Articles in Cooking

Frantic Telephone-Call Roasted Potatoes. Credit: Barbara Haber

I will go to any length to obtain a recipe that interests me, and this leads to an embarrassing admission. While waiting in my eye doctor’s office recently, I was thumbing through a tattered old magazine and came across a recipe for quick pecan rolls that was unusual in that the dough included not just yeast, but also baking powder and a bit of baking soda. This combination was new to me, and I had to find out if it was any good. Since the recipe went on and on, listing ingredients and directions for the topping, the filling and the glaze as well as the dough, I expedited matters by tearing out the page and slipping it into my purse.

Before doing this, I looked around because I remembered a scene in “The Sopranos” when Tony Soprano rips an article from a magazine in his psychiatrist’s office and gets caught and reprimanded by his doctor. I didn’t want that to happen to me. But I knew that I would obsess about the recipe if I didn’t have it, couldn’t wait to try it, and did so within a couple of days.

Culinary karma?

The dish required no rising, went right into the oven and came out looking beautiful. The rolls were puffed up and browned and turned out of the pan easily, showing off their topping of glistening caramelized pecans. When the rolls had cooled, I broke off a piece and could only conclude that the roll reminded me of Bisquick, and I instantly decided I would never make this recipe again. Maybe I was being punished for my crime.

A more honorable quest occurred when a cousin by marriage, who prides herself on her cooking, served me a beautiful puréed mushroom soup she said was made without cream, a happy fact to me because the dish was rich enough and full of flavor. When I requested the recipe, I was surprised and bitterly disappointed when told recipes from that household were never given out; in my book, withholding recipes is equivalent to withholding love.

But my determination to track down the dish was inflamed. I should add that this took place in an era before the Internet, so the challenge of finding the recipe was difficult. I had to operate on hunches, and my first deduction was that this cousin hadn’t invented the recipe but got it from a source more sophisticated than a folksy newspaper column or women’s magazine. Since I knew she was an avid reader of cookbooks, I went to the public library where I looked through book after book only to find puréed mushroom soup recipes loaded with cream. Undaunted, I searched until I came across Danny Meyer’s “Union Café Cookbook,” where I found a recipe billed as “Creamless Mushroom Soup.” Quivering with anticipation, I tried the dish and immediately recognized it as the recipe that would quench my intrepid search.

What Nigel Slater missed

I was reminded of this incident when reading Nigel Slater’s autobiography, “Toast,” in which he describes his prickly relationship with his stepmother and convincingly illustrates her greatest fault by telling us that she refused to give him her recipes. Instead of using cooking as a bonding technique, she veered in the opposite direction. Denying him her lemon pie recipe upset Slater most. One day when her pie was underway, the young Nigel passed nonchalantly through the kitchen, back and forth, all the while gauging what went into the pie, and jotting down the recipe when out of sight.

Recipe collecting to the rescue

Frantic people come to me for recipes, sometimes. While preparing dinner one evening, I was interrupted by a telephone call — an intrusion I hate — but it was a good friend on the line, apologetically explaining that her husband had just called to say he was bringing home a colleague for dinner. She happened to have some new red potatoes on hand, had remembered that I once served a great roasted potato dish, and could I please tell her how to make it. “What could be more important?” I answered, and happily passed on the recipe.

‘Elevator Lady Spice Cookies’

Good recipes can sometimes be found at strange times and places. I have in my files a recipe called “Elevator Lady Spice Cookies,” which I make now and then because they are moist and delicious. I tried to remember where the recipe came from without success until I reread Peg Bracken’s “I Hate to Cook Book,” a classic that is full of laughs and some surprisingly good recipes. In it, she recounts the time she gave a cookie to the woman running her office elevator only to be told, “I can sure make a better spice cookie than that.” She brought the recipe to Bracken who agreed it was better, proving to all of us that our time in elevators can be well-spent.

People not particularly interested in cooking may think the single-minded pursuit of recipes trivial or even madness, but I know better. On those days when a troubled world is too much with me, I can find a little solace in preparing a stupendous recipe I took the trouble to find.

Frantic Telephone-Call Roasted Potatoes

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 50 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour 5 minutes

Ingredients

2 pounds small red potatoes, scrubbed well but not peeled

4 tablespoons olive oil

10 garlic cloves peeled and coarsely chopped

4 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon ground pepper

Directions

1. Preheat oven at 375 F.

2. Cut larger potatoes in half and leave small ones whole.

3. Using rimmed half sheet baking tin, put oil into pan and add potatoes, rotating them in oil on all sides.

4. Sprinkle chopped garlic over all of the potatoes.

5. Drizzle soy sauce over all of the potatoes.

6. Sprinkle pepper over everything.

7. Bake until potatoes are completely tender.

Main photo: Frantic Telephone-Call Roasted Potatoes. Credit: Barbara Haber

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Green tomatoes on the vine. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

Anybody who grows tomatoes during the summer reaches that fall day when the weather may have cooled (though not so far in this scorching September in Southern California), the tomato plants look brown, and it’s time to decide whether or not to pull them. They may still be sporting a fair amount of fruit, but that fruit stays green. Some may blush, but they will never be juicy, sweet, red summer tomatoes.

This is the point at which I pull my browning plants, but not before harvesting the green tomatoes. I feast on the obvious: fried green tomatoes (I didn’t grow up with them, but I learned to love them during the 12 years I spent in Texas) and fried green tomato sandwiches. I even make green tomato relish and green tomato pickles like the ones I used to shun at the deli when I was a kid (I liked the dill pickles much better). But I also make the not-so-obvious: Mediterranean green tomato frittatas, pasta with green tomato pesto, and salads with green and red tomatoes that cry out for Russian dressing. One of my new favorite green tomato dishes is an amazing sweet tart. It’s an adaptation of a recipe in a cookbook by the late Bill Neal, who was renowned for his Southern cooking, and I will now be making it every fall as my tomatoes go from red to green.

Green tomatoes are not at all like red tomatoes, and they don’t resemble tomatillos, which have a much more pungent flavor and a different texture. They are hard, and they hold back their flavor until you cook them. Interestingly, their nutritional profile is not too different from ripe tomatoes, though they don’t have the antioxidant-rich lycopene present in red fruit.

Green Tomato Tart. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

Green Tomato Tart. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

Sweet Green Tomato Tart

This is based on a recipe by the late Bill Neal, a great Southern cook and baker. It is an unbelievable tart, and somewhat mysterious: It tastes a bit like a lemon tart, but the green tomatoes contribute texture and body, as well as their own fruity flavor; then there are the spices that are reminiscent of pumpkin pie. The original recipe is sweeter than mine, though this is plenty sweet. Neal says to blanch and peel the green tomatoes, but I found that they were very difficult to peel, so I didn’t. The peels don’t get in the way.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Baking time: 30 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield:  9-inch tart, 8 servings

Ingredients

9-inch sweet pastry, fully baked

1 pound (450 grams) firm green tomatoes

3/4 cup  (165 grams) organic sugar

2 tablespoons (20 grams) flour

1/2 teaspoon (1 gram) ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon (1 gram) ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon (pinch) salt

2 eggs, beaten

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Finely grated zest of 1 lemon

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Set the tart shell on a baking sheet.
  2. Slice the tomatoes and place into a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse until roughly pureed and transfer to a fine strainer set over a bowl. Let drain for 15 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, sift together the sugar, flour, ginger, cinnamon and salt.
  4. Return the tomatoes to the food processor and add the sugar mixture. Pulse until well combined. Beat the eggs and add to the processor, along with the lemon juice and zest. Pulse again until well combined. The mixture should be processed until it is a coarse puree. Pour into the baked tart shell.
  5. Bake 30 minutes in the middle of the oven, or until the filling is set. Don’t touch as the top is sticky and will adhere to your finger. Just jiggle the baking sheet gently to make sure the tart is set. Remove from the heat and cool on a rack.

Oven-Baked Green Tomato and Feta Frittata

This baked frittata has Greek overtones. It puffs in the oven, though it will deflate soon after you remove it. I prefer to serve it at room temperature. It’s a good keeper and packs well in a lunchbox. 

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1 pound green tomatoes

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

9 large eggs

2 tablespoons low-fat milk

About ½ cup fine cornmeal, or a combination of flour and fine cornmeal, for dredging

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (more as needed)

2 garlic cloves, minced or pureed

2 tablespoons snipped chives

1 tablespoon chopped fresh marjoram

3 ounces feta, crumbled (about 3/4 cup)

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Core the tomatoes and slice about 1/3 inch thick. Season with salt and pepper.
  2. Beat the eggs and milk together in a large bowl and season with salt and pepper (I use about 1/2 teaspoon salt). Quickly dip the tomato slices into the egg mixture and dredge lightly in the flour or cornmeal. Place on a parchment-covered baking sheet. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a 10-inch cast iron skillet over medium-high heat and fry the sliced tomatoes for 2 to 3 minutes on each side, just until lightly colored. Transfer to a rack set over a sheet pan, or to paper towels. You’ll probably need to do this in batches, so you might need to add more oil before adding the second batch. Quarter half the fried tomatoes. Wipe away any cornmeal residue from the pan.
  3. Stir the garlic, chives, marjoram, feta and the quartered fried green tomatoes into the beaten eggs.
  4. Return the skillet to medium-high heat and add the remaining tablespoon of oil. Swirl the pan to make sure the sides are coated with oil, and pour in the eggs, scraping every last bit of the mixture out of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Tilt the pan to distribute the eggs and filling evenly over the surface and gently lift up the edges of the frittata with the spatula, to let the eggs run underneath during the first minute or two of cooking. Distribute the whole fried green tomato slices over the surface of the frittata, turn off the burner and place the pan into the preheated oven. Bake 25 to 30 minutes, until puffed, set and lightly colored. Allow to cool for at least 10 minutes before serving. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.

Main photo: Green tomatoes on the vine. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

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Signora Rosa, center, and her family work on the tomatoes in the garden. Credit: Carla Capalbo

It’s tomato canning time in Campania, southern Italy. This region more than any other relies on home-preserved plum tomatoes to stock the larder for the year. These are the tomatoes that will go into the daily plate of pasta al pomodoro, or onto pizzas and dozens of other regional favorites.

My neighbors in Nusco, the tiny medieval village in the province of Avellino where I spend part of the year, are a retired couple who share their house with one daughter. It’s just the three of them, so I was amazed when they told me that the next week Signora Antonietta was going to process 250 kilos of tomatoes (that’s one-quarter ton of fresh tomatoes). Each family has its own recipes for home-canned tomatoes, but the result is the same: enough bottles and jars of the precious “red gold” to prevent them ever having to buy tomatoes from a store.

“The most important thing is to know where your tomatoes have been grown,” says Antonietta’s husband, Pietro. “We like to make sure ours are free of pesticides.” Nusco is only an hour’s drive from Puglia, where many of the tomatoes for the canning industry are grown, but there are reports of undocumented immigrants being exploited as pickers in near-slavery conditions. Pietro prefers to buy his from a local farmer.

San Marzano tomatoes

The most famous tomato of all is the fabled San Marzano, the Holy Grail of plum varieties. Legend has it that the first seeds of San Marzano came to Campania in 1770 as a gift to the Kingdom of Naples from the Kingdom of Peru. It was planted extensively in what is now the township of San Marzano, near the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, mainland Europe’s largest active volcano. Millions of tons were harvested annually until the 1980s, when a blight struck the crop.

Campanian researchers are divided about whether that variety still exists. Some claim the original San Marzano was lost to the disease, while others maintain that a few seeds remained in the region’s refrigerated seed bank and were used to rebuild the gene pool. Whichever variety it now is, Pomodoro San Marzano has been granted DOP status (Protected Denomination of Origin) and can be certified only if grown within specified areas of Campania. It has been recognized as a keystone of the Mediterranean diet.

What’s so special about it? “The San Marzano has an elongated plum shape, firm flesh and very few seeds,” says Vincenzo Aita, a specialist in Campanian agriculture. “The skin is a deep bright red, and peels off easily. Most importantly, it has a rich, intense flavor, low acidity (but is high in nutrients), and is the best for canning and for making our Neapolitan tomato ragù — a sauce that needs to be simmered for at least 6 hours.”

The San Marzano is tricky to grow: It needs to be staked carefully and handpicked when ripe, which means passing through the fields six to eight times per season. So it’s more expensive than other plum tomatoes, but well worth the extra — if you can find it.

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Antonietta's plum tomatoes spread out on the garage floor to ripen before canning. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Signora Antonietta favors preserving her tomatoes unpeeled. She washes, then puts them in a vast pan over a gas burner in her garage, gently cooking them for about an hour until the pulp is soft. The tomatoes are then passed through a mill, where some of the skins are separated from the juice and pulp.

“Some people prefer to drain the tomato water before milling, but I like to keep all of the tomatoes’ goodness in the jar. After all, I can always cook it down if I need it thicker,” she says, as she stirs salt to taste into the tomato purée. The passata or salsa is bottled — in recycled jars and beer bottles with new caps — before being placed in an even bigger pan to be covered in water and boiled for 45 minutes to sterilize the preserves.

Stocking the larder

A few kilometers away, in Montella, Signora Rosa and her family are being even more ambitious. “We’re doing 450 kilos of tomatoes this year,” she says as she rallies her daughter, grandson and nephew to action. Here the tomatoes are worked using two different methods. Some whole tomatoes are held in boiling water for a minute or so before being peeled. They are then placed in the bottles with one fresh basil leaf before being closed and sterilized.

For her passata, Rosa washes the tomatoes before adding them to a large pan in which a few liters of water have been brought to a boil. She cooks them for about an hour before removing them from the pan using a slotted spoon to drain away some of the excess liquid. The tomatoes are then milled — using an old electric machine that was her mother’s, and that can process 300 kilos per hour — bottled and sterilized, unsalted, as above. Other families prefer to purée their tomatoes raw before sterilization, or cut the raw tomatoes into chunks and mix them into the salsa before the final boiling in the jar. It’s a personal choice and one that will be appreciated every day of the coming year.

Main photo: Signora Rosa, center, and her family work on the tomatoes in the garden. Credit: Carla Capalbo

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A photo of Pellegrino Artusi sits next to savor, a peasant dessert that's featured in his cookbook. Credit: Cesare Zucca.

While in Forlimpopoli, a small Italian town near the Adriatic Sea, I happened upon a cookbook that stirred up all the memories of my past: My mamma, my nonna and a very young me laboriously turning a heavy hand crank to make homemade pasta, while the women double-checked the recipe in a cookbook, which was religiously kept on a small shelf. I could never remember its title — it was too long and too difficult — but I vividly remember the author’s first name: Pellegrino.

Pellegrino Artusi

The acknowledged father of  modern Italian cookery, Pellegrino Artusi was born in 1820 in Forlimpopoli to a wealthy merchant. He lived in his native town until 1851, when the city was attacked by the infamous highwayman il Passatore and his band, who held upper-class families hostage. The Artusi family moved to Florence after that. Pellegrino, a businessman, became a wealthy man and, at age 45, was able to concentrate full time on his passion: the home cuisine. He loved to search, ponder recipes and have someone else cook his experiments.

After much research, he narrowed his findings to 790 favorite recipes. He collected these in a manual called “La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene” (“Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well”). Recipes span from broth to liqueurs, passing through soups, hors d’oeuvres, entrees (called “primi” in Italy, these are the first dishes such as pasta, risotto and soup), main dishes (“secondi,” which are usually meat or fish dishes) and cakes. Artusi anticipated trends that would become popular during the 20th century, among them the introduction of pasta as the typical first course on the Italian menu. The book was ahead of its time. No publisher was interested.

The cookbook

Finally, in 1891, the author took a chance and published it at his own expense. Success was as unthinkable as it was overwhelming. During the next 20 years, the author worked on 15 editions and “the Artusi” became one of Italy’s best-read books. Most Italian families had it — and still have it. It has been translated into English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian.

Today, Artusi’s book is regarded as an important tool of identity and cultural unification, both gastronomic and linguistic. The book is recognized by critics as a real literary work that contributed to the unification of Italy (remember, Italy was not yet unified at that time, and different languages were spoken throughout the country).

 The great Number 7

The recipes are numbered and probably the masterpiece is the Number 7, the famous cappelletti al’uso di Romagna (Romagna-style cappelletti pasta) The name cappello (hat) comes from its shape. The pasta is filled with capon breast, Parmesan, nutmeg, ricotta and raveggiolo (a mild creamy cheese), carefully shaped to six centimeters in diameter and boiled just a few minutes in a rich capon broth with celery, carrots and beef bones.

pasta vendor

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A street vendor at the Festa Artusiana dishes up pasta. Credit: Cesare Zucca

Equally famous is the Number 71, tagliatelle all’uso di Romagna, served with a delicious tomato sauce, and the Number 334, polpette di trippa (tripe balls), which are soft and juicy. Finally, there is the savor, a peasant dessert once prepared in farmhouses and served during the winter. It is made with sapa, a longtime boiled sciroppo di mosto (grape syrup), then mixed with autumn fruits and nuts. This is perfect to “savor” with either sweets, roasts, fresh or aged cheeses and is often served on a piadina (flatbread).

All these treasures are included in an extraordinary cookbook that offers a collection of home recipes, considerations and short stories, making Artusi’s manual a masterpiece of wit and wisdom.

Who was the real chef ?

If Signor Pellegrino Artusi did not cook, who did the job?

Her name was Marietta Sabbatini, a devoted, irreplaceable assistant (and maybe more) who fanatically worked side by side with Artusi, who described her as “both a good cook, and a decent, honest person.”

No fame, no glory for poor Marietta until Forlimpopoli launched the Associazione delle Mariette, which has the invaluable task of teaching traditional Romagnolo cookery. The association has a yearly national competition, “The Marietta Award,” which is reserved for non-professional cooks and gives the winner a 1,000 Euro prize.

City throws a feast

Every year the city pays tribute to its most illustrious citizen, hosting the Festa Artusiana, a tempting feast where, from 7 p.m. to midnight, the historical city center changes into a “town to be tasted.” The big castle dominates the borgo, where courts, alleys, streets and squares have names of recipes from Artusi’s book.

All the best restaurants and the street vendors in the area are invited to participate and include in their menus several of Artusi’s specialties. For nine evenings, Forlimpopoli becomes the capital city of “Eating Well,” thanks to the partnership with Casa Artusi, the first Italian gastronomic center devoted entirely to traditional home cookery. Casa Artusi boasts a library, a museum and a school that teaches practical courses, both for food lovers and professionals wanting to learn how to improve their skills. In the Casa’s restaurant, Chef Andrea Banfi serves many of Artusi’s dishes, fresh, homemade pasta and recipes from the tradition of Emilia-Romagna.

I am sure Pellegrino would love the way his town is treating him, including having erected a tall statue right at the city entrance, prelude to a tasty visit to a very friendly town.

Main photo: A photo of Pellegrino Artusi sits next to savor, a peasant dessert that’s featured in his cookbook. Credit: Cesare Zucca

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pumpkin carbonara

Succulent summer tomatoes are a distant memory, but luckily wonderful pasta sauce can be made with fall’s beautiful bounty of pears and pumpkins.

My passion for pasta with fruit began while researching my first cookbook “Shakespeare’s Kitchen,” during which I discovered the many sweet-savory pasta dishes of the Renaissance. Now, I’m always on the lookout for fruit and pasta pairings when in Italy and constantly pester my Italian friends to send me recipes. In Italy you’ll find pasta paired with all sorts of fruit, both dried and fresh — prunes, dates, oranges and lemons — each adding lovely color, brilliant acidity and delicate sweetness to the sauces.

 Pears and pasta

I’m especially partial to pears as they stand up nicely when cooked and add a savory sweet fresh flavor. Grating fresh pear onto pasta tossed with simple jar tomato sauce makes it taste delicately sweet. Adding diced pear to a simple mac ‘n’ cheese adds crunch and a surprisingly almost wine note to a simple dish.

“Open” ravioli with a meat and pear sauce. Credit: “Pasta Modern” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan

Pear is a popular ravioli filling as it pairs so wonderfully with cheese. A classic pear ravioli from the Lombardy region is casconcelli, a decadently delicious, very unusual ravioli, made with an odd but oh-so-tasty assortment of ingredients: sausage, roast beef, raisins, crushed almond cookies and pears. Making ravioli can be a little daunting, so I was thrilled to discover that in Italy they often use the ravioli filling as condiment for dried pasta! Called ravioli aperto, or “open ravioli,” it uses ravioli filling as a sauce, as was popularized by the famous Italian chef Gualtiero Marchesi, who first introduced it back in the ’80s. Nowadays, many Italians, pressed for time, forgo ravioli-making and turn the filling into a free-form sauce for pasta. The flavors are the same and it saves time.

“Open” Pear Ravioli (Casoncelli alla Bergamasca “Aperto”)

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

From “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

The pear filling for casoncelli, ravioli from the Bergamo section of Lombardy, makes an exceptionally tasty, very unusual sauce for any shape of dried pasta.

Ingredients

3 tablespoons butter
2 ounces pancetta or bacon, diced
1 sweet sausage
¼ pound roast beef, thinly sliced then cut into strips
1 garlic clove, minced
3 to 4 small fresh sage leaves
1 large pear, thinly sliced with peel left on
2 tablespoons golden raisins
1 cup chicken broth
1 pound calamarata or any shape pasta
Zest of ½ lemon
Grana padano or other aged cheese
Ground cinnamon
Nutmeg
½ bunch fresh parsley
Salt and pepper
2 to 3 amaretti cookies, crushed, optional

Directions

1. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium high heat.

2. Add the pancetta and cook until crisp, about 5 minutes.

3. Remove the meat from the sausage casing and crumble into the pan; cook until browned.

4. Add the roast beef, garlic, whole sage leaves, pear, raisins and broth.

5. Cook the mixture until the pears are soft, about 5 minutes.

6. Meantime, cook the pasta in boiling, salted water until almost al dente.

7. Drain and toss into the sauce. Stir well and cook, adding cooking liquid, if needed, until al dente.

8. Stir in the zest, ⅓ cup of grated cheese, cinnamon, freshly grated nutmeg and minced parsley to taste, until well amalgamated. Season with salt and pepper and serve topped with more shaved or grated cheese and a sprinkling of amaretti crumbs, if using.

Pumpkins and pasta

In Italy all sorts of pumpkins and fall squash are incorporated into pasta sauces, lasagna, ravioli and gnocchi. You can add diced roasted pumpkin to meat sauce or layer it into lasagna for a savory touch of fall. You can top virtually any pasta dish with thin slices of fried pumpkin for a pop of texture and sweetness.

Pumpkin is especially delicious added to one of Italy’s most iconic pasta dishes: carbonara – hot pasta tossed with raw egg to create its own creamy sauce, punctuated by crisp bits of pancetta and a shower of grated cheese.

It would be difficult to improve on that magical combination of simple ingredients, but by substituting caramelized onions and pumpkin in place of the pancetta, it not only turns it into a vegetarian delight, but creates an even more creamy sauce.

Pumpkin Pasta Carbonara

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: Serves 4

From “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Ingredients

1 large onion, thinly sliced
Olive oil
2 cups diced pumpkin or kabocha squash, seeds and skin removed
Salt and pepper
1 pound pasta, any shape
2 eggs
Pecorino or other aged cheese

Directions

1. In a large frying pan over medium heat, cook the onion in 2 tablespoons of oil until the onion is very soft, about 8 minutes, then raise the heat to high and continue cooking until golden and caramelized, about 4 more minutes. Remove the onions from the pan and set aside.

2. In the same pan, adding another tablespoon or 2 of oil, fry the squash until tender and golden at the edges, about 8 minutes. Return the onions to the pan, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and keep warm.

3. In a large serving bowl, beat the eggs with 2 heaping tablespoons of grated pecorino cheese.

4. Cook the pasta in boiling, salted water until al dente. Drain and toss in the egg mixture, stirring until creamy, then stir in the hot onion-squash mixture. Serve topped with grated or shaved cheese.

Main photo: Pumpkin is especially delicious added to one of Italy’s most iconic pasta dishes: carbonara. Credit: “Pasta Modern” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan

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Sweet Potato and Lima Bean Tagine. Reprinted with permission from

“Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean and Southern Flavors Remixed” (Ten Speed Press, 2014), the latest cookbook from nationally recognized food activist and eco-chef Bryant Terry, delivers flavor and fun with a political punch.

Do you cook to music? Once you get into Afro-Vegan, you will get your groove on, too. With plant-based menus becoming more popular, get ready to rock your vegan souls to another level.

During a recent interview, Terry said that he cooks with an attitude about health, flavor and fun. He wants to improve the health of people of color who exceed the general population with a long list of diseases like obesity, diabetes and cancer. Indeed, his scholarly work was immersed in studies about the intersection of food, racism, poverty, malnutrition, environment and health.

“Celebrating the flavor profiles of African Diaspora food is the best way I know how to improve the health of people of African descent,” Terry said. “I would like to impact their physical, spiritual and emotional health through food knowledge, celebration of culture and connection to planet Earth,” he added.

Terry’s book teaches history, too. “I want people to recognize that the current farm-to-table movement originated with us — black people.”

Terry reminds us that most of the American cuisine originated from African, Caribbean and Southern traditions. “Our food was always flavorful plant-based cooking and never boring. Far from it!”

Not your usual vegan

Taking issue with standard vegan fare, he said: “Why do we think of vegan as bland, hippie food? Many vegan restaurants are so disappointing, and there’s no excuse for lack of flavor and joy.”

Terry’s recipes are really edible collages, and re-creating them can be fun. Instead or wine or beer, he pairs his recipes with Afrocentric soundtracks, memories, books and films. These pairings might remind you of Vertamae Smart Grosvenor’s “Vibration Cooking” book popular in the ’70s. She combined music and dancing in the kitchen to encourage good “vibrations” in the pot.

Terry showed his Southern charm by bowing down to the grand dame of Southern cooking, Miss Edna Lewis. He re-imagined her fruitcake from a photograph and created Spiced Persimmon Bundt Cake With Orange Glaze. This lovely dessert is paired with Miriam Makeba’s song “A Piece of Ground” and “To Us, All Flowers Are Roses: Poems by Lorna Goodison.”

Romare Bearden tribute

This jazzy cookbook is a tribute to artist Romare Bearden, whose supersized quote guided Terry through the writing of it: “The artist has to be something like a whale swimming with his mouth wide open, absorbing everything until he has what he really needs.”

Do you love sweet potatoes, okras, black eye peas, beans, nuts, watermelon and greens galore? If so, here are some learn new ways to turn them out. Through these pages, you will have fun assembling all the ingredients, shopping in ethnic groceries and searching for the music, books and film pairings. Most of all, you will enjoy the journey of learning how to “vegan-ize” a variety of Creole, Caribbean and Southern dishes. Try making the Jamaican Patties With Maque Choux to the soundtrack of “Brass in Africa” by Hypnotic Brass Ensemble from Best of BBE 2011. Then watch the film “Life and Debt,” directed by Stephanie Black, while eating this simple street food. Your taste buds will wake up with happiness and excitement.

Maque Choux is a Louisiana side dish made with corn, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions and bacon, butter or cream. The pastry for this meatless patty is made with flour, turmeric, sea salt and coconut oil. The plant-based Maque Choux filling was Caribbean-ized by adding cumin, thyme, black pepper, cinnamon, allspice, cayenne, corn broth, coconut milk and lime juice.

Healthy, fresh meals

Terry’s cooking genes come from his grandparents and parents in Memphis via rural Mississippi. They nurtured edible gardens and prepared simple healthy, fresh meals.

He said he expanded his repertoire in Louisiana, where he earned an English literature degree from Xavier University and developed a passion for Creole and Cajun food. “That’s where I first tasted savory breakfasts, beignet and coffee.” Living in Brooklyn as a starving New York University grad student, Terry dined on tasty and affordable Caribbean street food such as Trinidadian roti and Jamaican patties. “My combined travels and studies in Harlem and other diverse black communities helped me trace and interpret the arc of food’s African ancestry,” he said.

When Terry moved to Oakland, Calif., he said he discovered East African foods, especially Ethiopian flavors, and Asian food too. He called his cooking style “Afro-Asian.” He and his Chinese wife and their two children enjoy growing bok choy, collards and mustard greens in their Oakland backyard garden.

Terry said he started his work in grassroots in Brooklyn, where an all-girls black basketball team booed him off the stage for bad-mouthing McDonald’s hamburgers.

“Even in cooking school my teachers and classmates laughed at me when I said I wanted to create food programs for low-income urban youth. All they wanted to do was work in a restaurant. My family was very supportive. But some of them did not see my vision. They wondered where I was going with an English degree from Xavier, a history master’s degree from NYU and chef’s training program at the National Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts in NYC.”

Who’s laughing now? Every aspect of Terry’s educational and professional studies found application in his books and work.

“Today, I feel very proud to inspire the next generation of food activists,” he said, adding that a recent highlight of his career was giving the graduation speech at UC Berkeley.

No need to pair veganism with perfectionism

“I’m not pushing veganism as perfect. I am simply offering some tools and options. I am a chef. I love cooking and sharing the joy of healthy food. I don’t separate food from culture. When we understand food from seed to table and learn that process, we all become more invested in our own health,” he said.

“More schools now use urban gardens, farmers markets, plant-based eating, cooking and preserving classes to teach life skills. That’s my kind of activism,” he said. The chef said he was inspired by the Black Panther’s children’s breakfast programs of the ’60s and ’70s.

Spices, soups and street food

The book is organized into chapters with titles like “Spices, Sauces, Heat,” “Soups, Stews, Tagines” and “Street Food, Snacks, Small Bites.” Amazing and enticing photographs are interspersed between the pages. Sample recipes include: “Tofu Curry With Mustard Greens,” “Crunchy Bean and Okra Fritters With Mango-Habanero Sauce,” and “Sweet Potato and Pumpkin Soup.” Several dishes use African spices and sauces such as berbere, chermoula and harissa.

My favorite recipe was the “Sweet Potato Granola With Molasses-Glazed Walnuts.” Once the cinnamon and nutmeg aromas filled my kitchen everyone thought I was baking pie. With this recipe, you will never buy granola again. Be forewarned, once you open this cookbook, you will get hungry, head for the kitchen, go grocery shopping, go back to the kitchen, turn on some music and dance as you cook up a storm.

The book begins with “Permission to Speak,” an introduction by Jessica B. Harris, a noted educator, culinary historian and author of 12 books. Reflecting on her travels through Africa, and her grandmother and mother’s larder, Harris said of Terry: “In Afro-Vegan, he amply and ably demonstrates that he knows that food and culture are inseparable and that history is always there on the plate.”

Cocoa-Spice Cake with Crystallized Ginger and Coconut-Chocolate Ganache

Yield: 8 to 16 servings

Soundtrack: “Marcus Garvey” by Burning Spear from “Marcus Garvey/Garvey’s Ghost”

Book: “The Other Side of Paradise: A Memoir” by Staceyann Chin

Ingredients

Bryant's cocoa-spiced cake with crystallized ginger and coconut-chocolate ganache. Reprinted with permission from "Afro-Vegan" by Bryant Terry. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. Photography (c) 2014 by Paige Green

Bryant’s cocoa-spiced cake with crystallized ginger and coconut-chocolate ganache. Reprinted with permission from “Afro-Vegan” by Bryant Terry. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. Photography (c) 2014 by Paige Green

For the cake:

¼ cup coconut oil, melted, plus more for oiling

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon fine raw cane sugar

¾ cup whole wheat pastry flour

¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour

6 tablespoons unsweetened natural cocoa powder (not Dutch-processed)

1¼ teaspoons baking soda

½ teaspoon fine sea salt

Scant ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons coconut milk

¼ cup packed mashed ripe avocado (about 1⁄2 medium avocado)

2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon dark Jamaican rum

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 ounces crystallized ginger, finely chopped (about 1⁄2 cup)

For the ganache:

5 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate, finely chopped

¾ cup coconut milk

5 tablespoons raw cane sugar

⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon dark Jamaican rum (optional)

12 thin slices crystallized ginger

 Whenever I serve this cake, folks can’t believe it’s vegan, and they always get a kick out of it when I tell them that I include avocado to add moisture and natural cream­iness. My assistant, Amanda Yee, came up with the idea of pouring a coconut-chocolate ganache over the cake. You can stop there and enjoy chocolaty bliss, or take it to the next level by pairing it with Vanilla Spice Rum Shakes.

 Directions

  1. To make the cake, preheat the oven to 375 F. Oil an 8-inch round cake pan with 2-inch sides.
  2. Sift the sugar, flours, cocoa powder, bak­ing soda, salt, cayenne, and nutmeg into a large bowl and stir with a whisk until well blended.
  3. Put the coconut milk, oil, avocado, rum, vinegar, and vanilla extract in a blender and process until smooth (or put them in a large bowl and blend with an immer­sion blender until smooth). Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and add the wet ingredients and the ginger. Fold together until uniformly mixed. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and spread in an even layer. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool in the pan for 15 minutes. Slide a butter knife around the edge, then invert the cake onto a rack and let cool to room temperature.
  4. To make the ganache, put the chocolate in a medium heatproof bowl. Put the coconut milk, sugar, and cayenne in a small saucepan and heat until steam­ing hot (avoid boiling), stirring often, until the sugar has dissolved. Slowly pour over the chocolate and let stand until the chocolate is melted, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the rum and whisk until completely smooth. Let stand at room temperature, stirring occasionally, until slightly cooled but pourable, about 5 minutes.
  5. To glaze the cake, pour the ganache evenly over the cake and let stand until the ganache is set, about 30 minutes. Garnish with the ginger slices.

Main photo caption: Sweet Potato and Lima Bean Tagine. Reprinted with permission from “Afro-Vegan” by Bryant Terry. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. Photography (c) 2014 by Paige Green

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The Cooking Times They Are a-Changin'. Illustration Credit: iStock

Cook or chef? If asked, chances are most of us would opt for cook. But what does that mean? Cooks cook. Chefs cook too. So what’s the difference? Most obviously, chefs are men who cook in, and for, the public, while the rest of us labor away as unsung heroines (and a few heroes) on the domestic front to please family and friends.

The heavily masculine world of chefs has its roots in the military model formalized by the French in the 17th century. The chef de cuisine —  the “head” of the kitchen —  literally commanded the meal. So too in the modern restaurant that emerged over the 19th century; the chef gave the orders that lesser mortals carried out. The movement toward professionalization over the 19th century excluded women. (The iconic 1987 food film “Babette’s Feast” is totally off-the-mark. No woman would have been a chef in a top Parisian restaurant in the 19th century. Even today there are few.)

When we look closely at what chefs actually do, we may be astonished that “mere” cooks undertake many of the same activities. Perhaps cooking and “chefing” differ less than the fancy white chef’s toque would have us believe.

A continuum from cooking to chefing

In reality, from cooking to chefing is a continuum. The more foods involved, the more elaborate and complex the preparations, the more people involved as staff and consumers, and the greater the pressure for innovation, the closer we come to chefing. The more extensive the division of culinary labor, the more leadership and management skills come into play. It is not by chance that the restaurant kitchen is still known as a “brigade” and that “Yes, Chef” the only possible response to the kitchen commander.

Priscilla Ferguson argues that the explosion of talk about food has blurred the lines between the plain and the fancy.

Priscilla Ferguson argues that the explosion of talk about food has blurred the lines between the plain and the fancy.

But the domestic cook uses many of those same skills — even if she has no one to order about. Just think about what is involved in putting together an elaborate meal for a special occasion or special guests say, a birthday party for 10-year-olds or an anniversary. The cook knows that time spent at the stove is the least of her tasks. She becomes an Executive Chef for the occasion, commanding the meal, setting the menu, ordering the food and seeing to the pleasures of a demanding public. Such a meal requires skills, time, energy and imagination. You may not be a chef, but you certainly are chefing.

The contemporary food world is incomparably varied — from high-end restaurants bent on innovation to the neighborhood diner —  so the hierarchical model, even for the professional kitchen, is only one mode. Is there an ideal balance between cooking and chefing?

The answer depends on the moment, the place, the occasion, the company. Cooks and chefs find their place on the continuum from the ordinary to the extraordinary, the unseen to the spectacular.

The worlds of cooking and chefing have never been closer than today. As I argue in my recent book, “Word of Mouth: What We Talk About When We Talk About Food,” the explosion of talk about food in the past quarter century has blurred the lines between eating in and eating out, between the ordinary meal and the extraordinary feast, between the plain and the fancy.

From blogs to television shows and even films – think of Remy the rat as chef in “Ratatouille” —  food talk diffuses ideas, techniques and savoir faire beyond the professional sphere. All this talk brings the chef and the cook ever closer together. We cooks may not be chefs, but we sure do a lot of chefing.

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Gelato World Tour winners of the

The ancient Roman seaside city of Rimini, about 75 miles southeast of Bologna and birthplace of legendary film director Federico Fellini, evokes la dolce vita in more ways than one. If Bologna is dubbed “Bologna la grassa,” or “Bologna the fat,” for its celebrated cuisine, the ancient road from Bologna to Rimini, once a vital trade route through Emilia’s rich plains, is today the nerve center for the artisanal gelato industry.

So when the Italian Trade Commission recently invited me to join the jury for the Gelato World Tour Finals in Rimini, I accepted gratefully. Over three days in September, I watched 24 gelatièri, small gelato producers, from around the world, make about 14,330 pounds of their nominated recipes in Piazzale Fellini. The frenzied contestants from three continents gathered in Rimini to churn out their entries under big tents, whipping up fresh batches throughout the day to keep up with a crowd of 70,000 that was slurping its way through the expo. They were breaking all the flavor rules which, when it comes to cuisine in Italy, can be unbending. “It’s about inclusion,” said James Coleridge, a Canadian from Vancouver who won the 2014 Gelato World Tour North America title. “People are using Persian ingredients like saffron and rosewater and Japanese salted cherries; [vendors from] the Philippines are making gelato with purple yams.”

1st place winner, "Mandorla Affogato" ("Drowned Almond"), Cow and the Moon, Sydney, Australia | Credit: Dino Buffagnani, Gelato World Tour

“Mandorla Affogato” (“Drowned Almond”) from Cow and the Moon in Sydney, Australia, won first place. Credit: Dino Buffagnani, Gelato World Tour

On the final day, “Drowned Almond” was declared the winner. The champion, John Crowl of Sydney, Australia, announced that his  shop already had “a huge line out the door and down the street following the news,” and that his winning flavor, a fusion of Madagascar vanilla bean gelato, roasted caramelized almonds, Kenyan coffee and salted caramel sauce, was being made nonstop all day to keep up with the demand. “This award proves that even a foreigner can be a great gelato artisan if he or she studies hard and works with passion and tenacity every day,” he said.

The judging wasn’t easy. “Grumpy’s Heart” (Italy), a revelation of Sicilian pistachios that are considered princely even in Italy, placed second. “Hazelnut Heart” (Italy), a blissful delivery of toasted Piedmont hazelnuts, took third. Other juror favorites were “Texas Pecan Pie” (from Austin, Texas), based on Texas pecans, Texas whiskey and caramel; and Sollér Orange Sorbet with Mint and Cardamom (Spain). Gelatière Salvatore Versace, who emigrated from Italy to the U.S., won hearts with his rags-to-riches tale about making it big in Miami with a string of gelato parlors. He captured a “People’s Honorable Mention” with his “Scents of Sicily,” which reproduced authentic flavors of the Sicilian confection using tangy sheep’s milk ricotta and blood oranges.

With nearly half of the finalists from countries outside Italy, it became clear the taste for gelato, which began its journey in an 18th-century Italian pushcart, is circling the globe at a dizzying pace.

How this happened to an artisanal food is, ironically, a function of industrial history.

Gelato revolution

Gelato is at least as old as Mesopotamia, but its modern history began in Bologna in 1931, when Otello Cattabriga pioneered the first machine that could scrape, stir and incorporate air into a liquid gelato base to create its characteristic structure and creaminess. In 1934, he added an electrical motor, creating the first vertical batch freezer. In 1946, Poerio and Bruto Carpigiani,  two brothers from Bologna, patented the first automatic machine, making it possible to produce gelato in larger quantities. The equipment was designed for small-scale gelato production. In just a few years, gelaterias proliferated in Italy and throughout the world.

Today, Carpigiani, sponsor of the Gelato World Tour, is said to be the largest artisanal gelato machine company in the world. A gelato school and museum are integral parts of its headquarters on the outskirts of Bologna. Unlike the training of a chef, which takes years of grueling experience, initiates can study gelato at the Bologna school and come out with a toque in four weeks.

Not to say that making gelato is quick and easy. Even when using specialized dairy bases, fruit, nut and chocolate pastes manufactured for gelatièri, gelato producers have to transform the ingredients into a finished product. They can make their gelato using these bases, or they can make it from scratch. Some combine the bases with fresh ingredients. “Gelato isn’t made like paint-by-number because it’s made by hand,” said finalist Matthew Lee of  Tèo Gelato, Espresso and Bella Vita, of Austin, Texas, “but the best ones are made from scratch.” Like Lee, Coleridge  uses only raw, unprocessed ingredients daily. “Maybe three people out of 500 are making truly artisanal gelato,” he said.

True gelato: It’s artisanal, it’s fresh

You might ask, just what is meant by “artisanal,” or handmade, in the world of gelato? In nearby Parma, cheese artigiani still make their 800-year-old Parmigiano-Reggiano by hand using state-of-the art stainless-steel vats and temperature-controlled storage rooms. Likewise, gelato makers today practice an ancient craft with the benefit of modern equipment. True gelato must be made fresh daily, ideally several times daily, to preserve its flavor and silkiness and avoid crystallization into hard ice cream. Genuine “artisanal” denotes an entirely handcrafted product working with raw, unprocessed natural ingredients every day. “It’s about making the best, not the most,” said Coleridge, a former baker, mountain climber and the first non-Italian to win the title, International Gelato Master of the Year, at Florence Gelato Festival in 2012. “We’re custodians of an old world process, protecting it against the industrialized world.”

However, unlike Italian producers who have to fight foreign imitators of their old cheeses, salumi and such, gelato needs no specific terroir. It requires only a willing entrepreneur with a sweet tooth.

Main photo: Gelato World Tour winners of the “world’s best gelato” category: John, left, and Sam Crowl of Cow and the Moon in Sydney, Australia. Credit: Dino Buffagnani, Gelato World Tour

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