Articles in Cooking

Pasta isn't just for cold weather dinners anymore. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Everyone loves pasta, but during hot summer days a bowl of steaming pasta doesn’t sound that appealing.

Some people make cold macaroni salads, but I think pasta is not meant to be eaten cold and besides, those macaroni salads usually have mayonnaise in them and fill you up too much. The Italians have an ideal solution. Basically it’s a dish of hot pasta that cools down by virtue of being tossed with uncooked ingredients. They call it a salsa cruda. This is a raw sauce used with pasta. It’s quite popular during a hot summer.

The basic idea behind a salsa cruda is that the ingredients in the sauce are not cooked and are merely warmed by the hot pasta after it’s been drained.

Dressed up tuna and vegetables with bowties

Farfalle with raw sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Farfalle with raw sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

In the first dish, farfalle with raw sauce, the salsa cruda is made of canned tuna, fresh tomatoes, fresh basil and garlic. It is tossed with the farfalle, a butterfly or bowtie-shaped pasta.

A first course for a meal with grilled fish

Fettucine with raw sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Fettucine with raw sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

A second idea is fettuccine tossed with a melange of uncooked ingredients such as olives, capers, tomatoes, mint, lemon, parsley and garlic, which is typical of southern Italy and constitutes a raw sauce that screams “summer.” This is a nice first-course pasta before having grilled fish.

Letting your pasta cook its own sauce

Spaghetti with sardines, tomato and mint. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Spaghetti with sardines, tomato and mint. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

In a third preparation, also perfect for a hot summer day, the salsa cruda is made with canned sardines tossed with fresh mint and parsley, and ripe tomatoes that are heated through only by virtue of the cooked and hot spaghetti. It should be lukewarm when served and is nicely accompanied by crusty bread to soak up remaining sauce.

Creamy salsa cruda with ricotta

Tubetti with ricotta, artichoke, Prosciutto and mint. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Tubetti with ricotta, artichoke, Prosciutto and mint. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

This dish can be whipped up in no time as it uses a raw sauce with fresh ricotta that melts slowly from the heat of the pasta, but not completely, and with thinly sliced prosciutto. And better still would be to use fresh artichokes, if you don’t mind the work involved. Instead of garnishing with parsley, you garnish this dish with finely chopped tomato.

Fettuccine With Raw Sauce

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

3/4 pound spaghetti

Salt to taste

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint leaves

1 large ripe tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped

2 canned sardines in water, drained and broken apart

2 teaspoons capers, chopped

Extra virgin olive oil to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

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

2. In a large bowl that will hold all the pasta, stir the garlic, parsley and mint together and then mix with the tomato, sardines, capers, olive oil and a pinch of salt. Transfer the pasta to the bowl and toss with the sauce and abundant black pepper and serve.

Tubetti With Ricotta, Artichoke, Prosciutto and Mint

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1 pound tubetti or elbow macaroni

Salt to taste

1/2 pound ricotta cheese

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

8 to 9 fresh or canned artichoke foundations, chopped (14-to 16-ounce can) or 3 very large fresh artichokes, trimmed to their foundations

1/4 pound thinly sliced prosciutto, chopped

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh mint

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 small tomato, peeled, seeded, and finely chopped

Directions

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

2. Meanwhile, in a bowl, gently toss the ricotta, olive oil, artichokes, prosciutto, mint, lemon juice, salt and pepper together. Transfer the pasta to the bowl and toss with the cheese and artichoke mixture. Sprinkle the tomato on top and serve.

Main photo: Pasta isn’t just for cold-weather dinners anymore. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

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Jam tarts are a staple on English tea tables and need only pastry and fruit jam, both preferably homemade. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

I’ve just come across an old friend I have not seen for half a century, “The Olio Cookery Book.” The book itself must date back a century or more, but there is nothing rare or antiquarian about it. The Olio is a classic manual for housewives that explains how to bake scones and cakes, how to choose produce and run a kitchen, and how to treat burns, with optimistic cures for a bronchitis cough and lumbago. Under “Recipe for a Long Life,” British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone cautions, “Chew each mouthful 30 times.” He cannot have been a gourmet eater.

Lessons from the Olio

As my mother indicated on the title page of her cookery book, ammonia relieves bee stings; vinegar is best for wasps. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

As my mother indicated on the title page of her cookery book, ammonia relieves bee stings; vinegar is best for wasps. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

As a young child, my favorite place was the kitchen, the warm, perfumed domain ruled by Emily, who was too old to be drafted during World War II. Despite food shortages, Emily somehow eked out a ginger biscuit or jam tart for us each day for “elevenses,” when we sat down with a large mug of milky tea.

There were only three of us, but action in the kitchen seemed almost constant, far more fun than the garden, where my mother spent most of her time. She must have been stung by insects often, as she notes the kitchen remedies on the title page of the Olio “Ammonia bee; wasp vinegar.”

Learning at Emily’s feet

Ribbon cake was a favorite of Emily the cook. Credit: Copyright Nicole Quessenberry

Ribbon cake was a favorite of Emily the cook. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

As soon as I had learned to read, in the down moments of the kitchen while a cake baked, I would huddle in a corner to avoid Emily’s feet and pick up the Olio. The limp, brownish cover enclosed surprising information among its 1,400 recipes. How to test for an old egg for instance (float it in a bowl of water; if stale, the rounded end will rise), and the renown of parsley for curing what are described as nervous troubles. I recognized Emily’s specialty, Queen of Puddings, and her luscious Steamed Ginger Pudding with a golden syrup sauce — sometimes by mistake it scorched on the bottom, even better!

A mainstay of cooks

Golden syrup, a staple in English baking, was drizzled in the letter A on my porridge every morning. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

Golden syrup, a staple in English baking, was drizzled in the letter A on my porridge every morning. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

I later learned that the Olio cookbook was the mainstay of cooks in the north of England. The curious title is nothing to do with the Italian olio or oil, but dates back to the 1600s and olla podrida or “rotten pot,” the Spanish name given to huge cauldrons of meat, birds and vegetables that were the fashion of the times. I can find no record of the first printing of “The Olio Cookery Book.” My mother’s copy, the 15th edition, is dated 1928 and ran to 25,000 copies, surely a huge printing for the time. In the preface, editor L. Sykes (a good northern name) mentions that 200,000 had already been sold.

By the time I went to boarding school, at age 10, I had absorbed the meaning of technical terms such as stock and roux, and I could imagine what a bisque, a risotto, a ragout and a salmi were like. A decade later when I actually went to cooking school and tasted the dishes themselves, I was prepared for what I would find. I was asked to stay on and teach the next influx of students, and the kitchen became once again my natural home. I’ve never left it.

Jam Tarts

Bright red jam made from berries is best for jam tarts. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

Bright red jam made from berries is best for jam tarts. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

I’m amazed that jam tarts haven’t migrated to America. During World War II, cooks who had fruit could take it to the nearby community hall and free sugar would be provided to make preserves. My mother’s raspberry canes gave bumper crops year after year so she would send Emily off to a jam-making session where she could gossip with her friends. The resulting raspberry jam, tangy and brilliant red, was perfect for Jam Tarts. For the pastry, you can either make your favorite dough, or try this deliciously crumbly English recipe that uses butter and lard.

Prep time: 25 minutes

Baking time: 30 minutes

Total time: 55 minutes

Yield: 12 tarts

Ingredients

6 tablespoons (about 3 ounces) raspberry or other red jam

For the pie pastry

1 1/2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons butter, more for the pans

4 tablespoons lard

2 tablespoons water, more if needed

12 medium shallow muffin pans; 3-inch cookie cutter

Directions

1. For the pie pastry: Sift the flour with the baking powder and salt into a bowl. Cut the butter and lard in small cubes and add to the flour. Rub the fats into the flour with your fingertips to form crumbs. Stir in the water with a fork to make sticky crumbs, adding more water if necessary. Press the dough together with your fist to make a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and set aside.

2. Heat the oven to 375 F and set a shelf low down; butter the muffin pans. Sprinkle the work surface with flour and roll the dough to 1/4-inch thickness. Stamp out 12 rounds with the cookie cutter. Roll the trimmings of dough a second time to make the count. Press the rounds gently down into the buttered muffin pans. Drop 1 1/2 teaspoons of jam into each mold.

Bake the tarts in the oven until the pastry is lightly browned, 25 to 30 minutes. They might collapse slightly around the edges; this is normal. Let the tarts cool slightly in the pans before unmolding them. They are best eaten the day of baking but can be kept a day or two in an airtight container.

Curd tarts

Once or twice a year, our nearby farmer’s wife would make curd cheese from fresh whole milk. My mother would stir in a handful of currants, or chopped prunes when currants were not available, and bake curd tarts. I thought they were even better than the jam version, but perhaps that’s because they appeared so rarely.

Follow the recipe for Jam Tarts, lining the pans with pastry dough. Stir 1 1/4 cups ricotta cheese, 1/3 cup sugar, 2 teaspoons flour and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Whisk an egg until frothy and stir into the cheese mixture with 1/3 cup raisins. Fill and bake like Jam Tarts, allowing 30 to 35 minutes.

Maids of honor

Legend has it that these tartlets were made by Anne Boleyn for King Henry VIII of England when she was maid of honor to Queen Catherine of Aragon. I like to decorate the tarts with a strawberry, raspberry or whatever fruit reflects the jam inside.

Assemble Jam Tarts using 1 tablespoon jam per tart. For the cheese topping: Put 1 cup ricotta cheese in a food processor with 1 egg, 2 tablespoons melted butter, 1/4 cup sugar and the grated zest and juice of 1 lemon and purée until smooth, about 1 minute. Alternatively work the ricotta cheese through a sieve and stir in the remaining ingredients. Spoon the cheese filling on top of the jam and bake Maids of Honor as for Jam Tarts, allowing 30 to 35 minutes. When serving, top with an appropriate piece of fruit.

Main photo: Jam tarts are a staple on English tea tables and need only pastry and fruit jam, both preferably homemade. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nicole Litvack

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Bolted lettuce in the garden. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

Water scarcity is not the only issue that climate change is forcing those of us in California who garden, whether on a small or large scale, to think about. I’ve been learning that lesson this spring as I watch plants bolt within weeks, sometimes, after setting them in the earth.

Bolting is when plants convert to producing seeds, leaving the leaves tough and — usually — inedible. I had planted romaine and red leaf starts, mâche, arugula and spinach, oak leaf and frisée, and broadcast a beautiful collection of French seeds from Georgeanne Brennan’s La Vie Rustic.

Bolted lettuce is tough, but doesn’t need to go to waste

Bolted lettuce, at center, stands tall in the garden. Credit: Copyright 2012 Flickr user woodleywonderworks

Bolted lettuce, at center, stands tall in the garden. Credit: Copyright 2012 Flickr user woodleywonderworks

But with hot September Santa Ana winds blowing in March, my crops were confused, and they still are. Broccoli went to seed long before I could harvest much in the way of florets. Baby lettuces are going to seed before they are larger than my hand, and those I planted as starts have grown into tall lettuce trees, the leaves tough and sticky.

I rarely throw out food though, and none of my bolted produce is going to waste. I learned long ago when I lived in France that a salad need not be the only home for lettuce. Bolted romaine may not be tender enough for a Caesar salad, but it can withstand the high heat of a stir-fry, and it makes a terrific spring or winter soup.

Lettuce, fresh ingredients are perfect in soup

Ingredients for lettuce soup: lettuce, leeks, herbs, potatoes, onions and garlic. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

Ingredients for lettuce soup: lettuce, leeks, herbs, potatoes, onions and garlic. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

I’ve pulled and cooked most of my lettuce by now as I turn my garden over to tomatoes. But I haven’t pulled it all, and there will be more for dishes like these. Though I learned about cooking lettuce from the French, I’m now taking cues from many cuisines. I stir-fry lettuce with tofu and with shrimp, and I’ve been blanching the bitter frisées in salted boiling water, then sautéing them in olive oil with garlic to accompany polenta or mashed fava beans, Appulia-style. If I find my bolted wild arugula too pungent to eat on its own, I chop it up and cook it quickly in olive oil, to toss with pasta.

If next year brings us another hot, dry fall and winter in California, I will not change my gardening routine. I’ll plant my winter lettuce garden as I do every year, but I’ll change my repertoire of dishes, and by necessity veer from the raw to the cooked.

Romaine, Leek and Potato Soup

Romaine lettuce, leek and potato soup.

Romaine lettuce, leek and potato soup. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 1 hour

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 small or 1/2 medium-size onion, chopped

2 leeks (3/4 pound), white and light green parts only, sliced and rinsed well (about 2 1/4 cups; save the dark parts for the bouquet garni and stock)

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 large russet or 2 Yukon gold potatoes (10 ounces), peeled and diced

5 cups chicken stock, vegetable stock or water

A bouquet garni made with a cleaned leaf from the dark part of the leek, a bay leaf and a few sprigs each parsley and thyme, and a Parmesan rind, tied together

Salt to taste

1 large head (3/4 pound) romaine lettuce, washed and coarsely chopped (6 cups)

Freshly ground pepper

Garlic croutons, chopped fresh parsley and/or chives, and hazelnut oil for garnish

Directions

1. If you do not have stock, make a quick vegetable stock with the leek trimmings and a few cloves of garlic while you prepare the other vegetables.

2. Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy soup pot over medium heat and add the onion and leek. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt and the garlic and cook, stirring, until the garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the potatoes, stock and bouquet garni, and bring to a simmer. Add salt to taste, cover and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes.

3. Stir in the lettuce leaves and continue to simmer for another 15 minutes. The potatoes should be thoroughly tender and falling apart.

4. Using an immersion blender, or in a blender, purée the soup until smooth. I prefer to use an immersion blender, and then put the soup through the coarse blade of a food mill. That way you get some nice texture, but you get rid of the fibers from the lettuce. If you want a smooth, silky texture, strain the soup through a medium strainer, pushing it through the strainer with a pestle, spatula or the bowl of a ladle. Return the soup to the heat, add lots of freshly ground pepper, taste and adjust salt. Heat through and serve, garnishing each bowl with garlic croutons, chopped fresh parsley or chives and a drizzle of hazelnut oil.

Note: The soup can be made a day ahead and reheated or served cold.

Stir-fried Brown Rice With Green Garlic, Lettuce and Tofu

Stir-fried Rice&Lettuce

Stir-fried rice and lettuce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 8 minutes

Total time: 23 minutes

Yield: 2 generous servings

Ingredients

1 egg, beaten

Salt to taste

2 tablespoons grapeseed oil or peanut oil

1/2 pound tofu, cut in 1/2-inch dice and blotted on paper towels

Soy sauce to taste

1 tablespoon minced ginger

1 tablespoon minced green garlic

1 teaspoon minced jalapeño or serrano chile (more to taste)

1/4 pound lettuce, cut in 1/2-inch wide strips (4 cups)

2 cups cooked brown rice

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

1 tablespoon Thai fish sauce

Directions

1. Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or a 12-inch skillet over high heat until a drop of water evaporates within a second or two when added to the pan. Season the beaten egg with a little salt. Swirl 1 teaspoon of the oil into the wok or pan. Make sure that the bottom of the wok or pan is coated with oil and add the egg, swirling the pan so that the egg forms a thin pancake. Cook until set, which should happen in less than 30 seconds. Using a spatula, turn the egg over and cook for 5 to 10 more seconds, until thoroughly set, then transfer to a plate or cutting board. Using the edge of your spatula or a paring knife, cut into 1/4-inch-wide strips. Set aside.

2. Swirl another tablespoon of oil into the wok or pan and add the tofu. Stir-fry until lightly colored, about 2 minutes. Season to taste with soy sauce and stir-fry for another few seconds, then remove to the plate with the egg.

3. Swirl the remaining oil into the wok or pan and add the garlic, ginger and chile. Stir-fry no more than 10 seconds, until fragrant, and add the lettuce. Stir-fry until the lettuce wilts, about 2 minutes. Add the rice and stir-fry, pressing the rice into the pan and scooping it up, for a minute or two, until fragrant and hot. Return the tofu and egg to the wok along with the cilantro and fish sauce, stir-fry for another 30 seconds to a minute, until everything is hot and nicely mixed together, and serve.

Main photo: Bolted lettuce stands tall amid the flowers in the garden. Credit: Copyright 2015 Martha Rose Shulman

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Brassica rapa at the Palo del Colle market in Puglia, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Summer has yet to deliver its full range of vegetables, but one stalwart crop that keeps on giving is Brassica rapa (from rapum, Latin for “turnip”). Brimming with flavor, this vegetable is known variously in its native Italy as cime di rapa (“turnip tops”), broccoletti di rape or just rape (pronounced räp’-eh), rapi, rappini, friarielli, vrucculi and a gaggle of other aliases, depending on local dialects.

And as “if this is not confusing enough,” says Daniel Nagengast — who imports 700 different heritage seeds to the United States for his company Seeds from Italy — “there are perhaps 15 different cime varieties in southern Italy, and I keep on finding more.” Each has its own physical characteristics, growing patterns and flavor nuances. But what they all have in common is a bold, seductive bitterness in their raw state, not to mention a powerful nutritional profile.

Cime di rapa varieties in the greenhouse at Stone Barns Center for  Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Cime di rapa varieties in the greenhouse at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Old varieties are new again

Although most Americans are familiar only with the tidy, commercially grown bunches sold in supermarkets under the name of “broccoli rabe” (a debased form of Italian native speakers prickle at), small-scale farmers around the country are creating a new awareness of Brassica rapa’s formidable culinary powers. A wide range of varieties are  popping up in local farmers markets and CSAs, and chefs are demanding heirloom types whose flavors recall the earth they are grown in. “San Francisco and New York high-end restaurants start the trends,” says Nagengast, explaining why he is crisscrossing southern Italy in search of variants unknown outside their native environment. “Then it takes off.” The idea is that savvy home cooks, like chefs, will seek them out for the same reasons they do certain wines and cheeses: distinctive terroir. Several of Nagengast’s transplanted seeds have been sown by Jack Algiere, farm director at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York, who grows them to be served at James Beard award-winning chef Dan Barber’s groundbreaking restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

Boiled rapini are flavored with the delicious drippings of porchetta at Mozzarella e Vino in New York City. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Boiled rapini are flavored with the delicious drippings of porchetta at Mozzarella e Vino in New York City. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

The old familiar ways with rapini

As much as the vegetable intrigues people, the extent of most Americans’ experience with Brassica rapa is as a side dish cooked with olive oil and garlic. Properly, this basic preparation involves parboiling the greens before sautéing them. First, peel the stems as you would asparagus legs to ensure that they cook at the same rate as the tops. Next, parboil them for two minutes — just long enough to bring out their sweet overtones. Then drain them, saving some of the cooking water. From here, you’ll sauté them with good olive oil, garlic and (optionally) chili flakes, moistening them with a little of the water you have set aside. (You could also change up the recipe by substituting onion and bacon for the garlic and hot pepper, the way Southern cooks make collards, kale and other field greens.) Now you can eat them as is or use them as directed in the recipes that follow.

Chef Viola Buitioni’s garlicky Umbrian "rapi e patate." Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Chef Viola Buitioni’s garlicky Umbrian “rapi e patate.” Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Rapini and potatoes

For a more complex side dish, combine your garlicky sautéed greens with other vegetables: sautéed cime di rapa alongside a puree of fava beans, or ‘ncapriata, is food of legend in Puglia, brought together with the magic of high-quality olive oil. Chickpeas or white beans also make delicious and nutritious purees for the greens. Probably one of the happiest vegetarian marriages is between rapini and richly flavored potatoes such as Yellow Finns, Yukon Golds or fingerlings. I like chef Viola Buitoni’s way of tossing her sautéed greens with crisply fried tubers, an Umbrian-style dish she calls rapi e patate. If the greens are the feisty part of the couple, the potatoes are the sweet-tempered half.

Whole-wheat gemelli with rapini, bacon and chickpeas, which are creamier if you peel the skins off first. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Whole-wheat gemelli with rapini, bacon and chickpeas, which are creamier if you peel the skins off first. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Not just a side dish

In Puglia, it is common to cook the greens simultaneously with pasta in the same pot and, after draining, tossing them quickly together in olive oil flavored with garlic. Per the Italian tradition whereby meat is a second course, sausages might follow; but for a one-dish variation, I sometimes add warmed, crushed anise seeds and crumbled sausage to the pasta and greens. And there are so many other ways to dish out rapini and pasta. For instance, you can toss your garlicky sautéed greens together with diced bacon, chickpeas and just-cooked short pasta in a wide skillet; I like to use whole-wheat gemelli (“twins”) or penne imported from Italy. Be sure to save some of the hot pasta cooking water; combined with the olive oil and juices from the prepared rapini, it forms a sauce. Pass a cruet of your best olive oil at the table for finishing.

Imported Italian linguine with shrimp, Brassica rapa and hot pepper, inspired by a Venetian dish. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Imported Italian linguine with shrimp, Brassica rapa and hot pepper, inspired by a Venetian dish. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Rapini and seafood

Or consider seafood. The Venetians have a particular fondness for the charms of bitter ingredients, including cime di rapa (to use their term); surrounded by water as they are, they often combine the vegetables they cultivate on the lagoon islands with their Adriatic catch. Here is a heavenly dish I ate in a trattoria some years ago on the little island of Burano. It was originally made with fresh tagiolini and a local species of prawn called cannocchie, but it is just as good with linguine and shrimp (or other types of fresh seafood, such as clams or scallops). Start by parboiling your rapini (save the cooking water) and sautéeing the shrimp in fragrant olive oil with garlic and red pepper in a skillet wide enough to accommodate the pasta later. As soon as the shellfish is lightly colored, add dry white wine and let simmer gently for a minute or two, until the alcohol evaporates. Finally, toss in the rapini, cover the pan and turn off the heat. In the meantime, cook the linguine in the reserved cooking water. Drain, again reserving a little of the water, and add the pasta to the skillet. Toss the ingredients together gently, moistening them with a little pasta water if necessary.

Rosa Ross’s stir-fried beef and rapini in place of the traditional "gai lan," Chinese flowering broccoli. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Rosa Ross’s stir-fried beef and rapini in place of the traditional “gai lan,” Chinese flowering broccoli. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

When bitter is sweet: An Asian spin

Author Jennifer McLagan has devoted an entire book to explaining why a taste for bitterness is the hallmark of discerning cooks and educated eaters. “Food without bitterness lacks depth and complexity,” she writes in “Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes.” I rather like the gentle Chinese way of describing the yin-yang perfection achieved when balancing bitter, salty or sour flavors (yin) with sweet and spicy ones (yang).

“We love bitter melon and flowering mustard greens and things like that,” says Hong Kong-born American chef Rosa Ross, author of “Beyond Bok Choy: A Cook’s Guide to Asian Vegetables” and other Chinese cookbooks. So, for example, in the original Chinese version of the dish Americans known as beef with broccoli, the bitter green called gai lan must be used — but “when I can’t find it here, I substitute Italian bitter broccoli,” Ross says.

Pizza topped with sweet fennel pork sausage, sautéed rapini, cacio Romano (soft Roman sheep’s cheese) and serrano pepper. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Pizza topped with sweet fennel pork sausage, sautéed rapini, cacio Romano (soft Roman sheep’s cheese) and serrano pepper. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Pizzas and pockets

Many pizzerias offer pies spread with vegetables — but they can be more alluring to the eye than they are tasty. A pizza topped with rapini, sausage and tangy cheese is a different, flavor-packed story. To make it, start by preparing your own dough; while it rises, parboil and sauté the greens per our basic recipe and, separately, sauté some crumbled sausage. Spread them both over the dough before baking; scatter cheese on top only in the last few minutes of baking to prevent it from burning. (Mozzarella is too bland in this case, so best to use a young, melting sheep’s cheese or soft Asiago fresco.) You can use the same ingredients as filling for calzones.

Rapini pie with an American-style crust makes for a twist on Italian tradition. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Rapini pie with an American-style crust makes for a twist on Italian tradition. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Rapini pie

On a similar theme, last spring I created a new interpretation of the traditional torta pasqualina (“Easter pie”), a savory pastry made of strudel-like dough filled with spring greens such as chard or spinach. Once again, I used an American-style pie crust because I love its structure and crumb — and I also substituted rapini in the filling, mixing them with egg and freshly grated Parmigiano to yield astonishingly good results. They have so much flavor that no additional ingredients are needed, save salt and pepper. Along with a side dish or two, this pie is substantial enough for a dinner; it can also be cut into smaller servings for an appetizer. I’ve been known to improvise with good frozen puff pastry as well, using the same filling to make small hand pies.

Imported fusilli with rapini pesto, almond shards and pecorino Toscano. Fusilli are exceptionally suitable because the coils trap the pesto. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Imported fusilli with rapini pesto, almond shards and pecorino Toscano. Fusilli are exceptionally suitable because the coils trap the pesto. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Purees and pesto

We are nearly there, dear reader, but how can we overlook transforming these mighty greens into a purée for eating as is or making into a sauce? If you will first peel the skin from the stalks, you will prevent its fibrous texture from getting in the way of a silky creamed side dish or a velvety pesto. Then cut the stalks into several pieces to make them easier to work with and boil them, along with the leaves and buds, for at least seven minutes. Be sure to drain the greens well before pureeing them in a food processor with a little softened butter or good olive oil. You can eat them just as they are, creamy and hot, seasoned with another dab of butter or dribble of olive oil, plus a touch of coarse sea salt — they’re as good as creamed spinach, even without the roux.

Or, for a gorgeous and delicious alternative to the ubiquitous basil pesto, blend the purée with a touch of garlic; grated, aged sheep’s cheese or Parmigiano; and a little olive oil — because the cooked stems are full-bodied and naturally creamy, you’ll find it unnecessary to use as much oil as many pestos call for. You can also include pine nuts or almonds if you’d like. Like its basil counterpart, rapini pesto should accompany pasta cuts sturdy enough to carry it — linguine, bucatini, medium macaroni, potato gnocchi — or you can stir it into minestrone.

Rapini butter stirred into alphabet pasta makes ideal baby food. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Rapini butter stirred into alphabet pasta makes ideal baby food. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Back to the beginning

It’s only too well-known that a preponderance of American children and adults alike hate vegetables — a fact that people in other parts of the temperate world find puzzling, especially as plants are the very stuff that humans most need for proper nourishment. I could write a book exploring the reasons for this, but consider just one for a moment. Although the theory that children need bland foods until they are old enough to handle more intense flavors is bandied about in credulous circles, experts tell us that the taste for particular foods is developed in infancy. The fare we are fed as children — whether it is good or not — is what we crave as adults. Pastina (“miniature pasta”) with butter is an Italian baby’s first solid food, revisited in adulthood whenever comfort food is in order. When my children were babies, I stirred rapini puree and butter into pastina for them, and they loved it. (Like any pasta, pastina tastes best served piping hot immediately after cooking — but naturally, it should be cooled down to warm for babies.) This is an ideal way to develop an infant’s taste for these miraculously healthful greens.

Main photo: Brassica rapa at the Palo del Colle market in Puglia, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2014 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

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Every variety of artisanal salt has a unique flavor profile, thanks in part to the type and quantity of minerals it contains. Credit: 2015 Copyright Susan Lutz

Professional chefs and home cooks are discovering artisanal salt with a vengeance. No longer content with 50-pound bags of Morton or Diamond Crystal flake salt, chefs are using a bewildering array of salts from around the world in a dizzying variety of ways.

The reasons become clear on a visit to J. Q. Dickinson Salt-Works in Malden, West Virginia, where CEO Nancy Bruns is a seventh-generation salt-maker. In 2013 Nancy and her brother, Lewis Payne, revived their family’s historic salt-making business high in the Allegheny Mountains. In the past two years, their salt has become a favorite with chefs across the country. I spent the day at the salt-works and discussed the importance of salt with a variety of chefs who use Dickinson’s handmade product.

The reasons that artisanal salt has become important are many,  but seven reasons keep coming up.

Artisanal salt adds unique flavor

 Harvesting salt at Dickinson’s Salt-Works in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia.  Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Harvesting salt at Dickinson’s Salt-Works in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Whether it’s rock salt from the Himalayas or open-air evaporated salt from the Mediterranean coast of France, each form of artisanal salt has its own flavor profile.

Aaron Keefer, trained chef and culinary gardener at The French Laundry in Napa Valley, California, says the flavor of artisanal salt is hard to describe. “Any salt makes things taste better, but artisan salt has a more rounded flavor that adds a little something extra to the dish that you can’t put your finger on, but in the end you know it’s better.”

Good stories make good salt

A brine-settling vat at the old salt-works operation at Dickinson’s Salt-Works.  Credit: Courtesy of the J. Q. Dickinson family

A brine-settling vat at the old salt-works operation at Dickinson’s Salt-Works. Credit: Courtesy of the J. Q. Dickinson family

Artisanal salt always comes with a good story. Dickinson’s Salt-Works began just after the American Revolution, when Bruns’ ancestors began processing salt from the local briny pools. By the time of the Civil War, it was the biggest salt producer in the country. By the end of World War II, commercial salt production in West Virginia had essentially disappeared.

“I love the story,” Keefer says. “Dickinson’s salt was very popular, then it was defunct, then it was brought back in modern times.” But for Keefer, the heart of the story goes back even further: “What made it stand out for me is that the American Indians used it, and the method of extraction was unique.”

Bruns knows that there’s more to branding than simply a great product. “We have a great story which makes it a very authentic brand,” she says. “Seven generations of salt-making in one family on the same land is hard to beat.”

Balance: Minerality vs. salinity

Interior of hoop house for evaporating salt at Dickinson Salt-Works Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Interior of hoop house for evaporating salt at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

The key to an artisanal salt is the balance between minerality and salinity. A pink Himalayan rock salt has enough iron to give it its pink color. Celtic sea salt might have far fewer trace minerals. But each type balances the amount of the chemical sodium chloride, and the other minerals in the water source.

Bruns sources her product from a 400 million-year-old underground sea that geologists call “the Iapetus Ocean.” “Our source is very protected,” she says. “We are not drawing our brine from an exposed, open ocean where there is always the possibility of contamination.” The initial brine from her 350-foot well is rich in magnesium, calcium, potassium, manganese and especially iron. Bruns, a former chef, processes the brine to create a salt that has a unique appeal for other chefs.

Matt Baker, executive chef at City Perch Kitchen + Bar in Bethesda, Maryland, has become a fan of Dickinson’s salt: “The grain is nice and plump, so it holds its shape well while also having a medium level of salinity to the finish on the palate.”

Terroir: As vital in salt as it is in wine

Hoop houses and tanks at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Hoop houses and tanks at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Like wine, artisanal salt has terroir, the word winemakers use to describe that indefinable sense of place that gives each wine its unique personality.

Dickinson’s salt is pumped from more than 300 feet below the ground and evaporated in a series of small hoop houses. Dickinson Salt-Works uses handmade techniques drawn from a 200-year-old legacy. “We think of our salt as an agricultural product,” Bruns says. “It comes from the land, and we move the brine several times to maximize the flavor.”

Ian Boden, chef-owner of The Shack in Staunton, Virginia, says that good artisanal salt “has the taste of its place,” and Dickinson’s salt certainly does. “You can tell that it’s harvested from underneath a mountain because its mineral content is so high. It’s like using Hawaiian black salt — it has that earthy, funky, ash flavor. Except it’s not ash, it’s the mountains of West Virginia.”

The texture of artisanal salt adds contrast

Salt crystals forming in salt beds at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Salt crystals forming in salt beds at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Unlike the quickly dissolving grains of highly refined industrial salt, the texture of artisanal salt brings contrast to a dish. What most of us think of as texture is the result of a combination of factors including crystal structure, grain size and moisture content. Sometimes, it is texture alone that makes an artisanal salt memorable. All salts are either mined from rock or evaporated from saltwater lakes, springs or oceans. The majority of artisanal salts are evaporative, and the method of evaporation has a profound impact on the texture of the salt.

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Chef Boden says the unique character of Dickinson’s salt comes from its texture, which is the result of the solar evaporation process. “To be brutally honest, if you lined up 15 salts, I couldn’t tell you where each one came from, but I think there’s definitely a difference. If you lined salts up, I could tell by feeling it that it was Dickinson’s salt, most definitely.”

Chefs from east to west agree that Dickinson’s salt has a texture that can’t be beat. Baker of City Perch Kitchen + Bar discovered Dickinson’s salt through the restaurant’s mixologist Adam Seger and hasn’t looked back. “I instantly fell in love with the salt. What makes it great is its subtleness and medium-size grain.”

Keefer has also noticed the distinct texture of Dickinson’s salt. “It seems like all salts are shaped just a little bit differently. I like the grind on it — the flake on it — it’s a good all-around salt. I’ve used it both with fish and with meat and been very happy with the results.” Keefer adds, “Try as many different salts as possible and you’ll find a favorite.”

Artisanal salt gives a pop of flavor at the finish

 Nancy Bruns harvests salt at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Nancy Bruns harvests salt at Dickinson Salt-Works. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Artisanal salts are more expensive than industrially produced salts because of the time and resources required to produce them, but this increased price this doesn’t stop chefs from using artisanal salts in a variety of dishes. Keefer explains: “Everybody’s concerned about the price of artisan salt, but a little goes a long way. Use it as a finishing salt, not as a base salt.”

“Salt is there to make things taste more like themselves,” Boden says. But finishing salt is used in a slightly different way. “You put a little finishing salt on the dish and you get a pop of something unexpected. That’s really what we’re using it for — that textural and salinity contrast on a finished plate.”

Each chef uses finishing salt in a distinct and personal way. Baker reports: “We use Dickinson’s salt to finish a lot of our meats and fresh dishes like burrata cheese, seared tuna and foie gras torchon. The texture of the grains makes it melt in your mouth perfectly with a clean finish.”

The unexpected: Artisanal salt inspires creative chefs

Chocolate caramel tart finished with evaporated sea salt. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Chocolate caramel tart finished with evaporated sea salt. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Artisanal salt pumps up the flavor in unexpected dishes like desserts and cocktails. “I like to add a pinch of salt to a lot of my desserts — whether I’m making a cherry pie or chocolate frosting,” Keefer says. “I don’t put in enough to make it salty, but a pinch of salt adds a surprising amount of flavor.”

Baker has found a variety of unique applications for Dickinson’s salt. “At the bar we use it to rim our Forbidden Fruit Margarita and our Bloody Maryland.” Baker even uses Dickinson’s nigari (a by-product of the salt-making process) as the starter for his house-made ricotta cheese. He couldn’t be happier with the results. The nigari, which is traditionally used to make tofu, “gives the cheese a fresh bite of salinity and a hint of pepper.”

Dickinson Salt-Works has recently introduced a salt with a finer grain. Chef Boden at The Shack plans to experiment with it in his own take on traditional charcuterie, curing and fermenting. “It’s something I want to do. It brings a certain earthiness to the components.”

Artisanal salts are as varied as the almost endless places across the globe in which salt is mined or harvested. And it is these unique flavors and textures that inspire chefs — and the rest of us — to use artisanal salt in creative and ever-evolving ways.

Main photo: Every variety of artisanal salt has a unique flavor profile, thanks in part to the type and quantity of minerals it contains. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

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Individual cheesecakes are an elegant addition to any party. Pure Cheesecakes by Patricia DeGasperi are as lovely as they are delicious. Order online but they’ll only deliver in Greater Los Angeles. Credit: Copyright Patricia DeGasperi

If there is a heaven, I know there is a fat slice of cheesecake waiting for me. A New York-style cheesecake.

Made with cream cheese, sugar and eggs. It can have a crust of cookies or a thin sliver of cake at the base or be nakedly uncrusted. It can be baked in a water bath or cooked straight up, slow and easy. It’s a decadence worthy of the ire of a hundred cardiologists.

And even though I have made literally hundreds of cheesecakes, I am more than happy to order a commercially made New York-style cheesecake. The good ones are so damn good, that I order cheesecakes aplenty without even a twinge of I-could-do-this-myself-I-am-a-trained-chef-for-goodness’-sake guilt. And they deliver.

Junior’s

 Junior's makes the classic, New York-style cheesecake. Credit: Copyright Junior's

Junior’s makes the classic, New York-style cheesecake. Credit: Copyright Junior’s

In the hearts and tummies of native New Yorkers, Junior’s may just be the first choice when it comes to New York-style cheesecake. The original shop in Brooklyn showcases its mid-century classic cheesecake alongside egg creams. The cake is creamy and well-ripened; even a small wedge is deliciously satisfying. It’s one of my absolute favorites, and I bet it will be yours, too.

My fixation with cheesecake may be genetic, but maybe it’s just because I’m a New Yorker. Cheesecakes aren’t exactly novel in the culinary world. You would be hard-pressed not to find a cheesy sweet pie or cake in Western-based cuisines. But the New York-style cheesecake is unique to the 20th century and for Jews of Ashkenazi descent it is linked to the holiday of Shavuot. The harvest festival in May includes reading an uncanonized biblical tale of a woman, Judith, who saves her community by killing an evil soldier after fattening him up on dairy.

Veniero’s

New York-style cheesecake from Veniero's. Credit: Copyright Robert Zarelli

New York-style cheesecake from Veniero’s is worth a pilgrimage, but it can also be ordered online. Credit: Copyright Robert Zerilli

A fourth-generation, New York bakery, Veniero’s bursts with fresh handmade pastries, cakes and cookies so delicious it’s worthy of a food pilgrimage. One taste of their New York-style cheesecake and you’ll be enchanted enough to pick up the phone or order online. (They know their way around cheese; the cannoli and Italian cheesecakes are to die for.)

Greenblatt’s Deli

Greenblatt's Deli</strong> in Los Angeles makes a creamy, not too sweet cheesecake. Credit: Copyright Greenblatt’s Deli

Greenblatt’s Deli in Los Angeles makes a creamy, not-too-sweet cheesecake. Credit: Copyright Greenblatt’s Deli

Think New York-style cheesecakes are always from New York? How about Los Angeles’ Greenblatt’s Deli? Creamy as all get out and not too sweet, this cheesecake is worthy of attention. Orders are handled by direct email.

Pure Cheesecakes

Lovely mini cheesecakes are available from Pure Cheesecakes. Credit: Copyright Patricia DeGasperi

Lovely mini cheesecakes are available from Pure Cheesecakes. Credit: Copyright Patricia DeGasperi

Individual cheesecakes are an elegant addition to any party. Pure Cheesecakes by Patricia DeGasperi are as lovely as they are delicious. You can order them online, but they’ll only deliver in the Greater Los Angeles area.

Sweet T’s

http://www.zingermansbakehouse.com

Sweet T’s Bakeshop in Haddonfield, New Jersey, offers cakes that are fun and beautiful. Credit Copyright Sweet T’s Bakeshop

Sweet T’s Bakeshop in Haddonfield, New Jersey, may be a bit off the radar. Sisters Toni and Chrissy Walton offer artistic, creative cakes. Toni worked with Buddy Valastro and was on the first two seasons of the TV show “Cake Boss.” Her talents at baking up one delicious cheesecake are evident at every bite. Make sure you’re ready to put down the deposit when you place the order. And, yes, the decorated cakes are fun and beautiful.

Eileen’s Special Cheesecakes

Eileen's Special Cheesecakes are lightly textured and incredibly creamy. Credit: Copyright Eileen’s Special Cheesecake

Eileen’s Special Cheesecakes are lightly textured and incredibly creamy. Credit: Copyright Eileen’s Special Cheesecake

Eileen Avezzano of Eileen’s Special Cheesecake is the Queen of Cheesecake. Her enthusiasm, love and yes — I’ll say it — complete obsession with perfection are transformed into memorable cheesecakes. Using the classic ingredients with a twist in technique (shhh: She whips the egg whites and folds them in), a new, lighter-textured and incredibly creamy cheesecake was born. Thank you, Eileen.

Zingerman’s Bakehouse

Zingerman’s Bakehouse, in Ann Arbor, Mich. makes fine cheesecakes like this one. Credit: Copyright Zingerman’s Bakehouse

Zingerman’s Bakehouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan, makes fine cheesecakes like this one. Credit: Copyright Zingerman’s Bakehouse

The Midwest rocks New York-style cheesecakes at Zingerman’s Bakehouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan. To get the cake may be a bit challenging (they ship them seasonally), but well worth it.

Just add toppings

Cheesecake toppings can include fresh fruit, chocolate ganache, or even crushed candies. Credit: Copyright Shutterstock

Cheesecake toppings can include fresh fruit, chocolate ganache or even crushed candies. Credit: Copyright Shutterstock

I devote my time and energy to toppings. When I cater, I often suggest that we order cheesecakes and offer toppings, set out like a bar. I have found that it’s great setup for any party, especially a backyard grill after a day of watching kids play ball or after a parade or any day when I am not at the stove all day to babysit the cake.

Instead, I make a dulce de leche, a cajeta or a salty butterscotch. I make a dark chocolate ganache that can be swirled on a plate. I set out balsamic vinegars and freshly ground peppercorns. I add pickled peaches or a red pepper jelly from a farmers market. I crush candies and serve ridiculous amounts of cut, juicy fresh fruit. Works every time.

A must: good cream cheese

The essence of good cheesecake is in the quality of the cream cheese. Credit: Copyright Zingerman's Bakehouse

The essence of good cheesecake is in the quality of the cream cheese. Credit: Copyright Zingerman’s Bakehouse

Cheesecake made with the newly invented cream cheese was an immigrant dream. And immediately the cake became part of Jewish-American repertoire, appearing at diners and delis, hence my genetic disposition. Cheesecake hit mainstream adoration quickly and is even the headliner of a large restaurant chain.

My fantasy cake slice is New York style. This is the city where cream cheese was actually born and made. Like me. Not Philly — sorry guys, you get the cheesesteak. Philadelphia was chosen to add to Kraft’s labeling because of its reputation in the 1920s for having the finest and purest dairy products, thereby christened the Cadillac of cream cheese. Every recipe I have uses Kraft’s classic Philadelphia-style cream cheese, and almost always by name, but if you are going to make it at home, why not try some newbies like Vermont Creamery or Zingerman’s cream cheese?

In the meantime, I dream about cheesecakes — not cheesesteaks (sorry, Aerosmith), and not even beefcakes (sorry again, boys) — in my future. I fantasize about cakes that rise like a stairway to heaven (sorry, Zep).

And most often, I order them online.

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Main photo: This original-style mini cheesecake is one of many that may be ordered from PureCheeseCakes.com, a family-owned company. Credit: Copyright 2015 Patricia DeGasperi

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Steaks on the grill at The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Cooking over an open flame under star-filled skies can evoke romantic thoughts: The life of the cowboy, though dusty and hard by day, becomes almost blissful under the glow of the moon. When you’re surrounded by nature and all the fresh air you can inhale, food just magically tastes better, or so the home-on-the-range story goes. But fast-forward to the modern-day chuck wagon: You, standing at your outdoor grill, staring at a piece of raw meat and a burning fire. Things can quickly go up in flames.

The simple truth is that barbecue — the kind you want to sink your teeth into — takes talent and skill; luck and courage can only get you so far. Like many home cooks, I consider the grill a backyard basic, but my comfort zone is in the kitchen. So when I was invited to attend BBQ Bootcamp at The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort, I packed my bag and headed south to Solvang, California, with mustang speed.

Home on the range. Credit: Copyright 2015 The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort

Home on the range. Credit: Copyright 2015 The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort

Culinary workout

Forget workouts at a gym: At this boot camp, the heat of multiple grills are what make you sweat, and instead of lifting weights, you’ll be faced with meatier challenges, like squeezing tongs around pieces of meat that could feed small families and mixing custom spice blends. Neither of which, by the way, is easy.

If you’re a nervous Nellie in the kitchen, the drive to The Alisal should help you relax. The route takes you through the windmill haven of Solvang, also known as Little Denmark. Founded in the early 1900s by Danish-Americans, it’s a good place to get a sugar fix. Solvang Restaurant on Copenhagen Drive has a take-out window, making it way too easy to grab an order of aebleskivers and go. Hard to pronounce but fun to eat, these pancake-doughnut hybrids are traditionally served with raspberry jam and powdered sugar; still, the à la mode option is hard to pass up. Wander a while if you want — you’re only a couple minutes away from the ranch. But you don’t want to be late for dinner.

Relaxing at the dude ranch. Credit: Copyright 2014 Dana Rebmann

Relaxing at the dude ranch. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Vacation on a working ranch

The “I’m on vacation” feeling should sink in when you turn into The Alisal’s long, sycamore-lined driveway. Barnyard animals linger, horses munch happily on what seem to be never-ending stretches of green grass, and the sight of a pay phone outside the lobby makes you laugh — until you check for what is a most likely a nonexistent cell-phone signal. The front desk has change if you need it (along with mugs full of Tootsie Roll Pops).

At 10,000 cattle strong, The Alisal is a working ranch; the 73 cottage-style rooms and suites are just a small portion of this scenic Central Coast property. But it’s one with a dress code. Comfortable play clothes are encouraged by day, but come dinner, bandannas get left in the dust. Men don jackets, while women and children put on party duds.

Guest cottage at The Alisal. Credit: Copyright 2015 The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort

Guest cottage at The Alisal. Credit: Copyright 2015 The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort

Old West style

Cowboys might consider their retirement options after spending a night in one of The Alisal’s cottages. Old West linens gussy up beds made of tree branches. Fireplaces burn wood delivered by the morning maid. There’s no need to set out on the range for necessary supplies; all you need is a key to the door (a real metal one, not a plastic card). BBQ Bootcamp students receive a welcome basket loaded with gourmet grilling rubs and libations to help prepare for the meaty workshops ahead.

BBQ Bootcamp is a joint effort between Alisal executive chef Pascal Godé and Frank Ostini, chef-owner of the nearby Hitching Post II, which gained fame after the release of the Academy Award-winning movie “Sideways.” The two chefs focus on the art of Santa Maria-style grilling, a different beast than its well-known Southern cousin.

Grilled artichokes boast a meatiness of their own. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Grilled artichokes boast a meatiness of their own. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Mastering open-flame cooking

“In Santa Maria-style barbecue, salt is one of the biggest ingredients,” Ostini says. In a departure from other grilling traditions, no sugar is added. “We like to infuse sweetness with caramelization on the grill.”

Grilling over a hot fire cooks foods more quickly than do the low and slow methods often used in the South — and here’s where much of the trouble begins for novices. Meat that’s burned on the outside yet raw on the inside is too often what sends the uneducated back into the kitchen.

On the first night of BBQ Bootcamp, professionals man numerous, monster-sized, wood-fired grills, offering tips and techniques as they cook everything from beef tri-tip and New York strips to artichokes and bacon-wrapped scallops. Lecturing is limited and notetaking is not a necessity. All students receive a Bootcamp bible of sorts. Along with expected recipes, the spiral-bound book gives a comprehensive yet understandable overview of the differences between wood, gas and charcoal grilling. In this stretch of the world, adjustable, wood-burning iron grills are the apparatus of choice, and red oak is the preferred fuel for the fire.

Relax, eat and drink. Tomorrow, the work begins.

What rush hour looks like on a dude ranch. Credit: Copyright 2014 Dana Rebmann

What rush hour looks like on a dude ranch. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Rise and shine

When the alarm goes off, bootcampers have to resist the temptation to linger or their ride to breakfast will leave without them. Clothes that can get a little dusty are essential, and you’ll understand why when you arrive at the barn. Once you’re saddled up, the commute to breakfast begins. There are no traffic signals to slow you down, just fast-moving deer and the occasional bovine roadblock to distract you.

A pancake breakfast starts the day. Credit: Copyright 2014 Dana Rebmann

A pancake breakfast starts the day. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Hearty breakfast

The buffet is loaded with all sorts of good grub, ranging from fruit and pastries to hash browns and biscuits and gravy. The griddle is manned by a resident pancake artist who dishes up flapjacks (sometimes bigger than your plate) that make even mom’s seem suddenly ordinary. But be careful not to overindulge: The ride back to the ranch may shake up your breakfast a bit. “There’s a reason they call it horse riding, not horse sitting,” says Dick, an Alisal wrangler with 35 years of experience under his shiny cowboy belt.

Blending spices for meat rubs. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Blending spices for meat rubs. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Spice-filled afternoon

You’ll have just enough time after your morning ride to take a power nap or play a game of horseshoes; then the afternoon spice-blending workshop begins. A pinch of this and a pinch of that: The formula doesn’t sound so hard until you’re standing in front of a table with 30-plus seasonings to choose from.

“Steak can take heavy spices,” says Godé, adding, “Go lighter on fish. You want to taste your halibut. You want to taste your salmon.” Purchasing spices from a reliable source to ensure their purity and freshness seems to be the golden rule.

Grill skills are put to the test. Credit: Copyright 2014 Dana Rebmann

Grill skills are put to the test. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

Manning the grill

When Alisal’s pleasant-sounding dinner bell rings loud and clear on day two, bootcampers won’t hear it, because they’ll already be grillside, heatedly plotting their first move. Amid the basting and flipping, their nervousness will be eased by grill masters standing by and an endless flow of locally brewed Firestone Walker beer and wine from Ferguson Crest (a Santa Ynez Valley winery founded by Pat Ferguson and his daughter Fergie — yes, that Fergie).

When it’s all said and done, wannabe cowboys and cowgirls might truthfully do more eating than barbecuing, but there will still be plenty of stories to tell when everyone sits down for the night — home on the range not by a campfire, but poolside with heat lamps.

The next BBQ Bootcamp is set for Oct. 28-30, 2015. Giddy up!

Main photo: Steaks on the grill at The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort. Credit: Copyright 2015 Dana Rebmann

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Gostner Schwaige

Traveling to Europe this summer? If your plans include Italy, Germany, France, England, Spain, Sweden, Belgium or Denmark, Zester Daily’s community of food writers knows a few restaurants you won’t want to miss. These are our favorite spots — our personal bucket list of dining destinations we share with our closest friends.

The most important thing for us is the food. It has to be exceptional.  But we also love beautiful places and nice people, so rest assured that our favorite spots will feed you body and soul. Alfresco dining ranks high on our preferences. And we are equally fond of the culinary extremes of cutting-edge innovation and home-spun comfort. We celebrate cultural traditions wherever they are delivered with care and an emphasis on freshness and flavor.

As you chart your European vacation, allow for side trips to these delightful dining rooms. Some will dazzle you. Others will enfold you. None will disappoint. Happy travels!


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Main photo: High on a peak in the Dolomites — accessible only by gondola, horse-driven carriage or skis – sits Gostner Schwaige, a rustic cabin where chef Franz Mulser serves exquisite South Tyrolean cuisine. Credit: Copyright 2015 South Tyrol Marketing Corporation

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