Articles in Cuisine

Spaghetti with Sun-Burst Tomatoes. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sun, Sea & Olives: Forty years ago, I took my young family to live in the hill country between Tuscany and Umbria, Italy. Our mountain neighbors were all self-sufficient farmers, raising almost their entire food supply themselves. They grew vegetables and beans, harvested chestnuts and mushrooms, raised pigs, chickens, rabbits and sometimes sheep. Only salt and pepper for curing pork, coffee and infrequently a piece of chocolate came from a shop in town, 20 kilometers (12 miles) away.

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Of course they made wine — thin, sour stuff — and pressed their olives to make musty, fusty oil (pork fat was much more to their liking). And they grew their own wheat, threshed it and had it ground into flour for the unsalted bread that was then and still is today a Tuscan staple without which no meal is complete. Sometimes, in fact, bread was the meal, maybe with a thin slice of prosciutto or guanciale from the family pig or a dribble of rancid oil to add flavor.

So wheat was the primary crop, the survival mechanism on which everything else depended, and the annual harvest in July was a moment fraught with anxiety that erupted into celebration once the anxiety was relieved. Our valley had one threshing machine, and it went from farm to farm, each day fetching up in a different place, and the farm folk followed it. When it arrived at our neighbors’ farm, people descended for miles around to help with the hot, dirty, tiring work of the harvest and take part in the feast and dancing that followed.

I think about all this now because it is once again harvest time in the Mediterranean. The wheat harvest begins in North Africa in June, rolling north, across Anatolia, Italy, and Spain, as the tall stalks fall to the cutting blades. The landscape that was green a month earlier is bleached now with the color of ripening grain and then golden with the chaff left behind after the harvesters have come through. Our neighbors no longer grow their own wheat, but the harvest is still critical throughout Tuscany.

Durum wheat, the go-to choice for pasta

A lot of this wheat, especially in the hotter, drier parts to the south, is hard durum wheat (Triticum turgidum, var. durum), the venerable species used for so many traditional Mediterranean preparations, from bulgur (burghul) to tarhana to couscous to pasta. American cookbook writers used to claim durum semolina was difficult to work in the home, that you needed special heavy equipment to turn it into pasta. But in fact, throughout the south of Italy, especially in Puglia, hard durum wheat, as semola or semolina, is regularly used in home kitchens to make orecchiette and other traditional pastas. And the great breads of Altamura and Laterza get much of their character and their golden color from being made with locally grown durum wheat, using a slow-rising lievito madre (what we might call sourdough) and baked in a wood-fired oven.

Italian law requires all commercial pasta to be made from durum wheat, one reason why Italian pasta in general is of such high quality. The government is concerned with maintaining quality because Italians are world-champion pasta eaters — between 26 and 28 kilos (61.6 pounds) per capita annually depending on the study. And most of that is commercial or boxed pasta (called in Italian pasta secca).

A more useful distinction to keep in mind, however, is the one between industrial and artisanal pasta. The artisanal product is generally of much higher quality, and, like most artisanal things, costs more, a reflection of greater care in production. To qualify as artisanal, pasta must be made at consistently low temperatures (no higher than 122 degrees F) from start to finish, extruded through bronze dyes (producing a roughened surface) and dried slowly. Low temperatures keep the wheat from cooking, so it retains its pale color; the high temperatures and Teflon dyes of industrially produced pasta result in a golden yellow color and a sleek, plasticized surface.

Gragnano, a small city south of Naples, has been at least since the 18th century one of those places Italians cite for high-quality artisanal pasta. Why? Several historical reasons — access to excellent durum wheat through the port of Amalfi, just over the Lattari mountains on the Golfo di Salerno; clean, fresh water cascading from those same mountains to power the grist mills that ground the grain; and a constant flow of brisk breezes to dry the pasta, which once hung on rods in the streets of Gragnano until it was ready to ship to hungry Naples across the bay. Nowadays, Gragnano has a coveted Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) from the European Union, a certification that pasta with that seal has been made according to precise regulations.

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Threshed wheat. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Pastificio Faella is one of nine Gragnano producers that make IGT pasta. I spent some time recently in Gragnano with Pastificio Faella’s Sergio Quinto. As we toured the factory, Quinto described the various phases of drying and the importance of each one. “If it’s not done properly,” he said, “there’s a real risk of fermentation and that will result in pasta with an acid flavor.”

But it was the perfume of wheat that imbued the small factory with its warm, nutty, slightly dusty fragrance. To understand the high quality of artisanal pasta, Quinto suggested this test: Prepare equal quantities, say 100 grams, of ordinary commercial pasta and Pasta Faella. Bring two pots of water to a boil and add the pasta, one to each pot. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes and then measure.

You’ll find, he said, that the Faella pasta will expand notably in the water, while ordinary pasta will remain the same. That’s because under high-temperature drying, a crystallization — another word is plastification — takes place, and the pasta doesn’t absorb water at the same rate. What that means is that artisanal pasta is more easily digested and gives a greater sense of satiety with less of the actual food.

I left with a kilo package of Faella’s excellent spaghetti tucked under my arm. When I got home, I turned it into this pasta dish, a variation on one in my daughter Sara Jenkins’ lovely cookbook, “Olives and Oranges.”

Spaghetti With Sun-Burst Tomatoes

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 or 3 pints (1½ pounds to 2 pounds) mixed small tomatoes—cherry, grape and currant
  • Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • About 1 pound (500 grams) spaghetti, preferably IGT Gragnano
  • Handful of chopped fresh arugula, leaves only (discard tough stems)
  • ⅔ cup grated or shaved bottarga or freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions

  1. Bring 4 to 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil.
  2. While the water is heating, add the oil to a large, heavy skillet and set over medium-high heat. When the oil is very hot (but not smoking), add half the tomatoes, sprinkle them quickly with salt and cook, tossing the skillet, until the tomatoes start to wrinkle and collapse. Add the rest of the tomatoes and continue cooking and tossing for another 2 minutes. (Yes, some of the tomatoes will be more cooked than others—that’s the point.)
  3. Push the tomatoes to one side and add the garlic to the pan. As the garlic starts to soften, mix it in with the tomatoes, gently pressing the tomatoes to release some of their juices. When the sauce is thick, remove from the heat and add a pinch of salt and a few turns of the pepper mill. Keep the sauce warm until the pasta is done.
  4. Add a big spoonful of salt to the pasta water and let it come to the boil again, then plunge in the pasta and give it a stir with a long-handled spoon. Cover the pot until the water returns to the boil, then remove the lid and let the pasta cook vigorously until done—about 10 minutes.
  5. Prepare a warm serving bowl by adding some pasta water to the bowl to heat it up, but don’t forget to tip the water out before you add the pasta to the bowl.
  6. Drain the pasta, transfer to the warm bowl and immediately toss with the warm tomato sauce, stirring in the arugula. Toss again, then sprinkle with the bottarga or cheese and serve immediately.

Notes

If possible, select from an array of little grape and cherry tomatoes, mixing them up for a colorful presentation. We like to serve this with grated bottarga (salted and dried fish roe) on top, but you could also serve it with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Main photo: Spaghetti With Sun-Burst Tomatoes. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Nonna Italia's Pizza Baby. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

I’m sipping a local rosé at a corner table in Nonna Italia ristorante, not far from the ferry stop in the charming old town of Stresa, on Lago Maggiore, Italy. Stresa is north of Milan in lake country, the beautiful region known for mountain vistas, ancient villas and George Clooney’s pad, even though George is at Como, one lake over.

Donato and Roberta Tagliente are the owners of this friendly spot that gets more crowded than a jar of Italian anchovies. During the week, come early or late and dine comfortably; weekends are a madhouse, especially in August, when Nonna Italia is open daily and outside tables spill into the narrow cobblestone walk street.

Nonna Italia

Via Garibaldi 32

Stresa, Lago Maggiore, Italy

Telephone: 03 23 93 39 22

info@nonnaitalia.net

www.nonnaitalia.net

Summer hours (June through September): Open seven days, but closed for lunch Mondays and Tuesdays except for August, when it is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week.

Winter hours: Closed Tuesdays and for two weeks during Christmas and the New Year holidays.

Pizza Baby for kids and kids at heart

Friendly servers Maya and Alice (fluent in several languages) effortlessly take care of everyone, even though the place is packed with people downing pizzas, risotto and their famous “mixto” plate of three local cheeses, jams and honey, prosciutto, coppa and pancetta with gnocco fritto, fried and lightly salted pizza dough squares, instead of bread.

About 15 years ago, when Puglia-born Chef Donato had a tiny takeout pizza stand, he came up with the idea of a child-friendly pie that invited grumpy kids to dig in with a grin. Pizza Baby was born. He’s now a local celebrity (watch out, George) at 2-year-old Nonna Italia, where children clamor for a sun-shaped pizza with a smiley face.

Don’t get me wrong, this pizza is definitely not just for kids. Donato starts with Italy’s best 00 flour and lovingly forms each ball of yeasty raised dough by hand. Pizza Baby is the same size as a regular pizza, but Donato clips the 14-inch circle of dough with a pizza wheel in 1-inch cuts around the edge in eight evenly spaced spots.

He then brings the dough between two cuts together and pinches it tight to form a triangle; he does this eight times around the pie, finally gently pulling at the points to nudge the dough into a neat circle. The same intensely delicious tomato sauce that’s used for all the restaurant’s pizzas is ladled on top and spread around. Donato then generously covers the sauce with local mozzarella like a heavy winter snow on nearby ski slopes; a paddle slides underneath, and in a flash it’s into the hot oven. A few minutes later, a golden crust with slightly charred edges and bubbly, melted cheese lets you know that the pie is done.

Again using the paddle, Donato slides the pizza onto a serving plate. Now for the fun part: He affectionately arranges two black-olive half eyes, a cherry tomato nose and a curved slice of cucumber for the sun’s bright smile.

As I bite into one of the super-crispy, slightly thick and oven-charred raised triangles, I notice how the yeasty dough’s air pockets add to the sublime texture. This is definitely a flavorful pizza for grownups who love a great crust. Happy faces all around.

View the videos below to see how easy the process is to make the sun shape, and then try your hand at making a Pizza Baby at home. Preheat your oven to the highest setting, and then place the rack and a cookie sheet (or, better yet, a pizza stone) at the lowest level. Use homemade or purchased dough and sauce, and have the few toppings at hand.

Main  photo: Nonna Italia’s Pizza Baby. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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Bruschetta with Umbrian olive oil. Credit: Sue Style

Little, landlocked Umbria is not the obvious choice for those looking to vacation in Italy. For many people, all roads lead to Rome. For others it’s the Amalfi Coast, or Tuscany, the Cinque Terre or even Puglia. But Umbria has many trump cards and plenty to recommend it, especially in summer. Here are five reasons to place the region high on your bucket list.

Because it’s not Tuscany, though it’s right next door

If you’re the kind to prefer the challenge of crab to the sweet simplicity of lobster, then you may be one to favor Umbria over its better-known neighbor. Umbria is Tuscany’s country cousin, gently rustic with a clutch of unshowy, medieval hilltop villages — think Montefalco, Spello and Bevagna — set in rolling green countryside and framed by swathes of silvery olive groves and holm oak forests. It has fewer busloads of tourists and more mindful travelers (like you and me).

To feast on summer truffles

Known locally as scorzoni – the name evokes their rough, almost warty peel (avere la scorza dura means “to be thick-skinned” — these fragrant tartufi are harvested by faithful truffle hounds between May and August. Summer truffles are not so crazily scented (nor as crazily priced) as their winter or white counterparts, but they still pack a seductive punch. Buy them fresh or put up in jars from any of the tiny Aladdin’s-cave delicatessens that are such a tempting feature of Umbria’s towns, packed with strings of sausages, red onions, peppers, hunks of local cheese, bags of pasta and other delights.

At La Vecchia Farmacia just through the Porta Vecchia leading into beautiful, earthquake-ravaged Nocera Umbra, la mamma does a mean antipastone (jumbo-sized antipasto) of local cured meats, melon, sharp sheep’s-milk cheese with crunchy honey and a succulent truffle omelet thrown in as a wild card, followed by strangozzi, robust ropes of typically Umbrian pasta showered with tartufi.

For the exciting wines from Umbria

Italy has a dizzying number of grape varieties, few of them household names and many barely known outside their immediate vicinity. Umbria has its fair share of these strictly local varieties, which are well worth seeking out.

Grechetto was used traditionally in white blends, but is increasingly made as a varietal. The resulting wine can be anything from pale straw colored to a deeper gold with citrus-like, peachy aromas and a good backbone because of its naturally high acidity.

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Summer truffles in a jar. Credit: Sue Style

With Trebbiano Spoletino, things get even more interesting. Not to be confused with boring old Trebbiano (aka Ugni Blanc) from anywhere else, the Spoletino variety gives honeyed, golden wines of distinctive character and a mind of their own. Traditionally in Umbria (and still today in some wineries), Spoletino vines were planted at the foot of mature trees, up which they clambered — they were known as vigne maritate, vines that are “married with” the trees.

The Umbrian red to look for is Sagrantino, distinguished and meaty with deep color, pronounced cherry and blackberry flavors and good tannins: a wine to have and to hold.

Taste a selection with a simple meal at Il Pinturicchio in Spello, whose owner, Mirko Trippa Buono, is a member of the Italian Sommeliers Association. Or for a lesson in what’s on the move in the Umbrian wine world, book a tasting at Arnaldo Caprai, a large (336 acre, 136 hectare) winery with a slick, state-of-the-art tasting parlor and wine shop outside Montefalco, where Marco Caprai has made it his business to explore and experiment with these age-old Umbrian varieties, especially Sagrantino, and bring them to their fullest expressive potential.

For a drop of Umbrian DOP olive oil

The region’s gorgeous, herbaceous extra virgin oil is pressed from Moraiolo, Frantoio and Leccino olives. The area between Assisi and Spoleto is regarded as one of the best sub-regions in the Umbria DOP (protected designation of origin), and you’ll find countless places dotted along the Strada dell’Olio (olive oil route) where you can taste and buy EVOO, ready for drizzling over your next batch of bruschetta.

Le Case Gialle above Bevagna and Marfuga in Campello di Clitunno are two of the top, prize-winning producers, both of them with an agriturismo (farmhouse bed and breakfast) attached. Also worth a visit is the Fondazione Lungarotti belonging to the eminent Lungarotti winemaking family in Torgiano, which includes both a Museum of Olives and Oil (MOO) and a Wine Museum (MUVIT).

For the spirituality

Most people flock to Assisi, but it can be quite a challenge to keep hold of the spiritual dimension there, surrounded as you inevitably are by the nervous chatter of umbrella-chasing tour groups. An early morning visit will spare you the worst of the crowds and give you a few quiet moments to enjoy the superb scenes from the life of St. Francis frescoed onto the walls of the Upper Church.

For an altogether different experience, seek out some of the smaller, out-of-the-way abbeys such as the 12th-century Abbazia di Sassovivo outside Foligno, famous for its Romanesque cloister of double columns decorated with marble and mosaic motifs, still a working monastery of the Piccoli Fratelli di Gesú and a haven of peace and tranquility. In the corner of the tiny garden stands a statue of the Virgin. Beside it a sign reads, in Italian, “This space set aside for private prayer,” and then — in English — “No picnic please!”

Main photo: Bruschetta with Umbrian olive oil. Credit: Sue Style

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Hüseyin Aksoy makes akide at the Istanbul Culinary Arts Center. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Inside a weathered storefront surrounded by hardware shops, colorful gems gleam in the dim light — large jars full of hard candies flavored with sesame, cinnamon, rose, orange, bergamot and lemon.

Proprietor Hakan Altanoğlu and his forefathers have been making and selling the Turkish candy called akide şekeri at this shop in Istanbul’s Fatih district since 1865, but the bite-size treat’s history goes back to the glory days of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The empire’s elite Janissary soldiers “presented the grand vizier, other dignitaries and their own officers with gifts of akide sweets as a symbol of their loyalty to sultan and state,” a tradition deriving from an alternate meaning of the candy’s name, writes Mary Işın in her book “Sherbet and Spice: The Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Desserts.” Akide then became, as it remains today for many,”the sweet of choice” at circumcisions, weddings and the Şeker Bayram (literally, “Sugar Holiday”), the three-day festival that will mark the end of Ramadan this year from July 28 to 30.

In the early Ottoman days, the candy, whose name derived from the Syrian Arabic word (akîda) for “to knot” or “to thicken,” was made from grape juice, boiled down into a thick, malleable molasses. Today, the typical sweetener is refined sugar, and much akide is machine-manufactured, but a few traditional şekerci (Turkish candy-makers) continue to make it the same laborious way it’s been done for centuries.

Hüseyin Aksoy and another Turkish candy-maker roll and cut the akide.

Hüseyin Aksoy and another candy-maker roll and cut the akide. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Showing off a burn scar on his arm that he says dates back to the 1970s, longtime şekerci Hüseyin Aksoy stirs a wooden spoon through a copper pot of boiling water and sugar — with just a pinch of cream of tartar —in the kitchen of the Istanbul Culinary Arts Center (YESAM), occasionally sweeping the inside of the pot with a wooden brush to prevent burning. (This is also a good technique to use when making stews, notes YESAM coordinator Banu Özden.)

When the sugar mixture has reduced to his satisfaction, Aksoy carries the copper pot over to a spotless marble slab and pours its contents out onto the smooth surface to cool, periodically poking at the sticky edges and flipping them over with a spatula. With the candy still as hot as 70 degrees Celsius, he winces slightly as he folds in a small bowlful of flavoring — some lemon salt and lemon oil, ground to paste with a mortar and pestle; or perhaps some mastic resin.

Made from the gum of the mastic (mastiha) tree, the resin’s piney flavor is an acquired taste but one important to many Turkish desserts. Another traditional flavor that has, thankfully, gone out of fashion is musk, a secretion of the musk deer imported from Nepal and Tibet. One of the most popular varieties of akide in Ottoman times, musk, Işın writes, was “appreciated as much as a mark of wealth and power as for its fragrance.”

Back at YESAM, the real show starts. Aksoy takes the multicolored lump that has resulted from his folding and kneading, drapes it over a rounded metal bar, and then begins to pull the ends like taffy, tossing them back over the bar repeatedly until the candy gets thicker and its color transforms from glistening caramel speckled with white into a glorious opaque blonde hue.

“The more you do it, the more your hands and fingers get calloused to the heat,” he explains, laughing a bit as he admits that when he was learning the trade 45 years ago, he once dropped the hot candy during the pulling process. “The master şekerci‘s wife hit me with a broomstick for ruining the batch.”

Turkish candy akide comes in such flavors as sesame, cinnamon, rose, orange, bergamot and lemon.

Akide ready to sell. It comes in such flavors as sesame, cinnamon, rose, orange, bergamot and lemon. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Next, Aksoy presses out a sheet of the newly blended mix, adds a layer of unflavored candy he’s kept in reserve, and rolls the two into a thick cylinder. Tugging at one end of the tube, he pulls out thin ropes, cuts them off with scissors and passes them to an assistant to roll into smooth dowels. The whole process must be done quickly, or the candy’s consistency becomes too hard to be useable. Taking a handful of the now-firm candy sticks, Aksoy taps them level on top of a square metal bar set above a bowl, then strikes them rapid-fire with one edge of his scissors to produce tiny cylinders of the finished akide, each with a golden roll of color inside.

Though each of the four to five 10-kilogram batches of akide that Aksoy makes every day yields more than 1,000 candies, a machine can turn out 2,500 kilos daily. He insists the taste and consistency of machine-made akide just isn’t the same as handmade, but şekerci like Aksoy and the Altanoğlu family are part of a dying breed.

“Young people aren’t learning this trade anymore; they don’t like the work, and there are other options for them now,” Aksoy says. “After us, there won’t be any more şekerci.”

Main photo: Hüseyin Aksoy makes akide at the Istanbul Culinary Arts Center. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

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Walnuts. Credit: iStockphoto

Sun, Sea & Olives: The feast of St. John the Baptist, is a date laden with folklore and myth, like all those associated with equinoxes and solstices. It’s June 24, and throughout Europe it’s referred to as midsummer, even though summer officially begins only three days earlier. In many cultures it’s a tradition to celebrate with bonfires, almost always an indication of some ritual connection to the sun.

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This year, I got up very early, just at dawn on the 24th, and went to check on the great walnut tree. This sturdy specimen planted 40 years ago now lords over the front lawn and spreads over the surrounding grapevines, which annoys the grapevine master to no end, for reasons I’ll get to later. The boughs are low and heavy, so it was easy to reach the round, green fruits, still quite firm to the touch.

Within a few minutes I had 32 of them in my basket, harvested well before the dew had time to dry. That is the beginning of the prescription for nocino – the nuts must be harvested on the 24th of June before the dew is dry. Nocino is a fabled Italian digestif, pride of farmhouse kitchens in Tuscany and many other parts of the country too. Some nocino is available commercially (Padre Peppe is a famous brand from Puglia), but what most people seek out is the straight-from-the-farm, homemade, handmade miracle of bittersweet flavors — the kind, most people will swear, their grandmothers were noted for and no one has been able to duplicate since.

Actually, making nocino isn’t all that difficult, apart from the requisite early rising. Once the nuts are brought into the kitchen, they are split or cut with a knife or partially crushed in a mortar, my preferred method. The insides are pure white, but you can clearly see the milky embryo of what will become, by October, a full-fledged walnut.

In my kitchen, the lightly crushed fruits go into a glass jug along with pieces of cinnamon stick, whole cloves, crushed nutmegs and a half dozen star anise. Some cooks might add a whole vanilla bean, split down the middle to release its flavor, but I keep it pure. I add 2 liters of alcohol and 3 cups of sugar dissolved in a cup of boiling water and let it cool before adding to the mix. Plus the zest of a lemon and three or four thin slices of the same lemon. The jar gets sealed, set on a sunny shelf and left, according to my instructions, for a philosophical month, during which it is stirred or shaken daily.

What on earth is a philosophical month? After a lot of searching, I figured out a philosophical month is 40 days. The term comes from medieval alchemists, though why it’s called that and why it differs from a normal lunar or solar month I cannot say.

But now the jug sits on my kitchen window ledge, growing steadily darker, to be siphoned off and bottled Aug. 5.

And why is the master of the grapevines annoyed with the walnut tree? Part of the walnut’s mythology has to do with its potent effect on growing things, doubtless owing to the fact that the tree, roots, leaves and fruits are all laden with tannins; the branches that extend over the vines inhibit them from further growth. “The tree of idleness” is what they called the big, old walnut at the kafeneion – the local cafe — in the Cyprus village where we once lived, and the old gents of the village idled their time away under its branches, loath to disturb themselves for another coffee or ouzo, with just enough energy to throw the dice for another game of trictrac.

Years ago, when our walnut tree was much younger, Bruno, the neighboring contadino, warned me never to fall asleep beneath it. “You might never wake up,” he said with a dark look. The tree of witches, I’ve also heard said. The legendary witches’ tree of Benevento in southern Italy, under which they held their Sabbaths, was a walnut.

Walnuts show up in variety of Mediterranean dishes

A week after making nocino, I finally got the last traces of walnut juice out of my fingernails, which were stained first yellow and then dark brown with that tannic juice. The whole process led me to think more about how valuable walnuts are and what an important but all too often unacknowledged ingredient they are in traditional Mediterranean cuisines, from Greece, Turkey and Lebanon, where crushed walnuts add flavor and crunch to sweet, honey-drenched pastries, all the way to the Perigord region of southwest France, where walnut oil is often used in cooking, and sweet vin de noix, an aperitif rather than a digestif, is made from walnuts — also harvested on the morning of St. Jean Baptiste.

It’s not surprising they should be so prevalent. First off, their healthfulness: Walnuts are one of the few plant sources for valuable omega-3 fatty acids, so necessary for human metabolism. Vegetarians and vegans especially are well advised to add walnuts to their diets because the only other good, readily available source of this essential fat is oily fish. Moreover, walnuts, like extra virgin olive oil, have a high percentage of antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and monounsaturated fat — all things that can make us live longer and more healthfully.

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Nocino on a sunny window ledge, Day 1. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

But real happiness comes from the good things walnuts do in just about anything they’re added to. Pounded walnut sauces exist in every Mediterranean cuisine: Turkish cooks make tarator, a walnut-based sauce, to go with fried seafood — a great summertime combination for al fresco dining — and in Italian Liguria, the original pesto genovese, that quintessential basil sauce so characteristic of the season, seems to have been made as often with walnuts as with pine nuts. Here are some hints to spur your imagination:

  • Add a little walnut oil to a salad dressing for extra richness.
  • Toast a handful of chopped walnuts with some breadcrumbs to make a great topping for any sort of baked cheese pasta.
  • Add a handful of chopped walnuts to bread or biscuit dough.
  • Add walnuts and little knobs of feta or soft goat cheese to a plain green salad, or combine walnuts and goat cheese to make an elegant topping for pre-dinner crostini, served with a glass of chilled rosé.
  • Make a simple, seasonal dessert: a handful of walnuts and a bowl of fresh-sliced, tree-ripened peaches.

Or do as cooks in the eastern Mediterranean do and serve a very plain cake, not too sweet, made from olive oil and yogurt, enriched with toasted chopped walnuts; it makes a fine accompaniment to seasonal berries or those same sliced peaches. And here’s a secret: It’s just as good for Sunday breakfast as it is for Saturday night’s dessert.

Walnut Cake with Yogurt and Olive Oil

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Yield: Makes 1 (8-inch) cake

This is from “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook”; the original was made with mastic-flavored olive oil, but because that is not easy to find, I’ve adapted it using vanilla instead.

Ingredients

  • Butter and flour for an 8-inch springform pan
  • ¾ cup walnut meats
  • ¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • Pinch of fine sea salt
  • 4 medium eggs, separated
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons plain yogurt (full fat is best)
  • ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla essence

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 300 F. Butter and flour the cake pan.
  2. When the oven is hot, spread the walnuts on a sheet pan and set in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until they are lightly toasted. Let cool, then chop finely or grind to a fine texture in a food processor, but do not let them process into a paste. The walnuts should still be a little gritty.
  3. Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt and toss with a fork to mix well. Add the ground nuts and mix again.
  4. Beat the egg yolks in a separate bowl, gradually beating in about half the sugar. Beat until the yolks are thick and pale. A little at a time, beat in the yogurt, olive oil and vanilla essence, beating well after each addition. Fold the flour mixture into the yolks.
  5. With clean beaters, beat the egg whites to soft peaks, then sprinkle with the remaining sugar and beat to stiff peaks. Stir about a quarter of the beaten whites into the yolk-flour mixture, then, using a spatula to bring up the batter at the base of the bowl, continue folding the remainder, about a third at a time. When everything is well combined, turn it into the prepared cake pan.
  6. Transfer to the oven and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the top is golden, the center is firm and the cake pulls away a little from the sides of the pan. Remove and transfer to a cake rack. When cool, remove the cake from the pan.
  7. Serve the cake plain, or top it with a sprinkling of powdered sugar or serve with a dollop of whipped cream or ice cream (maple walnut perhaps?). You could ice the cake if you wish, but that’s not in the Mediterranean tradition.

Main photo: Walnuts. Credit: iStockphoto

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Cafe French, Bouillon Bullion. Credit: L. John Harris

Our Café French™ lesson today takes us to Bouillon Chartier, which opened on rue du Faubourg Montmartre in 1896. It’s not a cafe or bistro or brasserie. Chartier is a bouillon, one of a few surviving members of a class of mid- to late 19th-century Parisian restaurants that specialized in hearty faire — especially meaty soups and broths. The low prices at the bouillons attracted workers, artists and shopkeepers in and around the sprawling food markets of Les Halles during the period of rapid commercial expansion during the Second Empire.

Credit for the creation of the bouillon (pronounced “bul-yon” in French, with a silent “n”) goes to Pierre-Louis Duval, an enterprising butcher whose first “broth Duval” opened in 1855. By 1900, the year of the Universal Exposition in Paris, there were hundreds of bouillons in Belle Epoque Paris, some fancier than Duval’s originals (Art Nouveau interiors were the rage), catering to the increasingly affluent bourgeoisie.

Primordial soup

It’s well documented that the modern restaurant (the word and the place) evolved from the restorative meat broths (called restaurants in French, pronounced “res-toe-rone) served at “health food” establishments in Paris beginning in the late 18th century. Going back still further to the 15th century, a very interesting recipe for a “restaurant” is documented in Rebecca Spang’s fascinating book “The Invention of the Restaurant” (2000).

The recipe is from the French master chef, Chiquart Amiczo, in his cookery book, “Du fait de cuisine” (1420). Amiczo’s instructions call for cooking a freshly killed chicken in an alchemist’s glass kettle along with 60 gold ducats. Not exactly the recipe my grandmother used when she made her famously golden chicken soup to cure my colds.

Courting the golden bouillon

Today’s Café French lesson explicates the linguistic trajectory between bouillon/broth and bullion/gold, health and commerce, restaurants (restorative broths) and restaurants (dining establishments).

The English pronunciation of bouillon, with a hard “n”—yone — is the same as for the English word bullion. Bullion, usually in the form of gold bars (ingots in English and lingots in French) has no linguistic faux ami in French (literally, false friend, or “unrelated sound-alike”). Both words, bouillon and bullion, derive from the Latin bullireto boil or make bubbles.

Compare: To make gold bullion one has to “boil” the gold to liquefy it for the ingot molds. To make a golden court-bouillon (“quick bouillon,” pronounced “coor-boo-yone), the vegetable-based broth used for poaching fish and light meats, one boils carrots, celery, onion, parsley, bay leaf, thyme and lemon in water, adding white wine or vinegar. Gold ducats optional.

Or one can cheat and avoid culinary/alchemical complexity by using dehydrated bouillon cubes (in French, bouillon cubes), like the Kub Or (gold cube) brand from Maggi, a French division of Nestlé Global.

Follow the monnaie

The pot thickens! Let’s look at a small slice of French history that is as startling as it is inconsequential, the almost simultaneous arrival of two men to the court of King Louis XIII (son of Henry IV) in the first half of the 17th century, one named Bullion and the other Bouillon. (You can’t make this stuff up.)

Claude de Bullion was a French aristocrat who served as Minster of Finance under Louis XIII from 1632 to 1640. He is credited with the creation of the Louis d’Or gold coin, which replaced Spanish doubloons, then in use in France for their coined money — monnaie (pronounced mon-et, as in, “A Monet costs beaucoup de monnaie). At least one authoritative source insists that the etymology of the word bullion derives from Lord Bullion’s name.

Henri de la Tour d’Auvergne, the Duc de Bouillon, was born in 1555 into the royal line associated with the Duchy of Bouillon in northeastern France, which later became incorporated into Belgium. Today, the Dutch city of Bouillon attracts tourists to its medieval castle, Château de Bouillon. Louis XIII was still a boy in 1610 when the Duc de Bouillon became a member of the Council of Regency and a favorite of the Queen Regent, Marie de Médici.

I have found no evidence that Bullion and Bouillon knew each other, but it’s interesting to speculate about what might have happened when M. Gold met M. Broth.

Taking stock at Chartier

Cafe French No. 4 translation exerciseSeated at a small table at Chartier, I find no bouillon on the menu — no soup, potage or consommé of any kind. My waiter explains that the weather is too hot for soup. Imagine a Parisian cafe on a hot summer day with no café crème!

But as disappointed as I am, I can almost taste the history of Parisian broth in Chartier’s Belle Epoque interior. You feel as if you have traveled back to the Paris of Emile Zola’s “The Belly of Paris,” his novel set in Les Halles and the market stalls, charcuteries and bistros of the Second Empire.

During that extraordinary period, Duval’s chain of bouillons had made him a “bouillonaire.” But his son, Alexandre, according to fellow Francophile, Susan Griffin, author of “The Book of Courtesans,” squandered much of the family’s wealth on the notorious and exquisite courtesan, Cora Pearl.

When Pearl dumped young, naive Duval, he tried to shoot her with a pistol that miss-fired and almost took his own life instead. The scandal that rocked tout Paris tilted in favor of the scorned Duval and brought down Pearl. The “affaire Duval” was a wake-up call for the bouillon heir who recovered and rebuilt his broth empire.

The golden age of Parisian bouillons is past, along with courtesans, Art Nouveau and the Belle Epoque. The fabled Bouillon Chartier is, at least today, a sad and soupless shadow of its former self. Luckily for cafe and coffee lovers, the thirst for hot coffee, a universal, all-weather restorative brew, will never dry up.

Main illustration credit: L. John Harris

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Chef Drago's diet-friendly spelt panzanella salad. Credit: David Latt

Chef Giacomino Drago smiles a lot. The youngest member of a family of cooks to immigrate from Sicily, Drago, along with his brothers, has opened a dozen restaurants in Los Angeles, many in Beverly Hills, over the past four decades.

A contributor to the Beverly Hills Centennial Cookbook,” Drago declares that using the highest quality, freshest ingredients is the essence of Italian cooking. In his video he demonstrates an easy-to-prepare, classic Italian panzanella salad with diet-friendly spelt instead of bread.

Drago enjoys cooking. He smiles as he drops a handful of spaghetti into one of the half dozen pots of salted water on the stove and when he quickly renders a red onion into a mound of thin, pungent ribbons.

Come to Italy, he says, and one of the first salads you will eat is one made with vine-ripened tomatoes,  basil, red onions, extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, and salt and pepper. Simplicity, he says several times, is the essence of Italian cooking. Find the freshest, highest-quality ingredients and prepare them in what Drago calls the rustic way, roughly cut so the dish is not overly fussy. The result is delicious, healthy food that is easy and fun to make.

A panzanella salad is the perfect dish for summer. To pursue the “current fashion,” as he puts it, he has traded spelt for bread in a signature salad at Via Alloro in Beverly Hills. He chose spelt because it has a refreshing texture and nutty quality that contrasts well with the acid of the tomato and vinegar. A heritage grain and cousin to wheat, spelt was developed hundreds of years ago as a flour in bread making. High in protein and fiber, Drago says spelt is heart-healthy because it is high in niacin. Because “panzanella” refers to a bread (“pane”) salad, it might be more accurate to call chef’s creation a speltzanella.

Chef Drago loves all his restaurants. But he designed the kitchen at Via Alloro in a special way. The area where the line cooks work is a horseshoe space with stoves in the middle and counters running along the walls. There are no dead-ends in this kitchen. Moving efficiently Drago and Executive Chef Paolo Sicuro prepare dishes with an unhurried ease, transferring their love of cooking onto the plates.

Fresh tomatoes are key to the flavor and pleasures of the salad. To protect the tomatoes’ richness of flavor, Drago insists they must never be refrigerated. That is why buying tomatoes from farmers markets is so important. Supermarket tomatoes may have been refrigerated for days, even weeks during their journey from the field to your kitchen.

Drago is precise about his cooking but flexible in terms of ingredients and seasoning. When cooking at home, he encourages that you use only ingredients you enjoy. If you do not like onions, don’t use them in the salad. The same goes for cucumbers and ground black pepper.

Diet-Friendly Spelt Panzanella Salad

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings as a salad portion, 2 servings as an entrée.

To capture all the tomato juice, chef cuts the tomatoes over the bowl. Use a variety of tomatoes for contrasts in shape, color and flavor. For the demonstration, Drago and Siruro used vine ripened, cherry and grape tomatoes. Yellow and heirloom tomatoes could also be added for contrast. To make the onion slices more “friendly,” Drago suggests double rinsing in water. This will result in a more mild flavor. Not widely available, spelt berries can be purchased in specialty markets and ordered online from purveyors such as Bob’s Red Mill. Cooked like pasta in boiling salted water, kosher salt should be used for the cleanest taste. Chef Drago uses English or hothouse cucumbers for the dish. If those are not available, Persian cucumbers would be a good substitute because they have a lower water content than garden cucumbers. The spelt may be cooked ahead and refrigerated. The other ingredients should be prepared immediately before serving to preserve their freshness.

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons spelt
  • 2 medium-sized tomatoes, washed, stem removed, cut into a small dice, reserving the liquid
  • 5 cherry tomatoes, washed, quartered
  • 5 plum tomatoes, washed, quartered
  • 1 small hothouse cucumber, washed, skin on, a small dice the same size as the tomatoes (optional)
  • ¼ medium red onion, washed, root and stem removed, thin sliced (optional)
  • 4 fresh basil leaves, washed, pat dried, roughly torn or chopped
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • Pinch of salt to taste
  • Pinch of freshly ground black pepper to taste (optional)
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Directions

  1. Add kosher salt to three quarts of water. Bring to a rapid boil. Add spelt. Boil uncovered 30-50 minutes or longer depending on the desired doneness. Taste at 30 minutes to determine what is al dente for you and then again at 10-minute intervals until you reach the texture you like. I prefer cooking the spelt 50 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool
  2. Using a sharp paring knife, cut the tomatoes over the salad bowl to capture all the juices.
  3. Cut the skin-on cucumber into pieces similar in size to the tomatoes and add to the bowl.
  4. Slice the red onion. Submerge in cold water, rinse, drain, submerge in fresh cold water, rinse and drain. Add to the tomatoes and cucumbers.
  5. Add the cooked spelt berries.
  6. Roughly chop the basil leaves or tear them with your hands. Add to the salad bowl.
  7. Toss the spelt, vegetables and aromatics with the extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar.
  8. Season with sea salt to taste and freshly ground black pepper, as desired.
  9. Serve as a salad or a side with grilled meats, fish and poultry.

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Baumkuchen is cooked on a rotisserie. Credit: Adam Larkey Photography

Of the American cities traditionally associated with cake — New Orleans with its King Cake, St. Louis with its gooey butter cake, Boston with its misnamed cream pie — Denver has never rated particular mention. But when that changes — and it will — it will be thanks to native daughter Heather Alcott and her extraordinary efforts to bring Baumkuchen to the U.S.

Though Baumkuchen has ancient roots and a long history in Europe, the concentrically layered cake has become a phenomenon in Japan in recent years. That’s where Alcott discovered it a few years ago, on a visit while living in Singapore, and immediately “fell in love,” she recalled.

Bringing Baumkuchen to U.S. proves to be no easy task

“It’s cooked on a rotisserie, so it isn’t fried, yet it has this doughnut-type texture. … I went back to the hotel and started doing some research that evening,” she said. Upon learning “everyone has had a hand in this cake — the Romans, the Germans, the Romanians — I thought, ‘This is something pretty special.’ And I knew I wanted to be the first person in the country” to offer the commercial Japanese version.

She became just that in February 2013, when she opened Glaze: The Baum Cake Shoppe — the name by which the online-retail business is still known, though the brick-and-mortar eatery is now a sushi-and-dessert lounge called Glaze by Sasa, in partnership with local Japanese eatery Sushi Sasa. Centered around the Red Dragon, her nickname for the 2,200-pound, custom-built oven outfitted with six spits, Alcott’s success has captured the attention of national media, including NPR. But the sheer lengths she went to to realize her dream make for a story in themselves.

Consider that the seemingly straightforward first step, signing a contract with the oven manufacturer, took more than two years. Even learning the name of the family-run company took some legwork, Alcott said. To this day she prefers to maintain its anonymity, and her first overture, by email in English, resulted in a flat refusal.

A Baumkuchen cake. Credit: Adam Larkey Photography

A Baumkuchen cake. Credit: Adam Larkey Photography

“I got a one-line response that said, ‘Thank you for your interest, but not right now. We’ve got a lot of growth already, and we’re just not ready for the USA.’ ” So she hired a translator and tried again, this time in Japanese. Clearly, her gesture was appreciated, as the team continued to respond, but there were “a good eight months of going back and forth” before a meeting was agreed to, and a year after the initial contact before it finally occurred.

“I took my husband with me to Japan,” Alcott explained, “because he has business experience there; he knows their style. First you go out for drinks and see if you even like each other. They hired a translator, and we could tell there was something there, so — many sakes later — we arranged for me to show them my business plan the next day.”

The result? “They ended up rejecting me. They didn’t understand Denver at all.” But they asked her to come back in a couple of months; by that point, they’d done some research on the market. “This time, they said, ‘Why not New York or San Francisco or Seattle?’ I said, ‘You have to trust me with this.’ They could see it in my face; I loved this product. But Denver is my home; I had to make it work here.”

Still, another no. Alcott admits that if she’d been living in the States, she’d have given up at this point. But because she was “on their back doorstep in Singapore,” she pushed onward — and finally, the company president agreed to build the oven.

“I’ve since been told that the Japanese reject you three times before they accept you,” she said, laughing.

Getting the Baumkuchenmeister seal of approval

The second step was for Alcott and her pastry chef to go through the certification process, training with the manufacturer’s Baumkuchenmeister and not only learning the recipes but adapting them for use in a high-altitude American kitchen. That meant more international flights, more translators and months of ingredient adjustments as Alcott began her search for the perfect organic cultured butter, matcha (green-tea powder) and so on.

“They flew over here to test and weigh my eggs! They had to be fresh and just the right size — not too large, not too small. I had to fly over my almond flour, cake flour, sugars. It probably looked like we were shipping cocaine,” Alcott joked.

But every little detail made a difference: “If the batter’s too runny or too thick, it won’t stay on the spit.” In the midst of all this, she received a call from the president: “They said, ‘The oven just isn’t perfect enough. We have to take it all apart and start over.’ ”

Heather Alcott has nicknamed her Baumkuchen oven the Red Dragon. Credit: Adam Larkey Photography

Heather Alcott has nicknamed her Baumkuchen oven the Red Dragon. Credit: Adam Larkey Photography

Eventually, of course, that darned oven did arrive in Denver. “I actually hugged it before it got on the boat from Japan,” Alcott said. Once it was installed behind glass in her Congress Park space, “the president, his top engineer and his top chef all flew out to turn it on for the first time,” per a contractual agreement. “We all cheered.”

It’s hard to believe that the drop-dead gorgeous, luscious-but-refined Baumkuchen cakes Glaze now turns out are infused with such blood, sweat and tears. Each takes 24 hours to make; the pastry chefs shoot for 21 layers, but the final tally can depend on everything from the base flavor (“the chocolate is so fluffy, it sometimes has to be pulled earlier”) to local weather conditions.

They also experiment with new flavors, such as orange and pumpkin. Surprisingly, “the Japanese are so supportive; they love the innovation,” Alcott said. “We have become the test kitchen for Baumkuchen in this country.”

While we Denverites are lucky to have them, you can purchase Glaze’s products too. But don’t hold your breath for a brick-and-mortar outpost anytime soon. As Alcott put it, “I take this opportunity I’ve been given day by day.”

Main photo: Baumkuchen is cooked on a rotisserie. Credit: Adam Larkey Photography

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