Articles in Grains
Corn has gotten a bad rap over the past 50 years, especially since it was genetically modified to resist enormous applications of herbicide, and then used primarily for ethanol and animal feed. That No. 2 Yellow Dent corn is a far cry from the delicious and nutritious staple of the Native Americans, who deserve to own the intellectual property of corn genetics for the simple reason that all corn is Indian corn, painstakingly developed by Native Americans from wild teosinte grass.
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Cultivation of maize began more than 8,000 years ago in the Balsas River Valley in what is present-day Mexico, and the plant was considered a sacred gift from the gods. Over the years, thousands of varieties were developed by native peoples throughout Meso-America, and then throughout North and South America, until there were varieties for every altitude and climate, and for every culinary and ceremonial purpose. The Indians categorized their corn by intended use: for flour, for hominy and porridge, for popping, and so on. Of the many edible gifts native peoples have given us, the most important is, arguably, corn.
This Thanksgiving, you can give thanks to Native Americans and recapture some of the rich heritage and rich tastes of corn by seeking out heirloom varieties such as Mandan Bride, and serving them as a side dish or as a gluten-free stuffing for your bird.
My first experience with true polenta was not in Italy, but in my own kitchen using my brother Henry’s freshly ground Mandan Bride cornmeal, water, salt and pepper. Until that silky, creamy, revelatory moment, I thought all cornmeal came in a yellow and blue canister blessed with a smiling Quaker. And I thought it tasted pretty much like the cardboard it came in.
The steaming bowl in front of me was something else entirely — complex, nutty, mildly sweet and altogether comforting. And it got me wondering who and what Mandan Bride was, and why I had lived for 50 years before tasting the earthy essence of corn.
It turns out the Mandan Indians lived in parts of what we now know as Minnesota and North Dakota, and they developed this corn specifically for grinding into meal and making into porridge. They bred it for flavor and nutrition, and quite possibly for beauty as well.
Every ear of Mandan Bride is different, the variegated colors ranging from deep burgundy to hazy purple to smoky white, with some kernels a uniform color and others striped. The ears are so beautiful that you may find it being sold as an ornamental. But after enjoying its beauty, you should do as the Indians intended, and make yourself the most amazing polenta you’ve ever had.
Searching for Mandan Bride
Mandan Bride and other heirloom cornmeals are hard to find from anyone but a small-scale, biodiverse local farmer. The plant’s relatively weak stalks and soft cobs make it nearly impossible to harvest mechanically, so farmers must pick the ears by hand, then hand shuck them, dry them to just the right point and then stone grind them in small batches. Because the whole kernel is ground, heirloom cornmeal is much more flavorful and nutritious than commercial cornmeal for which the outer hulls and inner germ (the protein- and fat-rich center of each kernel) are removed. But freshly ground whole kernels are perishable, and should be kept in the refrigerator or freezer.
If you can’t find Mandan Bride, look for Hopi Blue or Bloody Butcher. Or resolve to grow your own next year. Seeds are available from a number of purveyors who specialize in old varieties, and Mandan Bride is listed as one of RAFT’s (Renewing America’s Food Traditions) “culinary mainstays of the last three millennia.”
Perfect Thanksgiving polenta
Many polenta recipes call for butter, cream or cheese, but if you have freshly ground heirloom cornmeal, there’s no need for anything but water, salt and pepper.
Polenta can be made and served at a loose, custardy consistency using a 5-1 ratio of water to cornmeal, or it can be made with less water (a 4-1 ratio) so that it’s firm and easily shaped into squares or triangles, and then pan-fried or broiled, giving you great crunch on the outside and creaminess on the inside. Either way, polenta pairs perfectly with bold autumn greens like Brussels sprouts or broccoli rabe.
For a less stressful Thanksgiving meal, make this polenta a day or two ahead of time, then broil it just before serving.
Broiled Polenta With Heirloom Cornmeal
4 cups water
1 cup Mandan Bride or other heirloom cornmeal (if unavailable, get the best organic cornmeal you can find)
1 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
1. Bring salted water to a boil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Turn the heat down to medium, and add the cornmeal gradually in a steady stream, whisking constantly until it’s all incorporated.
2. Turn the heat to low and continue whisking for about 5 minutes to prevent any lumps from forming.
3. Continue stirring often for the next 15 minutes or until the water is absorbed. Reduce heat to low and continue stirring until polenta turns creamy and pulls away from the sides of the pot. Taste and add sea salt and freshly ground pepper if desired.
4. Generously coat a 13-by-9-inch baking pan with olive oil. Pour the polenta into the pan and let cool. Cover and refrigerate.
5. Take out an hour or so before you plan to serve it to let it come to room temperature. Set your broiler on high and grease a rimmed cookie sheet.
6. Slice the firm polenta into diamonds, wedges, or squares — or use your favorite cookie cutter. Place polenta slices on the baking sheet and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place on the top rack of the oven and broil for 8 to 10 minutes, or until polenta is crisp and brown on top.
Top photo: Mandan Bride corn. Credit: Terra Brockman
One winter when I wasn’t eating sugar, the idea of not baking was really plaguing me. If I couldn’t make cookies, how could I find that holiday feeling?
After much pouting, I came up with an idea that wouldn’t get lost in a sea of homemade treats. Pancake mix would stand apart from the crowd. Plus, when the people I loved headed into the kitchen one lazy weekend morning, I could go with them to the griddle — one of my favorite places on the planet.
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Pancake mix is one of the easier mixes to make because you don’t have to add fat. You can, of course, but then you have to worry about potential spoilage, and incorporating the melted butter or oil evenly throughout the mix. If you want, you can add fat to the batter, but I don’t. I find it drags down the cakes, which pick up plenty of butter from the griddle.
Highlighting lovely flours is another advantage of this gift. Stone-ground whole-grain flours do really well in pancakes. The bran and germ layers of grains contain much more flavor than the starchy endosperm, which is the only part of the grain milled for white flours. This means that whole-grain flours can be celebrated for vibrant flavors, not just their banner fiber.
Regionally produced flours are fairly easy to find. Because they are freshly milled from interesting varieties of grains, they have great tastes. They also add ecological and community economic values to your giving.
Last but not least, when you make your very own pancake flour, you are echoing the first packaged mix. Aunt Jemima Pancake Flour was invented in 1889, and contained only wheat flour, corn flour, salt and sodium phosphate. The name came from a song in a minstrel show.
Within a year, another milling company bought the formula and the mill. R.T. Davis added powdered milk to the mix, and hired a spokesperson. Nancy Green was a former slave who worked for a Chicago judge, and she played Aunt Jemima inside a booth shaped like a flour barrel at the Chicago World’s Fair. She was so popular that extra security was hired to tame the crowd waiting for her cakes and tales.
Those stories, and the ones featured in ads well into the 20th century, celebrated the imaginary cook’s ability to keep Union soldiers from scalping her master. Her pancakes mollified the troops, and her colonel kept his hair, and his life.
I’m amazed that just a generation after the Civil War, appetites for antebellum fairy tales were so strong. The way the company has held onto the Mammy stereotype for more than a century is also amazing.
Packaged food started with simple breakfast items
What is most stunning to me is the fact that such small improvements as adding leaveners, salt, and powdered milk could make a product succeed. How much time does it take to blend these ingredients at home? Less than a minute.
I see this as the dawn of packaged food. Breakfast is where we began to surrender our ability to feed ourselves to an anonymous industry. Aunt Jemima put a face on food as production scaled up, removing the faces of the farmer and miller from the immediate community.
Here’s how you can put your own face on your loved one’s breakfasts. My basic formula is this.
Homemade Pancake Mix
4 cups flour
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1½ tsp salt
2 buttermilk powder, optional (if you want people to use just water and egg for their mix)
Mix all ingredients well with a whisk and put in plastic bag, or a container with a tight fitting lid. Brand new coffee bags are handy, and you can decorate them.
1 cup homemade pancake flour mix
¾ cup milk
1 tablespoon yogurt
(Or skip the milk and yogurt and add ¾ cup water for the buttermilk variation)
1. Blend well and let sit for 10 minutes before using. This helps the flour absorb the moisture thoroughly. If the batter needs a little thinning, add some more milk.
2. Cook on a hot buttered griddle, flipping when the first side has little bubbles.
This mix takes well to variations. Mostly I fiddle with the flour. Some great combinations are:
- 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour, 1 cup rye flour, 1 cup cornmeal.
- 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour, 1 cup rye flour, 1 cup cornmeal, 1 cup oats or ground oats.
- 2 cups buckwheat flour, 2 cups rye flour.
- 2 cups buckwheat flour, 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour.
- 2 cups cornmeal, 2 cups rye flour.
- 3 cups cornmeal, 1 cup rye flour.
If you are making mixes for people who are not devoted to whole grains, you can use all-purpose flour in place of some or all of the whole-wheat pastry.
I never add sugar to pancakes, because I find whole grains sweet enough on their own. If you want, add ¼ cup of brown or white sugar per batch.
Please use a baking powder you know is strong and sturdy. For me, that is Rumford Double Acting baking powder.
If you really love the recipient, buy them an old cast aluminum griddle at a thrift store. Aluminum griddles distribute heat very evenly, and nothing makes a better pancake.
Top photo: Pancakes from a homemade mix. Credit: Amy Halloran
The variety of dried legumes used in Indian cooking can become quite mind-boggling. When you are in an Indian market, you may find yourself walking back and forth in the aisle trying to figure out what’s what.
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When I was writing my book “Some Like It Hot: Spicy Favorites from the World’s Hot Zones,” I came up with some explanations I hope are helpful.
The best known Indian dish using dried legumes is called dal and although that word simply means legume, the prepared form is a kind of mushy side dish made with the legumes, spices and chilies. Many Indian dishes also use dried legumes as a kind of seasoning, sometimes calling for as little as half a teaspoon in other, more complex, concoctions.
Some dal favorites include red gram, black gram and green gram. Sometimes the word dal specifically refers to split dried legumes. Adding to the confusion, Indian authors writing in English sometimes use the same word for two different legumes. Here’s a little guide to help (or confuse) you more. Arhal dal or tur dal (toor dal) are either split red gram or pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan L.). But tur dal, and also thuvar dal, is used by some authors to mean yellow split peas (Pisum sativum L. var. hortense). The English word gram derives from the Portuguese word for grain, which is what the early Portuguese voyagers to India called these little dried legumes in India.
More on sorting out Indian dal
Gram generally means chickpea (Cicer arietinum L .), specifically Bengal gram (also channa dal), but can also mean any dried legume.
Channa dal is the whole or split chickpea although some writers use it to refer to yellow split pea.
Black gram (Vigna mungo L. syn. Phaseolus mungo) is urad dal known also as urd, and sometimes called horse bean, horse gram, Madras gram, sword bean and jackbean (bada-sem). This is complicated by the fact that those last five identified as urad dal are a different species, Canavalia ensiformis L. and also called kulthi dal. Urad dhuli dal is the white version or split white gram.
Sometimes chowli or chowla dal or lobia is the cowpea, also known as black-eyed pea (Vigna unguiculata L. subsp. unguiculata syn. V. sinensis), although chowla dal also refers to the related Vigna catjang.
Green gram (Vigna radiata L. syn. Phaseolus aureus and P. radiatus) is more familiarly known as mung bean and in India is known as moong dal. Kesari dal (Lathyrus sativus L.), or grass pea. If you eat too much of it, grass pea causes a crippling disease called lathyrism.
Masoor dal is split red or yellow lentils (Lens culinaris Medikus syn. L. esculenta; Ervum lens; or Vicia lens).
To round out the dals, matki is moth or mat bean (Vigna acontifolia), sem (also valpapdi, avarai) is hyacinth bean (Lablab purpurus [purpureus] (L.) Sweet. syn. L. niger Medik. and Dolichos lablab L.) and sutari is rice bean (Vigna umbellate).
OK, got that? Personally, no matter what a recipe you’re following says, I find that the cooking of all this is quite easy. It’s only if you were to write a recipe for someone else that it gets confusing.
Beginner’s Dal Sauté
3 tablespoons black gram (urad dal)
3 tablespoons green gram (moong dal)
3 tablespoons dried chickpeas
3 tablespoons red lentils (masoor dal)
3 tablespoons pigeon pea (red gram or toor dal)
2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil
1. Place all the legumes in a saucepan and cover with cold water by several inches. Turn the heat to high and once it comes to a boil, cook, salting lightly, until tender, 45 to 60 minutes.
2. Drain and place in a sauté pan with the olive oil and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Salt to taste. Serve hot.
Top photo: Legumes, clockwise from top: chickpeas, brown lentils, red lentils (masoor dal), green gram (moong dal), black gram (urd dal), pigeon pea (red gram or toor dal). Credit: Clifford A. Wright
“Bread is like dirt,” said Naomi Duguid, describing an attitude she encountered while researching flatbreads in the Soviet Union. “Yes, it’s the essence of life, but it’s so ordinary. How can you give it attention?”
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Duguid smiles when she speaks and lifts her voice with its an appealing Canadian accent, inviting people into her considerations. The cookbook author was giving plenty of attention to a very flat bread at the Kneading Conference West, three days of workshops in mid-September centered on grains and baking.
People sat on folding chairs under a tent and watched her make crackers. She and Dawn Woodward, the baker-founder of Evelyn’s Crackers stood at tables in front of a mobile wood-fired oven. Attendees asked questions, rolled dough and took notes.
The fourth year of the conference at Washington State University’s Mount Vernon Research Station was just underway. Bakers, farmers and people otherwise interested in grains came from as far as South Africa to learn everything they could about flour and its life from field to loaf. There were classes in sourdough, pastries, pizza, local flours, and soba noodles. People built an oven. Experts gave presentations on barley breeding, malting, baking science and gluten intolerance.
This is the sister event of the Kneading Conference, which began seven years ago in Skowhegan, Maine. Wheat breeder Steve Jones has spoken at that conference and is the director of the station at Mount Vernon, Wash. Bringing this bread brainstorm home made a lot of sense.
The western version is rooted in the Skagit Valley, lush farmland nestled along the Interstate 5 corridor just north of Seattle. The area was once used to grow oats for the city’s horses. Now farmers grow 80 different crops, including tulip bulbs, vegetable seeds and potatoes.
These farmers grow grains in rotation, to help build up the soil and break cycles of disease and pests. The grains generally go to the commodity market, which means the farms lose money compared with what they earn from the land other years.
Jones and others are helping farmers earn money from grains as specialty crops. Skagit Valley Malting Co., a small-scale malthouse, is almost up and running, malting test runs of barley for breweries, distilleries and culinary use. With help from the breeding program at the WSU station, vegetable farmers are branching into grain production. Nash’s Organic Produce is now growing and milling Espresso wheat, and marketing it along with their vegetables.
The conference highlighted these local projects and others in the region, such as Camas Country Mill. Farmer and owner Tom Hunton spoke about the way his Willamette Valley mill has facilitated production and use of grains, and other field crops. Growers now ask what they can grow for the mill, and consumers are eager to buy the flours and other foods the mill provides.
Wayne Carpenter and Mike Doehnel from Skagit Valley Malting spoke about custom malting. Bakers from Seattle and the surrounding area spoke about using local flour.
Jonathan Bethony is the staff baker at the station’s The Bread Lab. This bearded fellow is a dynamo, ready to tackle wheat varieties in all their complexity, and figure out how to make the most of all the flour’s qualities, good and bad. His tours of the lab, with Ph.D. student Colin Curwen-McAdams — who endearingly linked his studies in seed breeding to baking with his mother — were both lively and thought-provoking.
Bethony gave an enthusiastic presentation on how to work with sourdough, praising the reactions that occur between its wild yeast and bacterial components.
Breadmaking tips from the experts
“If the world would just work like a sourdough, we’d be all set,” he said. Bethony drew parallels between starters and any other relationship. Leave your starter in the fridge for a while, and like a neglected friend, it is going to need a while to warm up and be ready to use.
Scott Mangold from Breadfarm Bakery referred to Bethony as he gave a workshop called Learning to Love Your Local Wheat. “Jonathan said he started looking for signs he knew from baking with white flour, and stopped worrying whether it’s going to fall apart,” Mangold said. “That was a big breakthrough for me, to just trust that it is going to work.”
Bakers are trained to expect certain performance from flour, because most flour is milled to narrow industry standards, from grains that have very specific quality profiles. Local flours tend not to fit these strictures, and can really behave differently in leavened doughs, causing the anxiety that necessitated a workshop with such a name.
“When I’m testing new flour, I’m making observations and writing everything down,” Mangold said, passing around a chart that detailed the way he used his hands and eyes to gather information from different batches of bread.
This and other workshops — one on soba noodles led by Sonoko Sakai — had bakers up and at the bowl, honing the practice of work and observation. Bakers from King Arthur Flour led discussions and classes that were a little more geared to professional baking, but not too much for the experienced home baker. Richard Miscovich showed people how to use wood-fired ovens for bread and beyond, a live version of his new book, “From the Wood Fired Oven.”
Lectures and discussions on baking science, barley breeding and gluten intolerance also filled the schedule, and two keynotes framed the larger conversation about grains in practical and symbolic terms.
Darra Goldstein, founding editor of Gastronomica, spoke about bread culture, using examples of bread in Western art as a lens to discuss its symbolism. She showed how people used to hold bread close to the heart, and how 20th century paintings have bread on cutting boards.
These presentations presented ideas people considered throughout the rest of the conference, and when they went back home.
The farmer-miller-baker model Oechsner presented is something people could see happening, and help make happen, in their own back yard. Bakers mused about how to bring bread close to the heart again. If we do away with bakery bags, will we have lovely images of people carrying bread close to their chests posted on the bakery walls?
The discussions illustrated the ways that grains have glued us together, body and soul, and we can imagine that gorgeous connection again.
Top photo: Zester Daily contributor Sonoko Sakai demonstrates breadmaking at Kneading Conference West. Credit: Amy Halloran
I am a home cook from a food-obsessed family. Everything that happened centered on food. After all, I grew up in a three-generation household with my Italian-American grandparents as well as my parents. My household wasn’t unique in a food culture sense. But while many of the foods and recipes are similar to those from other families, the stories are what bring the food to life. The best way to delve into Italian-American cuisine and stories is through a typical family meal. And that starts with shopping for the ingredients.
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My mom, Josephine Lanzetta Murko, was born on an apple farm in Claverack, N.Y., during the Great Depression and only lived there for a few years. She recounts that my grandfather could not sell an apple for a nickel and had to move the family back to the Bronx. At that time, the Bronx was still quite rural and people lived in a tight-knit neighborhood with everything within walking distance.
Saturdays in my mother’s young life were spent shopping for food with her mom, my nana. The journey, as my mom recalls, was a stroll down the “avenue.” Mom and Nana first visited Mrs. Green’s coffee shop. Mrs. Green would make custom blends for all her customers. My grandmother liked a light blend for her stove-top percolator. The aromas were so keen, and my mom recounts that whenever confronted with the smell of fresh coffee today it still triggers the memory of Mrs. Green’s coffee shop and the Saturday market treks with her mom.
The next stop was the butcher shop where customers stood two-deep and where my mom watched in fascination the knife work and dexterity of the butchers. This was what she wanted to be, a butcher, she thought, and as a little girl she wrote a paper about it. My mom has amazing knife skills, and it’s probably in her blood as my grandfather owned a butcher shop in the Bronx before his foray as an apple farmer.
A butcher shop back then was a different place. Sawdust was on the floor to absorb the meat and blood drippings while the butchers worked their magic. Once up to the counter, my mom would watch the butcher cube and then grind the beef, veal and pork they would then use to make meatballs. Nothing was prepackaged in those days, and the meats were from local animals.
Then on to the produce store where only local, in-season fruits and vegetables were sold. My mom said it was like a photo; she was in awe of the abundance of all the brightly colored fruits and vegetables. She notes that she had never had a strawberry out-of-season and that the fruit was not shiny. Their next stop was the cheese shop where they bought fresh ricotta and mozzarella and other cheeses. Imagine next stepping into a shop entirely dedicated to butter. Butter of all kinds was sold from large barrels by the pound, which sounds heavenly to me.
Saturday markets full of ingredients for soup
The bread store was perhaps my mom’s favorite. The smell alone made her feel warm and cozy and hungry. When she became old enough to shop without my grandmother, Nana would give my mom an extra four cents to buy the fresh-out-of-the-oven warm loaf, which she would then nibble on or devour all the way home. My grandmother knew this was a special treat for my mom, and to this day, warm bread and butter is one of her absolute favorite things. It’s one of mine.
Last but not least, on the shopping extravaganza was the poultry shop. Saturday was soup day. One Saturday when my grandmother wasn’t feeling well, she sent my mom and her sister, my aunt Margie, to get the chicken. They were still little girls. They selected the live chicken and waited patiently for it to be killed and packaged to bring home. While walking home, the bag started to jump.
They so wanted to drop the bag but being the obedient kids that they were, ran as fast as their little legs could go all the way home, imagining as only little girls could, what kind of spooks were in that bag. When they delivered the jumping chicken bag to Nana in a whirlwind of excitement, panic and fear, Nana giggled and told them, “Sweet girls there are no spirits in the bag it’s rigor mortis setting in.”
While my mom clearly describes the rich palette of textures and smells of the Saturday markets of her youth, she also revels about the joys of being connected to her neighbors and friends. She said they were having a great time because all the neighbors, relatives and friends were out on Saturday. This ritual was not a chore, it was an exciting day. It was the social fabric of creating the family meal. I have even heard stories of recipes being shared at the butcher counter. One Jewish lady I know learned how to make killer Italian meatballs from the Italian ladies at the butcher shop.
So, while we seem far removed from the 1940s Saturday shopping trek, I implore you to think about this question: Is not the farmers market in your neighborhood or community a social hub of sorts?
Modern society has changed the way we shop for food and interact at the grocery store, often with blinders on as we roll our carts down the aisles. But at the farmers market you make eye contact, chat with the farmers and purveyors and smile and chat with your fellow shoppers. I think we have found the “avenue” of my mom’s youth.
Italian Chicken Soup
I have learned that just about every cuisine has a version of chicken soup and even within a cuisine, there are many variations. It’s what I call similar but different.
One chicken cut up into parts and cleaned (this would include chicken feet in the old days)
Enough water to amply cover the chicken
2 to 3 onions, chopped
Bunch of carrots, chopped
4 to 5 parsnips, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced
Optional: Noodles, escarole, eggs. Sometimes, we added a little tomato paste, or tomatoes, the butt of the Pecorino Romano cheese
1. Boil the chicken for about 20 to 30 minutes. Skim off the scum.
2. Add the vegetables, including the parsley and garlic. Add salt and pepper. Simmer for about 3 hours.
3. Remove chicken from broth. You can either remove chicken from bones and put back into soup or eat separately.
4. At this point, you can use the optional ingredients.
If using, add noodles that were boiled separately (thin or medium; your preference.)
Add escarole (cut, steam separately and drain). Mix 2 eggs, ¼ cup of Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper then add to broth.
Top photo: Carole Murko’s grandmother and Bronx shopkeepers on a Saturday morning in the 1940s. Credit: Courtesy of the Murko family
I grew up in a largely Italian-American community outside of Pittsburgh where, at least once a week, I ate pasta. When Sundays rolled around, my family would queue up in the long, snaking line outside Ladies of the Dukes, where, for more than 40 years, local, Italian women prepared and served homemade meals of spaghetti, cavatelli, ravioli and zesty red sauce. Because this feast happened only once a week, customers would bring along stockpots to fill with take-away dinners. Unquestionably, we were passionate about pasta in my hometown.
In recent years I’ve had a troubled relationship with this childhood love. Spurred by the desire to eat more healthfully, I abandoned the traditional semolina-and-water combo for whole-grain pastas. Chocked full of fiber, minerals and vitamins, these new spaghettis seemed both sensible and wholesome. Described by my husband as resembling “wet cardboard,” they have not, however, been the most appetizing to eat.
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My family is not alone in its struggle to adapt to these newcomers. In fact, our complaints seem fairly universal. We all crave the neutral flavor and al dente texture of regular pasta but with the added nutritional benefits that whole grains provide. What I don’t want is an overwhelmingly sweet or nutty taste or a limber consistency, traits that whole-grain pasta possesses and that clash with my heartier pesto, white and red sauces.
Around the time I decided to chuck whole grains altogether and return to traditional pasta, I came across an unusual organic farro fusilli from the Italian Alps. It was unique not only in its firm form and subtle, pleasing flavor but also in its mountainous origins. Dried pasta does not normally hail from northeastern Italy.
According to food historian and cookbook author Francine Segan, southern Italy produces and consumes more dried pasta than the rest of the country. “Because it was a poor man’s food and the south was poorer but also because the south grows the best grain — Puglia is called the ‘breadbasket of Italy‘ — and the air currents and water are ideal for pasta making, more than half of Italy’s pasta is produced in the lower third of the country,” says the author of “Pasta Modern” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2013).
As a result of its proximity to Austria, Switzerland and Lichtenstein, northern Italy has far more in common with the cuisines of these regions than with the rest of Italy. Instead of pasta, people there eat dumplings, polenta and spätzle, Segan says.
Northern Italy takes pasta challenge
Although making and consuming dried pasta may not be the norm in the north, Valentino Felicetti decided in 1908 to do just that. Reputedly because of a challenge from a southern Italian friend, Felicetti started a small, eponymously named, family-operated company in the Valle di Fiemme of the Dolomites Alps, says great-grandson and current head Riccardo Felicetti. Lucky for me that he accepted this dare; Felicetti Monograno produces the whole-grain fusilli that I’d adored.
Working with fresh spring water, mountain air and locally farmed soft wheat and barley, Felicetti’s first creation was a short pasta similar to rigatoni. Today the company uses what Ricccardo refers to as ancient grains, durum wheat, kamut or Khorasan wheat and spelt, which Italians call “farro.”
Organic whole grains, pure spring water and clean air of this idyllic region are what set Felicetti apart. “Polluted air or water would release within the dough a strange taste,” Riccardo says. He adds that, along with the pristine, local water, unspoiled Dolomites air is pumped into the production site.
Could the air and water have the much affect on taste? Yes and no. “The influence of water and air should be zero. Pasta should taste like the grains. Pure spring water and clean air will not influence the taste of our pasta,” Riccardo says.
That’s where my struggle to find both healthful and palatable pasta existed. Many brands claim to offer whole-grain products, but too often they’ve added fillers to their mix. Instead of merely air, water and grains, the pastas are enriched with modified starch and a host of other ingredients. These extras taint the taste and texture, resulting in one of those dreaded “wet cardboard” meals.
With this knowledge, my culinary crisis ended. I’m now happily eating pasta — nutritious, tasty and whole-grain-only pasta — again.
Farro Pasta With Jerusalem Artichokes
Pasta ai topinambur
Recipe courtesy of Francine Segan and “Pasta Modern.”
1 large onion, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided.
4 to 5 large Jerusalem artichokes
1 pound farro pasta, long or short
3 to 4 tablespoons pine nuts
Parmesan or other aged cheese, grated
1. Sauté the onion in 2 tablespoons of oil until golden. Meanwhile, scrub the Jerusalem artichokes with a brush, then thinly slice. Add to the onions and simmer over a very low flame until very soft.
2. Cook the pasta until al dente.
3. Purée the onion-artichoke mixture with 2 tablespoons olive oil so it’s smooth like pesto.
4. Return the purée to the pan and toss with the pasta for a minute or two, adding a little cooking liquid if dry.
5. Serve topped with pine nuts and grated cheese to taste.
Top photo: Various types of pasta. Credit: Kathy Hunt
When I was young and broke, one of the first dishes I learned to cook was risotto. I’d just moved into my own studio apartment after graduating from college, and was excited at the possibility of making myself whatever I wanted for dinner on a nightly basis.
My pitiful earnings waiting tables didn’t normally afford me the luxury of buying cookbooks, but as fate would have it, I stumbled across a bargain while combing the sale tables at Macy’s that week.
The book wasn’t authored by anyone famous, but it promised a variety of good, straightforward recipes. I don’t recall the title, but I do remember some of the dishes that became part of my regular rotation in those days: the Greek egg-lemon soup called avgolemono, lasagna roll-ups and my favorite, risotto.
Simple and seasonally adaptable
Before making it in my own little kitchen, the only risotto I’d ever tried came from restaurants. Despite the humble ingredients used to make it — rice, vegetables, stock — I thought of the dish as somewhat exotic. There was just something about its rich flavor and creamy texture that tasted like magic. When I cooked it for the first time, I couldn’t believe how easy it was: Just chop a few ingredients, throw them into a pot, sauté, add liquid and stir.
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Before long, I could make risotto without the recipe. I quickly discovered that pretty much anything I happened to have in the fridge, from squash to sausage, could be transformed into a velvety dish of heaven.
Although I no longer have the cookbook, the risotto has stayed with me for more than two decades. In the spring I make it with asparagus, shrimp and leeks and in the summer I add freshly shucked corn and ripe cherry tomatoes. But my favorite risotto is the autumn version, made with earthy mushrooms, crisp pancetta, gorgonzola and a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar.
You can make it with pretty much any type of mushroom, from dried porcini to fresh cremini, but I prefer the heartiness of the portabella. Although you could substitute bacon for the pancetta, I find that pancetta adds a delicious depth of flavor that bacon can’t quite match. Chicken is my stock of choice, because it adds intensity to the dish, but you could easily substitute mushroom or vegetable stock if that’s your preference.
Pinot Noir for the perfect pairing
A special dish like this deserves a wonderful wine, and I find that Pinot Noir, especially one with a bit of earthiness, is a great complement to the mushroomy richness of the risotto.
I recently paired the dish with three different Pinots: the Gary Farrell 2009 Hallberg Vineyard from Russian River Valley, the Talbott 2011 Sleepy Hollow Vineyard from the Santa Lucia Highlands and the Thomas George 2010 Cresta Ridge Vineyard from Russian River Valley.
The Gary Farrell was my favorite match, with its spiced black cherry flavor and bright acidity. The earthy notes in the Thomas George Pinot also worked well, and the Talbott’s ripe red fruit flavors and richness mimicked the lushness of the risotto.
Serves 4 (without leftovers) as a main dish
6 cups chicken stock (may substitute mushroom or vegetable stock)
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 ounces pancetta, roughly chopped
1 small onion, minced
2½ cups fresh mushrooms (portabella or cremini), cleaned and sliced
1½ cups arborio rice
1 teaspoon dried thyme
¼ cup dry white wine
1 ounce gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
½ cup Parmesan cheese, finely grated
2 tablespoons aged or *reduced balsamic vinegar
Fresh ground pepper to taste
* To reduce, add ¼ cup medium-quality balsamic vinegar to a small saucepan over medium-high heat and cook 2-4 minutes, until reduced by half. This gives it a thicker consistency and concentrates its flavor.
1. Heat stock in a saucepan and maintain at a low simmer on the stove.
2. Heat oil over medium heat in a wide, heavy saucepan (I like to use enameled cast iron). Add pancetta and stir until crisp. Remove it with a slotted spoon and let drain on a paper towel.
3. Add onion and stir until translucent. Add mushrooms and stir 2-3 minutes until they begin to soften. Add rice and thyme, and stir until rice is coated with oil. Add wine and stir until liquid is mostly absorbed.
4. Add ½ cup of stock and stir every minute or so until the liquid has nearly evaporated.
5. Repeat this process, adding ½ cup stock at a time, until the rice is al dente, about 20-25 minutes (you may not use all the stock).
6. Remove pan from heat. Stir in cheeses, cover and let stand five minutes. Add pepper to taste. (You can add a bit more hot stock if risotto seems too thick.) Chop cooled pancetta into smaller pieces. Just before serving, sprinkle risotto with pancetta and drizzle with balsamic vinegar.
Top photo: Mushroom-Pancetta Risotto. Credit: Tina Caputo
By the end of summer, most of us are tired of heat waves, but that weather is just what seasonal produce loves. Super heated air and damp humidity can be trying for us two-legged types, but when temperatures soar, heat-loving plants would dance in the streets with joy, if they could. Gods of the summer kitchen, tomatoes and corn are at their peak of flavor this time of year. Adding roasting to the mix brings out their sweetness. Combining roasted tomatoes and corn with briny clams for a salty finish makes beautifully easy-to-make pasta.
Corn, boiled or grilled
Delicious in so many ways, corn can be eaten boiled or grilled on the cob, braised in butter, added to soups and tossed in salads.
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Boiled corn has a clean-tasting freshness. Topped with butter, seasoned with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, corn plucked from a stock pot filled with boiling water is as simple as summer cooking can be.
Many people debate whether grilled or boiled corn is better and whether the husks and silks should stay on the cob to protect the kernels from the violence of the barbecue’s intense heat. Personally, I land solidly on the side of the debate that says to create the best tasting corn, throw the corn on the barbie naked, clothed only with a thin sheen of olive oil, seasoned with sea salt and pepper.
Direct contact with heat caramelizes the kernels, adding an umami flavor that only a hot grill or roasting pan can supply.
Whole tomatoes and clams
Tomatoes can be prepared in as many variations as corn. Usually defined by their savory acid, when roasted, tomatoes release a happy sweetness locked inside.
With affordable seafood available in abundance during the summer, corn and tomatoes find able companions at the table. To my way of thinking, shellfish forms the best marriage with corn and tomatoes by adding saltiness to the flavor mix.
Of all shellfish, clams are the easiest to prepare, because they require only a good washing in clean, cold water before they go into a covered pot over high heat. Come back in five minutes and your salt-water protein is table ready.
Tomatoes, Corn and Clams With Pasta
At farmers markets, slightly bruised and overly ripe tomatoes are often sold discounted. These failed beauties are perfect for roasting. Once puréed, the sauce can be placed in airtight containers and kept in the freezer for months. In the fall and winter, when ripe tomatoes are objects of distant memory and you want to make a soup or pasta sauce, the roasted tomato purée in the freezer will bring back the warm taste of summer.
The best clams are the freshest ones, harvested the previous day either from clam beds or farms with a good supply of clean water. When you buy clams, they are alive. Even though they are out of water, once they arrive in your kitchen, they will keep in the refrigerator in an uncovered bowl for two or three days. While fresh clams are delicious, they lose their flavor when overcooked. The pleasure of their sweet chewiness is ruined if all grit is not removed before serving. It is important to give the cooked clams a thorough rinsing in cold water as described below.
If you like the flavor of clams but not their chewiness, finely chop the whole clams after you remove them from their shells.
For the pasta, use any style you enjoy. Orecchiette (“ear”) and gnocchi pasta work especially well because the pasta shapes act as little cups to capture the clams and corn kernels.
5 pounds little neck or butter clams in the shell, rinsed in cold water
3 pounds ripe, whole tomatoes, washed
2 ears corn, husks and silks removed, washed
Sea salt and pepper to taste
2 strips bacon (optional)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 pound pasta
¼ cup pasta water
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic, skins removed, finely chopped
1 medium yellow onion, peeled, root and stem removed, finely sliced top to bottom
1 cup shiitake mushrooms, washed, dried, ends of stems trimmed, finely sliced
1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)
Dusting of cayenne (optional)
½ cup Italian parsley, washed, leaves only, finely chopped
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
For the clams:
1. Wash the outside of the clams with clean water. Place an empty, large pot on the stove on a medium-high heat. Put the clams into the pan. Do not add water. Cover. After 5 minutes, remove from the stove. Take out all the opened clams and set aside. Remove the clams and discard the shells. Leave any shells that have not opened in the pot and return to the stove. Cover and cook another 5 minutes. If any clams have not opened by this point, discard.
2. Pour the clam broth that has accumulated from the pot into a lidded container. Pour slowly so the sediment at the bottom can be discarded.
3. Rinse the clams in clean water. Place the clams into the clam broth and refrigerate until needed. At this point, the clams and broth can be frozen for future use.
For the tomatoes:
1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Using a sharp paring knife, make a triangle cut into the top of each tomato to remove and discard the stem.
2. Place tomatoes on a baking sheet covered with a Silpat sheet or piece of aluminum foil. Roast the tomatoes 60 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool.
3. Collect all the clear liquid on the bottom of the baking sheet. Press the cooked tomatoes through a fine mesh strainer or pass them through a food mill. Mix together the clear liquid and tomato purée. Should make 1 cup or more.
For the corn:
1. Preheat a barbecue grill or preheat oven to 350 F. Roll each ear of corn in olive oil, seasoned with sea salt and black pepper.
2. Grill the corn on a hot barbecue or place in the oven, turning every 5 to 10 minutes with metal tongs until lightly browned. Remove and let cool.
Cut the kernels off the corn, discard the cobs and set the kernels aside.
For the sauce and pasta:
1. Fry the bacon (optional) in a large skillet until crisp. When cool, crumble or finely chop with a sharp knife. Drain the oil. Use the skillet to make the sauce (below), deglazing the pan to add the bacon flavor.
2. Add kosher salt to a large pot of water. Bring to a boil. Add the pasta. Stir well. Stir every 3 to 4 minutes. Taste and when al dente after about 10 minutes, strain. Reserve 1 cup pasta water.
3. Heat a large skillet, drizzle with olive oil. Sauté the garlic, onions and shiitake mushrooms until lightly browned. Add grilled corn and 1 cup roasted tomato purée. Add sweet butter (optional). Stir well. Dust with cayenne (optional). Add the bacon (optional).
4. Add clam broth. Stir well to deglaze the skillet. Taste. If more liquid is needed and if the sauce needs salt, add the pasta water, a tablespoon at a time. Taste, being careful to avoid allowing the sauce to become overly salted.
5. Heat the sauce over a medium flame. Add the cooked pasta. Toss to coat. When the pasta is warm, add the clams. Toss until the clams are heated, being careful not to overcook.
Serve in a large platter, topped with a dusting of fresh Italian parsley and grated cheese.
Top photo: Orecchiette pasta with chopped Italian parsley, grated Romano cheese, grilled corn kernels, roasted tomato sauce and shucked butter clams. Credit: David Latt