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It’s Oscars time, and in addition to dressing for the occasion, we always like to set the table with award-worthy snacks. Some years required black-tie starters like Champagne and oysters. Other years, California-made cheeses like Cypress Grove’s Humboldt Fog and the wonderfully stinky Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery competed for Best Cheese in a Supporting Role. But this year, we plan to honor the movies with their best-loved partner, popcorn.
Of course, because it’s the Oscars, it couldn’t be just any microwaved popcorn. Last week when I found some dried popcorn being cut off the cob at the farmers’ market, I knew it was time to use my newly inspired love for spices to elevate popcorn to a starring role.
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Next, your choice of salt is critical to the perfect box of popcorn. It’s got to be soft enough to cling to the kernels, but crunchy enough to hold its own on the palate. I found that the moisture of grey sea salt fit the bill perfectly.
Finally, adding variety with ground spices, grated cheeses and even cocoa powder creates an interesting mix of options for movie-loving guests. Any blend of favorite flavors will do, but my winning combination was hot salted popcorn tossed with grated pecorino romano cheese, sprinkled with Aleppo pepper flakes and doused with another healthy drizzle of olive oil.
Old-Fashioned, New-Flavored Popcorn
½ cup popcorn kernels
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil, to taste
Sea salt, to taste
Grated hard or semi-hard cheese
Aleppo or Marash chili pepper
Cocoa powder mixed with sugar
Freshly ground peppercorns
1. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a 3-quart, deep saucepan. As soon as the oil melts and spreads evenly, add enough kernels to fill one layer on the bottom. Cover and increase heat to high flame. As soon as the corn starts popping, shake rigorously over heat until popping is complete.
2. Immediately dress with olive oil and salt and toss to coat.
3. If you are adding grated cheese, do so immediately after removing from heat to ensure that cheese clings to popcorn.
4. Sprinkle with other seasonings to taste.
Top photo: Spiced popcorn. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
It’s so easy to gobble up a big bowl of guacamole. Just mash a dozen avocados, add some spiced-up tomatoes, garlic and citrus juice. When surrounded by a pile of fresh tortilla chips, nothing disappears faster in our house when it comes to party starters.
But what to do when you don’t happen to have an avocado tree in your backyard and the price of out-of-season green globes starts climbing into the stratosphere? Sweet peas, fresh or frozen, provide an amazingly tasty alternative when made a little creamier with extra virgin olive oil. If you blindfolded your guests, they would be hard pressed to name the main ingredient, but they’d be just as happy with the flavor.
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Best of all, sweet pea guacamole doesn’t turn that nasty brownish gray color over time like avocados do as they oxidize. You can even make it a day or two before the party and it will look and taste just as fresh as the moment you created it.
I have Michelin-starred chef María José San Román to thank for my first introduction to this simple swap when I joined her at Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ Amorolio event in Tuscany. As English shelling pea season kicks into high gear this spring, I’m going to be digging into my own riff with this nonclassical composition.
Sweet Pea Guacamole
Jalapeños can be very hot or mild, so test the level of spice before adding to your dish, according to your preference.
1 pound fresh sweet peas, shelled
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 shallot, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 jalapeño peppers or to taste, chopped
Juice of 2 limes
2 ripe avocados (optional)
2 teaspoons salt
¼ cup cilantro, minced
1. Steam peas until tender, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat, cool.
2. In a blender or food processor, purée peas, olive oil, shallot, garlic, jalapeños and lime juice until almost smooth but still a bit chunky.
3. In a medium bowl, combine mashed avocado, if using, with pea mixture, leaving chunky. Add salt to taste. Garnish with cilantro. Serve with tortilla chips.
Top photo: Sweet pea guacamole. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
If your kitchen houses an old jar of ground black pepper, do me a favor and throw it out. I’m on a campaign to start the New Year fresh, and my resolution includes discarding all outdated spices and sundries lurking in the back of the pantry. This applies to all spices, from aniseed to za’atar, but ground pepper is at the top of my list.
Pepper is the most commonly used spice in the world, but anyone who’s using the pre-ground stuff is missing out on its true intensity of flavor. The world’s best chefs have always known that pepper loses flavor when added early in the cooking process. And because the peppercorns’ essential oils aren’t released until they are ground, a fresh grind of peppercorns can elevate many dishes with the perfect finishing touch.
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Armed with a collection of 14 peppercorn types from around the world, I gathered a few fearless friends for a tasting party. Countries of peppercorn origin were Brazil, Cameroon, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Madagascar and Vietnam, plus the French island of Réunion. Colors included creamy white, soft grey-green, rose, rust red and a dark black-brown. My guests doubted that they’d really notice a difference, but the exercise proved surprisingly revealing.
A technique for a pepper tasting party
Following a classic technique for wine tasting, we used sight to judge size, finish and color; next, a heady sniff revealed a wide array of complex aromas and bouquets from smoky and spicy to dried fruit to sherry. Finally, we completed the exercise by crunching away to determine taste, length of finish and heat index. As I had learned in olive oil tastings, it’s important to be prepared with coffee beans (a whiff of coffee beans will clear your sinuses of residual aromas), green apple slices (to clear your palate between tastings) and plenty of water.
The peppercorns showed off enormous variations in taste profiles. My two favorites were a green peppercorn from Brazil that smelled like licorice and cardamom and tasted of fresh, slightly spicy herbs; and a Sarawak black from Malaysia that was smoky, spicy and tasted a bit like mushrooms and cedar. Two other varieties that were universally liked were not truly peppercorns, but similar enough to join the roster: the sweet, floral, fruity flavor of rose mastic berries from the island of Réunion and the perfumed, sweet clove and apricot flavor of Sichuan pepper from China.
At the beginning of the year, it just feels right to clean the cupboards and start fresh. This year, I’ll be indulging in ingredients I’ve never used before and kitchen experiments I’ve never tried. “Out with the old, and in with the new” may be an overused cliché, but in my pantry it’s going to start with spices — and playing with peppercorns will be a great way to begin.
Know what’s in your seasoning
If you haven’t heard, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently released a study focusing on ground spices as carriers of the microbial pathogen salmonella. While pepper was not one of the major offenders, it does have a long history of being adulterated with cheaper spices, dirt, hulls and harvesting scraps.
There are two simple solutions to ensuring that the pepper you use is pure and safe. Begin by only buying whole peppercorns because there is little chance that an unscrupulous purveyor can dilute them with dirt, debris and other cheap ground spices. The website Pepper-Passion is an excellent online resource for a wide variety of peppercorns.
When you buy whole peppercorns, you can see exactly what’s in the jar and even sort through them to remove any dirt, twigs and rocks that might remain. Next, take a few minutes to roast your peppercorns either in a 325 F oven for 10 to 15 minutes or in a pan over medium heat for 5 minutes to kill any unwanted microbial pathogens hitching a ride on the spice. It takes only 165 F of heat to kill the bacteria.
Top photo: A variety of peppercorns from around the world. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
Quick: In three words, what is port wine? Before hosting a port tasting party the other night, I would have said, “sweet, old-fashioned and British” — and I would have been mostly wrong. The most fun way to learn about port is to drink it, so finish reading this article and gather together a few friends and a few bottles. The holidays are the perfect time for a tasting party.
A little background might make your tasting party a bit more interesting. Port is wine fortified with brandy or grape spirit, often resulting in an alcohol level of around 20%. Best known as a deep garnet or brick-red sweet dessert wine, it is also produced in a white or pink off-dry style for cocktails and apéritifs.
Unlike many other wines, it is not produced as a single varietal. Style variations are based on three things: how it is aged — either in bottle or wood vats and casks; how long it is aged; and the winemaker’s skill at blending grape varietals. The result is three basic styles of port: bottle-aged vintage; wood-aged reserve or late-bottled vintage; and wood-aged tawny.
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The World Heritage home of Portugal’s Port
Today, more than 38,000 farmers grow port grape varietals like Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesco, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Tinto Cão on the steep rocky hillsides above the Douro River in Portugal. The fantastically, challenging terrain — in some areas, vine roots have to reach down 40 feet through rock fissures for moisture — has qualified some of the oldest vineyards, or quintas, to be classified as World Heritage sites. And many traditional practices live on: Hand-harvesting and traditional foot-crushing are still widely practiced by the best producers.
Vintage port is considered the rarest and finest of all ports. It is selected from a single exceptional year — only three years on average in a decade are declared “vintage” years by the industry body, Instituto do Vinho do Porto. Vintage port is typically aged 2 years before release, then cellared 15 years or more before it’s ready to drink.
The other classic style is tawny port, aged 10 to 40 years in wooden vats or casks and bottled when ready to drink. The creation of aged tawnies requires incredible blending skills and a great deal of patience on the part of the winemaker. David Guimaraens, head winemaker for Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca and Croft, is a sixth-generation family member of the Fonseca clan who described it best.
“The fact that we lose about 3% a year in ‘the angels’ share’ [what port winemakers call the wine's natural evaporation] means that having one bottle of 20-year-old to sell in 20 years’ time requires two now. There is simply no shortcut. It takes 20 years to make a 20-year-old tawny,” Guimaraens said.
So port may seem pricey at first, but when you consider the effort that goes into making it, you may think of it as a bargain. The small harvest of 2011 declared vintage port is just hitting shelves now and availability is not expected to last long. So if you want to get your Christmas shopping done really early, pick up a bottle of 2011 vintage today. It will make a killer hostess gift for another port tasting party in 2028.
Tasting party gear
In anticipation of my party, I asked everyone to bring one bottle and I stocked the table with an assortment of aged tawnies and a few newly released 2011 vintage ports from Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca and Croft, all venerable producers of the best classic port. We were lucky that one guest shared a bottle of 2007 Quinta do Vesuvio, the last time a vintage was declared in this decade. We started with interesting vertical tastings of each style and progressed across the horizontal range from aged tawnies to new vintage. No matter what styles you try, have a few things at hand:
- Tasting Notes Form — De Long Wine Company offers a great one free to download
- 3 stemware per person — white wine glasses work perfectly fine
- Wine aroma wheel — might help the tongued-tied with classic flavor descriptions
- Something to munch on — nuts or cheese
- Designated driver
Top photo: An assortment of port wines for a tasting. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
You have successfully made it past Thanksgiving, but there are 20-something dinners between now and the glass of champagne on New Year’s Eve that marks the end of the holiday rush, as well as the year. Some might be quick grab-’n-go affairs; others might be major family feasts like Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas. Either way, it’s probably safe to say you are overbooked. You need a foolproof recipe that takes less than 30 minutes to create and is loved by even the pickiest eaters. In short, you need an intensely flavorful and fast macaroni and cheese dish that can be dressed up or dressed down, depending on the occasion.
I explored two paths to preparation: old school and new school. Both techniques began with the foundation of any good mac and cheese: the sauce.
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The old school approach to making cheese sauce starts with the classic 19th century French technique of cooking a roux of flour and butter, then slowly and laboriously whisking in milk and cheese. It is a tried-and-true method, but can leave the sauce tasting a bit pasty unless you thoroughly cook the flour and butter before adding the wet ingredients. Even when done to perfection, the base ingredients soften the flavor profile, masking the taste of pure cheese.
The new school approach made popular by the brilliant folks at Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine Cooking Lab involves using an all-natural ingredient known as sour salt (sodium citrate) to emulsify the cheese into a smooth sauce, but it too can be a tiresome task over a hot stove. On the other hand, a big bonus to this approach was that the sauce tasted like a liquid chunk of cheese. And for those with certain dietary concerns, it also meant that the sauce was entirely gluten free.
At this point, I gave a nod to the new school approach for the flavor test and moved on. I was still facing an uphill challenge to make this classic dish easier and less time consuming. Out of habit, I reached for my speedy sous-chef, the Vitamix blender. True to form, it turned three simple ingredients into one stellar, silky sauce in less than seven minutes — coincidentally, the same amount of time it took to boil the pasta. I had successfully reached base camp.
At this point, the pragmatist in me whispered, “Stop while you’re ahead,” and “Don’t mess with a good thing,” but I wasn’t quite done. Could I turn this mac and cheese into a dish that was equally at home at a potluck or a fancy dinner? Could I vary the seasonings, the toppings, even the very heart of the sauce? The simple answer to all the questions was yes.
I opened the refrigerator, pulled out my spice rack and tapped into the liquor cabinet (for ingredients, naturally). I experimented with a wide range of ground chili peppers from Marash and Aleppo to citrus-scented Urfa chili and fresh jalapenos. I added crunchy toppings that would turn into a glorious crust while the casserole baked and fresh herbs that were simply sprinkled on. I blended in different aromatics like brandy, white wine and my latest favorite flavoring for just about everything, aged tawny port.
After an afternoon of playing with my food, I discovered that the best mac and cheese is a very personal thing. Once you have the basic sauce in hand, almost anything goes. When all was said and done, my favorite combination was spiced with smoky Aleppo pepper, infused with Croft 10-year old tawny port and doused with another strikingly simple topping: bacon and toasted panko crumble.
The Ultimate Macaroni and Cheese
The primary sauce ingredients include a liquid, some sodium citrate and cheese. After that, you can craft a mac and cheese that suits your taste — mild or sharp, nutty or spicy. My holiday season favorite is to add some Croft aged tawny port for a taste of that classic winter combination: cheese and dried fruit.
3 strips bacon
1 cup panko bread crumbs
1 cup whole milk
5 teaspoons sodium citrate (12 grams)
8 ounces white cheddar cheese (or any semisoft cheese of your choice such as Gouda, Morbier, Swiss or Gruyère), broken up into medium-sized chunks
½ cup aged tawny port (or another liquid of your choice, including water, milk or white wine)
1 teaspoon dark brown mustard
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
1 teaspoon sea salt
12 ounces macaroni (or any sauce-gripping pasta of your choice)
For bacon-panko topping:
1. In a medium skillet, fry the bacon to a crisp; reserve 2 tablespoons of bacon fat in the skillet and add the panko, tossing until it is brown and toasted. Crumble bacon and toasted bread crumbs together.
This versatile, incredibly crunchy crumble can be made days in advance and does not require refrigeration.
For the cheese sauce:
1. Place the milk and sodium citrate in a high-speed blender (must be capable of generating frictional heat above 160 F).
2. Turn the blender on to its highest setting and process for 4 minutes.
3. While the blender is processing, chop or break up the cheese into medium-sized chunks.
4. After 4 minutes, turn the blender off to avoid splashing, and add the cheese. Turn the blender back on at high speed for an additional 2 minutes.
5. Reduce the blender to the lowest speed and pour in ½ cup of port (or white wine, milk or water) and any other flavoring ingredients of your choice (mustard, chili pepper, salt). Depending on thickness, you may need to add a bit more liquid to get to the consistency of your choice.
At this point, the cheese sauce can be refrigerated for up to one week and reheated to return it to its liquid state before using with pasta.
For the pasta:
1. While the cheese sauce is being processed, cook pasta al dente according to the package directions. Drain and dress with sauce and topping.
This recipe was created using the Vitamix Professional Series 750, but can be prepared using the “old school” stovetop approach with similar, albeit more time-consuming results by replacing the sodium citrate with a roux made by heating butter over medium heat and adding flour until golden browned. In a separate pan, heat milk until just below boil. Slowly whisk the hot milk into the roux, followed by grated cheese and seasonings until completed melted. Remove from heat and whisk in the port.
Sodium citrate, also known as sour salt, can be found in some specialty food stores and online at Modernist Pantry.
Top photo: Macaroni and cheese with bacon-panko topping. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
Sitting in the kitchen next to a bowl of gorgeously orange Fuyu persimmons is an elephant. I’m ignoring this uninvited guest as I dream up ways to use this flavorful fruit at holiday dinner parties, from a composed salad to a delectable port-infused pie. But before I extol the virtues, it’s probably best to address that elephant in the room. In marketing terms, Fuyu persimmons have an image problem in the United States.
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It may be the national fruit of Japan, with a flavor that is a mélange of apples, apricots, pears and vanilla; terribly photogenic; and a perfect partner for all sorts of other seasonal ingredients, but the Fuyu persimmon is often viewed in the U.S. as an oddly exotic curiosity. I blame much of this misunderstanding on its gooey, cloyingly sweet cousin, the American persimmon. But there are big differences between them.
While there are hundreds of varieties of persimmons (botanical genus: diospyros, meaning fruit of the gods), the species can be broken down into two basic types: astringent and non-astringent. The astringent type, familiar as either the American or Hachiya persimmon, is only edible when fully ripe, soft and practically dripping with syrupy pulp. It has been cultivated in Midwestern and Southern parts of the U.S. for centuries, most popular when baked into cakes, quick breads and classic persimmon pudding.
Distinguishing Fuyu persimmons
The non-astringent Fuyu persimmons have a glossy, smooth skin and a fine-grained flesh. They’re as crisp as the best fall apples — and with no hard core and often no seeds, they’re excellent for eating out of hand. Also unlike apples, they won’t turn brown and oxidize when cut, so they are perfect for infusing color into salads. While they are not always widely available across the country and are a bit pricey compared with a typical Granny Smith or Pink Lady, it’s still a wonder to me that they have never caught on during their height of ripeness — late November and the peak of the Thanksgiving season. After all, Fuyus adapt well to a vast range of holiday dishes and seasonal ingredients.
I started tracking fruits, vegetables, cheeses, nuts, spices, wines and spirits that go well with Fuyu persimmons, but finally gave up when the list outgrew my cupboards. In alphabetical order I’d recommend: apricots, arugula, bacon, balsamic vinegar, basil, blood oranges, brown sugar, cherries, cinnamon, citrus, cream, dates, fennel, feta cheese, figs, ginger, gorgonzola cheese, hazelnuts, honey, maple syrup, mascarpone cheese, mint, mozzarella, nut oils, nutmeg, olive oil, pecans, pistachios, pomegranates, prosciutto, red onion, vanilla, watercress.
So far, I’d put pomegranates and tart cherries at the top of the list because their pucker brings out the persimmon’s rich blend of sweetness; chile powders and peppers provide a fun, spicy contrast; and bacon proves that opposites attract with edgy saltiness. In short, you won’t need a recipe for a composed salad. Just open your pantry and refrigerator for inspiration and finish with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, date molasses and extra virgin olive oil.
But my hands-down favorite? The rich complexity of a well-aged port truly does magical justice to a baked persimmon tart.
Rustic Persimmon Port Tart
I tapped some extraordinary tawny portos to create this pie. Affordably, a Fonseca 10-year old aged tawny porto was used as the primary flavor infusion for the cherries, the persimmons and the sauce. But I went out on a really decadent limb and uncorked a 30-year old tawny porto from Taylor Fladgate for the table presentation. If you serve this porto with a Fuyu-infused dessert like the featured rustic tart, you will never outlive its reputation.
1 cup dried tart cherries
½ cup aged tawny port, plus 1 ounce
1½ pounds Fuyu persimmons
¼ cup sugar
⅛ teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of salt
1 sheet ready pie dough
All-purpose flour for dusting
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup chopped pecans, mixed with 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 egg yolk, beaten with 1 tablespoon water
2 tablespoons apricot jam
Whipped cream, unsweetened
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Place dried cherries and ½ cup of the tawny port in a glass dish and microwave for 1½ minutes on high. While prepping the persimmons, let the cherries rest, allowing them to plump and absorb some of the liquid.
3. Peel the persimmons and and roughly cut into ½-inch pieces.
4. In medium mixing bowl, toss the persimmons with sugar, cinnamon, salt. Add the cherries and any remaining liquid. Macerate for 30 minutes.
5. Drain the persimmon mixture and reserve liquid.
6. On a lightly floured surface, roll out pie dough. Transfer to a pie pan, leaving a 2-inch overhanging edge.
7. Mound the persimmons and cherries into a pie pan and gently fold edges back over pie, leaving an open area in the center. Dot with butter and sprinkle with the pecan/sugar mixture.
8. Brush edge of the crust with egg wash.
9. Place in the oven and bake for 45 minutes.
10. While pie is baking, place reserved liquid from macerated fruit with apricot jam and 2 tablespoons of water over medium heat and reduce until thick and syrupy. Stir in 1 ounce of port and set aside.
11. Serve pie with dollop of whipped cream and drizzle with port sauce.
Top photo: Fuyu persimmon. Credit: Caroline J. Beck