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Stir-frying is among the ways the Chinese prepare peaches that differ from cooks and bakers in the U.S. Credit: Copyright 2015 Laura Kelley

One of China’s many gifts to world cuisine is the peach, and with the season in full swing, now is the time to celebrate this most ancient and beloved of fruits. Peaches have been an important aspect of traditional culture in China, and were first described in the agricultural manual, “Xiaxiaozheng,” written almost 4,000 years ago.

The Daoists considered them important symbols of immortality, and other works celebrate their association with youth. For example, in the “Shijing (Book of Odes),” a compilation of poetry and song from about 3,000 to 2,500 years ago, the peach tree is compared to a young bride with brilliant flowers, abundant fruit and luxuriant leaves:

The peach tree is young and elegant;
Brilliant are its flowers.
This young lady is going to her future home,
And will order well her chamber and house.

Culinary uses

Pickled peaches are traditional in China. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sasimoto/iStock

Pickled peaches are traditional in China. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sasimoto/iStock

The culinary uses of peaches in China are generally more varied than they are in the west. We tend to limit our use of peaches to sweeter dishes, such as pies, cakes, cobblers and fruit salads. Additionally, we use them to add a sweet flavor to oatmeal and other cereals, generally served at breakfast.

In China, peaches are featured in both sweet and savory dishes. From the familiar peach-based duck sauce, and savory and spicy sauces for meats, to pickled peaches and even half-sour peach kebabs, peaches are everywhere. Peaches in China also tend to be eaten when we would consider them to be a bit under-ripe and hard. So, even in sweeter dishes, they often have a slightly sour tang to them when compared to sweet peach dishes in the west.

Peach origins

Peaches ripening on a tree. Credit:Schwäbin (Wikimedia) / Lizenz: Creative Commons CC-by-sa-3.0 de

Peaches ripening on a tree. Credit: Schwäbin (Wikimedia) / Lizenz

Recent archaeological analysis of peach stones (pits) has concluded that peaches were first domesticated in China’s lower Yangzi Valley beginning almost 8,000 years ago. In the area just a little south and west of Shanghai, feral ancestors of today’s peach (Prunus persica) were consciously selected for fruit size and taste, time from germination to fruiting and length of fruiting season.

The domestication process was complete in China by about 6,700 years ago, and the peach was introduced to areas of coastal Japan by about 6400 years BP (before the present). The larger, sweeter cultivars spread quickly and were commonly eaten across China by about 4000 BP. Domesticated peaches were first seen in India by about 3700 BP — a tribute to the power of early Silk Road trade.

This new analysis from a team of international scientists is significant and challenges conventional wisdom that the peach was domesticated in northwestern China. It also questions accepted ideas about how early in the history of agriculture that fruit trees became important crops. The earliest changes from feral fruit type appears almost 1,000 years before the beginnings of rice farming in the Yangzi Valley when rhinoceros and elephants were still common wildlife in the area.

Peach varieties

Fieldcrest peaches are one of 2,000 peach varieties. Credit: Copyright Patrick Tregenza/USDA

Fieldcrest peaches are one of 2,000 peach varieties. Credit: Copyright Patrick Tregenza/USDA

Globally there are more than 2,000 varieties of peaches that can be harvested from late spring through the end of October. Of these, 300 are commonly grown in the United States. Peaches are classified in three groups: freestone, clingstone and semi-freestone. The classifications refer to the way the fruit’s flesh clings to the pit.

Clingstone varietals ripen between May and August, and have yellow flesh that turns mild red to bright red close the pit. Clingstones also have a soft texture, and a high sugar and juice content, making them good for eating raw. Freestones, on the other hand, have firm texture, relatively low level of juiciness and mild sugar content, making them ideal for baking. Freestone varietals bear fruit between late May and October. The semi-freestones combine two of the most prized qualities of clingstones and freestones — a relatively high sugar content and juiciness along with flesh that doesn’t cling to the pit.

Varying by geography

Flat peaches, such as the Saturn, took more than a century to catch on in the United States. Credit: Wikimedia Creative Commons

Flat peaches, such as the Saturn, took more than a century to catch on in the United States. Credit: Wikimedia Creative Commons

Peach varieties tend to vary a great deal by geographical area. In the Central Atlantic, most farms are now featuring Glenglo and Early Red Free peaches with Red Havens ripening in the next week or two. August promises the greatest variety of peaches in this area with peaches available for almost any use.

The global produce market makes many varietals available at supermarkets regardless of the local fruiting season. The most interesting additions to these markets has been the flat Saturn and Jupiter peaches, also called doughnut peaches. These are freestone varieties with low acidity and high sugar content, best eaten raw. Interestingly, flat peaches (Peento variety) were introduced to the U.S. from China in 1869, but the idea of a flat peach didn’t catch on with consumers until the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Chinese stir-fried peaches

This is an authentic, savory way to enjoy the fruits of the summer. For a real Chinese touch, use an under-ripe peach, or one with a low-sugar, high-acid content for a sweet and sour treat.

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 6 to 10 minutes
Total time: 16 to 26 minutes
Yield: 4 servings

 Ingredients

1 tablespoon dark soy sauce

3 tablespoons hoisin sauce

2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

2 to 3 teaspoons lightly roasted sesame seeds

2 tablespoons sugar (Demerara or palm sugar is best)

6 peaches

2 tablespoons sesame oil

2 to 3 tablespoons grated ginger

1 to 2 tablespoons minced garlic (or Chinese chives)

Directions

1. In a small bowl or cup, combine the soy sauce, hoisin, rice wine, rice vinegar and sesame seeds. Add sugar. Mix well and set aside.

2. Thickly slice peaches and remove the stones. You may skin the peaches if you wish, but it is not mandatory.

3. Heat the sesame oil in a wok until it just starts to smoke, and add the ginger and garlic and stir for 1 to 2 minutes until partially cooked. Add the peaches and stir until well coated. Cover and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring several times, until the peaches start to soften. It may be necessary to cook longer if the peaches are very firm.

4. When the peaches are partially cooked, add the soy sauce mixture and stir well to coat. Cover and cook until peaches are of a desired tenderness, about 2 to 3 minutes longer. Serve immediately.

Main photo: Chinese stir-fried peaches. Credit: Copyright 2015 Laura Kelley

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Carrot and radicchio salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

The grill is blasting away, people are licking their chops, and you’re asking yourself, “what sides?” A great approach is a salad, of course. But why stop at merely one salad? And too often that salad is one of the heavy mayonnaise-based standbys, macaroni salad or potato salad.

An approach I love is four salads, all of which should be easy to make and easy to make ahead of time. The first is a refreshing and simple salad of julienned carrots and a slightly bitter red radicchio that you can put together while the meat cooks. Young carrots are cut into matchsticks with radicchio sliced into strips and tossed with extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, and that’s it.

Make the most of ripe tomatoes

Tomato, egg and olive salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright Photo credit: Clifford A. Wright

Tomato, egg and olive salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

A second nice salad is a tomato, egg and olive salad. You would assemble this beautiful dish as you would a work of art. It’s stunning to look at and eat. Choose vine-ripened juicy tomatoes, preferably from your own tomato plant, and the best olives, not too bitter, not too salty.

Hard-boil the eggs and slice them interspersed with sliced tomatoes and black olives, all arranged in a spiral, and garnish with parsley, extra virgin olive oil, fresh lemon juice, salt and pepper. Do not refrigerate this dish.

Take bean salad inspiration from Greece

Mavromakita fasolia (black-eyed pea salad). Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Mavromakita fasolia (black-eyed pea salad). Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Many people must have a bean salad in summer, and a wonderful Greek version is made with canned black-eyed peas. Canned beans will work fine, as long as they are packed only in water. If you can’t find beans canned in water, you can boil some dried black-eyed peas instead.

After this step, the salad takes just five minutes to put together. For six servings, open two 15-ounce cans of black-eyed peas and rinse them. Toss with two trimmed and finely chopped scallions, a little salt, one small finely chopped clove of garlic, three tablespoons chopped fresh dill, five tablespoons extra virgin olive oil and freshly ground pepper to taste.

Show off seafood in a rice salad from Sicily

Riso al mare (seafood rice salad). Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Riso al mare (seafood rice salad). Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

The last of our summer salads is a bit more involved, but not hard, and I provide you a recipe below. Years ago, in Sicily, I had a riso al mare, a seafood rice salad, that was probably the best I’ve ever had.

We were skin diving off the tiny port of San Gregorio and were exhausted and ravenous when we exited the water, which may have helped in the enjoyment of this salad.

Riso al mare (Seafood Rice Salad)

Rice for riso al mare (seafood rice salad). Credit: Copyright 2015 Michelle van Vliet

Rice for riso al mare (seafood rice salad). Credit: Copyright 2015 Michelle van Vliet

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 30 minutes

Total time: 60 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

6 mussels, scrubbed and bearded just before cooking

6 littleneck clams, scrubbed

1/2 carrot, peeled

1 squid, skin pinched off, viscera removed, tentacles cut off below the eyes, washed clean

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 1/2 cups medium-grain rice (Spanish rice)

2 1/2 cups water

Salt to taste

6 cooked medium shrimp, shelled and very finely chopped

One 3-ounce can tuna packed in oil, very finely chopped with its oil

3 ounces Norwegian or Scottish smoked salmon, finely chopped

2 canned hearts of palm, drained and finely chopped

2 teaspoons beluga or salmon caviar (or 1/2 teaspoon black or red lumpfish caviar)

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. Place the mussels and clams into a pot with a few tablespoons of water and turn the heat to high. Cover and cook until they open, 4 to 8 minutes. Discard any that do not open and remain firmly shut. Let the mussels and clams cool, remove from their shells, and chop very finely. Set aside in a mixing bowl.

2. Place the carrot in a small saucepan, covered with water, and turn the heat to high. Bring to a boil and cook until crisp-tender (or whatever you prefer), about 10 minutes. Drain and chop finely.

3. Put the squid body and tentacles into the pot you cooked the mollusks. Add 3 tablespoons water and cook on a high heat until firm, about 4 minutes. Let cool, and chop the body finely. Cut the tentacles in half and set aside. Add the rest of the chopped squid to the mixing bowl with the clams and mussels.

4. In a heavy 4-quart enameled cast-iron pot or flame-proof casserole with a heavy lid, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the rice and cook, stirring frequently, for 3 minutes. Add the water and 2 teaspoons salt, reduce the heat to very low, cover and cook undisturbed for 12 minutes. Do not lift the lid until then. Check to see if the rice is cooked and all the water has been absorbed. If it hasn’t, add a little boiling water and cook until tender. Transfer the cooked rice to a second large mixing bowl, spreading it out so it will cool faster.

5. Once the rice is completely cooled, use a fork to toss it well with the mussels, clams, carrot, squid, shrimp, tuna, smoked salmon, hearts of palm, caviar, olive oil and parsley. Check for seasoning and add salt and pepper as desired.

6. Arrange attractively on an oval platter and garnish each end with the squid tentacles and parsley sprigs.

Main photo: Carrot and radicchio salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

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Soba salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

Soba is a delightfully tasteful and nourishing noodle. Originating in Japan, soba is made with buckwheat, and the nutrient-rich noodle is associated with longevity and eaten year-round.

While soba is traditionally eaten plain with dipping sauce and herbs or in a hot broth, the noodle is finding its way onto Western plates because of its versatility and good flavor.

In more Westernized preparations, soba works great in salads and can work just as well with pasta sauce or pesto sauce. Some Japanese and Italians will raise their eyebrows, but why not?

Soba salad — a perfect summer food

A soba salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kristin Guy. Dine X Design

A soba salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kristin Guy. Dine X Design

I was a traditionalist when it came to soba until I had my first encounter with a soba salad. This happened while my mother was visiting from Tokyo one summer back in the early ’80s, during a heat wave. We accepted a lunch invitation from her Japanese schoolmate, Mrs. Hoffman, who lived in Thousand Oaks, and it turned out Mrs. Hoffman was making us soba for lunch.

As Japanese, we were, of course, expecting zaru soba — cold soba served with dipping sauce and herbs. But when the soba was served, it came in a form that neither my mother nor I had ever seen before — mixed with her garden tomatoes and greens and dressed with a vinaigrette in a big salad bowl.

We were both in shock, to put it lightly. We thought Mrs. Hoffman had become too Americanized and had bastardized our classic noodle. Mrs. Hoffman tossed the salad in front of us and plated the oil-coated soba and vegetables. This was her American husband’s favorite lunch, she told us.

At first, we were skeptical. But my mother raised me to try everything, so I did, and she did as well. The salad tasted surprisingly delicious. The earthiness of the soba gave the salad texture and umami flavor. The tomatoes added a nice sweetness.

We both loved the soba salad that day, and I’ve grown to appreciate a good soba salad. When I make it myself, I use greens, sliced radishes, fava beans, scallions and whatever fresh vegetables I find at the farmers market or in my garden. I serve the salad with a simple vinaigrette. (See recipe below.) I toss the soba with the vegetables at the last minute, so it doesn’t get mushy.

What’s in dried soba?

Soba noodles in dipping sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tomoko Kurokawa

Soba noodles in dipping sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tomoko Kurokawa

While dried pasta tastes pretty darn good, dried soba tastes, for the most part, rather flat and flavorless. Most dried soba fails because manufacturers make a wheat noodle containing only a token amount of buckwheat and still call it “soba.”

According to Japanese standards, dried soba noodles can be called soba only if they contain at least 30% buckwheat flour. Apparently, these standards were set during World War II, when soba production was low.

A few Japanese and American brands, such as Koma Soba and Eden Foods Soba, produce a 100% dried buckwheat noodle. They can be found in some health food stores as well as some Japanese markets, such as Nijiya , Mitsuwa and Marukai. You can’t beat fresh soba noodles, but these dried noodles will give you the traditional Japanese taste of the buckwheat noodle.

Packed with nutrients and flavor

Fresh soba dough being rolled out. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

Fresh soba dough being rolled out. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

Soba has played a medicinal role in Japan since ancient times. Buckwheat has an amino acid composition nutritionally superior to all cereals, surpassing oats, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In Japan during the 17th century, buckwheat helped cure a large outbreak of beriberi, a disease caused by a vitamin B deficiency that results from eating too many refined foods such as white rice.

In addition to its healthful qualities, soba is sought after in Japan for its nutty flavor and good chew, although not too much is known in the West about its delicate flavor profiles.

Like other crops, buckwheat is known to take on the terroir of the land. Kitawase buckwheat from Hokkaido, Japan, is lightly fragrant and chewy, whereas Ibaraki’s Hitachi Akisoba is robust.

Soba made with fresh buckwheat flour tastes vastly different in flavor and texture than its dried counterpart. In the fresh version, you taste the nutty and roasted tea-like flavors of the buckwheat.

It’s faster and simpler to make soba than pasta, because it requires no resting time and the only other ingredient besides flour is water. Fresh noodles cook in less than 2 minutes.

When I make soba, I like using a flour mixture with a ratio of 8 parts buckwheat and 2 parts wheat flour called ni-hachi style soba, which has been a practice in Japan for more than 400 years. The added wheat gives the gluten-free buckwheat structure and stability.

Not all buckwheat flour you find in the U.S. makes good soba, because the milling is sometimes done poorly or it sits on the shelf too long. If the flour runs through your fingers like sand, it will not make good noodles. You should be able to clutch it your hand and form a peak.

In the United States, you can buy fresh, stone-milled, aromatic and coarse buckwheat flours and ni-hachi style soba flour from Anson Mills. I like to blend these varieties to make my own flour mix. You can also find soba-grade flour in Japanese markets such as Cold Mountain from Miyako. Whatever kind you buy, store it in the refrigerator.

Once you have made soba a few times, you can use 100% buckwheat flour instead of the 80% buckwheat-20% wheat mix. For those who are gluten intolerant, substitute tapioca flour for wheat flour in your dough.

Ideas for soba salad

Soba noodles tossed with fresh vegetables and a vinaigrette makes an easy summer salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

Soba noodles tossed with fresh vegetables and a vinaigrette makes an easy summer salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

Many Western chefs and food writers incorporate soba into their cooking. Zester Daily contributor Deborah Madison has written an insightful book called “Vegetable Literacy” that will educate you about vegetables, especially the chapter about the knotweed family, which includes buckwheat as well as rhubarb and sorrel. She includes in the book a recipe for a visually stunning and delicious Kale Soba Salad With Silvered Brussels Sprouts and Sesame Dressing. The salad is what initially turned me on to kale, and I frequently serve it at my soba workshops, because it’s always a hit.

Yotam Ottolengi’s cookbook “Plenty” includes a recipe for a sweet and summery Eggplant and Mango Soba Salad, which has become Yotam’s mother’s ultimate cook-to impress fare. Mango and eggplant? Weird, I first thought. But I was wrong. His plentiful use of herbs like cilantro and parsley and use of sweet and lime garlic vinaigrette in soba breaks all cultural barriers. Everyone loves this soba salad, and so do I.

Easy Soba Noodles for Beginners

Fresh soba noodles. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kristin Guy, Dine X Design

Fresh soba noodles. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kristin Guy, Dine X Design

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: Less than 5 minutes

Total time: About 25 minutes

Yield: 2 to 3 servings

Ingredients

12 ounces (350 grams) ni-hachi soba flour (premixed buckwheat flour and wheat flour)

6 ounces (175 grams) boiling water  (45% to 50% of the total weight the flour)

1 cup (125 grams) flour for dusting (use tapioca or cornstarch flour.)

2 gallons water to cook the noodles

Equipment

Digital scale

Mixing spoon

Rolling pin

Knife

Cutting board

Large pot

Strainer

Directions

For making the noodles:

1. Combine the flour and boiling water in a bowl, massaging the mixture, first with a wooden spoon then using both hands, until well combined. Continue to work the dough until it forms a single mass.

2. Transfer the dough from the bowl to a cutting board. Working quickly and using the heels of your hands, continue to knead firmly until a smooth dough forms. (If the dough feels dry, lightly wet the tips of your fingers with more water, brushing them against the surface of the dough and continue kneading until smooth). The process will take about 4 or 5 minutes, and the final dough will be a little soft and smooth but not sticky.

3. Form the dough into a smooth ball.

4. Dust cornstarch or tapioca flour on a large cutting board. Place the dough ball on the board and lightly sprinkle cornstarch or tapioca flour over the top. Using your palm and the heel of your hand, flatten the ball into a disk about a half-inch thick.

5. Use a rolling pin to roll the disk into a rectangle about 1/18-inch thick.

6. Generously dust cornstarch or tapioca flour over half the dough, then fold the undusted half over, like closing a book. (The cornstarch or tapioca flour keeps the dough from sticking together as it is cut.)

7. Generously dust another crosswise half of the dough with cornstarch or tapioca flour and fold in half again.

8. Starting along the short, folded side of the dough, slice it into very thin (about 1/16 of an inch) noodles.

9. Keep the noodles loosely covered with plastic wrap while you boil the water for cooking.

For cooking the noodles:

1. Bring a large pot of water (at least 2 gallons) to a boil over high heat.

2. Gently dust off the excess dusting flour from the noodles by gently tapping them against the cutting board. Drop the noodles into the boiling water.

3. Keep the water boiling vigorously to prevent the noodles from sticking together. Cook the noodles to al dente, about 90 seconds. (Timing will vary depending on the thickness of the noodles. Thicker noodles will need to cook longer.)

4. Remove the noodles to a strainer set in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking.

5. Prepare a second bowl of ice water and transfer to the second bowl to remove any surface starch and shock the noodles, then drain or strain them.

6. Serve immediately with your favorite salad dressing, dipping sauce or pasta sauce.

Lemon Miso Vinaigrette

Prep time: About 5 minutes

Ingredients

2 teaspoons roasted sesame oil

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 1/2 tablespoons rice vinegar

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon fresh ginger juice

1 tablespoons white miso paste

1/2 teaspoon cane sugar

Salt to taste

Black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Whisk together all the ingredients and blend well.

2. Store in the refrigerator and use as you would any vinaigrette.

Main photo: Soba salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

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Santa Maria di Leuca at Puglia’s southernmost point, where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet. The lighthouse stands atop the Japigo promontory, described by Virgil in The Aeneid. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

If the heel of the Boot, Apulia — Puglia in Italian — has long lagged behind other Italian regions in terms of modernization, parts of it have nonetheless become havens for the likes of royals, film stars and cognoscenti. How could it be otherwise for a peninsula surrounded by 500 miles of coastline and lapped by the pristine waters of two seas? Still, its heart beats to an ancient tempo, heedless of the increasing tourist invasions. This is Greek Italy, and it is steeped in its past. Nowhere is that more striking than at the Pugliese table.

Once upon a wine

The historic casks in the monumental cellar at Torre Quattro date from the era when Puglia's wines were exported in bulk. The casks are about 10 feet in diameter. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

The historic casks in the monumental cellar at Torre Quattro date from the era when Puglia’s wines were exported in bulk. The casks are about 10 feet in diameter. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

On a recent tour of the region’s wineries with an American delegation of importers eager to learn about the ambitious undertakings of a new breed of producers, I found vintners at once devoted to the preservation of their traditions and determined to make unique world-class wines. Whereas previous generations geared their production toward volume of output for foreign markets (mainly France as well as northern Italy) at the expense of quality — a practice that goes back to the Phoenicians — today’s winemakers tend relatively small vineyards and grow native grape varietals barely known outside the immediate area. The consensus among the dozen buyers in our midst was that the wines were good — some very, very good — while selling for less than other wines in their class.

Terroir, terroir, terroir

The organic vineyards and 800-year-old olive trees at Vigneto Amastuolo have been the focus of an ambitious restoration of Martina Franca, Taranto, an important 15th-century agricultural center on the Ionic side of the peninsula. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

The organic vineyards and 800-year-old olive trees at Vigneto Amastuolo have been the focus of an ambitious restoration of Martina Franca, Taranto, an important 15th-century agricultural center on the Ionic side of the peninsula. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Climatic conditions vary throughout Puglia. On the northern plateaus, known collectively as the Murge, the winters are temperate and the temperatures cooler than they are in the Salento, the bottom of the heel, which can be convection-hot in summer, though cooled somewhat by the play of sea currents and breezes blowing across the Adriatic from the Balkans. But overall the region is perhaps the hottest in Italy, baked by the favugno, as the dry wind that blows in from Africa is called here.

If the soil is productive, it’s due less to topography than to the stewardship of the terrain over centuries. For millennia, the Pugliese have supplied the lion’s share of Italy’s three principal staples: wine, wheat and olive oil. They still do, and grow enough table grapes, olives, almonds, cereals and vegetables to feed the rest of Italy and export abroad.

In step with their forebears, many of the vintners I met said that, by working with the natural conditions and the native grapes that thrive there — such as Primitivo, Negroamaro and Nero di Troia — they avoid the soil-punishing practices of modern growing techniques. “We are linked to the traditions of our area,” said Dr. Marina Saponari, sommelier at Valle dell’Asso in Santeramo in Colle, Bari, a limestone plateau in the Murge. “We don’t irrigate or add water at all, because too much humidity causes fungus; we work with the soil, not against it, (plowing) in a horizontal direction to retain the moisture naturally.” “Besides,” said Giuseppe Bino, an oenologist at Vigneto Amastuola in Martina Franca, “organic methods are so much better for your health. And when the wines are aged naturally, you taste real grapes.”

Filippo Montanaro of Vigneto Amastuola, on the Ionian side of the peninsula, described his family’s dedication to organic practices as a way to at once revitalize abandoned agricultural lands and recover an indigenous archeological site that dates to the Bronze Age. Subsequent civilizations inhabited the same high plateau, a strategic point overlooking the Gulf of Taranto from which, on a clear day, you can see all the way to Greece and Calabria. Amastuola’s vines and fruit orchards today carpet the soil in which the Greeks planted grapes and olive trees 2,000 years ago. On the estate, a 15th-century masseria — an ancient Apulian farmhouse where raw ingredients were processed into everything from wine and oil to dairy products, salumi, bread and preserves — is being restored to function as it once did, said Montanaro, whose father, Giuseppe, acquired the 100-hectare estate (almost 250 acres) in 2003. The family has launched an ambitious restoration, including the revitalization of long-neglected 800-year-old olive trees. “Family tradition is very important,” said Giuseppe Sportelli, commercial director and husband of Ilaria (one of three Montanaro siblings that help manage the property), explaining that the monumental project was not just work but a “passione.” Giuseppe Montanaro himself finds that explanation inadequate. “It goes beyond enthusiasm,” he explained, “It is the desperation that the man of the south feels that makes miracles like this happen.”

Food of the ancients

Making the traditional pasta of Puglia, orecchiette, on the street in Barivecchia. Pensioners like this woman sell their pasta from home to supplement their incomes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Making the traditional pasta of Puglia, orecchiette, on the street in Barivecchia. Pensioners like this woman sell their pasta from home to supplement their incomes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Like these winemakers, local chefs also honor the past, looking to the ancestral cooking of their grandmothers for inspiration. I learned the Pugliese mantra of “homegrown and homemade” early, from my paternal grandparents — poor emigrants to America from the very landscape I have described. Some things have changed since they abandoned the fields of Toritto, in which they had toiled as sharecroppers, for lack of enough food for themselves. And some things have not. “Our cooking is based on a paisana (peasant) tradition,” said Anna Gennari of Conzorzio Produttori Vini Manduria, a 400-partner cooperative of Primitivo grape growers in Manduria. “The cooking was simple and not much different throughout the provinces because Puglia was poor,” said Saponari, who is not only a sommelier but also a well-known cooking teacher in Bari.

Cutting-edge Michelin-starred restaurants have been making headlines in recent years for pioneering menus sourced from their local terroir, but Pugliese chefs have always done so. They are weaned on the ancestral flavors and seductive bitterness of wild dandelion greens, mustards, hyacinth bulbs (Muscari racemosum or lampascioni) and other native plants. Unlike in other regions where the tourist routes are more deeply worn, the heritage foods of Puglia — what the Italians call piatti tipici — persist, whether in hotels, simple trattorie or private homes. These include durum-wheat pasta, either fresh or dried, characteristically flavored with cime di rapa (“turnip tops”), simple tomato sauce, or chickpeas; fava-bean purée eaten alongside cooked bitter greens; the ring-shaped breadsticks called taralli, sweet or savory; calzone-like panzerotti and a panoply of other breads and pastries, baked or fried; vegetables, vegetables, vegetables (but little meat); milky fresh cheeses; and fiery peppers — all dressed, naturally, with the numinous olive oil.

Chefs riding the trend for recycling “trash” food could learn something from these old ways: take the traditional pane arso of the cucina povera (“the poor kitchen”), a dark bread made by blending the flour of charred hard wheat with semolina. The custom of incorporating the two harks back to the feudal-estate system, when peasants collected the scorched grains that remained after the post-harvest burning of the fields. Rich-tasting, with a seductively bitter edge, the bread packs 4,000 years of the people’s history into one bite.

Pranzo della domenica: Sunday supper

At a welcome dinner for American wine buyers, we cleaned our plates of traditional local fare. TerrAnima proprietor Piero Conte is standing in the back. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

At a welcome dinner for American wine buyers, we cleaned our plates of traditional local fare. TerrAnima proprietor Piero Conte is standing in the back. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

It’s on Sunday — a customary day of feasting — when Puglia’s cooks pull out all the stops. This is when the meat dishes come out, and the pasta is sauced with ragù, meatballs and braciole.

Gathering together in Bari with the wine buyers, I ate just these braciole — which the locals call bombette (“little bombs”) in the delightful TerrAnima, a Slow Food-endorsed restaurant dedicated to the dishes of the region (its name translates as “Earth and Soul”). If they sound heavy, perish the thought! They are delicate little rolls of meat, lined with pancetta inside and out and stuffed with cheese, garlic and parsley before they are bundled, tied and roasted.

Here’s to the spirit of the pranzo della domenica. Bring on the bombette and by all means, pour the Primitivo!

Bombette (Little Bombs): Stuffed Meat Rolls

Bombette, a Pugliese obsession: strips of meat rolled with pancetta, parsley and caciocavallo cheese. Traditionally made with horsemeat, my version substitutes veal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Bombette, a Pugliese obsession: strips of meat rolled with pancetta, parsley and caciocavallo cheese. Traditionally made with horsemeat, my version substitutes veal. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: About 20 minutes

Total time: About 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Note: These appetizers are traditionally made with horsemeat (not for the likes of former equestrians such as myself), but veal or beef are also used. Whichever you choose, ask the butcher to flatten the meat as thin as possible (1/8 inch is ideal) without tearing it — or pound it yourself if you know how.

Ingredients

1 pound cutlets (scaloppine) from top round of veal, cut into 4 thin slices about 4 inches by 8 inches and pounded to no more than 1/8-inch thick, or 2 half-pound pieces boneless beef top round, pounded to 1/8-inch from 1/4-inch thickness

Extra virgin olive oil

1 small garlic clove, peeled and bruised slightly

Fine sea salt

Freshly milled black pepper

16 thin slices of pancetta

2 tablespoons  fresh minced parsley leaves

3 ounces fresh, semi-soft caciocavallo cheese, cut into 8 matchsticks

Toothpicks for serving

Directions

1. Preheat an oven to 400 F. Select a broiler-proof baking pan large enough to accommodate 8 meat rolls without crowding and grease it lightly with olive oil.

2. Use paper towels to blot the meat dry. Cut each piece horizontally into smaller pieces to yield 8 pieces of meat that are about the same shape and size (about 4 by 4 inches). Rub both sides with the garlic clove (which you can then discard) and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper.

3. Sandwich 1 piece of meat between two slices of pancetta. Sprinkle one side with some of the parsley and arrange a matchstick of cheese crosswise on the center. Beginning at one end, roll it up, gathering the pancetta along with it as you make the roll and tucking in any meat edges that stick out. Secure the bundle with a toothpick and transfer it to the oiled baking pan. Repeat the procedure with the remaining 7 pieces of meat and place in the pan.

4. Slide the pan onto the middle rack of the oven. Roast for 15 minutes, then remove the pan from the oven and change the setting to broil. Turn the rolls over and place the pan under the broiler to color them lightly, about 2 minutes. Take care to keep the pan juices from flaming. Remove at once, pour any remaining pan juices over the rolls and serve immediately.

Main photo: Santa Maria di Leuca at Puglia’s southernmost point, where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet. The lighthouse stands atop the Japigo promontory, described by Virgil in “The Aeneid.” Credit: Copyright 2015 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

 

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La Vie en Rose: Paris is known as the City of Light. But it’s also the city of waiters, and neither the Eiffel Tower nor the Arc of Triumph nor Notre Dame Cathedral — and its gaggle of roofline gargoyles — is more identified with Paris than the garçon de café.

This black-and-white terror serves croque-monsieur, a coupe de champagne, café crème and a whole lot of attitude on almost every street corner in the city.

But he may be at his most formidable at the classy corner cafe, Les Deux Magots, on Boulevard Saint-Germain in the sixth arrondissement. With its dramatic terrace view of L’Église Saint-Germain, this go-to cafe is the perfect spot from which to muse on this often-misunderstood Parisian serveur (waiter) and his unique contribution to French culture.

Can the garçon be arrogant? Yes! Even nasty? Mais oui. Nevertheless, in all his guises through three centuries of French cafe history, this fellow is always efficient, knowledgeable and never boring. He is often as satisfying as the food and beverage he serves (or more so).

But, le garçon, or at least his persona, is in jeopardy. As reported on Feb. 19, 2015, in the Wall Street Journal, the City of Light’s official tourism office is bent on making this paragon of professionalism “nicer.” To what end? To please tourists, bien sûr (of course).

Garçon lite

If the garçon is destined for an attitudinal makeover, it will be, it seems to me, a more fraught transformation of Paris than Baron Haussmann’s demolitions and reconstructions in the mid-19th century under Napoleon III. With Haussmann in charge, Paris lost, tragically, much of its medieval heritage and charm, but gained much more, I believe, in the way of hygiene (a new sewer system) and urban splendor — the grand boulevards, broad sidewalks, parks and the elegant stone apartment blocks we know and love today.

With the proposed sweetening of the garçon, the traditional Parisian cafe may gain tourist lucre, but at the risk of losing its Gallic sizzle, in no small part the gift of the garçon’s trademark sass.

When the dandy meets the butler

The cafe garçon is, after all, intentionally monstrous. A clever, almost Frankensteinian construct, he combines the self-absorbed fastidiousness of the Parisian dandy and the haughty solicitousness of the British butler. The garçon’s costume is no accident.

Cafe French Note

It was designed in the early 19th century to both function and impress. His many-pocketed black vest holds money, les additions (cafe checks), pens and service accessories such as corkscrews and crumb scoopers. The still-popular bow tie adds a touch of fin de siècle panache. With his spotless white apron (less common today), the garçon appears simultaneously hygienic and striking, even sexy, like a chef de cuisine in his crisp whites.

The mastery of this well-trained professional — of his body, of his trays piled high and of his affect — impresses and, yes, intimidates, but at the same time, seduces. He is better dressed and knows more than his customers about classic French food and wine, and he knows it.

The gargling gargoyle

Is there not, in fact, something about the cafe garçon that evokes that other fearsome Paris “gar,” the gargoyle (gargouille in French, pronounced “gar-GOO-ya”) Think about it: Both are “in service,” one to the secular cafe and one to the sacred church. Both guard their respective terrains jealously. And like the garçon, the gargoyle is a construct, a combination of hoary Gothic chimera and drainage technology — the first deflecting the devil, the second the rain.

Both the French and English words — gargouille and gargoyle — derive from the Old French gargole, which means gutter or waterspout and throat. Which is how gargoyles function at the roofline of large, usually religious, structures: Water from the roof flows through gargoyle’s body, exits the throat and is dumped on the ground several feet away from the structure’s foundations. This protects a church’s mortared stone walls and spiritual purity from the ill effects of “dirty” water.

Rabelais’ literary giant, Gargantua

There is no direct etymological connection between garçon and gargouille. “Garçon” appears in French sometime between 1100 and 1300 — as the Old French garçun, from a proto-Germanic word — and refers to a boy of low class or a young servant. The lowly garçon becomes a waiter in the late 18th century with the rise of the Parisian cafe and restaurant.

The “gar” of gargoyle is from the Latin root and means chatter, or the sounds that come from the throat or gutter. This gives us “gutteral” and “gargle.” And, of course, Gargantua, the young giant in Rabelais’ 16th-century novel. At birth Gargantua cries out for “drink, drink, drink.” His father, Lord Grangousier, noting his son’s huge anatomical features, exclaims . . .

Que GRAND TU AS & souple le gousier;” that is to say, “How great and nimble a throat thou hast.” — “The Works of Rabelais” (Bibliophilist Society, 1950)

And so he becomes Gar-gan-tu-a, and the basis of our English word, “gargantuan.” It takes the milk from 17,913 cows to satisfy the giant baby’s thirst.

When Rabelais’ epic satire takes the growing giant to Paris, Gargantua is irritated by the swarms of people gathered around him as he leans up against Notre Dame Cathedral. The young giant proceeds to relieve himself and drowns 260,418 Parisians. Protective gargoyles notwithstanding, Gargantua then steals the bells of Notre Dame, which he uses for a necklace around the neck of his giant horse before returning them.

Hommage au Garçon. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

Hommage au Garçon. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

Hommage au garçon

If after 500 years we are still amused by the outrageous exploits of Rabelais’ trouble-making Gargantua, why can’t we embrace, after 300 years of evolving French cafe culture, the classic, snooty garçon de café as he is? Instead of softening the garçon, let’s cast him in hard, eternal bronze.

Sitting on the terrace at Les Deux Magots, sipping on a coupe or nursing a crème, one can imagine a statue of the garcon de café, a gargantuan vertical gargoyle, spouting water into a broad pond located in the place just outside the entrance to L’Église Saint-Germain. Vive le garçon! Vive le café! Vive la France!

Main illustration: The garçon de café and the gargouille d’Église. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris

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Pasta isn't just for cold weather dinners anymore. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Everyone loves pasta, but during hot summer days a bowl of steaming pasta doesn’t sound that appealing.

Some people make cold macaroni salads, but I think pasta is not meant to be eaten cold and besides, those macaroni salads usually have mayonnaise in them and fill you up too much. The Italians have an ideal solution. Basically it’s a dish of hot pasta that cools down by virtue of being tossed with uncooked ingredients. They call it a salsa cruda. This is a raw sauce used with pasta. It’s quite popular during a hot summer.

The basic idea behind a salsa cruda is that the ingredients in the sauce are not cooked and are merely warmed by the hot pasta after it’s been drained.

Dressed up tuna and vegetables with bowties

Farfalle with raw sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Farfalle with raw sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

In the first dish, farfalle with raw sauce, the salsa cruda is made of canned tuna, fresh tomatoes, fresh basil and garlic. It is tossed with the farfalle, a butterfly or bowtie-shaped pasta.

A first course for a meal with grilled fish

Fettucine with raw sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Fettucine with raw sauce. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

A second idea is fettuccine tossed with a melange of uncooked ingredients such as olives, capers, tomatoes, mint, lemon, parsley and garlic, which is typical of southern Italy and constitutes a raw sauce that screams “summer.” This is a nice first-course pasta before having grilled fish.

Letting your pasta cook its own sauce

Spaghetti with sardines, tomato and mint. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Spaghetti with sardines, tomato and mint. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

In a third preparation, also perfect for a hot summer day, the salsa cruda is made with canned sardines tossed with fresh mint and parsley, and ripe tomatoes that are heated through only by virtue of the cooked and hot spaghetti. It should be lukewarm when served and is nicely accompanied by crusty bread to soak up remaining sauce.

Creamy salsa cruda with ricotta

Tubetti with ricotta, artichoke, Prosciutto and mint. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Tubetti with ricotta, artichoke, Prosciutto and mint. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

This dish can be whipped up in no time as it uses a raw sauce with fresh ricotta that melts slowly from the heat of the pasta, but not completely, and with thinly sliced prosciutto. And better still would be to use fresh artichokes, if you don’t mind the work involved. Instead of garnishing with parsley, you garnish this dish with finely chopped tomato.

Fettuccine With Raw Sauce

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

3/4 pound spaghetti

Salt to taste

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint leaves

1 large ripe tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped

2 canned sardines in water, drained and broken apart

2 teaspoons capers, chopped

Extra virgin olive oil to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

1. 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.

2. In a large bowl that will hold all the pasta, stir the garlic, parsley and mint together and then mix with the tomato, sardines, capers, olive oil and a pinch of salt. Transfer the pasta to the bowl and toss with the sauce and abundant black pepper and serve.

Tubetti With Ricotta, Artichoke, Prosciutto and Mint

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1 pound tubetti or elbow macaroni

Salt to taste

1/2 pound ricotta cheese

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

8 to 9 fresh or canned artichoke foundations, chopped (14-to 16-ounce can) or 3 very large fresh artichokes, trimmed to their foundations

1/4 pound thinly sliced prosciutto, chopped

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh mint

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 small tomato, peeled, seeded, and finely chopped

Directions

1. 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.

2. Meanwhile, in a bowl, gently toss the ricotta, olive oil, artichokes, prosciutto, mint, lemon juice, salt and pepper together. Transfer the pasta to the bowl and toss with the cheese and artichoke mixture. Sprinkle the tomato on top and serve.

Main photo: Pasta isn’t just for cold-weather dinners anymore. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

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Nukazuke, or pickled vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

Traditional pickled foods have become increasingly popular, with their palate-pleasing spicy, sour, sweet and salty flavors and varied textures that provide health benefits as well as serving as a digestive aid.

The most popular traditional pickled foods in America are dill pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi — all of which share one thing in common: They are vegetables pickled in a brine, vinegar or other solutions and then left to ferment, a process called lacto-fermentation. Just the sound of the words make our stomachs feel better.

How does lacto-fermentation work? During fermentation, a beneficial bacteria called Lactobacillus, which is present on the surface of all vegetables and fruits, begins to metabolize its sugars into lactic acid; this is a natural preservative that inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria.

Eating pickled foods in moderation keeps your gut flora healthy and supports immune function by providing an increase in B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, digestive enzymes and other immune chemicals that fight off harmful bacteria.

Pickling: A universal practice

Among fermented foods, pickles remain popular in the U.S., along with sauerkraut and kimchi. Credit: Copyright Thinkstock

Among fermented foods, pickles remain popular in the U.S., along with sauerkraut and kimchi. Credit: Copyright Thinkstock

The universe of lacto-fermented foods includes so much more than dill pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi. Since ancient times, people around the world have used this method to preserve vegetables and fruits when refrigeration was not available, and the tradition of pickling has carried on.

The Japanese have a diverse variety of pickles that use solid rather than liquid pickling mediums as such miso, sake lees and rice bran — all of which undergo the process of lacto-fermentation. The result is a distinctly tangy, crunchy and delicious assortment of pickles.

I am particularly fond of the nutty aroma and mild flavor of nukazuke, a traditional Japanese pickling method using fermented rice bran. Like wheat bran, rice bran is the outer layer of the grain that is removed during the milling process. In the U.S., most of the bran gets sold off to produce cattle feed and dog food, but the Japanese use it to pickle any type of firm vegetable, including carrots, cucumbers, cabbage, radish, zucchini, kabocha and burdock. The vegetables are buried in nukadoko, the fermented medium, to pickle for just a couple hours or overnight and reused again. The flavor of nukazuke is not as sour or spicy as kimchi or sauerkraut, but the health benefits are just as high.

How to maintain the nukadoko medium

Your nukadoko base for fermenting should be kept in a cool place and mixed daily to maintain it. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

Your nukadoko base for fermenting should be kept in a cool place and mixed daily to maintain it. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

Maintaining a nukadoko medium involves one crucial task: keeping it alive. You must stir the medium with your hands once a day to aerate it, so the bacteria can breathe and do their thing. It takes no more than a minute of your time, so you can incorporate it into your daily ritual.

Nukadoko also loves the good bacteria that live on your hands, so don’t use a wooden spoon. You will notice the medium has a distinct sour smell, which indicates the bacteria are actively working. I find the smell rather pleasant.

I keep my nukadoko in the pantry, which makes the daily stirring an easy task, but some people prefer to keep it in the garage. When choosing a spot to keep it, be sure it’s a cool place. If you don’t have one, you can keep it in the refrigerator, but the fermentation process will be much slower.

Every family has its own version of nukadoko. In the old days, one of the heirloom gifts a Japanese mother passed onto her daughter as a wedding gift was nukadoko, and it was not uncommon to find a nukadoko that was more than 50 years old.

Sad to say, this custom is disappearing in Japan and convenient foods are taking over. However, a slow movement is underway to restore traditional foods like nukazuke, including here in America. I have third- and fourth-generation Japanese-Americans who come to my pickling workshops to learn how to make their grandmothers’ nukazuke.

Sourcing nuka

Fresh organic rice bran can be used to create a pickling medium. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

Fresh organic rice bran can be used to create a pickling medium. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

Sourcing rice bran in the U.S. is an easier task than I thought, because rice is grown widely in California. You can buy stabilized bran (commonly pasteurized) at Japanese markets or online, or ask your local rice farmer if they have some to sell. I contacted my friend Robin Koda at Koda Farms in South Dos Palos, one of the oldest rice farms in California, and she was happy to supply me with her raw bran, knowing its intended purpose.

One of my students commented that making nuka pickles is a bit like making compost, and it’s true. You will need a clay jar, an enameled pot or glass bin with a lid. I have an enameled pickling jar that’s about 30 years old, and it still works perfectly. The nukadoko medium has a texture similar to a wet sand or soft miso paste. Preparation of nukadoko takes about a week. If you have any leftover rice bran, keep it in the refrigerator or freezer because it is highly perishable.

Making nukadoko may seem a little tedious and time-consuming, but once you have been trained in the medium, you can keep it for years and pass it on to friends and loved ones. That’s what I enjoy doing.

Nuka Pickle Medium (Nukadoko) and Nuka Pickles

Vegetable scraps being used to train the nukadoko pickling base. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

Vegetable scraps being used to train the nukadoko pickling base. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

Ingredients

2 1/2 pounds of rice bran (nuka)

6 ounces sea salt

7 1/2 cups of filtered water

1 (6-inch) piece of konbu, cut up into small pieces

4 to 5 Japanese red chili peppers, seeded

Discarded ends and peels of vegetables (such as cabbage, carrots, cucumbers and daikon radish, but not onions)

2 garlic cloves, peeled (optional)

Directions

For making the nukadoko:

1. Place the rice bran in a heavy cast-iron pan and toast it over low heat. Use a wooden spoon or spatula to stir the bran so it doesn’t burn. The toasting process takes about 10 minutes. Once done, remove from heat and let stand.

2. In a separate large pot, combine the salt and water and bring to a simmer. Mix to dissolve the salt to make a brine. Remove from heat.

3. Slowly add the brine to the rice bran and mix it with a paddle until it reaches a consistency comparable to slightly moist sand.

5. Add konbu, chili peppers and garlic (if using) to the mixture.

For training the nukadoko and pickling:

1. Start by putting various vegetables scraps (try cabbage leaves, eggplant, celery and carrots) in the rice bran bed for about three days to allow them to lightly ferment. Take them out and discard them.

2. Repeat this three or four times, then you are ready to start pickling.

3. The nukadoko will develop a unique aroma and look like wet sand. At this point, a fermenting culture has been established and the nukadoko is alive and contains active organisms such as yeast and lactobacilli. You can now start putting vegetables into the nukadoko for fermenting. To speed the pickling process, you can rub a little salt on whole or large chunks of vegetables such as cucumber and carrots before you put them into the nukadoko. If the nukadoko becomes too wet, just add a little bit of rice bran with salt or a piece of day-old bread. Again, place fresh vegetables into the base for 1 to 2 days. Cucumbers may take only 2 to 3 hours on a warm day and 4 to 6 hours on a cold day.

Tips for maintaining the nukadoko base:

You will need to mix the nukadoko base once a day, turning it with your hand. If it the base feels dry, pour in a little beer. (Flat beer will work fine.)

If your most recent batch of pickles tastes too sour, add fresh nuka and salt (5 parts nuka to 1 part sea salt).

If you are traveling, you should move the nukadoko base to the refrigerator. The bacteria will go dormant, but you can reactivate them by giving the base a stir and leaving it out at room temperature. If you see any mold build up, simply scrape it off and add some fresh nuka to the mix.

Main photo: Nukazuke, or pickled vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sonoko Sakai

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Tossing the ingredients for maze-gohan. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

These days, many are choosing a gluten-free lifestyle. But artificially contrived gluten-free products such as pasta, bread and baked goods can be disappointing. With its rich tradition of rice-based dishes, Japanese cuisine beautifully suits a gluten-free diet. Here are six delicious, easy to prepare, gluten-free Japanese rice dishes for spring and summer.

Stir-fried rice with hijiki and Parmesan

Stir-fried rice with hijiki and Parmesan

Stir-fried rice with hijiki and Parmesan is an inspired fusion creation. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Stir-fried rice dishes make use of one- or two-day-old rice and other ingredients that happen to be on hand. This recipe is one I invented for American audiences to showcase hijiki, my favorite Japanese seaweed. Rich in dietary fiber and minerals, it also has a pleasantly crunchy texture and tastes of the sea. It uses the black hijiki along with Parmesan cheese, cilantro and ginger.

The cheese is the secret to the success of this dish, whose recipe was in my first cookbook, “The Japanese Kitchen.” Fifteen years later, hijiki is much more widely available in this country.

Maze-gohan with parsley, shiso and egg

Maze-gohan, or tossed rice, with parsley, dried purple shiso leaf and egg. Credit: Copyright 2015 by Hiroko Shimbo

Maze-gohan, or tossed rice, with parsley, dried purple shiso leaf and egg. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Maze-gohan, translated as “tossed rice,” is a simple dish of cooked rice tossed with flavorings. This version uses chopped parsley, dried purple shiso leaves and scrambled egg — ingredients that elevate the flavor, color and texture of plain cooked rice into a festive dish. Western-style flavorings can be used instead, such as ground black pepper, crisp butter-browned sliced garlic, finely chopped parsley and toasted pine nuts.

Maze-gohan goes well with any protein dish, such as fish, chicken or meat.

Donburi with teriyaki steak

Donburi with teriyaki steak. You can also substitute chicken. Credit: Copyright 2015 by Hiroko Shimbo

Donburi with teriyaki steak. You can also substitute chicken. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Donburi dishes combine cooked rice with a topping of separately cooked ingredients and sauce. This one is a beef lover’s favorite: I cook the steak in a skillet, cut it into cubes and flavor them with a sizzling sauce of shoyu (Japanese soy sauce) and mirin (Japanese sweet cooking wine) to create everyone’s favorite teriyaki sauce.

When it’s time to serve the donburi, put the teriyaki beef and sauce over freshly cooked rice for a quick, mouthwatering dish. The sauce trickles down and gives its delicious flavor to the rice. A similar dish can be made with chicken teriyaki.

Takikomi-gohan with chorizo and peas

Takikomi-gohan, a sort of Japanese paella, with chorizo and peas.

Takikomi-gohan, a sort of Japanese paella, with chorizo and peas. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

Takikomi-gohan is rice that is cooked with seasonal vegetables and/or seafood or poultry in kelp stock or dashi stock. It’s like Japanese paella or risotto.

Spring pea rice is a traditional version of takikomi-gohan for spring or summer. The key to producing the best green pea rice is to blanch the peas in stock, then cook the rice in that stock and add the briefly cooked peas toward the end of rice cooking. This method keeps the peas very green and firm.

I emphasize the paella comparison by adding chorizo as well as ginger. Unlike paella or risotto, though, takikomi-gohan usually has no added butter or oil. This allows all the ingredients to speak for themselves in the dish.

Takikomi-gohan with mushrooms

This takikomi-gohan is made with three kinds of mushrooms. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

This takikomi-gohan is made with three kinds of mushrooms. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

For a version of takikomi-gohan studded with mushrooms, I use shimeji mushrooms for savory umami flavor, maitake for their fragrance and king mushrooms for their distinctive texture.

For all these rice dishes, I recommend that you use freshly picked vegetables and mushrooms from your local market or store. The natural taste and sweetness will come through.

Corn rice with shoyu and butter

Corn rice with shoyu and butter is an irresistible combination.

Corn rice with shoyu and butter is an irresistible combination. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

This version of takikomi-gohan is my favorite summer rice dish. I toss the steaming hot, corn-studded rice with the butter and shoyu. As the butter melts in the hot rice with shoyu, it creates a rich and savory flavor that everyone loves.

The diverse world of Japanese cuisine contains hundreds of such naturally gluten-free dishes. If you are looking for more recipes, consult my two books, “The Japanese Kitchen” and “Hiroko’s American Kitchen.” Both are widely available and contain detailed instructions to make some of the dishes described here.

Corn and Ginger Rice with Shoyu and Butter

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

2 ears corn

2 1/4 cups short or medium grain polished white rice, rinsed and soaked 10 minutes, then drained

2 1/2 cups kelp stock or low-sodium vegetable stock

1 teaspoon sea salt

1 1/2 ounces peeled ginger, finely julienned (1/2 cup)

1 tablespoon shoyu (Japanese soy sauce)

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

Directions

1. Remove the corn husks and quickly grill the ears over a medium open flame on a gas stove, turning them until the entire surface becomes lightly golden. Or, boil the corn in salted water for 1 minute.

2. Cut each ear of corn in half. Place each half ear on the cut end in a large, shallow bowl and use a knife to separate the individual kernels from the cob. Repeat with all the pieces. You will have about 1 1/2 cups of kernels.

3. Place the drained rice and the stock in a medium heavy pot. Sprinkle the corn, salt and ginger evenly over the rice. Cover the pot with a lid and cook the rice over moderately high heat for 3 to 4 minutes or until the stock comes to a full boil.

4. Turn the heat to medium-low and cook the rice for 6 to 7 minutes, or until all the water is absorbed. Turn the heat to very low and cook for 10 minutes.

5. Remove the lid and add the soy sauce and butter. With a spatula, gently and quickly toss and mix the rice. Divide the rice into small bowls and serve.

Main photo: Tossing the ingredients for maze-gohan. Credit: Copyright 2015 Hiroko Shimbo

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