Articles in Cooking
When it comes to Carnival, overindulgence is the whole point: too many parties, too much booze and, in just about every Catholic country, great platters of fried sweet dough.
Carnival doughnuts are omnipresent across Catholic Europe and parts of the Americas. In Lyon and Strasbourg, France, square yeast-raised beignets are made for the holiday; in Spain you will find rosquillas de carnaval (a dense, doughnut-shaped treat) and all sorts of other buñuelos; in Italy each region has its own fritelle di carnevale. The one-word explanation? Lard.
Christians were supposed to abstain from meat products for the 40 days of Lent, and doughnuts were traditionally fried in hog fat. As every good Catholic knows, you need to sin before you can repent. So, if you’re going to spend six weeks restraining your urges, you might as well make a good reason for it.
European doughnuts: happy excess
For ordinary people, doughnuts became associated with happy excess during a time when all the rules of their miserable existence could be inverted, when a measly diet of stale bread was replaced by mountains of fresh-fried doughnuts.
But few are as obsessed with Carnival or fried dough as the Venetians. Year round, you can find delicious krapfen (jelly doughnuts) there, but in the lead-up to Lent, the fried dough repertoire increases exponentially. Bakery windows are full of frittelle di carnevale, which depending on the pastry shop, take two very different forms: airy yeast-raised fritters chock-full of raisins, pine nuts, citron and, occasionally anisette or grappa (see recipe); or fried cream puffs that enclose a variety of creamy fillings.
I can’t believe that it’s a coincidence that Europe’s doughnut orgies take place in the depths of winter. The sugar and the fat are better than any high-tech undergarment.
I had a chance to test this out during a ski trip to Innsbruck even as Fasching (Carnival) was reaching its delirious peak. Here, in the alpine Tyrol, locals celebrate by parading through the streets in masks worthy of a Brothers Grimm nightmare and by eating mountains of Faschingskrapfen, or Carnival doughnuts. Even as I got off the train, I was greeted with stands loaded down with plump raised doughnuts, some filled with preserves, others with custard, chocolate cream or even eiercognac, a boozy eggnog custard.
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According to my friend, Austrian food historian Ingrid Haslinger, they’ve been frying up these yeast-raised pastries here for centuries. In the days when sugar was a luxury reserved for princes, the mountain folk would dip their krapfen into bowls of prune and apple butter. Now everybody can indulge in the sweet-filled variety.
I was pleased to find piles of Carnival doughnuts even at the mountaintop ski lodge. In these harsh conditions, they are not merely a snack but rather lunch itself. Following the lead of local skiers, I sat down to a spicy goulash soup as appetizer and continued with doughnuts for my main course (one filled with apricot and the other with chocolate, if you must know). Winter never felt so right.
The perfect pre-Lent indulgence
The doughnut as Carnival food, something that you gorge on before the gray days of Lent, isn’t entirely an alien concept in the United States. The Pennsylvania Dutch keep a firm grip on the centuries-old tradition of frying up enormous batches of Fastnachts in anticipation of Ash Wednesday just like their ancestors did in southwest Germany and parts of Switzerland. The Fastnacht is typically a yeast-raised doughnut (sometimes with potato added) cut in the form of a diamond, often slashed and opened in the center to allow it to cook faster and a larger surface area to get crisp.
You find similar recipes in Alsace and neighboring regions today. Fastnacht (literally “fast night”) is a German word for Shrove Tuesday and in the parts of the old country, these Carnival pastries were (and are) called Fastnachstküchle. The plain folk there shortened the name but kept the recipe and at least the doughnut part of the pre-Lenten tradition; Carnival is certainly not the festival of folly that it can be in Catholic Germany.
One rule that is universal, though, no matter where you find the doughy treats and regardless of name: Too much is never enough. You’ll have plenty of time to repent.
Frittelle veneziane (Venetian Carnival Fritters)
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 4 to 6 minutes per batch
Yield: About 2 dozen
2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) golden raisins
1/2 cup anisette liqueur
1/4 ounce (1 packet) active dry yeast
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons tepid water
1 large egg
9 ounces (about 2 cups) all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
Large ping (1/8 teaspoon) salt
1 ounce (about 3 tablespoons) pine nuts
1 ounce (about 3 tablespoons) chopped candied citron
Grated zest of 1 lemon
Oil or lard for frying
1. In a bowl, combine the raisins and anisette. Cover with plastic wrap and soak at least 4 hours or overnight.
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, stir together the water and yeast. Let stand 5 minutes. Stir in the egg. In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, granulated sugar and salt.
3. Using a paddle attachment, beat the flour mixture into the water-yeast mixture on low speed. Beat 5 minutes on medium to make the batter very smooth — it should be somewhat thicker than pancake batter.
4. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in a warm location. Let stand until the batter has doubled in volume, 45 to 60 minutes. Stir in the raisins, pine nuts, citron and lemon zest.
5. Using a deep fryer or a heavy pan, heat at least 3 inches of the oil to 350 F. If you’re not using a deep fryer and are without a built-in thermostat, check the oil temperature using a candy or deep-fry thermometer.
6. Lightly oil 2 tablespoons, then scoop about 2 tablespoons of batter in one spoon and slide it off with the second. A small oiled ice cream scoop works well, too. Fry about a half-dozen at a time, turning occasionally until cooked through, 4 to 6 minutes. Drain on paper towels and allow to cool — enough so you can pick them up. Sprinkle generously with confectioner’s sugar. The frittelle are best served warm. Leftovers can be frozen and reheated in a 350 F oven.
For more on doughnut history, check out Michael Krondl’s most recent book: “The Donut: History, Recipes and Lore from Boston to Berlin.”
Main photo: Fritetelle veneziane, or Venetian fritters, are best served warm with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar. Credit: Michael Krondl
Some ancient grains get all the press. Quinoa, freekeh, and spelt are the darlings of the food world these days, especially in the United States — and rightfully so, since they were ignored for millennia. But one ancient grain seems to lag behind: barley. Plain ol’ barley never makes a Top 10 list. It needs a spunky dance partner and great choreography to be seen. Mushrooms have often been its companion for comfort food — think of all the savory mushroom-barley soups. But wild mushrooms, exotic and even more flavorful than the cultivated variety while still just as earthy as barley, may serve as the most perfect partner of all.
During the chill of January, foraging for comfort food is often a search for simple, earthy foods — like barley and mushrooms. But these foods can also be rich and elegant, intriguing and satisfying, old and new. Sometimes all it takes is one little change to make a comfort-food dish special.
Barley and mushrooms, ancient foods
Barley is no newbie to the food scene. There is no way to overstate its importance in the Fertile Crescent and the Levant (present-day Iraq and the Middle East). Wild barley was an integral part of the human diet, so much so that it became a domesticated crop. It was the basis for a key everyday comestible that is still popular today: beer.
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In Europe by the Middle Ages, barley was the flour of poor man’s bread and the filler in Scotch broth. It was — and remains — a common food for livestock. Notwithstanding the changes in the world around it, domesticated barley is, in essence, a simple whole grain with plenty of nutrients. And it has countless culinary benefits.
There is a good reason why barley’s long time partner is the mushroom.
An ancient, originally wild food, mushrooms are fungi, and are incredibly healthy — high in B and D vitamins, selenium, copper, potassium and antioxidants that appear to protect DNA at the cellular level. Some of these benefits can be found in common button mushrooms and their close cousins, baby bellas, criminis and portabellos. But mushrooms are more than that. They are a natural flavor enhancer. All mushrooms contain glutamic acid, a version of the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Wild mushrooms, or those that were once wild and are now cultivated (called “exotic” by growers), burst with all of these benefits. No wonder wild ones have been popular across Europe, Asia, the United States and India for centuries. Each variety of wild mushroom has its individual charms. The one I used for this mushroom-barley risotto is the chanterelle.
Chanterelles, a sexy and mellifluous a name for fungus if there ever was one, evokes images of five-star French chefs cooking up lavish, sophisticated and warming dishes. To many a chef and connoisseur, chanterelles — golden and floral, earthy and fragrant — are in the same pantheon as morels and truffles. Chanterelles have even been considered male aphrodisiacs, with the 11th-century Normans in Britain serving them at wedding feasts to the grooms. Widely found in both Europe and the United States, fresh in season and dried year-round, the lightly peppery, softly fruity chanterelle is an ideal candidate to gussy up the Plain Jane barley.
The wine that links all the flavors
The element that can put it all together? A wine born from the same soil as those wild mushrooms. Barley risotto style is now a restaurant mainstay. But when the mushrooms in the risotto are the prized chanterelle and the wine is Willamette Valley — what you have is dinner alchemy.
Willamette Valley, Oregon, where chanterelles have long grown wild and are now cultivated, is a well-regarded region for producing fine grapes and even finer wines. The Pinot Noir grapes grown in the Willamette Valley are characterized by robust notes of black raspberry and bogs, of vanilla and cloves. The old cooking adage “if it grows together it goes together” is certainly true with Pacific golden chanterelles and Willamette Pinot Noir. Pairing these two is not for the faint of wallet. But the cost of the barley balances that out a bit.
And that wine — ooh — that wine is the essential link tying, literally binding, the mushrooms to the barley. All together, chanterelles and barley become something genuinely soul satisfying. The flavors and textures support and encourage each other, revealing the best they can offer. Perhaps that is what a plate-mate, a bowl-mate and soulmate should always be.
Barley Risotto With Fresh Chanterelles and Willamette Valley Pinot Noir
This special-occasion dish is impressive to serve and even better to eat. It showcases a classic Italian cooking technique applied to humble pearl barley and highlights the quality and unique flavors of fresh wild chanterelle mushrooms. The result is extravagantly delicious and memorable, worth every penny and every stir.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 50 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 5 minutes
Yield: 4 servings as a meal, 6 as a starter
2½ cups low-sodium mushroom broth
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 large shallots, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
Leaves of 6 sprigs fresh thyme, minced (about 2 teaspoons, see Kitchen Tips)
1 cup pearl barley
2 cups Willamette Valley Pinot Noir (see Kitchen Tips)
1 pound fresh chanterelle mushrooms, sliced, cut into bite-size pieces
1 large fresh bay leaf
½ teaspoon kosher salt (see Kitchen Tips)
1 (7-ounce) package fresh baby kale, thinly sliced
½ cup freshly grated Gruyère cheese
¾ cup sour cream or crème fraiche
1 teaspoon truffle salt (see Kitchen Tips)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. In a medium saucepan set over medium heat, bring the mushroom broth to a simmer.
2. Meanwhile, in a large, deep saucepan or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the butter and heat until it melts. Add the shallots and thyme, stir to coat, reduce the heat to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally for 2 to 3 minutes, until the shallots are translucent and the edges are just beginning to brown. Add the barley and cook, stirring to coat, for 2 minutes.
3. Increase the heat to high, add the wine, and cook for 6 to 7 minutes, until it has been fully absorbed into the barley. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the mushrooms and bay leaf, and stir well.
4. Add 1/2 cup of the warm mushroom broth and cook, stirring for 4 to 5 minutes, until the liquid is almost absorbed. Add the salt and stir. Continue adding the broth, 1/2 cup at a time, and cook, stirring continuously but gently for 2 to 3 minutes, until it is nearly absorbed into the barley. Repeat until all the mushroom broth is used.
5. Cook for about 30 minutes more, until the barley is al dente. Add the kale, stir well, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the leaves are completely soft. Reduce the heat to low, stir in the Gruyère cheese and sour cream. Remove from the heat, remove the bay leaf, sprinkle with the truffle salt and pepper, and stir well. Spoon into wide, shallow bowls and serve immediately.
1. To remove the leaves from a sprig of fresh thyme, hold the sprig (or a few) at the top with one hand, and with the other hand, grasp the stem with your thumb and forefinger and gently slide your fingers down the stem. The leaves will be pushed against the direction they grow in, and will come off easily.
2. For more information about Pinot Noir grapes and wines: http://www.pinot-noir-wines.com/
3. If you don’t have low-sodium mushroom broth, you can omit this extra salt.
4. Salt to which very small pieces of dried truffle have been added is called truffle salt. It is used to add richer flavor.
Main photo: Barley, Chanterelle Mushroom and Pinot Noir Risotto — elegant, simple, delicious. Credit: ©TheWeiserKitchen
Nine years ago my husband was diagnosed with celiac disease. The diagnosis was a godsend as his symptoms displayed evidence of something much worse. When the test results were in, we celebrated. We were also quite giddy that he would become well again with the elimination of gluten. What a fabulous prognosis — no drugs, just elimination.
In an interesting twist of fate, our Icelandic mare, Valkyrie, had birthed a foal on the same day as Jim’s diagnosis. We named her Gaefa, which means good luck and good fortune, both of which we felt were in ample supply.
Nine years ago gluten intolerance and celiac disease were not yet mainstream. As you might imagine, stripping my pantry of wheat was both a joyous and sad day for me. Afterall, my one-half Italian being craved homemade pasta, breads and treats. But my sweetheart’s disease was not a death sentence. It was a mere inconvenience. And, I, by golly, would master gluten-free cooking. And I have.
Myriad gluten-free foods
There are myriad foods that are naturally gluten free. Take risotto for one. Steak for another. Greens. Fruits. Chocolate. The list goes on and on.
Here is a perfect gluten-free Valentine’s Day Dinner. My sweetie is happy, and so am I!
Arugula Salad With Balsamic Vinaigrette
Flourless Chocolate Cake
I like to create menus that reflect both my culinary acumen, and the love I have for the recipients. There truly is nothing, and I mean nothing, better than watching someone relish what you have cooked for them. This menu is tailored to Jim. He loves risotto, he loves lobster and he loves steak. These recipes provide a great twist on surf and turf as the lobster risotto makes a lovely side to the filet mignon. The arugula salad complements the meal by adding a peppery green, dressed with a sweetish balsamic vinaigrette.
Risotto is one of the simplest and most versatile of dishes. And while I provide this recipe as a guide, keep in mind you can make risotto without the white wine, with onions if you don’t have shallots, or with just butter, just olive oil and with many different “add-ins.” To celebrate Valentine’s, however, nothing beats lobster.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 20 to 30 minutes
Total time: 40 to 50 minutes
Yield: 3 to 4 servings
1 (1 1/2-pound) lobster (have it steamed at the fish counter to save you a step)
1/2 stick butter
1/2 cup of shallots or onions
1 cup Arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine
4 cups chicken broth, heated
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon fresh pepper
2 teaspoons freshly chopped thyme
1. Remove meat from lobster, cut into bite-size pieces.
2. Heat butter in a large saucepan over medium heat, add shallots and cook until tender.
3. Stir in rice and stir until coated with oil about 2 minutes.
4. Add the wine and stir until the wine is cooked off and absorbed.
5. Add the broth one ladle at time, stirring constantly until the broth is absorbed. Continue adding broth until rice is fluffy, tender and creamy.
6. Add the Parmesan, lemon juice, pepper and thyme.
7. Fold in the lobster, serve when lobster is warm.
Stove Top Filet Mignon
Prep time: 2 to 3 minutes
Cook time: 8 to 10 minutes
Total time: 10 to 13 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
Four 1/2-pound filets
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
Cast iron pan
1. Bring meat to room temperature.
2. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Heat olive oil and butter on high in cast iron pan.
4. Add filets.
5. Cook 4 to 5 minutes per side for medium-rare filets.
Heirloom Flourless Chocolate Cake
I love homemade gifts from the heart. My sweetheart, Jim, has celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disease triggered by eating wheat or foods with gluten. So in keeping with all the buzz about the aphrodisiac effect of chocolate, I decided a flourless (hence, no gluten) chocolate cake would be my gift.
This recipe is from the family archives of my amazing friend Deb Mackey, with her note: “Here’s an absolutely FAB recipe for a flourless chocolate cake that is to die for, and can be très elegant, depending on how you gussy it up. I frequently plate it on a swirl of raspberry coulis for especially discerning friends. Everyone I’ve ever made it for has raved, and it became the birthday cake of choice for every man in my life. And for some of their subsequent wives, too, I might add.”
Prep time: 30 to 45 minutes
Cook time: 1 1/2 hours
Total time: 2 to 2 1/4 hours
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
12 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup unsalted butter
6 eggs, separated, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon Bailey’s Irish Cream
1 pinch cream of tartar
2 cups whipping cream
1/4 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons Bailey’s Irish Cream
2 ounces chocolate curls
10-inch springform pan, greased (or wax/parchment paper will do)
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Melt chips and butter in a bowl over hot water.
3. Beat egg yolks in large bowl (5 minutes, or until thick).
4. Beat in 1/2 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time.
5. To the melted chocolate, stir in pecans, vanilla and 1 tablespoon of Bailey’s
6. Beat egg whites with cream of tartar, to soft peak
7. Gradually add remaining 1/2 cup sugar. Beat stiff, but not dry.
8. Fold 1/4 of whites mixture into the chocolate cake mix.
9. Fold the chocolate mix into the remaining whites mixture.
10. Pour into lined pan and bake 30 minutes at 350 F.
11. Reduce oven to 275 F. Bake another 30 minutes.
12. Turn off oven. Let cake stand in oven with door slightly ajar for about 30 minutes.
13. Remove from oven. Dampen towel and place on top of cake for 5 minutes. Remove the towel.
14. Top of cake will crack and fall. Cool cake in pan.
15. Remove springform when cool. Transfer cake to platter.
Whip cream to soft peak. Beat in powdered sugar and 2 tablespoons of Bailey’s.
1. Spoon whipped cream mixture over top of cake and smooth. Sprinkle with chocolate curls.
2. Refrigerate 6 hours. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving.
Main photo: When your husband loves risotto, lobster and steak, Lobster Risotto and filet mignon offer a great twist on surf and turf. Credit: Carole Murko
La Vie en Rose: Bread and pain. The staff of life and the pain of life. One could hardly imagine more disparate phenomena, n’est-ce pas? Nevertheless, the French word for bread is le pain. Given no etymological connection whatsoever between the French “pain” and the English “pain,” it would appear that this is a random frisson de langue. With a common alphabet of only 26 letters there are bound to be odd bedfellows in English and French. Oui?
Well, let’s explore our little frisson a bit further. Our Café French™ lesson today brings us again to the vibrant Rockridge district of Oakland, Calif., and Oliveto restaurant and cafe, where I am joined for breakfast by Lisa Taylor, a Paris-born linguist, who can shed light on our subject.
Oliveto’s menu, of course, leans toward Italian, but its upscale cafe is one of the few in the East Bay that hints at the spirit of “cabal,” that 19th-century socialist philosopher Charles Fourier believed to be the essence of French cafe society. Where better to conspire over the linguistic nuances of bread and pain?
Breaking bread is a pain
Taylor, who now lives and teaches in Oakland, arrives in an outfit that screams “Paris” — skin-tight pants, a beautiful floral blouse, a skimpy leather jacket and, of course, a perfectly arranged scarf. Evidently, you can take the linguist out of Paris but you can’t take the Paris out of the linguist.
After settling in and ordering — poached eggs and a latte for me; smoked salmon, cream cheese, toast and tea for our linguist — I present Taylor with my understanding, admittedly meager, of a symbolic link between le pain and pain in Christian doctrine.
When one “breaks bread,” le pain (pronounced “pan” with a soft “n”) does not feel the pain (la peine, pronounced “pen”). Yes, but when scripture speaks of Jesus Christ as “the bread of life” and then, on the cross, as “broken bread,” well, that’s another story. The agony of the cross is, ergo, the agony of the bread. Now fast forward through Christ’s resurrection and the birth of the church to the liturgy of Holy Communion where the body (bread) and blood (wine) of Christ are symbolically ingested.
Here Taylor, a lapsed Catholic, stops me short. “French Catholics believe that the body and blood of Christ are literally, not symbolically, present in the bread and wine.” She then translates the French saying, Nul pain sans peine — No bread without pain. “We take our bread and our pain very seriously!” Taylor clarifies one more minor point. “The cultured French would never break bread with their hands,” she says. “They cut bread with a knife, and usually on a diagonal.”
Our server delivers our beverages and while we sip, I take notes as Taylor, fluent in five languages, ventures into etymology. The French word “le pain” has its roots in Sanskrit and Latin. The Sanskrit pa (long) and nis (to feed or nourish) evolved into Latin as panis. And when we break bread with another, we are copains — friends. The co is from the Latin cum, meaning “with” — with bread. In English, the word “companion” literally means bread mate.
La Vie en Rose
One in a series of graphic explorations of French language, food and culture
How you say it matters
My perfect poached eggs arrive along with Taylor’s silky smoked salmon and thick Philly cream cheese. Taylor takes a piece of Oliveto’s levain toast and holds it up. “The word ‘levain’ is pronounced with that same nasally vowel sound as ‘pain,’ ” she says. “It sounds the way a French baby cries, ouin, ouin. English and American babies go whaa, whaa.”
Taylor emphasizes the importance of correct pronunciation. “If you don’t pronounce zee words correctly,” she says charmingly while spreading the cheese on her slice of toast and layering it with salmon and cucumber slices, “your server may not understand what you are ordering and express dédain.”
French words like le dédain (disdain), le lapin (rabbit), vingt (20), and of course, le pain, are all words that contain versions (ain, in, ing, etc.) of the 40 ways to write the ouin, ouin sound in French. Taylor also advises getting the French articles and genders right. “Order la pain instead of le pain and you could end up with a plate of lapin.”
Speaking of rabbits
All this talk of pain, le pain and le lapin stimulates Taylor’s childhood memories of the little chocolate rabbits she consumed during Easter services. Aha! More links. Broken bread is resurrected as chocolate lapins. Easter’s rituals were associated by early Christians with the pagan celebration of spring, and rabbits are symbols of both fecundity and resurrection. The female rabbit’s prodigious procreative capacities are evident in her ability to get pregnant twice in the same season, carrying two litters simultaneously.
Finishing off my délicieux repas, I’m feeling rather pregnant myself. I announce in my best French: “Je suis vraiment plein” — I am really full. (It’s the ouin, ouin sound again.) Taylor, laughing, corrects me. “Plein is not used for human fullness. Rabbits can be plein, but not people. Your pockets can be full of money (pleines de monnaie) but you are repu — Je suis repu.”
“Oh,” I respond. “So if I eat too many chocolate rabbits it will be Je suis repu de lapins en chocolat. But if I buy a box of chocolate rabbits, it will be Une boîte pleine de lapins en chocolat.”
“C’est ca!” Taylor responds.
And with that, our poly-lingual fashionista rises, kisses me on both cheeks and strides off. Alone again at the table, I order another latte and scan my notes. I feel the relief that always follows the intensity, and vague humiliation, of my Cafe French™ sessions with Lisa Taylor. My brain is full — Mon cerveau est plein.
Main illustration: “Bread, Friends, Rabbit and Pain.” Credit: L. John Harris
This Valentine’s Day, as you look for foods besides oysters and chocolate to woo the object of your affection, consider exploring your spice cabinet.
You’ll be surprised at the flavors’ powers — as natural aphrodisiacs — to be found there.
To heighten the senses and set the mood, we need fragrance and beauty in our foods.
In fact, Ayurveda — the holistic method of medical treatment in India rooted in Hinduism — traditionally placed a fair amount of emphasis on aphrodisiac terminology. The intent was to ensure that people led healthy conjugal lives and the ruler appropriately produced the requisite heir. There is similar wisdom found in other ancient texts.
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So, cull through this list of common spices for your Valentine’s Day menu that also may help you spice things up — in other ways — with your Valentine.
First up is cinnamon, whose lustrous and sweet aroma can make you both happy and calm. (And, it’s certainly good for your blood pressure.)
Right alongside, you might have cloves, whose essential quality is to uplift your mood and spirits. And then there is nutmeg, also known for its antioxidant and astringent qualities.
An aphrodisiac spice, says ‘The Arabian Nights’
To complete the fragrant collection, we also have cardamom, which “The Arabian Nights” extols for its passion-inducing properties.
All of these will find its place in a good garam masala blend. And when meshed with saffron — the exotic spice of the gods — your Valentine’s Day collection of aromas will be complete.
When planning your menu, consider a good one-pot dish such as a biryani that will bring to your table all of these spices and more. If that’s too complex, try rubbing a chicken with butter and garam masala and serving it roasted to perfection, with saffron mashed potatoes on the side.
But don’t forget the dessert. Fortunately, many Indian desserts bring together cardamom, saffron and rose. From the universe of puddings, halwas and burfees, I have dug up a Bengali specialty called the sandesh, which, when done right, can win over the most fastidious of hearts and palates.
A sandesh is a cheesecake of sorts, with the emphasis on a specific cheese: channa, or homemade white cheese. The art of the traditional sandesh rests in the right texture and handling of this channa. Although it is prolific in Indian confectionary shops, we’re often hard-pressed to find good sandesh in commercial Indian sweet shops — mainly because of the relatively short shelf life of this delicate sweet.
Spicing up cheesecake the sandesh way
Ricotta cheese, if treated right, can be a substitute for channa. This recipe features a cheater sandesh, using ricotta cheese streaked with saffron and subtly scented with freshly crushed cardamom.
I have created this recipe for days when time does not allow for the making and draining of channa. It’s a fairly good facsimile for the steamed sandesh known as bhapa sandesh that my grandmother used to make. In this sandesh, instead of cooking the channa over the stove top, it is steamed with gentle and continuous heat.
In my recipe, I bake it on low heat in the oven and then cool and shape it. If you wish, you can garnish these delicate morsels with pistachios, snipped rose petals and anything else that catches your fancy.
Serve them with some chilled saffron almond milk.
That’s bound to warm the cockles of your heart and soothe your senses, all at once.
Baked Orange-Flavored Cheesecake — Bhapa Sandesh
Adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles,” by Rinku Bhattacharya
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes, plus time for cooling
Yield: 12 servings
For the cheesecake:
Clarified butter or ghee for greasing the casserole dish
1 1/2 cups low-fat ricotta cheese (about 30 ounces)
3/4 cup condensed milk (about 12 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon saffron strands
1/4 teaspoon freshly crushed cardamom (about 2 pods)
6 tablespoons fresh orange juice or tangerine juice (about one medium tangerine)
For optional garnishes:
1. Preheat the oven to 325 F.
2. Grease an 8-by-12-inch cake or casserole dish and set aside.
3. In a mixing bowl, beat together the ricotta cheese and condensed milk.
4. Stir in the saffron strands and cardamom, pour the mixture into the greased casserole dish. The objective is to achieve a streaked effect rather than uniform coloring.
5. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes.
6. Drizzle with the orange juice and cool for one hour.
7. Carefully invert the prepared cheesecake onto a flat surface. This can be cut into shapes using a cooking cutter, or formed into round balls.
8. If desired, garnish with orange sections and almonds, or roll or sprinkle with chocolate shavings.
9. Chill for 45 minutes or longer, and serve.
Main photo: Sandesh, an Indian version of cheesecake, can be shaped with cookie cutters or formed into round balls. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya
For Valentine’s Day, what could be more romantic than a homemade dinner? If you are looking for that dish that says love, look to these five foods, which have been considered aphrodisiacs for centuries.
Aphrodisiacs were named for Aphrodite, the goddess of love. According to ancient Greek myth, Aphrodite was born from the sea and arrived ashore transported by either an oyster or scallop shell. Because of her sea connection all seafood, but especially shellfish, was considered an aphrodisiac since those times.
Cacao beans, essential to making chocolate, first made their way to Europe from the New World in the 1500s. Once chocolate arrived, physicians and health writers began to study it and decided it was not only an aphrodisiac but also a cure-all for many ills, including indigestion. Casanova, famed writer of the 1700s, devoted several pages in his memoir to how effective chocolate was in getting women into the mood.
Chili peppers and cayenne
For hundreds of years spices that tingle the tongue — such as red pepper flakes, cinnamon and ginger — were thought to be aphrodisiacs. The idea was that if they make the tongue tingle they would make other body parts tingle, too. Chili peppers and these spices quicken the pulse and induce perspiration, which mimics the state of sexual arousal and also stimulates the release of endorphins.
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Strawberries and raspberries
Because of their seductive color, strawberries were called “fruit nipples” and considered powerful aphrodisiacs during the Renaissance.
The ancient Greeks and Romans worshiped and held yearly festivals for the wine god Bacchus, also called Dionysus, who was born from an affair between the god Zeus and a mortal woman. Wine, for the ancients, was not just a nice drink to have with dinner, but thought to be absolutely essential to good health. At that time, water was often filled with dangerous germs, whereas wine was safe. More than just essential to good health, wine was believed to be essential to life, making it one of the first and most popular aphrodisiacs.
Here are some recipes that feature these foods. While I can’t guarantee they will be aphrodisiacs, I can promise they’re delicious.
This dish is best eaten sizzling hot when the aroma of the garlic and saffron are most potent. For a dramatic presentation, cook and serve it in a small iron skillet.
From: “Opera Lover’s Cookbook” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 5 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
12 medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons olive oil
7 to 8 strands saffron
1 jalapeño pepper, sliced
Salt and black pepper
1. Combine the shrimp, garlic, oil, saffron and jalapeño in a small bowl.
2. Heat a small skillet over high heat and sauté the shrimp with the marinade until the shrimp are golden, about 3 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Melty Manchego With Spicy-Sweet Tomato Jam
So many aphrodisiacs in one dish! Lovely Manchego is melted in a pan with a hint of garlic and then spiked with a splash of sweet sherry. The aromas will drive all the guests straight into the kitchen.
The tomato jam, a spicy-sweet mix of tomatoes, sugar, jalapeño and lemon, is simple to make yet adds just the right zing to the warm melty cheese.
From “Opera Lover’s Cookbook” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 35 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
For the tomato jam:
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes
3/4 cup sugar
1 jalapeño pepper, sliced
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/4 teaspoon salt
Cayenne pepper, optional
For the cheese:
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 pound Manchego cheese, cut into 1-inch sections
1 tablespoon sweet sherry
Crusty bread, sliced
For the tomato jam:
Combine the tomatoes, sugar, jalapeño pepper, lemon zest and juice, salt, and cayenne pepper, if using, in a medium saucepan and simmer over medium-low heat for about 30 minutes, until thick. Allow to cool, and then transfer to a small serving bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and reserve.
For the cheese:
1. Heat the oil and garlic in a small nonstick skillet over low heat until the garlic begins to turn golden, about 2 minutes. With a slotted spoon remove the garlic; set aside. Add the cheese in one layer and fry until warm and soft, about 1 minute. Remove the skillet from the heat and add the sherry. Cover the skillet and return it to the heat for 2 to 3 minutes.
2. Serve right in the skillet or slide the warm cheese onto a serving platter and top with the garlic. Serve with the tomato jam and bread on the side.
Flourless Italian Chocolate Cake
This flourless cake, has a crisp, macaroon-like outer layer and a dense, incredibly moist center. As the cake cools, it collapses a little, creating a pretty webbing on the delicious crust.
From: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2011) by Francine Segan
Prep time: 10 minutes
Baking time: 30 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
7 tablespoons (3 1/2 ounces) unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
7 ounces dark chocolate
1 cup granulated sugar
4 eggs, separated
2 tablespoons potato starch
1 tablespoon vanilla
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform cake pan.
2. Melt the butter and chocolate in a bowl in the microwave.
3. In a large bowl, beat the sugar and egg yolks with an electric hand-held mixer until creamy and pale yellow. Beat in the chocolate-butter mixture until creamy. Add the potato starch and vanilla and mix until well combined.
4. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Slowly, using a spatula, fold the egg whites, a little at a time, into the chocolate mixture until combined.
5. Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan. Bake for about 30 minutes, until just set in the center. Allow it to rest for about 30 minutes before cutting it until it collapses and the top crust cracks a bit. Serve with strawberries on the side, if you like.
Main photo: Garlic shrimp and melty Manchego with spicy-sweet tomato jam are tasty aphrodisiacs. Credit: “Opera Lover’s Cookbook” by Francine Segan
Sun, Sea & Olives: By now, lovers of extra virgin olive oil have heard the unhappy news of this season’s harvest in Italy, Spain, and France.
Severe, ongoing drought cut the Spanish harvest in half, which is even more drastic when you consider Spain is responsible for almost half the olive oil consumed worldwide. In France and Italy, it was the dreaded olive fly, Bactrocera oleae (formerly Dacus oleae), that wreaked havoc. Both countries had significant losses. French oil, a minor player on the world scene but beloved by many, was harder hit — a 50 percent loss over previous years, according to the usually authoritative Olive Oil Times. With few exceptions, much of the Italian peninsula was devastated. Central Italy, including Tuscany and Umbria, where much high-quality Italian oil is produced, was particularly hard hit. Total national production is expected to drop by 35 percent over the previous year.
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I witnessed much of this from the mini-farm my family maintains high in the hills between Tuscany and Umbria. We have just 150 trees and ordinarily count on producing upwards of at least 125 liters of superb oil. But this year, our resa (yield) was down to 8 percent (in other words, 100 kilos of olives will produce 8 kilos of oil). We usually expect a resa of at least 12 percent — and our total was lower than expected. Not devastating, no, and the oil was exceptional. We were lucky, though, probably because at our altitude, about 2,000 feet, the olive fly has a hard time surviving.
Let me sidestep quickly to explain the olive fly, la mosca. It’s a chicken-and-egg story, so I’ll plunge into the middle. When the soil warms, between March and May depending on climate and weather, tiny adult female flies emerge from their underground pupal stage and soon start seeking maturing olive fruits in which to deposit eggs. The larvae are monophage, meaning they can only subsist on olive flesh, so mother flies solicitously seek the right environment for their babies. A female may deposit 10 to 12 eggs daily, one per olive. And one female may deposit several generations throughout the warmer months. That’s all it takes. The eggs hatch, the maggots feed on the olive fruit — tunneling through it and exposing the fruit to oxidation and rot — and then they drop and burrow into the earth to await another cycle.
La mosca, we were always told, cannot survive at higher altitudes. I interpreted that to mean something about elevation being so displeasing to the bug that it would not climb to our high mountain valley. Olive fly damage, we believed, was restricted to low, marshy, coastal areas of Italy. But this year’s devastation put that theory to rest. Turns out it’s not the altitude but the climate — cold winters with freezing temperatures, which we normally experience in the mountains, kill off any olive grubs before they hatch.
Unfortunately, the 2013-2014 winter was exceptionally mild, the kind of weather that led us to say, callously, “If this is global warming, I’ll take it!” We congratulated each other on our good fortune.
That turned out to be a big mistake, although we were still lucky in the mountains. Our olives were damaged, but not as devastatingly as other growers even 100 feet lower.
Skeptical, I picked a sample batch and took it to the frantoio, the mill where we take our olives. Should we pick, I asked, or just not bother. “No, no,” said Mr. Landi, the miller. “These are fine. These are the best I’ve seen anywhere around. Go ahead and pick!”
And he was right. I saw cartloads of olives turned away from the mill, in such bad shape — shriveled, moldy, half rotten, destroyed by the mosca — that Landi refused them. The frantoio, which usually operates 24/7 from roughly Oct. 20 till the end of December, closed down in early November. There were no olives left to press.
The inevitable question is: What can be done to prevent this from happening again? There are many suggestions, some fantastical and some deeply realistic, but simply waiting for the climate to re-regulate itself is not on the boards. The climate has changed, irrevocably, as it has throughout the world, and farmers have to live with it.
But an even more pressing question comes from consumers: What can we buy? Whom can we trust? Where can we get reliable oil? Or is there none available at all? (See the list below for my recommendations.)
Once we had our new oil back from the press, we celebrated as usual with an old Tuscan tradition, the zuppa frantoiana, a combined bean and farro soup that is a most elegant way to enjoy fresh, new oil. Coupled with bruschetta (or fettunta), a toasted bread crust liberally bathed in the new oil, it is as close to heaven as a Tuscan olive farmer ever hopes to get.
Tuscan Zuppa Frantoiana (Farro and beans with new oil)
If fresh oil isn’t available, use a robust, well-flavored oil from Tuscany or Umbria; a Picual from Andalusia or a Coratina from Puglia would also be a good choice. This recipe is from my new book, “Virgin Territory,” published in February by Houghton Mifflin.
Prep time: 20 to 30 minutes
Cook time: 1 1/2 hours
Total time: About 2 hours
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
1 1/2 cups dried beans, preferably speckled cranberry beans or borlotti, soaked for several hours or overnight
1 medium carrot, chopped
2 small yellow onions; 1 chopped, 1 left whole
1 or 2 bay leaves
1 1/2 cups farro (emmer wheat berries)
4 garlic cloves, divided
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 to 10 thin slices dense, grainy Italian country-style bread, preferably at least a day old
4 to 6 tablespoons olio nuovo (fresh new olive oil), if available, for serving
2 tablespoons finely minced flat-leaf parsley, or more to taste
1. Drain the beans and transfer to a large saucepan with carrot, the chopped onion and bay leaf. Cover with fresh water to a depth of 1 inch, bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer, covered, until the beans are very soft, 40 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the age of the beans. Keep a kettle of water simmering and add more water to the beans as they absorb the liquid. They should always be covered with water but not swimming in it.
2. The farro should not need soaking, but rinse it briefly in a colander to get rid of any dust. In a medium saucepan, cover the rinsed and drained farro with boiling water to a depth of 1 inch. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the farro is tender.
3. When the beans are very soft, set aside about 1/2 cup whole beans. Discard the bay leaf and purée the remainder of the beans with all their liquid and the vegetables cooked with them. Use a food processor, a stick blender or put them through a food mill.
4. Drain the farro, reserving the liquid, and add to the puréed beans. Stir in the reserved whole beans.
5. Chop the remaining onion with 3 of the garlic cloves until finely minced. Sauté the onion and garlic in 1/4 cup of the oil over medium heat until soft. Add to the pureed beans and mix well. Taste and add salt if necessary and plenty of black pepper.
6. Lightly toast the bread slices. Halve the remaining garlic clove and rub the slices well with garlic on both sides. When ready to serve, set a toast slice in the bottom of each soup plate and dribble a liberal dose of fresh new oil over each slice. Spoon hot soup over the bread and add another dollop of new oil to the top, without stirring it in. Sprinkle with parsley and serve immediately, passing more fresh new oil to pour over the top.
What should I buy?
Despite this year’s calamity in major olive oil producing countries, there is good oil, even excellent oil, available from producers who were able to control the fly or were sufficiently protected by their microclimate. I’ve tasted these oils and can attest that they are superior, although almost universally a little bland compared to years’ past.
Keep in mind that oil from a year ago, the 2013-14 season, if it has been properly handled, is also still excellent. As you should do with any fine food product, check the labels, read the fine print and make sure you’re getting what you pay for. Stricter European Union labeling laws enacted in December 2014 require greater transparency and make it easier to determine where products originate. Dealing with online suppliers (see list below) is often better than going to a local gourmet shop, where they may not know much about fine extra virgin, even though they talk the talk.
Here are the oils I’ve tasted recently and unhesitatingly recommend:
Frescobaldi Laudemio: one of the few good Tuscans available this year, Frescobaldi is part of Laudemio, a consortium of top Tuscan producers of fine extra virgin. Imported by Manicaretti.
Titone: certified organic, from western Sicily, consistent award-winner in international competitions; imported by Manicaretti.
Olio Verde: Castelvetrano, southwestern Sicily, made uniquely from nocellara di Belice olives, harvested very green; imported by Manicaretti.
Pianogrillo: made from Tondo Iblea olives in the hills north of Ragusa in east central Sicily; available from Gustiamo.
Il Tratturello: from Molise, made with Gentile di Larino olives along with other varieties, and harvested very early (usually late September); available from Gustiamo.
Cru di Cures: from Lazio, made with a variety of olives, including relatively rare Raja and Carboncella cultivars; available from Gustiamo.
Benzas: made in Liguria, with traditional taggiasca olive that produces a much sweeter oil than most Italians; available from Gustiamo.
Castillo de Canena Picual: certified biodynamic and organic, made in Andalucia and a good example of what can be done with Picual, a problematic but widely used cultivar.
Castillo de Canena arbequina: made in Andalucia with Arbequina olives; like taggiasca, arbequinas tend to make a softer, sweeter oil.
California Olive Ranch, Limited Reserve: first new harvest oil from California, often sold out by March or April, but other COR olive oils are available in retail outlets and from California Olive Ranch’s online shop.
Séka Hills: made from Arbequina olives grown and produced by the indigenous Yocha Dehe Wintun nation in the Capay Valley, Yolo County, northwest of Sacramento; Seka Hills is also packaging in a 3-liter bag-in-box, a great, convenient way to maintain extra virgin in top conditions — see its website for more information. Available from Market Hall Foods and other retailers.
Morganster, Stellenbosch: a Tuscan-style oil from South Africa, imported by The Rogers Collection, available from retail outlets and online at Amazon.com. Southern Hemisphere oils, harvested in spring, are available in the U.S. usually in summer.
Finally, while writing this I received a sample of RAW, an excellent Palestinian new harvest oil, unfiltered and with great spicy flavors, produced by Canaan Fair Trade in Jenin in the northern West Bank. The Eastern Mediterranean has a long history of coping with hot weather problems such as the olive fly — this may be where Italian and French producers need to go to figure out how to work with new climate challenges. Available from www.canaanfairtrade.com.
Trustworthy olive oil importers and distributors
The following are importers and distributors whom I’ve learned to trust over the years. Some are online purveyors, while others distribute through retail outlets.
Gustiamo imports Italian food products, available through the company’s web site and in retail outlets.
Manicaretti imports and distributes Italian food products, available in many retail outlets.
Market Hall Foods retails fine food products, including imported and California olive oils.
Olio2go imports mostly Italian olive oils, selling through its website and at a retail shop in Fairfax, Virginia.
The Rogers Collection imports and distributes high-quality oils and other food products from Spain, Italy, Greece, Tunisia and South Africa.
Main photo: Despite a bad harvest, plenty of quality olive oils are available if you know where to look. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Winter is about the only time of year that the description “rib-sticking” actually sounds appealing. We burn more calories in the winter as we are shoveling more snow, or, here in Southern California, as we complain about how it’s freezing when the temperature drops to 60 F. Winter is when our stew or roast recipes come out and when we love to cook with bacon, cheese, and cream. Let’s not forget that there are great winter vegetables and the way to cook them is not the way we want to do in the summer.
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I love winter vegetables, including all the root vegetables as well as leafy greens like Swiss chard, spinach, collard, kale, and many others. One dish I make often is inspired by the cooking of the Savoy in France. It is a potato gratin, but my twist is to form it into a kind of potato pie that is stuffed with rainbow Swiss chard. Rainbow Swiss chard is simply a bunch of multicolored Swiss chard stems bunch together for sale by the purveyor. You’re not using the stems in this recipe so you won’t actually see a lot of color other than green in the finished dish.
You’ll want to use baking potatoes, like russets, rather than boiling potatoes like Yukon gold, because you’ll want the potatoes to disintegrate slightly to form a kind of “crust.” This is a rich dish, so if you’re making it to accompany something I suggest something simple, like roast chicken or pan-seared chicken breast or even just a salad.
Potato Gratin Stuffed With Swiss Chard
This is a perfect winter vegetables dish made with thin slices of potato that form the bottom of a kind of pie filled with Swiss chard cooked with bacon and salt pork and then covered with another layer of sliced potatoes before being baked.
Yield: 6 side-dish servings
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: About 1 1/4 hours
Total time: About 1 1/2 hours
1 1/2 pound Swiss chard, leaves only, save stems for another purpose
1 ounce slab bacon, chopped
1/2 ounce salt pork, chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Salt to taste
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
One 1-pound baking potato, peeled and cut into 1/8-inch thick slices
2 ounces Gruyère, comte, or vacherin cheese, sliced
1/2 cup heavy cream
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the Swiss chard leaves until soft, about 10 minutes. Drain well and chop. Set aside in a bowl.
2. Preheat to oven to 350 F.
3. In a large cast iron skillet, cook the bacon and salt pork over medium-low heat until beginning to get crispy, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until it is sizzling then remove all to the bowl with the Swiss chard and season with salt.
4. Add 2 tablespoons butter to the skillet and, once it melts, arrange half of the sliced potatoes, slightly overlapped in a spiral covering the entire bottom of the skillet. Salt lightly. Spoon the Swiss chard mixture on top of the potatoes, spreading it around to cover all the potatoes. Salt lightly. Arrange the remaining potatoes in an overlapped spiral covering the Swiss chard completely. Salt lightly. Arrange the cheese on top of the potatoes, dot with the remaining butter and pour the cream over everything.
5. Move the pan to the oven and bake until golden brown and bubbling, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool 5 minutes then cut into wedges for serving.
Main photo: Potato Gratin Stuffed With Swiss Chard. Credit: Clifford A. Wright