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Revelations Of A Rare Tasting Of New Zealand’s AD The Aviator Image

It is quite a special experience to taste every single vintage of a wine, but that is what I did the other day, when I was invited to a vertical tasting in London of AD The Aviator from Alpha Domus, one of the leading estates of Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand.

Alpha Domus was founded by the Ham family, which originally came from the Netherlands. Alpha includes the initials of the five members of the family — the parents and three sons — who established the estate, and domus means home in Latin. They bought land in Hawke’s Bay, in an area that is now recognized as a sub-region, the Bridge Pa triangle, and planted the grape varieties that do best in Hawke’s Bay: the Bordeaux varieties and Syrah. The soil is red metal, alluvial soil, on an old riverbed, over gravel, a variation on the much better known Gimblett Gravels of Hawke’s Bay. It is warm and free draining but with sufficient water holding capacity not to need irrigation.

They made their first wine in 1996. AD The Aviator, their flagship wine, is a blend of the year’s best Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec. Its proportions varying from year to year, and some years it is not even made. The unpredictable aspect is the Cabernet Sauvignon, which can sometimes be difficult to ripen in Hawke’s Bay. Merlot is easier, but it is the Cabernet Sauvignon that provides the backbone and aging potential. The producers want a long ripening period, and aim for low yields, paying great attention to canopy management.  Nor do they pick too early. As Paul Ham observed, “It is a battle of nerves over the potential rain at harvest time.”

The name The Aviator is a tribute to the many pilots who played their part in New Zealand’s aviation history and trained on de Havilland Tiger Moth planes from the Bridge Pa airfield. So, appropriately, the London tasting took place in the Royal Air Force Club on Piccadilly. And the Tigermoth biplane features as a logo on most of their labels.

Over the years Alpha Domus has employed three winemakers. Grant Edmonds, who now makes the wine at Sileni, and his own wine at Redmetal Vineyards, was their first; he was followed by a Dutchman, Evert Nijink; and now Kate Galloway makes the wine, building on the work of Grant and Evert, benefiting from older vines and fine-tuning the winemaking process.

The winemaking process for AD The Aviator has become established over the years. There is an initial cold soak for the grapes, followed by some hand-plunging and pigeage during fermentation, and then a period of aging in new and used French oak barrels. Finally, the very best of the individual barrels is selected for blending, with the winemaker looking “for perfume and aroma, with soft tannins,” Paul Ham says. “And it must be food-friendly.” At its best, this is a wine that can rival Bordeaux.

Sunset at the Alpha Domus estate in New Zealand. Credit: Courtesy of Alpha Domus

Sunset at the Alpha Domus estate in New Zealand. Credit: Courtesy of Alpha Domus

Tasting notes

We tasted from young to old, beginning with:

2010:  40% Cabernet Sauvignon,  24% Cabernet Franc, 26% Merlot, 10% Malbec

Deep young color; ripe rounded cassis nose, with some vanilla and fruit.  Paul Ham explained that they want New World fruit, with Old World complexity, and that is what they have achieved in this wine. The palate was still quite firm and youthful, but with underlying elegance balancing some ripe fruit, with a rounded finish.

2009: 37% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, 18% Malbec, 18% Cabernet Franc

Medium color. A light, rather restrained nose. Closed and understated on the palate, with a little sweet cassis and vanilla. Quite elegant fruit on the finish. And generally less expressive than 2010.

2007: 36% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27%  Cabernet Franc,  23% Merlot, 13% Malbec

Medium color. An elegant smoky cedary nose. A medium weight palate, with some acidity and also some tannin. A youthful edge to the wine, with some lovely fruit. An elegant concentration of flavor, and still plenty of aging potential.

2002: Kate’s first vintage. 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec

Quite a deep color. Rounded ripe and smoky on the nose. Quite a tight palate, with a firm finish. Still youthful with some cedary minty notes. Some length.

2000: Made by Evert. 44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 12% Malbec

Medium color. Elegant smoky nose. Quite a firm cedary palate. An edge of tannin with some acidity. A satisfying glass of wine, with balanced fruit and concentration, with length and elegance.

1999: 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27%  Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, 15% Malbec

A lighter year; they very nearly didn’t make it.  Medium color, with a little age. Soft cedary vanilla nose. Quite an elegant dry palate, with some supple tannins. Elegant cedary notes. And a long finish.

1998: 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 14% Malbec.

A hot dry year, which posed difficulties for some winemakers in Hawke’s Bay. Medium color, and still quite youthful. An elegant nose, with some cedary fruit, and on the palate, quite structured, with elegant fruit, structure and depth. Nicely intense, with a hint of menthol from the Cabernet Sauvignon. Did the gum trees nearby have an impact? Satisfying length and depth.

1996: This first vintage was made by Grant Edmonds and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The Cabernet Franc and Malbec were not yet in production. Medium colour. Soft cedary notes on the nose and palate. A softer palate than the others, with some elegant cedary fruit. Maybe just beginning to slither off its plateau, or maybe not? Whatever, it was soft and sweet and still very elegant. A great note on which to finish a tasting of New Zealand’s history, with a wine that also amply illustrates Hawke’s Bay’s ability to rival Bordeaux.

Top photo: From left, Darren Chatterton, vineyard manager; Paul Ham, managing director; and Kate Galloway, winemaker. Credit: Courtesy of Alpha Domus

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Try Indonesia’s Must-Eat Treat, Even The ‘Devil’s’ Version Image

Finding a hot, steaming bowl of bakso in Indonesia is as easy as finding a slice of pizza in New York City.

During my recent trip to the Indonesian cities of Jakarta, the nation’s capital; Bandung, the capital of West Java; and Yogyakarta, a city in Java, street stalls on every corner were selling this signature soupy meatball dish.

I was tempted to try some bakso (pronounced BAH-so) at one of those hole-in-the-wall shacks, but was advised against doing so for fear of getting food poisoning. It is like being in India; you stay away from the street food unless a native gives you the green light, but even then you contemplate if it is a good idea.

Bakso an Indonesian comfort food

When you are in a new city, it is always good to know a local to show you the good places to eat. Fortunately for me, I stayed in touch with a friend from college, and he took me to a swanky food court at the Grand Indonesia Mall to have some bakso.

“Bakso is what we usually have at home because back in the day, the bakso seller goes around to the neighborhoods with the cart,” explained my friend Dwi Addin Wibowo, who hails from Medan, the capital of North Sumatra in Indonesia. “The ones before are nothing like what we have now. It was much simpler and cheaper.” According to Dwi, people eat bakso because of its comfort-food quality; it is like a solace to make your problems go away.

Basic bakso consists of meatballs, glass noodles and yellow noodles with spring onions and shallots, but the backbone of the soup that determines whether it is good is the broth.

“The bones/carcass of the beef is boiled for hours to get the rich flavor. It is everyone’s comfort food where you go out and buy it rather than cook it at home because it is so readily available,” he said.

Aside from the broth, the tastiness of the accompanying chilli sambal (spicy paste) is also important. One of two types of sambal usually comes with bakso; one is made from unripe green papaya and the other from fresh chillies. The latter is very hot. Some people enjoy bakso because of the addictive sambal.

“From what I have heard, bakso was actually a Chinese street food sold by Chinese vendors during the Colonial era. Of course, back then, they used pork, but now a majority of Muslim Indonesians sell the halal version, which is made from beef,” Dwi said. (Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country and the fourth most populous nation in the world).

The evolving price of bakso

So how much is a bowl of bakso? “I’m from Medan, and I have tried one there that has huge portions of tasty beef and the broth is very tasty. In 2003, it cost about 10,000 Rupiahs (87 cents U.S.) per bowl, but now it is 15,000 to 20,000 Rupiahs ($1.30 to $1.75 U.S.) per bowl.”

At high-end malls like the one we visited, a bowl is 35,000 Rupiahs ($3 U.S.).

Of course, the taste of bakso is tremendously different if you eat it at the roadside stalls. Some street stalls sell good bakso, and a local would be able to tell you where to go. “The street versions are monosodium glutamate (MSG) and preservatives-laden and not good for you. This is where most of our people consume it because of the burst of energy shots from the MSG. It is like how a cup of tea for the British solves all problems.”

I call it a sinful dish because all the MSG makes it bad for you if consumed too often, but it is so delicious. The one I had at the mall was savory and tasty to the last drop.

Tea a perfect complement

Ideally, a bowl of bakso is washed down with sweetened tea (in Indonesian, it is called “teh botol”) because the combination of the savory soup and the sweet tea is what makes the meal complete.

There are different versions of bakso, too, depending on from where in Indonesia it comes. “In Sumatra, they use more spring onions and the broth is thick, whereas in Java, they put in cabbage, bok choy and bean sprouts and the broth is watery,” Dwi said.

If you happen to be on the road in Indonesia and come across a sign reading “Bakso Setan” that is decorated with a chili logo, it literally means “Devil’s Bakso — for chili lovers.” Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Main photo: A bowl of bakso is readily available in most parts of Indonesia. Credit: Aida Ahmad

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The Perfect Rhubarb Pie That A Bully Missed Image

As children, my sister and I spent Saturdays in the spring as knights-errant, challenging each other to duels with rhubarb stalks. We thrust them at each other, but our swords connected gently, so as not to damage what would later become delicious treats. A neighborhood bully once intruded, threatening to kill us with a touch of his rhubarb leaves. Just one touch would mean instant death, that’s how poisonous the leaves were, he said. I pushed him into a ditch, and when he didn’t die instantly, as the leaves touched his shoulder, I took my sister home for a dish of rhubarb Mom had cooked that morning.

We were rhubarb lovers. Mom and my sister loved it cooked with sugar, slathered on fresh bread and topped with heavy cream. They also loved it as Rhubarb Fool, the pink strands of rhubarb swirling through the whipped cream. Occasionally, rhubarb showed up in a cobbler, which they spooned into their mouths with abandon. Although Dad and I loved rhubarb these ways too, we loved it most in pies, his pies, since he made the best in the world.

“There’s no better pie than rhubarb,” he’d say wherever he got ready to make one.

Rhubarb’s long history started with medicinal uses

Nineteenth-century cooks would have agreed with him in that regard. They dubbed rhubarb the “pie plant” because of its popularity as a filling, but it had been popular for medicinal purposes much longer.

Rhubarb originated in Russia, Siberia and China, and was written about more than 2,700 years ago in “The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic,” an early Chinese text. Its roots were prized near and far as a cure for dysentery, diarrhea and constipation.

In Tudor England (from the 1400s to 1600s), rhubarb was grown in herb gardens. A century later, in the 1770s, the Duke of Athol grew Turkey rhubarb in Scotland, selling the roots to an Edinburgh druggist.

The rhubarb variety now eaten came to 17th-century England from Italy. Its cultivation spread throughout the 18th century, but it took awhile for rhubarb recipes to appear in English cookbooks — in part because the sugar needed for sweetening was not widely available or affordable. When sugar became more common, recipes for pies, tarts and other desserts followed, in the 19th century.

In 1771, Benjamin Franklin sent Chinese rhubarb seeds to John Bartram, an American botanist, thus introducing the plant to America. Soon, rhubarb was cultivated in Maine and flourished after that in Massachusetts as well. By 1822, rhubarb was sold in New England markets, and later that century, Luther Burbank, a pioneer in agricultural science, developed a variety better suited to California’s climate.

Rhubarb stalks, the parts we eat, are really leaf bases called petioles. They vary in color, from pink to red, green or white, depending on the variety.

The rhubarb that Dad grew was pink. It spread between the fences separating our back garden from our neighbors’, with Dad doing the harvesting and all of us, including our neighbors the Leckies, sharing in his baking.

Dad was a born baker, although six decades of practice certainly helped fine-tune his innate skills. Although he could make anything, his genius was pastry, which demands a gentle touch. He was a gentle man, so the two were made for each other.

He was an orderly baker as well, first laying out all the ingredients: flour, salt, lard, water, vinegar, sugar, cornstarch and rhubarb (without those “murderous” leaves, which, in fact, contain toxic oxalic acid that can be lethal if ingested). Then, measuring cups and spoons, a pastry knife and fork, mixing bowls, a rolling pin, pie pans and cooling racks were assembled. He always made three pies: one for our neighbors and two for us (the second pie was for lingering over a little more because the first barely left the oven before it was devoured).

The worst thing about his pie making was waiting for the pies to bake and then cool. I was not patient when it came to waiting for rhubarb pie, but if you didn’t wait, the slice of pie collapsed into soup on your plate and burned your mouth too. When the pie was cool enough, the sight of that first slice of rosy rhubarb between layers of flaky pastry made me drool.

If that bully hadn’t been a bully, he might have been invited to drool over that sight too, before tasting Dad’s rhubarb pie. Then he would have understood the truly deadly aspect of rhubarb. It wasn’t in the leaves touching you but, rather, in that first perfect bite, when the sweet rhubarb melded with pastry that melted on your tongue. That bite was deadly because you knew how terrible it would be when you could no longer eat such a perfect thing. If he hadn’t been a bully, I might have pitied him for never having had that experience, but, instead, I was just grateful that we did so often.

Dad’s Rhubarb Pie

Makes one 9-inch pie

Ingredients

For the pastry:

2¼ cups all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon salt

1 cup cold lard (unsalted butter, if you prefer, or half lard and half butter)

¼ cup cold water

1 tablespoon white vinegar

For the filling:

3½ cups rhubarb, leaves removed; stalks trimmed, washed and dried thoroughly and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 to 1½ cups granulated sugar

¼ cup cornstarch

Directions

For the pastry:

1. Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl. Using a pastry knife, cut the lard into the flour until it is in pea-sized pieces.

2. In a measuring cup, stir together the water and vinegar. Using a fork, stir only enough liquid into the flour mixture to bind the ingredients. (Note: You might need more or less water, depending on how the dough comes together. In humid weather, it might require less water because flour, if not stored properly, can absorb water from the air.)

3. Form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

4. While the dough chills, prepare the rhubarb filling.

For the filling:

1. Combine rhubarb with sugar in a bowl and set aside. (For a more tart pie, use just 1 cup of sugar.)

Assembling the pie:

1. Cut the chilled dough into two equal pieces. On a lightly floured surface, roll one piece into a ⅛-inch thick circle. Gently wrap the circle onto the rolling pin (or lift it) and press into a 9-inch pie pan, trimming any excess from the edges.

Rhubarb pie. Credit: Sharon Hunt

Rhubarb pie. Credit: Sharon Hunt

2. Spoon the rhubarb mixture into the pastry-lined pie pan. Sprinkle cornstarch evenly over the fruit.

3. Cover the rhubarb with the rolled-out top crust. Seal the pastry edges with your thumb and finger (or press a fork against the edges to seal). Cut slits into the pastry. (Alternatively, cut the top crust into strips and make a latticework design on top of the pie, as show in the accompanying photograph.)

4. Press a thin strip (about 1 inch) of aluminum foil around the edges to keep from burning.

5. Bake the pie in a preheated 450 F oven for 12 to 15 minutes (or until the pastry is golden). Remove the aluminum foil, and reduce heat to 350 F. Bake the pie for an additional 40 to 50 minutes (or until the rhubarb is soft).

6. Cool well before cutting.

Note:  You can also add ¼ cup of strawberries (washed, dried and cut into equal-sized pieces) for additional sweetness and flavor. If you choose to use strawberries too, reduce the amount of rhubarb accordingly.

Top photo: Rhubarb pie. Credit: Sharon Hunt

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Forget Hip Kale, Get Your Green Fix From Swiss Chard Image

The über-popularity of kale is approaching the ridiculous when you see kale juice being hawked. Even if it were blended with bacon or sugar, I think a vanilla milkshake sounds better. I like kale as much as any hipster but let’s not ignore the other wonderful leafy green vegetables that there is no need to drink, such as Swiss chard.

The name has intrigued me ever since I lived in Switzerland for a year and never once saw Swiss chard. In older times it also went by the names silverbeet, seakale beet, leaf beet, perpetual spinach, rhubarb chard and spinach beet. Its scientific name is Beta vulgaris subsp. cicla.

Swiss chard is a biennial grown as an annual for its edible cooked dark green leaves and multicolored stalks. For the home gardener Swiss chard is ideal as it is a rugged plant that regenerates leaves even with heavy harvesting.

Mediterranean love for Swiss chard

The origin of Swiss chard is linked to the development of the beet to which it is intimately related. It too was originally a seashore plant native to the northern Mediterranean. Swiss chard is a popular vegetable throughout the Mediterranean with the French word for the plant, blettes or bettes, and the Italian bieta derived from the Latin blitum (itself derived from the Greek). The Spanish word for Swiss chard, acelgas, comes from the Arabic word al-silq, meaning Swiss chard or beet greens.

It’s more than likely that Swiss chard got its name by virtue of having been first written about by the Swiss botanist Gaspard Bauhin in his book “Phytopinax,” published in Basel, Switzerland, in 1596. All earlier references to beta refer to beets, but Swiss chard’s botanical divergence from beets is unclear, although Aristotle mentions a red-stalked beet chard around 350 B.C.

Simple preparations

For culinary purposes Swiss chard doesn’t need much. It has always been favored in stews because of its hardiness, but in this simple recipe the Swiss chard is cooked as a side dish ideally to accompany grilled lamb chops.

Swiss Chard With Pancetta and Lemon

Procure the yellow stalked Swiss chard as it makes for a pretty dish too.

Serves 4

Ingredients

1½ pounds Swiss chard

1 ounce pancetta, chopped or sliced

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

Juice from ½ lemon

Salt to taste

Directions

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the Swiss chard until soft, about 10 minutes. Drain and squeeze out as much water as possible. Chop the chard coarsely and set aside.

2. In a large sauté pan, cook, stirring, the pancetta with the olive oil over medium heat until slightly crispy, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute. Add the Swiss chard, lemon juice and salt and cook, stirring, until the lemon juice has evaporated and then serve.

Top photo: Colorful Swiss chard. Credit: onfilm/iStock

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How To Make Vegetable Gardens Look Good, Too Image

For many people, the idea of a vegetable garden conjures up an uninspiring image of regimented rows of plants with bare soil in between and functional supports where necessary. But this is not the only way to grow produce. Imagine going out onto a flower-filled terrace and cutting some lettuce for lunch, or, in the same space, collecting herbs for soup and unearthing fresh new potatoes. All this is perfectly possible, even in the tiniest of gardens.

A quick look at history shows that gardens that were both attractive and productive were far more common than one might think. The Romans had beautiful fruit and vegetable gardens, and monks living in monasteries across Medieval Europe were usually self-sufficient and grew everything they needed in charming walled gardens that were used for quiet contemplation as well as produce. The designers of large country house gardens often tucked the vegetables out of sight in a walled garden, but even here there was frequently an emphasis on beauty as well as productivity. Saint Ignatius, a priest in 15th-century Spain, said, “It is not enough to cultivate vegetables with care. You have a duty to arrange them according to their colours, and to frame them with flowers, so they appear like a well-laid table.”

At the beginning of the 20th century, one of the most famous ornamental vegetable gardens was created at the Chateau of Villandry, on the River Loire in France. When owner Joachim Carvallo purchased the estate, its original Renaissance garden had been replaced with an 18th-century landscape park. He wanted to restore the garden, but none of the plans for the original had survived. So Carvallo looked to the ornate gardens of the Renaissance and combined them with the kitchen gardens of the Benedictine abbeys in the area. The resulting plan gave vegetables pride of place next to the chateau, laying them out in intricate patterns.

Whether you have a large kitchen garden or simply a couple of containers, the theory behind growing vegetables beautifully is the same. First, consider what you would like to eat and what you are able to grow; there is no point growing chard, however pretty it may be, if you don’t enjoy eating it. Equally, there is no point trying to grow tender plants, such as chilies, if your garden is prone to frost.

Hanging tomatoes

A hanging basket of tomatoes makes use of vertical space. Credit: J.M. Hunter

Having chosen the vegetables you would like, consider what they look like as they grow. Many vegetables are available in ornamental varieties such as red Brussels sprouts, purple broccoli or rainbow chard. Lettuces can be any colour, from the palest green to deep crimson and many have the advantage of astonishingly frilly, or handsomely sharp, leaves. If you have room, a block of sweet corn looks striking (for pollination purposes you need to grow a block of it), but in a smaller space, peas, beans and tomatoes will give your garden height. Consider colour and shape, remembering that different shades of green with a few white flowers can look as spectacular as rainbow of colours. Think laterally, using parsley or lavender as edging and put tomatoes and herbs into hanging baskets.

How to fill the spaces

Of course, harvesting will affect the aesthetics of your garden. Sow a succession of seeds, rather than planting them all at once, and you will have new plants ready to fill any spaces. You also never will get a glut of anything, as the harvesting will be staggered. “Cut-and-come-again” crops can be harvested without removing the whole plant. Many salad leaves fall into this group and will regrow four or five times during the season. The other way to avoid gaps is to plant crops that grow at different speeds. Radishes mature in about 25 days and are invaluable gap-fillers while slower plants get going.

Having chosen the vegetables you want to grow, you can then add the flowers; annuals and bulbs and even perennials and shrubs, if your garden is large enough. Most vegetables are annuals, completing their harvest cycle within a year. Annual flowers make good companions, and each year you can vary the plants that you grow. Growing vegetables in different areas of the garden or even in different containers from year to year helps prevent soil depletion and disease. You can also vary your plants, for taste in the kitchen and looks in the garden.

Flower power helps vegetables

Flowers can also improve the health of your vegetables, with French marigolds or Tagetes attracting hoverflies, which will gobble up aphids and blackfly. Many of the prettiest flowers are edible; and pansies, nasturtiums, borage, lavender and many others will find a place in your kitchen as well your garden.

Whatever style of garden you have and whatever size it is, you can grow wonderful vegetables and enjoy a truly beautiful harvest.

Main photo: Vegetables and flowers mingle in a garden. Credit: J.M. Hunter

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What You Don’t Know About Delicious Cherimoya Image

My mother had a lifelong wish to go to Hawaii, and at long last had persuaded my father to indulge her desire. And so it was that my parents, my sister, and I ended up, long after dark, tired and hungry, tiptoeing into the kitchen of our bed and breakfast on Maui. We switched on the light and saw a basket on the kitchen table overflowing with tropical delights. My eyes greedily consumed the bright papaya, waxy starfruit, and stately pineapple.

But it was the aroma of a pale, brown-tinged, gray-green, oddly shingled, heavy rock of a fruit that grabbed and held me. I turned it over in my hands, feeling its solid heft and the softly yielding flesh under the scaly depressions in the reticulated skin. Then I brought it to my nose to breathe in the heavenly scent.

With the exhale, I turned to my sister, who had spent a high school year among the tropical fruits of the Philippines, “What in the world is this?”

Her eyes widened with delight as she exclaimed, “Cherimoya!”

“Cheri-who?” I asked. But she had already sliced it in half, and words swiftly become superfluous as we dug in to the velvety ivory flesh studded with large black seeds. Our wholly inadequate attempts to describe the aroma and flavors, which included banana, pear, coconut, mango, pineapple, papaya and vanilla,  faded to appreciative grunts and murmurs as we greedily spooned the custard-like flesh into our mouths.

Then I remembered my late-night reading before our trip. A fair number of famous authors have written about Hawaii — Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville, Jack London, and, of course, James Michener — but I was fairly sure that it was Mark Twain who had waxed eloquent about the cherimoya.

Twain spent four months on what were then known as the Sandwich Islands in 1866, on assignment for the Sacramento Union newspaper. He was only 31 years old, but the 25 letters that he steam-shipped back to the mainland are still fresh and funny. The complete collection of Twain’s articles from the trip can be found in “Mark Twain’s Letters From Hawaii” (University of Hawaii Press). But it was in “Roughing It,” Twain’s 1872 collection of travel essays, that I found his description of the cherimoya.

“We had an abundance of fruit in Honolulu, of course. Oranges, pine-apples, bananas, strawberries, lemons, limes, mangoes, guavas, melons, and a rare and curious luxury called the cherimoya, which is deliciousness itself,” he wrote.

Cherimoya’s peak of ripeness

The next morning I saw a smashed cherimoya on the ground next to our rental car. Fulminating against the depraved person who wasted such a wonderful fruit, I picked it up and began shamelessly eating it straight out of the damaged skin. Then, looking up, I had a Sir Isaac Newton moment: The vandal in question was gravity, and the source of our midnight cherimoya indulgence was the very tree under which we had parked our car. The lush, low canopy of the medium-sized tree nearly hid the cherimoya fruits, but there they were, hanging like Flintstone-era footballs just above the car.

Cherimoya fruit. Credit: Yuliya Vdikovinku/iStock

Cherimoya fruit. Credit: Yuliya Vdikovinku/iStock

Then I understood why the previous night’s, and the current morning’s, fruits were so scrumptious. They were at their peak of ripeness, literally falling from the tree. A bit of research revealed that the cherimoya has little commercial production because of its short shelf life. Although it seems well-armored, it is actually quite a delicate fruit. The skin bruises and breaks easily, and the moment of perfection is fleeting.

My research also brought to light the origin of the cherimoya, which is not native to the tropics, but to the inter-Andean valleys of Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia. From there, native peoples spread it throughout the highlands of South and Central America. After the conquistadores arrived, they shipped cherimoya seeds back to Spain in 1757, and to Hawaii in 1790, some 75 years before Twain encountered it there.

The first California cherimoya trees were planted in 1871, with seeds brought up from Mexico.  By 1936, there were some 9,000 trees in the state, but most were killed by the hard freeze of 1937. A few small commercial orchards were reestablished, and the fruits were marketed locally, as they are today. Different varieties ripen from January through June, but in general March through May is the prime time for cherimoya in California. So if you are lucky enough to be there, and see a cherimoya, and it smells good, buy it.

I’ve seen recipes for everything from cherimoya ice cream to cherimoya salad dressing. But you can do no better than to peel back the skin and slurp the ripe flesh, or cut the fruit in half and scoop out the flesh with a spoon as I did on my virgin cherimoya indulgence. Deliciousness itself needs no embellishment.

Main photo: Cherimoya in Hawaii. Credit: Terra Brockman

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How Chef Iliana De La Vega Reinvents Oaxacan Food Image

Sometimes traditional and inventive are mutually exclusive concepts in classic global cuisine, but one Texas chef has found a way to translate traditional Oaxacan food with both concepts in mind.

Chef Iliana de la Vega has created a menu beyond familiar Mexican specialties with innovative dishes at her Austin, Texas, restaurant El Naranjo.

How about chili-rich, velvety smooth Oaxacan moles? Or tacos dorados — tortillas stuffed with potatoes or chicken and served with avocado-green salsa with a hint of jalapeño peppers, cream and queso fresco? Or chile relleno with smoky chile pasilla oaxaqueño stuffed with plantains and light queso panela cheese in a black bean and avocado leaf sauce?

Although steeped in tradition, De la Vega’s cuisine emphasizes distinctive flavors and a balance between the traditional and the innovative. She creates this balance with flavors drawn from the many rich traditions of Mexican cooking. Although De la Vega grew up in Mexico City, her family hailed from Oaxaca and she learned the regional cuisine from her mother, her aunt and other relatives in Oaxaca during her visits.

The real Oaxacan food

She and her husband, architect Ernesto Torrealba, moved to Oaxaca in 1994 and opened El Naranjo in a colonial-era house in 1997.

What she served there was the food she grew up eating at home, traditional Oaxacan fare. Although initially her interpretation of traditional cooking was not well received by the locals, it gained international recognition after being featured in various publications including the New York Times, Bon Appetit and the Chicago Tribune. A handwritten note from the famous chef Rick Bayless — “this is the real food of Oaxaca” — hung in the entryway of the restaurant.

Unfortunately the political unrest and violence in Oaxaca resulted in the closure of El Naranjo in 2006. But Oaxaca’s loss was Texas’ gain. The couple soon immigrated to the United States and settled in Austin.

She accepted a position at the Center for Foods of The Americas at the Culinary Institute of America. While teaching at the CIA she commuted to San Antonio and her evenings and weekends were spent re-creating a new El Naranjo, initially as an Oaxacan cuisine food truck. The El Naranjo food truck was a huge success and was the only food truck included in the Texas Monthly’s list of 50 best Mexican restaurants.

A new start for El Naranjo

In May 2012, after five years, she stepped down from her position at the CIA, and began dedicating her time fully to the new restaurant in the middle of Rainey Street in downtown Austin. Amid converted houses serving as restaurants and bars, El Naranjo stands apart.  The modest bungalow’s pale facade conceals the attractive space inside featuring a bar area, two dining rooms and a patio.

Though many people like Mexican food, most diners haven’t experienced much of that cuisine’s diverse or varied offerings, De la Vega said.

“The public is just beginning to see the top of the iceberg,” she said.  ”Mexican food has so much more to offer. … It is growing and people are exploring ‘new’ ingredients, recipes and acquiring more knowledge of the fundamentals of traditional cuisine.”

Velvety smooth moles

She bakes bread and makes tortillas fresh every day. Velvety smooth moles, the signature dish of Oaxacan cuisine, are also prepared in house and are vegetable-based. At least three varieties are always on the menu with a different mole featured every week.

De la Vega’s freshly made salsas are in a class by themselves; fiery hot salsa macha is my favorite. The incredible flan and Mille-feuille of dulce de leche pair with a cup of cafe de olla to make the perfect dessert course. And the chef offers a wonderful selection for vegetarians, an added bonus that you rarely see in Mexican restaurants.

De la Vega and her husband are even considering expanding their business.

“We would love to expand or create different concepts,” she said. “That is an option that we are considering.”

Main photo: Chef Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo restaurant in Austin, Texas. Credit: Courtesy of Iliana de la Vega.

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What Dickens Missed: The Wit And Wisdom Of Watercress Image

Watercress is one of those greens that goes in and out of popularity with my friends, although I have been devoted to it for 20 years, after discovering a hummus, tomato and watercress sandwich in a cafe close to where I worked at the time.

The peppery taste of the watercress added a final, perfect note to the tanginess of the hummus and the freshness of the tomatoes. That sandwich became my workday treat, eaten religiously, Monday to Friday, for a couple of years.

Later, when I left the corporate world and returned to cooking for myself, I nibbled watercress while tossing it into salads, learned to make Potage Cressionniere (a soup of potatoes and watercress) in winter and a lighter soup (without the potatoes) in spring and summer, and used it in my own version of that long-gone sandwich.

Historically, watercress thought to fortify mind and body

Nasturtium officinale is the botanical name for watercress. The word Nasturtium comes from the Latin nasus tortus, meaning “twisted nose,” a warning about the effect watercress can have on your nasal passages.

It may be a nose twister, but it is also one of the oldest green vegetables known to man. The ancient Greeks, Romans and Persians loved it. Persian children ate watercress to grow strong, while Persian and Greek soldiers ate it to remain so. Both the Greek general Xenophon and the Persian king Xerxes decreed their troops should eat it for the same reason, with Xenophon once recalling, “How pleasant it is to eat barley cake and some cress when one is hungry by a stream.”

A Greek proverb — “Eat cress and learn more wit” — gave an indication of the vegetable’s contribution to the brain, something Irish monks also understood. They spent months living on watercress and bread to stimulate their brains.

Watercress provides essential vitamins — in particular A and C — as well as calcium, magnesium, folic acid, iodine, sulfur and iron. It is believed to have wonderful cleansing powers and help in curing a variety of ills. (Romans and Anglo-Saxons used it as a treatment for baldness.) It was also eaten to provide courage and character, and as an aphrodisiac.

The Romans put watercress in salads, dressing it with oil and vinegar, much like we do today.  When Hippocrates — the Greek physician known as the father of Western medicine — founded the first hospital on the island of Kos, Greece, about 400 B.C., he used watercress to treat blood disorders. Twelve centuries later, English herbalist John Gerard championed it as a cure for scurvy in the 1600s. Watercress may also have been eaten at the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving dinner.

A twist from Dickens

In more modern times, the English raised it to something of an institution in watercress sandwiches served at afternoon and high teas. No less than Charles Dickens wrote of it in “Great Expectations,” with Mr. Pumblechook, a corn merchant with a mouth “like a fish,” ordering watercress sandwiches for Pip, the book’s hero, as a supposed kindness although, in truth, Pip didn’t like them.

Others of that time did, though. Watercress was breakfast for the working classes in Victorian Britain, eaten with bread or alone.

“The first coster cry heard of a morning in the London streets is of ‘Fresh wo-orter-creases,’ ” English social researcher Henry Mayhew wrote in his 1851 survey “London Labour and the London Poor.” Surely one of those coster cries must have come from Eliza James. Nicknamed “The Watercress Queen,” James was a watercress seller in the late 1800s and early 1900s, hawking her wares in her Covent Garden stall for more than half a century. She started selling watercress when she was 5, first at factories in Birmingham, then eventually becoming the sole watercress supplier of most hotels and restaurants in London as well as, reputedly, the biggest owner of watercress farms in the world.

Wild watercress

Wild watercress grows in shallow rivers and streams, fading in the dog days of summer and the coldest months of winter. Picking it wild, however, requires great care to ensure the water it grows in is pollution free and the watercress is uncontaminated. Commercially, watercress is cultivated in carefully controlled tanks or water beds.

Although peppery in taste, watercress actually has a cooling effect on the mouth. This is something Taillevent, a 14th-century cook to the Court of France, understood. He included a course of “watercress, served alone, to refresh the mouth” in one of his famous banquet menus.

In North America, watercress is an ingredient in salads, soups and sandwiches. It is a lovely complement to oranges, apples and pears, and also works well with eggs.

When using watercress, leave the stems on because they have the strongest flavor. Try not to overcook it. The leaves are delicate, and long cooking robs them of their flavor. Watercress is best eaten soon after purchasing and should be kept immersed in cold water until it is used. So go ahead, let your nose twist as you enjoy this wonderful green.

A Light Watercress Soup

Serves 4

Ingredients

For the soup:

2½ tablespoons unsalted butter

2 shallots, finely chopped

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 cup whole milk

1 cup low-sodium vegetable stock

¼ teaspoon salt

3 bunches (about 3 cups) watercress, washed, dried and chopped

¼ cup table cream (10%)

Optional garnishes:

Crème fraîche

Thinly sliced pear

Directions

1. Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook until soft. Stir in the flour and cook for 1 minute.

2. Gradually stir in the milk and vegetable stock, then add the salt. When the soup is near boiling, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 5 minutes.

3. While the soup cooks, bring a large pot of water to boil. Add the watercress to blanch until wilted, but still retaining its bright color. Remove it from the water and place in a bowl of ice water.

4. Squeeze the water out of the cooled watercress and add the watercress to the soup.

5. Carefully purée with a hand blender or in a food processor, adding the cream.

6. Reheat if necessary.

7. Garnish with a dollop of crème fraîche and a few slices of pear if you wish. This soup is delicious hot or cold.

Main photo: Watercress soup with bread and pear slices. Credit: Sharon Hunt

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