Articles in Cooking
Thanksgiving is a wonderful occasion for getting together with family and friends to share food and make up for all of the lost time that we have been apart. The spirit of the first Thanksgiving in 1621 was the sharing of precious harvest and honoring the relationship between the Plymouth Colonists and native population — family and friends. That spirit of sharing is intact today, and though some of the ingredients at Thanksgiving feasts have changed, some have remained.
Giving thanks for abundance
In Japan, we have a similar annual event at around the same time, called Kinro-kansha-no-hi, which means “a day to offer great thanks to all the hard-working people (who have contributed to bring food to our table).” This holiday falls on Nov. 23 and originates in the ancient worldwide autumn ritual of thanking the gods who enabled an abundant harvest while also protecting the people throughout the year. Japanese people are obsessed with excellent food, but there is no universally served meal analogous to the American “turkey with all the ‘fixins.’ ” This is why:
November is the month in Japan during which nature brings many varied delicacies from the sea, the rivers, the fields and the mountains. And depending on where people live in Japan (recall that Japan is a long and narrow country extending from far north to far south surrounded by a long coast line), the delicacies of the season differ in each region.
My mother prepared Kinro-kansha-no-hi dishes using the quality seasonal ingredients available to her, and these were also my father’s favorites. Seafood included snow crab, amberjack, kinki (a small red fish a little like the scorpionfish in bouillabaisse) and fluke.
Along with the seafood, turnip, daikon, enoki mushrooms, chrysanthemum leaves and sweet potato never failed to appear at our table. Appetizer dishes such as eggplant and miso sauce also were served.
I always remember the sweet potatoes that were simmered in a lightly flavored Japanese dashi stock. My mother never changed the way she made her sweet potatoes, but every year we found them tasting better than before. It seemed like playing the piano; it gets better as you practice.
After moving to New York from Japan, I began to join my brother-in-law’s Thanksgiving dinner. Peter is a great cook. He roasts a large turkey to juicy and tender perfection, makes all the traditional side dishes and some wonderful pies to end the meal. Early on I suggested to Peter that I could contribute a real Japanese dish or two to add to his very organized Thanksgiving meal. But he has never shown an interest in my offer, so I stopped asking. It was for me to learn how to enjoy this very American event. And I do enjoy it!
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As you know, Japanese love to embrace American culture. Recently the traditional American Thanksgiving dinner began gradually invading my homeland. One popular Japanese website posts more than 80 American Thanksgiving recipes, including how to roast a turkey, how to make cranberry relish and how to bake pecan and pumpkin pies. The size of the turkey mentioned in such recipes is about 13 to 15 pounds. An oven in a Japanese home is one-third to one-half the size of an American oven, so this is the largest bird that can be accommodated. This also was the size of turkeys available in America in 1930s. Today, breeding techniques have increased the size of these birds up to 30 pounds.
Maybe because I never learned to prepare traditional American Thanksgiving dishes, around this time of the year I entertain family and friends as my mother did by preparing dishes from the local seasonal harvest.
The bounty of the autumn harvest and offering thanks to nature and the people who contributed to bringing the meal to our table is truly a celebration to be shared with our loved ones.
(From The Japanese Kitchen by Hiroko Shimbo)
When you prepare this dish for a guest who can not tolerate gluten, eliminate the shoyu and use all gluten free tamari. Make sure that it is 100% soybean tamari without wheat. Tamari makes the prepared marinating broth a bit darker in color.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 3 minutes
Refrigeration time: 2 to 3 hours
Yield: 8 servings
3 tablespoons canola oil
3 ounces salsify or gobo (burdock), julienned in 2 1/2-inch lengths
2 ounces carrot, julienned in 2 1/2-inch lengths
2 ounces parsnip, julienned in 2 1/2-inch lengths
Some kale (optional)
2 tablespoons mirin
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon shoyu (soy sauce)
1 teaspoon tamari
2 tablespoons white sesame seeds, toasted
1/3 teaspoon shichimi togarashi
- Heat a large skillet and add the canola oil. When the oil is heated, add the salsify or burdock, and cook, stirring, until it is well coated with oil. Add the carrot and parsnip and cook for 2 minutes, stirring.
- Add 3 tablespoons water, the kale (if using), mirin and sugar, and cook until almost all the liquid is absorbed, stirring. Add the soy sauce and tamari and cook for 30 seconds. Add the white sesame seeds and shichimi togarashi.
- Transfer the vegetables in a bowl and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate for later serving. The prepared kinpira tastes best 2 to 3 hours after preparation, or after overnight refrigeration.
Main photo: The Japanese holiday called Kinro-kansha-no-hi is a celebration of Thanksgiving for an abundant harvest and all the hard-working people who help bring food to the table. Delicacies featuring fish and vegetables are served at Kinro-kansha-no-hi. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo.
High-end vinegar is going through something of a renaissance among foodies, chefs and home cooks. Vinegar is alive. Literally. At least before it’s pasteurized — a step taken by most manufacturers to make vinegar shelf stable. I’m on a quest to make my own vinegar, the kind that must be consumed quickly while at its peak acidity level, or fed at regular intervals to keep it alive. This living vinegar is tastier, healthier — and can give you better bragging rights — than the expensive pasteurized product you’re likely to find in gourmet food stores.
I dove into the world of DIY vinegar at the home of America’s greatest promoter of maker lifestyle: Thomas Jefferson. The Monticello Heritage Harvest festival is an annual celebration of food, history and the do-it-yourself spirit of the American Revolution, where authors and PhDs rub shoulders with urban homesteaders — a gathering that my husband calls “Historians ‘n’ Hippies.” My guides in the art of vinegar production come from both ends of this spectrum: Sandor Katz, author of “The Art of Fermentation,” and Gabriele Rausse, a pioneer of modern Virginian wine making and director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello.
Ancient roots of vinegar culture
Vinegar appears in the human record at the dawn of civilization. Vinegar residue has been found in Egyptian urns from 3000 BC. Vinegar is mentioned as a tasty treat in the Bible and as medicinal treatment for colds in the works of Hippocrates. Apple cider vinegar was a cure-all in colonial America, but by the time of the American Revolution, people such as Thomas Jefferson explored vinegar as the ultimate addition to fine dining. Jefferson’s years in Paris made him a connoisseur of vinegar — and culinary historian Damon Lee Fowler declared Jefferson was positively “addicted” to tarragon vinegar.
Making your own
There are extremely elaborate, highly measured ways to accomplish the transformation of fruit juice or wine into fine vinegar. But Sandor Katz takes a loose, DIY approach to the process. Acetic-acid-producing bacteria called acetobacter and yeast — the two microorganisms required for vinegar making — are all around us. “You don’t have to be a microbiologist,” said Katz, when I expressed my concerns about making fruit scrap vinegar. “Not to worry: vinegar makes itself.” My process began with fruit scraps. While making a pie, I found myself with a pile of peach skins and several less-than-perfect chunks of fruit. I would begin with this, starting the process of turning fruit sugar into alcohol.
Step one: Sugar to alcohol
Vinegar requires two steps to turn fruit scraps into vinegar. First, yeast naturally found on fruit turns sugars in the fruit into alcohol — a process called alcoholic fermentation. And second, acetobacter converts the alcohol into acetic acid. A home brewer or winemaker will use specific types of fruit sugar and add a specific type of yeast to the mixture. For my purposes, I just mixed the fruit scraps with a sugar solution in a Mason jar following Katz’s recipe in his first book, “Wild Fermentation.” Then I covered the top with a paper towel secured with a rubber band and let the natural yeasts on the fruit (and in my kitchen) find their way to it. Yeast consumed the sugar, excreting carbon dioxide bubbles and ethanol in the process. I gently swirled the mixture around in the jar every once in a while and within a week, I could see the telltale bubbles that showed alcohol was being created.
Step two: Alcohol to acetic acid
My goal was not low-alcohol peach hooch. There’s a second step: turning alcohol into an acetic acid mixture that tastes delicious. “The word we use is French,” Katz said. “Vin aigre just means ‘sour wine.’ It is the consolation prize when alcohol goes bad.” I strained out the chunks of peach skin to stop the alcohol-creation process, then put the golden liquid into a new container with a scrap of thin kitchen towel over the top of the jar. Katz’s approach to this step is extremely simple: just let it sit there. The peach alcohol soon began to get stringy gelatinous threads that eventually massed into a noticeable translucent layer on top of my peach mixture. At first glance, it seemed like a food-safety disaster, but it’s actually the start of the vinegar magic.
A historic how-to series for home cooks, canners and kids
This was the beginning of the “vinegar mother,” a gelatinous membrane made mostly of cellulose produced by the acetobacter. It is the “starter” from which more vinegar can be created. After two weeks, a quick whiff at the top of the jar revealed the powerful tang of transformation.
I poured some of the vinegar into a shot glass. It tasted sharp, with a hint of sweetness — a distinct peach taste to the delicious acidic liquid. I plan to let this sit for a couple of more weeks, until it reaches its peak of acidity. I have a dozen plans for this: salad dressing, marinade, potato salad, even mayonnaise.
Making fruit scrap vinegar was an interesting experiment, but this kind of live vinegar needs to be used fairly quickly, while at its maximum acidity level, or heat-pasteurized and stored in a closed narrow-necked bottle for long-term storage. I wasn’t interested in the details of heating and storing this kind of vinegar safely. And it is crucial to pay attention to these details because as the acidity level in vinegar drops, other microorganisms can start to take over — a potentially dangerous situation from a food-safety standpoint. I wanted to find an easy sustainable way to keep vinegar alive in my own kitchen, so I turned to a classic Italian method for making wine vinegar.
An alternate step: Acquire a mother
The traditional method of making vinegar with wine begins with acquiring a “mother of vinegar” from a vinegar-making friend or from a wine-making supply store. I was generously given a small jar of this vinegar mother by Rausse. A passionate winemaker and vinegar maker, Rausse makes vinegar in his home every day using a “mother” that came from his grandmother’s house in Italy. When I asked him how long he had had his vinegar mother, he told me, “Since I was born.”
I was honored. My vinegar mother had its birth on another continent three generations ago. But such a legacy requires dedication and focus. I learned about the care and feeding of vinegar mothers at Rausse’s vinegar-making demonstration at Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival.
Keep your vinegar alive
The key to good vinegar, according to both Katz and Rausse, is to consume it while it is still alive. Most vinegar that you buy in the grocery store or gourmet shop has been pasteurized — the living organisms killed for the sake of shelf-stability and food safety. There is an important place for pasteurized vinegar, most notably in food preservation.
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The USDA recommends that only vinegar with an acidity level of at least 5 percent should be used for pickling fruits and vegetables. Because the acidity level of homemade vinegar is unknown, it should never be used for pickling. I follow this rule in my own kitchen and encourage others to do the same. But when I want to dress a salad, I reach for live vinegar.
Up until now, I’ve bought commercially produced vinegar with live bacterial cultures (Bragg’s makes a good one from apple cider). In a few months, I hope I’ll be reaching for vinegar with a living history instead. My homemade vinegar will tell the story of at least three generations of Italian vinegar makers, with additional flavors from my own kitchen. Over time, I’m sure my homemade vinegar will transform into something unrecognizable to Gabriele Rausse and his grandmother, but I hope it will be a delicious heirloom that I’ll be able to pass on to friends and family over the years and eventually to my own grandchildren. Time will tell.
Main photo: Peach skins were used to make homemade peach vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz
Visit any fruit and vegetable market in northern Italy in the first chill of autumn and you may be forgiven for mistaking it for a New England farm stand.
You’ll see apples and pears, certainly, but also great piles of pumpkins and pumpkin-like squashes.
Pick the right squash
The Italian language doesn’t distinguish between the two. They’re all zucca, an ingredient of amazing versatility when an Italian cook gets hold of it.
Zucca is used to fill the hat-like cappelacci di zucca in Ferrara, made into gnocchi in Udine, folded into risotto near Mantua. Italians will toss hunks of pumpkin with pasta and Parmesan, add them to frittatas or purée the cooked vegetable into soup. And that’s just the savory side of the repertoire!
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Just when all this started is a little unclear. Pumpkins and squashes were a New World import, but since the word for native European gourds in Italian is the same as the one for the rotund American arrivals, old recipes don’t give much clue. Certainly Renaissance-era recipes must refer to gourds. But what should we say of Vincenzo Corrado’s 18th-century instructions for making fritters, for which mashed “zucca” is mixed with ricotta, grating cheese, eggs and spices? “Delicious” is the first word that comes to mind! And certainly worth trying to replicate.
Italians aren’t the only ones to sow confusion in what to call the pumpkin harvest. Americans are pretty loose with what we deem a pumpkin or a squash. New World pumpkins and squashes as well as Old World gourds — along with melons and cucumbers — all belong to the Cucurbita genus, but beyond that indisputable fact little else is clear.
The big round orange ones we use for carving jack-o’-lanterns belong to the C. pepo species, but these are mostly useless for cooking. The so-called cheese pumpkin may look like a tan version of its spooky cousin but belongs in fact to the C. moschata species, and is delicious to cook with — as are many relatives of the C. maxima, which can grow into one of the giant pumpkins you find at competitions but is also cultivated in the more manageable form of buttercup and kabocha squashes.
Good choice for gnocchi: Jarrahdale pumpkin
The Jarrahdale pumpkin belongs to the same family. As a rule, the many varieties of zucca found across Italy belong to the C. moschata or C. maxima clans. These tend to have sweeter, denser, dryer flesh, better suited for many an Italian recipe including the following one for gnocchi.
Some gnocchi recipes require the pumpkin or squash to be peeled and cut into pieces, but more often than not what is needed is a purée. The simplest way of doing this is to take a large sharp knife, stab it in near the stem and pivot it down to cut the squash in half. Do the same on the other side. Scoop out the seeds, place both halves on a lightly oiled baking pan and set in a 350 F oven for an hour to an hour and a half, depending the size. When a small, sharp knife slides in without resistance, you’re in business. Cool the squash, scoop out the flesh and purée in a food processor. Or just mash it if you want a slightly chunkier consistency. Any extra will freeze beautifully.
Pumpkin Gnocchi With Crisp-Fried Sage Leaves
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 6-8 minutes
Total time: 38 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1 cup pumpkin or squash purée (see above)
About 1 1/2 cups (divided) all-purpose flour
1 cup grated Italian Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup whole milk ricotta
1 large egg
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup fresh sage leaves (about 50)
Gather gnocchi ingredients
1. Combine the pumpkin with 1 cup flour, the Parmesan, ricotta, egg, nutmeg, 1/4 teaspoon salt, or more to taste, and pepper.
Make a smooth, soft dough
2. Stir until smooth. The dough should be a little softer than cookie dough. Refrigerate at least 1 hour.
Roll it out and cut into pieces
3. To form the gnocchi, heavily flour a board. Using floured hands, roll out the dough into cylinders about 1 inch in diameter. Cut these with a floured knife at half-inch intervals. Roll lightly in flour and place on trays heavily dusted with cornmeal. The gnocchi should not touch. Refrigerate for up to 2 hours. Freeze for longer storage.
Fry sage leaves in butter
4. Combine the oil and butter in a medium skillet over moderate heat. Heat until the butter just begins to color. Add the sage leaves and cook, stirring until very crispy and lightly browned. Set aside.
5. To cook the gnocchi: Bring about 1 1/2 gallons water and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt to a gentle boil in a large saucepan. Add the fresh or frozen gnocchi and simmer for 6-8 minutes. Carefully remove the cooked dumplings with a slotted spoon and toss with the sage butter mixture. Serve more Parmesan on the side.
Main Photo: The finished pumpkin gnocchi with sage leaves offers a rich combination of fall colors. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl
Outside of the candy that the kids collect, Halloween may be the only American holiday that is not associated with a particular feast or recipe.
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In fact, I didn’t know until recently that Halloween wasn’t celebrated in America until the late 19th century when Irish immigrants brought the Oct. 31 celebration to the United States and that the tradition of trick or treating didn’t become established until after World War II. I knew that because my mom told me that growing up in Manhattan in the 1920s they never trick or treated.
So if there is no traditional Halloween food, it seems ideal for each family to invent one. When I lived in Massachusetts and my three children were little, we took them around the neighborhood in a short-lived frenzy of trick or treating, returning home for them to examine their candy and for us to hide three-quarters of it.
One-pot meals to warm up little devils
Then we would eat dinner, which often was something I put on the stove before we left with the spooks and goblins. Usually it was some one-pot meal that could cook unattended and to which we could return enjoying the heavenly wafting smells of lusciousness.
Since nothing was traditional, these meals became purely inventive. The kids were ravenous because late October is cold in New England and rushing house to house is tiring work for a kid. If it wasn’t nailed down, my kids would eat it.
A warm dinner to make you forget about candy
There were several dishes they liked. Lamb with mushrooms and onions, braised veal with cabbage lasagna, my mom’s lasagna, which we called grandma’s lasagna, and pork with lentils were all demolished by my little hungry witches and goblins. They never did figure out that we tossed out several tons of their candy.
Braising lends itself to dishes that can be Halloween classics
Many of these Halloween stews and braises are long lost, because in those days I wouldn’t necessarily write them down. But one doesn’t really need to follow a recipe because the whole idea is slap-it-together-easy.
Here’s a braised veal recipe to start, but as you see by the photos, anything works, such as lamb and eggplant, pork and lentils, beef ragout or braised short ribs in ragout.
Braised Veal or Pork With Cabbage Lasagna
A shoulder roast of veal is not a terribly expensive cut and it makes a nice family dinner. You can use a pork shoulder, too. I use a pig’s ear or pork skin instead of the bacon because they are flavorful without being fatty and can be discarded, but they’re hard to find, so bacon is fine. As for the lasagna, you don’t have to boil it when using the so called instant no-boil lasagna, just layer them dry. This is a delicious dinner that kept everyone in my family happy after one particularly cold Halloween outing.
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 4 hours (unattended)
Total time: 4 hours, 45 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
One 3-pound boneless veal shoulder roast, tied with kitchen twine
3/4 cup dry red wine
4 cups tomato sauce
One 2 3/4-pound green cabbage, cored
1/2 pound lean slab bacon (preferably), sliced
Salt to taste
2 cups low- or no-sodium chicken broth
2 ounces pancetta, chopped
1 pound no-boil (instant) lasagna
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups freshly grated pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1. In a flameproof casserole, melt the butter with 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat, then brown the veal roast on all sides, about 6 minutes. Pour in the wine and reduce until it is nearly evaporated, about 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, add the tomato sauce, partially cover, and simmer for 3 to 4 hours, turning the roast occasionally. Transfer the roast to a serving platter and remove the butcher’s twine.
2. While the veal is roasting, prepare the cabbage lasagna. Bring a pot of lightly salted water to the boil and cook the cabbage for 10 minutes. Remove the cabbage and when cool enough to handle and separate the leaves. Layer the bottom of the pot in which you boiled the cabbage with half the bacon. Layer the cabbage leaves on top with a light sprinkle of salt. Lay the remaining slab bacon slices on top, pour in the chicken broth, cover, and cook on a medium heat for 45 to 50 minutes. Drain.
3. Place the pancetta in a small frying pan and cook over medium heat until slightly crispy and rendered of some fat, stirring occasionally, about 6 minutes. Set aside.
4. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly, and add the lasagna. Drain as soon as the lasagna is limp, about 1 minute. Reserve in a pot of cold water so the leaves of lasagna do not stick together.
5. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
6. Spread some olive oil on the bottom of a baking dish or lasagna pan and cover with lasagna, cabbage, pancetta, salt and pepper, a drizzle of olive oil, pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and garlic, in that order. Continue in this order until you run out of ingredients, ending with a layer of lasagna, cheese and a drizzle of olive oil. Cover with aluminum foil and bake 40 minutes.
7. Slice the veal, pour a few ladles of sauce over the meat and serve with the cabbage lasagna.
Main photo: Beef ragout. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright
World Pasta Day, celebrated each year the world over on Oct. 25, is a good reminder that pasta can indeed be a fall food. With the addition of a few seasonal ingredients, from figs and prosciutto to butternut squash, a cook can easily transform any pasta dish.
Baked pasta dishes
Now that the temperature is cool enough to make turning the oven on a pleasure again, it’s the perfect time to cook oven-baked pasta dishes, like lasagna or these crunchy-tender pasta squares. Using dried egg pasta, you don’t even need to boil the pasta. Just spread raw dried egg pasta in a buttered pan, pour on your favorite broth and lots of grated grana padano cheese and bake until tender. The result is a wonderful contrast in textures, crunchy outside with a soft cheesy center.
Pasta, a global food, is eaten in five continents and comes in more than 500 shapes and sizes. About 13.5 million tons of pasta is produced worldwide. Italy, with 57 pounds per year eaten per person, is the world’s leading pasta consumer, followed by Venezuela, Tunisia, Greece, Switzerland, Sweden and the U.S., according to the International Pasta Organization.
Pasta is an affordable, healthy, fat-free food that can be prepared in thousands of ways. Pasta pairs well with any vegetable or protein. Add it to soups, mix it into salads, toss it into casseroles.
Seasonal and versatile
For those of us on a budget or who might want to cut down on meat, pasta with meat sauce is a great way to stretch a modest serving into a meal. A half-pound of ground beef when combined with a pound of pasta can easily feed a family of four. Meat sauce is also a great way to add more servings of vegetables to your diet. Besides the tomatoes, you can add pureed pumpkin or minced bell peppers to the sauce.
Pasta is an ideal way to reduce food waste. Just combine pasta with leftovers to create a new meal. Season cooked pasta with a little olive oil, mix in leftover chopped vegetables and any leftover protein like meatloaf, bits of burger, beans, fish, chicken or pork. Pasta is easy to cook. It’s so easy to cook with that it can entice even non-cooks into the kitchen. You don’t even need a recipe.
Carbonara with an autumn twist
One virtually recipe-free dish here is carbonara. Hot pasta tossed with raw egg that creates a creamy sauce, which is then punctuated by crisp bits of pancetta or bacon and a shower of grated cheese. There are many ingredients that you can add to this magical combination of egg-bacon-cheese, like leftover cooked veggies.
For an autumnal note, toss in diced butternut or kabocha squash. And if you’d like a vegetarian option, you can even omit the bacon and substitute sweet caramelized onions instead. I like to top it with Grana Padano, an aromatic, richly complex, flavorful cheese that is so important it received geographic protected status by the European Union and is the world’s most popular, most-consumed PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) cheese.
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Pasta with Butternut Squash
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Recipe courtesy of “Pasta Modern” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang). This simple-to-make dish is perfect for October.
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 cups diced kabocha or butternut squash, seeds and skin removed
Salt and pepper
1 pound short pasta, preferably Monograno Felicetti
Grana Padano PDO cheese
1. In a large frying pan over medium heat, cook the onion in 2 tablespoons of oil until the onion is very soft, about 8 minutes, then raise the heat to high and continue cooking until golden and caramelized, about 4 more minutes. Remove the onions from the pan and set aside.
2. In the same pan, adding another tablespoon or two of oil, fry the squash until tender and golden at the edges, about 8 minutes. Return the onions to the pan, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and keep warm.
3. In a large serving bowl, beat the eggs with 2 heaping tablespoons of grated Grana Padano cheese.
4. Cook the pasta in boiling, salted water until al dente. Drain and toss in the egg mixture, stirring until creamy, then stir in the hot onion-squash mixture. Serve topped with more grated or shaved cheese.
Mix it up with fruit
Pasta is even great with fruit! My passion for pasta with fruit began while researching my first cookbook, “Shakespeare’s Kitchen,” when I discovered the many sweet-savory pasta dishes of the Renaissance. In today’s Italy, you’ll find pasta paired with all sorts of fruit, both dried and fresh — berries, figs, prunes, dates, oranges and lemons — each adding lovely color, brilliant acidity and delicate sweetness to the sauces.
Oranges have an astonishingly savory-sweet quality when paired with pasta, so it’s no wonder that there are hundreds of variations of this combination throughout Italy. Top your favorite sauce with orange zest for a nice pop of flavor. Or try this simple orange-date-anchovy combination by tossing hot cooked pasta with a spoonful of tomato pasta, minced dates, mashed anchovy topped with orange zest.
Figs are fine for fall
Figs and prosciutto is a classic Italian combo. It’s also great with pasta, and a nice way to savor the last of fall’s figs. Toss hot cooked pasta with a little olive oil and fresh sliced figs, then top with shaved aged cheese and prosciutto. Since there are so few ingredients, be sure to use top-quality prosciutto. I especially like San Daniele prosciutto, which is produced only in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region of Italy, around the hill-town of San Daniele, and has an ethereal flavor and melt-in-your-mouth texture. You can also enjoy this fig-prosciutto combination even when figs aren’t in season. It’s great with dried figs that have been softened in white wine and combined with caramelized onions.
Dried Fig and Prosciutto Penne
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cooking Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Recipe courtesy of “Opera Lover’s Cookbook” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang). Cooking dried figs in white wine makes them soft and sweet as fresh figs.
1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 red onion, diced
1 cup white wine
12 dried Calimyrna figs, about 9 ounces, very thinly sliced
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
1 pound penne, preferably Monograno Felicetti
1/4 pound prosciutto, sliced, preferably San Daniele prosciutto DOP
1/2 cup shaved Grana-Padano cheese
1 tablespoon whole pink peppercorns
1. Heat the butter and oil in a medium sauté pan over medium heat until the butter melts. Sauté the onion until translucent, about 5 minutes.
2. Add the wine and figs and simmer until the wine is absorbed and the figs soft, about 8 minutes. Stir in the stock and simmer, covered, for about 7 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, cook the penne according to package directions. Drain and toss with the fig sauce.
4. Serve the penne topped with Grana Padano, San Daniele prosciutto and a sprinkle of peppercorns.
Main caption: With a few seasonal ingredients, such as artichokes and plums, pasta can be a favorite fall food. Credit: Courtesy of “Pasta Modern” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)
Once upon a time there was a legendary restaurant called Café des Artistes on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The place was housed in the storied Hotel des Artistes at Central Park, built in 1917 as a residence for artists. Illustrator Howard Christy Chandler painted the walls with larger-than-life murals of naked nymphs and satyrs frolicking about.
In 1975 it passed into the hands of George Lang, a Hungarian-born violinist who was a child prodigy and Holocaust survivor, refugee, world traveler, intellectual, raconteur, entrepreneur, gastronome, cookbook author, bon vivant and friend of the New York famous. His clientele was a new generation of “artistes” and glitterati, from world-renowned performers who came by after their gigs at nearby Lincoln Center to Hollywood stars to brightly shining culinary luminaries of the day.
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The establishment’s allure continued, despite the darkening murals and, sometimes, less-than-stellar food. But the menu wasn’t the point. One went there the way one visits shrines of one kind or another, no matter the weather. It was a place, as one regular, New York Arts editor and publisher Michael Miller put it, to “observe celebrities in the wild.” Then in 2009, when George and Jenifer Lang decided to close it, the place went dark.
Today, the restaurant at 1 West 67 St. glows again, transformed into The Leopard des Artistes, and the dazzling murals and delectable food sparkle. The cavorting nudes are still there, restored to their original blush since the new owners, restaurateurs Gianfranco Sorrentino and his wife, Paula Bolla Sorrentino of Il Gattopardo and Mozzarella e Vino, brought art restorers in to do a serious cleaning. But an interior face-lift is hardly the most remarkable thing about the transformation. Gone is the continental-style bistro that Jenifer Lang once likened to an English Ordinary, meaning a cozy and informal eatery serving familiar food. Where once the reputation of the house was built upon its rarified New York color and romance, now it rests upon its world-class, quintessentially Italian menu.
For one having frequented Café des Artistes in the 1980s when the Langs were at the helm, eating at the revived Leopard at des Artistes recently was to experience a kind of vertigo. While the patina of the old place is still intact, the menu consists of dizzyingly sumptuous Italian cooking. It’s no wonder. The Sorrentinos recently hired Michele Brogioni, an Umbrian-born, Italian-trained chef with 20 years’ experience who won a Michelin star during his stint at the Relais & Chateaux Il Falconiere in Cortona, arguably one of the best restaurants in Tuscany. He brings a classical if polished Italian style to the menu. “The food is always seasonal,” Brogioni said. “It’s really a trip around Italy from north to south.”
Of course, any good chef will rely on fresh local ingredients at the height of their season, and Brogioni is no exception — produce from nearby farms and other locally sourced ingredients were among the raw materials. It’s what to do with those ingredients, and practicing restraint in the process that makes a great chef.
Genius and magic
If the genius of true Italian cooking overall is the propensity to use raw ingredients lavishly hand-in-hand with an understanding of the art of leaving well enough alone, Brogioni is a master. Our dinner included bufala ricotta-stuffed baked squash flowers presented on a tomato couli; bucatini with fresh sardines typical of Sicily; and tortellini filled with an aromatic mixture of veal, beef and pork topped with butter and mascarpone, set on a tomato reduction. Lamb loin chops over pureed and fried baby artichokes were so delicious they are hard to forget, as is the titillating selection of wines we sampled from the restaurant’s extensive offerings. If that wasn’t enough, a 2006 Sagrantino passito from Montefalco was thrown in — a delicious dessert wine from Brogioni’s native region that I bring back from Umbria whenever I go there because it is so hard to find here.
The goodness and artistry of the food all made for magic, combined with the fetching nudes prancing over our heads and the meticulous attention of expert sommelier Alessandro Giardiello and the wait staff. There are many superb restaurants in New York City, but this one casts a spell.
Main photo: Wood nymphs painted by American illustrator Howard Chandler Christy glow through the windows at the legendary former Café des Artistes, built in 1917, and now The Leopard at des Artistes. Copyright 2015, Nathan Hoyt/Forktales
Extra virgin olive oils made in hot climates have not had a great reputation. Oils from Sicily and Puglia in Italy and Andalusia, Spain, and other Mediterranean regions, where harvest temperatures are often searing, are frequently dismissed by exacting consumers. And with good reason: Far too many suffer from a major defect called fustiness.
What does fustiness taste like? I know it on my palate, but I can’t always summon words to describe it. To me, it tastes like badly preserved black olives and smells like moldy hay in a neglected corner of the barn. (But few people recognize that aroma in this day and age.) Fusty oils lack the complex bitterness, pungency and rich fruitiness that characterize good, fresh, well-made oil. And they usually leave an unpleasant, greasy feeling in your mouth.
The cause of fustiness
But fustiness is so common that for many people it remains the true taste of olive oil. All too often, in rankings of extra virgin olive oils in national publications, it’s the fusty ones that win top honors. Nevertheless, fustiness is a defect, and a major one.
How does this happen? Usually fustiness develops because of a delay between the harvest of the olives and the conversion into oil at the mill. In the days before the use of continuous-cycle, stainless-steel equipment to process olives and produce oil, that delay could last many days, even weeks. In addition, many farmers were convinced that olives left to “rest” after harvest actually yielded more oil. They don’t, and the oil they do yield is defective because olives piled up in a corner of the frantoio (mill) or packed into burlap bags undergo anaerobic, or lactic acid, fermentation, and that’s what produces fustiness. That fermented effect is almost endemic in hot-climate oils where temperatures at harvest are intense, as they often are in October and early November in regions of southern Italy and Spain, as well as North Africa.
A change for the better
Now, growing numbers of smart, usually small-scale producers are changing that hot-climate flavor profile for the better. How? Simply by speeding up the gap between harvest and pressing — the best producers make oil in a matter of hours rather than days — and maintaining a pristine milling environment, sometimes even using air conditioning to cool the mill and storage areas. What that means for discerning consumers is more and better oil from places in the world that were not known for excellence.
I’m a big fan of many southern oils. I’ve written in the past about Pianogrillo from the Monte Iblea mountains in east-central Sicily, a perennial favorite, as well as Olio Verde from the Belice Valley down near the sea on the south coast of the island, and Titone from the west coast between Marsala and Trapani.
Many regions producing quality oils
But recently I’ve been introduced to several other Sicilian oils, including Mastri di San Basilio, made by the Padova family in the Val d’Ispica, a region of southeastern Sicily that is, somewhat surprisingly, south of the city of Tunis. Their riserva is a blend of moresca and rare verdese olives with lots of fresh green almond flavors that make it an ideal garnish for summery vegetables, whether raw or cooked.
Another Sicilian newcomer is Barbàra from the same western region as Titone, made primarily from cerasuola olives mixed with mild biancolilla and the local cultivar nocellara del Belice. Barbàra’s round, fruity flavor ends with pleasantly marked bitterness in the aftertaste. I liked it with a few drops of lemon juice as a garnish for simple grilled fish.
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And then there’s Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, with a climate akin to that of Greece. Olio di Melli’s Re Manfredi oil from the Gargano peninsula, the spur on the heel of the boot, is a lushly piquant oil made from ogliarolo and coratina olives. Another candidate among top southern climate oils is Crudo, made by the family of Gaetano Schiralli from ogliarola olives in Bitetto, not far from Puglia’s Adriatic coast. The name says it all: Crudo means raw. This is an oil to use in its raw state on the fabled platters of raw fish and shellfish that are the specialty of the region. A plate of raw oysters with a drop of raw Crudo on each one is a revelation.
(The Puglia region was hard hit by a vicious Xyllela bacterium last year, but it has not so far been detected in the areas described, and authorities hope to confine it to the Basso Salento.)
Not to be outdone, the Spanish region of Andalusia seems like one vast olive grove stretching across southern Spain. It’s a hot region where the bulk of Spain’s low-cost, highly commercialized production takes place, but it is also home to some extremely astute growers, including Melgarejo, whose oil is highly touted, though I have not tasted it recently. One of my favorites is Castillo de Canena, which wins awards for its growing portfolio, the latest of which is a smoked olive oil. While I hold no brief for flavored olive oils, I think Canena makes some of the finest olive oils in Spain, including especially its picual, which I tasted again very recently — and was once again bowled over by the effect it has on a fresh-from-my-garden tomato, exalting the fruitiness of the tomato without overwhelming it. Just a simple raw tomato, sliced, sprinkled with sea salt, with a glug of Canena’s picual, is a perfect summer lunch at my house. Try it on toast for breakfast!
Olive oil recommendations
Here are some contacts for sourcing these oils. Note that Mastri di San Basilio is shipped from Italy via UPS. The producer, Francesco Padova, has had no problems with this system and ships, he says, all over the world.
Main image: Despite a reputation to the contrary, you can find good quality olive oils from hot climates. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins
by: L. John Harris
in: Parisian Culture
You can judge a Parisian cafe by its croque. If a cafe can’t get these simple ham and cheese sandwiches right, what hope is there for their more complex fare? After tasting a dozen croques this summer, I must insist that France place Monsieur and Madame Croque (and the traditional cafe) on the endangered species list.
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Fortunately, the few delicious versions I tasted prove all is not lost. Monsieur Croque is, of course, a grilled or toasted ham and cheese sandwich on sweet white bread — pain de mie — that’s dressed (ideally) with either creamy béchamel or cheesy Mornay sauce. Grated cheese, either Gruyère or Emmental, is layered inside (over the ham) and on top of the sandwich, and then browned top and bottom (with butter) until the melted cheese (with or without added sauce) starts to drip down the sides.
Madame Croque is exactly the same, but she sports a fried egg “hat” on her saucy head. This ever-popular culinary couple celebrated their 100th anniversary in 2001, according to most culinary historians.
The word croque comes from the French verb, croquer, “to bite,” or in some circles, “to crunch.” Hence the awkward translation, “Crunchy Mister.” Here then are the croques I crunched during my recent summer sejour (stay) in Paris — the good, the bad and the ugly. I’ve grouped them by price because with the Parisian croque, you generally get what you pay for.
Croques less than 8 euros
Le Duc d’Albret, rue Danielle-Casanova, 6 euros
La Fontaine, rue Cuvier, 7.5 euros
When I came across Le Duc d’Albret, a hole-in-the-wall cafe near avenue de l’Opéra, and saw croques on the menu starting at 6 euros (add 1 or 2 euros for the madame version and Poilâne bread, Paris’ popular upscale artisanal loaf), I assumed it would be a disappointment. Au contraire, it was excellent, toasted (top and bottom) by the owner in a commercial toaster oven while I watched. This croque even had béchamel in the center, giving it a creamy texture. Funky as the setup was, this was a made-to-order croque. As the owner, Madame Madeira, explained to me, “You cannot make a croque in advance.”
At La Fontaine, a friend’s favorite morning mom-and-pop cafe near the lovely Jardins des Plantes in the 5th arrondissement, their somewhat pricier croque set the stage for a string of similar disappointments — most notably croques preassembled (sometimes off premises or frozen), untoasted bottoms and with little if any béchamel sauce to help moisten an otherwise dry sandwich.
What good are Monsieur and Madame Croque without toasty bottoms and gooey interiors and tops? It can be done without the sauce, which was not part of the recipe for the original croques 100 years ago, but sauceless croques need lots of cheese and some butter in the toasting to produce a juicy croque.
Croques from 8 to 10 euros
Le Ponthieu Café, ave. Franklin Roosevelt, 10 euros
Café Dada, ave. des Ternes, 8 euros
Café Les Deux Palais, blvd. du Palais, 9.5 euros
Café Les Mouettes, rue de Bac, 9 euros
Café La Palette, rue de Seine, 10.5 euros
At this higher price point, you’d expect croques at least as good as Le Duc d’Albret’s, but that was not the case this summer. At upscale Le Ponthieu, the Poilâne croque was not toasted on the bottom and there was no sign of béchamel. Too dry!
At hip Café Dada, I boldly sent back the half-toasted béchamel-free Poilâne croque and it came back a bit warmer but far from toasted. A double homicide! At elegant Les Deux Palais, things got even worse — untoasted bottom, commercial sandwich bread, no béchamel and minimal ham. Utterly inedible!
The croque madame at Les Mouettes on charming rue de Bac was decently made, but the fried egg was overcooked. Madame Croque without her runny yolk? Sacre bleu!
At La Palette, in the heart of the artsy 6th arrondissement, the open-faced croque was made on Poilâne’s rustic sourdough bread. It was nicely toasted, but I don’t think sourdough bread is right for a croque (Poilâine’s pain de mie is perfect). The slight sweetness of pain de mie complements the dark nutty flavor of the Gruyère cheese, which may be one of the secrets of the croque’s enduring international success.
Croques from 12 to 16 euros
Café Select, blvd. du Montparnasse, 16.5 euros
Les Deux Magots, Place St. Germain, 12.5 euros
La Closerie des Lilas, blvd. du Montparnasse, gratis at bar
These three celebrated artist cafes on the left-bank, though no longer the center of the avant garde in Paris, are all producing very good croques. The well-made and tasty Croque Select at Café Select is, in fact, a croque madame — there is no choice on the menu.
At Les Deux Magots, the open-faced croque had the distinction of being the only one I had this summer with a béchamel sauce tasting of nutmeg, the favored spice for this creamy white sauce. A pleasant croque.
Hemingway’s haunt, La Closerie des Lilas, did not have croques on the menu, but the night I had dinner there, tiny tooth-picked croque squares, buttery and properly toasted, were served at the bar as hors d’oeuvres. Delicious.
Croques over 20 euros
Café de la Paix, Place de l’Opéra, 20 euros
Café Fouquet’s, ave. des Champs-Élysées, 28 euros
For 20 euros and above, a croque should be everything a croque can be, and much, much more. This was indeed the case at Café de la Paix, a fashionable cafe/restaurant with Belle Epoch interiors and a rich literary history dating back to the 19th century.
The Paix croque tasted like rich pastry; the moist interior, adequate béchamel and a well-toasted top and bottom provided an explosion of flavor and texture. The pain de mie was sliced thinner than with most croques I sampled, to the sandwich’s crispy advantage, and the ham a bit thicker, which gave added flavor and texture. The presentation was impressive: The center was cut out of the croque body and served as a separate “croquette.” Green salad was stuffed into the body’s circular void. Excellent pommes frites came in a separate basket.
This was now my benchmark for a great croque. Although ridiculously expensive, the Paix croque was 8 euros less and more satisfying than the double-decker monster croque at the elite watering hole, Café Fouquet’s, on the Champs-Élysées. Sure, the Fouquet’s croque was enough for four and came with salad, excellent frites and several miniature financier dessert cakes at the end. But the sandwich itself, again on the dry side, does not sit as high in my pantheon of Parisian croques as Café de la Paix’s tour de force.
Will the Parisian croque croak?
Something has to be done to save the Parisian croque! Especially at a moderate 8 to 10 euros. If a good croque cannot be made profitably at that price, it should not be on the cafe’s menu.
There have been stories of late about the official Parisian tourism office’s efforts to boost the sagging fortunes of traditional Parisian cafes by transforming the often arrogant and unfriendly garçon de café into a nicer tourist-friendly fellow.
I suggest, instead, that the grand panjandrums at the Parisian tourism office apply their resources to improving Monsieur Croque, not Monsieur Garcon, who is just fine the way he is. Why not create AOC (Appelation d’Origine Contrôlée)-style guidelines for the croque monsieur, as for wine, cheese, eggs and other products?
For a sandwich to be labeled on a Parisian menu as a croque monsieur or madame, it must be:
- Assembled on the premises
- Cooked to order
- Made with imported Gruyère or Emmental
- Butter used in the toasting or grilling process
- Toasted top and bottom
- Contain either béchamel or Mornay sauce
These simple standards would help elevate the moribund Parisian croque (and cafe) to its former glory and help restore France’s reputation as the gastronomic capital of Europe — one croque at a time.
Main photo: Stacked in a Parisian shop display case, these inexpensive croques can be taken home and reheated as snacks or light meals. Note the translation on the sales tag, “Toasted Ham,” directed, no doubt, at hungry Anglophone tourists. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris