Articles in Cooking

Grilled skewers of scallops and shrimp. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Grilled shellfish always make the best appetizer. Once the grill fire is going there are a wide variety of things you can do with shellfish that cook quickly, make minimal mess, are wonderful for satisfying hungry party guests, are ridiculously easy and, most important, are delicious.

In these two examples, one with oysters and one with shrimp and scallops on skewers, everything is assembled simply. When planning portions, I generally figure on three oysters per person and one brochette of shrimp and scallops per person with one shrimp and one scallop on it. Remember, these are appetizers so there is no need for tons of food — that will come later. The instructions below assume you have made a grill fire first.

Shucking oysters

If you are not adept at shucking oysters (see my video) and if no one is around to open them you can cheat a bit by washing the oysters very well, which you should do in any case. Next, place them into a pot with a half-inch of water, cover, and turn the heat to high. All you are trying to do is get the oysters to relax a bit, not to open them or steam them, so this might take only a minute or two. Remove the oyster shells and, with an oyster knife or handle end of a spoon, pry them open completely, leaving the oyster in its shell, and then follow the recipe.

For the shrimp, the ideal size is medium, about 41- to 50-count per pound. Of course, if you have access to fresh shrimp with their heads (that is, never frozen shrimp) by all means use them, removing the shell but keeping the head on. Frozen shrimp should be defrosted in the refrigerator.

Oysters creole. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Oysters creole. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Too many people buy frozen shrimp as if all shrimp are the same. They’re not, so look at the package to see where they originate. My personal preference is large and extra large shrimp from India or Bangladesh. I’m not sure what they’re doing to make them taste better, but they do. Shrimp from Mexico, Vietnam, and Ecuador are pretty good, too, and I always love Florida rock shrimp but not for this preparation.

For the scallops, you’ll want to use the large sea scallops rather than the tiny bay scallops that cook too fast.

Oysters Creole

Yield: 6 appetizer servings

Ingredients

½ cup (1 stick) butter

2 tablespoons Creole seasoning, such as Tony Chachere’s or Paul Prudhomme’s

24 oysters, shucked

Directions

1. Melt the butter and stir in the Creole seasoning.

2. Shuck the oysters and arrange them on the grill. Spoon some seasoned butter over each and cover the grill. Grill until some of the butter is bubbling, then spoon the remainder on and continue grilling, covered, until the edges of the oysters begin to curl slightly. Remove and serve.

Grilled Skewers of Scallops and Shrimp

Make sure the scallops and shrimp on the skewer don’t touch.

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 pound medium shrimp, shelled

1 pound sea scallops

Juice of 1 orange

½ cup dry white wine

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

¼ cup finely chopped fresh oregano or 1 tablespoon dried

Freshly ground black pepper

6 (10-inch) wooden skewers

Directions

1. Place the shrimp and scallops into a 9-by-12-inch ceramic or glass baking pan and add the orange juice, white wine, olive oil, oregano, and pepper to taste. Leave to marinate in the refrigerator, covered, for 2 hours. Remove from the refrigerator 15 minutes before grilling.

2. Skewer the shrimp and scallops so they don’t touch, reserving the marinade. Place onto the grill and cook, turning occasionally, until the shrimp are orange and the scallops a light golden brown, about 20 minutes. Baste with the marinade during grilling. Serve hot.

Main photo: Grilled skewers of scallops and shrimp. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Fennel in the field. Credit: Terra Brockman

I am not a licorice-lover — far from it — but I have become fanatic about the anise-scented fennel.

The first hint came when I had it slow-braised with a roast and reduced to a mild, sweet, and meltingly delicious vegetable with just the barest hint of anise. The next step was roasting it with Parmesan cheese, which only a fool would turn down. My conversion experience came when I was presented with thinly sliced raw fennel, served in a bowl of lemony ice water, after a meal in Sorrento, Italy.

As a confirmed fennel fanatic and evangelist, my tip for first-timers or skeptics is to try fennel that has been mellowed out through cooking. Chances are you will soon find the sweet, delicately nuanced aroma and flavor of raw fennel also enticing.

Five reasons to love fennel

  1. It’s versatile. You can’t really go wrong with fennel, whether you cook it or eat it raw. And all three parts — the base, stalks and feathery leaves  — are edible. The bulb is the part most commonly used, cooked with meat, braised on its own, or used in salads or on sandwiches. The stalks can be used for soups, stocks and stews, while the leaves can be used as you would herbs such as parsley, dill, or tarragon.
  2. Easy to prepare and enjoy raw. You can slice fennel thinly, and mix with a vinaigrette on its own, or toss with a green salad or potato salad. It’s fast, simple, and delicious.
  3. Easy to cook. For those who don’t like the anise scent and flavor of fennel, try cutting the bulbs into large chunks, and roast them under a chicken or other meat or fish. And no one I know can resist fennel lightly sautéed in wine, cooked in cream, or roasted in the oven with Parmesan.
  4. Low calories and high nutrition. One cup of sliced fennel has only 27 calories, but large amounts of vitamin C, folate and potassium.
  5. Its phytochemicals promote health and may fight cancer.  Fennel contains many health-promoting phytochemicals, naturally occurring chemical compounds such as the antioxidants rutin and quercitin, and other kaempferol glycosides that also give fennel strong antioxidant activity. But perhaps the most interesting phytonutrient in fennel is anethole — the primary component of its volatile oil, which has antimicrobial and antifungal properties. In animal studies, the anethole in fennel has reduced inflammation and helped prevent cancer. One study showed that anethole stopped breast cancer cells from growing. Researchers have also proposed a biological mechanism that may explain these anti-inflammatory and anticancer effects by showing how anethole is involved in the shutting down of an intercellular signaling system, thus stopping tumor growth.

Of course, the main reason to love fennel is that it is delicious. One of the simplest ways to cook it is this recipe from Jane Grigson’s “Vegetable Book.” Grigson also turns out to be a fennel fanatic, and notes: “My favorite fennel dish, the best one of all by far. The simple additions of butter and Parmesan — no other cheese will do — show off  the fennel flavor perfectly. The point to watch, when the dish is in the oven, is the browning of the cheese. Do not let it go beyond a rich golden-brown.”

Fennel Baked With Parmesan Cheese

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cooking Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 6 servings as a side dish

Ingredients

6 heads fennel, trimmed, quartered

2 tablespoons butter

freshly ground pepper

3 tablespoons (or more) grated Parmesan cheese

Instructions

1. Cook the fennel in salted water until it is just barely tender.

2. Drain it well and arrange in a generously buttered gratin dish.

3. Be generous, too, with the pepper mill.

4. Sprinkle on the cheese.

5. Put into the oven at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes, or until the cheese is golden brown and the fennel is bubbling vigorously in buttery juices.

Fennel Salad

You can make this salad as simple or as fancy as you like. Adding sweet dates and salty capers or olives make it exotic, but when you have fresh fennel all you really need is a light vinaigrette.

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cooking Time: 0 minutes

Total Time: 15 minutes

Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

2 fennel bulbs, thinly sliced, by hand or with a mandoline

Black olives, capers, dates (about 2 tablespoons each, or to taste), optional

Juice of one lemon

3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

1. Rinse the fennel and slice very thinly. Also slice the dates and olives, if you’re adding them.

2. Toss the fennel with the dates, olives and capers.

3. Whisk the lemon juice and olive oil together with a pinch of salt and pepper.

4. Dress the salad and toss to coat well.

Main photo:  Fennel in the field. Credit: Terra Brockman

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Community Plate features seasonal ingredients and is the place to be for families, the laptop brigade and local business owners breakfasting before work. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

News travels faster in small towns than on social media, so when Parade Magazine announced last week that my hometown of McMinnville, Ore., was a finalist in a race for the Best Main Street in America, the town’s good gossip suddenly took on a national flavor. Parade praised McMinnville’s Third Street for its picturesque main drag, its homegrown festivals and its award-winning restaurants and tasting rooms.

I hope when people come to town they discover that what sets McMinnville apart is the food –  not just the restaurants we love, but how differently people eat here. After all, Third Street is not just a quaint strolling village for wine-country tourists — though its antique storefronts, friendly people and the way every person crossing the street  stops traffic might suggest otherwise. Third Street, our Main Street, is the backbone for the food system, and all tendrils reach out from it.

 

Third Street

Third Street
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Third Street draws residents with its picturesque main drag, its homegrown festivals and its award-winning restaurants and tasting rooms. Credit: Chuck Hillestad

Pride in food

Our restaurants use local food as a source of pride and a matter of fact. For Thistle, a farm-to-table restaurant of the highest caliber, sourcing local is its calling card, the ethos that drives its turn-of-the-century (as in, last century) menu. Thistle has received a lot of deserved attention for the almost holy way its chefs approach food, but the truth is nearly all of the great restaurants on Third Street source from home. Bistro Maison, where diners can relax in the most gracious service in wine country, uses local produce because there is simply no better way to coax out exceptional flavors using French techniques. Nick’s Italian Café has long used seasonal eating to give real Italian specialties a wine country kick, topping Neapolitan-style pizza with nettles from near the river or lacing sultry Dungeness crab through its lasagna. When you eat a patty melt at Crescent Cafe, you are tasting the owners’ own cattle. What we’re discovering as each year passes is a small-town food scene rising to the demands of an international wine public but still keeping the flavors, ingredients and traditions of this place alive.

The restaurant scene is easy for tourists to experience. It is not uncommon for us to meet visitors from Texas who flew in just to eat here. But McMinnville is also the first place I have lived where shopping at the grocery store seems to be an afterthought. If you want honey, you’re not buying it in little bear jars from the shelf, you’re probably getting it in two-gallon jugs from your honey guy. If you eat eggs, they are probably from your own chickens or from your best friend’s. Other places may make a fetish out of vegetable growing, but you don’t get points here for growing a garden. If you have the space, you are feeding your family from your backyard. Half of my friends are part of a full community supported agriculture (CSA) diet and eat according to the seasons. When my friend Jasper orders his Stumptown latte at Community Plate, a breakfast and lunch hotspot, he brings the milk from his own cow.

A culture of sharing

People here live truly hyphenated lives, with eggs in many, many baskets, and for most of them, their hyphens connect in some way to the food system. A chiropractor might run a sideline salsa business, a freelance tech guy might have his hand in kimchi, winery owners might share their homemade peppermint bark at a local food swap. Everyone has access to something special and everyone shares.

Usually, you don’t have a way to get at the fabric of a place until you’ve lived it over time, but for my family, McMinnville was a quick lesson. When we arrived here in December of 2011, I was two months pregnant. When our second child was born, complete strangers walked food into our kitchen every day for three full weeks. Not casseroles, mind you. Full roasted chickens. Lovingly tended sage and rosemary potatoes. Salad greens dotted with edible flowers. What McMinnville understands more than anything else is how to feed people.

People in McMinnville know how good they have it. Not all of Oregon’s small towns have the infrastructure or the climate to eat like this. A few hours south and far to the east, in other small towns, food scarcity is a real issue. In Brownsville, the last grocery store closed shop a few years ago and the town decided to cover over its baseball diamond with a community garden to help people have better access to food. Far to the east, some towns have to drive more than an hour to find a grocery store.

I haven’t decided whether I really want McMinnville to be the Best Main Street in America. The journalist in me gets starry-eyed at the prospect of having our ordinary lives valued on such a national stage. But the budding small-town girl in me keeps thinking about what it really feels like to come in second. In the moment, you feel so close to the prize that it feels like heartbreak, but afterward, all you feel is the drive for improvement, the room for growth.

Win or lose, as every small-town denizen knows, it feels good to be part of the parade. I’ve been in three small-town parades since I moved here and know now that it is like being invited to the table. The joy comes from feeling the energy of the crowd.

Main photo: Community Plate features seasonal ingredients and is the place to be for families, the laptop brigade and local business owners breakfasting before work. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

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Garlic is one of the foods that the National Cancer Institute says can reduce the risk of several types of cancer. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller

Garlic, broccoli, green tea and turmeric: Health experts keep telling us to consume these foods to fight cancer.

But articles from a New York Times science journalist are challenging the view that diet can prevent cancer. The evidence on the influence of specific foods is weak, George Johnson wrote in a series of recent columns and in a book just released in paperback. Johnson reported that the results of studies connecting diet and cancer were conflicting and the numbers of preventable cases, small.

Ergo, diet doesn’t matter?

Diet certainly matters, says Stephanie Maxson, senior clinical dietitian at the University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center, the country’s leading cancer treatment hospital, according to U.S. News & World Report’s most recent rankings. Eating a plant-based diet, as opposed to a diet high in fat or animal protein, is important for preventing cancer as well as all chronic disease, she says.

Faced with this competing points of view, we must make many decisions each day about what to feed ourselves and our families. How do we evaluate the research when it’s not perfect? How do we make the best decisions for our health? Here are five starting points:

1. Why is the evidence is conflicting?

The evidence is often conflicting because the science is complicated, says Maxson.

“It’s true that the research findings regarding individual foods and nutrients are often inconclusive. But this is not because diet has no effect has cancer risk. It’s because the study of food and nutrients is very complex,” she says.

The nutrients contained in a head of broccoli, for example, will depend on the cultivar, where and how it was grown and how it’s prepared, she says. “How the nutrients in a food behave in the body depends on all the other foods it’s consumed with, the genetics of the person consuming it, and the microorganisms in the colon of the person consuming the food.”

Variables like these can explain why one study might find broccoli protective and another not, and as scientists unravel the nuances, they’re able to design better research. “We’re only beginning to understand the complexities of diet, nutrition and cancer relationships,” says Dr. Stephen Clinton, a researcher and physician who, along with a small group of scientists, is currently revising the U.S. government’s dietary guidelines.

2. Are there research-based guidelines on diet and cancer?

If you do a PubMed search, you’ll come up with more than 50,000 studies on diet and cancer. How are we to make sense of them?

The American Institute of Cancer Research and its partner, the World Cancer Research Fund (AICR/WCRF), can serve as guides. These two nonprofit organizations study the studies.

Since the 1990s, a panel of AICR/WCRF experts — researchers and physicians from around the world– have been reviewing the evidence and producing periodic reports as well as broad dietary guidelines, which are used by hundreds of cancer treatment centers, including MD Anderson. “AICR/WCRF is the world’s preeminent organization working to define evidence-based recommendations regarding how diet and nutrition impacts cancer risk and survivorship,” says Clinton.

While the recommendations are for preventing cancer because that’s where most of the research is focused, cancer survivors, they say, should also follow these guidelines once treatment is completed. The suggestions include:

  • Be lean. As the columnist points out, obesity increases the risk of many common cancers; body fat produces hormones that drive cancer growth.
  • Consume plant foods primarily.
  • Eat a variety of them.

Despite the inherent flaws in scientific research, “the evidence that whole diets involving a wide variety of plant foods provides real protection remains as strong as ever,” said AICR’s director of research in response to the columns.

Garlic in bunches. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller

Garlic in bunches. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller

3. What about specific foods and nutrients?

As part of its review process, AICR/WCRF judges the strength of the evidence on various foods and nutrients.

AICR/WCRF reports that there’s “probable” evidence that foods containing lycopene (tomato sauce, for example) or selenium (Brazil nuts, broccoli, garlic) decrease risk of prostate cancer and that diets high in calcium increase risk.

There’s “convincing” evidence that foods with fiber decrease risk of colorectal cancer and that red and processed meat increase it, they say.

Most often, however, the organizations deem the evidence “limited” or “suggestive,” meaning that more study is needed.

“We know of many food constituents that have anti-cancer properties,” says Dr. Steven Zeisel, director of the University of North Carolina’s Nutrition Research Institute and a member of AICR/WCRF’s expert panel that reviews all the studies. Garlic, broccoli, green tea and turmeric, for example, have been shown to fight cancer through extensive good research, he says. “But we do not know precisely which mixture of these constituents works best.”

Guidelines thus focus on patterns that decrease risk, such as plant-based diets, rather than individual nutrients or foods, he says. “What you eat certainly matters.”

4. How much cancer may be preventable?

According to AICR/WRCF estimates, approximately one-third of the most common cancers in the U.S. are preventable by a healthy diet and weight along with physical activity. For some types, the estimates for preventability are particularly high: colorectal, 50%; endometrial and esophageal, almost 60% and 70%, respectively.

In the U.S. alone, that’s nearly 375,000 cases of preventable cancer each year, said AICR’s director of research in a letter to the New York Times.

You can’t just look at each food individually and calculate risk, says its director of communications. “You have to look at the total diet and how all the foods you choose to eat and avoid together impact your cancer risk. You owe it to yourself to play the odds.”

5. What might your plate look like?

Playing the odds according to AICR‘s New American Plate design is fairly straightforward:

Fill at least two-thirds of your plate with plant foods, at most one-third with animal foods. Control portion sizes. Limit red meat to no more than 18 ounces weekly. As for dairy products, however, the evidence is still uncertain.

Meanwhile, as we continue the inevitably long wait for sufficient research-based evidence to warrant public policy on cancer and diet, I’ll be sticking to healthy plant-heavy patterns, lunching on this Mediterranean salad and not worrying about an occasional dollop of tzatziki. A walloping portion? Now that’s another story.

Holly Botner, the Jittery Cook at jitterycook.com/

Holly Botner, the Jittery Cook at jitterycook.com

 

 The following recipe is  courtesy of The Jittery Cook.

Jittery Cook’s Fattoush Salad

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 7 minutes

Total Time: 27 minutes

Yield: 4 meal-sized servings

All times are estimates. Cooking time for the pita varies from 7 to 10 minutes.

Ingredients

  • ½ small head romaine, torn
  • 1 bunch flat leaf parsley, chopped
  • 1 bunch mint, chopped
  • 2 cups mâche (lamb's lettuce)
  • 1 cup arugula
  • 6 red radishes, cut into thin half moons
  • 12 cherry tomatoes, cut into quarters
  • 6 Lebanese cucumbers, cut into chunky half moons (not peeled)
  • 1 red onion, cut into small strips
  • For the pita:
  • 1 large whole wheat pita
  • 3 teaspoons zataar
  • olive oil to lightly coat pita
  • For the dressing:
  • 2 lemons, juice only
  • ⅓ cup olive oil (or more, if lemons are large)
  • 1 heaping tablespoon sumac
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • salt to taste

Directions

  1. Attack alliums first! Peel onion very gently, then cut it into a few parts and let it sit for a half hour before cutting finely and adding to salad. Smash garlic, let it sit for at least 10 minutes, then mince just before adding it to dressing.
  2. Separate the pita through the center, into two circular halves. Coat the insides lightly with olive oil and sprinkle on zataar. Cut into long strips, then bake at 350 F for 7-10 minutes, until crisp.
  3. Combine salad ingredients, dressing ingredients, and toss salad with dressing. Add pita to dressed salad. Either break strips into chips and toss with dressed salad—or serve in long strips for dramatic flair.

Main photo: Garlic is one of the foods that the National Cancer Institute says can reduce the risk of several types of cancer.  Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller

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Those tan and brown matchsticks are wheat plants, trapped in ice sheets. Oh my, I thought, what are we going to eat next year? Credit: Rachel Lodder

One of my best food friends is white pastry wheat. White refers to the tint of the bran — wheats are either white or red. Pastry means a soft wheat, one with low levels of gluten-forming proteins. Those proteins are what help build the gluten matrix when using hard or bread wheats; soft wheats make tender cakes and quick breads. The pancakes I make from Farmer Ground Flour’s organic, stone ground whole wheat pastry flour are the definition of perfect in my family, the pancake of request for my 11-year-old’s birthday. The pancake that means pancake and home.

Farmer Ground Flour is a mill that stone grinds organically grown New York State grains. Grain farmer Thor Oechsner is part owner in the mill; he and his fields, and millers Greg Mol and Neal Johnston, are great help as I try to understand flour from field to griddle.

Golden wheat heads, a couple of weeks before harvest. Credit: Amy Halloran

Golden wheat heads, a couple of weeks before harvest. Credit: Amy Halloran

My favorite wheat gets planted in the fall. Fall crops go in the ground in September or October, early enough for the seeds to grow a few inches before winter. Fall planting helps seeds get a head start on weed seeds that sit in the ground. Spring can be pretty wet, and hard for farmers to get in the field, so that’s another advantage of this habit. Grains take to this system pretty well, since they are the edible seeds of certain grasses, and much like a lawn, these grass crops go dormant.

Snow cover helps protect the crop. A certain amount of winterkill is expected in fall planted crops, but this past winter, things looked pretty dicey. In New York’s Finger Lakes region, plenty of snowstorms hit but the snow melted quickly. In low spots, that melt turned to ponds.

Beyond this local hint of doom, there was some general anxiety in the wheat world about supply and prices. By March, stores of North American organic wheat had dwindled. The 2013 wheat crop was limited by continued drought in the arid Southern Plains; regional supplies in the Northeast were limited by a very wet season. Larger organic mills were turning to Argentina for bread wheat. This fact, plus political pressures in Eastern Europe, created worry about what this year could bring for harvest. Late freezes hitting the Plains States during greenup, the time when fall planted grains start to grow, fueled my wonder.

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Soft white pastry wheat in April. Credit: Amy Halloran

Mid-April, I took a drive to Ithaca, N.Y., to see how my future pancake flour was doing. Amazingly, some of the fields were greening up quite nicely. Sure, there were spots where the plants did not survive, but those tan tips that sat over iced snow were getting crowded by green growth. What a delight to see.

This is what the field looks like now, a couple of weeks before harvest: a field of wheat rows, as American as a box of cereal. Look at those green stalks peaking through the gold heads. Ah, breakfast.

Why did this field and other fields recover? Winterkill is also known as winter survival. Plants that had enough room bounced back from the harsh conditions and grew well. Another factor was the plants having strong enough roots to withstand the pressures of temperature changes from winter through spring.

This tiny rye plant just didn’t have enough roots to hang on to the ground as temperature swings pulled the dirt together into frozen clumps. It was frost heaved. Credit: Amy Halloran

This frost-heaved rye plant lacked the roots to survive. Credit: Amy Halloran

This tiny rye plant (pictured right) didn’t make it. It just didn’t have enough roots to hang on to the ground as temperature swings pulled the dirt together into frozen clumps. It was frost heaved.

Winter survival is tricky. Too little growth and the earth kicks out the plant. Too much, and the long green leaves attract mold, or other smothering problems. The malting barley crop in New York suffered a 50% loss due to winterkill, which is understandable, as growers are just figuring out how to make this crop work. The state’s 2013 Farm Brewery Law, which ties licensing for a certain kind of brewery to use of state agricultural products, such as grains, hops and honey, has caused a bit of barley fever.

A work in progress

Growing wheat and barley outside of the grain belts is a work in progress. Grain farming and processing, like malting, concentrated in the Midwest, Plains States and Northwest in the late 19th and early 20th century; this consolidation wiped out knowledge and infrastructure for how to grow grain crops in the Northeast. Farms grow grains for dairies, but cows eat differently than we do. And they do not drink spirits or beer.

Growing grains for malting, distilling and flour markets is more complicated than growing for animal feed. These specialty markets need different seed varieties and fertilization practices to hit certain performance markers, like protein levels. Growing food grade grain also requires more cleaning, and careful post harvest handling and storage. The learning curve is steep as people switch from commodity production to community enterprises.

I’m lucky to have a window on these grain ventures, and see people cooperate as they try to figure out what works. Right now, my pancake-flour-in-the-making looks good. The crop isn’t in the bin yet; there’s still time for weather to wreak havoc. But the farmers and researchers I’ve talked to are optimistic. Yields will be down, but there will be wheat.

Main photo: Those tan and brown matchsticks are wheat plants, trapped in ice sheets. Oh my, I thought, what are we going to eat next year? Credit: Rachel Lodder

 

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Spaghetti with Sun-Burst Tomatoes. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sun, Sea & Olives: Forty years ago, I took my young family to live in the hill country between Tuscany and Umbria, Italy. Our mountain neighbors were all self-sufficient farmers, raising almost their entire food supply themselves. They grew vegetables and beans, harvested chestnuts and mushrooms, raised pigs, chickens, rabbits and sometimes sheep. Only salt and pepper for curing pork, coffee and infrequently a piece of chocolate came from a shop in town, 20 kilometers (12 miles) away.

zester new

Of course they made wine — thin, sour stuff — and pressed their olives to make musty, fusty oil (pork fat was much more to their liking). And they grew their own wheat, threshed it and had it ground into flour for the unsalted bread that was then and still is today a Tuscan staple without which no meal is complete. Sometimes, in fact, bread was the meal, maybe with a thin slice of prosciutto or guanciale from the family pig or a dribble of rancid oil to add flavor.

So wheat was the primary crop, the survival mechanism on which everything else depended, and the annual harvest in July was a moment fraught with anxiety that erupted into celebration once the anxiety was relieved. Our valley had one threshing machine, and it went from farm to farm, each day fetching up in a different place, and the farm folk followed it. When it arrived at our neighbors’ farm, people descended for miles around to help with the hot, dirty, tiring work of the harvest and take part in the feast and dancing that followed.

I think about all this now because it is once again harvest time in the Mediterranean. The wheat harvest begins in North Africa in June, rolling north, across Anatolia, Italy, and Spain, as the tall stalks fall to the cutting blades. The landscape that was green a month earlier is bleached now with the color of ripening grain and then golden with the chaff left behind after the harvesters have come through. Our neighbors no longer grow their own wheat, but the harvest is still critical throughout Tuscany.

Durum wheat, the go-to choice for pasta

A lot of this wheat, especially in the hotter, drier parts to the south, is hard durum wheat (Triticum turgidum, var. durum), the venerable species used for so many traditional Mediterranean preparations, from bulgur (burghul) to tarhana to couscous to pasta. American cookbook writers used to claim durum semolina was difficult to work in the home, that you needed special heavy equipment to turn it into pasta. But in fact, throughout the south of Italy, especially in Puglia, hard durum wheat, as semola or semolina, is regularly used in home kitchens to make orecchiette and other traditional pastas. And the great breads of Altamura and Laterza get much of their character and their golden color from being made with locally grown durum wheat, using a slow-rising lievito madre (what we might call sourdough) and baked in a wood-fired oven.

Italian law requires all commercial pasta to be made from durum wheat, one reason why Italian pasta in general is of such high quality. The government is concerned with maintaining quality because Italians are world-champion pasta eaters — between 26 and 28 kilos (61.6 pounds) per capita annually depending on the study. And most of that is commercial or boxed pasta (called in Italian pasta secca).

A more useful distinction to keep in mind, however, is the one between industrial and artisanal pasta. The artisanal product is generally of much higher quality, and, like most artisanal things, costs more, a reflection of greater care in production. To qualify as artisanal, pasta must be made at consistently low temperatures (no higher than 122 degrees F) from start to finish, extruded through bronze dyes (producing a roughened surface) and dried slowly. Low temperatures keep the wheat from cooking, so it retains its pale color; the high temperatures and Teflon dyes of industrially produced pasta result in a golden yellow color and a sleek, plasticized surface.

Gragnano, a small city south of Naples, has been at least since the 18th century one of those places Italians cite for high-quality artisanal pasta. Why? Several historical reasons — access to excellent durum wheat through the port of Amalfi, just over the Lattari mountains on the Golfo di Salerno; clean, fresh water cascading from those same mountains to power the grist mills that ground the grain; and a constant flow of brisk breezes to dry the pasta, which once hung on rods in the streets of Gragnano until it was ready to ship to hungry Naples across the bay. Nowadays, Gragnano has a coveted Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) from the European Union, a certification that pasta with that seal has been made according to precise regulations.

 

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Threshed wheat. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Pastificio Faella is one of nine Gragnano producers that make IGT pasta. I spent some time recently in Gragnano with Pastificio Faella’s Sergio Cinque. As we toured the factory, Cinque described the various phases of drying and the importance of each one. “If it’s not done properly,” he said, “there’s a real risk of fermentation and that will result in pasta with an acid flavor.”

But it was the perfume of wheat that imbued the small factory with its warm, nutty, slightly dusty fragrance. To understand the high quality of artisanal pasta, Cinque suggested this test: Prepare equal quantities, say 100 grams, of ordinary commercial pasta and Pasta Faella. Bring two pots of water to a boil and add the pasta, one to each pot. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes and then measure.

You’ll find, he said, that the Faella pasta will expand notably in the water, while ordinary pasta will remain the same. That’s because under high-temperature drying, a crystallization — another word is plastification — takes place, and the pasta doesn’t absorb water at the same rate. What that means is that artisanal pasta is more easily digested and gives a greater sense of satiety with less of the actual food.

I left with a kilo package of Faella’s excellent spaghetti tucked under my arm. When I got home, I turned it into this pasta dish, a variation on one in my daughter Sara Jenkins’ lovely cookbook, “Olives and Oranges.”

Spaghetti With Sun-Burst Tomatoes

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 or 3 pints (1½ pounds to 2 pounds) mixed small tomatoes—cherry, grape and currant
  • Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • About 1 pound (500 grams) spaghetti, preferably IGT Gragnano
  • Handful of chopped fresh arugula, leaves only (discard tough stems)
  • ⅔ cup grated or shaved bottarga or freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions

  1. Bring 4 to 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil.
  2. While the water is heating, add the oil to a large, heavy skillet and set over medium-high heat. When the oil is very hot (but not smoking), add half the tomatoes, sprinkle them quickly with salt and cook, tossing the skillet, until the tomatoes start to wrinkle and collapse. Add the rest of the tomatoes and continue cooking and tossing for another 2 minutes. (Yes, some of the tomatoes will be more cooked than others—that’s the point.)
  3. Push the tomatoes to one side and add the garlic to the pan. As the garlic starts to soften, mix it in with the tomatoes, gently pressing the tomatoes to release some of their juices. When the sauce is thick, remove from the heat and add a pinch of salt and a few turns of the pepper mill. Keep the sauce warm until the pasta is done.
  4. Add a big spoonful of salt to the pasta water and let it come to the boil again, then plunge in the pasta and give it a stir with a long-handled spoon. Cover the pot until the water returns to the boil, then remove the lid and let the pasta cook vigorously until done—about 10 minutes.
  5. Prepare a warm serving bowl by adding some pasta water to the bowl to heat it up, but don’t forget to tip the water out before you add the pasta to the bowl.
  6. Drain the pasta, transfer to the warm bowl and immediately toss with the warm tomato sauce, stirring in the arugula. Toss again, then sprinkle with the bottarga or cheese and serve immediately.

Notes

If possible, select from an array of little grape and cherry tomatoes, mixing them up for a colorful presentation. We like to serve this with grated bottarga (salted and dried fish roe) on top, but you could also serve it with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Main photo: Spaghetti With Sun-Burst Tomatoes. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Balsamic cherry pie

Driving along shoulderless highways in northern Michigan, it’s hard to miss row after row of Montmorency cherry trees loaded with fruit waiting to be baked into pies or squeezed into a liquid elixir that scientists and doctors assign superfruit status.

With more than 2 million cherry trees, Michigan produces over 70% of the country’s tart cherry crop, and July is the start of the season for a fruit that has been credited with controlling cholesterol, lowering weight and boosting heart health. Not to mention being at the heart of a mean cherry pie.

The tart cherry’s superfruit status is due to its high levels of an antioxidant called anthocyanin, which is also responsible for the cherry’s intensely sour flavor and bright red color.

Tart cherries might well deserve a medal for their healthy attributes, but I’d much rather test their ability to satisfy my craving for the yin-yang balance of sweet and tart enveloped in one glorious double-crusted pie. That’s because tart cherries, not sweet, have always been the basis for the best cherry pie. Bakers can control the amount of sweetness with sugar and the tangy essence of tart cherries keeps the pie from becoming cloyingly sweet.

In a part of the country where any proper pie judge will tell you that cherry pies are not to be trifled with, I decided to go out on a limb and conducted a loosely structured pie contest of my own. In traditional measure, blue ribbons become a battle between best crust and most cherry-packed (but least gooey) filling, and awards only go to those that deliver both.

Ferreting out the best the region had to offer, I sampled options from The Cherry Hut, a 92-year old pie-making institution in the little town of Beulah (8 points for cherry-packed filling), to local behemoth Cherry Republic (9 points for crunchy, tender crust). Naturally, I couldn’t avoid including a few farm stand options in between. In the end, a roadside pie spiced with a bit of balsamic vinegar took the prize for my personal favorite. Cask-aged balsamic, which delivers its own magic blend of sweet and tart, was the perfect complement to the fruit and provided a deep base of flavor to the freshly harvested cherries.

But after all that pie, I was feeling a bit sleepy, and no wonder. Did I mention that tart cherries contain melatonin, a natural hormone that helps you sleep at night?

Cherry Balsamic Pie

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Yield: 12 servings

The winning farm stand pie inspired my interpretation of the classic Michigan cherry pie. I’ve blended a rich, cask-aged balsamic vinegar into the filling and added a bit of Fiori di Sicilia, a blend of floral, citrus and vanilla essences, to keep the flavors bright.

Ingredients

  • Pie dough, enough for two crusts, chilled
  • 3 pounds, pitted fresh or frozen (do not thaw) tart cherries
  • ⅓ cup Pie Enhancer (or 6 tablespoons flour)
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons cask-aged balsamic vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon Fiori de Sicilia extract (or vanilla extract)
  • Egg
  • Sparkling sugar

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Roll out enough dough for one crust and place in 9- to 10-inch deep dish pie plate, leaving a 2-inch overhang. Return to refrigerator while assembling filling to keep dough cold.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, toss to combine cherries, Pie Enhancer or flour, sugar, salt, balsamic vinegar and Fiori di Sicilia. Fill pie dish and return to refrigerator again while preparing top crust.
  3. Roll out remaining pie dough and trim into 1-inch slices. Weave for latticework and gently transfer over filling. Turn lower crust up and over edges of lattice and crimp with fingers or fork.
  4. Whisk egg with 2 tablespoons water and gently brush over top crust. Sprinkle with sparkling sugar.
  5. Place the pie on a baking sheet and bake for 1 hour to 1 hour 20 minutes, crust will be golden brown and fruit will be gently bubbling when done. Remove to rack to cool.

Notes

Not one to cling to tradition, when I find a new ingredient that is a big improvement over my old ways, I embrace it. Such is the case with King Arthur Flour’s Pie Enhancer, which I use to thicken fruit pies. A blend of superfine sugar, modified corn starch (aka Instant Clear Gel) and ascorbic acid, it sets the pie juices but avoids that gluey texture that flour sometimes imparts. But follow your own tradition and if flour works best for you, then substitute 5 tablespoons of flour for the Pie Enhancer and increase the amount of sugar in the filling for a total of ⅓ cup sugar.

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Megan Miller of Bitty Foods. Credit: Jonathan Snyder

Crickets, love ‘em or leave ‘em, are the soundtrack to our summer nights. Megan Miller, co-founder of Bitty Foods, sees them a bit differently.

“When I think of crickets, I think of the future of food,” she says. “Insects are in fact the most efficient form of protein on planet earth.” Miller spoke about the benefits of eating insects at TEDxManhattan, a one-day conference featuring leading innovators in the food movement. (See video of her talk below).

Insects are eaten in many cultures, but Miller is well aware that many people find the idea less than appetizing. Bitty Foods has taken steps to reduce the barriers its products might face by turning crickets into something more palatable.

AUTHOR


Pam WeiszPam Weisz is deputy director of Change Food,  a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.

“It might be difficult for a lot people to consider eating whole insects, but they become a lot more manageable when they’re in the format of cricket flour,” she said.

The flour is made from whole insects dried and milled into a fine powder. Bitty Foods sells the flour, which has been mixed with other ingredients that enable it to be substituted for baking flour, as well as cookies made from cricket flour. These are available in three flavors: chocolate chip, chocolate cardamom and orange ginger.

These products represent the beginning of what is envisioned as a complete line of goods, beyond just snacks. As Miller explains, the vision is to take foods “that are normally completely carb-based and boost them with protein so you end up getting a much more nutritious meal.”

“The basic premise is that we are trying to introduce people in the U.S. to edible insects with delicious foods with good design,” she said. “We have gotten a really great reception faster than we expected.”

Miller lists five of the many reasons why the idea of eating insects should be taken seriously by those concerned about their health and/or the environment:

  1. Cricket flour has 7 grams of protein per quarter-cup serving as well as healthy fats, vitamins and minerals. Bitty Foods’ cricket flour is also gluten-free.
  2. Insects can be grown with very little land and very little water. If you feed crickets 10 pounds of feed, they will produce 9 pounds of edible cricket protein. By contrast, it takes 10 pounds of feed to get 1 pound of beef.
  3. If eating insects becomes common, we could reclaim some of the 30% of the Earth’s land surface — one-third of the Earth — which is currently being used by the livestock industry to grow animals and the grains the animals eat.
  4. We could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 18% if insects become a part of the mainstream food supply.
  5. Having insects take the place of more resource-intensive sources of protein could lower the cost of food all around the world by about 33%. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has published a report  concluding that edible insects may be the key to stabilizing the global food supply.

 

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Chocolate chip with cricket flour. Credit: Jonathan Snyder

Miller notes that there are 2,000 species of insects that can be, and are, eaten by people. She chose crickets because they don’t carry any diseases that are transmissible to humans and they don’t destroy crops, so people don’t have negative connotations. “I think crickets have a very nice cultural association for Westerners, with the nice chirping and the summer nights,” Miller says.

Bitty Foods now sells its products through its website, www.bittyfoods.com. The company recently began working with a food distributor and hopes to be in stores within a few months, starting in its home market of the Bay Area and then expanding to New York City.

Miller, who began her career as a trend forecaster and consumer researcher before turning to edible insects, thinks that edible insects are on the cusp of becoming trendy.

“I see a powerful shift happening in the way that people think about food,” she said. “People are more interested in sustainability than ever before and understanding where their food comes from. And thanks to the Internet we’re constantly being exposed to new trends and new ideas and even new cuisines.”

As a result, she predicts, “There’s an emerging edible insect industry in the U.S. In the next decade, insects will move from being a crazy, edgy food to being a completely mainstream food for most people.”

Main photo: Megan Miller in her Bitty Foods kitchen. Credit: Courtesy of Bitty Foods

This story was written by Pam Weisz, deputy director of Change Food,  a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.

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