Articles in Cooking

Three lusty winter beans and greens. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

In traditional Mediterranean cooking, dried beans are typical winter foods that are often combined with winter greens and root vegetables such as Swiss chard, spinach, squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes and others.

There is a delight in these kinds of dishes not only because they’re delicious, but they are satisfying and healthy too. These three are only examples of what you can do with “beans and greens.”

To devise your own combination, start with a dried legume and then consider its color and match that with an appropriate root vegetable (color also considered) and an appropriate green.

So, for example, red kidney beans, white potatoes, and kale or lentils, beet greens and yams and so on all cooked for beautiful winter main courses or side dishes. If serving as a main course, you should double these recipes.

Beans and Greens: beans, sweet potato and chard

Beans and Greens: beans, sweet potato and chard. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Beans and Greens: beans, sweet potato and chard. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Prep time: 6 to 8 hours with bean soak or 10 minutes without

Cook time: 45 minutes

Yield: 2 to 4 servings

Ingredients

1/4 cup (about 2 ounces) dried red kidney beans, soaked in water for 6 to 8 hours, drained

1 bay leaf

6 ounces sweet potato, peeled and diced

3 ounces winter squash, peeled and diced

1/4 pound Swiss chard leaves, chopped coarsely

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 1/2 ounces finely chopped onion

1/8 teaspoon cumin seeds

Salt to taste

Directions

1. Place the beans in a large pot with the bay leaf and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook 25 minutes. Check to see if the beans are tender with a little bite to them. If not, cook longer. Add the sweet potato, squash and Swiss chard, stir, and cook until they are all tender, about 20 minutes. Drain.

2. Meanwhile, in a sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat then cook, stirring, the onion and cumin until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the drained beans and greens to the pan, mix well, season with salt, cook 1 minute then serve.

Beans and Greens: fava, eggplant and frisee

Beans and Greens: fava, eggplant and frisee. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Beans and Greens: fava, eggplant and frisee. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Prep time: 6 to 8 hours with bean soak or 10 minutes without

Cook time: 50 minutes

Yield: 2 to 4 servings

Ingredients

1/4 cup (about 2 ounces) dried yellow fava beans, soaked in water 6 to 8 hours, drained

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

5 ounces eggplant, peeled and diced

1 1/2 ounces finely chopped onion

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

1/4 pound frisee, chopped

1 1/2 ounces arugula, chopped

2 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped

Salt to taste

Directions

1. Place the fava beans in a pot and cover with cold water. Bring to boil over high heat and cook until tender, about 40 minutes (check for tenderness and cook longer if necessary).

2. Meanwhile, in a skillet heat the olive oil over medium-high heat then cook, turning occasionally, the eggplant until golden brown, about 6 minutes. Remove the eggplant with a slotted spoon or skimmer and set aside. Discard all but 2 tablespoons of the oil. Reduce the heat to medium.

3. Add the onion and garlic to the pan and cook, stirring, until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the frisee, arugula, and mint to the pan and cook, stirring, until wilted, about 8 minutes. Add the fava beans and cook, tossing with a little salt, for a minute. Serve hot.

Beans and Greens: chickpeas, spinach and potato

Beans and Greens: chickpeas, spinach and potato. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Beans and Greens: chickpeas, spinach and potato. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Prep time: 6 to 8 hours with bean soak or 10 minutes without

Cook time: 45 minutes

Yield: 2 to 4 servings

Ingredients

1/4 cup (about 2 ounces) dried chickpeas, soaked in water for 6 to 8 hours, drained

5 ounces boiling potato, such as Yukon gold, white or red potato, peeled and diced

6 ounces spinach leaves, chopped

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 small leek, white part only, split lengthwise, washed well and finely chopped

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

1/2 stalk celery, finely chopped

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh tarragon

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Directions

1. Place the chickpeas in pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook for 15 minutes (taste one and if it is quite hard cook another 20 minutes) then add the potato and cook until the potato has disintegrated a bit and the chickpeas are tender, about another 25 minutes. Add the spinach and cook until it is wilted, about 2 minutes. Drain and set aside.

2. In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat then cook, stirring, the leek, garlic and celery until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the tarragon and cook until it wilts in a minute. Add the drained chickpeas and spinach, and toss well with some salt and pepper then serve hot.

Main photo: Three lusty winter beans and greens. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

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Little neck clams with pasta and string beans. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Winds blow through bare tree limbs, chilling you to the bone, making you long for bowls of hot, comfort food. Of course, a microwavable meal might be in your kitchen, but a freshly cooked meal is always more satisfying. Making pasta with delicious clams and healthy vegetables will warm you up. Quick and easy, it requires only one pot.

The fewer pots and pans you need to prepare a meal, the quicker the cleanup. Using already cooked pasta is an easy starting point. Live clams purchased from a quality seafood purveyor will yield a fresh-from-the-sea brininess.

Fresh green beans have a pleasing crunch when cooked with the same al dente finish as the pasta. The dish can flexibly use different vegetables. If green beans are not available, use any number of greens from leafy spinach to broccolini, kale or shredded escarole.

Sometimes clams are sold in plastic mesh bags placed on beds of ice. At other stores, they are kept in tanks with circulating cold salt water. Unfortunately, buying clams can be a hit-or-miss proposition. From the outside, good and bad clams look pretty much the same. The only way to determine whether the clams are as good as they can be is to buy and cook them. This is why it is useful to have developed a relationship with a seafood market you trust.

Little neck clams in a frying pan with shellfish broth. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Little neck clams in a frying pan with shellfish broth. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Only use small clams, approximately 2 or 3 inches across. Larger clams are better used cooked, removed from the shell and chopped. Steamers, a deliciously sweet clam, require some finger work to remove the skin covering the foot, so manila, little neck or butter clams are easier to prepare and eat.

Clams with Pasta and Green Beans

Purchase the clams from a quality seafood market. Fresh clams have a wonderfully clean flavor. If the clams are in a salt water tank, pick as many clams as you can that are open. When you use the slotted spoon to remove them from the water, they will close, indicating they are very much alive.

Finding good green beans depends on the season and the purveyor. Always buy green beans that are firm and unblemished. For some reason, in Southern California where I live, green beans from farmers markets are often not as good as those found in Asian markets. At Marukai, a local Japanese market in West Los Angeles, the green beans are consistently firm and unblemished.

If substituting spinach, trim the root ends and rinse well to remove all sand and grit, then roughly chop and add at the same time as the clams. If using broccolini, cut off the stems, peel and cut into thin rounds, then add the peeled rounds and florets on the bottom of the pot with olive oil and lightly sauté before adding the clams. If using kale, cut the leafy part off the center rib and roughly chop and sauté in the pot with olive oil before adding the clams. If using escarole, shred and sauté in the pot with olive oil before adding the clams.

Green beans. Copyright 2016 David Latt

Green beans. Copyright 2016 David Latt

If clams are not available, freshly peeled and deveined raw shrimp are a good substitute. If using raw shrimp (peeled and deveined) instead of clams, sauté for one minute and add the green beans and pasta. Stir well. The shrimp will cook in 2 to 3 minutes. For additional sauce, add homemade seafood stock and butter (optional).

Not everyone enjoys bacon, but if you do, bacon and clams make wonderful partners in this dish.

For more sauce, add homemade stock, preferably one made with fresh fish or shellfish.

If fresh clams and green beans are not available, frozen can be substituted. The result will be good but not as good if both are fresh.

Prep time: 10 minutes (if using cooked pasta) or 20 minutes (if using uncooked pasta)

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes (if using cooked pasta) or 30 minutes (if using uncooked pasta)

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

4 pounds live manila, little neck or butter clams

1 pound uncooked or 4 cups cooked pasta, fettuccini, spaghetti, penne, fusilli or ziti

Kosher salt

1 pound fresh green beans, washed, ends trimmed, cut into 1-inch lengths

1 slice bacon (optional)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 cup fish or shellfish stock (optional)

1 tablespoon unsalted butter (optional)

1 tablespoon capers, drained

2 scallions, washed, ends trimmed, cut into rounds (optional)

Sea salt to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Cayenne powder to taste (optional)

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

Directions

1. Rinse the clams in a strainer to remove any surface sand and grit. Set aside.

2. If cooked pasta is not available, add kosher salt to a 4-quart pot, bring to a boil, add a 1-pound box of pasta to the boiling water, stir well and cook until al dente in about 10 minutes. Taste to confirm the doneness. Put a strainer over a large bowl in the sink and drain the pasta, reserving the salted pasta water. Toss the pasta to prevent sticking and set aside.

3. To cook the green beans, either use the salted pasta water or fresh water with kosher salt in a 4-quart pot. Bring the water to a boil. Add the green beans and cook 5 minutes. Strain and discard the salted water. Set the cooked green beans aside.

4. If using bacon, heat the pot on the stove-top on a medium flame. Lay the bacon slice on the bottom. Turn frequently to evenly brown. When crisp, remove the bacon and drain on a clean paper towel. Set aside. Leave the bacon fat in the bottom of the pan.

5. Place the pot on the stove-top on a medium flame. Add olive oil, unless bacon was chosen, in which case the bacon oil will suffice. When hot, add the alternative greens as directed above and then the clams and cover. Cook 5 minutes. Remove cover and stir well.

6. The clams will begin to open and give off liquid. Add the homemade seafood stock if more sauce is required. Add sweet butter if desired. Stir well and continue cooking on a medium flame.

7. Add green beans or the alternative greens as directed above. Stir well.

8. Add capers. More of the clams will open.

9. Add the pasta. Stir well. Remove whichever clams do not open and discard.

10. At this point the dish can be served or it can be set aside for up to an hour before serving.

11. When you are ready to eat, taste the sauce and adjust seasoning with sea salt, black pepper and cayenne (optional). Because the clams and bacon (optional) are salty, additional sea salt might not be required.

12. Transfer pasta and clams to a serving bowl. Top with crumbled crisp bacon (optional), scallions (optional) and freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional).

Main image: Little neck clams with pasta and string beans. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

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Start off the new year with a well-organized pantry. (Magnifying glass for reading expiration dates optional.) Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

When was the last time you cleaned out your kitchen pantry? I mean really cleaned it out? Sure, you try to stay on top of it, but the next thing you know you’ve got expired cans of tomatoes dating back to 2009. Oh, wait, maybe we’re talking about me.

Not long after 2016 made its debut, I opened up my pantry door to find not the can of beans I was after, but pure chaos. I practically needed a machete to hack through the jungle of “vintage” condiments, dusty spices and botulism-enhanced canned goods. How did I let it get that bad? I resolved then and there to mend my disorganized ways.

I began by taking every single thing out of the cabinet and surveying the damage. Holy Moses, was there any edible food in there? These are just some of the treasures I unearthed:

  • Cardamom seeds that expired in 2007.
  • A half-used pouch of never-good-in-the-first-place taco seasoning, “best enjoyed by” May 2008.
  • Two nearly full, expired bottles of Old Bay seasoning.
  • Truffle salsa brought back from a trip to Umbria in 2007.

No one likes a braggart, but I think I set some kind of record with this one: a bottle of Chinese five-spice powder from 1995!

Taking on the challenge

The pantry before (left) and after being cleaned out and organized. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

The pantry before (left) and after being cleaned out and organized. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Three large grocery bags could barely contain all the forgotten food items I hauled out to the trash bin. I didn’t know whether to feel triumphant or ashamed.

The fun part was starting with a blank canvas. After tossing all the expired stuff, there wasn’t much left. (As much as I love having six different olive oils and five varieties of vinegar at my disposal, these items do not actually qualify as food.) A trip to the grocery store soon remedied that, and I returned with peanut butter, oats, polenta, pasta and other staples for my sparkling-clean cabinet.

Bottles and boxes tend to go rogue once the pantry door is closed, migrating to who-knows-where the minute your back is turned, so I also picked up a couple of baskets and a Lazy Susan to help keep everything in check.

Olive oils are now happily segregated in one of the baskets, placed in the front of the cabinet for easy access. My vinegar collection resides on the Lazy Susan, where a quick spin lets me find the bottle I’m looking for in seconds. Pastas and grains live together in harmony on the third shelf, and baking supplies stand ready on the bottom-right shelf. Few projects I’ve taken on lately have given me such satisfaction! Sometimes I open the pantry door just to admire the lack of clutter.

Starting fresh

Why, oh why, was I keeping a 7-year-old package of half-used taco seasoning? Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Why, oh why, was I keeping a 7-year-old package of half-used taco seasoning? Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Now that all my pantry foods are neatly organized and unlikely to poison my dinner guests, all I have to do is keep them that way. My pantry got out of control because I kept adding new stuff without purging the items that were past their prime. Well, there’ll be no more of that.

You too can start 2016 with a tidy pantry filled with still-edible foods. Just follow these tips:

Create groupings that make sense. For example, store all your baking supplies together, so you don’t end up buying multiple bottles of vanilla extract and jars of molasses. The items will be easier to locate, and you won’t have duplicates taking up extra space.

Pay attention to “use by” and expiration dates. If an item is stamped with a “use by” or “best by” date, that doesn’t mean it’s unsafe to eat when that day comes; it means the product’s quality can no longer be guaranteed. An expiration date, however, means “eat at your own risk.”

When you buy canned goods, place them behind the older ones on your pantry shelf, so you’ll remember to use them before they expire. In general, the shelf life of foods canned in liquids is one to two years.

Staying on track

Dried herbs are good for a year or two. Ground spices, like nutmeg, last two or three years. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Dried herbs are good for a year or two. Ground spices, like nutmeg, last two or three years. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Dried beans seem like they should last forever, but that’s not the case. According to the U.S. Dry Bean Council, beans that have been stored longer than a year may never get soft enough, no matter how long you soak or cook them. They’ll last longer if you keep them in an airtight container.

Check your spices. Dried herbs tend to lose their color and flavor after a year. Ground spices last longer, up to three years. If you have the time and patience to grind whole spices as you need them, you can keep them up to five years.

Move that honey! For decades I made the mistake of storing honey in the pantry, then gnashing my teeth when it became hard and crystalized. Well, guess what I learned while researching this article? Honey never expires! It just hates being kept in dark places. If you leave it out on the counter, it will remain fluid and keep its lovely amber color.

Look out refrigerator, I’m coming for you next.

Main photo: Start off the new year with a well-organized pantry. (Magnifying glass for reading expiration dates optional.) Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

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Chocolate and raspberries blend deliciously in these cookies. Credit: Copyright 2016 The Weiser Kitchen

Having been married for more than two decades, I realize many factors contribute to the longevity of my marriage. Perhaps the most important is how my husband and I blend.

People often ask how we’ve done it, as if there is a secret. But there really is no secret. Just like the pairing of raspberry and chocolate, my husband and I are together despite our differences. We know how to compromise and work together, which we actually do most of the time.

Love is not “never having to say you’re sorry.” Chocolate is temperamental, so if you add the wrong amount of moisture from, say, fresh raspberries, you will have something to apologize about. But you get another chance. As in longtime relationships, you learn and grow.

Better together than apart

I love offering up treats that focus the partnership of raspberries and dark chocolate because of the magical synergy that makes them better together than individually.

In the past, dark chocolate was relegated to the lowest shelves in grocery stores. Over the last two decades, though, it has become very au courant. I would like to say that the only reason I give myself permission to eat dark chocolate is because of possible health benefits. But in truth, I like the taste. I find its bitterness to be complex and appealing.

What makes dark chocolate dark?

Dark is only defined relative to all other chocolates. It’s darker in comparison with milk or sweet chocolate candy bars. It has a higher percentage of cocoa, less milk fat and less sugar. The higher the cocoa percentage, the deeper and more intense the chocolate flavor. My favorite for baking and cooking is around 72%.

When choosing your dark chocolate, like choosing a mate, there are two more issues to consider: Where it was born and where (and how) it was processed. Dark chocolate is often labeled with the place of origin, the cocoa percentages and where it was processed. Climate and soil give chocolate its inherent nature, and that’s part of its heritage. The style of preparation is also key. To many, Switzerland’s chocolate production is the gold standard. In my book, it’s equaled or even bettered by Belgian chocolate.

Equal partners

In these cookies, chocolate and raspberries are equal partners. Credit: Copyright 2016 TheWeiserKitchen

In these cookies, chocolate and raspberries are equal partners. Credit: Copyright 2016 The Weiser Kitchen

Lest you think that chocolate is the alpha dog of this relationship, raspberries are an equal partner. They are more than just juicy and lovely to behold. They are rich in cancer-fighting compounds and vitamin C, and full of fiber. They taste sweet — with a uniquely tart undertone and a deep complexity. Just like chocolate. Raspberries aren’t mild-manned, singular sweetness, like the ever-affable strawberry or cherry. They are an assertive flavor in their own right.

Like any paramour partnership, each ingredient brings something unique and yet retains its distinctive character even as it blends with the other ingredients. Raspberries are juicy, but chocolate is silky. Both have a little sexy undertone that makes them interesting. Together they make a wondrous bite.

May they live happily ever after.

Chocolate and Raspberry Swirl Cookies

These charming swirl cookies, tucked, wrapped and snuggled like the spiral of a snail or a conch shell, are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. The dough is oh-so-gently sweet, and the filling bursts with both the tartness of raspberry and a cacophony of rich chocolates. Like a good relationship, they contrast but support each other and together they create an enticing synergy. These cookies have one more touch of meaning: I developed them for my fantasy meal for Rashida Jones, an actress and writer I admire greatly. She is the co-author, co-producer and star of one of my favorite sad but sweetly tender and real films — “Celeste and Jesse Forever.” I wanted to make a cookie that hinted at the Jewish facet of her identity, so these cookies are a bit rugelach-ish. These are simply a joy to eat and fun to make.

Yield: About 28 to 30 cookies

Prep and baking time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Ingredients

1/2 cup (116 grams/4 ounces) cream cheese, room temperature

1 1/2 sticks (¾ cup/170 grams/6 ounces/12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature

3/4 cup (54 grams) dark brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon (1.5 grams) salt

1 egg

1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste (see Notes)

1 3/4 cups (228 grams) unbleached, all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting

2/3 cup seedless raspberry jam

6 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, very finely chopped

3 ounces milk chocolate, very finely chopped

1 large egg yolk

2 teaspoons water

1/4 cup brown turbinado sugar

1/2 teaspoon any large-crystal salt

Directions

1. Prepare the dough: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or if you are using a hand-held mixer, in a large mixing bowl), combine the cream cheese and butter and mix until completely blended. Add the brown sugar and salt, and mix for 3 to 4 minutes, until light and fluffy.

2. Add the egg and mix well. Add the vanilla bean paste and mix well. Add the flour and mix just until fully combined. Prepare a large piece of plastic wrap and scrape the mixture onto it, wrap, shape into a rough square or rectangle and seal well. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or until fully chilled.

3. Wet a work surface with a few drops of water or a swipe of a wet paper towel. Quickly place a large piece (11 x 14 inches or larger) of parchment paper on top. It should stick. Dust the parchment paper very lightly with flour. Roll a rolling pin in the flour to coat it lightly. Place half of the dough on the floured parchment and roll it into a 6-by-9-inch rectangle that is 1/8 to 1/16 inch thick.

4. Using a pastry brush, coat the rectangle with raspberry jam, leaving a 1/2-inch border bare around the edges. Sprinkle the chocolates over the raspberry jam, distributing the pieces evenly. Position the parchment and dough so that the short side of the parchment is in front of you. Using the parchment, lift the short side of the dough up and over the filling, covering it by about 1/2 inch. Continue rolling to make a cylinder, rolling as tightly as you can. Place the roll on a large piece of plastic wrap and wrap well. Repeat with the second piece of dough. Refrigerate for 30 minutes, or until fully chilled.

5. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpats and set aside.

6. Remove the rolled dough from the plastic wrap and, with a very sharp, long knife, cut it crosswise into 1/2-inch-wide slices. Place the cookies onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving about 1 inch between the cookies.

7. Prepare an egg wash by beating the egg yolk and water gently in a small bowl. Using a pastry brush, liberally brush the egg wash over the cookies, making sure to cover both the dough and filling. Sprinkle with the sugar and salt and bake (both sheets at once) for 12 to 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Allow to cool completely on the baking sheets before removing them, as the raspberry jelly will be very hot. They will crisp as they cool off.

Notes:

1. Vanilla bean paste is a form of vanilla flavoring that is made from vanilla extract and vanilla bean powder (sometimes it’s what’s left over from producing the extract and sometimes fresh vanilla bean seeds), mixed with a binder such as sugar syrup, corn syrup or, in commercial preparations, xanthan gum. It has the consistency of a paste and an intense, distinctly vanilla flavor. It’s available in well-stocked markets and online, but if you can’t find it, use pure vanilla extract.

2. Turbinado sugar is a minimally processed, minimally refined sweetener made from cane sugar. Brown in color, it is often confused with brown sugar. Turbinado sugar, however, has a higher moisture content, which will make a difference in baking, so it’s best to use the sugar that is called for in the recipe unless you are skilled enough to reduce another liquid in the ingredient list. With its large crystals, it’s great for sugar toppings on cookies and other baked goods. Like demerara sugar, it is made by drying the juice of the sugar cane and then spinning it in a centrifuge to purify it. Store in a cool, dry place.

Main photo: These Chocolate and Raspberry Swirl cookies are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.

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Wild porcini mushrooms. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Upon drying, the flavor of porcini mushrooms is intensified, making them the king of dried mushrooms in the kitchen. Whether you are a forager or purchase your dried porcini, you can use them to great advantage when seeking to add richness to your cooking. With a little imagination, you can inject umami into some unexpected places.

Porcini flourish in the height of summer in Colorado. Plucky mushroom hunters venture into the Rockies early in the day, seeking out the local species of porcini, one known for having a deep auburn cap responsible for its name Boletus rubriceps.

Fresh porcini are dense and heavy, feeling more like a potato in hand than an equally sized commercial mushroom such as portobello. As a celebration, I cook the first and best porcini of each trip fresh, often atop white pizza or simple pasta. Fresh porcini are surprisingly mild. If you serve them with more assertive flavors, such as in a tomato sauce, their flavor is nearly lost.

Where porcini truly excel are as dried mushrooms. Dehydrating them deepens their aromas of loam, minerals and cocoa. To open a jar of dried porcini is to be bowled over with the scent of the woods. For this reason, I spend most of my time cleaning, slicing, and drying my porcini harvest for later use. In a typical year, I like to have several gallons of dried porcini awaiting me in my pantry.

You might expect to use dried porcini in soups and risotto, but they have a much better reach than just the expected dishes. They can be used to add potent mushroom depth to recipes, and also to add a punch of umami in unexpected places. Dried porcini can be used in a number of ways, from rehydrated slices to powder, contributing savory richness at every turn. They are a workhorse and a staple in my home. I realize my good fortune in being able to reach for a handful of porcini whenever the mood strikes. However, even people who have to purchase dried porcini can get a lot of distance from their flavor, and add a special element to everyday dishes. Store-bought dried porcini are expensive. Small amounts of them can be combined with less expensive fresh mushrooms for a nice effect.

Instant gravy from porcini mushrooms

Porcini gravy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Porcini gravy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Dried porcini can be ground into a fine powder using a mortar and pestle or an electric spice mill. The powder from ½ cup of dried porcini combined with a tablespoon of cornstarch, ½ tablespoon of salt, pinches of onion powder, garlic powder, thyme, sumac and black pepper can be whisked together with 1 ½ cups of cold water and brought to a quick boil for gravy.

Mix the dry ingredients together ahead of time to keep on hand for when you need gravy in minutes, or if you have vegetarian guests at your table. Instant porcini gravy pairs with nearly every kind of meat, is a natural spooned over mashed potatoes and works well in casseroles.

Porcini soy sauce

Porcini soy sauce. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Porcini soy sauce. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Simply combine dried porcini with your favorite soy sauce and let them infuse together for at least a week before sampling. Porcini add an element of complexity to ordinary soy sauce. This works beautifully in Asian recipes and also makes for an unexpected element in other styles of cooking. Save those salty soaked mushrooms to season your soups.

Bouillon cubes

Porcini bouillon. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Porcini bouillon. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Combine porcini powder, onion powder, salt, soy and powdered dry gelatin with enough water to bind, and you have homemade bouillon. The bouillon are equally functional as camp food or to take in your work lunch. You can form the bouillon into actual cubes or balls while still wet, then set them out to dry. Or you can keep the mixture dry and pack single servings into snack-sized containers. Take it one step further and box up the porcini bouillon, a few dried vegetables and some dry quick-cooking noodles, and you’ve got a classic instant noodle lunch that needs only the addition of hot water.

Hot chocolate

Porcini hot chocolate. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Porcini hot chocolate. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Want to make your hot chocolate decadent without adding alcohol? Stir in a little dried porcini powder. It may sound like an odd combination. However, dried porcini have notes of chocolate in their scent, and they add an earthiness to hot chocolate that keeps it from being cloyingly sweet. Porcini hot chocolate is especially nice topped with whipped cream and a sprinkling of bitter cocoa powder.

Deviled eggs

Porcini deviled eggs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Porcini deviled eggs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

Add a new twist to deviled eggs by stirring a spoonful of dried porcini powder into the yolk filling. This is where you step outside the box and start using your creativity with your precious porcini. Imagine all the possibilities when it comes to distributing that mushroom goodness. Take your family favorites for a walk in the wild woods. Do you eat meatloaf once a week? Try adding a tablespoon of porcini powder to the mix. Do you always have a pot of stock bubbling? It’s another great place to add porcini. Are you known for your special homemade barbecue sauce? Try increasing the flavor with dried porcini. The possibilities for bumping up the savory element in your cooking with dried porcini are as limitless as your creativity.

Main photo: Wild porcini mushrooms. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wendy Petty

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A retro melon baller taken out of retirement. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

The C word– that is, clutter — is this year’s mantra. Or rather the D word — declutter.

When the utensil drawer jams and you need a hard hat to open a cupboard, it’s time to get a grip. But where to start? What’s the plan? What can be saved and what can be tossed?

Certain tools are essential: can openers, wooden spoons, rolling pins. My desert island luxury would be a concave board and a mezzaluna, which is brilliant for speed chopping, is easy to clean and provides Pilates-like therapy, thanks to the gentle rocking motion.

Cost does not always equal value. My Rolls-Royce of a garlic crusher languishes unloved because it failed in its primary task of effectively and evenly crushing the clove. Yet a freebie plastic kiwi fruit knife-cum-scoop is the perfect example of form and function — and excellent for al desko lunches.

Sometimes, of course, you really do get what you pay for: a sugar thermometer that won’t shatter, a marble pastry slab, a razor-sharp grater or a quietly powerful hand blender.

But there is no excuse for hoarding and cradling little-used gadgets and ropy old kitchenalia.

So, breathe deeply and liberate your drawers. To help in the decision-making, here are eight gadgets that have lost their way.

Melon baller

This is a gadget conceived for a single purpose: to cut little, round balls from melon flesh. The holes allow juice to drain during the process.

The basic technique is to press, rotate and scoop. It is a technique I have completely failed to master. My spheres are unruly shards, but I claim that as intended.

Some ballers have different-sized bowls at each end. Beginners should not try to use them simultaneously.

Butter curler

A Captain Hook-type butter curler. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

A Captain Hook-type butter curler. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

This frightening gadget is designed to produce decorative shapes from chilled butter. My pitiful attempts, however, usually ended with a greasy mess until I saw the light and simply stopped trying.

Now the butter curler lives in the same drawer as the melon baller. It’s time to say goodbye, old friends.

Grape scissors

Ornate grape scissors straight out of “Downton Abbey.” Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Ornate grape scissors straight out of “Downton Abbey.” Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

The Victorians generally did not approve of eating food with the fingers. It was instant social death unless you kept to the proscribed rules.

Only after the grapes had been correctly cut was it permissible to use fingers. Grape scissors were part of an army of utensils that also included sardine tongs, oyster forks and lobster picks. Boy, those Victorian housewives knew how to spend, spend, spend.

Lemon squeezer

Lemon slice squeezer in action. Or not. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Lemon slice squeezer in action. Or not. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

I’m all for a bit of refinement, but this is too naff for words. It contains one measly, flimsy little wedge from which you just get a dribble of drops. It is awkward to use, and you can never get the slice size right. But most of all, it is mean-spirited. I rest my case.

Avocado dishes

A pair of avocado dishes showing the wrong way to serve them. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

A pair of avocado dishes showing the wrong way to serve them. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

These are so very “Mad Men.” When we first encountered this thrilling new fruit — or is it a vegetable? — it posed a problem: how to eat it once you overcame the testicular shape, lizard-like skin and super-sized pit.

Tableware manufacturers were quick off the mark, and before you could say guacamole, these dishes hit the shops. You didn’t even have to peel the avocados. Simply cut open, remove the stone and dump in the vinaigrette or shrimp mayo. Martini time!

Today they are a rare sight. I suppose there’s not much else you can do with them once their basic function goes. So, my pretty ones, it’s off with you to the great avocado grove in the sky.

Cruet stand

Once a symbol of genteel living, the cruet stand has become increasingly redundant. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Once a symbol of genteel living, the cruet stand has become increasingly redundant. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

This thrift-shop find makes me a little sad. Made in the 1930s or ’40s, the pressed glass condiment container must once have been someone’s pride and joy.

But does anyone use them anymore? How many even know what cruet means? Or care? Grinders, mills and bowls have pushed them into domestic oblivion. I regretfully conclude it is time for the cruet to retire from active service.

Egg slicer

Boiled eggs meet their fate in the metal egg slicer. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Boiled eggs meet their fate in the metal egg slicer. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

The egg slicer is one of life’s most useless gadgets. Like a medieval instrument of torture, the slotted base holds a hard-boiled egg, upon which a hinged blade of fine wires whips down like a guillotine.

Invented in the 1950s, it slices eggs thinly and evenly, but, honestly, would you really want to? Occasionally, desperate columnists suggest other uses, like cutting strawberries and mushrooms.

So, no, it doesn’t make life that little bit easier, and when it comes to washing it, it is a lethal menace.

Sardine can key

A new-fangled sardine can with a ring tab. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

A newfangled sardine can with a ring tab. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Once upon a time, the search for the sardine key was like a mythical quest. It usually came in two pieces. The slotted part enabled you to roll back the lid, then you could lift out the sardines with the shovel- shaped bit.

Even then, you could never open the lid fully and would usually cut yourself on the sharp edges.

The pull tab changed everything. There are those who hanker for oil drips and bleeding fingers, but why? For my part, the key can stay lost. RIP, sardine can key.

Main image: A retro melon baller taken out of retirement. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

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Waiters, whose every move is choreographed, serve diners at Ultraviolet. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

I arrived in Shanghai dreaming of dumplings but instead was invited, by a generous friend, to a quixotic culinary experience that took much time to digest. Ultraviolet is a high-end restaurant-cum-theatrical show. It’s a self-described “multimedia experience” staged for a moneyed audience of 10 in a closed room whose environment is meticulously controlled.

The group was led into the dining hall and held captive at a large table for what seem like an eternity, like an existential scenario from a Buñuel film. A couple dozen tiny, refined plates from a never-changing menu were prepared and served, one after another, by waiters whose every move was carefully choreographed and scripted. Each dish, paired with a drink, was accompanied by projected images, music, even piped-in aromas, all feeding on a philosophical theme. The exhausting show took hours. Awards have been garnered — for the food anyway — which, by the way, is very good in a global, Noma/Bullí sort of way. The theatrical aspect is more dubious. It skirts the edge of ridiculous while managing to keep its intellectual head above water.

Chef Paul Pairet’s creation

A dish unleashes a cloud of white gas as it is served. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

A dish unleashes a cloud of white gas as it is served. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

It’s no accident that talented French chef Paul Pairet has brought this over-the-top evening of pseudo-avant-garde sensory incitement to Shanghai, one of the most unashamedly commercial cities in the world. Here, in the center of shopping and money, it makes sense. “Why not?” cry critics and gastronomes alike.

All encompassing, audience-involved theater is nothing new. From Strindberg’s difficult-to-perform “A Dream Play” to Antonin Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty,” a theoretical, unrealized experiment in avant-garde spectacle in which the performers would attempt to assault the senses of the spectators, artists have been attempting to expand theater beyond the stage. But never has audience participation been brought to this level, at least in a restaurant. The attempt to juxtapose high-end dining and individual introspection was, at times, jarring.

A parade of images

The table at Ultraviolet is, naturally, shrouded in a purple hue. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

The table at Ultraviolet is, naturally, shrouded in a purple hue. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

While we ate, a parade of images, meant to evoke collective memory, were projected on all four walls. They ranged from spooky to comforting to, at best, beautifully and playfully nostalgic. Charlie Chaplin’s shoe-eating scene from “The Gold Rush” was shown in its entirety while wintry dishes were served. Manet’s “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe” was recalled during the “picnic.”

Walls were plastered with hundreds of images of Asian dry noodle soup packages (evincing laughter from the several Asians present) while a high-falutin’ version of that fast-food classic was served. Moving images on the wall made the room seem to rise and fall: At one point we dropped into a Dante-esque netherworld as the scene around us fell away. I’m not sure if the bourgeoisie, whose foibles were often brought to the fore — Chaplin, a running leitmotif of fast food — was being patronized or burlesqued. But one did have the sense that this Frenchman is well aware of what he is doing, deconstructing and commenting on the classic multi-course meal.

Then there’s the food

A faux breakfast is one of the many tiny, refined plates served. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

A faux breakfast is one of the many tiny, refined plates served. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

What do I remember of the food? Little more than theoretical insider jokes that tasted good. One of the very first courses was entitled “Paloma” — it was a light sweet-sour salad of pomelo served in a vitrine which, when lifted, unleashed a cloud of white gas — the dove of peace? The Mexican song “Cucurrucucu Paloma” was heard in the background.

Next a single oyster, dressed with caviar, pepper, lemon and sea foam, was offered while the walls become a calm ocean. At a “picnic,” for which the table was covered with synthetic turf, a dish named “fish Tupperware,” dressed in mayo, recalled simple American/English food, while projected images harkened back to a long-forgotten country outing of the 1920s. Henry Mancini’s campy theme from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” accompanied a faux American “breakfast” — a fitting, albeit ironic, paean.

Pairet, who is obviously trying very hard to do something new, an admirable but nearly impossible goal nowadays, has been quoted as saying that “pretension is my worst enemy” — in which case the enemy lurked behind every carefully constructed shadow. He tries hard to pair food with feeling, to create “edible theater.” I appreciated the effort. I enjoyed the evening immensely, and ate and drank very well indeed, but instinctively resisted the artifice intended to carry me to higher (or lower, for that matter) emotional planes.

In this sense, the experience did not coalesce. Critic Richard Gilman (who happened to be my father) wrote, referring to the avant-garde theater of 50 years ago: “It may be that nothing will come forward as new, unassailable creation. It is surely true that any art comes to find that its own historical momentum becomes the enemy of its renewable prowess.”

I’m not sure if we are heading down a creative cul-de-sac in the increasingly global gastronomic world. I hope not.

Main photo: Waiters, whose every move is choreographed, serve diners at Ultraviolet. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicholas Gilman

The author wishes to thank Jeffrey Merrihue and www.foodiehub.tv who sponsored this trip to China and Ultraviolet.

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Harīsa. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Given how easy it is to make harīsa, the ubiquitous chile paste of North Africa, I’ve never had much use for those inferior tubes of the stuff. Harīsa is the most important condiment used in Algerian and Tunisian cooking, and you need to make this recipe and keep it in the refrigerator before attempting any other Algerian or Tunisian recipe you might have in my or others’ recipes.

It’s hard to believe that so essential a condiment could evolve only after the introduction of the New World capsicum after Columbus’ voyages. It’s thought that the chile entered North Africa by way of the Spanish presidios that dotted the coast in the 16th century or came up from West Africa overland from the Portuguese holdings there.

Harīsa comes from the Arabic word for “to break into pieces,” which is done by pounding hot chiles in a mortar, although today a food processor can be used. This famous hot chile paste is also found in the cooking of Libya, and even in western Sicily where cùscusu is made. In Tunisia it would be prepared fresh at home. The simplest recipe is merely a paste of red chile and salt that is covered in olive oil and stored.

Harīsa is sold in tubes by both Tunisian and French firms. The Tunisian one is better, but neither can compare to your own freshly made from this recipe.

I first became intrigued with making harīsa from a preparation made by Mouldi Hadiji, my Arabic teacher more than 30 years ago. I concocted this version, based on a Berber-style one I had in Djerba, from a recipe description given to me by a merchant in the market in Tunis, who unfortunately provided measurements that could last me a century (calling for 50 pounds of chile).

Tlitlu bi’l-Lahm (fresh pasta pieces with lamb in spicy harīsa sauce). Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Tlitlu bi’l-Lahm (fresh pasta pieces with lamb in spicy harīsa sauce). Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Some cooks also use mint, onions or olive oil in their harīsa. You also don’t have to use the exact dried chiles I call for, but at least one should be quite piquant.

Be careful when handling hot chiles, making sure that you do not put your fingers near your eyes, nose or mouth, or you will regret it. Wash your hands well with soap and water after handling chiles. After you make your first harīsa, with all the modern conveniences, I hope you can appreciate what exacting work this was, making it in the traditional mortar — 50 pounds of the stuff!

Harīsa

Prep time: 1 1/4 hours

Yield: 1 cup

Ingredients

2 ounces dried Guajillo chiles

2 ounces dried Anaheim chiles

5 garlic cloves, peeled

2 tablespoons water

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground caraway seeds

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground coriander seeds

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

Extra virgin olive oil for topping off

Directions

1. Soak the chiles in tepid water to cover until softened, 1 hour. Drain and remove the stems and seeds. Place in a blender or food processor with the garlic, water and olive oil and process until smooth, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides.

2. Transfer the mixture to a small bowl and stir in the caraway, coriander and salt. Store in a jar and top off, covering the surface of the paste with a layer of olive oil. Whenever the paste is used, you must always top off with olive oil making sure no paste is exposed to air, otherwise it will spoil.

Variation: To make a hot harīsa, use 4 ounces dried Guajillo chiles and 1/2 ounce dried de Arbol peppers.

Note: To make ṣālṣa al-harīsa, used as an accompaniment to grilled meats, stir together 2 teaspoons harīsa, 3 tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons water and 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley leaves.

Main photo: Harisa. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

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