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It’s August. If you have your own garden and you like baby zucchini as much as I, you know that while some food columns are handwringing about what to do with bumper crops of squash, you’re hoping there will be enough. You plant your seeds in spring, and check the emerging zucchini carefully on your daily morning rounds. They grow so fast, you can nearly hear them stretching, and you know that you have to be ready to snatch the babies — every one of them — from their vines when they are a tender three inches long, four at the most. (I will never understand why few, if any, farmers pick them that small, even if they are so prolific as to force them to be plowed them under.)
If you don’t, before you know it, the squash are the size of baseball bats. One day, you see the blossoms unfurling on slender stems, barely bulging on their umbilical buds and on the next, they’ve given birth to hulking squash when, as my friend and master gardener Joan Gussow says, “there’s nothing to be done but cut the monster from the vine and sneak it into someone’s unlocked car.”
If those Goliath zucchini are lurking in the back of your mind, take my advice: Ensure both quantity and quality by picking the pubescent offspring as I say, before they go on a drinking spree and get watery on an adolescent growth spurt. Not only is this petite size ideal for everything from fritters to poaching to sautéing to grilling, it is perfect for pickling.
Pining for pickles
I mention “pickling” somewhat wistfully because it wasn’t until well past August last year that Laurel Robertson, another serious gardener-friend of mine, mentioned her southern Italian mother-in-law’s baby zucchini pickle recipe, and I’ve had to wait a full year to make them.
Robertson had plenty of practice putting up zucchini when she married into an immigrant family from Calabria. She was a tender 18, as she tells it, when she met her first husband Dominick while working at a horse stable and moved with him from a cozy New York suburb into a milking parlor on 135 acres in rural Montgomery County. It was the late 1960s and early ’70s when Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” was in every hippie’s heart . . .
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
Dominick planted plenty of “cucuzze,” vernacular for the squashes the Calabrians love. His resourceful mother, born and bred on the rugged soil of Cosenza, was Robertson’s domestic muse. “She cooked all the time, and there were always sausages hanging in the attic, pasta being rolled out in the kitchen, homemade wine, and all kinds of pickles,” my friend said. “So I pickled and jammed, jammed and pickled, and put up food for the entire year.” Her strategy for the zucchini onslaught was to pick and pickle the squash when they were tiny. That solved the problem of bumper-crop burnout and assured prime preserves at the same time. “They were delicious and so different from other pickles,” she said.
Of course, I asked for the recipe on the spot, and I’ve been longing for those zucchini pickles for a year. I have finally put up my first batch, and now I know that next year I’ll have to plant twice as many zucchini as I usually do to keep my larder stocked throughout the year with these meaty conservi, as the Italians call them. I could eat a jar of them in one afternoon.
If you can’t get the tiny zucchini I’m raving about from your garden or the markets, you can slice any type of larger summer squash into typical cucumber-pickle size spears (but don’t bother with the spongy monsters — they do belong in the compost bin). If you know how to pickle, process them for the long haul using the proper screw-top jars, as you would any other vegetable. If you don’t, you can make a “quick-pickle” that will last a week in a refrigerator with no pickling expertise at all. They are so easy to make, anyone who can boil water can do it. Besides having the few simple ingredients, all you need is a jar that is tall enough to accommodate the height of the picklings (or you can cut the zucchini into coins). Whichever pickle you choose, here is Robertson’s recipe, inspired by Rosa Gualano’s fiery Calabrian-style pickles.
Select small tender squash about 3 to 5 inches long, preferably all the same size. You will get 6 to 8 of them in each quart jar, packing them tightly. Distilled vinegar is best because it is colorless and doesn’t muddy the clearness of the brine. Use Kosher salt, not table salt, which contain anti-caking agents that can cloud the brine. Sea salt, with its natural minerals, is an asset in cooking, but those elements can interfere with the pickling process. This recipe fills a 1-quart jar with zucchini or summer squash pickles. For larger quantities, increase the ingredients proportionately based on the number of quart jars you plan to fill.
- 6 to 8 baby zucchini or summer squash, or larger zucchini, sliced lengthwise or crosswise to fit into the quart-jar
- ½ teaspoon Kosher salt
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, sliced lengthwise
- 3 fresh basil leaves
- Fresh hot red pepper such as Fresno or Thai chilies, optional
- ½ cup white vinegar
- ½ cup water
- Equipment for quick-pickling: any boil-proof glass jar with a lid.
- Wash the zucchini very well in cold running water, using a soft brush or cloth to remove any grit without damaging the skin. If the squash are 3 to 5 inches, use them whole. Slice off any brown coloring at the bulbous end. Trim the stem end slightly to make each the same length but leave it intact. If using larger zucchini, cut them in half lengthwise to fit into the jar or slice them into coins. Pack them snugly into quart jars to about 1 ¼ inch from the rim. Add the salt and cayenne pepper. Slip in the olive oil, garlic slices, basil leaves, and hot red pepper, if using.
- Combine the vinegar and water in a stainless steel or other non-reactive pot and heat to a boil.
- Pour the boiling hot vinegar-water mixture over the zucchini to 1 inch from the rim. Seal the jar with its lid or cap. When the jar has cooled completely, store the jar in the refrigerator. The pickles are ready to eat in about 3 days. They can be kept, chilled, for up to a week.
Variation for long-term pickling:
Use proper quart-size glass canning jars with screw tops with vacuum lids appropriate for safe pickling. Discard any jars that are chipped. Fill them as for quick-pickling and bring the vinegar and water mixture to a boil. Pour the boiling hot mixture over the zucchini to 1 inch from the rim. In a tall pot, preferably a canning kettle, boil enough water to cover the jar. Cap the jars and do not over-tighten. You want the hot air to escape but you do not want water to enter the jar. Place the jar in the pot and bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove jars to a rack, cover with a towel to protect it from drafts. In about an hour when the jars cool you will hear the lids click as they seal. Tighten the rings and store. If the lids do not seal, keep the pickles in the fridge for up to a week.
Main photo: Baby Zucchini Quick-Pickles, “The Vegetable Chronicles,” by Julia della Croce. Credit: Nathan Hoyt
in: Cooking w/recipe
After tasting many of the Puglia’s big, herbacious olive oils on a recent trip to Italy, I was keen to use them at home in New York. In the heat of the summer, with the arugula in my garden ready to pick, an Italian-inspired beef salad seems just right for a one-dish meal that is satisfying, easy and shows off the oil in a simple dressing.
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From steak au poivre to steak salad
Now, when I want to be grilling outdoors as much as possible, I am reminded of steak au poivre, which today seems out of fashion. (It’s a recipe with a fiery kick, so easy to make that I once cooked it regularly in the galley of a sailboat.) The French original is pan-roasted in butter, treated to cream and cognac, and ignited. This slimmed-down version, seared over charcoal and sliced thinly, is layered over a bed of greens and boiled potatoes and dressed with the oil, lemon — both juice and zest — and the requisite dollop of Dijon. The perfect natural green is arugula, with its peppery bite. For a soft contrast, use a layer of buttery-fleshed fingerling potatoes. Then, capers with their spikes of flavor are scattered over all.
These bold extra virgin olive oils, with their scents of chicory and marjoram, temper the sting of the pepper, the acidity of the lemon, the tang of the mustard, the briny bursts of the capers, and bring the components together in a dish that gives new meaning to meat and potatoes.
The salad is particularly tasty made with charcoal-broiled beef cuts, including flank, strip or shell steak. Sear it well on both sides, but take care not to overcook it. Cold boiled or roasted beef can be substituted, but won’t have the peppery bite. You can use leftover potatoes if you have them available, or boil fresh ones in the time it takes to cook the meat.
- 3 tablespoons, or to taste, whole peppercorns
- 1 pound flank, strip, shell or other boneless steak, whole, about 1-inch thick
- 1 pound small fingerling, Red Bliss or new potatoes, scrubbed
- 4 ounces fresh arugula, washed
- 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or more, to taste
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
- 1 generous teaspoon Dijon-style mustard
- 1 large clove garlic, smashed
- fine sea salt to taste
- 1 tablespoon drained small capers, or coarsely chopped large capers, or 12 caper berries
- 1 teaspoon fresh parsley or chives, minced (optional)
- On a cutting board, spread out the peppercorns between two pieces of wax paper. Use the dull side of a meat mallet, or a rolling pin, to gently crush them. The peppercorns should be cracked, not ground. Press them into both sides of the steak.
- Prepare a charcoal or a gas grill, or preheat a broiler. Sear the meat well on both sides, cooking it through to the desired doneness. Transfer it to a cutting board and allow it to rest for 10 minutes. Using a sharp chef's knife, cut it across the grain into very thin slices.
- While the meat is cooking, cover the potatoes with cold water and bring to a boil. Cook over medium heat until tender but not mushy. Drain and immerse in cold water to cool. Drain well and slice into approximately 1/8-inch rounds.
- Blend all the dressing ingredients. Toss the arugula lightly with 1 tablespoon of the dressing and arrange the greens on a shallow serving platter. Arrange the sliced meat and potatoes over it, and dab with a little more of the dressing. Scatter the capers on top. If you are using parsley or chives, sprinkle 1 teaspoon over the potatoes. Pass the remaining dressing and additional olive oil at the table.
Main photo: Peppery Steak, Potato and Arugula Salad, adapted from “Antipasti: The Little Dishes of Italy” by Julia della Croce. Credit: Nathan Hoyt
Just as fashionistas flock to the runways every season, culinary passionistas swarm the annual Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City for a staggering display of edibles from around the world. Everything from beet yogurt to white truffle brie to bourbon pickles to duck bacon — what used to be called “gourmet,” now, “specialty food” — is represented and this year’s spectacular was the largest on record, with more than 2,700 exhibitors from more than 49 countries sprawled over 369,000 square feet at the Jacob Javits Convention Center.
I hoped it meant that quality food products were on the rise, but after working my way through the exhibits, I wondered whether we’re any closer to that than we were more than 30 years ago when Mimi Sheraton ruffled feathers by writing in the New York Times, “a good 75% of what was passed off as fancy last week at the Coliseum could just as easily be labeled junk.”
Fancy Food’s right and wrong
What is “Fancy Food” anyway? To me, it’s a microcosm of what’s right — and wrong — in today’s food world. On the one hand, we find genuine products from around the world that illustrate the durability of artisanal traditions in the face of a global economy that threatens the very existence of small farmers. On the other hand, the aisles (as mirrored in markets across America) are crammed with novelties inside beautiful jars and packages.
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There’s stuff that struts the fashion, like bacon marmalade, smoked chocolate chips and — yet again — kale, a vegetable I like well enough, but not in my muffins. One year, when slipping fruit into everything was trending, it was tomato and raspberry “marinara.” Is nothing sacred? Much doesn’t fit into the category of actual food, and an awful lot of it is revved up with chemical flavorings, steroids for food.
Nevertheless, the show brings to light unique and worthy products that restaurant chefs seize upon — food such as Mugolio, a sweet pine bud syrup redolent with wild Alpine herbs made by a forager from the Trentino Alps, where the locals have been making it for centuries, or wood-roasted Calabrian figs swaddled in their own leaves.
Unless a discriminating retailer brings such ingredients to market after discovering them at the show, jewels like these don’t typically make their way to home cooks who, by using them, could just as easily elevate their food as chefs do. At the show, I always make it a point to catch up with maverick importers such as Rolando Beramendi (Manicaretti), Ari Weinzweig (Zingerman’s) and Beatrice Ughi (Gustiamo), who go off the highways and even off the map to track down exceptional producers.
Another is Marta Lisi, who discovered the wood-roasted figs and sells them and other artisanal products from Italy’s diverse regions to a few U.S. retailers. I’m a fig aficionado, and I never tasted figs so delectable as these. Headquartered in Sicily, her company, Attavola, distributes her family’s traditional Salento oils as well as a new citrus-olive oil under the label of Piana degli Ulivi. Recently I tasted all of these splendid oils at their estate in Miggiano, Puglia, which has been making olive oil for 750 years. Lisi also runs tasting tours to small “intergenerational” food and wine producers who are off the tourist track.
At Manicaretti’s booth, while dipping a spoon into a jar of Il Colle del Gusto pistachio spread to give me a taste, Beramendi recounted wandering the open market in Rieti, a hilltop city near Rome, and finding a couple selling pistachio and chocolate-hazelnut spreads that looked like Nutella but tasted a lot better. “I told them on the spot that I’d buy everything they made,” he said. Before he knew it, he was back at their farm, sleeves rolled up and helping them to make more. His newest product, ZeroTre, is the first line of organic artisanal vegetable pastinas introduced into this country, the brainchild of an Abruzzese elementary schoolteacher whose family happens to be in the pasta business. It is a product I consider long overdue here, as readers of my column know.
Gustiamo’s Ughi is as fierce a champion as there could be for the products she hand-picks. She’s been a veritable Joan of Arc for her San Marzano tomato producers, denouncing the big corporations for their fraudulent practice of counterfeiting “San Marzanos” to make us think we’re buying the real thing. Another of her finds, Sant’Eustachio coffee, has had a cult following since it was established in 1938. International celebrities and discriminating locals alike flock to its cafe in Rome, just across from the Italian Senate where the organic and fair trade beans are roasted over a wood fire. Even though the open fires are illegal in Rome, the government never shuts them down. What politician would want to be without his Sant’Eustachio espresso?
Ultimately, “Fancy Food” may seem to symbolize the tastes of an affluent society for new and exotic foods. Yet, in the best of all worlds, it also celebrates the enduring cultures of those whose lives are inextricably tied to the vitality of their soil. The Fancy Food Show, along with other exhibitions such as the International Artisans Show in Florence I attended just two months earlier, provide an invaluable platform for new generations who continue the ancient traditions.
* * *
Fancy Food Show product highlights
Benedetto Cavalieri Pasta: artisan dried semolino pasta from the Salento | From Cavalieri’s own local heritage wheat; bronze die-extruded, intense wheat flavor, ideal elasticity and chewiness | Producer: Benedetto Cavalieri, Puglia, Italy | 1999 sofi award winner, best pasta
Broccolo Friariello di Napoli: friarielli in extra virgin olive oil | As yet undiscovered in the U.S., friarielli is a variety of broccoli rabe that has inspired endless poetry in Naples; preserved in the producer’s own olive oil, to toss with pasta. | Producer: Maida Farm, Campania, Italy
Crunchy Capers: dried capers (new product) | Exceptional floral flavor and big crunch; the best thing you could ever put over deviled eggs. | Producer: Gabriele Lasagni/La Nicchia, Pantelleria, Sicily, Italy | 2014 sofi awards nominee
Faella Pasta: artisan dried semolino pasta from Gragnano, the original pasta-producing area around Naples | Anelli Rigati, “ridged rings” are elusive outside of a few of Italy’s regions; it’s about time they were exported here; great for pasta e fagioli — the beans fall right into the holes. | Producer: Pasta Faella
Gustarosso Pomodoro S. Marzano D.O.P.: The real San Marzano plum tomato, meaty and simply the richest-flavored tomato in the world, grown in the Sarno Valley, near Naples | Producer: Danicoop
Marina Colonna’s Citrus Oils: bergamot, clementine and lemon extra virgin olive oils | The citrus zest is pressed with the estate’s olives, resulting in delicate and fragrant oils that are suitable for finishing and baking. | Producer: Marina Colonna, Molise, Italy
Mostarda: Mixed fruit mostarda | Lombardy’s unique, ancient sweet and pungent fruit preserve, spiked with zingy mustard oil; an essential ingredient in the pumpkin tortelli of Mantova; accompaniment to the region’s famous boiled meat dish, even better with roasts. Producer: Corte Donda, Lombardy, Italy
Mugolio: rare pine cone bud syrup | The Alp’s answer to maple syrup, with complex and delicate wild flower and rosemary essences, used for finishing anything from roasted pork, poultry and game to topping ice cream and panna cotta. | Producer: Eleonora Cunacci/Primitivizia, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, Italy
Piana degli Ulivi: extra virgin olive oils | Estate bottled extra virgin olive oils from Cellina di Nardò, and Ogliarola Salentina olives from the Lisi family trees; also, a new, intensely citrus extra virgin olive oil made from pressing one-third lemon fruit with two-thirds olives — for finishing and flavoring. | Producer: Merico Maria Rosa, Puglia
Pomodoro del Piennolo del Vesuvio D.O.P.: These famous organic cluster tomatoes from the mineral-rich volcanic soil of Vesuvius are an ideal balance of sweetness and acidity; they’re what make Neapolitan pizzas and tomato sauces incomparable. | Producer: Casa Barone, Campania, Italy
Pistacchiosa, Noccioliva, Granellona Brut: pistachio or hazelnut-chocolate spreads (smooth or chunky) made with extra virgin olive oil | Move over Nutella, not only does this stuff taste lightyears better; it’s actually good for you. | Producer: Il Colle del Gusto, Lazio
Sant’Eustachio: Wood-roasted Arabica espresso | With coffee quality on the decline, Italians have resorted to inventing new ways of drinking it — more and more “latte,” “macchiato” and the like. Not so with Sant’Eustachio — they drink this straight up. | Producer: Raimondo and Roberto Ricci, Lazio
TreZero: Organic pastina (new product) | Italy’s baby food, four varieties: zucchini-spinach, pumpkin-carrot-tomato; gluten-free; classic wheat | artisanal process | Producer: Rustichella, Abruzzo, Italy
Main photo: Rolando Beramendi, left, founder of Manicaretti, with business partner, Sara Wilson, working on her cellphone in the background. Credit: Julia della Croce
Is there any more American a dish than fried chicken? Each succeeding wave of immigrants has brought it in some shape or form, and it is woven throughout our gastronomical fabric. The first were the Scots, who were prone to cook it before dipping it in egg and crumbs, then cook it again in boiling fat. West African slaves transplanted their version, by all accounts more tantalizing, to the American South. Not only did they fry the birds for their masters, they were allowed to keep chickens of their own. Hogs were free-man’s food, but they were the compost engines of the colonial kitchen and their rendered fat was plentiful. If Martha Washington’s cooks fried chickens for her lavishly in butter, they dipped theirs in a spicy flour coating before frying them in lard.
Beginning in the mid-1700s, African-American women, renowned for their fried chicken prowess, became vendors for live or cooked poultry. Even before Emancipation, they cooked it up in big iron frying pans and peddled it on the streets. During segregation, they sold it from their home kitchens or opened establishments black folk could eat in. Once fried, chicken was a portable meal. “In days when traveling meant hazarding the vagaries of racial laws on Southern roads and being hungry without having a place to eat, a shoebox of fried chicken became a virtual talisman against starvation on the road for many blacks,” wrote Jessica B. Harris in “Iron Pots & Wooden Spoons: Africa’s Gifts to New World Cooking.”
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Black or white, Southerners proudly claim they eat 10 times as much fried chicken as everyone else. In his book “American Taste,” James Villas contends that to know about fried chicken you have to have been weaned and reared on it in the South. Having grown up on Italian fried chicken, I could quibble with that. Fried chicken has other roots. Pollo fritto, scented with garlic, traveled to Ellis Island with Sicilian immigrants. Austrians brought their schnitzel ideas to the Midwest, converting from veal to chicken and utilizing the whole bird, not just the breast. In 1858, Lizzie Black Kander, a Jewish emigrant in Milwaukee, recorded three recipes for “Fried Spring Chicken” in the “Settlement Cookbook” among single entries for reindeer steak, mud hens, partridge and goose.
If turkey is supposed to be the emblematic American bird, it gets no more than a perfunctory write-up. Recipes call for using 1½-pound chickens. One prescribes dredging the youngster in flour and ginger, and frying it in plenty of butter or chicken fat. A second calls for coating it in cracker crumbs, followed by an egg bath, then the crumb treatment again before frying. A third says to massage it with plenty of butter and seasonings (we are left to wonder what those were), roll it in fine bread crumbs and oven-fry. Such tender young birds as she describes, raised to peck and scratch in the barnyard, make the most delicious-flavored fried chicken.
American humorist Calvin Trillin would eventually write “Fried-Chicken War,” an account of the fierce competition in Crawford County, Kan., between two local fried chicken establishments. When the owner of Chicken Annie’s moved to have the road on which both stood named “Chicken Annie’s Road,” Chicken Mary took umbrage.
Overall, though, the fried chicken revolution was peaceful. It has my vote for Independence Day. Is there any food more emblematic of the people who built America than this evocative bird, its skin enticingly crisp, its meat moist and juicy? Leaving behind the grim associations with slavery, fried chicken is in the best sense American, a dish originating at a time when we were farming people, a dish of merged continents and mixed heritage, one that spanned our nation from bayous to prairies to the vast expanses beyond.
Many ways to fry a chicken
Pan-fried, deep-fried or oven-fried; batter-dipped or breaded; dredged first in flour — or not; dipped in egg — or not; rolled in breading or cracker meal instead; fried in oil or lard, butter or schmaltz? Bacon or ham thrown into the skillet for added flavor? What is best? As Villas wrote in 1982, “Without question, the most important secret to any great fried chicken is the quality of the chicken itself, and most of the 3 billion pullets marketed annually in the U.S. have about as much flavor as tennis balls.”
Two great Southern cooks have taught me how to make sublime fried chicken. One, the late legendary African-American chef Edna Lewis; the other, her protege, Joe Randall, who runs a cooking school in Savannah, Ga. My primal memories of fried chicken are of the dish as prepared by my mother in the Italian way, and accompanied by apple fritters made from the leftover batter. There are as many ways as there are cooks, and here’s one of mine, adapted for chicken wings. You can make it the evening before if you like and have it all ready for the picnic basket or the backyard get-together the next day. Serve the wings before the hamburgers, or with the hamburgers, or even instead of the hamburgers.
This is adapted from a recipe for fried chicken that I learned to make from a Tuscan cook I knew. The wings are my favorite part, perfect as finger food and with all that surface for crisp coatings to stick to. The chicken becomes crispy outside and at the same time, succulent inside, redolent with rosemary and fresh garlic. Cayenne pepper gives them a terrific little kick; if you like it hot, add more. To make it in the traditional Tuscan way, omit the cayenne and serve the cooked chicken with lemon quarters for squeezing at the table.
- 16 chicken wings, preferably organic and free-range, at room temperature
- 8 large cloves garlic, minced
- 4 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary leaves, or 2 tablespoons dried crushed rosemary leaves
- About 1½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- Fine sea salt
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 3 large eggs
- Grape seed, safflower, peanut or other vegetable oil for frying
- Wash the wings and pat dry thoroughly with paper towels. Keep the wing tips intact and cut the wings at the joint to separate the drummettes. In a bowl, combine the wings with the garlic and rosemary and massage the herbs into the meat.
- Spread the flour on a sheet of waxed paper. Season with salt to taste and plenty of cayenne pepper. Beat the eggs in a wide bowl next to the waxed paper. Line a large platter with a double layer of paper towels, keeping additional paper towels on hand.
- Pour the oil to a depth of about 1 inch in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet and warm over medium heat until sizzling hot. Just before you are ready to begin frying, lightly dredge each piece of wing in the flour. Dip the wing piece into the beaten eggs to coat then dredge lightly in the flour once again. (Keep in mind that if the chicken is coated in flour and egg and left to sit for even a few minutes, the coating will become soggy and the chicken will not be crisp and light.)
- Slip the chicken wings into the hot oil, piece by piece. Do not crowd the pan with too many pieces at once, or they will not cook evenly. Fry until golden and thoroughly cooked through to the bone, about 10 minutes in total for each piece, depending on the size. Transfer to the paper towels. Turn each wing piece over on the paper to ensure that excess oil is absorbed from both sides, using additional paper towels as necessary to drain thoroughly. Sprinkle them with sea salt while they are still hot.
- When all the chicken is cooked and drained, pile the wings on a clean, hot platter and serve.
Recipe is from "Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul" by Julia della Croce (Kyle Books)
Main photo: Peppery Fried Chicken Wings. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton, “Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul” by Julia della Croce (Kyle Books)
An Italian-American friend, now happily domiciled in Italy, remarked that there was one thing he couldn’t abide about Italian food in his otherwise happy eating adventures there. “They don’t like their vegetables crunchy,” he protested.
He is quite right. When it comes to cooking vegetables, “al dente” is not their cue. Like me, they like them tender and sweet. The crunch crowd will no doubt challenge this, citing, perhaps, the prowess of the Chinese with their crisp, stir-fry style. I could concur, but I would no more stir-fry green beans than my Chinese friend might cook rice my way — sticky rice for her; soupy, Italian-style risotto for me; and vive la différence!
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From other quarters, I am told steaming conserves more vitamins than boiling. I have never been willing to sacrifice the pleasures of a boiled bean for the preservation of a few micronutrients, but if I ever suffer remorse at the thought of killing off a few, a recent report will quiet those doubts. Italian scientists evaluating cooking methods concluded that none retains 100% of the nutrients. Hurrah! Never again will I have to suffer the reproach of purportedly health-minded folk when I admit that my vegetables taste so good because I boil them. In a recent story on rapini, I gave the scientific explanation for why this sweetens vegetables. (In a nutritional analysis, research shows a slight increase in natural sugars when food is boiled rather than steamed.) You need only compare the taste between a steamed and a properly boiled batch of beans as proof that cooking past the crunch point, but just before the beans become too soft, delivers their best flavor and sugary qualities.
Green Beans, Italian Style
Green beans, (Phaseolus vulgaris, Leguminosae), a native plant of the New World, are one of summer’s gifts I most eagerly await. They are the unripe pods of the bean plant, named green beans for this reason, though there are yellow, red and purple types, and other hues that span the color spectrum. (The seeds cradled within, referred to as “shell beans,” are the beans we typically dry and rehydrate before cooking.) There are so many varieties that botanists have stopped counting. (The whims of fashion, even in the botanical world, make cultivars come and go, and new ones debut now and then.)
Probably no vegetable suffers more from mis-cooking. They are usually undercooked in favor of crunch. (If the beans are old, there will be no crunch, but rubberiness.) Or, they are overcooked because of supermarket conditions in which the poor specimens arrive many weeks after they have been severed from their umbilical vines in Mexico or Chile or another faraway place, and shipped thousands of miles, arriving shell-shocked and sapped of any life. Many people complain that no matter how long they cook supermarket-variety green beans, they remain tough. Such old beans deserve a resting place in the compost bin, not a workout in the cooking pot.
Like tomatoes or corn, green beans are best eaten soon after they are harvested, before the seeds begin to bulge in their pods and brown markings appear. If you have a farmers market nearby, ask whether their beans have been picked that morning. If not, wait until they can promise you they’ll treat them with the same respect they show their corn. “Day-picked” should apply to green beans as much as to maize.
Best of all, grow them if you can. Once you have tasted green beans straight from the vine and cooked properly, store-bought will never do. Romano flat beans, Kentucky Wonders, Sultan’s Crescents, Haricots Verts, German Pole Beans and Indie Gold are among those that have had a turn in my garden. The long and flat, meaty Italian snap beans that are stringless, variously called Romano, Roma, Rampicanti or Marconi are, hands down, my favorites. Nothing compares to their flavor, not to mention the thrill of seeing their long, broad pods swinging and twirling on the vines. They grow up to 10 inches if you let them, and still cook up tender, but stop at 5 inches — remember, newborn! I reseed the bed every three weeks until August for an extended harvest into the fall. Plant them after the soil warms up well, sit back and get ready for some fun. You can nearly hear them grow. If you can’t keep up with the harvest, you can find comfort in knowing the overgrown pods can be left to mature on the vine until you are ready to reap their big, fat seeds for using fresh or storing, dried.
So remember, the key to great-tasting green beans, whether you plant or buy them, is twofold. First, youth and freshness are vital—newborn are best, but no older than a few days. Second, boil them until they nearly melt (but not quite!) on your tongue at the first bite. You might realize that you have never really tasted green beans before in their grassy, buttery glory, bursting with the essence of summer.
The supermarket offerings of my childhood in a small American town didn't satisfy my mother, who before marrying and coming to America was accustomed to shopping for vegetables in the overflowing stalls of Rome's radiant street markets. Our family planted a garden every spring. Since then, my life has been filled with gardens, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Whether you buy green beans freshly picked from a farmer or can grow your own, make them the way the Italians do, still hot from the colander, anointed with the best extra virgin olive oil and, if you like, a memory of fine sea salt. They are a revelation.
- 1½ pounds freshly picked green beans
- kosher salt
- best quality extra virgin olive oil
- fine sea salt
- Wash the beans in cold water to remove any grit.
- Snip the umbilical tips, leaving the pointed ends intact.
- Fill an ample pot with enough cold water to generously cover the beans.
- Bring the water to a rolling boil. Add 2 tablespoons kosher salt. Cook the beans over high heat until there is no crunch left, but they are not overcooked, 5 to 6 minutes, depending on the variety and size of the beans. (Roman flat beans will take longer than smaller types.)
- Drain at once, transfer to a serving bowl, and dress with the olive oil. Sprinkle lightly with fine sea salt at the table, if you like.
Variations: You can squeeze fresh lemon over the beans at the table, but I like them plain and simple. Another variation is to coddle them briefly, once cooked, in extra virgin olive oil into which you have first dissolved a few drained anchovy filets preserved under oil.
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For Gardeners: Sources for Italian-Style Flat Green Snap Beans
The two principal categories gardeners are concerned with, the climbers (pole variety) and the low-growing bush beans, are available from these sustainable seed companies.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds
Seeds From Italy
Seeds of Change
Territorial Seed Co.
Main photo: Preparing Italian Romano beans for the pot. Credit: Paolo Destefanis from “Veneto: Authentic Recipes from Venice and the Italian Northeast” by Julia della Croce (Chronicle Books, 2003)
With Mother’s Day almost upon us, I can’t help but muse over what a challenge it has become to feed children. I wasn’t aware of ordeals surrounding food when I was growing up. I ate the same food the rest of the family did and devoured it gratefully.
On the rare occasions when we ate in restaurants (I say rare because my father didn’t think most restaurant food could match up to my mother’s cooking and he was probably right), we ordered from the main menu, not the so-called children’s menu that offered nutritionally worthless items.
I won’t dignify most of the fare on these menus by calling it junk food because that implies it is food of some kind. According to the Oxford dictionary, food means “any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink, or that plants absorb, in order to maintain life and growth.” Simply put, we are feeding our kids substances that humans are not meant to eat.
Teaching kids what to eat
The kind of children’s food I’m talking about is standard in most restaurants, particularly those touted as family friendly. I was recently in such an establishment, and watched incredulously as a mother and grandmother ordered chicken and vegetable stir-fry for themselves, and a processed cheese melt on white bread, French fries on the side, for the toddler.
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I have to stop here and say that I believe parents simply must take matters in hand and teach their children what is good to eat and what isn’t. David Ludwig, the widely respected endocrinologist at the Harvard School of Public Health, and Boston Children’s Hospital — who I first met at a nutrition think-tank in Rome dubbed “Pasta Fights Back,” organized to debunk the low-carb phobia that took the nation by storm in 2004 — has gone so far as to say that kids can’t survive unless their parents teach them how to eat.
In a book titled “Ending the Food Fight,” considered by his peers to have brought together the best available scientific evidence on childhood obesity, he argues, “…no species of mammal in nature allows its young to eat whatever they want. What would happen if a bear mother didn’t teach its cub what and how to eat? The cub wouldn’t survive the winter. Our modern nutritional environment can be as dangerous to children as an arctic winter is to the bear cubs.”
Think of the adorable cartoon rabbit dreamed up by marketers to sell Trix, the psychedelic-colored cereal made of 46% sugar that debuted in 1955 and is still going strong. The rabbit has spent more than half a century trying to steal Trix away from kids for himself, only to be thwarted every time. The slogan is the stuff of American childhood: “Silly rabbit, Trix is for kids.” It is?
While I look back longingly on my own daughters’ early years when I would entice them to the breakfast table with the smell of baking bread and spend the days simmering ragù or stirring polenta, recipes usually destined not just for the dinner table but also for cookbooks I was writing, I know that few parents have the luxury to be able to stay at home and cook such meals the way I or my own mother did. Besides, the Mad Men entice children more than ever with clever commercials and the most well-intentioned parent faces an uphill battle trying to feed their kids decent food.
Kid food the Italian way
Having climbed onto my soapbox, and being painfully aware that my standpoint is not popular in certain circles, let me close with a suggestion for a wholesome and easy dish that can please anyone. These are the whimsical stars, alphabets, and other tiny pastas that Italian children eat as their first solid food, and which have a place in broths and light soups as well.
With it you can feed anyone from the age of, say 6 months, until at least 100 years old. I ate it from infancy. Not only did I feed it to my own tribe, I cooked it regularly for hundreds of fussy school children in an experimental lunch program that you may hear more about someday. No child I’ve ever known has ever said no to pastina.
Everyone knows that our first foods form our palate, and we forevermore crave them. My pastina habit continued into my adult life. I was so enthusiastic about this pablum that as a young mother sitting in baby-and-me support groups with other dazed young parents, I enthusiastically spread the word.
Realizing that most had never heard of it despite its presence in virtually any supermarket, I got into the habit of bringing a backpack filled with little boxes of pastina to pass out to the group. They would bring it home and make it for their babies, simply following the package directions and without fail, come back the following week, raving about the newfound simple and easy solution to otherwise stressful mealtimes.
This is so simple, in fact, that it didn’t occur to me until recently to write about it. Whether you are feeding kids or just yourself, and haven’t yet discovered its charms, this recipe is for you.
Pastina ‘Stars’ With Butter and Milk
Serves 4 children or 2 adults
Nothing is more emblematic of an Italian childhood than pastina (literally, “little pasta”) with butter and milk. It is baby’s first solid food, remembered in adulthood with great nostalgia. Stelline (“little stars”), acini di pepe (“peppercorns”), alfabetti (“alphabets”), tubettini (“little tubes”), orzo (“barley grains”), and farfalline (“little buttterflies”) are the most common. My favorites are the first two — and yes, somehow, different cuts do “taste” differently. Use tasty organic butter for the most wholesome and flavorful results.
1 cup “little stars” pastina or other tiny pasta shapes
3 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup warm milk, plus more if desired
Bring 3 quarts water to a boil. Stir in the pastina and salt. Cook according to package directions. Drain and transfer to a bowl. While it is still piping hot, add butter to the pasta, burying it in the pasta to melt. Stir in a little of the warm milk and serve at once. Add a little more warm milk for a looser texture if desired. Serve at once.
Variations: For added nutrition for babies, stir a teaspoon, or to taste, freshly puréed carrots, spinach, or other puréed cooked vegetable(s) or a touch of tomato sauce into a portion of hot buttered pastina before serving. A classic is to stir the yolk of a small fresh egg, butter, and grated parmigiano cheese into piping hot pastina. The heat will cook it through. You might try it if you have a trusted source for fresh eggs.
Main photo: Alphabet pastina soup. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton from “Italian Home Cooking,” by Julia della Croce