Articles in Technique

Sumac and sumac pepper blend. Credit: Wendy Petty

Sumac is local lemon for foragers who live in places where there’s no chance of plucking one from a tree. When picked at peak ripeness, but before rain can wash off its tart coating of edible acids, sumac is just as pucker-worthy as any children’s sour candy. That tart flavor of sumac is a valuable part of my wild edible spice rack, and I turn to it often. The other great advantage of sumac is that it stores very well if kept cool and dry.

I was reminded of this as I stood and surveyed my pantry. At mid-winter in the Rockies, a forager can sometimes have a hard time finding enough activities to satisfy the urge to wildcraft. One can only spend so much time looking for tiny leaves of green beneath the leaf duff and snow, and sampling fermented-on-the-tree crab apples.

In the darkest months of the off-season, my larder offers up opportunities to work with the wild foods I adore. I spend much of the summer putting up as many wild foods as I can manage, in all forms – frozen, pickled, canned and dried. Seeing my shelves lined with these gorgeous preserves, I get the same feeling that some must get when gazing upon jewels, or the proverbial kid in a candy store. Recently, it was my tin full of red sumac that beckoned to me.

Though every forager I know, and many people who belonged to outdoor-based clubs as kids, has tried the sumac version of lemonade, sumac is probably best known as being a key component in za’atar spice blend, appearing along with herbs, sesame seeds and salt.

Sumac. Credit: Wendy Petty

Sumac. Credit: Wendy Petty

I often sprinkle ground sumac into recipes, savory and sweet, to add a little zip of brightness. Standing in my pantry looking at my tin of foraged sumac, I suddenly had a strong memory of a time in my childhood when it seemed every dish was seasoned with lemon pepper, and knew this would be an ideal place to substitute sumac.

I had thought that lemon pepper was a relic of the past, but a quick survey of my friends quickly revealed that many still use it frequently. I wasted no time in blending a batch of sumac pepper. Not only was it pretty to look at, it was seriously tart, without the aid of the citric acid that it used in many commercial lemon pepper blends. After a few days of testing, I found that sumac pepper was good in all the places you’d expect lemon pepper to excel. Sumac pepper can be sprinkled atop fish, meats, vegetables, and even breads and rice. My favorite place to use sumac pepper is atop fresh warm buttered popcorn.

If you would like to pick your own sumac but worried about confusing it with poison sumac, let me reassure you they are very easy to tell apart. Poison sumac has white berries, whereas all of the edible sumacs have red berry clusters. Sumac berries can be hairy or smooth, depending upon the species.

Sumac in a field. Credit: Wendy Petty

Sumac in a field. Credit: Wendy Petty

Sumac grows as a shrub with leaflets that are pinnately compound, which is to say that they are arranged somewhat like a feather, and the berry clusters grow in dense spikes at the end of branches. If you’ve not seen sumac growing before, you might hear the word berry and think of a juicy strawberry. But all the flavor of sumac is on the outside of its small dry berries. This is why the flavor of sumac is greatly diminished after rain or snow.

At peak ripeness, which is usually late summer in my area, I harvest a big basket full of sumac. I simply pack my sumac into a tin, and it keeps quite well. I’m usually able to use it right up through harvest time the following year. Though, one time, it did develop a rancid oil smell after a year.

There is one caution with sumac. It is related to mangoes and cashews, so anyone with strong allergies to those foods should also avoid sumac.

The following recipe calls for ground sumac. Often, the whole berries are ground up and used. I find the central seed of the berry to be unpleasantly hard, even when ground. The seeds can also lend a tannic astringency to recipes. So, I strip my sumac from the branches, and grind the berries in a molcajete. You could also pulse the berries in a spice grinder. Next, shake the ground berries through a sieve. This produces a pink fluff of sumac that is ready to be used in recipes.

Sumac Pepper Blend

Prep time: 5 minutes

Yield: 1/3 cup

Ingredients

2 tablespoons ground sumac

2 tablespoons cracked black pepper

1 tablespoon salt (optional)

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic

1/2 teaspoon granulated onion

Directions

Stir all of the ingredients together, and store the sumac pepper in small jar in a cool dark place.

Main photo: Sumac and sumac pepper blend. Credit: Wendy Petty

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Polenta pasticciata, in

Corn polenta has traveled the globe to become a staple in world-class restaurants. Yet for more than 400 years, it sustained the peoples of Italy’s poor northeastern regions. Its origins go back even further, to the pulmentum of the Romans that was a mainstay of the commoner. Prior to the 17th century — before corn was transplanted to Italy from the New World — this porridge was made from hulled and crushed grains of various kinds, including farro (also known in English as “emmer”), barley and millet as well as chestnut, fava bean or chickpea flour.

Polenta as a staple

After maize took firm root in the soils of northern Italy, it became the primary staple. It wasn’t eaten fresh but rather dried and ground into polenta. For four centuries, it alone kept the wolf from the door for the common people in Veneto and Lombardy. In the 1800s, it became fashionable for the wealthy to eat it until it was ubiquitous at every meal, accompanying virtually every dish, as bread does today in other regions.

The poor ate it plain — there was often little else to eat. The upper class added condiments to it or made it into elaborate baked dishes called pasticci. Eventually, cornmeal infiltrated central and southern Italy, including the island of Sardinia, where my ancestors ate it with tomatoey stewed lamb tripe or layered with meat sauce and sheep’s cheese, much like lasagna, in a baked dish called polenta pasticciata.

In its simplest guise, polenta is served “loose” as a side dish, like its close cousin, the grits of the American south. It can be flavored simply with a dribble of olive oil or butter and Parmigiano cheese for a dish called polenta unta. Cooks in Italy’s Alpine regions like to slather it with soft cheeses such as runny gorgonzola dolce or taleggio. Often, it provides a bed for soaking up the tasty juices of cooked meats (such as sausages) or vegetables, for instance sautéed mushrooms. Or it might be turned out onto a marble slab, allowed to set, then cut into pieces that have countless uses. When fried or grilled, they become crostini di polenta, polenta “toasts.” For pasticciata, the squares are layered with a sauce and topped with cheese before baking, much like lasagna.

Traditional and modern cooking methods

Cooking polenta in the traditional copper paiolo is still a daily ritual in some parts of the polenta belt (Veneto, Piedmont, Trentino-Alto Adige, and Lombardy), though restaurant chefs typically replace the wooden stirring tool, called a bastone, with an electric stirring mechanism that attaches to the pot. For home cooking, a sturdy wooden spoon will do, provided it has a long handle to prevent splattering and/or burning your hand. (The whisk is not commonly used in Italy, but I have found that a heavy professional grade one is ideal for turning out a fine, lump-free polenta.) You’ll also need a heavy-bottomed pot.

But the real secret to perfect results lies not so much in the equipment as in the method. Continual stirring in one direction (clockwise, according to tradition) transforms cornmeal into billows of creamy golden polenta. The addition of the grains in a slow, steady stream a pioggia, “like rain,” assures that they are incorporated smoothly. If the polenta seems to be drying out before it is cooked, a little boiling water is added to keep it soft and easy to stir. Polenta is ready when it pulls away easily from the sides of the pan with the spoon. (The COOK’s test kitchen developed a microwave technique that requires minimal stirring to accompany an article I wrote in 1989 that received much attention, and some years later, Marcella Hazan published a recipe titled “Polenta by No-Stirring” in her book “Essentials of Italian Cooking,” which produces good results. I recently asked Victor Hazan, the late author’s husband and collaborator, about it, and he explained the derivation of the method. See my post on Forktales for the details.)

Polenta may be yellow or white, depending on the maize variety. Both are milled into fine or coarse grinds. The fine type is preferred for loose polenta. The coarse grind produces pleasantly gritty, rustic-style polenta that the Italians say can be sensed sotto i denti, “under the teeth.” It is ideal for cutting into pieces, as described earlier. (Note that the American type of cornmeal typically used for muffins or cornbread is not interchangeable with polenta; it is a different product entirely and will produce an inedible, cement-like porridge if cooked in water.)

Nowadays, there is another factor to consider. “Instant” polenta, which is pre-cooked before it is dehydrated, has virtually replaced the long-cooking kind — even in Italy. Although one can get it on the table much more quickly, it doesn’t compare to the richly flavored, silky original that can take 40 minutes or more to cook. Like so many “new and improved” foods, convenience is put ahead of quality and flavor. However, quick-cooking polenta does work well in dishes with several components, so you can have success making my maternal grandmother Giulia’s polenta pasticciata with either variety. Nonna Giulia Esu died long before I was born, but her recipe for this provincial Sardinian dish was one of her jewels that was passed down by my mother.

Nonna Giulia’s Polenta “Lasagna” With Pork and Red Wine Ragù

Note: The finest pecorino (sheep) cheeses are produced in Sardinia, Lazio and Tuscany. You can find the young, semi-soft varieties at most fine cheesemongers; alternatively, you can substitute Spanish Manchego as directed.

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: About 1 hour

Total time: About 2 1/4 hours

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

For the sauce:

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 onion, minced

1 large clove garlic, minced

1 carrot, chopped

1 small celery stalk with leaves, chopped

1 teaspoon pulverized fennel seeds

1 pound ground pork

½ cup good-quality dry red wine

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1 (35-ounce) can plum tomatoes, drained, seeded and chopped, juices reserved

3 tablespoons minced fresh basil leaves

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

For the polenta:

7 1/2 cups water

1 tablespoon kosher salt

2 cups fine- or coarse-grained imported Italian yellow polenta or “quick-cook” polenta

Olive oil for preparing work surface and baking dish

To assemble:

1/2 pound semi-soft pecorino such as Fior di Sardegna (or Manchego aged three to six months), shredded

Directions

For the sauce:

1. Warm the oil in a skillet. Stir in the onion, garlic, carrot and celery and sauté over medium-low heat until vegetables are soft, 12 to 15 minutes.

2. Add the fennel seeds, pork and continue to sauté until the meat colors lightly, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Stir in the wine and allow to evaporate (about 1 minute).

3. Dilute the tomato paste in a few tablespoons of the reserved canned-tomato juices and add it to the skillet, followed by the tomatoes with another 1/2 cup of the reserved juices, basil and salt. Stir well. Partially cover and simmer over the lowest possible heat for 1 hour, stirring frequently. The sauce should become thick and fragrant. If it seems to be drying out, add a few more tablespoons of the reserved tomato juices.

For the polenta:

1. While the ragù is simmering, bring the water to a boil in a large saucepan. (Keep a kettle of boiling water on the back burner should you need extra.) Add the salt.

2. Stirring constantly with a long-handled wooden spoon, add the polenta in a slow, constant stream to prevent lumps from forming. Simmer, stirring constantly, until the polenta is very thick and creamy and pulls away from the side of the pan, about 40 minutes. If you are using quick-cook polenta, you may need to add a little boiling water to ensure that it doesn’t get too thick. (You can also cook it longer than the instructions specify in order to obtain a creamy consistency — up to 20 minutes or so, adding more boiling water as needed.)

3. Use a rubber spatula dipped into hot water to spread the polenta out into a rectangle about 1/4-inch thick. Let set until cooled completely and firm, about 15 minutes. Cut into even 3-inch-by-4-inch rectangles; set aside. Lightly oil a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish.

To assemble:

1. Heat the oven to 450 F.

2. Arrange half the polenta pieces on the bottom of the baking dish. Top them with half of the sauce and spread to cover. Sprinkle half the cheese over the sauce. Repeat with another layer of sauce, followed by the remaining cheese. Bake until heated through and the cheese is golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes.

3. Let stand for 10 minutes. Cut into pieces and serve.

Main photo: Polenta pasticciata, in “Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul,” by Julia della Croce (Kyle Books). Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton

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Pirjati Zelje (braised cabbage). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Cabbage is the Rodney Dangerfield of vegetables: It doesn’t get any respect. It gets a bad rap. Cabbage never gets mentioned as one of the hip vegetables like kale. It’s not a super-vegetable like broccoli rabe. It’s not an adorable vegetable like baby Brussels sprouts. It’s not a “cool” vegetable. It’s stodgy and old-fashioned. I mean, they make sauerkraut from it.

All those cooler vegetables just mentioned, though, owe their existence to cabbage. The big green head we associate with cabbage today was not always what cabbage was. Today there are hundreds of varieties of cabbage that have developed from the progenitor cabbage, called the wild cabbage, including the many forms of cabbage and further horticultural developments such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoliflower, broccoli rabe and kohlrabi.

Botanists divide the cabbage into five groups. It is the head cabbage, green, red, crinkly-leafed or Savoy cabbage, that I’m speaking of. But there are some 400 varieties of head cabbage.

The cabbage is probably native to the Mediterranean, but in Roman times the head cabbage we think of as cabbage today did not exist. The Romans had only leafy cabbage, probably kale. There are some obscure references by Roman naturalists Pliny and Columella to what has been taken by some to be head cabbage. These descriptions refer to heads of the plant being a foot in diameter, but it is not at all clear whether this refers to a compact headed cabbage that we know today or is simply an expression referring to the above ground portion of the plant.

The wealthy citizens of Rome, in the period after Cato the Elder (mid-second century BC), thought of cabbage as poor people’s food as we know from the description in Juvenal’s satire when he described the difference between the food that the patron ate, namely olives to garnish an excellent fish, and the food of the client, who finds cabbage in his “nauseous dish.”

It seems that the head cabbage we know today was developed in Germany in the 12th century. Soon it would be the single most common plant in the medieval garden.

Cabbage rolls. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Cabbage rolls. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

It’s not a popular vegetable today, but it is a vegetable that does draw the curious cook. The most obviously intriguing thing to do with cabbage is to separate the leaves and then stuff them by rolling them up. There are many great preparations for cabbage from sauerkraut, to kimchi, to coleslaw, and every culture has a recipe for stuffed cabbage. Here are two recipes for cabbage lovers from cabbage-loving Slovenia and Croatia, next door to Italy.

Braised Cabbage

Cabbage is a very popular vegetable in the Balkans, served raw, in the form of sauerkraut and cooked in a variety of ways. In the northern part of the former Yugoslavia, today’s Slovenia and parts of Croatia, cabbage may be cooked with sour cream or tossed with noodles and smoked bacon. In Bosnia or Montenegro, it might be cooked with tomatoes. This recipe from Slovenia is typically served as a bed for a roast duckling.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 55 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 bay leaves

2 tablespoons tomato paste mixed with 2 tablespoons water

1 cup dry white wine

One 2-pound green cabbage, cored and sliced as thin as vermicelli

15 peppercorns

8 juniper berries, lightly crushed

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then add the bay leaves and cook until they begin to sizzle. Reduce the heat to medium and very carefully add the tomato paste and wine, which will spurt and splatter rather dramatically.

2. Continue cooking for a minute then add the cabbage, peppercorns, juniper berries and thyme. Mix so the cabbage is covered with sauce.

3. Add the lemon juice and continue to braise over medium heat until the cabbage softens, 6 to 8 minutes.

4. Reduce the heat to low, season with salt and pepper, and cook until the cabbage is completely soft, about 45 minutes. Correct the seasoning and serve hot.

Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

These cabbage rolls are a winter specialty known as arambašici in their home of Sinj, a town near the Dinaric Alps on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. Traditionally, this casserole of stuffed cabbage leaves is made from a whole head of cabbage that has been prepared as sauerkraut. Each sauerkraut leaf, or as in this recipe cabbage leaf, is stuffed with beef, pork and bacon, and flavored with lemon zest, onion, garlic, cloves and cinnamon. Each roll-up is separated from the other with pieces of pršut (Croatian prosciutto) and smoked tongue.

Arambašici can be made with fresh cabbage leaves or grape leaves, too. My recipe uses fresh cabbage, which is the easiest to find and is what a cook from Sinj would use in the summer. Many cooks also like to make the casserole in the evening and then reheat it the next day, and you should consider doing that as it is delicious.

The casserole cooks a long time so the meats are very tender and the cabbage leaves become silky. The smoked bacon, smoked pork, smoked tongue and prosciutto can all be picked up at the deli counter of most supermarkets.

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 4 hours

Yield: 20 to 26 rolls, or about 6 servings

Ingredients

1 large green cabbage (about 2 3/4 pounds), central core removed

1 1/4 pounds boneless beef neck meat or beef chuck, finely chopped

5 ounces smoked bacon (preferably) or lean slab bacon, finely chopped

2 ounces beef fat (suet), finely chopped

6 ounces boneless pork shoulder or neck meat, finely chopped

2 large onions, chopped

3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

Grated zest from 1 lemon

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon unsalted butter or beef fat for greasing

One 4-inch-long beef marrow bone (optional)

1 ounce smoked pork (any cut), finely chopped

2 ounces prosciutto, thinly sliced into strips

2 ounces smoked tongue (optional), thinly sliced into strips

1 cup water and more as needed

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 300 F.

2. Remove and discard any of the outermost leaves of the cabbage that are blemished. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt and plunge the whole cabbage in and cook until the leaves can be peeled away without ripping, about 10 minutes. Drain well and, when cool enough to handle, separate the leaves carefully, setting them aside.

3. In a large bowl, mix together the beef, bacon, suet and pork. Add the onions, garlic, lemon zest, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, salt and pepper and mix well with your hands.

4. Arrange a cabbage leaf in front of you with the stem end closest to you. Place 2, 3 or 4 tablespoons (depending on the size of the leaf) of filling on the end closest to you, then roll away once, fold in the sides and continue rolling away until you get a nice, neat package.

5. Continue with the remaining cabbage leaves. Arrange the cabbage rolls side by side, seam side down, in a lightly greased 13- x 9- x 2-inch casserole (you may need to use two casseroles), making sure you leave some room for the beef marrow bone. Sprinkle the chopped smoked pork over the cabbage rolls.

6. Place the prosciutto and smoked tongue slices (if using) between the cabbage rolls. Pour the water over the cabbage rolls and cover with aluminum foil. (The casserole can be refrigerated at this point to bake later.)

7. Bake until the cabbage rolls are very soft, slightly blackened on top and bubbling vigorously, about 4 hours.

8. Serve hot or let cool to room temperature and serve as an appetizer the next day.

Main photo: Pirjati Zelje (braised cabbage). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Vintage pasta label. Credit: Courtesy of Gerardo di Nola Pastificio, Naples

We’ve come a long way since the days when Americans thought Italian cuisine meant spaghetti or ziti in rivers of “marinara” set on red-checkered tablecloths. Even if mistaken notions persist about what genuine Italian cooking really is, we’ve embraced every new pasta that has come our way (think squid-ink fettuccine or agnolotti al plin), and we’ve become more sauce savvy, too. Amatriciana and puttanesca are commonplace in restaurant and home kitchens alike, and “carbonara” is a household word from New York to Nebraska. Arrabbiata, cacio e pepe, aglio e olio — you name it, we love them all.

Nevertheless, the canon of pasta-and-sauce pairings has remained something of a mystery outside the borders of Italy. The immense number of different shapes is daunting to us foreigners; out of sheer exasperation, we find ourselves asking, “Why so many?” There are “priests’ hats,” “wolves’ eyes” and “horses’ teeth,” “church bells,” “little loves” and “kiss catchers.” It is not enough to make pasta bows (farfalle); there must also be little bows (farfallette) and much bigger bows (farfalloni). There are not only small reeds called cannelle, but also very small reeds, large smooth reeds and large grooved reeds. Some shapes have more than one name (penne lisce and mostaccioli, for example, are one and the same).

A 19th-century graphic depicting rival pasta makers. Credit: Courtesy of Julia della Croce

A 19th-century graphic depicting rival pasta makers. Credit: Courtesy of Julia della Croce

The roots of this maccheroni madness go back to the fierce rivalry among dried-pasta manufacturers in 19th century Naples, where the southern Italian pasta industry mushroomed during the Industrial Revolution. At one point about 1,500 pastifici competed for business, engaging in price wars or introducing ever-newer products to lure customers to their brand. But probably more than anything, the seemingly endless variations reflect the expansive nature of the Italian people — their imagination and love of show.

The American versus the Italian approach

Americans are characteristically laissez-faire about pairing rules. James Beard once told me that he saw no reason to be bound by tradition; he believed we ought to be inventive with pasta recipes. By contrast, the Italians are always mindful of the pairing principles derived from a long history of pasta eating. Over the centuries, tried-and-true guidelines have emerged, based primarily on the ingredients in the dough and the architecture of each resulting shape — hard wheat or soft wheat, dried pasta or fresh, long or short, smooth or ridged. Various pastas absorb and combine with sauces in different ways depending on their wall thickness, density and structure.

Meanwhile, sauces — condimenti, as the Italians call themhave inherent texture, flavor and color attributes. The foundation of most is olive oil or butter, given body with tomato purée, meat, vegetables and/or cheese. The art of pairing can probably best be explained by herding all the unruly strands and little shapes into three separate tribes, as it were — each with their own swimming pools or sauces. (Here we will concern ourselves with dried pasta alone.)

Golden rules for pairing dried pasta and sauces

Strands

Lightweight

Capelli d’angelo (“angel hair”), cappellini (“fine hair”), vermicelli (“little worms”), fedelini (“very fine noodles”): Use all in broths or broth-based soups. The latter two, being thicker, are suitable for light, sieved tomato sauces, but none of these long, lightweight pastas can support dense cream-based or meat sauces.

Medium-weight

Spaghetti, spaghettini, spaghetti alla chitarra (“guitar-string spaghetti”), mezze linguine (“half linguine”): This group is sturdy enough for olive-oil sauces such as aglio e olio as well as tomato- or brothy seafood-based sauces that easily slip along the surface.

Heavyweight

Linguine (“long tongues,” aka bavette), perciatelli, bucatini, fusilli bucati lunghi (“long hollow coils”): Because these shapes have more weight than those in the previous subcategories, they will all support a relatively unctuous sauce such as basil pesto, but they are also sprightly enough to consort with sauces suited to medium-weight long pasta. By tradition, linguine is inexplicably inseparable from fish or shellfish sauces, though fluid tomato sauces make a pleasant match, too.

Spaghetti with fresh tomato and basil, a classic pairing. Credit: Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Spaghetti with fresh tomato and basil, a classic pairing. Credit: Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Tubes

The tubular shapes have relatively thick walls, which make them sturdy enough to support not only chunky tomato-based sauces with or without meat, as well as cheese or cream preparations. (Diagonal cuts are especially handy in this regard.) Despite the versatility of these shapes, the size of the ingredients in accompanying sauces should be kept in mind. For example, wide tubular cuts are big enough to trap meat bits and vegetable chunks (think rigatoni with broccoli and anchovies); not so in the case of petite variants such as pennette (“little quills”). Tubular shapes are also ideal for baked dishes because they hold their shape and firmness during a second cooking in the oven.

Anelli (“rings”), ditaloni (“thimbles”): Ideal for pasta e fagioli and other bean soups because the ring shape nests cannellini beans, lentils and such.

Penne (“quills”), penne rigate (“ridged quills”), penne lisce (“smooth quills”), pennette, rigatoni: These go with olive oil- or butter-based vegetable, meat and tomato sauces and also with cream-based concoctions. Olive oil-based sauces stick to ridged shapes better than to smooth ones. The slimmer pennette are best matched with light vegetable or tomato sauces containing, say, wild mushrooms or eggplant (though traditionalists wouldn’t dream of making pasta alla Norma with anything but spaghetti).

Quirky shapes

Farfalle (“butterflies”): Their delicate “wingspan” suits them to light sauces based on either olive oil or butter, as long as there are no big obstacles in their flight path.

Fusilli, fusilli corti (“short fusilli”), tortiglioni (hollow “spirals”), radiatori (“radiators”), gemelli (“twins”) and various twists: Shapes like these are designed to trap cheese and ricotta sauces or unctuous nut sauces, such as pestos. Ragù and other meat sauces love to collect in their coils, too.

Strozzapreti (“priest stranglers”): These handmade dried forms call for tomato, meat and sausage sauces.

Conchiglie (“shells”), riccioli (“curls”), ruote (“wheels”), lumache (“snails”): Short and stubby shapes such as these work well with hearty sauces featuring meat, vegetables, cheese or cream.

Main photo: Vintage pasta label. Credit: Courtesy of Gerardo di Nola Pastificio, Naples, reprinted from “Pasta Classica: The Art of Italian Pasta Cooking,” by Julia della Croce

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Pizza with spinach, eggplant, burrata cheese, and tongue headcheese or “pizza with bile and pus.” Credit: Clifford A. Wright

The popularity of zombie movies exploded in the past several years.

Since no one watches zombie movies alone, a New Year’s Eve party is perfect. From old zombie movies going all the way back to”White Zombie” from 1932 with Bela Lugosi to the long list of recent zombie hits, there’s not shortage of flicks to pick from. For food in front of the TV, popcorn is easiest, but here’s a fun idea: zombie pizza.

It’s a clever way to introduce offal, that is, zombies eat guts. Here are three pizzas that can be partially prepared ahead of time. An enclosed pizza is a “pizza with guts” made with lamb tripe, lamb kidney, veal sweetbread in a spicy-hot chile and tomato sauce. The second is “pizza with blood and thyroid,” made with tomato sauce to represent blood, comte cheese and fried veal sweetbread, which actually is thyroid gland. Finally, the “pizza with liver bile, gonads, and pus” is made with chopped cooked spinach to represent liver bile, roasted whole garlic (gonads), diced fried eggplant, burrata cheese and ricotta cheese to represent pus, and thin slices of tongue headcheese.

Pizza with sweetbreads and comte cheese or “pizza with blood and thyroid.” Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Pizza with sweetbreads and comte cheese or”pizza with blood and thyroid.” Credit: Clifford A. Wright

When I made this for my enthusiastic friends Erin and Deanna,  they thought that everything was representative and there were no real innards in the pizza. Erin later said “despite my insistence that no real’‘innards’ be included, my naïveté in believing that Cliff would honor that request got the better of me. I gobbled down all three slices of pizza with complete disregard to manners or napkins (do as the zombies do).” Both Erin and Deanna agreed the first pizza below was their favorite. I stayed away from liver because its taste is too strong, while sweetbreads are mild and flavorful.

When making this menu, prepare as much as you can ahead of time — a day ahead — so that they can be assembled quickly. Follow the instructions for making pizza using the following amounts, 1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast, 1 1/3 cup water, 4 1/2 cups bread flour or all-purpose flour, 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil and 1 teaspoon salt or to your taste. Once the dough is made, divide in half. Divide one half in half again for the two small balls called for in the first 2 pizzas below. The remaining large ball is used for the stuffed pizza.The prep and cooking times below assume the pizza dough is already made (see link instructions for dough prep time). I advise prepping almost everything the day before so that on New Year’s Eve you only have to roll the dough and bake the pizza with its topping or filling.

Pizza With Sweetbreads and Comte Cheese: ‘Pizza With Blood and Thyroid’

Yield: 8 slices

Prep time: 1 hour

Cook time: 7 to 9 minutes

Total time: about 1 hour, 9 minutes

Ingredients

1/4 pound veal sweetbread

Water

3 tablespoons distilled vinegar

Extra virgin olive oil as needed

1 small pizza dough ball (see link above)

1/2 cup tomato purée

1/4 pound comte or Gruyère cheese, diced

Directions

1. Soak the sweetbread in water to cover with some vinegar for 20 minutes. Remove and place in a saucepan and cover with water. Turn the heat to medium and once the water is barely bubbling continue to poach the sweetbread until white and firm, 20 minutes. Remove and slice.

2. In a frying pan, cook the veal sweetbreads with a little olive oil over medium-high heat until golden, about 4 minutes. Remove and set aside.

3. Preheat the oven to 550 F with two baking stones (preferably), one on top rack and one on the bottom rack.

4. Roll the pizza dough out on a floured work surface until about 14 inches in diameter. If you do not have a pizza peel, place the dough on a lightly oiled pizza pan.

5. Spread a tablespoon of olive oil over the dough. Spread some tomato purée over the pizza leaving a 1 1/2-inch border. Sprinkle the comte cheese over the pizza and arrange the sweetbread on top.

6. Slide the pizza peel under the pizza and place the pizza, using a quick jerk forward and then back onto the baking stone or place the pizza pan in the oven. Bake until blackened on the edges, 9 minutes (7 minutes in a convection oven).

Pizza With Spinach, Eggplant, Burrata Cheese, and Tongue Headcheese: ‘Pizza With Bile and Pus’

Yield: 8 slices

Prep time: 40 minutes

Cook time: 7 to 9 minutes

Total time: 47 to 49 minutes

Ingredients

1 head garlic, cloves separated with shin on

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 pound eggplant, peeled and diced

One 15-ounce can cooked spinach (with no preservatives), drained and rinsed, with excess liquid squeezed out, chopped

1 smaller pizza dough ball

5 ounces burrata or mozzarella cheese

2 ounces ricotta cheese

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 550 F with two baking stones (preferably), one on top rack and one on the bottom rack.

2. Place the garlic cloves in their skin on a piece of aluminum foil and roast until soft, about 12 minutes. Remove and remove their skin and set aside.

3. In a cast iron skillet heat the olive oil over high heat and when it is smoking add the eggplant and cook, stirring and turning, until golden brown, about 6 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.

4. Roll the pizza dough out on a floured work surface until about 14 inches in diameter. If you do not have a pizza peel, place the dough on a lightly oiled pizza pan.

5. Spread a tablespoon of olive oil over the dough. Spread the spinach to cover the surface leaving a 1 1/2-inch border. Sprinkle the eggplant and roasted whole garlic cloves on top and then lay the sliced tongue headcheese on top. Place the burrata and ricotta cheese on top.

6. Slide the pizza peel under the pizza and place the pizza, using a quick jerk forward and then back onto the baking stone or place the pizza pan in the oven. Bake until blackened on the edges, 9 minutes (7 minutes in a convection oven).

Stuffed pizza with mixed offal in spicy tomato sauce or “pizza with guts.” Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Stuffed pizza with mixed offal in spicy tomato sauce or pizza with guts.” Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Stuffed Pizza With Mixed Offal in Spicy Tomato Sauce

The filling for this enclosed pizza must be made the day before and refrigerated. The preparation of honeycomb tripe takes at least a day before you even begin the sauce, so buy smooth-skinned paunch tripe (usually available in Middle Eastern markets), which cooks faster. We called it “pizza with guts for zombie-watchers.”

Yield: 8 slices

Prep time: 12 hours

Cook time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

2 pounds lamb tripe (mixed tripe if possible and smooth paunch tripe if possible)

3 lamb kidneys, arteries removed

One 6-ounce can tomato paste

3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 cups dry red wine

1 ounce fresh red chiles, blended until smooth with 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil in a food processor

1/4 pound veal sweetbread (optional, for its preparation for cooking see below)

1 1/2 teaspoons red chile flakes

1 bunch fresh oregano, tied together

3 bay leaves

Salt to taste

1 large ball of dough

Directions

1. Prepare the tripe by boiling it for about 6 hours, replenishing the water as it evaporates. Remove and cut into small pieces. Let it cool and congeal in its fat.

2. In a flameproof casserole, cook, stirring, the tripe and its fat, the kidneys, the tomato paste, garlic, red wine, and chile paste, over medium heat until bubbling, about 5 minutes. Cover with water, reduce the heat to low, and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 2 hours.

3. Add the sweetbread slices (if using), chile flakes, oregano, and bay leaves and continue to cook, partially covered, for 4 hours. Season with salt. Remove the kidneys and slice then return to the sauce.

4. Divide the dough in two and roll one out to about 14-inches in diameter and place in an oiled 14- to 16-inch round baking pan or pizza pan.

5. Heat the oven to 400 F.

6. Spread the filling over the dough and roll out the other half and place on top, sealing the edges by folding over slightly and pinching together. Bake until the pizza is golden, about 30 minutes. Remove and let cool slightly before serving.

Main image: Pizza With Spinach, Eggplant, Burrata Cheese and Tongue Headcheese or”pizza with bile and pus.” Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Rosehips and cranberries in a bowl. Credit: Wendy Petty

Foraged rosehips are all it takes to transform an ordinary cranberry sauce into a gem for the holiday table. Rosehips really shine when combined with a bright and acidic ingredient, such as cranberries.

The cooked version of rosehip-cranberry sauce is just right with desserts such as cheesecake. When rosehips are stirred into raw chopped cranberries, the resulting relish is a delight with cheese or meats.

I will admit that by this time of year in the Rockies, there aren’t many other wild foods left to harvest. Rosehips, however, are special because they get better after a few strong frosts. These relatives of apples, with the kiss of winter, transform from simply mealy and tart into something richer and sticky-sweet, almost like wine-soaked dried strawberries.

Not only are rosehips one of the only wild edibles to forage in places that experience deep winter, they are easy enough to identify that even kids can help harvest them. Picking rosehips can be as simple as making a trip to your backyard if your garden is graced with roses. All true roses produce edible fruit. The only trick with garden roses is to be certain they have never been sprayed with any chemicals, which would render them inedible.

I prefer to get my rosehips from the wild, as it has been my experience that they have a stronger flavor. I also enjoy picking them during my winter walks, even in the snow. I take a container with me every day as I walk and pick rosehips just until my fingers get cold, sometimes not more than 1/4 cup at a time. Because they are essentially dried fruit on the plant, there’s not much of a rush to harvest. By the end of winter, the weather will have sapped out much of their flavor. But early in the season, a little snow and cold doesn’t degrade the taste of rosehips.

Rosehips in hand. Credit:Wendy Petty

Rosehips in hand. Credit:Wendy Petty

Harvesting rosehips is simple. Look for the reddest and plumpest fruit, and simply pluck them off with your fingers. I live in an arid climate, and rosehips can shrivel up hard as rocks. Those taste fine once they rehydrate, but I still seek out the ones that are like translucent rubies. When stripped from the plant, these rosehips reveal their sticky, gooey insides.

Once harvested, rosehips should be washed in a tub of water, simply to remove dirt and dust that may have been blown onto them as they aged. I then sort through them and discard any that seem damaged or discolored. As a final step, any remaining stems and dried bits of the flowering end can be cut away. But I will admit that I seldom do this, and find that it doesn’t detract from the flavor of the final product.

People with access to giant rosehips the size of marbles prepare them by cutting them in half and scooping out the innards before using the fruit. The fuzzy seeds inside of rosehips can be irritating to the digestive tract. The rosehips that grow in my area are so small that cutting them in half and scooping out the seeds would be a near-impossible task. Instead, I boil and mash the whole fruit, then press the mash through a strainer.

Rosehip-Cranberry Relish

Prep time: 5 minutes

Total time: 24 hours

Yield: 1 cup

Ingredients

1 cup rosehips, washed

3/4 cup water

1 cup whole cranberries

2 tablespoons honey, or to taste

Pinch of salt

Directions

1. In a small saucepan, combine the rosehips and water over medium heat. Let them simmer for 10 minutes.

2. Use a potato masher to crush the rosehips. This will release the fruit next to the skin and allow it to marry with the water. Continue to simmer the rosehips for another 5 minutes.

3. Pour the mashed rosehips through a strainer, and press the fruit with the back of a spoon. Fruity orange-red water should pass through the strainer, and the fuzzy seeds and skins will be left behind. Reserve the rosehips water.

4. Put the solids back into the pan, barely cover them with water, and allow them to come to a simmer. Pass the rosehips through the strainer a second time. Discard the solids left in the strainer.

5. Quickly rinse out your pan you used to heat the rosehips and return the fruity rosehip water to it. Place the pan over medium heat, and allow it to bubble until it reduces to the thickness of runny ketchup. Remove the pan from the heat, and allow the rosehip paste to cool to room temperature.

6. Meanwhile, use a food processor to grind the raw cranberries into a sandy texture.

7. Combine the reduced rosehips, the chopped raw cranberries, honey and salt. Add more honey if the relish tastes too tart.

8. Allow the rosehip-cranberry relish to sit, covered, in the refrigerator for 24 hours before using it. This will allow the cranberries to soften, and all the flavors to meld.

Rosehip-Cranberry Sauce

Prep time: 5 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 1 cup

Ingredients

1 cup whole cranberries

1/4 cup sugar

Pinch of salt

1 1/2 cups water

Reduced rosehip paste

Directions

1. Follow steps 1-5 for Rosehip-Cranberry Relish to create a reduced rosehip paste, set aside.

2. In a small saucepan, combine the whole cranberries, sugar, salt and water. Bring the heat up to medium, and cook the cranberries until they pop and slouch, about 10 minutes.

3. Mix together the cooked cranberries with the reduced rosehip paste. Allow the sauce to cool to room temperature before refrigerating.

Main photo: Rosehips and cranberries in a bowl. Credit: Wendy Petty

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Four-can antipasto. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

“Fresh is best” is usually a good rule to live by. But if you know how to find quality preserved items, a few well-chosen canned foods in your pantry can save the day, especially during the busy holidays.

Healthy food is food that is minimally processed. All the foods’ transformation should happen when you turn it from the raw to the cooked and not at some factory.

When I am unable to pronounce the ingredients listed on the side of a food’s packaging I shiver. When I see the word “natural” on a food package I read “Sh&u8#%g” because it has the same meaning. However, I am not a fanatic or obsessive about food: I can eat crap too. I do so minimally. I don’t always seek out organic, or local, or seasonal, or any other of the environmentally correct buzzwords.

Now and then canned food is just plain convenient. And luckily there are some canned products that are not loaded with chemicals such as taste enhancers or preservatives of one kind or another. If you keep these in your pantry you will always have a delicious, convenient and quick preparation on hand. This is particularly handy during the holidays. On their label you should see only one ingredient list, namely the same one as on the front of the packaging, the food itself. Some might have some citric acid, but that’s OK.

There are four foods that I use in their canned form for a variety of reasons: the food is out of season, I forgot to buy the food, I’m too tired to cook, or it’s a last-minute idea. My five canned go-to foods are chickpeas, tuna, artichoke hearts, tomatoes and pimentos.

In this recipe you’ll use four of those. The idea here is that this is party-quality food, the kind of dish that you could serve to guests and they will comment on its deliciousness. After they do then you can spill the beans, so to speak, and tell them how simple it all is.

Four-Can Antipasto

Yield: 4 servings

Prep time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

1 15-ounce can organic chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained and rinsed

4 canned organic artichoke hearts (foundations), drained and quartered

2 tablespoons sliced pimentos

2 1/2 ounces canned yellowfin tuna in olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Pinch of cayenne pepper

Directions

1. In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil with the garlic over medium heat.

2. When the garlic begins to sizzle add the chickpeas, artichokes and pimentos and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes.

3. Add the tuna, salt, pepper and cayenne, toss a few times and remove from the heat. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.

Main photo: Four-can antipasto. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Gluten-free chocolate chip cookies made by chef Paul Fields for guests at the Inn on Randolph, Napa, Calif.. Credit: David Latt

During a hosted visit to explore the city of Napa, I stayed at the Inn on Randolph in a leafy neighborhood within walking distance of downtown. Waiting to meet chef Paul Fields, I was offered a golden brown chocolate chip cookie, a good litmus test of a baker’s skill.

All too often chocolate chip cookies are overly sweet or undercooked. In either case, that puts one’s teeth on edge. When chef Fields joined me, I complimented him on the cookies. With pride he explained they were gluten-free.

The Inn on Randolph is one of the few gluten-free upscale inns in the country. Fields was challenged by owner Karen Lynch to create flavorful, quality dishes that gastronomic visitors to Napa Valley would enjoy.

Fields makes virtually everything he serves from scratch using local ingredients. Many ingredients come from the inn’s gardens and fruit trees. He doesn’t make wheat-based breads and pastries. So to satisfy the need for morning carbohydrates, the day I stayed at the inn, he served a hot plate of Beluga lentils, a poached egg, roasted carrots and squash, with maple chicken sausages.

Anyone who bakes knows how well wheat flour mixed with a liquid and a fat creates elastic dough and batters. Many supermarkets and health food stores carry gluten-free flours made from a variety of plants: chickpeas, corn, chia, buckwheat, rice bran, barley, arrowroot, amaranth, nuts, potato, millet, quinoa and tapioca. But these flours have flavors and binding properties different from wheat.

Chocolate chip cookies are part of my childhood sense memory. They evoke my mother’s kitchen, where my sister and I vied to eat the first cookie warm from the oven.

Fields’ cookies passed my-mother-used-to-make-these-cookies test. They had the right amount of chewiness and sweetness with a lovely melted chocolate flavor. They were delicious.

Inn on Randolph Chocolate Chip Cookies

Fields suggests making a good supply of the gluten-free flour blend. The flour recipe below will make 6 dozen cookies. With the holidays coming up, the flour will not go to waste. Store the blend in an airtight container in a cool, dark pantry or in the refrigerator. 

Having a good supply of pre-shaped frozen cookie dough is a great help for spur of the moment holiday celebrations.

Prep time: 30 minutes

Freezer time: 10 to 12 minutes or overnight

Cooking time: 10 to 15 minutes

Yield: 3 dozen cookies

Ingredients

3 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature soft

2 1/4 cups dark brown sugar

1 egg

2 teaspoons vanilla extract without alcohol

2 teaspoons baking powder

2 3/4 cups Inn on Randolph flour blend (see below)

8 ounces chocolate chips of your choice: milk, dark or a blend of the two

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. In a mixing bowl, combine softened butter and brown sugar. Mix to combine and break up any lumps. Stir until smooth.

3. Add egg and vanilla. Mix until fully incorporated into the butter and sugar. In a separate bowl, mix baking powder with gluten-free flour blend.

4. Add the flour mixture to the butter and sugar mixture and mix well until most of the flour is incorporated. Leave some of the flour unblended.

5. Add chocolate chips. Fold together the unblended flour and the chocolate chips to prevent the chips from sticking to one another. Then mix together with the batter until no flour can be seen. Scoop out the cookies with a 1-ounce scoop or with a large spoon. Prepare a nonstick baking sheet or a baking sheet covered with parchment paper or a Silpat sheet. Place the balls of dough next to each other.

6. Freeze a minimum of 10 to 12 minutes or overnight. If the cookies are going to be baked on another day, transfer the frozen balls to an airtight container and return to the freezer.

Just before baking, remove from the freezer. Place the balls on a nonstick baking sheet or a baking sheet covered with a Silpat sheet or a piece of parchment paper. Remembering that as the cookies bake, they will expand, leave 4 inches of space between each ball of dough and the sides of the baking sheet.

7. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes to desired doneness. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack.

Inn on Randolph Flour Blend

Weight is more accurate, but you may use cup measures. Store the blend in an airtight container in a cool, dark pantry or in the refrigerator.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups or 167 grams sorghum flour, superfine

3/4 cup or 101 grams cornstarch

1/2 cup or 82 grams potato flour, finely ground

3/4 cup or 117 grams potato starch, unmodified

1/2 cup or 56 grams tapioca flour

Directions

Measure out each dry ingredient.

Mix together. Stir well.

Store in an airtight container.

Main photo: Gluten-free chocolate chip cookies made by chef Paul Fields for guests at the Inn on Randolph, Napa, Calif. Credit: David Latt

In the video, Fields shows how to freeze the cookie dough in individual portions.

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