Articles in World

L. John Harris' Broom Ballet. Illustration credit: L. John Harris

La Vie en Rose: Île Saint-Louis, one of two small islands floating in the middle of the River Seine and hyped in travel literature as “a peaceful oasis of calm” in the heart of busy Paris, is anything but. A tourist mecca, bien sûr (of course), filled with snazzy shops and restaurants — and home to the legendary Berthillon ice cream — the scene is more Coney Island fun park than Parisian island oasis.

Our Café French lesson today takes us to the island’s trendiest cafe, Café Saint-Régis on Rue Jean du Bellay. Just across — via the Pont Saint-Louis bridge — from Paris’ other natural island, Île de la Cité, where Notre Dame resides in all its gloomy Gothic glamor. The Café Saint-Régis is what I would call faux belle, refurbished to evoke the gaudy Art Nouveau atmosphere of Belle Epoque Paris, with gaudy prices to match. It can be, like the island itself, cloying.

Living in a Parisian broom closet

Whatever joie de vivre Parisian cafes provide their devotees — like me — I’m just not buying it today at the Saint-Régis. Lest we forget, cafes have their dark side: Revolutions and assassinations have been plotted, even launched in Parisian cafes throughout history, and the despair-laden philosophy, Existentialism, was hatched in Jean-Paul Sartre’s favorite cafes after World War II.

My dark mood today is more ennui – that perfect French word for melancholy — than despair. I’ve been staying in a very small apartment on the island — much smaller than the rental agency photos indicated. So I vegetate (call it work) in the island’s cafes to escape domestic claustrophobia, something apartment-dwelling Parisians have been doing for centuries.

The only joie of note at the Saint-Régis today is triggered by my waiter waltzing (literally) around the cafe with his broom — a  push broom, a smaller version of the broom type we use in the U.S. for exterior cleanups. I could write a whole treatise on France’s bizarre broom methodology: In short, the French push, they don’t sweep!

A broom ballet on Rue Jean du Bellay

Googling broom history and etymology — in both French and English — I come across our lesson’s homophones, le ballet (the dance) and le balai (broom), identically pronounced — bal-ai.

Illustration credit: L. John Harris

Illustration credit: L. John Harris

Aha! My waiter, dressed in formal cafe black and white, is executing un ballet de balai – a broom ballet. Ennui morphs into bonheur (happiness).

But back at the apartment, my mood darkens again. The sight of the kitchen push broom leaning against the wall triggers gloom, not cafe joie. Maybe this is just a case of generic Island Fever (la fièvre de l’île), or the oppressive weight of French history that floats over the island like a giant bejeweled crown.

A whole lot-a Louis going on

Everywhere you go on Île Saint-Louis there are references to King Louis IX, the island’s beloved Saint Louis. Bridges, streets, hotels, churches and cafes carry the name or variants. Even the word régis in Café Saint-Régis, means “of the king.” My corner cafe/brasserie where I go for my morning petit déjeuner is Le Louis IX. It was Louis XIII in the 17th century, dubbed “the Just,” who developed the island’s urban plan — it had been a cow pasture — and named it in honor of Saint Louis.

À propos royal sobriquets, several of the 18 Frenchmen who have served as King Louis have earned less-flattering nicknames. In the ninth century there was “the Stammerer” (Louis II), in the 10th “the Lazy” (Louis V) and in the 12th, “the Fat” (Louis VI). You could say that the French have had a love/hate relationship with their mostly House of Bourbon Louises.

Shrimp Louis. Illustration credit: L. John Harris

Shrimp Louis. Illustration credit: L. John Harris

Honestly, I’m surprised there was never a “Shrimp Louis.” The likely candidate would be King Louis XVII, son of guillotined King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Never attaining the throne after the revolution, the Dauphin died in prison at age 10. He didn’t live long enough to earn a snappy moniker.

Speaking of salads

If I thought my one-bedroom apartment was small, I was corrected at a dinner in the chambre de bonne (maid’s quarters) of Paris guidebook author Annabel Simms, an English expat. Her book, “An Hour From Paris,” is a perennial seller in Paris and is designed to take tourists out of crowded Paris for memorable day trips.

The fifth floor studio walk-up on the island’s main drag, Rue Saint-Louis-en-l’Île (of course), is equipped with a tiny wall-mounted kitchenette — two burners, under counter fridge and sink. “And,” Simms boasts, “no microwave!” Simms, who is currently working on a cookbook geared to simple French apartment cooking, serves me her version of Elizabeth David‘s “Salade Parisienne,” from “French Provincial Cooking” (1962), composed of fresh vegetables, hard-boiled egg and slices of room-temperature roast beef, dressed with a vibrant vinaigrette. Simple, delicious and perfect for a warm summer night.

The conversation drifts toward my host’s mixed reviews of her island oasis lifestyle. She’s been living frugally and productively on the pricey Île Saint-Louis for more than 20 years and avoids the expensive touristy spots like Café Saint-Régis. “I love their baby Spanish sardines served in the tin with the lid rolled up,” she admits, “but I’d rather go to the cheaper Café Lutèce next door with its terrace facing north towards the Seine and the quieter right bank.”

The next day, back for a farewell crème at Café Saint-Régis before heading back to the States, I ponder Simms’ somewhat cloistered life on Île Saint-Louis. It’s telling that over the course of decades on the island, Simms has built her career as a writer in Paris based on a book that encourages tourists to get out of Paris. After only three weeks here, I’m ready to get out, too. Or is that just my Île Saint-Louis ennui speaking?

Main illustration: “Broom Ballet.” Credit: L. John Harris

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The ubiquitous chicken tikka masala can be delicious. But why stop there? Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Chicken tikka masala — a fairly delectable concoction of tomatoes, cream, fenugreek and grilled, boneless chicken — has become the poster child of stereotypical Indian food, leading most of us knowledgeable in Indian cuisine extremely hesitant to associate with it.

When done right, it can be a palate-pleasing dish. I mean, who can argue with smoky chicken morsels smothered in a mildly spiced tomato cream sauce? All things considered, it’s a fairly good introduction to the world of Indian cuisine before moving on to bigger and better things.

But this is where the problem lies. The love for chicken tikka masala does not leave much room for taking that next step. On the contrary, it seems to be gathering more fans and converts in its wake. A few cohorts that aid in its cause are the saag paneer (Indian cheese morsels in a creamed spinach sauce) and the leavened, butter-slathered naan bread. They woo the spice-averse with cream and butter and the novelty of a tandoori oven.

 Lights … camera … stereotype

A recently released food movie, “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” takes us from the bustling markets of Mumbai to farm markets in rural France and on a journey of reinventing Indian food in chic Paris — all in an hour and a half. However, before moving on to molecular gastronomy, the movie’s central character, Hassan Kadam, wows us with his fare in his family restaurant, Maison Mumbai, with dishes such as saag paneer and butter chicken, essentially enough hackneyed restaurant fare to make any true-blue Indian foodie shudder.

Departing from the author’s original fairly adventurous food renderings, the movie makers introduce the viewer to Hassan’s talents by talking tandoori, showing stunning pictures of saag paneer before moving onto other essentials and brave and bold fusion.

This creates the same frustration that leads most Indian food professionals to shy away from the chicken tikka masala, as the dish has stymied the broadening of the essential Indian repertoire.

Certainly, we have come a long way. There is a lot of exploration in Indian cuisine. Yet few restaurants leave this staple off their menus. They call it different names and sometimes add nuances to it that might add a layer of sophistication or a somewhat varied touch, but it is there — in some shape or form.

Even sandwich chains have moved on to include tikka sandwiches or wraps in their repertoire as a nod to the cuisine of India.

Is chicken tikka masala even originally from India?

Chicken tikka masala also suffers from heritage issues. It is difficult to bond, I mean, truly bond, with a dish that supposedly was invented in a curry house in London. It is hard to wax poetic about it like it was something conjured up in your grandmother’s kitchen.

If you are a fan of this brightly hued, rich-tasting curry, it is not my intent to offend you. Instead, it is to move you along to the other aspects and dimensions of your Indian restaurant menu. Yes, you can be adventurous, too. Explore, and you might surprise yourself with a new favorite or maybe a few. Imagine the possibilities.

If you like it spicy, a chicken chettinad from Southern India might please with its notes of garlic and black pepper. A simple chicken curry with ginger and tomatoes could tantalize the taste buds, without any unnecessary cream. And, of course, a kerala coconut and curry leaf chicken curry might also satisfy the indulgent palate with gentle citrus notes from the curry leaves.

The objective here is to taste the complete bouquet of flavors that good Indian cooking offers, rather than a muted version that is further masked with too much cream.

I offer you as a peace offering a nuanced cauliflower dish, which is creamy and richly flavored with ground poppy seeds and cashews. No cream here. This recipe for cauliflower rezala is a vegetarian adaptation of the Mughlai style of cooking found in Eastern India. This variant combines traditional Mughlai ingredients, such as yogurt and dried fruits, with core Bengali ingredients, such as the poppy seeds used in this dish. A mutton or chicken rezala is fairly rich. I first lightened the original with chicken in theBengali Five Spice Chronicles” and have adapted this for the cauliflower and kept it relatively simple. If you can find pale cheddar cauliflower, it should result in a pretty rendition.

Cauliflower

Cauliflower Rezala provides the creaminess without the cream. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

 

Cauliflower Rezala – Cauliflower in a Cashew, Yogurt and Poppy Seed Sauce

Prep Time: 4 hours (mainly to marinate the cauliflower)

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 4 hours, 30 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

For the marinade:

3/4 cup Greek yogurt

1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

1 medium-sized cauliflower, cut into medium-sized pieces

For the cashew cream paste:

1/2 cup cashews

1/2 cup poppy seeds soaked in warm water for 2 hours or longer

Water for blending

For the base:

2 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon caraway seeds (know as shazeera)

1 medium-sized onion, grated on the large holes of a box grater

2 to 3 bay leaves

4 to 6 green cardamoms, bruised

3/4 teaspoon red cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon clarified butter (ghee)

To finish:

1 tablespoon rosewater (optional)

Slivered almonds and or pistachios

Directions

1. Beat the yogurt with the salt and marinate the cauliflower pieces in the mixture for at least 3 hours.

2. Grind the cashews and poppy seeds into a smooth paste and set aside. You need to start with the poppy seeds, without too much water, just enough to create a paste, and then add the cashews with 1/3 cup water.

3. Heat the oil and add the caraway seeds. When they sizzle, add the onion.

4. Cook the onion for at least 7 minutes until it begins to turn pale golden.

5. Add the bay leaves, cardamoms, cayenne pepper and then the cauliflower. Cook on medium heat until well mixed. Cover and cook for 7 minutes.

6. Remove the cover and stir well. Add the poppy seed and cashew paste and mix well.

7. Stir in the clarified butter and cook on low heat for another 3 minutes. Note: The gravy should be thick and soft, and the cauliflower tender but not mushy.

8. Sprinkle with the rosewater, if using, and garnish with slivered almonds or pistachios.

Main photo: The ubiquitous chicken tikka masala can be delicious. But why stop there? Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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Sausage and squash are a nice flavor combination for a Thanksgiving pasta dish. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

I will confess right from the start that I’ve never been a big fan of Thanksgiving. Call me Scrooge if you will, but I’ve never seen the point of eating oneself silly one day of the year.

And I hate to call attention to it, but the food isn’t even all that interesting. An unnaturally plumped out bird, its interior filled with sundry pastes made from stale bread, roasted for hours until the meat is dry and stringy; a traditional sauce that is too tart to eat on its own and requires massive quantities of mashed potatoes to make it go down; a selection of vegetables cooked to death then beaten to a uniform pap; and finally a selection of desserts about which the less said the better — pumpkin pie (another pap), mincemeat (like Christmas fruitcake, nobody actually likes it but we all pretend to) and pecan pie so sweet it makes my teeth ache just to write the words.

That was Thanksgiving when I was growing up, before my mother saw the light and began serving lobster instead, which she did only after her children had left home and she no longer had to maintain the Rockwellesque illusion of the holiday. You can see why my memories are not exactly nostalgic for Thanksgivings past. The only things I really liked were the silver bowls of nuts and mints (each one hiding a spot of jelly inside) and the peculiar divided crystal tray that was brought out once or maybe twice a year in which to serve celery sticks stuffed with Philadelphia cream cheese.

But truth be told, the real reason I didn’t like Thanksgiving — which has remained a secret until the present day — is that there are no presents! We had gifts at Christmas, gifts at Easter, gifts at birthdays and fireworks on the Fourth of July, but nothing at Thanksgiving — and no overstuffed, over-roasted bird could make up for that. Not even the exciting presence of my uncle from Boston, who always brought a collection of guns and taught me to shoot them at targets on the river below our house, could overcome my disappointment in the holiday.

The pleasures of Thanksgiving

So to ask me to think about the pleasures of Thanksgiving, as the Zester Daily editors have done, is to ask pretty much the impossible. I could tell you about the best turkey I ever made, one deep fried in extra virgin olive oil from a 4-year-old stash I found hiding in the back of our Tuscan pantry. OK, so it was only a quarter of a very large Tuscan turkey, but it was memorable nonetheless. Or I could tell you about the chestnut soup, potage de marrons, with which we began the meal one year. Made from a recipe in an old Elizabeth David cookbook, it required skinning and peeling the chestnuts (not a task for pikers, requiring as it does a hot oven and a very sharp knife), making a vegetable stock, cooking the peeled chestnuts in the stock until soft, pureeing them and finally thinning the puree with milk or cream. “Although all this may sound a lot of fuss to make a chestnut soup,” David comments, “it is well worth the trouble.” And so it is, especially when made with the marrone (chestnuts) gathered from the line of trees that extends below our house.

After all, isn’t Thanksgiving supposed to be about giving thanks for an abundant harvest? A harvest of chestnuts, a harvest of olive oil, a harvest of squash and pumpkins? Moreover, to celebrate the harvest, to celebrate the goodness of what has been safely gathered in, even if you’ve gathered it from only your local supermarket, is a way of honoring and paying respect to all the people who made the harvest possible, especially the farmers. It’s a good time to remember that without farms, we have no good food, and without good food, in my reckoning, we have no real happiness.

So presents or not, I plan to celebrate Thanksgiving in my own quiet way. But not with turkey and not with squashed squash. Instead, I’m going to make a very special pasta dish developed by my daughter, who often serves it at her restaurant, Porsena, in New York. We’re featuring it in our almost completed book, “The Four Seasons of Pasta,” which we hope will be out in time for Christmas 2015.

Here it is, and if you’re as tired as I am of squashed squash, pureed turnips, boiled onions and mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallow sauce, just try this and see if it doesn’t bring some seasonal delights and maybe even a little applause for daring to step outside the envelope.

Sausage and squash is a nice flavor combination for a Thanksgiving pasta dish. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Try hard winter squash for this recipe. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Pasta With Crumbled Garlic Sausage, Sage and Winter Squash

For this pasta, we use pennette, but any small, shaped pasta will do — try orecchiette, creste di galli (cock’s combs), Pasta Faella’s lumacchine (small snails), Benedetto Cavalieri’s ruote pazze (crazy wheels) or any similar quirky shape. This is a particularly good treatment for whole-wheat pasta, with the flavors of squash, sausage and wheat all marrying together nicely.

For the squash, use any hard winter squash, such as Hubbard, butternut or buttercup; sugar pumpkins will be too sweet, but one of the pumpkins grown for eating (and not for Halloween), such as Long Island cheese pumpkin with its pale skin and flattened shape, would do very well. The squash should be about 2 pounds when trimmed. Chop the squash coarsely, and don’t worry if the pieces are not equal. Part of the charm of the dish comes from some pieces disintegrating almost into a puree while others stay a little firm to the bite.

For the sausages, look for pure pork sausages with nothing but salt and aromatics (and garlic) added. We use sweet Italian sausages for this, and when we can find them, fennel-flavored ones. If you like spicy food, however, use the hot kind. If you use sweet sausages, consider adding a pinch of ground or flaked red chili peppers or a teaspoon of wild fennel pollen or crushed fennel seeds to perk things up a bit. And if you cannot get garlic-flavored sausages, by all means add more garlic to the sauce.

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 40 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 servings

Ingredients

10 to 12 sage leaves

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided

1/2 cup finely chopped onion, red or yellow

2 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped

2 Italian-style sausages, sweet, fennel or spicy (about ½ pound)

2 teaspoons wild fennel pollen or ground fennel seed (optional)

Pinch of ground or flaked red chili pepper (optional)

About 1 pound (500 grams) pasta (see headnote for suggestions)

4 1/2 to 5 cups coarsely chopped firm, orange-fleshed squash (see headnote for suggestions)

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/3 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more to pass at the table

1/2 cup chopped flat leaf Italian parsley

Directions

1. Set aside 4 or 5 of the largest sage leaves to crisp in oil and use for a garnish. Chop the rest to make 1 to 2 tablespoons chopped sage.

2. In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat then add the chopped onion and garlic. Remove the sausage meat from its casings. As soon as the vegetables start to sizzle, crumble the ground sausage in. Let the sausage meat cook briefly, tossing, stirring and breaking it up until it has rendered out its fat, then, when it just stops being pink, add the chopped sage along with the fennel and chili pepper (if using) and stir it in.

3. Set a large pot of abundantly salted water on to boil.

4. Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a small saucepan over high heat and add the reserved whole sage leaves. Saute, turning, until the leaves are crisp, then remove to a paper towel to drain.

5. When the pasta water is boiling vigorously, add the pasta and stir with a long-handled spoon. Pennette will take about 10 minutes to become al dente, but start testing at 8 minutes.

6. While the pasta water returns to a boil and the pasta cooks, add the grated squash to the sausage in the saucepan and turn up the heat to medium high. Cook briskly until the squash is soft, cooked through and some pieces are beginning to disintegrate. Add a ladleful of pasta water to the sauce and stir it in. Keep the sauce warm over low heat while the pasta cooks.

7. Have ready a warmed serving bowl.

8. When the pasta is al dente, drain it and transfer to the warm bowl.

9. Season the sausage-squash sauce with salt and pepper, along with the grated Parmigiano, and toss. Garnish with chopped parsley and finally with the crisp-fried sage leaves.

10. Serve immediately, passing more grated cheese at the table.

Note to cooks: Use this as a master recipe for all sorts of sausage-and-vegetable pasta sauces. Once Thanksgiving is past, try it with broccoli rabe or turnip greens, or chop a bunch of leeks into smaller pieces, rinse them thoroughly and add in place of the squash.

Main photo: Sausage and squash are a nice flavor combination for a Thanksgiving pasta dish. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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A slice of fried spaghetti makes the perfect finger food. Credit: Giovanni Castiello, Maistri Pastai

Want a new way to serve pasta? Ditch the fork and try these handheld pasta snacks. They’re delicious and fun to eat.

Pasta has branched out from its traditional role as a first-course dish and now stars in unusual forms in Italy’s bar scene. Apericena — “appetizers as dinner,” an assortment of tiny plates served in lieu of a formal sit-down dinner — is a new trend in Italy, especially in the northern cities of Milan and Turin. Hip restaurants and bars present elaborate buffets, with many lush pasta offerings, included with the price of a glass of wine or cocktail.

Creative finger foods such as oven-baked pasta “pretzels” are offered as nibbles. Any long hollow macaroni with a hole in the center — such as bucatelli or perciatelli — boiled, tossed with a little oil and baked, turn out as perfect golden crisps with a pretty bubbly surface that look just like pretzel sticks. Great served plain, with just a sprinkle of sea salt or jazzed up with dry spices such as ground garlic, cayenne or smoked paprika, they are eye-catching served poking out of a wine glass. “Pasta pretzels are a delicious bar snack,” says Riccardo Felicetti, president of the World Pasta Organization and owner of the Felicetti Pasta Company, “accompanied by assorted cheeses, salami and olives, (they) are a nice menu item as well.”

Another highly versatile offering are bite-sized foods wrapped in a strand of fresh pasta and fried. A strand of fresh pasta can be wrapped around all sorts of foods —  seafood such as shrimp, oysters, scallops; veggies such as whole mushrooms and baby sweet bell peppers; and even mini-meatballs all make great finger foods. Chef Andrea Fusco, of Ristorante Giuda Ballerino in Rome, serves shrimp with mortadella mousse wrapped in strands of pasta —  spiedino di gambero, what he calls “a dish eaten with the hands, informally.”

Another especially adaptable dish, Pasta Cups (recipe below), is Italy’s modern single-serving riff on timballo, the baked pasta pie featured in the movie “Big Night.” Bake up a batch in mini-muffin tins and then either serve them plain or fill the tiny cups with anything you like, from diced tomatoes to cheese or salami.

Pasta as bar food

Andrea Mattei, Michelin star chef of La Magnolia Restaurant in the Hotel Byron in the chic Tuscan seaside resort town of Forte de Marmi, created a delightful mini bite of pasta for guests to enjoy at the bar. He fills penne pasta with a puree of dried sea cod (baccala) and adds hints of Tuscan ingredients, including farro from Garfagnana and tomatoes from Livorno. He explains, “I invented this tiny tasting for our clients, who coming in from a day at the beach wanted a little something cool and refreshing with the flavor of the sea and of Tuscany to pair with a cocktail. It was an immediate hit and now returning guests specifically ask for it. It’s become a bar menu staple as we noticed that sales of aperitifs and cocktails rose significantly after this tiny, unique bar snack was introduced. It’s so popular that we also offer it poolside.”

Penne pasta filled with a purée makes for a finger food. Credit: Andrea Mattei

Penne pasta is filled with a purée of dried sea cod and other Tuscan ingredients. Credit: Andrea Mattei

Macaroni fritters, a typical Neapolitan street food, are hand-held morsels of seasoned pasta dipped in batter and fried. They can be found throughout Naples, in every rosticceria and in the city’s most popular pizza shops such as Scaturchio and chef Ciro Salvo’s 50 Kaló. Similar to arancini, Sicilian stuffed rice-balls, these pasta fritters are spreading from Naples throughout Italy. Author and Italian TV personality Gabriele Bonci even serves them in Pizzarium, his Rome pizza shop.

The fritters, called frittatine di maccheroni, are traditionally made with bucatini, the long thick hallow pasta specialty of southern Italy, but any shape pasta can be used and any sort of sauce. Crispy outside, creamy cheesy inside, they are a great restaurant starter or bar snack, as they are a make-ahead dish that can be assembled in advance and fried as needed. “Macaroni fritters are not just a creative way to enjoy pasta, but they are very economical too, as they’re a terrific use for leftover pasta,” notes Emidio Mansi, sales manager for Garofalo, a renowned pasta company founded in 1789 near Naples, in Gragnano, a town with a legendary pasta-making history.

Fried spaghetti, Frittata di spaghetti, another southern Italian specialty, is like a jumbo variation of macaroni fritters. Instead of individually frying each portion, all the seasoned leftover spaghetti is fried in one skillet and then served sliced like pie. A staple in Italy, it’s surprising that more restaurants and pizzerias in the United States don’t serve it, especially considering that it is low-stress on busy kitchens, as it’s made in advance and served at room temperature. At the charming Acqua Pazza restaurant on the Amalfi Coast, chef Gennaro Marciante serves seasonal variations, including a frittatina infused with the area’s famed huge, aromatic lemons.

What I love about traveling through Italy is seeing the myriad ways pasta, a simple flour-and-water product, is creatively used. Italy, a country we view as bound by tradition, is really evolving. It’s easy for us home cooks to take a strand from the Italian box and wrap it around something new! Pasta served as a breadstick or cracker or a handheld snack. No forks required!

Pasta Cups can easily be baked in mini-muffin tins. Credit: "Pasta Modern"

Pasta Cups can easily be baked in mini-muffin tins. Credit: “Pasta Modern”

Pasta Cups (Capellini in Timballo)

From: “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2013)

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 12 minutes

Total time: 17 minutes

Yield: 24 pieces

These little nests of Parmesan-flecked angel hair strands are baked to form perfect one-bite nibbles. Though excellent plain, there are endless ways to fill these chewy, crunchy morsels: with prosciutto, pesto, tomatoes, shaved Parmesan cheese, mozzarella, salami, caponata, garlicky broccoli rabe — or anything the chef comes up with.

Ingredients

Olive oil

2 eggs

3 tablespoons grated grana padano, Parmesan or other aged cheese

2 tablespoons butter

1/4 pound angel hair or other long thin pasta

Salt

Optional ingredients: salami, pesto, anchovy, prosciutto, cheese etc.

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Lightly oil 24 mini muffin cups (or use disposable mini cups and set them on a baking pan).

2. Combine the egg, grated cheese and butter in a bowl. Cook the pasta in salted boiling water until al dente, drain and toss with the ingedients in the bowl until well combined and almost all absorbed. Using a fork, twirl a few strands into a nest shape and put into a prepared muffin cup. Repeat. Drizzle any remaining egg mixture on top of the nests.

3. At this point you can either put an ingredient the center of the nest, or bake them plain and top them with something yummy afterward. Bake for about 12 minutes or until set.

Macaroni Fritters (Frittatine di Maccheroni)

Macaroni fritters are crispy outside, creamy cheesy inside. Credit: Garofalo Pasta Company

Macaroni fritters are crispy outside, creamy cheesy inside. Credit: Garofalo Pasta Company

Recipe courtesy of Garofalo

Prep time: 20 minutes (plus rest 6 hours or overnight)

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: Dozen 2-inch fritters

Ingredients

3 tablespoons butter

4 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3/4 cup milk, warmed

2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg

Salt and white pepper

1 pound cauliflower florets

1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

3 ounces sharp provolone or scamorza cheese, chopped

1/2 pound bucatini or other long thick pasta

1/4 cup bread crumbs

Vegetable oil, for frying

Directions

1. Make a béchamel: Melt the butter in a small saucepan, then off the heat, use a fork to stir in 2 tablespoons of the flour until smooth. Return to the heat and cook for a minute until golden, then slowly add the milk, stirring a few minutes until thick. Stir in the nutmeg and season with salt and white pepper.

2. Boil the cauliflower in a pot of salted water until very soft, about 10 minutes, and remove to a food processor with a slotted spoon. Puree the cauliflower with the béchamel, Parmesan and provolone cheese until it resembles cooked oatmeal. Place the mixture in a large mixing bowl.

3. Meanwhile, break the pasta in half and cook in boiling salted water for 3 minutes less than package directions. Drain and stir into the cauliflower mixture. Taste and add more cheese or other seasonings, if needed.

4. Lightly butter an 8-inch round high-sided pan and spread with the pasta mixture, packing it down firmly. The mixture should be about 2 1/2 inches high. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 6 hours or overnight.

5. Combine remaining 2 tablespoons flour with 4 tablespoons of water in a bowl to form a smooth slurry. Spread the bread crumbs onto a plate. Using a 2-inch cookie-cutter, cut out rounds from the cold pasta. Gather up any odd bits of pasta and form into another round; you’ll get about 12 rounds.

6. Dip each round into the flour-water mixture, then into the bread crumbs, coating all sides.

7. Heat 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil in a small skillet over high heat. Add the rounds and fry until dark golden on both sides. Drain on paper towel-lined plate. Serve at room temperature.

Main photo: A slice of fried spaghetti makes the perfect finger food. Credit: Giovanni Castiello, Maistri Pastai

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Belgian beekeeper Xavier Rennotte has given mead a makeover with the launch of his Bee Wine. Credit: Xavier Rennotte

In Belgium, beer is the beverage of choice, while mead, an ancient alcoholic drink, is virtually unknown. But a young Belgian beekeeper, Xavier Rennotte, has given mead a makeover with the recent launch of his own brand, Bee Wine.

With roots in historic recipes and “Beowulf,” the real magic behind Bee Wine’s freshly minted flavor comes from Rennotte’s collaboration with a Belgian scientist. Mead is nothing more than honey, water and yeast, although spices and fruit are sometimes added for flavor. It’s not wine, although it tastes like it.

When I first encountered Rennotte some years ago, he had just met Sonia Collin, an expert in brewing and honey at Louvain University. I asked him then why he had turned to science for help. He explained it was his godfather who had made the suggestion: “Learn from the beginning, the scientific way. The best way to understand something is to go deep inside it,” he had told Rennotte.


But why mead? It turned out Rennotte was obsessed with recreating the flavor of his first boyhood taste of mead, known as hydromel (“honey water”) in French. In other words, he was using science to track down a fleeting, Proustian taste from his childhood in the Belgian countryside.

Rennotte’s story lies at the heart of a book I wrote to explore our mostly pleasurable relationship with flavor, and the science behind it. I caught up with him recently at a food festival in the Parc Royal in Brussels. A crowd was gathered in front of his Nectar & Co stand to sample his Bee Wine.

Many people were mystified — was it wine or not? He happily explained its origins, as he offered tastings. Most people were delighted with the flavor. “It makes a great aperitif, or can be used as an ingredient in a cocktail,” Rennotte said. He’s also a trained chef, and loves using it as a marinade for lamb or fish, or as a dessert ingredient. “It’s great in sabayon,” he noted.

People were also sampling about a dozen types of organic honey with different flavors, aromas, textures and colors that Rennotte imports from around Europe for his Bee Honey collection. They include lemon blossom, wild carrot, eucalyptus and coriander. My favorite is the sunflower honey — thick as molasses, butter yellow and delicious on Le Pain Quotidien sourdough bread. One of his best-sellers is a spreadable paste made of just honey and pureed hazelnut. It tastes like Nutella, but with no added sugar or oil.

Rennotte isn’t the only novice alcoholic beverage entrepreneur who has turned to science for help and inspiration. One of the recipes in my book is for sabayon made with Musa Lova, a banana liqueur produced by a Flemish restaurateur. The liqueur is made in collaboration with the director of the largest in vitro banana species collection in the world, at the Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement at Leuven University. Musa Lova, a rum-based liqueur that comes in varieties such coffee or local honey, is made with ordinary Cavendish bananas, without added flavoring. Bananas contain a huge number of flavor molecules, which vary slightly depending on the ripeness.

Author Diane Fresquez. Credit: Thibault Cordonnier

“A Taste of Molecules” author Diane Fresquez. Credit: Thibault Cordonnier

Science not only helps alcoholic beverage makers, the producers influence science too. During my research in Copenhagen, for example, I discovered that the pH scale, used in medicine, agriculture and food science, was developed at the Carlsberg brewing company’s laboratory in 1909.

Rennotte’s hydromel is made from organic orange blossom honey from the Mount Etna area of Sicily, organic German yeast and spring water. His meadery, south of Brussels, is a former slaughterhouse that he refurbished with solar panels and a system to reuse the water that cools the fermentation tanks.


The first time I tasted Rennotte’s mead was at his wife’s bakery-patisserie Au Vatel in the European Quarter, where we met often to talk about his search for the perfect mead. The early sample I tasted, which he had poured straight from a plastic lab bottle into a wine glass, was clear, young but tasty. The honey-tinted final product I drank at the food festival was light and sweet with a complex flavor that, one customer noted, develops and changes slightly with every sip.

“I couldn’t have done it without science,” Rennotte said. “I learned how the yeast functions, the importance of the pH of the honey and the temperature of the water — I learned it all from Sonia.”

Rennotte is incredibly proud and happy with his hydromel. But did he manage to capture the flavor he remembered from childhood? “I’m still searching,” he said. “Perhaps I’ll be looking for it for the rest of my life.”

Crumble of Christmas Boudin Sausage With Mead Sauce

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes (plus chilling)

Yield: Serves 4

Ingredients

For the boudin mixture:

1/3 pound white boudin with pecans

1/4 pound black boudin with raisins

A “knob” of butter (roughly 2 tablespoons)

For the apple compote:

2 cooking apples

1/4 cup water

2 tablespoons sugar

For the mead sauce:

2 cups veal stock

1 1/4 cups mead

Salt and pepper to taste

For the topping:

2 ounces Speculoos (classic Belgian spice cookies)

Directions

1. Prepare the compote the day before or in the morning, so that it can be well chilled before serving. Peel and cut the apples into chunks. Cook the apples in the water on high heat. After 5 minutes, mash the apples, drain off any excess water and add the sugar. Chill.

2. Before serving, remove the skin of the sausages and place the meat in a mixing bowl. Mash the sausage meat with a fork. Cook the sausage meat in the butter in a nonstick pan on high heat. Remove when the meat is browned and keep warm.

3. To create the mead sauce, combine the veal stock and the mead in a saucepan, simmer and reduce. Salt and pepper to taste.

4. Prepare the Speculoos cookies by breaking them into small pieces.

5. When serving use 4 balloon-type wine glasses to layer the ingredients in the following order:

  • 2 tablespoons warm sausage meat
  • 1 tablespoon mead sauce
  • 2 tablespoons cold compote
  • 1 tablespoon crumbled Speculoos cookies

Notes
This is one of Xavier Rennotte’s favorite mead recipes, a starter or amuse-bouche based on boudin (blood sausage) from the southern, Francophone region of Belgium. During Christmastime in Wallonia, butcher shops’ windows are overflowing with boudin made with a variety of ingredients, such as raisins, apples, walnuts, leeks, pumpkin, truffles and Port. Each butcher competes to offer his or her clients a selection of sweet and savory boudin sausage.

Main photo: Belgian beekeeper Xavier Rennotte has given mead a makeover with the  launch of his Bee Wine. Credit: Xavier Rennotte

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Bagna càuda, made with garlic and anchovies, is a dip best served hot. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Di Carroll always knew she wanted to live in Italy. Brought up in Cheshire, North West England, she felt an overwhelming affinity toward all things Italian from an early age, studied Italian at university, and worked as a translator, interpreter and wine merchant. Carroll’s particular love of Piedmont dates from a holiday trip to Turkey she took with her brother while still in her teens: The siblings made friends with a Piedmontese family, who invited them to visit during their journey back to the U.K.

From the start, Carroll says she was captivated with the Piedmont region in northern Italy. “I saw the hills and vines, castles and little villages, and immediately fell in love. We sat under the fig tree in our friend’s garden and they pointed out the ripe, black figs they would pick next morning for breakfast. It’s a memory I’ve always kept — and now I can do the same,” she says.

Carroll and her husband, Pete, moved to Italy 13 years ago. Their old farmhouse in the Basso Monferrato is remote, peaceful and off the “expat” track. It is not a tourist area, but it is within the official Barbera growing area and Pete cultivates a small vineyard for their own consumption.

Regional Piedmont cookbook

Carroll has slowly been compiling a cookbook of regional and local recipes that have been refined through the prism of her own expert cooking skills. As we talked in her farmhouse kitchen in front of a wood-burning stove (“fabulous for roast chicken”), she was excited to show off a bottle of Gambadpernis (Partridge Leg), a lovely new DOC wine made by neighbor Bussi Piero.

“The production is tiny, there are only a few producers. Of course, they’ve been making wine ’round here for generations, although often they would just keep a lot of the grapes, dry them and eat them for Christmas,” she says.

[To earn DOC status (Denomination of Controlled Origin), a wine has to be made from grapes from a particular defined area and pass strict tests for standards in alcohol content, flavor, aroma, color and more. It ensures that the consumer is drinking an authentic wine, not a counterfeit or adulterated one.]

dicarrol

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Di Carroll, who moved to Italy with her husband 13 years ago, fell in love with the Piedmont region as a teen. She has been compiling a cookbook of regional and local recipes that have been refined through the prism of her own expert cookery skills. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Carroll explained the concept of the congenial merenda sinoira, a gathering of a half-dozen people or more, where everyone gathers to talk and nibble around a farmhouse table laden with salami, ham and cheese, and a pezzo forte, a pasta piece de resistance — usually pasta with butter, sage and Parmesan.

“It’s a lovely ritual, which is why I decided to get a really large table, so when visitors come, that’s where we sit, not in armchairs and sofas,” she says.

Traditional Piedmont dishes

For Carroll, Piedmont is the perfect Italian region. “The continuity of food and life is important here. The Piedmontese have a unique style and outlook on life. They are courteous and respect your boundaries, welcoming and attentive, and they have a way of making you feel you matter.

“They are still very die-hard about eating their traditional dishes and particular about the quality of their ingredients. People still keep rabbits and hens for food,” she says. “In every family vineyard you will still find two or three mixed vines for the table. My butcher’s beef comes from two miles down the road, and he goes to see the animals before they are slaughtered to choose which one he wants. My main problem at first was that they don’t hang the meat here for any length of time. The butcher now matures it for three weeks for me, but I still can’t convince any of my Italian friends to do the same.

“Every house has a copy of The Silver Spoon, but there is still a great oral tradition of handing recipes down. As well as personal variations, many villages also have their own collective recipes, recipes that belong to the village. At the annual fiera (fair), when they open up the wine cellars, each one offers a traditional dish to go with the wine samples,” Carroll says.

Nonetheless, Carroll says she has brought a little bit of Britain to her corner of a foreign field. She is known locally for her occasional afternoon teas for female friends, complete with teapot (unheard of!) and fine bone china. As for her husband, he’s down at the local bar with the lads in the circulo, discussing everyone’s favorite subjects — politics. And football. And what’s for dinner that night.

La Bagna Càuda or Bagna Caoda (Hot dip)*

Prep time: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

12 large cloves of garlic in their skins

12 salted anchovies

3 1/2 fluid ounces best-quality, fruity, aromatic olive oil

1 stick of unsalted butter

Black pepper, to taste

Chopped basil, to taste

Directions

1. Set the garlic to cook on a very low heat — between 175 F and 212 F, at the most — in the oven.

2. Meanwhile, melt the salted anchovies in the oil and butter, again on a very low heat, until they become a paste. If you do it on the stove, this part will take no more than 10 minutes.

3. When the garlic is soft and creamy, remove the skins, and mash them into the anchovy mixture. Season with black pepper and a little chopped basil, stir well.

* So called because it should always be served hot. This is usually served as a vegetable dip, with celery sticks, red bell pepper batons, roasted pumpkin pieces, endives, baked onions or raw fennel. Guests are given their bagna càuda in terra-cotta dishes over a tealight, which keeps it warm. It can also be served as a cold dressing on cooked bell peppers that have been cooked over a flame, skinned and arranged on a plate with the bagna càuda as a dressing.

Salsa Rossa

Prep time: 20 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1/2 stick of celery, diced

1/2 onion, chopped finely

2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (Ligurian preferred because of the fragrance and balance it gives to the sauce)

3 anchovy fillets in olive oil, crushed in a mortar

2 ounces fresh red peppers, chopped fine

1/2  fresh chili pepper

7 ounces tomato passata

1 teaspoon sugar

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Red wine, to taste

Red wine vinegar, to taste

Directions

1. Gently fry the celery and onion in the oil.

2. When they start to turn light golden brown, stir in the anchovies, peppers, passata, sugar and black pepper. Add the wine and vinegar in small amounts and taste as you go; stirring spoon in one hand, tasting spoon in the other, until it you find a good sweet-sour-spicy balance of flavors that suit your palate.

3. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for a few minutes.

4. Serve as a condiment, rather than a covering sauce, with cold veal tongue.

Boiled veal tongue: Boil and simmer a fresh tongue in water with a bay leaf, large sprig of rosemary and an onion studded with a couple of cloves. The tongue is best made a day in advance.

Brasato al Barolo (Beef in Barolo)*

Prep time:  1 hour

Total time: 3 to 4 hours, plus overnight

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

4 ounces very thinly sliced lardo (or streaky bacon — not pancetta or lardons)

35 ounces pot roast beef, tied neatly with string

1 ounce unsalted butter

2 to 3 ounces of extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

2 to 3 sage leaves

Sprig of rosemary

Bay leaf

2 large cloves of garlic

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 or 2 cloves (the spice, not clove of garlic)

A “whiff” of cinnamon (the spicing has to be delicate)

1 bottle of Barolo or Barbera

Hot beef stock (homemade, preferably)

For the soffritto:

2 onions, chopped

1 carrot, chopped

1 celery stick, chopped

A pinch of ground nutmeg

Directions

1. Cut the lardo into slivers.

2. Make small incisions into the meat and insert a piece of lardo into each one.

3. Fry the beef in butter and oil in a large casserole so it browns evenly on all sides.

4. Add the herbs and garlic to the pan and season with salt and pepper.

5. Add the spices (clove and cinnamon), heat gently for about 20 minutes with the lid halfway on.

6. Remove the meat, and replace any juices that drain from it back in the casserole. Set the meat aside.

7. Add the soffritto to the casserole dish, stir well, taste and add a little more salt. Replace the meat.

8. Add the wine and bring gently to a boil in order to evaporate the alcohol (otherwise it will be bitter).

9. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook for at least 3 hours. Test periodically for “doneness” — when the meat feels very tender, almost falling apart. (You can cook it in the oven, but in Italy it is mostly done on top of the stove).

10. Top with hot stock from time to time, if necessary.

11. When done, remove from the heat and allow the meat to cool in its juices.

12. Several hours before serving, take the meat out and carve into medium-thick slices.

13. Strain the cooking juices and thicken slightly with cornstarch if desired.

14. Reheat the meat, arrange on a silver platter (if you wish to make a fine impression) and pour the sauce over the meat.

Tips for this recipe

  • This recipe needs Piedmont wine as it is most appropriate for the character of the dish, which is traditionally made in a deep, lidded casserole.
  • One of the secrets of success is to add a pinch of salt now and then, rather than in one go. Keep tasting as you go, it’s important to get the right balance of flavors.
  • The traditional accompaniment is potatoes mashed with olive oil and Parmesan, and carrot batons braised in oil and water, and sprinkled with fresh herbs such as sage, parsley and rosemary.

Il Bunet (or Bonet)

A chocolate and amaretti pudding favored throughout Piedmont.

Prep time: 30 minutes

Total time: 90 minutes

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients

10 ounces amaretti biscuits

2 rounded tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder

17 fluid ounces whole milk

6 eggs, separated

The point of a knife blade of salt

2/3 cup white sugar

2 fluid ounces rum (optional, it was not used in days of yore)

1 cup sugar moistened with 2 tablespoons water for the caramel

One 2-pound rectangular loaf pan

Directions

1. Pulse the amaretti into a fine crumb in the food processor, mix in the cocoa powder, then add the milk.

2. Whip the egg whites into firm peaks with baking soda, taking care not to overbeat. Then whip the egg yolks and sugar into a velvety cream like zabaglione. Fold everything together carefully.

3. Make a caramel mixture by gently heating the sugar and 2 to 3 tablespoons water until the sugar dissolves; coat the bottom and sides of the loaf pan with the caramel mixture.

4. Pour the pudding mixture into the loaf pan and cook in a Bain Marie, or double-boiler bath, for 30 to 45 minutes at 350 F. When the pudding is firm to the touch and has pulled away from the sides of the pan, take it out of the oven, let it cool to room temperature before flipping over onto a serving platter and unmolding.

Hazelnut Cake

Often called La Langarola from the Piedmontese region of Le Langhe, which stretches south between Alba and Cuneo, and is where the renowned sweet round hazelnuts are cultivated.

Prep time: 1 hour

Total time: 2 hours

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

For the cake:

5 eggs, separated

The point of a knife blade of baking soda

3/4 cup light brown or granulated sugar

2 tablespoons rice or hazelnut oil (or a light sunflower oil)

2 1/2 cups finely chopped, skinned hazelnuts* or hazelnut flour if you can find it. (Processing the nuts in a food processor is acceptable, provided the result is a fairly fine crumble.)

Cinnamon or vanilla, if you prefer

The point of a knife blade of salt

Lined cake pan

Unsweetened cocoa powder, to dust baked cake

For the hazelnuts:

2 cups boiling water

3 cups baking soda

1 cup of hazelnuts

Bowl of very cold water

Directions

For the cake:

1. Whip the egg whites into peaks with baking soda; put to rest in the refrigerator.

2. Whip the eggs yolks and sugar into a firm mousse that resembles zabaglione, add the rice oil gently; fold in the finely chopped hazelnuts and a pinch of salt. (Many prefer the natural flavors of quality hazelnuts, but you can add a pinch of cinnamon or a little vanilla if you wish.)

3. Carefully fold the whipped egg whites and the egg and nut mixture together.

4. Pour the mix into a lined 9- to 9.5-inch-diameter cake pan, bake at 350 F for at least 45 minutes.

5. Halfway through cooking time, cover cake mix with grease-proof paper to avoid burning.

6. When cooked — a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean — remove from oven and allow to cool in the pan.

7. To serve, dust with a little unsweetened cocoa powder, and offer to your guests with a glass of Moscato Naturale.

For the hazelnuts:

1. Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan.

2. Let water continue to boil, add the baking soda to the water, which will foam.

3. Add the nuts to the boiling mixture and allow to boil for about 3 minutes. The water will turn black.

4. Have a bowl of very cold water handy. Place a nut in the cold water and try to rub off the skin. If it doesn’t come off easily, let the nuts continue to boil for a few minutes longer.

5. Continue to test one nut at a time. When the skin comes off easily, add the rest of the nuts to the cold water and start to peel.

6. Dry the nuts in a warm, but not hot, oven so as not to toast them or dry out the oils.

Main photo: Bagna càuda, made with garlic and anchovies, is a dip best served hot. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

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A spice tray with, clockwise from lower left, turmeric, mustard seeds, green cardamom and star anise, cinnamon and bay leaf, cloves, coriander seeds and cumin seeds. In the center are dry red chilis and fresh curry leaves. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite American holiday, though it’s not a tradition I was brought up with when I was growing up in Mumbai and Delhi. Our fall celebration is Diwali, or the festival of lights or Indian New Year, and it is celebrated by many Indians with a vegetarian meal.

Having resided in Los Angeles for many years now, Thanksgiving has become as much a part of my holiday season as Diwali. Cooking with spices is part of my tradition as well, so I try to add some type of Indian touch to our turkey dinner, such as spicing the bird or sprinkling a vegetable dish with garam masala.

Thanksgiving for the non-traditionalist

Over the years, I’ve tried different takes on the Thanksgiving meal, including creating a complete vegetarian menu and serving Cornish game hen or salmon. This did not go over well with my late American mother-in-law, Betty. She was a traditional turkey, mashed potatoes and green beans type of person. In fact, her contribution to our annual Thanksgiving table was the mid-century American favorite — strawberry Jell-O mold dressed with a dollop of sour cream in the center.

A few years ago, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times contacted me to be a part of multi-ethnic Thanksgiving story. I was asked to create a recipe for a bird with Indian spices and flavors. I chose Cornish game hen because I find it very manageable, and the bird looks decorative served atop Turmeric Rice Pullao scented with cinnamon, cloves and green cardamom.

I like to flavor the bird with a sprinkling of garam masala mixed with a paste of ginger, garlic, yogurt and a touch of lemon juice. The bird becomes tender and emits an exotic perfume while roasting.

Garam masala (garam means “warm” and masala means “a blend”) is generally used in colder months because it’s a mix of winter spices, including cinnamon, cloves, black pepper and cardamom. Garam masala is readily available in grocery stores now, but I use the masala recipe handed down to me from my mother and grandmother.

Because fall is all about delicious and colorful squashes, I accompany the hen and the rice dish with butternut squash that gets a little zing from dry red chilis, mustard seeds and fresh curry leaves.

Although it’s hard to match wines with Indian spices, I find dishes flavored with garam masala go well with the peppery Rhône varietals. Some of my favorite Rhône wines (besides those from France’s Rhône region) are from California’s Central Coast, touted as the Rhône zone. I am very fond of Syrahs and Rhône blends from Écluse, Anglim, Tablas Creek, Steinbeck, Linne Calodo and the biodynamic wines of Ambyth — all from the Paso Robles, California, region. From the Santa Ynez Valley area, I enjoy the Syrahs and Rhône-style wines from Foxen, Beckmen, Melville, Rideau, Daniel Gehrs and Samsara.

To try something new this year, add a little spice to your bird. If you don’t feel comfortable experimenting with the traditional bird, try using garam masala with a vegetable side dish.

Masala Cornish Hen. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

Masala Cornish Hen. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

Masala Cornish Hen

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes

Total time: 55 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 servings, with each hen cut in half

Ingredients

2 Cornish game hens

2 tablespoons plain Greek yogurt

1½ tablespoons garam masala, divided

1 teaspoon fresh garlic paste

1 teaspoon fresh ginger paste

Juice of ½ lemon

Salt and pepper to taste

1 to 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive for drizzling

Directions

1. Heat oven to 350 F.

2. Wash hens and pat dry inside and out. Trim off the excess fat from around the necks and bottoms.

3. In a bowl, mix the yogurt, 1 tablespoon of garam masala, garlic paste, ginger paste, lemon juice, salt and pepper.

4. Rub the yogurt and spice mixture all over the hens and rub a little under the breast skin. Sprinkle half the remaining garam masala inside the cavity. Drizzle the hens with olive oil.

5. Place the hens on a rack set on a roasting pan and bake uncovered for 45 minutes or until done. During the cooking, be sure to baste the hens with the juices released at least a couple of times. When done, cover the hens with aluminum foil and let them rest on the rack for 5 to 8 minutes.

6. Sprinkle the hens with the rest of the garam masala and serve over a bed of Turmeric Rice Pullao (see recipe below). Try sweet mango chutney as an accompaniment to this dish.

Turmeric Rice Pullao

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

8 ounces Basmati rice

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

4 cloves

2 bay leaves

1-inch piece cinnamon

4 cardamom pods

¼ teaspoon turmeric

1¼ cups water

Salt to taste

Garnish ideas:

Select your favorite nuts, such as slivered almonds, walnuts or cashews, or try dried fruits such as cranberries or raisins.

Directions

1. Wash and soak the rice for 15 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, heat oil in a saucepan, then add the cumin seeds, cloves, bay leaves, cinnamon and cardamom. Cook till fragrant, about a minute or so, but make sure the spices don’t get burned.

3. Add the sliced onions and cook till light brown, about 3 to 4 minutes.

4. Drain the rice, add to the onions and add the turmeric, then stir well.

5. Add water and salt to taste. Cover and cook on low heat for 10 minutes or till done.

6. Remove the bay leaves, cinnamon stick, cloves and cardamom shells and then garnish with nuts and dried fruits before serving.

Sweet and Spicy Butternut Squash in Mustard Seeds. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

Sweet and Spicy Butternut Squash in Mustard Seeds. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

Sweet and Spicy Butternut Squash in Mustard Seeds

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

4 cups butternut squash, cubed

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

1 to 2 dried red chiles

6 to 8 fresh curry leaves (available at Indian markets)

½ teaspoon nigella seeds

1 medium brown onion, finely chopped

1 teaspoon grated ginger

4 cloves

1-inch piece of cinnamon

¼ teaspoon red chili powder (This is optional. Omit if you don’t want it too hot.)

1 tablespoon brown sugar

Salt and pepper to taste

½ cup water

Juice of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons coconut flakes (unsweetened), for garnish

2 tablespoons sliced almonds (or any other nut of your choice), for garnish

Cilantro leaves, for garnish

Directions

1. Peel butternut squash, remove seeds and cut into roughly 1-inch cubes.

2. Heat oil in a skillet and add mustard seeds. Cover and cook less than a minute, to make sure they don’t burn. (Cover the skillet while cooking, because they will pop and jump out.)

3. Uncover and add fresh dried red chile, curry leaves and nigella seeds. Add onion, then stir well for 2 to 3 minutes.

4. Add squash, grated ginger, cloves, cinnamon stick, red chile powder (if using), brown sugar, salt and pepper. Mix well.

5. Add water, reduce heat, cover and cook for 12 to 15 minutes, or until squash is tender. Add lemon juice and stir well.

6. Garnish with coconut and almonds (or any other nuts of your choice) and cilantro leaves.

Main photo: A spice tray with, clockwise from lower left, turmeric, mustard seeds, green cardamom and star anise, cinnamon and bay leaf, cloves, coriander seeds and cumin seeds. In the center are dry red chilis and fresh curry leaves. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

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Torta al testo, a thin dough, cooks quickly on a heated stone. Credit: Francine Segan

Torta al Testo, a sort of pita bread from Umbria in Italy, is baked on a wood-fire-heated stone, in a dying art that dates back to the ancient Etruscans.

In Umbria, the simple pizza-like dough is rolled out to the thickness of what the Umbrians describe as a “pretty woman’s earlobe.” Then it is slapped onto a stone that’s been heated in a wood-burning fireplace and pricked all over to keep it from puffing up like Indian naan. Because the dough is thin and therefore cooks fast, there’s no need to return the stone to the oven — the residual heat in the stone is all the dough needs to cook through. Before the advent of mechanical timers, Umbrians used recitations of “Hail Mary” to measure how long it took to bake the flatbread on each side, which doesn’t amount to many; it’s the equivalent of a couple of minutes per side at most.

While the bread is still warm, it’s cut in half, then carefully split horizontally with a knife and stuffed with regional Umbrian prosciutto, porchetta or salume, especially Norcia’s specialties — capocollo and lombetto. For a meat-free version, Umbrians fill the torta al testo with cheese and veggies, like stracchino cheese and arugula. Served in wedges, torta al testo would make a unique snack or pre-dinner nibble. It’s also great for lunch with a salad.

Even though the Umbrians use a huge round stone as their testo, a pizza stone is a fine substitute.

Torta al Testo

This recipe comes from the nonprofit Italian group Home Food Italy.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 25 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

2 cups all purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

Directions

1. Heat a testo or pizza stone in a wood-burning stove or oven set at 500 F while you prepare the dough.

2. Put the flour into a bowl with the baking soda, salt and ½ cup water. Stir with a fork, adding a few drops of water at a time until it comes together enough so you can knead it. Knead the dough on a lightly floured work surface for about 10 minutes, until the dough is smooth.

3. Form a ball and roll out with a rolling pin until you get a disk about 1 inch thick.

4. Once the testo or pizza stone is very hot, put the dough onto it and pierce with a fork so it doesn’t rise. Allow it to cook on the testo or stone for about 6 minutes and once browned, turn over. Cook on the other side until done.

5. Cut the torta in half and then cut into it horizontally. Fill with cheese, salami, greens or your favorite sandwich fillings.

Main photo: Torta al testo, a thin dough, cooks quickly on a heated stone. Credit: Francine Segan

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