Julia della Croce – Zester Daily http://zesterdaily.com Zester Daily Fri, 05 Jan 2018 10:00:10 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.5.12 Which Sauce For Which Pasta? /cooking/which-sauce-for-which-pasta/ /cooking/which-sauce-for-which-pasta/#comments Wed, 03 Jan 2018 10:00:29 +0000 /?p=59368 Vintage pasta label. Credit: Courtesy of Gerardo di Nola Pastificio, Naples

We’ve come a long way since the days when Americans thought Italian cuisine meant spaghetti or ziti in rivers of “marinara” set on red-checkered tablecloths. Even if mistaken notions persist about what genuine Italian cooking really is, we’ve embraced every new pasta that has come our way (think squid-ink fettuccine or agnolotti al plin), and we’ve become more sauce savvy, too. Amatriciana and puttanesca are commonplace in restaurant and home kitchens alike, and “carbonara” is a household word from New York to Nebraska. Arrabbiata, cacio e pepe, aglio e olio — you name it, we love them all.

Nevertheless, the canon of pasta-and-sauce pairings has remained something of a mystery outside the borders of Italy. The immense number of different shapes is daunting to us foreigners; out of sheer exasperation, we find ourselves asking, “Why so many?” There are “priests’ hats,” “wolves’ eyes” and “horses’ teeth,” “church bells,” “little loves” and “kiss catchers.” It is not enough to make pasta bows (farfalle); there must also be little bows (farfallette) and much bigger bows (farfalloni). There are not only small reeds called cannelle, but also very small reeds, large smooth reeds and large grooved reeds. Some shapes have more than one name (penne lisce and mostaccioli, for example, are one and the same).

A 19th-century graphic depicting rival pasta makers. Credit: Courtesy of Julia della Croce

A 19th-century graphic depicting rival pasta makers. Credit: Courtesy of Julia della Croce

The roots of this maccheroni madness go back to the fierce rivalry among dried-pasta manufacturers in 19th century Naples, where the southern Italian pasta industry mushroomed during the Industrial Revolution. At one point about 1,500 pastifici competed for business, engaging in price wars or introducing ever-newer products to lure customers to their brand. But probably more than anything, the seemingly endless variations reflect the expansive nature of the Italian people — their imagination and love of show.

The American versus the Italian approach

Americans are characteristically laissez-faire about pairing rules. James Beard once told me that he saw no reason to be bound by tradition; he believed we ought to be inventive with pasta recipes. By contrast, the Italians are always mindful of the pairing principles derived from a long history of pasta eating. Over the centuries, tried-and-true guidelines have emerged, based primarily on the ingredients in the dough and the architecture of each resulting shape — hard wheat or soft wheat, dried pasta or fresh, long or short, smooth or ridged. Various pastas absorb and combine with sauces in different ways depending on their wall thickness, density and structure.

Meanwhile, sauces — condimenti, as the Italians call themhave inherent texture, flavor and color attributes. The foundation of most is olive oil or butter, given body with tomato purée, meat, vegetables and/or cheese. The art of pairing can probably best be explained by herding all the unruly strands and little shapes into three separate tribes, as it were — each with their own swimming pools or sauces. (Here we will concern ourselves with dried pasta alone.)

Golden rules for pairing dried pasta and sauces



Capelli d’angelo (“angel hair”), cappellini (“fine hair”), vermicelli (“little worms”), fedelini (“very fine noodles”): Use all in broths or broth-based soups. The latter two, being thicker, are suitable for light, sieved tomato sauces, but none of these long, lightweight pastas can support dense cream-based or meat sauces.


Spaghetti, spaghettini, spaghetti alla chitarra (“guitar-string spaghetti”), mezze linguine (“half linguine”): This group is sturdy enough for olive-oil sauces such as aglio e olio as well as tomato- or brothy seafood-based sauces that easily slip along the surface.


Linguine (“long tongues,” aka bavette), perciatelli, bucatini, fusilli bucati lunghi (“long hollow coils”): Because these shapes have more weight than those in the previous subcategories, they will all support a relatively unctuous sauce such as basil pesto, but they are also sprightly enough to consort with sauces suited to medium-weight long pasta. By tradition, linguine is inexplicably inseparable from fish or shellfish sauces, though fluid tomato sauces make a pleasant match, too.

Spaghetti with fresh tomato and basil, a classic pairing. Credit: Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Spaghetti with fresh tomato and basil, a classic pairing. Credit: Copyright 2018 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales


The tubular shapes have relatively thick walls, which make them sturdy enough to support not only chunky tomato-based sauces with or without meat, as well as cheese or cream preparations. (Diagonal cuts are especially handy in this regard.) Despite the versatility of these shapes, the size of the ingredients in accompanying sauces should be kept in mind. For example, wide tubular cuts are big enough to trap meat bits and vegetable chunks (think rigatoni with broccoli and anchovies); not so in the case of petite variants such as pennette (“little quills”). Tubular shapes are also ideal for baked dishes because they hold their shape and firmness during a second cooking in the oven.

Anelli (“rings”), ditaloni (“thimbles”): Ideal for pasta e fagioli and other bean soups because the ring shape nests cannellini beans, lentils and such.

Penne (“quills”), penne rigate (“ridged quills”), penne lisce (“smooth quills”), pennette, rigatoni: These go with olive oil- or butter-based vegetable, meat and tomato sauces and also with cream-based concoctions. Olive oil-based sauces stick to ridged shapes better than to smooth ones. The slimmer pennette are best matched with light vegetable or tomato sauces containing, say, wild mushrooms or eggplant (though traditionalists wouldn’t dream of making pasta alla Norma with anything but spaghetti).

Quirky shapes

Farfalle (“butterflies”): Their delicate “wingspan” suits them to light sauces based on either olive oil or butter, as long as there are no big obstacles in their flight path.

Fusilli, fusilli corti (“short fusilli”), tortiglioni (hollow “spirals”), radiatori (“radiators”), gemelli (“twins”) and various twists: Shapes like these are designed to trap cheese and ricotta sauces or unctuous nut sauces, such as pestos. Ragù and other meat sauces love to collect in their coils, too.

Strozzapreti (“priest stranglers”): These handmade dried forms call for tomato, meat and sausage sauces.

Conchiglie (“shells”), riccioli (“curls”), ruote (“wheels”), lumache (“snails”): Short and stubby shapes such as these work well with hearty sauces featuring meat, vegetables, cheese or cream.

Main photo: Vintage pasta label. Credit: Courtesy of Gerardo di Nola Pastificio, Naples, reprinted from “Pasta Classica: The Art of Italian Pasta Cooking,” by Julia della Croce

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A Fruitcake Everyone Will Love (Really!) /baking-wrecipe/fruitcake-everyone-will-love-really/ /baking-wrecipe/fruitcake-everyone-will-love-really/#comments Sat, 09 Dec 2017 10:00:09 +0000 /?p=58378 Christmas fruitcake, © Julia della Croce 2014. Credit: Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

I never understood the aversion to fruitcake until someone sent me one of those clunkers that the humorist Russell Baker said he deplored, dating from a Christmas dinner when a small piece he dropped shattered his right foot. The offending object “had been in my grandmother’s possession since 1880,” he joked in his 1983 essay “Fruitcakes Are Forever.” “Fruitcake is the only food durable enough to become a family heirloom.”

What gives it a bad rap is the reliance, especially by commercial bakeries, on glacéed fruits, those sugar-embalmed specimens that no longer have a whiff of fruit in them. They’re fine if you want your holiday dessert to glow like a Christmas tree, but they’re all wrong if it’s flavor you are after. Good fruitcake is another story, one that evokes Christmas probably more than any other sweet. Imagine capturing the essence of the Sicilian wine grape Zibibbo, Montagnoli figs and Montmorency cherries in one bite: The results can be intoxicating. If the fruit tastes good, well, then, the cake will taste good, too. As the Italians say, “Good with good makes good.”

A taste of tradition

As it happens, I cut my teeth on English fruitcake. Properly made, it is a lovely affair — ambrosial, aromatic and dense like its cousin plum pudding, sans suet. Those who have the patience for cutting up all the fruits and lining the pans properly to prevent the batter from sticking will find it well worth doing once a year — not least because it has a certain romance to it, like English leather, a vintage Rolls or aged Port. It has a patina. I adore its rich and spicy flavors, moist crumb and liquorous cheer. I love the cool glaze that frosts the surface and melts the moment it greets my warm tongue.

There is simply nothing more evocative of the winter holidays, especially those I spent living in Scotland when we left our doors open and neighbors stopped by with gifts of homemade baked goods or marmalades and stayed for a tipple and a chat. My landlord, who produced really good British fare by faithfully following the recipes in “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management,” made an especially grand version that was covered with a layer of almond paste and, over that, royal icing. The cake was baked in August and left to cure under rum-soaked wraps until the time came to decorate it for Christmas. It recalled for me the flavors of my mother’s gâteau d’uva, described in Ada Boni’s Italian classic “Il Talismano della Felicità,” the only cookbook in our house, as “a famous English fruitcake.”

The key ingredients

I was compelled to make my mother’s cake to see how it would compare to the British original. The recipe she sent me listed dried fruit. But what kind? Living as I did then on paltry wages, I couldn’t make a long-distance call to New York for more details — I didn’t even have a phone — but I was sure she avoided the embalmed sort. I went to a pricey greengrocer on Edinburgh’s Princes Street where the Queen’s steward was reputed to order fruits when the royals were in residence. There, I spent a week’s wages on the best dried fruits I could find. The result? My fruitcake exceeded even my mother’s.

Fruitcakes fall into three basic categories: dark, light and white, depending upon the proportion of dark sugar or molasses used to sweeten the cake. This version is dark. Old English recipes call for brandy, but I use a combination of vermouth, sherry and brandy. Any of them will do — as will the Scots’ preference, whiskey, or Gran Marnier, as Carole Walter, author of the classic “Great Cakes” (Ballantine Books), suggests.

Perhaps the most important ingredient, however, is time. When I asked Walter how long fruitcake should age, she said, “Making fruitcake well before Christmas makes it easier to slice because, as the cake matures, the ingredients hold together better.” But don’t worry: Susan Purdy, author of the definitive “A Piece of Cake” (Atheneum), offered tips, which you will find in the recipe, for accelerating the process, so you can make the cake in time to shatter your holiday crowd’s expectations (rather than their feet).

Fruit for fruitcake

Fruit for fruitcake
Picture 1 of 3

Dried fruit assortment. Credit: Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Christmas Fruitcake

You will need two or three days to make this cake. I’ve listed my favorite combination of dried fruits, but you can substitute others if you like. The important thing is to use high-quality fruit that is still moist and naturally colorful as well as good liquor. Also important are sturdy aluminum pans, never dark metal or glass pans, which absorb too much heat and cause the cake bottom to burn easily. The classic shape is round, but my preference is to use two loaf pans along with muffin tins for extra batter, ensuring that I will have one cake to serve immediately, another under moist wraps when that one runs out, and some muffin-sized mini-cakes, which make lovely gifts. (For a single, round cake, use an angel-food cake form.)

Prep time: 2 hours plus 3 days to 2 weeks for curing

Cooking time: 2 hours

Total time: 4 hours plus at least 3 days curing time

Yield: Two large loaves (12 to 15 servings per loaf) plus several muffins, or one tube cake (24 to 30 servings total) plus two baby loaves or several muffins, as directed.


For the cake:

1 pound mixed, moist dried fruits, such as pear, peach, apricot and banana

1 pound moist dried figs

7/8 pound golden raisins

1/8 pound dried cherries

1/8 pound candied ginger, chopped

1/2 cup good sweet vermouth, such as Vermouth di Torino, plus more as needed

1/2 cup good medium-dry sherry, such as Oloroso, plus more as needed

1 cup unsalted butter at room temperature, plus extra for greasing pan

2 cups packed dark brown sugar

6 eggs

1/2 cup currant jelly

1/2 cup molasses

Zest and juice of 1 navel orange

Zest and juice of 1 medium lemon

3 cups sifted unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground mace

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 cup Cognac or good brandy, plus extra for soaking cheesecloth

1/2 pound skinned hazelnuts, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped

For the icing:

2/3 cup sifted confectioner’s sugar (plus more if needed for consistency)

2 teaspoons cold water

Zest of 1 orange or lemon plus 1 teaspoon of its juice

Special equipment: Two 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pans plus several muffin cups, or one 10-by-4-inch tube pan plus two baby loaf pans or several muffin cups; wax paper or baking parchment; paper muffin liners; enough cheesecloth for three layers of wrapping; heavy aluminum foil; airtight cake tins the same dimensions as your cakes.


For the cake:

1. A day or two before baking the cakes, use scissors to cut the mixed dried fruits and figs into very small pieces. In a large ceramic mixing bowl, combine the pieces with the raisins, cherries, ginger, vermouth and sherry. Cover securely with plastic wrap and set out to macerate until the fruits are well softened, using a rubber spatula to mix the ingredients now and then. To accelerate the process, you can cover the bowl and heat it in a microwave, 30 seconds at a time for 2 to 3 minutes total, until the fruit has softened. Add a few tablespoons more vermouth and sherry to moisten if it still seems dry.

2. Place a large baking pan filled with water on the floor of your oven and preheat to 300 F.

3. Grease your baking pans with butter. Cut wax paper or parchment to line the inside walls of the loaf pans or tube pan completely.

4. In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Blend in the jelly, molasses and orange and lemon zest and juices.

5. Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices into the creamed butter mixture alternately with 1/4 cup Cognac or brandy. Blend in the soaked, marinated fruits and their liquor, followed by the hazelnuts.

6. Turn the batter into the baking pans, filling them 2/3 full. Tap pans on the counter firmly to close up any air pockets. Mound the batter somewhat in the center. Bake on the middle oven rack until a tester comes out clean and the cakes begin to come away from the sides of the pan, about 2 hours. (The small loaf pans or cupcakes will cook more quickly, so check them well in advance.) If necessary, cover cakes with foil for the last half hour to prevent the surface from burning.

7. Set the pans on cake racks and let them settle for 30 minutes, then ease them out of the pans onto a work surface. Carefully remove the paper. Invert and cool completely, right side up.

8. Cut cheesecloth in pieces large enough to wrap each cake in three layers, then soak the pieces thoroughly in brandy or Cognac. To accelerate the curing, poke holes throughout the cakes with thin metal skewers to enable them to soak up the spirits quickly. Wrap the cakes in the cheesecloth well, then wrap them again in several layers of heavy foil and seal tightly. Place each in a heavy-duty plastic bag with a secure seal. Store the loaves in an airtight tin for at least three days or, ideally, up to two weeks or more; they’ll keep for as long as six months. Check them periodically and brush with more spirits if they seem dry. Store the cakes in a cool, dry place or, in warmer temperatures, place into a refrigerator.

For the icing:

1. Whisk together the confectioner’s sugar, water and orange or lemon zest plus juice in a small bowl to make a smooth and thick but pourable glaze.

2. Lace the glaze over the cake, letting it drip down the sides, and serve. Use a long, serrated bread knife for slicing.

Main photo: Christmas fruitcake, © Julia della Croce 2017. Credit: Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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The Secret To Mastering Italy’s Best Tomato Sauces /cooking/secret-to-best-tomato-sauces-of-italy/ /cooking/secret-to-best-tomato-sauces-of-italy/#comments Fri, 24 Nov 2017 10:00:32 +0000 /?p=30114 Harvesting the ancient tomatoes of Naples, San Marzano, Campania. Credit: Paolo Ruggiero, DaniCoop

A question I’m often asked is how to make the best so-called “marinara.” It’s one that vexes me as much as the perennial hunt for the best pizza that makes good headlines. How could only one out of countless others be “best”? To begin with,”marinara” is a misnomer. While in America the term applies to a basic tomato sauce, the root word comes from the Latin mare, “sea,” thus a seafood sauce.

Recipes for sugo alla marinara typically include seafood, and perhaps tomato — or perhaps not. In Naples “marinara” (from marinare, to marinate) is a bath of fresh tomatoes, olive oil, olives, capers, anchovies and garlic, which might be called salsa puttanesca elsewhere. Perhaps the name derives from the simple tomato sauce that fishermen brought on their boats to anoint spaghetti, or in which to simmer their catch.

There are endless recipes for tomato sauces in Italy. In Puglia’s northern provinces they are usually infused with olive oil and garlic; in the southern parts, with onion. Sardinia likes to add mint, or to tint and flavor it with their revered saffron. Emilia-Romagna fortifies it with butter and wine (red or white, depending). Calabria zaps it with hot pepper. Sicily, while under the shoes of the Saracens for 400 years, inherited the Arab sweet tooth and has a penchant for adding sugar (an American habit probably bequeathed by the legions of Sicilian immigrants).

Tomato sauce from tomato paradise

Sunny Naples, where the tomato was reputedly first transported from Spain on horseback in the 16th century, is tomato paradise. The sauce in all its permutations is more prodigious in this city than anywhere. It is Naples, after all, that gave the tomato sauce to Italy.

To make a great tomato sauce, you first need  a great tomato. It is no small happenstance that on the slopes of Vesuvius, which towers geographically and mythically over Naples, clime and volcanic ash conspire to grow the world’s best sauce tomato. This is the pomodoro San Marzano of the enchanted hills and plains between Naples and Salerno.

Algae-rich dirt, torrid heat, scant rain and a long growing season combine to incubate a fruit of haunting flavor: a perfect balance of baritone sweetness and engaging acidity. Bottled on site, the pelati, as conserved tomatoes are called, meaning simply, “peeled,” are a staple in every Italian kitchen.

Such tomatoes were once a dream outside of Italy, but no longer. The ancient cultivar is being preserved to protect it, and with the foreign palate awakened to real Italian flavors, producers have hopes of paving the roads to China with this red gold.

The mother of all Neapolitan tomato sauces is pummarola (literally, “tomato” in the vernacular), though not surprisingly in this most chaotic of places, no one agrees on the recipe. Some versions are as simple as a fast sauté of olive oil, garlic, pelati, and a scrap of basil — simple but heavenly with the Vesuvius tomatoes. The most aromatic sauce begins with a soffritto (sauté) of carrot, celery, onion and parsley. In season, fresh tomatoes rule. Otherwise, pelati are used gratefully. Bottled are preferred, but canned will do. On its own, this pummarola is fruity and fragrant — what spaghetti, linguine or other dried pasta shapes should wear. As a foundation for other sauces, it exalts whatever else it’s stirred with (seafood, for example). In all, it’s as fine an expression of Italian tomato sauce as you’ll find.

Fruity Neapolitan Tomato Sauce (Pummarola)

Makes approximately 2 cups, enough for 1 pound of pasta

Pummarola is well suited to the texture of dried pasta, both strand types and short cuts. Spaghetti and linguine are especially compatible with it. It has a pleasant chunky texture, or a rich silkiness when passed through a sieve or a food mill. When sieved, it can be used as a foundation for other sauces wherever a prepared tomato sauce is called for, or for salsa bolognese and the whole tribe of ragùs.


2½ cups (28 ounces) canned, peeled plum tomatoes in juice, seeded and chopped. (D.O.P San Marzanos are preferred.)

4 tablespoons high quality extra virgin olive oil, or more, to taste

2 large cloves garlic, crushed

1 small red or yellow onion, minced

1 medium celery stalk, including leaves, minced

1 small carrot minced

2 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley, minced

2 tablespoons tomato paste

Pummarola. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton, from "Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul."

Pummarola. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton, from “Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul.”

Small handful of chopped fresh basil

Scant ½ teaspoon salt, or to taste

Freshly milled black or white pepper


1. Drain the tomatoes in a colander, reserving their juice; chop and set aside.

2. In an ample saucepan over medium-low heat, warm 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Stir in the garlic, onion, celery, carrot and parsley, and sauté until the vegetables are completely soft, about 12 minutes. Add the tomato paste and stir until it’s coppery-colored, about 3 minutes. Then add the tomatoes and their juice, cover partially, and simmer, stirring occasionally, gently until thickened, about 45 minutes. Stir in the basil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat and blend in the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, or more to taste.

Note: If a smooth sauce is desired, take the pan off the stove when it’s cooked and allow it to cool somewhat. Position a food mill over a clean saucepan and pass the sauce through it, being sure to press out as much of the pulp as possible. Place over medium heat just long enough to heat through, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the remaining tablespoon olive oil.

Attention: Don’t purée the sauce in a food processor; we don’t want to break the seeds.

Ahead-of-time note: The sauce can be made 4 to 5 days in advance of use and stored tightly covered in the refrigerator, or it can be frozen for up to 3 months. Whether storing it in the refrigerator or freezer, leave out the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Stir it into the sauce after reheating.

Top photo: Harvesting the ancient tomatoes of Naples, San Marzano, Campania. Credit: Paolo Ruggiero, DaniCoop

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Chowder The Right Way: Any Way You Like It /cooking/chowder-right-way-way-like/ /cooking/chowder-right-way-way-like/#comments Fri, 22 Sep 2017 09:00:53 +0000 /?p=68028 Corn, potato and shrimp chowder with bourbon. Credit: 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.

Key ingredients

Onions fresh from the garden. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Folktales

Onions fresh from the garden. Credit: Copyright 2017 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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

Watercolor illustration originally published in “Suburbia Today” for “Discriminating Diner,” by Julia della Croce, 1981. Credit: Copyright 1981 Laura Cornell

Watercolor illustration originally published in “Suburbia Today” for “Discriminating Diner,” by Julia della Croce, 1981. Credit: Copyright 1981 Laura Cornell

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

Fresh ears of corn. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Fresh ears of corn. Credit: Copyright 2017 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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

Corn, potato and shrimp chowder with bourbon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Corn, potato and shrimp chowder with bourbon. Credit: Copyright 2017 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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 2017 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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Cherry Tomato Sauce, A Late-Summer Blast Of Sweetness /cooking-wrecipe/an-italian-gift-of-summer-exploded-cherry-tomato-sauce/ /cooking-wrecipe/an-italian-gift-of-summer-exploded-cherry-tomato-sauce/#comments Fri, 18 Aug 2017 09:00:46 +0000 /?p=74849 Fresh tagliatelle with pomodori scoppiati at Le Comari di Farfa, Castelnuovo di Farfa, Rieti. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

At long last, cherry tomatoes are here, pay dirt for every ghastly love apple we’ve had to eat out of season. Whether Italian heirlooms or American hybrids, Ciliegini or Principe Borghese, Sun Golds or Black Pearls, Sugar Snacks or Honeydrops, these babies are tomato candy. What the best of them have that the Beefsteaks and other big boys of backyard gardens and farmers markets often fail to deliver is the sharp acid sweetness that nature intended for their breed.

I like to eat them out of hand immediately after plucking from their umbilical vine, still warm and with the faint taste of dirt clinging to their skin. But as any gardener knows, they grow fast and furiously. When August rolls around and they are ripening on their trusses at the rate of Romans taking to the autostrada for their summer holiday, it’s time for one of Italy’s most endearing, and speediest, little sauces: pomodori scoppiati (pummidori scattarisciati in the vernacular of southern Puglia) or “exploded tomatoes.”

Not Your Classic Sauce Tomato

Pomodori scoppiati used as a condiment for roasted fish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Pomodori scoppiati used as a condiment for roasted fish. Credit: Copyright 2017 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

The beauty of this homey sauce is that you can cook the tomatoes whole without bothering to peel or cut them first, a custom that originated with poor agricultural workers in the Salento who had little time for preparing food after a long day toiling in the fields. What they did have were their own patches of land where they planted tiny, intensely sweet pomodorini, typically the type called pachino or the dwarf pomodorini appesi al filo (“tomatoes hanging in row”) that grow in compact clusters like grapes. No other cherry tomatoes I know of come close to the startling sweetness of those two Italian varieties, but in season, our North American varieties can be awfully good. My favorite is the Sun Gold, which is rapidly becoming the most popular cherry tomato of all time, according to the Burpee seed people, and has become ubiquitous at local farmstands.

Restaurant chefs will love the following recipe for its sexy name, and home cooks will appreciate that there is barely anything to do save toss the little tomatoes in a pan with onion and good olive oil and an herb or two. The sauce, which the Italians would call a condimento, is made for multiple purposes: to accompany friselle, the hardtack biscuit that the Pugliesi eat dampened and rehydrated; for topping pasta or serving alongside meat or fish; or as a foundation for other dishes. Like the Italians, you ought not worry about the skins and seeds. When I asked the locals if they sieved the sauce to remove them, they laughed. “Only Americans think tomatoes grow without seeds,” a vegetable seller told me. “In Puglia they leave the skins on because the tomatoes are cooked when they’re very ripe and the skin is thin,” said a friend. “And besides, the skins contains the color and the goodness of the ripe tomato and give lovely body to the sauce.” Here is the recipe, adapted for the American kitchen.

Pomodori Scoppiati (‘Exploded’ Cherry Tomato Sauce)

Sun Gold cherry tomatoes on their trusses and ripening fast. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Sun Gold cherry tomatoes on their trusses and ripening fast. Credit: Copyright 2017 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Prep time: 1 minute

Cooking time: Approximately 15 minutes

Total time: About 16 minutes

Yield: About 2 1/2 cups


2 1/2 pounds good and ripe cherry tomatoes

1/4 cup genuine extra virgin olive oil

1 fresh onion, 1 small red onion or 2 large shallots, finely sliced and chopped

1 handful whole fresh basil leaves

Large pinch of dried oregano

Fresh hot pepper to taste (optional)

Sea salt to taste


1. Remove stems from the tomatoes and wash and dry them.

2. Select an ample, heavy-bottomed skillet with a tight-fitting lid. Warm the olive oil in the pan over medium-low heat (do not overheat so as to preserve the flavor and nutrients). Stir in the onion or shallot and sauté until transparent, 2-3 minutes.

3. Add the tomatoes, basil and oregano, as well as the hot pepper if you are using it. Increase the heat to medium. Simmer until all the tomatoes have burst, about 10 minutes. Remove the cover and simmer over medium-low heat until the tomatoes are completely collapsed, pressing down on them with a potato masher or the back of a wooden spoon to release their juices. Continue to cook to evaporate the juices and thicken the sauce, about 5 minutes. Season with salt.

Note: The tomatoes should be a suitable fresh cherry variety of the season (I have yet to taste a grape tomato than can compare), whether red, orange or yellow, and they should be good and ripe. Two and a half cups is enough to sauce 1 pound of fresh or dried pasta that has been timed to cook just after the sauce is done. As important for good results as using the right tomato is starting out with genuine extra virgin olive oil. Keep in mind that true extra virgin is not a mere cooking oil but a flavor-packed and nutrient-filled fruit juice.

Main photo: Fresh tagliatelle with pomodori scoppiati at Le Comari di Farfa, Castelnuovo di Farfa, Rieti. Credit: Copyright 2017 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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Broccoli Rabe Gets Rave Reviews: 9 New Ways /cooking/9-fresh-uses-for-broccoli-rabe-an-italian-superstar/ /cooking/9-fresh-uses-for-broccoli-rabe-an-italian-superstar/#comments Sat, 29 Apr 2017 09:00:14 +0000 /?p=66328 Brassica rapa at the Palo del Colle market in Puglia, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2014 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.

Cime di rapa varieties in the greenhouse at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Cime di rapa varieties in the greenhouse at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Old varieties are new again

Although most Americans are familiar only with the tidy, commercially grown bunches sold in supermarkets under the name of “broccoli rabe” (a debased form of Italian native speakers prickle at), small-scale farmers around the country are creating a new awareness of Brassica rapa’s formidable culinary powers. A wide range of varieties are  popping up in local farmers markets and CSAs, and chefs are demanding heirloom types whose flavors recall the earth they are grown in. “San Francisco and New York high-end restaurants start the trends,” says Nagengast, explaining why he is crisscrossing southern Italy in search of variants unknown outside their native environment. “Then it takes off.” The idea is that savvy home cooks, like chefs, will seek them out for the same reasons they do certain wines and cheeses: distinctive terroir. Several of Nagengast’s transplanted seeds have been sown by Jack Algiere, farm director at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York, who grows them to be served at James Beard award-winning chef Dan Barber’s groundbreaking restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

Boiled rapini are flavored with the delicious drippings of porchetta at Mozzarella e Vino in New York City. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Boiled rapini are flavored with the delicious drippings of porchetta at Mozzarella e Vino in New York City. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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.

Chef Viola Buitioni’s garlicky Umbrian "rapi e patate." Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Chef Viola Buitioni’s garlicky Umbrian “rapi e patate.” Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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.

Whole-wheat gemelli with rapini, bacon and chickpeas, which are creamier if you peel the skins off first. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Whole-wheat gemelli with rapini, bacon and chickpeas, which are creamier if you peel the skins off first. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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.

Imported Italian linguine with shrimp, Brassica rapa and hot pepper, inspired by a Venetian dish. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Imported Italian linguine with shrimp, Brassica rapa and hot pepper, inspired by a Venetian dish. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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.

Rosa Ross’s stir-fried beef and rapini in place of the traditional "gai lan," Chinese flowering broccoli. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Rosa Ross’s stir-fried beef and rapini in place of the traditional “gai lan,” Chinese flowering broccoli. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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.

Pizza topped with sweet fennel pork sausage, sautéed rapini, cacio Romano (soft Roman sheep’s cheese) and serrano pepper. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Pizza topped with sweet fennel pork sausage, sautéed rapini, cacio Romano (soft Roman sheep’s cheese) and serrano pepper. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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.

Rapini pie with an American-style crust makes for a twist on Italian tradition. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Rapini pie with an American-style crust makes for a twist on Italian tradition. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Rapini pie

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.

Imported fusilli with rapini pesto, almond shards and pecorino Toscano. Fusilli are exceptionally suitable because the coils trap the pesto. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Imported fusilli with rapini pesto, almond shards and pecorino Toscano. Fusilli are exceptionally suitable because the coils trap the pesto. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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.

Rapini butter stirred into alphabet pasta makes ideal baby food. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Rapini butter stirred into alphabet pasta makes ideal baby food. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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

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Don’t Be Bitter, Just Cook Rapini Better /cooking/dont-bitter-just-cook-rapini-better/ /cooking/dont-bitter-just-cook-rapini-better/#comments Sat, 22 Apr 2017 09:00:33 +0000 /?p=34616 Viola Buitoni's Sauteed Broccoli Rapini with Potatoes. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton, from "Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul"

Cime di rapa (turnip tops), broccoli di rapa, broccoletti di rapa, and rape (räp’ – eh), are Italian names for what Americans dub broccoli rabe, or raab. Because the cruciferous vegetable (Brassica rapa ruvo) descends from the wild mustard plants that have carpeted the heel of Italy’s boot since ancient times, I think it deserves to keep its native name.

The problem is that the Italians have as many different local words for it as they have political parties. In Naples it’s friariélli, in Umbria, rapi; Puglia and Lazio calls the greens broccoletti (not to be mistaken with broccolini) or just, cime, and so on. I like the affectionate-sounding compromise, rapini.

While the buds on the tops resemble those of broccoli, a member of the cabbage family, the similarity ends there. Rapini belongs to the spicy turnip tribe. Today, the broccoli with a bite has become mainstream. It has even become trendy.

Just what makes it so engaging? Leaving aside the fact that it’s loaded with vitamins and cancer-fighting compounds, it seduces you with a pungent blast unlike any other vegetable, except Chinese broccoli (same botanical family), and, if you think about it, maybe a perfectly roasted, caramelized turnip. Its pleasant bitterness gives you a surprising jab in the mouth that gets your juices flowing, making your taste buds plead for pork sausages or potatoes, foods that are usually paired with it and made sweeter by the marriage.

Tips from the original rapini experts: Italians

Still, many a bold eater willing to venture into the realm of vegetables once considered strange say they can’t get past its bitter taste. It’s no wonder. Rapini is rarely cooked properly outside the borders of Italy.

Using a small knife, separate the stems from the florets. The stems should be peeled and cut in half. Credit: Julia della Croce

I have succumbed to them in restaurants where I thought the chef surely knew how to cook them, and in precocious take-out shops where the greens, glistening like jade and studded with gilded garlic cloves, made my mouth water, only to be disappointed. They were either overcooked and stringy, or undercooked and bitter. This is not a vegetable to eat al dente, nor to benefit from a long boil, like sturdy collards.

“Broccoli rabe needs two things,” said Nina Balducci of the legendary Balducci’s in New York City, once a mecca of genuine Italian ingredients outside of Italy, “water and salt.” The trick is to first blanch it in plenty of salty water to tame its bitterness and coax out its sweet side. Then, fish it out, still dripping wet, and coddle it in plenty of good olive oil and garlic. The greens should be almost butter-tender, primed to soak up the garlicky broth. Now they’re ready to eat, or to cozy up to creamy polenta, pureed beans (try favas, chickpeas or cannellini in the style of Puglia), or succulent pork sausages.

The bitter greens get in your blood. When Andy Balducci opened the famous Greenwich Village store where his father worked the produce aisles and his mother, and his wife, Nina, cooked take-out food that the likes of Meryl Streep and Lauren Bacall took home for dinner, he flew in a few crates of cime di rapa from his native Puglia to test the waters.

The buds on the florets should be tight and green. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

“It was a tradition in Corato, my home town,” said Andy, who sold the grocery in 1999. “My friend grew it in his orto and his dream was to export it to Bari, the nearest city, 24 kilometers away. In those days, by horse and cart, it was like from here to heaven,” he laughed. “We didn’t sell it raw. Mom cooked it when it was available and we always sold out right away.” The D’Arrigo Brothers, California farmers and owners of Andy Boy who supplied Balducci’s with broccoli, perused the cooked foods whenever they visited.  They’d ask the Balducci’s about the vegetable everyone was making such a fuss over.

Eventually, they decided to grow it themselves from heritage seeds. Outside of Puglia, even in many parts of Italy, the vegetable is unknown — except wherever Andy and Nina Balducci go. The couple have been known to travel with crates of it in tow. “We’ve introduced it to the Bahamas,” said Nina.

 Pairing rapini with potatoes

We might be led to think that Puglia, which loves bitter greens overall (cime, chicory, escarole, dandelions), could claim them as their own. “Oh no,” says Viola Buitoni, San Francisco cooking teacher and scion of the Perugia-based Buitoni family, producers of pasta and chocolate since the early 19th century. “Rape/rapi/broccoletti whatever you call them are very common in Umbria and also, Lazio. Our housekeeper made them, so I know they were an Umbrian tradition,” she said. “In fact, there’s a type of rapini I love that’s native to the Trasimeno known as rapini del lago, “rapini of the lake.” Seems there is yet another delicious Italian vegetable to be “discovered” and transplanted in America.

Probably my favorite rapini dish is one that Viola makes. She tosses garlicky rapi, as she calls them, with crisp-cooked potatoes. “[It’s] a dish that was a staple on our table because it’s a way to make good use of leftover potatoes. The leafy greens that were most common in our household in fall and winter were rapi.” It is a very fine dish to add to your cold weather repertoire.

Viola Buitoni’s Sautéed Broccoli Rapini With Potatoes

(Rapi e Patate alla Viola Buitoni)

Serves 6 for a side dish

America has at last discovered this wonderful vegetable, but I’m convinced that people would like it more if it were prepared correctly. The secret to cooking broccoli rapini is to boil the greens briefly before sautéing to rid them of their excessive bitterness and to tenderize the stalks. Some people discard the stalks, but the thicker ones, once peeled, are delicious. To avoid overcooking the delicate buds, cook the stems for a minute first before adding the florets to the pot. After draining, the rapini are finished in the saute pan with olive oil and garlic. This second step when cooking vegetables is called “ripassare,” meaning that the vegetable is passed again in the frying pan.


2 Yukon Gold potatoes, unpeeled

1 bunch broccoli rapini, about 1½ pounds

1 tablespoon sea salt

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided

6 large cloves garlic, bruised but left whole


1. In a saucepan, combine the potatoes with enough cold water to cover and bring to a boil. Cook over medium heat until the potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes. They should be fully tender but not falling apart when cooked. When cool enough to handle, peel the skin from the potatoes, cut them lengthwise into quarters, and then cut crosswise into medium-thin slices. Set aside and let them cool.

2. Detach the stems from the tops of the vegetable. Using a small, sharp knife, peel the skin from the thicker lower stalks of the rapini (most of the bottom portion of the stalk) and cut them crosswise into approximate 2-inch lengths.

3. Fill a large pot with plenty of water to cover the greens and bring to a rolling boil. Add the peeled stems along with the salt, cover partially, and cook over medium-high heat for 1 minute. Now add the florets and cook them together with the stems until the vegetable is tender but not mushy, 3 to 4 minutes more. Note that if the stalks are at all crisp, they will remain bitter. Drain the greens, reserving a little of the cooking liquid and set it aside separately.

4. In a nonstick skillet large enough to accommodate the potatoes and the greens, warm the olive oil over low heat and add the garlic. Sauté over medium heat until the garlic is nicely softened but not colored, about 4 minutes. Transfer to a side dish. Raise the heat to medium-high and add the cooked potatoes. Sauté until they are golden and crispy all over, about 12 minutes, then transfer to another side dish. Warm the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-low heat, return the rapini and the garlic cloves to the pan. Sauté until the greens are nicely coated with the olive oil and the garlic and heated through, about 3 minutes; if they appear a little dry, add a little of the reserved cooking water as needed. Return the potatoes to the skillet and toss all together. Adjust for seasoning and serve immediately.

* * *


Buy only very fresh rapini. The base of the stalks ought to be cream colored and crisp, not brown and curled. The leaves should be perky and ruffled, not dried out and floppy, and the buds bright green, never yellow.

The thicker stalks are meant to be eaten but need to be peeled before cooking, like mature asparagus.

To avoid overcooking the florets, boil the peeled stems for a minute before adding the florets to the salted water. Continue to the cook stems and tops together for 3-4 minutes until tender but not mushy. Drain and saute as described in the recipe.

* * *


Rapini hate heat. In Italy, they’re planted in September for harvesting in November and December. Farmers markets where I live in the Northeast try their hand at them but they’re not successful. The plants have too many tough stalks are all leaves, and have few, if any, buds. Brassica rapa ruvo (rapini) need Mediterranean or California-type weather to thrive.

Top photo: Viola Buitoni’s Sauteed Broccoli Rapini With Potatoes. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton, from “Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul”

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Some Like It Hot: The Italian Way With Radicchio /cooking/some-like-it-hot-the-italian-way-with-radicchio/ /cooking/some-like-it-hot-the-italian-way-with-radicchio/#comments Fri, 17 Mar 2017 09:00:53 +0000 /?p=72407 Radicchio stuffed with goat cheese. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

If radicchio has become wildly popular in the States, it still doesn’t get the respect it deserves: Americans have adopted the showy vegetable as their own, but rarely does it transcend the salad bowl. This drives the Italians crazy, because throughout the regions where growing it is a tradition and an art, it has endless uses. Stuff it; shred it and caramelize it in olive oil for a pasta sauce or focaccia topping; melt it into a buttery risotto; coat it in batter and fry. Why not bake it into a cheesy pie encased in a crumbly crust? Venetians have no end of such recipes for their adored radicchio, and the different varieties they grow are starting to show their beautiful heads in American markets. Recently, I spoke with Emily Balducci, whose family introduced the vegetable to New York in the 1970s. Their legendary Greenwich Village grocery store evolved into Baldor Specialty Foods, which curates and distributes fresh produce to retailers and chefs. “Beginning in January, we get shipments twice a week,” she said. “The first of these winter beauties is Castelfranco, and the others follow. At the end of the season, we get rosa di Gorizia, the most gorgeous one of all.”

Know your radicchio

Radicchios for sale in Verona. Credit: Copyright 2016 Paolo Destefanis for "Veneto: Authentic Recipes From Venice and The Italian Northeast," by Julia della Croce (Chronicle Books)

Radicchios for sale in Verona. Credit: Copyright 2016 Paolo Destefanis for “Veneto: Authentic Recipes From Venice and The Italian Northeast,” by Julia della Croce (Chronicle Books)

To begin with, it should be noted that the radicchio tribe belongs to the group of root chicories classified as Cichorium intybus; as such, the leaves have a bite to them when eaten raw. While we are most familiar with the wine-colored, globe-shaped Verona chicory, there are numerous varieties indigenous to northeastern Italy, all characterized by their spectacular reddish or reddish-green coloring. Besides radicchio rosso di Verona (also called “the rose of Chioggia,” just to confuse the matter), these include another spherical type that can grow as large as a cabbage head: the Castelfranco radicchio, which is shaped like an open peony and cream-hued with violet streaking as well as a green tint to its outermost leaves. Both the Treviso radicchio (variegato di Treviso) and the late-winter tardivo di Treviso are elongated just like their cousin the Belgian endive, but the comparison stops there. With its leggy white stalks and furled, deep-purple leaf tips, tardivo (which means “late-blooming”) is the most esteemed by the Italians for its sweetness. Of all the radicchios, the most lovely of all might very well be the aforementioned rosa di Gorizia, a crimson variety shaped precisely like a rose. In the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, where rosa di Gorizia has been cultivated for centuries, greengrocers display the heads with their leaves open, like blooms in a flower shop.

To cook it is to love it

Only the rosa di Gorizia variety, a chicory with ancient roots in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region and imported by Baldor Specialty Foods, is spared the heat in my kitchen. Credit: Sebastian Arguello, Copyright Baldor Specialty Foods

Only the rosa di Gorizia variety, a chicory with ancient roots in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region and imported by Baldor Specialty Foods, is spared the heat in my kitchen. Credit: Sebastian Arguello, Copyright 2016 Baldor Specialty Foods

Personally, I prefer radicchio cooked. Sautéing, braising, grilling or roasting softens yet also develops its characteristic tanginess. One of the most delicious ways to cook it is to stuff the leaves with fresh cheese and wrap with pancetta before pan-roasting. But my favorite of all just might be spaghetti with radicchio, for which all but the rosa di Gorizia are suitable (let’s face it, even though the locals bake, boil or fry them like any other chicory, the rosettes are simply too exquisite to be tampered with; best to present them in their natural state to be appreciated for their beauty). Both recipes are easy and quick to make.

Radicchio Stuffed With Goat Cheese

Gail Whitney-Karn’s version of the recipe, ready for the skillet. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Gail Whitney-Karn’s version of the recipe, ready for the skillet. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Prep time: 25 minutes
Cooking time: Approximately 5 minutes
Total time: About 30 minutes
Yield: 4 appetizer portions

Friends who moved to Italy and invited us to lunch one afternoon at their temporary digs served this easy-to-make antipasto. Gail Whitney-Karn shared the recipe willingly, explaining that it originated with a chef named Carmine Smeraldo, who ran a Seattle restaurant called Il Terrazzo Carmine. She used the Castelfranco variety, but I have adapted it for the smaller and more common Verona type. If using Verona radicchio, select the largest head you can find for the broadest outer leaves (there will be some left over, which you can use for the pasta recipe that follows). You will also need some thin cotton kitchen string.

1 large head radicchio
2 tablespoons Italian (not Asian) pine nuts, or skinned walnuts
5 ounces goat cheese
2 tablespoons ricotta
Pinch of fine salt
Freshly milled black or white pepper to taste
4 to 8 thin slices pancetta (depending on the bundle size), the leaner the better
Extra virgin olive oil

1. Using a small, sharp knife, core the base of the radicchio. Detach eight nice outer leaves carefully, without tearing. Slice off the protruding base from the bottom of each rib to make it easier to roll up.

2. In a small skillet over low heat, lightly toast the pine nuts or walnuts until they are lightly colored but not browned. Chop them coarsely.

3. In a bowl, blend together the goat cheese, ricotta, nuts, salt and pepper.

4. Working with two leaves at a time, line one inside the other so that their bases are just overlapping in the center and the leaf tips are pointing outward. Place a rounded tablespoon of the cheese mixture in the center. Wrap the leaves around the filling to envelop it completely and form a torpedo-like bundle. Wrap one or two pancetta slices on the outside of the bundle to cover the leafy surface without overlapping, if possible. Secure with the kitchen string to prevent the filling from leaking excessively as the bundles sear. Use the remaining 6 leaves and filling to form 3 more bundles.

5. Warm an ample non-stick frying pan, cast-iron pan or other heavy skillet over medium heat. Drizzle in just enough olive oil to lightly coat the pan. Arrange the bundles seam-side down and reduce the heat to medium-low. Sear without moving them until they are nicely browned, about 2 minutes. As the pancetta browns, the bundles will begin to collapse and the filling may leak out slightly, but not to worry. Use a wide spatula to turn them over carefully and brown them on the reverse side, another 2 minutes. Transfer them to a cutting board, snip off the string and carefully place one each on 4 small serving plates. Serve at once.

Spaghetti With Braised Radicchio

Spaghetti with braised radicchio. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Spaghetti with braised radicchio. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: Approximately 20 minutes
Total time: About 30 minutes
Yield: 4 servings

I corresponded with Paolo Lanapoppi, a Venetian writer and gondola restorer, for some time before tracking him down in Venice. When we finally met, the radicchio of nearby Treviso was in full flower, and he cooked up this delightful homespun dish for lunch. While Lanapoppi used tardivo, any radicchio variety will do nicely.

8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced and then chopped
8 ounces radicchio, sliced thinly and cut into 2-inch lengths
1/2 to 3/4 cup hot water
1/2 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
3/4 pound (12 ounces) imported Italian spaghetti
2 tablespoons kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese

1. In a skillet ample enough to contain all the ingredients, warm the olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the onion and sauté until nicely softened and lightly colored, about 7 minutes. Toss in the radicchio; use a wooden spoon to coat it evenly in oil and sauté for 5 to 7 minutes to wilt. Add 1/2 cup hot water and toss. Cover and continue to cook over medium-low heat until the radicchio is tender, 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding up to 4 more tablespoons of water if needed to keep it nice and moist. Add the sea salt, cover and set aside.

2. Bring a large pot filled with water over high heat to a rolling boil. Stir in the spaghetti and kosher salt. Cook at a continuous boil over high heat, stirring occasionally to prevent the strands from sticking together, until almost cooked, 1 minute less than package directions indicate. Add a glass of cold water to the pot to arrest the boiling and drain immediately, setting aside 1 cup of the cooking water.

3. Add the spaghetti to the skillet and return the heat to high. Use 2 long forks to distribute the ingredients evenly, about 1 minute. If necessary, add a little of the reserved pasta water to moisten. Serve immediately with plenty of pepper. Pass the grated cheese at the table.

Main photo: Radicchio stuffed with goat cheese. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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Guinness For Irish Stew — In The Pot And On The Table /cooking/guinness-irish-stew-pot-table/ /cooking/guinness-irish-stew-pot-table/#comments Thu, 16 Mar 2017 09:00:17 +0000 /?p=62639 Beef and Guinness stew. Credit: Copyright 2015 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.

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.

Candlelight dinner on St. Patrick’s Day. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Candlelight dinner on St. Patrick’s Day. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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 

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The Olive Oil Scandals: Italy Fights Back /agriculture/the-olive-oil-scandals-italy-fights-back/ /agriculture/the-olive-oil-scandals-italy-fights-back/#comments Wed, 23 Mar 2016 09:00:30 +0000 /?p=72772 In Italy, there's a move to protect olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce

Between revelations by Italian police in December linking organized crime to 7,000 tons of counterfeit olive oil, and an estimated four-fold increase in adulterated extra virgin following the dismal 2014 olive harvest, there is no denying that fraud remains rampant. With 72 percent worldwide sales of olive oil at stake and all eyes on industry practices, Italy is fighting back.

EU and Italian government and trade organizations, including members of parliament, the Italian Trade Agency, UNAPROL (a consortium of Italian olive oil producers), and even an emissary of the Vatican, met last month to both address the problem of olive oil fraud and to outline their plans for a comeback.

“We must recuperate our damaged reputation,” said Colomba Mongiello, an Italian senator and president of the Counterfeiting Commission. She was responding to a survey conducted at Expo Milan 2015 in October, showing that 99 percent of foreign visitors involved believed that Italian olive oil was adulterated and that the consumer was being cheated. “Our objective is to reach the U.S. market and make them understand the difference between what looks Italian and what is Italian,” she said.

Officials meet

From left, ITA Director General Roberto Luongo, publisher and designer Franco Maria Ricci and Italian senator Colomba Mongiello spoke passionately at the Extract olive oil conference in Rome. Credit: Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce/Forktales

From left, ITA Director General Roberto Luongo, publisher and designer Franco Maria Ricci and Italian senator Colomba Mongiello spoke passionately at the Extract olive oil conference in Rome. Credit: Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce/Forktales

The conference, billed “Extract,” is part of a larger Italian effort to promote the country’s food and wine in the U.S., where imitation products labeled with Italian names, or colors of the Italian flag, are often mistaken for genuine imports. The strategy is two-pronged: legislating tougher penalties for fraud by going after Italian producers who don’t follow regulations, and launching the largest marketing effort ever made to inform American consumers how to taste and use extra virgin olive oil.

“We have to do the same thing we do with wine to get people to understand olive oil,” said culture guru Franco Maria Ricci, who spoke. “Four-year old children in France are taught that wine is an angel. Italy is an olive oil culture and [its] significance needs to be transmitted in the same way …. If we don’t understand its qualities and terroir, we won’t understand its value.”

Crime has always been associated with olive oil, a substance so precious and prized in Mediterranean culture that its production and trade has invariably had a dark side. Merchants have been known to cut extra virgin with cheap oil to increase their profits since ancient times, and farmers had to fear brigands waiting in ambush as they transported oil to market.

Today there is a different kind of criminal on the olive oil trail. It is the unscrupulous producer who intentionally mislabels oils to mislead consumers into thinking they are buying genuine Italian virgin olive oil when they are not. Such murky practices have both hurt ethical producers and confused consumers. As journalist and Zester Daily contributor Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of “Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil,” told me recently, “The problem … is that there are two kinds of olive oil in the world: commodity oil and excellent oil, which is usually estate-bottled and always very carefully produced …. [but] we keep trying to judge excellent oil as a commodity and vice versa.”

World’s best olive oil

An 850-year-old olive tree in the vineyards of Azienda Agricola Amastuola in Puglia. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

An 850-year-old olive tree in the vineyards of Azienda Agricola Amastuola in Puglia. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

If Italy, which arguably produces the best olive oil in the world, has been a hotbed of fraud, it is also at the forefront of combating crime in the business. Where else are police trained to sniff out fakes at every stage of the supply chain? And who, but the Italians, have a system–IGP (Protected Geographical Indication) and the more stringent DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin)—that regulates the way it is made and that can lead us to the very trees it came from, and practically, the humans who crafted it?

From the terraced slopes and soft valleys of Italy’s central regions and the microclimates of Veneto and Liguria, to the expansive southern plateaus and sun-drenched islands, come some of the most sublime olives oils, produced by artisans who have the passion for making it in their bloodlines. Like the country’s new breed of winemakers who focus on quality over quantity, they are making delicious oils with the flavor peculiarities of their particular landscape. Utilizing the benefits of modern technology for cultivation while practicing sustainable growing and traditional picking methods, they are no doubt making better oil than their ancestors did.

How to buy good olive oil

Second-generation producers Francesca and Paola Billi of Castelnuovo di Farfa in Lazio have won many awards for their estate-bottled La Mola olive oil DOP. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Second-generation producers Francesca and Paola Billi of Castelnuovo di Farfa in Lazio have won many awards for their estate-bottled La Mola olive oil DOP. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

That said, not all well-made olive oil carries the DOP seal. If we were to limit ourselves to those alone, we would miss out on many fine extra-virgins. As with “USDA Organic,” the rigorous and costly bureaucratic process discourages many a small ethical producer from applying.

Assuming you are not an expert, the best approach to finding good olive oil is not unlike that for choosing good wine: Find a knowledgeable retailer to guide you. If such a place doesn’t exist in your neighborhood, you can order online from vendors whose buyers are experts. Each of these retailers carries a selection of fresh olive oil that is ethically produced from the current harvest:

Gustiamo in New York City, New York (www.gustiamo.com)

Market Hall Foods in Oakland, California (www.markethallfoods.com)

Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan (www.zingermans.com)

Main photo: In Italy, there’s a move to protect olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce/Forktales

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