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Buñuelos, classic Mexican Christmas sweets, are time-honored snacks with roots in Catalan, Spain. Most of the world’s Spanish-speaking countries follow Spain’s lead and make buñuelos with yeast dough formed into small balls to deep-fry — think doughnut holes. Long ago, Mexico made fast use of its iconic bread, the tortilla, and morphed the balls into flat, non-yeasty wheat tortillas deep-fried (similar to Navajo frybread) and covered in sticky piloncillo (raw brown sugar) syrup or tossed in cinnamon sugar.
My favorite place in Mexico to eat buñuelos is definitely Oaxaca at Christmastime. The Spanish colonial city’s festive holiday food celebration begins in mid-December and lasts into February. Since the 16th century, things have kicked off precisely on Dec. 16 with posadas (literally, “inns”), when children and adults re-enact part-religious, part-secular rituals while parading as Mary and Joseph looking for an inn to spend the night.
The group pleads, through traditional songs, to enter homes of friends. Once a door finally opens, piñatas burst, candies fly and mugs of hot chocolate are passed.
Let your nose lead you to buñuelos
Up next, Dec. 18 is the day of Oaxaca’s patron saint, La Virgin de la Soledad. On this day, everyone rejoices with church Masses and processions followed by devouring crisp bueñelos.
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Follow their lead when you get that first whiff of fried sweet dough coming from a temporary stand at the north side of the cathedral and head straight there to absorb the spirit of fascinating buñuelo folklore. You’ll have to hunt for the end of the line and try to wait patiently to place your order. At long last, you will be handed — on a sad, seriously chipped plate — a puffy fried flour tortilla about a foot across. The tortilla will have wavy edges and be topped with a scattering of sugar crystals dyed red from cochineal (an edible, crimson scale insect that lives on nopales cactus, and yes, you most definitely want it!) and a spoonful of anise-flavored piloncillo syrup (yes to this, too).
In contrast to the dish, the buñuelo will be as ethereal and crackling-crisp as cellophane and so delicate that brittle pieces will fly as you take each sweet bite. It’s as fun to eat as cotton candy. You’ll finish it off in seconds and be left staring at the sad, empty dish.
You can follow your fellow revelers’ guide and, like a Frisbee, fling the damaged plate hard against the side of the massive green quarry stone edifice while making a wish. The dish will shatter, and the wish will count.
Dec. 23 features Oaxaca’s famous Night of the Radishes Festival, begun in 1897 and the only folk art event of its kind in the world. Craftspeople from local organizations carve sculptures from huge red radishes the size of Japan’s white daikon and proudly display their creations at booths on the zócalo (town square) next to the cathedral.
The experience is mind-boggling. Join the massive crowds and line up to slowly snake your way along raised viewing platforms encircling the square; try not to miss a thing as attentive volunteers constantly coddle and mist miniature nativity scenes, elaborate church replicas and funky cartoon figures to keep them from drying out. Notice how the entrants are primped and judged like beauty-pageant contestants, and the winners get to flaunt boasting rights.
On Dec. 24, Christmas Eve brings the last posada party with piñatas, tamales and hot chocolate, but Christmas Day is quietly spent with family and an enormous turkey drenched in luscious mole.
After a late night Mass on Dec. 31, another special mole dinner awaits, followed by 12 good-luck grapes to eat in rapid succession, a grape for each stroke of midnight.
The Feast of Epiphany on Jan. 6 continues the holiday season into the new year with a rosca de reyes (Epiphany cake), a ring of sweet yeast dough flamboyantly decorated with icing and colored sugar with the surprise of a tiny clay baby Jesus (or these days a plastic doll about an inch long) inside. According to tradition, whoever gets the figurine in his/her slice is expected to host the upcoming Candlemas Feast on Feb. 2, faithfully 40 days after Christmas. This last of Mexico’s holiday fiesta days is your final chance to fling used buñuelo plates at the cathedral and signals it’s time to take down the tree.
Buñuelos With Syrup and Red Sugar
Prep time: 3 hours
Cook time: 1 hour
Total time: 4 hours
Yield: 16 to 20 servings
For the buñuelos:
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
4 tablespoons melted butter or freshly rendered lard
1/2 cup whole milk
Vegetable oil for frying (about 3 cups)
For the syrup and red sugar:
3 cups water
12 ounces crushed piloncillo or dark brown sugar
1 (4-inch) canela stick (Mexican or true Ceylon cinnamon)
1 tablespoon anise seeds
1/2 cup cochineal sugar, or red decorating sugar found in supermarkets and cake-decorating shops
For the buñuelos:
1. In a mixer with a hook or paddle attachment, combine the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt.
2. With the mixer off, pour in the butter and milk and break the eggs directly on top. Slowly raising the speed, beat the dough until it is smooth and shiny, about 15 to 20 minutes.
3. Form into a ball in the mixer bowl. Lightly cover the dough with a tea towel and let the dough rest for 30 minutes at room temperature.
4. Divide the dough into 16 to 20 balls the size of a golf ball. Place each on a baking sheet as it is formed. Cover the balls lightly with a dampened tea towel to keep them moist.
5. Pick up a ball and flatten it with a rolling pin or your palms to make a disk about 5 inches across. Place it back under the dampened towel with the balls. Continue with the others.
6. Cover a table with a clean tablecloth to dry the buñuelos.
7. Pick up the first disk you made and, starting in the center, gently stretch it out to make a large, almost transparent disk 12 inches across, pulling along the edge. Lay it on the tablecloth to dry, about 30 minutes. Continue with the others. When they are finished, turn each over and allow the other side to dry another 30 minutes, or until the tortillas feel completely dry.
8. Place a wire rack over a baking sheet for draining.
9. Pour the oil into a skillet to about 1 inch deep. Heat the oil to 375 F over medium-hot heat. Carefully slide a buñuelo into the hot oil and press it down gently with a fork. The oil will bubble and the buñuelo will blister, and the bottom side will turn golden in less than a minute. Turn over and fry the other side for less than a minute. With tongs, remove it from the oil, hold vertically and let it drain back into the pot a few seconds. Place it on the wire rack to drain well and then on a flattened brown paper bag.
10. Fry and drain the remaining buñuelos. When cool, stack on a festive plate.
For the syrup and red sugar:
1. Pour the water into a saucepan. Add the piloncillo, canela stick and anise seeds.
2. Boil 10 minutes to make a light syrup. Boil longer to reduce and thicken if desired. Strain to remove the anise seeds.
3. Generously scatter red sugar on a buñuelo for serving. Top with a few tablespoons sugar syrup.
Note: As an alternative to syrup, mix 1/2 cup white sugar with 1 tablespoon ground canela. Toss canela sugar over the buñuelos while they are warm. You can make buñuelos up to two days ahead if kept dry. Reheat in a preheated oven at 325 F for 5 minutes.
Main image: Buñuelos. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky
What’s all the fuss over turkey sandwiches on squishy white bread? Been there, done that. This year, go a different route and try the big day’s leftovers on wonderfully warm, healthful corn tortillas.
Get yourself a package or two of corn tortillas for a post-holiday meal. They’re absolutely heavenly with cooked turkey that’s shredded, Mexican taco-style, rather than sliced for sandwiches.
For a side dish, look to the Native American cranberries, an old standby once eaten by sailors to prevent scurvy. They’re not only loaded with vitamin C, but downright exciting when the cold sauce is kicked up with a few tablespoons of sweet agave syrup and minced, spicy green jalapeño or serrano chiles.
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When reheating stuffing or yams, mix in a few finely chopped, canned chipotle chiles for an out-of-this-world, smoky flavor boost. Crunchy green beans, even green bean casserole, benefit from a small, chopped white onion, chopped fresh chile and handful of fresh cilantro leaves sprinkled on top before serving.
A perfect addition to your relish tray (and don’t we all love an old-fashioned, ice-cold relish tray on Thanksgiving?) is peeled jicama cut into sticks the same size as your carrot and celery sticks. For a little more flavor, dust spicy chile powder on the slightly sweet jicama, which has a crunch like water chestnut.
The easiest of all post-holiday meals — the Thanksgiving taco — is made from your cold leftovers with a squirt each of fresh Mexican lime (aka Key lime) juice and a Mexican hot sauce such as Tapatío or Búfalo brand for the right flavor profile. Fold up the warm tortilla and take a bite. I told you so.
Leftover Turkey Tacos
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes
Yield: Makes 1 to unlimited
1 (or more) package(s) of corn tortillas
Leftover Thanksgiving foods
Mayonnaise if desired
1. Heat the tortillas by laying as many as can fit in one layer on a medium-hot, ungreased griddle. After 30 seconds, flip over and heat through another 30 seconds. Pile into a napkin-lined basket to keep warm and moist. Continue with the others.
2. Pass the basket of warm tortillas, bowls of Thanksgiving leftovers, mayo if you must, Mexican hot sauce and lime wedges for make-your-own tacos.
Main photo: Corn tortillas are a perfect choice for wrapping Thanksgiving leftovers. Credit: iStockPhoto
Looking for a black Halloween food to make grown-ups howl with delight? Black Bean Soup With Mexican Pesto tastes like it took all day simmering on the back burner, getting rich and thick from hours of loving attention.
But when time is too short to stir dried beans in a witch’s cauldron, canned black beans that have been carefully rinsed are the fast and easy answer to perfect results, because they’ll be intensely flavored and then puréed smooth in the resulting soup.
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My favorite black bean soups are from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, specifically around the city of Mérida; their unctuous, creamy textures contain no cream and are packed with characteristic layers of flavor from gargantuan amounts of herbs and a whisper of regional habañero chile. For decadence, locals often swirl in a spoonful of crema for special occasions, and Halloween is definitely such an occasion, at least in the U.S.
You start by making a flavor bomb similar to an Italian pesto to embellish the finished soup: Pull a big handful of basil leaves off stems, add cilantro and, if you can get some of the herb, throw in a little epazote with spicy habañero chile for traditional tastes. Because pine nuts aren’t found in the Yucatan, substitute pecans, Mexico’s national nut, for the right texture profile. For cheese, my choice is a not-too-salty queso añejo (aged queso fresco), or use Parmigiano-Reggiano. Only the best-quality extra virgin olive oil will do for its fruitiness, and then finish the soup with Merida sunshine: a generous squirt of bright Mexican (aka Key) lime juice.
Black Bean Soup With Mexican Pesto
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 1 hour
Yield: Makes 4 servings (may be doubled)
For the pesto:
4 large cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped
¼ cup coarsely chopped pecans
1 fresh habañero chile
¼ teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup basil leaves, tightly packed
½ cup cilantro leaves
10 epazote leaves (if available)
¼ cup grated queso añejo or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
For the soup:
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
One 3-inch white onion, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
½-inch piece of the habañero chile, minced
Three 15-ounce cans organic black beans
2 cups organic chicken broth, divided
2 Mexican (aka Key) limes
Sea or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
½ cup Mexican crema, or sour cream thinned with a little milk
For the pesto:
1. Combine the garlic, pecans, a tiny ¼-to-½-inch piece of the chile finely chopped (wear disposable gloves while doing this), salt and pepper in a food processor. Process for 10 seconds. Toss in the basil, cilantro and epazote and grind again for 10 seconds. Turn the processor off and scrape the sides with a spatula to get everything down into the mixture.
2. Add the cheese. Turn the machine back on and pour the oil slowly through the feed tube, processing until the mixture is fully incorporated and smooth. Taste carefully for saltiness and if the sauce is spicy enough — it should be hot! If not, mince another small piece of the chile and process again to fully incorporate the bits. Taste again and adjust accordingly.
3. Using a rubber spatula, scrape into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and set aside.
For the soup:
1. Heat the oil in a large pot and sauté the onion until translucent. Toss in the garlic and chile and cook until starting to brown. Remove from the heat.
2. Rinse the beans carefully for a few minutes. Scrape the onion, garlic and chile into the processor using a spatula and then dump in the beans. (You may have to do this in two batches.) Process until smooth, adding 1 cup of broth. Pour back into the pot.
3. Mix in the remaining 1 cup of broth. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat to a simmer, squeeze in the lime juice and season the bland beans assertively to taste with salt and pepper. Simmer 10 minutes.
4. To serve, ladle the soup into bowls and top with a generous tablespoonful of pesto on each. If using, swirl a tablespoon of crema in a circle around the pesto and pass the remaining crema in a small bowl.
Main photo: Black Bean Soup With Mexican Pesto. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky
A bright bolt of energy is flashing through the food scene in the City of Light. In just five short years, Paris’ hippest food couple — David Lanher and Frédérique Jules — have worked their collective magic directing Parisians on how to eat and drink.
Today’s casual restaurant showcase farm-to-table vegetables, sustainably raised animal proteins and what Lanher calls “natural, clean wines” that are minimally processed with the least amount of technology and additives, especially sulfites. These wines — some organic, others biodynamic — are often the reason people flock to his restaurants.
The initiative started in 1996, when Lanher took off for a year of adventure and to achieve his dream of working in New York City, where he snagged a bartending job to practice English. Once back in France, he worked a few years in Paris’ upscale catering industry and then got his feet wet by opening two restaurants, Rue Balzac and Café Moderne.
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Like Lanher, Jules had a dream of living in the U.S. and learning English and was drawn to a year of San Diego sunshine. All her life she had endured stomach problems, asthma and eczema and discovered in California she was both lactose- and gluten-intolerant. She changed her diet, and her health problems virtually vanished. Feeling physically strong, she returned to Paris with the dream of opening a gluten-free bakery and health spa.
In Paris, the empire continues to grow
Longtime friends, the 43-year-olds met again and became business, as well as personal, partners in 2008. Right around this time, Lanher found his personal mecca, Racines (which translates to “roots”), in the glass-domed Le Passage des Panoramas passageway built in 1799 in Paris’ 2nd arrondissement. Non-sulfured wines were, and still are, Lanher’s focus and the wine bistro’s pride. Wooden boards piled with superb charcuterie, foie gras de canard, plenty of organic produce and stunning cheeses rule. A hit from the start, people continue to covet the 20 seats at Racines and are willing to reserve well in advance.
Plan a visit
Racines: 8 Passage des Panoramas, 75002 Paris. Phone: +33 01 40 13 06 41. Hours: Noon to 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Mondays to Fridays. www.racinesparis.com
Racines 2: 39 Rue de l'Arbre Sec, 75001 Paris. Phone: +33 01 42 60 77 34. Hours: Noon to 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Mondays to Wednesday; noon to 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 to 11 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 7:30 to 11 p.m. Saturdays. www.racinesparis.com
Paradis: 14 Rue de Paradis, 75010 Paris. Phone: +33 01 45 23 57 98. Hours: 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Mondays to Saturdays. www.restaurant-paradis.com
Vivant Table: 43 Rue des Petites Écuries, 75010 Paris. Phone: +33 01 42 46 43 55. Hours: Noon to 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays. www.vivantparis.com
Vivant Cave: 43 Rue des Petites Écuries, 75010 Paris. Phone: +33 01 42 46 43 55. Hours: 6 p.m. to midnight Mondays to Saturdays. www.vivantparis.com
Racines NY: 94 Chambers St., New York, New York 10007. Phone: 212-227-3400. Hours: Bar opens at 5 p.m. and dinner service begins at 6 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays. www.racinesny.com
La Cremerie: 9 Rue des 4 Vents, 75006 Paris. Phone: +33 01 43 54 99 30. Hours: Noon to 2:30 p.m. lunch service and 7:30 to 11 p.m. dinner service Tuesdays to Saturdays. www.lacremerie.fr
Caffé Stern: 47 Passage des Panoramas 75002 Paris. Phone: +33 01 75 43 63 10. Hours: 9 a.m. opening for coffee and pastry, noon to 2:30 p.m. lunch service and 7:30 to 11 p.m. dinner service Tuesdays to Saturdays.
NOGLU Cafe: 16 Passage des Panoramas, 75002 Paris. Phone: +33 01 40 26 41 24. Hours: Noon to 3 p.m. lunch service Mondays to Fridays; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. brunch Saturdays; 7:30 to 11p.m. dinner service Saturdays. www.noglu.fr
NOGLU Boutique-Atelier bakery: 49 Passage des Panoramas, 75002 Paris. Phone: +33 01 42 36 52 50. Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays. www.noglu.fr
In 2011, Racines 2 opened a few blocks from the Louvre in the 1st arrondissement — a larger, more ambitious restaurant with a battery of serious chefs in an open kitchen with a garage-door-size opening to the dining room. A bottom-lit translucent stone table with casual communal seating for about two dozen anchors the L-shaped space with tables for 30 more.
One specialty at Racines 2 is chef Alexandre Navarro’s translation of impeccable produce: a bowl of summer-sweet teeny baby turnips, carrots, beets and impossibly delicate greens with large chunks of poached lobster — a fine match for the always-interesting cellar.
Gluten-free takes hold
With the bakery concept still on her mind and Lanher’s restaurant knowledge, Jules nixed the spa idea and in 2012 opened NOGLU, a bakery and cafe in the same charming passageway as Racines. A year later, a separate bakery across the walkway followed. In a city renowned for baguettes, who would have thought gluten-free baking would flourish?
The always-busy cafe is perfect for a quick lunch or take-away sandwich on gluten-free bread; a small room up the spiral staircase is just right for terrific Gianni Frasi coffee from Verona, Italy, and never-too-sweet sweets. NOGLU’s cookbook is the bible for French gluten-free cooks and is set to be published in English this year to spread Jules’ gospel.
With eagerness to promote his beloved natural wines, Lanher opened Paradis, a modern, boisterous brasserie in the hip 10th arrondissement. And then all hell broke loose in 2014 when Lanher opened the wildly popular Vivant Table, also in the 10th, in a 1928 storefront designed as a pet bird shop with original tile murals of birds. Soon after, Vivant Cave wine bar made its appearance next door, to the delight of the neighborhood.
Fast forward a few months, when Lanher spotted La Cremerie available in Paris’ 6th arrondissement. He snapped up the original dairy shop with its bright blue façade and kept the bistro/gourmet grocery shop/bar à vin interior as close to original as possible. It’s now the place for a glass of you-know-what kind of wine.
Racines debuts in New York
Lanher turned dream into reality when Racines NY debuted in Tribeca this spring. Business partner and sommelier Arnaud Tronche pours from the substantial 600-bottle wine list offering about 80 percent French and 20 percent Italian wines, along with a few others — most sulfite-free, “natural, clean wines.” French chef Frédéric Duca (one-star L’Instant d’Or in Paris) is in charge of the kitchen and continues to surprise with a market-focused menu. Pete Wells of The New York Times awarded Racines NY two stars in August.
Lanher loves spaces packed with historical and architectural details and seeks them out for new ventures. In August, he opened his latest project — Caffé Stern, an Italian restaurant with major wow factor. It occupies the most-coveted space in the now extraordinarily popular Passage des Panoramas, a wine cork’s toss from the original Racines and NOGLU. This historic monument location was the original Stern printing house (1849) for engraved cards coveted by royalty and dignitaries. Philippe Starck designed the interior, emphasizing the original carved wood paneling splendor. Massimiliano Alajmo, the celebrated Italian chef (Le Calandre in Padua, Caffè Quadri in Venice), pilots the kitchen.
So, what’s next up for the dynamic duo? Jules has her eye on New York and Los Angeles for NOGLU. Lanher is in the planning stages for Racines 2 NY. Their initial focus of clean wines and gluten-free foods continues to be their superhighway to stardom.
Main photo: Frédérique Jules and David Lanher. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky
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