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Tart Jamaica Flowers A Favorite Mexican Flavor Image

Jamaica, spelled like the Caribbean island but pronounced ha-MY-ka, a flower in the hibiscus family, makes one of Mexico’s most beloved and refreshing drinks, agua de jamaica. The ruby-red, tart, sweet yet often mouth-puckering refresher can be spotted in huge glass jars in almost every traditional market across the country.

By contrast, at high-end restaurants — from the southern state of Oaxaca’s Casa Oaxaca through Mexico City’s Pujol to the country’s northwest corner at Tijuana’s Mission 19 — trendy mixologists serve jamaica cocktails shaken or stirred. These pros know the sexy red color sparkles in Mexican Cosmopolitans (non-aged, clear tequila and jamaica vs. vodka and cranberry) when a customer desires to sip from a chic martini glass.

You can buy dried jamaica flowers, Hibiscus sabdariffa, in bulk at Mexican markets or in cellophane-wrapped packs hanging from hooks near dried chiles. Always be sure the jamaica is from Mexico and not from China; the cheaper Chinese product (the catch!) has insipid flavor and weak color. And don’t confuse this hibiscus with the huge-flowered plants called hibiscus blossoming in all their glory in tropical and subtropical back yards.

You can brew jamaica as tea, then strain and discard the flowers. It is rarely served as hot tea in warm climates except as a calming cure for urinary tract infections. Think of jamaica and its curative powers as Mexico’s answer to cranberry juice. Both extremely tart, the brilliant crimson liquids must be sweetened to be easily drinkable, and science has confirmed metabolites in their juice prevent E. coli from sticking to other bacteria, limiting its ability to grow and multiply. In most cases, minor infections are improved in a day after downing four cups of either drink, hot or cold.

In Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca‘s rug weaving center, Zapotec chef Abigail Mendoza of Tlamanalli restaurant brews agua de jamaica strong and sweetens it with panela, cones of deep brown unrefined sugar called piloncillo in most other regions of Mexico. She makes it in and serves it from a bulbous pitcher with narrow top. Mendoza whips up the drink using a molinillo (a hard-carved wooden foaming too) until the top is covered with copious bubbly foam. The foam is an important part of any traditional drink in this part of Mexico because people feel the drink’s spirit is in the foam and without bubbles the drink has no life, or is at best past its prime.

Besides hot tea and agua de jamaica, highly flavored jamaica simple syrup is a joy to have on hand for various uses, especially cocktails; its sweet-sour flavor is similar to pomegranate molasses and some balsamic vinegars. Try the sophisticated flavor over strawberries and vanilla bean ice cream. In the past few years, jamaica salad dressings have popped up in restaurants everywhere and are delicious yet simple to make. Modern-style restaurant bar menus offer quesadillas (folded corn tortillas with melted cheese inside) de jamaica, although many in Mexico City have no cheese — odd, but trés cool bar snacks with the hipster low-fat crowd. High-end gourmet shops sell elaborate candied jamaica flowers to decorate fine desserts. On the other hand, a longtime childhood favorite is the traditional, beloved jamaica frozen ice pop found at street corner push carts. (Hear the bell?)

Jamaica Tea (Agua de Jamaica)

This tea can be served hot or cold.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: About 4 cups

Ingredients

4 cups water, plus more for diluting

1 cup dried jamaica flowers (Mexican, not Chinese)

Ice, if desired

1 cup sugar (white, brown or agave syrup), or more to taste

Directions

1. Stir the jamaica into the water in a saucepan and bring it to a boil. Turn off the heat, and let the flowers steep 20 minutes.

2. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a container. Add water to dilute to your liking.

3. Heat to serve hot or chill with ice to serve cold. Stir in sweetener to taste, or add sweetener separately to each cup or glass. The tea will keep for three days refrigerated.

Jamaica Simple Syrup

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 40 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: About 1 cup

Ingredients

4 cups Jamaica Tea, unsweetened (see recipe above)

1 cup white sugar

Pinch sea salt or kosher salt

Directions

1. Boil the unsweetened jamaica tea until it is reduced by half, about 20 to 25 minutes.

2. Add the sugar and a pinch of salt and boil until it is reduced by half again, to 1 cup, about 20 minutes more.

3. Remove from the heat and cool until the strong bubbles die down. Carefully pour the hot, thick syrup into an airtight glass jar. The syrup will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator.

Jamaica Salad Dressing

Prep time: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: About 1/2 cup

Ingredients

3 1/2 tablespoons Jamaica Simple Syrup (see recipe above)

1/4 teaspoon sea or kosher salt

6 grinds black peppercorns

1 small clove garlic, smashed and finely chopped

2 tablespoons Mexican lime (aka Key) juice

1/3 cup quality extra virgin olive oil

10 jamaica flowers, finely chopped

Directions

1. Measure Jamaica Simple Syrup into a small bowl. Whisk in the salt, pepper, garlic and lime juice.

2. Slowly pour in the oil, whisking until fully blended.

3. Whisk in the chopped flowers. Pour as much as desired over chilled salad greens of your choice and toss.

Note: This dressing is a real treat on a salad with queso fresco, feta or goat cheese scattered on top.

Jamaica Quesadillas

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 8 quesadillas

Ingredients

2 cups water

1/2 cup coarsely chopped jamaica flowers

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons sugar or agave syrup

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 jalapeño chile, stemmed and finely chopped (You can keep the seeds for spice.)

8 corn tortillas, about 8 inches in diameter

2 cups shredded melting cheese, such as quesillo de Oaxaca, mozzarella or Jack

Directions

1. Stir the jamaica into a saucepan of water and bring it to a boil. Turn off the heat, and let the flowers steep 10 minutes.

2. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing to extract all liquid into a container, saving the flowers. Reserve the tea for another purpose.

3. Heat the oil in a small skillet. Add the flowers, sweetener, salt and chopped chile. Sauté over medium-low heat until sticky, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat.

4. Put the tortillas on a preheated, medium-hot ungreased griddle. Spoon some of the jamaica mixture to one side of each tortilla and then pile with cheese, keeping it away from the edges. Fold the empty tortilla half over the half with jamaica. Press with a spatula. When the bottoms of the tortillas crisp a bit, flip them over to crisp the other sides and melt the cheese.

5. Remove to a cutting board and cut into wedges.

Main photo: Jamaica Quesadillas. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Zaslavsky

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Make Rigatoni Like Romans Do — With Chitterlings Image

Virtually everyone who has been to Italy has been to Rome, but not everyone who has been to Rome has had Roman cuisine. Most of the famous foods of Rome, such as pizza, fettuccine alfredo or spaghetti carbonara, either were invented for tourists or came from elsewhere.

The Romans eat in a way that is nearly hidden from the tourist. Their meals are heavy on offal and first-course pasta dishes.

Italian cookbook author Anna Gosetti della Salda boldly declared “la cucina romana doesn’t exist,” but I’m not sure I agree. She goes on to explain that it can’t be said to exist because “no Roman ever created those masterpieces of culinary art that are the pride of almost all other regional cuisines of Italy. Despite this the fact remains incontestable that you eat well in Rome and the food is good and almost everywhere.”

Paolo Monelli, who was one of Italy’s most distinguished journalists, was also honest in his appraisal of the cuisine of Rome, declaring it “the most plebeian that exists in the peninsula; flavorful, of course, aggressive, multicolored, but rural, created by the taste of goat-herders, of cowboys, buffalo herders, and the incivility of the recipes from the ghetto.”

The most succinct summation of la cucina romana, although insipid, was that of food writer Ada Boni who said that “la cucina romana è una cucina semplice, sana, nutrient e saporita” (Roman cuisine is a cuisine that is simple, healthy, nutritious and flavorful). A dish of pasta and offal would be an example.

‘Fifth’ quarter of the cow

Pride of place of a dish that strikes to the soul of Roman cuisine is rigatoni co’ la pajata, a unique recipe made from the small intestine of the suckling calf. In Romanesco dialect, rigatoni co’ la pajata (or pagliata) can be translated as rigatoni with chitterlings. It is probably the most unique dish of Rome utilizing a component of the quinto quarto, the “fifth” quarter of the cow (that is, the head, tail and offal). It is without doubt a dish derived from cucina povera, the cuisine of the poor.

It is made from cow or calf chitterlings, that is, the duodenum, the small or first part of the intestine where the enzymatic breakdown of food occurs. Roman gourmets call for beef believing that beef is more flavorful than veal.

However, unique to the dish is the fact that although the intestine is washed and thoroughly cleaned, the chyme is not removed so when it is cooked there is a rich, creamy and slightly sour taste mixed with the tomatoes of the sauce. The chyme is the semiliquid mass of partially digested food that passes from the stomach through the pyloric sphincter into the duodenum of the cow. The process of cleaning the duodendum is quite laborious because one does not want to lose the chyme, but that is the job of the butcher and the cook merely has to prepare the dish.

For four to six people you need 4 pounds of chitterlings. In the United States you will probably have to use pork chitterlings and those from Louis Foods are ideal. Lardo is cured pork fatback (not lard, which is called strutto in Italian) and can be found in better supermarkets such as Whole Foods and in Italian markets. Some domestic American companies are also making lardo.

Rigatoni con la Pagliata (Rigatoni with Chitterlings)

Prep time: About 10 minutes

Cooking time: 3 3/4 hours

Total time: About 4 hours

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

One 5-pound package cleaned pork chitterlings, cut into 4-inch pieces

1 tablespoon pork lard or olive oil

1 medium onion, sliced

1 celery stalk, chopped

1/4 pound lardo, prosciutto fat or pancetta, or a mixture of the three, chopped

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 cups dry white wine, separated

One 28-ounce can tomato purée

Bouquet garni, tied with kitchen twine, consisting of 10 sprigs parsley and 1 sprig rosemary

1 clove

2 1/2 cups water

1 pound rigatoni

1/4 pound Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino romano cheese, freshly grated

Directions

1. Place the pork chitterlings in a stockpot, cover with water, bring to a boil over high heat and boil for 1 hour. Drain; once cool, cut into pieces half the size and set aside until needed.

2. In a large flameproof casserole, melt the lard over medium heat, then cook, stirring, the onion, celery, lardo and garlic until soft, about 6 minutes. Add the chitterlings, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, until sticking to the bottom and turning light golden, about 6 minutes. Add 1 cup wine. Once the wine evaporates, add the tomato purée, bouquet garni, clove and water. When the liquid starts to bubble, reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring and moistening with the remaining white wine until tender, about 2 to 2 1/2 hours. The sauce should be dense though, so continue cooking if necessary.

3. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly, then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing. Transfer the pasta to a large serving platter and spoon the chitterlings and sauce over it; serve with the cheese.

Main photo: Rigatoni con la Pagliata (Rigatoni With Chitterlings). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Highly Lauded 2005 Bordeaux Stands The Test Of Time Image

The 2005 vintage in Bordeaux was superlative in so many ways. The weather was a winemaker’s dream: a benign spring gave way to a hot — but not too hot — summer, with hardly any rain. What fell, fell at the right time. That led into an autumn so deliciously mellow that vignerons could amble into the vineyards and pick perfectly ripe grapes whenever they chose. The grapes were small, intensely flavored and with thick skins.

Last month, a decade past that dream season, the 2005s shone at the “Ten Years On” tasting at the London wine merchant Bordeaux Index.

From the first tastings in spring 2006, everyone loved it. Consider what they said then:

Robert Parker, the formidable founder of The Wine Advocate and its influential 100-point wine rating system, thought it “brilliant … one of the most singular years of the past five decades.” The British heavyweights – wine critic and journalist Jancis Robinson, MW, and Decanter magazine consultant editor Steven Spurrier – were bowled over. Simon Staples, the epicurean Bordeaux director for London-based wine merchant Berry Bros and Rudd, said he was “speechless.”

“It was a truly extraordinary year,” veteran Bordeaux wine merchant Bill Blatch said in the report he publishes after every vintage. “Easy to manage, without complications, and the almost permanently fine weather ended up by providing a wine of most unusual concentration.”

Now, as then, 2005 was a very good year

In January, at the Ten Years On tasting, I found that the 2005s were simply delightful, with succulent, rich, seductive fruit, and acidity that dances on your tongue. The wines are pure, but complex. A cornucopia of blackberry, cassis and red fruit is tempered with minerality and spiciness, then high notes of parma violet and florality.

It’s as much a pleasure to describe them as taste them. Every wine of note is underpinned by powerful tannins that give it a structure that will ensure long aging — in some cases, for decades.

There are some clumsy wines — the Merlot in Saint-Émilion was very ripe, with high alcohol and big tannins — and some wines have developed an oaky dryness that won’t sweeten. But they are few and far between.

Unless you’re very unlucky, if you pick a 2005 off the shelf, you’re unlikely to be disappointed.

A pricey caveat

The only fly in the ointment is price. Bordeaux knew it had something good, and the first generation of Asian millionaires were beginning to get a taste for fine wine, very expensive­ fine wine. The 2005 was the first Bordeaux vintage that launched its wines into the stratosphere of luxury goods. The top wines are very expensive. At the very top, Petrus is more than $4,000 a bottle, and the dozen top properties — Lafite, Mouton and their fellow first growths, then Cheval Blanc, Ausone and a few others — are never less than $1,500.

But that needn’t concern us. The joy of a really wonderful vintage is its consistency.

There’s an old saying: “In a great vintage, search out the lesser estates, and in a lesser vintage go for the great estates.” It’s never been truer than in 2005. You don’t need to spend three months’ wages on the great chateaux. At every level, from $30 Cru Bourgeois to the humbler Medoc fifth growths, there are some beautiful wines to be found.

If I had to choose one region in a vintage studded with gems, I’d say the wines of the little Médoc commune of Saint-Julien are most consistently lovely. Below are my top picks from 2005, for the priciest and for the best value from Bordeaux:

Two top-10 lists from Bordeaux 2005

Prices are the average per bottle, excluding tax. All wines are available widely at retail.

Top 10, Money No Object

1. Château Petrus, Pomerol, $4,986

The Château Petrus 2005 is only for the deep of pocket at nearly $5,000 a bottle. Credit: Adam Lechmere

The Château Petrus 2005 is only for the deep of pocket at nearly $5,000 a bottle. Credit: Adam Lechmere

Discreet smoky nose leading to powerful blackberry, black cherry and minty, spicy tar on the palate. Dry length releasing fresh gouts of juice. Drink 2020-2040+

2. Château Lafite Rothschild, 1st Growth, Pauillac, $1,461 

The bright, lifted blackcurrant and blackberry fruit is sweet and fresh, the tannins ripe, the acidity mouthwatering, the whole complex, charming, assured. A triumph. Drink 2020 to 2040+

3. Petit Mouton, Pauillac $233

Plum skin aroma, then palate has multiple strands of juiciness through the tannins, intense and vibrant sour mash plum. Minerality and power. Drink 2018 to 2030+

4. Château Pontet Canet, 5th Growth, Pauillac, $188 

Sweet and savory, bacon with plum skins, very fresh and open, discreet powerful tannins. Linear, classic, confident. Drink 2018 to 2040+

5. Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste, 5th Growth, Pauillac, $135

Savory nose with minerality, pencil lead, very linear and precise, very fresh, essence of blackberry and damson, fine sophisticated length. Drink 2018 to 2035+

6. Château Léoville Las Cases, 2nd Growth, Saint-Julien, $397 

Fresh, savory, bacony nose, tannins holding blackberry, cassis and coffee flavors in an iron grip; restrained, fruit releases juice, fills the palate. Very fine. Drink 2018 to 2040+

7. Château Palmer, 3rd Growth, Margaux, $383

Very dark in hue and viscous. Discreet perfumed violet nose, incredibly  subtle but exotic, lovely weight, constant interplay of dryness, juice, tannins and acidity. Drink 2017 to 2040+

8. Château La Lagune, 3rd Growth, Ludon, $102

Lovely complex savory nose, bramble and truffle, crushed coffee beans, superb opulent sweetness. Palate fresh and perfumed with secondary flavors of dusty rose petals and elegant decay. Tannins dry and dissolving to juice. Drink 2017 to 2035+

9. Château-Figeac, Saint-Émilion 1er Grand Cru Classé, $172

Restrained sour black fruit, fresh-picked plum and hints of sloe. Closed, brooding and tannic. A keeper. Drink 2020 to 2040+

10. Château Calon-Segur, 3rd Growth, Saint-Estèphe, $123

Nose very restrained, closed, palate with (at first) dry, austere tannins. Then classic briar fruit, tannins become silky. Very pure, arrow-straight acidity shows how this will mature. Masterful finesse. Drink 2018 to 2040+

Top 10 best value

1. Château Poujeaux, Cru Bourgeois, Moulis, $53

Violet perfume and sweet briar. On the palate damson and cedar, sour plum with cloves. Mouthwatering acidity, soft length. Drink 2015 to 2025+

2. Château du Tertre, 5th Growth, Margaux, $79

Sweet sugared damson and plum with perfume on nose. Palate very open and fresh with lovely tobacco and truffle, tannins releasing great gouts of juice. Drink 2015 to 2025+

3. Les Pagodes de Cos, Saint-Estèphe, $62

The Château Cos d’Estournel. Credit: Credit: Cos d’Estournel

The Château Cos d’Estournel. Credit: Credit: Cos d’Estournel

Cos d’Estournel’s second wine is often more restrained than its big brother. Lovely meaty peppery nose, hint of violet perfume on palate with herb, restrained. Drink 2018 to 2040+

4. Château Gloria, Cru Bourgeois, Saint-Julien, $70 

Bacon savory nose with hint of old velvet tapestry. Confident, juicy uncomplicated weight, plum and damson fruit , very nice length, good balance. Drink 2015 to 2025+

5. Château Talbot, 4th Growth, Saint-Julien, $79

Rich mineral, savory nose with great charm. Defined blackberry and coffee, discreet, old-fashioned like the chateau itself, tannins dry but dissolving to sweetness. Drink 2015 to 2030

6. Château Les-Ormes-de-Pez, Cru Bourgeois, Saint-Estèphe, $59

Fresh peppery notes on nose – very fine open juicy acid on palate, fresh, uncomplicated. Drink 2015 to 2025+

7. Château Malartic-Lagravière, Cru Classé Pessac-Léognan, $82

Very savory beef-stock nose with ripe plum. Tannins release juice and sour-sweet plum and damson flavors. Fresh, defined, not opulent, but fine. Drink 2015 to 2025+

8. Château Langoa-Barton, 3rd Growth, Saint-Julien, $85

Fresh sugared blackberry, savory mineral undertones, open and fresh with such suave tannins and juice on the finish. Very fine length. Drink 2015 to 2025+

9. Château Potensac, Cru Bourgeois Médoc, $47

Perfumed briar and tobacco nose. Fine, fresh, mouth-watering acidity and bright cassis. Grainy grip to tannins, juicy and opulent. Drink 2015 to 2020+

10. Domaine de Chevalier, Cru Classé Pessac-Léognan, $105

Rich creamy nose, blackberry compote, truffle, licorice. Palate develops fine damson, violet perfume and fresh acidity. Delicate tannins with dry grip. Incredible quality for the price. Drink 2017 to 2030+

Main photo: Harvesting grapes at Domaine de Chevalier, an estate in the Bordeaux appellation of Pessac-Léognan, just south of the city of Bordeaux. Credit: Copyright Domaine de Chevalier

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7 Healthy On-The-Go Snacks Kids Can Help Make Image

Everyone knows that traveling with kids means traveling with snacks. Snacks can help rescue your children from hunger and the ensuing crankiness. Trust us, those satisfied stomachs make for a much happier trip!

It’s easy to fall into the trap of grabbing something unhealthy, greasy or sugary when you’re on the go, because it’s quick and readily accessible. Skip the chips and plan ahead with grab-and-go snacks the whole family can help make.

These seven tried-and-true favorites make great quick bites your family can take on the long road trip to Grandma’s house, perfect little somethings that kids can eat in the backseat while Dad is driving them to soccer practice, or just-in-case nibbles a child can take to a friend’s house. And because kids will help make these treats, they will be able to brag that their delicious snacks are homemade.

More Zester Daily stories on kids and cooking:

» Surprise! Kids are key to stress-free family dinners

» Mother’s Day tip: Mama mia, please pass the pastina

» What the kids dragged in

» Kids won’t eat vegetables? Start with seed libraries

Main photo: Kids love making smoothies — for breakfast or an afternoon snack — because they’re quick and easy, and can be made in so many delicious options! Smoothies can also be made in advance and carried in a travel-friendly water bottle or insulated drink container. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carl Tremblay

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Make Your Next Gathering Time To Discover New Wines Image

Friends who love wine love to drink wine together. Throwing a wine tasting with friends elevates the everyday into an event.

Wine tastings are easy to organize. The trick is to feature wines that collectively tell a story. It can be a group of wines that are based on the same grape — Pinot Noirs, Syrahs, Sauvignon Blancs — or wines from a region, such as California’s Santa Ynez Valley, France’s Rhone River Valley or the Piedmont region of Italy. If you combine the two concepts and taste wines made in a specific region with a particular grape, you can really geek out.

I recently gathered with a group of women who make their livings producing, promoting, selling or explaining wine. Tasting with these generous, curious women was as enlightening as it was fun.

Follow the slideshow to learn their tips for throwing a wine tasting that both novices and experts will enjoy. Our Pinot Noir tasting revealed a surprise that sent us all running to the wine store the next day.

Gérard Boulay, Sancerre Rouge, Chavignol, Loire, France, 2011, $27. Rich, succulent aromas and earthy tarragon and black pepper flavors with a long, complex finish, this crowd-pleaser had everyone cheering. A terrific wine at a great price. 15 thumbs up. Credit: Copyright 2015 Zester Media

Gérard Boulay, Sancerre Rouge, Chavignol, Loire, France, 2011, $27. Rich, succulent aromas and earthy tarragon and black pepper flavors with a long, complex finish, this crowd-pleaser had everyone cheering. A terrific wine at a great price. 15 thumbs up. Credit: Copyright 2015 Zester Media

Our favorite Pinot Noirs:

» Sancerre Rouge
» Domaine Henri Gouges, Nuits St. George
» Domaine Lafarge, Volnay
» Mt. Difficulty, Roaring Meg Pinot Noir
» Elke Vineyards, Donnelly Creek Vineyard Pinot Noir
» Belle Pente Vineyard, Estate Reserve Pinot Noir

 

More from Zester Daily:

» Q&A: A winery chef’s view on food and wine pairing
» Rudy Kurniawan
» Review: The must-haves for wine lovers on your list
» America, land of wine drinkers and producers

Main photo: At your event, do a blind tasting. The best way to do that is to hide the label, which limits the discussion to how individual wines look, smell and taste. Credit: Copyright 2015 Zester Media

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How The Greeks Bring Out The Best In Cauliflower Image

Although cauliflowers are sold in our supermarkets all year round, this beautiful member of the wild cabbage family (Brassica oleracea) is at its bright and healthy best in early spring. Cauliflowers harvested at that time have had the benefit of a longer growing season (about 80 days, instead of 50 days for their summer-grown counterparts), allowing their valuable nutrients more time to develop.

The cauliflower, whose name derives from the Latin caulis (stem) and floris (flower) is actually a cabbage bred for its flowers. The edible part of the plant, the head of tender stems and flower buds, is known as a curd. Similarly to broccoli and calabrese (close relatives), the cauliflower stores nutrients for the developing flowers at the base of the buds, so a fresh, crisp curd is packed full of vitamins and minerals. Its Latin botanical name, Brassica oleracea var. botrytis (meaning cluster, or grapelike), is an apt description of this remarkably clever vegetable, which grows with a protective layer of leaves curled around its head.

Hats off to the French, though, for giving cauliflower (chou-fleur, or cabbage-flower,) a prettier, and horticulturally more correct name, than the rather pedestrian Anglo-Saxon “flower on a stalk.”

Mysterious origins

There is disagreement over the origin of the cauliflower. Some say it was developed by 11th century Arab gardeners, or by Romans a thousand years earlier. But the wild cabbage grew throughout the ancient eastern Mediterranean and, with its tendency to produce “freaks,” prototypes of the cauliflower probably originated spontaneously in different places. Curious gardeners have since, through seed selection, improved nature’s work and we are now reaping the benefits.

Medieval Italian kitchens and, later, those of Louis XIV of France, served stylish and elegant cauliflower dishes. Catherine de Medici is said to have appreciated the lovely vegetable, and to have introduced it to France to help alleviate arthritis. But its earlier French name, chou de Chypre, suggests it arrived from Cyprus and Cypriots are, understandably, happy to claim its origin. For the past 200 years, the cauliflower has been a popular winter vegetable in northern Europe, but without its former prestige in serious kitchens. Until now.

Hardly humble

With cauliflowers piled high in our markets, this inexpensive and highly nutritious brassica is at last losing its humble status and taking its rightful place on our tables. A reputation for being bland and soggy is the fault of the cook, not of the cauliflower. Its very gentleness is the perfect foil to many fine flavors, and it takes only a few minutes to cook.

“Organic” and “local” have real meaning when selecting cauliflowers: snails, aphids and caterpillars love them, so pesticides are often used and, once harvested, their nutrients and flavor dissipate quickly. Most cauliflowers are attractively creamy-white, but we also have wonderfully colorful varieties. Buy cauliflowers that smell and look fresh, with deep-green, outer leaves and tight heads; avoid brown-spotted white ones, or dull-looking purple, yellow or green heads. Size doesn’t affect flavor, but age does: older cauliflowers taste and smell stronger.

Richer in vitamins and minerals than any other brassica, cauliflowers are an excellent source of vitamin C, folic acid and potassium; a very good source of niacin, copper, manganese and vitamins A, K, B5 and B6; and a good source for protein, phosphorous, magnesium and vitamins B2 and B3. Raw, they are even better.

Avoid nutricide

Cauliflower cooks quickly: Keep florets whole or cut large ones in half and simmer in a little water or steam for five minutes. After this time, cauliflower loses 20% to 30% of its phytochemicals; after 10 minutes, 40% disappear. Where possible, cook in ways that don’t commit nutricide – in soups and stews, grilled or baked. In its wonderful ability to host spicy flavors, some of the best preparations for cauliflower can be found in the kitchens of the Indian subcontinent and the Mediterranean. With winter soon drawing to an end, it’s time to enjoy the vegetable that has spent the past three months developing the nutrients we need to take us into a healthy spring.

The cauliflower is actually a cabbage bred for its flowers.

Cauliflower cooks quickly: keep florets whole or cut large ones in half and simmer in a little water or steam for five minutes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary Barron

 Simple Greek ways to serve

  • Serve raw or lightly-steamed small florets with a dip of mashed anchovy, capers, herbs, and olive oil or with hummus, small radishes and young wild green leaves.
  • Mix thinly sliced cauliflower florets and fine-julienned carrots with olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt, lightly chopped flat-leaf parsley, and Greek oregano (rigani ).
  • Dip small florets in a light garbanzo-flour batter and gently fry the fritters in olive oil; serve with olive oil and lemon juice mayonnaise, olives, and lemon wedges.

Cauliflower à la Greque

À la Greque (French for “in the Greek style”) describes a method of cooking, one that presumably a French cook/traveler admired and added to his/her own kitchen repertoire. There are many versions of this popular dish, but most are a pale imitation of the original Greek creation. Buy the freshest cauliflower you can find and, for a lightly spiced dish, prepare two hours ahead; for a more mellow taste and texture, leave overnight in the marinade.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 12 minutes

Total time: 17 minutes

Yield: 8 for a meze serving, 4 as a vegetable dish

Ingredients

4 cups small cauliflower florets

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons dried coriander seeds

1 cup dry white wine

3 bay leaves

1/2 tablespoon aromatic honey such as Hymettus

1 tablespoon cracked black peppercorns

Coarse-grain sea salt to taste

For serving:

4 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon lemon zest, in very thin strips, optional

Lemon wedges

Directions

1. Trim most of the stem from the florets and cut an “x” in the base of each with a small sharp knife. Blanch 1 minute in boiling water, drain, and set aside.

2. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy saucepan over low heat. Add the coriander seeds and florets in a single layer and stir with a wooden spoon to coat with the olive oil. Add the wine, bay leaves, honey, pepper and salt. Bring just to a boil, cover, reduce the heat, and simmer 10 minutes or until tender.

3. Transfer the contents of the pan to a nonreactive bowl and set aside until cool. Cover the bowl and shake it gently to redistribute the marinade.

4. To serve, taste the marinade. If more salt is needed, combine with the parsley. Transfer the cauliflower to a shallow serving bowl and pour over most of the marinade (strain it first, if you prefer). Sprinkle with parsley and lemon zest and serve with the lemon wedges.

Main photo: Buy the freshest cauliflower you can find for Cauliflower à la Greque. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary Barron

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5 Easy Steps To Make Orecchiette In 30 Minutes Image

My children have favored orecchiette since they realized they could suction these little ear-shaped pasta to the roofs of their mouths. Demonstrating this titillating feat to other eaters violates both the no-playing-with-your-food and the no-talking-with-your-mouth-full dinnertime rules, certainly. But nonetheless, the ticklish sensation and noisy release of said suction always reduces the table to giggles.

From the cook’s point of view, the cupped-shaped pasta nestle bits and pieces of chunky, quickly thrown-together sauces inside their curves for flavor surprises throughout the meal. And the somewhat chewy texture gives eaters more satisfaction than short weeknight dinner prep times typically provides.

Until a month ago I always bought dried orecchiette, literally translated from the Italian as ear (orecchio) plus small (etto). That was true until chef Ilma Jeil Lopez showed me how easy these little suckers are to make. Lopez and her husband, chef Damian Sansonetti, own Piccolo, a tiny but trendy Italian restaurant in Portland, Maine, where they make all of the pasta they serve.

Orecchiette go from raw ingredients to swimming in the sauce in about 30 minutes flat. Truly, I kid you not.

Orecchiette is the easiest pasta in the world to make, chef Lopez told a group of adult students who had traipsed through knee-high snow banks into her restaurant early on a cold Saturday in January to glean from her information about cooking and baking with different types of flours.

Step 1: Measuring the ingredients

Lopez’s recipe for orecchiette requires only four ingredients: equal parts “00” flour (very finely ground soft wheat flour), semolina flour (a courser ground durum wheat flour typically used to make dried pasta) and water (Lopez suggest 225 grams of each flour and 225 milliliters water), and a generous glug (about 10 milliliters) of flavorful olive oil. The recipe includes no eggs to complicate the matter like most other fresh pasta formulas.

Step 2: Making the dough

The ingredients are combined in a bowl, kneaded into a ball on a clean surface until the dough is smooth inside and out, and rested for 5 minutes.

Step 3: Forming the little ears

Chunks are sliced from the dough, rolled into snakes, sliced into thumbnail-sized pieces, and deeply indented with a fingertip. That last bit is meditative if you do it alone, or works as a good distraction while trying to extract information out of your teens. Either works for me.

Should you want to make a double batch, fresh orecchiette freeze well. To do that, spread them out on a sheet pan and freeze them on the pan first. Once they are frozen, you can put them in plastic bags.

Step 4: Making the sauce

Orecchiette’s roots are in the southern Italian region of Puglia, where they are dressed in a simple sauce of blanched broccoli rabe that is cooked in the same water as the pasta, sautéed garlic and red chilies, and grated Parmesan or Romano cheese. Chef Lopez served her students orecchiette with a mélange of pre-roasted vegetables, browned butter, orange zest and shaved Parmesan. I like mine best with a pancetta-driven carbonara sauce as it comes together very quickly.

Step 5: Cooking the pasta

Handmade orecchiette cook in a boiling pot of heavily salted water. They do you the courtesy of floating to the surface when they are ready to eat, which typically takes only 2 to 3 minutes.

Easy cleanup

One of the bonuses of this type of pasta comes on the flip side when cleaning up. Other than sprinkling a baking tray with a skim coat of semolina flour to house the orecchiette while they await their turn in the pot, there is no extra flour to coax out from between the rollers of a pasta machine, wipe off the counter, sweep up from the floor, or shake off your clothing.

From the quick start to the easy finish, what’s not to love about these cute little ears, even on a weeknight?

Orecchiette With Roasted Vegetables and Brown Butter

This recipe is one adapted from what chef Ilma Jeil Lopez, who owns Piccolo in Portland, Maine, taught cooking class students how to use the orecchiette they made so easily with their own hands.

Prep time: 25 minutes (plus 30 minutes if not using pre-roasted vegetables)

Cook time: 5 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes (60 if not using pre-roasted vegetables)

Yield: 4 generous servings

Ingredients

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 teaspoon red chili pepper flakes

1 cup roasted cauliflower, roughly chopped

1/2 cup greens, sautéed in olive oil, roughly chopped

1/2 cup roasted tomatoes, roughly chopped

1/2 cup roasted eggplant, roughly chopped

1/4 cup sautéed onions, roughly chopped

Salt and pepper

1 pound orecchiette

Orange zest

1/2 cup shaved Parmesan cheese

Directions

1. Place a large pot of salted water over high heat.

2. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium high heat. The butter will foam and then start to brown.

3. When it starts to brown, stir in red chili flakes. Cook for 15 seconds and then stir in cauliflower, greens, tomatoes, eggplant and onions.

4. Stir gently until sauce is heated through. Season with salt and pepper.

5. Cook orecchiette (2 to 3 minutes if fresh, according to packaged instruction if dried) in the large pot of salted water.

6. Drain pasta and add it to sauté pan. Gently stir. Check to see if it needs additional salt and pepper.

7. Grate orange zest over pasta and top with cheese shavings. Serve immediately.

Main image: Orecchiette are easy to make. Credit: Copyright 2015 Christine Burns Rudalevige

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Heart-Healthy Sardines Pack A Bold Flavor Punch Image

 

Growing up with a father who suffered from cardiovascular disease, I learned at an early age how to eat healthfully. Hot dogs, fried chicken and steaks rarely graced our dinner table. Instead, we ate boatloads of low-fat and vitamin- and mineral-rich seafood, grains and produce.

Among the fish we consumed, sardines still top my list of favorite heart-healthy foods. Available in fresh and canned forms, these oily fish are chock-full of flavor and omega-3 fatty acids.

What’s so great about omega-3s? According to the American Heart Association, these fatty acids lessen the risk of abnormal heartbeats and reduce high triglyceride levels that may contribute to atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. They also have a positive impact on high blood pressure and overall cardiovascular health.

“It has long been appreciated that societies who eat diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids have a lower incidence of heart disease. For example, prior to the western influences of fast-food chains, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia had a diet predominantly of fish and had very low heart disease rates. We discovered that one of the main components of the fish diet that was beneficial was omega-3,” says Dr. Paul Checchia, director of cardiovascular care at Texas Children’s Hospital.

Along with sardines’ wholesomeness, I love these petite, iridescent fish for their versatility. They go well with an array of other heart-healthy foods, including spinach, tomatoes, red bell peppers, carrots, walnuts, oranges, raisins, kidney beans, black beans and whole grains. They also partner with other omega-3-rich seafood such as anchovies.

Sardines lend themselves to many preparations, flavor pairings

When fresh, sardines can be grilled, broiled, baked, poached, sautéed or marinated. Their dark, oily flesh responds well to direct heat, making them the perfect fit for barbecues and charcoal grills.

Their bold flavor likewise engenders them to simple preparations. Sprinkle ground black pepper, vinegar or citrus juice over your cooked sardines and, in a snap, you’ve got a delicious repast.

Although they tend to be overlooked by today’s home cooks, sardines have a long and storied culinary past. Named for the island Sardinia, where they were found in abundance, they have supported generations of European fishermen.

Sardines live in both Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In fact, from the 1920s through the 1940s, they served as the backbone of America’s largest, most profitable Pacific Coast fisheries. Monterey, California’s, famed Cannery Row owes its success to sardines.

Canned sardines, in turn, owe their existence to the French and Napoleon Bonaparte, who needed a way to store and transport protein-rich rations for his troops. Through the ingenuity of French brewer Nicolas Appert and British merchant Peter Durand, sardines became the first canned fish and one of the first canned foods.

The French weren’t the only ones to benefit from sardine canning. In the 20th century these 10- to 14-inch fish fed American soldiers during two world wars. They also provided jobs for vast numbers of workers.

As is often the case, rampant popularity led to the sardine’s downfall. Overfishing and the ocean’s natural growth cycle depleted the supply. Without sardines in the supermarkets, shoppers turned to canned tuna for cheap, portable and easy-to-prepare meals.

In recent years sardine populations have rebounded in the Pacific. This is wonderful news for environmentally minded, health-conscious consumers. As small-sized bottom feeders who eat plankton, sardines don’t take on heavy metals and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) as other fish do. Low in contaminants and high in protein, vitamins B-12 and D, and omega-3s fatty acids, Pacific sardines have been deemed a “best choice” by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.

When shopping for sardines, I have the option of fresh or canned. With fresh sardines, I look for shiny, silvery skins; plump bodies; bright eyes; and firm, pinkish, moderately oily flesh.

Because these fish are fatty, they spoil easily. To ensure my sardines are safe to eat, I do a quick sniff test. If a sardine smells overly fishy or pungent, I skip that fish. Highly perishable, sardines should be cooked the day of purchase.

Packed in thick, clear oil, canned sardines possess expiration dates and should be consumed accordingly. Until I’m ready to use them, I store the cans in a cool spot in my kitchen and periodically flip them so all the fish are coated in oil.

If you peek into my kitchen cupboard, you’ll invariably see at least two tins of sardines tucked in there. I use them in everything from bread spreads and vegetable dips to pastas and pissaladières. When I crave an especially heart-healthy entrée, I make the following dish, Sardinian Tomatoes. Featuring lycopene- and beta-carotene-rich tomatoes; fiber- and iron-packed barley; vitamin C- and A-filled red bell peppers; and, of course, sardines, it’s a delightfully nutritious meal.

Sardinian Tomatoes

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 8 stuffed tomatoes

Ingredients

8 large, ripe tomatoes

1 red bell pepper

1/2 small red onion

8 ounces canned sardines, drained and patted dry

1 1/2 cups cooked barley

1/4 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley

3/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Juice of 1 lemon

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided, plus more for greasing the baking dish

1/4 cup panko bread crumbs

2 teaspoons granulated onion

1/2 teaspoon salt

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease a large baking dish with olive oil and set aside.

2. Slice off the tops of the tomatoes. Scoop out the seeds, leaving an inch of flesh inside the tomatoes.

3. Dice the red pepper and onion. Slice the sardines into bite-sized chunks and put them, along with the pepper and onion, into a mixing bowl. Add the barley to the bowl.

4. Roughly chop the parsley. Add it, the thyme and black pepper to the bowl and toss to combine. Drizzle the lemon juice and half of the olive oil over the mixture and toss again.

5. In a small bowl combine the bread crumbs, granulated onion and salt. Add the remaining olive oil and stir until all the crumbs are coated.

6. Put equal amounts of sardine-barley stuffing into each tomato, filling each to the top. Sprinkle the bread crumb mixture over the filling. Place the stuffed tomatoes in the baking dish and bake, uncovered, for 12 to 15 minutes or until the tomatoes have softened slightly and the crumbs have browned. Remove and serve warm.

Main photo: Sardinian Tomatoes. Credit: Kathy Hunt

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