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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2 Quick And Easy Appetizers Made With Grilled Shellfish Image

Grilled shellfish always make the best appetizer. Once the grill fire is going there are a wide variety of things you can do with shellfish that cook quickly, make minimal mess, are wonderful for satisfying hungry party guests, are ridiculously easy and, most important, are delicious.

In these two examples, one with oysters and one with shrimp and scallops on skewers, everything is assembled simply. When planning portions, I generally figure on three oysters per person and one brochette of shrimp and scallops per person with one shrimp and one scallop on it. Remember, these are appetizers so there is no need for tons of food — that will come later. The instructions below assume you have made a grill fire first.

Shucking oysters

If you are not adept at shucking oysters (see my video) and if no one is around to open them you can cheat a bit by washing the oysters very well, which you should do in any case. Next, place them into a pot with a half-inch of water, cover, and turn the heat to high. All you are trying to do is get the oysters to relax a bit, not to open them or steam them, so this might take only a minute or two. Remove the oyster shells and, with an oyster knife or handle end of a spoon, pry them open completely, leaving the oyster in its shell, and then follow the recipe.

For the shrimp, the ideal size is medium, about 41- to 50-count per pound. Of course, if you have access to fresh shrimp with their heads (that is, never frozen shrimp) by all means use them, removing the shell but keeping the head on. Frozen shrimp should be defrosted in the refrigerator.

Oysters creole. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Oysters creole. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Too many people buy frozen shrimp as if all shrimp are the same. They’re not, so look at the package to see where they originate. My personal preference is large and extra large shrimp from India or Bangladesh. I’m not sure what they’re doing to make them taste better, but they do. Shrimp from Mexico, Vietnam, and Ecuador are pretty good, too, and I always love Florida rock shrimp but not for this preparation.

For the scallops, you’ll want to use the large sea scallops rather than the tiny bay scallops that cook too fast.

Oysters Creole

Yield: 6 appetizer servings

Ingredients

½ cup (1 stick) butter

2 tablespoons Creole seasoning, such as Tony Chachere’s or Paul Prudhomme’s

24 oysters, shucked

Directions

1. Melt the butter and stir in the Creole seasoning.

2. Shuck the oysters and arrange them on the grill. Spoon some seasoned butter over each and cover the grill. Grill until some of the butter is bubbling, then spoon the remainder on and continue grilling, covered, until the edges of the oysters begin to curl slightly. Remove and serve.

Grilled Skewers of Scallops and Shrimp

Make sure the scallops and shrimp on the skewer don’t touch.

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 pound medium shrimp, shelled

1 pound sea scallops

Juice of 1 orange

½ cup dry white wine

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

¼ cup finely chopped fresh oregano or 1 tablespoon dried

Freshly ground black pepper

6 (10-inch) wooden skewers

Directions

1. Place the shrimp and scallops into a 9-by-12-inch ceramic or glass baking pan and add the orange juice, white wine, olive oil, oregano, and pepper to taste. Leave to marinate in the refrigerator, covered, for 2 hours. Remove from the refrigerator 15 minutes before grilling.

2. Skewer the shrimp and scallops so they don’t touch, reserving the marinade. Place onto the grill and cook, turning occasionally, until the shrimp are orange and the scallops a light golden brown, about 20 minutes. Baste with the marinade during grilling. Serve hot.

Main photo: Grilled skewers of scallops and shrimp. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Ladies First, And Other Advice For Eating Oysters Image

In “For Your Eyes Only,” British super-spy James Bond informs us that the best things in America are chipmunks and oyster stew. We can understand oyster stew on many levels, including its aphrodisiac properties. Like Bond, a gentleman should know how to open oysters for his girl. And a girl should know how to eat the oyster.

The best oysters are those whose life is controlled by a careful balance of estuaries, temperature, salinity and water flow. Opening an oyster requires an oyster knife, of course, and then finding the hinge in the oyster where the two shell halves meet. The knife is wedged in to the little groove of the joint and rather than push hard, which often leads to injury, it is important to twist the knife until you hear the “pop” of the shell halves releasing their grip.

Most people who injure themselves opening oysters do so not with the knife but on one of the sharp edges of the oyster shell itself. Once the pop has occurred, push gently to separate the shells and run the knife around the entire edge of the oyster to separate them entirely. Then the knife is run once again to separate the oyster meat from the adductor muscle that holds it to the shell. The oyster stays in the deeper shell half rather than the flatter shell half as it will hold all the oyster juice too.

When eating raw oysters, I belong to the school of thought that only a few drops of lemon juice are required, and it is best to serve them cold, ideally on ice. Oyster opening and eating is a messy affair and one done without utensils. Once the oyster is opened there’s all manner of ways of serving or cooking it from dipped into a mignonette to baked with a topping to deep-fried. However, the purest way to eat an oyster is to open one and eat it raw.

Advice varies about the proper way to eat an oyster, but the idea that you don’t chew and just let them slide down your throat doesn’t seem right to me. If you do that, I don’t believe you’re tasting anything. The whole point to taste is that you masticate.

The oyster shell with its oyster and liquor is used as the vehicle to bring the oyster to your mouth and you do indeed slide the oyster into your mouth. Then take a couple of bites and, in the words of one poet, you tickle the oyster to death.

The first oysters opened go to the lady friend, and then the shucker slides one down for himself.

Main photo: Open oysters ready to eat. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Grilled Braciole For An Italian-American Fourth Image

You just can’t escape a barbecue grill on the Fourth of  July. The holiday demands outdoor cooking followed by fireworks. And the curious thing about Americans’ Independence Day food traditions is that they are not confined to one or two expected dishes. Almost anything goes.

When I lived in Arlington, Mass., July 4 was an especially big deal because my house was about 100 yards from the route taken by William Dawes when he rode the southern route to Lexington while Paul Revere took the northern route on April 18, 1775, (as you know, Revere got all the fame and Longfellow’s poem).

Traditional New England fare

Traditional July 4 fare in New England, especially in the 19th century, was poached salmon with egg sauce, fresh peas and new potatoes, lemonade, and blueberry cobbler. Not once in the 14 years I lived in New England did we have this menu. What we did have was anything we damned pleased — hamburgers and hot dogs being on everybody’s  go-to menu, along with potato salad, a bean salad, and, of course beer, plus soda and juice for the kids.

This July 4 perhaps a little innovation is in order such as the favorites of Italian-Americans, braciole, stuffed meat roll-ups. They go by other names such as involtini, but for any Italian-American they’re always known as braciole and they’re always braised in ragù or grilled. But this was not always so. Interestingly, the word braciole derives from the word for charcoal, implying that it was originally cooked alla brace, that is, grilled and that it was a cut of meat with the bone.

Braciole was once synonymous with “cutlet.” The place to begin is with the cut of meat. Not all braciole are cut from the same meat. If you  grill the braciole, you might want to use a large piece of beef such as sirloin tip or beef round from which you can slice nice flat steaks that can be pounded thinner in order to roll them up.

Braciole on the grill. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Braciole on the grill. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Pound them as thin as scaloppini with a mallet or the side of a heavy cleaver. Lay the meat slice in front of you and place a heaping tablespoon of stuffing on the end nearest you. Roll once away from you and, pressing with your fingers so it’s tight, keep rolling and secure the ends or anything that looks loose with toothpicks. Now you’re ready to grill.

Here is a recipe to get you started after which you will only be limited by your imagination. The roll-ups can be prepared the day before and kept refrigerated until time to grill. 

Grilled braciole

Prep Time: 40 minutes

Cook Time: 12 minutes

Total Time: 52 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

These beef roll-ups are stuffed with pecorino cheese, currants, and pine nuts. They are popular fare in the summertime around Palermo in Sicily.

Ingredients

  • 12 large bay leaves, preferably fresh
  • 1 tablespoon currants
  • 1 ¾ pounds beef round, cut into twelve 3x5-inch-slices
  • 6 tablespoons fresh bread crumbs
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil plus more for basting
  • 2 tablespoons freshly grated pecorino cheese
  • 1 tablespoon pine nuts
  • 6 tablespoons finely chopped onion
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • Twelve 8- to 10-inch wooden skewers
  • 1 large onion, quartered, and separated

Directions

  1. Prepare a hot charcoal fire to one side of the firebox or preheat a gas grill on high for 15 minutes.
  2. If using dried bay leaves, soak them in tepid water for 30 minutes and drain. Soak the currants in tepid water for 15 minutes.
  3. Place the beef slices between 2 pieces of wax paper or plastic wrap and flatten with a mallet or the side of a heavy cleaver until they are about 1/16 inch thick, being careful you don’t rip the flesh.
  4. In a small sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the bread crumbs and cook, stirring, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat. Drain the currants and add to the bread crumbs with the pecorino, pine nuts, onion, and salt and pepper. Mix thoroughly and set aside.
  5. Roll the bread crumb mixture in the beef slices to create beef rolls.
  6. Double skewer all the ingredients: hold 2 skewers parallel to each other about ½ inch apart between your thumb and forefinger. Slide a bay leaf, an onion slice, and a beef roll onto each set of skewers.
  7. Place the skewers on the grill close to the fire, if possible, and baste with olive oil. Cook until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes on each side. Move to the cooler side of the grill if there is too much flare-up. Serve hot.
Grilled braciole. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Good Fortune Follows Black-Eyed Peas Globally Image

How did the black-eyed pea become a symbol of good luck? No one knows for sure but a good guess is that an ancient farmer, through practical experience knew that spent black-eyed pea plants could enrich his soil and therefore he considered them good luck.

As with all legumes, black-eyed peas have nitrogen-giving nodules on their roots and are for this reason often used as green manure or forage. There are five species of Vigna unguiculata, or black-eyed pea.

The black-eyed pea is one of the oldest plants known to agricultural man. It is thought the black-eyed peas were first cultivated in Ethiopia from 4000 to 3000 B.C. In records from the ancient kingdom of Sumer in Mesopotamia about 2350 B.C. a plant called lu-ub-sar, which appears to give the modern Arabic word for bean, lūbya, may have been the black-eyed pea.

It also appears that the ancient Egyptian bean known as iwryt, described from the Old Kingdom (2686 B.C.-2100 B.C.) onward, was the black-eyed pea and workmen at Deir al-Medina received beans as part of their wages. In Pharaonic medicine they were used to treat constipation.

The black-eyed pea arrived in Italy about 300 B.C. where it was grown by the Romans. The depiction of the plant called fasilus in the lavishly illustrated sixth-century codex of the first-century Greek pharmacologist Dioscorides’ work “De material medica” (“On medical matters”) appears to be the black-eyed pea.

And in Africa the black-eyed pea is one of the most important vegetables. The pods containing the seeds are about a foot long and they are known in the American South as cowpea, crowder or Southern pea.

The black-eyed pea likely made its voyage to the New World in the 17th century. It appears in many dishes, but this Syrian and Lebanese one is nice to be served as part of a meze table.

Swiss Chard with Black-Eyed Peas (Silq bi’l-Lubya)

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

This is a wonderful Lebanese and Syrian dish to make with fresh black-eyed peas, but dried will do just as well. The usually rough taste of Swiss chard is mellowed considerably with the onions and coriander in this preparation.

Ingredients

  • 1½ cups (about ¾ pound) dried black-eyed peas, soaked in water to cover overnight or 4 cups fresh black-eyed peas (about 14 ounces)
  • 2 pounds Swiss chard, heavy stalks removed, washed well
  • 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 4 to 5 large garlic cloves, peeled and mashed in a mortar with 2 teaspoons salt
  • ½ cup finely chopped fresh coriander leaves
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds

Directions

  1. Place the peas in a pot of cold water to cover and bring to a boil. Cook until tender, about 1 hour for dried peas and about 18 minutes for fresh. Drain and set aside.
  2. Meanwhile, place the Swiss chard in a large pot with only the water adhering to it from its last rinsing. Turn the heat to high, cover, and wilt, 5 to 7 minutes, turning a few times with long tongs. Drain, and squeeze out excess liquid. Chop coarsely and set aside.
  3. In a large sauté pan or casserole, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook the onion until translucent, about 8 minutes, stirring. Add the Swiss chard, garlic mash, coriander, and cumin. Reduce the heat to low and cook until fragrant and tender, about 30 minutes. Stir in the peas and cook until heated through, about 10 minutes, and serve.

Main photo: Black-eyed peas with Swiss chard. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Put The Spring Back In Your Antipasto Step With Asparagus Image

Very few foods, if any, make an indelible impression on you, an impression that you remember 40 years later. But I do remember my first asparagus out of the ground, not bought in a supermarket but pulled by yours truly from the earth.

My first fascination with asparagus occurred in May 1970 in Louisville, Ky., while chatting with the father of a college buddy. A creek ran through their property and his wife had asked him to pick some asparagus by its bank. We strolled to the creek, he showed me how to pick them, and we ate them that night. It was the one of the first times I ever picked my vegetable then ate it, not counting tomatoes that my grandfather always grew.

Planting asparagus is easy, but there is a three-year gap between sowing and harvesting while the plants become established. During harvesting season a family of four would need 12 asparagus plants to feed them.

If you want to plant your own, you need to build a bed of soil about 6 inches above the surrounding earth and about 4 feet wide and as long as you want. The plant, though, does not grow well in hot and humid climates.

Creating a suitable planting bed involves a bit of work. The soil should be well-drained, and there should be plenty of surface area above the plants to encourage thick, succulent spears. The soil should also be dug deeply with organic matter and phosphate. Add some sand to the soil if it is not well-drained.

Seed is sown in early spring, either indoors or in a seed bed outdoors, and the young plants are grown carefully for the first year. Sandy, gritty soil should be spread on the surrounding soil. A top dressing of fertilizer containing nitrogen and potash should be applied after planting.

In the first year, it is desirable to build up a mat of heavy roots that will support many thick spears during the following spring. If you want to grow white asparagus, mound organic mulch over the asparagus beds.

Asparagus is harvested when the spears are about 4 inches above ground and 3 inches below. For the best taste, harvest them only one hour before they are needed for cooking.

Although asparagus appears year round in the supermarket, they deteriorate quickly after being picked and need to be kept cold. In supermarkets, make sure asparagus is refrigerated or standing upright in cold water basins. In farmers markets, asparagus should be sold on ice or, at the very least, in shade away from sunlight.

Asparagus with pistachios. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Asparagus with pistachios. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Look for asparagus spears that are firm with deep green shoots and slightly purple tips that are firmly closed and dense. Tips that appear to be separating are evidence of wilting from aging. Buy asparagus that are firm their entire length, not floppy or twisty. Asparagus with thick stalks are not any less good than thin-stalked asparagus, although most demanding cooks look for an ideal width of about a half inch.

Keep asparagus that has been bought by untying it so the spears are relatively loose and can breath, then wrap the bottom portion of the spears in a wet paper towel and keep in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. Although asparagus will keep up to a week, its taste diminishes with each passing day, so best to eat it the day you buy it.

Prepare asparagus for cooking by cutting off the tough bottom half-inch of stalk and peel the skin off the bottom portion of the remaining stalk with a vegetable peeler. Asparagus is cooked quickly until crisp-tender, not limp.

Here are two quick and delicious ways to present asparagus. Make both at the same time and serve them on a pair of platters.

 

Asparagus With Olive Oil and Lemon

Makes 4 to 6 antipasto servings

Ingredients

1 pound fresh asparagus, trimmed

Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling

Freshly squeezed lemon juice for drizzling

1 tablespoon freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Bring a large saucepan of water to a rolling boil over high heat then cook the asparagus until tender with just a slight crunch, about 6 minutes.

2. Drain and arrange on a serving platter. Sprinkle with olive oil, lemon juice and cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Serve at room temperature.

Asparagus With Pistachios

Makes 4 to 6 antipasto servings

Ingredients

1 pound fresh asparagus, trimmed

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

4 salted anchovy fillets, rinsed

3 tablespoons pistachios

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Bring a large saucepan of water to a rolling boil over high heat then cook the asparagus until tender with just a slight crunch, about 6 minutes. Drain.

2. In a sauté pan, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat, then cook the asparagus, garlic, and anchovies until the anchovies have completely melted, about 3 minutes. Remove to a serving plate.

3. In the pan in which you cooked the asparagus, heat the remaining olive oil over medium heat, then cook the pistachios for 3 minutes, stirring, then sprinkle on top of the asparagus and serve.

Main photo: Asparagus With Olive Oil and Lemon. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Beyond The Bulb: Make The Most Of Fennel Tops Image

Most home cooks have only a few uses for flavorful fennel, and part of the problem is that many people are using only a small portion of the vegetable.

The cultivar common in the supermarket and farmers markets, the one you’ve been buying all these years, is called Florence fennel. This variety is notable because it  has a big, fleshly bulb.

There are all kinds of things you can do with the bulb, but what about those bushy stems, those fronds fragrant with the smell of fennel? I hope you haven’t been clipping them off and throwing them away.

These tops of fennel can be used as an herb to be sprinkled on scrambled eggs, frittatas, spaghetti or just about anything. However, there is no way you’re going to get rid of all those stems by using them as herbs. So here’s a nice little trick. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and boil them until soft and then place them into a blender with enough water to allow the blades to work and make soup.

In this recipe, you’ll also make a Provençal-style sauce rouille, which is a kind of fancified garlic mayonnaise to spread on toast points that float in the soup. Sauce rouille is typically used as a condiment for bouillabaisse, but it works very well here.

If you don’t want to go through the trouble of making the sauce, spread some mayonnaise on toast points. The soup itself is very simple, and, for perfect soup, the only thing you’ll need to adjust at the end is the salt.

Purée of Fennel Soup

Ingredients

1 gallon of water

1 pound fennel fronds (tops)

1 carrot, chopped

1 small onion, chopped

1 celery stalk, chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Bring a gallon of water to a boil over high heat then boil the fennel, carrot, onion, and celery until soft, about 25 minutes. Remove 6 cups water and drain the vegetables.

2. Place the vegetables and water in a blender and purée for 2 minutes. Transfer to a saucepan and heat over low heat for 10 minutes, covered partially if it’s bubbling. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

 

wright-fenneltops2

wright-fenneltops2
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Purée of fennel soup with sauce rouille. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Sauce Rouille

Makes 1¼ cups sauce rouille

Ingredients

1½ cups diced French bread, white part only

½ cup fennel broth (see above)

4 large garlic cloves, or to your taste

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

Pinch of saffron threads, crumbled

1 large egg yolk

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

Directions

1. Soak the diced bread in the fennel broth for 5 minutes. Squeeze the broth out.

2. Mash the garlic cloves in a mortar with the salt until mushy.

3. Place the bread, mashed garlic, cayenne pepper, saffron, egg yolk and black pepper in a food processor and blend for 30 seconds then pour in 1 cup olive oil through the feed tube in a slow, thin, steady stream while the machine is running.

4. Refrigerate for 1 hour before serving. Store whatever you don’t use in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Note: If the rouille is separating, add 2 to 3 tablespoons of the fennel broth and whisk it in until smooth and re-emulsified.

5. Spread the rouille on toast points and lay into the soup bowl to serve with the fennel soup.

Main photo: Fennel bulb with fronds. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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