Articles by Author
“Great food” and “highway rest stop” are not phrases I would normally utter in the same breath. But that was before I experienced the Italian Autogrill.
At about 500 locations across Italy, you can get gas, go to the bathroom and then, very likely, have a better dining experience than at most Italian restaurants in the United States.
More from Zester Daily:
» Tips for eating fabulous authentic food in Italy
Perhaps you’d like to choose your steak from the glistening display of fresh meat, and tell the chef how you’d like it cooked. Or maybe the pasta station, with its many pots of boiling water waiting for your choice of pasta and sauce, is calling to you. How about a spaghetti alle vongole prepared while you wait? In those few minutes while the pasta is being cooked to perfection, and the clams are opening up in their white wine sauce, you might wander over to the antipasti station and choose a beautiful plate of prosciutto, mozzarella and arugula. Then, since you are in Italy, pick up a nice half bottle of local wine and settle in for what could very well be one of the best meals of your life.
The Autogrill offers not only great food but valuable insights into the values and priorities of a culture. Italians enjoy modern life, efficiency and convenience as much as anyone, but modernity and convenience need not compromise food. At the Autogrill, whether you go for the whole dining experience, or just grab a freshly made panino, you will get healthy, delicious food made with great ingredients and great care. It’s slow food fast. Or fast food slow. Either way, the Autogrill is where the fast life of the autostrada meets the Slow Food values of quality ingredients prepared with pride.
Now, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I start salivating at the sight of the bright red swooping A of the Autogrill franchise, and make excuses to stop there more often than strictly necessary.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: None
Total time: 10 minutes
1 piece of focaccia, split in half, or 2 slices Italian, French or sourdough bread
Mayonnaise, to spread, as thickly or thinly as you like
Sprinkling of dried oregano
1 leaf of lettuce
1 thick slice of tomato
2 or 3 thin slices of prosciutto cotto
1 generous piece of fresh mozzarella, ideally from a fresh ball of mozzarella di bufala
1. Warm the bread in the toaster oven, taking it out before it’s actually toasted.
2. Swipe some mayonnaise on what will become the two inside parts of the sandwich and sprinkle with oregano.
3. Assemble your sandwich, starting with lettuce on the bottom, followed by the tomato, prosciutto and mozzarella.
Main photo: The antipasti station at an Autogrill. Credit: Copyright 2015 Terra Brockman
It was in Hawaii that I got my first exhilarating taste of passion fruit. The Maui market vendor’s knife expertly sliced through the mauve skin at the top of the egg-sized fruit, revealing bright orange innards that reminded me of salmon roe. He quickly carved the sliced-off cap of the fruit into a scoop, and dipped it into the glistening orange mass to offer me a taste.
The first thing I noticed was the intoxicating tropical floral aroma. Then, at the first contact with my tongue, came the explosion of bright clean citrus with just enough sweetness to cut the sour. In the tangy gelatinous goo were many small crunchy seeds, which provided a nice textural contrast.
More from Zester Daily:
» What you don’t know about delicious cherimoya
One slurpy bite led to another until the mauve skin was an empty eggshell. But I craved more, and so bought a whole bag of passion fruit, known as liliquoi in Hawaii, and snacked on them the rest of the day.
Later I learned that the passion fruit (Passiflora edulis) is native to South America, probably originating in the southern region of present-day Brazil. It was there, in the 16th century, that Spanish Catholics named it Flor de las cinco llagas, flower of the five wounds. Other missionaries expanded on this, and saw in the beautiful flower’s parts a way to teach indigenous people about the torture (passion) of Christ. The five anthers at the tip of the male parts represented the five wounds of Christ, the vine’s tendrils were the whips, the three female stigmas the three nails in Jesus’ hands and feet, and the 10 petals and sepals were the apostles, excluding Judas (for obvious reasons) and Peter (for not so obvious ones).
High in vitamins
Although the missionaries saw violence and suffering in the passion flower, its huge and elaborate blossoms have more pleasure than pain in their voluptuous beauty. The showy corolla highlights the architecture at the center, where the prominent female parts (stigmas and styles) float over the top of the male stamens. And the fruit that develops from this gorgeous flower is full of goodness — high in vitamins A and C, potassium, dietary fiber and iron.
For all its goodness, however, like so many plants and animals introduced into the delicate Hawaiian ecosystems, the passion fruit had invaded all of the Hawaiian islands a mere 50 years after it was introduced in 1880. Due to a plant virus, and high labor costs, the few passion fruit farms disappeared shortly after they were planted. Although there are no commercial passion fruit plantations in Hawaii today, the vines can still be found in people’s yards and in wild areas, and the fruits are used extensively in foods and drinks. During my Hawaii sojourn, I had the pleasure of drinking fresh liliquoi juice, and also indulged in passion fruit cheesecake, jelly, smoothies and margaritas.
While passion fruit grows well in California, Florida and other southern states, it generally can’t take the cold winters of the temperate zones. The one exception is the Maypop (Passiflora incarnata), which is native to North America, and is the state wildflower of Tennessee. The most cold-hardy of the passion fruit family, it grows well in zones 7-11, and even as far north as zones 5-6, if you mulch it heavily before winter.
The name Maypop might have come about because the plant pops out of the ground in May and dies back in winter, ready to pop out again in May. Others say the name comes from “maracock,” which was the Powhatan Indians’ name for this plant.
If you live in the southern U.S., especially California or Florida, you will most likely be able to find passion fruit at your local farmers market. You also have a good chance of finding them in the produce section of ethnic grocery stores. If you strike out, you can find frozen passion fruit pulp in many grocery stores, or order it online.
Or you can grow your own. The vigorous, vining plant is often used as an ornamental screen, or can provide shade cover on a pergola. With its showy flowers and delicious fruit, what’s not to be passionate about?
Passion Fruit Smoothie
The bright, strong taste of passion fruit makes it a great addition to any smoothie. It’s especially good with creamy, custardy fruits such as mango, banana or cherimoya. Of course, you can use whatever fruits or greens you have on hand, but here’s a starter recipe.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
Yield: About 2 servings
3 passion fruits
1 cup cubed apples, pineapples or other fruit
2 cups spinach or other greens
8 ounces coconut water, orange juice, or other juice
Cut the passion fruits in half and scoop all of the innards into the blender. Add all the other ingredients and blend. Because passion fruit has a lot of seeds, use a powerful blender at its highest speed to get a smooth smoothie.
Main photo: Passion fruit. Credit: iStock/Kesu01
New Year’s in Japan, as in all cultures, is a time to reflect on the past, resolve to do better and begin anew. But it is different in that for seven days the entire nation reverts to a slower, quieter time.
At least when I lived in Japan, in the mid-1980s, this was the case. Nearly every store closed for a week, the streets were quiet, and families gathered to relax and share the special New Year’s foods known as osechi ryori.
Because it’s considered bad luck to work on the first three days of the new year, all of the osechi ryori foods are prepared ahead of time, then arranged in beautiful lacquered jubako (layered boxes) and eaten at room temperature.
More from Zester Daily:
These exquisite traditional foods are steeped in tradition, and represent different forms of good luck in the new year. A few of my favorite osechi ryori foods and their meanings are:
Tazakuri (baby sardines) are used to fertilize rice crops, and represent a bountiful harvest.
Konbu maki (seaweed rolls) represent happiness because the word konbu, or kobu, is similar to yorokobu, the Japanese word for happiness.
Kuri kinton (Japanese sweet potato mashed with chestnut) has a light golden color that represents gold or prosperity.
Shin takenoko (bamboo shoots) are from the fast-growing bamboo plant and symbolize acquiring wealth rapidly.
Datemaki (sweet omelet roll) has a golden hue that symbolizes gold, while the egg itself represents fertility.
Kuromame (black beans) are simmered in sugar and are eaten for good health in the coming year.
Ebi (shrimp) curl like the backs of the elderly, so they symbolize living a long life.
Kimpira gobo (burdock root) has a number of good luck qualities. It has a long tap root, symbolizing long life. The deep, sturdy root is also said to keep family ties strong by keeping the family rooted. And if the burdock root splits at the end, that’s even better, as your good luck will also split and multiply.
Better than it looks
Of all of these foods, burdock (gobo) is the one that I have continued to eat over the decades, and not just at New Year’s. It definitely falls into the “can’t judge a book …” category of vegetables. It’s dull and brown and looks tough and unappetizing. But it is in fact tender (you can scrape away the thin skin with a light fingernail), and the humble exterior of the large, dark, woody-looking root belies the sweet, nutty, delicate, crunchy flesh within.
In addition to being used as a food item for millennia, many cultures have used burdock medicinally. Early Chinese physicians treated colds, flu, throat infections, and pneumonia with burdock preparations, and it is considered a powerful source of “yang” energy, according to Chinese philosophy and macrobiotic practice — meaning it gives you the energy and strength to do what needs to be done — including, perhaps, keeping all your New Year’s resolutions.
This New Year’s week, celebrate the spirit of osechi — slow down, relax and enjoy time with loved ones. And for good luck, long life, and strong family ties, try some burdock root. Traditionally, in Japan, burdock (gobo) is stir-fried — alone or with carrots — in a dish called Kimpira Gobo. It seems that every Japanese household has a slightly different take on this, but here’s the recipe from a family friend, Masako Takayasu.
Mrs. Takayasu’s Kimpira Gobo (Stir-Fried Burdock and Carrots)
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 5 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
2 sticks burdock (about 1/2 pound)
Carrots, 1/3 to 1/2 the amount of burdock
3 Japanese togarashii, Thai hot, or another hot pepper
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon sesame seed oil
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon mirin (optional)
3 to 4 tablespoon soy sauce
Hot pepper flakes, to taste (optional)
Sesame seeds, as garnish (optional)
1. Wash burdock and remove skin by rubbing with the back of a knife or with a vegetable scrubber. Cut into matchstick-size pieces and soak the pieces in cold water to prevent discoloration. Replace water two or three times or until the water remains clear, and then drain the burdock. Peel carrots and cut in pieces the same size and shape as the burdock.
2. Slice hot peppers, and after removing their seeds, cut the peppers into thick rings.
3. Combine olive oil and sesame oil in a frying pan and heat. Add burdock, carrot, and hot pepper rings, and stir-fry over high heat until carrots are cooked through. Reduce heat and add sugar, mirin, soy sauce and hot pepper flakes to taste. Stir to mix. Continue to stir over heat until the liquid nearly all evaporates. Sprinkle sesame seeds over the top and serve.
Main photo: New Year’s foods served in a lacquered box called a jubako. Credit: iStock
Although red is the color of Santa’s suit, poinsettias and Rudolph’s nose, a “bowl of red” is probably not what springs to mind when you contemplate Christmas dinner.
But chili has many selling points as a holiday repast. It’s a one-pot meal that can feed a crowd, and it tastes best when made a day or two in advance — meaning that even the cook can relax and enjoy the feast. And although I never imagined that chili would grace our Midwestern holiday table, I thank my lucky Lone Stars that the official dish of Texas made its way into my life and onto our extended family’s Christmas menu.
It happened as a happy confluence of events. The first part has a history that probably goes back to our ancient ancestors. Traditionally, butchering of large animals was done in the early winter, after they had eaten their fill all spring, summer and fall, and before the lean times of winter. And in pre-refrigeration days, if you butchered in winter when the whole world’s a gigantic freezer, your meat would keep for months.
More from Zester Daily:
But it wasn’t until I started sharing my annual quarter of beef with my Texas-born boyfriend that the Illinois-beef-meets-Texas-chili marriage was made. I assumed that such an odd coupling must be a first, but it was actually made more than a hundred years ago, in 1909, as I discovered on Linda Stradley’s excellent site, “What’s Cooking America.”
Stradley notes that in Springfield, Ill., an hour or so down the road from my father’s grazing cattle, people take their chili very seriously. “They even spell it differently than the rest of the United States,” she notes. “This peculiar spelling of ‘chilli’ in Springfield originated with the founder of the Dew Chilli Parlor. Legend has it that the Dew’s owner, Dew Brockman, quibbled with his sign painter over the spelling and won after noting that the dictionary spelled it both ways. Other folks believe the spelling matches the first four letters in Illinois.”
That’s the first I’d ever heard of Dew Brockman, who may or may not be a long lost relative, but I am sure he would agree that the Brockman family Illinois beef and Texas chili are a heavenly match. Cuts from well-used muscles such as arm, shoulder or chuck roast love the long, slow simmer with the secret chili spice mix. We also add some spicy pork sausage and a few slices of fatty bacon to carry the flavors that gradually intensify over the four to six hours of simmering. By the time we take the pot off the fire, the spices permeate not only the meat, but the whole house, with warmth and good cheer.
I do realize that any talk of Texas chili, particularly made in central Illinois, and with pork added, is bound to get me into trouble. (At least we don’t add beans!) Chili tastes are regional, personal and often inflexible. But Christmas is a good time to put partisan bickering aside and enjoy a big beefy bowl of red with or without pork, or beans.
We spend most of Christmas Eve making the big pot of chili for about two dozen relatives to enjoy on Christmas Day because, as the writer John Steele Gordon notes, “Chili is much improved by having had a day to contemplate its fate.”
And its fate is to be enjoyed by the holiday crowd, including a red-clad Santa, whose belly shakes when he laughs like a bowl full of chili.
This version of the Texas classic tastes intensely of its two main ingredients, beef and chili powder. But it also has some pork, onions, carrots, garlic and a can of crushed tomatoes because we like the way those ingredients round the flavors out. You are welcome to keep or delete them as you wish.
Cook time: 5 hours
Total time: 5 hours 45 minutes
Yield: About 20 servings — and even better as leftovers
7 tablespoons chili powder (Gebhardt’s brand preferred) (about 1 tablespoon per pound of meat)
2 tablespoons each of cumin and cayenne
3 tablespoons oregano
Salt and pepper
3 to 3½ pounds arm, shoulder, chuck or sirloin roast
2 pounds hanger steak
1½ pounds cubed steak
1½ pounds spicy pork sausage (chorizo, jalapeño, andouille etc.)
6 slices of fatty bacon, chopped fine
3 medium onions, chopped
4 medium carrots, chopped very fine
8 garlic cloves, smashed or minced
6 hot peppers, 2 each of habanero, serrano, jalapeño peppers, diced, seeds and all
1 large green pepper, diced
2 bottles of peach or apple flavored beer
2 cups beef or chicken broth, plus 2 tablespoons miso paste (red or brown) to add umami
1 (16-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons masa harina (optional)
In a small bowl, mix together the chili powder, cumin, cayenne, oregano, and salt and pepper.
The roasts and steak may be cut into bite-sized cubes while slightly frozen, making in unnecessary to cut up the braised cuts once they’re done. Trim the beef of any excess fat and season heavily with the spice mixture. Sear on all sides in a heavy skillet. Set aside.
Put the chopped bacon in a very large, heavy pot or Dutch oven, and allow the fat to melt. Brown the onions and carrots in the bacon fat until soft. Then add the garlic and peppers and cook for a few more minutes. Deglaze the skillet with the beer. Add the broth, miso and tomatoes. Then add the browned meat, and enough broth or beer to cover the meat.
Lady Bird Johnson’s Pedernales River Chili
Lady Bird Johnson would share this quick and simple Texas chili recipe with her guests.
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour
Total time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Yield: About 10 servings
4 pounds chili meat (coarsely ground round steak or well-trimmed chuck)
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon cumin
6 teaspoons chili powder (or more, if needed)
1 ½ cups canned whole tomatoes
2 to 6 dashes hot sauce, or to taste
2 cups hot water
Salt to taste
Place meat, onion, and garlic in a large heavy pan or Dutch oven. Cook until light in color. Add the oregano, cumin, chili powder, tomatoes, hot sauce and 2 cups hot water. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for about 1 hour. Skim off the fat while cooking. Salt to taste.
Main photo: Texas-style chili. Credit: iStock
If you shop in mainstream grocery stores, you have probably only eaten one variety of garlic — or maybe two, California Early and California Late. Both are soft-neck cultivars with a middle-of-the-road flavor.
But there are hundreds of garlic varieties, and more and more small farmers are growing the pungent hard-neck cultivars, as well as other soft-neck cultivars from around the world. And what better way to experience a world of garlic flavors than to do a side-by-side garlic taste test.
I recently was host of such a garlic tasting with friends, neighbors and farm hands. We prepared eight garlic varieties, and with the seriousness of a wine-tasting, recorded the aroma and taste of each variety, raw and roasted.
More from Zester Daily:
As it turned out, tasting that much garlic over an hour or so led to euphoric and mildly mind-altering effects similar to those you might experience tasting wine. We also learned that the taste of a raw clove can depend on whether you get an outer surface slice or an inner core slice (the latter is much hotter). And we learned that taste is also dependent on how soon after harvest you are eating the garlic, since it is juicier and milder when it’s first harvested, and as it dries down, the flavors get concentrated. Growing conditions also affect taste, and in some weather and soil conditions, traditionally hot garlic can be mild, and mild garlic can turn hot.
All of which is to say, after reading our tasting notes below, go out on your own or with some friends to explore the wide world of garlic. You might even want to work your way through the 293 varieties of garlic gathered from around the world and kept at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s collection in Pullman, Wash.
FRENCH RED (Hardneck, Rocambole Type)
Aroma: Light and tangy, spicy
Taste (raw): Immediate bite on tongue like a hot radish; crunchy jicama texture; refined flavor after the initial hot burst; nicely balanced
Taste (roasted): Very mild; almost no garlic flavor; very faded; reminiscent of mashed potato with mild garlic butter
GERMAN EXTRA HARDY (Hardneck, Porcelain Type)
Aroma: Almost no aroma
Taste (raw): Very hot; sticks with you; long burn; mineral, iron, blood overtones; unashamed and ready for action
Taste (roasted): Caramelized; like a sweet garlic pudding
GERMAN RED (HARDNECK, Rocambole Type)
Aroma: Strong, classic garlic
Taste (raw): Mellow beginning, spice creeps up later; very delayed reaction with strong kick at the end; warming, buttery flavors before the kick
Taste (roasted): One of the very best when roasted; crème brulee with a hint of earthy musk
INCHELIUM RED (Softneck, Artichoke type, found on the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington)
Aroma: Mild garlic aroma
Taste (raw): Very mild taste but with a major kick at the end; fairly one-dimensional, somewhat sterile, watered-down garlic flavor
Taste (roasted): Sweet but not interesting; reminiscent of Wheaties or puffed rice that sat in milk too long
KOREAN RED HOT (Hardneck, Rocambole type)
Aroma: A lot going on, deep, complex, varied, and very hard-to-define aromas
Taste (raw): Sassy! Complexity of a good Sriracha; complex with end kick of heat and a hint of chives
Taste (roasted): Complex and balanced; dressed or undressed, hands down the best; even vampires can’t resist it
MUSIC (Hardneck, Porcelain type, Italian variety brought to Canada by Al Music in the 1980s)
Aroma: Mild, crisp aromas
Taste (raw): Very crisp crunch; earthy, smoky, round flavors; a little bit of a radish bite and slight end kick; very delayed response, medium horse radish heat; wasabi factor up your nose, volatile elements take over nasal passages, pervasive, invasive, good for sinus issues
Taste (roasted): Sweet and pungent
NEW YORK WHITE (Softneck variety)
Aroma: Nice perfume.
Taste (raw): Very intense bite/burn, really sharp, very hot at first, then long slow mellowing; spicy and lingering
Taste (roasted): Garlic’s garlic, hint of licorice, nice balance, retains its kick even when roasted
RUSSIAN RED (Hardneck, Rocambole type)
Aroma: Spicy and earthy
Taste (raw): Very strong flavor and the most heat of all, burns entire inside of mouth, almost painful, ooh mama, I’m completely buzzed
Taste (roasted): Floral and nicely balanced.
And the overall winner at our garlic tasting was . . . Korean Red Hot. But don’t take our word for it. Seek out a half-dozen varieties from local farmers and do your own taste test.
Main photo: Garlic-tasting leads to a euphoria that is similar to a wine tasting. Credit: Terra Brockman
Teach a kid to grow a carrot, or a cucumber, or even a cauliflower, and chances are that child will want to eat it. This common-sense notion is backed up by many studies, as well as anecdotal evidence from those who interact with kids in family and school gardens.
The Journal of the American Dietetic Association reviewed 11 garden-based nutrition studies and found that adolescents who participated in these programs increased their fruits and vegetables consumption. The results of one study, in which children spent 12 weeks working in a garden taste testing the produce and using it to make their own snacks, found that 98% of kids said they liked the taste tests; 96% liked working in the garden; and 91% enjoyed learning about fruits and vegetables. One of the conclusions of the study was that food and nutrition professionals should use “seed-to-table” activities to help teach kids about healthy eating.
More from Zester Daily:
One easy way for families and schools to get the seeds for seed-to-table learning is through “seed libraries” — places where people can peruse many varieties of tomato, cucumber, green bean, and other seeds, and then “check out” seeds they want to grow. At the end of the growing season, the person saves some seed, and returns it to the seed library. As more and more people have begun growing some of their own food, seed libraries have sprung up all over the U.S., with about 300 currently operating.
Recently, though, the culture of growing good food and community ran up against the culture of bureaucracy, control and fear as the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture shut down a seed bank at a public library in Mechanicsburg. Seed sharing, it turns out, is seen by some as dangerous. Barbara Cross, a Cumberland County commissioner, was quoted as saying that “agri-terrorism is a very, very real scenario,” and “protecting and maintaining the food sources of America is an overwhelming challenge.”
To which many of us would say, “Amen, sister!”
Growing your own
One way to maintain and protect food sources is to know the source of your food, and what better way than to grow it from seed and prepare the fresh vegetables yourself. At a time when obesity and chronic diet-related illnesses are skyrocketing, we need more seed libraries and more people ready and willing to engage in civil di-seed-obedience, if necessary, to fight overzealous bureaucrats and to ensure that people have the opportunity to grow their own food.
Here are a few ways to do that:
Find a seed library near you, or start your own: There are a number of websites to help. If you are concerned about the legalities, there is good information from the Sustainable Economies Law Center’s webpage, Setting the Record Straight on Seed Libraries.
Get some seeds and sow ‘em: Turn over some soil and invest in some basic garden tools. Throw in a compost heap and a few earthworms to help decompose the food, and you may never get your kids back into the house. See Start a Lazy Garden for an easy start-up plan.
Start a conversation at the next PTO/PTA meeting: Getting the support of other parents is a good way to start a school garden. You may also want to talk to cafeteria managers and principals to get their suggestions and buy-in. For inspiration, check out the Edible Schoolyard or Seeds of Solidarity programs. The groups listed below provide curriculum and planning materials:
• National Gardening Association’s kidsgardening.org
Main photo: A boy learns about the pleasures of fresh tomatoes at the Evanston Market in Illinois. Credit: Ken Meuser