Articles in Tradition

Main caption: Gino Sorbillo, Italy's famed pizzaiuolo, holds a finished pizza fritta. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Seganv

Fried street foods are popular in every region of Italy, where you’ll often hear: “Fried, even chair legs are delicious.” Neapolitans in particular have a cult-like devotion to fried fare, especially pizza fritta.

After World War II, the city found itself in crisis, and the materials needed for pizza — the mozzarella and even wood for the ovens — became a luxury. Fried pizza, a less-expensive alternative nicknamed “pizza of the people,” was filled with “poor” ingredients — pork crackling, pepper and ricotta. Housewives sold it on the streets to supplement the family’s income. Times were so hard, customers could even buy pizza fritta on credit: Called pizza-at-eight, pizza a otto, it was eaten on the spot but paid for eight days later.

Simple, homemade food

Gino Sorbillo fries pizza fritta at his Naples restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Gino Sorbillo fries pizza fritta at his Naples restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Naples-born Gino Sorbillo, Italy’s famed pizzaiuolo, made one for me recently explaining, “Pizza fritta comes in different shapes. Round, called montanare, or half moon calzone.” For the dough, which is the same as for classic oven pizza, Sorbillo uses only a minuscule pinch of leavening to create chewy, never spongy, dough. He stretches a round, fills it and pulls the ends into a whimsical mimicry of the clown Pulcinella’s hat. Sorbillo flash-fries at just the right temperature for a crisp, non-greasy outside and warm, gooey center.

“Pizza fritta is a simple food, easy to make at home because unlike classic pizza you don’t need a wood-burning stove, just a frying pan,” Sorbillo says.  It’s very versatile and can be filled with virtually anything: a traditional ricotta, provolone and Neapolitan salami combo; mozzarella and ham; or sautéed broccoli rabe or other greens. And it is great plain or served with a side dipping of tomato sauce.

When you’re in Naples, be sure to have a classic wood oven-baked pizza at Gino’s famed restaurant on Via dei Tribunali. But if the lines are too long to get in, which they always are, enjoy a piping hot pizza fritta at his small fried pizza spot just a few doors down.  If you can’t get to Naples, make Sorbillo’s fried pizza at home with the recipe below. Use his excellent dough recipe or use store-bought pizza dough.

Gino Sorbillo’s Pizza Fritta

If you can't make it to Naples, you can make your own fried pizza at home. Note the tips folded in like a hat. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

If you can’t make it to Naples, you can make your own fried pizza at home. Note the tips folded in like a hat. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Prep time: 20 minutes, plus 8 hours passive

Cooking time: 5 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

A tiny pinch, 0.07 ounces, brewers yeast

2 cups, about 1 pound, organic “0” or pizza flour

3 teaspoons salt

Sunflower or other vegetable oil for frying

Sorbillo’s suggested fillings: sheep’s milk ricotta, thinly sliced ciccioli  (Neapolitan pork salami), diced smoked provolone cheese, diced fresh peeled tomatoes, black pepper

Directions

1. Dissolve the yeast in 1 1/3 cups of warm water in a bowl, and then sift in the flour and salt. Knead on a floured work surface until smooth, 10 to 12 minutes.  Divide the dough into 4 balls and let rise at room temperature, covered in a clean cloth, for about 8 hours.

2. Heat enough oil in a deep-sided skillet to cover one pizza at a time. Heat to 400 F.

3. Stretch each section into a flat circle, pressing down with your palm to flatten it. Put the ricotta, salami, provolone and a tablespoon of diced tomatoes in the center. Season with black pepper, fold over and pinch the edges closed, taking care to leave an air pocket in the center.   Pull on the two ends a bit and slowly lower into the hot oil. Fry in the hot oil, about 1/2 minute per side, until golden. Drain on absorbent paper and repeat with the other three pizzas. Eat while warm.

Main photo: Gino Sorbillo, Italy’s famed pizzaiuolo, holds a finished pizza fritta. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

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

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

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

An unlikely path to becoming a chef

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

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

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

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

Korean flavors for American palates

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

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

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

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

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

Hanjip Korean BBQ’s Kimchi Fried Rice

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prep time: 5 minutes

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

Total time: 20 minutes or 65 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

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

1 tablespoon sweet butter

2 tablespoons sesame oil

¾ cup chopped kimchi

3 cups cooked white rice, Japanese or Chinese

Pinch of beef bouillon powder or kosher salt

2 tablespoons kimchi juice

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh garlic

2 tablespoons scallions, washed, ends trimmed, chopped

2 tablespoons nori strips for garnish

1 teaspoon furikake for garnish

Directions

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Add scallions and stir well.

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

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

10. Serve hot.

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

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Linguine With Tuna and Green Beans. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Italian-Americans will tell you flat out that linguine accompanies seafood. Well, at least Long Island Italian-Americans will tell you that. My grandfather, who was from a small village 85 kilometers east of Naples, immigrated to New York in the early 20th century and lived there the rest of his life. He took my mother fishing in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn and they brought home bluefish, porgies, flounder or fluke on the subway back to their Manhattan tenement. Many different preparations would be made, but if it were to be a pasta dish, the pasta was linguine.

The array of pastas you will encounter in a market aisle look innumerable. There are many more pastas, and perhaps you haven’t thought what you could do with them. This is a wonderful time to start experimenting. The Italians are said to have invented about 700 pasta shapes. This includes specialty pastas made for certain occasions. I still have my box of Menucci brand 1776-1976 pasta made for the U.S. Bicentennial and am still trying to figure out if I should put it in a living room shadow box or the kitchen pantry.

One problem faced by the cook is what sauce for what pasta. Books have been written on this, but let’s keep it simple here. In the 1960s when I first started working in restaurants, I began cooking. I was mostly influenced by the cooking of my Italian grandfather and by my mom who made Italian food at home. I was also greatly influenced by my travels to Italy, by the restaurants I worked in, which were staffed by Italians, and by the cookbooks of Ada Boni, a famous mid-20th century Italian author.

The matching of pasta shapes with sauces is something of an art. There is usually some logic to it, but not always. Tubular pastas such as cut ziti or rigatoni are great in baked dishes and with thick ragouts that can get stuck in the tubes. Seashell pasta and chickpeas make sense because the shells capture the peas. Wide, flat pastas such as fettuccine and pappardelle are nice with sauces that cling to their wide surfaces.

If there was one thing I learned from my grandfather it was that seafood always went with linguine, the flat filiform pasta about 2 millimeters wide. Here are three great linguine and seafood recipes that would have made my grandfather swoon:

Linguine alla Pescatore

Linguine with swordfish, shrimp and oysters. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Linguine with swordfish, shrimp and oysters. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Preparation and cooking time: 2 hours

Yield: 6 servings

Linguine alla pescatore means linguine in the style of the fishermen. I’ve always doubted these dishes are actual fishermen’s dishes as implied by the name. The various “pescatore” dishes in Italy always struck me as trattoria dishes. In any case, this is a simple preparation with flavors that bely the simplicity. The secret, besides the freshest seafood, is the marinade the seafood sits in made with saffron, chile flakes, garlic and parsley. Once you’re ready to serve, the cooking happens quickly.

Ingredients

¾ pound swordfish, cut into ½-inch cubes

12 oysters, shucked, with their liquid

½ pound medium shrimp, shelled

4 salted anchovy fillets, rinsed

¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

Pinch of saffron, crumbled slightly

½ teaspoon red chile flakes

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided

Salt to taste

3/4 pound linguine

Directions

1. In a bowl, toss the swordfish, oysters, shrimp, anchovy fillets, parsley, garlic, saffron, chile flakes, black pepper and 4 tablespoons of olive oil together. Leave to marinate for 2 hours.

2. Bring a large pot of water to a rapid boil, salt abundantly, then cook the pasta until al dente. Drain without rinsing.

3. In a large sauté pan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil over high heat, then cook the seafood mixture, stirring frequently, seasoning with salt, until cooked through, about 5 minutes. Transfer the pasta to the pan and toss several times, letting the pasta cook and absorb some of the juices. Serve immediately.

Linguine With Salmon, Basil and Mint

Linguine with salmon, basil and mint. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Linguine with salmon, basil and mint. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Preparation and cooking time: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

This is a subtle dish and since everyone loves salmon it is delightful with the fresh herbs.

Ingredients

1/2 pound linguine

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 pound salmon, cut into bite-size pieces

1 small onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Juice from 1/2 lemon

Directions

1. Bring a large pot of water to a rapid boil, salt abundantly, then cook the pasta until al dente. Drain without rinsing.

2. Meanwhile, in a sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook the salmon, onion, garlic, basil and mint until the salmon is cooked through, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle the lemon juice on the fish. Transfer the fish and pasta to a serving bowl, toss well and serve immediately without cheese.

Linguine With Tuna and Green Beans

Preparation and cooking time: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

When my children and the children of my friends were little, before their palates became adventurous, we adults who cooked for both adults and young children faced a dilemma. The adults didn’t want boring “kid food” and the children were finicky, all to a different degree. I refused to slave over two separate meals, so I relied on this quick preparation that fit the gustatory bill, pleasing all kinds of palates.

Ingredients

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

12 ounces tuna, canned in water and drained

1/2 cup loosely-packed fresh oregano leaves, finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 pound linguine

1/2 pound green beans, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch lengths

Directions

1. In a flameproof casserole large enough to contain all the pasta, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat with the garlic, tuna, and oregano. Once it begins to sizzle, cook for 2 minutes then remove from the heat. Season with salt and pepper.

2. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rapid boil, salt abundantly, then cook the pasta until al dente. Drain without rinsing. Transfer the pasta and green beans to the casserole and toss with the tuna. Serve immediately.

Main photo: Linguine With Tuna and Green Beans. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

 

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A traditional potjie is made with tough cuts of meat, then layered with hard vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

South Africa’s potjie — the country’s iconic three-legged cast iron pot and culinary workhorse — is a centuries-old piece of cooking equipment experiencing a contemporary revival now in its fourth decade.

In recent years, the potjie has almost taken on the power of a magic cauldron in South African society: It’s the place in which a hearty one-pot meal (called potjiekos) is cooked over an outdoor fire and over which people of all backgrounds enjoy being together outdoors. Yet while potjiekos is today a beloved ritual that even inspires contemporary chefs, for generations it was significantly overlooked.

Iron pots a tradition

South Africa’s potjies, being sold at a market, are centuries-old pieces of cooking equipment. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

South Africa’s potjies, being sold at a market, are centuries-old pieces of cooking equipment. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

Outdoor cooking was a tradition in South Africa before colonial times, with the country’s indigenous people cooking in clay pots over open fires. According to author and potjie expert Dine van Zyl, “The Dutch settlers brought iron pots to South Africa from Europe, where they had been hung from hooks over fireplaces. These Afrikaners hung the pots from their wagons when they trekked … the potjie was their whole kitchen. When they camped, they’d make a fire and cook whatever they had; some salted meat and maybe some dried apricots. They’d also use what was available … seafood if near the coast, or game if they were in the interior.”

Everything changed with the advent of the stove, about 100 years ago. “People could easily cook in their kitchens and no longer needed potjies. The pot was used only nostalgically, on hunting, fishing or camping trips, or it sat on a front stoep (veranda), planted with a geranium.”

Then, in the ’80s, Van Zyl had an aha moment. While living on a farm without electricity, she was forced to turn to a potjie pot over an indoor fireplace. One night, friends joined her and they made a potjie outside. “I looked at my friends singing, dancing and cooking under the stars and I realized that potjiekos gives South Africans exactly what they want and need. It’s much more than cooking,” she said. “If you want to only cook, you do it on the stove.”

Van Zyl wrote the first book on potjiekos in 1983, which led to a popular revival that hasn’t stopped. “One wonderful thing about potjies is that they got men cooking. For the first time ever, men and women sat around the fire together, cutting up the meat and the vegetables.”

A potjie is traditionally made with tough cuts of meat, often lamb or beef neck or shin, or oxtail. The meat is seared first in the hot pot, then onions and spices, followed by a small amount of liquid are added. Then the layering up begins: first the hard vegetables like carrots and potatoes, then those requiring less cooking time, like green beans and cabbage — all vegetables that have been collectively cut up around the fire. The lid goes on and the pot simmers and steams unstirred for several hours, while everybody socializes.

As for the no-stirring rule, Van Zyl says it’s a tradition based on sensible cooking. “While the different components should all be perfectly cooked, which is why it’s layered, it’s nonsense that it must look like a cassata,” she said. “While you don’t mix it, toward the end you can ‘pull it through’ — place your spoon at the bottom of the pot and gently lift some of the meat and gravy to the top. Otherwise it becomes a mess when people start digging.”

Tradition gets a modern twist

Chef Bertus Basson judges a potjiekos during a competition of "The Ultimate Braai Master." Credit: Courtesy of "The Ultimate Braai Master."

Chef Bertus Basson judges a potjiekos during a competition of “The Ultimate Braai Master.” Credit: Courtesy of “The Ultimate Braai Master.”

Now, the tradition is fueling one of South Africa’s hottest chefs. In his mid-30s, Bertus Basson is chef patron of acclaimed Overture Restaurant in the Cape Winelands. His tasting menus are sophisticated and distinctly modern South African, rooted in local flavors and sensibility. While Overture and a second restaurant, Bertus Basson at Spice Route, are indoor kitchens, Basson’s creativity is stoked by outdoor fire and smoke. He often hits the road with outdoor pop-ups, and he is a regular judge on The Ultimate Braai Master, a grueling 60-day outdoor cooking reality TV show going into its fifth season.

Which is why it’s not surprising that potjie will soon be on Basson’s menu. When an easy dining annex to Overture is completed, it will feature open pit cooking with an installation of potjie pots. Basson is also hitting the festival circuit with a mobile spit fitted with potjie hooks.

“I grew up with potjies. My favorite was my father’s lamb shin pot braised in a little Worcestershire sauce and beer,”  Basson said. He is quick to point out that when talking potjies, the layering method is the traditional Afrikaner way; it’s only one way to use a potjie pot. “South Africans of all backgrounds are cooking with potjie pots, whether Afrikaans, black African, or other, and what they cook and how they cook it differs. In addition, there are three-legged pots and also flat-bottomed pots, which are used for baking — my mom makes a kick-ass apple tart in hers. Potjies have survived generations. In fact, it’s traditional to pass on the pots, which just get better with age.”

In a country with a history of division, shared traditions are important. “Chefs have a responsibility to help South Africans celebrate our food and what we are, which can ultimately break down barriers,” said Basson.

Main photo: A traditional potjie is made with tough cuts of meat, then layered with hard vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2016 Ilana Sharlin Stone

 

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Harīsa. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Given how easy it is to make harīsa, the ubiquitous chile paste of North Africa, I’ve never had much use for those inferior tubes of the stuff. Harīsa is the most important condiment used in Algerian and Tunisian cooking, and you need to make this recipe and keep it in the refrigerator before attempting any other Algerian or Tunisian recipe you might have in my or others’ recipes.

It’s hard to believe that so essential a condiment could evolve only after the introduction of the New World capsicum after Columbus’ voyages. It’s thought that the chile entered North Africa by way of the Spanish presidios that dotted the coast in the 16th century or came up from West Africa overland from the Portuguese holdings there.

Harīsa comes from the Arabic word for “to break into pieces,” which is done by pounding hot chiles in a mortar, although today a food processor can be used. This famous hot chile paste is also found in the cooking of Libya, and even in western Sicily where cùscusu is made. In Tunisia it would be prepared fresh at home. The simplest recipe is merely a paste of red chile and salt that is covered in olive oil and stored.

Harīsa is sold in tubes by both Tunisian and French firms. The Tunisian one is better, but neither can compare to your own freshly made from this recipe.

I first became intrigued with making harīsa from a preparation made by Mouldi Hadiji, my Arabic teacher more than 30 years ago. I concocted this version, based on a Berber-style one I had in Djerba, from a recipe description given to me by a merchant in the market in Tunis, who unfortunately provided measurements that could last me a century (calling for 50 pounds of chile).

Tlitlu bi’l-Lahm (fresh pasta pieces with lamb in spicy harīsa sauce). Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Tlitlu bi’l-Lahm (fresh pasta pieces with lamb in spicy harīsa sauce). Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

Some cooks also use mint, onions or olive oil in their harīsa. You also don’t have to use the exact dried chiles I call for, but at least one should be quite piquant.

Be careful when handling hot chiles, making sure that you do not put your fingers near your eyes, nose or mouth, or you will regret it. Wash your hands well with soap and water after handling chiles. After you make your first harīsa, with all the modern conveniences, I hope you can appreciate what exacting work this was, making it in the traditional mortar — 50 pounds of the stuff!

Harīsa

Prep time: 1 1/4 hours

Yield: 1 cup

Ingredients

2 ounces dried Guajillo chiles

2 ounces dried Anaheim chiles

5 garlic cloves, peeled

2 tablespoons water

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground caraway seeds

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground coriander seeds

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

Extra virgin olive oil for topping off

Directions

1. Soak the chiles in tepid water to cover until softened, 1 hour. Drain and remove the stems and seeds. Place in a blender or food processor with the garlic, water and olive oil and process until smooth, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides.

2. Transfer the mixture to a small bowl and stir in the caraway, coriander and salt. Store in a jar and top off, covering the surface of the paste with a layer of olive oil. Whenever the paste is used, you must always top off with olive oil making sure no paste is exposed to air, otherwise it will spoil.

Variation: To make a hot harīsa, use 4 ounces dried Guajillo chiles and 1/2 ounce dried de Arbol peppers.

Note: To make ṣālṣa al-harīsa, used as an accompaniment to grilled meats, stir together 2 teaspoons harīsa, 3 tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons water and 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley leaves.

Main photo: Harisa. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clifford A. Wright

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Tummàla, a Sicilian Christmas specialty. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Families all seem to have their own Christmas classics — roast turkey, baked ham, crown roast or pork, or prime rib. Many Italian-Americans will have lasagna or a feast of seven fishes. One spectacular preparation for a change of pace is to follow some families and make the classic Sicilian Christmas tummàla.

Tummàla is a timbale of rice, a magnificent concoction of layers of baked rice, poached chicken, veal meatballs, hard-boiled eggs, cheeses and a cheesed omelet to create a golden mantle.

Although a Christmas specialty, Sicilian cooks prepare tummàla for all sorts of celebrations when a grand culinary gesture is warranted. It is considered a representative example of cucina arabo-sicula, a contemporary folkloric expression of a supposed Arab culinary sensibility found vestigially in the contemporary Sicilian kitchen, some 800 years after the last of the Arab-Sicilian population disappeared. At the very least, it is considered Arab-Sicilian because the Arabs introduced rice to the island in the ninth or 10th century.

The Italian translation of the Sicilian tummàla is timballo, leading one to believe that this dish is derived from the French timbale, a baking mold in the shape of a kettledrum, hence its name.

In fact, the name comes either from Muhammed Ibn al-Thumna, the 11th-century emir of Catania, or from tummala, the purported Arabic name for a certain kind of plate, although that etymology is not confirmed.

Assembling a Sicilian classic

Assembling Tummàla. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Assembling tummala. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Traditionally, this dish is made with a chicken with its unborn eggs. The cheeses called for are pecorino pepato, caciocavallo and fresh mozzarella. Pecorino pepato is a young pecorino cheese made with peppercorns thrown into the curd. Caciocavallo is a spun-curd cow’s milk cheese and can be replaced with provolone.

Mozzarella is used in place of fresh tuma, a fresh pecorino cheese that is only found at the source of production, so it’s not available in this country. It is possible to find a young tuma aged between three and six months in Italian markets in the United Sates. One can also try Internet sources such as Murray’s Cheese or igourmet.com.

Finally, don’t let the list of ingredients intimidate you. Great length, in this case, does not mean great difficulty.

Sicilian Christmas Tummàla

Prep time: 1 1/2 hours

Cooking time: 3 1/2 hours

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients

One 3-pound chicken

2 medium onions, cut into eighths

2 celery stalks, cut into chunks

4 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and quartered

5 fresh parsley sprigs

10 black peppercorns

1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs

3 tablespoons milk

3/4 pound ground veal

3/4 pound pecorino pepato cheese, grated, divided

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

6 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley, divided

1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

7 large eggs (2 hard-boiled and sliced)

1 medium onion, chopped

2 tablespoons pork lard

1/2 pound mild Italian sausage, sliced 1/2 inch thick

1/4 pound pork rind (optional), cut into thin strips

2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 1/2 cups (1 1/4 pounds) short grain rice, such as Arborio rice, soaked in tepid water to cover for 30 minutes or rinsed well in a strainer, drained

Unsalted butter as needed

1 cup dry bread crumbs

1/2 pound fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced

1/4 pound caciocavallo cheese, thinly sliced

1/4 pound pecorino cheese, grated

Directions

1. In a large stockpot that will fit the chicken comfortably, place the chicken with its gizzards, onions, celery stalks, tomatoes, parsley sprigs and peppercorns. Cover with cold water and bring to a near boil over high heat. As soon as the water looks like it is going to boil, reduce immediately to a simmer and cook the chicken until the meat falls off the bone when pushed with a fork, without letting the water boil, 2 hours. Don’t let the water bubble; otherwise it toughens the chicken.

2. Meanwhile, prepare the veal croquettes. In a bowl, soak the fresh bread crumbs in the milk. If the mixture looks soggy, squeeze the milk out. Add the veal, half of the pecorino pepato, the garlic, 2 tablespoons chopped parsley, 1/2 teaspoon salt and the pepper. Lightly beat 1 egg and add to the mixture. Mix well with a fork or your hands. Form croquettes the size and shape of your thumb. Cover and put aside in the refrigerator.

3. Drain the chicken, saving all the broth in a smaller pot. Remove and discard all the skin and bones from the chicken and cut the meat into small pieces.

4. In a large sauté pan, cook, stirring, the chopped onion in 1 tablespoon lard over medium heat until golden, about 8 minutes. Remove from the pan and set aside. Add the remaining lard to the pan and cook the veal croquettes until they are browned. Add the sausage and the pork rind and cook for 10 minutes. Add the sautéed onion, the remaining 4 tablespoons parsley and the tomato paste diluted in 1 cup hot water. Cook over low heat for 10 minutes. Set aside.

5. Preheat oven to 350 F.

6. Bring the chicken broth from step 1 to a boil and reduce by one-third. Pour 2 1/2 cups broth into a heavy saucepan, bring to a boil, add the rice and about 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Cook, covered and without stirring, until al dente, about 15 minutes. Pour about 3/4 cup broth into the veal-sausage mixture.

7. Drain the rice, if necessary, and mix it with the remaining pecorino pepato.

8. Butter a deep baking dish or baking casserole and spread 1 cup dry bread crumbs on the bottom, shaking vigorously to spread them thin so that they coat the bottom of the baking dish, dumping out any excess.

9. Spread the rice on top of the bread crumbs, about 3/4 inch deep. Spread three-quarters of the chicken and half of the veal croquettes and sausage mixture on top of the rice. Make a layer of hard-boiled egg. Layer the mozzarella cheese on top of the eggs. Cover with the remaining veal and sauce. Spread on a layer of caciocavallo cheese. Mix the remaining chicken with the remaining rice and spread it on top.

10. Beat the remaining 4 eggs lightly and combine with the pecorino cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Pour the sauce evenly over the top.

11. Bake until the top has a nice golden crust, about 1 hour. Check from time to time to be sure it doesn’t dry out. The tummàla can be served directly from the baking dish with the pan sauces or with tomato sauce.

Tummàla. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Tummala. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Main photo: Tummàla, a Sicilian Christmas specialty. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

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Beef ragout. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Outside of the candy that the kids collect, Halloween may be the only American holiday that is not associated with a particular feast or recipe.

In fact, I didn’t know until recently that Halloween wasn’t celebrated in America until the late 19th century when Irish immigrants brought the Oct. 31 celebration to the United States and that the tradition of trick or treating didn’t become established until after World War II.  I knew that because my mom told me that growing up in Manhattan in the 1920s they never trick or treated.

So if there is no traditional Halloween food, it seems ideal for each family to invent one. When I lived in Massachusetts and my three children were little, we took them around the neighborhood in a short-lived frenzy of trick or treating, returning home for them to examine their candy and for us to hide three-quarters of it.

One-pot meals to warm up little devils

Braised lamb and eggplant. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Braised lamb and eggplant. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Then we would eat dinner, which often was something I put on the stove before we left with the spooks and goblins. Usually it was some one-pot meal that could cook unattended and to which we could return enjoying the heavenly wafting smells of lusciousness.

Since nothing was traditional, these meals became purely inventive. The kids were ravenous because late October is cold in New England and rushing house to house is tiring work for a kid. If it wasn’t nailed down, my kids would eat it.

A warm dinner to make you forget about candy

Braised buffalo short ribs in ragout. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Braised buffalo short ribs in ragout. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

There were several dishes they liked. Lamb with mushrooms and onions, braised veal with cabbage lasagna, my mom’s lasagna, which we called grandma’s lasagna, and pork with lentils were all demolished by my little hungry witches and goblins. They never did figure out that we tossed out several tons of their candy.

Braising lends itself to dishes that can be Halloween classics

Pork with lentils. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Pork with lentils. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Many of these Halloween stews and braises are long lost, because in those days I wouldn’t necessarily write them down. But one doesn’t really need to follow a recipe because the whole idea is slap-it-together-easy.

Here’s a braised veal recipe to start, but as you see by the photos, anything works, such as lamb and eggplant, pork and lentils, beef ragout or braised short ribs in ragout.

Braised Veal or Pork With Cabbage Lasagna

Braised Veal With Cabbage Lasagna. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Braised Veal With Cabbage Lasagna. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

A shoulder roast of veal is not a terribly expensive cut and it makes a nice family dinner. You can use a pork shoulder, too. I use a pig’s ear or pork skin instead of the bacon because they are flavorful without being fatty and can be discarded, but they’re hard to find, so bacon is fine. As for the lasagna, you don’t have to boil it when using the so called instant no-boil lasagna, just layer them dry. This is a delicious dinner that kept everyone in my family happy after one particularly cold Halloween outing.

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: 4 hours (unattended)

Total time: 4 hours, 45 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

One 3-pound boneless veal shoulder roast, tied with kitchen twine

3/4 cup dry red wine

4 cups tomato sauce

One 2 3/4-pound green cabbage, cored

1/2 pound lean slab bacon (preferably), sliced

Salt to taste

2 cups low- or no-sodium chicken broth

2 ounces pancetta, chopped

1 pound no-boil (instant) lasagna

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 1/2 cups freshly grated pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

Directions

1. In a flameproof casserole, melt the butter with 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat, then brown the veal roast on all sides, about 6 minutes. Pour in the wine and reduce until it is nearly evaporated, about 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, add the tomato sauce, partially cover, and simmer for 3 to 4 hours, turning the roast occasionally. Transfer the roast to a serving platter and remove the butcher’s twine.

2. While the veal is roasting, prepare the cabbage lasagna. Bring a pot of lightly salted water to the boil and cook the cabbage for 10 minutes. Remove the cabbage and when cool enough to handle and separate the leaves. Layer the bottom of the pot in which you boiled the cabbage with half the bacon. Layer the cabbage leaves on top with a light sprinkle of salt. Lay the remaining slab bacon slices on top, pour in the chicken broth, cover, and cook on a medium heat for 45 to 50 minutes. Drain.

3. Place the pancetta in a small frying pan and cook over medium heat until slightly crispy and rendered of some fat, stirring occasionally, about 6 minutes. Set aside.

4. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly, and add the lasagna. Drain as soon as the lasagna is limp, about 1 minute. Reserve in a pot of cold water so the leaves of lasagna do not stick together.

5. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

6. Spread some olive oil on the bottom of a baking dish or lasagna pan and cover with lasagna, cabbage, pancetta, salt and pepper, a drizzle of olive oil, pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and garlic, in that order. Continue in this order until you run out of ingredients, ending with a layer of lasagna, cheese and a drizzle of olive oil. Cover with aluminum foil and bake 40 minutes.

7. Slice the veal, pour a few ladles of sauce over the meat and serve with the cabbage lasagna.

Main photo: Beef ragout. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

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Stacked in a Parisian shop display case, these inexpensive croques can be taken home and reheated as snacks or light meals. Note the translation on the sales tag, “Toasted Ham,” directed, no doubt, at hungry Anglophone tourists. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

You can judge a Parisian cafe by its croque. If a cafe can’t get these simple ham and cheese sandwiches right, what hope is there for their more complex fare? After tasting a dozen croques this summer, I must insist that France place Monsieur and Madame Croque (and the traditional cafe) on the endangered species list.

Fortunately, the few delicious versions I tasted prove all is not lost. Monsieur Croque is, of course, a grilled or toasted ham and cheese sandwich on sweet white bread — pain de mie — that’s dressed (ideally) with either creamy béchamel or cheesy Mornay sauce. Grated cheese, either Gruyère or Emmental, is layered inside (over the ham) and on top of the sandwich, and then browned top and bottom (with butter) until the melted cheese (with or without added sauce) starts to drip down the sides.

Madame Croque is exactly the same, but she sports a fried egg “hat” on her saucy head. This ever-popular culinary couple celebrated their 100th anniversary in 2001, according to most culinary historians.

The word croque comes from the French verb, croquer, “to bite,” or in some circles, “to crunch.” Hence the awkward translation, “Crunchy Mister.” Here then are the croques I crunched during my recent summer sejour (stay) in Paris — the good, the bad and the ugly. I’ve grouped them by price because with the Parisian croque, you generally get what you pay for.

Croques less than 8 euros

At Café Duc d’Albret, the best inexpensive croque I tasted in Paris and one of the best overall: dripping with cheese and béchamel sauce, a nicely toasted bottom bread slice and made-to-order. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

At Café Duc d’Albret, the best inexpensive croque I tasted in Paris and one of the best overall: dripping with cheese and béchamel sauce, a nicely toasted bottom bread slice and made-to-order. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

Le Duc d’Albret, rue Danielle-Casanova, 6 euros

La Fontaine, rue Cuvier, 7.5 euros

When I came across Le Duc d’Albret, a hole-in-the-wall cafe near avenue de l’Opéra, and saw croques on the menu starting at 6 euros (add 1 or 2 euros for the madame version and Poilâne bread, Paris’ popular upscale artisanal loaf), I assumed it would be a disappointment. Au contraire, it was excellent, toasted (top and bottom) by the owner in a commercial toaster oven while I watched. This croque even had béchamel in the center, giving it a creamy texture. Funky as the setup was, this was a made-to-order croque. As the owner, Madame Madeira, explained to me, “You cannot make a croque in advance.”

At La Fontaine, a friend’s favorite morning mom-and-pop cafe near the lovely Jardins des Plantes in the 5th arrondissement, their somewhat pricier croque set the stage for a string of similar disappointments — most notably croques preassembled (sometimes off premises or frozen), untoasted bottoms and with little if any béchamel sauce to help moisten an otherwise dry sandwich.

What good are Monsieur and Madame Croque without toasty bottoms and gooey interiors and tops? It can be done without the sauce, which was not part of the recipe for the original croques 100 years ago, but sauceless croques need lots of cheese and some butter in the toasting to produce a juicy croque.

Croques from 8 to 10 euros

While the top of this croque at cafe Les Deux Palais was burnt in spots, the condition underneath was even worse. The bottom slice of bread was not even warm, let alone toasted. And note the absence of any cheese in the interior of the sandwich. An abuse of the name "croque monsieur." Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

While the top of this croque at Les Deux Palais was burnt in spots, the condition underneath was even worse. The bottom slice of bread was not even warm, let alone toasted. And note the absence of any cheese in the interior of the sandwich. An abuse of the name ”croque monsieur.” Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

Le Ponthieu Café, ave. Franklin Roosevelt, 10 euros

Café Dada, ave. des Ternes, 8 euros

Café Les Deux Palais, blvd. du Palais, 9.5 euros

Café Les Mouettes, rue de Bac, 9 euros

Café La Palette, rue de Seine, 10.5 euros

At this higher price point, you’d expect croques at least as good as Le Duc d’Albret’s, but that was not the case this summer. At upscale Le Ponthieu, the Poilâne croque was not toasted on the bottom and there was no sign of béchamel. Too dry!

At hip Café Dada, I boldly sent back the half-toasted béchamel-free Poilâne croque and it came back a bit warmer but far from toasted. A double homicide! At elegant Les Deux Palais, things got even worse — untoasted bottom, commercial sandwich bread, no béchamel and minimal ham. Utterly inedible!

The croque madame at Les Mouettes on charming rue de Bac was decently made, but the fried egg was overcooked. Madame Croque without her runny yolk? Sacre bleu!

At La Palette, in the heart of the artsy 6th arrondissement, the open-faced croque was made on Poilâne’s rustic sourdough bread. It was nicely toasted, but I don’t think sourdough bread is right for a croque (Poilâine’s pain de mie is perfect). The slight sweetness of pain de mie complements the dark nutty flavor of the Gruyère cheese, which may be one of the secrets of the croque’s enduring international success.

Croques from 12 to 16 euros

The only croque offered at Le Select in the heart of Montparnasse’s historic cafe scene is a croque madame. They call it the Croque Select and it’s worthy of its moniker. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

The only croque offered at Café Select in the heart of Montparnasse’s historic cafe scene is a croque madame. They call it the Croque Select and it’s worthy of its moniker. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

Café Select, blvd. du Montparnasse, 16.5 euros

Les Deux Magots, Place St. Germain, 12.5 euros

La Closerie des Lilas, blvd. du Montparnasse, gratis at bar

These three celebrated artist cafes on the left-bank, though no longer the center of the avant garde in Paris, are all producing very good croques. The well-made and tasty Croque Select at Café Select is, in fact, a croque madame — there is no choice on the menu.

At Les Deux Magots, the open-faced croque had the distinction of being the only one I had this summer with a béchamel sauce tasting of nutmeg, the favored spice for this creamy white sauce. A pleasant croque.

Hemingway’s haunt, La Closerie des Lilas, did not have croques on the menu, but the night I had dinner there, tiny tooth-picked croque squares, buttery and properly toasted, were served at the bar as hors d’oeuvres. Delicious.

Croques over 20 euros

At Café de la Paix you pay a premium for what originated as a cheap cafe snack in the early 1900s. But this rich confection is no mere sandwich. Moistened with béchamel, well-toasted top and bottom and artfully presented, the croque is accompanied by very good pommes frites and a green salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

At Café de la Paix you pay a premium for what originated as a cheap cafe snack in the early 1900s. But this rich confection is no mere sandwich. Moistened with béchamel, well-toasted top and bottom and artfully presented, the croque is accompanied by very good pommes frites and a green salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

Café de la Paix, Place de l’Opéra, 20 euros

Café Fouquet’s, ave. des Champs-Élysées, 28 euros

For 20 euros and above, a croque should be everything a croque can be, and much, much more. This was indeed the case at Café de la Paix, a fashionable cafe/restaurant with Belle Epoch interiors and a rich literary history dating back to the 19th century.

The Paix croque tasted like rich pastry; the moist interior, adequate béchamel and a well-toasted top and bottom provided an explosion of flavor and texture. The pain de mie was sliced thinner than with most croques I sampled, to the sandwich’s crispy advantage, and the ham a bit thicker, which gave added flavor and texture. The presentation was impressive: The center was cut out of the croque body and served as a separate “croquette.” Green salad was stuffed into the body’s circular void. Excellent pommes frites came in a separate basket.

This was now my benchmark for a great croque. Although ridiculously expensive, the Paix croque was 8 euros less and more satisfying than the double-decker monster croque at the elite watering hole, Café Fouquet’s, on the Champs-Élysées. Sure, the Fouquet’s croque was enough for four and came with salad, excellent frites and several miniature financier dessert cakes at the end. But the sandwich itself, again on the dry side, does not sit as high in my pantheon of Parisian croques as Café de la Paix’s tour de force.

Will the Parisian croque croak?

Monsier Croque and Madame Croque have been around for more than 100 years. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

Monsier Croque and Madame Croque have been around for more than 100 years. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

Something has to be done to save the Parisian croque! Especially at a moderate 8 to 10 euros. If a good croque cannot be made profitably at that price, it should not be on the cafe’s menu.

There have been stories of late about the official Parisian tourism office’s efforts to boost the sagging fortunes of traditional Parisian cafes by transforming the often arrogant and unfriendly garçon de café into a nicer tourist-friendly fellow.

I suggest, instead, that the grand panjandrums at the Parisian tourism office apply their resources to improving Monsieur Croque, not Monsieur Garcon, who is just fine the way he is. Why not create AOC (Appelation d’Origine Contrôlée)-style guidelines for the croque monsieur, as for wine, cheese, eggs and other products?

For a sandwich to be labeled on a Parisian menu as a croque monsieur or madame, it must be:

  • Assembled on the premises
  • Cooked to order
  • Made with imported Gruyère or Emmental
  • Butter used in the toasting or grilling process
  • Toasted top and bottom
  • Contain either béchamel or Mornay sauce

These simple standards would help elevate the moribund Parisian croque (and cafe) to its former glory and help restore France’s reputation as the gastronomic capital of Europe — one croque at a time.

Main photo: Stacked in a Parisian shop display case, these inexpensive croques can be taken home and reheated as snacks or light meals. Note the translation on the sales tag, “Toasted Ham,” directed, no doubt, at hungry Anglophone tourists. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

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