Articles in Holidays

Macaroons are a traditional Passover sweet, but this recipe brings a new dimension by adding homemade chocolate ice cream. The chocolate ice cream base is adapted from

Passover is a Jewish holiday celebrating freedom. The initial meal (the seder) and the way you eat for a week offer a small part of the ancient Israelites’ experience as they journeyed from slavery in Egypt to the complexity of freedom. Breads, cooked on the run during their flight, didn’t have sufficient time to rise. The result? Matzo.

Every year, for the first few days of Passover, matzo seems somehow so new. A fat shmear of Temp-Tee ultra-whipped cream cheese and a tart and fruity jelly on top. Or soaked and fried into a matzo brei (a French-toast-like dish) crunchy with sugar and cinnamon. These are the foods of memory to me.

But the problem is that Passover is a weeklong festival. And when it comes to cooking and eating, it is a very long week indeed. Matzo is eaten all the time. I mean ALL the time. It’s in every food, every dish, every treat and in every course. It’s ground into breading, pulverized into cake flour, crushed into farfel and layered into mini “lasagnas.”

Matzo fatigue and the dreaded matzo-pation set in. Desperation takes over by around day four. But frankly, what bothers me the most is when matzo invades desserts. Folks often cook more on Passover than all year long, often pulling out heritage recipes. Even I, a modernist, will cook up a heritage dish or two along with my flights of imagination and globally influenced dishes.

When it comes to desserts, though, many holiday cooks reach for box mixes. Virtually none taste good. These mixes are often packed with processed ingredients and artificial flavors. As a professional cook and culinary instructor — and honestly, a person with taste buds — I don’t make them and I don’t buy them.

If I want heritage desserts, I buy Passover chocolates. That does the trick.

But making desserts at home? What can you do that tastes great and is still Passover-worthy? Matzo in desserts always makes itself known in taste and texture — and I don’t mean that in a nice way whatsoever. No matter how you cut it (pun intended, sorry), matzo desserts are definitely not what I want in order to make a holiday more special.

My advice? If you can put the time and effort into cooking desserts, fear not. Here is a solution.

Delicious Passover desserts

This Sirio Maccioni's Cirque Crème Brûlée has been adapted from Molly O'Neill's New York Cookbook -- a perfect Passover dessert. Credit: Copyright 2016 by Tami Weiser

This Sirio Maccioni’s Cirque Creme Brulee has been adapted from Molly O’Neill’s “New York Cookbook” — it’s a delicious Passover dessert. Credit: Copyright 2016 by Tami Weiser

Offer up some treats that are deliciously Passover-ready AND matzo-free and grain-free. Try a Pavlova, a macaroon, a flourless chocolate cake, ice cream, chestnut-flour crepes, custards, crème brûlée or nut paste-based cookies.

This Vanilla Pavlova is light, airy and sweet. The recipe was contributed by Elizabeth Schwartz. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tami Weiser

This Vanilla Pavlova is light, airy and sweet. The recipe was contributed by Elizabeth Schwartz. Photo credit: Copyright 2016 Tami Weiser

A world of matzo-free desserts awaits you.

These Pistachio and Tart Cherry Chewy Cookies strike just the right balance between sweet and tart. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tami Weiser

Pistachio and Tart Cherry Chewy Cookies strike just the right balance between sweet and tart. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tami Weiser

Pistachio and Tart Cherry Chewy Cookies

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 24 cookies

Ingredients

14 ounces pistachio paste, King Arthur or another all-natural brand preferred

1 cup (200 grams) sugar

2 large egg whites

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

Scraped seeds of 1 vanilla bean pod

1 cup dried tart cherries

1/2 cup pistachios, lightly crushed

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix the pistachio paste until it resembles big cookie crumbs, 20 to 30 seconds. Add the sugar and mix thoroughly. Add the egg whites, cardamom and vanilla. Mix until completely smooth, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the tart cherries.

3. Drop 2 teaspoons of batter per cookie on the sheet, leaving 1 1/2 to 2 inches between the cookies. Sprinkle the pistachios over the top of the cookies.

4. Bake until light brown but still soft, 12 to 13 minutes. (The cookies will firm up considerably as they cool). Store at in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days.

Main image: Macaroons are a traditional Passover sweet, but this recipe brings a new dimension by adding homemade chocolate ice cream. The chocolate ice cream base is adapted from “The Perfect Scoop,” by David Lebovitz. Credit: Copyright 2016 by Tami Weiser

Read More
Cape Malay cooking teacher Faldela Tocker, with a dish of pickled fish. “Once it’s pickled, it needs to sit for the flavors to develop,” she says. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

In Cape Town, South Africa, Easter is all about chocolate eggs, hot cross buns and pickled fish, a local turmeric-hued, sweet and sour favorite, flavored with spices from the Cape of Good Hope’s Malay culinary heritage.

Although pickled fish is closely associated with Easter, the sweet and sour curried dish has little to do with the Christian holiday. Naturally preserved with vinegar, it’s a make-ahead dish that can span South Africa’s four-day Easter weekend, when no matter what your religion is, socializing and relaxing still reign supreme.

In South Africa, pickled fish is most closely linked with the Cape, where it’s on hand in many households as casual food for drop-in visitors and picnicking. Its spicy roots lie in the Cape’s Muslim population, whose ancestors were brought by the Dutch as slaves from the East Indies: from India, Indonesia and Malaya. As author and Cape Malay caterer Cass Abrahams says: “The slaves knew all about spices; and fish is also a big part of Cape culture.”

An Easter staple

A much-loved national dish that is available even in upmarket supermarkets, pickled fish is generally homemade. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

A much-loved national dish that is available even in upmarket supermarkets, pickled fish is generally homemade. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

In cuisines across the globe, pickling fish was a common and necessary practice before the advent of refrigeration, and each preparation reflected its cuisine’s unique set of ingredients. There are differing opinions about its South African genesis. The earliest written reference that cookbook author Jane-Ann Hobbs has seen comes from Lady Anne Barnard, the Cape’s “First Lady” in the late 1700s, who after visiting a local farm in 1798 wrote that she was served “fish of the nature of cod, pickled with Turmarick.”

While today it’s a much-loved national dish that is available even in upmarket supermarkets, pickled fish is generally homemade and an Easter staple, both for Muslims and Christians. Easter falls at a time of year when fish is both readily available and in great demand, with many Catholics eschewing meat during Lent.

The golden color of curried pickled fish is everywhere at the 150-year-strong Easter weekend gathering at Faure outside the city, where the annual Sheik Yusuf Kramat Festival takes place. Hundreds converge for the long weekend to camp, socialize and visit the shrine to the sheik, credited with establishing Islam in South Africa. While some cooking is done on site, most campers bring covered glass dishes of pickled fish. “We eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with bread thick with butter, rice or rotis,” says Cape Town resident and cook Zainap Masoet, who starts setting up camp at Faure for her extended family five days before the Easter weekend.

One method, many ingredients

A melody of spices, and onions, are used in the spicy preparation. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

A melody of spices, and onions, are used in the spicy preparation. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

As for its preparation, there’s little disagreement about the method, which involves browning fish seasoned with salt and pepper, then cooking onions with spices, before adding vinegar and a little sugar. The mixture is poured over the cooked fish and the dish is refrigerated for two days before eaten. Once pickled, it will last for days outside the refrigerator, say local cooks.

On the other hand, there is definite banter about the ingredients. In her recipe, Abrahams uses snoek, a meaty and somewhat bony local fish, as does Cape Malay cooking teacher Faldela Tocker, whose aunt taught her how to make the dish. “Once it’s pickled, it needs to sit, for the flavors to develop,” she says.

However, Cape Town tour guide Shireen Narkedien, who regularly takes visitors around the Bo-Kaap, the Cape’s historic Malay Quarter, says the traditional fish is yellowtail, which is what most older people still use. Narkedien only uses bay leaf, turmeric and curry powder and says that the onion should be cooked through and “not too oniony,” while Abrahams uses additional spices as well as garlic, and says the onions should still have some crunch.

The appeal of pickled fish lies as much in the generosity of spirit behind preparing a dish for unexpected visitors as much as it does in its sweet and sour spicy taste. “When I was a child, my mother used to always tell me: ‘You cook for the person who is coming,'” said Narkedien, who describes a time when doors were always open. “When I asked her who that was, she’d say, ‘I don’t know, but it will be someone.'”

Pickled Fish

Pickled fish is usually served with buttered bread. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

Pickled fish is usually served with buttered bread. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

Recipe adapted fromCass Abrahams Cooks Cape Malay.” Used with permission of author.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 30 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

2 ¼ pounds snoek, firm-fleshed white fish or mahi mahi, cut into portions

Salt

Vegetable oil

2 large onions, sliced

5 cloves garlic, chopped

1 cup vinegar

½ cup water

2 teaspoons ground coriander

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 tablespoon masala

1 teaspoon turmeric

2 bay leaves

4 cloves of whole allspice

4 cloves

¼ teaspoon peppercorns

Sugar to taste

Directions

1. Salt fish and fry in vegetable oil until cooked. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside in a separate bowl; retain oil.

2. Place the rest of the ingredients except sugar in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Turn down heat and simmer until onions are transparent but haven’t lost their crunch.

3. Add sugar to taste and stir to dissolve. Pour warm sauce and oil over fish, making sure that each portion of fish is covered. Allow to cool and refrigerate.

4. Serve with fresh bread and butter.

Main photo: Cape Malay cooking teacher Faldela Tocker, with a dish of pickled fish. “Once it’s pickled, it needs to sit  for the flavors to develop,” she says. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

Read More
The classic Colomba di Pasqua by Loison. This dove-shaped cake is a wonderful addition to an Easter brunch or dinner. Credit: Copyright 2016 Cesare Zucca

Italian celebrations always involve food, and Easter is no different. The yeast bread cake, Colomba di Pasqua, shaped like a dove (colomba), is often at the table, but these days it is getting a modern twist.

Soft and fragrant, colomba is a generous cake with butter and eggs, filled with raisins and candied orange peel. Topping it off is an almond icing that is applied before baking, creating a sweet, crisp crust. Traditional colombas are baked in dove-shaped paper molds. The bread dough starts as a sponge that must rest overnight.

An offer of peace

Colomba is a fruity delight, with candied oranges inside and almonds on the top. Credit: Copyright 2016 Cesare Zucca

Colomba is a fruity delight, with candied oranges inside and almonds on the top. Credit: Copyright 2016 Cesare Zucca

The birth of the colomba dates back to 572, when King Alboin, after three years of siege, captured the town of Pavia in northern Italy on Easter Eve. Evading the guards, an old baker was able to reach the king and offer a dove-shaped bread. “Alboin,” he said, “I offer this symbol, as a tribute to peace, on Easter day.” The sweet scent and the convincing message persuaded the king to give a promise of peace. That’s the legend.

The dove we know today has a more recent origin and, I should say, a more prosaic version of the history. In the early 1930s the Milanese company Motta specialized in panettone, a cake produced only for Christmas. Unhappy to have their machinery unused for many months, Motta decided to package a similar product for the Easter holidays. The shape of the sweet dove, which represents peace, was a choice dictated not only by the symbolism but also to welcome the arrival of the spring.

New flavors, traditions

The cakes are leavened in dove-shaped paper molds for a whole night before they are filled. Credit: Copyright 2016 Loison

The cakes are leavened in dove-shaped paper molds for a whole night before they are filled. Credit: Copyright 2016 Loison

The new cake was (and still is) a huge success. It is typically soft, fragrant outside and moist inside, naturally leavened for a whole night, then filled with a mixture of flour, sugar, eggs and candied orange.

After a long rest, the dough is portioned in different sizes for an additional four hours of leavening, then covered with almonds, sugar and amaretto. After baking, it must rest at least seven hours before it is finally packaged.

Since its birth, the colomba was enriched by many variations and a variety of icings and fillings. I personally love the decadent Colomba al Cioccolato (coated and filled with dark chocolate) created by Loison, a bakery established in 1938 that adopted a process that lasts over three days in an effort to preserve the quality of the ingredients. The result is spongy, porous bread often combined with unexpected fillings, such as a delicious lemon cream, or a mix of nuts and peaches or small cubes of candied Ciaculli mandarin, protected by Slow Food.

Beyond the basic cake

The new Colomba al Pistachio by Fraccaro Spumadoro combines pistachios with a white chocolate glaze. Credit: Courtesy of Fraccaro Spumadoro.

The new Colomba al Pistachio by Fraccaro Spumadoro combines pistachios with a white chocolate glaze. Credit: Courtesy of Fraccaro Spumadoro.

Fraccaro Spumadoro makes other favorites of mine, including Colomba alle Bollicine Trevigiane, a treat stuffed with a cream made with Treviso sparkling white wine and elegantly topped with granulated sugar. Then there is Colomba al Pistacchio — the scent of its top-quality pistachios combined with a tasty white chocolate decorating glaze.

The colomba not only brings a message of peace but also a political statement at times, as in the case of the artisanal Colomba Arcobaleno (Rainbow Dove) made with Sicilian Avola almonds, Calabria cedro (a type of lemon), and kneaded with Vernaccia Mormoraia, a traditional white wine from San Gimignano, Tuscany. It has been created by the Italian sommelier Diana Zerilli, who supports gay rights in Italy.

Main photo: The classic Colomba di Pasqua by Loison. This dove-shaped cake is a wonderful addition to an Easter brunch or dinner. Credit: Copyright 2016 Cesare Zucca

Read More
Main photo: A contestant prepares a cheese wheel for Panicale's Easter Monday competition. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Perhaps one of the most bizarre Easter traditions in Italy is a cheese-tossing contest called ruzzolone, which is popular in central Italy. A fun place to witness this sort of edible discus event is in the Umbrian hill town of Panicale, near Perugia.

A huge 10-pound wheel of hard aged pecorino cheese is hurled along a course in the center of town. Two teams, with four players each, compete to get the cheese around the course using the fewest number of throws. The players wrap a long cloth sling with a wooden handle around the cheese to help hurl it down the curving streets, across moats, and around spectators and vehicles. The winning team gets to keep the cheese. If the cheese breaks during the race, everyone shares it.

An ancient Italian tradition

A man takes part in last year's cheese-tossing competition in Panicale. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

A man takes part in last year’s cheese-tossing competition in Panicale. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

The origins of this unusual contest are uncertain, but frescos have been found dating to Etruscan times that depict smiling shepherds rolling rounds of cheese down slopes, seemingly just for the fun of it.

The game was well established by the Middle Ages, and over the years various laws were set in place: In 1598 a mayor from an Emilia-Romagna town placed betting limits to the current restriction of wagering no more than the value of the cheese being tossed, and in 1761, in response to complaints of the rowdiness of the game, a governor of that region limited the game to the period between Carnival and Easter.

Nowadays it’s back to a year-round game, as gradually over time, many towns replaced the cheese with a solid wooden wheel, allowing play even in summer, when the heat would have made the cheese too soft to toss.

If you visit Panicale on Easter Monday to witness this lively sport, be sure to stay until a winner is declared. You can then enjoy a free picnic lunch of local cheese and bread sandwiches offered in the town square. For dessert, enjoy pieces of chocolate from the gigantic 4-foot Easter egg that decorates the piazza.

Easter Pasta Pie

A homey and comforting pasta pie comes together without much fuss. Credit: Courtesy of “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes of Italy” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan

A homey and comforting pasta pie comes together without much fuss. Credit: Courtesy of “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes of Italy” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), by Francine Segan

To create your own Easter Monday cheesy celebration, make pasta pie (crostata di tagliolini), a lovely make-ahead picnic dish traditionally eaten in Italy on Pasquetta, “Little Easter,” the day after Easter. Thin egg noodles are layered with cheese, ham and mushrooms with tiny peas scattered between the layers to add a green burst of flavor. It’s baked in the oven until beautifully golden, sliced like pie, and eaten at room temperature.

From: “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes of Italy” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), by Francine Segan     

Prep time: 30 minutes

Bake time: 25 minutes

Total time: 55 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

Olive oil

1 small onion, minced

2 ounces pancetta or prosciutto, minced

8 ounces baby peas

Salt and black pepper

3/4 pound mushrooms, thinly sliced

1 clove garlic, minced

7 tablespoons butter, plus more for the pan

About 1/4 cup toasted bread crumbs

1 cup chicken or beef stock

1 pound tagliolini, thin egg noodles, preferably Felicetti brand

4 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 cups milk, warmed

About 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

3/4 pound burrata or mozzarella cheese, diced

8 ounces thinly sliced ham, cut into strips

Directions

1. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a small frying pan over medium high heat. Cook the onion and pancetta until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the peas and a few tablespoons of water, and cook until the peas are tender, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, set aside in a bowl.

2. In the same pan, heat 2 tablespoons of oil over high heat. Cook the mushrooms and garlic a minute or two, until tender. Season with salt and pepper, set aside.

3. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter an 8- to 9-inch nonstick spring-form pan and dust with bread crumbs.

4. In a small pot, simmer the stock until reduced by half.

5. In another small pot, make the béchamel. Melt 4 tablespoons of butter over medium heat, stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until smooth. Add the warm milk, and bring to a boil, stirring until thick, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

6. Cook the pasta in salted, boiling water 3 minutes less than package directions. Drain and toss with the reduced stock.

7. Layer the bottom of the prepared baking pan with 1/3 of the pasta, pressed into a level layer. Dot with 1/3 of the béchamel, sprinkle with 2 to 3 heaping tablespoons of grated Parmesan, scatter on all the pea mixture, then scatter over 1/3 of the diced cheese. Spread out a second level layer of pasta, dot with 1/3 of the béchamel, sprinkle with 2 to 3 heaping tablespoons of Parmesan, and scatter on all the mushrooms and ham and remaining 2/3 of the diced cheese. Top with the remaining pasta and any unabsorbed remaining stock, pressing down to compact the layers. Dot with the remaining béchamel, sprinkle with 2 to 3 tablespoons of Parmesan and 2 to 3 tablespoons of bread crumbs, and dot with 2 to 3 tablespoons of very thinly sliced butter.

8. Bake for about 25 minutes until set and golden. Let rest to room temperature before slicing.

Main photo: A contestant prepares a cheese wheel for Panicale’s Easter Monday competition. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Read More
Main photo: Contestants battle with eggs last Easter Monday in the town of Fanano, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Each year on Easter Monday, residents of Fanano, a picturesque hill town in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, arm themselves with hard-boiled eggs to do battle in the village square. Young and old alike participate in this centuries-old tradition that started in the sixth century as a way for townsfolk of all social levels, nobility and commoners, rich and poor, to compete on a level battlefield for a day.

Eggs have long been a symbol of Easter and even back in pagan times were associated with new life and springtime. Eggs were especially highly valued as food in medieval times, so winning an egg was considered quite a prize, with the poorer folks hoping their winnings might feed the family for several days.

Cracking Contests

Brightly colored Easter eggs are distributed to townspeople in Italy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Brightly colored Easter eggs are distributed to townspeople in Italy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Young and old alike today compete in this ancient “Cracking Contest” — Coccin Cocetto. How do you play? Each participant puts an egg onto a long wooden board and gathers round. A designated person randomly selects eggs from the row and distributes them to the first two contestants, who square off and bang their eggs together. The person whose egg cracks first loses. The winner takes possession of the broken egg, and then battles the next opponent. One contestant must hold his egg still, while the other hits it. Who gets to hit is determined either by a coin flip or by shooting odds or evens.

“It isn’t about luck,” explained Massimo, a dapper resident who has been playing, and often winning, for over 60 years. “You can win if you are the one holding still or hitting. Each has a technique.” He then went on to beat this author six times in a row, alternating between being the hitter and the hit-ee!

Most locals bring their own hard-boiled eggs to the event, but the town graciously provides colorful eggs free of charge for anyone who didn’t bring their own.

While in Fanano, you can continue the medieval theme with a visit to the town’s lovely 11th-century Montefiorino Fortress and exquisite ninth-century Romanesque church. There are also lovely trails for hiking and biking nearby. After you’ve worked up an appetite, be sure to stay for lunch or dinner.

Like all food in Emilia-Romagna, the local fare is indescribably delicious. Traditional dishes include crescentine, the area’s famed flat bread; gnocco fritto, fried squares of dough; and rosette, rolls of fresh pasta filled with cheese and topped with meat sauce.

The day after Easter, called Pasquetta or Il Lunedi dell’Angelo, “Angel’s Monday,” is a day off throughout Italy, and Italians traditionally go on picnics. Typical picnic foods include raw fava beans eaten with pecorino cheese and casatello, savory bread filled with proscuitto and cheese topped with hard-boiled eggs still in their shells. Celebrate spring with basotti, a traditional Emilia-Romagna dish made with egg noodles

Basotti (Crunchy-Tender Pasta Squares)

An easy to assemble Basotti recipe is made with egg pasta. Credit: Courtesy of Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes of Italy (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan

An easy-to-assemble Basotti recipe is made with egg pasta. Credit: Courtesy of “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes of Italy” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), by Francine Segan

Courtesy of “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes of Italy” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), by Francine Segan

This recipe is simple to assemble, but must be made with egg pasta, either fresh or dried. You’ll only need 1/2 pound of pasta, as egg pasta expands as it bakes and absorbs the cheese and broth. Speaking of broth, since it provides most of the flavor, it’s best to use homemade.

Prep time: 5 minutes
Bake time: 40 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

10 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons finely ground bread crumbs

1/2 pound egg tagliolini or another very thin egg noodle

About 2 cups grated Grana Padano or other aged cheese

Nutmeg

4 cups rich pork, beef or chicken broth, preferably homemade

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Generously butter an 8 x 15-inch metal baking pan and sprinkle with bread crumbs.

2. Put half of the uncooked pasta in the pan and top with 5 tablespoons of very thinly sliced butter, 3/4 cup of the grated cheese and 1 tablespoon freshly grated nutmeg. Add the remaining pasta, in a thin scattered layer, on top. Top with another 5 tablespoons of very thinly sliced butter and more nutmeg.

3. Bring the stock to a boil. Ladle over the pasta until just covered. Sprinkle with 3/4 cup grated cheese. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until firm to the touch.

4. Raise the oven to 475 F.

5. Top pasta with 1/2 cup grated cheese, and bake for a few minutes until crispy on top.

Main photo: Contestants battle with eggs last Easter Monday in the town of Fanano, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Read More
Prepare festive fruits for your holiday table, such as wine poached pears with blackberries. Credit: Copyright 2015 P.K. Newby

There are so many people writing “Eat this!” and “Don’t eat that!” when it comes to the holiday season, it feels like a bit of a buzzkill. After all, food is at the heart of our best-loved holiday traditions and culture, whether baking cookies, shaking cocktails or hosting feasts for friends and family. I would never encourage you to deny these most simple and beautiful of life’s pleasures. I’m a nutrition scientist, not a nutrition Grinch.

Forget denial! Instead, follow these science-based strategies to help your body naturally consume less. Enjoy the season healthfully without making that tired resolution to lose those holiday pounds come the first of the year.

Select smaller plates and cups

Behavioral research conducted at Cornell University and elsewhere has found that selecting smaller plates and cups leads to less food and drink consumed. There’s simply not as much room on your plate for food, which helps manage portions. You can help yourself, and others, by setting your holiday table with smaller place settings. Choosing smaller plates is especially important in a buffet situation, which is a recipe for overindulgence given all of the tasty choices for the taking. This strategy is especially important when consuming calorie-laden foods like cheese and desserts. Another benefit of this tip is that going for smaller portions means you’re more likely to eat what’s on your plate, which means less food waste.

Swap water for wine (sometimes)

Choose water rather than an alcoholic or sugar-sweetened beverage at least once during your evening. Credit: Copyright 2015 P.K. Newby

Choose water rather than an alcoholic or sugar-sweetened beverage at least once during your evening. Credit: Copyright 2015 P.K. Newby

If you’re anything like me, you enjoy festive holiday libations as much as that overflowing platter of sumptuous sweets. Liquid calories contribute heavily to our daily energy intake. And, whether alcoholic or not, our bodies aren’t good at recognizing calories in liquid form, so we tend to just pack them on as extra. Why not swap water for wine (or nonalcoholic punch, or soda) now and again? Keeping hydrated is always a good idea, especially when there is a lot of drinking happening. Choosing water rather than an alcoholic or sugar-sweetened beverage at least once during your evening out means you’re consuming that many fewer calories. Extra-added bonus: you’re less likely to be “that person” at the office holiday party. (You’re welcome.)

Savor every delectable bite

If you’re taking smaller portions then you’ll definitely want to make sure you are enjoying every single bite. The advice to chew slowly and consume mindfully is never more important than during the holidays. There are so many good reasons to do so. First of all, it takes time for your brain to respond to satiety signals that tell you “Stop eating! I’m full!” We often don’t hear these signals, either because they are drowned out by our desire for more or because we are not giving our body the chance to react. Further, the holiday season in all its succulence is meant to be savored. Enjoy each moment, including the hedonic pleasures that eating evokes. In so doing, you’ll likely consume less food and have fewer stomachaches from over consumption.

Go for green

A beautiful beet salad can be healthy, as well as festive. Credit: Copyright 2015 P.K. Newby

A beautiful beet salad can be healthy, as well as festive. Credit: Copyright 2015 P.K. Newby

Holiday treats tend to be rich in calories. Baked brie, iced sugar cookies, boozy eggnog… Where was I? Yet nutrition scientists recommend that you fill half your plate with vegetables and fruits daily. We are lucky that the increased awareness of consuming plant-based foods for optimal health and weight means that restaurants and businesses are increasingly featuring veggies and fruits on their menus. I encourage you to do the same when you’re planning a meal at your own home. This tip may sound tired, but the dishes needn’t be. There are so many festive ways to prepare vegetables for your holiday table. Think: spinach salad with ruby-red pomegranates and crunchy toasted almonds; roasted butternut squash with crimson cranberries and caramelized onions; or herbaceous arugula with figs, pine nuts and a zesty vinaigrette. And why not feature fruit for dessert, like red wine-poached pears with blackberries? Don’t neglect these superfoods this holiday season.

Hara hachi bu at home

Holiday schedules quickly become packed with cheerful gatherings and epic nights on the town. But every night isn’t a party, and there are still times when you’re spending a quiet evening at home. Thinking about what you’re eating and drinking during those days are just as important as your noshing habits when you’re out. “Hara hachi bu” is an adage of the Okinawans, one of the longest-living populations in the world. It roughly means “eat to when you’re 80% full.” It’s outstanding advice for every day and any occasion, given research has shown that limiting calories throughout your life is related to longevity. But the recommendation is even more critical during this most wonderful time of the year. We all know what to expect when attending holiday parties: food, and lots of it. You’ll help balance your overall calorie intake if you can eat less and make healthier choices when at home.

Get out and play (often)

Get more activity into your holiday plans, such as ice skating. Credit: Thinkstock.com

Get more activity into your holiday plans, such as ice skating. Credit: Thinkstock.com

Weight gain is, ultimately, a simple equation: consuming more calories than you’re burning will lead to storage of energy in the form of body fat. Yet maintaining a fitness routine is a real challenge when there are more stresses on our schedules than ever. But the frustrating fact remains that we should actually increase our activity to compensate for the extra calories we’re consuming. I share your pain in the difficulty in making this happen, but I’d be remiss if the other side of energy balance — physical activity –wasn’t on my list. Hate running? Then how about walking to and from work or taking the stairs rather than the escalator when shopping at the mall? Perhaps ice-skating or a family football game? Jump rope? Hula hoop? Figure out what works for you –and stick to it. And if stuff gets in the way, don’t beat yourself up; just get back out there when you can.

Watch your weight (literally)

Weight gain occurs incrementally, and detecting small changes are best observed numerically. Monitoring your weight by stepping on a scale is the best way to tell whether your holiday feasting has gone awry. You might also consider measuring your overall body composition by calculating your body mass index, which is as important as measuring other physiological parameters such as blood pressure and blood lipids; all of these impact your risk of chronic disease. Weight gain around the waist is especially harmful because of its inflammatory effect, so keeping track of how your clothes are fitting throughout the season is also key. If you don’t own a scale, you might consider asking for one as a gift. Better yet, buy this present for yourself today.

 Main photo: Prepare festive fruits for your holiday table, such as wine poached pears with blackberries. Credit: Copyright 2015 P.K. Newby

Read More
Tummàla, a Sicilian Christmas specialty. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Families all seem to have their own Christmas classics — roast turkey, baked ham, crown roast or pork, or prime rib. Many Italian-Americans will have lasagna or a feast of seven fishes. One spectacular preparation for a change of pace is to follow some families and make the classic Sicilian Christmas tummàla.

Tummàla is a timbale of rice, a magnificent concoction of layers of baked rice, poached chicken, veal meatballs, hard-boiled eggs, cheeses and a cheesed omelet to create a golden mantle.

Although a Christmas specialty, Sicilian cooks prepare tummàla for all sorts of celebrations when a grand culinary gesture is warranted. It is considered a representative example of cucina arabo-sicula, a contemporary folkloric expression of a supposed Arab culinary sensibility found vestigially in the contemporary Sicilian kitchen, some 800 years after the last of the Arab-Sicilian population disappeared. At the very least, it is considered Arab-Sicilian because the Arabs introduced rice to the island in the ninth or 10th century.

The Italian translation of the Sicilian tummàla is timballo, leading one to believe that this dish is derived from the French timbale, a baking mold in the shape of a kettledrum, hence its name.

In fact, the name comes either from Muhammed Ibn al-Thumna, the 11th-century emir of Catania, or from tummala, the purported Arabic name for a certain kind of plate, although that etymology is not confirmed.

Assembling a Sicilian classic

Assembling Tummàla. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Assembling tummala. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Traditionally, this dish is made with a chicken with its unborn eggs. The cheeses called for are pecorino pepato, caciocavallo and fresh mozzarella. Pecorino pepato is a young pecorino cheese made with peppercorns thrown into the curd. Caciocavallo is a spun-curd cow’s milk cheese and can be replaced with provolone.

Mozzarella is used in place of fresh tuma, a fresh pecorino cheese that is only found at the source of production, so it’s not available in this country. It is possible to find a young tuma aged between three and six months in Italian markets in the United Sates. One can also try Internet sources such as Murray’s Cheese or igourmet.com.

Finally, don’t let the list of ingredients intimidate you. Great length, in this case, does not mean great difficulty.

Sicilian Christmas Tummàla

Prep time: 1 1/2 hours

Cooking time: 3 1/2 hours

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients

One 3-pound chicken

2 medium onions, cut into eighths

2 celery stalks, cut into chunks

4 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and quartered

5 fresh parsley sprigs

10 black peppercorns

1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs

3 tablespoons milk

3/4 pound ground veal

3/4 pound pecorino pepato cheese, grated, divided

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

6 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley, divided

1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

7 large eggs (2 hard-boiled and sliced)

1 medium onion, chopped

2 tablespoons pork lard

1/2 pound mild Italian sausage, sliced 1/2 inch thick

1/4 pound pork rind (optional), cut into thin strips

2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 1/2 cups (1 1/4 pounds) short grain rice, such as Arborio rice, soaked in tepid water to cover for 30 minutes or rinsed well in a strainer, drained

Unsalted butter as needed

1 cup dry bread crumbs

1/2 pound fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced

1/4 pound caciocavallo cheese, thinly sliced

1/4 pound pecorino cheese, grated

Directions

1. In a large stockpot that will fit the chicken comfortably, place the chicken with its gizzards, onions, celery stalks, tomatoes, parsley sprigs and peppercorns. Cover with cold water and bring to a near boil over high heat. As soon as the water looks like it is going to boil, reduce immediately to a simmer and cook the chicken until the meat falls off the bone when pushed with a fork, without letting the water boil, 2 hours. Don’t let the water bubble; otherwise it toughens the chicken.

2. Meanwhile, prepare the veal croquettes. In a bowl, soak the fresh bread crumbs in the milk. If the mixture looks soggy, squeeze the milk out. Add the veal, half of the pecorino pepato, the garlic, 2 tablespoons chopped parsley, 1/2 teaspoon salt and the pepper. Lightly beat 1 egg and add to the mixture. Mix well with a fork or your hands. Form croquettes the size and shape of your thumb. Cover and put aside in the refrigerator.

3. Drain the chicken, saving all the broth in a smaller pot. Remove and discard all the skin and bones from the chicken and cut the meat into small pieces.

4. In a large sauté pan, cook, stirring, the chopped onion in 1 tablespoon lard over medium heat until golden, about 8 minutes. Remove from the pan and set aside. Add the remaining lard to the pan and cook the veal croquettes until they are browned. Add the sausage and the pork rind and cook for 10 minutes. Add the sautéed onion, the remaining 4 tablespoons parsley and the tomato paste diluted in 1 cup hot water. Cook over low heat for 10 minutes. Set aside.

5. Preheat oven to 350 F.

6. Bring the chicken broth from step 1 to a boil and reduce by one-third. Pour 2 1/2 cups broth into a heavy saucepan, bring to a boil, add the rice and about 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Cook, covered and without stirring, until al dente, about 15 minutes. Pour about 3/4 cup broth into the veal-sausage mixture.

7. Drain the rice, if necessary, and mix it with the remaining pecorino pepato.

8. Butter a deep baking dish or baking casserole and spread 1 cup dry bread crumbs on the bottom, shaking vigorously to spread them thin so that they coat the bottom of the baking dish, dumping out any excess.

9. Spread the rice on top of the bread crumbs, about 3/4 inch deep. Spread three-quarters of the chicken and half of the veal croquettes and sausage mixture on top of the rice. Make a layer of hard-boiled egg. Layer the mozzarella cheese on top of the eggs. Cover with the remaining veal and sauce. Spread on a layer of caciocavallo cheese. Mix the remaining chicken with the remaining rice and spread it on top.

10. Beat the remaining 4 eggs lightly and combine with the pecorino cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Pour the sauce evenly over the top.

11. Bake until the top has a nice golden crust, about 1 hour. Check from time to time to be sure it doesn’t dry out. The tummàla can be served directly from the baking dish with the pan sauces or with tomato sauce.

Tummàla. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Tummala. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Main photo: Tummàla, a Sicilian Christmas specialty. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Read More
The Christmas market in Antwerp, Belgium. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

In spite of recent tragedies and unrest in Europe, a beloved, centuries-old tradition continues this holiday season. From the United Kingdom to Eastern Europe and myriad countries in between, the annual outdoor Christmas markets are now in full swing.

Beginning in the early Middle Ages, the original markets were established to provide meat and other provisions for Christmas dinner. Some, such as Striezelmarkt in Dresden, Germany, lasted only one day. Others, including Christkindlmarkt in Vienna, Austria, stayed open through Advent. Today, they generally run from mid-November to Jan. 1.

Although dozens of cities host seasonal bazaars, several stand out for their old-world charm, delicious foods and exceptional handicrafts. You can banish the thought of buying tchotchkes mass-produced in faraway lands. The specialties offered at these markets are local and handcrafted.

Vienna, Austria

The Christmas market in Vienna, Austria. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

The Christmas market in Vienna, Austria. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

In Vienna, roughly 20 Advent fairs dot the cityscape. However, if you want to experience a market in all its glittering glory, head to the 19th-century Rathausplatz, or Town Hall Square. At Rathausplatz, twinkling lights, carolers, puppet shows and a young, blond woman playing Christkindl, the market’s Christ child, join 150 merchant stalls in celebrating the season. As of Nov. 19, as an act of European solidarity, the square’s towering Christmas tree now displays the blue, white and red colors of the French flag.

With Vienna’s ornate, neo-Gothic city hall, or Rathaus, looming behind them, shoppers stock up on wooden toys, glass ornaments, beeswax candles, candied fruits, roasted chestnuts and glasses or 750-mililiter bottles of weihnachtspunsch. Comprising red wine, brandy, rum, oranges, cloves, cinnamon and other spices, this heated punch is a warming, seasonal treat.

Prague, Czech Republic

The sweet pastry trdelnìk is commonly on offer at Christmas markets in Prague, Czech Republic. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

The sweet pastry trdelnik is commonly offered at Christmas markets in Prague, Czech Republic. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

The striking Czech Republic capital of Prague sponsors five Christmas markets. One of the largest takes place in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, World Heritage site of Old Town Square. Surrounded by Baroque and Gothic architecture, a medieval astronomical clock and the imposing, 14th-century Church of Our Lady before Tyn, this is an especially festive event. Solo musicians, folk bands and choirs perform daily. Horse-drawn carriage rides; a nativity scene; stabled sheep, donkeys and goats; and an enormous Christmas tree enhance the merry mood.

Similar to the other Prague markets, Old Town Square vendors showcase Bohemian crystal, garnet and amber jewelry; carved wooden toys; ornaments; marionettes; and sundry Czech goods. They also provide ample opportunities to nosh on grilled sausages, potato pancakes, deep-fried flatbread called langos and the sweet pastry known as trdelnìk. Coiled around a metal spit, rotated over an open fire until browned and then rolled in a mixture of sugar and nuts or cinnamon, trdelnìk is a must for hungry patrons.

Cologne, Germany

The Christmas market in Cologne, Germany. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

The Christmas market in Cologne, Germany. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

While Dresden’s Striezelmarkt may be the country’s oldest, Germany boasts of an array of atmospheric marketplaces. This includes the seven Weihnachtsmarkte of Cologne.

The grandest happens in front of the 13th-century Roman Catholic, Gothic cathedral and UNESCO World Heritage site, Cologne Cathedral. More than 160 wooden stalls filled with German lacework, blown glass, nutcrackers, leather goods, woodcrafts, roasted nuts, bratwurst, beer, mulled wine, gingerbread and fruitcake line the cathedral square.

Along with regional crafts and cuisine, the Cathedral Weihnachtsmarkt contains western Germany’s largest Christmas tree. Roughly 82 feet tall, this Nordmann fir shimmers with more than 50,000 LED lights. For a bird’s-eye view of the sparkling tree and city, climb the 553 steps of the cathedral’s south tower. The brave can take in these breathtaking sights from a 328-foot-high observation platform.

Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm, Sweden’s first holiday market occurred on Stortorget in the city’s Old Town, or Gamla Stan, more than 500 years ago. Located outside the Nobel Museum near the Royal Palace, today’s Christmas mart features authentic Swedish pottery; glassware; knitted accessories; mulled wine, or glögg; pepparkakor, or ginger cookies; saffron buns; elk meat; and reindeer sausage. Whatever you do, just don’t tell children where the sausage came from.

In addition to these locales, travelers will find charming, historic expos in Amsterdam, Netherlands; Antwerp, Belgium; Barcelona, Spain; Budapest, Hungary; and Copenhagen, Denmark, among others. Some, such as the market in Frankfurt, Germany, date back hundreds of years. Others, such as in Manchester, England, have existed for merely a decade or two. All include the traditional foods and arts of their regions.

Main image: The Christmas market in Antwerp, Belgium. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt

Read More