Articles in Cooking

Mulefoot pigs. Credit: Kirsten Boyer Photography

“The worst thing to ever happen to the pork industry was the Other White Meat campaign,” Chipotle culinary manager Nate Appleman proclaimed at the sixth Chefs Collaborative Sustainable Food Summit, held this year in Boulder, Colo.

To that audience, he didn’t have to explain his point: Not only were the ads misleading, they heralded an industry trend toward lean, muscle-bound hogs you can likely thank (along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s old cooking-temperature guidelines) for every bland, dry piece of pork you’ve ever eaten.

But Chefs Collaborative conference-goers who attended a breakout session titled “Eating Invasives” received a demonstration nonetheless, as Eric Skokan of Black Cat Farm-Table-Bistro and conservation biologist Joe Roman organized a comparative tasting of roasted loins from three hogs: one factory farmed, one a heritage breed called Mulefoot and one wild boar.

It may go without saying that the supermarket product paled in every sense of the word, but the starkness of its inferiority surprised even the hosts. As Roman observed later, “Since our tasting, I’ve noticed the consistency of industrial pork: lean, white, almost tasteless. There was a certain complexity of taste and color in the Mulefoot and the boar.”

Skokan agreed, viewing the meat samples along a spectrum: “At one end you have cardboard, at the other end, noticeable gaminess.”

But when it comes to both the heritage breeds and wild animals, consumer education and market availability are major sticking points. To learn more, I talked to the two gentlemen about their pet (so to speak) causes.

The Mulefoot

Once common throughout the Midwest as a prized lard pig, this black breed was “as close to extinction as you could get” less than a decade ago, Skokan said. Today, numbers are on the gradual rise through the efforts of advocates like Arie McFarlen of South Dakota’s Maveric Heritage Ranch. (Skokan calls her “one of the most important people in food you’ve never heard of in your life.”)

Sausage made using Mulefoot pork. Credit: Ashley Davis Tilly

Sausage made using Mulefoot pork. Credit: Ashley Davis Tilly

Chef-farmer Skokan decided to raise Mulefoots in 2007 after a lesson-filled first year on his Longmont, Colo., property. “I’d grown this huge number of turnips that were inedible — no amount of kitchen creativity could save them. I realized I could use pigs as a way of turning lemons into lemonade; they would eat up the failed experiments. But if I was going to do it, they had to be great,” he said.

That was when he learned about Mulefoots. “I literally Googled ‘what’s the best-tasting breed of pork?’ And the oracle told me that The Livestock Conservancy had done a tasting with a panel of judges, and Mulefoot won.”

Skokan wasn’t concerned only with its culinary advantages. Given Colorado’s high-desert climate, the pigs had to be able to tolerate intense sun as well as cold winters, and because he’s a father to young children, they had to have “a great disposition. Mulefoots are cuddly if anything.”

Still, as the owner of two restaurants — Black Cat and adjacent gastropub Bramble & Hare — he’s above all a fan of its “superb flavor. I like to joke that even terrible cooks can cook it well; it’s very forgiving.

“We haven’t bought pork in five or six years,” he added. “We use Mulefoots for everything but the squeak.” In his just-released cookbook, “Farm, Fork, Food” (Kyle Books, $29.95), you’ll find gorgeous examples from country pâté with turnip mostarda to plum wood-smoked shoulder.

Their upbringing has something to do with their deliciousness, of course. “They’re free range all the time. We have really big fields, and we actually require them to move, putting where they eat, sleep, drink and graze in opposite corners.” His animals also live at least twice as long as their factory-raised brethren (11 to 13 months versus about six), fattening up over time as the bone structure of their breed dictates.

Scrumptious, user-friendly, consciously raised — sign me up, right? Well, not so fast. Skokan explained that although Mulefoot breeders are beginning to sell their meat commercially, “it’s still very localized and very niche.” If you’re determined to get your hands on some, look for a farm in your area; otherwise, try different types of heritage pork from online retailers.

Feral pigs and wild boars

Given their anything-goes diet, there’s no question these omnivores pack a stronger, more savory punch than their domesticated counterparts; Roman called the meat “almost nutty.” At the same time, they’re even leaner than today’s factory-bred pigs, developing muscle naturally on the prowl. Generally, the younger the carcass is, the more tender and flavorful it is, rather than downright pungent.

Chef-farmer Eric Skokan during a demonstration with a wild boar. Credit: Ruth Tobias

Chef-farmer Eric Skokan during a demonstration with a wild boar. Credit: Ruth Tobias

Although you’ll find a swell profile on Roman’s website, Eat the Invaders, here’s his nutshell version: “Wild boar and feral hogs are both the same species, Sus scrofa, but they have different histories in the United States. Wild boar were released to provide huntable game, and feral swine were either released to forage on the open range by farmers and settlers or escaped from captivity.” Because they interbreed, however, “it is not easy to tell the three groups — wild, feral, hybrid — apart, even for experts,” he said.

It’s not easy to get ahold of them, either. “At present, there are just two practical ways,” Roman said. “If you live within their range, the best is to hunt it yourself, or get it from a neighbor who does.” If you’re OK with that, you’re probably in luck, because “many states encourage the hunting of wild boar, to reduce numbers. Florida, for example, has no size or bag limits, and hogs can be hunted during almost any season.”

If your state’s laws are more restrictive, however, or if you’re not a hunter, Roman recommends ordering the meat online through Texas outfit Broken Arrow Ranch.

Cooking the beasts may be the easiest part: You do it just as you would a domestic pig, with the important caveat that safe cooking temperatures are paramount. Yes, hitting that blasted 160 F mark is probably necessary to avoid potential illness — we’ll give the USDA this one.

Main photo: Mulefoot pigs. Credit: Kirsten Boyer Photography

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New England boiled dinner with chicken and vegetables. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Careful thought can ease your workload considerably, if that’s how you think of cooking, by squeezing three dinners from one initial cooking. It’s a novel way of viewing leftovers in that you’re not using them so much as you are making leftovers to be used according to a plan.

First, in the method that follows, you’re not simply using leftovers, you’re following a game plan to create three nights of family dinners for four by using the foods from the first meal for the second meal and from the first and second meals for the third meal. You’ll add one or two foods to subsequent dinners Nos. 2 and 3. You can do all of this for about $40.

Ideally, dinner No. 1 should begin on a Sunday morning as you’ll be making a boiled dinner that can cook slowly all day either in a large slow cooker or on the stove top if your cook top has a simmer-control setting. A simmer-control setting is so low that a pot of water set on top of it will never boil; it will only shimmer on top.

The first meal is based on a New England boiled dinner, a family meal that was far more popular in the early 20th century than today and something of a misnomer as one never actually boils the chicken but rather poaches it. The second meal is based on an Alpine-type of baked casserole au gratin with fontina cheese. The third meal is based on a root vegetable soup purée with chunks of meat and vegetables.

First Dinner: Boiled Dinner

Prep time: About 30 minutes

Cook time: 3-9 hours

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

One 4-pound chicken

2 pounds fresh kielbasa sausage or mild Italian sausage

1¾ pounds boiling potatoes, such as small Yukon gold or fingerling, peeled

1½ pounds fat carrots, scraped and cut in half

1 pound (7 or 8) small onions, peeled

1½ pounds fat parsnips, scraped

1¼ pound small turnips (7 or 8), trimmed of tops

2 small celery roots (1 pound), trimmed and peeled

2 celery stalks, cut in half

50 garlic cloves

Bouquet garni, tied in cheesecloth, consisting of parsley, celery stalk top, marjoram, bay leaf, and oregano

10 peppercorns

Water as needed

Salt to taste

Directions

1. Wrap the chicken in cheesecloth and tie off with kitchen twine. Place in a large stockpot with the sausage, potatoes, carrots, onions, parsnips, turnips, celery root, celery stalk, garlic, bouquet garni and peppercorns and cover with water. Turn the heat to high and bring to a near boil. Reduce the heat to very low the minute you see a bubble or two rise to the surface. Cook until all the foods are very tender, about 9 hours with a simmer control and about 3 hours without. At no time should the water boil; it should only shimmer on top. About halfway through the cooking, season a bit with salt. Bring to just below a boil on high heat. Reduce the heat to low, so it is just shimmering on the surface.

2. Remove the chicken and unwrap from the kitchen twine. Set the chicken in the middle of a large round platter. It will be so well-cooked it will collapse unless you handle it gently. Surround with all the other meats and vegetables except for the celery stalk and bouquet garni, which you will discard. Serve with any two of these accompaniments: horseradish with apple, Bavarian mustard, Cajun mustard, regular mustard, Mostarda di Cremona, apple sauce or hot sauce of your choice.

3. Save all food not eaten.

4. Strain the broth through a cheesecloth-lined strainer and return to a pot. Boil until the broth is reduce by a third. Cool and save.

wright-boileddinner2

wright-boileddinner2
Picture 1 of 3

Meat and vegetables ready for dinners two and three. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Second Dinner: Baked Casserole au Gratin

Prep time: about 10 minutes

Cook time: 1¼ hours

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

Leftovers from boiled dinner, sliced

2½ ounces smoked slab bacon, chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil, vegetable oil, butter, pork lard or duck fat

½ pound cabbage, cored and thinly sliced

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

4 slices (about 2 ounces) French or Italian country bread

Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

Pinch of ground cinnamon

¾ pound fontina Val d’Aosta cheese, in thin slices

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, in thin slivers

2 cups chicken broth (from first meal)

Directions

1. Remove the meat from the chicken and discard the carcass. Chop or slice the chicken and sausage keeping them separated. Slice all the vegetables but keep them separate. Remove half of everything and set aside for meal No. 3.

2. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

3. In a sauté pan, cook, stirring, the bacon and cooking fat over medium heat until almost crispy, about 4 minutes. Add the cabbage and a little water to deglaze the pan and cook, stirring, until it is wilted, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

4. In four 8 x 1½-inch baking casseroles, or one larger baking casserole, or similar ovenproof vessel, place the bread and then layer half the leftovers on top and half the cabbage and sprinkle with nutmeg and cinnamon. Layer half the fontina cheese and then another layer of leftovers and cabbage and finally some slivers of butter. Finish with one more layer of cheese and butter. Pour ½ cup broth into each casserole and bake until golden brown and bubbling, 55 to 60 minutes. Serve hot.

Third Dinner: Root Vegetable Purée With Chicken and Sausage

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

Leftover vegetables from dinner one

3½ cups chicken broth (from first meal)

3 tablespoons heavy cream

3 ounces fresh or frozen peas

Leftover meat from dinner one

¼ teaspoon ground ginger

4 slices (about 2 ounces) Italian or French country bread, pan-fried in butter until golden brown

Directions

1. Place all the leftover vegetables in a food processor with 2 cups broth and blend in pulses at first then continuously until smooth. Transfer to a soup pot with the cream, peas, remaining meat leftovers, remaining broth and ground ginger and heat over low heat until hot. Check the seasoning. Serve with bread.

Main photo: New England boiled dinner with chicken and vegetables. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Black Bean Soup With Mexican Pesto. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Looking for a black Halloween food to make grown-ups howl with delight? Black Bean Soup With Mexican Pesto tastes like it took all day simmering on the back burner, getting rich and thick from hours of loving attention.

But when time is too short to stir dried beans in a witch’s cauldron, canned black beans that have been carefully rinsed are the fast and easy answer to perfect results, because they’ll be intensely flavored and then puréed smooth in the resulting soup.

My favorite black bean soups are from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, specifically around the city of Mérida; their unctuous, creamy textures contain no cream and are packed with characteristic layers of flavor from gargantuan amounts of herbs and a whisper of regional habañero chile. For decadence, locals often swirl in a spoonful of crema for special occasions, and Halloween is definitely such an occasion, at least in the U.S.

You start by making a flavor bomb similar to an Italian pesto to embellish the finished soup: Pull a big handful of basil leaves off stems, add cilantro and, if you can get some of the herb, throw in a little epazote with spicy habañero chile for traditional tastes. Because pine nuts aren’t found in the Yucatan, substitute pecans, Mexico’s national nut, for the right texture profile. For cheese, my choice is a not-too-salty queso añejo (aged queso fresco), or use Parmigiano-Reggiano. Only the best-quality extra virgin olive oil will do for its fruitiness, and then finish the soup with Merida sunshine: a generous squirt of bright Mexican (aka Key) lime juice.

Mexican pesto. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Mexican pesto. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Black Bean Soup With Mexican Pesto

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: Makes 4 servings (may be doubled)

Ingredients

For the pesto:

4 large cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped

¼ cup coarsely chopped pecans

1 fresh habañero chile

¼ teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt

⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 cup basil leaves, tightly packed

½ cup cilantro leaves

10 epazote leaves (if available)

¼ cup grated queso añejo or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil

For the soup:

The soup's ingredients include habañero chile, garlic, pecans and cilantro. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

The soup’s ingredients include habañero chile, garlic, pecans and cilantro. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

One 3-inch white onion, coarsely chopped

2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

½-inch piece of the habañero chile, minced

Three 15-ounce cans organic black beans

2 cups organic chicken broth, divided

2 Mexican (aka Key) limes

Sea or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

½ cup Mexican crema, or sour cream thinned with a little milk

Directions

For the pesto:

1. Combine the garlic, pecans, a tiny ¼-to-½-inch piece of the chile finely chopped (wear disposable gloves while doing this), salt and pepper in a food processor. Process for 10 seconds. Toss in the basil, cilantro and epazote and grind again for 10 seconds. Turn the processor off and scrape the sides with a spatula to get everything down into the mixture.

2. Add the cheese. Turn the machine back on and pour the oil slowly through the feed tube, processing until the mixture is fully incorporated and smooth. Taste carefully for saltiness and if the sauce is spicy enough — it should be hot! If not, mince another small piece of the chile and process again to fully incorporate the bits. Taste again and adjust accordingly.

3. Using a rubber spatula, scrape into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and set aside.

For the soup:

1. Heat the oil in a large pot and sauté the onion until translucent. Toss in the garlic and chile and cook until starting to brown. Remove from the heat.

2. Rinse the beans carefully for a few minutes. Scrape the onion, garlic and chile into the processor using a spatula and then dump in the beans. (You may have to do this in two batches.) Process until smooth, adding 1 cup of broth. Pour back into the pot.

3. Mix in the remaining 1 cup of broth. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat to a simmer, squeeze in the lime juice and season the bland beans assertively to taste with salt and pepper. Simmer 10 minutes.

4. To serve, ladle the soup into bowls and top with a generous tablespoonful of pesto on each. If using, swirl a tablespoon of crema in a circle around the pesto and pass the remaining crema in a small bowl.

Main photo: Black Bean Soup With Mexican Pesto. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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Celebrate World Pasta Day with some pasta sushi. Credit:

Although pasta may seem simple — just boil, right? — you might find that you’ve been doing some things wrong. Since Oct. 25 is World Pasta Day, below are some tips that will ensure your pasta is just perfect.

Riccardo Felicetti, a fourth-generation owner of artisan Italian pasta company Felicetti and new president of the International Pasta Organization, shares tips on how to properly cook pasta. “Pasta gets lonely,” he says, “so be sure to keep it company while it’s cooking so that you can occasionally stir it and so you can try some to test if it’s done.”

Riccardo Felicetti’s Tips to Making Perfect Pasta

  1. Use a big pot and lots of water so the pasta has room to move while it cooks. Use at least 1 quart for every ¼ pound of pasta.
  2. Think horizontally when cooking small amounts or filled pasta. When making long pasta like spaghetti for just one person, Italians put it into a wide shallow pan. You need only fill the pan with enough water to cover the spaghetti horizontally, not vertically!
  3. Do not add the pasta until the water boils or the pasta becomes gummy.
  4. Use the time on the box only as a general guideline. The best way to tell if pasta is ready is to taste it. Start tasting three to four minutes before the package’s suggested cooking time.
  5. Never rinse pasta. The starch on the pasta helps sauces adhere to it, and is a thickening agent for the sauce too.
  6. Always save a little of the pasta cooking water to toss with the pasta and sauce to thicken and meld the flavors. Again, it’s that starch that helps bring everything together.

The International Pasta Organization website provides a fun list of pasta recipes from around the world, nutrition advice and other interesting information. “Representing pasta producers from all over the world,” Felicetti says, “gives me great pride and is a huge responsibility at the same time. Pasta is a global food, nutritionally valuable, and has a central role in almost everyone’s diet.”

Perfect for World Pasta Day is this recipe for pasta sushi, a fusion of Italian and Japanese cuisines.

Pasta Sushi

Adapted from “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy” by Francine Segan.

Substitute pasta shells for the white rice, making beautiful, Japanese-inspired but Italian flavored, one-bite appetizers.

Try cooked or raw fish such as poached lobster topped with caviar, diced seared tuna with a dollop of hummus or raw oysters with lemon zest. You can fill them all the same, or make an assortment; just calculate about 4 pasta shells per serving and a heaping tablespoon of filling for each.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: Serves as many as you like

Ingredients

For the shells:

4 large pasta shells per person

Salt

Rice wine vinegar or lemon juice, to taste

Mirin or sweet Marsala or sherry, to taste

For the filling (approximately 1 tablespoon per shell):

Diced or thinly sliced raw fish such as tuna or salmon; raw or cooked oysters; sea urchin; caviar; and/or cooked fish like poached lobster, crab, or shrimp

For the garnish (to taste):

Lemon or orange zest; grated horseradish; chopped scallions; fresh diced fruit; mozzarella, cream cheese or other cheese; red chili pepper; and/or sea salt

Directions

1. Boil the pasta shells in salted water until al dente. Drain and toss with a splash, to taste, of rice wine vinegar and Mirin. Spread out onto a plate and let cool to room temperature.

2. Fill each shell with a tablespoon of filling. Garnish and season as you like.

Main photo: Pasta sushi is the perfect fusion of Italian and Japanese cuisine. Credit: “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy.”

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'Tis the season for pumpkins, Jack-o-Lanterns, and, of course, pumpkin pie.

What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye, What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie? — John Greenleaf Whittier, “The Pumpkin,” 1850

Scottish and Irish immigrants brought many Celtic Halloween traditions with them to the United States, including that of carving jack-o’-lanterns. But the pumpkin they embraced for the practice is a true American.

Tracing its long family tree back to at least 3000 B.C., the pumpkin and other squashes probably originated in the Tamaulipas mountains in Mexico. One of the Three Sisters — along with climbing beans and corn — pumpkins formed a major part of the diet of early Americans.  By 1000 B.C., the pumpkin arrived in what is today the United States. And by the time the English settled in Jamestown, Va., in 1607, Native Americans had developed sophisticated recipes and uses for the pumpkin.

A popular recipe was a type of pudding sweetened with maple sugar, similar in spirit to English puddings. Nowadays, pumpkins strut their stuff in pies, not unlike those baked by my English ancestors. Long a symbol of autumn in the United States, pumpkins now see the light of day primarily for ornamental reasons. Ninety percent of pumpkins end up carved into jack‑o’‑lanterns, and the rest make their way into cans as pumpkin-pie filling or puree. Every grocery store stocks pumpkins, piled in heaps at the entrance.

Seeing all those pumpkins whets my appetite. So, I just baked my first pumpkin pie of the season.

Canned pumpkin puree confession

Yes, I confess: I used to follow the recipe on the label of the Libby’s can of pumpkin puree. To show you that I don’t slavishly follow recipes, I added a ¼ teaspoon of vanilla and heaping spoonfuls of all the spices, as well as a big hit of freshly grated nutmeg. Sometimes, I used cream instead of evaporated milk, an ingredient actually not out of line because many vintage cookbooks of the 19th century mention using cream or a mixture of cream and milk.

And, yes, I know that making your own puree is far more earth-friendly. I’m all for that. But since I cannot find those nice little sugar pumpkins and other types for sale right now, I use the “traditional” method, as I know it. My mother never used anything but Libby’s. But I am sure my grandmothers struggled with the food-mill method of creating puree from boiled or roasted pumpkin.

Regardless of the method, some things don’t change when it comes to pumpkin pies. First of all, the aroma. It fills the house as the pie is baking, and that brings back all sorts of memories. School days, leaf forts, decorating the front porch for trick-or-treaters, choosing the candy to give out at Halloween.

Start with a partially baked pie crust before filling the pumpkin pie. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Start with a partially baked pie crust before filling the pumpkin pie. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

And the smell of cinnamon. I don’t know about you, but I nearly swoon when I catch a whiff of Saigon cinnamon. I try to restrain myself and not dump too much into the custard mix. The rich aroma of freshly grated nutmeg pumps up the flavor of the pie, too, not to mention that of cloves and ginger. The medieval overlay of these spices causes me to think about the ties to my cultural past. Because of that, for me, autumn signifies the aroma of these spices.

Hearkening back to pumpkin pies past

I’m intrigued by the fact that I’m standing in my kitchen in Virginia — one of the first areas settled by English men and women from 17th-century England, some my own ancestors — and I’m baking a dish based on flavors and techniques dating back to those days. Baked puddings abound in traditional English cooking. Yes, pumpkin pie is basically a baked pudding, even though it goes by the name “custard pie” these days and wears a crust.

Take a look at Mary Randolph’s “Pumpkin Pudding,” a very English and yet very American recipe, from her 1824 cookbook, “The Virginia Housewife”:

Stew a fine sweet pumpkin till soft and dry, rub it through a sieve, mix with the pulp six eggs quite light, a quarter of a pound of butter, half a pint of new milk, some pounded ginger and nutmeg, a wine glass of brandy, and sugar to your taste. Should it be too liquid, stew it a little dryer; put a paste [crust] round the edges and the bottom of a shallow dish or plate, pour in the mixture, cut some thin bits of paste, twist them and lay them across the top and bake nicely.

Pumpkin pie  is not only for dessert any more, either. I find pumpkin pie a great breakfast food, just as many people did in the past.

I’ll probably make another pumpkin pie very soon. For some reason, I see only a small sliver left in the pie pan.  

Pumpkin Pie

 Yield: 1 (9-inch) pie  

Ingredients  

For the crust:

1 partially baked 9-inch pie crust

Dry beans (for shaping the pie crust)

For the filling:

1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin puree

1 heaping teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ heaping teaspoon ground ginger

¼ heaping teaspoon ground cloves

⅛ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

½ cup granulated sugar

¼ cup brown sugar

3 large eggs

1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk or 1½ cups heavy cream or whole milk

For the garnish

Whipped cream

Ingredients

For the partially baked crust:

1. Preheat oven to 400 F.
2. Arrange the dough in the pie pan, crimping the edges, pressing down slightly to anchor the dough to the edges of the pie pan.
3. Place two sheets of aluminum foil, slightly overlapping, over the dough in the pan. Press down gently and make sure that the foil touches all the surfaces. Pour in enough dry beans to come to the edge of the pie pan. This allows the pie crust to retain its shape.
4. Bake 15 minutes with the beans. Then slowly remove the foil and beans by grabbing the corners of the foil and pull up and out. Bake the crust 5 more minutes.
5. Let cool almost completely on a rack.

For the filling:  

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. Place all the ingredients in a large bowl, in the order given, whisking after each addition.
3. Pour into the partially baked pie shell.
4. Bake about 45 minutes or until a sharp knife inserted into center comes out clean. Check throughout the baking. If the edges of the crust get too dark, place a ring of foil over the exposed pie crust. At that point, the surface of the pie along the edges will have puffed up and cracked slightly.
5. Allow to cool. Serve with whipped cream garnish.

Main photo: Pumpkins. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen  

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Bucatini Dome

Dried pasta can cost anywhere from $1 to $7 or more per pound. Pasta is just flour and water, so what, if anything, makes the expensive stuff any better? Is there a taste and texture difference between brands? Is artisanal pasta worth the price?

I traveled throughout Italy to find out, interviewing food bloggers, chefs, pasta manufacturers and home cooks. Every Italian I spoke with emphatically believed that he or she could taste the difference and that good pasta wasn’t cheap, but was worth the price. I listened to technical explanations of the difference between Teflon and bronze extrusion, the value of water, length and types of drying techinques.

They were all convincing, but I was finally won over completely when I attended the food festival I Primi d’Italia, dedicated to Italy’s famed first-course specialties: pasta, risotto and polenta. The festival is held each year in Umbria, in the historic town of Foligno, which is completely transformed with tasting and demo stations in every piazza, courtyard and cobblestone street as it plays host to this delightful event.

I attended a workshop on how to evaluate dried pasta led by Gennaro Esposito, a two-star Michelin chef from Naples. He did a side-by-side test that highlighted the ways to tell so-so pasta from great pasta.

Try this at home

Try it yourself at home. It’s easiest to see the difference using spaghetti, so select an artisanal imported Italian pasta, and compare it to a bargain brand.

Fill two pots with the same amount of water and salt and bring to a boil. So that it’s a blind test, ask a friend to help so you don’t know which pasta is which. Have your friend put in the same amount of pasta to each pot. After a minute or two, stir the pastas and take a whiff of the water. Which pasta has a fresh wheat aroma?

  1. Once the pasta is al dente, drain, and test its ability to absorb sauce. Put a few strands of each into two different bowls with a little water and after several minutes note which pasta absorbed more water. That means it will better absorb sauce and is the better pasta.
  2. Then pinch both types of pasta between your thumb and index finger. The inferior pasta will be gummy to the touch and soft in the middle, while the better pasta stays al dente.
  3. Finally, taste each pasta plain, with no sauce. That should be enough to convince you!
fresh pasta

A chef presses pasta. Great pasta doesn’t mush. Credit: Francine Segan.

Ways to Spot Superior Pasta

To learn how to spot superior pasta I visited Garofalo, a famed Naples pasta company, where I was taught that superior pasta, when raw, should be yellow (not white), it should smell like fine wheat, and it should break cleanly and easily—without scattering bits about.

When cooked, it should:

  1. Taste delicious, even without sauce.
  2. Have a lovely aroma, like crusty bread.
  3. Leave the cooking water clear and uncloudy.
  4. Stick to the sauce. If the sauce slides off, it’s a sign that the pasta was not properly dried. Pasta that is too slippery means that the past maker rushed the drying process using a high temperature, which causes the pasta’s starch to form a sort of glaze on the pasta, making it shiny and impenetrable for sauces.
  5. Remain firm the last bite. If left in a plate without sauce, it should not collapse and lose its shape.

To underscore just how important good pasta is, the team at Garofalo taught me a fabulous show-stopping recipe. It really underscores the characteristics of quality pasta — the ability to keep from getting mushy when cooked.

Bucatini Dome (Cupola di Bucatini)

It’s hard to top this dish for pure drama. The stately dome of pasta houses a colorful filling of string beans, carrots, zucchini and plenty of rich Italian cheese.

But don’t get intimidated. It’s actually quite easy to create. The trick is to use bucatini, which are thick long pasta that keep their shape as you coil them into the round dome cake pan. If you don’t have one, use a metal bowl instead. Don’t let lack of equipment keep you from tackling this architecturally magnificent — and delicious — dish.

Prep time: 40 minutes

Cooking time: 30 minutes

Total time: 70 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

14 tablespoons butter, plus more for the pan

5 slender zucchini (about 2 pounds), minced

3 medium carrots, minced

¾ pound haricot verts or very thin string beans, minced

1¼ pounds bucatini

2 eggs, beaten

½ cup grated pecorino cheese

Black pepper

¾ pound deli-sliced high-quality provolone cheese

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Very generously butter an 8- to 9-inch dome-shaped oven-safe container such as a Pyrex or metal bowl.

2. Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a large frying pan and add zucchini; fry until soft. Put the zucchini into a large bowl. Using the same pan, cook the carrots and string beans in 1 tablespoon of butter over low heat, covered, until tender, adding a few drops of water, if needed. Stir into the bowl with the zucchini until well combined. Set aside 1 cup of this vegetable mixture as garnish for later.

3.  Cook the pasta in boiling salted water for ⅔ of the package’s recommended time. Drain and divide, putting ¾ of the pasta into the large bowl of vegetables and the remaining ¼ into a small bowl with 2 tablespoons of butter. Set aside; the small bowl, it will be used for the outer part of the dome.

4.  Add 9 tablespoons of butter to the pasta-vegetable bowl and stir until the butter melts, then stir in the beaten eggs, pecorino cheese, and freshly grated black pepper. Using kitchen scissors, cut into the pasta mixture so it is broken up a little. Set aside.

5. From the plain buttered pasta, using one strand and starting in the center of the prepared domed container, twirl the pasta around itself to form a coil. Continue the coil with another strand of pasta starting where the last strand ended so it is in one continuous line; continue with additional strands until half way up the pan. Line the pasta with slices of  cheese, pressing the cheese firmly against the pasta. Put in half of the vegetable-pasta mixture, pressing firmly into the bottom and sides of the bowl to remove any air pockets and densely pack the filling. Top with cheese slices.

6. Continue coiling the plain pasta around the dome to the top, adding a strand at the exact spot the last ended. Line the sides with more cheese slices and top with the remaining vegetable-pasta mixture and slices of cheese. Press the pasta down firmly with a spatula or wooden spoon. This is key to getting a nice compact dome that stays together nicely when sliced. Cut the remaining plain buttered pasta with scissors and press on top of the mixture.

7. Cover the bowl with aluminum foil and bake for 15 minutes, then remove the foil and bake uncovered for another 15 minutes, until golden and set. Let rest 10 minutes, then put a serving plate on top of the bowl, and invert it. Hit with a wooden spoon to help the pasta release from the pan, and, using the tip of a spoon or butter knife along the bottom edge of the bowl, begin to remove the bowl from the pasta. Serve garnished with the reserved cup of minced vegetables.

Main photo: Bucatini Dome houses string beans, carrots, zucchini and plenty of cheese. Credit: “Pasta Modern” by Francine Segan

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Corn kernels cut off the cob being prepared for freezing. Credit: David Latt

Wanting to cook with farm-to-table ingredients is much more difficult in colder months than in the summer. Eating locally in the fall and winter means switching to recipes that feature root vegetables, cabbages and hearty greens like kale. The summer ingredient I miss the most is corn. My solution is to turn my freezer into a garden.

With a few easy steps, I can have fresh-tasting corn even during the darkest days of winter.

A Taste of Summer From Your Freezer


One in a series of stories about freezing late-summer produce to enjoy all winter.

Healthy tips to beat back winter’s grip

After years of experimentation, I believe that corn kernels retain their flavors best when frozen rather than pickled or preserved in glass jars. The trick with corn kernels is cooking them quickly and then submerging them in their own liquid.

Frozen in airtight containers, the kernels retain their qualities for several months, long enough to carry the home cook through to the spring when the farmers markets come alive again.

Use stacking containers so you can keep a half dozen or more in your freezer. Besides the containers available in supermarkets, restaurant supply stores sell lidded, plastic deli containers in 6-, 8- and 16-ounce sizes.

Charred Corn Kernels

Once defrosted, the kernels can be added to soups, stews, pastas and sautés.

Yield: 6 to 8 cups depending on the size of the ears

Prep time: 5 minutes

Sautéing time: 5 to 10 minutes

Ingredients

6 ears corn, husks and silks removed, ears washed

1 tablespoon olive oil

Directions

1. Using a sharp paring or chef knife cut the kernels off the cobs. Reserve the cobs.

2. Heat a large frying pan or carbon steel pan on a high flame.

3. Add olive oil and corn kernels. Stir frequently so the kernels cook evenly.

4. When the kernels have a light char, remove from the burner.

5. To avoid burning, continue to stir because the pan retains heat.

6. Set aside to cool.

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Corn kernels sautéing in a carbon steel pan. Credit: David Latt

Corn Broth

Corn broth keeps the kernels fresh in the freezer. The broth is also delicious when added to soups, stews, braising liquids and pasta sauce. If your recipe only needs the kernels, after defrosting remove them from the deli container and refreeze the corn broth for another use.

Simmer time: 30 minutes

Cooling time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

6 corn cobs without kernels, each cob broken in half

4 quarts water

Directions

1. Place the cobs and water in a large pot on a high flame.

2. Boil uncovered until the water is reduced by half.

3. Cool. Remove the cobs and discard for compost.

Freezing Corn Kernels in Corn Broth

Directions

1. Fill the deli containers with the kernels, a half-inch from the top.

2. Add enough corn broth to cover the kernels.

3. Seal with airtight lid.

4. Place in freezer. Freeze any excess corn broth to use as vegetarian stock.

Chicken Soup With Charred Corn and Garlic Mushrooms

Perfect for cold, wet days, hot chicken soup is a healthy dish to eat for lunch or dinner. The charred corn gives the hot and nutritious soup an added brightness and sweetness.

Yield: 4 servings

Prep time: 5 minutes

Simmer time: 20 minutes

Ingredients

8 ounces frozen corn kernels including stock

1 teaspoon olive oil

6 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)

2 tablespoons yellow onions, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, peeled, crushed, finely chopped

2 tablespoons Italian parsley, leaves only, finely chopped

1 cup shiitake, brown or Portobello mushrooms, washed, pat dried, sliced thin

Pinch cayenne (optional)

1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Defrost the corn kernels overnight. If you are using homemade frozen chicken stock, defrost that overnight as well.

2. Remove the corn kernels from the corn broth and reserve separately.

3. In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over a medium flame.

4. Sauté until lightly browned the corn, onions, garlic parsley and mushrooms. Stir frequently to avoid burning.

5. Add chicken stock and corn broth. Stir well and simmer 10 minutes.

6. Add cayenne and sweet butter (optional). Stir well, taste and adjust seasonings with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

7. Serve hot with homemade croutons or a loaf of fresh bread and butter.

Braised Charred Corn and Tuscan Kale

Adjust the amount of liquid to your liking. With more broth, the side dish is a refreshing small soup to accompany a plate of roast chicken. Reducing the broth to a thickness resembling a gravy, the corn-kale braise is a good companion to breaded or grilled filet of salmon or halibut.

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

8 ounces corn kernels and corn broth

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 bunch Tuscan (black) kale, washed, center stem removed, leaves roughly chopped

1 medium yellow onion, washed, peeled, roughly chopped

2 garlic cloves, skins removed, washed, crushed, finely chopped

1 cup vegetable or chicken stock, preferably homemade

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

Pinch cayenne (optional)

1 teaspoon sweet butter (optional)

Directions

1. Defrost corn kernels and broth overnight.

2. Separate the kernels from the broth, reserve both.

3. Heat a large frying pan.

4. Add olive oil.

5. Add kale and sauté, stirring frequently to avoid burning.

6. The kale will give up its moisture. When the kale has reduced in size by half, add the corn kernels, onion and garlic. Sauté until lightly browned.

7. Add the reserved corn broth and the other broth. Stir well.

8. Simmer 10 minutes.

9. Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt and pepper. Add butter and cayenne (optional).

10 .Serve with more or less liquid as desired.

Onion-Corn-Mushroom Sauté

Personally, when it’s cold outside, I love a steak grilled on a high temperature carbon steel pan. The outside gets a salty crust while the inside stays juicy and sweet. Mashed potatoes are a good side dish, accompanied with an onion, corn and mushroom sauté. The combination of flavors—meaty, creamy-salty-earthly-summer sweet—is satisfyingly umami. Throw in a vodka martini ,and you’ll never notice that outside your warm kitchen the sidewalks have iced over and it is about to snow.

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

1 cup corn kernels

1 teaspoon olive oil

2 medium yellow onions, washed, peeled, root removed, thin sliced

2 to 4 garlic cloves, washed, peeled, crushed, roughly chopped

2 cups shiitake, brown or Portobello mushrooms, washed, pat dried, thin sliced

1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

Pinch cayenne (optional)

1 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves, washed, pat dried, finely chopped (optional)

Directions

1. Defrost corn kernels and broth overnight.

2. Separate the kernels from the broth, reserve both. Refreeze the broth for later use.

3. Heat a large frying pan.

4. Add olive oil.

5. On a medium flame, sauté onions, stirring frequently until lightly browned. That caramelization will add sweetness to the sauté.

6. Add corn, garlic, mushrooms. Stir well. Sauté until lightly browned.

7. Add sweet butter (optional), cayenne (optional) and rosemary (optional). Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt and black pepper.

8. Serve hot as a side dish or condiment.

Main photo: Corn kernels cut off the cob being prepared for freezing. Credit: David Latt

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Bottles of olive oil. Credit: iStockPhoto

I brought a jug of dark green Sicilian olive oil, freshly pressed from a friend’s farm, back to my home in the hills along the border between Tuscany and Umbria. “È buono,” said my neighbor, Arnaldo, when he tasted it. “It’s good but … non ė genuino.”

Non ė genuino – it’s about the worst thing an Italian can say about another Italian’s food, whether oil, cheese, wine or pork ragù. It translates as “it’s not the real thing,” but what it really means is, “This is not the way we do it here, not the way our forebears have been doing it since Etruscan times, and not, in fact, the right way.”

In this case, caro Arnaldo, I beg to differ. What I had offered was a fresh-tasting oil made from Nocellara del Belice olives, picked green and pressed immediately, radiant with the almond-to-artichoke flavors characteristic of that varietal, which is grown mostly in and around western Sicily’s Belice valley. Moreover, it was lush, verdant and fresh from the press — I knew because I was there when it happened.

This encounter led me to think about the astonishing variety of foods that proliferate throughout the long, skinny, undulating boot that is Italy, and about the intense pride each region, each province, each little mountain village or coastal fishing port takes in its own traditions.

Italians, it almost goes without saying, invented the locavore phenomenon — and invented it a long time ago. It’s what makes a culinary tour of this remarkable country so seductive and astonishing.

What makes olive oils great?

But it’s also a trap of deception. A New York Times reporter — who happens to be a friend of mine — fell into that trap recently when writing about Umbrian olive oil. “Our oil,” her informants told her (I’m extrapolating), “is not like that sweet Tuscan oil. Our oil has character!”

Sweet oil? Tuscan? Really? Peppery, fruity, bitter, complex — these are the characteristics I taste in a well-made Tuscan oil. But not sweet.

Umbrian olive oil can be, and often is, excellent. The main local cultivar is Moraiolo, which is high in antioxidants that give it an overwhelming intensity, so much so that producers blend Moraiolo olives with others to calm that muscular quality. But Umbrian olive oil is also hard to distinguish from Tuscan oil. In fact, I would argue almost all high-quality central Italian oils — made from a mix of olives (Frantoio, Leccino, Pendolino and Moraiolo are the usual blend); often grown at high altitudes; usually harvested when still immature and pressed immediately thereafter — typically share certain acerbic flavors and peppery aromas that are redolent of freshly cut grass, artichoke or tomato leaves. I doubt most North American consumers, even well-educated ones, confronted with a selection of oils from Umbria and Tuscany, could tell them apart.

There are, I’m told, more than 500 olive cultivars grown in Italy, some of them widely known and grown such as Leccino, universally valued for its resistance to low temperatures, and some of them only from very specific regions, like Dritto, an olive that appears to be exclusive to the Abruzzi, or Perenzana olives from northern Puglia. With the spread of olive culture to other regions of the world — California, Chile, South Africa, New Zealand — some of these cultivars are being grown far from their native soil, and the oil made from them often suffers as a result — non ė genuino!

Or at least that’s what Italians believe, and my heart — and my palate — agrees. The best oils taste of that elusive characteristic called terroir — a combination of environment (soil structure, altitude, climate, weather), variety and technology, both traditional and modern, adjusted to match time-honored local tastes. In Provence, for instance, local taste demands a fusty flavor, the result of anaerobic fermentation in the olives, producing an oil considered defective elsewhere.

But I also believe North Americans are fortunate not to be trapped in the locavore delusion. We have access to olive oils from all over Italy, indeed from all over the world. How to deal with that abundance can be a problem, but it’s a problem we should welcome. Unlike those Umbrian producers, we can buy an Umbrian oil and a Tuscan one and taste them side by side, along with one, perhaps, from Puglia, or Sicily, or even from Verona in northern Italy. Or indeed Tunisia or Spain or New Zealand.

The tree said to be the oldest olive tree in Umbria, Italy. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

The tree said to be the oldest olive tree in Umbria, Italy. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

The revolution starts here

Now I’m going to tell you something radical: I have tried to love olive oils from retail outlets across the entire U.S., but with few exceptions, I have almost always been disappointed. Many retailers simply don’t recognize the importance of harvest dates or the critical significance of maintaining oils in dark, cool environments. They display bottles under shop lights in order to entice customers, and they’ve paid top dollar for oil when it first arrives on the market, so even if it stays around a while, the price still has to reflect their costs.

So more and more, my advice is to go to online distributors, many of whom get their oil directly from the producer and most of whom keep their precious bottles warehoused in a dark, cool environment. Here are a few I recommend; I’ve also noted where there are retail stores. Note that the first three sell only Italian olive oils; the rest carry a variety from many other areas, including California:

Main photo: Bottles of olive oil. Credit: iStockPhoto

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