Articles in Cooking

This Japanese meal has miso sauce, daikon radish, salmon, omelet, purple radish, cauliflower, broccoli, carrot, burdock, chestnut, grapes, dried baby fish -- some of these rather small amounts. I give it a score 10 item including the accompanying bowl of rice and miso soup. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbu

An official slogan for improving the nutrition of the Japanese population was issued by the Japanese government in 1985: “Consume Thirty Different Food Items Each Day.”

The food items were divided into six categories, and we were advised to choose evenly from each category. Each ingredient, it was said — meat, poultry and fish, soybeans, grains, vegetables and fruits, milk products, and sea vegetables — contains its own nutritional properties, so following this slogan will help to create balanced meals.

Even before this public announcement, there was a growing awareness that the Japanese diet since the turn of the 20th century had succumbed to influence from the West. It was thought that we must return to our own traditional diet to achieve optimum nutrition.

Just for fun, from time to time I still count how many different food items I have consumed in a single day.

A realistic goal?

A high-scoring lunch at home of kinpira ( flavored carrot, parsnip and burdock) and soba buckwheat noodles, fried tofu, cabbage, onion, fennel bulb and egg). Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbu

A high-scoring lunch of kinpira (flavored carrot, parsnip and burdock) and soba (buckwheat noodles) with fried tofu, cabbage, onion, fennel bulb and egg. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

This practice was instilled in me by my mother. Recently I made the count for all three meals, and found I’d consumed 21 separate foods on that day; far short of the government’s recommendation. This caused me to think. How and why did this government recommendation come about? Is it still a realistic guiding principle?

Here is what I found.

Until 1868, Japan lagged far behind Western countries in technology, science and engineering because of the closure of the country to foreign trade for 260 years. Even the small physical stature of the Japanese population was blamed on a poor, very limited Japanese diet that was based on small quantities of rice, fish, soybean products, with some vegetables and seaweeds.

The Meiji Emperor encouraged the population to begin consuming beef, a food item previously banned for ordinary citizens. Newly imported Western ingredients included meat, meat products, milk and butter, and new preparation techniques led to the creation of new “Japanese” dishes that were called “yo-shoku” (Japanized Western dishes).

Yo-shoku dishes with their rich flavors and large servings instantly became national favorites: beef steak, pork cutlet, curry and rice, “omu-rice” (stir-fried morsels of chicken and rice, seasoned with tomato ketchup and wrapped in an omelet), to name a few.

Dietary changes brought risks

Chikuzen-ni: This dish features broccoli, carrot, onion, purple baby potato, white baby potato, parsnip, shiitake mushroom, chicken and olive oil -- a 9-item dish.

This dish (Chikuzen-ni) features broccoli, carrot, onion, purple baby potato, white baby potato, parsnip, shiitake mushroom, chicken and olive oil — a nine-item dish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

During the heyday of Japanese boom-times in 1970-1990, even more varieties of Western foods became available and popular (provided by the major Western fast-food companies). And Japanese began consuming increasing quantities of rare cheeses, foie gras and expensive wines.

These dietary changes came with hefty penalties: Diabetes became more widespread. Heart disease became the number No. 2 killer in Japan. And — this was formerly unthinkable — morbid obesity is now present in the country.

Meals dominated by fat, meat, meat products, egg, sugar and milk products push up calorie consumption but not the number of daily food items. The broad categories of foods of the traditional complete Japanese diet such as seafood, seaweed, vegetables and more fruits are lacking. So the 1985 rule was an attempt to bring variety back to the everyday diet.

Want to try eating 30 different foods in a day? Choose at least two items from each of the six food categories. Since consuming vegetables and fruits is good for our health, add two additional items from categories 3 and 4. If you do this, you will easily approach 20 separate food items — a good start for reaching the goal of 30 items that the Japanese government recommended.

By following this practice, you can change the way you plan and prepare meals to the benefit of your health.

Six categories of food items

This Japanese style fish stew includes porgy, squid and hard-shell clam from fishmonger, Blue Moon, which sets up their store at Union Square Market, New York City, from spring through early winter. Also onion, corn, tomato and green and yellow zucchini are mingling with seafood in dashi (Japanese stock) broth -- an 8 score dish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbu

This Japanese-style fish stew includes porgy, squid and hard-shell clam from fishmonger Blue Moon, which sets up at Union Square Market in New York City from spring through early winter. Also, onion, corn, tomato and green and yellow zucchini are mingling with seafood in dashi (Japanese stock) broth — an 8 score dish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

The six categories of food items and what they provide:

1. Meat, fish, poultry, egg, tofu products (protein).

2. Small fish that can be eaten whole with bones, milk and milk products (calcium).

3. Green and yellow vegetables (carotene, plus other vitamins and minerals).

4. Other vegetables and fruits (vitamin C, plus other vitamins and minerals).

5. Grains, potato, bread/cakes/cookies (carbohydrates).

6. Cooking oil, nut and seed oils, nuts and seeds (fat).

Rules to follow

I taught 3-5 years old kids at Children's Museum of Manhattan in New York City to eat vegetables of all colors of the rainbow. The little audience was very curious about the colors of beautiful vegetables. Credit 2016 Hiroko Shimbu

I taught 3- to 5-year-old kids at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan in New York City about the value of eating vegetables of all colors of the rainbow. The young audience was curious about the beautiful colors of vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

As you begin your “Thirty Different Food Items Each Day” project, please observe the following rules. Do not count the same ingredient twice. Do not count ingredients used for garnishes in soups, salads and the like; they have minimal nutritional and caloric value. You can, however, count ketchup, mayonnaise and sauces, which have substantial caloric content.

When you reach 21 food items in a day, please send me photos and a description of the meals. I will share them with my audience.

Before then, please enjoy this stir-fried rice recipe, which gives you a 7 score for the dish.

Seven Score Vegetable Stir-Fried Rice

I make this rice dish very often for lunch and dinner. The ingredients used here - carrot, onion, fennel bulb, kale, brown rice, pine nuts and olive oil - can be replaced with other ingredients that you may have in your kitchen. A flavorful and satisfying vegetable rice dish anytime. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbu

I make this rice dish very often for lunch and dinner. The ingredients used here — carrot, onion, fennel bulb, kale, brown rice, pine nuts and olive oil — can be replaced with other ingredients that you may have in your kitchen. A flavorful and satisfying vegetable rice dish any time. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: 4 minutes

Total time: 49 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup chopped onion

Sea salt

1 cup chopped carrot

1/4 cup chopped fennel bulb or celery

3 1/2 ounces kale; leaves, cut into thin slices crosswise; stems, cut into thin slices slanted

4 cups cooked and cooled brown rice (preferably made a day in advance)

1/2 cup pine nuts

2 tablespoons butter

1 to 2 teaspoons shoyu

Freshly ground black pepper corn

Directions

Heat a wok or deep skillet over medium heat and add 1 1/2 tablespoons of the oil. When the oil is hot, add the onion along with pinch of salt and cook, stirring, 1 minute.

Add the carrot, fennel bulb and kale stem along with pinch of sea salt and cook, stirring, 2 minutes. Add the kale leaves, and cook, stirring, 30 seconds. Move the vegetables to one end of the wok (or transfer to a temporary bowl). Add the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons oil in the empty space of the wok.

When the oil is hot, add the rice and cook, over medium heat, stirring, until the rice is fully heated up, or about 2 minutes. Then combine and toss the rice with the cooked vegetables. Add the pine nuts and give several large stirs. Add the butter, soy sauce and freshly ground black pepper and toss the mixture thoroughly. Divide the rice among 4 plates and serve hot.

Main photo: This Japanese meal has miso sauce, daikon radish, salmon, omelet, purple radish, cauliflower, broccoli, carrot, burdock, chestnut, grapes and dried baby fish. Since some are rather small amounts, I give it a score of 10, including the accompanying bowl of rice and miso soup. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

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Kimchi in wok to make kimchi fried rice at Hanjip. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Steamed rice is a perfect side dish.  Never threatening to overshadow the qualities of a main dish, rice is a good accompaniment for grilled proteins, braises, stir-fries and steamed veggies. But there are times when a meal needs not symbiosis but fiery contrast. That is when Chef Chris Oh’s kimchi fried rice can save the day.

Located near Sony Studios, Oh’s Hanjip Korean BBQ  is one of a dozen new restaurants that have created a culinary district in what was once sleepy Culver City, Calif.

An unlikely path to becoming a chef

If you met Oh before he was 30, you would have known an economics major who studied at the University of Arizona and followed his supportive parents into the world of entrepreneurial businesses.  Within a few years of graduation, he owned a home, a real estate company and a car wash in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was living the American dream.

Then one day, as has happened to many others, he woke up and asked himself, “Is this it?” His answer was, “No.” He wanted to follow his passion and pursue the life of a chef. But this is where Oh’s story takes an unusual turn. Unlike many others who want culinary careers, Oh did not enroll in a cooking academy. He did not seek out a talented chef and apprentice himself for years.

He abandoned his successful life, sold his house and all his businesses, packed his car and drove to Los Angeles. He knew he wanted to be a chef, but his only cooking experience was preparing meals for his younger brother when they were growing up.  He rented a house, bought a TV and turned on the Food Network. For days and nights too numerous to count, he sat on his couch and watched cooking shows. He studied classic recipes and learned to improvise by watching competition cooking shows.

Even though he had never worked in a professional kitchen, after his third interview, he was hired to be a line cook.  A quick study, within two years Oh was working with some of Los Angeles’ top chefs. Fast forward another two years and he was the chef-owner of two food trucks and three restaurants. Along the way he won the third season of The Great Food Truck Race and had become a judge on cooking shows.

Korean flavors for American palates

Korean barbecue offerings at Hanjip. Top row: ribeye, brisket, marinated pork belly, pork belly, lamb. Middle row: baby octopus, beef bulgogi, skirt steak, short rib. Bottom row: pork jowl, marinated short rib, marinated pork shoulder. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Korean barbecue offerings at Hanjip. Top row: ribeye, brisket, marinated pork belly, pork belly, lamb. Middle row: baby octopus, beef bulgogi, skirt steak, short rib. Bottom row: pork jowl, marinated short rib, marinated pork shoulder. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

The driving force behind his success is Oh’s love of Korean food. Many people have not experienced Korean food so his intention is to create dishes with authentic flavors but to make them more friendly to the American palate. Korean barbecue, he told me, isn’t just for Korean people.

Eating at a Korean barbecue restaurant is like going to a dinner theater except the show is not on stage but on the table. A gas-powered brazier gets the spotlight. Using tongs and chop sticks, everyone at the table plays chef and places thin slices of meat, seafood and vegetables on the hot grill. The conversation bubbles and the meat sizzles as everyone picks off the flavorful crispy bits and eats them with rice.

Based on his mother’s recipe, Oh adds a few chef’s secret touches to elevate his kimchi fried rice. Essential to the flavor profile is the addition of a barely cooked egg.  Just before eating, the egg is broken up and mixed into the rice. The kimchi fried rice with its comfort-food creaminess is a good complement to the tasty, crispy bits that come off the grill.

Hanjip Korean BBQ’s Kimchi Fried Rice

Hanjip Korean BBQ kimchi fried rice. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Hanjip Korean BBQ kimchi fried rice. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Of the special ingredients needed to make the dish, only kimchi is essential. Found in the refrigerated section in Asian markets, there are many varieties of kimchi. The version used in Oh’s recipe is made with Asian cabbage. Most often sold in jars and prepared with MSG, there are brands that prepare their kimchi without MSG and are recommended.

Kimchi continues to ferment in the jar, which explains the gas that sputters out when the lid is unscrewed. To protect against juices staining clothing and the counter, always open the jar in the sink where cleanup is easy.

Furikake and nori, the other specialty ingredients called for in the recipe, are also found in Asian markets. Nori is a dried seaweed sold in sheets or pre-cut into thin strips. Furikake comes in several varieties. Chef Oh’s furikake is a mix of sesame seeds, nori, bonito flakes and seasoned salt.

For a vegetarian or vegan version, omit the butter and egg and use kosher salt instead of beef bouillon.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes or 45 minutes if the rice must be cooked or 60 minutes if using a sous vide egg

Total time: 20 minutes or 65 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 egg, sous vide 60 minutes or coddled for 4 minutes in boiling water or fried sunny side up

1 tablespoon sweet butter

2 tablespoons sesame oil

¾ cup chopped kimchi

3 cups cooked white rice, Japanese or Chinese

Pinch of beef bouillon powder or kosher salt

2 tablespoons kimchi juice

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh garlic

2 tablespoons scallions, washed, ends trimmed, chopped

2 tablespoons nori strips for garnish

1 teaspoon furikake for garnish

Directions

1. Cook the egg sous vide, coddled or fried sunny side up. Set aside.

2.Heat wok, carbon steel or cast iron pan over high heat.

3. Add butter. Lower the flame and stir well to avoid burning.

4. Add sesame oil and kimchi. Stir well to combine.

5. Add cooked rice. Mix well with oils and kimchi. Do not over stir to encourage bottom layer to crisp.

6. Season with beef bouillon powder or kosher salt, kimchi juice and garlic. Stir well.

7. Add scallions and stir well.

8. When the rice is well coated and some of the grains are crispy, transfer to a serving dish.

9. Top with the egg and garnish with the nori strips and furikake.

10. Serve hot.

Main photo: Kimchi in wok to make kimchi fried rice at Hanjip. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

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Yotam Ottolenghi's yogurt-drizzled butternut squash. Credit: Reprinted with permission from NOPI: The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ramael Scully, copyright 2015. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Food photography: Copyright 2015 Jonathan Lovekin Location photography: Copyright 2015 Adam Hinton

Yogurt is not for just breakfast or smoothies anymore. While the dairy cases in supermarkets across the nation populate with more brands, tubs and tubes of yogurt — including novel flavors like sriricha-mango and carrot — a parallel trend is making it a star ingredient in cooking. Beyond its compatibility with granola or fruit blends, yogurt is becoming a foundational ingredient in dips, soups and sauces for roasted vegetables and meats in American restaurants and home kitchens.

The recent adoration for cooking with yogurt is not the result of some new flavor or formulation. This is plain (old) yogurt, an ancient staple food in many cultures of the world. Yogurt’s natural creaminess and acidity, coupled with its versatility, are feeding 21st-century culinary inspiration.

Why, over 70 years since yogurt’s introduction to the United States, has its moment arrived now?

Groundbreaking yogurt

There’s no doubt that Americans have claimed the world’s favorite cultured dairy product as our own. In  fact, it’s one of the fastest-growing food groups of all time. Although nearly all of the yogurt sold in the United States is sweetened, the natural tang no longer puts people off as it did when the Dannon company introduced its brand in 1942.

The sea change came with Greek yogurt. Since 2005, domestic sales have doubled each year, and today over half of all yogurt sold here is Greek-style. With more liquid whey strained, this thicker, creamier product won consumers over, despite costing nearly twice as much. Yogurt’s alluring halo as a low-fat, high-protein, calcium-rich health product with the benefit of probiotics has made it the go-to breakfast choice and snack alternative.

At the same time, the DIY culture has inspired a renaissance in age-old cooking traditions, including food preservation and fermentation. Since yogurt is the product of fermenting milk with bacteria cultures that preserve and thicken, it has helped inspire the pickle-, sauerkraut- and jam-making crowd and has kicked off an online wave of homemade yogurt machines, how-to recipes and Pinterest posts.

Yogurt infatuation

Long before yogurt became the one of hottest-selling foods ever, I encountered the concept of cooking with yogurt in two landmark vegetarian cookbooks, “The Moosewood Cookbook” and Deborah Madison’s “Greens.” Drawing on world cuisines, both featured soups with yogurt, yogurt sauce and raita, the Indian side dish often made with cucumber or other vegetables.

“Yogurt isn’t new. Not even a little,” writes Cheryl Sternman Rule in her 2015 cookbook “Yogurt Culture.” In many cultures throughout the world, yogurt is more than a healthful substitute for mayonnaise and sour cream but “is enjoyed globally in countless incarnations and preparations, both savory and sweet, across every meal.”

While it is common in Turkey to eat cucumbers and tomatoes with yogurt, for example, it’s only recently that such savory notions have enjoyed broad appeal here. It took a slow shift toward vegetarianism (even among meat eaters); world cuisines, especially those of India and the Middle East; and wholesome cooking to win this ancient staple newfound status. It is also due, in no small part, to the singular influence of an Israeli-born, London-based chef named Yotam Ottolenghi.

The Ottolenghi effect

With five cookbooks published in the past four years, Ottolenghi is wildly popular among professional and home cooks alike. His influence on American cooking is so widespread it is impossible not to encounter his mark in food magazines and popular blogs. Several of his recipes, including roasted butternut squash drizzled with yogurt, have become iconic.

Pairing yogurt with meats and fish, grains and legumes, herbs and spices, vegetables from eggplant to zucchini and even eggs, Ottolenghi has helped to transform our basic conception of the ingredient. In “NOPI: The Cookbook,” his most recent release based on his London restaurant, Ottolenghi again translates the idiom with another dozen yogurt-centric recipes using beets, chickpeas, lamb meatballs and more.

In falling so hard for its nutritional values, we’ve finally come to recognize yogurt’s vast culinary assets.

Yogurt’s bounty

Grilled hanger steak with grilled red-onion raita. Credit: Reprinted with permission from "Yogurt," by Janet Fletcher, copyright 2015, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

Grilled hanger steak with grilled red-onion raita. Credit: Reprinted with permission from “Yogurt,” by Janet Fletcher, copyright 2015, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

“Yogurt Culture” is one of two cookbooks devoted to the subject of cooking with yogurt released last year. Amid recipes for smoothies and fro-yo, the bulk of the book explores yogurt’s savory side. Poring over appetizer, lunch and dinner recipes, I discovered yogurt in marinara sauce for pasta, tangy mashed potatoes and a more stable whipped cream. Under the book’s spell, I served Rule’s yogurt dip of blood orange, Kalamata olive and red onion with pita breads when a friend came over for a glass of wine. A first.

“Yogurt: Sweet and Savory Recipes for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner,” by Janet Fletcher (Ten Speed Press) is akin, presenting a globally inspired collection of yogurt-centered recipes. Salted yogurt creates a bed for a farro and vegetable salad; it is a marinade for chicken and a topping on pizza. No fan of fusion, Fletcher nonetheless blends boundaries via an irresistible cumin-spiced raita with red onion to accompany grilled steak or lamb burgers. That’s a new one for cookout season.

Together, these cookbooks expand our understanding of plain yogurt in all its current forms, from organic and grass-fed to Australian (whole milk, unstrained) and Icelandic (even thicker than Greek) to homemade. Grounded in its history, they inspire some serious and fun exploration through cooking.

“As a cook, I love where yogurt has taken me,” writes Fletcher. I heartily agree. From here on out, yogurt — spiced, herbed, smoked and, yes, even sweetened (lightly, with fresh fruits and preserves) — promises to be anything but plain.

Cheryl Sternman Rule’s Blood Orange, Kalamata and Red Onion Dip

Note: Excerpted from “Yogurt Culture” copyright 2015 by Cheryl Sternman Rule. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Prep time: Approximately 10 minutes

Cooking time: None

Total time: Approximately 10 minutes

Yield: Serves 2

Ingredients

3/4 cup plain whole-milk Greek yogurt or labneh, homemade or store-bought

Kosher salt

1 blood orange (or Valencia, Cara Car, or navel orange if blood oranges are unavailable)

1/4 cup pitted kalamata olives, drained and minced

1 tablespoon minced red onion

2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

Freshly ground pepper

1/8 teaspoon sumac (optional)

Toasted whole-wheat pita triangles, for serving

Directions

1. If using yogurt, season it with a good pinch of salt. (Don’t salt the labneh.) Scrape the yogurt into a shallow bowl and smooth it with the back of a spoon to create a wide indentation. Using a sharp knife, cut away the peel and white pith from the orange and dice the flesh.

2. Scatter the orange pieces over the yogurt. Sprinkle the olives and onion on top. Drizzle with the oil in a thin stream. Season lightly with salt and more aggressively with pepper. Dust with the sumac, if using. Serve immediately with the toasted pita triangles.

Grilled Red-Onion Raita for Hanger Steak

Note: Reprinted with permission from “Yogurt,” by Janet Fletcher, copyright 2015, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Prep time: Approximately 20 minutes

Cooking time: Approximately 25 minutes

Total time: Approximately 45 minutes

Yield: Serves 4

Ingredients

1 large red onion (10-12 ounces)

Vegetable oil

Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt

1 clove garlic, grated or finely minced

1 tablespoon finely minced cilantro or 1 1 ⁄ 2 teaspoons finely minced fresh mint

1 ⁄ 4 teaspoon toasted and ground cumin seeds

1 ⁄ 2 teaspoon mustard seeds

Directions

1. Prepare a moderate charcoal fire in the center of your grill, leaving the outer rim devoid of coals so you can grill the red onions over indirect heat. Alternatively, preheat a gas grill to medium, leaving one burner unlit for indirect grilling.

2. Peel the onion and slice neatly into 1/2-inch-thick rounds. Carefully thread a thin bamboo skewer through each slice to hold the rings together. Brush the slices with oil on each side, and season with salt and pepper on each side. Grill over indirect heat — not directly over the coals or gas flame — turning once, until the onions are soft and slightly charred, about 25 minutes. Do not rush them or they will blacken before they are fully cooked. Transfer to a cutting board and pull out the skewers. If the outer ring of the onion slices is dry and papery, discard it. Chop the remainder of the onion coarsely.

3. In a bowl, whisk together the yogurt, garlic, cilantro or mint and cumin. In a small skillet or butter warmer, warm 2 teaspoons vegetable oil over medium heat. Have the skillet lid handy. When the oil is hot, add the mustard seeds. Protecting your face with the lid, cook until the mustard seeds pop and become fragrant, 1 minute or less. Pour the hot oil and mustard seeds over the yogurt and stir in. Fold in the grilled onion. Season the raita with salt.

Main photo: Yotam Ottolenghi’s yogurt-drizzled butternut squash. Reprinted with permission from “NOPI: The Cookbook,” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ramael Scully, copyright 2015. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Food photography: Copyright 2015 Jonathan Lovekin. Location photography: Copyright 2015 Adam Hinton

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A mix of exotic spices and herbs gives Strega its distinctive tint and flavor. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Close your eyes. Take a deep breath of this golden elixir and you’re transported to the raucous spice bazaars of Marrakech. A classic Italian liqueur, popular in cocktails and as an after-dinner digestivo, Strega liqueur can be a cook’s secret weapon. It’s like having a well-stocked spice rack and fragrant herb garden in one bottle.

I’ve long loved Strega’s beguiling flavor in cocktails and as an after-dinner digestive. It appears in my book, “Dolci — Italy’s Sweets,” in several classic Italian desserts. But here’s a surprise: Strega is spectacular in savory dishes!

Made with more than 70 aromatic spices and herbs infused into a base distillate, this 100% natural mixture — with no artificial colors or flavors — is aged in ash barrels to meld and mellow the flavors. The mix of exotic spices and herbs include the world’s three most expensive spices: saffron, which gives Strega its distinctive glistening yellow tint; vanilla; and cardamom.

Some of the ingredients come right from Italy: lavender, irises, orange and lemon peel, as well as amazingly aromatic juniper from the Italian Alps and rare wild mint from the south. The rest are gathered from around the world: myrrh from Ethiopia, star anise from China, cinnamon from Ceylon, bitter orange peel from the Caribbean island of Curaçao.

This aromatic mix of herbs and spices is masterfully combined in perfect proportion, creating an explosion of flavors and lending a gourmet touch to appetizers, pasta, chicken and fish, as well as countless desserts. Use it in recipes calling for wine or as a marinade for chicken or fish. It’s great on almost anything on the grill.

And, of course, Strega adds a refined touch to so many desserts: splash on fruit salad, add into pudding, cake mixes, pie crust and pie fillings. You probably have a bottle of Strega languishing in your liquor cabinet already — so move it into the pantry! Here are just a few of the many wonderful ways to enjoy it out of the glass.

Pasta Shish Kebob With Peaches and Scallops

Italy's version of a shish kebob comes with pasta, scallops and sweet peaches. Credit: Photo courtesy of "Pasta Modern -- New & Inspired Recipes from Italy" by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Italy’s version of a shish kebob comes with pasta, scallops and sweet peaches. Credit: Photo courtesy of “Pasta Modern — New & Inspired Recipes from Italy” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

From “Pasta Modern –New & Inspired Recipes from Italy” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Pasta, scallops, sweet peaches and red onion grilled on a stick — this is Italy’s delightful answer to shish kebob. A wonderfully new way to serve pasta.

Ingredients

8 short rosemary branches or wooden skewers

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons Strega liqueur

1 garlic clove, finely minced

8 large scallops

1 peach, cut into 8 slices

1/2 small red onion, cut into bite-sized pieces

Fresh or dried chili pepper, to taste

16 wheel–shaped “route” pasta

Salt

Directions

1. Soak the branches or skewers in water for 1 hour to prevent charring.

2. Preheat the broiler or grill. (If using the broiler, coat a baking sheet with a little olive oil.)

3. In a bowl, combine the oil, Strega liqueur, garlic, scallops, peach, onion and chili pepper.

4. Meanwhile, cook the pasta in boiling salted water until al dente. Drain and toss into the bowl with the other ingredients. Thread a pasta wheel, peach slice, scallop, onion piece, and a second pasta wheel onto each branch or skewer. Season the skewers with salt and grill or broil, turning 1/2 turn every minute or so, until the scallops are done, about 3 minutes.

Chicken With Artichokes

A chicken and artichoke dish is enhanced with a little bit of Strega. Credit: “Shakespeare’s Kitchen” by Francine Segan (Random House)

A chicken and artichoke dish is enhanced with a little bit of Strega. Credit: “Shakespeare’s Kitchen” by Francine Segan (Random House)

From “Shakespeare’s Kitchen” by Francine Segan (Random House)

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 45 minutes

Total time: 50 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 chicken, cut into 8 pieces (about 4 pounds)

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup chicken stock

1/4 cup Strega liqueur

1 lemon, unpeeled, diced

6 dates, chopped

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 teaspoon salt

5 to 6 artichoke bottoms, cleaned, par-boiled

Directions

1. Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat.

2. Dredge the chicken pieces in the flour and brown the chicken on all sides.

3. Remove the chicken from the pan and add the stock, Strega liqueur, lemon, dates, brown sugar and salt. Bring to a boil and then add the chicken and artichokes.

4. Reduce to medium heat, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes.

5. Turn over the chicken, and cook for 15 minutes, or until the chicken is fork tender.

Main photo: A mix of exotic spices and herbs gives Strega its distinctive tint and flavor. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

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Red and green chicory growing outdoors. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Chicory is the cool kid on the winter salad block. It belongs to a ravishing and rewarding family of overwintering plants, and it can be found in many shapes, sizes and colors. Radicchio is chicory; so are curly endive, frisée, escarole and catalogna (aka puntarelle). Even dandelions come from the same stock.

Sown in fall, chicories go right through winter. When left to brave the elements outdoors, they develop a wonderful intensity of color (carmine red, dark glossy green), depending on the variety. If, on the other hand, the plants are dug up at the beginning of winter and the leaves are cut back to the bone, with the roots replanted indoors and grown beneath the soil without exposure to light, they develop heads of tightly packed, ivory-white leaves fringed with yellow. This practice, known as blanching, was discovered by accident in the 1850s in Belgium — and it explains why the plant is known in some parts as Belgian endive.

Bitter flavor of chicory complements seasonal cooking

Bitterness is one of the hallmarks of the chicory family. It’s just what the body needs in the winter months, providing a welcome fillip in the midst of all those rich, stodgy foods and creamy sauces. Most of us meet the chicory family in salads, where that bitter touch can be beautifully offset with a sweetish dressing — balsamic or blood orange juice are both fine additions to regular vinaigrette, or use them to deglaze the pan after flash-frying cubes of fish or shellfish to toss over your salad. A generous platter of multicolored chicories interspersed with slivers of apple, pear or kumquats or a scattering of pomegranate seeds is a treat for all the senses.

Finally, don’t forget that this robust vegetable takes kindly to a bit of a roasting. This mellows it beautifully, particularly when finished with a good dollop of cream and grated cheese (think pecorino or Parmesan).

Winter Warm Salad of Chicory and Lamb’s Lettuce With Scallops, Shrimp or Red Mullet

Winter warm salad of chicory and lamb’s lettuce with scallops, shrimp or red mullet. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Winter warm salad of chicory and lamb’s lettuce with scallops, shrimp or red mullet. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 5 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: Makes 2 servings.

Ingredients

For the vinaigrette:

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar, cider vinegar or lemon juice

Salt and pepper to taste

A pinch of sugar

For the fish and salad:

8 ounces red mullet filets, 8 scallops or 8 ounces peeled, raw shrimp

A handful of mixed winter salad leaves (lamb’s lettuce, dandelions s, ruby chard)

2 Belgian endives (ideally, 1 white and 1 red)

2 to 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoons olive oil

Juice of 2 blood oranges

Sprigs of fresh herbs (chervil, chives, dill) or sprouted seeds (cress)

Directions

1. Make the vinaigrette by whisking together the oil, vinegar (or lemon juice), salt, pepper and sugar in a small bowl or jar. Set aside.

2. Trim the red mullet filets and remove any bones with tweezers. Slice them on a slant to give lozenge-shaped pieces. If using scallops, separate the meat from the corals and peel away the muscle band attatching it to the shell (if this has not been done for you). If using the corals (as is customary in Europe), prick these with a pin so they don’t explode on frying. Wash fish or shellfish and pat dry with paper towels.

3. Trim the root ends from the endives and separate the leaves. Arrange leaves in a star shape in soup bowls, alternating the colors.

4. Finely slice any trimmings from the endives and pile these up with the lamb’s lettuce and dandelions in the center. Sprinkle on the vinaigrette.

5. Shortly before serving, put the flour in a plastic bag, add salt and pepper, put in the shellfish or fish and shake to dust lightly in flour. Tip into a colander and shake off any excess flour. Don’t do this too far ahead, or the shellfish/fish will absorb the flour and make a gluey mess.

6. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a heavy pan, toss in the shellfish or fish and fry very briefly — 1 to 2 minutes — turning once. Arrange over the salads.

7. Tip the blood orange juice into the pan with 1 tablespoon oil, turn up the heat and let it bubble up to thicken and reduce, scraping up any nice fishy bits.

8. Spoon the reduced blood orange dressing over the salads, sprinkle with fresh herbs or sprouted seeds of your choice and serve at once with crusty bread.

Salad of Belgian Endive, Radicchio, Lamb’s Lettuce, Kumquats and Avocado

Salad of Belgian endive, radicchio, lamb’s lettuce, kumquats and avocado. Credit: copyright 2016 Sue Style

Salad of Belgian endive, radicchio, lamb’s lettuce, kumquats and avocado. Credit: copyright 2016 Sue Style

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: None

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 servings.

Ingredients

For the dressing:

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 teaspoon coarse-grain mustard

2 tablespoons walnut vinegar

6 tablespoons walnut oil

A pinch of sugar

For the salad:

About 8 ounces mixed salad leaves (lamb’s lettuce, rucola, baby dandelion leaves)

2 heads Belgian endive

1 small radicchio

6 kumquats

1 avocado

A handful of walnuts

Sprigs of dill

Directions

1. Make the dressing by placing the salt, pepper, mustard, walnut vinegar, walnut oil and sugar in a jam jar, covering with a lid and shaking vigorously till smooth and emulsified.

2. Wash and spin dry the salad leaves.

3. Remove outer leaves of Belgian endive and slice very thinly lengthwise.

4. Shred the radicchio finely.

5. Wash the kumquats and slice them wafer-thin.

6. Peel and pit the avocado and cut in segments.

7. Arrange the sliced endive, salad leaves and shredded radicchio decoratively on a large serving plate, add finely sliced kumquats and avocado segments, scatter walnuts and dill on top and spoon the dressing over.

Gratin of Belgian Endive With Walnut and Parmesan Crumble and Parma Ham

Gratin of Belgian endive with walnut and Parmesan crumble and Parma ham. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Gratin of Belgian endive with walnut and Parmesan crumble and Parma ham. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: Makes 2 servings.

Ingredients

1 ounce butter

2 teaspoons brown sugar

3 Belgian endives, white or red, halved lengthwise

For the crumble:

1 thick slice sourdough bread, crust removed, cut in cubes

1 1/2 ounces walnuts

2 ounces grated Parmesan

1 teaspoon thyme

Salt and pepper to taste

5 tablespoons Greek yogurt

2 to 3 tablespoons milk

3 ounces (75 grams) Parma or another cured ham, sliced

Flat-leaf parsley, chopped (optional)

Directions

1. Melt the butter with the sugar in a heavy frying pan or sauté pan — if you have one that will go in the oven, so much the better.

2. Fry the endives, facedown first, then the other sides, until golden brown and a little softened.

3. Place the sourdough cubes, walnuts, grated Parmesan, thyme and salt and pepper to taste in a food processor and process to crumbs. Stir in the yogurt and enough milk to give a porridge-like consistency.

4. Spread this mixture over the endives. (Refrigerate if not baking immediately.)

5. Heat the oven to 400 F and bake the endives for about 15 minutes or until tender when poked with a skewer and the topping is bubbly.

6. Lay the ham on top — it will subside agreeably into the hot endives and the warmth will release some of its cured flavor without cooking it.

7. Sprinkle with parsley if wished. Serve warm.

Main image: Red and green chicory growing outdoors. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

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Cape Malay cooking teacher Faldela Tocker, with a dish of pickled fish. “Once it’s pickled, it needs to sit for the flavors to develop,” she says. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

In Cape Town, South Africa, Easter is all about chocolate eggs, hot cross buns and pickled fish, a local turmeric-hued, sweet and sour favorite, flavored with spices from the Cape of Good Hope’s Malay culinary heritage.

Although pickled fish is closely associated with Easter, the sweet and sour curried dish has little to do with the Christian holiday. Naturally preserved with vinegar, it’s a make-ahead dish that can span South Africa’s four-day Easter weekend, when no matter what your religion is, socializing and relaxing still reign supreme.

In South Africa, pickled fish is most closely linked with the Cape, where it’s on hand in many households as casual food for drop-in visitors and picnicking. Its spicy roots lie in the Cape’s Muslim population, whose ancestors were brought by the Dutch as slaves from the East Indies: from India, Indonesia and Malaya. As author and Cape Malay caterer Cass Abrahams says: “The slaves knew all about spices; and fish is also a big part of Cape culture.”

An Easter staple

A much-loved national dish that is available even in upmarket supermarkets, pickled fish is generally homemade. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

A much-loved national dish that is available even in upmarket supermarkets, pickled fish is generally homemade. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

In cuisines across the globe, pickling fish was a common and necessary practice before the advent of refrigeration, and each preparation reflected its cuisine’s unique set of ingredients. There are differing opinions about its South African genesis. The earliest written reference that cookbook author Jane-Ann Hobbs has seen comes from Lady Anne Barnard, the Cape’s “First Lady” in the late 1700s, who after visiting a local farm in 1798 wrote that she was served “fish of the nature of cod, pickled with Turmarick.”

While today it’s a much-loved national dish that is available even in upmarket supermarkets, pickled fish is generally homemade and an Easter staple, both for Muslims and Christians. Easter falls at a time of year when fish is both readily available and in great demand, with many Catholics eschewing meat during Lent.

The golden color of curried pickled fish is everywhere at the 150-year-strong Easter weekend gathering at Faure outside the city, where the annual Sheik Yusuf Kramat Festival takes place. Hundreds converge for the long weekend to camp, socialize and visit the shrine to the sheik, credited with establishing Islam in South Africa. While some cooking is done on site, most campers bring covered glass dishes of pickled fish. “We eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with bread thick with butter, rice or rotis,” says Cape Town resident and cook Zainap Masoet, who starts setting up camp at Faure for her extended family five days before the Easter weekend.

One method, many ingredients

A melody of spices, and onions, are used in the spicy preparation. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

A melody of spices, and onions, are used in the spicy preparation. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

As for its preparation, there’s little disagreement about the method, which involves browning fish seasoned with salt and pepper, then cooking onions with spices, before adding vinegar and a little sugar. The mixture is poured over the cooked fish and the dish is refrigerated for two days before eaten. Once pickled, it will last for days outside the refrigerator, say local cooks.

On the other hand, there is definite banter about the ingredients. In her recipe, Abrahams uses snoek, a meaty and somewhat bony local fish, as does Cape Malay cooking teacher Faldela Tocker, whose aunt taught her how to make the dish. “Once it’s pickled, it needs to sit, for the flavors to develop,” she says.

However, Cape Town tour guide Shireen Narkedien, who regularly takes visitors around the Bo-Kaap, the Cape’s historic Malay Quarter, says the traditional fish is yellowtail, which is what most older people still use. Narkedien only uses bay leaf, turmeric and curry powder and says that the onion should be cooked through and “not too oniony,” while Abrahams uses additional spices as well as garlic, and says the onions should still have some crunch.

The appeal of pickled fish lies as much in the generosity of spirit behind preparing a dish for unexpected visitors as much as it does in its sweet and sour spicy taste. “When I was a child, my mother used to always tell me: ‘You cook for the person who is coming,'” said Narkedien, who describes a time when doors were always open. “When I asked her who that was, she’d say, ‘I don’t know, but it will be someone.'”

Pickled Fish

Pickled fish is usually served with buttered bread. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

Pickled fish is usually served with buttered bread. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

Recipe adapted fromCass Abrahams Cooks Cape Malay.” Used with permission of author.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 30 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

2 ¼ pounds snoek, firm-fleshed white fish or mahi mahi, cut into portions

Salt

Vegetable oil

2 large onions, sliced

5 cloves garlic, chopped

1 cup vinegar

½ cup water

2 teaspoons ground coriander

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 tablespoon masala

1 teaspoon turmeric

2 bay leaves

4 cloves of whole allspice

4 cloves

¼ teaspoon peppercorns

Sugar to taste

Directions

1. Salt fish and fry in vegetable oil until cooked. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside in a separate bowl; retain oil.

2. Place the rest of the ingredients except sugar in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Turn down heat and simmer until onions are transparent but haven’t lost their crunch.

3. Add sugar to taste and stir to dissolve. Pour warm sauce and oil over fish, making sure that each portion of fish is covered. Allow to cool and refrigerate.

4. Serve with fresh bread and butter.

Main photo: Cape Malay cooking teacher Faldela Tocker, with a dish of pickled fish. “Once it’s pickled, it needs to sit  for the flavors to develop,” she says. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

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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

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

Colomba is a fruity delight, with candied oranges inside and almonds on the top. Credit: Copyright 2016 Cesare Zucca

Colomba is a fruity delight, with candied oranges inside and almonds on the top. Credit: Copyright 2016 Cesare Zucca

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 cakes are leavened in dove-shaped paper molds for a whole night before they are filled. Credit: Copyright 2016 Loison

The cakes are leavened in dove-shaped paper molds for a whole night before they are filled. Credit: Copyright 2016 Loison

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.

After a long rest, the dough is portioned in different sizes for an additional four hours of leavening, then covered with almonds, sugar and amaretto. After baking, it must rest at least seven hours before it is finally packaged.

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

The new Colomba al Pistachio by Fraccaro Spumadoro combines pistachios with a white chocolate glaze. Credit: Courtesy of Fraccaro Spumadoro.

The new Colomba al Pistachio by Fraccaro Spumadoro combines pistachios with a white chocolate glaze. Credit: Courtesy of Fraccaro Spumadoro.

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

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Main photo: A contestant prepares a cheese wheel for Panicale's Easter Monday competition. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

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

A man takes part in last year's cheese-tossing competition in Panicale. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

A man takes part in last year’s cheese-tossing competition in Panicale. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

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.

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

A homey and comforting pasta pie comes together without much fuss. Credit: Courtesy of “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes of Italy” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan

A homey and comforting pasta pie comes together without much fuss. Credit: Courtesy of “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes of Italy” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), by Francine Segan

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

Ingredients

Olive oil

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

Directions

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

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