Articles in Grains
“Flatbreads really grabbed me because they’re ancient in nature,” Paula Marcoux said at a class in early August. “Stone or clay or metal griddles grew up with domesticated grains. As nomadic people spread those grains they brought the griddle with them.”
In Saratoga, N.Y., the kitchen at the Healthy Living Market is very modern, which was fitting for the class introducing a group of contemporary cooks to how these ancient technologies and old foods have traveled through time and the world.
“I studied archaeology, and one of the things I love the most about the Middle East was eating the food. You can learn from documents, and you can learn from archaeology but you can learn by cooking too. And it’s not going to be the same unless you cook with fire,” Marcoux said, identifying the path to her passion.
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By Paula Marcoux
Storey Publishing, 320 pages, 2014
That passion is outlined in her new book, “Cooking With Fire: From Roasting on a Spit to Baking in a Tannur, Rediscovered Techniques and Recipes That Capture the Flavors of Wood-Fired Cooking” (Storey Publishing). A food historian, Marcoux is the food editor of Edible South Shore magazine, and has worked as an archaeologist, cook and bread oven builder. The book, her first, covers a lot of ground with food and fire, from the most rudimentary fire and stick methods through managing the nuances of retained heat in an oven — brick or otherwise.
I can’t get my head out of the middle chapter, which covers griddles and flatbreads, a food ghetto I see no reason to leave.
“The fact is that baking technologies develop to suit the grains available,” Marcoux wrote. “With its smooth horizontal surface allowing even and controlled baking, the griddle has been used by cooks the world over to convert gluten-free grains and even tubers into tremendous breads.”
I love this. People talk about flatbreads and batter breads being as old as, and older than, our life with grains. But her explanation seems more perfect than others I’ve heard, perhaps because it comes with recipes. At Marcoux’s class, she traced how the stretched doughs of Anatolia had moved around the world in a cross-cultural arc of flaky, griddle-baked wheat goods that included scallion pancakes, and boreks savory and sweet.
“The modern borek derives from the ancient Semitic root word b-r-k,” Marcoux said. “From this came borek, pierogi and Tunisian brik. The Middle Eastern word is a blazing clue to these flatbreads, where a fine stretched dough delivers filling. I think it’s amazing how one idea can travel 10,000 years. That’s longevity.”
Marcoux has shoulder length dark hair and a ready smile. Being with her is like having searchable access to an encyclopedia of our human history with cooking and food.
For a flour and griddle fiend like me, she has been a joy to find. Her name crept into my life at the Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Massachusetts where she used to work, and where I went to visit erstwhile Pilgrims handling grains. This was in the spring, and people at Plimoth were excited about Marcoux’s work documenting early ovens in New England, and about her book, which was released in May. Now that I’ve met her, and have her book in my kitchen, I understand the enthusiasm.
“For the scallion pancakes, I’m just rolling out a simple circle of dough,” she explained at the market. She poured a little sesame oil on the disk, and spread it thickly with chopped scallions. “Roll it up like a long cigar. Coil it up like a snail, and let it rest a while.”
After that while had passed, maybe 10 minutes, she rolled the snail into a pancake, and fried it in a little canola oil on a tava, a concave pan generally used for dosas.
Gas not like using live fire
“I feel funny cooking this indoors,” she said, adjusting the heat so the pancake wouldn’t burn. “As lovely as this kitchen is, cooking on a gas stove just isn’t the same as using live fire. Instead of struggling with these controls, you’d just be pulling a twig out, or pushing a twig into the fire.”
As the pancakes cooked, she made Middle Eastern pastries, and invited us to come up to the counter and learn.
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“This technology is older than tossing pizza,” she said, moving a piece of dough from hand to hand. She urged people to look for videos of Armenian women tossing dough to learn the method.
The volunteers rolled their dough flat, then stretched it using a sway and throw motion between fingers and hands. Once it was thin enough, they put it on a cutting board again, where they buttered, then filled it.
“Puff pastry works because the fat and gluten layers have to work together,” she said, noting that the doughs we used were only wheat and water. “It doesn’t take huge expertise to make this because of the amazing geometry of dough. This quality of wheat is what made us love it, and we’ve been loving it for a really long time.”
- 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce (or another of light soy sauce)
- 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon sambal oelek or other Asian hot chile paste
- ¼ cup chicken broth (or water, plus another dash or two of soy)
- 1¾ cups (8 ounces) all-purpose flour
- 1¾ cups (6 ounces) unbleached cake flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons peanut, canola or corn oil, plus more for frying pancakes
- 1¼ cups boiling water
- Asian (toasted) sesame oil for brushing
- 1½ cups chives or scallions, finely chopped
- Make sauce first to let flavors marry. Mix all ingredients and let rest while you make the dough.
- With a food processor or by hand, mix together flours and salt. Stir in 2 tablespoons oil, then, gradually, the boiling water. (You may need a few more drops of water, but wait and see.) Once it comes together in a ball, knead by hand for a few minutes, then let rest airtight for 30 minutes.
- Roll the dough into a cylinder, and cut into 12 even-sized pieces. Roll each into a smooth ball. Cover with a moist towel or plastic wrap so they don’t dry out.
- Roll one ball out thinly, brush with sesame oil, sprinkle liberally with chives, and roll up snugly in a cylinder. Coil the tube of filled dough in a spiral, keeping the seam to the inside. Press together a bit, and set aside, covered, while you fashion the rest.
- Gently roll each pancake flat. They should be 4 or 5 inches in diameter and about ¼-inch thick. (Light-handed rolling preserves all-important layering for the best texture.) Set up a couple of large skillets or a griddle; heat ⅛ inch of oil over medium heat. (You can continue rolling as you fry.)
- When the oil is hot, fry the pancakes (as many as you can at a time without crowding) until golden brown and crispy and cooked through — they should take about 3 minutes on the A side, and 2 minutes on the B side. Drain briefly on a rack or paper, cut in quarters, and serve hot with dipping sauce.
Recipe excerpted from "Cooking With Fire" by Paula Marcoux, used with permission from Storey Publishing.
Main photo: Paula Marcoux’s sweet crispy borek, or campfire baklava. Credit: Ellie Markovitch
If you ask me what would I choose as my last meal, I wouldn’t be able to give you just one. I have too many favorites. Doubtless, however, is that the soothing staying power of my mother’s wholesome rice porridge is among the most memorable.
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In the Malaysian language, the common definition of rice porridge within the Malay community is Bubur Lambuk (pronounced boo-boor lahm-bok), which has various ingredients and spices such as cumin, fennel, garlic, onions, dried prawns and lots of coconut milk as well as black pepper. A bowl of this is undoubtedly flavorful but can be overwhelmingly flavored with spices.
My mother’s rice porridge, though, has a comforting effect. According to her, it was a staple for her growing up in our hometown in Penang, Malaysia, and it has become the one thing I look forward during Eid, which marks the end of fasting during Ramadan each year. In many parts of Malaysia, hearty rice porridge is a staple during the breaking of one’s fast. Mosques and suraus (smaller prayer halls) usually prepare cauldrons of rice porridge to distribute to people. Although it is mostly meant for the poor and destitute, everyone is welcome to take home a packet or two.
My mother, Nisha Ibrahim, who turned 70 in January, recalled that in her youth, “At 5:30 in the evenings during Ramadan, we would flock to the mosque to get some porridge with our tiffin carriers, but over the years I have used my own recipe, which doesn’t require a lot spices. I use simple ingredients, which create a balanced flavor.”
When my mother was a child, people didn’t use any plastic containers when they got their porridge stash at the mosque. “We would take those aluminum mugs with the lids so the food would stay warm when we brought it home.”
It is now more than a month past Ramadan, which will start June 18 in 2015, but the echoes of my mother’s dish remain. The added oomph in her recipe comes from the generous portions of fresh garlic and ginger. Both provide a calming effect on the stomach. In the past, whenever I thought of rice porridge, I not only thought of breaking fast but also associated it with nursing a flu to feel better. Now I feel it’s a great meal for any day of the week.
Make sure you don’t use Basmati rice, because the starch content is relatively low. Instead, go for low-grade rice, as the high-starch content will break down the rice easily.
- 1 cup uncooked rice
- 8 cups filtered water
- 2 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon fenugreek seeds
- 1 pandan (screw pine) leaves, one leaf tied into a knot
- 4 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, coarsely chopped
- 3.5 ounces (100 grams) minced beef or chicken
- 3.5 ounces (100 grams) diced carrots
- ¼ cup coconut milk
- 3 tablespoons cilantro leaves, chopped
- Wash the rice in a big sieve. Do this three or four times, swishing the rice until the water runs clear. Drain and set aside.
- Put the rice in a big pot and add 8 cups of filtered water. Bring to a slow boil. Be sure not to let it burn.
- Add the vegetable oil, peppercorns, fenugreek seeds and pandan leaves and stir until contents are well mixed.
- Add the garlic and ginger and stir for a minute.
- Reduce the heat to medium-low and monitor the grains until it resembles a thick, creamy porridge. This should take about 5 minutes.
- Add the minced meat and carrots and heat until the meat is cooked and the carrots are soft.
- When the porridge is fragrant, add the coconut milk and cilantro leaves. Leave to cook over low heat for 10 minutes while stirring occasionally.
- Using a ladle, stir contents and scrape the pot to make sure nothing sticks before serving.
Tip: You can use fried shallots or fried dried anchovies (both available at Asian grocers) as garnish and to make the porridge tastier.
Main photo: A bowl of Malaysian rice porridge. Credit: Aida Ahmad
As this best part of summer delivers a ready-to-eat bounty of fresh vegetables to the kitchen, Luigi Fineo, executive chef at West Hollywood’s RivaBella Ristorante, shows off a large bowl of Iowa yellow corn. With one taste, Fineo knew what he would do with these fat sun-ripened kernels. He would make a healthy, sweet tasting soup.
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The youngest of five, Fineo grew up in southern Italy in Gioia del Colle. Like many chefs, he learned to love cooking in his mother’s kitchen. Helping to prepare the family’s meals, she taught him the basics. That early training would serve him well as he worked in demanding restaurants around the world from Francesco Berardinelli’s Shooeneck Ristorante in Falzes, Italy, to Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif..
From the outside, RivaBella has the appearance of just another upscale restaurant. Inside, the sprawling interior is set-dressed to look like an elegant version of a rustic Italian country inn. Full-sized trees and a 7-foot tall brick hearth dominate the interior. During the day when the retractable ceiling is open, the bright blue Southern California sky hangs overhead.
The current menu recalls the kitchen of Fineo’s mother and the refinements of his colleague, owner-chef Gino Angelini, who helped popularize quality Italian cooking in Los Angeles. The entrees include fine-dining versions of Italian classics: risotto with porcini mushrooms, spinach lasagna, Veal Milanese and pasta with broccolini and salmoriglio.
Reflecting his time spent in Santa Monica’s La Botte where he earned a Michelin star, Fineo also enjoys using the high-tech tools that are popular in many contemporary restaurant kitchens.
For his slow-cooked lamb shoulder ragù, he adds summer flavor with peaches he dehydrates, then rehydrates in a white wine bath flavored with cinnamon, anise and bay leaves. The handmade pappardelle he serves with the ragù is made with flour, flavored with a fine pistachio powder that is first frozen in liquid nitrogen before being ground into the fine powder.
Of the corn, by the corn and for the corn
When I first tasted the corn soup at RivaBella, it was so velvety, I asked if heavy cream or butter were used. The answer was neither.
In his kitchen for the video demonstration, Chef Fineo explained that he did not need cream or butter to create his soup. All he needed was farm-fresh Iowa corn, a little water, a pinch or two of salt and a lot of stirring.
Usually when Fineo makes soups, he begins with a sauté of shallots and aromatics. Cooking with corn, he’s inclined to roast the kernels. But with this sweet corn, he decided he didn’t need to add flavor and he didn’t need to employ any high-tech machines. To prepare his corn soup, he would return to the basics he learned from his mother.
Because, essentially there is only one ingredient, use high quality, fresh corn to create a soup that is healthy and delicious. When picking corn, choose ears that have green, healthy husks and kernels that are plump. If the kernels are indented or the husks are brown, choose different ears. In the restaurant, the soup is served with fresh crabmeat to enhance its upscale qualities. But Fineo recommends that the soup is a treat served entirely as a vegetarian or vegan dish.
- 12 ears yellow corn, shucked, washed, pat dried
- ¾ cup water
- Sea salt to taste
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh chives
- ½ cup crab meat, preferably crab leg meat (optional)
- 1 tablespoon butter (optional)
- 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (optional)
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper (optional)
- Using a sharp knife, cut the raw kernels from the cobs.
- Working in batches, two cups at a time, place the kernels into a large blender and blend with just enough water, about one tablespoon water for each cup of kernels. To create a vortex, if needed, add more water.
- Blend each batch about 45 seconds.
- Again, working in batches, strain the resulting corn mash through a chinois or a fine meshed strainer, capturing the liquid in a large bowl. To release all the liquid, press on the corn mash gently, using the back of a large ladle or large kitchen spoon.
- Transfer the corn juice to a large saucepan or small stock pot and place uncovered on the stove.
- Using high heat, bring the liquid to a boil and then lower to medium.
- Using a wire whisk, gently stir the liquid 30 to 40 minutes until reaching the desired thickness. Very importantly, the liquid must be stirred constantly to prevent the corn’s sugars from sticking to the bottom and burning.
- As the liquid thickens, lower the heat.
- Taste and add sea salt as desired. Serve hot, topped with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of finely chopped chives.
- Optionally, in a non-stick pan on low heat, sauté the crab pieces in olive oil or butter until crispy on all sides, then place one or two pieces on top of each bowl of soup and garnish with chives and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Instead of crab, Chef Fineo also recommends using shrimp or scallops.
- Season with a pinch of sea salt and black pepper. Drain the crab on a paper towel. Place on top of the soup. Drizzle with olive oil and finely chopped chives.
Main photo: Yellow corn soup with sautéed crab and chives. Credit: David Latt
Consuming whole grains is making us healthier eaters. Take rice, which since ancient times has been one of the most popular grains eaten around the world, particularly in Asia.
Many Japanese people, including myself, are making the switch from white rice to brown rice, opting for unmilled or partially milled. Brown has become the new white — for its purity, if you will.
The brown part, the bran and the germ of the grain, contains all the good stuff — protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Besides its nutritional value, brown rice is better than white rice because it keeps you full for a long time and it takes longer to digest compared with white rice. This is because white rice is mainly starch, which turns into sugar when it goes into your digestive system. In fact, Japanese people are dieting on brown rice to lose weight and detox.
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It helps to know how to cook brown rice to ensure optimum flavor and texture — nutty, sticky, aromatic and sweet. What I look for in my brown rice is good moisture and stickiness, but not mushiness. I also want my rice to be flavorful in its natural state and tasty even at room temperature.
What is the best way to achieve this perfect balance for rice? Japanese people will give you a variety of answers, but many cooks are still searching for the best method. After all, we have been spoiled eating white rice.
You need to know that it takes a little longer to cook brown rice because it has another layer of skin. The idea is to soften it. Basically, all it takes to cook brown rice is water and a little salt. I don’t use any oil or butter when cooking rice as Western cooks do, but that’s optional. The main question is the vessel in which the brown rice is cooked. You are looking at about an hour to cook rice from prepping to done, no matter what you use. Here are several options to consider.
I love cooking brown rice with a pressure cooker. Many brown rice aficionados swear by it. The rice comes out nutty, sticky, sweet and shiny — all the qualities I am looking for.
Cooking it in a pressure cooker does not require soaking, and it doesn’t take too much water to cook the rice. You’ll want a ratio of about 1-to-1.5 rice-to-water. While cooking, you’ll have to keep an eye on the pressure cooker while the pressure is building and you must handle the pressure cooker with care, so you don’t burn yourself. These tasks may be challenging for some cooks. Also, each pressure cooker works slightly differently, so you need to follow your manufacturer’s instructions carefully.
Using a pressure cooker is faster than other methods as well, about five minutes to prep the rice and 35 minutes to cook it, including the steaming.
Donabe clay pot
The donabe — a Japanese clay pot — has been used in Japan to cook rice and other dishes since ancient times. Sitting around the wood-burning stove waiting for the rice to cook in the donabe was one of my favorite childhood pastimes with my grandmother.
The grains love the even heat of the clay pot — the individual grains literally stand up when rice is cooked in a donabe. The donabe method is easier than you may think, but I know of two American friends who broke their donabes before they even cooked a grain of rice in them. A donabe needs to be seasoned properly, similar to using a tagine.
The donabe method for cooking rice is straightforward: The rice is soaked overnight in the pot with the measured water. The water-to-rice ratio is about 1-to-2. The rice is cooked to a boil over medium high heat for 30 to 35 minutes. The lid must be closed, and no peeking is allowed during cooking. Then, the heat is turned off and the rice rests for another 30 to 40 minutes. Still, no peeking until the timer goes off.
This method will give you a nutty, aromatic rice with good texture. Cooking brown rice in a donabe pot is a slow process, but the method is pleasing to the eye and palate. A good source for donabe pots is Toiro Kitchen.
Electric rice cooker — the no-brainer method
Rice cookers were invented in the 1950s in Japan. They had a life-changing effect on Japanese cooks like my mother and grandmother because they allowed them to walk away from the pot.
The rice cooks rather perfectly each time, so long as you allow it to soak beforehand and hit the water-to-rice ratio right. In a rice cooker, it can range between 1-to-1 and 1-to-1.2. The rule of thumb is to allow at least 20 minutes for soaking.
In recent years, rice cooker companies have come up with more advanced devices that look and think like robots. Some rice cookers come with a cast iron or clay inner cooker — ultra-modern technology enveloping old-fashioned equipment. They come with timers and various cooking settings for everything from porridge to sushi rice to brown rice. Some can even be used to bake bread. Costs can range from $150 to $800.
My Tiger rice cooker comes with a load of fancy features, but I use only the buttons for basic rice and brown rice. It’s a reliable machine. I should explore the other buttons. You can also buy rice cookers made in China that cost less than $30 but still cook a decent bowl of rice. You can find them at Target and Costco, among other retailers.
Stove or oven method
The simplest way to cook brown rice is on the stove top or in the oven. You don’t need any fancy equipment, just a pot with a tight-fitting lid. Le Creuset and Lodge make Dutch oven pots with a lid that you can place in the oven.
Baked brown rice comes out slightly moister and stickier than the stove top method. Here are the recipes for both, if you want to see which you prefer. Just like all the other rice recipes, no peeking is allowed while steaming the rice.
Stove Top Brown Rice
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 55 minutes
Total Time: 60 minutes
Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings
1½ cups short- or medium-grain brown rice
2¾ cups of water
¼ to ½ teaspoon salt (optional)
1. Combine rice, water and salt in a heavy pot and bring to a boil.
2. Cover with a tight-fitting lid, reduce heat to a very low simmer and cook for 45 minutes.
3. Remove from heat with the lid on and let stand for 10 minutes to allow for further steaming.
4. Fluff with a rice paddle or fork. Serve the rice in bowls or make onigiri rice balls (this portion makes 4 onigiris) and sprinkle roasted sesame seeds, if you like.
Baked Brown Rice
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 55 minutes
Total Time: 60 minutes
Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings
2½ cups water
1½ cups short- or medium-grain brown rice
¼ to ½ teaspoon salt (optional)
1. Bring water to a boil and preheat the oven to 375 F. Put the brown rice in an 8-inch square dish or a 7½-inch-by-2¾-inch Le Creuset pan baking dish.
2. Pour boiling water over the rice, cover tightly with aluminum foil and put it in the oven to bake for 45 minutes. Do not peek.
3. Remove from oven, toss the rice with a fork or rice paddle, put the cover back on and let the rice stand for 10 minutes.
4. Serve the rice in bowls or make onigiri rice balls and sprinkle roasted sesame seeds, if you like.
Main photo: Onigiri made with brown rice. Credit: Sonoko Sakai
One of my best food friends is white pastry wheat. White refers to the tint of the bran — wheats are either white or red. Pastry means a soft wheat, one with low levels of gluten-forming proteins. Those proteins are what help build the gluten matrix when using hard or bread wheats; soft wheats make tender cakes and quick breads. The pancakes I make from Farmer Ground Flour’s organic, stone ground whole wheat pastry flour are the definition of perfect in my family, the pancake of request for my 11-year-old’s birthday. The pancake that means pancake and home.
Farmer Ground Flour is a mill that stone grinds organically grown New York State grains. Grain farmer Thor Oechsner is part owner in the mill; he and his fields, and millers Greg Mol and Neal Johnston, are great help as I try to understand flour from field to griddle.
My favorite wheat gets planted in the fall. Fall crops go in the ground in September or October, early enough for the seeds to grow a few inches before winter. Fall planting helps seeds get a head start on weed seeds that sit in the ground. Spring can be pretty wet, and hard for farmers to get in the field, so that’s another advantage of this habit. Grains take to this system pretty well, since they are the edible seeds of certain grasses, and much like a lawn, these grass crops go dormant.
Snow cover helps protect the crop. A certain amount of winterkill is expected in fall planted crops, but this past winter, things looked pretty dicey. In New York’s Finger Lakes region, plenty of snowstorms hit but the snow melted quickly. In low spots, that melt turned to ponds.
Beyond this local hint of doom, there was some general anxiety in the wheat world about supply and prices. By March, stores of North American organic wheat had dwindled. The 2013 wheat crop was limited by continued drought in the arid Southern Plains; regional supplies in the Northeast were limited by a very wet season. Larger organic mills were turning to Argentina for bread wheat. This fact, plus political pressures in Eastern Europe, created worry about what this year could bring for harvest. Late freezes hitting the Plains States during greenup, the time when fall planted grains start to grow, fueled my wonder.
Mid-April, I took a drive to Ithaca, N.Y., to see how my future pancake flour was doing. Amazingly, some of the fields were greening up quite nicely. Sure, there were spots where the plants did not survive, but those tan tips that sat over iced snow were getting crowded by green growth. What a delight to see.
This is what the field looks like now, a couple of weeks before harvest: a field of wheat rows, as American as a box of cereal. Look at those green stalks peaking through the gold heads. Ah, breakfast.
Why did this field and other fields recover? Winterkill is also known as winter survival. Plants that had enough room bounced back from the harsh conditions and grew well. Another factor was the plants having strong enough roots to withstand the pressures of temperature changes from winter through spring.
This tiny rye plant (pictured right) didn’t make it. It just didn’t have enough roots to hang on to the ground as temperature swings pulled the dirt together into frozen clumps. It was frost heaved.
Winter survival is tricky. Too little growth and the earth kicks out the plant. Too much, and the long green leaves attract mold, or other smothering problems. The malting barley crop in New York suffered a 50% loss due to winterkill, which is understandable, as growers are just figuring out how to make this crop work. The state’s 2013 Farm Brewery Law, which ties licensing for a certain kind of brewery to use of state agricultural products, such as grains, hops and honey, has caused a bit of barley fever.
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A work in progress
Growing wheat and barley outside of the grain belts is a work in progress. Grain farming and processing, like malting, concentrated in the Midwest, Plains States and Northwest in the late 19th and early 20th century; this consolidation wiped out knowledge and infrastructure for how to grow grain crops in the Northeast. Farms grow grains for dairies, but cows eat differently than we do. And they do not drink spirits or beer.
Growing grains for malting, distilling and flour markets is more complicated than growing for animal feed. These specialty markets need different seed varieties and fertilization practices to hit certain performance markers, like protein levels. Growing food grade grain also requires more cleaning, and careful post harvest handling and storage. The learning curve is steep as people switch from commodity production to community enterprises.
I’m lucky to have a window on these grain ventures, and see people cooperate as they try to figure out what works. Right now, my pancake-flour-in-the-making looks good. The crop isn’t in the bin yet; there’s still time for weather to wreak havoc. But the farmers and researchers I’ve talked to are optimistic. Yields will be down, but there will be wheat.
Main photo: Those tan and brown matchsticks are wheat plants, trapped in ice sheets. Oh my, I thought, what are we going to eat next year? Credit: Rachel Lodder
Sun, Sea & Olives: Forty years ago, I took my young family to live in the hill country between Tuscany and Umbria, Italy. Our mountain neighbors were all self-sufficient farmers, raising almost their entire food supply themselves. They grew vegetables and beans, harvested chestnuts and mushrooms, raised pigs, chickens, rabbits and sometimes sheep. Only salt and pepper for curing pork, coffee and infrequently a piece of chocolate came from a shop in town, 20 kilometers (12 miles) away.
Of course they made wine — thin, sour stuff — and pressed their olives to make musty, fusty oil (pork fat was much more to their liking). And they grew their own wheat, threshed it and had it ground into flour for the unsalted bread that was then and still is today a Tuscan staple without which no meal is complete. Sometimes, in fact, bread was the meal, maybe with a thin slice of prosciutto or guanciale from the family pig or a dribble of rancid oil to add flavor.
So wheat was the primary crop, the survival mechanism on which everything else depended, and the annual harvest in July was a moment fraught with anxiety that erupted into celebration once the anxiety was relieved. Our valley had one threshing machine, and it went from farm to farm, each day fetching up in a different place, and the farm folk followed it. When it arrived at our neighbors’ farm, people descended for miles around to help with the hot, dirty, tiring work of the harvest and take part in the feast and dancing that followed.
I think about all this now because it is once again harvest time in the Mediterranean. The wheat harvest begins in North Africa in June, rolling north, across Anatolia, Italy, and Spain, as the tall stalks fall to the cutting blades. The landscape that was green a month earlier is bleached now with the color of ripening grain and then golden with the chaff left behind after the harvesters have come through. Our neighbors no longer grow their own wheat, but the harvest is still critical throughout Tuscany.
Durum wheat, the go-to choice for pasta
Sun, Sea & Olives
One in an occasional series on the Mediterranean diet.
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A lot of this wheat, especially in the hotter, drier parts to the south, is hard durum wheat (Triticum turgidum, var. durum), the venerable species used for so many traditional Mediterranean preparations, from bulgur (burghul) to tarhana to couscous to pasta. American cookbook writers used to claim durum semolina was difficult to work in the home, that you needed special heavy equipment to turn it into pasta. But in fact, throughout the south of Italy, especially in Puglia, hard durum wheat, as semola or semolina, is regularly used in home kitchens to make orecchiette and other traditional pastas. And the great breads of Altamura and Laterza get much of their character and their golden color from being made with locally grown durum wheat, using a slow-rising lievito madre (what we might call sourdough) and baked in a wood-fired oven.
Italian law requires all commercial pasta to be made from durum wheat, one reason why Italian pasta in general is of such high quality. The government is concerned with maintaining quality because Italians are world-champion pasta eaters — between 26 and 28 kilos (61.6 pounds) per capita annually depending on the study. And most of that is commercial or boxed pasta (called in Italian pasta secca).
A more useful distinction to keep in mind, however, is the one between industrial and artisanal pasta. The artisanal product is generally of much higher quality, and, like most artisanal things, costs more, a reflection of greater care in production. To qualify as artisanal, pasta must be made at consistently low temperatures (no higher than 122 degrees F) from start to finish, extruded through bronze dyes (producing a roughened surface) and dried slowly. Low temperatures keep the wheat from cooking, so it retains its pale color; the high temperatures and Teflon dyes of industrially produced pasta result in a golden yellow color and a sleek, plasticized surface.
Gragnano, a small city south of Naples, has been at least since the 18th century one of those places Italians cite for high-quality artisanal pasta. Why? Several historical reasons — access to excellent durum wheat through the port of Amalfi, just over the Lattari mountains on the Golfo di Salerno; clean, fresh water cascading from those same mountains to power the grist mills that ground the grain; and a constant flow of brisk breezes to dry the pasta, which once hung on rods in the streets of Gragnano until it was ready to ship to hungry Naples across the bay. Nowadays, Gragnano has a coveted Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) from the European Union, a certification that pasta with that seal has been made according to precise regulations.
Pastificio Faella is one of nine Gragnano producers that make IGT pasta. I spent some time recently in Gragnano with Pastificio Faella’s Sergio Cinque. As we toured the factory, Cinque described the various phases of drying and the importance of each one. “If it’s not done properly,” he said, “there’s a real risk of fermentation and that will result in pasta with an acid flavor.”
But it was the perfume of wheat that imbued the small factory with its warm, nutty, slightly dusty fragrance. To understand the high quality of artisanal pasta, Cinque suggested this test: Prepare equal quantities, say 100 grams, of ordinary commercial pasta and Pasta Faella. Bring two pots of water to a boil and add the pasta, one to each pot. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes and then measure.
You’ll find, he said, that the Faella pasta will expand notably in the water, while ordinary pasta will remain the same. That’s because under high-temperature drying, a crystallization — another word is plastification — takes place, and the pasta doesn’t absorb water at the same rate. What that means is that artisanal pasta is more easily digested and gives a greater sense of satiety with less of the actual food.
I left with a kilo package of Faella’s excellent spaghetti tucked under my arm. When I got home, I turned it into this pasta dish, a variation on one in my daughter Sara Jenkins’ lovely cookbook, “Olives and Oranges.”
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 or 3 pints (1½ pounds to 2 pounds) mixed small tomatoes—cherry, grape and currant
- Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- About 1 pound (500 grams) spaghetti, preferably IGT Gragnano
- Handful of chopped fresh arugula, leaves only (discard tough stems)
- ⅔ cup grated or shaved bottarga or freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- Bring 4 to 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil.
- While the water is heating, add the oil to a large, heavy skillet and set over medium-high heat. When the oil is very hot (but not smoking), add half the tomatoes, sprinkle them quickly with salt and cook, tossing the skillet, until the tomatoes start to wrinkle and collapse. Add the rest of the tomatoes and continue cooking and tossing for another 2 minutes. (Yes, some of the tomatoes will be more cooked than others—that’s the point.)
- Push the tomatoes to one side and add the garlic to the pan. As the garlic starts to soften, mix it in with the tomatoes, gently pressing the tomatoes to release some of their juices. When the sauce is thick, remove from the heat and add a pinch of salt and a few turns of the pepper mill. Keep the sauce warm until the pasta is done.
- Add a big spoonful of salt to the pasta water and let it come to the boil again, then plunge in the pasta and give it a stir with a long-handled spoon. Cover the pot until the water returns to the boil, then remove the lid and let the pasta cook vigorously until done—about 10 minutes.
- Prepare a warm serving bowl by adding some pasta water to the bowl to heat it up, but don’t forget to tip the water out before you add the pasta to the bowl.
- Drain the pasta, transfer to the warm bowl and immediately toss with the warm tomato sauce, stirring in the arugula. Toss again, then sprinkle with the bottarga or cheese and serve immediately.
If possible, select from an array of little grape and cherry tomatoes, mixing them up for a colorful presentation. We like to serve this with grated bottarga (salted and dried fish roe) on top, but you could also serve it with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Main photo: Spaghetti With Sun-Burst Tomatoes. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Chef Giacomino Drago smiles a lot. The youngest member of a family of cooks to immigrate from Sicily, Drago, along with his brothers, has opened a dozen restaurants in Los Angeles, many in Beverly Hills, over the past four decades.
A contributor to the “Beverly Hills Centennial Cookbook,” Drago declares that using the highest quality, freshest ingredients is the essence of Italian cooking. In his video he demonstrates an easy-to-prepare, classic Italian panzanella salad with diet-friendly spelt instead of bread.
Drago enjoys cooking. He smiles as he drops a handful of spaghetti into one of the half dozen pots of salted water on the stove and when he quickly renders a red onion into a mound of thin, pungent ribbons.
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Come to Italy, he says, and one of the first salads you will eat is one made with vine-ripened tomatoes, basil, red onions, extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, and salt and pepper. Simplicity, he says several times, is the essence of Italian cooking. Find the freshest, highest-quality ingredients and prepare them in what Drago calls the rustic way, roughly cut so the dish is not overly fussy. The result is delicious, healthy food that is easy and fun to make.
A panzanella salad is the perfect dish for summer. To pursue the “current fashion,” as he puts it, he has traded spelt for bread in a signature salad at Via Alloro in Beverly Hills. He chose spelt because it has a refreshing texture and nutty quality that contrasts well with the acid of the tomato and vinegar. A heritage grain and cousin to wheat, spelt was developed hundreds of years ago as a flour in bread making. High in protein and fiber, Drago says spelt is heart-healthy because it is high in niacin. Because “panzanella” refers to a bread (“pane”) salad, it might be more accurate to call chef’s creation a speltzanella.
Chef Drago loves all his restaurants. But he designed the kitchen at Via Alloro in a special way. The area where the line cooks work is a horseshoe space with stoves in the middle and counters running along the walls. There are no dead-ends in this kitchen. Moving efficiently Drago and Executive Chef Paolo Sicuro prepare dishes with an unhurried ease, transferring their love of cooking onto the plates.
Fresh tomatoes are key to the flavor and pleasures of the salad. To protect the tomatoes’ richness of flavor, Drago insists they must never be refrigerated. That is why buying tomatoes from farmers markets is so important. Supermarket tomatoes may have been refrigerated for days, even weeks during their journey from the field to your kitchen.
Drago is precise about his cooking but flexible in terms of ingredients and seasoning. When cooking at home, he encourages that you use only ingredients you enjoy. If you do not like onions, don’t use them in the salad. The same goes for cucumbers and ground black pepper.
To capture all the tomato juice, chef cuts the tomatoes over the bowl. Use a variety of tomatoes for contrasts in shape, color and flavor. For the demonstration, Drago and Siruro used vine ripened, cherry and grape tomatoes. Yellow and heirloom tomatoes could also be added for contrast. To make the onion slices more “friendly,” Drago suggests double rinsing in water. This will result in a more mild flavor. Not widely available, spelt berries can be purchased in specialty markets and ordered online from purveyors such as Bob’s Red Mill. Cooked like pasta in boiling salted water, kosher salt should be used for the cleanest taste. Chef Drago uses English or hothouse cucumbers for the dish. If those are not available, Persian cucumbers would be a good substitute because they have a lower water content than garden cucumbers. The spelt may be cooked ahead and refrigerated. The other ingredients should be prepared immediately before serving to preserve their freshness.
- 3 tablespoons spelt
- 2 medium-sized tomatoes, washed, stem removed, cut into a small dice, reserving the liquid
- 5 cherry tomatoes, washed, quartered
- 5 plum tomatoes, washed, quartered
- 1 small hothouse cucumber, washed, skin on, a small dice the same size as the tomatoes (optional)
- ¼ medium red onion, washed, root and stem removed, thin sliced (optional)
- 4 fresh basil leaves, washed, pat dried, roughly torn or chopped
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- Pinch of salt to taste
- Pinch of freshly ground black pepper to taste (optional)
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- Add kosher salt to three quarts of water. Bring to a rapid boil. Add spelt. Boil uncovered 30-50 minutes or longer depending on the desired doneness. Taste at 30 minutes to determine what is al dente for you and then again at 10-minute intervals until you reach the texture you like. I prefer cooking the spelt 50 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool
- Using a sharp paring knife, cut the tomatoes over the salad bowl to capture all the juices.
- Cut the skin-on cucumber into pieces similar in size to the tomatoes and add to the bowl.
- Slice the red onion. Submerge in cold water, rinse, drain, submerge in fresh cold water, rinse and drain. Add to the tomatoes and cucumbers.
- Add the cooked spelt berries.
- Roughly chop the basil leaves or tear them with your hands. Add to the salad bowl.
- Toss the spelt, vegetables and aromatics with the extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar.
- Season with sea salt to taste and freshly ground black pepper, as desired.
- Serve as a salad or a side with grilled meats, fish and poultry.
Not everyone uses the word “barbecue” in Japan, but when it comes to cooking over the flame, Japanese have a long tradition — and grilled onigiri is the star!
Onigiri is essentially rice shaped into balls. When onigiri is brushed with some soy sauce and grilled until it is brown and crispy, it becomes Yakionigiri (yaki means to grill). In our family, my father would make it using a Hibachi, the classic Japanese grilling device that holds burning charcoal. He would take his time brushing the soy sauce on the onigiris. You don’t need anything else to make grilled onigiri taste good.
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The preparation is easy, and you can even use day-old rice. Old rice has a way of perking up with heat.
There is no pre-seasoning required. It takes about five to eight minutes on each side to brown the onigiri, depending on how far the grill is from the heat source. The shape of an onigiri is a matter of preference. In my family, it has always been triangular in shape — sort of like a pyramid. It can take some practice to get the pyramid to stand up, but you eventually figure out how to apply just the right amount of pressure to the rice to form the three corners.
You can also make them round or oval in shape. My father’s onigiri was made with brown rice. My grandmother’s onigiri was white rice. I like them both, but you have to remember to use short- or medium-grain rice. Long-grain rice will not make onigiri; you need rice that sticks. My family’s onigiris were filled with either a pickled plum or katsuobushi, dried bonito flakes seasoned with a little soy sauce. The contrasting flavors of the bland rice next to the savory bonito was heavenly.
You can grill onigiri while you grill the meat or fish or vegetables. All you need to do is keep an eye on it so the onigiris don’t burn.
Besides the straight soy sauce, you can add miso to the soy sauce to make your onigiris taste more savory. Add mirin if you want to add a little sweetness. The thing you want to remember is to serve onigiris right off the grill, while they are still hot. That way, they are crispy and really delicious.
Prep Time: 30 minutes (Note: Brown rice must be soaked overnight)
Cook Time: 10 to 16 minutes to grill onigiris
Total Time: 40 to 46 minutes
Yield: Makes 8
2 cups white short-grain or brown short-grain rice, such as Koda Farms Kokuho Rose
2½ cups of water (or follow rice cooker manufacturer’s instructions)
Salt water (see note above)
2 tablespoons salt in a small bowl
1. Cook the rice first, with the measured 2½ cups water, or cook according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
2. When the rice is cooked, divide it into eight equal portions. Make the onigiri while the rice is hot. Take one portion of rice and put it in a teacup or small bowl.
3. Shape the onigiri: Moisten your hands lightly with the salt water to keep the rice from sticking (if you like your onigiri saltier, moisten your hands in the water, then dip your index finger into the bowl of salt and rub the salt on your palms). Mold the rice using your hands: For a triangular shape, cup one hand to hold the rice ball. Press gently with your other hand to create the top corner of the triangle, using your index and middle fingers and thumb as a guide. Turn the rice ball and repeat two more times to give the onigiri three corners. The onigiri can also be round or oval in shape.
4. Repeat with the rest of the rice to form eight onigiri.
Soy miso sauce
¼ cup miso (red miso paste)
1 to 2 teaspoons mirin to taste
1 to 2 tablespoons soy sauce
¼ cup finely chopped chives
1. In a medium bowl, blend the miso, mirin and soy sauce.
2. The chives can be whisked into the sauce, or sprinkled over as a garnish just before serving.
Grilled onigiri assembly
Prepared soy miso sauce
1. Baste the onigiri with a little oil to prevent it from sticking to the grill.
2. Heat a grill over medium-high heat until hot, or heat the broiler. Line the grill pan or a baking sheet (if using the broiler) with foil. Grill the onigiri on both sides until crisp and slightly toasted; this can take from 8-10 minutes on each side depending on the heat and cooking method. While grilling, baste the onigiri with the sauce on each side a few times until it is absorbed and becomes crisp; the onigiri should not be moist from basting when done. Watch carefully, as the onigiri can burn.
3. Serve immediately while the onigiri are piping hot. Sprinkle with chives.
Main photo: A grilled onigiri can be the perfect Fourth of July finger food. Credit: Sonoko Sakai