Articles in Cooking
The ancient Roman seaside city of Rimini, about 75 miles southeast of Bologna and birthplace of legendary film director Federico Fellini, evokes la dolce vita in more ways than one. If Bologna is dubbed “Bologna la grassa,” or “Bologna the fat,” for its celebrated cuisine, the ancient road from Bologna to Rimini, once a vital trade route through Emilia’s rich plains, is today the nerve center for the artisanal gelato industry.
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So when the Italian Trade Commission recently invited me to join the jury for the Gelato World Tour Finals in Rimini, I accepted gratefully. Over three days in September, I watched 24 gelatièri, small gelato producers, from around the world, make about 14,330 pounds of their nominated recipes in Piazzale Fellini. The frenzied contestants from three continents gathered in Rimini to churn out their entries under big tents, whipping up fresh batches throughout the day to keep up with a crowd of 70,000 that was slurping its way through the expo. They were breaking all the flavor rules which, when it comes to cuisine in Italy, can be unbending. “It’s about inclusion,” said James Coleridge, a Canadian from Vancouver who won the 2014 Gelato World Tour North America title. “People are using Persian ingredients like saffron and rosewater and Japanese salted cherries; [vendors from] the Philippines are making gelato with purple yams.”
On the final day, “Drowned Almond” was declared the winner. The champion, John Crowl of Sydney, Australia, announced that his shop already had “a huge line out the door and down the street following the news,” and that his winning flavor, a fusion of Madagascar vanilla bean gelato, roasted caramelized almonds, Kenyan coffee and salted caramel sauce, was being made nonstop all day to keep up with the demand. “This award proves that even a foreigner can be a great gelato artisan if he or she studies hard and works with passion and tenacity every day,” he said.
The judging wasn’t easy. “Grumpy’s Heart” (Italy), a revelation of Sicilian pistachios that are considered princely even in Italy, placed second. “Hazelnut Heart” (Italy), a blissful delivery of toasted Piedmont hazelnuts, took third. Other juror favorites were “Texas Pecan Pie” (from Austin, Texas), based on Texas pecans, Texas whiskey and caramel; and Sollér Orange Sorbet with Mint and Cardamom (Spain). Gelatière Salvatore Versace, who emigrated from Italy to the U.S., won hearts with his rags-to-riches tale about making it big in Miami with a string of gelato parlors. He captured a “People’s Honorable Mention” with his “Scents of Sicily,” which reproduced authentic flavors of the Sicilian confection using tangy sheep’s milk ricotta and blood oranges.
With nearly half of the finalists from countries outside Italy, it became clear the taste for gelato, which began its journey in an 18th-century Italian pushcart, is circling the globe at a dizzying pace.
How this happened to an artisanal food is, ironically, a function of industrial history.
Gelato is at least as old as Mesopotamia, but its modern history began in Bologna in 1931, when Otello Cattabriga pioneered the first machine that could scrape, stir and incorporate air into a liquid gelato base to create its characteristic structure and creaminess. In 1934, he added an electrical motor, creating the first vertical batch freezer. In 1946, Poerio and Bruto Carpigiani, two brothers from Bologna, patented the first automatic machine, making it possible to produce gelato in larger quantities. The equipment was designed for small-scale gelato production. In just a few years, gelaterias proliferated in Italy and throughout the world.
Today, Carpigiani, sponsor of the Gelato World Tour, is said to be the largest artisanal gelato machine company in the world. A gelato school and museum are integral parts of its headquarters on the outskirts of Bologna. Unlike the training of a chef, which takes years of grueling experience, initiates can study gelato at the Bologna school and come out with a toque in four weeks.
Not to say that making gelato is quick and easy. Even when using specialized dairy bases, fruit, nut and chocolate pastes manufactured for gelatièri, gelato producers have to transform the ingredients into a finished product. They can make their gelato using these bases, or they can make it from scratch. Some combine the bases with fresh ingredients. “Gelato isn’t made like paint-by-number because it’s made by hand,” said finalist Matthew Lee of Tèo Gelato, Espresso and Bella Vita, of Austin, Texas, “but the best ones are made from scratch.” Like Lee, Coleridge uses only raw, unprocessed ingredients daily. “Maybe three people out of 500 are making truly artisanal gelato,” he said.
True gelato: It’s artisanal, it’s fresh
You might ask, just what is meant by “artisanal,” or handmade, in the world of gelato? In nearby Parma, cheese artigiani still make their 800-year-old Parmigiano-Reggiano by hand using state-of-the art stainless-steel vats and temperature-controlled storage rooms. Likewise, gelato makers today practice an ancient craft with the benefit of modern equipment. True gelato must be made fresh daily, ideally several times daily, to preserve its flavor and silkiness and avoid crystallization into hard ice cream. Genuine “artisanal” denotes an entirely handcrafted product working with raw, unprocessed natural ingredients every day. “It’s about making the best, not the most,” said Coleridge, a former baker, mountain climber and the first non-Italian to win the title, International Gelato Master of the Year, at Florence Gelato Festival in 2012. “We’re custodians of an old world process, protecting it against the industrialized world.”
However, unlike Italian producers who have to fight foreign imitators of their old cheeses, salumi and such, gelato needs no specific terroir. It requires only a willing entrepreneur with a sweet tooth.
Main photo: Gelato World Tour winners of the “world’s best gelato” category: John, left, and Sam Crowl of Cow and the Moon in Sydney, Australia. Credit: Dino Buffagnani, Gelato World Tour
It’s the end of a long, wet and unusually cool summer in the Virginia mountains. And, to my joy, the water-logged soil yields more than the mildew spreading like talcum powder across my prolific yellow summer squash (Cucurbita pepo), also called crookneck squash.
About an hour before dinner, I pick half a dozen of the young, fresh squash — all no longer than 6 inches. Tiny hairlike spines on the broad leaves of the plant prick my fingers as I grab the first squash I see.
Mother Nature is ingenious in ensuring that species propagate by developing defense mechanisms such as strong odors or prickly thorns. With summer squash, the leaves’ spines are a good indication of freshness, which is useful when choosing produce at the supermarket. Also, this variety’s thin, fragile neck makes it somewhat difficult to ship commercially, so summer squash available at groceries have been bred to have shorter, wider “crooks” than the variety I grow in my garden.
Botanists believe squash, like the ones growing in my garden, originated in Mexico about 10,000 years ago. Food historians credit Christopher Columbus, who voyaged to the New World in 1492, with helping to spread squash to the Old World by returning with squash seeds. Images of various New World squashes started to appear in Italian paintings around 1515.
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Today, almost every cuisine in the world features squash — members of the gourd (Cucurbitaceae) family — in one form or another, be it the thicker-skinned varieties like pumpkin or the thinner-skinned varieties of zucchini or opo squash.
Summer squash a Southern staple
Yellow summer squash holds a special place in the repertoire of many Southern cooks in America. There’s the popular Stewed Squash and the old standby, Pickled Squash.
But another beloved Southern dish captured my fancy years ago: Squash Casserole, a gratin-like dish. Some cooks call it Baked Squash or Squash Pudding. Most recipes include a topping made from a sleeve of crushed buttery Ritz crackers, a quick answer to the problem of not having buttery bread crumbs on hand.
A favorite side dish at Southern family reunions and other celebrations, Squash Casserole comes in about as many shapes as there are cooks who make it.
Mary Randolph, linked to the Virginia gentry as a relative of Thomas Jefferson, wrote “The Virginia Housewife” (1824), considered the first cookbook of the American South by many culinary historians. Her cookbook influenced others, such as “The Kentucky Housewife” and “The Carolina Housewife.” And, just like Randolph, I usually like to keep things simple when it comes to summer squash. Translation: I never have Ritz Crackers, or bread crumbs for that matter, on hand.
Squash dish, made simple
In one of her two recipes for squash, Winter Squash, Randolph advocates boiling it and topping it with butter, simple enough treatments. I grew up eating yellow squash boiled with big chunks of bacon thrown in, a somewhat similar recipe.
For my dinner, I cut the squashes into small cubes, salt them, leave them in a colander for about 30 minutes to drain, and then rinse off the salt and dry the cubes. After heating a small amount of olive oil at high heat in my cast-iron skillet, I cook the pieces of squash until the cut edges brown. A twist of black pepper and a dash of smoked paprika and this side dish stands up well to most main courses, meat-based or vegetarian.
In the chill of late summer nights, I long for the filling heft of a casserole. Randolph’s other squash recipe, Squash or Cimlin — cimlin or “cymling” is an old-fashioned word for pattypan squash. Randolph’s “The Virginia Housewife” gives the following recipe, a somewhat close relative to modern Squash Casserole:
Gather young squashes, peel, and cut them in two; take out the seeds, and boil them till tender; out them into a colander, drain off the water, and rub them with a wooden spoon through the colander; then put them into a stew-pan, with a cupful of cream, a small piece of butter, some pepper, and salt, stew them, stirring very frequently until dry. This is the most delicate way of preparing squashes.
One interesting note: Randolph makes no mention of bacon fat in this recipe.
Bacon and squash, a tasty combination
One thing to remember about traditional Southern cooking is that pork, and pork fat, plays a starring role. History and circumstances dictate much of tradition when it comes to food habits. The American South is no different from France that way. Pigs fared better than cattle in the warm and humid Southern climate, fending for themselves in the forests. Pork could also be preserved better when salted and smoked as ham and bacon.
The following recipe incorporates a number of cooking techniques mentioned in “The Virginia Housewife” yet honors modern tastes and preparation methods. What remains constant is the delicate taste of the squash.
And the tang of bacon.
- Butter or shortening for greasing
- 5 to 6 cups yellow summer squash, cut into ½-inch slices
- 4 slices bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil or light olive oil
- 1 medium onion, finely minced
- 3 tablespoons green bell pepper, finely minced
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
- 1 cup grated Jack cheese
- ¾ cup sour cream
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease a 1-quart, oven-proof baking dish with butter or shortening.
- Place the sliced squash in a medium saucepan; add water to cover. Add about ½ tablespoon of salt and ¼ teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper. Bring squash to a boil; cook for 10 minutes until just barely tender to the poke of a sharp knife. Drain squash until almost all the water is out.
- Put the bacon into a cast-iron skillet with the 2 tablespoons of oil. Fry until bacon is crisp. Remove bacon from the skillet and drain on paper towels. Pour out all but 2 tablespoons of the remaining oil from the skillet; sauté the onion and green pepper until lightly caramelized; add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Remove from the skillet and mix with the bacon. Set aside.
- Add the onion mixture, cheese and sour cream to the hot squash; sprinkle in more salt and pepper to taste. Mix well with a flexible spatula. Scrape squash mixture into prepared baking dish and place in the oven. Bake for 20 minutes and then turn off heat. Serve immediately.
You may substitute zucchini for the yellow squash. Or you can combine the two if you wish.
Main photo: Yellow crookneck squash. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen
I have met the next generation of bread.
I’m more than a little susceptible to hypnosis by wheat, but if you believe in bread, what Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn are doing might mesmerize you too. If you doubt bread, their story might make you reconsider.
Tucked high on a hill in Vermont, Elmore Mountain Bread makes a future that I think will last. Marvin and Heyn bake sourdough bread in a wood-fired brick oven, which is standard operating procedure for artisan bread. However, they also mill their own flour.
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Wheat and gluten are the latest bull’s-eyes in the American game of dietary roulette. Remember when eggs, butter and red meat were reviled? Some people are finding their way back to bread through small-scale bakeries and long sourdough fermentations. The next road on the path back to bread might be bakery milled grains.
“We want to make the best bread we can, and it’s a no-brainer that milling is a part of it,” Marvin said as she filled a rack at a small supermarket with fresh-baked loaves in paper bags. The birds on her arm tattoo flew as she worked. A small tag on the rack announced that the flour was freshly milled. A little red stamp of a millstone on the bag gave the same notice. The change is much bigger than these words and signs show.
The day before, Heyn poured grain into the hopper above the stone mill he had built. Every half hour, a timer went off and Heyn or Marvin left the bakery to scoop flour from the rectangular bins attached to the sifter. The sifter allows them to remove a small portion of the bran, and bake with a very white — yet nearly whole-grain — flour, using almost the whole kernel.
A few bakeries now milling their own flour
Research on how milling affects the nutritional value of flour is minimal, but wheat processing is being scrutinized as celiac disease and non-celiac wheat sensitivities are investigated. A handful of bakeries across North America are choosing to mill their own flour in pursuit of peak flavor and nutrition.
Elmore Mountain Bread is remote, near the edge of the state’s fabled Northeast Kingdom, but the bakers are not isolated. America lacks a formal apprentice system for bakers, so good bread advances through a network of online and live resources, such as King Arthur Flour’s baking school and the Bread Bakers Guild of America. Bakers get to know one another by email and by traveling to see one another’s setups.
Miller-bakers Julie Lomenda from Six Hundred Degrees Brick Oven Bakery in Tofino, Canada, and Dave Bauer from Farm & Sparrow in Candler, N.C., came to see the Vermont bakery on separate visits, and they got the couple thinking about milling.
Closer to home, Bread & Butter Farm in Shelburne, Vt., mills for its baking. In the spring, Heyn and Marvin’s son Phineas gave them the impetus to start.
“One of the only things he ate every day was baguettes,” Andrew said. “As I was doing the ordering, which was typically 30 bags of white flour and two bags of whole wheat, I realized that this was refined foods. Organic, but refined.”
Heyn and Marvin wanted to use whole grains but remain loyal to their customers and product line, which was thoroughly artisan but did not feature whole grains. The bakery began 15 years ago, and they’ve owned it for a decade. Through that cross-continent network of bakers, Heyn designed a mill that would suit all their goals.
The brainstorming took place largely on email. Cliff Leir from Fol Epi in Victoria, Canada, sent pictures to Heyn of the mill he had built. Heyn collaborated with bakers Fulton Forde and Bryn Rawlyk, who also wanted to build their own mills. The three worked out details for a rustic, simple machine in a very 21st century fashion, without ever talking on the phone.
The metal work was more tangible and local. Friends who live down the road from the bakery fabricated the framework for the millstones. Iron Art had made the door for the bakery oven, and helped make the oven loader too. The sifter they bought ready made, but Heyn is about to make a new set of screens to better regulate the sifting.
Six years ago Heyn brainstormed designs for the next generation of wood-fired ovens with mason William Davenport of Turtlerock Masonry Heat, incorporating ideas from the Masonry Heater Association. Davenport built the oven for Elmore Mountain Bread, and its features are now common in micro-bakeries. Turtlerock is no longer in business, but former apprentice Jeremiah Church is still building ovens.
All of this tinkering, until the mill, has been to serve efficiencies. Heyn has an engineering mindset, and as he’s engaged in his work, his brain is always working out improvements in their system. Marvin has been an eager partner in this thinking, because she wants to minimize wear and tear on their bodies in what’s a very physical job.
The mill adds rather than subtracts work, but the two of them are gung-ho about this latest innovation. Even though the grains cost about as much as the organic flour they were using, the difference in product is worth it because they want to make the best bread they can.
Elmore Mountain Bread delivers about 500 loaves three times a week in a small radius near Stowe and Montpelier. The bakers still use roller milled flour to make a focaccia served in restaurants, but that is only about 20% of their production.
So far, they haven’t figured out an effective way to announce the difference in their main ingredient. Aside from the little millstone graphic and note on the bag, they don’t have much direct contact with their buyers. This is the way it is for bakers. Even in a retail setting, customers don’t want to chat about what’s in a loaf, the way someone might linger over ingredients while sipping a beer.
I am hoping that this will change. The media are a big voice in the popular campaign against bread, and positive stories about flour are rare.
For now, the bread speaks for itself, though I might serve as a ventriloquist. I didn’t taste any Elmore Mountain Bread before it started milling. Usually I’m all pancakes, all the time. But these loaves made me forget the griddle. The flour smelled so fresh and fieldy, and the breads were hauntingly tasty. I have a new enchantment.
Main photo: Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn divide and shape dough at Vermont’s Elmore Mountain Bread. Credit: Amy Halloran
Of all the foods I get defensive about, clam chowder is high on the list. There are certain preparations that are so iconic, established and regionally rooted that I think it’s nonsense to say “oh, there are many interpretations.”
In fact, I believe the parameters of what constitutes a proper clam chowder are quite narrow. This is one instance one can be downright dogmatic and say, “No, there is only one proper clam chowder.”
Granted, there are variations of clam chowder made from Nova Scotia to Rhode Island, and those are acceptable because these places are really the home of clam chowder even if the word itself comes from the French chaudière, a cauldron used by the fishermen of Brittany to cook up a fish chowder.
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In John R. Bartlett’s “Dictionary of Americanisms” published in 1848, a chowder is described as a dish from New England made of fresh fish, especially cod, or clams, and stewed with slices of pork or bacon, onions, and biscuit, with the addition at times of cider or Champagne.
First written mention of clams in chowder
There is no record of a clam, as opposed to fish, chowder before the mid-19th century, although the first written mention of clams in chowder is from 1829 in Lydia Maria Child’s “The Frugal Housewife.”
The dividing line between places that make chowder with milk and places that make chowder with tomatoes seems to be in southwestern Connecticut. Beginning there and heading south, cooks use tomatoes, and from Cape Cod to the north, they use milk. The no-man’s land of this debate seems to be Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut where a clear broth is used.
A clam chowder isn’t worth writing about unless you extol a particular clam chowder, as did fellow Zester writer Lynne Curry, who also wrote about chowder. I wouldn’t be a chowderhead if I didn’t complain about her use of canned clams. I can’t abide that. I began to feel strongly about this when I moved to California and encountered the gloppy white mud they called clam chowder and thought “guys, stick to fish tacos, you don’t know chowder from chile.”
Cape Cod chowder is the best
This recipe is a Cape Cod clam chowder and I believe the best clam chowder in the world is made on Cape Cod.
Just as a proper chili con carne never has beans or tomatoes in it, for me a true clam chowder should never contain flour, or cream, certainly never fish broth (might as well call it fish soup), and, God forbid, a tomato.
A true clam chowder is very simple, but rarely gotten right. Adding flour and cream, popular with restaurant chefs, turns the elixir into an unappetizing and gummy muck. Cream is also a no-no, but sometimes permissible (see below). A clam is a delicate creature and gets easily lost with too much starchy thickening, acidic vegetables, herbs, seasoning, or bacon as opposed to salt pork flavor.
A true clam chowder is made with, and only with, live quahogs (Mercenaria mercenaria Linn.) with their liquor, and never with canned clams. A quahog is nothing but a large cherrystone clam, which is nothing but a large littleneck clam.
Clam chowder also requires diced lean salt pork. Bacon is not appropriate because it’s too smoky. I don’t buy the speculation that the smokiness resembles the original.
Raw milk first used in clam chowder
The chowder also requires onion, potatoes, butter, salt, pepper and if you can manage it, raw fresh creamery milk. In the early 20th century, Cape Codders could regularly get raw milk for making their chowder, which had a creamier taste than today’s pasteurized and homogenized milk. Therefore it’s permissible to mix whole milk with half-and-half or a little heavy cream.
Clam chowder can also have a little celery and a little sprinkle of thyme, but that’s it. It’s always served hot, but not piping hot, and with common crackers.
Cape Cod cooks like to “age” their chowders by cooking them the day before or letting them sit for some hours before serving, that’s why you find many early recipes saying that you move the kettle to the back of the stove. Doctoring your chowder once it’s finished with parsley or chives is a restaurant innovation to give the chowder “color.” Just remember that the color of chowder is white.
One last warning: Be very careful with milk or it will curdle. For real Cape Cod authenticity, serve in Styrofoam cups.
- 20 pounds quahogs or large cherrystones, washed very well
- 2 quarts water
- 2 pounds boiling potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, peeled and diced
- ½ pound lean salt pork, diced
- 1 large yellow onion (about 14 ounces), finely chopped
- Salt, if necessary
- Freshly ground white pepper to taste
- ½ teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 cups whole milk
- 3 cups half-and-half
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Common or oyster crackers for garnish
- Place the clams in a 20- to 22-quart stockpot filled with about an inch of water. Cover, turn the heat to high, and steam the quahogs until they all open, removing them when possible as they open, 25 to 30 minutes. Discard any clams that remain very firmly shut. Remove the clams from their shells once they are cool enough to handle and discard the shells but save all the liquid. Strain the liquid through cheesecloth into a smaller stew pot. Chop the clams. You should have about 5 cups of chopped clams. You can do this in a food processor in pulses.
- Add all the collected clam juice to the water in which you steamed the clams. If you have less than 2 quarts of liquid in the stockpot add enough water to the collected juices to make up the difference, although you will probably have more than 2 quarts.
- Bring the reserved clam liquor to a boil then cook the potatoes until three-quarters cooked and nearly tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the reserved chopped clams and cook at a boil for 5 minutes, then turn the heat off and let the chowder sit. If scum forms, skim it off at once.
- Meanwhile, in a cast iron skillet, cook, stirring the salt pork over medium-low heat until nearly crispy, about 15 minutes. Remove the salt pork with a slotted spoon and set aside. Reduce the heat to low and add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally to deglaze the skillet, until golden and very soft, about 30 minutes. Add the salt pork and onion mixture to the potatoes and stir. Check the seasoning and add salt if necessary and the pepper and thyme. Turn the heat off and when the pot is cool enough, place in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
- Remove the chowder and reheat over low heat. Once it is hot, add the milk, half-and-half and cream. Cover and heat the chowder until it is about 140 F, making sure it doesn’t even bubble, otherwise the milk will curdle. Stir in the butter, remove the stew pot from the burner, but leave on the stove, covered, to stay warm for 1 hour or more and serve with common or oyster crackers.
Cape Cod clam chowder. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
You say you want a striking way to serve barbecued chicken? Here’s one that will stick in your guests’ minds. It looks like a miniature rack of ribs, perhaps crossed with a bizarre pre-Cambrian life form.
But it has the classical flavor of browned chicken infused with the sweetness and poetic perfume of onion and a subtle hint of cinnamon. “Winner, winner, chicken barbecue” (or however Guy Fieri’s saying goes).
Its proper name is kırma tavuk kebabı, which means “split” or perhaps “pleated” chicken in Turkish. It’s one of the subtle and inventive dishes that graced the tables of Istanbul big shots back in the days when the Ottoman Empire was still a vast and wealthy affair. It was recorded in 1839 in a cookbook called Malja’ al-Tabbakhin (“The Refuge of Cooks”) that was later plagiarized with great enthusiasm by Turkish and Arab cookbook writers down to the early 20th century.
The recipe was first translated into English after “some of England’s fairest ladies and grandest gentlemen” were impressed by the Turkish dishes served aboard the yacht of the visiting viceroy of Egypt in 1862. Two years later, a certain Turabi Effendi published a collection of recipes swiped from Malja’ al-Tabbakhin and given the on-the-nose title “Turkish Cookery Book.”
The distinctive technique of this dish is to cut the chicken into strips, leaving the pieces attached at one end. This structure helps the marinade flavors penetrate the meat while keeping it in a relatively compact shape for convenience on the grill. It also makes the meat cook a little quicker and more evenly.
Turabi Effendi’s recipe calls for deboning entire chickens, but I suggest taking the easy way out by using boneless chicken breast, which lends itself very well to this technique. Turabi says to baste the meat with butter when it starts to brown, but I don’t recommend this because of the risk of flare-ups. If you want more butter flavor, basting the meat after you take it from the grill works perfectly and will certainly win the approval of your local fire marshal.
- 4 boneless chicken half-breasts, about 1¾ pounds total
- 1 teaspoon salt, plus more for serving
- ½ teaspoon pepper
- ¼ teaspoon cinnamon or a pinch more
- 1 large onion
- 2 ounces (¼ stick) butter, melted
- Using a sharp knife, cut the meat crosswise into 9 or 10 strips ¼ to 1/3 inch wide. But make sure your cuts reach no farther than ¼ inch from the far edge of the meat so that the “fingers” remain attached. Mix the salt, pepper and cinnamon and rub into the meat all over.
- Purée the onion in a food processor and strain the onion juice from the solids in a fine sieve (leave the windows open for this operation because of the onion fumes). Mix the meat with the onion juice, cover with plastic wrap or place in a sealable plastic bag and let marinate at room temperature for 1 hour.
- Pat the meat dry with paper towels and thread it onto skewers down the uncut edge (if your skewer is too broad for the uncut section, you can thread it through the bases of the “fingers” as well). Baste the surface of the meat and between the “fingers” with melted butter. This will keep the meat from sticking to the grill and to itself; you don’t want so much butter that there are flare-ups.
- Grill over a moderate fire, turning often, until the meat stiffens and turns golden brown, about 20 minutes.
- Remove from skewers and brush with more melted butter if you want. Sprinkle with salt to taste.
Fine accompaniments for this would be a scoop of tart yogurt and a simple green salad.
Main photo: Cut into strips, kırma tavuk kebabı — “split” or perhaps “pleated” chicken in Turkish — enables marinades to penetrate the meat. Credit: Charles Perry
I look forward to Rosh Hashana every year. It should be because it is the beginning of another new year, shimmering with possibilities. Or because each year I give myself permission to buy a new, stylish go-to-temple outfit. It’s also fall, the best, most exhilarating season in my New England home.
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Religiously, Rosh Hashana (which this year begins at sundown Sept. 24) is the time to wipe away the troubles of last year and pledge to begin anew with resolutions for improvement in personal relationships and goals. Officially, Rosh Hashana is the beginning of the new year of the Jewish calendar, and always a season for coming together joyfully. It’s honey and apples, friends and family.
But if I am honest, my love of the holiday has nothing to do with any of this. Rosh Hashana is tzimmes season. Oozing with meat juices and richness, beef tzimmes may be the least politically correct dish in my repertoire from a nutritional standpoint. And I love it — umami heaven! It is full of rich, meaty flavor and thick with chunks of carrots, sweet potatoes, onions and prunes. It’s a production that requires planning but not that much skill.
Beef tzimmes is a major production for a major holiday. I love making this dish. People look forward to it every year, and as a result it transforms me into an iconic Jewish cook. It’s also not that hard to pull off, but it does take time. It’s very important to make the entire dish a day before serving so you can refrigerate and skim the fat. You’ll need a large, heavy roasting pan such as a turkey roaster. I make it in a huge Le Creuset pot, but any large, covered Dutch oven or roasting pan will do.
- 6 short ribs (ask the butcher for the right cuts for this and the following meat)
- 4 pounds beef flanken or brisket (not too lean)
- Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
- 5 pounds carrots, peeled and cut in big chunks
- 6 to 8 onions, quartered
- 2 cups honey
- 2 cups dark brown sugar, plus more to sprinkle on top during cooking
- A stick (or two) of cinnamon
- Beef stock or water
- 6 to 8 peeled sweet potatoes (or more to your preference)
- 2 cups pitted prunes
- 2 tablespoons matzo meal for thickening the sauce
- Preheat the oven to 400 F and then roast the short ribs for an hour in the oven.
- Meanwhile, braise the flanken in a large sauté pan on the stove top.
- Place the bones in the bottom of a roasting pan and layer on top the chunks of flanken.
- Sprinkle the meat with salt and pepper to taste. (You can also adjust it before serving, after all flavors have come together.)
- Add the carrots, onions, honey, brown sugar, cinnamon and enough beef stock or water to cover the meat.
- Cook covered for three hours in a 350 F oven, turning the meat chunks occasionally.
- Add the sweet potatoes and prunes to the pan, adding more stock if necessary. Cook another 45 minutes, until the meat is soft.
- Strain off the liquid and reduce it on the stove top, then thicken it with matzo meal. Return it to the pan. The liquid should be about ¾ of the way up the pan.
- Sprinkle with brown sugar to caramelize on top.
- Return to the oven and cook uncovered for one hour. To degrease the meat, refrigerate for a few hours or overnight, and then remove fat. The dish is best served the day after cooking. The leftovers freeze beautifully.
Main photo: Beef tzimmes. Credit: Louisa Kasdon
Pasta lovers, save room for dessert. Pasta can be enjoyed not just as a first course, but for dessert too! Pasta as a sweets course may sound trendy, but Italians have been making all sorts of desserts with it for centuries. From cutting-edge modern creations to traditional almond-pasta pie from Emilia, there are hundreds of sweets made with every shape of pasta, from angel hair to ziti. Plus, dozens of dessert ravioli.
Modern pasta desserts
Want a change from the same old, same old? Jumbo pasta shells coated in cocoa is one of my favorites from the many modern pasta desserts in Italy today. Luca De Luca and the team at the Garofalo pasta company near Naples taught me this recipe while I was in Italy researching my book “Pasta Modern.” “Pasta shells can be filled with almost anything: vanilla custard, chocolate pudding, panna cotta, semifreddo, sorbet, granita, whipped cream and fresh berries, yogurt and honey — there are endless possibilities,” Luca said.
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“Leave the gun, take the cannoli” is a popular line from “The Godfather,” showing just how popular the Italian dessert is. As anyone who’s ever tried knows, making cannoli shells is a huge challenge. It’s hard even for the most experienced home cooks. But now there’s a fun solution: cannoli made with pasta instead! Mezzi maniche, “half sleeves,” or little pasta tubes, are boiled then fried to create a crunchy, tasty container for the creamy sweet ricotta cannoli filling. They are a perfect pop-in-your-mouth, one-bite size. The fried mezzi maniche pasta are even good plain! Toss them in sugar and serve them with melted chocolate or with ice cream.
Spaghetti Sundae, a really fun, whimsical, kid pleaser, is spaghetti tossed in melted chocolate and served just like a sundae, deliciously cold-topped with your favorite sundae fixings.
It’s so simple you don’t even need a recipe. Just melt chocolate with a little olive oil and toss it with cooked pasta. Then top with any of the usual toppings: whipped cream, chopped nuts, sprinkles. Olive oil helps make the chocolate easier to melt, even in the microwave, and creates a super silky sheen. Olive oil also keeps the pasta from sticking together once it cools.
Fried pasta desserts
In Italy they have a saying, Fritti sono buoni anche gli zampi delle sedie — “Fried, even chair legs are delicious.” Pasta is certainly at the top of the list of delicious fried treats.
There are fried pasta desserts in almost every region of Italy. In Sicily, they fry a little forkful of angel hair and serve it topped with honey and chopped pistachios. It’s like a pasta cookie, crunchy on the outside and chewy in the center. In Tuscany and central Italy, they make a variation by frying thicker tagliatelle noodles nests, called nidi di tagliatelle per Carnevale. To make them, a few strands of fresh egg noodles are clumped into a little nest and fried. Since the noodles aren’t boiled first, only fresh egg pasta, not dried pasta, is used because it is softer. In Tuscany, the treat is created using chocolate noodles, made by incorporating cocoa powder into the pasta dough. The fried nests are drizzled with brandy-infused warm honey and topped with toasted almonds. In Emilia-Romagna, the nests are simply topped with confectioners’ sugar.
Almost every region has its own sweet dessert ravioli, tortelli or mini-calzone recipes, with variations in fillings and shapes. Too difficult for me to recreate, but delicious for you to try if you are ever in Italy, are the chocolate ravioli filled with chocolate ricotta mousse and served in fresh strawberry puree from Osteria Pastella in Florence.
Ravioli filled with pureed chestnuts, chocolate, espresso, rum and ground nuts, caggiunitte, are an Abruzzo specialty. Lombardy’s specialty pasta dessert is fried tortelli filled with either jam or chocolate. I especially like the earthy combination of pureed chickpeas and jam filling in panzarotti con ceci of Puglia and Basilicata. Usually, ravioli can be tricky to make, because you have to get the dough very thin and seal them carefully since they’re going to be dashed about in rapidly boiling water like tiny ships in a storm. But because these ravioli are baked rather than boiled, you can make them thicker and don’t have to worry about them opening. It’s an easy way to work with dough.
Angel Hair Pasta Pie (Torta Ricciolina)
From: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets,” by Francine Segan
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Baking Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 50 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
Angel hair pasta, seasoned with chocolate and almonds, bakes into one of the most unusual, delicious pies I’ve ever tasted.
To make this classic Bolognese dessert, you absolutely must use fresh, not dried, egg pasta. If making your own pasta seems daunting, buy ready-made fresh instead. Most supermarkets sell ready-made fresh.
This is a great make-ahead dessert, as it’s much better the day after, once all the flavors have melded.
8 ounces, about 1 1/2 cups, whole blanched almonds
3/4 cup granulated sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
2 ounces, about 1/3 cup, finely chopped candied citron or candied orange peel
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 pie crust, store bought or homemade
8 ounces fresh thin egg-pasta, such as tagliatelline or angel hair, store-bought or homemade
6 tablespoons butter, thinly sliced
1/3 cup rum
1. Grind the almonds and sugar in a food processor until it resembles coarse sand. Pulse in the zest, candied citron or orange peel, and cocoa powder until well combined. Divide into 3 parts.
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a 9- or 10-inch pie pan with the pie crust. Pot lots of holes in the bottom and sides of the crust with a fork.
3. Divide the pasta into three parts, with one part being slightly larger than the other two.
4. Line the pie pan with the larger portion of pasta and sprinkle with 1/3 of the almond mixture. Lift the pasta with the tip of a knife so it is loose and free form. Do not press the pasta down. Dot the pasta with thin slices of the butter.
5. Top with another layer of pasta sprinkled with a third of the almond mixture and more butter. Repeat for a third and final layer.
6. Loosely cover with aluminum foil, bake for 25 minutes, then remove the foil and continue baking uncovered for another 20-25 minutes until the top is golden and the center set.
7. Remove from the oven and immediately sprinkle the top of the pie with the rum. It will hiss and absorb quickly, with most of the alcohol evaporating, leaving just a lovely aroma and flavor.
8. Allow to cool to room temperature. Serve, preferably after it’s rested overnight or for 24 hours, topped with confectioners’ sugar.
Chocolate Stuffed Shells (Conchiglioni dolci al cacao)
From: “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy,” by Francine Segan
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes
Yield: 24 large shells, serves 4 to 6
Use just cocoa powder for unsweetened shells that become a gorgeous reddish-brown color, or sweeten the cocoa powder with confectioners’ sugar for a lovely dark-colored sweet shell. Using a teaspoon, fill the shells with anything you like. Pictured here is milk chocolate and dark chocolate pudding.
Other fun options:
Ice cream, slice of banana, dollop fudge sauce and chopped nuts for a mini sundae
Ricotta, sugar, mini chocolate chips for a soft cannoli
Mascarpone cheese, sugar and drop of coffee for an instant tiramisu
Cream cheese, fruit jam and fresh fruit for Italian-style cheesecake
24 jumbo shells
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
Fillings and garnishes: about 2 cups total of gelato, custard, whipped cream, fruit, yogurt, etc.
1. Cook the shells in lightly salted boiling water until al dente and drain.
2. For sweeter shells, put the cocoa powder and confectioners’ sugar, to taste, into a sturdy plastic food storage bag. Toss the shells, a few at a time, into the bag until fully coated with cocoa powder. For less-sweet shells, toss them in just cocoa powder. Fill with anything you like.
Cannoli Pasta Bites (Mezzi Maniche Dolci)
From: “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy,” by Francine Segan
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 35 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Try this recipe once and, like me, I bet it will become one of your go-to desserts.
There are lots of ways to vary it. One of my favorite variations is to fill the fried pasta with mascarpone cheese sweetened with sugar and then dust with instant coffee granules and cocoa powder, for a riff on tiramisu.
1 cup ricotta
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon finely chopped dark chocolate or mini chocolate chips
1 tablespoon minced candied orange peel
Pinch of ground cinnamon
1/4 pound mezzi maniche
Optional garnishes: chopped pistachios, chopped candied cherry or orange peel, cocoa powder or chopped chocolate
1. In a bowl, using a fork, mix the ricotta, sugar, chocolate, candied peel and cinnamon until well combined. Refrigerate until ready to use.
2. Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until very tender, about 1 minute longer than al dente. Drain the pasta well. Meanwhile, heat about 1 inch of vegetable oil in a very small saucepan until hot, but not smoking. Add half of the pasta and fry until golden and crisp, about 2 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel. Repeat with the remaining pasta.
3. When room temperature, roll the fried pasta in granulated sugar, then fill each with the ricotta mixture, either using an espresso spoon or by piping it in with a pastry bag. Garnish, if you like, with chopped pistachios, candied orange peel, grated chocolate or other toppings.
Sicilian Pasta Crisps (Pasta Fritta alla Siciliana)
From: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets,” by Francine Segan
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
Twirled forkfuls of honey-sweetened spaghetti, crunchy on the edges and soft in the center — scrumptious and a snap to prepare.
1/3 pound angel hair pasta
Sunflower or other vegetable oil
1/4 cup honey
Zest of 1/2 orange, or 2 tablespoons finely minced candied orange peel, 2 teaspoons orange blossom water
Pistachios, finely crushed
1. Cook the pasta in salted water according to package directions. Drain.
2. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine the honey, orange zest or candied orange peel, orange blossom water and 2 tablespoons of boiling water.
3. Put about 1/4 inch of oil in a small frying pan and heat until hot, but not smoking. Twirl small forkfuls of the pasta, drop them into the hot oil, and cook until golden and crisp at the edges. Turn, and cook on the other side for just a few seconds. Drain the pasta crisps on a plate lined with paper towels.
Arrange the pasta crisps on serving plate. Serve warm, drizzled with the honey mixture and topped with a sprinkle of pistachios and a pinch of cinnamon.
Sweet Chickpea Ravioli (Panzarotti con Ceci)
From: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets,” by Francine Segan
Prep Time: 45 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Yield: 4 dozen
For the filling:
1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas (canned, or 4 ounces dry, soaked overnight and boiled until tender)
1 cup best-quality cherry jam
2 to 4 tablespoons sweet liqueur such as Amaretto, limoncello, mandarino, or a combination
Zest of 1/2 lemon
Honey or sugar, to taste
Ground cinnamon, to taste
For the dough:
16 ounces, about 3 1/2 cups, all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup white wine
2 tablespoons olive oil
1. For the filling: Process the chickpeas through a food mill until you get a nice thick, smooth paste. Then mix in the jam and liqueur to taste. Stir in the zest and cinnamon to taste, and then add sugar or honey, if you like. Once you have tasted it and are happy with the flavor, then mix in the egg. You can make the filling several days ahead. Refrigerate until ready to use.
2. For the dough: Sift the flour, sugar and salt onto a clean work surface and make a well in the center. Heat the wine in a saucepan or in the microwave. Pour the oil and 1/4 cup of the wine into the well and incorporate the flour, a little at a time, until dough forms. Add warm water, a little at a time, if the dough feels tough. Knead the dough until smooth. Put into a plastic bag or wrap in plastic wrap.
3. To assemble: Preheat oven to 350 F. Line 2 or 3 baking sheets with parchment paper.
4. Spread out a large clean cotton cloth onto a work surface for assembling and cutting the ravioli.
5. Leaving the rest covered, take a small section, about an 1/8 of the of dough, and either pass it through a pasta maker (#3 hole size, not thinner) or use a rolling pin to create a 3 to 4-inch wide strip of dough. Make just 2 strips at a time, so you can fill and cut the ravioli without having the waiting dough get dry.
6. Lay a sheet of dough onto the cloth and drop a tablespoonful of the filling on the sheet, about 1 1/2 inches apart. Top with another layer of dough. Using your fingers, press the top layer of dough around the filling and using a ravioli cutter, cut out square-shaped ravioli. Repeat until you’ve used up all the dough and filling.
7. Put the ravioli onto the baking sheet and bake for about 25 minutes until golden.
8. Eat warm, sprinkled with powdered sugar or cold dipped in honey or mosto cotto or vin cotto.
Main photo: Chocolate ravioli make for a sweet treat. Credit: Osteria Pastella
Thousands of years ago, pioneers among the central Malayo-Polynesian-speaking populations are believed to have traveled across the Indian Ocean and brought plantains, water yams and taro to India. Now, they have become central to the vegetarian cuisine in the Kerala region of southwest India.
Plantains are a variety of bananas from the plant Musa paradisiaca, which have thicker skins than regular bananas. Plantains are also sometimes called cooking bananas. Even when ripe, they are not very sweet, and they are not eaten raw.
The plantain rules at Kerala’s most important festival, Thiruvonam (or Onam for short), celebrated in late August or early September (depending on the lunar calendar) by Hindus, Christians and Muslims alike. The big event at Onam is the sadya (feast), which is served on fresh, green banana leaves around noon. Although rice is the centerpiece of the feast, several dishes both sweet and savory are prepared with plantains, each with its own taste and texture.
In every cuisine, there are certain dishes that make the menu more complete and more festive. They may not have the status of a course in and of themselves, but without them, the meal would lose some of its festive appeal. Two signature dishes of Onam Sadya are the deep-fried, salty and crispy golden yellow plantain chips and their sweet counterpart, sarkkara upperi, thick slices deep-fried and drenched in jaggery syrup. No matter what the shape, these crunchy morsels taste simply delicious. Locally called upperi, but better known as banana chips, it is the favorite snack of Kerala and provides the crispy crunch to traditional feasts.
And then there is kaya mezukkupuratti, cubed green plantains cooked with salt and turmeric and then pan-fried over low heat in coconut oil until they fully absorb the flavor of the curry leaves and oil. It’s a dish that’s as unfussy and simple as you can imagine.
Plantains useful in curries
There are two types of curries made with just plantains for the Onam feast. They are also found in the signature mixed vegetable dish aviyal. One of the curries, varutha erisseri, is made by cooking chunks of green plantain in a sauce of golden brown toasted coconut. It has a complexity and aroma peculiarly and delightfully its own. The word “curry” often evokes a sense of tropical spiciness. Kerala’s cuisine is known for its variety of spicy curries, but there are also some mildly sweet, tropical fruit curries that are cooked in a mellow coconut and yogurt sauce.
The fruit curry kaalan is made by cooking ripe plantain slices in a thick coconut and yogurt sauce sweetened with jaggery and garnished with mustard and fenugreek seeds and fresh curry leaves.
Steamed ripe plantains are another must at the Onam feast. And, finally, rounding out the menu is a delicately smooth and creamy pudding — pazza pradhaman — made with homemade plantain jam cooked in coconut milk sweetened with jaggery and garnished with crushed cardamom and toasted coconut pieces.
Though not necessarily a part of the Onam feast, other plantain treats can be found in Kerala: sun-dried ripe plantains and banana fritters made with thin ripe plantain slices dipped in a mildly sweet batter and deep-fried.
Making deep-fried chips at home is not a difficult task. Thanks to food processors, slicing is a breeze. It is important to use oil that can be heated to high temperatures. The oil must be well heated before adding the sliced plantains for frying or otherwise, oil seeps in and will make them soggy. Hot oil sears the surface to a firm crispiness. For serving at feasts, they are generally quartered lengthwise and then cut crosswise into thin triangular slices. To serve as a snack, they are cut as full rounds or as half rounds. But no matter what the shape, these crunchy morsels taste simply delicious.
- 6 firm green plantains
- 6 cups vegetable oil
- ½ cup concentrated saltwater (*see directions below)
- Peel off the thick green skins from the plantains, and wash them to remove any dark stain from the outside. Pat them dry with paper towels.
- When making the smaller, triangular chips, halve the plantain lengthwise, and cut each piece lengthwise again. Then cut each piece crosswise into thin slices. For the round chips, cut the whole plantain crosswise into thin rounds. A food processor comes in handy for cutting them into thin rounds. Fit the processor with the 2mm blade and slowly feed the peeled plantains through the top. This blade cuts the plantains evenly.
- Heat the oil in a heavy wok or deep-frying pan to 365 F.
- When the oil is hot, spread the plantain pieces evenly in the oil and deep-fry until they are golden and crisp, about 5 minutes.
- Add a teaspoon of concentrated saltwater to the oil, and cover the pan with a splatter screen. The water will really splatter and make a lot of noise.
- In a minute or so, when the water has stopped sputtering, remove the cover. By now, all the water should have evaporated, and the crispy fries will be golden and evenly salted.
- Drain well, and store in airtight containers. The best way to drain deep-fried plantains is to use a cake cooling rack placed over a cookie tray. The excess oil will drip through the cooling rack and fall onto the cookie tray.
- *Add one tablespoon of salt to a half-cup of water, and stir well. If there is no salt sediment at the bottom, add more salt, and stir until there is some salt residue left at the bottom and the water is saturated with salt.
Main photo: Golden yellow plantain chips are part of the Onam feast in India. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran