Articles in Cuisine
The restaurant was nothing special, just a small room with a couple of low tables and stools. There was no menu, nothing to indicate what was being served. But next to the door was a wide basket piled high with fresh rice noodles, and behind them I could see steam rising from a large soup pot. And in Yunnan province, in southwestern China, that means one thing: breakfast noodles.
I hurried in, took a seat at an empty table and shook off my coat, wet from the heavy morning fog. The proprietress, a young woman whose face was rosy from standing over the steaming pots all morning, asked what I wanted in my soup, and I pointed to some things that looked particularly delicious — some fatty stewed pork, a heap of thin rice noodles, some bright green chives. In just a couple of minutes, the soup was ready. I added a handful of pickled mustard greens and a small spoonful of dried chili flakes in oil and took a sip. The flavor was rich and bright, sour and spicy, and somehow both comforting and exotic all at once.
Starting the day with noodles
I would say that the noodles were a perfect antidote to the cold, wet weather, but the truth is that those noodles would have been fantastic in any circumstance. In fact, I’ve enjoyed similar noodles for breakfast on hot, muggy days down by the Chinese-Vietnamese border and on a cool, crisp morning near Tibet. And in every case (and every temperature) they were the perfect way to start the day.
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Eating noodles for breakfast is common all across East and Southeast Asia. In Japan you can have asa-raa or “morning ramen,” in Vietnam pho is a reliable way to start the day, and in Malaysia there’s stir-fried mee goreng. But there’s something about the combination of meat, pickles and chilies in Yunnan’s noodles — not to mention the wide array of different rice and wheat-based noodles you can choose to put in your soup — that makes it one of the most addictive and satisfying breakfasts I’ve ever had. Everywhere I’ve traveled in Yunnan, I’ve started my mornings with noodles from that town’s busiest stand, hole-in-the-wall or restaurant, and every single time I’ve been blown away by the flavor.
It’s been a few months since I last traveled to Yunnan, but thankfully those morning noodle are not hard to make. Whenever I feel like I need a little help waking up, or I just want something hearty to start the day, I make them for myself. All it takes is a few ingredients and about 15 minutes, and I can have a breakfast that is both a little bit exotic and immensely comforting.
Yunnan-Style Noodle Soup
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
Total time: 15 minutes
Yield: 2 large portions
4 cups prepared broth (preferably pork or chicken)
6 ounces ground pork (about 3/4 cup)
3 ounces vegetables, like Napa cabbage, sliced crosswise into 1/8 to 1/4-inch strips (approximately 1 1/3 cups’ worth)
1/2 cup Chinese pickled vegetables, ideally mustard greens or daikon pickles
2 1/2 cups fresh or parboiled rice or wheat noodles
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup fresh herbs, ideally flat garlic chives or scallions, cut into inch-long pieces (mint and cilantro also work well, and multiple herbs can be used in combination)
Black Chinese vinegar and dried ground chili in oil, for serving
Heat the broth in a pot large enough to accommodate all of the ingredients (including the noodles). Meanwhile, in a separate pot, bring 4 cups of water to a boil and blanch ground pork for 5 seconds, breaking up the meat with chopsticks or a spoon, then drain it and set it aside. The meat will still be pink, possibly even red in some places.
Beginning the soup
When the broth is boiling, add the pork, cabbage and half of the pickles to the pot. Return to a boil and cook 2 to 3 minutes, until stem parts of the cabbage begin to soften slightly.
Adding the noodles
Add noodles and cook until semisoft (timing will vary depending on type of noodle being used). When noodles have softened, add 1/2 teaspoon salt and mix into broth, then top noodles with the remaining pickles and chives or scallions, if using. Cook another 30 seconds, and remove the soup from heat.
The finished product
Divide the soup into deep bowls and top with any delicate herbs, like mint or cilantro. Add vinegar and chili to taste.
Main photo: Breakfast noodles are served in Yunnan province, China. Credit: Copyright 2015 Josh Wand
With Europe on edge after the bombings in Paris, it is good to be reminded of the joy of sharing a meal with strangers. But what happens when you don’t know anyone at a dinner party, not even the host?
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During a recent evening in Brussels, I rang the doorbell of a complete stranger’s home promptly at 7 p.m. His ground-floor apartment was in an art nouveau-style row house built in the 1930s. The door opened, and Maher, an Egyptian political science Ph.D. candidate at Ghent University, gave me a warm welcome. (He, like other hosts of such dinners, chooses not to publicize his full name.)
I was the first to arrive for his “Egyptian Evening” (dinner and a movie), and as I took off my coat in the entryway, I resisted the temptation to blurt out that famous quote from “A Streetcar Named Desire”:
“I’ve always depended on the kindness (and in this case, the cooking skills) of strangers.”
BookaLokal — a new dining experience
Maher is just one of nearly 1,000 BookaLokal hosts in 47 countries, in more than 100 cities around the world. BookaLokal is a group dining website. To sign up for a dinner, go to bookalokal.com, choose which city you wish to dine in, browse the dinners, choose one and pay online.
The site was founded in 2012 in the Brussels kitchen of Evelyne White, a 32-year-old harpist, travel enthusiast and former investor from New York. I got to ask her a few questions before the dinner. Here’s what she told me about this unique dining experience.
How did you come up with the idea for BookaLokal?
Evelyne White: “I was inspired by the success of ‘sharing’ companies like Airbnb. If people can open their homes to strangers, why not open their kitchens and dining room tables?”
How does BookaLokal differ from other group dining sites?
Evelyne White: “BookaLokal has the widest range of hosts, from amateur hosts to professional chefs. Whereas some of our competitor sites only allow top chefs to join the site, we believe the best experiences can sometimes come from people like you and me, who are just passionate about hosting and meeting new people.”
This was certainly true of Maher, who is also the former editor-in-chief of The Daily News Egypt. He was an engaging host who gently steered us through the evening as if we were all old chums. We were a cozy group of eight in all (if you include one guest’s toddler), who hailed from countries such as Egypt, Portugal, Turkey and America.
Meals made with love
The homemade dinner, served buffet-style, was simple and delicious: baba ganoush and pita bread; vegetables (peas, zucchini and carrots) cooked in tomato sauce and flavored with pepper, cinnamon and lemon juice; and kebab halla (beef cooked in creamy onion sauce) served with rice.
After serving ourselves, we settled down in the darkened living room to eat our dinner in front of “Ana Hurra” (“I Am Free”), an entertaining, thought-provoking Egyptian feminist film from 1959, which Maher projected on his living room wall.
Maher isn’t the only host with creative dining ideas: From a recent look at what’s offered on the BookaLokal website, choices include “Dinner Served on a Vintage Boat, Docked in the Amalfi Harbor,” Amalfi, Italy ($55); “Pig Roast and Comfort Food,” Washington, D.C. ($50); and “Dinner Inspired by Famous Food Quotes,” given by a former opera singer in New York City ($100).
A variety of venues
In addition to dinner, some hosts provide a variety of other eating and drinking experiences, such as “Seville Tapas and Wine Tour,” Spain ($50), and “Indian Buffet and Bollywood Dance Lesson,” Belgium ($42).
Worried about language barriers? Languages spoken by each host are listed on their profile page. Maher speaks English and Arabic; Ester, who lives in Rome, speaks Italian, English and Spanish.
“Our hosts come in all shapes and sizes,” said White. “We have culinary students, experienced host families, supper club organizers, and people with a passion for sharing their culture and connecting with new people.”
What are BookaLokal’s plans for the future?
Evelyne White: “Although BookaLokal started as a social dining site (a place to meet new people), we are seeing increased interest in private dining. If a host serves amazing Portuguese food for groups of six to 10 guests, why not book the host for a dinner with your own group of 10 friends?”
After the Egyptian film, we helped ourselves to more wine and Egyptian black tea (with cloves), and had a relaxed discussion about the film, women’s rights and Egyptian politics. Talking with people you don’t know within the confines of dinner at a stranger’s house is oddly liberating — perhaps similar to the surprise and delight of striking up pleasant conversations with strangers on an airplane. BookaLokal is a great dining choice for tourists visiting a new country, expats living abroad, and anyone interested in being inspired — and maybe even transported to another culture — by good food and stimulating conversation. As the Egyptian evening came to an end, I was reminded of another quote, this one from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savairn’s book “The Physiology of Taste” (1825):
“Let the progress of the meal be slow, for dinner is the last business of the day; and let the guests conduct themselves like travelers due to reach their destination together.”
Main photo: The “Dinner at the Artist’s Home and Studio” in Amsterdam ($37 per person) featured ciabatta with salmon, crème fraîche, horseradish and dill; lasagna with pancetta and artichoke; and affogato al caffè. The hostess’s apartment is on the ground floor facing the IJ harbor, and when the weather is nice, she serves dinner outside on the quay. Credit: Copyright 2015 www.petrahart.com
Every time I come back to Italy, which I do as often as I can, I learn something new. Take pasta, for instance.
The subject is very much on my mind these days because I’ve just published, with my daughter Sara (chef-owner of Porsena Restaurant in New York), a book called “The Four Seasons of Pasta,” in which we present recipes for pasta around the year. A few of the recipes are for handmade pastas, but most are for the kind of pasta we’re familiar with in Italy — so-called pasta secca or pasta asciutta, the boxed pasta that Italians eat happily and eagerly every day of the year.
The best pasta is made from durum wheat
Pasta is truly a marvelous food product — healthy, tasty, easy to prepare, loved by almost everyone, young or old, gourmet chef or harried home cook, and to my mind the single greatest contribution Italy has made to the modern table. It comes in a dozen or more different brands and hundreds of shapes and sizes, but its greatest virtue is that, if it’s made in Italy, it’s made from hard durum wheat, one of the most protein-rich of all grains. A cup of cooked pasta contains more than 8 grams of protein and, depending on the sauce that accompanies it, is low on the glycemic index, with a good amount of fiber and more than 15 different vitamins and minerals, some of them, admittedly, in small quantities.
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Pasta can be made fresh or it can be dried — but whatever the form, it is cooked by boiling or steaming over water, i.e., it’s not baked and it’s not fried. Theoretically, it can be made with almost any flour, but wheat flour is far and away the most typical. That’s because when wheat flour and water are mixed together, gluten develops, and it’s gluten that gives elasticity and extensibility, two characteristics fundamental for both bread and pasta.
But what about that gluten? I have friends who swear that a gluten-free diet has led them to lose weight, gain friends, improve their digestion and their disposition, and generally make life better — I have enough friends who swear this to want to pay some attention myself. But (you knew this was coming, didn’t you?) I have failed to find any hard evidence for the claim that gluten is responsible for their former woes. (I’m not speaking of those with celiac disease, a well-recognized condition that can be deadly if not identified and managed — but only about 1 percent of the U.S. population is diagnosed with celiac disease.)
Some have suggested that so-called gluten intolerance has nothing to do with gluten itself but is instead related to modern wheat and the way it is grown. Others have speculated that it has something to do with modern bread — which would omit pasta from the list of suspects.
In any case, I’m not here to argue with you. If you feel you can’t tolerate gluten, all I can say is too bad for you because you are missing out on one of life’s greatest and easiest pleasures — a steaming bowl of pasta topped with a sauce that might be as complex as a meaty Bolognese ragu or as simple as aglio-oglio-peperoncino (garlic, extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of red chili peppers). I call it the little black dress of the food world, to be dressed up or dressed down, as often as you wish.
A fresh take on pasta for Thanksgiving
My latest discovery in the ever-unfolding world of pasta is a dish our friend chef Salvatore Denaro calls amatrigialla. No, not amatriciana, the quick-and-easy Roman trattoria dish that we know and love — and included in our book. But faced with a crowd of hungry olive pickers, for whom amatriciana is an ideal lunch, and equally faced with an inexplicable dearth of tomatoes in the farmhouse pantry, Salvatore said, why not squash, which was available in abundance. So we peeled and seeded the available squash, which came in several varieties, and chunked it up so it would cook quickly in the big black-iron skillet, and amatrigialla (gialla, or yellow, from the bright colors of the squash) was born.
Might I add that this would be a terrific take on traditional squash for a Thanksgiving table? Use any good squash available (butternut, delicata, Hubbard) or pumpkins made for eating, not for Halloween (cheese pumpkins, rouge vif and the like). Long, hollow bucatini are traditional for Roman amatriciana, but you could use any robust pasta shape, including spaghettoni, penne rigati or rigatoni.
Here’s how to do it:
Prep time: About 15 minutes
Cook time: About 15 minutes
Total time: About 20 minutes, with some cooking done during the prep
Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 medium yellow onion, finely sliced
2 ounces pancetta or bacon, diced small
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small dried red chili pepper, crumbled (or a pinch of crushed red chili flakes)
3 to 4 cups squash or pumpkin cubes, about 1 inch to a side
One sprig fresh rosemary, leaves only
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
About 1 pound (500 grams) pasta, preferably imported artisanal
Freshly grated aged pecorino cheese for serving
1. Combine the garlic, onion and pancetta with the oil in a skillet and set over medium heat. Cook gently, stirring occasionally. When the meat just begins to brown along the edges and render its fat, add the chili and stir in, then add the squash cubes and the rosemary leaves.
2. Stir to mix well and add a very little boiling water — a tablespoon or two, just enough to keep the squash from sticking to the pan. As the squash cooks down it will soften and release some liquid, but if necessary, be prepared to add a little more boiling water from time to time until the squash is softened. This should take about 20 minutes. When done, remove from the heat and add salt and pepper to taste.
3. Meanwhile, bring about 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil. Add salt and the pasta, stirring it in well. As soon as the water comes back to the boil, start timing the pasta, following the directions on the package but testing at least 2 minutes before the prescribed time.
4. As soon as the pasta is al dente, drain it and turn immediately into a warm serving bowl. Pour the sauce over it and serve, turning the pasta and sauce together at the table and passing the grated pecorino.
Main image: Delicata squash pair nicely with pasta for a Thanksgiving dish. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins
In the tradition of Bengali Hindus, the auspicious fortnight, or Debipaksha, ends on the full moon night with a prayer to Lakshmi, or Lokkhi in Bengali, the goddess of wealth, peace and prosperity.
In most parts of India, people pray to Lakshmi during Diwali. However, in Bengal, this is done during the festival of Kojagori Lokkhi Puja. This tradition dates back to an ancient king who had promised an artisan he would buy all his wares. The artisan had created an image of Alokkhi, or the anti-Lakshmi, and the king — not wanting to break his promise — bought the image, in turn bringing bad luck and financial distress to his kingdom. Finally, his queen kept a night vigil, fasting and praying to the goddess Lokkhi, who was pleased, and peace and prosperity were restored to his land.
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The festival of Kojagori Lokkhi Puja has been one of my favorites, mostly because of the silent power of this very domestic goddess, possibly an ancient measure of preserving the status of the homemaker. The goddess is of a silent and fastidious temperament and is said to favor a calm and peaceful household where there is no waste or turmoil.
The focus of this Puja is, therefore, on the peace and calm of the home and is usually done by the women in the household. In Bengal, a new bride or homemaker is likened to Lokkhi, with a hope of ensuring that careless treatment of her will bring bad luck to the household.
Lokkhi Puja is sandwiched between the flashy Durga Puja, a four-day festival of elaborate fanfare, and Kali Puja, the invocation of the powerful goddess of the night. Somehow these goddesses, with their multiple hands, weapons and fierce aspirations, seem too dramatic for me. The gracious Lokkhi, who stood on an open lotus (a common flower in Bengal) with her pet owl, seems approachable and very real.
In preparation for the festival
The first task for the festival, usually done the day before, begins with getting the Lokkhi figurines. However, unlike other figurines, the Lokkhi is never immersed in the Ganges. The morning of the puja begins with a scrupulous cleaning of the household, and I remember this being one of the days my grandmother woke me up early so as not to invoke the ire of the goddess, who is not partial to laziness.
The cleaned floors are decorated with alpona, or a traditional design made with rice flour paste that typically has a series of feet that enter the house and none leaving it. My grandmother would leave the rest of the design making to me (often shaking her head at my lack of symmetry in making these patterns), but made the decorations for the central prayer room herself.
Today, with my grandmother gone, none of the decoration happens, but I do have her silver Lokkhi, something she inherited from her mother-in-law.
The foods of the puja are slightly different from the traditional offerings of khichuri seen in other pujas. For Kojagori Lokkhi Puja, you typically see a repast of luchi, or puffed Bengali breads, and a variety of fried vegetables, most commonly potatoes and eggplants. While this may seem simple, eggplant wedges coated with salt, turmeric and cayenne and then deep fried to a soft and sensuous texture and enjoyed with crisp and puffy puris can indeed be something to appease a flighty goddess.
Other traditional offerings include coconut toffee balls, called narus, and various assortments of rice products, such as puffed rice, puffed rice coated with jaggery and, as in all occasions, rice pudding. In an agrarian economy where rice is the main product or crop, prosperity is indeed associated with rice, and it is considered unlucky to run out of rice in a household, probably accounting for my penchant for keeping at least one spare 10-pound bag around to this day.
The preferred flower for Kojagori Lokkhi Puja is the lotus, making it very difficult to procure unless you hit the flower shops first thing in the morning.
To help you bring some peace and happiness to your table, I share with you these recipes for coconut toffee balls, Bengali fried eggplant and potatoes, and my slow cooker rice pudding. As autumn turns into winter, may there be peace and prosperity in everyone’s life.
Narkoler Naru (Coconut Toffee Balls)
Recipe from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles”
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: 20 small balls
2 cups grated coconut (I use the frozen variety)
3/4 cup powdered jaggery (cane sugar)
1/2 teaspoon cardamom powder
- In a wok or skillet over very low heat, cook the coconut, stirring frequently, for 15 to 20 minutes. The coconut should begin turning light brown and aromatic and begin releasing some oil.
- Add the jaggery and continue cooking on low, stirring frequently, until the jaggery is melted and the mixture is well browned and very fragrant and toffee-like. Plenty of coconut oil should be glistening in the mixture.
- Stir in the cardamom powder and mix well.
- Remove from heat and let cool until the mixture is able to be handled.
- Shape the mixture into small balls. These balls keep well for a couple of weeks at room temperatures of up to 70 F or refrigerated. If refrigerated, they should be brought the room temperature before serving.
Begun Bhaja (Bengali Fried Eggplants)
Recipe adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles.”
When choosing an eggplant, pick with care because a seedy eggplant is a recipe for disaster. Ideally, pick a smaller, smooth eggplant that feels light and has shiny, dark purple skin. This recipe can also be used to cook potato slices.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
1 medium-sized eggplant, about 1 1/2 pounds
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon red cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons rice flour (optional, but it gives it a nice crisp texture)
Oil for deep frying
- Cut the eggplant into slices or wedges and place them in a large mixing bowl.
- Add the turmeric, salt and red cayenne pepper to the bowl and toss the eggplant so it is well coated.
- Place the eggplant in a colander and let it drain for about 15 minutes.
- Spread the rice flour on a clean surface and lightly dip the outer flesh of the eggplant in the rice flour. The flour does not have to be even. It should be a light coating.
- Heat the oil in a wok. While the oil is heating, line a plate with plenty of paper towels.
- Carefully place a few of the eggplant pieces into the oil and fry for 3 to 4 minutes until very soft and golden.
- Drain the eggplant pieces carefully and place them on the paper towel-lined plate.
- Fry and drain the remaining pieces of eggplant.
- Serve hot with luchis (Bengali puffed bread) or rice and lentils.
Slow Cooker Saffron and Cardamom Rice Pudding
Recipe from “Spices and Seasons: Simple, Sustainable Indian Flavors”
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 5 hours (in a slow cooker)
Total time: About 5 hours
1/2 gallon half-and-half
3/4 cup short-grained rice, such as jasmine rice
6 green cardamoms, lightly bruised
3/4 cup raw turbinado or maple sugar (or more to taste)
1/2 cup chopped nuts such as pistachios or pecans (optional)
- Combine the half-and-half, rice and cardamoms in the slow cooker and set it to cook on high for five hours..
- After two hours, remove the slow cooker cover and give the mixture a good stir, ensuring the rice mixes well with the milk. Replace the lid.
- After another hour and a half, stir the mixture well. By this point, the rice should be fairly soft and meshing into the milk. Stir in the sugar and let the rice pudding continue cooking for another hour and a half.
- Stir well once it is done cooking. Discard the cardamoms if you wish. Let the pudding rest for at least 30 minutes and garnish with nuts before serving if you wish. Serve hot or cold, depending on your preference.
Main photo: Bengali Fried Eggplants, or Begun Bhaja. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya
World Pasta Day, celebrated each year the world over on Oct. 25, is a good reminder that pasta can indeed be a fall food. With the addition of a few seasonal ingredients, from figs and prosciutto to butternut squash, a cook can easily transform any pasta dish.
Baked pasta dishes
Now that the temperature is cool enough to make turning the oven on a pleasure again, it’s the perfect time to cook oven-baked pasta dishes, like lasagna or these crunchy-tender pasta squares. Using dried egg pasta, you don’t even need to boil the pasta. Just spread raw dried egg pasta in a buttered pan, pour on your favorite broth and lots of grated grana padano cheese and bake until tender. The result is a wonderful contrast in textures, crunchy outside with a soft cheesy center.
Pasta, a global food, is eaten in five continents and comes in more than 500 shapes and sizes. About 13.5 million tons of pasta is produced worldwide. Italy, with 57 pounds per year eaten per person, is the world’s leading pasta consumer, followed by Venezuela, Tunisia, Greece, Switzerland, Sweden and the U.S., according to the International Pasta Organization.
Pasta is an affordable, healthy, fat-free food that can be prepared in thousands of ways. Pasta pairs well with any vegetable or protein. Add it to soups, mix it into salads, toss it into casseroles.
Seasonal and versatile
For those of us on a budget or who might want to cut down on meat, pasta with meat sauce is a great way to stretch a modest serving into a meal. A half-pound of ground beef when combined with a pound of pasta can easily feed a family of four. Meat sauce is also a great way to add more servings of vegetables to your diet. Besides the tomatoes, you can add pureed pumpkin or minced bell peppers to the sauce.
Pasta is an ideal way to reduce food waste. Just combine pasta with leftovers to create a new meal. Season cooked pasta with a little olive oil, mix in leftover chopped vegetables and any leftover protein like meatloaf, bits of burger, beans, fish, chicken or pork. Pasta is easy to cook. It’s so easy to cook with that it can entice even non-cooks into the kitchen. You don’t even need a recipe.
Carbonara with an autumn twist
One virtually recipe-free dish here is carbonara. Hot pasta tossed with raw egg that creates a creamy sauce, which is then punctuated by crisp bits of pancetta or bacon and a shower of grated cheese. There are many ingredients that you can add to this magical combination of egg-bacon-cheese, like leftover cooked veggies.
For an autumnal note, toss in diced butternut or kabocha squash. And if you’d like a vegetarian option, you can even omit the bacon and substitute sweet caramelized onions instead. I like to top it with Grana Padano, an aromatic, richly complex, flavorful cheese that is so important it received geographic protected status by the European Union and is the world’s most popular, most-consumed PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) cheese.
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Pasta with Butternut Squash
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Recipe courtesy of “Pasta Modern” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang). This simple-to-make dish is perfect for October.
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 cups diced kabocha or butternut squash, seeds and skin removed
Salt and pepper
1 pound short pasta, preferably Monograno Felicetti
Grana Padano PDO cheese
1. In a large frying pan over medium heat, cook the onion in 2 tablespoons of oil until the onion is very soft, about 8 minutes, then raise the heat to high and continue cooking until golden and caramelized, about 4 more minutes. Remove the onions from the pan and set aside.
2. In the same pan, adding another tablespoon or two of oil, fry the squash until tender and golden at the edges, about 8 minutes. Return the onions to the pan, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and keep warm.
3. In a large serving bowl, beat the eggs with 2 heaping tablespoons of grated Grana Padano cheese.
4. Cook the pasta in boiling, salted water until al dente. Drain and toss in the egg mixture, stirring until creamy, then stir in the hot onion-squash mixture. Serve topped with more grated or shaved cheese.
Mix it up with fruit
Pasta is even great with fruit! My passion for pasta with fruit began while researching my first cookbook, “Shakespeare’s Kitchen,” when I discovered the many sweet-savory pasta dishes of the Renaissance. In today’s Italy, you’ll find pasta paired with all sorts of fruit, both dried and fresh — berries, figs, prunes, dates, oranges and lemons — each adding lovely color, brilliant acidity and delicate sweetness to the sauces.
Oranges have an astonishingly savory-sweet quality when paired with pasta, so it’s no wonder that there are hundreds of variations of this combination throughout Italy. Top your favorite sauce with orange zest for a nice pop of flavor. Or try this simple orange-date-anchovy combination by tossing hot cooked pasta with a spoonful of tomato pasta, minced dates, mashed anchovy topped with orange zest.
Figs are fine for fall
Figs and prosciutto is a classic Italian combo. It’s also great with pasta, and a nice way to savor the last of fall’s figs. Toss hot cooked pasta with a little olive oil and fresh sliced figs, then top with shaved aged cheese and prosciutto. Since there are so few ingredients, be sure to use top-quality prosciutto. I especially like San Daniele prosciutto, which is produced only in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region of Italy, around the hill-town of San Daniele, and has an ethereal flavor and melt-in-your-mouth texture. You can also enjoy this fig-prosciutto combination even when figs aren’t in season. It’s great with dried figs that have been softened in white wine and combined with caramelized onions.
Dried Fig and Prosciutto Penne
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cooking Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Recipe courtesy of “Opera Lover’s Cookbook” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang). Cooking dried figs in white wine makes them soft and sweet as fresh figs.
1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 red onion, diced
1 cup white wine
12 dried Calimyrna figs, about 9 ounces, very thinly sliced
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
1 pound penne, preferably Monograno Felicetti
1/4 pound prosciutto, sliced, preferably San Daniele prosciutto DOP
1/2 cup shaved Grana-Padano cheese
1 tablespoon whole pink peppercorns
1. Heat the butter and oil in a medium sauté pan over medium heat until the butter melts. Sauté the onion until translucent, about 5 minutes.
2. Add the wine and figs and simmer until the wine is absorbed and the figs soft, about 8 minutes. Stir in the stock and simmer, covered, for about 7 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, cook the penne according to package directions. Drain and toss with the fig sauce.
4. Serve the penne topped with Grana Padano, San Daniele prosciutto and a sprinkle of peppercorns.
Main caption: With a few seasonal ingredients, such as artichokes and plums, pasta can be a favorite fall food. Credit: Courtesy of “Pasta Modern” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)
The flavors of the mountains were something to celebrate at an international Slow Food event that brought together chefs from throughout Europe.
Bra, a charming village in Italy’s Piedmont region, hosted the 10th edition of Cheese that under the aegis of Slow Food marks the biennial major meeting point for the best products of the international dairy industry. Cheese 2015 featured mountain cuisine by selecting seven European Slow Food chefs (who, thankfully, are not offended if you call them “cook” instead of “chef”).
They took turns at the stove to create seven “jewels” that represent different regions and different stories all related to mountain traditions. I met them and tried their dishes.
From the Piedmont
Let’s start with a rich Piedmont Hot Pot with beef, carrots, celery and a slightly garlicky green sauce, traditionally accompanied by a glass of broth. It was like a jump into the past, thanks to Carlo Rocca and his wife, Manuela, who run the 1894 Osteria Paschera in Caraglio, Valle Grana, Italy. Buying from local farmers and choosing only what is in season are their two guiding principles.
Their signature dish? Culumbot, young pigeons cooked in a casserole on a wood-fired stove. Carlo and Manuela also have an aversion to waste; they make their dishes based on reservations, and if there are leftovers, they urge their guests to take them home.
Thomas Zwink from the Ammergau Alps, Germany, prepared spaetzle (small, irregularly shaped dumplings made with wheat flour, eggs and water) with a sauce made from two mountain cheeses, Emmentaler and Romadour, and butter. Zwink opened the Dorfwirt two years ago, following extended travels as a freelance gastronome.
Lots of work and lots of play go into his cuisine, along with top-quality ingredients. He is renowned for his beef cheek braised in red wine. He champions humane treatment of the animals raised for food, cultivates the herbs he uses and is on a first-name basis with the producers of the cheeses he offers.
The menu moved east to feature kwaśnica, a Polish soup with potatoes, cabbage, porcini mushrooms and pork ribs. It was cooked by Sylwester Lis, chef of Hotel Bukovina, in the Tatra Mountains of Poland.
“It’s a traditional meat and vegetables dish, although once I made a fish version with crayfish necks prepared with cumin butter. They said that I desecrated kwaśnica, but many liked it,” said Lis, who often dares to combine the typical regional cuisine of the area with a modern fusion approach.
Shaped by geography
A classic mountain menu always features some kind of soup and polenta.
A hearty soup with mini-spelt from Upper Provence, accompanied by sausages, was the dish prepared by The Slow Food Coolporteur Gap Convivium of Hautes Alpes, France. This group highlights the biodiversity of the Southern Alps. A dry climate and soil that is resistant to farming have always characterized this region, equidistant from the sea and the Alps, and have shaped its cuisine: simple and poor. Grain, bread, pork (the fatty cuts, because the leaner, more desirable ones were sold) and potatoes were for centuries the main ingredients.
Meret Bissegger prepared a polenta rossa with farina bòna flour, ragout of dried chestnuts, porcini mushrooms, roasted Caprauna radish and spiced cabbage. Bisseger is the soul of Casa Merogusto in Valle di Blenio, Switzerland. She has published two books, in which she combines her fervor for what is good, clean and fair with the use of simple, high-quality ingredients produced on a small scale.
Back to Italy
Annarita di Nunno served a potato-stuffed giant tortel with casòlet cheese from the Val di Sole, served with white cabbage salad and speck from Trentino.
Di Nunno, a young painter and art expert from the Salento, in Puglia, decided that she needed an abrupt change and moved to Trentino to begin a new adventure in the restaurant business with her husband, Sergio. Today, Annarita is the cook at the Locanda delle Tre Chiavi in Vallagarina, Italy, where she is celebrated for her vegetable dishes and, most of all, her desserts.
Back in time
Moreno Janda grew up with his parents at the inn Bussola da Gino in Catena di Quarrata, Pistoia, Italy. Its main feature is the recovery of old cooking techniques and raw materials not very present on our tables, such as giblets from chicken or fagioli serpenti, rare Tuscan heirloom string bean; serpente means snake and the reason for the name is the shape of it.
Janda’s dish reflects his goal: handmade Pontremoli testarolo, a sort of pancake made with water, flour and salt, first cooked in the testo, a large heavy cast iron skillet with a dome-shaped lid. Then the testarolo is cut and cooked again in hot water for a few minutes and served as a pasta dish.
“Making the testarolo requires a knowledge of materials and techniques, which is becoming rare these days,” Janda says proudly.
Main photo: Carlo Rocca prepares his Piedmont Hot Pot. Credit: Copyright 2015 Cesare Zucca
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Extra virgin olive oils made in hot climates have not had a great reputation. Oils from Sicily and Puglia in Italy and Andalusia, Spain, and other Mediterranean regions, where harvest temperatures are often searing, are frequently dismissed by exacting consumers. And with good reason: Far too many suffer from a major defect called fustiness.
What does fustiness taste like? I know it on my palate, but I can’t always summon words to describe it. To me, it tastes like badly preserved black olives and smells like moldy hay in a neglected corner of the barn. (But few people recognize that aroma in this day and age.) Fusty oils lack the complex bitterness, pungency and rich fruitiness that characterize good, fresh, well-made oil. And they usually leave an unpleasant, greasy feeling in your mouth.
The cause of fustiness
But fustiness is so common that for many people it remains the true taste of olive oil. All too often, in rankings of extra virgin olive oils in national publications, it’s the fusty ones that win top honors. Nevertheless, fustiness is a defect, and a major one.
How does this happen? Usually fustiness develops because of a delay between the harvest of the olives and the conversion into oil at the mill. In the days before the use of continuous-cycle, stainless-steel equipment to process olives and produce oil, that delay could last many days, even weeks. In addition, many farmers were convinced that olives left to “rest” after harvest actually yielded more oil. They don’t, and the oil they do yield is defective because olives piled up in a corner of the frantoio (mill) or packed into burlap bags undergo anaerobic, or lactic acid, fermentation, and that’s what produces fustiness. That fermented effect is almost endemic in hot-climate oils where temperatures at harvest are intense, as they often are in October and early November in regions of southern Italy and Spain, as well as North Africa.
A change for the better
Now, growing numbers of smart, usually small-scale producers are changing that hot-climate flavor profile for the better. How? Simply by speeding up the gap between harvest and pressing — the best producers make oil in a matter of hours rather than days — and maintaining a pristine milling environment, sometimes even using air conditioning to cool the mill and storage areas. What that means for discerning consumers is more and better oil from places in the world that were not known for excellence.
I’m a big fan of many southern oils. I’ve written in the past about Pianogrillo from the Monte Iblea mountains in east-central Sicily, a perennial favorite, as well as Olio Verde from the Belice Valley down near the sea on the south coast of the island, and Titone from the west coast between Marsala and Trapani.
Many regions producing quality oils
But recently I’ve been introduced to several other Sicilian oils, including Mastri di San Basilio, made by the Padova family in the Val d’Ispica, a region of southeastern Sicily that is, somewhat surprisingly, south of the city of Tunis. Their riserva is a blend of moresca and rare verdese olives with lots of fresh green almond flavors that make it an ideal garnish for summery vegetables, whether raw or cooked.
Another Sicilian newcomer is Barbàra from the same western region as Titone, made primarily from cerasuola olives mixed with mild biancolilla and the local cultivar nocellara del Belice. Barbàra’s round, fruity flavor ends with pleasantly marked bitterness in the aftertaste. I liked it with a few drops of lemon juice as a garnish for simple grilled fish.
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And then there’s Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, with a climate akin to that of Greece. Olio di Melli’s Re Manfredi oil from the Gargano peninsula, the spur on the heel of the boot, is a lushly piquant oil made from ogliarolo and coratina olives. Another candidate among top southern climate oils is Crudo, made by the family of Gaetano Schiralli from ogliarola olives in Bitetto, not far from Puglia’s Adriatic coast. The name says it all: Crudo means raw. This is an oil to use in its raw state on the fabled platters of raw fish and shellfish that are the specialty of the region. A plate of raw oysters with a drop of raw Crudo on each one is a revelation.
(The Puglia region was hard hit by a vicious Xyllela bacterium last year, but it has not so far been detected in the areas described, and authorities hope to confine it to the Basso Salento.)
Not to be outdone, the Spanish region of Andalusia seems like one vast olive grove stretching across southern Spain. It’s a hot region where the bulk of Spain’s low-cost, highly commercialized production takes place, but it is also home to some extremely astute growers, including Melgarejo, whose oil is highly touted, though I have not tasted it recently. One of my favorites is Castillo de Canena, which wins awards for its growing portfolio, the latest of which is a smoked olive oil. While I hold no brief for flavored olive oils, I think Canena makes some of the finest olive oils in Spain, including especially its picual, which I tasted again very recently — and was once again bowled over by the effect it has on a fresh-from-my-garden tomato, exalting the fruitiness of the tomato without overwhelming it. Just a simple raw tomato, sliced, sprinkled with sea salt, with a glug of Canena’s picual, is a perfect summer lunch at my house. Try it on toast for breakfast!
Olive oil recommendations
Here are some contacts for sourcing these oils. Note that Mastri di San Basilio is shipped from Italy via UPS. The producer, Francesco Padova, has had no problems with this system and ships, he says, all over the world.
Main image: Despite a reputation to the contrary, you can find good quality olive oils from hot climates. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins
When tomato season arrives in August, we are so excited about our salads and tomato sandwiches that we often forget that the season happily continues well into fall. Tomatoes can be used in many ways beyond luscious salads. Here is a selection of unusual and interesting ways to use this vivacious favorite.
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Main photo: Shakshouka, a hearty meal that is great for breakfast and perfect for a family dinner. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya