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Sun, Sea & Olives: Forty years ago, I took my young family to live in the hill country between Tuscany and Umbria, Italy. Our mountain neighbors were all self-sufficient farmers, raising almost their entire food supply themselves. They grew vegetables and beans, harvested chestnuts and mushrooms, raised pigs, chickens, rabbits and sometimes sheep. Only salt and pepper for curing pork, coffee and infrequently a piece of chocolate came from a shop in town, 20 kilometers (12 miles) away.
Of course they made wine — thin, sour stuff — and pressed their olives to make musty, fusty oil (pork fat was much more to their liking). And they grew their own wheat, threshed it and had it ground into flour for the unsalted bread that was then and still is today a Tuscan staple without which no meal is complete. Sometimes, in fact, bread was the meal, maybe with a thin slice of prosciutto or guanciale from the family pig or a dribble of rancid oil to add flavor.
So wheat was the primary crop, the survival mechanism on which everything else depended, and the annual harvest in July was a moment fraught with anxiety that erupted into celebration once the anxiety was relieved. Our valley had one threshing machine, and it went from farm to farm, each day fetching up in a different place, and the farm folk followed it. When it arrived at our neighbors’ farm, people descended for miles around to help with the hot, dirty, tiring work of the harvest and take part in the feast and dancing that followed.
I think about all this now because it is once again harvest time in the Mediterranean. The wheat harvest begins in North Africa in June, rolling north, across Anatolia, Italy, and Spain, as the tall stalks fall to the cutting blades. The landscape that was green a month earlier is bleached now with the color of ripening grain and then golden with the chaff left behind after the harvesters have come through. Our neighbors no longer grow their own wheat, but the harvest is still critical throughout Tuscany.
Durum wheat, the go-to choice for pasta
Sun, Sea & Olives
One in an occasional series on the Mediterranean diet.
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A lot of this wheat, especially in the hotter, drier parts to the south, is hard durum wheat (Triticum turgidum, var. durum), the venerable species used for so many traditional Mediterranean preparations, from bulgur (burghul) to tarhana to couscous to pasta. American cookbook writers used to claim durum semolina was difficult to work in the home, that you needed special heavy equipment to turn it into pasta. But in fact, throughout the south of Italy, especially in Puglia, hard durum wheat, as semola or semolina, is regularly used in home kitchens to make orecchiette and other traditional pastas. And the great breads of Altamura and Laterza get much of their character and their golden color from being made with locally grown durum wheat, using a slow-rising lievito madre (what we might call sourdough) and baked in a wood-fired oven.
Italian law requires all commercial pasta to be made from durum wheat, one reason why Italian pasta in general is of such high quality. The government is concerned with maintaining quality because Italians are world-champion pasta eaters — between 26 and 28 kilos (61.6 pounds) per capita annually depending on the study. And most of that is commercial or boxed pasta (called in Italian pasta secca).
A more useful distinction to keep in mind, however, is the one between industrial and artisanal pasta. The artisanal product is generally of much higher quality, and, like most artisanal things, costs more, a reflection of greater care in production. To qualify as artisanal, pasta must be made at consistently low temperatures (no higher than 122 degrees F) from start to finish, extruded through bronze dyes (producing a roughened surface) and dried slowly. Low temperatures keep the wheat from cooking, so it retains its pale color; the high temperatures and Teflon dyes of industrially produced pasta result in a golden yellow color and a sleek, plasticized surface.
Gragnano, a small city south of Naples, has been at least since the 18th century one of those places Italians cite for high-quality artisanal pasta. Why? Several historical reasons — access to excellent durum wheat through the port of Amalfi, just over the Lattari mountains on the Golfo di Salerno; clean, fresh water cascading from those same mountains to power the grist mills that ground the grain; and a constant flow of brisk breezes to dry the pasta, which once hung on rods in the streets of Gragnano until it was ready to ship to hungry Naples across the bay. Nowadays, Gragnano has a coveted Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) from the European Union, a certification that pasta with that seal has been made according to precise regulations.
Pastificio Faella is one of nine Gragnano producers that make IGT pasta. I spent some time recently in Gragnano with Pastificio Faella’s Sergio Cinque. As we toured the factory, Cinque described the various phases of drying and the importance of each one. “If it’s not done properly,” he said, “there’s a real risk of fermentation and that will result in pasta with an acid flavor.”
But it was the perfume of wheat that imbued the small factory with its warm, nutty, slightly dusty fragrance. To understand the high quality of artisanal pasta, Cinque suggested this test: Prepare equal quantities, say 100 grams, of ordinary commercial pasta and Pasta Faella. Bring two pots of water to a boil and add the pasta, one to each pot. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes and then measure.
You’ll find, he said, that the Faella pasta will expand notably in the water, while ordinary pasta will remain the same. That’s because under high-temperature drying, a crystallization — another word is plastification — takes place, and the pasta doesn’t absorb water at the same rate. What that means is that artisanal pasta is more easily digested and gives a greater sense of satiety with less of the actual food.
I left with a kilo package of Faella’s excellent spaghetti tucked under my arm. When I got home, I turned it into this pasta dish, a variation on one in my daughter Sara Jenkins’ lovely cookbook, “Olives and Oranges.”
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 or 3 pints (1½ pounds to 2 pounds) mixed small tomatoes—cherry, grape and currant
- Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- About 1 pound (500 grams) spaghetti, preferably IGT Gragnano
- Handful of chopped fresh arugula, leaves only (discard tough stems)
- ⅔ cup grated or shaved bottarga or freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- Bring 4 to 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil.
- While the water is heating, add the oil to a large, heavy skillet and set over medium-high heat. When the oil is very hot (but not smoking), add half the tomatoes, sprinkle them quickly with salt and cook, tossing the skillet, until the tomatoes start to wrinkle and collapse. Add the rest of the tomatoes and continue cooking and tossing for another 2 minutes. (Yes, some of the tomatoes will be more cooked than others—that’s the point.)
- Push the tomatoes to one side and add the garlic to the pan. As the garlic starts to soften, mix it in with the tomatoes, gently pressing the tomatoes to release some of their juices. When the sauce is thick, remove from the heat and add a pinch of salt and a few turns of the pepper mill. Keep the sauce warm until the pasta is done.
- Add a big spoonful of salt to the pasta water and let it come to the boil again, then plunge in the pasta and give it a stir with a long-handled spoon. Cover the pot until the water returns to the boil, then remove the lid and let the pasta cook vigorously until done—about 10 minutes.
- Prepare a warm serving bowl by adding some pasta water to the bowl to heat it up, but don’t forget to tip the water out before you add the pasta to the bowl.
- Drain the pasta, transfer to the warm bowl and immediately toss with the warm tomato sauce, stirring in the arugula. Toss again, then sprinkle with the bottarga or cheese and serve immediately.
If possible, select from an array of little grape and cherry tomatoes, mixing them up for a colorful presentation. We like to serve this with grated bottarga (salted and dried fish roe) on top, but you could also serve it with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Main photo: Spaghetti With Sun-Burst Tomatoes. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Sun, Sea & Olives: The feast of St. John the Baptist, is a date laden with folklore and myth, like all those associated with equinoxes and solstices. It’s June 24, and throughout Europe it’s referred to as midsummer, even though summer officially begins only three days earlier. In many cultures it’s a tradition to celebrate with bonfires, almost always an indication of some ritual connection to the sun.
This year, I got up very early, just at dawn on the 24th, and went to check on the great walnut tree. This sturdy specimen planted 40 years ago now lords over the front lawn and spreads over the surrounding grapevines, which annoys the grapevine master to no end, for reasons I’ll get to later. The boughs are low and heavy, so it was easy to reach the round, green fruits, still quite firm to the touch.
Within a few minutes I had 32 of them in my basket, harvested well before the dew had time to dry. That is the beginning of the prescription for nocino – the nuts must be harvested on the 24th of June before the dew is dry. Nocino is a fabled Italian digestif, pride of farmhouse kitchens in Tuscany and many other parts of the country too. Some nocino is available commercially (Padre Peppe is a famous brand from Puglia), but what most people seek out is the straight-from-the-farm, homemade, handmade miracle of bittersweet flavors — the kind, most people will swear, their grandmothers were noted for and no one has been able to duplicate since.
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Actually, making nocino isn’t all that difficult, apart from the requisite early rising. Once the nuts are brought into the kitchen, they are split or cut with a knife or partially crushed in a mortar, my preferred method. The insides are pure white, but you can clearly see the milky embryo of what will become, by October, a full-fledged walnut.
In my kitchen, the lightly crushed fruits go into a glass jug along with pieces of cinnamon stick, whole cloves, crushed nutmegs and a half dozen star anise. Some cooks might add a whole vanilla bean, split down the middle to release its flavor, but I keep it pure. I add 2 liters of alcohol and 3 cups of sugar dissolved in a cup of boiling water and let it cool before adding to the mix. Plus the zest of a lemon and three or four thin slices of the same lemon. The jar gets sealed, set on a sunny shelf and left, according to my instructions, for a philosophical month, during which it is stirred or shaken daily.
What on earth is a philosophical month? After a lot of searching, I figured out a philosophical month is 40 days. The term comes from medieval alchemists, though why it’s called that and why it differs from a normal lunar or solar month I cannot say.
But now the jug sits on my kitchen window ledge, growing steadily darker, to be siphoned off and bottled Aug. 5.
And why is the master of the grapevines annoyed with the walnut tree? Part of the walnut’s mythology has to do with its potent effect on growing things, doubtless owing to the fact that the tree, roots, leaves and fruits are all laden with tannins; the branches that extend over the vines inhibit them from further growth. “The tree of idleness” is what they called the big, old walnut at the kafeneion – the local cafe — in the Cyprus village where we once lived, and the old gents of the village idled their time away under its branches, loath to disturb themselves for another coffee or ouzo, with just enough energy to throw the dice for another game of trictrac.
Years ago, when our walnut tree was much younger, Bruno, the neighboring contadino, warned me never to fall asleep beneath it. “You might never wake up,” he said with a dark look. The tree of witches, I’ve also heard said. The legendary witches’ tree of Benevento in southern Italy, under which they held their Sabbaths, was a walnut.
Walnuts show up in variety of Mediterranean dishes
A week after making nocino, I finally got the last traces of walnut juice out of my fingernails, which were stained first yellow and then dark brown with that tannic juice. The whole process led me to think more about how valuable walnuts are and what an important but all too often unacknowledged ingredient they are in traditional Mediterranean cuisines, from Greece, Turkey and Lebanon, where crushed walnuts add flavor and crunch to sweet, honey-drenched pastries, all the way to the Perigord region of southwest France, where walnut oil is often used in cooking, and sweet vin de noix, an aperitif rather than a digestif, is made from walnuts — also harvested on the morning of St. Jean Baptiste.
It’s not surprising they should be so prevalent. First off, their healthfulness: Walnuts are one of the few plant sources for valuable omega-3 fatty acids, so necessary for human metabolism. Vegetarians and vegans especially are well advised to add walnuts to their diets because the only other good, readily available source of this essential fat is oily fish. Moreover, walnuts, like extra virgin olive oil, have a high percentage of antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and monounsaturated fat — all things that can make us live longer and more healthfully.
But real happiness comes from the good things walnuts do in just about anything they’re added to. Pounded walnut sauces exist in every Mediterranean cuisine: Turkish cooks make tarator, a walnut-based sauce, to go with fried seafood — a great summertime combination for al fresco dining — and in Italian Liguria, the original pesto genovese, that quintessential basil sauce so characteristic of the season, seems to have been made as often with walnuts as with pine nuts. Here are some hints to spur your imagination:
- Add a little walnut oil to a salad dressing for extra richness.
- Toast a handful of chopped walnuts with some breadcrumbs to make a great topping for any sort of baked cheese pasta.
- Add a handful of chopped walnuts to bread or biscuit dough.
- Add walnuts and little knobs of feta or soft goat cheese to a plain green salad, or combine walnuts and goat cheese to make an elegant topping for pre-dinner crostini, served with a glass of chilled rosé.
- Make a simple, seasonal dessert: a handful of walnuts and a bowl of fresh-sliced, tree-ripened peaches.
Or do as cooks in the eastern Mediterranean do and serve a very plain cake, not too sweet, made from olive oil and yogurt, enriched with toasted chopped walnuts; it makes a fine accompaniment to seasonal berries or those same sliced peaches. And here’s a secret: It’s just as good for Sunday breakfast as it is for Saturday night’s dessert.
This is from “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook”; the original was made with mastic-flavored olive oil, but because that is not easy to find, I’ve adapted it using vanilla instead.
- Butter and flour for an 8-inch springform pan
- ¾ cup walnut meats
- ¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- Pinch of fine sea salt
- 4 medium eggs, separated
- ¾ cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons plain yogurt (full fat is best)
- ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla essence
- Preheat the oven to 300 F. Butter and flour the cake pan.
- When the oven is hot, spread the walnuts on a sheet pan and set in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until they are lightly toasted. Let cool, then chop finely or grind to a fine texture in a food processor, but do not let them process into a paste. The walnuts should still be a little gritty.
- Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt and toss with a fork to mix well. Add the ground nuts and mix again.
- Beat the egg yolks in a separate bowl, gradually beating in about half the sugar. Beat until the yolks are thick and pale. A little at a time, beat in the yogurt, olive oil and vanilla essence, beating well after each addition. Fold the flour mixture into the yolks.
- With clean beaters, beat the egg whites to soft peaks, then sprinkle with the remaining sugar and beat to stiff peaks. Stir about a quarter of the beaten whites into the yolk-flour mixture, then, using a spatula to bring up the batter at the base of the bowl, continue folding the remainder, about a third at a time. When everything is well combined, turn it into the prepared cake pan.
- Transfer to the oven and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the top is golden, the center is firm and the cake pulls away a little from the sides of the pan. Remove and transfer to a cake rack. When cool, remove the cake from the pan.
- Serve the cake plain, or top it with a sprinkling of powdered sugar or serve with a dollop of whipped cream or ice cream (maple walnut perhaps?). You could ice the cake if you wish, but that’s not in the Mediterranean tradition.
Main photo: Walnuts. Credit: iStockphoto
Sun, Sea & Olives: There’s a lot of talk these days about ancient grains, but frankly, as far as wheat is concerned, it would be hard to get more ancient than einkorn (Triticum monococcum). Einkorn, archeologists agree, is the oldest cultivated grain in the Mediterranean, and the Mediterranean is the great cradle of wheat in all its forms — whether as porridge (probably the oldest wheat “dish”), bread, pasta or even tabbouleh or couscous, it all begins in and around the Mediterranean.
Einkorn is, then, the ancestor, the wheat that precedes all others, including modern T. aestivum, aka bread wheat, from which we get our all-purpose flour. T. aestivum is “only” 10,000 years young; einkorn is much older. Botanists call it a relict crop, meaning its cultivation has died away except in a few remote places.
That’s too bad, because it has a number of virtues modern wheats lack, principally a gluten structure tolerated by gluten-sensitive people (although not by those diagnosed with celiac disease). Some types of Italian farro, called farro piccolo or small farro, are in fact T. monococcum, though most farro is emmer, T. dicoccum, or spelt, T. speltum.
All this may be confusing to most people, but not to Eli Rogosa, a wheat farmer and grain investigator of exemplary determination, who, after identifying and researching einkorn in the Palestinian territories and Israel, set herself to growing einkorn, as well as emmer, on fields in central Maine and western Massachusetts. Growing the grain and milling the berries into flour that is uniquely gratifying to turn into bread — as I’ve been discovering in recent weeks.
Einkorn is a whole grain in the truest form
Einkorn flour is sweetly nutty and flavorful. Unlike most whole-wheat flour, in which various parts of the grains are milled separately then recombined, this is a genuine, whole-meal, whole-grain flour with nothing separated or recombined — just pure whole grains of wheat milled to a soft, tan flour. You can find out more and order flour (or whole-wheat kernels if you wish) at growseed.org, the website of The Heritage Grain Conservancy. Meanwhile, here’s how to turn it into a delicious bread, made with approximately half einkorn flour and half unbleached all-purpose flour.
The process takes two to three days, although you will only be working a small amount of time each day. The tastiest bread I can make begins with a pre-ferment, also called a sponge; in France, this is a poolish, while in Italy it’s a biga. Handling the dough like this -- letting it rise, gradually adding more liquid and flour -- helps to develop fermentation and the complex flavors that result. Note: I prefer King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour for this. I also set a pitcher of water on the counter the night before so the purifying chemicals added to most tap water will evaporate.
- ½ teaspoon instant yeast, divided
- ½ cup room-temperature water
- 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, divided, plus more for dusting
- 2½ to 3 cups einkorn flour (or use whole-wheat or whole-rye flour)
- 1½ cups water, at room temperature
- 1 tablespoon fine sea salt
- Cornmeal or semolina flour, for dusting
- Combine ¼ teaspoon of the yeast, ½ cup of water and ½ cup all-purpose flour in a bowl and beat gently for about 30 strokes with a wooden spoon to activate the gluten. This is the starter sponge. It will be a thick slurry, more like a batter than a bread dough.
- Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to rise overnight in a cool place (not the refrigerator).
- The next day, combine the sponge with about 2 cups of all-purpose flour and 2½ cups of einkorn flour. Dissolve the remaining ¼ teaspoon of yeast in 1¼ cups of tepid water and add to the bowl. Stir to mix well; it will still be quite shaggy. Cover again with plastic wrap and set aside to rest for at least 20 to 30 minutes; it can also rest for a couple of hours. This is what bakers call the autolyse.
- Use the remaining flours to lightly dust the bread board. Add the salt to the dough and knead it briefly by pushing it onto the board, then folding it over itself, turning it a quarter turn and then pushing it out and folding it over again. Keep doing this until the consistency of the dough is springy and no longer sticky. Add more flour to the board if the dough starts to stick. It should be neither so wet that it doesn’t hang together nor so dry that it looks and feels powdery. You may add a touch more water or flour from time to time, depending on how the dough feels to you.
- Return the dough to a rinsed-out bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Set aside to rise once more -- several hours at room temperature or overnight in the refrigerator. Once or twice during this period, punch the dough down and fold it over itself, then let it rise again.
- When the rising time is up, turn the dough onto a lightly floured board and divide it in two, each piece weighing about 1½ pounds.
- Press the dough out on the board as if you were shaping pizza, and fold it over onto itself several times, like a letter you’re folding to go into an envelope, very firmly to get rid of excess air holes. Give the dough a quarter turn each time you fold it. Finally, shape the dough into a round boule or a longer, more slender piece, like a thick baguette or what French bakers call a bâtarde.
- Scatter cornmeal or semolina over oven trays or sheet pans and set the unbaked breads on the pans. (Some home bakers use terracotta baking tiles set on a rack in the oven. If you do that, instead of sheet pans, scatter cornmeal or semolina thickly on a bread peel -- a wooden shingle with a handle that will allow you to transfer the breads directly onto the tiles.)
- Cover the breads with a damp cloth and leave to rise for 2 to 2½ hours.
- Preheat the oven to 450 F. (If using baking tiles, preheat for at least 30 minutes; even if the temperature control light goes off, the tiles will need more time to heat to baking temperature.) Have ready a deep skillet on a rack just above the oven floor. When you’re ready to transfer the bread to the oven, have ready a teakettle of boiling water.
- Just before transferring to the oven, use a sharp knife or razor to slash the tops of the loaves in whatever pattern pleases you.
- Slide the breads on their trays into the oven, or set the peels directly on the oven tiles and give a jerk to shift the breads onto the tiles. Immediately pour an inch or more of boiling water into the skillet and close the oven door.
- Bake for 30 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 F and bake another 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the breads from the oven when done and transfer to a wire rack to cool.
For no-knead bread: Another foolproof method, developed by New York master baker Jim Leahy of Sullivan Street Bakery and made popular by New York Times writer Mark Bittman, is “no-knead bread.” (But as you can see, there’s not a lot of kneading with the previous method.)
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In this case, prepare the dough as above, but after folding each loaf and shaping it, set it on a heavily floured kitchen towel and cover with a dampened towel to rise for about 2 hours. Toward the end of that time, heat the oven to 450 F and insert a heavy covered pot, like a cast-iron Dutch oven. (Le Creuset pots are perfect for this.) Let the oven and the pot heat for at least 30 minutes, then, working rapidly and carefully, pull the pot out of the oven, uncover it and turn the floured cloth over to drop the bread dough into it. Give the pot a shake to let the dough settle. (There is no need to slash the loaf.) Clamp the lid on again and return to the oven. Let the bread bake for 30 minutes or so, then remove the cover, lower the heat to 350 F and continue baking for another 15 minutes before turning the bread out on a rack to cool.
The advantage to this method is that the pot with its lid on acts like a miniature oven and creates a crisp toasted crust without either slashing the loaf or adding steam to the oven. The disadvantage is that unless you have a very large oven or double ovens, you must bake one loaf after another, but the results are so spectacular that it’s worth it.
Main photo: Bread made from a mixture of einkorn flour and all-purpose flour. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Sun, Sea & Olives: Start your day with bacon and lose 10 pounds?
That’s what a self-styled dietary expert writing in The Wall Street Journal says happened to her. And, she suggests, it could happen to you too. Just get over your obsession, and your doc’s obsession, with avoiding saturated fat. The kind in bacon, burgers, butter and several other ingredients that do not start with the letter B. Eat the fat and cut the carbs. Totally.
These and similar conclusions have been trumpeted recently in the national media, from NPR to Fox News to The New York Times, and often with more than a hint of triumph attached. They are based on a much-criticized report, published in Annals of Internal Medicine, of a mega-analysis that concludes: “Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.”
The news on saturated fat can be misleading
This is not exactly saying saturated fat is good for you, but you wouldn’t guess that from what’s being pronounced. Authors of the analysis itself are a bit more cautious: Saturated fat is neither beneficial nor is it harmful, according to Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian of the Harvard School of Public Health, one of several co-authors of the study. It all depends on what it replaces. “Compared to polyunsaturated fat from vegetable oils, saturated fat is clearly more harmful to the heart,” Mozaffarian told an interviewer.
Sun, Sea & Olives
One in an occasional series on the Mediterranean diet.
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So hang on a minute — let’s see what this is all about. First of all, the reported conclusion is hardly news. Already in 2010, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported, another meta-analysis questioned the association of saturated fat with heart disease risk. “There is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of (congestive heart disease) or (cardiovascular disease),” concluded the report. “More data are needed to elucidate whether (cardiovascular disease) risks are likely to be influenced by the specific nutrients used to replace saturated fat.”
So why is it news now? I can’t answer that question.
But the most recent analysis has a number of problems, and not just of interpretation. Dr. David Katz of Yale’s Prevention Research Center called The Wall Street Journal article “reheated leftover nonsense,” and pointed out that nowhere in the Annals report does it say that saturated fat is harmless or beneficial. In any case, he asks rhetorically, “Is lack of harm really the new standard in healthful eating? … I thought we might actually be interested in food that was genuinely good for us.”
Rosie Schwartz, a Toronto-based registered dietician, concurs and points out further that there is a strong and to date irrefutable relationship between consumption of lots of red meat and the risk of colon cancer. And if you still want to switch to a diet of beef ‘n’ bacon, Schwartz says, be aware of the ways different fats affect insulin sensitivity. Insulin resistance, which increases with age, weight gain and lack of exercise, leads almost inevitably to Type 2 diabetes. Saturated fat from meat and dairy products, according to a recent Spanish study, decreases insulin sensitivity, meaning it promotes insulin resistance; oleic acid, on the other hand, the predominant fat in olive oil, has the opposite effect.
These findings, Schwartz notes, are another victory for the Mediterranean diet, which treats meat as a minor part of total calories, often simply as a garnish to a dish of beans, pasta, vegetables or all three mixed together with some extra virgin olive oil. (You can follow more of this discussion on Schwartz’s website, Enlightened Eater.)
Speaking of the Mediterranean diet, I should add that the man who first identified the good health outcomes of a traditional Mediterranean diet, the late Dr. Ancel Keys, has become a whipping boy for the anti-carb crusaders who accuse him of promoting a devastating anti-fat campaign that has led us to our present predicament. After decades of anti-fat messages, the argument goes, Americans have become fatter and unhealthier than ever and it’s all the fault of Keys, who promoted low-fat diets as a cure for heart disease.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Keys was well aware that the Mediterranean populations his research team investigated on the island of Crete and in southern Italy were hardly members of the low-fat brigade. Indeed, the Cretan population at the time got a whopping 45 percent of its calories from fat. But it was a very particular fat, mostly olive oil and mostly extra virgin.
So why, then, the increase in obesity, diabetes and concomitant problems in recent decades? Because it seems to be related to diets of increased carbohydrates and decreased fats, should we simply switch categories, increasing fats and decreasing carbs? Not so fast. First of all, well-grounded research shows that although the percentage of calories from fat has decreased in the average American diet, the actual quantity of fat consumed has remained the same. You don’t need a graduate degree in statistics to understand why: The total amount of calories consumed has gone way, way up.
Stephan Guyenet of Whole Health Source, a well-regarded website, used statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service to show that U.S. average dietary consumption increased between 1960 and 2009 by 363 calories per day. That alone is enough to account for the present predicament. Keys can rest comfortably in his grave, knowing his recommendations to follow a Mediterranean-style diet are still completely valid and have nothing to do with the low-fat mantra.
And what does that mean? The Mediterranean diet is not one single element but rather a holistic pattern that includes a variety of ingredients — vegetables, fruits, legumes, seafood, small quantities of meat and dairy products, a primary fat in olive oil — and from this we should be eating a wide variety. Maybe put butter on your toast one morning and extra virgin olive oil (my own preferred condiment — think bruschetta) the next. Or have a burger for dinner one night, a piece of fish the next and a big bowl of steamed greens with beans on a third.
In the end, however, the solution is simple: Get into the kitchen and cook!
Main photo: Beef and other foods high in saturated fat can affect your body’s insulin resistance, which can cause Type 2 diabetes. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Sun, Sea & Olives: Just recently, news of yet another Italian olive oil scam hit the air waves. It was the usual story, only writ large, astonishingly so. Italian financial cops (Guardia di Finanza) and inspectors from the Ministry of Agriculture seized 300 tons — that is, 660,000 pounds — of olive oil falsely labeled extra virgin.
I can’t translate that figure into actual bottles of extra virgin, though I conclude, along with most of the Italian press, that it represents “an enormous quantity.” The seizures took place in Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio, Campania and Puglia, all prominent regions of olive oil production, and in establishments — warehouses, olive mills, packaging plants and the like — operating in both national and international markets.
According to Italian newspapers and websites, however, this was not oil produced in these regions; rather, it was low-quality olive oil, illegally obtained outside Italy, that had undergone industrial refining, including deodorizing to eliminate disgusting aromas and flavors. The refining process apparently also took place outside Italy.
Although fraudulent olive oil seems to be an ongoing problem, one can take some heart from the vigilance of Italian authorities. This was a major break in a case that had been going on since early 2013. But the crux will come when fines and jail sentences are handed down. Or not, Italian courts being notably slow and reluctant in such matters.
So should you throw out that bottle of Italian extra virgin for which you paid a king’s ransom last week? Absolutely not! I’m reminded of a favorite story told in olive oil circles: What’s the best oil? Italian. (Or Spanish or Greek or French or what have you.) And what’s the worst oil? Italian. (Or Spanish or Greek — you get the point.)
Do your homework before buying olive oil
It’s true, there’s a lot of bad oil masquerading as extra virgin. But there’s also a lot of tremendously good oil, much of it from Italy. Our job as consumers is to educate ourselves about what constitutes good oil so we no longer submit our palates, kitchens or tables to the nastiness of old, rancid, fusty oil. Over the past few weeks I’ve tasted the following Italian oils and find them all highly commendable. Furthermore, all are easy to find with a Google search; sources include amazon.com, gustiamo.com, olio2go.com, markethallfoods.com and other websites. (In my next piece, I’ll talk about some equally excellent non-Italian oils.)
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Crudo, from Bitetto, in Puglia’s northern Terra di Bari, is a monocultivar made by the Schiralli family from local ogliarolo olives. The cultivar, considered delicate, is usually blended with more aggressive oils, but Crudo has decidedly bold, piquant flavors of artichoke and green almond. Unfiltered. Excellent with strong-flavored dishes such as roasted peppers with anchovies.
Pianogrillo, made in the Iblean Hills near Chiaramonte Gulfi in the Sicilian province of Ragusa, is a monocultivar of prestigious tondo iblea olives, made by Lorenzo Piccione. Golden green oil with fresh fruit flavors and an intense aroma of tomato leaf and cut grass, Pianogrillo has more than a hint of wild oregano growing around the olive trees. Perfect to bring together complex flavors, as in Sicilian pasta alla Norma or caponata.
Cru di Cures, guaranteed denomination of origin (DOP Sabina), is produced in Fara Sabina, in the Sabine hills northeast of Rome, by sisters Laura and Antonella Fagiolo. A blend of autochthonous cultivars raja and carboncella, along with more pan-Italian varieties such as frantoio and leccino, this is a roundly fruity oil with a distinctive almond flavor. Unfiltered. Delightful garnish for a hearty bean soup.
Capezzana is made by the Contini Bonacossi family in the town of Carmignano, between Florence and Prato. This is the epitome of classic Tuscan oil, a careful balance of fruitiness, bitterness and pepperiness, with no one characteristic dominating. A blend of frantoio, moraiolo, pendolino and leccino olives, the typical Tuscan mix, this is a great choice for another Tuscan classic — fettunta, toasted country-style bread rubbed with garlic and liberally dribbled with new oil.
Olivastro, made by the Quattrociocchi family in Alatri, southeast of Rome, is a monocultivar of Itrana olives (apparently the same variety as Gaeta table olives). This 2013 harvest oil received the “best from organic farming” accolade by the prestigious FlosOlei annual guide. Smooth and well-balanced with lush fruitiness, the oil offers a hint of minty spice in the aftertaste. Certified organic.
Marfuga L’affiorante is made in very limited quantities from the first harvest of olives in early October at the Gradassi family estate in Campello sul Clitunno, between Spello and Spoleto in Umbria. The smooth, lush oil comes from 100% moraiolo olives, and it’s both peppery with green almond and fragrant with fruit, as one would expect from such an early harvest. Unfiltered. This is one to try as a lavish garnish on a plain and simple baked russet potato.
Il Tratturello is produced by Francesco Travaglini at his Parco dei Buoi, in mountainous Molise, a small region sandwiched between Abruzzi and Puglia. The olives, harvested early in October, are mostly an autochthonous cultivar called gentile di Larino, with an admixture of frantoio, leccino and moraiolo. The oil has a decidedly fresh, herbaceous fragrance (cut grass, freshly mown hay) and on the finish a flavor of almonds and hints of spice. It stands up well to abbacchio, very young lamb, traditionally roasted in the region’s wood-fired ovens.
Olio Verde (Italy) is made by Gianfranco Becchina at his Tenuta Pignatelli in Castelvetrano, southwestern Sicily. This is a monocultivar of local nocellara di Belice olives, big round olives that look like walnuts (hence the name nocellara, from noce, or walnut), harvested when still green at the beginning of October. Smooth and velvety on the palate, Olio Verde is unfiltered but naturally decanted and goes very well with the fish, o crudo o cotto (raw or cooked), in which Sicily abounds.
Frescolio, Frantoi Cutrera (Italy), from Chiaramonte Gulfi in the Iblean Hills in the Sicilian province of Ragusa, Sicily, is often the first of the new oil to arrive as the company makes a real effort to get fresh oil out early in the season. Harvested in late September, Frescolio has a green aromatic profile (citrus, artichoke) that sustains itself even six or eight months later. Made from Sicilian cultivars tonda iblea, moresca and biancolilla, it’s a good choice for winter salads, especially Sicilian combinations like anchovies, oranges and black olives.
Primo, from Frantoi Cutrera, has its own denomination of protected origin, DOP Monte Iblei, meaning exclusively made from locally prized tondo iblea olives. Green tomato flavors are always present in a well-made oil from this variety, but Primo also is characterized by a pleasant bitterness on the palate that makes it an ideal contrast for the sweetness inherent in typical Sicilian pasta colle sarde (fennel-flavored pasta with sardines, pine nuts and golden raisins).
Main photo: A selection of quality Italian olive oils. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Sun, Sea & Olives: It’s the simplest, most basic of foods, the one cooks turn to when there’s nothing to eat in the house — because there’s almost always an egg or two or three available, ready to be scrambled into a quick supper, or tossed with hot pasta to make a rich carbonara or poached in chicken stock to turn that unassuming broth into chicken soup.
And it has to be the easiest thing in a cook’s repertoire: You know what they say about a hapless cook — she can’t even boil an egg!
Spring and eggs go together. That’s because as the light begins to strengthen and the grass starts to green, the hens begin to lay once more, which is why eggs are so closely tied to the two great Mediterranean spring festivals, Passover and Easter. The egg on the Seder plate and the colored eggs in the Easter basket are there to announce that winter is over and new life has begun. (Yes, I know the Seder egg is supposedly a stand-in for the sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple, but it’s hard to resist spring symbolism all the same.)
Fortunately, eggs are starting to creep out from under the dishonor in which they were held for decades, vilified for high cholesterol content and banned from the tables of anyone who feared heart disease. No longer! Modern researchers agree that dietary cholesterol is not a problem for most people. Dietary cholesterol does not make elevated serum or blood cholesterol, which is more likely to be attributed to a diet high in saturated fat, or to unhappy luck of the genes.
Eggs pack a protein punch — and are chock full of vitamins and minerals
Eggs, as traditional kitchen folklore has always held, are good for you, an excellent source of protein, of course, low in total fat and with zero carbs and just 71 calories in a large egg. They are good sources of iron, selenium, phosphorus and riboflavin, as well as vitamin B12. They’re also well supplied with the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which protect against macular degeneration, among other benefits. Did your mother tell you eggs are good for your eyes? Mine did, and she was right!
Sun, Sea & Olives
One in an occasional series on the Mediterranean diet.
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So get out the eggs and get to work.
But what kind of eggs will you buy? Cage free, free range, pastured, pasteurized, organic? The choice is confusing, but for the most and best flavor, my vote goes to eggs bought from the farmer who tends the chickens. Straight to the source, you’ll find out how those chickens are raised, what they’ve been fed and how long ago the eggs were laid.
Although brown eggs are favored in New England and white eggs preferred elsewhere, the flavor and goodness are exactly the same. But here’s an interesting fact to put in your egg file: Eggs in North America must be washed before they can be sold. Not a bad idea, you’re thinking? Think again. Eggs come with a natural protective coating that gets dissolved in the wash water. In Italy, where I live part of the year, eggs don’t have to be refrigerated, while in the U.S., I’m told, it’s best to keep them, if not refrigerated, in a very cool place to make up for their lack of protection. (You may find that eggs bought from the farmer have not been washed.)
And what about salmonella? If you think eggs are risky, cook them thoroughly, either hard-boiling or baking in cakes or cookies. Hard cooked eggs can quickly become deviled eggs, a seriously delicious if old-fashioned treat. Do them up Mediterranean style, mixing the yolks with a little mustard, some capers and a few green olives chopped together with fresh green herbs, the whole bound with a dab of olive oil and another dab of mayonnaise. Or serve them plain, garnished with a black- or green-olive tapenade.
Take a tip from the Italian kitchen and drop eggs, one after the other, into a bean-and-pasta soup, then serve up a poached egg with each soup portion, perhaps with a little Parmigiano-Reggiano sprinkled on top. Another dazzling Mediterranean egg trick I learned from Maria Jose San Roman, a great chef from Alicante in southeast Spain: Use gently fried eggs as a sauce to top sautéed potatoes. Cook sliced potatoes (in olive oil, of course), then arrange on a platter, season generously, and top with eggs similarly fried, the yolks basted with hot oil so that when they break they make a rich, golden sauce for the potatoes. Nothing could be simpler — or better.
One of my favorite Mediterranean treats consists of eggs served atop the sumptuously tasty concoction called shakshouka in North Africa and sciakisciuki on the island of Pantelleria in Italy. There’s a place in the delightfully shabby old city of Jaffa, Israel, called Dr. Shakshouka, a huge favorite with tourists. If you overlook the visitors, you can get a delicious shakshouka, often served with eggs, for lunch.
I played around with the recipe for a while and here’s what came out — salt-cured lemons are my own personal touch, but they give such a North African flavor that I couldn’t resist stirring them in at the end. You can make this hotter or sweeter as you wish by increasing or decreasing the ratio of paprika to chili. Another virtue of the sauce: You can make it ahead of time, even several days, and refrigerate until you’re ready to reheat and serve.
Makes enough for 2 to 3 main-course servings, 4 to 6 if part of a larger meal
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil plus a little more for garnish
3 or 4 sweet red (bell) peppers, cored and chopped, not too fine, to make 4 cups
4 to 6 garlic cloves, minced
1 large or 2 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped not too fine
1 teaspoon sugar, if desired
2 tablespoons tomato concentrate dissolved in ¼ cup of hot water
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 or 2 teaspoons medium-hot ground or flaked chili pepper (Aleppo pepper if available), plus a little more for the garnish if you wish
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed of excess salt
½ small salt-preserved lemon, slivered, if available
¼ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
¼ cup finely chopped cilantro
4 or 6 large eggs
1. Roast the cumin and coriander seeds, stirring in a dry skillet on high heat, just until the fragrance starts to rise.
2. Remove the skillet from the heat and let it cool slightly before adding the oil, chopped peppers and garlic. Gently sauté the peppers and garlic in oil until the vegetables are very soft, 15 to 20 minutes.
3. Stir in the tomatoes, which will give off quite a lot of liquid. If the tomatoes are not fully mature, add a little sugar to bring out the flavor. Cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, then stir in the diluted tomato concentrate, along with the paprika and chili pepper.
4. Add the salt and black pepper. If the sauce is a little dry, add ¼ cup or more of water and cook down for another 15 minutes or so to bring all the flavors together and thicken the sauce slightly. The consistency should be that of a tomato sauce for pasta.
5. Taste and adjust the seasoning. When the sauce is ready, stir in the capers and the slivered salted lemon, if you have it (and if not, a good spritz of lemon juice will be fine). At this point, you can refrigerate the sauce if you’re not ready to make the eggs right away.
6. When you’re ready to continue, turn the oven on to 350 F.
7. Reheat the sauce over medium-low heat, then stir in the parsley and cilantro. Transfer the sauce to a lightly oiled baking dish.
8. Use a big serving spoon to make four to six large indentations in the sauce. Crack an egg and drop it into each indentation. Transfer the baking dish, uncovered, to the oven and cook the eggs just until the whites are set and the yolks are still a little runny, about 15 to 20 minutes. Do not overcook. If the eggs are not sufficiently set at this point, run the baking dish under the broiler for a minute or two just to firm up the eggs.
9. Remove from the oven and sprinkle each egg with a little more salt, black pepper and if you wish, ground chili pepper. Add a dribble of olive oil over all and serve immediately.
Note: It’s a good idea to serve crusty bread, toasted if you wish, for scooping up the sauce.
Top photo: Eggs in a basket. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins