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The über-popularity of kale is approaching the ridiculous when you see kale juice being hawked. Even if it were blended with bacon or sugar, I think a vanilla milkshake sounds better. I like kale as much as any hipster but let’s not ignore the other wonderful leafy green vegetables that there is no need to drink, such as Swiss chard.
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The name has intrigued me ever since I lived in Switzerland for a year and never once saw Swiss chard. In older times it also went by the names silverbeet, seakale beet, leaf beet, perpetual spinach, rhubarb chard and spinach beet. Its scientific name is Beta vulgaris subsp. cicla.
Swiss chard is a biennial grown as an annual for its edible cooked dark green leaves and multicolored stalks. For the home gardener Swiss chard is ideal as it is a rugged plant that regenerates leaves even with heavy harvesting.
Mediterranean love for Swiss chard
The origin of Swiss chard is linked to the development of the beet to which it is intimately related. It too was originally a seashore plant native to the northern Mediterranean. Swiss chard is a popular vegetable throughout the Mediterranean with the French word for the plant, blettes or bettes, and the Italian bieta derived from the Latin blitum (itself derived from the Greek). The Spanish word for Swiss chard, acelgas, comes from the Arabic word al-silq, meaning Swiss chard or beet greens.
It’s more than likely that Swiss chard got its name by virtue of having been first written about by the Swiss botanist Gaspard Bauhin in his book “Phytopinax,” published in Basel, Switzerland, in 1596. All earlier references to beta refer to beets, but Swiss chard’s botanical divergence from beets is unclear, although Aristotle mentions a red-stalked beet chard around 350 B.C.
For culinary purposes Swiss chard doesn’t need much. It has always been favored in stews because of its hardiness, but in this simple recipe the Swiss chard is cooked as a side dish ideally to accompany grilled lamb chops.
Swiss Chard With Pancetta and Lemon
Procure the yellow stalked Swiss chard as it makes for a pretty dish too.
1½ pounds Swiss chard
1 ounce pancetta, chopped or sliced
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
Juice from ½ lemon
Salt to taste
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the Swiss chard until soft, about 10 minutes. Drain and squeeze out as much water as possible. Chop the chard coarsely and set aside.
2. In a large sauté pan, cook, stirring, the pancetta with the olive oil over medium heat until slightly crispy, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute. Add the Swiss chard, lemon juice and salt and cook, stirring, until the lemon juice has evaporated and then serve.
Top photo: Colorful Swiss chard. Credit: onfilm/iStock
Canned tuna is one of those great foods that is undervalued and underappreciated. You need to think of it as more than cat food for humans. Canned tuna is more than something you dump mayonnaise into for a sandwich. Canned tuna can be the basis for some impressive and noble dishes.
You will need to think beyond the standard dried out albacore tuna sold as some kind of bland chicken from the sea. What you really are looking for is tender tuna packed in olive oil. This is what the Italians call tonno sott’olio. Its uses are many, and the Italians will incorporate it into toast points, salads and tossed with pasta.
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One delightful way of using canned tuna is for an antipasto from the region of Umbria called spuma di tonno sott’olio, which means “foam of tuna under oil.”
The Italian spuma, which means foam, is given to preparations that are beaten or whipped so the final result is not quite like the ethereal preparations found in the avant-garde cooking of 21st-century restaurant chefs called foams, but is meant to be light and flavorful. As Umbria is an inland region without a coastline, its seafood has traditionally been preserved either with salt or in oil or vinegar.
So now the bad news, or should I say the cautionary news? Good quality oil-packed tuna is going to be more expensive than the tuna you’re used to buying.
Consider this: You go to the market to buy fresh sashimi-grade tuna belly and it’s $25 a pound and tastes wonderful. Do you think your $3 a pound chunk light tuna canned in water is going to taste remotely similar? No, it’s not, and that’s why you need to think of this preparation as something special and look for some Italian tuna fillets packed in the best extra virgin olive oil. A 6-ounce jar will probably cost you $15.
You can preserve your own tuna too. Place the freshly bought tuna in a pan filled with water salted with sea salt and bring to a gentle boil. Turn the heat off and let the tuna sit in the hot water for 20 minutes. Then drain, pat dry with paper towels and pack the fish in glass jars and fill with the best olive oil. The tuna pieces can also be deep fried instead of poached. This is a special antipasto so treat it specially.
Spuma di Tonno sott’Olio
Serves 8 as an antipasto course
12 ounces canned tuna in extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons anchovy paste
½ pound mascarpone cheese
1 hard-boiled large egg, shelled and sliced
1 oil-preserved artichoke heart, sliced
1. Blend the tuna in a food processor with the anchovy paste and mascarpone until smooth. Place parchment paper in a 5-by-2-inch round terrine, and oil the parchment paper well with olive oil.
2. Spoon the mixture in and smooth the top flat. Cover with plastic wrap or wax paper and refrigerate for 2 hours. Unmold and garnish the top with sliced hard-boiled egg and artichokes and serve.
Top photo: Spuma di tonno sott’olio. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Mick Jagger nailed one problem with turnip greens when he sang “Down Home Girl” in 1964:
Lord I swear the perfume you wear
Was made out of turnip greens
And every time I kiss you girl
It tastes like pork and beans.
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The songwriters, Jerry Leiber and Artie Butler, were two Jewish boys from Baltimore and Long Island, respectively, who were unlikely ever to have eaten turnip greens and pork and beans. The song was first sung by Alvin Robinson, but became well known when the Rolling Stones recorded it in Los Angeles in November 1964.
Those turnip greens were on a plate somewhere “down home” in Louisiana. Turnip greens are poor people’s food and you’ll almost never find them in a modern Cajun or Creole cookbook unless they get tossed into a gumbo z’herbes.
Yes there is a problem with smell, as is true with all the cruciferous vegetables. But the one group of people who do something with turnip greens other than cook them with a ham hock are the Italians, who also are a major part of New Orleans’ culinary heritage. One classic preparation would be a dish of boiled turnip greens dressed with fried fresh bread crumbs.
Turnip Greens With Fried Bread Crumbs
In Italian, “cime” can refer to turnip greens, rapini or broccoli rabe, any of which can be used for this preparation. This is a very simple preparation and so although it’s delicious, it is essential to use the proper ration of olive oil, bread crumbs and salt to the greens. Every bite has a nice texture to it.
2 pounds turnip greens, rapini or broccoli rabe
Salt to taste
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cups fresh bread crumbs
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat, salt lightly then cook the greens until soft but still bright green, about 10 minutes. Drain well in a strainer, pressing out excess liquid with the back of a wooden spoon. Chop the greens coarsely.
2. In a nonstick sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook stirring the bread crumbs until golden and crisp, about 3 minutes. Add the greens and cook, tossing, until mixed well with the bread crumbs, about 1 minute. Season with salt and serve.
Top photo: Turnips and turnip greens. Credit: Renee Jones/iStock
During a recent dinner party I found myself making a distinction between ingredient-driven cooking and culture-driven cooking and explaining that I believe the best cooking is culture-driven. Here’s what I mean by that.
When a cook is inspired to a manner of cooking derived from a particular culture, their creation respects that culture. They are cooking in a culture-driven mode whether the dish cooked is an old standard or a new recipe. The inspiration keeps the newly created or inspired dish true to the heart and soul of that particular cuisine.
Ingredient-driven cooking, on the other hand, is all too often the fetishization of a food incorporated into a cooking that lacks the very soul that we want to taste. Ingredient-driven cooking is enamored with the food rather than the culture of the cook or cuisine.
Culture should trump fashion
As consumers and cooks we confront a barrage of the latest “hot” ingredients, methods and prepared dishes. Food marketers, restaurant chefs, bloggers and food magazine editors contribute to this onslaught of looking for the next hot thing. It might be a food promoted for its trendy ingredients, such as açai berry or a new kind of grain such as quinoa, or a resurrected vegetable such as kale, or a method such as sous-vide or a whole category such as tapas or sushi.
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Twenty-years ago, fresh pasta became more desirable and fashionable than dried pasta, its proponents seemingly ignorant over the uses of both in Italian cooking. They were ingredient-driven, not culture-driven.
Tapas is a good place to start to talk about this distinction because in America tapas have no other meaning than “appetizers on little plates that we will call tapas.” But tapas are a category of not merely foods, but of a way of eating, and not just in Spain, but historically and specifically, in Andalusia. A tapa in Spain is not an appetizer. It is much more, it is part of a culture.
Now, that doesn’t mean we can’t invent new things, new categories, but let us respect the culture from which new culinary gifts came. Let’s be gracious and learn about this culinary culture. It will help us cook better. After all, hundreds of years of development of the tapas bar in Andalusia will provide more foundation to our culinary thinking than the 10 years the word has been popular in the United States.
Look past the hot ingredients
I’ve looked at restaurant menus of Mediterranean-inspired restaurants and I see a variety of well-known meze under a category heading called “tapas.” Hummus is not tapa, it’s a meze. They are not similar because they are little foods on small plates. That’s not what is germane about these foods. What’s germane is that they come from and are eaten within a particular culinary culture and that they function in a particular way. As an aside, “hummus” does not mean “dip” it means “chickpea” and the meze you eat when you eat hummus is hummus bi’l-tahina, chickpeas with sesame seed paste.
That might seem a minor issue, but it’s essential to what I’m saying. In America, it seems the fetishization of food is in full throttle. Americans celebrate ingredients totally devoid of their cultural and emotional context.
In America, we eat sushi, presented as raw fish, and rarely as Japanese food. Restaurants serve tapas, little foods (growing bigger all the time in America) on little plates, and not a cultural heritage of Andalusia. Imagine looking at a Vermeer painting and admiring the frame and not the tilt of the maid’s head, the pouring of the milk, or the light from the window. This is what ingredient-driven cooking is like.
Now this does not mean we should not be concerned with ingredients. However, when the ingredient drives our cooking over and above the culinary context, it becomes a fetish. Do we want to cook and eat saumon à l’unilateral because of omega-3 or because of the French technique of cooking on one-side-only, skin-side-down, in a covered pan over high heat that creates an extraordinarily delicious and easy-to-prepare dish that has been popular with French families for generations?
Similarly, consider the fashion of heirloom tomatoes. Heirloom tomatoes can be wonderful, but it isn’t the heirloom quality that makes them wonderful. It’s where they are grown and how they are grown that make them wonderful. However, one does not buy $5-a-pound heirloom tomatoes simply to make a tomato sauce. What I’m suggesting is that you buy tomatoes best suited for the preparation you are making and not what other people say, i.e. fashion.
We don’t cook in a vacuum. We cook because we live and breathe a culture that provides an ineluctable connection and foundation to who we are.
Top photo: The Irati tapas bar in Barcelona. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
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