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Bucatini Dome

Dried pasta can cost anywhere from $1 to $7 or more per pound. Pasta is just flour and water, so what, if anything, makes the expensive stuff any better? Is there a taste and texture difference between brands? Is artisanal pasta worth the price?

I traveled throughout Italy to find out, interviewing food bloggers, chefs, pasta manufacturers and home cooks. Every Italian I spoke with emphatically believed that he or she could taste the difference and that good pasta wasn’t cheap, but was worth the price. I listened to technical explanations of the difference between Teflon and bronze extrusion, the value of water, length and types of drying techinques.

They were all convincing, but I was finally won over completely when I attended the food festival I Primi d’Italia, dedicated to Italy’s famed first-course specialties: pasta, risotto and polenta. The festival is held each year in Umbria, in the historic town of Foligno, which is completely transformed with tasting and demo stations in every piazza, courtyard and cobblestone street as it plays host to this delightful event.

I attended a workshop on how to evaluate dried pasta led by Gennaro Esposito, a two-star Michelin chef from Naples. He did a side-by-side test that highlighted the ways to tell so-so pasta from great pasta.

Try this at home

Try it yourself at home. It’s easiest to see the difference using spaghetti, so select an artisanal imported Italian pasta, and compare it to a bargain brand.

Fill two pots with the same amount of water and salt and bring to a boil. So that it’s a blind test, ask a friend to help so you don’t know which pasta is which. Have your friend put in the same amount of pasta to each pot. After a minute or two, stir the pastas and take a whiff of the water. Which pasta has a fresh wheat aroma?

  1. Once the pasta is al dente, drain, and test its ability to absorb sauce. Put a few strands of each into two different bowls with a little water and after several minutes note which pasta absorbed more water. That means it will better absorb sauce and is the better pasta.
  2. Then pinch both types of pasta between your thumb and index finger. The inferior pasta will be gummy to the touch and soft in the middle, while the better pasta stays al dente.
  3. Finally, taste each pasta plain, with no sauce. That should be enough to convince you!
fresh pasta

A chef presses pasta. Great pasta doesn’t mush. Credit: Francine Segan.

Ways to Spot Superior Pasta

To learn how to spot superior pasta I visited Garofalo, a famed Naples pasta company, where I was taught that superior pasta, when raw, should be yellow (not white), it should smell like fine wheat, and it should break cleanly and easily—without scattering bits about.

When cooked, it should:

  1. Taste delicious, even without sauce.
  2. Have a lovely aroma, like crusty bread.
  3. Leave the cooking water clear and uncloudy.
  4. Stick to the sauce. If the sauce slides off, it’s a sign that the pasta was not properly dried. Pasta that is too slippery means that the past maker rushed the drying process using a high temperature, which causes the pasta’s starch to form a sort of glaze on the pasta, making it shiny and impenetrable for sauces.
  5. Remain firm the last bite. If left in a plate without sauce, it should not collapse and lose its shape.

To underscore just how important good pasta is, the team at Garofalo taught me a fabulous show-stopping recipe. It really underscores the characteristics of quality pasta — the ability to keep from getting mushy when cooked.

Bucatini Dome (Cupola di Bucatini)

It’s hard to top this dish for pure drama. The stately dome of pasta houses a colorful filling of string beans, carrots, zucchini and plenty of rich Italian cheese.

But don’t get intimidated. It’s actually quite easy to create. The trick is to use bucatini, which are thick long pasta that keep their shape as you coil them into the round dome cake pan. If you don’t have one, use a metal bowl instead. Don’t let lack of equipment keep you from tackling this architecturally magnificent — and delicious — dish.

Prep time: 40 minutes

Cooking time: 30 minutes

Total time: 70 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

14 tablespoons butter, plus more for the pan

5 slender zucchini (about 2 pounds), minced

3 medium carrots, minced

¾ pound haricot verts or very thin string beans, minced

1¼ pounds bucatini

2 eggs, beaten

½ cup grated pecorino cheese

Black pepper

¾ pound deli-sliced high-quality provolone cheese

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Very generously butter an 8- to 9-inch dome-shaped oven-safe container such as a Pyrex or metal bowl.

2. Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a large frying pan and add zucchini; fry until soft. Put the zucchini into a large bowl. Using the same pan, cook the carrots and string beans in 1 tablespoon of butter over low heat, covered, until tender, adding a few drops of water, if needed. Stir into the bowl with the zucchini until well combined. Set aside 1 cup of this vegetable mixture as garnish for later.

3.  Cook the pasta in boiling salted water for ⅔ of the package’s recommended time. Drain and divide, putting ¾ of the pasta into the large bowl of vegetables and the remaining ¼ into a small bowl with 2 tablespoons of butter. Set aside; the small bowl, it will be used for the outer part of the dome.

4.  Add 9 tablespoons of butter to the pasta-vegetable bowl and stir until the butter melts, then stir in the beaten eggs, pecorino cheese, and freshly grated black pepper. Using kitchen scissors, cut into the pasta mixture so it is broken up a little. Set aside.

5. From the plain buttered pasta, using one strand and starting in the center of the prepared domed container, twirl the pasta around itself to form a coil. Continue the coil with another strand of pasta starting where the last strand ended so it is in one continuous line; continue with additional strands until half way up the pan. Line the pasta with slices of  cheese, pressing the cheese firmly against the pasta. Put in half of the vegetable-pasta mixture, pressing firmly into the bottom and sides of the bowl to remove any air pockets and densely pack the filling. Top with cheese slices.

6. Continue coiling the plain pasta around the dome to the top, adding a strand at the exact spot the last ended. Line the sides with more cheese slices and top with the remaining vegetable-pasta mixture and slices of cheese. Press the pasta down firmly with a spatula or wooden spoon. This is key to getting a nice compact dome that stays together nicely when sliced. Cut the remaining plain buttered pasta with scissors and press on top of the mixture.

7. Cover the bowl with aluminum foil and bake for 15 minutes, then remove the foil and bake uncovered for another 15 minutes, until golden and set. Let rest 10 minutes, then put a serving plate on top of the bowl, and invert it. Hit with a wooden spoon to help the pasta release from the pan, and, using the tip of a spoon or butter knife along the bottom edge of the bowl, begin to remove the bowl from the pasta. Serve garnished with the reserved cup of minced vegetables.

Main photo: Bucatini Dome houses string beans, carrots, zucchini and plenty of cheese. Credit: “Pasta Modern” by Francine Segan

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Bottarga. Credit: Illustration by Elisabeth Luard

“Please taste our bottarga,” the Armani-clad saleswoman said in the sophisticated produce boutique in Via Cavour in Cagliari, Sardinia’s harbor capital.

Like all the islands of the Mediterranean, Sardinia, a region of Italy, has never lost its individuality in food ways, including a version of North Africa’s couscous, fregola, and bottarga, a salt-cured, sun-dried mullet roe whose origin is said to be Tunisia.

My visit was in mid-October of last year, and the Sardinian sky was blue but the wind was icy — a reason to take shelter in a shop that most surely sells overpriced foodstuffs to tourists.

I had no intention of spending my euros on fancy olive oils or walnuts preserved in honey. But bottarga is another matter.

Proffered with smiling courtesy on the blade of a cut-throat knife was a translucent reddish sliver of the real thing — a dehydrated, wax-coated, double-lobed egg sac of gray mullet, a middle-sized, torpedo-shaped, blunt-nosed, small-mouthed, seaweed-eating, opportunist bottom-feeder that floats amiably around harbors and yacht basins throughout the Mediterranean (and, incidentally, on the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S.). The rest of the fish is good eating, but the prize is the roe.

I tasted the bottarga, and the sliver covered no more than the tip of the tongue, but the flavor was concentrated, powerful, pungent, salty and sweet like caramelized sea spray. The texture was silky and chewy, like toffee.

Whatever the cost, I needed to have more. That’s what umami does to you — well, maybe not everyone, but anyone who’s ever tasted a perfect truffle fresh from the earth on a Tuscan hillside or eaten caviar from a silver spoon on a millionaire’s yacht. See what I mean?

“It’s — well, delicious,” I said. The woman nodded. “Of course,” she said.

She knew I was hooked. No need for her to explain that it was the new season’s supply. That the dealers come from the mainland and by Christmas it’ll be gone. That I’ll find it in other places — Sicily and Corsica, Italy; Greece; Turkey; and, of course, Tunisia — but this is the best.

I buy it. Of course I do.

So how do the Sardinians themselves like to eat their bottarga?

The woman in Armani smiles. “Perhaps with carta di musica, the thin pita breads we make in Sardinia. But for myself, I like it grated on the pasta instead of cheese. Or over a risotto or a bowl of fregola, Sardinian couscous, when the fishermen’s nets are empty. And it’s good on a salad of orange and raw onion, or with a sauce of dried figs or pistachios. Sardinian cooking is very practical. We use what we have. But best of all I like it like this — straight from the knife.”

Bottarga basics

Bottarga can be bought whole or grated in a jar, in which case you can be sure it’s dried stock from last year. In cooking, treat it as you would well-aged Parmesan — for finishing and adding a little protein to grain dishes. You can use it to prepare taramasalata, but it’ll need a good whizzing with water to soften it before proceeding with your usual recipe.

Fregola With Soffritto and Bottarga

Fregola, Sardinia’s large-grain couscous, is toasted for additional shelf life and is uneven in size and color. It’s traditional in the southern region around Cagliari (you won’t find it in the north) and has a deliciously caramelized flavor that perfectly complements the sweetness of the fish roe. If you can’t find fregola, use pasta rather than another kind of couscous.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

Fregola With Bottarga. Credit: Illustration by Elisabeth Luard

Fregola With Bottarga. Credit: Illustration by Elisabeth Luard

1 medium onion, finely slivered

2 to 3 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped

4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil

10 ounces fregola

3 to 4 ounces (1 wing) bottarga

Salt and pepper

For finishing:

Parsley

Lemon juice

Directions

1. Cook the onion and garlic very gently in the oil till it softens and gilds; take your time and don’t let it brown. This resulting mixture is the soffritto. Season the soffritto with salt and pepper.

2. Meanwhile, cook the fregola (or pasta) in plenty of boiling, salted water till tender — about 10 to 12 minutes — then drain and fork it up to separate the grains.

3. Toss lightly with the soffritto and top with fine shreds of bottarga. Finish with chopped parsley and a few drops of lemon juice.

Spaghetti With Dried Figs and Bottarga

This very Sardinian combination of dried fruit and fish can be used to dress any pasta. In winter, a salad of orange segments and raw onion can be finished with bottarga.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

2 to 3 dried figs, soaked to swell

4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

10 ounces spaghetti

1 wing of finely sliced bottarga (or 2 tablespoons grated)

Directions

1. Dice the figs and cook gently in olive oil until they soften to a cream. Season with pepper and a little salt and reserve.

2. Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in plenty of boiling, salted water till tender but still a little firm in the middle, then drain, leaving it a little damp. Toss the figgy sauce with the spaghetti in a warm bowl and top with the bottarga.

Linguine With Pistachios and Bottarga

This is a simple combination of homegrown Sardinian ingredients. If the bottarga is very hard, soften it in a little hot oil before you use it as a dressing.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 garlic clove

2 ounces shelled pistachios, roughly chopped

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

12 ounces fresh linguine

Salt and pepper to taste

3 to 4 tablespoons grated bottarga

Directions

1. Heat the oil in a small frying pan and fry the garlic clove till it takes a little color and perfumes the oil.

2. Add chopped pistachios and stir over a gentle heat till the nuts are lightly toasted. Stir in the parsley and remove from the heat.

3. Meanwhile, cook the pasta in plenty of boiling, salted water, drain and transfer to a warm serving bowl.

4. Toss the pasta with the pistachio dressing, season to taste with salt and pepper, and finish with grated bottarga.

Main illustration: Bottarga. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

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A bowl of chicken pho. Credit: Cameron Stauch

“Can we have phở for dinner?” my son asked as he arrived home from school. A loud sneeze followed by a few sniffles and a wipe of his nose with his shirt’s sleeve confirmed cold season’s arrival in his class.

Chicken noodle soup was our go-to comfort meal when a family member was sick, but now, living in Hanoi, the easy access to phở gà, Vietnam’s own chicken-and-rice-noodle soup, has replaced that.

Cold season has provided another opportunity to taste my way through the stalls that dot Hanoi, the birthplace of phở, and gather information on what makes the best phở gà, pronounced “feu gah.” Emerging out of a time of hardship when cooks began to use chicken because of a beef shortage during World War II, the recipe continues to evolve, integrating modern influences.

Phở bò, beef rice noodle soup, may be more well known, but the devoted fans of phở gà I spoke with believe the chicken version has more subtle flavors that shouldn’t be masked by the addition of spices, as in the beef version. Preparing a delicious bowl of phở gà requires patience and the right ingredients. A vendor who has been making phở gà for 24 years summed it up best: “We are all using the same ingredients, but the real skill is the technique you use and knowing how the broth should taste when it is ready.”

Vendors have loyal followings that span generations. While sampling one of my bowls of phở gà, I struck up a conversation with my dining neighbor, a 38-year-old office worker, who told me he’s been coming to the vendor since he was a little boy. Whenever he returns to Hanoi from a work trip, his first meal is from his favorite phở vendor. Similarly, an elderly woman at another stall recalled when the cook started working with his parents. She said she believes the minerals and proteins in phở gà bring good health. Finishing her bowl, she mentioned that she tries “to eat here three or four days a week. Cook Hai’s phở gà gives me energy to do my daily activities and continues to keep me healthy.”

What makes the best phở gà? Here’s a look at the key elements that contribute to making a superlative bowl.

The chicken

The cooks with the most devoted followers and busiest stalls insist that free-range chickens produce chewy meat and the best-flavored broth. Since 1978, the proprietor of Anh Hai Phở Gà has been filling bowls of his delicious broth in the Truc Bach district. It is becoming harder for him to find a consistent, reliable source of free-range chickens. He’s noticed a dip in business the last few years and believes his customers taste the difference when he has had to substitute with inferior poultry.

The broth

Cooks and diners all agree the clarity and taste of the broth is what sets apart a superior bowl of phở from an average one. A clear broth with great depth of flavor is most desired. Hanoian cooks prefer not to add rock sugar as their southern counterparts do. Interestingly, the majority of cooks quietly indicated that they use some pork leg bones in the broth because they believe it produces a naturally sweeter-tasting broth. It also adds additional gelatin to the broth, allowing the flavors to linger on the lips longer. This recent change in vendors’ large-batch recipes may also be connected to the bird flu epidemic in 2005. Chicken continues to cost more, and the use of pork bones helps keep prices low for customers.

The garnish

Unlike in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where phở sellers like to add bean sprouts and offer a plate of herbs as a garnish, northern cooks and eaters prefer simple garnishes of briefly blanched whites of scallions with a generous sprinkling of the thinly sliced scallion greens and coriander. You may occasionally come across a vendor with some thinly sliced Thai basil in the mix. During the last decade, some vendors started to add a good pinch of thinly sliced lime leaf to bring a pleasant citrusy fragrance and flavor to the dish.

Whether you choose to prepare a Hanoi version of phở gà or garnish it as your favorite nearby Vietnamese restaurant does, be sure to select a free-range chicken and take care in preparing the broth. Not matter what, it will be good for your health and soul.

Hanoi Chicken Noodle Soup (Phở gà)

The key to making a clear chicken broth is not to boil the chicken and bones. Instead, cook the broth at a very gentle simmer. Depending on the size of the chicken, this recipe may leave you with some extra cooked chicken. I use it to make a couple of sandwiches or salads for lunch. Similarly, if you are cooking for a couple or a family of four, freeze any leftover stock (and any leftover chicken) in either 2-cup or 4-cup portions. It will save you much time when you feel the need for a quick, reinvigorating bowl of Hanoi chicken noodle soup. All you’ll need to do is rehydrate some noodles and quickly assemble the garnish.

Prep time: 25 minutes, much of it done during cooking

Cook time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 servings

Ingredients

3½ to 4 pounds whole skin-on chicken

3½ quarts water

2 teaspoons salt

8 Asian shallots or 3 French shallots

2-inch piece of ginger, skin on

1 14-ounce package of banh pho noodles (also called rice sticks)

1 tablespoon fish sauce

8 scallions

¼ cup fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves, roughly chopped

2 kaffir lime leaves, rib removed and thinly sliced

1 lime, cut into 6 wedges

2 Thai red chilis, thinly sliced

Directions

1. Cut the tips of the wings and whole legs off the chicken and place, along with the body, in a 5½ quart pot. Add the water and salt and bring to a simmer over a medium-high heat. After about 15 minutes scum will start to rise to the surface. Use a ladle to carefully skim off the scum for the next five minutes. When the water begins to simmer, turn the heat down to low. Skim off any remaining scum and discard. Partially cover the pot and gently simmer for another 25 minutes.

2. While the chicken simmers, put a small wire grilling rack on top of a gas burner. Place the shallots and ginger on the rack and turn the burner on medium high to char the shallot and ginger skins. Use tongs to rotate the shallots and ginger until all of the outside is charred (about 4 to 5 minutes for shallots; 5 to 7 minutes for ginger).

3. Alternatively, turn the broiler of the oven on and place the shallots and ginger on a baking sheet. Put the baking sheet on the level closest to the top heating element. Cook for 5 minutes or until the shallot and ginger skins are charred. Turn the shallots and ginger over and cook for another 5 minutes or until the rest of them are charred.

4. Set aside the charred shallots and ginger on a plate to cool for a few minutes.

5. Use your hands to rub off the skins of the shallots and a paring knife to scrape off the skin from the ginger. Briefly rinse the shallots and ginger under running water to remove any remaining black bits. Cut the ginger in half lengthwise and set aside with the shallots.

6. Turn off the burner for the broth. Uncover and remove the chicken legs and body and place in a large bowl to cool for 15 minutes or until you can easily handle with your hands. Pull off the skin from the breasts and legs and discard. Remove the meat from each side of the breastbone in two whole pieces and set aside. Remove the meat from the legs in large chunks and set aside with the breast meat.

7. Put the carcass, bones, shallots and ginger into the broth. Bring the broth back to a gentle simmer over medium heat. Reduce to low and cook for 30 minutes.

8. Place the rice noodles in a large bowl and cover by 1 inch with hot water. Allow the noodles to hydrate and soften for 20 minutes. Drain in a colander.

9. Fill a medium-sized pot with water and bring to a simmer over high heat.

10. Remove the bones, shallots and ginger and discard. Strain the broth through a fine mesh strainer into another pot. Stir in the fish sauce and keep warm over low heat.

11. Cut the white/light green parts of the scallions into 2-inch pieces. Set aside.

12. Thinly slice the green part of the scallion and mix with the coriander in a small bowl and set aside.

13. Cut the chicken into thin slices and set aside.

14. When the water begins to simmer, add the white parts of the scallion, cook for 10 seconds and remove using a slotted spoon or Chinese wire spider. Set aside.

15. Place the noodles in the water and cook for 15 seconds. Drain the noodles and immediately divide equally into six large soup bowls. Place some slices of chicken and a few pieces of the blanched scallion on top of the noodles. Garnish with a generous pinch of scallion greens and coriander. Place a pinch of sliced lime leaf in the center of the bowl.

16. Pour two cups of broth over the chicken and noodles and serve with the lime wedges and chili slices.

Note: Many Vietnamese cooks and eaters prefer to leave the skin on the sliced chicken.

Main photo: A bowl of chicken pho. Credit: Cameron Stauch

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Pumpkin pappardelle with pumpkin and poppy seed. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Pumpkin is an ideal bland food with a distinctive taste. That’s a good thing because it means you have to do something to the pumpkin to make it palatable and delicious. Typically, pumpkin pie is a solution, but nowadays it’s going into all kinds of things from beer to cookies.

Pumpkin is a member of the Cucurbitaceae and winter squash family (its Latin binomial is Cucurbita pepo) and when it first arrived in Europe following its discovery in the New World after Columbus’ voyages it did not impress. The Sicilians, for example, thought so little of winter squash such as pumpkin, they even have a derogatory saying about it: “Sali mitticinni nà visazza conzala come vuoi è sempre cucuzza” (Add a lot of salt and seasoning because squash it always remains).

There are four basic species of Cucurbitaceae. Pumpkins or squash are easily hybridized so the range of colors and shapes is quite varied and it is difficult to tell one variety from another, resulting in many cultivars. If you are interested, a thorough and concise description of all the squashes can be found in my book “Mediterranean Vegetables.”

All that counts in this recipe is that you’ll need about 3 pounds of pumpkin flesh. The recipe calls for you to make your own pumpkin pasta and homemade ricotta cheese. That sounds hard, but it’s not. Just follow the instructions in the links.

Alternatively, use store-bought regular pappardelle with a high quality store-bought ricotta cheese. For the homemade pasta, follow the pasta-making instructions for “Homemade White Flour and Egg Pasta” in the pappardelle link below, adding 1 cup puréed and very well-drained pumpkin pulp to the mixture.

Pumpkin Pappardelle With Pumpkin and Poppy Seeds

Prep time: 15 minutes, does not include making homemade pasta and ricotta

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

¾ pound pumpkin pappardelle

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

14 ounces fresh pumpkin flesh, cut into 1½ by 1½ by ¼-inch squares

Salt to taste

1 tablespoon poppy seeds

¼ pound fresh ricotta cheese

¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions

1. Prepare the pasta. Cut into 1-inch wide strips and let dry 4 to 24 hours. The recipe in the link will provide 1¼ pounds dried pasta. Set aside ¾ pound for this recipe and store the remainder.

2. Preheat a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat.

3. Add ½ tablespoon butter to the skillet and it will smoke almost immediately. Quickly lay the sliced pumpkin in the skillet and salt lightly. Let cook until golden on both sides, turning only once, about 6 minutes in all. Remove and set aside, keeping the slices warm.

4. Meanwhile, 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.

5. Transfer the pasta while still very hot to a bowl with the remaining butter and poppy seeds. Toss well then transfer to a serving platter or bowl. Top with the sliced pumpkin, 4 dollops of ricotta, and the Parmigiano-Reggiano and serve.

Main photo: Pumpkin Pappardelle With Pumpkin and Poppy Seeds. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Jars of tomato sauce ready for the winter pantry. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Once September turns the mid-month corner, nights start to get darned chilly in Maine. By the end of the month, we’ve already come close to a frost, and that means the tomato season is heading to collapse.

Tomatoes? Maine? I can hear your skepticism. But, yes, even in Maine we grow tomatoes, and we love them for the few very short weeks that they flourish. They’ll never be the intensely flavored ones I remember from the Mediterranean or the big fat juicy globes from New Jersey that proliferate in New York City’s Greenmarkets, but, yes, we have tomatoes and we cherish them.

Tomatoes for every season

Tomatoes sitting in a window sill to ripen. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Tomatoes sitting on a window sill to ripen. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

We appreciate them so much so that we decorate our window sills from mid-September on into October with specimens we hope will “ripen” enough to be sliced into a salad. And those that are already ripe we turn into preserves for the winter — frozen whole tomatoes, tomato sauce put up in Mason jars and tomato relish for winter hamburgers and baked beans. (We’re also favorably inclined to baked beans, but more on that another time.) You can find my directions for preserving tomatoes here.

But what to do with all that tomato sauce once you’ve got the harvest under control? The easiest thing is to make the simplest pasta sauce in the world — just open a jar of tomato sauce, chop a garlic clove coarsely, simmer it gently in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, add the tomato sauce and, if you have it, some chopped fresh herbs — parsley, basil, rosemary, all are fine — or a half teaspoon of crumbled dried oregano and perhaps a small dried red chili. Let the whole thing simmer together for no more than 5 or 10 minutes, stir in a tablespoon of unsalted butter at the end, add some freshly ground black pepper and serve it over pasta with plenty of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese.

This is guaranteed to warm all hearts on the coldest night of autumn when the rain sheets down and threatens to turn to snow.

And for a more elaborate presentation, when there’s a bit more time to cook, make a classic Tuscan pasta al forno. This is simple to prepare, but it cooks in a slow oven for a long time — perfect to start off on a chilly Saturday, then go for a long walk and have the ragu ready for you when you come home.

Pasta al forno

Prep time: About 20 minutes, mostly done during cooking

Cook time: About 3 hours

Total time: About 3 hours

Yield: Makes 8 servings

Ingredients

½ cup diced pancetta or guanciale

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 pound pork in one piece (boneless loin is fine)

Sea salt and black pepper

1 medium onion, chopped

1 garlic clove, chopped

1 medium carrot, chopped

1 stalk of celery, chopped

¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

2 bay leaves

2 pints preserved tomatoes or tomato sauce

2 cups coarsely grated mixed cheeses (Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, smoked provola or similar)

½ cup ricotta

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

About 1 pound (500 grams) short, stubby pasta such as rigatoni, lumache, calamari or calamaretti, etc.

About ½ cup unflavored bread crumbs

About ½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Directions

1. Combine the pancetta and olive oil in a heavy-duty saucepan, one that can go in the oven. Set over medium heat. Dry the pork thoroughly with paper towels and sprinkle generously with salt and black pepper, then add to the pan. Brown the pancetta and pork on all sides; the pancetta should become crisp, and the piece of pork should be golden all around. When done, remove the browned pancetta and pork and set aside on separate plates.

2. While the meat is browning, chop together the onion, garlic, carrot, celery and parsley to make a finely chopped mixture. You should have about 1½ to 2 cups of vegetables.

3. Preheat the oven to 300 F.

4. Add the chopped vegetables to the pan, lower the heat to medium-low and cook the vegetables, stirring frequently, until soft and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Then add bay leaves and the tomatoes or tomato sauce. If you’re using whole tomatoes, break them up with the side of a spoon.

5. Nestle the pork into the vegetable mixture and add water to come almost to the top of the meat. Bring the liquid to a simmer, cover the saucepan and transfer to the oven. Cook very gently for about 2 hours, or until the pork is very tender and the vegetables have almost dissolved into the sauce.

6. When the ragu is ready, remove from the oven and let cool down to warm room temperature. Remove the pork and set aside.

7. Using a hand blender, blend the vegetables to a chunky sauce. (You could also use a food processor, pulsing briefly, to keep the sauce somewhat chunky.)

8. Shred or chop the pork and add to the ragu along with the reserved pancetta.

9. Set the oven to 400 F.

10. Bring 4 quarts to 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil, adding a big spoonful of salt.

11. While the water is heating, mix together the grated cheeses with the ricotta.

12. Using a tablespoon of butter, grease the bottom and sides of a rectangular oven dish approximately 10 inches by 12 inches and at least 2 inches deep.

13. Spread a thin layer of ragu on the bottom of the dish. Combine the remaining ragu with the cheese mixture.

14. Add the pasta to the boiling water and stir with a long-handled spoon. Cook the pasta for just 4 to 5 minutes from the moment the water returns to a boil. The pasta will finish cooking in the oven. Drain and immediately combine the pasta with the cheesy ragu. Turn into the prepared oven dish. Top with the bread crumbs and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, then dot with the remaining butter and dribble a tablespoon or two of oil over the top.

15. Transfer to the hot oven and bake for 20 minutes, or until the top is brown and bubbling. Remove and serve immediately.

Main photo: Jars of tomato sauce ready for the winter pantry. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Black-Eyed Pea Salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

If you are not clear exactly what Mediterranean food is, it’s actually very simple: It’s the cooking found in all the regions and provinces that have a littoral on the Mediterranean Sea. Because of that fact in a sense there is no such thing as Mediterranean cuisine because every region’s food, while tending to use the same ingredients, is strikingly different from one another. High on the list of staple Mediterranean foods are legumes.

Two Mediterranean countries famous for their legume dishes are Egypt and Greece. Here are two budget-friendly, healthy and delicious recipes that can be served in Near Eastern style, as both Greece and Egypt are considered Near Eastern countries. These dishes can be prepared as part of a larger meze or as an appetizer or side dish.

Edward William Lane tells us in his classic book “The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians” first published in 1908 that many dishes prepared by the Egyptians consist wholly or for the most part of vegetables, “cabbage, purslane, spinach, bamiyeh [okra], beans, lupin, chick-pea, gourds, cut into small pieces, colocasia, lentils etc.”

Called salāṭa adas and made with tiny brown lentils slightly cooked with olive oil, garlic and spices, I had this lentil salad as a meze at the Tikka Grill, a restaurant on the corniche of Alexandria in Egypt. Although you don’t have to use freshly ground spices, you’ll find if you do, the result is a dish far fresher, more pungent and better tasting than one made with pre-ground spices. Too many home cooks keep spices far beyond their shelf life, so check the date on your jar.

Lentil Salad with Egyptian Spices. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Lentil Salad With Egyptian Spices. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Lentil Salad With Egyptian Spices

Yield:6 servings

Preparation time: about 30 minutes

Ingredients

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, divided

2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

½ teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds

½ teaspoon freshly ground coriander seeds

¼ teaspoon freshly ground cardamom seeds

½ teaspoon ground fenugreek

1 cup dried brown lentils, picked over and rinsed well

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. In a small saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat with the garlic and as soon as the garlic begins to sizzle remove from the burner, add the cumin seeds, coriander, cardamom and fenugreek, stir, and set aside.

2. Place the lentils in a medium-size saucepan of lightly salted cold water and bring to a boil. Cook until al dente, about 25 minutes from the time you turned the heat on. Drain and toss with the garlic, olive oil and spices while still hot. Season with salt and pepper, toss and arrange on a serving platter, drizzling the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil over the top. Serve at room temperature.

Black-Eyed Pea Salad

This simple preparation called mavromakita fasolia in Greek can be made with canned black-eyed peas, as long as they are packed in only water. I prefer using dried black-eyed peas but they are not always to be found. Typically you would serve this salad as a meze, but it’s fine as a side dish too. This recipe was given to me by chef Estathios Meralis of the motor yacht M/Y Sirius out of Piraeus, Greece.

Yield: 6 servings

Preparation time: about 1 hour

Ingredients

2½ cups canned black-eyed peas (two 15-ounce cans) or 1 cup dried black-eyed peas

2 scallions, trimmed and finely chopped

1 small garlic clove, finely chopped

3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Freshly ground pepper and salt to taste

Directions

1. If using dried black-eyed peas, boil over high heat in water to cover until tender, about 1 hour. Drain and rinse. If using canned peas, drain and rinse, then place in a bowl.

2. Toss the black-eyed peas with the scallions, garlic, dill, olive oil, pepper and salt. Serve at room temperature.

Main photo: Black-Eyed Pea Salad. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Workers make traditional Japanese miso at Great Eastern Sun in North Carolina.

Japanese miso can deliver great health benefits — and of course, everyone wants those. However, not all miso is created equal. Inexpensive miso made from low-quality ingredients through an automated process has little nutritional value and may be laden with chemicals. When you look at the traditional way of making miso, you can see why.

The most popular miso is made from rice, soybeans, salt, spring water and koji, the fermentation starter. Koji, aspergillus oryzae, is a type of mold. When mixed with steamed rice, it breaks down the carbohydrates into simple sugars. The resulting koji rice is mixed with cooked soybeans, sea salt and pure spring water. This mixture is then left in wooden barrels to ferment naturally. Dark brown miso, or aka-miso (often known as “red miso”), can take more than one year to ferment properly. During this period, the koji is assisted by hundreds of species of bacteria living in the wood of the barrels. They produce peptides and amino acids, organic acids and other nutrients, giving the miso its wonderful flavor and nutritional value.

Japan’s hot and humid summers are ideal for nurturing the proper fermentation of miso. Many years ago, I visited a friend’s miso brewery, Yamaki Jozo in Saitama Prefecture, on a sweltering summer day. The temperature was over 98 degrees F, and this in combination with the high humidity made me feel as if I were in a sauna. But the miso in the wooden vats seemed to be enjoying the day — the surface was bubbling joyfully. Billions of microorganisms in each barrel were producing nutrients and a delightful aroma. The miso must be carefully monitored during fermentation to maintain the right temperature, and stirred frequently. A worker in the fermentation room whispered to me that taking care of the miso every day was like watching his son growing up. Both need lots of attention and care for their proper growth.

But all that work pays off for the cook, because using good-quality miso produces wonderful-tasting dishes with little effort. Good miso contains lots of umami, savory flavor, enhancing all the other ingredients you use. In contrast, miso made in an automated factory substitutes artificial flavoring for the rich layers of flavor in the traditional product.

But American cooks don’t have to order a shipment of Japanese miso from abroad to get the real experience: Several American companies are now making very high quality, traditionally produced miso. On a day when I did not have time to walk 20 minutes to the Japanese food store, I discovered the American-made Miso Master brand at my neighborhood large chain supermarket in New York City. In my kitchen, this miso really surprised me. It had the quality and taste characteristics that I had long yearned for.

Japanese tradition comes to America

I was curious to find out how my favorite miso was made in America. So I headed to Great Eastern Sun, the North Carolina-based company that has been making Miso Master miso for 33 years. In 1979, when American interest in macrobiotic products was booming, John and Jan Belleme, the early partners of the company, traveled to Japan to investigate natural miso production. A small miso brewer, Takamichi Onozaki, in Yatai, a village in Tochigi Prefecture northeast of Tokyo, opened his arms and factory to the Bellemes and taught them the art of traditional miso production. Upon returning to America, they built the Great Eastern Sun factory in the village of Rutherfordton, 55 miles east of Asheville.

On my visit to the factory I found the same qualities that I had found at the miso factory in Japan: far from the city, with clean water, pure air and people who cared about producing high-quality food. Great Eastern Sun picked Rutherfordton not only because of the qualities of nature and people, but also because it sits at the same latitude as the village of Yatai in Japan.

Miso master Joe Kato with the fermentation barrels at Great Eastern Sun.

Miso master Joe Kato with the fermentation barrels at Great Eastern Sun. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

A Japanese miso master, Joe Kato, oversees production of the miso, which uses all organic and non-GMO ingredients. In the large processing room, six local American employees were working on koji rice. The rice had been steamed the day before, inoculated with koji mold and left spread on a large wooden stand in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room. The workers were breaking up and turning the koji rice, which released a sweet, slightly chestnut-like fragrance. When I closed my eyes I felt as if I were standing in my friend’s miso factory in Japan. But soon the workers’ jokes and chatting in English brought me back to where I was.

Below you will find a very simple, but delicious recipe with which you can try real miso to enjoy a healthy diet. You may have had the somewhat boring typical miso soup at a Japanese restaurant, featuring wakame seaweed, tofu and scallion. This spicy kale miso soup recipe shows that you can use any seasonal vegetable from your refrigerator to make an excellent miso soup. You can find many more delicious uses for miso – dressings, marinades, sauces and more –in my book, Hiroko’s American Kitchen.”

 

Spicy Kale Miso Soup

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 8 minutes

Total time: 18 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

½ bunch kale

1 teaspoon canola oil

½ cup chopped red onion

¼ cup finely julienned ginger

¼ teaspoon toban jiang (fermented chile bean sauce) or red pepper flakes

3 cups dashi stock or low-sodium chicken stock

1½ tablespoons aged brown miso from Miso Master or other high-quality miso producer

Directions

  1. Cut off the very bottom of the hard stems of the kale, and cut the remaining kale, including the stems, into thin slices crosswise.
  2. Heat the oil in a medium pot over medium heat, and then add the onion. Cook the onions for 1 minute, stirring until they are slightly translucent. Add half of the ginger and the toban jiang, and give the mixture several stirs. Add the kale and cook, stirring, until the leaves are wilted.
  3. Pour in the stock and bring it to a simmer. Decrease the heat to low and cook, covered, for 3 minutes. Turn off the heat.
  4. Add the miso, stirring briskly with a whisk until it is dissolved.
  5. Divide the soup into small soup bowls, garnish with the remaining ginger and serve.

 Main photo: Workers tend the koji rice at Great Eastern Sun’s facility in Rutherfordton, North Carolina. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo 

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Peach and black currant gelato stuffed in brioche for a traditional Sicilian breakfast. Credit: Sue Style

For sheer decadent deliciousness, gelato with brioche is hard to beat. Where on God’s earth did such a gorgeous idea ever take root? In Italy’s Sicily, that’s where. And it’s not even some kind of exotic dessert, reserved for high days and holidays. Sicilians eat gelato con brioche for breakfast.

Long before we left home for our late September break on the island, excitement at the prospect of trading up from yogurt, fresh fruit, cereal and toast to lashings of ice cream sandwiched inside a sweet, buttery bun began building up. In idle moments while planning the trip, we pondered which flavors we might go for: darkest chocolate, Nutella, coffee or pistachio? Or maybe mango, peach, strawberry or blueberry? And could Sicilians routinely break their fast on ice cream and brioche, or had we been fed an urban myth?

That first morning in Sicily, we piled into the car and drove to the city of Ragusa Ibla to find out. Threading our way through the cool, shaded streets on the way to the center, we happened upon chef Ciccio Sultano drawing on an early-morning cigarette outside his world-famous restaurant, Il Duomo. Could he point us to the best place to get gelato? Ma certo (of course). It all depended whether we wanted a cafe, where we could have the full works seated at a table, or a gelateria, where it would be breakfast on the hoof.

We chose the cafe option and settled down at pavement tables on the square below the Duomo, etched in dazzling white like a gorgeous Baroque birthday cake iced in white against an azure sky. At any moment, we expected police cars to screech to a halt and for Inspector Montalbano, Andrea Camilleri’s famous Sicilian serial cop (the TV series was filmed here), to leap out with his uniformed team in hot pursuit of some hapless criminal.

We placed our orders and leaned back expectantly. After a gentle pause, breakfast arrived. Cappuccinos with smileys traced in frothy milk, freshly squeezed orange juice, a couple of cannoli front-loaded with ricotta and candied fruits, and the long-awaited pièces de résistance: cushions of warm, softly yielding brioche cradling sinfully smooth, ice-cold gelato. We wrapped our hands around them, took a bite, moaned in pleasure, munched again. Heaven.

Pick a bold flavor for gelato con brioche

I could hardly wait to get home to try reconstructing the experience. Two things to keep in mind for gelato con brioche. First, choose ice creams that are assertively flavored and richly colored — vanilla just doesn’t do it. I’ve given two recipes, one for palest peach, the other for deep purplish black currant, but you could just as well buy gelato (but one that believes in itself).

For the peach version, it helps to have an ice cream maker because it freezes rock hard; for lack of such a kitchen toy, make the gelato mixture, freeze it till semihard, then either tip it into a food processor and whisk it up till smooth or beat it like crazy with a hand-held mixer. Then return it to the freezer.

The black currant one can be made without an ice cream maker as the egg yolk-sugar syrup combination gives a softer, smoother ice that doesn’t need churning or beating as it freezes.

Then the brioches. These should not be the French-type Julia Child variety with a little topknot perched on top, which would be hard to cleave in two and even harder to fill with your gelato. You need a flattish, sweetish, buttery, eggy, burnished bun (think along the lines of a burger bun, but nicer) that can easily be opened up, stuffed with ice cream — ideally with both your chosen flavors — reassembled and eaten on the hand. For breakfast.

Peach Gelato With Brioche

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: None

Total time: About 20 minutes, plus several hours to freeze

Yield: Makes 6 servings

Ingredients

Peach gelato ready for the freezer. Credit: Sue Style

Peach gelato ready for the freezer. Credit: Sue Style

1 pound (500 grams) ripe peaches (yellow or white fleshed)

5 ounces (150 grams) sugar

Juice of 1 lemon

8 ounces (250 grams) Mascarpone

5 ounces (150 grams) Greek yogurt

6 brioches, about 2½ inches (6 centimeters) in diameter

Directions

1. Put the peaches in a bowl and cover with boiling water.

2. Count to 10, then pour away the water and peel the peaches. Remove the pits and chop the flesh roughly.

3. Put the chopped peaches in a food processor with the sugar and lemon juice and process till smooth.

4. Add the Mascarpone and Greek yogurt and process again.

5. Freeze in a metal container for 2 hours or until the ice cream begins to harden around the edges. Beat with a hand-held electric mixer or hand-held blender to smooth it out and prevent ice crystals from forming. Return to the freezer to harden and beat/blend again after another couple of hours.

6. Remove from freezer to fridge at least an hour before serving so it softens up.

7. Split 6 brioches in half, not quite through, fill with gelato, close up as best you can and serve at once.

Black Currant Gelato With Brioche

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: About 40 minutes, plus several hours to freeze the gelato

Yield: Makes 6 servings

Ingredients

Blackcurrant gelato ready for the freezer. Credit: Sue Style

Black currant gelato ready for the freezer. Credit: Sue Style

1 pound (500 grams) black currants

8 ounces (250 grams) sugar

3 egg yolks

1¼ cups (300 milliliters) whipping cream

6 brioches, about 2½ inches (6 centimeters) in diameter

Directions

1. For the purée, wash the fruit and put it in a pan with 4 ounces (125 grams) sugar and 3 tablespoons of water.

2. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 5 minutes, just enough so the juice runs. Don’t overdo this step; you don’t want jam, but fresh-flavored ice cream.

3. Push the fruit through a sieve, pressing hard to eliminate pips, and let the purée cool.

4. Put the remaining sugar in a small pan with half a cup of water and heat gently till the sugar is dissolved and the syrup is clear, not cloudy.

5. Raise the heat, bringing the syrup to a rolling boil, and continue boiling for about 5 minutes to the “thread stage”: dip a fork into the syrup and allow it to cool briefly (so you don’t burn yourself), then pinch a drop or two between finger and thumb repeatedly. As you separate finger and thumb, the syrup should form a slender thread.

6. Remove syrup from the heat and allow the bubbles to subside.

7. Using a hand-held electric mixer, start beating the egg yolks in a bowl then pour in the hot syrup in a steady stream. Continue beating till the mixture is pale, thick and doubled in bulk (about 10 minutes).

8. In a separate bowl, beat the cream till stiff.

9. Fold together the purée, egg mixture and cream, lifting and folding with a wire whisk to make sure they are well mixed.

10. Pour the ice cream into a suitable receptacle (a recycled ice cream container or metal bowl, for example) and freeze.

11. Remove ice cream from freezer about 10 minutes before serving.

12. Split 6 brioches in half, not quite through, fill with gelato, close up as best you can and serve at once.

Main photo: Peach and black currant gelato stuffed in brioche for a traditional Sicilian breakfast. Credit: Sue Style

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