger, from the Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano, was on hand to demonstrate how to save seeds of  winter squash. It looked so simple that I now know that I am ready and willing to join the seed swapping movement.

How to save winter squash seeds

  1. Let the squash grow a bit past the ripened stage.
  2. Cut the squash in half and scoop out seeds.
  3. Put the seeds in a strainer and, under running water, gently rub them with a spoon to separate the pulp from the seeds.
  4. Place the seeds on a plate or cookie sheet in a dry, but not-too-sunny area.
  5. Once the seeds have dried, put them into a paper bag or envelope — they can last for about a year.
  6. That’s it. They’ll be ready to plant in the spring for a new crop.

Other seeds that are great for beginners to save include: basil, beans, beets, carrots, chard, eggplant, leeks, lettuce, onions, parsley, peas, peppers, spinach, sunflowers and tomatoes.

For more information, contact:

SEEDS Library of Laguna Beach (by appointment)
Anneliese School, Willowbrook Campus
20062 Laguna Canyon Road
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
(949) 322-9597

Main photo: Seed swap in Laguna Beach, Calif. Credit: Nicole Gregory

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Cookbooks that make good gifts. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Shopping for a great Christmas gift once meant hours of driving and parking, but with today’s Internet shopping, it’s easier. Internet shopping can be great for those of us who like to give cookbooks. With so many available titles, there are a few things gift-givers need to know to sort out the well-written quality books from the lesser potential gifts.

Cookbooks are terrific gifts because they can be used every day and often attain heirloom status that leads you to better cooking.

My specialty as a cookbook author is writing cookbooks for home cooks interested in culturally driven cooking that reveals a history or story. My favorites are Italian and Mediterranean cuisines in general. So when I look for cookbooks as gifts, I like to give not the latest trendy cookbook but often older books that I value and that my younger friends might not know. These are books from which I learned. I lament the fact that for all the cookbooks published every year and the popularity of food television and celebrity chefs, I don’t believe people are cooking at home more.

Food television has stimulated people’s interest and tried to turn cooking into entertainment and competition, but I doubt it has gotten them into the kitchen. What will make you a better cook? Buy a good cookbook, not necessarily the one everyone is talking about, and get into the kitchen and follow a recipe, and through trial and error you will learn to be a better cook.

Along with the handful of quality new cookbooks published each year, there are plenty of older, out-of-print ones that are almost bibles. You can find them on the Internet and they’re sometimes cheap. If there is someone who’s cooking you admire, ask them what their favorite cookbook is.

Good cookbooks have several criteria, and having recipes that work flawlessly isn’t one of them. More than meticulously tested recipes, I look for quirkiness, personality, a history, or a story told, perhaps about the cook, the author, the cook’s mother, the culture, or a broad sweep of it all.

When I see the crêpes suzette recipe written in that particular style of the ’60s in Julia Child’s cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” it’s not merely a delicious recipe. It is also laden with pregnant memories evocative of a whole era, of an entire culture, and a particularly wonderful day when I made it for the first time as a 15-year-old.

Here is a very small collection of older cookbooks from my library that I am fond of even if I don’t cook from them regularly nor would I say you must have them in your library, nor are they the best in my collection. They are simply good books I’ll never get rid of. (The first book is shameless self-promotion, but I actually use my book, too.)

» “A Mediterranean Feast” by Clifford A. Wright (William Morrow, 1999)

» “The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook,” by Gloria Bley Miller (New York: Grosset & Dunlop, 1975)

» “Foods of Long Island,” by Peggy Katalinich, A Newsday Cookbook (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1985)

» “Pasta & Pizza,” by Massimo Alberini, with recipes compiled by Anna Martini; Elisabeth Evans, trans. (New York: St. Martin’s, 1977)

» “French Provincial Cooking,” by Elizabeth David (New York: Harper & Row, 1962)

 Main photo: Cookbooks that make good gifts. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Almonds, pine nuts and pistachios are coated with sugar to make Italian confetti. Credit: Francine Segan

Italians sure like to sugarcoat things. They’ve got a sugarcoated something or other for almost every occasion.

Almonds are covered in a different color of sugar depending on the occasion — white for weddings, green for engagements, silver for 25th anniversaries, blue or pink for christenings and red for graduations.

Pistachios and pine nuts are traditional favorites, too, added to party favors or flower and fruit baskets. Cacao and coffee beans  have been sugarcoated since the time they were introduced into Italy in the 16th century.

Less well known, however, are Italy’s many sugarcoated spices and herbs.

Italian confetti

In Italy, these tiny treats are served after dinner, as palate cleansers, and are also used to decorate certain desserts.

Called confetti in Italy (dragées in France, comfits in England), these sweets are made by sugar panning, a technique that adds a sugar coating, layer by layer. (Panning is also the same method used by the pharmaceutical industry to coat pills. With a slight change in manufacture and sugar composition, it is also the technique for making jellybeans.)

Confetti are made in a panning machine, a device that looks like a cement mixer. A panning machine is a wide-mouthed copper or stainless steel vessel with a diameter that ranges from 3 to 5 feet. The panning machine is mounted at an angle on a shaft and rotates over a low open flame. Sugar syrup is then slowly added to whatever is to be coated, either with a funnel suspended over the pan, or by hand by ladlefuls. As the sweets bounce about in the pan, the sugar spreads and crystallizes in a thin, hard layer. Only a little sugar is added at a time, so the sugar clings closely to the original object’s shape and contours. Sugarcoated fennel and rosemary stay oblong and the coriander and juniper berries retain their round shape.

For a smooth candy coating, sugar syrup is added by hand in small ladlefuls every half-hour or so. When the sugar syrup is added drop by drop from a suspended funnel, a lovely jagged texture is created.

Romanengo, a Genoa confectionary icon since 1780, creates, among its many artisinal sweets, an impossibly delicate cinnamon confetti. Giovanni Battista Romanego, one of the current generation’s five Romanengo brothers, personally hand-snips Ceylon cinnamon bark into thin wisps, then slowly coats them in sugar syrup, drop by drop, over the course of two days. Unlike Romanengo’s sugarcoated fennel or anise seeds, which have a smooth, shiny coating, the cinnamon has a wonderfully magical appearance that looks like tiny storybook-perfect snowflakes.

Stratta, a Turin confectionery shop since 1836, sells traditional Italian sugarcoated fennel seeds, which are given as gifts to new mothers (thought to help with nursing) or at christenings. Stratta’s owner, Adriana Monzeglio, a spice aficionado, has added several exotic new entries, including cardamom, cumin, coriander and rye, to their list of more conventional confetti. One of Stratta’s best-selling innovations is rosemary confetti, with each tiny leaf encased in a delicate green-tinted sugar.

Confetti are used to top struffoli, a Christmas dessert.

Struffoli: Neapolitan Honey Treats (Struffoli in Cestino di Croccante)

From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets”

Struffoli, traditional Italian Christmas treats, are marble-sized fried dough balls dipped in honey, piled into a mound and topped with colored sugar and candied fruit. They can be fried or baked and make a festive centerpiece just as they are, heaped onto a serving plate or, as ambitious home cooks in Naples do, served in an edible candy dish. Both the candy dish and the stuffoli are fun and easy to make.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 40 minutes

Total time: 60 minutes

Yield: 10 to 12 servings

Ingredients

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed

5 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided

1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

6 large eggs, separated

4 tablespoons butter, melted

3 tablespoons Cointreau or Limoncello

1 tablespoon vanilla

Zest of 2 lemons

Zest of 1 orange

Sunflower or other vegetable oil for frying

8 ounces honey, about 1 cup

For optional garnish: confetti — tiny, colored, sugarcoated spices — candied cherries, etc.

Directions

1. In a large bowl and using an electric mixer, combine the flour, 3 tablespoons of the sugar, baking soda, salt, 4 whole eggs, 2 yolks, butter, Cointreau, vanilla and the zests until a dough forms.

2. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

3. Take a small handful of the dough and roll it into a breadstick shape about 3/4 inches in diameter.

4. Cut the dough into hazelnut-sized sections about 1/2 inch thick and then either bake or fry them. (See below for baking instructions.) For frying, fill in a high-sided saucepan with 3 inches of oil and heat over medium-high flame. They will puff up and turn a lovely golden color within seconds. Remove them from the skillet and place them onto a paper towel-lined plate.

5. Repeat with the remaining dough.

6. In a small saucepan combine the honey and the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar and then heat until runny. Remove from the heat and stir in the fried balls, one small batch at a time, until they are well coated in the honey mixture. Using a slotted spoon remove the coated balls and arrange them in a circle in a shallow bowl. Repeat with the remaining dough balls, adding them to form a tall mound. Pour any remaining honey over the top and decorate with a scattering of colored sugar balls, confetti and candied fruit.

Best if served within 24 hours of making them. The dessert is placed in the center of the table and guests help themselves with their fingers.

Note: If you prefer, you can bake the dough balls. Place the hazelnut-sized dough segments about an inch apart on a well-greased baking sheet and bake at 400 F for about 7 minutes. Turn the balls and bake on the other side for another 6 to 7 minutes or until light golden. They will not be as round or as nicely golden as the fried version, but the taste will be just as stupendous. You may like to try baking half the dough and frying half, giving your struffoli color gradations.

Edible candy dish

Don’t panic, this isn’t hard to do. The candy dish is really just a big blob of almond brittle.

Ingredients

Vegetable or olive oil

1/4 cup corn syrup

2 1/4 cups sugar

2 cups, 7 ounces sliced almonds

Directions

1. Lightly oil a large nonstick cookie sheet. Lightly oil the inside of a large pie pan, shallow bowl or mold.

2. Heat the corn syrup in a heavy bottom saucepan over medium-high heat until warm, then stir in the sugar. At first the sugar just sort of sits there, but it will start to become translucent in about 3 or 4 minutes then turn ivory colored for another 3 minutes or so, and then finally darken and become liquidy.

3. Continue cooking the mixture, stirring occasionally with an oil-coated wooden spoon, until it becomes a rich golden color, about 12 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the almonds.

4. Carefully, as the sugar is scorching hot, pour the mixture onto the prepared cookie sheet. Using a rolling pin, gently flatten the mixture and roll it out into a large thin circle, at least 13 inches in diameter. Once it has cooled a little and seems firm, transfer it into the prepared mold.

5. Remove from the mold once it’s completely cool and hardened.

Main photo: Almonds, pine nuts, pistachios, fennel and other herb seeds are coated with sugar to make Italian confetti. Credit: Francine Segan

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Black cake. Credit: Ramin Ganeshram

It would arrive each year by the first week of December: a brown paper parcel from Tobago, where my father’s favorite niece lived. Inside was a used butter cookie tin, and inside that was a foil-wrapped cake that revealed itself to be dark as night.

The alcohol fumes that wafted off the cake as it was unwrapped were enough to make our young heads spin — and to preserve it for what was, in those days, a three-week journey by ship from Trinidad & Tobago to New York City. For weeks after the cake arrived, my brother Ramesh and I would scurry into the kitchen and pick at it when my father wasn’t looking.

This Caribbean holiday specialty, which is called Black Cake because of its signature color, Christmas Cake or simply “fruit cake,” is a fruit cake that will actually leave you hankering for more. Plummy, boozy and sweet but not sugary, Black Cake is best described as plum pudding that has gone to heaven.

This cake is so addictive that once you’ve tried it, seeking it come December is an obsession for some. I’ve been bribed with everything from hand-knit scarves, theater tickets, offers of baby-sitting, and even house-cleaning for one.

Black Cake inspired by an Irish Christmas recipe

Most common in English-Caribbean islands like Trinidad, Barbados and Grenada, its origins are in the Irish Christmas Cake, an equally worthy fruitcake cousin. Primarily consisting of raisins, prunes and currants, Black Cake contains only a small amount of the multi-hued candied peel that makes most fruit cakes less than appetizing. To add flavor and moisture, the fruits are soaked in a rum and cherry wine mixture for weeks.

For those of us who have a black-cake-making heritage, this fruit cake is serious business. Those who are really old school start soaking the fruits a full year ahead of time, although I have developed a “fast-soak” method, which means you can have your cake and eat it, too, all in time for the holiday season.

Every family has its own recipe with either a unique mixture of fruits, ratio of liquors or even combination of liquors. Lately, I’ve been using Manischewitz Cherry Wine because I find it has the same sweetness as Caribbean versions of cherry wine but with a lot more color and body.

If you hate fruitcake but love cakes that are densely rich, complex in flavor without being too sweet and ideal with a cup of tea, give Black Cake a try. You might find yourself breaking it out not just at Christmastime, but as we do — for weddings and special occasions of all sorts — because any excuse to eat this fruitcake will do.

This video gives a demonstration for making this cake, with the recipe below.

Black Cake

This recipe is adapted from “Sweet Hands: Island Cooking from Trinidad & Tobago” by Ramin Ganeshram. It features a “fast-soak” method that uses heat to start the maceration process for the dried fruits that make up the cake.

Ingredients

For the fruit mixture:

1 pound raisins

1 pound currants

1 pound prunes

1/2 pound candied cherries

1/4 pound mixed fruit peel

4 cups cherry brandy or cherry wine, divided

4 cups dark rum

1 cinnamon stick

2 star anise pods

1/2 vanilla bean

For the cake:

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

1 cup dark brown sugar

2 sticks (1 cup) butter, softened

6 eggs

1/2 teaspoon mixed essence (available in Caribbean markets)

1 tablespoon burnt sugar syrup (see note)

For the basting:

1/4 cup dark rum

1/4 cup cherry brandy

2 tablespoons sherry

1 dash Angostura bitters

Directions

For the fruit mixture:

1. For the fruit mixture, mix together all the dried fruits then place half the mixture in a food processor along with 1/2 cup of the cherry brandy. Pulse until the mixture is a rough paste, then place it in a large, deep saucepan or stockpot. Pulse the remaining fruits with another 1/2 cup of cherry brandy to form a rough paste, then add that to the pot as well.

2. Pour the remaining cherry brandy and rum into the pot with the pureed fruit. Add the cinnamon stick and star anise pods. Split the vanilla bean, scrape out the seeds and add both the seeds and the bean to the pan.

3. Place the pan over medium-low heat and mix well until just under a boil. Stir often so it does not scorch on the bottom.

4. Remove the pan from heat, cover it and allow the mixture to sit for one or two hours or as long as overnight. Alternatively, place fruit and spices in an airtight gallon jar and store unrefrigerated in a cool, dark place for at least three weeks or as long as a year.

For the cake:

1. Preheat the oven to 250 F and grease two 8-by-3-inch cake pans, then set them aside.

2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice.

3. Place the sugar and butter in a bowl and cream with an electric mixer until fluffy (about 4 minutes).

4. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

5. Add the mixed essence.

6. Using a slotted spoon, remove 3 cups of the fruit from its storage jar and beat well into the butter mixture.

7. Add the flour mixture 1/2 cup at a time, beating well after each addition, then add the burnt sugar syrup and mix well.

8. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans and bake for 90 minutes or until a cake tester inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Remove cakes from the oven and cool in their pans for 20 minutes.

9. Combine the rum, brand, sherry and bitters for basting and brush evenly over the cakes. Allow the cakes to cool completely, then remove them from the pans and wrap tightly in plastic wrap or in a zip-top bag.

10. Store in a cool, dry place for at least three days before eating. The recipe makes two cakes, which can be refrigerated for up to three months. If doing so, re-baste with the rum mixture once a week.

Note: Burnt sugar syrup or “browning” is found in Caribbean markets or online. You can also make it by combining 2 tablespoons of dark brown sugar and 1 tablespoon of water in a dry frying pan over medium-low heat. Heat slowly, stirring the sugar until it starts to caramelize. Continue stirring until the sugar syrup turns very dark brown or almost black. Add to batter as called for in a recipe.

Main photo: Black Cake is often simply called “fruit cake” or Christmas Cake in the English-speaking Caribbean. Credit: Ramin Ganeshram

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Sorel, a hibiscus punch, mixes well with a variety of liquors and tropical juices. Credit: Dreamstime

My father’s home of Trinidad & Tobago is filled with astounding diversity — its ecology, its people and, not least of all, its food. Featuring a cuisine that is a mix of African, East Indian, Chinese, Native Islander, Spanish and Portuguese influences, holidays in the twin-island nation run the gamut of cultures.

At Christmastime, Spanish pasteles made by the dozens by some families are sold by street vendors, and costumed bands sing parang or, really, paranda — that is, Spanish ballads — door to door. A rummy fruitcake descended and evolved from the original made by 18th-century Irish indentures is a must have, as is sorel, a punch made from steeped Roselle hibiscus flowers native to West Africa that came to the Caribbean and Latin America as part of the Atlantic slave trade. Sorel drinks, like peanut punch and a wide canon of Trinidadian recipes, have a strong foundation in the cuisine of West Africans brought as slaves to the island in the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries.

Sorel can be used in alcoholic, nonalcoholic drinks

Sorel is made from the calyxes of Roselle hibiscuses. Naturally tart, the flower mixture is sweetened with sugar and made aromatic with cinnamon and clove. In Trinidad, where it has become popular year-round, bay leaf is also added, while ginger is a common addition in other island nations such as Jamaica.

Sorel is most often made at home during the holiday season, and then rum or gin can be added as desired. In the United States, Jackie Summers, a former publishing executive from Brooklyn, began bottling Sorel, a premixed alcoholic version of the drink, in 2012.

“My first encounter with sorel was around (at) 5 years old at the annual West Indian Day parade in Brooklyn,” said Summers, who often refers to himself as “the Liquortarian.” “There was dancing and floats and steel drum music and beef patties and this delicious tart drink that tasted like nothing I’d ever had.”

As an adult, Summers tinkered with making Sorel in his home kitchen, eventually bottling an alcoholic version of the drink for family and friends.

“I’d been making Sorel at home for friends and family for almost 20 years with no commercial aspirations,” he said. “Then four years ago I had a cancer scare. When I was lucky enough to come out of surgery and found that the tumor on my spine was benign and I found out I was going to live, I knew I couldn’t go back to my old life in corporate America.”

After a promising start in 2012 and then devastation of his Red Hook facilities during Hurricane Sandy later that year, Summers rebuilt what is now an award-winning brand. You can find where Sorel is sold near you using this locator.

Summers’ version of the traditional drink is smooth yet complex, proving itself an ideal mixer for all manner of holiday cocktails. Moroccan Roselle hibiscus is mixed with a pure wheat alcohol that is both certified organic and kosher then spiced with Nigerian ginger, Indonesian nutmeg, cassia and Brazilian clove.

Sorel works particularly well with sparkling wine or in the Crown Heights Negroni (see recipe below), developed by Summers. The liqueur’s rich red color adds vibrancy to yuletide or New Year’s cocktail gatherings.

Whether making sorel at home with the recipe below or buying Summers’ variety, home mixologists will find this sweet-tart ruby elixir an indispensable twist for holiday entertaining.

Homemade Sorel

This traditional version of sorel is nonalcoholic and can be served as a refreshing punch for all or spiked with a little rum, vodka or gin. It is particularly nice mixed in equal parts with sparkling wine. The addition of ginger varies from island to island — it’s always used in Jamaica, for example, but never in Trinidad. Add it or not, according to your tastes. This drink can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to one week.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: About 30 minutes

Total time: About 35 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

2 cups dried hibiscus flowers (available in Caribbean and Middle Eastern markets) or 4 bags pure hibiscus tea (for example, Yogi)

1 cup sugar

1/2 cinnamon stick

1 whole clove

1 teaspoon grated ginger (optional)

7 cups water, divided

Directions

1. Combine the hibiscus flowers or tea bags, sugar, cinnamon stick, clove, ginger (if using) and 3 cups of water in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and allow to simmer for 20 minutes or until reduced by half.

2. Remove from heat and cover the pan. Allow to steep for 1 hour, then strain. Add remaining 4 cups of cold water and let chill.

Sorel-Coconut Vodka Martini

Coconut is mild and naturally sweet, while the sorel is tangy and bright with a gorgeous ruby-red hue. The two flavors combine beautifully in this drink enhanced by the warm spices in the hibiscus tisane.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: 2 cocktails

Ingredients

1/4 cup coconut palm sugar

2 curls of lime rind, about 3 inches long

2 cinnamon sticks

4 ice cubes

4 ounces coconut vodka (for example, Pearl), plus extra for rimming

1 ounce Rose’s lime juice

4 ounces homemade sorel

Directions

1. Place the coconut palm sugar in a shallow bowl or saucer and set aside.

2. Wet a folded, clean paper towel with some of the coconut vodka and wipe around the rims of two large martini glasses.

3. Holding the glasses by the stems, tip the rims into the sugar, twirling to coat evenly.

4. Curl the lime rind loosely around each cinnamon stick and carefully place the cinnamon sticks in the glasses; set aside.

5. Pour the ice cubes, coconut vodka, Rose’s lime juice and sorel into a martini shaker. Shake until the outside of the shaker is cold.

6. Pour the cocktails into the prepared glasses.

Crown Heights Negroni

Crown Heights Negroni. Credit:  Maya Guez

Crown Heights Negroni. Credit: Maya Guez

This gorgeous winter cocktail was created by Jackie Summers, creator and maker of Sorel hibiscus liqueur.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Total time: 5 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

8 ounces gin (for example, Tanqueray Malacca)

2 ounces Sorel

2 ounces sweet vermouth (for example, Carpano Antica Formula Sweet Vermouth)

2 ounces Campari

1 cup ice (optional)

4 dehydrated orange slices for garnish (fresh may be used, too)

Directions
1. Combine the gin, Sorel, vermouth and Campari in a pitcher with the ice (if using). Stir.

2. Garnish four martini glasses with an orange slice and divide the mixture evenly among them. Serve.

Hot Buttered Sorel

Brewed with warm spices, sorel is a natural, if surprising, twist on hot buttered rum. This recipe, from Jackie Summers, makes for a cozy drink on a chilly winter’s day.

Prep and cook time: 10 minutes

Yield: 4 cocktails

Ingredients

4 tablespoon butter

8 heaped tablespoons brown sugar

12 ounces Sorel

2 ounces spiced rum

4 thin lemon slices

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Directions

1. Melt the butter over low heat in a medium saucepan, then add the brown sugar. Whisk well and continue to whisk until the sugar melts and begins to caramelize, about 2 minutes.

2. Stir the Sorel into the caramel mixture, whisking well.

3. Divide the mixture among 4 mugs and add an equal amount of the spiced rum to each.

4. Garnish each mug with a lemon slice and a pinch of grated nutmeg and cinnamon. Serve warm.

Main photo: Sorel, a hibiscus punch, mixes well with a variety of liquors and tropical juices. Credit: Dreamstime

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The atavistic impulse to make mince pies is strong in British homes. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

“Mince around the World” is probably one of the worst names ever for a cookbook, yet it was discussed in all seriousness by an editor of my acquaintance a few years ago. For non-British readers, let me explain: Mince is what you folks the other side of the pond call “ground.” Not that “Grind around the World” would be much better.

Christmas mince pies would, of course, would be a feature in such a volume, although the beef that was once an essential component of the pastry has long been jettisoned from the ingredients list. In Britain, “mince” means ground meat, and “mincemeat” refers to dried fruit, nuts, candied peel, sugar, spices, suet and brandy or rum, chopped into a mixture that is used as a filling for small, round covered pies.

The latter word did originally mean finely shredded beef — indeed they commonly “made mincemeat” of unlucky knaves back in the 17th century — and it was general practice from the Middle Ages onward to add spice and fruit to meat. In her brilliantly researched “Great British Bakes,” Mary-Anne Boermans notes that Esther Copley in 1838 included five different recipes for mincemeat in her cookbook, the main ingredients being beef, tripe, neat’s tongue, eggs and oranges.

The meat content gradually died out over the centuries, especially with the advent of refrigeration, which took away the need to preserve meat by other means. The tradition survived longest in the sheep-rearing districts of northern England, where lamb or mutton was preferred to beef. The last vestige is the use of beef suet, although today’s mincemeat is increasingly vegetarian-friendly. Not that this is entirely new either — Hannah Glasse (1747) gives a recipe for Lenten mincemeat that has neither sugar nor suet, although it does include hard-boiled eggs.

Christmas tradition of mince pies

The atavistic impulse to make mince pies is still strong in British homes from the first rendition of “White Christmas” until you break your January diet. In 1662, Samuel Pepys celebrated “Twelfth Night with a dish of 18 “mince pies” (aka “Christmas pies”).

It is still common practice to have a standby tin of pies ready to offer passing mailmen, window cleaners and garbage disposal executives. In Yorkshire, they used to say if you didn’t accept a mince pie when offered, you risked a run of bad luck. There was also an old country belief there that the original mincemeat consisted of 13 ingredients representing the 12 apostles and Christ himself. Another old Yorkshire tradition, quoted in “The Oxford Companion to Food,” was that it is incorrect to eat mince pies before Christmas, but to eat one in a different house if possible on each of the 12 days of the season of Christmas — in order to bring 12 happy months.

Alas, I have to break it to you that unless you have been frightfully well-organized and have remembered to make your mincemeat far enough in advance for the flavor to mature, it is now too late for homemade. Still, there are good ready-made brands in the shops — but hurry, because you won’t be the only one who has just thought about it. Likewise with the pastry. There are various schools of thought as to whether this should be shortcrust, puff or flaky. The choice is yours, as is the decision whether to make your own or use ready-rolled.

For many families, Christmas simply isn’t Christmas without a plate of mince pies on hand. Even if you hate them or no one ever eats them, you’ve simply got to have them. It’s the law. Santa says so.

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Mincemeat refers to a mixture of dried fruit, nuts, candied peel, sugar, spices, suet and brandy or rum. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Classic Mince Pies

When using ready-made mincemeat, you can always perk it up with a splash of rum or brandy and/or some extra citrus zest. This recipe is based on one by Annie Bell in her triple-tested “Baking Bible.”

Prep time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 2 hours

Yield: About 24 servings

Ingredients

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup butter, chilled and diced

1/2 cup lard, chilled and diced

1 cup sifted confectioners’ sugar

1 egg yolk

A little milk

Superfine sugar, for dusting

About 2 cups mincemeat

Directions

1. Briefly process the flour, butter and lard so it becomes crumb-like.

2. Add the confectioners’ sugar and pulse again.

3. Add the egg yolk and enough milk to bring the dough together in a ball.

4. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least one hour.

5. Preheat the oven to about 375 F (190 C).

6. Grease two 12-hole shallow tart tins (or use nonstick).

7. Thinly roll out two-thirds of the pastry on a lightly floured work surface. Use a 3-inch fluted pastry cutter to cut circles. Place in the trays and fill with a generous spoonful of mincemeat.

8. Roll out the trimmings and remaining pastry and cut circles with a 2 ½-inch fluted cutter. Brush the rim of the pies lightly with milk, lay the lids on the tops and gently press the edges together.

9. Dust with the superfine sugar and bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Keep an eye on them so they don’t go much beyond the pale gold stage or the rims will start to harden and burn.

Tip: They can be stored in an airtight container for up to a week. They can also be frozen.

Main photo: The atavistic impulse to make mince pies is strong in British homes. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

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Martin Donatsch

There is one big problem with Swiss wines: There is not enough to go around. There are just 15,000 hectares (about 37,000 acres) of vineyards spread over the whole country, and the Swiss drink most of their wines themselves, so that barely 1 percent of the country’s entire production reaches the export market. This means that the only way to really enjoy Swiss wine is to go there — but that is no hardship, as it is a breathtakingly beautiful country.

The train ride from Geneva airport to Montreux sets the scene. The track follows the edge of Lake Geneva, and on the other side there are steep terraced vineyards, tiny plots with stone walls that form the myriad appellations of the Vaud (one of the Swiss cantons, or states). The whole area is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

From Montreux, I ventured into the German-speaking part of Switzerland, with vineyards scattered all over the northeastern part of the country.  They account for just 17 percent of the entire production of Switzerland. Visiting a small handful of wine growers, various themes become apparent. Not only is production tiny — the average wine grower can easily earn a living from 4 or 5 hectares (10 to 12 acres) — but it is also fragmented. Martin Donatsch, in the area of the Graubünden Herrschaft, is not unusual in making 14 different wines from 6 hectares (15 acres). While it is true that some of the wines are variations of the same grape variety, nonetheless the attention to detail is breathtaking.

Burgundy-style winemaking

Donatsch’s neighbor, Georg Fromm, in the village of Malans, follows the Burgundian pattern, making a village Pinot Noir that is a blend of grapes from different vineyards as well as four Pinot Noirs that draw from four distinct vineyards. And he has only 4.5 hectares. The differences were subtle but apparent, as there are slight variations in the soil as well as the vinification. (Fromm is also known for superlative Pinot Noir in New Zealand.)

Donatsch, whose father was the first to plant Chardonnay in the area and the first to age his Pinot Noir in barrels — he was given two Burgundian barrels by André Noblet of Domaine de la Romanée Conti — also follows the Burgundian pattern with the equivalent of a village, premier cru and grand cru wine. These indicate, in rising order, the quality of the terroir and thus the potential of the wine. In Donatsch’s case, the wines are called Tradition, Passion and Unique. Their style was understated, delicious and age-worthy.

Winemaking at Domaine Donatsch. Credit: Nicola Pitaro

Winemaking at Domaine Donatsch. Credit: Nicola Pitaro

With such tiny amounts, production costs are high — we were given a figure of 30,000 Swiss francs (about U.S. $31,000) per hectare, which could rise to as much as 50,000 francs (about $52,000) in particularly challenging hillside conditions, and so inevitably prices are high, but no higher than for a grand cru Burgundy. Donatsch’s wines range from about U.S. $21 for a bottle of Tradition to $57 for the Unique.

Although all the wine growers that we met grew a diverse range of local and international grapes, most agreed that Pinot Noir is the most successful grape variety of the region. For my taste buds, it really came into its own in the Graubünden Herrschaft, the four villages of which Malans in the center, where the warm prevailing wind, the föhn, helps ripen the grapes. The soil is mainly limestone, like Burgundy, and the grapes enjoy the large difference between day and nighttime temperatures, which makes for slower ripening and fresher flavors.

Local varietals at risk

In addition to the more international varieties, Switzerland is also home to a number of endangered varieties, which could be at risk of disappearing. Erich Meier at Uetikon, near Lake Zurich, is a keen exponent of Rauschling. There are 9 hectares (22 acres) of Rauschling in the area, 23 hectares (57 acres) altogether in the whole of Switzerland; Erich has just 40 ares (1 acre). He ferments half the grapes in oak and half in tank to make a rounded, fruity white wine with well-integrated oak and a lightly salty finish with good acidity.

Completer was another grape variety that I had never heard of, let alone tasted. This might be explained by the fact that 10 producers have just 3 hectares of it. Happily, the Donatsch family is planning to extend its vineyards of Completer so that its future can be more assured. Martin Donatsch explained how it has a very high acidity and that in the past it used to be aged for several years in wood to soften the acidity, thus making for a very oxidative style. He has opted for a fresher style, a late harvest wine, in which he leaves a little residual sugar. Again the föhn helps the ripening process, by shriveling the grapes, and for Donatsch it has everything that you want in a white wine, minerality, fruitiness, elegance and alcohol. I found it very intriguing, with dry honey and good acidity and again, well-integrated oak.

At lunchtime in the Donatsch family’s wine bar, Winzerstube zum Ochsen, we enjoyed the 2009 vintage of Completer from a magnum. It was simply delicious, and yet another example of the extraordinary diversity and originality of Switzerland.

Main photo: Martin Donatsch stirs the grapes at his family’s winery. Credit: Domaine Donatsch

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A sign decorating Industrial Eats in Buellton, California. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

A life-sized sculpture of a cow and a sign reading “Dine on our Swine” should have stopped me in my tracks, because I don’t eat beef or ham.

But one look at Industrial Eats’ menu, handwritten on large sheets of butcher paper hung from the walls, revealed I was in the right place.

Industrial Eats, a 1-year-old eatery in Buellton, Calif., has become a must-stop on my visits to the Santa Ynez wine region on California’s Central Coast. The cavernous restaurant furnished with family-style dining tables prides itself on its butchery skills. But for diners like me, there’s plenty of fish, fowl and local produce. The food is simple, straightforward and utterly delicious.

Pizzas are topped with such ingredients as smoked salmon, burrata, mascarpone, Calabrian chile, kabocha and chestnut. The Not Pizza section of the menu contains items such as wild mushrooms; black kale and black truffles; fall veggies with dates and brown sugar; Swiss chard and spinach in Vadouvan curry; and other poetically named dishes.

Simple cooking yields delicious meals at Industrial Eats

Everything at Industrial Eats gets cooked in the igloo-style wood-burning pizza ovens, and local wines as well as sandwiches and an array of cheeses are also served.

“Cooking is way too fussy and food is too over-handled in most restaurants,” said chef/owner Jeff Olsson.

He describes his cooking style simply: “Ingredients go in a sauté pan with olive oil and spices, in the wood-burning oven and on the plate. It’s honest taste infused in our food.”

But is it really as simple as that?

It could be if we did all our cooking in wood-burning ovens. At Industrial Eats, that’s the mantra. You won’t find gas burners or pricey induction ranges here. Instead, ingredients are placed in an iron skillet that goes inside the pizza oven. Cooked in this simple, traditional style, the food tastes divine.

Olsson and his wife, Janet, met in New York 22 years ago. “I was washing dishes,” said Jeff, who moved up the ladder and worked as a chef in Washington, D.C., restaurants such as Red Sage and Nora, where Janet served as a manager.

Fifteen years ago, the Olssons opened New West catering, which they continue to operate in Buellton along with Industrial Eats.

A two-hour drive north of Los Angeles, Buellton is just off U.S. Highway101 near Solvang. The small town is best known for its ostrich farm, a string of auto dealers and Pea Soup Andersen’s Inn. The local barbecue hangout The Hitching Post II became a tourist haven after it was spotlighted in the award-winning 2004 film “Sideways.”

Although the film pumped up wine tourism in the region, Buellton remained a pass-through town for visitors. It lacked the wine-country charm of neighboring hamlets such as Los Olivos or Santa Ynez.

But not for long.

“Buellton has become gentrified in the last 15 years,” Olsson said. Prohibitive real estate prices and saturation in Los Olivos and Solvang drove people — including the Olssons — to rediscover Buellton. In the past few years, industrial spaces have morphed into cafes, eateries and wine-tasting centers. A distillery is soon to open near Industrial Eats, and the noted Alma Rosa Winery’s tasting room is also nearby.

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A plate of fall vegetables. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

Industrial Eats, though, is known for its butchery. “We do whole animals from Central Coast and Santa Ynez Valley,” said Jeff, who also offers hog-butchering classes at the restaurant. Fresh preserves, patès and handmade bacon are some of the specialties.

“I stay local as much as I can,” he said, noting, though, that meats such as wild boar and antelope are sourced from Broken Arrow Ranch in southwest Texas.

Next time you’re driving Highway 101, stop in downtown Buellton to savor the local flavors at my all-time favorite spot. Meanwhile, you can re-create these wintry Industrial Eats recipes at home during the holiday season.

Crispy Confit of Duck With du Puy Lentils

Crispy Confit of Duck With du Puy Lentils from Industrial Eats. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

Crispy Confit of Duck With du Puy Lentils from Industrial Eats. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

Prep time: 15 minutes, plus overnight for marinating

Cook time: 5 1/2 hours

Total time: About 6 hours, plus marinating time for the duck.

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

For the confit of duck:

6 duck legs (you can, in a pinch, use chicken as well)

2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced

4 shallots, peeled and sliced

2 sticks Mexican canella

4 ounces dried cherries, roughly chopped

4 sprigs sage

Zest of one orange

Kosher salt to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 pounds duck fat (available at fine grocers or Hudson Valley Foie Gras)

For the lentils:

1 shallot, minced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 carrot, diced small

1 bulb fennel, diced small

1 knob butter

2 cups duck stock

2 cups du Puy lentils

Directions

For the confit of duck:

1. Place the duck legs into a large ziplock bag with garlic, shallot, canella, cherries, sage, zest, salt and pepper. Let marinate overnight in the refrigerator.

2. The next day, preheat the oven to 225 F. In a large pot or Dutch oven, melt the duck fat over medium heat.

3. Carefully empty contents of ziplock bag into that fat, ensuring the duck legs are fully submerged.

4. Cook in the oven for 3 to 5 hours, until meat is tender and falling from the bone.

5. Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly.

6. Carefully remove duck legs from fat and allow to drain.

7. Preheat 8-inch skillet over medium heat. Place duck legs, two at a time, in the skillet and fry until crisp and brown, about 4 minutes per side.

For the lentils:

1. Sauté  the shallot, garlic, carrot and fennel in butter till slightly caramelized.

2. Add the stock and lentils and bring to a boil.

3. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until lentils are tender, about 30 minutes

Note: Serve the duck legs atop the lentils.

Fall Veggies With Dates and Ginger

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

2 parsnips, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces

2 celery roots, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces

1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into bite-size pieces

1 kabocha squash, not peeled, but seeded and cut into 1/2-inch wedges

1 pound baby Japanese sweet potatoes, not peeled, cut into bite-size pieces

4 shallots, julienned

1 clove garlic, sliced

1/4 cup olive oil

Salt to taste

1 cup Medjool dates

1 piece of ginger, peeled and julienned as finely as you can

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 450 F.

2. In a large bowl, toss the vegetables with the olive oil and season with salt to taste.

3. Spread the vegetables in a single layer on a cookie sheet and place in the preheated oven for about 15 minutes or until soft and golden brown.

4. Remove from oven and toss with dates and ginger.

5. Place back in oven for 5 more minutes.

Note: This can be served as a side dish with Crispy Confit of Duck With du Puy Lentils.

Main photo: Crispy Confit of Duck With du Puy Lentils from Industrial Eats. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

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