Julia della Croce is a journalist and James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and cooking teacher. Many of her titles have been translated into 13 other languages and distributed worldwide. Her work has appeared in many publications including Cook’s, Food & Wine, Art & Antiques and the Boston Globe. She has broadcast extensively on radio and television, including NPR and the Food Network. Her blog, Forktales, has been cited by The New York Times' Diner's Journal "What We’re Reading" section.

Besides working toward the preservation of traditional Italian cuisine through publishing and teaching, Julia has dedicated herself to advocacy work for better food and sustainable agriculture. She pioneered an award-winning healthy school food program at an independent school in New York and developed a nutrition program providing natural food and local farm-raised produce to an emergency food pantry in New York City serving some 900,000 people every year. She serves on the advisory committee of the New York State Assembly Task Force on Food, Farm and Nutrition Policy. Read more about Julia on www.juliadellacroce.com.

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Fancy Food Show: The Good, Bad And Ridiculous Image

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.

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.

Marta Lisi of Attavola. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

Marta Lisi of Attavola. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

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.

Discoveries

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.

Beatrice Ughi of Gustiamo and Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman's in the foreground, with producer Sergio Cinque of Faella Pastificio, left, and Edoardo Dal Santo, right, of the Gustiamo staff in the background. Credit: Gustiamo

Beatrice Ughi of Gustiamo and Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s in the foreground, with producer Sergio Cinque of Faella Pastificio, left, and Edoardo Dal Santo, right, of the Gustiamo staff in the background. Credit: Gustiamo

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.

 

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Attavola’s wood-roasted fig ball. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

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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

Palloni di Ficchi: wood-roasted fig ball | Just eat it. It’s incredibly good. | Producer: Dolci Pensieri di Calabri, Calabria, Italy | Importer: Attavola

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

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True American Eats: Italian Fried Chicken For July 4 Image

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.”

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.

Fireworks on the Hudson River. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

Fireworks on the Hudson River. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

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.

Peppery Fried Chicken Wings With Garlic and Rosemary

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 40 minutes

Total Time: 55 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

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.

Ingredients

  • 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

Directions

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.
  5. When all the chicken is cooked and drained, pile the wings on a clean, hot platter and serve.

Notes

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)

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Love Me Tender: A Sultry Italian Way With Vegetables Image

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!

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.)

Boiled Italian Romano beans, hot, steamy and ready for anointing with the best olive oil. Credit: Paolo Destefanis

Boiled Italian Romano beans, hot, steamy and ready for anointing with the best olive oil. Credit: Paolo Destefanis

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.

Growing techniques

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.

Garden Green Beans, Italian Style

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 6 minutes

Total Time: 11 minutes

Yield: 4 side-dish servings

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.

Ingredients

  • 1½ pounds freshly picked green beans
  • kosher salt
  • best quality extra virgin olive oil
  • fine sea salt

Directions

  1. Wash the beans in cold water to remove any grit.
  2. Snip the umbilical tips, leaving the pointed ends intact.
  3. Fill an ample pot with enough cold water to generously cover the beans.
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.

Notes

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)

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Mother’s Day Tip: Mama Mia, Please Pass The Pastina Image

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.

Envision if you can the nutrition profile embedded in that food wreck, and whether it can be considered good nourishment for a child old enough to be sitting in a high chair?

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?

 

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Gael Lizarraga eating alphabet pastina. Credit: Rolando Ruiz Beramendi

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.

Pastina in broth. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton from “Italian Home Cooking,” by Julia della Croce

Pastina in broth. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton from “Italian Home Cooking,” by Julia della Croce

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.

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

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Whiffs Of Italian Spring: The Rapini Pie Of Your Dreams Image

I just made the pie of my dreams. The Ligurians might call it torta pasqualina, Easter tart, a savory spring pastry usually filled with spinach, chard or borage. Theirs is enveloped in 20 layers of a delicate, lean dough stretched with olive oil into paper-thin sheets — 10 on the bottom, 10 on top. Mine is encased in a flaky tent of buttery American pie crust. The filling? It too commemorates spring, but it contains none of the traditional vegetables. No timid spinach here, no sweet, fading chard. My pie is a renegade. Unlike the Italian original, it is filled with the big, bold flavors of rapini, or broccoli rabe as it is called in the United States.

RAPINI, BY ANY NAME


What it's called around the globe:

Bitter broccoli: America

Broccoletti (broccoli-like): Rome

Broccoletti di rapa (broccoli-like turnip greens): Rome/Lazio

Broccoli raab: America

Broccoli rabe: America

Cime di rapa (“turnip tops”): Italy

Cima di rapa (“turnip top”): Italy

Friggiarelli (tender, baby rapini buds): Naples/Campania

Friarelli (tender, baby rapini buds): Naples/Campania

Friarielli (tender, baby rapini buds): Naples/Campania

Frigitelli (tender, baby rapini buds): Rome/Lazio

Rape (shortened from cime di rape): Italy

Rapi (colloquial): Umbria

Rapine: Italy

Rapini, rapini: southern Italy, America

Rappini: Sicily

“Robb”: America

Vruocculi: Calabria/Italy


More from Zester Daily:

» Tips for cooking great brassicas

» Vegan country collard greens

» Give turnip greens the Italian treatment

» Turning rapini into funky kimchi

Rapini was relatively unknown in the northern regions of Italy, or in America until recent years. Arguably the tastiest of all greens that descend from the wild plants that have carpeted southern Italy since primordial times, rapini mingled with onion, garlic, tangy pecorino, smoky bacon and just enough egg to hold it all together under a flaky crust is a new take on an ancient pie.

I developed the recipe as part of my promotional relationship with the California rapini growers D’Arrigo Brothers, which owns the Andy Boy broccoli rabe brand. Most of the market rapini, which has been grown in the United States since the early 1970s, comes from the D’Arrigo growers in California, a farming family that put down their Sicilian roots in rich Salinas soil in 1924.

They were the first to recover the heirloom seed on the mountain slopes of their native Sicily. (There, the vegetable is known as “rappini” with a double “p.”) They also were the first to adapt the plant (Brassica rapa ruvo, cime di rapa in Italian, literally, “turnip tops”) to the California climate.

If you are one of those eaters who has tried rapini but found it too bitter to enjoy, you will discover its sweet side if you cook it the Italian way. The trick is to first boil rapini in plenty of salted water. After draining, and while it is still somewhat wet, coddle the rapini in a sauté pan with warm, high-quality olive oil infused with fresh garlic.

We all know that boiling vegetables in salted water transforms their flavor. This is especially true in the case of rapini, or broccoli rabe, which goes from bitter to pleasantly pungent after brief boiling. I asked food science expert and best-selling author Harold McGee for the scientific explanation. McGee is the author of several books on the chemistry and history of food. He also writes a column for The New York Times.

“Boiling leaches out some flavor components, and some salt will get into the tissues and suppress the sensation of bitterness. This is well documented but not yet understood,” McGee said. “The impression of sweetness may also have to do with the boiling damaging the cell walls and making the cell fluids, sugars included, more accessible to the taste buds.”

Besides the cooking method, consider the season. Vegetables always taste best when they are grown and eaten according to nature’s rhythms, and rapini is no exception.

“At the end of April,” said Gabriela D’Arrigo, a third-generation member of the clan, “those greens are at their peak season, and sweeter than any other time of year.”

 

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Broccoletti capati, "ready-to-go rapini" for sale at the Campo dei Fiori market, Rome. The Roman name for the vegetable is "broccoletti di rapa." Credit: Paolo Destefanis / www.paolodestefanis.com

Rapini Pie

Serves 6 to 8

This is my emigrant version of Italy’s torta pasqualina, also called scarpazzone. “Scarpa,” shoe, refers to the frugal peasant practice of including the stalk along with the leaves in the filling mixture. I do the same here, using the entirety of two rapini bunches, stems and tops alike (they really shrink after boiling). In the traditional spinach or chard version, pancetta pairs irresistibly with those mild, garlicky greens, but I prefer smoky bacon as a counterpoint to the pungent rapini in my newfound filling.

For the crust:

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons salt

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, well chilled or frozen

6 tablespoons solid vegetable shortening, well chilled or frozen

1 large egg

1 tablespoon lemon juice or unflavored vinegar

5 to 7 tablespoons ice water, just as needed

For the filling:

2 bunches rapini (“broccoli rabe”)

2 tablespoons kosher salt

3 slices bacon, chopped

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 large onion, chopped

1 large clove garlic, finely chopped

3 large eggs, beaten

1 tablespoon fine dried bread crumbs

½ cup freshly grated medium-aged pecorino such as Fior di Sardegna or cacio Toscano

½ teaspoon salt

freshly milled black pepper to taste

For the egg glaze:

1 egg yolk, beaten well with pinch of salt

Directions for the pie pastry

1. Combine the flour and salt and pulse a few times in a food processor to blend.

2. Add the cold butter and vegetable shortening and pulse only until the fat is cut into bits the size of peas.

3. Through the processor’s feed tube, add the egg and lemon juice or vinegar, pulse once or twice, then add the ice water one tablespoon at a time, pulsing once or twice between additions, only until dough begins to show some clumps. Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the inside walls of the vessel. Do not form a dough ball on the blade.

4. Turn dough out onto a piece of wax paper (if it looks sandy and dry, sprinkle on a tiny bit more water) and use your hands to bring it together into a ball. It should hold the form of your fingers when squeezed. Wrap the dough well in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or for up to 5 days until you are ready to make the filling.

Note: If butter and vegetable shortening were frozen, dough can be rolled without prior chilling.

Directions for the filling

1. Wash the rapini in cold water, drain.

2. Detach and separate the stems from the tops of the vegetable. Set the tops and the leaves aside. Using a small, sharp knife, peel any especially tough skin from the thicker lower stalks, much like you would peel the tough skin from the bottom of asparagus stalks.

3. Fill a large pot with plenty of water to cover all the greens and bring to a rolling boil. Add the kosher salt and the peeled stems, cover partially, and boil over high heat for 7 minutes. Now add the florets and leaves and cook them together with the stems for 3 minutes more. Drain the greens and allow them to cool. With your hands, squeeze out as much water as you can. Chop them finely and set aside.

4. Warm a large, heavy skillet over medium heat and cook the bacon until it begins to color, about 7 minutes. Drain off excess fat, stir in the butter and add the onion to the pan. Adjust the heat to medium-low and sauté until the onion is transparent, another 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic and continue to sauté gently for about another 3 minutes until it softens and the onions are lightly colored, but do not brown the mixture. Stir in the rapini mixture, turning it over with the bacon and onion mixture to combine. Set aside to cool.

5. In an ample bowl, beat the eggs lightly and mix in the bread crumbs, grated cheese, salt and pepper. Use a rubber spatula to fold in the cooled rapini mixture, blending well.

6. Preheat an oven to 350 F. Select a 10-inch tart pan or pie tin. Butter it lightly. Divide the chilled dough into two portions, one slightly larger than the other. To use, roll out the larger ball of dough on a lightly floured, wide sheet of parchment or waxed paper using a floured rolling pin. Form an 11-inch round. Drape it around the pin and transfer it to the pie pan. Press it gently onto the bottom and sides.

7. Spoon in the filling.

8. Roll out the second ball of dough in the same manner into a slightly smaller circle. Lay it over the filling. Crimp the edges together to seal and trim off any excess to form an even edge. Cut a slash in the top to allow steam to escape. If there are any dough scraps, gather them up, re-roll them, and cut out leaves or rosettes. Decorate the top of the pie with the cutouts, pressing them gently onto the crust.

9. Brush the crust with the beaten egg and bake in the preheated oven until golden, about 1 hour, 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and transfer it to a rack to cool for about 10 minutes. Serve hot or warm, cut into wedges.

Note: This pie keeps well in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Reheat it in an oven preheated to 350 F until warm throughout, 20 to 30 minutes.

Top photo: A slice of rapini pie. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

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Corn Masa Cookies Sweeten Nicaraguan Life Image

Rosquillas are an explosion of Mesoamerica in your mouth that starts in a remote mountain village in Nicaragua. I am visiting my daughter, Gabriella, in the campo, studying Spanish while decompressing from life in America; leaving behind computer, cellphone and running water, and breathing sweet mountain air.

El Lagartillo is a sparse farming settlement on a steep hilltop with a view all the way to Honduras from its rocky summit. Here, in my bed in a house at the edge of the forest, I am awakened at daybreak by the din of a thousand birds. My host, Amparo, says they are singing from happiness.

A century of struggle

For five centuries, many foreigners have been lured by this sizzling land of volcanoes and cloud forests. From the conquistadores to William Walker, the American adventurer who installed himself as president in 1856, to the U.S. Marines in the early 20th century, Nicaragua has endured conquest, occupation, oppression and brutality.

After the Marines, people endured the Somoza regime until the Sandinista revolution, when campesinos were awarded the land for which they had fought. Twenty-six families banded together to form a farming cooperative in El Lagartillo until CIA-sponsored contras decimated the village in Ronald Reagan’s secret war.  The survivors were determined to rebuild, and the village has been reborn.

“Little by little, we began to find our way again,” writes Tina Pérez, whose husband and young polio-stricken daughter were among those killed. “One day…I saw [my daughter] Maria Zunilda … I said … ‘You look so beautiful. How can you be here, you are dead?’… She said …’I am fine except that we work so hard … We work for the revolution, Mommy.” At this village’s heart is a shrine. A plaque under the tree where Maria Zunilda died is inscribed: “1985/For peace against all aggression/ The heroes of Lagartillo live at the plough, which works the earth to the song of the birds and the sound of the militia men’s guns.”

The stone is surrounded by six bamboo cabañas that comprise Hijos del Maiz Spanish School. Its mission is to “support dreams in the community … exchanging with other …  cultures in a dynamic transformation toward social justice.” During the day, it is a village of women. They sweep, scrub, cook, make cheese, soak and hull maiz. Their children play in the road, skittering away when an occasional horse and rider passes by or a pickup rumbles through, scaring up billows of dust. Chickens peck and scratch everywhere. Scarlet bougainvillea are lit with electric blue hummingbirds.

The families have a school and a library administered by a survivor in a wheelchair. A miller grinds hominy into masa, and Lisbet, my teacher, runs a cafe, offering freshly squeezed juice from the fruits of her trees.

Corn masa cookies

At dawn, Amparo fires up an adobe oven upon which to cook tortillas. I follow her to the mill with a pail of lime-slaked maiz that was boiled the day before, to be ground into masa, the dough that is made into staple breadstuffs.

Si no hay tortillas, no hay comida,” she says. “If there are no tortillas, there’s no food.”

Juan Cerros, a campesino from nearby Las Lajas, pulls up on his mule with a sack of the maiz slung over the saddle. Electricity reached El Lagartillo a year ago and the powered machine here grinds corn much faster than he can do it by hand. Amparo explains that he makes rosquillas, the magical cookies, to sell.

It is not until my last evening in El Lagartillo that I finally taste them. When the relentless sun begins to wane, I wander into Francisca’s house. She is in the courtyard, flanked by other women who mix fresh masa with sugar, leavening, and shortening.

 

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San Cristobal, the highest of Nicaragua's many volcanoes, some active, some not. Credit: Gabriella della Croce

They pinch off pieces of the dough and shape them into flowers. Francisca piles shaved loaf sugar in their centers before baking them in a concrete oven in the back yard. The women work in silence.

The next morning, we set out on the dusty road for the long journey back to Managua. As we bump along in the back seat of a truck, Gabriella pulls out a bag filled with rosquillas that Francisca has sent along for the trip.

I take a bite and close my eyes. It hits me with a taste like no other that makes you think of the sacred food of the ancients, the life blood of empires. It is sweet and pleasantly sour like only masa can be. Far away now from the tiny village, I bake these cookies in communion with the wise and gentle people of El Largartillo who treasure the fields and the forests.

Rosquillas (Nicaraguan Corn Masa Cookies)

Makes about 20 cookies

In my own kitchen, I make the rosquillas even if I cannot get fresh ground masa. Instead, I use masa harina, masa flour which is available in Hispanic markets. Unlike an American sugar cookie, the use of masa harina rather than wheat flour results in a crispy but tender cookie with a pleasantly gritty texture not unlike that of Scottish shortbread.

Note that Bob’s Red Mill brand masa harina, while organic, doesn’t taste like the original or have the same fine texture, so you won’t be able to make authentic-tasting rosquillas with it.

The simple cookie has two characteristic shapes. The first, like those of Francisca’s in the photo, is circular and fairly flat, pressed with fingers to resemble a flower. Francisca heaped a bit of loaf sugar, which has a rich, molasses-like flavor, in the center to resemble the disc of a daisy.

The alternative shape is a loop, formed by rolling out little balls of the dough into thin ropes and pinching the two ends together, like an oval-shaped pretzel. Because rosquilla dough is crumbly in nature, the loops can be a bit more challenging to form, but persevere, it’s doable. Historic recipes for rosquillas prescribe lard. Francisca used a butter-like shortening. I use butter.

The water that is called for in this recipe replaces the natural moisture in fresh masa dough.

As for the topping, there is no substitute for the artisanal brown loaf sugar described that is sold in Hispanic markets. If you cannot find it, leave off decorating with sugar. The cookies are delicious with or without it. 

For the cookies:

1 stick (8 tablespoons or ¼ pound) unsalted butter at room temperature

¾ cup granulated sugar

2 cups instant corn masa, also called masa harina

½ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

½ cup water at room temperature

For the topping:

1 cup brown loaf sugar, shaved or coarsely grated

Directions

1. Preheat an oven to 350 F.

2. In the vessel of an electric food mixer or in a large mixing bowl, cream the butter until it is light and fluffy. Add the granulated sugar in a slow, steady stream, continuing to beat until the mixture is well blended and creamy.

3. Whisk together the masa harina, baking powder, and salt.

4. To the creamed butter, add the water, alternating with blended dry ingredients. Beat the mixture with the paddle attachment of the electric food mixer, or by hand with a wooden spoon until a uniform dough is formed.

5. Line two baking sheets with bakers parchment. Scoop up a rounded tablespoon of dough and form it into a ball. Repeat this process and arrange 12 balls of dough on each of the parchment-lined pan, leaving at least an inch between each.

For the flower shape, press the bottom of a glass onto each ball to flatten to about ¼-inch, or flatten each by hand. The edges will appear to crack, but the cookie will stay intact and the rustic texture will just decorate the edges.

Use your fingers to make indentations first in the center, and then around the perimeter, sculpting a daisy shape. The idea is not only to give the cookie a decorative shape, but to thin out the disks for even baking from their perimeter through to their centers, making the cookies lighter and crunchier than if they were simply flattened.

6. If decorating with loaf sugar, after forming the flower shape, spoon about a small mound onto the center of each round.

For the loop shape, roll a similar-sized ball of dough into as thin a rope as you can manage, wetting your fingers lightly as you work to prevent the dough sticking to your fingers, if necessary. Pinch the two ends together to form an oval. The easiest method is to roll out each rope directly on the parchment-lined baking sheet, then pinch the ends together. This avoids the unnecessary step of lifting the loop from board to baking sheet and breaking it in the process.

7. Slide the rosquillas onto the middle rack of the oven and bake until cooked through and lightly browned on the bottom and around the edges, 20-25 minutes.

8. Transfer them at once to wire racks to cool completely. Store over night or for up to two weeks in air-tight containers, chilled.

Top photo: Corn masa cookies (rosquillas). Credit: Nathan Hoyt

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