Articles in Cuisine

Almonds, pine nuts and pistachios are coated with sugar to make Italian confetti. Credit: Francine Segan

Italians sure like to sugarcoat things. They’ve got a sugarcoated something or other for almost every occasion.

Almonds are covered in a different color of sugar depending on the occasion — white for weddings, green for engagements, silver for 25th anniversaries, blue or pink for christenings and red for graduations.

Pistachios and pine nuts are traditional favorites, too, added to party favors or flower and fruit baskets. Cacao and coffee beans  have been sugarcoated since the time they were introduced into Italy in the 16th century.

Less well known, however, are Italy’s many sugarcoated spices and herbs.

Italian confetti

In Italy, these tiny treats are served after dinner, as palate cleansers, and are also used to decorate certain desserts.

Called confetti in Italy (dragées in France, comfits in England), these sweets are made by sugar panning, a technique that adds a sugar coating, layer by layer. (Panning is also the same method used by the pharmaceutical industry to coat pills. With a slight change in manufacture and sugar composition, it is also the technique for making jellybeans.)

Confetti are made in a panning machine, a device that looks like a cement mixer. A panning machine is a wide-mouthed copper or stainless steel vessel with a diameter that ranges from 3 to 5 feet. The panning machine is mounted at an angle on a shaft and rotates over a low open flame. Sugar syrup is then slowly added to whatever is to be coated, either with a funnel suspended over the pan, or by hand by ladlefuls. As the sweets bounce about in the pan, the sugar spreads and crystallizes in a thin, hard layer. Only a little sugar is added at a time, so the sugar clings closely to the original object’s shape and contours. Sugarcoated fennel and rosemary stay oblong and the coriander and juniper berries retain their round shape.

For a smooth candy coating, sugar syrup is added by hand in small ladlefuls every half-hour or so. When the sugar syrup is added drop by drop from a suspended funnel, a lovely jagged texture is created.

Romanengo, a Genoa confectionary icon since 1780, creates, among its many artisinal sweets, an impossibly delicate cinnamon confetti. Giovanni Battista Romanego, one of the current generation’s five Romanengo brothers, personally hand-snips Ceylon cinnamon bark into thin wisps, then slowly coats them in sugar syrup, drop by drop, over the course of two days. Unlike Romanengo’s sugarcoated fennel or anise seeds, which have a smooth, shiny coating, the cinnamon has a wonderfully magical appearance that looks like tiny storybook-perfect snowflakes.

Stratta, a Turin confectionery shop since 1836, sells traditional Italian sugarcoated fennel seeds, which are given as gifts to new mothers (thought to help with nursing) or at christenings. Stratta’s owner, Adriana Monzeglio, a spice aficionado, has added several exotic new entries, including cardamom, cumin, coriander and rye, to their list of more conventional confetti. One of Stratta’s best-selling innovations is rosemary confetti, with each tiny leaf encased in a delicate green-tinted sugar.

Confetti are used to top struffoli, a Christmas dessert.

Struffoli: Neapolitan Honey Treats (Struffoli in Cestino di Croccante)

From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets”

Struffoli, traditional Italian Christmas treats, are marble-sized fried dough balls dipped in honey, piled into a mound and topped with colored sugar and candied fruit. They can be fried or baked and make a festive centerpiece just as they are, heaped onto a serving plate or, as ambitious home cooks in Naples do, served in an edible candy dish. Both the candy dish and the stuffoli are fun and easy to make.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 40 minutes

Total time: 60 minutes

Yield: 10 to 12 servings

Ingredients

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed

5 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided

1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

6 large eggs, separated

4 tablespoons butter, melted

3 tablespoons Cointreau or Limoncello

1 tablespoon vanilla

Zest of 2 lemons

Zest of 1 orange

Sunflower or other vegetable oil for frying

8 ounces honey, about 1 cup

For optional garnish: confetti — tiny, colored, sugarcoated spices — candied cherries, etc.

Directions

1. In a large bowl and using an electric mixer, combine the flour, 3 tablespoons of the sugar, baking soda, salt, 4 whole eggs, 2 yolks, butter, Cointreau, vanilla and the zests until a dough forms.

2. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

3. Take a small handful of the dough and roll it into a breadstick shape about 3/4 inches in diameter.

4. Cut the dough into hazelnut-sized sections about 1/2 inch thick and then either bake or fry them. (See below for baking instructions.) For frying, fill in a high-sided saucepan with 3 inches of oil and heat over medium-high flame. They will puff up and turn a lovely golden color within seconds. Remove them from the skillet and place them onto a paper towel-lined plate.

5. Repeat with the remaining dough.

6. In a small saucepan combine the honey and the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar and then heat until runny. Remove from the heat and stir in the fried balls, one small batch at a time, until they are well coated in the honey mixture. Using a slotted spoon remove the coated balls and arrange them in a circle in a shallow bowl. Repeat with the remaining dough balls, adding them to form a tall mound. Pour any remaining honey over the top and decorate with a scattering of colored sugar balls, confetti and candied fruit.

Best if served within 24 hours of making them. The dessert is placed in the center of the table and guests help themselves with their fingers.

Note: If you prefer, you can bake the dough balls. Place the hazelnut-sized dough segments about an inch apart on a well-greased baking sheet and bake at 400 F for about 7 minutes. Turn the balls and bake on the other side for another 6 to 7 minutes or until light golden. They will not be as round or as nicely golden as the fried version, but the taste will be just as stupendous. You may like to try baking half the dough and frying half, giving your struffoli color gradations.

Edible candy dish

Don’t panic, this isn’t hard to do. The candy dish is really just a big blob of almond brittle.

Ingredients

Vegetable or olive oil

1/4 cup corn syrup

2 1/4 cups sugar

2 cups, 7 ounces sliced almonds

Directions

1. Lightly oil a large nonstick cookie sheet. Lightly oil the inside of a large pie pan, shallow bowl or mold.

2. Heat the corn syrup in a heavy bottom saucepan over medium-high heat until warm, then stir in the sugar. At first the sugar just sort of sits there, but it will start to become translucent in about 3 or 4 minutes then turn ivory colored for another 3 minutes or so, and then finally darken and become liquidy.

3. Continue cooking the mixture, stirring occasionally with an oil-coated wooden spoon, until it becomes a rich golden color, about 12 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the almonds.

4. Carefully, as the sugar is scorching hot, pour the mixture onto the prepared cookie sheet. Using a rolling pin, gently flatten the mixture and roll it out into a large thin circle, at least 13 inches in diameter. Once it has cooled a little and seems firm, transfer it into the prepared mold.

5. Remove from the mold once it’s completely cool and hardened.

Main photo: Almonds, pine nuts, pistachios, fennel and other herb seeds are coated with sugar to make Italian confetti. Credit: Francine Segan

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Black cake. Credit: Ramin Ganeshram

It would arrive each year by the first week of December: a brown paper parcel from Tobago, where my father’s favorite niece lived. Inside was a used butter cookie tin, and inside that was a foil-wrapped cake that revealed itself to be dark as night.

The alcohol fumes that wafted off the cake as it was unwrapped were enough to make our young heads spin — and to preserve it for what was, in those days, a three-week journey by ship from Trinidad & Tobago to New York City. For weeks after the cake arrived, my brother Ramesh and I would scurry into the kitchen and pick at it when my father wasn’t looking.

This Caribbean holiday specialty, which is called Black Cake because of its signature color, Christmas Cake or simply “fruit cake,” is a fruit cake that will actually leave you hankering for more. Plummy, boozy and sweet but not sugary, Black Cake is best described as plum pudding that has gone to heaven.

This cake is so addictive that once you’ve tried it, seeking it come December is an obsession for some. I’ve been bribed with everything from hand-knit scarves, theater tickets, offers of baby-sitting, and even house-cleaning for one.

Black Cake inspired by an Irish Christmas recipe

Most common in English-Caribbean islands like Trinidad, Barbados and Grenada, its origins are in the Irish Christmas Cake, an equally worthy fruitcake cousin. Primarily consisting of raisins, prunes and currants, Black Cake contains only a small amount of the multi-hued candied peel that makes most fruit cakes less than appetizing. To add flavor and moisture, the fruits are soaked in a rum and cherry wine mixture for weeks.

For those of us who have a black-cake-making heritage, this fruit cake is serious business. Those who are really old school start soaking the fruits a full year ahead of time, although I have developed a “fast-soak” method, which means you can have your cake and eat it, too, all in time for the holiday season.

Every family has its own recipe with either a unique mixture of fruits, ratio of liquors or even combination of liquors. Lately, I’ve been using Manischewitz Cherry Wine because I find it has the same sweetness as Caribbean versions of cherry wine but with a lot more color and body.

If you hate fruitcake but love cakes that are densely rich, complex in flavor without being too sweet and ideal with a cup of tea, give Black Cake a try. You might find yourself breaking it out not just at Christmastime, but as we do — for weddings and special occasions of all sorts — because any excuse to eat this fruitcake will do.

This video gives a demonstration for making this cake, with the recipe below.

Black Cake

This recipe is adapted from “Sweet Hands: Island Cooking from Trinidad & Tobago” by Ramin Ganeshram. It features a “fast-soak” method that uses heat to start the maceration process for the dried fruits that make up the cake.

Ingredients

For the fruit mixture:

1 pound raisins

1 pound currants

1 pound prunes

1/2 pound candied cherries

1/4 pound mixed fruit peel

4 cups cherry brandy or cherry wine, divided

4 cups dark rum

1 cinnamon stick

2 star anise pods

1/2 vanilla bean

For the cake:

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

1 cup dark brown sugar

2 sticks (1 cup) butter, softened

6 eggs

1/2 teaspoon mixed essence (available in Caribbean markets)

1 tablespoon burnt sugar syrup (see note)

For the basting:

1/4 cup dark rum

1/4 cup cherry brandy

2 tablespoons sherry

1 dash Angostura bitters

Directions

For the fruit mixture:

1. For the fruit mixture, mix together all the dried fruits then place half the mixture in a food processor along with 1/2 cup of the cherry brandy. Pulse until the mixture is a rough paste, then place it in a large, deep saucepan or stockpot. Pulse the remaining fruits with another 1/2 cup of cherry brandy to form a rough paste, then add that to the pot as well.

2. Pour the remaining cherry brandy and rum into the pot with the pureed fruit. Add the cinnamon stick and star anise pods. Split the vanilla bean, scrape out the seeds and add both the seeds and the bean to the pan.

3. Place the pan over medium-low heat and mix well until just under a boil. Stir often so it does not scorch on the bottom.

4. Remove the pan from heat, cover it and allow the mixture to sit for one or two hours or as long as overnight. Alternatively, place fruit and spices in an airtight gallon jar and store unrefrigerated in a cool, dark place for at least three weeks or as long as a year.

For the cake:

1. Preheat the oven to 250 F and grease two 8-by-3-inch cake pans, then set them aside.

2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice.

3. Place the sugar and butter in a bowl and cream with an electric mixer until fluffy (about 4 minutes).

4. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

5. Add the mixed essence.

6. Using a slotted spoon, remove 3 cups of the fruit from its storage jar and beat well into the butter mixture.

7. Add the flour mixture 1/2 cup at a time, beating well after each addition, then add the burnt sugar syrup and mix well.

8. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans and bake for 90 minutes or until a cake tester inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Remove cakes from the oven and cool in their pans for 20 minutes.

9. Combine the rum, brand, sherry and bitters for basting and brush evenly over the cakes. Allow the cakes to cool completely, then remove them from the pans and wrap tightly in plastic wrap or in a zip-top bag.

10. Store in a cool, dry place for at least three days before eating. The recipe makes two cakes, which can be refrigerated for up to three months. If doing so, re-baste with the rum mixture once a week.

Note: Burnt sugar syrup or “browning” is found in Caribbean markets or online. You can also make it by combining 2 tablespoons of dark brown sugar and 1 tablespoon of water in a dry frying pan over medium-low heat. Heat slowly, stirring the sugar until it starts to caramelize. Continue stirring until the sugar syrup turns very dark brown or almost black. Add to batter as called for in a recipe.

Main photo: Black Cake is often simply called “fruit cake” or Christmas Cake in the English-speaking Caribbean. Credit: Ramin Ganeshram

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Pozole, topped by garnishes. Credit: Karen Branch-Brioso

For nine nights leading to Christmas Eve, Mexico celebrates las posadas: singalong parties to reenact Joseph and Mary’s biblical pilgrimage to Bethlehem and their near-fruitless search for shelter before Jesus’ birth.

Then, success. After several stanzas of rejection, someone lets them in. With the joyous chorus of “Entren, santos peregrinos” — come in, holy pilgrims — it’s time to break a piñata and eat. And steaming bowls of pozole are often there to feed the crowd.

MEXICAN CHRISTMAS


 A three-part series on dishes of the season

Part 1: Pozole

Part 2: Buñuelos

Part 3: Tamales

I had my first taste of the pork-and-hominy-based soup in Mexico City. For most anyone, that first taste can never be the last, and it wasn’t mine. Aided by a stack of Mexican-government-published recipe books I’d bought at a market near my home in the Colonia Narvarte neighborhood, I’ve made the dish repeatedly, both in Mexico and after I’d returned to the States.

It’s the perfect party food. You can make it for yourself, but it’s a recipe that’s easy to make for a crowd. And, inevitably, it’s a hit.

The draw of pozole is not just in its rich, smoky broth laced with puréed guajillo chilies. It’s the buffet line of cold raw veggies that your guests add to it that make it uniquely special for them as well.

Garnishes for pozole. Credit: Karen Branch-Brioso

Garnishes for pozole. Credit: Karen Branch-Brioso

That crunch of sliced radishes, shredded lettuce and diced onions create a perfect complementary texture for the hot stew. Squeeze in some lime juice for an added zing of flavor, and there’s nothing like it.

I’ve adapted the pozole recipe over the years from the one that was published by the Mexican Government Workers’ Social Security and Services Institute in the 1980s.

The cookbook series  “… y la Comida se Hizo” (… and the Meal was Made) is a wonderful Spanish-language collection that provides hundreds of traditional recipes celebrating Mexico’s widely varying cuisine. The recipe for pozole — which most often is brought out for parties such as posadas or the Independence Day festivities in mid-September — fittingly was found in the book entitled “… and the Meal was Made for Celebrating.”

Written simply for an audience that varies as widely as its cuisine — including those who cook on stoves without temperature controls or timers — the recipes rarely provide temperature settings and sometimes omits suggested cooking times. Instead, it often relies on directions, such as “cook until the meat is tender.”

The recipe I’ve adapted below provides quite a few more guidelines, as well as adjustments on the ingredients. The one in the Mexican cookbook called for slices of “pig’s head, pig knuckles and pig’s feet.”

The adapted recipe suggests country spareribs instead — both for the ease of shredding the meat and to simplify the explanation of the dish to guests who may be wary of trying something new. Canned white hominy is also the way to go here.

For parties held on chilly winter nights like Mexico’s posadas — celebrated from Dec. 16 through Christmas Eve — it’s a colorful way to celebrate. The red, white and green garnishes will add festive color to the holiday table.

Mexican Red Pozole

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: About 2 hours

Total time: About 2 hours, 5 minutes

Yield: 10 to 12 servings

Ingredients

For the soup:

1 large head of garlic

16 cups water, plus extra for soaking chilies

1 white onion, peeled

4 pounds of country-style pork ribs

8 guajillo chilies

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon oregano

4 (15-ounce cans) of white hominy

Kosher salt to taste

For the garnish:

Shredded iceberg lettuce

12 radishes, sliced thinly

1 large white onion, diced

4 large limes, each cut into 8 wedges

Chile powder

Mexican oregano

Directions

1. Separate the head of garlic into cloves, peel and slice.

2. Add 16 cups of water, garlic, onion and pork ribs to a stockpot and bring to a boil.

3. Turn the heat down to allow the mixture to simmer, uncovered, until the meat is tender — about 1 1/2 hours.

4. While the meat is simmering, place the guajillo chilies in a bowl and pour enough boiling water over them to allow them to be fully submerged (about 1 1/2 cups). Soak the chilies for a half-hour.

5. Using disposable kitchen gloves, remove the chilies from the water. (Reserve the water.) Remove the stems and slice open to devein the chilies. Place the chilies, the reserved water and some of the seeds in a food processor and blend until smooth. For a spicier soup, include more of the seeds.

6. When the pork is tender, remove it from the stockpot and shred the meat off the bone. Discard fat and bone.

7. Return shredded meat to the stockpot, and add the guajillo purée, bay leaves, oregano, hominy and salt to taste.

8. Cook for another 30 minutes to allow the flavors to blend.

9. While the pozole is still cooking, prepare the garnish ingredients and place them in small serving bowls. Keep the raw vegetables refrigerated until time to serve to provide for maximum crunch.

10. Serve the soup hot, with plenty of room in the bowl to allow for the garnishes.

Main photo: Pozole, topped by garnishes. Credit: Karen Branch-Brioso

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Fesenjan, a walnut and pomegranate stew, is one of the more traditional recipes in

Because I’m a chef and food writer, I’m often asked, “What’s your favorite food?” The answer is visceral, born of my childhood instead of my professional training or the international food experiences I’ve been lucky to have.

My favorite food is the cuisine of my mother’s native Iran — an overlooked area of the culinary world because of Iran’s 35 years of tense relations with the United States.

Persian food has typically been at the end of anyone’s list of favorites, but that’s starting to change. Driven by the recent foodie interest in the region at large — the Middle East and Indian — Persian food is having its day, and nothing could thrill me more.


 “Persiana: Recipes from the Middle East & Beyond”

By Sabrina Ghayour, Interlink Books, 2014, 240 pages

» Click here to buy the book


Those who know about this cuisine already know it is one of delicately nuanced flavors, rich varieties of meats and, in particular, produce, and deft technique that melds sweet and sour in an elegant way. Like Indian cuisine, basmati rice is a staple ingredient, but where much Indian food makes use of pepper, Persian cuisine prodigiously uses warm spices such as cinnamon, cardamom and turmeric. Saffron and rose petals add flavor that is actually more based in delicate aroma than pure taste.persiana2

Lamb and, traditionally, game birds are used in stews and grilled meat dishes and baked into rice dishes, but in Western adaptations, beef and chicken have become standard substitutes. As in Arab-Middle Eastern cuisine, a variety of salads and dipping sauces — most often made with yogurt and herbs — is the norm. Two hallmarks that make Iranian food particularly different are the vast array of pickles made from vegetables, spices, herbs and even fruit as well as the habit of consuming fresh herbs, onions and radishes as a condiment eaten out of hand or with bread. You’ll see this on most dinner tables.

I often describe Persian food as “north Indian cuisine without the heat,” and there’s a good reason for that description. The Mughal emperors of Northern India brought the food of the Iran they admired into their own region in the 16th century and mastered the layered rice dishes, fragrant stews and delicate fruit-based desserts. Today, that cooking sensibility remains the hallmark of most Indian restaurant cuisine and is still in evidence in many of the dishes’ Persian names. (Persian was the official language of the Mughal Empire.)

One of the best new entrees into the world of Persian cooking is Sabrina Ghayour’s cookbook “Persiana: Recipes from the Middle East & Beyond” (Interlink Books, 2014). In it, Ghayour, a London-based chef of Iranian descent, features both classic Persian dishes such as jujeh kebab, grilled boneless game hen marinated in a saffron yogurt sauce; morassa pollow, or “jeweled rice,” which is made with barberries, mixed nuts and orange peel; and fesenjan, a stew made of ground walnuts and pomegranate syrup that is often served on holidays and special occasions.

Perhaps more compelling, for me at least, is the manner in which Ghayour melds Middle Eastern flavors that are not strictly Persian but are familiar to Western readers into a more Iranian food sensibility. She uses these flavors to add intricacy to the cuisine’s elegant techniques and presentations, such as with her Fig & Green Bean Salad with Date Molasses & Toasted Almonds or Baked Eggs with Feta, Harissa, Tomato Sauce and Cilantro.

In the past few years, we’ve seen a growing number of blogs and cookbooks about Persian cooking, including the blogs My Persian Kitchen and Turmeric & Saffron as well as Louisa Shaifa’s “The New Persian Cooking” (Ten Speed Press, 2013), all adding diverse voices to the multi-decade stand-alone canon “Food of Life” (Mage Publishers) by Persian cooking doyenne Najmieh Batmanglij. Ghayour’s “Persiana,” however, stands out for its creativity and clean design and the sheer delectability of the dishes.

Newcomers to Persian cooking as well as those already in love with the cuisine will find many reasons to return to the pages of “Persiana” over and over again, as you will see when you give her recipe for fesenjan a try.

Chicken, Walnut & Pomegranate Stew (Khoresh-e-Fesenjan)

Yield: Makes 6 to 8 servings

This recipe appears in “Persiana: Recipes from the Middle East & Beyond” by Sabrina Ghayour.

Khoresh is the Persian word for stew. Fesenjan is a rich, glossy stew of ground walnuts and pomegranate syrup, usually made with chicken, duck or delicate little lamb meatballs. The flavor is deep and rich, with a nutty texture and a wonderfully gentle acidity that cuts right through the richness of the dish. Fesenjan is a popular dish in Iran, and its sweet yet tart character has made it one of the most revered stews in Iranian cooks’ repertoires. Like most stews, it is best made the day before you need to serve it.

Ingredients

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 large onions, diced

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 pound, 5 ounces (600 grams) walnuts, finely ground in a food processor

8 bone-in chicken thighs, skin removed

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

5 cups (scant 1¼ liters) cold water

3 tablespoons superfine sugar [38 grams]

3 tablespoons (45 milliliters) pomegranate molasses

Seeds from 1 pomegranate, for serving

Directions

1. Preheat two large saucepans over medium heat and pour 3 tablespoons vegetable oil into one. Fry the onions in the oil until translucent and lightly browned.

2. In the other pan, toast the flour until it turns pale beige. Add the ground walnuts and cook the mixture through.

3. Once the onions are browned, season the chicken on both sides with salt and pepper and add them to the pan containing the onions. Increase the temperature and stir well to ensure you seal the thighs on both sides. Once they are gently browned, turn off the heat and set aside.

4. Add the water to the walnut pan, stir well, and bring the mixture to a slow boil, then cover with a lid and allow to cook for 1 hour over low-medium heat. This will cook the walnuts and soften their texture; once you see the natural oils of the walnuts rise to the surface, the mixture is cooked.

5. Add the sugar and pomegranate molasses to the walnuts and stir well for about 1 minute. Take your time to stir the pomegranate molasses well — it takes awhile to fully dissolve into the stew because of its thick consistency.

6. Add the chicken and onions to the walnut-pomegranate mixture, cover and cook for about 2 hours, stirring thoroughly every 30 minutes to ensure you lift the walnuts from the bottom of the pan so they don’t burn. Once cooked, what initially looked beige will have turned into a rich, dark almost chocolaty-looking color.

7. Serve sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and enjoy with a generous mound of basmati rice.

Note: Fesenjan is served with chelo (Persian steamed rice).

Main photo: Fesenjan, a walnut and pomegranate stew, is one of the more traditional recipes in “Persiana.” It melds traditional Iranian technique with a diverse ingredient sensibility. Credit: Liz and Max Haarala Hamilton

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Strings of dried peppers, eggplant, okra and other vegetables for sale in a market in Gaziantep, Turkey. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Travel throughout southeastern Turkey in the height of summer and you’re likely to see rooftops, courtyards and gardens blanketed with color — row after row of peppers, eggplant and other vegetables drying in the sun.

Later rehydrated to be stuffed or stewed, dried vegetables are an essential ingredient in the traditional Turkish kitchen, but one that can be difficult to replicate for urban dwellers without a balcony or even a sunny window to call their own.

How to reconnect residents of Turkey’s large cities with the rich culinary culture of their rural roots is just one of the questions being posed by a new Istanbul-based group seeking to re-envision and rebrand Turkish cuisine, in much the same way as the New Nordic culinary movement has both celebrated and changed Scandinavian cooking.

“There are great raw materials in Anatolia and we’re eager to bring them to Istanbul and use them,” says Engin Önder, a cofounder of Gastronomika. (“Anatolia” refers to the westernmost part of Asia that comprises the majority of the land within Turkey’s borders.) This loose collective of young chefs, designers, historians and other interested parties has come together over the past year to operate an experimental kitchen and carry out various culinary research and design projects.

Gastronomika’s “Hacking the Modern Kitchen” exhibit at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Credit: İKSV/Ali Guler

Gastronomika’s “Hacking the Modern Kitchen” exhibit at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Credit: İKSV/Ali Guler

Önder describes one of these projects, “Hacking the Modern Kitchen,” as an effort to “find solutions for applying traditional techniques in small urban kitchens.” Its first “hack,” currently being exhibited as part of the 2nd Istanbul Design Biennial, is an ingeniously simple, space-saving system for drying herbs: paper cones hung with string from an ordinary household curtain or radiator. The cones shield the herbs from direct sunlight to best preserve their color and scent while they soak up the heat needed to dry them, explains a broadsheet printed with instructions and lines for folding the pamphlet itself into one of these paper “herbsacks.”

Confronting an urban revolution

The challenge of reacquainting young, urban people with skills like drying, canning, pickling and even growing their own food is not unique to Istanbul, of course. But it is perhaps particularly difficult, and important, in a country that has seen its urban population swell from 25% of the total in 1950 to 75% today. During that time, Istanbul alone has grown from 1 million residents to about 15 million, squeezing out urban gardens and other green space.

Gastronomika’s team faces the additional hurdle of getting people to rethink a food culture that, although rich with centuries of history and intermingled influences, has often been taken for granted by young Turks and misperceived internationally as amounting to little more than kebabs and baklava.

Istanbul is experiencing something of a renaissance of interest in Anatolian culinary heritage, with chefs like Musa Dağdeviren of the popular Çiya and Mehmet Gürs of the top-ranked Mikla scouring the countryside for local ingredients and traditional tastes to be incorporated into their menus. Though Gastronomika is in many ways part of this trend, it stands apart as a noncommercial, collaborative endeavor.

“Our kitchen is an experimental one and a community one,” Önder says. “It’s not about opening restaurants or creating menus, and no money changes hands.”

Members of the all-volunteer team keep busy with research trips around Anatolia (to “meet producers, learn techniques, talk to grandmothers,” Önder says). Talks and cooking events focus on the distinctive cuisines of Turkey’s Black Sea, southeast and other regions, and include in-depth, weeks-long explorations of single topics such as the vast array of ways to cook pilav (rice). They visit farmers markets in Istanbul and track what’s in season, and tend a gardening plot and organize mushroom-hunting expeditions on the edges of the city, where bits of open space can still be found amid the concrete.

Serving up a dish of stuffed vegetables over lamb ribs to an eager crowd at the Gastronomika kitchen.

Serving up a dish of stuffed vegetables over lamb ribs to an eager crowd at the Gastronomika kitchen hosted by SALT Beyoğlu. Credit: Gastronomika

Though the initiative is deeply rooted in Turkish terroir, its founders take a global approach to their mission. Turkish food needs ambassadors like those in Spain, says chef Semi Hakim, another Gastronomika cofounder, describing a program in which “Spanish chefs are sent abroad by their government to promote Spanish food, so tapas bars can become as ubiquitous as pizza places.”

Other international influences on the team members’ work include the investigative approach of the Nordic Food Lab, to which they’ve reached out for mentorship and advice; and star chef Ferran Adrià’s ambitious Bullipedia project, a Wikipedia-style culinary encyclopedia. Gastronomika’s own take on this concept is its online “karatahta” (blackboard), a digital archive of recipes gathered, techniques tried and ingredients sourced.

Like everything else Gastronomika does, the archive is participatory and open source, Önder explains.

“We share our notes, our presentations, our photos, our sources — all the knowledge we have,” he says. “The main thing is for everything to be public, even our failures. Experimentation always involves failures.”

The project’s members are “shamelessly energetic and fast learners,” says Vasıf Kortun, director of research and programs at SALT, a cultural institution in central Istanbul that hosts Gastronomika’s experimental kitchen in lieu of a traditional, profit-making museum cafe.

“The needs of Turkey’s research and food culture can’t be solved by one group, but if Gastronomika can tie into the bigger picture, they can be a big part of the conversation that’s beginning now,” Kortun says.

Main photo: Strings of dried peppers, eggplant, okra and other vegetables for sale in a market in Gaziantep, Turkey. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

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Instant chocolate cake. Credit: From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Savoiardi cookies — often called ladyfingers in the United States — were created in the Piedmont region of Italy in 1348 during the early Renaissance for the royal Savoia family, which gives the cookie its name. Savoiardi recipes are cited in several historic Italian cookbooks, including Bartolomeo Stefani’s 1662 book “The Art of Good Cooking.” This cookie is so important to Italians that the recipe is regulated and the name protected.

For me — probably you, too, since you’re reading this — Italy’s food traditions are precious. Certain products and recipes are so definitively Italian that their origins and even names are worth protecting and preserving. When it comes to Italy’s sweets, there is a national organization, the Association of Italian Sweets and Pasta Manufacturers (Associazione delle Industrie del Dolce e della Pasta Italiane), whose job it is to do just that. The group, founded in 1967, set forth regulations that cover the processes and ingredients permitted for various types of sweets. Their standards, it turns out, are some of the world’s strictest.

For example, to qualify as authentic, savoiardi, the famous Italian cookie, must follow a definitive checklist in accordance with its DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) status. Ingredients must be region-specific and only the best butter — and a guaranteed amount of it — may be used. There are required quantities of eggs and acceptable flours. The demands are almost painfully rigorous, but the results are exquisite!

Traditionally, savoiardi are dipped in hot chocolate or coffee. Because Italian-made savoiardi soak up liquid so nicely, they are a key ingredient in hundreds of desserts, including charlottes and puddings and, of course, tiramisu.

“Instant” Chocolate Cake

From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

A no-bake dessert that’s a snap to make and quite pretty. Store-bought savoiardi are dipped in liqueur, layered with chocolate sauce and then refrigerated until firm. It slices just like pound cake.

Prep time: 15 minutes

No cooking, but requires 1 hour to chill

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

3 1/2 ounces, 7 tablespoons, unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar

1 egg yolk

3 1/2 ounces dark chocolate, 70% cocoa or higher

2 tablespoons heavy cream

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons granulated sugar, plus more to taste

1/4 cup sweet liqueur, such as Alchermes or rum

12 savoiardi, Italian ladyfingers

2 tablespoons crushed pistachios or hazelnuts

Directions

1. In a bowl, using a whisk or electric hand mixer, beat the butter, confectioners’ sugar and egg yolk until very smooth and creamy.

2. In another bowl, melt the chocolate and cream, in the microwave or over a double boiler. Stir the chocolate and vanilla into the butter mixture. Reserve.

3. Combine 1/4 cup warm water and granulated sugar in a shallow bowl and stir until the sugar dissolves. Stir in the liqueur and add more sugar, if you like.

4. Dip four savoiardi, one at a time, into the liquid. Arrange the four liqueur-dipped savoiardi in a row, close together, on a serving plate. Spread with 1/3 of the chocolate mixture.

5. Repeat, dip four more savoiardi into the liquid, place them on top of the first row. Spread with 1/3 of the chocolate mixture. Repeat for the third and final layer, spreading the remaining chocolate on top and along the sides of the stacked savoiardi. Sprinkle the top layer with pistachios or hazelnuts. Refrigerate an hour or until firm. Serve cold.

updated tiramisu

This tiramisu is a perfect make-ahead dessert that you can serve in mini portions in espresso cups. Credit: From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Updated Tiramisu

Tiramisu is traditionally made with raw eggs. Not only is this tiramisu just as delicious as the traditional version, but here, because the eggs are whipped with hot sugar syrup, there’s no raw eggs to worry about. It also makes the custard stay light and fluffy for up to two days in the fridge.

A perfect make-ahead dessert that you can serve in mini portions in espresso cups, or as a normal-sized portion in a coffee cup.

Prep time: 25 minutes

No cooking time

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

5 large egg yolks

1/2 cup granulated sugar

8 ounces mascarpone cheese

1/4 cup heavy cream

12 savoiardi, plus more for garnish

1 cup freshly brewed espresso or coffee, either decaf or regular

Rum, optional

Cocoa powder

Directions

1. Put the yolks into the bowl of a standing mixer and whisk, using the highest setting, until light yellow and fluffy, at least 5 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, heat the sugar and 2 ounces of water in a small saucepan until it bubbles and reaches 250 F on a candy thermometer.

3. While the standing mixer is still running on its highest setting, slowly pour the hot sugar syrup into the yolks, and continue whisking for 15 minutes. It’s important to whisk them for this long so that the mixture stays fluffy when you add the next ingredients.

4. Add the mascarpone and heavy cream and beat on a medium setting just until combined, about 20 seconds. You can reserve this custard, covered with plastic wrap, in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.

5. To assemble: Brew the espresso or coffee (you’ll need 1 cup if you’re making all at the same time, or just a shot each if making only a few). Break one savoiardo into each espresso cup, or two, into each coffee mug or dessert bowl. Pour the espresso over the savoiardi so they are fully moistened, and if you like, add a splash of rum. Top with a generous dollop or two of mascarpone cream. Dust with cocoa powder. Serve immediately.

Note: For a two-tone effect, dust half the surface of the tiramisu with cocoa powder and the other half with savoiardi crumbs.

Fruity Tiramisu (Zuppa Tartara)

Beautiful and takes just seconds to assemble using supermarket ingredients.

Savoiardi  layered with your favorite flavor jam and sweetened ricotta. The whole thing firms up so nicely, you can slice it like pound cake, creating an effortless, virtually instant, no-bake cake.

This dessert is so light and easy to make that it might be surprising to learn that the recipe comes from an 1890s cookbook, the famed “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well,” by Pellegrino Artusi.

Prep time: 10 minutes

No cooking, but requires 1 hour to chill

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

8 ounces ricotta cheese

2 teaspoons sugar

Pinch ground cinnamon

1/3 cup your favorite jam, plus more as needed

2 tablespoons sweet liqueur or rum

12 savoiardi

Directions

1. Combine the ricotta, sugar and cinnamon in a bowl, and beat with a fork until smooth. Reserve.

2. In a shallow bowl combine the jam with 1/4 cup warm water and the liqueur or rum. Dip the savoiardi, a few at a time, into the mixture until they are nicely moistened. Place four onto a serving plate, side by side, and spoon 1/2 of the ricotta mixture over them. Top the ricotta with small dollops of extra preserves. Repeat. Finish with final layer of dipped savoiardi and a final drizzle of preserves, or any of the remaining preserves liquid and bits.

3. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least hour, until set. Serve cold.

Main photo: Store-bought ladyfingers are dipped in liqueur, layered with chocolate sauce and then refrigerated until firm in this “instant” chocolate cake. Credit: From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

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Lunch from Tsukushi in Otaru, Japan. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

As a visitor, I’ve always been alternatively intrigued and frustrated by Japan’s food culture.

Intrigued because I know that behind almost every shoji door or noren divider there is probably a mouth-watering surprise of some sort.

Frustrated because my inability to speak or read the language — despite several years of college courses and patient tutors– leaves me unable to know exactly what I am walking into. I peek through what appear to be restaurant doorways and wonder: Can I afford what’s producing these stomach-rumbling aromas, and exactly what will I get?

So when a retired businessman offered to take me to his favorite spot for lunch during a recent visit to Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, I was thrilled. There is nothing better than sharing a local’s “everyday” fare.

I was not disappointed.

East meets West in Otaru, Japan

Otaru, a picturesque port town a half-hour train ride from Sapporo, the island’s capital, was built on the fortunes of fishermen and traders. Wrapped around Ishikari Bay, the city features a “Venice of the Far East” canal lined with old warehouses.

A short walk away is Sakaimichi Street, a historic shopping area whose 19th-century western-style buildings, once home for banks and trading companies, are now filled with trendy shops selling Hokkaido glassware and seaweed candy.

Otaru’s civic leaders are passionate about preserving history, and within a few blocks of the port there are museums devoted to the city’s history, the railway system, the Bank of Japan, Venetian art, music boxes and even literature.

Tsukushi is tucked away on a side street and just around the corner from the Literary Museum, where you can learn more about novelist Sei Ito, who was one of Otaru’s most famous residents. If a filmmaker was trying to cast an authentic Japanese seafood experience, this tiny restaurant looks the part.

Behind its sliding doors, Tsukushi boasts a three-sided bar built around a stone robata-yaki grill. Dried salmon and flatfish dangle from hooks on the ceiling and ceramic shochu jars line the bar. Five hundred yen ($4.25 U.S., according to a recent exchange rate) will buy a shot of the shochu, a potent Japanese liquor. Fluttering paper banners advertise the daily fare in bold brush strokes: seafood, seafood and more seafood.

We arrived shortly after the restaurant opened at 11:30 a.m., and the 11 stools filled rapidly with salarymen and women, utility workers and young female tourists. Linger too long and you’ll be asked to leave — politely of course. This is Japan, after all.

otaru1

otaru1
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An artist along the canal in Otaru, Japan. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

It was nearly a decade ago that Katsuhiko Kawanishi decided to go out on his own after cooking for more than a decade at other people’s hot stoves. The Hokkaido native named his restaurant Tsukushi after the horsetail plants whose green shoots mark the end of Hokkaido’s long winter.

Kawanishi starts his day early, meeting with one of the three or four main fish brokers who serve Otaru or visiting one of the local markets where fishermen bring in their daily catch. During my visit in early fall, the hakkaku, or sail-fin poacher, was in season. This unusual fish, whose large dorsal fin gives it the appearance of an eight-sided prehistoric monster, is a Hokkaido specialty and is eaten grilled or raw.

Unfortunately, there was no hakkaku on the menu the day I dropped in. But I still had more than a dozen different versions of donburi to pick from. Donburi, which means rice bowl, is a form of Japanese comfort food.

At Tsukushi, the donburi was covered with different types of sashimi, or raw fish, topped in turn with a sprinkle of salty dried seaweed called nori. For 500 yen ($4.25 U.S.), I was served a bowl of noodle soup, salty pickled vegetables and a bowl of steaming hot rice covered with thin slices of maguro tuna, squid and tobiko, delicate flying fish eggs. I chose the cheapest offering, but there were 15 kinds of donburi topped with everything from scallop and salmon eggs or crab, squid and salmon to sea urchin.

I returned the next day at lunch to try Tsukushi’s teishoku meal set, which included a piece of grilled fish accompanied by a bowl of rice, noodle soup, sashimi and pickled vegetables. For 630 yen ($5.35 U.S.), you could try one of seven varieties of grilled fish, including hokke (atka mackerel), sanma (saury pike) grilled with salt, or salmon collar.

In the evenings, Tsukushi becomes a robata-yaki restaurant, serving all kinds of grilled meats and seafood with beer and sake. Arrive before 6:30 p.m. and you can get a special meal set for 1,300 yen ($11.04 U.S.) that includes two drinks (beer or sake), sashimi, yakitori and pickles. And don’t tip the chef or waiter. That custom has still not caught on in Japan.

Unfortunately, I ran out of time long before I reached the end of the menu. But a couple visits to Tsukushi convinced me it is possible to eat very well on a budget in Japan with the right introduction. If you go, tell Kawanishi-san I sent you.

Main image: Lunch from Tsukushi in Otaru, Japan. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

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Sabatino Tartufi’s Tuber magnatum pico, weighing in at 4.16 pounds. Credit: Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

What do you call a truffle that is the size of a football? “The million-dollar mushroom,” said my daughter, Celina, when I phoned her en route to Sotheby’s for a media preview of the largest ever found. It was rumored that a Chinese prospect had already offered precisely that much. But the hulking fungus, weighing in at 4.16 pounds, came up short the following day when it went for a mere $61,250 on the auction block — less than $15,000 a pound.

If even the humblest truffle is too rich for your blood, you might find comfort in knowing that the seller, Sabatino Tartufi, will donate the proceeds to two charities that represent causes close to the owners’ hearts: The Children’s Glaucoma Foundation and Citymeals-on-Wheels. “We’ve been doing business in New York since 1999, and we want to give back,” family representative Gabriel Balestra said. His grandparents founded the company in 1911 in a small storefront in the tiny Umbrian village of Montecastrilli; it has since mushroomed into a premier source for fresh truffles around the globe.

The ultimate delicacy

Sotheby’s, the storied auction house for art, jewels, antiques and real estate, has sold everything from Jackie O’s pearls to the Soviet space capsule Vostok 3KA-2. Asked if it had ever handled truffles, Sotheby’s Wine CEO and president Jamie Ritchie, who officiated as auctioneer, said, “The only perishable we’ve sold before is wine.” If some of that wine is going for $10,000 a bottle, at least the buyer knows he has time to drink it.

Buying a truffle is a dicier proposition. Perishability is a big concern once it is exposed to air. “Each day it ages and the perfume diminishes,” English food writer and truffle expert Gareth Jones said when he read the news about the truffle on the auction block. “[It’s] all too sad. One in London rotted in a chef’s safe when he went on holiday without leaving the key!” The average walnut-sized white truffle will stay fresh for up to 10 days if stored properly; the four pounder, unearthed on Dec. 2, has two more weeks of “shelf life,” according to Balestra.

A professional truffle hunter hoping for the big find in Tuscany. Credit: Paolo Destefanis, www.paolodestefanis.com

A professional truffle hunter hoping for the big find in Tuscany. Credit: Paolo Destefanis, www.paolodestefanis.com

The story of its discovery is inauspicious enough: A boy named Matteo went for a walk with his 9-month-old puppy, who sniffed out the treasure. Such specimens are usually discovered by professional hunters with years of experience and dogs trained in stalking the elusive fungus. Asked where, precisely, the boy found it, Balestra would only say that it was somewhere in northern Umbria. According to Jones, hunters in central Italy are doing better this year than their competitors in the white-truffle paradise of Piedmont. This is unusual, because Umbria is better known for the more-common black truffle. However, the white species, Tuber magnatum pico, does grow in the upper Tiber Valley in addition to Orvieto and the mountainous area around Gubbio and Gualdo Tadino, where it burrows in with the roots of the poplar, the linden, the willow and the horn beam.

As for what could have led to such a monster size, Balestra admitted, “I don’t know why it’s so big.” He explained that, like all other truffles harvested this season, it started as a spore colony in the damp undergrowth about six months ago. Perhaps the rain that did such damage to Italy’s olive groves was a godsend for its truffles.

The treasure was unveiled for no more than five minutes — the dirt left clinging to its surface to prolong its freshness — before Balestra rescued it from the spotlight. “Light and heat dry it out, and its firmness could be compromised,” he said, swaddling it with linen and returning it to a secure cooler.

1 Auctioneer Jamie Ritche introduces the celebrity truffle

1 Auctioneer Jamie Ritche introduces the celebrity truffle
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Auctioneer Jamie Ritchie introduces the celebrity truffle at Sotheby’s. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

How to handle truffles — carefully

The big question is, what will the winning bidder do with the delicacy? That’s a lot of tagliatelle to cover. Here are some tips for working with white truffles, adapted from my book “Umbria: Regional Recipes from the Heartland of Italy” (Chronicle Books, 2003). They should be dipped quickly in cool water to remove any clinging earth and blotted with a soft cotton cloth. They are never grated or chopped but rather shaved into paper-thin flakes with a special handheld wooden device into which a razor is secured. Nor should they ever be cooked; instead, the raw flakes are gently warmed when scattered onto the surface of hot food upon serving. Umbrian cooks like to use them on eggs lightly scrambled in butter; fresh egg pasta with an uncomplicated butter-based sauce; risotto cooked in butter and fresh veal broth, with aged Parmigiano-Reggiano folded in at the end; trout cooked in butter (its flesh is naturally delicate and a perfect canvas for the light strokes of the truffle); and butter-sautéed veal scallopini deglazed with dry white wine. They would be spoiled if used in dishes that contain garlic, vinegar, rustic tomato sauces, sheep’s cheese or other assertive ingredients.

A final note: Beware of truffle essence that is artificially produced and/or mixed with olive oil and passed off as genuine. To prevent such fraud in restaurants, Remo Rossi of the Umbrian Gastronomical Association suggests insisting that the truffle be sliced directly onto the plate at the table.

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