Articles in History
I’ve been exploring Mediterranean food for decades and written books about it, but only recently have discovered the phenomena of Greek yogurt, which was perplexingly unfamiliar.
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I didn’t know what Greek yogurt was, a term that first surfaced quite recently. I consulted other Mediterranean food experts and they were baffled, too. So I figured that it was one of two things: yogurt from Greece or a slick marketing term devised by American food companies to sell yogurt as a health food. Well, it’s certainly the latter.
More importantly, I have figured out that what marketers call Greek yogurt is none other than what I’ve been writing about and eating for 40 years, that is labna (also lubny or labneh or labne), which is strained yogurt.
Labna is the Arabic term, and it was only in Middle Eastern markets that you could find strained yogurt until quite recently. It is also called strained yogurt, kefir cheese and yogurt cheese. I had to laugh. For those of us who write about Mediterranean food and who eat it, hearing someone talk about Greek yogurt was like listening to a little kid marvel over a jack-in-the-box.
Yogurt in Greece and around the Mediterranean
Until the mid-1990s when high-quality yogurt became available I simply made my own because it’s ridiculously easy and there should be no hype about yogurt. Yogurt, a Turkish word (yoğurt), is a semi-solid cultured or fermented milk containing the bacteria Bacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. These organisms present in the “starter,” given warmth, will ferment whole or skimmed fresh milk overnight.
Yogurt may have been known by the ancients Greeks as pyriate. Andrew Dalby, who wrote an important study on classical Greek gastronomy, wrote about the Greek physician Galen, who related this older term, pyriate, with the oxygala familiar in his own day, which was a form of yogurt and was eaten on its own or with honey. The first unequivocal description of yogurt is found in a dictionary called “Divanu lugati’t- turk” compiled by Kaşgarli Mahmud in 1072 during the Seljuk era in the Middle East.
Yogurt spread rapidly throughout the eastern Mediterranean, but it hardly penetrated the western and northern Mediterranean. The use of yogurt was first recorded in France in the 16th century, when it was said to have cured the ailing King Francis I. The yogurt was administered daily by a Jewish doctor who had traveled on foot from Constantinople accompanied by a flock of sheep, and that was the last France saw of yogurt until the 19th century.
Make your own Greek yogurt
The Turks are far more picky about yogurt than Americans, and as a result one finds very high-quality yogurt in Turkey. Most yogurt is made from cow’s milk, with some made from sheep’s milk, while goat’s milk yogurt is rare in Turkey. Yogurt is a staple food in the Middle East and is now ubiquitous in the United States. Making your own is easy and after straining the yogurt I still call it labna.
Makes 1 quart
1 quart whole milk
3 tablespoons whole plain yogurt
1. In a saucepan, bring the milk to a gentle boil over medium heat, stirring frequently to make sure you do not scald the bottom of the pot. Once the milk is shimmering on the surface, simmer for 2 minutes. Pour the milk into a large mixing bowl and let cool until you can keep your little finger submerged in it to a count of 10.
2. Stir a few tablespoons of the hot milk into the yogurt and then quickly stir this back into the hot milk. Cover the bowl and leave overnight inside a turned-off electric oven. The next morning you will have homemade yogurt that will keep for a week. You can save some of this homemade yogurt as your starter for the next batch.
Note: To make strained yogurt, or “Greek yogurt,” pour the yogurt into a linen towel or several layers of cheesecloth, tie off, and hang from a kitchen sink faucet to drain overnight. In the Middle East strained yogurt is used as a breakfast spread for Arabic bread, served as a dip for hot foods, or eaten plain with some olive oil or honey.
Top photo: Greek yogurt. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
For weeks I have been incubating ideas about what in my repertoire I might suggest for your Thanksgiving table. With all that’s abuzz in the food press about dry brining turkey and gussying up pumpkin pie and such, I have decided not to go anywhere near the subject for fear of dishonoring the true spirit of Thanksgiving with ideas about Venetian roast turkey with pomegranate or savory speck-flecked pumpkin pie encased in a rosemary pastry crust.
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I’ll admit I’m not entirely certain what that American spirit is because there is no precise record of the menu on the auspicious day in 1621, auspicious, that is, for the newcomers. While I am as fond of the proverbial bird and all the trimmings as anyone, I haven’t yet swallowed my grammar-school lessons about how it all went down at Plymouth Rock between the Wampanoags and the dour lot of newcomers.
Pilgrims getting creative with pasta
For the benefit of those who, like me, are skeptical of the official version of Thanksgiving history, let me quote how my favorite American writer on food topics, Calvin Trillin, crusader for changing the national Thanksgiving dish from turkey to spaghetti alla carbonara, recounted the story to his children, as told in a 1983 essay in “Third Helpings.”
“In England, a long time ago, there were people called pilgrims who were strict about making sure everyone observed the Sabbath and cooked food without any flavor and that sort of thing, and they decided to go to America, where they could enjoy Freedom to Nag. … In America, the pilgrims tried farming, but they couldn’t get much done because they were always putting their best farmers in the stocks for crimes like Suspicion of Cheerfulness.
“The Indians took pity on the pilgrims and helped them with their farming, even though they thought the pilgrims were about as much fun as teenage circumcision. The pilgrims were so grateful that at the end of their first year in American they invited the Indians over for a Thanksgiving meal.
“The Indians, having had some experience with pilgrim cuisine during the year, took the precaution of taking along one dish of their own. They brought a dish that their ancestors had learned many generations before from none other than Christopher Columbus, who was known to the Indians as ‘the big Italian fellow.’
“The dish was spaghetti carbonara made with pancetta bacon and fontina and the best imported prosciutto. The Pilgrims hated it. They said it was ‘heretically tasty’ and ‘the work of the devil’ and ‘the sort of thing foreigners eat.’ The Indians were so disgusted that on the way back to their village after dinner one of them made a remark about the pilgrims that was repeated down through the years and unfortunately caused confusion among historians about the first Thanksgiving meal. He said, ‘What a bunch of turkeys!’ ”
The real deal with spaghetti alla carbonara
I feel compelled to make a few comments about Trillin’s account as to the nature of the first Thanksgiving Day dish. Everyone knows that recipes, when they migrate from their country of origin to a foreign kitchen, undergo transformation as much as people do. By Trillin’s account, only a few generations after the native dwellers had gotten their hands on it, they had already embellished it, gilding the lily, so to speak, with characteristic American excess so that it would have been hardly recognizable to Cristoforo Colombo who, like every other Italian, suffered the indignities of name change upon reaching the shores of America.
If we are to believe the account, the Wampanoags’ version included two kinds, not one kind, of cheese, and two kinds of salumi. No doubt the spaghetti wasn’t imported. It’s a good thing Italy’s famous native son wasn’t around to see it, or later incarnations that plied the dish further with cream, wine, broccoli and even caviar. Everything but the kitchen sink was lavished onto the once-humble progenitor that was named, or so some think, for the Roman carbonari, men who worked in the forests burning wood to make charcoal.
Probably there is no dish whose origins are as mysterious. Of course, some say the carbonari invented it. By other accounts, Italian women concocted it when presented with bacon and egg rations by American soldiers during World War II. I am assured by reliable sources that it is an ancient dish with roots in the kitchens of the norcini, famed pork butchers of Umbria. That theory would add a bit of credence to Trillin’s pre-Columbian explanation, which is as well founded as any I’ve seen.
What is undisputed is that the mother recipe was a simple affair born in the porky lands of Rome or Umbria, of strand pasta, guanciale or pancetta, egg and sheep cheese, initiated with extra virgin olive oil.
If we are to entertain Trillin’s tale, by the time the Wampanoag were making it in Plymouth, the dish had evolved into the first example of Italian-American cooking, which, as we all know, is as far from the real thing as Plymouth is from Rome.
In any case, the recipe ingredients and method presented here are considered by Italian historians to be the authentic version. Viva true spaghetti alla carbonara and Happy Thanksgiving to all.
The Authentic Spaghetti Alla Carbonara
As with any Italian recipe for pasta, it is necessary to use imported Italian pasta, which is unequaled for its ability to retain a wheaty flavor and elasticity throughout cooking, thus delivering a true al dente result. The recipe is marvelously simple and a revelation to anyone who has not experienced the true spaghetti alla carbonara, as long as it is followed precisely. That means no substitutions, no straying from the instructions, no ad-libbing and no succumbing to last-minute flights of inventiveness. Even if you were to wind up with something tasty, it wouldn’t be the original. If you’re after authenticity, this is it.
5 extra-large eggs, beaten
¾ cup freshly grated aged pecorino romano
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ pound guanciale (unsmoked cheek bacon) or pancetta, thickly sliced and diced
1 pound imported Italian spaghetti
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1. In a bowl, combine the beaten eggs with the grated cheese and season with sea salt and pepper to taste.
2. Select a serving bowl for the pasta and keep it warm.
3. In a skillet large enough to hold the cooked spaghetti after it’s drained, warm the olive oil. Add the guanciale or pancetta and sauté over medium heat until nicely colored and crispy around the edges but still chewy (those bits burn awfully fast, so stand over the pan until they’re properly browned, not burnt). Turn off the heat and set aside the pan in a warm spot on the stovetop.
4. Fill a pot with 5 quarts water and bring it to a rapid boil over high heat. Add the spaghetti and the kosher salt together and stir. Check package instructions for cooking time. Cook, stirring frequently, until the pasta is 2 minutes away from being al dente. Drain it, reserving about 1 cup of the cooking water. Transfer the spaghetti to the skillet with the guanciale or pancetta and toss over low heat. Add ½ cup or so of the cooking water to moisten and loosen up the tangles. Simmer until the water is nearly evaporated.
5. Remove the skillet from the heat, transfer the pasta to a serving bowl, and immediately add the egg and cheese mixture while the pasta is steaming hot, tossing vigorously to distribute the egg mixture while making sure it does not coagulate into scrambled egg. The temperature should not exceed 160 F, though it’s not easy to take a reading of it. If the pasta seems to be dry, add more of the reserved cooking water to loosen it up. Serve at once, passing the pepper mill at the table.
Top photo: Spaghetti alla Carbonara. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton from “Italian Home Cooking,” by Julia della Croce
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
I have long been a devotee of cranberries as much for their history and lore as for their happy association with Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday. And they deserve to be an essential part of this totally American feast day because they are one of three fruits, along with blueberries and Concord grapes, that are native to North America.
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We have evidence that long before Europeans settled in what was to become the United States, indigenous people used cranberries extensively both in their diet and as medicine. Pemmican, a preserved food, was made from crushed cranberries, dried deer meat and melted fat. As well as lasting through a harsh New England winter, pemmican was portable, a benefit for people on the move. As for cranberry’s medicinal properties, the Indians were said to make cranberry poultices to draw poison from arrow wounds, but as far as I know, there has been no research done to measure the efficacy of this.
What we do know, however, is that cranberries contain a high level of vitamin C, and that in earlier times American sailors took them on voyages to avoid scurvy, just as the British took along limes for this purpose. We also know that cranberry juice is often recommended to people suffering from an urinary tract infection, so this fruit has a good reputation among the health conscious.
The healthy and the sweet
But it seems to me that the cranberry’s greatest triumph has to do with its crucial place at the table as a delectable accompaniment to the Thanksgiving turkey. Just as holiday cooks vary as to how they prepare sweet potatoes, so do they differ in their preferred cranberry sauces and relishes. The easiest version, and perhaps the one with the most dubious reputation, is the canned jellied sauce that slithers out of its container with a long scar along its side, the imprint from the inside of the can, ready to be sliced and served.
Another canned sauce is similar to what we cook at home from fresh cranberries. Berries are left whole and cooked with plenty of sugar until a jellied sauce is formed. Raw cranberries bear the distinction of being both sour and bitter and must be tempered by sweeteners to be edible. (I recently came across the sobering fact that sugar has such a huge capacity for dissolving in liquid that one pound of water can easily absorb two pounds of sugar.)
Home cooks have been adventurous in their approach to cranberry sauce with recipes that embellish the simple mode of throwing the fruit into a pot with a little water and lots of sugar. Some introduce other fruits to the mix, especially oranges that give great flavor and an inviting complexity to the dish. Other cooks cast wider nets and add raisins, currants, blueberries and pecans or other nuts.
Then we get into the realm of spices. My preference is for a sauce made with cranberries and sugar, just a touch of orange zest, maybe a stick of cinnamon and nothing else. But I have come across recipes that call not only for cinnamon, but nutmeg, ginger, cloves and even allspice. To my mind, harsh spices take away from the tangy and unique flavor of a cranberry sauce whose fruity purity strikes me as the perfect companion to turkey with a rich gravy.
Getting creative with cranberries
But canned or cooked cranberry dishes are not the end of how this Thanksgiving side dish is approached. Enter the world of relishes. What with the availability of meat grinders and food processors, home cooks have been busily grinding up fresh cranberries along with apples, oranges, even pineapple in mixtures that can include such flavored liqueurs as Grand Marnier to pep up the dish. And if such mixtures are not lively enough, white pepper, fresh ginger and even jalapeno peppers can be added, thus taking an innocent cranberry relish into the realm of south-of-the-border salsas.
National Public Radio’s Susan Stamberg has received lots of attention for a cranberry relish recipe that includes an onion, sour cream and red horseradish, resulting in a shocking pink dish she admits looks like Pepto-Bismol.
This never-ending pursuit of novelty is displayed every fall when food magazines can be counted on to scramble up traditional Thanksgiving dishes. One magazine this year is offering holiday relish recipes that omit cranberries altogether in exchange for pomegranate seeds or kumquats.
For innovation, I would rather direct my attention to the cranberry industry, which has successfully attracted us to its products all year long and not just at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Cranberry drinks now occupy vast grocery shelves and are available in mixtures that include the juices of other fruits, and of course in diet form.
And dried sweetened cranberries are pushing aside the long-held monopoly enjoyed by raisins in such baked favorites as cookies and muffins. I have made the switch in my own baking, and am happy to encounter the bright flavor of cranberries in May or June and not just at the end of the year.
Dried Cranberry Muffins
1¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1¼ cups whole wheat flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream
1½ cups sweetened dried cranberries
1 cup toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped
1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Grease a 12-muffin muffin tin.
2. Whisk together the flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl.
3. Cream together the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer until fluffy. Scrape down the bowl to be sure the butter is thoroughly mixed. Add eggs one at a time. Add vanilla and sour cream and mix thoroughly.
4. Add dry ingredients to the wet mixture, mixing at low speed until batter is smooth. When all ingredients are mixed, add the cranberries and walnuts by gently folding them into the batter.
5. Using ¼ cup measuring cup, scoop batter into the prepared muffin tin. Bake for about 25 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean. Cool in pan for 5 minutes, then turn out onto cooling rack.
They are delicious served warm and freeze beautifully for reheating later.
Top photo: Dried cranberries for muffins. Credit: Wynne Everett
For such a storied vegetable, the pumpkin has a dull reputation in the United States. Except for a bit of excitement around Halloween and its proverbial presence on the Thanksgiving table, it’s fairly dismissed. On the other hand, Italians, who grow more of them than Americans, love pumpkins far too much to smash them in the streets for a bit of fun.
Cucurbitaceae, the genus that includes pumpkins, squashes and edible gourds, has nourished people on nearly every continent for millennia. Although it is true that the Spaniards brought pumpkins and squashes to Spain along with other New World specimens, historical accounts from Apicius to Charlemagne place them on pre-Columbian tables throughout Europe. Of course, it was mostly the poor who ate them and other edibles from the plant world; only the higher classes ate meat with any regularity.
Pumpkins of Venice
Of all of Italy’s gastronomically diverse 20 regions, none raises the pumpkin to such culinary heights as the Veneto, of which watery Venice with its 100 islands and 150 canals is the glittering fairy-tale capital. On the remote lagoon islands where the first settlers migrated from the outlying provinces in the fifth century to escape marauding barbarians, the inhabitants hunted waterfowl and small game, fished, harvested salt, and grew fruits and vegetables. Pumpkin, what the Venetians call zucca (“suca” in dialect), which lasted through the cold weather, kept the wolf from the door until spring.
For Julia della Croce's tips on growing your own zucca or selecting pumpkins and squashes, look below the recipe.
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The pumpkin — marina di Chioggia (pronounced kee-ohj’-jah), also known as sea pumpkin, after its native town in the lagoon — is by far the best I have tasted. Dense, flavorful and silky, it is hardly any wonder that so many delicious recipes have been derived from it.
Called “suca baruca” (warty pumpkin) in Venetian dialect, the slightly squashed sphere with gnarled, dark green skin and vibrant orange flesh is rich and sweet enough, once cooked, to eat as a confection. Once, vendors walked around the streets of Venice balancing wooden planks piled high with roasted pumpkin on their shoulders, hawking, “Suca baruca, suca baruca” to eager schoolchildren or anyone else wanting a sugary snack.
The “suca” criers are gone, replaced by souvenir peddlers, but Chioggia pumpkins have become universally loved in Italy and beyond, and vendors with their big golden wedges of pumpkin still ply the markets from the Rialto to Sicily. Mauro Stoppa, chef and skipper of the Eolo, a restored vintage flat-bottom sailing bragozzo, runs dining cruises on the lagoon and makes Chioggia’s ancient signature dish, suca in saor, sweet-and-sour pumpkin, in his galley.
He salts slices of zucca in a colander as for eggplant to remove excess moisture. Next he dredges them in flour and fries them in olive oil until crisp. Then he smothers them in three alternating layers of thinly sliced and gently sautéed onions, sultanas, toasted pine nuts and white wine vinegar. He chills this mélange for several days before serving it as an appetizer. Each of the ingredients contributes to a perfect sweet-and-sour harmony, but of prime importance is the zucca, which alone provides the sweetness to balance the vinegar.
North American offerings
We could grow marina di Chioggia pumpkin in the United States commercially if there was a demand for it, though I imagine its sheer size would discourage the prospect of shipping it to market, whereupon it would have to be cut into smaller sections for selling. Still, all is not lost. Widely available, silky-textured butternut squash and the West Indian calabaza stand in nicely for sweet and savory dishes, and for pie filling.
Overall, the Cucurbitaceae family’s bland and compact flesh makes these squash an ideal canvas for the savory and sweet creations the Italians cook. The blossoms are prepared in a variety of unusual ways, while the pulp is made into soups, Amarone-spiked pumpkin risottos, pumpkin tortelli, cappelletti and gnocchi, to name just a few dishes.
They can also be used in savory pumpkin tarts flecked with prosciutto, sweet versions with pumpkin-honey-candied orange filling and walnut-flour crust. One of my favorite recipes is one I grew up with, a colorful meeting of pumpkin (or squash), garlic slivers, black dry-cured Moroccan olives (if you’ve ever wondered what to do with these prune-like olives besides adding them to tagines, now you will know) and thyme.
Although my mother was born in Sardinia, when her mother died at a young age, she was sent to live in Rome with a family that retained a gifted Venetian cook. It’s hard to know where this dish, redolent of garlic and tomato, came from, as it is more southern Italian in character than anything else. Perhaps it was my mother’s own invention, but I can’t help but wonder whether she wasn’t struck with pumpkin love in that Venetian kitchen long ago.
In America, our Halloween jack-o’-lanterns were swiftly turned into suchlike as this stew (never did a good thing go to waste), thick minestrone with other vegetables from our outgoing autumn garden, or pumpkin budino (flan) on Sundays.
Italian Winter Squash Stew With Tomato, Dry-Cured Olives And Garlic
The combination of fresh pumpkin, cumin- and chili-spiked black dry-cured Moroccan olives, garlic and tomatoes may sound unusual to Americans, but it is superb, at once naturally sweet and intensely aromatic. Pumpkin or squash alone is bland, but the pungent dry-cured olives and garlic carry it to glory. Making this dish a day or two before you plan to serve it gives the flavors time to develop. Avoid serving it with other courses containing tomato sauce.
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 large cloves garlic, sliced
1 cup canned tomato purée, or ½ cup tomato paste mixed with ½ cup water
1 medium-sized butternut or Hubbard squash or 1 small pumpkin (about 1½ pounds), peeled, seeded and cut into 1-inch dice
20 black dry-cured Moroccan olives, pitted and halved
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme, or ½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper
1. In a saucepan over medium heat, warm the oil and garlic together until the garlic is fragrant, about 4 minutes. Add the tomato sauce, stir and bring slowly to a simmer, about 4 minutes. Add the squash, olives, thyme and ¾ cup water. Cover partially and simmer over low heat until tender, about 40 minutes.
2. Season with the salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately or chill and reheat gently before serving.
Ahead-of-time note: This dish can be made up to 3 days in advance.
* * *
Growing your own zucca or selecting pumpkins and squashes
Gardeners with hospitable climates might want to consider planting marina di Chioggia. Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which grows and preserves rare heritage seeds, is one of the few sources for it. For other seeds and information on squash and pumpkin varieties, Leslie Land’s blog is one of the best resources. Sadly, she died in August, but her vast knowledge and gardening and kitchen advice will remain accessible online. See especially her advice for choosing the best variety of squash and picking a good pumpkin or squash at the market.
Top photo: Italian winter squash stew with tomato, dry-cured olives and garlic. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton, “Italian Home Cooking” by Julia della Croce (Kyle Books)
The 2013 World Series features a matchup between the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals. Many of us expect to spend a bit of time in front of the TV. And we’ll need to eat.
There are three approaches to game-time TV food. The first is junk food like tortilla chips and salsa, potato chips or popcorn. The second is approximations of what you might eat at a ballpark, such as hot dogs. The third I propose here.
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Baseball games require a lot of TV time, so you’ll want a real meal at some point, and it should be a meal you can eat in front of the TV without much hassle. I like culturally appropriate foods, so I suggest Boston fans serve up some fish and chips and St. Louis fans serve up hot dogs. Beer and soda go without saying.
Fish and chips along with baked beans, fried clams and clam chowder are typical Boston foods, but fish and chips are perfect when you don’t want to look down at your plate during an exciting hit-and-run.
Hot dogs for St. Louis Cardinals fans
The hot dog is the perfect St. Louis food for baseball watching because you can bring it up to your mouth without taking your eyes off the called third strike. Furthermore, the invention of the hot dog, a frankfurter in a bun, is sometimes ascribed to the wife of a German named Antonine Feuchtwanger who sold hot dogs with buns on the streets of St. Louis in 1880 because his customers kept taking off the white gloves handed to them to prevent their hands from being burned while they ate. For our purposes, this story alone is good enough to declare the hot dog St. Louis food and an appropriate choice for watching the Cardinals in the World Series.
Another St. Louis food story relates the invention of peanut butter to the city in 1890, when an unknown St. Louis physician encouraged a food products company owner, George A. Bayle Jr., to process and package ground peanut paste as a nutritious protein substitute for people with poor teeth who couldn’t chew meat. No one knows where the peanut butter and jelly sandwich was invented, but that it existed around 1900 and it’s a good addition to the hot dog on the Cardinals’ menu.
The hot dog is easy enough, so here’s the recipe for fish and chips.
Fish and Chips
3 cups vegetable oil
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups beer (lager)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 egg whites, beaten to form peaks
8 cod fillets (about 2 pounds)
1. Preheat the oil in a 12-inch cast iron skillet over medium-high heat.
2. In a bowl, prepare the batter by stirring together the flour, beer, olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Fold in the egg whites.
3. Dip the fish fillets into the batter making sure both sides are coated. (You’ll have leftover batter). Using tongs carefully place 4 fillets in the hot oil making sure you do not crowd the skillet; cook in more batches if necessary. Cook, turning once with tongs, until golden brown on both sides, 8 to 10 minutes in all. Remove and keep warm in the oven. Repeat for the remaining fish fillets. Serve with lemon wedges, tartar sauce or malt vinegar.
4 russet potatoes (about 12 ounces each), peeled and cut into 3-inch lengths not more than ½-inch thick
2½ quarts peanut or canola oil for frying
Salt to taste
1. Dry the potatoes very well with a towel or multiple sheets of paper toweling. It is very important that the potatoes be dry.
2. Preheat the frying oil in a deep-fryer or large 12- to 14-inch skillet to 360 F. The oil should be at least 2 inches deep and no cooking should happen before that temperature is reached.
3. Cook the potatoes in five batches so they are never too crowded (otherwise the temperature of the oil will drop). Cook for exactly 5 minutes. Remove, drain and transfer to a paper-towel-lined platter. Repeat until all the potatoes are cooked. Let the potatoes cool completely, covered with paper towels. Do not salt. You can place them in the refrigerator for 8 hours if you’re not to be serving them until later in the day, but do bring them back to room temperature before proceeding.
4. Preheat the frying oil to 370 F.
5. Cook the fries in five batches again for exactly 4 minutes. Taste one fry and see whether you like it. If not, cook for another minute. As you remove the fries to drain on more paper towels, salt them immediately. Transfer the French fries to a platter and serve.
Top photos: Fish and chips. 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