Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for "A Mediterranean Feast" which was also a finalist for the IACP Cookbook of the Year award. Saveur magazine chose the book for its Saveur 100 list. His book "Mediterranean Vegetables" was chosen one of the top ten Cookbooks of 2001 by the Chicago Tribune and his first cookbook, "Cucina Paradiso: The Heavenly Food of Sicily," was a "best book of 1992" in the New York Times Book Review’s Christmas List. He is the author of 16 books, of which 14 are cookbooks and a contributor to eight others. His latest book "One-Pot Wonders” was published by Wiley in 2013. Colman Andrews, former editor of Saveur magazine called Wright "the reigning English-speaking expert on the cuisines and culinary culture of the Mediterranean." As an independent food scholar he has lectured at the Center for European Studies at Harvard, the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown, the Rusk School for International Affairs at Davidson College, the Culinary Institute of America, and other universities. He also writes for food magazines such as Saveur, Gourmet, Fine Cooking, Food & Wine, and Bon Appétit and wrote all the food entries for Columbia University's "Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East" and several entries for the “Oxford Companion to Sweets.” His scholarly articles on food have appeared in peer-review journals such as Gastronomica, Food and Foodways, and Al-Masaq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Studia Arabo-Islamica Mediterranea.  Wright also writes for his own web sites, www.Cook-Coquus.com and www.cliffordawright.com.

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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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Winter Vegetables Star In A Rich, Satisfying Pie Image

Winter is about the only time of year that the description “rib-sticking” actually sounds appealing. We burn more calories in the winter as we are shoveling more snow, or, here in Southern California, as we complain about how it’s freezing when the temperature drops to 60 F. Winter is when our stew or roast recipes come out and when we love to cook with bacon, cheese, and cream. Let’s not forget that there are great winter vegetables and the way to cook them is not the way we want to do in the summer.

I love winter vegetables, including all the root vegetables as well as leafy greens like Swiss chard, spinach, collard, kale, and many others. One dish I make often is inspired by the cooking of the Savoy in France. It is a potato gratin, but my twist is to form it into a kind of potato pie that is stuffed with rainbow Swiss chard. Rainbow Swiss chard is simply a bunch of multicolored Swiss chard stems bunch together for sale by the purveyor. You’re not using the stems in this recipe so you won’t actually see a lot of color other than green in the finished dish.

You’ll want to use baking potatoes, like russets, rather than boiling potatoes like Yukon gold, because you’ll want the potatoes to disintegrate slightly to form a kind of “crust.” This is a rich dish, so if you’re making it to accompany something I suggest something simple, like roast chicken or pan-seared chicken breast or even just a salad.

Potato Gratin Stuffed With Swiss Chard

This is a perfect winter vegetables dish made with thin slices of potato that form the bottom of a kind of pie filled with Swiss chard cooked with bacon and salt pork and then covered with another layer of sliced potatoes before being baked.

Potato gratin stuffed with Swiss chard. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Potato gratin stuffed with Swiss chard. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Yield: 6 side-dish servings

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: About 1 1/4 hours

Total time: About 1 1/2 hours

Ingredients

1 1/2 pound Swiss chard, leaves only, save stems for another purpose

1 ounce slab bacon, chopped

1/2 ounce salt pork, chopped

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

Salt to taste

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

One 1-pound baking potato, peeled and cut into 1/8-inch thick slices

2 ounces Gruyère, comte, or vacherin cheese, sliced

1/2 cup heavy cream

Directions

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the Swiss chard leaves until soft, about 10 minutes. Drain well and chop. Set aside in a bowl.

2. Preheat to oven to 350 F.

3. In a large cast iron skillet, cook the bacon and salt pork over medium-low heat until beginning to get crispy, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until it is sizzling then remove all to the bowl with the Swiss chard and season with salt.

4. Add 2 tablespoons butter to the skillet and, once it melts, arrange half of the sliced potatoes, slightly overlapped in a spiral covering the entire bottom of the skillet. Salt lightly. Spoon the Swiss chard mixture on top of the potatoes, spreading it around to cover all the potatoes. Salt lightly. Arrange the remaining potatoes in an overlapped spiral covering the Swiss chard completely. Salt lightly. Arrange the cheese on top of the potatoes, dot with the remaining butter and pour the cream over everything.

5. Move the pan to the oven and bake until golden brown and bubbling, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool 5 minutes then cut into wedges for serving.

Main photo: Potato Gratin Stuffed With Swiss Chard. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Making Cabbage Cool Again With Two Hot Recipes Image

Cabbage is the Rodney Dangerfield of vegetables: It doesn’t get any respect. It gets a bad rap. Cabbage never gets mentioned as one of the hip vegetables like kale. It’s not a super-vegetable like broccoli rabe. It’s not an adorable vegetable like baby Brussels sprouts. It’s not a “cool” vegetable. It’s stodgy and old-fashioned. I mean, they make sauerkraut from it.

All those cooler vegetables just mentioned, though, owe their existence to cabbage. The big green head we associate with cabbage today was not always what cabbage was. Today there are hundreds of varieties of cabbage that have developed from the progenitor cabbage, called the wild cabbage, including the many forms of cabbage and further horticultural developments such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoliflower, broccoli rabe and kohlrabi.

Botanists divide the cabbage into five groups. It is the head cabbage, green, red, crinkly-leafed or Savoy cabbage, that I’m speaking of. But there are some 400 varieties of head cabbage.

The cabbage is probably native to the Mediterranean, but in Roman times the head cabbage we think of as cabbage today did not exist. The Romans had only leafy cabbage, probably kale. There are some obscure references by Roman naturalists Pliny and Columella to what has been taken by some to be head cabbage. These descriptions refer to heads of the plant being a foot in diameter, but it is not at all clear whether this refers to a compact headed cabbage that we know today or is simply an expression referring to the above ground portion of the plant.

The wealthy citizens of Rome, in the period after Cato the Elder (mid-second century BC), thought of cabbage as poor people’s food as we know from the description in Juvenal’s satire when he described the difference between the food that the patron ate, namely olives to garnish an excellent fish, and the food of the client, who finds cabbage in his “nauseous dish.”

It seems that the head cabbage we know today was developed in Germany in the 12th century. Soon it would be the single most common plant in the medieval garden.

Cabbage rolls. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Cabbage rolls. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

It’s not a popular vegetable today, but it is a vegetable that does draw the curious cook. The most obviously intriguing thing to do with cabbage is to separate the leaves and then stuff them by rolling them up. There are many great preparations for cabbage from sauerkraut, to kimchi, to coleslaw, and every culture has a recipe for stuffed cabbage. Here are two recipes for cabbage lovers from cabbage-loving Slovenia and Croatia, next door to Italy.

Braised Cabbage

Cabbage is a very popular vegetable in the Balkans, served raw, in the form of sauerkraut and cooked in a variety of ways. In the northern part of the former Yugoslavia, today’s Slovenia and parts of Croatia, cabbage may be cooked with sour cream or tossed with noodles and smoked bacon. In Bosnia or Montenegro, it might be cooked with tomatoes. This recipe from Slovenia is typically served as a bed for a roast duckling.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 55 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 bay leaves

2 tablespoons tomato paste mixed with 2 tablespoons water

1 cup dry white wine

One 2-pound green cabbage, cored and sliced as thin as vermicelli

15 peppercorns

8 juniper berries, lightly crushed

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then add the bay leaves and cook until they begin to sizzle. Reduce the heat to medium and very carefully add the tomato paste and wine, which will spurt and splatter rather dramatically.

2. Continue cooking for a minute then add the cabbage, peppercorns, juniper berries and thyme. Mix so the cabbage is covered with sauce.

3. Add the lemon juice and continue to braise over medium heat until the cabbage softens, 6 to 8 minutes.

4. Reduce the heat to low, season with salt and pepper, and cook until the cabbage is completely soft, about 45 minutes. Correct the seasoning and serve hot.

Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

These cabbage rolls are a winter specialty known as arambašici in their home of Sinj, a town near the Dinaric Alps on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. Traditionally, this casserole of stuffed cabbage leaves is made from a whole head of cabbage that has been prepared as sauerkraut. Each sauerkraut leaf, or as in this recipe cabbage leaf, is stuffed with beef, pork and bacon, and flavored with lemon zest, onion, garlic, cloves and cinnamon. Each roll-up is separated from the other with pieces of pršut (Croatian prosciutto) and smoked tongue.

Arambašici can be made with fresh cabbage leaves or grape leaves, too. My recipe uses fresh cabbage, which is the easiest to find and is what a cook from Sinj would use in the summer. Many cooks also like to make the casserole in the evening and then reheat it the next day, and you should consider doing that as it is delicious.

The casserole cooks a long time so the meats are very tender and the cabbage leaves become silky. The smoked bacon, smoked pork, smoked tongue and prosciutto can all be picked up at the deli counter of most supermarkets.

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 4 hours

Yield: 20 to 26 rolls, or about 6 servings

Ingredients

1 large green cabbage (about 2 3/4 pounds), central core removed

1 1/4 pounds boneless beef neck meat or beef chuck, finely chopped

5 ounces smoked bacon (preferably) or lean slab bacon, finely chopped

2 ounces beef fat (suet), finely chopped

6 ounces boneless pork shoulder or neck meat, finely chopped

2 large onions, chopped

3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

Grated zest from 1 lemon

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon unsalted butter or beef fat for greasing

One 4-inch-long beef marrow bone (optional)

1 ounce smoked pork (any cut), finely chopped

2 ounces prosciutto, thinly sliced into strips

2 ounces smoked tongue (optional), thinly sliced into strips

1 cup water and more as needed

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 300 F.

2. Remove and discard any of the outermost leaves of the cabbage that are blemished. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt and plunge the whole cabbage in and cook until the leaves can be peeled away without ripping, about 10 minutes. Drain well and, when cool enough to handle, separate the leaves carefully, setting them aside.

3. In a large bowl, mix together the beef, bacon, suet and pork. Add the onions, garlic, lemon zest, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, salt and pepper and mix well with your hands.

4. Arrange a cabbage leaf in front of you with the stem end closest to you. Place 2, 3 or 4 tablespoons (depending on the size of the leaf) of filling on the end closest to you, then roll away once, fold in the sides and continue rolling away until you get a nice, neat package.

5. Continue with the remaining cabbage leaves. Arrange the cabbage rolls side by side, seam side down, in a lightly greased 13- x 9- x 2-inch casserole (you may need to use two casseroles), making sure you leave some room for the beef marrow bone. Sprinkle the chopped smoked pork over the cabbage rolls.

6. Place the prosciutto and smoked tongue slices (if using) between the cabbage rolls. Pour the water over the cabbage rolls and cover with aluminum foil. (The casserole can be refrigerated at this point to bake later.)

7. Bake until the cabbage rolls are very soft, slightly blackened on top and bubbling vigorously, about 4 hours.

8. Serve hot or let cool to room temperature and serve as an appetizer the next day.

Main photo: Pirjati Zelje (braised cabbage). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Zombie Pizzas With Real Innards for New Year’s Image

The popularity of zombie movies exploded in the past several years.

Since no one watches zombie movies alone, a New Year’s Eve party is perfect. From old zombie movies going all the way back to”White Zombie” from 1932 with Bela Lugosi to the long list of recent zombie hits, there’s not shortage of flicks to pick from. For food in front of the TV, popcorn is easiest, but here’s a fun idea: zombie pizza.

It’s a clever way to introduce offal, that is, zombies eat guts. Here are three pizzas that can be partially prepared ahead of time. An enclosed pizza is a “pizza with guts” made with lamb tripe, lamb kidney, veal sweetbread in a spicy-hot chile and tomato sauce. The second is “pizza with blood and thyroid,” made with tomato sauce to represent blood, comte cheese and fried veal sweetbread, which actually is thyroid gland. Finally, the “pizza with liver bile, gonads, and pus” is made with chopped cooked spinach to represent liver bile, roasted whole garlic (gonads), diced fried eggplant, burrata cheese and ricotta cheese to represent pus, and thin slices of tongue headcheese.

Pizza with sweetbreads and comte cheese or “pizza with blood and thyroid.” Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Pizza with sweetbreads and comte cheese or”pizza with blood and thyroid.” Credit: Clifford A. Wright

When I made this for my enthusiastic friends Erin and Deanna,  they thought that everything was representative and there were no real innards in the pizza. Erin later said “despite my insistence that no real’‘innards’ be included, my naïveté in believing that Cliff would honor that request got the better of me. I gobbled down all three slices of pizza with complete disregard to manners or napkins (do as the zombies do).” Both Erin and Deanna agreed the first pizza below was their favorite. I stayed away from liver because its taste is too strong, while sweetbreads are mild and flavorful.

When making this menu, prepare as much as you can ahead of time — a day ahead — so that they can be assembled quickly. Follow the instructions for making pizza using the following amounts, 1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast, 1 1/3 cup water, 4 1/2 cups bread flour or all-purpose flour, 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil and 1 teaspoon salt or to your taste. Once the dough is made, divide in half. Divide one half in half again for the two small balls called for in the first 2 pizzas below. The remaining large ball is used for the stuffed pizza.The prep and cooking times below assume the pizza dough is already made (see link instructions for dough prep time). I advise prepping almost everything the day before so that on New Year’s Eve you only have to roll the dough and bake the pizza with its topping or filling.

Pizza With Sweetbreads and Comte Cheese: ‘Pizza With Blood and Thyroid’

Yield: 8 slices

Prep time: 1 hour

Cook time: 7 to 9 minutes

Total time: about 1 hour, 9 minutes

Ingredients

1/4 pound veal sweetbread

Water

3 tablespoons distilled vinegar

Extra virgin olive oil as needed

1 small pizza dough ball (see link above)

1/2 cup tomato purée

1/4 pound comte or Gruyère cheese, diced

Directions

1. Soak the sweetbread in water to cover with some vinegar for 20 minutes. Remove and place in a saucepan and cover with water. Turn the heat to medium and once the water is barely bubbling continue to poach the sweetbread until white and firm, 20 minutes. Remove and slice.

2. In a frying pan, cook the veal sweetbreads with a little olive oil over medium-high heat until golden, about 4 minutes. Remove and set aside.

3. Preheat the oven to 550 F with two baking stones (preferably), one on top rack and one on the bottom rack.

4. Roll the pizza dough out on a floured work surface until about 14 inches in diameter. If you do not have a pizza peel, place the dough on a lightly oiled pizza pan.

5. Spread a tablespoon of olive oil over the dough. Spread some tomato purée over the pizza leaving a 1 1/2-inch border. Sprinkle the comte cheese over the pizza and arrange the sweetbread on top.

6. Slide the pizza peel under the pizza and place the pizza, using a quick jerk forward and then back onto the baking stone or place the pizza pan in the oven. Bake until blackened on the edges, 9 minutes (7 minutes in a convection oven).

Pizza With Spinach, Eggplant, Burrata Cheese, and Tongue Headcheese: ‘Pizza With Bile and Pus’

Yield: 8 slices

Prep time: 40 minutes

Cook time: 7 to 9 minutes

Total time: 47 to 49 minutes

Ingredients

1 head garlic, cloves separated with shin on

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 pound eggplant, peeled and diced

One 15-ounce can cooked spinach (with no preservatives), drained and rinsed, with excess liquid squeezed out, chopped

1 smaller pizza dough ball

5 ounces burrata or mozzarella cheese

2 ounces ricotta cheese

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 550 F with two baking stones (preferably), one on top rack and one on the bottom rack.

2. Place the garlic cloves in their skin on a piece of aluminum foil and roast until soft, about 12 minutes. Remove and remove their skin and set aside.

3. In a cast iron skillet heat the olive oil over high heat and when it is smoking add the eggplant and cook, stirring and turning, until golden brown, about 6 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.

4. Roll the pizza dough out on a floured work surface until about 14 inches in diameter. If you do not have a pizza peel, place the dough on a lightly oiled pizza pan.

5. Spread a tablespoon of olive oil over the dough. Spread the spinach to cover the surface leaving a 1 1/2-inch border. Sprinkle the eggplant and roasted whole garlic cloves on top and then lay the sliced tongue headcheese on top. Place the burrata and ricotta cheese on top.

6. Slide the pizza peel under the pizza and place the pizza, using a quick jerk forward and then back onto the baking stone or place the pizza pan in the oven. Bake until blackened on the edges, 9 minutes (7 minutes in a convection oven).

Stuffed pizza with mixed offal in spicy tomato sauce or “pizza with guts.” Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Stuffed pizza with mixed offal in spicy tomato sauce or pizza with guts.” Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Stuffed Pizza With Mixed Offal in Spicy Tomato Sauce

The filling for this enclosed pizza must be made the day before and refrigerated. The preparation of honeycomb tripe takes at least a day before you even begin the sauce, so buy smooth-skinned paunch tripe (usually available in Middle Eastern markets), which cooks faster. We called it “pizza with guts for zombie-watchers.”

Yield: 8 slices

Prep time: 12 hours

Cook time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

2 pounds lamb tripe (mixed tripe if possible and smooth paunch tripe if possible)

3 lamb kidneys, arteries removed

One 6-ounce can tomato paste

3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 cups dry red wine

1 ounce fresh red chiles, blended until smooth with 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil in a food processor

1/4 pound veal sweetbread (optional, for its preparation for cooking see below)

1 1/2 teaspoons red chile flakes

1 bunch fresh oregano, tied together

3 bay leaves

Salt to taste

1 large ball of dough

Directions

1. Prepare the tripe by boiling it for about 6 hours, replenishing the water as it evaporates. Remove and cut into small pieces. Let it cool and congeal in its fat.

2. In a flameproof casserole, cook, stirring, the tripe and its fat, the kidneys, the tomato paste, garlic, red wine, and chile paste, over medium heat until bubbling, about 5 minutes. Cover with water, reduce the heat to low, and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 2 hours.

3. Add the sweetbread slices (if using), chile flakes, oregano, and bay leaves and continue to cook, partially covered, for 4 hours. Season with salt. Remove the kidneys and slice then return to the sauce.

4. Divide the dough in two and roll one out to about 14-inches in diameter and place in an oiled 14- to 16-inch round baking pan or pizza pan.

5. Heat the oven to 400 F.

6. Spread the filling over the dough and roll out the other half and place on top, sealing the edges by folding over slightly and pinching together. Bake until the pizza is golden, about 30 minutes. Remove and let cool slightly before serving.

Main image: Pizza With Spinach, Eggplant, Burrata Cheese and Tongue Headcheese or”pizza with bile and pus.” Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Snake-Shaped Christmas Cake An Umbrian Tradition Image

Perugia is the more important of the two provinces of Umbria and in culinary terms is most famous for its chocolates. Perugina, the chocolate firm founded in 1907, makes chocolate kisses (baci) famous throughout Italy and even in the United States. It’s also the historic home of a novel Christmas cake.

A variety of sweets are made around Christmas such as pinoccate, little diamond-shaped sweets made of sugar and pine nuts, hence their name. They usually are made “black” with chocolate or “white” with vanilla. Locals say that the small cakes were made by Benedictine monks as early as the 14th century and are served to end lavish Christmas feasts.

A simple syrup is made until rather dense and then the same weight of pine nuts as the sugar is added and poured onto a marble slab to be shaped as one makes peanut brittle. The diamonds are cut and cooled, with half of each piece being chocolate and half vanilla. They are then wrapped in black and white pairs in festive and colorful Christmas paper.

Another Christmas delight from Perugia that is a bit easier to make is the symbolic eel or snake-shaped torciglione (twisted spiral) Christmas cake. The Perugina say it is shaped like an eel to represent the eels of nearby Lake Trasimeno, while others attribute a more symbolic meaning rooted in pagan times. The Greeks saw snakes as sacred and used them in healing rituals; the snake’s skin shedding was a symbol of rebirth and renewal, an appropriate symbol at the time of the birth of Christ.

Torciglione (Holiday Almond Meringue Snake)

In most of Umbria, but in particular around Lake Trasimeno in the province of Perugia, torciglione is a Christmas and New Year’s Eve sweet. It is also sometimes called a serpentone or biscione and it’s made as a symbol of luck. It is claimed that this sweet was developed in the 19th century by a master pastry cook, Romualdo Nazzani, who opened a cake shop in Reggio Emilia and created some magnificent sweets, such as biscione, which means “snake.”

This Christmas cake is made with an almond base and meringue topping decorated with candied peel to represent the eyes of the snake. In Christian iconography, the snake can represent temptation as it was in the Garden of Eden. Eating the snake is thought to bring luck.

Torciglione

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes

Baking time: 40 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

1 pound whole blanched almonds, toasted and chopped

3/4 pound (about 1 1/2 cups) sugar

2 tablespoons rum

Zest from 1 lemon

3 large egg whites, beaten until stiff

3 tablespoons pine nuts

2 coffee beans

1 candied cherry

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 325 F.

2. In a bowl, mix the almonds, sugar, rum, lemon zest and egg whites until a dense consistency.

3. On a buttered parchment paper-lined baking tray form the mixture into the shape of a snake. Place the pine nuts over its surface. Put the coffee beans in as eyes and the cherry as a tongue. Bake until golden brown, about 40 minutes.

 Main photo: Torciglione (Holiday Almond Meringue Snake). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Pantry Antipasto To Please A Holiday Crowd Image

“Fresh is best” is usually a good rule to live by. But if you know how to find quality preserved items, a few well-chosen canned foods in your pantry can save the day, especially during the busy holidays.

Healthy food is food that is minimally processed. All the foods’ transformation should happen when you turn it from the raw to the cooked and not at some factory.

When I am unable to pronounce the ingredients listed on the side of a food’s packaging I shiver. When I see the word “natural” on a food package I read “Sh&u8#%g” because it has the same meaning. However, I am not a fanatic or obsessive about food: I can eat crap too. I do so minimally. I don’t always seek out organic, or local, or seasonal, or any other of the environmentally correct buzzwords.

Now and then canned food is just plain convenient. And luckily there are some canned products that are not loaded with chemicals such as taste enhancers or preservatives of one kind or another. If you keep these in your pantry you will always have a delicious, convenient and quick preparation on hand. This is particularly handy during the holidays. On their label you should see only one ingredient list, namely the same one as on the front of the packaging, the food itself. Some might have some citric acid, but that’s OK.

There are four foods that I use in their canned form for a variety of reasons: the food is out of season, I forgot to buy the food, I’m too tired to cook, or it’s a last-minute idea. My five canned go-to foods are chickpeas, tuna, artichoke hearts, tomatoes and pimentos.

In this recipe you’ll use four of those. The idea here is that this is party-quality food, the kind of dish that you could serve to guests and they will comment on its deliciousness. After they do then you can spill the beans, so to speak, and tell them how simple it all is.

Four-Can Antipasto

Yield: 4 servings

Prep time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

1 15-ounce can organic chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained and rinsed

4 canned organic artichoke hearts (foundations), drained and quartered

2 tablespoons sliced pimentos

2 1/2 ounces canned yellowfin tuna in olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Pinch of cayenne pepper

Directions

1. In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil with the garlic over medium heat.

2. When the garlic begins to sizzle add the chickpeas, artichokes and pimentos and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes.

3. Add the tuna, salt, pepper and cayenne, toss a few times and remove from the heat. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.

Main photo: Four-can antipasto. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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