Articles in Technique

Muhammara-burrata pain au levain toast with pickled radish. Credit: Muhammara-burrata pain au levain toast with pickled radish. Credit: David Latt

The lesser partner of center-stage bacon and eggs at breakfast, toast is often pushed to the edges of the plate waiting for a bit of butter and jam. But toast is forgotten no longer. Chef Jason Travi of Superba Food + Bread in Venice, California, has placed toast center stage, and not just for breakfast. No longer just dressed in sweet jams, toast appears on the restaurant’s menu topped with sautéed kale, prosciutto, avocado, smoked trout and muhammara, the spicy Middle Eastern condiment.

Why toast? Why now?

Dishes long associated with childhood meals have been improved with quality ingredients to the delight of diners. Chefs gave kid-friendly mac and cheese a makeover by adding English cheddar, fresh Maine lobster and truffle oil.

Travi was following a toast trend begun by all accounts by chef Giulietta Maria Carrelli of Trouble Coffee & Coconut Club in the San Francisco Bay area. At Superba Food + Bread, chef Travi took me into his kitchen for a video demonstration of a signature dish: grilled toast with walnut muhammara and burrata. Before we began, he talked about his partnership with Jonathan Eng, the baker responsible for making the freshly baked breads used in the restaurant.

Good toast requires great bread

At Superba Food + Bread, Eng was encouraged to be innovative. The restaurant promoted collaboration. Often Eng will come up with an idea for a new bread. He and Travi would then explore toppings that would be a good match for the texture and flavor of the new bread. Sometimes Travi asked for a bread to go with a particular dish, such as the sprouted wheat loaf he asked Eng to make with millet, flax and sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seeds. While the many sandwiches on the menu come with a variety of breads, all the toasts are made with the pain au levain.

To make his version of the classic French sourdough, Eng modified the recipe using a 16-hour cold fermentation. Using an Italian Bassanina Tubix steam pipe oven, he bakes the pain au levain loaves in 750- and 1,500-gram sizes. Both are used in the restaurant and sold in the bakery.

The only way the restaurant will be guaranteed to have freshly baked bread for the day’s service is if Eng starts work at 2 a.m. six days a week. When he arrives, the cleaning crew is just leaving. For a few hours he enjoys having the quiet restaurant all to himself. By the time Travi’s crew arrives for the breakfast service, Eng has his loafs stacked high on the wood counters, ready for the day’s diners.

A mother’s recipe passed down to her son, the chef

Chef Travi remembers watching his mother cook when he was growing up. From her Lebanese family, she learned to prepare Middle Eastern classics. One particular dish stayed in his memory, her muhammara, a spicy dip made with peppers, walnuts, bread crumbs and olive oil.

To complement the spicy flavors of the muhammara, Travi adds freshly made burrata and the crunch of pickled radish.

Muhammara-Burrata Toast With Pickled Radish

While the spread will work on any bread, Eng encourages using a good quality sourdough that is baked fresh and eschews preservatives. Although ready-made bread crumbs can be used, the quality of the muhammara will be improved when they are homemade.

The muhammara can be made the day of use or reserved covered in the refrigerator for up to five days. The radishes should pickle for two days and then can be refrigerated in an airtight container in the pickling liquid for several days.

The Aleppo powder Travi prefers is frequently unavailable. He suggests substituting cayenne powder. The heat from the two are different, so taste and adjust the amount used.

Pomegranate molasses is available in Middle Eastern and Israeli markets and sometimes in the International sections of supermarkets.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 whole red pepper, washed, to yield ¾ cup roasted red peppers

6 slices freshly baked bread, divided

¼ cup raw walnuts

1½ teaspoons pomegranate molasses

¼ teaspoon ground cumin

¼ teaspoon ground coriander

¼ to ½ teaspoon Aleppo powder or cayenne

1 tablespoon olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 cups fresh burrata

1 tablespoon Italian parsley leaves, washed, dried

1 tablespoon pickled radishes (see recipe below)

Directions

1. Heat oven to 450 F. Place the whole red pepper on a piece of parchment paper or a Silpat sheet on a baking sheet. Cook 15 to 30 minutes depending on size or until the skin is lightly browned and the flesh is tender. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.

2. When the pepper is cool to the touch, use a pairing knife to cut off the stem and peel away the skin. Discard the skin and seeds. Finely chop the flesh. Measure out the amount needed in the recipe and reserve the remainder for another use in a refrigerated, airtight container.

3. Tear two slices of fresh bread into pieces. Heat a nonstick pan. Toast the pieces in the pan. Remove. Allow to cool. Place into a blender and pulse to make crumbs. Return the bread crumbs to the pan. Do not use oil. Toast the bread crumbs until lightly brown. Set aside to cool. Measure out the amount needed in the recipe and reserve the remainder for another use in a refrigerated, airtight container.

4. Reduce the oven to 325 F. Place the walnut pieces on a piece of parchment paper or a Silpat sheet on a baking sheet. Bake about 10 to 12 minutes or until lightly brown.

5. Remove and allow to cool.

6. Place red peppers, walnuts, pomegranate molasses, ground cumin, ground coriander, Aleppo powder or cayenne and olive oil into a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth.

7. Taste and adjust flavor by adding sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

8. Heat a grill or a grill-pan. Place the remaining bread slices on the grill just long enough for grill marks to appear. Remove.

9. Place the toast slices on a cutting board and then spread a layer of muhammara on each slice. Decoratively spoon on three or four teaspoon-sized mounds of burrata, season with sea salt and black pepper, sprinkle on pickled radish and parsley leaves.

Lebanese-Style Pickled Radish

At a supermarket or farmers market, buy fat, firm radishes with unwilted leaves attached to ensure they are freshly picked.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 2 minutes

Pickling time: 2 days

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

2 large radishes, washed, stems and root ends removed

¼ cup water

¼ cup white vinegar

¼ cup white sugar

Directions

1. Clean the radishes to remove all dirt. Cut away any blemishes and discard.

2. Using a sharp chef’s knife, julienne the radishes, cutting from stem top to root end. The strips should be as uniform as possible, about 1/8-inch thick.

3. Place the julienned radishes in a non-reactive bowl.

4. Place water, vinegar and sugar into a small saucepan. Bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve sugar.

5. Pour the hot liquid over the radish. Cover. Let sit on the counter 2 days.

6. The pickled radish will keep up to a week in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Main photo: Muhammara-burrata pain au levain toast with pickled radish. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt

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Rigatoni con la Pagliata (Rigatoni With Chitterlings). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Virtually everyone who has been to Italy has been to Rome, but not everyone who has been to Rome has had Roman cuisine. Most of the famous foods of Rome, such as pizza, fettuccine alfredo or spaghetti carbonara, either were invented for tourists or came from elsewhere.

The Romans eat in a way that is nearly hidden from the tourist. Their meals are heavy on offal and first-course pasta dishes.

Italian cookbook author Anna Gosetti della Salda boldly declared “la cucina romana doesn’t exist,” but I’m not sure I agree. She goes on to explain that it can’t be said to exist because “no Roman ever created those masterpieces of culinary art that are the pride of almost all other regional cuisines of Italy. Despite this the fact remains incontestable that you eat well in Rome and the food is good and almost everywhere.”

Paolo Monelli, who was one of Italy’s most distinguished journalists, was also honest in his appraisal of the cuisine of Rome, declaring it “the most plebeian that exists in the peninsula; flavorful, of course, aggressive, multicolored, but rural, created by the taste of goat-herders, of cowboys, buffalo herders, and the incivility of the recipes from the ghetto.”

The most succinct summation of la cucina romana, although insipid, was that of food writer Ada Boni who said that “la cucina romana è una cucina semplice, sana, nutrient e saporita” (Roman cuisine is a cuisine that is simple, healthy, nutritious and flavorful). A dish of pasta and offal would be an example.

‘Fifth’ quarter of the cow

Pride of place of a dish that strikes to the soul of Roman cuisine is rigatoni co’ la pajata, a unique recipe made from the small intestine of the suckling calf. In Romanesco dialect, rigatoni co’ la pajata (or pagliata) can be translated as rigatoni with chitterlings. It is probably the most unique dish of Rome utilizing a component of the quinto quarto, the “fifth” quarter of the cow (that is, the head, tail and offal). It is without doubt a dish derived from cucina povera, the cuisine of the poor.

It is made from cow or calf chitterlings, that is, the duodenum, the small or first part of the intestine where the enzymatic breakdown of food occurs. Roman gourmets call for beef believing that beef is more flavorful than veal.

However, unique to the dish is the fact that although the intestine is washed and thoroughly cleaned, the chyme is not removed so when it is cooked there is a rich, creamy and slightly sour taste mixed with the tomatoes of the sauce. The chyme is the semiliquid mass of partially digested food that passes from the stomach through the pyloric sphincter into the duodenum of the cow. The process of cleaning the duodendum is quite laborious because one does not want to lose the chyme, but that is the job of the butcher and the cook merely has to prepare the dish.

For four to six people you need 4 pounds of chitterlings. In the United States you will probably have to use pork chitterlings and those from Louis Foods are ideal. Lardo is cured pork fatback (not lard, which is called strutto in Italian) and can be found in better supermarkets such as Whole Foods and in Italian markets. Some domestic American companies are also making lardo.

Rigatoni con la Pagliata (Rigatoni with Chitterlings)

Prep time: About 10 minutes

Cooking time: 3 3/4 hours

Total time: About 4 hours

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

One 5-pound package cleaned pork chitterlings, cut into 4-inch pieces

1 tablespoon pork lard or olive oil

1 medium onion, sliced

1 celery stalk, chopped

1/4 pound lardo, prosciutto fat or pancetta, or a mixture of the three, chopped

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 cups dry white wine, separated

One 28-ounce can tomato purée

Bouquet garni, tied with kitchen twine, consisting of 10 sprigs parsley and 1 sprig rosemary

1 clove

2 1/2 cups water

1 pound rigatoni

1/4 pound Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino romano cheese, freshly grated

Directions

1. Place the pork chitterlings in a stockpot, cover with water, bring to a boil over high heat and boil for 1 hour. Drain; once cool, cut into pieces half the size and set aside until needed.

2. In a large flameproof casserole, melt the lard over medium heat, then cook, stirring, the onion, celery, lardo and garlic until soft, about 6 minutes. Add the chitterlings, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, until sticking to the bottom and turning light golden, about 6 minutes. Add 1 cup wine. Once the wine evaporates, add the tomato purée, bouquet garni, clove and water. When the liquid starts to bubble, reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring and moistening with the remaining white wine until tender, about 2 to 2 1/2 hours. The sauce should be dense though, so continue cooking if necessary.

3. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly, then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing. Transfer the pasta to a large serving platter and spoon the chitterlings and sauce over it; serve with the cheese.

Main photo: Rigatoni con la Pagliata (Rigatoni With Chitterlings). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Potato gratin stuffed with Swiss chard. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Winter is about the only time of year that the description “rib-sticking” actually sounds appealing. We burn more calories in the winter as we are shoveling more snow, or, here in Southern California, as we complain about how it’s freezing when the temperature drops to 60 F. Winter is when our stew or roast recipes come out and when we love to cook with bacon, cheese, and cream. Let’s not forget that there are great winter vegetables and the way to cook them is not the way we want to do in the summer.

I love winter vegetables, including all the root vegetables as well as leafy greens like Swiss chard, spinach, collard, kale, and many others. One dish I make often is inspired by the cooking of the Savoy in France. It is a potato gratin, but my twist is to form it into a kind of potato pie that is stuffed with rainbow Swiss chard. Rainbow Swiss chard is simply a bunch of multicolored Swiss chard stems bunch together for sale by the purveyor. You’re not using the stems in this recipe so you won’t actually see a lot of color other than green in the finished dish.

You’ll want to use baking potatoes, like russets, rather than boiling potatoes like Yukon gold, because you’ll want the potatoes to disintegrate slightly to form a kind of “crust.” This is a rich dish, so if you’re making it to accompany something I suggest something simple, like roast chicken or pan-seared chicken breast or even just a salad.

Potato Gratin Stuffed With Swiss Chard

This is a perfect winter vegetables dish made with thin slices of potato that form the bottom of a kind of pie filled with Swiss chard cooked with bacon and salt pork and then covered with another layer of sliced potatoes before being baked.

Potato gratin stuffed with Swiss chard. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Potato gratin stuffed with Swiss chard. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Yield: 6 side-dish servings

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: About 1 1/4 hours

Total time: About 1 1/2 hours

Ingredients

1 1/2 pound Swiss chard, leaves only, save stems for another purpose

1 ounce slab bacon, chopped

1/2 ounce salt pork, chopped

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

Salt to taste

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

One 1-pound baking potato, peeled and cut into 1/8-inch thick slices

2 ounces Gruyère, comte, or vacherin cheese, sliced

1/2 cup heavy cream

Directions

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the Swiss chard leaves until soft, about 10 minutes. Drain well and chop. Set aside in a bowl.

2. Preheat to oven to 350 F.

3. In a large cast iron skillet, cook the bacon and salt pork over medium-low heat until beginning to get crispy, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until it is sizzling then remove all to the bowl with the Swiss chard and season with salt.

4. Add 2 tablespoons butter to the skillet and, once it melts, arrange half of the sliced potatoes, slightly overlapped in a spiral covering the entire bottom of the skillet. Salt lightly. Spoon the Swiss chard mixture on top of the potatoes, spreading it around to cover all the potatoes. Salt lightly. Arrange the remaining potatoes in an overlapped spiral covering the Swiss chard completely. Salt lightly. Arrange the cheese on top of the potatoes, dot with the remaining butter and pour the cream over everything.

5. Move the pan to the oven and bake until golden brown and bubbling, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool 5 minutes then cut into wedges for serving.

Main photo: Potato Gratin Stuffed With Swiss Chard. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Main photo: Cooked nabemono ingredients. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

After graduating from university, I got a secretarial job in a Tokyo office. Among the many tasks to which I was assigned, including the ridiculous role of serving cups of tea to company guests and my male office colleagues, there was one that I loved to perform every time: finding the best hot pot (nabemono) restaurant for our office New Year’s party. I was always hungry for good food, and the search — long before the Internet — was an interesting and challenging assignment.

Nabemono is a dish in which many varieties of very fresh raw or partially prepared ingredients are cooked in a large pot over a tabletop gas burner at the dining table. The dish is consumed throughout all seasons, but winter is the best time because the dish warms up your entire body.

Unlike most Japanese meals, for which all of the prepared foods are served in individual small plates, empty serving bowls for nabemono are placed in front of each diner. Nabemono dining is a communal affair with the large cooking pot at the center of the table shared among the diners. At the yearly party everyone, even some of my male colleagues who would never dream of setting foot in a kitchen, helped cook the dish at the table while sipping beer or sake. The animated conversation ranged from how to cook the ingredients correctly to critiques of recent ball games. When the food is cooked, each diner carefully fetches the very hot items from the pot, transferring them into their own small bowl. There is often dipping sauce for each diner in small cups. The cooking is done in several batches. After the first batch is cooked and consumed, a second batch of ingredients is added to the pot. This repeated process continues until all is consumed. It’s a body and spirit warming, fun meal.

There are more than a hundred nabemono dishes across Japan, many of regional origin that make use of local ingredients. Some of the popular ones that Americans may recognize include shabu shabu (paper thin sliced beef cooked along with vegetables in kelp stock and served with flavored sauce) and sukiyaki (thinly sliced beef cooked in sweetened soy sauce along with vegetables). Other popular nabemono dishes employ tofu, shelled oysters, chicken, pork, assorted seafood, duck or vegetables.

One attribute common to all nabemono dishes is that they’re filled with plenty of vegetables, typically about 50% protein and 50% vegetables. Nabemono dishes, therefore, are a wonderful way to enjoy more vegetables in your diet. If you wish, a 100% vegetarian or vegan nabemono can be quite good, but I always like to include some protein in my nabemono to make the meal more satisfying in flavor and more balanced nutritionally.

The nabemono dining style originated in rural Japan, particularly the cold north. A large house, typically, was occupied by three or four generations of family members and equipped with an irori hearth at its center. This hearth was large enough so that all family members could sit around the fire for meals and warmth. A long iron pole with a hooked end was hung from the ceiling over the hearth and the hook held a large iron cooking pot that was placed directly over the fire. Meals were cooked in this one pot and shared by all.

However, building an irori hearth in a modern urban house with a single-generation family is not at all practical. In 1969, Iwatani Company invented a table top butane gas burner, thereby allowing Japanese family to enjoy nabemono anytime, anyplace. A slightly improved version of that tabletop gas burner is still in production, and is a very convenient piece of equipment even in American kitchen. I highly recommend that you get one (or even and electric or induction version) and start making nabemono and other tabletop fare at your home.

One special joy of nabemono dining comes at the very end of the meal, when the ingredients have all been cooked. You’ll find a highly flavored, concentrated sauce on the bottom of the pot that is perfect to mix with cooked rice for a very special dish. We add the cooked rice and some water, if necessary, and cook it until each grain of rice absorbs the full flavor of the sauce and is well heated. The rice is wonderfully delicious as is, or you can break one or two eggs into the pot, break the yolks, stir with the rice and cook until the eggs are barely done.

Stovetop Sukiyaki

Here is a sukiyaki recipe adopted from Hiroko’s American Kitchen (page 161). I created this recipe so that you can enjoy the traditional full flavor of sukiyaki meal without getting any special tools or ingredients such as table top gas burner and thinly sliced meat. This recipe also has three times more vegetables than meat. You will prepare this sukiyaki meal in a skillet in the kitchen and serve it at the table.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: Four servings

Ingredients

6 large cremini mushrooms

2 ounces carrot

6 ounces cabbage

10 ounces purple potato

2 ounces red bell pepper

2 ounces orange bell pepper

7 ounces red Swiss chard

2 boned short-rib (1 pound)

8 cipollini onions, peeled

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 teaspoons sugar

2 1/2 tablespoons butter

4 to 6 tablespoons shoyu (Japanese soy sauce)

1/2 cup sake

1/2 cup water

Directions

1. Cut each mushroom in quarters. Cut the carrot, cabbage, purple potato, red bell pepper and orange bell pepper into bite sized pieces. Cut the Swiss chard into half lengthwise in the center along the stem, and then, into 2-inch thick slices crosswise. Cut each short-rib into about 10 thin slices (about 2-inch x 2-inch square).

2. Place the potato and cipollini onion in a large pot with cold water to cover over high heat, bring it to a simmer, and cook about 7 minutes. After cooking the potato and cipollini for 7 minutes add the carrot, cabbage and bell peppers to the pot. Cook the vegetables for 3 more minutes. Drain all of the cooked vegetables in a strainer and air dry.

3. Season the beef with salt and pepper on both sides. Heat the butter in a skillet over medium heat and sprinkle half of the sugar over the butter. Add the beef, sprinkle the remaining sugar over the beef, and cook the beef until both sides are golden, or for about 5 to 6 minutes total. Transfer the beef to a platter.

4. In a small saucepan add the sake and shoyu and cook it over high heat until the volume reduces to half. Turn off the heat.

5. Add the mushrooms, stem part of the Swiss chard and drained vegetables to the skillet. Cook the vegetables until the surfaces of each vegetable are lightly golden, or for about 3-4 minutes. Turn the vegetables once over for even browning. Turn off the heat.

6. Push the vegetables to one side of the skillet and return the beef to the skillet. Pour the reduced sake and shoyu over the beef and vegetables and turn on the heat to medium-high heat. Add the leafy part of the Swiss chard to the skillet and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, frequently basting the beef and vegetables with the sauce.

7. Divide the vegetables and beef among deep bowls and serve.

Main photo: Cooked nabemono ingredients. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

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The author would rescue these well-loved kitchen tools in a fire. Credit: Tina Caputo

As a food writer and obsessive home cook, I own an array of kitchen tools and gadgets that, in the eyes of some people, may qualify me as a hoarder. I have devices created specifically for removing the pits from mangoes, picking up and serving stalks of asparagus — only asparagus! — and stamping out perfect ravioli one at a time.

I scored my most recent acquisitions as part of my quest to make authentic Detroit-style pizza in my California kitchen. These items included a specialized square pan, a plastic lid to cover the pan while the dough is proofing, two pizza stones (you need two to simulate the deck ovens used by Detroit pizza cooks) and a cutter designed for square pizzas. My husband said I was insane.

Although his comment seemed a bit unfair — I didn’t hear him complaining of my madness while he was inhaling the delicious pizza I created with my new tools — it did get me thinking. How much of this stuff do I really need? If our kitchen was on fire and I could rescue only a few items, which ones would they be? I ended up with seven, in no particular order:

Microplane grater/zester. Why did it take so long for someone to invent a tool that can make quick work of a block of Parmigiano-Reggiano, zest an orange in minutes flat and easily transform a hunk of ginger into a finely grated mound, all without grating your knuckles in the process? $10 well spent!

Chef’s knife. I have a block full of knives of different sizes, weights and serrations, but the one I almost always reach for is a classic chef’s knife. When I bought it, it pained me to have to fork over $100 for a single knife, but it’s proved itself worthy of the investment in its usefulness and longevity. Here’s my justification: I use my chef’s knife at least three times a week, and I’ve had it for eight years. That means I’ve used it 1,248 times, at a per-use price of only 8 cents. A bargain!

Immersion/stick blender. Before this small appliance came into my life, I wasted untold hours ladling tomato sauce and soups into a blender, in several batches, just to puree them into the desired smoothness. Now I just stick this clever device straight into the pot and blend soups and sauces into submission — no time wasted, no messy clean-up. Blender, who?

Stand mixer. When I was in my 20s my mom gave me a KitchenAid stand mixer for Christmas. As a single girl with no roommates, I wondered what I would do with such a grown-up appliance. As it turned out I found plenty of things to do with it, from whipping up mom’s recipe for buttercream frosting to rolling out and cutting fresh pasta dough (using the mixer’s pasta-making attachment) to mixing up Detroit-style pizza dough.

Pressure cooker. I own both a pressure cooker and a slow cooker/crock pot, and I’d let the crock pot burn in my theoretical kitchen fire every time. Although it may sound effortless to throw a few ingredients into a crock pot, plug it in and have a succulent dinner waiting six hours later, the reality is far more labor intensive. Before those ingredients go into the pot there are vegetables to chop and meat to brown, and there is no way I’m doing all that at 6 a.m. before work. Using a pressure cooker, a beef stew that would have taken all day to simmer in a crock pot is ready (and equally delicious) in less than an hour.

Enameled cast iron Dutch oven. There is a time and place for taking it slow, and this pot is the ideal vessel for doing just that. Cast iron has excellent heat distribution and retention, which makes it better than stainless steel for cooking long-simmering soups and marinara sauces. I wouldn’t cook my spaghetti sauce in anything else. As a bonus, the enamel coating means there’s no need to season the pot, and it’s super easy to clean.

A kitchen calculator makes it easy to customize recipes to feed fewer people. Credit:Tina Caputo

A kitchen calculator makes it easy to customize recipes to feed fewer people. Credit: Tina Caputo

Kitchen calculator. Want to cut a recipe down by half or a third, but don’t know how many tablespoons are in 1/8 cup? Need to quickly convert tablespoons to teaspoons or liquid cups to dry cups? Presto! This little calculator does it all. Sure, there’s probably an app for that, but I’d rather spill chicken broth on a sturdy $30 gadget than a $600 tablet.

Sadly, my new pizza slicer didn’t make the cut.

Main photo: The author would rescue these well-loved kitchen tools in a fire. Credit: Tina Caputo

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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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