Articles in Technique

Chef Drago's diet-friendly spelt panzanella salad. Credit: David Latt

Chef Giacomino Drago smiles a lot. The youngest member of a family of cooks to immigrate from Sicily, Drago, along with his brothers, has opened a dozen restaurants in Los Angeles, many in Beverly Hills, over the past four decades.

A contributor to the Beverly Hills Centennial Cookbook,” Drago declares that using the highest quality, freshest ingredients is the essence of Italian cooking. In his video he demonstrates an easy-to-prepare, classic Italian panzanella salad with diet-friendly spelt instead of bread.

Drago enjoys cooking. He smiles as he drops a handful of spaghetti into one of the half dozen pots of salted water on the stove and when he quickly renders a red onion into a mound of thin, pungent ribbons.

Come to Italy, he says, and one of the first salads you will eat is one made with vine-ripened tomatoes,  basil, red onions, extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, and salt and pepper. Simplicity, he says several times, is the essence of Italian cooking. Find the freshest, highest-quality ingredients and prepare them in what Drago calls the rustic way, roughly cut so the dish is not overly fussy. The result is delicious, healthy food that is easy and fun to make.

A panzanella salad is the perfect dish for summer. To pursue the “current fashion,” as he puts it, he has traded spelt for bread in a signature salad at Via Alloro in Beverly Hills. He chose spelt because it has a refreshing texture and nutty quality that contrasts well with the acid of the tomato and vinegar. A heritage grain and cousin to wheat, spelt was developed hundreds of years ago as a flour in bread making. High in protein and fiber, Drago says spelt is heart-healthy because it is high in niacin. Because “panzanella” refers to a bread (“pane”) salad, it might be more accurate to call chef’s creation a speltzanella.

Chef Drago loves all his restaurants. But he designed the kitchen at Via Alloro in a special way. The area where the line cooks work is a horseshoe space with stoves in the middle and counters running along the walls. There are no dead-ends in this kitchen. Moving efficiently Drago and Executive Chef Paolo Sicuro prepare dishes with an unhurried ease, transferring their love of cooking onto the plates.

Fresh tomatoes are key to the flavor and pleasures of the salad. To protect the tomatoes’ richness of flavor, Drago insists they must never be refrigerated. That is why buying tomatoes from farmers markets is so important. Supermarket tomatoes may have been refrigerated for days, even weeks during their journey from the field to your kitchen.

Drago is precise about his cooking but flexible in terms of ingredients and seasoning. When cooking at home, he encourages that you use only ingredients you enjoy. If you do not like onions, don’t use them in the salad. The same goes for cucumbers and ground black pepper.

Diet-Friendly Spelt Panzanella Salad

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings as a salad portion, 2 servings as an entrée.

To capture all the tomato juice, chef cuts the tomatoes over the bowl. Use a variety of tomatoes for contrasts in shape, color and flavor. For the demonstration, Drago and Siruro used vine ripened, cherry and grape tomatoes. Yellow and heirloom tomatoes could also be added for contrast. To make the onion slices more “friendly,” Drago suggests double rinsing in water. This will result in a more mild flavor. Not widely available, spelt berries can be purchased in specialty markets and ordered online from purveyors such as Bob’s Red Mill. Cooked like pasta in boiling salted water, kosher salt should be used for the cleanest taste. Chef Drago uses English or hothouse cucumbers for the dish. If those are not available, Persian cucumbers would be a good substitute because they have a lower water content than garden cucumbers. The spelt may be cooked ahead and refrigerated. The other ingredients should be prepared immediately before serving to preserve their freshness.

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons spelt
  • 2 medium-sized tomatoes, washed, stem removed, cut into a small dice, reserving the liquid
  • 5 cherry tomatoes, washed, quartered
  • 5 plum tomatoes, washed, quartered
  • 1 small hothouse cucumber, washed, skin on, a small dice the same size as the tomatoes (optional)
  • ¼ medium red onion, washed, root and stem removed, thin sliced (optional)
  • 4 fresh basil leaves, washed, pat dried, roughly torn or chopped
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • Pinch of salt to taste
  • Pinch of freshly ground black pepper to taste (optional)
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Directions

  1. Add kosher salt to three quarts of water. Bring to a rapid boil. Add spelt. Boil uncovered 30-50 minutes or longer depending on the desired doneness. Taste at 30 minutes to determine what is al dente for you and then again at 10-minute intervals until you reach the texture you like. I prefer cooking the spelt 50 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool
  2. Using a sharp paring knife, cut the tomatoes over the salad bowl to capture all the juices.
  3. Cut the skin-on cucumber into pieces similar in size to the tomatoes and add to the bowl.
  4. Slice the red onion. Submerge in cold water, rinse, drain, submerge in fresh cold water, rinse and drain. Add to the tomatoes and cucumbers.
  5. Add the cooked spelt berries.
  6. Roughly chop the basil leaves or tear them with your hands. Add to the salad bowl.
  7. Toss the spelt, vegetables and aromatics with the extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar.
  8. Season with sea salt to taste and freshly ground black pepper, as desired.
  9. Serve as a salad or a side with grilled meats, fish and poultry.

Read More
Nuka-zuke pickled vegetables

Every summer, a bounty of vegetables from my local green market inspires me to go back to nuka-zuke, an ancient Japanese pickling method based on fermented rice bran. Biting into crisp nuka-zuke carrot, radish, turnip, zucchini, cucumber, beet, eggplant or any other vegetable grown under the strong summer sun cools me off and makes me feel my body has absorbed the sun’s energy.

Pickled vegetables are ubiquitous throughout the world. You probably know that kimchi, sauerkraut, and brine-cured cucumbers and tomatoes are delicious. In New York, where I live, I have come to enjoy corned beef sandwiches – and what would one be without a great brine-cured pickle? These pickles, like nuka-zuke pickles, also have significant health benefits. They are all products of lactic acid fermentation and are wonderfully probiotic because of the bacteria involved in that process. These bacteria are proven to do many good things in our guts. They contribute to the growth of a healthful microbial community. They strengthen our immune system. They assist in good digestion. They help prevent constipation. They improve the body’s use of vitamins and minerals. They help to reduce blood cholesterol. And they decrease our sensitivity to allergens.

I learned the nuka-zuke pickling ritual from my mother. One of the wedding gifts I received from her was a small batch of her nuka-zuke pickling base to use as a starter. At that time she had been nurturing it for 38 years in her kitchen. This year, my nuka-zuke pickling base that began its life with my mother’s gift celebrates 25 years of service in my kitchen. It has come a long way, in time and distance, from its origin.

The idea of pickling vegetables in rice bran, a byproduct of milling rice, arose at the beginning of the Edo period (1600-1868) in Japan. This is when eating polished white rice became popular in the big cities of Japan. Back then there was no scientific knowledge about rice bran’s excellent nutritional value. But increasingly, many citizens suffered from beriberi – lack of vitamin B1 – because of their reliance on white rice. Consuming vegetables pickled in a rice bran base, which adds vitamin B1, resolved the vitamin deficiency.

To make nuka-zukepickling base, which is called nuka-miso (only because it looks like miso; no miso is used), rice bran is lightly toasted and mixed with sea salt, water and dried akatogarashi red chile pepper. My mother also added kelp to improve the flavor and mustard powder, which has antiseptic properties. To let fermentation start in this new pickling base, we first pickle, for example, one cabbage in the prepared base for about a week or so. During this time enzymes breaks down the protein, carbohydrate and fat in the rice bran and lactic acid fermentation occurs. When we remove the cabbage (at this stage the cabbage is too salty to consume, and so is thrown away) from the pickling pot we will find remarkable biological activity in the pickling base. In one gram of nuka-miso pickling base we find over one hundred million good probiotic bacteria.

Vegetables in nuka-miso.

Vegetables in nuka-miso. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

I can still vividly picture my mother pickling the vegetables, retrieving them from the pickling pot with a satisfied smile every time, taking care of the pickling base in the pot and serving the rinsed pickles sliced with razor sharp precision. I use all of the pickling tips that my mother taught me. Salt the vegetables before pickling. Toss and turn the pickling base one hundred times with my hands every day. This feeds oxygen to the bacteria. After some time using the pickling base it becomes wet from the water exuded from the vegetables. In such a case I add dried soybeans to absorb excess water. I always keep the pickling pot clean and hygienic. I add some salt if the pickling base became too sour.

Pickling vegetables in the nuka-miso base is lots of fun. I am dealing with living organisms, which though so very tiny react as a group like human beings. I know they do a very good job when I take care of their home — the pickling base — properly. I just pickled a couple of large carrots in the base very late last night before going to bed. I fetched them early this morning before they are too strongly flavored and become too salty. The very fresh, crisp carrots that were nurtured and massaged by my bacteria and enzymes overnight became tender, releasing a delightful fragrant aroma. I am always awed by the magical power of nature.

Some studies claim that the pickled vegetables have 2.5 to 10 times more vitamin B1 than fresh vegetables. The pickles also pick up other vitamins, minerals and lactic acid, from the base. But no matter how tasty and probiotic the nuka-zuke pickles are, we should control the size of the portion we consume, or risk taking in too much sodium.

When pickling time comes, I retrieve my nuka-zuke pickling base from the refrigerator where it has slept through the winter. I keep it in my large, deep blue, enameled pickling pot. When I open the lid of the cold pickling pot I think I can see trillions of my friendly bacteria waking up from their long sleep that began late last autumn at the end of the local fresh vegetable season. Hot, and sometimes humid, summer weather is ideal for these bacteria to become active again and do their wonderful work.

Here is the recipe for you to start your nuka-zuke pickling base. When you make it please think of the future of your pickling base. You could be handing down this probiotic-rich base to your children and those of succeeding generations.

Nuka-Zuke Pickling Base

Ingredients

2 pounds rice bran

6 ounce sea salt

About 6 cups filtered water or mineral water

3 Japanese akatogarashi red chile peppers or 1 tablespoon Italian chile pepper flakes

5-inch long kombu (kelp), cut into halves

1 cup dried soybeans

½ cup mustard powder

One small cabbage

One large enameled or plastic pickling pot (about 5-quart capacity) with a lid

Directions

  1. In a large skillet over low heat, toast the rice bran in several batches until fragrant. In a large pot, add the salt and water and bring it to a gentle simmer. Stir the pot to dissolve the salt. Cool the salt water.
  2. In the pickling pot, add the rice bran. Add the cooled salt water in three batches. The mixture should have a texture and consistency similar to miso and should not be watery. Add the kelp, soybeans and mustard powder.
  3. Cut the cabbage into four wedges. Sprinkle some salt over the wedges and bury each of them in the pickling base. Twice every day — in the morning and in the evening — remove, set aside the cabbage and toss and turn the pickling base with your hand. Return the set-aside cabbage in the pickling base.
  4. Continue the process for seven days, at which time your nose will begin to sense a fragrant lactic acid aroma. When this happens, your pickling base is ready for use. If this does not occur after seven days, continue the same process for another three days. Remove the cabbage and dispose of it.

Nuka-Zuke Pickles

I encourage you to experiment with all varieties of vegetables pickled for various lengths of time. You may find that some small vegetables such as radishes cut in half or larger vegetables cut into much smaller pieces are deliciously pickled after only two hours or so in the base. Because of this, you don’t need to do long-range planning to enjoy these wonderful treats from nature.

Prep Time: 30 minutes plus 7 to 10 days for making and completing the pickling base
Cook Time: Pickling time for vegetables in the completed pickling base is about 2 hours in summer
Yield: 4 to 6 servings, if, for example, you pickle 4 cucumbers, 4 radishes and 1 medium carrot

Ingredients

Vegetables

Sea salt

Nuka-miso

Directions

  1. Thoroughly rinse the vegetables that you wish to pickle, and wipe them with paper towel. Place the vegetables in a bowl, sprinkle with some sea salt and rub the vegetables with the salt.
  2. Dig several holes in the pickling base and drop the vegetables into the depressions, noting how many went in so that you don’t miss any when you dig them out. Over-pickled vegetables are too salty to consume. Cover the vegetables completely with the pickling base.
  3. During the heat of summer, the vegetables pickle in 4-5 hours. You may cut the vegetables into smaller pieces to hasten the pickling process.

 Main photo: Nuka-zuke pickled vegetables. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

Read More
Faux basil caviar is one of five trends to watch.

After tasting 2,734 entries, it was easy to spot food trends. I was one of the dozen judges for the coveted sofi Awards given to this year’s outstanding artisanal food products. One of the unexpected benefits of being a judge was the opportunity to taste everything in neatly organized categories. Usually, when attending a food show, you sample food in a random order, tasting the 2,000-plus exhibitor’s products in the haphazard order of booth geography, meandering from a taste of vinegar to jam, salsa and beer. But not this year.

In April and May the Specialty Food Association, which gives the awards, grouped the entries into categories. Finally, instead of a  random mix of flavors, submissions were organized into 32 groupings, such as appetizers, beverages, condiments, desserts, salad dressings, snack foods, and USDA-certified organic products. The items in each group were set out on long tables in a half dozen rooms in the association’s New York City offices. We tasted more than 2,000 entries! We taste-tested 111 cheeses, 167 cooking sauces, 154 diet lifestyle foods, and 144 snacks in 1½- to 3-hour sessions. Palate fatigue was kept at bay by slices of green apples, crackers, pitchers of water and seltzer.

 

10-commpression-dehydration-manicaretti-italian-food-capperi-croccanticrunchycapers

10-commpression-dehydration-manicaretti-italian-food-capperi-croccanticrunchycapers
Picture 1 of 13

Manicaretti’s dehydrated capers add a crisp, briny crunch to pasta, salads and seafood. Credit: Specialty Food Association

This year’s sofi Awards finalists reveals five fascinating trends, where new tastes meet classic traditions:

1. Molecular gastronomy

Also called modernistic cuisine, molecular gastronomy combines chemistry with cooking to alter the texture, look and taste of foods. This kitchen-based rocket science, popular with many top chefs in recent years, is moving into specialty foods. Several companies are introducing faux caviar, little gelled spheres that burst in your mouth. They can be filled with just about anything, from pesto to balsamic vinegar to espresso to truffle juice.

2. Flowers

Get ready for floral-flavored waters, teas and even cocktail mixers, the next wave cresting in the beverage category. Blossom Water combines fruits and flowers in tandem, such as Lemon Rose, Plum Jasmine and Grapefruit Lilac. Rishi Tea is blending blueberries with hibiscus, and bergamot with sage. Owl’s Brew Pink & Black is a tea-infused cocktail mix blended with hibiscus. As unusual as these combinations may sound, they’re nothing new. Rosewater and orange flower water, familiar to Moroccan food enthusiasts, date to the Renaissance.

3. Savory sweets

Pushing the envelope on savory sweets has been a growing trend since the realization that chocolate and caramel only get better with a sprinkle of sea salt. At this year’s Fancy Food Show we’ll be introduced to cauliflower kale muffins, savory ice creams, and Blue Hill’s vegetable yogurts, which derive their vegetal sweetness from beets, sweet potatoes or winter squash.  Bacon marmalade, anyone?

4. Smoke

Smoke as a flavor component began as an important food preservation technique for our early ancestors, but now it’s showing up in items you wouldn’t expect. Smoke goes beyond barbecue and moves into chocolate chips (Hot Cakes Molten Chocolate Cakery Co.), smoked pizza flour, shortbread with smoked hickory sea salt (The Sticky Toffee Pudding Co.) and even smoked cocktail mixes. The aromatic allure triggers a primitive taste memory that we seem hardwired to love.

5. Compression and dehydration

Compressing or dehydrating foods not only changes their textures, but it also concentrates their flavors. Manicaretti’s dehydrated capers add a crisp, briny crunch to pasta, salads and seafood. The compressed cube of concentrated maple sugar made by Tonewood is so hard it can only be grated, but the delicate wisps that gently fall from a microplane taste more intensely of maple than maple syrup or maple candy. Grace & I’s tightly pressed Fruit + Nuts Press not only looks like a pretty pound cake, but slices like cake too. Coach Farms has transformed some of their goat cheese into grating sticks that allow you to easily add a subtle, cheesy tang to pastas, salads, and vegetables. It won’t be long before these trends and most likely many of these products will appear in the aisles of your favorite supermarket and specialty food shop. When you do see them, it’s fine to feel a little smug — you read about them here first! This year’s award ceremony will be hosted by Cronut creator Dominique Ansel on June 30 at the Javits Center in New York City.

Main photo: Among the food trends is molecular gastronomy; in this case, faux caviar that tastes like basil. Credit: Specialty Food Association

Read More
Japanese-influenced ceviche with weakfish. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

Five years ago, I visited Peru and tasted ceviche, the national dish of raw fish cured in citrus juice, for the first time. I am a trained sushi chef and the author of a definitive book on Japanese sushi, but this meal was a revelation. The combination of lime juice and chile pepper with firm-tender cubes of a local white fish was strange, but utterly refreshing.

Ever since that meal in Peru, I have wondered again and again whether ceviche could be related to sashimi, the Japanese dish of sliced raw fish. (Sushi is raw fish combined with rice.) Both preparations are popular menu items today in high-end restaurants around the world, with creative interpretations that extend well beyond Japanese or Peruvian cuisine. Japanese celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa launched his restaurant career with a sushi bar in Peru, where he developed his signature style blending South American and Japanese takes on seafood.

Ceviche and sashimi were born in countries that share a similar geographical blessing. Warm and cold currents blend along the coasts of Japan and Peru, allowing high-quality plankton to flourish, and in turn, nourishing the fish to produce exceptionally tasty seafood.

At a time when not much ice was available and no refrigeration system existed, early residents of both countries devised these ways to enjoy good quality seafood longer and more safely. According to Claudio Meneses, a Peruvian with a great depth of knowledge on Peruvian gastronomy, ceviche originally was developed before the Spanish conquest, as a way to prevent rapid spoilage of fresh fish. In this original method, fresh or dried salted seafood was cured in tumbo (banana passionfruit) juice or chicha, a fermented beverage made from corn, along with aji chile and sometimes local aromatic herbs. The word “ceviche” is said to be derived from the Quechua word “siwich,” which means fresh fish.

Although people sometimes say that ceviche is “cooked” in the citrus juices, this curing technique does not kill the parasites that are common in even the healthiest of marine and freshwater fish. Therefore, like sashimi, ceviche must be made with absolutely fresh seafood of the highest quality.

Ceviche for lunch

“Peruvian cevicherías, that is, restaurants that specialize in ceviche, only open for lunch because fish used for ceviche traditionally had to be picked up from the fish market the same day it was going to be served,” Meneses said. “While this is not exactly true today, tradition has kept and so far I only know of one cevichería that opens for dinner.”

Japanese sashimi preparation can be traced to nama-su, which appeared around the 14th or 15th century. “Nama” means fresh or raw, and “su” means vinegar. Seafood for nama-su was pickled in vinegar with ginger or wasabi, or in ume plum-infused sake (rice wine) before serving. All of the pickling ingredients had anti-bacterial functions. The Japanese, like the Peruvians, cured fresh seafood to prevent spoilage and extend its life as a food source.

As time passed and world commerce increased, the transformation of sashimi and ceviche was peppered with foreign influences, political changes and technological advancement. The first change in ceviche preparation came when the Spanish brought bitter orange trees to Peru in the 15th century. Bitter orange quickly replaced the local fruit juice as a curing ingredient.

Kozue sashimi

Modern Japanese sashimi at Kozue restaurant at the Park Hyatt, Tokyo. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

In Japan, commercial production of shoyu, Japanese soy sauce, began and shoyu became widely available by the middle of the Edo period (1600-1868). Shoyu, which is high in sodium, was perfect for curing and preserving fresh tuna and skipjack tuna. Both are naturally dark in color, so the soy sauce does not affect their appearance. Shoyu also changed the way to eat raw fish in Japan. The umami-rich, savor of the shoyu, which masks any fishy taste, improves the overall flavor of raw fish.  It therefore became an indispensable condiment to accompany sashimi. After World War II, more dramatic changes occurred in the Japanese sashimi kitchen. The refrigeration system introduced from America, efficient ice-making technology, development of high speed transportation networks and improved methods of fish catching and slaughtering allowed Japanese chefs to serve most seafood for raw consumption as sashimi at any place across the country, including areas far from the water.

From Japan to Peru

And then these developments in Japan began to influence ceviche in Peru, where the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw an influx of Japanese immigrants. By the 1970s, Japanese chefs living and working in Lima introduced modern Japanese sashimi preparation to Peru and these techniques migrated to the Peruvian ceviche kitchen. The Japanese chefs introduced a new way to cut ceviche seafood, in thin slices rather than the traditional cubes. This type of ceviche, known as tiradito, takes less time to cure because the large surface area and the thinness of the slices allow the marinade to penetrate more quickly. This resulted in the development of more subtly and interestingly flavored ceviches.

So although they originated on different continents and evolved in different ways, sashimi and ceviche were created around the same time for similar reasons — to make the most of a bounty of delicious fresh seafood. And over the years, these historical cousins have become even closer relatives as the culinary world has globalized.

This realization encouraged me to try to make my own ceviche dish, which I want to share with you. I happened to find a very good quality weakfish (sometimes called sea trout, though it is not a member of the trout family) locally and sustainably harvested in the northeastern U.S. by Blue Moon Fish, an operation on Long Island, N.Y. You can use any very fresh white fish available in your area. I recommend that you purchase the whole fish, so that you can confirm the freshness of the fish by looking at its eyes, which should be naturally bulging and not collapsed, and stomach, which should not be distended. You can find detailed filleting techniques in my book, “The Sushi Experience.” If you cannot find fresh fish in your area, then professionally frozen fish sold as sushi fish can certainly be used.

Hiroko's Sashimi-Influenced Ceviche

Prep Time: 35 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

  • 1½ pounds weakfish or other locally available, high-quality fresh fish
  • Sea salt
  • 1 garlic clove, chopped fine
  • 1 yellow or red fresh cayenne pepper or other fresh chile pepper, chopped fine
  • ½ red onion, sliced into fine thin rings, soaked in cold water for 30 minutes, then drained
  • 1 lime
  • 2 tablespoons coriander leaves

Directions

  1. Scale, clean, bone and skin the fish. Rinse the chopping board frequently during this process to remove any scales and blood attached to the chopping board.
  2. Fillet the fish, removing both the belly bones and center bones. You will have two back fillets and two belly fillets.
  3. Slice each fillet as thinly as possible and place the fish slices without overlapping on a large, clean serving platter.
  4. Sprinkle little sea salt over the fish. Garnish it with the chopped garlic and chile. Squeeze the lime juice over the fish. Decorate the fish with the onion and coriander leaves.
  5. Serve immediately.

Main photo: Ceviche with weakfish. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

Read More
Preparing Italian Romano beans for the pot. Credit: Paolo Destefanis from

An Italian-American friend, now happily domiciled in Italy, remarked that there was one thing he couldn’t abide about Italian food in his otherwise happy eating adventures there. “They don’t like their vegetables crunchy,” he protested.

He is quite right. When it comes to cooking vegetables, “al dente” is not their cue. Like me, they like them tender and sweet. The crunch crowd will no doubt challenge this, citing, perhaps, the prowess of the Chinese with their crisp, stir-fry style. I could concur, but I would no more stir-fry green beans than my Chinese friend might cook rice my way — sticky rice for her; soupy, Italian-style risotto for me; and vive la différence!

From other quarters, I am told steaming conserves more vitamins than boiling. I have never been willing to sacrifice the pleasures of a boiled bean for the preservation of a few micronutrients, but if I ever suffer remorse at the thought of killing off a few, a recent report will quiet those doubts. Italian scientists evaluating cooking methods concluded that none retains 100% of the nutrients. Hurrah! Never again will I have to suffer the reproach of purportedly health-minded folk when I admit that my vegetables taste so good because I boil them. In a recent story on rapini, I gave the scientific explanation for why this sweetens vegetables. (In a nutritional analysis, research shows a slight increase in natural sugars when food is boiled rather than steamed.) You need only compare the taste between a steamed and a properly boiled batch of beans as proof that cooking past the crunch point, but just before the beans become too soft, delivers their best flavor and sugary qualities.

Green Beans, Italian Style

Green beans, (Phaseolus vulgaris, Leguminosae), a native plant of the New World, are one of summer’s gifts I most eagerly await. They are the unripe pods of the bean plant, named green beans for this reason, though there are yellow, red and purple types, and other hues that span the color spectrum. (The seeds cradled within, referred to as “shell beans,” are the beans we typically dry and rehydrate before cooking.) There are so many varieties that botanists have stopped counting. (The whims of fashion, even in the botanical world, make cultivars come and go, and new ones debut now and then.)

Boiled Italian Romano beans, hot, steamy and ready for anointing with the best olive oil. Credit: Paolo Destefanis

Boiled Italian Romano beans, hot, steamy and ready for anointing with the best olive oil. Credit: Paolo Destefanis

Probably no vegetable suffers more from mis-cooking. They are usually undercooked in favor of crunch. (If the beans are old, there will be no crunch, but rubberiness.) Or, they are overcooked because of supermarket conditions in which the poor specimens arrive many weeks after they have been severed from their umbilical vines in Mexico or Chile or another faraway place, and shipped thousands of miles, arriving shell-shocked and sapped of any life. Many people complain that no matter how long they cook supermarket-variety green beans, they remain tough. Such old beans deserve a resting place in the compost bin, not a workout in the cooking pot.

Like tomatoes or corn, green beans are best eaten soon after they are harvested, before the seeds begin to bulge in their pods and brown markings appear. If you have a farmers market nearby, ask whether their beans have been picked that morning. If not, wait until they can promise you they’ll treat them with the same respect they show their corn. “Day-picked” should apply to green beans as much as to maize.

Growing techniques

Best of all, grow them if you can. Once you have tasted green beans straight from the vine and cooked properly, store-bought will never do. Romano flat beans, Kentucky Wonders, Sultan’s Crescents, Haricots Verts, German Pole Beans and Indie Gold are among those that have had a turn in my garden. The long and flat, meaty Italian snap beans that are stringless, variously called Romano, Roma, Rampicanti or Marconi are, hands down, my favorites. Nothing compares to their flavor, not to mention the thrill of seeing their long, broad pods swinging and twirling on the vines. They grow up to 10 inches if you let them, and still cook up tender, but stop at 5 inches — remember, newborn! I reseed the bed every three weeks until August for an extended harvest into the fall. Plant them after the soil warms up well, sit back and get ready for some fun. You can nearly hear them grow. If you can’t keep up with the harvest, you can find comfort in knowing the overgrown pods can be left to mature on the vine until you are ready to reap their big, fat seeds for using fresh or storing, dried.

So remember, the key to great-tasting green beans, whether you plant or buy them, is twofold. First, youth and freshness are vital—newborn are best, but no older than a few days. Second, boil them until they nearly melt (but not quite!) on your tongue at the first bite. You might realize that you have never really tasted green beans before in their grassy, buttery glory, bursting with the essence of summer.

Garden Green Beans, Italian Style

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 6 minutes

Total Time: 11 minutes

Yield: 4 side-dish servings

The supermarket offerings of my childhood in a small American town didn't satisfy my mother, who before marrying and coming to America was accustomed to shopping for vegetables in the overflowing stalls of Rome's radiant street markets. Our family planted a garden every spring. Since then, my life has been filled with gardens, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Whether you buy green beans freshly picked from a farmer or can grow your own, make them the way the Italians do, still hot from the colander, anointed with the best extra virgin olive oil and, if you like, a memory of fine sea salt. They are a revelation.

Ingredients

  • 1½ pounds freshly picked green beans
  • kosher salt
  • best quality extra virgin olive oil
  • fine sea salt

Directions

  1. Wash the beans in cold water to remove any grit.
  2. Snip the umbilical tips, leaving the pointed ends intact.
  3. Fill an ample pot with enough cold water to generously cover the beans.
  4. Bring the water to a rolling boil. Add 2 tablespoons kosher salt. Cook the beans over high heat until there is no crunch left, but they are not overcooked, 5 to 6 minutes, depending on the variety and size of the beans. (Roman flat beans will take longer than smaller types.)
  5. Drain at once, transfer to a serving bowl, and dress with the olive oil. Sprinkle lightly with fine sea salt at the table, if you like.

Notes

Variations: You can squeeze fresh lemon over the beans at the table, but I like them plain and simple. Another variation is to coddle them briefly, once cooked, in extra virgin olive oil into which you have first dissolved a few drained anchovy filets preserved under oil.

* * *

For Gardeners: Sources for Italian-Style Flat Green Snap Beans

The two principal categories gardeners are concerned with, the climbers (pole variety) and the low-growing bush beans, are available from these sustainable seed companies.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds
Seeds From Italy
Seeds of Change
Territorial Seed Co.

Main photo: Preparing Italian Romano beans for the pot. Credit: Paolo Destefanis from “Veneto: Authentic Recipes from Venice and the Italian Northeast” by Julia della Croce (Chronicle Books, 2003)

Read More
Making beautiful fresh pasta takes some effort, but with the right technique, it can be relaxing and fun. Credit: Tina Caputo

As a first generation Italian-American, I was raised on culinary delights my friends could only imagine: a never-ending supply of homemade tomato sauce and meatballs; fried bread dough glistening with olive oil; fresh pasta made from scratch. Perhaps because she couldn’t stand the thought of her son having to eat dried spaghetti and sauce from a jar, my Italian grandma made sure my mom — a non-Italian from West Virginia — learned how to cook my dad’s favorite dishes.

Although she had no experience making Italian food, my mom was a quick and enthusiastic learner. It was she who first taught me how to make fresh pasta in our basement,  albeit against my will.

Unlike people with fond childhood memories of cooking at their mothers’ elbows, I was not interested in learning to make pasta as sassy pre-teen. When my mom tried to reason with me,  “If you don’t help, how will you know how to do this yourself someday?”  I shot back, “I’ll have my maid do it for me.”

It’s a wonder she didn’t whack me with a rolling pin.

It wasn’t until I moved from home and had to fend for myself in the kitchen that her words sunk in. Where was the fresh fettuccine going to come from, if not my own hands?

Technique makes all the difference

If my mom felt the warm glow of I-told-you-so when I finally asked for her recipe, she didn’t show it.

I made fresh pasta many times over the years and came to understand all too well why my mom had been so eager for extra hands. The process seemed to take forever! I’d spend half a day cranking dough through the pasta roller, and by the time I was finished, all I’d want to do was order pizza and go to bed.

Until a few years ago, when my Aunt Lena invited me to her house for a linguine lesson, I never suspected that pasta-making could be anything other than an act of martyrdom. That day, my aunt taught me a few things that helped explain why my previous attempts had been so exhausting. Here’s what I’d been doing wrong:

I made my dough with a food processor, which can make it too stiff. Only by kneading the dough with your hands can you feel when the texture is right.

 

caputo-pastamake1

caputo-pastamake1
Picture 1 of 7

Crack eggs into the flour well, being careful not to break the dam. Credit: Tina Caputo

Because my dough was so unyielding, I had to run it through the roller more times than normally would be necessary. This made the process take longer than it should have.

I didn’t let the dough rest properly. Letting it sit for 10 minutes or so before each trip through the pasta roller relaxes the gluten and makes the dough easier to work with. (Aunt Lena also taught me that while the dough rests, I should rest too — with a glass of red wine in hand.)

In only two hours, the two of us cranked out enough pasta to feed a dozen family members, with plenty of leftovers. And the experience was fun and relaxing!

To make my pasta pursuits even more enjoyable, I’ve since adopted an innovation recommended by my mom: a pasta roller/cutter attachment for my KitchenAid stand mixer. I was reluctant to give up my hand-crank machine at first, but changed my mind when I discovered that because the mixer’s motor turns the rollers automatically, I could use both hands to guide the dough as it came out of the roller. That makes solo pasta-production much easier.

Now that I know that making fresh pasta doesn’t have to involve five hours of hard labor, I don’t wait for a special occasion to make it.

Fresh Pasta

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

2¾ cups all-purpose flour

3 eggs (room temperature)

3 ounces tepid water

1 teaspoon salt

Directions

1. Mound flour on a cutting board or clean work surface and make a well in the center of the flour. Crack the eggs into the well and add water and salt. Use a fork to break the yolks and slowly begin scooping flour into the well, a little at a time, until all the flour is incorporated into the liquid.

2. Knead dough until smooth. If the dough feels sticky, it is too wet; add more flour 1 tablespoon at a time until it feels smooth and doesn’t stick to your hands. Form dough into a log shape.

3. Cover dough with plastic wrap and let it rest 10-15 minutes. While you’re waiting, you can relax and drink some wine (this also applies to steps 4 and 7).

4. Knead again for a few more minutes until dough is smooth, adding a bit more flour if needed. Cover and let rest for another 10-15 minutes.

5. Slice log into five pieces of equal size. Dip each slice in flour to coat and brush off any extra flour. Roll each slice with a rolling pin to flatten into small ovals and sprinkle with flour.

6. Run dough slices through a hand-crank pasta machine or KitchenAid mixer roller attachment at the 1, 4 and 6 (wide, medium and small) thickness settings. (Run all the sheets through on the wide setting, then roll all of the sheets on medium, etc. That allows the sheets to rest for a few minutes between rollings.) Skip the smallest setting if sheets have reached the desired thickness after two trips through the roller. You should be able to see the outline of your hand through the sheet. When dough is coming out of the roller, pull on it gently to stretch it out. Sheets should be smooth and elastic.

7. Cut sheets in half so they are each about 12 inches long. Lay sheets on a tablecloth, dust with a little flour and turn them over. When edges begin to dry (in 20-30 minutes), the pasta is ready to cut. Don’t let it dry too much, or sheets will buckle and get caught in roller.

8. Run pasta sheets through cutter and arrange noodles in loose nests on a tablecloth. Sprinkle with a little flour to keep strands from sticking together. Cook in boiling salted water until al dente (2-3 minutes). If you’re not planning to eat the pasta that day, leave it to dry completely, turning nests over after an hour or so. Dried pasta will keep in the pantry for a few months.

Top photo: Making beautiful fresh pasta takes some effort, but with the right technique, it can be relaxing and fun. Credit: Tina Caputo

Read More
Fennel bulb with fronds. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Most home cooks have only a few uses for flavorful fennel, and part of the problem is that many people are using only a small portion of the vegetable.

The cultivar common in the supermarket and farmers markets, the one you’ve been buying all these years, is called Florence fennel. This variety is notable because it  has a big, fleshly bulb.

There are all kinds of things you can do with the bulb, but what about those bushy stems, those fronds fragrant with the smell of fennel? I hope you haven’t been clipping them off and throwing them away.

These tops of fennel can be used as an herb to be sprinkled on scrambled eggs, frittatas, spaghetti or just about anything. However, there is no way you’re going to get rid of all those stems by using them as herbs. So here’s a nice little trick. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and boil them until soft and then place them into a blender with enough water to allow the blades to work and make soup.

In this recipe, you’ll also make a Provençal-style sauce rouille, which is a kind of fancified garlic mayonnaise to spread on toast points that float in the soup. Sauce rouille is typically used as a condiment for bouillabaisse, but it works very well here.

If you don’t want to go through the trouble of making the sauce, spread some mayonnaise on toast points. The soup itself is very simple, and, for perfect soup, the only thing you’ll need to adjust at the end is the salt.

Purée of Fennel Soup

Ingredients

1 gallon of water

1 pound fennel fronds (tops)

1 carrot, chopped

1 small onion, chopped

1 celery stalk, chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Bring a gallon of water to a boil over high heat then boil the fennel, carrot, onion, and celery until soft, about 25 minutes. Remove 6 cups water and drain the vegetables.

2. Place the vegetables and water in a blender and purée for 2 minutes. Transfer to a saucepan and heat over low heat for 10 minutes, covered partially if it’s bubbling. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

 

wright-fenneltops2

wright-fenneltops2
Picture 1 of 2

Purée of fennel soup with sauce rouille. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Sauce Rouille

Makes 1¼ cups sauce rouille

Ingredients

1½ cups diced French bread, white part only

½ cup fennel broth (see above)

4 large garlic cloves, or to your taste

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

Pinch of saffron threads, crumbled

1 large egg yolk

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

Directions

1. Soak the diced bread in the fennel broth for 5 minutes. Squeeze the broth out.

2. Mash the garlic cloves in a mortar with the salt until mushy.

3. Place the bread, mashed garlic, cayenne pepper, saffron, egg yolk and black pepper in a food processor and blend for 30 seconds then pour in 1 cup olive oil through the feed tube in a slow, thin, steady stream while the machine is running.

4. Refrigerate for 1 hour before serving. Store whatever you don’t use in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Note: If the rouille is separating, add 2 to 3 tablespoons of the fennel broth and whisk it in until smooth and re-emulsified.

5. Spread the rouille on toast points and lay into the soup bowl to serve with the fennel soup.

Main photo: Fennel bulb with fronds. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Read More
Rock cod (Lotella rhacina) caught off the California coast. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Whenever I think about fresh fish I always picture that old MAD magazine column “Silly Answers to Stupid Questions.” The female customer asks at the fish store, “Is that fish fresh?” And the fishmonger answers, “No, it’s very well-mannered.” Seriously though, the question was fair because it does come down to the fishmonger knowing best.

Today’s fishmongers offer a variety of filleted fish, making our lives easier. But this convenience sometimes means customers get lower-quality fish than they did when they bought it unfilleted. Judging whether a fish is fresh is not such an easy thing. It’s not hard for the fishmongers because when they buy it they have access to the fresh-caught fish and knowledge of fish that the consumer does not have.

They often know the fishermen or fish brokers. They have the opportunity to smell and handle the whole fish. Good fishmongers know where the fish was caught and who caught it and they know which areas of the ocean and seas have the right kind of nutrients for particular fish. Not all fishmongers know this, but the good ones do.

Consumers are at a great disadvantage. They cannot even see the whole fish because it often arrives at the fish store from a central processing facility. The fillets are cut into perfect and identical pieces with little to distinguish them from one another.

A fish name doesn’t tell you everything

Furthermore, the fish often have names that have nothing to do with their species. When you buy black cod you’re not buying cod. When you buy Chilean sea bass you’re not buying sea bass. In the first case, black cod is sablefish (Anoplopoma fimbria), which tastes nothing like cod and is the only species in the Anoplopoma genus. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved “sablefish” as the only acceptable market name and considered “black cod” a regional name not to be used for statement of identity purposes. In the second case, Chilean sea bass is an invented marketing name for Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides), a deep-dwelling Antarctic Ocean fish.

Only one sure way to test whether it’s fresh fish

The standard techniques for judging whether a fish is fresh — using your senses of sight, smell and touch — often won’t help the average consumer. Along with not having access to whole fish, customers also often find the fish store does not know where the fish was caught and when. When was the last time a supermarket fishmonger answered, “The fish was caught seven days ago off the Alaska coast?” I can answer that — never.

A consumer’s senses also are useless when the fish sometimes has been doused in sodium benzoate that can disguise a poor quality filleted fish.

There is only one way to determine the freshness of filleted fish, and that is through taste. Since this is not convenient when shopping, customers must trust the fishmonger the first time and then repeat their business if they like his or her fish. If the fish you buy at a particular store is consistently good, then that is your guide for fresh fish. Fresh fish should not taste “fishy,” and the store should not smell “fishy.” It should smell like the briny ocean.

Where the quality fishmongers are

Top quality fish will taste good, unadorned with sauces, while lesser quality fish will taste insipid and generic and — in a telltale sign of non-freshness — fishy. Choose the freshest fish before choosing the recipe. I usually find top quality fishmongers in ethnic areas where fish cookery is important to that particular culture, such as Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Italian, Greek, Portuguese or Caribbean neighborhoods.

Lastly, don’t be a boob and ask, “Is this fish fresh?” What do you think they’ll answer?

Main photo: Rock cod (Lotella rhacina) caught off the California coast. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Read More