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Mexicans have foraged verdolagas (purslane, or Portulaca oleracea), a native of India and Persia, for centuries, and it remains a favorite green from Tijuana to Cancun. Because the annual plant isn’t a bit fussy about a sprout site, and because it’s a succulent, it germinates easily from a cutting or seed and needs little water once started.
Wild purslane is thrilled with most any sunny spot, where it spreads flat on the ground quickly from a single root and multiplies like chickenpox in kindergarten after it goes to seed. Sadly it’s less cherished in the U.S., where the plant is best known as a common weed and a gardener’s biggest nightmare. Farm-grown purslane, unlike in the wild, grows vertically, and can reach knee high for easy harvesting.
Green with a red blush on some of the 40 cultivated varieties, its edible ½-inch to 2-inch long leaves look like delicate baby jade plants. Larger leaves and stems are crunchy with a mouth feel like cactus paddles and okra but more delicate, with a tangy, slightly salty citrus-pepper bite.
With purslane, flavor depends on when it’s picked
In the book “In Defense of Food,” Michael Pollan calls purslane one of the most nutritious plants on earth. It contains more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable, on par with some fish. When the plant is thirsty, it switches to photosynthesis: At night, its leaves trap carbon dioxide, which converts into malic acid, and in daylight, the acid transforms into glucose. Purslane has 10 times the acid content in the morning vs. when it’s picked in the afternoon, so expect it to be slightly sour in breakfast quesadillas and almost sweet at dinner.
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Mexicans cherish the plant’s citrus taste and look forward to the warm summer months when it is widely available. Tiny, delicate half-inch leaves are perfect for salads and to tuck into sandwiches; thick, larger leaves and thick stems cut into pieces are best for a more toothsome bite in cooked dishes, especially soups and rustic stews, where their natural pectin is appreciated for thickening qualities.
I suggest looking for luscious cultivated bunches at a greengrocer, Mexican market or farmers market rather than scrounging around town hunting for miserly sidewalk shoots. Unless you’re a fan of foraging, you probably won’t have a clue what time of day the store-bought purslane was picked; even so, its juicy leaf texture will woo you back for more.
Once picked or purchased, keep purslane fresh for another day or two in a container out of the sun with cut stems in a few inches of fresh water. Most people cut off and discard the thickest, chewy stem bottoms and use only delicate stem tops and leaves in recipes.
As in other Mexican soups and sauces, flavor and texture are everything. This soup is perfect for the family or when friends stop by; if fussy grandmothers are invited to a special-occasion dinner, strain the finished soup for a traditionally upscale smooth liquid.
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 cup chopped white onion
- 2 to 2½ cups scraped kernels from 3 ears summer sweet corn
- 3 yellow zucchini or crookneck squash, about 6 inches each
- 3 cups purslane leaves with delicate stems, 2 tablespoons of the tiniest half-inch leaves reserved for garnish
- 2 large handfuls squash blossoms, 6 reserved for garnish
- 1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 4 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth at room temperature
- ⅓ cup grated Mexican queso añejo or Parmesan cheese
- ½ cup Mexican crema or sour cream
- Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Toss in the onion and cook, stirring every few minutes until translucent. Add the corn kernels, stir and continue cooking 5 minutes. Cut the squash in quarters lengthwise and then into half-inch slices. Scoop into the pot and stir, cooking another 5 minutes.
- Pull off leaves and delicate stems from the thick purslane stems, enough to have about 3 cups. Add them to the pot and stir. Turn down the heat and simmer gently 5 minutes.
- Remove the five sharp green sepals at the base of each squash blossom. Snap off the stems from six of the prettiest blossoms and reserve for garnish. Slide the other blossoms and stems into the pot. Cook, stirring for a minute, and then turn off the heat.
- Ladle half the hot vegetables into a blender or processor. Pour in 1 cup broth. With the air vent open, purée 30 seconds and pour into the used mixing bowl. Ladle the remaining hot vegetables into the blender with another cup of broth. Purée 30 seconds, but this time pour it into the cooking pot. Scrape the purée from the bowl into the pot with a rubber spatula. Pour in the remaining broth. Bring to a fast boil (big bubbles you can’t stir down), and then lower the heat to a bare simmer for 2 minutes.
- Ladle into serving bowls. Garnish each with one of the reserved squash blossoms in the center, a sprinkle of grated cheese, some tiny purslane leaves and a small dollop of crema.
Main photo: Purslane, Corn, Squash and Squash Blossom Soup. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky
I’m sipping a local rosé at a corner table in Nonna Italia ristorante, not far from the ferry stop in the charming old town of Stresa, on Lago Maggiore, Italy. Stresa is north of Milan in lake country, the beautiful region known for mountain vistas, ancient villas and George Clooney’s pad, even though George is at Como, one lake over.
Donato and Roberta Tagliente are the owners of this friendly spot that gets more crowded than a jar of Italian anchovies. During the week, come early or late and dine comfortably; weekends are a madhouse, especially in August, when Nonna Italia is open daily and outside tables spill into the narrow cobblestone walk street.
Via Garibaldi 32
Stresa, Lago Maggiore, Italy
Telephone: 03 23 93 39 22
Summer hours (June through September): Open seven days, but closed for lunch Mondays and Tuesdays except for August, when it is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week.
Winter hours: Closed Tuesdays and for two weeks during Christmas and the New Year holidays.
Pizza Baby for kids and kids at heart
Friendly servers Maya and Alice (fluent in several languages) effortlessly take care of everyone, even though the place is packed with people downing pizzas, risotto and their famous “mixto” plate of three local cheeses, jams and honey, prosciutto, coppa and pancetta with gnocco fritto, fried and lightly salted pizza dough squares, instead of bread.
About 15 years ago, when Puglia-born Chef Donato had a tiny takeout pizza stand, he came up with the idea of a child-friendly pie that invited grumpy kids to dig in with a grin. Pizza Baby was born. He’s now a local celebrity (watch out, George) at 2-year-old Nonna Italia, where children clamor for a sun-shaped pizza with a smiley face.
Don’t get me wrong, this pizza is definitely not just for kids. Donato starts with Italy’s best 00 flour and lovingly forms each ball of yeasty raised dough by hand. Pizza Baby is the same size as a regular pizza, but Donato clips the 14-inch circle of dough with a pizza wheel in 1-inch cuts around the edge in eight evenly spaced spots.
He then brings the dough between two cuts together and pinches it tight to form a triangle; he does this eight times around the pie, finally gently pulling at the points to nudge the dough into a neat circle. The same intensely delicious tomato sauce that’s used for all the restaurant’s pizzas is ladled on top and spread around. Donato then generously covers the sauce with local mozzarella like a heavy winter snow on nearby ski slopes; a paddle slides underneath, and in a flash it’s into the hot oven. A few minutes later, a golden crust with slightly charred edges and bubbly, melted cheese lets you know that the pie is done.
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Again using the paddle, Donato slides the pizza onto a serving plate. Now for the fun part: He affectionately arranges two black-olive half eyes, a cherry tomato nose and a curved slice of cucumber for the sun’s bright smile.
As I bite into one of the super-crispy, slightly thick and oven-charred raised triangles, I notice how the yeasty dough’s air pockets add to the sublime texture. This is definitely a flavorful pizza for grownups who love a great crust. Happy faces all around.
View the videos below to see how easy the process is to make the sun shape, and then try your hand at making a Pizza Baby at home. Preheat your oven to the highest setting, and then place the rack and a cookie sheet (or, better yet, a pizza stone) at the lowest level. Use homemade or purchased dough and sauce, and have the few toppings at hand.
Main photo: Nonna Italia’s Pizza Baby. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky
Looking for an appetizer that’s creamy, crunchy and spicy all in one world-class bite? I’ve been teaching Baked Goat and Requeson Cheeses With Toasted Table Salsa in Mexican cooking classes for so many years that I forget exactly when I put it on my personal list of student favorites. I know that I originally had it at a friend’s house in Puebla, Mexico, where she served it to guests watching (and screaming at) a soccer match on TV. That was so long ago that the stud players are probably grandfathers by now.
Appetizer a blend of two cheeses and a spicy salsa
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This is the perfect appetizer for a group. The lively mixture is all about two good-quality cheeses and a well-balanced, spicy tomato sauce. Sometimes I serve it with corn chips to dip, other times I like guests to spread it on toasted baguette slices. Both are guaranteed magnifico with margaritas or cold beers.
A great Mexican sauce is a cinch to make if you take the time to “toast” the ingredients. To toast, place the whole chiles, cut onion, garlic cloves and tomatoes on a preheated, ungreased griddle or in a heavy, wide skillet over medium-hot heat. Don’t stir until a charred spot appears on the bottom of each, about three minutes, and then turn slightly with long kitchen tongs. Wait, and soon another black spot is on the bottom. Repeat until black spots cover every piece. This important step takes about 15 minutes.
- ½ cup chopped pecans or walnuts
- 7- to 8-ounce log goat cheese (plain, not flavored)
- 1 cup Mexican requeson, or use whole milk ricotta cheese
- 3 jalapeño or serrano chiles (unseeded)
- 1 (3-inch) white onion, quartered vertically through the root end, skin intact
- 3 garlic cloves, skins intact
- 1 pound red-ripe plum tomatoes
- ½ cup coarsely chopped cilantro leaves (save a few tablespoons for garnish)
- Sea salt or kosher salt, to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 Mexican lime (aka Key)
- Corn chips or a thinly sliced and oven-toasted baguette, for serving
- Preheat oven to 350 F.
- Brown the nuts in an ungreased small skillet over medium heat, stirring, for 5 to 6 minutes until they give off a toasty aroma. Immediately slide the toasted nuts into a mixing bowl.
- Break up the goat cheese in the bowl to resemble large-curd cottage cheese. Mash both the cheeses into the nuts and combine well. Spoon into the center of a baking dish or decorative pie plate, and flatten into a 2-inch thick disk. Set aside at room temperature.
- Heat an ungreased griddle or heavy, large skillet to medium-hot. Toast the chiles, onion, garlic, and tomatoes -- turning with tongs -- until they are charred with black spots all over. Remove to cool slightly.
- Stem and coarsely chop the chiles. Put half in a blender or processor and reserve the rest. Grind or pulse a few seconds. Peel the skins and remove root ends from the onion and garlic, and add to the blender. Grind again. Add the tomatoes, cilantro, salt and pepper. Squeeze in the juice of one lime. Grind, keeping a coarse texture. Taste carefully. This table salsa should be spicy! To get more heat, add more of the reserved chile and whirl it into the coarse mixture.
- Spoon the salsa over and around the cheese in the baking dish. Bake 15 minutes or until the cheese is warm throughout.
- Sprinkle with the reserved cilantro. Serve warm with a basket of crisp corn chips or a thinly sliced and toasted baguette.
Main photo: Baked Goat and Requeson Cheeses With Toasted Table Salsa Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky
I’m holding a well-worn and yellowed 3-by-5-inch, lined recipe card for Date and Nut Bread baked in cans as my mind wanders back to the New Jersey kitchen of my childhood.
I’m about 10, and Mom and I are tying our aprons in the yellow-print wallpapered kitchen with vertical knotty pine planks that go a little more than halfway up the walls. As the two of us gather ingredients from the pantry and put them on the speckled Formica countertop, the black, wall-mounted, rotary-dial telephone rings. I rush to answer in my most grown up voice, “Hello, this is Nancy,” and wait for a response through the LI6-2489J party line. It’s my aunt with the recipe we are about to tackle. I hand the receiver to my mom so she can write everything down clearly, in her distinct script. In my excitement, I’m hoping a neighbor doesn’t cut in wanting to use the line.
A tradition born of necessity
It’s the late 1950s, but ever since World War II, when metals were in short supply, people became used to recycling tin cans rather than buying specialty loaf pans to make quick breads. The easy breads are popular because yeast and kneading aren’t required — only baking soda or powder is necessary for them to rise — and they’re cake-like, thanks to the addition of sugar.
First, we empty out the pile of baking sheets and odd pans stored in the oven before my mom preheats it to 350 F. She tells me to get a wooden cutting board and snip three-quarters of the dates into little pieces with scissors. Back then, a box of Dromedary-brand dates held 8 ounces, so I have an arithmetic problem to conquer as well as a messy, sticky job ahead. I take a seat at the kitchen table by a window and get to work.
By the time I finish cutting dates, everything else is ready to get stirred together, spooned into tin cans and popped in the hot oven. An hour later, the cans are placed on cooling racks, the house smells like heaven, and the bread’s unbearably long cooling-down period begins. Because one of the breads doesn’t slide out of its can easily this time, Mom removes the bottom of the can using a can opener, and gently pushes the dense bread out to cool thoroughly.
To get things moving along, I take the silver brick of Philadelphia cream cheese from the refrigerator to soften. I also grab a jar of homemade blackberry jam and stab a knife into the paraffin layer, wiggling it free, trying my hardest to remove it in one clean chunk.
Finally, Mom cuts one moist loaf into round slices with a serrated knife. My mouth is salivating as the family gathers for tastes.
Because I worked so hard, I get part of the prized top that puffs up from the can like a muffin mushroom; it’s crunchy and chewy at the same time, with an unctuously sticky center. Cream cheese glides on and a dab of jam gilds the lily.
This recipe makes a darker, moister bread than the similar, defunct canned Crosse & Blackwell or Thomas’s or Chock Full ‘O Nuts coffeehouse walnut-raisin versions. Other similar recipes from the 1950s use brown sugar, and some call for molasses.
Date and Nut Bread Baked in Cans
Makes 2 loaves
6 ounces pitted dates
1 teaspoon baking soda
¾ cup sugar
¾ cup warm water
1 large egg
1¾ cups all-purpose, unbleached flour
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup chopped walnuts
3 tablespoons melted butter
2 used 14- to 15-ounce cans, cleaned and paper labels removed
Cream cheese, for serving
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. Using scissors, snip the dates into small pieces (about the size of the walnut pieces) over a medium bowl.
3. Mix in the baking soda and sugar, and then pour in the water to soak the dates.
4. Beat the egg in a small bowl. Stir the egg, flour, salt, nuts and 1 tablespoon of the melted butter into the soaking dates.
5. Being careful of any sharp edges, generously grease the cans using the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and a pastry brush. Fill the cans a bit more than three-quarters full with thick batter. Tap the cans to rid them of air pockets.
6. Place the cans upright on a sheet pan. Bake 1 hour on the oven’s center rack.
7. Remove to a cooling rack. When the cans are cool enough to handle, give them a shake. The warm bread should slide out; if they are stubborn, remove the can bottoms with a can opener and push on the flat (bottom) end. Cool another hour. Date and Nut Bread tastes best at room temperature.
8. Slice into rounds (a serrated knife helps) and serve with cream cheese.
Main photo: Date and Nut Bread baked in cans. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky
Forty days and 40 nights of vegetarian eating are underway in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Don’t cry for us, Argentina; there’s no hardship here, as local Catholics look forward to meatless specialties known as comida cuaresmeña (Lenten foods) reserved for the spring. From Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday before Easter, cherished recipes are culled from handwritten family notebooks to feed legions of hungry pageant participants.
Pre-dawn firecrackers and skyrockets set off by priests in church yards get everyone up to take part in processions during Semana Santa, the week leading up to Easter. The events are widely regarded as some of Mexico’s most elaborate, starring thousands of emotional believers dressed in costume without a single paid actor in sight.
Good Friday is the culmination of weeks of nonstop pageantry with long, unbearably slow and tortuous dragging of crosses through cobblestoned streets to the dispirited beat of a single drum. As they perspire in the hot afternoon sun, solemn men and women in dark dress with purple sashes brace heavy saint statues on their shoulders, but press forward. Children through seniors represent angels and ancient mourners, and wave after wave of their faithful parishioners trod onward in the depths of despair. Parade watchers are stacked along the route in hushed silence. Devotion runs deep and true.
Gorditas among the Lenten offerings
Marching like this brings on a mean hunger. Besides a gazillion bean dishes, most regional Lenten répertoires are rounded out by cheese-stuffed fat tortillas lovingly called gorditas, “or little fat ones”; pipiánes, protein-rich pumpkin-seed sauces poured over vegetables; patties made with countless nonmeat combinations; and soups galore. And then we have Gorditas de Piloncillo. Certainly not your typical gordita, and about as well known today as hardtack, its beginning is centuries old — with a bit of delightful religiosity thanks to the Spanish-Mexican addiction to tradition.
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Generations of local women have sold them outside the San Juan de Dios church (a half block from the market) from noon to 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays only during Lent. Today at least a dozen ladies in embroidered aprons from surrounding neighborhoods sit, all lined up curbside, each pan-frying sublimely sweet, crisp tortilla turnovers. It’s hard to choose whom to buy from, but I look for sellers with smiling faces taking pesos with one hand and cooking with the other, or better yet, with an assistant handling cash. Another tip: Stay clear when the church school recess bell rings — chaos reigns as screaming kids stampede to be first in line.
For years I thought teeny, wooden tortilla presses I saw in Mexican markets were toys. Man oh man am I surprised as I watch grown women gently press out children’s tea-party-sized, 3-inch tortillas! Remedios Martinez, sitting under her signature shade umbrella, grabs a tiny ball of masa (corn dough) flavored with canela (Mexican cinnamon), anise seeds and ground chile — she likes guajillo but says others use cascabel — and then presses it into a thin tortilla. She drops a teaspoon of crumbled piloncillo (raw brown sugar) in the center, folds it over and slides it into shimmering-hot vegetable oil to crisp and brown.
Not at all like the more usual regional offering — round, stuffed gorditas — these delicate mini tacos are really different. The spoonful of sugar dramatically transforms into a crunchy glaze as the gordita cools and hardens with an interior as brittle as a candied apple. God can definitely be found biting into a Gordita de Piloncillo.
Gorditas de Piloncillo (Sweet, Crisp Turnovers)
Remedios Martinez miraculously cranks out 800 Gorditas de Piloncillo each day from her street-side, oilcloth-covered folding card table and mesquite wood-fired brazier; they remain crunchy for about four hours and then lose their glamour.
Makes about 30
2 cups masa harina
3 tablespoons ground canela (Mexican cinnamon)
2 tablespoons anise seeds
3 tablespoons ground or flaked dried guajillo or cascabel chile
½ pound grated piloncillo (raw brown sugar available in cones), or dark brown sugar
1. Using a stand mixer, mix the masa harina, canela, anise seeds and chile with about 2 cups warm water to get a soft dough.
2. Pull off rounded tablespoons of dough and form into small balls about the size of Ping-Pong balls. Place on a baking sheet and cover with a damp tea towel to keep the balls moist until the dough runs out.
3. Using a freezer baggie, cut 2 squares of the thick plastic slightly larger than the diameter of the press and place one on the bottom part of a tortilla press. Center a masa ball on the plastic. Cover the masa with the other square of plastic. Lower the top of the press and gently push on the handle. Open the press, turn the tortilla (with plastic) 180 degrees, and push again to make a small, 3-inch round. Open the press. The tortilla will have plastic stuck on the top and bottom. Peel away the top plastic, then gently flip the tortilla over into your other hand and carefully peel that plastic away. Put 1 teaspoon piloncillo in the center, fold over and press the edges together. Lay on a tray. Repeat with a few others.
4. Pour vegetable oil ¼-inch deep into a wide skillet and heat to rippling hot 360 F to 370 F. Test the heat by dropping a small piece of dough into the oil. It should sizzle and turn deep golden within 10 seconds.
5. Slide three or four gorditas at a time into the hot oil. Turn until brown, less than 1 minute. Remove to an opened-up paper bag to drain and crisp.
6. Repeat in batches of three or four with the remaining dough.
Top photo: Gorditas de Piloncillo. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky
One of the most exciting cities in Mexico is the Port of Veracruz, with its lineage going back to the Olmecs and Aztecs before Hernán Cortés claimed the area for Spain in 1519. Today, two famous cafes sit smack in front of the port and are known throughout the region because of their locally sourced, house-roasted coffee beans and their waiters’ crackerjack pouring showmanship.
Gran Café de la Parroquía sits facing the Gulf of Mexico port like a proud matriarch welcoming one and all; just as Greek Sirens beckon sailors, it sends aromas wafting through thick sea air to summon mere mortals into its belly. The original café opened in 1808 on the zócalo (town square) a few blocks away. About 200 years later, the family split the business and two factions went their separate ways, but today oddly find themselves almost next to each other on the Malecón, Veracruz City’s waterfront walkway. Regulars have their favorite and wouldn’t think of entering enemy territory because animosities last a lifetime when it comes to coffee loyalty.
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Stroll into Gran Café de la Parroquía and then La Parroquía de Veracruz simply to soak in the welcoming air-conditioned vibe of each. Mosey on up to the coffee counter and admire a huge, old brass Italian coffee maker at each location’s center stage, and while you’re there, inspect the day’s pastries. Choose your favorite of the two voluminous white-walled spaces filled with loads of natural sunlight and find a table in the noisy crowd. Someone is certainly playing Caribbean tunes on a marimba just outside the constantly opening door, while a local jarocho trio with a classic small harp performs at the room’s opposite end. An old woman wearing layers of aprons and shawls wanders by hawking lottery tickets as a musician winds his way through the activity offering up a güiro, an instrument made from a gourd, for tips. And you still haven’t had a chance to take off your hat and sunglasses.
A waiter in a spiffy white guayabera (a traditional shirt worn untucked, with vertical pleats and front patch pockets) comes by, and the first thing you say besides “buenas dias” is “un lechero.” He brings a tall glass, a spoon and a menu. You notice other patrons tapping the sides of their empty coffee glasses with spoons, but definitely not keeping beat to the music. It takes a while, but then you get it. The clanking beckons another waiter with two big, metal teapots filled with strong espresso coffee in one and hot milk in the other. He starts to fill your glass with coffee but slowly raises the pot to about 3 feet from the glass; he then repeats the action with milk, with the same aplomb. Not a drop spills. Quite a show. Bravo!
Start with a plate of perfectly ripe tropical fruit and a squirt of lime. Pan dulce (sweet rolls, but not buttery rich like Danish pastry) are morning favorites, so ask the waiter for a basket of the day’s assortment. Hungrier? Try Huevos Tirados, “thrown together” eggs. The dish is certainly odd looking but make no mistake, it’s a delicious Veracruz eye opener. A few eggs are scrambled with black bean purée and then rolled into a streaky grayish-golden oval lump that is served alone on a white plate. Strew on a few pickled carrots, onions and jalapeños from the bowl that appears out of nowhere and dig in for a spicy, vinegary, zingy breakfast.
Of course you’ll have another lechero, if only to engage one more time in the charming Veracruz coffee ritual.
Huevos Tirados (Puréed Black Bean Omelet)
Makes 1 tirado
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons finely chopped white onion
2 large eggs
¼ cup cooked and puréed black beans, a little on the wet side, seasoned with sea or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Heat the butter in a small nonstick skillet and sauté the onion until barely golden brown.
2. Lightly scramble the eggs into the onion with a fork. While the eggs are still wet, pour the beans across the eggs in a strip. Delicately drag the fork through at a few zigzag angles to get a loose marbled effect. Cook until done as you wish.
3. Have a plate ready. Hold the skillet by its handle and raise it to an angle. Using the fork, roll the omelet from the top down onto the plate and arrange it into an oval shape.
Top photo: Pickled carrots, onions and jalapeños to strew over Huevos Tirados. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky