Articles in World w/recipe

Jamaica Quesadillas. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Zaslavsky

Jamaica, spelled like the Caribbean island but pronounced ha-MY-ka, a flower in the hibiscus family, makes one of Mexico’s most beloved and refreshing drinks, agua de jamaica. The ruby-red, tart, sweet yet often mouth-puckering refresher can be spotted in huge glass jars in almost every traditional market across the country.

By contrast, at high-end restaurants — from the southern state of Oaxaca’s Casa Oaxaca through Mexico City’s Pujol to the country’s northwest corner at Tijuana’s Mission 19 — trendy mixologists serve jamaica cocktails shaken or stirred. These pros know the sexy red color sparkles in Mexican Cosmopolitans (non-aged, clear tequila and jamaica vs. vodka and cranberry) when a customer desires to sip from a chic martini glass.

You can buy dried jamaica flowers, Hibiscus sabdariffa, in bulk at Mexican markets or in cellophane-wrapped packs hanging from hooks near dried chiles. Always be sure the jamaica is from Mexico and not from China; the cheaper Chinese product (the catch!) has insipid flavor and weak color. And don’t confuse this hibiscus with the huge-flowered plants called hibiscus blossoming in all their glory in tropical and subtropical back yards.

You can brew jamaica as tea, then strain and discard the flowers. It is rarely served as hot tea in warm climates except as a calming cure for urinary tract infections. Think of jamaica and its curative powers as Mexico’s answer to cranberry juice. Both extremely tart, the brilliant crimson liquids must be sweetened to be easily drinkable, and science has confirmed metabolites in their juice prevent E. coli from sticking to other bacteria, limiting its ability to grow and multiply. In most cases, minor infections are improved in a day after downing four cups of either drink, hot or cold.

In Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca‘s rug weaving center, Zapotec chef Abigail Mendoza of Tlamanalli restaurant brews agua de jamaica strong and sweetens it with panela, cones of deep brown unrefined sugar called piloncillo in most other regions of Mexico. She makes it in and serves it from a bulbous pitcher with narrow top. Mendoza whips up the drink using a molinillo (a hard-carved wooden foaming too) until the top is covered with copious bubbly foam. The foam is an important part of any traditional drink in this part of Mexico because people feel the drink’s spirit is in the foam and without bubbles the drink has no life, or is at best past its prime.

Besides hot tea and agua de jamaica, highly flavored jamaica simple syrup is a joy to have on hand for various uses, especially cocktails; its sweet-sour flavor is similar to pomegranate molasses and some balsamic vinegars. Try the sophisticated flavor over strawberries and vanilla bean ice cream. In the past few years, jamaica salad dressings have popped up in restaurants everywhere and are delicious yet simple to make. Modern-style restaurant bar menus offer quesadillas (folded corn tortillas with melted cheese inside) de jamaica, although many in Mexico City have no cheese — odd, but trés cool bar snacks with the hipster low-fat crowd. High-end gourmet shops sell elaborate candied jamaica flowers to decorate fine desserts. On the other hand, a longtime childhood favorite is the traditional, beloved jamaica frozen ice pop found at street corner push carts. (Hear the bell?)

Jamaica Tea (Agua de Jamaica)

This tea can be served hot or cold.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: About 4 cups

Ingredients

4 cups water, plus more for diluting

1 cup dried jamaica flowers (Mexican, not Chinese)

Ice, if desired

1 cup sugar (white, brown or agave syrup), or more to taste

Directions

1. Stir the jamaica into the water in a saucepan and bring it to a boil. Turn off the heat, and let the flowers steep 20 minutes.

2. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a container. Add water to dilute to your liking.

3. Heat to serve hot or chill with ice to serve cold. Stir in sweetener to taste, or add sweetener separately to each cup or glass. The tea will keep for three days refrigerated.

Jamaica Simple Syrup

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 40 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: About 1 cup

Ingredients

4 cups Jamaica Tea, unsweetened (see recipe above)

1 cup white sugar

Pinch sea salt or kosher salt

Directions

1. Boil the unsweetened jamaica tea until it is reduced by half, about 20 to 25 minutes.

2. Add the sugar and a pinch of salt and boil until it is reduced by half again, to 1 cup, about 20 minutes more.

3. Remove from the heat and cool until the strong bubbles die down. Carefully pour the hot, thick syrup into an airtight glass jar. The syrup will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator.

Jamaica Salad Dressing

Prep time: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: About 1/2 cup

Ingredients

3 1/2 tablespoons Jamaica Simple Syrup (see recipe above)

1/4 teaspoon sea or kosher salt

6 grinds black peppercorns

1 small clove garlic, smashed and finely chopped

2 tablespoons Mexican lime (aka Key) juice

1/3 cup quality extra virgin olive oil

10 jamaica flowers, finely chopped

Directions

1. Measure Jamaica Simple Syrup into a small bowl. Whisk in the salt, pepper, garlic and lime juice.

2. Slowly pour in the oil, whisking until fully blended.

3. Whisk in the chopped flowers. Pour as much as desired over chilled salad greens of your choice and toss.

Note: This dressing is a real treat on a salad with queso fresco, feta or goat cheese scattered on top.

Jamaica Quesadillas

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 8 quesadillas

Ingredients

2 cups water

1/2 cup coarsely chopped jamaica flowers

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons sugar or agave syrup

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 jalapeño chile, stemmed and finely chopped (You can keep the seeds for spice.)

8 corn tortillas, about 8 inches in diameter

2 cups shredded melting cheese, such as quesillo de Oaxaca, mozzarella or Jack

Directions

1. Stir the jamaica into a saucepan of water and bring it to a boil. Turn off the heat, and let the flowers steep 10 minutes.

2. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing to extract all liquid into a container, saving the flowers. Reserve the tea for another purpose.

3. Heat the oil in a small skillet. Add the flowers, sweetener, salt and chopped chile. Sauté over medium-low heat until sticky, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat.

4. Put the tortillas on a preheated, medium-hot ungreased griddle. Spoon some of the jamaica mixture to one side of each tortilla and then pile with cheese, keeping it away from the edges. Fold the empty tortilla half over the half with jamaica. Press with a spatula. When the bottoms of the tortillas crisp a bit, flip them over to crisp the other sides and melt the cheese.

5. Remove to a cutting board and cut into wedges.

Main photo: Jamaica Quesadillas. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Zaslavsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Fifth’ quarter of the cow

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

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

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

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

Rigatoni con la Pagliata (Rigatoni with Chitterlings)

Prep time: About 10 minutes

Cooking time: 3 3/4 hours

Total time: About 4 hours

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

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

1 tablespoon pork lard or olive oil

1 medium onion, sliced

1 celery stalk, chopped

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

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 cups dry white wine, separated

One 28-ounce can tomato purée

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

1 clove

2 1/2 cups water

1 pound rigatoni

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

Directions

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

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

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

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

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Buy the freshest cauliflower you can find for Cauliflower à la Greque. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary Barron

Although cauliflowers are sold in our supermarkets all year round, this beautiful member of the wild cabbage family (Brassica oleracea) is at its bright and healthy best in early spring. Cauliflowers harvested at that time have had the benefit of a longer growing season (about 80 days, instead of 50 days for their summer-grown counterparts), allowing their valuable nutrients more time to develop.

The cauliflower, whose name derives from the Latin caulis (stem) and floris (flower) is actually a cabbage bred for its flowers. The edible part of the plant, the head of tender stems and flower buds, is known as a curd. Similarly to broccoli and calabrese (close relatives), the cauliflower stores nutrients for the developing flowers at the base of the buds, so a fresh, crisp curd is packed full of vitamins and minerals. Its Latin botanical name, Brassica oleracea var. botrytis (meaning cluster, or grapelike), is an apt description of this remarkably clever vegetable, which grows with a protective layer of leaves curled around its head.

Hats off to the French, though, for giving cauliflower (chou-fleur, or cabbage-flower,) a prettier, and horticulturally more correct name, than the rather pedestrian Anglo-Saxon “flower on a stalk.”

Mysterious origins

There is disagreement over the origin of the cauliflower. Some say it was developed by 11th century Arab gardeners, or by Romans a thousand years earlier. But the wild cabbage grew throughout the ancient eastern Mediterranean and, with its tendency to produce “freaks,” prototypes of the cauliflower probably originated spontaneously in different places. Curious gardeners have since, through seed selection, improved nature’s work and we are now reaping the benefits.

Medieval Italian kitchens and, later, those of Louis XIV of France, served stylish and elegant cauliflower dishes. Catherine de Medici is said to have appreciated the lovely vegetable, and to have introduced it to France to help alleviate arthritis. But its earlier French name, chou de Chypre, suggests it arrived from Cyprus and Cypriots are, understandably, happy to claim its origin. For the past 200 years, the cauliflower has been a popular winter vegetable in northern Europe, but without its former prestige in serious kitchens. Until now.

Hardly humble

With cauliflowers piled high in our markets, this inexpensive and highly nutritious brassica is at last losing its humble status and taking its rightful place on our tables. A reputation for being bland and soggy is the fault of the cook, not of the cauliflower. Its very gentleness is the perfect foil to many fine flavors, and it takes only a few minutes to cook.

“Organic” and “local” have real meaning when selecting cauliflowers: snails, aphids and caterpillars love them, so pesticides are often used and, once harvested, their nutrients and flavor dissipate quickly. Most cauliflowers are attractively creamy-white, but we also have wonderfully colorful varieties. Buy cauliflowers that smell and look fresh, with deep-green, outer leaves and tight heads; avoid brown-spotted white ones, or dull-looking purple, yellow or green heads. Size doesn’t affect flavor, but age does: older cauliflowers taste and smell stronger.

Richer in vitamins and minerals than any other brassica, cauliflowers are an excellent source of vitamin C, folic acid and potassium; a very good source of niacin, copper, manganese and vitamins A, K, B5 and B6; and a good source for protein, phosphorous, magnesium and vitamins B2 and B3. Raw, they are even better.

Avoid nutricide

Cauliflower cooks quickly: Keep florets whole or cut large ones in half and simmer in a little water or steam for five minutes. After this time, cauliflower loses 20% to 30% of its phytochemicals; after 10 minutes, 40% disappear. Where possible, cook in ways that don’t commit nutricide – in soups and stews, grilled or baked. In its wonderful ability to host spicy flavors, some of the best preparations for cauliflower can be found in the kitchens of the Indian subcontinent and the Mediterranean. With winter soon drawing to an end, it’s time to enjoy the vegetable that has spent the past three months developing the nutrients we need to take us into a healthy spring.

The cauliflower is actually a cabbage bred for its flowers.

Cauliflower cooks quickly: keep florets whole or cut large ones in half and simmer in a little water or steam for five minutes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary Barron

 Simple Greek ways to serve

  • Serve raw or lightly-steamed small florets with a dip of mashed anchovy, capers, herbs, and olive oil or with hummus, small radishes and young wild green leaves.
  • Mix thinly sliced cauliflower florets and fine-julienned carrots with olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt, lightly chopped flat-leaf parsley, and Greek oregano (rigani ).
  • Dip small florets in a light garbanzo-flour batter and gently fry the fritters in olive oil; serve with olive oil and lemon juice mayonnaise, olives, and lemon wedges.

Cauliflower à la Greque

À la Greque (French for “in the Greek style”) describes a method of cooking, one that presumably a French cook/traveler admired and added to his/her own kitchen repertoire. There are many versions of this popular dish, but most are a pale imitation of the original Greek creation. Buy the freshest cauliflower you can find and, for a lightly spiced dish, prepare two hours ahead; for a more mellow taste and texture, leave overnight in the marinade.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 12 minutes

Total time: 17 minutes

Yield: 8 for a meze serving, 4 as a vegetable dish

Ingredients

4 cups small cauliflower florets

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons dried coriander seeds

1 cup dry white wine

3 bay leaves

1/2 tablespoon aromatic honey such as Hymettus

1 tablespoon cracked black peppercorns

Coarse-grain sea salt to taste

For serving:

4 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon lemon zest, in very thin strips, optional

Lemon wedges

Directions

1. Trim most of the stem from the florets and cut an “x” in the base of each with a small sharp knife. Blanch 1 minute in boiling water, drain, and set aside.

2. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy saucepan over low heat. Add the coriander seeds and florets in a single layer and stir with a wooden spoon to coat with the olive oil. Add the wine, bay leaves, honey, pepper and salt. Bring just to a boil, cover, reduce the heat, and simmer 10 minutes or until tender.

3. Transfer the contents of the pan to a nonreactive bowl and set aside until cool. Cover the bowl and shake it gently to redistribute the marinade.

4. To serve, taste the marinade. If more salt is needed, combine with the parsley. Transfer the cauliflower to a shallow serving bowl and pour over most of the marinade (strain it first, if you prefer). Sprinkle with parsley and lemon zest and serve with the lemon wedges.

Main photo: Buy the freshest cauliflower you can find for Cauliflower à la Greque. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary Barron

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Main photo: Black-Eyed Peas Salad. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

I used to think of black-eyed peas as a purely American food, much loved in the South. Despite the time I spent living in Austin, I’ve never made them the way Texans do, using ham hocks or salt pork for flavoring, and I’ve had more than one run-in with staunch traditionalists who have challenged — even berated — my vegetarian approach.

Even now that I’m not a strict vegetarian (albeit it’s the way I eat most of the time) I prefer black-eyed peas that have not been simmered with pork products. I love their earthy depth of flavor and I have never thought, “Gee, these would be really great if they just had some pork to flavor them.” They have plenty going for them on their own.

As I’ve researched the cuisines of the Mediterranean over the years, I have learned that these beans are an important staple in that part of the world, especially in Greece and North Africa. They are the backbone of some of my favorite Mediterranean dishes.

Black-eyed peas are native to Africa. According to cookbook author and Zester contributor Clifford A. Wright, they had arrived in the northern Mediterranean by about 300 B.C. and were cultivated by the Romans. The beans traveled to South America with the slave trade, but they came to North America via the Mediterranean. They are much loved in Greece, where they are stewed in abundant olive oil, often with greens, or used in lighter salads or bean dishes and seasoned with wild fennel, mint, dill and parsley.

In Tunisia, a country with a rich repertoire of vegetable stews or tagines where you are not likely to see pork with beans (because of Muslim dietary rules), black-eyed peas are simmered with abundant spices, vegetables like greens and fennel, and lots of fresh herbs — cilantro, parsley, mint. The spicy bean tagines are ladled over couscous. These dishes are complex, with an array of seasonings — harissa, caraway and coriander seeds, cumin and garlic.

But my favorite black-eyed peas are the ones that I make year after year. I cook the beans with onion, garlic and bay leaf, then toss them while warm with a cumin-infused vinaigrette, chopped bell peppers, and lots of cilantro. The balance of flavors is perfect. It’s a traditional good-luck dish on New Year’s Day, but it never fails to leave me feeling optimistic about the future — no matter the time of year.

Black-Eyed Peas Salad with Cumin Vinaigrette

You can serve this salad warm or chilled. I often make the beans several days ahead, marinate them in the vinaigrette, and add the chopped pepper and cilantro after I reheat the beans in the vinaigrette.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 1 hour

Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 as a starter, 4 to 6 as a main dish

Ingredients

For the beans:

1 medium onion, cut in half

1 pound black-eyed peas, washed and picked over

2 quarts water

2 or 3 garlic cloves, minced

1 bay leaf

Salt to taste

For the dressing and salad:

1/4 cup red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar

1 garlic clove, minced

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

2 teaspoons lightly toasted cumin, ground

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/2 cup broth from the beans

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 large red bell pepper, diced

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

Directions

1. Combine the onion, black-eyed peas and the water in a soup pot or Dutch oven and bring to a gentle boil. Skim off any foam from the surface of the water. Add the garlic, bay leaf and salt to taste (about 2 teaspoons). Reduce the heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes. Taste and add more salt if desired. Cover and simmer 10 to 15 minutes, until the beans are tender but not falling apart. Remove from the heat. Remove onion halves and bay leaf. Carefully drain the beans through a colander or strainer set over a bowl and transfer to a large salad bowl. Measure out 1/2 cup of the bean broth.

2. In a pyrex measuring cup or small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, garlic, salt, pepper, cumin, and mustard. Whisk in the bean broth, then the olive oil. Taste and adjust seasonings. Stir the dressing into the warm beans. Stir in the red pepper and cilantro, and serve, or allow to cool and serve at room temperature.

Greek Black-Eyed Peas With Wild Fennel

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 1 hour

Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 as a starter, 4 to 6 as a main dish

Ingredients

1 pound black-eyed peas

1/4 cup olive oil

1 onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 cups wild fennel leaves, chopped

1 15-ounce can tomatoes, drained and pureed in a food processor

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Additional chopped fennel for garnish (optional)

Directions

1. Wash and pick over the beans. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large, heavy soup pot or Dutch oven and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and fennel leaves and cook, stirring, for a minute, until the garlic is fragrant and the fennel beginning to wilt. Stir in the tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Add the black-eyed peas and enough water to cover by an inch, and stir together. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer 30 minutes.

2. Add salt to taste (about 2 teaspoons) and freshly ground pepper, and continue to simmer until the beans are tender, another 15 minutes. Stir in the remaining olive oil. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve warm or hot, garnished with additional chopped wild fennel if desired.

Couscous With Black-Eyed Peas and Chard

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours

Total time: up to 2 hours

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

Chard stalks, diced

4 large garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon coriander seeds, lightly toasted and ground

1 teaspoon caraway seeds, lightly toasted and ground

2 teaspoons cumin seeds, lightly toasted and ground

2 cups black-eyed peas, rinsed

2 tablespoons harissa (or more to taste; substitute 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper if harissa is unavailable), plus additional for serving

2 tablespoons tomato paste

Salt, preferably kosher salt, to taste

1 to 1 1/2 pounds Swiss chard, stemmed, washed thoroughly in 2 changes of water, and coarsely chopped

1 large bunch parsley or cilantro (or a combination), stemmed, washed and chopped

2 cups couscous, reconstituted and steamed until fluffy and hot

Directions

1. Heat the oil over medium heat in a heavy casserole or Dutch oven and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add a generous pinch of salt, the chard stalks, garlic and ground spices, and stir together for about a minute, until the garlic is fragrant. Add the black-eyed peas and 3 quarts water, and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes. Add the harissa or cayenne, the tomato paste and salt to taste, cover and simmer another 15 to 30 minutes, until the beans are tender and fragrant. Strain off 1/2 cup of the liquid and set aside to add to the couscous when you reconstitute it.

2. Stir in the chard a handful at a time, allowing each handful to cook down a bit before adding the next. Simmer 5 to 10 minutes, until the chard is tender and fragrant. Stir in the parsley and/or cilantro and simmer another few minutes. Remove from the heat. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding salt, garlic or harissa as desired.

3. Reconstitute and warm the couscous while the black-eyed peas are cooking. Shortly before serving, transfer to a wide serving bowl, such as a pasta bowl, or directly to wide soup plates. Spoon on the black-eyed peas and greens with plenty of broth, and serve, passing additional harissa at the table.

Main photo: Black-Eyed Peas Salad. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

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Sandesh is an Indian version of cheesecake, can be cut into shapes with cookie cutters or formed into balls. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

This Valentine’s Day, as you look for foods besides oysters and chocolate to woo the object of your affection, consider exploring your spice cabinet.

You’ll be surprised at the flavors’ powers — as natural aphrodisiacs — to be found there.

To heighten the senses and set the mood, we need fragrance and beauty in our foods.

In fact, Ayurveda — the holistic method of medical treatment in India rooted in Hinduism — traditionally placed a fair amount of emphasis on aphrodisiac terminology. The intent was to ensure that people led healthy conjugal lives and the ruler appropriately produced the requisite heir. There is similar wisdom found in other ancient texts.

So, cull through this list of common spices for your Valentine’s Day menu that also may help you spice things up — in other ways — with your Valentine.

First up is cinnamon, whose lustrous and sweet aroma can make you both happy and calm. (And, it’s certainly good for your blood pressure.)

Right alongside, you might have cloves, whose essential quality is to uplift your mood and spirits. And then there is nutmeg, also known for its antioxidant and astringent qualities.

An aphrodisiac spice, says ‘The Arabian Nights’

To complete the fragrant collection, we also have cardamom, which “The Arabian Nights” extols for its passion-inducing properties.

All of these will find its place in a good garam masala blend. And when meshed with saffron — the exotic spice of the gods — your Valentine’s Day collection of aromas will be complete.

When planning your menu, consider a good one-pot dish such as a biryani that will bring to your table all of these spices and more. If that’s too complex, try rubbing a chicken with butter and garam masala and serving it roasted to perfection, with saffron mashed potatoes on the side.

But don’t forget the dessert. Fortunately, many Indian desserts bring together cardamom, saffron and rose. From the universe of puddings, halwas and burfees, I have dug up a Bengali specialty called the sandesh, which, when done right, can win over the most fastidious of hearts and palates.

A sandesh is a cheesecake of sorts, with the emphasis on a specific cheese: channa, or homemade white cheese. The art of the traditional sandesh rests in the right texture and handling of this channa. Although it is prolific in Indian confectionary shops, we’re often hard-pressed to find good sandesh in commercial Indian sweet shops — mainly because of the relatively short shelf life of this delicate sweet.

Spicing up cheesecake the sandesh way

Ricotta cheese, if treated right, can be a substitute for channa. This recipe features a cheater sandesh, using ricotta cheese streaked with saffron and subtly scented with freshly crushed cardamom.

I have created this recipe for days when time does not allow for the making and draining of channa. It’s a fairly good facsimile for the steamed sandesh known as bhapa sandesh that my grandmother used to make. In this sandesh, instead of cooking the channa over the stove top, it is steamed with gentle and continuous heat.

In my recipe, I bake it on low heat in the oven and then cool and shape it. If you wish, you can garnish these delicate morsels with pistachios, snipped rose petals and anything else that catches your fancy.

Serve them with some chilled saffron almond milk.

That’s bound to warm the cockles of your heart and soothe your senses, all at once.

Baked Orange-Flavored Cheesecake — Bhapa Sandesh

Adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles,” by Rinku Bhattacharya

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes, plus time for cooling

Yield: 12 servings

Ingredients

For the cheesecake:

Clarified butter or ghee for greasing the casserole dish

1 1/2 cups low-fat ricotta cheese (about 30 ounces)

3/4 cup condensed milk (about 12 ounces)

1/2 teaspoon saffron strands

1/4 teaspoon freshly crushed cardamom (about 2 pods)

6 tablespoons fresh orange juice or tangerine juice (about one medium tangerine)

For optional garnishes:

Orange sections

Slivered almonds

Chocolate shavings

The sandesh can be formed into round balls and rolled in chocolate shavings. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

The sandesh can be formed into round balls and rolled in chocolate shavings. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

2. Grease an 8-by-12-inch cake or casserole dish and set aside.

3. In a mixing bowl, beat together the ricotta cheese and condensed milk.

4. Stir in the saffron strands and cardamom, pour the mixture into the greased casserole dish. The objective is to achieve a streaked effect rather than uniform coloring.

5. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes.

6. Drizzle with the orange juice and cool for one hour.

7. Carefully invert the prepared cheesecake onto a flat surface. This can be cut into shapes using a cooking cutter, or formed into round balls.

8. If desired, garnish with orange sections and almonds, or roll or sprinkle with chocolate shavings.

9. Chill for 45 minutes or longer, and serve.

Main photo: Sandesh, an Indian version of cheesecake, can be shaped with cookie cutters or formed into round balls. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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Sopa aguada de fideo, or wet noodle soup. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Mexico loves sopa de fideo, or noodle soup. One, sopa aguada de fideo, which translates to “wet” noodle soup, is like the good, old chicken noodle soup we know and love. A second soup, sopa seca de fideo, or “dry” noodle soup, involves first browning the noodles in hot oil before they soften when absorbing flavorful liquids; it’s a spaghetti-like dish, but it’s called sopa, making it confusing at best. Finally, there’s leftover sopa seca de fideo, made by flattening the leftover noodles in a hot skillet to morph them into a crisp fideo pancake masterpiece.

Pasta or rice made by browning the starch before adding liquid is a pilaf, called sopa seca in Mexico. During their conquests, Arabs and Turks introduced pilafs to Spain, possibly with what is widely known today as Armenian pilaf — a Middle Eastern combination of rice and pasta. Spain, in turn, brought the technique to Mexico along with the European custom of starting meals with soup and then a pasta or rice before the main course.

Cooks have known for ages that noodles take on an additional dimension of toasty, meaty nuttiness when they are sautéed in oil before they finish cooking and softening in broth. “Dry” noodles eventually drink in all the liquid, and their soft texture becomes a perfect spaghetti-like plate of pasta for Monday-to-Friday family meals ideal for children.

Make noodle soup your own with flavor variations

Some delicious flavor variations on sopa seca de fideos include adding a minced chile chipotle en adobo with a tablespoon of the adobo sauce for smoky-spice flavor; adding thinly sliced rings of fried mild ancho chile for taste and texture; substituting four tomatillos for the two tomatoes for a green sauce; and topping it with an avocado cut into cubes and Mexican crema (or sour cream) for luxurious richness. Fresh vegetables such as finely shredded cabbage, squash blossoms and quelites (wild greens similar to spinach) are all wonderful, as well as everyday leftovers.

Another easy home-style dish you can make from sopa seca de fideo is the ever-popular toasted, golden brown fideo pancake made from a bowl of leftover “dry” noodles. As soon as oil starts spitting in a hot skillet, you can dump in the cooked pasta and flatten the mound with a spatula, making a sort of pancake. Soon the bottom will be browned, and you can flip it over and crisp the other side. A fideo pancake can be made with whatever amount of leftover sopa seca de fideo you have on hand, from a cup to a quart depending on the size of your skillet.

In Mexico, pasta nests are the popular choice for noodle sopa, either wet or dry. In the U.S., the Italian brand DiCecco offers the thinnest angel-hair nests readily available. Other nests are thicker, like spaghetti. I prefer Italian or American pasta because most Mexican brands tend to get soggy fast and then become downright mushy. Use what you can get and whatever style suits your palate.

Some of the ingredients in sopa aguada de fideo, or wet noodle soup. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Some of the ingredients in sopa aguada de fideo, or wet noodle soup. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Sopa Aguada de Fideo (Wet Soup)

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

2 quarts water (To save time, you can use 2 quarts low-sodium, organic chicken broth and skip to Step 3)

1 4-pound chicken, cut into pieces, including the neck and back

1 white onion, peeled and cut in quarters vertically through the stem and root ends

2 carrots, cut in half

1 jalapeño chile, stemmed, cut in half and seeded for a mildly spicy broth

1 teaspoon sea or kosher salt

8 whole black peppercorns

4 ounces dried, thin pasta such as whole nests or vermicelli broken in half

Sea salt or kosher salt to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 Mexican (a.k.a. Key) lime, if desired

2 ounces dry noodles

Directions

1. Put the chicken in a large, deep pot with 2 quarts water, onion, carrots, chile, salt and peppercorns. Be sure the chicken is covered with water; if it’s not, add more. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer 45 minutes, uncovered, skimming off fat that floats to the surface, until the chicken is cooked.

2. Remove the chicken and cool. Strain the broth into a clean pot and cool. Save the carrots for the soup, discard the other vegetables. Refrigerate the broth and when cold remove any congealed fat that forms on top.

3. Put aside 2 cups broth if you plan to make sopa seca de fideo. Bring the broth to a boil with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste, and the lime juice if you’d like. (Hint: The flavor makes the soup!)

4. Break the noodles into the boiling broth and boil until they are cooked through. Toss in some shredded chicken and reserve the rest for other uses. Cook a minute or two to heat the chicken before serving.

Sopa seca de fideo. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Sopa seca de fideo. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Sopa Seca de Fideo (Dry Soup)

Prep time: 40 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: 2 to 4 servings

Ingredients

2 cups chicken broth, divided

1/2 cup white onion, roughly chopped

4 garlic cloves, roughly chopped

1 jalapeño chile, stemmed, seeded (for less spice) and roughly chopped

2 red-ripe plum tomatoes, roughly chopped

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 ounces pasta nests, or thin spaghetti broken in half to fit into the bottom of the pot

1/4 cup cilantro or flat-leaf parsley leaves

1/2 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/4 cup queso fresco, queso añejo or parmesan cheese

Note: Cooked vegetables and meats (leftovers are great!) or another spicy chile are tasty additions to sopa seca.

Directions

1. Pour 1/2 cup of the broth into a blender jar with the onion, garlic, chile and tomatoes. Blend until smooth. Pour in another cup of broth and blend again.

2. Heat the oil in a heavy skillet. Brown the broken-up pasta nests (or spaghetti broken in half or other small pasta shapes) in the oil over low-medium heat until they turn a deep, golden brown, about 5 minutes.

3. Pour the blender ingredients over the toasted pasta (It will sizzle!), scraping the pasta from the pan to prevent sticking, and cook 3 minutes. If desired, add 1/2 cup to 1 cup shredded chicken, leftover vegetables or meats.

4. Pour in the remaining 1/2 cup broth with the cilantro, salt and pepper into the bubbling mixture and stir. Cover the skillet, turn down the heat to low and cook 5 to 6 minutes (3 minutes for angel hair) until the pasta is cooked through.

5. To serve, spoon the sopa seca onto plates or into bowls and scatter with cheese. Refrigerate the leftovers and save for a fideo pancake.

A fideo pancake. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

A fideo pancake. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Fideo Pancake

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 10 to 20 minutes, depending on size and thickness of pancake

Total time: 15 to 30 minutes

Yield: The pancake or pancakes can serve as many as desired, depending on how much leftover sopa seca de fideo is available to use.

Ingredients

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

Leftover sopa seca de fideo

1/4 cup shredded fast-melting quesillo de Oaxaca, Jack or mozzarella cheese, if desired

Directions

1. As soon as the oil starts spitting in a non-stick skillet, dump in leftover cold sopa seca de fideos and spread the mound into a flat pancake with a spatula. Cook, uncovered, over medium heat. In about 10 minutes, the bottom will be brown and crisp.

2. Flip the pancake to brown the other side by sliding a wide spatula under it, loosening any pasta that sticks, and flip it over. If the pancake is large and fills the pan, put a large plate face down over the skillet, hold the skillet by its handle and flip it and the plate over and the pancake will be on the plate. Put the skillet back on the stove and slide the pancake into the remaining oil to brown the other side and heat through. If desired, scatter shredded cheese on top and brown under a broiler until bubbling hot before serving.

Main photo: Sopa Aguada de Fideo, or wet noodle soup. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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Despite a bad harvest, plenty of quality olive oils are still available if you know where to look. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sun, Sea & Olives: By now, lovers of extra virgin olive oil have heard the unhappy news of this season’s harvest in Italy, Spain, and France.

zester new

Severe, ongoing drought cut the Spanish harvest in half, which is even more drastic when you consider Spain is responsible for almost half the olive oil consumed worldwide. In France and Italy, it was the dreaded olive fly, Bactrocera oleae (formerly Dacus oleae), that wreaked havoc. Both countries had significant losses. French oil, a minor player on the world scene but beloved by many, was harder hit — a 50 percent loss over previous years, according to the usually authoritative Olive Oil Times. With few exceptions, much of the Italian peninsula was devastated. Central Italy, including Tuscany and Umbria, where much high-quality Italian oil is produced, was particularly hard hit. Total national production is expected to drop by 35 percent over the previous year.

I witnessed much of this from the mini-farm my family maintains high in the hills between Tuscany and Umbria. We have just 150 trees and ordinarily count on producing upwards of at least 125 liters of superb oil. But this year, our resa (yield) was down to 8 percent (in other words, 100 kilos of olives will produce 8 kilos of oil). We usually expect a resa of at least 12 percent — and our total was lower than expected. Not devastating, no, and the oil was exceptional. We were lucky, though, probably because at our altitude, about 2,000 feet, the olive fly has a hard time surviving.

Let me sidestep quickly to explain the olive fly, la mosca. It’s a chicken-and-egg story, so I’ll plunge into the middle. When the soil warms, between March and May depending on climate and weather, tiny adult female flies emerge from their underground pupal stage and soon start seeking maturing olive fruits in which to deposit eggs. The larvae are monophage, meaning they can only subsist on olive flesh, so mother flies solicitously seek the right environment for their babies. A female may deposit 10 to 12 eggs daily, one per olive. And one female may deposit several generations throughout the warmer months. That’s all it takes. The eggs hatch, the maggots feed on the olive fruit — tunneling through it and exposing the fruit to oxidation and rot — and then they drop and burrow into the earth to await another cycle.

La mosca, we were always told, cannot survive at higher altitudes. I interpreted that to mean something about elevation being so displeasing to the bug that it would not climb to our high mountain valley. Olive fly damage, we believed, was restricted to low, marshy, coastal areas of Italy. But this year’s devastation put that theory to rest. Turns out it’s not the altitude but the climate — cold winters with freezing temperatures, which we normally experience in the mountains, kill off any olive grubs before they hatch.

Unfortunately, the 2013-2014 winter was exceptionally mild, the kind of weather that led us to say, callously, “If this is global warming, I’ll take it!” We congratulated each other on our good fortune.

That turned out to be a big mistake, although we were still lucky in the mountains. Our olives were damaged, but not as devastatingly as other growers even 100 feet lower.

Skeptical, I picked a sample batch and took it to the frantoio, the mill where we take our olives. Should we pick, I asked, or just not bother. “No, no,” said Mr. Landi, the miller. “These are fine. These are the best I’ve seen anywhere around. Go ahead and pick!”

Bad olives from the harvest. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Bad olives from the harvest. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

And he was right. I saw cartloads of olives turned away from the mill, in such bad shape — shriveled, moldy, half rotten, destroyed by the mosca — that Landi refused them. The frantoio, which usually operates 24/7 from roughly Oct. 20 till the end of December, closed down in early November. There were no olives left to press.

The inevitable question is: What can be done to prevent this from happening again? There are many suggestions, some fantastical and some deeply realistic, but simply waiting for the climate to re-regulate itself is not on the boards. The climate has changed, irrevocably, as it has throughout the world, and farmers have to live with it.

But an even more pressing question comes from consumers: What can we buy? Whom can we trust? Where can we get reliable oil? Or is there none available at all? (See the list below for my recommendations.)

Once we had our new oil back from the press, we celebrated as usual with an old Tuscan tradition, the zuppa frantoiana, a combined bean and farro soup that is a most elegant way to enjoy fresh, new oil. Coupled with bruschetta (or fettunta), a toasted bread crust liberally bathed in the new oil, it is as close to heaven as a Tuscan olive farmer ever hopes to get.

Tuscan Zuppa Frantoiana (Farro and beans with new oil)

Zuppa Frantoiana. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Zuppa Frantoiana. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

If fresh oil isn’t available, use a robust, well-flavored oil from Tuscany or Umbria; a Picual from Andalusia or a Coratina from Puglia would also be a good choice. This recipe is from my new book, “Virgin Territory,”  published in February by Houghton Mifflin.

Prep time: 20 to 30 minutes

Cook time: 1 1/2 hours

Total time: About 2 hours

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients     

1 1/2 cups dried beans, preferably speckled cranberry beans or borlotti, soaked for several hours or overnight

1 medium carrot, chopped

2 small yellow onions; 1 chopped, 1 left whole

1 or 2 bay leaves

1 1/2 cups farro (emmer wheat berries)

4 garlic cloves, divided

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

8 to 10 thin slices dense, grainy Italian country-style bread, preferably at least a day old

4 to 6 tablespoons olio nuovo (fresh new olive oil), if available, for serving

2 tablespoons finely minced flat-leaf parsley, or more to taste

Directions       

1. Drain the beans and transfer to a large saucepan with carrot, the chopped onion and bay leaf. Cover with fresh water to a depth of 1 inch, bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer, covered, until the beans are very soft, 40 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the age of the beans. Keep a kettle of water simmering and add more water to the beans as they absorb the liquid. They should always be covered with water but not swimming in it.

2. The farro should not need soaking, but rinse it briefly in a colander to get rid of any dust. In a medium saucepan, cover the rinsed and drained farro with boiling water to a depth of 1 inch. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the farro is tender.

3. When the beans are very soft, set aside about 1/2 cup whole beans. Discard the bay leaf and purée the remainder of the beans with all their liquid and the vegetables cooked with them. Use a food processor, a stick blender or put them through a food mill.

4. Drain the farro, reserving the liquid, and add to the puréed beans. Stir in the reserved whole beans.

5. Chop the remaining onion with 3 of the garlic cloves until finely minced. Sauté the onion and garlic in 1/4 cup of the oil over medium heat until soft. Add to the pureed beans and mix well. Taste and add salt if necessary and plenty of black pepper.

6. Lightly toast the bread slices. Halve the remaining garlic clove and rub the slices well with garlic on both sides. When ready to serve, set a toast slice in the bottom of each soup plate and dribble a liberal dose of fresh new oil over each slice. Spoon hot soup over the bread and add another dollop of new oil to the top, without stirring it in. Sprinkle with parsley and serve immediately, passing more fresh new oil to pour over the top.

What should I buy?

Despite this year’s calamity in major olive oil producing countries, there is good oil, even excellent oil, available from producers who were able to control the fly or were sufficiently protected by their microclimate. I’ve tasted these oils and can attest that they are superior, although almost universally a little bland compared to years’ past.

Healthy olives. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Healthy olives. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Keep in mind that oil from a year ago, the 2013-14 season, if it has been properly handled, is also still excellent. As you should do with any fine food product, check the labels, read the fine print and make sure you’re getting what you pay for. Stricter European Union labeling laws enacted in December 2014 require greater transparency and make it easier to determine where products originate. Dealing with online suppliers (see list below) is often better than going to a local gourmet shop, where they may not know much about fine extra virgin, even though they talk the talk.

Here are the oils I’ve tasted recently and unhesitatingly recommend:

Frescobaldi Laudemio: one of the few good Tuscans available this year, Frescobaldi is part of Laudemio, a consortium of top Tuscan producers of fine extra virgin. Imported by Manicaretti.

Titone: certified organic, from western Sicily, consistent award-winner in international competitions; imported by Manicaretti.

Olio Verde: Castelvetrano, southwestern Sicily, made uniquely from nocellara di Belice olives, harvested very green; imported by Manicaretti.

Pianogrillo: made from Tondo Iblea olives in the hills north of Ragusa in east central Sicily; available from Gustiamo.

Il Tratturello: from Molise, made with Gentile di Larino olives along with other varieties, and harvested very early (usually late September); available from Gustiamo.

Cru di Cures: from Lazio, made with a variety of olives, including relatively rare Raja and Carboncella cultivars; available from Gustiamo.

Benzas: made in Liguria, with traditional taggiasca olive that produces a much sweeter oil than most Italians; available from Gustiamo.

Castillo de Canena Picual: certified biodynamic and organic, made in Andalucia and a good example of what can be done with Picual, a problematic but widely used cultivar.

Castillo de Canena arbequina: made in Andalucia with Arbequina olives; like taggiasca, arbequinas tend to make a softer, sweeter oil.

California Olive Ranch, Limited Reserve: first new harvest oil from California, often sold out by March or April, but other COR olive oils are available in retail outlets and from California Olive Ranch’s online shop.

Séka Hills: made from Arbequina olives grown and produced by the indigenous Yocha Dehe Wintun nation in the Capay Valley, Yolo County, northwest of Sacramento; Seka Hills is also packaging in a 3-liter bag-in-box, a great, convenient way to maintain extra virgin in top conditions — see its website for more information. Available from Market Hall Foods and other retailers.

Morganster, Stellenbosch: a Tuscan-style oil from South Africa, imported by The Rogers Collection, available from retail outlets and online at Amazon.com. Southern Hemisphere oils, harvested in spring, are available in the U.S. usually in summer.

Finally, while writing this I received a sample of RAW, an excellent Palestinian new harvest oil, unfiltered and with great spicy flavors, produced by Canaan Fair Trade in Jenin in the northern West Bank. The Eastern Mediterranean has a long history of coping with hot weather problems such as the olive fly — this may be where Italian and French producers need to go to figure out how to work with new climate challenges. Available from www.canaanfairtrade.com.

Trustworthy olive oil importers and distributors

The following are importers and distributors whom I’ve learned to trust over the years. Some are online purveyors, while others distribute through retail outlets.

Gustiamo imports Italian food products, available through the company’s web site and in retail outlets.

Manicaretti imports and distributes Italian food products, available in many retail outlets.

Market Hall Foods retails fine food products, including imported and California olive oils.

Olio2go imports mostly Italian olive oils, selling through its website and at a retail shop in Fairfax, Virginia.

The Rogers Collection imports and distributes high-quality oils and other food products from Spain, Italy, Greece, Tunisia and South Africa.

Main photo: Despite a bad harvest, plenty of quality olive oils are available if you know where to look. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Tortellini, little belly button-shaped stuffed pasta, is one of the iconic dishes of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, especially the Bologna and Modena provinces. Credit: Paolo Barone, Emilia-Romagna Turismo

Italy has dozens of filled pasta that come in different shapes and sizes — ravioli, mezzelune, agnolotti, cappelletti and tortellini. Feb. 13 is National Tortellini Day, a great time to explore these delicious little bundles.

Tortellini is one of the iconic dishes of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, especially the Bologna and Modena provinces. There are many legends on their origin. The province of Modena claims that tortellini were created there after a local innkeeper sneaked a peek though her door’s keyhole and spotted the navel of Renaissance beauty Lucrezia Borgia. Bologna, which in ancient times had a rivalry with nearby Modena, has an even more fanciful claim, believing tortellini were invented there, modeled after the navel of Venus, the goddess of love.

There are many riffs on these stuffed pillows of pasta — tortelloni, tortelli and tortellini — which vary in size. Tortellini, the Italian diminutive of tortelli, are the smallest and tortelloni the largest. Italy takes its tortellini very seriously and on Dec. 7, 1972, Emilia Romagna formally registered the official description of tortellini, including exactly how thin the pasta dough should be (6 to 10 mm), the filling and total final weight of each tortellini (2 grams).

All types of fillings

The traditional filling for tortellini is a mixture of meats seasoned with Parmigiano-Reggiano and nutmeg and served in capon broth. There are also many cheese versions, especially ricotta and spinach filling, that are extremely popular both in Italy and worldwide. For centuries, senior citizens in Italy have eaten meat tortellini plain with just a splash of red wine as a sort of revitalizing pick-me-up. Tortelli are even eaten as a dessert. Tortelloni filled with pastry cream, fried and served coated in powered sugar is a staple at Carnival time in Italy.

Pumpkin is another classic tortelli filling created in Italy’s Lombardy region in the town of Mantua in the 16th century. Pumpkin tortelli was a popular dish for special occasions with poor peasants as, unlike meat, pumpkin was an inexpensive filling. They are still extremely popular in Italy, where they are often served dressed with a bit of balsamic vinegar.

Tortelli are popular with chefs in the United States too, and there are many imaginative fillings and creative sauces that you won’t find in Italy. Chef Tom McNaughton of San Francisco’s famed flour+water restaurant serves an inspired combination of Brussels sprout tortelli with pancetta, red onion and apple butter on his ever-changing pasta-tasting menu. He also makes his own version of classic Italian pumpkin tortelli, filling them with naturally low-in-moisture Cinderella pumpkins and adding toasted pumpkin seeds to the sauce for crunch. (recipe below)

An especially unique version of tortelli, with a cocoon-like shape, comes from Emilia-Romagnia’s Piacenza province. Tortelli piacentini con la coda, “tortelli with a tail from Piacenza” were invented in the mid-1300s in honor of Italy’s famed poet Francesco Petrarch, who was visiting Lord Bernardo Anguissola at his castle in the Piacenza province. They are generally filled with ricotta and spinach, but there are many variations, like the recipe listed below with a mix of asparagus and peas (recipe below).

Another distinctive tortelli, called Tortelli Cremaschi, comes from the province of Cremona in the Lombardy region. They are served as a first course at weddings and for the holidays. They have a unique filling: a mix of bread crumbs, amaretti cookie crumbs, grated Parmesan, raisins and pears, moistened with Marsala wine and seasoned with nutmeg and mostarda, the candied fruit with mustard syrup condiment of that region. There is a festival every year in August in the town of Cremona to celebrate Tortelli Cremaschi, with special tastings, concerts and other entertainments. (recipe below)

Tortelloni With Pumpkin and Sage

From “Flour+Water: Pasta” (Ten Speed Press) by Tom McNaughton

Prep time: 1 hour

Cooking time: 15 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

For the pasta:

Egg pasta dough (use store bought, or see next recipe, tortelli with a tail, for dough instructions)

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 1/4 pounds pumpkin halved, seeded and stringy fibers removed (seeds reserved)

Olive oil for drizzling

Kosher salt, to taste

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

2 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1 tablespoon honey (optional)

Semolina flour for dusting

To finish:

3 tablespoons pumpkin seeds

1/2 teaspoon olive oil

Kosher salt, to taste

5 tablespoons unsalted butter

6 fresh sage leaves, finely slivered

Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions

1. Let dough rest for at least 30 minutes at room temperature. If resting for more than six hours, store the dough in the refrigerator. The dough will hold for up two days in the refrigerator, but it’s best to use it the same day you make it, because the egg yolks will oxidize and discolor the dough over time. Remove the dough from the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before rolling it out.

2. Preheat an oven to 350 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

3. Heat a sauté pan over medium heat and add the butter. Once the butter has melted and the foam has subsided, cook, stirring constantly, until the butter becomes a light tan color. Smell the butter; it should have a nutty aroma. Remove from the heat and set aside.

4. To make the filling, cut the pumpkin in half, drizzle with olive oil and season liberally with kosher salt. Place the pumpkin, cut side down, on the prepared baking sheet. Roast the pumpkin until fully tender when pierced with a knife, 45 to 60 minutes. The pumpkin should be soft to the touch but not mushy or deflated. Scoop out the flesh of the pumpkin and discard the rind. Add the warm pumpkin to a blender along with the brown butter, cinnamon, nutmeg and vinegar. Purée until smooth and season to taste with salt. The purée should have a nice balance of sweetness and acidity. If the pumpkin lacks sweetness and depth of flavor, add the honey to balance the flavor. Spoon the purée into a bowl and fold in the cheese. You should have about 3 1/2 cups filling. Cover and transfer to the refrigerator to cool.

5. Dust two baking sheets with semolina flour and set aside.

6. To make the pasta, slice off a section of the ball of dough, immediately re-wrapping the unused portion in plastic wrap. Place the piece of dough on the work surface and, with a rolling pin, flatten it enough so that it will fit into the widest setting of your pasta machine. Begin rolling the dough through the machine, starting with the widest setting. Guide it quickly through the slot once. Then decrease the thickness setting by one and repeat. Decrease the thickness setting by one more and roll the dough through quickly one more time. Once the dough has gone through three times, once of each of the first three settings, it should have doubled in length.

7. Lay the dough on a flat surface. The dough’s hydration level at this point is so low that you’ll probably see some streaks; this is normal, which is the reason for the next crucial step: laminating the dough.

8. Using a rolling pin as a makeshift ruler, measure the width of your pasta machine’s slot, minus the thickness of two fingers. This measurement represents the ideal width of the pasta sheet, with about a finger’s length on each side, so there’s plenty of room in the machine. Take that rolling pin measurement to the end of the pasta sheet and make a gentle indentation in the dough representing the measurement’s length. Make that mark the crease and fold the pasta over. Repeat for the rest of the pasta sheet, keeping that same initial measurement. For best results, you want a minimum of four layers. Secure the layers of the pasta together with the rolling pin, rolling it flat enough that it can fit into the machine. Put the dough back into the machine, but with a 90-degree turn of the sheet. In other words, what was the bottom edge of the pasta is now going through the machine first.

9. This time around it’s important to roll out the dough to three times on each setting at a steady, smooth pace. If you roll it too fast, it will snap back to its earlier thickness, thereby lengthening the time you’re going through each number.

10. It’s also important to maintain a consistent speed while cranking in order to keep a consistent thickness. You should be able to see and feel the resistance as the dough passes through the rollers. On the first time at each level, the dough will compress. It’s time to move onto the next level with the dough slips through without any trouble. The first few thickness settings (the biggest widths) usually require three passes; once you’re into thinner territory, there’s less pasta dough compressing, so it goes more quickly and two passes get the job done.

11. Keep rolling the dough until it is just translucent, or just slightly thinner than 1/16 inch. If you can see the outline of your fingers behind it, or the grain of the wood table through the pasta, you’re in good shape. For most (but not all) hand-cranked pasta machines at home, it’s the second-to-last setting. Cut a 2-foot section of the dough sheet and cover the rest of the dough with plastic wrap.

12. Using a straight wheel cutter or sharp knife and a ruler, cut the dough into 2 3/4-inch squares. Using a piping bag or spoon, place 2 teaspoons of filling into the middle of each square. Fold the pasta in half so the opposite corners meet, forming a triangle. Use a spritz of water from a spray bottle to help seal it if necessary. Gently press out the air around the filling by running your fingers from the tip of the triangle downward. With your thumbs along the base of the triangle and your index fingers halfway down each side of the triangle, gently pinch your index fingers and thumbs together and rotate your left index finger to fit under the base of the triangle. Wrap the corners around your left index and middle fingers and pinch them together to seal. You should have a small gap between the filling and the pinched dough, like a ring.

13. Working quickly, place the tortelloni on the prepared baking sheets, spaced apart, until ready to cook. Don’t let the tortelloni touch each other or they may stick together. Repeat until you run out of dough or filling. You should have 30 to 40 pieces.

14. Preheat an oven to 350 F. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

15. In a small bowl, stir together the pumpkin seeds with the olive oil and a pinch of salt. Spread the seeds on a baking sheet and toast until golden brown, about 11 minutes. Transfer to a plate and set aside.

16. Drop the pasta into the boiling water. Meanwhile, heat a 12-inch sauté pan over high heat. Add 1/4 cup of the seasoned pasta water and the butter and bring to a simmer. Once the pasta is cooked 80 percent through, until almost al dente, about 2 to 3 minutes, add it to the pan along with the sage and swirl until the sauce coats the back of a spoon. Reserve the pasta water. If needed, add a few more tablespoons of pasta water to keep a saucy consistency and continue cooking until the pasta is tender, about 90 seconds. Season with salt.

17. To serve, divide the pasta and sauce between 4 plates. Sprinkle with Parmigiano-Reggiano and the toasted pumpkin seeds on top and serve immediately

Tortelli With a Tail (Tortelli con la coda)

These charming bundles are really fun to make. Filled with ricotta, peas, asparagus, sun-dried tomatoes and hints of pine nuts, they are seasoned simply with butter, Parmesan and sage. 

From “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 6 minutes

Total time: 36 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

For the filling:

1 shallot, finely minced

Olive oil

1/2 pound fresh shelled peas or frozen peas, defrosted

3 to 4 thin stalks asparagus, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons finely sliced, oil-packed sun dried tomatoes

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons pine nuts, chopped

1 cup ricotta

Parmesan cheese

1 egg

4 to 5 fresh basil leaves, finely minced

For the dough:

2 cups all-purpose or 0 flour

3 large eggs

Olive oil

To finish:

3 tablespoons butter

4 to 5 fresh sage leaves

Parmesan cheese

Directions

For the filling:

1. In a medium pan, cook the shallot in 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat until softened, about 1 minute. Stir in the peas, asparagus and sun-dried tomatoes, cover, and simmer until tender, about 7 minutes, adding a few drops of water, if needed.

2. Lightly mash the vegetables with a potato masher or pulse a couple of times in a food processor, season to taste with salt and pepper, and cool to room temperature.

3. In a bowl combine the pine nuts, ricotta, 1/3 cup grated Parmesan, egg and basil with the pea mixture. Refrigerate until ready to use.

For the dough:

1. Put the flour onto a work surface. Make a well in the center and beat the eggs and 1/2 teaspoon of oil into the well with a fork. Slowly incorporate flour into the eggs until dough forms, adding a few tablespoons of water, if dry. Knead until smooth, about 5 minutes, then form into a ball.

2. Roll out the dough about 1/8-inch thick. Using a cookie or ravioli cutter, cut 3-1/2- to 4-inch circles. Put a heaping tablespoon of the filling in the center of the circle and fold down about 1/4 inch of the top edge of the dough. Then fold a little of the top left corner down over the center, then a little of the right corner over that. Continue folding in alternate sides, moving down the center until you reach the end of the dough circle. Pinch closed the “tail.” Repeat with the remaining dough and filling.

3. Cook the tortelli in two wide pans of salted boiling water until tender, about 4 minutes. Melt the butter and sage in a small saucepan until the butter browns a bit, about 2 minutes. Remove the tortelli using a slotted spoon and served drizzled with the sage butter and topped with grated cheese.

Tortelli From Cremona (Tortelli Cremaschi)

“My mother and grandmother made these tortelli every year with us children each assigned a different task,” recalls Matilda, the gracious home cook from Lombardy who taught me this recipe. “I still remember our shock at seeing so many disparate ingredients end up in the filling. But the biggest surprise came at the end, when our mother would add a crushed mint candy into the filling! She’d stress, whispering, that it was our secret ingredient and not to tell anyone.”     

 Well, as it turns out, virtually every family in Lombardy who I interviewed added a mint candy as their “secret” ingredient! Yet despite all the sweet ingredients, these tortelli are not a dessert — they are eaten as a festive, unusual first course for weddings and during the holidays.

From “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan

Prep time: 45 minutes, plus 1 hour for dough to rest

Cooking time: 5 minutes

Total time: 50 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

For the filling:

Butter

1/2 cup finely ground fresh bread crumbs

1 2/3 cups crushed amaretti cookies

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more to garnish

1/2 cup raisins

1/2 cup mostarda (candied fruit compote in spicy mustard syrup), finely minced

Zest of 1 lemon

1 small pear, peeled, cored, and diced

1 hard mint candy, crushed

Nutmeg

1 egg

1/2 cup sweet Marsala wine

For the dough:

About 4 1/4 cups all-purpose or 0 flour

3 eggs

For the filling:

Melt 3 tablespoons of butter in a small frying pan over medium high heat and toast the bread crumbs until crunchy.

Directions

1. In a large bowl combine the bread crumbs, amaretti crumbs, grated cheese, raisins, minced mostarda, lemon zest, pear, mint candy and freshly grated nutmeg to taste. Add the egg and Marsala and mix until well combined. If it is too dry add a few tablespoons more of Marsala or water. Cover and refrigerate while you make the dough.

For the dough:

1. Put the flour into a bowl, make a well in the center, and beat the eggs and 1/4 cup warm water in the well. Slowly incorporate the flour into the egg mixture, adding a little more water, if needed, until dough forms. Knead until smooth. Form into a ball, cover with plastic wrap, and let rest for about 1 hour.

2. Roll out the dough into a thin sheet, either with a pasta maker or rolling pin. Using a cookie or ravioli cutter or very sharp knife, cut the pasta sheets into 2 1/2- or 3-inch squares. Put a teaspoonful of filling in the center of each square and fold diagonally to make a triangle, pressing the edges closed, then pinch the sealed sides to make three pleats (one at the point, and one on each side).

3. Cook the tortelli in plenty of boiling, salted water. Toss with 4 tablespoons butter and serve topped with grated cheese.

Main photo: Tortellini, little belly button-shaped stuffed pasta, is one of the iconic dishes of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, especially the Bologna and Modena provinces. Credit: Paolo Barone, Emilia-Romagna Turismo

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