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Between revelations by Italian police in December linking organized crime to 7,000 tons of counterfeit olive oil, and an estimated four-fold increase in adulterated extra virgin following the dismal 2014 olive harvest, there is no denying that fraud remains rampant. With 72 percent worldwide sales of olive oil at stake and all eyes on industry practices, Italy is fighting back.
EU and Italian government and trade organizations, including members of parliament, the Italian Trade Agency, UNAPROL (a consortium of Italian olive oil producers), and even an emissary of the Vatican, met last month to both address the problem of olive oil fraud and to outline their plans for a comeback.
“We must recuperate our damaged reputation,” said Colomba Mongiello, an Italian senator and president of the Counterfeiting Commission. She was responding to a survey conducted at Expo Milan 2015 in October, showing that 99 percent of foreign visitors involved believed that Italian olive oil was adulterated and that the consumer was being cheated. “Our objective is to reach the U.S. market and make them understand the difference between what looks Italian and what is Italian,” she said.
The conference, billed “Extract,” is part of a larger Italian effort to promote the country’s food and wine in the U.S., where imitation products labeled with Italian names, or colors of the Italian flag, are often mistaken for genuine imports. The strategy is two-pronged: legislating tougher penalties for fraud by going after Italian producers who don’t follow regulations, and launching the largest marketing effort ever made to inform American consumers how to taste and use extra virgin olive oil.
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“We have to do the same thing we do with wine to get people to understand olive oil,” said culture guru Franco Maria Ricci, who spoke. “Four-year old children in France are taught that wine is an angel. Italy is an olive oil culture and [its] significance needs to be transmitted in the same way …. If we don’t understand its qualities and terroir, we won’t understand its value.”
Crime has always been associated with olive oil, a substance so precious and prized in Mediterranean culture that its production and trade has invariably had a dark side. Merchants have been known to cut extra virgin with cheap oil to increase their profits since ancient times, and farmers had to fear brigands waiting in ambush as they transported oil to market.
Today there is a different kind of criminal on the olive oil trail. It is the unscrupulous producer who intentionally mislabels oils to mislead consumers into thinking they are buying genuine Italian virgin olive oil when they are not. These murky practices have both hurt ethical producers and confused consumers. As journalist and Zester Daily contributor Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of “Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil,” told me recently, “The problem … is that there are two kinds of olive oil in the world: commodity oil and excellent oil, which is usually estate-bottled and always very carefully produced …. [but] we keep trying to judge excellent oil as a commodity and vice versa.”
World’s best olive oil
If Italy, which arguably produces the best olive oil in the world, has been a hotbed of fraud, it is also at the forefront of combating crime in the business. Where else are police trained to sniff out fakes at every stage of the supply chain? And who, but the Italians, have a system–IGP (Protected Geographical Indication) and the more stringent DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin)—that regulates the way it is made and that can lead us to the very trees it came from, and practically, the humans who crafted it?
From the terraced slopes and soft valleys of Italy’s central regions and the microclimates of Veneto and Liguria, to the expansive southern plateaus and sun-drenched islands, come some of the most sublime olives oils, produced by artisans who have the passion for making it in their bloodlines. Like the country’s new breed of winemakers who focus on quality over quantity, they are making delicious oils with the flavor peculiarities of their particular landscape. Utilizing the benefits of modern technology for cultivation while practicing sustainable growing and traditional picking methods, they are no doubt making better oil than their ancestors did.
How to buy good olive oil
That said, not all well-made olive oil carries the DOP seal. If we were to limit ourselves to those alone, we would miss out on many fine extra-virgins. As with “USDA Organic,” the rigorous and costly bureaucratic process discourages many a small ethical producer from applying.
Assuming you are not an expert, the best approach to finding good olive oil is not unlike that for choosing good wine: Find a knowledgeable retailer to guide you. If such a place doesn’t exist in your neighborhood, you can order online from vendors whose buyers are experts. Each of these retailers carries a selection of fresh olive oil that is ethically produced from the current harvest:
Gustiamo in New York City, New York (www.gustiamo.com)
Market Hall Foods in Oakland, California (www.markethallfoods.com)
Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan (www.zingermans.com)
Main photo: In Italy, there’s a move to protect olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce/Forktales
If radicchio has become wildly popular in the States, it still doesn’t get the respect it deserves: Americans have adopted the showy vegetable as their own, but rarely does it transcend the salad bowl. This drives the Italians crazy, because throughout the regions where growing it is a tradition and an art, it has endless uses. Stuff it; shred it and caramelize it in olive oil for a pasta sauce or focaccia topping; melt it into a buttery risotto; coat it in batter and fry. Why not bake it into a cheesy pie encased in a crumbly crust? Venetians have no end of such recipes for their adored radicchio, and the different varieties they grow are starting to show their beautiful heads in American markets. Recently, I spoke with Emily Balducci, whose family introduced the vegetable to New York in the 1970s. Their legendary Greenwich Village grocery store evolved into Baldor Specialty Foods, which curates and distributes fresh produce to retailers and chefs. “Beginning in January, we get shipments twice a week,” she said. “The first of these winter beauties is Castelfranco, and the others follow. At the end of the season, we get rosa di Gorizia, the most gorgeous one of all.”
Know your radicchio
To begin with, it should be noted that the radicchio tribe belongs to the group of root chicories classified as Cichorium intybus; as such, the leaves have a bite to them when eaten raw. While we are most familiar with the wine-colored, globe-shaped Verona chicory, there are numerous varieties indigenous to northeastern Italy, all characterized by their spectacular reddish or reddish-green coloring. Besides radicchio rosso di Verona (also called “the rose of Chioggia,” just to confuse the matter), these include another spherical type that can grow as large as a cabbage head: the Castelfranco radicchio, which is shaped like an open peony and cream-hued with violet streaking as well as a green tint to its outermost leaves. Both the Treviso radicchio (variegato di Treviso) and the late-winter tardivo di Treviso are elongated just like their cousin the Belgian endive, but the comparison stops there. With its leggy white stalks and furled, deep-purple leaf tips, tardivo (which means “late-blooming”) is the most esteemed by the Italians for its sweetness. Of all the radicchios, the most lovely of all might very well be the aforementioned rosa di Gorizia, a crimson variety shaped precisely like a rose. In the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, where rosa di Gorizia has been cultivated for centuries, greengrocers display the heads with their leaves open, like blooms in a flower shop.
To cook it is to love it
Personally, I prefer radicchio cooked. Sautéing, braising, grilling or roasting softens yet also develops its characteristic tanginess. One of the most delicious ways to cook it is to stuff the leaves with fresh cheese and wrap with pancetta before pan-roasting. But my favorite of all just might be spaghetti with radicchio, for which all but the rosa di Gorizia are suitable (let’s face it, even though the locals bake, boil or fry them like any other chicory, the rosettes are simply too exquisite to be tampered with; best to present them in their natural state to be appreciated for their beauty). Both recipes are easy and quick to make.
Radicchio Stuffed With Goat Cheese
Prep time: 25 minutes
Cooking time: Approximately 5 minutes
Total time: About 30 minutes
Yield: 4 appetizer portions
Friends who moved to Italy and invited us to lunch one afternoon at their temporary digs served this easy-to-make antipasto. Gail Whitney-Karn shared the recipe willingly, explaining that it originated with a chef named Carmine Smeraldo, who ran a Seattle restaurant called Il Terrazzo Carmine. She used the Castelfranco variety, but I have adapted it for the smaller and more common Verona type. If using Verona radicchio, select the largest head you can find for the broadest outer leaves (there will be some left over, which you can use for the pasta recipe that follows). You will also need some thin cotton kitchen string.
1 large head radicchio
2 tablespoons Italian (not Asian) pine nuts, or skinned walnuts
5 ounces goat cheese
2 tablespoons ricotta
Pinch of fine salt
Freshly milled black or white pepper to taste
4 to 8 thin slices pancetta (depending on the bundle size), the leaner the better
Extra virgin olive oil
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1. Using a small, sharp knife, core the base of the radicchio. Detach eight nice outer leaves carefully, without tearing. Slice off the protruding base from the bottom of each rib to make it easier to roll up.
2. In a small skillet over low heat, lightly toast the pine nuts or walnuts until they are lightly colored but not browned. Chop them coarsely.
3. In a bowl, blend together the goat cheese, ricotta, nuts, salt and pepper.
4. Working with two leaves at a time, line one inside the other so that their bases are just overlapping in the center and the leaf tips are pointing outward. Place a rounded tablespoon of the cheese mixture in the center. Wrap the leaves around the filling to envelop it completely and form a torpedo-like bundle. Wrap one or two pancetta slices on the outside of the bundle to cover the leafy surface without overlapping, if possible. Secure with the kitchen string to prevent the filling from leaking excessively as the bundles sear. Use the remaining 6 leaves and filling to form 3 more bundles.
5. Warm an ample non-stick frying pan, cast-iron pan or other heavy skillet over medium heat. Drizzle in just enough olive oil to lightly coat the pan. Arrange the bundles seam-side down and reduce the heat to medium-low. Sear without moving them until they are nicely browned, about 2 minutes. As the pancetta browns, the bundles will begin to collapse and the filling may leak out slightly, but not to worry. Use a wide spatula to turn them over carefully and brown them on the reverse side, another 2 minutes. Transfer them to a cutting board, snip off the string and carefully place one each on 4 small serving plates. Serve at once.
Spaghetti With Braised Radicchio
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: Approximately 20 minutes
Total time: About 30 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
I corresponded with Paolo Lanapoppi, a Venetian writer and gondola restorer, for some time before tracking him down in Venice. When we finally met, the radicchio of nearby Treviso was in full flower, and he cooked up this delightful homespun dish for lunch. While Lanapoppi used tardivo, any radicchio variety will do nicely.
8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced and then chopped
8 ounces radicchio, sliced thinly and cut into 2-inch lengths
1/2 to 3/4 cup hot water
1/2 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
3/4 pound (12 ounces) imported Italian spaghetti
2 tablespoons kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese
1. In a skillet ample enough to contain all the ingredients, warm the olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the onion and sauté until nicely softened and lightly colored, about 7 minutes. Toss in the radicchio; use a wooden spoon to coat it evenly in oil and sauté for 5 to 7 minutes to wilt. Add 1/2 cup hot water and toss. Cover and continue to cook over medium-low heat until the radicchio is tender, 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding up to 4 more tablespoons of water if needed to keep it nice and moist. Add the sea salt, cover and set aside.
2. Bring a large pot filled with water over high heat to a rolling boil. Stir in the spaghetti and kosher salt. Cook at a continuous boil over high heat, stirring occasionally to prevent the strands from sticking together, until almost cooked, 1 minute less than package directions indicate. Add a glass of cold water to the pot to arrest the boiling and drain immediately, setting aside 1 cup of the cooking water.
3. Add the spaghetti to the skillet and return the heat to high. Use 2 long forks to distribute the ingredients evenly, about 1 minute. If necessary, add a little of the reserved pasta water to moisten. Serve immediately with plenty of pepper. Pass the grated cheese at the table.
Main photo: Radicchio stuffed with goat cheese. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales
“You can always judge the quality of a cook or a restaurant by roast chicken,” wrote Julia Child in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” It was a bold statement, but it reflected a certain historic reverence for the fowl, which in France has historically been considered “the best of all birds covered by the name of poultry,” as 20th-century French culinary authority André Simon put it in his “A Concise Encyclopedia of Gastronomy.” Even my mother, a fine Italian cook, raved about the delicious roast chicken in France. After visiting our relations in Paris, she would always speculate about what it was that made the chicken so tasty and delicate. The chickens for sale in butcher shops there were plump without being fatty, their flesh pink, not yellow. Try as she would, she couldn’t reproduce the same results with the commodity chickens (“machine-made,” as they were known in our family) she faced back home in New York.
How to buy the best bird
The first secret of the famous roast chickens of France concerns their feed and rearing. Take the famous poulet Bresse, a “controlled” breed that is considered the most flavorful in the world. The birds roam freely, happily pecking and scratching in the grass, their foraged food supplemented with milk and corn. These prime specimens carry their own official appellation d’origine contrôlée, a set of regulations that guarantees their authenticity, much like wine. In the past, to acquire chickens of similar quality here in the States, you needed to know a good local farmer or raise them yourself; today, however, wholesome poultry has become commonplace in American markets, and I am convinced that anyone who starts out with a well-fed, free-range bird can duplicate the delicious poulet rôti.
The other secret to roast chicken is the size and freshness of the bird, along with a few roasting techniques that are traditionally practiced by French home cooks and professionals alike. “Too small a bird does not roast well in the oven because its flesh is cooked before its skin has time to turn the expected appetizing golden color,” French chef and teacher Madeleine Kamman explained in her authoritative “The Making of a Cook.” On the other hand, a bird weighing larger than three to four pounds takes longer to cook through to the bone, by which time the breast is overcooked. Most chefs concur that a six-month bird weighing in at four pounds, the smallest in the so-named “roaster” category, is ideal. At that weight, the bird has more meat on it than younger, so-called “fryers,” and it is still tender.
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As for roasting, I learned the method early on at Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School, which taught classic French cuisine. Years later, when Italian cooking became all the rage, I would spend many happy hours teaching there, but when I first met Peter, I was a young food writer with an assignment to write an instructive article on proper roasting techniques. When I called him with some questions, he invited me to sit in on a class he taught devoted entirely to roasting chicken. The results were a revelation, and even now, I can say that the chicken I ate that evening was one of the most delicious I have ever tasted: crusty-skinned and juicy. Even the breast, which I usually avoid, was moist and tasty, saturated with the flavors of butter and tarragon. I was initiated. The recipe became a keeper in my otherwise largely Italian repertoire.
The classic, straight oven-roasting method involves starting at a fairly high temperature to sear and brown the skin, then lowering it to cook the meat through. The technique follows, unaltered over the years save for a few tweaks — the most important being pre-salting and then air-chilling the bird before cooking, a simple step that keeps the moisture in and results in astonishing flavor and crispy skin.
Poulet rôti: A cheat sheet
Preparing the bird:
- To keep the juices in, truss the bird using cotton kitchen twine, tying the ankles together and drawing them close to the breast. You can either tuck the wings under the back or tie a string around the girth to fasten them.
The roasting pan and other equipment:
- To prevent the bird from steaming rather than roasting, you must select a pan of the right shape and size: it should be just large enough to fit the bird easily and no larger. For a 4-pound bird, it should be 8 x 11 inches and no more than 2 inches deep, fitted with a V-rack that elevates the bird above the sides of the pan.
- An alternative to a rack is to elevate the chicken on a single layer of thickly sliced carrots and onions (or lemon slices, if you like).
- Fowl takes on the flavor of all the other ingredients in the roasting pan. Carrots and onions are the classic aromatics. If the vegetables are permitted to burn (which is likely if the pan is too large for the bird), the roast will take on their bitterness.
- Use a good meat thermometer to test doneness. Cheap ones lose their accuracy after a few uses.
- If you make stuffing, bake it in a separate buttered dish.
Turning and basting:
- While everyone would probably agree that the best way to ensure a juicy bird with crisp skin is to spit-roast it, turning and basting in the home oven simulates the rotisserie principle. Use melted butter, good olive oil or a mixture of the two for basting, not broth — it makes the skin flabby.
- Each time you remove the bird from the oven to turn and baste, shut the oven door immediately. Even a minute with the door open will throw off the temperature and cooking time.
- Allow the chicken to rest 20 to 30 minutes before carving. This helps the bird to retain its juices; instead of immediately running out at the point of a knife, they will retreat into the tissues of the bird and stay there.
French-Roast Chicken With Herbs, Garlic and Pan Gravy
Prep time: 30 minutes, plus 8 to 48 hours for chilling
Cooking time: Approximately 1 1/4 hour
Total time: About 2 hours
Yield: 6 servings
4 large cloves garlic
3 tablespoons soft unsalted butter, plus additional melted butter or good olive oil for basting
1 (4-pound) free-range chicken
Fine sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 bunch fresh tarragon sprigs; alternatively, rosemary or thyme if you prefer
3 to 4 teaspoons kosher salt
Suggested equipment: 8 x 11 x 2-inch baking pan, V-rack to fit the pan, instant-read meat thermometer, cotton kitchen twine
1. Grate one garlic clove finely, preferably with a microplane grater, and blend it with the soft butter. Holding the chicken over a sink, drain any liquid out of the cavity and remove any giblets. Use paper towels to blot the chicken well inside and out until it is absolutely dry (no need to wash it). Remove excess fat from the chicken, taking care not to tear the skin. Sprinkle the cavity lightly with sea salt and pepper and slip in the remaining garlic cloves and some of the herb sprigs of your choice. Gently and carefully separate the skin from the flesh of the breast and thighs without tearing, using your fingers or the rounded end of a wooden spoon. With your fingers, insert the garlic butter into the pockets, smearing as much of the flesh as you can. Push in the remaining herb. Rub the inside of the neck cavity with any garlic butter that remains. Sprinkle kosher salt and pepper on the skin, covering all surfaces. Transfer the bird, breast side up, to a rack on a platter to allow air circulation and chill, loosely covered with a thin cotton dish towel, for 8 to 48 hours.
2. Before cooking, bring the bird to room temperature for 1 hour. Preheat an oven to 450 F (425 F convection) for at least 20 minutes. Preheat your roasting pan, which should fit the dimensions given in the cook’s tips section above.
3. Make sure that the skin is completely dry. Truss the chicken using cotton kitchen twine, drawing the legs close to the breast to plump up the bird until it forms a snug ball and then tying the ankles together securely. Tuck the wings under the back; alternatively, pass string around its girth and tie the wings securely. Brush melted butter or olive oil on the entire surface of the bird and place it breast-up on a cold oiled V-rack in the preheated roasting pan.
4. Slide the pan onto the middle oven rack, legs facing the oven rear where the temperature is hotter. Roast for 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and reduce the oven temperature to 375 F (350 F for convection) Turn the bird on one side and baste with butter or olive oil. Return it to the oven and roast for 20 minutes. Then repeat the procedure for the other side, roasting for 20 minutes more. Take the chicken out to check the internal temperature, inserting the instant-read thermometer into the thigh at the thickest part, away from the bone. It should register at 170 F. If the bird is not cooked through, flip it on its back and return it to the oven for 5-minute increments until it reaches the right temperature. It should be a uniform golden color with crisp, taut skin. Transfer the bird to a carving board with a gutter that will capture its juices. Remove the strings and let it rest for 30 minutes in a warm place.
5. While the bird is resting, make the gravy. Use a wooden spoon to dislodge any bits of meat stuck to the bottom of the roasting pan. Add 3 to 4 tablespoons water to the drippings. Warm the roasting pan on the stove top over medium heat. Simmer to reduce the liquid to about 1/2 cup, then pour through a fine mesh strainer. Separate the grease from the natural juices using a spoon or a fat separator. Check for seasoning.
6. When the bird has rested, detach the wings and legs at the joints. Use a very sharp carving knife to cut the breast into thin slices. Arrange all nicely on a warm platter. Discard the herbs in the cavity. Add any juices that have collected during carving to the gravy you have made. Pour a little of the gravy over the carved chicken and pass the rest at the table.
Main photo: French-style roast chicken. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales
Once upon a time there was a legendary restaurant called Café des Artistes on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The place was housed in the storied Hotel des Artistes at Central Park, built in 1917 as a residence for artists. Illustrator Howard Christy Chandler painted the walls with larger-than-life murals of naked nymphs and satyrs frolicking about.
In 1975 it passed into the hands of George Lang, a Hungarian-born violinist who was a child prodigy and Holocaust survivor, refugee, world traveler, intellectual, raconteur, entrepreneur, gastronome, cookbook author, bon vivant and friend of the New York famous. His clientele was a new generation of “artistes” and glitterati, from world-renowned performers who came by after their gigs at nearby Lincoln Center to Hollywood stars to brightly shining culinary luminaries of the day.
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The establishment’s allure continued, despite the darkening murals and, sometimes, less-than-stellar food. But the menu wasn’t the point. One went there the way one visits shrines of one kind or another, no matter the weather. It was a place, as one regular, New York Arts editor and publisher Michael Miller put it, to “observe celebrities in the wild.” Then in 2009, when George and Jenifer Lang decided to close it, the place went dark.
Today, the restaurant at 1 West 67 St. glows again, transformed into The Leopard des Artistes, and the dazzling murals and delectable food sparkle. The cavorting nudes are still there, restored to their original blush since the new owners, restaurateurs Gianfranco Sorrentino and his wife, Paula Bolla Sorrentino of Il Gattopardo and Mozzarella e Vino, brought art restorers in to do a serious cleaning. But an interior face-lift is hardly the most remarkable thing about the transformation. Gone is the continental-style bistro that Jenifer Lang once likened to an English Ordinary, meaning a cozy and informal eatery serving familiar food. Where once the reputation of the house was built upon its rarified New York color and romance, now it rests upon its world-class, quintessentially Italian menu.
For one having frequented Café des Artistes in the 1980s when the Langs were at the helm, eating at the revived Leopard at des Artistes recently was to experience a kind of vertigo. While the patina of the old place is still intact, the menu consists of dizzyingly sumptuous Italian cooking. It’s no wonder. The Sorrentinos recently hired Michele Brogioni, an Umbrian-born, Italian-trained chef with 20 years’ experience who won a Michelin star during his stint at the Relais & Chateaux Il Falconiere in Cortona, arguably one of the best restaurants in Tuscany. He brings a classical if polished Italian style to the menu. “The food is always seasonal,” Brogioni said. “It’s really a trip around Italy from north to south.”
Of course, any good chef will rely on fresh local ingredients at the height of their season, and Brogioni is no exception — produce from nearby farms and other locally sourced ingredients were among the raw materials. It’s what to do with those ingredients, and practicing restraint in the process that makes a great chef.
Genius and magic
If the genius of true Italian cooking overall is the propensity to use raw ingredients lavishly hand-in-hand with an understanding of the art of leaving well enough alone, Brogioni is a master. Our dinner included bufala ricotta-stuffed baked squash flowers presented on a tomato couli; bucatini with fresh sardines typical of Sicily; and tortellini filled with an aromatic mixture of veal, beef and pork topped with butter and mascarpone, set on a tomato reduction. Lamb loin chops over pureed and fried baby artichokes were so delicious they are hard to forget, as is the titillating selection of wines we sampled from the restaurant’s extensive offerings. If that wasn’t enough, a 2006 Sagrantino passito from Montefalco was thrown in — a delicious dessert wine from Brogioni’s native region that I bring back from Umbria whenever I go there because it is so hard to find here.
The goodness and artistry of the food all made for magic, combined with the fetching nudes prancing over our heads and the meticulous attention of expert sommelier Alessandro Giardiello and the wait staff. There are many superb restaurants in New York City, but this one casts a spell.
Main photo: Wood nymphs painted by American illustrator Howard Chandler Christy glow through the windows at the legendary former Café des Artistes, built in 1917, and now The Leopard at des Artistes. Copyright 2015, Nathan Hoyt/Forktales
Once, you couldn’t make a chowder in New England without purists frowning over your shoulder. I learned this as a young chef working aboard a ship cruising the waters of Nantucket, catering to the tastes of paying guests. We could give them moules marinières scented with wine; we could make garlicky coquilles Saint Jacques, a French dish that was in fashion then, from the lovely little bay scallops that we gathered in the early mornings off the boat; but we couldn’t, on any account, meddle with their chowder. Orders to abide by tradition were passed down from the captain, an overbearing man steeped in the lore of the locals. His notion of the dish was informed, he said, by a chapter in “Moby-Dick,” a copy of which lived on the bookshelf next to all the nautical charts. You might recall the chowder of Melville’s day, shared between Ishmael and Queequeg at the Try Pots Inn on the very same Nantucket Island where I was initiated into the local ways with fishy broth: “It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentiful seasoned with pepper and salt.”
Only recently have I revisited that time-honored tradition and given any thought to the Nantucket captain and his chowder obsession. By all historical accounts, his beloved stew owes more to the bivalve-loving Wampanoag than to the fish-phobic Pilgrims. The truth is that chowders are as varied as other soups; they always have been and always will be, reflecting regional customs, ingredients at hand, current trends or, simply, inspiration.
Some Yankee versions are still broth-based, such as the one Melville immortalized, but others — whether at the hands of the French or the colonists — came to be fortified with milk or cream. A Zester colleague, scholar Clifford Wright, cites the recipe of one Lydia Maria Child recorded in the mid-19th century cookbook “The Frugal Housewife” as the standard for authenticity (see box for link). That version makes the use of milk official, along with quahogs such as cherrystones, potatoes, onion and butter. Ideally, Wright says, you should use raw, fresh creamery milk, but if that’s not an option, “mix whole milk with cream for a substitute.”
The evolution of New England chowder
Native American cooking is no doubt the true source of our New England chowders. According to historian and author Linda Coombs of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) on Martha’s Vineyard, the mother of all New World quahog chowders was corn-based. Her ancestors — those gentle people who lived on the islands of southern New England, farming and whaling well before the first English appeared — relied on maize as well as beans and winter squashes year-round. “Fresh or dried, they were the basis for soups or stews or any dish,” she explained when I spoke with her on the subject recently. The cooks then added “game, fowl, fish, clams or other seafood to get a tasty broth. It was all mixed together in a big earthenware pot that was balanced on a sizzling-hot tripod of rocks over a low fire and stoked continually with small twigs to prevent direct contact with the kettle.” Consider as well a first-hand account by one John Bartram, an early American explorer of New England: “This repast consisted of three great kettles of Indian corn soup…with dried eels and other fish boiled in it” (“Observations on the Inhabitants, Climate, Soil, Rivers, Production, Animals and Other Matters Worthy of Notice,” 1751). What might we call such a dish but — chowder?
Beyond the clam
While the natives prized clams for both their meat and their shells, the early colonists’ chowders contained no clams at all but rather assorted fish. “Clams became accepted to them in time, but it is on record that in the 1620s, the Pilgrims fed clams and mussels to their hogs with the explanation that they were ‘the meanest of God’s blessings,’ ” writes Waverly Root and Richard de Rochemont in their “Eating in America: A History.”
Although I was bound to the Nantucket captain’s version while cooking on the boat, once I got my own kitchen, I quickly shed the Puritanical approach. My experiments with chowder have been far-flung, ranging from tomatoey zuppe of salt cod and potatoes to winey mussel stews flavored with sweet and smoky pimentón de la Vera to milky fish soups scented with dill, to name just a few. In the summertime, I’m especially enamored with chowder made from freshly picked sweet corn. A recent experiment combining the kernels with new potatoes and shrimp, finished with a little cream and bourbon, resulted in a soup of delicate and unexpected flavors. I call it the Do-As-You-Damn-Well-Please Chowder, and I think it’s a keeper.
Do-As-You-Damn-Well-Please Chowder With Corn, Potatoes, Shrimp and Bourbon
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: About 20 minutes
Total time: About 50 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
1/2 pound raw small or medium shrimp in the shell
10 sprigs of Italian parsley
1 bay leaf
3/4 pound Yukon Gold, fingerling or Red Bliss potatoes
4 ears fresh corn
Scant 2 teaspoons good olive oil
1/4 pound bacon, diced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 yellow onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon minced red or green jalapeño (or to taste)
2 ounces bourbon
1 cup heavy cream
Fine sea salt to taste
1. Peel and devein the shrimp, reserving their shells. Cut them in half horizontally and rinse in cold water; reserve, chilled, for later. Rinse the shells in cold water and put them in a saucepan with 3 cups cold water. Add the parsley stems (reserve the leaves) and the bay leaf. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, partially cover the pan and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally and skimming any scum that floats to the surface, about 20 minutes. Strain and set aside.
2. In the meantime, peel and dice the potatoes and cover them with cold water; set aside. Using a sharp knife, scrape the corn kernels off the cobs; set aside.
3. In an ample Dutch oven or wide, heavy-bottomed braiser, warm the olive oil. Add the bacon and sauté it over medium-low heat until nicely browned, then transfer to a paper towel to drain and set aside.
4. Warm the butter in the bacon drippings and stir in the onions and jalapeño. Sauté over medium-low heat until they are limp, about 12 minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain the diced potatoes and add them to the onions. Continue to sauté over medium-low heat until the potatoes begin to soften, about 10 minutes, stirring to prevent them from browning excessively.
5. Stir in the reserved shrimp stock, cover partially, and bring the liquid to a boil. Immediately reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the potatoes are tender, 15-20 minutes. Pour in the bourbon and continue to simmer until the alcohol evaporates, 2 minutes. Stir in the corn kernels and the reserved shrimp; cover.
6. As soon as the shrimp is pink and cooked through, remove the cover and stir in the cream. Heat through, about 3 minutes. Chop the parsley leaves and stir them into the chowder along with the bacon; salt to taste. Eat hot. If you make the chowder ahead of serving time, bring it to room temperature before chilling it for up to 3 days. To reheat, warm it over a low flame, covered, until heated through (avoid simmering it).
Main photo: Corn, potato and shrimp chowder with bourbon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales
If the heel of the Boot, Apulia — Puglia in Italian — has long lagged behind other Italian regions in terms of modernization, parts of it have nonetheless become havens for the likes of royals, film stars and cognoscenti. How could it be otherwise for a peninsula surrounded by 500 miles of coastline and lapped by the pristine waters of two seas? Still, its heart beats to an ancient tempo, heedless of the increasing tourist invasions. This is Greek Italy, and it is steeped in its past. Nowhere is that more striking than at the Pugliese table.
Once upon a wine
On a recent tour of the region’s wineries with an American delegation of importers eager to learn about the ambitious undertakings of a new breed of producers, I found vintners at once devoted to the preservation of their traditions and determined to make unique world-class wines. Whereas previous generations geared their production toward volume of output for foreign markets (mainly France as well as northern Italy) at the expense of quality — a practice that goes back to the Phoenicians — today’s winemakers tend relatively small vineyards and grow native grape varietals barely known outside the immediate area. The consensus among the dozen buyers in our midst was that the wines were good — some very, very good — while selling for less than other wines in their class.
Terroir, terroir, terroir
Climatic conditions vary throughout Puglia. On the northern plateaus, known collectively as the Murge, the winters are temperate and the temperatures cooler than they are in the Salento, the bottom of the heel, which can be convection-hot in summer, though cooled somewhat by the play of sea currents and breezes blowing across the Adriatic from the Balkans. But overall the region is perhaps the hottest in Italy, baked by the favugno, as the dry wind that blows in from Africa is called here.
In step with their forebears, many of the vintners I met said that, by working with the natural conditions and the native grapes that thrive there — such as Primitivo, Negroamaro and Nero di Troia — they avoid the soil-punishing practices of modern growing techniques. “We are linked to the traditions of our area,” said Dr. Marina Saponari, sommelier at Valle dell’Asso in Santeramo in Colle, Bari, a limestone plateau in the Murge. “We don’t irrigate or add water at all, because too much humidity causes fungus; we work with the soil, not against it, (plowing) in a horizontal direction to retain the moisture naturally.” “Besides,” said Giuseppe Bino, an oenologist at Vigneto Amastuola in Martina Franca, “organic methods are so much better for your health. And when the wines are aged naturally, you taste real grapes.”
Filippo Montanaro of Vigneto Amastuola, on the Ionian side of the peninsula, described his family’s dedication to organic practices as a way to at once revitalize abandoned agricultural lands and recover an indigenous archeological site that dates to the Bronze Age. Subsequent civilizations inhabited the same high plateau, a strategic point overlooking the Gulf of Taranto from which, on a clear day, you can see all the way to Greece and Calabria. Amastuola’s vines and fruit orchards today carpet the soil in which the Greeks planted grapes and olive trees 2,000 years ago. On the estate, a 15th-century masseria — an ancient Apulian farmhouse where raw ingredients were processed into everything from wine and oil to dairy products, salumi, bread and preserves — is being restored to function as it once did, said Montanaro, whose father, Giuseppe, acquired the 100-hectare estate (almost 250 acres) in 2003. The family has launched an ambitious restoration, including the revitalization of long-neglected 800-year-old olive trees. “Family tradition is very important,” said Giuseppe Sportelli, commercial director and husband of Ilaria (one of three Montanaro siblings that help manage the property), explaining that the monumental project was not just work but a “passione.” Giuseppe Montanaro himself finds that explanation inadequate. “It goes beyond enthusiasm,” he explained, “It is the desperation that the man of the south feels that makes miracles like this happen.”
Food of the ancients
Like these winemakers, local chefs also honor the past, looking to the ancestral cooking of their grandmothers for inspiration. I learned the Pugliese mantra of “homegrown and homemade” early, from my paternal grandparents — poor emigrants to America from the very landscape I have described. Some things have changed since they abandoned the fields of Toritto, in which they had toiled as sharecroppers, for lack of enough food for themselves. And some things have not. “Our cooking is based on a paisana (peasant) tradition,” said Anna Gennari of Conzorzio Produttori Vini Manduria, a 400-partner cooperative of Primitivo grape growers in Manduria. “The cooking was simple and not much different throughout the provinces because Puglia was poor,” said Saponari, who is not only a sommelier but also a well-known cooking teacher in Bari.
Cutting-edge Michelin-starred restaurants have been making headlines in recent years for pioneering menus sourced from their local terroir, but Pugliese chefs have always done so. They are weaned on the ancestral flavors and seductive bitterness of wild dandelion greens, mustards, hyacinth bulbs (Muscari racemosum or lampascioni) and other native plants. Unlike in other regions where the tourist routes are more deeply worn, the heritage foods of Puglia — what the Italians call piatti tipici — persist, whether in hotels, simple trattorie or private homes. These include durum-wheat pasta, either fresh or dried, characteristically flavored with cime di rapa (“turnip tops”), simple tomato sauce, or chickpeas; fava-bean purée eaten alongside cooked bitter greens; the ring-shaped breadsticks called taralli, sweet or savory; calzone-like panzerotti and a panoply of other breads and pastries, baked or fried; vegetables, vegetables, vegetables (but little meat); milky fresh cheeses; and fiery peppers — all dressed, naturally, with the numinous olive oil.
Chefs riding the trend for recycling “trash” food could learn something from these old ways: take the traditional pane arso of the cucina povera (“the poor kitchen”), a dark bread made by blending the flour of charred hard wheat with semolina. The custom of incorporating the two harks back to the feudal-estate system, when peasants collected the scorched grains that remained after the post-harvest burning of the fields. Rich-tasting, with a seductively bitter edge, the bread packs 4,000 years of the people’s history into one bite.
Pranzo della domenica: Sunday supper
It’s on Sunday — a customary day of feasting — when Puglia’s cooks pull out all the stops. This is when the meat dishes come out, and the pasta is sauced with ragù, meatballs and braciole.
Gathering together in Bari with the wine buyers, I ate just these braciole — which the locals call bombette (“little bombs”) in the delightful TerrAnima, a Slow Food-endorsed restaurant dedicated to the dishes of the region (its name translates as “Earth and Soul”). If they sound heavy, perish the thought! They are delicate little rolls of meat, lined with pancetta inside and out and stuffed with cheese, garlic and parsley before they are bundled, tied and roasted.
Here’s to the spirit of the pranzo della domenica. Bring on the bombette and by all means, pour the Primitivo!
Bombette (Little Bombs): Stuffed Meat Rolls
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: About 20 minutes
Total time: About 45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
Note: These appetizers are traditionally made with horsemeat (not for the likes of former equestrians such as myself), but veal or beef are also used. Whichever you choose, ask the butcher to flatten the meat as thin as possible (1/8 inch is ideal) without tearing it — or pound it yourself if you know how.
1 pound cutlets (scaloppine) from top round of veal, cut into 4 thin slices about 4 inches by 8 inches and pounded to no more than 1/8-inch thick, or 2 half-pound pieces boneless beef top round, pounded to 1/8-inch from 1/4-inch thickness
Extra virgin olive oil
1 small garlic clove, peeled and bruised slightly
Fine sea salt
Freshly milled black pepper
16 thin slices of pancetta
2 tablespoons fresh minced parsley leaves
3 ounces fresh, semi-soft caciocavallo cheese, cut into 8 matchsticks
Toothpicks for serving
1. Preheat an oven to 400 F. Select a broiler-proof baking pan large enough to accommodate 8 meat rolls without crowding and grease it lightly with olive oil.
2. Use paper towels to blot the meat dry. Cut each piece horizontally into smaller pieces to yield 8 pieces of meat that are about the same shape and size (about 4 by 4 inches). Rub both sides with the garlic clove (which you can then discard) and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper.
3. Sandwich 1 piece of meat between two slices of pancetta. Sprinkle one side with some of the parsley and arrange a matchstick of cheese crosswise on the center. Beginning at one end, roll it up, gathering the pancetta along with it as you make the roll and tucking in any meat edges that stick out. Secure the bundle with a toothpick and transfer it to the oiled baking pan. Repeat the procedure with the remaining 7 pieces of meat and place in the pan.
4. Slide the pan onto the middle rack of the oven. Roast for 15 minutes, then remove the pan from the oven and change the setting to broil. Turn the rolls over and place the pan under the broiler to color them lightly, about 2 minutes. Take care to keep the pan juices from flaming. Remove at once, pour any remaining pan juices over the rolls and serve immediately.
Main photo: Santa Maria di Leuca at Puglia’s southernmost point, where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet. The lighthouse stands atop the Japigo promontory, described by Virgil in “The Aeneid.” Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales