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My father, may he rest in peace, was a champion Yankee gardener, as proud of his vegetables as he was of the considerable flowerbeds that surrounded his bayside home. He did almost all the work himself — preparing the beds and cold frames, planting, transplanting, weeding, deadheading and harvesting — although there was a man who came to mow the lawns once a week or so.
Like most champion gardeners in these chilly northern parts, my father relished especially the first springtime harvest, no matter what it was: first peas, first strawberries, first lettuce (served at table the old-fashioned way, with sugar and vinegar as a dressing) and above all first asparagus.
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He was also first up in the morning and out in his garden almost at sunrise, snapping off the tender shoots of asparagus right at the base. Then for breakfast we’d have aspara-grass, as we called it, cooked in my father’s unique and (fortunately) almost inimitable fashion, boiled or steamed until the poor, plump stalks were limp and gray with exhaustion, then piled them atop a toasted slice of Wonder Bread, liberally spread with butter, and with more butter, melted now, pooled on top — along with the leftover juices, which of course turned the toast to soggy pap. My father was a much better gardener than he was a cook.
I was fully grown before I discovered the pleasures of underdone asparagus and had to wait for my own garden patch before I understood that the best asparagus in the world, like the best peas, is consumed standing in the garden and contemplatively chewing on what you’ve harvested only seconds before. Come to think of it, because all fruits and vegetables begin to deteriorate in the normal course of things as soon as they’re harvested, don’t you get the fullest impact of all those vitamins, minerals and fiber when you eat food, as it were, straight from the ground? I’m no raw foodist, but it does seem to me there’s an argument there.
Fast forward to the present day, when my daughter, Sara, and I were working on our first cookbook together, “The Four Seasons of Pasta.” Of course, the spring season must have asparagus pasta recipes, and so we set diligently to work. I’ve done tagliatelle for years with grilled or seared asparagus and sliced red onions, tossed in a creamy goat-cheese dressing, the asparagus just barely cooked so it still has a lot of crunch. As they say on Facebook: YUM! But I was stopped in my tracks when Sara proposed a recipe that’s a favorite from her restaurant: pappardelle with long-cooked asparagus. “Long cooked?” I shuddered, remembering those breakfasts of soggy toast and limp, discolored spears of asparagus.
She ignored my qualms and went ahead with the recipe. And you know what? It was terrific! The melting softness of the asparagus sauce, made from the stalks cut small and indeed overcooked, contrasts beautifully with the still-crisp flavors of the tips, which retain some of their brightness because they’re cooked for a short time. We made it again for dinner recently, with the first of the local asparagus, and once again marveled at how pasta can serve as a perfect foil for the first of spring’s offerings, whether peas or asparagus or possibly even strawberries.
Pappardelle With Long-cooked Asparagus and Basil
Asparagus is a delight when freshly picked and barely blanched. Its sweet vegetal flavors are a welcome herald to spring. But as the season winds on and the spears get fatter and a little tougher, it’s also good cooked thoroughly, to break down the tough fibers and pull out a little extra sweetness along the way. It’s great served over pappardelle — or any other kind of long, broad noodles, fettuccine, for instance, or tagliatelle.
Prep time: 5 to 10 minutes
Cooking time: 15 to 20 minutes
Total time: 20 to 30 minutes
Yield: 4 servings as a main course, 6 as a first or primo
2 pounds of fresh asparagus
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large shallot or 1 small spring onion, finely minced (2 tablespoons)
Sea salt and ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup loosely packed basil leaves, in fat slivers
1/4 cup heavy cream
About 1 pound (500 grams) pappardelle
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano
1. Trim the asparagus by snapping off the bottoms, which break where the stem starts to get woody. Cut the stalks into 2-inch lengths, setting the tips aside.
2. Combine the butter and oil over medium heat in a saucepan or deep skillet. When the butter begins to foam, add the minced shallot (or spring onion) and the asparagus pieces, except for the tops, with a good pinch of salt and pepper to taste. Cook briskly until the shallots and asparagus take on a little color — about 8 to 10 minutes. Then turn the heat down and add the cream, 2 tablespoons water, the asparagus tips and half the basil leaves. Cover the pan and continue cooking, until the asparagus tips are tender and the liquid in the pan is reduced by half.
3. In the meantime, bring a large pot of water to a boil. When the asparagus sauce is ready, cook the pasta according to package directions, until it is al dente.
4. Have ready a warm serving bowl. Drain the pasta and toss in the bowl with the asparagus sauce, the remaining basil and the cheese. Add more black pepper to the top and serve immediately.
Note: You can vary the flavors by using other fresh spring herbs in place of the basil — lovage, chervil, even plain old flat-leaf Italian parsley will be very good.
Main photo: The first asparagus of the season is a welcome garden treat. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Cauliflower is about to become the new kale, according to something I read online. And that’s just fine with me, because I have grown awfully tired of kale. When a vegetable becomes nothing but a raw garnish, as kale has, a limp and lifeless ruffle at the edge of your plate, then you know its star-studded status is truly over and done with.
I suppose kale had its virtues, but there is a reason we all had to be taught to love it, and not only to love it but to contort it into all sorts of iterations, some of which were less than inviting. Raw kale in a salad, for me, is just plain roughage, and as for a kale smoothie, well, the less said the better, I feel.
And now kale is, as they say, so last year.
On to cauliflower, then, which itself offers almost as many possibilities as kale, although plate decoration maybe isn’t one of them. Unlike kale, cauliflower is fully as delicious raw as it is cooked, delightful in a salad or on a tray of crudités (raw vegetables) served with a dipping sauce.
Cauliflower, a versatile vegetable
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And once cauliflower is cooked, it can be turned into any number of other dishes, starting with cauliflower on its own, garnished with black olives and capers, perhaps with toasted pine nuts or slivered almonds on top. Take the leftovers of that dish, chop them up and toss over medium heat in a few tablespoons of olive oil, just long enough to brown them, and you’ll have a perfect sauce for a suppertime pasta dish, in the Italian style of just-about-anything-goes-with-pasta. Call it penne al cavolfiore and tell your guests you had it last summer in Sicily.
Or cook the cauliflower a little longer in some chicken stock, along with a small potato cubed, until both vegetables are very tender, stir in a dollop of cream, then purée the whole thing until smooth as velvet and you will have a superbly elegant French soup to serve as a starter — crème velouté au choufleur. And it’s even more impressive with a spoonful of very fine cultured butter, maybe another dribble of cream and a scattering of fresh chives over the top.
Then there’s that old-fashioned English dish called cauliflower cheese, in which the cauliflower, cooked just till you can easily break apart the florets, is arranged in a buttered dish, covered with a sauce Mornay and transferred to a hot oven until the sauce has blistered slightly and browned on top and the florets are tender. And what is a sauce Mornay? Simple: Make a béchamel sauce with 2 tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons of flour, stirring together over medium-low heat until the mixture is thick and has lost its floury smell. Stir into it, a little at a time, 2 cups of very hot milk, whisking all the while, until you have a thick sauce, then add a couple of handfuls of grated cheese — Parmigiano, cheddar, Gruyère, it almost doesn’t matter as long as it’s a firm cheese that’s easy to grate. (This is a good way to use up leftover bits of cheese in that drawer in the refrigerator where you’ve hidden them all.) You can add salt, pepper, maybe some cayenne if you wish, and that’s all there is to it.
Despite its pale color, cauliflower is actually one of those powerhouse brassica vegetables and a surprisingly good source of vitamin C. When shopping, look for tightly clustered clean, white heads with fresh green leaves. You’ll trim off the leaves and stem for cooking, but don’t discard them. Chopped in smaller pieces, they make a nice addition to a vegetable minestrone. And what about packaged, cut florets in the supermarket produce section? Don’t bother. They are a waste of money, flavor and vitamins.
Cauliflower With Lemon, Capers and Black Olives
From “Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil” by Nancy Harmon Jenkins.
Prep time: About 10 minutes
Cook time: About 15 minutes
Total time: About 25 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
1 firm head of cauliflower, about 1 pound
1/2 cup pitted black olives, coarsely chopped
1 heaping tablespoon salt-packed capers, rinsed and drained
2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
Pinch of crushed red chili pepper
2 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped
1/3 cup olive oil, preferably a deep-flavored oil from Italy or Greece
2 tablespoons or more of toasted pine nuts or slivered almonds for garnishing, if desired
1. Trim the cauliflower and break the head into florets.
2. On a chopping board, combine the olives, capers, parsley and lemon zest and chop together to mix well.
3. Bring a pot of water large enough to hold the cauliflower to a rolling boil. Add a big pinch of salt and, when it returns to a boil, add the cauliflower. Cook until just barely tender, about 6 minutes (less if using very small florets).
4. Meanwhile, in a skillet large enough to hold all the ingredients, warm the chili pepper and garlic in the oil over medium-low heat until hot, 3 or 4 minutes. The chili and garlic should be starting to melt in the oil, rather than sizzling and browning.
5. Stir in the lemon juice and cook for another 2 minutes, then add the olive-caper mix, give it a stir, take it off the heat and set aside.
6. Drain the cauliflower well, shaking the colander. Combine the cauliflower with the olive-caper dressing in the skillet and set the skillet back over medium heat. Warm it up to serving temperature, tasting to make sure the seasoning is right, and serve, garnishing with toasted pine nuts or slivered almonds if you wish.
Note: This recipe is equally good with broccoli or with romanesco, the green spiral cauliflower. You can also mix white cauliflower and green romanesco together for a handsome presentation. If you wish to serve this as a pasta sauce, simply chop or break the florets into smaller pieces. Add everything to a skillet and set over low heat to warm while you cook about 1 pound (500 grams) of penne or similar short, stubby pasta according to package directions. As the pasta finishes cooking, add a little pasta water to the cauliflower and raise the heat. Drain the pasta and combine in the skillet with the cauliflower sauce, tossing to mix. Serve immediately, passing grated cheese if you wish.
Main photo: Cauliflower at a market in Tuscany, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins
“My girls are laying so fast I can’t keep up with them,” Martha says. She has arrived at my door with another dozen eggs, fresh from her henhouse, no doubt laid within the past 24 hours.
In Italy an egg that fresh is a treasure. It’s called a “uova da bere,” a drinkable egg, and it’s often turned into something called zabaglione, which is not perhaps what you think it is because it is not cooked at all. For this kind of zabaglione you use the freshest egg, preferably one still a little warm from the hen’s body, and a good heaping teaspoonful of sugar. You beat the egg and the sugar together in a small bowl, using a fork or mini whisk, beating it steadily for about 10 or 15 minutes until the mixture is thick and syrupy. Sometimes a few drops of Marsala wine get beaten in as well. And then at breakfast you simply sip the lush, gooey mixture with a spoon, emitting little sighs of pleasure as you do so. (The egg-and-sugar sauce called zabaglione goes one step further and beats the mixture over — but not in — boiling water until it is thicker, almost like a runny pudding. It’s delicious served with fresh seasonal berries, so keep it in mind for strawberry season, not many weeks away.)
Martha, however, is a down-to-earth Maine girl like me, and the very idea of a breakfast of sugar and raw eggs is not on her cultural horizon. Nor on mine. Leave that to the Italians.
A Mediterranean-inspired egg dish
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Instead, I decided to use the spring bounty of eggs to make a seasonal favorite from another part of the Mediterranean, the island of Crete.
Quick timeout for a food iconography lesson: Do you ever wonder at the association between Easter and eggs? When you think about hens and their lifestyle, it’s pretty obvious. Hens stop laying in winter, when the daylight hours grow short, then start up again in spring. In the natural rhythm of things, eggs become plentiful precisely at this time of year, when the light is growing stronger day by day. So Easter, whether Catholic or Orthodox, is symbolized all over the Mediterranean by eggs as icons of rebirth. So why in our modern supermarkets do we have eggs all year round? Because our hens are exposed to artificial light, often 24 hours a day, and that keeps them going strong. Or not so strong, because they must usually be replaced after 18 to 24 months.
Make this recipe your own
Back to Crete, where sfougata, a combination of eggs, cheese and vegetables, somewhere between a soufflé and a frittata, is popular for all those times when household cooks are strapped to come up with something cheap, filling and delicious. In spring, that combination usually includes greens, but I could equally imagine doing this in the autumn with mushrooms or slivers of winter squash toasted in olive oil, and at the height of summer it would be delicious with fresh roasted peppers and little chunks of eggplant. But for spring, I did it with some delicate new spinach I picked up at the farmers market along with sliced zucchini. Quintessential to the flavor, it seems to me, is a handful of finely minced dill added at the very end, so the taste stays forward.
My advice? Make this once the way I’ve detailed below, then start to experiment, using leeks instead of spring onions, or a mixture of foraged and cultivated greens (dandelion greens, beet greens, chard, maybe even a little Chinese broccoli), or adding a couple of small diced potatoes to the skillet with the other vegetables. Another great spring vegetable combination, and very much in the Mediterranean spirit, would be asparagus and fava beans, if available, or fresh peas if not.
Let your imagination play with the recipe, and you’ll find all sorts of uses for what could become fundamental to your repertoire — and a savior for all those times when you simply have run out of time and inspiration.
Although the total time listed is 1 1/2 hours, this can be broken down into manageable chunks. Make the vegetables ahead of time (even a day ahead), taking about 45 minutes, then mix up the eggs and cheese just before the meal, stir in the prepared vegetables, and bake for 25 minutes.
Sfougato of Zucchini and Spinach
Prep time: About 30 minutes.
Cook time: About 1 hour.
Total time: About 1 1/2 hours.
Yield: 4 servings as a main course, 6 as a starter.
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
5 or 6 spring onions, about 1/2 pound, including green tops, chopped to make 1 1/2 cups
1 pound zucchini (2 medium zucchini), thinly sliced, to make about 2 to 3 cups
6 ounces to 8 ounces fresh spinach, slivered (about 4 cups)
1 cup finely chopped fresh dill or finely chopped fresh mint, leaves only
1/2 cup whole milk
About 1 cup coarsely grated Cretan graviera cheese or Swiss gruyere (or use a mixture of gruyere and parmigiano reggiano)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of Middle Eastern red chili pepper
Heat half the olive oil in a big, heavy skillet over medium-low heat and gently sauté the onions until translucent, about 5 or 6 minutes. Add the zucchini and cook briefly. As soon as the zucchini slices start to soften, stir in the spinach, mixing thoroughly. If the pan seems a little dry, add 1/2 cup of water, cover the pan and cook gently until the spinach is softened and the zucchini slices are tender. If there are excess juices, raise the heat and cook rapidly to evaporate the extra liquid. Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the dill, mixing well.
Use the remaining oil to grease the bottom of a rectangular oven dish that is approximately 11 inches by 8 inches. Heat the oven to 375 F.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs with the milk. Add the grated cheese and fold in the vegetables. Add salt and pepper to taste, along with a pinch of Middle Eastern red pepper flakes.
Pour the mixture into the oven dish and transfer to the hot oven. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until the eggs are set and the top is nicely browned.
Remove from the oven and let sit for 10 or 15 minutes before serving. This dish can also be served at room temperature — a nice suggestion for lunch on a hot day.
Main image: Fresh eggs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins
The Monterey Bay Aquarium, a highly regarded institution, has been considered for many years a welcome watchdog over our seafood. Why? Simply because there is so much information, misinformation, myth and reality afloat that a poor consumer never knows which way to turn — or which fish to buy.
Enter the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch Card (and for all you smartphone addicts, an accompanying app). Updated every month or so as new information comes along, the Seafood Watch Card lists “best choices,” “good alternatives” and “avoid,” colored appropriately green, yellow and red, for all the seafood you might be lucky enough to find at a fishmonger or restaurant near you.
And now, for the first time, as I recently learned, Maine-farmed salmon has been awarded a yellow sticker as a “good alternative,” meaning Monterey Bay has given its seal of approval to the way salmon is raised in Maine.
Maine has stringent environmental controls over salmon farming, most of which takes place way Down East from Machiasport to Cobscook Bay; all of Maine’s current salmon farms are operated by Cooke Aquaculture, a Canadian family firm with a long history in Maine and the Maritimes. (Cooke salmon is marketed under the True North label.) Whether in Canada or Maine, the company is required to follow strict environmental protocols. In Maine, that includes a particularly stringent “bay management system,” wherein the salmon are separated into year classes, each in separate pens and a separate bay from the others, making disease control much easier. Moreover, when a year class is harvested, the bay in which it was raised must spend a year in fallow, to allow the ocean bottom and surrounding water to recover. This system means a third of Maine’s 25 licensed fish farms are fallow in any given year.
Two other problems frequently raised about farmed salmon are the use of antibiotics and hormones, and the ratio of wild fish used to produce farmed fish, called “fish in/fish out.” Maine, like Canada, has stringent rules governing the use of medications such as antibiotics. Like most modern fish farmers, Maine farms control disease in fish through inoculation at the parr (juvenile) stage. And, like other responsible fish farmers, Cooke Aquaculture is constantly researching ways to cut back on the quantity of wild fish that are fed to its salmon, using, according to company literature, marine, plant and animal proteins and fats, grains, minerals and vitamins, as well as carotenoids. The current ratio is about 1.2 kilos of feed to produce 1 kilo of salmon flesh. Currently, a lot of the fish meal and fish oil in the feed for Maine salmon actually comes from byproducts of fish intended for human consumption. I should note, too, that Cooke’s feeding program is certified by the Global Aquaculture Alliance, an international overseer of aquaculture practices.
Here’s what Monterey Bay had to say about Maine-farmed salmon: “Effluent and habitat impacts are moderate and stringent operating permit mandates have resulted in superior fish containment. Also of note is the industry’s very low reliance on marine feed ingredients. The industry is limited by high concerns for chemical use. Sea lice levels are also high, but there is evidence that no on-farm diseases have been transmitted to wild fish.”
Salmon a nutritious and versatile choice
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The only problem now is where to find Maine salmon. Here in Maine, that’s not such a big deal, but elsewhere? Look for the True North label, and as with any quality food product, ask and ask and ask. If the answer brings a shrug and a bewildered look, keep asking. True North fish raised in Maine should be marked somewhere on the label. With such limited knowledge, it’s no wonder consumers are just as bewildered as fish mongers are, but persistence will pay off. Meanwhile, I’m making my voice heard, loud and clear, for Maine salmon. If it’s good enough for Monterey Bay, it’s good enough for me!
Apart from the fact that it’s enormously good for you, with plenty of those treasured Omega-3 fats, there’s another great thing about salmon: it’s so easy to prepare in dozens of tasty, interesting and easy ways. Dress a fillet with a little extra virgin, a few drops of lemon juice, and maybe a splash of soy or a smear of garlic paste, then run it under the broiler and cook to your taste until it’s a little browned on top. Or have the fillet skinned, then cut it in chunks, toss the chunks in olive oil in a skillet set over medium heat and serve with a side of home fries and a green salad. Any leftover salmon can be flaked and mixed, just like tuna from the can, with a little mayo, some chopped green onions, maybe a bit of chopped celery, capers and green olives, to make a delicious salad.
Or try this simple but elegant recipe for tataki salmon, which I discovered on a trip to Santiago de Chile, where it is popular as a first course. One pound of salmon makes plenty for 4, but if you want to serve it as a main, I’d count on 2 to 3 servings from a pound. Incidentally, this is also a good dish to prepare ahead, even by a couple of hours, but keep the prepared dishes in a cool place until ready to serve.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 2 minutes
Total time: Less than 20 minutes
Yield: 2 to 3 servings as a main course, or 4 to 6 as a starter
1 pound boneless Atlantic salmon, skinned, in one or two pieces
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon finely minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon roasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Half an avocado, cubed
Sprigs of cilantro
1 teaspoon sesame seeds
- Pat the salmon fillet dry on both sides with paper towels, then sprinkle it liberally with ground black pepper.
- Using the flat blade of a knife, crush the minced ginger to a paste. Add it to a small bowl, along with the lime juice, sesame oil and soy sauce. Beat with a small whisk or a fork to make an amalgam.
- Set a heavy duty skillet on the stove over medium-high heat and heat it until it is very hot. Have the salmon ready, but first add the olive oil, roll it around the skillet to cover completely, then immediately add the salmon fillet. The oil may start to smoke before you add the salmon, but not to worry. The hotter the oil, the less likely it is the salmon will stick to the pan.
- Sear the salmon for about 45 seconds, then carefully turn it over and sear the other side, searing again for 45 seconds. It should be browning on the outside but still quite raw in the middle.
- Remove the salmon to a plate and set aside to cool down. If you try to cut the salmon when it’s very hot, it will fall apart.
- When the salmon is sufficiently cool, cut it in bite-size cubes and arrange on plates. Whisk up the dressing again and spoon it over the salmon cubes. Garnish with avocado, cilantro and sesame seeds and serve.
Note: It’s important to heat the skillet to very hot before adding the oil and then, immediately after, the salmon; if the skillet is not hot, the salmon will stick to the pan.
Main photo: A salmon leaping in a cage. Credit: Copyright 2016 courtesy of Cooke Aquaculture
A recent trip to the produce market led me to sing hymns in praise of winter vegetables. I returned home with familiar cauliflower and broccoli, as well as fennel, which I’ve learned can be as good roasted in a gratin dish with a light cheesy topping as it is raw in a salad. Other finds included an enormous, 2-pound black radish, something totally new to me; and leeks, without a doubt the true key to all good things in the winter kitchen.
Years ago, for reasons too complicated to explain, I spent a couple of winters in a very small French village, population just less than 3,000, in the Vercors mountains above Grenoble. We stayed, my baby girl and I, in a pension called La Crémaillère run by Madame Jacquet, one of those fierce French women utterly lacking in social graces but who was a genius in the kitchen. The babe went to the école maternelle (nursery school) each morning, while Mama hovered over her typewriter, engaged in writing a novel (not my first, and no, it was never finished).
Toward lunchtime, up from Madame Jacquet’s kitchen would float inevitably the enticing aroma of leeks, steeped and braised in butter, ready to form the base of whatever potage du jour was on Madame’s menu for that day. Perhaps a little garlic accompanied them, occasionally an onion to add its more acerbic flavors to the mix, and then carrots one day, little purple-topped turnips another, simple potatoes a third. But every lunch began with the potage du jour, the soup of the day, as was considered only proper in the bon ménage bourgeois Madame Jacquet maintained, in company with her equals all over France.
Aromas bring back memories
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From that day to this, the enticing aroma of braising leeks has evoked France for me more strongly than any other, more strongly even than the penetrating odor of Gauloise Caporals — strong French cigarettes — that used to be the distinguishing fragrance of the Paris Métro.
So when I chop a leek, rinse it carefully and toss it in a pot with a tablespoon of butter and a tablespoon of oil, it is to France that my culinary instincts turn. Those French soups are so simple, so easy and so inviting that I’m ready to revive them for my winter table. And because we’re always looking for ways to put more healthful vegetables on the menu, a potage du jour can be an elegant way to add to that slot as well.
Because I already had the cauliflower, why not, then, a potage au chou-fleur for a first course at dinner? I was not surprised to discover that my good friend Josée di Stasio, who has a great French-language food program, “A la di Stasio,” on Quebec television, has a recipe for a leek and cauliflower soup. For 4 servings, di Stasio simply sweats out 2 chopped leeks and 2 cloves of garlic in olive oil, adds a cut-up cauliflower, then 6 cups of broth (chicken or vegetable — enough to cover) and cooks until the vegetables are all tender. I would also add half a peeled and cubed potato to give the soup a nice creaminess. Then puree it, using a stick blender or an old-fashioned vegetable mill, and serve it up, garnished with chopped parsley or chervil or any other green herb that tickles your fancy.
Another time, though, I went back to a favorite recipe from “The Four Seasons of Pasta,” the book I published last year with my daughter Sara, to find a great cauliflower “sauce” for pasta. It isn’t really a sauce, but it is delicious mixed with pasta, and the sultana raisins and pine nuts give it a pleasant Sicilian touch. We think penne rigate is the perfect shape for this, but any short, stubby pasta will do.
If you look at the photo below, you will probably notice I left out the chili. That’s because I didn’t have one and it was too cold and late to go to the grocery store for one chili pepper. I also substituted pumpkin seeds for the pine nuts, just because I felt like it. This is all just proof that most recipes, including our own, are not engraved in bronze. Make do with what you have!
Penne rigate con Cavalfiore alla Siciliana
(Sicilian cauliflower pasta with leeks, raisins, pine nuts and a bit of chili)
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
Yield: Makes 6 servings
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 leeks, white and light green parts, thinly sliced to make 2 cups
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
About 1 pound cauliflower, separated into 1-inch florets
1 fresh red or green chili pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup golden sultana raisins, plumped in hot water and drained
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
About 1 pound (a 500-gram package) penne rigate
1/2 cup freshly grated sharp pecorino
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
1. Combine the olive oil with the leeks and garlic in a large, deep skillet and set over low heat. Cook, shaking the pan and stirring, until the leeks are softened but not browned, about 10 minutes.
2. Add the cauliflower and sliced chili. Cover the pan and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the cauliflower is tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Check from time to time and add a tablespoon or two of water or some of the wine to keep the vegetables from sticking to the pan.
3. When the cauliflower is tender, add the wine along with another 1/4 cup of water and raise the heat slightly. Simmer over medium-low heat until the liquid has reduced to about 1/2 cup, about 10 minutes. Toss in the raisins and simmer just long enough to mix the flavors together.
4. While the vegetables are cooking, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Add plenty of salt and the pasta and cook, following package directions, until the pasta is al dente.
5. Drain the pasta and toss with the vegetables in the skillet, then turn into a warm serving bowl and toss again with the grated cheese and pine nuts. Serve immediately.
Note: You could easily substitute bright green broccoli for the cauliflower in this dish, but it will cook in much less time than the cauliflower. Or try it with a colorful mixture of broccoli and cauliflower together.
Main image: Recent finds at the winter market included cauliflower, broccoli, a black radish and leeks. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins
It’s an old story — you’ve heard it before, and not just from me — but it’s coming around again. Predictably, just as U.S. specialty markets begin to trumpet the arrival of fresh new-harvest, extra virgin olive oil comes the warning that it ain’t what it seems.
According to journalist Tom Mueller, speaking on the popular CBS News program “60 Minutes,” an astonishing 80 percent of the extra virgin olive oil sold in the United States does not meet the standards for extra virgin.
That statement requires some clarification. To be characterized as extra virgin, legal parameters must be met. They are set by the International Olive Council, and they are liberal. The oil, for instance, must have only 0.8 percent free oleic fatty acid and a peroxide content of 20 milliequivalents, or meq.
But there’s more. To qualify as extra virgin, an oil must be free of defects, with perfect flavor and aroma. And that’s where a lot of extra virgin oil on sale in the U.S. falls down, usually because it is too old (Unlike wine, olive oil does not improve with age.) or has been exposed to damaging light, heat and/or atmosphere. The finest extra virgin will deteriorate very quickly. I know firsthand because once in Tuscany I deliberately exposed a glassful of extra virgin, milled just days earlier from my own olives. Within a week of exposure, it was unrecognizable, pale in color and with almost no flavor or aroma except for the slight development, as yet inchoate, of rancidity.
Much of the 80% of substandard extra virgin oil cited by Mueller (if indeed the figure is accurate, which I tend to doubt) was probably legally produced, bottled and shipped. But once it left the producer’s hands, all bets were off.
Let me give a disturbing example: In my local Whole Foods I bought a bottle of oil from a Sicilian producer whom I know well, one who makes his award-winning product with scrupulous care. And it shows: The oil has a robust flavor you associate with new oils made from barely mature olives and picked just 12 to 24 hours before pressing. Yet, the oil I purchased was pale yellow, indicating exposure to too much light, and it was unmistakably rancid, so much so I had to spit it out at the first taste.
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So buyer beware, or caveat emptor, as they said back in Rome.
The conclusion of this somewhat misguided “60 Minutes” report was simple: The problem with Italian olive oil is a creation — like so many Italian problems — of the Mafia, a catch-all for everything wrong with Italy. And we Americans, who sometimes seem to fear the Mafia as much as we fear ISIS, certainly don’t want to give any support, financial or otherwise, to the dons. So should we all stop buying Italian olive oil?
Hang on a minute. If Italy is ground zero for olive oil fraud, the country is also recognized as ground zero for fraud protection, with not one but three national police forces responsible: the Carabinieri (like state police only national), the Guardia di Finanza (the tax police) and the Corpo Forestale, park rangers who also have the responsibility of investigating counterfeit foods and pursuing anti-Mafia activities. It was the Carabinieri in Turin last November who charged seven top olive oil companies with commercial fraud, among them Carapelli, Bertolli, Sasso and Coricelli. All were accused of selling as extra virgin, at extra virgin prices, oils that barely qualified as second-tier virgin, resulting in a 30% rip-off on the price.
Do the names sound familiar? They should. All these brands are in wide distribution outside Italy (as well as within), and especially in the U.S. through supermarkets and big-box stores. Although media have targeted the brands as “Italian,” in fact Carapelli, Sasso and Bertolli, which all began life a century or more ago as Italian family companies, are now owned by the Spanish multinational Deoleo. On its website, Deoleo promotes itself as “the world leader in the olive oil market.” That’s no stretch — Deoleo owns seven of the most widely sold olive oils in the world, including the abovementioned.
As frauds go, I have to confess, I don’t find this one all that shocking. Selling oil that barely reaches the cheap virgin qualification as more expensive extra virgin? It’s a bit like selling cheap toilet water as Chanel No. 5, and it’s tempting to fault consumers for their ignorance. If you can’t tell the difference between eau de toilette and a Chanel classic, it’s your problem, honey, not mine. Nonetheless, fraud is fraud. While this may be fairly entry-level fraud, it is still deceptive. And illegal. And possibly dangerous to the health of people who consume a great deal of what they believe is heart-healthy extra virgin olive oil.
The core of the problem is that, even in Italy and other regions known for producing fine oil, most consumers, including experienced chefs, have little or no idea what top-quality extra-virgin olive oil ought to taste like. Here’s a simple tip: It should leave your mouth feeling clean, not the least bit greasy, and it should have the fresh, herbal fragrance and flavor of just-cut grass. You’ve never actually tasted fresh-cut grass? Get out there behind the lawn mower and try it. It’s not going to kill you!) The flavor and aroma of fine, fresh olive oil can get a lot more subtle than that, and experienced tasters will detect nuances, from roasted nuts to citrus to green tomatoes and tomato leaves, but basically if you keep in mind the adjectives fresh, grassy, herbal, clean, you’ll be on the right track.
What to look for in olive oil
A well-made olive oil will have a good balance of three basic characteristics: the fruity flavors of sound, healthy olives, and the bitterness and piquancy (pepperiness) that are indications of the presence of antioxidants that make olive oil the fat you want on your table for all its great health benefits. What should be avoided is oil that has a flat, tired flavor, that tastes of rancidity, that leaves your mouth feeling coated with fat or that tastes like a jar of commercial tapenade that was opened three weeks ago and got lost in the back of the refrigerator.
Fortunately, now is a perfect time to educate your palate with the outstanding flavors of fresh, well-made olive oil. From the Mediterranean — especially Italy — and from California, producers are rushing olio nuovo, new-harvest oil, to market. It is expensive, but worth investing in, if only to give you a firm base-line sense of what excellence is all about. Once you’ve tasted it, you will never again mistake bad oil for good.
Here are just a few I have tasted and liked. Please note these are not by any means the extent of fine extra virgin olive oils; these are specifically new oils that I have tasted recently.
From Gustiamo in New York:
Pianogrillo from Sicily, $38.25 for 500 milliliters.
Tratturello from Molise, $44.50 for 750 milliliters.
Rio Grifone, organic from Tuscany, $39.50 for 500 milliliters.
From Market Hall Foods in Oakland, California:
Séka Hills, top-ranked Californian oil, $18 for 250 milliliters.
Titone, award-winning Sicilian organic, $28 for 250 milliliters.
Olio Verde from Sicily, single cultivar, nocellara del Belice, $38 for 500 milliliters.
From Olio2go in Fairfax, Virginia:
Capezzana from Tuscany, $44.50 for 500 milliliters.
Frescobaldi from Tuscany, with the prestigious Laudemio seal, $32.95 for 250 milliliters.
Villa Zattopera from Sicily, single cultivar, tondo Iblea, $36.95 for 500 milliliters.
Direct from the producer, California Olive Ranch:
COR Limited Reserve, $19.99 for 500 milliliters.
Main photo: Freshly milled oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins