Fritedda with spring vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

In the springtime in Sicily a simply named dish reveals an explosion of flavor that belies its satisfying complexity. It is a dish special with spring vegetables — fava, peas, scallions and artichokes — and called frittedda (or fritedda).

In western Sicily, where frittedda was born, it is served as a grape ‘u pitittu, a Sicilian expression that means “a mouth-opener,” a culinary concept much closer to a Middle Eastern meze than an Italian antipasto. Pino Correnti, a leading Sicilian gastronome, believes that the name of this preparation comes from the Latin frigere, because it is prepared in a large frying pan.

The young artichokes needed for this dish can be hard to find. They are very tender and have not yet developed chokes. Because this dish is affected by the age and size of the vegetables, you will have to judge for yourself the right cooking time and how much salt, pepper and nutmeg you want to use, so keep tasting. This is a good time to use a very good quality estate-bottled extra virgin olive oil from Sicily.

This is most definitely a labor-intensive preparation. However, it tastes so good and can last so long to be served successively as antipasti and side dishes that a Sicilian cook never shies away from the work. It is a time to grab a glass of wine and with a friend or lover shuck the pods of fava and peas.

Frittedda. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Frittedda. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Spring Vegetable Frittedda

Prep time: About 1 hour

Cook time: Between 1 hour and 1 hour, 40 minutes

Total time: About 2 hours, 45 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

1 pound fresh peas, shelled (from about 2 1/2 pounds of pods)

2 pounds fresh fava beans, shelled (from about 5 pounds of pods)

10 young artichokes, each not more than 3 inches long (if you use older artichokes, with fully developed bracts and chokes, cook them longer in Step 2)

Juice from 1 lemon

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 pound scallions, white part only, finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Freshly grated nutmeg

4 large fresh mint leaves, finely chopped

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

4 teaspoons sugar

Directions

1. Rinse the peas and the fava beans and set aside. Trim the artichokes, quarter or halve, and leave them in cold water acidulated with the lemon juice until they are all prepared. In a large sauté pan (preferably a 14-inch sauté pan), heat the olive over medium-low heat, then cook, stirring, the scallions until soft, about 3 minutes.

2. Add the artichokes and cook for 5 minutes longer (15 minutes if they are fully developed globe artichokes), then add 2/3 cup hot water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the peas and fava beans. Season to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes.

3. Moisten the vegetables with more hot water if they look like they are drying out. Cook another 20 to 40 minutes or until tender; keep checking. Stir the mint, vinegar and sugar together and then pour over the vegetables while still hot. Transfer to a serving platter or bowl and let it reach room temperature before serving.

Fritedda with spring vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

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A citrus display at Agritopia's farm stand. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

We’ve all heard the saying “it takes a village.” But communities are drawn together for many reasons. Some cling tight to tradition with activities like barbecues and Fourth of July parades. Others share neighborhoods with backyards that spill onto golf courses, lakes and swimming pools. And then there’s Agritopia.

“If you live here, it just feels different,” business manager William Johnston said.

Cultivating an agrihood

Planted crops in the midst of Agritopia. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Planted crops in the midst of Agritopia. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

It is different. Located outside of Phoenix, in the little-known city of Gilbert, Agritopia is what’s called an agrihood, or suburban neighborhood planned around a working farm. Jim and Virginia Johnston purchased the farm in 1960. They built a home; grew crops, including cotton, wheat, barley, corn, alfalfa and sugar beets; and raised three boys. Time went on. The Johnston children grew up, and two continued the family farming tradition. The once-rural area surrounding the farm grew, and the third son, Joe, an engineer, got an idea to reinvent the place he called home.

“The kernel of the idea was in 1998, when I started thinking that I’d like to do a restaurant in our house that served produce from the farm: that was the ‘agri’ part. That was the extent of the idea,”  Joe said. “However, that idea was shortly followed by the notion that I’d like to live close to where I worked. That opened up a bunch of ideas, because we had a clean sheet of paper to design the kind of community we’d like to live in.”

Agritopia stretches 160 acres and has more than 450 houses. Four generations of the Johnston family, along with 1,500 or so other folks, call it home. At its center is the certified organic farm (where Jim and Virginia still live) and more than 11 acres of permanent urban farmland.

A cornucopia of crops

Romanesco broccoli, a favored neighborhood crop. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Romanesco broccoli, a favored neighborhood crop. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

“During the year we grow over 200 varieties of field and orchard crops,” William Johnston said. “It’s important for families to grow up together and understand food and farming.”

The farm bounty is diverse — and delicious. Along with Medjool dates and olive groves, there are citrus, apple, peach and plum groves. Other crops include cauliflower, Romanesco broccoli, herbs, a variety of lettuces and tomatoes of assorted varieties.

Enjoying the fruits of their labor

The local coffeehouse. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

The local coffeehouse. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

The same-day harvest is readily available to residents and Agritopia visitors. But how folks get their farm-fresh fix varies. What was once an old tractor building is now an airy cafe called The Coffee Shop. The Johnston family homestead has a new lease on life as a modern diner called Joe’s Farm Grill. Whenever possible, fruit, vegetables and herbs come from The Farm at Agritopia.

Then there’s The Farm Stand. Open 24 hours a day, the stand is not staffed. All purchases are made using the honor system. Grab what you want, put your cash or check in an envelope and drop it in the pay slot. And residents can grow their own bounty by renting one of the more than 40 plots in the community garden.

Rural life, redefined

Coming home to roost. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

Coming home to roost. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann

When most city slickers envision life on a farm, they think of solitude. At Agritopia, rows of vegetables sprout within view of homes and the neighborhood school. With the antics of school recess and chickens clucking in the background, a cozy neighborhood feeling prevails in this unique slice of Arizona farm country, where houses have front porches and streets are lined with trees and sidewalks.

“We like the fact that people can kind of just wander and feel that sense of exploration,” William Johnston said. “A lot of people compare it to Mayberry.”

Main photo: A citrus display at Agritopia’s farm stand. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann 

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The Test Kitchen's blinissoise, with chilled blini creme, barbecued langoustine

If you’re a globetrotter into fine dining, consider making your next destination Cape Town and its outlying Winelands, where an innovative eight-course tasting menu paired with wines will cost you about $60 to $80 for lunch, and $85 to $105 for dinner. Thanks to the dollar’s strength in South Africa, Americans are in for a feast of value in this scenic foodie haven, ripe with culinary talent and internationally acclaimed restaurants.

As for the tasting menus, you can expect the unexpected. You might find poached oysters with lemon, seaweed and apple at La Colombe; Cape Wagyu tongue with gnocchi, celery, carrots and celeriac at Overture; or light curry glazed kingklip (a local fish) at The Test Kitchen, cooked slowly at the table over curry leaves in concrete charcoal-filled bowls, and served with carrot cashew purée and carrot beurre noisette.

Joining the gastronomic scene

La Colombe, ranked in the World's 50 Best Restaurants, uses local ingredients. Credit: Copyright 2016 Micky Hoyle

La Colombe, ranked in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, uses local ingredients. Credit: Copyright 2016 Micky Hoyle

During the apartheid years, South Africa was shunned and largely cut off from the world, even in a culinary sense. But since Mandela’s presidency, it’s seen an influx of foreign chefs and cuisines. Many South African chefs have also worked in Europe and Asia, and returned all the better for it.

Today, Cape Town is a known pit stop on the gastronomic world map. The Test Kitchen, La Colombe and The Tasting Room have ranked in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, in various categories. Cape Town’s status as a world-class design city has also helped — it was World Design Capital in 2014 — with local talent behind great-looking dining spaces.

Fueling the scene is a flush of small growers and producers, offering chefs great produce, ethically raised meats, wild game, seafood and indigenous ingredients like sour figs, baobab, buchu and honeybush tea, along with a flurry of artisanal products.

“Overall, our fine dining feel is quite natural and organic when compared to other countries, with less rigid styling and a trend towards local ingredients and preparations, giving it a sense of place,” says Scot Kirton, head chef at La Colombe.

Local ingredients paired with wine

The Test Kitchen's pan-seared linefish with potato and snoek medley, black forest ham and fish jus roasted potato skin. Credit: Copyright 2016 Justin Patrick

The Test Kitchen’s pan-seared linefish with potato and snoek medley, black forest ham and fish jus-roasted potato skin. Credit: Copyright 2016 Justin Patrick

“South Africa doesn’t have a strong food heritage like the French, which means that our cuisine can be eclectic, with lots of people doing different things,” adds Luke Dale-Roberts, the British-born chef/owner of The Test Kitchen, located in the city’s revitalized Old Biscuit Mill warehouse complex. Foreigners also appreciate what Kirton calls “the South African knack for hospitality, in which even in the top tiers of fine dining, guests feel greatly cared for on a personal level.”

While the feeling is relaxed, with lunchtime guests sometimes even wearing shorts, few of these high-end restaurants are taking walk-ins. The Test Kitchen, ranked 28th in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2015, is currently taking dinner reservations six months in advance, although in August it will switch over to an online 30-day-in-advance booking system.

Wine is intrinsically part of local dining, with the closest vineyards 20 minutes from central Cape Town. While South Africa has a 350-year-old wine heritage, quality has improved dramatically in recent years, and there is a new posse of young and adventurous winemakers. This means great synergy and camaraderie between winemakers and chefs, who are sometimes even on the same property. Many of the Cape’s best restaurants are on wine estates, which doesn’t necessarily mean they only serve that estate’s wine; most have extensive wine lists, with excellent wines for as little as $15 a bottle.

Simple, seasonal and South African

The Tasting Room's Joostenberg vlakte duck, with boerenkinders puree. Credit: Courtesy of Le Quartier Francais

The Tasting Room’s Joostenberg vlakte duck, with boerenkinders purée. Credit: Courtesy of Le Quartier Francais

Despite global influences, many of the best chefs are expressing their personal experience of South Africa. Bertus Basson of Overture Restaurant, on a Stellenbosch wine estate, describes his food as “simple, fresh, seasonal and South African,” and creates dishes like West Coast Memories, with salmon, octopus, sout-vis (salted fish) and snoek.

In the idyllic Winelands village of Franschhoek, Dutch-born Margot Janse has been the chef at The Tasting Room at boutique hotel Le Quartier Francais for 20 years, and has set the local bar for ultra-creative tasting menus. Her food “celebrates South and Southern Africa through their ingredients and stories.”

Take her Joostenberg vlakte duck dish, for example, which she says “carries many stories.” The duck is farmed in an area where many Dutch settlers grew grapes and produced brandy. Janse steeps mixed fruit in brandy, like it’s done in Holland, but adds buchu — “one of our magical indigenous herbs.” After six weeks, it’s mixed with celeriac in a purée. The duck is baked in a salt crust made of hand-harvested Baleni salt mixed with kapokbos, another indigenous herb. The breast is served with the purée and crispy bits of neck and leg, and a grape jus. “It’s about the duck and its heritage,” she says. One dish of many in a new dynamic dining region.

Note: Prices are based on current exchange rates as of May 2016, of 15 South African rand to 1 U.S. dollar. Fluctuations may occur.

Main photo: The Test Kitchen’s blinissoise, with chilled blini creme, barbecued langoustine “en gele,” and a langoustine tataki with liquorice powder. Credit: Copyright 2016 Justin Patrick

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Café Savoy's eponymous torte is as tasteful and elegant as the restaurant itself. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

Not long ago, a visit to Prague’s lovely cafes meant acrid coffee and stale dessert served with a side of surliness. The long half-life of Communist rule long obscured the appeal of Europe’s most gorgeous grand cafes.

It took a generation, but the cafes have experienced a rebirth — their own Prague spring — that make them as worthy a destination as the city’s long-hallowed beer halls. The coffee is good and the desserts are often excellent. You may even get a “thank you” from the server.

Obecní Dům

Touristy but stunning, the Obecní Dům café may be Europe's most beautiful. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

Touristy but stunning, the Obecní Dům Café may be Europe’s most beautiful. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

If you visit only one café, it should be the one in Obecní Dům, (“Municipal House”). Before this art nouveau masterpiece opened in 1912, Prague was not in Vienna‘s league when it came to cafe culture. But the locals made up quickly for lost time. The building has not one but three dining spaces, with soaring ceilings flooded with light that reflects and refracts through dozens of mirrors and glittering geometric chandeliers. Key meetings between the government and the opposition took place here in 1989, just before the collapse of the communist regime. Needless to say, the coffee and service have greatly improved since then.

Café de Paris, Hotel Paris

For an almost club-like art nouveau experience visit the Café de Paris at nearby Hotel Paris. Both the cafe and restaurant have been restored to their jewel-like fin-de-siècle splendor. There is a full menu as well as an eclectic mix of central European and French desserts.

Café Imperial

Walk east of the Old Town along Na Poříčí 15, past the ritzy new mall, retailers and fast food joints, until you reach the Hotel Imperial, built just before World War I. The spacious cafe feels like a Hollywood homage to orientalism:
The walls, columns and ceiling are covered with elaborate cast ceramic tiles. After World War II, the hotel was turned into a dormitory for communist union members, and the cafe degenerated into a shabby workers’ cafeteria. Today, the service is as efficient and professional as in any European capital and the cakes are delicious and fresh.

Café Myšák

When the Myšák pastry shop was revived, the architects looked to the sweet emporium's golden prewar past for inspiration. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

When the Myšák pastry shop was revived, the architects looked to the sweet emporium’s golden prewar past for inspiration. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

Sweet-obsessed residents generally head for Café Myšák in Prague’s centuries old “New Town.” When the cafe-pastry shop reopened in 2008 after a hiatus of almost 60 years, the local press was all aflutter: Would the new incarnation could stand up to its prewar reputation? Only fragments of the original decor remained and those have been augmented by a somewhat heavy-handed pastiche of 1930s decor. But luckily the old recipes stood the test of time, whether in the form of the artfully simple cream-filled pastry cylinders or the happy overkill of the signature Torte Myšák, in which layers of caramel and vanilla cream separate layers of a Sacher cake. And, oh yes, a cone of the homemade ice cream is worth grabbing even if you decide not to linger in the leather armchairs upstairs.

At Myšák, you will have to ponder long and hard whether to go with the ice cream or cake. Make life easy and order both. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

At Myšák, you will have to ponder long and hard whether to go with the ice cream or cake. Make life easy and order both. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

Café Savoy

As in Vienna, the coffee at Café Savoy is strong and delicious. And always comes with a glass of mineral water. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

As in Vienna, the coffee at Café Savoy is strong and delicious. And always comes with a glass of mineral water. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

If you are still able to walk after exploring the cafes on the right side of the Vltava river, there are several more on the left side worth the detour, particularly Café Savoy. It is one of the city’s oldest, established in 1893 though the current incarnation dates back to 2001. Here, beneath a tall neo-renaissance ceiling, you can peruse international newspapers while sipping on a Viennese coffee topped with a thick dollop of whipped cream. The apple strudel is almost as good as my grandmother made, and the Sachertorte would pass muster with a Vienna native.

Barocco Veneziano Café

Fifteen minutes away through the cobblestone maze beneath the castle walls, in a 16th century palazzo that now houses the exclusive boutique hotel Alchymist, is an adorable little cafe that feels like the sort of boudoir Marie Antoinette would have used to entertain her boy toy. The space is all sinuous baroque curves and suggestive paintings. The espresso is good here, but the sweet treats underwhelm.

Erhartova Cukrárna

Prague is home to many early modernist buildings, but none so sweet as Erhartova Cukrárna. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

Prague is home to many early modernist buildings, but none so sweet as Erhartova Cukrárna. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

Not so at Erhartova Cukrárna, on the same side of the Vltava River but far from the usual tourist haunts. Here, you are more likely to see local women of a certain age carefully deconstructing their slice of torte than chattering American expats. This is decidedly a pastry shop first and cafe second, though the space itself is a beautifully preserved example of the severe 1930s modernist movement called functionalism. The vast array of pastries and tortes behind the vitrine seem to have one function: tempt you to order another slice, perhaps with a scoop of the house made ice cream on the side. I’d start with the house specialty, the Erhart torte, a multilayered chocolate extravaganza enfolded in a robe of delightfully garish green marzipan.

The namesake torte at Erhartova Cukrárna is a delightfully gaudy confection of chocolate pistachios and marzipan. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

The namesake torte at Erhartova Cukrárna is a delightfully gaudy confection of chocolate pistachios and marzipan. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

You may be relieved to know, that from here, most streets lead downhill.

Main photo: Café Savoy’s eponymous torte is as tasteful and elegant as the restaurant itself. Credit: Copyright 2016 Michael Krondl

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A spinach salad with strawberries, avocado and pine nuts is beautiful and delicious. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

A large plate bursting with colorful plants and topped with a zingy vinaigrette — a big salad — has been part of my regular dinner repertoire for years. Happily, this concept is finally getting the love it deserves as a result of today’s increased focus on plant-based diets. Forget the naked salads of the 1980s, cruelly deprived of dressing. Follow these five tips and get creative to make salad the star of tonight’s supper.

Build your base: Salad greens, your way

Begin building your salad base. Lettuces are low in calories, so you can pile them on; their fiber and water content will help you to feel full. Greens are also loaded with vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients (health-promoting plant chemicals). Ditch iceberg, which lacks the bright flavors and myriad nutrients of other greens. There are so many fabulous lettuces out there — why not give some new ones a shot?

Romaine is a good starter, but there’s also spinach, arugula, mesclun, red leaf and beyond. Include cancer-fighting crucifers, too, like cabbage or kale, or fresh herbs. What’s in season? What works for you? Make it your own.

Top with veggies: Go for variety, color

Select whatever vegetables you like and make it your own: the more color and variety, the better. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

Select whatever vegetables you like and make it your own: The more color and variety, the better. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

You’ve got your salad base; now paint your palette with whatever veggies your heart desires. My salads feature whatever I have on hand: carrots, radishes, peppers, avocado, tomatoes, beets, sprouts, olives, artichokes, Brussels sprouts, onions — whatever. If you can find local veggies in season, your taste buds will thank you.

Personally, I’m obsessed with watermelon radishes and romanescu broccoli (aka, Roman cauliflower) — and don’t even get me started on sugar-sweet gold cherry tomatoes, which, come August, I pop into my mouth like candy. Variety and color are key: The more varied and brilliantly hued your veggies, the more nutrients you’re getting. (And, just for the record, while low-sugar veggies should appear most often on your salads, many big salads are wonderful with fresh fruits like citrus, pears, pomegranate and berries.)

Add protein power: Beans, pulses, legumes

It’s time to turn to the satiating power of protein. After all, you don’t want to finish your big salad still hungry and order a pizza. Most people jump to chicken, shrimp and steak to liven up their salads. As long as the meat doesn’t become the leading player, perhaps that’s what you’ll first choose to get a big salad into your dinner repertoire.

Yet soybeans (and their products, like tofu), lentils, chickpeas, pinto beans and the like are small packages with big nutrition. They include protein, as well as fiber, B vitamins, iron, calcium and potassium. They’re also low in calories and sodium — if you use canned, make sure to choose a no-salt brand — and are less pricey than animal protein.

Moreover, producing these plant foods is less taxing on our planet’s precious natural resources, and many enhance soil quality through nitrogen fixation. There’s a good reason it’s the International Year of Pulses, and most of us don’t eat the amount we should for optimal health.

Mix it up: Toss in whole grains

Mixed lettuces with quinoa, orange, walnuts, and chia seeds makes for a salad packed with vitamins and minerals. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

Mixed lettuces with quinoa, orange, walnuts and chia seeds makes for a salad packed with vitamins and minerals. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

Like pulses, whole grains are a nutritional powerhouse of vitamins, minerals and fiber — and even some protein — and create a pleasing texture and toothsome bite to your salad. Brown rice is a favorite of mine, especially when included with black beans for a big salad with a Tex-Mex twist. There are many different grains — think barley, quinoa, farro, oats and amaranth — to add intrigue to your salad; experiment to learn what you prefer.

Tossing whole grains into a big dinner salad is also a terrific way to use up last night’s leftover rice or pasta, too. While whole grains aren’t a regular addition to my salads, which tend be loaded up with veggies, beans and greens, a handful can make a tasty difference — especially if I’m having a craving for toasty homemade rye croutons.

Bring on the fat: Salad dressing and toppings

It takes only a few minutes to whisk up your own healthy salad dressing to top your big salad -- use whatever vegetable oil and vinegar you prefer. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

It takes only a few minutes to whisk up your own healthy salad dressing to top your big salad — use whatever vegetable oil and vinegar you prefer. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

It makes me sad when I think about everyone out there still shunning salad dressing, or opting for low-fat varieties, often packed with sugar. Yes, full-fat salad dressing is energy-dense: The main ingredient is oil, which has more than double the calories compared with carbs or protein (about 9 calories per gram versus 4).

So if you need to lose weight, you’ll want to keep the calorie content of dressings in mind — and save sumptuous dressings like blue cheese  and green goddess for special occasions.

Even so, science has shown clearly that certain types of fats are particularly beneficial to health. Diets rich in monounsaturated fats, like olives and olive oil, and polyunsaturated fats, like nuts, seeds and their oils, are both associated with decreased risk heart disease, especially when these foods supplant refined carbohydrates (like white bread, rice or pasta).

Moreover, the fat molecules in salad dressing help your body absorb the valuable (fat-soluble) nutrients in your meal. A drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar is my go-to dressing, but whipping up a simple vinaigrette at home is a cinch — try my maple-Dijon recipe — and can feature any combination of oil and vinegar that pleases. And, if your salad calls for crunch, scattering on a few nuts or seeds can take your big salad over the top.

Dinner’s ready. Season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste, and enjoy. With the first luscious vegetables of the season popping up in local farmers markets, now is the perfect time to celebrate the power of plant-based diets, your way.

Main photo: A spinach salad with strawberries, avocado and pine nuts is beautiful and delicious. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dreamstime

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Cauliflower at a market in Tuscany, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Cauliflower is about to become the new kale, according to something I read online. And that’s just fine with me, because I have grown awfully tired of kale. When a vegetable becomes nothing but a raw garnish, as kale has, a limp and lifeless ruffle at the edge of your plate, then you know its star-studded status is truly over and done with.

I suppose kale had its virtues, but there is a reason we all had to be taught to love it, and not only to love it but to contort it into all sorts of iterations, some of which were less than inviting. Raw kale in a salad, for me, is just plain roughage, and as for a kale smoothie, well, the less said the better, I feel.

And now kale is, as they say, so last year.

On to cauliflower, then, which itself offers almost as many possibilities as kale, although plate decoration maybe isn’t one of them. Unlike kale, cauliflower is fully as delicious raw as it is cooked, delightful in a salad or on a tray of crudités (raw vegetables) served with a dipping sauce.

Cauliflower, a versatile vegetable

And once cauliflower is cooked, it can be turned into any number of other dishes, starting with cauliflower on its own, garnished with black olives and capers, perhaps with toasted pine nuts or slivered almonds on top. Take the leftovers of that dish, chop them up and toss over medium heat in a few tablespoons of olive oil, just long enough to brown them, and you’ll have a perfect sauce for a suppertime pasta dish, in the Italian style of just-about-anything-goes-with-pasta. Call it penne al cavolfiore and tell your guests you had it last summer in Sicily.

Or cook the cauliflower a little longer in some chicken stock, along with a small potato cubed, until both vegetables are very tender, stir in a dollop of cream, then purée the whole thing until smooth as velvet and you will have a superbly elegant French soup to serve as a starter — crème velouté au choufleur. And it’s even more impressive with a spoonful of very fine cultured butter, maybe another dribble of cream and a scattering of fresh chives over the top.

Then there’s that old-fashioned English dish called cauliflower cheese, in which the cauliflower, cooked just till you can easily break apart the  florets, is arranged in a buttered dish, covered with a sauce Mornay and transferred to a hot oven until the sauce has blistered slightly and browned on top and the florets are tender. And what is a sauce Mornay? Simple: Make a béchamel sauce with 2 tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons of flour, stirring together over medium-low heat until the mixture is thick and has lost its floury smell. Stir into it, a little at a time, 2 cups of very hot milk, whisking all the while, until you have a thick sauce, then add a couple of handfuls of grated cheese — Parmigiano, cheddar, Gruyère, it almost doesn’t matter as long as it’s a firm cheese that’s easy to grate. (This is a good way to use up leftover bits of cheese in that drawer in the refrigerator where you’ve hidden them all.) You can add salt, pepper, maybe some cayenne if you wish, and that’s all there is to it.

Despite its pale color, cauliflower is actually one of those powerhouse brassica vegetables and a surprisingly good source of vitamin C. When shopping, look for tightly clustered clean, white heads with fresh green leaves. You’ll trim off the leaves and stem for cooking, but don’t discard them. Chopped in smaller pieces, they make a nice addition to a vegetable minestrone. And what about packaged, cut florets in the supermarket produce section? Don’t bother. They are a waste of money, flavor and vitamins.

Cauliflower With Lemon, Capers and Black Olives

Cauliflower with Lemon, Capers and Black Olives. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Cauliflower With Lemon, Capers and Black Olives. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

From “Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil” by Nancy Harmon Jenkins.

Prep time: About 10 minutes

Cook time: About 15 minutes

Total time: About 25 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

1 firm head of cauliflower, about 1 pound

1/2 cup pitted black olives, coarsely chopped

1 heaping tablespoon salt-packed capers, rinsed and drained

2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

Sea salt

Pinch of crushed red chili pepper

2 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped

1/3 cup olive oil, preferably a deep-flavored oil from Italy or Greece

2 tablespoons or more of toasted pine nuts or slivered almonds for garnishing, if desired

Directions

1. Trim the cauliflower and break the head into florets.

2. On a chopping board, combine the olives, capers, parsley and lemon zest and chop together to mix well.

3. Bring a pot of water large enough to hold the cauliflower to a rolling boil. Add a big pinch of salt and, when it returns to a boil, add the cauliflower. Cook until just barely tender, about 6 minutes (less if using very small florets).

4. Meanwhile, in a skillet large enough to hold all the ingredients, warm the chili pepper and garlic in the oil over medium-low heat until hot, 3 or 4 minutes. The chili and garlic should be starting to melt in the oil, rather than sizzling and browning.

5. Stir in the lemon juice and cook for another 2 minutes, then add the olive-caper mix, give it a stir, take it off the heat and set aside.

6. Drain the cauliflower well, shaking the colander. Combine the cauliflower with the olive-caper dressing in the skillet and set the skillet back over medium heat. Warm it up to serving temperature, tasting to make sure the seasoning is right, and serve, garnishing with toasted pine nuts or slivered almonds if you wish.

Note: This recipe is equally good with broccoli or with romanesco, the green spiral cauliflower. You can also mix white cauliflower and green romanesco together for a handsome presentation. If you wish to serve this as a pasta sauce, simply chop or break the florets into smaller pieces. Add everything to a skillet and set over low heat to warm while you cook about 1 pound (500 grams) of penne or similar short, stubby pasta according to package directions. As the pasta finishes cooking, add a little pasta water to the cauliflower and raise the heat. Drain the pasta and combine in the skillet with the cauliflower sauce, tossing to mix. Serve immediately, passing grated cheese if you wish.

Main photo: Cauliflower at a market in Tuscany, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Cuisines from around the world can influence our vegetarian choices, such as in this Armenian-style salad. Credit: Copyright 2016 Marie Simmons

As a kid, my world of food revolved around my family’s Italian cooking: artichokes baked with crisp olive oil crumbs and prosciutto bits, my Nana’s soft pillowy ravioli made with passata di pomodoro from her backyard tomatoes, and piles of Mom’s crisp fried squash blossoms eaten like potato chips.

During college, Atlantic Avenue was walking distance from my campus in Brooklyn, seducing me with belly dancing, creamy feta cheese and wrinkly black olives. The travel bug propelled me to New Delhi, Kulala Lumpur, St. Petersurg, Casablanca, Cairo and points far beyond. Now, living in Eugene, Oregon, food carts expand my horizons as Juanita teaches me to make pupusas. A Mexican torta cart, manned by two adorable university students whom I pedal past on my morning bike ride, brings me back for lunch when hunger pangs hit, and adds a new recipe to my repertoire. At home, I hit my cookbooks for recipes from far-flung places, exotic ingredients and exciting new tastes.

A world of vegetarian

And I then I noticed: All this great food I’ve been tasting, craving and cooking — it’s vegetarian! My whole food world is vegetarian. Exciting!

Whole World Vegetarian

"Whole World Vegetarian"

By Marie Simmons,

Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016 320 pages

» Click here to buy the book

The alchemy was in the ingenuity of the cooks and the agrarian-based cooking and eating of cooks around the world. Meat, even consumed in moderation, is often expensive, and so vegetarian dishes are often a more affordable daily staple — especially for those with a green thumb.

Take, for instance, leafy greens. Any leafy green. Magically, almost every patch of dirt on earth grows green leaves. Freshly harvested, they can be melted into curried coconut milk in India, wilted in oil, butter or ghee with dill and mint and topped with garlic walnuts in Armenia, or tossed with ras el hanout and preserved lemons in Casablanca.

Cooking vegetables from the backyard or garden plot adjacent to the kitchen is cheap, nutritious and lends a palate for the local flavors and seasonings readily available to home cooks worldwide. Consider a garam masala available to every cook in New Delhi, preserved lemons on the shelf from Casablanca to Marrakesh, and chile, cumin and Mexican oregano in every pantry in Mexico — all of these enhance vegetarian dishes. Yes, not all whole world kitchens are vegetarian, but creative vegetable dishes are spilling out of kitchens and onto family tables. From my traveling fork to my home kitchen, from the taste memories that poured from the souls of cooks I met on the road, was born my book “Whole World Vegetarian.” I cooked and tasted and fed my friends, who finally said, “Enough!”

Moroccan Greens with Preserved Lemons

Moroccan greens are made with caramelized red onions, a Moroccan spice blend and preserved lemons. Credit: Copyright 2016 Marie Simmons

Moroccan greens are made with caramelized red onions, a Moroccan spice blend and preserved lemons. Credit: Copyright 2016 Marie Simmons

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 large bunch (about 1 pound) rainbow Swiss chard

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 cup thinly sliced red onion

1 teaspoon ras el hanout, or Moroccan spice blend

1 tablespoon finely diced rind from Moroccan Preserved Lemons (recipe follows)

Directions

1. Rinse the chard and, while still wet, pull the leafy greens from the stems. Reserve the stems for other use. Tear or coarsely chop up the greens. You should have about 8 cups loosely packed.

2. In a 10-inch skillet, heat the oil over medium heat until hot enough to gently sizzle a slice of onion. Add the onion and cook, stirring with tongs, until the onion begins to brown and caramelize, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with the ras el hanout.

3. Add the wet greens to the onion all at once and toss with tongs to blend. Cook, covered, until the greens are wilted, 3 to 5 minutes, stirring with tongs once or twice.

4. Sprinkle with the preserved lemon and toss to blend. Serve hot.

Moroccan Preserved Lemons

Prep time: 10 minutes

Standing time: 3 to 4 weeks

Yield: 1/2 pint

Ingredients

2 to 3 small lemons, preferably organic, scrubbed clean

2 tablespoons coarse salt

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

Directions

1. Trim the ends from the lemons and partially cut into 8 wedges, leaving the wedges attached at one end. Rub the cut surface of the wedges with the salt. Press the lemons back into their original shape. Pack into a clean half-pint canning jar. Add enough of the lemon juice to cover the lemons. Wipe off the rim of the jar. Top with the lid and fasten the screw band to secure. Store in the jar in a dark place for 3 to 4 weeks, turning the jar upside down every few days so the salt is distributed evenly.

2. Store the opened jar in the refrigerator. They will keep for at least 6 months.

3. To use the lemons, lift from the brine and separate the pulp from the rind. Finely chop the rind and sprinkle on vegetables, salad, soup or stew. Finely chop the pulp and add it to salad dressing, mayonnaise or other sauces.

New Delhi-Style Curried Spinach  

A New Delhi-style curried spinach has coconut milk, tomatoes and fried onions. Credit: Copyright 2016 Marie Simmons

A New Delhi-style curried spinach has coconut milk, tomatoes and fried onions. Credit: Copyright 2016 Marie Simmons

Sturdy, large-leaf (or winter) bunch spinach is the better choice for this recipe than the bagged leaves of baby spinach. The large leaves are more flavorful and retain their texture as they gently cook.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 26 minutes

Total time: 41 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

Coconut or vegetable oil, as needed

2 cups slivered (1/8 inch thick lengthwise pieces) onion

1 tablespoon Madras-style curry powder

1 can (13.5 ounces) coconut milk

1 pound large-leaf spinach, rinsed, thick stems coarsely chopped

1/2 cup seeded and diced fresh or canned tomatoes

Directions

1. Heat about 1/2 inch oil in a deep 9-inch skillet until hot enough to sizzle a piece of onion. Gradually stir in the onions, adjusting between low and medium low as the onion sizzles. Cook the onions until well browned, but not black, 15 to 20 minutes. Lift onions from the oil with a slotted spoon and place in a strainer set over a bowl. Do not use paper for draining the onions as the paper will make them soggy. Let stand until ready to serve. Reserve the onion-infused oil for future onion frying or to season other dishes.

2. In a large, wide saucepan or deep skillet, heat the curry powder over medium-low heat, stirring, until it becomes fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in the coconut milk and boil. Add the spinach all at once. Toss to coat. Cook, covered, until wilted, 3 to 5 minutes.

3. Spoon into a serving dish. Serve at once garnished with the diced tomatoes and fried onions.

Main photo: Cuisines from around the world can influence our vegetarian choices, such as in this Armenian-style salad. Credit: Copyright 2016 Marie Simmons

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Salt-roasted sea bass. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Dinner-party ready and perfect for everyday meals, a whole fish roasted in salt puts “wow” on the table. A whole fish cooked inside a dome of kosher salt looks beautiful and is easy to make. Ten minutes to prep, 30 minutes in the oven, a salt-roasted fish on your table will make everyone happy.

Using whole fish costs less per pound than filleted fish. Cocooned inside its salt blanket, the protein rich-fish cooks in its own juices.

The technique is very low-tech. No fancy machines or tools are required. Some recipes call for egg whites and water to moisten the salt, but from my experience, water alone works perfectly. After the fish has cooked inside the coating of moistened salt, a fork will effortlessly peel back the skin and a chef’s knife easily separates the meat from the bones.

When creating the salt coating, it is  important to use kosher salt. Do not use table salt and definitely do not use salt that has been treated with iodine, which has an unpleasant minerality.

When you buy the fish, ask to have the guts and gills removed but there is no need to have the fish scaled because the skin will be removed before serving. If the only whole fish available in your seafood market is larger than you need, a piece without the head or tail can still be used. To protect the flesh, place a small piece of parchment paper across the cut end, then pack the moistened kosher salt on all the sides to completely seal the fish.

Even though the fish is cooked inside salt, the flesh never touches the salt. The result is moist, delicate meat.

After removing the salt-roasted fish from the oven, let it rest on the table on a heat-proof trivet. The sight of the pure white mound, warm to the touch and concealing a hidden treat is a delight.

What kind of fish to use?

So far I have used the technique on trout, salmon, sea bass, salmon trout and pompano with equally good results. This makes me think that the technique can be used with any fish.

Salt-roasted trout filleted. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Salt-roasted trout filleted. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Choose a fish that is as fresh as possible, with a clean smell and clear eyes. When you press the body, the flesh should spring back.

The cooking time will vary depending on the size and thickness of the fish.

In general, a whole fish weighing 3 to 5 pounds will require a three-pound box of kosher salt.  Since that is an estimate, it is a good idea to have a second box of kosher salt on hand. Personally, I prefer Diamond Crystal kosher salt because it is additive-free.

Salt-Roasted Fish

Use only enough water to moisten the kosher salt so the grains stick together. Too much water will create a slurry, which will slide off the fish. Because kosher salt is not inexpensive,  use only as much as you need. A quarter-inch coating around the fish is sufficient.

Placing herbs and aromatics inside the fish’s cavity can impart flavor and appealing aromas when the salt dome is removed. Sliced fresh lemons, rosemary sprigs, parsley, cilantro, bay leaves or basil all add to the qualities of the dish but discard before platting.

Depending on the density of the flesh, generally speaking, one pound of fish requires 10 minutes of cooking at 400 F.

The mild fish can be served with a tossed salad, pasta, rice or cooked vegetables. The fish goes well with freshly made tartar sauce, salsa verde, pesto, romesco, chermoula or pico de gallo.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 30 minutes if the fish weighs 3 pounds, 50 minutes if the fish weighs 5 pounds

Resting time: 5 minutes

Total time: 45 or 65 minutes depending on the size of the fish

Yield: 4 to 6 servings depending on the size of the fish

Ingredients

1 whole fish, 3 to 5 pounds, with the head and the tail, cleaned and gutted but not necessarily scaled

1 3-pound box kosher salt, preferably Diamond kosher salt

½ to 1 cup water

2 cups fresh aromatics and lemon slices (optional)

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 400 F.

2. Wash the fish inside and outside. Pat dry and set aside.

3. Pour 2 pounds of the kosher salt into a large bowl. Moisten with ½ cup water. Mix with your fingers.  If needed, add more water a tablespoon at a time until the salt sticks together.

4. Select a baking tray that is 2 inches longer and wider than the fish. Line with parchment paper or a Silpat sheet.

5. Place a third of the moistened salt on the bottom of the lined baking tray.

6. Lay the whole fish on top of the salt. Place aromatics and lemon slices inside the fish, if desired.

7. Carefully mold the rest of the moistened salt over the entire fish. If more salt is needed, moisten an additional amount of salt.

8. Place the baking tray into the pre-heated oven.

9. After 30 minutes for a 3-pound fish and 50 minutes for a 5-pound fish, remove the baking tray from the oven and allow the fish to rest for 5 minutes.

10. Using a chef’s knife, slice into the salt dome on the back side of the fish, along the fin line. Make another slice on the bottom of the fish. Lift the salt dome off the fish and discard. Using the knife, make a cut across the gills and the tail. Insert a fork under the skin and lift the skin separating it from the flesh.

11. Have a serving platter ready. Using the flat side of a chef’s knife, slide the blade between the flesh and the skeleton along the fin line. Separate the flesh from the bones. Try as best you can to keep the entire side of the fish intact, but no worries if the flesh comes off in several pieces. When you place the flesh on the serving platter, you can reassemble the fillet.

12. Turn the fish over and repeat the process on the other side.

13. Discard the head, tail, bones and skin or reserve to make stock. If making stock, rinse all the parts to eliminate excess salt.  Place into a pot, cover with water, simmer 30 minutes covered, strain and discard the bones, head, tail and skin. The stock can be frozen for later use.

14. Serve the fish at room temperature with sauces of your choice and side dishes.

Main photo: Salt-roasted sea bass. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

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