Articles in Cooking
Italian celebrations always involve food, and Easter is no different. The yeast bread cake, Colomba di Pasqua, shaped like a dove (colomba), is often at the table, but these days it is getting a modern twist.
Soft and fragrant, colomba is a generous cake with butter and eggs, filled with raisins and candied orange peel. Topping it off is an almond icing that is applied before baking, creating a sweet, crisp crust. Traditional colombas are baked in dove-shaped paper molds. The bread dough starts as a sponge that must rest overnight.
An offer of peace
The birth of the colomba dates back to 572, when King Alboin, after three years of siege, captured the town of Pavia in northern Italy on Easter Eve. Evading the guards, an old baker was able to reach the king and offer a dove-shaped bread. “Alboin,” he said, “I offer this symbol, as a tribute to peace, on Easter day.” The sweet scent and the convincing message persuaded the king to give a promise of peace. That’s the legend.
The dove we know today has a more recent origin and, I should say, a more prosaic version of the history. In the early 1930s the Milanese company Motta specialized in panettone, a cake produced only for Christmas. Unhappy to have their machinery unused for many months, Motta decided to package a similar product for the Easter holidays. The shape of the sweet dove, which represents peace, was a choice dictated not only by the symbolism but also to welcome the arrival of the spring.
New flavors, traditions
The new cake was (and still is) a huge success. It is typically soft, fragrant outside and moist inside, naturally leavened for a whole night, then filled with a mixture of flour, sugar, eggs and candied orange.
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Since its birth, the colomba was enriched by many variations and a variety of icings and fillings. I personally love the decadent Colomba al Cioccolato (coated and filled with dark chocolate) created by Loison, a bakery established in 1938 that adopted a process that lasts over three days in an effort to preserve the quality of the ingredients. The result is spongy, porous bread often combined with unexpected fillings, such as a delicious lemon cream, or a mix of nuts and peaches or small cubes of candied Ciaculli mandarin, protected by Slow Food.
Beyond the basic cake
Fraccaro Spumadoro makes other favorites of mine, including Colomba alle Bollicine Trevigiane, a treat stuffed with a cream made with Treviso sparkling white wine and elegantly topped with granulated sugar. Then there is Colomba al Pistacchio — the scent of its top-quality pistachios combined with a tasty white chocolate decorating glaze.
The colomba not only brings a message of peace but also a political statement at times, as in the case of the artisanal Colomba Arcobaleno (Rainbow Dove) made with Sicilian Avola almonds, Calabria cedro (a type of lemon), and kneaded with Vernaccia Mormoraia, a traditional white wine from San Gimignano, Tuscany. It has been created by the Italian sommelier Diana Zerilli, who supports gay rights in Italy.
Main photo: The classic Colomba di Pasqua by Loison. This dove-shaped cake is a wonderful addition to an Easter brunch or dinner. Credit: Copyright 2016 Cesare Zucca
Perhaps one of the most bizarre Easter traditions in Italy is a cheese-tossing contest called ruzzolone, which is popular in central Italy. A fun place to witness this sort of edible discus event is in the Umbrian hill town of Panicale, near Perugia.
A huge 10-pound wheel of hard aged pecorino cheese is hurled along a course in the center of town. Two teams, with four players each, compete to get the cheese around the course using the fewest number of throws. The players wrap a long cloth sling with a wooden handle around the cheese to help hurl it down the curving streets, across moats, and around spectators and vehicles. The winning team gets to keep the cheese. If the cheese breaks during the race, everyone shares it.
An ancient Italian tradition
The origins of this unusual contest are uncertain, but frescos have been found dating to Etruscan times that depict smiling shepherds rolling rounds of cheese down slopes, seemingly just for the fun of it.
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The game was well established by the Middle Ages, and over the years various laws were set in place: In 1598 a mayor from an Emilia-Romagna town placed betting limits to the current restriction of wagering no more than the value of the cheese being tossed, and in 1761, in response to complaints of the rowdiness of the game, a governor of that region limited the game to the period between Carnival and Easter.
Nowadays it’s back to a year-round game, as gradually over time, many towns replaced the cheese with a solid wooden wheel, allowing play even in summer, when the heat would have made the cheese too soft to toss.
If you visit Panicale on Easter Monday to witness this lively sport, be sure to stay until a winner is declared. You can then enjoy a free picnic lunch of local cheese and bread sandwiches offered in the town square. For dessert, enjoy pieces of chocolate from the gigantic 4-foot Easter egg that decorates the piazza.
Easter Pasta Pie
To create your own Easter Monday cheesy celebration, make pasta pie (crostata di tagliolini), a lovely make-ahead picnic dish traditionally eaten in Italy on Pasquetta, “Little Easter,” the day after Easter. Thin egg noodles are layered with cheese, ham and mushrooms with tiny peas scattered between the layers to add a green burst of flavor. It’s baked in the oven until beautifully golden, sliced like pie, and eaten at room temperature.
From: “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes of Italy” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), by Francine Segan
Prep time: 30 minutes
Bake time: 25 minutes
Total time: 55 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
1 small onion, minced
2 ounces pancetta or prosciutto, minced
8 ounces baby peas
Salt and black pepper
3/4 pound mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
7 tablespoons butter, plus more for the pan
About 1/4 cup toasted bread crumbs
1 cup chicken or beef stock
1 pound tagliolini, thin egg noodles, preferably Felicetti brand
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk, warmed
About 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3/4 pound burrata or mozzarella cheese, diced
8 ounces thinly sliced ham, cut into strips
1. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a small frying pan over medium high heat. Cook the onion and pancetta until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the peas and a few tablespoons of water, and cook until the peas are tender, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, set aside in a bowl.
2. In the same pan, heat 2 tablespoons of oil over high heat. Cook the mushrooms and garlic a minute or two, until tender. Season with salt and pepper, set aside.
3. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter an 8- to 9-inch nonstick spring-form pan and dust with bread crumbs.
4. In a small pot, simmer the stock until reduced by half.
5. In another small pot, make the béchamel. Melt 4 tablespoons of butter over medium heat, stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until smooth. Add the warm milk, and bring to a boil, stirring until thick, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
6. Cook the pasta in salted, boiling water 3 minutes less than package directions. Drain and toss with the reduced stock.
7. Layer the bottom of the prepared baking pan with 1/3 of the pasta, pressed into a level layer. Dot with 1/3 of the béchamel, sprinkle with 2 to 3 heaping tablespoons of grated Parmesan, scatter on all the pea mixture, then scatter over 1/3 of the diced cheese. Spread out a second level layer of pasta, dot with 1/3 of the béchamel, sprinkle with 2 to 3 heaping tablespoons of Parmesan, and scatter on all the mushrooms and ham and remaining 2/3 of the diced cheese. Top with the remaining pasta and any unabsorbed remaining stock, pressing down to compact the layers. Dot with the remaining béchamel, sprinkle with 2 to 3 tablespoons of Parmesan and 2 to 3 tablespoons of bread crumbs, and dot with 2 to 3 tablespoons of very thinly sliced butter.
8. Bake for about 25 minutes until set and golden. Let rest to room temperature before slicing.
Main photo: A contestant prepares a cheese wheel for Panicale’s Easter Monday competition. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan
I never dreamt the busy chef and owner of the finest Chinese restaurant in Mexico would want to go back to China with me. I had invited Luís Chiu on a guided culinary tour of Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province of China, sponsored by www.foodiehub.tv. But Luís, who is Mexican of Chinese ancestry, was eager to expand his knowledge of the country and cuisines of his ancestors — so he accepted my offer.
There has been a Chinese community in Mexico since the 19th century, when workers came to build railroads; others arrived in search of a better life. Entrepreneurial Chinese, many versed in American-style “fast cooking,” opened eateries specializing in the kind of light, quick meals they knew how to produce. Breakfasts of eggs, pancakes and pastries, accompanied by coffee served with frothy hot milk, were the specialty. And faux Chinese dishes, such as fried rice and chow mein, were also offered. These cafes de Chinos became an important part of Mexican urban lore — a few remain today. Luís Chiu’s family owned several of these cafes through the years, and he grew up in and around the food business.
Eating in China
The first dish we ate, at a humble stall, was spicy beef meatballs, bathed in a brick-red oily sauce made aromatic by fresh, numbing Sichuan peppers, dry red chilies and bean paste. We quickly got used to this ubiquitous flavor combination. We later gorged on handmade noodles, ma po tofu with pig’s brains, spit roast rabbit, mutton kebabs, and oily, fiery hot pot. All were astounding.
We visited the local wholesale spice market. Piles of Sichuan peppers in varying shades from brownish green to deep brick red perfumed the air with their particular aroma — they made my eyes water but Luis´ tears were real. He was overjoyed to be in the midst of this epicenter of a cuisine he loved.
I interviewed chef Chiu back in his kitchen in Mexico City, after he’d had time to reflect on his experiences in China.
Nicholas Gilman: Do you feel more Mexican or more Chinese?
Luís Chiu: I’ve taken the best of both Mexican and Chinese culture. I feel more Chinese with the family, our customs, the way of being with each other. When I go to China I feel I don’t quite belong: The way of acting and thinking is totally different. I know I’m not Chinese, but I feel close to the culture, traditions. But when I’m with my Mexican friends, I’m 100 percent Mexican — I love going to soccer games, for example.
The best of both worlds
N.G.: How did you become interested in traditional Chinese cooking?
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L.C.: There were no regional Chinese restaurants in Mexico, so I saw an emerging market for more sophisticated people who were ready for “the real thing.” I went to Shanghai to study, and in 2011 I opened Asian Bay.
N.G.: What was your impression of Chengdu?
L.C.: I had been to other places in China, which were more westernized. I was impressed by how much old stuff was preserved. I loved the teahouses, markets and how there’s even street food. What struck me about Sichuan is that the people are very warm, as if they were Latino. They smile, greet you, chat with you, ask where you’re from. And especially, they are so proud of their culinary traditions. It’s like Mexico in that way. I was especially impressed by what love people have for their food. How there were lines of people to buy those bao, (steamed pork-filled buns) or to eat dumplings, noodles. How they look at you when they serve the dishes — they’re not so used to seeing foreigners, so I really think they wanted to impress us.
N.G.: Would you tell us something about what you ate?
L.C.: The ma-la was so strong, like nothing I’ve ever tasted! (He was referring to the combination of “ma,” the numbing of the peppers, and “la,” the spiciness of the chilies.)
Lessons from the trip
N.G.: And what about the spice market?
L.C.: I was so impressed with that market because we wanted to see the “raw China,” and there it was — nothing Western, another world. Spices we’d never seen. And those chilies that came originally from Mexico. I really had no idea what all these things taste and smell like because imported products are of such low quality. Here it was the epicenter of this food.
N.G.: What, ultimately, did you learn from this journey?
L.C.: I left with more questions than I came with. It makes me want to delve even deeper into this complex cuisine. It’s kind of like Mexican cooking in the sense that ingredients are combined to create totally new flavors, like alchemy. They’re powerful, exciting. The journey made me realize that to cook food even if it comes from your own tradition, you have to know that culture from the inside. So to attempt to reproduce something when you are home is a real challenge. It can’t come from the heart if it’s superficial, if you don’t know the original.
Main photo: Mexican chef Luís Chiu tries a bevy of dishes during his culinary tour of Chengdu. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nicholas Gilman
Italian-Americans will tell you flat out that linguine accompanies seafood. Well, at least Long Island Italian-Americans will tell you that. My grandfather, who was from a small village 85 kilometers east of Naples, immigrated to New York in the early 20th century and lived there the rest of his life. He took my mother fishing in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn and they brought home bluefish, porgies, flounder or fluke on the subway back to their Manhattan tenement. Many different preparations would be made, but if it were to be a pasta dish, the pasta was linguine.
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The array of pastas you will encounter in a market aisle look innumerable. There are many more pastas, and perhaps you haven’t thought what you could do with them. This is a wonderful time to start experimenting. The Italians are said to have invented about 700 pasta shapes. This includes specialty pastas made for certain occasions. I still have my box of Menucci brand 1776-1976 pasta made for the U.S. Bicentennial and am still trying to figure out if I should put it in a living room shadow box or the kitchen pantry.
One problem faced by the cook is what sauce for what pasta. Books have been written on this, but let’s keep it simple here. In the 1960s when I first started working in restaurants, I began cooking. I was mostly influenced by the cooking of my Italian grandfather and by my mom who made Italian food at home. I was also greatly influenced by my travels to Italy, by the restaurants I worked in, which were staffed by Italians, and by the cookbooks of Ada Boni, a famous mid-20th century Italian author.
The matching of pasta shapes with sauces is something of an art. There is usually some logic to it, but not always. Tubular pastas such as cut ziti or rigatoni are great in baked dishes and with thick ragouts that can get stuck in the tubes. Seashell pasta and chickpeas make sense because the shells capture the peas. Wide, flat pastas such as fettuccine and pappardelle are nice with sauces that cling to their wide surfaces.
If there was one thing I learned from my grandfather it was that seafood always went with linguine, the flat filiform pasta about 2 millimeters wide. Here are three great linguine and seafood recipes that would have made my grandfather swoon:
Linguine alla Pescatore
Preparation and cooking time: 2 hours
Yield: 6 servings
Linguine alla pescatore means linguine in the style of the fishermen. I’ve always doubted these dishes are actual fishermen’s dishes as implied by the name. The various “pescatore” dishes in Italy always struck me as trattoria dishes. In any case, this is a simple preparation with flavors that bely the simplicity. The secret, besides the freshest seafood, is the marinade the seafood sits in made with saffron, chile flakes, garlic and parsley. Once you’re ready to serve, the cooking happens quickly.
¾ pound swordfish, cut into ½-inch cubes
12 oysters, shucked, with their liquid
½ pound medium shrimp, shelled
4 salted anchovy fillets, rinsed
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
Pinch of saffron, crumbled slightly
½ teaspoon red chile flakes
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
Salt to taste
3/4 pound linguine
1. In a bowl, toss the swordfish, oysters, shrimp, anchovy fillets, parsley, garlic, saffron, chile flakes, black pepper and 4 tablespoons of olive oil together. Leave to marinate for 2 hours.
2. Bring a large pot of water to a rapid boil, salt abundantly, then cook the pasta until al dente. Drain without rinsing.
3. In a large sauté pan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil over high heat, then cook the seafood mixture, stirring frequently, seasoning with salt, until cooked through, about 5 minutes. Transfer the pasta to the pan and toss several times, letting the pasta cook and absorb some of the juices. Serve immediately.
Linguine With Salmon, Basil and Mint
Preparation and cooking time: 20 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
This is a subtle dish and since everyone loves salmon it is delightful with the fresh herbs.
1/2 pound linguine
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 pound salmon, cut into bite-size pieces
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Juice from 1/2 lemon
1. Bring a large pot of water to a rapid boil, salt abundantly, then cook the pasta until al dente. Drain without rinsing.
2. Meanwhile, in a sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook the salmon, onion, garlic, basil and mint until the salmon is cooked through, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle the lemon juice on the fish. Transfer the fish and pasta to a serving bowl, toss well and serve immediately without cheese.
Linguine With Tuna and Green Beans
Preparation and cooking time: 20 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
When my children and the children of my friends were little, before their palates became adventurous, we adults who cooked for both adults and young children faced a dilemma. The adults didn’t want boring “kid food” and the children were finicky, all to a different degree. I refused to slave over two separate meals, so I relied on this quick preparation that fit the gustatory bill, pleasing all kinds of palates.
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
12 ounces tuna, canned in water and drained
1/2 cup loosely-packed fresh oregano leaves, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 pound linguine
1/2 pound green beans, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch lengths
1. In a flameproof casserole large enough to contain all the pasta, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat with the garlic, tuna, and oregano. Once it begins to sizzle, cook for 2 minutes then remove from the heat. Season with salt and pepper.
2. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rapid boil, salt abundantly, then cook the pasta until al dente. Drain without rinsing. Transfer the pasta and green beans to the casserole and toss with the tuna. Serve immediately.
Main photo: Linguine With Tuna and Green Beans. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright
Each year on Easter Monday, residents of Fanano, a picturesque hill town in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, arm themselves with hard-boiled eggs to do battle in the village square. Young and old alike participate in this centuries-old tradition that started in the sixth century as a way for townsfolk of all social levels, nobility and commoners, rich and poor, to compete on a level battlefield for a day.
Eggs have long been a symbol of Easter and even back in pagan times were associated with new life and springtime. Eggs were especially highly valued as food in medieval times, so winning an egg was considered quite a prize, with the poorer folks hoping their winnings might feed the family for several days.
Young and old alike today compete in this ancient “Cracking Contest” — Coccin Cocetto. How do you play? Each participant puts an egg onto a long wooden board and gathers round. A designated person randomly selects eggs from the row and distributes them to the first two contestants, who square off and bang their eggs together. The person whose egg cracks first loses. The winner takes possession of the broken egg, and then battles the next opponent. One contestant must hold his egg still, while the other hits it. Who gets to hit is determined either by a coin flip or by shooting odds or evens.
“It isn’t about luck,” explained Massimo, a dapper resident who has been playing, and often winning, for over 60 years. “You can win if you are the one holding still or hitting. Each has a technique.” He then went on to beat this author six times in a row, alternating between being the hitter and the hit-ee!
Most locals bring their own hard-boiled eggs to the event, but the town graciously provides colorful eggs free of charge for anyone who didn’t bring their own.
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While in Fanano, you can continue the medieval theme with a visit to the town’s lovely 11th-century Montefiorino Fortress and exquisite ninth-century Romanesque church. There are also lovely trails for hiking and biking nearby. After you’ve worked up an appetite, be sure to stay for lunch or dinner.
Like all food in Emilia-Romagna, the local fare is indescribably delicious. Traditional dishes include crescentine, the area’s famed flat bread; gnocco fritto, fried squares of dough; and rosette, rolls of fresh pasta filled with cheese and topped with meat sauce.
The day after Easter, called Pasquetta or Il Lunedi dell’Angelo, “Angel’s Monday,” is a day off throughout Italy, and Italians traditionally go on picnics. Typical picnic foods include raw fava beans eaten with pecorino cheese and casatello, savory bread filled with proscuitto and cheese topped with hard-boiled eggs still in their shells. Celebrate spring with basotti, a traditional Emilia-Romagna dish made with egg noodles
Basotti (Crunchy-Tender Pasta Squares)
Courtesy of “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes of Italy” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), by Francine Segan
This recipe is simple to assemble, but must be made with egg pasta, either fresh or dried. You’ll only need 1/2 pound of pasta, as egg pasta expands as it bakes and absorbs the cheese and broth. Speaking of broth, since it provides most of the flavor, it’s best to use homemade.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Bake time: 40 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
10 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons finely ground bread crumbs
1/2 pound egg tagliolini or another very thin egg noodle
About 2 cups grated Grana Padano or other aged cheese
4 cups rich pork, beef or chicken broth, preferably homemade
1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Generously butter an 8 x 15-inch metal baking pan and sprinkle with bread crumbs.
2. Put half of the uncooked pasta in the pan and top with 5 tablespoons of very thinly sliced butter, 3/4 cup of the grated cheese and 1 tablespoon freshly grated nutmeg. Add the remaining pasta, in a thin scattered layer, on top. Top with another 5 tablespoons of very thinly sliced butter and more nutmeg.
3. Bring the stock to a boil. Ladle over the pasta until just covered. Sprinkle with 3/4 cup grated cheese. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until firm to the touch.
4. Raise the oven to 475 F.
5. Top pasta with 1/2 cup grated cheese, and bake for a few minutes until crispy on top.
Main photo: Contestants battle with eggs last Easter Monday in the town of Fanano, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan
South Africa’s potjie — the country’s iconic three-legged cast iron pot and culinary workhorse — is a centuries-old piece of cooking equipment experiencing a contemporary revival now in its fourth decade.
In recent years, the potjie has almost taken on the power of a magic cauldron in South African society: It’s the place in which a hearty one-pot meal (called potjiekos) is cooked over an outdoor fire and over which people of all backgrounds enjoy being together outdoors. Yet while potjiekos is today a beloved ritual that even inspires contemporary chefs, for generations it was significantly overlooked.
Iron pots a tradition
Outdoor cooking was a tradition in South Africa before colonial times, with the country’s indigenous people cooking in clay pots over open fires. According to author and potjie expert Dine van Zyl, “The Dutch settlers brought iron pots to South Africa from Europe, where they had been hung from hooks over fireplaces. These Afrikaners hung the pots from their wagons when they trekked … the potjie was their whole kitchen. When they camped, they’d make a fire and cook whatever they had; some salted meat and maybe some dried apricots. They’d also use what was available … seafood if near the coast, or game if they were in the interior.”
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Everything changed with the advent of the stove, about 100 years ago. “People could easily cook in their kitchens and no longer needed potjies. The pot was used only nostalgically, on hunting, fishing or camping trips, or it sat on a front stoep (veranda), planted with a geranium.”
Then, in the ’80s, Van Zyl had an aha moment. While living on a farm without electricity, she was forced to turn to a potjie pot over an indoor fireplace. One night, friends joined her and they made a potjie outside. “I looked at my friends singing, dancing and cooking under the stars and I realized that potjiekos gives South Africans exactly what they want and need. It’s much more than cooking,” she said. “If you want to only cook, you do it on the stove.”
Van Zyl wrote the first book on potjiekos in 1983, which led to a popular revival that hasn’t stopped. “One wonderful thing about potjies is that they got men cooking. For the first time ever, men and women sat around the fire together, cutting up the meat and the vegetables.”
A potjie is traditionally made with tough cuts of meat, often lamb or beef neck or shin, or oxtail. The meat is seared first in the hot pot, then onions and spices, followed by a small amount of liquid are added. Then the layering up begins: first the hard vegetables like carrots and potatoes, then those requiring less cooking time, like green beans and cabbage — all vegetables that have been collectively cut up around the fire. The lid goes on and the pot simmers and steams unstirred for several hours, while everybody socializes.
As for the no-stirring rule, Van Zyl says it’s a tradition based on sensible cooking. “While the different components should all be perfectly cooked, which is why it’s layered, it’s nonsense that it must look like a cassata,” she said. “While you don’t mix it, toward the end you can ‘pull it through’ — place your spoon at the bottom of the pot and gently lift some of the meat and gravy to the top. Otherwise it becomes a mess when people start digging.”
Tradition gets a modern twist
Now, the tradition is fueling one of South Africa’s hottest chefs. In his mid-30s, Bertus Basson is chef patron of acclaimed Overture Restaurant in the Cape Winelands. His tasting menus are sophisticated and distinctly modern South African, rooted in local flavors and sensibility. While Overture and a second restaurant, Bertus Basson at Spice Route, are indoor kitchens, Basson’s creativity is stoked by outdoor fire and smoke. He often hits the road with outdoor pop-ups, and he is a regular judge on The Ultimate Braai Master, a grueling 60-day outdoor cooking reality TV show going into its fifth season.
Which is why it’s not surprising that potjie will soon be on Basson’s menu. When an easy dining annex to Overture is completed, it will feature open pit cooking with an installation of potjie pots. Basson is also hitting the festival circuit with a mobile spit fitted with potjie hooks.
“I grew up with potjies. My favorite was my father’s lamb shin pot braised in a little Worcestershire sauce and beer,” Basson said. He is quick to point out that when talking potjies, the layering method is the traditional Afrikaner way; it’s only one way to use a potjie pot. “South Africans of all backgrounds are cooking with potjie pots, whether Afrikaans, black African, or other, and what they cook and how they cook it differs. In addition, there are three-legged pots and also flat-bottomed pots, which are used for baking — my mom makes a kick-ass apple tart in hers. Potjies have survived generations. In fact, it’s traditional to pass on the pots, which just get better with age.”
In a country with a history of division, shared traditions are important. “Chefs have a responsibility to help South Africans celebrate our food and what we are, which can ultimately break down barriers,” said Basson.
Main photo: A traditional potjie is made with tough cuts of meat, then layered with hard vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone
A recent trip to the produce market led me to sing hymns in praise of winter vegetables. I returned home with familiar cauliflower and broccoli, as well as fennel, which I’ve learned can be as good roasted in a gratin dish with a light cheesy topping as it is raw in a salad. Other finds included an enormous, 2-pound black radish, something totally new to me; and leeks, without a doubt the true key to all good things in the winter kitchen.
Years ago, for reasons too complicated to explain, I spent a couple of winters in a very small French village, population just less than 3,000, in the Vercors mountains above Grenoble. We stayed, my baby girl and I, in a pension called La Crémaillère run by Madame Jacquet, one of those fierce French women utterly lacking in social graces but who was a genius in the kitchen. The babe went to the école maternelle (nursery school) each morning, while Mama hovered over her typewriter, engaged in writing a novel (not my first, and no, it was never finished).
Toward lunchtime, up from Madame Jacquet’s kitchen would float inevitably the enticing aroma of leeks, steeped and braised in butter, ready to form the base of whatever potage du jour was on Madame’s menu for that day. Perhaps a little garlic accompanied them, occasionally an onion to add its more acerbic flavors to the mix, and then carrots one day, little purple-topped turnips another, simple potatoes a third. But every lunch began with the potage du jour, the soup of the day, as was considered only proper in the bon ménage bourgeois Madame Jacquet maintained, in company with her equals all over France.
Aromas bring back memories
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From that day to this, the enticing aroma of braising leeks has evoked France for me more strongly than any other, more strongly even than the penetrating odor of Gauloise Caporals — strong French cigarettes — that used to be the distinguishing fragrance of the Paris Métro.
So when I chop a leek, rinse it carefully and toss it in a pot with a tablespoon of butter and a tablespoon of oil, it is to France that my culinary instincts turn. Those French soups are so simple, so easy and so inviting that I’m ready to revive them for my winter table. And because we’re always looking for ways to put more healthful vegetables on the menu, a potage du jour can be an elegant way to add to that slot as well.
Because I already had the cauliflower, why not, then, a potage au chou-fleur for a first course at dinner? I was not surprised to discover that my good friend Josée di Stasio, who has a great French-language food program, “A la di Stasio,” on Quebec television, has a recipe for a leek and cauliflower soup. For 4 servings, di Stasio simply sweats out 2 chopped leeks and 2 cloves of garlic in olive oil, adds a cut-up cauliflower, then 6 cups of broth (chicken or vegetable — enough to cover) and cooks until the vegetables are all tender. I would also add half a peeled and cubed potato to give the soup a nice creaminess. Then puree it, using a stick blender or an old-fashioned vegetable mill, and serve it up, garnished with chopped parsley or chervil or any other green herb that tickles your fancy.
Another time, though, I went back to a favorite recipe from “The Four Seasons of Pasta,” the book I published last year with my daughter Sara, to find a great cauliflower “sauce” for pasta. It isn’t really a sauce, but it is delicious mixed with pasta, and the sultana raisins and pine nuts give it a pleasant Sicilian touch. We think penne rigate is the perfect shape for this, but any short, stubby pasta will do.
If you look at the photo below, you will probably notice I left out the chili. That’s because I didn’t have one and it was too cold and late to go to the grocery store for one chili pepper. I also substituted pumpkin seeds for the pine nuts, just because I felt like it. This is all just proof that most recipes, including our own, are not engraved in bronze. Make do with what you have!
Penne rigate con Cavalfiore alla Siciliana
(Sicilian cauliflower pasta with leeks, raisins, pine nuts and a bit of chili)
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
Yield: Makes 6 servings
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 leeks, white and light green parts, thinly sliced to make 2 cups
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
About 1 pound cauliflower, separated into 1-inch florets
1 fresh red or green chili pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup golden sultana raisins, plumped in hot water and drained
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
About 1 pound (a 500-gram package) penne rigate
1/2 cup freshly grated sharp pecorino
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
1. Combine the olive oil with the leeks and garlic in a large, deep skillet and set over low heat. Cook, shaking the pan and stirring, until the leeks are softened but not browned, about 10 minutes.
2. Add the cauliflower and sliced chili. Cover the pan and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the cauliflower is tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Check from time to time and add a tablespoon or two of water or some of the wine to keep the vegetables from sticking to the pan.
3. When the cauliflower is tender, add the wine along with another 1/4 cup of water and raise the heat slightly. Simmer over medium-low heat until the liquid has reduced to about 1/2 cup, about 10 minutes. Toss in the raisins and simmer just long enough to mix the flavors together.
4. While the vegetables are cooking, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Add plenty of salt and the pasta and cook, following package directions, until the pasta is al dente.
5. Drain the pasta and toss with the vegetables in the skillet, then turn into a warm serving bowl and toss again with the grated cheese and pine nuts. Serve immediately.
Note: You could easily substitute bright green broccoli for the cauliflower in this dish, but it will cook in much less time than the cauliflower. Or try it with a colorful mixture of broccoli and cauliflower together.
Main image: Recent finds at the winter market included cauliflower, broccoli, a black radish and leeks. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins
If radicchio has become wildly popular in the States, it still doesn’t get the respect it deserves: Americans have adopted the showy vegetable as their own, but rarely does it transcend the salad bowl. This drives the Italians crazy, because throughout the regions where growing it is a tradition and an art, it has endless uses. Stuff it; shred it and caramelize it in olive oil for a pasta sauce or focaccia topping; melt it into a buttery risotto; coat it in batter and fry. Why not bake it into a cheesy pie encased in a crumbly crust? Venetians have no end of such recipes for their adored radicchio, and the different varieties they grow are starting to show their beautiful heads in American markets. Recently, I spoke with Emily Balducci, whose family introduced the vegetable to New York in the 1970s. Their legendary Greenwich Village grocery store evolved into Baldor Specialty Foods, which curates and distributes fresh produce to retailers and chefs. “Beginning in January, we get shipments twice a week,” she said. “The first of these winter beauties is Castelfranco, and the others follow. At the end of the season, we get rosa di Gorizia, the most gorgeous one of all.”
Know your radicchio
To begin with, it should be noted that the radicchio tribe belongs to the group of root chicories classified as Cichorium intybus; as such, the leaves have a bite to them when eaten raw. While we are most familiar with the wine-colored, globe-shaped Verona chicory, there are numerous varieties indigenous to northeastern Italy, all characterized by their spectacular reddish or reddish-green coloring. Besides radicchio rosso di Verona (also called “the rose of Chioggia,” just to confuse the matter), these include another spherical type that can grow as large as a cabbage head: the Castelfranco radicchio, which is shaped like an open peony and cream-hued with violet streaking as well as a green tint to its outermost leaves. Both the Treviso radicchio (variegato di Treviso) and the late-winter tardivo di Treviso are elongated just like their cousin the Belgian endive, but the comparison stops there. With its leggy white stalks and furled, deep-purple leaf tips, tardivo (which means “late-blooming”) is the most esteemed by the Italians for its sweetness. Of all the radicchios, the most lovely of all might very well be the aforementioned rosa di Gorizia, a crimson variety shaped precisely like a rose. In the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, where rosa di Gorizia has been cultivated for centuries, greengrocers display the heads with their leaves open, like blooms in a flower shop.
To cook it is to love it
Personally, I prefer radicchio cooked. Sautéing, braising, grilling or roasting softens yet also develops its characteristic tanginess. One of the most delicious ways to cook it is to stuff the leaves with fresh cheese and wrap with pancetta before pan-roasting. But my favorite of all just might be spaghetti with radicchio, for which all but the rosa di Gorizia are suitable (let’s face it, even though the locals bake, boil or fry them like any other chicory, the rosettes are simply too exquisite to be tampered with; best to present them in their natural state to be appreciated for their beauty). Both recipes are easy and quick to make.
Radicchio Stuffed With Goat Cheese
Prep time: 25 minutes
Cooking time: Approximately 5 minutes
Total time: About 30 minutes
Yield: 4 appetizer portions
Friends who moved to Italy and invited us to lunch one afternoon at their temporary digs served this easy-to-make antipasto. Gail Whitney-Karn shared the recipe willingly, explaining that it originated with a chef named Carmine Smeraldo, who ran a Seattle restaurant called Il Terrazzo Carmine. She used the Castelfranco variety, but I have adapted it for the smaller and more common Verona type. If using Verona radicchio, select the largest head you can find for the broadest outer leaves (there will be some left over, which you can use for the pasta recipe that follows). You will also need some thin cotton kitchen string.
1 large head radicchio
2 tablespoons Italian (not Asian) pine nuts, or skinned walnuts
5 ounces goat cheese
2 tablespoons ricotta
Pinch of fine salt
Freshly milled black or white pepper to taste
4 to 8 thin slices pancetta (depending on the bundle size), the leaner the better
Extra virgin olive oil
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1. Using a small, sharp knife, core the base of the radicchio. Detach eight nice outer leaves carefully, without tearing. Slice off the protruding base from the bottom of each rib to make it easier to roll up.
2. In a small skillet over low heat, lightly toast the pine nuts or walnuts until they are lightly colored but not browned. Chop them coarsely.
3. In a bowl, blend together the goat cheese, ricotta, nuts, salt and pepper.
4. Working with two leaves at a time, line one inside the other so that their bases are just overlapping in the center and the leaf tips are pointing outward. Place a rounded tablespoon of the cheese mixture in the center. Wrap the leaves around the filling to envelop it completely and form a torpedo-like bundle. Wrap one or two pancetta slices on the outside of the bundle to cover the leafy surface without overlapping, if possible. Secure with the kitchen string to prevent the filling from leaking excessively as the bundles sear. Use the remaining 6 leaves and filling to form 3 more bundles.
5. Warm an ample non-stick frying pan, cast-iron pan or other heavy skillet over medium heat. Drizzle in just enough olive oil to lightly coat the pan. Arrange the bundles seam-side down and reduce the heat to medium-low. Sear without moving them until they are nicely browned, about 2 minutes. As the pancetta browns, the bundles will begin to collapse and the filling may leak out slightly, but not to worry. Use a wide spatula to turn them over carefully and brown them on the reverse side, another 2 minutes. Transfer them to a cutting board, snip off the string and carefully place one each on 4 small serving plates. Serve at once.
Spaghetti With Braised Radicchio
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: Approximately 20 minutes
Total time: About 30 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
I corresponded with Paolo Lanapoppi, a Venetian writer and gondola restorer, for some time before tracking him down in Venice. When we finally met, the radicchio of nearby Treviso was in full flower, and he cooked up this delightful homespun dish for lunch. While Lanapoppi used tardivo, any radicchio variety will do nicely.
8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced and then chopped
8 ounces radicchio, sliced thinly and cut into 2-inch lengths
1/2 to 3/4 cup hot water
1/2 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
3/4 pound (12 ounces) imported Italian spaghetti
2 tablespoons kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese
1. In a skillet ample enough to contain all the ingredients, warm the olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the onion and sauté until nicely softened and lightly colored, about 7 minutes. Toss in the radicchio; use a wooden spoon to coat it evenly in oil and sauté for 5 to 7 minutes to wilt. Add 1/2 cup hot water and toss. Cover and continue to cook over medium-low heat until the radicchio is tender, 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding up to 4 more tablespoons of water if needed to keep it nice and moist. Add the sea salt, cover and set aside.
2. Bring a large pot filled with water over high heat to a rolling boil. Stir in the spaghetti and kosher salt. Cook at a continuous boil over high heat, stirring occasionally to prevent the strands from sticking together, until almost cooked, 1 minute less than package directions indicate. Add a glass of cold water to the pot to arrest the boiling and drain immediately, setting aside 1 cup of the cooking water.
3. Add the spaghetti to the skillet and return the heat to high. Use 2 long forks to distribute the ingredients evenly, about 1 minute. If necessary, add a little of the reserved pasta water to moisten. Serve immediately with plenty of pepper. Pass the grated cheese at the table.
Main photo: Radicchio stuffed with goat cheese. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales