Articles in Cooking

Yotam Ottolenghi's yogurt-drizzled butternut squash. Credit: Reprinted with permission from NOPI: The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ramael Scully, copyright 2015. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Food photography: Copyright 2015 Jonathan Lovekin Location photography: Copyright 2015 Adam Hinton

Yogurt is not for just breakfast or smoothies anymore. While the dairy cases in supermarkets across the nation populate with more brands, tubs and tubes of yogurt — including novel flavors like sriricha-mango and carrot — a parallel trend is making it a star ingredient in cooking. Beyond its compatibility with granola or fruit blends, yogurt is becoming a foundational ingredient in dips, soups and sauces for roasted vegetables and meats in American restaurants and home kitchens.

The recent adoration for cooking with yogurt is not the result of some new flavor or formulation. This is plain (old) yogurt, an ancient staple food in many cultures of the world. Yogurt’s natural creaminess and acidity, coupled with its versatility, are feeding 21st-century culinary inspiration.

Why, over 70 years since yogurt’s introduction to the United States, has its moment arrived now?

Groundbreaking yogurt

There’s no doubt that Americans have claimed the world’s favorite cultured dairy product as our own. In  fact, it’s one of the fastest-growing food groups of all time. Although nearly all of the yogurt sold in the United States is sweetened, the natural tang no longer puts people off as it did when the Dannon company introduced its brand in 1942.

The sea change came with Greek yogurt. Since 2005, domestic sales have doubled each year, and today over half of all yogurt sold here is Greek-style. With more liquid whey strained, this thicker, creamier product won consumers over, despite costing nearly twice as much. Yogurt’s alluring halo as a low-fat, high-protein, calcium-rich health product with the benefit of probiotics has made it the go-to breakfast choice and snack alternative.

At the same time, the DIY culture has inspired a renaissance in age-old cooking traditions, including food preservation and fermentation. Since yogurt is the product of fermenting milk with bacteria cultures that preserve and thicken, it has helped inspire the pickle-, sauerkraut- and jam-making crowd and has kicked off an online wave of homemade yogurt machines, how-to recipes and Pinterest posts.

Yogurt infatuation

Long before yogurt became the one of hottest-selling foods ever, I encountered the concept of cooking with yogurt in two landmark vegetarian cookbooks, “The Moosewood Cookbook” and Deborah Madison’s “Greens.” Drawing on world cuisines, both featured soups with yogurt, yogurt sauce and raita, the Indian side dish often made with cucumber or other vegetables.

“Yogurt isn’t new. Not even a little,” writes Cheryl Sternman Rule in her 2015 cookbook “Yogurt Culture.” In many cultures throughout the world, yogurt is more than a healthful substitute for mayonnaise and sour cream but “is enjoyed globally in countless incarnations and preparations, both savory and sweet, across every meal.”

While it is common in Turkey to eat cucumbers and tomatoes with yogurt, for example, it’s only recently that such savory notions have enjoyed broad appeal here. It took a slow shift toward vegetarianism (even among meat eaters); world cuisines, especially those of India and the Middle East; and wholesome cooking to win this ancient staple newfound status. It is also due, in no small part, to the singular influence of an Israeli-born, London-based chef named Yotam Ottolenghi.

The Ottolenghi effect

With five cookbooks published in the past four years, Ottolenghi is wildly popular among professional and home cooks alike. His influence on American cooking is so widespread it is impossible not to encounter his mark in food magazines and popular blogs. Several of his recipes, including roasted butternut squash drizzled with yogurt, have become iconic.

Pairing yogurt with meats and fish, grains and legumes, herbs and spices, vegetables from eggplant to zucchini and even eggs, Ottolenghi has helped to transform our basic conception of the ingredient. In “NOPI: The Cookbook,” his most recent release based on his London restaurant, Ottolenghi again translates the idiom with another dozen yogurt-centric recipes using beets, chickpeas, lamb meatballs and more.

In falling so hard for its nutritional values, we’ve finally come to recognize yogurt’s vast culinary assets.

Yogurt’s bounty

Grilled hanger steak with grilled red-onion raita. Credit: Reprinted with permission from "Yogurt," by Janet Fletcher, copyright 2015, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

Grilled hanger steak with grilled red-onion raita. Credit: Reprinted with permission from “Yogurt,” by Janet Fletcher, copyright 2015, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

“Yogurt Culture” is one of two cookbooks devoted to the subject of cooking with yogurt released last year. Amid recipes for smoothies and fro-yo, the bulk of the book explores yogurt’s savory side. Poring over appetizer, lunch and dinner recipes, I discovered yogurt in marinara sauce for pasta, tangy mashed potatoes and a more stable whipped cream. Under the book’s spell, I served Rule’s yogurt dip of blood orange, Kalamata olive and red onion with pita breads when a friend came over for a glass of wine. A first.

“Yogurt: Sweet and Savory Recipes for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner,” by Janet Fletcher (Ten Speed Press) is akin, presenting a globally inspired collection of yogurt-centered recipes. Salted yogurt creates a bed for a farro and vegetable salad; it is a marinade for chicken and a topping on pizza. No fan of fusion, Fletcher nonetheless blends boundaries via an irresistible cumin-spiced raita with red onion to accompany grilled steak or lamb burgers. That’s a new one for cookout season.

Together, these cookbooks expand our understanding of plain yogurt in all its current forms, from organic and grass-fed to Australian (whole milk, unstrained) and Icelandic (even thicker than Greek) to homemade. Grounded in its history, they inspire some serious and fun exploration through cooking.

“As a cook, I love where yogurt has taken me,” writes Fletcher. I heartily agree. From here on out, yogurt — spiced, herbed, smoked and, yes, even sweetened (lightly, with fresh fruits and preserves) — promises to be anything but plain.

Cheryl Sternman Rule’s Blood Orange, Kalamata and Red Onion Dip

Note: Excerpted from “Yogurt Culture” copyright 2015 by Cheryl Sternman Rule. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Prep time: Approximately 10 minutes

Cooking time: None

Total time: Approximately 10 minutes

Yield: Serves 2

Ingredients

3/4 cup plain whole-milk Greek yogurt or labneh, homemade or store-bought

Kosher salt

1 blood orange (or Valencia, Cara Car, or navel orange if blood oranges are unavailable)

1/4 cup pitted kalamata olives, drained and minced

1 tablespoon minced red onion

2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

Freshly ground pepper

1/8 teaspoon sumac (optional)

Toasted whole-wheat pita triangles, for serving

Directions

1. If using yogurt, season it with a good pinch of salt. (Don’t salt the labneh.) Scrape the yogurt into a shallow bowl and smooth it with the back of a spoon to create a wide indentation. Using a sharp knife, cut away the peel and white pith from the orange and dice the flesh.

2. Scatter the orange pieces over the yogurt. Sprinkle the olives and onion on top. Drizzle with the oil in a thin stream. Season lightly with salt and more aggressively with pepper. Dust with the sumac, if using. Serve immediately with the toasted pita triangles.

Grilled Red-Onion Raita for Hanger Steak

Note: Reprinted with permission from “Yogurt,” by Janet Fletcher, copyright 2015, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Prep time: Approximately 20 minutes

Cooking time: Approximately 25 minutes

Total time: Approximately 45 minutes

Yield: Serves 4

Ingredients

1 large red onion (10-12 ounces)

Vegetable oil

Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt

1 clove garlic, grated or finely minced

1 tablespoon finely minced cilantro or 1 1 ⁄ 2 teaspoons finely minced fresh mint

1 ⁄ 4 teaspoon toasted and ground cumin seeds

1 ⁄ 2 teaspoon mustard seeds

Directions

1. Prepare a moderate charcoal fire in the center of your grill, leaving the outer rim devoid of coals so you can grill the red onions over indirect heat. Alternatively, preheat a gas grill to medium, leaving one burner unlit for indirect grilling.

2. Peel the onion and slice neatly into 1/2-inch-thick rounds. Carefully thread a thin bamboo skewer through each slice to hold the rings together. Brush the slices with oil on each side, and season with salt and pepper on each side. Grill over indirect heat — not directly over the coals or gas flame — turning once, until the onions are soft and slightly charred, about 25 minutes. Do not rush them or they will blacken before they are fully cooked. Transfer to a cutting board and pull out the skewers. If the outer ring of the onion slices is dry and papery, discard it. Chop the remainder of the onion coarsely.

3. In a bowl, whisk together the yogurt, garlic, cilantro or mint and cumin. In a small skillet or butter warmer, warm 2 teaspoons vegetable oil over medium heat. Have the skillet lid handy. When the oil is hot, add the mustard seeds. Protecting your face with the lid, cook until the mustard seeds pop and become fragrant, 1 minute or less. Pour the hot oil and mustard seeds over the yogurt and stir in. Fold in the grilled onion. Season the raita with salt.

Main photo: Yotam Ottolenghi’s yogurt-drizzled butternut squash. Reprinted with permission from “NOPI: The Cookbook,” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ramael Scully, copyright 2015. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Food photography: Copyright 2015 Jonathan Lovekin. Location photography: Copyright 2015 Adam Hinton

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A mix of exotic spices and herbs gives Strega its distinctive tint and flavor. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Close your eyes. Take a deep breath of this golden elixir and you’re transported to the raucous spice bazaars of Marrakech. A classic Italian liqueur, popular in cocktails and as an after-dinner digestivo, Strega liqueur can be a cook’s secret weapon. It’s like having a well-stocked spice rack and fragrant herb garden in one bottle.

I’ve long loved Strega’s beguiling flavor in cocktails and as an after-dinner digestive. It appears in my book, “Dolci — Italy’s Sweets,” in several classic Italian desserts. But here’s a surprise: Strega is spectacular in savory dishes!

Made with more than 70 aromatic spices and herbs infused into a base distillate, this 100% natural mixture — with no artificial colors or flavors — is aged in ash barrels to meld and mellow the flavors. The mix of exotic spices and herbs include the world’s three most expensive spices: saffron, which gives Strega its distinctive glistening yellow tint; vanilla; and cardamom.

Some of the ingredients come right from Italy: lavender, irises, orange and lemon peel, as well as amazingly aromatic juniper from the Italian Alps and rare wild mint from the south. The rest are gathered from around the world: myrrh from Ethiopia, star anise from China, cinnamon from Ceylon, bitter orange peel from the Caribbean island of Curaçao.

This aromatic mix of herbs and spices is masterfully combined in perfect proportion, creating an explosion of flavors and lending a gourmet touch to appetizers, pasta, chicken and fish, as well as countless desserts. Use it in recipes calling for wine or as a marinade for chicken or fish. It’s great on almost anything on the grill.

And, of course, Strega adds a refined touch to so many desserts: splash on fruit salad, add into pudding, cake mixes, pie crust and pie fillings. You probably have a bottle of Strega languishing in your liquor cabinet already — so move it into the pantry! Here are just a few of the many wonderful ways to enjoy it out of the glass.

Pasta Shish Kebob With Peaches and Scallops

Italy's version of a shish kebob comes with pasta, scallops and sweet peaches. Credit: Photo courtesy of "Pasta Modern -- New & Inspired Recipes from Italy" by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Italy’s version of a shish kebob comes with pasta, scallops and sweet peaches. Credit: Photo courtesy of “Pasta Modern — New & Inspired Recipes from Italy” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

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

Pasta, scallops, sweet peaches and red onion grilled on a stick — this is Italy’s delightful answer to shish kebob. A wonderfully new way to serve pasta.

Ingredients

8 short rosemary branches or wooden skewers

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons Strega liqueur

1 garlic clove, finely minced

8 large scallops

1 peach, cut into 8 slices

1/2 small red onion, cut into bite-sized pieces

Fresh or dried chili pepper, to taste

16 wheel–shaped “route” pasta

Salt

Directions

1. Soak the branches or skewers in water for 1 hour to prevent charring.

2. Preheat the broiler or grill. (If using the broiler, coat a baking sheet with a little olive oil.)

3. In a bowl, combine the oil, Strega liqueur, garlic, scallops, peach, onion and chili pepper.

4. Meanwhile, cook the pasta in boiling salted water until al dente. Drain and toss into the bowl with the other ingredients. Thread a pasta wheel, peach slice, scallop, onion piece, and a second pasta wheel onto each branch or skewer. Season the skewers with salt and grill or broil, turning 1/2 turn every minute or so, until the scallops are done, about 3 minutes.

Chicken With Artichokes

A chicken and artichoke dish is enhanced with a little bit of Strega. Credit: “Shakespeare’s Kitchen” by Francine Segan (Random House)

A chicken and artichoke dish is enhanced with a little bit of Strega. Credit: “Shakespeare’s Kitchen” by Francine Segan (Random House)

From “Shakespeare’s Kitchen” by Francine Segan (Random House)

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 45 minutes

Total time: 50 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 chicken, cut into 8 pieces (about 4 pounds)

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup chicken stock

1/4 cup Strega liqueur

1 lemon, unpeeled, diced

6 dates, chopped

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 teaspoon salt

5 to 6 artichoke bottoms, cleaned, par-boiled

Directions

1. Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat.

2. Dredge the chicken pieces in the flour and brown the chicken on all sides.

3. Remove the chicken from the pan and add the stock, Strega liqueur, lemon, dates, brown sugar and salt. Bring to a boil and then add the chicken and artichokes.

4. Reduce to medium heat, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes.

5. Turn over the chicken, and cook for 15 minutes, or until the chicken is fork tender.

Main photo: A mix of exotic spices and herbs gives Strega its distinctive tint and flavor. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

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Red and green chicory growing outdoors. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Chicory is the cool kid on the winter salad block. It belongs to a ravishing and rewarding family of overwintering plants, and it can be found in many shapes, sizes and colors. Radicchio is chicory; so are curly endive, frisée, escarole and catalogna (aka puntarelle). Even dandelions come from the same stock.

Sown in fall, chicories go right through winter. When left to brave the elements outdoors, they develop a wonderful intensity of color (carmine red, dark glossy green), depending on the variety. If, on the other hand, the plants are dug up at the beginning of winter and the leaves are cut back to the bone, with the roots replanted indoors and grown beneath the soil without exposure to light, they develop heads of tightly packed, ivory-white leaves fringed with yellow. This practice, known as blanching, was discovered by accident in the 1850s in Belgium — and it explains why the plant is known in some parts as Belgian endive.

Bitter flavor of chicory complements seasonal cooking

Bitterness is one of the hallmarks of the chicory family. It’s just what the body needs in the winter months, providing a welcome fillip in the midst of all those rich, stodgy foods and creamy sauces. Most of us meet the chicory family in salads, where that bitter touch can be beautifully offset with a sweetish dressing — balsamic or blood orange juice are both fine additions to regular vinaigrette, or use them to deglaze the pan after flash-frying cubes of fish or shellfish to toss over your salad. A generous platter of multicolored chicories interspersed with slivers of apple, pear or kumquats or a scattering of pomegranate seeds is a treat for all the senses.

Finally, don’t forget that this robust vegetable takes kindly to a bit of a roasting. This mellows it beautifully, particularly when finished with a good dollop of cream and grated cheese (think pecorino or Parmesan).

Winter Warm Salad of Chicory and Lamb’s Lettuce With Scallops, Shrimp or Red Mullet

Winter warm salad of chicory and lamb’s lettuce with scallops, shrimp or red mullet. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Winter warm salad of chicory and lamb’s lettuce with scallops, shrimp or red mullet. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 5 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: Makes 2 servings.

Ingredients

For the vinaigrette:

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar, cider vinegar or lemon juice

Salt and pepper to taste

A pinch of sugar

For the fish and salad:

8 ounces red mullet filets, 8 scallops or 8 ounces peeled, raw shrimp

A handful of mixed winter salad leaves (lamb’s lettuce, dandelions s, ruby chard)

2 Belgian endives (ideally, 1 white and 1 red)

2 to 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoons olive oil

Juice of 2 blood oranges

Sprigs of fresh herbs (chervil, chives, dill) or sprouted seeds (cress)

Directions

1. Make the vinaigrette by whisking together the oil, vinegar (or lemon juice), salt, pepper and sugar in a small bowl or jar. Set aside.

2. Trim the red mullet filets and remove any bones with tweezers. Slice them on a slant to give lozenge-shaped pieces. If using scallops, separate the meat from the corals and peel away the muscle band attatching it to the shell (if this has not been done for you). If using the corals (as is customary in Europe), prick these with a pin so they don’t explode on frying. Wash fish or shellfish and pat dry with paper towels.

3. Trim the root ends from the endives and separate the leaves. Arrange leaves in a star shape in soup bowls, alternating the colors.

4. Finely slice any trimmings from the endives and pile these up with the lamb’s lettuce and dandelions in the center. Sprinkle on the vinaigrette.

5. Shortly before serving, put the flour in a plastic bag, add salt and pepper, put in the shellfish or fish and shake to dust lightly in flour. Tip into a colander and shake off any excess flour. Don’t do this too far ahead, or the shellfish/fish will absorb the flour and make a gluey mess.

6. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a heavy pan, toss in the shellfish or fish and fry very briefly — 1 to 2 minutes — turning once. Arrange over the salads.

7. Tip the blood orange juice into the pan with 1 tablespoon oil, turn up the heat and let it bubble up to thicken and reduce, scraping up any nice fishy bits.

8. Spoon the reduced blood orange dressing over the salads, sprinkle with fresh herbs or sprouted seeds of your choice and serve at once with crusty bread.

Salad of Belgian Endive, Radicchio, Lamb’s Lettuce, Kumquats and Avocado

Salad of Belgian endive, radicchio, lamb’s lettuce, kumquats and avocado. Credit: copyright 2016 Sue Style

Salad of Belgian endive, radicchio, lamb’s lettuce, kumquats and avocado. Credit: copyright 2016 Sue Style

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: None

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 servings.

Ingredients

For the dressing:

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 teaspoon coarse-grain mustard

2 tablespoons walnut vinegar

6 tablespoons walnut oil

A pinch of sugar

For the salad:

About 8 ounces mixed salad leaves (lamb’s lettuce, rucola, baby dandelion leaves)

2 heads Belgian endive

1 small radicchio

6 kumquats

1 avocado

A handful of walnuts

Sprigs of dill

Directions

1. Make the dressing by placing the salt, pepper, mustard, walnut vinegar, walnut oil and sugar in a jam jar, covering with a lid and shaking vigorously till smooth and emulsified.

2. Wash and spin dry the salad leaves.

3. Remove outer leaves of Belgian endive and slice very thinly lengthwise.

4. Shred the radicchio finely.

5. Wash the kumquats and slice them wafer-thin.

6. Peel and pit the avocado and cut in segments.

7. Arrange the sliced endive, salad leaves and shredded radicchio decoratively on a large serving plate, add finely sliced kumquats and avocado segments, scatter walnuts and dill on top and spoon the dressing over.

Gratin of Belgian Endive With Walnut and Parmesan Crumble and Parma Ham

Gratin of Belgian endive with walnut and Parmesan crumble and Parma ham. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Gratin of Belgian endive with walnut and Parmesan crumble and Parma ham. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: Makes 2 servings.

Ingredients

1 ounce butter

2 teaspoons brown sugar

3 Belgian endives, white or red, halved lengthwise

For the crumble:

1 thick slice sourdough bread, crust removed, cut in cubes

1 1/2 ounces walnuts

2 ounces grated Parmesan

1 teaspoon thyme

Salt and pepper to taste

5 tablespoons Greek yogurt

2 to 3 tablespoons milk

3 ounces (75 grams) Parma or another cured ham, sliced

Flat-leaf parsley, chopped (optional)

Directions

1. Melt the butter with the sugar in a heavy frying pan or sauté pan — if you have one that will go in the oven, so much the better.

2. Fry the endives, facedown first, then the other sides, until golden brown and a little softened.

3. Place the sourdough cubes, walnuts, grated Parmesan, thyme and salt and pepper to taste in a food processor and process to crumbs. Stir in the yogurt and enough milk to give a porridge-like consistency.

4. Spread this mixture over the endives. (Refrigerate if not baking immediately.)

5. Heat the oven to 400 F and bake the endives for about 15 minutes or until tender when poked with a skewer and the topping is bubbly.

6. Lay the ham on top — it will subside agreeably into the hot endives and the warmth will release some of its cured flavor without cooking it.

7. Sprinkle with parsley if wished. Serve warm.

Main image: Red and green chicory growing outdoors. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

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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

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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

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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

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Mexican chef Luís Chiu tries a bevy of dishes during his culinary tour of Chengdu. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gillman

I never dreamt the busy chef and owner of the finest Chinese restaurant in Mexico would want to go back to China with me. I had invited Luís Chiu on a guided culinary tour of Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province of China, sponsored by www.foodiehub.tv. But Luís, who is Mexican of Chinese ancestry, was eager to expand his knowledge of the country and cuisines of his ancestors — so he accepted my offer.

There has been a Chinese community in Mexico since the 19th century, when workers came to build railroads; others arrived in search of a better life. Entrepreneurial Chinese, many versed in American-style “fast cooking,” opened eateries specializing in the kind of light, quick meals they knew how to produce. Breakfasts of eggs, pancakes and pastries, accompanied by coffee served with frothy hot milk, were the specialty. And faux Chinese dishes, such as fried rice and chow mein, were also offered. These cafes de Chinos became an important part of Mexican urban lore — a few remain today. Luís Chiu’s family owned several of these cafes through the years, and he grew up in and around the food business.

Eating in China

Luís Chiu at his restaurant, Asian Bay, in Mexico City. Credit: Photo courtesy of Asian Bay

Luís Chiu at his restaurant, Asian Bay, in Mexico City. Credit: Photo courtesy of Asian Bay

The first dish we ate, at a humble stall, was spicy beef meatballs, bathed in a brick-red oily sauce made aromatic by fresh, numbing Sichuan peppers, dry red chilies and bean paste. We quickly got used to this ubiquitous flavor combination. We later gorged on handmade noodles, ma po tofu with pig’s brains, spit roast rabbit, mutton kebabs, and oily, fiery hot pot. All were astounding.

We visited the local wholesale spice market. Piles of Sichuan peppers in varying shades from brownish green to deep brick red perfumed the air with their particular aroma — they made my eyes water but Luis´ tears were real. He was overjoyed to be in the midst of this epicenter of a cuisine he loved.

I interviewed chef Chiu back in his kitchen in Mexico City, after he’d had time to reflect on his experiences in China.

Nicholas Gilman: Do you feel more Mexican or more Chinese?

Luís Chiu: I’ve taken the best of both Mexican and Chinese culture. I feel more Chinese with the family, our customs, the way of being with each other. When I go to China I feel I don’t quite belong: The way of acting and thinking is totally different. I know I’m not Chinese, but I feel close to the culture, traditions. But when I’m with my Mexican friends, I’m 100 percent Mexican — I love going to soccer games, for example.

The best of both worlds

Luís Chiu tries the kebabs at a street stall. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gilman

Luís Chiu tries the kebabs at a street stall. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gilman

N.G.: How did you become interested in traditional Chinese cooking?

L.C.: There were no regional Chinese restaurants in Mexico, so I saw an emerging market for more sophisticated people who were ready for “the real thing.” I went to Shanghai to study, and in 2011 I opened Asian Bay.

N.G.: What was your impression of Chengdu?

L.C.: I had been to other places in China, which were more westernized. I was impressed by how much old stuff was preserved. I loved the teahouses, markets and how there’s even street food. What struck me about Sichuan is that the people are very warm, as if they were Latino. They smile, greet you, chat with you, ask where you’re from. And especially, they are so proud of their culinary traditions. It’s like Mexico in that way. I was especially impressed by what love people have for their food. How there were lines of people to buy those bao, (steamed pork-filled buns) or to eat dumplings, noodles. How they look at you when they serve the dishes — they’re not so used to seeing foreigners, so I really think they wanted to impress us.

N.G.: Would you tell us something about what you ate?

L.C.: The ma-la was so strong, like nothing I’ve ever tasted! (He was referring to the combination of “ma,” the numbing of the peppers, and “la,” the spiciness of the chilies.)

Lessons from the trip

Chef Luís Chiu looks over the offerings at the spice market in Chengdu. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gilman

Chef Luís Chiu looks over the offerings at the spice market in Chengdu. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gilman

N.G.: And what about the spice market?

L.C.: I was so impressed with that market because we wanted to see the “raw China,” and there it was — nothing Western, another world. Spices we’d never seen. And those chilies that came originally from Mexico. I really had no idea what all these things taste and smell like because imported products are of such low quality. Here it was the epicenter of this food.

N.G.: What, ultimately, did you learn from this journey?

L.C.: I left with more questions than I came with. It makes me want to delve even deeper into this complex cuisine. It’s kind of like Mexican cooking in the sense that ingredients are combined to create totally new flavors, like alchemy. They’re powerful, exciting. The journey made me realize that to cook food even if it comes from your own tradition, you have to know that culture from the inside. So to attempt to reproduce something when you are home is a real challenge. It can’t come from the heart if it’s superficial, if you don’t know the original.

Main photo: Mexican chef Luís Chiu tries a bevy of dishes during his culinary tour of Chengdu. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gilman

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Linguine With Tuna and Green Beans. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Italian-Americans will tell you flat out that linguine accompanies seafood. Well, at least Long Island Italian-Americans will tell you that. My grandfather, who was from a small village 85 kilometers east of Naples, immigrated to New York in the early 20th century and lived there the rest of his life. He took my mother fishing in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn and they brought home bluefish, porgies, flounder or fluke on the subway back to their Manhattan tenement. Many different preparations would be made, but if it were to be a pasta dish, the pasta was linguine.

The array of pastas you will encounter in a market aisle look innumerable. There are many more pastas, and perhaps you haven’t thought what you could do with them. This is a wonderful time to start experimenting. The Italians are said to have invented about 700 pasta shapes. This includes specialty pastas made for certain occasions. I still have my box of Menucci brand 1776-1976 pasta made for the U.S. Bicentennial and am still trying to figure out if I should put it in a living room shadow box or the kitchen pantry.

One problem faced by the cook is what sauce for what pasta. Books have been written on this, but let’s keep it simple here. In the 1960s when I first started working in restaurants, I began cooking. I was mostly influenced by the cooking of my Italian grandfather and by my mom who made Italian food at home. I was also greatly influenced by my travels to Italy, by the restaurants I worked in, which were staffed by Italians, and by the cookbooks of Ada Boni, a famous mid-20th century Italian author.

The matching of pasta shapes with sauces is something of an art. There is usually some logic to it, but not always. Tubular pastas such as cut ziti or rigatoni are great in baked dishes and with thick ragouts that can get stuck in the tubes. Seashell pasta and chickpeas make sense because the shells capture the peas. Wide, flat pastas such as fettuccine and pappardelle are nice with sauces that cling to their wide surfaces.

If there was one thing I learned from my grandfather it was that seafood always went with linguine, the flat filiform pasta about 2 millimeters wide. Here are three great linguine and seafood recipes that would have made my grandfather swoon:

Linguine alla Pescatore

Linguine with swordfish, shrimp and oysters. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Linguine with swordfish, shrimp and oysters. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Preparation and cooking time: 2 hours

Yield: 6 servings

Linguine alla pescatore means linguine in the style of the fishermen. I’ve always doubted these dishes are actual fishermen’s dishes as implied by the name. The various “pescatore” dishes in Italy always struck me as trattoria dishes. In any case, this is a simple preparation with flavors that bely the simplicity. The secret, besides the freshest seafood, is the marinade the seafood sits in made with saffron, chile flakes, garlic and parsley. Once you’re ready to serve, the cooking happens quickly.

Ingredients

¾ pound swordfish, cut into ½-inch cubes

12 oysters, shucked, with their liquid

½ pound medium shrimp, shelled

4 salted anchovy fillets, rinsed

¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

Pinch of saffron, crumbled slightly

½ teaspoon red chile flakes

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided

Salt to taste

3/4 pound linguine

Directions

1. In a bowl, toss the swordfish, oysters, shrimp, anchovy fillets, parsley, garlic, saffron, chile flakes, black pepper and 4 tablespoons of olive oil together. Leave to marinate for 2 hours.

2. Bring a large pot of water to a rapid boil, salt abundantly, then cook the pasta until al dente. Drain without rinsing.

3. In a large sauté pan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil over high heat, then cook the seafood mixture, stirring frequently, seasoning with salt, until cooked through, about 5 minutes. Transfer the pasta to the pan and toss several times, letting the pasta cook and absorb some of the juices. Serve immediately.

Linguine With Salmon, Basil and Mint

Linguine with salmon, basil and mint. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Linguine with salmon, basil and mint. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Preparation and cooking time: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

This is a subtle dish and since everyone loves salmon it is delightful with the fresh herbs.

Ingredients

1/2 pound linguine

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 pound salmon, cut into bite-size pieces

1 small onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Juice from 1/2 lemon

Directions

1. Bring a large pot of water to a rapid boil, salt abundantly, then cook the pasta until al dente. Drain without rinsing.

2. Meanwhile, in a sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook the salmon, onion, garlic, basil and mint until the salmon is cooked through, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle the lemon juice on the fish. Transfer the fish and pasta to a serving bowl, toss well and serve immediately without cheese.

Linguine With Tuna and Green Beans

Preparation and cooking time: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

When my children and the children of my friends were little, before their palates became adventurous, we adults who cooked for both adults and young children faced a dilemma. The adults didn’t want boring “kid food” and the children were finicky, all to a different degree. I refused to slave over two separate meals, so I relied on this quick preparation that fit the gustatory bill, pleasing all kinds of palates.

Ingredients

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

12 ounces tuna, canned in water and drained

1/2 cup loosely-packed fresh oregano leaves, finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 pound linguine

1/2 pound green beans, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch lengths

Directions

1. In a flameproof casserole large enough to contain all the pasta, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat with the garlic, tuna, and oregano. Once it begins to sizzle, cook for 2 minutes then remove from the heat. Season with salt and pepper.

2. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rapid boil, salt abundantly, then cook the pasta until al dente. Drain without rinsing. Transfer the pasta and green beans to the casserole and toss with the tuna. Serve immediately.

Main photo: Linguine With Tuna and Green Beans. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

 

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