Articles in Cooking

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

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

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

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

Artisanal salt adds unique flavor

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

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

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

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

Good stories make good salt

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

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

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

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

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

Balance: Minerality vs. salinity

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

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

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

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

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

Terroir: As vital in salt as it is in wine

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

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

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

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

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

The texture of artisanal salt adds contrast

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artisanal salt gives a pop of flavor at the finish

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

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

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

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

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

The unexpected: Artisanal salt inspires creative chefs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Junior’s

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

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

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

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

Veniero’s

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

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

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

Greenblatt’s Deli

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

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

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

Pure Cheesecakes

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

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

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

Sweet T’s

http://www.zingermansbakehouse.com

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

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

Eileen’s Special Cheesecakes

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

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

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

Zingerman’s Bakehouse

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

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

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

Just add toppings

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

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

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

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

A must: good cream cheese

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

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

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

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

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

And most often, I order them online.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Culinary workout

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

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

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

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

Vacation on a working ranch

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

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

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

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

Old West style

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

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

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

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

Mastering open-flame cooking

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rise and shine

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

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

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

Hearty breakfast

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

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

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

Spice-filled afternoon

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

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

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

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

Manning the grill

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

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

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

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

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Gostner Schwaige

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

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

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


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

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Eating for muscle, rather than taste, is a very different approach. Credit: Thinkstock.com

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson recently shared his muscle-building meal plan, startling some with the more than 4,000 calories and 36 ounces of cod he consumes on a daily basis. While my Oklahoma-raised husband nary includes seafood on the menu, he has been “eating for muscle” since high school, as he has trained and competed in wrestling, bodybuilding and power-lifting.

Over the past decade, I have been forced to cede significant kitchen territory to culinary enigmas such as chocolate-flavored whey protein, pink-hued pre-workout powders and multi-piece shaker bottles. As a result, I have observed at close range the food rules of a deliberately anti-foodie subculture, where positive nitrogen balance triumphs over palatability.

 Protein is king

 

When it comes to muscle-building, lean proteins are the way to go. Credit: Thinkstock.com

When it comes to muscle-building, lean proteins are the way to go. Credit: Thinkstock.com

A veritable army of protein-rich comestibles rules our kitchen. Dozens of eggs, pounds upon pounds of lean meat and gallons of milk colonize the refrigerator. Large, barrel-like canisters of protein powder and accompanying supplements set up camp in one of the largest cupboards. Far from a child’s after-school snack, skim string cheeses populate the dairy drawer, ready in waiting for when hunger strikes.

Food is fuel

Each meal is planned to have a specific amount of carbohydrate, fat and protein. Credit: Thinkstock.com

Each meal is planned to have a specific amount of carbohydrate, fat and protein. Credit: Thinkstock.com

Anyone following an eating plan like this calculates each meal to provide a specific amount of carbohydrate, fat and protein, referred to as “macros.” This means that seasoning, texture and overall flavor may fall to the wayside. For example, on the morning of my husband’s final bodybuilding competition, he ate his last meal: a boiled chicken breast and a side of cooked oatmeal with cinnamon. He ate it cold. Out of a plastic container. Standing up. He might not have tasted it at all. It was just fuel. One last fill up before the show.

Taste is secondary

Protein shakes may come in options like chocolate malt and banana cream, but they aren't necessarily for foodies. Credit: Thinkstock.com

Protein shakes may come in options like chocolate malt and banana cream, but they aren’t necessarily for foodies. Credit: Thinkstock.com

When protein commands the kitchen, flavor may be highly compromised, as foods take on a decidedly chalky taste. With options like chocolate malt, cinnamon graham cracker and banana cream, protein powder flavors may mimic a dessert menu, but they taste nothing like it. While there are certainly vegetarians and vegans who successfully follow muscle-building diets, it is unlikely many foodies could follow this regimen.

Cheating is part of the plan

Bodybuilding resources promote scheduling “cheat meals,” food breaks that understandably relieve the monotony of the diet. Credit: Thinkstock.com

Bodybuilding resources promote scheduling “cheat meals,” food breaks that understandably relieve the monotony of the diet. Credit: Thinkstock.com

Not all muscle-building meals are so profoundly ascetic. Bodybuilding resources abound that promote scheduling “cheat meals,” food breaks that understandably relieve the monotony of the diet, enhancing compliance and preserving sanity. Cheat meals also purportedly boost hormones and insulin sensitivity, which can be affected by prolonged calorie restriction during stricter phases of the pre-competition diet.

Bulk is good

Key to a muscle-building diet is to prepare food ahead of time. Credit: Thinkstock.com

Key to a muscle-building diet is to prepare food ahead of time. Credit: Thinkstock.com

Building muscle bulk is one thing. Preparing food in bulk, known as meal prep, is another. Take, for example, the ingredients for one week of my husband’s lunches: 6 pounds of ground turkey, two cups of whole grain pasta, four cups of chopped vegetables and another four of greens, plus olive oil and low-calorie salad dressing. He prepares these meals in a fury on Sunday evenings, transforming our kitchen counter into a Ford-inspired assembly line. In under an hour, he cranks out five identical lunches, programmed for macros and packed into transportable containers. You can judge a muscle-building kitchen by how many pieces of Tupperware it holds.

Meal prep is not cooking

Meal prep is about efficiency, convenience and perhaps above all, adherence. Credit: Thinkstock.com

Meal prep is about efficiency, convenience and perhaps above all, adherence. Credit: Thinkstock.com

Make no mistake. Meal prep is not exactly cooking. It lacks cooking’s therapeutic value, its sensual processes, its variation and its creativity. Meal prep is mass assembly, measured and calculated. Meal prep is about efficiency, convenience and perhaps above all, adherence. Because sticking to the plan facilitates meeting one’s goals. It means making weight or achieving a competition-ready physique at just the right time — and if everything falls into place, winning.

Main photo: Eating to build and maintain muscles, rather than taste, is a very different approach to your diet. Credit: Thinkstock.com

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Andrew Zimmern takes a simple grilled broccoli rabe, tosses it with cooked pasta and tops it with easy-to-make lemony bread crumbs. Credit: Copyright Madeleine Hill

Pasta is the perfect summer food. It’s easy to cook, light, healthy and can be served in all sorts of exciting ways. It can be paired with virtually anything — grilled or even raw veggies, cheese, seafood and meat. Pasta is great hot or cold. It is versatile enough for a quick midweek meal or an elegant weekend dinner party. Fancy or simple, it’s always a favorite for potlucks and backyard barbecues, and pasta can be served as a side or main dish.

Here’s what Andrew Zimmern, Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich and other celebrity chefs are serving this summer.

Taking it to the grill

Andrew Zimmern, host of Travel Channel's "Bizarre Foods," adds grilled foods to his pasta for a quick, flavorful meal. Credit: Copyright Andrew Zimmern

Andrew Zimmern, host of Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods,” adds grilled foods to his pasta for a quick, flavorful meal. Credit: Copyright Andrew Zimmern

Andrew Zimmern does wonders with simple grilled broccoli rabe, tossing it with cooked pasta and topping it with easy-to-make lemony bread crumbs. “You’ll freak, in a good way,”  says the colorful Zimmern. He explains the dish’s inspiration: “I was having dinner at Chi Spacca in Los Angeles and one of the side dishes we tried was charred broccoli rabe drizzled with olive oil and lemon. It was perfect. I thought about this dish every day for weeks! So I merged the ideas and created this elegant summer pasta.”

Charred Broccoli Rabe With Chitarra & Lemony Bread Crumbs

Originally published in Andrew Zimmern’s “Kitchen Adventures” on foodandwine.com.

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

For the bread crumbs

1/4 pound day-old Italian bread, torn into chunks

1/4 cup lightly packed flat-leaf parsley leaves

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

1 small garlic clove, minced

Salt

Pepper

For the pasta

1 pound broccoli rabe, stem tips trimmed

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Salt

Pepper

1 pound chitarra or spaghetti

3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, for serving

Directions

1. Make the bread crumbs

2. Preheat the oven to 375 F. In a food processor, pulse the bread with the parsley, olive oil, zest and garlic until coarse crumbs form. Season with salt and pepper, then spread on a large rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 7 to 10 minutes, until golden and crisp; let cool.

3. Make the pasta.

4. Light a grill. In a large bowl, toss the broccoli rabe with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill over high heat, turning occasionally, until crisply tender and lightly charred all over, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a work surface and let cool slightly, then finely chop.

5. Meanwhile, in a large saucepan of salted boiling water, cook the pasta until al dente. Reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking water, then drain the pasta.

6. Wipe out the saucepan and heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil in it until shimmering. Add the garlic and crushed red pepper and cook over moderately high heat, stirring, until fragrant and just starting to brown, about 1 minute. Add the pasta, broccoli rabe, reserved cooking water, lemon juice and the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and cook, tossing, until the pasta is coated, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

7. Transfer the pasta to a serving bowl and scatter some bread crumbs on top. Serve right away, passing additional bread crumbs at the table.

Make ahead: The lemony bread crumbs can be refrigerated for up to 4 days. Toast in a 325 F oven for 5 minutes before using.

Using sweet ripe tomatoes

Mario Batali's penne with sweet ripe tomatoes makes for a classic summer dish. Credit: Copyright “Molto Gusto,” by Mario Batali

Mario Batali’s penne with sweet ripe tomatoes makes for a classic summer dish. Credit: Copyright “Molto Gusto,” by Mario Batali

Mario Batali’s penne with raw tomatoes is a perfect way to enjoy summer sweet ripe tomatoes. Like all the recipes in “Molto Gusto,” this one is an Italian classic. “What seems to be all the rage in the smart world of foodies is simply an extension of the traditional Italian table,” says Batali, winner of numerous awards, including “Man of the Year” in the chef category by GQ Magazine in 1999. Batali’s excellent recipe makes a great summer meal, followed by a simple green salad.

Cherry on the top

Lidia Bastianich's penne with cherry tomatoes, basil and mozzarella is a no-cook alternative. Credit: Copyright Marcus Nilsson from “Lidia’s Favorite Recipes Cookbook” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013)

Lidia Bastianich’s penne with cherry tomatoes, basil and mozzarella is a no-cook alternative. Credit: Copyright Marcus Nilsson from “Lidia’s Favorite Recipes Cookbook” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013)

Lidia Bastianich, a regular on public television since 1998 (in 2014, she launched her fifth TV series, “Lidia’s Kitchen”), has taught Americans hundreds of ways to enjoy pasta in her dozen-plus cookbooks. Penne with cherry tomatoes, basil and mozzarella is a no-cook condiment for pasta that’s perfect for the lazy days of summer. For a juicier taste, she advises using cherry tomatoes sold still on the vine.

Vietnamese beef and noodle salad

Katie Lee, co-host of Food Network’s “The Kitchen,” makes a cool and simple Vietnamese beef and noodle salad bowl. Credit: Copyright Lucy Schaeffer, from “Endless Summer Cookbook” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2015)

Katie Lee, co-host of Food Network’s “The Kitchen,” makes a cool and simple Vietnamese beef and noodle salad bowl. Credit: Copyright Lucy Schaeffer, from “Endless Summer Cookbook” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2015)

Katie Lee, co-host of Food Network’s “The Kitchen,” shares more than 100 recipes in her latest book “Endless Summer Cookbook” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2015), such as this cool and simple-to-make Vietnamese beef and noodle salad bowl. Lee says, “I put all of the items in separate bowls and let people make their own combinations.” Customize your own bowl with beef, noodles, dressing, cucumber, carrots and herbs.

Pasta sushi

Pasta sushi makes a terrific appetizer on warm summer nights.  Credit: Copyright Lucy Schaeffer, from “Pasta Modern” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2013)

Pasta sushi makes a terrific appetizer on warm summer nights. Credit: Copyright Lucy Schaeffer, from “Pasta Modern” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2013)

Italy’s two-star Michelin chef Davide Scabin invented “pasta sushi” a few years ago by substituting pasta shells for the white rice, making beautiful, Japanese-inspired but Italian-flavored, one-bite appetizers. Boil the shells, toss with lemon juice and olive oil, and fill with your favorite seafood from simple tuna salad to fancy poached lobster topped with caviar. “I use mono-origin kamut flour pasta, Monograno Felicetti, because it stays firm and tastes great at room temperature,” Scabin says.

Terrific as an appetizer on warm summer nights, set out a variety of fillings — oysters, smoked salmon, minced herbs, cream cheese — and let guests customize their own sushi pasta.

Using ancient grain pasta

A no-cook sauce with Greek yogurt, sour cream and tahini top this grain pasta. Credit: Copyright Erin Kunkel, from “Simply Ancient Grains” (Ten Speed Press, 2015)

A no-cook sauce with Greek yogurt, sour cream and tahini top this grain pasta. Credit: Copyright Erin Kunkel, from “Simply Ancient Grains” (Ten Speed Press, 2015)

Maria Speck, author of the new “Simply Ancient Grains” and “Ancient Grains for Modern Meals,” was a winner of the Julia Child Award and honored for writing one of the 100 best cookbooks of the past 25 years by Cooking Light. She sings the praises of pasta, noting that “even if your cupboards are bare, you can create an alluring meal in minutes.”

Among the ancient grain pasta she recommends are farro and Kamut pasta.

This luscious no-cook Mediterranean-influenced sauce with thick Greek yogurt, sour cream and tahini is spiced up with red chili pepper, garlic and a sprinkle of aromatic nigella and sesame seeds. Serve it alone with a peppery arugula salad or as a side to grilled steak, burgers, lamb chops or chicken.

Using vegetable extracts

Red cabbage juice produces pasta with a deep purple color. Credit: Copyright Francine Segan, from “Pasta Modern” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2013)

Red cabbage juice produces pasta with a deep purple color. Credit: Copyright Francine Segan, from “Pasta Modern” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2013)

At Milan’s Michelin-star restaurant VUN, chef Andrea Aprea cooks pasta in vegetable extracts. Here it’s red cabbage juice, which produces pasta with a glorious purple color and lovely earthy flavor. It’s topped with creamy burrata cheese for sweet richness, a touch of smoked fish for depth, pine nuts for crunch and watercress for fresh brightness. It’s a thrilling combination of vibrant colors, rich flavors and varied textures.

Couscous salad

A summer couscous salad uses light and fresh raw summer vegetables. Credit: Copyright Steve Giralt, from “Healthy Pasta: The Sexy, Skinny and Smart Way to Eat Your Favorite Food” (Alfred A. Knopf)

A summer couscous salad uses light and fresh raw summer vegetables. Credit: Copyright Steve Giralt, from “Healthy Pasta: The Sexy, Skinny, and Smart Way to Eat Your Favorite Food” (Alfred A. Knopf)

Joseph Bastianich, television celebrity, restaurant owner, wine expert and son of Lidia Bastianich, teams up with his sister, Tanya Bastianich Manuali, to write “Healthy Pasta: The Sexy, Skinny, and Smart Way to Eat Your Favorite Food.” Try their couscous salad, which is ideal for the summer because it’s light and uses fresh, crunchy, raw summer vegetables.  Make it with carrots, celery and peppers, or add your own favorites such as raw sugar snap peas.

Making a healthier pasta

Fresh lobster meat and corn liven up this summer pasta. Credit: Copyright Steve Giralt, from “Healthy Pasta: The Sexy, Skinny and Smart Way to Eat Your Favorite Food” (Alfred A. Knopf)

Fresh lobster meat and corn liven up this summer pasta. Credit: Copyright Steve Giralt, from “Healthy Pasta: The Sexy, Skinny, and Smart Way to Eat Your Favorite Food” (Alfred A. Knopf)

“Lobster and corn is the perfect summer combination, conjuring up visions of New England’s seashore,” say Tanya Bastianich Manuali and Joseph Bastianich, who have created more than 100 recipes each under 500 calories, like this simple-to-make elegant dish. Tanya explains the health benefits to eating pasta cooked just until firm or al dente: “A pasta with bite means you have to chew more, and chewing stimulates your digestive enzymes. More chewing also means a longer and slower eating time, which allows the body to feel satisfied.”

Casarecce with Corn and Lobster

From “Healthy Pasta: The Sexy, Skinny and Smart Way to Eat Your Favorite Food” (Alfred A. Knopf) by Joseph Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali

Two 1 1/2-pound lobsters will yield about 2 1/2 cups lobster meat. Cooking the pasta in the lobster cooking water will lend a subtle taste of the sea to the dish. You could also add the corn cobs to the cooking water to further incorporate that flavor as well. Casarecce are tube-shaped pasta, rolled like a scroll. You can substitute gemelli.

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

2 (1½-pound) lobsters

2 cups low-sodium chicken broth

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 ounces pancetta, diced

2 celery stalks, chopped (about 1 cup), plus 1/2 cup tender leaves

2 cups chopped scallions

4 ears of corn, kernels removed from the cobs (about 2 cups)

2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, chopped

Kosher salt

Crushed red pepper flakes

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 pound casarecce

1 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped

1 cup fresh Italian parsley leaves, chopped

Directions

1. Bring a very large pot of salted water to a boil. Once it’s boiling, add the lobsters. Cover and boil until the lobsters are cooked through, about 10 to 12 minutes. Rinse under cold water and let cool. Return the water to a boil for the pasta.

2. Remove the tiny legs from the bodies of the lobsters and put them into a small saucepan with the chicken broth. Simmer while you prepare the other ingredients, then strain, discarding the lobster parts.

3. Remove the lobster meat from the tail and large claws and cut into 1/2-inch chunks.

4. In a large skillet over medium heat, add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the pancetta and cook until the fat is rendered, about 4 minutes. Add the chopped celery and cook until it begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the scallions and cook until wilted, about 3 minutes. Add the corn kernels and toss to coat in the oil. Add the thyme and season with salt and red pepper flakes. Add the white wine, bring to a simmer, and cook until reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Add the strained chicken broth and let simmer while you cook the pasta.

5. Add the casarecce to the lobster cooking water. When the sauce is ready and the pasta is al dente, add the lobster meat, basil and parsley to the sauce. Remove the pasta with a spider or small strainer and add directly to the sauce, reserving the pasta water. Toss to coat the pasta with the sauce, adding a splash of pasta water if the pasta seems dry. Drizzle with the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Serve immediately.

Main photo: Andrew Zimmern takes a simple grilled broccoli rabe, tosses it with cooked pasta and tops it with easy-to-make lemony bread crumbs. Credit: Copyright Madeleine Hill

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Tossing the ingredients for maze-gohan. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

These days, many are choosing a gluten-free lifestyle. But artificially contrived gluten-free products such as pasta, bread and baked goods can be disappointing. With its rich tradition of rice-based dishes, Japanese cuisine beautifully suits a gluten-free diet. Here are six delicious, easy to prepare, gluten-free Japanese rice dishes for spring and summer.

Stir-fried rice with hijiki and Parmesan

Stir-fried rice with hijiki and Parmesan

Stir-fried rice with hijiki and Parmesan is an inspired fusion creation. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Stir-fried rice dishes make use of one- or two-day-old rice and other ingredients that happen to be on hand. This recipe is one I invented for American audiences to showcase hijiki, my favorite Japanese seaweed. Rich in dietary fiber and minerals, it also has a pleasantly crunchy texture and tastes of the sea. It uses the black hijiki along with Parmesan cheese, cilantro and ginger.

The cheese is the secret to the success of this dish, whose recipe was in my first cookbook, “The Japanese Kitchen.” Fifteen years later, hijiki is much more widely available in this country.

Maze-gohan with parsley, shiso and egg

Maze-gohan, or tossed rice, with parsley, dried purple shiso leaf and egg. Credit: Copyright 2015 by Hiroko Shimbo

Maze-gohan, or tossed rice, with parsley, dried purple shiso leaf and egg. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Maze-gohan, translated as “tossed rice,” is a simple dish of cooked rice tossed with flavorings. This version uses chopped parsley, dried purple shiso leaves and scrambled egg — ingredients that elevate the flavor, color and texture of plain cooked rice into a festive dish. Western-style flavorings can be used instead, such as ground black pepper, crisp butter-browned sliced garlic, finely chopped parsley and toasted pine nuts.

Maze-gohan goes well with any protein dish, such as fish, chicken or meat.

Donburi with teriyaki steak

Donburi with teriyaki steak. You can also substitute chicken. Credit: Copyright 2015 by Hiroko Shimbo

Donburi with teriyaki steak. You can also substitute chicken. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Donburi dishes combine cooked rice with a topping of separately cooked ingredients and sauce. This one is a beef lover’s favorite: I cook the steak in a skillet, cut it into cubes and flavor them with a sizzling sauce of shoyu (Japanese soy sauce) and mirin (Japanese sweet cooking wine) to create everyone’s favorite teriyaki sauce.

When it’s time to serve the donburi, put the teriyaki beef and sauce over freshly cooked rice for a quick, mouthwatering dish. The sauce trickles down and gives its delicious flavor to the rice. A similar dish can be made with chicken teriyaki.

Takikomi-gohan with chorizo and peas

Takikomi-gohan, a sort of Japanese paella, with chorizo and peas.

Takikomi-gohan, a sort of Japanese paella, with chorizo and peas. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Takikomi-gohan is rice that is cooked with seasonal vegetables and/or seafood or poultry in kelp stock or dashi stock. It’s like Japanese paella or risotto.

Spring pea rice is a traditional version of takikomi-gohan for spring or summer. The key to producing the best green pea rice is to blanch the peas in stock, then cook the rice in that stock and add the briefly cooked peas toward the end of rice cooking. This method keeps the peas very green and firm.

I emphasize the paella comparison by adding chorizo as well as ginger. Unlike paella or risotto, though, takikomi-gohan usually has no added butter or oil. This allows all the ingredients to speak for themselves in the dish.

Takikomi-gohan with mushrooms

This takikomi-gohan is made with three kinds of mushrooms. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

This takikomi-gohan is made with three kinds of mushrooms. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

For a version of takikomi-gohan studded with mushrooms, I use shimeji mushrooms for savory umami flavor, maitake for their fragrance and king mushrooms for their distinctive texture.

For all these rice dishes, I recommend that you use freshly picked vegetables and mushrooms from your local market or store. The natural taste and sweetness will come through.

Corn rice with shoyu and butter

Corn rice with shoyu and butter is an irresistible combination.

Corn rice with shoyu and butter is an irresistible combination. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

This version of takikomi-gohan is my favorite summer rice dish. I toss the steaming hot, corn-studded rice with the butter and shoyu. As the butter melts in the hot rice with shoyu, it creates a rich and savory flavor that everyone loves.

The diverse world of Japanese cuisine contains hundreds of such naturally gluten-free dishes. If you are looking for more recipes, consult my two books, “The Japanese Kitchen” and “Hiroko’s American Kitchen.” Both are widely available and contain detailed instructions to make some of the dishes described here.

Corn and Ginger Rice with Shoyu and Butter

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

2 ears corn

2 1/4 cups short or medium grain polished white rice, rinsed and soaked 10 minutes, then drained

2 1/2 cups kelp stock or low-sodium vegetable stock

1 teaspoon sea salt

1 1/2 ounces peeled ginger, finely julienned (1/2 cup)

1 tablespoon shoyu (Japanese soy sauce)

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

Directions

1. Remove the corn husks and quickly grill the ears over a medium open flame on a gas stove, turning them until the entire surface becomes lightly golden. Or, boil the corn in salted water for 1 minute.

2. Cut each ear of corn in half. Place each half ear on the cut end in a large, shallow bowl and use a knife to separate the individual kernels from the cob. Repeat with all the pieces. You will have about 1 1/2 cups of kernels.

3. Place the drained rice and the stock in a medium heavy pot. Sprinkle the corn, salt and ginger evenly over the rice. Cover the pot with a lid and cook the rice over moderately high heat for 3 to 4 minutes or until the stock comes to a full boil.

4. Turn the heat to medium-low and cook the rice for 6 to 7 minutes, or until all the water is absorbed. Turn the heat to very low and cook for 10 minutes.

5. Remove the lid and add the soy sauce and butter. With a spatula, gently and quickly toss and mix the rice. Divide the rice into small bowls and serve.

Main photo: Tossing the ingredients for maze-gohan. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

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Michel Guérard in the kitchen of his cooking school. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Before the advent of TV’s “MasterChef,” master chef Michel Guérard was already on the gastronomic front lines. He was one of the key activators of the nouvelle cuisine movement in France in the 1970s, which refreshed France’s culture of heavy, rich dishes, and has been pushing for light, healthy, seasonal food ever since.

Today, he continues that commitment in the cooking school he’s recently opened on his estate.

Teaching chefs to cook for health

Les Prés d'Eugénie, the hotel and restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Les Prés d’Eugénie, the hotel and restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Once a pioneer, always a pioneer. At an age (over 80) when most of his contemporaries have long since hung up their chef’s whites, Guérard is still cooking. His recently opened Ecole de Cuisine de Santé  (School of Healthy Cooking) is so innovative that it puts him once again at the avant-garde of world food. This long-dreamed-of project is located in the spectacular setting of Eugénie-les-Bains, a thermal spa near Biarritz, in southwestern France near the border with Spain.

At Les Prés d’Eugénie, Guérard also runs several hotels, restaurants and a treatment center.

Food as a cure for what ails us

The culinary school from outside. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

The culinary school from outside. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Guérard has always believed that we truly are what we eat, and that food — fresh, light food — can cure us from many of the illnesses that beset the modern world.

The cooking school is aimed at professional chefs and at people preparing food in schools, hospitals, homes for the elderly and for others with special dietary requirements. It brings together current knowledge on key medical problems – such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease — and proposes eating plans for each. The teaching focuses on cuisine that is both healthy — with reduced calories, fats and sugar — and pleasurable, in what Guérard calls cuisine minceur.

“You must never compromise on flavor,” says Guérard. Situated in a luminous, state-of-the-art kitchen overlooking the gardens of Les Prés d’Eugénie, l’Ecole de Cuisine de Santé offers professional courses for groups of up to 10 cooks for one or two weeks.

Beyond a diet of grated carrots

Spiced crab on grapefruit jelly with citrus mousse. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Spiced crab on grapefruit jelly with citrus mousse. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

“When I started observing what the patients who came for the thermal cures were eating, I too was depressed by the heaps of grated carrots that were placed before them, topped at the last moment with improvised dressings,” Guérard says.

“I saw an opening for a new kind of healthy cuisine that could inspire people with special needs in their diets to look forward to eating, and to make profound changes in their eating habits that would remain with them for life.”

In his spiced crab on grapefruit jelly with citrus mousse, Guérard demonstrates some of his core principles: that seafood and meats can be cooked without fats, butters or creams to produce vibrant dishes. Even dishes on the three-star Michelin Grand Table menu are cooked with natural flair and a light touch. For example, fresh herbs and citrus notes add zest and flavor to shellfish without leaving the diner feeling heavy.

Slimming cuisine based on research

Pigeon is cooked with shrimp, bay leaf and tangerine. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Pigeon is cooked with shrimp, bay leaf and tangerine. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Cuisine minceur is not achieved by simply reducing fats, sugars and calories. It is based on experience and nutritional research. After Guérard published his first book on the subject in the mid-1970s, “La Grande Cuisine Minceur,” he was approached by the Nestlé group to help them develop a line of frozen foods that would reflect the healthy approach of his new cuisine.

“I was fortunate to continue this consultancy for 27 years, and thus to have access to the latest scientific research into diet, nutrition, physical exercise, thermal treatments and every aspect of this discipline,” he says. “And throughout, I never lost my conviction that pleasure must always play an important part in eating, no matter what the calorie count!”

You can eat dessert on a diet

A strawberry dessert. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

A strawberry dessert. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

The desserts at the restaurant and in the cuisine minceur cookbooks ­have also been overhauled. (No surprise there, for Guérard is a master pastry chef who won the Meilleur Ouvrier de France, which honors the creative trade professions, for pâtisserie in 1958). Each dessert recipe comes with a calorie count that varies depending on which sweetener has been used, be it sugar, honey, fructose, xylitol or aspartame. Most three-course meal combinations total less than 600 calories, so they are well suited to those who are cooking for the popular 5:2 diet (in which people are limited to 500-600 calories for two days out of seven). For those who want to learn more about Guérard’s cuisine, his seminal cookbook has recently been translated into English. “Eat Well and Stay Slim: The Essential Cuisine Minceur” offers full instructions for dozens of his delicious dishes.

A dynamic and lasting legacy

The restaurant dining room. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

The restaurant dining room. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Guérard has never abandoned his commitment to lighter, healthier food, as the new cooking school attests. Today, his philosophy is bearing fruit as the word about cuisine minceur and its methods spreads within the food community in France and beyond. It’s a fitting legacy for such a dynamic grand master, whose revolutions in the kitchen continue to impact on our eating habits, every day.

Main photo: Chef Michel Guérard. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

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