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David Latt

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Los Angeles, California

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David Latt has been a television writer/producer for 30 years, working on "Hill Street Blues" (won an Emmy), "The Hitchhiker," "Bakersfield P.D.," "Get A Life," "EZ Streets," "Stir Crazy," David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" (nominated for a second Emmy) and many others. He co-wrote half a dozen pilot scripts and headed the writing staff of DotComix a motion-capture animation website. And through the long hours and stress of dealing with production craziness -- bad weather, out of control costs, needy actors, and distressed fellow writers -- he shopped at farmers markets, cooked, and wrote about how important it is to eat well.

At times after a difficult week, he would cook all weekend. Eight, 10 hours each day, he worked at the cutting board and stove, cooking until he got his focus back and filled the dining room table with small plates of California-Mediterranean style dishes for his family and friends to enjoy. Wanting to share his passion about food, he wrote recipes and described the fun of exploring the local farmers markets.

Putting his television experience to good use, he created Secrets of Restaurant Chefs, a YouTube channel, with lively videos by well-known chefs sharing their favorite recipes.

In addition to writing about food for Zester Daily and his own sites, Men Who Like to Cook and Men Who Like to Travel, he has contributed to Mark Bittman's New York Times food blog, Bitten, One for the Table and TravelingMom. His helpful guide to holiday entertaining, "10 Delicious Holiday Recipes," is available on Amazon eCookbooks. He still develops for television but finds time to take his passion for food on the road as a contributor to Peter Greenberg's travel site, New York Daily News and Luxury Travel Magazine.

Articles by Author

Have Fresh Corn All Year? Freeze It! Image

Wanting to cook with farm-to-table ingredients is much more difficult in colder months than in the summer. Eating locally in the fall and winter means switching to recipes that feature root vegetables, cabbages and hearty greens like kale. The summer ingredient I miss the most is corn. My solution is to turn my freezer into a garden.

With a few easy steps, I can have fresh-tasting corn even during the darkest days of winter.

A Taste of Summer From Your Freezer


One in a series of stories about freezing late-summer produce to enjoy all winter.

Healthy tips to beat back winter’s grip

After years of experimentation, I believe that corn kernels retain their flavors best when frozen rather than pickled or preserved in glass jars. The trick with corn kernels is cooking them quickly and then submerging them in their own liquid.

Frozen in airtight containers, the kernels retain their qualities for several months, long enough to carry the home cook through to the spring when the farmers markets come alive again.

Use stacking containers so you can keep a half dozen or more in your freezer. Besides the containers available in supermarkets, restaurant supply stores sell lidded, plastic deli containers in 6-, 8- and 16-ounce sizes.

Charred Corn Kernels

Once defrosted, the kernels can be added to soups, stews, pastas and sautés.

Yield: 6 to 8 cups depending on the size of the ears

Prep time: 5 minutes

Sautéing time: 5 to 10 minutes

Ingredients

6 ears corn, husks and silks removed, ears washed

1 tablespoon olive oil

Directions

1. Using a sharp paring or chef knife cut the kernels off the cobs. Reserve the cobs.

2. Heat a large frying pan or carbon steel pan on a high flame.

3. Add olive oil and corn kernels. Stir frequently so the kernels cook evenly.

4. When the kernels have a light char, remove from the burner.

5. To avoid burning, continue to stir because the pan retains heat.

6. Set aside to cool.

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Corn kernels sautéing in a carbon steel pan. Credit: David Latt

Corn Broth

Corn broth keeps the kernels fresh in the freezer. The broth is also delicious when added to soups, stews, braising liquids and pasta sauce. If your recipe only needs the kernels, after defrosting remove them from the deli container and refreeze the corn broth for another use.

Simmer time: 30 minutes

Cooling time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

6 corn cobs without kernels, each cob broken in half

4 quarts water

Directions

1. Place the cobs and water in a large pot on a high flame.

2. Boil uncovered until the water is reduced by half.

3. Cool. Remove the cobs and discard for compost.

Freezing Corn Kernels in Corn Broth

Directions

1. Fill the deli containers with the kernels, a half-inch from the top.

2. Add enough corn broth to cover the kernels.

3. Seal with airtight lid.

4. Place in freezer. Freeze any excess corn broth to use as vegetarian stock.

Chicken Soup With Charred Corn and Garlic Mushrooms

Perfect for cold, wet days, hot chicken soup is a healthy dish to eat for lunch or dinner. The charred corn gives the hot and nutritious soup an added brightness and sweetness.

Yield: 4 servings

Prep time: 5 minutes

Simmer time: 20 minutes

Ingredients

8 ounces frozen corn kernels including stock

1 teaspoon olive oil

6 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)

2 tablespoons yellow onions, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, peeled, crushed, finely chopped

2 tablespoons Italian parsley, leaves only, finely chopped

1 cup shiitake, brown or Portobello mushrooms, washed, pat dried, sliced thin

Pinch cayenne (optional)

1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Defrost the corn kernels overnight. If you are using homemade frozen chicken stock, defrost that overnight as well.

2. Remove the corn kernels from the corn broth and reserve separately.

3. In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over a medium flame.

4. Sauté until lightly browned the corn, onions, garlic parsley and mushrooms. Stir frequently to avoid burning.

5. Add chicken stock and corn broth. Stir well and simmer 10 minutes.

6. Add cayenne and sweet butter (optional). Stir well, taste and adjust seasonings with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

7. Serve hot with homemade croutons or a loaf of fresh bread and butter.

Braised Charred Corn and Tuscan Kale

Adjust the amount of liquid to your liking. With more broth, the side dish is a refreshing small soup to accompany a plate of roast chicken. Reducing the broth to a thickness resembling a gravy, the corn-kale braise is a good companion to breaded or grilled filet of salmon or halibut.

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

8 ounces corn kernels and corn broth

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 bunch Tuscan (black) kale, washed, center stem removed, leaves roughly chopped

1 medium yellow onion, washed, peeled, roughly chopped

2 garlic cloves, skins removed, washed, crushed, finely chopped

1 cup vegetable or chicken stock, preferably homemade

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

Pinch cayenne (optional)

1 teaspoon sweet butter (optional)

Directions

1. Defrost corn kernels and broth overnight.

2. Separate the kernels from the broth, reserve both.

3. Heat a large frying pan.

4. Add olive oil.

5. Add kale and sauté, stirring frequently to avoid burning.

6. The kale will give up its moisture. When the kale has reduced in size by half, add the corn kernels, onion and garlic. Sauté until lightly browned.

7. Add the reserved corn broth and the other broth. Stir well.

8. Simmer 10 minutes.

9. Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt and pepper. Add butter and cayenne (optional).

10 .Serve with more or less liquid as desired.

Onion-Corn-Mushroom Sauté

Personally, when it’s cold outside, I love a steak grilled on a high temperature carbon steel pan. The outside gets a salty crust while the inside stays juicy and sweet. Mashed potatoes are a good side dish, accompanied with an onion, corn and mushroom sauté. The combination of flavors—meaty, creamy-salty-earthly-summer sweet—is satisfyingly umami. Throw in a vodka martini ,and you’ll never notice that outside your warm kitchen the sidewalks have iced over and it is about to snow.

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

1 cup corn kernels

1 teaspoon olive oil

2 medium yellow onions, washed, peeled, root removed, thin sliced

2 to 4 garlic cloves, washed, peeled, crushed, roughly chopped

2 cups shiitake, brown or Portobello mushrooms, washed, pat dried, thin sliced

1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

Pinch cayenne (optional)

1 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves, washed, pat dried, finely chopped (optional)

Directions

1. Defrost corn kernels and broth overnight.

2. Separate the kernels from the broth, reserve both. Refreeze the broth for later use.

3. Heat a large frying pan.

4. Add olive oil.

5. On a medium flame, sauté onions, stirring frequently until lightly browned. That caramelization will add sweetness to the sauté.

6. Add corn, garlic, mushrooms. Stir well. Sauté until lightly browned.

7. Add sweet butter (optional), cayenne (optional) and rosemary (optional). Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt and black pepper.

8. Serve hot as a side dish or condiment.

Main photo: Corn kernels cut off the cob being prepared for freezing. Credit: David Latt

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When the Water Runs Out: Farming in a Drought Image

I feel for James Birch. He is having a tough year. Sitting in the shade, his weather-beaten hands on his lap, he describes prepping his fields for the fall planting. Cutting furrows with his tractor, the blades kicked up thick, Dust Bowl clouds of powder-dry dirt that made it difficult to breathe. In the telling of his story he laughed, no doubt because in the third year of a devastating drought, a farmer needs a sense of humor.

Birch doesn’t complain. He grew up around farming. And farming is what he knows, so he’s not about to quit even if these past several years have been really hard.

Throughout the Western United States and especially in California, farmers have been dealing with a multiyear drought that shows no signs of ending. It’s gotten so bad, fertile fields have been taken out of production because there’s no water for irrigation. That means lower crop yields and higher prices for consumers.

The problem begins in the mountains. Within sight of Flora Bella Farm, the Sierra Nevada runs for hundreds of miles. The line of rugged peaks cuts along the eastern side of the state. The importance of the snowpack that collects on the Sierras for California’s agriculture cannot be overstated.

The farms around Birch in Tulare County north of Bakersfield depend on that water. After a buildup of snow during the winter, when the temperatures warm, the snow melts and collects in the Upper Kaweah Watershed, which feeds the north, middle and south forks of the Kaweah River, irrigating Birch’s fields. But again this year the snowpack was below normal. And that was bad news for Birch.

A hundred-year drought

A dozen years ago I visited Flora Bella Farm because Birch and I were working on a farm-to-kitchen cookbook with California-Mediterranean recipes. On that visit, Birch walked me to the river next to the farm. The cool water ran fast and clear and was several feet deep. Last week he emailed a photograph that showed the problem in the most graphic way.

Birch stands on a completely dry riverbed.

Old-timers tell Birch that the last time the rivers dried up was in 1906 when a cowboy said he rode across the main fork and his horse’s hooves didn’t get wet.

In 2012 and 2013, the drought was bad. Knowing 2014 would be no better, Birch came up with a plan. He began converting his above-ground sprinklers to a drip system. He enlarged his holding ponds and filled them to capacity. But the drought was worse than expected.

Three rivers, now no rivers

One by one the Kaweah River’s three tributaries dried up. And by mid-August he had used all the water in the ponds. In late September, the only water on the farm comes from a low volume well that supplies his home.

Without water, Birch doesn’t have a lot to bring to the farmers markets where he sells his produce. When I saw him recently at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, he had only potatoes, squash, olives and grapes to sell. Around him the other farmers had their usual bounty on display. Why, I asked him, do they seem to be unaffected by the drought?

The answer was pretty simple. Birch relies entirely on the Sierras’ snowmelt to irrigate his crops. The other farms have allotments from the California Aqueduct, which transports water 500 miles south from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, or they have high-volume wells that pump groundwater from the vast aquifers, the water-bearing sandy soils that lie beneath many parts of California.

Birch does not have access to either the aqueduct or to groundwater. Because he is in the foothills of the Sierras, the aquifer is too deep for him to reach except at great expense. And, even if he had the money to dig a well, the water-drilling companies in the area have a two-year waiting list.

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James Birch at the Flora Bella Farm stall at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market. Credit: David Latt

After the rivers and his holding ponds dried up, the only water available was the low-volume house well. That was a tough moment. Whichever plants he didn’t water, died. “First it was the cucumbers, then the peppers, tomatillos, most of the squash, the greens, and then everything in the fields,” he said.

In the orchard, his mature fruit trees produce apricots, Santa Rosa and Golden Nectar plums, nectarines and sour cherries. He also has younger Mandarin orange, lemon and pomegranate trees. All the trees are stressed. He doles out the little bit of water he can from the house well. But ultimately he faces another difficult decision. If the river doesn’t start flowing soon, he’ll have to cut down the older trees and plant citrus trees, which use less water.

Between a rock and a hard place

Birch is preparing the next planting. In his greenhouse he is growing Swiss chard, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, chicory, collards, cabbage, artichokes, fennel and cardoon seedlings. Now they’re strong and ready to plant. His fields are tilled and planted with mustard, spinach, radishes, mizuna, arugula and kale seeds. If he gets these crops to market, he will do well.

But Birch is in a bind.

Both the seedlings and seeds need moisture to grow. Birch reads the weather forecasts hoping storms will give him the rain he needs. But he has another problem. Winter is coming. The temperatures will soon drop. If the rains are late and the plants aren’t mature enough before the frost comes, they won’t survive.

Looking to the future

The truth is nobody knows when or if the rains will come. If the drought continues, farmers who are currently unaffected will be impacted.

Farmers relying on the California Aqueduct will find their allocations curtailed or eliminated. That has already happened in parts of the San Joaquin Valley, one of California’s most important agricultural areas. In an extended drought, farmers whose water comes from wells will also be affected. Heavy use of the aquifer has caused a dramatic drop in the available groundwater.

To survive in a drier climate, farmers like Birch are pursuing conservation efforts.

Birch has applied for a federal grant from the Department of Agriculture’s NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) so he can switch completely from above-ground irrigation to an underground drip system.

To keep out the deer and squirrels that come down from the mountains looking for food and water, he built an 8-foot-tall fence. He planted a hedgerow of native flowering plants along the perimeter of the property to attract predatory insects to fight back infestations of aphids and mites, which eat the water-starved plants and carry destructive viruses.

In the best case scenario, if winter storms build up the snowpack in the Sierras., then the rivers will run as clear and deep as they have in the past, the aquifer will be replenished and Flora Bella Farm will be back to its former glory but this time needing less water than before.

And if the drought continues, Birch will be as ready as he can be.

Main photo: The cucumber fields at Flora Bella Farm in Three Rivers, Calif., during the 2014 drought. Credit: Dawn Birch

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The Secret For Velvety Corn Soup Without Cream Image

As this best part of summer delivers a ready-to-eat bounty of fresh vegetables to the kitchen, Luigi Fineo, executive chef at West Hollywood’s RivaBella Ristorante, shows off a large bowl of Iowa yellow corn. With one taste, Fineo knew what he would do with these fat sun-ripened kernels. He would make a healthy, sweet tasting soup.

The youngest of five, Fineo grew up in southern Italy in Gioia del Colle. Like many chefs, he learned to love cooking in his mother’s kitchen. Helping to prepare the family’s meals, she taught him the basics. That early training would serve him well as he worked in demanding restaurants around the world from Francesco Berardinelli’s Shooeneck Ristorante in Falzes, Italy, to Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif..

From the outside, RivaBella has the appearance of just another upscale restaurant. Inside, the sprawling interior is set-dressed to look like an elegant version of a rustic Italian country inn. Full-sized trees and a 7-foot tall brick hearth dominate the interior. During the day when the retractable ceiling is open, the bright blue Southern California sky hangs overhead.

The current menu recalls the kitchen of Fineo’s mother and the refinements of his colleague, owner-chef Gino Angelini, who helped popularize quality Italian cooking in Los Angeles. The entrees include fine-dining versions of Italian classics: risotto with porcini mushrooms, spinach lasagna, Veal Milanese and pasta with broccolini and salmoriglio.

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A bowl of Iowa corn used to make a yellow corn soup with sautéed crab and chives, prepared by Chef Luigi Fineo in the kitchen at RivaBella Ristorante, West Hollywood, Calif. Credit: David Latt

Reflecting his time spent in Santa Monica’s La Botte where he earned a Michelin star, Fineo also enjoys using the high-tech tools that are popular in many contemporary restaurant kitchens.

For his slow-cooked lamb shoulder ragù, he adds summer flavor with peaches he dehydrates, then rehydrates in a white wine bath flavored with cinnamon, anise and bay leaves. The handmade pappardelle he serves with the ragù is made with flour, flavored with a fine pistachio powder that is first frozen in liquid nitrogen before being  ground into the fine powder.

Of the corn, by the corn and for the corn

When I first tasted the corn soup at RivaBella, it was so velvety, I asked if heavy cream or butter were used. The answer was neither.

In his kitchen for the video demonstration, Chef Fineo explained that he did not need cream or butter to create his soup. All he needed was farm-fresh Iowa corn, a little water, a pinch or two of salt and a lot of stirring.

Usually when Fineo makes soups, he begins with a sauté of shallots and aromatics. Cooking with corn, he’s inclined to roast the kernels. But with this sweet corn, he decided he didn’t need to add flavor and he didn’t need to employ any high-tech machines. To prepare his corn soup, he would return to the basics he learned from his mother.

Yellow Sweet Corn Soup

Total Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Because, essentially there is only one ingredient, use high quality, fresh corn to create a soup that is healthy and delicious. When picking corn, choose ears that have green, healthy husks and kernels that are plump. If the kernels are indented or the husks are brown, choose different ears. In the restaurant, the soup is served with fresh crabmeat to enhance its upscale qualities. But Fineo recommends that the soup is a treat served entirely as a vegetarian or vegan dish.

Ingredients

  • 12 ears yellow corn, shucked, washed, pat dried
  • ¾ cup water
  • Sea salt to taste
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh chives
  • ½ cup crab meat, preferably crab leg meat (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon butter (optional)
  • 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (optional)
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper (optional)

Directions

  1. Using a sharp knife, cut the raw kernels from the cobs.
  2. Working in batches, two cups at a time, place the kernels into a large blender and blend with just enough water, about one tablespoon water for each cup of kernels. To create a vortex, if needed, add more water.
  3. Blend each batch about 45 seconds.
  4. Again, working in batches, strain the resulting corn mash through a chinois or a fine meshed strainer, capturing the liquid in a large bowl. To release all the liquid, press on the corn mash gently, using the back of a large ladle or large kitchen spoon.
  5. Transfer the corn juice to a large saucepan or small stock pot and place uncovered on the stove.
  6. Using high heat, bring the liquid to a boil and then lower to medium.
  7. Using a wire whisk, gently stir the liquid 30 to 40 minutes until reaching the desired thickness. Very importantly, the liquid must be stirred constantly to prevent the corn’s sugars from sticking to the bottom and burning.
  8. As the liquid thickens, lower the heat.
  9. Taste and add sea salt as desired. Serve hot, topped with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of finely chopped chives.
  10. Optionally, in a non-stick pan on low heat, sauté the crab pieces in olive oil or butter until crispy on all sides, then place one or two pieces on top of each bowl of soup and garnish with chives and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Instead of crab, Chef Fineo also recommends using shrimp or scallops.
  11. Season with a pinch of sea salt and black pepper. Drain the crab on a paper towel. Place on top of the soup. Drizzle with olive oil and finely chopped chives.

Main photo: Yellow corn soup with sautéed crab and chives. Credit: David Latt

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Chef Giacomino Drago Gives Panzanella A Healthy Twist Image

Chef Giacomino Drago smiles a lot. The youngest member of a family of cooks to immigrate from Sicily, Drago, along with his brothers, has opened a dozen restaurants in Los Angeles, many in Beverly Hills, over the past four decades.

A contributor to the Beverly Hills Centennial Cookbook,” Drago declares that using the highest quality, freshest ingredients is the essence of Italian cooking. In his video he demonstrates an easy-to-prepare, classic Italian panzanella salad with diet-friendly spelt instead of bread.

Drago enjoys cooking. He smiles as he drops a handful of spaghetti into one of the half dozen pots of salted water on the stove and when he quickly renders a red onion into a mound of thin, pungent ribbons.

Come to Italy, he says, and one of the first salads you will eat is one made with vine-ripened tomatoes,  basil, red onions, extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, and salt and pepper. Simplicity, he says several times, is the essence of Italian cooking. Find the freshest, highest-quality ingredients and prepare them in what Drago calls the rustic way, roughly cut so the dish is not overly fussy. The result is delicious, healthy food that is easy and fun to make.

A panzanella salad is the perfect dish for summer. To pursue the “current fashion,” as he puts it, he has traded spelt for bread in a signature salad at Via Alloro in Beverly Hills. He chose spelt because it has a refreshing texture and nutty quality that contrasts well with the acid of the tomato and vinegar. A heritage grain and cousin to wheat, spelt was developed hundreds of years ago as a flour in bread making. High in protein and fiber, Drago says spelt is heart-healthy because it is high in niacin. Because “panzanella” refers to a bread (“pane”) salad, it might be more accurate to call chef’s creation a speltzanella.

Chef Drago loves all his restaurants. But he designed the kitchen at Via Alloro in a special way. The area where the line cooks work is a horseshoe space with stoves in the middle and counters running along the walls. There are no dead-ends in this kitchen. Moving efficiently Drago and Executive Chef Paolo Sicuro prepare dishes with an unhurried ease, transferring their love of cooking onto the plates.

Fresh tomatoes are key to the flavor and pleasures of the salad. To protect the tomatoes’ richness of flavor, Drago insists they must never be refrigerated. That is why buying tomatoes from farmers markets is so important. Supermarket tomatoes may have been refrigerated for days, even weeks during their journey from the field to your kitchen.

Drago is precise about his cooking but flexible in terms of ingredients and seasoning. When cooking at home, he encourages that you use only ingredients you enjoy. If you do not like onions, don’t use them in the salad. The same goes for cucumbers and ground black pepper.

Diet-Friendly Spelt Panzanella Salad

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings as a salad portion, 2 servings as an entrée.

To capture all the tomato juice, chef cuts the tomatoes over the bowl. Use a variety of tomatoes for contrasts in shape, color and flavor. For the demonstration, Drago and Siruro used vine ripened, cherry and grape tomatoes. Yellow and heirloom tomatoes could also be added for contrast. To make the onion slices more “friendly,” Drago suggests double rinsing in water. This will result in a more mild flavor. Not widely available, spelt berries can be purchased in specialty markets and ordered online from purveyors such as Bob’s Red Mill. Cooked like pasta in boiling salted water, kosher salt should be used for the cleanest taste. Chef Drago uses English or hothouse cucumbers for the dish. If those are not available, Persian cucumbers would be a good substitute because they have a lower water content than garden cucumbers. The spelt may be cooked ahead and refrigerated. The other ingredients should be prepared immediately before serving to preserve their freshness.

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons spelt
  • 2 medium-sized tomatoes, washed, stem removed, cut into a small dice, reserving the liquid
  • 5 cherry tomatoes, washed, quartered
  • 5 plum tomatoes, washed, quartered
  • 1 small hothouse cucumber, washed, skin on, a small dice the same size as the tomatoes (optional)
  • ¼ medium red onion, washed, root and stem removed, thin sliced (optional)
  • 4 fresh basil leaves, washed, pat dried, roughly torn or chopped
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • Pinch of salt to taste
  • Pinch of freshly ground black pepper to taste (optional)
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Directions

  1. Add kosher salt to three quarts of water. Bring to a rapid boil. Add spelt. Boil uncovered 30-50 minutes or longer depending on the desired doneness. Taste at 30 minutes to determine what is al dente for you and then again at 10-minute intervals until you reach the texture you like. I prefer cooking the spelt 50 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool
  2. Using a sharp paring knife, cut the tomatoes over the salad bowl to capture all the juices.
  3. Cut the skin-on cucumber into pieces similar in size to the tomatoes and add to the bowl.
  4. Slice the red onion. Submerge in cold water, rinse, drain, submerge in fresh cold water, rinse and drain. Add to the tomatoes and cucumbers.
  5. Add the cooked spelt berries.
  6. Roughly chop the basil leaves or tear them with your hands. Add to the salad bowl.
  7. Toss the spelt, vegetables and aromatics with the extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar.
  8. Season with sea salt to taste and freshly ground black pepper, as desired.
  9. Serve as a salad or a side with grilled meats, fish and poultry.

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Smoky Mezcal Mixes Up A Spicy-Sweet Cocktail Image

This year, the gloomy, wet, cold winter seemed to last forever. Happily all that is a dim memory now. With heat and humidity back in our lives, it’s time for ice cold beverages, with new concoctions always welcome. Increasingly, mezcal (also spelled mescal) is appearing in trendsetting bars and liquor stores and inventive mixologists are using it to make fun and refreshing cocktails, perfect for summer.

All tequilas are mezcal but not all mezcals are tequilas

The Mexican government controls how and where mezcal and tequila are produced. It is as diligent in protecting the integrity of those appellations as is the French government in its guarantee that a wine labeled Bordeaux comes from that region.

There is still a lot of confusion about mezcal, beginning with what exactly is it? To get to the heart of the matter, I talked with mixologist Marcos Tello, who consults with El Silencio, a distillery in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Tello explained that both mezcal and tequila are made from the agave or maguey plant. Although there are dozens of agave varieties that are employed to make mezcal, for a distillate to be licensed by the government as tequila, only the blue agave may be used.

Tequila and mezcal are grown and bottled in different, designated regions but there are some overlaps. Tequila is primarily grown and distilled in the Mexican states of Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit and Tamaulipas.

Mezcal is exclusively manufactured in Durango, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas and Zacatecas but both mezcal and tequila are produced in the states of Guanajuato and Oaxaca.

Most mezcal is manufactured from a single type of plant, usually espadin agave. Sometimes agaves are blended to create a balanced flavor as is the case with El Silencio Mezcal, which blends espadin, tobasiche and Mexicano agaves.

Roasted, not steamed

To prepare the agave plant for fermentation, the body of the plant is trimmed of its thick leaves. What is left, the “piña,” looks like a pineapple. To make tequila, the piña is steamed and then fermented. For mezcal, the next step is crucial in creating the spirit’s distinctive flavor. Before fermentation, the piña is roasted in an underground pit. For aficionados, the resulting smoky aroma gives mezcal a quality similar to scotch and whiskey.

Like tequila, mezcal is graded. Joven (“young”), the first grade, indicates a mescal that was bottled within 60 days of being distilled. Reposado (“rested”) is aged longer, between two months and a year. If mezcal is aged in small oak barrels for at least six months and as many as four years, then it is labeled añejo (“aged”).

Among other classifications, there is also pechuga (“breast”), which denotes a small-batch mezcal that after completing two distillations is given a flavor-enhancing step in which fruits (plums, apples, pineapples and plantains), almonds, uncooked rice and a chicken breast with the skin removed are added. Yes, you read that correctly, a raw chicken breast, which is suspended over the fermenting distillate, the juices and fat helping balance the fruit flavors.

Mezcal cannot be substituted for tequila in all recipes. The deeply nuanced smoky flavor can overpower the ingredients used in many tequila cocktails. To illustrate mezcal’s distinctive qualities, Tello created a signature cocktail he calls a Saladito.

As with any cocktail that employs robust flavor components, the least expensive grade of mezcal should be used. Save the reposado, añejo and pechuga to sip and enjoy neat or on the rocks.

Saladito (courtesy of Marcos Tello)

Yield: 1 serving

Proust wrote that when he was presented with a plate of madeleines, childhood memories of an “exquisite pleasure” consumed him. Saladitos have a similar impact on Tello. The inexpensive Mexican candy originally from China is made from chile-salted, dried plums. Tello was inspired by homemade versions of the candy. On hot summer days, children would press a saladito into the middle of a lemon or lime and drink the juice as relief from the oppressive heat. That flavor memory inspired his creation of a mezcal cocktail that has sweetness lurking behind the smoky citrus notes. To add a salty-heat garnish to the cocktail, Tello uses a popular Mexican prepared seasoning called Tajin, a mixture of salt, dehydrated lime juice and pepper powder. If Tajin is not readily available, a similar effect can be created by mixing your own version as described here.

Ingredients

  • ¾ ounce honey syrup (see below)
  • 2 ounces mezcal (Tello recommends El Silencio Joven)
  • ¾ ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
  • ¼ teaspoon Tajin seasoning or combine 2 parts fine granulated sea salt to 1 part cayenne pepper

Directions

  1. Prepare the honey syrup by combining 3 parts honey with 1 part hot water. Mix well. Refrigerate to cool. Reserve.
  2. Fill a cocktail shaker or a large (16-ounce) glass with ice.
  3. Add the mezcal, honey syrup and lime juice.
  4. Place a lid over the top and shake vigorously.
  5. Open the shaker, cover the top with a bar strainer (also known as a Hawthorne Strainer) and pour into a cocktail glass.
  6. Dust the top of the cocktail with Tajin seasoning or the cayenne-salt mix.
  7. Serve chilled.

Main photo: A mezcal Saladito by Marcos Tello. Credit: David Latt

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Just One Good Way To Try Swiss Wines, And It’s Worth It Image

Which Swiss wines do you love? Hands? Anybody? Nobody? Know why? Only 2% of Switzerland’s wine production is exported. All the rest is consumed domestically. The best way — actually, the only way — to sample Swiss wines is to visit Switzerland. That’s what I did last fall.

The Valais’ microclimate

Having grown up with images of Switzerland as a land of snow-covered mountains,  I expected cold weather when I visited the Valais, a  French-speaking canton east of Geneva. But the climate was better suited to shorts and T-shirts than to parkas.

Neatly trellised vineyards climb up steep hills taking advantage of a hot, dry microclimate. With 300 days of sun a year, the Valais feels like Napa and Sonoma except for the Matterhorn looming in the distance.

In Switzerland, family-owned vineyards and wineries (called vignerons-encaveurs) are the rule. Even if unprofitable, they stay in the family. We met one winemaker whose family was regarded as a newcomer. They had worked the vineyard for only three generations, whereas the neighboring farm had been owned by one family for seven generations. Neither winery was self-sustaining. Everyone had a day job.

During a hosted trip we tasted dozens of varietals from local vineyards, some with such a small output that customers who lived in the neighborhood consumed their entire production.

The wine most closely associated with the Valais is Fendant, a white wine made with the Chasselas grape. But it is a red wine, not a white, that is making news these days.

Cornalin, the new kid on the block

Twenty years ago the Swiss government encouraged farmers to plant improved strains of grapes that were indigenous to Switzerland and to pursue new blends with distinctive qualities. The goal was to expand the export market for Swiss wines.

In the Valais that led to the improvement of Cornalin, a grape that had been cultivated since the Roman Empire. Used primarily in blends to make inexpensive table reds, the wine was often bottled without appellation or date of production.

Rouge du Pays

Frequently confused with an Italian grape with a similar name, the Swiss variety (Rouge du Pays or Cornalin du Valais) is genetically distinct. In the 1990s the Agroscope Changins-Wädenswi, a federal agricultural agency, funded research to cultivate promising local strains to improve the quality of the grapes and the survivability of the vines. A group of young vintners adopting the appellation Le Coteaux de Sierre planted the new vines. Over time, the acreage in the Valais devoted to Cornalin has expanded.

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The Cornalin Museum, Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins in the village of Flanthey, Switzerland. Credit: David Latt

The wines have a low-tannin, fruity flavor and a dark cherry red color. Helping market wines made with 100% Cornalin grapes, the wineries of the area have enlisted an unlikely champion.

Antoine Bailly is an internationally respected academic and a Nobel Peace Prize winner (Geography, 2012). A native of Switzerland, Bailly travels the world as a lecturer. These days his passion project is Cornalin.

A Cornalin Museum: Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins

On a tour of the under-renovation Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins in the village of Flanthey, Bailly pointed out details of the building, parts of which were built in the 13th and 16th centuries. Restored at great expense, the building is unique in the area for its history and architectural details. Open to the public in late August 2014, a photographic tour of the museum is available on a French language website.

In the tasting room, products from 17 of the local wineries can be sampled, along with cheeses and charcuterie from local purveyors. To visualize where the grape is grown, Bailly created an interactive map with the locations of the Cornalin vineyards in the Valais. Another interactive display with video screens illustrates the cultivation of the grape.

A temperamental grape

In the tasting room, with Bailly leading an animated discussion accompanied with appetizers of local cheeses and slices of beef sausage from Boucherie La Lienne in the village of Lens, we sampled several of the 100% Cornalin wines. Each of us had our favorite. Mine was the Bagnoud Cornalin, Coteaux de Sierra (2012) Rouge du Valais.

Bailly described the grape as difficult to grow and unstable. Slight variations in heat or rainfall can ruin the harvest. Through trial and error, the vintners have learned how to get the best out of the grape.

So why bother with such a temperamental grape? The answer was pretty direct. The vintners like the wine they’re making with Cornalin. For them, the extra effort and increased risk are worth it.

Cornalin needs three years in the bottle to mature. With the vintages currently offered for sale, these wines will be at their best just about the time the museum opens. Bailly invited us all to come back then. In the meantime, we bought bottles of our favorites to bring home. We had become little agents of export for Swiss wines.

Top photo: The Cornalin Museum, Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins in the village of Flanthey.  Credit: David Latt

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