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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Forget Sad Canned Tuna, Splurge On The Good Stuff Image

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.

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

Ingredients

12 ounces canned tuna in extra virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons anchovy paste

½ pound mascarpone cheese

Olive oil

1 hard-boiled large egg, shelled and sliced

1 oil-preserved artichoke heart, sliced

Directions

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

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Give Turnip Greens The Italian Treatment Image

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.

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.

Serves 4

Ingredients

2 pounds turnip greens, rapini or broccoli rabe

Salt to taste

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

2 cups fresh bread crumbs

Directions

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

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Why Culture-Driven Cooking Is The Superior Choice Image

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.

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

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Resist The Temptation To Overdo Great Simple Dishes Image

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.

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

Ingredients

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

Salt

Directions

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

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The Sicilian Fish Made To Suit Your Temperament Image

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.

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’

Serves 4

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

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Woo Your Valentine Casanova-Style With Oysters Image

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.

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.”

Oysters in Thai chile cream sauce. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Oysters in Thai chile cream sauce. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

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