Articles in Cuisine

Black Bean Soup With Mexican Pesto. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Looking for a black Halloween food to make grown-ups howl with delight? Black Bean Soup With Mexican Pesto tastes like it took all day simmering on the back burner, getting rich and thick from hours of loving attention.

But when time is too short to stir dried beans in a witch’s cauldron, canned black beans that have been carefully rinsed are the fast and easy answer to perfect results, because they’ll be intensely flavored and then puréed smooth in the resulting soup.

My favorite black bean soups are from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, specifically around the city of Mérida; their unctuous, creamy textures contain no cream and are packed with characteristic layers of flavor from gargantuan amounts of herbs and a whisper of regional habañero chile. For decadence, locals often swirl in a spoonful of crema for special occasions, and Halloween is definitely such an occasion, at least in the U.S.

You start by making a flavor bomb similar to an Italian pesto to embellish the finished soup: Pull a big handful of basil leaves off stems, add cilantro and, if you can get some of the herb, throw in a little epazote with spicy habañero chile for traditional tastes. Because pine nuts aren’t found in the Yucatan, substitute pecans, Mexico’s national nut, for the right texture profile. For cheese, my choice is a not-too-salty queso añejo (aged queso fresco), or use Parmigiano-Reggiano. Only the best-quality extra virgin olive oil will do for its fruitiness, and then finish the soup with Merida sunshine: a generous squirt of bright Mexican (aka Key) lime juice.

Mexican pesto. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Mexican pesto. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Black Bean Soup With Mexican Pesto

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: Makes 4 servings (may be doubled)

Ingredients

For the pesto:

4 large cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped

¼ cup coarsely chopped pecans

1 fresh habañero chile

¼ teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt

⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 cup basil leaves, tightly packed

½ cup cilantro leaves

10 epazote leaves (if available)

¼ cup grated queso añejo or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil

For the soup:

The soup's ingredients include habañero chile, garlic, pecans and cilantro. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

The soup’s ingredients include habañero chile, garlic, pecans and cilantro. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

One 3-inch white onion, coarsely chopped

2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

½-inch piece of the habañero chile, minced

Three 15-ounce cans organic black beans

2 cups organic chicken broth, divided

2 Mexican (aka Key) limes

Sea or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

½ cup Mexican crema, or sour cream thinned with a little milk

Directions

For the pesto:

1. Combine the garlic, pecans, a tiny ¼-to-½-inch piece of the chile finely chopped (wear disposable gloves while doing this), salt and pepper in a food processor. Process for 10 seconds. Toss in the basil, cilantro and epazote and grind again for 10 seconds. Turn the processor off and scrape the sides with a spatula to get everything down into the mixture.

2. Add the cheese. Turn the machine back on and pour the oil slowly through the feed tube, processing until the mixture is fully incorporated and smooth. Taste carefully for saltiness and if the sauce is spicy enough — it should be hot! If not, mince another small piece of the chile and process again to fully incorporate the bits. Taste again and adjust accordingly.

3. Using a rubber spatula, scrape into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and set aside.

For the soup:

1. Heat the oil in a large pot and sauté the onion until translucent. Toss in the garlic and chile and cook until starting to brown. Remove from the heat.

2. Rinse the beans carefully for a few minutes. Scrape the onion, garlic and chile into the processor using a spatula and then dump in the beans. (You may have to do this in two batches.) Process until smooth, adding 1 cup of broth. Pour back into the pot.

3. Mix in the remaining 1 cup of broth. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat to a simmer, squeeze in the lime juice and season the bland beans assertively to taste with salt and pepper. Simmer 10 minutes.

4. To serve, ladle the soup into bowls and top with a generous tablespoonful of pesto on each. If using, swirl a tablespoon of crema in a circle around the pesto and pass the remaining crema in a small bowl.

Main photo: Black Bean Soup With Mexican Pesto. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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Celebrate World Pasta Day with some pasta sushi. Credit:

Although pasta may seem simple — just boil, right? — you might find that you’ve been doing some things wrong. Since Oct. 25 is World Pasta Day, below are some tips that will ensure your pasta is just perfect.

Riccardo Felicetti, a fourth-generation owner of artisan Italian pasta company Felicetti and new president of the International Pasta Organization, shares tips on how to properly cook pasta. “Pasta gets lonely,” he says, “so be sure to keep it company while it’s cooking so that you can occasionally stir it and so you can try some to test if it’s done.”

Riccardo Felicetti’s Tips to Making Perfect Pasta

  1. Use a big pot and lots of water so the pasta has room to move while it cooks. Use at least 1 quart for every ¼ pound of pasta.
  2. Think horizontally when cooking small amounts or filled pasta. When making long pasta like spaghetti for just one person, Italians put it into a wide shallow pan. You need only fill the pan with enough water to cover the spaghetti horizontally, not vertically!
  3. Do not add the pasta until the water boils or the pasta becomes gummy.
  4. Use the time on the box only as a general guideline. The best way to tell if pasta is ready is to taste it. Start tasting three to four minutes before the package’s suggested cooking time.
  5. Never rinse pasta. The starch on the pasta helps sauces adhere to it, and is a thickening agent for the sauce too.
  6. Always save a little of the pasta cooking water to toss with the pasta and sauce to thicken and meld the flavors. Again, it’s that starch that helps bring everything together.

The International Pasta Organization website provides a fun list of pasta recipes from around the world, nutrition advice and other interesting information. “Representing pasta producers from all over the world,” Felicetti says, “gives me great pride and is a huge responsibility at the same time. Pasta is a global food, nutritionally valuable, and has a central role in almost everyone’s diet.”

Perfect for World Pasta Day is this recipe for pasta sushi, a fusion of Italian and Japanese cuisines.

Pasta Sushi

Adapted from “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy” by Francine Segan.

Substitute pasta shells for the white rice, making beautiful, Japanese-inspired but Italian flavored, one-bite appetizers.

Try cooked or raw fish such as poached lobster topped with caviar, diced seared tuna with a dollop of hummus or raw oysters with lemon zest. You can fill them all the same, or make an assortment; just calculate about 4 pasta shells per serving and a heaping tablespoon of filling for each.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: Serves as many as you like

Ingredients

For the shells:

4 large pasta shells per person

Salt

Rice wine vinegar or lemon juice, to taste

Mirin or sweet Marsala or sherry, to taste

For the filling (approximately 1 tablespoon per shell):

Diced or thinly sliced raw fish such as tuna or salmon; raw or cooked oysters; sea urchin; caviar; and/or cooked fish like poached lobster, crab, or shrimp

For the garnish (to taste):

Lemon or orange zest; grated horseradish; chopped scallions; fresh diced fruit; mozzarella, cream cheese or other cheese; red chili pepper; and/or sea salt

Directions

1. Boil the pasta shells in salted water until al dente. Drain and toss with a splash, to taste, of rice wine vinegar and Mirin. Spread out onto a plate and let cool to room temperature.

2. Fill each shell with a tablespoon of filling. Garnish and season as you like.

Main photo: Pasta sushi is the perfect fusion of Italian and Japanese cuisine. Credit: “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes from Italy.”

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Bucatini Dome

Dried pasta can cost anywhere from $1 to $7 or more per pound. Pasta is just flour and water, so what, if anything, makes the expensive stuff any better? Is there a taste and texture difference between brands? Is artisanal pasta worth the price?

I traveled throughout Italy to find out, interviewing food bloggers, chefs, pasta manufacturers and home cooks. Every Italian I spoke with emphatically believed that he or she could taste the difference and that good pasta wasn’t cheap, but was worth the price. I listened to technical explanations of the difference between Teflon and bronze extrusion, the value of water, length and types of drying techinques.

They were all convincing, but I was finally won over completely when I attended the food festival I Primi d’Italia, dedicated to Italy’s famed first-course specialties: pasta, risotto and polenta. The festival is held each year in Umbria, in the historic town of Foligno, which is completely transformed with tasting and demo stations in every piazza, courtyard and cobblestone street as it plays host to this delightful event.

I attended a workshop on how to evaluate dried pasta led by Gennaro Esposito, a two-star Michelin chef from Naples. He did a side-by-side test that highlighted the ways to tell so-so pasta from great pasta.

Try this at home

Try it yourself at home. It’s easiest to see the difference using spaghetti, so select an artisanal imported Italian pasta, and compare it to a bargain brand.

Fill two pots with the same amount of water and salt and bring to a boil. So that it’s a blind test, ask a friend to help so you don’t know which pasta is which. Have your friend put in the same amount of pasta to each pot. After a minute or two, stir the pastas and take a whiff of the water. Which pasta has a fresh wheat aroma?

  1. Once the pasta is al dente, drain, and test its ability to absorb sauce. Put a few strands of each into two different bowls with a little water and after several minutes note which pasta absorbed more water. That means it will better absorb sauce and is the better pasta.
  2. Then pinch both types of pasta between your thumb and index finger. The inferior pasta will be gummy to the touch and soft in the middle, while the better pasta stays al dente.
  3. Finally, taste each pasta plain, with no sauce. That should be enough to convince you!
fresh pasta

A chef presses pasta. Great pasta doesn’t mush. Credit: Francine Segan.

Ways to Spot Superior Pasta

To learn how to spot superior pasta I visited Garofalo, a famed Naples pasta company, where I was taught that superior pasta, when raw, should be yellow (not white), it should smell like fine wheat, and it should break cleanly and easily—without scattering bits about.

When cooked, it should:

  1. Taste delicious, even without sauce.
  2. Have a lovely aroma, like crusty bread.
  3. Leave the cooking water clear and uncloudy.
  4. Stick to the sauce. If the sauce slides off, it’s a sign that the pasta was not properly dried. Pasta that is too slippery means that the past maker rushed the drying process using a high temperature, which causes the pasta’s starch to form a sort of glaze on the pasta, making it shiny and impenetrable for sauces.
  5. Remain firm the last bite. If left in a plate without sauce, it should not collapse and lose its shape.

To underscore just how important good pasta is, the team at Garofalo taught me a fabulous show-stopping recipe. It really underscores the characteristics of quality pasta — the ability to keep from getting mushy when cooked.

Bucatini Dome (Cupola di Bucatini)

It’s hard to top this dish for pure drama. The stately dome of pasta houses a colorful filling of string beans, carrots, zucchini and plenty of rich Italian cheese.

But don’t get intimidated. It’s actually quite easy to create. The trick is to use bucatini, which are thick long pasta that keep their shape as you coil them into the round dome cake pan. If you don’t have one, use a metal bowl instead. Don’t let lack of equipment keep you from tackling this architecturally magnificent — and delicious — dish.

Prep time: 40 minutes

Cooking time: 30 minutes

Total time: 70 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

14 tablespoons butter, plus more for the pan

5 slender zucchini (about 2 pounds), minced

3 medium carrots, minced

¾ pound haricot verts or very thin string beans, minced

1¼ pounds bucatini

2 eggs, beaten

½ cup grated pecorino cheese

Black pepper

¾ pound deli-sliced high-quality provolone cheese

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Very generously butter an 8- to 9-inch dome-shaped oven-safe container such as a Pyrex or metal bowl.

2. Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a large frying pan and add zucchini; fry until soft. Put the zucchini into a large bowl. Using the same pan, cook the carrots and string beans in 1 tablespoon of butter over low heat, covered, until tender, adding a few drops of water, if needed. Stir into the bowl with the zucchini until well combined. Set aside 1 cup of this vegetable mixture as garnish for later.

3.  Cook the pasta in boiling salted water for ⅔ of the package’s recommended time. Drain and divide, putting ¾ of the pasta into the large bowl of vegetables and the remaining ¼ into a small bowl with 2 tablespoons of butter. Set aside; the small bowl, it will be used for the outer part of the dome.

4.  Add 9 tablespoons of butter to the pasta-vegetable bowl and stir until the butter melts, then stir in the beaten eggs, pecorino cheese, and freshly grated black pepper. Using kitchen scissors, cut into the pasta mixture so it is broken up a little. Set aside.

5. From the plain buttered pasta, using one strand and starting in the center of the prepared domed container, twirl the pasta around itself to form a coil. Continue the coil with another strand of pasta starting where the last strand ended so it is in one continuous line; continue with additional strands until half way up the pan. Line the pasta with slices of  cheese, pressing the cheese firmly against the pasta. Put in half of the vegetable-pasta mixture, pressing firmly into the bottom and sides of the bowl to remove any air pockets and densely pack the filling. Top with cheese slices.

6. Continue coiling the plain pasta around the dome to the top, adding a strand at the exact spot the last ended. Line the sides with more cheese slices and top with the remaining vegetable-pasta mixture and slices of cheese. Press the pasta down firmly with a spatula or wooden spoon. This is key to getting a nice compact dome that stays together nicely when sliced. Cut the remaining plain buttered pasta with scissors and press on top of the mixture.

7. Cover the bowl with aluminum foil and bake for 15 minutes, then remove the foil and bake uncovered for another 15 minutes, until golden and set. Let rest 10 minutes, then put a serving plate on top of the bowl, and invert it. Hit with a wooden spoon to help the pasta release from the pan, and, using the tip of a spoon or butter knife along the bottom edge of the bowl, begin to remove the bowl from the pasta. Serve garnished with the reserved cup of minced vegetables.

Main photo: Bucatini Dome houses string beans, carrots, zucchini and plenty of cheese. Credit: “Pasta Modern” by Francine Segan

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Bottles of olive oil. Credit: iStockPhoto

I brought a jug of dark green Sicilian olive oil, freshly pressed from a friend’s farm, back to my home in the hills along the border between Tuscany and Umbria. “È buono,” said my neighbor, Arnaldo, when he tasted it. “It’s good but … non ė genuino.”

Non ė genuino – it’s about the worst thing an Italian can say about another Italian’s food, whether oil, cheese, wine or pork ragù. It translates as “it’s not the real thing,” but what it really means is, “This is not the way we do it here, not the way our forebears have been doing it since Etruscan times, and not, in fact, the right way.”

In this case, caro Arnaldo, I beg to differ. What I had offered was a fresh-tasting oil made from Nocellara del Belice olives, picked green and pressed immediately, radiant with the almond-to-artichoke flavors characteristic of that varietal, which is grown mostly in and around western Sicily’s Belice valley. Moreover, it was lush, verdant and fresh from the press — I knew because I was there when it happened.

This encounter led me to think about the astonishing variety of foods that proliferate throughout the long, skinny, undulating boot that is Italy, and about the intense pride each region, each province, each little mountain village or coastal fishing port takes in its own traditions.

Italians, it almost goes without saying, invented the locavore phenomenon — and invented it a long time ago. It’s what makes a culinary tour of this remarkable country so seductive and astonishing.

What makes olive oils great?

But it’s also a trap of deception. A New York Times reporter — who happens to be a friend of mine — fell into that trap recently when writing about Umbrian olive oil. “Our oil,” her informants told her (I’m extrapolating), “is not like that sweet Tuscan oil. Our oil has character!”

Sweet oil? Tuscan? Really? Peppery, fruity, bitter, complex — these are the characteristics I taste in a well-made Tuscan oil. But not sweet.

Umbrian olive oil can be, and often is, excellent. The main local cultivar is Moraiolo, which is high in antioxidants that give it an overwhelming intensity, so much so that producers blend Moraiolo olives with others to calm that muscular quality. But Umbrian olive oil is also hard to distinguish from Tuscan oil. In fact, I would argue almost all high-quality central Italian oils — made from a mix of olives (Frantoio, Leccino, Pendolino and Moraiolo are the usual blend); often grown at high altitudes; usually harvested when still immature and pressed immediately thereafter — typically share certain acerbic flavors and peppery aromas that are redolent of freshly cut grass, artichoke or tomato leaves. I doubt most North American consumers, even well-educated ones, confronted with a selection of oils from Umbria and Tuscany, could tell them apart.

There are, I’m told, more than 500 olive cultivars grown in Italy, some of them widely known and grown such as Leccino, universally valued for its resistance to low temperatures, and some of them only from very specific regions, like Dritto, an olive that appears to be exclusive to the Abruzzi, or Perenzana olives from northern Puglia. With the spread of olive culture to other regions of the world — California, Chile, South Africa, New Zealand — some of these cultivars are being grown far from their native soil, and the oil made from them often suffers as a result — non ė genuino!

Or at least that’s what Italians believe, and my heart — and my palate — agrees. The best oils taste of that elusive characteristic called terroir — a combination of environment (soil structure, altitude, climate, weather), variety and technology, both traditional and modern, adjusted to match time-honored local tastes. In Provence, for instance, local taste demands a fusty flavor, the result of anaerobic fermentation in the olives, producing an oil considered defective elsewhere.

But I also believe North Americans are fortunate not to be trapped in the locavore delusion. We have access to olive oils from all over Italy, indeed from all over the world. How to deal with that abundance can be a problem, but it’s a problem we should welcome. Unlike those Umbrian producers, we can buy an Umbrian oil and a Tuscan one and taste them side by side, along with one, perhaps, from Puglia, or Sicily, or even from Verona in northern Italy. Or indeed Tunisia or Spain or New Zealand.

The tree said to be the oldest olive tree in Umbria, Italy. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

The tree said to be the oldest olive tree in Umbria, Italy. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

The revolution starts here

Now I’m going to tell you something radical: I have tried to love olive oils from retail outlets across the entire U.S., but with few exceptions, I have almost always been disappointed. Many retailers simply don’t recognize the importance of harvest dates or the critical significance of maintaining oils in dark, cool environments. They display bottles under shop lights in order to entice customers, and they’ve paid top dollar for oil when it first arrives on the market, so even if it stays around a while, the price still has to reflect their costs.

So more and more, my advice is to go to online distributors, many of whom get their oil directly from the producer and most of whom keep their precious bottles warehoused in a dark, cool environment. Here are a few I recommend; I’ve also noted where there are retail stores. Note that the first three sell only Italian olive oils; the rest carry a variety from many other areas, including California:

Main photo: Bottles of olive oil. Credit: iStockPhoto

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Turkish women in the village of Defne in Hatay province roll out the dough for yufka flatbreads. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Two women sit facing each other on a rug as they chat and roll out rounds of bread dough using thin batons of wood. Beside them, another woman stretches a dough circle further as she holds it over a wood-burning, dome-shaped griddle, or saç, turning it around and around until it’s firm, crisp and golden. The result is a stack of paper-thin flatbreads known as yufka.

Down the street, their neighbors mix a fiery chili and cheese paste that will top katikli ekmek. These smaller, thicker circles of dough are baked on their sides in the cylindrical tandir oven, resulting in crunchy, spicy breads that look like mini pizzas. The breads will accompany a lunch eaten under the trees in the Turkish village of Defne, said to be the very place where — in Greek mythology — the maiden Daphne was turned into a laurel tree to escape the affections of Apollo. The village is still famous for its highly scented bay leaves.

Our meal is arranged in a colorful display of dishes. They include local green olives cracked and drizzled with pomegranate syrup; a memorable aromatic salad of fresh mountain thyme leaves; hummus made from just-ground sesame seeds; stringy cheese to eat with pickled walnuts and candied orange peel; cucumber and tomatoes; and a salty goat’s yogurt that is made just once a year — and keeps for months.

Partaking of this idyllic feast, it’s hard to imagine that just 25 miles away, on the other side of the mountains to the east, the fighting in Syria is continuing. We’re in southeastern Turkey, in the large province of Hatay, whose capital city, Antakya, is on a level with Aleppo. I’ve come to this southern part of Anatolia to attend the Mediterranean Culinary Days, an event organized by the governor of the province, Celalettin Lekesiz, with the Hatay City Innovation Platform.

“We are making a bid for Hatay to be included in UNESCO’s Cities of Gastronomy, and we’re holding this three-day food festival to celebrate it,” the governor explains as he greets us. The event features many aspects of Hatay’s local food culture and also showcases the cuisine of 17 Mediterranean countries through demonstrations and meals prepared by cooks from the participating nations.

Hatay is no stranger to this kind of multiculturalism. The ancient city of Antioch-on-the-Orontes lies beneath modern Antakya and was known for its religious and ethnic tolerance.

“This area was conquered by 12 civilizations, including the Hittites, Greeks, Byzantines and Romans,” Lekesiz notes. “It has long been home to large Jewish and Christian populations, who live peacefully alongside Muslims here. We are proud of that and want to build on this important heritage.” The city has recently restored what is believed to be the very first Christian church: a lofty vaulted space in a natural cave carved out of the mountain above Hatay.

The Mediterranean’s most iconic plants forge another bond between its communities. In the extensive mosaic floors from ancient Rome on display in Antakya’s magnificent Archaelogical Museum, it’s easy to spot the plants we’re familiar with today that define so much of the area’s food culture: grapevines, olive trees and pomegranates.

These and other local edible plants are to be found in abundance in the city’s colorful covered market, or bazaar, situated in the old part of Antakya near the river. Rosy pistachios have just been harvested and are on display with sweet walnuts in heaped baskets. Shiny jujube fruits vie for space with tiny okra, white eggplant and fresh mint.

Spice stalls not to be missed

The spice stalls are irresistible. I filled a suitcase with little bags of freshly ground paprikas in different “strengths”; a piquant chili and tomato paste called domates salçasi that adds exoticism to any dish; fragrant coriander and pearly sesame seeds; dried white mulberries; and the most surprising of all, strings of dried, hollowed-out eggplant shells resembling Hawaiian flower garlands. These last for months and can be soaked in water, stuffed and baked for out-of-season eggplant dishes.

A trip to the bazaar would not be complete without a slice of Hatay’s favorite dessert, künefe. People come from all over Turkey to taste this delicious, unusual tart. The best are cooked over wood embers in wide copper baking rounds at special shops in and around the market. A layer of mild, stretchy cheese is sandwiched between two layers of buttery chopped kadayif, vermicelli-like strands of filo pastry. The kadayif is made in separate stalls near the bakeries, by cooking runny strings of batter on a circular griddle that looks like a DJ’s giant turntable. As the dough firms, it’s scooped off the heat and set aside.

The trick with cooking künefe is to know when the bottom layer of kadayif is golden brown and has fused — like a cross between pommes Anna and shredded wheat — into a crisp, even layer. That’s when the pie is flipped over and cooked to golden on the other side. While still hot, a mild sugar syrup is ladled over the künefe before it’s cut into pieces, sprinkled with chopped pistachios and served. Unlike many desserts of the region, künefe is never overly sweet; it’s a rare and wonderful speciality that deserves to be better known, as does the culinary culture of Hatay.

Main photo: Turkish women in the village of Defne in Hatay province roll out the dough for yufka flatbreads. Credit: Carla Capalbo

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Bottarga. Credit: Illustration by Elisabeth Luard

“Please taste our bottarga,” the Armani-clad saleswoman said in the sophisticated produce boutique in Via Cavour in Cagliari, Sardinia’s harbor capital.

Like all the islands of the Mediterranean, Sardinia, a region of Italy, has never lost its individuality in food ways, including a version of North Africa’s couscous, fregola, and bottarga, a salt-cured, sun-dried mullet roe whose origin is said to be Tunisia.

My visit was in mid-October of last year, and the Sardinian sky was blue but the wind was icy — a reason to take shelter in a shop that most surely sells overpriced foodstuffs to tourists.

I had no intention of spending my euros on fancy olive oils or walnuts preserved in honey. But bottarga is another matter.

Proffered with smiling courtesy on the blade of a cut-throat knife was a translucent reddish sliver of the real thing — a dehydrated, wax-coated, double-lobed egg sac of gray mullet, a middle-sized, torpedo-shaped, blunt-nosed, small-mouthed, seaweed-eating, opportunist bottom-feeder that floats amiably around harbors and yacht basins throughout the Mediterranean (and, incidentally, on the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S.). The rest of the fish is good eating, but the prize is the roe.

I tasted the bottarga, and the sliver covered no more than the tip of the tongue, but the flavor was concentrated, powerful, pungent, salty and sweet like caramelized sea spray. The texture was silky and chewy, like toffee.

Whatever the cost, I needed to have more. That’s what umami does to you — well, maybe not everyone, but anyone who’s ever tasted a perfect truffle fresh from the earth on a Tuscan hillside or eaten caviar from a silver spoon on a millionaire’s yacht. See what I mean?

“It’s — well, delicious,” I said. The woman nodded. “Of course,” she said.

She knew I was hooked. No need for her to explain that it was the new season’s supply. That the dealers come from the mainland and by Christmas it’ll be gone. That I’ll find it in other places — Sicily and Corsica, Italy; Greece; Turkey; and, of course, Tunisia — but this is the best.

I buy it. Of course I do.

So how do the Sardinians themselves like to eat their bottarga?

The woman in Armani smiles. “Perhaps with carta di musica, the thin pita breads we make in Sardinia. But for myself, I like it grated on the pasta instead of cheese. Or over a risotto or a bowl of fregola, Sardinian couscous, when the fishermen’s nets are empty. And it’s good on a salad of orange and raw onion, or with a sauce of dried figs or pistachios. Sardinian cooking is very practical. We use what we have. But best of all I like it like this — straight from the knife.”

Bottarga basics

Bottarga can be bought whole or grated in a jar, in which case you can be sure it’s dried stock from last year. In cooking, treat it as you would well-aged Parmesan — for finishing and adding a little protein to grain dishes. You can use it to prepare taramasalata, but it’ll need a good whizzing with water to soften it before proceeding with your usual recipe.

Fregola With Soffritto and Bottarga

Fregola, Sardinia’s large-grain couscous, is toasted for additional shelf life and is uneven in size and color. It’s traditional in the southern region around Cagliari (you won’t find it in the north) and has a deliciously caramelized flavor that perfectly complements the sweetness of the fish roe. If you can’t find fregola, use pasta rather than another kind of couscous.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

Fregola With Bottarga. Credit: Illustration by Elisabeth Luard

Fregola With Bottarga. Credit: Illustration by Elisabeth Luard

1 medium onion, finely slivered

2 to 3 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped

4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil

10 ounces fregola

3 to 4 ounces (1 wing) bottarga

Salt and pepper

For finishing:

Parsley

Lemon juice

Directions

1. Cook the onion and garlic very gently in the oil till it softens and gilds; take your time and don’t let it brown. This resulting mixture is the soffritto. Season the soffritto with salt and pepper.

2. Meanwhile, cook the fregola (or pasta) in plenty of boiling, salted water till tender — about 10 to 12 minutes — then drain and fork it up to separate the grains.

3. Toss lightly with the soffritto and top with fine shreds of bottarga. Finish with chopped parsley and a few drops of lemon juice.

Spaghetti With Dried Figs and Bottarga

This very Sardinian combination of dried fruit and fish can be used to dress any pasta. In winter, a salad of orange segments and raw onion can be finished with bottarga.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

2 to 3 dried figs, soaked to swell

4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

10 ounces spaghetti

1 wing of finely sliced bottarga (or 2 tablespoons grated)

Directions

1. Dice the figs and cook gently in olive oil until they soften to a cream. Season with pepper and a little salt and reserve.

2. Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in plenty of boiling, salted water till tender but still a little firm in the middle, then drain, leaving it a little damp. Toss the figgy sauce with the spaghetti in a warm bowl and top with the bottarga.

Linguine With Pistachios and Bottarga

This is a simple combination of homegrown Sardinian ingredients. If the bottarga is very hard, soften it in a little hot oil before you use it as a dressing.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 garlic clove

2 ounces shelled pistachios, roughly chopped

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

12 ounces fresh linguine

Salt and pepper to taste

3 to 4 tablespoons grated bottarga

Directions

1. Heat the oil in a small frying pan and fry the garlic clove till it takes a little color and perfumes the oil.

2. Add chopped pistachios and stir over a gentle heat till the nuts are lightly toasted. Stir in the parsley and remove from the heat.

3. Meanwhile, cook the pasta in plenty of boiling, salted water, drain and transfer to a warm serving bowl.

4. Toss the pasta with the pistachio dressing, season to taste with salt and pepper, and finish with grated bottarga.

Main illustration: Bottarga. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

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Macun

Macuncu are lollipop crafters, twirlers of stretchy, sweet, colorful syrups that are pooled in a deeply wedged tin that rests atop a folding tray. Their storefront is the street. Their shingle is a signature pull of glistening fruit and herb-stained syrups. It takes maybe 90 seconds for a macuncu to make a macun — a lollipop of Ottoman origin that dates back half a millennium.

I connected with that tradition last summer when I met Banu Özden of Yemek Sanatlari Merkezi, the Culinary Arts Center of Istanbul. At the time, I was curating a collection of international food craft tools. Özden was presenting an extraordinary visual archive of vessels and tools used by Istanbul’s street vendors over the past 200 years. I was thoroughly taken by the design ingenuity and material variety of the vendors. It seemed right to launch a series on food craft tools with this gem from the storied city that straddles two continents.

A SLICE OF LIFE


A series on international food craft tools

Next: Cane pressing tools, a profile of an American sugarcane mill

“It’s not taffy, it’s sticky stuff,” says Elchin Orer, an Eskişehir-raised, Washington, D.C.-based artist and interior designer, correcting my shorthand for macun. “It’s more of a heavy syrup that stays on the stick while you lick it. Kids love it. The vendors used to set up outside of school and we’d get one stick for 5 cents.”

Turkish yarn purveyor and master knitter Aylin Bener of İzmir agreed. She recalled the macuncus being as much a part of the school day as classroom instructors. “When school let out, he was there. Same vendor, same place, at the same time, every day. You don’t ask questions, you just expect him to be there to give you sweets!” To talk with Turks of a certain generation about macun is to understand the fleeting transaction as a total sensory experience. Buying macun and watching it crafted from a pinwheel of glistening sugar was as much fun as eating it.

A macuncu’s actions are like a conductor’s — rhythmic and knowing. With a syrup pull, called macun mablağı, in one hand and a wooden lollipop stick in another, macuncus lift, dollop, spin, pull, dip and repeat until their customer has the macun of their choice. No clunky globs, just elegant lines of jewel-toned syrups forming a corkscrew of up to five distinct tastes. Perhaps a crimson swirl made from cornelian cherry juice rests under a limey emerald twist — both topped with a glossy ivory spiral that’s heady with cinnamon or rose.

The ingredients for macun are quite simple: caster sugar, water, cream of tartar, citric acid and “the aromas” — which are usually spices or fruit essences. And, when needed, food coloring — often still naturally derived, though some vendors use synthetic colorants. The sugar, water, cream of tartar and citric acid are stirred together over a low heat until the sugar melts and the mixture begins to bubble. The heat is then turned off and an aroma and a natural coloring are added and mixed thoroughly. The whole sticky batch is then poured into one of the five sections of the macun tray. This process is repeated by the macuncu until his tray, his macun tepsisi, is filled with the flavors he wants to offer.

The tools of the itinerant macuncu are equally as simple: a tray, a holder, syrup pulls and candy sticks. The trays, called macun tepsisi, are large metal rounds several inches deep. As Özden explained, macun trays always have six sections: five that are triangular and form the syrup compartments and one small center bowl that cradles a lemon half. Originally they were produced by Ottoman coppersmiths who finished them in a customary tin dip (tinned copper).

Nowadays, given the rise in food service regulations, the glut of factory-prepared sweets and the decline of macuncus, Özden said that the macun tepsisi are almost always stainless steel, produced to code by just a handful of stainless-steel kitchen-supply manufacturers.

The syrup dipsticks — the macuncu’s conductor batons are called macun mablağı and they range from pantry butter knife to intricate wood-handled stainless-steel skewers depending on the location, means and style of the macuncu. Finally, before a freshly swirled macun is handed over to a customer, it is passed over a juicy lemon half at the center of the tray both for the tart flourish and to tighten the syrupy swirls.

Macuncu. Credit: Banu Özden, Turkish Cultural Foundation Yemek Sanatlari Merkezi

Macuncu. Credit: Banu Özden, Turkish Cultural Foundation Yemek Sanatlari Merkezi

The history of macun

While it is nostalgically recollected as an after-school treat (and now a touristic event), macun’s origins are medicinal. Much like an amaro or an herbal electuary, the original, “supreme” macun candy, mesir macunu, was a vehicle for a potent blend of curative digestive herbs, with the sugar acting as a preservative. A true elixir, it was a remedy for all that ailed one.

According to history, legend and Ottoman pharmacopeia, Hafsa Sultan, the mother of Suleiman the Magnificent was afflicted with a mysterious illness, incurable by court physicians, masseurs, cooks, the clergy. … Finally, a local pharmacist created mesir macunu, a special mix of herbs macerated in a sugary paste. The ambrosial medicine cured Hafsa Sultan.

Both the Queen Mother and Suleiman became evangelists of mesir macunu, and they began a tradition that continues today (the 474th Annual Manisa Mesir Festival took place in the spring of 2014) of preparing enough mesir macunu for their subjects’ well-being. Recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the festival involves a bevy of chefs replicating (by the ton) the ancient recipe of 41 spices and herbs. Once mixed, the mesir macunu is cut and wrapped by a designated team of women who then pass the candies along to imams that bless the candy before it is tossed to crowds from the Sultan Mosque’s minaret and domes.

Certainly, the street-side version, made with flourish and attention to craft, is as good for the daily spirit.

Main photo: Macun. Credit: Wikimedia / Nosferatü

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Freshly made kimchi. Credit: 4kodiak / iStockphoto

Kimchi, the national dish of Korea, has been prepared, fermented and served as a daily tradition for more than 2,000 years. It’s served cold but is so spicy you take another bite to cool your mouth.

This extremely spicy recipe may be a side dish, but it has mythical standing at the Korean table.

“It tastes good. It will make you live long,” says Byong Joo “B.J.” Yu, owner of the gargantuan Koreana Plaza mega food store in Rancho Cordova, Calif.. His store doesn’t merely offer kimchi. It’s displayed in a refrigerated case so large you feel as if you’re approaching the Great Wall of Kimchi.

When Yu was growing up in Korea, he was served his mother’s homemade kimchi every day, Yu remembers. “It doesn’t matter how old the kimchi is. It’s good from the first day to as long as it lasts. You can eat it all the way — no waste.”

When it ages and the taste leans to sour, it’s served in soup.

Because Korea is a cold country, cool-weather-loving cabbage and radish (daikon) dominate the favored types of vegetables for kimchi, although there are nearly 200 versions.

What begins as a pickle morphs into a fermented dish. Koreans famously place new kimchi in big black pottery jars and bury them in the ground to keep the very-much-alive cultures in kimchi at an even, cool temperature.

Yu eats kimchi every day. “It makes your stomach comfortable.”

Yu may not know why he’s right, but he is.

“There’s been a real emergence in the public, and a real mystique, about the wonders of fermented foods,” says Maria Marco, assistant professor at the University of California, Davis’ department of food science and technology. “The flavor profiles change, because the microorganisms continue to grow. It’s nature’s way of making food taste different.”

Health benefits

Kimchi is a powerful vegetable probiotic, Marco says. It contributes health benefits in a manner similar to that provided by dairy probiotic foods, such as in yogurt.

And with many in the medical community now referring to the gut as the second brain, kimchi benefits that gut IQ by helping the body absorb nutrients.

“There’s a microbial zoo in there,” Marco says of kimchi. “The bacteria consume the sugars on the vegetable and they spit out the organic acids, which are easily digested by our bodies,” Marco says, all of which increases gut flora and aids digestion.

Kimchi is also nature’s way of preserving food.

Yu said that despite its ability to age, most kimchi is about a 3 months old or just-made. About a year is enough for the flavor to change from something fresh, spicy and cole slaw-like to what Yu describes as sour.

Byong Joo "B.J." Yu at his Koreana Plaza mega food store in Rancho Cordova, Calif. Credit: Elaine Corn

Byong Joo “B.J.” Yu at his Koreana Plaza mega food store in Rancho Cordova, Calif. Credit: Elaine Corn

“Usually youngsters like the sour taste. As you get older, you prefer the fresh. I’m 57 and I still like it sour.” When kimchi is highly fermented, Yu says the best way to serve it is in cold soup.

At a Korean restaurant, kimchi is never ordered alone. It just shows up when you order your entrée along with lots of other side dishes called banchan. Restaurant kimchi is invariably fresh.

It’s not hard to make kimchi, but it takes time. Napa cabbage (also called Chinese cabbage) is wilted in salted water several hours and rinsed well. Then, packed under each leaf, is a marinade of Korean red pepper powder, sugar, a good deal of garlic and fresh ginger, shredded daikon and tiny shrimp. This marinade may have soy sauce or fish sauce, anchovy or dried oyster or a combination.

The most obvious ingredient, at least to the taste buds, is Korean red pepper powder. It is not cayenne or paprika, but a member of the capsicum family called gochugaru that is incredibly hot. It’s called and sold under a variety of brands in flakes or coarse and medium grind.

For some, kimchi may be too spicy. Yu says for Koreans, there’s no such thing. “It’s not spicy to us.”

Kimchi is so readily available that it’s rarely made at home. At Koreana Plaza, it’s made on site every day. For beginners, Yu recommends picking up a small container of fresh kimchi either from a Korean or Asian store that makes it on site. Or, choose among a half dozen of high quality commercial brands sold in jars and kept cold in the produce section of many grocery stores.

Best temperature for kimchi?

Kimchi of any age sold cold is best. If the jar is shelf stable at room temperature, the heat from being processed has most likely destroyed kimchi’s best properties.

Kimchi is typically mixed with other foods on the table, such as rice, noodles and stews. Recently I thinly sliced prepared kimchi and added it to a batch of basic American cole slaw, mayonnaise dressing and all. This surprise addition of kimchi, which will stump guests trying to guess the surprise ingredient, keeps the cabbage theme while adding a vague sourness and an extreme hit of spice.

Main photo: Freshly made kimchi. Credit: 4kodiak / iStockphoto

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