Articles in Cuisine
Every time you bake a load of bread, it’s a small miracle — combining flour, water, salt and air to get the final product.
When humans found a way to store grains and make them into flour, it changed the course of history, enabling economies and populations to grow. In so many ways, bread is at the core of our history. Bread is culture, and it is about people. It’s also about love — think about how we bake for people we love, our family and friends.
I recently read Michael Pollan’s book “Cooked,” and it made me think a lot about my relationship with bread. I did not relate to his idea of the perfect bread, which he claims to have found in Chad Robertson’s Tartine sourdough bread. Robertson’s bread, I’m sure, is amazing. I have not tasted it from his cafe, but I have enjoyed Robertson’s book, and I think it is a thorough and detailed baking book with a guide on how to make sourdough bread.
Bread shouldn’t be perfect, but varied
But to Pollan’s point, is there such a thing as perfect bread? I sustain myself every day on rye bread — actually, I can’t live without it. In the Middle East, they live on flatbread and pita, and in many parts of Eastern Europe they live on different types of rye bread. Thousands of bread traditions exist around the world, and the new and trendy sourdough bread made with a dark, tasty crust and light, airy texture can’t take all them out in one go.
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I bake bread according to what I am going to eat and what kind of flour I have in the house. I often like to eat dense bread with a lot of fiber, and I like to bake with varieties of flour such as rye, spelt, emmer and different heritage wheats. I use a lot of local flours, such as Ølands wheat. This summer I met a farmer at a Kneading Conference in Maine who had just started growing some Øland hvede wheat. Interest in that particular variety is growing.
The flavor of bread comes from the flour, so bread can’t be better than the flour you use to bake it. You can add to that with your skill and knowledge, which comes from practice. Baking doesn’t have to be only scientific; it can also be very intuitive.
Pollan writes in “Cooked” that he has concerns about the Tartine sourdough bread being 100 percent plain wheat and therefore not as healthy as a whole-grain bread, but it’s a challenge to get the same crust and texture with whole grains. My question is why not just enjoy a variety of breads baked using different methods?
I believe bread has to be about variety, and that comes from diversity in both craftsmanship and grains. Both have more or less disappeared in Western food culture, with the food-manufacturing industry taking over food production.
No matter what, good bread needs quality flour milled from grains treated with care and grown in an environment with crop rotation and care for the soil. The flour has to be stone ground and not separated in the process, and it can’t be older than 7 months when used. Finally, when baking bread, the dough needs time to ferment. Large-scale food manufacturers do not apply to any of these above-mentioned techniques, and many small bakeries do not either.
So, do you have to bake your own bread to have good bread? The answer is both yes and no. If we don’t bake it ourselves, we have to make conscious choices about the bread we buy.
If you are hesitant about the idea of baking your own bread and all it involves, you should know that baking is not hard or time consuming; most doughs take care of themselves.
Baking is part of my everyday life; I bake rye bread every week, and I also bake a lot of other breads, including this dense and tasty emmer wheat bread. It contains about 25 percent whole-grain flour, so it’s very filling. I eat only a slice for breakfast, and it’s perfect for a sandwich on the second day or with soup during the winter months.
Emmer and Wheat Bread
Emmer is an old wheat variety that contains a lot of protein and minerals and tastes wonderful. Eat the bread the Danish way with cheese or jam for breakfast or with a salad or soup.
Prep time: 1 hour
Cooking and proofing time: 8 to 12 hours
Total time: About 2 hours active work, spread over multiple days
Yield: Makes two loaves
2 cups (280 grams) stone-ground whole-grain emmer flour
4½ cups (500 grams) strong wheat flour
1½ teaspoons organic dry yeast
1 tablespoon flaky sea salt
2¼ cups (600 milliliters) cold water
1. Start by mixing the flours in a large mixing bowl, then add in the dry yeast and salt.
2. Pour in the water, mixing the dough until it is smooth and even. If you have a Kitchen Aid or similar mixer, use it to mix the dough. The dough should be quite sticky and will absorb a lot of the water while rising.
3. Place the dough in a bowl and cover it with a kitchen towel, then let it rise at room temperature for a half-hour.
4. After it rises, cover the bowl with cling film and place it in the refrigerator for 8 to 12 hours.
5. After proofing in the refrigerator, place the dough on a floured surface and let it rest for 30 minutes.
6. With spatula and a bit of flour, divide the dough into two equal pieces and shape it into two round loafs without kneading too much.
7. Place the loaves on a baking tray lined with parchment paper and cover with a kitchen towel. Leave to rise for about 30 to 45 minutes.
8. Check on the dough. It should have risen a little and bounce back easily when touched lightly. If the dough rises for too long, it will start going flat.
9. Preheat the oven to 450 F (225 C or Gas 7).
10. Sprinkle the oven with water or place a small oven-proof bowl filled with water inside. This will create some steam in the oven.
11. When the dough is ready, place it in the oven and bake for 10 minutes, then lower the heat to 400 F (200 C or Gas 6) and bake for 35 more minutes.
12. Remove the bread from the oven and leave it to cool on an open wire rack. It’s important not to cut the bread before it’s cool because the bread continues to bake during the cooling time and is not done until entirely cooled.
Main photo: Emmer and Wheat Bread with jam is a good choice for breakfast. Credit: Trine Hahnemann
When I first opened the doors to my restaurant Tanoreen 15 years ago, I had a clear intention: offer my diners a peek into the Middle Eastern cuisine I knew beyond falafel and hummus. I also wanted to share a rich, nuanced culinary world that — contrary to popular belief — was more slow food than fast food.
At that time, hummus was not served at cocktail parties with carrot sticks, people didn’t know what tahini was or how to use it. Freekah (smoked wheat) was not proclaimed a “super food” and za’atar and sumac were not the trendiest spices in the land. But to me, these foods were things we consumed and used daily. They were part of the tradition of food in the Middle East that was then unknown in America. I am quite pleased that the Mediterranean diet has become so popular. It’s healthy, fresh and in my opinion, delectable.
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By Rawia Bishara
But let’s be honest. Most of the popular Middle Eastern dishes that have worked their way through the food chain were, until recently, “fast food” such as supermarket shish kabob carts and hummus party trays. Middle Eastern food is about much more than dips and sandwiches. The spice mixes and the use of fresh vegetables, lean meats, grains and olive oil are all cornerstones.
Our meals, when I was growing up and with my own children, were and remain an active meditation. It’s not “on the go” but rather celebrating slow-cooked food, togetherness, conversation and phones off!
Unlike baking, cooking is not formulaic, even though recipes can feel that way sometimes. I always say two people can make the same recipe, and it will taste completely different. There is a soulfulness in this kind of cooking.
It’s an inner, almost empathetic connection to the people you’re cooking for. The focus is on what really tastes good, and not just on your tongue. It’s also in the emotions and memories triggered as your guests eat the meal you’ve prepared.
Similarly my cookbook, “Olives, Lemons & Za’atar,” comes from that same premise. I want to celebrate the variety of recipes, which are not at all difficult, along with the traditions and memories that come with Middle Eastern food.
Memories of such meals stand like flag posts throughout my life: the first meal I cooked for my husband (stuffed artichoke hearts), our traditional Christmas dinner (roast leg of lamb), my daughter’s favorite breakfast food as a child (potatoes and eggs) and traditional wedding mezzes.
I learned all this from my mother, a schoolteacher and home cook. Technically speaking, she was a genius chef. But her real strength as a cook lay in her ability to make meals that were an extension of her love for her family and guests — of which there were many! Her meals created an environment of warmth, safety, comfort and a total blast for the senses. It was hypnotic, with all your synapses triggered simultaneously.
A snapshot of a favorite meal: a warm winter stew of slow-braised cauliflower and fragrant spiced lamb, served alongside warm rice pilaf and toasted vermicelli noodles, fresh tomato salad with shaved radish and herbs from her garden. There were heaping plates of olives, warm fresh Arabic bread, long thin hot peppers to crunch on. And small plates of hummus and labne, served before the meal but later banished to the outer corners of a table almost wiped clean. Two parents, five children and almost always a guest or two — because if you cook for seven, you are cooking for 10.
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Ghada, as we called it, was a refuge. The biggest meal of the day, served in the late afternoon, with dinner usually later and much lighter.
In today’s world, we may seem more connected, but really we’re more disconnected than ever. People click away on their smartphones on the train, walking down the street, at the gym and, yes, at the dinner table.
As a chef, I try to create a cozy bubble-like environment in my restaurant, just as I did in my own home as a mother and wife. Middle Eastern food creates that mood, using dishes that invite connection. A great meal is a conduit to togetherness.
Brussels Sprouts With Panko
Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Corn oil for frying
4 pounds Brussels sprouts, outer leaves removed, cut in half
1 cup Thick Tahini Sauce (see recipe below)
1 cup lowfat plain yogurt
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon finely chopped garlic
1 cup panko (Japanese-style bread crumbs)
Pinch sea salt
1. Pour ¼ to ½ inch corn oil in a large skillet and place over a high heat until hot. To test the temperature, slip half a Brussels sprout into the pan; if it makes a popping sound, the oil is hot enough.
2. Working in batches, fry the Brussels sprouts, turning occasionally, until they are browned all over, 2 to 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the sprouts to a paper towel–lined plate to drain.
3. Meanwhile, whisk together the Thick Tahini Sauce, yogurt and pomegranate molasses in a medium bowl. Set aside.
4. In a small skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high until hot. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute.
5. Add the panko and stir constantly until the crumbs are golden brown, about 2 minutes.
6. Stir in the salt and remove the bread crumbs from the heat. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to cool.
7. Place the Brussels sprouts in a serving dish, drizzle with the sauce and top with the panko crumbs. Serve immediately.
Brussels sprouts were not part of the Palestinian kitchen when I was growing up. I discovered them here in the States and very eagerly tried to push them on my children. To that end, I did what any good mother would do — I pumped up their flavor by adding a little tahini sauce and sweet pomegranate molasses. It worked!
In fact these Brussels sprouts were so delicious that they made it onto the original Tanoreen menu and I’ve never taken them off.
Thick Tahini Sauce
Prep time: 5 minutes
Yield: 2½ cups
1½ cups tahini (sesame paste)
3 to 4 cloves garlic, crushed
Juice of 5 lemons or to taste (about 1 cup)
1 teaspoon sea salt
Chopped parsley for garnish
1. In the bowl of a food processor, combine the tahini, garlic, lemon juice and salt and process on low speed for 2 minutes or until thoroughly incorporated.
2. Turn the speed to high and blend until the tahini mixture begins to whiten.
3. Gradually add up to ½ cup water until the mixture reaches the desired consistency.
4. Transfer the sauce to a serving bowl and garnish with the parsley. Leftover tahini sauce can be stored, tightly covered in the refrigerator, for up to 2 weeks.
Tahini sauce is ubiquitous in Middle Eastern kitchens. It is the condiment. There is hardly a dish that isn’t enhanced by it. At Tanoreen, I mix it into salad dressings and drizzle it into cauliflower casseroles. My daughter? She dips French fries into it! Learn to make this and you will have a simple, delicious, versatile sauce to add to your repertoire.
Main photo: With a bit of tahini sauce and pomegranate molasses, even kids love the author’s Brussels Sprouts With Panko. Credit: Peter Cassidy
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.
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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.
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)
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:
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
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
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
- 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.
- 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!
- Do not add the pasta until the water boils or the pasta becomes gummy.
- 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.
- Never rinse pasta. The starch on the pasta helps sauces adhere to it, and is a thickening agent for the sauce too.
- 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.”
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Perfect for World Pasta Day is this recipe for pasta sushi, a fusion of Italian and Japanese cuisines.
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
For the shells:
4 large pasta shells per person
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
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.”
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.
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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?
- 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.
- 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.
- Finally, taste each pasta plain, with no sauce. That should be enough to convince you!
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:
- Taste delicious, even without sauce.
- Have a lovely aroma, like crusty bread.
- Leave the cooking water clear and uncloudy.
- 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.
- 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
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
¾ pound deli-sliced high-quality provolone cheese
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
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!”
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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 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:
- www.olio2go.com, retail store at 8400 Hilltop Road, Fairfax, Va.; (703) 876-4666.
- www.gustiamo.com, mail order only; (718) 860-2949.
- www.dipaloselects.com, retail store at DiPalo Fine Foods, 200 Grand St., New York, N.Y.; (212) 226-1033.
- www.markethallfoods.com, retail store at Rockridge Market Hall, 5655 College Avenue, Oakland, Calif.; (510) 250-6000.
- www.cortibrothers.com, retail store at 5810 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento, Calif.; (916) 736-3814.
- www.zingermans.com, retail store at 422 Detroit St., Ann Arbor, Mich.; (734) 663-3354.
Main photo: Bottles of olive oil. Credit: iStockPhoto
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.
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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
“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.
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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 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
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
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
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)
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
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
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