Articles in Cooking
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.
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“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.
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
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
½ bunch fresh parsley
Salt and pepper
2 to 3 amaretti cookies, crushed, optional
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
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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)
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 cups diced pumpkin or kabocha squash, seeds and skin removed
Salt and pepper
1 pound pasta, any shape
Pecorino or other aged cheese
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
“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.
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By Bryant Terry
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.
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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
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.
- To make the cake, preheat the oven to 375 F. Oil an 8-inch round cake pan with 2-inch sides.
- Sift the sugar, flours, cocoa powder, baking soda, salt, cayenne, and nutmeg into a large bowl and stir with a whisk until well blended.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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.
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By Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson
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.
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.
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.
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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.”
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 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
It’s the end of a long, wet and unusually cool summer in the Virginia mountains. And, to my joy, the water-logged soil yields more than the mildew spreading like talcum powder across my prolific yellow summer squash (Cucurbita pepo), also called crookneck squash.
About an hour before dinner, I pick half a dozen of the young, fresh squash — all no longer than 6 inches. Tiny hairlike spines on the broad leaves of the plant prick my fingers as I grab the first squash I see.
Mother Nature is ingenious in ensuring that species propagate by developing defense mechanisms such as strong odors or prickly thorns. With summer squash, the leaves’ spines are a good indication of freshness, which is useful when choosing produce at the supermarket. Also, this variety’s thin, fragile neck makes it somewhat difficult to ship commercially, so summer squash available at groceries have been bred to have shorter, wider “crooks” than the variety I grow in my garden.
Botanists believe squash, like the ones growing in my garden, originated in Mexico about 10,000 years ago. Food historians credit Christopher Columbus, who voyaged to the New World in 1492, with helping to spread squash to the Old World by returning with squash seeds. Images of various New World squashes started to appear in Italian paintings around 1515.
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Today, almost every cuisine in the world features squash — members of the gourd (Cucurbitaceae) family — in one form or another, be it the thicker-skinned varieties like pumpkin or the thinner-skinned varieties of zucchini or opo squash.
Summer squash a Southern staple
Yellow summer squash holds a special place in the repertoire of many Southern cooks in America. There’s the popular Stewed Squash and the old standby, Pickled Squash.
But another beloved Southern dish captured my fancy years ago: Squash Casserole, a gratin-like dish. Some cooks call it Baked Squash or Squash Pudding. Most recipes include a topping made from a sleeve of crushed buttery Ritz crackers, a quick answer to the problem of not having buttery bread crumbs on hand.
A favorite side dish at Southern family reunions and other celebrations, Squash Casserole comes in about as many shapes as there are cooks who make it.
Mary Randolph, linked to the Virginia gentry as a relative of Thomas Jefferson, wrote “The Virginia Housewife” (1824), considered the first cookbook of the American South by many culinary historians. Her cookbook influenced others, such as “The Kentucky Housewife” and “The Carolina Housewife.” And, just like Randolph, I usually like to keep things simple when it comes to summer squash. Translation: I never have Ritz Crackers, or bread crumbs for that matter, on hand.
Squash dish, made simple
In one of her two recipes for squash, Winter Squash, Randolph advocates boiling it and topping it with butter, simple enough treatments. I grew up eating yellow squash boiled with big chunks of bacon thrown in, a somewhat similar recipe.
For my dinner, I cut the squashes into small cubes, salt them, leave them in a colander for about 30 minutes to drain, and then rinse off the salt and dry the cubes. After heating a small amount of olive oil at high heat in my cast-iron skillet, I cook the pieces of squash until the cut edges brown. A twist of black pepper and a dash of smoked paprika and this side dish stands up well to most main courses, meat-based or vegetarian.
In the chill of late summer nights, I long for the filling heft of a casserole. Randolph’s other squash recipe, Squash or Cimlin — cimlin or “cymling” is an old-fashioned word for pattypan squash. Randolph’s “The Virginia Housewife” gives the following recipe, a somewhat close relative to modern Squash Casserole:
Gather young squashes, peel, and cut them in two; take out the seeds, and boil them till tender; out them into a colander, drain off the water, and rub them with a wooden spoon through the colander; then put them into a stew-pan, with a cupful of cream, a small piece of butter, some pepper, and salt, stew them, stirring very frequently until dry. This is the most delicate way of preparing squashes.
One interesting note: Randolph makes no mention of bacon fat in this recipe.
Bacon and squash, a tasty combination
One thing to remember about traditional Southern cooking is that pork, and pork fat, plays a starring role. History and circumstances dictate much of tradition when it comes to food habits. The American South is no different from France that way. Pigs fared better than cattle in the warm and humid Southern climate, fending for themselves in the forests. Pork could also be preserved better when salted and smoked as ham and bacon.
The following recipe incorporates a number of cooking techniques mentioned in “The Virginia Housewife” yet honors modern tastes and preparation methods. What remains constant is the delicate taste of the squash.
And the tang of bacon.
- Butter or shortening for greasing
- 5 to 6 cups yellow summer squash, cut into ½-inch slices
- 4 slices bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil or light olive oil
- 1 medium onion, finely minced
- 3 tablespoons green bell pepper, finely minced
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
- 1 cup grated Jack cheese
- ¾ cup sour cream
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease a 1-quart, oven-proof baking dish with butter or shortening.
- Place the sliced squash in a medium saucepan; add water to cover. Add about ½ tablespoon of salt and ¼ teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper. Bring squash to a boil; cook for 10 minutes until just barely tender to the poke of a sharp knife. Drain squash until almost all the water is out.
- Put the bacon into a cast-iron skillet with the 2 tablespoons of oil. Fry until bacon is crisp. Remove bacon from the skillet and drain on paper towels. Pour out all but 2 tablespoons of the remaining oil from the skillet; sauté the onion and green pepper until lightly caramelized; add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Remove from the skillet and mix with the bacon. Set aside.
- Add the onion mixture, cheese and sour cream to the hot squash; sprinkle in more salt and pepper to taste. Mix well with a flexible spatula. Scrape squash mixture into prepared baking dish and place in the oven. Bake for 20 minutes and then turn off heat. Serve immediately.
You may substitute zucchini for the yellow squash. Or you can combine the two if you wish.
Main photo: Yellow crookneck squash. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen
I have met the next generation of bread.
I’m more than a little susceptible to hypnosis by wheat, but if you believe in bread, what Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn are doing might mesmerize you too. If you doubt bread, their story might make you reconsider.
Tucked high on a hill in Vermont, Elmore Mountain Bread makes a future that I think will last. Marvin and Heyn bake sourdough bread in a wood-fired brick oven, which is standard operating procedure for artisan bread. However, they also mill their own flour.
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Wheat and gluten are the latest bull’s-eyes in the American game of dietary roulette. Remember when eggs, butter and red meat were reviled? Some people are finding their way back to bread through small-scale bakeries and long sourdough fermentations. The next road on the path back to bread might be bakery milled grains.
“We want to make the best bread we can, and it’s a no-brainer that milling is a part of it,” Marvin said as she filled a rack at a small supermarket with fresh-baked loaves in paper bags. The birds on her arm tattoo flew as she worked. A small tag on the rack announced that the flour was freshly milled. A little red stamp of a millstone on the bag gave the same notice. The change is much bigger than these words and signs show.
The day before, Heyn poured grain into the hopper above the stone mill he had built. Every half hour, a timer went off and Heyn or Marvin left the bakery to scoop flour from the rectangular bins attached to the sifter. The sifter allows them to remove a small portion of the bran, and bake with a very white — yet nearly whole-grain — flour, using almost the whole kernel.
A few bakeries now milling their own flour
Research on how milling affects the nutritional value of flour is minimal, but wheat processing is being scrutinized as celiac disease and non-celiac wheat sensitivities are investigated. A handful of bakeries across North America are choosing to mill their own flour in pursuit of peak flavor and nutrition.
Elmore Mountain Bread is remote, near the edge of the state’s fabled Northeast Kingdom, but the bakers are not isolated. America lacks a formal apprentice system for bakers, so good bread advances through a network of online and live resources, such as King Arthur Flour’s baking school and the Bread Bakers Guild of America. Bakers get to know one another by email and by traveling to see one another’s setups.
Miller-bakers Julie Lomenda from Six Hundred Degrees Brick Oven Bakery in Tofino, Canada, and Dave Bauer from Farm & Sparrow in Candler, N.C., came to see the Vermont bakery on separate visits, and they got the couple thinking about milling.
Closer to home, Bread & Butter Farm in Shelburne, Vt., mills for its baking. In the spring, Heyn and Marvin’s son Phineas gave them the impetus to start.
“One of the only things he ate every day was baguettes,” Andrew said. “As I was doing the ordering, which was typically 30 bags of white flour and two bags of whole wheat, I realized that this was refined foods. Organic, but refined.”
Heyn and Marvin wanted to use whole grains but remain loyal to their customers and product line, which was thoroughly artisan but did not feature whole grains. The bakery began 15 years ago, and they’ve owned it for a decade. Through that cross-continent network of bakers, Heyn designed a mill that would suit all their goals.
The brainstorming took place largely on email. Cliff Leir from Fol Epi in Victoria, Canada, sent pictures to Heyn of the mill he had built. Heyn collaborated with bakers Fulton Forde and Bryn Rawlyk, who also wanted to build their own mills. The three worked out details for a rustic, simple machine in a very 21st century fashion, without ever talking on the phone.
The metal work was more tangible and local. Friends who live down the road from the bakery fabricated the framework for the millstones. Iron Art had made the door for the bakery oven, and helped make the oven loader too. The sifter they bought ready made, but Heyn is about to make a new set of screens to better regulate the sifting.
Six years ago Heyn brainstormed designs for the next generation of wood-fired ovens with mason William Davenport of Turtlerock Masonry Heat, incorporating ideas from the Masonry Heater Association. Davenport built the oven for Elmore Mountain Bread, and its features are now common in micro-bakeries. Turtlerock is no longer in business, but former apprentice Jeremiah Church is still building ovens.
All of this tinkering, until the mill, has been to serve efficiencies. Heyn has an engineering mindset, and as he’s engaged in his work, his brain is always working out improvements in their system. Marvin has been an eager partner in this thinking, because she wants to minimize wear and tear on their bodies in what’s a very physical job.
The mill adds rather than subtracts work, but the two of them are gung-ho about this latest innovation. Even though the grains cost about as much as the organic flour they were using, the difference in product is worth it because they want to make the best bread they can.
Elmore Mountain Bread delivers about 500 loaves three times a week in a small radius near Stowe and Montpelier. The bakers still use roller milled flour to make a focaccia served in restaurants, but that is only about 20% of their production.
So far, they haven’t figured out an effective way to announce the difference in their main ingredient. Aside from the little millstone graphic and note on the bag, they don’t have much direct contact with their buyers. This is the way it is for bakers. Even in a retail setting, customers don’t want to chat about what’s in a loaf, the way someone might linger over ingredients while sipping a beer.
I am hoping that this will change. The media are a big voice in the popular campaign against bread, and positive stories about flour are rare.
For now, the bread speaks for itself, though I might serve as a ventriloquist. I didn’t taste any Elmore Mountain Bread before it started milling. Usually I’m all pancakes, all the time. But these loaves made me forget the griddle. The flour smelled so fresh and fieldy, and the breads were hauntingly tasty. I have a new enchantment.
Main photo: Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn divide and shape dough at Vermont’s Elmore Mountain Bread. Credit: Amy Halloran