Articles in Cuisine

Signora Rosa, center, and her family work on the tomatoes in the garden. Credit: Carla Capalbo

It’s tomato canning time in Campania, southern Italy. This region more than any other relies on home-preserved plum tomatoes to stock the larder for the year. These are the tomatoes that will go into the daily plate of pasta al pomodoro, or onto pizzas and dozens of other regional favorites.

My neighbors in Nusco, the tiny medieval village in the province of Avellino where I spend part of the year, are a retired couple who share their house with one daughter. It’s just the three of them, so I was amazed when they told me that the next week Signora Antonietta was going to process 250 kilos of tomatoes (that’s one-quarter ton of fresh tomatoes). Each family has its own recipes for home-canned tomatoes, but the result is the same: enough bottles and jars of the precious “red gold” to prevent them ever having to buy tomatoes from a store.

“The most important thing is to know where your tomatoes have been grown,” says Antonietta’s husband, Pietro. “We like to make sure ours are free of pesticides.” Nusco is only an hour’s drive from Puglia, where many of the tomatoes for the canning industry are grown, but there are reports of undocumented immigrants being exploited as pickers in near-slavery conditions. Pietro prefers to buy his from a local farmer.

San Marzano tomatoes

The most famous tomato of all is the fabled San Marzano, the Holy Grail of plum varieties. Legend has it that the first seeds of San Marzano came to Campania in 1770 as a gift to the Kingdom of Naples from the Kingdom of Peru. It was planted extensively in what is now the township of San Marzano, near the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, mainland Europe’s largest active volcano. Millions of tons were harvested annually until the 1980s, when a blight struck the crop.

Campanian researchers are divided about whether that variety still exists. Some claim the original San Marzano was lost to the disease, while others maintain that a few seeds remained in the region’s refrigerated seed bank and were used to rebuild the gene pool. Whichever variety it now is, Pomodoro San Marzano has been granted DOP status (Protected Denomination of Origin) and can be certified only if grown within specified areas of Campania. It has been recognized as a keystone of the Mediterranean diet.

What’s so special about it? “The San Marzano has an elongated plum shape, firm flesh and very few seeds,” says Vincenzo Aita, a specialist in Campanian agriculture. “The skin is a deep bright red, and peels off easily. Most importantly, it has a rich, intense flavor, low acidity (but is high in nutrients), and is the best for canning and for making our Neapolitan tomato ragù — a sauce that needs to be simmered for at least 6 hours.”

The San Marzano is tricky to grow: It needs to be staked carefully and handpicked when ripe, which means passing through the fields six to eight times per season. So it’s more expensive than other plum tomatoes, but well worth the extra — if you can find it.

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Antonietta's plum tomatoes spread out on the garage floor to ripen before canning. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Signora Antonietta favors preserving her tomatoes unpeeled. She washes, then puts them in a vast pan over a gas burner in her garage, gently cooking them for about an hour until the pulp is soft. The tomatoes are then passed through a mill, where some of the skins are separated from the juice and pulp.

“Some people prefer to drain the tomato water before milling, but I like to keep all of the tomatoes’ goodness in the jar. After all, I can always cook it down if I need it thicker,” she says, as she stirs salt to taste into the tomato purée. The passata or salsa is bottled — in recycled jars and beer bottles with new caps — before being placed in an even bigger pan to be covered in water and boiled for 45 minutes to sterilize the preserves.

Stocking the larder

A few kilometers away, in Montella, Signora Rosa and her family are being even more ambitious. “We’re doing 450 kilos of tomatoes this year,” she says as she rallies her daughter, grandson and nephew to action. Here the tomatoes are worked using two different methods. Some whole tomatoes are held in boiling water for a minute or so before being peeled. They are then placed in the bottles with one fresh basil leaf before being closed and sterilized.

For her passata, Rosa washes the tomatoes before adding them to a large pan in which a few liters of water have been brought to a boil. She cooks them for about an hour before removing them from the pan using a slotted spoon to drain away some of the excess liquid. The tomatoes are then milled — using an old electric machine that was her mother’s, and that can process 300 kilos per hour — bottled and sterilized, unsalted, as above. Other families prefer to purée their tomatoes raw before sterilization, or cut the raw tomatoes into chunks and mix them into the salsa before the final boiling in the jar. It’s a personal choice and one that will be appreciated every day of the coming year.

Main photo: Signora Rosa, center, and her family work on the tomatoes in the garden. Credit: Carla Capalbo

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A photo of Pellegrino Artusi sits next to savor, a peasant dessert that's featured in his cookbook. Credit: Cesare Zucca.

While in Forlimpopoli, a small Italian town near the Adriatic Sea, I happened upon a cookbook that stirred up all the memories of my past: My mamma, my nonna and a very young me laboriously turning a heavy hand crank to make homemade pasta, while the women double-checked the recipe in a cookbook, which was religiously kept on a small shelf. I could never remember its title — it was too long and too difficult — but I vividly remember the author’s first name: Pellegrino.

Pellegrino Artusi

The acknowledged father of  modern Italian cookery, Pellegrino Artusi was born in 1820 in Forlimpopoli to a wealthy merchant. He lived in his native town until 1851, when the city was attacked by the infamous highwayman il Passatore and his band, who held upper-class families hostage. The Artusi family moved to Florence after that. Pellegrino, a businessman, became a wealthy man and, at age 45, was able to concentrate full time on his passion: the home cuisine. He loved to search, ponder recipes and have someone else cook his experiments.

After much research, he narrowed his findings to 790 favorite recipes. He collected these in a manual called “La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene” (“Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well”). Recipes span from broth to liqueurs, passing through soups, hors d’oeuvres, entrees (called “primi” in Italy, these are the first dishes such as pasta, risotto and soup), main dishes (“secondi,” which are usually meat or fish dishes) and cakes. Artusi anticipated trends that would become popular during the 20th century, among them the introduction of pasta as the typical first course on the Italian menu. The book was ahead of its time. No publisher was interested.

The cookbook

Finally, in 1891, the author took a chance and published it at his own expense. Success was as unthinkable as it was overwhelming. During the next 20 years, the author worked on 15 editions and “the Artusi” became one of Italy’s best-read books. Most Italian families had it — and still have it. It has been translated into English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian.

Today, Artusi’s book is regarded as an important tool of identity and cultural unification, both gastronomic and linguistic. The book is recognized by critics as a real literary work that contributed to the unification of Italy (remember, Italy was not yet unified at that time, and different languages were spoken throughout the country).

 The great Number 7

The recipes are numbered and probably the masterpiece is the Number 7, the famous cappelletti al’uso di Romagna (Romagna-style cappelletti pasta) The name cappello (hat) comes from its shape. The pasta is filled with capon breast, Parmesan, nutmeg, ricotta and raveggiolo (a mild creamy cheese), carefully shaped to six centimeters in diameter and boiled just a few minutes in a rich capon broth with celery, carrots and beef bones.

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A street vendor at the Festa Artusiana dishes up pasta. Credit: Cesare Zucca

Equally famous is the Number 71, tagliatelle all’uso di Romagna, served with a delicious tomato sauce, and the Number 334, polpette di trippa (tripe balls), which are soft and juicy. Finally, there is the savor, a peasant dessert once prepared in farmhouses and served during the winter. It is made with sapa, a longtime boiled sciroppo di mosto (grape syrup), then mixed with autumn fruits and nuts. This is perfect to “savor” with either sweets, roasts, fresh or aged cheeses and is often served on a piadina (flatbread).

All these treasures are included in an extraordinary cookbook that offers a collection of home recipes, considerations and short stories, making Artusi’s manual a masterpiece of wit and wisdom.

Who was the real chef ?

If Signor Pellegrino Artusi did not cook, who did the job?

Her name was Marietta Sabbatini, a devoted, irreplaceable assistant (and maybe more) who fanatically worked side by side with Artusi, who described her as “both a good cook, and a decent, honest person.”

No fame, no glory for poor Marietta until Forlimpopoli launched the Associazione delle Mariette, which has the invaluable task of teaching traditional Romagnolo cookery. The association has a yearly national competition, “The Marietta Award,” which is reserved for non-professional cooks and gives the winner a 1,000 Euro prize.

City throws a feast

Every year the city pays tribute to its most illustrious citizen, hosting the Festa Artusiana, a tempting feast where, from 7 p.m. to midnight, the historical city center changes into a “town to be tasted.” The big castle dominates the borgo, where courts, alleys, streets and squares have names of recipes from Artusi’s book.

All the best restaurants and the street vendors in the area are invited to participate and include in their menus several of Artusi’s specialties. For nine evenings, Forlimpopoli becomes the capital city of “Eating Well,” thanks to the partnership with Casa Artusi, the first Italian gastronomic center devoted entirely to traditional home cookery. Casa Artusi boasts a library, a museum and a school that teaches practical courses, both for food lovers and professionals wanting to learn how to improve their skills. In the Casa’s restaurant, Chef Andrea Banfi serves many of Artusi’s dishes, fresh, homemade pasta and recipes from the tradition of Emilia-Romagna.

I am sure Pellegrino would love the way his town is treating him, including having erected a tall statue right at the city entrance, prelude to a tasty visit to a very friendly town.

Main photo: A photo of Pellegrino Artusi sits next to savor, a peasant dessert that’s featured in his cookbook. Credit: Cesare Zucca

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pumpkin carbonara

Succulent summer tomatoes are a distant memory, but luckily wonderful pasta sauce can be made with fall’s beautiful bounty of pears and pumpkins.

My passion for pasta with fruit began while researching my first cookbook “Shakespeare’s Kitchen,” during which I discovered the many sweet-savory pasta dishes of the Renaissance. Now, I’m always on the lookout for fruit and pasta pairings when in Italy and constantly pester my Italian friends to send me recipes. In Italy you’ll find pasta paired with all sorts of fruit, both dried and fresh — prunes, dates, oranges and lemons — each adding lovely color, brilliant acidity and delicate sweetness to the sauces.

 Pears and pasta

I’m especially partial to pears as they stand up nicely when cooked and add a savory sweet fresh flavor. Grating fresh pear onto pasta tossed with simple jar tomato sauce makes it taste delicately sweet. Adding diced pear to a simple mac ‘n’ cheese adds crunch and a surprisingly almost wine note to a simple dish.

“Open” ravioli with a meat and pear sauce. Credit: “Pasta Modern” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan

Pear is a popular ravioli filling as it pairs so wonderfully with cheese. A classic pear ravioli from the Lombardy region is casconcelli, a decadently delicious, very unusual ravioli, made with an odd but oh-so-tasty assortment of ingredients: sausage, roast beef, raisins, crushed almond cookies and pears. Making ravioli can be a little daunting, so I was thrilled to discover that in Italy they often use the ravioli filling as condiment for dried pasta! Called ravioli aperto, or “open ravioli,” it uses ravioli filling as a sauce, as was popularized by the famous Italian chef Gualtiero Marchesi, who first introduced it back in the ’80s. Nowadays, many Italians, pressed for time, forgo ravioli-making and turn the filling into a free-form sauce for pasta. The flavors are the same and it saves time.

“Open” Pear Ravioli (Casoncelli alla Bergamasca “Aperto”)

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

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

The pear filling for casoncelli, ravioli from the Bergamo section of Lombardy, makes an exceptionally tasty, very unusual sauce for any shape of dried pasta.

Ingredients

3 tablespoons butter
2 ounces pancetta or bacon, diced
1 sweet sausage
¼ pound roast beef, thinly sliced then cut into strips
1 garlic clove, minced
3 to 4 small fresh sage leaves
1 large pear, thinly sliced with peel left on
2 tablespoons golden raisins
1 cup chicken broth
1 pound calamarata or any shape pasta
Zest of ½ lemon
Grana padano or other aged cheese
Ground cinnamon
Nutmeg
½ bunch fresh parsley
Salt and pepper
2 to 3 amaretti cookies, crushed, optional

Directions

1. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium high heat.

2. Add the pancetta and cook until crisp, about 5 minutes.

3. Remove the meat from the sausage casing and crumble into the pan; cook until browned.

4. Add the roast beef, garlic, whole sage leaves, pear, raisins and broth.

5. Cook the mixture until the pears are soft, about 5 minutes.

6. Meantime, cook the pasta in boiling, salted water until almost al dente.

7. Drain and toss into the sauce. Stir well and cook, adding cooking liquid, if needed, until al dente.

8. Stir in the zest, ⅓ cup of grated cheese, cinnamon, freshly grated nutmeg and minced parsley to taste, until well amalgamated. Season with salt and pepper and serve topped with more shaved or grated cheese and a sprinkling of amaretti crumbs, if using.

Pumpkins and pasta

In Italy all sorts of pumpkins and fall squash are incorporated into pasta sauces, lasagna, ravioli and gnocchi. You can add diced roasted pumpkin to meat sauce or layer it into lasagna for a savory touch of fall. You can top virtually any pasta dish with thin slices of fried pumpkin for a pop of texture and sweetness.

Pumpkin is especially delicious added to one of Italy’s most iconic pasta dishes: carbonara – hot pasta tossed with raw egg to create its own creamy sauce, punctuated by crisp bits of pancetta and a shower of grated cheese.

It would be difficult to improve on that magical combination of simple ingredients, but by substituting caramelized onions and pumpkin in place of the pancetta, it not only turns it into a vegetarian delight, but creates an even more creamy sauce.

Pumpkin Pasta Carbonara

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: Serves 4

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

Ingredients

1 large onion, thinly sliced
Olive oil
2 cups diced pumpkin or kabocha squash, seeds and skin removed
Salt and pepper
1 pound pasta, any shape
2 eggs
Pecorino or other aged cheese

Directions

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 2 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 pecorino 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 grated or shaved cheese.

Main photo: Pumpkin is especially delicious added to one of Italy’s most iconic pasta dishes: carbonara. Credit: “Pasta Modern” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan

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Italians like to linger at the table, during and after a meal. Dessert is leisurely. Sweets are served along with a dessert wine or liqueur, not with coffee or tea, as is done in the States.

It’s only after dessert is finished that espresso and a so-called aid to digestion — digestivo — like grappa is served.

Here’s a glossary of Italy’s most popular desserts wines and liqueurs. One of my favorites is limoncello, a versatile liqueur terrific to cook with and drink. I drink it icy cold and always add a splash in fruit salad.

limoncello

Fruit salad makes a good pairing with limoncello. Credit: “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets”

Amaretto

Amaretto, “little bitter,” is a sweet almond-flavored liqueur cordial.

Amaretto is an ingredient in hundreds of dessert recipes and is also paired with all sorts of Italian sweets, especially crunchy amaretti cookies. One of Italy’s best selling brands of amaretto is Disaronno Originale.

Amaro

Amaro is the term for a general category of bittersweet digestive, after-dinner drinks thought to aid digestion. Amaro, which means “bitter,” is generally made from various spices, herbs, fruits and alcohol. Popular since the Middle Ages, monks originally created these drinks as a medicinal remedy. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different types of amaro in Italy, with each region, city, and even village claiming its local specialty.

Asti

Asti, a sparkling dessert wine, is made with the Moscato Bianco grapes from the Langhe, Monferrato and Roero areas of Piedmont.

In Italy it is served in bowl-shaped glasses, rather than the thinner champagne flutes. The thinking is that the narrow flute exaggerates Asti’s sweetness, concentrating the liquid on the tip of the tongue, where the sweet taste buds are. It’s traditionally paired with yeasty cake like panettone.

asti spumante

Asti, a sparkling dessert wine, is made with the Moscato Bianco grapes. Credit: Consorzio dell’Asti

Asti Moscato

A dessert wine made in the Asti region of Piedmont using Moscato grapes. It’s less bubbly than Asti.

Barolo Chinato

An after-dinner digestivo from the Piedmont region, made with Barolo wine that has been steeped with spices such as cinnamon, coriander, mint and vanilla. It is a very smooth, aromatic beverage that pairs beautifully with chocolate.

Brachetto d’Acqui

Red sparkling dessert wine produced in the Piedmont. It is a blend of  Aleatico and Moscato Nero grapes.

Galliano

Bright yellow liqueur that’s a mix of dozens of herbs and spices. First made in Livorno in 1896 and named for 19th century Italian war hero Giuseppe Galliano. Used in cocktails, and as an after-dinner digestivo, it’s also a terrific flavoring for various dessert recipes.

Grappa

Grappa is a fragrant spirit, 75 t0 120 proof, made from the grape skins and other solids left over from the wine-making process. The name most likely comes from the Italian for bunch of grapes, grappolo d’uva.

In Italy, grappa is enjoyed after dessert, served in small, tulip-shaped or short grappa glasses. It is also exceptional paired with Italian chocolates. A splash of grappa is often added to espresso to create caffé corretto.

Limoncello

A lemon liqueur from the Amalfi Coast, Calabria and Sicily. Made by steeping lemon peels in alcohol and sugar, it can be enjoyed at room temperature, but I prefer it icy cold. Try adding a little heavy cream for a rich, smooth liquid dessert.

Malvasia delle Lipari

An amber-colored DOC dessert wine from Sicily with an apricot-honey taste and lovely aroma. Starting in the late 1960s in compliance with the European Economic Community, Italian wine was regulated. To earn DOC status (Denomination of Controlled Origin), a wine had to be made from grapes from a particular defined area and pass strict tests for standards in alcohol content, flavor, aroma, color and more. It ensures that the consumer is drinking an authentic wine, not a counterfeit, or adulterated one.

Marsala

Marsala is a DOC golden-colored fortified wine made with grapes grown in the Marsala region of Sicily. Marsala is made both sweet and dry. The dry is enjoyed chilled as an aperitif, while the sweet is sipped at room temperature as a dessert wine.

Marsala is used extensively in Italian cooking, especially in making sweets such as the classic zabaglione.

Moscadello di Montalcino

A DOC dessert wine from the Montalcino region of Tuscany made with aromatic white Muscat grapes. It is produced in three versions: still, sparkling and late-harvest.

Nocino

Nocino is a dark colored digestivo, made from unripe green walnuts.

Passito

Passito is dessert wine made by pressing partially dried grapes, dried to concentrate their sugar and flavor. One of Italy’s most acclaimed is Passito di Pantelleria from Sicily.

Sambuca

A colorless digestivo liqueur flavored with star anise. Sambuca is splashed in coffee, or served neat and with topped with three toasted espresso beans called con la mosca, “with flies.” Besides giving a little caffeine kick, chewing on the beans highlights Sambuca’s flavor.

cantucci+vin-santo

Vin Santo is often paired with cantucci, a crunchy almond biscotti. Credit: Corsini Biscotti

Vin Santo

Vin Santo, “holy wine,” is a smooth amber-colored wine made from Malvasia and Trebbiano grapes. Although made in many parts of Italy, it is most often associated with Tuscany, where it is often paired with cantucci, the area’s crunchy almond biscotti.

Main photo: Asti  is paired with panettone. Credit: Consorzio dell’Asti.

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Cut into strips, kırma tavuk kebabı — “split” or perhaps “pleated” chicken in Turkish — enables marinades to penetrate the meat. Credit: Charles Perry

You say you want a striking way to serve barbecued chicken? Here’s one that will stick in your guests’ minds. It looks like a miniature rack of ribs, perhaps crossed with a bizarre pre-Cambrian life form.

But it has the classical flavor of browned chicken infused with the sweetness and poetic perfume of onion and a subtle hint of cinnamon. “Winner, winner, chicken barbecue” (or however Guy Fieri’s saying goes).

Its proper name is kırma tavuk kebabı, which means “split” or perhaps “pleated” chicken in Turkish. It’s one of the subtle and inventive dishes that graced the tables of Istanbul big shots back in the days when the Ottoman Empire was still a vast and wealthy affair. It was recorded in 1839 in a cookbook called Malja’ al-Tabbakhin (“The Refuge of Cooks”) that was later plagiarized with great enthusiasm by Turkish and Arab cookbook writers down to the early 20th century.

The recipe was first translated into English after “some of England’s fairest ladies and grandest gentlemen” were impressed by the Turkish dishes served aboard the yacht of the visiting viceroy of Egypt in 1862. Two years later, a certain Turabi Effendi published a collection of recipes swiped from Malja’ al-Tabbakhin and given the on-the-nose title “Turkish Cookery Book.”

The distinctive technique of this dish is to cut the chicken into strips, leaving the pieces attached at one end. This structure helps the marinade flavors penetrate the meat while keeping it in a relatively compact shape for convenience on the grill. It also makes the meat cook a little quicker and more evenly.

Turabi Effendi’s recipe calls for deboning entire chickens, but I suggest taking the easy way out by using boneless chicken breast, which lends itself very well to this technique. Turabi says to baste the meat with butter when it starts to brown, but I don’t recommend this because of the risk of flare-ups. If you want more butter flavor, basting the meat after you take it from the grill works perfectly and will certainly win the approval of your local fire marshal.

Kirma Tawuk Kebabi

Prep Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

  • 4 boneless chicken half-breasts, about 1¾ pounds total
  • 1 teaspoon salt, plus more for serving
  • ½ teaspoon pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon or a pinch more
  • 1 large onion
  • 2 ounces (¼ stick) butter, melted

Directions

  1. Using a sharp knife, cut the meat crosswise into 9 or 10 strips ¼ to 1/3 inch wide. But make sure your cuts reach no farther than ¼ inch from the far edge of the meat so that the “fingers” remain attached. Mix the salt, pepper and cinnamon and rub into the meat all over.
  2. Purée the onion in a food processor and strain the onion juice from the solids in a fine sieve (leave the windows open for this operation because of the onion fumes). Mix the meat with the onion juice, cover with plastic wrap or place in a sealable plastic bag and let marinate at room temperature for 1 hour.
  3. Pat the meat dry with paper towels and thread it onto skewers down the uncut edge (if your skewer is too broad for the uncut section, you can thread it through the bases of the “fingers” as well). Baste the surface of the meat and between the “fingers” with melted butter. This will keep the meat from sticking to the grill and to itself; you don’t want so much butter that there are flare-ups.
  4. Grill over a moderate fire, turning often, until the meat stiffens and turns golden brown, about 20 minutes.
  5. Remove from skewers and brush with more melted butter if you want. Sprinkle with salt to taste.

Notes

Fine accompaniments for this would be a scoop of tart yogurt and a simple green salad.


Main photo: Cut into strips, kırma tavuk kebabı — “split” or perhaps “pleated” chicken in Turkish — enables marinades to penetrate the meat. Credit: Charles Perry

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The ackee fruit's nutty taste combines with sharp salt cod to create Jamaica’s national dish. Credit: © 2014 by Ellen Silverman from

We all know the cliché that opposites attract and, in what could be called a fruitful marriage of opposites, two vastly different ingredients from opposite sides of the world are perfectly paired in Jamaica’s national dish, ackee and salt fish.

Ackee and salt fish is not just the national dish  —  it’s the favorite breakfast of every Jamaican across the globe. What makes this dish original and surprising is how well two distinct ingredients combine to create a dish that’s complex and simple, subtle and bold and, ultimately, delicious. The delicate nutty taste and soft texture of the fruit ackee tempers the sharp, saltiness and firm dry texture of salt fish.

With the addition of our standard “Jamaican seasonings”  — Scotch bonnet pepper, garlic, thyme, green peppers, onions and scallion, and served with a side of avocado, fried ripe plantain, steamed calalloo and “Johnny Cakes” or fried dumplings –  this extraordinary dish is a feast for the palate and a breakfast you won’t soon forget.

Although the pairing of ackee and salt fish makes for a beautiful union, some unions are not meant to be monogamous. As well as ackee and salt fish work together, we also love to cook them separately, pairing them with unexpected ingredients and flavors. For instance, ackee loves bacon, gets along very well with curry, has great synergy with Parmesan and has a seamless connection with coconut. Salt fish, while less gregarious, complements yam, parties well with lime and forms a perfect bond with cilantro and flour dumplings of any kind.

From West Africa to Jamaica on a slave ship

Ackee, for the uninitiated, is a savory fruit with a thick red skin that forms a sealed pod when unripe. Once ripened, the skin opens to reveal a beautiful petal-like shape containing three or four yellow pegs topped with a single black seed. Native to West Africa, the fruit originally came to Jamaica on a slave ship — it is believed that many slaves would carry the ackee seed as a talisman for good luck.

Unfortunately, ackee has a bit of a bad rap as the bad boy of Caribbean cuisine because it can potentially be poisonous if incorrectly prepared. For many years, like another famous Jamaican export, its importation to the United States was banned. Be assured, however, that it is perfectly safe to eat, although Jamaica seems to be one of the few countries in the world that dared to try to figure out how to do so — leaving us as the only island in the Caribbean where it’s part of the daily diet.

To render ackee safe for consumption, the skin must be open before picking. The pegs, once removed from the pod, are then prepared by removing the seed and a red ‘thread’ embedded in the flesh of the peg. (This is the poisonous part.) The fruit is then boiled in salted water.

Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau, right, collaborated on their cookbook.

Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau, right, collaborated on their cookbook. Credit: Courtesy of SKaan Media / 2 Sisters and a Meal

Outside of Jamaica, ackee is readily available in cans and can be found at online groceries and mainstream supermarkets throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Freshly cooked ackee is creamy and buttery with a mild nutty taste that’s neutral enough to absorb the flavor of whatever it’s cooked with. When raw it has a waxy texture but canned ackee, which is already cooked, has a more mushy consistency. In any of its forms, ackee is a great ingredient to have fun with in the kitchen as it can be prepared in many interesting and unexpected ways. For instance — ackee tacos?

Salt cod preparation takes time

Salt cod, known as salt fish in the islands, is cod that has been preserved by drying after salting. It is a staple in the cuisine of almost all Caribbean islands and can be prepared in a variety of ways. Salt cod was a part of the Triangular Trade that developed between Europe, Africa and the Americas, tying its history to that of sugar, slavery and rum in the islands.

High-quality North American cod was always sold in Europe. But traders also sold a lower-end product of poorly cured salt fish called “West India cure” to plantation owners in the Caribbean. The West Indian planters had no desire to dedicate any land to the production of food for their slaves and instead relied on imported salt cod as a cheap form of nourishment.

In exchange, European traders received sugar, molasses, rum, cotton, tobacco and salt, which they took back to North America and Europe. Trade in salt cod from Nova Scotia was so high that, in 1832, the Bank of Nova Scotia opened in Halifax to facilitate the thriving trans-Atlantic trade. By 1889 the Bank of Nova Scotia had become the first bank to expand outside of the United States or United Kingdom when it opened a branch in Kingston, Jamaica, to support the lucrative trading of rum, sugar and fish.

To prepare salt fish it must be soaked in fresh water for at least an hour; it is then boiled till the flesh of the fish flakes easily. If still too salty, it is boiled some more, drained, scraped of its skin, flaked with your hands and, only then, does the laborious task of picking out the bones begin. Although deboned and de-skinned cod is certainly available in many markets, in the Caribbean we still like to do it the old way — because it’s so much more fun.

In honor of this beloved Jamaican breakfast dish, we share two breakfast/brunch recipes, that celebrate each ingredient on its own. We encourage you to expand your breakfast horizons and give these a try — any time day or night.

Ackee and Bacon Quiche

Prep Time: 35 minutes

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings, 1 (8-inch) quiche

Ackee and Bacon Quiche

Credit: © 2014 by Ellen Silverman from "Caribbean Potluck," permission by Kyle Books

In this dish we combine a traditional quiche custard with pure Jamaican love by adding our national fruit (and popular breakfast item) ackee and crispy bacon. Throw in tons of flavor with the Scotch bonnet, scallion, tomato, garlic, thyme and Parmesan cheese, and you have a winning brunch. If you don’t have coconut milk on hand, use 1½ cups heavy cream instead of the cows and coconut milk mixture.

Ingredients

    For the quiche crust and custard:
  • ½ pound (2 sticks) chilled butter, cut into pieces
  • 1 pound all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling pinch of sea salt
  • Up to ¼ cup ice water
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • ½ cup canned coconut milk
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • Dash of freshly grated nutmeg
  • Sea salt
  • For the Ackee and bacon filling:
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons chopped yellow onion
  • ½ Habanero pepper (Scotch bonnet), seeded and minced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 (8-ounce) package bacon, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons sliced scallion
  • 1 bunch fresh thyme, chopped
  • ¼ cup finely chopped tomato
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped bell pepper
  • 1 (18-ounce) can ackee
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
  2. To make the quiche crust, combine the butter, flour and salt in a bowl with your hands until crumbly. Add just enough ice water to form a dough and knead until it comes together. Form into a ball, then, on a floured surface, roll the dough into a round about 14 inches in diameter. Transfer to an 8-inch quiche pan and press the dough gently into the bottom and sides. Weigh down the dough with raw rice on a piece of waxed paper and prebake for 20 minutes. Set on wire rack to cool until ready to fill.
  3. Meanwhile, to make the custard, in a medium bowl combine the milk, coconut milk, eggs, mustard and nutmeg and whisk together thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside until ready to bake.
  4. To make the filling, heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Toss in the onion, Scotch bonnet and garlic and cook for about 5 minutes, until softened. Add the bacon and sauté for about 5 minutes. Spoon off the excess fat and stir in the scallion, thyme, tomato and bell pepper; cook another 5 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. Add the ackee,season with salt and pepper, and mix in the Parmesan. Let cool.
  5. To assemble the quiche, place the ackee and bacon filling in the pastry shell and smooth the top. Pour the custard over the filling, distributing it evenly with a fork. Return the quiches to the oven and bake for 45 minutes or until the custard has set. Cool slightly before serving.

Trini-Style Salt Fish and ‘Bake’

Prep Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Trini-Style Salt Fish and "Bake."© 2014 by Ellen Silverman from "Caribbean Potluck," permission by Kyle Books

Trini-Style Salt Fish and “Bake.” Credit: © 2014 by Ellen Silverman from “Caribbean Potluck,” permission by Kyle Books

All our islands cook salt fish (salt cod) in one way another for breakfast, lunch and even dinner. As our childhood years were spent in Trinidad we favor this Trini version known as “buljol.” Salt fish is often served alongside some kind of fried dumpling, some fluffy and large others smaller and more dense. In Jamaica we serve salt fish with Johnny Cakes, small round fried dumplings. Other countries such as Trinidad and Guyana call them bake. Here we pair this traditional Trini saltfish with our version of a bake — a hybrid recipe inspired by the bakes served in Trinidad, Guyana and Belize. If you have any left over, these little breads can be great topped with cheddar cheese and Guava jam or even just butter and jam.

Ingredients

For Trini-style salt fish (Buljol):
2 cups salt fish, boiled, picked and cleaned
½ cup chopped tomato
¼ cup chopped onion
1 Habanero pepper (Scotch bonnet), minced without seeds

Olive oil

1/4 cup cilantro

Salt and black pepper

For our version of bake:
2 cups flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons butter, cut into pieces
¼ cup water
¼ cup milk + 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon
2 cups vegetable oil

Directions

1. Combine salt fish with tomato, onion and the Habanero pepper (Scotch bonnet) in a small bowl. Heat olive oil in a small pan. When very hot, pour it over the salt fish mixture. Add cilantro and season with salt and black pepper as required. Allow to rest at room temperature for about one hour.

2. Sieve together flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Rub butter into flour until combined. Gradually add water and milk and mix well with hands until a dough or mass is formed. Knead for about five minutes until smooth.

3. Roll the dough into pieces the size of golf balls (should get about eight pieces of dough), and allow them to rest for about half an hour. Roll it out with a rolling pin or bottle to a 4-inch disk and slice a line in the middle so that it will cook more quickly. Fry in oil, turning over once. When it floats, it is ready.

4. Drain and serve with salt fish. These are also great paired with cheddar cheese and guava jam, or even just butter and jam.

Main photo: The ackee fruit’s nutty taste combines with sharp salt cod to create Jamaica’s national dish. Credit: © 2014 by Ellen Silverman from “Caribbean Potluck,” courtesy Kyle Books

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Golden yellow plantain chips are part of the Onam feast in India. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

Thousands of years ago, pioneers among the central Malayo-Polynesian-speaking populations are believed to have traveled across the Indian Ocean and brought plantains, water yams and taro to India. Now, they have become central to the vegetarian cuisine in the Kerala region of southwest India.

Plantains are a variety of bananas from the plant Musa paradisiaca, which have thicker skins than regular bananas. Plantains are also sometimes called cooking bananas. Even when ripe, they are not very sweet, and they are not eaten raw.

The plantain rules at Kerala’s most important festival, Thiruvonam (or Onam for short), celebrated in late August or early September (depending on the lunar calendar) by Hindus, Christians and Muslims alike. The big event at Onam is the sadya (feast), which is served on fresh, green banana leaves around noon. Although rice is the centerpiece of the feast, several dishes both sweet and savory are prepared with plantains, each with its own taste and texture.

In every cuisine, there are certain dishes that make the menu more complete and more festive. They may not have the status of a course in and of themselves, but without them, the meal would lose some of its festive appeal. Two signature dishes of Onam Sadya are the deep-fried, salty and crispy golden yellow plantain chips and their sweet counterpart, sarkkara upperi, thick slices deep-fried and drenched in jaggery syrup. No matter what the shape, these crunchy morsels taste simply delicious. Locally called upperi, but better known as banana chips, it is the favorite snack of Kerala and provides the crispy crunch to traditional feasts.

And then there is kaya mezukkupuratti, cubed green plantains cooked with salt and turmeric and then pan-fried over low heat in coconut oil until they fully absorb the flavor of the curry leaves and oil. It’s a dish that’s as unfussy and simple as you can imagine.

Plantains useful in curries

There are two types of curries made with just plantains for the Onam feast. They are also found in the signature mixed vegetable dish aviyal. One of the curries, varutha erisseri, is made by cooking chunks of green plantain in a sauce of golden brown toasted coconut. It has a complexity and aroma peculiarly and delightfully its own. The word “curry” often evokes a sense of tropical spiciness. Kerala’s cuisine is known for its variety of spicy curries, but there are also some mildly sweet, tropical fruit curries that are cooked in a mellow coconut and yogurt sauce.

The fruit curry kaalan is made by cooking ripe plantain slices in a thick coconut and yogurt sauce sweetened with jaggery and garnished with mustard and fenugreek seeds and fresh curry leaves.

Steamed ripe plantains are another must at the Onam feast. And, finally, rounding out the menu is a delicately smooth and creamy pudding — pazza pradhaman — made with homemade plantain jam cooked in coconut milk sweetened with jaggery and garnished with crushed cardamom and toasted coconut pieces.

Though not necessarily a part of the Onam feast, other plantain treats can be found in Kerala: sun-dried ripe plantains and banana fritters made with thin ripe plantain slices dipped in a mildly sweet batter and deep-fried.

Plantain Chips

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 5 minutes

Yield: 20 servings

Making deep-fried chips at home is not a difficult task. Thanks to food processors, slicing is a breeze. It is important to use oil that can be heated to high temperatures. The oil must be well heated before adding the sliced plantains for frying or otherwise, oil seeps in and will make them soggy. Hot oil sears the surface to a firm crispiness. For serving at feasts, they are generally quartered lengthwise and then cut crosswise into thin triangular slices. To serve as a snack, they are cut as full rounds or as half rounds. But no matter what the shape, these crunchy morsels taste simply delicious.

Ingredients

  • 6 firm green plantains
  • 6 cups vegetable oil
  • ½ cup concentrated saltwater (*see directions below)

Directions

  1. Peel off the thick green skins from the plantains, and wash them to remove any dark stain from the outside. Pat them dry with paper towels.
  2. When making the smaller, triangular chips, halve the plantain lengthwise, and cut each piece lengthwise again. Then cut each piece crosswise into thin slices. For the round chips, cut the whole plantain crosswise into thin rounds. A food processor comes in handy for cutting them into thin rounds. Fit the processor with the 2mm blade and slowly feed the peeled plantains through the top. This blade cuts the plantains evenly.
  3. Heat the oil in a heavy wok or deep-frying pan to 365 F.
  4. When the oil is hot, spread the plantain pieces evenly in the oil and deep-fry until they are golden and crisp, about 5 minutes.
  5. Add a teaspoon of concentrated saltwater to the oil, and cover the pan with a splatter screen. The water will really splatter and make a lot of noise.
  6. In a minute or so, when the water has stopped sputtering, remove the cover. By now, all the water should have evaporated, and the crispy fries will be golden and evenly salted.
  7. Drain well, and store in airtight containers. The best way to drain deep-fried plantains is to use a cake cooling rack placed over a cookie tray. The excess oil will drip through the cooling rack and fall onto the cookie tray.
  8. *Add one tablespoon of salt to a half-cup of water, and stir well. If there is no salt sediment at the bottom, add more salt, and stir until there is some salt residue left at the bottom and the water is saturated with salt.

Main photo: Golden yellow plantain chips are part of the Onam feast in India. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

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The duck is prepared table side at La Couronne. Credit: La Couronne

In the town of Rouen in Normandy, France, there is a dish that should not be missed. It is canard a la rouennaise a la presse — pressed duck. Here is how my husband and I discovered and enjoyed this culinary experience this summer.

Rouen is a charming historic Norman town 80 miles north of Paris with a well-preserved and meticulously reconstructed (from war damage) old-town district. The Seine flows through town, dividing the historic section and the postwar new one.

This summer we visited the town to see the Cathedral Notre-Dame of Rouen, which inspired Claude Monet; learn the history of Joan of Arc in the place of her death; and take long walks from one historical site to another through narrow streets and small plazas. And, of course, we were ready to savor some good, local meals to complement our time in Rouen. Canard a la rouennaise a la presse was the natural first choice. We made a reservation at La Couronne, taking note of the warning in a guidebook about the price of the dish — “if you can afford it.”

La Couronne is housed in a beautiful half-timbered inn claiming to be the oldest inn in France. It was transformed into a restaurant in the 19th century. When the present owners, the Cauvin family, took over the restaurant in 1989, they did research on the building and found evidence that the space they use as a wine cellar dates to the 12th century.

Entering this old establishment with a dark wood ceiling and walls and windows enclosed by heavy drapes made us feel we were transported to the age of Joan of Arc. An elegant maitre d’hotel, Dominique Boucourt, ushered us to our table, and without hesitation we ordered the canard a la Rouennaise a la presse and good Bordeaux.

Table-side preparation adds to showiness of pressed duck

Canard a la rouennaise a la presse, which was quaintly translated as “squeezed duck in Rouen style” on the English menu, was invented at the beginning of the 19th century by executive chef Henri Denise at L’Hotel de la Poste in Duclair, near Rouen, according to Sacha Cauvin, the son of the current owner and manager of the restaurant. Paul Hamlyn, publisher of “Larousse Gastronomique: The World’s Greatest Culinary Encyclopedia,” writes that “the recipe for pressed duck owed much of its immediate success to the Duke of Chartres, who commended it highly in Paris.” In Paris it became famous, but its ancestral home is Normandy.

Canard a la Rouennaise a la presse from La Couronne. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

Canard a la rouennaise a la presse from La Couronne. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

While nursing a glass of wine, I realized our duck dish would be mostly prepared and served at our table, because at a distant table I could see Boucourt in action — carving the duck, pressing the carcass, cooking the fillets, preparing the sauce and serving the dish to a young couple mesmerized by the smooth operation.

Boucourt returned to our table with a side table full of cooking equipment — a chopping board, knife, tabletop cooker and machine called la presse used to squeeze the blood and juice from the carcass. He proudly presented us a very lightly oven-baked, plump Rouen duck, and then the show began.

He first removed the breast and legs from the body, removed the skin from the breast and then cut the meat into slices. Every procedure was done with such professionalism and speed that my sipping of wine stopped just so I could pay close attention. Boucourt moved on to cooking the sliced breast meat in a saucer over the stove on his table. Flamed cognac was added to the fillets. After setting the cooked breast meat aside, he filled the inside of the presse with the duck carcass. He closed the lid and screwed down the pressing element, and the blood and juices ran down into a silver bowl. He then placed another cooking saucer over the fire and poured in red Burgundy. When the wine began to simmer, he added the blood and duck juices. A chunk of butter followed, and the sauce was cooked down. The flame flickered up, and the aroma of the fragrant sauce hit our noses and made our stomachs growl. Boucourt finished the sauce with a little salt and pepper, and the previously flambéed duck slices were added to the sauce to flavor them.

Within a few moments, the beautifully presented dishes were served to us. The meat itself was flavorful and tender, and the strong but delicately aromatic, rich blood-wine sauce was heaven sent as the perfect accompaniment for the duck. While enjoying the dish, Boucourt’s finely tuned, flawless preparation flashed back to my mind. This year is his 33rd serving canard a la rouennaise a la presse, the longest such tenure in the history of La Couronne.

Some of the staff at La Couronne, including maitre d'hotel Dominique Boucouat (at right). Credit: La Couronne

Some of the staff at La Couronne, including maitre d’hotel Dominique Boucourt, bottom right. Credit: La Couronne

The La Couronne kitchen uses duck from Duclair, 11 miles west of Rouen. This duck originated in and near Duclair, and breeding standards for these birds were established in 1923. This is not the highly bred, much heavier variety known as “Rouen duck.” That is a different bird. Ducks from Duclair are slaughtered at the age of 10 weeks using a method that keeps the blood inside the body.

Using blood in food preparation is not a practice of the Japanese kitchen that is my own discipline. When I prepare duck, I take particular care to remove the blood. So I thank Rouen, La Couronne, Boucourt and canard a la rouennaise a la presse for providing me this precious experience and new knowledge that is now a part of my cooking knowledge and life.

The recipe presented here is not for the Rouen pressed duck, but for duck cooked the Japanese way. This is certainly different from canard a la rouennaise a la presse, but is an excellent easy way to prepare and enjoy duck as an appetizer course.

Mushigamo (Steamed duck)

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 40 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 appetizer-size servings

Ingredients

  • ½ cup sake
  • ½ cup mirin
  • 2 tablespoons usukuchi shoyu (light-colored soy sauce)
  • 2 tablespoons shoyu (regular soy sauce)
  • 1 large boneless half duck breast
  • Hot mustard paste for serving

Directions

  1. In a saucepan, combine the sake, mirin and both of the shoyu and bring the mixture to a simmer. Transfer the liquid to a steamer-safe container large enough to accommodate the duck.
  2. In a heated skillet, add the duck, skin side down, and cook until the skin is golden. Turn the duck over and cook until the other side is golden.
  3. Add the browned duck to the prepared liquid in the container. Transfer the container to a steamer and cook for 12 minutes. Remove the container from the steamer, and remove the duck from the cooking liquid, reserving the liquid in the container.
  4. Insert a grilling skewer through the duck breast and hang the breast over a bowl for one hour to allow any blood to drain from the meat for disposal. Return the duck to the cooled cooking liquid and refrigerate overnight.
  5. The next day, remove the duck from the cooking liquid and slice thin. Serve the duck in six portions each with a dab of hot mustard paste.

Main photo: The duck is prepared table side at La Couronne. Credit: La Couronne

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