Articles in World w/recipe

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 Tenuta Viglione 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 degrees 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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A Tunisian woman picks olives in the fields. Credit: Copyright Les Moulins Mahjoub

Ari Weinzweig got a front-row tasting of Tunisian extra virgin olive oil five years ago, while visiting a sun-drenched Tunisian family farm that’s been making oil since 1891. How did it taste?

“Delicious,” says Weinzweig, co-owner and founding partner of Zingerman’s Delicatessen, now part of the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses in Michigan. “It’s kind of buttery with a little bit of pepper at the end. It doesn’t really overwhelm the food. It adds complexity and flavor.” Weinzweig likens the flavor to southern French oils, “or in a way to the gentle but full flavored oils of eastern Sicily.”

Today, Zingerman’s is among many U.S. retailers selling that oil, from Les Moulins Mahjoub, operator of a 500-acre farm about 25 miles west of Tunis. It’s among a number of quality Tunisian olive oils increasingly landing on global store shelves — this from a country that is the No. 2 olive oil producer, behind Spain.

 A break from the past: from barrels to bottles

Tunisian olive oil has been described as "kind of buttery with a little bit of pepper at the end." Credit: Copyright 2015 Roger Fillion

Tunisian olive oil has been described as “kind of buttery with a little bit of pepper at the end.” Credit: Copyright 2015 Roger Fillion

A decade ago, much of Tunisia’s olive oil was sold in bulk — think barrels — to Italy and Spain. There, it was blended with other olive oils, and resold under non-Tunisian labels. That’s changing.

Tunisian olive oil makers, many of them artisanal producers, are bottling and labeling their oils. They’re winning medals at international competitions — and giving Tunisia needed hard currency. “This is the future for Tunisia,” says Malek Labidi Debbabi, brand manager at Safir, a Tunis-based provider of olive oil.

It’s happening in a nation that underwent a revolution in 2011. Protesters ousted an autocrat. He was replaced with an elected government. The uprising inspired Arab protesters elsewhere, and put Tunisia on the map. Now, Tunisian olive oil companies aim to capitalize the nation’ new-found attention. It’s about branding. “This is what we are looking at — a brand that says: ‘Made in Tunisia,’ ” says Ikhlas Haddar, a director at Tunisia’s Ministry of Trade. (Full disclosure: The Tunisian government paid for my trip.)

A global olive oil producer

Tunisian olive oil makers, many of them artisanal producers, are bottling and labeling their oils. Credit: Copyright Les Moulins Mahjoub

Tunisian olive oil makers, many of them artisanal producers, are bottling and labeling their oils. Credit: Copyright Les Moulins Mahjoub

 

This year, Tunisia became the world’s No. 2 olive oil producer, displacing Italy. Credit a bumper olive crop — output quadrupled — and a poor crop in Italy. Much of the oil is sent abroad. On average, Tunisia exports 150 thousand tons of olive oil a year, including 16 thousand tons of bottled oil, according to the government. In 2006, exports of bottled olive oil accounted for 1% of exports, according to government officials, who want that percentage to rise to 30% within a couple of years.

The government says 80 Tunisian olive oil brands are exported. They go to the United States, Europe, Japan, Russia, South America and elsewhere. Cecilia Muriel, owner of Medolea, an award-winning producer about 20 miles south of Tunis, says: “I have a label. I have an identity. I have a story. … Things are changing, and we have better and better olive oil.”

In the United States, retailers selling Tunisian olive oil include Dean & Deluca, Trader Joe’s, Cost Plus World Market, Amazon.com, Kalustyan’s and Food Town. Quality brands include Terra Delyssa and Rivière d’Or.

Tunisian olive oil in the kitchen

At Primo restaurant in Rockland, Maine, Melissa Kelly drizzles her food with Tunisian olive oil. Credit: Copyright Greta Rybus

At Primo restaurant in Rockland, Maine, Melissa Kelly drizzles her food with Tunisian olive oil. Credit: Copyright Greta Rybus

Melissa Kelly, a James Beard award-winning chef, is a Tunisian convert, using Les Moulin Mahjoub oil in her Rockland, Maine, restaurant, Primo. “I really love the flavor — the spice to it,” Kelly says.

At Primo, Kelly uses the oil to garnish whipped ricotta served with focaccia and fava beans. “It balances out the sweetness of the ricotta,” she says. Similarly, Kelly drizzles the oil on pasta sauced with a red pepper and pork ragù: “The oil’s peppery note balances out the sweetness of the red pepper.”

An olive oil-centric cuisine

At the heart of shakshouka, a poached egg and spicy tomato dish, is olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2015 Roger Fillion

At the heart of shakshouka, a poached egg and spicy tomato dish, is olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2015 Roger Fillion

The ingredients for “Brand Tunisia” include: 80 million olive trees dating back 3,000 years; a climate ripe for olives; and an olive oil-centric cuisine. Think of the spicy chili paste harissa — great on anything, from meat to veggies — and the poached egg and spicy tomato dish shakshouka.

“You can’t imagine that food without olive oil,” says Mediterranean food authority Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of  “Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil.”  She notes Tunisians use their oil for frying, baking, garnishing and making many dishes — from couscous to fish soup. “It’s the DNA of the cuisine.”

Majid Mahjoub, Les Moulins Mahjoub general manager, says: “All of our cuisine is built around olive oil. The olive oil reveals all the tastes.”

Olive oil primes the economy

The olive sector accounts for 20% of agricultural jobs in Tunisia. Credit: Copyright Les Moulins Mahjoub

The olive sector accounts for 20% of agricultural jobs in Tunisia. Credit: Copyright Les Moulins Mahjoub

 

Olive oil exports account for 40% of Tunisia’s agricultural exports, and 10% of total exports, according to government data. The olive sector accounts for 20% of agricultural jobs.

Olive oil employs about 270,000 people, says the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has helped Tunisian olive oil companies switch from bulk to bottles. The agency says olive oil is Tunisia’s No. 5 source of foreign currency earnings.

“It’s a pretty substantial sector for the country’s economy,” says Fariborz Ghadar, professor of global management, policies and planning at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business.

Tunisian Orange-Olive Oil Cake (Gâteau à l’Orange)

Blood Orange Olive Oil cake

This delicious orange-olive oil cake is a favorite recipe from the Mahjoub family, who make it with a blood orange called maltaise de Tunisie, which gives the cake a beautiful red blush color. Credit: Copyright 2015 Roger Fillion

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 50 minutes

Total time: 1 hour 5 minutes

Yield: 8 servings (one 9-inch cake)

From The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook: A Delicious Alternative for Lifelong Health” (Bantam, 2008), by Nancy Harmon Jenkins. Reprinted with permission from the author.

This delicious orange-olive oil cake is a favorite recipe from the Mahjoub family, makers of very fine extra virgin olive oil and other traditional products in northern Tunisia. The Mahjoubs make it with a blood orange called maltaise de Tunisie, which gives the cake a beautiful red blush color, but when I can’t get blood oranges, I make it with small thin-skinned Florida juice oranges. (Thick-skinned navel oranges won’t work.) It’s important to use organically raised oranges, since the whole fruit, skin and all, is called for; otherwise, scrub the oranges very carefully with warm soapy water.

Ingredients

Butter and flour for the cake pan

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

2 small organically raised oranges, preferably blood oranges (about ¾ pound)

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

4 large eggs

1 ½ cup sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Confectioner’s sugar (optional)

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Butter and flour a 9-inch springform cake pan.

2. Sift together the flour, baking powder and baking soda.

3. Slice off the tops and bottoms of each orange where the skin is thick and discard. Cut the oranges into chunks, skin and all, discarding the seeds, which would make the batter bitter. Transfer the orange chunks to a food processor and pulse to a chunky purée. Add the olive oil, pouring it through the feed tube while the processor is running, and mix to a lovely pink cream.

4. In a separate large bowl, beat the eggs until very thick and lemon colored, gradually beating in the sugar. Beat in the vanilla.

5. Fold about a third of the flour mixture into the eggs, then about a third of the orange mixture, continuing to add and fold in the dry and liquid mixtures until everything is thoroughly combined.

6. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake for 20 minutes, then lower the temperature to 325 F and bake 30 minutes longer or until the cake is golden on top and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

7. Remove and let cool. Then invert on a cake rack and dust lightly, if you want, with confectioners’ sugar.

Main photo: A Tunisian woman picks olives in the fields. Credit: Copyright Les Moulins Mahjoub

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Grilled rabbit and sausage skewers (Coniglio alla Molisana)

As warm weather tempts Americans to launch our annual outdoor-cooking adventures, most of us are too content with traditional American fare for the grill. Steaks and burgers are fine, but to wow the crowd consider some Italian classics well-suited for the All-American grill, including a rabbit recipe from the region of Molise.

Rabbit has lost some of its mid-century popularity, but it used to be eaten much more by Americans who were of the Greatest Generation, the generation that served in World War II.

Memorial Day is not merely the American holiday that honors the men and women who died in service to their country in the U.S. military. It’s popularly thought of as the opening day to the grill season. This year you can try something a bit different than hamburgers.

Here’s a recipe from the region of Molise in Italy, which may be familiar to some Italian-Americans.

It’s quite easy and always a surprising hit. I’d serve it with some grilled vegetables and a nice spring salad made with fava beans, asparagus, artichoke, peas and lettuce, for example, simply dressed with a vinaigrette.

Rabbit once an American staple

Rabbit for coniglio alla molisana. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Rabbit for coniglio alla molisana. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

The preparation is called coniglio alla Molisana, grilled rabbit and sausage skewers in the style of Molise. There are all kinds of recipes in Italy for rabbit, wild rabbit and hare. In Sicily, they grill wild rabbits with a marinade of olive oil, garlic, vinegar and oregano.

Grilling suits an Italian classic

Rabbit prepared for grill skewers. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Rabbit prepared for grill skewers. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

In central Italy, hare is spit-roasted with olive oil and flavored with bay leaves, parsley and cloves. Sometimes the grilled hare is served with a sauce made from the liver and blood of the hare and chopped onions, stock, wine and lemon juice.

In Sondrio in Lombardy, a preparation called lepre con la crostada is a spit-roasted hare that is then stewed in cream and crushed macaroons. Calabrians like to marinate the hare in vinegar and scallions overnight and then skewer the meat with pancetta and bay leaves before grilling. This is the version popular in Molise.

Grilled Rabbit and Sausage Skewers (Coniglio alla Molisana)

Grilled rabbit and sausage skewers (coniglio alla molisana.) Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Grilled rabbit and sausage skewers (coniglio alla molisana.) Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 1 hour

Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

Several handfuls of fresh or dried rosemary, oregano and marjoram twigs

1 rabbit, 3 pounds

1 pound mild Italian sausage, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

12 paper-thin slices prosciutto (about 1/4 pound)

12 large fresh sage leaves

Four 10-inch wooden skewers

Olive oil for basting

Directions

1. Prepare a low charcoal fire or preheat a gas grill for 15 minutes on low. Toss several handfuls of mixed dried or fresh herb twigs onto the fire or use the receptacle for that purpose provided with gas grills.

2. Because there is not an abundance of meat on a rabbit, slice the meat very close to the bone, using a boning and paring knife and trying to keep the pieces as large as possible. (Save the bones for the rabbit stock.) Put the rabbit and sausage pieces in a mixing bowl and toss with the parsley and rosemary, salt and pepper to taste.

3. Lay a piece of rabbit on a section of a paper-thin prosciutto slice and roll up. Skewer the rolled-up rabbit with a sage leaf and a sausage piece, in that order, until all the ingredients are used up.

4. Place the skewers on the grill and cook, turning occasionally, until golden brown, about 1 hour. Baste with olive oil during grilling.

Variation: Alternatively, instead of rolling the rabbit pieces in prosciutto, cut the prosciutto into 1/8-inch thick squares of 1 inch and skewer with the rabbit and sausage.

Add a spring salad for a seasonal hit

Spring salad with fava beans, asparagus, artichoke, peas, and lettuce for example, simply dressed with a vinaigrette. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Spring salad with fava beans, asparagus, artichoke, peas and lettuce, for example, simply dressed with a vinaigrette. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

Main photo: Grilled Rabbit and Sausage Skewers (Coniglio alla Molisana). Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright

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A salad of wild greens, drizzled with plenty of olive oil, contains more nutrients than commercially grown greens. Credit: Copyright Rosemary Barron

The diet world is a very crowded place, and advice is constantly changing. But, very slowly, we’re coming to realize what the physicians of Greek antiquity well understood — that “food” is far more than something we put in our mouths and swallow. In fact, the ancient diet of the Cretans is once again gaining favor.

What is the Cretan diet?

A eureka moment early in our own societies’ attempts to understand the relationship between food and health took place 70 years ago. In wealthy America, heart disease was on the rise. A U.S. researcher, Ancel Keys, discovered that in war-torn Europe, especially in poverty-stricken Crete, heart disease was relatively rare. He concluded that it was  because of the Cretans’ diet and way of life. The timing of his study has since been criticized (the Orthodox Church observes many fasts and, in the 1940s, these were strictly adhered to), but the general good health of the people was there for all to see.

I first visited Crete just 20 years after Keys. I was there as a student volunteer on an archaeological dig. It took me more than a day to reach the dig (there was, then, less than 40 miles of tarmac road on the entire island). It was a two-hour walk to the nearest village, and this Crete wasn’t much different from the island Keys experienced. In the weeks I spent there, I felt much healthier than I had at home in London. I knew that the reason for this was the food, and the sharing of our tables with friends and strangers. In short, it was because of the Cretan diet.

Sorting fact from fiction isn’t easy

In the intervening years, a great deal has been written about the benefits and dishes of various diets, especially the Mediterranean diet. The subject of food attracts huge research grants and promotional fees from commercial companies. Unsurprisingly, the core finding in that original research on Crete — the link between local foods, food production, enjoyment of food and good health — has disappeared under a pile of lab-inspired markers and recipes.

Today, some of us can buy Cretan olive oils and cheeses in our stores. These give us the good flavors of the island and the advantage of being able to consume cheeses made with milk from animals that have roamed free over herb-covered hills, but it isn’t the whole story. We can follow the Cretan diet (from the Greek, diaita, meaning “way of life”) to our advantage wherever we are by enjoying a large diversity of foods that are grown or gathered locally, that are at the peak of their seasonal (nutritional) best and that excite us with their different flavors and textures. This holds true for fish and meat, too. They both have seasons, based on the breeding habits of the animals and fish, and their ability to feed well.

Thus, what are now the two most serious Orthodox fasts — Lent (March, lamb-breeding season) and August (when it’s hot and the land is parched) — have their roots in a way of life that was followed long before Christianity. This attitude to true sustainability (which ensures future life) exists on Crete even when food is plentiful, and some of the most appreciated island foods are what we generally consider to be “lesser” fish and meats – octopus and other seafood, tiny fish, snails, offal and small game.

What the Cretan diet can do for you

But we’re not Cretans, so why should we want to follow their diet? There’s one particular reasons why I like to: It means I can rely on my own judgment as to whether something is “good for me,” as I can always check the 4,000 years of food wisdom that has passed down from those smart, early inhabitants of Crete, the Minoans. Following a few simple tenets, and stocking your pantry with some quality ingredients, you, too, can create for yourself the Cretan diet.

Use olive oil like a Cretan

Until a generation ago, Cretans consumed around five times more olive oil than other Greeks, and Greeks consumed per capita the most olive oil in the world. To an islander, all olive oil is extra virgin, and only consumed in the year of its production. There’s plenty of evidence now that olive oil (extra virgin and fresh) is a “super food,” so much of the Cretans’ good health can be traced to its copious use in island kitchens. For those of us without an olive tree, it’s not quite so simple. Extra virgin olive oil is not only expensive, it’s rare for the current season’s product to reach our stores. So we lose out on what is its greatest value for us. One solution is to build a relationship with a producer and buy direct.

Love those green leaves, the wilder the better

A neighbor of mine on Crete was able to identify more than 60 wild greens and herbs. She knew exactly where and when to find certain species, and how they were best served. She was well known locally for her remarkable skill, but every Cretan cook could — and many still can — identify a dozen or so wild greens. Wild greens contain more, and a greater variety of, nutrients than garden- or commercially grown greens. Many of the best garden greens, as far as nutrients and flavor, end up on the compost heap — beet, turnip and radish greens. Farmers markets are now a good source of these greens and others, and many of us enjoy foraging in the countryside, wherever we are. Turned into salads or side dishes, Cretan-style, with plenty of olive oil, they make very good eating.

Look for sheep-milk and goat-milk cheeses

Not only do Cretans have an admirable capacity for consuming olive oil, they are also among the world’s largest consumers of cheese. But their cheeses are different from many available in our stores. Made with milk (mostly sheep, some goat) from animals that eat a melange of wild herbs and greens, and graze outside year-round, they possess nutrients that are missing from cheeses made with highly processed factory-farmed milk. If you can’t buy Cretan cheeses, seek out cheeses made with milk from pasture-raised cows or goats.

Measure herbs with your hand, not with a spoon

Measuring spoons are unknown in traditional Cretan kitchens. Your hand is the perfect measure for herbs and spices. You see what you are adding to a dish and, with dried herbs and spices, the heat of your palm releases their wonderful aromas, in the process delighting you, the cook.

Sweeten the natural way

Honey is another “super food” that Crete has in abundance. With only a few days a year without sunshine and much pesticide-free land, bees have a good life on the island. Honey is more than sugar-sweetener — it has nutritional and medicinal qualities, too. But only when the bees have a healthy environment. A good substitute is local honey from bees that have enjoyed pesticide-free pollen.

Give your gut a helping hand

Yogurt made from the milk of animals that have grazed on herbs or grass and the necessary “friendly bacteria” is a very different food from the commercial yogurts that have a shelf life of weeks. Its bacteria are alive and ready to do their good work, keeping your gut in good order. These bacteria are even more valuable to us now, with so much of our foods being highly processed.

Cretan yogurt, made from sheep/goat milk, is thick, creamy and utterly delicious but, at the moment, travels only as far as Athens. It’s easy to make your own at home; for the best results, use full-fat organic milk. Other ways, Cretan-style, to keep your gut healthy is to include naturally fermented (wine) vinegar, pickles, fish and cured olives in your culinary repertoire.

Drink like a Cretan, too

Existing right at the heart of the ancient “wine world,” it’s no wonder wine is as much part of a Cretan’s diet as olive oil. Like olive oil, wine to a Cretan is a drink made that year from grapes nearby (village wine) and consumed with gusto. Appreciated as it is, village wine takes getting used to, so it’s good news that, today, some of the island’s wineries are winning medals on the world stage. Well-made, modern Cretan wines are particularly interesting when made with the island’s unique, and sometimes ancient, grape varietals. On Cretan tables, wine and food are inseparable. Wine is a digestif, and a way of welcoming all to the table — there’s always plenty of it on Cretan tables.

A Minoan storage pot

A Cretan storage pot (pithoi) can contain grain, pulses or olives. Credit: Copyright Rosemary Barron

Staples for the ‘Cretan shelf’ of your pantry

  • Olive oil: extra virgin
  • Olives: brine-cured, young and green, salt-cured, plump and fleshy, sweet and tiny
  • Capers and caper leaves, salt-packed
  • Red wine vinegar
  • Sea salt, fine and coarse
  • Spices: allspice, ground; cinnamon, sticks and ground; coriander seeds, whole and ground; cumin, whole and ground; black peppercorns; sumac, ground; nutmeg; cloves; vanilla
  • Dried herbs: rigani (Greek oregano), marjoram, rosemary, thyme, sage, bay leaves
  • Dried fruit: currants, small dark raisins, large plump sultanas, figs, prunes
  • Honey: Cretan mountain sage, orange blossom, Hymettus
  • Nuts: whole unblanched almonds, walnuts in the shell, pine nuts, unsalted pistachio nuts, hazelnuts (filberts)
  • Seeds: melon, pumpkin, sesame
  • Dried pulses: garbanzo beans (chickpeas), white beans (great northerns, cannellini), green lentils, brown lentils, yellow split peas, butter (large lima) beans, black-eyed peas
  • Preserved lemons
  • Preserved fish: salted anchovies, sardines packed in olive oil or brine, tuna packed in olive oil, oil-cured bonito (lakertha), sun-dried or smoked mackerel or octopus, smoked eel
  • Preserved grape leaves

From your refrigerator or freezer

  • Cheeses: graviera, aged kephalotyri, manouri, myzithra, brine-stored feta
  • Yogurt: sheep milk, good-quality cow’s milk
  • Fresh or frozen filo sheets: you can store fresh filo for up to 2 days, frozen filo for up to 4 weeks

In your herb garden

  • Flat-leaf parsley, cilantro (fresh coriander), thyme, rosemary, bay laurel, marjoram
  • Fennel, dill, mint (many varieties, including “garden,” small-leaf), small-leaf basil, sage, lovage, savory, chives
  • Rose- and lemon-scented geranium leaves

Beet Greens With Latholemono

Beet greens are only one of a huge variety of wild or garden greens Cretans bring to the table. You can substitute turnip greens, radish tops, amaranth greens, water spinach, ruby chard or mustard greens (charlock) for the beet greens, and use a sauce of olive oil and red wine vinegar in place of the lemon juice.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 2 to 5 minutes, depending on the green

Total time: 7 to 10 minutes

Yield: 6 for a meze serving, 4 as a side dish

Ingredients

1 1/4 pounds beet greens

For serving

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or to taste

Coarse-grain sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste

Lemon wedges

Directions

1. Rinse the greens in several changes of cold water. Remove any tough stalks from the greens and tear the leaves into bite-size pieces.

2. Steam the greens. Or place them in a non-reactive saucepan, add 4 tablespoons boiling water, and cook, stirring once or twice with a fork, for 1 to 2 minutes. Take care not to overcook. Drain well in a colander, pressing the greens against the sides with a wooden spoon.

3. To serve, transfer the greens to a platter and lightly fork them to lift and separate the leaves. Add the olive oil and sprinkle with a generous amount of salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature, with lemon wedges.

Note: Prepare turnip greens and radish tops the same way as beet greens and cook 3 to 4 minutes. Break off the tender sprigs of leaves from water spinach and mustard greens and cook 4 to 5 minutes. Amaranth greens and young ruby chard take only 1 to 2 minutes to cook. Take care not to overcook.

Main photo: A salad of wild greens, drizzled with plenty of olive oil, contains more nutrients than commercially grown greens. Credit: Copyright Rosemary Barron

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