Articles in Cooking

Chef Massimo Spigaroli and his team show off their prized culatello. Credit: Copyright 2016 Antica Corte Pallavicina

There is prosciutto and then there is culatello.

Proscuitto is ubiquitous. It’s draped over melon or paired with figs or mozzarella in restaurants everywhere. You can buy imported Proscuitto di Parma at Whole Foods at $31 a pound for a bone-in leg or on Amazon for $15.

Massimo Bottura serves culatello. At Osteria Francescana, his Michelin three-star restaurant in Modena that topped the 50 Best Restaurants for 2016, it appears as an appetizer, paired with Campanine apples, mustard and crunchy “gnocco” bread.

And not just any culatello. Chef Bottura procures his culatello exclusively from Massimo Spigaroli’s Antica Corte Pallavicina, an inn and working farm one hour’s drive from Modena. You’ll find that same culatello at Alain Ducasse’s Sporting Club in Montecarlo and Bombana in Hong Kong. But nowhere in the United States. The closest you’ll get is Zibello fiocco (culatello salami) for $40 a pound.

Prosciutto versus culatello

Vertical Tasting of Spigaroli culatello at Antica Corte Pallavicina. Credit: Copyright 2016 John Pleshette

Vertical Tasting of Spigaroli culatello at Antica Corte Pallavicina. Credit: Copyright 2016 John Pleshette

Culatello (“little backside” in Italian) is the fillet of the pig’s hind leg from which prosciutto is cured. Both are salted and left to sit for two months, which draws out the blood and kills bacteria. The process predates the Romans, and except for the introduction of nitrites, which further inhibit bacterial growth, it hasn’t changed much since. Proscuitto is then hung in a cool place for anywhere from nine months to two years, while culatello is encased in a pig’s or cow’s bladder and hung for 18 to 27 months.

All proscuitti are not created equal. Only a dozen designations are protected by the EU and stamped PDO or PGI, which guarantees they come from a particular region and, more important, are cured only with sea salt and no nitrites. All are produced in northern Italy. They vary in taste and texture depending on the terroir and the pigs. San Daniele, with its dark color and sweet flavor, is from Fruili. Parma pigs are fed whey from Parmigiano Reggiano, lending Proscuitto di Parma a nuttier flavor.

Culatello is more high-maintenance. Spigaroli’s black pigs are kissing cousins to the acorn-fed pigs that give us Jamon Ibérico. It cures throughout the cold damp winters in the Po Valley just south of Cremona. The difference between prosciutto and culatello is subtle, but profound.

A tasting

Fourteenth century charm meets 21st century gastronomy at the dining room at Antica Corte Pallavicina, the inn and working farm on the River Po. Credit: Copyright 2016 Antica Corte Pallavicina

Fourteenth-century charm meets 21st-century gastronomy in the dining room at Antica Corte Pallavicina, the inn and working farm on the River Po. Credit: Copyright 2016 Antica Corte Pallavicina

In the sun-filled dining room at Antica Corte Pallavicina, Spigaroli’s prized culatello is presented for a tasting beneath three celadon cloches. Each conceals pink-mahogany curtains of culatello. The first two, from white pigs, are aged, respectively, 18 and 27 months. The familiar salty-sweetness of prosciutto gives way to a leathery richness. The older culatello is nuttier. The black pig culatello is smokier, with black cherry notes and a velvety texture. Between pigs, we cleanse our palates with hunks of crusty country bread and glasses of Trebbiano, served with pickled vegetables and fiocco, the chewy-soft salami made from the trimmings and the fat.

Antica Corte Pallavicina commands several acres close to the Po, encompassing Spigaroli’s restaurant, the hotel, a cooking school, a farm, a parmesan factory and culatello cellars. Al Cavallito Bianco, a more casual osteria, is run by Spigaroli’s brother Luciano. If you snag one of the six rooms, you can meet the pigs and tour the Parmigiano fattoria and culatello caves, which were built in 1320 by the marquesse di Pallavicina for precisely that purpose.

The Spigarolis’ great-grandfather went from a sharecropper at a nearby pintador belonging to Guiseppe Verdi to tenant farmer at Pallavicina. Their father was born there in 1916. But by 1990, when the sons purchased the property, it had fallen into ruins. The extensive restoration combines rustic charm with modern conveniences. The original, ox-sized fireplace dominates the dining room, where a wall of glass doors opens onto a trellised patio. A massive decommissioned steel stove functions as a serving station.

Going to the source

Spigaroli culatello ages in the cellars built in 1320 by the Marquesse di Pallavicina. Credit: Copyright 2016 John Pleshette

Spigaroli culatello ages in the cellars built in 1320 by the Marquesse di Pallavicina. Credit: Copyright 2016 John Pleshette

After consuming feather-light tortelli, stuffed with ricotta from Spigaroli cows and Spigaroli spinach — glistening with Spigaroli brown butter and showered with Spigaroli Parmigiano — we tour the caves, down a dungeon’s stairs to the dank cellar. The culatelli, white with mold, hang from the ceiling, encased in pigs’ bladders like ghostly chandeliers. Misty air wafts in from the Po. Such cellars are increasingly rare. The EU frowns on such conditions as potentially unsanitary. Because of that flavor-enhancing mold, the FDA forbids importing it to the United States. You’ll have to go to the source.

You’ll find yourself in food heaven. Emilia-Romana is Italy’s Burgundy; Bologna, its Lyon. You won’t find a better spaghetti carbonara than the one at Pizzeria delle Arte in Bologna, spiked with guanciale, creamy with Parmigiano and egg yolks the color of navel oranges. Massimo Bottura celebrates that same Reggiano in his Five Ages of Parmiagiano at Osteria Francescana.

Our last dinner, in Milan, we sit next to three Italian businessmen. “What brings you to Italy?” one wants to know.

“We came for the culatello.”

“Ah.” He smiles. He understands.

Main caption: Chef Massimo Spigaroli and his team show off their prized culatello. Credit: Copyright 2016 Antica Corte Pallavicina

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Caramelized onions make any burger better. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

At a time of year when most people are fixated on berries and peaches, corn and tomatoes, it’s also the season to get excited about onions — not just any old allium but a heritage sweet onion harvested by hand in Walla Walla, Washington.

Walla Walla Sweets are the unheralded heirloom stars of summertime. Juicy, mild and sweet, they are at their best in all of the great (and easy) meals of the season: grilled with sausages, caramelized for burgers, sliced raw for salads and more.

Fresh and delicate in terms of both flavor and handling, Walla Walla Sweets are in season right now — and with a very limited supply from a handful of family growers, they won’t last long.

Older than Vidalias

Long before Walla Walla became renowned as an American Viticultural Area, this valley in southeastern Washington was the agricultural hub for a surprisingly sweet onion brought to the region from Corsica by a French soldier named Pete Pieri. According to all accounts, Pieri immigrated to Walla Walla with the seed in the late 19th century and began cultivating it commercially in 1900.

Grower Michael Locati’s great-grandfather, Joe, worked for Pieri for four years before going out on his own in 1909. He joined other Italian immigrant families, mainly from Milan and Calabria, who settled in this valley to become small-scale produce farmers, cultivating a seasonal onion now known as the Walla Walla Sweet.

Four generations later, Michael — along with his father and uncle — grows these heirlooms on 60 acres of Locati Farms and co-owns a packing and shipping arm called Walla Walla River Packing Co. Despite these modernizations, this is the same specialty onion, hand-selected by the family for over a century.

That’s a fair bit longer than that other famous sweet onion, Vidalia, a hybrid cultivated in Georgia since the 1930s. The Walla Walla “still has that heirloom genome,” said Locati.

Onion botany

A field worker harvesting onions by hand. Credit: Copyright 2016 Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee

A field worker harvesting onions by hand. Credit: Copyright 2016 Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee

It’s natural to think that sugar content is what makes Walla Walla Sweets exceptional. Not so. Their mildness has to do with the fact that they contain about half the amount of pyruvic acid that gives yellow storage onions their bite and makes you cry.

“This geographical area is very low in natural sulfur,” Locati said. The sulfur content in the soil is a catalyst to the production of pyruvic acid, he explained. “So these naturally low sulfur soils allow for these onions to be really sweet.”

Walla Walla Sweets are planted in early fall. They overwinter in snow-covered fields, then sprout and additional onion starts are transplanted in the spring. By mid-June, harvest has begun and continues through late August.

“Onions are ready when the leaves start laying down,” said Dan McClure, who began growing organic Walla Walla Sweets in 2007 with his wife Sarah. The couple currently raises over 800 tons on 27 acres at Walla Walla Organics and plans to scale up production, although the labor is even more arduous than many other crops.

Why’s that?

“No mechanical process yet exists that won’t damage them,”  McClure said. Nearly as large as softballs and weighing up to two pounds, these globular onions are delicate, with thin skins and a high water content that make them prone to bruising.

So workers harvest them entirely by hand. Carefully packed into boxes, the onions are then cured just until the necks dry out and the outer layer of turns amber. Still, they have a short shelf life — a couple of weeks at most, according to McClure.

Endangered onions?

For a community once famous for this varietal, it’s a big blow that acreage has dropped within the past five or so years from 1,000 acres to about 500, according to Kathryn Fry-Trommald, executive director of the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee.

Compared to Vidalia’s 15,000 acres, this onion market is small potatoes. Urban sprawl (“there’s a Wal-mart now where there were onion fields,” said Fry-Trommald), consolidation in agriculture and labor pressures are all factors, as is the fact that many of those “old Italian families” are no longer in farming.

Another major threat is the competition from hybrid sweet onions — some mechanically harvested and higher in pyruvic acid — grown from Arizona to Texas. These are available year-round at much lower prices than Walla Walla Sweets.

In 1995, after discovering that other Washington-grown onions were being sold as counterfeit Walla Walla Sweets, the growers obtained a federal marketing order to protect this specialty onion, in the same way that heritage foods from Italy must be certified as locally grown and packaged.

For farmers like Locati and McClure, it’s hard to earn a living with a seasonal, fresh market onion. But they say the process of hand selection and hand harvesting is worth it for the allium’s singular qualities. There’s no sharp bite, and it has a complex flavor all its own marked by a startling sweetness.

While you don’t have to try Michael Locati’s method of tasting them raw in the field, this is a true “slicer” for using raw in salads and salsas or on burgers and sandwiches. You can grill, roast, sauté, or caramelize Walla Walla Sweets, too — just don’t wait.

Ways to cook and use sweet onions

Onions caramelizing in the pan. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

Onions caramelizing in the pan. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

Grill: Use a grill basket to cook large sliced or chopped onions on a hot grill until nicely charred. Toss and continue grilling until softened and translucent. Alternatively, grill thick onion slices on a well-scraped grill grate until grill marks appear; flip and cook the other side until soft and translucent. Toss onions with sliced and grilled zucchini, portabello mushrooms and red peppers seasoned with salt and pepper, a splash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar for a side dish with grilled steaks, chicken, pork chops or fish.

Roast: Place trimmed and peeled whole onions into a greased roasting pan. Rub well with olive oil and season with salt, pepper and fresh thyme. Roast at 425 F until brown and fork tender, about 1 hour, and serve with roast pork or beef.

Sauté: Slice peeled onions thinly. Heat a sauté pan over high heat with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add the onions and season with a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring, until they soften and begin to brown. Add 1 bunch fresh, washed spinach or chard, another pinch of salt and ground pepper. Cover and let steam until the greens are wilted. Remove the cover, stir well and serve as a side dish with grilled meats or fish.

Caramelize: Slice peeled onions thinly. Heat a sauté pan over medium-high heat with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add the onions and cook, stirring, until they soften. Add a large pinch of salt, reduce the heat to low and continue cooking, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan every 15 minutes until the onions turn very soft, like jam, and the color of brown sugar, about 1 hour. Serve on hamburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches or pizza.

Main photo: Caramelized onions make any burger better. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

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Grilled chicken and vegetables over rice. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

As the calendar starts to reach the other side of July, we are well into grilling season, enjoying the smoke and fire of the grill on longer relaxed evenings. Vegetables, red meat and seafood all work well with the sensuous kiss of fire, but when it comes to grilling, chicken is my personal workhorse.

I find chicken a way to showcase many flavors. A good, healthy marinade is all it needs to make it the star of the season. Add to it your favorite assortment of market veggies and you are in business.

To keep your chicken dishes interesting, you’ll need some serious flavor options up your sleeve. Keep in mind, though, that you do not necessarily need to restrict your options to chicken breasts. You can also try drumsticks, wings or even boneless, skinless chicken thighs.

Marinating at least four hours will ensure a well-seasoned piece of chicken that is perfect over a salad or with your favorite grain, and the leftovers can be added to a simple green salad.

Here are a dozen seasoning ideas and three recipes to get you started on a mix-and-match journey. These ideas fall into three basic categories: sweet and savory; yogurt-based; and olive oil, garlic and seasonal herbs. For vegetarians, these seasoning ideas and recipes will also work well with your favorite fleshy vegetable — think eggplant– or even tofu, so you can also enjoy the fire and smoke of the summer season.

A touch of sweetness

  • Sriracha, Mustard and Maple Chicken Kebabs: Sweet and spicy flavors come together in this dish. See recipe below.
  • Chutney Spiced Marinade: Combine 1 cup of your favorite chutney (such as tomato or tamarind) with 1 tablespoon of freshly grated ginger, 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper and 1/2 cup chopped mint or cilantro. Blend to a smooth paste and use as a marinade for up to 2 pounds of chicken.
  • Apricot Sage Marinade: Combine 3 tablespoons apricot preserves, 2 cloves garlic, 1/4 cup olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 or 2 jalapeños to taste and 1/4 cup chopped oregano. Blend into a puree and use as a marinade for up to 2 pounds of chicken.
  • Maple-Red Pepper Marinade: Combine 1/4 cup maple syrup, 1 1/2 tablespoons red pepper flakes, salt to taste and 1/3 cup olive oil. This will marinate up to 2 pounds of chicken and would also work well for shrimp or tofu.
  • Soy, Ginger and Brown Sugar: Blend 3 tablespoons grated ginger, 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1/4 cup brown sugar, 1 tablespoon sesame oil and 1/3 cup olive oil to make a flavorful marinade. You can also use this as a basting sauce if you do not have time to marinade the chicken.

Yogurt-based marinades

  • Chicken Tikka Kebabs: Make a double batch to use in a salad. See  recipe below.
  • Garam Masala Marinade: Combine 3/4 cup Greek yogurt, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger, 1 1/2 tablespoons garam masala and 1 tablespoon sugar and salt to taste for up to 2 pounds of chicken.
  • Mint and Cumin Marinade: Combine 3/4 cup plain yogurt, 1 cup mint leaves, 2 cloves garlic, 1 tablespoon powdered cumin, 1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric, 1 teaspoon red cayenne pepper and salt to taste. Marinate up to 2 pounds of chicken for at least two hours.
  • Ginger and Smoked Paprika:  Combine 1/2 cup yogurt, 1 tablespoon paprika, 1 tablespoon ginger and 1 teaspoon pink salt. Marinate 6 to 8 drumsticks for at least three to four hours.
  • Malai Kebabs: Combine 1/4 cup sour cream, 1 tablespoon garam masala and 1/4 cup cashews and toss with chicken. Serve with freshly chopped mint.

Oil-based marinades

When in a hurry, seasonal herbs and olive oil combine for tasty marinades. Here are a few favorites.

  • Ginger and Lemongrass: For a touch of Thailand, whisk together 1/3 cup of extra virgin olive oil, 1 tablespoon lemongrass paste, 2 tablespoons fish sauce, 1 tablespoon brown sauce and 3/4 cup of chopped Thai or regular basil. You can also add 2 tablespoons sriracha and 1/4 cup coconut milk depending on your tastes.
  • Mint and Black Pepper: Blend together 1/3 cup of extra virgin olive oil, 1 cup of mint chutney and 1 1/2 tablespoons black pepper and salt to taste.
  • Mock Tandoori: This dairy-free version marinade is great if you want the flavors of tandoori without the yogurt. Combine 1/4 cup olive oil, 2 tablespoons garam masala powder, 1 tablespoon ginger paste, 1 tablespoon powdered cumin, 1 tablespoon powdered coriander and salt to taste.
  • Herbs of Valhalla: This marinade highlights the profusion of summer herbs. Combine 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil; 1 serrano pepper, stem removed (and seeded if you prefer a milder flavor); 2 cloves garlic; and 2 cups mixed herbs, such as chives, cilantro, basil and mint and blend into a paste.
  • Lemon Herb Chicken Kebabs: Combining lemon juice, olive oil and a few basic spices is all you need to create a flavorful meal of chicken and squash. See recipe below.

Sriracha, Mustard and Maple Chicken Kebabs

Sriracha, Mustard and Maple Chicken Kebabs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

Sriracha, Mustard and Maple Chicken Kebabs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cook time: 15 to 20 minutes

Total time: 45 to 50 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

1/3 cup sriracha

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger

2 tablespoons maple syrup

1 teaspoon salt

2 pounds chicken, cut into 2-inch pieces

1 nectarine, stoned and cut into eighths

1 medium red onion, cut into eighths and separated

2 tablespoons olive or mustard oil

1 teaspoon nigella seeds

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

Directions

1. Mix together the sriracha, mustard, ginger, maple syrup and salt and toss the chicken into the mixture. Let it rest for 30 minutes.

2. Skewer the chicken with the nectarine and red onion.

3. Brush well with the oil and grill for about 12 to 15 minutes, turning frequently.

4. Remove from the grill. Sprinkle with the nigella seeds and cilantro.

5. Serve with rice or warm pita.

Lemon Herb Chicken Kebabs

Lemon Herb Chicken Kebabs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

Lemon Herb Chicken Kebabs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 1 to 2 hours (plus  time to marinate)

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 1/2 hours to 2 1/2 hours

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

1 1/2 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken thighs

4 tablespoons minced garlic

1 tablespoon freshly ground cumin

1/2 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon red cayenne pepper

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 to 3 tablespoons lemon juice

Salt to taste (about 1 1/2 teaspoons)

3 to 4 zucchini, cut into 1/3-inch (1-centimeter) slices

1 tablespoon finely chopped oregano, plus more for garnish

1 tablespoon finely chopped thyme, plus more for garnish

Lime or lemon wedges to garnish

Directions

1. Cut the chicken in 1 1/2 -inch chunks and place in a mixing bowl.

2. Add in the garlic, cumin, black pepper, red pepper and olive oil.

3. Stir in the lemon juice and salt and toss well to coat and mix the ingredients.

4. Stir in the zucchini and the oregano and the thyme and set the mixture aside for 1 or 2 hours at room temperature (up to 65 degrees) or refrigerate longer or overnight.

5. When you are ready to cook, remove the chicken from the refrigerator and thread onto skewers.

6. Prepare a grill and place the skewers on the grill and cook for about 15 minutes, turning the skewers every 4 to 6 minutes, allowing the chicken to turn crisp at spots and cook through. The zucchini will also soften and turn darker at spots. Baste and brush the chicken with olive oil while cooking.

7. Remove the skewers from the grill. To serve, remove the chicken and zucchini from the skewers, garnish with additional herbs if desired and serve with the lime or lemon wedges.

Chicken Tikka Kebabs

Chicken Tikka Kebabs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

Chicken Tikka Kebabs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

You can watch a  video for preparing this recipe.

Prep time: 4 to 6 hours, including marinating time

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: About 6 hours

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

1 cup low-fat yogurt

1-inch piece ginger

3 cloves garlic

2 to 3 green chilies

1 tomato (optional)

1 teaspoon dried fenugreek leaves (kasuri methi) (optional)

4 tablespoons tandoori masala

2 teaspoons salt

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces

Cooking oil or spray

1 medium sized red onion, sliced

For garnish:

Sumac

Lemon or lime wedges

Directions

1. Place the yogurt, ginger, garlic, chilies, tomato, fenugreek, tandoori masala and salt in a blender and grind into a paste.

2. Mix the paste with the chicken and set aside at least two to three hours but optimally four to six hours.

3. Skewer the chicken onto bamboo skewers.

4. Place a grill pan on the stove (this is what I use on weeknights, a regular grill or broiling works well as well) and spray evenly with  cooking spray.

5. Place the chicken on the grill pan and cook 7 to 8 minutes and turn. (The chicken should have golden brown spots across the chicken.)

6. Cook another 5 to 7 minutes.

7. Add the sliced onion to the grill pan and toss for 2 to 3 minutes until they are slightly sautéed.

8. Sprinkle with sumac and serve with lemon or lime wedges.

Main photo: Grilled chicken and vegetables over rice. Credit: Copyright 2016 Rinku Bhattacharya

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Yucca flower gratin. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

With its widely recognizable dagger-sharp leaves, the yucca plant (Yucca spp.), offers up a particularly tasty food in its flower petals. Yucca, not to be confused with yuca (Manihot esculenta), is native to arid regions of the Americas, and is popular as a water-wise ornamental plant elsewhere.

In traditional dishes, yucca flowers often appear paired with eggs. The flavor of yucca flowers is akin to artichoke, which makes them an interesting springboard for cooking. In an attempt to re-create the flavors of stuffed artichoke, I’ve found it worthwhile to serve yucca flowers as a gratin topped with a crunchy layer of seasoned bread crumbs.

When harvesting yucca flowers, select ones that are newly opened and appear unblemished. Pass over any flowers that are wilted or appear to have been taken over by insects. Foraging wild foods is not unlike selecting produce at the market in that you look for foods that are in good condition. You can pick more than one yucca flower per plant, as it won’t cause significant damage. Yucca is a sturdy plant with a large taproot. Keep in mind, however, that certain animals feed on yucca flowers, and they are a habitat for yucca moths. I like to shake each flower after I’ve plucked it to free any moths that might be inside.

Yucca flowers can cause throat irritation in some people if eaten raw, so it’s likely best to use them in cooked preparations, particularly if you are new to the plant as a food. Traditionally, yucca petals are removed from their reproductive parts. To prepare yucca flowers for cooking, simply strip the petals from the pistil and stamen.

For a girl growing up in a hot stretch of the prairie in the Western United States, yucca plants were always a part of the tableau. As a kid, I learned early on to play carefully when there were yucca and cacti around, so as not to get hurt. It wasn’t until I was an adult and began foraging in earnest that I discovered those plants that were as familiar to me as the backs of my hands were also edible.

Yucca flowers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Yucca flowers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

I’ve been working with my own local yucca, Yucca glauca, also known as Great Plains yucca, for many years, especially enjoying the flowers. Unlike some species of yucca, Great Plains yucca develops nonfragrant flowers, the petals of which are quite waxy in texture when raw. I’ve enjoyed the flowers of yucca in more traditional preparations with eggs, as well as in soups and stir-fries. Until recently, my favorite way to prepare yucca flowers has been to steam the petals, and then preserve them as one would an oil pickle like artichoke hearts.

This year, while reading an older cookbook about Mexican herbs, I caught sight of one short sentence that instructed to add a spoonful of flour to steamed yucca flowers, and pan-cook the mixture as patties. I tried this method and was slightly off-put by the glueyness created by the flour. However, the flavor of the yucca in flour, particularly where it had browned, was undeniably good.

The next day, I took the recipe in a slightly different direction. I seasoned steamed yucca petals well with salt, pepper and onion powder. Then, instead of adding flour and attempting to make cakes, I added dried bread crumbs, and put the crumble into a hot pan coated with some oil. Once browned, the yucca and bread crumb mixture was easily the best yucca preparation I’d tasted. The flowers were still succulent and sweet, and their slight bitterness was enhanced by extra savory flavors added through the golden bread crumbs. This preparation of yucca flowers can be used in a number of ways. It’s good enough to stand alone as a side dish, and it makes an excellent pasta topping. My favorite way to use yucca flowers sautéed with bread crumbs is to make quesadillas with queso Oaxaca.

I’ve also used the crunchy bread crumb and yucca combo successfully in a dish that comes as close as I can to turning yucca into stuffed artichoke — yucca flower gratin. You can always tell I’ve been binge-watching Jacques Pepin when I have the urge to stuff all of my wild edible plants into a gratin. Nobody at my table complains, however, because gratins are both classic and a tastebud-friendly way to serve foraged produce.

Yucca Flower Gratin

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

6 cups yucca petals

1 1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs

1 shallot, minced

1/2 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese

3 teaspoons chopped fresh herbs such thyme, parsley and chives

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Directions

1. Begin by steaming the yucca petals just until they turn translucent and pale green, 1 to 2 minutes. Let them cool to room temperature.

2. In a bowl, combine the bread crumbs, cheese, herbs, garlic powder, salt and a little freshly ground black pepper using a fork. Add 2 tablespoons of oil and continue stirring the mixture until the all of the bread crumbs appear to have been coated with the oil.

3. Heat a skillet over medium. Add the remaining tablespoon of oil. Sauté the minced shallot for 1 minute, then add the steamed yucca petals and a sprinkling of salt.

4. Add a large handful of the seasoned bread crumbs to the yucca petals, about 3/4 cup, and continue cooking the yucca, stirring frequently and scraping up stuck bits as needed, until they take on a deep medium brown color. Because the yucca is already cooked, you are simply looking to add a layer of flavor through the browning achieved by the Maillard reaction.

5. Remove the yucca from the heat. Evenly divide the browned yucca between four lightly greased 8-ounce ramekins.  Top each ramekin full of yucca with what remains of the seasoned bread crumbs.

6. Place the ramekins under the broiler of an oven just until the bread crumbs turn an irresistible shade of brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes before serving.

Main photo: Yucca flower gratin. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

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Combine sparkling water with fruits to make your own natural fruit drinks. Credit: Courtesy of Galvanina

Bottled-at-the-source mineral water is delightfully refreshing, and with no calories or chemicals, is a drink that’s good for you and a base for many make-your-own sparkling beverages. It’s also ideal for cooking, with countless ways to improve basic recipes.

Vegetables

Add some sparkling water to make this cauliflower with orange marmalade glaze. Credit: Courtesy of "Shakespeare's Kitchen"

Add some sparkling water to make this cauliflower with orange marmalade glaze. Credit: Courtesy of “Shakespeare’s Kitchen”

For bright green broccoli and vividly orange carrots, cook them in sparkling mineral water. “Boil vegetables in sparkling water to preserve color and vitamins. Mineral water decreases oxidation and the loss of chlorophyll and carotenoid pigments, and keeps vegetable’s bright colors,” says Rino Mini, CEO of Galvanina natural spring water, renowned since ancient Roman times. “Sparkling mineral water also softens vegetables so you can reduce cooking time, better preserving the vegetable’s vitamins and nutrients. It lets you skip the step of plunging cooked vegetables in ice-cold water to retain their color.”

Tempura and fritters

Use sparkling water for better batter. Simply mix flour with sparkling water, dip your favorite vegetables, seafood or fish in the batter and then lightly fry. The sparkling water will make anything you fry extra crunchy.

Sparkling iced drinks

Instead of buying sodas, make your own. Sparkling water creates festive thirst-quenchers but without the added calories of bottled drinks. Combine sparkling water with lemon or other fruit juice for your own homemade natural fruit drinks.  Add it to your favorite brewed tea or coffee for natural sparkling iced tea or coffee. “Use sparkling water in your coffee-brewing machine. Not only will it make chemical-free espresso or coffee but it has the delightful added advantage of keeping your machine from building unpleasant residue,” says Mini.

Cake, waffles, crepes and pancakes

Add sparkling mineral water instead of water or other liquids in cake recipes or cake mixes. The sparkling water makes it rise nicely and results in a fluffier texture. Great too with waffles: substitute one part of the milk for the water and follow the recipe as you normally would. Try it in your favorite crepe and pancake recipes. Replace half of the milk in the recipe for fizzy spring water for a improved texture. You’ll be thrilled with the delicious light and airy crunch.

Angel Food Cake

Add sparkling water to cake recipes for a fluffier texture. Credit: Courtesy "Opera Lover’s Cookbook"

Add sparkling water to cake recipes for a fluffier texture. Credit: Courtesy of “Opera Lover’s Cookbook “

Recipe courtesy of Opera Lover’s Cookbook (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Prep time: 5 minutes

Baking time: 35 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients

12 large egg whites, room temperature

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup sparkling spring water, such as Galvanina

1 teaspoon vanilla or maple extract

2 teaspoons cream of tartar

1 cup cake flour

3/4 cup superfine sugar

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Generously butter and flour a Bundt or tube pan. Reserve.

2. In a large mixing bowl, using an electric mixer set on high, whip the egg whites, salt, water, extract and cream of tartar until the egg whites form soft peaks, about 5 minutes. Reduce the mixer speed to medium and slowly add the cake flour and sugar until just combined.

3. Pour the batter into the prepared Bundt pan and bake until golden, about 35 minutes.

4. Carefully invert the pan onto a wire rack and allow it to cool upside-down for about an hour, which prevents the cake from falling. Run a knife around the edges to remove the cake.

Main photo: Combine sparkling water with fruits to make your own natural fruit drinks. Credit: Courtesy of Galvanina

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Grilled fish with oregano, chile and olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

The summer grill party is one of the most beloved of summer gastronomic experiences. On the Fourth of July we fire up the grill, people gather round impatiently, and on go the hamburgers, the hot dogs, the pork spareribs, the chicken breasts, the steaks. But why not take your grilling game up a notch this year?

Taking on a challenge can mean grilling something you don’t usually try, working with a theme, or grilling something big that needs attention and then to be carved, such as a whole half turkey breast on the bone with its skin. There’s an amazing taste if you’ve never tried. It comes off the grill and you slice it like a big ham. One could go the non-simple direction, such as stuffed roll-ups of veal scallopini or spit-roasted meat.

For a themed meal, grill something from a particular cuisine, or paired foods, or something historical, or foods of the same color or cut, or mixed grills. In the recipes below the theme is three kinds of fish steaks and three kinds of fresh herbs. Choose three kinds of firm fleshed fish steak and pair them with a fresh herb for grilling. Here are three that work.

Grilled swordfish with fresh orange juice and fresh thyme

Grilled swordfish in fresh orange juice and thyme. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Grilled swordfish in fresh orange juice and thyme. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

This preparation is inspired by the way they would cook swordfish in Sicily. Swordfish is very popular in Sicily as they are found in the Straits of Messina and elsewhere around Sicily. The firm flesh of swordfish is perfect for grilling.

Prep and cooking time: 1 1/4 hours

Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Juice of 2 oranges

1 bay leaf, crumbled

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

Two 5-ounce swordfish steaks, 3/4 inch thick

3 tablespoons fresh thyme and thyme sprigs for garnish

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Prepare a hot charcoal fire or preheat a gas grill on high for 20 minutes.

2. In a ceramic or glass baking pan, swish the olive oil, orange juice, bay leaf, and garlic until mixed. Place the swordfish steaks in the marinade and coat with the thyme and salt and pepper and leave for 1 to 2 hours.

3. Grill the swordfish on the hottest part of the grill and grill until almost springy to the touch, 6 to 8 minutes in all, basting with the leftover marinade and turning carefully only once. Remove from the grill and serve.

Grilled fish with oregano, chile and olive oil

If there is one thing I miss since I moved to California, it’s bluefish, which we can’t get here. Bluefish is a dark-fleshed Atlantic fish when raw that is excellent grilled over a hot fire for a few minutes. When the “blues are running” as they say in New England or Long Island, grills come out and people make all kinds of things with bluefish: bluefish balls, bluefish fritters, bluefish pate, bluefish grill. If you’re elsewhere in the country, then you’ll want to use mackerel, bonito, yellowtail, mahimahi, or angelshark. Note in the recipe that you are using fillets, not steaks, and the fillet needs its skin on.

Prep and cooking time: 25 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

3 garlic cloves, mashed to a paste in a mortar

4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh oregano leaves

1 dried red chile, crumbled

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 1/2 pounds bluefish or bonito fillets (about 3/4 inch thick)

Directions

1. Prepare a hot charcoal fire or preheat the gas grill on high for 15 minutes.

2. Lightly brush the grill with some olive oil. Stir together the remaining olive oil, garlic, oregano, chile, salt and pepper. Coat the bluefish with this mixture and lay skin side down on the grill.

3. Grill for 5 to 6 minutes while basting occasionally. Carefully flip the fish with a spatula and grill another 5 to 6 minutes, basting some more. Remove to a platter and serve.

Grilled salmon with tomato relish and mint

Grilled salmon with tomato relish and mint. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Grilled salmon with tomato relish and mint. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

The grilled salmon gets a treatment of salsa cruda, a raw sauce made of tomato, garlic and mint that can be made quickly in a food processor, which whips it into a froth very quickly. Serve the sauce on the side or spooned on top of the salmon.

Prep and cooking time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

6 ripe plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and drained of water

1/2 cup loosely-packed fresh mint leaves

2 garlic cloves

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 1/2 pounds salmon fillet, in 4 pieces

Directions

1. Preheat a gas grill on high for 20 minutes or preheat a broiler or prepare a charcoal fire.

2. Place the tomatoes, mint leaves, garlic, and olive oil in the food processor and run until the salsa is frothy, 30 to 45 seconds. Season with salt and pepper and stir.

3. Season the salmon with oil, salt, and pepper on both sides and place skin side down on the grill. After 4 to 5 minutes, flip with a spatula and grill for another 3 to 5 minutes depending on the thickness of the fish. Serve immediately with the salsa.

Main photo: Grilled fish with oregano, chile and olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

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Grilling the perfect bird. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

It’s hot, you’re busy and company’s coming for dinner. Nothing’s easier than tossing some chicken on the grill. Am I right?

Not at all! Think about it: When was the last time you had a properly cooked piece of chicken from somebody’s backyard grill?

“Never” is my guess — even from your own. Don’t take it personally. The fact is that hardly anybody knows how to grill chicken that isn’t coal-blackened or outright charred in some places or practically raw in others.

The trouble is the chicken. While it’s a favorite choice for grilling, especially in summer, the how-tos are not obvious. Chicken is nothing like burgers or hot dogs, pork chops or rib steaks; it’s tricky to deal with the fat under the skin that drips onto the fire and causes flare-ups. What makes matters worse is marinade, which causes the grill to smoke heavily, turning your chicken gray instead of enticingly browned.

On top of that, it’s tough to determine when chicken is done all the way through; it always seems to take longer than it should. So you pull it off too soon and end up with (gulp) pink, undercooked chicken.

So who am I to give advice? Well, I wrote a cookbook all about cooking every cut of grass-fed beef, and now I’m tackling poultry. Listen, I’ve had my own share of chicken troubles in the past. The worst was when I served underdone chicken to a Muslim exchange student who told me that it was against his religion to eat it. That low point kicked off a self-improvement project: learning the techniques for grilling chicken right.

Top 5 grilling tips

Crispy, juicy grilled chicken with pesto. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

Crispy, juicy grilled chicken with pesto. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

1. Use bone-in, skin-on chicken pieces. Grilling experts highly recommend thighs, and I agree that they are the moistest, but legs, breasts and wings also benefit when the bones and skin are left intact, as they help to insulate the meat from overcooking — and they make it taste much better. (However, if you’re committed to boneless, skinless chicken breasts, the techniques you practice with the remaining tips will help you master those, too, with practice.) Pasture-raised chickens, especially those from heritage breeds, are not only tastier but also more sustainable than factory-farmed birds, so seek them out in your area at the farmers market or local grocer.

2. Season the chicken well with salt and save the marinades for after cooking. Most people make their first mistake before they even fire up the grill: They don’t season the chicken enough. With your best-quality kosher or sea salt, sprinkle all sides of the chicken pieces as if you’re dusting them finely with confectioner’s sugar. Everyone loves marinated chicken, but submerging your chicken in any sauce — even barbecue sauce — will bring you more cooking complications, not more flavor.

3. Preheat your grill to medium-high heat and control those flames. Unlike other foods that respond well to intense heat, chicken calls for moderate or medium-high heat (between 350 F and 400 F). Whether using a charcoal or gas grill, test the heat patterns by placing your open palm about 5 inches above the grate. If you can hold it there for 5 seconds, you’re in range. Also note where the heat is less intense. In the event of a flare-up, immediately move the chicken to these cooler parts of the grill to prevent charring.

4. Brown chicken pieces skin side down for longer than you think you should. Always cook the chicken skin side down first and plan to leave it there until it is nearly all the way cooked. Why? You’ll end up with crispy and beautifully browned skin (remember, it insulates the meat), plus the chicken will be cooked evenly to the bone. In general, it takes at least 30 minutes to cook bone-in chicken at this temperature, so aim for cooking it skin side down for three-quarters of the total cooking time — 20 to 25 minutes — before flipping and finishing it on the second side.

5. Use your grill like an oven. After laying the chicken pieces on the grate, put on the lid. Now your grill will radiate the heat above as well as below, which is exactly what chicken needs to get cooked all the way through. The lid also controls air flow and keeps the flames on a charcoal grill from getting out of hand. Dripping fat will likely incite flare-ups, so monitor the cooking and move the chicken away from flames to those cooler areas of the grill whenever necessary. If you’re at all uncertain that the chicken is done, insert the tip of an instant-read thermometer close to the bone or just cut into the center for a visual check.

Foolproof finishing strategies

Once your chicken is seasoned and fully cooked to an enticing golden brown, let it rest near the heat for 15 minutes or so. Grilled chicken doesn’t need much embellishment, although cilantro pesto, peach chutney or avocado salsa — or any other fresh and tangy sauce — will liven it up.

But what about those pesky marinades? Think wings, which are first deep-fried and then tossed with sauce. The same principle applies to grilled chicken: Cook it well first, then brush or toss it with any homemade or bottled marinade or sauce. Let it warm-marinate until ready to serve or put it back on the grill for a few minutes to marry the sauce to the chicken as it reheats.

Now you’re the expert.

Main photo: Grilling the perfect bird. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

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Corn-Lobster Congee topped with chopped tomatoes and sliced scallions. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

For many people the arrival of vine-ripened tomatoes marks the beginning of summer. But for me, it’s the mounds of corn at our farmers market. With countless ways to enjoy corn, one of the most delicious is to use corn kernels in an Asian-style congee or rice porridge.

Certainly the easiest way to enjoy corn is to strip off the husks and place the cobs into boiling water or onto a blazingly hot grill. Featured center stage, a bowl of freshly cooked corn on the cob is wonderful. But corn is also an able supporting player when the kernels are cut off the cob and added to salads, soups, stews and pasta.

Congee, the best kept secret of the Asian kitchen

A meal in itself, congee is Asian comfort food. Putting good use to leftover rice, the most basic congee is a stew of boiled rice. Many cuisines have made the dish their own by layering in flavor with combinations of stocks, fragrant oils, fresh and dried herbs, spices, vegetables, meat, poultry and seafood.

Congee comes in many consistencies. Some feature the broth as much as the rice. Other versions have very little liquid and the congee has a consistency similar to porridge.

Any rice varietal will work nicely to make congee. Short grain, long grain, white or brown rice, it doesn’t matter. When the cooked rice is added to a liquid over heat, the starches thicken to create a sauce. Water can be used as the liquid, but a home-made stock adds much more flavor.

My congee borrows the general technique but is not an attempt to create an authentic dish as prepared in the Philippines, China, South Korea, Thailand, Japan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia or Vietnam.

Because the starting point for congee is so flavor neutral, a variety of vegetables, seasonings and stocks can be added. A fine dice of carrots, green beans or broccoli works well, as does a shredding of kale, spinach or sorrel. Instead of olive oil, use sesame or truffle oil. Add aromatics such as raw garlic, fried garlic chips, turmeric, cilantro, cumin, saffron, pimentón or oregano. Homemade broth brings another level of flavor. You can use a dominating liquid like beef stock flavored with anise or take a more delicate approach using shrimp stock with a saffron infusion.

As an ingredient in congee, corn is an ideal companion because the firm sweet kernels contrast well with the creaminess of the boiled rice.

Corn-Lobster Congee

Corn-Lobster Congee in stock pot with corn kernels, lobster meat, chopped tomatoes and sliced scallions. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Corn-Lobster Congee in stock pot with corn kernels, lobster meat, chopped tomatoes and sliced scallions. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

If lobster is not available, another protein can be used. Cooked or raw fish, crab meat or shrimp can be substituted for lobster. Or, shredded roast chicken or roast pork will pair nicely with the corn. A vegetarian version is easy to make by using homemade vegetable stock and fresh farmers market vegetables and herbs.

Cooking a lobster is probably easier than you might think. Bring 3 inches of water to boil in a large pot. Hold the lobster’s head submerged in the boiling water. Cover the pot with a lid. Cook five minutes. Remove the lid, submerge the part of the lobster that is not yet red. Cover. Cook another three minutes. Transfer the lobster to the sink. Reserve the water in the large pot.

When the lobster is cool to the touch, hold it over a large bowl. Remove the legs, claws and tail, reserving any liquid to add to the stock. Discard only the dark colored egg sack. The green tomalley is a delicacy and should be saved to be eaten warm on toast.

Removing the meat from the tail is relatively easy. Use kitchen shears to cut the shell underneath lengthwise and across the top of the tail. The meat will come out without effort. Cracking open the claws takes a bit more work and sometimes requires the use of a hammer. The body meat is especially sweet and requires the use of a pointed stick to separate the meat from the cartilage.

Some of the meat will be cooked. Some will be raw. Both can be used in the recipe.

Place all the shells into the pot with the cooking water and simmer covered thirty minutes. Strain out the shells and reserve the lobster stock.

Refrigerate the lobster meat and stock until needed. The preperation of the lobster can be accomplished a day ahead. If all that sounds like too much effort, use the other proteins mentioned above.

Homemade stock is preferable to canned, boxed or frozen stocks, which are often overly salted and can have a stale taste. Homemade chicken stock is a good substitute if other stocks are not available.

Because rice varietals absorb liquid at differing rates, have enough stock on hand. Adjust the amount of stock as you cook until you have the consistency you enjoy. If you want your congee to have more soup, use six cups of stock. If you would prefer less soup, use four cups. Taste and adjust the seasonings as well.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

3 ears corn, husks and tassels removed, washed, kernels cut off the cobs

1 medium yellow onion, washed, root end, top and outer skin removed, roughly chopped

4 large scallions, washed, root end and discolored leaves removed

4 to 6 cups homemade stock, lobster stock if available or use chicken stock or water

4 cups cooked rice

3 cups cooked or raw lobster meat (approximately two 2-pound lobsters) or another protein

1 basket cherry tomatoes, washed, each tomato cut into quarters

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Cayenne to taste (optional)

1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)

Directions

1. Add olive oil to a heated pot on a medium flame. Sauté corn kernels until lightly browned.

2. Add chopped onions and sauté until lightly browned.

3. Fine chop scallion green parts. Cut white part into ¼-inch lengths and reserve.

4. Add scallion green parts to the sauté.

5. Pour stock into pot, stir well and simmer five minutes.

6. Add rice. Stir well. Continue to simmer.

7. The longer the rice cooks in the liquid, the softer it will become. If cooked too long, the rice will dissolve creating an unpleasant texture. When the consistency is what you like, shred the lobster meat and add along with the chopped cherry tomatoes. Stir well. Simmer two minutes.

8. Season to taste with sea salt, black pepper, cayenne (optional) and sweet butter (optional).

9. Serve congee hot in large bowls. Top with white scallion lengths.

Main photo: Corn-Lobster Congee topped with chopped tomatoes and sliced scallions. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

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