Articles in Cooking

Black-Eyed Pea Salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

If you are not clear exactly what Mediterranean food is, it’s actually very simple: It’s the cooking found in all the regions and provinces that have a littoral on the Mediterranean Sea. Because of that fact in a sense there is no such thing as Mediterranean cuisine because every region’s food, while tending to use the same ingredients, is strikingly different from one another. High on the list of staple Mediterranean foods are legumes.

Two Mediterranean countries famous for their legume dishes are Egypt and Greece. Here are two budget-friendly, healthy and delicious recipes that can be served in Near Eastern style, as both Greece and Egypt are considered Near Eastern countries. These dishes can be prepared as part of a larger meze or as an appetizer or side dish.

Edward William Lane tells us in his classic book “The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians” first published in 1908 that many dishes prepared by the Egyptians consist wholly or for the most part of vegetables, “cabbage, purslane, spinach, bamiyeh [okra], beans, lupin, chick-pea, gourds, cut into small pieces, colocasia, lentils etc.”

Called salāṭa adas and made with tiny brown lentils slightly cooked with olive oil, garlic and spices, I had this lentil salad as a meze at the Tikka Grill, a restaurant on the corniche of Alexandria in Egypt. Although you don’t have to use freshly ground spices, you’ll find if you do, the result is a dish far fresher, more pungent and better tasting than one made with pre-ground spices. Too many home cooks keep spices far beyond their shelf life, so check the date on your jar.

Lentil Salad with Egyptian Spices. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Lentil Salad With Egyptian Spices. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Lentil Salad With Egyptian Spices

Yield:6 servings

Preparation time: about 30 minutes

Ingredients

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, divided

2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

½ teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds

½ teaspoon freshly ground coriander seeds

¼ teaspoon freshly ground cardamom seeds

½ teaspoon ground fenugreek

1 cup dried brown lentils, picked over and rinsed well

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. In a small saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat with the garlic and as soon as the garlic begins to sizzle remove from the burner, add the cumin seeds, coriander, cardamom and fenugreek, stir, and set aside.

2. Place the lentils in a medium-size saucepan of lightly salted cold water and bring to a boil. Cook until al dente, about 25 minutes from the time you turned the heat on. Drain and toss with the garlic, olive oil and spices while still hot. Season with salt and pepper, toss and arrange on a serving platter, drizzling the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil over the top. Serve at room temperature.

Black-Eyed Pea Salad

This simple preparation called mavromakita fasolia in Greek can be made with canned black-eyed peas, as long as they are packed in only water. I prefer using dried black-eyed peas but they are not always to be found. Typically you would serve this salad as a meze, but it’s fine as a side dish too. This recipe was given to me by chef Estathios Meralis of the motor yacht M/Y Sirius out of Piraeus, Greece.

Yield: 6 servings

Preparation time: about 1 hour

Ingredients

2½ cups canned black-eyed peas (two 15-ounce cans) or 1 cup dried black-eyed peas

2 scallions, trimmed and finely chopped

1 small garlic clove, finely chopped

3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Freshly ground pepper and salt to taste

Directions

1. If using dried black-eyed peas, boil over high heat in water to cover until tender, about 1 hour. Drain and rinse. If using canned peas, drain and rinse, then place in a bowl.

2. Toss the black-eyed peas with the scallions, garlic, dill, olive oil, pepper and salt. Serve at room temperature.

Main photo: Black-Eyed Pea Salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Workers make traditional Japanese miso at Great Eastern Sun in North Carolina.

Japanese miso can deliver great health benefits — and of course, everyone wants those. However, not all miso is created equal. Inexpensive miso made from low-quality ingredients through an automated process has little nutritional value and may be laden with chemicals. When you look at the traditional way of making miso, you can see why.

The most popular miso is made from rice, soybeans, salt, spring water and koji, the fermentation starter. Koji, aspergillus oryzae, is a type of mold. When mixed with steamed rice, it breaks down the carbohydrates into simple sugars. The resulting koji rice is mixed with cooked soybeans, sea salt and pure spring water. This mixture is then left in wooden barrels to ferment naturally. Dark brown miso, or aka-miso (often known as “red miso”), can take more than one year to ferment properly. During this period, the koji is assisted by hundreds of species of bacteria living in the wood of the barrels. They produce peptides and amino acids, organic acids and other nutrients, giving the miso its wonderful flavor and nutritional value.

Japan’s hot and humid summers are ideal for nurturing the proper fermentation of miso. Many years ago, I visited a friend’s miso brewery, Yamaki Jozo in Saitama Prefecture, on a sweltering summer day. The temperature was over 98 degrees F, and this in combination with the high humidity made me feel as if I were in a sauna. But the miso in the wooden vats seemed to be enjoying the day — the surface was bubbling joyfully. Billions of microorganisms in each barrel were producing nutrients and a delightful aroma. The miso must be carefully monitored during fermentation to maintain the right temperature, and stirred frequently. A worker in the fermentation room whispered to me that taking care of the miso every day was like watching his son growing up. Both need lots of attention and care for their proper growth.

But all that work pays off for the cook, because using good-quality miso produces wonderful-tasting dishes with little effort. Good miso contains lots of umami, savory flavor, enhancing all the other ingredients you use. In contrast, miso made in an automated factory substitutes artificial flavoring for the rich layers of flavor in the traditional product.

But American cooks don’t have to order a shipment of Japanese miso from abroad to get the real experience: Several American companies are now making very high quality, traditionally produced miso. On a day when I did not have time to walk 20 minutes to the Japanese food store, I discovered the American-made Miso Master brand at my neighborhood large chain supermarket in New York City. In my kitchen, this miso really surprised me. It had the quality and taste characteristics that I had long yearned for.

Japanese tradition comes to America

I was curious to find out how my favorite miso was made in America. So I headed to Great Eastern Sun, the North Carolina-based company that has been making Miso Master miso for 33 years. In 1979, when American interest in macrobiotic products was booming, John and Jan Belleme, the early partners of the company, traveled to Japan to investigate natural miso production. A small miso brewer, Takamichi Onozaki, in Yatai, a village in Tochigi Prefecture northeast of Tokyo, opened his arms and factory to the Bellemes and taught them the art of traditional miso production. Upon returning to America, they built the Great Eastern Sun factory in the village of Rutherfordton, 55 miles east of Asheville.

On my visit to the factory I found the same qualities that I had found at the miso factory in Japan: far from the city, with clean water, pure air and people who cared about producing high-quality food. Great Eastern Sun picked Rutherfordton not only because of the qualities of nature and people, but also because it sits at the same latitude as the village of Yatai in Japan.

Miso master Joe Kato with the fermentation barrels at Great Eastern Sun.

Miso master Joe Kato with the fermentation barrels at Great Eastern Sun. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

A Japanese miso master, Joe Kato, oversees production of the miso, which uses all organic and non-GMO ingredients. In the large processing room, six local American employees were working on koji rice. The rice had been steamed the day before, inoculated with koji mold and left spread on a large wooden stand in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room. The workers were breaking up and turning the koji rice, which released a sweet, slightly chestnut-like fragrance. When I closed my eyes I felt as if I were standing in my friend’s miso factory in Japan. But soon the workers’ jokes and chatting in English brought me back to where I was.

Below you will find a very simple, but delicious recipe with which you can try real miso to enjoy a healthy diet. You may have had the somewhat boring typical miso soup at a Japanese restaurant, featuring wakame seaweed, tofu and scallion. This spicy kale miso soup recipe shows that you can use any seasonal vegetable from your refrigerator to make an excellent miso soup. You can find many more delicious uses for miso – dressings, marinades, sauces and more –in my book, Hiroko’s American Kitchen.”

 

Spicy Kale Miso Soup

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 8 minutes

Total time: 18 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

½ bunch kale

1 teaspoon canola oil

½ cup chopped red onion

¼ cup finely julienned ginger

¼ teaspoon toban jiang (fermented chile bean sauce) or red pepper flakes

3 cups dashi stock or low-sodium chicken stock

1½ tablespoons aged brown miso from Miso Master or other high-quality miso producer

Directions

  1. Cut off the very bottom of the hard stems of the kale, and cut the remaining kale, including the stems, into thin slices crosswise.
  2. Heat the oil in a medium pot over medium heat, and then add the onion. Cook the onions for 1 minute, stirring until they are slightly translucent. Add half of the ginger and the toban jiang, and give the mixture several stirs. Add the kale and cook, stirring, until the leaves are wilted.
  3. Pour in the stock and bring it to a simmer. Decrease the heat to low and cook, covered, for 3 minutes. Turn off the heat.
  4. Add the miso, stirring briskly with a whisk until it is dissolved.
  5. Divide the soup into small soup bowls, garnish with the remaining ginger and serve.

 Main photo: Workers tend the koji rice at Great Eastern Sun’s facility in Rutherfordton, North Carolina. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo 

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Oatmeal with caramelized bananas. Credit: Sharon Hunt

People today have at least one unlikely thing in common with the Neolithic bog people of thousands of years ago: oat porridge. It was found in the stomachs of  their 5,000-year-old bodies in Scandinavia and Europe and would no doubt be found in our stomachs if somebody digs us up thousands of years from now.

Oatmeal — or porridge as we called it, giving a nod to my grandfather’s Scottish ancestry — has been a breakfast mainstay since I was a girl. Now, with the return of cool fall weather, I am drawn to warm foods, especially in the morning.

My mother made oatmeal before sending me off to school, and although hers was a bit “gluier” than I liked, it was filling and took me through a morning of memorizing poems or learning long division. More important, especially for a child, it tasted great with a liberal slosh of table cream and an equally liberal sprinkling of brown sugar. Sometimes she grated apples on top or arranged slices of pears in a circle and, like Oliver Twist, I begged for more, although my oatmeal was surely better tasting than his gruel.

Porridge is made of oats cooked in water, milk or both and served hot with a variety of toppings. My grandfather made it in a big steel pot, reminding me of a wizard stirring a potion, although I’d never seen a wizard in a floral apron. Like me, he had grown up eating oatmeal for breakfast, but sometimes it was his dinner, too. It was inexpensive, which was an important consideration after he became the breadwinner for his mother and sisters at 10, his father having died, forcing him to leave school in fourth grade.

Oatmeal in the early years

In his 1755 monumental work “A Dictionary of the English Language,” Samuel Johnson described oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” Lord Elibank, a proud Scotsman, soldier, lawyer and author, was said to have remarked about Johnson’s definition of oats, “And where else will you see such horses and such men?”

Porridge was originally a means of preparing crops before ovens became common enough in Europe that more people could make bread. British inmates in prison were said to be “doing porridge,” a slang for doing  time. They also ate porridge while behind prison walls.

Oats were well suited to Scotland’s short and wet growing season. Scottish universities, during the 17th century, observed a holiday known as Meal Monday (or Oatmeal Monday) when students, whose diet consisted largely of porridge, returned home to stock up on supplies for the coming months of study.

Oatmeal today

Oatmeal remains popular for breakfast today and is available in long-cooking, quickly prepared or instant varieties.

On a recent trip to Ireland, I found oatmeal on breakfast menus from Dublin to Belfast and towns in between. In Dublin I enjoyed it with sour cherries and grated nutmeg; and in Belfast, it was delicious with thick cream, honey and cinnamon. The best oatmeal I had (and, for that matter, the best breakfast) was at Coolefield House Bed and Breakfast in tiny Millstreet.

Coolefield House is a jewel, as warm and welcoming as the dish of oatmeal that Pam and Mike Thornton, the owners, prepare for their guests. Their oatmeal, made with organic oats by Flahavan’s, a popular Irish brand, was cooked in milk until creamy and topped with caramelized bananas, buttery and sweet. As a special treat, the Thorntons sometimes add a splash of Drambuie, the aged Scotch whisky blended with honey, spices and herbs, which adds extra richness to an already rich and delicious bowl.

How to make oatmeal

Make oatmeal with your preference of water, milk or a combination of the two. Scottish traditionalists like my grandfather used only water, but milk makes a richer porridge. If you prefer to use both, a ratio of 1 part milk to 2 parts water gives a good consistency or, if you wish for less milk, try 1 part milk to 3 parts water. Cook the oats according to the directions on the package.

Quick-cooking oats — different from instant oatmeal — are, as the name implies, quicker to prepare, whereas instant oatmeal is faster still, although I prefer longer-cooking oats for a deeper flavor.

For a nutty flavor, consider toasting the oats for a few minutes over low heat in a dry pan or under the oven broiler before cooking, or let cooked oatmeal sit, with the lid on, for 5 to 10 minutes to develop more flavor.

Oatmeal toppings

Choose from a variety of toppings to add flavor to your bowl of oatmeal. Ideas include caramelized apples or bananas; sour cherries; blueberries; raspberries; peaches; brown sugar; honey; Greek yogurt; table cream; grated fresh nutmeg; and cinnamon.

Main photo: Oatmeal with caramelized bananas. Credit: Sharon Hunt

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Pears are the star in Rincón de Soto, Spain. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Pears and Rioja are a marriage made in Spanish heaven, but although the region of La Rioja is synonymous with wine and bull running (one ponders the connection), it also has another claim to fame. The small town of Rincón de Soto may be little more than a main plaza, modern town hall, church and railway line, but it is on the map of European culinary produce thanks to pears.

In the Rioja Baja, a gently terraced swath of fertile fields, orchards and plane trees with ever-dancing leaves, the famous vines take second place to pears, peaches, cherries, cauliflower, onions, sprouts and cardoons. The growing area is defined by a natural margin: the Ebro River that separates it from the mountains of Navarre to the north, and the craggy, Riojan hills, where a network of dinosaur footprints remains eerily well-preserved.

Protected status for pears

Pears have been grown for centuries on the riverbanks. Over the years, many trees were abandoned, but the town’s success in gaining DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) status for the pears has been a big boost in maintaining the orchards.

At the annual Jornadas de Exaltacion or pear festival in late September, the pear cookery competition is always keenly contested. There is also a kids’ competition. As the tension mounts, everyone chomps on hot chorizo sausages on bread, and in the evening there are pears poached in Rioja. The party carries on into the wee hours. It’s a day, indeed, of exaltation.

In Spain, the preference is for large Conference pears, although connoisseurs favor the delicate flavor of the smaller Blanquilla.

In 1747, the latter was enjoyed at the court of Philip V, where it was described as “an exquisite fruit,” and the royal pastry cook recommended it for drying, confits or preserving in syrup. Sometimes known as a “water pear,” the Blanquilla is crisp, juicy and aromatic. As it ripens, the Blanquilla becomes highly perfumed and meltingly soft, and the bright lime-green skin takes on a reddish tinge.

Blanquilla vs. Conference pears

The Blanquilla, however, is more difficult to grow, and it nearly disappeared in the 1960s, as agriculture became more intensive. It was largely replaced by Conference pears, which have green-yellow, naturally russeted skins and buttery flesh. However, it’s the local geography and climate that give these highly prized Rincón pears their special balance of sweetness and acidity, as well as their keeping quality and texture that allows the fruit to hold up when cooked.

Pruning and picking of these varieties is still done by hand. The pears are delicate and easily bruised, and each one is picked with  care. They must be held by the base and raised upward so the stalk snaps clean from the branch. The pears are placed into padded containers to avoid damage and transported within six hours of picking to one of the local packing stations, where teams of women pack them in perfect formation. Each one a swaddled infanta, each one a perfect taste of La Rioja.

olla

olla
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Olla Gitana, a stew created for days when there was little meat for the pot, is probably vegetarian more by default than choice. It also is a good dish to serve before a juicy lamb chop or veal escalope, or as a vegetarian main course. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Olla Gitana

Olla means a tall, pot-bellied cooking pot, and this vibrant, autumnal stew probably originates with Roman travelers who arrived in Spain in the 1450s, settling mostly in Andalusia. A stew created for times when there was little meat for the pot, this dish is probably vegetarian more by default than choice. The vegetarian ethos has spread these days beyond the big cities, although in many a pueblo ham is still classed as a vegetable and they would probably regard this as a good dish to serve before a juicy lamb chop or veal escalope.

Prep Time: Overnight if you soak the beans; 30 minutes if you use canned beans.

Cook Time: 1 hour

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 cup dried chickpeas (or 2½ cups cooked chickpeas)

1 cup dried white beans (or 2½ cups cooked beans)

2 cups chopped green beans

1 butternut squash or small pumpkin, seeded, peeled and cubed

1 medium carrot, sliced

2 firm Conference pears, peeled, cored and chopped

2 bay leaves

4 cups vegetable stock

Salt and black pepper

1 large onion, diced

¼ cup olive oil

2 cloves of garlic, diced

One small slice of stale country bread, crust cut off and fried in oil

¼ cup toasted almonds

A pinch of saffron, lightly crushed and soaked in a little hot water

3 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped

½ tablespoon pimentón de la Vera  (smoked Spanish paprika)

Chopped, fresh mint

Directions

1. Soak the chickpeas and beans overnight. Drain and put into a pot with fresh water, bring to a boil. Simmer for about 30 minutes until soft. Drain, place in a large casserole.

2. Add the green beans, pumpkin, carrots, pears, bay leaves, stock, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 to 20 minutes until everything is tender.

3. In a pan, fry the onion slowly in the oil for at least 15 minutes, until soft and golden.

4. Meanwhile, pound the garlic, bread, almonds, saffron and a pinch of salt in a mortar until well combined. Stir in a ladle of stock from the bean pot.

5. Add the tomatoes to the onion mixture, fry over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the pimentón to the mixture, cook for another minute. Add the onion-and-tomato mixture to the bean pot.

6. Cook for about 5 minutes, then add the contents of the mortar to the pot. Simmer a little longer; add salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with mint, serve.

 

Duck Breast With Honey-Spiced Pears

The success of this dish depends on the delicate balance of sweet and savory flavors.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 40 minutes

Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

2 duck breasts

A little olive oil

2 level tablespoons butter

¼ cup honey

3 cloves

1 tablespoon mixed peppercorns (white, green and pink)

1 cinnamon stick, snapped in half

2 ripe Conference pears, peeled, cored and halved or quartered

Juice of 1 lemon

Salt

Directions

1. Fry the duck breast in a little olive oil (15 to 20 minutes, depending on thickness and preference). Set duck breast aside to rest for 5 minutes; slice and arrange on serving plates.

2. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, add the honey and spices. Cook gently for a few minutes, until the honey melts and starts to bubble.

3. Add the pears, turn gently in the butter mixture until the edges start to caramelize.

4. Add the lemon juice; salt to taste.

5. Remove the pears, arrange alongside the duck. Strain the sauce and drizzle over the duck.

Ham and Pear Parcels

Prep Time: 20 to 30 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 parcels

Ingredients

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons of cream, curd or ricotta cheese

¼ cup blue cheese

1 small pear, peeled and diced

A few walnuts, chopped

Black pepper

6 to 8 slices of  jamón serrano (cured Spanish ham)

Chive strands

Directions

1. Mash the soft cheese with the blue cheese.

2. Add the pear and walnuts to the cheese mixture, season with black pepper to taste.

3. Spread on slices of cured Spanish ham and roll into tubes. Tie decoratively with chives.

4. Use any surplus filling on crackers.

 

Pears Poached in Muscatel and Spices

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cooking Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 50 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

4 whole large (or 8 small), firm Conference pears, peeled

3¼ cups Moscatel wine

A few black peppercorns

3 cloves

Juice of 1 lemon

1 cinnamon stick, snapped in half

Toasted, slivered almonds (optional)

Directions

1. Place pears in a pan just large enough to allow them to remain upright.

2. Pour wine over the pears, add all the other ingredients except for the almonds.

3. Bring the ingredients to a boil; cover, simmer for 30 minutes or until tender.

Optional, serve sprinkled with almonds.

 

Rioja Pear Cake

Prep Time: 40 minutes

Cooking Time: 40 to 50 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour 20 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

8 firm Conference pears

Red Rioja wine, plus sugar and cinnamon to taste

1¾ sticks butter, softened

1 cup caster sugar, plus 1 tablespoon

4 medium eggs, separated

1 generous teaspoon vanilla extract

1½ cups self-rising flour

2 tablespoons chopped walnuts

Salt

Whipped cream

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

2. Peel and slice the pears. Place into a pan, add sugar and cinnamon to taste, and pour in enough wine to cover the fruit. Bring gently to a boil, reduce heat and lightly poach until tender. Drain the pears, saving the liquid. Set pears aside.

3. Cream the butter and sugar, beat in the yolks one by one; add the vanilla extract.

4. Add the flour, mix until well-combined.

5. Whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until snowy. Carefully fold them into the cake mixture. Pour into a buttered, 9-inch-round cake pan with a removable base.

6. Arrange the pears in a neat pattern over the top of the cake. Sprinkle with the nuts and a tablespoon of sugar. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until the top is well risen (although it will shrink back down), and a toothpick comes out clean.

7. Reduce the wine until it is syrupy, serve with the cake and whipped cream.

Main photo: Pears are the star of a festival in Rincón de Soto, Spain. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

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Frantic Telephone-Call Roasted Potatoes. Credit: Barbara Haber

I will go to any length to obtain a recipe that interests me, and this leads to an embarrassing admission. While waiting in my eye doctor’s office recently, I was thumbing through a tattered old magazine and came across a recipe for quick pecan rolls that was unusual in that the dough included not just yeast, but also baking powder and a bit of baking soda. This combination was new to me, and I had to find out if it was any good. Since the recipe went on and on, listing ingredients and directions for the topping, the filling and the glaze as well as the dough, I expedited matters by tearing out the page and slipping it into my purse.

Before doing this, I looked around because I remembered a scene in “The Sopranos” when Tony Soprano rips an article from a magazine in his psychiatrist’s office and gets caught and reprimanded by his doctor. I didn’t want that to happen to me. But I knew that I would obsess about the recipe if I didn’t have it, couldn’t wait to try it, and did so within a couple of days.

Culinary karma?

The dish required no rising, went right into the oven and came out looking beautiful. The rolls were puffed up and browned and turned out of the pan easily, showing off their topping of glistening caramelized pecans. When the rolls had cooled, I broke off a piece and could only conclude that the roll reminded me of Bisquick, and I instantly decided I would never make this recipe again. Maybe I was being punished for my crime.

A more honorable quest occurred when a cousin by marriage, who prides herself on her cooking, served me a beautiful puréed mushroom soup she said was made without cream, a happy fact to me because the dish was rich enough and full of flavor. When I requested the recipe, I was surprised and bitterly disappointed when told recipes from that household were never given out; in my book, withholding recipes is equivalent to withholding love.

But my determination to track down the dish was inflamed. I should add that this took place in an era before the Internet, so the challenge of finding the recipe was difficult. I had to operate on hunches, and my first deduction was that this cousin hadn’t invented the recipe but got it from a source more sophisticated than a folksy newspaper column or women’s magazine. Since I knew she was an avid reader of cookbooks, I went to the public library where I looked through book after book only to find puréed mushroom soup recipes loaded with cream. Undaunted, I searched until I came across Danny Meyer’s “Union Café Cookbook,” where I found a recipe billed as “Creamless Mushroom Soup.” Quivering with anticipation, I tried the dish and immediately recognized it as the recipe that would quench my intrepid search.

What Nigel Slater missed

I was reminded of this incident when reading Nigel Slater’s autobiography, “Toast,” in which he describes his prickly relationship with his stepmother and convincingly illustrates her greatest fault by telling us that she refused to give him her recipes. Instead of using cooking as a bonding technique, she veered in the opposite direction. Denying him her lemon pie recipe upset Slater most. One day when her pie was underway, the young Nigel passed nonchalantly through the kitchen, back and forth, all the while gauging what went into the pie, and jotting down the recipe when out of sight.

Recipe collecting to the rescue

Frantic people come to me for recipes, sometimes. While preparing dinner one evening, I was interrupted by a telephone call — an intrusion I hate — but it was a good friend on the line, apologetically explaining that her husband had just called to say he was bringing home a colleague for dinner. She happened to have some new red potatoes on hand, had remembered that I once served a great roasted potato dish, and could I please tell her how to make it. “What could be more important?” I answered, and happily passed on the recipe.

‘Elevator Lady Spice Cookies’

Good recipes can sometimes be found at strange times and places. I have in my files a recipe called “Elevator Lady Spice Cookies,” which I make now and then because they are moist and delicious. I tried to remember where the recipe came from without success until I reread Peg Bracken’s “I Hate to Cook Book,” a classic that is full of laughs and some surprisingly good recipes. In it, she recounts the time she gave a cookie to the woman running her office elevator only to be told, “I can sure make a better spice cookie than that.” She brought the recipe to Bracken who agreed it was better, proving to all of us that our time in elevators can be well-spent.

People not particularly interested in cooking may think the single-minded pursuit of recipes trivial or even madness, but I know better. On those days when a troubled world is too much with me, I can find a little solace in preparing a stupendous recipe I took the trouble to find.

Frantic Telephone-Call Roasted Potatoes

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 50 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour 5 minutes

Ingredients

2 pounds small red potatoes, scrubbed well but not peeled

4 tablespoons olive oil

10 garlic cloves peeled and coarsely chopped

4 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon ground pepper

Directions

1. Preheat oven at 375 F.

2. Cut larger potatoes in half and leave small ones whole.

3. Using rimmed half sheet baking tin, put oil into pan and add potatoes, rotating them in oil on all sides.

4. Sprinkle chopped garlic over all of the potatoes.

5. Drizzle soy sauce over all of the potatoes.

6. Sprinkle pepper over everything.

7. Bake until potatoes are completely tender.

Main photo: Frantic Telephone-Call Roasted Potatoes. Credit: Barbara Haber

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Green tomatoes on the vine. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

Anybody who grows tomatoes during the summer reaches that fall day when the weather may have cooled (though not so far in this scorching September in Southern California), the tomato plants look brown, and it’s time to decide whether or not to pull them. They may still be sporting a fair amount of fruit, but that fruit stays green. Some may blush, but they will never be juicy, sweet, red summer tomatoes.

This is the point at which I pull my browning plants, but not before harvesting the green tomatoes. I feast on the obvious: fried green tomatoes (I didn’t grow up with them, but I learned to love them during the 12 years I spent in Texas) and fried green tomato sandwiches. I even make green tomato relish and green tomato pickles like the ones I used to shun at the deli when I was a kid (I liked the dill pickles much better). But I also make the not-so-obvious: Mediterranean green tomato frittatas, pasta with green tomato pesto, and salads with green and red tomatoes that cry out for Russian dressing. One of my new favorite green tomato dishes is an amazing sweet tart. It’s an adaptation of a recipe in a cookbook by the late Bill Neal, who was renowned for his Southern cooking, and I will now be making it every fall as my tomatoes go from red to green.

Green tomatoes are not at all like red tomatoes, and they don’t resemble tomatillos, which have a much more pungent flavor and a different texture. They are hard, and they hold back their flavor until you cook them. Interestingly, their nutritional profile is not too different from ripe tomatoes, though they don’t have the antioxidant-rich lycopene present in red fruit.

Green Tomato Tart. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

Green Tomato Tart. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

Sweet Green Tomato Tart

This is based on a recipe by the late Bill Neal, a great Southern cook and baker. It is an unbelievable tart, and somewhat mysterious: It tastes a bit like a lemon tart, but the green tomatoes contribute texture and body, as well as their own fruity flavor; then there are the spices that are reminiscent of pumpkin pie. The original recipe is sweeter than mine, though this is plenty sweet. Neal says to blanch and peel the green tomatoes, but I found that they were very difficult to peel, so I didn’t. The peels don’t get in the way.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Baking time: 30 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield:  9-inch tart, 8 servings

Ingredients

9-inch sweet pastry, fully baked

1 pound (450 grams) firm green tomatoes

3/4 cup  (165 grams) organic sugar

2 tablespoons (20 grams) flour

1/2 teaspoon (1 gram) ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon (1 gram) ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon (pinch) salt

2 eggs, beaten

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Finely grated zest of 1 lemon

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Set the tart shell on a baking sheet.
  2. Slice the tomatoes and place into a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse until roughly pureed and transfer to a fine strainer set over a bowl. Let drain for 15 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, sift together the sugar, flour, ginger, cinnamon and salt.
  4. Return the tomatoes to the food processor and add the sugar mixture. Pulse until well combined. Beat the eggs and add to the processor, along with the lemon juice and zest. Pulse again until well combined. The mixture should be processed until it is a coarse puree. Pour into the baked tart shell.
  5. Bake 30 minutes in the middle of the oven, or until the filling is set. Don’t touch as the top is sticky and will adhere to your finger. Just jiggle the baking sheet gently to make sure the tart is set. Remove from the heat and cool on a rack.

Oven-Baked Green Tomato and Feta Frittata

This baked frittata has Greek overtones. It puffs in the oven, though it will deflate soon after you remove it. I prefer to serve it at room temperature. It’s a good keeper and packs well in a lunchbox. 

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1 pound green tomatoes

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

9 large eggs

2 tablespoons low-fat milk

About ½ cup fine cornmeal, or a combination of flour and fine cornmeal, for dredging

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (more as needed)

2 garlic cloves, minced or pureed

2 tablespoons snipped chives

1 tablespoon chopped fresh marjoram

3 ounces feta, crumbled (about 3/4 cup)

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Core the tomatoes and slice about 1/3 inch thick. Season with salt and pepper.
  2. Beat the eggs and milk together in a large bowl and season with salt and pepper (I use about 1/2 teaspoon salt). Quickly dip the tomato slices into the egg mixture and dredge lightly in the flour or cornmeal. Place on a parchment-covered baking sheet. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a 10-inch cast iron skillet over medium-high heat and fry the sliced tomatoes for 2 to 3 minutes on each side, just until lightly colored. Transfer to a rack set over a sheet pan, or to paper towels. You’ll probably need to do this in batches, so you might need to add more oil before adding the second batch. Quarter half the fried tomatoes. Wipe away any cornmeal residue from the pan.
  3. Stir the garlic, chives, marjoram, feta and the quartered fried green tomatoes into the beaten eggs.
  4. Return the skillet to medium-high heat and add the remaining tablespoon of oil. Swirl the pan to make sure the sides are coated with oil, and pour in the eggs, scraping every last bit of the mixture out of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Tilt the pan to distribute the eggs and filling evenly over the surface and gently lift up the edges of the frittata with the spatula, to let the eggs run underneath during the first minute or two of cooking. Distribute the whole fried green tomato slices over the surface of the frittata, turn off the burner and place the pan into the preheated oven. Bake 25 to 30 minutes, until puffed, set and lightly colored. Allow to cool for at least 10 minutes before serving. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.

Main photo: Green tomatoes on the vine. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

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Signora Rosa, center, and her family work on the tomatoes in the garden. Credit: Carla Capalbo

It’s tomato canning time in Campania, southern Italy. This region more than any other relies on home-preserved plum tomatoes to stock the larder for the year. These are the tomatoes that will go into the daily plate of pasta al pomodoro, or onto pizzas and dozens of other regional favorites.

My neighbors in Nusco, the tiny medieval village in the province of Avellino where I spend part of the year, are a retired couple who share their house with one daughter. It’s just the three of them, so I was amazed when they told me that the next week Signora Antonietta was going to process 250 kilos of tomatoes (that’s one-quarter ton of fresh tomatoes). Each family has its own recipes for home-canned tomatoes, but the result is the same: enough bottles and jars of the precious “red gold” to prevent them ever having to buy tomatoes from a store.

“The most important thing is to know where your tomatoes have been grown,” says Antonietta’s husband, Pietro. “We like to make sure ours are free of pesticides.” Nusco is only an hour’s drive from Puglia, where many of the tomatoes for the canning industry are grown, but there are reports of undocumented immigrants being exploited as pickers in near-slavery conditions. Pietro prefers to buy his from a local farmer.

San Marzano tomatoes

The most famous tomato of all is the fabled San Marzano, the Holy Grail of plum varieties. Legend has it that the first seeds of San Marzano came to Campania in 1770 as a gift to the Kingdom of Naples from the Kingdom of Peru. It was planted extensively in what is now the township of San Marzano, near the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, mainland Europe’s largest active volcano. Millions of tons were harvested annually until the 1980s, when a blight struck the crop.

Campanian researchers are divided about whether that variety still exists. Some claim the original San Marzano was lost to the disease, while others maintain that a few seeds remained in the region’s refrigerated seed bank and were used to rebuild the gene pool. Whichever variety it now is, Pomodoro San Marzano has been granted DOP status (Protected Denomination of Origin) and can be certified only if grown within specified areas of Campania. It has been recognized as a keystone of the Mediterranean diet.

What’s so special about it? “The San Marzano has an elongated plum shape, firm flesh and very few seeds,” says Vincenzo Aita, a specialist in Campanian agriculture. “The skin is a deep bright red, and peels off easily. Most importantly, it has a rich, intense flavor, low acidity (but is high in nutrients), and is the best for canning and for making our Neapolitan tomato ragù — a sauce that needs to be simmered for at least 6 hours.”

The San Marzano is tricky to grow: It needs to be staked carefully and handpicked when ripe, which means passing through the fields six to eight times per season. So it’s more expensive than other plum tomatoes, but well worth the extra — if you can find it.

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Antonietta's plum tomatoes spread out on the garage floor to ripen before canning. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Signora Antonietta favors preserving her tomatoes unpeeled. She washes, then puts them in a vast pan over a gas burner in her garage, gently cooking them for about an hour until the pulp is soft. The tomatoes are then passed through a mill, where some of the skins are separated from the juice and pulp.

“Some people prefer to drain the tomato water before milling, but I like to keep all of the tomatoes’ goodness in the jar. After all, I can always cook it down if I need it thicker,” she says, as she stirs salt to taste into the tomato purée. The passata or salsa is bottled — in recycled jars and beer bottles with new caps — before being placed in an even bigger pan to be covered in water and boiled for 45 minutes to sterilize the preserves.

Stocking the larder

A few kilometers away, in Montella, Signora Rosa and her family are being even more ambitious. “We’re doing 450 kilos of tomatoes this year,” she says as she rallies her daughter, grandson and nephew to action. Here the tomatoes are worked using two different methods. Some whole tomatoes are held in boiling water for a minute or so before being peeled. They are then placed in the bottles with one fresh basil leaf before being closed and sterilized.

For her passata, Rosa washes the tomatoes before adding them to a large pan in which a few liters of water have been brought to a boil. She cooks them for about an hour before removing them from the pan using a slotted spoon to drain away some of the excess liquid. The tomatoes are then milled — using an old electric machine that was her mother’s, and that can process 300 kilos per hour — bottled and sterilized, unsalted, as above. Other families prefer to purée their tomatoes raw before sterilization, or cut the raw tomatoes into chunks and mix them into the salsa before the final boiling in the jar. It’s a personal choice and one that will be appreciated every day of the coming year.

Main photo: Signora Rosa, center, and her family work on the tomatoes in the garden. Credit: Carla Capalbo

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A photo of Pellegrino Artusi sits next to savor, a peasant dessert that's featured in his cookbook. Credit: Cesare Zucca.

While in Forlimpopoli, a small Italian town near the Adriatic Sea, I happened upon a cookbook that stirred up all the memories of my past: My mamma, my nonna and a very young me laboriously turning a heavy hand crank to make homemade pasta, while the women double-checked the recipe in a cookbook, which was religiously kept on a small shelf. I could never remember its title — it was too long and too difficult — but I vividly remember the author’s first name: Pellegrino.

Pellegrino Artusi

The acknowledged father of  modern Italian cookery, Pellegrino Artusi was born in 1820 in Forlimpopoli to a wealthy merchant. He lived in his native town until 1851, when the city was attacked by the infamous highwayman il Passatore and his band, who held upper-class families hostage. The Artusi family moved to Florence after that. Pellegrino, a businessman, became a wealthy man and, at age 45, was able to concentrate full time on his passion: the home cuisine. He loved to search, ponder recipes and have someone else cook his experiments.

After much research, he narrowed his findings to 790 favorite recipes. He collected these in a manual called “La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene” (“Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well”). Recipes span from broth to liqueurs, passing through soups, hors d’oeuvres, entrees (called “primi” in Italy, these are the first dishes such as pasta, risotto and soup), main dishes (“secondi,” which are usually meat or fish dishes) and cakes. Artusi anticipated trends that would become popular during the 20th century, among them the introduction of pasta as the typical first course on the Italian menu. The book was ahead of its time. No publisher was interested.

The cookbook

Finally, in 1891, the author took a chance and published it at his own expense. Success was as unthinkable as it was overwhelming. During the next 20 years, the author worked on 15 editions and “the Artusi” became one of Italy’s best-read books. Most Italian families had it — and still have it. It has been translated into English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian.

Today, Artusi’s book is regarded as an important tool of identity and cultural unification, both gastronomic and linguistic. The book is recognized by critics as a real literary work that contributed to the unification of Italy (remember, Italy was not yet unified at that time, and different languages were spoken throughout the country).

 The great Number 7

The recipes are numbered and probably the masterpiece is the Number 7, the famous cappelletti al’uso di Romagna (Romagna-style cappelletti pasta) The name cappello (hat) comes from its shape. The pasta is filled with capon breast, Parmesan, nutmeg, ricotta and raveggiolo (a mild creamy cheese), carefully shaped to six centimeters in diameter and boiled just a few minutes in a rich capon broth with celery, carrots and beef bones.

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A street vendor at the Festa Artusiana dishes up pasta. Credit: Cesare Zucca

Equally famous is the Number 71, tagliatelle all’uso di Romagna, served with a delicious tomato sauce, and the Number 334, polpette di trippa (tripe balls), which are soft and juicy. Finally, there is the savor, a peasant dessert once prepared in farmhouses and served during the winter. It is made with sapa, a longtime boiled sciroppo di mosto (grape syrup), then mixed with autumn fruits and nuts. This is perfect to “savor” with either sweets, roasts, fresh or aged cheeses and is often served on a piadina (flatbread).

All these treasures are included in an extraordinary cookbook that offers a collection of home recipes, considerations and short stories, making Artusi’s manual a masterpiece of wit and wisdom.

Who was the real chef ?

If Signor Pellegrino Artusi did not cook, who did the job?

Her name was Marietta Sabbatini, a devoted, irreplaceable assistant (and maybe more) who fanatically worked side by side with Artusi, who described her as “both a good cook, and a decent, honest person.”

No fame, no glory for poor Marietta until Forlimpopoli launched the Associazione delle Mariette, which has the invaluable task of teaching traditional Romagnolo cookery. The association has a yearly national competition, “The Marietta Award,” which is reserved for non-professional cooks and gives the winner a 1,000 Euro prize.

City throws a feast

Every year the city pays tribute to its most illustrious citizen, hosting the Festa Artusiana, a tempting feast where, from 7 p.m. to midnight, the historical city center changes into a “town to be tasted.” The big castle dominates the borgo, where courts, alleys, streets and squares have names of recipes from Artusi’s book.

All the best restaurants and the street vendors in the area are invited to participate and include in their menus several of Artusi’s specialties. For nine evenings, Forlimpopoli becomes the capital city of “Eating Well,” thanks to the partnership with Casa Artusi, the first Italian gastronomic center devoted entirely to traditional home cookery. Casa Artusi boasts a library, a museum and a school that teaches practical courses, both for food lovers and professionals wanting to learn how to improve their skills. In the Casa’s restaurant, Chef Andrea Banfi serves many of Artusi’s dishes, fresh, homemade pasta and recipes from the tradition of Emilia-Romagna.

I am sure Pellegrino would love the way his town is treating him, including having erected a tall statue right at the city entrance, prelude to a tasty visit to a very friendly town.

Main photo: A photo of Pellegrino Artusi sits next to savor, a peasant dessert that’s featured in his cookbook. Credit: Cesare Zucca

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