Articles in Cuisine
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
Macuncu are lollipop crafters, twirlers of stretchy, sweet, colorful syrups that are pooled in a deeply wedged tin that rests atop a folding tray. Their storefront is the street. Their shingle is a signature pull of glistening fruit and herb-stained syrups. It takes maybe 90 seconds for a macuncu to make a macun — a lollipop of Ottoman origin that dates back half a millennium.
I connected with that tradition last summer when I met Banu Özden of Yemek Sanatlari Merkezi, the Culinary Arts Center of Istanbul. At the time, I was curating a collection of international food craft tools. Özden was presenting an extraordinary visual archive of vessels and tools used by Istanbul’s street vendors over the past 200 years. I was thoroughly taken by the design ingenuity and material variety of the vendors. It seemed right to launch a series on food craft tools with this gem from the storied city that straddles two continents.
A SLICE OF LIFE
A series on international food craft tools
Next: Cane pressing tools, a profile of an American sugarcane mill
“It’s not taffy, it’s sticky stuff,” says Elchin Orer, an Eskişehir-raised, Washington, D.C.-based artist and interior designer, correcting my shorthand for macun. “It’s more of a heavy syrup that stays on the stick while you lick it. Kids love it. The vendors used to set up outside of school and we’d get one stick for 5 cents.”
Turkish yarn purveyor and master knitter Aylin Bener of İzmir agreed. She recalled the macuncus being as much a part of the school day as classroom instructors. “When school let out, he was there. Same vendor, same place, at the same time, every day. You don’t ask questions, you just expect him to be there to give you sweets!” To talk with Turks of a certain generation about macun is to understand the fleeting transaction as a total sensory experience. Buying macun and watching it crafted from a pinwheel of glistening sugar was as much fun as eating it.
A macuncu’s actions are like a conductor’s — rhythmic and knowing. With a syrup pull, called macun mablağı, in one hand and a wooden lollipop stick in another, macuncus lift, dollop, spin, pull, dip and repeat until their customer has the macun of their choice. No clunky globs, just elegant lines of jewel-toned syrups forming a corkscrew of up to five distinct tastes. Perhaps a crimson swirl made from cornelian cherry juice rests under a limey emerald twist — both topped with a glossy ivory spiral that’s heady with cinnamon or rose.
The ingredients for macun are quite simple: caster sugar, water, cream of tartar, citric acid and “the aromas” — which are usually spices or fruit essences. And, when needed, food coloring — often still naturally derived, though some vendors use synthetic colorants. The sugar, water, cream of tartar and citric acid are stirred together over a low heat until the sugar melts and the mixture begins to bubble. The heat is then turned off and an aroma and a natural coloring are added and mixed thoroughly. The whole sticky batch is then poured into one of the five sections of the macun tray. This process is repeated by the macuncu until his tray, his macun tepsisi, is filled with the flavors he wants to offer.
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The tools of the itinerant macuncu are equally as simple: a tray, a holder, syrup pulls and candy sticks. The trays, called macun tepsisi, are large metal rounds several inches deep. As Özden explained, macun trays always have six sections: five that are triangular and form the syrup compartments and one small center bowl that cradles a lemon half. Originally they were produced by Ottoman coppersmiths who finished them in a customary tin dip (tinned copper).
Nowadays, given the rise in food service regulations, the glut of factory-prepared sweets and the decline of macuncus, Özden said that the macun tepsisi are almost always stainless steel, produced to code by just a handful of stainless-steel kitchen-supply manufacturers.
The syrup dipsticks — the macuncu’s conductor batons are called macun mablağı and they range from pantry butter knife to intricate wood-handled stainless-steel skewers depending on the location, means and style of the macuncu. Finally, before a freshly swirled macun is handed over to a customer, it is passed over a juicy lemon half at the center of the tray both for the tart flourish and to tighten the syrupy swirls.
The history of macun
While it is nostalgically recollected as an after-school treat (and now a touristic event), macun’s origins are medicinal. Much like an amaro or an herbal electuary, the original, “supreme” macun candy, mesir macunu, was a vehicle for a potent blend of curative digestive herbs, with the sugar acting as a preservative. A true elixir, it was a remedy for all that ailed one.
According to history, legend and Ottoman pharmacopeia, Hafsa Sultan, the mother of Suleiman the Magnificent was afflicted with a mysterious illness, incurable by court physicians, masseurs, cooks, the clergy. … Finally, a local pharmacist created mesir macunu, a special mix of herbs macerated in a sugary paste. The ambrosial medicine cured Hafsa Sultan.
Both the Queen Mother and Suleiman became evangelists of mesir macunu, and they began a tradition that continues today (the 474th Annual Manisa Mesir Festival took place in the spring of 2014) of preparing enough mesir macunu for their subjects’ well-being. Recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the festival involves a bevy of chefs replicating (by the ton) the ancient recipe of 41 spices and herbs. Once mixed, the mesir macunu is cut and wrapped by a designated team of women who then pass the candies along to imams that bless the candy before it is tossed to crowds from the Sultan Mosque’s minaret and domes.
Certainly, the street-side version, made with flourish and attention to craft, is as good for the daily spirit.
Main photo: Macun. Credit: Wikimedia / Nosferatü
Kimchi, the national dish of Korea, has been prepared, fermented and served as a daily tradition for more than 2,000 years. It’s served cold but is so spicy you take another bite to cool your mouth.
This extremely spicy recipe may be a side dish, but it has mythical standing at the Korean table.
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“It tastes good. It will make you live long,” says Byong Joo “B.J.” Yu, owner of the gargantuan Koreana Plaza mega food store in Rancho Cordova, Calif.. His store doesn’t merely offer kimchi. It’s displayed in a refrigerated case so large you feel as if you’re approaching the Great Wall of Kimchi.
When Yu was growing up in Korea, he was served his mother’s homemade kimchi every day, Yu remembers. “It doesn’t matter how old the kimchi is. It’s good from the first day to as long as it lasts. You can eat it all the way — no waste.”
When it ages and the taste leans to sour, it’s served in soup.
Because Korea is a cold country, cool-weather-loving cabbage and radish (daikon) dominate the favored types of vegetables for kimchi, although there are nearly 200 versions.
What begins as a pickle morphs into a fermented dish. Koreans famously place new kimchi in big black pottery jars and bury them in the ground to keep the very-much-alive cultures in kimchi at an even, cool temperature.
Yu eats kimchi every day. “It makes your stomach comfortable.”
Yu may not know why he’s right, but he is.
“There’s been a real emergence in the public, and a real mystique, about the wonders of fermented foods,” says Maria Marco, assistant professor at the University of California, Davis’ department of food science and technology. “The flavor profiles change, because the microorganisms continue to grow. It’s nature’s way of making food taste different.”
Kimchi is a powerful vegetable probiotic, Marco says. It contributes health benefits in a manner similar to that provided by dairy probiotic foods, such as in yogurt.
And with many in the medical community now referring to the gut as the second brain, kimchi benefits that gut IQ by helping the body absorb nutrients.
“There’s a microbial zoo in there,” Marco says of kimchi. “The bacteria consume the sugars on the vegetable and they spit out the organic acids, which are easily digested by our bodies,” Marco says, all of which increases gut flora and aids digestion.
Kimchi is also nature’s way of preserving food.
Yu said that despite its ability to age, most kimchi is about a 3 months old or just-made. About a year is enough for the flavor to change from something fresh, spicy and cole slaw-like to what Yu describes as sour.
“Usually youngsters like the sour taste. As you get older, you prefer the fresh. I’m 57 and I still like it sour.” When kimchi is highly fermented, Yu says the best way to serve it is in cold soup.
At a Korean restaurant, kimchi is never ordered alone. It just shows up when you order your entrée along with lots of other side dishes called banchan. Restaurant kimchi is invariably fresh.
It’s not hard to make kimchi, but it takes time. Napa cabbage (also called Chinese cabbage) is wilted in salted water several hours and rinsed well. Then, packed under each leaf, is a marinade of Korean red pepper powder, sugar, a good deal of garlic and fresh ginger, shredded daikon and tiny shrimp. This marinade may have soy sauce or fish sauce, anchovy or dried oyster or a combination.
The most obvious ingredient, at least to the taste buds, is Korean red pepper powder. It is not cayenne or paprika, but a member of the capsicum family called gochugaru that is incredibly hot. It’s called and sold under a variety of brands in flakes or coarse and medium grind.
For some, kimchi may be too spicy. Yu says for Koreans, there’s no such thing. “It’s not spicy to us.”
Kimchi is so readily available that it’s rarely made at home. At Koreana Plaza, it’s made on site every day. For beginners, Yu recommends picking up a small container of fresh kimchi either from a Korean or Asian store that makes it on site. Or, choose among a half dozen of high quality commercial brands sold in jars and kept cold in the produce section of many grocery stores.
Best temperature for kimchi?
Kimchi of any age sold cold is best. If the jar is shelf stable at room temperature, the heat from being processed has most likely destroyed kimchi’s best properties.
Kimchi is typically mixed with other foods on the table, such as rice, noodles and stews. Recently I thinly sliced prepared kimchi and added it to a batch of basic American cole slaw, mayonnaise dressing and all. This surprise addition of kimchi, which will stump guests trying to guess the surprise ingredient, keeps the cabbage theme while adding a vague sourness and an extreme hit of spice.
Main photo: Freshly made kimchi. Credit: 4kodiak / iStockphoto
“Can we have phở for dinner?” my son asked as he arrived home from school. A loud sneeze followed by a few sniffles and a wipe of his nose with his shirt’s sleeve confirmed cold season’s arrival in his class.
Chicken noodle soup was our go-to comfort meal when a family member was sick, but now, living in Hanoi, the easy access to phở gà, Vietnam’s own chicken-and-rice-noodle soup, has replaced that.
Cold season has provided another opportunity to taste my way through the stalls that dot Hanoi, the birthplace of phở, and gather information on what makes the best phở gà, pronounced “feu gah.” Emerging out of a time of hardship when cooks began to use chicken because of a beef shortage during World War II, the recipe continues to evolve, integrating modern influences.
Phở bò, beef rice noodle soup, may be more well known, but the devoted fans of phở gà I spoke with believe the chicken version has more subtle flavors that shouldn’t be masked by the addition of spices, as in the beef version. Preparing a delicious bowl of phở gà requires patience and the right ingredients. A vendor who has been making phở gà for 24 years summed it up best: “We are all using the same ingredients, but the real skill is the technique you use and knowing how the broth should taste when it is ready.”
Vendors have loyal followings that span generations. While sampling one of my bowls of phở gà, I struck up a conversation with my dining neighbor, a 38-year-old office worker, who told me he’s been coming to the vendor since he was a little boy. Whenever he returns to Hanoi from a work trip, his first meal is from his favorite phở vendor. Similarly, an elderly woman at another stall recalled when the cook started working with his parents. She said she believes the minerals and proteins in phở gà bring good health. Finishing her bowl, she mentioned that she tries “to eat here three or four days a week. Cook Hai’s phở gà gives me energy to do my daily activities and continues to keep me healthy.”
What makes the best phở gà? Here’s a look at the key elements that contribute to making a superlative bowl.
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The cooks with the most devoted followers and busiest stalls insist that free-range chickens produce chewy meat and the best-flavored broth. Since 1978, the proprietor of Anh Hai Phở Gà has been filling bowls of his delicious broth in the Truc Bach district. It is becoming harder for him to find a consistent, reliable source of free-range chickens. He’s noticed a dip in business the last few years and believes his customers taste the difference when he has had to substitute with inferior poultry.
Cooks and diners all agree the clarity and taste of the broth is what sets apart a superior bowl of phở from an average one. A clear broth with great depth of flavor is most desired. Hanoian cooks prefer not to add rock sugar as their southern counterparts do. Interestingly, the majority of cooks quietly indicated that they use some pork leg bones in the broth because they believe it produces a naturally sweeter-tasting broth. It also adds additional gelatin to the broth, allowing the flavors to linger on the lips longer. This recent change in vendors’ large-batch recipes may also be connected to the bird flu epidemic in 2005. Chicken continues to cost more, and the use of pork bones helps keep prices low for customers.
Unlike in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where phở sellers like to add bean sprouts and offer a plate of herbs as a garnish, northern cooks and eaters prefer simple garnishes of briefly blanched whites of scallions with a generous sprinkling of the thinly sliced scallion greens and coriander. You may occasionally come across a vendor with some thinly sliced Thai basil in the mix. During the last decade, some vendors started to add a good pinch of thinly sliced lime leaf to bring a pleasant citrusy fragrance and flavor to the dish.
Whether you choose to prepare a Hanoi version of phở gà or garnish it as your favorite nearby Vietnamese restaurant does, be sure to select a free-range chicken and take care in preparing the broth. Not matter what, it will be good for your health and soul.
Hanoi Chicken Noodle Soup (Phở gà)
The key to making a clear chicken broth is not to boil the chicken and bones. Instead, cook the broth at a very gentle simmer. Depending on the size of the chicken, this recipe may leave you with some extra cooked chicken. I use it to make a couple of sandwiches or salads for lunch. Similarly, if you are cooking for a couple or a family of four, freeze any leftover stock (and any leftover chicken) in either 2-cup or 4-cup portions. It will save you much time when you feel the need for a quick, reinvigorating bowl of Hanoi chicken noodle soup. All you’ll need to do is rehydrate some noodles and quickly assemble the garnish.
Prep time: 25 minutes, much of it done during cooking
Cook time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Yield: Makes 6 servings
3½ to 4 pounds whole skin-on chicken
3½ quarts water
2 teaspoons salt
8 Asian shallots or 3 French shallots
2-inch piece of ginger, skin on
1 14-ounce package of banh pho noodles (also called rice sticks)
1 tablespoon fish sauce
¼ cup fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves, roughly chopped
2 kaffir lime leaves, rib removed and thinly sliced
1 lime, cut into 6 wedges
2 Thai red chilis, thinly sliced
1. Cut the tips of the wings and whole legs off the chicken and place, along with the body, in a 5½ quart pot. Add the water and salt and bring to a simmer over a medium-high heat. After about 15 minutes scum will start to rise to the surface. Use a ladle to carefully skim off the scum for the next five minutes. When the water begins to simmer, turn the heat down to low. Skim off any remaining scum and discard. Partially cover the pot and gently simmer for another 25 minutes.
2. While the chicken simmers, put a small wire grilling rack on top of a gas burner. Place the shallots and ginger on the rack and turn the burner on medium high to char the shallot and ginger skins. Use tongs to rotate the shallots and ginger until all of the outside is charred (about 4 to 5 minutes for shallots; 5 to 7 minutes for ginger).
3. Alternatively, turn the broiler of the oven on and place the shallots and ginger on a baking sheet. Put the baking sheet on the level closest to the top heating element. Cook for 5 minutes or until the shallot and ginger skins are charred. Turn the shallots and ginger over and cook for another 5 minutes or until the rest of them are charred.
4. Set aside the charred shallots and ginger on a plate to cool for a few minutes.
5. Use your hands to rub off the skins of the shallots and a paring knife to scrape off the skin from the ginger. Briefly rinse the shallots and ginger under running water to remove any remaining black bits. Cut the ginger in half lengthwise and set aside with the shallots.
6. Turn off the burner for the broth. Uncover and remove the chicken legs and body and place in a large bowl to cool for 15 minutes or until you can easily handle with your hands. Pull off the skin from the breasts and legs and discard. Remove the meat from each side of the breastbone in two whole pieces and set aside. Remove the meat from the legs in large chunks and set aside with the breast meat.
7. Put the carcass, bones, shallots and ginger into the broth. Bring the broth back to a gentle simmer over medium heat. Reduce to low and cook for 30 minutes.
8. Place the rice noodles in a large bowl and cover by 1 inch with hot water. Allow the noodles to hydrate and soften for 20 minutes. Drain in a colander.
9. Fill a medium-sized pot with water and bring to a simmer over high heat.
10. Remove the bones, shallots and ginger and discard. Strain the broth through a fine mesh strainer into another pot. Stir in the fish sauce and keep warm over low heat.
11. Cut the white/light green parts of the scallions into 2-inch pieces. Set aside.
12. Thinly slice the green part of the scallion and mix with the coriander in a small bowl and set aside.
13. Cut the chicken into thin slices and set aside.
14. When the water begins to simmer, add the white parts of the scallion, cook for 10 seconds and remove using a slotted spoon or Chinese wire spider. Set aside.
15. Place the noodles in the water and cook for 15 seconds. Drain the noodles and immediately divide equally into six large soup bowls. Place some slices of chicken and a few pieces of the blanched scallion on top of the noodles. Garnish with a generous pinch of scallion greens and coriander. Place a pinch of sliced lime leaf in the center of the bowl.
16. Pour two cups of broth over the chicken and noodles and serve with the lime wedges and chili slices.
Note: Many Vietnamese cooks and eaters prefer to leave the skin on the sliced chicken.
Main photo: A bowl of chicken pho. Credit: Cameron Stauch
Pumpkin is an ideal bland food with a distinctive taste. That’s a good thing because it means you have to do something to the pumpkin to make it palatable and delicious. Typically, pumpkin pie is a solution, but nowadays it’s going into all kinds of things from beer to cookies.
Pumpkin is a member of the Cucurbitaceae and winter squash family (its Latin binomial is Cucurbita pepo) and when it first arrived in Europe following its discovery in the New World after Columbus’ voyages it did not impress. The Sicilians, for example, thought so little of winter squash such as pumpkin, they even have a derogatory saying about it: “Sali mitticinni nà visazza conzala come vuoi è sempre cucuzza” (Add a lot of salt and seasoning because squash it always remains).
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There are four basic species of Cucurbitaceae. Pumpkins or squash are easily hybridized so the range of colors and shapes is quite varied and it is difficult to tell one variety from another, resulting in many cultivars. If you are interested, a thorough and concise description of all the squashes can be found in my book “Mediterranean Vegetables.”
All that counts in this recipe is that you’ll need about 3 pounds of pumpkin flesh. The recipe calls for you to make your own pumpkin pasta and homemade ricotta cheese. That sounds hard, but it’s not. Just follow the instructions in the links.
Alternatively, use store-bought regular pappardelle with a high quality store-bought ricotta cheese. For the homemade pasta, follow the pasta-making instructions for “Homemade White Flour and Egg Pasta” in the pappardelle link below, adding 1 cup puréed and very well-drained pumpkin pulp to the mixture.
Pumpkin Pappardelle With Pumpkin and Poppy Seeds
Prep time: 15 minutes, does not include making homemade pasta and ricotta
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
¾ pound pumpkin pappardelle
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
14 ounces fresh pumpkin flesh, cut into 1½ by 1½ by ¼-inch squares
Salt to taste
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
¼ pound fresh ricotta cheese
¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1. Prepare the pasta. Cut into 1-inch wide strips and let dry 4 to 24 hours. The recipe in the link will provide 1¼ pounds dried pasta. Set aside ¾ pound for this recipe and store the remainder.
2. Preheat a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat.
3. Add ½ tablespoon butter to the skillet and it will smoke almost immediately. Quickly lay the sliced pumpkin in the skillet and salt lightly. Let cook until golden on both sides, turning only once, about 6 minutes in all. Remove and set aside, keeping the slices warm.
4. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing.
5. Transfer the pasta while still very hot to a bowl with the remaining butter and poppy seeds. Toss well then transfer to a serving platter or bowl. Top with the sliced pumpkin, 4 dollops of ricotta, and the Parmigiano-Reggiano and serve.
Main photo: Pumpkin Pappardelle With Pumpkin and Poppy Seeds. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Once September turns the mid-month corner, nights start to get darned chilly in Maine. By the end of the month, we’ve already come close to a frost, and that means the tomato season is heading to collapse.
Tomatoes? Maine? I can hear your skepticism. But, yes, even in Maine we grow tomatoes, and we love them for the few very short weeks that they flourish. They’ll never be the intensely flavored ones I remember from the Mediterranean or the big fat juicy globes from New Jersey that proliferate in New York City’s Greenmarkets, but, yes, we have tomatoes and we cherish them.
Tomatoes for every season
We appreciate them so much so that we decorate our window sills from mid-September on into October with specimens we hope will “ripen” enough to be sliced into a salad. And those that are already ripe we turn into preserves for the winter — frozen whole tomatoes, tomato sauce put up in Mason jars and tomato relish for winter hamburgers and baked beans. (We’re also favorably inclined to baked beans, but more on that another time.) You can find my directions for preserving tomatoes here.
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But what to do with all that tomato sauce once you’ve got the harvest under control? The easiest thing is to make the simplest pasta sauce in the world — just open a jar of tomato sauce, chop a garlic clove coarsely, simmer it gently in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, add the tomato sauce and, if you have it, some chopped fresh herbs — parsley, basil, rosemary, all are fine — or a half teaspoon of crumbled dried oregano and perhaps a small dried red chili. Let the whole thing simmer together for no more than 5 or 10 minutes, stir in a tablespoon of unsalted butter at the end, add some freshly ground black pepper and serve it over pasta with plenty of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese.
This is guaranteed to warm all hearts on the coldest night of autumn when the rain sheets down and threatens to turn to snow.
And for a more elaborate presentation, when there’s a bit more time to cook, make a classic Tuscan pasta al forno. This is simple to prepare, but it cooks in a slow oven for a long time — perfect to start off on a chilly Saturday, then go for a long walk and have the ragu ready for you when you come home.
Pasta al forno
Prep time: About 20 minutes, mostly done during cooking
Cook time: About 3 hours
Total time: About 3 hours
Yield: Makes 8 servings
½ cup diced pancetta or guanciale
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 pound pork in one piece (boneless loin is fine)
Sea salt and black pepper
1 medium onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 medium carrot, chopped
1 stalk of celery, chopped
¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 bay leaves
2 pints preserved tomatoes or tomato sauce
2 cups coarsely grated mixed cheeses (Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, smoked provola or similar)
½ cup ricotta
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
About 1 pound (500 grams) short, stubby pasta such as rigatoni, lumache, calamari or calamaretti, etc.
About ½ cup unflavored bread crumbs
About ½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1. Combine the pancetta and olive oil in a heavy-duty saucepan, one that can go in the oven. Set over medium heat. Dry the pork thoroughly with paper towels and sprinkle generously with salt and black pepper, then add to the pan. Brown the pancetta and pork on all sides; the pancetta should become crisp, and the piece of pork should be golden all around. When done, remove the browned pancetta and pork and set aside on separate plates.
2. While the meat is browning, chop together the onion, garlic, carrot, celery and parsley to make a finely chopped mixture. You should have about 1½ to 2 cups of vegetables.
3. Preheat the oven to 300 F.
4. Add the chopped vegetables to the pan, lower the heat to medium-low and cook the vegetables, stirring frequently, until soft and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Then add bay leaves and the tomatoes or tomato sauce. If you’re using whole tomatoes, break them up with the side of a spoon.
5. Nestle the pork into the vegetable mixture and add water to come almost to the top of the meat. Bring the liquid to a simmer, cover the saucepan and transfer to the oven. Cook very gently for about 2 hours, or until the pork is very tender and the vegetables have almost dissolved into the sauce.
6. When the ragu is ready, remove from the oven and let cool down to warm room temperature. Remove the pork and set aside.
7. Using a hand blender, blend the vegetables to a chunky sauce. (You could also use a food processor, pulsing briefly, to keep the sauce somewhat chunky.)
8. Shred or chop the pork and add to the ragu along with the reserved pancetta.
9. Set the oven to 400 F.
10. Bring 4 quarts to 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil, adding a big spoonful of salt.
11. While the water is heating, mix together the grated cheeses with the ricotta.
12. Using a tablespoon of butter, grease the bottom and sides of a rectangular oven dish approximately 10 inches by 12 inches and at least 2 inches deep.
13. Spread a thin layer of ragu on the bottom of the dish. Combine the remaining ragu with the cheese mixture.
14. Add the pasta to the boiling water and stir with a long-handled spoon. Cook the pasta for just 4 to 5 minutes from the moment the water returns to a boil. The pasta will finish cooking in the oven. Drain and immediately combine the pasta with the cheesy ragu. Turn into the prepared oven dish. Top with the bread crumbs and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, then dot with the remaining butter and dribble a tablespoon or two of oil over the top.
15. Transfer to the hot oven and bake for 20 minutes, or until the top is brown and bubbling. Remove and serve immediately.
Main photo: Jars of tomato sauce ready for the winter pantry. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins