Articles by 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
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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
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
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
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
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
“My girls are laying so fast I can’t keep up with them,” Martha says. She has arrived at my door with another dozen eggs, fresh from her henhouse, no doubt laid within the past 24 hours.
In Italy an egg that fresh is a treasure. It’s called a “uova da bere,” a drinkable egg, and it’s often turned into something called zabaglione, which is not perhaps what you think it is because it is not cooked at all. For this kind of zabaglione you use the freshest egg, preferably one still a little warm from the hen’s body, and a good heaping teaspoonful of sugar. You beat the egg and the sugar together in a small bowl, using a fork or mini whisk, beating it steadily for about 10 or 15 minutes until the mixture is thick and syrupy. Sometimes a few drops of Marsala wine get beaten in as well. And then at breakfast you simply sip the lush, gooey mixture with a spoon, emitting little sighs of pleasure as you do so. (The egg-and-sugar sauce called zabaglione goes one step further and beats the mixture over — but not in — boiling water until it is thicker, almost like a runny pudding. It’s delicious served with fresh seasonal berries, so keep it in mind for strawberry season, not many weeks away.)
Martha, however, is a down-to-earth Maine girl like me, and the very idea of a breakfast of sugar and raw eggs is not on her cultural horizon. Nor on mine. Leave that to the Italians.
A Mediterranean-inspired egg dish
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Instead, I decided to use the spring bounty of eggs to make a seasonal favorite from another part of the Mediterranean, the island of Crete.
Quick timeout for a food iconography lesson: Do you ever wonder at the association between Easter and eggs? When you think about hens and their lifestyle, it’s pretty obvious. Hens stop laying in winter, when the daylight hours grow short, then start up again in spring. In the natural rhythm of things, eggs become plentiful precisely at this time of year, when the light is growing stronger day by day. So Easter, whether Catholic or Orthodox, is symbolized all over the Mediterranean by eggs as icons of rebirth. So why in our modern supermarkets do we have eggs all year round? Because our hens are exposed to artificial light, often 24 hours a day, and that keeps them going strong. Or not so strong, because they must usually be replaced after 18 to 24 months.
Make this recipe your own
Back to Crete, where sfougata, a combination of eggs, cheese and vegetables, somewhere between a soufflé and a frittata, is popular for all those times when household cooks are strapped to come up with something cheap, filling and delicious. In spring, that combination usually includes greens, but I could equally imagine doing this in the autumn with mushrooms or slivers of winter squash toasted in olive oil, and at the height of summer it would be delicious with fresh roasted peppers and little chunks of eggplant. But for spring, I did it with some delicate new spinach I picked up at the farmers market along with sliced zucchini. Quintessential to the flavor, it seems to me, is a handful of finely minced dill added at the very end, so the taste stays forward.
My advice? Make this once the way I’ve detailed below, then start to experiment, using leeks instead of spring onions, or a mixture of foraged and cultivated greens (dandelion greens, beet greens, chard, maybe even a little Chinese broccoli), or adding a couple of small diced potatoes to the skillet with the other vegetables. Another great spring vegetable combination, and very much in the Mediterranean spirit, would be asparagus and fava beans, if available, or fresh peas if not.
Let your imagination play with the recipe, and you’ll find all sorts of uses for what could become fundamental to your repertoire — and a savior for all those times when you simply have run out of time and inspiration.
Although the total time listed is 1 1/2 hours, this can be broken down into manageable chunks. Make the vegetables ahead of time (even a day ahead), taking about 45 minutes, then mix up the eggs and cheese just before the meal, stir in the prepared vegetables, and bake for 25 minutes.
Sfougato of Zucchini and Spinach
Prep time: About 30 minutes.
Cook time: About 1 hour.
Total time: About 1 1/2 hours.
Yield: 4 servings as a main course, 6 as a starter.
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
5 or 6 spring onions, about 1/2 pound, including green tops, chopped to make 1 1/2 cups
1 pound zucchini (2 medium zucchini), thinly sliced, to make about 2 to 3 cups
6 ounces to 8 ounces fresh spinach, slivered (about 4 cups)
1 cup finely chopped fresh dill or finely chopped fresh mint, leaves only
1/2 cup whole milk
About 1 cup coarsely grated Cretan graviera cheese or Swiss gruyere (or use a mixture of gruyere and parmigiano reggiano)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of Middle Eastern red chili pepper
Heat half the olive oil in a big, heavy skillet over medium-low heat and gently sauté the onions until translucent, about 5 or 6 minutes. Add the zucchini and cook briefly. As soon as the zucchini slices start to soften, stir in the spinach, mixing thoroughly. If the pan seems a little dry, add 1/2 cup of water, cover the pan and cook gently until the spinach is softened and the zucchini slices are tender. If there are excess juices, raise the heat and cook rapidly to evaporate the extra liquid. Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the dill, mixing well.
Use the remaining oil to grease the bottom of a rectangular oven dish that is approximately 11 inches by 8 inches. Heat the oven to 375 F.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs with the milk. Add the grated cheese and fold in the vegetables. Add salt and pepper to taste, along with a pinch of Middle Eastern red pepper flakes.
Pour the mixture into the oven dish and transfer to the hot oven. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until the eggs are set and the top is nicely browned.
Remove from the oven and let sit for 10 or 15 minutes before serving. This dish can also be served at room temperature — a nice suggestion for lunch on a hot day.
Main image: Fresh eggs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins
The Monterey Bay Aquarium, a highly regarded institution, has been considered for many years a welcome watchdog over our seafood. Why? Simply because there is so much information, misinformation, myth and reality afloat that a poor consumer never knows which way to turn — or which fish to buy.
Enter the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch Card (and for all you smartphone addicts, an accompanying app). Updated every month or so as new information comes along, the Seafood Watch Card lists “best choices,” “good alternatives” and “avoid,” colored appropriately green, yellow and red, for all the seafood you might be lucky enough to find at a fishmonger or restaurant near you.
And now, for the first time, as I recently learned, Maine-farmed salmon has been awarded a yellow sticker as a “good alternative,” meaning Monterey Bay has given its seal of approval to the way salmon is raised in Maine.
Maine has stringent environmental controls over salmon farming, most of which takes place way Down East from Machiasport to Cobscook Bay; all of Maine’s current salmon farms are operated by Cooke Aquaculture, a Canadian family firm with a long history in Maine and the Maritimes. (Cooke salmon is marketed under the True North label.) Whether in Canada or Maine, the company is required to follow strict environmental protocols. In Maine, that includes a particularly stringent “bay management system,” wherein the salmon are separated into year classes, each in separate pens and a separate bay from the others, making disease control much easier. Moreover, when a year class is harvested, the bay in which it was raised must spend a year in fallow, to allow the ocean bottom and surrounding water to recover. This system means a third of Maine’s 25 licensed fish farms are fallow in any given year.
Two other problems frequently raised about farmed salmon are the use of antibiotics and hormones, and the ratio of wild fish used to produce farmed fish, called “fish in/fish out.” Maine, like Canada, has stringent rules governing the use of medications such as antibiotics. Like most modern fish farmers, Maine farms control disease in fish through inoculation at the parr (juvenile) stage. And, like other responsible fish farmers, Cooke Aquaculture is constantly researching ways to cut back on the quantity of wild fish that are fed to its salmon, using, according to company literature, marine, plant and animal proteins and fats, grains, minerals and vitamins, as well as carotenoids. The current ratio is about 1.2 kilos of feed to produce 1 kilo of salmon flesh. Currently, a lot of the fish meal and fish oil in the feed for Maine salmon actually comes from byproducts of fish intended for human consumption. I should note, too, that Cooke’s feeding program is certified by the Global Aquaculture Alliance, an international overseer of aquaculture practices.
Here’s what Monterey Bay had to say about Maine-farmed salmon: “Effluent and habitat impacts are moderate and stringent operating permit mandates have resulted in superior fish containment. Also of note is the industry’s very low reliance on marine feed ingredients. The industry is limited by high concerns for chemical use. Sea lice levels are also high, but there is evidence that no on-farm diseases have been transmitted to wild fish.”
Salmon a nutritious and versatile choice
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The only problem now is where to find Maine salmon. Here in Maine, that’s not such a big deal, but elsewhere? Look for the True North label, and as with any quality food product, ask and ask and ask. If the answer brings a shrug and a bewildered look, keep asking. True North fish raised in Maine should be marked somewhere on the label. With such limited knowledge, it’s no wonder consumers are just as bewildered as fish mongers are, but persistence will pay off. Meanwhile, I’m making my voice heard, loud and clear, for Maine salmon. If it’s good enough for Monterey Bay, it’s good enough for me!
Apart from the fact that it’s enormously good for you, with plenty of those treasured Omega-3 fats, there’s another great thing about salmon: it’s so easy to prepare in dozens of tasty, interesting and easy ways. Dress a fillet with a little extra virgin, a few drops of lemon juice, and maybe a splash of soy or a smear of garlic paste, then run it under the broiler and cook to your taste until it’s a little browned on top. Or have the fillet skinned, then cut it in chunks, toss the chunks in olive oil in a skillet set over medium heat and serve with a side of home fries and a green salad. Any leftover salmon can be flaked and mixed, just like tuna from the can, with a little mayo, some chopped green onions, maybe a bit of chopped celery, capers and green olives, to make a delicious salad.
Or try this simple but elegant recipe for tataki salmon, which I discovered on a trip to Santiago de Chile, where it is popular as a first course. One pound of salmon makes plenty for 4, but if you want to serve it as a main, I’d count on 2 to 3 servings from a pound. Incidentally, this is also a good dish to prepare ahead, even by a couple of hours, but keep the prepared dishes in a cool place until ready to serve.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 2 minutes
Total time: Less than 20 minutes
Yield: 2 to 3 servings as a main course, or 4 to 6 as a starter
1 pound boneless Atlantic salmon, skinned, in one or two pieces
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon finely minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon roasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Half an avocado, cubed
Sprigs of cilantro
1 teaspoon sesame seeds
- Pat the salmon fillet dry on both sides with paper towels, then sprinkle it liberally with ground black pepper.
- Using the flat blade of a knife, crush the minced ginger to a paste. Add it to a small bowl, along with the lime juice, sesame oil and soy sauce. Beat with a small whisk or a fork to make an amalgam.
- Set a heavy duty skillet on the stove over medium-high heat and heat it until it is very hot. Have the salmon ready, but first add the olive oil, roll it around the skillet to cover completely, then immediately add the salmon fillet. The oil may start to smoke before you add the salmon, but not to worry. The hotter the oil, the less likely it is the salmon will stick to the pan.
- Sear the salmon for about 45 seconds, then carefully turn it over and sear the other side, searing again for 45 seconds. It should be browning on the outside but still quite raw in the middle.
- Remove the salmon to a plate and set aside to cool down. If you try to cut the salmon when it’s very hot, it will fall apart.
- When the salmon is sufficiently cool, cut it in bite-size cubes and arrange on plates. Whisk up the dressing again and spoon it over the salmon cubes. Garnish with avocado, cilantro and sesame seeds and serve.
Note: It’s important to heat the skillet to very hot before adding the oil and then, immediately after, the salmon; if the skillet is not hot, the salmon will stick to the pan.
Main photo: A salmon leaping in a cage. Credit: Copyright 2016 courtesy of Cooke Aquaculture
A recent trip to the produce market led me to sing hymns in praise of winter vegetables. I returned home with familiar cauliflower and broccoli, as well as fennel, which I’ve learned can be as good roasted in a gratin dish with a light cheesy topping as it is raw in a salad. Other finds included an enormous, 2-pound black radish, something totally new to me; and leeks, without a doubt the true key to all good things in the winter kitchen.
Years ago, for reasons too complicated to explain, I spent a couple of winters in a very small French village, population just less than 3,000, in the Vercors mountains above Grenoble. We stayed, my baby girl and I, in a pension called La Crémaillère run by Madame Jacquet, one of those fierce French women utterly lacking in social graces but who was a genius in the kitchen. The babe went to the école maternelle (nursery school) each morning, while Mama hovered over her typewriter, engaged in writing a novel (not my first, and no, it was never finished).
Toward lunchtime, up from Madame Jacquet’s kitchen would float inevitably the enticing aroma of leeks, steeped and braised in butter, ready to form the base of whatever potage du jour was on Madame’s menu for that day. Perhaps a little garlic accompanied them, occasionally an onion to add its more acerbic flavors to the mix, and then carrots one day, little purple-topped turnips another, simple potatoes a third. But every lunch began with the potage du jour, the soup of the day, as was considered only proper in the bon ménage bourgeois Madame Jacquet maintained, in company with her equals all over France.
Aromas bring back memories
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From that day to this, the enticing aroma of braising leeks has evoked France for me more strongly than any other, more strongly even than the penetrating odor of Gauloise Caporals — strong French cigarettes — that used to be the distinguishing fragrance of the Paris Métro.
So when I chop a leek, rinse it carefully and toss it in a pot with a tablespoon of butter and a tablespoon of oil, it is to France that my culinary instincts turn. Those French soups are so simple, so easy and so inviting that I’m ready to revive them for my winter table. And because we’re always looking for ways to put more healthful vegetables on the menu, a potage du jour can be an elegant way to add to that slot as well.
Because I already had the cauliflower, why not, then, a potage au chou-fleur for a first course at dinner? I was not surprised to discover that my good friend Josée di Stasio, who has a great French-language food program, “A la di Stasio,” on Quebec television, has a recipe for a leek and cauliflower soup. For 4 servings, di Stasio simply sweats out 2 chopped leeks and 2 cloves of garlic in olive oil, adds a cut-up cauliflower, then 6 cups of broth (chicken or vegetable — enough to cover) and cooks until the vegetables are all tender. I would also add half a peeled and cubed potato to give the soup a nice creaminess. Then puree it, using a stick blender or an old-fashioned vegetable mill, and serve it up, garnished with chopped parsley or chervil or any other green herb that tickles your fancy.
Another time, though, I went back to a favorite recipe from “The Four Seasons of Pasta,” the book I published last year with my daughter Sara, to find a great cauliflower “sauce” for pasta. It isn’t really a sauce, but it is delicious mixed with pasta, and the sultana raisins and pine nuts give it a pleasant Sicilian touch. We think penne rigate is the perfect shape for this, but any short, stubby pasta will do.
If you look at the photo below, you will probably notice I left out the chili. That’s because I didn’t have one and it was too cold and late to go to the grocery store for one chili pepper. I also substituted pumpkin seeds for the pine nuts, just because I felt like it. This is all just proof that most recipes, including our own, are not engraved in bronze. Make do with what you have!
Penne rigate con Cavalfiore alla Siciliana
(Sicilian cauliflower pasta with leeks, raisins, pine nuts and a bit of chili)
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
Yield: Makes 6 servings
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 leeks, white and light green parts, thinly sliced to make 2 cups
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
About 1 pound cauliflower, separated into 1-inch florets
1 fresh red or green chili pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup golden sultana raisins, plumped in hot water and drained
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
About 1 pound (a 500-gram package) penne rigate
1/2 cup freshly grated sharp pecorino
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
1. Combine the olive oil with the leeks and garlic in a large, deep skillet and set over low heat. Cook, shaking the pan and stirring, until the leeks are softened but not browned, about 10 minutes.
2. Add the cauliflower and sliced chili. Cover the pan and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the cauliflower is tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Check from time to time and add a tablespoon or two of water or some of the wine to keep the vegetables from sticking to the pan.
3. When the cauliflower is tender, add the wine along with another 1/4 cup of water and raise the heat slightly. Simmer over medium-low heat until the liquid has reduced to about 1/2 cup, about 10 minutes. Toss in the raisins and simmer just long enough to mix the flavors together.
4. While the vegetables are cooking, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Add plenty of salt and the pasta and cook, following package directions, until the pasta is al dente.
5. Drain the pasta and toss with the vegetables in the skillet, then turn into a warm serving bowl and toss again with the grated cheese and pine nuts. Serve immediately.
Note: You could easily substitute bright green broccoli for the cauliflower in this dish, but it will cook in much less time than the cauliflower. Or try it with a colorful mixture of broccoli and cauliflower together.
Main image: Recent finds at the winter market included cauliflower, broccoli, a black radish and leeks. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins
It’s an old story — you’ve heard it before, and not just from me — but it’s coming around again. Predictably, just as U.S. specialty markets begin to trumpet the arrival of fresh new-harvest, extra virgin olive oil comes the warning that it ain’t what it seems.
According to journalist Tom Mueller, speaking on the popular CBS News program “60 Minutes,” an astonishing 80 percent of the extra virgin olive oil sold in the United States does not meet the standards for extra virgin.
That statement requires some clarification. To be characterized as extra virgin, legal parameters must be met. They are set by the International Olive Council, and they are liberal. The oil, for instance, must have only 0.8 percent free oleic fatty acid and a peroxide content of 20 milliequivalents, or meq.
But there’s more. To qualify as extra virgin, an oil must be free of defects, with perfect flavor and aroma. And that’s where a lot of extra virgin oil on sale in the U.S. falls down, usually because it is too old (Unlike wine, olive oil does not improve with age.) or has been exposed to damaging light, heat and/or atmosphere. The finest extra virgin will deteriorate very quickly. I know firsthand because once in Tuscany I deliberately exposed a glassful of extra virgin, milled just days earlier from my own olives. Within a week of exposure, it was unrecognizable, pale in color and with almost no flavor or aroma except for the slight development, as yet inchoate, of rancidity.
Much of the 80% of substandard extra virgin oil cited by Mueller (if indeed the figure is accurate, which I tend to doubt) was probably legally produced, bottled and shipped. But once it left the producer’s hands, all bets were off.
Let me give a disturbing example: In my local Whole Foods I bought a bottle of oil from a Sicilian producer whom I know well, one who makes his award-winning product with scrupulous care. And it shows: The oil has a robust flavor you associate with new oils made from barely mature olives and picked just 12 to 24 hours before pressing. Yet, the oil I purchased was pale yellow, indicating exposure to too much light, and it was unmistakably rancid, so much so I had to spit it out at the first taste.
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So buyer beware, or caveat emptor, as they said back in Rome.
The conclusion of this somewhat misguided “60 Minutes” report was simple: The problem with Italian olive oil is a creation — like so many Italian problems — of the Mafia, a catch-all for everything wrong with Italy. And we Americans, who sometimes seem to fear the Mafia as much as we fear ISIS, certainly don’t want to give any support, financial or otherwise, to the dons. So should we all stop buying Italian olive oil?
Hang on a minute. If Italy is ground zero for olive oil fraud, the country is also recognized as ground zero for fraud protection, with not one but three national police forces responsible: the Carabinieri (like state police only national), the Guardia di Finanza (the tax police) and the Corpo Forestale, park rangers who also have the responsibility of investigating counterfeit foods and pursuing anti-Mafia activities. It was the Carabinieri in Turin last November who charged seven top olive oil companies with commercial fraud, among them Carapelli, Bertolli, Sasso and Coricelli. All were accused of selling as extra virgin, at extra virgin prices, oils that barely qualified as second-tier virgin, resulting in a 30% rip-off on the price.
Do the names sound familiar? They should. All these brands are in wide distribution outside Italy (as well as within), and especially in the U.S. through supermarkets and big-box stores. Although media have targeted the brands as “Italian,” in fact Carapelli, Sasso and Bertolli, which all began life a century or more ago as Italian family companies, are now owned by the Spanish multinational Deoleo. On its website, Deoleo promotes itself as “the world leader in the olive oil market.” That’s no stretch — Deoleo owns seven of the most widely sold olive oils in the world, including the abovementioned.
As frauds go, I have to confess, I don’t find this one all that shocking. Selling oil that barely reaches the cheap virgin qualification as more expensive extra virgin? It’s a bit like selling cheap toilet water as Chanel No. 5, and it’s tempting to fault consumers for their ignorance. If you can’t tell the difference between eau de toilette and a Chanel classic, it’s your problem, honey, not mine. Nonetheless, fraud is fraud. While this may be fairly entry-level fraud, it is still deceptive. And illegal. And possibly dangerous to the health of people who consume a great deal of what they believe is heart-healthy extra virgin olive oil.
The core of the problem is that, even in Italy and other regions known for producing fine oil, most consumers, including experienced chefs, have little or no idea what top-quality extra-virgin olive oil ought to taste like. Here’s a simple tip: It should leave your mouth feeling clean, not the least bit greasy, and it should have the fresh, herbal fragrance and flavor of just-cut grass. You’ve never actually tasted fresh-cut grass? Get out there behind the lawn mower and try it. It’s not going to kill you!) The flavor and aroma of fine, fresh olive oil can get a lot more subtle than that, and experienced tasters will detect nuances, from roasted nuts to citrus to green tomatoes and tomato leaves, but basically if you keep in mind the adjectives fresh, grassy, herbal, clean, you’ll be on the right track.
What to look for in olive oil
A well-made olive oil will have a good balance of three basic characteristics: the fruity flavors of sound, healthy olives, and the bitterness and piquancy (pepperiness) that are indications of the presence of antioxidants that make olive oil the fat you want on your table for all its great health benefits. What should be avoided is oil that has a flat, tired flavor, that tastes of rancidity, that leaves your mouth feeling coated with fat or that tastes like a jar of commercial tapenade that was opened three weeks ago and got lost in the back of the refrigerator.
Fortunately, now is a perfect time to educate your palate with the outstanding flavors of fresh, well-made olive oil. From the Mediterranean — especially Italy — and from California, producers are rushing olio nuovo, new-harvest oil, to market. It is expensive, but worth investing in, if only to give you a firm base-line sense of what excellence is all about. Once you’ve tasted it, you will never again mistake bad oil for good.
Here are just a few I have tasted and liked. Please note these are not by any means the extent of fine extra virgin olive oils; these are specifically new oils that I have tasted recently.
From Gustiamo in New York:
Pianogrillo from Sicily, $38.25 for 500 milliliters.
Tratturello from Molise, $44.50 for 750 milliliters.
Rio Grifone, organic from Tuscany, $39.50 for 500 milliliters.
From Market Hall Foods in Oakland, California:
Séka Hills, top-ranked Californian oil, $18 for 250 milliliters.
Titone, award-winning Sicilian organic, $28 for 250 milliliters.
Olio Verde from Sicily, single cultivar, nocellara del Belice, $38 for 500 milliliters.
From Olio2go in Fairfax, Virginia:
Capezzana from Tuscany, $44.50 for 500 milliliters.
Frescobaldi from Tuscany, with the prestigious Laudemio seal, $32.95 for 250 milliliters.
Villa Zattopera from Sicily, single cultivar, tondo Iblea, $36.95 for 500 milliliters.
Direct from the producer, California Olive Ranch:
COR Limited Reserve, $19.99 for 500 milliliters.
Main photo: Freshly milled oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins
There’s a phrase Mainers use when they really, really like something: “Wicked good,” they say. Right now they’re saying that about Maine sea scallops, harvested from the cold, clean waters in the state’s deep bays and around its widely scattered islands.
These are scallops from day-boat fishermen, who forage only inshore (within 3 miles of shore), leaving port before dawn and returning in the early afternoon with their 10- to 15-gallon allotment of fresh-shucked scallops. (A gallon of scallops weighs about 9 pounds.)
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The season for these beauties just opened, and, with luck and a little help from Mother Nature, it will last through the winter, providing sweetly succulent seafood with a flavor and texture that put scallops high on a gourmet’s pinnacle. Unfortunately, they are also in short supply and the catch is tightly regulated. Maine sea scallops represent just about 1% to 1.5% of all the scallops consumed in the U.S. each year. Back in the 1980s, Maine fishermen harvested 4 million pounds of scallops annually, but that figure declined to an all-time low of just 33,000 pounds 10 years ago. Now, thanks to a combination of efforts from fishermen, along with the Penobscot East Resource Center, a prominent fisheries NGO, as well as the state’s Department of Marine Resources, the scallop population is being restored to sustainable levels, and a project is underway to give Maine sea scallops the same cachet as Maine lobster, a recognizable and sought-after treat for a festive winter table.
What makes Maine sea scallops so desirable is both their texture and flavor. That requires a brief lesson in physiology. The part of the scallop we consume is the adductor muscle, which connects the two shells of this bivalve. Most bivalves — clams, mussels and the like — are immobile, sitting in one place throughout their entire life cycle, patiently waiting for food to float by. But scallops are unusual in that they actually swim, clapping their shells together to propel themselves away from predators as their adductor muscle grows into a meaty chunk, as tender and tasty as filet mignon. As for the flavor, Maine sea scallops have a distinctive sweet nuttiness that experts say comes from the cold salt waters in which they thrive. Unlike scallops from other areas, they are as tasty raw as they are seared in a skillet or baked in a sea pie.
Moreover, because this is entirely a day-boat catch, the scallops arrive in port within hours of harvest and are usually shipped out within a short time frame, as fresh as a Maine morning. Deep sea scallop fishermen pack their catch in ice and frequently also in a solution of sodium tripolyphosphate. Scallops are like little sponges, absorbing moisture and, of course, increasing in weight. These deep sea scallops are sold — or they should be sold — as “wet” scallops, and they are to be avoided. If you try to sear off “wet”scallops, they exude a milky liquid into the frying pan and will never brown properly. Consumer alert: Even if you can’t find Maine sea scallops, you should only buy “dry” scallops, which have not had anything added to them.
Once you have the best-quality scallops in your kitchen, you should use them quickly, within a day or two. In Maine we often freeze scallops in order to prolong the season, but otherwise, we eat them raw (a squeeze of lime juice, a pinch of chopped green jalapeño and a little fresh cilantro will give them a delightful Mexican touch) or we cook them up in a variety of simple ways. Here is one, adapted from my “New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.”
But first, a couple of tips in the kitchen:
- Be sure you get dry scallops.
- Remove and discard the thick, opaque bit attached like a strap to the side of the muscle — it’s tough.
- Dry the scallops thoroughly with paper towels before you start to cook.
- Don’t crowd the scallops when you sear them — they need plenty of room to brown perfectly.
Seared Maine Sea Scallops in a Tomato-Pepper Gratin
About 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 cup yellow onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finally chopped
1 sweet red pepper, cored, seeded and slivered
4 to 6 canned plum tomatoes, drained and chopped (1 ½ cups)
1 tablespoon mild Spanish or Hungarian paprika
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 to 3/4 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 pounds “dry” Maine sea scallops
1/4 to 1/2 cup instant flour (Wondra, for example)
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 to 3/4 cup fine dry bread crumbs
- In a deep skillet, combine 2 tablespoons of olive oil with the onion and garlic and set over medium-low heat. As the vegetables start to sizzle and soften, lower the heat and stir in the pepper slivers.
- Stir to mix well and let cook until the pepper slivers are soft, then stir in the tomatoes, paprika, salt and pepper and let cook 4 to 5 minutes longer. If the vegetables start to stick to the pan, add a couple of tablespoons of wine to loosen them.
- When the vegetables are done and have reduced to a thick sauce, set aside. (These steps can be done well ahead.)
- When you’re ready to continue with the recipe, lay the scallops out on paper towels and pat dry on both surfaces. Turn on the broiler.
- Sprinkle the flour on a plate.
- Smear about half a tablespoon of oil over the bottom of a gratin dish or another type of shallow baking dish.
- Add 3 tablespoons of oil to another skillet and set over medium heat. When the oil is very hot, dip each scallop in the flour, dusting both sides lightly, then add to the hot oil. Sear on both sides until golden-brown, turning with tongs — about 2 minutes to a side.
- As the scallops finish cooking, remove each one to the oiled baking dish. (You may need to add more oil to the skillet before you finish with all the scallops.) Ideally you will cover the bottom of the dish with a single layer of scallops.
- When all the scallops are done, add 1/2 cup wine to the skillet and boil rapidly, scraping up any brown bits, then stir the tomato-pepper mixture into the wine and cook briefly, stirring to mix well.
- Spoon the hot sauce over the tops of the scallops, then top the sauce with a combination of chopped parsley and bread crumbs. Dribble a thread of olive oil over the top, using about 2 tablespoons of oil, no more.
- Transfer the dish to the broiler, keeping it 3 to 4 inches from the source of heat, and broil until the top is lightly browned and sizzling, about 5 to 7 minutes.
- Remove and serve immediately.
Where to find Maine sea scallops
You can get Maine sea scallops, fresh or frozen, from the following locations. Note that prices vary depending on the harvest.
- Stonington Seafood, Stonington, Maine: Flash-frozen fresh. 207-348-2730.
- Downeast Dayboat Scallops: Fresh scallops. 207-838-1490.
- Port Clyde Fresh Catch, Port Clyde, Maine: Fresh and frozen. 207-372-1059.
- Ingrid Bengis Seafood, Stonington, Maine: Supplies chefs and restaurants only (for example, French Laundry, Blue Hill Stone Barns, et al.), not private customers, with fresh diver scallops. 207-367-2416.
Main image: Seared Maine sea scallops. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins
With the considerable help of family and friends, we finished in record time the olive harvest on our Tuscan farmlet high up in the hills behind Cortona, Italy.
It was not the best harvest we’ve ever had, though the yield, at 12.8 percent, was high. Translated into real terms, that means that for every 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of our plump, shiny, black Leccino olives that went into the press at the Landi mill on the road to Arezzo, we got back almost 13 kilos (28.6 pounds) of oil. And that meant we were blessed with a little more than 70 liters of fine, fresh, blissfully spicy and fragrant oil with a hint of lush fruitiness that will emerge more fully in the coming months.
Celebrating the harvest
Back home with our treasure, we broke open the champagne, Franciacorta and prosecco for a bubbly salute, and of course we toasted thick slices of bread in the fireplace, rubbing them with cut cloves of garlic and lavishing the new oil on top for the original bruschetta (called fettunta around Florence). We also made bean-and-farro soup, traditional for the harvest, and garnished it with a healthy glug of new oil and tossed pasta in new oil with chopped garlic and broken chilis in the family favorite ajo-ojo-peperoncino (garlic-oil-hot red peppers), and we had a wonderful olive salad (see recipe below) made by our friend chef Salvatore Denaro with green olives he had cured earlier in the season.
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Denaro is Sicilian, though he has lived in Umbria for most of his adult life. He remains Sicilian through and through, and it was he who introduced me to the old Sicilian idea that you must harvest olives to cure before the Feast of San Francesco on Oct. 3. “Later on,” he explained, “they’re too full of oil.”
So, in keeping with tradition, his were quick-cured green olives, olive schiacciate, or smashed olives, cured in a salt brine with bunches of wild fennel, then tossed in this salad, which makes a terrific antipasto as well as a great accompaniment for any kind of roast or grilled meat, or even in one of those Sicilian fish platters where a whole fish has been roasted in a combination of tomatoes, olives, capers and other tasty things.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: None, although the olives benefit from resting about 30 minutes before serving
Total time: 15 minutes, plus resting time
Yield: Makes 1 1/2 to 2 cups olive cunzate
Even in Sicily, cured olives are often dressed up (“cunzate”) to present as an antipasto salad. Try this with the plain green olives you buy from a supermarket bin, but taste them first (despite the sign that says “No snacking”) to make sure they have good flavor. And do not even contemplate using the kind of green olives in a jar that come stuffed with pimientos or the like.
This treatment will bring ordinary supermarket olives to life in a whole new way. You can do it ahead of time, too, and let the olives marinate in the mixture for a day or two, even up to a week, before serving. Keep the salad on hand for healthy holiday snacking along with bowls of almonds you’ve blanched and toasted in olive oil in a 350 F oven.
About 8 ounces brine-packed green olives, with their pits
2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, preferably Sicilian
1 small fresh green or red chili pepper, thinly sliced
1 medium stalk celery, coarsely chopped
2 or 3 whole garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon wine vinegar (optional)
Sea salt to taste (optional)
1 tablespoon finely minced flat-leaf parsley
Pinch of dried Sicilian or Greek oregano
1. Rinse the olives in a colander, tossing gently under running water. If you wish, remove the pits, but the olives themselves should remain as whole as possible. Some brine-cured olives have vinegar added to the brine to give a tart flavor. Taste an olive to see how salty and/or tart they are, then decide whether to add vinegar and/or salt to your marinade.
2. Transfer the olives to a bowl. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and toss gently. Reserve the remaining tablespoon of oil to use at the end if necessary.
3. Add the chili pepper, celery, garlic and parsley and toss again. If the original brine for the olives was not perceptibly tart, add a teaspoon of good wine vinegar, along with a sprinkling of sea salt if necessary.
4. Let the olives sit, covered, at room temperature for 30 minutes or so, then taste. Adjust the mixture at this point, adding more or less of the ingredients mentioned. If the mixture seems too dry, add the remaining olive oil. At this point, you may cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for two or three days.
5. When ready to serve, bring the olives in their marinade back up to room temperature. Transfer to a serving platter and sprinkle with the minced parsley and oregano, crumbling the oregano with your fingers to bring out the flavor. Taste an olive and adjust the seasoning once more, adding a little more vinegar and/or salt as needed.
Note: Denaro is a purist, but some Sicilians toss into the mix a few thin curls of lemon or orange zest or even a few pieces of fresh orange or lemon segments, the outer membrane carefully cut away.
Main image: Olive Cunzate. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Every time I come back to Italy, which I do as often as I can, I learn something new. Take pasta, for instance.
The subject is very much on my mind these days because I’ve just published, with my daughter Sara (chef-owner of Porsena Restaurant in New York), a book called “The Four Seasons of Pasta,” in which we present recipes for pasta around the year. A few of the recipes are for handmade pastas, but most are for the kind of pasta we’re familiar with in Italy — so-called pasta secca or pasta asciutta, the boxed pasta that Italians eat happily and eagerly every day of the year.
The best pasta is made from durum wheat
Pasta is truly a marvelous food product — healthy, tasty, easy to prepare, loved by almost everyone, young or old, gourmet chef or harried home cook, and to my mind the single greatest contribution Italy has made to the modern table. It comes in a dozen or more different brands and hundreds of shapes and sizes, but its greatest virtue is that, if it’s made in Italy, it’s made from hard durum wheat, one of the most protein-rich of all grains. A cup of cooked pasta contains more than 8 grams of protein and, depending on the sauce that accompanies it, is low on the glycemic index, with a good amount of fiber and more than 15 different vitamins and minerals, some of them, admittedly, in small quantities.
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Pasta can be made fresh or it can be dried — but whatever the form, it is cooked by boiling or steaming over water, i.e., it’s not baked and it’s not fried. Theoretically, it can be made with almost any flour, but wheat flour is far and away the most typical. That’s because when wheat flour and water are mixed together, gluten develops, and it’s gluten that gives elasticity and extensibility, two characteristics fundamental for both bread and pasta.
But what about that gluten? I have friends who swear that a gluten-free diet has led them to lose weight, gain friends, improve their digestion and their disposition, and generally make life better — I have enough friends who swear this to want to pay some attention myself. But (you knew this was coming, didn’t you?) I have failed to find any hard evidence for the claim that gluten is responsible for their former woes. (I’m not speaking of those with celiac disease, a well-recognized condition that can be deadly if not identified and managed — but only about 1 percent of the U.S. population is diagnosed with celiac disease.)
Some have suggested that so-called gluten intolerance has nothing to do with gluten itself but is instead related to modern wheat and the way it is grown. Others have speculated that it has something to do with modern bread — which would omit pasta from the list of suspects.
In any case, I’m not here to argue with you. If you feel you can’t tolerate gluten, all I can say is too bad for you because you are missing out on one of life’s greatest and easiest pleasures — a steaming bowl of pasta topped with a sauce that might be as complex as a meaty Bolognese ragu or as simple as aglio-oglio-peperoncino (garlic, extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of red chili peppers). I call it the little black dress of the food world, to be dressed up or dressed down, as often as you wish.
A fresh take on pasta for Thanksgiving
My latest discovery in the ever-unfolding world of pasta is a dish our friend chef Salvatore Denaro calls amatrigialla. No, not amatriciana, the quick-and-easy Roman trattoria dish that we know and love — and included in our book. But faced with a crowd of hungry olive pickers, for whom amatriciana is an ideal lunch, and equally faced with an inexplicable dearth of tomatoes in the farmhouse pantry, Salvatore said, why not squash, which was available in abundance. So we peeled and seeded the available squash, which came in several varieties, and chunked it up so it would cook quickly in the big black-iron skillet, and amatrigialla (gialla, or yellow, from the bright colors of the squash) was born.
Might I add that this would be a terrific take on traditional squash for a Thanksgiving table? Use any good squash available (butternut, delicata, Hubbard) or pumpkins made for eating, not for Halloween (cheese pumpkins, rouge vif and the like). Long, hollow bucatini are traditional for Roman amatriciana, but you could use any robust pasta shape, including spaghettoni, penne rigati or rigatoni.
Here’s how to do it:
Prep time: About 15 minutes
Cook time: About 15 minutes
Total time: About 20 minutes, with some cooking done during the prep
Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 medium yellow onion, finely sliced
2 ounces pancetta or bacon, diced small
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small dried red chili pepper, crumbled (or a pinch of crushed red chili flakes)
3 to 4 cups squash or pumpkin cubes, about 1 inch to a side
One sprig fresh rosemary, leaves only
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
About 1 pound (500 grams) pasta, preferably imported artisanal
Freshly grated aged pecorino cheese for serving
1. Combine the garlic, onion and pancetta with the oil in a skillet and set over medium heat. Cook gently, stirring occasionally. When the meat just begins to brown along the edges and render its fat, add the chili and stir in, then add the squash cubes and the rosemary leaves.
2. Stir to mix well and add a very little boiling water — a tablespoon or two, just enough to keep the squash from sticking to the pan. As the squash cooks down it will soften and release some liquid, but if necessary, be prepared to add a little more boiling water from time to time until the squash is softened. This should take about 20 minutes. When done, remove from the heat and add salt and pepper to taste.
3. Meanwhile, bring about 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil. Add salt and the pasta, stirring it in well. As soon as the water comes back to the boil, start timing the pasta, following the directions on the package but testing at least 2 minutes before the prescribed time.
4. As soon as the pasta is al dente, drain it and turn immediately into a warm serving bowl. Pour the sauce over it and serve, turning the pasta and sauce together at the table and passing the grated pecorino.
Main image: Delicata squash pair nicely with pasta for a Thanksgiving dish. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins