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Everyone claims to want to cook simple food. As soon as we’re in the kitchen, things aren’t so simple. It’s actually hard to cook simple dishes because we cooks always want to fiddle or add things or just not stand around looking at “simple,” because simple doesn’t require much, that’s why it’s called simple.
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The irony is that once we start our fiddling and the simple dish becomes more complicated, it often ends up not the best thing in the world. Here’s the deal, I think. You’ve got to trust your food. You’ve got to trust that raw food is actually delicious without you manipulating it beyond recognition. You’re not Ferran Adrià, and furthermore, that’s a style of cooking that should not necessarily be replicated.
So in this recipe I’m going to ask you to force yourself not to work too hard, which will mean you’ll have to resist the temptation to add herbs, spices or other stuff, such as truffle oil or kale or whatever. In this simple dish you’ve got to do nothing. There are only six ingredients (if you count the salt), but how they interact is the magic of cooking.
In this preparation, you’ll sauté the escarole, a slightly bitter green when eaten raw. It’s also called chicory since it’s a kind of chicory, along with Savoy cabbage, which is crinkly leafed cabbage with leaves that are more tender than the common green cabbage. Finally you’ll stir in the spinach for the briefest of moments, just until the leaves wilt. Now eat it — don’t do anything else. Don’t garnish it.
Simple Escarole, Cabbage and Spinach
Serves 4 as a side dish
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
¾ pound escarole (chicory), washed well and thinly sliced
¾ pound Savoy cabbage, thinly sliced
½ pound spinach leaves
1. In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil with the garlic over medium-high heat until the garlic starts sizzling.
2. Add the escarole and cabbage and cook, stirring frequently, until a minute past wilted, 4 to 5 minutes.
3. Add the spinach and cook, stirring, only until it is wilted, about 1 minute.
4. Salt to your taste and serve hot.
Top photo: Escarole, cabbage and spinach. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
One of the most beautiful cities in Sicily is Syracuse, which has a history extending to the ancient Greeks. There is a method of cooking in Syracuse, especially applied to Sicilian fish, but other foods as well, that makes for beguiling dishes.
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Stemperata is a Syracusean method of cooking that means something like “melting sauce” or “tempering sauce.”
The idea behind “melting sauce” is to meld a number of aromatic ingredients together by cooking slowly until the sauce or food is infused with flavor. The dish is finished with a sprinkle of vinegar that evaporates, or “melts,” into the sauce and it is the vinegar that gives the dish its distinctive flavor. Whenever you see a dish described as stemperata, you know it is a dish from Syracuse.
The concept of stemperata finds its roots in medieval cooking. According to the prevailing theory of dietetics at the time, prepared food had properties that would match the temperament of the person eating it.
In the mood for Sicilian fish
Certain foods were ideal for particular conditions or temperaments. The nature of foods could be changed by tempering the food with additions such as sauces or spicing.
In medieval Italian cookbooks one runs across the term temperare, which takes on a greater meaning than “to temper.” It implies that one corrects the food so it will conform to a dietetic humoral notion. So the Italian stemperare has the sense of taking something away, and in this recipe it is the vinegar that “is taken away” through evaporation to moderate the taste of the sauce.
This Sicilian fish dish is called pesce spada alla “stemperata” and it is typically made with swordfish, but two whole red snapper work well. The recipe, though, is written for swordfish.
Pesce Spade alla ‘Stemperata’
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
½ celery stalk, finely chopped
1½ tablespoons capers, rinsed and chopped if large
10 large green olives, pitted and chopped
1 pound ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
⅓ cup water
1½ pounds swordfish steaks, cut into ½-inch-thick slices
All-purpose flour for dredging
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1. In a large sauté pan or earthenware casserole, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook, stirring frequently, the onion and celery until softened, 5 to 6 minutes. (If using earthenware and if it is not flameproof, or if you don’t know, you will need to use a heat diffuser. Earthenware heats up slower but retains its heat longer than non-earthenware casseroles. When using earthenware, food may cook slower at first and then cook very quickly while retaining its heat, so adjust accordingly). Reduce the heat to medium, add the capers, olives and tomatoes, and stir. Pour in the water, stir again, and cook until denser, 10 minutes.
2. Dredge the swordfish slices in the flour, tapping off any excess flour. Set aside.
3. Arrange the swordfish slices in the pan or casserole on top of the sauce, spooning some sauce on top of the swordfish. Drizzle the vinegar over the fish, cover, and cook over medium heat until the vinegar is evaporated, 5 to 6 minutes. Serve hot.
Top photo: Pesce spade alla “stemperata” made with red snapper. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
A Valentine’s Day menu needs to include oysters. First, just because it is tradition. Also, our hero of love, Giacomo Girolamo Casanova de Seingalt (1725-1798), the famous Venetian adventurer whose reputation as a seducer of women was so great his name became synonymous with the art of seduction, says so.
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Casanova wrote in his autobiography that cultivating and pleasing the senses was his main preoccupation. “Ho molto amato anche la buona tavola ed insieme tutte le cose che eccitano la curiosità” (I very much loved a good table and everything that excites the curiosity), he remarked.
Casanova ate 50 oysters every day for breakfast. Several studies show that the amorous benefits of this might not just be an old wives’ tale. Oysters are rich in zinc, which is important for hormone production related to sexual activity. It is important to eat the oysters raw, though, as cooking reduces this aphrodisiacal effect. Casanova also suggested how to serve them: “I placed the shell on the edge of her lips and after a good deal of laughing, she sucked in the oyster, which she held between her lips. I instantly recovered it by placing my lips on hers.”
Here is a delightful little recipe that will tingle both the senses and the expectation. The recipe is for two, of course, because three’s a crowd on Valentine’s Day.
Oysters in Champagne Cream Sauce With Thai Chile
Serves 2 as an appetizer
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
1 red Thai chile, thinly slivered
4 shucked Pacific oysters with their juice
3 tablespoons Champagne
¼ cup heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. In a small nonstick skillet, melt the butter over high heat and then add the onion and chile and cook, shaking the pan, until translucent, about 1 minute.
2. Add the oysters and their juice, pour in the Champagne and let it evaporate for 30 seconds.
3. Pour in the cream and cook over high heat, shaking the pan and turning the oysters until their edges curl up, about 4 minutes.
4. Remove the oysters to a plate or place back in their shell and continue cooking the liquid until denser and saucy, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Pour over the oysters and serve.
Top photo: Oysters on the half shell with a perfect white. Credit: Jon Rowley
The idea that foods have aphrodisiac properties is quite old and found in all cultures, but this notion has waned with the rise of modern science.
Arab Muslim culture has had its aphrodisiacal foods, a phenomenon surprising to many people who think of Islam as a prudish religion that bans alcohol and frowns upon the sexual explicit.
However, a millennium ago, the elite in Europe began to change their attitudes toward eating, stimulated by the place of food in Muslim theology as represented in depictions of the Garden of Delights. The sensual pleasures of eating as portrayed in the Garden intrigued Europeans who began to associate luxurious dining with the food of the Arabs. Muslim sensuousness must have appeared attractive as a counterpoint to the ascetic life demanded of Christians. Already by the 12th century the Arabs had a rich poetry concerning wine and sexually explicit literature.
In the Arabic tradition there are “the two good things,” the translation of the Arabic al-atyabān. I always found it interesting that there isn’t a single mention of this idea in Arabic gastronomical thinking in any book on Arab cuisine or, for that matter, in any Mediterranean cookbook. But I alluded to these good things in my book “A Mediterranean Feast.” The two good things are food and sex.
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Food and sex are two of the three “fleshly delights” of this world in a saying attributed to the seventh-century Arab poet Ta’abbata Sharrān. “I have never enjoyed anything as much as these three things: eating flesh, riding on flesh, and rubbing flesh against flesh.” The Arabic literary interactions of food and sex are manifold. Some stories find the women berating their husbands for eating and drinking too much but neglecting them in bed.
A good appetite for food and for love was seen as perfectly compatible. There’s the story of Aishah bint Talha, a granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad’s father-in-law, who says to her husband the morning after the wedding night, “I have never seen anyone like you; you have eaten as much as seven men, prayed as much as seven men, and [had sex] as much as seven men.”
Food and sex inspire writers
Many of these stories, such as the bawdy tale of “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad” in “The Thousand and One Nights,” have a narrative formula that can almost be described as eating, drinking and having sex.
The stories get randier as in the “Slaughterhouse-cleaner and the Noble Lady,” also in “The Thousand and One Nights.” The lady wants revenge on her unfaithful husband and gets it by having an affair with the filthiest man she can find, the guy who cleans the latrines. He says, after their coitus, that he’d like to kiss the lady’s left hand (used for wiping) rather than her right hand (used for eating). This mixture of kitchen humor with scatological humor reflects the fact that the lady first looked for her husband in the outhouse but had found him instead in flagrante delicto in the kitchen, rogering a cook.
But the battle between love and food in Arabic poetry doesn’t always end in a truce. A Hispano-Arab poet, Ibn Mascūd, renounces love for food:
“If you ask me with whom I am in love and why my eyes
Pour forth tears,
I say: a sikbāj*, dishes of jamalī
Bruised white flour is sweeter to me than the saliva of the beloved who is embraced.”
The West has its own aphrodisiacal food traditions, although the dishes might be different.
Lovers turn to chiles, because of their active ingredient capsaicin; bananas, because of their phallus shape; asparagus (same reason); oysters, for their zinc content and their tactile resemblances; vanilla, because it’s a stimulant for the nerves; salmon and walnuts, because of their omega-3 content, which keeps sex-hormone production humming; red wine, because it relaxes and reduces inhibitions; pomegranates, because they increase genital sensitivity; and chocolate.
There, now you should have a good idea of and guide to what you’ll prepare your sweetheart on Valentine’s Day.
* Sikbāj dishes, a kind of stew made with vinegar, were of Persian origin and very popular in the 10th century; jamalī is a kind of stew with innards.
Many cooks overlook the unusual vegetable called the Jerusalem artichoke, also known as the sunchoke.
The best part of the sunchoke is the tuberous rhizomes that can be eaten raw or cooked. The tuber looks like a knobby potato and tastes similar to artichoke heart. The plant can grow 6 feet high in a sunny and dry location.
A word tour of name confusion
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Its Latin binomial is Helianthus tuberosus L., indicating that it is a tuber related to the sunflower.
The sunchoke’s name in various languages indicates the confusion about its origins. In Arabic it is known as tirfās, ṭarṭūfa, kamāiyya balād al-āmrīk. This name combines the words for truffles and country potato of America. In French, Italian and Spanish it is known as topinambur, the name of a Brazilian tribe that has nothing to do with the origin of the plant. In English and Turkish, the sunchoke is the Jerusalem artichoke and yerelması, the Jerusalem, which brings us to how it got that name as the plant has nothing to do with either Jerusalem or artichokes.
The sunchoke is native to Canada and portions of the eastern United States. It first entered Italy in 1617 and was grown in the Farnese garden in Rome with the name girasole articiocco (sunflower artichoke).
The English name “Jerusalem” has long been claimed to be a corruption of the Italian word girasole, sunflower, but agricultural historian Redcliffe Salaman pointed out that the name “Jerusalem” was used to refer to Jerusalem artichokes before girasole. He argues that “Jerusalem” is a corruption of Terneuzen, a town in Holland from where the sunchoke was first introduced to England.
The sunchoke was first introduced to France from Canada no earlier than 1607 by lawyer and historian Marc Lescarbot and explorer Samuel de Champlain. It entered Provence about the same time as it did Italy and recipes are rarely found for sunchokes anywhere else in the Mediterranean but these two locales.
How to choose and store sunchokes
When buying, storing and preparing the sunchoke for cooking, look for firm tubers with unblemished skin. Choose the tubers that are the least knobby and make sure there are no spongy spots.
Store them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator crisper drawer where they will keep for two weeks. They go well with goose and other meat. Because the tubers can turn black when cooking, do not use an aluminum pan. A delightful way to use sunchokes is in soups such as this one from the Piedmont region of Italy.
Cream of Sunchoke Soup
2 ounces (½ stick) unsalted butter, divided
8 slices of French baguette
6 sunchokes (about 1 pound), peeled and thinly sliced
2 large onions, chopped
1 quart chicken or vegetable broth (preferably homemade)
½ cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. In a large sauté pan, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter over medium heat and then cook the bread slices until golden on both sides, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
2. In a large saucepan, melt the remaining butter over medium heat and add the sunchokes and onions, stirring them and cooking until softened, about 15 minutes.
3. Add the broth and bring to a boil over high heat for 15 minutes, then remove from the heat.
4. Pass the soup through a food mill and transfer to a saucepan.
5. Bring to a boil and add the cream. Once it’s hot, season with salt and pepper and serve with the bread.
Top photo: Sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes). Credit: Clifford A. Wright
German food can be quite inaccessible. Many people think of it as heavy or they aren’t sure exactly what it is beyond sausages and sauerkraut. But what’s wrong with starting off with sausages and sauerkraut, especially for a cold winter party? This all came to mind because of an old family photo I came across while scanning.
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It was of my mother sitting on the terrace of the General Walker hotel in Obersalzberg, Bavaria, in 1954. It dawned on me that nine years before this was the Berghof, Hitler’s Alpine retreat. The U.S. Army captured it in 1945, and the property became a hotel as part of the U.S. Armed Forces Recreation Center (AFRC).
My father was stationed with the Air Force in France at the time, and we often vacationed at U.S. Armed Forces retreats. In the photo, my mother, Helen DeYeso Wright, enjoys the sun on the same terrace where Hitler sat only some years before with Hermann Goering. During the same visit, I played nearby with my sister dressed in Bavarian costumes my parents bought.
The early 1950s was a time before the West German economic miracle, and the Germans were a vanquished and humbled people, ashamed but confused about their recent Nazi past, fearful of Soviet Russia, and very friendly towards Americans. I asked my mother about that time and she told me that the area was beautiful. She described Hitler’s bunker, which still existed in 1954.
The Germans in the mid-1950s, she said, were very friendly and my parents opted to eat in town rather than at the General Walker, which only served American food. My parents wanted German food, and although neither one of them were beer drinkers, they downed their steins of lager with, as she called it, those “big fat sausages” (weisswurst), spaetzle, sauerkraut, roast potatoes and “really fantastic” apple strudel.
Bavarian sausage traditions
To this day Bavaria is sausage central, where hearty and delicious food is still enjoyed by beer-loving Germans and tourists so far removed from those horrible times it’s hard to believe it happened there at all. At that moment I realized I wanted to sink my teeth into some weisswurst. A Bavarian weisswurst mit sauerkraut is not hard to do, because you’re only reheating as you will have bought the weisswurst and the sauerkraut and the mustard, hopefully from your nearest German delicatessen.
Weisswurst, literally white sausage, is a traditional Bavarian sausage made of very finely chopped veal and pork fat back flavored with parsley, lemon, mace, ginger, onions and sometimes cardamom, though different sausage makers make it a bit differently each time. Traditionally it is eaten with a warm soft pretzel and sweet mustard. In the rural tradition, it is eaten in the method known as zutzln where the sausage meat is squeezed out of the casing with one’s teeth directly into the mouth.
Once you find weisswurst at a delicatessen or grocery store, you can boil it before serving, or you can boil and then fry it.
Finding weisswurst harder than preparing it
The best advice I can given about having a weisswurst mit sauerkraut party in the middle of winter is to visit a local German deli and buy their freshly made sausage, not pre-cooked or packaged weisswurst from the supermarket. There are plenty of German delis all over the country and a quick Google search will turn one up for you. The same goes for the sauerkraut. Mail order is a second option, although weisswurst are highly perishable and you’ll need to have your sausage shipped express, overnight in a cold pack.
Bavaria Sausage of Wisconsin sells sauerkraut and Bavarian mustard as well. The beer you should be able to get everywhere, and only Bavarian lager will do. Prost und gutes Essen! (Cheers and bon appetit!)
Top photo: Weisswurst and sauerkraut. Credit: Clifford A. Wright