Articles in Cooking

Pithey, a sweet dumpling made with ingredients symbolic of the rural bounty -- rice, coconuts and date palm jaggery -- is part of the celebration of the beginning of the harvest season known as Makara Sankranti in India. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Celebrations, festivals and food are prolific on the Indian calendar. With life’s hustle and bustle, I tend to weed out those that are difficult to fit in or lose their symbolism in our transported life in the United States.

Sankranti — marking the launch of India’s harvest season — usually is one of them.  But a coconut changed my mind this year.

Sankranti refers to the passage of the sun from one Zodiac sign to another. On Jan. 14, this transition happens from Capricorn to Aquarius, called Makara on the Hindu calendar. Makara Sankranti marks the beginning of the “auspicious” period for Hindus when non-devotional activities — such as festivals and weddings — can be held after a month-long “inauspicious” period dedicated to devotional activities alone.

It’s also the beginning of longer days. I believe that a modicum of practicality is rooted in many such traditions and longer days — especially in times when there was no electricity — made for more enjoyable festivals.

Practicality also put an end to my irreverence toward Sankranti this year.

How cracking a coconut changed my attitude

In my house, I had a fresh coconut that I had forgotten about, just in time for the January festival. I broke open the coconut, an action that is believed to bring good luck. As I looked at the pristine white meat that rested on my shelf in all its glory, I realized the fortune it brought me: an opportunity to celebrate Sankranti as it is traditionally done in my native Bengal. With pithey: warm, gooey rice and coconut dumplings.

In Bengal, the colloquial name for the Sankranti festival is pithey parbon, or the festival of the pithey. Pithey is a sweet dumpling that is either steamed or fried and typically made with rustic ingredients symbolic of the rural bounty: rice, coconuts and date palm jaggery – an unrefined brown sugar made from date palm sap.

The process of extracting date palm jaggery is similar to tapping maple syrup, and I often use maple syrup instead. It is not as deeply flavored, but closer than other sweeteners that I have easy access to. The ingredients, despite their simplicity, result in delightful delicacies that are time-consuming but well worth the effort.

Depending on the chef’s enthusiasm and energy, an assortment of these are made for friends and family.

I have fond memories of my grandmother and her sister making these for the family, as I often interrupted their progress by sneaking in and stealing handfuls of sweet, freshly grated coconut or moist and sweet golden jaggery that left my hands sticky and warm.

Pithey traditions in Bengal

The first batch of pithey is usually placed in a container and floated into the river or offered at a temple in an attempt to appease the harvest gods.

In rural Bengal, the farm community begins the day with an homage to the barn and dhenki, or rice storage urn. The women throw a handful of rice over their heads as an offering to the gods, and the urn is welcomed as a symbol of prosperity and hope for a good harvest.

Living with the vagaries or nature, most predominantly the monsoon, this community is respectful about the importance of a good and successful harvest. There are a number of other rituals, such as tying the barn doors with hay and decorating the house. All are practiced in hope of a good harvest.

For the Makara Sankranti festival, some Indian families decorate their homes to celebrate the harvest, like this woman drawing Alpona, a traditional Bengali rice paste decoration. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

For the Makara Sankranti festival, Indian families decorate their homes to celebrate the harvest, like this woman drawing Alpona, a traditional Bengali rice paste decoration for Indian festivals. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

When I cracked open the coconut this year in my home, the thought of the warm, sweet dumplings it could bring me held the promise of all things good on that frigid day.

It is easy to find frozen grated coconut in the aisles of our local ethnic supermarket. However, if you are looking for something comforting on a chilly winter day, consider picking up a whole coconut and grating it yourself to use in my recipe for Gokul Pithey, adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles.”

Gokul Pithey — Bengali Coconut Dumplings in Golden Syrup

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time:  40 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: 12 servings, about 12 dumplings

Ingredients

For the syrup:

1 cup dark maple syrup

1/2 cup water

2 to 3 cardamoms

For the fritters:

1 cup fresh or frozen grated coconut

3/4 cup grated jaggery or raw cane brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon cardamom powder

1 tablespoon ghee (clarified butter)

1 cup all-purpose white flour

1/3 cup rice flour

1/2 cup milk

Oil for frying, such as grape seed or canola oil

Directions

1. In a small saucepan, bring the syrup, water and cardamoms to a simmer for 10 minutes until a thick syrup is formed.

2. While the syrup is cooking, in a separate pan heat the coconut, jaggery, and cardamom powder on low heat, stirring constantly, for about 15 minutes, until a fragrant sticky mixture is formed.

3. Add the ghee and lightly fry the mixture until it turns pale golden. Remove from heat and allow it to cool.

4. Shape into walnut-size balls and flatten them slightly.

5. In a mixing bowl, beat the flours and milk into a thick batter, adding a little water if needed. (The batter should be thick enough to adhere to the coconut balls.)

6. Heat some oil in a wok on medium heat. Dip a coconut ball in the batter and place into the oil, cooking a few at a time.

7. Cook on medium low heat until a golden, crisp coating is formed, turning once.

8. Remove carefully with a slotted spoon and dip into the syrup. Let the balls rest in the syrup for about 2 minutes, then remove and serve hot.

Main photo: Pithey, a sweet dumpling made with rice, coconuts and date palm jaggery,  is often served during the celebration of the Indian harvest festival known as Makara Sankranti. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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Fried eggs in olive oil. Credit: iStockphoto / Aleksandar Georgiev

Once in a great while I stumble across a new way of doing things in the kitchen, sometimes as the result of carelessness. For instance, I was boiling some small unpeeled potatoes recently, having salted the water as usual, then wandered off, only to return to the kitchen where I caught a slight whiff of food on the verge of burning.

When I checked my pot I saw that all of the water had boiled off. What remained were potatoes that had crunchy skins and, as it turned out, tender and delicious interiors. When I tasted them I realized that the salt in the water had penetrated so that every bite of the potato was perfectly flavored and the crusty skins delectable. They reminded me of potatoes that had been cooked on the grill, but without the fuss of lighting fires and dealing with charcoal and its accompanying gray dust.

I am thinking about cooking this dish again, but have no idea how long it will take for the water to boil away. So I have devised a plan: I will situate myself in the kitchen along with a good novel — “War and Peace,” perhaps — and be sure to stay put while the potatoes cook, and I will pay attention to how much time goes by before the potatoes turn into the delicious dish on which I stumbled. I want to avoid ruining the potatoes and wrecking my pot.

Hot dogs, beyond the long bun

Another time, when preparing lunch for my husband, I found in my freezer one lone hot dog bun that was scheduled to hold two hot dogs. (He prefers that combination while I would be happier with one hot dog and two buns, being the bread-lover that I am.)

Hot dogs on a round bun. Credit: Barbara Haber

Hot dogs on a round bun. Credit: Barbara Haber

While I usually avoid putting any sort of bread into the microwave, I popped in the frozen bun thinking I would retrieve it in seconds and then toast it before squeezing in the hot dogs. I must have been distracted and set the microwave time in minutes rather than seconds because when I finally retrieved the roll, it had the look and texture of a block of wood, and I instantly dispatched it to the garbage can.

I still needed something for the hot dogs and could only find a plump-but-frozen hamburger bun. This time I was careful to let it thaw on its own before toasting. Then I was delighted to find that, with a bit of surgery, two hot dogs fit perfectly into one round bun. On the surface, you wouldn’t think that such a discovery would require a couple of advanced degrees, but this story does have a moral. Sometimes we are so conditioned to go along with conventional thinking when preparing a dish that we can miss a tasty or useful variation. Just because hot dogs are traditionally served in a long bun, why can’t they be served in a round one? And must we always fry our eggs in butter? How about olive oil? Speaking of which, the best boiled lobster I ever tasted was provided by a friend in Maine who served it with a fabulous warmed olive oil instead of the conventional melted butter.

Meatloaf, with whole allspice

I experienced another kitchen error years ago when preparing a meatloaf for a weekday family meal. My recipe involves a pound of ground beef, a grated raw potato, a grated raw onion, an egg, salt and pepper, and I was in the habit of studding the top of the dish with whole black peppercorns before it went into the oven. But one time I mistakenly reached for a jar of whole allspice instead of the peppercorns, and, unaware of this error, lightly tapped in six or seven over the top of the loaf before starting the cooking process. When a delicate fragrance soon filled my kitchen, I became mystified, for it was a subtle aroma not usually associated with meatloaf, which, after all, is hardly an exotic dish. When we sat down to dinner, everyone loved the new taste that had transformed my old standby recipe into something a little unusual, and ever since I have been using allspice whenever I make meatloaf.

Young chefs cross the invisible line in the kitchen

While I find such innovations delightful, in part because of their accidental origin, I am dubious about the deliberate attempt, especially by young chefs these days, to create new dishes by throwing all sorts of ingredients together.

Bacon, kale and salted caramel are the latest trendy foods to pop up with alarming regularity. In thumbing through new cookbooks, I spotted recipes for bacon in caramel corn, in s’mores, and sneaked into the streusel for an apple pie, all of which struck me as unappetizing. I found a kale recipe for what was dubbed a “green bloody Mary” because instead of tomato juice, it contained pulverized kale. A better name would have been “vampire bloody Mary,” since I like to think that vampire blood is green. All of these treatments are novelties that do not necessarily add to the taste of an altered dish. I must say, though, that I am more forgiving about the liberal use of salted caramel as long as it’s being added to a dessert and not to mashed potatoes.

To be sure, many deliberate innovations are delectable. Delicate pizzas made with bits of tender chicken and a touch of pesto, instead of gloppy red sauce and greasy melted cheese, come to mind. So does the combination of chocolate and hazelnuts, discovered by an ingenious Italian whose country makes the delectable gianduja, one of my all-time favorite confections.

Still, I like best my happy accidents, and do hope there will be more to come.

Main photo: Fried eggs in olive oil. Credit: iStockphoto / Aleksandar Georgiev

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What new foods and dishes will appear on our plates in 2015? Credit: iStock

Pseudoscience and seductive headlines worked their black magic in 2014, enticing people to follow one misguided food fad after another. However, 2015 holds more promise.

We at Oldways — our nonprofit has spent the last quarter century guiding people to good health through heritage and cultural food traditions — predict that what’s old will be rediscovered in brand new ways. We see five food trends in our kitchens and on our dinner plates for the year ahead:

1. Whole grains become the new normal

Now that diners have discovered the nutty flavor and toothsome bite of whole grains, they are more willing to move from quinoa to more adventurous options like teff, sorghum and millet. Next up: Look for on-demand milled grains and more varieties of sprouted grains and sprouted grain flours, which will take baking to the next level.

2. African heritage cuisine goes mainstream

Thanks to chefs such as Marcus Samuelsson and Bryant Terry, as well as food historians such as Jessica B. Harris, African heritage cuisine has been elevated to new ranks. Based on whole, fresh plant foods, with a special emphasis on leafy greens, the traditional healthy eating patterns of African heritage, with roots in America, Africa, the Caribbean and South America, are making their way to more and more menus. In turn, more diners are discovering these healthy traditions of Africa. That’s also encouraging home cooks to explore and experiment with dishes like African peanut soup, Hoppin’ John and Jollof rice (also known as benachin).

3. All hail plants!

Interest in plant-based diets has reached an all time high. The trend has grown beyond just replacing meat. Today, vegetables are celebrated with innovative plant-centric plates such as zucchini baba ganoush and cauliflower steaks. In 2015, a number of less well known vegetable varieties will pop up at farmer’s markets, on more menus and on more plates. Look for tat soi and turnip greens as well as new and delicious hybrid vegetables like BrusselKale, a combination of two of America’s favorites.

Sara Baer-Sinnott, president of Oldways, a nonprofit food and nutrition education organization, sees five food patterns in the year ahead. Credit: Courtesy Oldways

Sara Baer-Sinnott, president of Oldways, a nonprofit food and nutrition education organization, sees five food patterns in the year ahead. Credit: Courtesy of Oldways

We will move beyond butternut to an amazing assortment of other squash: kabocha, delicata and sweet dumpling. Root vegetables such as rutabaga, watermelon radishes, purple potatoes and parsnips, also will rule. Even the U.S. government is considering a recommendation to eat more plant foods and less meat in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines.

4. Will it blend?

Home cooks looking to amp up the flavor are turning to herbs and spices with a twist.  Spice blends like Berbere, Baharat, Ras el Hanout and Herbes de Provence (from Ethiopia, the Middle East, North Africa and France respectively) are adding adventure in the kitchen. Cooks are discovering the allure of blending their own spices. And they’re taking cues from top chefs like Ana Sortun of the celebrated Cambridge-based Oleana. Not only do these home blends boost flavor without adding sodium or calories, they enable personalized flavor preferences.

5. Cultural condiments

The arts of preserving and fermenting foods — popular in traditional diets around the world — were originally created simply to extend the life of foods in a world without refrigeration. Today, more home cooks are learning these techniques and padding their pantries with homemade kimchi, craft pickles, sauerkraut and preserved lemons.

Main photo: What new foods and dishes will appear on our plates in 2015? Credit: iStock

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Kangaroo meat is sold at an Australian deli. Credit: Emily Contois

Eating more kangaroo meat likely ranks low on the list of food resolutions eaters have considered taking up in 2015. But should it?

“I, at first, didn’t tell them it was kangaroo.” So said the cheery Foodies’ Dream Tour guide at the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne, Australia, about cooking “roo” for her sons. She assured our small group that the trick is in the cooking. Pop it on the barbecue for two to three minutes on one side, she instructed, with a quick sizzle on the other, and you are sure to enjoy a tender, juicy and flavorful bite of roo. “Truly superb,” she crooned.

Although cooking instructions vary from chef to chef, the key advice for preparing kangaroo is to avoid overcooking it, which can lead to a dry and all-too-chewy result. The risk is higher with kangaroo, which is a remarkably lean red meat that is low in saturated and trans fat, while offering up robust servings of iron and B vitamins. From animals that roam freely in the wild, kangaroo meat is free-range and not farmed — though the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia refers to kangaroo meat production as “harvesting,” which conjures a strange image in one’s agrarian imagination. To top off the list of its health benefits, kangaroo is considered ecologically friendly, especially compared with beef and lamb, since kangaroos require less water and produce less methane. Plus, their paws are kinder to the rangeland’s topsoil than cattle hooves.

Increasing sales

As our tour guide shared her cooking tips, she gestured to a nearby stall that has been selling kangaroo meat at the market for decades. Although the distinctly Aussie protein has not been popular in its homeland, the market has seen increased sales in recent years. Woods Aussie Deli in the market is well known for its kangaroo “jerkey,” lesser versions of which can be found at convenience stores and souvenir shops. Butchers in the meat hall and specialty shops in the Dairy Produce Hall (also known as the Deli Hall) at the Queen Victoria Market sell fresh and frozen kangaroo in vacuum-sealed pouches. Packaged kangaroo meat is also widely sold throughout Australia in the refrigerated meat sections of large chain grocery stores, such as Coles and Woolworths.

Restaurants in Australia, often though not always those that cater to tourists with “bush tucker” menus, also serve up kangaroo. Renowned chefs have even supported the Australian government and the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia to promote consumption of the hoppy marsupial. In 2008, six of Sydney’s top chefs — Tony Bilson, Jean-Paul Bruneteau, Sean Connolly, Darren Ho, John Leong and Ray Kersh — conducted a master class at a “Taste of Kangaroo” event attended by 150 members from the food and hospitality industry and food media. These chefs’ creations are now freely available in the pamphlet cookbook “Roocipes,” which features 80 kangaroo recipes.

Among the roocipes is Connolly’s kangaroo tartare, which serves kangaroo loin minced and raw at its best and juiciest, flavored with a concoction of Dijon mustard, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce and a dash of Tabasco. A French chef devoted to Australian cuisine and native ingredients, Bruneteau has developed 16 recipes using kangaroo, including braised kangaroo shank, which calls for roasting several shanks, cut short, with root vegetables for 10 hours. At Little Truffle dining room and bar at Mermaid Beach, chef Daniel Ridgeway serves up multiple kangaroo dishes, including Flower Kangaroo, in which he folds a rich blend of kangaroo loin and egg whites through cream and braised kangaroo leg, piping the final seasoned mixture into picturesque zucchini flowers.

Eating roo, or not …

Despite its nutritional benefits, ecological profile, chef endorsement and increasingly haute allure, kangaroo meat consumption has been slow to take off among most Australians. Kangaroos have hopped across the Australian landscape for more than 100 million years and, as part of a traditional diet, Aboriginal people have consumed them for close to 60,000 years. Regardless of its ancient origins and heritage consumption, however, kangaroo meat is often negatively associated with pet food and roadkill, as cars pose the greatest threat to the animals in the wild. Indeed, much of the barrier for kangaroo meat in Australia is cultural, as the animal serves as a national emblem, appearing on the country’s coat of arms and as a symbol throughout popular culture.

The kangaroo meat industry also refers to low consumption as the “Skippy Syndrome,” referencing the television show “Skippy the Bush Kangaroo,” an animal program similar to “Lassie” and “Flipper,” which contributed to the national perception of kangaroos as cute, cuddly, friendly and wholly inedible. The kangaroo industry tackled the syndrome head on in 2005 with a culinary naming competition, seeking a title that would help kangaroo meat eaters forget Skippy the way venison assists deer meat lovers to shun thoughts of “Bambi” while enjoying their meal. Top submissions included kangarly, maroo, krou, maleen, kuja, roujoe, rooviande, jurru, ozru, marsu, kangasaurus, marsupan, jumpmeat and MOM (meat of marsupials). Australus was declared the palatable new moniker, though it has yet to make it into circulation.

As kangaroo consumption remains relatively low in Australia, the majority of the meat is exported, mostly to Europe and Russia, where it is an affordable meat option. Kangaroo meat has even bounded its way onto U.S. menus. In 2013, kangaroo steak (described as “tender like a sweet filet mignon”) became a surprise top seller at Hell’s Kitchen in Minneapolis. At The Thirsty Koala, an Australian-themed restaurant in Astoria, N.Y., chef and co-owner Katherine Fuchs reports that kangaroo burgers, sliders and steaks outsell their beef counterparts. You can also bite into a juicy kangaroo burger at Crazee Burger in San Diego.

Will 2015 be the year you try roo?

Kangaroo Tartare

Sean Connolly’s Kangaroo Tartare recipe appeared in the kangaroo cookbook “Roocipes.” Connolly is a chef at both Sean’s Kitchen and Astral Restaurant in Sydney. Recipe courtesy of the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia.

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 French baguette

Salted butter

400 grams kangaroo loin minced

50 grams shallots finely chopped

50 grams gherkins finely chopped

10 grams parsley chopped

4 egg yolks

1 teaspoon tomato paste

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Dash of Worcestershire sauce

Dash of Tabasco

1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika

Freshly ground black pepper

Salt to taste

Directions

1. Thinly slice French baguette.

2. Spread each slice with salted butter, and bake in the oven until golden brown.

3. Place all the other ingredients in a stainless steel bowl.

4. Gently fold together with a metal spoon.

5. Serve with the crisp ficelle (baguette) croutons.

Main photo: Woods Aussie Deli in the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne, Australia, sells kangaroo “jerkey.” Credit: Emily Contois

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extra virgin olive oil potato chips

Spain is a country loved by culinary cognoscente for its extraordinarily diverse range of classics and creativity. But in every restaurant and every casa, there remains one constant ingredient: olive oil. Core to the much-acclaimed Mediterranean diet, its use is so prevalent that olive oil’s healthy values seep into everything. But it was still a surprise when I encountered “extra virgin” potato chips available in pharmacies here, which unlike their U.S. counterparts generally sell only medicine and skin-care products.

Potato chips condoned by medical experts? I needed no more encouragement to go out and test my options. I gathered four chip brands from Spanish grocery stores and the one from the pharmacy, all advertised as “made with olive oil” — most with an alluring cruet of olive oil on the package. A few brands claimed to use 100% olive oil, but only the pharmacy-stocked San Nicasio brand qualified their chips and the oil they fried them in as “extra virgin.”

San Nicasio went a step further, specifying the D.O. of both the olive oil and the potatoes (seriously, a Denominacion of Origen for potatoes?), the low-sodium Himalayan pink salt and the temperature at which the chips were fried in one of the most award-winning oils in the world, made by Almazaras de la Subbetica of Cordoba, Spain. The company clearly was fanatical about the quality of the chip. That all sounded intriguing but it was now time for the true measure — a blind taste test.

First, the smell test for freshness. As most olive oil fans know, olive oil is best when fresh and three environmental factors will have a negative effect on smell, taste and physical qualities: oxygen, light and excessive heat or cold. Rancidity is usually the most obvious signal that the oil has lost its best values. If you’ve ever smelled a stale jar of peanuts or worse yet, bit into one, you know the telltale flavor.

The selection of tested Spanish olive oil potato chips. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

The selection of tested Spanish olive oil potato chips. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Cracking open one bag at a time and taking a deep whiff revealed that some brands were past their prime, giving off a flat, almost mechanical aroma or slightly rancid smell, obviously fried with poor-quality oil. Two samples, one from the in-house Hacendado brand of Spain’s largest grocery chain, Mercadona, and San Nicasio had a nice, light aroma of potatoes and the San Nicasio chips smelled of fresh olive oil. It wasn’t until later that I learned the San Nicasio brand seals their airtight bags with nitrogen to avoid having the oil’s quality be degraded by exposure to oxygen. This attention to detail obviously worked.

Next, I evaluated visual cues of color, size and thickness. Two appeared darker and overcooked, the Hacendado and Lay’s Artesanal chips were almost too perfectly platinum blond and the San Nicasio brand was a fairly rich, natural yellow color. From an “eat with your eyes” perspective, I was drawn again to the rich-colored chips.

Finally, the true test of a potato chip: its flavor and crunch. Being all about the same thickness, they each delivered on the crunch test. But the real divide was apparent in the taste. I was looking for lightly salted, true potato flavor and a clean finish that would indicate quality olive oil. I’ll admit the Lay’s Artesanal came in a solid second for lightly salted flavor and crunch and being the largest chip manufacturer in the world, it should have enough experience to deliver the goods. But after all that testing, the San Nicasio chip I found in the pharmacy won across all categories. Healthy, flavorful and downright yummy.

Do you need a prescription from your doctor to indulge in San Nicasio chips? Not likely. But for fans of these thin, crispy wafers, you can at least tell yourself that they’re a health food.

Potato chips and eggs, a Spanish tapa.

Potato chips and eggs, a Spanish tapa. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Fried Eggs and Chips

Prep time: 0 minutes

Cooking time: 5 minutes

Total time: 5 minutes

Yield: 4 appetizer servings

Like elsewhere in the world, potato chips are most frequently enjoyed as a side snack to a midday meal or a sporting event. But in Spain, they are often included in scrambled eggs for mid-morning breakfast or paired with fried eggs for a rich tapas experience.

I first tried this dish presented by Spanish chef María José San Román while at Nancy Harmon Jenkins‘ Amorolio event in Tuscany and thought it a stroke of genius. I later discovered it’s a long-standing classic Spanish tapa for the home table. I’ve tried them both ways, but I’m partial to the liquid egg yolk and crispy-edged white atop the whole gooey mess.

Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil, 1/4-inch deep in saucepan

2 whole eggs

1 7-ounce bag of best-quality salted potato chips (In the U.S., chef José Andres sells the San Nicasio brand under his own label.)

Directions

1. Heat olive oil until just below smoke point.

2. Gently pour in whole eggs and cook until the white edges are crispy and the yolks still liquid.

3. Plate with a thin layer of chips, topped by the eggs. Break the yolks and sprinkle with more potato chips, giving the dish a gentle mix to incorporate.

Main photo: Extra virgin olive oil potato chips. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

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Vintage pasta label. Credit: Courtesy of Gerardo di Nola Pastificio, Naples

We’ve come a long way since the days when Americans thought Italian cuisine meant spaghetti or ziti in rivers of “marinara” set on red-checkered tablecloths. Even if mistaken notions persist about what genuine Italian cooking really is, we’ve embraced every new pasta that has come our way (think squid-ink fettuccine or agnolotti al plin), and we’ve become more sauce savvy, too. Amatriciana and puttanesca are commonplace in restaurant and home kitchens alike, and “carbonara” is a household word from New York to Nebraska. Arrabbiata, cacio e pepe, aglio e olio — you name it, we love them all.

Nevertheless, the canon of pasta-and-sauce pairings has remained something of a mystery outside the borders of Italy. The immense number of different shapes is daunting to us foreigners; out of sheer exasperation, we find ourselves asking, “Why so many?” There are “priests’ hats,” “wolves’ eyes” and “horses’ teeth,” “church bells,” “little loves” and “kiss catchers.” It is not enough to make pasta bows (farfalle); there must also be little bows (farfallette) and much bigger bows (farfalloni). There are not only small reeds called cannelle, but also very small reeds, large smooth reeds and large grooved reeds. Some shapes have more than one name (penne lisce and mostaccioli, for example, are one and the same).

A 19th-century graphic depicting rival pasta makers. Credit: Courtesy of Julia della Croce

A 19th-century graphic depicting rival pasta makers. Credit: Courtesy of Julia della Croce

The roots of this maccheroni madness go back to the fierce rivalry among dried-pasta manufacturers in 19th century Naples, where the southern Italian pasta industry mushroomed during the Industrial Revolution. At one point about 1,500 pastifici competed for business, engaging in price wars or introducing ever-newer products to lure customers to their brand. But probably more than anything, the seemingly endless variations reflect the expansive nature of the Italian people — their imagination and love of show.

The American versus the Italian approach

Americans are characteristically laissez-faire about pairing rules. James Beard once told me that he saw no reason to be bound by tradition; he believed we ought to be inventive with pasta recipes. By contrast, the Italians are always mindful of the pairing principles derived from a long history of pasta eating. Over the centuries, tried-and-true guidelines have emerged, based primarily on the ingredients in the dough and the architecture of each resulting shape — hard wheat or soft wheat, dried pasta or fresh, long or short, smooth or ridged. Various pastas absorb and combine with sauces in different ways depending on their wall thickness, density and structure.

Meanwhile, sauces — condimenti, as the Italians call themhave inherent texture, flavor and color attributes. The foundation of most is olive oil or butter, given body with tomato purée, meat, vegetables and/or cheese. The art of pairing can probably best be explained by herding all the unruly strands and little shapes into three separate tribes, as it were — each with their own swimming pools or sauces. (Here we will concern ourselves with dried pasta alone.)

Golden rules for pairing dried pasta and sauces

Strands

Lightweight

Capelli d’angelo (“angel hair”), cappellini (“fine hair”), vermicelli (“little worms”), fedelini (“very fine noodles”): Use all in broths or broth-based soups. The latter two, being thicker, are suitable for light, sieved tomato sauces, but none of these long, lightweight pastas can support dense cream-based or meat sauces.

Medium-weight

Spaghetti, spaghettini, spaghetti alla chitarra (“guitar-string spaghetti”), mezze linguine (“half linguine”): This group is sturdy enough for olive-oil sauces such as aglio e olio as well as tomato- or brothy seafood-based sauces that easily slip along the surface.

Heavyweight

Linguine (“long tongues,” aka bavette), perciatelli, bucatini, fusilli bucati lunghi (“long hollow coils”): Because these shapes have more weight than those in the previous subcategories, they will all support a relatively unctuous sauce such as basil pesto, but they are also sprightly enough to consort with sauces suited to medium-weight long pasta. By tradition, linguine is inexplicably inseparable from fish or shellfish sauces, though fluid tomato sauces make a pleasant match, too.

Spaghetti with fresh tomato and basil, a classic pairing. Credit: Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Spaghetti with fresh tomato and basil, a classic pairing. Credit: Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Tubes

The tubular shapes have relatively thick walls, which make them sturdy enough to support not only chunky tomato-based sauces with or without meat, as well as cheese or cream preparations. (Diagonal cuts are especially handy in this regard.) Despite the versatility of these shapes, the size of the ingredients in accompanying sauces should be kept in mind. For example, wide tubular cuts are big enough to trap meat bits and vegetable chunks (think rigatoni with broccoli and anchovies); not so in the case of petite variants such as pennette (“little quills”). Tubular shapes are also ideal for baked dishes because they hold their shape and firmness during a second cooking in the oven.

Anelli (“rings”), ditaloni (“thimbles”): Ideal for pasta e fagioli and other bean soups because the ring shape nests cannellini beans, lentils and such.

Penne (“quills”), penne rigate (“ridged quills”), penne lisce (“smooth quills”), pennette, rigatoni: These go with olive oil- or butter-based vegetable, meat and tomato sauces and also with cream-based concoctions. Olive oil-based sauces stick to ridged shapes better than to smooth ones. The slimmer pennette are best matched with light vegetable or tomato sauces containing, say, wild mushrooms or eggplant (though traditionalists wouldn’t dream of making pasta alla Norma with anything but spaghetti).

Quirky shapes

Farfalle (“butterflies”): Their delicate “wingspan” suits them to light sauces based on either olive oil or butter, as long as there are no big obstacles in their flight path.

Fusilli, fusilli corti (“short fusilli”), tortiglioni (hollow “spirals”), radiatori (“radiators”), gemelli (“twins”) and various twists: Shapes like these are designed to trap cheese and ricotta sauces or unctuous nut sauces, such as pestos. Ragù and other meat sauces love to collect in their coils, too.

Strozzapreti (“priest stranglers”): These handmade dried forms call for tomato, meat and sausage sauces.

Conchiglie (“shells”), riccioli (“curls”), ruote (“wheels”), lumache (“snails”): Short and stubby shapes such as these work well with hearty sauces featuring meat, vegetables, cheese or cream.

Main photo: Vintage pasta label. Credit: Courtesy of Gerardo di Nola Pastificio, Naples, reprinted from “Pasta Classica: The Art of Italian Pasta Cooking,” by Julia della Croce

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Osechi ryori. Credit: iStock

New Year’s in Japan, as in all cultures, is a time to reflect on the past, resolve to do better and begin anew. But it is different in that for seven days the entire nation reverts to a slower, quieter time.

At least when I lived in Japan, in the mid-1980s, this was the case. Nearly every store closed for a week, the streets were quiet, and families gathered to relax and share the special New Year’s foods known as osechi ryori.

Because it’s considered bad luck to work on the first three days of the new year, all of the osechi ryori foods are prepared ahead of time, then arranged in beautiful lacquered jubako (layered boxes) and eaten at room temperature.

Traditional foods

These exquisite traditional foods are steeped in tradition, and represent different forms of good luck in the new year. A few of my favorite osechi ryori foods and their meanings are:

Tazakuri (baby sardines) are used to fertilize rice crops, and represent a bountiful harvest.

Konbu maki (seaweed rolls) represent happiness because the word konbu, or kobu, is similar to yorokobu, the Japanese word for happiness.

Kuri kinton (Japanese sweet potato mashed with chestnut) has a light golden color that represents gold or prosperity.

Shin takenoko (bamboo shoots) are from the fast-growing bamboo plant and symbolize acquiring wealth rapidly.

Datemaki (sweet omelet roll) has a golden hue that symbolizes gold, while the egg itself represents fertility.

Kuromame (black beans) are simmered in sugar and are eaten for good health in the coming year.

Ebi (shrimp) curl like the backs of the elderly, so they symbolize living a long life.

Kimpira gobo (burdock root) has a number of good luck qualities. It has a long tap root, symbolizing long life. The deep, sturdy root is also said to keep family ties strong by keeping the family rooted. And if the burdock root splits at the end, that’s even better, as your good luck will also split and multiply.

Better than it looks

Burdock root. Credit: Terra Brockman

Burdock root. Credit: Terra Brockman

Of all of these foods, burdock (gobo) is the one that I have continued to eat over the decades, and not just at New Year’s. It definitely falls into the “can’t judge a book  …” category of vegetables. It’s dull and brown and looks tough and unappetizing. But it is in fact tender (you can scrape away the thin skin with a light fingernail), and the humble exterior of the large, dark, woody-looking root belies the sweet, nutty, delicate, crunchy flesh within.

In addition to being used as a food item for millennia, many cultures have used burdock medicinally. Early Chinese physicians treated colds, flu, throat infections, and pneumonia with burdock preparations, and it is considered a powerful source of “yang” energy, according to Chinese philosophy and macrobiotic practice — meaning it gives you the energy and strength to do what needs to be done — including, perhaps, keeping all your New Year’s resolutions.

This New Year’s week, celebrate the spirit of osechi — slow down, relax and enjoy time with loved ones. And for good luck, long life, and strong family ties, try some burdock root. Traditionally, in Japan, burdock (gobo) is stir-fried — alone or with carrots — in a dish called Kimpira Gobo. It seems that every Japanese household has a slightly different take on this, but here’s the recipe from a family friend, Masako Takayasu.

Mrs. Takayasu’s Kimpira Gobo (Stir-Fried Burdock and Carrots)

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 5 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Ingredients

2 sticks burdock (about 1/2 pound)

Carrots, 1/3 to 1/2 the amount of burdock

3 Japanese togarashii, Thai hot, or another hot pepper

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon sesame seed oil

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon mirin (optional)

3 to 4 tablespoon soy sauce

Hot pepper flakes, to taste (optional)

Sesame seeds, as garnish (optional)

Directions

1. Wash burdock and remove skin by rubbing with the back of a knife or with a vegetable scrubber. Cut into matchstick-size pieces and soak the pieces in cold water to prevent discoloration. Replace water two or three times or until the water remains clear, and then drain the burdock. Peel carrots and cut in pieces the same size and shape as the burdock.

2. Slice hot peppers, and after removing their seeds, cut the peppers into thick rings.

3. Combine olive oil and sesame oil in a frying pan and heat. Add burdock, carrot, and hot pepper rings, and stir-fry over high heat until carrots are cooked through. Reduce heat and add sugar, mirin, soy sauce and hot pepper flakes to taste. Stir to mix. Continue to stir over heat until the liquid nearly all evaporates. Sprinkle sesame seeds over the top and serve.

Main photo: New Year’s foods served in a lacquered box called a jubako. Credit: iStock

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Lemon and crab risotto is made with champagne.

There’s nothing sadder than dumping even part of a bottle of Champagne that’s lost its fizz the day after New Year’s. So don’t do it.

If you didn’t remember to stop up your leftover Champagne and put it in the fridge, plan to incorporate the rest of your sparkling into a couple of easy dishes and start 2015 with a burst of creativity in the kitchen. You can rest easy knowing one of the highlights of your holiday revelry did not go to waste.

Champagnes and sparkling wines lose their bubbles at different rates and based on several factors. The warmer the environment, the more quickly the Champagne will release the carbon dioxide bubbles and go flat. Sparkling wines nearly always differ in how much carbonation is in the bottle. But once you’ve determined your Champagne is flat, there’s a bevy of options to save its flavor.

Champagne adds body to marinades, contrast to fruit syrups, subtle nuance to your favorite risotto dish, sweetness to soup. Without its fizz, it has lost that effervescence that made it so attractive in the first place and likely tastes too off to drink by itself, but it is just as versatile and a lovely addition to some of your favorite dishes. Actually, any recipe incorporating white wine would do well with a dose of flattened Champagne, but there can be some lingering sweetness, so be sure to take that into account when choosing how to use it.

Even if you have a bottle that’s been sitting corked in your fridge for a week, you can use what’s left over to give some of your everyday dishes a big, ambitious kick (as in the case of the crab and lemon risotto recipe, below), or just a small dose of surprise (like in Champagne French toast). All it takes to impart the lasting flavor of most flattened Champagnes into your favorite dishes is about a quarter to half a cup of leftover sparkling.

Here are some great dishes to try once your Champagne has gone flat.

1. Lemon Crab Risotto With Mint and Hot Pepper Flakes

Set a saucepan with four cups chicken stock to medium on one burner. On another burner, in a large-mouthed pan, sauté 1/4 cup shallots in 2 tablespoons of butter until they are translucent but not brown. Add 2 cups Arborio rice and 1/4 cup leftover Champagne, stirring constantly. Stir until liquid has evaporated. Keep adding hot stock and stirring until the rice has plumped. When all the stock has been incorporated, stir in 1 tablespoon of unsalted butter and the juice and rind from 1 lemon. Add 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese if desired. Just before serving, stir in 8 ounces of fresh crab meat. Garnish with hot pepper flakes and fresh torn mint leaves.

2. Champagne Syrup

In a saucepan, mix 1 cup leftover Champagne with 1/3 cup sugar and 1/2 cup water. Mix in the zest from one lemon plus 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice. Add one cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring often, for about 5 minutes, or until all the sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool for half an hour. Pour over your favorite pound cake, seasonal fruit or raspberries.

3. Sole Poached in Champagne

In a large, non-stick pan, sauté one chopped onion in 1 tablespoon of olive oil until soft. Add 1 teaspoon of salt, 1/2 teaspoon of  lemon rind and one finely chopped garlic cove. Lay fish on top of onions. Pour chopped tomatoes and parsley over fish, then pour 1/4 cup leftover Champagne around fish. Cover loosely with foil and cook over medium heat 8-10 minutes, or until fish flakes away.

4. Champagne Salad Dressing

Mix 1/2 cup mild-flavored extra virgin olive oil with 1/4 cup leftover Champagne, ¼ cup white wine vinegar, a pinch of sugar. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

5. Champagne French Toast

Use your favorite French toasting bread (we recommend day-old Challah) cut into slices 1-inch thick. Mix four large eggs at room temperature with 1/2 cup half and half, 1/4 cup Champagne and a teaspoon of sugar and a pinch of sea salt. Soak the bread in the egg and cream mixture for one minute and then fry in foamy hot butter on each side until golden.

6. Champagne Marinade for Salmon

Add 1/4 cup leftover Champagne to 1/3 cup olive oil. Mix 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard with 1/2 teaspoon dried basil leaves and 1/4 teaspoon thyme and a dash of salt and pepper. Marinate your favorite grilling fish in the marinade for at least two hours and brush with the marinade while grilling.

7. Champagne Soup

In a medium-sized saucepan, boil four cups vegetable stock with five de-skinned and chopped Anjou pears. Add the zest and juice of one lemon and 1 cup Champagne. Cook until pears are tender, about 10 minutes. Carefully puree the soup and stock until smooth in a food processor or with an immersion blender. Add the Champagne, lemon zest and juice and stir until smooth. Salt and pepper to taste.

Main photo: Lemon and Crab Risotto With Mint and Red Pepper Flakes is an inspired way to use some of your leftover Champagne or sparkling wine. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

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