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“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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» Brilliantly simple: Hakka salt-baked chicken
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
Summer has yet to deliver its full range of vegetables, but one stalwart crop that keeps on giving is Brassica rapa (from rapum, Latin for “turnip”). Brimming with flavor, this vegetable is known variously in its native Italy as cime di rapa (“turnip tops”), broccoletti di rape or just rape (pronounced räp’-eh), rapi, rappini, friarielli, vrucculi and a gaggle of other aliases, depending on local dialects.
And as “if this is not confusing enough,” says Daniel Nagengast — who imports 700 different heritage seeds to the United States for his company Seeds from Italy — “there are perhaps 15 different cime varieties in southern Italy, and I keep on finding more.” Each has its own physical characteristics, growing patterns and flavor nuances. But what they all have in common is a bold, seductive bitterness in their raw state, not to mention a powerful nutritional profile.
Old varieties are new again
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The old familiar ways with rapini
As much as the vegetable intrigues people, the extent of most Americans’ experience with Brassica rapa is as a side dish cooked with olive oil and garlic. Properly, this basic preparation involves parboiling the greens before sautéing them. First, peel the stems as you would asparagus legs to ensure that they cook at the same rate as the tops. Next, parboil them for two minutes — just long enough to bring out their sweet overtones. Then drain them, saving some of the cooking water. From here, you’ll sauté them with good olive oil, garlic and (optionally) chili flakes, moistening them with a little of the water you have set aside. (You could also change up the recipe by substituting onion and bacon for the garlic and hot pepper, the way Southern cooks make collards, kale and other field greens.) Now you can eat them as is or use them as directed in the recipes that follow.
Rapini and potatoes
For a more complex side dish, combine your garlicky sautéed greens with other vegetables: sautéed cime di rapa alongside a puree of fava beans, or ‘ncapriata, is food of legend in Puglia, brought together with the magic of high-quality olive oil. Chickpeas or white beans also make delicious and nutritious purees for the greens. Probably one of the happiest vegetarian marriages is between rapini and richly flavored potatoes such as Yellow Finns, Yukon Golds or fingerlings. I like chef Viola Buitoni’s way of tossing her sautéed greens with crisply fried tubers, an Umbrian-style dish she calls rapi e patate. If the greens are the feisty part of the couple, the potatoes are the sweet-tempered half.
Not just a side dish
In Puglia, it is common to cook the greens simultaneously with pasta in the same pot and, after draining, tossing them quickly together in olive oil flavored with garlic. Per the Italian tradition whereby meat is a second course, sausages might follow; but for a one-dish variation, I sometimes add warmed, crushed anise seeds and crumbled sausage to the pasta and greens. And there are so many other ways to dish out rapini and pasta. For instance, you can toss your garlicky sautéed greens together with diced bacon, chickpeas and just-cooked short pasta in a wide skillet; I like to use whole-wheat gemelli (“twins”) or penne imported from Italy. Be sure to save some of the hot pasta cooking water; combined with the olive oil and juices from the prepared rapini, it forms a sauce. Pass a cruet of your best olive oil at the table for finishing.
Rapini and seafood
Or consider seafood. The Venetians have a particular fondness for the charms of bitter ingredients, including cime di rapa (to use their term); surrounded by water as they are, they often combine the vegetables they cultivate on the lagoon islands with their Adriatic catch. Here is a heavenly dish I ate in a trattoria some years ago on the little island of Burano. It was originally made with fresh tagiolini and a local species of prawn called cannocchie, but it is just as good with linguine and shrimp (or other types of fresh seafood, such as clams or scallops). Start by parboiling your rapini (save the cooking water) and sautéeing the shrimp in fragrant olive oil with garlic and red pepper in a skillet wide enough to accommodate the pasta later. As soon as the shellfish is lightly colored, add dry white wine and let simmer gently for a minute or two, until the alcohol evaporates. Finally, toss in the rapini, cover the pan and turn off the heat. In the meantime, cook the linguine in the reserved cooking water. Drain, again reserving a little of the water, and add the pasta to the skillet. Toss the ingredients together gently, moistening them with a little pasta water if necessary.
When bitter is sweet: An Asian spin
Author Jennifer McLagan has devoted an entire book to explaining why a taste for bitterness is the hallmark of discerning cooks and educated eaters. “Food without bitterness lacks depth and complexity,” she writes in “Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes.” I rather like the gentle Chinese way of describing the yin-yang perfection achieved when balancing bitter, salty or sour flavors (yin) with sweet and spicy ones (yang).
“We love bitter melon and flowering mustard greens and things like that,” says Hong Kong-born American chef Rosa Ross, author of “Beyond Bok Choy: A Cook’s Guide to Asian Vegetables” and other Chinese cookbooks. So, for example, in the original Chinese version of the dish Americans known as beef with broccoli, the bitter green called gai lan must be used — but “when I can’t find it here, I substitute Italian bitter broccoli,” Ross says.
Pizzas and pockets
Many pizzerias offer pies spread with vegetables — but they can be more alluring to the eye than they are tasty. A pizza topped with rapini, sausage and tangy cheese is a different, flavor-packed story. To make it, start by preparing your own dough; while it rises, parboil and sauté the greens per our basic recipe and, separately, sauté some crumbled sausage. Spread them both over the dough before baking; scatter cheese on top only in the last few minutes of baking to prevent it from burning. (Mozzarella is too bland in this case, so best to use a young, melting sheep’s cheese or soft Asiago fresco.) You can use the same ingredients as filling for calzones.
On a similar theme, last spring I created a new interpretation of the traditional torta pasqualina (“Easter pie”), a savory pastry made of strudel-like dough filled with spring greens such as chard or spinach. Once again, I used an American-style pie crust because I love its structure and crumb — and I also substituted rapini in the filling, mixing them with egg and freshly grated Parmigiano to yield astonishingly good results. They have so much flavor that no additional ingredients are needed, save salt and pepper. Along with a side dish or two, this pie is substantial enough for a dinner; it can also be cut into smaller servings for an appetizer. I’ve been known to improvise with good frozen puff pastry as well, using the same filling to make small hand pies.
Purees and pesto
We are nearly there, dear reader, but how can we overlook transforming these mighty greens into a purée for eating as is or making into a sauce? If you will first peel the skin from the stalks, you will prevent its fibrous texture from getting in the way of a silky creamed side dish or a velvety pesto. Then cut the stalks into several pieces to make them easier to work with and boil them, along with the leaves and buds, for at least seven minutes. Be sure to drain the greens well before pureeing them in a food processor with a little softened butter or good olive oil. You can eat them just as they are, creamy and hot, seasoned with another dab of butter or dribble of olive oil, plus a touch of coarse sea salt — they’re as good as creamed spinach, even without the roux.
Or, for a gorgeous and delicious alternative to the ubiquitous basil pesto, blend the purée with a touch of garlic; grated, aged sheep’s cheese or Parmigiano; and a little olive oil — because the cooked stems are full-bodied and naturally creamy, you’ll find it unnecessary to use as much oil as many pestos call for. You can also include pine nuts or almonds if you’d like. Like its basil counterpart, rapini pesto should accompany pasta cuts sturdy enough to carry it — linguine, bucatini, medium macaroni, potato gnocchi — or you can stir it into minestrone.
Back to the beginning
It’s only too well-known that a preponderance of American children and adults alike hate vegetables — a fact that people in other parts of the temperate world find puzzling, especially as plants are the very stuff that humans most need for proper nourishment. I could write a book exploring the reasons for this, but consider just one for a moment. Although the theory that children need bland foods until they are old enough to handle more intense flavors is bandied about in credulous circles, experts tell us that the taste for particular foods is developed in infancy. The fare we are fed as children — whether it is good or not — is what we crave as adults. Pastina (“miniature pasta”) with butter is an Italian baby’s first solid food, revisited in adulthood whenever comfort food is in order. When my children were babies, I stirred rapini puree and butter into pastina for them, and they loved it. (Like any pasta, pastina tastes best served piping hot immediately after cooking — but naturally, it should be cooled down to warm for babies.) This is an ideal way to develop an infant’s taste for these miraculously healthful greens.
Main photo: Brassica rapa at the Palo del Colle market in Puglia, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales
Not so long ago, most Americans’ idea of how to enjoy beef was to dig into a slab of steak as big as the plate it was served on. Thankfully, culinary fashions have changed. Today, the so-called lesser cuts are giving the primes a run for their money not only because they are cheaper but because they have more flavor. Delicious parts like short ribs and oxtail are so much the rage, that they, too, have become wildly pricey.
To my mind, chuck and blade steak, still relatively economical, are two of the most promising cuts for braising, my favorite cooking method for meat in general. This simple technique of searing and caramelizing foods in fat or oil before simmering them in a cooking liquid, often alcoholic, enriches their flavor and tenderizes them at the same time. Add vegetables, and you’ve made a classic stew. Not only are stews nourishing and sustaining in cold weather but, when made ahead, they actually improve.
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The raw materials of stews around the world
There are pedestrian variants consisting simply of meat and root vegetables. And then there are the more artful braises at which the French are so adept, exemplified by boeuf à la Bourguignonne, which is laced during long, slow cooking with the namesake region’s fabled wine. The Italians have their own variations on the theme: The Sicilians enrich their spezzatino with Marsala, for instance, while the Piedmontese dedicate an entire bottle of Barolo for every kilo of beef in their brasato. The Belgians make heady carbonnades with beef chunks, abundant mushrooms and onions braised in light beer with a hint of vinegar and sugar. All of these braised stews are based on cheap cuts, the fat and connective tissue of which render the meat moist and incredibly tender during long, slow cooking.
For me, one of the most delicious is Ireland’s traditional beef stew fortified with rich, dark stout, a beer brewed with roasted, malted barley. The English have their version in the old prescription for “Sussex stew,” a beef braise simmered with mushroom ketchup and ale, but I believe no cooking liquid suits an Irish stew more than Dublin’s Guinness. This malty stout is creamy with a pleasant bitterness that makes for a powerful yet subtle cooking liquid, imparting its own complex layer of flavor while producing a velvety gravy. The resulting dish is one with a double life: Eat it as a stew, or cover it with a crust for a pie.
What makes stout particularly suited to beef stews is what Chrissie Manion Zaepoor of Kookoolan Farms — a stout expert, craft mead maker and pasture-raised meat producer in Yamhill, Oregon — calls “roastiness.” “It’s like espresso,” she says. “It has a smoky, grilled flavor that’s nice with beef, and it’s herbaceous in a way that wine isn’t.”
Just how much stout to add depends on the other ingredients. Too little and, well, you’re missing the point; too much and the stew will be bitter. I find the best proportion is about one-third stout to two-thirds stock. Guinness is an old reliable for the Irish purist, but you can experiment with any of the local craft stouts that are widely available these days, each of which will impart their own individual character.
As for the stock, its quality is essential to the success of the stew. I rarely rely on commercially made stock, which (besides being close to tasteless) too often contains sugar, green pepper, mushroom or other ingredients I would not use in my own recipe. But if need be, I find most commercial chicken stocks more palatable than their beef counterparts. Whether the stock is homemade or store-bought, adding stout will enrich it.
What to drink with Irish stew?
The pleasure of eating this singular stew is increased manyfold when it is accompanied by a swig of the same good stout you’ve cooked with. The pleasant bitterness of the drink rises to the rich, deep flavors of the braise and so nicely sets off the sugars in the onions and carrots. The Irish, like the rest of their compatriates in the British Isles, drink their beer cool, not cold, like a fine red wine. Pour with care for a full, creamy head. On St. Patrick’s Day, be sure to have on hand a loaf of soda bread peppered with caraway seeds to slather with soft Irish butter for the proper holiday spirit. Slainte!
Irish Beef-and-Beer Stew
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: About 2 1/4 hours
Total time: About 3 hours
Yield: 8 servings
4 pounds well-sourced (preferably organic) blade steaks or boneless beef chuck-eye roast, trimmed of excess fat, cut into 1 1/4-inch pieces
3/4 cup good-quality unsalted butter, preferably Irish
3 medium onions, chopped
3 large cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
Stems from 1 bunch parsley, minced
3 bay leaves
2 teaspoons dried herbes de Provence
1 1/4 cups stout, such as Guinness
2 3/4 cups homemade, salt-free meat stock, or low-sodium chicken broth
3 carrots, peeled and sliced
3 turnips, peeled and cubed
4 to 5 teaspoons fine sea salt, or to taste
Freshly milled black pepper to taste
3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
2 pounds small Yukon Gold, fingerling or Red Bliss potatoes, scrubbed, skin on
8 ounces freshly picked and shelled or frozen petite peas (optional)
1. Blot the meat with paper towels to remove moisture. In a heavy, ample, oven-proof braiser or Dutch oven, warm 1/4 cup of the butter over medium heat. Slip in just enough meat cubes to leave sufficient room around each one for proper searing. You will need to brown the meat in several batches, adding up to 1/4 cup of the remaining butter as needed (reserve the rest for browning vegetables later). Each batch will take about 10 minutes to brown all over; when it’s done, transfer it to a large bowl and repeat the process until all the meat is browned before starting the next.
2. Add the onion and garlic to the pan and sauté until they are softened and lightly caramelized, about 4 minutes. Stir occasionally to dislodge any meat bits from the pan surface. Stir in the parsley stems, bay leaves and dried herbs and sauté for another minute or two.
3. Return the browned meat and its juices to the pan. Pour in the stout followed by the stock. Stir the ingredients together well and bring to a simmer. Cover the pot and cook over the lowest possible heat for 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. (I like to set a metal heat diffuser, called a “flame tamer,” between the flame and the pot to neutralize any hot spots and ensure even cooking.) Alternatively, you can heat the oven to 300 F, slide the covered pot onto the middle shelf and cook for 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally.
4. Meanwhile, in a separate, ample skillet, warm the remaining butter. Add the carrots and turnips and sauté until they are nicely colored, 10 to 12 minutes. Reserve.
5. After 1 1/2 hours, stir the carrots and turnips into the stew. Cook for another 45 minutes, or until both the meat and root vegetables are very tender. When it is done, add salt and pepper to taste.
6. In the meantime, cover the potatoes in 3 inches of cold water and bring to a boil; then simmer over medium heat until tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and keep warm.
7. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour with enough cold water (or cold stock) to make a thin, smooth paste or slurry. If you have been cooking the stew in the oven, remove it now and put it on the stove top over low heat.
8. Remove the cover from the pot and stir the slurry into the stew a little at a time to blend well. Add the peas if desired. Simmer until the gravy thickens and heats through and the peas are warm, no more than 5 minutes. Serve hot with boiled potatoes.
Notes: Using a well-marbled cut that will be rendered moist and tender during cooking is important to the success of any meat stew. Shoulder cuts, including blade steak or chuck, are ideal; avoid leg meat, which will be dry and tough by comparison. Searing small batches in hot butter before adding the cooking liquid caramelizes them, creating another layer of flavor. The root vegetables are sautéed separately and incorporated late to prevent them from disintegrating into the gravy. Peas are optional; I love them for their little bursts of sweetness, but don’t overcook! Boiled potatoes go well with the stew, and there will be plenty of gravy to sauce them. The stew will keep in a refrigerator for up to four days, or it can be frozen. To make a pie, cool the stew and divide it into individual crocks or larger baking dishes, as you prefer, then top with your favorite unsweetened pie crust or puff pastry. Brush the crust with egg wash (a whole egg yolk thinned with a little cold water or milk). Preheat the oven to 400 F and bake until it is heated through and the crust is golden, about 20 minutes, depending on pie size.
Main photo: Beef and Guinness stew. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales