Articles in Cuisine

Popiah was born in China but has spread across Asia, each country adding its own flavors and ingredients. Credit: Courtesy of StrEat.

With popiah skin, the trick is to control the dough, says Michael Ker, a third-generation popiah maker in Singapore. He has a grapefruit-sized ball of the soft, sticky dough in his left hand, and he’s “flipping” it, bouncing it in his palm so that it wobbles and stretches but always stays stuck to his fingers.

In front of him is a round, flat, electric skillet — the kind you see crepe vendors using at street fairs — and when the skillet is nice and hot, Ker uses the flipping motion to smear a thin, perfectly round circle of dough onto the surface, then he bounces the dough, still in his hand, like a yo-yo, so that it hits the skillet in just a few places, filling in any holes and thin spots. After just a couple of seconds the circle has cooked through.

Across the table, a handful of Ker’s family members — cousins, aunts, and uncles — top the wrappers with lettuce, slices of hard-boiled egg, a sweet and savory mix of cooked carrot and jicama and boiled shrimp, then roll it all up together. “It’s like a Singaporean burrito,” he jokes.

Adapting across Asia

Ker Cheng Lye weighs the popiah skins. The family business was started in the 1930s. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Ker Cheng Lye weighs the popiah skins. The family business was started in the 1930s. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

Popiah was born in Fujian Province in China and spread across Asia as Fujianese merchants emigrated to places like Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, and, of course, Singapore. In each place, the wrap became a kind of fusion dish that incorporated flavors and ingredients popular in its new home. Some are served fresh, as traditional Singaporean popiah are, while other are made thin and deep-fried, like spring rolls — in Singapore, these are known as popiah goreng.

Ker’s family business, Kway Guan Huat Original Joo Chiat Popiah, was started in the 1930s when Ker’s grandfather, Quek Tren Wen, immigrated to Singapore. At first, Quek just made the wrappers to sell to home cooks, but when he married Tan Ah Poh, a local woman from the Peranakan community (a group made up of the descendants of immigrants who have married locals), she began to make a traditional local filling to put in the wrappers. The couple taught their children to help them, and their popiah business is now the oldest and most respected in the country.

The founder’s children still run their business out of the original location, a large storefront in the Joo Chiat neighborhood on Singapore’s east coast. Every morning, teams of relatives gather in the large kitchen in the back of the building to make the fermented, wheat-based dough for the skins and shred the vegetables for the fillings. They also make the small, deep-fried pastry shells that are the base for the traditional Singaporean dish kueh pie tee — a treat filled with the same cooked vegetable mixture as popiah.

Ready for the next generation

A vegetable mixture fills the popiah goreng. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

A vegetable mixture fills the popiah goreng. Credit: Copyright 2016 Georgia Freedman

In the front of the store, Ker Cheng Lye, Ker’s father, weighs out stacks of popiah skins and wraps them up for shoppers who stop by to pick up all of the components of the popiah so that they can assemble them at home. Many families buy enough ingredients to make fresh popiah one day and also make popiah goreng with the leftovers the following day.

The shop is particularly busy around Tomb Sweeping Holiday, when people like to make popiah as an offering for their ancestors, and during Chinese New Year, when wrapping popiah symbolizes wrapping up wealth. “When you wrap a popiah and you put the fillings in, you must not be greedy,” explains Ker. “If you are greedy, and the skin tears, it’s not a good sign.”

Ker, 40, has been making popiah since his parents taught him to work with the dough when he was 10, and in the next few years he will begin to take over the business from his parents, aunts, and uncles.

“We are planning to pass the business to Michael,” says Vicky Quek, one of his aunts. “You see, we’re all getting old, and he knows the situation of the family: If no one from the third generation takes over, we have to close the door. So he expressed the desire to carry on. He is trying to organize a team — a young, third-generation team — to run the show.” She and his father are mentoring Ker, teaching him all the skills that he will need to carry on the family’s recipes and traditions. Quek anticipates handing the reins over in two to three years. But that won’t mean that the older generation will retire completely. “We will continue to support them and lend a hand,” she says, reassuringly.

Main photo: Popiah was born in China but has spread across Asia, each country adding its own flavors and ingredients. Credit: Courtesy of StrEat.

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Cinnamon chouquettes. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

At one time, if I wanted a handful of airy, pearl-sugar-encrusted chouquettes, I’d have to either scrimp and save for a trip to France or break down and make these sweets myself.

For centuries these petite, round pastries have been a mainstay of French bakeries and patisseries. Like clockwork, each day bakers tumble a dozen or so soft chouquettes into small paper bags and, handing over the baked goods, send hungry but happy customers on their way. Simple yet satisfying, chouquettes have long served as an afternoon snack or a means of tiding over famished French diners until dinnertime.

In recent months I started to notice this beloved treat appearing in bakeries and shops in my New York City neighborhood. Piled high on trays inside glass cases or displayed in wicker baskets, as they are in France, chouquettes have begun to insinuate their way into international markets and hearts.

Like many newcomers to the chouquette, I originally mistook it for a French take on the American doughnut hole. Because the two were comparable in size and shape, I assumed they would also have a similar taste. One bite of the chouquette’s soft, mildly sweet and eggy dough and its crunchy sugar topping, and all comparisons to that greasy, occasionally gooey confection ended.

Chouquettes born during the Renaissance

Cinnamon chouquettes. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Cinnamon chouquettes. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Unlike doughnuts, which are a relatively modern creation, chouquettes date back to Renaissance France. Historians point to the 16th century and a chef, a man known as Panterelli, whom Catherine de Medici had brought with her to France, as the inventor of the first chouquette.

Panterelli had crafted an unusual dough that consisted of flour, water, eggs and butter. Although it lacked such leavening agents as yeast, baking powder or baking soda, the dough still rose in a hot oven. This resulted from its high moisture content, which, when heated, produced steam that, in turn, caused the pastry to swell. Note that his dough, or pâte, is not to be confused with puff pastry, which contains layers of buttery dough and, as a result, has a flaky texture.

In the 18th century, French bakers began shaping this pâte into tiny buns that, after baking, resembled little cabbages. The French word for “cabbage” is choux. Pair that with Panterelli’s pâte and you have the classic dough for chouquettes and assortment of other desserts, pâte a choux.

During the 19th century, the renowned Parisian chef Marie-Antoine Carême tweaked this recipe yet again. It is his take on pâte a choux that I enjoy today in my neighborhood chouquettes.

While I appreciate the convenience of walking a few blocks to fetch a bag of fresh chouquettes, I continue to bake my own, too. Quick and simple to make, they always dazzle my friends and family. Then again, who wouldn’t be impressed by a platter of homemade, pearl-sugar-studded French pastries?

A different kind of dough

Unlike other types of pastry dough, preparing chouquette dough involved cooking. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Unlike other types of pastry dough, preparing chouquette dough involves cooking. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Pâte a choux is the rare dough that is cooked before being baked. To make a batch of chouquettes, I first melt butter in a saucepan with water, sugar and salt. To this I add flour. I then stir the ingredients together until a soft, malleable dough forms. The eggs are the final addition to the saucepan and make the dough wet and a bit sticky. This moisture is what gives chouquettes their light consistency.

After being spooned onto parchment paper and decorated with pearl sugar, the chouquettes are baked until puffy and golden brown. If, after being removed from the oven, the pint-sized treats collapse, I just put them back in the hot oven for a few more minutes.

Because chouquettes are hollow inside, they can be filled with an array of ingredients, such as custard, chocolate or jam. I, however, am a purist and prefer to leave them as they are. I love them most when they’ve been adorned with those chunky, white sugar crystals and, if I’m feeling really adventurous, a smidgen of ground cinnamon.

Cinnamon Chouquettes

Chouquettes ready for the oven. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Chouquettes ready for the oven. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

Prep time: 10 minutes

Bake time: 20 to 25 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Yield: 3 dozen

Ingredients

For the dough:

1 cup water

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 cup all-purpose flour

4 large eggs, at room temperature

For the topping:

1 egg yolk

1 teaspoon water

2/3 cup pearl sugar

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Directions

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.

Place the water, sugar, salt and butter in a small saucepan and heat over medium. Stir the ingredients together until the butter has melted.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the flour. Mix until a soft, malleable dough has formed.

Add the eggs one at a time, stirring briskly with each addition until the eggs are completely incorporated. When finished, the dough will be sticky.

Using a tablespoon or a small disher that holds roughly 1 tablespoon, scoop out and place equal portions of dough on the parchment-lined baking sheets. Leave about 1 inch between each chouquette.

In a small bowl whisk together the egg yolk and water.  In another small bowl mix the pearl sugar with the ground cinnamon.

Brush the tops of the chouquettes with egg wash, then sprinkle cinnamon sugar over top of each.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the chouquettes are puffed up, golden brown and dry in appearance. Remove them from the oven and cool for 1 to 2 minutes before serving.

Note: When stored in an airtight container, chouquettes will keep for up to three days. However, they are best when consumed on the day they’re baked.

Main image: Cinnamon chouquettes. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt

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Shakshuka is a Tunisian dish that can be eaten at any meal of the day. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

If shakshuka is not yet on your food radar, then it soon will be. And be prepared to fall head over heels for this homely Tunisian favorite that may well be the region’s most delicious onomatopoeic egg dish.

Even though it sounds as if it ought to mean “all shook up” à la Elvis, the word shakshuka actually means “all mixed up,” a subtle distinction. Its charm is based on a trio of basic ingredients: tomatoes, fried or poached eggs and some form of chili pepper. Sounds simple, but as in all such deceptively easy recipes, the devil is in the detail.

In Israel, the cult of shakshuka has especially taken wing, becoming as ubiquitous as hummus and falafel. Introduced to the country by Jewish immigrants from North Africa, it is now found on cafe and restaurant menus throughout the country, served from dawn till dusk.

The mother of all shakshuka dishes is served at the eponymous Doctor Shakshuka in Jaffa along with a range of Libyan favorites, but on Tel-Aviv’s Ben Yehuda Street you can find small, hole-in-the-wall cafes that serve nothing but shakshuka. Choose the fiery heat level, specify the degree of softness of your egg yolk and select from a range of extra toppings and ingredients such as fresh herbs, eggplant, feta, merguez sausage, tahini or tofu.

A daring “green” shakshuka — made with leeks and spinach in a creamy sauce with no tomatoes — is fast becoming popular. A shakshuka baguette I encountered, however, was to my mind an innovation too far — in looks, like something you’d find in a medical textbook; in taste, much the same.

A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but to shakshuka mavens the dish would just not have same the exotic appeal if it was simply called baked eggs in tomato sauce.

Shakshuka: Debating recipe tips

The tomatoes in this dish need to be really ripe and packed with flavor. Peeling is preferable but optional. Canned tomatoes are acceptable, though they don’t have quite the same textural quality. On the other hand, some prefer it this way.

Red peppers are sometimes fried with the tomatoes, although a strong, vocal faction contends they should be chargrilled separately and added to the sauce once the latter is cooked. Some avoid them altogether.

Use very fresh spices, or the sauce will taste flat. Add them at the start and fry gently in olive oil before adding the tomatoes. Popular spices include cumin, caraway and black pepper. Paprika, chili pepper, cayenne, harissa or a similar fiery spice is the key. Garlic is optional but eminently desirable. Ditto onion. Or both.

The sauce on which the eggs will rest should not be too liquidy, so make sure you cook it until it largely evaporates.

Use eggs at room temperature, because a cold egg will cook unevenly. The whites take longer to cook than the yolks, so timing is tricky. Some cooks cover the pan to solve the problem, but that tends to overcook the yolk. Still, some folk run a mile from a runny one. Others separate the eggs, cooking the whites till set before adding the yolks. Personally, I feel this lacks the proper aesthetic.

If you want to add extra ingredients, do so either just before adding the eggs or at the same time.

Shakshuka can be cooked in either a large communal skillet to dish out as required or in individual dishes so you can serve them in the pan in which they were cooked.

Mop up your shakshuka with good bread. No argument.

Shakshuka: A starting point

The recipe is intended as a guide. Regard shakshuka as a free-wheeling dish dependent on personal preferences and ingredient availability.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 50 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, finely sliced

1 red pepper, diced

4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 teaspoons sweet paprika

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/2 to 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 pounds tinned tomatoes (or ripe tomatoes in season)

2 teaspoons sugar (optional, depending on the flavor of the tomatoes)

1 tablespoon lemon juice

4 to 8 eggs, depending on size/hunger

Salt and pepper to taste

Small bunch of fresh coriander or parsley, roughly chopped

Directions

Heat the oil in a large, lidded frying pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until golden, then add the pepper. Fry until both are soft, then stir in the garlic, paprika, cumin seeds and cayenne pepper and cook for another couple of minutes.

Add the tomatoes and sugar, if using. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Taste and season, adding more cayenne if you prefer it spicier.

Make 4 to 8 shallow indentations in the sauce, and break in the eggs. Season them lightly with salt and pepper, then turn the heat down as low as possible, cover and cook for about 10 minutes until the eggs are just set.

Sprinkle with coriander or parsley and serve.

Green Shakshuka

This breaks the shakshuka rules — it has no tomato! — but makes an excellent brunch or breakfast dish.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: 2 to 3 servings

Ingredients

1 large leek, sliced

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil or butter

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 teaspoon sweet paprika or chili flakes

6 cups spinach or kale, chopped

1/2 cup sour cream

A little freshly grated nutmeg to taste

6 eggs

1/4 pound feta or goats’ cheese

Directions

Fry the leek in the butter or oil in a wide frying pan for about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, and when the aroma rises, add the paprika or chili flakes, then stir in the spinach until it starts to wilt.

Add the sour cream, nutmeg, salt and pepper and stir to mix well.

Make shallow dips in the sauce, and break an egg into each one. Cook for a few minutes or until the eggs are done to your liking. Cover the pan briefly if you think appropriate.

Sprinkle with the cheese and serve immediately.

Main image: Shakshuka is a Tunisian dish that can be eaten at any meal of the day. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

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Marcella and Victor Hazan. Credit: Copyright 2016 Barbara Banks

I’ve lived in Italy off and on since the 1970s, eating my way up and down the peninsula, shopping the markets, raising the vegetables in my own gardens, prepping and cooking the food, studying the history and meeting the home cooks and chefs who carry the treasures of the Italian table in their heads, hearts and hands. I’ve learned a lot, in short, about Italian cooking. But almost everything I know, everything I’ve learned, ultimately traces back to one source — Marcella Hazan.

Her first book, “The Classic Italian Cook Book,” published by Knopf in 1973 and acquired by me a few years later as a gift from an erstwhile husband when we moved to Rome, truly opened the doors of my kitchen to Italian cooking. I have been grateful ever since. I consult that book and her many others to this day, often uncovering unexpected tips, ideas and information. Now I have a new treasure in my Marcella library — “Ingredienti” — her husband, Victor’s, tribute to his wife of nearly 60 years, who died in 2013.

A true Italian kitchen, in Marcella’s words

This invaluable little book is based on Marcella’s notebooks, discovered by Victor after her death and assembled by him into usable form. A caution: It is not a cookbook, though any number of cooking tips are scattered throughout. It is, in fact, a series of intelligent, well-informed essays on critical ingredients for an Italian kitchen, from “Produce” (artichokes, arugula, etc. ) to “The Essential Pantry” (pasta, of course, olive oil, Parmigiano, etc.) to “Salumi” (all the cured meats — prosciutto, guanciale, pancetta, and, as they say in Italian, via dicendo).

"Ingredienti" by Marcella and Victor Hazan. Credit: Copyright 2016 book cover courtesy of Scribner

“Ingredienti” by Marcella and Victor Hazan. Credit: Copyright 2016 book cover courtesy of Scribner

It’s an open secret in the food world that Victor Hazan was the defining voice in his wife’s long and remarkable career. While the brilliant ideas, sensible advice and enormous range of recipes Marcella produced all came from her inspirations and her own kitchens, it was Victor who developed the clear, comprehensive prose that distinguished her seven cookbooks and countless magazine articles. Throughout her career, she was a pervasive influence on America’s understanding of Italian food, yet she never had a restaurant, never starred in a television show and almost never appeared in public to give a talk or do a demonstration. What a different world she lived in, but she ruled that world for 40 years and continues, for many of us, to dominate it to this day.

An inspiring force

Marcella Hazan at a cooking demonstration. Credit: Copyright 2016 Victor Hazan

Marcella Hazan at a cooking demonstration. Credit: Copyright 2016 Victor Hazan

I met Marcella in the 1970s after “The Classic Italian Cook Book” was published. In fact, the first food story I ever wrote was an interview with the Hazans at their cooking school in Bologna, Italy, in a hotel across from the train station that was also headquarters for the Bologna division of Weight Watchers International (providing a memorable lead sentence for my story). Eight or 10 students were in the class, one of whom was planning to open a “northern Italian” restaurant somewhere in the upper Midwest and had come to take a weeklong course to understand what she was getting into. Another was a man who claimed to detest olive oil. “I don’t know what he’s doing in an Italian cooking class,” Marcella murmured, barely sotto voce, in her inimitably gravelly voice.

The menu for the class was simple, though some techniques were not. Students struggled to master shaping tortellini, the devilishly difficult little hat-shaped filled pasta that is the pride of Bologna’s sfogline, or pasta-makers. But there was also a traditional arrosto di maiale al latte, pork loin braised in milk, a surprisingly simple dish, flavored with nothing but salt and pepper, rich and succulent. A dish first described by Artusi, the Fanny Farmer of 19th-century Italian cooking, it was introduced to Americans by Marcella — and it deserves to be revived.

That was not my only encounter with the Hazans. In fact, I remember almost every time I spent with them simply because from each encounter, I took away a piece of invaluable knowledge. But one, in particular, stands out: In the late 1980s, when I was working as a food journalist in New York, Marcella called to invite me to dinner. “I want to show you something about pasta,” she said. The next evening, in the Hazans’ comfortable East Side apartment, she presented her dinner guests with two plates of pasta, identically dressed very simply with butter, a grating of Parmigiano Reggiano and a light sprinkle of herbs, nothing to interfere with the flavors of the pasta. One plate of tagliatelle had been made entirely by hand, rolled out on a board “until the pasta is almost paper thin and transparent,” as she says in that first book. The tagliatelle on the second plate were what you and I might call handmade, but rolled through a hand-cranked pasta machine. In the machine, as she wrote, “something happens to its composition … that gives the dough an ever so slightly slippery texture.” The words are Victor’s, but the sentiment, precise and to the point, is Marcella’s to the core.

And you know what? She was absolutely right!

Arrosto di maiale al latte (Pork Loin Braised in Milk)

This recipe was published in Marcella Hazan’s “The Classic Italian Cook Book” (Knopf 1973)

 Yield: For 6 persons

Ingredients

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 pounds pork loin, in one piece, with some fat on it, secretly tied

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper, 3 or 4 twists of the mill

2 1/2 cups milk

Directions

Heat the butter and oil over medium-high heat in a casserole large enough to just contain the pork. When the butter foam subsides, add the meat, fat side facing down. Brown thoroughly on all sides, lowering the heat if the butter starts to turn dark brown.

Add the salt, pepper and milk. (Add the milk slowly, otherwise it may boil over.) Shortly after the milk comes to a boil, turn the heat down to medium, cover, but not tightly, with the lid partly askew, and cook slowly for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until the meat is easily pierced by a fork. Turn and baste the meat from time to time, and, if necessary, add a little more milk. By the time the meat is cooked, the milk should have coagulated into small nut-brown clusters. If it is still pale in color, uncover the pot, raise the heat to high, and cook briskly until it darkens.

Remove the meat to a cutting board and allow to cool off slightly for a few minutes. Remove the trussing string, carve into slices 3/8-inch thick, and arrange them on a warm platter. Draw off most of the fat from the pot with a spoon and discard, being careful not to toss any of the coagulated milk clusters. Taste and correct for salt. (There may be as much as 1 to 1 1/2 cups of fat to be removed.) Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of warm water, turn the heat on high, and boil away the water while scraping and loosening all the cooking residue in the pot. Spoon the sauce over the sliced pork and serve immediately.

Main photo: Marcella and Victor Hazan. Credit: Copyright 2016 Barbara Banks

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Chef Massimo Spigaroli and his team show off their prized culatello. Credit: Copyright 2016 Antica Corte Pallavicina

There is prosciutto and then there is culatello.

Proscuitto is ubiquitous. It’s draped over melon or paired with figs or mozzarella in restaurants everywhere. You can buy imported Proscuitto di Parma at Whole Foods at $31 a pound for a bone-in leg or on Amazon for $15.

Massimo Bottura serves culatello. At Osteria Francescana, his Michelin three-star restaurant in Modena that topped the 50 Best Restaurants for 2016, it appears as an appetizer, paired with Campanine apples, mustard and crunchy “gnocco” bread.

And not just any culatello. Chef Bottura procures his culatello exclusively from Massimo Spigaroli’s Antica Corte Pallavicina, an inn and working farm one hour’s drive from Modena. You’ll find that same culatello at Alain Ducasse’s Sporting Club in Montecarlo and Bombana in Hong Kong. But nowhere in the United States. The closest you’ll get is Zibello fiocco (culatello salami) for $40 a pound.

Prosciutto versus culatello

Vertical Tasting of Spigaroli culatello at Antica Corte Pallavicina. Credit: Copyright 2016 John Pleshette

Vertical Tasting of Spigaroli culatello at Antica Corte Pallavicina. Credit: Copyright 2016 John Pleshette

Culatello (“little backside” in Italian) is the fillet of the pig’s hind leg from which prosciutto is cured. Both are salted and left to sit for two months, which draws out the blood and kills bacteria. The process predates the Romans, and except for the introduction of nitrites, which further inhibit bacterial growth, it hasn’t changed much since. Proscuitto is then hung in a cool place for anywhere from nine months to two years, while culatello is encased in a pig’s or cow’s bladder and hung for 18 to 27 months.

All proscuitti are not created equal. Only a dozen designations are protected by the EU and stamped PDO or PGI, which guarantees they come from a particular region and, more important, are cured only with sea salt and no nitrites. All are produced in northern Italy. They vary in taste and texture depending on the terroir and the pigs. San Daniele, with its dark color and sweet flavor, is from Fruili. Parma pigs are fed whey from Parmigiano Reggiano, lending Proscuitto di Parma a nuttier flavor.

Culatello is more high-maintenance. Spigaroli’s black pigs are kissing cousins to the acorn-fed pigs that give us Jamon Ibérico. It cures throughout the cold damp winters in the Po Valley just south of Cremona. The difference between prosciutto and culatello is subtle, but profound.

A tasting

Fourteenth century charm meets 21st century gastronomy at the dining room at Antica Corte Pallavicina, the inn and working farm on the River Po. Credit: Copyright 2016 Antica Corte Pallavicina

Fourteenth-century charm meets 21st-century gastronomy in the dining room at Antica Corte Pallavicina, the inn and working farm on the River Po. Credit: Copyright 2016 Antica Corte Pallavicina

In the sun-filled dining room at Antica Corte Pallavicina, Spigaroli’s prized culatello is presented for a tasting beneath three celadon cloches. Each conceals pink-mahogany curtains of culatello. The first two, from white pigs, are aged, respectively, 18 and 27 months. The familiar salty-sweetness of prosciutto gives way to a leathery richness. The older culatello is nuttier. The black pig culatello is smokier, with black cherry notes and a velvety texture. Between pigs, we cleanse our palates with hunks of crusty country bread and glasses of Trebbiano, served with pickled vegetables and fiocco, the chewy-soft salami made from the trimmings and the fat.

Antica Corte Pallavicina commands several acres close to the Po, encompassing Spigaroli’s restaurant, the hotel, a cooking school, a farm, a parmesan factory and culatello cellars. Al Cavallito Bianco, a more casual osteria, is run by Spigaroli’s brother Luciano. If you snag one of the six rooms, you can meet the pigs and tour the Parmigiano fattoria and culatello caves, which were built in 1320 by the marquesse di Pallavicina for precisely that purpose.

The Spigarolis’ great-grandfather went from a sharecropper at a nearby pintador belonging to Guiseppe Verdi to tenant farmer at Pallavicina. Their father was born there in 1916. But by 1990, when the sons purchased the property, it had fallen into ruins. The extensive restoration combines rustic charm with modern conveniences. The original, ox-sized fireplace dominates the dining room, where a wall of glass doors opens onto a trellised patio. A massive decommissioned steel stove functions as a serving station.

Going to the source

Spigaroli culatello ages in the cellars built in 1320 by the Marquesse di Pallavicina. Credit: Copyright 2016 John Pleshette

Spigaroli culatello ages in the cellars built in 1320 by the Marquesse di Pallavicina. Credit: Copyright 2016 John Pleshette

After consuming feather-light tortelli, stuffed with ricotta from Spigaroli cows and Spigaroli spinach — glistening with Spigaroli brown butter and showered with Spigaroli Parmigiano — we tour the caves, down a dungeon’s stairs to the dank cellar. The culatelli, white with mold, hang from the ceiling, encased in pigs’ bladders like ghostly chandeliers. Misty air wafts in from the Po. Such cellars are increasingly rare. The EU frowns on such conditions as potentially unsanitary. Because of that flavor-enhancing mold, the FDA forbids importing it to the United States. You’ll have to go to the source.

You’ll find yourself in food heaven. Emilia-Romana is Italy’s Burgundy; Bologna, its Lyon. You won’t find a better spaghetti carbonara than the one at Pizzeria delle Arte in Bologna, spiked with guanciale, creamy with Parmigiano and egg yolks the color of navel oranges. Massimo Bottura celebrates that same Reggiano in his Five Ages of Parmiagiano at Osteria Francescana.

Our last dinner, in Milan, we sit next to three Italian businessmen. “What brings you to Italy?” one wants to know.

“We came for the culatello.”

“Ah.” He smiles. He understands.

Main caption: Chef Massimo Spigaroli and his team show off their prized culatello. Credit: Copyright 2016 Antica Corte Pallavicina

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Soju makers in South Korea are targeting women with fruit-flavored drinks. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

A wave of new, summery drinks is taking over Korea. Marketed almost exclusively toward women, the fruit-flavored sojus and alcopops are low in alcohol, high in sugar and raise some interesting questions about how women are perceived and marketed to in a country that still has some of the worst gender-equality outcomes in the world.

Soju is similar to vodka, but with about half the alcohol content of most spirits. It is extremely popular in hard-drinking South Korea — especially among men. Keen to tap into the female market, soju makers have for years been lowering the alcohol content and experimenting with different, sweeter varieties to attract women.

Capturing the market

Grapefruit, apple, pomegranate, blueberry and citron are just some of the choices available in the new sojus and alcopops. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Grapefruit, apple, pomegranate, blueberry and citron are just some of the choices available in the new sojus and alcopops. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

But it hasn’t really worked until last year, when soju maker Chum-churum started a revolution with Soonhari, a citron-flavored soju. Now, the country’s major soju producers, Chum-churum and Jinro, are falling over themselves putting out new versions of fruit-flavored drinks to capture the market. Grapefruit, apple, pomegranate, blueberry and citron are just some of the choices available. Most of them have between 11 and 14 percent alcohol, as opposed to the 17 to 21 percent in regular soju.

“I like the fruity soju,” says Kim Hyeon-seo, a clerk at a 7-Eleven in Ilsan, a city just north of Seoul. “It has more flavor than pure soju, and the alcohol level is lower than regular soju.” She says they sell a lot of flavored sojus, mostly to young women.

A sweeter flavor

Soju makers have rolled out a line of lighter, fruit-flavored drinks. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Soju makers have rolled out a line of lighter, fruit-flavored drinks. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Lee Young-jin, the manager of Hanshin Pocha bar in Ilsan, says they sell plenty of the fruit sojus. “Before flavored soju, people just drank the regular soju,” Lee says. “We’d sell six cases of it a day. But with the new soju, we sell eight or nine cases.”

He says a table with three women will often put away eight or nine bottles of flavored soju, as opposed to only two or three of the regular kind.

Along with these fruity sojus are new alcoholic sodas like Brother Soda and Iseul Tok Tok. Both are 3 percent alcohol by volume, thanks to a white wine base, but you would never know from tasting them. Brother Soda tastes exactly like cream soda. Iseul Tok Tok tastes like “2%,” a popular peach-flavored soda in Korea. You can’t taste a hint of alcohol in either.

Lim Jongwoo, a waiter at Yaki Hwaro Galbe, says the sodas are almost entirely consumed by women. Lim says he doesn’t drink them, because “the alcohol level is very low.”

At a nearby table, Kang Yujin, 27, says, “I like the taste, its sweet flavor. Sometimes I drink regular soju, but mostly the flavored one.” She says that she’ll usually drink two bottles in one night.

Targeting the trendsetters

Soju, always popular in South Korea, is now making inroads among women, too. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Soju, always popular among men in South Korea, is now making inroads among women, too. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Daniel Gray, who runs food tours of Korea and the food blog “Seoul Eats,” says the companies are marketing toward women because they “have most of the buying power in Korean society, and tend to make the trends and influence the market on what to buy.”

Gray notes this isn’t the first time flavored sojus have been introduced — previous attempts over the last 10 years, including cucumber and green tea-flavored sojus, died quickly. He predicts that once the trend recedes, Korea will be left with only two fruit-flavored sojus, probably grapefruit and citron.

James Turnbull, an expat Briton who has written extensively about gender in Korea, thinks the advertising campaigns for the new sojus are overly “cutesy” and reinforce a trend in Korea called “aegyo,” where women try to be attractive to men by acting like young children. This contrasts with mainstream soju ads, which in the past decade, Turnbull says, have been emphasizing an extreme sexuality.

Park Solmin is a 23-year-old professional woman and is the exact target the soju makers have in mind. But she has a problem with how the ads reinforce a traditionally Korean view of gender. “They’re going to try to appear a very pure and weak image of a woman,” she says. “They’re trying to show it’s OK for those women who are trying to be very girlish, very typically weak.”

Park admits, though, that the flavored drinks do taste much better than traditional ones.

As a middle-aged man, Turnbull admits he’s hardly the target for these new drinks. But he also admits he likes them, and wonders why they only market to women. “I think a lot of guys like them, because (regular) soju tastes like crap,” he says.

Main photo: Soju makers in South Korea are targeting women with fruit-flavored drinks. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

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Chef Koji Kimura enjoys conversation over the sushi counter with his regulars, but his demeanor becomes much more serious when he is crafting and presenting sushi to his customers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

This story begins 20 years ago.

While researching my first book, “The Japanese Kitchen,” I met Tsuyoshi Iio, the fourth-generation president of Iio Jozo, a family-owned, small rice vinegar production company founded in 1893 in Kyoto Prefecture, Japan.

Iio Jozo is the most honest and respected rice vinegar producer in Japan. It’s not just the company’s exceptional tasting rice vinegar, but most important, its vinegar is safe to consume. Here’s what I mean.

Best rice vinegar

Iio Jozo's Akasu, the best and only long-aged sake lees vinegar in Japan. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

Iio Jozo’s Akasu, the best and only long-aged sake lees vinegar in Japan. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

Tsuyoshi’s father, Terunosuke Iio, was a visionary president of the company. During the 1950s, Japan became caught up in rapid postwar economic development. The use of strong agricultural chemicals — to increase and speed up the production — became the norm. But soon tadpoles, wild insects and animals disappeared from rice paddies. Farmers suffered from mysterious diseases.

At that time, Terunosuke Iio read the Japanese translation of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and decided he wanted to use only organic rice in his vinegar production. But it took him two years to persuade enough farmers to agree to raise rice organically. All the farmers were aware of the toxic influence of chemicals, but most could not be persuaded to return to the labor intensive, chemical-free farming practices.

Today Iio Jozo Company is run by an energetic fifth-generation president, Akihiro Iio. It has been producing 3- to 5-year-aged Akasu for years. Recently the company began aging it up to 15 years, upon receiving a request from a sushi chef in Nagoya Prefecture.

Aji (horse mackerel) fresh, not aged, from Wakayama Prefecture. Aji is an oily fish, so the sushi is always topped with a mound of grated ginger and thinly sliced chives as a mouth refresher. But Chef Kimura hides the ginger and chives between the fish and sushi rice. He says, "Those condiments are unnecessary for our eyes. Our taste and texture sensors enjoy the harmony of the fish and the condiments only in our mouth." Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

Aji (horse mackerel) fresh, not aged, from Wakayama Prefecture. Aji is an oily fish, so the sushi is always topped with a mound of grated ginger and thinly sliced chives as a mouth refresher. But Chef Kimura hides the ginger and chives between the fish and sushi rice. He says, “Those condiments are unnecessary for our eyes. Our taste and texture sensors enjoy the harmony of the fish and the condiments only in our mouth.” Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

Aged fish

A complete, miraculous transition — this was my experience at Sushi Kimura, a tiny seven counter-seat sushi bar restaurant in Futako Tamagawa, just one hour from central Tokyo by train.

At this restaurant, Chef Koji Kimura has developed a special kind of nigiri sushi.

He uses fish that has been cured and aged — some up to 90 days. This aged fish does not spoil nor become stinky; it acquires much umami and a quite tender texture.

Chef Kimura discovered it almost by accident.

After opening his small restaurant, he waited for customers night after night, for weeks. The fresh fish he had purchased and prepared did not keep for long. “There were lots of waste,” he said.

Instead of giving up,  Kimura was determined to find out how long he could age and improve the fish. Bleeding, salting, de-salting, shaving the surface, observing — every day for months his hard work brought him to a startling accomplishment. He successfully produced delicious, safe-to-eat fish through aging up to 90 days.

Chef Kimura proudly exhibits a bottle of Iio Jozo rice vinegar (left) behind his sushi counter. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

Chef Kimura proudly exhibits a bottle of Iio Jozo rice vinegar (left) behind his sushi counter. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

In order to create the perfect match for such fish, Kimura cooks his rice to a rather firm texture and flavors it with Akasu (“red color-tinged rice vinegar”).

The use of Akasu in the preparation of sushi rice produces a distinctive, strong yeasty fragrance and taste, and a faint reddish brown color. Akasu was made from sake lees, the solids left over from fermenting rice to make sake; it was the vinegar used at the time of the invention of nigiri sushi in the city of Edo.

And, thus the marriage of two unique businesses — Kimura Sushi’s aged fish and Iio Jozo’s Akasu. Together they produce a new dining experience, one with deep historical roots.

A harmony of flavors

This appetizer before my sushi course is "abalone risotto." It consists of sushi rice with tender-cooked cubed abalone flavored with a sauce made with abalone liver resulting in a creamy texture with a distinctive flavor and a hint of bitterness. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

This appetizer before my sushi course is “abalone risotto.” It consists of sushi rice with tender-cooked cubed abalone flavored with a sauce made with abalone liver resulting in a creamy texture with a distinctive flavor and a hint of bitterness. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

For my meal at Kimura Sushi, I began with 10-day aged shiro-amadai (white horsehead) on top of a small squeeze of sushi rice. It was tender and sweet with a surprising touch of firmness.

Fourteen-day aged kinme (alfonsino) was melting tender with umami that was further elevated by the Akasu. To my surprise, kinme loses two-thirds of its original weight during the aging process.

Fourteen-day aged kinme (alfonsino). Kinme is a very expensive fish in Japan that can not be wasted. Its white flesh is noted for its sweet and oily flavor. Chef Kimura’s aging process results in fish that is tender and creamy, but not broken down and mushy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

Fourteen-day aged kinme (alfonsino). Kinme is a very expensive fish in Japan that can not be wasted. Its white flesh is noted for its sweet and oily flavor. Chef Kimura’s aging process results in fish that is tender and creamy, but not broken down and mushy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

Aji (horse mackerel) from Wakayama Prefecture was fresh, crunchy and delicious. Tai snapper was lightly cured in kelp.

But the climax was unthinkable before my visit: 60-day aged makajiki (striped marlin).

Chef Kimura's 60-day cured makajiki (striped marlin) proved that properly aged fish can develop so many wonderful new and delicious flavors. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

Chef Kimura’s 60-day cured makajiki (striped marlin) proved that properly aged fish can develop so many wonderful new and delicious flavors. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

I closed my eyes to concentrate all of my senses on the fish. Caramel, coffee, cream, sweet … a miraculous harmony of flavors swept through my mouth. Aging matters — probably it’s much better for the fish than for me.

Main photo: Chef Koji Kimura enjoys conversation over the sushi counter with his regulars, but his demeanor becomes much more serious when he is crafting and presenting sushi to his customers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo

 

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Matteo Cocchetti’s innovative version uses lake sardine, beef filet slowly cooked and parsley sauce. Credit: Copyright 2016 Arianna Mora

Italy’s beautiful Lake Iseo is the venue for artist Christo’s latest project, “The Floating Piers,” a 52-foot-wide, 2.7-mile pathway on the water from the town of Sulzano to the Monte Isola island, continuing along pedestrian roads from Peschiera to Sensole, then reaching to San Paolo Island. The project runs through July 3.

Floating piers

Christo’s saffron-colored “The Floating Piers” connects islands and the mainland on Italy’s Lake Iseo. Credit: Copyright 2016 Wolfgang Volz for Christo

Christo’s saffron-colored “The Floating Piers” connects islands and the mainland on Italy’s Lake Iseo. Credit: Wolfgang Volz Copyright 2016 Christo

The artist describes the sensation of strolling along the floating piers as “walking on the back of a whale” and, yes, it is a long walk indeed.

If you are lucky enough to experience this, you’ll probably be hungry after your walk. There are many osterias along the lakeside promenade where you can enjoy the traditional dish of manzo all’olio di Rovato, or Rovato beef in oil. (Rovato is a small town located in the Franciacorta hills, close to the lake.)

At the time of the Republic of San Marco, the meat market in Rovato, in northern Italy, was the most important one on the route from Venice to Milan. Merchants coming from Liguria used to bring the typical products of their land, such as oil and anchovies, which are central to this beef dish.

The dish can be accurately dated to the second half of the 16th century, when the recipe was written down by a noblewoman, Donna Veronica Porcellaga. It has been a family recipe for five centuries, handed down from one generation to the next, so that each family has its own version. It consists of three basic ingredients: olive oil, anchovies and the lean meat called cappello del prete (priest’s hat), usually used for bollito misto. Garlic, bread crumbs and some vegetables are also added. According to experts, the trick is to sear the beef quickly on the sides so it cooks slowly and remains tender, keeping all the juices in.

Rovato beef reinvented

Vittorio Fusari’s version is served with broccoli, spinach, cicory, baguette-shaped polenta, green sauce, fresh anchovies and pressed olives. Credit: Copyright 2016 Masaka Zukurihara

Vittorio Fusari’s version is served with broccoli, spinach, chicory, baguette-shaped polenta, green sauce, fresh anchovies and pressed olives. Credit: Copyright 2016 Masaka Zukurihara

Just like art, this 500-year-old recipe can be made in the traditional spirit — or it can be revisited with an innovative twist, as Christo does with his projects.

Three local top chefs have different takes on it.

Stefano Cerveri from Due Colombe in Borgonato di Cortefranca keeps alive the family tradition and remains faithful to Granma Elvira’s cooking, a classic version dated 1955 and enriched with a spoon of acacia honey.

Matteo Cocchetti from Dispensa Pani e Vini Franciacorta serves a slightly nontraditional dish, a beef filet cooked at low temperature with dried lake sardines and parsley sauce.

Finally, Vittorio Fusari, born and raised between the Franciacorta wineries, is a true philosopher when it comes to local cuisine. At magnificent Palazzo Lana Berlucchi, he serves an innovative version, vacuum-sealing the meat and slowly warming it up to 125 F, then taking off the packaging and slowly cooking it in his own extra virgin lemon-flavored olive oil at 150 F. The meat lies over a green bed made with broccoli, spinach and chicory, and served with baguette-shaped polenta, green sauce, fresh anchovies and pressed olives.

“I believe that a traditional recipe may be changed only if you respect it, know it well and love it,” says Fusari, “and that’s exactly the opposite of demolishing it.”

Manzo all’olio

Stefano Cerveri at Due Colombe uses his grandmother’s traditional recipe, which dates to 1955.  Credit: Copyright 2016 Luigi Brozzi

Stefano Cerveri at Due Colombe uses his grandmother’s traditional recipe, which dates to 1955. Credit: Copyright 2016 Luigi Brozzi

Cooking Time: 3 1/2 hours

Total Time: 4 hours and 20 minutes

Yield: 4 Servings

Ingredients

3 pounds of lean meat
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
9 tablespoons butter
3 anchovies in oil
1 carrot
6 fresh leaves of spinach
1 pound whole-grain wheat flour
3 garlic cloves
4 cups warm water
2 tablespoons cornstarch

Directions

1. Saute the anchovies in butter, adding the chopped onion and the garlic cloves.

2. Cut the meat long, making two pieces, and brown the pieces in the pan for 10 minutes. Add about 4 cups warm water and slow-cook the meat for at least three hours, removing the fat that comes to the surface.

3. Halfway through, add the oil. Mix a handful of cornstarch with a little water and add it to thicken the sauce.

4. Remove the meat and cut it into slices of about 3 inches. Strain the sauce into another saucepan, add the carrot and finely chopped spinach and, if necessary, a teaspoon of cornstarch to thicken further.

5. Serve accompanied by polenta or a steamed potato.

Main photo: Matteo Cocchetti’s innovative version uses lake sardine, beef filet slowly cooked and parsley sauce. Credit: Copyright 2016 Arianna Mora

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