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Willy Wonka might not agree, but not all chocolate is created equal. To find out what makes the difference between a $1 candy bar and an artisanal, single-origin chocolate, I went to Tuscany, Italy, to tour the headquarters of Amedei, a four-time winner of the Oscars of chocolate — the coveted Golden Bean award. There I went on a guided tasting of chocolate that Food & Wine Magazine calls “the world’s best.”

My visit began with a tasting of the various Amedei products, including tiny bars called Napolitains, assorted handmade pralines, and finally the best hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted, dense and rich with a hint of toasted almonds.

Amedei is the only Italian chocolate company that supervises chocolate production at every stage, from growing the cocoa bean to the finished product. During the visit, Cecilia Tessieri, owner of the Amedei chocolate company, explained chocolate’s complexity and gave an insider’s peek at how the pros taste chocolate.

Chocolate tasting tips

Tessieri says that to truly appreciate fine chocolate, you must use all five of your senses.

See. Start with your eyes. Great chocolate should have a nice sheen, but not be too glossy. Too glossy means that instead of using only expensive cocoa butter, less costly vegetable oils were added.

Hear. Break off a piece. Do you hear a snap? That’s a sign that the cocoa butter was properly crystalized.

Smell. Fine chocolate offers lovely complex aromas, and depending on where it’s from, may show off hints of toasted almonds, honey or dried fruit. Defective or lesser chocolate smells burnt or metallic.

Touch and taste. Put a small piece of chocolate onto the center of your tongue, but don’t chew! Fine chocolate has multiple flavor levels and chewing doesn’t allow time for them to reveal themselves. Cocoa butter is solid at room temperature, but soft at body temperature, giving us the chance to experience the silky feel of the chocolate as it melts in the mouth.

How chocolate is made

The visit continued with a video on harvesting chocolate and then a tour through Amedei’s facility for converting cacao beans into award-winning chocolate. “It all starts with the cocoa beans,” said Cecilia, holding a handful of aromatic toasted cocoa beans. A single cacao tree bears about 30 usable pods each year, yielding roughly 1,000 cacao beans, enough for about 2 pounds of chocolate.

The mature pods are handpicked and then carefully cut open so as not to damage the beans, which must remain intact to maintain a full chocolate flavor.  When a cacao pod is first opened, it has no hint of chocolate fragrance. Instead, the white fruit pulp has a lovely peach and tropical flower aroma and a fruity tart-sweet flavor.

The pulp and the beans are pulled out of the pod and placed in a container, often a simple wooden box lined with banana leaves, where it is left for seven to nine days. The beans ferment in the pulp’s juices, infusing them with additional flavor. They are then spread out to dry in the sun for about a week where they are gently turned, often by women on tiptoe, in what Cecilia calls the “the cacao dance.”

When the beans arrive at Amedei, Cecilia begins the process of converting these precious cacao beans into chocolate.

1. Cecilia does a “cut test,” slicing a sample of the beans in half to confirm their quality. Cacao beans must be perfect to be included in Amedei chocolate—uniform and smooth.

2. Then they are roasted in special proprietary indirect fire equipment.

3. After that, the concasseur, or nibbing machine, separates the husks from the beans to obtain tiny bits of cacao beans, the “nibs.”

4. Next, the nibs are ground into a thick paste called cocoa mass. I tasted the warm, fragrant mass and found it perfect, but Cecilia explained that it was still too acidic and dense. The missing crucial step is called “conching.” a slow, gentle grinding process lasting 72 hours that results in a silky smooth chocolate with perfect flavor. Finally comes tempering, melting the chocolate to just the right temperature to crystallize the cocoa butter. At this stage, the chocolate is ready to be made into the various Amedei products.

 

Cacao pod

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Mature cacao pods are hand-picked and then carefully cut open so as not to damage the beans. Credit: Amedei.

From around the world

Cru, a French term meaning “growth,” refers to wines from a particular area. Since the ’80s the term is also used with other products that change flavor depending on where they’re made, including beer, whisky and chocolate.

“Chocolate can taste very different depending on where it comes from,” explains Cecelia during our tour. She scours the globe in search of the very best tasting beans. She illustrated those differences in a guided tasting of Amedei’s Cru line, which includes chocolates made exclusively from cocoa beans from various countries, explaining the special aroma and taste of each:

Grenada

Delicate, creamy taste with a lovely long-lasting finish.

Madagascar

Smells like hot chocolate with hints of lavender and herbs.

Rich with lovely hints of citrus and mint that almost tingles on the tongue.

Ecuador

Delicate roasted cacao aroma and the intriguing scent of a forest in the fall. The taste is just as complex, with a sequence of flavors revealing themselves, from green tea to pistachio and almonds to tropical fruit.

Jamaica

Fabulously complex aroma of dates, figs, apricot jam and ginger with a touch of carob, olives and freshly cut wood. The taste delivers all that the aroma promises, with the tang of candied orange peel and jam and richness of butter. Deep dark chocolate taste, yet not at all bitter.

Trinidad

Gourmet aromas of cocoa powder, Cuban cigars and a summer garden filled with fresh tomatoes with a taste of walnuts, vanilla and sweet persimmons.

Venezuela

Delicate aroma of sugar, warm melted butter, dried fruit and sandlewood. Naturally nutty taste of hazelnut, walnut, almond and cashew with slightly spicy hints. Intense flavor that is long lingering and rich.

Groups of at least four, and up to ten guests, can schedule a tour of Amedei in Italy. For information and reservations, go to their website, call 011-39-0587-48-4849 or e-mail office@amedei.it

There is one Amedei store in the United States, so if you can’t get to Italy, you can visit their shop at 15 East 18th St. in New York City, which features daily free samplings.

Torta Tenerina is a five-ingredient flourless chocolate cake. Credit: Francine Segan.

Torta Tenerina is a five-ingredient flourless chocolate cake. Credit: Francine Segan.

Torta Tenerina (5-Ingredient Italian Chocolate Cake)

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 55 minutes

Yield: 8

This flourless cake has a crisp, macaroon-like top layer and a dense, incredibly moist center. As the cake cools, it collapses just a little, creating a pretty webbing on the delicious crust. It’s made with only five ingredients, so be sure to use only quality chocolate like Amedei. A must-try classic! Recipe is in "DOLCI: Italy’s Sweets" by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2011)

Note: The cake's total time includes 20 to 30 minutes of rest time.

Ingredients

  • 7 tablespoons, 3 ½ ounces, unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
  • 7 ounces dark chocolate, 70% cacao or higher, preferrably Amedei
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 2 tablespoons potato or cornstarch

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch spring form cake pan .
  2. Melt the butter and chocolate in a small bowl, either in the microwave or over a saucepan of gently boiling water.
  3. In a large bowl beat the sugar and egg yolks with an electric hand held mixer until creamy and pale yellow. Add the chocolate-butter mixture and beat until creamy. Add the potato starch and mix until well combined.
  4. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Slowly, using a spatula, fold the egg whites, a little at a time, into the chocolate mixture until combined.
  5. Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan. Bake for about 20 minutes, until just set in the center. Don’t over-bake.
  6. The cake will continue to set as it cools. Allow it to rest for about 30 minutes before cutting it until it collapses and the top crust cracks a bit.
  7. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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Spaghetti with Sun-Burst Tomatoes. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sun, Sea & Olives: Forty years ago, I took my young family to live in the hill country between Tuscany and Umbria, Italy. Our mountain neighbors were all self-sufficient farmers, raising almost their entire food supply themselves. They grew vegetables and beans, harvested chestnuts and mushrooms, raised pigs, chickens, rabbits and sometimes sheep. Only salt and pepper for curing pork, coffee and infrequently a piece of chocolate came from a shop in town, 20 kilometers (12 miles) away.

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Of course they made wine — thin, sour stuff — and pressed their olives to make musty, fusty oil (pork fat was much more to their liking). And they grew their own wheat, threshed it and had it ground into flour for the unsalted bread that was then and still is today a Tuscan staple without which no meal is complete. Sometimes, in fact, bread was the meal, maybe with a thin slice of prosciutto or guanciale from the family pig or a dribble of rancid oil to add flavor.

So wheat was the primary crop, the survival mechanism on which everything else depended, and the annual harvest in July was a moment fraught with anxiety that erupted into celebration once the anxiety was relieved. Our valley had one threshing machine, and it went from farm to farm, each day fetching up in a different place, and the farm folk followed it. When it arrived at our neighbors’ farm, people descended for miles around to help with the hot, dirty, tiring work of the harvest and take part in the feast and dancing that followed.

I think about all this now because it is once again harvest time in the Mediterranean. The wheat harvest begins in North Africa in June, rolling north, across Anatolia, Italy, and Spain, as the tall stalks fall to the cutting blades. The landscape that was green a month earlier is bleached now with the color of ripening grain and then golden with the chaff left behind after the harvesters have come through. Our neighbors no longer grow their own wheat, but the harvest is still critical throughout Tuscany.

Durum wheat, the go-to choice for pasta

A lot of this wheat, especially in the hotter, drier parts to the south, is hard durum wheat (Triticum turgidum, var. durum), the venerable species used for so many traditional Mediterranean preparations, from bulgur (burghul) to tarhana to couscous to pasta. American cookbook writers used to claim durum semolina was difficult to work in the home, that you needed special heavy equipment to turn it into pasta. But in fact, throughout the south of Italy, especially in Puglia, hard durum wheat, as semola or semolina, is regularly used in home kitchens to make orecchiette and other traditional pastas. And the great breads of Altamura and Laterza get much of their character and their golden color from being made with locally grown durum wheat, using a slow-rising lievito madre (what we might call sourdough) and baked in a wood-fired oven.

Italian law requires all commercial pasta to be made from durum wheat, one reason why Italian pasta in general is of such high quality. The government is concerned with maintaining quality because Italians are world-champion pasta eaters — between 26 and 28 kilos (61.6 pounds) per capita annually depending on the study. And most of that is commercial or boxed pasta (called in Italian pasta secca).

A more useful distinction to keep in mind, however, is the one between industrial and artisanal pasta. The artisanal product is generally of much higher quality, and, like most artisanal things, costs more, a reflection of greater care in production. To qualify as artisanal, pasta must be made at consistently low temperatures (no higher than 122 degrees F) from start to finish, extruded through bronze dyes (producing a roughened surface) and dried slowly. Low temperatures keep the wheat from cooking, so it retains its pale color; the high temperatures and Teflon dyes of industrially produced pasta result in a golden yellow color and a sleek, plasticized surface.

Gragnano, a small city south of Naples, has been at least since the 18th century one of those places Italians cite for high-quality artisanal pasta. Why? Several historical reasons — access to excellent durum wheat through the port of Amalfi, just over the Lattari mountains on the Golfo di Salerno; clean, fresh water cascading from those same mountains to power the grist mills that ground the grain; and a constant flow of brisk breezes to dry the pasta, which once hung on rods in the streets of Gragnano until it was ready to ship to hungry Naples across the bay. Nowadays, Gragnano has a coveted Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) from the European Union, a certification that pasta with that seal has been made according to precise regulations.

 

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Threshed wheat. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Pastificio Faella is one of nine Gragnano producers that make IGT pasta. I spent some time recently in Gragnano with Pastificio Faella’s Sergio Cinque. As we toured the factory, Cinque described the various phases of drying and the importance of each one. “If it’s not done properly,” he said, “there’s a real risk of fermentation and that will result in pasta with an acid flavor.”

But it was the perfume of wheat that imbued the small factory with its warm, nutty, slightly dusty fragrance. To understand the high quality of artisanal pasta, Cinque suggested this test: Prepare equal quantities, say 100 grams, of ordinary commercial pasta and Pasta Faella. Bring two pots of water to a boil and add the pasta, one to each pot. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes and then measure.

You’ll find, he said, that the Faella pasta will expand notably in the water, while ordinary pasta will remain the same. That’s because under high-temperature drying, a crystallization — another word is plastification — takes place, and the pasta doesn’t absorb water at the same rate. What that means is that artisanal pasta is more easily digested and gives a greater sense of satiety with less of the actual food.

I left with a kilo package of Faella’s excellent spaghetti tucked under my arm. When I got home, I turned it into this pasta dish, a variation on one in my daughter Sara Jenkins’ lovely cookbook, “Olives and Oranges.”

Spaghetti With Sun-Burst Tomatoes

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 or 3 pints (1½ pounds to 2 pounds) mixed small tomatoes—cherry, grape and currant
  • Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • About 1 pound (500 grams) spaghetti, preferably IGT Gragnano
  • Handful of chopped fresh arugula, leaves only (discard tough stems)
  • ⅔ cup grated or shaved bottarga or freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions

  1. Bring 4 to 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil.
  2. While the water is heating, add the oil to a large, heavy skillet and set over medium-high heat. When the oil is very hot (but not smoking), add half the tomatoes, sprinkle them quickly with salt and cook, tossing the skillet, until the tomatoes start to wrinkle and collapse. Add the rest of the tomatoes and continue cooking and tossing for another 2 minutes. (Yes, some of the tomatoes will be more cooked than others—that’s the point.)
  3. Push the tomatoes to one side and add the garlic to the pan. As the garlic starts to soften, mix it in with the tomatoes, gently pressing the tomatoes to release some of their juices. When the sauce is thick, remove from the heat and add a pinch of salt and a few turns of the pepper mill. Keep the sauce warm until the pasta is done.
  4. Add a big spoonful of salt to the pasta water and let it come to the boil again, then plunge in the pasta and give it a stir with a long-handled spoon. Cover the pot until the water returns to the boil, then remove the lid and let the pasta cook vigorously until done—about 10 minutes.
  5. Prepare a warm serving bowl by adding some pasta water to the bowl to heat it up, but don’t forget to tip the water out before you add the pasta to the bowl.
  6. Drain the pasta, transfer to the warm bowl and immediately toss with the warm tomato sauce, stirring in the arugula. Toss again, then sprinkle with the bottarga or cheese and serve immediately.

Notes

If possible, select from an array of little grape and cherry tomatoes, mixing them up for a colorful presentation. We like to serve this with grated bottarga (salted and dried fish roe) on top, but you could also serve it with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Main photo: Spaghetti With Sun-Burst Tomatoes. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Nonna Italia's Pizza Baby. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

I’m sipping a local rosé at a corner table in Nonna Italia ristorante, not far from the ferry stop in the charming old town of Stresa, on Lago Maggiore, Italy. Stresa is north of Milan in lake country, the beautiful region known for mountain vistas, ancient villas and George Clooney’s pad, even though George is at Como, one lake over.

Donato and Roberta Tagliente are the owners of this friendly spot that gets more crowded than a jar of Italian anchovies. During the week, come early or late and dine comfortably; weekends are a madhouse, especially in August, when Nonna Italia is open daily and outside tables spill into the narrow cobblestone walk street.

Nonna Italia

Via Garibaldi 32

Stresa, Lago Maggiore, Italy

Telephone: 03 23 93 39 22

info@nonnaitalia.net

www.nonnaitalia.net

Summer hours (June through September): Open seven days, but closed for lunch Mondays and Tuesdays except for August, when it is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week.

Winter hours: Closed Tuesdays and for two weeks during Christmas and the New Year holidays.

Pizza Baby for kids and kids at heart

Friendly servers Maya and Alice (fluent in several languages) effortlessly take care of everyone, even though the place is packed with people downing pizzas, risotto and their famous “mixto” plate of three local cheeses, jams and honey, prosciutto, coppa and pancetta with gnocco fritto, fried and lightly salted pizza dough squares, instead of bread.

About 15 years ago, when Puglia-born Chef Donato had a tiny takeout pizza stand, he came up with the idea of a child-friendly pie that invited grumpy kids to dig in with a grin. Pizza Baby was born. He’s now a local celebrity (watch out, George) at 2-year-old Nonna Italia, where children clamor for a sun-shaped pizza with a smiley face.

Don’t get me wrong, this pizza is definitely not just for kids. Donato starts with Italy’s best 00 flour and lovingly forms each ball of yeasty raised dough by hand. Pizza Baby is the same size as a regular pizza, but Donato clips the 14-inch circle of dough with a pizza wheel in 1-inch cuts around the edge in eight evenly spaced spots.

He then brings the dough between two cuts together and pinches it tight to form a triangle; he does this eight times around the pie, finally gently pulling at the points to nudge the dough into a neat circle. The same intensely delicious tomato sauce that’s used for all the restaurant’s pizzas is ladled on top and spread around. Donato then generously covers the sauce with local mozzarella like a heavy winter snow on nearby ski slopes; a paddle slides underneath, and in a flash it’s into the hot oven. A few minutes later, a golden crust with slightly charred edges and bubbly, melted cheese lets you know that the pie is done.

Again using the paddle, Donato slides the pizza onto a serving plate. Now for the fun part: He affectionately arranges two black-olive half eyes, a cherry tomato nose and a curved slice of cucumber for the sun’s bright smile.

As I bite into one of the super-crispy, slightly thick and oven-charred raised triangles, I notice how the yeasty dough’s air pockets add to the sublime texture. This is definitely a flavorful pizza for grownups who love a great crust. Happy faces all around.

View the videos below to see how easy the process is to make the sun shape, and then try your hand at making a Pizza Baby at home. Preheat your oven to the highest setting, and then place the rack and a cookie sheet (or, better yet, a pizza stone) at the lowest level. Use homemade or purchased dough and sauce, and have the few toppings at hand.

Main  photo: Nonna Italia’s Pizza Baby. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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Walnuts. Credit: iStockphoto

Sun, Sea & Olives: The feast of St. John the Baptist, is a date laden with folklore and myth, like all those associated with equinoxes and solstices. It’s June 24, and throughout Europe it’s referred to as midsummer, even though summer officially begins only three days earlier. In many cultures it’s a tradition to celebrate with bonfires, almost always an indication of some ritual connection to the sun.

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This year, I got up very early, just at dawn on the 24th, and went to check on the great walnut tree. This sturdy specimen planted 40 years ago now lords over the front lawn and spreads over the surrounding grapevines, which annoys the grapevine master to no end, for reasons I’ll get to later. The boughs are low and heavy, so it was easy to reach the round, green fruits, still quite firm to the touch.

Within a few minutes I had 32 of them in my basket, harvested well before the dew had time to dry. That is the beginning of the prescription for nocino – the nuts must be harvested on the 24th of June before the dew is dry. Nocino is a fabled Italian digestif, pride of farmhouse kitchens in Tuscany and many other parts of the country too. Some nocino is available commercially (Padre Peppe is a famous brand from Puglia), but what most people seek out is the straight-from-the-farm, homemade, handmade miracle of bittersweet flavors — the kind, most people will swear, their grandmothers were noted for and no one has been able to duplicate since.

Actually, making nocino isn’t all that difficult, apart from the requisite early rising. Once the nuts are brought into the kitchen, they are split or cut with a knife or partially crushed in a mortar, my preferred method. The insides are pure white, but you can clearly see the milky embryo of what will become, by October, a full-fledged walnut.

In my kitchen, the lightly crushed fruits go into a glass jug along with pieces of cinnamon stick, whole cloves, crushed nutmegs and a half dozen star anise. Some cooks might add a whole vanilla bean, split down the middle to release its flavor, but I keep it pure. I add 2 liters of alcohol and 3 cups of sugar dissolved in a cup of boiling water and let it cool before adding to the mix. Plus the zest of a lemon and three or four thin slices of the same lemon. The jar gets sealed, set on a sunny shelf and left, according to my instructions, for a philosophical month, during which it is stirred or shaken daily.

What on earth is a philosophical month? After a lot of searching, I figured out a philosophical month is 40 days. The term comes from medieval alchemists, though why it’s called that and why it differs from a normal lunar or solar month I cannot say.

But now the jug sits on my kitchen window ledge, growing steadily darker, to be siphoned off and bottled Aug. 5.

And why is the master of the grapevines annoyed with the walnut tree? Part of the walnut’s mythology has to do with its potent effect on growing things, doubtless owing to the fact that the tree, roots, leaves and fruits are all laden with tannins; the branches that extend over the vines inhibit them from further growth. “The tree of idleness” is what they called the big, old walnut at the kafeneion – the local cafe — in the Cyprus village where we once lived, and the old gents of the village idled their time away under its branches, loath to disturb themselves for another coffee or ouzo, with just enough energy to throw the dice for another game of trictrac.

Years ago, when our walnut tree was much younger, Bruno, the neighboring contadino, warned me never to fall asleep beneath it. “You might never wake up,” he said with a dark look. The tree of witches, I’ve also heard said. The legendary witches’ tree of Benevento in southern Italy, under which they held their Sabbaths, was a walnut.

Walnuts show up in variety of Mediterranean dishes

A week after making nocino, I finally got the last traces of walnut juice out of my fingernails, which were stained first yellow and then dark brown with that tannic juice. The whole process led me to think more about how valuable walnuts are and what an important but all too often unacknowledged ingredient they are in traditional Mediterranean cuisines, from Greece, Turkey and Lebanon, where crushed walnuts add flavor and crunch to sweet, honey-drenched pastries, all the way to the Perigord region of southwest France, where walnut oil is often used in cooking, and sweet vin de noix, an aperitif rather than a digestif, is made from walnuts — also harvested on the morning of St. Jean Baptiste.

It’s not surprising they should be so prevalent. First off, their healthfulness: Walnuts are one of the few plant sources for valuable omega-3 fatty acids, so necessary for human metabolism. Vegetarians and vegans especially are well advised to add walnuts to their diets because the only other good, readily available source of this essential fat is oily fish. Moreover, walnuts, like extra virgin olive oil, have a high percentage of antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and monounsaturated fat — all things that can make us live longer and more healthfully.

 

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Nocino on a sunny window ledge, Day 1. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

But real happiness comes from the good things walnuts do in just about anything they’re added to. Pounded walnut sauces exist in every Mediterranean cuisine: Turkish cooks make tarator, a walnut-based sauce, to go with fried seafood — a great summertime combination for al fresco dining — and in Italian Liguria, the original pesto genovese, that quintessential basil sauce so characteristic of the season, seems to have been made as often with walnuts as with pine nuts. Here are some hints to spur your imagination:

  • Add a little walnut oil to a salad dressing for extra richness.
  • Toast a handful of chopped walnuts with some breadcrumbs to make a great topping for any sort of baked cheese pasta.
  • Add a handful of chopped walnuts to bread or biscuit dough.
  • Add walnuts and little knobs of feta or soft goat cheese to a plain green salad, or combine walnuts and goat cheese to make an elegant topping for pre-dinner crostini, served with a glass of chilled rosé.
  • Make a simple, seasonal dessert: a handful of walnuts and a bowl of fresh-sliced, tree-ripened peaches.

Or do as cooks in the eastern Mediterranean do and serve a very plain cake, not too sweet, made from olive oil and yogurt, enriched with toasted chopped walnuts; it makes a fine accompaniment to seasonal berries or those same sliced peaches. And here’s a secret: It’s just as good for Sunday breakfast as it is for Saturday night’s dessert.

Walnut Cake with Yogurt and Olive Oil

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Yield: Makes 1 (8-inch) cake

This is from “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook”; the original was made with mastic-flavored olive oil, but because that is not easy to find, I’ve adapted it using vanilla instead.

Ingredients

  • Butter and flour for an 8-inch springform pan
  • ¾ cup walnut meats
  • ¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • Pinch of fine sea salt
  • 4 medium eggs, separated
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons plain yogurt (full fat is best)
  • ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla essence

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 300 F. Butter and flour the cake pan.
  2. When the oven is hot, spread the walnuts on a sheet pan and set in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until they are lightly toasted. Let cool, then chop finely or grind to a fine texture in a food processor, but do not let them process into a paste. The walnuts should still be a little gritty.
  3. Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt and toss with a fork to mix well. Add the ground nuts and mix again.
  4. Beat the egg yolks in a separate bowl, gradually beating in about half the sugar. Beat until the yolks are thick and pale. A little at a time, beat in the yogurt, olive oil and vanilla essence, beating well after each addition. Fold the flour mixture into the yolks.
  5. With clean beaters, beat the egg whites to soft peaks, then sprinkle with the remaining sugar and beat to stiff peaks. Stir about a quarter of the beaten whites into the yolk-flour mixture, then, using a spatula to bring up the batter at the base of the bowl, continue folding the remainder, about a third at a time. When everything is well combined, turn it into the prepared cake pan.
  6. Transfer to the oven and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the top is golden, the center is firm and the cake pulls away a little from the sides of the pan. Remove and transfer to a cake rack. When cool, remove the cake from the pan.
  7. Serve the cake plain, or top it with a sprinkling of powdered sugar or serve with a dollop of whipped cream or ice cream (maple walnut perhaps?). You could ice the cake if you wish, but that’s not in the Mediterranean tradition.

Main photo: Walnuts. Credit: iStockphoto

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The quintessential Egyptian morning dish: ful medames. Credit: Roger Ainsley

My wife doesn’t much care for it, though that might be downplaying her disdain. When done well, it’s a two-day commitment, a tall order in this 24/7 working world. When prepared poorly, it turns into a nondescript glob with condiments (thank God for fresh lime juice).

And yet I find myself trying to produce an authentic bowl of that quintessential Egyptian morning dish: ful medames. Trying, and so far falling shy of succeeding, though a convenient cheat has opened the way to ful on demand. (More on that later.)

I could cite cultural affinity and the gene pool to explain my interest, but my good Egyptian mother was not inclined to plop native dishes down on the dining table. She was more intent on helping her mostly American-born children — and there were a lot of us — feel at home growing up in suburban Seattle. Meals were Anglo-American affairs, though very much in keeping with a tight budget. For breakfast: Kellogg’s Corn Flakes from spring to fall, Quaker Oats from fall to spring.

Dried fava beans endlessly cooked with tomorrow in mind were not on the menu for a working mother.

While ful medames stretches deep into Egypt’s past — Wikipedia notes that Ramses II was known to have offered nearly 12,000 jars of beans to the god of the Nile — my acquaintance only goes back to the previous decade. I was on assignment in the region in 2003 and figured it was about time I met my mother’s hometown. On the first morning in Cairo, I took a stroll around the tangled streets of Zamalek before seeking out breakfast. Ful was, of course, being served. And while I can’t say that first bite was revelatory, it was exotic enough to stick in my mind. Ful became inexorably linked to Egypt, a notion confirmed by later trips.

So when I recently came across a reference, I decided it was time to learn how to make this dish. Not that the basics are very complicated: soak dried fava beans in water for 12 to 24 hours, cover them with a change of water, bring them to a boil and then turn the heat down as low as possible while maintaining a slight simmer in a covered pan for 12 hours, only cracking the lid if you must to confirm if more water is needed. When they’re tender, mash up the beans to a rough texture, dress them with salt and condiments and you’re good to go: a vegetarian-friendly breakfast, high in protein and fiber, low in fat.

Condiments set off ful medames’ earthy mash of beans

Cooked long, the tough skins of the beans eventually go al dente (though one recipe suggesting only an hour-long simmer left skins like shards of plastic sandwich bags that were not about to surrender to teeth). My Zester Daily colleague Clifford A. Wright in his wonderfully encyclopedic book A Mediterranean Feast calls for putting the pre-soaked beans in boiling water for 10 to 15 minutes and then peel off the skin before the 12 hours of cooking begins. The beans break down to a creamy, soup-like consistency rather than a chewy, chunky texture. He, like others, also suggests cooking the beans with onion, tomatoes and red lentils.

The secret to ful medames is the condiments, which set off the earthy mash of beans. Red pepper flakes or cayenne pepper do well by it, as do ground cumin and coriander, lime juice, garlic sauce, tahini, grated boiled eggs. My personal favorite: topping them with a drizzle of date molasses and a runny sunnyside-up egg.

And then there’s the cheat: a recipe by Rebecca Federman, food blogger at Cooked Books, which appears on the Christian Science Monitor’s site. With a nod to a friend and to Cairo-born chef Claudia Roden, she offers up what surely is a sacrilege in some circles: ful made in minutes with canned fava beans. And if it’s not authentic, it’s quick enough for any fool to make and an earthy alternative to yet another morning spent with corn flakes.

Ful medames from cans: Perhaps not authentic, but quick enough for any fool to make. Credit: Roger Ainsley

Ful medames from cans: Perhaps not authentic, but quick enough for any fool to make. Credit: Roger Ainsley

Rebecca Federman’s Ful Medames

Prep Time: 2 minutes

Cook Time: 8 minutes

Total Time: 10 minutes

Yield: 16 ounces

Serving Size: 2

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup olive oil or more.
  • 1 medium onion, chopped fine
  • 2 or 3 cloves of garlic, chopped fine
  • 1 can of ful (fava beans), drained (I add some of the liquid from the can to the dish. You may want to add all the liquid, but then watch the salt).
  • Some cumin, coriander, cayenne
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

  1. Heat the olive oil over medium heat until warm and then add the onion until softened, about 5-6 minutes.
  2. Add the garlic until fragrant, 30 seconds or so, and then spices and salt and pepper.
  3. Cook until warmed through. Add more liquid or olive oil if the dish looks to be dry.
  4. Serve with lemon wedges, hard-boiled egg, and parsley and a drizzle of olive oil on top.

Main photo: The quintessential Egyptian morning dish: ful medames. Credit: Roger Ainsley

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Open Sandwich on Rye With Cold Potatoes. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

The harvest is in full bloom during midsummer in Denmark. Seasons are short here, and some vegetables and berries are in season for only a few months or even weeks.

Because of this, it’s important to celebrate and enjoy things when they are here. As such, in May and June I eat asparagus almost every day, and then, as much as possible, strawberries and new potatoes when they start coming out.

Of course, you can find imported vegetables and fruit year-round, but they do not taste the same as the seasonal produce grown locally.

New potatoes command attention in Denmark

Denmark has the perfect climate and soil for potatoes, so there are many types  from which to choose. Denmark is a nation of potato lovers, and they collectively agree that the new summer ones are the best in the world. When the potatoes are available, it will be mentioned on prime-time news.

A lot of people grow potatoes in their gardens, or allotments. They also like to buy them as fresh as possible, often from roadside stalls in the country. It is a trust system, where you take the fruits and vegetables you want and leave money in a jar or tin.

You cook new potatoes the same day you harvest or purchase them, rinsing them in cold water and scraping the peel off with a small, sharp kitchen knife before boiling them in salted water. The best ones are small- to medium-sized, not too big. At the height of the season, you can buy them fresh every day.

Some debate exists about when the potato arrived in Denmark, but most likely it came with the French Huguenots in 1720. Up until 1820, the peasants were apprehensive about potatoes; it was the people of nobility who were most interested because they wanted to show they practiced the latest ideas from Europe. But new research shows this is not the whole truth. The peasants were merely cautious because if the new crop failed, they could not bear the risk. They started growing potatoes on small plots in their gardens or in a corner of their farmland.

When the potatoes proved to be strong and somewhat reliable, Denmark became a potato-growing nation and potatoes became the staple food of day laborers. They planted and harvested them, and some of their pay was in potatoes.

New potatoes. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

New potatoes. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

In my grandparents’ summer home, my grandfather was responsible for scraping the potatoes. When I was little girl,  he would sit every morning on a three-legged stool in the back yard scraping potatoes with this pocketknife, drinking his morning beer. Sometimes other locals would come by to sit and chat with him and have a beer. When he was done with the potatoes, he would hand them over to my grandmother; she would keep them in a pot with cold water until it was time to cook.

We always had a hot meal at noon and then smørrebrød, an open sandwich on rye bread, for dinner at night. If there were any leftover potatoes, they would be served cold on rye bread for the evening meal (see recipe below) as, in Danish, “en kartoffelmad.”

Potatoes keep well over the winter and are, therefore, a perfect staple food for the cold northern climate. For the past 150 years, the main meal in Denmark has evolved around boiled potatoes. It is a food tradition shared in northern and Eastern Europe.

The way potatoes are cooked has changed over the past 30 years. Apart from boiled, as mash and served as condiment, potatoes are now also used a vegetable and cooked in many different ways with a variety of spices. Another tradition is warm potato salad made with white onions, vinegar and sugar, which is called old-fashioned potato salad. For a more modern summer version, cold potatoes are served in a salad with fresh red onions, radishes and loads of fresh parsley.

In the summer, new Danish potatoes are so good they become the center of the meal. They are boiled in salted water and served warm with butter, dill and flaky salt on the side. You don’t really need any more than that. They are also very good served with smoked mackerel or herring with a smoked cheese dressing, chives and radishes.

In these recipes I have used three types of potatoes. The purples are called Conga, the whites Sophia or Fjellfinn. You can substitute potatoes grown where you live. Find a potato that is firm and has a nutty sweet taste. Most important, it must not be flowery.

Open Sandwich on Rye With Cold Potatoes

Yield: 4 servings for lunch

Ingredients

    For the sandwiches:
  • 1 pound medium-sized potatoes
  • 4 slices of rye bread, thinly sliced
  • 12 radishes
  • 1 leek
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons cooking oil
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 4 fresh lovage leaves to decorate with
  • For the cream:
  • 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons Greek yogurt, 10 percent fat
  • 2 tablespoons chopped lovage (or parsley)
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • ½ teaspoon lemon zest
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

  1. Boil the potatoes in lightly salted water. They should still be firm when done. Depending on the size, it will take between 12 and 20 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, mix all the ingredients for the cream, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Cool the potatoes and cut into thin slices.
  4. Cut the leek in very thin slices, about ⅕ of an inch thick (1/2 centimeter), rinse and drain really well.
  5. Fry in oil in a big frying pan at high heat until crisp without burning. When done leave to rest on kitchen paper towel.
  6. Place the slices of rye bread on a serving tray, then divide the cold potato slices evenly on the bread.
  7. Add 2 tablespoons of the cream on top of the potatoes, divide the radishes on top of the cream and finish off with the fried leeks. Decorate with a lovage leaf before serving.

Main photo: Open Sandwich on Rye With Cold Potatoes. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

 

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Clockwise from top, broccoli, potato and cabbage knishes. Credit: Tyler J. Kelley

Knishes are packed with more than flaky, potatoey deliciousness. “The knish is really stuffed with stories,” said Laura Silver, author of the new book, “Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food.” Her many pilgrimages on behalf of the knish — “a pillow of filling tucked into a skin of dough” — took Silver from Poland to Israel. But the story really began with Mrs. Stahl’s of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, the knish-maker her grandmother loved best. The shop’s demise in 2005 is what ignited Silver’s obsession to get inside this dense, satisfying “potato pie.”

One stop on her quest was the town of Knyszyn, Poland, home to Silver’s ancestors and some knish lore. There she heard the legend of a king who was traveling, tired and hungry, through a forest. He emerged in a hamlet where he was served a tasty dumpling called a knish. He liked it so much he named the place after it.

AUTHOR


Tyler Kelley. Credit: Erandi Carranza

Tyler J. Kelley, a writer based in New York City , reported this story in association with Round Earth Media. Photo credit: Erandi Carranza

Tracing knish history

The food’s precise origin is unknown, and Silver speculates broadly, but the earliest mention places it somewhere between a Polish poem from 1614 and a Polish town with a knish-related name dating to 1347 (Knyszyn landed on the map later, in 1569). In present-day Poland, Silver concluded, the knish has disappeared. She carried pictures of the storied pastry with her in lieu of a translator, but no one recognized it.

Silver also learned that knishes weren’t necessarily a Jewish food; in early references they are filled with meat and eaten on All Saints’ Day, November 1. In fact, the knish was “severely underrepresented” among the stuffed-dough options she found in Israel. Apparently when Europe’s Jewish families emigrated to the New World, the knish went with them. It flourished in the first half of the 20th century, when it was a popular street food in New York’s teeming immigrant neighborhoods.

Knish Nosh

Today Knish Nosh is one of only two New York City concerns dedicated solely to the savory pastry. The Queens location has a lived-in, no-nonsense feel that suits the humble knish well. Silver’s favorite is the kasha knish, $3.50, filled with buckwheat groats. Every Knish Nosh knish follows the traditional form: round, fist-shaped and dense, with a little bit of stuffing revealed on top. Strong mustard appears to be the requisite condiment everywhere except Minnesota, where mayonnaise and even ketchup are not unheard of.

Behind the counter at Knish Nosh is Anna Vasilescu, head chef. She is from Romania and didn’t grow up on knishes. Her father disliked potatoes, a central knish ingredient, because in the military that was all he ate, Vasilescu said. After the service, he never wanted to eat them again. Now his daughter is a dedicated potato purveyor. Nearly every customer who walks in knows Vasilescu, and half seem to get a knish on the house, with the instruction, “Just enjoy, sweetheart.”

 

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Knish Nosh opened in Queens, New York, in 1952. Credit: Tyler J. Kelley

Knish Nosh owner Haig Schneiderman said he’s gotten requests from Florida to have a knish shipped overnight for a loved one who is dying. “People get emotionally attached,” he said. Silver believes the knish “is poised for a full comeback,” and Schneiderman plans to be in the vanguard. He recently opened a Knish Nosh in Central Park, and more are in the works. He said he intends to make the knish “as strong as the bagel” and sees Knish Nosh becoming ubiquitous, “like Chipotle.”

The story within

Making and eating knishes is an essential part of Silver’s vision, and it’s pretty much impossible to read her book without getting hungry. She is not just relaying the history of an overlooked food, however; she wants to bring people together to talk, and to share. Conversation over knishes, she said, “is the crux of my book — I hope.”

“A knish that tastes good probably has a good story behind or within it,” she said. “The story isn’t always evident, but it’s akin to the fact that food made with love generally tastes better.” Silver almost always brings knishes to her speaking engagements. When a knish shipment failed to reach Banff, Alberta, Canada, where she was attending a conference, she simply gathered fellow attendees and made a batch from scratch.

“Every culture has its knish, a wrapped food or a food that evokes memories,” Silver said. “Dough-based foods tend to have that effect on people.” For someone from the American South it could be a biscuit, for a Midwesterner a piece of pie. In Silver’s mind, it’s any food “for which people will go to great lengths.”

If you are willing to go to great lengths to revive this tradition-laden food, Silver has supplied a recipe dear to her heart. She wrote that “Fannie Stahl’s granddaughters summoned recovered memories to bring this recipe to life.” You’ll have plenty of time for conversation and stories while making it. Making knishes, Silver said, “takes a special kind of commitment.”

Recipe: Mrs. Stahl’s Potato Knishes

Yield: Makes about 18 knishes

Ingredients

For the dough:

3¼ cups flour

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

½ cup vegetable oil

1 cup lukewarm water

Directions

1. Turn oven on low until dough is ready. Mix flour, sugar and salt. Add oil and water. Mix with a spoon until the dough pulls together, or use a food processor or stand mixer (with a dough hook). Turn out the dough on board and knead it, incorporating all pieces. Knead until dough is one piece, smooth and glossy. Turn off the oven. Oil the dough and place it in oiled, covered bowl. Place in oven until you are ready to use it. Let the dough rest at least 2 hours; the dough should barely rise, if at all. Keeping the dough overnight in the refrigerator is fine. Bring it back to room temperature before use.

Ingredients

For the potato filling:

6 pounds russet or new potatoes

1 cup oil

¼ cup salt, or to taste

1½ teaspoons pepper

8 cups thinly sliced raw onions

Directions:

1. Scrub potatoes and peel them, unless the new potatoes have very thin, unblemished skins. Boil potatoes for about 20 minutes until knife-tender, then drain. Mash with a potato masher. Add oil, salt and pepper to taste. Mix. Stir in the onion.

Assembling and baking

1. Use vegetable oil and flour as needed.

2. Preheat oven to 450 F.

3. Roll out about half the dough on a lightly floured counter or tabletop. Roll with handle-less rod-style rolling pin out from the center until dough is thin enough to see through, about 1 ⁄16-inch thick.

4. Oil top edge of dough with a pastry brush. Place a 2-inch-diameter line of filling about 2 inches from the top edge of the dough. Pick up top edge and drape over filling. Brush oil on dough in a 2-inch strip on the bottom edge of the filling. Pick up the dough with filling and roll again onto the oiled dough, compressing the filled dough as you turn it. Repeat until the dough covers the filling three to four times, being sure always to brush oil on the dough first. Use a knife to separate the filled potato knish log from the remaining dough. Cut off edges of filled dough. Cut the filled roll into pieces about 6 inches long and coil each piece like a snail. Tuck the remaining end into the bottom of the coil. Alternatively, place stuffed roll of dough onto an ungreased cookie sheet and slash with a knife crosswise every 2 inches. Leave an inch of space between each roll or coil of dough.

5. Bake 20 to 25 minutes until the knish skin is browned and knishes are cooked through. Start knishes on lowest rack of the oven and raise them to top rack after about 10 to 12 minutes. Let the knishes cool in pan. If you cooked the knishes in long rolls, cut them into individual pieces.

Knishes can be reheated in the oven or in a skillet on the stovetop.


Recipe from: Faith Kramer, “Mrs. Stahl’s Famous Knish Recipe Finally Found—in San Francisco,” j. the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California, September 27, 2012. Excerpted from Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food by Laura Silver, published by Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England (www.upne.com), May 6, 2014.

Tyler J. Kelley, a New York-based writer, reported this story in association with Round Earth Media. Kelley’s documentary “Following Seas” is due out in 2015.

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Tiny tomatoes with caper and green olive sauce.

It’s a strange world, where we pick flower buds, spread them out to dry in the sun, then leave them to macerate in salt or vinegar. If they are left undisturbed on their spiny bushes, caper buds burst into glorious bloom in the early morning sunshine. For a few short hours, their long, waving stamens are irresistible to bees, then their lovely pink-white petals quickly wither in the strong afternoon sun. Who could possibly have discovered that, once “cured”  (dried, salted or soaked in vinegar), the rather vegetal-tasting caper bud develops a delicate, earthy flavor with a lovely floral overtone? It’s this symphony of tastes that make capers so alluring.

Source of wealth for islanders

The appeal of capers has been long-lasting and far-reaching. Until recently, few caper flowers were ever seen on the Greek Cycladic islands of  Santorini, Andros, Folegandros, or coastal Crete and Cyprus, as the buds were rarely given the chance to flower.  In Greece, capers have always been a valued local food and flavoring, and the caper trade a source of wealth for the islanders.

Caper seeds have been found in Belgian ditches dating as far back as the Middle Ages. And early British cookbooks contain recipes for mutton and skate with caper sauce, and suggest liberal use of capers in salads and with cold meats. Since the caper bush, or shrub (capparis spinosa), can’t thrive in these countries, capers had to be traded. So what was it that made them so attractive to those medieval northern Europeans?

It may have been the plant’s good-health qualities that have given it such value throughout its long history. There is evidence that the Sumerians (circa 2000 B.C.) used capers medicinally, and it’s obvious that the ancient Greeks understood the process necessary to turn caper buds into delicious capers: In the 4th century B.C., the “father of botany,” Theophrastus, remarked in his seminal work, “Enquiry into Plants,” that the wild caper plant appeared not to like cultivated land and those grown in such conditions produced smaller, softer capers of inferior flavor. They still do.

How capers work

When capers, caper leaves or berries are cured, an enzymatic reaction takes place and a flavanoid glycoside, glucocapparin, a mustard-oil that gives the caper its taste, is released from the plant tissues. In this, capers resemble their cousins in the cabbage family — cress, mustards, horseradish — all of which contain mustard-oil glycosides. Another of its flavonoids is rutin, a strong antioxidant which, pharmacologically speaking, improves capillary function. It’s considered to be anti-rheumatic, and therefore an effective treatment for arthritis and gout, a diuretic and, in non-medical-speak, a “liver protector” and “kidney disinfectant.”

Caper bush in Santorini

A caper bush grows in Santorini, Greece. Credit: Rosemary Barron

An attempt at caper-gathering

The caper plant loves hot, dry summers with a smattering of spring rainfall, making the Aegean Mediterranean, swept by a strong sea breeze, the perfect home. There, the caper plant can nestle into the cracks and crevices of cliffs and stone walls.

But it was only when I tried to preserve my own capers for my Santorini cookery school that I realized just how difficult it was to create their lovely, tart pungency. The first problem was in the gathering of them—the best crops of buds always seemed to be just out of reach, dangling over alarmingly-steep cliffs. The bushes’ thorny stems make picking them painful work and a good harvest requires near-daily collections over four to five weeks, as the buds don’t all develop at the same time.

Local skilled gatherers pick young, tender leaves at the same time as the buds, for pickling. Later in the summer, after the caper buds that managed to escape the earlier harvest have flowered and fruited, the berries are collected and preserved in brine. For finest flavor, Cycladic islanders preserve wild capers in salt. It’s worth searching for these at home, as they have less of the acidic tang of vinegar-preserved capers and a greater depth of flavor. Interestingly, though, the most rutin is found in the dried buds, a process that, until recently, was a common way of curing capers on Santorini.

If you are in doubt as to the difference in taste and texture between wild and cultivated capers, don’t take my word for it — try both together. And perhaps spare a thought too for those great sages of the past, who so well-appreciated that food not only had to do you good, but had to taste good, too.

Paired with tomatoes

In early summer on Santorini, tomato plants give in to the dry heat and collapse, dotting the island’s gray, volcanic soil with ripe, tiny, deep-crimson tomatoes. For a few short weeks, they can be made into this pretty meze.

To prepare salt-preserved capers for the table, soak them in several changes of cold water; brine- and vinegar-preserved capers only need rinsing.

Tiny Tomatoes with Caper and Green Olive Sauce

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 5 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 8 meze servings or serves 4 as a first course

Variation: Although it takes more work, this dish is at its traditional best when the olives, capers and garlic are mashed in a mortar or bowl before you add the vinegar and olive oil. The sauce texture will be coarser, but its flavor will be more refined.

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 24 tiny, or cherry, tomatoes
  • ¼ teaspoon sugar (if tomatoes aren't sun-ripened, optional)
  • For the caper and green olive sauce:
  • 1 cup Greek cracked green or Nafplion olives, or brine-packed, pit-in, Spanish green olives
  • 2 tablespoons salt-packed (or brine- or vinegar-preserved) capers, soaked, rinsed, and patted dry
  • 1 small clove garlic, minced
  • ½ teaspoon red-wine vinegar
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • For serving:
  • 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh fennel fronds or flat-leaf parsley, for garnish
  • 4 thin slices whole-wheat or country-style bread, toasted

Directions

  1. In a small, heavy skillet over very low heat, heat the olive oil. Add the tomatoes, sprinkle with the sugar, cover, and cook for about 3 minutes, or until their skins split. Set aside in the skillet to cool.
  2. Make the sauce: Blanch the olives in boiling water for 5 seconds. Drain, pit, and chop. In a food processor, combine the olives, capers, and garlic. Process until well mixed. With the machine running, add the vinegar, drop by drop, then the olive oil (to taste) in a steady stream.
  3. Spread the sauce over a small platter. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the tomatoes to the platter. Garnish with fennel or parsley. Cut each slice of toast into 4 triangles. Sprinkle the bread with the liquid remaining in the tomato pan.

 

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