Articles in World

If you’re up to the challenge, start out by trying Vegemite on a slice of hot toast. Credit: iStock / Ben185

To the Vegemite virgin, the dark brown paste may look like axle grease and smell like rusty nails, but to many an Aussie, the salty spread is comfortingly delicious, as well as essentially synonymous with Australia itself. It’s a common joke that Vegemite is an Antipodean baby’s first solid food. It’s also routinely cited that Vegemite can be found in the cupboards of at least 80 percent of Australian homes. What’s more, traveling Aussies don’t leave home without it.

Primarily a yeast extract that remains after the beer brewing process, Vegemite contains few calories and no fat, but a fair amount of sodium. A rich source of B vitamins, which play a role in metabolizing macronutrients and in producing energy in the body, Vegemite has routinely been promoted for its purported health benefits. In the late 1930s, its advertising even featured an endorsement from the British Medical Association for its B vitamin content. Although less “veggie” than its name might imply, Vegemite is vegan, vegetarian, certified kosher and certified halal.

Vegemite was developed as a copy of a British product, Marmite, a spread of similar texture and flavor — though it’s best not to say so to a Vegemite die-hard. In the early 1920s, Fred Walker, an Australian entrepreneur, engaged Dr. Cyril P. Callister, one of Australia’s first food technologists, to develop the product. After considerable experimentation, Callister developed Vegemite in 1923. Based upon a mutual interest to develop cheeses with a longer shelf life, Walker later combined forces with American cheese producer James Kraft, forming the Kraft Walker Cheese Company in 1926. This partnership eventually resulted in an American company owning Australia’s national food, though Vegemite has always been produced in Australia and from mostly local ingredients.

Despite Vegemite’s widespread popularity today, in its early years the spread was slow to entice Australian appetites, as Marmite held on to a significant portion of the market share. According to Vegemite’s heritage website, however, by the early 1940s Vegemite had become a “staple food in every Australian home and in every Australian pantry.” Over the course of the 20th century, the spread would become an Australian icon.

Try Vegemite this Australia Day

Australia Day, marked each year on Jan. 26, is a national holiday celebrating the day in 1788 when Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet of 11 convict ships from Britain arrived at Sydney Cove. Kraft attempted to cement the connection between the holiday and Vegemite in 2012, the year of the spread’s 89th anniversary. That year, Kraft rebranded Vegemite jars “Australia,” though retaining the recognizable red and yellow color palette.

One way for an American to celebrate Australia Day is to try Vegemite. The strange truth you’ll have to overcome, however, is that most non-Australians absolutely despise the stuff. With an Australian father, I grew up eating Vegemite and love it, but have yet to convert a single American friend to its delightful, savory charms. Part of the issue is likely a case of mismatched expectations, since Vegemite looks like chocolate, but tastes like, well, straight up saltiness.

A more apt description of Vegemite’s flavor profile might be umami incarnate. Despite appreciation for other foods boasting savory, umami flavor — from bacon to Parmesan, soy sauce to mushrooms — most non-Aussies just can’t handle Vegemite. Though Oprah claims to like it, a popular video circulated last year in which 10 American children tasted Vegemite for the first time with dismal results: no tears, but lots of squealing. Suffice it to say, none of them gave Vegemite their kid seal of approval. In 2011, President Barack Obama confessed to then-Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard that he found the spread “horrible,” disappointing Vegemite lovers. In 2012, singer Niall Horan of the group One Direction echoed this sentiment when he tasted Vegemite toast live on Australian television only to spit it out and later share on Twitter, “Can clearly say vegemite is horrible!”

A ‘culturally specific food’

In 2003, psychology researchers Paul Rozin and Michael Siegal quantifiably confirmed the oft-stated assertion that only Australians enjoy Vegemite. From a survey of 202 participants, the authors concluded, “The eating of this food product and especially the enjoyment of it are specifically linked to Australian birth and ancestry.” They also asserted, “This sticky brown paste remains a candidate for the most culturally specific food.”

Australians know best about Vegemite. Credit: Emily Contois

Australians know best about Vegemite. Credit: Emily Contois

The deck may be stacked against Vegemite, but if you’re up to the challenge, start out by trying Vegemite on a slice of hot toast, which is the way most Australians enjoy it at breakfast. Spread the toast first with butter, allowing it to melt in, and then evenly spread a thin layer of Vegemite. A common mistake for first-time Vegemite tasters is to slather it on too thickly like one would peanut butter or a chocolaty spread, an amount unpalatable to even most devoted Vegemite enthusiasts. Recipes from Vegemite’s website suggest you jazz up your Vegemite toast with tomato, egg, cheese or avocado.

If you’re ready to try Vegemite at every meal, you can make turkey burgers, seasoned with Vegemite, onions, rice wine and a touch of sugar, for lunch. Then you can try Vegemite flavored couscous or sweet potato and rosemary pizza with a Vegemite sauce for dinner.

You just might find that you love Vegemite. If nothing else, it’ll be your saltiest Jan. 26 on record.

Main photo: If you’re up to the challenge, start out by trying Vegemite on a slice of hot toast. Credit: iStock / Ben 185

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Cafe Triode manager Yo Endo pours a glass of wine at the cafe. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

Yo Endo would be the first to tell you he doesn’t know a lot about wine. What he does know is how to sell things. His last job was marketing tennis equipment, which took him to Los Angeles and Las Vegas; great restaurants — and wine, of course.

Today, Endo manages Cafe Triode, a cozy restaurant near the giant Tokyo Dome, home for Japan’s beloved Giants baseball team. The surrounding neighborhood is best known for the ultra-luxury La Qua spa, sporting goods stores, used bookstores and inexpensive restaurants catering to baseball fans and university students.

I stumbled onto the café while looking for a quiet escape from the rain during a business trip to Japan’s capital. Endo took my dripping umbrella and escorted me to a small wooden bar near the back. A hunk of Serrano ham anchored one end of the bar, and soft jazz played.

Women in Japan’s workforce is growing

Traditionally, the after-hours scene in Japan has been dominated by izakaya bars catering to salarymen. Beer, sake and whiskey are the favored drinks, and the vibe is usually loud and smoky or expensive — or all of the above.

Cafe Triode offers moderately priced wine, tasty nibbles and jazz — a perfect place for happy hour with girlfriends. And that’s exactly what Endo is aiming for.

Though Japan lags behind much of the developed world in female employment, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to increase the percentage of women in the workforce. This includes providing more affordable childcare and encouraging companies to adopt family-friendly policies, such as flexible work schedules.

It also means finding a place for those women to unwind after a hard day at the office. “There’s an increasing need for working women to have a girls-only night out for a drink to strengthen their solidarity,” Chikako Hirose, a spokeswoman for Pronto Corp., recently told Bloomberg News. Pronto is reportedly expanding its Di PUNTO chain of wine bars to at least 26 outlets by the end of 2015.

There are other reasons the wine industry is chasing the female market. Women in Japan still make most of the household buying decisions, and they are more likely than men to attend wine tastings and classes, according to a report released last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agriculture Service. Sixty percent of Japan’s wine experts are women.

Old-world wines dominate this market. Although Japan buys wine from 55 countries, just 10 account for about 98 percent of the imported volume, according to the USDA report. Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are the favored varietals. Sparkling wine is also growing in popularity, and “wine on the rocks” is being touted as a refreshing alternative on a hot summer’s day.

Endo sees these trends at Cafe Triode, where the majority of his customers are couples or young female professionals. When he first opened his café, his wine list included a range of wines divided by country, varietal and price. But he discovered most of his young customers would spend a long time agonizing over the menu and then end up somewhere in the middle, where they would have just a few bottles to choose from.

Cafe Triode still sells bottles of wine for as much as 19,000 yen ($159) but now offers a large selection of wines for 4,100 yen ($34) a bottle. During my visit, that included two California Zinfandels from Peachy Canyon and Ravenswood chosen by Endo’s wine broker.

American wines are slowly finding a market. In 2013, the United States held an 8.6 percent value share of Japan’s imported wine, up from 7.7 percent the previous year, according to the USDA. But U.S. vintners face significant barriers. A stronger dollar and high import duties push them into a higher price bracket, and Japanese consumers prefer wines with a lower alcohol content than most American wines offer.

By offering a “Reasonable Selections” list representing many different varietals and wine-growing regions, Endo hopes he can encourage wine newbies to experiment. “Everyone finds it very easy to make a choice, and it’s also easy to control the budget,” he said.

Armed with a glass of the house red wine (600 yen or $5), I turned my attention to Cafe Triode’s multi-page English menu, which married two of my favorite cuisines: Japanese and Italian.

Meat platter is most popular on menu

The most popular menu item is the Triode assorted meat platter delivered on a large wooden board with five types of meat (1,950 yen or $16.35). Other tantalizing offerings include dumplings made from fish and shrimp wrapped in yuba (tofu) skin (1,190 yen or $9.98), codfish and scallop pie (1,190 yen or $9.98) and Tajima beef rump steak (1,500 to 1,800 yen or $12.58 to $15.10 per 100 grams). Tajima is the strain of black Japanese Wagyu cattle that produce the famous Kobe beef.

The grilled duck salad from Cafe Triode. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

The grilled duck salad from Cafe Triode. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

Endo, an easygoing man with an impish smile, started me out with a fig paired with a dollop of mineoka dofu. This delicate palate cleanser, made from an ancient recipe developed by Buddhist monks, isn’t tofu. It’s actually made from milk, arrowroot starch and sesame paste. Rich and creamy with just a hint of sesame, I resisted licking the tiny pottery dish and settled on the Saikyo-yaki (Kyoto-style) grilled duck salad (980 yen or $8.22) for my entrée.

Working out of a kitchen the size of my bedroom closet, Chef Yoshimi Imazu quickly worked his magic, preparing paper-thin slices of Parmesan cheese and duck marinated in a sweet white Saikyo miso on a bed of crisp greens.

My visit to Cafe Triode was just another reminder that you can travel well in Japan without breaking the bank. That, combined with that tasty salad, was enough to lure me back one last time before I left Tokyo.

Main photo: Cafe Triode manager Yo Endo pours a glass of wine at the cafe. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

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Pirjati Zelje (braised cabbage). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Cabbage is the Rodney Dangerfield of vegetables: It doesn’t get any respect. It gets a bad rap. Cabbage never gets mentioned as one of the hip vegetables like kale. It’s not a super-vegetable like broccoli rabe. It’s not an adorable vegetable like baby Brussels sprouts. It’s not a “cool” vegetable. It’s stodgy and old-fashioned. I mean, they make sauerkraut from it.

All those cooler vegetables just mentioned, though, owe their existence to cabbage. The big green head we associate with cabbage today was not always what cabbage was. Today there are hundreds of varieties of cabbage that have developed from the progenitor cabbage, called the wild cabbage, including the many forms of cabbage and further horticultural developments such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoliflower, broccoli rabe and kohlrabi.

Botanists divide the cabbage into five groups. It is the head cabbage, green, red, crinkly-leafed or Savoy cabbage, that I’m speaking of. But there are some 400 varieties of head cabbage.

The cabbage is probably native to the Mediterranean, but in Roman times the head cabbage we think of as cabbage today did not exist. The Romans had only leafy cabbage, probably kale. There are some obscure references by Roman naturalists Pliny and Columella to what has been taken by some to be head cabbage. These descriptions refer to heads of the plant being a foot in diameter, but it is not at all clear whether this refers to a compact headed cabbage that we know today or is simply an expression referring to the above ground portion of the plant.

The wealthy citizens of Rome, in the period after Cato the Elder (mid-second century BC), thought of cabbage as poor people’s food as we know from the description in Juvenal’s satire when he described the difference between the food that the patron ate, namely olives to garnish an excellent fish, and the food of the client, who finds cabbage in his “nauseous dish.”

It seems that the head cabbage we know today was developed in Germany in the 12th century. Soon it would be the single most common plant in the medieval garden.

Cabbage rolls. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Cabbage rolls. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

It’s not a popular vegetable today, but it is a vegetable that does draw the curious cook. The most obviously intriguing thing to do with cabbage is to separate the leaves and then stuff them by rolling them up. There are many great preparations for cabbage from sauerkraut, to kimchi, to coleslaw, and every culture has a recipe for stuffed cabbage. Here are two recipes for cabbage lovers from cabbage-loving Slovenia and Croatia, next door to Italy.

Braised Cabbage

Cabbage is a very popular vegetable in the Balkans, served raw, in the form of sauerkraut and cooked in a variety of ways. In the northern part of the former Yugoslavia, today’s Slovenia and parts of Croatia, cabbage may be cooked with sour cream or tossed with noodles and smoked bacon. In Bosnia or Montenegro, it might be cooked with tomatoes. This recipe from Slovenia is typically served as a bed for a roast duckling.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 55 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 bay leaves

2 tablespoons tomato paste mixed with 2 tablespoons water

1 cup dry white wine

One 2-pound green cabbage, cored and sliced as thin as vermicelli

15 peppercorns

8 juniper berries, lightly crushed

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then add the bay leaves and cook until they begin to sizzle. Reduce the heat to medium and very carefully add the tomato paste and wine, which will spurt and splatter rather dramatically.

2. Continue cooking for a minute then add the cabbage, peppercorns, juniper berries and thyme. Mix so the cabbage is covered with sauce.

3. Add the lemon juice and continue to braise over medium heat until the cabbage softens, 6 to 8 minutes.

4. Reduce the heat to low, season with salt and pepper, and cook until the cabbage is completely soft, about 45 minutes. Correct the seasoning and serve hot.

Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

These cabbage rolls are a winter specialty known as arambašici in their home of Sinj, a town near the Dinaric Alps on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. Traditionally, this casserole of stuffed cabbage leaves is made from a whole head of cabbage that has been prepared as sauerkraut. Each sauerkraut leaf, or as in this recipe cabbage leaf, is stuffed with beef, pork and bacon, and flavored with lemon zest, onion, garlic, cloves and cinnamon. Each roll-up is separated from the other with pieces of pršut (Croatian prosciutto) and smoked tongue.

Arambašici can be made with fresh cabbage leaves or grape leaves, too. My recipe uses fresh cabbage, which is the easiest to find and is what a cook from Sinj would use in the summer. Many cooks also like to make the casserole in the evening and then reheat it the next day, and you should consider doing that as it is delicious.

The casserole cooks a long time so the meats are very tender and the cabbage leaves become silky. The smoked bacon, smoked pork, smoked tongue and prosciutto can all be picked up at the deli counter of most supermarkets.

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 4 hours

Yield: 20 to 26 rolls, or about 6 servings

Ingredients

1 large green cabbage (about 2 3/4 pounds), central core removed

1 1/4 pounds boneless beef neck meat or beef chuck, finely chopped

5 ounces smoked bacon (preferably) or lean slab bacon, finely chopped

2 ounces beef fat (suet), finely chopped

6 ounces boneless pork shoulder or neck meat, finely chopped

2 large onions, chopped

3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

Grated zest from 1 lemon

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon unsalted butter or beef fat for greasing

One 4-inch-long beef marrow bone (optional)

1 ounce smoked pork (any cut), finely chopped

2 ounces prosciutto, thinly sliced into strips

2 ounces smoked tongue (optional), thinly sliced into strips

1 cup water and more as needed

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 300 F.

2. Remove and discard any of the outermost leaves of the cabbage that are blemished. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt and plunge the whole cabbage in and cook until the leaves can be peeled away without ripping, about 10 minutes. Drain well and, when cool enough to handle, separate the leaves carefully, setting them aside.

3. In a large bowl, mix together the beef, bacon, suet and pork. Add the onions, garlic, lemon zest, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, salt and pepper and mix well with your hands.

4. Arrange a cabbage leaf in front of you with the stem end closest to you. Place 2, 3 or 4 tablespoons (depending on the size of the leaf) of filling on the end closest to you, then roll away once, fold in the sides and continue rolling away until you get a nice, neat package.

5. Continue with the remaining cabbage leaves. Arrange the cabbage rolls side by side, seam side down, in a lightly greased 13- x 9- x 2-inch casserole (you may need to use two casseroles), making sure you leave some room for the beef marrow bone. Sprinkle the chopped smoked pork over the cabbage rolls.

6. Place the prosciutto and smoked tongue slices (if using) between the cabbage rolls. Pour the water over the cabbage rolls and cover with aluminum foil. (The casserole can be refrigerated at this point to bake later.)

7. Bake until the cabbage rolls are very soft, slightly blackened on top and bubbling vigorously, about 4 hours.

8. Serve hot or let cool to room temperature and serve as an appetizer the next day.

Main photo: Pirjati Zelje (braised cabbage). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Pongal is a typical Indian food made with rice.

There’s something particularly delicious about humble ingredients cooked together in a pot and served up. All it involves is mingling an eclectic collection of ingredients, transforming their texture into something smooth, thick, creamy and comforting, and digging in. We all have beloved foods that typically remind us of a happy and carefree time in our lives. As the temperature plummets to the teens on cold winter days, the comfort foods I crave are venpongal — rice, mung dal, milk, and water cooked over a slow fire to a creamy polenta-like consistency and seasoned with ghee, black pepper, cumin seeds, asafoetida and curry leaves and its sweet counterpart, chakkarai pongal, in which the hot spices are replaced with golden brown jaggery and sweet cardamom.

These are not dishes that were traditionally made at our home, but gifts from our friendly neighbors, Tamil Brahmins settled in Kerala. Every year in mid-January, when they celebrated pongal festival, they sent us these delicious pongals packed in fresh banana leaves. On cold January days, I enjoy cooking and savoring these delicious recipes of our neighbors.

Ancient agrarian practices of India depended solely on the movement of the sun. The beginning of the sun’s northbound journey, utharayana, on the 14th of January is celebrated with different rituals and names — Pongal, Lohri, Bihu and Makara Sankranthi — all over India. In Hinduism, utharayana is considered auspicious, and it symbolizes nature’s regeneration, fertility and bounty, and is believed to usher in prosperity.

Overflowing with good tidings

This festival is celebrated as Pongal in Tamil Nadu to mark a good harvest. The name of the festival and also the dishes made to celebrate, pongal, come from the Tamil word pongal, meaning to boil over. Rice is boiled in milk in an earthenware pot and allowed to overflow, signifying prosperity and hope that the coming year will overflow with good luck and good tidings. In Tamil Nadu, Pongal is celebrated over four days. For Pongal, the people of Tamil Nadu who have settled in Kerala generally do not follow the custom of boiling milk till it overflows, but prepare venpongal and chakkarai pongal at home.

There are many versions of these popular recipes for venpongal and chakkarai pongal. However all will have rice, mung dal, milk, cumin seeds, black pepper and ghee for venpongal and rice, mung dal, milk, jaggery, ghee and cardamom for chakkarai pongal. Pongal, when it is cooked, should be moist, but not wet and certainly not dry. If it looks dry, stir in a little boiled milk to get the right consistency. Use short- or medium-grained raw rice to make Pongal. You will rarely find Basmati rice used in South Indian cooking. Ghee is the only fat traditionally used in pongal dishes. Without ghee, pongal wouldn’t taste as good as it should.

These are comfort foods, and comfort foods are ideal winter foods. They translate into easy, effortless cooking and delicious results that reheat well. Following are my neighbor’s recipes.

Venpongal

Venpongal is a popular breakfast dish in Tamil Nadu even on non-festive days. Traditionally, it is served warm with coconut chutney and sambar. If you prefer the heat of black pepper, crush them before adding. Otherwise leave them whole for a milder taste.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1/2 cup mung dal

1/3 cup plus 1 teaspoon ghee

1 cup short to medium grain raw rice

1 cup whole milk

2 to 3 cups water (amount of water needed to cook the rice will depend on the variety of rice and its age)

Salt to taste

1 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

8 unsalted cashew nuts cut into pieces

1 1/2 teaspoon whole black pepper (or coarsely crushed)

1/8 teaspoon asafoetida

A few curry leaves

Directions

1. Heat one teaspoon of ghee in a frying pan over medium heat and roast the mung dal. Keep stirring constantly until the dal turns golden brown. Remove the pan from the stove. Combine the roasted dal and rice together in a pot along with the milk and water and cook over medium heat. Stir often and if the mix looks dry add some more milk and stir well. When it is almost cooked, add salt and stir well. Remove the pot from the stove when the cooked rice and dal mixture has a soft, risotto-like consistency.

2. In a small pan, heat the remaining ghee and add the cumin seeds and cashew nuts. Then stir in the asafoetida powder and black pepper. Stir once and add the curry leaves and remove from the stove. Combine the seasoned spices with the cooked rice and dal and mix well. Serve warm with fresh coconut chutney.

Chakkarai Pongal

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1/2 cup ghee

1/2 cup mung dal

1 cup short to medium grain raw rice

2 1/2 cups crushed jaggery

2 cups whole milk

2 to 3 cups water (amount of water needed to cook the rice will depend on the variety of rice and its age)

1/2 cup coconut milk

10 unsalted cashew nuts cut into pieces

1 tablespoon raisins

1 teaspoon crushed cardamom seeds

Directions

1. Heat one teaspoon of ghee in a frying pan over medium heat and roast the mung dal. Keep stirring constantly until the dal turns golden brown. Remove the pan from the stove. Combine the roasted dal and rice together in a pot along with the milk and water and cook over medium heat. Stir often and add the coconut milk to the pot. If the mix looks dry, add more milk and stir well. Remove the pot from the pan when the cooked rice and dal mixture has a soft, risotto-like consistency.

2. Make a syrup by boiling jaggery with 1/3 cup of water for five minutes. Strain the syrup into the cooked rice and dal mix. Keep the pot on low heat and stir well until the syrup is absorbed and then remove from the stove. Heat two tablespoons of ghee is a frying pan and fry the cashews and until they begin to turn golden brown. Stir in the raisins and they will plump up. Remove the pan from the stove and add the fried raisins, nuts and crushed cardamom to the rice mix. Add the remaining ghee to the mix a little at a time and stir well to combine. Serve warm.

 Main photo: Pongal is the ideal comfort food for chilly nights. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

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Manarola, on the Italian coast

It doesn’t take a large area to find a wide variety of food specialties, and five neighboring Italian coastal villages provide just that.

My destination was Cinque Terre, a short piece of the Ligurian coastline, just west of the border with Tuscany. Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore are five multicolored borghi (villages) overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. They are pretty close to each other, a few minutes distance by car or train. Better yet, a boat, weather permitting, will take you back and forth, making an unforgettable five-stop mini-cruise. If you like to hike, you can also reach them via a beautiful trail and enjoy spectacular sea views.

Food-wise, besides the classic products of Liguria, such as olive oil, pesto, walnut sauce and different varieties of focaccia, each “terra” (village with its surrounding land) has its own culinary specialties.

1. I did it! I ate the eyes!

It happened at the Trattoria dal Billy in Manarola. I was enjoying the antipasto di pesce, a 12-item platter of warm and cold fish, when the chef proudly showed me the catch of the day: a superb branzino (Mediterranean sea bass). How could I say no to such a beauty?

It was served with roasted potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and garden herbs, a perfect combination of the best the sea and the land could offer. Then the chef came back at my table, checked that I was enjoying it and insisted that I eat the fish eyes. Well, I closed my eyes and ate them. I had a pleasant surprise, they were not at all slimy, as I expected. They were more like a zesty touch that added a great seasoning to the delicate taste of the fish.

2. Fried goodness on the road

While in Cinque Terre, I loved to get lost in the windingsmall streets and passages called caruggi, where street vendors cook fried calamari, squid, shrimp and sardines, often sided by stands selling local vegetables. They were fried to perfection, wrapped in paper and garnished with a slice of lemon. Hot, crunchy and tasty. You eat them on the road.

3. Grazie Nonna!

“We have a surprise for you,” said Marzia Vivaldi and Luca Natale, the promoters of the Parco Nazionale Cinque Terre. “We will take you to the great restaurant Aristide (Via Discovolo, 138 Manarola), where Nonna Grazia will show you how to prepare her famous muscoli ripieni (stuffed mussels).” Nonna (Grandma in Italian) welcomed me with the most adorable smile and explained her secret recipe:

“It simple and easy. I make the stuffing with leftover bread, mussel meat, eggs, Parmesan, parsley and mortadella. I fill up the mussels, I cover with a generous fresh tomato and basil sauce, then I bake it. That’s it!”

As an Italian, hearing seafood and cheese, not to mention the addition of meat, mixed together, seemed somewhat heretical, but what a fantastic result.

4. Anchovies, what a treat!

Following a secular tradition, anchovies are caught with a seine net and a fishing lamp, then hand-processed within two or three days, carefully stratified in jars, pressed and covered with brine, making them tender and tasty, and allowing a perfect preservation. I tried them served with local olive oil, oregano, focaccia bread and butter. They were accompanied by a glass of Cinque Terre, the famous white wine of the area that requires mountain climbing abilities to produce, given the steep incline on which the grapes grow facing the sea.

5. Sciacchetrà: It’s time to toast

Imagine a secret bottle kept in the cave for years (sometimes more than 30). It’s the rich and velvety wine called sciacchetrà. This aged treasure resurges in occasion of a wedding as the greatest gift that the family of the groom could offer to the bride’s family. I had the privilege of opening a bottle that was more than 10 years old. It reminded me of a rich passito straw wine, sweet and liqueur-like. The color is intense: from golden shades to amber. The taste is a fruity, floral bouquet that is reminiscent of a Mediterranean garden: scents of nuts, apricot jam, nectarine, vanilla, chestnut honey and spices.

Grand finale: A dream accommodation

I ended my visit in the other location making up part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site: Porto Venere, a colorful and elegant resort with a delightful port. I followed the recommendation to have a candlelight dinner at Palmaria, the restaurant on the terrace of the magnificent renovated Grand Hotel, once a convent and now reopened as a four-star classy destination that offers impeccable service.

The restaurant’s view was spectacular. So was the menu. I obviously went for fish. I tried the most tender seared scallops with a baby potato cream and the exquisite Gran Bollito di Pesce a delicate boiled sea bass and shellfish stew, served with handmade mayonnaise.

You can visit the beautiful Cinque Terre in few days. A great period for trekking is from March to September. The right time to taste the unique cuisine … any day of the year!

Main photo: Manarola, one of the villages of Italy’s Cinque Terre. Credit: Cesare Zucca

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A hangover cure can help ease the pain next time you over imbibe. Credit: iStockPhoto

Hangover cures — they’re never there when you need ‘em. Not that you (or I) are of in need for yourself — perish the thought.

Nevertheless, in the spirit of post-festive brotherly love, a recommendation or two might come in handy for those who — ahem — might have been on the wrong side of a midwinter indulgence and are looking for a simple restorative mouthful, liquid or otherwise.

The bullshot — boiling beef consommé cooled with a generous measure of vodka — comes well-recommended as the morning pick-me-up on England’s Yorkshire moors in grouse season, while Scotland’s heather bashers consider the oatmeal caudle — runny porridge with cream and whiskey — more geographically appropriate.

Which is not to overlook those who swear by yak butter and hot tea as the antidote to overindulgence in fermented mare’s milk when traversing the Khyber Pass, or those intrepid 19th-century travelers through the wilds of Africa who reported termites toasted in an earth oven as the only way to cure a hangover induced by overindulgence in fermenting baobab fruit.

To each her own.

Soupe a l’oignon

Lunch at Domecq. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Lunch at Domecq. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald cured a Parisian hangover with onion soup with the porters in Les Halles, the central produce market in the good old 1930s, when men were men and women were — let’s just not go there.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 30 to 35 minutes

Total time: 40 to 45 minutes

Yield: 2 servings (You should never hang over alone.)

Ingredients

3 large onions, finely sliced

2 tablespoons olive oil or (better yet) goose fat

1 pint beef broth

Salt and pepper to taste

For finishing:

Sliced baguette, toasted

Gruyere or cantal cheese, grated (optional)

Directions

1. Fry the onions very gently in the oil or goose fat in a soup pan until soft and golden but not brown. Stir regularly, allowing at least 20 minutes.

2. Add the beef broth and allow to bubble up. Turn down the heat and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes.

3. Taste and add salt and pepper as necessary.

4. Ladle over slices of toasted baguette in bowls. You can also place the bread on top of the soup, sprinkle with grated cheese and slip the bowls under the grill for the cheese to melt and brown.

Katzenjammer

A beef and potato salad is the hangover cure in the new wineries of Vienna. Try to remember to put the meat into its marinade the night before so it’ll be ready in the morning.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Resting time: 3 to 4 hours or overnight

Total time: 15 minutes, plus resting

Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

For the dressing:

4 tablespoons seed or nut oil

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

1 teaspoon mild mustard

Pinch of sugar

Salt and pepper to taste

For the salad:

2 slices cold boiled beef, cut in matchstick-sized pieces

2 cold boiled potatoes, sliced

1 pickled cucumber, chopped

For finishing:

2 to 3 tablespoons beef broth (optional)

1 egg yolk

Chili powder or hot paprika

Directions

1. Whisk together all the dressing ingredients in a small bowl.

2. Dress the beef, potatoes and cucumber with half the dressing. Allow the mixture to marinate for a few hours or overnight.

3. Whisk the rest of the dressing into the egg yolk to make a thick emulsion, dilute with a little beef broth or warm water to a coating consistency and spoon over the beef mixture.

4. Finish with a generous dusting of chili powder or hot paprika. There’s nothing like the fiery capsicums to set a person’s metabolism back on track.

Aigo boullido

An oil-and-garlic broth flavored with sage and fortified with egg yolk and pasta serves not only as a remedy for overindulgence but as cure-all and stomach-settler for pregnant women and babies. L’aigo boulido sauvo la vido (Garlic broth saves lives), as they say in Provence.

Prep time: 10 minuntes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

4 fat fresh garlic cloves, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 sprig of sage

1 level teaspoon salt

5 teaspoons (25 grams) vermicelli or other thread pasta

1 egg yolk

Directions

1. Simmer the garlic and olive oil in 2 cups of water for a half-hour, or until the volume is reduced by half.

2. Add the sage and bubble up until the broth turns a pretty yellow.

3. Add salt and vermicelli and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, fork up the egg yolk in a small bowl, then whisk in a ladleful of the hot broth. Stir the broth-yolk mixture back into the pot so the egg sets in strings. Bon appétit.

Zabaglione

Italy’s version of restorative eggnog — basically, egg and wine combined to make a spoonable fluff — was a remedy long before it became an elegant dessert. No need to cook it if you’re going to eat it right away. The usual strictures on raw eggs apply, but I guess you know that anyway.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

4 eggs

4 level tablespoons caster sugar

4 tablespoons sweet wine (such as Marsala, Madeira or Valencia)

2 to 3 almond macaroons (optional)

Directions

1. Whisk the egg yolks and whites together until fluffy.

2. Sprinkle in the sugar gradually until the mixture is white and light.

3. Continue whisking as you trickle in the wine.

4. Pour into two tall glasses over crumbled macaroons — or not — and eat with a long spoon without delay or the eggs and wine will separate. If this should happen, no need to panic. Simply whisk the split mixture into another egg yolk in a bowl set over simmering water and it’ll cure itself.

Main photo: A hangover cure can help ease the pain next time you over imbibe. Credit: iStockPhoto

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Pithey, a sweet dumpling made with ingredients symbolic of the rural bounty -- rice, coconuts and date palm jaggery -- is part of the celebration of the beginning of the harvest season known as Makara Sankranti in India. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

Celebrations, festivals and food are prolific on the Indian calendar. With life’s hustle and bustle, I tend to weed out those that are difficult to fit in or lose their symbolism in our transported life in the United States.

Sankranti — marking the launch of India’s harvest season — usually is one of them.  But a coconut changed my mind this year.

Sankranti refers to the passage of the sun from one Zodiac sign to another. On Jan. 14, this transition happens from Capricorn to Aquarius, called Makara on the Hindu calendar. Makara Sankranti marks the beginning of the “auspicious” period for Hindus when non-devotional activities — such as festivals and weddings — can be held after a month-long “inauspicious” period dedicated to devotional activities alone.

It’s also the beginning of longer days. I believe that a modicum of practicality is rooted in many such traditions and longer days — especially in times when there was no electricity — made for more enjoyable festivals.

Practicality also put an end to my irreverence toward Sankranti this year.

How cracking a coconut changed my attitude

In my house, I had a fresh coconut that I had forgotten about, just in time for the January festival. I broke open the coconut, an action that is believed to bring good luck. As I looked at the pristine white meat that rested on my shelf in all its glory, I realized the fortune it brought me: an opportunity to celebrate Sankranti as it is traditionally done in my native Bengal. With pithey: warm, gooey rice and coconut dumplings.

In Bengal, the colloquial name for the Sankranti festival is pithey parbon, or the festival of the pithey. Pithey is a sweet dumpling that is either steamed or fried and typically made with rustic ingredients symbolic of the rural bounty: rice, coconuts and date palm jaggery – an unrefined brown sugar made from date palm sap.

The process of extracting date palm jaggery is similar to tapping maple syrup, and I often use maple syrup instead. It is not as deeply flavored, but closer than other sweeteners that I have easy access to. The ingredients, despite their simplicity, result in delightful delicacies that are time-consuming but well worth the effort.

Depending on the chef’s enthusiasm and energy, an assortment of these are made for friends and family.

I have fond memories of my grandmother and her sister making these for the family, as I often interrupted their progress by sneaking in and stealing handfuls of sweet, freshly grated coconut or moist and sweet golden jaggery that left my hands sticky and warm.

Pithey traditions in Bengal

The first batch of pithey is usually placed in a container and floated into the river or offered at a temple in an attempt to appease the harvest gods.

In rural Bengal, the farm community begins the day with an homage to the barn and dhenki, or rice storage urn. The women throw a handful of rice over their heads as an offering to the gods, and the urn is welcomed as a symbol of prosperity and hope for a good harvest.

Living with the vagaries or nature, most predominantly the monsoon, this community is respectful about the importance of a good and successful harvest. There are a number of other rituals, such as tying the barn doors with hay and decorating the house. All are practiced in hope of a good harvest.

For the Makara Sankranti festival, some Indian families decorate their homes to celebrate the harvest, like this woman drawing Alpona, a traditional Bengali rice paste decoration. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

For the Makara Sankranti festival, Indian families decorate their homes to celebrate the harvest, like this woman drawing Alpona, a traditional Bengali rice paste decoration for Indian festivals. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

When I cracked open the coconut this year in my home, the thought of the warm, sweet dumplings it could bring me held the promise of all things good on that frigid day.

It is easy to find frozen grated coconut in the aisles of our local ethnic supermarket. However, if you are looking for something comforting on a chilly winter day, consider picking up a whole coconut and grating it yourself to use in my recipe for Gokul Pithey, adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles.”

Gokul Pithey — Bengali Coconut Dumplings in Golden Syrup

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time:  40 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: 12 servings, about 12 dumplings

Ingredients

For the syrup:

1 cup dark maple syrup

1/2 cup water

2 to 3 cardamoms

For the fritters:

1 cup fresh or frozen grated coconut

3/4 cup grated jaggery or raw cane brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon cardamom powder

1 tablespoon ghee (clarified butter)

1 cup all-purpose white flour

1/3 cup rice flour

1/2 cup milk

Oil for frying, such as grape seed or canola oil

Directions

1. In a small saucepan, bring the syrup, water and cardamoms to a simmer for 10 minutes until a thick syrup is formed.

2. While the syrup is cooking, in a separate pan heat the coconut, jaggery, and cardamom powder on low heat, stirring constantly, for about 15 minutes, until a fragrant sticky mixture is formed.

3. Add the ghee and lightly fry the mixture until it turns pale golden. Remove from heat and allow it to cool.

4. Shape into walnut-size balls and flatten them slightly.

5. In a mixing bowl, beat the flours and milk into a thick batter, adding a little water if needed. (The batter should be thick enough to adhere to the coconut balls.)

6. Heat some oil in a wok on medium heat. Dip a coconut ball in the batter and place into the oil, cooking a few at a time.

7. Cook on medium low heat until a golden, crisp coating is formed, turning once.

8. Remove carefully with a slotted spoon and dip into the syrup. Let the balls rest in the syrup for about 2 minutes, then remove and serve hot.

Main photo: Pithey, a sweet dumpling made with rice, coconuts and date palm jaggery,  is often served during the celebration of the Indian harvest festival known as Makara Sankranti. Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya

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Spaghetti in a red wine sauce. Credit: Emanuele Lombardo

Sicily is “one of the most exciting wine regions of the world,” according to New York Times chief wine critic Eric Asimov. Robert Parker in Food & Wine magazine named Sicily one of the next emerging wine regions. Sicily’s sunny, hot, dry climate and rich volcanic soil is ideal for wine. Wine has been made in Sicily since ancient Greek times. But in recent years a handful of winemaking families and companies have renewed the vineyards, updated winemaking technology and changed the production from the island’s famed Marsala wine to other world-class table wines.

Stemmari Wines, owned by the Trentino-based Mezzacorona wine company, is one such winemaker. “There is not just one terroir in Sicily,” winemaker Lucio Matricardi explains. “Sixty-two percent of the island is hills where the sun and winds create different opportunities for winemaking. Stemmari has been able to protect and cultivate indigenous grapes like Nero d’Avola and Grillo as well as bring in international varieties like Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio.”

Stemmari, the second winery in Italy to earn eco-management certification, uses green practices throughout the production process to preserve local ecology and ensure quality wines for years to come.

I’m especially fond of Stemmari’s Nero d’Avola, with its deep ruby red color, hints of violet and an irresistible fragrance of strawberries with ripe black cherry notes and lovely mineral undertones. It is velvety, soft and fruity, and goes wonderfully with almost any food. It also is the main ingredient in Spaghetti al Nero d’Avola, a simple-to-make, luscious pasta dish.

Instead of boiling the pasta in water until al dente, this time-honored Sicilian recipe finishes cooking it in red wine. The result is spaghetti with splendidly fruity tartness and lovely mahogany color. The trick to this dish is to add the wine only a few tablespoons at a time, so that it thickens into a glorious, deliciously fruity sweet glaze.

Red wine is added to a spaghetti sauce.

To make spaghetti in red wine sauce, slowly add the wine and toss the spaghetti frequently. Credit: Emanuele Lombardo

Spaghetti in Red Wine (Spaghetti al Nero d’Avola)

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: 2 to 3 servings*

Chef Maurizio Botta, of Vecchia Cantina Baroni in Siracusa, Sicily, adds a modern twist to this centuries-old Sicilian recipe and serves it topped with ricotta, garnished with crisp frizzled leeks and sliced almonds for crunch.

Ingredients

1/4 cup ricotta

Salt

Black pepper

Nutmeg

Olive oil

1/2 pound spaghetti

1 small leek, finely sliced

1 cup Nero d’Avola, plus more if needed

2 teaspoons sugar

Pecorino cheese

Sliced almonds

Directions

1. Mix the ricotta, salt, pepper, freshly grated nutmeg to taste, and 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a bowl until combined. Set aside.

2. Cook the spaghetti in boiling salted water for 3 minutes, then drain.

3. Meanwhile, in a frying pan large enough to hold the pasta, fry half of the leek in 2 tablespoons of olive oil on high heat until dark golden, about 4 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside on paper towels.

4. Add the remaining leek to the pan, lower the heat to medium, and cook until very soft, about 5 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of the wine and the sugar and stir to combine. Toss in the par-cooked spaghetti, raise the heat and stir constantly, adding the remaining wine only a few tablespoons at a time. Toss the spaghetti frequently, keeping the heat high, so the wine is absorbed into the pasta. Cook until the pasta is al dente, adding more wine if needed. Stir in 2 tablespoons of grated pecorino until fully incorporated, then taste and season with salt, if needed, and pepper.

5. Top each serving with a dollop of the ricotta mixture, some fried leeks and a sprinkle of almonds.

* Note: This recipe is best prepared in small servings to properly develop the wine glaze. If making enough for 4 to 5 servings, double the ingredients and use two pans.

Main photo: Spaghetti al Nero d’Avola is made with one of Sicily’s red wines and topped with a dollop of ricotta cheese. Credit: Emanuele Lombardo

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