Lionfish. Credit: iStockphoto / kiankhoon

As a longtime pescetarian and proponent of healthy eating, I’m delighted when people mention adding seafood to their diet. My heart sinks, though, when I hear that these additions consist of imported shrimp and tuna or farmed Atlantic salmon.

Although I appreciate any attempt to eat more wholesomely, I wish Americans would make wiser, more environmentally sound choices when it comes to shellfish and fish.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 91% of our favorite seafood was shipped in from overseas in 2011. Meanwhile, our own waters teem with nutritious yet highly invasive species such as Asian carp, northern snakehead and lionfish. In an age of increasing concerns about the environment and sustainability, our dependence on imported and ecologically unsound seafood makes no sense. It’s time for us to stop making unviable choices and start eating America’s glut of destructive, nonnative fish.

Eating invasive fish aids sustainability

Think that the need for invasivores – people who eat invasive species — might be overhyped? Consider Asian carp, specifically bighead, silver, black, and grass carp. They were introduced in the late 1960s to control parasites, algae and weeds in Southeastern U.S. aquaculture.

Unfortunately, these aggressive fish didn’t stay down on the farm. After escaping and crowding out or killing off  native aquatic life, Asian carp now rule over large stretches of the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers. Today, they threaten to take over the Great Lakes and other water systems.

This story is not unique. Dumped out of exotic aquariums, the flamboyant and venomous Indo-Pacific lionfish has infiltrated the coastal waters of Florida, spreading as far north as North Carolina and as far south as the Caribbean. Left unchecked, the lionfish has destroyed entire reef populations and drastically reduced biodiversity.

Native to Africa and Asia, northern snakeheads have likewise decimated wildlife in the Potomac, sections of the East and West coasts, Florida and Hawaii. Able to live several days out of the water, they wriggle over land to ravage nearby ponds, reservoirs and lakes. As a result, snakeheads are particularly troublesome.

Although America spends millions of tax dollars attempting to contain or eliminate these and other invasive fish, they remain prized foods in their native lands. In China and Southeast Asia, cooks grill, fry, poach, braise, steam or stew snakehead.

Zester Daily contributor Kathy Hunt preparing for a cooking class. Credit: Sean Dippold

Zester Daily contributor Kathy Hunt preparing for a cooking class. Credit: Sean Dippold

In Cambodia, this freshwater fish serves as an essential source of protein and stars in the traditional curry dish amok trey. Firm, white-fleshed and moderate in flavor, it makes a fitting substitute for overfished darlings such as monkfish and snapper.

Low in mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl), Asian carp also abounds with culinary possibilities. Along with smoking, steaming, grilling and frying, it performs well in soups, curries and stews. Mild and white-fleshed, it’s a good stand-in for the depleted Atlantic cod and Icelandic pollock.

Lionfish, too, is a pleasant-tasting replacement for environmentally unsafe fish. In July 2010, the Washington Post prophesized that lionfish could be “the new sustainable ‘it’ seafood.”

Pan-seared lionfish with rice and beans. Credit: Kathy Hunt

Pan-seared lionfish with rice and beans. Credit: Kathy Hunt

Mild in flavor and white-fleshed, it offers a versatile alternative to popular but eco-unfriendly choices such as grouper and orange roughy. It responds well to most cooking techniques and pairs well with a number of ingredients.

Although lionfish does possess venomous dorsal spines, its meat is safe to eat. I say this from experience. This past winter in the Florida Keys, I had several lovely, light lunches of speared, filleted and then pan-seared lionfish topped with a spritz of lime juice or dollop of mango chutney. Obviously, I lived to write about it.

Our aquatic enemies may be tasty and a snap to cook, but not everyone will want to devour a fish called “snakehead” or “bighead carp.” This is where smart marketing comes into play. Most people would avoid the unattractively named Patagonian toothfish. However, tucking into an exotic Chilean sea bass has proved to be A-OK with diners. Same fish, different designation. Provide snakehead and Asia carp with fancy or friendlier names, and watch how opinions change.

Lionfish. Credit: Frank Wilmer

Lionfish. Credit: Frank Wilmer

Exposure will likewise aid in gaining converts. Invasive species-themed dinners have already taken place in Chicago, Miami, Dallas and Baltimore. Along with raising public awareness of these marauding creatures, the events aim to tantalize the public’s palate. Chefs create tempting specialties such as snakehead po’ boys, European green crab stew, lionfish sashimi and Asian carp croquettes. Bite into a moist and flavorful snakehead taco, and you’ll never fill your tortillas with shrimp or tuna again.

With a bit of consumer education, exposure and smart marketing, we could control — if not eliminate — America’s invasive seafood species problem. In the process, we would reduce our dependence on unsustainable, imported seafood. It’s time for us to take note of the invasive species’ culinary appeal and start catching and consuming our nemeses.

Main photo: Lionfish. Credit: iStockphoto / kiankhoon

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Open Sandwich on Rye With Cold Potatoes. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

The harvest is in full bloom during midsummer in Denmark. Seasons are short here, and some vegetables and berries are in season for only a few months or even weeks.

Because of this, it’s important to celebrate and enjoy things when they are here. As such, in May and June I eat asparagus almost every day, and then, as much as possible, strawberries and new potatoes when they start coming out.

Of course, you can find imported vegetables and fruit year-round, but they do not taste the same as the seasonal produce grown locally.

New potatoes command attention in Denmark

Denmark has the perfect climate and soil for potatoes, so there are many types  from which to choose. Denmark is a nation of potato lovers, and they collectively agree that the new summer ones are the best in the world. When the potatoes are available, it will be mentioned on prime-time news.

A lot of people grow potatoes in their gardens, or allotments. They also like to buy them as fresh as possible, often from roadside stalls in the country. It is a trust system, where you take the fruits and vegetables you want and leave money in a jar or tin.

You cook new potatoes the same day you harvest or purchase them, rinsing them in cold water and scraping the peel off with a small, sharp kitchen knife before boiling them in salted water. The best ones are small- to medium-sized, not too big. At the height of the season, you can buy them fresh every day.

Some debate exists about when the potato arrived in Denmark, but most likely it came with the French Huguenots in 1720. Up until 1820, the peasants were apprehensive about potatoes; it was the people of nobility who were most interested because they wanted to show they practiced the latest ideas from Europe. But new research shows this is not the whole truth. The peasants were merely cautious because if the new crop failed, they could not bear the risk. They started growing potatoes on small plots in their gardens or in a corner of their farmland.

When the potatoes proved to be strong and somewhat reliable, Denmark became a potato-growing nation and potatoes became the staple food of day laborers. They planted and harvested them, and some of their pay was in potatoes.

New potatoes. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

New potatoes. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

In my grandparents’ summer home, my grandfather was responsible for scraping the potatoes. When I was little girl,  he would sit every morning on a three-legged stool in the back yard scraping potatoes with this pocketknife, drinking his morning beer. Sometimes other locals would come by to sit and chat with him and have a beer. When he was done with the potatoes, he would hand them over to my grandmother; she would keep them in a pot with cold water until it was time to cook.

We always had a hot meal at noon and then smørrebrød, an open sandwich on rye bread, for dinner at night. If there were any leftover potatoes, they would be served cold on rye bread for the evening meal (see recipe below) as, in Danish, “en kartoffelmad.”

Potatoes keep well over the winter and are, therefore, a perfect staple food for the cold northern climate. For the past 150 years, the main meal in Denmark has evolved around boiled potatoes. It is a food tradition shared in northern and Eastern Europe.

The way potatoes are cooked has changed over the past 30 years. Apart from boiled, as mash and served as condiment, potatoes are now also used a vegetable and cooked in many different ways with a variety of spices. Another tradition is warm potato salad made with white onions, vinegar and sugar, which is called old-fashioned potato salad. For a more modern summer version, cold potatoes are served in a salad with fresh red onions, radishes and loads of fresh parsley.

In the summer, new Danish potatoes are so good they become the center of the meal. They are boiled in salted water and served warm with butter, dill and flaky salt on the side. You don’t really need any more than that. They are also very good served with smoked mackerel or herring with a smoked cheese dressing, chives and radishes.

In these recipes I have used three types of potatoes. The purples are called Conga, the whites Sophia or Fjellfinn. You can substitute potatoes grown where you live. Find a potato that is firm and has a nutty sweet taste. Most important, it must not be flowery.

Open Sandwich on Rye With Cold Potatoes

Yield: 4 servings for lunch

Ingredients

    For the sandwiches:
  • 1 pound medium-sized potatoes
  • 4 slices of rye bread, thinly sliced
  • 12 radishes
  • 1 leek
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons cooking oil
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 4 fresh lovage leaves to decorate with
  • For the cream:
  • 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons Greek yogurt, 10 percent fat
  • 2 tablespoons chopped lovage (or parsley)
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • ½ teaspoon lemon zest
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

  1. Boil the potatoes in lightly salted water. They should still be firm when done. Depending on the size, it will take between 12 and 20 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, mix all the ingredients for the cream, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Cool the potatoes and cut into thin slices.
  4. Cut the leek in very thin slices, about ⅕ of an inch thick (1/2 centimeter), rinse and drain really well.
  5. Fry in oil in a big frying pan at high heat until crisp without burning. When done leave to rest on kitchen paper towel.
  6. Place the slices of rye bread on a serving tray, then divide the cold potato slices evenly on the bread.
  7. Add 2 tablespoons of the cream on top of the potatoes, divide the radishes on top of the cream and finish off with the fried leeks. Decorate with a lovage leaf before serving.

Main photo: Open Sandwich on Rye With Cold Potatoes. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

 

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A report by Consumer Reports is calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to kill off one of the most misleading — and downright contemptible  — claims you will find on food packaging today.

The natural label claim epitomizes everything that’s wrong with our food labeling laws — or should I say lack of them. The natural wording is found on the packaging of millions of food products sold every day, including meat, dairy and eggs. Consumers consider it an important claim: According to new research from Consumer Reports, nearly 60% of people surveyed look for the natural label term when food shopping. When it comes to meat, dairy and eggs, almost 50% of consumers assume that natural  means the animals were raised outdoors and not in confinement. Many consumers also think natural means that no growth hormones were used (68%), or the animals’ feed contained no genetically modified organisms (64%) or that no antibiotics or other drugs were used (60%).

In truth, any of these practices would be acceptable under the natural label. In fact, the term is pretty much a blank check for food manufacturers to mislead and deceive consumers into thinking they are buying something better — when they are not.

Despite what you might think,  a natural label claim  has nothing to do with how an animal might have been raised or treated. According to the USDA, “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural.”

In other words, the term applies only to how the meat or poultry product is processed. So the farming system may have involved feedlot or confinement systems, or the routine use of antibiotic growth promoters or artificial hormones (for beef cattle), or the feeding of GMOs, or the mutilation of beaks and tails, and other questionable practices associated with intensive, industrial-scale livestock production.

The reality of  ‘natural’ meat

The sad reality is that millions of conscientious consumers are potentially being duped and exploited on a daily basis by unscrupulous meat processors that use the natural label claim — many of which are household names and brands. That natural beef you specifically chose, which also happened to display happy cattle in a green pasture, doesn’t mean the animals were raised in a pasture, or fed a healthy diet, or treated according to higher welfare standards.

AWA's Andrew Gunther: Would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural? Credit: AWA

AWA’s Andrew Gunther: Would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural? Credit: AWA

It simply means the beef contains no artificial ingredients or added colors, and that it was minimally processed after slaughter. In reality most of the cattle slaughtered for natural beef brands are finished on dirt feedlots, where thousands of cattle have little space for their last few months and eat mainly corn and grain to quickly gain weight. Such feedlot cattle are routinely given antibiotics and hormones in a losing battle to prevent disease and maximize growth rates. It’s hardly a natural existence.

Similarly, most natural-labeled eggs will come from industrial indoor poultry operations, where thousands of hens are confined in battery cages. Each bird lives in a cage with several others with each allotted less space than a sheet of letter paper. Beaks are routinely cut back using a hot knife to prevent hens from pecking each other to death out of boredom and frustration. The birds also are fed various pharmaceuticals — such as arsenic  — to control pests and diseases. They never see grass or sunlight, let alone roam and forage.

It’s the same story for the 60-plus million intensively raised pigs in the U.S., confined to indoor concrete runs, fed growth promoters such as ractopamine, with their tails cut to prevent tail biting. This pork also is labeled natural. Again, would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural?

Yet the major meat processors that dominate the food industry are making billions of dollars by knowingly misleading well-meaning consumers each and every day. And the USDA — the government agency responsible for “ensuring the truthfulness and accuracy in labeling of meat and poultry products” — is doing nothing about it.

Scientists argue that these marketing claims — in addition to fooling consumers — may also be leading to obesity and diet-related ill health. According to the latest research from the University of Houston, health-related buzzwords — including natural — are lulling consumers into thinking food products labeled with those words are healthier than they are.

We at Animal Welfare Approved are calling on farmers and consumers to unite behind Consumer Reports in its effort to “Kill the Natural Label.” Please sign the online petition. If you have bought natural-labeled foods, why not write to the food manufacturer and voice your displeasure? Tell them with these petitions that you won’t buy their products again until they are honestly labeled.

Misleading labels confuse consumers and threaten the livelihoods of farmers striving to feed the nation honestly and sustainably. Seek out and buy honestly labeled food. The AWA logo is a pledge that our animals were raised outdoors for their entire lives on an independent family farm using sustainable agriculture methods. No other food label offers these distinctions. You can find your nearest supplier of AWA-certified foods at animalwelfareapproved.org.

Main photo:  The “natural”  label does not cover how animals are raised. Credit: Courtesy HUHA

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Fresh cherries. Credit: Sharon Hunt

My father loved to fish, his East Coast genes commanding that love. Dad loved camping too but only camping where water was nearby. After all, nothing tasted better than fresh fish frying on a camp stove, unless it was fresh fish accompanied by the wonderful cherry jam he made to go with it.

While Mom set the table and my sister trotted off with her Barbie dolls, Dad’s fishing pole arced and fell, and I caught up with Nancy Drew’s latest mystery. When Dad had enough fish, even Nancy was cast aside for lunch.

While the fish sizzled, he caramelized onions for the cherry jam. How he fell upon this combination I don’t know, but the jam, little more than fresh cherries, green pepper and onions, was tart and sweet, and we slathered it onto the hot fish. With coleslaw and bread, we had a midday feast.

After lunch, we were logy, sluggish in our movements but content in our thoughts. Even Barbie looked ready to stretch out on her lounge chair for a nap.

Fresh cherries open up new possibilities

Before moving to Ontario, Canada, we never ate fresh cherries, the ones arriving at the grocery store already covered with a fuzzy coating of mold. So we contented ourselves with maraschino cherries in canned fruit cocktail or topping an ice cream sundae or the glace cherries in a cake that had been passed down from my Great-Grandmother Hunt.

I never knew her, but in Dad’s words she was “a corker” (an excellent or astonishing person). All of 4 feet and practically as wide as she was tall, she wore a black apron that fringed her ankles and had a Newfoundland dog, looking more pony than canine, that rarely left her side.

When Dad spent summer holidays with her and his grandfather, she made boiled dinners that were often gray in the pot and roasts of beef that inevitably blackened in her care, but she also made a cherry cake that he and the dog salivated over. The cake was one of the few things that she made — along with poached eggs, fish stew and gingerbread — that was a keeper, he said.

Although really just a pound cake with glace cherries added, it was the beating of butter and sugar until silken and the addition of almond flavoring and orange juice that elevated the cake to something special. She used a wooden spoon and an English mason bowl that she sat in her lap, creaming the butter and sugar with a steady rhythm, while the other ingredients waited to be added. The last thing mixed in was the cherries, which had been sprinkled with flour so they wouldn’t fall to the bottom of the cake as it baked.

Great-Grandmother Hunt hummed while the spoon beat against the bowl, the oil stove undulating in the heat and Dad and the dog sitting close by, waiting.

Later, when she took the cakes out of the oven, they hardly had time to reach the cooling racks before boy and beast were at her elbow, begging for slices that had been tinged pink from the cherries.

Decades later, Dad made those cakes for me and my sister, but by then, we’d also become fresh cherry lovers. The Bing cherries that grew on a tree in the back garden of our new home were fat and glossy, and what a wonder it was to pick a handful whenever we wanted.

I was sometimes sent out with the step stool and a bowl to pick enough cherries for a new dessert Dad discovered in the only cookbook he ever bought, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Later, he found the tall and gangly author of the book, Julia Child, on television by accident and learned to make new, French dishes, but Cherry Clafoutis remained one of his favorites.

It looked like a puffed up pancake as it baked, but it was so much more — light textured and bursting with cherries. Powdered sugar sprinkled on top added an extra touch of sweetness. Cherry Clafoutis became a weekend treat and a camping specialty. Dad even made a metal hood for the camp stove so he could bake the dessert on it.

Cherry Clafoutis. Credit:: Sharon Hunt

Cherry Clafoutis. Credit: Sharon Hunt

The aroma of the baking clafoutis lured friends and strangers to our camping spot. Soon, slices were being passed around, powdered sugar was coating lips and cherry juice dribbled down chins. It was hard to imagine life before this dessert and before fresh cherries.

Dad tweaked Child’s clafoutis over the years, adding ingredients and changing amounts, but he always credited her with opening up a whole new direction in cooking and baking for him. His clafoutis is the version I still make.

I stay true to Great-Grandmother Hunt’s cherry cake recipe, though, like he did, and although Bing cherries are still my favorites, I also like light-fleshed Rainiers, the “Princess of cherries,” while the Lapin’s deep red skin and flesh makes a cherry jam that is still perfect slathered on pan fried trout.

Cherry Clafoutis

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 55 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Yield: Serves 4 to 6

Inspired by Julia Child's recipe.

Ingredients

  • Pinch of salt
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup white sugar, divided
  • ½ cup buttermilk
  • ½ cup 10% cream
  • ¼ cup orange juice
  • 2 teaspoons almond extract
  • 2 cups cherries, pitted (fresh work best, but frozen cherries, thawed and drained, work well too)
  • Powdered sugar

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
  2. Sift the salt and flour together in a small bowl.
  3. In a medium-size bowl, whisk the eggs until frothy. Add ½ cup sugar and whisk until combined, then add the buttermilk, cream, orange juice and almond extract; whisk until smooth.
  4. Add the sifted flour and salt and blend well.
  5. Pour half the batter into a greased baking dish (about an 8-cup capacity) and place in the preheated oven. When the batter has started to set around the sides of the pan (about 10 minutes), remove the pan from the oven.
  6. Sprinkle the cherries and then the additional ½ cup of sugar over the batter. Add the rest of the batter and return the dish to the oven.
  7. Bake for about 45 minutes (or until the clafoutis has puffed up, is golden and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean).
  8. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve warm.

Main photo: Fresh cherries. Credit: Sharon Hunt

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Open oysters ready to eat. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

In “For Your Eyes Only,” British super-spy James Bond informs us that the best things in America are chipmunks and oyster stew. We can understand oyster stew on many levels, including its aphrodisiac properties. Like Bond, a gentleman should know how to open oysters for his girl. And a girl should know how to eat the oyster.

The best oysters are those whose life is controlled by a careful balance of estuaries, temperature, salinity and water flow. Opening an oyster requires an oyster knife, of course, and then finding the hinge in the oyster where the two shell halves meet. The knife is wedged in to the little groove of the joint and rather than push hard, which often leads to injury, it is important to twist the knife until you hear the “pop” of the shell halves releasing their grip.

Most people who injure themselves opening oysters do so not with the knife but on one of the sharp edges of the oyster shell itself. Once the pop has occurred, push gently to separate the shells and run the knife around the entire edge of the oyster to separate them entirely. Then the knife is run once again to separate the oyster meat from the adductor muscle that holds it to the shell. The oyster stays in the deeper shell half rather than the flatter shell half as it will hold all the oyster juice too.

When eating raw oysters, I belong to the school of thought that only a few drops of lemon juice are required, and it is best to serve them cold, ideally on ice. Oyster opening and eating is a messy affair and one done without utensils. Once the oyster is opened there’s all manner of ways of serving or cooking it from dipped into a mignonette to baked with a topping to deep-fried. However, the purest way to eat an oyster is to open one and eat it raw.

Advice varies about the proper way to eat an oyster, but the idea that you don’t chew and just let them slide down your throat doesn’t seem right to me. If you do that, I don’t believe you’re tasting anything. The whole point to taste is that you masticate.

The oyster shell with its oyster and liquor is used as the vehicle to bring the oyster to your mouth and you do indeed slide the oyster into your mouth. Then take a couple of bites and, in the words of one poet, you tickle the oyster to death.

The first oysters opened go to the lady friend, and then the shucker slides one down for himself.

Main photo: Open oysters ready to eat. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Big Bowl with Quinoa, Roasted Beets, Beet Greens and Garlic Yogurt. Credit: Laurie Smith

There’s something incredibly comforting about a meal in a bowl. Noodle bowls — ramen, soba, phô — are familiar to most people these days, and I love these meals. But lately I’ve been focused on another type of meal in a bowl that isn’t a soup.

I call them “big bowls.” The ones that I make are vegetarian, though there is always room for meat in a big bowl.

Each element of a big bowl is itself a side dish, but when you combine everything, the sum of the parts is a main dish. The first layer is always a bed of cooked whole grains that serves as a vehicle for a delectable vegetable or vegetable and bean dish. The vegetables and/or beans are in turn garnished with something flavorful — a salsa, pungent garlic yogurt, a spice mix like dukkah, fresh herbs or robust cheeses. You can also add nuts for texture and flavor. I supplement many of my vegetarian big bowls — the ones that don’t include beans — with proteins like poached eggs or marinated oven-baked tofu.

Big bowls suit families. You can mix and match grains and vegetable toppings, depending on your family’s preferences. The kids can eat each element separately, as kids are wont to do. Most of the elements in my big bowls are dishes that can be prepared ahead, so that the actual work is just a question of composing the bowls when you’re ready to eat. Cooked grains, for example, will keep for three days in the refrigerator (at least), as will bean dishes (always better the day after you make them). Baked marinated tofu is great for a week, if you can resist eating it all at once. This means you can be a weekend cook and still make wonderful, filling weeknight meals.

Big Bowl With Quinoa, Roasted Beets, Beet Greens, Garlic Yogurt and Walnuts or Dukkah

A great summer dish that’s good hot or at room temperature. I like beets and greens with lighter grains like bulgur or quinoa, but I wouldn’t say no to just about any grain topped with this Greek favorite.

Prep time: 20 minutes (can prep and cook some elements while beets are roasting)

Cooking time: 45 minutes to 1 hour

Total time: About 1 hour 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

3 to 4 cups cooked quinoa (to taste)

Roasted beets with wilted greens (recipes below) 

2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill, parsley or mint

Juice of 1 lemon (more or less to taste)

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Garlic yogurt (recipe below)

3 tablespoons chopped walnuts or 2 tablespoons dukkah (recipe below)

Directions

1. Spoon quinoa into wide or deep bowls.

2. Top with the roasted beets (diced and seasoned with half the herbs and lemon juice to taste) and wilted beet greens.

3. Drizzle olive oil over the vegetables.

4. Top with garlic yogurt.

5. Sprinkle dukkah or chopped walnuts and remaining chopped herbs over the yogurt.

Roasted Beets

Ingredients

2 bunches of beets with generous greens (2 different color beets if possible)

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 425 F.

2. Cut the greens away from the beets, leaving about ¼ inch of stems. Scrub the beets and place in a baking dish or lidded ovenproof casserole.

3. Add ¼ to ½ inch of water to the dish. Cover tightly. Place in the oven and roast small beets (3 ounces/100 g or less) for 30 to 40 minutes, medium beets (4 to 6 ounces/115 to 180 g) 40 to 45 minutes, and large beets (8 ounces/225 g) 50 to 60 minutes, until easily penetrated with the tip of a knife. Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the covered baking dish. Cut away the ends and slip off the skins when ready to use.

4. Dice the beets, toss with half the chopped fresh herbs and lemon juice to taste, and set aside.

Advance preparation: Unpeeled roasted beets keep well in the refrigerator for up to five days, even a week.

Seasoned Wilted Greens

Ingredients

1 or 2 bunches beet greens, stemmed and washed in 2 changes of water

1 to 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 to 2 garlic cloves, minced

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Directions

1. Wilt the greens by blanching or steaming for about 1 minute. Shock in cold water. Drain and squeeze out excess water, a handful of wilted greens at a time. Chop medium-fine.

2. Heat olive oil in a skillet, add garlic and as soon as garlic is fragrant, add greens and salt and pepper to taste. Stir greens in olive oil for about a minute, until infused with olive oil, and garlic. Remove from heat.

Advance preparation: Wilted greens will keep for three or four days in the refrigerator in a covered bowl and freeze well for a month or two. Wilted seasoned greens will keep for two or three days but the fresher they are the better.

Garlic Yogurt

Ingredients

1 to 2 plump garlic cloves

Salt

1 to 2 cups drained or Greek yogurt

Directions

1. Mash the garlic, cut in half with green shoots removed, with ¼ teaspoon salt to a paste in a mortar and pestle. Stir into the yogurt.

Advance preparation: Don’t do this too far in advance. The garlic will become more pungent and eventually it will taste acrid.

Dukkah

This Middle Eastern nut and spice mix has become a staple in my home. I sprinkle it on all sorts of vegetable preparations, on yogurt, sometimes just into the palm of my hand to eat as a snack. In the Middle East, bread and raw vegetables are dipped in olive oil and then dipped into or sprinkled with dukkah. It goes hand in hand with drained yogurt. The mix has many variations, differing from cook to cook and country to country in the Middle East.

Yield: About 1¼ cups

Ingredients

½ cup lightly toasted unsalted peanuts, almonds or hazelnuts (or a combination)

¼ cup lightly toasted sesame seeds

2 tablespoons coriander seeds

1 tablespoon cumin seeds

2 teaspoons nigella seeds

1 teaspoon ground sumac

½ teaspoon kosher salt or coarse see salt (or to taste)

Directions 

1. Chop the nuts very fine. Mix with the toasted sesame seeds in a bowl.

2. In a dry skillet lightly toast the coriander seeds just until fragrant and immediately transfer to a spice mill and allow to cool.

3. In the same skillet toast the cumin seeds just until fragrant and transfer to the spice mill. Allow to cool.

4. When the spices have cooled, grind and add to the nuts and sesame seeds. Add the nigella seeds, sumac and salt and mix together.

Advance preparation: Dukkah will keep for at least a month in a jar if you keep it in the freezer.

Main photo: Big Bowl with Quinoa, Roasted Beets, Beet Greens and Garlic Yogurt. Credit: Laurie Smith

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Dark and Stormy rum cocktail at Crystal Cove. Credit: Chris Fager

The view from the deck of the old wooden shack is a sweeping panorama of unspoiled Southern California sand and waves below a low cliff dotted with similarly ramshackle dwellings.

We are accustomed to an Orange County coastline stripped of its humble past. Yet here is a reminder of that lost world.

Founded by squatters in the 1920s, Crystal Cove was favored by Prohibition-era rumrunners who landed their illegal cargo here in the dark of night. Itinerant plein air painters immortalized this hidden beach and claimed it as their home.

By the 1980s, the state of California was on a mission to “clean up” the dangerously decrepit community.  Descendants of the founders fought back. Just when it appeared certain everything would be razed so that a massive hotel development could rise, the Laguna Beach community and other neighbors raised the funds necessary to preserve this tattered love note from California’s past.

We lifted our glasses of rum punch in honor of our friend Jennifer’s grandmother who once owned the cottage where we had gathered for cocktails. The particular privilege of growing up in such an unaffected oceanfront retreat has never been lost on our friend. She loves the fact that it remains exactly as she enjoyed it 50 years ago and now is available to everyone.

Of the 46 cottages in Crystal Cove, so far 29 have been restored. Two- and three-bedroom houses with full kitchens rent for less than $250 a night.

They were built for a nickel, says Harry Helling, president of the nonprofit Crystal Cove Alliance, which manages the California State Parks property. Renovating them without disturbing their original look costs as much as $750,000 each.

It’s “vernacular” architecture, he explains, a fancy term for using whatever is available to build a community. Most of the cottages were cobbled together from flotsam that washed ashore. A fancy teak bathroom sink was discovered in one home, a prize probably stripped from a shipwrecked sailboat.

Earthquake-proofing walls made out of 80-year-old pilfered highway billboards can be a challenge, says Helling.

Crystal Cove guests can skip the cooking and enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Beachcomber Cafe. An inviting broad, wooden terrace overlooks the ocean for al fresco dining.

View from the tasting cottage at Crystal Cove. Credit: Corie Brown

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View from the tasting cottage at Crystal Cove. Credit: Chris Fager

As the sun sinks low in the sky, families continue to play on the beach. Lovers return from strolling along the more than three miles of state park beach. No one rushes. We savor the moment with a Dark and Stormy made with Gosling’s Black Seal rum.

It is the only rum you can use if you are making a proper Dark and Stormy, Helling insists. In researching the history of the cove, the Prohibition-era cocktail culture has become a centerpiece of the Beachcomber’s bar service. Rum is the favored spirit.

He treats us to four of his concoctions. The cocktail hour ends as the sun sinks below the horizon. We amble over to the Beachcomber for a starlit dinner.

Four rum cocktail recipes, courtesy of Harry Helling.

Paradise Rum Swizzle

With a nod to the Barbados drink whisked with the stem of a native plant, Helling uses Rhum Barbancourt from Haiti. The swizzle sticks are Crystal Cove driftwood.

Ingredients

2 ounce Rhum Barbancourt

1 ounce fresh honeydew juice

1 ounce coconut water

½ ounce fresh lemon juice

½ ounce simple syrup (1 part water to 1 part sugar)

4 dashes of Angostura bitters

Directions

Pack a glass with crushed ice, swizzle rum, syrup and juices, top with bitters and sprig of mint.

Prohibition Punch

Helling adapted this recipe from the one served at Campbell Apartment, a 1920s apartment-turned-bar in New York City’s Grand Central Station. It is made by the pitcherful.

Ingredients

12 ounce Pusser’s British Navy Rum

3 ounces Grand Marnier

2 ounces fresh lime juice

20 ounces mango juice and water (1:1)

6 ounces cranberry juice

Champagne

Directions

Shake with ice, strain and float champagne on top with a pineapple garni.

Dark and Stormy

Invented in Bermuda just after World War I, Dark ‘n’ Stormy is a trademark-protected cocktail of rum and ginger beer. Helling adds lime juice — and so changes the spelling of the cocktail.

Ingredients

2 ounce Gosling’s Black Seal Bermuda Black Rum

4 ounce ginger beer

½ ounce fresh lime juice

Directions

Pour the ginger beer into a glassful of cracked ice and then add the Gosling’s topped with lime juice. Garnish with a fresh lime wedge.

Barrel Aged Rum Manhattan

It is increasingly popular to age rum in an oak cask to make a sipping drink. Helling served one from Venezuela.

Ingredients

2 ounces Ron Anejo Pampero Aniversario

1 ounce Carpano Antica Formula vermouth

½ ounce homemade bay leaf bitters

Directions

Pour the rum over an oversized ice cube in a short glass and stir with vermouth and bitters. Garnish with rum marinated blueberries and a flamed orange peel.

Main photo: Dark and Stormy rum cocktail at Crystal Cove. Credit: Chris Fager

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A selection of Robert Biale Vineyards wines. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

The 2014 Auction Napa Valley-The American Wine Classic shattered last year’s record and raised a staggering $18.7 million over one weekend in June.

The auction was the brainchild of the late Robert Mondavi, known as the “Godfather” of Napa Valley. His vision was supported by the Napa Valley Vintners Association, and the auction was launched in 1981. To date, the group has invested more than $120 million from auction proceeds in Napa County nonprofit organizations.

As in previous years, 2014 auction lots were gilded with trips to far-flung locales in private jets or luxury yachts, flashy sports cars, magnums of pricey Napa red wine and the ultimate indulgence — dinner for 50 at the venerable French Laundry restaurant.

After all, this is the Napa Valley brand: touting high-end Cabernets and projecting a sexy, glamorous image. And it takes a village to stage an auction of this magnitude — an event that draws oenophiles from around the globe.

Napa Valley’s vintners are as diverse as its terroir. There are the stratospheric cult labels such as Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Colgin and Araujo. Then there’s the other face of Napa: winemakers who are active participants in the auction but seek a lower profile.

After the adrenaline rush of this year’s auction slowed Sunday morning, I had the opportunity to meet one such winemaking family, the Biales of Robert Biale Vineyards, who are among the pioneers making up Napa’s historic landscape.

Clementina Biale, 82 years young, and her son Bob Biale greeted me in the matriarch’s Tudor-style house in the city of Napa. For 70 years, the family has farmed Zinfandel in Cabernet country. “Aldo loved Zinfandel,” Clementina said of her late husband while walking us out to the terrace overlooking vineyards planted with Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Sangiovese.

Today, the Biales are continuing their family tradition of Zinfandel. Their annual production of 15,000 cases includes 12,000 cases of 14 vineyard-designate Zinfandels from various properties in the Oak Knoll appellation and 3,000 cases of Petite Sirah and blends. The wines reflect elegance and balanced fruit — none of the jamminess you associate with Zinfandel.

“Napa was full of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah,” Bob Biale said. Then Cabernet Sauvignon came along in the late 1960s. After Napa’s win at the 1976 Judgment of Paris competition, Cabernet became even more popular, he said. “Napans found that Cab grows well, so they pulled out all the Zinfandel.”

Biale family has humble origins

An active octogenarian, Clementina drives around Napa doing errands and going to church. She draws the line at driving on the freeway, though.

“I never went to university,” she told me. “I was happy to raise a good family. We had a good life, nothing fancy.”

A few times a week, Clementina visits the humble barn-like Biale tasting room in Napa, where her handmade aprons and bottle bags are sold among other items.

“Aldo always said you don’t need a million-dollar room to have good wine,” she said fondly about her husband, who passed away in 2009 at age 80.

Aldo Biale was born in 1929 on Napa’s Mount Veeder to Pietro and Christina, who arrived in the early 1920s from Liguria, Italy. To help Aldo learn English, the family moved to the valley floor and purchased its first 5-acre parcel in 1937. They planted Zinfandel and fruit orchards while also raising white leghorn chickens. Pietro passed away in 1942, leaving 13-year-old Aldo and his mother to tend the ranch.

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Clementina Biale with her son, Bob Biale, on the terrace of her house overlooking the 6-acre vineyard in Napa. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

In 1953, Aldo visited Italy for the first time and met Clementina in Piedmont. “He took me to a fiesta,” she recalled.

They married a year later, and Clementina arrived in Napa in 1954. She raised four children and helped out in the farming operation.

In his teen years, Aldo worked on the family vineyards, delivering fresh eggs in the community. At age 14, he figured out there was more money in wine than selling Zinfandel grapes at $25 per ton, so he started making homemade jug wine and sold it without a license until the mid-1960s. Aldo continued selling grapes until 1990, including to such companies as Gallo and the St. Helena Co-op.

Aldo also kept his day job, working for Napa City’s Water Department. He would come home at 4 p.m. and start farming till 10. “There were lights on the tractor,” Bob recalled. “He had chores for me and my brothers. Now I’m glad we grew up this way and learned from him.”

As we taste the Black Chicken Zinfandel, a blend from different vineyards, Clementina tells the story behind the label. The name was a code for the jug wine for customers who ordered by telephone. The Biale family’s phone was on a party line, meaning it was shared with possibly nosy neighbors.

Clementina had just arrived from Italy when she answered a call from someone asking for two dozen eggs and a black chicken. “I said to this fella, ‘We have no black chicken, we have white,’ ” she said, laughing. She soon learned it was the code for Aldo’s secret Zinfandel.

“But my father’s dream was to have a brand that was our own wine,” Bob said. That was realized when Aldo and Bob founded Robert Biale Vineyards in 1991. Later, a partnership was formed with Dave Pramuk and Dave Perry.

“We had a nice little team, but we still kept our day jobs,” Bob said. He worked with the cellar team crew at Beringer.

Bob reflects sadly about the old-vine Zinfandels that were pulled out and replanted to Cabernet Sauvignon. He points in part to Robert Mondavi for this conversion.

“He was right by planting more Cab varietal, which put Napa on the map,” Bob said. “God bless him, that Cab conversion has allowed us growers to actually make a living. But it came with a sacrifice by removing old Zinfandel.”

Standing by their Zinfandels, the Biales are part of Napa’s mosaic of vintners. Over the years, Biale wine has been poured at the barrel auction’s marketplace tasting. “I am considering participating in the barrel auction next year,” Bob said.

That Biale Zin is sure to stand out in a barrel room full of Napa Cabs.

Main photo: A selection of Robert Biale Vineyards wines. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

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